Sunday, July 10, 2016

piano, man

By some miracle, it has not been a struggle getting the kids to keep up with piano practice this summer. They didn't have a lesson this past week because of the 4th of July holiday, so Daniel even assigned himself a couple new pieces  because he wanted to play something different and he enjoys the challenge.

I make my living - however meagre - as a piano teacher and accompanist, so of course my children take piano lessons. For right now, they do not have a choice about this. I am careful, however, to let them set their own expectations with their teacher and I try very, very hard not to interfere with their practicing unless they specifically ask for help. Missed notes, funky rhythms, I bite my tongue (usually). They do often ask, "Mom, what do you think?" and I respond with something bland and encouraging ("Gets better every time you play it!") rather than critique. 

Because my job requires me to be a perfectionist, it's hard to bite my tongue when I hear mistakes. I certainly don't always succeed. More than a few times I've come over to point out - gently, I hope - a glaring error, and it's usually met with rolled eyes and/or "I KNOW, mom. Stop it!" 

Of course, you can always make the philosophical argument that musical perfection is subjective. I agree with that to a point, though a missed F sharp is still a missed F sharp, and try as you might, you can't squeeze four quarter note beats into a measure of 3/4 time. Just saying.

I do not expect perfection from them, and I don't want them to expect perfection, either. I want them to enjoy making music, and so far, they do.

In fact, this past spring, Daniel's music class was practicing "The Rainbow Connection" for their spring program, and he suddenly said to the teacher, "I think this needs piano with it." (The teacher usually has recorded accompaniments or plays guitar with the kids for their concerts.) She, being the excellent and flexible and understanding teacher that she is (seriously, our school is LUCKY to have her), said OK you can give it a try and sent him home with the music. 

This was a mere three weeks before the music program, and y'all, The Rainbow Connection is not a particularly easy piece to play. The music she had was far too difficult (too many sharps, a modulation, the left hand jumped around too much) so I found a simpler version online. Still, I was nervous. For a 10yo in possession of a fair amount of talent but not necessarily prodigy, learning to play a 3-minute long song is hard enough, but to accompany 100 kids in a music program on a few weeks' notice? I'll admit, I was nervous that he would have a hard time pulling it off, that he would be stressed or overwhelmed, that he couldn't do it and would be disappointed in himself.

So I gave him the music and talked to the teacher. We agreed he would learn it the best he could and if he was ready to play with the concert, fabulous, but if not, no big deal. He could always play it for his music class later if he wanted. No pressure, in other words.

For a week after I got him the music, all he did was practice. I found myself humming it constantly, and had dreams about "The Rainbow Connection." And he learned it. I helped him practice a couple tricky spots and sang it with him at home so he could get used to the fast tempo and the fact that you CAN NOT stop to find a note or hesitate for any reason.

And wouldn't you know, he did it. He pulled it off. He played it through many times with his class when they were in music class, but only got to do it twice with everyone: once for the dress rehearsal in front of the whole school, and then again for the parents the next morning. When it came time for that song in the music program, they rolled out the little upright piano and set the mic next to it, and he played it through without a hitch along with 100 squirmy kids singing along. Afterwards his buddies gave him hugs and high fives, and it was all I could do not to sit in the back and blubber with pride. 

There is magic in being so young and naive. It did not occur to Daniel that this would be difficult, that it was something he probably should have been nervous about. He wasn't showing off, even. He just thought that particular song needed piano, and he wanted to do it, so he did it. That's it. No big deal.

Sunday, July 03, 2016

snapshot: herbs

Dill and cilantro against a bright, hazy background of sunflower stalks. It's high summer now.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016


We made it through the first three days of summer vacation at home (not counting the first week of travel) before I snapped. It was 8:30 in the morning on Day Four, and Anya flopped on my bed and sighed, "I'm bored." I looked at her. I might have glared. "Good," I said, "go clean your room." I thought she might cry but instead she glared back and me and stalked off to her room, where she messed around with a pile of papers from school for about 20 minutes and called it good.

Daniel, having learned from observing this exchange, has been making frequent statements over the last week, like "Mom, I'm not bored at all! I have a new hobby, in fact. It's staring at the ceiling." Or, "I have another new hobby: seeing how long it takes to melt an ice cube in my mouth without chewing it!"

