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Six Impossible Missions Before Breakfast June 21, 2012

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Environment, Philosophy, Saving the World, Truth is Stranger than Fiction.
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Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” – Lewis Carroll, Alice Through the Looking Glass

“Everything has to be possible.” – Johann Sebastian Bach

About a month ago, I was chatting with a friend at church, who I’ll call Ken (not his real name.) We were discussing environmental activism: in particular, the Alberta tar sands and the devastating effect that they would have on our climate if fully developed. Ken has been a long-standing activist working to help provide clean water, medical care and education to children in less affluent countries, so he’s certainly no naysaying cynic. But even he felt that some missions were impossible. “They’re going to be developed,” he flatly stated. “It’s just going to happen.”

My immediate reaction was quite a visceral one; I wanted to shout back, “Whose side are you on anyway?” Instead I talked a bit about how the Keystone XL project had been delayed due to immense public pressure. (In the meantime Enbridge, facing opposition from environmental and Native groups to their planned Northern Gateway pipeline, has launched a massive on- and off-line ad blitz to convince Canadians that this is a Good Idea. If Enbridge is spending vast amounts of money to promote their project, apparently they – at any rate – don’t think it’s inevitable!) But he wasn’t convinced, and reiterated his statement: Alberta’s bitumen deposits were going to be developed.

“I refuse to believe that,” I returned heatedly.

“Why?” he asked.

“I can’t afford to incapacitate myself as an activist. If I think the goal is impossible, then why would I work to try to achieve it? I’d totally lose hope, just give up.”

“Oh, I didn’t mean that the campaigns against them are pointless,” he hastened to explain. “They may accomplish quite a bit – for example, raising public awareness of the larger issues. Even having a small impact can be worthwhile.”

This reminded me of the oft-quoted starfish parable, though the metaphor wasn’t really applicable here. In Ken’s own work, helping even one child get food or education was a worthwhile goal. But what good was simply “raising public awareness” if it didn’t translate into higher-level political action towards saving our climate from a global meltdown?

In the days that followed, I kept thinking about my reaction: “Whose side are you on anyway?” Why had I immediately seen Ken’s statement as dangerous, emotionally toxic – even, on some level, a betrayal?

The answer, I think, has to do with belief and the central role it plays in activism – a role which needs to be more widely recognized and utilized by activists themselves. Susan Griffin tells a compelling story about belief and hope in her article “Can the Imagination Save Us?“:

I am thinking of a story I heard a few years ago from my friend Odette, a writer and a survivor of the holocaust. Along with many others who crowd the bed of a large truck, she tells me, the surrealist poet Robert Desnos is being taken away from the barracks of the concentration camp where he has been held prisoner. Leaving the barracks, the mood is somber; everyone knows the truck is headed for the gas chambers. And when the truck arrives no one can speak at all; even the guards fall silent. But this silence is soon interrupted by an energetic man, who jumps into the line and grabs one of the condemned. Improbable as it is, Odette told me, Desnos reads the man’s palm.
Oh, he says, I see you have a very long lifeline. And you are going to have three children. He is exuberant. And his excitement is contagious. First one man, then another, offers up his hand, and the prediction is for longevity, more children, abundant joy.
As Desnos reads more palms, not only does the mood of the prisoners change but that of the guards too. How can one explain it? Perhaps the element of surprise has planted a shadow of doubt in their minds. If they told themselves these deaths were inevitable, this no longer seems inarguable. They are in any case so disoriented by this sudden change of mood among those they are about to kill that they are unable to go through with the executions. So all the men, along with Desnos, are packed back onto the truck and taken back to the barracks. Desnos has saved his own life and the lives of others by using his imagination…And what a wild leap this was, at the mouth of the gas chambers, to imagine a long life! In his mind he simply stepped outside the world as it was created by the SS.

In our modern, scientific worldview, we tend to think of belief as being flimsy, dispensable, even worthless. The real world is “out there”, after all: objectively observable and utterly independent of our personal beliefs. Right?

Well, that may be the default, “common sense” way we perceive the world. But most evidence indicates, on the contrary, that belief is a powerful force. In medicine, the placebo effect can often have a powerful effect on our body’s internal systems, mimicking the effects of potent drugs. Mysticism and quantum mechanics suggest our beliefs may even affect the “external”, physical world. But it is certainly the case for human systems – governments, corporations, and countries – since it is only we who give them existence. We are not passive observers, helplessly shunted around by vast mechanistic systems over which we have no influence. Rather, we collectively create the systems which drive our daily lives by individually participating in, supporting, or modifying them – ultimately, by our affirmation or denial of their validity.

