Musings

Audiation, Respect, and Learning to Listen: A Lesson on Giving a Lesson  (An Essay on Music intersecting with Social Justice)  

“Remember, even if the bow is the only thing you accomplish in the first lesson, that is your one point for Parker for the week. Give him only one goal. Then praise him when he follows through!” My mentor reflected the excitement of a child who had just discovered ice cream. 

That’s it? 

Every Suzuki music lesson starts with a formal bow between the teacher and the student. It is meant only to begin and end the lesson—not be the entire lesson. 

“Then when he accomplishes the bow, the following week position him at the piano, and show him how to sit at the bench without making a sound. Again, remember to praise him for his accomplishment!” 

That can’t be enough, can it? 

Christina’s guidance made me nervous, even though my first lesson with Parker was a bit chaotic. However, she was the child whisperer, not I. I had been teaching for seven years until then, but my classroom management came from intimidation and strictness. Suzuki was not only a new curriculum but an entirely new philosophy. After a full week’s worth of training, observing different children playfully demonstrate mature concepts, I expected a fluid start. Instead, Parker didn’t last ten minutes without squirming and running away. It took several lessons for him and me to successfully lock eyes, let alone to bow to one another. I knew the three-and-a-half-year-old didn’t comprehend the significance of our ritual. But it would be simplistic to say that Parker was the only one who struggled with it. Even I had easily disregarded our bookend habit. 

The bow is the sign of mutual respect. No matter how the lesson progresses, positively or negatively, it starts and ends with a bow. The listening practice then follows. In Suzuki, students are taught restraint and are not allowed to press a note until they have mastered the bow, silence, and listening. These must be the foundation for conduct and discipline. If these two elements are not established at the onset, it creates a perpetual pattern of mistrust, negativity, and mistakes that will need repetitive correction in later lessons. 

What if the bedrock for every conversation was mutual respect and radical listening? We would avoid impulsive social media posts — regretful exhibitions of our lack of emotional control and ignorance. Listening wouldn’t be weaponized as a way to attack debaters. Speeches would more reflect principles and beliefs without the need for self-validation or exhibitions of self-righteousness. The ancient wisdom of being “quick to listen and slow to speak” would bring life to our relationships. Although I was the leader in the classroom, being too preoccupied with my dignity and control blinded me from seeing Parker’s unspoken needs. Furthermore, a chance was missed to give generously to him. 

In the United States, there has been a recent increase in discussions regarding the nation’s divisions in race, gender, sexuality, religion, class, and political party affiliations. It is easy to corner people into over-generalized associations. I see it when people clutch their belongings when my black male friend strolls by, or when the local panhandler—a veteran with PTSD— is painted as a social welfare leech. Misinformed judgments feed systems that continue to disadvantage and exclude certain groups from rising. Injustice occurs when we refuse to regard others as valuable as ourselves. 

Honor brings about unlikely conversations. Our goal in conversation should not be Agreement but powerful empathetic exchanges. It is not that we become a homogeneous people, but a mosaic. Non-profits inform me about modern slavery as we collaborate for benefit concerts. Multiple friends work at Lawndale Health Center — a clinic specialized in providing medical assistance to folks of diverse classes and races. Conservative and liberal friends dialogue on how to pour finances into the causes they want to champion. Certainly, it takes effort to connect over a common vision; however, when others are valued, unity can happen — improbable bonds are created to heal society. 

Imitation is necessary for the initial stages of learning but eventually, students must hear and play music without a teacher’s prompting. The ability to hear a sound in one’s mind without its externalization is called audiation. Audiation is trained through consistent active listening and denotes musical comprehension. An idea must be heard before it is played, improvised, or composed. Students must not only hear in their minds past iterations but must hear their own interpretation. Without this, students cannot create nor contribute to a musical conversation. Copying without offering new insight stunts any real dialogue. Educators who only want exact regurgitations only make clones. They lose opportunities to learn from their apprentices and to engage in a fresh expression. 

Similarly, as I engage in discussions with counterparts, I have found it beneficial to step back from directing a conversation to a particular conclusion. Instead, I have learned more like the one who brings questions, observes cues, and allows for speakers to arrive upon their own revelations. When my conversational partners have expressed their thoughts and their points of view without abrupt interjections, they are naturally inclined to hear my perspective. 

