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JULES OF ALL TRADES | A blog about learning.

The life-changing 5 pages of the KonMari method

More Christmas decor than you can shake a peppermint stick at.

More Christmas decor than you can shake a peppermint stick at.

Marie Kondo is (again) having a moment. Her Netflix show, which debuted New Year’s Day, has been a huge hit across the globe. If you, like me, devoured her book back in 2014 when it first hit our shores, you’ll enjoy watching transformations happen before your very eyes: cupboards cleared of moldy food and lined with neatly organized spice jars, piles of clothing disciplined into smartly folded rows, garages returned to their proper usage as ...  actual storage for cars.

The results are certainly more organized, beautiful, even. But are they life-changing?

First-Order Decluttering: Protocols

The KonMari approach is usually summarized by the methods that she demonstrates in the show, methods that have become mainstream:

  • sorting items by category rather than location;

  • keeping only those that “spark joy”; and

  • folding clothing to stand up in a drawer.

Yes, this was our New York wardrobe “color” palette.

Yes, this was our New York wardrobe “color” palette.

All of this is great, but I don’t think it is the real value of the KonMari technique. After all, this step-by-step advice has been around long before her book. I call this “first-order” decluttering: using methods and processes to evaluate our possessions. Ever since moving into my very first apartment after college, I had been addicted to such first-order advice. One site I visited religiously was Apartment Therapy, an interior design site with tantalizing photos of impeccably designed apartments. It also had lots of tips for curating one’s own space. As a self-professed organizational obsessive, I quickly learned all of the tricks. Some of the classic ones included:

I ate it all up. I had an outbox. I had a photo outbox. I took things to Goodwill every month, and I spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about a capsule wardrobe. These protocols did make a difference, but they also raised lots of questions for which I had no answers. Why did I find it so hard to part with things that were clearly no longer useful? Why did I continue to accumulate things after repeated declutterings? Why was the process so emotionally taxing?

The embarrassing array of things in my photo outbox at one point.

The embarrassing array of things in my photo outbox at one point.

Second-Order Decluttering: Stuff is Feelings

There’s a reason those articles come back year after year: they’re a short-term fix. They focus only on what to do, rather than why we do. Any effective behavioral change must deal with things like motivations, emotions, and values. Diet habits work this way. Exercise habits work this way. Why would our stuff habits be any different?

The genius of Marie Kondo’s teachings is the connection between stuff and our emotions. She knows that stuff is often a manifestation of our inner lives. This is why cleaning house often has a cleansing effect on our spirit. The magic of decluttering is that it is slightly easier to deal with physical manifestations of our feelings than our feelings themselves. The KonMari method forces people to confront the physical manifestations of their feelings by piling them into a gigantic pile, the visual absurdity of which encourages those people to face the reasons why they created the pile in the first place (btw, seeing people’s shock at the enormity of their clothes/toys/shoes piles is a highlight of every episode of the show).

The first life-changing realization of the KonMari method is that it is based on feelings. Rather than think about an item’s cost or current value, how broken or useful it is, Kondo’s famous “spark joy” test requires that you think about how you feel about something. It is an emotional test! There are two holistic benefits to this approach: one, if you are not someone who likes to connect with your emotions, this is an excuse to work on that, ratty t-shirt after ratty t-shirt. Two, the hardest decisions about our stuff likely will flag deeper emotional issues standing in the way of our dreams.

Indeed, it is in the most challenging moments of discarding that our deepest emotions emerge. The second life-changing realization of the KonMari method is that it tells us specifically WHICH feelings tend to hold us back. I found this wisdom on pages 181-184 of the book when she explains why it is so hard for us to let some things go:

“But when we really delve into the reasons for why we can’t let something go, there are only two: an attachment to the past or a fear for the future.”

BOOM. That’s the bombshell. It’s a bombshell because I’ve found that failure to thrive IN LIFE is due to these same two things. Consider that. How many people do not take the steps towards a better job, a creative passion, a relationship, because of fear? How many people barter their own chance at being joyful today for yet another day to dwell on the bitter wrongs of the past? So many of us, including me, do these things. Fear and regret and anger and bitterness and all of the emotions that hold us back similarly manifest in the things we hoard against all reason.  

