Monday, September 30, 2013

Tiny Pearls of Wisdom for the Tiny Hearts. . .

As we transition from parent orientation to the lessons at the piano with the children, some universal themes present themselves and I thought I would share these ideas each week to help all the families have positive and productive lessons.

Pearl number one. The pre-lesson routine. When you arrive at your lesson, go to the bathroom and wash hands, then head up to the studio.  If a lesson is in progress, enter and wait quietly on the sofa.

Do not allow the child to get out a puzzle or toy before the lesson, if we allow this, we will be taking him away from something fun to get started with the lesson. (I will temporarily be simplifying the toys I usually keep in the back for sibling lessons.  After we are in a routine, I'll reintroduce some of those items.) The lesson must come first.

Do not engage in a grown up discussion about the week. (This one is for me too. . . ) The child must go to the piano first thing. Email me any thoughts or concerns you have by the evening before your lesson.  Otherwise, one sentence should get us going--for example, some compliment about the main point of the last lesson like, "Cassy did a great job with her rest position this week, she kept her feet very still."  Then we bow and we are off. . .

The child was focused because the teacher was focused. The faster I can get the child in my bubble the more productive our lesson will be.

If on the off chance that your four year old sits attentively with me at the piano for the full 30 minutes--I'll be glad to follow up with any questions on the phone until we can arrange a longer lesson length.  That would be a successful problem.

These kids are cute.  Really cute.  And these parents--I really love getting to know them.  I could chit chat all day. . . but. . . we have to get after it.

"I'm ready to learn now."
"I'm ready to be a patient and loving teacher."

Want to Play? 

Monday, September 23, 2013

When We've Been There 10,000 Years

Daddy and Mary on the day she was born

A photo that never made the scrapbook but is awfully precious now-Daddy and Calvin
It's the anniversary of my dad's death.  Four year ago today. The sharp knife of a short life.

In August I read the book Proof of Heaven by Eben Alexander.  Reading these near death experience books can be very comforting, especially this one with a very scientific slant.

There are all sorts of things about religion that I'm unsure about.  There are some however that I feel very confident about.  Here are a few. . .

God's time is not our time. Any god capable of creation floats above our time and space continuum. That's why science and religion are not in conflict for me--period.

Secondly, the vast and unimaginable love of God transcends the patches of evil and suffering on Earth.  All the injustices and sorrows throughout our histories, even the big ones, are but a speck against God's galaxy of joy.

Thirdly, no one is forgotten.  I don't know my great grandparents. I never did. Their personalities and idiosyncrasies will soon be forgotten by everyone living. But not by God.

Daddy,  you are only four years into the first 10,000--I wonder what you will do with yourself--assuming there are no flat sopranos in heaven and presumably everyone is already using really good diction. The horses there probably don't poop or need new shoes. Community development? Not. Well, there must be something there to do--because to you, heaven was not a place of leisure.

I wonder if God allows turkey hunting.

These are the mysteries we don't understand. But you do now, Daddy--and for that I'm happy.
We miss you. You will never be forgotten, by this generation or the next.  

Thursday, September 19, 2013

"U da Mom!" . . . Eating and Practicing

Yes, these are bunnies riding unicorns. . . oh to be eight again. 
Yes, you guessed it, Bill is out of town. 
It's Thursday night and I have seen nineteen returning students this week.  Congratulations parents!  Everyone stayed in the boat.  I did not have to reintroduce any child to the black keys and the white keys! I'm pleasantly surprised. I worried that there would be fallout from my sabbatical this summer but almost everyone kept going!  Kudos to Aidan and Sami for their excellent practice partner coaching!  I was tickled to see some of their notes and suggestions in the kids' music.

Next week? Five new puppies--including four four-year-olds. We finish up parent orientation tomorrow. It's the first generation of kids who are younger than my own. That feels different. Really different. I feel this overwhelming sense of confidence and experience and affection toward these families. I have BEEN THERE. . . and I'm here to tell you, your child is not going to come up with anything I haven't seen. . .and they are going to play the piano really, really well.

I have to reflect on some faith based irony. For the past 25 years I've always been very prayerful about the studio roster.  I've always felt that children come and go according to their needs and my needs.  We all have a purpose in each others' lives. Yes, there have been a few kicks in the stomach, some tearful farewells, and even an occasion sigh of relief when the Dear John email hits in inbox.  (It's very rare these days to conjure up the courage to quit in person. . .) But for the most part, things work themselves out with very little influence from me. I never recruit students, I never turn away a family who observes and does orientation, and I never fire anyone for not practicing. Period. Every child can.

