Monday, August 29, 2011

10 Bits of Magic

Remembering that grace and wonder abound if I’m willing to see it:

1. A Mendelssohn scherzo
2. Boxes of books arriving for school
3. Fresh notebook paper, ready and waiting
4. Hazy, peach-gold sunset
5. Stopping for a deep breath
6. Perfectly ripe nectarine
7. Clear night sky, countless stars
8. Heat of a campfire on my face
9. Cool of the night on my back
10. Smell of wood smoke lingering in my hair

What bits of magic have you seen or experienced recently?

I would love to have you join in! List your own "10 Bits of Magic" on your blog with a link back to me, and use Mister Linky to leave your own link below. (Or, if you prefer, just list a few bits you've seen recently in the comments below. It is a joy to hear from you, either way.)

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Saturday, August 27, 2011

There's no Denying it...

For better or for worse, some of my most effective teaching seems to be by example.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Use Your Words

“You’re doing well. You’re doing good things, with and for your children.” A friend called me last week, and although I missed the call, she left a voicemail that said just that, among other things. She has seen me struggle with homeschooling, with trying to figure out what is best to do, with trying to even make a decision I can live with. Do I have to tell you how much power her words carried? I don’t know about you, but other people’s words—the true, heartfelt ones—have the power to lift me up and carry me a lot farther than I can go on my own power.

When I’m teaching violin, my job is not to stroke egos; it is to help children learn to do something to the very best of their ability. My attention goes automatically to what needs fixing, what needs to get better. But one of the wonderful things about the Suzuki Method is the emphasis on an encouraging environment. I can’t remember where I saw it, but I read once about somebody criticizing Suzuki for praising a child who had just played terribly. Suzuki pointed out that he had not, in fact, praised the child for the way he had played. He had said, “Good! You played!” Sometimes that’s where you have to start. But the discipline of seeing what is good, and pointing it out to the student before going on to the hard work, is invaluable. “Wow, your sound is really strong and clear today! You can make it even better by making sure all those Ds are perfectly in tune,” is profoundly different from saying, “That was out of tune. All your Ds were flat.” It’s not about flattery, it’s about showing the person where they succeeded, and then giving them what they need—the knowledge, or strength, or whatever—to do the hard work ahead.

Over and over again, I come back to the realization that this is something I need to keep working on, this seeing and acknowledging—out loud—what is good. It has always seemed easier to keep quiet. But if I have the power to speak into other people’s lives the way people have spoken into mine and I stay silent, I’m missing the opportunity of a lifetime.

Monday, August 22, 2011

10 Bits of Magic

Remembering that grace and wonder abound if I’m willing to see it:

1. Monarch flickering by
2. Phone call from a friend
3. Banana chocolate chip muffins with ginger, still warm
4. Cricket-filled nights
5. Open windows
6. Clouds moving fast across the sky
7. Up early, the only one awake
8. Cuddling with my children
9. Bare feet
10. Quiet Sunday afternoon

What bits of magic have you seen or experienced recently?

I would love to have you join in! List your own "10 Bits of Magic" on your blog with a link back to me, and use Mister Linky to leave your own link below. (Or, if you prefer, just list a few bits you've seen recently in the comments below. It is a joy to hear from you, either way.)

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Saturday, August 20, 2011

Day 2 at the American Suzuki Institute (In Case you were Wondering what it was Like)

5:30 am     The alarm goes off; I hit snooze until 6.

6:00-7:00  Get ready for the day, check messages, wake girls, make sack lunches, brush and braid the girls’ hair.

7:00           Make at least 3 trips to hotel lobby for coffee/various breakfast items.

7:15           Dad knocks on hotel room door to make sure we are still alive.

7:30           Head out to car. Rainclouds threaten. The girls finish breakfast while we drive.

7:37           Glance longingly at Starbucks as we drive past—no time to stop for strong coffee. It is sprinkling.

7:40           Park. Locate Youngest’s missing nametag. The rain is coming harder now. It occurs to me that bringing a working umbrella would have been a good idea. Then I immediately decide nobody has the hands to hold it anyway. We walk to class in the rain.

7:50           We are amazingly the first to arrive at our classroom. Youngest and I finish our breakfast and my hotel coffee outside the door while Middle gets out her violin.

8-8:50        Middle’s B Class: Group class with focus on technique. Already Middle is opening up more with her bow, and adapting beautifully to all sorts of new things. She asks me before class, “Am I doing such a good job you could die?” I tell her she is. Youngest announces three minutes into the class that she is ready for lunch. At first she lies with her had in my lap, eating raisins and humming along with whatever the class is playing. She spends the rest of the hour experimenting with different cuddle positions in my lap. I try to keep taking notes, despite the acrobatics.