A good example is money:

Money is nothing more than a piece of paper stamped with a particular number showing the amount it represents – or, today, a few electronic pulses stored in a computer server. Surely neither of these has any intrinsic value. When we say we have strong confidence in a particular currency, we mean not the physical pieces of paper or electronic signals we exchange, but rather in the institutions – the governments and banks – that issue and store it for us.

If I am a money trader, every time I invest in a currency – say, the Canadian dollar – I am implying that I BELIEVE in the value of that currency. In other words, I have faith in the strength of the Canadian economy and in its government. By selling my investment, I am implying I no longer have the same belief that the Canadian dollar is a strong currency. If enough of my fellow investors notice my actions and follow suit, my belief will spread; it may even trigger a mass sell-off of the currency, which will plummet in value and hurt the country’s economy! This is known as a “self-fulfilling prophecy”; the very fact of my belief has helped to make my belief a true one. The same thing happens when the people of a country (as in the revolutions of last year’s Arab Spring) collectively lose belief in the capability or right of a regime to govern. The regime, which seemed so vast and monolithic, fragments and collapses…because the belief which had sustained it is now gone.

The oil-centered system currently threatening our planet, and all its manifestations – including the oil-friendly Harper administration running Canada – are not immutable or invincible, any more than the regimes overthrown by the Arab Spring. Human beings created them, and human beings can change them. If all Canadians believed that the tar sands should not be further developed, and descended en masse upon the oil fields of Alberta to physically block TransCanada and Enbridge from reaching them, then I can guarantee you the tar sands would remain untouched. 😀 On the other hand, if all Canadians agreed that the tar sands should be developed, then the pipelines would probably already have been built. (The actual outcome will probably fall somewhere between those two extremes; but where is entirely up to us.)

“The tar sands will be developed” is an extremely destructive statement. Just by uttering and believing it, one is abdicating one’s own power to actively create our world’s future –  and willingly handing over that power to Enbridge and TransCanada. A corporation is not some all-powerful god; it doesn’t even have a physical form. Like money, it exists as signatures on paper, shareholders in board meetings and bits in computer servers.

And what about our government – the Harper government, so intent on destroying our country’s environment and the world’s climate? It is our government. We elected it, and we can unelect it in three years’ time, and in the meantime we, Canadians, can make it clear to Harper that he needs to represent our views on this issue, not our own. Any government, corporation, or other legal entity exists and continues to function only by the collective will and belief of its people. For this reason it is essential that we do not give the enemy (and by this I don’t mean individuals, but the collective forces trying to destroy our environment) our implicit assent by believing their victory is “inevitable.” Such a self-fulfilling prophecy plays right into their hands; we’ve given away the game before it even began, conceded the war before a single shot was fired.

There was a time, after all, when an end to slavery seemed “impossible.”

Later, there was a time when an end to segregation and apartheid seemed “impossible.”

There was a time when it seemed “impossible” that women would ever get the vote.

Or gay couples get the right to marry.

Or that laws would be passed protecting children from hard labor in factories, or ensuring they could go to school – for free.

And I could go on, and on, and on. None of these gains just fell into the human race’s lap. They were all hard-fought victories – fought, and eventually won, by people who believed the “impossible” was possible. And because they believed it…it became reality.

Please do me a personal favor today…humor me. 😉 Go and believe six impossible things before breakfast. (Or dinner, or whenever you happen to be reading this blog.) Six things you wish were different about your own life, or society, or the world – I don’t care which. Six missions you think are totally, absolutely, fundamentally IMPOSSIBLE.

Then believe them. Consciously and deliberately. And help to make the impossible, possible.

…You’ll be happy you did. 🙂

– The Contrapuntal Platypus


Of Mice and Men: My Conservative Epiphany June 16, 2012

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Christianity, Environment, Philosophy, Saving the World, Serendipity, Truth is Stranger than Fiction.
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My last picture was of a mousetrap…so here’s the mouse to go with it.

It happened on Wednesday night and began, appropriately enough, with a Skype chat with my sister. She had just made a reference to the Tommy Douglas “Mouseland” political fable. “Was it white cats and black mice?” she mused. “Or vice versa?” Just then, I heard a scrabbling noise and saw a small furry shape dart across the room, Rumi barreling after it in hot pursuit.

The Universe, quite evidently, has a sense of humour.

