Thursday, March 31, 2011

State Capitols and Life Lessons

I picked up the kids from the bus stop Tuesday.  Calvin was in tears.  When he stopped crying it all out came out.  He failed the eastern state capitol test.  "My teacher is so unfair." "My teacher is so mean."  "Who cares what the state capitols are?" How could I learn all these capitols while I was off in Hawaii enjoying the beach and shave ice?   That last part I added. . .

What he meant to say was, "I'm so embarrassed."  "I failed."  "I feel stupid."  "I let my teacher down." "I let myself down."  How very often in life our emotions are misplaced.  I do the same thing all the time.

So when we got home, I gently launched into the lesson.  The way I look at it, when we fail we have four options:

  • blame someone else (teacher, coach, parent, friend)
  • quit (except the failure as permanent)
  • cheat (find a way to save face without having to do the work)
  • do the work 
We decided to do the work.  As it turns out, Mrs. Sipe had already offered him a make-up test.  (Not so mean. . . . not so unfair. . . ) With this talk came the second round of tears.  "I love my teacher.  She isn't unfair, she isn't mean, I shouldn't have said those things."   

First step, email teacher his apology--that was his idea.  Next step, flash cards with state capitols--that was my idea.  (Bill's idea was to fly to every state and visit the capitols before the next test. . . that is an ex-airline employee for you.)

Third step--pass make-up test with 100%.  

Oh the tangled web we weave.  To Mrs. Sipe and all the other grace-filled teachers out there. . . thanks.   

Tuesday, March 29, 2011


Yes, some of you may have heard via "The Household Post" (Calvin's daily newspaper--subscribe at that he chose percussion for his band instrument.

I swear on a stack of Bibles, that it was a total coincidence that the session I volunteered to help the band director with try outs, was the same session Calvin got to try the instruments.  Truly.  Bill should have been the volunteer because I could scarcely tell the difference between the clarinet reeds and the alto sax reeds that we were cleaning in between each student trying them.  All those ligatures looked the same to me as well.

I did however recognize the french horn mouthpiece.  (See earlier posts. . . )

Mrs. Smith lets the children take as much time on each instrument as they need to decide what they like. I took a test and the band director put me on french horn.  Mrs. Smith lets the children decide their instrument.  How courageous of her.  I noticed not many children were choosing the french horn.

It was so cool to see the children having their first peek at the clarinets and saxophones and trombones.  They were so full of innocence and sparkle.  One poor kid fell in love with both the oboe and the trombone.  I felt sad for him that he loved them both.  It is so hard to choose.  Especially between oboe and trombone.  Note sarcasm.

I also noticed that Calvin couldn't wipe the smile off his face the whole rest of the day after trying out the drum set.   Dear Lord, what have I done. . .

Turns out he didn't really like the french horn after all.  I tried to demonstrate for him, but twenty years is a long time to lose your chops.  At home I did play some Barry Tuckwell Mozart Concertos for him on the stereo.  If you don't love that what do you love?

In my heart, I do believe percussion is the right thing for him.  The kids has rhythmic energy coming out his pores.  But, I did really want it to be his decision.  I didn't tell him my student has a xylophone and snare drum to sell us until after we got home.  I would have bought him a french horn too.  Just not a Yamaha screw off bell model blah blah blah. . .. with a Conn II mouthpiece.

Bill opened up last night too and asked me what had he done wrong that Calvin never even hinted that he might want to play saxophone.  We all have our baggage.   So, with a french horn major mother and a professional tenor sax father, we now have a percussionist, something that neither of us know anything about.  I'm so glad.  It can be Calvin's journey.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Gift from the Sea

Today was the first day back from two weeks of Spring break.

Years ago I read and reread Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gift from the Sea.  In this little book she writes about the stages of life, comparing them to different sea shells she collects at the beach.  She reflects that she believes people need to take two full weeks of vacation.  She uses the first week to unwind and the second week to rekindle, and recover creativity and life.

I think this was the first time in a very, very long time that I have taken two full weeks off.  It seems as though my normal pattern is to try to cram as many activities and trips and events into our short breaks as possible.  It sometimes feels like the return to work is the recuperation from the vacation.  Even the summers seems to get too jam packed. This break was different and I really enjoyed it.  We actually slid into a slump of extreme laziness, Bill and I got sucked into a new old TV series on Netflix. I think we watched four full episodes on Saturday night.  That is anew screen time record for us.  I got to visit with friends.  I got to watch the kids at gymnastics and swimming.  Almost comatose.

