Sunday, February 27, 2011

Be Still and Know

On the way out the door to church this morning, running late with the kids, about four million things were going through my mind.  The short list of obligations for the next two weeks--chamber music today, practice music for the first rehearsal as the senior choir accompanist substitute for the next three months on Wednesday, finish preparing for Houston recital performance next weekend, prepare parent lecture for Houston, listen to Suzuki of Minnesota Graduation tapes, rearrange schedule to make-up lessons I will miss, oh and prepare the order forms for the Deerwood Elementary plant sale fundraiser which I am in charge of this year. Add this to the usual laundry, cat litter and groceries and my head was starting to spin.  Then I remembered that Bill is also leaving for Turkey next Monday before I even get home from Houston.  That's a country he needed a visa to get into.  Blah. It's gonna be a wild ride the next two weeks.

When we got to church, it just so happened that the service for today was a choral service.  The choir and handbells lead the entire worship.  One of the reflections was "God Is In Silence."  The speaker read part of a poem by Susan Palo Cherwien, a local poet.  I wish I had the exact words--and I intend to get a book of her poetry--but it was something to the point of: we are so caught up in our self absorbed business, our paltry projects, our mental chatter.  We can find God there, but we are much more likely to find God in stillness.  It was the exact words I needed to hear.  "Be Still and Know I am Here."  Be still.  Be still.

In one of the cheesy yoga DVDs I have been doing, the lady's mantra is strength in stillness--easy for her as she sits in a V shape for two minutes. ..

When we approach the piano to perform, we do a rest position.  To quiet our bodies and minds to reflect on the piece we are about to play.  Then we perform.  Then we do another rest position to close the performance.

I think I am seeing some connections here.

I'm thankful I got an hour in church this morning to be still.  To listen to beautiful choral and instrumental music.  The calm before the storm.  The strength in stillness.  The rest position.

I'm thankful for these next two weeks--full of meaningful work, opportunities to share with students and parents, time to take care of my family, to play beautiful music.  I do believe that we only fully participate in life and growth when we stretch ourselves to our fullest from time to time.  God is in our business as well as our stillness, it just takes more mindfulness to see it.  You have to take it one moment at a time.

Lastly, I'm thankful that after these next two weeks, full of meaningful work, I will have another rest position in Hawaii with my family--as we use up the last of our airline flight benefits.  Then a week off at home for Spring Break.

The truest rest position.

The ultimate Be Still.

And I do intend to be still.  

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Orchestra Hall. . . in My Dreams

Congratulations to Christina who will be performing the Chopin Grand Waltz Brilliant in E-flat, Op. 18, at Orchestra Hall on March 12, 2011.  She will be featured with three other Book 6 and 7 piano graduates on the Suzuki Association of Minnesota Recital at 1:00.  Upper level cellist and violists will also be featured.  This is a lovely honor. She is also in the unique position of having been invited to play twice, upon her Book 6 graduation last year and her Book 7 this year.  Last year Anna was also featured upon her Book 7 graduation.  All S.A.M. upper level pianists can submit an audition piece with their graduation DVD.  The recital is free and everyone is invited.

She and all the other graduates are also working hard to prepare for the S.A.M. piano graduation recitals on March 5, at Westminster Presbyterian in Minneapolis.

I am practicing to prepare a recital piece for the Houston workshop recital, also on March 5.

Practicing right before bed can lead to weird dreams.  In my dream last night, I was playing at Orchestra Hall.  It took the usual anxiety dream plot.  It was the hour of the performance.  I wished I hadn't waited until the night before to memorize the piece.  I don't know if I will even remember it.  I am looking around the backstage for a room to warm up in and all the practice rooms with pianos are filled with instrumentalists.  I find a room with a piano but the insides of the dilapidated upright are missing.  Oh well.  I will have to wing it.  I notice that I am wearing sweat pants.  This will never do.  I start home to change clothes with five minutes to go before the start time.  At home I find a black dress. Fine.  But as I make my way back to Orchestra Hall I realize that I have grabbed a swim cover smock instead of the dress.  (Perhaps since I will be in Hawaii on March 12? )  Oh well.  It will have to do.  Meanwhile I assume that I have missed the performance completely since it has already been almost an hour since the recital started. .  wake up please!

