Friday, January 30, 2015

Save the Date! Kotrba Piano Studio Concerto Event!

This may be a random journalistic entry. . . so feel free to speed read. Things have been going along pretty smoothly here. We had a great parent party last weekend! The SPTG Advancing Recitals are tomorrow and there is an extra printer toner cartridge in my closet so I will sleep tonight. The K. 330 is memorized and waiting for recording. We've all been healthy and moving the ball down the field.

About ten days ago I declared the spring calendar closed. That's it. No new obligations. Learn to say no to 90% of the opportunities that arise.

Fail. Tuesday, Mary auditioned for the children's choir of the Eagan High School spring music production and as if they aren't going to accept a warm body who sings in tune. . . bingo. . . EIGHTEEN "new events" on the calendar. It didn't help that she can dance a little. 

Wednesday Calvin texts from school (kids do that now) with an invitation to the middle school honor band festival. With evening concert of course.

Thursday the ballet teacher whom I love suggests a few private lessons to get Mary caught up with the older class. Saturday afternoons will work well for her. Sigh.

My personal assistant Sally will be handling the transportation to and from these valuable experiences. I wish. Sally is a fantasy who also changes the oil in the car every 3500 miles. 

Let's just say some of us have a different work ethic than others. 

Yeah. Should've Said No. . . .

A moment of clarity. 
Having said all that, what I really want to tell you about is our Concerto and Chamber Music Festival coming May 30, 2015. Children from 3 years old to Book 4 will play their pieces with string accompaniment in a concert at Easter Lutheran Church, in Eagan, at 2:30. Tickets will have a suggested donation of $10, to help fund our musicians. The climax of the concert will be my four advanced students playing movements from the Bach A Major and F Minor Keyboard Concertos, under the direction of Bill Henry, with Conor O'brien heading up the orchestra. The kids are working very hard and it's going to be a very special event! Please mark your calendars and share this special afternoon with us.

And with that said, the calendar is really closed. I mean it this time. I'm removing the iCalendar add event shortcut. For real. Do not even ask me to get coffee. Well, maybe just for a few minutes to get caught up. After all we are gonna need some real caffeine to handle this Spring semester. And maybe it would be good to attend some over-schedulers anonymous meetings while we are at it. . . that's a great idea--I'll get right on that.

Love you all and hope you can come to the concert! May 30! 2:30! Easter Church. 4200 Pilot Knob Road, Eagan! 

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Coming Down From the Mountain

My (and many other's) Piano Mom
Fran and Washington Garcia from Texas State

Doug (Vickie's hubby), Betty Mallard (my college teacher) and Vickie

Me, Jeremy and Paul 

Linda, Mary, Gerardo, Hway-siew (we did our training together) and Doris

Janie and Angelica (Austin mentors)

The gathering spots

Yelena, Fran, Jonathan and Mary

Sacred Places

Me, Dr. Mallard and Hway-siew (we were at UT together too)

Another sacred place--the sun room

I've just come from the mountain. To be completely honest, coming back from Austin is never easy. There is always a post-Austin meltdown. Their workshop is such a high--the children, the teachers, the community, the music, the FOOD. And the sacred places.

Let me tell you about the home of Doris Harrel.

This is where I learned about unconditional love. This is where I learned that I was loved but I still needed to practice more. This is where I learned I had a place in the Suzuki community. We all have a place at Doris's house.

This is where we all come in and get our own coffee as though it were our own kitchen. Or tea. And little pieces of toast from the Great Harvest Bakery with butter and some sort of jam that seemed like nectar of the gods. And a bowl of strawberries. And we sit at the table and talk about teaching. And we move into the living room and conjure courage to play for each other and listen. This is where I learned the language of music. How to translate those tiny little black dots into something that could stir the heart.

Not that I have achieved this. But this is also where I learned that we keep learning way past 80. God willing. There is still time for me.

This is the tenth year I have taught at this workshop. Walking down the hall and seeing Doris and seeing ALL my college teachers always makes my knees a little weak. All of THEM. I start to wonder how the heck I have fooled them. Me, who can't perform my way out of a cracker box--compared to THEM, that is. What could I possibly bring to this?

Alas, this is where I learned that there must be something valuable about me, that is different than what is valuable about them. And, they keep asking me back and that makes my knees shake a little less every year.