These next two months are Mary's last two months of half-day kindergarten.  It feels like the end of early childhood.  She is swimming up a storm (the coach moved her into Calvin's session last week) , on a gymnastics pre-team (she made me take her to the State Girls Gymnastics meet on Sunday) , and playing piano very nicely.  Suddenly she can read. She is not a baby anymore.  Her time alone in the morning is precious.  This is when she is train-of-thought in her room, making magic with fairies and legos and silly bands and little shells she found at the beach.  After school she and Calvin play together and he would never mix legos with fairies.  So, my goal the next two months is to cherish her.  Make her macaroni and cheese for lunch everyday if she wants it.  Take her to see Rosie, her favorite check-out-lady at the Byerly's grocery store.  Let her stay in her jammies until 11:55.

I don't know what the shell is that Anne Morrow Lindbergh would compare to finishing kindergarten, but I imagine it would be a very tiny precious one that only a little six year old would find and ask you to keep for her in your pocket.

Here's to beaches and home and time to just be, and here's to Mary, may you always mix fairies and silly bands and legos and precious little shells.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Short Sentences of Validation

I am reading a book called Reluctant Pilgrim, by Enuma Okoro.  She subtitles the book "A Moody, Somewhat Self-Indulgent Introvert's Search for Spiritual Community."  I am enjoying the book.  

On page 49 she writes:
"Just before my thirtieth birthday, my father died unexpectedly and I lost the ability to pray. . . . As I processed the news, the God I had clung to so desperately all these years seemed to disappear slowly and suddenly all at once.  I couldn't find God anywhere--not on my knees, not in the peace of sleep, and not in my journal musings. He was gone and I felt like I was hyperventilating in the dark."

If a graduate of Duke University Divinity School can have the bottom drop out under her faith for a little while, perhaps I was not so weak.  

Unuma Okoro has a blog at

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Dance

One of the things I think about from time to time is how strict to be at practice.  On one hand, I shudder to think how much time I have wasted over the years by not being strict enough.  By this I mean putting up with marginal behavior, for example, noodling incessantly between tasks, not having picture perfect hand position, general distractions, lack of counting aloud with accurate rhythm and motor-mouth type conversation during practice.  In addition to the wasted time, the other negative effect of lenience was that it caused me at times to feel passively aggressive. (Secretly angry. .. ) I was annoyed with my child, but moving forward to keep the peace.  Inside I was wishing that my child was just magically intrinsically motivated to be his or her very best self at every moment.  Instead of fixing the problem, I avoided the confrontation at the expense of my inner peace.  Am I only parent who has ever done this???

On the other hand, for the most part, I have a really great relationship with each of my children at the piano.  We have a lot of fun together. Neither of them has ever refused to practice or perform at an event.  They love to play and volunteer to play in public whenever and wherever there is a piano.

This is the dance I am talking about.  How to make practice productive and positive.  How to develop inner discipline in each child while fostering a love of playing music. I guess each parent has to find her way through the ebb and flow of this journey.

Each parent has a different level of tolerance and patience. What works for one family might be outside the comfort level of another.  We should not accept disrespectful or inappropriate expressions of frustration or anger at any time.  We must teach our kids that feelings are always okay, but behavior must still be respectful toward the parent and the instrument.

Each child is completely unique and constantly growing and changing as well.   When Calvin was really young, my patience was endless.  We played games, used stuffed animals, and lingered at the piano for much longer than the time we were productively practicing.  There were also many times I hauled him off to his room for disrespectful behavior.  Now at 9 years old, I find that I can raise my expectations.  He knows my boundaries.  I don't find myself settling for behavior that I don't really like.  He is taking more and more responsibility for setting his own standards.  He is starting to take ownership of his playing.   These behavior situations were never even an issue with my second child. Go figure--am I more experienced or is she just a different creature?  Both. Parents of adolescent girls might tell me that I haven't seen it all yet. . .

I don't have all the answers.  I hope that I will look back and say that mostly I was firm but always kind, that I set a high standard but made it fun to achieve.   Dr. Suzuki says that we teach first for the love of the child, and second for the love of music.  If I gain a virtuoso pianist and lose my child, or lose his love of music, what have I gained?  I have to operate on faith that if I put my relationship with my children first, and my standards and expectations of them at the piano second, it will all turn out right in the end.

