Tuesday, December 6, 2011

conviction over precision

I am passionate about many things. When I think about these various passions, I can acknowledge that my life would not be as meaningful without their presence. However, lately I've realized that there is a subtle yet important distinction between passion and conviction. To be passionate about something you must love it and appreciate it, but to be convicted is to know that you absolutely cannot live without that something. Though I have many passions, I only have two great convictions when it comes to how I live my life. The first is veganism, a conviction embarking on its 7-year anniversary. As the purpose of this blog has nothing to do with animal rights or environmental protection, I will refrain from speaking about that here, other than to say that I know I must be vegan. The second conviction is relatively new to me, but is currently providing me with a feeling of purpose during a time of my life when nothing else is: el sistema.

In recent years I have been able to recognize not only how fortunate I am today, but also how fortunate I have always been. I was lucky enough to be raised in a supportive middle-class family in a middle-class town, never having to worry about whether or not there would be food on the table or if I would go to college. As a child, I was blessed with all of the resources I needed to get to where I am as an adult. Only recently have I grasped the truth that the circumstances of my lucky childhood had a direct impact on the person I have become. Eventually, this led me to think about the children who aren't as fortunate as I was, and the impact that UNluckiness will have on the type of people they will become.

The thing that bothers me the most about this thought is the realization that as children we have NO control over how our lives unfold. A child cannot help whether he was born into a wealthy family or a poor one, a supportive family or a demeaning one, to educated parents or uneducated ones, in a good neighborhood or a bad one. Though a child has no control over these circumstances, he is inevitably either propelled forward or held back by them. Because life is unfair in this way, a poor child has a much smaller chance of living a prosperous adulthood than a wealthy child.

My automatic thought in response to this unfairness was, "who is to blame?" I have asked myself this question a lot, and I still don't know the answer. What I do know is that pointing fingers in any direction will not accomplish positive change. "Who is to blame" isn't the right question to ask. This question must be changed to, "who is going to do something to fix this problem?"

I am.

I must.

To me, there is no other option any more. Now that I know these injustices exist, and now that I truly understand that a child does not determine the conditions under which he is raised, I have no choice but to help those who cannot help themselves. I am committed and convicted.

There's one small problem, though: I am absolutely terrified of the follow-through. I know without a doubt that this is what I want to dedicate my life to, but social change through music is a daunting task to someone who has struggled with self-doubt for years. My fear of failure has the potential to drastically hold me back from accomplishing this goal, from helping those who so deserve to be helped.

My current focus is overcoming this fear. In order to do that, I am taking a lesson from el sistema philosophy myself. A saying that gets thrown around a lot in the el sistema community is "passion first, precision second," or "passion over precision." The belief is that it's much more important to get kids excited about making music and to provide them with a source of inspiration than for them to have a textbook embouchure or flawless technique. The precision will help them advance as musicians, but it is the passion that will ultimately provide them with the positive experiences they need to help them advance as people, and to create and achieve long-term goals. If they have passion, the precision will follow. For me, I'm replacing the word "passion" with "conviction." I must trust that my conviction to make this work will lead the way, and the precision will follow.

Every step of my el Sistema journey is frightening. I am fighting fears every day that I volunteer with Cincinnati's program. It's difficult, and sometimes I don't feel like I'm making much progress, but I know that my fear and resultant idleness will do nothing to create a just society. It is only through my baby steps of improvement that I will be able to make any positive change in this world. Those steps are propelled by my conviction, and as my conviction grows, so will the size of my steps, and the precision of my action. As long as I remain convicted, my aspirations of creating a positive social change through cultivating a love of music will become a precise reality.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Randy Gardner Accuracy Challenge

I consider myself extremely lucky to be a student of Randy Gardner at CCM. Never forgetting about his students during the summer, one of a few summer projects Mr. Gardner assigned us is what I will refer to as the Randy Gardner Accuracy Challenge, or simply The Challenge. Mr. Gardner created and subjected himself to this exercise over the course of a summer during his college years. The Challenge requires the participant to own book 1 of the Maxime-Alphonse 200 Etudes nouvelles melodies et progressives pour cor. Here's how you play:

1. Open your Maxime-Alphonse to the first page.
2. Play the first etude PERFECTLY three times IN A ROW. Do not miss a note. Do not even let so much as an unclean attack make its way into your performance. Follow all articulations, dynamics, phrasing and tempi.
3. If you miss a note, DO NOT STOP. Finish the etude, then start over.
4. If you mess up in your second or third repetition, you must complete the repetition and then start over again at performance #1. For example: if you miss a note in the middle of your second repetition, you must play to the end of the etude, and then start over with attempt #1.
5. You guessed it: even if you miss the very last note of your third repetition, you must start the cycle over again. You must play the etude perfectly three times IN A ROW before you can move on to the next etude.
6. Repeat this process for all 70 etudes.

