Practice Challenge Update Week #8 of 20
Student musicians composed original pieces about their pets then performed them at our Tiny Screen concert.
It was furrr-tastic!
Practice Challenge Update Week #7 of 20
An abandoned, crumbling home stood shrouded in overgrown grass and weeds. The old summer home that once held laughter and music now sat, vandalized, with broken windows, sunken floors and a hole in the roof where a tree branch had crushed it. But in 2009, an Illinois couple, Vicki and Darrell Gatwood began to renovate the home. As they cleaned up the hundreds of crumpled papers strewn around the floors, one name kept popping out: Florence Price. An internet search uncovered that Florence Price was an American composer who had passed away in 1953. Price was the first Black female composer to have a symphony premiered by a major American orchestra. (Price's Symphony No.1 was featured by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1933.) The abandoned home had once been Price's summer home and what the Gatwood's discovered was a treasure trove of music-unpublished compositions by a remarkable composer.
The question, "What will you uncover in yourself?" has been our guiding theme this year at Brillante. As we dove into the unknown waters of composing these past couple of weeks, the discoveries have yielded a lot of treasures! (I will be featuring some of these student compositions in next week's blog.) Composing can feel awkwardly personal and uncomfortable. But those who travel those vulnerable passages will ultimately reap the greatest rewards.
Florence Price started composing finger technique exercises for her students when she was a piano teacher in Little Rock, Arkansas. Wanting to expand her musical life, Price applied to the Arkansas Music Teacher's Association, but was denied because of her race. In the meantime, racial violence was escalating in her community. After a public lynching of a Black man just a few blocks from her house, Price decided to move her family to Chicago. While in Chicago, she decided to boldly embrace the part of herself and her family that made many other people so uncomfortable-her heritage. She composed her first symphony, infusing it with both African-American and European traditions. The first movement glistens with Cathedral chimes and is followed by African drums that accompany a syncopated dance, a folk tradition that started in the country of Angola and moved with slaves to American plantations. Her unapologetic self-discovery was noticed and her music was celebrated. Her recovered symphonies went on to win awards in prestigious music circles and are included in the western music canon.
Florence Price's best music existed long before it was discovered. It's a reminder for us to keep digging-not only inwardly, but to excavate for the gold mines in other people and in unexpected places. The best surprises typically live just outside our comfort zones.
Practice Challenge Update Week #6 of 20
A stunning brunette wearing a black silk and lace dress sits cross-legged at a comparably beautiful piano. The perfectly executed lighting casts warmth on her alabaster skin and creates a magical twinkling effect from the diamonds that dangle from her ears. Her fingers rest delicately on the piano keys while her gentle, but intense gaze looks off camera, as if she is hearing music from beyond time and space.
As a middle schooler with only two years of piano lessons under my belt, an awkward wardrobe and very full bangs, I spent hours staring at this picture on a cassette tape cover my mom had randomly picked up at a church garage sale. It felt like a long shot, but still, I imagined myself as this woman-full of beauty, grace-and no doubt, undeniable talent! Beyond the beautifully curated cover, the true effect of this Victoria's Secret, Classics By Request, cassette tape was its content. The third piece on the playlist was Tchaikovsky's "'Love Theme'" from Romeo and Juliet: Fantasy Overture". Though I had never been in love, I could feel Tchaikovsky's obsession and heartbreak in the simple, yet sweeping melody and I. was. hooked. The music of that playlist absolutely ignited my imagination. Those pieces became the soundtrack of my winter journey as an unflappable mountain climber. It enveloped me in a ravishing gown while I sparkled and laughed gaily while swirling in circles at glittering ballroom parties. It was my full orchestra under the stars as I sang bold and inspiring songs from stages in massive open air stadiums.
Each February, our culture celebrates relational love, but it's also a great time to revitalize the passions and ideals that light our fires. Nelson Mandela said, "There is no passion to be found playing small-in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living." Our truest loves propel us forward. They anchor us in tumultuous and frustrating times. They reward us.
