This past week I was finally able to vacation off to Orlando to end the summer. Why Orlando? I simply have been dying to go to Disneyworld since I was a kid, Seaworld to meet the dolphins, and, most recently, … Continue reading
Today marks the last day of my “summer vacation” as I head back to work tomorrow for professional development before embarking on my 2nd year of teaching. As I’m reflecting on my summer, I am reminded by my own advice that I gave last night.
Teaching a full school year has given me a whole new understanding of humility. I am so lucky to have grown up without ever having to worry about food, shelter and love. My parents have worked so hard to make that all of those realities for my brother and I, and for those things alone I have the utmost gratitude for them.
Experiencing education in a high-need, low income school really put things into perspective for me. Some of my students would only be able to eat a guaranteed meal during breakfast and lunch in the school cafeteria. Other kids went home to shelters and never brought backpacks to school because they couldn’t afford them.
Finally, most of my students had never seen an instrument in real life before. I realize this is the case for a lot of kids, high-need or not, especially in elementary school. But people I meet often ask me what it is that drives me to host fundraisers and keep getting more and more instruments for my kids. Knowing that I am the first “real” music teacher they have in life is a blessing that holds a lot of responsibility. Those of you readers who know me definitely can attest to my seriousness to my craft of music-making. But what’s even crazier for me to think and realize is the fact that through me, my students will get their first exposures to instruments. It is through me that they know the sound of the piano, violin, trumpet to name a few instruments. I can’t even describe how humbling the experience of being able to share the moment when they first see and hear an instrument and that sparkle in their eyes as well as their excitement in their voices genuinely is, when each of them are anxious to touch what had just produced the magical sound! I would venture to say that, alongside most of my peers, I don’t even remember what it is like to NOT know what an instrument looks or sounds like! This leads me to…
I am greedy. I am greedy for nothing less than the best. For. Real. Just as greedy as my students are to produce a beautiful sound once they have figured out the basics of something seemingly simple like playing the recorder, as I am to provide those resources for my kids to be able to explore music to the fullest extent possible.
But let me sidestep from my teaching for a moment. More than any summer before, I have realized how greedy and hungry I am for self-fulfillment. I want SO bad to be musically happy – and for me, that means expressing myself through different ways that push creativity in new directions. I am more thankful than ever before for being able to teach at a summer music camp where I am surrounded by young aspiring musicians looking up to me, KNOWING that they want to be musicians for their entire lives. These wonderful teenage musicians were such serious practitioners of their music that they only made me want to do more.
For the past few weeks I’ve been working on proposals for many creative projects involving stepping over the boundaries of music to more cross-art collaborations with myself and with others. It’s exciting for me to start embarking on this new journey I have somewhat paved for myself, because for the first time in what seems like a while I feel an incredible creative energy burst that is dying to erupt onto some sort of a stage for an audience.
But my greed for accomplishment, and accomplishment in my own eyes, cannot be possible without…
Aside from being grateful for my family, I am so very grateful to be surrounded by loving, caring role models of society. I whole-heartedly mean that. My teacher colleagues and specifically my music educator peers are all doing incredible things for the kids – selflessly. Teaching is not a profession of praise but just thinking about what we each do to make sure the next generation can access what they need to in order to be successful is straight up mind-boggling and out of this world.
I can never say thank you quite enough to my friends, but am pleasantly shocked and reminded by them when I look out to the audience during a performance. Your thumbs up and praise of what I do is plentiful and abundant, and perhaps even excessive, but I hope that I can at least inspire you to be moved by my mission to make a difference. I’d also like you all to know how inspiring it is to be surrounded by such driven friends who speak passionately about their careers, or for those who are in limbo at the moment, are carefully constructing maps to success. I am grateful for all of you sharing your time and thoughts with me.
I’m often asked how I juggle everything I do in my life, or reprimanded to take a break for once. Don’t worry, my body often tells me I’m doing just a bit too much when I get sick (which is way too often than I’d like to admit). But I just think to myself about what I am to this world.
