Saturday, May 19, 2007

The Pain of Relative Pitch

This evening was rehearsal just for Sopranos, but unlike what I had hoped for and expected, we didn’t spend much time going over the places in Puccini’s Missa Breva where our notes are still a little shaky. Instead it was voice training, which didn’t do me much good since I have a cold and couldn’t really sing.

I sat a couple rows behind everyone, not wanting to spread my germs to them. It’s hard enough to sit out a rehearsal when I want to be singing, but it’s even harder to listen to one’s own group not quite making it. I don’t know if my participation would have made a difference, but I noticed a number of problems, which the voice trainer managed to overlook.

She was focusing on how the sound was produced and often demonstrated the difference between what the Sopranos were sounding like and what it should sound like. Although one could hear the difference in the sounds she demonstrated, she rarely succeeded in getting the Sopranos to produce the clearest, best sound. In fact, a couple of times she exclaimed “Bravo” [not “Brava”] in places where they were nowhere near that remarkable.

Worst of all, she didn’t have a really great sense of pitch and didn’t notice when they were ever so slightly flat. (She was a bit flat herself a number of times.) Although I don’t have perfect pitch, I have what’s called relative pitch and can tell when a piece is a bit off key. I was cringing at having to listen to tones that were just a hair’s breadth under.

Having had a number of excellent voice teachers over the past few years, it’s really difficult having to study with one who’s much less adequate. The fact that she’s a bit off key, and unaware of it, makes it all the more painful for someone like myself. Basically the Sopranos’ tone could have been improved by better posture, breath, and pure vowels (especially “i” and “u”).

Pronunciation wasn’t much better. Although the teacher made a few corrections, she seemed unaware of several places where pronunciation was more Japanese than Latin. “Suscipe,” for example, sounded like “sushi pay.” Sad to say, the Sopranos sounded no better at the end of tonight’s rehearsal than they had at the beginning, and it only reinforced some of the poor vocal habits.

If my Japanese were more fluent, I would love to be doing some conducting and voice training myself. I know could bring out a better vocal quality in the Sopranos than our current voice teacher. And I’d certainly have them singing on pitch!

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

He’s Free

Fantastic news today. A friend and colleague who’s been in the Sapporo detention center awaiting trial was freed today on bail. He’s been there since mid-February, which is about 3 months of seeing nothing but the walls of his tiny cell, except for an occasional walk on the roof and a 10-minute visit in a cubicle with friends or family on weekdays that weren’t holidays. I’m sure he’s more appreciative of the gorgeous spring weather today than any of us.

The trial is still to come. Since he’s pleaded guilty to possession of marijuana (grown in the woods for the purpose of relieving pain from a serious back injury), these are the last days he’ll ever spend in Hokkaido, a place he’s grown very fond of. What his sentence will be remains to be seen. The worst case scenario is that he’d be imprisoned in Tokyo where he wouldn’t be allowed visitors. I can’t imagine what mental state he’d be in once he was released if that were to happen.

At any rate, he’s out for the time being – and able to enjoy his freedom with his girlfriend and his parents, who flew here for the hearings and trial (and who, incidentally, celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary last Friday). Fortunately, there hasn’t been anything about the hearings in either the Japanese or English media, so he’s been saved that bit of infamy.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Cleaning Woman Turns Interior Decorator

The woman who has been cleaning my apartment for almost 10 years is fond of “straightening” it up as well. This is sometimes a bit disconcerting, since I generally keep everything in a specific place so I know exactly where it is when I need it. This is especially true of my school materials. For example, because I teach different classes at different schools every day, I have bins for each day of the week. That way everything is ready for me to change my backpack. I have tried to explain this to her, but the bins occasionally get rearranged during the process of cleaning.

On the bright side, she takes much better care of my plants than I do, to the point where I’ve turned over their care to her. Even more, she adores my cats, and they love how she fusses over them. She’s actually sat for them three times, including once having them at her place over New Year’s. In that sense, I’m extremely fortunate since I know when I want to travel that I’ll have a reliable catsitter.

Friday, when I came home, I was a bit surprised to find a brand new carpet in my livingroom. Granted, the old one had gotten more than shaggy and dingy. However, for her to replace the carpet without even consulting me – well, it feels a bit as though a boundary has been overstepped. Fortunately, it’s not as hideous as the bedspread I came home to after one of my trips; I never discovered what happened to the former one which, while secondhand, was one whose muted colors blended well with my décor and which I was fond of.

I’m still not certain about my new carpet. It’s also in muted colors – shades of bluish green and yellow – with a pattern of leaves. It’s not exactly what I would choose. It doesn’t really match any of the rest of my décor, though my apartment, which is made up of mostly used or cheap furniture, can’t really be said to have a décor, per se. It’s possible that she thought the colors matched the sage green of my office/classroom, where there is much more harmony to the curtains, throw rugs, and all. However, the bluish green in the carpet is quite different.

