Monday, December 22, 2014

Everything I Need to Know About Teaching I Learned. . .

. . . from my high school french horn teacher.

Okay, it's my blog, so I can brag about my kids. This Christmas season, Calvin sold his CDs and collected $780 for Feed My Starving Children. Mary sold these angel cards and collected over $700 for cousin Stacey's "Stacey's Earth Angels" account to support her battle with pancreatic cancer. That's pretty cool.

One of the packages I mailed out went to Jennie McKenna, my high school french horn teacher. For some time now she has been teaching band at the Jr. High where my mom taught and where my sister teaches--so they are all still chummy. She bought some of Mary's cards because she likes angels.

This got me to thinking about my lessons with Jennie. I'm not gonna say how long ago, but you may have forgotten that I was a four-year Iowa All-State French Horn player and that I went to NIU and UT both on french horn scholarships. Though I did eventually sell my beautiful horn to pay the bills, those years were not wasted.

Jennie taught me a lot.

She taught me to connect with students. At the beginning of each lesson she would ask how I was. How was band? How was school? How were my friends? How was Dean? And then she would listen. This all only took 45-60 seconds of the lesson, but I had another adult in my life who cared how it was going during those fragile years. Twenty years later stupid high school boys are still not appreciating smart musical beautiful high school girls--some things never change. The years are still fragile. Connect with students.

She taught me to be generous with my time. My mom wrote the check for a half hour lesson, but I can't remember a lesson that wasn't 45-60 minutes. She did what needed to be done and it wasn't about the money.

She played duets with me on her horn. I thought this was "blow-off" time--sight reading because I hadn't practiced enough. I realize now that playing duets with her allowed me to listen to her sound, her rhythm, her articulation and her phrasing. It was actually the most efficient way to learn. Listening, listening, listening.

She taught me how to prep for an audition. Honor band. All-State. College. We prepped. She would be the judge and she would go through the motions of the whole audition--pretending to be intimidating and grouchy. Asking for the hardest scale. Interrupting my cadenza. Anything to catch me off guard. I wish I still had that confidence.

She taught me that we can to hard things. Beethoven. Mozart. Strauss. All the hard stuff. She dug in.

It wasn't just the music that was hard. Sometimes life was harder. She lost a baby to sudden infant death. My mom did the tough thing and took me to the visitation where old men sobbed quietly in chairs in corners of the room. And Jennie kept going.

I think that's why she likes angels. I think that's why I like angels. She taught me that you can have your heart broken and still keep going.

On a lighter note, that was helpful when Dean left me for another girl--I did keep going too and Jennie would have cared about that. Smile.

My UT french horn teacher was a jerk. He made me cry at every lesson and ultimately drove me to quit though he had heavily recruited me to come there. He was a past Chicago Symphony guy. A big shot.

Sometimes the small town high school band teacher trumps the CSO guy for instilling a love of music. And she protected who I was.

We teach first for the love of the child, second for the love of music.

So, Jennie, thanks for the trip down memory lane, and thanks for all the lessons about music and life, and for all the love you put into your teaching. I hope you enjoy your angel cards and if Mary decides to play french horn. . . you know who I'm gonna call.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Just Enough Merry and Bright

Well, here's to happy endings. We had a lovely, lovely recital and Christmas party. Every child was well and everyone stayed for the party. Two of the children played Christmas songs accompanied by their grandfather. Hannah accompanied three of her younger siblings. Everyone played one Suzuki piece and one Christmas piece. I loved every minute of it. Mary pulled a Spiritoso out of a hat.

Then. . . three performances of the choral service at church. This year I mostly served as rehearsal pianist--the orchestra had the main focus. I got to play one jazzy song which was fun, and small accompaniments on a few others. Calvin played percussion on two pieces. Bill was not invited back to play second clarinet this year. . . hmmmm.

After the services on Sunday, we four Kotrbas went out for brunch. We got home around 2:00 and I sat down on the sofa and was going to look at some recipes. When I woke up it was dark. That from me, the non-napper. Apparently the excess caffeine from Saturday had completely worn off. . .