This is not the first time nor the last time I will have such a dream.  Even when I am not at all anxious on the outside.  For me, the anxiety is usually not about the piece.  I only have time to practice reasonable pieces at this point in my motherhood.  I'm not tackling any monsters.  Instead, the challenge is concentration.  Can I concentrate for five full minutes without mental distraction?

Recently one of my advanced students said to me, "Ms. Sara, I learned at the last recital that I shouldn't talk to myself during the piece.  I was doing fine until I told myself I was doing fine."  Isn't that the story? If our goal is to share beautiful music, why does our head get in the way?

One of the performance anxiety bibles on my shelf is "The Inner Game of Music" by Barry Green.  This is a great book.   He gives the reader many many tools to work towards increased concentration.

Ultimately, concentration is a skill in itself to practice.  Nobody can tell anybody else to concentrate.  We have to be drawn in.  I perform best and most confidently when I love the piece so much that I can't think of anything else but to listen to the piece go by under my fingers.  If I am hearing and enjoying every note, the audience will have the best chance of enjoying it as well.

There are novels to write on this subject, but I'm not going to live out my bad dream. . . I'm going to prepare well, I already have 25 of my 50 perfect repetitions completed, and I am going to work toward listening so deeply that there isn't any room for that nasty inner conversation.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Count Aloud or Else. . .

Mr, Patterson, my childhood piano teacher made me count aloud.  It is written in my lesson notebook every week, week after week after week.   Count aloud.  Please, count aloud.  Do it again, and count aloud.  I bring out this ancient notebook with Snoopy on the cover, and show my students that this is true.  It also says play more slowly over and over and over again.  That is another blog entry.

I ask--no beg--my students to count aloud, when learning their reading pieces.  These are the pieces from the Alfred, Faber and Faber, or other method books.

They don't seem to want to do this.  There is considerable resistance.  I don't know why.  It doesn't seem like a big deal to me.  But, they don't want to.  Maybe they don't want to count aloud because they don't really understand the rhythm.  Maybe they don't like the sound of their voices. There are probably other reasons too.

I tell them, counting aloud is like wearing a seat belt. When I was little we didn't have to wear seat belts in the car.  My mom only made me wear them when it was snowing. It wasn't the law.  It felt so uncomfortable and awkward.  Now, after all these years of new seat belt laws, I wouldn't dream of driving without my seat belt.  I feel safe and comfortable.

There is something magical about counting aloud.  Counting aloud to the lowest subdivision of notes ensures that the student truly understands the rhythm.  Counting in your head, or having mom count isn't good enough.  Tapping your foot never seems quite right for classical piano either. When the student is resistant, I ask them to count aloud only a few measures at a time.  Then as counting becomes a habit, I expect them to count aloud all the time.  I even had a rubber stamp made the says "COUNT ALOUD."  I can stamp this on the music page each week when necessary to remind the child.

Musically, another bonus is that counting aloud can help with phrasing. Pianists don't need to take in air between phrases like wind instruments and singers.  Using your voice can help clarify when to breath at the end of a phrase. It also ensures that the student is taking deep breaths.  Pianists sometimes hold their breath.  Counting keeps oxygen flowing to the brain.

I count aloud when I practice.  I'm recommitting to making sure all my students are counting aloud at the lesson and at home practice.  When counting aloud is a habit, it feels safe, like wearing a seat belt. The rhythm is solid. Parent and teacher know that the student understands the rhythm.    

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Gifted? Not Gifted.

At a family gathering we were watching the videos from the Advancing Recital in January.  As it often happens, the topic came up: so-and-so must really be gifted.   My brother-in-law reflected upon a comment my dad made to him, about me, after a recital I gave at MacPhail in 2001.  It seems my dad had shared that I, Sara, was never a gifted pianist,  that I had always had to work very hard at it.

At first that remark stung a little.  My dad was notorious for what I call back handed compliments.  "You look much less tired today than yesterday. . . " or "You're really starting to play with a lot of dynamics. . . " Of course he meant well, and was probably being very honest.  It is true, I have always had to work very hard at the piano.  I am not a world class sight-reader, and my days of winging it with the band are long gone.  If I am going to perform I have to practice.  A lot.

Way back when, I WAS gifted. I was in the "Talented and Gifted" program at Edward White Elementary from the get go.  Our little group knew that we were the smart ones.  The creative ones.  The gifted ones.  The talented ones.  

