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The Oops Trap May 22, 2012

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Music, Philosophy, Teaching.
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Part 1

Pretty much every kid has heard a teacher say that the word “can’t” (as in, “I can’t”) is one they should remove from their vocabulary. It’s self-limiting, pointlessly negative talk and is often just laziness in disguise. But actually, as a piano teacher I find there’s a word that’s even more dangerous and misused than “can’t”, and that is:

OOPS.

No, I’m not trying to say that making mistakes is bad, or that we should all be perfect musicians who never miss a note, or anything along those lines. I’ll illustrate what I mean with a story from a lesson last week.

A ten-year old student of mine who I’ll call Nina had been working on “Carefree Waltz” from Faber Piano Adventures 2b for several weeks. This is one of the first pieces I tend to use as a study for continuous flow – the ability to play without pausing to find notes on the page or the keyboard (after all, people can’t possibly waltz to your playing if you’re always stopping!) Nina is a strong reader and her rendition of the piece was almost good enough to pass…except for the predictable “oopses.”

Dum-dee-dee, dum-dee-dee, end of first line, a pause as her eyes drift over to the second page. “Oops.”

Dum-dee-dee, dum-dee-dee. Another pause. “Oops.”

Right hand fails to move down, playing a D that clashes with the left hand C. Crunch. “Oops.”

These mistakes, and their accompanying “oopses”, were repeated both times she played the piece (it had a built-in repeat, so really I ended up hearing each “oops” four times.) It was obvious that each of the three mistakes was a hard-wired habit that she would need to deliberately eliminate in order to perfect the piece.

When Nina finished playing, she turned to me expectantly. “Well,” I said, “there’s a few spots we’re going to need to fix before you pass this. There’s something even more important I want to change first, though – your “oopses.”” She looked surprised. “Every time you make a mistake you say “oops” – the problem is that none of these are real oopses. They happen every time!

“You see,” I explained, “when you make a mistake and say “Oops” you’re telling yourself something that isn’t true. You’re saying that you never made that mistake before – and if you go on playing in the same way, it won’t happen again. But your oopses aren’t random mistakes, like when a finger slips. They’re habits. They’ve happened before, and they’ll keep on happening unless you deliberately fix them. Does that make sense?”

Nina nodded, and I pointed to the first “Oops” on the score – the first-to-second page transition. “Play from here -” I pointed two measures before the transition – “to here.” Two measures after.

She played. At the page gap came the pause and – before Nina could stop herself – an “Oops!” burst out. Then she smiled sheepishly. “Just try it again,” I prompted her. “Make sure you’re thinking about what notes are coming up, so you can get ready for them.”

There was no “Oops” this time – and no pause. She played on until the next transition, at which point another “Oops” slipped out and she stopped in surprise. (She obviously hadn’t even been conscious of the “Oopses” until I brought them to her attention.)

The longer we worked on the piece, the fewer “Oopses” were heard – and as the “Oopses” vanished, so did the gaps. Finally I asked Nina to play the entire song, from beginning to end. It flowed without a single break, and nary an “Oops” escaped her lips. (Even I, no stranger to dramatic results, was dumbfounded.) A checkmark went on the page and the piece was officially declared “passed.”

How long had the entire process taken? No more than ten minutes.

So, want to improve your child’s playing (or your own playing)? Ditch the Oops Trap. My piano teacher’s own teacher was fond of telling her students, “Never have an alibi.” A well-practiced Oops is the worst sort of alibi. “Oops. That was just a finger slip. It won’t happen next time, I swear. Just don’t make me buckle down and really fix this passage, okay? Please?”

Part of the really insidious nature of the Oops Trap is that, on one level, we’re right when we say “Oops” – and we know it! I did know that that note was supposed to be a C, instead of a D, and that I need to move my hand down to reach it. It was just a lapse of concentration. I could hit it, if I really put my mind to it. The problem with just saying “Oops” and moving on, of course, is that there’s no guarantee I’m not going to do exactly the same thing next time – as soon as I let my mind drift and my fingers go their habitual way. And just acknowledging that something is possible, in theory, doesn’t provide even the slightest step towards  actually, physically making it happen.

Inherent in the discipline of being a concert performer is the fact that one is forced to confront the Oopses. One finally learns, after years of hard (sometimes painful) experience, that they are not going to go away unless you really tackle them. Once learned, an Oops hunkers down, sinks in its teeth and stays firmly put, despite one’s best efforts to gloss over it and pretend it’s magically gone away this time. (It hasn’t – and more often than not it’ll rear its ugly head at your next lesson, or worse, on stage.) There is only one way to exorcise the Oopses, and that is through very careful, thoughtful, creative practice.

The sad part is that most students waste far more time and energy ignoring the Oopses than it would take to just sit down and tackle them. In his article “What it Takes to Be Great,” Geoff Calvin discusses the ten thousand hour theory – how researchers have found that it isn’t innate “talent” or “aptitude” that leads to success, but rather hour after hour, year after year, of persistent practice. But not just any kind of practice is required – rather, one needs to engage in deliberate practice, to calmly and objectively recognize mistakes, learn from them and then eliminate them. This goes for any field of endeavor, from piano to golf to computer programming.

The Oops Trap short-circuits this process. It keeps us indefinitely at square one. If we cover each of our mistakes with an hasty “Oops” and just blunder on ahead rather than learning from them, how can we possibly engage in deliberate practice? If it weren’t for the Oops Trap, I fully believe each of us could be a master of our chosen field, whatever that might be.

Of course – and let’s all be honest here – it isn’t just music students that do this, or even golfers or computer programmers. It’s all of us.

Part 2

I’m as bad as anyone in my own way. I’ll admit it. A big one for me is my cell phone bill – it’s always due just slightly after mid-month, at a time that’s eminently forgettable. I put it on my desk, I make a mental note, I say to myself, “I really need to be sure to pay my cell phone bill on time THIS month.” And somehow…I’m not quite sure how…it always ends up getting paid a day or two late.

Oops.

