Last night, I dreamed I found a DVD and popped it into my computer. On it was a video of me exactly ten years ago, to date. My senses were aroused to every event and image of that summer, back in 1995 when I was twenty, working at the barn teaching horsemanship at my favorite youth camp in Oklahoma. The details of the dream weren't accurate, but the feelings were. I saw the freshness of my life represented in the predominantly green background and the playful activities. I reflected my first kiss that summer, the innocence of first love before the heartbreak, and the youthful enthusiasm that infiltrated my interactions with people and my desires to live every moment to its fullest. The video was even accompanied by all the music that was popular on the radio at that time. I played sports with my old friends and saw my equine companions at the barn, tied to the hitching rail, just like they used to be, waiting to be ridden.
In the dream, the DVD ended and I wished to replay it over and over, but couldn't find a way. Before I could work out the problem, it was time to leave for a social gathering. At the gathering was an old friend I had worked with at the barn that summer, now ten years older. I approached her excitedly, wishing to remind her of the good times and eager to ignite some of that passion again in a new romp, perhaps by horseback, across the pasture, like we used to do.
She interrupted me before I could even start, mentioning something that she seemed hardly able to contain herself about. What was it that she was bursting at the seams to tell me? She had just purchased a wonderful new piece of furniture.
When I awoke, I wasn't sure where I was or even what year it was. I had to think for a few minutes, with a sense of dread over what I may have become during the decade. I sighed in relief once I remembered that, in fact, I haven't purchased one piece of furniture to this date.
George became my gallant hero once again, pulling the load of the reception with his steady, oxen-like nerves of steel, chopping carrots and cauliflower, brewing the iced tea, packing serving utensils and plasticware like a pro (I suppose he is a pro, since he's a camp cook). I baked the sugar cookies, brownies, and rice-krispy treats, and for the showpiece, whipped up a couple of large rosemary focaccia loaves to use for our roast beef and swiss cheese finger sandwiches.
I spent a lot of time worrying that my mind would betray me, that I would forget something important or say something stupid to open the recital. I proofread the programs, still hesitant about the multiple last names that some of my students seem to have, doubtful that I picked the correct one.
Mostly, I worried about each student and the performance that they would give in front of the audience. Only two weeks ago, in a series of harrowing lessons, I had been forced to give more than one lecture on the time constraints and the overwhelming amount of work left to be done on their recital pieces. I was practically pulling my hair out, knowing that I couldn't back down and let them out of it for the sake of learning about commitment and following through, but doubting myself all the same for assigning the pieces in the first place. Had I asked too much of them? Was I over their heads? Is it possible that the stress I had created in their lives was too much, and I shouldn't have asked anything of them? I stood my ground, hoping I was right after all.
Since I had chosen to order the students from youngest to oldest this year, my first little girl on the program was up to play "Merrily we Roll Along" on the piano. During her previous lessons, we had a difficult time focusing on getting the hands onto the correct keys and playing the correct sequence of notes. I tried clapping the rhythms with her, and she claimed that clapping made her hands itch. "See?" she would say after clapping, and began scratching the palms of her hands with her teeth. "They itch!" Okay, no clapping. Each lesson unfolded in a similar fashion, with split-second subject changes and random questions. I had been ecstatic to get just thirty seconds of constructive music-making at a time from the five-year-old.
I was anxious to see what she would do for our audience. Much to my surprise, she quietly and respectfully came to the piano, found her place on the keys, and made it through, start to finish, with almost no coaxing at all. My jaw would have dropped, except for the fact that I was grinning so widely.
Each student that followed proved themselves to be more than I had expected. The boy who played his Minuet in G for the first time without stopping, the girl with the stage fright that got back in and found her way to the last chord of her Schumann piece after blanking out, the girl playing the Hungarian Dance who suddenly became animated and entertaining in a way I had never seen before--all of them were admirable. I sighed in relief as the last student performed. I was so proud of them! After so many days that I had doubted myself as a teacher and my ability to grow students, I saw that every one of them had shown themselves capable of doing something that they couldn't have done just one year ago. They are my heroes. And this is what makes it all worthwhile.
I played last, enjoying an unusual sense of peace and light-heartedness, cultivated by the outstanding display from my studio.
And the frosting on the cake? I nailed the cadenza.
I had four lessons in a row today for a family who is leaving on Saturday, marking the beginning of their summer break. What do you do in a final thirty-minute space when none of them practiced, and a long, practice-free summer awaits? We had a good deal of chit-chat between business, and in the late afternoon, all of us began to feel drowsy and feverish (Spring fever, that is).
The fourth lesson began, and my little "Morgan" and I played around with intervals, picking out tunes by ear and chatting about the summer to come. Her grandfather in Minnesota is dying from cancer, which is why they will be gone for my end-of-the-year recital. Sometimes, I feel like being a clown of sorts, someone who could cheer anyone up and make their day a bit brighter. I was thinking about how I could make this last lesson before summer a memorable one.
Suddenly, I heard rattling and vibrating sounds. We looked at the drawers of my filing cabinet, which were shaking visibly. Hmm, the whole room was shaking. Morgan and I looked at each other, around the room, then back at each other. Do we head outside? Should we take our violins? Would standing in a doorway help? I hear that you're supposed to stand in a doorway in the event of an earthquake, but when do you know it's time to do such a thing?