Growing up I was also the gifted and talented pianist in my piano teacher's studio.  I won all the little Davenport, Iowa piano contests.  Having been labeled such, in grade school and high school, I must confess that I don't remember ever working very hard.  I am sure I did practice.  In between dates and all the other distractions of high school.  Come to think of it, I guess I was practicing about three hours a day between the French Horn, piano and jazz piano. I still don't know if I knew how to really work.  That is compared to the piano majors I was suddenly competing with in college.  They had all been practicing four hours a day and all on the same instrument.  I was. . . . no longer gifted.  

I was however, determined.  I learned how to work.  I took extra classes.  I did long term teacher training. I went to institutes and observed and observed and observed.  I listened to recordings. I practiced and practiced and practiced.  I still observe.  I still listen. I still practice.  

This is not the first time we have discussed giftedness vs. hard work, nor will it be the last. The more I thought about it, I decided that being not gifted wasn't all bad.  A gift is something you receive, packaged up with a pretty bow.  There is nothing wrong with that, but whatever meager talent I have developed at playing piano and teaching, I earned.  Perhaps having got it the hard way, I am even better equipped to help my students along their paths.  

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

"I Think I Just Discovered the Fun of Playing. . ."

This is a real quote.  Mary said this to me the other day when it finally became easy for her to play The Happy Farmer.  Like many students, these Book Two pieces have not come easily for her and they are taking a long time to settle in.   Mary is the kind of pianist that forgets things if we skip them even one day.  That makes it harder.  Practicing everyday, since January has been very good for her.  So at last--when she really felt comfortable on the dastardly Schumann tune--you know what?  She wouldn't stop playing it.  She was truly having fun.  Funny, I just had the same experience myself.  I was practicing my piece for the Houston workshop recital and I got the last A section memorized and up to tempo and you know what?  I couldn't stop playing it.   I wanted to play it over and over and over.  When we are free from the physical and mental difficulty of the music, that is where the joy, maybe even the addiction kicks in.

Sadly, I think I have students, and have had students that quit, who never got there.  They never work quite hard enough to make it easy.  To be free.  I have been there many times myself.  There are many other reasons students struggle, but if all we ever get is the struggle, of course we want to be done.  For the day.  For the week.  Forever. . .

I have a student who often pretends to dislike playing, but when she really gets it I see the secret smile on her face.  We have to work hard enough to get over the hump.  The airplane has to get off the ground. We have to hang in there until we discover the joy and freedom that come when we really lift off.   Of course parents and teachers are in charge of gassing up the engine and making sure that the runway is smooth and clear.   (Several jokes about parachutes and oxygen and seat belts and fire extinguishers just came into my head. . . but I'm gonna end that metaphor before I take it too far. . . )

Suffice it is say, we are in charge of setting up the success of our young people.  Orchestrate joy. Facilitate flying.

Monday, February 14, 2011

An Essay on My Mother

Be like the bird
that while pausing in her flight
awhile on boughs too slight
feels them give way
beneath her and yet sings
knowing that she hath wings

(victor hugo)

Like the thousands of birds that frequent my mother's garden's bird feeders, my mother is not hindered by gravity.  I'm not talking about the kind that effects women over 70 years old. . . although she is does pretty darn good in that department with fashion, nutrition and exercise.  I'm talking about the gravity of the heart.  

In the last two years my mother has taken care of and buried my Dad, moved her mother from the family farm into a nursing home, processed the monumental estate of that family farm (it took six households many months to complete), and on December 19th said good-bye to her 91 year old mother, who was her best friend and travel companion.   Oh yeah--in October my mom was diagnosed with a rare, serious, but treatable disease of the arteries in her temporal lobes.  The disease is treatable with a heavy dose of steroids for up to two years.  The steroids reek havoc on a person's body, but left untreated the disease causes sudden irreversible blindness or stroke.   

How does she respond?  She cries.  Then she orders more bulbs for the spring garden.  She surrounds herself with friends who love her.  She puts in over 1000 hours on a Habitat for Humanity House in honor of my dad.  She plans a trip to Switzerland with her grandson.  She takes a computer class at the U. She takes a class to learn to speak Czech (a hopeless endeavor. . . .).  She takes up yoga. She takes the dogs for a walk every morning that the temperature is above zero.  She feeds the birds.  