I loved doing the parent lecture. Instead of whining about our kids. . . which sometimes can happen. . . we talked about setting yearly goals and breaking those goals all the way down to the daily practice. This is something I am very good at, further confirming that being crazy-ass organized goes a long way toward achievement. Nobody ever stumbled into learning a concerto. Setting goals and organizing time may turn out to be post doctoral level material. So, that was super fun. I think I will submit the lecture for the next conference. Won't that look good on my teacher trainer application. . . 

Speaking of goals, alas, nobody ever stumbled into completing the Suzuki Teacher Trainer Application either. It's time for me to finish up this application before I start to be grouchy mom of the century.  Little thoughts like--if I was practicing the two hours a day that I'm spending at the piano with my kids, I would have this sucker done. . . are creeping into my head and that's not healthy.

All that's left is my own performance videos. Three of them. From memory. That I can be proud of. Meet my own standards.

Everything else is ready. Write a paper? I spit that out in my sleep. Videos of students? I've got archives of amazing student performances. Lesson excerpts? Done. Documentation of every moment of my professional career? It will not surprise you that that was easy for me.

So--what I thought I would do is practice what I preach. I'm gonna make a famous Sara Kotrba chart. I'm gonna set little daily goals for the three pieces I need to video. I'm gonna sneak in fifteen minutes even when I don't have an hour. I'm gonna put down the hand held device. I'm gonna just do the next thing. I will make some beautiful videos. And get this SOB done.

Jonathan, one of the performers on the faculty recital played these awesome Gershwin transcriptions. He told an anecdote about Gershwin wanting composition lessons and approaching Ravel for such. When Ravel heard Gershwin's music Ravel apparently refused him saying something like--you can come here and be a Ravel want to be-- or you can be the very best Gershwin.

I've said it before, but it bares repeating this time of year while coming down from the mountain. . . none of us is ever gonna be the next Doris. Most of us will never perform like college faculty. None of us will do it exactly the same. Each of us would do better to be our very own best self. And as we grow into that very best self, little by little our skin will fit, and our knees will shake a little less, at being exactly who we are, and trusting that we are exactly where we are meant to be at this moment. . . and that while we are loved unconditionally. . . .we still have some practicing to do.

God bless you, Doris. God bless you, Austin.

Monday, January 5, 2015

I'm Feeling Much Better Now

All the Company I Need 
Am I the only parent whose mental health took a giant forward leap this morning?

I wondered if maybe it was because I read something inspiring by Elizabeth Gilbert, or Glennon Doyle Melton, and I did. . . .(Link to Great Post). The Momastery blog quite frequently hits the nail on the head and her review link today was just what I needed--the main point being to see your crazy wacky working mom life as being so full of abundance--rather than hopelessly sinking. As though God is not aware of your goals and dreams. As though you are the only woman in the world trying to do it all. As though we are not so completely blessed to even have these choices. As though we have more scarcity than abundance--of love, talent, and time.

I wondered if maybe it was because I buckled down and wrote the Austin parent lecture and I'm super pleased with it--ready to go run color copies ahoy.

I wondered. . . if it was the weather. . . but it's 15 below.

I wondered if it was because I'm starting my new improved health plan.  You know. . . no sugar. . . no gluten. . . no anything fun. Forever. Same Auld Lang Syne.

And then I looked at the clock and realized the kids have only been back at school for three hours and I've gotten about six months of work done.

There is a time to play board games until you are blue in the face and listen to the running brain dialog of a family of four, and there is a time to be alone for three hours and actually find your own brain again.

I'm feeling much better now.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Same Auld Lang Syne

Calvin, Mary and I went to Bill's big band gig on New Year's Eve. The kids had fun watching Dad play in the band and taking turns dancing off to the side with their Mama. We did not venture unto the actual dance floor as the dolled up actual dancing couples were giving me the major evil eye from the get go. Uggs and cowboy boots did not meet their ballroom footwear approval. Mary was invited out by Maxine to do the group samba. She has that ability to make friends with dressed up ladies. Calvin got to watch the drummer from back stage. My adult companionship consisted of a few too many Facebook updates. I reflected on all of my own New Year's Eve gigs. Same Auld Lang Syne. I had the forethought to bring two wool wraps which saved us from the drafty corner where guests of the band get tables. This was not my first rodeo, folks. In the end, the goal is to be the first or last out of the parking lot after the gig. Anything else is perilous. We were the last, and having both kids sound asleep in the car actually made me feel like maybe they aren't growing up quite as fast as I thought.