Consider the fear of scarcity, perhaps the most common fear I saw on the Netflix show. Many of us know that person (are that person?) who keeps everything JUST IN CASE. The fear of scarcity often has roots in a different time, place, or circumstance -- the Great Depression, a developing country, or a poor childhood. However, it often no longer serves a rational purpose in our lives. Although raised by immigrant parents who save every piece of molded plastic (because, true, it is very hard to manufacture molded plastic yourself), I learned from thrift stores in Manhattan that ALMOST NO MATERIAL POSSESSIONS are scarce. People threw out nicer thing than I will ever own in gigantic piles every, single, day. Scarcity for most of us is not a present-serving reality, but an emotional delusion created by fear.

The scene at the 79th St and Broadway Goodwill every single day. There are designer duds in there, yall.

The scene at the 79th St and Broadway Goodwill every single day. There are designer duds in there, yall.

Marie Kondo suggests that holding on to these fears can have ramifications beyond the Mt. Everest of takeout containers in the pantry, and I’ve seen this to be true. Those who are afraid to part with things often are afraid to risk capital and time and reputation, even if it means gaining immense reward.

Similarly, not processing the past can hold us back, in our closets and in our lives.  A prime example of this for me were my law school notes. Did they spark joy? Hell, no. But I had a hard time throwing them out. Why? Because I was attached to aspects of my life as a lawyer. I was proud of my law background, of my honors at Harvard Law, of working for a prestigious and demanding law firm, of serving the public through nonprofit and government organizations. When I was trying to throw out my notes, I had quit my law job and been reincarnated as a lowly piano grad student, slaving away day and night on my craft for seemingly no affirmation. Those notes represented a time during which I was a well-paid suit working in a skyscraper with brass elevators, supported by around-the-clock secretaries. And now? I sure felt like a nobody. If I gave away the notes, would anything be left of that former me?

Confronting Yourself/Your Socks

In challenges like these, Marie Kondo’s wisdom helped me formulate two ideas that helped me stop fearing the future and start processing the past: the Superior Substitute and the Culmination of Self. Briefly described these phrases mean that:

1) I am the superior substitute for all of my things, and 2) I am the culmination of all of my things and when I go, so will most of their meaning.

Whoa. How did I get from folding underwear to pondering my own mortality? Don’t worry; it’s a good thing.

Superior Substitute/Culmination of Self

What helped me to process the past was realizing that almost all tangible things are a piss-poor substitute for the ACTUAL SELF. I can never lose my law training because the ultimate result of those experiences is ME! And I’m still here. Same with gifts and such. The relationship with the person is the actual self, and I won’t lose a relationship because I got rid of that tchotchke you gave me (Mahan, I’m looking at you). I’ve realized that memories and my personhood are way more effective embodiments of our sentiments than things.

Love ya, but no, I did not keep this.

Love ya, but no, I did not keep this.

This means that EYE MYSELF -- as the person, as the culmination of all of my experiences and relationships and achievements to date -- am the best relic to keep around. The fineries of my law school notes pale in comparison to the stories I could tell you of my time there. No present from a friend evokes nearly as much warmth as when we chat. And so on. We and the people around us and our memories are the most precious keepsakes. This realization is in part why I wanted to write a blog - to put those memories somewhere, to ponder the person I am and hope to become.

The flip side of that, of course, is that our stuff remains after we leave this world. If my self is gone, what matters? Very little, I know. Let’s be honest. Nothing of mine is going into a history museum or memorial library or really anywhere except maybe into the hands of those who love me. And they will have their own memories of me that are more real than any little trinket I can leave them. So, if we are truly afraid of the future, we should know that, in the end, our fate is exactly the same as any other living being on this planet. After that, the reality is that no one will care about your things as much as you do. They might even feel weighed down by it! Which is not a nice thing to do to the people close to you.

