Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Something Old, Something New...

My husband and I had a great gig on Christmas Eve. We were hired to play two church services as part of an ensemble that included string quintet, flute, oboe, two trumpets, timpani, organ and choir. We played traditional carols, a few newer carols by John Rutter, and a Haydn mass. The services were traditional and beautiful, and they really captured the sanctity of the evening. And they got me thinking about tradition and relevance.

“Silent Night” was new once. So was “Away in a Manger”. There were times when most things we consider traditional were new and modern—the latest thing. They struck a chord with people and were used over and over, into a time when they were no longer part of the vernacular. Do they lose relevance once they are not in the same language as our day-to-day communication? Does difference automatically mean irrelevance?

It seems to me that traditions can be used either to draw people in or to alienate them. How do you make sure it’s one but not the other? Sometimes the jolt of a something unfamiliar invites people to see differently, more deeply, from a different angle. And sometimes when we strive for relevance we end up flattening things, losing the heights and depths of a piece of art in the name of accessibility. Then again, traditions can get stale and lose their effectiveness. We may forget the meaning behind them, or find them so foreign we don’t know where to begin to understand them. Sometimes artists shed new light on something by increasing accessibility. When Dante took a serious subject and wrote it in his common language of Italian instead of Latin he was doing a groundbreaking thing.

“Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.” A tradition in itself—but why do you think a bride is often encouraged to include each of these on her wedding day? Should we throw out the old for the new, or vice versa? Why should we limit art to one or the other when the importance is the truth at the core? Some mediums will work, others won’t, at any given moment. At another time it may take a different medium—a different language, a different color, a different tune, a different setting, to best communicate what an artist is trying to say. Personally, I get frustrated with some of the arguments about relevance—I think it is a side issue. What we want is to awaken, to shed light, to invite a person to travel deeper into truth. And I don’t think labels like “traditional”, or “progressive”, or whatever, necessarily guarantee or deny that goal.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Variations on a Theme

It has been an interesting thing to read and watch different versions of The Nutcracker. My kids are learning that a story can have countless variations. Different characters may appear or be left out, the setting or mood may change, the emphasis of the story may vary—but the story is still recognizable as “The Nutcracker”. The idea that an author or artist or choreographer can make the story their own is a powerful one. The idea that there is more to the creative process than making something new, that you can layer your own insights and ideas over the frame of a well-known story, opens up a whole new world.

At the risk of over-saturating your holidays with Nutcrackers, I thought I’d continue what I started Wednesday and offer a few more variations on a theme.

Picture book retellings of the story:
The NutcrackerThe Nutcrackerby Susan Jeffers, Harper Collins Publishers, 2007
This retelling is from the ballet, and many of the illustrations make you feel like you are on stage with the dancers, a perspective I sometimes found myself wishing for when I had to sit at the back of an auditorium.

Nutcracker BalletNutcracker Balletby Vladimir Vagin, Scholastic, 1995
This is another retelling from the ballet, although I recognized more elements from E.T.A. Hoffman's story, and the pictures alternate between stage settings and a more fairytale-like setting.

The Nutcracker Ballet (Step Into Reading: A Step 3 Book (Prebound))The Nutcracker Ballet (Step Into Reading: A Step 3 Book (Prebound))retold by Deborah Hautzig, illustrated by Carolyn Ewing
This is a nicely-done reader that walks the reader through the ballet.

E. T. A. Hoffman's fairytale:
Nutcrackerby E. T. A. Hoffman, pictures by Maurice Sendak, translated by Ralph Manheim, Gramercy Books, 1984 (102 pp.)
This book started with the production Sendak designed for the Pacific Northwest Ballet in 1983.  He wanted to do something that was more true to Hoffman's tale, and ended up creating this book, as well, which uses Hoffman's text and is darker and more complicated than the ballet version (which is usually based on a version of Hoffman's story written by Alexandre Dumas).

