Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Studio Recital

Every few months, at the end of a term, we gather together, all dressed-up, having practiced as much as we're going to practice, and give a recital for each other. It's experience-building, performing in front of each other. We play as a big group, in smaller groups, and alone with the piano. Everybody gets a chance to show what they've been working on, to bow, to hear applause for their work.

Everybody there, I think, knows how they would like things to go. Or maybe it’s just me, forever the idealist, who sees it all beforehand in its shiny, dreamy perfection. 

When I was a student, especially all those many years before I got serious about practicing, the image beforehand was probably a little hazy. I think it involved a flawless performance, an astounded audience, the realization that I was not simply a quiet little girl—I was a rock star. Of the violin, but still. And, naturally, a cute boy would fall in love with me because of how I played. After I got serious about practicing, the dream stayed pretty much the same, only with clearer details: a flawless up-bow staccato with a perfectly-relaxed arm, effortless vibrato, getting through That One Passage without messing up or losing my place. And after the whole thing is over—yes, to feel loved. Even after you know you are not doing this to be loved, does the desire for it ever really go away?

As a parent, I have a pretty clear image of how I’d like things to go: my child is clean and neat, we have practiced adequately, she will get through without memory slips or major mishaps. 

As a teacher, I have an even clearer image: I’ve taught each student everything he or she needs to know. I haven’t moved too quickly or slowly. I’ve convinced them all to practice/play in tune/pay attention/make beautiful sounds/not be afraid.

And in reality it’s always something different.

Sometimes you realize, mid-piece, that you really did not practice as much as you should have, and that this really isn’t going well.

Sometimes you have practiced. A lot. And still That One Passage gets you, the memory slip so bad that even your accompanist has to stop and wait for you to collect yourself and start again.

Sometimes you can’t even get your daughter on stage to play—she stands on the edge and cries and cries, and you have no idea if you should urge her to conquer her fear or take her in your arms and carry her away.

Sometimes you realize that while you spent all that time teaching your students how to hold their instruments, you never mentioned not running with them. And every child, upon finishing their solo piece, jumps off the stage and runs back to their seat, each one narrowly averting disaster, each one driving home the point that you forgot one of the earliest, most basic steps.

Sometimes you watch a friend playing, and he is so nervous, so shaky, that you feel sick for him. You would rather be up there yourself, experiencing your own stage fright, than watch what he is going through.

I’ve seen all those things and more happen through the years. You wonder, sometimes, why we have this ritual of performing for each other every few months.

And then, sometimes, you realize that that’s the thing—we try to perform for each other, and in one way or another we lay bare our humanity, instead. The real ideal is that we learn from that laying-bare: how to deal with the discomfort and messiness, how to love each other through it, how to resolve to try again next time, even though we know better than ever that things will fall short of our expectations.

Because it turns out that you can survive all sorts of stuff and still play, and that counts for a lot.

It turns out that seeing somebody else going through the same struggle as you can both open your heart wide and strengthen it.

It turns out you would rather have the love of people who are in the audience because of who you are than of the ones who love you for what you can do.

Best of all, it turns out everybody already knows you are a rock star of the violin. Your parents have always known, even when they wondered if they were wrong. All the younger students who look at you and see everything they hope to be some day—they know. So do all your peers who’ve watched you struggle with standing still or paying attention, who know that last time you would not even get on stage you were so scared, who know that you work extra-hard because you have Down Syndrome. They know what you did up there on stage, even if it wasn’t perfection. They know it was a triumph.

That is why they’re clapping.

Subscribe to Dreamer by Email

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Violin Project Update: Inspiration, Fliers, and a Donate Button

If you are not familiar with El Sistema, Venezuela’s nearly 40 year-old music-as-social-change program, please take the time to watch this. Or, if you are familiar with El Sistema, maybe watch it anyway. Because it’s a beautiful vision and a beautiful program, and there is so much to be learned from it. And because it's part of the inspiration behind The Violin Project.

Fliers went home with Kirksville Primary School kindergarten and 1st-grade students on Friday, introducing this project. If you know a child who might be interested in or might benefit from this program, now is the time to let me know. I am limiting myself to 20 students for this first year.

Also, I have a lovely little “Donate” button installed on The Violin Project page, meaning I am now able to accept donations online. Would you consider helping?

