Tag Archives: piano teaching

Done Dabbling

26 Jul

writing studyA few years back, someone asked me if I thought I’d ever write a novel some day. My first reaction was to laugh. At that time, I had just recently delved back into writing after a twenty-five year hiatus of not writing a single word (actually, hiatus sounds like I was once a prolific writer—I wasn’t—the best word to describe my attempts at writing in college would be that I “dabbled.”)  Sure, writing short essays and a blog post now and then was feasible—but a novel? I couldn’t even fathom writing something that extensive.

I’m not ashamed to admit that my childhood dream was always to become a writer—I thought about it incessantly for years. I loved books so much—the smell of them; the texture of the paper between my fingertips; the way the words jumped out at me from the page; how I could easily lose myself in a story and experience someone’s life other than my own even if it was just for a short time. The library was my home away from home.

Being somewhat of an introvert, the solitary life of a writer has always appealed to me. As a young girl I created this elaborate fantasy in which I envisioned myself writing my literary masterpiece while tucked away in a cozy study with soft lighting and wall to wall bookshelves. While sitting quiet and alone at an antique desk, I would sip hot tea with honey while a blazing fire crackled in the fireplace. When I needed inspiration, I would glance up and look out through the French Doors onto my picturesque English garden where my flowers somehow managed to bloom year round. Oh—I almost forgot—in my fantasy there was always a gentle rain falling outside.english garden

That perfect fantasy never really got off the ground—with a husband, four kids, four dogs and my mother, I’m never alone. I don’t have French Doors, I live in Southern California where it rarely rains and it’s usually too hot outside to light a fire in the fireplace. I prefer Starbucks coffee to hot tea and rarely go to the library anymore because I always forget to return the books and before I know it I’ve racked up over fifty dollars worth of late fees. I read most of my books on my Kindle and I don’t have an antique desk.  I do my best writing while sitting on the couch.

But get this: I’m thirty-three chapters and almost 70,000 words into my first novel. BAM!  That’s right—I am fifty two years old and for the first time in my life I’m doing what I always dreamed of doing—I am writing a novel.

Now, who knows? My novel may very well turn out to be trite, sentimental and cliché, but then again, it might turn out to be a really great read with a real plot and interesting and lovable characters. We’ll just have to wait and see. In the meantime, I’m carving out a little time every day in my busy schedule to sit down on my couch and get a paragraph or two written down, which more often than not gets deleted the following day (I mean, who in their right mind would write such crap?) No matter—one good sentence at a time and somehow the job gets done. And I’m having the time of my life.

Who needs fire, tea and rain to write a book? Not me.

This girl is done dabbling.


If  you’re interested, here’s the description of my novel, Lost in Oaxaca:

Once a promising young concert pianist, Camille Childs retreated to her mother’s Santa Barbara estate after an injury to her hand destroyed her hopes for a musical career. She now leads a solitary life teaching piano, and she has a star student: Graciela, the daughter of her mother’s Mexican housekeeper. Camille has been grooming the young Graciela for the career that she herself lost out on, and now Graciela, newly turned eighteen, has just won the grand prize in a piano competition, which means she gets to perform with the LA Philharmonic. Camille is ecstatic; if she can’t play herself, at least as Graciela’s teacher, she will finally get the recognition she deserves.

But there are only two weeks left before the concert, and Graciela has disappeared—gone back to her family’s village in the mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico. Desperate to bring Graciela back in time for the concert, Camille goes after her, but on the way there, a bus accident leaves her without any of her possessions. Alone and unable to speak the language, Camille is befriended by Alejandro, a Zapotec man who lives in LA but is from the same village as Graciela. Despite a contentious first meeting, Alejandro helps Camille navigate the rugged terrain and unfamiliar culture of Oaxaca, allowing her the opportunity to view the world in a different light—and perhaps find love in the process.


Villa Hidalgo Yalalag, Oaxaca. This is where much of the novel takes place.

Villa Hidalgo Yalalag, Oaxaca. This is where much of the novel takes place.

The “Tale” of the Lizard

5 Sep

I’ve decided to join the blogging world, and I owe it all to a wrinkly old lizard, which I will explain directly.