I’ll thank her for the carpet, and I’ll keep it. I can hardly not accept her generosity, especially since I need her other services. Besides which, I have a sense that her tendency for rearranging may actually be good for the feng shui of my place – something to do with opening up new spaces and allowing for greater flow. Occasionally she even finds a better place for some of my possessions than I have. As for the carpet, I’m already used to it, and I may even look for some accessories that match it. And my cats are quite happy with it.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

My First Neighborhood Meeting

This evening, many of the buildings and houses in my neighborhood finally got names and faces attached to them. I was outside my building one morning when I noticed a group of people with transparent trash bags, white gloves, and tongs passed by, picking up litter from the sidewalks. I thanked them as they passed by, and one of the women stopped to talk with me. She invited me to join them, asking me where I lived. “Right here,” I said, indicating my building.

A couple days later there was a notice of some sort of meeting in my mailbox. On it someone had written a name and cell phone number. Even though I still can’t read Japanese very well, I gathered that it was for a neighborhood meeting, which was confirmed by my private students. Further, there was going to be food, perhaps a meal.

Even though the deadline for making a reservation had passed, I called the woman whose name was on the paper saying I’d like to go, if it was possible. She exclaimed, “Ureshii [I’m glad]!” Later I discovered that she lives just a few doors down from me.

The food turned out to be a delicious Chinese dinner, and I didn’t have to pay a cent! (I later learned that part of my rent most likely contributes to a neighborhood fund, probably no more than $3.00 a month.) Other than that, there was nothing remarkable about the meeting. The proper people were introduced and thanked, the budget gone over (much more quickly than at my annual chorus meetings), and a couple of events were pointed out.

I had been half afraid that I would be roped into garbage duty, having to put out the nets preventing crows from scrounging through the trash. However, the neighbor who does that – a retired man whom I sometimes see walking or riding his bicycle around the neighborhood – wasn’t even at the meeting. I imagine he takes some pleasure in his responsibility because he puts the net out promptly at 8:30 a.m. and takes it in shortly after the garbage truck leaves, 4 times a week. That would be impossible for me since I leave for school so early, and sometimes don’t get home until 4 p.m.

At any rate, next time the neighborhood group has a clean-up “party,” I’ll be glad to join them. Picking up litter is something of a legacy of my mother (something even mentioned at her funeral), and I’ll take pleasure in helping to keep the neighborhood clean. Besides, it’ll be a chance to get to know some of my neighbors even better. Of course, there’s always the potential for new students for CA’s Academy of English as well!

Friday, May 11, 2007

The Drummer Boy

Jazz chants (originally developed by Carolyn Graham) are the way I often start conversation classes at the universities where I teach. They’re a great way to get the energy going, especially in morning classes, and it’s also a way to get all the students speaking in English.

Naturally, they also help with (American English) pronunciation, particularly, stress, intonation, and linking. An additional asset is that they develop the students’ listening to spoken English. On class evaluations, students often list jazz chants as one of their favorite class activities.

This morning we were doing the “Banker’s Wife’s Blues,” which has some especially tricky rhythm. Sometimes I have students clap the rhythm, but today I decided to have them use pens or pencils to tap out the rhythm. hoping it wouldn’t seem too childish for college freshmen.

One of the boys pulled a set of actual drumsticks from his bag. It took him a couple tries, but once he got the rhythm down, I had him lead the whole class in our drumming session. All the students really got into it. Of course, when we read the jazz chant after that, they all had the rhythm down perfectly.

It’s the sort of spontaneous moment one can’t plan for but, when it happens, the level of enthusiasm in the class increases remarkably. I only wish I had a drummer in every class where I use jazz chants.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Students Making Inferences

In the TOEFL (Test for English as a Foreign Language) class this morning, we went over the types of questions in the reading section. Some of the vocabulary was new to the students, particularly “inferences.”

Because I try to teach as much as possible without translation, I gave them a personal example to illustrate the skill of making inferences. The other day I saw a group of people going around my neighborhood picking up trash. When they passed by my building, I thanked them and talked with one woman about how I’d like to join them some time. She asked where I lived, and I replied, “Here!”

A couple days later, there was an announcement stuck in my mailbox with a woman’s name and phone number. My reading in Japanese is rather weak, but as I glanced through it, I gathered that it was about a neighborhood meeting. I also figured that the woman was the one I had talked to. I explained to the students that I inferred what the notice was all about, even though I couldn’t read it completely.

During the next class, where we’re studying To Kill a Mockingbird, some of the students finished the work early. I noticed them looking through the questions for the next chapter, but they weren’t writing or using the book. I asked them what they were doing, and they beamed up at me, “We’re making inferences!”

I was delighted. They both received a special sticker.