I wish I could say I handled the situation with great presence of mind. That I (a lifelong vegetarian) empathized with this poor, terrified, furry creature running for its life. That I handily devised an on-the-spot plan to catch the mouse, gracefully transporting it downstairs and back outside into its natural environment. But, sadly, that wouldn’t just be stretching the truth; it would be lying through my teeth. The truth is, I stood frozen in near-immobile panic, mute except for the occasional strangled scream (intermingled with a few words that I won’t repeat here).

Now, allow me to point out that I’m not normally a squeamish person. I pick up garter snakes. I’ve played with pet mice before. I trap and release bugs, even spiders and wasps, that get trapped in my apartment. But then, I’ve been rescuing insects for years and know how to do it without getting bitten or stung. This mouse was an unknown quantity. Could it have hantavirus? Could it have rabies? Was it scattering germs over my floor as it ran? Would it bite me if I got too close and it felt cornered? If it got away, would it hunker down somewhere and have babies? All these questions spun through my mind as I stood paralyzed, unsure of how to act.

And in that shocked and frozen moment, my thoughts narrowed down to two words only:


Rumi had caught the mouse, and for a while it seemed that (good kitty!) he was doing his utmost to comply. But when he dropped the limp body, it soon was up and running again. It seemed – and who could blame him? – that Rumi had decided this was a new toy, in fact the best toy ever, and he didn’t want to administer the death blow until he’d gotten a good evening’s entertainment first. Or perhaps, soft, spoiled and sheltered like his city-bred owner, he simply didn’t have the slightest inkling how to kill anything larger than a bug.

My roommate, dragged out of a sound sleep, suggested temporarily trapping the rodent under a bucket. This, weighted down with my largest dictionary, did the trick and I went to go get the superintendent, who wasn’t too keen on the whole thing either. I won’t delve into what happened next. Suffice it to say that there was, to quote my father, much weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. At last the apartment manager heroically caught the mouse by the tail and transported it out of my room to meet, I assume, an untimely demise shortly thereafter. I didn’t ask.

But, you may ask, what does all this about mice have to do with conservatism?

There’ve been several rather fascinating studies released lately, each claiming to pinpoint the differences between liberal and conservative mindsets (or the causes thereof), and two of these have to do with fear. A study released last year found that the amygdala (a section of the brain connected to fear and anxiety) was larger in people who self-identified as conservatives, than liberals. And a second study found that conservatives exhibit a greater reaction to visual stimuli that caused “fear and disgust” (pictures of a spider crawling on a person’s face, maggots in a wound, etc) than to “pleasant” stimuli (a bunny rabbit, a child.) (Liberals exhibited exactly the opposite result.) The researchers concluded – in commentator Chris Mooney’s words – that “conservatism is largely a defensive ideology — and therefore, much more appealing to people who go through life sensitive and highly attuned to aversive or threatening aspects of their environments.”

If you’ve ever read my blog in the past, you probably know that I tend to identify as liberal. In fact I’m about as left-wing as one can get without running off and joining the Marxist-Leninist Party. 😉 I think that it’s a good idea to take care of the weak, poor and elderly. That excessive military spending is generally not a positive thing. That it’s our job to protect our environment rather than pumping it full of toxins and greenhouse gases. My reaction in the past to reading these studies has been something like: “Who could possibly see the world that way?” followed shortly by “How terrifying and depressing it must be, to have that kind of worldview.”

But when I saw that mouse, my worldview suddenly did a U-turn. That mouse was no cute, cuddly pet. That mouse, if it was diseased, was a threat to my life and the life of my cat. Threats have to be eliminated. End of story. To quote Holland, “when your amygdala is activated, it takes over and utterly dominates the brain structures dedicated to reason. Then the “fight-or-flight” response takes precedence over critical thinking.” I was so unable to think objectively that it didn’t even occur to me to trap the mouse under a plastic container, as my roommate proposed, or then slip a sheet of cardboard underneath to transport it outside (which my mom suggested when she heard about the incident later). Somehow it didn’t occur to me that one could use the same procedure to trap and release mice as for insects – and I am not normally an uncreative person. Such is the power of the amygdala.

For those twenty minutes, I understood what it was like to be conservative. To have one’s sheer terror of the Other – not only because it’s objectively threatening, but just because you don’t know what it could do – strip away any ability one has to empathize with it. Of course the consequences are limited, though still unpleasant, when it’s a mouse. When the Other is human (people of a different ethnicity or religion or sexual orientation or political affiliation) to think this way becomes very, very dangerous. “They’ll take all our jobs. They’ll threaten our religion. They’ll lure our children away to a gay lifestyle. Maybe they’ll have babies and then there’ll be even more of them!” It is all too easy for one’s thoughts to move to: “KILL IT!

