Dee's Blog
Sun 10/05/2008
This Song Says It All
Topic: music

Edward A. McDowell, Jr. wrote the words back in 1954.  The song is "Ordained of God," and I believe pertains to anyone who has an important message.  This certainly includes those of us who are working to address the problems of sexual and domestic abuse.  For it is a work of prophecy, and we must never forget this.

I'm offering stanza 1 of the song, since they especially pertain to this work:

"Ordained of God, true Prophets rise.  They seek not gain nor earthly prize.  They heed the challenge of Christ's call.  They ask to give and spend their all."

May we claim our ordination, knowing that this is the only source we need in order to do this work effectively.



Posted by Dee Ann Miller at 12:01 AM CDT
Sun 09/07/2008
A New Song
Topic: music

At our piano recital this year, one of my high school students is playing a rather complicated piece that he just composed.  It's awesome. 

While he composes new pieces, his younger brother listens and comes up with the titles.  This one is called "Distant Discoveries." 

Both the title and the music remind me of something I recently heard:  "In order to better predict the future, we need to invent it."  It helps to, anyway.

Posted by Dee Ann Miller at 12:01 AM CDT
Tue 08/05/2008
Seeing our Failures as Gifts
Topic: music

Sometimes I have piano students who are really uptight about their errors.  I can be that way, when the errors are just noise--the errors that turn the word "piano" into "pain-o!" as I want to reach for my ears.

Yet a lot of errors I see as beautiful and try to monopolize on them.  When I make an error in public, I've become very skilled at turning many of them into gifts that enhance the music.  Right on the spot!  So I end up fooling my audience if I'm needing to impress more than to just clown around.  Even in clowning around, the errors can be fun.

The trick is to smooth over the errors so we turn them into blessings, even if they aren't what we intended to do.  Or maybe not the ideal way of making music.

Students who "beat themselves up" in the middle of playing a piece have to learn that a lot of errors aren't really errors at all--just variations from the way the writer intended for the piece to be played.  Theoretically, they are errors.  Musically, they may fit right into the chord or make a slightly different rhythm that doesn't effect the pleasant sound of the piece. 

When a student makes an error like that, I often point out the problem in retrospect.  I call it an error that can be turned into a beautiful mistake.  Much like a cook varies a recipe, by accident, and improves on it.  Or finds ways to learn from it. 

Sometimes the student discovers an even better way of playing the piece.  Or at least one that is more preferred to that student's ear than the way the writer wrote the piece to be played! 

That's when they are truly making music, not just playing it.

Same goes for life.  We have fun figuring out new ways of seeing things that may be unique, even as they change the music of our lives and smooth out the rough places.

Posted by Dee Ann Miller at 12:01 AM CDT
Thu 07/31/2008
No Longer Blind
Topic: music

Yesterday afternoon I taught a second-grade boy to play "Amazing Grace."  Not in the way he had it in his head exactly, from growing up hearing it at church.  For often, with familiar tunes, we've heard them butchered in everyday life to the point that we memorize slightly impaired rhythms.  This hymn, like so many songs, only comes alive, musically, when the musician looks at the music on paper and really studies it.  For those of you who are musicians, you'll understand why I told Adam that I want to hear those "nice, crisp eighth notes."  In just a few minutes, we were both smiling at the beauty produced by this little child.

If we are half asleep--and that's what religion often does when it teaches us to "trust" what we "know" without questioning--we automatically assume that people who act inappropriately or say inappropriate things, yet wear a title (or a collar), deserve our awe and respect automatically.

In a world where children do not stay close to the home fires for as long as they did in previous generations, they must learn very early the lessons of not trusting automatically.  I wish it were as easy as it is with piano, to know that we have succeeded in teaching them all of the important rules.  So they can enjoy the music of life with the confidence that they are precisely making the right decisions, at just the right time.

Music is complicated, when analyzed.  So is life, though the latter is a lot trickier and filled with more dangers than messing up the music.  We don't want to over-analyze either music nor life, however--even when we feel that our failure to do so at some point has taken us to places, psychologically and spiritually, that we did not intend to go. 

