Friday, January 29, 2010

Okay, I Get it!

I was rehearsing with a quartet one time, and as sometimes happens, three of the musicians were trying to get the fourth (in this case, me) to play something a particular way. Somebody suggested I try something. I agreed, we decided where to start, and we started playing. We hadn’t gotten too far before everybody stopped. No, that wasn’t quite it. Somebody explained again what they were looking for. We started again, and stopped again. Still not right. Somebody else described and demonstrated. We played again and stopped again. Somebody else tried to help, and I burst out, “I understand what you want me to do, okay?” And the other violinist countered, “Well, if you understand it, why aren’t you doing it?”

Seems fair, doesn’t it? If you get it, what’s the problem? Well, understanding isn’t the end, it’s the beginning. I’ve seen this happen in chamber music groups and I’ve done it as a parent and a teacher—we don’t get the results we’re looking for immediately, so we start “fixing”, instead of allowing time for something to sink in. But sometimes our brain gets it before our body can do it. We need to develop the strength or the skill to follow through on the understanding. We have to be able to try and fail. A hundred times, if necessary. We have to be able to break things down, hammer them out, and work them into the music. We need to repeat something over and over until it becomes part of our muscle memory. Until it is as naturally a part of the music as the notes—woven delicately into the rhythm. Until it becomes part of us.

As it turns out, this post isn’t just about violin. If only I could develop the patience to apply it to all areas of my life…

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Caedmon's Song

Caedmon's SongCaedmon's Song, by Ruth Ashby, illustrated by Bill Slavin, Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2006

The story in this beautiful book comes from Bede, England's first historian.  We know that Caedmon was a real person, and his one surviving work, "Caedmon's Hymn", is the earliest-known poem written in English.

Caedmon hated poetry, because he could never come up with anything when the harp was passed to him on feast days.  All his friends had tales to tell of heroes and monsters, battles and fabulous deeds.  But when it was his turn, Caedmon always froze.

After storming out of a feast on St. Stephen's Eve, he had a dream in which a man came to him and asked him to sing him a song.  Caedmon refused at first, but when the man told him to sing about creation he was suddenly inspired and sang a short hymn about creation and its Creator.  When he woke the next morning he remembered the whole thing, and he finally had a song to share.  Not only that, but the abbess of Whitby Abbey asked him to take the monastic vows and devote the rest of his life to writing hymns and poetry.

I love this story about dreams and inspiration.  I love that this man who started out as a cowherd who thought he had nothing to say turned out to be a dreamer who would share his poetry with many.  And I love being able to share with my kids that things are not always the way we think they are, that our dreams have significance in our lives.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Honor Roll

What sticks out about your education? I have a lot of people to be thankful to for what I took away from school. Not all of it is connected to spelling or handwriting or math facts. I learned those things pretty well, and I’m extremely thankful. But there are other rich things I brought into adulthood that are much harder to quantify, even though I’ve drawn on them just as much as I have the skills and facts I learned. My teachers have stayed with me through the years because of those other, more hard to pin-down things. So I thought I’d make a list of the people that inspired me—an honor roll of sorts:

My parents: They made stories and poetry part of the rhythm of our life, and took us to concerts, operas and ballets.

Kindergarten teacher: She put on a circus every year (I got to be a clown and a tight-rope walker.)

1st grade teacher: She emptied out my desk, threw all my unfinished work in the garbage and gave me a fresh start.

2nd grade teacher: She brought her husband to class as a special guest, and he whistled for us (he was amazing.)

3rd grade teacher: She told us stories that terrified me, and made me think.

4th grade teacher: He told us a special joke every month, and wrote a poem every Friday about a different kid in the class.

5th grade teacher: She picked luminous books to read aloud to us every day after lunch, and taught us how to write Haiku.

6th grade teacher: He showed us the world in a new light.

My violin teacher (middle school years): She suggested that I try to make my violin sound like velvet, or chocolate.

7th grade English teacher: He read one of my poems to the class.

