Why do we do this?


The Seven Teen Quartet at Goshen Middle School

This article, Art Makes You Smarter, reminds me of the questions being asked of various disciplines in schools and colleges these days: Why do you think your subject is worth studying?  If it doesn’t directly lead to desired academic and vocational outcomes, how does it indirectly support those aims?  In public school settings the “specials” such as music, art and physical education increasingly need to justify their existence, and are the first cut when budgets are tight.

It is therefore good to see the mounting evidence that art makes you smarter, though too often we forget its other value. I readily fall into this myself, telling the prospective music college student who wants to be a doctor that med schools love undergraduate music majors, or preaching to my daughter that piano is a part of her education because of what it does her for mental acuity, and for how it develops good discipline and fine motor skills.  I believe in these rationales, but I wish it was enough to say, or that at least I would remember to also say, “Because it will bring you great joy and because the world needs art.”

Two recent conversations reinforced this wish.  A few weeks ago my daughter Greta was describing the experience of sight-reading through a new piece with her 60-member 8th grade orchestra.  It was an exciting work with a rich sound and perpetually moving parts, and the reading of it for the first time felt both dangerous and thrilling as they rallied on, determined not to fall apart. When they made it to the end, the silence of the room felt amplified. “It was so satisfying.  It was like we all took a big sigh together when we were done and just wanted to stay in that moment.”

My other daughter, Naomi, is in 5th grade and part of a traveling soccer team. The spring season recently started and I wondered how she would handle the additional demands on her time. One evening practice fell during a cold and damp day and I assumed it would be drudgery. But on our way home from the field, she said with a sweaty glow, “Mom, I am exhilarated right now. It feels so good to move.”

This is why we do this.  Yes, kids should have more recess and physical education at school because it will help them learn better. Yes, there should be more arts exposure and experience because of the great academic outcomes. Yes, in today’s world it’s naive to think we won’t need to defend our place in the educational system with proven outcomes.  But more than this and beyond this, we need movement and we need the arts because they uniquely satisfy and exhilarate something within us. This is enough.

A Boston detour on the way home from D.C.

Last night I returned home from the AAC&U (American Academy of Colleges and Universities) annual meeting in Washington, D.C.. I was on a professional high after four intensive days of sessions on general education, learning communities, assessment, and some favorite buzz acronyms:  SLOs (student learning outcomes) and HIPs (high impact practices). The conference was humming with a recent report about how, in the long term, liberal arts graduates do better on the career path. The seminars and workshops allowed me to network with people from a diverse range of higher ed institutions and I learned about struggles both university-particular and higher ed-universal. I was fed and inspired, ready to return to meaningful work at my college.

As I settled on my second flight from Detroit to South Bend, I decided to pull out one of the books I had taken along on this trip, one we are having all of the Goshen first year students read in their Learning Community: Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads by Greenwald and Curran. I was in the mood for this book of stories about the career paths of liberal arts grads.

But then Boston appeared at my side. A gregarious young man, he began asking me about my trip the minute he sat next to me. I said I was returning to Goshen following a work conference and returned the question. He had been visiting his father in Raleigh, North Carolina, but was heading home to St. Joseph, Michigan. I asked him if he was in high school or college and he said, “No I graduated high school a couple years ago. I’m designing my own education. I don’t want to build up debt by getting a college degree. I’m studying only what I’m interested in.” As he began to tell me about attending trade school for audio engineering, I quietly slid the book back in my bag. We talked about his current efforts to make contacts and find opportunities in audio production while he works in food services. He also hopes to expand on his own musicianship and plays electric guitar in a couple bands.  His next educational goal is to study with a luthier he has heard about in Savannah, Georgia.  We talked for a while about his interest in understanding how instruments are crafted and how too many musicians, including me, are disconnected from the inner workings of their instrument.

I gently nudged at the possibility of a college degree, even stepping outside my Goshen-centric role and telling him about the music technology program at Ball State, but he was firm — no way is he taking on that debt and taking classes that don’t directly teach him what he needs to know for his goals in audio engineering and guitar-making.  I let it go and affirmed his seeking out of experiences, telling him that career experts talk about how important it is to “stay in motion” with your goals even if it takes a while to get there.