I am one of over 7 billion people on this Earth, a pretty small part of the population trying to make their way through the daily trenches of life. But I firmly believe that I am meant to do great things. My piano teacher once told me that I have to believe that my music is important – that amongst all the music there is out their in the world, what I create is important.
Not only is what I create important though. I am important. I think we all are meant to achieve incredible things, and I certainly believe hard work can get you, me, or anyone there. Whatever these “incredible things” may be, they change throughout our lives. But to me, what’s important is making sure that you are making a commitment to self-fulfillment. Personally, that involves practicing humility, greed and gratefulness.
Cheers to making sure that you, whoever you are, are also on your path to self-fulfillment and, ultimately, GREATNESS. I don’t settle for any less. Neither should you.
Do you ever feel that you are bursting with potential? That you have so much within you that has yet to be uncovered or put to good use as far as ideas, intentions and projects go?
That’s how I feel right now. And I mean this in the humblest of ways because I don’t think I am by any means an incredible person. I always just tell people I have a lot to do, and I intend to do it, whatever “it” may be at the time or in the context. But I just have so many ideas at this moment in time, and I want to accomplish them all. Not because I want fame or recognition, but because I feel it is the best way to be who I want to be. The best way to put myself forward in the way I want to in order to change the world.
You may think that is quite a bold endeavor. I completely agree. It is. But I’ve finally had some time to myself to debrief on my life and what it is I currently spend my time on. While I think I do this more often than not, I feel like I’ve reached a new sense of clarity; it’s refreshing to say the least. I’m not particularly sure how to explain it, but I feel that I have all this creativity waiting to be cultivated, defined and precisely carved now. At the same time, I have to remember it is okay – COMPLETELY okay – to take a mental breather once in a while, or even scheduled into my life. I am obsessed with being kinetic, but only through moments of slow and careful consideration do I find myself facing still waters and looking intently at the reflections within my mind and body. Deep in those reflections I find that potential energy, waiting for me to do something about it.
My latest discoveries? I want so badly to change the world for the better through creation and education. I want my footprints not to be my own but for children of future generations to walk in as well as my peers to step into in order to understand who I am and who they are. I want to make things that people can relate to yet be physically, mentally and emotionally intrigued by and challenged by. I want to be the very best at being me I can be.
Like many others around the world, tonight I mourn the loss of Robin Williams, a creative soul who put his energy and care into all the different projects he embarked on and shared with us. To me, each portrayal of himself was raw, honest and refined simultaneously – a true depiction of the trials and tribulations of the human soul. Since finding out about his death, I have been watching interviews, standup segments, his Oscar award acceptance, and even his Sesame Street gigs.
With this recent renewal of mine to keep on working creatively, I look to him for inspiration and willpower and remember to keep at it – whatever it is that I am doing. The pursuit of the arts is something I will continue in perpetuity through all the changes in life I have. Similarly, I learn that the mistakes we make are to be embraced and not shunned, and to continue on with life understanding what they may mean for us. Or maybe even not to take them to seriously. But everything we experience builds who we are and adds to each new experience we find ourselves in.
I want to end with two quotes of his I will live by and I hope you can live by:
“You’re only given a little spark of madness. You musn’t lose it.”
“No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world.”
– Robin Williams
A big part of my teaching involves my worldly advice… of “you can do better.” One of the most frustrating things is when I see a student struggle with something because they are not practicing properly and being a lazy … Continue reading
(For an immersive experience, listen to Shostakovich’s 2nd Piano Concerto, 2nd movement played by Shostakovich himself while reading) A few months ago I found out that my first piano teacher, who is over 90 years old, was losing her memory. … Continue reading
I started a Keyboard Club at my school in February this year. Earlier this month my kids performed at Steinway Hall.
I want the world to understand the importance of this.
I had a (pretty intense) goal at the beginning of the school year to create a keyboard lab. Now if you know me, I’m not one to wait for presents or things to fall into my lap. I aggressively make things happen. So I went on a crazy hunt on Craigslist for keyboards and wrote everyday to people who posted keyboards they were selling. For every hundred emails sent I would maybe get one response. I asked these people around New York City to find the kindness in their hearts to donate their keyboards for my students’ use.