And then there’s my seiza practice (sitting in a kneeling position) for aikido. I know I need to practice this – it doesn’t come easily to me. I know that I won’t get better at it, long-term, if I don’t put in the effort. Same goes for getting to bed before midnight. I know I should be doing it. I know it’s only hurting me not to. But somehow, the day goes by and suddenly it’s 11:59 at night and, well…oops.

It’s frequently said that the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing and expecting different results.” It’s easy to identify the Oops Trap when we see a kid who repeatedly refuses to tackle the hard part in their piano piece, or somehow always stays up late scrambling to finish school projects the night before. Harder to recognize it and admit that it’s there in our own lives.

The Oops Trap affects our finances. From the little to the massive. “Oops, I forgot to pay my Mastercard bill.” “Oops, those library books were due back two weeks ago. Why can I never remember?”  “Oops, I overspent my budget again this month. Why do I always do that?”

The Oops Trap affects our health. “Oops, I didn’t make it to the gym. I forgot last week too.” “Oops, guess I should’ve gone for my yearly checkup.” “Oops, I was going to quit smoking. Well, I can always do that tomorrow.”

The Oops Trap affects our relationships. “Oops, I got angry and screamed at my kid again.” “Oops, I forgot to call my sister on her birthday.” “Oops, I fell for another abusive guy. Why is it always me?” And for those who are actively trying to be religious or “spiritual”, it affects that too. “Oops, I really want to love my neighbors and even my enemies as myself, like Jesus said to. So why do I always end up getting furious at that infuriating coworker of mine?”

…Oops, I did it again. Britney Spears pretty well sums it up. :D

Some Oopses – a very few – are genuine. We’re only human, and even the most conscientious of us can have things slip our mind, like a finger slip in an otherwise flawless performance by a concert pianist. We can have a bad day and snap at a friend, or get sick and decide to stay home from the gym, or forget to pay a bill…once. But when we find ourselves doing the same self-destructive thing, day after day, week after week, year after year, this isn’t a passing mistake; it’s a habit. And like all habits, it won’t go away unless we make a very planned, deliberate and intelligently designed effort in the opposite direction.

A famous saying is that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. This often gets interpreted (rather cynically) as saying that if we go into a situation meaning well but not knowing what we’re doing, we can really mess things up. Which may be true, but it overshadows another important interpretation: the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Just intentions. With nothing to back them up, no plan to put them into action, intentions alone are going to get us nowhere – or worse. (Just ask any unprepared concert pianist who suddenly finds himself or herself on stage not fully knowing the music…a pretty good definition of Hell as far as I’m concerned!) Intentions lull us into a dangerous slumber. They make us think that we’ve done something, that the danger is gone. (It isn’t.) Intentions are no substitute for action, and action is the only way out of the Oops Trap.

The other really sneaky aspect of the Oops Trap is that it’s so ubiquitous, hiding in one aspect of our lives after another, yet appearing entirely different each time. We find it in piece after musical piece, project after project, job after job (believers in reincarnation would even say “life after life”) and every exercise regimen or relationship or self improvement goal we attempt. Until finally we bite the bullet, look reality in the eye, and acknowledge all our Oops-ing itself as one big meta-Oops Trap, a destructive habit, a strategy doomed to fail from the start – and finally remove it from our lives.

…Well, that’s what I’m hoping, anyway. ;)  I’m still trying to pay my cell phone bill on time.

P.S. And as I wrote that last sentence, my mind went to a piano lesson last year, in which a student protested that he was “trying” to get the rhythm right in a particular passage. As he’s a Star Wars fan, I asked him what Yoda’s favorite expression was. “Do, or do not. There is no try,” he quoted.

“Exactly,” I said, and smiled. (He got the point.) :)

“Trying” can be an incarnation of the Oops Trap, as much as anything else. So can “resolutions” (especially, New Year’s resolutions…seriously, who here has actually kept one of those??) So, I’m not going to “try” to pay my cell phone bill on time. Iam going to pay it on time. And I just took steps to make that happen.

Another small victory over the Oops Trap.

- The Contrapuntal Platypus

P.P.S. As I was searching for images to illustrate this post, I came across this Rube Goldberg-like device. I’ve never played the Mouse Trap game, but it looks like fun…it certainly brings back memories of my childhood days in Sci-Fi, aka Geek Summer Camp, in Saskatoon :D

How to Find a Good Teacher? (A Lesson from Aikido…) September 25, 2011

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in About Me, Music, Teaching.
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About a month ago, my Twitter friend @mwforhr and I were talking about piano teaching. Since I’m a piano teacher and she has a  daughter in music lessons, she asked me what questions she should ask a new piano teacher to find out if they were ideal.

I’m rather embarrassed to realize I never answered…mainly because any question I could think of didn’t seem to get to the heart of the matter. And people lacking competency in a given field nonetheless often have an amazing ability to BS their way through such questions (as pretty well any university student knows! :D) Level of education, performing experience, “method”, number of years teaching…none of it seemed to pin down what makes a “good teacher”.

But yesterday ago I had an interesting experience along these lines. Not as a teacher, but as a student – of Aikido. I’m a total beginner, never having studied any martial art or even gymnastics. I’m not even naturally “good” at tasks involving kinesthetic awareness and coordination…which is precisely why I’m taking Aikido. (Well, that, and it’s a great workout – and very satisfying when I “get it”!)

Yesterday was my first class. The local aikido club works on more or less a drop-in basis, and that day I was the only beginner. The others were running through a rather complex series of techniques they needed for a test of some sort. I could see, as I watched the sensei, that each move consisted of a number of steps, and I was sure if I could rehearse each step in isolation I could learn the entire technique. But even at “slow motion” speed the demonstration blurred together too quickly for me to grasp any part of it securely. Should I step forward with my left foot first, or my right, grasp or deflect the attacker’s arm, push or pull them to the mat…it was all very confusing.* The sensei was very patient – but, obviously, he couldn’t be everywhere at once and he had other students to correct.