Perhaps the trick is learning that it's okay to sometimes risk going places we did not intend to be.  While forgiving ourselves for the "wrong notes" we've played.  After all, isn't that where little children often learn best? 

Posted by Dee Ann Miller at 12:01 AM CDT
Sat 07/12/2008
Songs that Respond
Topic: music

I guess the mother bird with new babies, in the little house on my porch, wasn't feeling much like singing one afternoon last week.  Suddenly she found a reason!

It came as a surprise to me and to the teenage boy on my piano bench, a student of mine who plays reasonably well now.  So that I really look forward to what he's going to do each week instead of wonder, as with beginning students who come unprepared to lessons, if I can endure the torture!

The piece took him into the upper registry of the keyboard (where sounds of birds or music boxes can easily be achieved by a skilled pianist).  He was delighting me, when I suddenly realized that I wasn't the only one who was jubilant!

Yes, the mother bird seemed to have gathered friends to see her babies.  I glanced out.  Then immediately called attention to Brian, who had finished his first playing of the assigned piece.  We smiled as the mother seemed to be teaching her babies to sing!  Just for a minute or less before their song stopped as quickly as it had started.

Brian began playing again.  Only when he reached the second movement of the piece--up in the higher registry--that the outdoor chirping began and increased in volume until it matched the intensity of music that the fingers on the piano were managing to achieve! 

We had so much fun, repeating the exercise of waiting and stimulating the song several times before deciding to invest our time on another part of the lesson.

Forever, I hope I'll remember the little birds.  They didn't seem to care what the source of the music was.  They recognized it as being something they wanted to join, and found a way to fit right in--inspiring me to remember that sometimes I'd do better to imitate the birds.  


Posted by Dee Ann Miller at 12:01 AM CDT
Fri 07/11/2008
Bird Songs in the Morning
Topic: music

This morning, when I awoke about daybreak, there was only one bird calling in the woods near my window.  A woods that's filled with birds.  That bird called and called, getting no answer for at least a half hour.  Just now, I heard some chattering.  And a few minutes earlier I heard chirping that I deduct came from the little bird house on my front porch, where chickadees have made a home for the babies that will soon move to the trees nearby.

In my way of thinking, these creatures have little to sing about.  Yet they don't need a lot.  That's the key, I'm certain. 

That's why they sing their greatest anthems right after big storms.  For it's just the storms that are large enough to even alarm humans inside of the protection of strong houses, that heighten the fears of self-sufficient birds.  Self-sufficient because they know that they can be content with so little. 

What teachers!  If only I have ears to listen.  To their songs AND to their wisdom.


Posted by Dee Ann Miller at 12:01 AM CDT
Fri 07/04/2008
History of Jazz Continues
Topic: music

About seventy-five years after the Constitution was adopted, people began to question the problem that was ignored in the original penning of the document.  The slavery issue.

Churches began organizing on each side of the issue, though there were far more that tried to stay out of it than there were churches that took a stance of active advocacy.

Slave country needed help.  So it created another lie.  That being about how the many, many slaves were raping the white women.   A lie that even continues in our cultural fears, remaining largely unspoken. 

Of course, according to Loren Schoenberg (the jazz lecturer in Friday's blog), the opposite was true--a fact that has been brought more to light in just the past couple of decades. 

So the men got very angry, but had no way of expressing it.  That's when jazz came into vogue. 

And the funny part:  The creators of the only American music became the masters of the music.   Playing their music and even being given Saturday afternoons off from their labor to create the very music that was an expression of sadness and anger toward the slaveholders and their families, who came to the town squares and believed another lie.

That lie being that the musicians were just having a good time.  Now, that's insurrection.  Carried out in a safe way that became profitable over time.  And even made it's way into white churches!  Giving oppressed people some comic relief and presenting a powerful lesson for the rest of us through acts of protest. 

What a 4th of July message!

