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MMC students and teachers pose for photos after the winter recital. (Photography by: Jamie Grafton)

 

“Remember what we said about your princess posture!” No, this was not a line from Brave or The Princess Diaries. Rather, it was heard—of all places—at a music lesson.

Teachers from the Columbia University chapter of Musical Mentors Collaborative (MMC) have been giving lessons at P.S. 145 every week since 2008. Instruments taught—free of charge—include piano, violin, guitar, and voice.

Most of the over 50 students in the program would probably not be able to take lessons otherwise.

“We are a school where the majority of the population are working-class immigrants,” Carlos Salamanca, the Parent Coordinator of P.S. 145, explains.

“It’s important for the Latino and Black communities to have the opportunity to play musical instruments. This is the chance that they have–this Musical Mentors teaching.”

The MMC program leads to many exciting learning experiences. Last Saturday morning, Stephanie Rager, a sophomore in SEAS who is a Co-President of MMC, taught Sophia–after reminding her to stand like a princess, of course–what a half note is.

Stephanie Rager, CC ‘19, with her student, Sophia

Stephanie Rager, SEAS ‘19, with her student, Sophia.

First, Stephanie clapped quarter notes with Sophia. Then, she sang the last three notes of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”–quarter note, quarter note, half note–while Sophia continued to clap. Stephanie explained that the last note she sang was twice as long as the two prior. After some time of working on the measure–both with and without her bow–Sophia’s face lit up: she had “got it.”

Watching students’ reactions made me smile more times than I could count. I now understand why James Valentini often talks about “Beginner’s Mind”: these elementary school students were incredibly eager to learn and bubbled with joyous excitement when they did.  

Music lessons can even be mathematical. This week, Alexia Le, a junior music major in CC, taught Vanessa 3/8. Explaining time signatures can be complicated: it oftentimes involves fractions, which some students have not yet learned.

Alexia solved the difficulty by finding a different way to explain it. She described how it was similar to 3/4–which Vanessa played earlier in the lesson–in that there are three beats per measure, yet different because the eighth note gets the beat.

These challenging pedagogical moments are rewarding for teachers. Julian Vleeschhouwer, a sophomore in Columbia College, values his new role as piano teacher.

“I really enjoy teaching—prior to this I never really taught music before, I’ve always been the one taking lessons—so to be able to give back a little is really fulfilling for me,” Julian says with an assuring nod.

“It’s helped me to realize the role music can play in different people’s lives; I think that I always took it for granted in my life.

Julian Vleeschhouwer, CC ‘19, and Nicole at the winter recital (Photography by: Jamie Grafton)

Julian Vleeschhouwer, CC ‘19, and Nicole at the winter recital. (Photography by: Jamie Grafton)

However, despite the positive interactions I witnessed, the realities of the program are sobering. Some pianos are extremely out-of-tune (almost a half-step flat). The school’s music program does not include band or orchestra, so most students are unable to develop their instrumental skills during the school day. Instruments are provided by P.S 145, which means there’s a what-we-have-is-what-you’ll-play policy.

Perhaps most disheartening of all: MMC ends after elementary school. Without an instrument, let alone a teacher, many students stop playing.

“Vanessa’s older sister was also in the program, but now that she is in middle school, she doesn’t play violin anymore and doesn’t remember how to play,” Alexia recounts—her voice diving down, crestfallen, at the end of her phrase.

With more teachers the program could expand to the local middle school, ensuring that students can continue making music after graduating.

An increase in instructors would also help at the elementary school level: P.S. 145 often has more interested students than available instructors.

“We always need more!” Salamanca emphasizes.

Recent fundraising from the Columbia Festival of Winds will definitely assist the program: MMC anticipates using the several thousand dollars collected for new classroom pianos.

However, the larger problem–governmental support of art and music programs in public schools–is insurmountable for MMC. Despite written acknowledgement (see page 2) of the arts’ educational value, the Department of Education (DOE) is clearly not doing enough to foster art in schools, which MMC’s very existence and the sad story of Vanessa’s sister illustrate.

