Monday, January 31, 2011

Bach: A Strange Beauty

A parent of one of my students brought over a new CD to share with me. It is "Bach: A Strange Beauty." The pianist is Simone Dinnerstein. She performs a mixture of solo and concerto selections. I didn't know about her, I don't get out much. I enjoyed listening to the CD and I also enjoyed the liner notes. She uses the quote:

"There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion"
-Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626)

She goes on to discuss Bach's music and compares it to different paintings of famous painters as well as some large scale pieces painted by her father. She talks about how Bach at first seems predictable and follows all these rules but then at some critical moment breaks the rules, changing the harmony or putting the melody on an off-beat. That is the strange beauty. She had small copies of the paintings and brought out examples of incongruities in the paintings as well. I enjoyed thinking about this and I listened to the music a little differently because of having read the liner notes.

I think Bach is under-rated and under-played. High school kids don't seem to think it is cool. I was really uplifted when one of my busy high school kids chose to tackle all three movements of the Italian Concerto. There was quite a bit of Bach on the Advancing Recitals last weekend and I really enjoyed it. There were those moments of terror where the student falters and you pray and cross your fingers and visualize her weaving her way back into the real notes.

There is a strange beauty all right and it can make Bach terribly difficult to perform confidently. I was so nervous to perform Bach on a recital in college that I forgot to play a whole dance from the French Suite I was performing. If you put one wrong finger number on a note you might run out of fingers and crash. My Dad never liked me to play Bach, he said it was five dollars work for a dollars pay. Not much flash for the effort.

Sometimes when our organist Kris Henry shoots off a four part Bach fugue, as a postlude that not that many people are even listening to as they exit, I can't believe it. It takes a special kind of brain work to do that.

I think I will try to listen to more Bach in February. February is a good month for that. I'm going to listen to: Two Part Inventions, The Goldberg Variations, Preludes and Fugues from Books I and II, the French Suites, and I think I will go out and buy my own copy of "A Strange Beauty." If I try to get it from itunes I won't have those great liner notes. That should about get me through February.

Here is Calvin playing some Bach, the Invention No. 1 in C Major. 

Stay Connected to the Child

Daniel Coyle, author of "The Talent Code" spoke at our Suzuki Convention last May. I confess that I meant to order and read the book and forgot, but I did take really good notes at his keynote address. He presented three ideas that the teachers and coaches from the talent hot beds around the world share.
  • Make a connection with the student at every lesson
  • Use short pinging corrections
  • Use games to learn
I was thinking about the connections we make with our students. I thought about how usually when I have gotten to a point where a student wanted to quit, in hindsight, I had lost my connection with that child. Maybe for weeks, maybe for months, but the connection was lost. There was probably some point where he stopped making eye contact with me. I stopped trying to be funny. Maybe there was a moment when I was frustrated with the practice or progress and instead of conferencing with the student and parents, I just let it go. This is particularly the case with adolescent kids. I feel some guilt about letting some of these kids go along the way, instead of making the effort to stay connected. After all, nobody ever looks back and says "I'm soooo glad my folks let me quit." (If any of you are out there, you can always come back. . . )

When we stay connected with the students they are accountable to us. In more ways than one. Of course I was accountable to my childhood teachers regarding practicing, but there was also a point in high school when I didn't really give a hoot what my parents thought, but I sure wasn't going to do anything to disappoint my music teachers and our pastor.

Sometimes I feel like a masters in psychology may have served me better than the pedagogy thing. Stay connected to the child. How? Most of the time the lesson is all about the music, but occasionally it is all about the child. What is going on in there?

The elephant in the room is that if it is important for teachers to stay connected with their students, how much more important is it for parents to stay connected to their children. I confess I have had many practices with my children that I felt like getting up and walking out. I've had it. Stop noodling. Stop talking. Stop crying. Stop whatever it is that is so completely annoying at this moment. And when they don't stop I feel like walking out. I never have. I never will.

Mary Sheedy Kurcinka is the author of "Raising Your Spirited Child" which I do own and have read, many times. She also spoke at our Suzuki Convention three years ago. She sings this song to the tune of Happy Birthday, I hum it when I am tempted to disconnect:

Stay Connected to the Child
Stay Connected to the Child
Stay Connected to the Chi-ild. . .
Stay Connected to the Child

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Dishwasher is Fixed

Further testament to the power of positive reinforcement. (See: When Theology, Psychology, and Pedagogy Coincide)

In the battle of husband vs. dishwasher. Husband wins another round. As it turns out the timing mechanism was sticky or something--causing it to stop before the drain cycle. WD40.

It all started when Sears came out the first time it broke and told me it needed a new motor. They also happened to offer me a $200 coupon for a new dishwasher--as the cost of replacing the motor was worth more than the dishwasher was worth.

Why you ask, in suburban Minnesota did I not put a new dishwasher on my Sears card right then? As an act of rebellion against replacing a seven year old dishwasher, and to show the kids that we can't just rush out and buy something new every time something breaks, I decided to go ahead and replace the motor. When the serviceman arrived, funny. . . it turned out it was only a $7 plastic valve that had broke.