Questions? Comments? Brilliant ideas? Please share below.

*Update: My Donate button was not working at first, but the issue now seems to be resolved. Thank you for your patience!

Subscribe to Dreamer by Email

Friday, April 26, 2013

Hide/Grow/Reach Out: New-to-Me Books

Oh, this one in the picture has a lot of energy. All three of my kids are pretty intense, but this one’s energy is usually a lot more outwardly-directed than the others’. When she’s reading a book, though, it absorbs her fully. There’s something extra-delightful about that. It wasn’t too long ago that I wondered if she would ever sit down for a story. She is so busy, so physical. But no—when she reads, the book takes all that energy and draws it wholly into itself. This fits her personality, but I didn’t expect it.

I have been conscious, myself, of how I hide myself in books (or in making music, or creating things,) especially during hard or stressful times. Sometimes these things are escape, sometimes solace (not the same thing, those two.) But they are also places to grow. There is nothing like hearing someone else’s story to find encouragement and discover you are not alone. To seek wisdom and gain perspective. When it’s time to come back out of a book and engage your life, you have the opportunity to bring something new with you—hope, understanding, peace, strength, mercy—something. And with that something you have a new way to reach out.

How beautiful is that?

We must keep sharing this with the children around us.

To that end, I am (finally) adding to my Music Resources: Picture Books, Etc. page. The new additions are below. And if you haven’t visited this page yet, please do. I know there are books I’ve missed, so if there’s something that should be there that you don’t see, let me know in the comments!

Leave Your Sleep: A Collection of Classic Children’s Poetry, by Natalie Merchant, illustrated by Barbara McClintock, Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers, 2012
I adore books like this—fabulous words, beautiful illustrations, and a full-length CD—in my mind that pretty much covers everything you could want. This collection was inspired by the poems, stories, and songs Natalie Merchant shared with her daughter in the first six years of her life. This is a wealth of good literature, and good art, and good music.

For the Love of Music: The Remarkable Story of Maria Anna Mozart, by Elizabeth Rusch, paintings by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher, Tricycle Press, 2011
Maria Anna Mozart (Nannerl) was as much a child prodigy as her younger brother Wolfgang Amadeus. The two traveled and performed together all over Europe for several years. But when Wolfgang and his father left on a second trip, Maria was left behind. From that point, the siblings’ lives took different courses. Written in small segments following the form of a piano sonata, this book details Maria’s life, showing how music permeated her life, even though her opportunities as a woman were much different than her brother’s.

The Other Mozart: The Life of the Famous Chevalier de Saint-George, by Hugh Brewster, illustrated by Eric Velasquez, Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2007
Born in the West Indies in 1745 to a slave mother and wealthy plantation-owner father, Joseph de Bologne-Saint-George was raised and educated like a gentleman. When Joseph was eight his father sold his plantation and moved to Paris, bringing Joseph and his mother, now both no longer slaves, with him. He also re-named his son, giving him the title Chevalier, which was equivalent to a knight. Joseph was bright, talented, strong, and handsome, and he made a name for himself in France as a brilliant fencer, an accomplished musician, composer, and conductor, and later in life as the first black colonel in the French army. He was famous and accomplished and admired, but he also had to navigate a world in which his opportunities were quite limited by the color of his skin. His fascinating story is told in the context of the world of his time, with brief interludes telling about Paris, Haydn, Mozart, Marie Antoinette, and the French Revolution scattered through the book.

Little Stevie Wonder, by Quincy Troupe, illustrated by Lisa Cohen, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005
The story of Stevie Wonder’s life, told in energetic, poetic language and vibrant illustrations. Accompanied by a CD with two of his songs, “Fingertips,” and “Uptight (Everything’s Alright.” This is as much a tribute to the man and his work as it is a biography.

Woody Guthrie: Poet of the People, by Bonnie Christensen, Alfred A Knopf, 2001
Woody Guthrie had a hard, poor life from the start, but when he traveled from Oklahoma to California in search of a better life during the Depression and found only more hardship, and saw the plight of other migrant workers like him, he made it his mission to become their voice. He spent his life traveling across America, talking to migrant field workers, miners, and factory workers, turning their stories and their struggles into songs, as well as championing the rights of workers and the importance of unions. 

