Saturday, November 28, 2015


In honor of Small Business Saturday, instead of shopping, we continued to support the small construction business of our amazing carpenter, who spent the day dismantling our kitchen with his college-age son and another young man who is a family friend of theirs. Stuart helped take down the chimney. We gave the built in bookcases a fresh coat of paint. I made chili for lunch and lost my keys. All in all, a productive, exhausting, dusty day. Scroll down to see a bunch of pictures (comments in captions).


They brought doughnuts!

Step One of removing 60+ year old metal cabinets is whatever they're doing.
The fridge now lives in the living room. Something round fell out of the ceiling and Stuart caught it.
This delightful vintage wallpaper was behind the chalkboard. Two people have already suggested that I cut pieces out and have them framed, and I'm actually considering it.
What, you don't store wine glasses and the stand mixer on the windowsill of your bathroom??!

Our temporary kitchen/dining room looks like a bomb shelter.
The dust mask wasn't entirely helpful.
This letter was penned in 1961. We found it stuck between the wall and sink cabinet along with some grocery lists, a bill from Sears Roebuck, a partial sheet of 13c stamps, rules for cribbage, and a hilarious-yet-slightly-creepy brochure for the Big Brother program.
Pretty much everything was out except for the trash.
All cleaned up and ready for asbestos removal first thing in the morning!
I still haven't found my keys...

Wednesday, November 25, 2015


People, I am barely keeping my head above water these days. I have a part time teaching job, which isn't really more demanding than it should be, but I've had to put in some extra hours lately. Also, the freelance work has ratcheted up, as it always does at this point in the semester.  Lately I've had a few 12+ hour work days, including weekend gigs. The end is in sight but I may have to drag my sorry ass over the finish line with a glass of wine in one hand and a sledgehammer in the other. BECAUSE DID I MENTION THAT WE'RE DOING KITCHEN DEMO TWO DAYS AFTER THANKSGIVING? THAT HAS ME JUST A LITTLE BIT STRESSED.

Yeah, I think it's time for a quick update on the renovation project. How about a random list?

1. The siding still isn't quite done, but we're close:

2. It's beautiful, isn't it? Painter guy helped pick out a color that matches the roof and I'm thrilled.

3. One thing that can hold up construction work is lots of rotten wood around the windows because whoever did the siding and windows before did a really crappy job and didn't seal up the nail holes, so water leaked in and rotted the wood. It's getting fixed now but that takes extra time.

4. One thing that can hold up construction work is when you have no power. Example: yesterday, when the electrician and utility people spent several hours moving the power line to its permanent location (rather than across the basement floor, which was an unsightly tripping hazard) and the electricity was off, which meant the carpenters could not plug in their tools.

5. One thing that can hold up construction work is a day of rain and wind gusts, so running saws in the back yard and standing on ladders with large pieces of wood is not only unpleasant, but dangerous.

6. One thing that can hold up construction work is the opening weekend of deer hunting season. I won't elaborate except to say that I can not over-emphasize the importance of this for certain people in Wisconsin.

7. One thing that can potentially hold up construction work is when your contractor's vehicle breaks down and he has to be towed out of your street.

8. Did I mention Stuart has to travel for work before the end of the year? And that I still don't know exactly when he's supposed to leave town?

Despite all these setbacks (which are admittedly minor - we haven't encountered anything catastrophic like a termite invasion or something), demolition is scheduled for this weekend. Tomorrow, the kids are off school and we're going to bake some pies and dinner rolls to take over to my friend Pat, who I think is an angel straight from heaven because she knows what we're in for and invited us to her place for Thanksgiving dinner. Friday we pack up the kitchen, Saturday we pull out cabinets and break down the chimney, and Sunday the asbestos floors will come out while I spend 3+ hours in woodwind rehearsals.

My house already looks like it was raided by angry elves. And that's going to get worse before it gets better. I can handle it, though. I think. We have a plan to put the stove in the basement (temporarily, of course) and I'll be getting up close and personal with the slow cooker and an electric skillet borrowed from a neighbor (a nice neighbor, not the mean one.)

But just in case, if anyone has good take-out recommendations for the west side, bring 'em on. We may need it.

