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.”

Intuitive Improvisation


Composition VII by Wassily Kandinsky

I’m pleased to announce that the article I wrote for American Music Teacher magazine, originally published in the winter of 2007, is now available on line here . It’s specifically targeted at music teachers who would like to venture into the world of creative improvisation and don’t know where to begin, but would also be useful for anyone who is feeling the urge to create their own music and knows a bit of basic theory.

For me, the key to learning how to improvise was allowing myself to approach the piano playfully, as a small child would, and not to weigh myself down with admonitions or expectations. In other words, to be free to create!

Viva la Vida!

Choir was never like this when I was a child. I always loved singing and developed an affection for a wide variety of repertoire, so choir was an enjoyable experience as long as the teacher wasn’t too boring or bad-tempered. Yet I also remember stony stares from the other children if I sang too heartily or showed too much enthusiasm.

Performances were about rows of uniformed children standing straight, arms at their sides, enunciating clearly and watching the conductor like a hawk. And I loved it– Christmas carols in the freezing local church (invariably followed by a throat infection), anthems in the university chapel, and choir tours encompassing the Cathedral of Notre-Dame and the Sacre-Coeur in Paris.

But I’ve never before seen a choir connecting so deeply with music. As an appreciative You Tube viewer so aptly put it,”The sound produced from these kids is so pure and beautiful because it comes straight from their hearts.”

The choir is made up of fifth-graders from PS 22, an elementary school on Staten Island, New York composed of students from many ethnic backgrounds, many of whom come from difficult and deprived backgrounds, but thanks to their inspirational teacher, Mr. Breinberg, they are being enriched for life. And I know that watching and listening to them make music has changed me irrevocably too.

 Why A New Blog?

Why a new blog? Well, this is actually a resurrection, a re-assignation of my blog previously found on my professional website www.free2create.com. I’ve moved for a very specific reason- I want to expand the areas I’m writing about.

Yes, I’m a professional musician, teacher and coach. I’m also, like you, much more than what I do. I’ve learned the hard way not to be over-identified with my career.

Twelve years ago, an injury which turned into a chronic health condition stopped me in my tracks as a professional concert pianist in London. Deprived of my livelihood, I also swiftly discovered that I felt deprived of my identity, my whole sense of self. Not wanting to face the classic question, “What do you do?” at parties, I stayed home. Well-meaning friends who suggested I use my fluent French and German to find another job couldn’t understand why I was in such a state of shock and grief, unable to take action.

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Flutes Across the World

Growing up as a musician, whenever I heard about men and women undertaking courageous humanitarian projects in developing countries, I always experienced a twinge of guilt. Surely that would be a much more worthwhile activity than simply playing music. What was I doing sitting in my ivory tower practicing the piano when people were starving?
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Walking the Tightrope

I just got back from the cinema, following a showing of one of the most exciting and inspiring films I’ve seen in years. It’s a documentary entitled “Man on Wire,” which follows the story of Philippe Petit, the high wire walker, and the series of events leading up to his epic walk across a high wire strung between the Twin Towers in 1974. Seeing Petit on screen now and in extensive footage form the 70’s, I was struck by his single-minded focus on achieving extraordinary feats (he warmed up for the New York exploit with similar walks between the towers of Notre-Dame in Paris and the Sydney Harbour Bridge), his concentration, his incredible confidence and, most of all, the beauty of his artistry.

These qualities reminded me of a wonderful interview I read yesterday in the current edition of “American Music Teacher” magazine with the performance psychology consultant, Bill Moore.

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Relaxation for Peak Performance

There was a great article in the New York Times a couple of days ago about the tremendous benefits for athletes of learning to relax when performing. I believe a lot of the tips mentioned could help musicians also. Check it out here

Musical Escape

Here’s a wonderful article on the latest project of El Sistema, as a follow-up on my previous post. The project is now being taken into Venezuela’s prisons, where perpetrators of crime (often also its victims) get a chance to transcend their situation, and maybe get a chance thereby to change their lives, by playing in an orchestra. I only wish prisoners in this country received such enlightened treatment.