For one exercise I found myself paired off with another woman – I’ll call her Alex. Alex had been there for several months, and obviously had a rather intuitive grasp of aikido. As I tried both the attacking and defending roles, she delivered various corrections in an increasingly exasperated tone. Finally, she burst out with: “Stop thinking about it! Just let your body feel it and do what’s natural!”

I stopped and looked at Alex. “I’m an analytical person,” I told her, trying not to lose my own cool. This is how I learn. If I can break it down, I can get it. I’m trying to break it down.”

Alex seemed taken aback. “Oh,” she said and blinked. Her expression implied she had not even considered this as a means of learning, that what she was doing had come to her naturally – so intuitively she’d never had to analyze it, even to herself. Over the next few minutes, she tried for my sake…but obviously it was a foreign way of thinking to her.

For a later exercise, I was paired with a different student who we’ll call Terri – friendly, warm and above all, patient. As soon as she saw I was having trouble grasping the technique in question, she started reducing it to individual motions (I didn’t even need to ask). After a few minutes of drill I managed to run the basic version successfully – and it felt wonderful. :)

As I walked home I realized: this is what makes a good teacher. The ability to break something complex down into steps that anyone – even a rather klutzy beginner like me – can grasp.

Want to find a good music teacher? First of all, ask for a sample lesson (most teachers will do this at no charge – if they charge, it’s probably a bad sign already.) Don’t take them your most polished piece. Instead, bring in a piece that you have trouble with.

Better yet, make it a piece that reflects your weakest point. Have trouble grasping syncopated rhythms? Bring in a ragtime arrangement. Fast scales? Take a Mozart sonatina marked Presto. If this makes you feel embarrassed, remember, you’re not auditioning for them – you’re auditioning them as a teacher.

Then go to them and ask one very simple question:

“Tell me why this isn’t working.”

They’ll have you play the piece in question and, if they’re a good teacher, right away they’ll start getting you to play some simpler form of it. If it’s fast scales, they might make you play it at half the speed, focusing on your hand position. If rhythms, they’ll make you slowly analyze how a single measure works, then expand that to a line, then (maybe) a page…and when the lesson is over, the problem may not be “solved” in its entirety, but you’ll have made significant progress.

Now, if they’re a bad teacher, one of two things will happen:

(1) They’ll offer some vague, handwaving answer. (My own favourite was a teacher who told me, “You just have to move your hands faster!”) Whatever it is, it’ll make you frustrated and confused without helping you get any better. Bad sign – get out while you can!

or:

(2) They’ll go, “Well, just play it like this…” and sit down and demonstrate. This means they teach mainly by demonstration, and either they don’t really understand what they’re doing, or they understand but can’t transmit that knowledge to you in any other way than by doing it. Which isn’t very helpful either.

The thing is, a good teacher will stand back and let you pick up things intuitively when that works for you. If, say, you find arpeggio technique easy, they won’t give you months of arpeggio etudes. But when the day comes that you run into a brick wall – and even the most “gifted” students WILL have these moments – they’ll be there to patiently help you through it. One brick at a time. :D

- The Contrapuntal Platypus

* It didn’t help that the sensei insisted that we continually switch sides when running each drill — apparently this is standard aikido practice. It’s meant to ensure that you learn how to do both mirror-image versions of the technique, but it had only the effect of scrambling my brain just when I’d _almost_ gotten it…

Lux Aeterna… September 21, 2011

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Christianity, Human Rights, Music, Saving the World.
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Troy Davis was executed tonight. He was pronounced dead 10 minutes ago, at 11:08.

His last words, to those who killed him: “May God have mercy on your souls, may God bless your souls. Look deeper into this case so you can find the truth….. I am innocent.”

There is nothing more I could possibly say tonight except, in the words of a friend from Twitter: “Eternal rest grant him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him.”

The Miniatures Project (#1: Grieg!) July 4, 2011

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Music, Recordings, Teaching, The Miniatures Project.
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Short version: Some Grieg for you to enjoy, recorded by Yours Truly aka The Contrapuntal Platypus! :D

Dedicated to my wonderful friends Ana and Keith, and Joanne and Josh, recently engaged/married…

…And to my high-school best friend Yun-Yun, as she prepares for her wedding this August…

(…And to all the happy couples in New York state who, as of July 24, 2011 will legally be able to marry!)

I wish you all many happy years of joy, companionship and love together. :)

*******

Long version:

I had my year-end private studio recital last week (just in time for the holiday long weekend, which added to the excitement and the celebratory atmosphere!) I am amazed, proud, and utterly blown away by my students’ playing. They were all superbly prepared and played very well (no devastating memory slips, tears, breakdowns or other disasters… :S) On a big Steinway piano, in a large hall, some of their performances sounded downright magical. Seriously, I was repeatedly on the verge of tears (good ones!) :)

At the end, I played (and recorded) a bit of Grieg I’d wanted an excuse to learn for years: Wedding Day at Troldhaugen.

Some friends of mine had been clamoring for me to post recordings here, so I thought I’d oblige. For a while I’d been thinking about a new project. See, in my B. Mus and M. Mus years, I was all into BIG stuff. Beethoven sonatas, Bach fugues, and my senior recital pièce de résistance, the Liszt Dante sonata. :-D Nary a Grieg or Chopin or Mendelssohn piece to lighten the mood. No, I scorned miniatures – “salon” music, I thought, light, trite and not worth my time.

Problem is, after you graduate and are asked to play for weddings, churches and so on, people want to hear Chopin and Debussy and so on. (They certainly don’t want the Liszt Dante Sonata or the Bach-Busoni Chaconne, I can tell you.) And – with the reduction in practice time that comes with 40 students – even I began thinking it might be time to tackle something less…enormous.

So, here is my challenge to myself: over the next 6 weeks, I aim to learn, polish and record at least 10 miniatures – pieces under 5 minutes in length. (The Grieg is an exception as it’s mainly repeats. :D) Hopefully I’ll end up with a solid repertoire of wedding-ready music…and a variety of short recordings for my blog as well!

- The Contrapuntal Platypus

Positive Piano Teaching May 12, 2011

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Childhood, Music, Teaching.
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“How can you stay so positive?

