Human Power vs. a Higher Power

Nadia 3Principal Nadia Lopez of Mott Hall Bridges Academy in Brooklyn is the better person we all wish we were. She spends her days not just running a school in a high-poverty area but also personally attempting to empower every “scholar” in her school. This is what she says about the school color being purple, the color of royalty:

I want my scholars to know that even if they live in a housing project, they are part of a royal lineage going back to great African kings and queens. They belong to a group of individuals who invented astronomy and math. And they belong to a group of individuals who have endured so much history and still overcome. When you tell people you’re from Brownsville, their face cringes up. But there are children here that need to know that they are expected to succeed.

I know about Ms. Lopez thanks to Vidal Chastanet, one of her students, who was featured last month in photographer Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York blog. (Stanton asked Vidal, “Who has influenced you the most in your life?” and Vidal answered, “My principal.” And then Stanton went in search of her.)

Thanks to Humans of New York, in fact, everybody knows about Ms. Lopez—you (I’m guessing) and I and Ellen DeGeneres and President Obama. And thanks to Lopez’s own inspirational work and the human need to be inspired and then (once inspired) to act, Vidal has sat behind the desk in the Oval Office, and Mott Hall Bridges has received more than a million dollars in donations.

For all of this, Lopez gives thanks to . . . God.

I was ready to quit, I was ready to resign, I was done, and my mother told me to pray on it . . . I did pray about it Monday, and God showed me how much of a significance I was, not only to Vidal but to people around the world who could identify what it was like to know someone who was their champion and pushed them through.

I don’t want to minimize the range and intelligence of her statements on education and community and poverty, or reduce her to a football player who believes God kicked in the extra point. She has much more to say than this. But I do think it’s striking that here, in a situation where cause and effect are transparent, God gets credit. It’s not like $1 million showed up on the doorstep, or that people started sending in checks for no evident reason.

To conclude that what happened to Lopez and her school was God’s work is to minimize not just what Lopez herself did but also what Stanton did, what people moved by the story did. I’m sure no one involved, least of all Lopez herself, feels the need to get credit. But minimizing the human role minimizes human responsibility. We may not want to admit it, but we have the power to save not just Vidal and Mott Hall Bridges but all the schools that struggle to keep kids afloat in impoverished areas. We have the power to end poverty. We have the money; we have the will; all we lack is the certainty that it’s our job. That what controls the circumstances of one human’s life is other humans—not just personally (that part we understand), but in the systems that we create together. If we as a culture believe a Higher Power is in charge, we’re simply not going to use our human power to its fullest. We’re going to think that poverty is His doing, not ours.

* * *

Other things that happened last month: Islamist terrorists shot twelve people at the headquarters of a Parisian newspaper. In covering the march that followed, an ultra-orthodox Israeli newspaper photoshopped Angela Merkel from the picture because, according to the editor,“including a picture of a woman into something so sacred . . . can desecrate the memory of the martyrs.” Meanwhile, here at home, Senator James Inhofe became Chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Inhofe has said, among many other remarkable things, “The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He [God] is doing in the climate is to me outrageous.”

I could write about these events to demonstrate the dangers of religious belief. Many people have. But the problem with using such extreme examples is that we can all be horrified, appalled, and disgusted by them without fundamentally questioning anything we—or non-murderous, non-sexist, non-stupid people like us—believe.

Today, on Darwin Day, it’s worth asking whether the good kind of religion can have negative consequences too. Whether religion that clearly means no harm and even inspires admirable people like Ms. Lopez to do good might ultimately still be holding us back as a society.

When we talk prayer rather than politics, we perpetuate the belief that humans are powerless to address deep-seated societal problems; that the future of kids like Vidal is in God’s hands. But it’s not. It’s in Lopez’s—and in ours.

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The End of Will Power

Superman lifts carWhen my adult piano class disbanded for the summer last June, we promised to return in the fall with a new piece to play for each other. Still giddy from not embarrassing myself at the end-of-year recital, I carried home from that final class a heap of optimism and a bundle of new sheet music.

As it turned out, our class did not reconvene until January—seven months after we had last met. Which translates to approximately 200 practice days.

By which point, I had practiced maybe five times. Maybe.

As you may know, I love practicing the piano. I love the concentration, the sense of being alone and at peace amidst domestic chaos, the infinitesimal but inexorable improvement that comes from doing something over and over. It thrills me that given enough time, even my slow-witted fingers can learn.

But it does not, apparently, thrill me enough. No matter how much I love to practice when I’m doing it, no matter how amazing I feel when I master a piece, what actually makes me sit down at the bench and dig my book out from under everyone else’s music is the threat of playing for my classmates and my teacher.