8:50           We head for the Fine Arts Building. On the way Middle desperately needs to use the bathroom. I weigh being on time against being able to concentrate and avoiding embarrassing accidents. Being on time loses.

9:03           I rush Middle to her A Class. This is a master class, where each of the four students take turns working one-on-one with a teacher while the rest watch. All four are about at the same level, so all the lessons are on pieces/skills they have recently worked on, are currently working on, or will be working on soon. Middle was supposed to go first today, but they’ve already started. Time is short and there’s lots to do. I leave her there to unpack and take Youngest to her C Class, a large group class that focuses on repertoire. Taking Middle first was a good gamble; there are still a few kids standing in line waiting to have their violins tuned. Another mother offers to wait with Youngest after class until I get back with Middle. As much as I would like to stay and watch this class, which promises to be a lot of fun, it is more important to be at the individual lessons. Rushing back to Middle’s class I realize I am already exhausted.

9:15-9:27    Middle’s mini-lesson. They work on Minuet in G Minor, particularly one 4th-finger “A” that is consistently out of tune. The teacher mentions one of my favorite Suzuki quotes, “You don’t practice something until you get it right, you practice it until you can’t get it wrong.” Middle accepts the challenge to practice it 100 times correctly.

10:00          A free hour. We find a bench in the Fine Arts building in which to camp out for a while. The sound of rain on the roof is thunderous. Youngest finds friends from some of her classes yesterday, and their father and I speak while the kids play for a while. We share amazement at what is happening all around us, how kids from all over the world can come together and have this music in common. After they have run off a good amount of steam, I collect the girls for a quick practice session.

11:00          Enrichment classes are available for kids, with simultaneous lectures for parents and teachers-in-training. Youngest goes to a class to learn to dance the minuet; Middle goes to Dalcroze Eurhythmics, a music and movement class. I go to a class titled “Favorite Recipes for Practice,” offering practice tips and strategies. It is heavily attended.

Noon           Lunch. We eat sack lunches in the center area of the Fine Arts building. Youngest makes a friend and nearly forgets to eat. Middle falls while galloping back from the trash can and bends her left wrist backwards. It doesn’t seem too serious but she is very upset. “I’m not crying because it hurts, I’m crying because it might be broken and then I won’t be able to play!”

1:00-1:50     B Class (technique) for Youngest, Reading Orchestra for Middle. We drop Middle off. She is excited to get to play “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” again. I take Youngest to her class and watch them work for a while. Then I go back to watch Middle in orchestra. This is her first experience, both playing in a group like this and doing this level and amount of sight-reading, although we’ve worked on note-reading all year. She is rising to the occasion beautifully. I return to Youngest’s class to see that she is standing with the group, playing “O Come, Little Children,” a piece she has not worked on but has heard so often she probably thinks she has. I remember this happening to me, too, years ago. She makes her way through the piece quite well, playing by ear and watching the teacher’s bow.

2:00           We are all tired and I am desperate for coffee. The rain has stopped, so we walk the equivalent of five blocks to Starbucks. I buy the girls snacks and finally sit down with a cup of the darkest brew they have. We will practice later; this was time well-spent.

3:00-3:50   Our last classes of the day; I drop Middle off at her C Class (repertoire) and take Youngest to her A Class (the mini-lesson.) Youngest is clearly tired, but she works hard for her allotted 12 minutes. The teacher focuses on bow technique, and they work in-depth on how she is moving her right arm, as well as keeping her bow hold soft and flexible, a “pillow” hand as opposed to a “rock” hand.

4:00             Recital time. We had arranged for Middle to go to the auditorium with another family from her C Class, so even though Youngest is spent for the day and crying, we go to the recital. I carry her most of the way, despite the fact that even though she is almost five she is the size of many seven year-olds. She calms down before the music starts, and sleeps in my arms through most of the recital.

5:00             We head back to the hotel to meet up with Nana and Grandpa. My mom has arrived from Minneapolis to help me with the girls for the rest of the week, and I could not be more thankful. The girls could not be more excited. We are skipping the 5:00 presentations and evening recital in lieu of a relaxed dinner and down-time. It has been a full day already.

Evening After a full day and dinner out, we squeeze in a little more practicing. There are advantages to doing small amounts at different times through the day. Nana works with Youngest, while Middle and I start in on her 100 repetitions. The number is daunting, but as we get going and she realizes how many she can do in a short period of time, she gets excited. We get to 70 and decide we can fit the rest in before breakfast tomorrow. We both feel proud and exhausted.