I used to roll my eyes at parents who didn't know what to do with their kids all day because of a school holiday. I never get a break, I wanted to snap, and is it really so bad finding something to do with your own child/ren for a whole FIVE DAYS IN A ROW?! Big deal. But, you know, I kind of get it. Parents and kids get used to whatever routine they have going, whether it's full-time daycare or school or preschool or summer camp and then when that changes abruptly, everybody gets a little tense.

Lots of us are pretty sick of the question "What are you doing this summer?" This question has a lot of meanings. The subtext ranges from, "What on earth are you doing with your kids this summer?" to "How the hell are you going to get any work done?" to "Please tell me you're going to be around all the time because we really need play dates to get through it" to "Aren't you lucky you're a stay at home mom and get to go to the pool every day and sit around while the rest of us earn a living" I mean, most of the time the question is innocent enough, but it can be pretty loaded.

Me? I'm the slacker mom who didn't sign her children up for a single camp because by the time she checked on the fun ones (months late) they were full. Good thing there were spots left for swimming lessons two weeks ago or we wouldn't even be doing that.

I could write a whole manifesto here about my half-assed free range parenting style and how it's good for kids to be bored because it stimulates creativity and we're developing our relationship with all the time we spend together, but ugh, that's just too precocious. Mostly, I didn't want to spend the money on camps and I was too disorganized anyway. They're out of school all summer and I barely get any  paid work so time with mom it is!*

This week is going better. We're starting to establish a rhythm and they're getting better at finding things to do (but it's only Tuesday). The weather is nice so we've picked berries and gone on bike rides and there is a stack of library books to read and board games to play. They do have swimming and music lessons, so there is that bit of structure, and I have grand plans to go canoeing and teach them to cook. Life could be worse.

If I'm going crazy by mid-July I might take the kids camping somewhere. We've done it before, just the three of us, so I know we can do it!

* If I wanted to work in the summer, I would have to teach at music camps, which would vastly complicate child care, so I just don't bother. Because apparently I'm a slacker musician in addition to being a slacker mom. Or I'm well rounded. Take your pick.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016


It's a beautiful morning, and I'd like nothing more than to take my kids to the park, but instead I'm waiting at my house for the landscaping crew to show up.* I was told they would be here by now and so far there is no sign of them. I'm also in desperate need of a post-run shower, but I know that as soon as I get that started, they'll get here and it will be awkward. At least Daniel is wearing pants today.

This is the last stage of the renovation, which started the first week of September last year, so we're a good nine months in to the actual work, though the planning and mulling and sorting of finances to make it all possible took years. Large holes were dug, concrete was poured, the kitchen was ripped apart and put back together, the exterior got a total redo, but right now, finally, the inside of the house is really, really nice. The house is a little bigger than before by a couple of hundred square feet and much, much more functional and comfortable. Our bedroom is still badly in need of a refresh, and we need new furniture and a rug for the living room, but those things can wait. 

Last month the new shed was built in the back yard and permanent steps and railing were installed off the front porch and back landing to replace the temporary ones we'd been using all winter. Now we just need a patio and retaining wall instead of the sea of mud that is our back yard, and a smaller patio and retaining wall off the front porch, and we'll finally be done paying other people many well-deserved dollars to do these various improvements to the property.**

Once the hardscape work is done, all that remains is the yard and garden. Right now it looks pretty terrible to be honest, especially in the back. With most of the construction junk out of the yard - including the old shed, which took an entire Saturday morning to haul out, but it remained intact and has gone to another home! (that's a whole post right there) - and the new shed all done, the back yard looks better now than it did ten months ago. Still, I have a long way to go before we're living in the urban homestead edible landscaped utopia I've been daydreaming about since we moved here.

Want a tour, then? Let's start in the front yard, which is a bit eccentric, but not so terrible, really.

Here is the front of my house. Note the new covered front porch. Note the dark gray siding. Note the unwieldy shrubs. The lighter colored one is some kind of Japanese willow; I planted two of them five or six years ago, but the second one didn't survive its first winter with hungry rabbits, and now this one is getting too tall. The other thing is a scraggly wyzalea (or something like that) and I'm not attached to it at all. Underneath are boring hosta plants and a crazy invasion of snow-on-the-mountain that is absolutely impossible to get rid of. 

You know what I really, really want growing here instead? Low-bush blueberries. I'm going to try and make that happen.