I discovered, too, that Maurice Sendak wasn't the first American to try to bring back E. T. A. Hoffman's story.  I don't have any links for you, but if you can find it, The Nutcracker of Nuremburg:  A Christmas Fantasy Based upon the Old Hoffman Legend, written and illustrated by Donald E. Cooke (John C. Winston Company, 1938, 148 pp.) is another retelling of Hoffman's story (as opposed to a retelling of the ballet), and is worth looking into. 

Books about dancing in the Nutcracker Ballet:
Lili on Stage
Lili on Stage by Rachel Isadora, G. P. Putnam and Sons, 1995
This is a story about a girl who performs in the ballet as a guest in the first scene.  It follows her backstage, warming up, putting on makeup and costume, and shows the behind-the-scene activity of a ballet production.  The text is simple, but it gives a good idea of what it is like to be part of a ballet performance.

A Very Young Dancer by Jill Krementz, Alfred A. Knopf, 1985, is a more detailed, true-life portrayal of a girl who is chosen to play the part of Mary in a Balanchine production of The Nutcracker with The School of American Ballet.  The author follows a girl named Stephanie through auditions, rehearsals and performances of The Nutcracker, giving a first-person account of what the experience is like.

The Music of The Nutcracker:
Tchaikovsky Discovers AmericaTchaikovsky Discovers America Classical Kids CD (there's also a book: Tchaikovsky Discovers America but I prefer the CD because of the musical excerpts.)  This is a story that combines historical information about Tchaikovsky with a fictional family of Russian-American immigrants that he meets while working on The Nutcracker in America.  I think all the Classical Kids CDs do a good job of integrating the music and biographical information with an entertaining story.  My children have become familiar with a lot of classical music while listening to the CDs in this series.

One more variation:
Harlem Nutcracker, TheHarlem Nutcracker, The text and photography by Susan Kuklin, Hyperion Books for Young Children, 2001.  Based on the ballet by Donald Byrd, this is a retelling of the Nutcracker danced to music by Duke Ellington.  In this version Clara is a grandmother struggling with the loss of her beloved husband and a family that appears to be growing apart.  Her dead husband appears to her as the nutcracker, and their battle is with Death instead of the Mouse King.  Instead of journeying to the Kingdom of Sweets they visit a Harlem Renaissance-era Club Sweets, and the dancing is jazz, not ballet.  Although this is a moving story in picture book format, I don't recommend it for young children due to the portrayal of Death coming for Clara. 

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Snowflakes and Sugarplums

I love the Nutcracker Ballet. Now, maybe it wouldn’t have the same sort of magic for me if I had spent more of my adult life gigging in big cities and playing numerous versions of it. As it is, I’ve only played one run of it in my life. I was pregnant with my third child and exhausted, and I pretty much cried through every performance.  I’m sure it wasn’t just hormones, though. The combination of story, music, costumes, and dance are definitely the stuff of dreams.

Our family isn’t going to get to see (or play) a live version this year, so I’ve been looking for other ways to immerse ourselves in this December tradition.

The fairytale:
E.T.A. Hoffman wrote the fairytale on which the ballet is based in 1816. We’ve been reading this versionby Anthea Bell, illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger. The pictures are beautiful, and it’s been interesting to see how the story and ballet are different.

The music: 

This is the kind of stuff that shakes the windowpanes at our house. The kids love to blast the Nutcracker Suite (among other things) and dance wildly in the living room. Sometimes with costumes. The injuries have only been minor so far, and I have to say, it’s pretty fun to watch. I’ve been known to dance with them, too. I love Tchaikovsky’s use of lower-voiced instruments for melodies— lots of viola, cello and low woodwinds. And the Grand Pas de Deux (although it’s not part of the Suite) gives me chills every time—what that man can do with a descending scale!