Friday, November 20, 2015

how to practice

I teach and play piano for a living, which will come as news to nobody who knows me personally or who has read my blog for any length of time. I have done a lot of thinking lately about effective practicing. As a collaborator and coach, I work almost exclusively with students (rather than full-fledged professionals), ranging from junior high through graduate level. By the time you're working with grad students, it's often a semi-professional situation anyway, but at every level, anyone studying music is learning how to learn.

I've told people that I make a lot of mistakes (alas), so I have gotten to be an expert at learning how to fix them. It's taken me a long time, and I'm still not perfect. For example, I can practice something six ways from Sunday until the cows come home, but if someone says the wrong thing to me right before a performance, it will screw up my confidence and I have to fight to hold my focus together. Yes, I should be over that stuff by now, but I'm not. It's an unfortunate truth that I will probably work to overcome for the rest of my professional life.

Let's turn back to the positive for a moment, shall we? Once I became a parent, my practice time was immediately limited and I learned to be much more efficient at the piano. I only take gigs I know I can prepare for, and I make sure to learn all the hard stuff first without any putzing around. Sometimes I literally make a plan, and it might go like this: 20 minutes on this, then 30 minutes on that, then 5-minute break for tea, and then I better read the pile of vocal rep in case any of it is harder than it looks.

Mistakes happen all the time. Musicians practice to avoid mistakes. In fact, a very, very smart person once told me that the goal of practicing isn't just to play the music right; it's so that you know you'll play it right, that there is no second-guessing left. That is a goal I reach for every time I play, and to that end I've analyzed mistakes I've made so that I know how best to fix them. There are infinite reasons we miss notes. Sometimes it's technique, or a poor grasp of the rhythm, or a harmony that is difficult to untangle, or the phrase is awkward, or it's an orchestral reduction with too many notes and you have to eliminate some of them, or you forgot to eat lunch and your blood sugar is low, sometimes your left hand is just doing everything wrong...whatever it is, you will do a much better job fixing the problem if you know why you're making the mistake in the first place.

Now when I'm rehearsing with young students in particular, if I notice the same error over and over, I speak up. I help them figure it out. I try not to be obnoxious about this, but I believe this is my job as a coach, as someone with plenty of experience making - and fixing - mistakes. This often involves removing one or more elements of the music getting in the way of a successful run-through (i.e. speaking words in rhythm if a singer is having trouble with text, or playing a rhythmically tricky passage under tempo if coordination with a solo instrument isn't working).

Perhaps "mistake" isn't always the correct word to use. Often, it's not that there are errors to fix as much as finding ways to make the music work better. Usually it has to do with tempo or timing, like starting too fast or slowing down too much in the middle of a phrase, or speeding through the climax of a section when it really needs more time for the dramatic moment to be effective.

I'm not describing any rehearsal or teaching techniques that are new or revolutionary. I'm not reinventing any wheels here. I just know that the longer I do this, the better I get. I just wonder, will I ever actually feel like I'm good enough myself?

Thursday, November 12, 2015


I teach and play piano for a living. It's a meagre living, to be sure, and I couldn't do it if I weren't married to someone whose job provides a regular salary and health benefits. I have days of frustration and discouragement. I have learned to practice confidence and self-affirmation. (Yes, I have to practice those things! It's all part of being a woman. And a freelancer. Topic for another day.) And some gigs are more compelling than others, to be sure.

But I keep doing this because there is nothing else, nothing, that fills my heart and soul more than learning a great piece of music with someone else. I am an introvert, and I have been able to connect with people on a deeper level through my line of work than I ever would through talking to them.

One singer I have worked with for the last year or so has shown tremendous growth just in the last few months. He's a bright, engaging young man on the cusp of adulthood, eager to learn and share his talent with others. His teacher, a wise and seasoned baritone, is capable of coaxing surprisingly sophisticated musicianship out of students of all levels. 

Today we performed this song (video and text below) in his studio class. The weather is awful - blustery and cold and just what you'd expect from November in Wisconsin. I had to leave the kids on their own and drive downtown, find a parking meter, walk two blocks in the bracing wind to the music building, where I spent all of 10 minutes in the recital hall to run through the song and work through some coaching from the teacher in front of the class. It's a pain in the ass to make a special trip to campus for such a short gig, and usually I grumble about it. But today it was worth the trouble. The singer sounded beautiful (despite being scheduled for hernia surgery next week!) and the brooding song was so fitting for the day.