But, what I really wanted was some new little kids to start. You can imagine my delight that somehow in July and August the phone started ringing and four Eagan families stepped up to the plate. Three of them coincidentally go to the same preschool. My grandma would call that a God thing.

It's going to be a great little group. All the other studio kids think they moved up a group. I'm not sure they realize that everyone pretty much moved up a group. . . so. . . it's going to feel about the same. I'm not saying the high school group is going to feel the same. There's still a hole in my heart for all the ones who went before.

In closing--this is how a day in my life goes: wake at 6:00 and practice with Calvin. Feed the children and get them to school. Exercise. Teach lessons. Pick up the children and feed them snack. Teach lessons. Feed the children dinner. Practice with Mary. Feed the children a bedtime snack. Get the children to bed. Practice with Sara. . . feed Sara a bedtime snack. . . put Sara to bed. Doctor Suzuki said to only practice on the days you eat. Sometimes it feels like that is all we do. Practice and eat. Of course that's not true, we squeeze in eye doctor appointments and piano teacher meetings and roof repairs and birthday parties.

The things that go to make up a life. A very good life. As Calvin proclaimed on a recent camping trip when I saved his disassembled walkie talkies from a rain storm, "U da Mom!"  Wow. Just hearing those words made it all worthwhile. I'm the mom, even in middle school lingo. Sigh.

Eating and practicing. Eating and practicing. Eating and practicing.

Here's to all the parents helping their kids eat and practice and everything else in between.

We da parents!!!! (I think that's a compliment. . . at least I'm pretty sure it is. . . isn't it?)

Friday, September 13, 2013

Raise Your Ability. . .

. . . with a piece you can play.  This is a famous Dr. Suzuki quote.  It refers to the cornerstone emphasis on review in the Suzuki Method.

News flash! It works.

Kids who review their past repertoire everyday play really, really well.


Two-thirds of the child's daily practice should be on pieces that he can already play.  This affords him the ability to add dynamics, correct tempo, increased accuracy, sophisticated phrasing . . . etc. etc.

Kids who review are comfortable at the piano.

I'm increasingly convinced of the value of review in other areas of life as well--for instance, math and language.  When we rush ahead in math we may get to the next level faster and impress the fellow PTA members with how advanced our kid is, but if she doesn't really get it, sooner or later she will crash.  Ditto for the foreign language.  This explains how I could take three years of high school and one year of college French and yet arrive at the Paris Cafe unable to order and pay for a cup of coffee. When we learn our OWN language we repeat and internalize EVERYTHING year after year.  Kids that are comfortable with math didn't forget the addition facts when they went on to division.  They KNOW it.

So, parents, as you get ready to come back to lessons, ask your child to play all her pieces. Not mindlessly, but with a central focus, for example, today let's play all the pieces with your feet very flat or with very nice balance--of course depending on where the child is at.  Don't get stuck on fixing everything.  Just play the songs and look for one thing to think about.  Have faith.  Have fun!

Use charts, games, or. . . dig out my flash cards for books 1 and 2.

Teachers. . . here's the other news flash: the students will only review when we ask to hear the pieces every week.  This is my goal this fall, to hear every song at every lesson. Yes, this means less time for the new piece. But the payoff is extraordinary.  And. . not to worry. . as ability grows. . . you will spend less time fixing things and be able to learn things correctly the first time. I promise you will make even more efficient progress.  Good luck.  Get busy.

See you Monday. . .

Monday, September 9, 2013


Family date night. . .
For Christmas last year the man in the red suit brought us tickets to the Taylor Swift Red concert. The Kotrba family didn't get the memo that like Santa, you were supposed to wear red to the concert. It looked like a Lutheran church on reformation Sunday.

I can count on one hand the number of arena shows I've been to in my life--Adele, James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt, Chicago and Rush. Count Basie and Pat Metheny and other jazz and singer songwriter types play smaller venues. This was definitely my kids' first big show, outside of Eastview High's Bravo production, that is.

