On March 1, 2020 I woke up thinking, “I never learned the third movement of the Italian Concerto. I need to do this. I need to start today.” By March 12, 2020 the piano festival was cancelled, schools were closed for two days, and none of us knew what was coming next. The coronavirus pandemic and Covid-19 had become a reality here in Harrisonburg. How was it that my pandemic project was in place before the pandemic?
As the weeks and months crawled by, I turned to Bach. After I had danced, charted, graphed, analyzed, played, prayed, and painted the Italian Concerto, I turned to other Bach pieces in my repertoire, some that I hadn’t played for years. One hour a day, every day. I didn’t miss, maximizing the opportunity given to me as a result of lockdown, quarantine, and isolation.
By October 2020 I was seeking the next step. During yet another interminable evening I was watching a pre-recorded concert on my phone, enjoying my favorite pandemic treat of vanilla ice cream from Mt. Crawford Creamery. The pianist was Lang Lang. The ice cream was straight from the carton. As Lang Lang played the Aria from the Goldberg Variations, my spoon slowed and then stopped. I thought, “Well, why not?” Now, don’t get me wrong here: the virtuosic variations are not in my wheelhouse. But that still leaves plenty.
My first move was to order a score, a high-quality German edition for such an illustrious work. The score I wanted was out-of-print, back-ordered, and heading into delayed mail and holiday rush. So I turned to Amazon, no problem. Oh yes, there was a problem. My precious score arrived not only bent from the shipping, but torn, actually torn. I stewed about it for days, looking for the Amazon return policy and eager to begin. Then it dawned on me: a work of this scope needed more than one score anyway. Why not go ahead and use the torn score, while I purchased another one from the back-ordered company?
And so I did, using the torn score freely. Eating breakfast, drinking my coffee, waiting in the car, picnicking in the woods, wherever. Spills, hasty notes, I just dove in. And the yoga. On those pandemic mornings I cast a YouTube tutorial to my television, rolled out my yoga mat, and placed my glasses, score, and pencil on the floor beside me. Up-dog, down-dog, scribble notes, plank, low plank, repeat. My favorite tutorials were by Jeremy Denk, Simone Dinnerstein, and Angela Hewitt. For those hours I was in another world. The yoga practice wasn’t the best, and maybe not the piano practice either, but I was transported.
While in isolation in my home I was able to experience a world of Goldberg renditions through the power of YouTube. The PA’dam Chamber Choir sang a marvelous recomposition by Gustavo Trujillo. The Andersson Dance and Scottish Ensemble placed dancing fiddlers onstage with exuberant, shimmying dancers. Simone Dinnerstein played her Steinway surrounded by dancers. A string trio gave their interpretation in a remote Baltic classroom. A young man from the Netherlands sat at a harpsichord on a lonely stage, and I was able to hear the work the way Bach heard it. The chamber orchestra from Emmanuel Music in Boston was a stark reminder of the pandemic. The performers wore face masks, sat six feet apart, and played to an empty church sanctuary. I discovered the remarkable work of Zhu Xiao-Mei, and devoured her memoir, The Secret Piano: From Mao’s Labor Camps to Bach’s Goldberg Variations.
I continued in this fashion, practicing the Variations for one hour a day at the piano. Every two weeks I found myself ordering another score. One edition gave fingering suggestions. Another had larger note-heads and cleaner engraving. Yet another had Variation Three — the canon at the unison — with the two canonic voices printed on separate treble staves. Before I knew it I had six editions spread out on my piano’s music desk. At the height of the pandemic, I had no travel expenses and no meals out with friends. I wore the same outfits, and a tank of gas lasted a month or more. Why not allow myself the luxury of multiple scores?
Did I have a grid, spreadsheet, or calendar? No.
Did I have a path, plan, or roadmap? No.
Am I likely to teach or perform any of the Variations? No.
Does anyone even hear me practice them? No.
So what’s the point?
We know that listeners receive benefits from a performance of the Goldberg. Do we talk about the impact on the practitioner? I can only speak for myself.
I have found a masterpiece of unimaginable magnitude. Practicing one small portion calms my anxiety. For a little while my chattering monkey mind is quiet. I am so mentally and physically engaged that I find myself completely in the present moment. I receive an intravenous antidote to existential angst.
This is how I feel about the Goldberg Variations by the great master, Johann Sebastian Bach. I am a five year-old child again. My parents take me to the ocean for the first time. I stare in awe and wonder for a few minutes. Then I plop down in the nearest tidal pool, and with my little plastic bucket and my little plastic shovel I begin to dig. The child in me has no concern for the immensity of what’s in front of her. She’s not concerned about getting it right. Instead she experiences pleasure, contentment, and absorption in what is at hand.
During the pandemic I laughed and said to myself, “I don’t know what the heck I’m doing.” My thoughts proceeded from, “I’m wasting my time,” to “Au contraire, you’ve never used your time more wisely,” to an awareness that I had stepped beyond time. I felt connected to the whole. The music resounded in my mind during many of the long, isolated hours of the pandemic. Walking alone along the North River in Wildwood Park, I heard Variation 18, the canon at the sixth, bouncing off the rock cliffs. Variation 30, the quodlibet, woke me up at 5:00 a.m., encouraging me to begin a cheerful day. The Aria was a faithful companion throughout those lonely weeks.
