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Monday, October 3, 2011

Teaching An Old Dog New Tricks


I think that, as our dogs grow older, we don’t teach them new tricks because we, not our dogs, have tired of the game. My kid Captain learned “roll over” and “gimme five” in a few days’ time at the ripe old age of five.  I chose to teach him at that time because we had just lost my beloved dog Rascal, Captain’s best friend, and I thought the instruction and lessons would help him (and me) through the loss.  He came through with flying colors. Now when I say, “sit”, he does all three tricks with great delight.

Rascal  and Captain "sit."


I am a middle-aged dog and I am still learning new tricks. I used to joke with my friend Eric the computer genius that I am “done learning” and I want to be on a “need to know” basis when it comes to computers. But that is impossible for anyone with even the slightest inkling of intellectual curiosity.  In order to live vibrantly and stay in the game, you need to keep learning new tricks.

Now the problem, as I see it, for us older dogs is basically one of storage. I sometimes feel as if I may have reached critical density, and it is not only my attic that is stuffed to the gills with clutter. I came in equipped with a 30-gig cerebral hard drive, and right now I’ve got about a terabyte of data to store, and more on the way.  It feels like every new lyric I learn has the potential to bounce an old one out. So new endeavors need to be carefully screened and evaluated lest I risk a blue screen crash.

I first took piano lessons at age six, and begged my mother to let me quit when the nun who taught me kept rapping my knuckles with a ruler every time I made a mistake. Guitar was a good solution for the short term, and my dad taught me all the chords I needed to play folk songs.

Early on in my professional music career, I took theory lessons from a wonderful jazz pianist who was very kind and patient with me (especially when I didn’t do my homework). I took sight singing from Helen Jordan and voice lessons from Myron Earnheart, Anne Countryman and David Sorin Collyer. I was working with the best in the business. That was New York, the center of my (hell, everybody’s) artistic world – and studying was a part of life. I can’t remember when I stopped taking lessons in music, but it’s been a long while.

Since then I’ve explored many other disciplines, groups and treatments, both physical and spiritual – A Course in Miracles, The Way of Sufi, Buddhist chanting, and also The New York Restaurant School, Les Amis du Vin, Chinese cooking lessons, tennis lessons, golf lessons, yoga, acupuncture, chiropractic, personal trainers, Feng Shui, vitamins and herbal remedies, meditation, and most recently, jewelry making (look out – you may get a bracelet for Christmas).

All good. All interesting, challenging and enriching.  All part of my personal growth.  But now I as am once again starting down a new path of learning, I must ask myself, “Which of these data and/or skill sets might I be willing to jettison in order to accommodate my new tricks?”  I do not have an answer yet, but sounds like a de-frag is in order.

So, I set out to find a new singing teacher and received a wonderful recommendation from a friend in Amsterdam.  My new teacher’s name is Nancy Marano and she is brilliant. I drive up to New York to see her. This seems reasonable and manageable (barely) and the perfect way to get in shape for my 2012 concert season. Only, guess what?  Nancy also insists that I learn to play the piano well enough to accompany myself properly, not like the hunt-and-peck hacker that I have become.

Nancy is really talented, cool and inspirational and she does not rap my knuckles.  But, she also wants me to brush up on my sight singing and solfege.  This has become a gigantic commitment, but that’s O.K.  I’ll find a way to deal with the one and a half hours of daily practice this will require.  I’ll cut back on my workouts and not clean the cottage. I am on it.

And here’s the corker: During the first lesson, Nancy says to me, “Have you ever heard of the Alexander Technique? You should take some Alexander lessons if you can.” So off I go, down yet another yellow brick road.

They say that the Alexander Technique is very beneficial for musicians and singers for balance, coordination and posture. I am told it will improve my singing and piano playing and all kinds of other things.

I have found a wonderful music professor at West Chester University - only 20 minutes from my house  - and Dr. Bedford has taken me on as his student. I have had four lessons so far and… OMG the work is brilliant! And it’s perfect for me. It requires stillness, a concept that is totally foreign to me. My husband Tony laughed out loud at the thought of seeing me still. I am completely fascinated and already see great improvement in my posture and awareness. Don’t worry; it will only require about 30 minutes daily practice. I’ll cut out watching the morning news and that’ll do it. It’s all good.

Alexander Technique is seriously heady stuff. I am pretty sure my next transformation is in the making and I am down with that. If I forget some lyrics as a result, so be it. Maybe I’ll get a bigger brain for Christmas.

Uh, oh.  “The way you wear your head… the way you sip your…uhm…brie?”
Nope. That’s not it.  Wait, I think I have that lyric on my iPad!