Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Sidewalk Chalk: What I learned on strike

Last Tuesday, at 3:50 in the morning, I received the greatest news I'd heard in a very long time.  The BC Teachers' Federation and BC Provincial government had reached a tentative deal to end the 3-month long (which was really 18 months of negotiations) strike.  

It was the worst three months of my life. Full stop.

I have never felt so useless, helpless, and frankly unappreciated.  I am honoured to be a teacher and chose this profession because of its important role in society. While on strike, I felt as if my role did not matter to my employer.  People on the street would make impolite hand gestures (you know the ones) and yell things like "go home! Get a real job!"  I can not count the number of times I came home in tears.

Trust me, I would've gone to work at the snap of a finger.  

Nonetheless, I realized fairly quickly that I would not survive these three months of being on strike (June 13-Sept 18 inclusive) unless I found a way to learn about God's character from the experience and grow in wisdom.

So, here's briefly what I learned. I had a lot of time to think so hopefully these thoughts are somewhat developed:

1) God uses suffering to teach us how to rely on Him. This may sound like a fairly common observation to most people.  Nonetheless, this was made painfully obvious to me when I literally had to rely on the generosity of my church, friends, and family in order to eat and sleep in my home. I relied on the kindness and graciousness of my flatmates in order to make arrangements that would make paying rent easier.  I was forced to rely on God to provide employment when no one would want to hire a striking teacher during the summer months.  Nonetheless, when so much was taken from me, God taught me that He will not be the type of Heavenly Father that hands me a serpent, but instead be the loving Father that knows each hair on my head and provides for each need. (Luke 11:11)

2) Humility.  It's quite difficult to be arrogant when you're standing on a sidewalk, not earning any money, and hoping for a resolution to a labour dispute over which you have very little control.  God showed me that I must be humble enough to accept the generosity of other people. Often, I was too ashamed to accept gifts of money or food.  Halfway through the strike, however, I simply thanked the person as sincerely as I could and promised to return the favour if ever they should need it in the future.

3) Hope. "Do not put your hope in princes or sons of men, in whom there is NO salvation." - Psalm 146.  This lesson was made clear to me each time I would check Twitter, hoping against hope, that the BCTF and the BC government were finally getting along. Each time, I was disappointed. When Sept. 1 hit and we had NO contract, I was crushed.  Nonetheless, God showed me that when I put my hope in Him, I will never be disappointed.  God used this strike to show me what the object of my hope ought to be.  Again and again, it is His Son, the Lord, that proved to be only source of true hope during this time.

4) Generosity.  I was taught generosity by the example of people who showered me with love during this very arduous time.  Between my family and friends, I have never seen people simply just rally together so lovingly to assist me.  This has been an area of my own heart that has needed transformation.  I've always been slightly careful with how much money I give away and have often expected someone to give something back to me in return.  Now that the strike has concluded, I continue to pray that God will remind me of how His saints were generous to me during this time.  May He give me the wisdom and compassion to be the same way to those around me in need.

5) God's goodness.  Throughout the labour dispute, God just kept pouring blessings upon me.  He provided me with some part-time work in the summer which kept me slightly afloat.  At the very end of the strike, I was fortunate to receive extra financial support from my union. Moreover, my bike was stolen during the strike but was found (TODAY!) and I can return the one I had bought to replace it.  "Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights." - James 1:17.

In Eastern Christianity, suffering is viewed as a blessing from God because of what it teaches us.  I can affirm that this is true.  While I do NOT wish this sort of labour dispute upon anyone, I "bless the Lord" (Psalm 103) because this has taught me lessons to which my heart had been previously hardened. Glory to God!

Monday, June 23, 2014

Selling my Violin

Friends,


I am selling my wonderful Italian violin (1953).  The label says Salvatore Sandro Orlando Catania.  It is a full size violin and has had some excellent adjustments on it by the staff of Mr. Tom Wilder's shop of Montréal.

I am also selling my bow which was made by François Malo (early 2000s) which is silver-mounted.  It was made in Montréal, Québec.

Violin, asking $6000 or best offer.
Bow, asking $3800 or best offer.














Wednesday, June 11, 2014

An open letter to my students.

To my dear beloved Grade 4 students,

Representation of Danse Infernale from Stravinsky's Firebird

I am grateful for your hearts that forgive, reconcile, and continue to love.  You are an example to me of how this world should really operate.





I am grateful for your minds that are curious, open, and desire to learn. You inspire me to engage with the world around me and learn new things each day.