Since then we've been on the Christmas train. The tea Monday night--Calvin played background Christmas piano music for an hour and a half and sold 23 CDs for FMSC. I bought a cake this year. The cake was very good. Monday night was also the dance program. Cue the Daddy/Daughter/date. Tuesday night was the multi-school jazz ensemble concert (three or maybe more separate arrangements of Winter Wonderland, I lost count) and tonight the kids get to go to a musical at the Ordway Theatre with their Auntie Ann and company. Tomorrow my mom comes and the festivities actually begin.

When my mom gets here I wanted to have the house clean with candles lit and a roast beast in the oven. I hoped to have all my presents wrapped and Mary's hair in rag curlers. I dreamed the house would sparkle. Freshly fallen snow.

Instead we are managing clean socks for everyone and deli meat with rinsed grapes. The lights are out on the Christmas decorations and Calvin doesn't have time to fix them. There is a heap of laundry and I still have shopping to do--let alone wrapping. I haven't seen the kitchen counter since the recital. Bill is stuck in California due to flight delays. (Husbands who travel the week before Christmas lose brownie points--hence the passive aggressive second clarinet joke to get back at him.)

But, my mother is coming to my home, and I know that is a gift that not everyone will get this year. So, amidst the hectic week, I'm grateful.

I'm grateful for my family. For my sister and my niece who will be spending the first Christmas without Paul. For Bill's family and our traditions. I'm grateful for friends--oh dear friends, I do love you all.

I'm grateful for cats who pee in the box and a bunny who stays alive.

I'm grateful for my home--and the Christmas chaos it holds. Mary is starting a new project every 30 seconds--origami everything with modeling clay and a sewing machine thrown in. Wrapping paper and ribbons, powdered sugar on the floor. Presents stashed in every conceivable cranny. Some of the deli meat is actually some pretty good roast beast. There is just enough snow to cover the muck. Just enough sparkle to get us through.

So, you should be proud of me, though we are hanging on by a Christmas thread and the same six Christmas CDs have been on my stereo for three weeks. . . .I'm right here right now.

Merry Christmas to you all--even if your Christmas isn't white, and even if it isn't what you dreamed or hoped or even wanted. . .  may you be where you are meant to be, right here, right now, with just enough merry and bright.

Thursday, December 11, 2014


Okay. I give.
Someone has been sick in this house since the beginning of November. Mary has Influenza A. I don't know the H and N numbers and I don't care. I've had it. Bill was sick for three weeks. Calvin was sick going into his Book 7 recital. Our Christmas recital is in two days and Mary is down and out. Did you know tamiflu is $314.55? And she threw up the first two doses. I've cleaned up and wiped noses and shaken thermometers--hugged and kissed. There's no hope of proper hygiene when you are taking care of your baby.

In the middle of the night it came to me--again--Jesus take the wheel. . . I can't singlehandedly keep the world healthy no matter how many vitamins and medicines I give. Any of us could get ill anytime. Our church choral service is this weekend too--so I get worried that I would actually get sick enough--like Mary is now--to really let people down. And the piano kids have been working so hard on their pieces. The Christmas recital is my favorite day of the year.

Relinquish control.

Fear of being sick or having your family be sick is with obvious exceptions, often worse than the real flu. I hate fear. It's the opposite of love.

My grandpa John used to say, "I wouldn't worry too much about that. There's not too much you can do about that." That's from an Iowa farmer--no stranger to relinquishment--of--the wind and rain and hail and bugs.

I dropped Calvin with his lingering cough at school. Came home and went through the Christmas cards. Took Mary's temp--102.5. Worse than last night.

I finally let the tears roll--when I read my friends Annette's Christmas note--I've seen this message before but you know how things hit you differently when you're down. (Parentheses mine.)

May today there be peace within.  (that means right now, not when everyone is well)
May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be. (home with a sick girl)
May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith. (healing)
May you use those gifts that you have received, and pass on the love that has been given to you. (love is the opposite of fear--nothing can truly attack us here under God's loving wings. And. . . it's just a rectial.) 


Monday, December 1, 2014

Holiday Traditions

A relaxing puzzle

Happy Schmoo

Activities in Nisswa including warming fires

Santa makes a big entrance

Our feet still warm in this photo

Mayor's car? 

