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Beethoven’s Phone Number November 5, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Flights of Fancy, Just for Fun, Music, Teaching, Through the Looking Glass.
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Another teaching anecdote…this one’s not deep or profound, but it IS hilarious. 😀

Today one of my younger students began working on “Shepherds’ Song” from Piano Adventures Book 1. It’s an arrangement of the theme from the last movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony (which is one of my favorite pieces. If you haven’t ever heard it…please do take a moment and remedy this omission before going on :D)

I played the piece for him and explained it was taken from one of the symphonies of Beethoven, a very famous composer. He nodded sagely as he pointed to the words “Ludwig van Beethoven” written on the right-hand side of the page above the music.

Then he indicated Beethoven’s birth and death dates (1770-1827), printed below the name. “And here’s Beethoven’s phone number,” he proudly announced.

Okay, admit it…could you have stopped yourself from nearly falling over laughing? Didn’t think so. Me neither.

When I got a handle on myself again I explained to him that, regretfully, Beethoven had been dead for quite some time and, that even when he was alive, he was almost entirely deaf…so if telephones had been around in his time he wouldn’t have been able to use them at all.

Still, I had to admit I liked the idea – a telephone directory of Famous Composers of Western Music. Now the question is who would you call first? I’m torn between Bach (my all-time favorite) and some of the Renaissance/Baroque composers, like Josquin du Pres, whose lives we know so little about. If only…

– The Contrapuntal Platypus 😀

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Never Be Afraid To Improvise (Teaching Lesson of the Day) November 4, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Flights of Fancy, Music, Serendipity, Teaching.
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Today was one of those days that make any piano teacher rejoice…a day when things “click” for students, not just once but in almost every lesson. One student who, week after week, had done essentially zero work on her pieces (I’d begun to dread her lessons) came in having prepared them so well that I had to stare in amazement. :O Another who announced she’d “forgotten” (??) to work on a song nonetheless sat down and played it perfectly. We went on to try some theory and ear training – new concepts for her, but she caught on quickly and enjoyed them.

But the best sort of lessons are the ones where I learn something too…and one of those happened today as well.

I hate to admit it, but I’ve always been terrified of teaching young beginners. It’s a horrifying sense of responsibility: I’m providing the foundation for the rest of their musical lives. I continually worry that I’m not getting new concepts across in a way they understand, as they’re often only five or six years old. It’s also difficult to hold a really young child’s attention for half an hour – especially because pieces for beginners use just a few notes and are often not that “interesting.” I often have this nagging feeling that if I were a TV program, they would have pressed the “change channel” button on the remote long ago. 😉

My beginner student today – let’s call her Jasmine – had just started learning how to read music a week or two ago. Today we were tackling a new piece from the Primer level of Piano Adventures. Now, this is by far the best series of “beginner” books out there on the market: the pieces are fun, unique, and impressive at an early stage. They don’t contain huge distracting or “babyish” illustrations like so many primer-level books. The upper-level pieces (books 2b and on) are, really, masterpieces of “miniature” composition; I’m continually in awe at how the writers (Nancy and Randall Faber) managed to create so much from a few five-finger patterns or chords.

However, even the Fabers had, apparently, some trouble making the first 5 notes of C major interesting. And as I played today’s piece (“Fourteen Little Frogs”) for Jasmine, she appeared distinctly underwhelmed.

“Fourteen little frogs…sat upon a log…”

No, this wasn’t going anywhere. And honestly, what self-respecting five-year old would want to learn a song about Fourteen Little Frogs when all the amazing diversity of rock and pop and jazz and country and, yes, classical music was an iPod button push or a YouTube click away? In fact, I had to respect her simply for coming and sitting in front of a piano for half an hour when the rest of her friends were all too audibly laughing and talking in the next room.

As my mind was busy grappling with this sad truth, my fingers were approaching the end of the song:

“One by one they jumped into the little waterfall…”

Jasmine’s eyes were glazing over, and at that moment I knew I had to do…well, SOMETHING quick. Something like:

“SPLOOSH!”

…I suddenly heard myself shout, while my hands hit a big loud “tone cluster” – also known as “random group of black and white piano keys all next to one another”. 😉

Jasmine jumped, startled. (Believe me, I was as surprised as she was.) Then her face lit up. Her eyes brightened. “SPLOOSH!” she echoed, banging a similar handful of random notes.

