Friday, May 29, 2009

Schumann Piano Concerto

Had great seats for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra last night at Shepherd of the Valley in Apple Valley. The pianist was a student of Leon Fleisher and performed a Mendelssohn Trio in the first half, the Schumann Piano concerto was the second half of the concert.
I'm a fan of piano concerti in general; I used to listen to the classical and romantic ones in my dorm room at college. I used to daydream about being the pianist, playing with the orchestra, the thrill of that amazing sound all around me. The Minnesota Orchestra used to offer the chance to sit on stage with the orchestra during a concert. We did that and it was exhilarating!
This concert was stellar of course-the SPCO is a premier chamber group of the world. I could not take any pictures, so imagine this group, on a large stage, transformed without any of the altar embellishments. Staging made the altar area bigger. A moving van in the parking lot brought all their instruments, including the Steinway 9 foot grand piano. They were playing this piece.
Afterward, I got an autograph from the pianist for my "Wall of Inspiration". I'm off to two days of a very interesting assembly-more on that soon.

More Wisconsin Pictures

Thank you all for reminding me that some of you haven't seen this area of the country. I sometimes take the vistas, lakes and towns for granted. May I not do that again!
These are some pictures of Lake Winnebago, Wisconsin, as we passed through. (You may click on the picture to make it bigger). The lake is 30 miles by 10 miles and you can not see across it. It is similar to looking at one of the great lakes. The day we were there, there was a storm front moving in and the lake was glass. It would have been a great day to fish, my brother-in-law lamented.

Sometimes my relatives will get ready for a day of fishing at 4:00 a.m., gather gear and food, and drive to the lake. At the top of the big hill leading down to it, they will see that it is very rough. Winne's white caps can be seen several miles away. They turn around, go home, and go back to bed.

Speaking of fishing, this is a picture of my brother-in-law's ice shack. It is parked in the back of his property during the other seasons of the year. Some people purchase space from farmers to store their houses. We saw one place that had ten in a row behind the barn. You can paint your shanty any color that you wish and there are many many Green Bay Packer ice houses on the lake in winter. His orange stripe gets repainted annually so that it glows in the dark so he can find it. When Lake Winnebago is frozen over, he will trailer this ice house, drive it over to the lake, and set it in the sprawling city that appears on the lake every winter. He can leave it there until the ice starts to melt in the spring. It is equipped with a heater, radio, and some will get as fancy as putting in a small lofted bed. I will try to take some pictures of the ice "town" next winter. This is a big deal. Many people spend a great amount of time and money fishing in the winter. But the big event is the sturgeon spearing in February.

A sturgeon is the most ugly, biggest fish I've ever seen. It is speared through a hole in the ice from these shanty houses. The fish swims along the bottom and if it passes across your hole, you better be ready! It's a 2 by 4 foot hole. If you bring in a young child, you tie them to the side. The kids can move around, but if they fell in, you'd have a way to get them out in a hurry. The water is COLD.

The fish swims underneath. Your spear is mounted on the wall or is in your hand. They sometimes call this watching W-TV. If you hit the head, the spear will just bounce off. If you hit it in the body, the spear head detaches from the shaft, and there is a rope attached so you can bring it back up. Imagine five feet of fish, the minimum is sixty inches and over one hundred pounds of angry bottom feeder!

The sturgeon are most wanted for their roe, the eggs, from which is cavier is made. It is not uncommon for 10,000 cars and 9,000 ice houses to be parked on Lake Winnebago during the ice fishing season. Expansion cracks on the ice are bridged. Many cities along east and west shores plow roads on the icy surface and people bring their post-Christmas trees to mark the roads. These trees will be left to fall in the lake at ice out; they make excellent hiding places for small fish.

I am not an ice fisher. But I have heard many great tales of winter fishing and eaten both sturgeon and cavier from Lake Winnebago!

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Theme Thursday - SUITCASE

My project today is to get my product ready for the Texas Music Teachers Association conference in June. The Bag O' Blocks do well at the conventions, but they don't fit very well in my SUITCASE. So, I ship them ahead, using our US postal service.
Here's what the table looks like on the last step of the day. We have already made the blocks, painted the blocks, made the brochures, bought the bags, stuffed the blue bags, and this step is to attach the cute little price tags. (Read not cute and little, but pain in the...) Finally, they will get boxed and driven to the post and shipped to Texas. I also sell POGO Post-it notes and they slide in the boxes down the edge for the same shipping price. This flat rate box is a great deal. Before I discovered it, each box of blocks cost around $20 to ship; the flat rate is $8.95, no matter what it weighs.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The beauty of LaCrosse and small towns

We headed across the Mississippi river at LaCrosse, Wisconsin, and went through some lovely small towns on the way to our destination. Here are more pictures.


