Thursday, February 27, 2014

Getting a Second Wind

I guess it's officially the coldest winter in thirty-five years. Duh. Like we needed weather archives to know that.

If you are a person who even remotely suffers from seasonal affective disorder. . . that melancholy that takes over when you don't get enough sunshine and daylight. . . you are probably headed for the crazy farm by now.  I dreamed I drank the entire bottle of vitamin D drops. Everyone has had it up to here.

Time to get our second wind.

When Calvin was a baby things were not so easy.  He was not an easy baby. One napless day after a sleepless night I was having my own little pity party for one and Maggie the babysitter showed up. She saw the tears on my face and moved toward me. She had six children of her own and I thought she was going to give me a big bear hug like I deserved. Instead she shook my shoulders and said, "You better get it together.  YOU'RE the MOM here." I forgot she was also in the Air Force.

The right words at the right time.

So Minnesotans. We better get it together. We're the northerners here.

I've been having another pity party for one this week. Bill's been gone two weeks in a row and he had gigs last weekend and the list of hoopla and responsibilities for me is about fifty miles long.  Like every working mother.  Who's doing what when where and what do they need to bring with them. . .and what is their temperature and can they still go to school with that?

I'm off to Houston tomorrow. It's truly one of the highlights of my year. Teaching the children, playing in the recital, and talking with parents at the parent lecture. Two of my favorite things! Seeing new friends and old friends.

Men go out of town on business and women kick into survival mode. It's tough but we are the mom's here. We make lists and make do.

Women go out of town on business and it takes a full staff of engineers to keep the train on the tracks.  And that's with a good husband.

But, I'm still the mom here. And I'm proud of that. I've got my second wind. There's a fridge full of food and emergency pop tarts. Calvin has a black button-down shirt for his part in the choral service. Bill has a black button down shirt for his part. Everyone has clean underwear for the weekend. The SPTG stuff is under control and I have a sub for choir. I won't bore you anymore. . . with the rest of the list. Okay, one more--cat and bunny litter. . . .are done.

Minnesota, we don't know what the next ten weeks will hold. Winter is not even close to being over. Keep shoveling. Hang in there. Embrace the pride of sending your kids to school at ten below, again.

If like me you've been having your own private moping festival, get your second wind. Channel your inner Maggie and shake it off.

We are the moms here.

We are the northerners here.

We can do it.

Well, I'm off to Houston for a weekend without my kids. . . . see you soon. Note hypocrisy of blog entry. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Practice What You Praise

Congrats to all the chamber music kids! We had a great chamber music weekend. I just LOVE the look on these little ones' faces when they hear the sound of the cello and violin with their pieces. And the older kids broaden their listening and work on ensemble skills. Our string players Christina and Anne-Sophie did a great job adapting to the different levels and musicianship of each child. I'll try to get some video up on youtube but getting 20 files uploaded is an all day job. Note--I had the heat up in the studio during the third session, the children in the picture aren't frozen, I just had the camera on the wrong setting. A little knowledge is such a dangerous thing. Thanks also to Catherine McMichael for the bulk of the arrangements. She's quick to email a file when I need a part.

Occasionally snarky passive agressive parenting gets the job done. For example, instead of setting a specific boundary for computer game use I just say things like, "it must be uncomfortable to have that iPad growing out of your left hand." Or, "What are the wizards and little mine people up to today?  They've seen more of you than I have."

This results in exasperation and occasional tears. Guilt is an underrated approach. But after one such interaction my child did arrange a Kabalevsky piece for wind ensemble and complete two stop motion animations with stuffed bunnies and play-doh.

I won. . .

Let's say it again together. . . it's not the computer game. . . it's what you are not doing while you are playing the computer game.

Somedays it feels like me against Dell and Apple. A one woman war against Gates and Jobs.

I've been thinking about the role of praise in our children's lives. Americans are oft accused of over praising our kids.

Personally, I think life is tough and playing the piano is a long road and we need all the praise and encouragement we can possibly humanly get.

But it has to be the right kind of praise.

My dad was notorious for quips like, "Sara, you look less tired than yesterday."  And, "you are really starting to play with some dynamics." (At age 25. . . ) Just shoot me.

While completely well intentioned, the result was not uplifting. We call this backhanded complimenting. "You sure screwed up less this time than last time." Or. .  "way to keep going even when the performance was a total botch." I've heard it all.