10th grade English teacher: He gave me a “B” on a paper.

My mom: She took a red pencil to that paper and showed me exactly why I got a “B”.

My dad: He gave me a vision for what I could do with the violin if I practiced, and then showed me how to practice.

High school art teacher: He made his classroom a safe place for all different sorts of kids.

Chinese teacher: She became an amazing writer.

12th grade English teacher: He made journal-writing a regular assignment, and stretched my understanding.

College violin professor: He taught me that in order to communicate properly I had to know what I wanted to say.

There were others, too—this is the short list. But I think there’s enough wisdom there for a lifetime. What would your honor roll look like?

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Great Musicians Series

Mozart, The Wonder Boy (Great Musicians Series)When I was growing up, there was a shelf in my dining room that held old children’s books. They were set apart from most of our children’s books, kept in another room. I don’t remember how I discovered them, but their difference made them special. They were older and thicker than the picture books. Less brightly-colored. Hardcover. To me, these were the serious kids books, and they were a little daunting. But I went and explored anyway, and discovered mysterious riches: "Arabian Nights", "A Child’s Garden of Verses", several opera and ballet stories, and two composer biographies.

Joseph Haydn The Merry Little Peasant (Great Musicians Series)Mozart, The Wonder Boy (Great Musicians Series) and Joseph Haydn The Merry Little Peasant (Great Musicians Series) had belonged to my dad when he was a child. They had lots of pictures, but they were chapter books. I had never read biographies before, and but these felt accessible, especially since they focused on the composers' childhood . I could tell the books hadn’t been written in my time, but they were interesting and compelling, and turned out to have a lot of information in them.

I was so excited to discover recently that these books are back in print, and that they were part of a series!

Ludwig Beethoven and the Chiming Tower Bells (Great Musicians Series)Zeezok Publishing has reprinted the Great Musician Series, unabridged, and with the original covers (I love the retro look, don’t you?) They also offer companion CDs which contain audio files, coloring pages and printable sheet music for each chapter if you want to go more into depth.

Handel at the Court of Kings (Great Musicians Series)Sebastian Bach, The Boy from Thuringia (Great MusicianS Series)
Frederic Chopin, Son of Poland, Early Years (Great Musicians Series)Frederic Chopin, Son of Poland (Great Musicians Series)
The Young Brahms (Great Musicians Series)Robert Schumann: And Mascot Ziff
Franz Schubert & His Merry Friends (Great Musicians Series)Edward MacDowell and His Cabin in the Pines (Great Musicians Series)
Stephen Foster and His Little Dog Tray (Great Musicians Series)

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Composer is Dead

You know how every new Disney movie is an “instant classic”? I won’t use that term, but I think this CD/book combination have the potential to become as standard as Prokofiev's “Peter and the Wolf” and Britten's “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” for introducing the orchestra to children.  Not that I think those books should be replaced, it’s just nice to add something new once in a while.

Sergei Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf: With a Fully-Orchestrated and Narrated CDCarnival of the Animals: Classical Music for Kids

The Composer Is Dead (Book & CD)
The Composer Is Dead (Book & CD), by Lemony Snicket, with music composed by Nathaniel Stookey and performed by the San Francisco Symphony, and illustrations by Carson Ellis (Harper Collins Publishers, 2009) is a picture book with companion CD, but like its predecessors it is also a piece to be performed by orchestra and narrator. 

As the title indicates, a composer has died, and an inspector is called in to investigate. The orchestra seems to be full of the composer's enemies, and the inspector interviews them section by section. Intrigue follows, and many protestations of innocence.  In the end, he comes to a very interesting conclusion.

The music is terrific.  I especially like the part when the inspector goes through a list of other dead composers; musical quotes and references fly through the air with each name. The story is definitely irreverent, but done with imagination and a real love for symphonic music. And if some of the humor is over the kids’ heads, that’s okay. Their parents and teachers can enjoy it.