Since then, we--okay--Bill, has replaced two handles, the entire door mechanism and rebuilt the steam escape do-hicky. He is going to order the pump and the motor, the only pieces that haven't been replaced. If those parts are sitting in the basement shop, that should ensure the health and well being of the appliance for several more years.

At the risk of sounding too virtuous, the real reasons I don't get a new DW are thus: I like the handles to match the stove, and I can't bear the thought of shopping for a new one.

I think this might be a rare occasion where the simple life and the beautiful life are as one.

Speaking of beautiful, the real reason I wanted to write tonight is to say congratulations to the eight students who played so musically and I would add, passionately, yesterday at the Recitals for Advancing Students, put on by the Twin Cities Suzuki Piano Teachers Guild. Calvin, Oliver, Lena, Grace, Aidan, Anna, Christina and Cassy--I was so happy in my heart to hear you all play. Can I add that I had tears in my eyes at several moments? You are one determined group! Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Log in the Child's Eye

My friend Kris happens to be a pastor and her daughter Annika happens to be about the same age as Calvin. Last Sunday Annika was sitting with our family in church while her mother was leading the service. At a point in the liturgy when the congregation stands up, Annika and Mary were busy making a home for their webkinz animals under the pew. Feeling very self righteous in his first communion stole, Calvin whispers in my ear, "Annika should really be standing up--she is the PASTOR'S DAUGHTER." Oh, Calvin, do you really want to go there?

My initial annoyance with this attitude turned quickly to internal laughter and ultimately to thanksgiving. I thought about what a great teaching moment this would be later in the day when I had a chance to talk to him in private. He is after all, the PIANO TEACHER'S SON. Wouldn't people expect that he would play with the loveliest of hand positions and always note perfect with expressive dynamics? Not to mention that he should be able to sit through an hour long recital straight backed in a chair without making a paper airplane out of his program. . .

I have to state two obvious points for the record: number one Annika is an angel who later that day at lunch brought my kids to religion in the form of table manners--that is the miracle of eating pancakes without getting syrup in one's hair and all down one's sleeves, as well as making it through an entire meal without talking with food in her mouth. Number two is that is was only about last week that Calvin finally started following the church service and singing the hymns without me poking him repeatedly in the ribs for the entire hour. I just had to say that. . .

Monday morning at the piano, I broached the topic. "Remember yesterday at church when you asked me about Annika and how she is the pastor's daughter?" Do you really want people to expect things from you because of my job. . .

"Mama, I already know where you are going with this." And he did. And we laughed.

Where is that elusive line between good behavior and self righteousness? How do we teach our kids the value of being good without the superiority thing? I pride myself, on having never been as self righteous as the people around me. . .

For the record that was a joke, but even kids are quick to find the speck in their friend's eye while missing the log in their own. The early seeds of the hypocrisies that we all harbor at some time or another. Perhaps laughter is the best medicine. If we can step back enough to not take ourselves and our children too seriously, it is probably a good step in removing the log from our eyes.

By the way, tomorrow at the SPTG recitals, Calvin will probably not play perfectly in every way. Hopefully, the next time Annika sees him play she'll have a chance to ask her mom why he forgot to bow. . . after all, he is THE PIANO TEACHER'S SON. . . And we will have to laugh.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

"Everything Changed. . . " part two

There is a corollary to the Story People quote, "Everything Changed the day she figured out there was exactly enough time for the important things in her life." The dirty little secret is that it runs both ways. What we make time for, is ultimately, what is important to us. That is, if we are living deliberately. If I clean my house instead of reading with my child or having coffee with a friend, I am at that moment in time, placing more importance on things than relationships. I'm working on that.

Nobody will look back on their life and wished they had surfed the web a little more. Or watched a little more TV or played a few more video games. Or kept the house a little cleaner.

I once asked my high school group to write down the things they value in order of importance. What I was taught way back in confirmation, was: God, Spouse (if you have one), children (if you have them), parents, friends, health, work, recreation, etc. . . This list will be different for each of us. Most parents would make a list for their children something like this: family, academics, spirituality, music, sports, scouts, etc. . . Again, this list will be different for each family.

Back to my group--I then asked the kids to write down how many hours they spent each week in each endeavor that they valued. I asked them to keep it private, I didn't want or need to see it. I asked them only to reflect on the value of the activity versus the time spent doing that activity. I wondered if they matched up.

I am not asking them to put piano first, although it sure would be great if they did. I'm only asking them to be thoughtful about their time. Periodically reflect. Every year through eighth grade I signed up for summer softball. I hated it. I desperately searched for four leaf clovers in the outfield. "Look alive Stephens!" Why? Because my friends signed up.

I happen to have a tremendous bias that music should be right up there at the top of the list. No other activity has the ability to touch our souls like music does. There is one more Story People poster that I don't have in my studio for obvious political reasons. . . but here it goes. . . and it doesn't have to be soccer. . . it really could be anything. . . it just so happens that piano teachers have to unite against soccer with humor. . . thanks Brian Andreas for saying it so eloquently. . .

"How'd it go at soccer? I said & he said we worked on fundamentals & I said like why you were even chasing around after a ball in the first place? & from the way he looked at me I figured out that was probably too fundamental."

