Sucking the Joy…


Last Friday I was reminded of something I hadn’t thought about for a long time.  As usual this led to my thinking laterally about other important things that seem (at least to me) to relate.  These thought-fugues always end up relating to piano playing and piano teaching, so try to follow along.

What I was reminded of was a telescope that I got when I was in 6th grade.  It was a real telescope, and I liked standing on our porch and looking at the moon, and sometimes, Venus, which was one of the more present celestial bodies.  In 1962 AT&T launched Telstar, one of the first satellites that I could see with my little telescope.  I remember a little paperback book that I had that discussed the constellations, planets and more prominent stars that would be visible, the times of year that I would be able to see them, and other totally stimulating things about astronomy.  Astronomy stimulated my imagination.

When I entered the University of Northern Iowa I signed up for Astronomy for my first semester.  Astronomy had nothing to do with my curriculum as a piano major.  I wanted to take that course because it gave me… joy!  I could actually hear the sound of my joy being sucked from my soul when I looked into the Introduction to Astronomy text, rife with formulas that a physicist would recognize, possibly admire or even be attracted to.  But physics and math were not what had endeared me to the stars.  I was probably lucky to get a “C” in that course.  I skipped lots of sessions, and I never looked back.

What, you might ask, led me to ponder a college course taken fifty years ago?  Marian and I were enjoying the start to our weekend.  We were sincerely hoping that the snow would really, really melt.    Minneapolis has seen a huge growth in microbreweries in the last two years.  We have reveled in this fact, and we had decided to try out a taproom that we had never been to.  As we were reading about their offerings, we noticed a series of numbers affixed to the beer descriptions.

ABV is the most obvious:  Alcohol BVolume is the one that Marian sees first.  She has quite a low tolerance for alcohol, but has grown to love the tastes of different varieties of beer and ale.

I like to look for the IBU.  This is the International Bitterness Unit.  Bitter probably sounds a little negative if you are not a beer lover, but it is a perceptional factor in the tastes of chocolate and coffee also.  Bitterness is important.

The little acronym that we saw Friday night that neither of us had seen before was SRM.  We “Googled” SRM and found that it meant Standard Reference Method.  What?  So, let’s read a little bit, here.

“…one of several systems modern brewers use to specify beer color.” 

 Oh, OK.  That’s cool.  Beer comes in so many colors other than ‘Budweiser!’  So what is there beyond a Pilsner yellow, or an Amber-amber and a nice, rich brownish-black Stout or Porter?

“Determination of the SRM value involves measuring the attenuation of light of a particular wavelength (430 nm) in passing through 1 cm of the beer, expressing the attenuation as an absorption and scaling the absorption by a constant (12.7 for SRM.”

What???  This was getting to sound like Physics, or something.  I can taste the IBU, so I care.  Marian can feel the ABV, so she chooses wisely.  I’m going to give this SRM one more chance.

“The SRM number was originally, and still is, defined by “Beer color intensity on a sample free of turbidity and having the spectral characteristics of an average beer is 10 times the absorbance of the beer measured in a 1/2 inch cell with monochromatic light at 430 nanometers.”

Well, now you have really lost me.  In fact, you probably have maxed out your lose-ability, right!

“Using Beer-Lambert again gives the mathematical definition of SRM in the general case as:  SRM=12.7 x A430 where D is the dilution factor (D = 1 for undiluted samples, D = 2 for 1:1 dilution etc.) and A430 the absorbance at 430 nm in 1 cm.”

Oh. God. My. Brain. Just. Farted!

 I had to shut down the Google app, go back to my beer and decide I didn’t care what color it was.  I just wanted to enjoy my beer, in the moment.  This is when my mind shot back to those who sucked the joy, for me, out of the entire field of Astronomy.  They were desperately trying to show me how scientific, how important the measurement of color is to the field of brewing.  Maybe, they seemed to say, if your mind is too small to understand our system of measuring, recording and grading the color of our lagers and ales… just maybe you should try a nice strong cup of tea!!  They were trying to squeeze the joy out of loving the beer.

Now, you are probably saying, “Yes, Rory, this is mighty interesting, although more than a slight departure from the central premise of the Fingers Dancing blog.”  But is it?  Are piano teachers above squeezing the joy of music making out of their students?  Here is the connection:

As a pianist, I know that playing the piano beautifully is a complex enterprise.  I know that reading music is a high level function of pattern recognition.  I have endeavored, over fifty years, to hone my reading into a true science.  Composers, such as George Crumb, have developed graphic notation formats that challenge professional pianists.

I have learned enough, and read enough, about the art and science of practicing that I could write books on the subject.  I might if I had time… but I’m usually practicing.  Luckily there is a recent body of writing on piano practice that clearly allows those interested to become experts at acquiring professional levels of performance.

I know that there is a great body of knowledge on the performance practices of individual composers and their eras.  Universities offer doctorates in that area.  I know that building a piano technique can take a lifetime.

As a piano teacher, I have learned is that, as excited as I might be about knowledge and skills that I acquire, my students need time to absorb every element of knowledge about the piano.  I have learned that my students don’t have to learn everything at once.  We can overwhelm them with detail, and suck the joy of playing the piano right out of their souls.

The human animal wants to learn… wants to do better, and wants to enjoy the process of learning.  My job is to get my students started on the path.  I have to find that fine line between satisfaction and dissatisfaction.  If I am alert my students will give me signals.  They will ask pointed questions about a barrier that they have failed to break through.  This tells me that they are ready for a subtler layer to their learning journey.  My job is not, however, to wait passively for their questions, for those famed ‘teaching moments.’  My job is to manipulate my students into just barely crossing that line from satisfaction to dissatisfaction.  At that moment I have a chance to serve them up with another helping of joy.

One last story…  One of my daughters, when she was in first grade, suddenly became interested in writing stories.  They were quite imaginative.  I wanted to encourage this for many reasons, among which was the fact that she was having some trouble with reading comprehension.  I thought that writing her ideas might help her make the connections we need when we ponder what we read.  I think the first grade teacher had the right ideas about these stories, but the way she implemented the project was greatly flawed.  I noticed that the assignments started to come home, marked in red, noting spelling and grammar errors.  Rather than let this child revel in the pure joy of creation, of using her imagination and expressing her ideas, the teacher opted to suck the joy.  We all know that spelling and proper grammar are important, but… I think you know how this ends.  One less child interested in a joyless activity.

As for me, I shall continue to look up in the sky and try to spot planets and constellations.  I will drink my craft beer, hold the glass up to the light and marvel at the color and taste.  I refuse to let my joy be sucked from me, and I resolve to allow my students the pure joy of playing, of controlling that huge machine.  That machine has a soul of its own, and when paired with the soul of a human, the beauty that ensues is a miracle.


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