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Nix the Negativity, Parents…A Personal Plea October 17, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Music, Philosophy, Saving the World, Teaching.
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This past week I came across Dan’s extremely powerful and moving blog, Single Dad Laughing. I was struck by one entry in particular – You Just Broke Your Child. Congratulations – in which he describes how he saw a dad emotionally and physically abusing his young boy in a grocery store. I began writing a reply on the comments thread which turned, you guessed it, into a rather detailed blog post. It talked about the power that adults in general – including music teachers – wield over a child’s confidence and self-image and how easily it can be abused (and the drastic consequences). I spent several hours writing it and was about to publish it here (don’t worry, I will still post it in a day or two…)

Then something happened which really brought home to me what Dan was talking about…and how often this happens.

A student who I’ll call Naomi (not her real name) came to make up some lesson time she’d missed. When Naomi started lessons with me over a year ago she was tentative, unhappy, convinced that she “couldn’t do it” and was “bad at piano.” Neither of her parents had much musical training and her support base was minimal. She’d also been though a year of mediocre teaching and some fundamentals had been missed, making reading music a challenge for her. A year later she’s made astounding progress. More importantly she’s a happy, radiant girl who grins every time she comes to piano and is eager to play me the week’s pieces. She’s got an amazing sensitivity for harmony and we’ve been doing some experimenting with simple counterpoint and traditional rounds like “Frere Jacques”. And she enjoys every moment of it.

The lesson today went extremely well. She had fixed everything I’d highlighted in one of her pieces (I was amazed at how thorough her practice had been!), we played a round together and the time flew by. Soon enough her dad came to pick her up. When he walked in the door she was trying out a bit of her new piece – a rather difficult one with some unfamiliar notes and rhythms that I gave her some help on. She walked towards the door smiling.

And then it happened. As Naomi was getting her things together, her dad, frowning slightly, commented that she still seemed rather hesitant about learning new music. In fact – he warmed to his theme – she often had some difficulty in playing through pieces smoothly, without stopping to look for notes.

What?

I looked over at Naomi and her face had fallen.

Literally fallen. Where a moment before I’d seen a laughing, enthusiastic child, she was staring sadly at the floor, the smile gone from her face. Her dad was disappointed in her. Again.

I looked back at her dad in disbelief. Why would he say something like that with his child right there? Can’t he see the effect it has on her?

Raging inside, I firmly told Naomi and her dad that (a) she’d been making amazing progress and that I was especially proud of how well she’d done with her piece that week and (b) that reading new music and playing without stopping were the hardest things in piano. And I’d found them hard too.

Naomi – looking a little reassured at that – and her dad walked out the door to my studio and I went into the next room, actually on the edge of crying.

Now, I am not trying to imply that Naomi’s dad is remotely equivalent to the cruel, abusive father that Dan observed in Costco. I know for a fact Naomi’s father cares about her very much and I’m sure he was speaking out of good motivations…certainly not any deliberate horrible wish to belittle or upset his daughter. Who doesn’t worry from time to time about their child’s progress? Who doesn’t want their daughter to excel in everything she tries?

But it is really, really saddening to watch the unintentional effect his words had on a sensitive child who I’ve only recently begun to convince that she is capable, she is musical and she can learn piano.

Please, parents, adults everywhere…let’s Nix the Negativity.

Some thoughts:

(1) I have absolutely nothing against a parent sharing their concerns with me – in fact I encourage it. E-mail, telephone, call to set up a meeting. Any time. My door is always open. But not in front of your child. That goes for anything, not just music. If they’re having trouble with Subject X, openly talking about their Subject X issues in front of them is just going to make them more unsure and hesitant and certain that they’ll never be good at it, because apparently their own parents don’t even believe in them.

(2) One of the best things about my parents, growing up, was how they always emphasized What We Did Well. A favorite quote of my mom’s was “Soar with Your Strengths”…in other words focus on what a child is good at, not what they have trouble with. Of course improvement’s always possible, but it won’t help to obsess over the subject a child is struggling with and let them know that they’re “behind” or “not progressing fast enough”.

…No, my childhood wasn’t perfect and my parents and I had the usual (healthy) dose of fights and arguments (:D). My mom in particular had high standards and I would often complain that she was being “picky” or “too critical” about details. But they would never have “cut me down” in that way. Discussing areas of concern with a teacher…sure. But in front of me they emphasized my strengths…always. And it had a tremendous impact on how I see myself today.

