jump to navigation

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

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in About Me, Music, Teaching.
Tags: , , , , ,
2 comments

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. 😀

– 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…

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.
Tags: , , , , , ,
15 comments

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.) 😀

** 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.

2011 Weekly Challenge: Write Year-Round for Human Rights! January 1, 2011

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in About Me, Human Rights, Iranelection, Saving the World.
Tags: , , , , , ,
add a comment

Happy New Year! As I mentioned yesterday, today I’m unveiling my 2011 New Year’s Human Rights’ Challenge. Though I created it as a personal New Year’s Resolution, I invite others to join me!

A few months ago I featured this video on my blog:

For the past two years I’ve meant to participate in the Amnesty Write for Rights event (held Dec. 10) and Greeting Cards Campaign (Nov 1-Jan 31), but it’s a busy season for piano teachers, and this year in particular was…chaotic. I did consider about setting myself the goal of writing greeting cards to the 31 prisoners over the 31 days of January. However, these cases have already been widely publicized and by all accounts these 31 prisoners are getting enormous volumes of mail. What Amnesty needs, I suspect, is more people who will make an effort to consistently write appeal letters during the other 11 months of the year.

So my personal goal for 2011 is:

Once a week throughout 2011, I will pick an Amnesty Urgent Action, write and send an appeal letter, and feature the case here on my blog to help spread awareness.

Why this goal?

(1) I’ve known for a while now that I wanted to become more involved in fighting for human rights in a number of regions. I’ve been on Twitter’s #iranelection hashtag for a year and a half now and have sent dozens of Iran-related Urgent Action Appeals for prisoners suffering in Evin or on death row.

However, as my interest in human rights has deepened over the past year, I’ve become less and less content to simply focus on a single country. There are oppressed people worldwide who need our voices, both to demand their rights be respected and to spread awareness. Even if all those in prison in Iran were liberated today, the fight for human rights would go on in many other places…and until all of us are free, none of us truly are.

(2) One of the perennial challenges of blogging is, as a friend observed last night, getting started. If I’ve made a commitment to blog about a human rights case once a week to help spread awareness, this will definitely be a strong motivating factor for blogging in general. A popular #iranelection saying, “We are the media” – “we” being bloggers, tweeters and other social media users – is particularly applicable when it comes to human rights cases, which the mainstream media tend to neglect. If we don’t publicize these cases, nobody will.

(3) A great side benefit of following the current human rights issues in Iran is that I’ve come to know so much about Iran’s amazing history, culture, and language. But Iran’s “story” is only one of hundreds. There are so many other cultures and countries in the world that are equally fascinating. What better way to discover them than while fighting for human rights?

What this means is that I’ll be posting here about a new human rights case each week. At the very least I’ll repost Amnesty’s summary and instructions for writing an appeal letter. If time permits I’ll hopefully do a bit of digging and include some more background. (I may include some sample letters for particularly urgent cases, but Amnesty does encourage people to write appeals in their own words. And really, if it were my life in danger…would I want people sending “form letters” to the only person who could save me?)

Please do leave your responses, comments, questions…I would love to get feedback on this idea! (And if you’d like to participate, please do subscribe to my blog for weekly updates!)

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

A 2011 Teaser (Contrapuntal Platypus is Back!) December 31, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in About Me, Human Rights, Saving the World, Social Media.
Tags: , , , , ,
1 comment so far

Yes, I’m finally back…after a month of piano festival application/Christmas recital craziness, Rumikitty chaos (it seems he did eat the string and it is now, er, gradually reappearing) and a family-wide epidemic of Norovirus – aka stomach flu – perfectly timed for Christmas Eve. Yay! 😉

Thank goodness December is almost over (and I survived, if barely). Here’s to a more consistent* year of blogging!

Now for the 2011 Contrapuntal Platypus Teaser…

While thinking over my 2011 New Year’s Resolutions, I realized that I wanted to (1) post more blog entries and (2) do more for various human rights causes worldwide. So I decided to combine the two, and begin the year by posting a special Human Rights Challenge…for any who dare to take part 😀 All will be revealed tomorrow at midnight!

Until then…Happy New Year’s Eve!

– Contrapuntal Platypus

* On this topic, I was chatting with a friend online who’d been thinking of blogging for a while, but who told me he preferred to “finish what he’d started in 2010” first. (I’m bad about that too as you can probably tell if you’ve been following…)

At once this reminded me of a joke I’d seen floating around the Net:

“Dr. Neil proclaimed the way to achieve inner peace is to finish all the things you have started.  So I looked around my house to see things I had started and hadn’t finished; and, before leaving the house this morning, I finished off a bottle of Pinot Noir, a bottle of Chardonnay, a bottle of Baileys, a bottle of Kahlua, a packet of Penguins, the remainder of a bottle of Prozac, Valium prescriptions, the rest of the Cheesecake, and a box of chocolates.