8:30 or so     We tuck the girls into bed and they promptly lose consciousness. I will do the same in a few more hours. I can’t believe we get to do this again tomorrow—I will likely be processing our experiences here for a long time.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


I took Oldest to school today. After months of struggling with this decision, agonizing over the best thing for all of us, I enrolled him part-time at the middle school last week. Today was his first day. He will attend two classes there, and can stay for lunch if he wants to (he does—at least sometimes.) He is taking a third class with a small group of homeschoolers, and we will cover the rest of his subjects at home.

For a long time, I thought I had to decide between all homeschooling or all public school, and I was overwhelmed. I’m aware that people do all sorts of combinations of things when it comes to their children’s education, but all I could see for my family were the extremes. It took a friend to show me the gray area, suggest that I could try walking there for a while.

Gray is a lovely color. Mysterious. Delicate. A place where light and dark dwell together, the vast area between extremes. The place we spend most of our time in this earthly home. The thing about in-betweens, though, is that you don’t always know exactly where you are. Choose to walk there and you may have to admit that you are walking, just a little bit, in the unknown

Assuming that you have two or more choices that are potentially good, how do you choose The Best? I don’t really know. We prayed, we deliberated, we sought advice, but there was no direct word from heaven on this one. For now, I think we have a compromise that is Good. Oldest will inhabit two worlds for the time being. He will get a taste of middle school without giving up homeschooling. We are holding on to some precious goals but adding new experiences to the mix. It is a bit of an odd place to be in, but this may be where the balancing point is for us, right now.

At sixth grade orientation on Monday, I watched Oldest navigate the hallways, find his locker, locate his classrooms. I watched him work the combination for his locker over and over, watched him test the metal button on the inside that releases the door to the upper compartment with an extremely satisfying pop. This challenge, this gray place, will be good for him, I hope. Today when I dropped him off at the Middle School, I watched him walk up to the door alone, wearing the gray t-shirt he got at camp this summer. He looked taller to me. Strong, too.

Monday, August 15, 2011

10 Bits of Magic

Remembering that grace and wonder abound if I’m willing to see it:

1. Children spontaneously breaking into song
2. Friends who listen
3. Shadows through a window-shade
4. Dew-glazed grass
5. Car flooded with the smell of basil
6. One last afternoon at the pool
7. Multi-colored tomatoes
8. The sound of pencil on paper
9. Rope swing
10. Flock of birds overhead, glinting bronze

What bits of magic have you seen or experienced recently?

I would love to have you join in! List your own "10 Bits of Magic" on your blog with a link back to me, and use Mister Linky to leave your own link below. (Or, if you prefer, just list a few bits you've seen recently in the comments below. It is a joy to hear from you, either way.)

Friday, August 12, 2011


This song was one of my favorites in high school. It was the chorus that spoke to me: I still haven’t shaken it/This feeling of fakin’ it. What a perfect soundtrack for certain seasons of my life. I imagine singing it like a song going into battle—scared and unprepared, but going nevertheless. There is something joyful to admitting that I don’t really know what I’m doing. That I often don’t feel the way I think I should. I might as well sing and dance a little while I plunge into unknown territory. Maybe after a while I won’t even be faking anymore.

How is it, anyway, that yellow--the domain of caution signs and cowardice--is also the color of smiley faces?

In the violinist part of my life, I am used to preparing. I get the music ahead of time, I mark fingerings and bowings, I practice, I rehearse, and even if I have a performance after only one rehearsal, I’ve got the music in front of me and years of experience behind me. It may not be perfect, but I feel pretty comfortable with the setup.

But there was this one gig in Chicago. I don’t remember how I got it, but I assumed I would be playing in a string quartet or some other small ensemble, and that the contractor had music for me at the very least. But when I got to the restaurant at Navy Pier, it became clear that this was a strolling gig—two violins, playing in parts, from memory. That meant a whole repertoire of music I didn’t know, in a style of music I had never played. You know those stress dreams you have sometimes, when you are in college again and have to take a final exam in a class you never attended, or you are at the church for your wedding, everybody waiting for you, but you don’t have your dress, or you are on stage for a big solo performance with an orchestra and you suddenly realize you never learned the piece? This was like one of those dreams, but real.

We had no choice but to fake it. The other violinist told me to play things I knew, as much as I could remember of them, and he would harmonize whatever I came up with. He made lots of suggestions, and if I knew the melody I played it. We played the first page of the first movement of “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.” We played bits of Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, portions of Vivaldi “Spring” and some Beatles tunes. Pachelbel Canon. Somehow we filled at least an hour with music and then I got out of there as quickly as I could.

Improvising scares me. I don’t think well on my feet. Give me some paper and let me write out whatever I’m going to say, or play, or do, and I feel much better. In the heat of the moment my brain wants to shut off, but whatever is on the page stays there, anchors me, guides me through. One of the problems with life, though, is that so very much of it is improvised, and most of what I get written down to help me through is after the fact. I find this both freeing and terrifying.

