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”)

Self-fulfillment

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.

Humility
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…

Greed
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…

Gratefulness
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.

Jolt

(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

Privileged Sounds

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!

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The $86,000 piano my kids performed on. Photo Credit: Brittany Wilson

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

 

Sailing Friendships

Today, my Aim for my kids is

What is a choir?

Now my students sing every time they are in music with me, and they sang together on stage, and it may be a bit late in the year to explain the word “choir,” but my main reason for teaching the word choir NOW? I’m trying to reestablish the importance of teamwork and how it starts with someone as the individual first. Maybe what a lot of people don’t know is that aside from explaining, teaching and preaching music, I try to instill real-life applicable, core values: sharing, working together as a team, supporting one another, helping your friend, and the list goes on – but it all starts with YOU.

I think about my own friends and I wonder sometimes: do we actually work as a team? Friendships are two-sided (or more) but I feel that we all take friendships for granted. We all have the friends we reach out to first when we have some free time to hang out, and then we have the second layer and then the third layer of friends. We have so many Facebook friend lists: “Close Friends,” “College friends,”  “High School Friends,” the “Family friends we don’t really know,” the “Friends who went AWOL,” the “Far Away” friends.

I’ll stick to “Close Friends” list though. I, for example, am always the planner. Yes, I may pride myself on how excellent my plans are (no shame)… but I have literally played the planner role since elementary school birthday parties. For the most part, I would say my close friends just go along with the plan and show up. I almost never get appreciation for planning; I don’t necessarily seek appreciation, but saying a simple “thank you for planning” never hurt anyone.

Going back to my students, I currently MAKE them say “thank you,” apologize to each other when they have done something wrong, communicate with each other and confront any problems which may arise, and listen to as well as explain their own feelings. Hold on, why don’t we do this as adults? So much of “friendship drama” occur from lack of appreciation or apologies, miscommunication, and the unwillingness to compromise or directly problem solve. Here the problem is that I don’t always communicate to my friends my annoyance or frustration. There have been phases where I have refused to plan and therefore my friends either did not meet up, or met up in small groups themselves. So did I always have to plan? DO I always still have to plan?

Perhaps it is partially a refusal to let go of control on my part, but why do we not share responsibilities in making our friendships work? Just like in a romantic relationship, friendships are about the little things too – the “hey I want to plan something this time for our friends,” the “I really appreciate the fact that you always plan,” the “thank you for being my friend.” We should each take responsibilities for making our friendships work, and I think in an ideal world, everyone would take turns playing the different roles of planner, follower, bill calculator, reminder, to name a few. I also know it’s not in everyone’s comfort zone to plan something and have flakers or those nonresponders, but why should we be okay with taking on our roles of comfort in our society? No, it’s not okay to let someone’s energies go wasted and unnoticed. No, it’s not okay to keep ASSUMING someone will just plan and just “oh well” if you don’t see that friend until he or she reaches out to you. I’m speaking on behalf of planners everywhere when I say that I’d like for YOU, my friend, to plan, to initiate, to create, to make something from the simplest cup of tea together to the most extravagant trip abroad. Sure, you may get rejections and not everyone will respond all at once (in fact please let me know if everyone actually DOES respond immediately) and you will have to nag a lot of people, but it’s a process. We, as planners, definitely do not feel supported or cared for when we put so much work into one group brunch and no one cares to show appreciation, let alone if the friends show up late and disregards the time we spent creating that get-together.

I’m asking you to ask yourself:

When did I last plan an event for my friends to hang out? Even if it was just planning a simple dinner?

When did I last truly thank someone for organizing?

When did I last reach out to that friend who has been trying to hang out with me for the longest time but I never make time for?

When did I last show true appreciation for someone?

When did I last make an effort to step up and help a friend?

When did I last consider the time that friend spent looking up activities, figuring out timelines, mapping out itineraries and alerting us of subway problems just to make sure I COULD literally just show up?

When did I last play a different role on my team – my friends?

Something from How I Met Your Mother that really hit me this week:

“You will be shocked, kids, how easy it is in life to part ways with people forever. That’s why when you find someone you want to keep around, you do something about it.” – Ted Mosby

I know I talked rather specifically about planning, showing appreciation, and being a part of a team – in this case, your group of friends. But just think about time. The time that it takes someone to plan something, is THEIR time. Their time spent to create shared time. Shared time is precious, and if you want that shared time, you would think like Ted Mosby – and then DO SOMETHING about it. Trust me, your friends – from the planners to the other followers in your group, will appreciate it.

Choir and Chorus are synonyms. Choir has an I, and Chorus has US – and only together, as synonyms, will the Choir/Chorus sing beautifully. The same goes for friendships. Make sure the ships keep sailing by giving your captain a break. Aye Aye?