I am grateful for your smiles and laughter.  They are the purest form of joy and warm my heart each day.



I am grateful for your voices.  They sing beautifully, they speak truth, and they comfort others when they are in need of encouragement.  Thank you for showing me how to use one's voice to help others.


I never imagined that the year would end this way, our time together cut short.  Never forget that you each have inside of you, the power to call upon a Firebird.  You have shown me grace, compassion, and kindness that I can never repay.  You will never be forgotten.  Please believe that, as in the Firebird, good defeats evil.  Light outshines darkness.  You are precious.

Sincerely,

Mme. West

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

How to "Handel" Piano Problems

One of my final Royal Conservatory of Music piano technique exams is in 23 hours. I have been preparing for this exam since I was 9 years old - essentially. My serious preparation began in May 2013.  Here we are, the night before exam time and all through my mind anxious thoughts are running - not a shred of confidence to be found.

This is not uncommon for musicians to experience nerves or anxiety before an audition, performance, or jury.  Earlier this week, I had emailed my phenomenal piano teacher and asked her for tips on how to best spend my preparation time in the last 48 hours before the exam. Her response was brilliant.  I want to share it because it offers a great formula for dealing with high pressure performance situations.  It may serve as a warm reminder to seasoned musicians or as welcome brand new information for musicians just beginning to have these more intense performance experiences.

I will not paraphrase what she wrote or make any corrections. Here it is:

"Make sure you have some energy for exam. It is better not to overplay and completely wear yourself out. The night before you better not play much but rather concentrate in your mind and remember everything what supposed to be at exam.  Should be equal time to practise slowly and fast on scales and studies."
 
Please, dear reader, permit me to expand on some of her points and how they have helped me manage the pre-exam meltdown that I was facing.  

1) Energy - That means SLEEP.  Did you hear me? SLEEP.  I don't think you heard me...SLEEP.  Staying up to late to practise will not serve your memory or emotional state well at this point.  With only 48 hours left, the music is either in your fingers, muscles, memory, and heart or it isn't.  No turning back.  Nearly as important as sleep is the type of food you are eating.  Make wise choices before the performance.   We all know that post-performance dinners are a deluxe treat anyway!

2) To Practise or NOT to practise: Over-practising before a performance can lead to fatigue, muscle strain, and frustration.   My teacher was clear in her warning that overdoing it could wear me out mentally, emotionally, and physically.  That being said, I have always told my piano students that their performance, exam, or audition should NOT be the first time that they are touching their instrument that day.  Tomorrow, for my exam, I intend to play through some scales at lunch - that's it.

3) Score study: Mental preparation the night before is equally as valuable as physically playing your instrument.  Considering that my technique exam has a huge number of distinct elements, it is a worthwhile use of my time to look over the requirements and be totally familiar with the tempi required.  Moreover, the concert études that I will be playing do not require memorization.  Therefore, I should be doing some score study tonight.



4) Change up the tempo: My piano teacher's final tip is very important.  Slow practice until the bitter end is ALWAYS valuable.  It always has been and always will be.  Practising at your performance tempo can reveal where you might still have small struggles and will perhaps give you the confidence that you are indeed ready to perform at that higher speed.

The four most important words in my piano teacher's email were: "concentrate in your mind."  What does this mean practically? Well, to put it bluntly - it means attempting to put all emotional and mental distractions aside for the time being.   This is why musicians are often required to become detached on or near concert day.  The amount of mental focus that is required to get through an exam or recital is staggering.  My teacher's advice is basically to keep life simple for the time leading up to the performance.  Keeping external distractions to a minimum is difficult but at some point becomes necessary for completing a successful performance.

So, what will I do with 23 hours remaining until exam time?  I will play piano for about an hour, ensure that all of the food I eat is healthy, go for an easy run to clear my mind, and sleep.  Tomorrow, I will keep a low profile in terms of socializing and surround myself with calming influences.  Finally, I will trust the preparation that I have done.  I will know that I have worked hard and will represent myself and my teacher well tomorrow.



Wednesday, February 5, 2014

To build up or the break apart

I have the unique position of being both a piano student and a piano teacher.  This gives me an opportunity to view music lessons from two different perspectives.  Each of these roles informs the other.  My experiences as a student inform how I treat my students.  Also, my experiences as a piano teacher mean that I understand what teachers expect from their students.

