Monday, June 11, 2007

High and Low School

The day inevitably comes in every family when little children, our pride and joy, reach their adolescence. This usually happens in middle school, or junior high, an older term but still used in many areas. The sweet darlings seem to turn into little monsters almost overnight; a necessary step in life to prepare for separation from the safety of the home. For a first-time parent this time can be frightening, but by the fourth one it is more easily understood and taken with a grain of salt.

For many decades we lumped together all these hormone factories under the same roof in large middle /junior high schools and prayed for the best. With my two eldest, they were lucky to get into a magnet program for the gifted in Los Angeles early on and didn’t have to suffer terribly. My second one, Sonja, bused daily for almost an hour to go a middle school near Pasadena where she was one of two white kids in otherwise all Asian student class, mainly Chinese. With my second set of daughters here in Seattle, we sent them to a small K-8 school, just a couple miles from home. This was probably a smart move, as they were constantly exposed to younger children, having to interact with them in many ways, such as helping them in class. Our Anna was able to teach a transfer student, an ‘army brat’, to read, something the teacher couldn’t do. Seeing former teachers in the hallways or after school must have had a soothing effect, as at a younger age children and their teacher often can have a trusting and loving relationship. It comes as no surprise that in many states there is talk about getting rid of the mammoth middle schools, which often are the turning points in a youngster’s life as in that pressure cooker environment interest in learning is easily destroyed and the long downhill begins, especially for girls.

Next comes the transformation to high school, an odd mix of near-adults and some still-little-children. In principle, I would not send my offspring to a private school, as many of those are filled with rich kids who get away with anything as long as the school gets its high tuition. Of course there are excellent ones as well which truly care about education. Those are far from us and carry a hefty price tag; we pay for public schools in our taxes. Teenagers are supposed to learn what life really is like and their school experience should give them a slice of that. My now college-senior daughter opted for a new small experimental high school at the Seattle Center which started out as 9th and 10th grade that year, both having 75 students each. The faculty was generally handpicked and very enthusiastic, and the principal, Ms. Peterson, a true visionary. During the second year Anna felt that her eagerness to learn wasn’t quite met by the teaching. She tested for our Running Start program and got into the Seattle Central Community College for her last two years, earning an A.A. degree at the same time she graduated from high school. She would have been finished with her B.A. this spring at 19 but decided to double major and will take an additional year. Far from being a ‘nerd’, she loves people, learning and her school. She was elected president for both Hillel and Habitat for Humanity for next year at WWU in Bellingham.

Now came the next big issue: our ‘baby’ had all of a sudden become a teenager, with mood swings and strong opinions of course, but her sweetness and bright mind were omnipresent. Sarah had pretty much followed in her sister’s footsteps but showed interest in a rather new big high school in Ballard, about the same distance from us as the Center School. Off to an orientation we went more than a year ago. Our guide was a tall, model-like African American, a senior. “I’m a cheerleader”, she introduced herself. We started the tour. The first thing she was eager to show was the gym and all the boys lifting weights, all of whom she seemed to know well. We watched a volley ball game being played, and granted, for someone mainly interested in P.E., this all would have been impressive. Some of the parents wanted to visit the school’s auditorium as they had heard about the first-rate shows being produced there. Our guide finally found her way there; a nice little theater which we were already familiar with, as some of our girls’ arts programs had held their performances there. “How many seats are there?” asked a parent. The cheerleader looked a little puzzled and came up with 1,500. “It doesn’t look that big” murmured another parent, and from experience we knew that the real number was a third of it. Then our attention was pointed at the library, safely from a distance. Next to it was the highlight of our tour, the Teen Pregnancy Center, and we heard what a wonderful thing it was to have on campus. Many of us wanted to see actual classrooms but our guide appeared uncomfortable with this request. She pointed in a direction, saying there they are, and seemed relieved when the bell rang and the tour had to come to a close. We practically ran out of the orientation, and Sarah started her high school experience at the same little Center School as her sister, Anna.

Now Sarah has been complaining about missing the ‘real’ high school experience and talks about wanting to transfer. Last week I went to the completely rebuilt Roosevelt HS to hear a couple of our students play their concertos with the orchestra and I better understand what our little one is talking about. That school is a dream facility and the students I met in the hallways acted ever-so-nicely. It is also one of the two high schools in Seattle with a decent orchestra program. The beautiful theater is like an ideal concert hall, sounding better than most halls built for that purpose. I also attended the Center School’s Art Night the following evening and listened to a highly charged Open Slam poetry event. No wonder the school has an ‘artsy’ label attached to it. There young poets showed a lot of incredible raw talent, and the support by peers (and parents) in the crowded large conference room was remarkable. In another room student films were shown and art work in various forms covered all the walls. It was like visiting California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, California during its prime, but in a high school version. Those two schools I visited in consecutive days couldn’t have been more different. We want to keep our little one happy and will support her in her choice, whatever it will be.

Lately I have been talking to a number of high school students, juniors and seniors, about their own experiences with school. Most of them have liked the social aspect, but just about everyone agrees that academically too much time is wasted and teaching is dummied down, to accommodate the ‘sloths’. An American high school graduate ranks near the bottom in the table comparing industrialized nations. One of the top ones is my home country, Finland, where everyone has to pass difficult nationally administered exams before graduating. A student has to be proficient in advanced math, at least two foreign languages, geography and sciences (physics, chemistry, biology). School there really isn’t for social interaction and perhaps the Finns lack some social skills compared to Americans, although I think that is more of a cultural issue. Only speak when you have something to say.