That’s ultimately the life-changing magic of tidying up - the focus on a life well-lived and the recognition that our stuff is just here to help us do that. I’ve come to recognize more quickly items that help me live my best life. Some of these items include the one birthday note I have from my parents with actual sentiment -- feelings were never vocalized in our family, so I save that note to remind me that we do love each other. I also cherish handwritten letters and notes from friends that really showed me what support, or heartbreak, or vulnerability look like. I’m trying to cull everything down to a “Juliana’s Life” binder, including funny sketches from coworkers at my first job, certain school acceptance letters, and pictures, of course -- stuff that is so evocative of a memory or emotion that it makes sense to keep. And very few things make that cut.

Freed from THINGS, I can better focus on what matters - the quality of my life and the memories I will share with those around me for as long as I’m here.

The rest? is just stuff.

The Ambiguous Loss of the ABC

In Taiwan, back when everyone was just a bit younger.

In Taiwan, back when everyone was just a bit younger.

The cleaving of my family tree from its ancestral roots may have happened over forty years ago, but it hit me just today over my kitchen counter. Even I was surprised when the tears fell. Why now? A few days earlier, we found out (in true modern fashion) via iMessage from Taiwan that we had just lost my maternal grandfather (ah gong). At the time, I said, “Oh that’s sad,” and then carried on with my day. Or at least I thought I did. But my subconscious knew better -- family is never that simple.

I know less about my grandfather’s life than I know about my morning Starbucks barista. It sounds crazy, but I honestly couldn’t write out his Chinese name for you. I know that he grew up in Taiwan under Japanese occupation. That fact alone accounts for most of the rest of what I know about him: he loved baseball, especially the New York Yankees; he spoke and wrote Japanese better than Chinese, and he sang Sakura with the indoctrinated enthusiasm of a schoolboy. The physical aspects I gleaned from the handful of times I saw him in person: he wore plain buttoned shirts, he slicked his hair back, his face was usually stern and unsmiling. From relatives, I learned supporting details: that he hadn’t attended much school because he had to work from an early age, that he worked hard in restaurants, and that he kept a daily journal (in Japanese). That’s about it.

How can you mourn a relationship you never had? Can you even mourn a person that you didn’t really know? Am I allowed to mourn a connection that I did not nurture?

When I ask that last question, I think of the relatives who stayed in the old country and had the burden and privilege of taking care of my grandparents, of living daily life with them, and of no doubt hearing their old-timer stories countless times. They are the ones who put in the work that family bonds require, the nurturing and the resolution of conflicts and the sharing of experiences that are the building blocks of any close relationship. Can I lay claim to any of those building blocks? These are my questions to bear, because my parents were the first branches of their respective trees to stretch this way. They are the only branches I have known in any living detail. The rest, despite being real people and my closest of kin, exist mostly as as-yet uncovered stories.

I know I am not alone in the desire to know more about my roots. I think psychology will someday come up with a term for this human sehnsucht, which seems near universal. There is no better evidence for this yearning than the popularity of DNA testing from companies like 23 and Me, which promise that the power of science will reveal FROM WHENCE WE CAME. Truth be told, the data they purvey is no mere intellectual curiosity — it has important ramifications for the very basis of one’s identity. It can inform who we believe we are, explain why we feel a certain way about ourselves and our loved ones, and we hope, even heal the wounds of the past. There are so many stories of people -- seeking a parent or an identity or confirmation of a family lie or omission -- who use these services and find a bit of information that completely upends the story they’ve known their entire lives. It can be devastating to have your world turned upside down; and yet, we still want to know.

We want to know so badly that watching other people find their roots makes for good TV. Finding Your Roots on PBS, hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr., guides the show’s guests, usually the rich and famous, through their family histories, connecting personal stories with fascinating vignettes from world history, whether scenes from the slave trade in the New World, examples of espionage in WWII, or interactions between the huddled masses arriving at Ellis Island. It’s fun to watch, but for me it’s also been somewhat painful, because the language barrier means that it would be much harder for the production team to do a story on a Chinese person. The only Asian I’ve seen profiled is Aziz Ansari, courtesy of the English records of the British Empire in colonial India.

This language barrier is the source of an enormous cloud of guilt over so many of us ABCs (American-born Chinese). The Chinese ability of your typical ABC does not approach the level you need to foster relationships. Mine certainly doesn’t. I could barely talk you through how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in Chinese (what’s the word for peanut butter? I took two years of college Chinese and I don’t know). Expressing emotions is hard enough within an Asian upbringing; finding the words from a foreign language to do so is nigh impossible. So my conversations with my grandparents consist of me babbling like a toddler, while my adult psyche drips with the guilt that I should be able to do better.

