Tell Me, Grasshopper...
"Patience, young grasshopper," said the Kung Fu master to his student. If you're like me, you sometimes hear this voice in your head.
Hearing it helps me to be a better teacher, and learner, of music. It also reminds me that sometimes the best lessons come from the grasshoppers themselves.
For years now, I've heard researchers promote the theory that playing music makes you smarter. Likely true. But this is not why I play music, and I venture to say my students feel the same way. For us, it’s about the heart.
At Songinflight Studio, when you play, sing, or listen to music, you may find yourself...
So, while music lessons may increase your many intelligences and will most certainly help you with life skills like problem solving, collaboration, and critical thinking, I ask you to consider why this all matters. As Mary Oliver says in "The Summer Day," "Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?"
May music listening, playing, and/or singing help you find your way. Delight in it, as if you were a grasshopper on a summer's day.
The Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper? This grasshopper, I mean -
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down -
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
- Mary Oliver
A piano has come into my life, but not because I grew up playing. It all started when my grandfather asked if our son wanted a Casio. He would buy him one. But we had a small house and a young child and an electronic piano honestly wasn’t that appealing.
My best friend had taken piano lessons every week until she turned eighteen, an obligation she didn’t always enjoy. Maybe that fact helped me accept that I didn’t play an instrument – or maybe it was having grown up being told that I didn’t have rhythm and was tone deaf. Regardless, I never thought much about it until I had a son. Back to the aforementioned Casio. If my grandfather had bought it, we would have found a spot in the house and replaced the broken keyboard my son played on. But it wasn’t a priority for our three-year old (as bedtime and potty training took precedence).
I did have music on my mind when we visited elementary schools in the neighborhood. At our local school, we loved the energy of the music teacher, Leslie Dawe, the moment we observed her class. When she serendipitously joined the same new book club I did, our story began.
A few months later, I couldn’t wait to tell Leslie that our son would be in her music class as a Kindergartner. That night, she shared her career news of becoming a full-time piano teacher. I was happy for her! But piano wasn’t something my family did or had. My grandfather still hadn’t gotten us that Casio and my son was showing interest in other activities.
Then, in my son’s Kindergarten year, my grandfather unexpectedly passed away. Now he wasn’t going to take my son to the symphony every year as we had planned. And the Beethoven CDs he had gifted at Christmas took on a much bigger meaning. That summer, my neighbors had a piano delivered. But instead of being happy for them, I was jealous. A flood of thoughts around how I wanted a piano kept surfacing and overtook my neighborly excitement. I did. I wanted a piano. A real piano. Old. Wooden. With pedals below and pictures on top.
When I shared this strange sentiment with a dear friend who had recently moved her family’s piano into their new house, she responded, “I have one for you. And it’s gorgeous! And would look perfect in your house!” Her boyfriend was not having success giving it away (as my piano tuner says, it did spend the last five of its hundred years sitting in a garage). Yet, when I saw the picture, I knew immediately where it would go in our house and had had just enough wine to commit. I came home and told my husband, “We’re getting a piano!”
We put my son on Leslie’s piano lesson waiting list. And then I put myself on the list. Before long, a spot opened up. My hesitation around another weekly commitment - practicing with two kids would be challenging - was quelled when Leslie told me exactly what I needed to hear at that time: piano would help me slow down when life is hectic, and there’s no expectation of practicing or performing at recitals as an adult. It would just be fun!!
So I signed up and starting going every Friday for forty-five minutes right before picking up my son from first grade. Sometimes we would chat first, sometimes play seriously, and sometimes just mess around. It was fun! I found my brain learning a whole new language. I went from knowing basic middle C to how to play a scale to a chord to all of those - with both hands together. I discovered my mother-in-law had taken lessons as a kid and she and my father-in-law could play a few beautiful duets. During one of their visits, we all practiced Amazing Grace (the introductory beginner version). I learned basic Christmas songs and brought music into our home in a way no radio or Sonos could. I was committed to doing my best and to not missing a lesson. Sometimes, that was tricky, with a sick kid or an unexpected event, or just the overall busyness of life.