You have no idea how good I feel.”

…Chaos, Thy Name is Rumikitty December 21, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in About Me, Advent Calendar of Carols, Truth is Stranger than Fiction.
Tags: , , , ,
2 comments

Chaos RumikittyAnd so a week has passed since my last post..

The post when I finally got up to date with the Advent Calendar of Carols and was rejoicing that there was only 12 days left until Christmas. It had been a busy November and a chaotic December, but things were all easy from here. All I needed to do was bake some cookies, clean up, finish my last few days of teaching, record a Christmas carol or two I planned to post on my blog and then it would be Christmas break, starting with a weekend visit to some relatives in a nearby city. Simple…and with ample time for me to blog each day.

I had reckoned without my companion feline. Chaos, thy name is Rumikitty.

It was the night of the 15th, nearing 1 am last Wednesday morning, and I had just headed into the washroom to brush my teeth and – hopefully – get some sleep after another long day of last-week-before-Christmas teaching. I had just been playing chase with Rumikitty and his favorite toy and had left him – now dozing, sleepy and innocent – curled up in a little ball of golden fur on my pillow for his normal pre-bedtime snooze. Coming out of the washroom ten minutes later, I glanced over at the bed.

Then my heart nearly stopped.

Rumikitty lay directly in the middle of the bed, a deeply satisfied look upon his little kitty face, his paws clenched around the chase toy which I had, in a moment of carelessness, left on the nearby night table. A chewed half-inch of its foot-long string dangled forlornly.

The remainder of the string was nowhere to be found.

I’ll gloss over what the next hour involved…let’s just say a lot of tears, screaming, hunting for the string and chasing an increasingly-less-satisfied cat in rage around the apartment, until he hid beneath the couch and refused to budge.

I called the emergency clinic. I should monitor him, I was told, and watch for, well, any signs of the emerging string…from either end of Rumi. No pulling on it, that could damage internal organs if it had gotten tangled up somewhere. Watch for any discomfort or change in eating or bathroom habits. Take him in if things get worse.

I spent the next hour searching my room and then the apartment. As the next day. No string.

I looked everywhere…under beds, couches, tables, cushions, rugs. I even pulled out the stove and refrigerator (pulling out, I later found, the plug as well and making our fridge turn off for the next day). I have never looked behind the refrigerator. It proved to be the Graveyard of Lost Cat Toys. I found at least 20 dusty toy mice, a handful of the plastic straws he enjoys chewing, and an assortment of balls, stuffed toys and balled-up holey socks I had thrown to him to chase from time to time. But no string.

The next morning, he appeared to be having, er, litterbox issues and I thought it far better to be safe than sorry. Off to the vet.

Three hours and $200 worth of tests later, they thought it possible he might have eaten the string.

By the end of the day and $600 worth of tests later, they were fairly sure he hadn’t. They had run a barium series, which essentially consists of forcing a liquid solution of barium down his throat – barium shows up in X-rays as string itself doesn’t – and seeing if there was a blockage or obstruction anywhere along the way. Fortunately it went through with no issues.

It should also, I was told, flush out the string as it went – if there was a string to flush out. But by that evening…nothing.

“Are you sure he never ate it, then?” I asked. “Is there maybe a small possibility it could still be sitting there, not blocking anything but not moving either?”

“A small possibility. But I think we can feel pretty good about the situation here. If he does vomit, though, or stop eating, do take him back in at once.” They discharged him, swiped my credit card (ouch) and there we were, back in my apartment. Exhausted, about $700 lighter and still with no certainty as to where the string had gone.

I searched my room one last, exhaustive time. Nada.

Crossing my fingers, I entrusted him to the care of my wonderful cat-sitter and left town for the weekend. Quite fortunately, the trip went by without further incident than numerous panicked calls home on my part, only to be reassured that Rumi was doing just fine, no worries. He’s still doing fine as I write this now. But…no string.

Maybe micro black holes do exist after all? 😀

In any case, this is all by way of apology for being gone from this blog, and my Advent Calendar of Carols, and from Twitter and #iranelection for so long. Hopefully I’ll be excused this time at any rate.

