Archive for May 9, 2008

Higher Education: “Chopsticks” vs. Rachmaninoff

Ever heard a rendition of “Chopsticks” on the piano?  It hardly competes with Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in C Sharp Minor, Opus 3, No. 2” but that is what is happening in our university of higher education in Almaty, Kazakhstan. From my early childhood memories of monthly meetings with neighborhood families and children there would typically be TWO people who would take the piano by storm plodding out “Chopsticks.”  It required no technique, no notes to read but heavy, predictable rhythm. One “player” takes the lead around Middle C with two pointer fingers extended to look like chopsticks, and plays while the other regales from the higher keys all the while harmonizing as they move down the black and white notes. It starts as a solo then becomes a duet and is most monotonous.


I cringe anytime I hear this Chopsticks “song” because it shows a lack of training and is a kind of “in your face” about NOT being properly trained. Call it music snobbery, if you must, but the repetition of hearing the same “Chopsticks” song plunked out every month for years by the under-educated in music would drive anyone to the edge, even the musically dis-inclined. Playing by ear and not reading notes is certainly a gift but it is NOT a gift that keeps on giving when you hear it over and over again.  Believe me, I highly respect and appreciate musicians who can play by ear AND also read the notes.


While growing up, I heard my mother playing the old classics such as Beethoven, Brahms, Liszt and Mendelssohn on our upright piano in her spare time.  Those musical numbers she played most frequently are the ones I can play most fluently because I KNOW how it should sound while reading the notes.  Otherwise, I can sight-read music with the best of them.  (The best training is to go through an old hymnal where you are forced to change time signatures or key signatures with each page you turn.)  I’m a LONG way from Rachmaninoff but appreciated the genius it took for the actor in the movie “Shine” to play those difficult numbers.  I also appreciated the troubled genius of Johnny Cash after watching the movie “Walk the Line” last night.  (two completely different genres of music – classical versus country western.)  I far preferred the latter movie to the former.


However, I fancy composers Chopin or Bach because they are like old friends whenever I take out my old classics book.  In my college years and after I graduated, I had rebelled against music for years before I finally came back to wanting to play piano again.  This happened when I was lonely for my own western civilization while living in the Philippines as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1981 to 1983. Fortunately, my host family had a piano and I soon had my music books mailed to me so I could enjoy my self-imposed music therapy.  I came to appreciate the years of music lessons my parents paid for me and my siblings to be able to play piano.  Right now, I would love to play the thick chords of a Prelude piece by Chopin but I don’t have a piano in Kazakhstan, nor my favorite music book to read from.


What does playing piano, classics or otherwise, have to do with higher education in Kazakhstan?  Simply this, we have instructors who are teaching students “Chopsticks” on how to write papers when there are better methods and techniques that should be learned by the students for the benefit of their future academic career.  Our students are NOT served well if they are promoted to the next class without knowing how to write creatively with informal writing or how to write by the more prescriptive rules for a formal academic exercise.  I have found over the years of teaching composition that those students who have had the discipline of practicing either in sports or music are used to the rules set down in writing.  They know to follow my instructions about how to use in-text citations or bibliographies.  They know that they had better listen up when I first tell them about thesis statements or topic sentences.  Writing teachers should have these basics internalized so they can disseminate this important information to their young charges.


Unfortunately, we have piano recitals where our students are up on the stage either playing “Chopsticks” because they don’t know any better or they have a soundtrack playing in the background while pretending to stroke the ivories. (metaphor for plagiarism).  We have teachers who perhaps know how to write in their native language of Russian but have never done the assignments they expect their own writing students to accomplish in English.  I suspect, as final papers are being turned in at the end of this spring semester, that some teachers are turning a blind eye to what will be someone else’s writing, certainly not their students.  My question remains, “Would parents pay good money for their child to learn from a piano teacher who only knows how to play “Chopsticks?”  My second question is like the first, “Would parents invest their time and energy to bring their child to the soccer field in order to play under a coach who doesn’t know the rules of soccer?”  The obvious answer to both is a resounding, “No, of course not!”


My last question is:  “Do we want our students in Kazakhstan to be writing “Chopsticks” kind of papers or rather set their vision for something far higher?”  I’m reminded of the passage from Proverbs 29:18 “Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint; But happy is he who keeps the law.”


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