I knew that about myself, which is why I signed up for an actual class with an actual teacher, rather than relying on teach-yourself-to-play books, YouTube, and my kids. And yet, every year, on the cusp of a class break, I am convinced I can go it alone.

And then, again and again my will power fails me. My will power! The stuff I have proudly used for years to finish books I didn’t love, eschew food that I did, and engage in activities that require a jog bra (including putting on a jog bra). Realizing that my will power isn’t powerful enough has been a terrible, horrible . . .


It began in September, when (not practicing), I was on Facebook (not practicing), and I came across an article reprinted in the Washington Post under the headline, “Why a Leading Professor of New Media Just Banned Technology Use in Class.” In it, Clay Shirky, a professor at NYU, explains that for years he let his students use whatever laptops, tablets, or phones they wanted whenever they wanted, reasoning that

It’s my job to be more interesting than the possible distractions, so a ban felt like cheating. And finally, there’s not wanting to infantilize my students, who are adults, even if young ones. Time management is their job, not mine.

But this year, he finally decided not to. He had concluded that the technology was not just more powerful than he was, it was also more powerful than they were.

Both the form and the content of a Facebook update are almost irresistibly distracting, especially compared with the hard slog of coursework . . .

Add to that truth the fact that, scientifically speaking, “Humans are incapable of ignoring surprising new information in our visual field,” and students can’t help themselves.

The form and content of a Facebook update may be almost irresistible, but when combined with a visual alert in your immediate peripheral vision, it is—really, actually, biologically—impossible to resist.

Eureka! In other words, it wasn’t my fault that Facebook and email constantly pulled me from my work. I wasn’t bad or lazy; I was just weak, and it was impossible for me to be strong enough. I wouldn’t feel ashamed or guilty about being too weak to lift a car, would I? I wouldn’t waste time trying to find a good handhold, or build up my shoulder muscles. I would go find a damned jack.

I thanked the friend who had shared the article and told him I was closing my Facebook page for the rest of the work day. It was that simple. I gave up the idea that I could check it once in a while, as a break from thinking, and accepted that as long as Facebook was there, it would break my thinking.

And something else happened: The next time I made a reluctant child practice the piano, I felt different about it. I’ve always been strict about my children’s piano practice. But I have sometimes felt secretly sheepish about my own hypocrisy, since, when my class wasn’t meeting, I couldn’t make myself practice. If it’s so good for them, isn’t it good for me, too?

Now I feel like my children are lucky to have someone make them do things. Someone whose power is greater than the power of the various distractions in their lives—or at least someone who has power over those distractions. Lena would rather watch YouTube clips about dorm decorating than practice the piano; I sympathize, and I help her by not giving her a choice.

This perspective makes me feel better about my parenting, and it also makes me feel better about my children. Noah can’t resist looking at his phone when he hears the ping of a text; I don’t blame him. Why should he be stronger than most humans? So without thinking less of him and without getting angry, I simply help him, when he needs it, by taking his phone away.

Isn’t Noah lucky? He still lives with a power greater than himself—someone who can figuratively lift a car for him. As an adult, I, on the other hand, have to find a jack. You see, acknowledging my own limits relieves me of guilt, but not of responsibility; it doesn’t let me off the hook in any way other than emotionally. I should still practice the piano every day. And when I don’t, I should forgive myself—right before signing up for the next class.

Music Theory for Grownups: A Start

OctaveOf all the things I’m good at in piano class (attending, counting out loud, making my classmates laugh), playing the piano is not one of them. I do OK after a week of serious practice, but show me a new piece, say “OK, everybody, let’s try it with two hands,” and I freeze up. Translating symbols into motor skills in real time? Right. That feels suspiciously like reading a map in a moving car.

My fellow student, Mike, was no doubt trying to make me feel better last week when, after class, he asked me to explain to him again what a harmonic minor scale was. Gratefully, I accepted the task. “I’ll write something,” I said. “Then I’ll understand it.”

Honestly I’ve been trying to understand music theory ever since one of my boys said to his brother, “I’m pretty sure that’s a D-flat diminished 7th” and I thought to myself, “I’m pretty sure they’re smarter than I.” The problem is that people who teach music tend to be people who learned music as children. They learned by doing and figured out why later. They don’t know how to start from the beginning, with the big picture—which is what grownup beginners need. At least grownups like me with an insufferable need to understand.

So what follows is a bit of music theory—just the octave and scales—from someone who didn’t understand any of it until very recently. (I was helped tremendously by David Harp’s Music Theory Made Easy.) Tell me if you’re interested, and I’ll bravely move on to chords.