Posted by Dee Ann Miller at 12:01 AM CDT
Thu 07/03/2008
What's Behind the Real American Music
Topic: music

Loren Schoenberg, executive Director of The Jazz Museum in Harlem, came to our area a couple of months ago.  I was privilege to hear him speak and make impromptu jazz on stage with people he'd never met!  Fun.  

And very educational.  Plus related to my advocacy work, something I never expected!

Loren, the winner of two Grammy's performed in the White House, talked about the history of jazz, which you may know is the only truly American music. 

His primary emphasis on the history had to do with the birth of jazz.  First time I ever had anyone state clearly that it happened because of a lie.  That had to cover a lie.   Intended to cover another lie.

The first lie was that the Constitution of the United States wasn't for real about "all men created equal."  The slave holders among the writers, in fact, argued among themselves as to whether the slaves should be freed in order to stop the hypocrisy that they recognized was going to be there!  They decided that the nation would be divided if they did it.  Plus it wouldn't be profitable.  So the beloved institution of slavery was kept along with the idealism.

That's lesson one, leading up to the rest of what Loren had to say. 

I was probably the only one in the audience that noticed the parallel to the Christian church.  By adopting, from the beginning, cultural rules as "God's" rules, they instilled the ungodly and very un-Christian gender assignments that gave women very little voice.  They brought a problem into the church that was in the world.  And didn't seem to even notice!

Posted by Dee Ann Miller at 7:44 AM CDT
Mon 03/10/2008

Topic: music

Music is the universal language, we say.  And it is.  When you are listening to it or creating it, at least.

Everyone can enjoy music.  Believe it or not, everyone has within them the capacity to create it, too--though it may be a lot more work for some than others.

Yet if you want to really understand it, that's a lifetime's work.  Very quickly I can start using words and terms or concepts that I understand or that I may just be realizing as I try to figure out for myself and my students just why something fits together and how it all works to sometimes make music.  While at other times a student or a teacher have the equal dilemma of producing unintended, unwelcome noise. 

In my case, as a piano teacher, it's about learning how to touch the keys "just right" to develop what takes the player and the listeners into a sense of ecstasy--that's the art of it. 

Just as in living, sometimes I achieve it.  Sometimes I don't.

Sometimes I succeed in communicating in a language that is on the level of my student.  Sometimes I'm still working to understand the language myself, while learning from my students.

Or readers, when it comes to this site.

Posted by Dee Ann Miller at 12:01 AM CDT
Thu 01/31/2008
Making Music, Making Sense
Topic: music

It's beyond me.   I don't know how to explain to you what I want to say today, about the lightbulb that turned on in my head late last night and again this morning.  It's related to music.  It's also very MUCH related to the idea of collective memory, our subconscious, evolving thought, all of that ying-yang.

Last night in the middle of a lesson, using a book I've only used with this one rather advanced student, I saw something another student had been trying to TEACH me a few years ago.  Problem was, he half knew what he was talking about.  And like most of us as students, he believed that I, as his teacher would surely know more about it than he did.  He wanted me to help him understand the part he didn't understand.  I couldn't even grasp what he was asking me to do.  So I did what was safe, but not good teaching technique--I took him back to my own familiar territory.

The former student is now 88 years old and in a nursing home.  I'm  going to see him today, partly because I want and need to see him and partly because I can't wait to tell him what happened last night.  I'm hoping he's up to getting up to the piano today.  Maybe we can learn together!

Somehow, I think this is very much the way we sometimes wander through life, picking up pieces that later fit into the puzzle that we weren't even able to grasp earlier--back when we didn't even understand the question, much less the solution.

This morning, bright and early, I sat down at the keyboard and began playing familiar, rather simple tunes in new ways.  Because that's what my student from years earlier, the one I was supposed to be teaching, the one who had never had more than 2-3 lessons when he came to me, was trying to teach me. 

Isn't it amazing how life comes full circle?


Posted by Dee Ann Miller at 9:29 AM CST
Updated: Thu 01/31/2008 9:32 AM CST

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