Check out this preview:

Monday, January 18, 2010

Splendid in Mind and Heart

I took my daughter Rebecca to her first Suzuki workshop this weekend. We had a blast. She had two group classes with a guest teacher, hung around for several other classes to hear some of the older kids play, and participated in her first play-in. She made some new friends, ate pizza, and attended her first violin recital. I went to my first parent-training session as a parent. I grew up in the Suzuki world, and I’ve taught for a number of years, but besides practicing with my child this was my first experience on the parent side of the teacher-parent-student triangle.

The session was refreshing, full of good insights. I was thankful for the teacher’s point that what we are doing is striving to produce noble human beings through the medium of violin lessons. Love and skill are terribly important—we don’t want one without the other. But we shouldn’t lose sight of that first goal, either. It’s not a new idea; Suzuki talked about it a lot. In fact, I had already pulled out the following quote to share with you before the weekend, and now I’m sure I was on the right track:

Nurtured by Love: The Classic Approach to Talent Education     The mother of one of my students came one day to inquire about her son. This student had good musical sense, practiced very well, and was a superior child.
     “Sensei [Professor], will my boy amount to something?” the mother asked me, just like that.
     I answered laughingly, “No. He will not become ‘something.’
     It seems to be the tendency in modern times for parents to entertain thoughts of this kind. It is an undisguisedly cold and calculating educational attitude. When I hear things like this, I want to reply in a joking way. But the mother was alarmed and surprised by my answer.
     So I continued, “He will become a noble person through his violin playing. Isn’t that good enough? You should stop wanting your child to become a professional, a good money earner. This thought is concealed in your question and is offensive. A person with a fine and pure heart will find happiness. The only concern for parents should be to bring up their children as noble human beings. That is sufficient. If this is not their greatest hope, in the end the child may take a road contrary to their expectations. Your son plays the violin very well. We must try to make him splendid in mind and heart also.”

Friday, January 15, 2010

More Things in Heaven and Earth

I often think that I want my children to be happy. But actually, I want a lot more than that for them.  I want something deeper, more complex; in the end something harder to want.

My seven year-old came downstairs last night in tears, so upset she could hardly tell me what was wrong. It finally came out that she was crying because of the death three years ago of a family friend. We had visited this dear woman several times during the time that we were living near her, and spending time with her clearly left an impression. I’m so glad my children got to know her and love her, and I’m so thankful that the relationship touched my daughter so deeply. But the experience brought sadness, too.  The sorrow my daughter felt stemmed from all sorts of things: the loss of a relationship, the awareness of the passage of time, the inevitability of death. I’m not sure happiness knows about these things. Joy does. Joy lives in the midst of them and overcomes them.  Happiness skims the surface of life.  Joy knows the deeper things and is glad to have them, even when having them brings sorrow.

One last beautiful bit from Beyond Words: Mystical Fancy in Children's Literature by James E. Higgins:

Writers like Macdonald, Hudson, Saint-Exupéry, Tolkien, Lewis, and others are men stunned by the awesome beauty of the universe, and yet they are forever in their stories trying to capture hints of this magic wonder. They are men alone, separated as they are from their fellows by their knowledge of how little they really know. They are men with strong appetites for the wonderful. They are sad men, too, knowing as they do, how difficult it is to satisfy the appetites of the heart. The sadness that pervades their books is the joyful sadness of mortal men reaching for the immortal.

And later:

The child himself undoubtedly will never be aware of the part that such stories may play in the process of his education. And yet, perhaps while reading Hamlet in later years, or upon seeing it performed, some distant echo will help him to know exactly what the Prince means when he says to his friend:
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Let's Dance, or How to Host a Bacchanal

The holidays are past, and everything is new and bright with resolution. But it’s cold outside—really cold this year, in our area. Pretty soon we’ll find ourselves in the middle of a soul-crushingly long stretch of winter. I’m learning to dread the month of February. So often the kids are sick, I’m worn out, and everybody is stir-crazy. Actually, worn out doesn’t begin to describe how I feel; I’m usually just about to the point where I think I should have become a hermit.