I wonder how it will work out for him.  Probably just fine, if he can keep getting the training he needs and find plenty of opportunities to put what he learns into practice.   College isn’t for everyone, and sometimes college lacks the best of Boston’s apprenticeship-oriented approach to being educated.  But I’m also thinking about all those learning outcomes of a liberal arts education the conference affirmed for me — inquiry/analysis, critical and creative thinking, communication skills, information literacy, civic engagement, ethical reasoning, global awareness and more.  Will his self-design of education give him these skills?  I wish Boston’s inquisitive mind and outgoing spirit could find a home for a while in a college setting.  That he doesn’t think it makes sense for him is something I respect, but it leaves me pondering how many young people don’t even consider college because of the cost and debt crisis in higher education.  This was a topic at the AAC&U conference, but not one that seemed to be receiving as much energy on the research and policy front as other concerns.

I’m glad this detour stopped me in my lofty tracks for a while. Thanks, Boston.

From half to full knowing

There is a story I heard about Vladimir Horowitz that may or may not be true — I cannot recall who told me, or find verification. Horowitz, one of the most famous concert pianists of the 20th century, was practicing in his Manhattan apartment in a relaxed state, free from the stress of a critical audience, when he heard shuffling feet in the next room. The sound of his cleaning woman was enough to bring on the nerves and an awakened awareness of passages where his fingers were not as comfortable as he thought they were.  He shifted into high gear and practiced with more care than when he thought he was entirely alone.

The idea of this acclaimed artist feeling nervous when his cleaning woman was close enough to listen is both comforting and revealing to me. It suggests how universal this being human business is and how important it is to practice the heightened consciousness that comes with the pressure of an audience. When practicing in my childhood home I experienced this state of consciousness when my Dad would briefly stand by the piano watching me me practice. My Dad is not a pianist nor someone I felt undue pressure from to impress at the piano, but his attentive listening and watching was enough to make me focus differently and help me recognize where my fingers lacked confidence.

My students feel the same way when they play in my studio and experience the frustration of the performance not going as well as it did in the practice room. I used to respond by focusing almost entirely on strategies to address performance anxiety until I observed a masterclass at the Goshen College Piano Workshop a few years ago. The performer, a wonderful pianist, had several memory slips that she struggled to recover from. Her stress and exhaustion when finished was evident as she said, “I KNOW this. Why can’t I play it better under pressure?” The masterclass teacher kindly observed that when this happens we need to acknowledge that the main issue at hand is that we may not actually know the music as well as we think we do. Nervousness, a real issue for all who perform, is much tougher to overcome if we have any doubt about our preparation. He then shared various techniques for ensuring and testing our knowing to such an extent that we are able to stare performance anxiety in the face and say with true honesty, “I see you and feel you, but I conquer you because I KNOW this material.” Supplemental practices such as breathing and meditation exercises also help, but perhaps the ultimate way to overcome nerves is to be supremely confident with what we have prepared.

Even though I was taught this same message by my own teachers and experiences (see this earlier post), the masterclass mentioned above was an important turning point for me as a teacher and musician. For many years I explained away any trouble in performance as all about nerves, not recognizing my own lack of knowing. This is easy to do when skill level sometimes camouflages reality.  In my piano practice there is an exciting breakthrough point with difficult material when the music is finally “in the fingers” after lots of hard work — I’ll call this half knowing.  This stage is where I have problems recognizing the limits of what I know. In moving from half knowing to full knowing, I now try to engage in lots of testing by trying to capture a good unedited recording the piece.  For less unforgiving testing than a recording device I’ll ask someone nearby to sit by me and watch my hands closely while I play. In practice I make sure I can start at any measure of the piece and that my hands are as comfortable playing alone as they are together.  I practice the piece and listen for evenness at different speeds: very slow, very fast, and at its ideal tempo. If I am working on memorizing, I depart from the piano and close my eyes and imagine my hands playing every single note of the work.  Finding out where I lose it as I think my way through the piece sends me back to practice until I feel ready to test again for fully confident knowing.

