I just tried some brand new things with a subset of my students tonight. It was a ride. I had to stay in a state of calm while the kids swirled around me and took freedom to its outermost limits. I learned a lot about their personalities. The challenge was the mixed level group, and the pre-teen behavior of my oldest student. I was trying to think back to when I was her age, and the answer is, I was having violin master classes with Josef Gingold and competing in international piano competitions by the time I was her age. I was very serious. I can’t relate to what her life must be like. I am trying – desperately, it seemed today – to reach into their worlds and see what goes on when the limits are taken away.

I did a sequence of four things:

1. Listening – lie flat on the floor and listen to Bach

2. Conducting – learn how to use arms to move with the music and find the beat (we used Bach and Mozart for this)

3. Rhythm Orchestra – the kids divided into three groups and were in charge of a rhythm. I conducted them, bringing them in sequentially. We then matched these rhythms to a movement from a Beethoven symphony

These first three parts of the class worked quite well.

Then I moved onto more improvisational stuff….and the ride began.

Peril #1 – One idea, good or bad, can spread like wildfire.

I had the kids pick a rhythm to play on their instruments, first on a single note. Went through the groups sequentially. Then they could pick any notes to play in that rhythm. This is when one student decided to do glissando (sliding the finger between pitches instead of playing discrete notes), which, by its novelty, instantly captured the attention of every student in the room. In a few seconds, every student was mimicking the sliding fingers and sound of that first boy.

Was it curiosity? Wanting to be as cool as he thought he was?

I didn’t know. There were three students who did not opt for the “crazy” option, and actually came up with some innovative ideas using traditional techniques – rhythm and melody. I was pleasantly surprised to hear this.

But the sliding really stole the show for the day. It spread like wildfire, or a bad virus. It was interesting to watch how the approval-seeking moved from one group to another, and how certain (only a few) students remained impervious to the infection. It was like watching peer pressure come alive before my eyes.

I remember the first time I heard glissando. It wasn’t in a haphazard way. It was in a Sarasate piece which included explicitly written instructions for how long the slide could last, and which notes it started and stopped on. It was for a certain intended effect in the gypsy-like music. I never attempted it until I ended up learning that piece. I probably missed out on a few good years of sliding.

Pearls #1 and #2 – Exploring new voices and pushing boundaries can be good. Peril #2 – Knowing the difference between a peril and a pearl can be a problem.

What my students discovered today was a way to treat their violins as extensions of themselves. That was a valuable lesson. They stretched the boundaries of what their instruments could do previously. That was a valuable lesson. Whether they have enough of a foundation in classical music to appreciate the difference between what they did – which was random chaos – and what someone would listen to and consider music is still an open question.

Pearl #3 – Trying new things can bring the good kind of humility.

The point of improvisation, though, is not necessarily to create new art. Maybe the point is precisely to feel some humility and respect toward the true artists who created lasting works that continue to inspire awe many centuries later. I can’t help but remember that so much of the world’s music is made by “common” people in villages or tribes who gather for ceremonies punctuated by music. There is an uncomplicated harmony within these cultures – a shared language of rhythm, melody, tempo. There is a characteristic sound.

Peril or Pearl? The music you take in is reflected in the content of your mind and soul.

Watching my students – all children of the 21st century in some of the most affluent zip codes in the United States – give voice to themselves through their violins was like seeing into their minds. There was nothing natural about the sounds of violin in the context of their world. The violin, as I’ve studied it, is an instrument of Western Europe starting in the 17th century or so. We don’t play “fiddle”. I was taught the great traditions of classical music by a combination of teachers and my own fascination. Our family got the Time Life series of LP recordings of the great composers. One large cardboard box with a different color for each composer. There must have been about ten in all. I can see them stacked in the cabinet of my brother’s room, with gold lettering on the spines of each box: Vivaldi, Grieg, Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Haydn. They would come monthly, and I remember the anticipation with which we would listen to each record, as if it were revealing to us a great treasure.

Those composers – those sounds – were what shaped in my mind what music could be. I didn’t need to listen to much else. My parents didn’t have their own music. They listened to the same things we did, learning along with us. It was a different time.

Now, each member of a family has personal devices that carry their own individual selections of songs, games, movies, phone numbers, and appointments. Pop a couple of earbuds in, and everyone can escape to their own world. No one can discuss or share what they are experiencing, because each is having an independent auditory journey. The only thing we share now is the physical space we occupy. Even that isn’t so true anymore either. We have bigger houses, bigger cars, and generally more space around us at all times. Parents don’t touch their children as readily, either in affection or in admonishment. Our hands-off approach goes both ways. We are more independent, but also craving more attention than ever before.

Which is the more authentic representation of what human existence is really like? Are we each wearing our own iPods, wandering the earth merely sharing the same walkways, vehicles, and breathing room? Or are we more interconnected, feeling things in response to shared experiences that are begging for acknowledgment?

Who knows?

What I got very clear on after tonight’s class was the fact that I am trying so hard to teach other people to do something that I already have for myself. I need to remember that last part. I keep giving more and more, trying to get them to experience something that already exists in my own heart. I can’t give that to anyone. I can only hope to inspire them to find it within themselves. Boy is that a hard one to loosen in the mind! It didn’t really hit me until tonight that all of my wriggling and desiring to change the school has been a desire to change something in myself. I just want to be able to make music, and be around other people who can also make great music (the kind I like). I want to be around people who are really good at what they do, and also are humble in their knowledge of this. True humility is captured in this quote from Thomas Merton, in his essay “Humility Against Despair”:

A humble man can do great things with an uncommon perfection because he is no longer concerned about incidentals, like his own interests and his own reputation, and therefore he no longer needs to waste his efforts in defending them.

For a humble man is not afraid of failure. In fact, he is not afraid of anything, even of himself, since perfect humility requires perfect confidence in the power of God, before Whom no other power has any meaning and for Whom there is no such thing as an obstacle.

Humility is the surest sign of strength.

I am going to create space in my life in 2010 to practice my own art – play more music with more good musicians who feel the same vibe. Not because I want to “market” myself as a musician. Not because I want to prove to my students that I can play. Not because I want to sell CDs. Not because I want to play in a movie soundtrack.

But because I need to do it for my soul to speak.

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