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Field Trip

The Deerwood Elementary fourth graders took a field trip today to hear the high school band concert. Presumably this will help them to choose a band instrument, should they choose to participate in school band next year. Raise your hand if you like the drums. . . .

My mind is racing. My heart rate goes up. Ten years of my life flash before my eyes. My arms are open in prayer. Dear Lord, please let him not choose the French horn.

"Mama I really think I want to play the French horn."
My faith falters. . .

I wonder if the fifth grade band teacher is tracking with the fact that both Calvin's parents were instrumental music majors in college. The kids act like this is choosing a flavor of ice-cream at the mall. This is choosing which devil you are going to sell your soul to.

I'm not gonna tell him how many nightmares I have had and occasionally continue to have that I am playing first horn in the college orchestra. Except I haven't played in twenty years. In the dream I wonder if my chops will make it through the concert. I wonder if I will come in on the right note. I wonder if I even remember the fingering. Jeepers? Do I even have a horn to play as I walk on stage? I wake in a cold sweat. It is over. I quit. I sold my horn to pay a few months rent in 1996.

If he chooses the French horn it is because of all my sins in college. God is paying me back.

What would I choose for him? I don't know. He'll probably be a really good horn player. I have stacks of music and can probably come up with a really fine Conn II mouthpiece in a old box somewhere. Not to mention of shelf full of Barry Tuckwell CDs.

I'm thinking that this is the first really big decision in his life that he will actually take a part in. To me the stakes feel really high. To him all those coils look pretty shiny.

So here is the real prayer:
Lord, help me keep my own experiences and biases to myself. Help him choose an instrument that he will love to play, and that will deepen his love for music, and the magic that playing with other musicians brings. Help me use my knowledge to give him the appropriate amount of guidance at this tender moment when he makes this special decision.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

"Everything Changed. . . "

". . .the day she figured out there was exactly enough time for the important things in her life."

That is from a Brian Andreas Story People greeting card I have had ready to frame for several months. Check him out at I love it.

Sometimes MY life feels more like a Britney Spears lyric "Whoops, I did it Again. . . " Except I'm not doing whatever she's doing. My sin of the day is overbooking. Habitually. Perhaps it is because I married an airline executive. Ha. I habitually try to fit more in a day than is humanly possible. Sometimes I get a rush of adrenaline from this, but often it leaves me in a heap on the floor at the end of the day. Something or someone is gonna get bumped.

When I complain about being hopelessly over busy, my gracious husband reminds me that we are not victims of our lifestyle. We have choices. Most of us have choices. (I'm not talking about single moms and jobless people and people who are abused. . etc) I'm talking about most of us suburban families. He reminds me that we could move from house and garden to a simpler townhouse. We could change our lifestyle in such a way that I could be a stay at home mom. The kids aren't required to do piano, gymnastics, swimming, or even church. He could take a less challenging job that was less rewarding but also less stressful. We have choices. In the olden days. . . families lived in a house on a street with one car and one parent working. Their kids went to safe public schools where they could meet their potential. People survived without computers and cell phones and high-definition TVs. Kids walked or rode their bikes to their activities. They got by with a lot less. Less money, less activities, less stuff, less responsibility. We have choices.

When reminded of the reality of our choices, I realize that I really wouldn't change a thing. I love my family, I love teaching, I love our home--I love my life. I find value in the activities and obligations we have chosen. Sometimes we choose something for awhile and then realize that it doesn't add value to our life. I am constantly assessing and reevaluating our schedule. Some activities turn out to not be in line with our values and we let them go. We all have occasional weeks where we are in a heap on the floor at the end, but we can't sustain it as a lifestyle.

I still have too much to do this week--deadlines for S.A.M. and the Piano Teachers Guild--stuff to keep my own studio running smoothly. Sleep, exercise, practice, groceries. And those two little people who live with me are needing some attention too.

But--when given a choice--I wouldn't change a thing.
There is exactly enough time for the important things in my life.

Monday, January 24, 2011

When Theology, Psychology, and Pedagogy Coincide

You may have figured out by now, that theology, psychology and pedagogy are three of my favorite subjects. I love it when several sources I'm reading concur. For example, I'm reading theologian John Ortberg's "The Me I Want to Be--Becoming God's Best Version of You." He talks about how God is the source of our talent and work. He suggests: Continually seek to identify and develop your God-given strengths rather than focusing on improving your weaknesses. (pg. 230)

Funny. I read the exact same thing in Edmond Sprunger's book "Helping Parents Practice." He calls it: focus on what's working and repeat it. (pg. 62)

Perhaps, now and then, just maybe, we and our children don't need to be fixed. Maybe we don't need any constructive criticism today. Maybe today we should take what is going good and make it better. Maybe we could even just shut up and enjoy what's actually going right. In psychology this is called seeing the glass as half full.

This morning when I went to unload the dishwasher it was full of mucky brown water. Bill was kind enough to help bail it out before he boarded an airplane for sunny Arizona. (Note yesterday's temperature reading. . . ) Instead of focusing on how I will be washing dishes in a snow storm for several days or weeks until he can order the new pump or whatever the heck is wrong. . . I'm going to instead reflect upon six year old Mary pulling up her stool to the counter and asking if she could help dry the dishes with me. I'm going to be so thankful that I have a nice pair of dishwashing gloves and a pretty view out the window.