There are times when an ideal level of knowing is not possible — if I’m asked to accompany a student in performance at the last minute, I have to rely on my sight reading skills and take a different kind of musical journey, one with high adrenaline at the somewhat terrifying thrill of playing something I haven’t fully prepared. Expertise allows the privilege of winging it from time to time. But too much of this puts me at risk of a lazy arrogance that usually comes before an unfortunate fall.

I don’t want to diminish the reality of debilitating performance anxiety. Indeed, Horowitz himself struggled with this to a great extent, with various extenuating circumstances.  There are times when we do the work, only to find the fear cannot be conquered. Other responses and strategies are necessary in these situations. However, without an honest accounting of what we do and do not know, we may too easily explain away what happened and lose the opportunity to achieve fully confident knowing the next time.  While I cannot confirm the veracity of the Horowitz story above, I love the concept behind it because it reminds me that any listening ear can help us know what we really know.


hyggeI was intrigued this past week by this article about the Dutch concept of hygge.  The happiness of the Dutch during their long winter months is attributed to hygge, a type of cozy and focused intimacy one can experience alone or with others.  The idea of hygge seems distant from what I experience as the incongruity of the longest nights of the year merging with the pressures of Christmas.  Last night I said out loud what I often feel, especially on weekends: “I am scattered!  All day I rotate between cleaning up the kitchen, working on laundry, wrapping presents, checking email and facebook, and running around town.  I want to focus on something and forget everything else but until the house is in order I can’t seem to do that.”

After my mini-tantrum, I drifted to the piano. As I practiced I experienced some precious moments of focus and bliss, even with the messes and unfinished work in the background.  It was possibly a taste of hygge, as was the moment my husband and child cuddled and giggled on the couch while reading “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Ugly Truth” together, and the late afternoon visit we had today with friends from Pennsylvania over spiced cider and Christmas cookies.

Tomorrow we leave for a trip to south central PA to a cottage we’re renting with my parents, siblings and their families.  Being away from the responsibilities of our own homes may help bring on the hygge.  One of my goals for the New Year will be to find the peace of mind that comes from hygge, this concept I do not fully understand but want to learn to know better through experience.

The Power of Hands

Reprinted from Timbrel Magazine, Summer 2013

After more than 35 years of playing the piano I still experience moments of amazement at what my hands can do.  I feel the same sense of wonder watching my friend weave an intricate pattern on cloth, my spouse maneuver small parts inside the engine of a classic automobile, or my colleague take the computer mouse and keyboard on an elegant dance to design a gorgeous website.  Our hands, informed by our intellect and trained by experience, can do remarkable things.

My own story with my hands began with piano lessons at the age of seven in southeastern Pennsylvania.  When I was nine, my family moved to Kingston, Jamaica for a two-year term of service with Mennonite Central Committee.  I was ambivalent about my piano studies when we arrived in Jamaica but I soon landed in the studio of the highly regarded and nearly blind Mrs. Foster-Davis.  Once I was past her foreboding gated entrance and two large guard dogs, I settled at one of her two grand pianos and she pulled out a magnifying glass to inspect my hands.  I was assigned new music that seemed far too difficult for me, but also had more time to practice in the slower culture we found in Kingston.  School ended before lunch at home and the afternoons loomed large, pulling me towards the piano to play.  The convergence of time, strong teaching, and parental support took me to a very different level of facility and sight reading ability by the time we returned to Pennsylvania.   I was no longer ambivalent; my hands were good at playing the piano.

During a teenage period in which I questioned my future direction in life there was a critical moment of recognizing piano in my identity.  A community group was preparing a production of the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.  A piano accompanist was unavailable at an early rehearsal and I received a desperate call to fill in at the last minute.  The sight-reading and technical tasks of the evening’s rehearsal were daunting for a sixteen-year old, but to my surprise I was able to meet the demands.  I felt alive with awareness as my hands followed the music and during a break the director approached me with enthusiastic affirmation.  Her kind words led me to a quiet corner in the church building where I could succumb to tears of gratitude.  I thanked God for a gift to call my own and more fully embraced the possibility that the movement of my hands at the keyboard would in some way shape my future.

