Hi blog. How ya been? Good? I know I haven’t seen much of you lately, but I’ve been real busy, see, and . . . oh no no no, it’s not you, it’s me. I’ve just been busy and . . . aw, don’t be silly. We’re still tight. No, we’re good. Really, I’m totally committed to this relationship.
It’s an odd moment, feeling things running down in Austin and waiting for them to power up in Bloomington. I remember this feeling from the last time we moved, when we were getting ready to leave California. You’re like a rocket leaving one planet and heading for another, reaching the point where the gravity of the home planet has slackened and you’re only beginning to feel the pull of the other. The next big thing for us is selling our house in Austin and buying one in Bloomington, but until school is over next month all we can do is look at online listings, staring at tiny, poorly-lit, oddly-framed thumbnail images of houses and trying to imagine what it might be like to live in them. I love the ones where they take a picture of the TV, with the TV on. Imagine, you could be watching TV in this house!
Sometimes they take pictures of pretty random things:
And for some reason an unseemly number of Bloomington houses are disfigured by horrible fake-wood paneling or some even more inexplicable interior design decision:
Kind of cool if you’re a big fan of Twin Peaks’ Dr. Jacoby, I guess.
Anyway, so now I’m walking around, inwardly enumerating the things about Austin I’ll miss. A couple of days ago my son’s piano teacher, Patches King, had her studio recital in an Italian restaurant called Romeo’s. What a great idea — everybody was relaxed (the fact you could have a glass of wine probably helped), convivial, happy — Nicholas played great, and my meatball-and-sausage pizza was exactly what I wanted, the pizza crust as a delivery device for a deep rich slathering of spicy meat and smoked cheese. (Think Frank Sinatra Italian, not Luciano Berio.) What could be better? I’ll miss Austin restaurants, to be honest, because while Bloomington has its charms (not least Mother Bear’s pizza, the most carnal pizza experience there is), it doesn’t have Austin’s food culture. The Mexican and tex-mex I eat elsewhere now seem but a feeble mockery of the real thing. No-one outside of Texas has the slightest notion of the Margarita. And let us not even begin to discuss BBQ.
And Patches, Nicholas’s piano teacher, is irreplaceable, and not only because she had the idea of doing her studio piano recital in a restaurant with fake grapes hanging from the rafters. My son has no idea how lucky he is. The main thing in playing an instrument is to start out well. I didn’t, and had crippling (literally) physical/technical playing problems it took me years to get rid of. It’s hard to find a piano teacher who can set a kid up well, and who also has a clue about how to treat kids. Patches manages somehow to find that elusive kid wavelength, talking to them in ways they understand and respond to, while never talking down to them, either. She manages the trick of remaining patient and kind while at the same time never lowering the bar — which, as Jonathan pointed out, is really THE trick of teaching.
And one other thing. If I can be said to have a philosophy, a kind of personal crusade, it is to oppose everywhere the pernicious nonsense by which we make distinctions between style and content. The title of Virginia Postrel’s wonderful book The Substance of Style perfectly sums up my belief: style is substance. In writing, for example, people will treat ideas and prose as separable items, and will say stuff like “well, I just wanted to get my ideas out, I can work on the writing later.” But the ideas flow from the writing, and vice versa. If you treat ideas and their expression as totally different things you will end up with neither ideas nor expression. And this is the problem with a great deal of academic writing.
And likewise in piano pedagogy, many is the teacher who approaches technique — the physical business that goes into the depressing of keys — as somehow separate from musical sense. What makes Patches a truly great piano teacher is the fact that she never treats “expression” as something to be extruded into a mold of notes and rhythms, but rather approaches technical problems as musical ones. This may sound pretty hifalutin for a kid’s piano lesson, but there is no harder job in the world than teaching children to play a musical instrument, and no more important one, either. The ones who are good at it should get their propers, and it always seems a bit unfair that it’s usually the ones at the other end of the process, the ones that groom their students for the Queen Elizabeth Competition and whatnot, that get all the attention.