To tweak the famous quote, NOTHING can upset both the best-laid plans of mice and men so much as…a cat. 😀

– Contrapuntal Platypus

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

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in About Me, Advent Calendar of Carols, Just for Fun, Music.
Tags: , , , ,
1 comment so far

…And so the second half of the countdown begins. Out of the 24 days until Christmas, only twelve are left…we’re halfway there! 😀

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. 😀

“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. 😀

December 8: Angels We Have Heard on High December 10, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in About Me, Advent Calendar of Carols, Christianity, Music.
Tags: , , ,
1 comment so far

Another traditional favorite. For me this song has a special association: the December that I was in the play “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.”

For me this is one of the yearly “must-read” Christmas books. The church in a small, sleepy town prepares for the annual Christmas pageant, which never changes: the “perfect” girl is always Mary, the minister’s son always Joseph, and the little kids always get stuck in the Angel Choir. Then one year, double disaster strikes. The woman in charge of the pageant breaks her leg, and the Hurdmans – “the worst kids in town”, famous for swearing, cigar smoking and stealing – show up at church one day and take over every major role. The main character’s mother and substitute pageant director bravely declares that it will be “the best Christmas pageant ever.” But what will happen on Christmas Eve?

Much as I wanted to be one of the Hurdmans, I – like most of the children who auditioned – were assigned to the Angel Choir, with little to do until the near-final scenes when we trooped onstage singing “Angels We Have Heard on High”. The song was cut short by a fire alarm (you’ll have to read the book to find out why. :D). Fortunately, as I recall we got to sing the entire carol later. My favorite bit were the long “Gloria’s” in the chorus – so much fun to sing!

Here’s a gorgeous recording by the Robert Shaw Chamber Singers.

December 6: Nikolaus, Komm In Unser Haus December 7, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in About Me, Advent Calendar of Carols, Christianity, Just for Fun.
Tags: , , , , , , ,
1 comment so far

…First of all, apologies for the posting delay. It’s been a crazy but rewarding 24 hours. A HUGE shout-out to all the amazing students who stood up once more against the oppressive regime in Iran to fight for freedom, and whose protests I and my friends were helping to tweet/liveblog today on Twitter and Facebook. Josh Shahryar (NiteOwl)’s excellent liveblog is here, with an extensive and very impressive collection of videos here via @homylafayette.

But now, back to the happier world of Christmas carols…

A short while ago a Twitter friend (thanks @sara055!) was telling me about the Sinterklaas tradition in Holland; one similar to (and the origin for) our own Santa Claus tradition. “St. Klaas”, known for his generosity, always gave his things away – even his only jacket in winter. He is said to come from Spain by boat every year on December 5. He is accompanied by his “black men” or “black Peters” (“zwarte pieten”), similar to Santa’s helpers, who record throughout the year which children have been good and which naughty. The good ones are given gifts, while the bad ones are supposedly stuck in a bag – and taken back to Spain! 😀

One custom is for the children to leave little “gifts” (a drawing for Sinterklaas and a carrot or hay for his white horse that he rides over the rooftops) by the fireplace. In the morning these will have vanished, to be replaced by toys. In another tradition, as the children are singing Christmas songs the evening of December 5th, a knock will come on the front door. When the door opens, candy will be thrown in by the “black men” and bags with gifts left by the front door. Sometimes people dressed up as Sinterklaus and the “black men” will even come inside!

This made me think about the similar German custom in which children set out for their shoes/boots by the front door on December 5, “Nikolausabend”. Sankt (St.) Nikolaus is said to come in the night and fill the shoes with sweets, chocolates, fruit and toys – at least for good children. Bad children will get nothing in their shoes – or even worse, a switch! 😀 Sometimes “Nikolaus” will visit in person and ask the parents if the child has been good, even looking up their yearly record in his golden book.

My family, though we kept a lot of the German traditions, never did Nikolausabend. Instead we just put out our stockings on the 24th. But both my sister and I attended German Pre-Kindergarten. If “Nikolaus” visited, I don’t remember it, but my sister sure did! In her words: “He was one scary dude. I didn’t want to get near him. I think he asked me if I was a good girl, and I nodded vehemently. We have a picture of me looking terrified and keeping my distance.”

…Apparently she wasn’t the only one to think soa kindergarten in Austria has apparently banned any in-person visits by “Nikolaus” for being too “scary”. Poor guy. 😉

For those who enjoy history, both the Sinterklaas and Nikolaus traditions trace back to a real man, St. Nicholas of Myra, who was said to not only be generous but a miracle worker as well! So maybe flying horses and black men with magical bags of candy are not so far-fetched after all. 😀

So here, without any further ado, is my favorite “Nikolaus” German Christmas carol. (The lyrics on the video are slightly different from the ones I grew up hearing, which are listed below…I prefer them!)