We left for Wisconsin with my children in the back seat. I know we did. But miles down the road and I still had not heard one squeek (or squawk). I turned around and both of them had i-Pods in their ears, listening to completely different music from the car radio and each other.
This was a bizarre moment for a music teacher. Fractured music? Such individual tastes even on a roadtrip? I will have to consider this new way that students tune in as I'm teaching. My students may have less idea than ever about all the different styles. They may not even be listening to the music of their parents, whatever that is.

Less than twenty minutes later, they were both fast asleep, leaning back in their mini-van chairs, and they slept for over an hour. I don't blame them-it was rainy and car rides do that to me too. Of course it might have been their choice of tunes...
Getting started down the road is tough for us. Wolfgang trips often involve many starts and stops, what would a car trip be without beef jerky and cheese curds? Even the signs agree!

I'm Back!

Had a big weekend at the relative's houses in Wisconsin-pictures soon. My brother got married in Hawaii yesterday and I celebrated with my parents who didn't go to Hawaii either. The St. Paul Synod Assembly is Friday and Sat., and the MMTA Honors concert is Saturday night, so there will be lots to post in the next few days! What's up with you?

Saturday, May 23, 2009

That Funny Feeling

I was waiting for my friend in her condo complex when I got the uncanny feeling someone was watching me. I looked up on balconies, no one was there. I could still sense it.

I looked at the cars in the lot. No one was sitting in a vehicle. But that strong presence now had my curiosity peaked.

I walked slowly, inviting the source to show itself. And there it was. Unblinking, unmoving, just a flick of his ear occasionally. I did not fear it-I don't think it was that kind of spirit, although it was dressed in black.

Ever have that eerie feeling?

Friday, May 22, 2009


The Blessing of Choice

A choice is made
A loving choice, a hallow, devoted choice
To love, to keep hold,
To cherish tomorrow.

The racing heart today is real, the deep
Adoring in your eyes and hers
Those beautiful hands-
symbols connecting one to the other.

Beloved, whispered,
You are my beloved.

All the Loves are here
Family, Friends, Lovers, Creator.
The universe rejoices with
unions of Loves.

More blessings bloom tomorrow.
When the choice is to lose the argument,
In morning breath, in aging and working weekends,
in illness and life's messiness.

A choice is made, with every breath,
A loving choice, a hallow, devoted choice
To love, to keep hold,
To cherish tomorrow.

Every day a choice is made
To whisper
You are my beloved
My beloved, I choose you.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A Hint of Melancholy

I'm starting to feel the effects of the End of the School Year Blues. Every spring amid the joys and triumphs of my students and their great plans for the future, I get a little low. They speak confidently and excitedly about summer plans: jobs, swimming lessons, and vacations. We are all glad to be wrapping up music pieces and moving forward. Truthfully, there is a big part of me that is looking forward to the break too. I have a long list of hobbies and gardening and summer activities.
But deep down there is a little hunk of my heart that hurts. It will miss my seniors. It will miss my Slovakian student. Abe Lincoln writes often of a melancholy in his life; I ponder what that might have been like.
I got news that a girlfriend of mine miscarried this week at the half-way point of an already challenging pregnancy. I grieve. Another friend has decided to adopt after years of heartache.
I found out that my brother is going to whisk his lovely fiancee off to Hawaii, and they are getting married on the beach while they are there. I'm so happy for them, and yet I'd love to be there.
Friends of ours are divorcing, friends suffer job loss, friends may lose their home to foreclosure.
On the other hand, friends met and fell in love, the flowers are blooming, summer break is almost here.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Teacher Gifts

I'm a little surprised when my students give me gifts at the end of the school year. I don't remember doing this for my teachers. I know that I said thank you, but I'm pretty sure that gifts are a relatively new thing, rather like gift bags at birthday parties.