What a great dance!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Blessings of Travel

I didn't ride on an airplane until I was 18 years old.  My boyfriend Dean's parents bought me a ticket and we went to see him over Thanksgiving.  He was finishing basic training in the Air Force in Biloxi, Mississippi.  We flew into New Orleans.  We stayed with his Cajan grandparents.  Sitting at Thanksgiving dinner, I was staring at the barely dead whole crawfish on my plate.  Grandpa Courville said sternly, "when 'yer barefoot and pregnant with three young'uns at 'yer feet y'ull be eatin' whats put on 'yer plate." Suffice it to say, it didn't work out.  I might add that the in-laws I ended up with have slightly higher expectations of family life. . . and education.  All is well that ends well.

When I could start to afford it I flew back and forth from Texas to Iowa for breaks.  I flew to some weddings and funerals.

Then I married an airline executive.  For the next 12 years we flew everywhere.  Mostly for free.  That is obviously huge.  We sat in the cockpit of the plane from Amsterdam to Paris.  That was before 9/11.  After 9/11 flying was less fun, but we still went.  With kids.  Flying with toddlers was another story.  Each toy or book lasted about 45 seconds.  So you can do the math on a three hour flight.  Now the kids are old enough to get plugged in.  Since we don't over-media at home, I have no problem with this.  Hawaii is an eight hour flight, each movie is 90 minutes, here we are doing the math again.  It only gets easier.

I am the champion packer.  I can pack of family of four for a seven day trip in 20 minutes.  If the laundry is done.  I know how to fit a week's supply of little three ounce bottles into a quart baggie so that you couldn't possibly fill it with one more thing.

My husband loves to travel.  That is why he was so successful at living on a bus with the Glenn Miller Orchestra for three years.  That is why he can fly to China for two days and return un-jet-lagged.

I love to stay home.  I love drinking my coffee out of the same mug every day, looking out the same window.

The only lure of travel for me is people and beauty.  In the case of Minnesota versus Hawaii, there is also the sunshine and warmth element.  We are going with my mother, my sister, her husband, and their daughter.  There will be eight of us.  The reason I wanted them to go, was because it is so beautiful, and so warm.  I just think everyone should have a chance to see the ocean like this.  To just sit and watch the waves and let the kids run on the beach.  The first time Mary saw the beach, she just started running.  It is amazing.

The best news about this trip is that we have Spring break the week after we get home.  I will still get to drink my coffee and stare out my own window for a few days.

By the way there is no piano at the Marriott in Koalina.  So I have agreed that we will do extra listening in the hotel.  Thanks do Bill for earning the Marriott points with his work travel, and suffering through some tough times at nwa/Delta for the free flights.  It is better than a crawfish on a plate (not to mention that other condition) any day!

I am signing off the blog for a few days.  I hope you will return soon.  I hope you will have some sunshine and warmth too.  I wish we could take everyone.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Houston and Chopin part two. . .

I'm sending a big thank you to Bill for holding down the fort this weekend.  The kids played at the S.A.M. graduation.  They swam at a "swim meet."  Mary sang in church.  From what I have heard they were properly dressed and fed for each event.  There are some Dads who would have the kids show up for the recital in swimwear and for the swim event in dress clothes.  Bill is really with it. I watched the video of Mary and Calvin and my students who played in the 12:00 recital on Saturday.  Congratulations to everyone!

I had a great time in Houston.  I sincerely hope that the students I worked with took something special home with them.  I feel a lot of pressure at these institutes.  I know that when I take my kids to a workshop it costs a great deal of money and I invest a lot of time to prepare them.  I always hope that the teacher will be kind but honest about what we need to work on.  I want my kids to have fun, but I also want some work to get done.  I assume that most parents feel the same way and as a teacher I try to give them something solid to work on.  I try to give them some technical work on their hand position and tone, since I am often working with beginners who are still getting set up at the piano.  I also try to give them something musical to apply to the pieces, like adding rainbows, or gentle endings, or echos.  Lastly I try to show them at least one practice game that they can use at home to make practice positive and productive.