Through this I found so many giving people willing to help me out. Every weekend through December, I would travel by subway to far Queens or Brooklyn to pickup the donor’s keyboard and lug it back on the subway. Sometimes I even dragged friends with me if I was making more than one trip that day. I remember the hardest pickup on the day of wind gusts over 50 mph! But somehow I did not get blown away and on the weekdays I would bring the keyboards back on the subway to the school. Casio found out about me and donated keyboards to the school right before Christmas. And with the help of DonorsChoose I was able to fund ~$1000 in headphones and wires to power up the keyboard lab. It truly felt amazing on the weekend of my birthday when my boyfriend came to work to help me physically setup this lab.
Invitations went out for Keyboard Club to the students of my school, and while my students were filled with such excitement, I was so caught up with managing all the equipment that I often forget these precious moments from my kids when they played their first notes on the keyboards:
“This is the best day of my life!”
“I’ve been waiting to play keyboard since the day I was born!”
Each one of my students received special binders with music I prepared for them to practice. And I made a BIG deal about practicing (cue tiger-parenting tactics). But practicing, for most of my students, meant taking out that sheet of paper with the keyboard printout and moving their fingers on the paper. Most of them could not afford a basic keyboard and practicing meant playing the keyboard paper.
Just think about that for a second. Practicing on a sheet of paper. Isn’t that crazy?! I know my students were happy enough to be able to be in Keyboard Club and be able to practice on keyboards twice a week, but it wasn’t enough – at least not for me. How could I truly make them fall in love with the piano?
So I organized a special performance trip. I told my students we were going to a very famous place. And they HAD to practice to make sure their pieces were perfect for the show. That week of the show meant no recess and instead, practice time for them. I spent my lunchtime drilling notes and being extremely tough on my young four to seven-year-olds. I had a high bar set for them and I expected no less than for them to reach it.
The day finally came for the big trip. My students fancied up with their parents as we took the train from Crown Heights to Midtown Manhattan (we even did a flash-singing-mob when the train was extremely crowded between Union Square and Grand Central and our audience loved it!) and walked the fancy streets filled with shops where my girls could not help but look at the dresses and shoes in storefronts and my boys were looking at the men walking around in suits.
When we walked into Steinway Hall, my kids could not stop staring at the sheer grandioseness of the landmark. The performance began, and one by one my students brought their music to the piano and climbed atop the bench looking for Middle C. It all went so quickly, but their level of concentration coupled with their happiness once they finished their songs written all across their faces made me speechless. My Pre-K student even memorized her song! In two months of practicing on mainly papers and only keyboards, my students were playing on an $86,000 Steinway grand. They were so proud during the certificate and rose ceremony after playing. They were so happy to have played the grand piano. They hugged and thanked me, and one of my kids even started hysterically crying that she wouldn’t see me until Monday (it was a Friday afternoon).
I tell the world this story because the week after, I got a drawing from one of my Keyboard Club students with him playing at a piano on stage with tons of chairs for the audience because he told another teacher that he wanted to be a pianist and that it was his dream.
That was and is still my dream – and I get to live it.
But how are kids supposed to discover their dreams without these experiences? It’s not fair that kids around the world don’t have equal access to music. It’s not fair that my kids have to practice on papers because they cannot afford keyboards. While some people think that playing the piano is just for the privileged, particularly a piano like a Steinway, it certainly should not be. Every child deserves to fall in love with music making. There is no such thing as sounds for the privileged.
Music education is not a privilege; it’s a birthright. And through music, I hope to inspire dreams. Not just dreams relating to music – dreams of all kinds. I hope that in full immersion of whatever crafts, something might click inside them that allows them to say “Hey, I want to do that when I grow up!” I want to create experiences my students remember forever.
Tomorrow night is my school’s Spring Arts Festival. Here’s to another out of this world experience as I celebrate my own 20 years of piano playing!