Personally, the students and I have shared so many laughs and so much music and fun over the year, that I should be giving them a gift too. In public school, you get a new teacher every year. Some of my students and I have known each other over ten years. We've gone through baby teeth and braces, drivers permits and first dates. It is such a privilege to watch them grow in life and music.

I have to say goodbye to my Slovakian foreign exchange student (young lady on the left with her exchange 'sis') and my senior twins in the next 24 hours. It will be a bittersweet treat. We've matured, changed and learned so much from each other. That is the true gift to me. Here's a sample of preciousness.

Monday, May 18, 2009

A Jennifer

My brother visited over the weekend. He told me that on his last business trip he accidentally left his power cord to his laptop at his home. But that was okay, he said, because he just called Jennifer and she went to his house and Fed Ex'ed it to him. He has myriad stories of his administrative assistant coming to his rescue. She sounds amazing. Her name is Jennifer.

I want a Jennifer. It's that simple. I have many boring, tedious tasks that get in the way of what I love-teaching. I don't want to send out billing statements or file. I don't like to make recital programs. I want to explore the realms of sound, or lose track of time within a sonata or a nocturne or study something new. As my brother put it, he's paid way too much money to handle these small details. And that is probably true.

So, okay, I'll compromise. How about a Mr. French from the TV series "Family Affair". Sebastian Cabot looked the part, even in his apron. He did all those household jobs I find unappealing and less than glamorous. I wondered for awhile if I could ever reach a point where this was an option. The answer is no.

I used to BE a Jennifer. I was the executive administrative secretary for the president of a Fortune 500 company. Nice title, no glam. There were many jobs that I should not have been asked to do. There was an abuse of power. Never again. My brother shared an article in Esquire magazine that talked about hiring "Your Man in India". Hmmmm, I'm not really interested in someone far away.

My life has been overrun with errands and wrap-up details. Post recital day involves a dress for the dry cleaner, keys to return to the church, paperwork regarding the guild scores and their meanings, a note to headquarters regarding my confidential opinion of our judge (marvelous, by the way), and so many little squirrelly organizational things. Emails and letters have piled up. Digging out will take a few days.

I guess I'll try to find the satisfaction of a job well done, even in the little things. But I hope you can hear me. grumble, grumble, grumble....

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Proud Parents

A side benefit of a recital is the chance for the proud parent moments. Everyone at this recital will get some certificate or award. This makes it easier for me to brag about each individual child's strengths for one moment in a public place.

The hearts swell, and everyone leaves so high. Here are just a few happy people, and a lovely song for your Sunday.

To grow a little, stretch your true self in awareness of a beautiful thing, whether you are seven or seventy-is there a more lovely way to spend an hour?

Saturday, May 16, 2009


Our auditions are over for the year. (!) Everything went smoothly. That alone could constitute a success. I could take a picture of the audition site for you, but have you noticed that many churches are used for piano related events? I haven't blogged long, yet there are many pictures of sanctuary interiors.

The church as a host site is a mixed blessing. Some of them offer piano teachers a reduced fee for use. Sometimes if you're a member of the church it's free. Other churches' charges are quite high for the janitorial and piano tuning fees. They will have rules about every detail right down to no colored punch as it may stain the carpeting. I understand that the rules they have in place are an unfortunate reminder that something has run amok in the past. The renter (piano teacher) signs a form that they understand the rules wherein and any breach thereof shall constitute damage payments, yadda yadda.

There is a music store about twenty minutes from my studio that has an auditorium. The rental is free (FREE), and there are always at least two grand pianos on its stage. The store is happy to have potential clients wandering in. They may buy music today and make a contact for tomorrow. They welcome the recitalists at the beginning of the recital and mention the sales they have going on. The store schedules events one year out which I believe is very generous, however, I've never been able to get a recital booked for spring. There are probably two hundred teachers or more, that are clammering for this space. According to the piano manager who is also the scheduler, teachers call him the day after this year's recital to book next year.

I did get into the auditorium there for a winter recital once but my students rebelled loudly. It was the biggest dilemma I've had ever had about a recital! That's right, friends, we could not have treats in the store! "What?", they moaned. "No cookie! Are you serious?" You would have thought the world was ending. I learned a very valuable lesson about what my studio expects of a recital. It was so cute.