Even, "you are so talented" sends the wrong message. If I did happen to do well it was only because of some gift I was presented with at birth.

We should praise first for effort, hard work, determination and second for specific details and results.

You are such a hard worker.
You are really determined.
You really know how to practice effectively.
You were really listening for the balance.
I heard each note clearly.
The melody was very expressive.
Your bow was slow and thoughtful.
Worst case scenario: I'm so glad you are still taking piano.

Period. No if, ands, or buts.
That's how you give a compliment.

"You are really wasting less of your life at the computer today. . ."

"I really love seeing all your super cool projects. What's next on your list?"
A little better.

Now on to practice what I praise.

Disclaimer: the above mentioned child really doesn't spend all that much time on the computer. He or she is really an extremely self-motivated kid. There have just been a lot of snow days this winter. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Also, we don't watch any network TV and other TV screen time only on weekends. Some of the events in this entry may have been exaggerated for dramatic writing purposes. Thank you for reading. 

Monday, February 24, 2014

Voices of Angels

On Saturday children's choirs from twelve area churches gathered at the Basilica of Saint Mary in Minneapolis for a workshop with Michael Wustrow, a clinician from New York. Thank you to Shirley Erickson and Easter Lutheran for taking the Choristers to this all day event. The children rehearsed off and on for several hours, a couple threw up and had to go home, the rest had lunch and continued rehearsing. The finale was a worship service led by the children, with a fine organist and pianist helping out. Children read the scripture and one young boy sang the Psalm. The music was really wonderful and the Lutheran, Methodist and Catholic children seemed oblivious to any theological conflicts amongst themselves.

I haven't been to any other children's choir festivals, but I thought they did a great job and what a great opportunity to sing with a pipe organ and a 9' Steinway in an awe inspiring cathedral.

I'm posting a link to thirty seconds of them singing, but before you watch it I'd like you to detour and read the "Bulletproof Musician" blog entry first. . .

Do We Have a Hidden Bias Against Creativity? Link

Now you can go to the clip of Mary singing. . .
Mary singing at the Choir Festival 2/22/14 Link

Great news! All my children's misbehaving is a direct result of their extreme creativity!  And don't you love the big white flower in her hair?

I'm only half joking. What a dance we teachers and parent do everyday. I love that she is so happy to be there and to see us. Obviously there will come an age where Mary should no longer wave to her mom and dad at the concert. But. . . I felt very convicted by the Bulletproof Musician blog. It's so much EASIER to teach compliant children. And I feel very strongly about my own children developing the self discipline to observe conformity when it is appropriate.

Laughing out loud.

Here's to finding a way to develop respect and self-control without swishing our children into conformity.

Good luck.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Looking for the One Small Good Thing

This is Mary's self portrait from art class at school.  We all love it and I'm going to have prints made and she is going to sell them to raise money for Feed My Starving Children, the Kotrba kids' charity of choice. She'll be taking orders soon.

The painting is about the only bright thing around here. We have snow on snow and cold on cold. Bill is in Atlanta at the Ritz and my mother and my in-laws are in Arizona basking. It's just me here with 8-12 inches of snow expected today. Yesterday I found myself holding back the tears more than a couple times. My dad's birthday is tomorrow, he would have been 74. I was going over choir music and some old Schirmer a cappella arrangment took me right back to Faith Lutheran Church in Eldridge, Iowa and there I was, five years old, on the red sanctuary carpet coloring with crayons while my dad waved his arms in front of the singers. Diction, diction, diction. . . fast forward to high school and Mandy and I sitting in the alto section, this time at Park View Lutheran, and I could hear his voice like he was in the room. And the flat sopranos.

My studio mom Mary Fox's dad passed away. It doesn't matter if he was 97 he's still your daddy.  And your grandpa.

Easy to be blue. There's been so much snow the kids have missed lessons and colds and flus and it seems like nobody is playing all that well or practicing enough. Including me, I made a recording of my piece and thought it really was awful. (I have descriptive language for that but I held back. . . since Calvin helps me proof read.)

Easy to be blue. Harder to look for the one good thing. What did I like about my playing? Well? I've wanted to play the Brahms Intermezzo for about twenty years and I finally got it memorized. That's a good thing. Now I've had the paradigm shift to feeling critical about the shaping of the lines and the phrasing. How quickly we raise our bars and then kick ourselves for not making it. If I was Rado Lupu I'd be playing the Brahms at Orchestra Hall. Alas it's just me. But maybe I can bring out the voices just a little better. Move the tempo just a little more. Oh wait, that's two things.

