The World According to Ms. Alison
As is only fitting in the land of Ms. Alison, the obvious time to write a "Back to School!” entry is, naturally enough, halfway through the school year. So, in the spirit of retrospective introspection, I took a comprehensive survey of a representative population sample as to what their favorite things were about piano this year. Ok, so it was only last Saturday’s kids, as my guilt about finally writing an entry sometime before the end of the year evidently failed to occur until, well, the very last day of the year.
They were profoundly unhelpful. “I don’t have a favourite thing about piano” was the standard response. This was discouraging, until the rejoinder, “I like all of it”.
The cognitive dissonance between these assertions and the inevitable roadhumps encountered during the semester was most intriguing. Other than the possibility that all my students have barely functioning mid-range memories (one can only conjecture), I can only attribute their sanguine response to The Jingle Bell Phenomenon.
The even more evil twin of The Fur Elise Phenomenon and its diabolical sidekick, Carol of the Bells, Jingle Bells is one of those pieces students and parents view as gratifyingly tangible evidence of progress and achievement. To that end, I have taken to turning this occupational hazard into an asset by making it an annual milestone.
“Jingle Bells Then and Now” is actually really fun! Juxtaposing last year’s minimalist one handed melody with this year’s harmonized and rhythmically interesting equivalent, followed by next year’s sophisticated neo-classical, blues and/or pop variations, is something students look forward to all year. Making their own arrangements is even better, and pedagogically very useful. So, in this case, teacher pain is definitely worth the motivational gain.
But be warned. This cunning tactic tends to bring out their inner show-off, resulting in persistent nagging for a Jingle Hell Recital. Um, bells. I meant bells. Really.
Music teachers say many of the same things many, many, many times. There is after all a limit to how many ways you can find to point out that the left is not in fact the right hand. If you have any suggestions please, please, please put them in the comments box.
It's always hilarious when students pick up on some of my best attempts to make particularly repetitive cues at least somewhat amusing and start using them themselves. ("Oh yeah, the OTHER left hand" comes up a lot). Mostly though they just roll their eyes on an epic scale and patiently inform me, "Ms. Alison, you ALWAYS say that". Best of all is the apparently reflexive imitation of my accent, which pops up, confusingly, in several key terms. "Wrist" becomes "rest", "F" becomes "if"...and so on.
Barbara Kierig, a.k.a. "The Bag", died recently. She was my voice teacher throughout my graduate work, and one of my most significant mentors, in the very broadest sense. This seems a fitting time to share some of her more notorious Bagisms, the less colorful of which tend to pop up, apparently reflexively, in my own teaching. At least I try to keep it to the less colorful.
1. "It's not that bad. But it could be" (re. mistakes, musical or otherwise).
2. "Beyond the shadow of an embryo of a doubt..." (to emphasize any salient point about anything at all).
3. "Fantastic. You/I need that like a boil implant" (self-explanatory).
4. "Honey, just don't. It's boring" (re. perpetuating self-doubt, musical or otherwise).
5. "Can you see your Baloonkas?" (re. correct head position).
6. "Bag's wired" (i.e., you'd better be ready to work like a dog).
7. "He is behaving...a teeny tiny bit like an as!@#$%" (again, self-explanatory).
Given the deeply personal nature of our relationship, many of these statements multi-tasked nicely in reference to Unfortunate Life Events (#7 was one of my favorites. I may even have used it as the tag of a Tango composition. Can neither confirm nor deny).
The Bag Vocab is part of her extensive and irreplaceable legacy to hundreds, maybe even thousands of young singers in their formative musical and personal years. If I have even the shadow of an embryo of a hope of living up to that, I'd better come up with some more compelling phrases myself!
Some of the best moments in The Land of Ms. Alison are those in which the combination of a student's creativity with my own results in not only unprecedented entertainment value per minute, but also exponential gains in that student's development.
Today, Student X outdid herself with composition number three, "Happy Moodle's Day". The title is, obviously, a combination of two of the things she loves best: poodles and her Mom. Seeing as mother's day is coming up and all.
This lesson quickly morphed into her learning how to draw treble clefs (beautifully, and in pink of course) together with a poodle pawprint paradigm of notation (also stylishly co-ordinated in chartreuse, lavender, gold and orange). With a few subtle suggestions as to where to place each note on the staff, she learned middle C, F, G and A in a manner she will never, ever forget. After that, the rest of the staff is gravy.
Molly Dog and Smudgely Cat were most impressed with the debut performance...and I'm pretty sure Mom will be pretty happy too.