These MMC lessons demonstrate, though, just how beneficial and necessary music making in schools is; they show why additional and continued governmental support of the arts is a good—to put things in blunt financial terms—investment in a child’s future.

How do these lessons prove why music has educational value? Take, for example, Alexia’s relationship with Vanessa.

In the lesson that I observed, Alexia spent nine minutes working with Vanessa on just one measure because of its rhythmic complexity. Alexia’s focus on the passage demonstrates her great commitment toward Vanessa’s learning.

Their determined work leads to success: Alexia beamed when describing how proud she was while watching Vanessa’s end-of-semester recital. Throughout our discussion about Vanessa, Alexia’s voice oozed with warmth and care.

Jonathan Herman, SEAS ‘18, looks on after Angel’s performance at the winter recital (Photography by: Jamie Grafton)

Jonathan Herman, SEAS ‘18, looks on after Angel’s performance at the winter recital. (Photography by: Jamie Grafton)

Alexia has helped ignite Vanessa’s passion for music. Nowadays, Vanessa often seeks out pieces to learn from YouTube and even composes her own music.

In reality, Vanessa would not have been able to work with–let alone discover–her musical interests without the MMC program. Because of the opportunity, Vanessa has developed not only her musical abilities but also the virtues intrinsic to learning an instrument: independence, patience, and a strong work ethic.

Vanessa’s growth illustrates the benefits of a music education. Her story speaks directly to the NYC Department of Education, proving that music programs are needed in schools.

“I feel like I’m making a difference; I see the progress,” Alexia confirms.

“I think that I’m helping her realize, hopefully, a lifelong love of music.”

 

 

Photo Courtesy of Ogawatsusyou

Much like my Uber rating, I am unabashedly proud of my “sensual soundtrack.” I’m sure you’re familiar with the one, lurking in the “secret” section of nearly every millennial’s Spotify. The playlist that magically makes its way to the speakers after a couple of glasses of wine, as the distance on the couch between you and your company slowly vanishes. Crafting that perfect ear aphrodisiac is my strong suit…. or so I thought until I heard my roommate’s concoction drifting through our paper-thin walls.

Delicately titled “I’m Getting Laid”, her playlist is not merely ambiance. No, it is a ballad, taking you on an epic journey that Homer himself would be impressed by. I don’t mean to be blunt, but it is sheer fucking genius. The exposition of her masterpiece begins with the ever so classic Marvin Gaye–and not that Kygo bullshit–but the actual authentic, original, dirty, baby-making music. Drake and 80’s rock hits concoct the rising action and eventually culminate in a conflict of palpable sexual tension accompanied by The Weeknd and The Arctic Monkeys. And finally, the apex of the journey (I would say “climax,” but that’s a bit gauche): it begins with Beyoncé’s “50 Shades of Grey” rendition of Crazy in Love, which is followed by more Weeknd (obviously). It’s truly tantalizing. As things begin to calm down, more soft pop flows from the speakers and spooning eventually transforms into a “boot and rally” of more raunchy R&B. Finally, the actual resolution of soft electronic music as you recover, sinking into your satisfaction.

While I would not follow her prescribed playlist to a T, it is awe-inspiring–a good model for understanding nationalism in today’s world.

Today is the “beginning of the end of nationalism,” as my Danish friend informed me. While I am largely ignorant to the European political scene, I have learned that, apparently, the upcoming elections are demonstrating a tendency to lean away from the more nationalist parties. To be honest, this isn’t surprising.

Like sex-playlists, nationalism is a good impetus for action, yet cannot serve as a solid foundation for the entire apparatus. While it takes different shapes according to the implementing actor, it is largely the same concept worldwide: a heavy emotional pride cloaked in politics. States and sex both have many complex parts synergistically working together, and a faulty reliance on a single apparatus such as nationalism (or a playlist) will likely lead to failure. From Hillary’s desperate attempts at patriotism at the Democratic National Convention, to Le Pen’s decline in popularity, it is evident that success cannot ride on nationalism alone.

