Friday, May 13, 2005

To Play or to Touch

I’ve been invited to represent the Census Bureau at a conference in Mexico in July, where I will be expected to give a talk in Spanish. Given that it has been 30+ years since I studied Spanish at the Foreign Service Institute, I lobbied for a week of intensive training prior to July, which surprisingly was approved by my boss. So today I went for an informal “test” to assess my Spanish proficiency for placement purposes.

Senor Pedro Alvarez, the instructor who evaluated me, covered a wide range of topics, frequently noting mistakes on his little pad of paper. At one point he asked me what I would like to do in retirement and I responded “jugar el piano”. He politely (in Spanish) asked me if I wouldn’t prefer to “tocar al piano”. I had forgotten that jugar is the verb you use when you talk about playing a sport or a game, whereas tocar is more like to touch. These are the kinds of subtleties that 30 years erase. So I filed that away just as he wrote it on his pad.

He finally declared that we were done and proceeded to let me know how I had done. He sensed that I had understood everything that he had said, which was true. He noted that I had a large vocabulary, but that I also tended just to make up words when I didn’t really know the Spanish word – also true and the result of working in Latin America, where communication often depended on your ability to invent words accompanied by gestures. He said my verb tenses were rusty and not very numerous and that I sometimes failed to make nouns and adjectives agree. I got a rating of 2+,3 as opposed to the 3,3 that I got so many years ago. Not too bad for someone of my age, I thought. The next step will be to find a class at the right level for me and just immerse myself in this language for 40 hours – a week of intensive.

Following my FSI evaluation, I drove to the home of Jessica Krash, my new piano teacher. Jessica has a formidable set of credentials, including a degree from Julliard and a doctorate in the psychology of music from Harvard. But she couldn’t be nicer or more encouraging for someone like me, who has had only a little formal training, mostly also an even longer time ago. I met Jessica through the GWU seminar, wherein she forms groups of people to play together. I decided to start taking some lessons once again to work on things like my posture and hand position, in the hope of avoiding arthritis and other nasty health problems.

Ironically the theme of today’s piano lesson was one of touching the keys with feeling, as opposed to just striking them the way you might hit a ball. Deja vu? We did some music theory, talked about good warm-up exercises before practice, and then did some serious playing, with Jessica providing a treasure trove of good ideas to add emotion and life to what is actually already beautiful music.

After hearing it twice today in quite different contexts, I am persuaded to go lovingly touch the piano keys for a while this afternoon in preparation for playing with Deborah tomorrow afternoon.

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