Vienna Waits For You…

Beethoven's grave

It began in the fall of 2006, this glimmer of an idea.  It happened, specifically, in front of Beethoven’s grave in the musicians circle of the Zentralfriedhof in Vienna. What happened was a thought that went something like this: “My students need to be here with me.” It wasn’t my initial thought. But it arrived.

It arrived after a sort-of rainy morning. I got up at my hostel and, recognizing my annoying cold and the cold outside, the thought of staying in bed was a lovely idea. Maybe, if I left the room, going to Aida Café (music geeks, you love that, don’t you?) to get a coffee might be the best the day held. I was achy and I’d been tromping around Vienna for a few days doing some music-geek out stuff. (Yes, I just said “tromping around Vienna” like it’s totally boring. I will say I’d been there a few times before* and, though I LOVE that city, that particular day was not the day I wanted to “tromp”.)  I was tired and at the end of a 2 1/2 week trip. But up I got, and at ‘em, and after much to-do and some wandering near-by, hopped on the bus to take me to the massive cemetery that houses all the famous, and then some, dead of Vienna.

I got off  the bus at Gate 1. There are 3 gates. And there are 3 for a reason. AND there’s a reason the BUS should take you to the gates. Gate 1 seemed fine, though I’d been told Gate 2, because I thought walking wouldn’t be so bad – I was sure they were really pretty close anyway.  When in Rome, you really should pay attention (and heed) what the Romans tell you. But Gate 1 was where I was…. And Gate 2 was where I ended up… about a half hour later.  (I will say that though the walk was longer than I expected, it is a gorgeous walk and such a beautiful cemetery.) By the time I made it to the center where the sections are for the historically revered scientists, artists, engineers, etc of Vienna, (Note: by Gate 2) the day was getting late and the main gates were going to close. I began to get a little anxious. I came to see Schubert,  Brahms and Beethoven and I couldn’t find them.

Johannes Brahms' grave

In this particular area, there are partitions made by tall hedgerows. There was to be no panoramic scanning to get my bearings. I felt like I was in a maze – like something out of Harry Potter. I graduated into a quick walk and sharp turns, making rapid assessments of who was gathered together in each section. Names I didn’t recognize were fabulously marked on each monument, but not the ones I came to see. Slowly, I started to come to grips with the idea that this wasn’t going to happen. I  began chastising myself for listening to my stuffy head FAR too long that morning and for getting off at Gate 1 and walking and…     !!

…Sometimes I think about wonder and magic and if it really exists.  Like, if you can be REALLY struck by the magic of a moment; taken completely off-guard.

I mean it when I tell you that what I felt like I entered was a magnificent and magical space. I had turned one of the sharp corners and whisked around to find myself standing alone and face to face with the name Beethoven. It stunned me and it took my breath away. I became very still and very present. And after a moment, very literally and honestly the words “Thank you” fell from my mouth.

What you need to understand is that Beethoven was the start for me. I began playing piano when I was 7. And I hated it. I hated practicing and I did not improve, as far as I can remember. But when I was 12 (God bless my parents for even hanging in there a year, let alone 5) I found a book in my mom’s stack of music that had classic pieces of standard piano lit. Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata was in it and as I thumbed through the pages I realized I could actually read every note on the page. It was revelation.  This was “real music”, not “Go Tell Aunt Rody” from my colored bordered lesson books, and I could play it if I wanted to.  I placed it on the music rack of our old upright and I began to plod my way through. Over the next few years this, and the following two movements, became “My song”. I would say I learned “music” from this piece and I learned the value of communicating with music because of this piece. It became real. All of it.

The Musician's Circle

So when I turned the corner into the musicians circle, and the first place my eyes fell was to Beethoven’s grave to my left, a few feet from me , it was significant, and it was important. And as cheesy as it sounds, I scrolled to Moonlight on my ipod and made a moment for myself. The gratitude was long in coming; It needed its moment.

The mourning angel holds the music to the Dies Irae on the Mozart monument.

