Dear Betty Boop, Embrace What Life Offers in the Moment…

“When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” ~ Buddha Siddhartha Guatama Shakyamuni

I’ve heard the quote many times before but never knew who to credit – after much Googling, I’m still not sure if I have the right source, so we’ll call it good enough.
Regardless of whether or not I got the credit for the quote correct (which I hope I did), it’s a true statement and one that I’ve personally experienced, or maybe finally recognized, over the last decade.

It started with my first drawing class in Yardley, Pa.

When I say that I was nearly hyperventilating and on the verge of abandoning the class for the refuge of my car, I’m not exaggerating. The only thing that moved me forward was another student who caught up to me and cheerily said, “You must be here for the drawing class, I can’t wait! Let’s head in together.”

Gulp! This left me with little choice but to face my fears and perch myself on a stool in front of an intimidating blank canvas amongst people who knew each other but were strangers to me.

The subject for the first lesson was a sunflower, a large one from my perspective. I sat on my stool, overwhelmed, and a bit paralyzed. The sunflower we were supposed to draw looked impossibly intricate.

It didn’t help matters that the women around me already had petals flying out of their pencils onto the paper, and I was so hung up on how to draw a perfect circle that I couldn’t move on.

Anne, the instructor, walked up behind me, put her hand on the small of my back, and said, “Breathe, Beth, you’re in the right place. I know you are.”

As it turns out, I was. It took me weeks – but I eventually finished the sunflower.

029 final sunflower_white shading
I took several classes with Anne through the Artists of Yardley. In all that time I finished every drawing we started, but only one during the class. It was a pine cone, and the medium is charcoal.

pine cone_04_19_12
While I lived in Pennsylvania, I also had the privilege and opportunity to take drawing lessons from an accomplished artist at the Princeton Arts Council. I lived just across the river from New Jersey, so it was more than convenient.

I still remember the Thanksgiving in St. Louis when I decided to sign up for one of Konstantin’s classes. The class cost more than any class I had attended to date, which was part of what caused me to take pause. The more significant hesitation had to do with his profile. There was no doubt in my mind that he was a no-nonsense professional artist. I bit the bullet and hit submit.

He didn’t disappoint, he exceeded my expectations and made me think about art ways that had never occurred to me. I’ll always remember my first class with him.

He asked the class, “What is one of the most important things to know as an artist, as you sit down to create? Here’s a clue, if you took piano lessons and you had a good teacher, you learned this early on.”

There was silence as the students looked at each other and tried to come up with the right answer.

Unsure, but uncomfortable by the silence, I raised my hand and offered with some hesitation, “Proper fingering to form a chord or to play a scale?”

His somewhat clipped and heavily accented response was, “Good guess, but no. They teach you how to position yourself in front of the instrument and place your fingers properly on the keys so you can easily move from note to note. It’s no different with art, and that’s where we’re going to start.”

That’s when I first learned how to properly set up an easel and align myself with the subject when working from something real, not imagined for inspiration. I was hooked on his teaching style from the beginning.

He taught me to draw while he taught others to paint. His focus was on helping me learn and understand the fundamental elements – and also to loosen up. His painting classes were always full, but the drawing classes, for whatever reason – not so much.

I hadn’t thought about it before now, but I realize now he went out of his way to offer me a venue in which to learn. It had to be tough to have patience with a student who is afraid to draw a circle and at the same time, coach a student with years of experience. He did so with aplomb.

I laugh with fondness when I recall him walking up behind me when I was clearly frozen in a state of perfectionism. He’d say to me, “Betty Boop, you’re creatively constipated again. Loosen up.”

He was a teacher one either loved or not. For whatever reason Betty Boop was and still is his nickname for me, I sort of love it!

Fast forward a few years, and two cross country moves that landed me inexplicably in Upstate NY, and enter stage left, my piano teacher. It wasn’t easy to find him, and when I moved here, I had every intention of continuing my exploration of visual art and had no plan to rediscover music.

As life often happens, things unfold differently than we imagine they will.

Having my piano tuned for the first time in over a decade triggered an unexpected flurry of Google searches for a piano teacher. I found one that was willing to teach an adult was within a reasonable driving distance and sounded like he had a fun approach to teaching. I’ve been taking lessons now for a little over seven months, and all I can say is “wow.” It’s been amazing and continues to be so – I’m now thinking about music in a whole different way.

I’ve kept in touch with Konstantin over the years, and on a whim, I sent him an email about a week ago.

Subject line: Greetings from Betty Boop

Hello Konstantin,

It’s been a very long time since I’ve touched base with you. Thought I’d send you a hello.