Yet, I found as the year went on that when I didn’t have a lesson, my weekend was missing something. I didn’t switch from work-mode to family-mode as easily. And I missed my friend and teacher – the brief moments of sharing the week’s events through the language of music. There are lessons when it’s apparent I have not practiced. There are days when I don’t really want to go, and yet, those are the days I leave feeling the most inspired and joyful. There are days when pent up frustration I didn’t know I had comes out in the challenge of an exercise. But mostly, it is fun! Fun to learn something new every week from someone who loves her work. Leslie sings and plays original songs and sometimes walks around the studio reviewing basic rhythms. No one has ever really taught me these things – certainly not since my ballet days so long ago. And that was not fun in the way being an adult student has become!
A few weeks ago, a spot opened up for my son to take piano lessons. The first day he was nervous, but now he takes it in stride, has fun, challenges me, and is already reviewing melody combinations beyond my limited adult-learning brain.
While I may not stay in piano lessons as long as I hope he does, I am not yet ready to give them up, either. During one lesson, we arranged a version of the song “Let Her Go” which I love not only for the melody, but for the lyric, “you only know you’ve been high when you’re feeling low.” That song was popular during the time my grandmother and grandfather passed away. Its melody is beautiful and inspires my current dream project of writing a song of my own. But I will take that project one note at a time...
In the meantime, I continue to enjoy the response from others when I tell them I’m taking piano lessons. Upon reconnecting with an old friend last year, she said, “Me too! My daughter and I practice together, unless I have a glass of red wine. Then my family knows it’s just time for me.” I recently met a dad on the playground who was missing his piano - he said my story inspired him to sit down and play a little. My grandfather’s fiancé shared that she might start lessons again. If she does, we will have to hold a generational recital (even if it’s just in our house with an audience of family members only). And as I write this, a dear, dear family friend is very ill. In the last year, she bought a piano for her retirement home. I don’t know where her piano will eventually live, but I will always think of her while playing the piano, our latest of many connections over the last three decades. She knows me so well and her loving support of my lessons might just mean I continue with them for a long time.
Sure On This Shining Night...
What a wonderful night it was! Congrats to all the students who performed at Songinflight Studio’s first recital.
We had a full house, including many brand new beginners – and the love in the room was palpable. I found myself in awe of the bravery and beauty of each student who played. We heard much expressive texture, well-coordinated beats and rhythms, lovely melodies, a first exploration of triad chords, and more.
The night featured timeless classical themes, pop tunes, and (perhaps my favorite) original songs composed by these creative students. Graditude to the intermediate students for introducing our ears to Burgmuller, higher level music theory, baroque music, and even more creativity.
For a couple of recital highlights (how to choose just a couple?) click here:
The Pond, by Jon Sutton – performed by Killian
Yankee Doodle, plus original song - performed by Maggie
It was also a treat for me to perform part of the Nocturne in F Minor by Chopin – here is the video I mentioned at the recital, of Horowitz performing that same piece. Check out his composure, the romantic ebbs and flows of the tempo, and his extended trills!
Huge appreciation to my parents for so generously hosting this big ol’ party, and to my boyfriend Charlie for unending support all the way through. Video & photo credits go to my dad and Charlie as well! Thank you to all of you, family and friends, who came out to support our demonstration of learning – we like how you shared your ears (and your applause)!
What a way to come together as a community and launch our first year!
Congrats again to the following students who performed - Sasha, Victoria, Madeleine, Ava, Charlotte, Killian, Ruthie, Ellis, Brooke, Victoria, Thea A., Veronica, Lauren, Daniel, Charlie, Waverly, Natalie, Caroline, Maggie, Gemma, Cassie, and Sara! Thanks also to those who were there performing in spirit - Seiver, Sarah, Steven, Hilary, Thea C., Fiona, Cate, and Ashley! And welcome to our new students, who are invited to join us next time around!
