Sunday, August 24, 2014

Healing on the Piano: Guest Post by Pat Coffey

          September honors the piano in all its shapes, sizes, and models. The upright residing in our home has earned recognition for giving my three children an appreciation for music, fine motor skills, and an edge with math. Our instrument became a television celebrity while filming a Heart Association Public Service Announcement (PSA). While setting up for filming, the television reporter asked me if I played the piano. I told her our ivory and ebony keyboard became a critical tool in my rehabilitation process by helping to simulate my neurons and generate new synapses.
Before my stroke, I played a piano accordion. This instrument requires playing treble clef music on a small keyboard and bass clef music by pressing the buttons. Like the piano, you use two hands simultaneously. Yet, in 2001, my ability to do two tasks at the same time ceased. A large blood clot passed through my heart, into my blood stream, up into my cerebellum, and burst into small pieces within my brain. These tiny clots effected my sight, short-term memory, mathematical ability, the behavioral center of the brain, and the left side of my body, just to name the major traumas.
           Balance, speech, and cognitive therapy helped me, but I wanted new connections to develop in my brain to enable me to expand my recovery. My dormant neurons and synapses required stimulation. I valued reading and playing music, which led me to consider playing my accordion again. But my Italian handcrafted instrument weighed about 30 pounds, and its bulk was difficult to manage in my altered state. Besides, I could only remember how to play the right hand. I approached Susan Diaz, my children’s piano teacher. I explained to her my brain stimulation project. She was enthusiastic about using music to heal, and happy to work with me.
The fact that I remembered how to read notes made my teacher's task easier. She taught me to watch the movement of the notes on the staff, which helped me bridge from one instrument to another.
Next, came the months of practicing the basics. Reading the music was easy. My ability to focus was limited. I had to practice for short periods. My left hand needed much work and the repetition of the same few measures was a challenge. Susan had me do exercises in short sets. I had to remember I was starting from scratch.
It didn’t take long before my muscles remembered how to work with my brain. My hands became nimble and continued to stretch out. Practicing scales used my brain, eyes, and hands. My new learning stimulated new areas of my brain. After practicing chords, scales, and eventually left hand bass clef exercises, I started playing duets with my daughter. When she and I played together, I played the bass clef part each time with both right and left hands.
           The 'ebony and ivory' journey offered victories and frustrations. It led me to not only playing the piano, but three years later, I accompanied my music teacher at a recital with my accordion. Being a part of a recital performance gave me confidence to start writing again, volunteering, and accepting invitations to speak on recognizing signs of stroke. I even spoke about my experience playing the piano.
           Not every stroke patient ends up with the same results when trying to stimulate their brain. I reached out to music. Scientists and medical professionals are documenting how an instrument or involvement in music can assist brain injury, Post Traumatic Stress Disease (PTSD), and stroke patients.
          So, during the month of September make sure to indulge your brain and celebrate the piano.
Take out some music out. Spend some times on the ivory and ebony keys. Remember, it is never to late to learn something new!

Patricia Coffey is a writer who is currently working on a four book series. She also writes a blog, Vigilant Silver Fox, and experiments with poetry. She volunteers with the Intermountain Medical Center, and she currently lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. 

Friday, August 22, 2014

Why You Should Teach Music Theory

I'll admit, music theory was not my favorite subject. While I love performing and teaching music, and I think music history is fascinating, music theory often feels dry to me. So when another teacher recommended I start teaching my violin students some theory, I was more than a little hesitant. I thought my students were too young, and anyway they'd hate it. Happily, it turned out I was wrong.

After thinking about it, I started using books from the "Theory Time" series in the lessons I taught. They start with basics like music notation and counting rhythms, and I realized that I'd unintentionally left some gaps in my students' understanding of music. Some rules, for example, I'd lived with for so long I could barely remember learning it myself. Someone must have taught me the "stem rule," for example, but I had learned it so long ago, I simply followed the rule intuitively. My students, however, did not. I had never known how confusing the the directions of note stems was for some of my students until then! As my students progressed, music theory empowered them to figure their pieces out for themselves. They could identify key signatures, time signatures, complicated rhythms, and different kinds of intervals on their own. This allowed them to explore more music, and some of my students started searching music stores or the internet for more pieces to play. Music theory also gave them a clear understanding of the patterns underlying scales and arpeggios, which seemed to improve their scale practice.
I'd also forgotten that music theory includes aural skills. I think it's important that students learn to listen, and I try to teach kids to play by ear as well as read music. The books I use have online ear training exercises, which I supplement with some useful iPad apps, or with fun listening games. Ear training helps students improve their intonation and match the written notes with how they sound. I've found that students have an easier time recognizing mistakes and hearing the music in their head when they have had some ear training. Effective aural skills also allows students the opportunity to experiment with different genres of music, like jazz.