I hope all things are well in your world. Things are good, but a bit strange in my world – as per usual. 🙂

I may have mentioned that I moved to Syracuse, NY – it’s been quite a change in many, many ways. It’s hard to believe I’ve lived here for almost a year…

I won’t bore you with aspects of my professional life – let’s just leave it at, I made the right decision to move to Omaha and from there to NY. But this will most certainly not be my last move. I’m starting to feel like a nomad. LOL

Creatively speaking, my move here has caused a gap when it comes to writing and visual art. In Omaha, I was on fire with experimenting with visual art. In Pennsylvania, I was on fire with writing and exploring visual art.

Here, those two aspects have been lacking. However, I found the most fantastic piano teacher, and he’s helping me learn to play the piano in ways I never dreamed of. I doubt I ever shared this, but I took piano lessons from third grade through twelfth and for a few years again as an adult in the early 2000’s. Before I started my crazy cross-country moving trek. I was actually reasonably accomplished in classical music.

My current lessons are stretching me in so many ways, it’s almost impossible to describe – but it’s incredible.

I did participate in #inktober, so, in a small way, I have started to revisit visual art expression. My new place just doesn’t have a space that’s conducive to doing much more than small scale drawings – ink, pencil, and small canvases are currently my options.

Visual art teachers here are non-existent. I genuinely miss the Princeton Arts Council and the classes I was able to take there. In particular, I miss learning from you.

Anyhoo…

Just thought I’d say hidy ho and send greetings from Betty Boop to you.

A few nights later, I sent my piano teacher an email, I wanted to try and express how his teachings are changing my perspective about music.

Subject line: More than Music Lessons

Some thoughts are in my heart and mind that I wanted to share.

Until meeting you, I didn’t understand or appreciate the role of an accompanist.

I had no idea what to expect at my first lesson with you, but I knew I didn’t want to regroup on learning classical. It served me well, but for me, it was time to have fun with music.

You immediately seemed to get it.

Although, at first, to be honest, I sort of thought you were a bit bonkers for teaching me to play songs from music with a single note melody line- aka fake music. But, I quickly got it, loved it, and felt challenged.

Then, you started taking me on the path of learning how to chord on the piano in a way that would support a vocalist and/or other musicians.

I couldn’t stop thinking, I can’t do this.

But you challenge me, teach me and encourage me in a great way, and I am loving the progress I’ve made. It’s beginning to click.

You’ve turned music on its head for me. That’s a good thing.

Now, every time I listen to a song, I gain a new appreciation for the accompanist, who helps bring a song to life.

I also feel like I’m making good progress in my own way.

I came across this tonight and wanted to share it. (You’ve got a friend, link was inserted here – I’ll put it at the end of my post. 🙂 )

Carol King is one of my favorite artists, and in d for me, this brought home the music lessons I’m learning from you.

The most amazing and extraordinary thing happened, on the same day – they both responded.

There were many words of wisdom, support and encouragement in both replies. It truly made my heart smile.

I also laughed out loud at Konstantin’s quirky, humorous comment. For a bit of context, refer back to my message, in which I mentioned to him that my piano lessons are stretching me.

In true Konstatin humor, he replied, “please, be very careful with the stretching exercises (of the direct, not figurative variety), while keeping in mind the grave price Robert Schumann paid. After all, you do need your hands and fingers for drawing and painting, as well. No need to sacrifice yourself to one muse only! 🙂”

I had to Google what happened to Robert Shuman, suffice it to say, he damaged his hands in an attempt to stretch and strengthen his fingers – which of course, is something Konstantin would know!

I took comfort in both messages, which coincidentally – or not, sent two important lessons. Konstantin summed it up this way, “Take full advantage of whatever Life is offering you at THIS moment -lemons or piano lessons, and make full use of it.”

Mark, my piano teacher, offered this thought among many others, “So the journey is long but so FUN!”

When the student is ready, the teacher will appear…

Embrace What Life Offers in the Moment…

As promised, here’s the link.
Carol King is one of my favorite artists, and for me, this brings home the music lessons I’m learning right now.

Silly Rabbit, Piano Lessons are for Grown-Ups!

The piano has always been a part of my life. Some of my earliest memories are of Grandma Marion playing carols in the crowded living room after a traditional Christmas dinner of Swedish meatballs, lefsa, lutefisk and rømmegrøt. (Yes, I’m a bit Norwegian).

Surrounded by aunts, uncles and cousins, the 24th of December was full of warmth, even on the coldest of winter nights in North Dakota. I do believe my love of music, especially the piano is rooted in large part with memories of her. My piano is part of her legacy.

I took lessons as a child and through my teenage years. If memory serves me correctly, I made weekly trips to my instructor’s house until I graduated from high school. I don’t ever remember dreading practicing or going to the weekly lesson. I also don’t remember looking forward to it.