New Year's Day and the first few days of January are dangerous times. Mental health can be fragile in the sub-zero post-holiday darkness. The kids have been home for two weeks and Christmas is over but still spilling out of the pantry and closets. On the surface things still look pretty festive but underneath they are tired and scattered with dry needles from the tree. The cookies are stale but I am still tempted by the stragglers even as I swear off sugar for the next fifteen years.

I feel the intense aching, longing--YEARNING--for every drawer to be cleaned out and every closet tidy and everything that I own to be taken care of properly. I settle for wiping out the silverware drawer and oiling the cowboy boots.

On my tombstone it very well may read: Here lies Sara Stephens Kotrba, she was very good at folding the laundry and finding lost items and organizing her daughter's room, again.

The un-important urgent does take over the un-urgent but important if we are not extremely careful. Two of my closest piano teacher friends have turned in their teacher trainer applications. We all started at the same time, but apparently they don't have as much laundry to fold as I do. That's a joke on me--don't you know a sarcasm when you hear one, Charlie Brown? Please--don't get me wrong--these are gals I respect and love dearly--my frustration is 100% my own. The important urgent thing is that someday we all pass the Suzuki torch to the next generation--and we will--but I can't help out until I find Mary's missing iPod.

All that is left for my own teacher trainer application is to record my own performances. That's not hard--but it's gonna take about six weeks of consistent practice to memorize the repertoire and get the videos in the can. Okay maybe it is hard. Where could that dang thing be? Probably in the snow outside a Wisconsin gas station.

Right now I'm supposed to be writing a parent lecture for the Austin group next weekend. The title? "Balance your practice, balance your life." Or something like that.

Balance? The truth is my kids haven't practiced in two weeks. How can I write this lecture when Mary has to have Spiritoso recorded by January 16th and she hasn't played it since the Christmas recital? I, who stood up at the S.A.M. meeting and suggested that if kids didn't have their recordings done by December they really weren't ready to graduate. . . .stuffing my child's recording into the last minute.

As president elect of the Suzuki Association of Minnesota I think my first change will be removing Spiritoso as the Book Three Piano graduation piece. I think instead it will be the Wild Rider. All in favor say "aye".  Charlie Brown. . . .

How can I write a lecture about balance?  There is no balance. There is only survival. There is only fumbling toward excellence. There is only clean socks and slow practice. Sometimes the practice day starts out with coffee and ends with red wine. Is this balance? No, this is survival.

Over the break I saw two of my alumni. Stefanie asked me to play at her wedding. Kathryn walked in and said, "I miss coming to this house." Tomorrow I'm having coffee with another student who is engaged. Two new little ones came over and played electric trains with Calvin and Mary. My studio is the Toyland Express. In case you want to be a train engineer yourself, here is a link to Calvin's 2014 train video: Kotrba Trains. Isn't it cool how the trains weave around the legs of the pianos and the drum set?

Maybe that's what balance is. Setting up trains in the piano studio over Christmas break. Seeing old and new students away from the piano. Having friends over instead of looking for the iPod. Maybe it's in the bathroom of the Rhinelander Pub and Cafe. Having one bowl of homemade ice cream instead of two. Or let's be honest, three.

Maybe balance isn't all it's cracked up to be. I can give a lecture on balancing a 15-60 minute practice session, but balancing your life? Probably not.


But, maybe survival is okay too. Perhaps the title should be, "Balance your practice, survive your life."  Yeah, I think maybe that is a little more honest. I think I can actually do that. I'm good at survival--and I can start practicing those pieces myself--and get Mary's Spiritoso recorded in thirteen days. I'm better at survival than balance--and maybe that is a little more honest wish for you too.

Happy New Year, my friends. Here's to 2015--friends and trains and balance and the urgent and the un-urgent and survival and even the laundry and even Spiritoso. God bless it all, and God bless you.


Thursday, January 1, 2015

Holy Days at Holiday Acres

Hasn't Changed Since I Was Eight Years Old

A Beautiful Place Inspires a Little Art


You Can Never Have Too Many Little Norwegian Folk

Commemorating Her Trip to New York with Grandmommy

Daddy Loves a Clean Car

We Will Have to Watch Mary From the Window

She's Back

Stephens Gals

Janel and Cabin Eight

World's Best Snow Fort

Our Cedar Lodge with the Greenery from the Souhradas

Cosy, Cosy, Cosy

That Tree is the Guardian of Cedar Lodge

Eating Icicles on a Snowman Base

Snow Shoes and Fresh Snow

Kotrba Boys

We Made Footprints to Every Cabin

Skis Are Actually Easier. . . 