The Octave

It all starts with the octave, an interval between two pitches that’s a actual law of nature. The tone we call a middle A, for example, has a frequency of 440 Hz (vibrations per second); double that frequency to 880 Hz and you get a sound that’s somehow the same but different—high A. Double that and you get another same-but-different sound. The same-but-different quality of two tones at each end of an octave (aka octave equivalence) is recognized across all human cultures.

So, when developing their musical languages, all human cultures begin with same-but-different pitches and the need to identify all the pitches in between them. Every culture divides the octave distance into steps (“scala” is Italian for “step,” so that’s where “scale” comes from). The Chinese divide it into 5; the Indians divide it into 22.

The Chromatic Scale

Western culture, starting with Pythagoras, divided that space into 12 steps, known as the chromatic scale. In other words, to get from middle A to high A, you take 12 evenly spaced steps: A, A#, B, C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A.

This is where it starts to be confusing, because this is where the language of music totally misleads. First of all, there’s no conceptual difference between sharps/flats and regular notes (and yes, every sharp is also a flat: it’s “sharp” relative to the note below it and “flat” relative to the note above it. I could have written the above 12 notes as A, Bb, B, C, Db, D, Eb, E, F, Gb, G, Ab). In other words, between black keys and white ones. I always assumed sharps/flats were assistant notes, not the big bosses. They simply do not seem equal—a Bb seems subsidiary to a B. But it’s not. It’s just one of twelve tones, which should simply be represented by 12 different letters of the alphabet—A through L.

OR, if we have to use in-between letters, then why isn’t it A, A#, B, B#, C, C#, D, D#, E, E#, F, F#? Why is there just one step between E and F and between B and C, although there are two between C and D, D and E, F and G, G and A, and A and B? This is either sadistic or irresponsible. (And graphical notation–printed music–carries on the farce, as the on-paper distance of B from C on the scale is represented as the same as the physical distance of C from D, even though the pitch distance is half as far. And this is supposed to be the mathematical art!)

Major & Minor Scales

But what are you going to do? We can’t change it now, any more than we can make through rhyme with cough.

So to recap, we have the chromatic scale—12 steps evenly dividing up the space of an octave. From that scale, we as a culture derived lots of other scales or patterns, the most common ones being the major and minor scales. “Major” and “minor” simply identify certain patterns of tones selected from the chromatic scale.

Both of those patterns, by the way, include eight notes, beginning with a root note and ending with the “same” note an octave above. Hence the term octave, which means eighth.

To get to those eight, though—again—we start with 12. Tragically, we must start calling those 12 steps “half steps” since (because of the crazy notation) we’re accustomed to the interval between A and B being referred to as a “whole step”—although they are actually two tones apart on the chromatic scale (A—Bb—B). From now on, we’ll refer to one tone up or down as a “half step”; two tones up or down is a “whole step.” Sorry.

If we pick a note on the chromatic scale and call it “1”, then major scales use the half steps 1, 3, 5, 6, 8, 10, 12, 1 (back to beginning). It skips 2, 4, 7, 9, and 11. Another way to put this is, beginning with the first note, major scales follow the pattern whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step.

Notes:                                 1—3—5—6—8—10—12—1

 Steps between:                 W  W  H  W  W    W   H

In other words, beginning with C:


  W   W   H  W  W   W   H

That, my friends, is a C Major scale. Each scale is named for the first note in the pattern—the “root” note—followed by the kind of pattern it is. An F# Major scale is a scale that begins on F# and follows the major pattern.

You can figure out any major scale by starting with the root note—you can use any of the 12 (A, A#, B, C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#)—and following the major pattern. Here’s G Major, another popular beginner scale:


W     W   H   W  W  W   H

Of the 12 tones of the chromatic scale, the minor scale uses tones 1, 3, 4, 6, 8, 9, 11, 1 (back to beginning). So this pattern is whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step.

In other words, as we see in A minor:


  W   H   W  W   H   W  W

You can figure out every minor scale, from A through G#, simply by following the minor pattern.

As to Mike’s question, a harmonic minor scale is simply another pattern derived from the original chromatic scale; it’s the same as a (natural) minor scale, with the seventh note raised one half step. In other words, the harmonic minor tone pattern is 1, 3, 4, 6, 8, 9, 12, 1, and the step pattern would be whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, half step, whole-and-a-half step, half step.

Here’s D natural minor:


  W   H   W  W   H    W   W

And here’s D harmonic minor:


   W  H   W  W  H   WH    W

A nice way to remember “WH” in this case is the expression “What the Hell?”


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