I heard a wonderful interview with a fiber artist who said she knows a work is going well when the hairs stand up on her arms. That's a perfect explanation for why I do what I do. At times I wonder why I studied music. I've had to work harder to be a good pianist than anything else in my academic life. Seriously, it would have been easier for me to go into microbiology or something. But music, more specifically collaborative piano, makes the hair stand up on my arms. It's how I share the best of myself with the world. And that's why I do it.

Enjoy the youtube video. It's Elly Ameling, who is one of the best singers out there of French repertoire. Gérard Souzay would have been my first choice, but I couldn't find a recording of him singing this particular song.

Automne (Armand Silvestre)
Automne au ciel brumeux, aux horizons navrants,
Aux rapides couchants, aux aurores pâlies,
Je regarde couler, comme l'eau du torrent,
    Tes jours faits de mélancolie.

Sur l'aile des regrets mes esprits emportés,
Comme s'il se pouvait que notre âge renaisse!
Parcourent en rêvant les coteaux enchantés
    O´u jadis, sourit ma jeunesse!

Je sens, au clair soleil du souvenir vainqueur,
Refleurir en bouquets les roses déliées,
Et monter ´a mes yeux des larmes, qu'en mon coeur
     Mes vingt ans avaient oubliées!

Autumn with a misty sky, with heart-breaking horizons,
With rapid sunsets, with pale dawns,
I watch the flow, like the water of a torrent,
   Of your days made of melancholy.

My thoughts, carried off on wings of regret,
As if it were possible for our life to start over,
Travel while dreaming through the enchanted slopes
   Where in former days my youth smiled!

I feel in the bright sunlight of a victorious memory
The slender roses blooming again in a bouquet
And I feel rising to my eyes tears that in my heart
   I at age twenty had forgotten.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Joy, and the sparking thereof

After waiting months and months on the wait list, I finally have gotten my hands on a copy of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Is it good timing or bad that it became available just as the big house renovation is getting underway? I haven't decided.

I'm about two thirds of the way through it, so I can't really give a fair review before having read the entire thing. Still, it's making an impression on me.

The author talks about growing up being obsessed with tidying and decluttering from age five, and trying to organize her family's house and get rid of unnecessary objects on the sly as a teenager. She does acknowledge how unusual this is. Some parts are intentionally funny, like when she ponders the purpose of having 100 rolls of toilet paper on hand. Some parts are perhaps unintentionally funny, like when she describes thanking objects like her shoes and wallet for helping her with her day. She's also obsessed with vertical storage, even for t-shirts and her laptop (which she stores with her books). Obviously, the author is a bit quirky, and given her lifelong obsession with tidiness, it's a good thing she has been able to build a successful business doing it. 

When I started reading the book, my first reaction was to dismiss it as far-fetched and unrealistic for someone like me, i.e. a person with children and creative hobbies. Those both tend to lead to lots of mess and clutter. Another big issue is that she doesn't say much about responsible disposal of the things you get rid of. Maybe she considers it a win to take 30 big bags of trash out of a client's house, but that trash will then take up space in a landfill. We shouldn't be so glib about just throwing stuff away.

Still, I think she is actually spot on about a lot of things. Your stuff shouldn't be a burden to you. Things that were important at one time may not be so important now - they no longer "spark joy" in other words - and it's okay to let them go. That stirred up some feelings for me, and this evening I found myself doing a fairly thorough KonMari of my music scores. 

There's more you can't even see in the photo.

This is something I should have done years ago. I have a beautiful set of shelves that my dad and I built together when I started grad school. The shelves are made from 3/4" pine and are exactly the right width to hold stacks of large piano books, 2 piles side by side. It's no surprise that I own a LOT of music, most of which I accumulated as a graduate student. I studied a lot of repertoire for performance and even more in literature classes, and since I also have a degree in pedagogy, I collected a lot of random teaching materials and rep. 

