A diet of worms

It’s fun to visit the famous sites when traveling, even if only to see all the diverse people coming to see those same sites. But What I tend to remember and value most are the unplanned, mundane, and more local adventures.

On Friday in Bucharest, there was one such involving worms. I was speaking at the aptly named “Friday meeting” at the university. The topic of planning in teaching (exploring the important sites?) came up and I had to share a story that Jack Easley, a math and science educator, had told.

Discovering worms

Discovering worms

Jack had been working in a second grade class, guiding a six week long unit on weather. Pupils learned about clouds, precipitation, storms, weather measurement, agriculture, and other such important topics, taught, I’m sure in a creative and engaging way. On the last day, it was raining outside until just before the class ended. Jack knew that there might be a rainbow. Viewing that could be an exciting culmination for the unit.

He took the class outside, preparing to discuss the visible light spectrum, refraction, moisture in air, and others such topics. But the pupils weren’t interested. While Jack was looking up, they were looking down at the closer and and more ordinary. He was a latter day Thales at risk of falling into a well while gazing at the stars. The children’s observations of the worms led them to ask, “Why do worms come out of the ground after a rain?”

Soil, plants, worms

Soil, plants, worms

Jack started to answer, then realized that he didn’t really know. So he asked the students to write down their question for scientists at the university. It turned out they had many ideas, but didn’t really know, either. A few days later a long article came out in the New York Times, saying that this was an important question for science and for agriculture, but the answer wasn’t simple. Even today, there is a lot to say about why earthworms surface after rain?. Jack saw that the pupils became most excited about their own question, which in turn was more like the science that scientists do.

Catalina Ulrich, a professor at the University of Bucharest, and my host, appeared to be quite excited by this little story. She pulled out her smartphone to show photos (shown here). Just the day before she had been observing in a crèche (preschool), where the children had been fighting over a bike. But then, one of them discovered a worm. Like Jack’s students, these even younger ones saw that soil and worms were more interesting and more attractive than whatever else they had been doing, and than many people might think.

Doreeen Cronin Diary of a WormThat evening, we had dinner at the home of Claudia Șerbănuță. I needed a toilet break, and as is my habit, couldn’t avoid looking at the reading material there. Right on top was Doreeen Cronin’s Diary of a Worm.

The book describes the world from a worm’s point of view. For example, in the beginning, it tells you the three rules about worms that you must never forget. The third rule is “Never bother Daddy when he’s eating the newspaper.” When I came out, I asked Claudia’s children about the book. Could they tell me the three things we must always remember?

They grew quite excited and shouted out the third rule in unison. When I asked about the others they weren’t so sure. The other two have something to do with how worms live, the making of soil, the interdependence of life, or global food supply. I couldn’t remember them either.

Performing at the National Conservatory

The piano

The piano

On Thursday, I was able to practice piano at the National University of Music Bucharest (UNMB).

My venue was ideal. Set at one end of a small performance hall, there was a new Yamaha grand piano, similar to the one shown here. There were plenty of chairs, but no actual people listening. There was a nice view of trees and the rest of UNMB outside the fourth-floor windows.

On the wall was a poster advertising the George Enescu annual international music festival. As one of the world’s best modern composers, Enescu was also an outstanding violinist, pianist, and conductor. The poster displayed his image looking directly at my seat at the piano.

I decided to start with Beethoven’s Sonata No. 31 in A♭, Opus 110. I’ve been working on this one for a long time. It’s very challenging for me, although there are moments when I can play it well enough to get lost in the beauty of the music.

Universitatea Națională de Muzică din București

Universitatea Națională de Muzică din București

When I started I couldn’t help but notice Enescu’s stare. According to Wikipedia/Vincent d’Indy, if Beethoven’s works were destroyed, Enescu could reconstruct them all from memory. Would he approve of my feeble efforts? Was it an insult to his memory to be playing that beautiful sonata in front of him?

As I began to play, these thoughts disturbed me. Then I heard Enescu say, “why are you paying attention to me? You should focus on Beethoven, even more on this particular piece.” I turned back to the music, but other thoughts interfered. The score was backlit by the sunlight through the windows; the bench didn’t seem to be adjusted right; I wondered whether I should have had coffee first. Enescu spoke up again: “Yes it’s a wonderful spring day in Bucharest, but you want to play this sonata. Forget the light, the bench, the coffee. Leave it behind and feel the music.”

I knew that he knew I was missing notes, stretching the rhythm, and phrasing in ways Beethoven never imagined. It must have pained his musical ear, if not his musical soul. But he knew, as I’m beginning to learn, that with practice those things can improve. What mattered was to bring my full attention to the music.

I plodded along, trying to ignore all the distractions. Then it happened.

Maybe it was because I realized this was just between Beethoven, Enescu, and me. No one else was there. The wonderful venue didn’t matter. And Enescu had made it clear he wasn’t relevant either. For the first time, I really began to hear the music. I played the entire sonata beginning to end. Forget the fact that my tempo was about a third of Enescu’s and that the list of “areas for improvement” would be longer than War and Peace.

Enescu helped me, just for a moment, to go from struggling to experiencing. I think of his lifelong passion of music, and what it must have meant to him to feel that kind of loss of self and immersion in music as he both traversed and added to the repertoire.

We don’t have any further performances scheduled at the Conservatory on this trip. I’m sorry if you missed it!

The video clip (1978) is of Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsody N° 1 Op 11, with Sergiu Celibidache conducting the Bucharest George Enescu Philharmonic Orchestra at the Romanian Athenaeum.