I spoke with parents at two different parent lectures.  I had help from some fellow teachers who sat in with me.  That is wonderful, as it makes the discussion more lively and we can bounce questions to someone else when appropriate.  Thanks to Chris, Angelica, Doris, Phyllis and Geraldo who all had excellent insights to share.

I played the Chopin Nocturne in C-sharp Minor on one of the recitals.  I had many compliments and I'm sure it had some beautiful moments.  I was disappointed because I did have an out of brain experience early in the piece and had to pause and start the phrase again.  I was pleased that I knew each phrase well enough to start exactly where I wanted to start.  Two things threw me.  One was that I found out that Doris had been doing teacher training on Book Seven this whole week with the Houston teachers. So they had all spent the week studying the piece I was about to play.  I think I worked through that.  I tried the piano at my lunch time and everything was fine.  When I sat down to play at 4:15, I tested the soft pedal, the una corda, and it went thump to the ground.  Totally busted. I was counting on this pedal effect for many sections of the pieces.  It was like pulling out of the rental car lot and putting the breaks on and having nothing happen.  I did panic to a certain extent. . . (By the way, the piano was lovely, who knows what happened to the pedal between 12:00 and 4:00?  It is Houston and they do have a 99% humidity level,  these things happen.)

This experience was disappointing to me for reasons beyond my fragile ego.  I get bummed when the evil nervous monster roars his roar.  Sometimes I feel like I should join a 12 step program for nervous people: "Hi my name is Sara and I suffer from debilitating performance anxiety."  Just get it on the table.  At some point having this condition causes a person to become very angry inside.  I could write the whole dang piece out on staff paper if you asked me to.  I tallied 60 perfect repetitions at home.  Why then would I go totally blank in the first 10 measures and have to conjure every ounce of concentration to collect my thoughts and enjoy playing the rest of the piece?  Insert your own profanity. . .

There are some injustices to classical music.  When I played in "Lost Wolf" the top 40 country cover band for five years we played the same set list three nights a week, week in and week out.  We played about 40 songs a night and rotated in a new song from the radio each week and dropped an old song each week.  We could be in front of 2000 fans on the jumbo-tron at 100,000 decibels through the sound system.  Nervous?  No.   My husband is a jazzer.  He was on the road with the Glenn Miller Orchestra for three years.  They performed 300 concerts a year.  Same big band book every night.  Nervous?  No.

Fast forward to grad-school.  Work on a 60 minute program of solo piano repertoire for 18 months.  Get to perform it in the auditorium for the faculty.  Once.  For a grade.  It is no wonder some of us go psycho.

Perhaps this is God's way of giving me compassion toward my students and to never take for granted what courage it takes to get up in front of an audience and perform a piece from memory.   As for me, I know what I have to do.  I have been down this road before and come out whole again.  I need to perform more than once or twice a year, and not just at my cousin's wedding. That is the only way.  Success leads back to success.  Eventually your heart stops racing and your hands can only sweat so much and your brain gets annoyed with the stress and moves on.  I'm excited that I am subbing for the church choir for the rest of this season, that will give me a chance to play in front of people every Sunday for at least a few months.  Enough about that.

Monday was a treat.  I got to spend the day with Casey my first grade friend.  We got a pedicure, I got my springtime flower on my big toe.  We got to chit chat about nothing in particular for 12 hours.  Got to eat at Chick-fil-a.  Very therapeutic.  Love you, babe!

Thanks to the teachers in Houston for inviting me!  Especially Carolyn for choosing me. Thanks to Yelena for hosting me and sharing the Houston contest repertoire.  Thanks to Phyllis for driving me everywhere.  Thanks to Doris,  for well. . . everything I know!  Being with you all  is a total blessing for me, and I hope you will invite me again.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Deerwood, Houston, and Chopin

This morning as I am hustling around getting ready to leave for Houston this afternoon, my heart is just so filled with love.  

I love Deerwood school.  Last night was the fourth grade musical.  Lisa Schoen does an unbelievable job preparing these children.  Every fourth grader from all three classes has a spoken part and most of them have at least one solo singing part.  Talk about every child can.  I love that our school sees the value of music to the extent that every year every class has a program, in the evening.  This means parents and kids ALL have to come back to school at 7:00 p.m..  Talk about sending a message about the importance of music in education.  (I noticed that there isn't an event where we all have to come back in the evening to watch the kids play soccer. . . ) That is not to say that they don't place an emphasis on fitness.  Our main fundraiser is Run-4-Deerwood, they kids all collect money and run around the track.  Simple and beautiful. No candy, no popcorn, no frozen buns.  I love it.  