And what happened during graduate school? I had two babies, one in the middle of my degree program and one literally at the finish line. The economy bottomed out, and academic jobs - which were already hard to come by and poorly paid in the boom years - got even scarcer. I had my hands full as it was and I didn't even entertain the thought of looking for a job. So I taught a few private students and did a bit of freelance and carried on.

I harbor so much ambivalence about my professional life. Still, I constantly question whether I was completely stupid and naive to pursue advanced degrees in a field where employment is scarce, the hours are horrible, the pay is lousy, and it feels your reputation is always hanging by a thread. I go round and round and round with this, but it's a topic for another day. In any case, my collection of music scores outgrew those shelves long ago, and was taking up valuable shelf space downstairs. And why? I'll never play those giant sonatas by Schubert, or any of Liszt's late works.  I'll never use those old, falling apart books of teaching repertoire; most of those are crummy editions anyway. 

Out they go! As I worked through, I made several stacks. I sort my music generally by solo vs. collaborative, and then by genre or general time period (standard vocal rep on one shelf, duo sonatas and chamber music on another; for the solo rep, romantic German in one pile, with Bach/Mozart/Beethoven beside). I am probably getting rid of almost half of what I had, both decent quality scores and collections I'll never use, and old or lesser quality scores someone will appreciate from the used book store. Quite a bit went straight into recycling.

I thought I would feel sad to let go of those books, but in fact, it's liberating. I'll never be a concert pianist. I've found my niche teaching classes and accompanying/coaching students of all levels (middle/high school through college and graduate level) and for now, that's ok. I'm good at it, and I actually really like the teaching component that comes with what I do at all levels. So I'm keeping the music that sparks joy and that I hope to play again. And I'm saying goodbye to the rest. 

What's on the shelf will stay. The piles in front will be donated. There's a big load of recycling you don't even see here!

To tell you the truth, some of those books of solo rep that I was never good enough or dedicated enough to play fill me with dread to look at them. Good riddance.

All in all, I'd say my evening of decluttering my music has been a success. What shall I do next, I wonder?

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Tuesday Night Fun Cooking! improvised muffins edition

By the end of the day yesterday, the side of our house looked like this:

And today it looks like this:

There doesn't appear to be a huge difference between the two, and while I admit I was hoping for more progress on the siding, there was substantial work done that you can't see. For example, when the carpenters pulled the old aluminum siding off the gables, they discovered that whoever built the house didn't bother to board up the attic, but just slapped some sheets of foam over the opening and nailed siding to it. Not good. They also pulled off a bunch of rotten wood from around the windows and worked on putting up new trim. And pulled out damaged foam from the corner where some mice had at one time set up housekeeping (YUCK. I do not like mice. At all. They are horrid little vermin that do not belong in my house.)

See the boarded up window there with a giant cord running through a hole drilled in the plywood? That's our electric line and it's been that way for a month. The cord snakes all the way through the basement in front of doors and across the entrance to the bathroom. Soon the utility company will come and permanently bury the line in a trench, but until they do, we have to live with an ugly tripping hazard.

Anyway, that's my update on the reno project. Exterior work has been rained out for the next day or so, and the guys are otherwise engaged later in the week, so we won't get anything else done before next Monday. I'm trying to be patient. I'm not very good at it.

Meanwhile, I did squeeze in a tiny little Tuesday Night Fun Cooking! project with Anya this afternoon. (Daniel had homework so he was off the hook.) In between getting the kids home from school and dashing to a late afternoon rehearsal, we mixed up some muffin batter to go with chicken soup. A cold rainy day calls for soup and muffins, don't you think?

I improvised off a basic muffin recipe from the King Arthur Flour Baker's Companion.We were short an egg and we added a bunch of ingredients to make the muffins a little more exciting. Both the basic recipe and our adaptation are below.

Ever since Anya cut her finger making lasagna, I'm a little skittish about my kids using sharp tools, but I think I need to just get over it. They're careful and they need to learn how to use these things. Still, when Anya was grating apples, I couldn't help but hover!

She did just fine, of course, and was a champ at breaking eggs and measuring flour and sugar and cinnamon for the batter. We mixed it all up and put it in the fridge before I dashed out the door for what should have been a quick rehearsal but turned into more of a therapy session. 