A decade after receiving that cassette tape, I manifested my vision of the "woman at the piano". When I was asked to play at a very fancy evening party in the big city, I put on my most sparkly earrings, piled my hair on top of my head and wore (a slightly less risque) black silk dress. As I sat at the piano bench and gazed out the floor to ceiling windows out at the city's skyline, those hours in piano lessons and playing scales over and over seemed worth it. My love for music had even improved my hairdo-at least for the evening.
Practice Challenge Update Week #5 of 20
The Artic blast cocooning Minnesota this week couldn't have come at a better time. The Practice Challengers have played and sang their way to Week #5, which means a pit stop for fingers and voices and time spent snuggling up with some fabulous cinematic treasures.
In one of the *greatest Office episodes, "The Coup", office manager Michael Scott reveals that the cure for the Monday blues is "'Varsity Blues!'" He interrupts the work day to gather his staff in the conference room where they watch episodes of "Entourage" and "Varsity Blues". When this weekly exercise is discovered by his boss, Jan, Michael defends his decision:
Jan: How would a movie increase productivity, Michael? How on earth would it do that?
Michael: People work faster after...
Michael (nervously): No...they have to...to make up for the time they lost watching the movie.
Michael Scott's productivity efforts are laughable, but there is actually research to back it up. In the book The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World, author David Eagleman points out that we humans are relentless in our efforts to create familiarity and routine. However, as soon as we've established stability, we immediately try to break it! Patterns are both vitally important and predictably destructive. Neuroscience research shows that in order to grow our brain functions, we must consistently build new neurological "highways."
Movie Week is a rest stop on our 20-week practice challenge journey. We need to rest, relax and interact with music in a new and different way. Our movie list contains classics like "Hello, Dolly" as well as more recent shows like "Hamilton". While I wasn't overly inspired with the plot of Pixar's "Soul", I was still purchasing the sheet music for Jon Baptiste's fantastic version of "It's Alright" the moment I heard the first few notes playing during the credits.
"...while it may sound counterintuitive, if you want to improve your craft, here is my advice: Spend time elsewhere. Let your mind go somewhere else. Let your craft gestate quietly in the background. Trust that the inspiration can and will show up in unexpected ways." (Amy Tangerine, Craft a Life You Love)
*personal opinion and supported by the hubby
Practice Challenge Update Week #4 of 20
"This is listening as a martial art...contrary to popular opinion, listening is not a passive activity. It is the most active thing you can do." ~Chris Voss, Never Split the Difference
Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert all celebrated birthdays in the last few months. This has resulted in me revisiting some of my favorite pieces and remembering why their music is so influential centuries later. While standing in the garage doesn't make me a car, regularly consuming great music will definitely create better musicians. For this reason, each week, I send out a studio-wide "Audio Treasure". These are current or classic songs and pieces that I hope will bring my students inspiration, deep thought and simple pure joy.
Week #4 of our practice challenge has brought out the challengers! There is a new palatable sense of energy and commitment and I am digging this journey with my students.
Here are the birthday boys and a few of my favorites:
Mozart | Symphony 40-Movement 1
From the very first notes, this angsty, unrelenting piece is one of the most captivating melodies of all time. Years later, both Beethoven and Schubert would use aspects from this movement in their fifth symphonies.
Beethoven | Fifth Symphony
Overcoming every obstacle, including loss of hearing (which can be a detriment to musicians, as it turns out), Beethoven continues to inspire with his world changing music. This Line Riders version makes for a fun visual as you listen to one of the most iconic pieces of all time.
Schubert | Serenade
Unlike the slow burn effect that many composers employ, this young Austrian composer has a knack for pulling his audience immediately into the depth of his music. Serenade/Standchen, a piece written for a desire for love, drops the listener directly into her feelings. The violin prowess of midwestern boy (with Minnesota ties!) Joshua Bell is the perfect musical partnership.
Practice Challenge Update Week #3 of 20
rom7:45 AM: Soggy underwear.
8:17 AM: Despite the sprint to the toilet...no success.
8:36 AM: A tiny tinkle in the potty-YES!!!! Chocolate!! Stickers!!
9:05 AM: Discover toddler hiding behind a chair making grunting sounds and smelling foul.
Repeat the process for the next 12 hours.