She came to visit us this weekend.  She took the kids on a "slumber party" to a local hotel with an indoor park to play at and a swimming pool.  It was the first weekend we have been together where someone wasn't sick or dying in two years.  I'm not trying to be dramatic, it's just the truth.  

She is my best girlfriend.  We got to do what girlfriends get to do sometimes--shop a little and stop for dessert.  If felt almost like normal.  We still cried, but only just a very little, and mostly upon good-bye.   We do after all, have wings.  

Thursday, February 10, 2011

An Essay on My Sister

I have one sister, Susan.  She is five years older than me.  She is my hero.  She doesn't always remember this because she has more struggles than I do.  I work at home.  She commutes an hour each way to school.  I teach individual lessons to highly committed piano students.  She teaches special education in a public junior high.  Not only are her students and their families frustrated learners, but they are at a tender and sensitive age that makes their lives even more stressful.  She teaches them to read. Talk about love, patience and compassion. . . not to mention paperwork.

She is not perfect.  She accused me of having time to write this blog when I didn't have time to email her.  And, she just sent close to 35 of those lovely intellectually stimulating Rainbow Fairy paperbacks to Mary. . . they are currently scattered all over the living floor.  This is not simple nor beautiful life.  I'll get her back for that.

She has always been a teacher.  Growing up, she taught me how to read and do math and play recorder.  She always spent time with me.  Inevitably we played school. . .. She treated me kindly even in front of her friends.  I idolized her.  She played piano and french horn, and she sang in the show choir.  She tolerated my mouse in the corner presence when she and her boyfriend sat on the couch in the living room.

After college she followed me to Texas.   Then I got married and moved to Minnesota.  Eventually she moved back to Iowa, and with the help of my Dad, she and her husband Paul built a log home on a parcel of my folk's land.  Life was busy with two working parents, but with the help of my Mom and Dad things went along.  Then my Dad got sick.  Suddenly instead of being the care receivers they became the care givers.  Paul is also my hero.  Now, without my Dad he is at the beck and call of my mother.  Neither Susan or Paul can count on their time being their own.  My mom is extremely generous with her own time, taking care of Savannah and helping out.  She is also highly motivated and very likely to call on Saturday morning and say something like, "I stopped at Walmart and picked up 35 pine trees on clearance.  We need to get them in the ground this morning along the back 40 before it rains.  In 20 years it will be a great wildlife shield". . . Or she might say, "Paul there is a dead deer in the back field and the dogs keep getting into it, could you please get rid of it?"  No small task when the ground is frozen and it is 10 degrees below zero.  Gross. They are my heroes.

Susan is my hero for taking over the direction of the Trinity Lutheran Church Choir in Tipton, Iowa.  Does being a high school drum major for three years, and singing in All-State choir for a year qualify you to direct a church choir?  It does when you are carrying on the legacy of your father.  My father adored that choir.  Susan doesn't have time for this anymore than she has time to plant the trees, but she does it.  I know it takes a toll, but I hope there is also some healing in it.  For her and for the choir.  She can passionately continue my Dad's obsession with dynamics and diction.

For all these things and just for who she is,  I still adore and idolize my big sister.  To get back at her for the Fairy books?  I'm collecting a box of Happy Meal Toys, Polly Pockets and Littlest Pet Shops that Mary can give to Savannah next time we get together.  Maybe I'll even send them in the mail for a surprise.  Oh, and Mary cut close to a ream of paper's worth of snowflakes this winter, I'll send some of those too.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Love of a Six Year Old

"Mama, I'm just so happy with myself."  
Mary said this to me three times in a row at church on Sunday, hugging herself each time.  It was a moment of pure innocence and love.  I wished I could somehow get those feelings in a bottle and quick put the cork on to retrieve another time in the future when she might not feel so content in her skin.  I thought about how I wished we all could have more moments like that, completely happy with who we are.  Deep down I think most of us know that who we are is not our hair, skin, weight, and all the external things we get caught up in and distracted by.  It isn't even our talents and intellect. Who we are, is just someone to love. Sometimes it takes a six year old to remind us.   

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Okay I finished Book Seven. . . now what?