The $86,000 piano my kids performed on. Photo Credit: Brittany Wilson
At NYCAASC 2014, a conference on Asian American issues and culture, I led a breakout discussion group entitled “Piano Lessons: Why 99% Quit.” I had been thinking about this a lot recently, especially having recently finished Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (a must-read!) in which Amy Chua talked quite a bit about raising her kids with music lessons (piano and violin, as being the two most popular instruments for Asians to pursue).
I mentioned that most piano teachers taught us (us being the Asian American community) classical piano, and we were not exposed to other musical genres of jazz, pop, and of course not the forbidden fruits of hip hop or rap. I would venture to say that the beyond overwhelming majority of us did not even think about improvising or connecting our thoughts and emotions to our music. Teachers just didn’t introduce us to it, nor did they initiate a curiosity within us to even explore other ideas in music. And, unfortunately, we didn’t know better.
Anyway, that was just one part of my presentation that I hope resonated with my audience of college students and former piano lesson-takers. At the end, one guy come up to me and asked for my autograph.
This was the first autograph I ever really signed – and for speaking. I was shocked. Had what I said really resonated that my signature suddenly become of “worth”? Did sharing my thoughts suggest that I may be someone of importance? It felt a bit silly, to be honest, signing my name as I do when I am at a restaurant – but it held more weight now… or did it?
The headliner for NYCAASC was MC Jin. In Asian American music, he is a legend – the first Asian American who rapped for OUR culture. The ABC (American Born Chinese) culture that is, with his famous chorus (translated):
ABC that’s me that’s me
No matter how you look at it, that’s me
That’s right, that’s right
ABC that’s me that’s me
(You know that’s me)
He continues with the constant “struggle” of “not Chinese enough” and “not American enough”:
An ABC has to look carefully in the mirror
They want to know how I speak Chinese so well
Don’t worry about where I was born
A birth certificate is only a sheet of paper
I ask you, “What’s so bad about being an ABC?”
Even if I am, don’t take me as an idiot
You say I’m not officially Chinese, “Who are you?”
In the eyes of foreigners I am “yellow skinned,” just like you
Even though we come from two different worlds
But it’s pretty much the same, so don’t treat me otherwise (literally translated, “don’t step on me”)
I identify so much with these lyrics. He came onto the stage and prior to performing, things “got real deep” (straight up quoting him). Commenting on Asian American cultural preaching beforehand, MC Jin stated,
“It’s a fine line to walk between [representing] our Asian American culture and breaking out of that same box.”
(From Lost Laowai)
I struggle with this everyday – playing and thinking with cultural sensitivity versus doing “my own thing” and trying to figure out what that even means. We embrace our culture and should be proud of who we are, but we are also WAY more than just that. It is difficult to have that happy balance of both, and I think everyone can relate to that. But it was incredible to hear someone I listened to as a kid tell me my own thoughts out loud in the spotlight.
I waited in line for his autograph and overheard so many conversations talking about how amazing MC Jin was in his performance and what he said. When it was finally my turn I told him how I am a pianist and I really identified with what he had to say. He thanked me, and kept telling all of us how inspirational we were. After MC Jin autographed my program, I thought about the autograph I myself signed earlier.
No two people have the same signature – there’s no box for it. So why should we even have a box for culture?
SEE YA BOX, here’s a swan song for you:
“You may not know me, but I know you.”
(P.S. MC Jin, if you’re reading, can we collaborate? Seriously.)
I am bursting internally, externally and all over with excitement right now because my Donors Choose project of starting a Strings Program has just been COMPLETELY funded ($4000+ for 50 violins). I want to share just how much this means to me.
When I was in 6th grade, I started playing the violin as part of orchestra in middle school. It was my third instrument that I had started, (after piano since forever long ago and flute in elementary school, or fourth if you also counted the recorder). I don’t remember exactly how I learned the violin, and I don’t remember much about our first year teacher. To be quite frank, he was not a good teacher at all.