Last year I wrote a post entitled “Nix the Negativity, Please” and I thought the above would make an excellent springboard for a discussion of the opposite – being positive :)

Last Wednesday, I was talking with the mother of two of my students. Let’s call her Katy, and her two boys Joel and Travis. Joel is the oldest of the two boys; though highly talented at math and other logic-based subjects, he finds kinesthetic activities – like tapping or moving to a beat – far more difficult. Travis, on the other hand, is the epitome of the “right-brained” child: dance, gymnastics, art all come to him with great ease.

We’d just had the lesson, in which both boys had made good progress and passed several of their songs. Katy and I were chatting in the car on the way to the bus afterwards, and all at once she burst out with, “I don’t understand it! How can you stay so positive?”

“Well, I really love teaching…” I ventured tentatively.

“No,” she elaborated on her theme. “It’s more than that. If it were me teaching them, there’s no way I could truthfully say ‘That’s great, you’ve made so much progress on this piece.’ Of course when I help the boys practice I try not to be critical, it’s my job as a parent to be encouraging. But listening to them from the other room, I could hear so many things wrong with their playing – and all I could think was “That really sucked, how could you mess up there again, why can’t you get it?””

Part of what fueled it, of course, had been a week of frustrating practice with Joel. I’d assigned him a simple metronome exercise, and asked Katy to help: tap along with him, one beat per metronome tick, then fade out and let him take over. Then two beats per metronome tick, alternating right and left hand (just like playing the bongos).

It had driven her crazy, or nearly so. “I just don’t understand how he can’t get it. He tries to tap along, but he’s *waiting* for the tick and taps after it, too late. I don’t think he’s getting any better. Travis finds it easy, of course.”

“Actually, Joel was much better at it this week – at least with me,” I assured her. But she remained skeptical. “It’s great that you can be so positive about it. But I really wonder if he’ll ever learn it.”

*******

A week later, I was back at Katy’s house for the boys’ next piano lesson (in which they both did quite well, passing most of their pieces and showing a lot of improvement on the others.) In the car after the lesson the subject of Joel came up. “I have to say,” ventured Katy, “he does seem to be getting better at the rhythm thing. He found the metronome exercise a lot easier this week.” (Her expression told me she’d found it much easier as well. ;))

“That’s great!” I responded. “And then,” she went on, “we were sitting in the car, driving, and there was pop music playing with a heavy bass beat. And all of a sudden I saw him moving to the beat – and tapping along! ‘My teacher said I needed to practice this,’ he told me.” (I was astounded to hear this – even I hadn’t expected him to practice in his “free time”, and in such a creative way!)

And I realized I had my answer…this is why I stay positive. Not because I’m self-deceptively optimistic or naive or walking through life with stubbornly rose-colored glasses, but simply because I’ve discovered two general truths about learning:

1. It is pretty much possible for anyone to learn any skill, no matter how “bad” they seem to be at it at first.

2. Intelligent, persistent practice generally pays off much faster than anyone imagines it will.

Our society, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, puts far too much emphasis on the myth of “talent.” Note that I’m not denying there’s such a thing as – let’s call it – “aptitude”. Obviously everyone finds some things easy and other things not so easy; that’s universal. But the idea of “talent” – that you’re endowed with a particular genetic heritage which makes you good at some things and bad at others, and will determine everything from your hobbies and interests to your career path – is absolutely a myth.

It’s amazing how much resistance to this idea I’ve gotten from fellow musicians in particular. (There was a piano forum in which I stated, very seriously, that anyone could achieve concert-level performance ability with enough persistence and a good teacher. I was thoroughly laughed at, but I still stand by that comment.) Perhaps it’s because we have a bit too much invested in this idea of talent? That we, as musicians, were showered from On High with an ineffable, special, divine talent which mere drudgery alone will never match? That if (horrible thought!) anyone could match our achievements under the right circumstances, maybe we’re not such amazing, “gifted” people after all.

Well, of course, we are…just because we’re human. :D But not because of our so-called talents. Because we are all incredibly adaptive, creative beings who can learn to do pretty much anything we’re interested in, and who can’t be pinned down by labels like “klutz” or “tone-deaf” or “unmusical.” (Or, for that matter, “dyslexic” or “hyperactive” or “slow” or “autistic” or “unimaginative”…or any more of the Negativity-labelled pigeonholes adults will often try to stick children into.)

…And really, what more reason does one need to be positive? :)

- The Contrapuntal Platypus

Beyond Carrots and Sticks: How to Motivate Children (Or Why it’s Not Necessary) January 17, 2011

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in About Me, Childhood, Creative Writing, Music, Philosophy, Poetry, Teaching.
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My response to Amy Chua, Part 2

“Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do. Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.” – Mark Twain

Student: (sarcastically commenting on a challenging piano exercise I’d assigned): “Oh, fun, fun.”
Me: “Maybe it will be fun – why not? You haven’t played it yet, so how do you know for sure it won’t be?”
Student (after a moment’s reflection): “You win.”

********

Last week I wrote Part 1 of my response to Amy Chua’s article on “Chinese parenting” featured in the Wall Street Journal. A storm of controversy followed Ms. Chua’s article; in the intervening week her book has been released and she has given several interviews, such as this one, which help to “moderate” the tone of her WSJ piece. Ms. Chua emphasizes the book is more a memoir than a parenting guide and that she is not trying to tell others how to raise their children. Yet, even in the interviews, she still makes some sweeping claims about “Asian” vs. “Western” forms of parenting. It’s these statements I’ll be responding to now.

In particular, one quote from the article leapt out at me.

Western parents romanticize the idea of pursuing passions and giving your kid choices. If you give a 10-year-old the choice to pursue his or her passion, it’s going to be doing Facebook for six hours. I don’t think it’s going to be playing the violin or doing any school work very seriously.

Ms. Chua, it seems, is convinced that Children Are By Default Lazy. If they do have “passions” – perhaps to play an instrument or win a sports competition – these are transitory flickers of desire which will soon fade, leaving nothing but TV-seeking apathy behind. Children don’t have the planning or time management skills to work towards a long-term goal. Above all, they aren’t interested in learning, because learning is Hard Work and couldn’t possibly be fun. Hence they must be forced to learn, as they certainly won’t do it on their own.