To the best of my recollection, I liked my teacher a great deal, hated playing in recitals, always had trouble remembering the right fingering and was somewhat relieved to be “done” playing the piano as I entered my college years.

Thankfully, my parents were wiser than me, and when my grandmother passed away, they used part of my dad’s inheritance to purchase a piano for me. It seemed like the right thing to do, although I never dreamt it would mean that I’d ever touch the keyboard again.

They bought me a beautiful upright, made by Yamaha – which according to my new piano tuner is one of the best.

Anna tuning Beth's Piano

The details are fuzzy, but soon after the purchase, I arranged lessons for myself and my three children. We all advanced at different speeds, and I’m not sure why we stopped our Saturday lessons, but by the time we did I had made my way through most of John Thompson’s fourth-grade series. For anyone familiar with the series, you’ll understand why I’m proud of this accomplishment.

My piano and I were separated for three years when I moved from Nebraska to Pennsylvania.  We were reunited thanks to the generosity of friends, but in spite of the reunion, it went unplayed for the better part of eleven years, that is, until recently.

Inspiration comes at the strangest times and often-times in the most unexpected ways. My new boss and I were talking about music, and I happened to mention that I had a piano.

“Do you play?” he asked.

“I used to, but I’m beyond rusty and my piano is horribly out of tune.”

He said, “Why don’t you get it tuned and start playing again?”

“Hmmm, that’s a good question, maybe I’ll look into it.”

His comment and the rest of the conversation motivated me to get serious about at least getting my piano back in tune after 11 years of traveling back and forth across the country.

Finding a piano tuner was much easier than finding a teacher – but after a few weeks of Googling, I found both and I couldn’t be happier with both discoveries.

Anna or A. Ajemian is a second generation piano tuner – she mastered the art of piano tuning against her father’s advice. He wanted her to pursue a “respectable job” for a woman. In other words, he thought she should find a “nice office job.” Thank goodness she ignored his advice!

Three weeks after having my piano tuned I had my first lesson with Mark. He welcomed me warmly and I felt at home as I took my place on the bench in front of the obviously well played and loved white upright against the main wall in his studio.

We talked and I explained that I had taken lessons for many years and the focus of my study had been on classical and jazz. I shared that I’m at a point in my life that I just want to have fun with music, and while I want to learn and be challenged I don’t feel a need to graduate from John Thompson’s Fifth (and last) grade level book.

He said “I know exactly what you need,” and flipped through a book of sheet music intended for someone who plays the ukulele. I was dumbfounded and wondered for a moment whether or not I had made the right choice for a teacher; ukulele sheet music only has a single note melody line – no chords, no bass clef. I was perplexed and had no idea how this was going to work out.

After settling on a song, he asked me, “Do you know how to chord?”

I responded by playing the middle C chord with some authority. He beamed, “Yes that’s it! Now, do you know what the inversion of that chord is?”

I looked at him blankly. He went on to explain how chord inversions are different ways to play the same chord, each position is called a different inversion depending on what the bass note is. He guided me through some basic chord formations, and I felt both comfortable and challenged. It was clear to me then, I had most definitely found the right teacher.

It was scheduled to be a 30-minute lesson, so at 8:35, five minutes over the scheduled time, I fully expected him to give me my homework, not to say, “Start from the top again and incorporate the chord work we just talked about.”

I did, certainly not flawlessly (not even close), but I did my best and it was fun.

At 9:05 he wrapped up the lesson and gave me my homework assignment, which includes a lot of work around root and inversion cords while working a Bob Dylan classic, “Blowing in the Wind.”

As we were wrapping up, he said, “Your lessons won’t usually be this long, they’ll be in the neighborhood of 30 minutes or slightly more. But tonight I was inspired to keep going because of how quickly you were catching on.

It’s clear you’ve had excellent musical training and have talent. Because of your background, you made more progress in 30 minutes than some students make in months. This is going to be fun!”

I’m going to enjoy learning something completely different from playing classical music. It’s also cool to know that all of the years of playing and practicing songs from the various grade levels of “John Thompson’s Modern Course for the Piano” paid off.

I’ve had great fun practicing this week, even if my cat doesn’t seem to appreciate it.

mia guarding the piano

I’m excited to see where this new adventure takes me!

If you’ve made it this far, here’s a sound bite from my first week of practice – it’s far from perfect, but it makes me smile nonetheless.

For the second time in my life, I’m proof positive that piano lessons are not just for kids. I also won’t be surprised if my next lesson includes a lot of focus on the importance of finger position on the keyboard. I have a feeling it would have made some of the chord transitions much smoother.

All in all, it’s so much fun to explore something familiar, but yet brand new.