Okay. There's still a counter full of dishes and I'm loosing the good attitude. I'm seeing the dishwasher as half empty.

Back to the pedagogy part: when I can HOLD MY TONGUE, that is--hold the constructive criticism, and instead share what went right, the child is much more likely to repeat the happy event with a happy heart. "I just love the way you played that with such rounded hands. Could I hear that again?" Quality repetitions. Mission accomplished.

Bill, I just love the way you always order parts and fix the dishwasher so promptly.
(Shhhh. That's the psychology part. . . ) I'll let you know how it goes.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Parenting in the Bitter Cold

It has been bitter cold here. When we get down to 15-20 below zero, my thoughts often turn to a certain story. . .

I was home from college at Christmas my freshman year. My folks had moved to Maquoketa, Iowa. They bought a farm way out in the country down many unfamiliar gravel roads. My friend Casey from Texas came to visit. One morning, as the thermometer read around 15 below, we prepared to go out shopping for the day. Here comes the Dave Stephens fatherly lecture, "You girls have no business going out today, but if you must, then wear your coveralls, and bring emergency food and water, and drive carefully." It was like the Charlie Brown teacher talking in the trombone voice--blah blah blah ba blah blah.

An hour later, as we slid neatly down the snowbank into the country road ditch, dressed in skirts and fashion boots, we knew Daddy was going to be really mad. This was a decade before cell phones. We decided that I would walk to the nearest farm to call for help. I got elected to go, since I had actually grabbed my coat on the way out the door. I was obviously dangerously cold by the time I got to the skanky trailer house a mile down the road and knocked furiously on the door. After what seemed like forever a lady in curlers came and allowed me to use the phone to call my dad.

He picked up the phone from his office at the bank. What I didn't know, was that my Dad's whole 50 year banking career was a ploy--a ruse. Sitting at the big oak desk behind the big oak door he was really just waiting. Waiting for the phone to ring so that he could go rescue someone, in this case his daughter and her Texan friend. He was waiting to lock up the office, go change out of his suit (he also always wore a cowboy hat and boots with his suit. . . ) and put on the coveralls, fire up the tractor, get out the chains and rescue the girls.

An hour later he pulled the huge white 1972 Oldsmobile Ninety-eight, affectionately called "The White Elephant" out of the ditch. He acted a little mad, but he was a hero. Now heeding his advice, we threw the coveralls and sandwiches and sodas in the backseat and started off again for the mall in the city.

This would not be the first or last time for my dad to rescue me. I know he would have done anything to protect me. There aren't that many people in your life you can say that about. I miss you Daddy. I miss you so much.

A story with a less happy ending--last week I sent Target gift certificates to three little girls from Louisiana. They are the children of a friend who sang in my wedding. This friend made a huge impact on my life. She died of cancer in 2009, a month before my dad died. Nine months later her husband, the girls' dad, was killed in a random car accident. I don't say this about the gift certificates to toot my own horn. I'm actually riddled with guilt. These girls have lost everything and all I can do is send a little gift certificate. . . from my suburban home with my husband and two healthy children. . . and try to be there for them in some small way.

What do these stories have to do with Suzuki Piano? The love between parents and children transcends every kind of love. We would give our lives to protect our children. (We would give our spouse's lives to protect our children--wink) Still day to day it is the people we are the closest to that we take for granted. Yet if our children were in danger, or if they lost us. . .

We all have stories like this. Sometimes when I remember these kind of stories, the happy ones and the sad ones, I take my children a little less for granted. I approach them a little happier about the everyday kind of day we will have. I approach practice with a little more gratitude and a little more patience.

Stay warm and if you have no business going out, at least throw the coveralls in the trunk in honor of my dad.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Far Reaching Branches of the Oak Tree

I have had the privilege of having many inspirational teachers so far in my life. The one I'm thinking of tonight is Dr. Dorris Harrel. Doris is a Suzuki teacher trainer who has cultivated whole communities of music teachers in Austin, Houston, and San Antonio. She has taught all over the world, but her influence is most notable to me, in the great state of Texas. The teachers she has taught have a special bond with her and with each other. These Suzuki teachers share and build each other up, making the group something larger than the sum of the individuals. These are amazing groups of teachers.

Doris is the musical mentor and mother figure to so many of us. She is a person who changed the direction of my life in a profound and musical and loving way. I know that countless other teachers share my extreme emotion. Doris has always set the highest musical standard, never resting until the student "gets it." Yet, she does so with unconditional and deep love for the musician and the music.

I think of all the students and teachers she works with as branches and leaves of living oak tree. I'm so blessed to be a small branch of such a beautiful legacy.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Perfect Parent

I have the mixed blessing of having worked with many extremely committed and conscientious parents in my studio. The good part obvious. The bad part--well--the truth is for many years I idolized the parents in my studio. They were all such GOOD--no--SUPER parents to their kids. I thought about how I would be just like them when I had children.

I also read a lot of books. Books about attachment parenting: how to sleep with your children and nurse them on demand. Books on how to teach your child to sleep alone in a dark room for 12 hours. I read books by conservative Christian authors-how to make your child obedient and conformed. How to keep a routine while maintaining ever important flexibility. How not to squash your child's creativity while not letting them talk back to you. How to talk so your kids will listen, on very little sleep with a baby sling and partially opened window shades while steaming organic veggies. Primal scream! Blahhhhhhhh.