One of the biggest things I’ve learned about performing is that sometimes I just have to pretend. Pretend I’m not terrified, pretend I’m relaxed, pretend it’s easy, pretend I meant to do that, pretend that I am in fact a fabulous musician with music just flowing from my pores. Because something happens when I fake it. I play differently when I decide to ignore all my misgivings, my trembling hands, my queasy stomach. I get a lot closer to confidence when I pretend I’ve already got it than if I sit around and wait for it to come to me. Act first and trust the feelings will follow.

It turns out I’m afraid of many things, big and little. Sometimes I think the yellow streak down my back positively glows. But a lot of what this summer—maybe even the past year—has been about for me has been about acting in spite of my fear. Trying out a high ropes course, a zipline, a Tarzan swing while on vacation. Accepting opportunities to improvise on the violin. Going to the writing workshop in Minneapolis. Deciding I’d rather be the one who reached out than the one who said nothing. Saying the things that are burning inside me. Making changes. I would love to tell you that the results have been joyful and glorious, and sometimes they have been, but I’ve also spent a lot of time feeling awkward and clumsy and—to tell the truth—shaking. I am still a coward, but somehow I seem to breathe differently these days.

Yellow dances through the places I am afraid to walk. I’m trying to follow suit, faking it a little as I go.

Monday, August 8, 2011

10 Bits of Magic

Remembering that grace and wonder abound if I’m willing to see it:

1. “Slow down, I want to learn it, too!”
2. Going deep
3. Enjoying the work
4. Not knowing if you’ve learned the piece or just heard it so many times it’s a part of you
5. New accomplishments
6. 70+ violins playing Bach Double
7. Playing “Twinkle” with 200 other kids
8. Ice cream after the concert
9. Quiet hours of driving
10. Sleeping in your own bed

What bits of magic have you seen or experienced recently? I'd love to have others join in! Leave a link in the comments section and link back to me from your blog.

Saturday, August 6, 2011


Just a few thoughts at the end of a week of eating, sleeping, and breathing violin, surrounded by both children and adults who are at all levels and stages of learning how to make music:

Some teachers are impressive because of their vast store of knowledge, which they parcel out bit by bit to their hungry students. There are others who work quietly, seem more interested in drawing out and nurturing what is hidden deep within their students.

There are musicians who can astound you with their great skill; they look impressive, their sound is huge, they are unforgettable performers. There are others who take you to the essence of the music while they themselves fade into the background. They make you hear differently, forever change your impression of a composer, show you how to get lost in a piece of music.

There are writers who amaze with their mastery of language, their particular way of saying something, they way they can turn a plot. There are others who leave you with a story, a thought, or insight that haunts you for years.

It’s worth asking what kind of teacher, or musician, or writer I want to be. My gut instinct is that people talk about you more when you direct them towards yourself. And every time I put my work—a piece of myself—out there, I am asking to be heard. But as a musician, I want my audience to hear the music; as a teacher, I want to develop and draw out the student; as a writer, I want people to come away with a story, an idea, light for the darkness. And it strikes me that this requires a certain sort of invisibility on my part.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

American Suzuki Institute

The girls and I are at the American Suzuki Institute in Stevens Point, Wisconsin this week. It’s been a long time since I’ve been here, and my first time as a parent; but what an experience! It’s hard to be coherent about it right now—I’ve gotten my daughters to 16 classes, two recitals, and a play-in in the last two and a half days. There’s been a little eating and sleeping thrown in, too, and lots of walking. Also two scraped knees, a (minor) wrist injury, and a mysterious toothache that shows up around dinnertime which can only be cured with ice cream.

I’m tired, and running mainly on adrenaline at this point, but I can tell you this: it is amazing to be here. I grew up in the Suzuki world, and the philosophy is pretty deeply-embedded in my life. But these ideas—that music can be a vehicle for developing noble human beings, that every child can learn, that we can go deeply with even young children into something as complex as playing an instrument by taking tiny steps—these ideas do not grow old. Am I overwhelmed? Absolutely. But I’m thankful we’re here, and I can’t wait to see what we learn by the end of the week.

Monday, August 1, 2011

10 Bits of Magic

Photo by Brooke Collins

Remembering that grace and wonder abound if I’m willing to see it:

1. Taking the leap
2. The terrifying, delicious ride down, before swinging up and out again
3. Sunlight, golden through the trees
4. Deep-sleep breathing from the tops of three bunks
5. Sharing stories
6. Bullfrogs croaking (chirping?) at night
7. The sound of water lapping against a boat
8. Time together
9. Time alone
10. Going beyond words

What bits of magic have you seen or experienced recently?