Subscribe to Dreamer by Email

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Dream With Me

I’ve been working on a project, and I’m really excited about it, and I need your help.

I want to flood my town with violinists.

Not because playing violin is the end-all. I would be happy to flood my town with French horn players, and percussionists, and pianists, and writers, and painters, and sculptors, and dancers, as well. Maybe someday I can make that happen. But for now, because teaching violin is something I know how to do, I will settle for lots and lots of violinists.

Because learning how to play violin is easily one of the most important things I’ve ever learned. It has taught me about problem-solving, and perseverance, and hard work. It has taught me about beauty and art. It has taught me about working with others, and humility, and community.

Beyond all that, learning how to play an instrument gives a person a voice. (So, of course, does learning how to dance, or draw, or sing, or write.) It gives a person a way to take what is inside and bring it out, to take what is sometimes un-tangible, unspeakable, or un-translatable, and share it soul-to-soul. That is a powerful tool to give somebody, especially a child.

If you haven’t guessed already, I don’t believe learning to play the violin is simply about learning to play the violin. Playing an instrument is a wonderful thing, but I don’t think I’d make such a big deal out of it if that was all there was to it. What learning to play the violin is really about is working to become a better human being. And that’s something that reaches way beyond one child taking lessons.

So I’m going for it. I have a wonderful private studio of 18 students, but I want to reach deeper into my community.

Want to know more? Want to help? Check out my new page here

Subscribe to Dreamer by Email

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

For Fun

Unlike his violinist-sisters, Oldest is a percussionist. Which I think is really cool. And in honor of him, Monday night we all got to inhabit a different sort of world at a percussion ensemble concert. A shame I couldn’t bring all of you with me. Among other things, we were treated to a performance of Musique de Table (“Table Music”) by Thierry de Mey. You must watch. (A different version, but thanks to YouTube we can share the experience.)

Subscribe to Dreamer by Email

Monday, April 15, 2013

What Did You See/What Did You Hear?

Outside I can hear jangly music—it pulls me away from what I’m reading (and I love what I’m reading) because I almost but can’t quite pull a melody out of what I hear. Then I focus on it and realize—it's the sound of an electric saw or sander. The pitches move across the sounds of cars and through walls and windows and into my room in a way that changes them into something more than just mechanical.

I find myself wondering—is it really just mechanical? Somebody close by is making something, or fixing something, or perfecting something. And I heard music for a moment.

*     *     *

I have looked at sunlight glittering on a lake many times and seen diamonds.

As a child I convinced myself that the dust motes I saw floating in beams of sunlight were fairies. So friendly of them, to let themselves be seen. Even now when I see a stream of light glinting with dust, I can feel the magic, just remembering.

And this weekend when green grass suddenly carpeted my part of the world—not ordinary green, but bright and deep, a color that shocks a little after so much white and brown and grey—I took that as proof not only that spring is coming, but that maybe I can hope for other good things as well.

*     *     *

It’s something I love—when one thing becomes another.

And those edges where things meet and combine—that is a favorite place of mine.

An idea crystallizes, a mind expands, a story or picture or melody works itself into a heart and then outward again into a life—these are quiet miracles, but powerful.

I hope you witness one of these miracles today. And if you are so moved, I’d love it if you shared it with me.

Subscribe to Dreamer by Email

Monday, April 8, 2013


The orchestra I play with is giving a pops concert this weekend.

There was a time I would have groaned about that. I would have assured myself and everyone around me that I had no time for cheesy stuff.

But the truth is, I think pops concerts are really fun.

*     *     *

The truth is, I accompanied my parents to operas and ballets and orchestra concerts, and yes, I grew up on lots and lots of Mozart and Bach. But there is way more to the story. More often than not, my mom kept jazz playing on the dining room stereo, and when we went as a family to listen to live music, it seems to me now that it was usually jazz. Usually outdoors, usually on a terrace somewhere along the Mississippi River.

Beginning in seventh grade I took to raiding the collection of tapes my mom’s bass students had given her of the music they liked to listen to. Her studio was not limited to, but certainly well-populated by, high school boys. So while my dream-piece to play through junior high and high school was the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, I also listened to a ton of Led Zeppelin.

And summer meant Minneapolis Pops Orchestra concerts at Lake Harriet.