We have an arrangement with our audition site because it's a Wolf Piano Studio instrument. I put the Yamaha grand in this church in memory of my father-in-law. I, in turn, get to use their facility for recitals and all week for guild auditions. The church maintains the instrument but has this gorgeous baby for their worship services weekly. We both believe we have the better end of the deal which is exactly how it should be.

The trick to using a church is the nebulous "other" things that happen. The sanctuary may often be freezing cold because they only turn on the heat for their worship days. Likewise I've sweated my way through some spring guild auditions when there was no air conditioning and stained glass windows did not open!

The only potential calamity this year was avoided. Usually our guild is held one week earlier. For whatever reasons known in Austin, Texas, our site was given this week instead. Yesterday morning, my cell phone rang and it was the church office. "The church ladies are in a quandry about going into the sanctuary." Yes, the administrative assistant called them "the church ladies".

It turns out that this was a communion week. The first and third Sundays of the month the altar guild sets up communion in the back of the altar to be ready for Saturday evening and Sunday morning mass. They pour wine into individual servings, make ready the table, iron the linens and we were probably not going to like them tinging cups and chatting away in the back. We worked out a compromise that they could come in early on Saturday morning. I brought in donuts.

Tomorrow is our end of the year recital which will take place in the same space. Maybe I will take a picture, it is a lovely environment. We will have great music, celebrate our year's successes, honor winners from contest, theory, and exams, and all the guild certificates and pins will be lauded. Then we will eat treats and drink gingerale or clear soda. And I will breathe a deep sigh with a smile. I am a person who loves the rhythm of the piano year. There is a deep ebb and flow that matches the music for which we are reaching, striving, and growing.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Senior Recital

The twins passed their National Diplomas in piano Thursday! Each performed scales, chords, arpeggios, ear training, sightplaying, a Bach Prelude and Fugue, full sonata, first movement of a piano concerto, a Chopin piece, 2 other big romantic works, and a contemporary American piece for memory. Phew!
Tonight they had a lovely concert for family and friends. It was held in their church, ladies made homemade tortes and used the pretty china plates. The girls wore formal gowns and played selections from their huge repertoire lists.

Then as a special treat they played a very first recital piece, each a hymn arrangement, and ended with a duet. It was such a big day, after such a big day, and I have such a big day tomorrow and Sunday. Peace!

Musical Diet

I said it out loud to a piano Mom for the first time yesterday. "You know, I was not raised on only classical music." My parents fed me a wide variety of musical "foods". Sometimes we went to the classical concerts; there were monthly orchestra events and classical radio. I saw Peter and the Wolf. But we strayed. We investigated. We explored and enjoyed, gasp, popular music too. I knew the Beatles and the Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, Fleetwood Mac, and the Who. We also listened to country, went to some blue grass festivals, some jazz in the city park, and too many travelogues to name, all with soundtracks from the countries we were visiting. Mom says I even listened carefully to the jingles of commercials, all I know is I love it all.

I am not embarrassed by it anymore, but there was a time at college when I certainly down-played my eclectic tastes to my professors. There seemed to be some sort of stigma that classical music was preferred, and other types of music were somehow less, well, "musical". There became the story within a story eventually that not even all classical music was esteemed, but that it mattered who played it, was it stylistically correct, and were the artists considered good? I was sucked into this thought pattern subtly, shamed in a way that I had any knowledge of the "lower class" music out there.

Show tunes could make a tenured professor in Connecticut shudder like nothing else and he was known to yell down the hall, "Stop that infernal noise!" A student in this professor's class later was rumored to have picked up his books and upon leaving the class in disgust said to him, "The composer (whom I don't remember) stole a FOLK song, Doctor! It was sung in a pub!" The student didn't graduate and currently makes quite a nice living in a piano bar in New York City.

I'm so glad to be back and comfortable in my skin again. I still teach almost entirely classical music during the school year. I believe that if you play with fine technique, with a strong "meat and potatoes" diet of standard teaching repertoire, that you can play anything. But I've now started to pull out summer music and it feels and sounds so GOOD to me. I feel the breeze of a summer afternoon dancing through the curtain of my studio-jazz, rock, pop, yes, even show-tunes; we lighten up at the studio during the summer. Students bring in ideas from the radio, we compose more and move ahead on theory. We learn wedding music, funeral music, and songs from American Idol.

After all, it's music. The beauty, joy and the way it touches a person's soul can't be limited, and heaven forbid that I try. All the musical flowers are beautiful, yes?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Theme Thursday - OOPS!

