Thursday, July 26, 2012

Music, Joy, and Discipline

A friend recently lent us Thad Carhart's The Piano Shop on the Left Bank, a compelling nonfiction narrative about the author's re-engagement with the piano through his friendship with a piano refurbisher in Paris.  Tim and I both read it; we learned a lot about the history of the piano and we appreciated Carhart's account of his relationship with the piano from childhood through adulthood.  Carhart loves the piano but has never wanted to play for other people.  He rightly points out that many methods of teaching piano to children cannot accommodate this; playing in public is a yearly ritual most young piano students have to endure, despite the fact that it may ruin their love for the instrument.

We've been so fortunate to have found a piano teacher for N. who is both rigorous and challenging but is always focused at the same time on helping her students find joy in music.  Her students' spring recital was a truly happy event; many of her newer students who might have been intimidated by playing in a recital simply played a duet with the teacher.  N. thoroughly enjoys playing for others, and I'm grateful that his teacher has cultivated this so effectively. She also offers N. a wide variety of music to explore, so that he plays classical as well as jazz and blues-style pieces.  She was wonderfully patient as he went through a Joplin phase this winter playing pieces he loved that were technically above his ability; another teacher might have said that playing these pieces before he was ready was bad for his technique.  Like most great teachers (of all kinds of subjects), she is both demanding and attuned to her students' perspectives on their encounters with the material they are learning.

Thad Carhart didn't get to experience this kind of teaching until he was an adult:
"One of the revelations of taking up the piano again as an adult was to find that, other than in musical matters, my teacher was my peer."
N.'s piano teacher is successful because, while her young students aren't exactly her peers as the adult Carhart is his teacher's peer, she recognizes that her students are real people.  There is no illusion in Carhart's lessons that he'll become a great pianist; similarly N.'s teacher seems to focus primarily on the present moment for her students, helping them make real music right away (while still developing their skills) rather than focusing excessively on foundational exercises and scales that are supposed to pay off in the future, as one of Carhart's childhood teachers did.  Furthermore, after a thorough disenchantment, N.'s teacher had taken a ten-year break from teaching or even playing the piano; through teaching students to express joy in music now, she has rediscovered it herself.  Though her students are too young to understand how she is growing from teaching them, I believe that this mutuality nonetheless gives their lessons a productive electricity.  Her lessons are live events; she isn't merely going through the motions by rote.

Carhart's rediscovery of the piano as an adult is joyful because it is freely chosen:
"Gone were the empty, childish excuses for not having practiced; gone, too, the sheepish reliance on others to make me work.  The fundamental rule was simple enough to grasp without ever being articulated: if you practice, you get better.  It was as simple -- and as demanding -- as that.  It was an unexpectedly pleasant form of self-discipline: this travail wasn't for my parents or for the teacher or for the year-end recital.  This was for me."
We want foster this sense of ownership ("This was for me") in N. but we also want him to practice every day.  Most of the time when our days unfold according to their usual pattern, these two goals are mutually reinforced.  Tim or I sit with N. at the piano to help him practice productively and he takes immense pleasure in improving through practice.  Occasionally, of course, the goals of ownership and daily practice are at odds, and we have to cajole a reluctant child to the instrument.  On such days we hope we are helping him develop "grit," the discipline to wrestle with something challenging every day on his own when he is older.   

Recently I asked N., "Do you like the way we make piano practice part of your daily routine or would you like to be in charge of it?"  He said, "I like the routine because then I do my practice and learn my pieces." He contrasted this with a friend who takes lessons but doesn't practice as regularly and is frustrated by his slower progress.  "Sometimes on Saturdays I want to play outside with [a friend] first but when I practice first then I have fun playing outside because I know I have already done piano." 
N. and his wonderful piano teacher

Friday, July 20, 2012

Poetry Friday: Railroad Rhythms (again) -- A Visit to the National Railroad Museum

Knowing N.'s love of trains, a friend recently sent him a postcard that reprinted the last stanza (the complete poem is still under copyright) from Ogden Nash's "Riding on a Railroad Train" (1937):
(must wear train-themed t-shirt to train museum!)
Oh, some like trips in luxury ships,
And some in gasoline wagons,
And others swear by the upper air
And the wings of flying dragons.
Let each make haste to indulge his taste,
Be it beer, champagne, or cider;
My private joy, both man and boy,
Is being a railroad rider.