Is this the case? When I think back over my own childhood, here’s a small sample of “fun” activities I remember:

- Going to the local library with my mom, picking out armloads of books and going to a nearby park to read beneath the trees. (In the following years I would read thousands of books).
– Drawing maps of various fictitious countries described in the books I read (The Phantom Tollbooth, “Ponyland”, Narnia…)
– Learning various math concepts from my mom (before their introduction in the school curriculum): place-value, negative numbers and tessellations.
– Playing soccer from age 6 to 14.
– Major roles in four school plays: Titania (Midsummer Night’s Dream), The Goose (Charlotte’s Web), The Wicked Witch of the West (Wizard of Oz) and the First Witch (Macbeth).
– Taking piano lessons through Grade 12 (and flute until Grade 11; I also played in a youth orchestra.)
– Making a large hooked rug for my room.
– Writing a short story which won first place in a city-wide competition, as well as dozens of poems and other short stories.
– Memorizing a large amount of Romantic poetry, including Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, around age 9. (I still know it today!)

All of these activities have three characteristics in common: (a) I had fun doing them, (b) I learned something in the process and (c) they were totally voluntary. Some of them my parents suggested or provided help with, others were entirely my idea, but I was never coerced or “bribed”. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who remembers these sorts of childhood activities being “fun”…so why do we take for granted that children need to be forced into doing them?

This vast disconnect between what we expect from children (laziness) and what’s actually there (energy, creativity and curiosity) goes right to the heart of what’s wrong with our educational system today. Our society has a collective idea that Learning Is Boring. “Obviously” children are not going to want to learn about negative numbers, write stories or practice piano on their own initiative, right? So either we have to bribe or coerce them.

Bribery comes in all sorts of forms in our educational system. Most often it’s a sensory form; for example, a computer game that will let you practice your times tables by lighting up and flashing every time you get the right answer. Exciting, isn’t it? From a post by my fellow blogger Montecelery: “Somewhere along the line, the idea that children need stimulation went horribly, horribly awry…there’s just this conception in our society that children need or want brightly colored stuff, stuff that lights up and makes noise, whatever.” If it isn’t loud or flashy things, it’s cute dancing cartoon characters, the promise of a movie after class, or chocolate. But, so goes the conventional Western wisdom, they will not swallow that bitter spoonful of educational medicine unless we promise them some sugar to go with it.

The traditional “Asian” method is rather less subtle. Why bribe the children if we can coerce them? It’s their job to clench their teeth, buckle down and learn those math concepts or spelling lists, distasteful, boring and tedious though it may be. No spoonful of sugar needed here; they’ll learn to take their bitter medicine each day and do it promptly, or they’ll have an angry parent or teacher to answer to.

In contrast, I’m going to advance an alternative theory.

(1) Children – in general – are naturally creative, curious, and enjoy learning. (Obviously, some children will have more energy or passion for a given subject than others. However, if there’s a child out there who has absolutely no interest in learning, I haven’t taught or met them yet. :D) There’s even a school in Britain named Summerhill, where the children are under absolutely no obligation to go to classes, take tests or learn anything at all. But, amazingly enough, they do!

(2) Though children enjoy learning, they won’t just spontaneously learn if they’re entirely left to their own devices - not through lack of motivation but lack of tools. It’s absolutely essential to expose them to a wide range of possibilities (teaching them to read or introducing math concepts at a preschool level; signing them up for soccer or other recreational opportunities; going on nature walks; taking them to the library to borrow books; and so on.)

(3) If you want your child to enjoy learning, the best thing you can do is spend time interacting with them. Opportunities for learning will naturally come up. If there’s one thing that almost all 5-year olds have in common, it’s that they never stop asking questions! Learning is much more fun when there’s someone else there to do it with. :)

(4) “Educational” TV shows and DVDs, by and large, do far more to dampen intellectual curiosity than to sharpen it.** They teach children that learning consists of sitting passively and absorbing information. (Of course this prepares them very nicely for the mainstream educational system…which involves 12 years of sitting passively and absorbing information! Is it any wonder that parents, a few years down the road, bemoan their children’s “apathy” and “lack of motivation?”) Learning is an active process, and watching TV is by nature passive.

And most importantly…

(5) Learning doesn’t consist of stuffing information into one’s brain. It’s a process of exploring the world around us and finding out how it works. An interest in learning, and “being well prepared for tests”, often have very little to do with one another.

This is why the Asian model is so self-defeating. It supposes that one can generate curiosity through hours of drudgery. Does Ms. Chua truly believe that memorizing lists of spelling words, or doing pages of long division, will give one a passion for literature or mathematics? Of course, spelling and arithmetic are useful skills in our society; I’m not denying that! But the very idea that one can “drill” a passion into a child through rote repetition is, to my mind at least, absurd.

Children do not need to be “motivated”. They come that way naturally. The danger is that they will become “demotivated” – either through passive TV-watching (usually when both parents work outside the home) or through an educational system that emphasizes “right answers” and “good marks” over intellectual curiosity. But, if they are given the tools that will let them pursue their passions, they won’t be spending six hours a day on Facebook.***

Of course, these may not be the same passions that Ms. Chua appears to personally value, such as academics and music. For example, one of my cousins has an amazing talent for renovating older cars and re-selling them. Why shouldn’t he “pursue his passion”? If a 9-year old longs to be in a school play, or on the school basketball team, why does Ms. Chua not consider these good choices?

The truth is that children come with a wide variety of interests and this is good. Yes, our world needs doctors, lawyers and engineers. It also needs teachers, plumbers, computer programmers, entrepreneurs, retail workers, dental assistants, musicians and far too many other careers to mention here. Your child’s interests may not match your own, and that’s fine – but it’s also none of your business to tell them what they “should” enjoy.