The soup was delicious (no picture, and anyway you don't really need a recipe for chicken noodle soup, do you?) and the muffins were good. Maybe not jaw-dropping knock-your-socks-off I-can't-stop-eating-these fantastic, but pretty good. And they went well with the soup.

I have a pampered chef ceramic muffin pan a friend of mine got for me with he r sister's wholesale discount. It is awesome. These things are worth the investment if you can manage it. This one cost me $27, which isn't even all that bad considering how much I use it.

All-Star Muffins
  • 3 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose or cake flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 8 T. (1 stick) butter
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 cup sour cream
  1. Beat butter and sugar until creamy and fluffy.
  2. Add eggs one at a time, then vanilla and sour cream.
  3. Mix dry ingredients in a separate bowl, then add to wet mixture and mix just to combine.
  4. Bake at 400 degrees 18-24 minutes or until golden on top and a cake tester comes out clean.
  5. BONUS! The batter keeps well in the fridge for several days. You can mix it all up and bake a few muffins at a time to have fresh for breakfast.
Now, my version had a lot of changes. I went from three eggs to two (because we ran out). I substituted a cup of whole wheat flour for one cup of the white. I added about a cup of grated apple, 1/2 cup of raisins and 1/2 cup of sliced almonds and some cinnamon to the batter for extra flavor. I also forgot to add the sour cream until almost the end, so it got a little over mixed. As a result of all these changes, our muffins were slightly denser than the original, but they still tasted good with chicken soup. And BONUS: we have batter left over so I can make a fresh batch later this week without all the measuring and mixing.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Your antidote to Pinterest part 2: my kitchen

6 carpenters + 2.5 days + three deliveries of lumber + 2 dumpsters = 1 new set of walls, 1 new roof, 1 very pissed off neighbor

The neighbor is no surprise (she'll never like us), but the renovation progress is really exciting!

The new porch has a roof! So much better than the Gangplank.

Do I even need to tell you that Tuesday Night Fun Cooking! did not happen this week? Too much pounding and disruption, plus there was a book fair and open house at the kids' school tonight so we stocked up on Christmas prezzies for young relatives and hung out in classrooms before eating a late dinner of vegetable stew I had slow cooking in the oven. 

We have quite a ways to go before this project is done, but interior demolition may start as early as next week, so if I'm going to show you the current state of my kitchen, I better do it now before it's reduced to a pile of rubble (eep).

Our house was built in the early 1950s. It is small - 912sq ft on the main floor - but we had the basement finished about five years ago to include a second bathroom and space for guests, and for a while we made that work. Small bedrooms, small closets, no garage...honestly, I can live with all that. I didn't grow up in a big house and I don't really want to live in one now (more space to collect junk, more square footage to keep clean and heat and cool, more to pay in property taxes, etc) but the kitchen?! We can't live with this kitchen any longer.

As far as I can tell, the kitchen hasn't ever been updated aside from fresh coats of paint, new appliances no more recently than the mid-1990s, and laminate flooring that looks like wood but isn't. (There's asbestos underneath, too. Hooray.) When we first moved in here 11 years ago, we found the vintage green walls and painted metal cabinets charming. That wore off long ago, and for the last several years, especially once the kids came along and grew through the toddler stage, we've known that we can't stay in this house as it is. Move or remodel? was the dilemma, and for various reasons (which I will spare you now), we decided to stay.

Where shall I begin with the problems of my kitchen? Ah, the appliances. Below, you see the refrigerator. It's from 1997 and has been emitting something akin to a death rattle for the last 4 years or so. Every night, we hear it shudder and gasp, threatening to give out entirely. Inside, two of the shelves are held together with duct tape; the cheese drawer broke long ago and just kind of sits there next to the eggs. It's plugged into an outlet that's not properly grounded, and periodically the breaker trips and everything shuts off. And the best part? The microwave is sitting on top because there is literally no where else to put a microwave. Yes, I know people didn't have microwaves in the 1950s. But it's not the 1950s anymore. It's 2015 and while I don't need a smart fridge that will spy on me and report to Facebook, I do want a microwave that I can reach reasonably without the risk of dumping the steaming contents of a mug on my head.