(3) More than anything I wish I could have said to the father: “Yes, Naomi seems hesitant at times. Terrified, even – terrified of making mistakes and doing “something wrong.” Why do you think that is? Maybe it’s because you’ve made her hesitant and unsure by being so negative? Maybe if you talked about how happy you were that she learned her song really well this week, she might feel a little less unsure and worried about her playing?

Also, stepping back a bit…what is the ultimate goal here? Is Naomi really taking piano lessons in order to learn to play pieces up to speed without stopping? Or is it to develop an appreciation and love for music that will last all her life? Is Negativity really going to help her accomplish that?”

And finally there’s:

(4) Progress takes time, effort and lots and lots of patience. I am fiercely anti-elitist in my teaching because I was not a “talented student” and if I learned to play at a “concert pianist” level, anyone can. I tell every student that they are talented, they are musical and they are capable because I believe with all my heart that every human being is talented, musical and capable of everything they put their mind to. I give them the tools they need in order to realize that potential I see in them and then, little by little, give them greater independence in their practicing and learning until they can literally be their own teachers.

What will kill this process is Negativity.

Negativity implies categorization. You’re not a talented student. You’re not making progress “fast enough”. You haven’t learned a piece “up to speed”. You’ve fallen short in whatever way. It draws a line in the sand and invariably sticks the child on the wrong side. The worst bit is that an adult with a highly critical perspective will always focus on a child’s shortcomings…and almost every music student finds something difficult, whether it’s rhythm or technique or memory or note-reading. Therefore to Negativity’s judgmental gaze all children except a lucky few (the “elite”) are weighed and found wanting.

If Negativity tells me I have no potential, what’s the good in practicing? If I’m not “musical”, why should I bother trying to express myself in this piece? If I’ve put my best effort into lessons this year, and my progress isn’t “good enough”, then what’s the point of working hard next year?

It’s not just parents. Teachers can be negative too. I can be (and have been) very negative. With a few students it’s helpful, even necessary…the confident, happy ones who believe in themselves and know they can play well but didn’t really feel like practicing the past few weeks. 😀 Fine. But even then it has to be done in a spirit of encouragement and good humour. When a child doubts their own ability, Negativity will only make it worse.

If in doubt…Nix the Negativity. Please.

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

Is THIS Contrapuntal Platypus?!? October 16, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Uncategorized.
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…Yes, yes it is. No, you didn’t type the URL wrong.

I got tired of reading my own “white on black” text and have decided to switch over to something more user-friendly. Yes I’ll miss the awesome black background and that combination of fonts. But part of being a Contrapuntal Platypus is being communicative.

Bear with me for a short time while things get flipped around to a more easy-to-read combination…

– The Contrapuntal Platypus 😀

Ella Minnow Pea (Or, the Advantages of Missing a Bus) October 4, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Flights of Fancy, Language, Philosophy, Saving the World, Serendipity, Through the Looking Glass, Truth is Stranger than Fiction.
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…A cross between Survivor, 1984 and your favorite childhood alphabet book…

While doing research for my posts two weeks ago on lipograms and univocalic writing, I ran across a reference to a novel (“progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable”) entitled Ella Minnow Pea. According to Wikipedia,

the plot of the story deals with a small country which begins to outlaw the use of various letters, and as each letter is outlawed within the story, it is (for the most part) no longer used in the text of the novel.

I thought this was a rather neat idea, but promptly closed the computer window and forgot about it.

Fast-forward to Friday, October 1…

I was on a bus headed downtown, from where I needed to transfer to a second bus that would take me to the private school where I teach several afternoons a week. There were only two buses that would get me there on time, and the first was due at the connection point any minute.

Unfortunately, due to construction my nearest stop had been shifted. Then shifted back beyond the cross-street, at which (due to a red light) we had halted. And, even though my transfer point was right on the corner, no amount of pleading on my part would persuade the driver to let me out on the corner while the traffic was stationary instead of transporting me most of a block ahead, from which point I would have to backtrack.