While still crucial to the overall success, neither nationalism nor sex playlists, alone can climax in success.  

                                Image via Yael Turitz

Thanks to my loving professors, I spent almost 90% of my spring break doing homework (not that I’m bitter or anything). I only had one chance to get out to the movie theater, my typical go-to break activity, but I knew exactly what I wanted to see: Bill Condon’s live-action remake of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.

Growing up, Belle was my favorite princess. An avid reader myself, I thought I was just like her, dreaming to travel and escape my “provincial life” (to be clear, I lived right outside of Washington, D.C. and was not at all stifled, but, hey, the eight-year-old mind sees what it wants). I owned a golden gown Belle costume that I insisted on wearing far too often for my mother’s taste (see above picture for proof, in case you doubt me), and the movie practically lived inside the VCR.

Needless to say, I was pumped to see this movie. And, despite having to sit in the third row because the theater was so crowded (and therefore feeling like I was going to vomit throughout the entire movie because of my ridiculous motion sickness), it did not disappoint.

When I opened the newspapers the next day, however, I was shocked by the reviews. Ty Burr from The Boston Globe called it a ‘strenuous copy cat” of the original, while The Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern said it was “crazily cluttered, overproduced venture in industrial entertainment.”

WHAT!? Strenuous copy cat? Crazily cluttered? What movie did these people watch!?

Despite my high expectations, I was pleasantly surprised by Condon’s film. Emma Watson proved that not only is she a incredibly talented actor, a natural beauty, and a wonderful female role model, but that she can sing like an angel. She sounded like she could be on Broadway, hitting notes with the same bravado as the original Paige O’Hara, and her pleasant tone felt so natural for a Disney princess. I honestly have no idea what voice Ty Burr was listening to when he said her voice was “never able to break out into the kind of sonic glory an audience might crave.” If anything, he could critique Dan Steven’s or Emma Thompson’s lacking voices, but their voices worked with the beast and teapot they respectively played, so he really shouldn’t do that either.

But what really confused me was that both Burr and Morgenstern seemed completely opposed to the need for a remake at all, yet seemed upset when the film changed or added any aspect to the 1991 classic. But the truth is that Condon’s film stayed extremely close to the original, not changing any plotlines or characters. The few pieces the new movie did add was a (barely) openly gay character, a couple of new songs written by the original composer Alan Menken and famed lyricist Tim Rice, and a scene that tells us how Belle’s mother died from the plague, and her father was forced to leave his wife to save his daughter– all modern additions that make the movie more resonant for modern audiences, and actually much deeper without taking away from the buoyancy and magical aspects of the original fairytale. What more did they want?

I guess you could argue that Disney shouldn’t be making remakes of great films, that they should let the originals stand on their own– a debate that will likely only become more prevalent as Disney continues to make remakes. But as I sat there, marveling at the incredible special effects, the moving additional scenes, Emma Watson’s refusal to wear a corset and perfect portrayal of a strong-willed Belle, I clearly saw the value in this remake. The remake is similar enough to the original that it doesn’t offend, but newly beautiful and relevant– so don’t listen to these people. I dare you to go see Beauty and the Beast in all its special-effects, costume, design, acting, singing glory and tell me it’s not a worthwhile movie.

For me, it was a dream come true.

 

The Must-(Not)Binge List: For the past few weeks, I’ve been painfully watching the CW’s Riverdale, mostly out of a sense of obligation to the Archie Comics that saved me during my lowest sleepaway-camp moments. But enough is enough. The new show, starring AJ Apa, Lili Reinhart, Camila Mendes, and Cole Sprouse is excruciatingly overdramatic. Neither Apa, Mendes, nor Reinhart can act, and the show’s plotline tries and fails to mix the teenage angsty characters of One Tree Hill with the dark plotlines of Black Mirror. Even Cole Sprouse, my favorite of the Suite Life brothers, can’t do anything with his brooding but unnecessary Jughead character. Don’t waste your time, especially if you were an Archie Comics fan. This show is an embarrassment. My grade: D

 

Do you belong here?