I highly suspect that a big part of my loss is guilt. After all, it is the guilt that wracks us most after a loss, is it not? The could-have-beens, the should-have-beens, the why-didn’t-I’s. Yet, fortunate as I am to not be hardened to loss, even I know that guilt succors no one in these times. It helps my grandfather not a whit. It helps me celebrate his life none, and it is a burden that no one put on my shoulders.

Part of the grieving process for me is to put the guilt in its place by acknowledging that I can do nothing other than live the life I was given. The life I was given started out as someone’s dream, that of a better life, of economic mobility, of higher learning and the payoff of hard work. And for all of that I am grateful. But how could I embody all of that and still have a close relationship with people an ocean away, in a language that is no longer my own? You can’t have it both ways. I certainly can’t, and couldn’t, and part of this reckoning is telling myself that fact enough times to forgive myself for something that was never my fault.

I think what all of this — the guilting and the attempted un-guilting — is telling me is that I do have a part in this loss. Over the past few days, my throat unexpectedly closes whenever I realize that I did have some relationship to my grandfather, that I did know him and that he did know me. People have been digging up pictures as we prepare to say our final goodbyes, and most of the pictures of me were from our one big family trip to Taiwan when I was 12. There are pictures of my brother and me with my grandfather, smiling over a cake, hiking in a grove of bamboo, at a big banquet table. These photos bring back memories, memories of how he always called me by my childhood name, “An-An”; memories of how, like him, I seem to subsist on instant noodles and tea. Memories in turn, bring feelings, such as a feeling of kinship with him because I too have a habit of journaling, though not daily like his (he kept the diary out in the open, fully knowing none of us could read it). I remember the feeling of heartbreak when I returned to Taiwan years later for my grandmother’s funeral and my aunt reported that on the day my grandmother died, he stopped writing. “What’s the point, when the person you love is gone?” she had said, calmly but devastatingly. From these feelings emerges knowledge: I know that he loved his family, near and far, and wanted us to be happy together.

Family, no doubt, was extra precious to him. I found out in my twenties that my grandfather had been given by his birth parents to another family, during an era in which childrearing was dictated more by economic than emotional considerations. I found out that his adoptive family later had a baby boy, and that he loved that brother fiercely. I only saw them together once, and my grandpa was beaming the entire time with the biggest smile I have ever seen on his face. He loved us fiercely too, even if we didn’t know it, apparently keeping the photos we sent over from the States in neatly organized photo albums, making note in his journal anytime my mom called home, staying up to date on all we were doing, even if we hadn’t heard his voice in years. The last time my brother visited, my grandpa, with great effort, took my brother out to his favorite soup shop, loving him through food rather than words, as is the Taiwanese way.

I remember the last three times I was lucky enough to see him, when I (by no plan of my own) married a violinist who regularly played in Taiwan. I tagged along on these concert tours, and each time, we made sure to have one dinner with my grandpa, in his 90s by then. I brought him a Yankees cap each year, and he immediately took off his current hat and tried it on, fidgeting with it the entire dinner until it was just right. He would ask me a few basic questions in the loud voice of an almost-deaf old person, and I would do the same, half-shouting, it seemed, in the restaurant. We’d eat, take a picture, and go our merry ways. It seemed so incomplete, so unsatisfactory to me at the time, but at this moment I recognize that it was something. It was more than many people ever get. Our separate lives intersected for a few hours, affirming to each other that we existed and that we cared, and for that I must be grateful.

Gotta get that hat just right!

Gotta get that hat just right!

What I’ve realized this week is that I have somehow always felt the stretch of the branch that reached over the ocean and planted me here. Even if never verbalized until now, I have felt the strain and the absence my entire life. I realize now with the fullness of emotion that I have mourned the loss of my grandfather my entire existence. I’m grateful that his passing comes at a time in my life when I have the perspective to do something about it. I am lucky that my eldest cousins on both sides, those who grew up with my grandparents, are women my age, and some of the most thoughtful, compassionate, kind, and giving people I know (and can write in multiple languages, including English). They are valuable branches of my tree, and I hope the years ahead afford us time and the opportunity to bring our divergent branches closer together, if not geographically, then through shared stories.