What a great Theme Thursday for a musician! Many of us live in a state of perpetual "oops". I could focus on all the blunders and miracles of getting out from a mistake. We could talk of memory lapses, faulty technique or bad pianos. But I'm a "accentuate the positive" kind of person.

I give you the Syncopated Clock. This cute piece is by Leroy Anderson, who also wrote the Christmas hit, "Sleigh Ride" (just hear those sleigh bells jingling, ring ting tingling too...). Sometimes I quietly wonder whether some of my students hear their metronomes with this rhythm!

One of my favorite quotes is "It's what you do AFTER the mistake that makes you an artist." My other favorite quote is "Make a NEW mistake today, and see where it takes you."

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


What might it mean to an eight year old to "play musically"? Musicianship is the technical and interpretive skills involved in singing or playing music, if you go for the broad dictionary type definition. It is a superior skill that you can learn by study and practice, observation and critical listening. But what does translate into for the youngster in their first year or two of study? For me it has to do with artistry, but again, that term may be lost on all but a precocious little one.

There is often a blank on a critique for "Musicianship". It seems to enable the adjudicator to address whether it was "musical" or left them wanting. Composers do not and can not mark in everything a performer needs to know. Great musicians draw upon every single clue in the score and historical practice to decide what to do.

In a college setting or even at an exam, musicianship may deal with the technical aspect of music; do you know the scale, common chords, key signature, time signature of your piece. Can you verbalize the form of a sonata, the terminology of the baroque period? Musicianship ultimately refers to the language of music. Books abound on these concrete, measure-able topics. But I don't think that's all there is to it; or more accurately, I think this is just the beginning of musicianship.

I asked a few students this week what musicianship meant to them.
"So that it's enjoyable to listen to."
"Knowing how to get what you want out of a piece of music and then connecting other people to it."
"Well.., you know it when you hear it!"

Those answers carefully come right to it, don't they? What it comes down to is that it's not about you the performer. I love the idea of connecting your music with your listener. This is similar to being a good conversationalist. There is a real art to being able to connect with a person or people in conversation. And when you're nine or ten, the world still may revolve around you and the questions are posed to you. Children that will actually ask an adult a question in return and listen to the answer are precious. Being genuinely interested in your "audience" is delightful.

The answer I am finding as I ready the little maestros for their performances is to make their music come alive. I really hope they are musicians tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


"But WHY do I have to play these pieces any longer? I'm so sick and tired of them!"

That's a great question. We have been learning their repertoire pieces over the course of a school year, more or less. Some of the younger ones have had their shorter pieces a shorter amount of time. Some believed they mastered their music but when we wanted to record them, they heard their stutters and errors and resolved to persevere and dig a little deeper.

Therein lies the life nugget for me. Perseverance teaches. I could let them quit the piece. I could let them quit the whole exam. I could jump in and make it easier. More than ever to me, I'm seeing children that are allowed to quit things so easily. Try it and if you don't like it, we'll quit. Many live in a state of instant gratification. Dedication and determination to see the job to its completion is taught young, I think.

I could also motivate a little more, cheer a little louder, and show them that the goal is only days away. A mere week in time will reap them the rewards of having stayed the course. Having the tenacity to hold on just a little longer is such a part of being a great worker, part of being a good parent, part of being a good human being.

J. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, was turned down by twelve publishers. Walt Disney was fired as a young man from the Kansas City Star Newspaper because his boss thought he lacked creativity. Milton Hershey started three candy companies in three different states before he landed in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Steve Jobs, Simon Cowell, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein-the list is deep and wide of people who were steadfast and endured what the world called failure.

More is caught than taught my grandma used to say. So I persevere. One time when a student told me they were so sick and tired of their pieces, I looked right at them and said "Me too!" You should have seen their face.

Monday, May 11, 2009


I got a great email! A lady involved in the prayer shawl ministry in Battleford, Sascatchewan, Canada contacted me. What is a prayer shawl ministry you might ask? Well, quietly around the world, groups make prayer shawls which they pray over as they knit or crochet. They bless them and then they GIVE THEM AWAY! The shawls are often intricately made with love to bless a marriage, swaddle a baby, keep a chemo patient warm, be a physical presence of caring arms who hold the elderly or homeless. They are amazing shawls and amazing people who make them.