In closing, I’ll hand it off to my dad, whose advice on careers was always as follows: “I have only three requirements for what career you pick. One, you need to enjoy it. Two, it has to be legal. Three, you need to be able to earn a living at it.” That’s all any parent should insist on. After that – hands off. :)

- The Contrapuntal Platypus

* Just for those who are curious, the maps of imaginary countries, the short story/poetry writing, and memorizing the Ancient Mariner were entirely on my own initiative. (Nobody could have been more surprised than my parents at that last one.) :D

** To clarify, I am not telling parents never to turn on Discovery Channel or to borrow educational DVDs from the library. This shouldn’t, though, make up the bulk of the child’s “learning time.”

*** Unless, of course, their passion is for network design or computer programming…in which case they may be the next Mark Zuckerberg. That wouldn’t be so bad either.

Asian vs. Western Education: A Third Way? (My response to Amy Chua, Part 1) January 8, 2011

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Music, Saving the World, Teaching.
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(This is Part 1 of my response to Amy Chua, focusing on her article though a music teaching/educational lens. UPDATE: Part 2, consisting of some more general thoughts on parenting and how to “motivate” children to learn, is now up here. Comments, questions, and debates are welcome!)

A friend of mine tweeted an article today titled “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior”, which he suggested would more accurately be called “How to Rob Your Child’s Life and Live it For Them.” It’s written by an Asian mother, Amy Chua, who quite genuinely believes that the Asian method of education – rote memorization and practice, insistence on high achievement, and strict discipline – produces the most successful, and in the end happiest, children. When I tweeted back my initial reaction to the article, my friend responded, “She forgets that in order to become a musician, you need talent first and then you can practice like hell.”

I found this assertion extremely interesting, but limiting – just as I found the author’s stance more compelling than one might think at first glance, but also ultimately flawed. The Asian model assumes that rote practice and strict discipline can ensure “success.” In contrast, the Western model argues that inherent “talent” – either you have it, or you don’t – is first and foremost essential. Frankly, neither of those educational models seems ideal. Isn’t there any other alternative?

Though there are aspects of Ms. Chua’s article I quite strongly disagreed with (never allowing one’s children to have a playdate or be in a school play? Requiring them to be the top student in every academic subject?), I felt she hit some things right on the mark. She states:

What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work… Once a child starts to excel at something—whether it’s math, piano, pitching or ballet—he or she gets praise, admiration and satisfaction. This builds confidence and makes the once not-fun activity fun…One of the worst things you can do for your child’s self-esteem is to let them give up. On the flip side, there’s nothing better for building confidence than learning you can do something you thought you couldn’t.

Agreed 100%. This is where the Asian theory, for me, comes out far ahead of the Western theory of “talent”. The Western model is horrendously disempowering, not to mention disheartening; children tend to assume, if they can’t get something right away, that they “aren’t good at it” and should just “give up.” (Of course, if I’d done this there’s no way I’d be a pianist today.) Say what you like about the Asian system – at least it provides some scope for improvement.

It’s only after this point that, for me, the Asian theory goes totally off the rails…

Chinese parents demand perfect grades because they believe that their child can get them. If their child doesn’t get them, the Chinese parent assumes it’s because the child didn’t work hard enough. That’s why the solution to substandard performance is always to excoriate, punish and shame the child. The Chinese parent believes that their child will be strong enough to take the shaming and to improve from it.

Ouch! The problem with the Asian model is that it assumes any failure to do well (in academics, music, etc) is due to lack of motivation, practice, or work ethic. As a teacher I know that far more often it’s due to a fundamental lack of understanding.  The child’s current level of comprehension is on one side, the concept is on another, there’s a gap in between – and no amount of screaming, punishment or shaming will give the child the ability to jump over the gap, any more than yelling at me would make me able to leap a fifty foot wide crevasse. Excoriating the child for “not getting it” won’t make the child any more likely to get it, only make them feel guilty for something that isn’t their fault. Rather, it’s the teacher’s responsibility to give them – one by one – the tools they need to bridge the gap on their own, and guide them through the process.

As an example of what can go so terribly, horribly wrong with the Asian model, I’ll hand it over to Ms. Chua once more.

Here’s a story in favor of coercion, Chinese-style. Lulu was about 7…working on a piano piece called “The Little White Donkey”…incredibly difficult for young players because the two hands have to keep schizophrenically different rhythms. Lulu couldn’t do it. We worked on it nonstop for a week, drilling each of her hands separately, over and over. But whenever we tried putting the hands together, one always morphed into the other, and everything fell apart. Finally, the day before her lesson, Lulu announced in exasperation that she was giving up and stomped off. “Get back to the piano now,” I ordered.

“You can’t make me.”

“Oh yes, I can.”

Back at the piano, Lulu made me pay. She punched, thrashed and kicked. She grabbed the music score and tore it to shreds. I taped the score back together and encased it in a plastic shield so that it could never be destroyed again. Then I hauled Lulu’s dollhouse to the car and told her I’d donate it to the Salvation Army piece by piece if she didn’t have “The Little White Donkey” perfect by the next day…I threatened her with no lunch, no dinner, no Christmas or Hanukkah presents, no birthday parties for two, three, four years. When she still kept playing it wrong, I told her she was purposely working herself into a frenzy because she was secretly afraid she couldn’t do it. I told her to stop being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic….I used every weapon and tactic I could think of. We worked right through dinner into the night, and I wouldn’t let Lulu get up, not for water, not even to go to the bathroom. The house became a war zone, and I lost my voice yelling, but still there seemed to be only negative progress, and even I began to have doubts.

Then, out of the blue, Lulu did it. Her hands suddenly came together—her right and left hands each doing their own imperturbable thing—just like that.

Lulu realized it the same time I did. I held my breath. She tried it tentatively again. Then she played it more confidently and faster, and still the rhythm held. A moment later, she was beaming.

“Mommy, look—it’s easy!” After that, she wanted to play the piece over and over and wouldn’t leave the piano…When she performed “The Little White Donkey” at a recital a few weeks later, parents came up to me and said, “What a perfect piece for Lulu—it’s so spunky and so her.”

