This past Saturday we had a garage sale. Wowza. This means that I have been peering into the dark recesses of the house to bring to light that which should be sent along its way into the homes of others.

I happily ran across this book in my overflowing book collection.

20170718_075756I started to flip through it and lo and behold, the smiling face of my high school piano teacher peered back at me.

20170717_114903Aww. I have such fond memories of Dr. Howell. After having studied piano with the same teacher for seven years, I decided to embark upon a new challenge and study with a college professor. A family friend recommended we call Dr. Howell, who at the time was the chair of the Piano and Music Theory Department at Bethel College in St. Paul, Minnesota.

My first memory of Dr. Howell was when I went to his house for an audition the summer before starting 9th grade. He took the pressure off my first performance for him by going to the kitchen to make tea while I played. This I found quite unusual since I was used to having a teacher sit right next to me the entire lesson. He was very kind, offered a few suggestions, and agreed to accept me into his studio.

Summer lessons were taken in his home. The large upright piano sat in the living room, whose windows opened onto a backyard of beautiful gardens, all planted and curated by Dr. Howell. Tea, garden and music. Interesting that these three things have become my favorite hobbies as well.

Lessons during the school year were taken in his studio in the music building on the campus of Bethel College. As a high school student, I felt so grown up walking through the halls and mingling with the cool college students. I remember Dr. Howell grabbing a snack during my lessons and crunching away as I played through Chopin or Debussy. I had to remember to dress in layers during the winter months because he would blast the space heater and I would end up sweating through my thick Minnesota-approved winter sweater.

Dr. Howell was a kind and gentle soul. He taught me many things. In the early days, he taught me that the purpose of piano study was not to play through as many pieces as I possibly could, but to slow down and mine the treasures from each piece. This was a hard lesson as a fourteen year old because I felt that my worth as a pianist was tied to the sheer volume of pieces I could play, however mediocre the performances were. Dr. Howell taught me to see the detail and to start making music. 

He was also the first teacher to really teach me technique and theory in a way that directly correlated to the music I was playing. And it started to make sense. We would study for the Minnesota Music Teachers Association theory exams and I began to really see how theory enlightened my understanding of music.

He taught me how to really practice and required an hour of practice each day, more than what I was previously doing.

Later in high school, he brought me along to different meetings at which he was speaking to demonstrate how to teach technique to high school students. These were great opportunities to play for other teachers.

In planning my own studio recitals, I still think of Dr. Howell’s recitals. They were pretty basic, but all his students played well and the recitals were enjoyable.

He encouraged me to study music in college and hoped that I would attend Bethel College where he taught. Although I chose a different college, I am forever grateful for the solid technical and musical skills Dr. Howell imparted to me. He helped make the pursuit of a music degree a possibility for me.





Learning from my Kids

I attended my kiddos’ spring recital at their school a few weeks back.  They each played one solo piece on the piano that was memorized.  My third grade boy played “Rain Dance” and my second grade girl played “Forest Drums”.  Both played very, very well.  I have to admit I was proud of how well they did!  A mother can admit that.

There was a high level of anticipation and joy.  What’s interesting is that the anticipation (or rather, anxiety) often came more from the parents than from the students.  I have to admit that I was nervous for my children as they awaited their turn to perform, even though I was confident in their ability to perform their pieces well.  But as I searched their faces for any sign of fear or nerves, I instead found joy.  Of course, that may be because they were missing school!  But they were so happy to partake in this experience with their schoolmates, their friends.  They were excited to watch each others’ performances and were happily cheering each other on.  There was a real feeling of camaraderie.

Can I find a way to create this level of camaraderie and joy within my own studio?  Can our recitals be a celebration of music that surpasses the fears of performing that may come along with a recital experience?

Remembrance of Complacency

As pianists, we are constantly striving to reach toward goals.  We have goals of how fast to play scales or a certain passage, goals of how many minutes we should be practicing each day, goals of how many performances to have in a single month or year.  When we reach those goals, we are rightfully proud of our accomplishments, we breathe a sigh of relief, and we bask in the warmth of the fuzzy feelings that come our way.

But why can’t we strive for more?  When we say “I’ll do my best”, is that really just a way of saying “I’ll reach a certain goal, and not reach for more”?

What is the “more”?  Maybe the “more” is pushing past the norm.  Maybe the “more” is pushing ourselves to do more than what we perceive to be our best.  Pushing out of our personal comfort zones and joyfully cheering on each success or failure as a means of growth.

When I was in college preparing for my senior recital as a part of my Piano Performance degree, I had reached a plateau with Bach’s Italian Concerto.  I had the piece down cold.  Notes memorized, rhythms solid, dynamics automatic.  I thought I had reached my goal.  But I definitely had not exceeded that goal.  I had deluded myself into thinking that the piece was good enough.  It was definitely better than anyone around me could play it.  So part of my complacency stemmed from the fact that I was comparing myself to others around me.  I didn’t need to push myself any more.

My teacher suggested I take a lesson with another teacher who taught at a nearby state university.  This was pushing past the norm.  It was going out of my comfort zone by leaving the familiarity of my own teacher.  I knew what my own teacher would work on, what points he would make.  But I had no idea what this other teacher would do.  Would I fall flat on my face?   The unease of a “first lesson” fell upon me.

During that lesson, the Italian Concerto went as planned.  Everything was correct, nicely in place.  But it was boring.  How would the new teacher work on this piece?  There was seemingly nothing to “correct”, but how could I burst off of that plateau and reach for something better?

Tempo.  Tempo was the boundary that we pushed past that day.  This teacher pushed me to play faster than I had ever played that piece.  I was holding on for dear life as the teacher pushed me through that piece.  It was exhilarating!

Style.  We worked on making the piece have more of a “bounce” to it.  It was instantly more joyful and alive with feeling.

Though that lesson took place 15 years ago, I remember the underlying philosophies behind it.  We have to push the boundaries of what we expect of ourselves.  We need to constantly reach for more.

Sometimes we fail, but even that is success.   On the next attempt, we stand on the shoulders of that failure and rise to new heights of understanding.