It has been two months since my first lesson with Parker. Not only has he improved the bow, but he has surprised me by improvising his own ideas. During one of our activities, Parker not only accurately clapped the given rhythm but casually proceeded to make up a few patterns of his own. His father and I gratefully clapped back his examples and were pleased to see him engaged. 

Parker and I have just begun our conversation. We are still learning about honor and the art of listening. Currently, we may not fathom the other discussions we will have to explore. I may not even anticipate the other ways in which he will educate me. He may not know it now, but our lessons have already shown him values he will need inside as well as outside the classroom. 

And that is already a good start.

You're Going to Hurt Yourself 

photo credit: Jordan Whitfield 

 

"Casalmaggiore Festival Summer 2007 

Masterworks Festival Summer 2010," 

so it used to say on my resumé. I had decorated it with every distinguished institution, teacher, and festival I could find in my past, even though I knew labels never show the whole story. 

The summer of Masterworks was far from the experience of education I was expecting. I went thinking I would have a jump start on my junior piano recital repertoire and impress a few graduate school professors. The daily routine was practicing, lessons, masterclasses, and recitals. The goal at these residencies was usually to achieve as much as possible, in hopes that you would be rewarded with more instruction from prestigious experts or opportunities to perform. 

Instead, I was going back and forth with my resident assistant on whether or not I had bed bugs crawling in my mattress, or whether or not my eczema was just out of control without a clue of its trigger. She was sweet, and I could see that she was doing everything in her power to calm my anxieties. I probably should have gone home. But I wasn’t going to waste daddy’s money or my precious access to a wonderful learning environment because my skin was doing what it was so accustomed to doing — crumbling under the weight of stress and new environments. 

“Are you still awake?” my roommate groggily asked. The darkness that surrounded us only heighten the sounds of my fingers grating on my skin. 

“I’m itching, but that’s normal. Don’t worry about me. Sorry if it disturbed your sleep.” I withheld my breath as if that would add less noise. I could smell the blood on my fingers. 

Unable to admit defeat before summer had really started, I gave myself no option to leave. It was either hope or desperation that made me stay. Sophomore year of college was solidly the slump that everyone had predicted, but I wasn’t recovering. Throughout that whole year, tears were streaming down my face as I tried to repeat passages with my fingers. What came from them disgusted my ears. 

 

One thing Masterworks was not was slave-driving. Teachers, mentors, and colleagues were kind, compassionate, humble, yet eager and diligent. There was no cut-throat competition, though neither was it flattering. It was a healthy place for growth — a rare classical music environment to find. While this should have been instantly consoling, kindness only added salt to my wounds. I could only see pity in their eyes. 

Dr. Lori and I worked together on Prokofiev Sonata No. 3: a frantic and percussive 20th-century piece. Its madness began from the very first note and I was winded every time I played it. 

“We’re going to slow you down. If you keep up this tension, you’re going to injure yourself.” Her head dipped as she looked darkly at me through her glasses. Then her smile quickly returned, as we began the first page again at half the speed. 

I sank my fingers until I contacted the wood at the bottom of the keys. The gesture was floppy, but it needed to be to achieve complete relaxation. We stopped almost every phrase to check if my shoulders had scrunched to my ears, my back had hunched over, or my forearms had begun flexing. 

I was no stranger to slow practice, but this was elementary. 

“Don’t forget to breathe when you play,” she prescribed. 

Later that week, I watched my colleague’s fingers dazzle at Chopin’s Butterfly etude for a masterclass with Eastman’s Nelita True, when it came to me: I was never going to be like her. It was then that I decided it was time to seek the festival counselor. I was usually suspect of counselors, but I knew it wouldn’t hurt talking out my pain or my confusion. Clearly another lesson wasn’t going to get me the direction I needed. 

 

 

Maria emanated patience right from our first greeting. Her eyes were in a perpetual squint as if always in contemplation. I started off talking about the scales falling from my leathery outside. She herself was no stranger to physical pain, which put me at ease. I hated describing the nature of my condition to people who lived pain-free lives. Their faces would only become squeamish or awkwardly silent. We discussed how my body was trying to communicate to me. Even knowing this, I couldn’t decipher its code. Whatever its message was, it only ever seemed to scream it. 

Having reached a dead-end on the topic, we moved onto the lack of progress in my studies. I suggested that perhaps I was in the wrong field altogether until she suggested, “What if music hasn’t left you? What if it’s redefining into something else? Have you ever thought about music healing you and others?” 

