Better, First and Without Condition: an intonation fairy tale

April 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

Okay, I take that back: this is a true story that took place a year ago…

Poor B-flats, what have they ever done to us? I thought to myself, as I listened to one of my beginning ensembles make their way through a beautiful little Mozart arrangement in F major. F major, that should be my first mistake, I argued with myself. But on the other hand, they are ready for the challenge! This needs to happen— they are all extremely fine players— the brick wall is only imaginary!

We went over the finger-to-finger relationships on each string during rehearsal the previous week. We tuned the pitches and chords, measure by measure. I had sent pep-talk follow-up emails home for parents to see, asking everyone to bring the scale to their private teachers (each child in the group has one.) I gave the violins (the intonation culprits in this instance) sound files to practice with. We played left-hand games; we had little in-class challenges. Hadn’t I done plenty? Shouldn’t I just let it be, or fall into some tired pattern of lecturing?

But this isn’t about pawning responsibility off on the other; the student must give it their best, and the teacher must give it even better than their best— and do that first and without condition. Parents do this instinctively— not stooping to their child’s level in the midst of a tantrum; feeding them and changing their diaper and keeping track of them for eighteen-or-so years, much of which goes unnoticed. These same parents have entrusted us, the teachers, with their wonderful children. As a young woman who hasn’t had children yet, I am so humbled by the parents I encounter— they are my role models for better, first, and without condition.

This reality hit me hard post-rehearsal while I was in the local department store of all places. (No, not Macy’s. I mean the local Mom-and-Pop strip mall kind that has all sorts of things from greeting cards to toilet plungers to children’s clothes.) It was there while waiting at the checkout counter that I saw Them, and I had to buy Them. Them being inch-long rubber pigs and Tyrannosaurus Rexes.

Butchers, I mentally griped at the following rehearsal, I should send them to work at the deli counter with those not-at-all-low “Low 1’s” and “Low 2’s”. But then I remembered Them, hiding in my pocket, waiting for their moment of freedom. Cutting off the ensemble abruptly, I reached in and pulled out my little bag. Curiosity quieted the students unusually well without my help.

One by one, with the utmost concentration, I began to line up the little pigs. “Ah, good intonation is sublime…” I began, glancing around at my most confused ensemble.

But it only takes one…

I placed a t-rex on the city limits of the music stand.

“…or two…”

Another t-rex joined in, and the fun began. Think more parts Carnage (than Carnival) of the Animals.

“…to hurt the intonation of the whole ensemble.”

Complete stillness; then laughter and back to work. I am not sure if it was the amusement factor of watching their conductor regress into playing with bite-sized plastic figurines, but after that, I had no trouble afterward getting them to play F-major fingers in tune. Maybe they needed to see how serious I was, and the only way I could communicate that was paradoxically by being silly myself. Maybe they needed that rousing rendition of “Historically Inaccurate Teeny-Tiny Nature Hour with Miss Kim” to know I would go out on a limb for them. Maybe they trusted because they saw how much I cared about them and this whole intonation thing.

…And maybe they were just kids who needed a good show and a moment to clear their heads.

Suffice to say, we’ve evolved and play B-flat and all of his tricky natural friends with panache. (Apparently, my dinosaur roar and pig squeals aren’t too bad, either.) During repetitions of this song-and-dance for my older, teen-aged students in other orchestras, many asked if they could keep the pigs. (I ended up having to buy a bagful for one ensemble!) Occasionally, I’ll spot one, tucked inside a scroll— a fond memory of time when intonation got its moment in the sun.

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