It’s a loaded question, and one I believe that many Columbia students encounter during their time here — commonly in the first or second year. The feeling that while your classmates are smart, talented, and generally have their lives together, you are dumb, untalented, and merely pretending that you are not falling apart.

This feeling, labeled Impostor Syndrome from its first characterization in 1978, is thought to be common in high-pressure cognitive environments — by some estimates affecting as high as 70% of the population in these environments. The psychologists who first discovered the phenomenon, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, described it as “a feeling of phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.”

While not recognized as a disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders (more commonly known as the DSM), Impostor Syndrome can have real effects on the way people interact with the world, especially among college students in elite universities.

Terrified of being outed, the ‘impostor’ avoids taking on extra challenges, hesitates before  applying to high-level internships or fellowships, studies excessively to make up for their perceived cognitive deficit, or correspondingly, procrastinates out of fear that they’ll never finish it all.

When something bad happens, whether it be a below average grade, a failed audition, a rejected submission, or merely a fight with a friend, the ‘impostor’ does not see it as merely a small setback in an otherwise well-lived life. They see it as a confirmation of what they’ve known all along — that they do not belong at a school like Columbia, and that they are doomed to fail.

In particular, certain populations are more susceptible to Impostor Syndrome — for instance, those which have been underrepresented or disadvantaged. This group predominantly includes women, people of color, and first-generation students, and these identities can negatively impact student performance in a significant way.

When primed with their identities, each member of these groups did dramatically worse on tests of logic or mathematics, in some studies underperforming by 10-20% than those who were not reminded that they were “different.”

Why do so many high-achieving students ignore all evidence to the contrary and believe they are inferior? How can this belief so negatively impact their performance? While Impostor Syndrome has not yet been studied neuroscientifically, some clues from related fields of study can help shed some light on possible neural mechanisms underlying Impostor Syndrome.

One possible explanation comes from the perceived inadequacy causing an activation of stress-systems in the brain. As I have discussed before, when your brain is flooded with stress hormones the amygdala, anterior cingulate cortex, and the insula all light up. Activation in these brain regions is known to induce anxiety and fear, as well as a host of other deleterious effects on student health.

Correspondingly, induced stress can inactivate your dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, and inferior temporal cortex — reducing working memory load, the ability to form new memories, and the ability to recall stored knowledge. In effect, if you constantly believe that you are not good enough to succeed, your success might ironically decrease.

Far from just a cognitive nuisance, if Impostor Syndrome is left unchecked it can cause extreme risk-aversion and contribute to generalized anxiety disorder. So what can be done about it? Some evidence points to fact-exposure as a good treatment — remind yourself of all the times you have in fact succeeded.

When failures inevitably occur, take the time to analyze how much was truly your fault, and how much can be chalked up to bad luck. Perhaps most importantly, talk to the people you trust about the feelings of fraud you might be experiencing. Whether that is your parents, friends, or a therapist, talking through those fears and having them invalidated can often be cathartic in combating Impostor Syndrome.

In an environment of brilliant and hyper-competitive peers, it can be easy to compare your inner self to your classmates outer selves without stopping to think that the vast majority of your fellow students are struggling with the very same issue. And if nothing else, I can answer the question I asked at the beginning of this article for you — yes, you do belong at Columbia.

 

The ending scene in Beethoven’s Fidelio. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

 

On Thursday night, the Met opened its season’s production of Beethoven’s Fidelio.

The protagonist, Leonore, is the most positively impactful woman in all of opera. Disguised as a man named Fidelio, she earns the trust of Rocco, the prison warden. He brings her to her husband Florestan, a prisoner locked in a cellar cell. Once there, Leonore defends Florestan from Don Pizarro, the governor of the prison, by threatening him with her gun. Because of her actions, Leonore is hailed as a heroine of “noble courage.” Joy reigns as the couple is safely restored when Don Fernando, the minister, arrives.