If you look to the left of the fridge in the picture above you can see the drainboard alongside the monstrous porcelain sink. I'm sure the sink is original. Are you thinking vintage charm? If so, think again. We've all accidentally broken things in that sink. It's also chipped and so badly stained that bleach doesn't do much for it anymore.

I probably don't even need to tell you there's no dishwasher in there. 

The picture below shows more of the sink and a small counter that represents 50% of the total counter space in this kitchen. Yes, most of the counter is occupied with espresso equipment. When it comes to priorities in life, we put quality beverages before just about everything else.

Say you're so disgusted with my stained sink and pile of dirty dishes that you swivel around in revulsion, only to be faced with this:

That's the stove. It's perfectly functional, no real complaints there. But do you see how there is no hood above it? No exhaust fan? There is a smoke alarm approximately two feet away, so whenever anything starts smoking, even slightly, or even steaming excessively, the alarm goes off. Or rather, it would go off if it hadn't malfunctioned over the summer. It got going one day and wouldn't stop blaring until Stu tore it off the wall and bashed it with a hammer. (He didn't really bash it with a hammer. But I wanted to.) We're counting on the electrician to take care of that one for us. (Note to self: add smoke alarm to long list of stuff to ask electrician about when he shows up.)

The stove being where it is means that the cupboard above it and the wall behind it is coated with many years' worth of grease and grime that won't scrub off. It's disgusting. And also, who thought it was a good idea to put an air conditioning vent right there?

Here's the other 50% of our counter real estate. 

Awful, isn't it? Just looking at that picture makes me squirm. Looks like the waffle iron was out when I took that picture, so things were a little more piled up than normal. But really, that's not so very unusual. Until a few years ago, we didn't have an outlet there along the counter at all, so to use the mixer or anything else with a power cord, I had to plug in an extension cord and trail it all the way across the floor to the table. That was a delightful risk when the kids were still toddling around in diapers, let me tell you.

To the left of those cupboards there is a broom closet. A whole big tall cupboard for the sole purpose of housing A. Broom. We toss recycling in there, too, to make it a multi-purpose waste of space.

You know what? I haven't gotten to the annoying stuff yet! The kitchen, while outdated and inefficient, wouldn't be quite so bad on its own, but it's an eat-in without any real room to, well, eat in it. Here's the table:

For the past 11 years, we've made it work, even with a basement full of overnight guests and many visits from our respective families. They're all very kind about it, but I think everyone we've hosted over the past decade is relieved we're finally doing something about the space issue. You can't get up for a glass of water without bumping into the person next to you. I can't fetch something from the fridge without asking someone to scoot in closer to the table or get up entirely. Now that the kids are getting taller, we're running out of leg room and patience with the whole situation.

I saved the best for last. This area here is what, on a good day, Stuart calls "The Back Door Trifecta," and on a bad day, "The Back Door Clusterf**k":

Whoever designed this house saw fit to put the back door, the basement door and entrance to the smallest bedroom all in one cozy little area. Those doors are constantly banging into each other and there is no room for shoes or coats or grocery bags or anything a person will likely be wearing or carrying and have to unload immediately upon entry. If the basement door is partially open you can't get in the back door. It's maddening. I can't tell you how many times one of us gets home and is unable to walk in the back door because the basement door is hanging open blocking it up. There's also a chalkboard there by the window, which is cool (kinda sorta) but the chalk tray at the bottom gets in the way of the table and everything else.  

Imagine walking up to the back door loaded down with bags of groceries, unable to get in without someone shutting the basement door, then asking the child sitting at the table having a snack to please scootch in so you can actually enter your own kitchen before setting everything down and trying to find places to put away your food in your terrible loud fridge that is literally falling apart, then stooping over the table to make dinner because there is no counter space, cooking it on a crusty stove,  eating it at the same cramped table that you spent 10 minutes clearing the dinner prep stuff away from, and finally afterwards washing all the dishes by hand in the grimy porcelain sink. 

Like I said, the charm wore off long ago.  

We're remodeling to update the kitchen (among other things in the house, but more on that in another post) and give ourselves some more space. This won't make our house big or perfect. It won't solve every problem or suddenly turn us into the kind of people who host lavish neighborhood dinner parties every weekend. But it will be so much better to live here. And it's easier than moving. (I think.)