Wednesday, December 10, 2014

here comes the bride or o tannenbaum

Here's how to play my new game 'Here Comes the Bride' or 'O Tannenbaum'?:

• Whistle or sing the first four notes of (your choice) "Here Comes the Bride" or "O Tannenbaum."
• The other person guesses which one it is.
• Then you tell them whether they guessed right.

Barry: ♩♩♪♩
Cate: ... "Here Comes the Bride?"
Barry: Wrong again. It's O Tannenbaum.
Cate: Dang it!

Saturday, December 6, 2014

empathic power and politics

Salon, as part of a series in which notable women share their wisdom, ran a piece by Anne Lamott, a favorite writer of mine, favorite partially because she doesn't hide her demons — the very subject that she hits on in the piece.

The whole thing is really about forgiveness. It's wonderful, but there's one phrase she uses that works like a bell tied to a preacher's wrist whose sound completely overtakes the sermon. Doesn't drown out the message — it's just than no one's going to really pay attention to it.

Almost no one: her close audience is made up of people who share most of her political views and they won't even hear the bell. They'll just hear a penetrating sermon on forgiveness, with real wisdom and insight. Others will hear a very marred piece; others will only hear what they perceive as a gratuitous and unnecessary political potshot that undoes the piece.

I don't think she intended it as a potshot. The "as told to" nature of this series means she was speaking extemporaneously or nearly so, and probably we just have an example of her ideology leaking out. Naturally, the editors put it in the headline.

That leak, and the thought process it revealed (that Tea Party people are the most hateful on earth), and the reaction it's gotten, from liberals and conservatives and centrists, got me to thinking about empathy. Not sympathy, the ability to see a person's problems, but empathy, the ability to share for a moment a person's point of view and feelings. When you do that, you can begin to see that there can be another point of view, another way to feel about whatever's going on.

The ability to imagine a different set of conclusions from the evidence the world gives you turns out to be one of the keys to life — and we're all guilty of inability in that area to various degrees.

Liberals often can't imagine why you'd ever want to restrict the rights of women and take away the measures that have helped minorities and make laws that burden the poor unless you are simply hateful and bigoted and repressive.

That leaves them unable to understand someone who wants to protect fetuses and have a meritocratic level playing ground and let the free market reign.

Meanwhile, conservatives often can't imagine why you'd ever want to snuff out the lives of the unborn and give minority students better grades than they deserve and restrict the trade that brings prosperity to all, unless you are simply hateful and repressive and don't care for human life.

That leaves them unable to understand someone who wants to lessen the instance of abortion by measure rather than fiat and give some people the academic and professional tailwind that others have always had and put reasonable harnesses on forces that tend to destroy if unharnessed.

When people have such different reverences, they begin accusing each other of opposite blasphemies, and then very little dialogue can actually take place at all.

One giant step we could take would be to make it so that, politically, we need each other a bit more: the scourge of gerrymandering, in which people from both parties have spent generations carving us up into like-minded districts where primaries and their purity tests matter more than actual elections, is a massive contributor to this talking-past-each-other effect, and, if reversed, could contribute greatly to a healing process in the way we try to appeal to and persuade each other.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

when and how to start piano lessons

Being an expert in all things musical (or at least perceived that way), I often get questions when it's piano-lesson time for people's kids. I've accepted that I'm not really a great teacher, but I can steer kids toward good ones, and give some advice based on my experience.

A friend writes:
When did you begin piano lessons? And knowing how musically gifted your family is in general, was it a requirement for you, or did you just naturally gravitate toward it (i.e., were you a modern day Mozart)? I would love for my boy to learn, but I don't want to introduce it too soon (or too late).
     And I don't know if it's better for parents to push kids to practice or to hope they will want to intrinsically. I had a couple of years of lessons as a kid, but most all of that knowledge has vanished and now I wish my mom had pushed.... And — last question — is it too ludicrous for me to contemplate taking lessons again at my age?
Piano: was it a requirement or did I naturally gravitate? Hm — both. All three of us took lessons, and it was very much a requirement. Just part of a good upbringing because everyone should learn to play an instrument. (We also had to play on the softball and basketball teams. Less of a triumph for me, but Paul and Rich took to it.)

Allow me to set your mind at ease about when to do it. You pretty much can't mess that up unless you somehow prevent your child from taking. It's not too soon or too late. Naturally, if the kid is 4 or 5 there's going to be a different approach, but by the time school starts a moderate amount of school-like discipline and the idea of practicing aren't that foreign. I recall that we had to practice 30 minutes a day. Had to, had to, had to — non-negotiable.

That said, I had two older brothers who took lessons, so I saw them playing and wanted to play myself. I got up on the bench and started farting around with notes and melodies. That interest, coupled with a natural talent, convinced my parents that I could start lessons at 5 rather than 6, which is when my brothers began.

I've got to say I wasn't a great student. I ended up practicing far more than 30 minutes a day — in Jr Hi and High School more than an hour usually — but hardly any of it was on the stuff I was supposed to be doing. Instead I just did what I felt like and what I was drawn to. So my teacher always thought I wasn't quite living up to my potential; nevertheless, the skills did build up one way or another and I was gigging professionally by fourteen.

All of which is to say that if your kid really takes to it there's not much you can do to stop him. (Think of the phenomenon of the 10th-grader who shuts himself in his room and plays the same Jimi Hendrix tune for 9 hours, till he can nail it.) And even if he doesn't take to it that way he'll still be learning valuable stuff that, we now know, is like learning a new language, along with mathematical and systematic brainstretching, a sense of accomplishment, comfort in getting up in front of a crowd, hand-eye coordination, pleasure in being able to do something pleasing — on and on! Good things come when you learn an instrument.

As far as taking lessons yourself, my guess is it would all come flooding back. You should do it! I have fond memories of standing there watching my mom play through Chopin books and "100 Piano Favorites" books when I was a kid. Really cool to see her calling forth such sounds from the piano, and easy to assume that I would someday do the same.