Can't wait to see where the musical journey takes us next...
p.s. – boys, next time I want you in the picture! :)
Maya Angelou once said, “a bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.” Well, that, and maybe it wants a mate. But the point is, it sings.
So what about you? Have you found the reasons why music matters in your life? Do you need a reminder?
There is plenty of research to substantiate claims that music betters your brain. You could read about it here or here. You could also just try it for yourself.
But as a lifelong musician, songwriter, and teacher, I am far more interested in how music affects your heart. I wish for everyone to experience the way music heals us. It expresses how we feel, who we are, where we’ve been, and where we want to go. It brings us together as a community to celebrate or move through tough times. Sometimes we don’t even know what it’s telling us, but it just feels good to make music anyway.
I wonder... what song or artist/composer or album or performance resonates most deeply with who you are today? What music moves you, or reminds you of an essential truth? What music challenges you to try harder or grow? Feel free to use the comments section to share your thoughts.
If you’re looking for reasons to keep on singing, here are a couple of sources that have fired me up lately, and I'd love to hear about your latest inspirations as well...
* an hour of Winton Marsalis rhapsodizing (and playing) on why music is at the core of who we are as Americans;
* a touching children's story about how a tribe in East Africa sings to each child his own song, to help him remember who he is;
* a sappy pop song (thanks to a 1st grader at Park Hill School for sharing this!) that makes me feel happy.
Best wishes, dear reader. Keep on singing the songs in your heart. I can't wait to hear them. And maybe by sharing them, you will inspire someone else to sing the songs that are in his or hers.
Sincerely, Ms. Leslie Dawe, Songinflight Studio
Bono riffed on a Bob Dylan song that “All I got is a red guitar, three chords and the truth.” My best advice to beginning songwriters is to go even simpler than that.
Start with two chords, and that’s all.
Choose a two chord progression that you can play over and over again with ease. As you continue to play it, let your mind and heart start to talk to you – they’ll tell you what you want to say with this song. They may do it in words, or in the form of a melody that you start humming without realizing it, or as an image of a scene in your mind’s eye, or even as a movement that you suddenly find your body wanting to make.
Go with it. Have an audio recording device ready, and a pencil & paper too, if you’re old-fashioned like me.
Play those two chords until the feeling is so clear that the words or a melody start to flow out. Keep going. The recording will free you up to not worry about how it sounds or if you remember it. And it’s very helpful to listen back whenever your idea seem to reach a stopping point, because almost every time, this will give you an idea of where the song wants to go next.
Obviously, at some point you’ll want to move musically to a different chord progression – maybe adding a third or fourth chord as you find yourself stating your main point in the chorus. And no need to limit yourself – but on the other hand, keep in mind that when emotional impact is your goal, simplicity is your friend.
Typical pop songs will throw in a bridge section after a couple of verse – chorus sections, before building to a final verse – chorus (or just a final chorus).
But the point is, rather than getting overwhelmed with “how” to write a whole song, just start with 2 chords, and the truth will follow.
I should probably mention that the first song I ever wrote started out with just two chords. D, G, D, G. I played that pattern over and over while getting the feeling of what I wanted to say with this song. It turned into a narrative called “Pioneer” that broke the rules of good songwriting by not including the word pioneer anywhere in the chorus, let alone anywhere in the song. But I loved it, and still do, because it expressed a part of my twenty-something spirit that always longed for a home that seemed just beyond reach. The poignant part for me is that, in listening back to it now, I hear that I was already home.
Wishing you many brave and freeing songwriting adventures. And I’ll be happy to help you learn many tools and strategies for songwriting as part of your music lessons at Songinflight Studio.
It's pretty amazing what a group of 30 kids at a time can teach you about teaching! As I embark on this new adventure as a private music teacher at Songinflight Studio, I will always be thankful for my many wonderful students from Park Hill School and the lessons they have taught me. Here are a few:
Leslie Dawe is at heart a music educator who happens to love writing songs and performing! Good thing, too.