Over time my naïve ideas of a gift bestowed upon my hands evolved into a mature understanding of what the gift actually was.  In college I learned how to practice more strategically and as I was educated to be a piano teacher my appreciation for the concept of training took hold.  It was tempting to fall into habits of envy and comparison when observing what seemed to be superior hands in a classmate or colleague.  But every practice session brought me back to the role of training in talent development.  It was those hours invested at the piano, all the better if my mind was focused and engaged, that empowered my hands.  God’s gift to me was time and opportunity.  Every child and adult deserves this same gift of time and opportunity for talent to emerge in his or her hands, whatever the craft may be.

My hands have been through dormant stages in recent years and I worry they will lose their abilities at the keyboard.  I am reassured as a slow and steady return to the instrument wakes up my hands to find the sublime in a simple melody and the playfulness of a sprinting scale passage.  Some of the strength and agility of my teenage and young adult years is lost but I have gained more of the same with a technique that better integrates my hands, wrists, arms, shoulders, and whole body.  Some of the brash confidence of my youthful sight-reading and memorization forays is gone, but I now study and investigate the music I am playing with a more informed curiosity.  I am learning that new gifts come with age.

When someone asks, “But how do their hands do that?” about the violin virtuoso or the pottery maestro, I join in their admiration and then say, “It is amazing what training and time enable in our hands.”  Keeping my own hands moving as I grow older will be both a responsibility and a joy.


surfacephotoI am in a frenzy of organizing these days. I have occupied my current office for eleven years now and file cabinets from seven years in my previous office came with me. The inventory of books, music scores, and folders full of paper is massive. I run into my work space for an hour or two at a time and stare at the mess, debating how deep to go at this point. Gradually it is getting better, but not without some chagrin and even shame at how much I accumulate.

My life at home is similar. A number of closets and cupboards are being tackled this summer and here too I feel dismay over all this stuff. I long for a life of less, and yet I search out and eagerly receive more. Small disciplines help, such as removing an item for each new item, but there is an obscenity in this as well. How many trips does one make to Better World Books or Goodwill before realizing the cycle should simply stop, at least for a while?

Recently I visited a friend’s childhood home where she and her siblings spent vast hours digging through their mother’s years of hoarding. Their mother, no longer living, filled several rooms of the house to such an extent that there were only narrow passages to walk through with great care to not let the tall stacks tumble. The house wasn’t always like this; my friend remembers happy childhood years in a comfortably cluttered but orderly home. At some point her mother stopped being able to manage all the stuff.

There are now numerous books and reality shows about the psychological conditions that lead to hoarding, and plenty of resources and consultants available to help those of us with less severe tendencies. I believe good habits and systems do make a difference and with each organizing binge I am sure this time will be different. Even as I doubt what I just wrote, I think I’m actually getting better at this as I get older. Systematically, when I have an adequate space for each item in my life, I learn to not let the trouble start in the first place. Habitually, I’m learning to touch an item, whether a dirty dish or piece of paper, just once as it goes to its ultimate destination. I’m learning to bustle through a mess with more speed and purpose so I have more time to enjoy life without the mental chaos I feel when there is too much clutter. I not only yearn for the beauty of a clear surface, I remind myself that I deserve to enjoy this beauty and the clarity of mind that comes with it. We all deserve this to the extent that it works for us. I do not doubt that some are more at peace and more creative among clutter even as I’m convinced I do my best work when the house or office is pristine.

And yet, as these systems and habits become more refined as I mature, the fragility of the situation hovers in my consciousness, knowing how easily my organized stuff can spiral into an unruly jumble when systems and habits fail. Moreover, the underlying impulse to make another folder, buy another piece of clothing, or stock more food than the freezer can hold is still there. This impulse is what I hope to keep recognizing and shaping towards something more positive.