Last year, my first CD was released with music to knit by called "If My Shawl Could Sing". The songs were to inspire prayer for the handiwork being done. They are deeply spiritual in nature and you can hear audio here if you're interested.

The lady emailed for permission to use some of my CD music! She is doing a presentation for the Western Canadian Catholic Stewardship Conference in Regina in June. In the past she received permission from Jim Brickman, but thought my CD would offer a unique voice and something new!

Her ministry started in 2004 and she's integrating letters and photographs into her powerpoint presentation. It started, she said, with her second grade Sunday school students praying daily for the recipients and making the gift bags.

Every time I think that the CD is quietly fading, some little nudge like this happens. I am so encouraged by it! Just had to share the news!

The Big Week!

I'm getting so excited for such a big week-there will be exams for 22 of my kiddos, two diploma candidates, a senior recital and my own studio recital this week. All other things in my life wait for this; meals, dishes and laundry duties are picked up by the others, no gardening, nothing extra. Send good vibes my way, I'm going to be one tired teacher Sunday night!

Here is the info my students will receive at their lessons before their audition.

Welcome to the biggest piano event in the world. The Piano Guild, as they are called (a division of the American College of Musicians), was founded in 1929 by Dr. Irl Allison. Forty-six entrants participated in the first audition (then called a "tournament") at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas. Since that time, the Guild has grown to over 125,000 participants who enroll annually in international auditions, which are held in over 800 locations throughout the U.S. and abroad.

The primary function is to establish definite goals and awards--in noncompetitive auditions--for students of all levels, from the earliest beginner to the gifted prodigy. With the exception of our "special" programs, teachers have the flexibility to choose all repertoire for student auditions. Students are judged on individual merit, by a well-qualified music professional, in the areas of accuracy, continuity, phrasing, pedaling, dynamics, rhythm, tempo, tone, interpretation, style, and technique. Our purpose is to encourage growth and enjoyment through the study of piano.

This is a chance to show our accomplishments for the year. I suggest these preparations:

  • Please have the pages marked with a paperclip, tape flag, index card or post-it note.
  • Number your measures at the beginning of each line. Many books are already numbered.
  • Get a good night’s sleep. Feeling rested and prepared is worth more than words can say. You are ready.
  • Dress up. Look and feel your best. Try pedaling with your dress shoes on. Ladies watch the length of your dresses-too short and it will be hard to sit on the bench professionally. Leave rings, watches, and bracelets home.
  • Bring all your music. No piece, no audition.
  • Come 10 minutes early to check in.
  • Play musically, smile and be friendly to the judge. (S)he has a hard job too.
  • Celebrate with something nice afterward (lunch, ice cream, trip to the park, get creative).
Congratulations! I’m proud of the work you did this year!

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Collaborative Piano

The term for accompanying has been upgraded to "collaborative piano" in the last decade or so and I had the pleasure of partaking in some today! I was the accompanist for a fine oboe player at a recital in a suburb of St. Paul. She also was accompanied by organ on a piece and premiered a set of folk dances with a guitarist.

The piece we played together was a Sonatina by Malcolm Arnold. He was the composer of the movie music for "Bridge over the River Kwai" which came out in 1957. Our piece was written in 1951 and it seems to sound like he is trying out movie sounds and experimenting already with different colors and moods.

It was fun to perform in public for a more serious venue again. I play every Sunday and my students represent me in other forums, but it was great to be out again.

Pictures=the back of the van full of Mother's Day hanging baskets, a bleeding heart, and our very fragrant pear tree, in full bloom. What a heaven scent!

Friday, May 8, 2009

Guess What?

"Guess what" was the subject of an email I received today. It was from an excited mother of one of my students! M. had received a $50 check in the mail. His poem had won the national poetry contest sponsored by one of the clubs in which I am affiliated! A second email reported that a letter came today from the chair Angie Greer Jr. Music in Poetry event. It indicated that the poem will be published in an upcoming edition of Jr. Keynotes.

I asked that they bring along a copy of the check to the recital next Sunday and present it officially to him in a public place. He worked hard on the poem, and should receive some applause for his efforts.

It made M.'s weekend and it's only Friday! Hmmmm, what might a twelve year old poet spend $50 on?

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Theme Thursday - WIND

One of the most popular songs for the adolescent girls is "Wind Beneath My Wings". Oh yeah, I played it; and all my friends sang with me!