Within the last two months, I've started taking additional piano lessons with a wonderful woman who teaches from her home.  At my first lesson, before we began, she gave me fresh soup, bread, and cheese so that I could warm up before the lesson.  I was overwhelmed by this kindness.  She always gives extra time and never raises her voice.  Yesterday, however, I did not receive a lot of positive feedback at my lesson and I felt deflated.  I have truly been practising more than I ever have in my life.  I know my musical and technical weaknesses and face them alone in the practice room every day.  When I arrived at home, the last thing I wanted to do was go back downtown to the conservatory and practise.  I felt as if no amount of practising could save me.

Let me be fair to my teacher. She is an incredibly caring woman who truly is concerned about my personal and musical life.  She is generous with her time and knowledge.  Nonetheless, yesterday's lesson raised some questions in my head:

  • Are we too "soft" on students in order to keep them interested in music? If so, is that such a bad thing?
  • While we should never lie to students about their quality of their playing, should we always have something positive to say about how they performed?
  • How do we build a relationship with the student to the point at which they know that we treasure them and they can trust that we still care about them as a human being when we give them difficult feedback musically or technically?
  • How do we not destroy the student's motivation but at the same time remain completely honest about their progress?
Admittedly, I'm a sensitive individual.  And really, who wants to hear that they are not playing their best after hours of practice?  However, I see the value in my teacher's approach.  She does not want me to be under any illusions about my playing and maybe when I'm less sensitive, I will appreciate her honesty.  Maybe more North American teachers should be like this. I really don't know the answer.

I do know one thing. Music is about sharing the deepest, most hidden parts of one heart.   We are absolutely required to be vulnerable when we play - even in lessons.  That is what all music teachers must keep in mind.  We must be grateful when our students share their hearts with us.  

Speaking of sharing your heart, here's some Tchaikovsky - in recital.



Monday, January 20, 2014

In Memorium: Claudio Abbado (1933-2014)

My phone buzzed in the middle of the night and I was awoken.  Unwisely, I checked my phone.  I noticed that social media had been flooded with deeply saddening news:
Maestro Claudio Abbado (1933-2014)


Maestro Claudio Abbado was no more. He had succumb to his long battle with cancer.  

I am so grateful to have his unsurpassed recordings as a testament to his musicality.  His interpretations have always been so authentic and filled with love and joy.

It is with sadness but gratitude that I share some of my favourites with you today:

You will not find a Brandeburg set which contains such a fresh and honest approach to these great works. The playing is superb and Abbado's direction is gentle and intelligent.  These have become a staple in my listening: (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WCBwbQTDLKQ)



From Mozart's transcendent Requiem Mass in d minor, Abbado's surreal conducting a few years ago at the Lucerne Festival still touches the core of the soul.  One is left breathless by the gentleness of Abbado's direction: (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=33JT0YsBSRI&list=PLEVfEItA1-VbgnW--DmfNn5TtMT_R9DrM&index=7)



Here is another moment in which Abbado's heart, spirit, and intelligence came together to preserve a moment of beauty and silence at the end of Mozart's Requiem in the same performance in Lucerne. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WLP6kqcmPRI)



Finally, one can not help but be crushed by his legendary performance of Brahms Second Piano Concert with fellow Italian Maurizio Pollini at the keyboard.  These forty minutes of music have changed my life and the humanity of this performance has left a deep impact on me.  Dear reader and listener, I invite you to appreciate these recordings: (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n94vcKmDJwo)



Rest in peace Maestro Abbado.  Your approach to music and your humility to present what the composer left in the score are an inspiration to us all.

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Magic of the Firebird.

Stravinsky's Firebird: Child-Approved!
 
 
 
I am beyond fortunate  to teach a class of students who are so open-minded and willing to journey with me on various learning activities.  When I proposed to them that we would be studying Stravinsky's The Firebird (or Oiseau de Feu en français) they were not initially sure what to think.  I gave them a bit of background to the story.   As we started to study this story both in English and French, I could see the students' imaginations ignite.  Although a few of the boys were not keen on the romance between Prince Ivan and Princess Tsarevna, they were soon enthralled by the antics of the evil Kotchei and his monsters!  







At the end of the story, all of the children applauded.  After all, who doesn't love a story in which light overcomes darkness.  It was truly magical to study this colourful Russian folktale with my class and to introduce them to the brilliant music that Stravinsky wrote to accompany it.
 
It was risky to choose this story for North American students who would prefer to talk about hockey and video games.  At points, there was some resistance, but their art, in reaction to the story, illustrates that when given the chance - children's imaginations DO respond to beautiful music and beautiful stories that are outside of their cultural paradigm.  Take a risk in your teaching!