Making Real Music: The Cuckoo Way

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Anju’s interview is the shortest one yet (and yet produced the postiest of posts for my project). For 45 minutes (10 of which I may have monopolized with my own personal narrative…I’m the worst journalist ever), she talks about teaching 45 private viola, violin, piano, and drum students, but doesn’t really “believe” in private lessons. She muses on stress-induced hair loss, resulting from the demands of eccentric singers that expected her to sightread 20th-century vocal literature on short notice. She discusses her Pinnacle Pieces (Beethoven’s Moonlight and Pathetique Sonatas, respectively), one of which elicited one of the only compliments she ever received from a piano teacher. 

But I’ll get to all that.

Anju is a 26-year old musician in Bloomington, Indiana. She’s a private music teacher, a yoga instructor, and makes a considerable income with her band, The Vallures, a seven-piece soul ensemble that plays covers, originals, and is working on an album. She’s a chill cat (evident by her own cat, who took part in our conversation), so it makes sense that she would teach yoga. She’s remarkably at ease, and isn’t afraid to divulge exactly what I was looking for: her real story.

When Anju was little, she saw a flute solo at a church service and “wanted to get in on that.” Her mother thought piano was more practical (mothers know best, indeed) and set her on the wise old path. Anju claims to have had at least twelve piano teachers, and never practiced. “I was the nightmare child.” She distinctly remembers playing a piano piece called The Cuckoo (you’re welcome, Bastien Piano Basics) for about a year because her piano teacher had Alzheimer’s and couldn’t remember re-assigning it each week. “No one ever caught on because I could get away with stuff.”

This, my friends, is the truth. We all have a story like this, and anyone who says otherwise needs a fire extinguisher. For their pants.*

She was motivated to do well in college, but the challenge to be too many things to too many people caused her to lose her hair in multiple spots and gain weight excessively. She was broken by the classical system. She didn’t know how to say no, would take on too many projects, and felt sort of “universally hated” because people were always looking for a scapegoat. “Singers would give me 20th-century literature and expect me to be able to sightread it.” As a vocalist, I can say I’m guilty of last-minute expectations, but I wouldn’t do this to anyone I respected (or anyone, period), regardless of their ability to sightread Webern on a moment’s notice. Anju doesn’t put up with this anymore. She knows when she’s put in the work and won’t take the blame for anyone else’s lack of preparation.

Eventually, she meandered over to jazz, where she finally learned “real” piano skills, like how to effectively cope with the perfection complex (wine). “You gotta own the swagger,” she tells me. “I probably don’t have half the talent of other jazz musicians, but I sell it, and I bring my personality, and I own my performance.”

Her degree is in piano performance, not education, but knows how to reach her students. Her teaching philosophy? “To promote a life-long love of music.” She’ll spend a good portion of a typical 30-minute lesson honing in on technique; the other half is a combination of literature, improvisation, and jamming. Seems legit, except that she doesn’t fully buy into the idea that music is made in a private bubble. “I don’t really believe in private lessons.” Thus, she tries to get her students to jam and collaborate as much as possible. “Real kids want to make real music and don’t want to play the Cuckoo for a year.” Alternately, her college experiences taught her how to effectively squeeze in “pockets” of practice when her students are running late or don’t show up. There’s never a wasted moment (or sandwich) when there’s ten minutes to bang out some Hanon exercises, although she sits down at least twice a week for multiple hours to hammer things out on all her instruments.

Anju gigs at least once a week and travels often with the Vallures. Interestingly, she says she’s one of only two people in the group that have a degree in music. The rest are real people with day jobs who are completely willing to give up 3-4 hours of a Thursday night to rehearse. “I’ve never met any music majors that were willing to do that.”

The more musicians I speak with, the more often I butt heads with the “time efficiency” conundrum. As as musician, I was taught to hoard my time. 30 minutes in, out the door I go. Those were private lessons. It’s not that I’m stingy with my time; I’m generous when the payoff is beneficial. I’ll “scholarship” a promising private student, or join the ranks of a fantastic musical put on by a regional theater, if it means I get to work with a solid director and there’s significant evidence that everyone else is going have their life together (or, at the very least, show up to rehearsal with a pencil, a skill lost on many). Alternately, I’m a time nazi; begin and end when you say you will, otherwise you can bid your meeting and my respect a fond farwell. It’s not a coincidence that Anju’s is the shortest interview I’ve done. When it was time to end, we concluded naturally, like the end of a chill jazz solo.

The world of the “Community Engager” is proving to be my favorite. Anju’s personality seems to fit that mold, but I wouldn’t place her in that category. She’s a unique hybrid tiger, part community engager, part square peg in a round hole, part professional. It seems like an okay place to be.

 

  • AMmaven

*”liar, liar, pants on fire.” Get with the program. 

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