…And then wars and apartheid and hate crimes begin, and any sort of rational dialogue becomes impossible. Because rationality is swept away like a twig in a flood when the almighty amygdala is activated.

Several weeks ago I was at my local church potluck and a visitor from another church was also there. He and I happened to strike up a conversation and I quickly discovered he was a right-wing conspiracy theorist (he wouldn’t dispute this label; he spent nearly the whole time discussing conspiracies!) of the sort I’d only ever met online before now. In his worldview, climate change was an insidious lie designed to allow a one-world government to enslave us, and the scientific community was involved in a massive cover-up. The UN and most elected officials were tools of Satan. Satan, in fact, was trying to control us and he’d corrupted all human institutions, which he was using to lure us away from God. We argued for a while but rational argument, as one might expect, went nowhere; he trusted his own worldview and distrusted science.

I was listening to him rant and opened my mouth to reply, then something made me close it again and I went on listening. He talked for about five minutes and I just let him talk. And when he finished I opened my mouth and, rather to my surprise, something totally different from all my rational argument drifted out. “You know,” I said, “I understand where you’re coming from. I get it. If I believed all of that…I would be terrified too.”

We went on talking for a while, probably 30 minutes. But our conversation had become less like a debate and more like – well, a calm, reasonable discussion, in which we tried to find points of common ground more than attack one another’s positions. Because in my own way I has been just as dogmatic, and just as motivated by terror (a future Earth destroyed by the forces of greed and overconsumption) as he had been. And he had been the Other, which I viewed with anger and loathing: the crazy, extremist nutcase bent on seeing our Earth destroyed so that Jesus would come back.

I’m not saying both positions are equal. I still believe that my worldview is well supported by empirical, scientific evidence, and his is not (actually even he pretty well admitted this, saying he didn’t put his trust in science). But allowing ourselves to be driven into mindless conflict by anger and fear accomplishes nothing. What is the solution for “winning over” people driven by an extreme right-wing mindset? I’m not sure. But maybe the best way to begin is just to say, “Yes, I get it. I understand where you’re coming from. We both know what it’s like to be motivated by fear, after all.”

“…We’re both human.”

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

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:


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.


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. 😀

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 😀

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.) 😀

** 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.

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.


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

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 😀

Two Theories of Learning: My Thoughts September 30, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Music, Philosophy, Saving the World, Teaching.
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A few days ago I saw this article by Marion Brady on Twitter. Being a teacher (with a strong interest in cognitive/educational psychology) I found the article – entitled “How Ed Reformers Push the Wrong Theory of Learning” – well-written and right in line with my own theories of teaching and learning. (A shame, then, that it probably won’t get the attention it deserves, if what it says about the current educational environment is true.)

Bradley writes:

Theory T [the “conventional wisdom”] says kids come to school with heads mostly empty. As textbooks are read, information transfers from pages to empty heads. As teachers talk, information transfers from teachers’ heads to kids’ heads. When homework and term papers are assigned, kids go to the library or the Internet, find information, and transfer it from reference works or Wikipedia. Bit by bit and byte by byte, the information in their heads piles up…Measuring the success of Theory T learning is easy and precise – just a matter of waiting a few days or weeks after the transfer process has been attempted and asking the kid, “How much do you remember?” No research says how much of what’s recalled at test time remains permanently in memory, nor to what practical use, if any, that information is later put…

…Most of what we know, remember, and use, we didn’t learn by way of Theory T. We learned it on our own as we discovered real-world patterns and relationships – new knowledge that caused us to constantly rethink, reorganize, reconstruct, and replace earlier knowledge. Let’s call this relating process “Theory R.”

Theory R is why little kids learn so much so rapidly, before traditional schooling overwhelms them with Theory T. Theory R is why Socrates was famous, why project learning, internships and apprenticeships work so well, why the Progressives of a hundred years ago were so adamant about “hands on” work and “learning by doing,” why real dialogue in school is essential, why knowledge of a subject doesn’t necessarily make a teacher effective, why asking good questions is far more important than knowing right answers, why tying national standards to a 19th Century curriculum is stupid, why standardized tests are a cruel, anti-learning, Theory T joke.