In 7th grade, we got a new Strings teacher, Ms. J. We didn’t know what to expect, but almost instantly the vibe of our learning had changed. Considering that studying Strings was my “middle school major,” our new teacher had demanded much more of us. We reworked the fundamentals, the technique, our blending, our togetherness as an ensemble. It was the hardest thing to satisfy her, because she had such high expectations. Then I remember sometime towards the end of 7th grade, she told us that we could really be something special, something unique. She told us we have the potential to be really good. I remember all of us brimming with anxiousness at what that meant (except we didn’t really know what it meant). She did warn us though – we had to work really hard to be the best we could be together in 8th grade.
8th Grade came rolling around and we had our struggles. We went through a phase of being below subpar, and I remember getting frustrated that we were not improving at a rate that we could have been. We had a serious talk sometime in the middle of the school year where we had to write if we were willing to recommit ourselves to what we had set out to do – to achieve and be determined to do our best no matter what.
Fast forward to the end of 8th Grade. I remember stepping onto the stage and waiting for the curtains to open at our last Spring Concert. We were so excited to show our families, friends and teachers what we had accomplished. Finally, the curtains opened and it was our time to shine.
There is something absolutely incredible as having the exact same bow strokes as your peers, as listening so intensely to one another to make sure the sounds you contribute are positioned the way we want them to be, as creating something so calculated but simultaneously instantaneous, and at least for me, to create something which moved me tremendously. In two years of real hard work and effort, we had come so far. And we knew it. And we relished and loved it. (It was icing on the cake that we earned a Gold at Level 4 NYSSMA.)
It was because of Ms. J that I was so insistent on being a part of orchestra in high school – which meant giving up my lunchtime to do it. I, along with most of my friends in orchestra in high school, decided that I wanted to make music with people who wanted to do so as well, and we were (for the most part) okay with not having a full lunch hour socializing. Instead, we spent our time with Bach, Vivaldi… as well as James Bond, Star Wars, and the epic Carmina Burana O Fortuna.
I miss it, being part of a strings ensemble, an orchestra. It was one of the most amazing, treasured experiences in my schooling growing up. In fact, it is a huge reason why I am a music teacher today.
Now, my heart is pounding as I tell the world that I am able to give that experience to my students. I want my kids to soak it all in – learning a new instrument, going through the hardships, facing challenges and staying determined, and ultimately, create beautiful music with one another. It’s a long road ahead, and I have a ton of work to do to make sure I am the best teacher possible to my students, but when it all comes together (and I know it will) It is going to be, wait for it, le…GENDARY. (Couldn’t resist.) I am truly thankful for everyone who has helped, and just know that you have made a difference not only in my life but in the lives of countless kids in the years to come. They’re going to have a crazy amount of musical memories. I know it.
A week ago, I performed as a volunteer artist for Sing for Hope at the NY Memory Center. As the name suggests, the Memory Center serves patients with memory disorders. Not knowing anything else about my audience of patients, I started playing “Over the Rainbow” and within moments, voices joined in from the audience. By the end, I saw teary-eyed volunteers, and I felt that something amazing had just happened. Somehow, this song had triggered their memory of the lyrics, and it was incredible to be able to make that happen.
What was so fascinating was hearing and being a part of the elderly patients’ connection to music. Since I work primarily with young kids, this experience was the complete opposite spectrum for me. But it simply verified one truth: we all breathe in and live with music as a part of who we are.
I’ll end with this quote a donor used in her message for my project:
Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything. – Plato
Violin photographed by the Berlin Philharmonic from the inside
In the classroom (and sometimes just somewhere in the school), my kids will come up to me to tattletale, to complain about another’s actions, to defend their actions – and on occasion I’ll get the “You look pretty Ms. Alice!” Drama, the not so forgiving kind, unleashes in the lunchroom and at recess and can really be set off at any time of the day.
Last week, one of my students was bantering with her classmate across my classroom and speaking unkind words (it is the nicest way I can put it); I spoke to her about my disappointment in what she said, and did not allow her to go to recess that day. Her response?
“I hate you Ms. Alice! I never want to come to your class again!”