Dr. Suzuki asks us again and again to pick one thing. One focus.
Edmund Sprunger suggests we find one thing that's working and repeat it.

The older I get the more I lean on this. It's just plain true. We can only really work on one thing at a time. We have to look for the one small good thing.

My Brahms has a good tone. There, I found one thing I like.

It's the same with the four year olds. One thing at a time. Feet first. . . body will follow. It's the same with the high school kids--you don't have to tell them everything you know in every lesson. Give 'em too much and the tears will flow. I did it again this week. . . was it my words or the piece. . .or the barometric pressure? You never know what's going on with these precious kids.

One small good thing. Yesterday a four year old smoothed his hand over his other hand to gently round it--the first sign of awareness of keeping a gentle hand. Hallelujah. Baby steps.

A local teacher Paul Wirth gave us a lecture on performance practice and his hand-out said, "Think the first phrase. Yes! I can do that! The rest will unfold like a flower."

That's a little like finding the one good thing--one phrase at a time.
Get up and get your coffee. The day will unfold. Get really good coffee.

Spring is coming.
Calvin and I heard the birds at the crack of dawn sitting at the piano. We both looked at each other and smiled. Joy. One small good thing and eventually, spring will unfold like a flower. A really beautiful flower. Life too unfolds. One small good thing at a time.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Choices, Choices, Choices. . .

Congratulations to Samantha Gauer and Calvin Kotrba, along with three other Twin Cities Suzuki pianists upon being selected to play in the Suzuki Association of Minnesota upper level graduation honors recitals on March 15 at Bethel University.

This is a lovely event in a beautiful hall with a wonderful piano. I hope a lot of people will come and watch. For the record, because I had a student of almost fifteen years and my own child auditioning I took myself off the judging committee. Too much love floating out there to be objective.

Calvin will not be representing Blackhawk Middle School at the state spelling bee. Alas, he did not qualify. I confess that I'm relieved. The state bee is also March 15, and had he made it he would have had to choose between representing his school and representing the advanced piano kids.

This got me to thinking about all the choices in our lives. Even choosing between two good things can be difficult.

Personally, I'm happier when I have fewer choices. I'm paralyzed by the mall and I can't even order at a restaurant with too many foods. I shut down. Plus, how can they have all that food ready to serve?  I don't get it.

But I still want  little choices.

Chances are if you are reading this blog you are probably a parent or teacher who is accustomed to giving the children in your life good choices. I do better in some areas than others.

Mary scored very well on her standardized tests, but it still takes a good seven minutes to get her shoes on. That's not including the time it takes to choose which of her umpteen pairs of shoes to wear for the tasks of the day versus the ensemble she is wearing. Too many choices.

I'm better with her clothes. Since she started kindergarten, each morning I give Mary two or three choices for what to wear to school. She gets to choose but she isn't choosing from the whole closet. This works smoothly. Otherwise we would have to home school or find a school that starts mid-morning.

Same with breakfast. . . do you want this or that? Toast or bagel? Chocolate pop tarts is only an option when I'm out of town and Bill is in charge.

Same thing with piano. Do you want to start with a scale or theory? How many repetitions shall we do? What shall we do next?

Asking a lot of questions and giving limited and acceptable choices helps kids develop autonomy and eventual independence. The dance is knowing how much and when.

Our culture has the total curse of over choice.  It's everywhere all the time. I pay a little more to grocery shop at a smaller store because it's bad for my brain to see all those breakfast cereals. I'd have to let go some students for the time it takes me to stand there and make all those decisions. See how much I'm saving?

Bill and I try to protect our kids from having to make every little choice about every little thing. Dole out appropriate freedoms. We've done good with bedtime and not so great with food. Every family has their issues.

There will be enough tough choices in life.
I'm glad Calvin can postpone the academic vs. music a little longer. In eighth grade I had to choose between jazz band and algebra. Even then I knew that wasn't fair.

Speaking of academics and music, I saw Aidan last weekend and he announced that he is officially pursuing a double major of music and computer science. Congrats, Aidan! I'm happy for you.  Perhaps you too can postpone a difficult decision just a little longer, heck, maybe forever.  After all, my husband has two big band gigs this weekend.