Representations of constructively influential women in opera are rare. Most are throwing themselves off of castle parapets (Tosca), displaying a deranged, febrile madness (Lucia di Lammermoor), or even stripping for kings (Salome). The Met picked an important moment to portray an antithetical example. Adrianne Pieczonka, a Canadian soprano playing Leonore, said, “And with what’s going on in the world, I think it’s great to have a strong woman—a brave, courageous woman on a mission.” The only thing missing is a direct reference to Trump.

Given its backdrop, how was this politically charged opera vitalized? Marzelline, Rocco’s daughter—performed by Hanna-Elisabeth Müller in her Met Opera debut—sang wonderfully. Her voice had a sweetness that was maintained throughout her range. Jaquino, Rocco’s helper—played by David Portillo—sang with appropriate anguish over Marzelline’s spurning of his love.

In the subsequent ensemble number, Rocco and Leonore (Fidelio to these folks) joined Marzelline and Jaquino. Rocco—sung by the role-switching Falk Struckmann (formerly Don Pizarro in the Met’s 2000 production)—rang richly in his low register, but thinned out up high. As the night went on, however, his upper tones took on a rounder, fuller shape. Rocco’s employer, Don Pizarro—invigorated by Greer Grimsley—sounded diabolical in his “Ha! Welch’ ein Augenblick!” aria. Grimsley’s repeated “Ha’s!” menaced his adversaries (and the audience!).

After Pizarro’s aria, Pieczonka presented her “Abscheulicher!” solo. Here and elsewhere, I observed her physically reaching upward for climatically high pitches. Her action affected her sound quality: her high register was quavering, forced, and over-vibratoed. In contrast, Müller visibly sunk down into her upper range. As a result, her highs maintained depth and quality. A casting switch between these two sopranos would be beneficial—but admittedly impossible—for this production.

Act 2 starts with a jolt: Florestan calls out “Gott!”, a desperate heavenly plea. Florestan—enlivened by Klaus Florian Vogt—has a many-colored voice: his timbre sounds like the mixing palette of a master painter. His unique hues transmitted the hopeful content of his singing.

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Klaus Florian Vogt as Florestan in Beethoven’s Fidelio. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

Some of Sebastian Weigle’s tempo choices detrimentally affected tonight’s performance. In “Gut Söhnchen, gut, hab immer Mut” the tempo was inappropriately slow. I have courage—“Ich habe Mut!”—but apparently not enough to show any vigor. And, in Pieczonka’s “Abscheulicher!” aria, the orchestra sounded safe, even calculated, during accelerandos. The correct energy can be achieved in upcoming performances by a reconsideration of phrasing and articulation.

The horns, however, turned in an excellent performance in the “Abscheulicher!” obbligato. Their tone was pure and their phrasing smooth and effortless.

The singer’s performances were framed by Jürgen Flimm’s production. Flimm’s work, staged for the fourth time at the Met, effectively recontextualizes Fidelio in the mid-20th century. In the first act, the principal themes of hope and freedom are juxtaposed against a starkly bare prison. For the final scene, Robert Israel, the set designer, depicts triumph with a backdrop of wispy clouds strewn across a light blue sky: it is little wonder that the words for heaven and sky are the same in German.

At this euphoric ending, Don Fernando has arrived, ousting Don Pizarro from the stage. The role was performed by Günther Groissböck with an imperial, declarative style, suiting the character well.

After, the chorus, winds, and low strings exclaim joyfully. Freude und Freiheit—Joy and Freedom: Beethoven affirms cherished values with his distinct emotional directness.

During the curtain call, I saw that the bronze heroic figure—which looms in the background of the ultimate scene—was taken off of his horse, placed dejectedly on the ground. To complete the coup, I think, appropriately, Leonore should be put in his former position—a nobly “nasty woman” who deserves her high praise and honors.

 

Beethoven’s Fidelio runs through April 8, with casting changes. The opera will be broadcast live April 1, at 1:00 PM, on WQXR 105.9 FM. Information and ticket listings (including student and same-day rush tickets) can be found online at metopera.org