Nikolaus komm in unser Haus,
pack die großen Taschen aus.
Lustig, lustig, trallerallala!
Bald ist Nikolaus abend da, Bald ist Nikolaus abend da.

(Nikolaus, come into our house,
Come unpack your great big pouch.
Merry, merry, tralalalala!
Nikolaus Eve will soon be here, Nikolaus Eve will soon be here.)

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

December 5: I Wonder as I Wander December 5, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in About Me, Advent Calendar of Carols, Music.
Tags: , , , , ,
add a comment

Another more obscure carol today…one with mysterious words and a poignant melody. I didn’t know until I checked Wikipedia this evening that “I Wonder as I Wander” is not, in fact, a “traditional” Christmas carol, but was composed fairly recently. The story of its origin – maybe stranger than any other Christmas carol – is itself more than a little haunting:

“I Wonder as I Wander” had its origins in a song fragment collected on July 16, 1933 by folklorist and singer John Jacob Niles. In his unpublished autobiography, he wrote of hearing the song:

‘A girl had stepped out to the edge of the little platform attached to the automobile. She began to sing. Her clothes were unbelievable dirty and ragged, and she, too, was unwashed. Her ash-blond hair hung down in long skeins…. But, best of all, she was beautiful, and in her untutored way, she could sing. She smiled as she sang, smiled rather sadly, and sang only a single line of a song.’

The girl, named Annie Morgan, repeated the fragment seven times in exchange for a quarter per performance, and Niles left with “three lines of verse, a garbled fragment of melodic material—and a magnificent idea”. Based on this fragment, Niles composed the version of “I Wonder as I Wander” that is known today, extending the melody to four lines and the lyrics to three stanzas.

The carol is featured in one of my favorite children’s books, Katherine Paterson’s Jacob Have I Loved. One of the scenes that always stuck with me most vividly was when Louise, the older twin, is listening to her favored younger sister – and star soprano – Caroline sing at the school Christmas concert.

Caroline had sung [O Holy Night] last year. Everyone would remember. But this year Mr Rice had chosen a different solo for Caroline, a very simple one…Why had he given the showy song to Betty Jean and a strange thin melody to Caroline?…Mr Rice’s hands went down, and from the centre of the back row Caroline’s voice came suddenly like a single beam of light across the darkness.

I wonder as I wander out under the sky
Why Jesus the Saviour did come for to die
For poor on’ry people like you and like I
I wonder as I wander – out under the sky.

It was a lonely, lonely sound, but so clear, so beautiful that I tightened my arms against my sides to keep from shaking, perhaps shattering. Then we were all singing, better than we had all night, better than we ever had, suddenly judged, damned, and purged in Caroline’s light.

She sang once more by herself, repeating the words of the first verse so quietly that I knew surely I would shatter when she went up effortlessly, sweetly, and oh, so softly, to the high G, holding it just a few seconds longer than humanly possible and then returning to the last few notes and to silence.

When we left the gymnasium, the stars were so bright, they pulled me up into the sky like powerful magnets. I walked, my head back…dizzied by the winking brilliance of the night. ‘I wonder as I wander…’

Ever since I read this scene, on winter nights when I’ve walked beneath a cold starry sky I’ve always thought of this melody. Here’s a beautiful recording by the Cambridge Singers:

December 3: O Come all Ye Faithful December 3, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in About Me, Advent Calendar of Carols, Language, Music, Teaching.
Tags: , , , , , ,
add a comment

…Time for a more “traditional” carol.

This is one of the earliest carols I remember learning – one of the first in my “Wee Sing for Christmas” book. One of my clearest memories of carol-singing is of walking through the grocery store’s parking lot towards our car with my mom, singing “Sing, choirs of angels, sing in exultation” and then asking, “What does ‘exultation‘ mean?”

It’s for this reason that I so regret the near-total decline in Christmas carol singing among kids. All the “traditional” carols – O Come All Ye Faithful, Away in a Manger, Joy to the World – use beautiful, poetic language and an extremely sophisticated vocabulary. No “dumbing down” or attempting to appeal to the “lowest common denominator.” ‘Exultation‘ is not a word your average child will use very often, true, but having this type of word in their vocabulary enriches their literary life immensely. At least, that’s how I always felt when reading books with new words… 😀

I also love the section of the carol that begins “O come let us adore him” – where just one person sings the phrase, then another joins in, and finally the whole choir repeats it together. “O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord.” It’s a beautiful musical moment and one that makes this carol ever-popular…and rightfully so.

Enjoy! This is the King’s College Choir of Cambridge.

– The Contrapuntal Platypus