Congrats on the Debussy, Calvin, and you can try the spelling bee thing again next year, though you should know genetics are against you. . . hopefully your DNA won't hold you back on either front.

Congrats to Sami, too. And good luck to everyone, with your own family's dance. May all the choices be win win.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Look How Far We've Come

The February 1, 4:00 Suzuki Piano Teachers Guild Advancing Recital Group

My Advanced Kids

My Seniors 
In the Blues Brothers movie the club owner says they have both kinds of music, that is, country and western. Here in Minnesota we're having both kinds of weather, that is, cold and snowy. Another ten below drive to school today. I can't remember a colder snowier winter. Sunday was ground hog day. It ain't no six weeks till spring here. More than one person said--we don't care about the shadow, just shoot the dang rodent.

The new four year olds in the studio are something else. She wiggles. He looks around. He asks a million questions about the minutia of the room. She wiggles some more. Then she actually plays a song. Then he wiggles some more. He tips the foot rest over on purpose and looks to see what I will do. I try to play a game and the game takes over. I'm about to pull my hair out and then he does this Twinkle and lifts his hand so pretty on each note and the tone is so sweet. I say that was so BEAUTIFUL and she smiles the cutest smile you've ever seen. Then she picks her nose.

It' frustrating. It's amazing. I love it. It's exhausting.

We simply must acknowledge every smidgeon of marginal progress or we will never make it. This is a long road. I'm still on it.

Look how far we've come. Four months ago these munchkins wouldn't even look at me. Now they are playing Twinkle with finger numbers and working out book one songs by ear. They understand a gentle round hand. They don't jump on the sofa when they come in. They listen to the sound. Slow and steady wins the race.

I'm taking a lot of video at these lessons. My personal teaching goal is to keep the lesson as short as it needs to be to work toward complete focus. Even though I know better, there is still some misguided pressure inside me to keep them at the piano for their entire 30 minute lesson, even when the focus is gone. That's teaching them how not to focus. I try to ignore any negative behavior and praise every effort, no matter how small. I believe I'm really good at teaching these little ones, this is what I do really well, but I tell you, every lesson with them is still a lesson for me and I'm reflecting and growing every week as well.

Thank God for the seniors. They are a daily reminder of how far we've come. They are so calm. And still. We've made it. We've changed from Mrs. Kotrba to Sara. It's all about the music. And a little about life. In a year they will just be my Facebook friends but back in the day. . . they were wiggly too.

I also love the middle kids. The biggest challenge for the middle kids is setting weekly goals and helping them be accountable for their own progress and musicality. It has to be theirs. Sooner is better than later. And there is also the whole relationship thing. . .

I have my own middle kid, Calvin. So I'm thinking a lot about middle kids these days. I'm happy to report that at the moment he loves music and he still loves me. And the music is his. He owns it. It's the greatest privilege and opportunity for me to coach him everyday. He's playing in Book Seven but we are doing a broad foundation. He picks the repertoire from carefully selected options I provide. And he wants to play it all and eventually we will. We aren't in any hurry. He will play everything from the Suzuki Repertoire and Chris Liccardo's books and all the Keith Snell editions. He's playing through and making recordings of all the Burgmuller and Streabogg. On his own. His idea. All the Schumann Album for the Young and the Tchaikovsky. We are going to play it all. After Book Seven he wants to do a recital of all 15 Bach Inventions. His idea. He looked at my shelf of "real" piano music and said, "jeesh, you could spend your whole life learning all this."

Yep. People do.

It's the same with teaching. Every week I think about how to be a better teacher to him and to Mary and to every single piano kid. I'll spend my whole life doing this. How to make it fun but still get something done. How to make them make it their own sooner than later. How to help shape their hearts while we shape the phrase.

Yet, look how far we've come. I have a whole drawer full of Calvin's charts that have little boxes for keep your feet flat. Charts for a happy heart. Charts for "yes, mama." We played a lot of games. We "wasted" a lot of time. But he loves music. And he still loves me. Slow and steady wins the race.

Look how far we've come. I'm amazed and I hope you are too. Yes, reflect. Yes, make it better everyday. Love the music. Love the child. But whether it's been four months, four years or fifteen years, take a moment to look how far you've come.