My inner dialogue has been absorbed with the daily training efforts of awakening a tiny human to the signals of her body and then acting upon them in a culturally appropriate way. Violet does not enjoy this process. She hates being interrupted from whatever destructive toddler fun she's having in the moment. She runs away or yells "No, thanks!" from across the living room when I suggest that it's time once again to try a boring activity that she doesn't understand.
While the two of us disagree on the process as a whole, we both relish her success. Even the smallest of condensation receives an ecstatic happy dance, celebratory hugs, a little handful of M&M's and the unique opportunity to place a colorful sticker on a piece of scratch paper. In those moments, past and future are irrelevant. Violet and I share a mutual understanding of our roles: I coach and she literally gets the job done. It's a beautiful partnership.
This ongoing enterprise of effort and success carries into my teaching day. We're in Week 3 of a 20-week practice challenge and it's getting real. Even if you possess an intrinsic love of music like most of my students do, setting aside 100 minutes a week to practice isn't for the faint of heart. We're in full training mode. They know that what they are doing is hard. I can appreciate that their failed attempts don't have quite the same consequences that I experience as a Toilet Trainer, but pushing oneself can still be a messy process. I can't give them chocolate or stickers, but my musicians are finding their own rewards:
"I could hardly play that measure last week, now it's so easy!"
"My voice is more comfortable singing the high notes today!"
"I figured out a brand new way to play Fur Elise!"
"It makes me nervous, but I'm pretty sure I could perform in that music event I've never done before".
As it turns out, when we're pushed, we're all pretty good at getting down to business.
Practice Challenge Update Week #2 of 20
When my parents went to visit my sister who was living in China, she took them climbing up to the Great Wall of China. A landmark that can been seen from outer space is very high. Not only is the altitude a challenge, but the rugged stairs leading to the top are uneven and craggy. My mom's quiet mantra "Step. Step. Step" gave her power as they slowly and painfully ascended the mountain in the blazing summer heat. When I visited a few years later, I borrowed her phrase as I climbed, knowing she and my dad had successfully taken this journey before me. When we finally reached the top, it felt earned. With my energy returned, I sprinted from tower to tower on the Great Wall of China. Having a picnic with my sister while we gazed in awe at the countryside is one of my fondest memories.
Our studio is at the very beginning of a great climb! We are on Week 2 of our 20 week Treasure Hunt Practice Challenge. I am happy to report that after Week 1, 100% of our studio is still climbing! Musicians must practice at least 100 minutes a week in order to receive a letter clue that unlocks a phrase for the treasure at the end of the Challenge. As a Challenge participant, I am feeling the pain along with my students! Sometimes, practicing is like gliding over water-smooth and easy, like when I'm playing or singing a piece I love. Some practice days are like the steps leading up to the Great Wall-uneven, rocky and challenging. And sometimes the landscape is just plain boring and I stare down that 20 minute timer willing it to speed up.
What is waiting for us at the end of these 20 weeks? Yes, there will be a sweet studio award! But richer than that, every time we say no to something mindless and pour our energy into our craft, we fee the part of ourselves that is hungry for change, for growth and power over our wills. We'll have grown to know that we are the kind of people who can do hard things and reap the benefits of that strength. We'll be mountain climbers.
"What will you unlock in yourself this year?"
This was the question I asked each of my students as we began the school year in September.
Normally each year, I create some kind of motivating practice challenge to engage the musicians with their long-term goals, but I didn't do one this year. Kids were starting hybrid classes in school, parents were completely
re-arranging their schedules-their lives-for each family member's needs. I decided to not add to the chaos by adding one more thing to keep track of. Color me naïve. At our parent/teacher conferences, parents told me that not only had their kids adapted to these new learning cycles, but they needed and wanted more! I should have known better. Not only are my student musicians bright and committed, but they are bold-hungry to be pushed and to grow. They inspire me everyday.
So off we go...continuing to discover and unlock treasures. For the next 20 weeks (now until the end of May), my musicians are challenged to practice for 20 minutes a day for 5 days. Every week that they are successful, they earn a letter which spells a phrase to win the prize. (Why yes...I do happen to love Survivor and The Amazing Race...why do you ask? ) :)
Would you like to join us? What skill or project are you trying to accomplish in the next 5 months? If you'd like some fun accountability, I will happily include you in our treasure hunt and send you a letter clue every week of your success! Let's go!