One parent shared that she never read parenting books because she didn't want to have a book raising her child. Now I had really screwed up. I read WAY too much.

Then one day, while I was asking advice about an issue from a really loving parent with very well behaved creative musical children, it all became clear to me. What the parent told me was so out of the realm of what was in my own heart, that something in me snapped.

I realized that I was already the perfect parent for my child. I will go as far as to say God made me that way with all my strengths and weaknesses. I am linked with just the right kids. I could never and would never do it exactly the same as any other parent, or exactly as any book suggested. And no one else has my children. We are all perfectly unique.

I still read, and I still need the loving support of a community of parents discussing ideas and sharing, but I have a different sort of confidence now. I don't have it all figured out, but I have a little more faith in my own instincts. What I read and discuss goes in my head--but how I parent has to come from my heart.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Power of Polite

Texas is a little bit of a different country sometimes. I worked with a youngster (note Texan slang) this weekend who called me ma'am. He was an eleven-year-old spitfire, a cute musical kid with red hair to match. Without hesitation he said "yes, ma'am" with a twinkle in his eye. After about the fourth "yes ma'am" I think I started to blush and stutter a little. I was smitten.
What is it about folks be'n polite that catches us off guard. Especially them youngsters. . .

The Japanese also have a very polite culture. Having spent considerable time in Japan, my husband tells many stories of the rituals of Japanese manners. I think that by participating in polite rituals, we internalize a little of the actual polite feelings. I think that is part of why the bow is such an important part of the Suzuki lesson.

At the start of the practice, I ask my own children to say "I'm ready to learn now" when we bow. I reply, "I'm ready to be a patient and loving teacher." After the lesson we bow and say, "thank you for the lesson." I ain't sayin' we don't got our moments (end Texan slang). By saying these words, however, there is hope that we might actually internalize a little of these more noble attitudes.

At a yoga class, the instructor greets and dismisses the class with a greeting, "Namaste." I understand this to mean, "I honor the spirit in you which is also in me."

At it's most casual level, the bow is a call to attention, a frame for the lesson. A time to focus. We are starting now. We are finishing now. It is also a sign of respect and a greeting.

At it's most holy it is much greater than a polite gesture. It is a prayer given for the other person. I pray for all my students. I always have.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Grain and the Chaff

"Oh, the comfort, the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person; having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but to pour them all out, just as they are, chaff and grain together, knowing that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and then, with a breath of kindness, blow the rest away." -George Elliot

I have one sister, Susan, and this is one of her favorite quotes. I love it too. If we are to stay in relationships for a long time, sooner or later we will mess up. We will say or do the wrong thing that hurts the person we love. Or, the person we love will say or do something that hurts us. If we aren't able to sort the grain from the chaff we will end up pretty lonely.

I think this has much to do with looking for the best in people. And letting the rest go.

I realized how important this was to me when a teacher became annoyed--probably even disgusted--with my kid. I wanted the teacher to look for the best in my child and all they saw at that moment was the worst. It reminded me, as a teacher, how much parents want us to love their kids. To look for the best in them. To blow away the chaff.

When someone looks for and finds the best in me, I grow. I come closer to being my very best self. Closer to God's image in me.

Suzuki asks us to praise what is worthy and ignore the rest. How can we do that? I don't think it means putting up with bad behavior. Perhaps it is more about looking for the best in our children, our students and all the people we love. It might mean breaking some habits of jumping into negative conclusions about people. I do believe when we look for the best we will find it.

Sometimes it only takes one person believing in us, sorting the grain, seeing the best in us, to make it all true.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Off to Austin

It is January 14th and the kids have practiced piano everyday so far this year. I'm leaving for the weekend to teach in Austin, Texas. This has a couple implications.

Bill will practice with the kids on Saturday and Sunday. Probably, I'm just guessing, Calvin will not do perfect repetitions on the Bach Invention for the Twin Cities Suzuki Piano Teacher's Guild recital on January 29th. Probably he will play F Blues along with the Jamie Aebersold CD. Mary will probably put on a fairy costume, wings and all, and beg to play Jingle Bells along with Daddy's saxophone.

The itunes music magic will probably not be playing Suzuki Books 2 and 4 and Chris Liccardo's lovely CDs. Probably they will be listening to Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. The cats will be humming "You Make Me Feel So Young. . . "

They will probably also have chocolate pop-tarts for breakfast.

I will have the blessing of seeing old friends and the privilege of teaching around 20 young students. I will try to give them something special to remember, something to love about music. I will try to deepen their listening and have a little fun.

I guess Bill and I really will be achieving the same goals. Bon voyage. . .

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Pair of Bald Eagles

Out the back window of our house. Another good reason not to let the cats out. . .
My husband took these and about 100 other photos today. It was really a treat to see these birds. Gives a renewed meaning to the phrase "spread eagle."