To think of music as a source for healing had never sincerely crossed my mind. Never ever. 

“Oh yea, I mean people have talked about music therapy and such. Not sure I wanna go into that.” 

“I didn’t mean that. Just simply when you play, it brings healing to those around you. You just mentioned your father was a doctor, so I just wondered if some of that heart had been passed on to you.” 

The thought was missionary-like, hippie, fluffy, maybe laughable, even perplexing. If I’m suffering in my own body, how would I ever be a healer? Or perhaps, I had indeed inherited a noble endeavor. I stared at the flowers around me. 

I just want to make beautiful things. 

Maria and I continued walking until we arrived at a practice room and cozied ourselves inside. An aching sensation pulled at my chest and my hands started tingling as they skimmed over the ivory keys like it was the first time. The instrument had once been an intimate friend, but now it seemed like a stranger. 

“You said that you felt the piano had become an obsession, and thus you needed to emotionally detach. What if you’re ready to have it back now?” 

Through the tears welling in my eyes, I stared doubtfully at my marred fingers. 

 

 

To be continued...

Your Package is Arriving 

 

 

Photo credit: @nathan_dumlao

It happened for the second time. 

I stared dumbfounded at the giant Daily Harvest box as I wiped it down with a Clorox wipe — fully stocked with 26 smoothies and soups. No one should complain about getting food, but I wasn’t ready to pay for another shipment. I also didn’t have endless freezer space to share. It should’ve been canceled in light of my last flawed order. 

My last shipment was completely filled with nut items. Every smoothie had some sort of hazelnut or almond, and I was allergic to them all. 

I double-checked my order receipts and confirmed that I myself had made no egregious errors. Once the anxiety and shame lifted, I wondered whether the food was meant for someone else. Anyway, it was impossible to return freezer food. 

I quickly ruled out passing highly perishable and high-maintenance food to a food bank, so I texted my friend group asking if anyone was interested. Almost everyone replied that they welcomed free food and seeing my face outside Zoom from a safe distance. Quarantine had been difficult for us all. A little package of healthy tasty goodies wasn’t going to hurt. Besides, showing friends what I was cooking for myself through a screen was only making the hospitality itch stronger. 

Before I could think about the possibility of charging my friends for the items, my stomach churned. It would’ve been justified, but I knew somehow that I needed to trust that I was gonna get full refunds, despite the fact that I reasoned that it would be hopeless with all the quarantine hassle and my absence of a haggling bone. However, a few days later, I was paid back in full, without any kind of fight (a testament to their good customer service). I squinted at the text in disbelief from Brendan, the guy on the other line. It was so polite, simple, and apologetic. I almost cried. 

In no way did I think that situation would reoccur and yet when it did, I still believed it was no more than a fluke. Shipments have been crazy anyways with the influx of them. 

But I heard a voice say, “You are meant to give it away. I’ve given it to you to bless your loved ones.” 

Just the week before, my brother and sister-in-law reported being unemployed and furloughed. With both being parents, eldest children of immigrant families, and engineers by trade, I only imagined that such a disposition, particularly with so many unpredictable variables, wouldn’t be easy. With that thought, I knew the box was theirs — a sign of hope. 

The next day, my brother picked it up from our house steps, and peeking out from above his face mask were his furrowed brows and eyes of gratitude. 

“Thanks, sis.” 

And two days after that, I was fully refunded, with no more than three texts to customer service.    

I do not pretend like I have ended world hunger. Nor will I pretend like I do not benefit from systems that disadvantage some and not others. In fact, it bothers me that while I have a fridge, freezer, and pantry that could last my family for a few weeks post-air-raid, many others don’t have the means for simple essentials (see below for a link). 

This global crisis has humbled me to understand that I need to live ever more consciously for the neighbors around me. 

Faith without deeds is dead. 

Or, to rephrase it: 

What is the use of good intentions if there isn’t a life that reflects it? 

I don't know if I have the faith or ability to end poverty. What I do know is that for these two events, I did what was asked of me. I believe this is only the beginning of free boxes showing up at my door — pieces of abundance from heaven to earth. 

 

Visit this site for access to COVID-19 resources: 

https://ywcachicago.org/about/news/covid-19/covid-19-resources/