It was a great show.We all had a great time. Casey James and Ed Sheeran opened up for her. I missed most of Casey James waiting in line to get Mary a t-shirt, but Ed Sheeran was awesome. He stood on that arena stage with his guitar. Just him. And the guitar. After a bit I heard a whole band playing and was dismayed to think that he was singing to canned music. Not. He was using his guitar as bass and drums, making percussive sounds and creating live "loop" recordings that he recorded and controlled with his foot pedals. I've really never seen anything like it. By the second song he had the whole 15,000 people singing in two part harmony that he asked us to sing back to him, left and right sides, and it made this sweet little chorale round. That is some charismatic pedagogy if I've ever heard it. Several times he worked the guitar into a frenzy and he was scat singing or rapping or both at the same time--but it was really well done. He closed with his hit "A Team." If it makes you warm and fuzzy to think about 10,000 eight to twelve year old girls singing this sweet song along with him, I'm going to suggest you not google the lyrics and their meaning. Oh well. My mom let me buy the 45 rpm record of "Afternoon Delight" when I was eight and I sang along with the catchy tune and never knew what it meant till many years later. Sometimes you have to lighten up.

Taylor Swift was really cool. I know folks have strong ideas about what kind of role models we want for our girls. Here's my take: when a girl works really hard and follows her dream to write songs, and takes it all the way to employ a gazillion people and make millions of dollars and sell out arenas on her own terms--I think that's a good role model. And she's done it so far without any drunken headlines. Personally, I think it's a great thing to show our girls that they can be cute and flirty without being raunchy.

Was it a theatrical show?  You bet'cha.  It wasn't Adele sitting on a bar stool with a lamp beside her. But last time I checked, musical theatre was a highly respected and successful art form.  There were a million costume changes and stage sets and dancers and video and her face larger than life on the jumbo-tron. Fireworks and confetti. Taylor flying across the arena in some boom contraption.

But she also sat on a stool in a t-shirt and shorts and sang and played the banjo. With her hair in a pony tale. That's another hidden message. We are okay both ways. Dolled up or in our own skin.

She told the kids--I paraphrase--if you think people stop being mean when you grow up you are wrong. . . when someone is so mean to you and it hurts so bad. . . you have to resign yourself that you will never ever make someone else feel that way. . . and then go in your room and write a song about it. She related again how she didn't fit in at school and didn't have many friends because she was different. Don't we all feel like that?

My favorite? "All Too Well." She played it on the red piano. She sang it beautifully and expressively and I was really moved. She captured that fine line between sadness and anger.  She was dramatically rockin' her head of hair at the climax of the song and Calvin turned and yelled to me--I think she's moving too much to play very well. . . well. . . hopefully the other keyboard player had her back.

Mary lost her voice after the first ten minutes. I think that is a successful night. My ears didn't ring until this morning. . . then only the left one--my drum set side--from ten years of being on the right side of the drummer. Bill had the drums in his right ear for his live music era--we should make a good couple in our old age.

I was only on a jumbo-tron once in my whole pop music career. Is Taylor Swift a little bit of an actress? Of course she is. But. . .she earned it and I'm here to look up to anyone who can smile and sing and play on the jumbo-tron night after night---her own music on her own terms, and send all 15,000 of us home with a song and a smile.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

All Good Things Must Come to an End

Boundary Waters Canoe Area

Because I was camping with the pastor I didn't steal a lily pad for my pond

When you camp with an engineer you get very level pancakes 

Girls in Nature

All Good Things Must Come to an End
Including camping trips.
And summer.
And sabbaticals.

It's one of those perfect first days of school here in Minnesota.  The temperature was fifty and the sunshine was bright.

Seventh Grade

Third Grade

As I dropped the kids off the song on the radio was playing "this is the first. . . day. . . of the rest of your life. . . "
I love new starts.
I love routine.
I love crisp Fall weather.
I love that moment when I drop the last child at school after three months of 24/7.
A tear runs down your eye as you do cartwheels through the door.

I love how just when I've had about enough of the garden the season turns and I'm ready for pencils and music books and practice journals. I'm ready for fires in the evening and maybe even a batch of chili.

I'm starting three new families with three four-year-olds and a seven-year-old. I'm so excited. Brand new little faces. They have big shoes to fill.

I love making practice books and setting recital dates and buying a couple more four color pens than I really need. Paper and cardstock and stickers. New music.

Calvin and I sat at the piano at 6:15 a.m. for the first time in a month. Mary will practice tonight. 

I'm going to head upstairs and practice for choir on Wednesday--another fresh start. Then I'm going to go for a long walk all by myself. This week I'll start lesson plans and new parent orientation.

I love it all. I guess truly everyday and every moment is a chance at a new beginning. All good things must come to an end. . . but that gives us the blessing of fresh starts.

I'm so thankful for that. God bless all the children and the teachers and the parents and the piano kids--the new ones and the old ones! God bless all our fresh starts and new beginnings. Amen.