I would be lying if I said I didn’t take it a little personally. I tried talking to her during lunch to explain to her why what she said to her classmate was NOT okay, but she continued to tell me her hatred for me. It was definitely a downer and made me think a lot about what I did.
The next day came along and she came up to me on her own accord, and spoke something I found so surprising:
“I’m sorry for my language, Ms. Alice.”
She went on to explain how much she liked music class (and me, really!) and how she would do the right thing next time. Little did she know, she did the right thing – right then and there.
I preach and live by teaching my kids to apologize if they did something wrong or something that hurt another person’s feelings (even if it was an accident), to confront any problem without hesitation and using peaceful methods, and to solve any issues that may come between friendships. Teaching these values to my students have made me feel that I am now a better person as I try to follow these guidelines for friendships myself.
But what’s fascinating is how many of us, as grownups, do not do this. I will venture to say that we ALL know tackling a problem straightaway (albeit post initial moments of anger) is a better option than sweeping the issues under the rug, yet we all avoid confrontations. We are too afraid to be judged by both strangers and our friends, and we don’t want to cause discomfort or any awkward moments.
I’ll assume that you are considering the discomfort of yourself as well as the unpleasantness that the other party will feel. Here is a solid high five for that thought! But because we are so unwilling to create tension, that one uneasy moment then leads to more thoughts of how the problem was handled and less ideas for some kind of a solution. You believe that the other person is thinking negatively about the situation as well, but due to our non-confrontational manners, this situation will continue to gather dust. Ultimately, this one issue becomes piled onto accumulating dust bunnies, never truly vacuumed for as long as the problem goes publicly disregarded by both people.
As problems continue to arise and confrontations are still lacking, the pile of dust because greater and more intense… until there is no more room for that newest bit of dust and BAM! Welcome to the full blown argument. That last speck was probably so insignificant – something along the lines of your friend forgetting how to use a cassette player. But it was enough to trigger an argument with name calling, sassy tones of distress and endless sentences of anger.
Here’s where it gets tricky. Sometimes this could be the absolute breaking point at which there is no return. You might never be friends with this person again, and to think it was all because that person did not return your book… or well, you don’t REALLY remember what were all the other tiny pieces to the argument that caused you to be SO livid at first. Maybe you will take a break from your friend, and just semi-apologize when you meet up again after a certain amount of time – but without truly addressing what had happened.
My idealist solution? Be the bigger person. If you’ve gotten to that ridiculous peak of anger, break down every part of the mountain (assuming you even remember it all) and address all the issues with your friend. Better late than never. I firmly believe that true friends can work it out – or at least would understand where all the tensions had been boiling up.
Unfortunately, most of us let our selfish pride get in our way. We don’t like to admit that we have been wrong, or that we committed any wrong. We don’t want to be in the same sentence as the word “wrong” – not even for a split second. When was the last time you actually talked it out with a friend though? When was the last time that you solved a problem in your friendship by talking about it – not in a passive aggressive tone, but in a “let’s figure this out” way?
I never thought my student would apologize to me, and it is certainly a testament to the great colleagues I have the privilege of working with instilling the importance of strong minds and kind hearts into their souls. The most surprising part of it for me was my realization that her apologizing to me the next day must have meant that she, on her own, had thought about it – past the moment. And she WANTED to fix things, and keep OUR relationship.
We should learn from her. We all have so much unnecessary drama in our lives that if we just took the time to apologize and work things out, I am certain would not exist. Hardships and vexations will come up, but we need to turn the page – through kindness and words. Imagine what friends we would not have lost, and also think about which relationships we can keep growing and developing in our lives. Turn the corner, and let’s keep going – together.
I am in infinite space. Where is that glow coming from? How is that I cannot see the ceiling, or the walls, or the ends? Am I standing on the edge of the Earth? Is this what the horizon truly looks like? I feel like I am in a boundless place where time does not matter… Time is completely man-made and this lack thereof is calming, peaceful. There is tranquility in the light. I only hear my footsteps and those of the others inside this space with me. The rests, absence of pitches in sound… what if this is real? The experience, in itself, IS real. (Moments of silence taking the atmosphere in).