The hard days

Thursday was one of those hard days at work. You know what I mean – those days that you’re just trying to get through for the sake of getting through. I just wasn’t feeling in the mood to teach or be particularly energetic about what I was doing. And it wasn’t the snow, because I love snow. Really!

Anyway it was late already but I was still teaching a private lesson. In the middle of this lesson, my 11-year-old student had encountered octave chords for the first time and kept complaining about how much his hand hurt. Now FYI, I have grown up with tiny hands and was only able to reach an octave for the first time when I was 16 (yes you read that right). So you could only imagine how dismayed I was at him for giving up so easily when I KNEW he could do it. And for the next 30 minutes my ears heard nonstop complaints of “I can’t” and “it hurts.”

But I could not just move on. I would not. Here was a boy who could play octaves, but just believed that he couldn’t. I tried everything I could: talked about how he should not give up, how I want him to trust me and that I would never ask him to do something that would physically hurt him, how I was super jealous of anyone who could play octaves as a kid because I physically couldn’t, how I’m only tough on the students I really care about and I expect only the best, how he CAN do it and not to give up, and so much more. In all this talk though he actually played all the octaves probably close to 50 times. But he didn’t realize this, and instead I kept pushing for him to do it again. I told him I would not give up on him, that I absolutely refused to.

When he finally did play the octaves without stopping in between, I gave him a little praise. But only a little. “I’m proud of you for not giving up and I’m glad you are trusting me. And I’m not saying that this will be easy next time or the time after that, but it will get better over time.” And I think it finally got to him. I hope so.

Moments like these are huge for me. I can’t promise to be excited for what I do all the time (although I must say I usually am pretty excited), but if in my time with children I can show them and have them understand the unlimited potential of willpower, then not only am I am lucky to be the person who gets to do that, but I also feel a deep responsibility to do this to the fullest. If I can do that for even just one child of the hundreds I see each day, then all the hard days are worth the grunt and sweat.

Can I do it for more than one kid? How about for myself? Now the real challenge begins.

(For my classical music enthusiasts and fellow musicians, the piece tackled was Leopold Mozart’s “Minuet in F”)

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Minds Deserve Better, Hardships Should Be Harder

A few weeks ago I went to see Aziz Ansari perform live at Madison Square Garden. Opening for Aziz was another comedian whose name I don’t remember. It took roughly 3.25 minutes until this man went for the stereotypical, crude and racist jokes. While the audience laughed at most of the cheap shots he made, I sat there in silent fury. I couldn’t believe that this comedian who was having his “moment” in Madison Square Garden in New York City, was making these jokes for his debut! I was also in shock with the audience who just cracked up at each low blow. I’m no angel and while a few bits did make me smile, I could only feel guilty with my own reflexes at condoning it all. Immediately after his set I turned to my boyfriend and asked very adamantly:

Don’t we deserve better? Don’t our MINDS DESERVE BETTER?!

My peace-loving boyfriend didn’t have much to say in response, though I figure most of the audience would not have a response to my demanding question… So alright then. I had paid hard-earned money for the seat I was in but this comedian surely set Aziz up for failure and I was just have to deal with another 1+ hour of shameful comedy.

Boy/Girl, was I quick to judge! Aziz hit home on so many topics, and in a thoughtful way. My favorite bit was when Aziz talked a lot about his immigrant parents – especially about how they truly worked hard and sacrificed loads for his upbringing, because my parents did too. I’m no comedian, but I’m sure Aziz could have easily defaulted to the “model minority” myth in the form of jokes with his routine. He didn’t though. We should reject humor that jabs negatively at race. It is outdated and offensive, and no one’s skin color alone should be the subject to gain a few laughs. As a society, we need to reverse the norm that racial jokes are okay. They are not.


Aziz kept his standup current and humorously made commentary on our “first world problems” today. “But what hardships would I have to share with my children?” Aziz asked himself. Aziz then went on to imagine telling a story of how his iPad died on an airplane from NYC to LA but luckily there was on-flight entertainment, though he would still have to endure the twenty minutes total of takeoff and landing time when he couldn’t use any electronics. What. A. Problem. We, the audience, were all cracking up so hard – knowing that that is so real and probably will be a pitiful “hardship” of ours to share with the future generation.

Aziz made me ask the same question to myself. Some of my students don’t have homes or enough food to eat or money to spend on extraneous things, but what really do I have to go through? While I supposed I lead a relatively luxurious life when it comes to the things I own, the food I eat and the devices I use, my current generation suffers from selfie obsessive compulsive disorder and definitely misses living in the moment in order to capture it instead, often for the purposes of sharing with others and showing off our lives. That, is our generational hardship. Simply living in the moment.

As for me? Hmm… I’m still trying to define the word hardship in terms of my own life. But isn’t it a bit ridiculous? That I have to think so hard about a hardship in my life? A true hardship should just come to mind immediately, and I almost feel like nothing I’ve endured is a “real” hardship. My hardships should be harder – and maybe that in itself is my hardship.

Memories of Strings

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 BachVivaldi… 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

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Violin photographed by the Berlin Philharmonic from the inside

 

Turn the Corner

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.

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Black Corner by Nancy Eckels