I'd like to take this chance to say a public thank you to my husband, Bill, for helping make music listening a little easier at our house. He has my new computer up and running and magically, via some airport or runway or something, hooked up to the stereo and also magically hooked up to the upstairs computer which houses the itunes collection. After all these years I can play music, specifically the Suzuki repertoire, through the stereo right from my laptop computer. It is so easy. Today I was able to put a "loop" on Minuet One and play it all during lunch. Even the cats were humming it.

We were due for a new computer. The old laptop had paid it's dues. It had three broken keys. It survived several crashes, including the one where I tried to go to "utube" instead of "youtube." DON'T EVER DO THAT. It was nearly terminal. The virus took over the whole system in a matter of seconds. Blue screen of death. Friends told me that the Geek Squad could retrieve the data and install a new hard drive for $150 or so. But lucky for me, Bill is very computer savvy, and was able to restore it on his own in only 37.5 hours of his free time.

I gave up being computer savvy on March 14, 1998, our wedding day. I sold my MAC and moved to the arctic state of Minnesota. Bill agreed to accept cats and grand pianos into his world. I got to share a PC. A fair deal. So now almost 13 years later I have my own computer again. So, thanks Bill, for the computer, for fixing the airport thing so we can listen to music easily, and for taking beautiful photos of eagles out the window. I love you.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Á tous mes amis. . .

Á tous mes amis. What? "To all my friends." In French. Even though I had years of high school French and a year of college French, that is not how I know that phrase. I only know that phrase because it is in a song on a children's CD of French songs. I truly remember very little of my book study of the language. I can, however, sing the entire CD of little French songs for children. . . that is because I listened to it several thousand times. In the car. In the living room. While nursing my firstborn child. . . I had this idea that maybe the little French songs CD would someday lead to a multi-lingual kid. Didn't work. But I do know those little songs by heart.

Our brains learn language from listening. Music is a language. Dr. Suzuki called his method the mother tongue approach. The main point is that ALL children learn their language. All children can also learn the language of music, particularly when they are exposed to it during the developmental period when they are learning their own spoken language.

Please put on the listening for your children, especially Books 1 and 2. I am generally slow to anger (toward parents in my studio, anyway) but when parents habitually don't do the listening I get miffed. As an advocate for the children, it is not fair to take Suzuki lessons and not do the listening. Children will not be able to keep the songs in review and use them as tools to grow. It will take so long to learn the songs that they will lose the joy of learning. They will not learn the language. They will be frustrated. It isn't fair. Listening is our number one priority. Period.

Having made that clear, I forgot to put on the listening for my kids today. Oops.

Tomorrow. . . listen. Listen to the current repertoire, listen to future repertoire, and listen to classical radio. If we do this, immerse our children in music, they WILL be bilingual after all, speaking music and English. And...if you listen to the little French children's song CD, you and your children might even become tri-lingual. At least you will be able to translate "Old McDonald Had a Farm. . . " I'm sticking with the language of music.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Incredibly Complex Path to Simplicity

The trend for the last 15 years or so has been to seek simplicity as a path to happiness. Here is a list of books I found on my shelf: Simplify Your Life, Inner Simplicity, Living the Simple Life, The Overload Syndrome, Margin, Six Weeks to a Simpler Lifestyle, How to Want What You Have, and last but not least Simple Abundance. I'm not kidding. It is obviously not that simple. I think part of the problem for me, comes from another book on my shelf called "The Beautiful Life" by Alexandra Stoddard. My sister and I got this book from my grandma about 20 years ago. In the book the author talks about buying fresh flowers each week to make your home lovely. She talks about decorating for the seasons. She talks about all kinds of ways to make our homes and lives beautiful. Along the way somewhere I got hit on the head by this giant revelation: Beautiful Life is not the same as Simple Life. I shared this with my friend from Texas, Casey, when she called to "ask me permission" to get rid of all her houseplants. On one visit to her house I had tried to share the Beautiful Life with her, by encouraging her to buy all these lovely houseplants. I told her it was okay to get rid of them.

Houseplants are not simple. Gardening is not simple. PETS are not simple. Seasonal decorating is not simple. Traveling with children is not simple. Entertaining is not simple. Christmas is not simple.

Fighting cancer is not simple. Taking care of elderly parents is not simple. Helping a child with a learning disability is not simple. Having a spouse who doesn't pull his weight is not simple. Loving someone with depression is not simple. Using "creative financing" to pay the bills each month is not simple. Chronic pain is not simple. Being a working mother is not simple.

Life is not simple. No matter how many books we read and how full of "deep inner peace" we become, life will never be simple. It is much more complicated than buying all one kind of white socks and putting them in a basket by the door to get out of the house on time in the morning.

Practicing an instrument with a child is not simple. They are grouchy. They itch. They have chapped lips. The get up while you are talking and jump up and down on the sofa. They have their own ideas. They have to blow their noses. They don't like putting finger four on f-sharp. They don't like Haydn. They want to play soccer.

There is no book called "Learning to Play an Instrument Simply, With Children." But there are some simple ideas, that when used one at a time, can simplify the moment. Ideas that can make one half hour go by a little more peacefully and productively. Previously mentioned, Amanda Vick Lethco, pedagogy teacher from Texas, had her students keep a card file of three by five cards of teaching ideas. When lacking inspiration, we could look through our card file. I'm not going to ask anybody to make a card file, because that wouldn't be very simple, but I am going to try to share my practice ideas. Of course if you did want to run to Target and buy a colorful filing system to house your card file with labels and different colored cards and stuff that would be beautiful, Alexandra would approve.