This past year I had an experience that made me realize something profound about myself. Although my lifelong fantasy has always been to be a writer, for some unknown reason (fear of failure or possibly success—fear being the key word here) I haven’t seriously practiced the craft of writing since college. I’ve just spent zillions of hours writing in my head while I do other things simultaneously: like raise four kids, run a household, teach a studio of forty piano students every week, and play the piano at church on Sundays.  Other than my scintillating Christmas newsletters jammed full of all the exciting annual doings of the Mireles family, typed in the tiniest print imaginable in order for it to fit upon one page (which by the way, everyone raves about what a good read they are), I hadn’t written a word since 1985.

This all changed a few years ago when my youngest daughter, Isabella, was diagnosed with cancer.

I won’t go into that story, at least not right now, and many of you have already heard all about it already. What I will tell you is that after experiencing the possibility that my child could die, I began to prioritize my life in a new way. I decided to let go of some of the fear, and try something new for once.

After over two agonizing years of dealing with Isa’s chemotherapy treatment for leukemia (she’s now in first grade and doing beautifully, by the way), I decided it was time for me to finally get to work and do something about fulfilling my dream. I signed up for an adult education writing class and I started writing.

I was rolling along, my fingers tinkling on the computer keyboard far more than they did the piano, and I actually began to write again. After years of teaching students how to express themselves musically at the piano, I began to craft my own melodies by stringing words together on the page like musical notes.  I received positive reviews from my writing teacher and classmates about my writing—I was thrilled that they actually liked what I wrote! Some of them were even moved to tears and would come up to me after class and tell me how much they loved my writing. I wrote a short article about Isa’s illness and my love of gardening and it was published in Greenprints Magazine. I even earned $75 bucks for it. I thought: “I’m a paid, published author and “I can do this!”

I immediately started working on the story of my experience dealing with Isabella’s cancer. I even told everyone in my annual Christmas newsletter that I was writing a memoir about it—(very bad idea– I don’t recommend doing this because someone may actually expect you to write it someday.) I was so motivated that I signed up for second class with a different teacher, thinking that I’d be the star pupil and demonstrate to my new class what good writing was all about. I was so full of myself I could hardly get up the stairs.

            You can probably figure out what happened next.

This new teacher didn’t like my writing. She said it was cliché and “banal” and ordinary. She then asked me if I ever read any novels—and this took me by complete surprise because I’ve been a voracious reader my entire life and even belong to two book clubs. She said I had a good story to tell, but I just needed to go out and buy a decent Thesaurus and learn how to use it. I nodded my head enthusiastically, told her I would do the necessary revising, and then immediately stopped going to class.

My original assessment of this woman was that she was a creative and insightful teacher who hit the nail on the head every time she analyzed my classmates’ work. I would nod in agreement with her wise assessments of how each writer could improve upon their work.

After her rough critique of me though, she instantly morphed from a creative and eccentric grand dame to a bent over old crone, disheveled in her mismatched clothes two sizes too big for her. While I once thought of her as unconventional and quirky, I now viewed her as a distracted scatterbrain. Her unkempt and badly dyed orange hair bled a winding white path up her head, leading the way to a stringy nest at the nape of her neck.  She had a nasty habit of continuously licking her yellowed teeth with a wet, lizard-like tongue that darted in and out of her salivating mouth like she was just waiting for the precise moment to attack her prey. (How’s that for being descriptive?) Oh, I was furious, all right.  I did not appreciate her constructive criticism.

But in the back of my mind, I knew the truth. My new found loathing of her was basically because she was right.

Needless to say, (I know—a cliché, but I don’t give a crap), I got discouraged and stopped writing altogether. I’ve always had a problem with confidence, so I felt like a complete failure. How dare I think that I had the talent to become an actual writer—that I actually had something compelling to share? My writing friends encouraged me to keep at it. They loved my writing and told me not to become disheartened, but I was done.

The “Crone” as I referred to her in my head, even called me twice, once to apologize for being so tough on me, and once to ask me to come back to class. There’s the remote possibility that she thought I had potential after all, and just wanted to push me to be a better writer, but I honestly don’t know for sure. I do think she needs to grasp the idea that writers (just like musicians, or any other artist, for that matter) are our own worst critics. We obsess and fret about even the tiniest and most innocent comments uttered about our art. I’ve found that in my own music teaching, it’s imperative that I excessively point out the positive aspects to a student before I say anything negative, even if I’m trying to be constructive. Perhaps if this teacher had given me even a tiny bit of positive feedback first, I wouldn’t have been so devastated.