In Her Element?  Definitely. 

The Three Coins Dining Room--I Was Here at Her Age

Bill and I Ate Every Meal Here on Our Honeymoon

Prime Rib? Of Course. 

If I Was Going to Drink a Little Glass of Beer, it Would Be Here. 

Having Breakfast on the Dance Floor Where I Danced with My Grandpa

It's Only 7 Degrees. Don't Fall In. 

She's Got It. 

This Photo Doesn't Do Justice to the Beauty-But it Tries. 

A Tour of the Kitchen with Kim, the Third Generation Owner. 

Dr. Who? 

A Fourth Pancake? 
We spent our Stephens Christmas in Rhinelander this year. We spent four nights at Holiday Acres Resort on Thompson Lake in Wisconsin. The seven of us stayed in the five bedroom "Cedar Lodge."

By now you know that I believe places are sacred, but this place is close to highest on my list.

When I was about eight we surprised my grandparents by showing up for their 40th wedding anniversary. Hope and John celebrated here every year. After the final harvest--my grandpa was free to actually take a vacation and the Fall leaves were always in their glory. This particular trip my cousins Robin, and Emily came and we all danced in itchy wool dresses on the small dance floor to the jazz quartet playing on the little stage in the classic bar with the stone fountains and colored lights. The owner would pull up a chair and hob knob with my grandparents in between carving the huge ham for the Friday night buffet.

We went back more times than I can count, mostly in the Fall, but once for Christmas. We stayed in cabin five that year. Always fresh snow. The owners, the Zambons, brought us a small Christmas tree harvested from massive north woods. My mom filled the fireplace mantel with fresh cut greens. The cousins swam in the big indoor pool and Grandpa threw quarters for us to dive.

Fast forward umpteen years and nothing would do but for Bill and I to spend our honeymoon at Holiday Acres. We stayed in--you guessed it--cabin five. Since it was March and off season the restaurant was closed so we spent our evening meals at the Rhinelander Pub and Cafe, downtown. Prime rib. Rueben sandwiches. We took back homemade caramel rolls for breakfast. You know the kind of place. I don't drink much beer, but bars in Wisconsin with little wavy glasses and red lights and wooden swivel chairs with red vinyl make it awfully tempting.

We went back once or twice after my grandpa died--with my grandma and our own children. The Zambons cried and hugged my grandma. It was their loss too. That's the kind of place it is.

It was the first place Calvin could run free on a vacation. Back and forth from cabin to park and park to lodge. Safety. Freedom. It was where he learned to cry when you leave for home, an important lesson in the Stephens family.

We went back for Christmas the year my dad died--to get out of the house--but not too far away from the memories.

Here we are five years later putting our footsteps in the fresh snow up to every cabin's window, especially the ones we stayed in over the years. Most of them were closed for the winter or empty awaiting the New Year's Eve festivities. Twenty-eight. Eight. Five. Seventeen. Calvin would know all the numbers. I just remember the moments.

Over the years the Zambons had their share of losses too. Time does that. As Kim, their son, cleared snow from the John Deere plow he hollered to my mom--Johny would be proud of me. Johny-the intimate name for my grandfather. Yes, he would be proud but he would still have given some tractor pointers.

Thank you Kim and Kari Zambon--for keeping the flame alive--and maintaining the sacred places--those dining halls and swimming pools and red with yellow trim cabins--those same little envelopes with three coins to throw in the fountain. The famous jazz musician photos and all the art--the Baldwin grand in respectable tune. We cousins sang Christmas carols at that piano in the off afternoon hours years ago and this year we got to hear Mary's Christmas Song, again. That's all sacred to me. It's a labor of love--the family resort. I don't know how they do it. I hope they know that it's worth it--as I suspect ours is not the only family with the sacrament of tradition at Holiday Acres.

I believe the word holiday comes from the word holy-days.  So--yes, I think Holy Days Acres is  appropriate. If folks do look down from heaven--I'm sure the Souhradas and Zambons had some pretty big smiles this week.

We are home now. And the snow is not so fresh, but our memories serve us just as well as Gladys the waitress who brought us pancakes--she celebrated fifty years of service there--and she would pull up a chair to visit with Hope and Johny--all those years ago. Yes, our memories will hold us till next time--along with several hundred photos. . .and a few of those little paper coin packets lingering in the junk drawers and jewelry boxes. The Three Coins Dining Room--the three good wishes--have blessed us all.