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The Power of Music

Some “amazing” (I like to think they’re amazing anyway) things happened in my music classroom this week. During the Adele Dazeem climb in Let It Go, one of my quiet, sweet Kindergarteners broke out into full Idina mode and sang the solo “the past is in the past” in the most empowering voice ever. Twice. My Pre-Kindergarteners managed to make their classroom teacher cry happy tears when they sang for her.

But on March 6, 2014, the power of music managed to make my entire class of 2nd graders cry. Together.

I know, I know. Everyone’s initial reaction is “Oh my goodness Alice what the heck did you do to them?!” Trust me, that’s what all my fellow teachers asked me, too. So here’s what happened (I’m also totally gearing up for the How I Met Your Mother finale):

I decided that for the school’s Spring Arts Festival, all my students (aka the whole school) should sing “I Believe I Can Fly” as the final number. Empowering, all about dreaming big, and just a great song and message for everyone. On the board was Aim: What does believe mean? – and I was excited to engage my students in a discussion about what it means to believe something and what it takes to go from believe to ACHIEVE in life.

Kindergarteners and 1st Graders received the song really well, and some of them had heard it before – even better! I was extremely excited to welcome my 2nd Graders into class to really delve deep into the topic of the day. I told them I was about to play a song that some of them may have heard before, and I wanted them to close their eyes and really think about what it meant when R. Kelly sang the word believe.

The song started playing and I closed my eyes as well. But as I took peeks throughout various moments in the song to make sure my kids’ eyes were closed, I started seeing one or two my students cry. When we reached the end of the song, I opened my eyes to see four of my students crying. Immediately I thought, wow, it must have really moved them! I asked in a gentle voice, “would you like to share what this song is making you feel?” I could hardly believe what I was about to hear.

One by one, each of the four students told me stories about how they last heard this song at a relative’s funeral. For one it was a close uncle. For the others, their grandparents. I immediately responded, “it is completely okay to feel this way and let your emotions out like this,” and we started talking about what it meant to lose someone. The room was so quiet but the cries so deafening as I heard my students truly cry out for those they have lost in life. I then started to talk about how music can help us let these emotions out and allow us to express ourselves. I personally shared that I had not met three of my grandparents and how I feel loss and resonate with them. I even said that those who are no longer with us want to see us happy and doing the right thing and enjoying school and life.

But the more I talked about the situation, the more students started crying. I can only imagine that more and more students started identifying with their friends and/or with me and envisioned those they missed in their lives or family members they had never met. In a matter of minutes, my entire class of 2nd graders were crying – some hysterically and some quietly with the kids they sat next to.

I didn’t know what to do. First, I had us all take deep breaths. It didn’t work. Then I had us sing Let It Go to literally try to let go of our burdens and sadness that now weighed so heavily upon all their little shoulders. But my kids were literally inconsolable. I don’t even know if you can really imagine this. A room full of melancholy sobs and sorrowful cries so loud that the classroom down the hall could hear them. It was time for lunch and my kids were in two lines, crying and crying and crying.

But I didn’t stop it. I let it continue. We walked down the stairs and at each landing I would look back at my heavy-hearted, grief-stricken students. We walked into the lunch room with stares from all the other kids in the school wondering what the heck I had just done to this class. They continued to sob on the lunch line, and even after they sat back down with their lunch.

One of the initial 2nd graders who started crying asked me,

“Why did you HAVE to play that song, Miss Alice? Why?!”

“Well, do you think I would have played that song if I knew it was played at your Uncle’s funeral?”

“No…”

“I’m really sorry, A. I never meant to make you upset, just know that it’s okay to feel this way.”

I really didn’t mean to unleash all these emotions. After all, I had no idea this was a popular funeral song!

I took a few moments for myself after I left the lunchroom just walking through the hallways and reflecting on what I had just experienced. In Her, one of the most powerful quotes that really struck me was,

“Sometimes I think I have felt everything I’m ever gonna feel. And from here on out, I’m not gonna feel anything new. Just lesser versions of what I’ve already felt.”

It’s an interesting idea, what this quote says, especially since I often feel that I have already experienced a lot of what music has to offer me personally. But what I experienced proves this quote wrong at an extraordinary level. Never could I imagine that one song could elicit such a reaction from ALL of my students.

What a powerful experience that was. In those moments together with my students, we all felt loss, pain, hurt, so low-spirited. We mourned together, and as crazy the hysterical cries must have been – it brought us closer. We shared those moments together. And it’s because the power of music allowed us to

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I mean, I really shouldn’t be surprised. I did manage to make a fellow teacher cry happy tears because her Pre-K students sang so beautifully for her. But there’s something about the other end of the spectrum of somber crying that is so deep and indescribable when we confront it. The kind that happens at funerals when you’re missing the one who had passed. But this happened in my music classroom. Because we listened to one song. And that one song made us each think of people we missed. People, nonetheless – but different people.

It was much more than just a music lesson. But it was the most powerful kind of music lesson I could have ever imagined. It’s certainly something I will never forget for the rest of my life.

I wonder if my kids will remember it when they grow up.