Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Sir Duke and Lady Dirr

Today's the birthday of Duke Ellington.  If you're from my parents' generation, you know of him because of his immense popularity before and after World War II; if you're from my generation, you know him because your parents listened to the music; if you're from the generations immediately after me, you know of him through Stevie Wonder's tribute, "Sir Duke."

If you're from a very recent generation, I'm not sure how you may know of Duke Ellington.  But I'm sure that you should spend some time finding out, because he had a tremendous impact on American music.

My thoughts today were inspired by a comment I heard from a radio announcer: basically, that if you're a kid whose parents force you to take piano lessons, don't resent it, because you never know, you could end up like Duke Ellington.  Not a bad way to end up!  I won't be the Duke Ellington of my generation, but I am very thankful for the piano lessons I was "forced" to take.

I started piano lessons at age six, about the same time that I began attending school.  I took formal lessons for ten years, before making the conscious decision that I did not want to pursue a career in music.  (You can laugh here, if you wish; the irony doesn't escape me either.)  During those ten years, there were moments of great frustration in which I would scream at my mother, "I'm quitting!"  She always very calmly responded that, if I wanted to quit, I certainly was free to do so.  Once I had time to get over myself and my teen-age tantrum, I must've realized that I'd be missing out on something really valuable, because I never carried out my impulsive threats.

What frustrated me?  All sorts of things.  My teacher, Rose Hahn Dirr, lived only two blocks up the street, so most of the time I walked to lessons.  Along the way, I'd come into earshot of another piano teacher's house (her rambling, wood-frame home had no air conditioning, so the windows were almost always open) and her students were playing "popular" pieces like Moon River.  Meanwhile, I'd been practicing Bach's Minuet in G or Beethoven's Fur Elise.  "How boring!"  I pouted.  "No one wants to listen to that old stuff any more!"

Or those times that I'd come to my lesson and Mrs. Dirr would set an unfamiliar piece of music in front of me.  I'd struggle to play those pieces to the best of my ability, but rarely were they subsequently presented as my next piece to learn.  I assumed that it was because I didn't play them well enough, so I would strive harder and harder to play them better and better, in hopes that I could prove that I had the aptitude to play those pieces.

Mrs. Dirr was an exacting task-master.  She always insisted that I play my scales and my Hanon exercises; she demanded that I use correct fingering; she'd make me break the music down into short passages that I had to perfect before going on to the next passage.  "How chopped-up is this piece going to be, if I'm constantly focusing on little parts, rather than the whole?" I'd think.  And Mrs. Dirr could always, always tell when I hadn't practiced enough!

Perhaps you've seen the method in what I used to consider Mrs. Dirr's madness, but if you haven't, let me explain.  The precision that I learned through the study of piano's great masters enables me to play, not only their works, but Moon River, and practically anything else, as well.  The kids who'd studied Moon River?  For the most part, they can still play that piece and the other specific pieces that they'd learned, but they struggle through anything new -- if they're still playing the piano at all -- because they didn't develop an essential body of skills.  I learned how to "sight-read," a critical and highly prized ability, through all of those musical "pop-quizzes" administered through the pieces that I saw only once and (mostly) never again.  In short, I suppose one could say that I "learned how to learn" music, which over the years has helped me with not only the piano but the organ, the guitar, other musical instruments -- and of course the dulcimer.

Mrs. Dirr taught me so much, not only about music and the piano, but about teaching.  I now realize that it's not always necessary, nor even possible, for students to comprehend "why" they must perform certain tasks in certain ways, but it's very important that their teacher understand "why" and really stick to tried-and-true methods, knowing all the while that kids complain because it's their nature to do so, and hoping all the while that they'll be thankful for it later.  Music ... mathematics ... reading ... the same general approach applies.

Every discipline has its Duke Ellington, though few of these "Dukes" will attain the status of legend among the general populace.  And behind every one of those "Dukes" is one or more "Mrs. Dirrs."

Happy Birthday, Duke Ellington!  ... And here's to you, Mrs. Dirr!