All of a sudden she wanted to learn Fourteen Little Frogs. I told her, of course, that she had to play all the notes in the song before she could do the surprise ending. That was fine by her, as long as she was allowed to do the “sploosh” at the end. I’ve never seen someone so eager to learn a beginner song.

It’s amazing what a simple tone cluster can do, correctly placed. 🙂

The moral of the story: never be afraid to improvise. Your students will thank you for it…and they’ll pay a lot more attention if you have some surprises up your sleeve. Who doesn’t like pounding out a sudden tone cluster or sweeping a glissando down the piano? And they make a much better reward for diligent practicing than chocolates or even stickers… 😉

Even more importantly, though, it keeps the lessons fun for the teacher as well.

– 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 😀

Is God a Taoist? July 13, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Christianity, Flights of Fancy, Saving the World.
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…And therefore, O God, I pray thee, if thou hast one ounce of mercy for this thy suffering creature, absolve me of having to have free will!

*******

A couple of days ago I was debating with a friend online (one from a contrasting religious background to my own) about free will and whether the existence of evil serves any constructive purpose in our world. Much of what we said reminded me of a delightfully quirky dialogue by one of my favorite philosophy writers, Raymond Smullyan (available online and highly recommended.) Entitled “Is God a Taoist”?, it takes place between just two characters: God and a Mortal demanding an explanation for free will.

Mortal: And therefore, O God, I pray thee, if thou hast one ounce of mercy for this thy suffering creature, absolve me of having to have free will!

God:You reject the greatest gift I have given thee?

Mortal: How can you call that which was forced on me a gift? I have free will, but not of my own choice. I have never freely chosen to have free will. I have to have free will, whether I like it or not!

This is one of my favorite pieces of religious philosophical writing and I find its playful and (at times) tongue-in-cheek approach quite refreshing. (It reminds me of the various times in the Old Testament when Abraham or Moses would argue with God and God would very obligingly argue back, just like another person and not at all like the Creator of the Universe…)

*******

I love the conclusion that Smullyan draws about two-thirds of the way through the dialogue:

God: The only difference between the so-called saint and the so-called sinner is that the former is vastly older than the latter. Unfortunately it takes countless life cycles to learn what is perhaps the most important fact of the universe — evil is simply painful. All the arguments of the moralists — all the alleged reasons why people shouldn’t commit evil acts — simply pale into insignificance in light of the one basic truth that evil is suffering. No, my dear friend, I am not a moralist. I am wholly a utilitarian….My role in the scheme of things…is neither to punish nor reward, but to aid the process by which all sentient beings achieve ultimate perfection.

To me this is one of the best explanations for “Why does evil exist?” and echoes Julian of Norwich’s approach as well: “Sin was necessary, but all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.” It may be simply an unfortunate truth that, in order to beings to become capable of freely choosing good, they have to make a large number of bad choices first and experience the unpleasant consequences. (This is, after all, the way in which children learn math or writing or music or a sport: by making mistakes until they learn what “works” and what doesn’t.) Yes, this may result – for a while – in a vastly imperfect world like our own, but would a universe full of mindless automata without will or freedom be any better?

*******

Towards the end, Smullyan makes an interesting assertion:

Mortal: You said a short while ago that our whole discussion was based on a monstrous fallacy. You still have not told me what this fallacy is.

God: Why, the idea that I could possibly have created you without free will! You acted as if this were a genuine possibility, and wondered why I did not choose it!…Can you honestly even imagine a conscious being without free will? What on earth could it be like? I think that one thing in your life that has so misled you is your having been told that I gave man the gift of free will. As if I first created man, and then as an afterthought endowed him with the extra property of free will. Maybe you think I have some sort of “paint brush” with which I daub some creatures with free will and not others. No, free will is not an “extra”; it is part and parcel of the very essence of consciousness. A conscious being without free will is simply a metaphysical absurdity.

This sounds compelling, but when I think about it I begin to wonder. I am quite sure my tabby cat Rumi is conscious – I think any pet-owner will agree with me on this one – but would stop short of stating categorically (pun not intended!) that he has “free will”. Might consciousness be a prerequisite for (rather than consequence of) free will? Or perhaps neither is binary but rather lies somewhere on a continuum. Rocks presumably have no consciousness or free will, fish and birds and reptiles may have some vague traces of both, certain mammals such as dogs or dolphins or chimpanzees may have significantly more, and humans most of all…Which leads to a very interesting question: perhaps there is an even higher level yet to reach above the human level?