What music would be in Book 8?  Book 9?  Book 10. . . .
What are our goals before we pack our bags for college?  For the first time in my career I have been in one place long enough to have several post Book 7 students.  What now?  What is important for them?  How should we challenge them yet keep them grounded?  I always had a pet peeve about advanced kids who played music that was too hard for them.  They didn't seem to understand the music, and they never really seemed to nail it in performance.  Now I understand that the teacher is not always at fault.  Sometimes kids are just driven to learn a certain piece and you can't hold them back.  What should we do?  Hold them back?  Compromise our standards?   These are very serious questions because there is a lot at stake. We must reflect and continue to reflect on how to facilitate bringing these kids to their full potential.

Here are some important avenues to fulfilling this goal:
  • Picking repertoire that represents four style periods with challenges but that is polishable
  • Having enough time with the teacher each week to cover new and review repertoire
  • Working with collegiate faculty in masterclasses situations
  • Having intensive experiences such as summer camps
  • Exploring chamber music and ensemble experiences--including concerto opportunities
  • Using contests as a motivation when it is desirable and appropriate
  • Communication of the goals with students and parents
These elements are pieces in the puzzle, but what is it that I truly want these kids to learn from me before they journey off?  In thinking about what is important for middle school and high school kids to learn, I came up with four key elements:

  • Learn how to practice independently and effectively
  • Learn how to listen more deeply to their own playing and to artistic recordings
  • Learn tools and clues to interpreting new repertoire in a stylistically appropriate and musically satisfying ways
  • Learn how to perform confidently, musically, accurately and BEAUTIFULLY
When we have mastered these four tasks, I believe the student will be ready to go off to college to study music, or astrophysics, or whatever they choose.  

In my studio students have the option to perform a solo recital at the end of each Suzuki book level. When/if they make it through Book Seven, I have a "wall of fame" in the studio where I hang a framed 8x10 glossy of the student with a copy of his Book Seven recital program.  

I propose to my students that even after they are done with graduation recitals we continue in this vein.  I propose that students perform an eighth grade graduation recital, a sophomore recital, and a senior recital.   This allows us time to prepare new repertoire for growth and also play some interim pieces for special events or (heaven forbid) challenge and pleasure.  It also allows time for critical review and mastery of the pieces.  Siblings or peers can choose to perform their recitals together, and students are encouraged to play solos on a second instrument when appropriate.  Even if students have not graduated from Book Seven, I encourage them to play a senior recital, and to date, every senior has chosen to celebrate in this fashion.  

I feel focused and confident about the goals I have for my students.  Setting goals, helping students with the four key elements, and communicating with parents--I feel that we will look back and say that we have nurtured our students with love in the way that only a Suzuki teacher can, while fulfilling their wondrous, individual, and unbridled potential.  

Monday, February 7, 2011

No Child Left Behind. . . part two

Learning to read music is similar to learning to read. Some kids seem like they were born reading and some kids struggle.  Some kids really struggle.  So how do we we approach reading music when kids really struggle?  I think we approach it in the same way we would approach learning to read with phonetics.  The music symbols represent sound.  We need to be very comfortable with the symbols and with the sounds.  I can think of three really important principles regarding this:  keep it easy, work at the child's pace, and separate the knowledge from time sensitive testing--like rhythm.  This first two are pretty straight forward.  Kids that struggle shut down when things get hard.  We need to keep it really easy and move at a very slow pace with a ton of lateral learning.  Remember--many many books at one level.  Just because the book is moving on doesn't mean the child is ready.  I often bring in more books at the same level to reinforce.

The third is a little crazy.  What?  Separate music from rhythm?  Well.  This is something I am curious about.  I have read a little about ADD and some other learning situations.  It seems like the pre-frontal cortex of children and adults with these learning challenges does not function under pressure.  In other words, if the child is tested over information at a gentle pace they might get 100%.  When tested under a time constraint they fail.  The harder they try, the more the brain misfires.

Dog-gonnit--reading music is the ultimate under pressure time constraint test.  No wonder so many of us shut down when trying to sight read. Simple things become hard in tempo.  Even those of us who aren't diagnosed with ADD can panic under time pressure.  I hate sight reading at tempo in front of the church choir for instance. . .