Anyone who’s read my previous blog post (or for that matter spent any time ON my blog :D) will probably know that my own teaching consists almost totally of Theory R, with Theory T brought in only when absolutely necessary and then with considerable reluctance. I’m fairly sure that, in most lessons I teach, about 50% of the time is spent asking questions (“If that note is 2 beats long, how long is this note?”), about 45% making requests (“Try playing this bit after me”) and only about 5% issuing statements, like “That note is a G”.

It may, perhaps, seem self-evident that the only way to learn piano is “learning by doing”, that children cannot possibly play music they don’t understand, that asking questions in a lesson is the best way to teach children how to figure out new music at home. And yet, I’ve had, occasionally, considerable resistance thrown up to Theory R methods. More often it’s come from parents who want “quick results” – measurable, testable “progress” to, say, a given method book by a given date.

Understanding doesn’t work that way. Particularly not in music, which is partly a physical, partly mental, partly emotional and even (when playing with others) an interpersonal discipline. It’s the norm, rather than the exception, for a student to quickly master one aspect of music – say, notation – and yet struggle with, for example, the physical aspects of piano technique for years As in my own experience.

Yet I’ve encountered resistance from children as well. Most often it’s from children in the late elementary school age range, who have become so accustomed to “Theory T” methods of teaching and learning that they cannot see any alternative, and yet aren’t old enough to analyze what I am actually trying to do. Their reaction is simply bewilderment, and sometimes annoyance:

Why is my new piano teacher asking me all these questions? Is this some kind of test – will I get a mark? How am I supposed to answer to “get it right”? I don’t remember what that note is, this isn’t fair, it’s been all summer…what does she mean “you can figure it out”, sure I know the note two spaces above it, but how does that help…


(One 8-year boy I taught must win the prize, hands down, for an “extreme Theory T” approach. He played a song in his lesson that I’d assigned the week before; the notes were mostly right, but the rhythm was so erratic that it bore no resemblance to the original. I asked him if he’d read the words printed beneath each line of music, since their natural rhythm would have helped him figure it out. He gave me a look of wide-eyed, almost betrayed astonishment. “But you didn’t ASSIGN the words!” he protested.)

…And yet, after the initial shock, there’s this almost ubiquitous sense of relief – that, when they step into the piano studio, they can leave all the arbitrariness and unreasonableness of Theory T learning, and testing, behind them. This is a teacher who asks lots of questions, sure, but who will show them how to get the answers if needed. Better yet, this is a teacher who will answer any question they ask, even if it means leaving the F major scale until next week – and who will give them an answer that really makes sense. This teacher doesn’t expect them to “know” lots of stuff…only be willing to figure it out. Children have a limited vocabulary to analyze or talk about educational methods, but I’m frankly astounded by how many students have told me (in whatever words they can find) that their lessons make sense this year, like they didn’t last year with the old teacher. Something has clicked.

The smallest things can make a difference, too. One student expressed immense relief to me that I “didn’t use red pen to mark his theory questions, like the old teacher.” Of course it had never in a million years occurred to me to do that – every piano teacher keeps a pencil on hand, and when I’d come across an incorrect answer I’d merely circled it with the pencil, handed the book to him and explained why it needed fixing, whereupon he corrected it. But – thinking it over – there is something profoundly disquieting about the urge to mark in red pen (despite its convenience for large group test situations!) The color red suggests stop signs, stoplights, a rigid rule or law that has been broken, with dire consequences. And then pen is indelible. To mark something in red pen (even if you let the student fix it later!) must subconsciously suggest to the child that they got the answer wrong, and it will always be wrong, and even if they fix it a hundred times this wrong score will be forever recorded, set in stone, immutable.

Of course, I have the immense privilege of teaching students in a one-on-one situation, which allows for more flexibility. I cannot imagine how teachers in charge of large classrooms make it through the day, let alone teach (at all!) I can well imagine that it would be hard to, for example, suddenly begin using Socratic methods in a classroom of 30 first-graders. And yet there must be a better method than to furiously cram information into a child’s head, test to ensure that it (or at least a bit of it) “stuck”, and then move on to the next batch. Maybe technology holds a greater potential for interactive, “hands-on” learning? But that’s sheer speculation, and deserves a blog post in and of itself…

In any case, technology has already made certain of one thing. Theory T may never have made all that much sense, but in an time where any fact is a click of the mouse away, it is quite spectacularly pointless. Let’s try something – anything! – else, but surely even a 6-year old child could see that Theory T has become hopelessly redundant in the Internet Era?

…Oh wait. They have. It’s adults who are still catching up.