…But that’s a topic for another essay. 😉

The Contrapuntal Platypus

Two Odd Reversals June 27, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Creative Writing, Flights of Fancy, Nature, Poetry, Through the Looking Glass.
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From time to time I will write fantasy or sci-fi novels in my dreams (or to be more specific actually live the plots, usually as a participant in the story but simultaneously an outside observer) and occasionally even remember them when I wake up. Usually they contain some odd perspective or twist I would almost never think of in my waking hours…

I had one such dream a few nights ago. The story opened in what appeared to be a fantasy world inhabited by my people, a winged humanoid race rather like elves or fairies with some magical abilities. Halfway through the novel our pristine homeland was invaded by a strange new race of magicless but enormous and powerful giants that appeared to be intent on taking over the world and imposing their civilization. The two races began a inter-species war for control of the land which lasted most of the novel.

So far a fairly typical fantasy novel, perhaps…but a few chapters before the end of the book an extraordinary realization dawned on me (the “author” observing the plot and writing the novel…)

The “fantasy world” was our world set in a long-ago, prehistoric past. The “giants” taking over the world were the newly-arrived Homo sapiens and “my” people were an ancient fairy or elven race which had inhabited the world before human civilization appeared. When both races realized this in my dream and finally understood one another’s motives, they ended the war and negotiated a settlement to coexist in peace. They would divide the day between them: the humans would control the world while the sun was in the sky, but the night would belong to the elves alone.

I don’t think I’ll ever write that novel, but it’s fun to think about…

*******

In any case, this reminded me of a sonnet I wrote a few years back with a different, but similar (and equally “eerie”) “perspective reversal”.)

A race of conquerors with iron hands,
They came with fire, greed, and hungry knives,
And drove the native dwellers from their lands,
Slew most they found; as chattel kept some wives,
Leveled all homes, of fertile fields made sands,
And on the edges of their teeming hives
In shadowed night let lurk some furtive bands
To eat the refuse of their glutted lives.

Yet trembled at the fateful prophecy;
No Empire lasts forever, nor no might.
Rain will ruin road, wind wither wall to tree,
And city slide from fading human sight –
Then rat, hen, spider, bat, fearless and free,
Shall roam at ease through regained Eden’s light.

Whimsical Poetry for a Midsummer Afternoon June 25, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Creative Writing, Flights of Fancy, Nature, Poetry.
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I started this poem a few years ago on one of those late, rich summer afternoons soaked with radiant sunlight so thick you can almost touch it. Then I left it for a few years and didn’t take it out again…until now.

*******

The sunshine burned so gold tonight
I stood and stared amazed;
It soaked the air with lustrous light
And pooled in streams that blazed.
I thought I’d set a bit aside
Just for a rainy day –
Alas, no matter what I tried,
It simply wouldn’t stay!

I thought to bottle it like honey,
Sweet and rich and thick –
Some winter night I’d open it,
Reach in and take a lick.
I grabbed my crystal honeypot
And scooped the liquid beams;
Clapped on the lid and cried, “You’re caught!” –
It trickled out in streams!

I thought to weave it at my loom
Into a tapestry,
And hang it in the shadowed gloom
To sparkle brilliantly.
I sat down at my spinning wheel,
I grasped one golden ray;
And spun like mad, then at my reel –
Still bare – gazed in dismay!

I thought to hammer it like gold
And mint some coins that shone,
To keep and in my hand to hold
When summertime was gone.
With skillful blows I shaped and beat
A bar of molten glow;
In water stooped to quench its heat –
They blurred in rippling flow!

I thought in it to dip my brush
And paint a dazzling scene:
Gold trees, streams, blooms, a gleaming thrush,
The garden of a queen.
I brought a canvas, white and pure,
Dabbed my palette with light;
Drew one smooth stroke, so true and sure –
It vanished from my sight!

At last I, helpless, watched the dark
Drift in, as from the sky
The sun slipped slowly down its arc
And its last light did die.
Another summer sun, to burn
So warm and rich and bright
I fear may nevermore return…
But then again, it might.