Most of the time when I ask kids a question and then just wait, they eventually come up with the answer.  Sometimes you have to wait what may seem like a long time while they are thinking.  But if they learn that they are not under a time constraint the brain will function smoothly and the answers start to come at a natural pace.  I think we can approach the primer level of reading music in the same way.  Give the struggling reader as much time as they need to process the information.  Set some goals and limits--like we won't pass out of this level until the student can count and play the pieces in the suggested tempos.  Then take your time--literally and figuratively.  Let the pre-frontal cortex work at it's own pace.

P.S. Holiday music (secular or sacred) can be a great boost to young readers.  We work on Christmas music from October to December. Everyone enjoys this and for kids that are struggling it is a real link between what they know the music sounds like and what it looks like on the page.  Alfred even has separate books for sacred and secular songs.   Of course I'm about as in the mood for that now as I am for the 10 foot snowbank next to my driveway, but they don't make whole books of Valentine's and Easter music. . .

Saturday, February 5, 2011

If You Can't Say Anything Nice. . .

. . . don't say anything at all.  Yes, yes, we have all heard the old adage.  It was said long before Suzuki teacher training about always remaining positive.  Most of us are not big-sin sinners.  We don't steal, we don't kill, we obey the seventh commandment.   Usually when my son gets in trouble it is not because of something he did.  He is an obedient kid.  More often than not it is because of something he said.  It is our mouths that cause us the most trouble.  Myself included.  This is a recent transcript of a conversation during practice:

Me: Could you play that with your fingers curved?
Him: They were curved.
Me: No. They weren't at all.
Him: Yes, they were.
Me:  You know, I would never have let a student graduate from Book One with fingers like that and here we are in Book Four and I'm still having to harp at you about it, because you would never let me borrow your hand like everybody else!

Yeah.  Great.  Very grown up.  Great Suzuki philosophy. And from the guidelines that we are supposed to be using in the Kotrba household, it wasn't kind--it wasn't necessary--it wasn't completely true.  Verbal failure.  I did apologize but it was too late, the tears flowed.  Damage done.

Tomorrow is a new day. Sooner or later we are all going to say the wrong thing.  Our mouths will get us into trouble.  I thought about what I should've could've done.  I should have suggested a game--like freeze and check your fingers.  I should catch him with good fingers and compliment.  I could even talk about why it is important to have good fingers--the music is going to get more and more advanced and we sure want to be able to play it, so we better have the fingers for it.   I could demonstrate how the sound changes with good technique. I could ask him to play again and tell me how his fingers were. Or I could have said nothing.  As I like to say, some live and learn, and some just live. . . we must learn from our mistakes. And--give some extra hugs when we screw up.

If you can't say anything nice.  Don't say anything at all.  It works.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Peace does not mean. . .

"Peace. It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work.  It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart."  (unknown author)

This quote is from a magnet on my grandma's fridge.  Now it is on my garage door.  It is a noble and perhaps lofty goal. . .

Pastor Kris' sermon last week reiterated this idea from a spiritual perspective:  can we feel blessed and joyful even in the midst of all the bad stuff that goes on in our lives and in the world?  I think more often than not I fail in this endeavor.  Particularly these last two years.

Before that, I felt like I was blessed.  The sermon at our wedding was titled "Blessed to Be a Blessing."  I felt pretty peaceful about life.  I was blessed. I'm no stranger to theology, I was raised Missouri Synod Lutheran and suffered through three years of confirmation every Saturday morning for three hours. . . I know that God does not promise us that nothing bad will ever happen to us, only that he will be there with us in the midst of our trials.  We have the ultimate salvation in the end.

Knowing this and believing it are two different things.  I think deep down inside, I still pretty much thought that if I behaved, nothing bad would ever happen to me or my family. Then my Dad got a terminal cancer diagnosis and died five and a half months later.  I really got blindsided.  Not only had I lost my Dad, but I lost a God who would never let anything bad happen to me.

I wish I had risen above.  I wish I was one of those people who said "all things work together for good. . . "or these are tough times but we still have our faith. God is with us."  Or something noble like that.  Instead I was really angry.  If God is all powerful and He didn't heal my Dad, why should I want a relationship like that.  At the time I knew that God really was with us every minute, in every action and every word spoken and gracious act of love but in that darkness of anger I still felt betrayed.

When my friend Ginny lost her mother too soon, she told me was so devastated she couldn't even pray.  I told her I would pray for her.   My husband said those same words to me when I felt too angry to pray.