After that experience, I just couldn’t bear going back to class to share my writing knowing that she thought I was so banal.  I gave her a veiled excuse about how busy my piano teaching schedule had become, and told her I’d come back to class soon. It was a lie; I never went back.

I stewed and simmered for about six months, fighting the urge to get back on the computer,  but I’d quash any desire by telling myself I just wasn’t good enough and would never get anywhere with my writing.

Then one afternoon, while I was teaching a piano lesson, I actually heard my own words as I told student who had been neglecting a Bach prelude, “How can you expect to get anywhere if you don’t put the time in? Even the most famous concert pianists practice hours and hours each day to achieve what they have.  You can’t expect to master a piece if you don’t work at it every single day.”

“No matter now busy you get,” I insisted, “just spend 15 minutes on it every day, working measure by measure, until you learn it.” I also made a point to tell her that I wouldn’t waste my time telling her how hard she needed to work if I didn’t think she had talent and ability, and that her innate musicality was something that no teacher could ever teach a student. She came back the following week with the entire prelude learned.

Maybe the “Crone” should take a lesson: You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar even if you have a long lizard tongue. My goodness, I guess I’m still not over it.

So that’s my story. I’ve decided to join the blogging world because I need to practice, and I humbly ask you to be my audience. I’ve put in my ten thousand hours practicing and performing at the piano since I was six, and I like to think I’ve become an accomplished pianist and teacher. Now it’s time to practice the writing. I’m almost 50 years old, so I’m off to a late start, but it’s never too late to live your dream (sorry—another cliché! I’m still working on that…)

My blog will mostly be about relationships between people: the meaningful and complicated ones we all share with family, friends, and others in our communities. I’ll probably write about mundane and ordinary things, too, because they make life interesting, too.  The most important thing I’ve learned since Isa was diagnosed with cancer is that everyone has a story to tell, and often, that story is fascinating. Maybe something I write will capture your imagination—maybe not—just don’t tell me if you hate it, please.

Comments and encouragement are welcome. I’ll try not to bore you. I promise to use good grammar. I’ll even take criticism, as long as you pepper me with many compliments first!

I can’t guarantee you’ll enjoy the concert, but at least the admission is free.

Oh—and by the way, the lizard is not invited to attend.

Allegro non tanto–notes from a beginning blogger

5 Sep

Allegro non tanto: Italian words used to describe the speed of a piece of music.

Fast, but not too fast.

I’m a piano teacher by profession, so I consider myself pretty much an expert when it comes to music, but I often find this tempo marking difficult to interpret. How fast is “fast, but not too fast”? It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while now.

In our stressful, over-produced lives, we often go too fast for our own good. Now, going fast is not always a bad thing—oh, the tasks we accomplish when we speed through life! Our existence seems so much more exciting and dramatic when we race toward the finish line. What we fail to realize is that there is no finish line.

In our haste to get where we think we’re going, we miss out on so much on the way. Life flashes by when we’re always trying to reach that unidentified goal; but because of our ignorance, we truly believe that when we get there, we’ll finally encounter that state of bliss that has always been just out of our reach. I’ve been living my entire life in an “Allegro” state of mind, when all along I should have just added a little bit of “non tanto” to the mix.

I often tell my piano students that they must slow down when they practice. Most children will choose a tempo that is faster than they can handle at the moment; their notes will come out uneven and sloppy in their haste to master the piece. They will unintentionally create hesitations and pauses that disrupt the flow of their music. They rush the tempo because they want the music to sound the way they think it’s supposed to, before they’ve put in the time on the piece necessary to make it a polished performance.

After practicing so fast for so long, these disruptions are very difficult to get rid of.  In practicing the piano, I’ve found the only way clean up these problems is to start over and slow down. Go fast, but not too fast. Give yourself time to breathe; to feel the phrasing of the music, hear the nuances buried in the musical line. The reality is that a great piece of music is never finished. You can always make it better. Just like life.

Take your time—Allegro non tanto…