If you turn around and look towards the street, you see all kinds of stuff growing. My goal is less lawn, more wild plants and edibles. The perennial bed, once a carefully curated collection of boring cultivated flowers, is now crammed full of aggressive native prairie plants vying for space. I have common milkweed, bee's balm, two kinds of echinacea, daisies, lemon balm (that may not be native, but it's doing JUST FINE), phlox and brown-eyed Susans growing so densely that even the Creeping Charlie has a hard time finding room. A few other not-so-aggressive native plants live there, too, and periodically I clear space around them to grow, but otherwise I basically leave it all alone. It's a little jumbled, a little wild and not so organized, but I've decided this is actually a pretty accurate reflection of my gardener personality, so I'm okay with it. This part of my yard also tends to attract many beneficial winged creatures (bees, butterflies, finches, and more), especially later in the summer, and that makes me very happy indeed.

As you can see, I also have potted mint perched atop a birch log from the tree we had removed about a year ago. That mint is just dying to get out and take over, I can tell, so I set it up high, further out of reach from the ground.

Another section of my front yard is more or less devoted to edible plants. I have four raised beds in which I ostensibly grow herbs and greens, but right now it's more of a forest of sunflowers that have managed to reseed themselves the last couple years, and I don't have the heart to pull them up.

Tucked under the wild flowers are nasturtiums, dill, cilantro, parsley, kale, spinach and chard. They all seem to live together pretty well.

Now, the back yard is the real mess. LITERALLY. The picture below shows the climbing dome in a temporary spot while we wait for the landscaping to get done. You can see the junk and the pile of firewood in front of the brand new shed. The new shed is actually really quite nice, and SO much more spacious and sturdy than the old one.

The picture below is my attempt at getting creative with a raised bed for vegetables. The back half of our back yard used to have 7 spruce trees and a giant silver maple. Now we're down to two spindly spruce and a giant patch of that cursed snow-on-the-mountain and creeping Charlie, both of which I think I'll be fighting for the rest of my life. You can't even use weed killer on those things (not that I would, being the all organic hippie that I am when it comes to weed control) because they grow back so quickly. I've resorted to piling thick layers of cardboard over the worst spots, which is every bit as attractive as you can imagine.

Anyway, the raised bed has landscape cloth AND cardboard under the good soil, and I edged everything with random stuff I found in the yard. Not wanting to spend good money and time on something permanent, I thought it better to use logs and planters and concrete cinder blocks, all of which were lying around the yard, instead. It would look a lot better if the vegetables were growing better, but it's a little slow going. 

Next to the raised beds I have a new asparagus patch, planted early in May. Perhaps it wasn't the wisest thing to plant a perennial smack in the middle of my garden space that is still in flux, but I was eager and the time was right. An online search for a companion planting guide tells me that asparagus grows well with tomatoes and basil, so I have those very things growing amongst its spindly spears. Those are growing well, actually.

Ugh, cardboard is ugly.

And here? Here is the back of my house. It's a vast improvement from a year ago, but you can see the uneven ground and the bare patches. What you see is actually just a fraction of the bare spots, ravaged from excavation and heavy equipment going in and out. Within the next two weeks a lovely and expensive patio will be built, and then we'll have the perfect place to grill burgers in the scorching sun with no table to eat them at. One thing at a time, am I right?

I truly did not mean for this post to get so long, and I guess the laundry list of goals and improvements might be boring for some of you. If you've made it this far, you deserve a prize of some sort. I'll be sure to post an update when the patio work is done. Even if the weeds are insurmountable, at least it will be progress!

*I started this post yesterday.The crew finally did show up, five hours late, to drop off equipment before leaving for the day. They called a rain day for today because we were supposed to get heavy storms all day, but the storms never materialized, and neither did the crew because it was too late to call them back.

**When it comes to home improvement, we're more than happy to pay actual professionals to do the work. They do it far better and faster than we ever could. I know that DIY is the thing to do now, that you can supposedly learn everything on YouTube, but I just know better than to try and install flooring or level a countertop on my own. You know how people go through years of training to get licensing for that stuff? There's a good reason for that.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

snapshot: up north

We just got back from a week of vacation up north. I have loads of pictures, but I'll just say briefly that it was beautiful and we had a good time.

Sea caves on the north shore of Lake Superior at Tettegouche State Park in MN.