We are all living the lives we are given, but there will always be that irrepressible desire to connect to the family we were also given. It’s hard, but I’m going to try my best and forgive myself the rest.

I have no doubt that ah gong, God rest his kind soul, would approve.

Love, always.

Love, always.

How to memorize music

canva memory2.png

There are a few questions about music that I’ve been asked many times, and one of them is how to memorize music. The sort of memorizing I’m talking about is the level that you need for high-stakes performance, such as for a Shakespearean actor, a competitive dancer, or yes, a concert pianist. This is long-term, secure, unshakeable memory. And it’s learnable.

I see some people sharpening their music critic knives (or recalling this article by Anthony Tommasini in the New York Times), ready to fight me on whether we even care about being memorized in performances. They have a point: memorizing does not necessarily add anything. I’ve seen performances off-score that are boring and some with score that are mesmerizing. However, like it or not, it is a skill that is still expected these days, especially of pianists, and it is worth knowing how to do it.

If you are a musician who must or would like to memorize well, it can be hard to know where to begin. Like many areas of human ability, society has a fixed concept of memory: Jimmy has a good memory. Janie does not. The truth, of course, is that there are many types of memory and that it can all be developed.

For better or worse, as a kid, I was deemed blessed with this monolithic “good memory.” In piano lessons, I would cover up my lack of practicing by playing back pieces I’d heard on the radio, or transcribing pieces from my kiddie orchestra to the piano, or trailing off from my Haydn sonata into a silly tune before meandering back to where I’d left off. Memorizing seemed effortless. When I got to piano grad school, I had all kinds of deficiencies (maybe all of them), but I could still count on my memory. My professor, a gentle yet exacting Russian master in his 80s, seemed partly amused, partly annoyed by this. Often, we’d pick a new piece, and by the next lesson, I’d stumble through it with my eyes glued already to the keyboard. He declared that I must memorize pieces by simply looking at the cover.

That confidence fell apart as the protective shell of youthful arrogance wore away. A massive FAIL also helped. At the age of 28, I had my first mortifying memory slip. I had brought Bach’s Partita in E minor to a jury of some sort at the Manhattan School of Music, and I launched into it, confident of my Baroque prowess. It happened in a split second: at one of those cruel Bach-ian forks in the road, I took the first one instead of the second, and realizing my mistake, stopped dead in my tracks, hands in the air, mouth open - shocked. I think I also said out loud, “WHAT THE F…….” We musicians all have auditions and performances that we’d rather not remember, and that is definitely on my list. That traumatic experience, and conversations since with colleagues, teachers and students, set me on a journey to really understand how we remember music.

I won’t talk about memory generally. There are a billion books you can read on that. For now, I’ll talk about the four kinds of musical memory and how you can use them. They are: aural, visual, physical, and structural. I’ve ordered them that way because I’ll make the case that most people rely too much on the first few and find themselves in a pickle because of the last one.

AURAL MEMORY

This is the memory that tells you how a piece “goes.” You don’t have to play the piano to have this memory; in fact, all of us have it because we can recognize tunes and even sing or whistle them back -- no piano skills needed! Some of my most endearingly frustrating students have been beginners with a wonderful ear who insist on picking out tunes on the piano, plinking each key in a game of melodic whack-a-mole until they find the right one. They know what they’re looking for because their ear tells them when it’s right. This might be the form of memory all of us, including serious musicians, rely on the most. In practice, we often fix wrong notes only after we hear them, rather than knowing when they’ll crop up in advance. Aural memory is very accessible, but the problem is that it’s reactive, not preventative.

VISUAL MEMORY

Unlike aural memory, which is strong in all musically-minded people, musicians differ in their strength of visual memory. I am very much a visual learner (which is why lectures put me to sleep), so I can remember the layout of the score fairly quickly. Most people have a bit of this ability, which is why when you put the score in front of them briefly, they can often pick back up with just that tiny visual stimulus. However, few of us have what approaches photographic memory, so even if we can see large sections in our visual memory, it usually doesn’t help with the details … such as the note you’re looking for at the moment ... on stage.