And then the thought came – I needed my students to be here. I looked around the circle and saw Brahms – the second coming of Beethoven. I saw Strauss, Father of the Waltz. I saw Schubert, who’s leider I’d sung a-plenty of in college, and I saw the monument to Mozart.  (Incidentally, Falco is also buried somewhere in this cemetery. However, as far as I could tell, nowhere near Mozart). I needed this all to be real for my students too. I needed it to be this real.

On the return flight I considered my words to the parents, “I would like to take your children on a musical field-trip… to Austria.”  Not entirely ridiculous or out of place, but certainly bold.  I love the families I work with. I presented the idea to a few of my older students and their parents and, apparently, have cultivated the culture that was ripe for this sort of offer because a year later I was collecting them from planes and trains in Vienna, ready to embark on a little musical adventure that I likely will never forget – My students and I tromping through Vienna, introducing them to Beethoven, collectively getting to say Thank you, and waltzing upon Strauss’ grave.


*One time I actually manned a souvenir shop while the owner went to go get change from a nearby bank. When my friend asked if I was ready to go I told her no, because I was temporarily in charge of the shop. Truth.

Posted in Vienna | 1 Comment

How “Does not apply herself” became a teacher

I began teaching piano because I needed money. I didn’t have a passion; I had a skill. It was a skill that I knew was marketable and I capitalized on it – because I’m resourceful and an American.

I moved to the town where I currently live in the late winter of 2001. I got a job – of all things – teaching kindergarten. Btw – you apparently don’t need a 4 year degree in education, you don’t need more than three days of student teaching and you don’t need a 12” binder with sample bulletin-board lay-outs that you turned in for a senior project. It seems that being a warm body on the day the school’s previous teacher packs up and ships out – unannounced – is enough. Viola! You’re a teacher…*

I should make mention here that I don’t know what sort of thing I was trying to pull on fate and the universe because I was destined teach something. (See family tree of educators below.) (Op. You know what? Don’t. I didn’t have the stamina for it. Point is, the numbers were stacked against me and generations deep.)

Right, so. The first reason I began teaching piano and, shortly after, voice, was because of money (Which might accurately alert you to the desperation of my situation because NO ONE goes into teaching for the money.  …They do it for the clothing allowance.) Secondly, it was cultured into me. Turns out it was in my DNA too, and I fell in love with it.

I acquired my first students out of the pool of kids at the school I was teaching at. One of them was in my first Kindergarten class and he is still with me at 15. He is cool and clever and I really enjoy the privilege of still teaching him piano. I have appreciated his parent’s partnership and investment AND – oh! for real! – willingness to stick with me in the first few years I was a real organizational mess, literally figuring it all out as I went. Definitely had quitters – and for good reason. I was talented and I could teach, but I could not set myself up for success over long periods of time. It took time to sort out my structure & system (eventual post). But, N- and I have been on a decade-long journey with each other, and he is just one of the young people I adore getting to be in the life of.

At the beginning of this all it was, frankly, quite shocking that I became a teacher of ANY sort because of my history as a student. (Then again, too, I hated attending camp but adored my 10+ years of being a counselor.) I was always sharp and smart – I was not invested. Rather… I did not “apply” myself. (Oh, also, my handwriting always “needed improvement”. Full disclosure seems appropriate.) Anyway, the truth is, I had no vision. I didn’t understand the bigger picture and, for me, this was the key. I was a young creative kid – there’s all sorts of mess wrapped up in that – but one of the main ones is needing to see the bigger picture and where they fit into it. With that all in mind, I ESPECIALLY love being a teacher to “those” kids.

I have now been teaching privately just about every week of my life since the summer of 2001. I began small with a handful of students and moved to having a studio of about 45 students a week at one point. They have been everywhere from 3 yrs old to somewhere in their 50’s with everything in between. And though there have been a few weeks here and there that I wish I could’ve skipped, I have really, REALLY loved what I get to be in this life.

I started a blog to talk about this journey, talk about educating young creative people (and maybe teaching the non-Creatives to think outside of their tidy boxes), throw around ways to be better at it, help keep the arts, as a whole, in our lives regularly and… probably more stuff along those (wavy) lines.


*… in a small private school, making the living wage of a 14 year old in a small foreign country in the South Pacific.

Posted in Teaching | Leave a comment