In my dreams, I usually jump out of a second story window and run for a field. There, in the field, the ground usually opens up and tilts from horizontal to vertical. I struggle to remain on top of the heaving mass, but usually I slip into the bottomless cavern and come out somewhere between two sheets and my pillow.
The 5.5 quake lasted just long enough to be awkward and worrisome, and then it subsided. After walking about the house in confusion, we returned to finish the lesson. We talked about the fact that my dog barked once, two minutes before the quake had occurred. Animals can tell these things long before we have a clue. Ben never barks, and I had been offended at his sudden outburst. Now, I'm mystified, thinking about his uncanny senses.
The worry left us both mentally shaken, so I began to tell a story. "Please, don't tell a bad earthquake story!" I stopped my sentence and noticed for the first time how frightened she really was. She said she was glad to be leaving for Minnesota, where there are no earthquakes, hurricanes, or tornados. I laughed and remembered my own tornado experiences in Oklahoma, taking cover and singing by lantern-light in a basement for a summer camp chapel service, admiring the echoing accoustics, which lent a Gregorian feel to the ambiance. We were having such an uplifting experience, while unbeknownst to me, a tornado was tracking through the hills, directly toward our service. It skipped over the creek, passed over our roof, and continued its journey on the other side.
Morgan, also raised in a Christian family, shared an opinion. "You know sometimes, things happen, and people make such a big deal out of it, saying what a miracle it was, what a divine act of God, when sometimes, things just happen."
I wonder. "Morgan, you're right. As a matter of fact, I think every little thing that goes on is directed by God, and it's difficult to point to any one incident and mark it as more special than the others. Sometimes, a basement full of praying kids is spared from a tornado. Sometimes a church bus wrecks, and none are spared. Good and bad things are happening all the time, and it has nothing to do with the amount of love He has for us."
You never know which moments are the life-changing ones.
You see, I’ve just learned my first Bach fugue.
If anyone else had been involved, they may have said that it couldn’t be done, that it shouldn’t be done, that Bach fugues were difficult, sacred, and only to be handled by expert fingers under tight scrutiny of knowledgeable tutelage. True, true, but I’m now 30 years old, with no teacher in sight, and nothing better to do. Why not make an attempt at a life-long dream and see what happens?
The thought first occurred to me a couple of months ago, mulling around with Bach late one night. Just a year ago, I couldn’t play double stops to save my life, so a fugue was completely out of reach. They didn’t look enjoyable, just wearisome, with all those chords and overlapping melodies. I’d take a stab every once in a while just for kicks. The single lines of melodic arpeggios weren’t terribly difficult, and the sound of the notes was entrancing, the way each note fit into the next to create unity and the idea of pure harmony. After spending the winter running though Trott’s “Melodious Double Stops”, something new began to make its way into my fingers. Double stops--they weren’t so difficult after all! Then, that one evening in March, I picked at the G minor fugue, and a creative spark ignited. I had to have this piece all for myself!
I temporarily sold my soul to the devotion of this one piece, logging hours and hours of picking and scratching, hoping no one would notice the cacophony that sometimes resulted from misplaced fingers and incorrect bow placement. I told no one of my ambition for fear that it might not turn out after all, that my words would sound boastful and unsupported by actual ability.
But here I am tonight to say that yes, I can play the G minor fugue, as well as I can play anything else that I play (for whatever that’s worth). It’s not quite ready for a public unveiling, but I wasn’t learning it for them, anyhow.
I’d like to thank:
--George for wiping away inhibitions about Bach-indulgence.
--My Accompanist for not being there for my upcoming student recital and funneling my efforts toward something unaccompanied.
--Simon Fischer, for his two amazing books Basics, and Practice.
--Carl Flesch, for being a teacher to an orphan like me.
--My high school teacher, for her “Six Sonatas and Partitas” book that I haven’t returned yet.
--All the people at this discussion board who have ever emphasized relaxing.
--Henryk Szeryng, for his sparkling example of what actually is possible when voicing a fugue.
--My running hobby, for providing stamina.
--My upstairs neighbor, for being included in the late-night insanity sessions and still speaking to me.
--Most of all, Bach, for writing music that is unequalled in any way. This is the main reason I play the violin.
I ponder this method practically every time I give feedback in a lesson. I don't completely buy it. Here's why.
In college, I was enrolled in a technique class as part of my degree. We spent this period alternating between performing etudes for the other colleagues, and providing feedback and learning to train our critical ears. I was amazed at how quickly we attained the ability to pick apart each other's playing, and I became increasingly nervous about performing.
One day, the professor decided that it would be better if every student began his or her critique with a positive comment, so that we would all have something good to take with us from the lesson. I observed each student as they purposefully placed their token praise at the front of each public shredding; if the performer was lucky, the shredding would be followed by one more token kind word, thus completing the sandwich.
It was my turn, and I was ill-prepared on my Kreutzer etude. I hesitated my way through, imagining the responses I was going to receive for the sour notes and generally poor technique. There was an awkward pause at the end of the display, and I stood alone with my violin, watching my peers as they processed the ordeal. Our college concertmaster broke the silence:
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