"Money can't buy everything/money can't make you a king/money may not bring success/money can't buy happiness/But of one thing I am sure/money doesn't make you poor/money doesn't make you sad/money can't be all that bad!"
These were the lyrics of the song I'm 99% certain I played at my very first piano recital. I was in 6th grade and proud that while it was tentative, I could finally play a song on the piano using both hands at the same time. My memory has long since discarded most of the recital, although I can recall experiencing many feelings. My cheeks warmed as I watched my crush, Tony, a blue eyed 6th grader, play a simplified, but impressive version of "The Entertainer." I felt both jealous and inspired upon reading in the program that my friend, Erin had arranged her own piece just for the recital. My own performance time at the piano is murky, but I remember very clearly liking what I felt when I stood to bow. The audience clapped and smiled at me. There was powerful energy in a room full of people who wanted me to do well. I felt pride in my accomplishment. I'd just done something scary, but had been rewarded by it.
My students know how much I value performance and that I will always encourage them to perform/audition any opportunity they get. This is why I believe recitals are so important to the growth of students at any age or level.
Growing Your Confidence Muscles
Our studio's annual Holiday Concert will happen virtually this Saturday night. What the audience will hear and see from my students is not just a 2-minute Christmas carol. It is hundreds of minutes of messing up and trying again. Of frustration, but never defeat. A love of music and an eagerness to share it.
In the introduction of the book, "Outliers", Malcolm Gladwell describes a small, vibrant Italian community unscathed by stress and worry and the accompanying erosions to physical and mental health. His conclusion that this town's outstanding health conditions were linked to the harmonious nature of the community members and care of nature itself supports his own thesis that "who we are cannot be separated from where we are from".
I began reflecting on the men and women in my community who have nurtured me in life changing ways. It was fascinating to discover that although the people and seasons rotated somewhat, they all appeared to fall into these five categories.
A spouse, family member or a close friend.
These individuals are well-versed in my favorite things (bike rides to the bakery on an early summer morning!); pet peeves (when people interrupt) and most importantly, what motivates me (goal setting & exploration). They are the constant-a reliable force in both the tumultuous times and in the unremarkable times. I'm much more likely to take risks when I feel safe.
A co-worker, boss or family friend.
This is someone intimately acquainted with my professional strengths (interpersonal skills) and weaknesses (working too hard and caring too much ;)) and is a pro at providing regular, direct and honest assessments for each of these areas. A former boss once told me, "Julie, when you rush around before work it makes people feel like you're not in control. Get everything done ahead of time." That one hurt, but I've never forgotten it...and I definitely rush less.
The One You Want To Be
A person who embodies the things you value.
If I am lucky enough to know them personally, these are the individuals I ask out to dinner or karaoke so I can soak up some of their awesomeness. These top-of-their-gamers have also been public figures like Tony Robbins, Brene Brown, Alicia Keys and Simon Sinek.
The One Who Kicks Butt
Level of personal knowledge irrelevant-demands the most and the best of you.
That college professor I stayed up until 2 AM for because he told me the paper I'd written for his class wasn't up to my own standards. TV's Toughest Coach, Jillian Michaels yelling "Don't. You. Dare. Stop!" at me through the television on my final set of mountain climbers. That pesky client of mine who questioned every decision I made, but has forced me think deeper and more intentionally.
The One Who Gives Words and Hugs
An individual with the gift of warmth & intuition.
This person has reshaped my perspective with their very presence. They are the ones I can count on jumping up and down for me in the front row, remembering my big day and sending you a "You can do it" text. They are confident enough in themselves to not only truly want to see me succeed, but help me do it with their encouragement.
I'm deeply grateful for these people who have changed my life, who have poured into me-many without even realizing it. Who have been or are these people in your life experiences? And who are you to others?
I smell a future blog about mentorship, a topic of passion for me, but for now, for a more more thorough and technical look at social support structures, this article by Kendra Cherry is a great start.
|Brillante Music Studio||