The ballet: 
The ballet premiered in 1892 with music by Pyotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky and choreography by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. Interestingly, the shorter Suite that Tchaikovsky put together became popular right away, while the entire ballet didn’t really take off until the 1950’s. We’ve watched several versions by different choreographers, and it’s been interesting to see how they are different. I think it’s eye-opening to the kids to see that you can take a story and make it your own. This is the version we’ve been watching this year. We miss Mother Ginger, but watching Baryshnikov dance is awfully cool.

Monday, December 14, 2009

On Settling for Less

The Openhearted Audience: Ten Authors Talk About Writing for Children

The Openhearted Audience: Ten Authors Talk About Writing for ChildrenThe viewpoint mystifies me—that works for children must necessarily be minor works by minor writers, that deliberately they are generated and projected at reduced voltage, that they evade truth, that they avert passion and sensuality and the subtleties of life and are unworthy of the attention of the serious artist or craftsman.

The sensitive child, the core of everything that I, for one, wish to write about, is the direct antithesis of this milk-and-water proposition.
Adult scaling-down of the intensity of the child state is a crashing injustice, an outrageous distortion of what childhood is about. Physical frailty is not weakness, gentleness is not spinelessness, delicate sensitivities are not sentimental trivialities, apart from those aspects of childhood that are as rumbustious as run-away bulls. As we grow older we look back more and more, not, I suspect, because a mature person really wishes again for the agonies and ecstacies of youth in the immediate sense, but because he has the need to recall the enormous impact, the enormous importance, the sheer magnitude of childhood events to compensate for the lower key of subsequent adult life. I am sure they are recalled because they are the most worthy of recall, because little else in life surpasses them.

I suggest it is possible to extend the intensity of a sensitive childhood into maturity without wearing yourself out or giving yourself ulcers or coronaries or other undesirable side effects, although it may add to the daily anguishing of your heart. But was there ever a joy worth having that did not exact a price? Children’s literature, so-called, the creation of it and the appreciation of it at a significant level, is one way of charging adult life with some of the extrasensual dimensions of childhood. Someone long ago, in different words, made a related statement and it is the key, from where I look at life, to being alive from the tips of your toes to the hair on your head and to every nerve-end in between.

-Ivan Southall, “Sources and Responses”, The Openhearted Audience: Ten Authors Talk about Writing for Children, ed. by Virginia Haviland, Fredonia Books, ©1980, 2000

We had our first "real" family portrait taken when Oldest was two years old and Middle was an infant. We got all bundled up and went to church to have our pictures taken for the directory, and I was very excited because we would get to keep a copy for ourselves. The photographer got us all set up, went back to his camera, and proceeded to pull out a squeaky toy which he held over the camera and squeezed like a madman. I tried to tell him that our child responded very well to things like, “Hey, look over here!” but he refused to try it. Apparently he thought it would work better to treat our toddler like a dog. And you know what? The man got the look he deserved (“What’s wrong with that guy?”) and we got a family portrait that never made it onto the wall.

I think sometimes we get wrapped up in our important adult world and fool ourselves into thinking that because kids are less mature, less experienced and take up less space that they are somehow less, period. Less human, less interesting, less interested. And if we get fooled into thinking that, won’t that affect what we offer them in terms of books, education, and art?

More from Ivan Southall:

What I wish for the writer for children, what I wish for myself, is the ultimate compliment—the return of the child in maturity to read the same book with new insight, new discovery, new joy. I would not wish for the writer for children, or for me, that the child in maturity should come back with the accusation: “You deceived me. You sold me short. You did not write from your heart. You wrote in a hurry off the top of your head.”

Friday, December 11, 2009


A few weeks ago, at the end of my group violin class, one of the mothers turned to the women next to her and asked, “Where are you hoping this will all lead?” It was a perfectly respectable question, and asked in all sincerity, as she and her child were trying to make some decisions about their busy schedule and their priorities.