So we were already familiar with these lines when we saw them on a recent trip to the National Railroad Museum in Green Bay, Wisconsin.  This museum doesn't exactly live up to its self-aggrandizing name in quantity or quality of displays, but it has a couple important cosmetically-restored engines: The British A4 Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Union Pacific 4017 Big Boy, and a Raymond Loewy-designed Pennsylvania GG1.  N. also enjoyed seeing a logging shay, an unrestored Aerotrain with its strange bus-body passenger cars, and old DM&IR 2-10-2 from 1919 (#506), and a Burlington Route Zephyr-style observation car.  Other museum highlights include a big exhibit of beautiful railroad china and an exhibit of "drumheads," the vivid signs on the end car that advertized a railroad's signature line, such as the 20th Century Limited.
We also really appreciated what we could view of an exhibit on Pullman porters (its installation was incomplete) mounted in a 1920s Pullman car which highlighted the porters' long efforts to unionize (forming the first all-black labor union in 1937), their role in disseminating news nationwide to African-Americans, and their role in the civil rights movement. (I did, however, hate the incredibly annoying "computer generated porter with interactive capabilities" on screens throughout the car; it seems insensitive to use CGI in an exhibit that is meant to highlight to oft-overlooked human struggles of a group of people.  Why not use an actor?).

Much of the National Railway Museum's unrestored stock sits in a dark outdoor shed and many items lack any kind of identification or sign, which was incredibly frustrating.  We went in a dusty unrestored railway post office car (we've been in clean, restored RPOs in Minnesota and North Carolina) in this shed.  At the end of the car, the door leading to the next car on the track was open, so we tiptoed into a very dark Empire Builder sleeping car and then into a Vista-Dome diner, shining my phone like a flashlight.  Creeping through their dark, mildewy interiors lent drama to our visit; we got a kind of "private joy" from exploring types of cars we've never been able to enter before, and imagining their original 1950s synthetic gleam.

So our visit to the National Railway Museum juxtaposed the heroic presentation of World War II with Eisenhower's command cars, the faded, dusty glamor of 1950s unrestored passenger cars, and the moving story of those who were excluded from the full benefits of a society their labor made possible until they banded together to bring about change.  N. has learned a lot of history from "being a railroad rider."

[Poetry Friday is hosted this week by A Teaching Life.]

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Screen Time=Game Time

This New York Times story from this spring is supposedly about a “digital divide” between children of more and less educated parents.  The lede is that children of less educated parents waste more time on digital devices.  But for me the interesting point is not a “divide” (which is actually rather small) but the huge amount overall that children (regardless of who their parents are) spend using multimedia/ digital devices: between 10 and 11.5 hours PER DAY! 
Children of more educated parents, generally understood as a proxy for higher socioeconomic status, also largely use their devices for entertainment. In families in which a parent has a college education or an advanced degree, Kaiser found, children use 10 hours of multimedia a day, a 3.5-hour jump since 1999. (Kaiser double counts time spent multitasking. If a child spends an hour simultaneously watching TV and surfing the Internet, the researchers counted two hours.)
In contrast,
The study found that children of parents who do not have a college degree spend 11.5 hours each day exposed to media from a variety of sources, including television, computer and other gadgets. That is an increase of 4 hours and 40 minutes per day since 1999.
For me, the larger point here is not the 90-minute difference between the two groups, but the large total for both groups.  Even if you discount Kaiser's method of double-counting the use of multiple devices at once, and even if you think that children's screen time is not harmful, or even beneficial, that is a lot of screen time.

And what are kids doing on their devices all that time?  Education policy-makers have long been promoting digital technology for its supposed educational value, particularly for disadvantaged groups, without (apparently, amazingly) considering the entertainment factor.
Like other researchers and policy makers, Ms. Boyd said the initial push to close the digital divide did not anticipate how computers would be used for entertainment.
“We failed to account for this ahead of the curve,” she said.
When computers first entered classrooms in the 80s when I was an elementary student, games were the most appealing aspect of the machines.  How did education policy-makers not notice this?

[I cross-posted this from my Tumblr, where I post links and articles that interest me, because I felt like ranting about it here!]