PHYSICAL MEMORY

This is an interesting one because, for the most part and somewhat sadly, in the world of competitive music, we greatly value musical athletes. It’s no one’s fault, exactly. We can’t help but feel awe at a little kid with a lightning fast bow-stroke, even if all she plays is show pieces. We can’t help but reward a pianist with accolades when he plays lots of notes accurately and rapidly, even if there is no sense of shape to the music. As humans, we are impressed by what others can do with their bodies because we can’t imagine ourselves doing the same. The physical dimension has been, and always will be, an arena for measuring human capacity and achievement. We wouldn’t have competitive sports otherwise.

However, the immediacy of the acclaim for physical achievement can be damaging because it overshadows other kinds of development. The infatuation with musical athletes explains the legions of young people relying on feel to know what to do. This is why you have conservatory students the world over pounding away at their pieces for hours, repeating them over and over and over in the practice room. This is why a lot of advice on memorizing focuses on repetition, often offering no more than variations on repetitive exercises. These exercises are based on the belief that, to strengthen muscle memory, you must do reps, just like you do for physical muscles. It also suggests that, with enough reps, you’ll be strong enough to withstand anything. There’s tons of this kind of advice on the internet, and it drives me crazy. Because it’s not true.

Here’s the problem with muscle memory. The minute something about your physical setup changes - whether a different piano, a different performance space, a different lighting or audience setup, a totally different temperature - your physical memory is affected. You are never, unless you perform in your practice room, performing in the exact same physical conditions in which you practice. That alone is enough to throw someone off track. Furthermore, we haven’t yet mentioned the mental dimension. Are you just a pair of arms? No. Those arms are controlled by your brain, and that pesky organ can be distracted by a cough, by a sticky key, by anything outside of your control. I’m reading Michelle Obama’s autobiography right now, and she’s got an endearing story about her first piano recital and being completely boondoggled by the fact that the recital piano had nice, smooth, unblemished keys, unlike her teacher’s snaggle-toothed keys. It’s okay, Michelle. We’ve all been there.

STRUCTURAL MEMORY

Here’s what I believe: nearly all memory issues stem from a lack of structural memory. The best way for me to explain this is to ask you to tell me your life story. Tell me where you were born, what your parents were like when you were growing up, what you thought of your school, what you loved about your summers, who your friends were, etc. You could probably talk for as long as I wanted you to with ease, but if you think about it, it’s an immense amount of information! Anyone else would have to work hard at telling your story back to you.

What, then, makes remembering your life story easy for you? Two things. STORYLINE AND CONNECTION. Storyline means that there is a logical and inevitable order to the events. You talk about liking dinosaurs before liking girls before liking the idea of becoming a bankruptcy attorney (maybe). The progress of time makes it easy to line up the memories you have. Connection means that those events mean something to you. Well, in this exercise, of course they do! They happened to you. You can’t get more connected. Some of you can probably tell the life story of a close friend or beloved family member even if it’s not yours, because it means that much to you. Connection is the key to remembering things long-term, years after the events have happened.

What does this have to do with music? Everything. Most memory slips happen because of a blind spot in the storyline of a piece. What is a storyline in a musical piece? It is any aspect of the composition that makes what follows more inevitable and logical. I’m not even talking about a real storyline. I’m talking about the principles the composer used to put together the piece. Most often, these principles can be discovered using music theory analysis. For instance, if you’re playing a Classical sonata by Mozart, you might know that there is quite a specific order to things:

  • You know there is a first theme (often the first thing you play, and hopefully you remember that!), followed by a (usually) contrasting theme in a predictable key, and then maybe some closing material in that same key.

  • Then there is a development section where the themes you just played are chopped up, shaken and stirred, and the more you can say about which theme it is and how it’s being tweaked, the better!

  • Then all the tunes come back in the last section, except they stay in the same key in order to give a sense of finality to the movement.

This is just the general sonata form, of course, and Mozart will toy with it like the imp he is. But knowing exactly where he does and where he doesn’t is part of that storyline! Once you know the story of your sonata, you will never be lost because each part of the story relates and leads to the next.

