The Best Musical Tools

I’ve recently written two blog entries for Music Teachers’ Helper, one on some of the best tools to improve rhythm, and the other on pitch. Despite being educated at one of the best music schools in the UK, it has taken me a long time to research and refine the best teaching tools, not only to improve musicianship, but to inspire and to have fun.

Thankfully, in the years since I left college, many institutions have also radically updated their own techniques also, and are now approaching music-making in remarkably innovative ways. More on that later….

Are You a Stable Pack Leader?

Photo: Jeremy Burger

“Humans are the only animals that will follow an unstable pack leader.”

–       Cesar Millan, ‘The Dog Whisperer’

How many times have I followed an ‘unstable pack leader’? Try: My whole life! I bet I’m not alone either. Ever since I heard that quote a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been pondering what it means, and whether it matches my own experience.

Cesar defines a stable pack leader as someone who is what he calls ‘calm-assertive’, present in the moment, balanced, and consistently providing clear rules and boundaries. For dogs these are “exercise, discipline and affection… in that order!” He asserts that dogs immediately know whether someone is in that state by their energy, and can’t be fooled by words or the outer symbols of power that persuade us mere humans. I’ve recently become a fan of his show for that reason— to see him modeling that energy, and to learn how to manifest it more in my own life. Continue reading…

Busy blogging

Wow, it’s been a busy time lately, as I have had commissions to write for several other blogs, so what with teaching, coaching and a trip to Australia to meet our new nephew, I haven’t had time to post here.

However, I’d love to point you to a couple of posts I wrote for the Music Teachers blog: one on how to develop effective communication with your students, and one on how to manage your energy in relation to your students. I’m enjoying focusing on the psychological side of teaching and communicating in posts for this particular blog, as I feel it’s a way to contribute what I know, both from study and from experience.

An Event Like No Other

Next month, I’m going to a brand new musical in Libbey Bowl, our picturesque outdoor venue here in Ojai. Written by Deb Norton and Chris Nottoli, directors of Theater 150, they will also be starring in the production, accompanied by a chorus, a band, and, according to Deb, “one or more of the following: zip lines, dancing Jell-O, Mongol hordes, bat swarms and more kale than you can shake a stick at”.

Sounds fun, huh? The plot is the usual: boy meets girl, boy and girl go through many trials and tribulations, boy and girl end up getting married. With one major difference. When Deb and Chris walk down the aisle at the end of the musical, they will in fact be legally married. That beautiful singer who played the minister? She’s the real deal.

Deb and Chris are hosting a blog on their journey towards marriage in the run-up to this wild extravaganza, and this week, on the sixth anniversary of our marriage, they asked me to write a guest entry about what marriage means to me.

New blogging job.

This week, I’m pleased to announce that I’ve joined a team of bloggers on the well-established Music Teachers Blog to add my thoughts and ideas on music teaching and teachers.

I’ve been enjoying this blog for nearly a year already, as I find great value in being able to exchange ideas with other independent music teachers. It’s very easy to feel isolated, and it’s been interesting finding out how many of us have the same challenges and pleasures, as well as having the opportunity to benefit from new ideas and resources.

I’m going to be contributing ideas from the point of view of a life coach who is also a longtime performer and teacher, and I’m excited to have the opportunity to try out my ideas. Here’s a link to my first post.

Diagnosis of a Faun

Vaslav Nijinsky i sin debutballet En Fauns eftermiddag, 1912jpg

Vaslav Nijinsky

Last week, I saw an amazing article in the New York Times, describing the creative relationship between an experienced and adventurous choreographer and a young and talented actor with cerebral palsy. Tamar Rogoff, the choreographer, saw the actor, Gregg Mozgala, in a Shakespeare play and immediately knew that she wanted to work with him to create a dance piece. He, understandably, with muscular and neurological challenges, particularly in his legs, had not considered himself a dancer until this point, but was intrigued by her offer and agreed to the challenge.

The miraculous part of this experiment has been the changes they have wrought together in Gregg’s body- more dramatic changes in eight months than he had achieved in twelve years of physical therapy. For example, after walking on his toes his entire life, his heels now touch the ground, allowing him to walk normally. He is now aware of, and using, parts of his body that he had no relationship with before. And, most wonderfully, he is becoming a dancer, creating a piece called “Diagnosis of a Faun”. The first performance takes place on Dec. 3 at La MaMa Annex in the East Village, New York City.

I wrote to Gregg to congratulate him on this incredible achievement, and to ask whether he considered the creation of art to be part of the healing process, to which he replied emphatically, “Yes.” And this “yes” makes me curious about my own healing process. What if I could heal some of the old patterns of tension, contraction and pain, which prevent me from leading an active life and playing my beloved piano? What if I could do this through movement, through a creative process, so that rather than just repeating a series of mindless physical exercises, each movement had a purpose I believed in? It’s an intoxicating idea, one that speaks to me on a deep level. My next step is to contact the choreographer. Wish me luck!