I was in the process of said backtracking when – sure enough – I saw my first bus slide elusively by. Fortunately there was still another one I could catch, so I settled down on the corner to wait. On that particular corner there was a bookstore which often had a table of reduced-price books outside. Of course I went over to look while I waited for my bus, and there on the table was a slightly damaged copy of…

You guessed it. Ella Minnow Pea, by Mark Dunn.

Of course I ran in and bought it, then read it while I travelled back and forth between students’ houses and waited for my soccer to begin that night. I finished it on the last bus home.

*********

Ella Minnow Pea is set on the (fictional) island of Nollop, named after the (supposed) inventor of the famous pangram, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” – words immortalized on the cenotaph Nollop’s citizens have erected in his honor. Yet one day a tile containing the letter Z falls from the cenotaph, a sign interpreted – by the power-hungry High Council – as a sign from Nollop himself from beyond the grave: none of the island’s citizens are ever to speak or write this letter again, on pain of banishment or death. And then another letter falls, and another…

As the book is in the form of letters between the book’s central characters, the banishment of each letter from Nollop ensures its banishment from Mark Dunn’s novel as well. Hence the book seems at first like a clever language game, and on some level it is. But there are distinctly dark, indeed Orwellian, undertones as well. As the tiles continue to inexorably fall from the cenotaph, available vocabulary becomes ever more restricted and the characters’ letters to one other ever shorter and harder to read. It is as though one sees language itself falling away, dissolving, meaning crumbling before one’s eyes, as in Orwell’s Newspeak.

Its content as well as its form is Orwellian. The basic premise is, at first glance, ridiculous, even comic. Yet this very randomness with which the tiles fall, and the arbitrary way in which Ella’s friends and relatives are punished for their accidental slips, give the book at times a nightmarish sense. Such an outlandish series of events could surely never occur in our logical world – Nollop elevated to the status of omniscient god, the Council his all-knowing, all-powerful interpreters and linguistic police – and yet, it is happening and no matter how loud the characters protest or scream or argue, nothing they do will end the insanity. Indeed, in order to win their freedom they must on some level accept the Council’s illogic – only the one who can pen a superior pangram to Nollop’s, containing every letter of the alphabet in 32 total letters or less, is declared worthy to nullify his supposed pronouncements.

If I had one criticism of this novel, it would be the lack of creativity of the protagonists in fighting against their domination by the Council. The few who speak out are immediately jailed, flogged, banished or killed. There is little or no attempt to defeat the Council through sheer force of numbers; at one point a counter-movement forms but little seems to come of it. Given the creativity that the island’s inhabitants use to continue communication with one another, their collective passivity seems a rather “easy out” for the author. (Why doesn’t anyone attempt, say, a general strike? Mass protests? And what happens when the Council’s henchmen themselves use the forbidden letters – as is inevitable?)

All in all, though, a highly recommended work – and one that will significantly stretch any reader’s vocabulary. 😀

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

Riddles! (Just for Fun) October 2, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Creative Writing, Flights of Fancy, Just for Fun, Philosophy, Poetry, Riddles!, Through the Looking Glass, Truth is Stranger than Fiction.
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A random Internet search on some unrelated topic – I can’t remember what – brought me to this site by Eric S. Raymond, entitled “Riddle-Poems, and How to Make Them”. It contains a number of riddle poems in both ancient (Anglo-Saxon) and modern style, many of them extremely ingenious and entertaining. Better yet, it tells you how to write your own! Needless to say I thought this was pretty cool.

Do I really need to explain that I went on a sudden spate of frantic riddle-writing…?

Three riddles to amuse, perplex and entertain readers are below – enjoy! Drag your mouse over the blank space below each riddle to see the answer.

1. Dipping, glinting, gliding by,
Rainbow-fretted, wrought of breath.
I live only while I fly –
Earth’s rough kiss my sudden death.

Answer: A soap bubble

2. Dare trespass my threshold? Don’t dream you shall flee;
The strongest, the swiftest, cannot evade me.
I’ll seize you and crush you and wrench you apart,
Though no one may gaze on my singular heart.

Answer: Black hole

3. We two are twins, joined at the hip;
We love to glide and slide and slip;
Not quite alike – that’s really neat,
Or else we would have two left feet.
Best in a pinch, and clinging tight,
We often stay out late at night,
And we’re both done for if I run.
Now, can you solve this riddling pun?

Answer: Pantyhose

– The Contrapuntal Platypus 😀