Friday, May 30, 2014

Poems: Quiet Night and Teddy Bear

quiet night
in a new apartment
boxes everywhere
i take a break
to read poetry

soft little arms
cuddle her teddy bear
just like
her father and i
when we hold her

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Make It Stick: How a Book on the Science of Learning Can Make You a Better Musician

As a musician and a music teacher, I'm often drawn to books on how to learn and practice more effectively. Music requires life-long learning, yet once I left school I had precious little time to practice. I needed to make that time count! Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning is not a book specifically about music, but it does offer some amazing insights into how we learn, retain knowledge, and develop true mastery. I hope to apply these insights to my musical practice and encourage my students to do the same.

Make It Stick challenges some of our basic assumptions about how learning and memory develops. The authors note that we want learning to feel easy, but learning requires effort. In fact, the more effort we put into retrieving our memories, the more long term memories we build. For example, "massed" practice, which the book describes as practicing the same thing over and over the same way, feels like it helps us learn. But it is actually not as effective as we think it is--according to science, it's among the least effective strategies for long term learning. Have you ever practiced a piece over and over again, then went on stage to perform it and had everything fall apart? That's what happens when we use massed practice--we mistake fluency with true mastery.

So what does work? The authors lay out a list of techniques that actually make a difference. The first is retrieval practice, which is recalling facts from memory (e.g., using flashcards). I started using this with my students who were preparing multiple pieces of music for a graduation recital. I had them play through their music cold--no looking at the book, just playing through their program immediately after they warmed up. If they made a mistake, I refused to allow them to go back to the music, but insisted they try to figure it out (with a few hints). My students did struggle at first, but by the next lesson, their memory had greatly improved. Of course, for beginning students, flashcards with musical notes or terms can make an excellent retrieval practice as well. 

Another technique is "spaced practice." We often want to practice a new technique or piece all the time until we feel we've really learned it. However, it's actually more effective to interleave different kinds of techniques or pieces, because when you get a little rusty between practice sessions, you have to work harder to retrieve your memories. The effort you spend in remembering helps to build long term memory. For example, suppose you are learning a Bach Violin Sonata, and Mozart Concerto, and a Paganini Caprice. You might be tempted to spend a few weeks practicing the Bach until it felt fluent, then another few weeks focusing on the Mozart, then the next few weeks on the Paganini. But it's much more effective to interleave practice of the different pieces, for example, by doing a different piece each day, or switching pieces every hour. This type of practice can feel frustrating--you just got going on the Bach, and now you need to switch to another new piece you haven't mastered? Yet science demonstrates it's far more effective for long term learning. Teachers often have a hard time of interleaving in lessons; all too often we focus excessively on a single piece for far too long, instead of offering students a variety of different pieces to work on all at once.

Make It Stick is full of other learning techniques that seem counter-intuitive, but are scientifically proven to help long-term learning. These techniques are invaluable to any musician, and the book itself is easy to read and engaging. I'd strongly recommend this to anyone who's interested in making their practice effective and efficient, and helping their students master develop long term memories and skills.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Isaac Stern's Journey from Mao to Mozart

As I mentioned in a previous post, I love watching documentaries on famous virtuoso violinists. Since I enjoyed "God's Fiddler" so much, I thought I'd check out an Academy Award winning documentary called From Mao to Mozart (1980). The documentary depicts Stern's visit to China in 1979, which was one of the first times that an American musician had visited and collaborated with the Chinese National Symphony Orchestra since the Communist revolution in 1949. The PRC's Foreign Minister had invited Isaac Stern to China in order to foster artistic exchange and build friendships between Chinese and American musicians.

From Mao to Mozart is a beautifully filmed, heartwarming movie about breaking down cultural and political barriers, and what people all over the world can learn from each other. It depicts China before it became a major industrial powerhouse, with gorgeous natural scenery and people riding bicycles in the fresh air. The movie interweaves scenes of Chinese music and Western music, inviting fascinating comparisons between two vastly different art forms. For example, it begins by showing an orchestra of erhu players (Chinese fiddle) playing "Oh Susanna." The exotic instruments give a familiar tune a whole new sound. Later, we see a rehearsal of the China Central Symphony Society (now the Chinese National Symphony Orchestra) with Isaac Stern playing Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 3 (in G Major). Stern's playing is immaculate, but he has to instruct the orchestra on how to bring passion and excitement to the music. In an interview after the rehearsal, Stern comments that the Chinese have an old-fashioned, technical approach to music. Yet, when the Americans visit the Peking Opera to see a rehearsal, the musicians and actors give a lively, energetic and virtuosic performance. Why then is are the orchestra musicians so underwhelming?