Important caveat: this storyline analysis is only possible with music written by people who know what they’re doing. You might ask why piano students play so much of the old fogies like Bach, Beethoven, Mozart. The reason is that those guys wrote music that both captures the spirit AND shows mastery of compositional skill. If they bent the rules, there was a compelling reason why. The good composers, living or dead, young or old, are the ones that have put in that same kind of work: they study, master and try to expand the conventions of our musical tradition. Of course, there is always music written by people who haven’t put in that work. If you come across one of those, it may not have a storyline you can follow, and, well … keep doing those repetitions, I guess. But I’d rather play music by people who know what they’re doing.

Anyway. After this work on the storyline, the connection piece comes in. Every part of the story has to mean something to you. In a sonata, the character of the first theme might be bright and cheery, and the second might be lyrical and more contemplative. Characterizing the themes helps you connect to them. If they remain in the intellectual realm, they won’t be much of a long-term memory. That’s why you can’t really remember the name of your sixth grade teacher or even what subjects you had that year but you do remember the exact moment a boy passed you a note in class. If this all sounds a little woo-woo, consider this: so much of Western music is predicated on the contrast between tension and release, conflict and resolution. EVERY STORY has these forces in it, and so does music. At the least, you must know where that is in the music.

What I’m trying to convince you of is that memory is at its highest level a question of analysis more than anything; the deeper the better. The discipline of music theory is critical for this work because it enables us to dig deeper into aspects of musical form, melody, harmony, or pulse/phrase rhythm. Music history sure helps too. The more you know about the style, period, and composer, the more inevitable the events are. Is this a lot of work? You betcha. Is it less work than that done by Bach, Mozart, Mendelssohn, and others way more gifted than us? Yes. They knew the works in their canon by heart because they copied them out by hand. On crumbly parchment. With spotty ink. By dim candlelight. While their teachers stood by with a whip. Okay, maybe I romanticize a bit, but by golly, if you can reproduce a piece note by note on staff paper, you definitely know it. Most of us today are so far from that point with the pieces we present that there is plenty of room for improvement.

Even if you don’t end up memorizing a piece on stage, this work will benefit you - and your audience. In fact, I believe it makes all the difference in the world. Ever hear a great performance and struggle to put your finger on exactly why? Maybe the piano was dinky; maybe the performer obviously missed some notes; maybe the venue was pretty shabby; yet, it moved you. Consider whether that performer knew the story of that piece, cared about that story, and spun it to you like a yarn.

Recently, I put all of this to the test. I am no longer blithely confident in my God-given ability to memorize music, but I do know more how the sausage is made. Despite this knowledge, I recently debated whether to perform a piece from memory. I was apprehensive -- there are a lot of notes; it was my first performance of the piece; I’ve never seen anyone else memorize it. Nevertheless, I stuck to my commitment to play from memory whenever possible, and I’m glad I did. It’s a commitment that I believe in, because even if I’ve put in the time to get my aural, physical and visual memory in place, I don’t feel as if I truly know the piece until it speaks its story to me and that story is meaningful to my life. Only from that place of meaning do I have a chance at bringing a meaningful performance to life.

What I wish Nick Sandmann had said

Usually by 8am, I’m out of the house, but on Wednesday, we had gotten 7 inches of snow (with more falling) and I was watching road conditions and school cancellations on TV. Pinned in by the unplowed streets, I left it on, even after the chirpy voices of the Today Show came on.

This is all to say that I didn’t set out to watch Savannah Guthrie interview Nick Sandmann, but I did.

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New Year’s Resolutions: Why Bother?

Inspired by the turning of the calendar, I sat down the other day to review my 2018 resolutions - and found that I had failed miserably. Of the 11 goals I set, I only achieved one -- reading 12 books -- and only because I cheated. To get across the finish line, I threw in a few music history books I’d read for class prep, plus a book I technically finished on January 2 of this year.

I know I’m not alone in falling short of new year’s resolutions. In fact, today, January 12th, is even designated Quitter’s Day because studies show that this is when most people first fall off the bandwagon.

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