Wild Thing


Photo Courtesy of Warner Brothers

Recently, I went to see the movie “Where the Wild Things Are”, not quite sure whether to trust this expanded and re-envisioned version of the classic picture book, since it had received mixed reviews. It was tremendous. Grounded in the mundane life of a real little boy, Max, when the movie takes us across the sea to “Where the Wild Things Are”, it convinces us to believe in the magical world he discovers, even as it is fantastical in nature. Strange, adult-sounding monsters who behave like children become his friends, and Max begins to create a new kingdom fresh from his imagination.

What I didn’t expect is how powerful an experience the movie would be for me. When Max and the Wild Things created a rumpus, or howled plaintively at each other, I felt an echoing desire to take part. I left the theater moved and provoked, with memories surfacing of the wild energy I had experienced as a child and how it had gradually been socialized out of me.

Looking back, I could now remember the early tantrums at the piano, gradually suppressed, as I became a dutiful child who stopped creating her own music and surrendered to scales, exercises and the compositions of the Great and the Good. I remembered the child who fought back against bullies in the playground, even pulling hair and biting, becoming the ‘goody-goody’ with braids who strove to be teacher’s pet. And I remembered the mischievous small girl who loved to play “Doctors and Nurses”, becoming the teenager who was too scared of boys to date. I sometimes wonder if my long-term challenges with pain and inflammation arose through becoming disconnected with this essential part of myself.

As Mary Pipher described graphically in her groundbreaking study of adolescent girls, “Reviving Ophelia”, many girls experience similar changes on their way to adulthood, moving from confident, spunky kids who believe they can do anything, to teenagers beset by anxiety and lack of confidence, whose main goal seems to be to please their peers.

How do we reconnect with our wildness? How do we become free to create? For me, this is an ongoing journey of experimentation, which has so far included free dance, therapy,  art,  play,  writing,  improvisation workshops, spending time in nature, learning spiritual practices…..and the odd howl!

What about you?

A Life Less Ordinary


Having seen “The Story of the Weeping Camel” and “The Cave of the Yellow Dog”, Byambasuren Davaa’s engrossing and eye-opening docudramas about life as a Mongolian nomad, I was intrigued to hear that “Tulpen”, a movie about a family of Kazakh nomads, directed by Sergei Dvortsevoy, was screening at our local cinema. This 2008 film won many international awards including one at Cannes,  but my main reason for going was my fascination with nomadic life, particularly in Asia.

Boni, Asa’s suitably-named, bone-headed friend zooms across the steppe in an old jeep papered with pin-ups from girly magazines, and dreams of the big city. But Asa, home from a stint in the Russian Navy, wants nothing more than to find a wife and become shepherd of his own flock. He comes to live with his sister, married to a shepherd and with three children, living in a yurt in a near-perpetual sandstorm, many miles from the nearest village. The main plot line of the film centers around Asa’s attempts to win the hand of Tulpan, the only girl of marriageable age in the area.

The Kazakh steppes are the most inhospitable landscape I’ve seen on film– endless parched plains covered with a few inches of scrub here and there, where tornadoes of sand whip up from one moment to the next, and there is no sign of water. Yet families of nomads with flocks of sheep, camels and donkeys live here, eking out a living, creating home in the middle of nowhere.

Although the film never leaves the steppes, whispers of the Western world drift through– magazine pictures of state-of-the-art solar-paneled Japanese houses, a poster of the wedding portrait of Prince Charles and Lady Diana (he’s American, according to Boni), and the Kazakh State Radio broadcasts that his sister’s oldest boy memorizes compulsively. For a while, the only music we hear comes from the one single Boni appears to own, Boney M’s “By the Rivers of Babylon”, which he turns to full volume as he races across the steppe. A more incongruous song is hard to imagine.

Who can blame any of them for desiring a life in the city, as they wrestle camels and donkeys in the blinding storm, and try to save lambs born in some of the worst conditions imaginable? The nomadic life that is documented here is swiftly dying out, as young people stream into the cities, drawn by seductive images and fantasies of an easier life.

Yet, strangely, I came to envy them. The mother cradling her baby between her knees and singing him a lamp-lit lullaby moved me more than any recorded music, because I realized that what she has is so precious. How many of us sing at work or play any more? How many of us are even comfortable with the sound of our own voices?

Her nine-year-old daughter sings constantly also, sings to be seen and heard in a male-dominated world, leans her back against the yurt and sings her defiance into the wind.

Towards the end of the movie, the family dismantle their yurt and stack all their belongings in a cart. When they move on, nothing is left by a swiftly disappearing circle in the sand.

On hearing Leon Fleisher play Bach


He knows what’s important— the purity, the essence of the music. There’s nothing like not being able to play the piano for forty years to make one appreciate each sound. Each opportunity to create beauty. There’s no excuse, no need for artifice. Each moment has purpose.

Years of absence and silence have refined the desire to create sound. Decades of trying and failing to regain health, prestige, career have bruised and beaten the ego to a pulp. Only the heart of the music remains, as only the soul of man survives.

Now he wants to play Bach, Chopin, Schubert. Why play music that is purely virtuosic? He learned long ago that maximum notes per second are not where it’s at.

“Before, I was just a two-handed piano player,” he says. “What happened to me has expanded my life, my awareness, my humanity.”