Oct 26, 2007


Some days, I want to: recycle every piece of tin foil I use, carefully rinse out plastic baggies, turn out all the lights except for those I absolutely need, never waste any water while cleaning, answer every single email I get with full attention, do every single item on my agenda, keep on schedule, save even tiny quantities of food in miniature containers, pick up wrappers on the ground outside and put them in my pocket until I can throw them away, brush my teeth three times a day, hem my pants so they don't get muddy and ripped, bring an umbrella everywhere, and generally do my part to save the world one step at a time.

On other days, I want to: let the hot water run over my hands for way too long in the morning, throw away anything I don't want any more just so I can be rid of it, unclutter the refrigerator because I'm not going to eat that last bit of mashed potato anyway, let the covers on my bed become completely tangled, ignore the mail, sit and have real conversations late in to the night and ignore my homework, play video games and forget to eat, stand in the shower longer than necessary, linger over dessert, spend 3 hours on an extra credit problem that's interesting and 45 minutes doing a hack job on the required problem, and stay up late for no reason.

Louise Erdrich has a rather nice poem on the subject:

Advice to Myself

Leave the dishes.
Let the celery rot in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator
and an earthen scum harden on the kitchen floor.
Leave the black crumbs in the bottom of the toaster.
Throw the cracked bowl out and don't patch the cup.
Don't patch anything. Don't mend. Buy safety pins.
Don't even sew on a button.
Let the wind have its way, then the earth
that invades as dust and then the dead
foaming up in gray rolls underneath the couch.
Talk to them. Tell them they are welcome.
Don't keep all the pieces of the puzzles
or the doll's tiny shoes in pairs, don't worry
who uses whose toothbrush or if anything
matches, at all.
Except one word to another. Or a thought.
Pursue the authentic-decide first
what is authentic,
then go after it with all your heart.
Your heart, that place
you don't even think of cleaning out.
That closet stuffed with savage mementos.
Don't sort the paper clips from screws from saved baby teeth
or worry if we're all eating cereal for dinner
again. Don't answer the telephone, ever,
or weep over anything at all that breaks.
Pink molds will grow within those sealed cartons
in the refrigerator. Accept new forms of life
and talk to the dead
who drift in though the screened windows, who collect
patiently on the tops of food jars and books.
Recycle the mail, don't read it, don't read anything
except what destroys
the insulation between yourself and your experience
or what pulls down or what strikes at or what shatters
this ruse you call necessity.

Oct 23, 2007

The Wall, a case of the blahs, and a mouse

I had a very blah moment this afternoon. Desi (the cat) caught a baby mouse - it wasn't even an inch long, but its eyes were open, and it was absolutely gorgeous - and broke its neck. When I saw the mouse, its neck was already broken, but it was still alive. I picked it up and held it in my hand. It took about 30 seconds to die - making these tiny little gasps, little mouth open wide. It was so incredibly sad. I put the baby mouse outside in a sunspot, and later I wished I had done something more ceremonial, and even later than that I realized that no ceremony would have been quite right, and that a sunspot was a good resting place.

The baby mouse made The Wall - this part of the semester where there's no break in sight, tests around every bend, and homework up to your eyeballs - look pretty bad. What a bleak day when adorable baby mice die in the palm of my hand for no good reason, not to mention the piles of work.

A little bit later I realized that actually, I'm fine. The baby mouse was sad, and yes, I do cry about such little things, but that little sadness didn't have to ruin the day. I'm busy and tired, and sometimes I just want to go to sleep, but does that necessarily mean that I'm doing badly? I don't think so. I think I'm ok. Sometimes I get stuck in this strange frame of mind, where "good" is this unattainable state of rest and contentment, with no outstanding responsibilities to speak of. That doesn't happen here at MIT. But that's all right - there are other ways to define "good". Like, this morning I made eggs on toast. And an old friend visited me. And I sat on the roofdeck in the windstorm and watched the sunset.

