Terry G and Me, or Terry Gilliam on Where (or What) Practicing the Piano Will Get You…

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I have always liked Terry Gilliam’s films. Who among us has not seen at least one of them? “The Life of Brian,” “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” “The Fisher King,” “Brazil,” “The Time Bandits,” “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” among others, as well as his most recent, “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.”  So I decided to read his autobiography, his “pre posthumous autobiography,” to be exact,* in which he makes two maddeningly** brief references to his musical education. That’s right, our hero studied the piano (he still plays), the French horn and sang in the church choir. He even mentioned that he went without Christmas presents for two years as a youth to help pay for his piano – rather notable in itself.

However, I was particularly struck in his story by the amount he had of what seemed like luck, but was undoubtedly caused, if you read carefully, in no small amount by his amazing drive and the self-discipline which fuels it, both developed at an early age.

So, yet again, my devious and ever present violin teacher mind, perennially searching for more ammunition to motivate our students and their parents to practice, got the better of me and I couldn’t help but wonder what effect his music education had on his career and success as a filmmaker.

So I decided to ask him…

Even though he is almost 78, there is no other way to describe him other than bubbly. He has an infectious giggle, makes jokes continuously and has irrepressible energy – exactly what you would expect from the public persona of an ex-Python. You could almost forget who he is and the enormity of his accomplishments until you ask him a serious question and then everything changes. I think his answers to my questions here below are interesting enough to share with all you music teachers, parents and students who may read this. Continue reading

14 July 2019

The Teaching We Don’t Do Is More Important Than We Think

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Recently I attended a wedding. It was a lovely event, everything lovingly and expertly planned, all went very smoothly and everyone had a very good time. There was a beautiful program, crediting everyone for his or her part in the event from the caterers to the grandparents of the bride and groom – even the names and composers of the pieces played by the string quartet. And then I took a closer look. On this program was listed a very famous piece by J.S. Bach but gave Handel as its composer. Who cares you say? Well, my inner and outer violin teacher got the better of me and I felt the need to point this out to the wedding planner who had certainly been responsible for the printing and proofing of this program. Handel would no doubt have been delighted to get credit for this piece, but someone has to defend Bach. No?

So I waited until after the wedding reception was over, found the wedding planner and as nicely as I could, informed her that there was a slight mistake on the program which, of course, makes no difference to this wedding so we needn’t bother the bride and her mother with this. But since she can never know who will be at her next event (the conductor of the New York Phil?), she might want to make sure to get the credits for the music right.

Okay, big deal, you might say. But what astonished me was her answer. “Really? Well then who wrote it?” “J. S. Bach,” I replied. “Oh,” she said thoughtfully, “I think I may have heard of him.”

There you have it. An experienced wedding and event planner who had organized a big and very expensive wedding with everything going like clockwork, thinks she may have heard of J. S. Bach. I imagine there are lots of printed programs at weddings like this and lots of Bach played, too. So what is shocking is not that she got the attribution wrong (and I cannot believe the professional string quartet gave her the wrong composer) – anyone can make a mistake – but that she really hadn’t the slightest idea who Bach was.

Bach, possibly the greatest musical genius who has ever lived. (Okay, it’s my opinion, but no one can deny Bach’s importance in music, present or past.) Which brings me to my point: this experience brought home to me with a thud that the lack of music education has become worse than appalling. That there are people with university degrees, professional people, who do not know who Bach was. Her comment should be at the level of “I think I may have heard of World War II.”  Or, “I think I may have heard of Shakespeare.” Or, “I may have heard about DNA, the atomic bomb, penicillin, reading and writing, etc.”

But it isn’t. And who is to blame for this? In part, we music teachers are – past and present. It’s our attitude. Of course, not all of us, but enough of us to successfully undermine the opinion society once had* that music education is not just important, but essential. By music education, I mean the study of a musical instrument, not listening to music in schools and not singing in school choruses (although that’s certainly very important, too, as an adjunct). I mean the discipline and grind of daily (optimally) study even for just a few minutes of an instrument.

How are we sabotaging our own discipline? What attitude is it that is going to kill classical music eventually and is indeed killing it now? Continue reading

19 June 2019

Overwhelmingness or What Teaching and Motherhood* Have in Common

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Do you ever feel that you’re not covering everything you should with your students? A young teacher on a forum recently said that she usually feels she has everything under control until she talks to another teacher or reads some treatise on violin teaching and then starts to feel overwhelmed – is she doing enough, has she got everything covered as these other teachers seem to have? Oh my! What to do?

Well, I say to her, welcome to the club. Teaching is very much like being a mother.* Not that we should be mothering our students (hopefully they have a mother for that), but that what most teachers (male or female) and most mothers I know have in common is a fair amount of doubt and self-doubt. In principle this is a good thing. It keeps our minds open and always in search of new knowledge we can apply to our charges. But it can easily get out of hand, due to the nature of our job.

Here are a few truths about motherhood and teaching that I have discovered in my many decades-long experience with both:

  • Whatever you do, someone is going to tell you or make you feel, directly or indirectly (reading what other teachers/mothers accomplish), that you’re not doing enough or are doing the wrong thing.
  • They’re right. No one can possibly do everything that books, methods, treatises, mothers-in-law, etc., tell you you should be doing. So, yes, your worst fears are confirmed. And the fretting and feelings of inadequacy start.
  • But before you throw yourself off a bridge, know that it’s impossible to do everything you think you should, and certainly doubly impossible to do everything that others, no matter how well-meaning (or not), think you should be doing. Remember it’s easy for them to give advice (sometimes off the top of their heads), hard for you to take it and then live with the consequences.

So what to do? In my moments of angst (and there were lots of them), I would take a deep breath and

  1. Remember that in any given moment I was doing the best I could and
  2. Hope that one day my children (or students) would forgive me.

Yours may well not until they have their own children/students. For example, I am enjoying watching my older daughter deal with her three boys’ practicing (trying rather unsuccessfully at times to avoid snickering in her presence). And watching my other violin teacher daughter go through with her students what she put me through when she was little (poker face, poker face). Ah yes, there is a sort of maternal/teacher karma payback which I find makes my offspring a lot more understanding about how I raised/taught them.

And by the way, both daughters turned out just fine, notwithstanding the dire predictions of lots of people offering free (and often unsolicited) advice about my mothering, most of which I ignored, thank God. But when I needed help teaching my children, I didn’t read a book which, by definition, is a very one way stream from someone who “has all the answers.” (How else is he/she going to sell that book?) Instead I went in person, often from great distances, to ask experts for help with my children. But the biggest help came from watching these wonderful teachers at work with other people’s children and trust me, they didn’t cover every single thing in one or even several lessons either. I learned more from them than I ever could have from books.

So, here is a useful analogy that I keep in mind in my darkest moments of teacherly self-doubt. Continue reading

29 May 2019