The Goldberg Variations sing — in your mind, your body, your heart, your soul, your brain, your bones — they sing. The torn score led me on a journey, a journey where I was finally content to forget about the destination and just be grateful for every step I took along the way.
Katherine Donnelly June 30, 2021
Retiring from full-time church music at the end of 2016 gave me the opportunity to open a small piano studio for beginning and intermediate students. During the pandemic I have transitioned to weekly online lessons for one student and occasional lessons for another. I am in awe of the ways HMTA members have adapted their studios to accommodate and continue to offer excellent instruction. The HMTA September meeting provided inspiration, hope and a great deal of helpful information.
“Come quick!! I can see his bone!!”
My older son was calling to us from the top of a tin-roofed shed, where he was sitting with my 7-year-old son, who was badly injured. For a few moments I sat frozen to the chair I was sitting in, hoping that it wasn’t as bad as it sounded. It was. He had split open his shin on the razor-sharp edge of the roof and the wound was deep. Definitely needed stitches. Fast-forward to 1 month later and thankfully he is all healed up, and back to climbing!
But the simple truth is that growing up is hard. Pursuing new adventures and climbing to new heights can be painful. Growth is hard. It’s easier--and safer--
to keep things just as they are. Sometimes we resist it, or try as hard as we can
to ignore it. Sometimes we can feel frozen to our chairs.
When, as a collective society, have we been called to grow in the way that we have in these past several months? Since quarantine began in March we have been forced to change, learn, adapt, and evolve. Let’s all admit it--it’s been painful. The death toll has been shocking, and grievous.
Additionally, there have been job losses, schools canceled and most of us are wrestling with new vocational realities. The simple task of mask-wearing can feel like a sweaty chore. Those of us with kids at home have a new kind of juggling to do while balancing work. In contrast to our chaotic household, I can only imagine how lonely single people must feel, quarantining at home alone.
And of course, as teachers, we are called to grow. If we stay rooted to our seats--frozen in fear--we will lose our student base and income potential. However, moving into a technology-rich experience for some of us feels like an uphill climb. So many new skills to learn!
These past several months I have felt overwhelmed, annoyed, angry, weary, and sometimes, simply lost. At times the same feelings are mirrored in my students’ faces through the laptop screen. We are all learning as we go. However, there is hope to be found: in a lesson that goes surprisingly well, a student’s laughter, a parent who expresses their gratitude in a heartfelt email, a method book completed.
It is in times like these that I am grateful for researcher, writer, and professor Carol Dweck, and her crucial principle of Growth Mindset. According to Dweck,
“This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts.”
A growth mindset establishes that everything we already know has the potential for additional growth and development. Conversely, a fixed mindset is based on the belief that we are limited by what we know already; our knowledge, intellect and gifts are already set. Fixed.
How do we apply this valuable principle on a moment-to-moment basis as we grapple with the ever-changing realities of a global pandemic? One concept that I find refreshingly applicable is in Dweck’s recommendation of applying 2 words:
These tiny words provide a powerful reminder that we may not know how to do this particular thing - yet. The word yet imbues a challenge with enormous potential, and the narrative changes from an “I can’t do it!” tantrum, to a world of possibility. Here are a few examples.
“I don’t know how to share my screen on Zoom.”
A growth mindset re-writes the narrative to:
“I don’t know how to share my screen on Zoom . . . yet.”
This second option means that I have the opportunity to give myself the gift of learning. I have time to learn this; who can I ask? Is there be a simple answer online, perhaps a YouTube tutorial?
“I don’t know how to create a WhatsApp recital.”
Actually, “I don’t know how to create a WhatsApp recital . . . yet. I will learn. I can do this!
“I don’t know how to use the notation software NoteRush . . . yet.”
“I haven’t hosted a FaceBook Live Event . . . yet.”
The word “yet” takes us from the debilitating place of “I can’t,” to an exhilarating “I can and I will!” Don’t we all need some more of that, right now?!
The kind of changes we are experiencing these days are truly unprecedented; at times we ache right down to our bones for the ways that we are being cracked apart and forced to learn and evolve. We certainly are being forced to adapt, and grow. Hopefully, in the future, we will feel grateful for the new technological skills we’ve absorbed.
I for one have learned to embrace many of the realities of online teaching. For instance, without this unique experience, I never would have bought a new recording app called A Cappella and collaborated on some small projects (or recorded Heart ‘n Soul for 8 hands, all by myself!)
Let’s not sit frozen to our chairs in fear. Let’s learn new online skills and continue to give ourselves permission for growth in the mantra, “not yet.”
As for my son, his stitches are out, his leg is all healed up and he’s climbing higher than ever.
Kathryn Koslowsky Schmidt
Canadian pianist, Kathryn Koslowsky Schmidt has a DMA from the University of British Columbia (Vancouver). She divides her time between teaching, gigging and parenting her 2 wild boys in Harrisonburg, VA.
Anddd we have a blog!
Very excited to be able to have this space for HMTA members and local community members to share thoughts relating to modern music teaching, encouraging students, inspiring artistry, and navigating issues that we all face.
In this unprecedented time of online instruction, virtual interaction, and electronic and tech creativity, there has never been a better time to share and communicate practical and inspirational tips with our colleagues and peers!
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