Parents can spend a large amount of time, energy and money on extra-curricular activities. Educators have to balance required “core” subjects with “electives”. It’s a no-brainer that children should learn to read, write, and do arithmetic, as well as have a good grasp on science, history, and geography. Religious training is vital for many families. Critical thinking is way up there on many peoples’ lists, too. And then, kids need to learn basic life skills. They should be physically active. Foreign languages are good. Don’t forget computer skills. Oh yeah, and maybe we should fit the arts in there, somewhere, too.

There are a lot of things that have to come “first” when we are figuring out how to use valuable resources like time, money and energy. So how do you fit in the arts? And when we are struggling to make everything fit, the final question can end up being why?

I am not a fan of the idea that kids should take music lessons for the sole purpose of making them smarter. I did not play music for my pregnant belly or show my infants flashcards of famous composers, although my husband and I have made an effort to music an integral part of our children’s lives. The arguments about how studying music enhances concentration/teaches teamwork/provides discipline/improves test scores are fantastic and serve an important purpose, but I believe you can make a similar argument for sports. So why study music? Why study any of the arts?

I think there are a lot of good reasons. But one of my favorite reasons has a lot to do with this quote:

Can we live without art, without literature, without music? I cannot answer this question for all of mankind, for it seems to me that some men do. But for myself the answer is emphatically no! Religion, philosophy, or science might solve all the problems that I could phrase as questions. But I cannot bend my fears and sorrows into question marks, nor my joys. All the melancholy, all the sweet sadness, that I have felt would be locked in my chest forever if a piano concerto by Mozart did not have the key to it. And the loneliness of my walk on earth would be unbearable. But art in all its forms appeals to our feelings with feelings; a note is struck, and we are the sounding board. The artist, the poet, and the composer attempt to express emotional truth and make the unreasonable reasonable. Pity, fear, love—all the words which are so vague, so indefinable—through art suddenly become so clear, so real that they eclipse the world around them. The moment of truth, of awareness, is brief—the curtain falls, the audience applauds, and it is gone. But because we have felt it, because we have experienced this inexplicable miracle, we are happy and at peace with ourselves. We have partaken in an act of creation, for the notes of the music, the lines of the poem, could only reach us if the emotions were there inside ourselves. That melancholy which Mozart touched was ours as well as his.
-Erik Christian Haugaard, “Portrait of a Poet: Hans Christian Andersen and His Fairy Tales”; The Openhearted Audience: Ten Authors Talk About Writing for Children

Would you really want an education to leave this out?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Question Authority (Please!)

I love it when my violin students ask me questions. Actually, I love it when my own kids ask me questions, too, within reason. ("Are we there yet?", "Why do I have to?", and "Why can't I have candy before breakfast, stay up all night, and swing from the chandelier?" don't count.) When they care enough to dig deeper, when there's more participation than just doing what I say or answering questions, I get really excited.

I admit, I often struggle when the questions start. I might be ten minutes behind in my teaching schedule with the next student waiting. I might be trying to read a recipe or a book. Sometimes I am literally in a conversation with someone else when the burning questions start. It's hard for the dreamer side of me that wants to sit and talk and explore for hours to fit with the mother/teacher side of me that is responsible for things like schedules and scales and food and proper bedtimes. But then again, if I can make the switch from Martha-mode to Mary-mode, I usually find both aspects of my life replenished.

When I lived in Chicago, I taught violin at two different schools, one of which was more than an hour away from where I lived. Every Thursday I drove through Chicago traffic worrying if I had enough change for tolls and enough gas in the tank, taught from 1:30 until 9:45 with a short break for dinner and then drove home. Even though I love teaching I find that much one-on-one time exhausting. But I went home exhilarated just about every week, because my last student was a 12 or 13 year-old boy who asked questions. He gave me all my energy back just by being curious. I hope he still has that passion.