Needless to say, one can easily go crazy trying to do this. Because of this, it is recommended that one spend no more than 10-15 minutes at a time on The Challenge.

For those non-horn players reading this post, the 1st book of Maxime-Alphonse is not technically challenging for a more advanced player. I know a lot of players use this book in high school or even early college, though I personally have never used this series before now. On average, these etudes are only between 3-6 lines long.

I began my journey with The Challenge yesterday. I consider myself to be a fairly accurate player. I have perfect pitch, so hearing the note before I play it is rarely an issue (hearing it perfectly in tune, especially if it is not a perfect interval, is a different story, and will probably be the subject of a later blog post). At a glance, the early pages of the book seem like they could be performed perfectly three times in a row fairly easily, especially for a player who considers herself accurate. Well...
I might be giving myself cancer.

It took me 15-20 minutes to get through the 1st etude 3 times in a row. I had no problems playing the etude once through perfectly. It was the second try when I kept making mistakes, and would have to finish out the performance and then start over at 1. After about 5 tries, I got through 2 perfect performances of the etude. At that point, I was determined not to mess it up on the 3rd time. I was successful.

Today I began my work on etude #2. As I said, I have never used this book before, so each etude is a sightread for me. In 10 minutes, I got through the etude 1 time perfectly. This was the end of my practice session, and my face was too tired for any more attempts, so etude #2 and I will face off again tomorrow.

The Challenge is predominately an exercise in concentration. I have never found myself so upset at a woman walking a cute puppy down the road outside of my window as when I was working on The Challenge. It also shows you what little flaws you may be letting yourself get away with in other performances. Though frustrating, I expect this exercise to be an educational and self-improving experience.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Allergy Adventures, Facially Speaking

The past several days have been interesting and frustrating. To save time,I'll describe the events by copying an email I sent to Mr. Gardner yesterday:

I have been having some weird issues with lip swelling for several days. Let me give you the background:

My lips ALWAYS swell overnight- they have ever since I was little. This happens to my sister too, who is not a musician, so I've never really thought much of it (***AUTHOR'S NOTE: I have inquired with my sister about this, and it's possible that I made it up***). I usually have to wait about 2 hours after I wake up to be able to play.

With this internship, I have only been able to play on average about 1.5 hours a day. I have been VERY smart about my playing. I warm up every day, and I have not been pushing it too hard at all. I've been doing lots of lip flexibility exercises. I stop if I feel fatigued. I've been doing everything right!

For about 2 days, my lips were feeling really tight and inflexible. Then, on Tuesday, they started to feel very puffy after my evening practice session (just a normal 30 minute session working on excerpts for the Air Force audition- nothing too strenuous). When I woke up on Wednesday morning, my lips felt TERRIBLE, with the majority of the problem being in my upper lip. It is not localized to the area where my mouthpiece contacts the lip, but spread out in the middle of my lip. It is a puffy, tingly feeling. I did not play all day on Wednesday. When I woke up this morning, it felt a little worse. I had to play a little bit on a concert with the kids today, but not much at all. I basically had to play everything on my lower lip- I could not put any pressure on my upper lip at all. When I was done playing, there was no visible evidence that i had been playing at all, no ring around my lip or anything, but my upper lip especially felt terrible. I'm not playing for the rest of the day, and not for a few days after that.

I am VERY confused as to what is happening. I can't believe that this could be an overuse issue due to how little I have been playing, especially since I have been playing very smartly. I'm wondering if it is instead some sort of allergy, perhaps to a food. I've been doing some internet searching and it seems that the most common reaction to a mild food allergy is the swelling of the lips. I'm going to go to an allergist as soon as possible.

What are your thoughts? What else should I be doing? How long should I take off of playing? I am really concerned and I don't know what to do!

Sounds like a lot of fun, right? Luckily, I didn't have to go in to OrchKids today and was able to get to the allergist. If you've never had an allergy test before, let me tell you how awesome it is. After taking a detailed history, the allergist does what is called a scratch test. Basically, you get a surface scratch of a potential allergen. This test is usually done on the forearms, but they won't test over a tattoo, so I had the entire test done on my back. I was scratched with 56 different allergens. FIFTY-SIX. After the initial scratch, you have to sit there and wait for 20 minutes for any potential reaction to set in. This is a very uncomfortable 20 minutes.