At times I wonder if my musical obsession with Bach’s WTC Book One is a coping mechanism. This is highly organized and deeply spiritual music that in my experience clarifies the mind and feeds the soul. Perhaps playing Bach right now is a way to defy the hundreds of repertoire choices sitting on my shelves, a way to empty out the chaos and breathe in the focus of a clear surface.

Time to test a theory

music&booksAs my last post alluded I have a new assignment at work.  I will shift from mostly teaching with a little administrative work to mostly administrative work with a little teaching. I’ll continue to chair the music department and will teach a few piano students and about one class one semester each year. For the other half of my time I will direct the Goshen Core Curriculum, our new general education program that was implemented last year. I’m looking forward to being in more focused administrative mode around two passions — a music department in a liberal arts setting and the liberal arts education of all our undergraduates — while still being able to teach some.

Before this came about I wondered what my practicing would be like if I didn’t teach as much. I am very aware of the ways in which practicing helps me integrate what I’m teaching. I have moments in practice when I notice I’m not doing what I encourage my students to do and the desire to end that hypocrisy helps me be more productive. Or a discovery, often about piano technique, is made in my own practice that becomes a useful theme in a future lesson with a student. It’s important to me that I still do some teaching so this integration continues.

I think piano practice could also be critical to my work as an administrator. Problem-solving happens as I play the piano. The other night as I practiced I found my mind wandering into messy work territory and within 20 minutes I arrived at a possible solution that helped me sleep better that night. I wish for a practice ritual each morning in which I play through several preludes and fugues to clarify my mind and set the day’s course. I hope an afternoon practice interlude, no matter how short, will energize and lead me into a few more productive hours. A benediction at the piano in the evening may help me process some lingering issues and feel some peace as I play the confident “amen” that ends each fugue.

My theory, then, in short, is that I will need to turn to the piano even more as an administrator. This new opportunity to broaden my work across campus and among the disciplines will test that theory.

(The attached image is from this NPR article)

Some Well-Tempered Years

What if one year turns into two? Or even three? Is that so bad?

These were questions I asked myself a few weeks ago when futility was setting in about learning all 24 preludes and fugues from WTC Book One by August 2013, the one-year anniversary of the project’s beginning. The idea of the project stretching over more time shifted into firmer position when I realized that I didn’t want to be finished, even if I could be. I’m still really enjoying practicing these pieces and have no interest in moving on yet. So, A Well-Tempered Year becomes Some Well-Tempered Years and the goal moves from “I will do this by such a time” to “I will do this and I’ll know when I’m done.”

New thoughts about what it means to really know this music are emerging, and these are necessary realities to face. I can play about two-thirds of the collection, but some of this involves my fingers faking their way through some passages. The material I really know — the stuff so secure my fingers sink deeply into it with utter certainty — this sets the standard I want for all of it.

How do I maintain what I have learned when I am also learning new material? Some of that “stuff so secure” loses its edge when I leave it for a while to focus on a new piece in the collection. I’m thinking about systematic routines for maintenance, knowing that review over time is what brings new meaning to this rich repertoire. The idea of getting to the point where I have it all in my fingers to maintain is both motivating and mysterious. What will be like to have two full solid hours of this intricate music in my fingers at the same time? Is that possible? And if it is, what is the point? I want to find out.

In the midst of revitalized energy for this project and some happy times at the piano lately, other life adventures continue. A new role at work, increased social interactions that seem to come with summer, better systems in home life, clarified commitments to practicing yoga — these take time and energy. And yet, the hopefulness that I can continue with my goal of learning this full collection remains, perhaps all the more so because of how good it feels to say, “Some Well-Tempered Years.”

Holy Pursuits

The other day I gave a Humanities class session about what I called Holy Pursuits in Music, featuring the music of J.S. Bach and U2. I asked students to write down one of their holy pursuits now or in the future. What they shared is a nice glimpse into the hopes and dreams of some of today’s college students, representing about a dozen countries of origin and more than twenty majors. Holy Pursuits


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