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

…and Univocalic Sonnets September 22, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Creative Writing, Just for Fun, Philosophy, Poetry, Through the Looking Glass.
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(Part 2…for Part 1 and lipograms click here!)

In his Ton Beau de Marot, Hofstadter also mentions a book of univocalic sonnets by the Italian writer Giuseppe Varaldo. Each sonnet uses only one vowel, while summarizing a famous work of literature (e.g. Dante’s Inferno or The Arabian Nights) in 14 lines. Though Hofstadter considers these poems “untranslatable” (i.e. one can’t retain both their content and the vowel constraint in translation) writing another univocalic sonnet on the same theme, like Dante’s Inferno, might (he can “dimly imagine”) be possible. A few years later I ran across Brian Raiter’s webpage in which he took up Hofstadter’s challenge, and produced an excellent (and very humorous) sonnet on Dante’s Inferno, containing only the vowel “i”. *

Well, as a longtime Dante AND linguistics fanatic, how could I refuse this challenge? I began writing a univocalic sonnet on the Inferno (I won’t tell you which vowel it uses, as I still hope to complete it soon). But in the process, I found myself thinking of ideas for a Purgatorio sonnet as well…and then a Paradiso one. So I worked on all three. The Purgatorio one, containing only “e”, was the first to be completed – probably as this is my favorite book of the three 🙂 Enjoy! **

He left Hell’s nether clefts, emerged – he’s freed!
Then Seeker trembles, heeds the next set test:
Steep steps meet seven levels, then the crest;
He reels, yet Helper sees; enters with speed.

Ledges where kneel men’s essences (sex, greed,
Pelf, spleen, these ever tempted; erred, yet ‘fessed)
“Be better! Perfect!” Keen, relentless zest –
Redeemed yet flesh, hence blessed end decreed.

Steeds, elders, wheels he sees creed’s secrets tell,
Scents Eden’s breeze; bereft, deserted, weeps.
Green eyes’ stern strength he meets; repents deeds, meek;
She – tender, sweet – then cedes; refreshed, he sleeps.
Wet Lethe’s creek he enters, gentle spell;
Then, reverent, ten spheres’ endless depths they seek. ***

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

* Also enjoyable are his “Short Words to Explain Relativity” and “Notes on Writing a Monovocalic Sonnet“, which gave me some ideas and inspiration. I do wish to state, however – though my respect for Brian’s creation is immense – I did not resort to Perl script-generated lists, though I admit to running some rhyming dictionary searches. 🙂

** One of the thorny parts of writing a univocalic sonnet is: does “y” count as a vowel, or a consonant? The rule tends to be to leave it out when it has a distinct vowel sound (e.g. “party”, “gypsy”) but include it when it acts as a consonant (“yes, yellow”). But what about words, such as “eyes” and “they”, when it’s entirely silent? In the end I decided to include those two – mainly because they were an intrinsic part of my two favorite images in the poem and I couldn’t bear to remove them. Take that, purists :D)

*** For the Dante keeners: Yes, I fudged a little re “ten spheres” and counted the Empyrean 😀

Just for Fun: Lipograms… September 22, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Creative Writing, Just for Fun, Philosophy, Poetry, Through the Looking Glass.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

(This is Part 1…don’t miss Part 2 containing a univocalic sonnet! 🙂 )

A few years back I read Hofstadter‘s book Le Ton Beau de Marot where – among various linguistic games – he explores lipograms (a challenge in which you write  without using particular letters – usually “e”). He mentions the 300-page Le Disparation by Georges Perec and Ernest Vincent Wrights Gadsby – two entire novels that do not contain a single letter “e”! (As if to make up for the omission, Perec later wrote Les Revenents, a novel which uses no vowel except “e”.)  Needless to say I thought this was all pretty cool.

Later I joined an online form and, posting in a thread on e-less lipograms, came up with the following reworking from my favorite Shakespeare play 😀


Puck’s final stanzas: “A Vision from Sixth Month’s Night”

Found our acting irritating?
Think but this, and it’s not grating:
All you did was grab a nap,
This vision just a bunch of crap.
And this sadly boring plot –
Nothing but a passing thought –
Lords, now pardon, do not sigh:
I’ll top this play by and by.
And as I am a truthful Puck,
If I had, unjustly, luck,
So to now avoid your hiss,
I’ll outdo it – I vow this,
You must know that I’m not lying.
So, good night – this hour’s flying!
Applaud us now, amigos, do!
And I’ll fulfill my oath to you.

– The Contrapuntal Platypus 😀