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5 minutes reading time (928 words)

Seeds for the future

Fallow periods. Farmers know every crop field needs them. The earth cannot sustain continuous growth. Why then do we humans think we can?

Unflagging effort creates steady progress, or so the story goes. Yet who among us is capable of unceasing work and ever-expanding creativity? The instant communication of this twenty-first century world heightens our expectations of perpetual productivity. If a politician sneezes, we hear it looped endlessly on CNN. If we happen to have our wall-sized television turned off, YouTube will replay that sneeze for us during our middle-of-the-night computer time. We are continually on call. Cell phones, e-mail, Facebook, texting, Twitter-everyone wants our opinion, our input, our fixes to the moment's real or imagined problem.

The students currently in our studios were born sometime between 1992 and 2003. They never knew a time when cell phones and the Internet didn't exist. I recently told Jordan, one of my tech- addicted teenage students, about the time my former father-in-law accidentally cut the telephone line to Calvin Coolidge's summer home. Yes, THE telephone line. 

Line down

During the summer of 1927, one specially-dedicated phone line snaked its way through my father-in-law's western Nebraska farm to Rapid City, South Dakota, where Calvin and Grace Coolidge were enjoying a three-month - yes, three-month - vacation in the Black Hills. All of the folks living along this wired connection between Coolidge and the rest of the world knew which cable belonged to the President. One afternoon, while harvesting a wheat field, my father-in-law drove the top of his combine through this presidential wire. To his horror, he looked back to see the two broken ends hanging limply from their poles.

After running the entire two miles to home, he confessed his error to his father, a man who had helped wire all of Fremont, Nebraska for electricity. Together they raced back to the field, shinnied up the poles, reconnected the wires, and restored telephone service to the President. Over an hour had passed and no one had noticed the interruption in service.

My student's response: "You're kidding, right? You mean your father-in-law had to run all the way home? I can't imagine not having a cell phone!"

I was telling Jordan this story because he was experiencing a musical fallow period. He had practiced well and made reasonably steady progress for nearly seven years. Now, for whatever reason, he seemed unable to move to a new level. His technical facility had stalled out at an early-advanced level and his formerly musical playing had started to sound wooden. He was musician enough to know he wasn't getting anywhere, and he felt miserable. His practice and performances no longer sustained him. Music lessons had become a burden.

My response to Jordan: "Good. Let's enjoy this plateau. At least we know where you are. Let's honor this hiatus. Let's go underground and rest." I suggested we turn off the musical equivalent of the bundled communications cables that were running his life. We canceled his Level IX Theory and Performance exams; we jettisoned all the pieces he was currently working on; we cleared his assignment book. He even decided not to take the job of choral accompanist at his high school, because he didn't enjoy the music they were singing. We started over-together. 


I asked Jordan to bring recordings-OK, mp3s-of three of his favorite pieces to his next lesson. Together we listened to Misha Dichter's performance of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No.6, John Mayer's "Waiting on the World To Change," and selections from Ramsey Lewis' new Songfrom thHeart album. Jordan shared his eclectic and excellent taste in music with me. For three more weeks we continued this approach, enjoying long talks about different composers, performers, and the music itself.

By the fifth week of our fallow period, Jordan was itching to play the piano again. He had been picking out the John Mayer tune by ear and he had started adding an accompaniment. He asked for some help. Using the recorded performance as a guide, Jordan drew on all his theoretical knowledge of chords, scales, and accompaniment styles as he began fashioning his own arrangement. He created a left-hand accompaniment similar to one he had been struggling with in a Chopin Nocturne. Motivated by the Mayer piece, he finally mastered this technical difficulty.

At lesson six Jordan surprised me by singing along to the Mayer song as he played his now polished arrangement. Jordan's mellow voice soared over the sound of the piano. Emotion filled every phrase. I asked him to sing it again to our shared enjoyment. 

Renewed growth

Jordan arrived early for lesson seven. He couldn't wait to show me a slightly jazzy interlude he had added to the song. Jordan had always enjoyed improvising, but this attempt brought melodic twists and a new harmonic sophistication that signaled a blossoming originality.

In week eight Jordan arrived with his iPhone. Together we watched and laughed at a YouTube version of Bugs Bunny playing Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6. Jordan asked me to help him with the first few phrases of the piece.

Week nine is coming up. Where is Jordan heading? I have no idea. I only know that we are enjoying his lessons and looking forward to the next ones. The musical view from Jordan's current vantage point in the fallow underground inspires us. We have cut in two the wires that buzz with the expectations of the outside world. Over an hour has passed and no one has noticed.

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