I speak with forked tongue since I am heading up the spring plant sale fundraiser.  Plants are different. . . to me anyway.  

I love that when we drop the kids off in the morning the staff and administration are standing in the circle drive.  I am especially moved by this when the temp reaches five below.  Seeing Principal Haugen standing out there until every kid gets into the school chokes me up every time.  It is like he is taking personal responsibility that every child is safe.  It also increases appropriate behavior in the adult drivers dropping off.  I am much less likely to cut off my neighbor to get my kid to school on time with the staff watching me.  Not that I would do this--maybe it keeps Bill from cutting in line. . . 

I love that the teachers, parents, and students all seem to be on the same team, and all of us are just trying to help the kids reach their highest potential.   

I just love Deerwood Elementary.  I guess if it wasn't safe and I didn't feel like the kids were having their needs met, we would suck it up and drive to a charter school or make a budget for private school.  I am so thankful that we don't even have to think about that.  Thanks to all the teachers who give and give and give.  We are so thankful.  

I also love Houston.  I am so thankful that Bill can hold down the fort here this weekend.  I love the kids in Houston and seeing Doris, and my new teaching friends from the workshop.  I love talking with the parents there.  I also love spending an extra day to see my childhood friend, Casey.  One day is never long enough to get caught up, but with busy family life some years it is the best we can do.  

I will miss seeing Calvin and Mary and my students play in the S.A.M. recitals.  I really will.  I will miss seeing Mary get her Book One trophy.  Next year the dates are different and I will get to attend again.  That is a perk of being president elect of the S.P.T.G.  

I also love Chopin.  I got my 50 perfect repetitions.  I'm going to try to upload the video.  We'll see how it goes.  That takes a little courage you know. .. 

I also love writing.  You have probably guessed this by now.  Writing is therapeutic to me.  All warm fuzzies aside, I better get myself in gear and start packing.   

Have a great weekend and best wishes to the S.A.M. performers!!!!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Chamber Music Rocks!

We had our chamber music festival this weekend.  Twenty-two pianists got to play their pieces with with violin and cello accompaniment.  I love these events.  This year Mrs. Houser coached Book Four and above and I coached Books One to Three with a student violinist and cellist.  I enjoyed this very much.  Thanks to Christina for stepping up to the plate in a major way to substitute for the professional cellist who cancelled Thursday night.  She spent several hours on Friday learning the pieces for Saturday.  She did a very competent job, especially since she has only been playing the cello for a couple years.  What she may have lacked in professional maturity, she more than made up for in knowledge of the repertoire, having played most of the pieces on piano.  It was lovely.  Thanks also to Catherine McMichael who composed the majority of the arrangements we use.  One of the highlights was the trio for Chopin's Waltz in c-sharp minor--with hints of Chopin's waltz in E-flat in the cello--which I had the honor of playing on the second piano since Christina still deserved a chance to play her own piano piece.  I also particularly loved the moment in Good-bye to Winter when Jacqueline and the strings breathed exactly together on the "good-bye."  Another gem was little Britten listening to the subdivisions of the strings during Mary Had a Little Lamb.  You just never know what is going on in their little ears.  I thought my Mary was going with the flow, I couldn't tell if she was truly engaged.  Then in practice yesterday she said, "Mama, I really liked that part where it went. . . " and proceeded to sing the violin part over her own playing of Happy Farmer.  You just never know. . . what goes on in their little ears.  

Of course some of the more mature students have pretty big ears.  Seeing the older students communicate intelligently with the string players is such a treat.  They are really growing up.  Observing 13-16 young ladies and gentlemen learn how to cue each other and communicate musically is also interesting. There were a couple moments of frustration, strange things can happen when brains get overloaded.  Over all most of the moments were positive and some were amazingly beautiful. 

Ensemble playing is the team sport of music.  Cooperation, eye contact, communication, accountability, trust--all these elements make the sum greater than the parts.  Piano playing can be a lonely business--all those hours locked in the practice room alone.  Chamber music is a beautiful way to be on a musical team.  Congratulations to everyone who participated!