A success story for coercion? Not quite. Not being a child psychologist, I won’t speculate on what sort of damage can be done to a 7-year old by repeated insults, bullying and threats (not to mention withholding water and bathroom breaks – surely this would count as physical abuse?) As a piano teacher, however, I can pretty firmly state that no real progress was made here.

Here’s the first warning sign: “We worked on it nonstop for a week, drilling each of her hands separately, over and over. But whenever we tried putting the hands together, one always morphed into the other, and everything fell apart.”

This is pretty much a universal problem among pianists – playing left and right hands separately, and putting them together, are two very different mental and physical tasks! It was certainly not due to the 7-year old being “lazy”, “self-indulgent”, “cowardly,” or “pathetic.” Even less was it due to a fundamental “lack of talent” (as per the Western approach). Rather, it is simply a technical problem the child hasn’t learned to deal with. Tackling a problem like this is not the child’s responsibility nor, in fact, the parent’s (unless that parent has extensive training in music.) It is the teacher’s, and Ms. Chua should have taken the issue to him or her in the next lesson. Trying to “shame” a 7-year old into playing two-hand cross-rhythms, without help from an experienced teacher, is like trying to “shame” her into solving algebra problems when she’s never been introduced to the concept before. Lack of understanding is not something one should feel guilty about.

However, it’s pretty clear Ms. Chua did not herself have the musical experience to analyze the problem and break it down into a form that Lulu could solve. Rather she tried to solve the issue by brute force – and for hours on end this was unproductive. But then, the light dawned…or did it?

Then, out of the blue, Lulu did it. Her hands suddenly came together—her right and left hands each doing their own imperturbable thing—just like that.

Just like that! Magic! And all it took was hour upon hour of bullying, threats, verbal and physical intimidation, insults and screaming, right?

Not so fast. Unfortunately, by Ms. Chua’s account, it sounds as though her daughter stumbled across the solution by exhaustive (literally!) trial and error more than anything else. All piano students have moments where something that didn’t work before, magically starts to fit together. Unfortunately “magic” can only go so far; the student is left with little or no understanding of what they did to make it work, or how to fix it if – almost inevitably – it stops working again at some point in the future (usually the night before a major performance!)

Threats and insults aside, the problem with rote drill as a learning method is that it tends to entirely bypass the important long-term goals (musical understanding) in favour of more peripheral short-term ones (learning “The Little White Donkey” for the next day.) As a result, the child gets “good” at playing a lot of individual pieces but often has little or no general musical comprehension, artistic expression, or even music reading ability. (More on the weaknesses of the rote system, in my own and others’ experience, here.)

An ideal educational model neither relies on inherent “talent” nor “discipline” as primary strategies for teaching. Certainly, it can be useful to exploit a child’s strengths as a teaching tool (case in point: one of my students had an amazing memory for pattern and harmony, though he had difficulties reading music. I assigned him various technical exercises in the circle of fifths pattern – usually something only more advanced students would tackle. He learned them easily.) Likewise, rote memorization and repetition can be a useful tool for learning. However, neither works as a good fundamental teaching model.

Above all, a good teacher needs the ability to be both creative and analytical (pop-culture notions of right- and left-brained people aside, the two are not mutually exclusive!) Creativity is needed in order to formulate a problem in new ways, using analogy, stories, visual images, metaphor or whatever else is needed to get an idea across. Analysis is essential for breaking down a problem into steps and then handing the student the tools they need to process those steps, one at a time – so that the previously unleapable gap becomes a series of shorter hops, or if necessary easy steps.

This dual strategy of creativity and analysis produces short-term results as well as long-term understanding. But, more important than either, it gives the student the tools they will need to solve, not only musical problems, but any problem requiring creative and/or analytical ability. Ms. Chua’s assertions aside, bullying and insulting a child won’t give them self-esteem. However, neither will telling them that “everyone has different talents” and “someday you’ll figure it out” (what kid can’t see through that sort of rhetoric to hear the underlying “you’re not good at this” and “I’m not really sure why you can’t get it now”?) What will give a child self-esteem, however, is showing them the strategies they will need to solve any problem they encounter. And, unlike a late-night, tearfully forced mastering of “My Little White Donkey”, these are positive, empowering lessons that will last a lifetime.

- The Contrapuntal Platypus

* I taught an Asian student last year who transferred into my studio. After several years of study under a “rote” method, her technique and imitative ability were quite good but she was unable to read even a simple 2-line piece in C major. Furthermore she had no comprehension of how the music was constructed, what the composer’s markings meant or what the piece was trying to portray.

I told her mother that we would need to spend some time working through the lower RCM levels to improve her reading ability, after which we could return to more advanced music. We did so and she made excellent progress, moving through about 5 RCM grades in as many months. However, about 6 months after she began lessons, her mother called to tell me that she was leaving my studio. The reason (as I found out when I asked to speak with the daughter; her mom wouldn’t tell me) was that, apparently, she “wasn’t progressing fast enough.”

I asked the mother how quickly she expected her daughter to progress – and how passing six grades in half a year could possibly be insufficient. From her answer I gathered that she wanted her daughter to be playing the sort of “flashy” music that she’d been working on before and that goals such as long-term understanding, music reading and expressivity were, for her, secondary to surface brilliance and showiness.

Similarly, when my sister taught English in Japan for a year she found that the educational system was almost entirely structured around drill. Students would memorize, word-for-word, a small set of formulaic conversations with little understanding of their meaning or structure. As a result they would be able to say, for example, “I’d like a cup of coffee, please” but have limited ability to modify the sentence to ask for two cups of coffee, or a cup of tea instead. Many of her students who had studied English in school for years still were entirely unable to have a basic conversation with a native speaker.

I don’t mean to suggest with these anecdotes that all Asian teachers or students fall into this stereotype. However, it does seem to be a major weakness of the rote system that it promotes quick results over true understanding.