Life is not simple. It will never be simple. There are only simple moments. And beautiful moments. Life can be Beautiful, with or without houseplants.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Lesser Sacrifices

Catherine McMichael is a composer and Suzuki teacher from Michigan. We are inspired by the tales of her family's consecutive days of practice incentive. At last I heard, her son was close to 4000 consecutive days of practice. They are planning a trip to Italy or some exotic place to celebrate. Cool. So. I offer an incentive to my children: if you practice all 31 days of January, we will take you out for a treat. I am thinking about a slice of princess torte from the Woullet's Bakery on Grand Avenue in St. Paul. My mouth waters. Calvin yells, "Hey Mary, we get to go to Dairy Queen if we practice all month. . . " I up the anti. We will take it month by month, but if we practice everyday for a year, we can spend a night in a fancy hotel. I'm thinking the Marriott in St. Paul with a pool and Sunday brunch. "Mama, I have always wanted to spend the night at the Wayside Rest in Spring Valley, Minnesota. You know, the one along highway 63 with eight little rooms and the 'vacancy' and 'air conditioned' sign?" Clearly this is not going as well as I hoped. They don't even have coffee there. Probably elicit activities. I offer a distraction. What about the Water Park of America. . .water slides anyone?? I'll pay anything to avoid polyester bedspreads that probably have bed bugs. The kids are gonna think about it, but I'll practice with them anyway, even if I have to fumigate my suitcase. Lesser Sacrifices.

Sunday, January 9, 2011


My dad stayed in a terrible job situation several years longer than he would have chosen, so that I could graduate from the high school I grew up next to, and keep my same music teachers and friends. My folks moved the Fall I left for college. My mom paid for and drove my sister and I to a total of five music lessons a week for years. We both had piano and I had french horn and jazz piano and Susan had voice lessons. We lived in a small town so that meant driving 30-45 minutes each way to get to the big cities of Davenport and Moline. Yikes. Even at the 1986 rate of $10 for a half hour lesson and gas at a buck a gallon it all added up.

Sometimes I feel like my greatest sacrifice in parenting so far is that I always let my six year old daughter go first in the public restroom stall. Over time even that can wear you down. I realize though, that in about one more year she will probably want her own stall, and then I will have to go all by myself at the airport. . . I should treasure those shared moments.

The truth is I have made greater sacrifices than holding it while I wait for a little person to redress herself. Getting up at 6:00 am and practicing piano with my son is the greatest act of self discipline I have ever shown. I can't maintain an exercise program or eat healthy for more than a week, but every week day for four years, since Calvin started first grade, I have gotten up with him at the crack of dawn and before (we have long dark nights here in Minnesota) to practice piano. I am proud of that. Of course I have a little help from a very warm robe, fuzzy slippers and a programmable coffee pot. Why does he wake up so early? I don't know, but it works for now. Even though I am not a morning person. At all. Getting out of bed to practice with him is a decision I recommit to every morning when the alarm goes off, I won't send him the message that sometimes we practice and sometimes we don't.

When I start to feel sorry for myself, (yawn) I have the benefit of having graduated a few seniors in my studio. I watched them grow up. I watched their Suzuki mom's silently and sometimes tearfully let them work out their own finger numbers and tempos as they became more and more independent. I know that in a few years he will need (or want or accept) less and less guidance from me on a daily basis.

So I buy really good coffee. I can sleep in later.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Bassoons, Reeds and the Talent Question

As luck would have it, freshman year of college at Northern Illinois University, two of my best friends were bassoon majors. Yeah. What are the odds. Tracey was my roommate and worked very hard at the difficult instrument. Daily battles with reeds and different bassoon adjustments ensued. The ear training class was difficult too--but she was a really hard worker and so she did okay. Like most freshman, she earned a seat in the Wind Symphony, which unfortunately for her was taught by the ear training professor. He gave her a hard time. She was committed though, staying home from social gatherings. . . to meticulously file reeds and get one more hour in the practice room. She woke up early to make sure her hair and make-up were just right--a very efficient person, heading over to warm-up before the rehearsal. Laura was wash and wear beautiful, I never saw her wear a stitch of make-up or even blow dry her long dark hair. She was amazed to make orchestra as a freshman, an almost unheard of honor. She stumbled into the first rehearsal hungover, took a crusty reed out of her sweatshirt pocket and positioned it just in time to take the cue from the conductor for the bassoon solo in the Mozart symphony. The conductor smiles as the beautifully in-tune sound fills the hall. Gross injustice. I loved them both, but even at 18, long before I studied talent education, this just rubbed me wrong. Haven't we all known, or been one of these cases at one time or another? I wish I could tell you how each girl ended up as a musician, but unfortunately I don't know. Last I heard from Tracey she married the ear training teaching assistant. I did figure out that it wasn't about the reed.

Years later I put some clues together. Laura's dad had played trumpet in a major symphony. She grew up with records of orchestral music on the phonograph 24/7. She was in love with Mozart while the rest of us were studying for our ACT tests. I shudder to think what she might have done with her background and talent if she had had Tracey's work ethic. What does this mean? I don't know. I just think about them when I think about talent.

