Monthly Archives: January 2015

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?”

Sourdough Resolution

IMG_7189Lena, having a snack at the counter after school, asked me what my favorite possession was. I mentally sifted through my stuff. I don’t really think of myself as a “thing” person. I rely on my computer. My noise-cancelling headphones are like a parachute: although I hardly ever use them, they offer me the reassurance that I can escape in an emergency. But favorite thing?

“I love the fountain pen my sister gave me,” I said, then noticed Adam and added, “and my wedding ring.” Not true: I love my husband and my marriage. The ring is more a symbol of things beloved than a beloved thing itself.

Later, at the same counter, the kids were eating what we call a “French picnic”: in our house that means a sourdough baguette, a cheese or three, salami or ham, and some kind of fruit. They eat that when Adam and I go out to dinner without them, or, as on this occasion, when I’ve just baked baguettes in order to use up some starter.

“That’s it!” I said, and they all stopped chewing for a second. “Lena asked me what my favorite possession is and it’s my starter!” My starter is older than they are, and still works beautifully. It makes silky, bouncy dough and then flavorful bread out of nothing—flour, salt, and water. It’s goop in a plastic container in my fridge; it’s magic.IMG_0209

That’s the thing you would save if the house was on fire?” asked Noah, skeptical.

“No,” I said, “because I would forget. But that’s the thing that I would later regret not saving.” I made a mental note to ask Maud if she still had some, in case my house burned down. That’s the other great thing about starter: you can give it away and still have it. Magic.

“Are you going to put it in your will?” asked Jesse.

“Well, by then I hope you’ll all have some, and be using it. You can compete to see who can keep it going the longest.”

“By then,” I went on, as I sometimes do, “you’ll all know how to make these,” and I picked up one of the knobby, golden brown baguettes still lined up on the cooling rack. I tend to leave my baked goods out for a while to make me feel productive during a day when the only thing I’ve written is a to-do list. “You’ll all know how to make them before you leave the house,” I declared, and then realized Noah was in ninth grade already and would be in college essentially by tomorrow afternoon.

That’s when I decided that 2015 would be the year of the baguette. By 2016, I vowed, all of my kids would be able to make them.

I am not as good a mom as I would like. Better habits, annually resolved—to read to my daughter every night, to hug my teenager every day—annually dissolve, corroded by inertia, distraction, laziness.

Finishing the Narnia series seems farfetched. We’ll be lucky to get through The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. But this transfer of skill . . . I think I can do. The kids are motivated and the task is fairly simple.

There are six stages, only two of which require any sort of skill. You feed the starter, make a biga (or levain or sponge—all words for a kind of pre-dough), make the dough, form the loaves, stretch the loaves into their pans, and bake the loaves.

This weekend I taught them to feed the starter, and then called them in to watch or try each subsequent step, although Lena missed a few (sleepover) and they all missed the baking part (football game). They did show up for the eating, though.

It’s a start.


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