There is a reason they say in obituaries "survived by. . . "  We do survive.  Anger subsides.  Eventually we can be blessed and joyful even in our losses.  People can find peace in the midst of chronic pain, family struggles and life's burdens.  Sometime it takes a little time.  Sometimes it takes a lot of time. Sometimes it takes the faith of someone else we love.  As the darkness fades a little with that time, and with that love, we can once again start to see the light.

I still don't have a God that won't let anything bad happen to me.  I guess nobody does.  But with practice, time, and love, we can be whole in the midst of catastrophe. We can be well while we are ill.  We can be still in the chaos of life.  We are held. We are still blessed.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

No Child Left Behind

I'm not thinking about public school, I'm thinking of Suzuki Piano and music literacy.  Suzuki piano teachers have a responsibility to ensure that their students become excellent music readers.  The danger with starting piano students at a young age, teaching them by ear, is that by the time they are old enough to start note reading, they are already so comfortable at the instrument that learning to read music is of no interest to them.   If we start reading too soon, however, we fragment the lesson time and they might lose quality and momentum going through Book One.  I try to start students reading around the time that they are learning to read in school or after their Book One graduation  This is different for every child.  

Suzuki calls his method the Mother Tongue approach.  This means that we learn music in the same fashion that we learn our language.  This applies to the study of learning to read notes.  Children  are exposed to the alphabet from birth.  They see ABCs everywhere.  Little by little they learn that symbols have meaning and represent sounds.  After they begin to read they read book after book at each level.  Board books.  Picture Books.  Early readers. Chapter Books.  Not just one book at every level, but many many, even hundreds.  They read books in different formats with different fonts and layouts by different publishers.

This is the same way that children should learn to read music.  We start exposing them to music symbols from the start in group lessons. Next, starting at the primer level, they should read many many music books.  I used to require five reading method books at each level, but I am starting to suggest even more.  There are many pedagogically appropriate reading method books by Alfred, Faber and Faber and others.  Using books from more than one publisher is also important.  Learners get used to seeing the same format and positions.  When similar music is presented in a different way, sometimes children seem like they don't get it.

I try to make sure that we don't go too fast too soon.  A rule of thumb is that a reading piece should be comfortable in five or less repetitions.  By the time she has played the song five times, usually the student almost has the song memorized and she is no longer reading.  If it is still too hard after five times through, it might be too advanced.  Reading should be at a level that is fun and comfortable.

I ask my students to do note reading at every lesson until they pass Level Four of Faber and Faber or an equivalent method.  Some choose to do even more.  At this time the student is sight reading at his performance level.

It is tempting to work hard on Suzuki repertoire to the detriment of long term literacy, even for the teacher.  That is why most weeks I start the lesson with reading, so that I don't get lured into spending the whole lesson on the performance practice.  Sight-reading might not seem urgent, but it is as critical to the long term joy of music making as book reading at a high level is important for school children.

Future blog topics. . .. count aloud or else. . . . and. . . what if I'm doing everything right and the reading is still too hard. . .

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Congratulations to Minnesotans Upon Completion of January. . .

We made it through January.  I was day dreaming yesterday in the car on the way to school, wondering just who decided this was a habitable place to live.  Did early pioneers say to themselves, if we can just make it through half a year of subzero temps and snowdrifts, the rest of the year will be lovely.  Someday they will invent machines to scrape the snow off the roads and sprinkle salt and sand everywhere.  It is dangerous to be outside, but the kids will love to slide down the hills. . . whose idea was this?

We made it through January in another way.  The Kotrba kids practiced everyday for 31 days.  To celebrate, at 7:00 pm on Monday January 31, we hauled the family off to you guessed it--Dairy Queen.  I must mention that the temp was 8 degrees with wind child at 15 below, it was blowing snow, we were the only people at Dairy Queen, and I ate my ice cream with my long down coat zipped all the way up.   Yeah for practicing!!!!

If we make it through February it is gonna be Cafe Latte and I mean it.

I learned something this month.  When you commit to practicing everyday, life changes.  Instead of deciding if the child will practice, the decision becomes when.  When will we practice today?  I made the decision to exercise everyday in January.  I wasn't at the gym everyday for an hour class, but I did some exercise everyday.  The question became when.   I also mean to add my own practicing into the challenge but again the question is WHEN???????