The past few winters, the kids and I have noticed that good, loud music really helps. And dancing. Wild, unabashed, how-am-I-going-to-explain-this-to-the-doctor-in-the-emergency-room-dancing. The kids are experts, and I’m…well, I’m relearning.

There’s lots of good music out there for wild dancing, but I really don’t think you can beat a huge orchestra. Classical music does not deserve the staid and stuffy reputation it seems to have in some circles. Here are the top five stereo-blasters at our house:

5. Mars, the Bringer of War, from “The Planets”, Gustav Holst
4. Scheherazade, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
3. Infernal Dance of King Kashchei from “The Firebird”, Igor Stravinsky
2. Ride of the Valkyries from “Die Walküre”, Richard Wagner
1. Danse Bacchanale from “Samson & Delilah”, Camille Saint-Saens (the kids don’t know what a bacchanal is, but they’ve got the energy level down pat)

So move the furniture out of the way, clear the floor, and have at it!

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Mother Tongue Method

Ability Development from Age Zero (Suzuki Method International)Shinichi Suzuki based his method of teaching violin on the revelation that Japanese children learn to speak Japanese. That’s obvious, right? But if you’ve spent time living in another country and struggled with speaking a foreign language like he did, that’s a significant thing. Suzuki lived in Germany as a young adult, and he struggled with his pronunciation. In his book, Ability Development from Age Zero (Suzuki Method International), he wrote about the German children who tried to help him pronounce “r”:

They would tell me to put my tongue down, not to touch the roof of my mouth, and with an open mouth say RRR as they did. Always instead of RRR, I ended up saying AAA.

Later, back in Japan, it struck him how well children learn to speak their mother tongue:

“Of course they do…It’s nothing to be surprised about,” is what people say to me with skeptical eyes. However, for me it was an enlightening thought. Five and six year old children speak Japanese easily. They speak the difficult dialects of their respective areas such as the Osaka, Aomori, and Kagoshima dialects without any problem. They have the talent to catch the delicate nuances of the Osaka dialect and the ability to master the nasal pronunciation of Aomori and Akita dialects. I was astounded; this ability is no small accomplishment. The children show such a high level of educational possibilities.
It’s not the only thing in teaching, but it seems like a really simple, really valuable point. Kids will pick up on what’s around them. In order to learn violin, you must have specific instruction. But if you combine that specific instruction with a whole atmosphere of music—listening to it, responding to it, dancing to it, just hearing it—you greatly amplify what you are learning.

This applies to more than just music. My three year-old does not know how to read yet. But she has learned, without anybody actually telling her, that books are pretty much essential to life. She loves her dolls and stuffed animals, but if you put her to bed without a book you’ve going to have a hard time getting her to sleep. After all, everybody else brings a book to bed—it’s as standard as a pillow in our house. That gave me a lot of hope during the year or so that she was too busy to ever sit on my lap and listen to a book. Between that and the fact that she is a third child, she hasn’t gotten nearly as much read-aloud time as her older brother and sister. But she is still growing up in a family where books are a way of life, and I can already see that counts for a lot.

Kids will pick up on what’s around them. There’s tremendous potential in that statement.  How can you put it to use?

Friday, January 8, 2010

Dreaming with your Eyes Wide Open

Okay, I’m a little late with this (I know I’ve already mentioned I have a problem with that), but Katherine Paterson, a hero of mine and many others, was named National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature at the Library of Congress on Tuesday:

The Wide-Awake PrincessIn honor of her, I want to share another picture book about a dreamer, but this one’s just a little different. In The Wide-Awake Princess, Miranda is accused of daydreaming by her nurse, and Paterson makes it clear Miranda is doing the opposite of daydreaming; she is “wide awake with wonder.” Miranda is a princess who was given the gift of being wide awake all her waking hours by her fairy godmother when she was a baby. The people around her are not awake at all; they are self-absorbed and inattentive to the world around them. When her parents die, three nobles take charge, telling her she is not fit to be queen. Miranda, however, is convinced she can learn to be queen, and sets out to do just that.