From the tearjerker movie "Beaches", the song features an 80's haired Bette Midler in fine voice. Enjoy!

Practice What You Must

We are 8 hard days from the end of the year report card auditions. The last week of pushing and striving to fix mistakes, get a steady tempo, increase the tempo, and polish the infinitely small details is upon us. The challenge is to keep them engaged, working and honing their ears and it is more than some can bear. They are tired of their pieces, wandering into spring sports, distracted by the beauty of the weather. I know all these feelings.

I love the way technology has improved communication mid-week. I used to have to wait a whole week to hear from parents or the student about an issue. Now a quick email or text and we're on the road to success!

I received an email from a parent earlier this week that the student was not practicing as she believed he should be this close to the exam. He surmised that if I had only written three items on his notebook that those are the only three things he needed to practice! That is the mind of a second grader. However, the student is performing ten pieces, scales chords and arpeggios for the exam. I wrote the following note to him, via his parent's email. I will see him in an hour. We'll see if it worked.

"Dear D.,
I'm so sorry I was not clear about what you are to practice right now. I have not been writing much in the front of your notebook because we have been so busy recording and working on 10, WOW 10, things for your report card.
For 9 more days I want you to practice your guild report card list in the back of your notebook with an ear to fix all the little mistakes. Go over all those chords, and scales, and other work. It's a lot to be ready. Use your music to see the details of dynamics and staccatos or accents. And then we will get new stuff after your awesome performance, ok?
I know that you are ready and that playing some of the same songs is a little hard, but it will be worth it! Only 9 more days, that's not so bad is it? I will see you on Wednesday and we'll talk in person too. Have a fun day,
Mrs. Wolf"

Monday, May 4, 2009

Nerves, Adolescent Style

My Daughter played her clarinet festival very well today. Indeed, that must be said up front; I was her proud accompanist. The adjudicators were college age females, one a bassoon and one a flute player, two of a quintet that had showcased some of their music to the students during the last period of the school day. They had quite glowing comments verbally about her tone and her performance poise. Of course, my favorite comment was that we made a good team. I have no idea if they knew we were related. It doesn't matter. The written critiques will be given at her lesson. I can't wait to read them. As a fellow critical listener myself, I have a mental picture of how a critique should read.

The real story of the afternoon was the terrifying nervous tension in the entire lower level of the building. Full of freshman angst, the fact that they were being put on the spot to perform was not enough for them. They skittered about, mice-like, asking each other if they were nervous. How did you do, they would ask as soon as the door opened. "O M G! I was so scared! I thought I was gonna die! I totally like screwed up the whole middle section. My duet partner came in three measures early and we like completely crashed." Dread wafted through the tight corridor: an invisible, palpable, oppressive mood.

They had been asked to dress up. This alone bothered many of these young adults. "I feel like I'm going to my own funeral. I can't believe she chose that outfit. I hate this shirt and tie." Many had chosen to ignore this important part of the festival, wearing sweats and flip-flops. I don't know whether this critique has a 'stage presence' portion; many other critiques do.

I found it hilarious and so familiar. If you are not playing this game, the Wind Each Other Up Game, one of two things will happen to you as a student. Other overly anxious students will come over and try to wind you up. "Aren't you like scared out of your mind? Oh man, I think I'm gonna wet my pants!" "Ooh, you're next and that duet ahead of you is blowing it big time. How can you just stand there in front of the door; don't you want to wait outside like us or walk around listening at all the other doors?"

The other scenario is that people will ostracize you. They pull away and whisper. They might consider you arrogant. This actually works in your favor to keep your focus on what you're there for, if you can stand the peer pressure. If you have real friends, they understand. If you care about what others think, you will usually cave.

The healthy part of all of this insanity in the hallway is the music. Some of it squeaks, some of it squacks, and some of it shows incredible potential. And they're all learning much more than music.

She came out high as a kite, and we went to Dairy Queen. Artic Rushes all around!

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Absent, Again

My daughter needs me to accompany her for a clarinet piece on Monday. The high school is having an ensemble festival in which she is participating. I will have to miss two hours of lessons, four students, to play. I'm really looking forward to performing with her. Unfortunately, the high school assigned the times without asking whether it worked for the parents. So, I have let the four families know that I have some make-up time available on Thursday afternoon, and I thanked them for their flexibility. Performances, teaching and seminars have taken me away from my regularly scheduled lessons more than once, so I have a pretty liberal absence policy. Here's what it states in actuality.