I guess the perfect musician has elements of both girls, the environment, the love, and the work ethic. Every great artists has paid their dues. There is no free ride. Brain research says we can all be great at something by the time we log 10,000 hours at that skill. It just takes some of us a little longer than others. It takes some of us a lifetime. Got to go log some hours. . .

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Talent is Not Inborn?

Here I am on the third post, and I already have a true confession. After reading "Ability Development From Age Zero" by Shinichi Suzuki countless times, and teaching parent orientation over the years, I just have to get it on the table that I DO think talent is inborn. I also believe that to deny this is to deny our God given gifts, individualities and personalities. I learned this in the hospital room on two occasions, delivering my two children. One was born screaming. The injustice of it all. Cold, bright, loud, and why the heck are you pouring water on me. . . The other child was born into her daddy's arms cooing and was happily whisked over to have her hair washed, I think she thought it was a spa. So. One child seems to already know the song when I present it. The other child has to start the whole thing over if I skip one day of practice. Personalities? Talents? We try to give our children the same environment but really, not that much has changed since those first breaths.

However, to me the more important question is: can every child learn? Every child can. This I believe with all my heart and everything that is in me. Experts agree. If you are having doubts, a good place to start is with Carol Dweck's book, "Mindsets." I forced--well--highly encouraged, my studio parents to read this after I saw the author speak at the Suzuki Convention. Every child can learn to play the piano. Or tennis, or whatever. I love this book. I believe we can all learn any skill we put our minds to and at a high level of proficiency.

Believing that every child can learn, doesn't mean every family should be a Suzuki family. It is one path. So, whatever path you choose for your family, whatever the personalities and gifts of your children, I hope that you teach them that they can do whatever they put their minds to. Have a growth mindset. Love to learn and learn with love.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011


Last night, I am all set to get to bed early (my New Year's resolution) and there on the coffee table was a partially completed 500 piece Ravensburger puzzle of a steam train in a winter landscape. I don't even like puzzles. My husband Bill and I get sucked in to Calvin's puzzle. It is beautiful. Addictive. Thanks goodness, tonight, as of 9:05 p.m. it is done. I can still hope to get to bed at a decent hour. At first it seemed a hopeless heap of pieces. As we filled in more and more pieces, it actually got easier, until the last pieces were extremely obvious. I have always thought the successful study of an instrument is exactly like working on a puzzle. The more pieces you get in place the more satisfying and beautiful it becomes. When pieces get lost--it is frustrating and hardly seems worth finishing. What are the pieces of the music lesson puzzle? Number one: showing up for the lesson. With your music. And your parent. The famous pedagogue Amanda Vick Lethco, from the great state of Texas, co-author of the Alfred Basic piano course used to tell us that kids could still make progress even if showing up for the lesson was all they did. I hope to set my expectations higher than that. . . but it is a critical piece. The next most important piece (many pieces) is the practice at home. Every day is a chance to put another piece in the puzzle. If you practice three days, three pieces, seven days, seven pieces. You get the picture. And the more pieces, the better the picture. Listening to the recording. Everyday. Listening to other beautiful music. Going to see real live music. Attending group lessons. Having a beautiful sounding instrument. Playing for kids at school. Playing for grandparents. Playing for stuffed animals. Working with masterclass teachers. Playing chamber music with other musicians. Composing. Learning theory. Scales and arpeggios. Sight reading. Going to summer camp. We can get up to 500 pieces pretty quickly. Oh--the puzzle can get overwhelming. It starts to seem like a hopeless heap of pieces. We can only place one piece at a time. We all work together. Suddenly the more pieces that are done the easier is gets. Pretty soon we are really motivated to finish. We are hooked. We stay up too late just to make it beautiful.

Happy New Year

Happy New Year! The new year is often a time to reflect on what is going good, and what is not going so good in our lives. I find that when practicing piano with my children, some days are going good, and some days are not going so good. On my best day, I pour the coffee and head to the piano, my beautiful child greets me with a happy heart. Creative productive energy flows. My child is listening to me, as well as the music coming out the instrument. I am amazed at our progress and hugs flow. On the worst day, the coffee machine has overflowed and there are grounds in the machine and all over the counter top. I head to the piano and it seems my child is already angry with me. I threaten. Tears flow. Anger flows.

Dr. Suzuki asks parents and teachers to reflect. It is never the child that needs fixing. It is always us. So what do I have to do to have more good days than bad? I have to be my very best self. This means something different to each mom and each dad. I have learned over the years that I have two basic tools to recharge: solitude and sleep. At certain times both can seem elusive. However, if positive parenting and practicing are contingent upon my attitude, selfish as it may seem, taking care of myself has to be my NUMBER ONE priority. The airlines know this, "secure your own oxygen mask before helping others." How often do we suffocate trying to help our children. My New Year's resolution is to get more sleep. I am often a night owl living in the rooster's barn, but I will have to force myself to go to sleep earlier. Solitude? Well that is something to write about another day, I guess.

I hope the New Year offers you a little time to reflect. It is a win-win. When we are our best selves, we can best facilitate our children to be their very best selves too!

With love, and bon nuit!