Miranda has vision. She is tuned in to the world around her, and can see things as they are. More than that, though, she can see that the way things are is all wrong, and she is able to imagine both the world made right and a way to right it. And right there is why I think Miranda actually fits into the dreamer category—vision and imagination. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language lists three possible meanings in its definition of “dreamer”, the first two being “1. One that dreams.", and "2. a. A visionary. b. An idealist.” Dreaming is great as a pastime, but it can be so much more than that.  Imagination by itself is a good and right thing, but it is also necessary for creating, for leading, for making change. Miranda is certainly not lost in her daydreams, but I think she’s a fine example of a dreamer, and I think this book is a superb book for other dreamers.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Good Stuff

I've been reading this great little book I stumbled across at the library.  It's so full of gems I could easily quote the whole book to you.  Beyond Words: Mystical Fancy in Children's Literatureby James E. Higgins clearly takes children's literature seriously, especially books of "mystical fancy", books that take their reader beyond the physical world around him or her "in order to lay bare those realities which are imperceptible to the physical senses."  He goes on to write about George MacDonald, W. H. Hudson, Antoine de Saint-Expery, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien.  It's a little book, but there's so much good stuff in it.  Here's a sample:
If the works of men like Clemens and Stevenson say anything at all to modern writers, it is that the author must write about and for the children he knows, for it is these children alone that he is able to love and respect; it is these children alone who are alive and unique, who are flesh and blood, and therefore who are able to come alive again in print.  W. H. Hudson wrote for the little boy he knew best--himself as a child.  But, since he was no ordinary boy, his book perhaps will not appeal to ordinary boys, nor should this be expected of it.  A book, especially a book for children, should be judged not by the number of readers attracted to it, but by the quality of experience enjoyed by those readers who are attracted to it, however small the number may be.
"A book, especially a book for children, should be judged not by the number of readers attracted to it, but by the quality of experience enjoyed by those readers who are attracted to it, however small the number may be."  Wow.  No doubt he's an idealist, but I agree completely.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Like the Smell of Crayons

HANSEL AND GRETEL: An Opera FantasyDo you remember the first time you caught a whiff of a box of crayons or a lump of Play-Doh as an adult? For me, it brought back a flood of feelings and memories—feelings of familiarity, warmth, safety, images of the stack of coloring books on a shelf in the sunroom, the kitchen table covered with bits of Play-Doh and plastic tools for working with it and molding it, and the dreams I dreamed while I colored and drew and shaped things with my hands.

Well, I had the same experience with an opera. When I was a kid, my musician-parents made a real effort to bring my sister and me along with them to many of their jobs. We accompanied them at various times to all kinds of rehearsals, dress rehearsals and performances. It was something I enjoyed a lot, especially the operas and ballets, but it was also just a way of life. I never considered that maybe this was an unusual way to grow up.

Then as an adult one summer, I played in the pit orchestra for Engelbert Humperdink’s “Hansel and Gretel”. I hadn’t thought about or heard the opera for years, but it was one that my parents played and brought us to a number of years in a row. And it was like that first adult whiff of a box of crayons. So many emotions and images came flooding back, old and forgotten but familiar. Not only that, but I finally understood why my response to the music of Wagner, Mahler and Bruckner was, “I knew this stuff existed!” Humperdink’s music is very similar, and there’s no doubt it informed my musical tastes.

I think this is a great introduction to opera for kids. The story is familiar (but some productions can be very dark, I would caution you to preview this if you can), the music is fantastic, and the words are often sung in English instead of German. We don’t live in a big city any more, and opportunities to take my own children to things like this are limited. But with the help of Interlibrary Loan and our university library, I am working to give them a similar experience to the one I had. Maybe someday they’ll have that “box of crayons” moment themselves.