"ABSENCES - Teacher Missed lessons will be credited to you or rescheduled. Student Missed lessons will be made up at the teacher's discretion. The studio is a full-time career, and there are no make-up slots available. You are responsible to come to your scheduled lesson. Once-in-a-lifetime family events, medical emergencies, musical absences (participating in band concerts, etc) and snow emergencies will be considered on a case by case basis. (Too much homework, tiredness, play rehearsals, going to the game, unpreparedness and forgetfulness ARE NOT excused absences.) This is in line with others in my industry: dance, sports, other lessons, etc. If you miss due to a vacation, you will still be charged. Consider this part of your vacation expenses. I hope you understand the need for professionalism in this regard. I do NOT want you to come when you are ill. Please do me the courtesy of a telephone call for any reason."

I have some terrific families who have been so forgiving and understanding while I wear my many hats. In return, I try to do likewise. When teachers talk amongst ourselves, I believe that many of them do not have a snow or musical absence contingency. I know that absences are a sticking point for many teachers; they believe they are playing second fiddle to the many other parts of the families' lives. On the absence policy, they state "NO MAKE-UPS", period. Your time is paid for 3:00 on Wednesday, for example. If you don't come, they got paid to practice.

Many karate, sports, and dance lessons are now paid by credit card-billed automatically on a monthly basis. (I know, I can't believe it either.) If you miss, there is no credit or make-up given. Even my dentist has tried to implement an appointment policy. If you miss too many sport practices, you're benched! I am still old fashioned and take a check (or cash); a credit card machine would raise my fees more than I believe my parents should pay. I've had only two checks bounce in almost eighteen years; my families receive a statement monthly from me similar to their gas or electric bill. They are almost never behind in their payments to me, they may forget a month, but then it is reflected in their next statement with a $10 late fee.

On the other hand, some of my colleagues make up every lesson missed by little Johnny and are doormats. They try to hard to be easy to work with, and the parents DO take advantage. They do make-up lessons over breaks and well into the summer sometimes. I just can't. I think my best move is to send out my policies every August and so everyone has the opportunity to reread my philosophy. Then there is less misunderstanding when the issue arises.

Friday, May 1, 2009

A Swagger in Your Step

I was reading an article today that had helpful tips for engaging students in music lessons to "make it fun". There were many cute and helpful ideas such as rewards, computer time, performance opportunities, a newsletter to showcase student accomplishments, supplemental music, parties, and composition. I was impressed with the length to which some teachers will go to appeal to young children, right down to making their own studio "money" that students can spend on trinkets from a treasure chest.

Ingrid Clarfield once told me to "work as hard as your student". She explained that when the student has come in prepared, she better be too. When the student comes in unprepared, she feels differently about the lesson. I admire this philosophy.

At one point, the article stated that students sometimes need their pieces for more than a week. If they haven't gotten it mastered after 3 weeks, give it up and move on. I was flabbergasted. Don't tell my students, but I think 3 weeks is not a long time. A caveat needs to be stated here-some of my students are intermediate to early advanced and their pieces are longer than perhaps the beginners that the article may have been addressing. But really? One week?

What skills can you master in a week? You were at home without your guide/teacher at your side. Certainly both the teacher and you know that you didn't "own" it in a week? I love to hear from my students that they are now playing a piece for their upcoming auditions better this year than last year. YEAR, I tell you. Living with something gives you an insight into its soul, and ultimately, your own soul. Again, the reminder that some of my students are playing sonatas, preludes and fugues, and bigger romantic works. The younger ones may revisit a piece in February that they learned last year, to really perfect it.

When we watch the Olympics, the ice skaters and floor gymnasts have been doing their routines for years. They are polished in the moves so that they can focus on the fine details.

When you don't ever truly master it, do you play with confidence? Will it be "fun"? When will piano become "fun", if you feel like you're playing schlocky. By Schlocky I mean messy, less than your best, wrinkled. (I'm not sure that's a word outside of the studio, but it is a word here.)

I love the swagger of a student that knows they are gonna nail their performance. It radiates from their eyes, whether it's Chopin or Ten Little Indians. And for me, I can't teach swagger in a week.

Who's been to Visit?