Oct 18, 2007

i love pika

I walked in to the dining room just now, and there was a cluster of 10 or so people peering intently at a laptop, giggling. I asked what they were looking at...

"Chocolate trilobite monsters! Come see!"

I love pika.

educational philosophy: a rant and a rave

First, the rant.

A few weeks ago I wrote that I was trying to be less crusty and cynical about my Ear Training than I was last year. And I really have been trying. As recently as last night, I renewed my dedication to finding the good in the class, viewing the teacher in a positive light, and having fun.

Somehow though, by the end of class today, I was so angry with the class that I had a terrible urge to slam the door on the way out, which, coming from me, is serious. On the bike ride home, I decided that the most positive way to deal with the situation would be to write about why the class irks me, and positive solutions I see to the problems.

Before I begin describing the class, let me first say that I am fully aware that Mrs. X (the teacher, name withheld for obvious reasons) is a well-meaning person who I believe cares about her students. I strongly oppose her methods, but I have no problem with her.

Before teaching at MIT (this is her 2nd year), Mrs. X she taught grade school, and BOY does it show. The atmosphere of the class is stiflingly sincere and slow. No humor is permitted or appreciated. Mrs. X plans the lessons in excruciating detail - to the minute - and does not deviate from her plan, no matter the circumstances.

Mrs. X feels the need to control all the students in the class to a ridiculous degree. However, her manner is extremely gentle. Too gentle, in fact - her demeanor is that of The Kindergarten Teacher, and it doesn't wear well on a bunch of spunky MIT students. This combination of softspokenness and control really rubs me the wrong way.

Case I: In our class, we have one particularly enthusiastic student, "Jimmy". Jimmy loves music, and is always overflowing with tunes and harmonies. He sings loudly, very often above the other students, and not always in tune. Jimmy definitely lacks social graces, but is genuine. He can sometimes be irritating, either because he tends to dominate the class, or because one tends to feel chronically embarrassed on his behalf. Today, we had to practice conducting in class. Unasked, Jimmy brought in a very professional-looking baton. Mrs. X of course noticed, and said, "Yes, it's ok if you use a baton, Jimmy", although she looked a bit ruffled. Then, we began conducting. After a little while, Jimmy began using two hands and adding expression in to his conducting. Mrs. X asked him to stop. She said, "Jimmy, please do not give me more than I asked for."

Case II: After singing one of the assigned melodies today, another student, "Bobby", noticed that the melody sounded a lot like a certain Broadway tune, which he sang quietly. He wasn't interrupting anything. In fact, his 10-second Broadway tune caused no inconvenience of any sort, as far as I can tell. But Mrs. X told him, "you may not sing any music in this class other than what we are working on".

Case III: At the end of class, we were sight reading a Bach chorale. It was sounding dreadful (which is not unexpected) and we were going sharp. In between phrases Mrs. X said, "it's out of tune, please try and fix it." In the midst of singing, I hit my tuning fork twice to figure out how far the pitch had migrated. I was listening very carefully to the other parts and trying to keep the group on pitch without "upsetting the apple cart". When we had finished singing, Mrs. X told me that I am not allowed to use my tuning fork while we are singing. She explained: using the the tuning fork is a visual reminder to the other students that we are out of tune. She said, "I want you all to suffer together until the pitch gets better. Don't try to change it."

Here are the positive responses I would propose.

Case I: So, you have a student who is too enthusiastic? Is there any such thing? Tell Jimmy it's really great that he's learning to use a baton. Ask him to tell the others briefly why he has chosen to use it. If he sings too loudly, say, "Jimmy, you must really love this piece. Let's hear your most soulful rendition. Remember, soulful doesn't necessarily mean forte or piano. This is your chance to put all of your musicality in to play." If he sticks out, let him! He obviously doesn't mind. There's nothing worse than telling a student to give less than their best. And in the case of Jimmy, trying to squash his personality results in overflow.