Of course, with a good understanding of music theory, students can start to compose their own music! Advanced students can write down the melodies they hear in their heads, or correctly notate  their own rhythms. To often, composition seems intimidating or too difficult to kids. But effective music theory education gives them the skills they need to express their musical ideas. For kids drawn to creative expression, music theory might be dry in itself, but it is a vital tool for helping them write their own music.

Despite my initial doubts, I'm glad I started including music theory in the violin lessons I teach. It's expanded my students' understanding of music as a whole, and helped them to practice and perform more effectively. Music theory doesn't have to be dry at all, and it can help students learn to express themselves via musical composition.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Colorado Renaissance Festival

My husband, my baby girl, and I recently returned from a trip to Colorado, where we visited my sister. We loved many of the gorgeous parks and views around Denver, and we had a chance to go to the Colorado Renaissance Festival. Since we love Renaissance Fairs, we were excited to go to our first out of state fair!
We went the last day of the festival, and it was packed! Here's the crowd for the Majestic Endangered Cat Show. We saw an Amur leopard, a fishing cat, and a beautiful black leopard. 
Knight Statue
The king and queen of the fair performed a knighting ceremony for the children.
This nun sang beautifully.
We watched some of the joust!
We bought my sweet baby a new Renaissance dress! She looked adorable, and her dress was light and comfortable.
She got to pet a cow, goats, and other animals in the petting zoo.
My sweet baby watching the ponies with her daddy. She got to ride a pony, but unfortunately none of those pictures turned out.
These beautiful, royally elegant greyhounds were available from Colorado's Greyhound Rescue. They are friendly and sweet retired racing dogs.
Overall we had a great time, and I'd love to come back to the Colorado Renaissance Festival again!

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Discovering the Renaissance

I have loved Medieval and Renaissance music since I first heard it in a music history class. The soaring melodies written by composers like Hildegarde of Bingen or Josquin des Prez have a depth and beauty that make this music far more than a historical curiosity. This passionate, gorgeous music is well worth exploring for its own sake. Here are three Medieval or Renaissance composers I'd recommend to anyone who's interested in listening to early music.

1. Josquin des Prez

Josquin des Prez was one of the greatest composers of the High Renaissance. His music was so wildly popular at the time that unscrupulous printers often put his name on works he didn't write to sell more copies. Very little is known about his personal life, but he wrote hundreds of compositions, including polyphonic (and sometimes homophonic) motets, chansons, and masses. His music is deeply expressive, from the haunting "Milles Regretz" to the light and silly (but lovely) "El Grillo." Josquin is a good composer to start listening to if you're interested in Renaissance music; his music is brilliant, and the chansons in particular are very approachable.

2. Hildegard of Bingen

Hildegard of Bingen was a composer, writer, philosopher, and Christian mystic who lived in the middle ages. She was a Benedictine abbess who eventually founded two independent communities for her fellow nuns, and some parts of the Catholic church recognize her as a saint. Hildegard wrote one of the first surviving musical morality plays, Ordo Virtutum, as well as over sixty other surviving compositions. All her music is monophonic, which means it only has one melodic line, as in Gregorian chants. Her melodies are highly melismatic, which means that each syllable in a line of text is decorated with beautiful and complex melodies. Unlike most Medieval composers, Hildegard paid close attention to the relationship between her music and the text. Her music is so beautiful that it's still popular today, with many wonderful recordings available (One of my favorites is Voice of the Blood).


3. Carlo Gesualdo

Gesualdo was the Prince of Venosa and a brilliant composer with a deeply troubled background that made him as notorious as he was admired. He caught his first wife in bed with her lover when he returned from a hunting trip early, then he murdered them both. Fearing retaliation from the relatives of his murder victims, Gesualdo fled to Ferrara, where he was inspired by the concerto delle donne, a trio of virtuoso female singers. In the end he returned to his castle, where he lived the rest of his life in comparative isolation. He surrounded himself with talented musicians and wrote highly experimental, unusually chromatic music with intensive word painting. His painfully expressive madrigals suggest that he spent his life tortured by guilt and deeply depressed. While Gesualdo's work might not be as approachable as that of Hildegard or Josquin, it's passionate, expressive, and fascinating. 

I'd encourage all classical music lovers to explore Medieval and Renaissance music. While it's easy to stay within our comfort zones, it's important to remember that there are centuries of music from before J.S. Bach was born. Discovering music from different time periods can be exciting and powerful, and it's a testament to the human mind that so much ancient music still speaks to us today.