Family photo along the Union Mine interpretative trail in Porcupine Mountains State Park in the Michigan UP.

Yeah, we get around.

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

snapshots: in bloom

Indulge me in more than a couple photos of my front yard garden. It's a messy mix of herbs and wildflowers that attract many winged creatures, especially in late summer.


Purple Siberian Iris.

Daisies and sorrel in the sprinkler


More daisies 


(I can't help it, they're so photogenic!)

Thursday, May 26, 2016

singing is hard

A couple years ago I got the idea to take voice lessons. This is something I had been thinking about for a long time. After all, I frequently work with singers, so it makes sense professionally to learn more about the actual technique and physicality of vocal performance. My real reasons are more personal, though. I am deeply moved by beautiful singing. I'm such a sap, I get all choked up at the most random stuff, like Lady Gaga singing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl this year (seriously, she was pretty good) or an exceptionally good performance of Der Hölle Rache (Diana Damrau totally owns this). I can sing but never had any real training, and I guess I just want to get better at it.

So back when I first got this idea to study voice, I contacted a teacher I know in town, and tentatively set something up with her. Then I promptly got a rotten cold and lost my voice completely, and once I got better the teacher in question didn't get back to me (I don't think she was trying to avoid me; I think she was just really busy), so I put the whole thing on a back burner for a while.

Last summer, I decided to have another go. I had a trial lesson with another teacher (my friend Jane, whose students I've accompanied on many occasions), and the one lesson was fantastic! But then the house remodeling started and I got busy with work in the fall. Not only did I feel quite self-conscious about practicing singing with burly contractor sorts going in and out of my house with their country music blaring on the portable radios, I was spending every spare minute either answering their questions about stuff like where did I want the light switches or practicing my own collaborative piano repertoire to a noisy background of air compressors and nail guns.

Now, finally, my semester is over, the inside of the house is done (another time we'll discuss the landscaping that hasn't yet happened) and I've started voice lessons with Jane for real. It's so much fun, and in just those two lessons, I learned SO MUCH. Jane is a wonderful teacher. She is a warm and kind person who can put anyone at ease, which is really quite important when you're about to do something vulnerable like sing. At the same time, she is extremely knowledgeable and has decades of teaching experience under her belt, so she doesn't miss a thing. She can tell in an instant just where I'm holding tension and has a dozen suggestions for how to fix it.

Singing is hard, and doing it right does not come naturally. I have certain advantages over many beginning singers in that I already read music fluently and have a basic knowledge of the major languages of vocal literature (German, French, Italian). I also have a pretty good handle on breathing and a fair start on breath control. Beyond that, though, I'm a total novice. Here are a few basic principles of singing I have to work on over the next month before my next lesson:

1. Open your mouth. I know this sounds obvious, but it's very strange to open your mouth enough for the sound to come out. We don't open our mouths that much when we talk, so it feels like a huge exaggeration to open it wide enough to sing. Wow, does it make a difference, though.

2. Stand up straight. I tend to shift my weight from side to side. It's better to be centered.

3. Relax. This applies to pretty much everything but the diaphragm, which controls the breath. It's nearly freaking impossible, still, for me to relax all the parts that need to relax. I have body parts I didn't even realize could even be tense until Jane pointed them out. I tend to point my shoulders forward, jut my chin out, tighten my jaw (this is common among singers; I hear voice teachers tell their students to drop the jaw all the time), pull my tongue back and try to control everything with my neck. This leads to breaks and squeaks and other embarrassing noises.

4. Warming up is fun. I think I'm enjoying the purely technical exercises more than anything at this early stage. I did not expect this. I expected that I'd want to get right to the repertoire and sing some lovely Schubert already. Instead, experimenting with scales and arpeggios on different vowels and nonsense syllables is the best way to find my voice, focus on all those physical challenges like posture and tension, and figure out how to make the sounds I want. I've ordered a couple of vocal method books (this one and this one) to change it up a bit.

5. If you do all that stuff right, you can even sing through phlegm.  The pollen count is really high. I don't need to elaborate further, do I?

6. Stop while it still feels good. There's no reason to sing yourself hoarse. Better to stop early and stay healthy.

Who knows where all this is going? I have no particular desire to sing in public. Heck, I don't have an end goal with voice lessons at this point, and that's okay. I have enough goals and deadlines in the rest of my life that it feels good to do something purely for the joy of doing it.