Case II: It's really cool when a piece of music jogs your memory and brings up another tune. Talk about it for a minute: is the difference an accident? Intentional? Is the chord structure the same? Does talking about this similar tune really detract from your lesson plan? I doubt it. When people make connections between what they are learning and what they already know, isn't that... well, learning? Also, "Bobby" was inspired by the lesson material. I think inspiration is pretty much the best response you can get out of teaching, and to forbid expression (when the expression is totally appropriate) of it is wrong.

Case III: If I had a student who had excellent pitch and could help an ensemble sing better, I would definitely encourage him or her to help, in a sensitive and tasteful way. Today, I would have appreciated a discussion about how to improve pitch constructively. I would have appreciated Mrs. X's acknowledgment that she had already informed us that we were out of tune by the time I began using my tuning fork, and that I was actually doing my best to improve the situation. Lastly, I think that it's crazy to say "I want you all to suffer together" to anybody. This is the mentality about grade school that drives me up the wall. Isn't school supposed to be about learning? Instead, it's all about suffering through it with other children your age, so you can grow up and tell stories about how much you hated it. It's akin to prison bonding, and that's no joke. Should children suffer through classes that are not useful or interesting to them (or that are at the wrong level) until the other children catch up? Should adults? Absolutely not.

The last thing I want to say about Mrs. X is that she has repeatedly told the class that the reason she teaches Ear Training at MIT is for her personal growth. She says that she's getting better every day at arranging music, sight reading, and solfege. She is becoming a better musician and she is enriching her life by teaching us the concepts of musicianship. She conveys this in a very intimate, humble tone, and I think she means to say that she isn't perfect, and that teaching benefits her, too. BUT! Never once have I heard her say that she teaches because she loves to, or because she believes in and cares about her students. Not once. Perhaps she thinks this is obvious... but every time she tells us that she's really "growing musically" (maybe 4 times this semester), I become more and more convinced that her attitude towards teaching is really too self-serving. This isn't to say that she doesn't care about her students - it just seems that her motivation for teaching was unrelated to her students.

Rather than ending here, I want to rave about my main music class, 21M.303. It is AWESOME. Our professor (Shadle) is a witty, smart guy who is willing to completely abandon his plan for the day in favor of exploring hidden music diversions. Last class, we talked mainly about a Mozart quartet, but somehow ended up talking about The Phantom of the Opera, the fight music from boss scenes in Super Mario, Brahms, descending diminished 7th chord patterns, and goodness knows what else. The students (most of whom are also in the Ear Training class) are totally awake and alive and making connections all over the place. Every time a student has an idea that differs from Shadle's idea, he takes it seriously and we discuss. He almost always ends up saying, "I can see that working. I can see where you're coming from. That interpretation is just fine." Even better, Shadle says he's learning a lot from our class - but not because it serves him personally to cement his musical knowledge - because the class is full of smart people from a different backgrounds who honestly want to contribute.

Oct 4, 2007

Heiligenstadt Testament

In my last violin lesson, I was discussing the Beethoven concerto, which I'm working on, with my teacher. We had been working for quite some time on technical things, like the angle of my right thumb, the placement of my left wrist, and moving my bow from my shoulder to get a softer, more cushiony sound, and after all that work, conversation turned to Beethoven's life. My teacher asked me what I thought the concerto was about, and I stood there thinking, imagining all that I knew about Beethoven's life. The concerto is incredibly intimate and profound. It lacks the flashy technical passages present in so many of the great violin concertos, but many say it contains more soul than any other violin concerto ever written. The notes are soaked in meaning, that's easy to see - but what meaning?

I knew that Beethoven was a loner. I knew he was unhappy with Vienna, even though it was considered a musical mecca during his day. Beethoven had strange habits, few friends, and none of the social graces of, say, Mozart. He loved the outdoors. I knew he struggled with his deafness, especially in his later years, when he would play pianos that had metal bars attached to them so he could bite the bars and feel the vibrations in his skull. He tried everything that was available back in the early 1800s to hear better.

But what I didn't know about was the Heiligenstadt Testament.

Read it here.

And I am playing Beethoven's concerto, written shortly after that tortured document.

It's a big responsibility.