Stern discovers the reason when he visits the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. He conducts several masterclasses and hears many of the students perform (the young cellist depicted in the movie is Jian Wang). He notes that the younger generation of students, those around the ages of 9-10, are wonderfully talented, expressive musicians. But the students around 19-22 have not shown as much development. Wu Tin, the violin professor, explains that the Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966 and ended in 1976, interrupted these students' training and dealt a terrible blow to the study of Western music in China. The Shanghai Conservatory was closed during that time, and people who studied or taught Western music were persecuted. In a haunting interview, Wu Tin describes how he was imprisoned in a closet near a septic tank for fourteen months, humiliated, and tortured for teaching violin. Ten other teachers committed suicide because they couldn't stand the horrible abuse they suffered. But Wu Tin ends on a happier note--he does not think that anything like that will happen again in China, because people are wiser now. Still, it's shocking to consider that not so long ago the Chinese Communists so savagely oppressed classical musicians, especially given the enormous amount of brilliant musicians China has produced since then.

In the final scenes, Isaac Stern explains that "music isn't black or white, but many colors, some even painters don't have," and that music and young people make the world a better place. It's those sentiments that make this film so powerful. It's a window into an amazing period of time, when China began to engage with the rest of the world. I think it's no accident that musicians were some of the first people to build bridges between the world's superpowers. From Mao to Mozart shows that music is a part of being human, a language we share with people across the globe.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Scarborough Renaissance Festival 2014

My husband and I love going to Ren Fairs, and we go to Scarborough Renaissance Festival every year. This year was the first time we got to take our beautiful little girl! This fair has plenty of activities for children and adults (including adults who are young at heart). 
My husband David with our sweet baby girl!
Our baby loved seeing animals at the petting zoo, especially these adorable pot-bellied pigs. 
She loved riding a llama!
Since they weren't busy, my sweet daughter got to ride a Brahma cow too.
We watched Don Juan and Miguel, a very funny show, and afterwards Miguel posed for a picture with us!

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The History of Ancient Egypt on Audible

After listening to The Plantagenets, Famous Romans, and Famous Greeks on Audible, I decided to try listening to "The History of Ancient Egypt" from the Great Courses, was narrated by Professor Bob Brier. While I knew quite a bit about Greek and Roman history, I knew very little about ancient Egypt, so this seemed like a good place to learn more.

Brier takes the listener through every Egyptian dynasty, from the possibly apocryphal pharaohs of the Old Kingdom to the Ptolemies, including the great queen Cleopatra. The professor, who has appeared on National Geographic and Discovery Civilizations documentaries, comes off as highly knowledgeable and deeply passionate about Egyptology. He does have a thick New York accent, but after a while I found that endearing instead of distracting, especially since his voice has a lot of warmth. As for the subject matter, it was fascinating. Egypt's culture and civilization predates the Ancient Greeks by thousands of years, and it's clear that many of their ideas influenced the cultures around them. For example, although Egyptians usually worshipped many gods, one of the 18th dynasty pharaohs, Akhenaten, introduced the worship of a single deity, one of the first recorded instances of monotheism. His son, the famous King Tut, restored the traditional religion after his father's death.

In some ways, the ancient Egyptians felt surprisingly modern. Although they respected their traditions and were often highly resistant to change, they accepted outsiders so long as they assimilated into Egyptian culture. For example, all the pharaohs of the 25th dynasty were black. They were originally Nubians who invaded Egypt during a time of chaos, then ruled for over a hundred years. Likewise, Egyptians accepted the Greek Ptolemies as pharaohs as well. Clearly, ancient Egyptians were more diverse than you might think. They also had a female pharaoh, Hatshepsut, who may be the first great woman leader we know of in history.

Overall, I enjoyed "The History of Ancient Egypt" quite a bit. Egyptian history is fascinating, and the Brier's passion and knowledge of his subject made it all the more compelling. If you're looking for an interesting and informative course on Audible, give this one a try.