After this initial test, the nurses come in and measure the reactions somehow (I couldn't see what they were doing since it was all happening on my back). Here is a list of things to which I am allergic, in order from least depressing to most depressing:

*cockroaches (I do not intentionally harm any sentient being, but I still have not made peace with certain insects)
*TEN different types of grass

I love grass. It is excellent for laying purposes. I eat apples and carrots nearly every single day. I have two cats.

Gracie and Isla

I have to go back to the allergist again next week for further testing. The allergist was really nice, and actually thanked me for coming in with such a peculiar case. I have all these crazy allergies, but none of them manifest with normal symptoms. Instead, they manifest with special Rachel symptoms like lip swelling.

At the end of the day, my top lip is pretty much fine but my bottom lip is still pretty puffy. Hopefully this will all subside in a day or two and I'll be able to play again. Yay!

Hoping this post is greeting you in an air conditioned environment,


Thursday, July 21, 2011

Post: the first

Hello, friends!

So, I'm starting a blog. I'm not sure why, or what I'll have to say. Basically I'm just jealous of the fact that my other friends (Russ Zokaities, Cecilia Kozlowski and Emily Toth) have really awesome blogs because they are doing awesome things. I'm not really doing anything awesome, but I thought I'd use this to talk about my journey to hopefully be doing awesome things soon.

I'm writing this post from Red Emma's Bookstore Coffeehouse in Baltimore. I'm not sure if I'm enough of a hipster to be in here, but it's freaking awesome. All vegetarian/vegan food, coffee, and books! Maybe the fact that I love it here actually makes me a little bit of a hipster...oh well. I've been in Baltimore for a few weeks now. I've been doing an internship with OrchKids, which is the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's program designed to create social change through music. I've only been here for a little over two weeks, but I have already learned A LOT about myself. Here are a few things:

1. I have no idea what to do with elementary schoolers. I'm good with middle and high schoolers, but I really struggle with the little ones! This makes sense to me when I stop to think about it: I'm the youngest in my family; I've NEVER babysat a child before; and, I've only worked with band programs, which in most states don't begin until middle school. When I was a gymnastics coach I worked with elementary school kids all the time, but that was a little different because I was leading them in a physical activity, so concentration and behavior weren't nearly as much of an issue. Each day is getting easier, but it's still been a struggle for me.

2. Teaching horn to very tiny children is super hard! The program has two horn players right now. They are 7 and 8 year old girls, and are using full sized single F horns. There is no good way to get them to hold the thing! It's just simply too big for them. Previously, the youngest student I've ever taught was a 9 year old, but he had already experienced a growth spurt and was significantly taller than these two girls. I've received some good advice from the Horn People page on facebook about how to deal with tiny horn players, which has been extremely helpful.

3. I hate commuting. I've been living with Eric and his parents, which has really been lovely. It's been great to come home to a house with good company and a big yard with plantlife everywhere. They live about 30 miles outside of Baltimore, which translates to about 40-45 minutes in the car because of some country road travel before you hit the beltway. This is without any traffic. When I leave work at 4pm, it's a different story. I take the long way home to avoid the beltway, which takes almost an hour. This is definitely shorter than what would happen if I tried taking the beltway home. Living with Eric's family has been really nice, but I definitely wouldn't be able to handle a commute like this for more than a short term basis.

I've also been learning a lot about the economic and social divide in this country. I am waking up to the fact that the United States is not united- it is still full of racists. The area where I work (West Baltimore) is very underserved and its people are in need. This area, like other underserved areas all around the country, is nearly 100% African American. I've often wondered about why this is. The answer to this question, at least in part, came from the place where Eric works. Last weekend, white people left the location asking for a refund because too many black people showed up. The same day, another instance occurred which involved a racial slur and will therefore not be repeated in this post. I couldn't believe it! Eric lives within 2 hours of THREE major metropolitan areas with lots of diversity. I just couldn't believe people like that still exist, especially in this area. It's not just people outside of the city either. I've come to find out that a lot of affluent people from East Baltimore won't set foot in West Baltimore, even for volunteer work.

I know that outreach and work for social change always belong in my life in some capacity. I'm still figuring out the when and how of the grand scheme, but I know that it is my duty as a decent human being to help those in need. I don't consider myself an exceptional person, and therefore it is beyond me as to why other people don't feel the same way I do about helping others. It is SO easy to help people, and I don't understand why there is such a large population in this country who are in need, and a large population who could easily help but chose not to.

End rant, and end first blog post!

PS- I almost forgot! Look how cute these kids are!