Mary has moon boots on under the traditional blue robe. . . burr

Minnesota is crazy like this. . . fireworks in winter

It's really good for Calvin to lose now and then
When I was a little girl, Christmas was everything. Our family traditions were thick. I could write a novel about the four weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. My mom made candy and cookies and decorated our house. We went to advent services and my sister and I made elaborate programs. I spent hours sequestered in my room embroidering gifts for my family. My grandparents had a whole series of intricate protocols surrounding their arrival on Christmas Eve. Like I said, I could write a book.

During this time. . . once we did something one year. . . it became. . . the tradition. And the traditions stacked up. Special dinner out, fondue, tour of lights. . . special concert. This cookie. That cookie. Hamballs. Lasagna. Cranberry candles.

It is the same with the Bill and Sara Kotrba generation. Our traditions are more than we can fit into the season. Joyful or oppressive? Jury is out.

Last Wednesday almost sunk me. There was more to be done than can ever be done and the Thanksgiving traditions along with packing and church and choir and having the kids home from school thank you very much ISD 196 threatened my very best self. On the phone between frantic scurrying I vented to my mother. There's got to be a better way. There's got to be a way I can do this better, I cried. I have an honorary doctorate in time management and multitasking, but even with that, I'm still struggling with bending time and space to conquer the to-do list on such days. I was not my very best self. I was a hot mess, saved only by my husband swooping in and taking over the drum lesson chauffeuring which bought me two hours of child free sanity to pack and practice.

We got up north, at midnight at five below. It was, I believe all worth it, to wake up on Thanksgiving morning and start RELAXING. Start checking off the traditions. Puzzle. Turkey. Nisswa activities. Shopping with Bill's mom. A movie in the actual theatre. Games. Verdict? Joyful. Truly. I wouldn't change a thing.

Our church's advent devotion for yesterday suggested we all make a promise and post it. I promise to not be psycho for the next two whole weeks.

Actually, I promised to try to keep Christ in Christmas. This morning on the way to school the Holiday Traditions station was playing Ella Fitzgerald. The stereo read: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christ. There wasn't room for the "mas."  Okay, so the Holy Spirit talks to me through pop-radio as well as yoga teachers.

Is there hope for fulfilling the tradition quota and keeping Christ in Christmas and even making it joyful?

Hope springs eternal. I'm gonna try it again. The journey of a thousand miles starts with December 1. I am a mother with two extended families, a piano teacher with a Christmas recital, and a church musician with a heavy advent role. My kids are church musicians, so they fill in any gaps in the schedule. I also have the unquenchable yearning to create the old fashioned sacred and beautiful and filled with every cookie and candy and candle Christmas. For my kids. For myself.

So, insert your own profanity, I love Christmas. Maybe there isn't a better way, Mother. Maybe it's just the hot mess that is me and maybe the occasional meltdown is just part of the deal. Maybe it's even a sacred tradition? Like the little Norwegian ornaments and the lingenberry juice. I've been simultaneously celebrating and complaining about Christmas for a very long time now. See the last few years' early December blog entries . . . I'm probably not going to change much this year.

Can you still love me?

I didn't promise to simplify.
I didn't promise to cut back.
I didn't promise to scale down.
I did not promise to not be psycho.

I only promised to try to keep Christ in Christmas.

I love Christ. . .mas.
And I'm going to embrace the next meltdown, as I know it will come. My attempts at a perfect Christmas season make me so far from perfect, I know. The meltdown is officially one of the essential holiday traditions. Sooner or later, it will have to be checked off. Why not face it a little more joyfully? Hey, maybe we'll do that one twice this year.

Christ is all about grace. Forgiveness. Not cookies and music and candies and decorations. The paradox is that I know this but I'm gonna do it all anyway. Squeezing every last drop from the season is in my DNA.

For me, this year, keeping Christ in Christmas might mostly mean being a little more forgiving of myself as I face the annual meltdown(s). I don't have to be perfect. That's why we have Christmas to begin with. That little baby Jesus I'm putting in the lighted manger whose little twinkling lights are busted again came to fix it all for us. Even the stress over celebrating his birth. I'm already forgiven.

Have yourself a merry little Christ.