The idea of making everyone advance at the same rate is ridiculous. Each person is gifted differently and needs to progress at their own pace. In music, a nine-year-old may be learning the same piece as someone else at sixteen, yet both are advancing and enjoying their improving skills. Sometimes the slower learner will be more successful in the long run as the highly gifted often will burn out. Our society has always loved child prodigies and exploited them, in a ‘freak show fashion. I have known so many who have ended up with miserable lives, having nothing but bitter memories of their young stardom.

Our President has been pushing for his “No Child Left Behind” program, citing the excellent results in Houston, his home turf. We now know those scores were artificially inflated and that city is no better than any other. The slogan could as well read “No Smartie Given A Chance.”

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Life Is a Competition

It is time to forget the nagging headache and try to return to writing. My partner for almost 30 years seems to be convinced that I’m suffering from early Alzheimer’s, a terrible condition that has plagued my family on my mother’s side. I don’t think my wife could cope with it and would be shipping me off back to Finland in a hurry if that happened. However, I feel mentally fine and my memory has returned for the most part, so she needn’t panic. I also have almost memorized the “Final Exit”, and contacting the Hemlock Society is a mouse click away, should the need arise. Life is full of the unexpected: perhaps being the caregiver will fall on my shoulders one day. My mother used to tell me when I was young that she expected to live alone at the end of her life, as my father was six years her senior. Statistics can be deceiving as she has been gone almost a decade and my dad seems to be still going relatively strong, turning 96 in a few days time.

My topic today is music competitions. Although a relatively recent phenomena in a large scale, we know that even Paganini took part in musical duels. I guess a few fiddlers of his day thought that the Little Pagan was all fingers but lacked a beautiful tone. Based on writings from those days the opinions of the audiences were split: other violinists obviously couldn’t reproduce the pyrotechnics of the Italian, but many listeners preferred the beauty of sound and musicality of the others. This already indicates how difficult it is to judge musical skills, or those in any other art form. Today’s audiences often go wild after a soloist plays a virtuoso piece at a breakneck speed. I have taught the Sibelius violin concerto to quite a few during this past year. That work was not at all popular after its creation, and it took the much-faster-than-intended tempi of Jascha Heifetz to turn the concerto into the popular choice it is today. Sibelius was quite upset by this reinterpretation and told Heifetz this to his face when the two men finally met a few years before the composer’s death. When asked whose recording he liked the best, Sibelius without any hesitation answered “Oistrakh”. And what was the reason? He played the last movement the slowest, but even then too fast. If music only could be judged as simply as an athletic event, then one would only need a stopwatch and perhaps penalty seconds would be added for wrong notes.

There was a time when mature artists would compete against each other. In one such contest Ginette Neveu beat David Oistrakh. He in turn won the next time and Ricardo Odnoposoff got the second prize. In that last match Oistrakh wanted to shake hands with the silver medalist, but the latter felt so strongly that he should have won and turned his back to the winner on the stage. This move is said to have destroyed Odnoposoff’s career. Of course he played all over the globe but many of those engagements were in smaller and less important cities. Yet his playing was as good as anyone’s and never ceased to amaze me with its perfection and beauty when I studied with him. After the 1950s and -60s the number of competitions mushroomed and winning one was no longer an automatic ticket to a career, although in short term it meant quite a few solo opportunities. Doing well in one usually required at least one teacher sitting in the jury; this is still the case today, unfortunately.

Just a few days ago another piano competition, the Maj Lind, was held in Finland. Originally meant as a domestic affair, it was transformed into an international one some years ago. I didn’t hear any of the performances over the Internet as the Finnish Radio Co. had to stop broadcasting music in this manner, due to excessive royalty demands. However, I understand that the Russian winner Sofya Gulyak was quite impressive, especially in the final round with her Rachmaninov third concerto. Based on the photo, Ms. Gulyak may not be in the “eye candy” category but her inner beauty must have impressed both the judges and audience members. Aforementioned Ms. Neveu was supposedly so unglamorous that people in the hall laughed out loud when she first appeared, yet everybody was quickly spellbound as soon as she started playing.

Music competitions come in many forms and seem to be especially popular with Asian students and/or their parents. Reading about the fierce competing in the final school exams in China makes one understand this trait better, as scoring higher than others is essential to be able to enter one of the better universities and thus a key to a successful life. Tutors have been busy all year and often no expense has been spared. Students have been given oxygen treatments and placed in fancy hotels to improve their chances. Even high tech cheating has been discovered, with communication devices hidden in shoes or clothing. Here in the States many competitions are more low key and often also unfair. I had a student submit a required compact disc to a community orchestra and he was selected as one of the finalists. On the day of the finals Mother Nature was playing one of her tricks and the event had to be postponed due to adverse weather. A new date was to be announced shortly. However, the hopeful finalists ended up getting a letter saying that the orchestra’s conductor had decided to select a winner based on the recordings. Surprise, surprise: the first prize and the solo opportunity went to an offspring of another baton-wielder in town. One will never know if this young instrumentalist deserved to win; perhaps in this case the most money was spent on editing the recording to be note-perfect, or if this was just a blatant case of brown-nosing. For that matter I could have played for my student, but might have been pitted against a Yo-Yo Ma. Had the orchestra just hired this youngster to play, there would have been none of the hurt feelings and question marks.

Running for an office is a political competition, and an unfair one since it is intended only for the rich. No matter how brilliantly someone thinks and how fabulous his/her ideas are, all that is meaningless unless there are big bucks involved. It would be sad indeed if this form of our “free democratic system” finds its way into the politics of music and the arts.

Photo of Sofya Gulyak
© Sami Kero / Helsingin Sanomat