Sometimes I think all I want is for things to go smoothly. For everybody to cooperate. But oh, if that's all I ever got I think everybody would be missing out! Mary and Martha have a lot to teach each other, I think.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Infinity in the Palm of Your Mitten

Snowflake BentleyTo see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
--from "Auguries of Innocence", by William Blake

Do you remember catching snowflakes in your mittens and trying to really see them before they melted from your breath? I love this biography of a dreamer who, instead of growing out of his wonder at snowflakes, developed his passion for their infinite beauty and variety into a life calling. My kids get that. I think they bonded with this odd, long-ago child who wanted to study snowflakes more than anything. What a triumph that he grew up into a man who found a way to share what he saw with the world! William A. Bentley spent his entire life studying snowflakes and figuring out how to capture them in photographs. He published his book of stunning images, Snow Crystals, just before his death at age sixty-six.

Snow Crystals (Dover photography collections)

I don't like to give pep talks to my children about how they can do anything they set their minds on--I think that kind of talk is pretty cheap. But I love to share stories like this one with them.

What are some of your favorite books about dreamers? I'm making a list.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Christmas Magic

When I was a child, I spent hours poring through what seemed like an ancient book of Christmas carols that had belonged to a grandmother I never knew. The binding was pretty much nonexistent; it was a pile of brittle yellowed pages held together with equally brittle, yellow tape. Each carol had a beautiful, full-page illustration opposite it--old-fashioned and beautiful and full of holly-bedecked, rosy-cheeked details. The piano accompaniments were easy enough for me to plunk out--it was great entertainment all around. My mom sent me a photocopy of the book for Christmas a few years ago. You can see all the old folds and tears and tape on the newer white pages, which are starting to show some wear themselves. (The book is Christmas Carols (Words and Music Selected by Mary Nancy Graham with Illustrations by F. D. Lohman).)

More recently, someone gave our kids A Treasury of Christmas Songs: Twenty-five Favorites to Sing and Play from The Metropolitan Museum of Art. This is a beautiful book, too, with 25 popular Christmas songs and a broad selection of artwork from the museum's collection. It is still in good shape, but I know it won't be long before it gets that well-loved, well-used look.

I love the lavishness of these picture books--art, literature and music pulled together into one volume. Add all the Christmas excitement of childhood and there's a lot of magic there. Here's a list of these and other books related to Christmas carols to get you started this December:

Christmas Carols (Words and Music Selected by Mary Nancy Graham with Illustrations by F. D. Lohman)
Christmas Carols (Words and Music Selected by Mary Nancy Graham with Illustrations by F. D. Lohman), Whitman Publishing Company, 1938Christmas Carols (Words and Music Selected by Mary Nancy Graham with Illustrations by F. D. Lohman)

A Treasury of Christmas Songs: Twenty-five Favorites to Sing and Play A Treasury of Christmas Songs: Twenty-five Favorites to Sing and Play, music arranged and edited by Dan Fox, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Henry Holt and Company, 2004A Treasury of Christmas Songs: Twenty-five Favorites to Sing and Play

A Child's Book of Christmas Carols
A Child's Book of Christmas Carols, by Inez Bertail, illustrated by Masha, Neumann Press, 2003
The First Noel: A Child's Book of Christmas Carols ToThe First Noel A Child''s Book of Christmas To Play and Sing, DK Publishing, 1998

The Friendly BeastsThe Friendly Beasts, illustrated by Tomie dePaola, Putnam, 1998
Good King WenceslasGood King Wenceslas, by John Mason Neale, illustrations and ornaments by Christopher Manson, North-South Books, 1994

The Huron CarolThe Huron Carol, by Frances Tyrrell, Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2003

Silent NightSilent Night, illustrated by Susan Jeffers, Dutton Children's Books, 1984, 2003Silent Night

Silent Night: The Song and Its StorySilent Night: The Song and Its Story, by Margaret Hodges, illustrated by Tim Ladwig, Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 1997Silent Night: The Song and Its Story