December 13: The Twelve Days of Christmas December 13, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in About Me, Advent Calendar of Carols, Just for Fun, Music.
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…And so the second half of the countdown begins. Out of the 24 days until Christmas, only twelve are left…we’re halfway there! :D

When I was young, one of the things I enjoyed most about Christmas was singing carols. Not just because I liked the music, or the words, but because I could remember them – all the words to every carol. (I had a near-photographic memory for poetry…useless for practical purposes, but fun.) Ever year I delighted in reaming off verse after obscure verse of carol after carol, while the grownups around me gazed on in astonishment at all those words they could never remember.

All right, I admit it…I was more than a bit of a showoff. :D

“The Twelve Days of Christmas” was one of the best carols for this purpose. It was long and went on and on and on, with every verse adding a further level of complexity. I took great pride in remembering all the drummers drumming and maids a-milking and lords a-leaping and calling birds and swans a-swimming long after all the other singers around me had given up in disgust, or boredom.

I could post a YouTube video of this, but absolutely everyone has heard the Twelve Days of Christmas (probably far more often than they would have liked to.) So instead, here’s my favorite parody, by Frank Kelly. :D

December 12: Ihr Kinderlein Kommet December 13, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Advent Calendar of Carols, Christianity, Music.
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Time for another German carol…one of my all-time favorites.

Last night I turned pages for a friend’s Christmas concert at a church nearby. They were performing Joseph Martin’s “Ceremony of Candles”…a beautiful choral reworking and interweaving of traditional Christmas carols, including “In the Bleak Midwinter”,” Il est Ne Le Divin Enfant”, “Silent Night” and many others. I actually got goosebumps during the performance…not once but several times. Amazing.

My favorite movement was “Invitation to the Manger”, based on the German Christmas carol “Ihr Kinderlein Kommet” – “O Come Little Children.” Martin reworks this simple, childlike carol into a brilliant contrapuntal setting complete with ringing bell-like chords in the piano, sudden shifts of key and a brilliant, jubilant tempo. I felt utterly drawn in – my only regret was that I couldn’t sing along!

I tried to find a usable recording on Youtube, but to no avail. However, here is a beautiful choral setting of Ihr Kinderlein Kommet…a must-listen in any case. Enjoy.

Ihr Kinderlein, kommet, o kommet doch all!
Zur Krippe her kommet in Bethlehems Stall
und seht, was in dieser hochheiligen Nacht
der Vater im Himmel für Freude uns macht!

O seht in der Krippe im nächtlichen Stall,
seht hier bei des Lichtleins hell glänzendem Strahl
den reinliche Windeln, das himmlische Kind,
viel schöner und holder als Engel es sind!

Da liegt es, das Kindlein, auf Heu und auf Stroh,
Maria und Josef betrachten es froh.
Die redlichen Hirten knien betend davor,
hoch oben schwebt jubelnd der Engelein Chor.

O beugt wie die Hirten anbetend die Knie,
erhebet die Hände und danket wie sie!
Stimmt freudig, ihr Kinder, wer wollt sich nicht freun,
stimmt freudig zum Jubel der Engel mit ein!

Oh, come, little children, oh, come, one and all,
To Bethlehem’s stable, in Bethlehem’s stall.
And see with rejoicing this glorious sight,
Our Father in heaven has sent us this night.

Oh, see in the manger, in hallowèd light
A star throws its beam on this holiest sight.
In clean swaddling clothes lies the heavenly Child,
More lovely than angels, this Baby so mild.

Oh, there lies the Christ Child, on hay and on straw;
The shepherds are kneeling before Him with awe.
And Mary and Joseph smile on Him with love,
While angels are singing sweet songs from above.

December 11: Gloucestershire Wassail December 13, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Advent Calendar of Carols, Just for Fun, Music.
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I’ve been going to and hosting a lot of Christmas parties this past week, so I thought I’d post another party song. The “Gloucestershire Wassail” is by far my favorite traditional secular carol. Any time I turn it on it’s bound to bring a smile to my face…it so perfectly conjures up the image of a Christmas party with lots of great food, drink and good music!

This site has some great notes on the origin of wassailing, an ancient English tradition with pagan roots thought to originate between 300-500 AD; “pre-Christian fertility rites where the villagers went through orchards at mid-winter singing and shouting loudly to drive out evil spirits, and pouring cider on the roots of trees to encourage fertility…It was only later that these traditions became associated with “luck visits” made around the neighborhood, together with general merry-making…and “fortified by copious quantities of alcohol”.” :D

As a vegan, I can’t say I’m crazy about the lyrics, which mainly refer to various animals popular for their meat in English cooking. However, I do love the last verse. Like much of the song, it has the feeling of something joyfully improvised on the spur of the moment…perhaps by a young man in the wassailing group who wished to catch the attention of the “maid in the lily white smock” he’s seen earlier that evening? ;)

…And the rollicking tune is simply irresistible.

My favorite performance is by the Baltimore Consort, but unfortunately it is completely unavailable online. Here’s a close second best, by the Waverly Consort.

Wassail, wassail all over the town
Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown
Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree
With the wassailing bowl, we’ll drink to thee

So here is to Cherry and to his right cheek
Pray God send our master a good piece of beef
And a good piece of beef that may we all see
With the wassailing bowl, we’ll drink to thee

And here is to Dobbin and to his right eye
Pray God send our master a good Christmas pie
A good Christmas pie that may we all see
With the wassailing bowl, we’ll drink to thee

So here is to Broad Mary and to her broad horn
May God send our master a good crop of corn
And a good crop of corn that may we all see
With the wassailing bowl, we’ll drink to thee

And here is to Fillpail and to her left ear
Pray God send our master a happy New Year
And a happy New Year as e’er he did see
With the wassailing bowl, we’ll drink to thee

And here is to Colly and to her long tail
Pray God send our master he never may fail
A bowl of strong beer! I pray you draw near
And our jolly wassail it’s then you shall hear

Come butler, come fill us a bowl of the best
Then we hope that your soul in heaven may rest
But if you do draw us a bowl of the small
Then down shall go butler, bowl and all

Then here’s to the maid in the lily white smock
Who tripped to the door and slipped back the lock
Who tripped to the door and pulled back the pin
For to let these jolly wassailers in.

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