We accompanied my parents to pops concerts countless times over the years. It’s hard to say which was the backdrop—the music, or everything else. Half the time (at least) I was in my own world. But the music, the people, the atmosphere—all of it mixed together into its own special thing.

What that means is that playing music from “My Fair
Lady” brings back the taste and smell of popcorn and strawberry ice cream and the sound of sailboats clanking in the marina. “West Side Story” is full of not just scenes from the movie but also games of Uno played on a maize-colored blanket, conversations with other musicians' kids, and grapes and carrot sticks and sandwiches pulled from an Igloo cooler. Sousa marches carry with them the hope of being chosen to lead the children’s parade with the drum, smiling strangers clapping their hands,  my parents watching for my sister and me from the orchestra on the band shell stage. And how many works, I wonder, are connected in my memory to the threat of a storm, watching blue-black clouds moving in, wondering if we would need to take shelter and where we would go if we did?

The music is linked to probably every summer of my life: the summers I babysat other musicians’ kids—the little boy who liked to throw rocks in the lake and pointed at every airplane that passed overhead, the other little boy who was not content to hold my hand when we walked over to get popcorn but would slowly move his hand up my arm to play with the skin on my elbow. The summer I worked at the Refectory, scooping ice cream (huge scoops balanced on sugar cones, just 95¢) and leaning over the counter to take orders. Summers when I was in college, and went along only to find somewhere to hide with a book. Summers with my own children, even, finding Nana and Grandpa on stage in order to wave at them, playing in the park up the hill, marveling at the sight of a cat on a leash.

All of it mingles inside of me. Makes something new.

This is why you cannot tell me that any kind of music (or art or literature) is dead, that certain types are worthless, or irrelevant, or unapproachable.

There is always interaction of some sort. What you heard, what you saw—it is always mixed with what surrounded you when you heard it (or saw it or read it.) It mixes further with the thoughts in your head, the state of your heart, the way your body felt at the time. Then it goes even deeper and mixes in your memory with the questions it raised or answered, the feelings it aroused or quelled. In that moment, and in all that mixing, this piece of art that began outside of you becomes something new—co-created between composer and musician and listener (or artist and viewer, or writer and reader.)

And if it is something new each time somebody hears or sees or reads, it is always relevant. Always alive.

*     *     *

On the concert this weekend, and new to me, and beautiful, is this. Hope you enjoy it.

Subscribe to Dreamer by Email

Saturday, April 6, 2013


On the day before Easter, 10 years ago, I took my round blonde baby to the walk-in clinic at the hospital near our house. I didn’t like the way she was breathing. I thought maybe she had an ear infection, because she had the same sort of look to her that Oldest did when he had an ear infection, and because he always breathed differently when he hurt.

I had been holding her all morning, trying to comfort her and get her to sleep, so I had not noticed the slightly blue cast to her skin. I felt a little foolish walking into the ER, because I couldn’t pinpoint what was wrong. I kept telling myself everything was fine. But something in me needed to get her checked out.

Next thing I knew there were chest x-rays, and Middle was being admitted to the hospital. The doctor suspected pneumonia.

I’d like to tell you that I learned to never again argue-away my instincts, but that is a story for another time.

It’s the two moments among the many burned into my memory from that weekend—the two that especially stand out—that I want to tell you about today.

The first was when the nurses were trying to get an I.V. into her. I don’t know, actually, how many people were involved in the process, because it was my job to keep her still. Middle, just like her brother and sister, had wonderfully-fat baby arms and baby legs, and nobody could find a vein in any of them. So I laid my chest over hers as gently as I could, and held her arms still while the hospital staff poked around for a vein, and wrapped all four of Middle’s limbs in warm towels, and poked around some more. I whispered every comforting thing I could think of in her ear while she screamed and cried into mine. And I knew she was too little to understand why I was letting her hurt. And there was nothing I could do besides what I was doing.

The second moment was in a hospital room, some 45 minutes later, looking at Middle inside an oxygen tent.

She could die.

It is some sort of great blank space that you enter, when you realize you are powerless and that One of Those Things You’re Most Afraid Of might happen. Beyond thought. You accept it mainly because you know you are there. Because it’s pointless not to.

Okay, God. I see where I am.


One of the descriptions of my Myers-Briggs personality type is “The Protector.” I think it’s safe to say that I feel the desire to protect the people I love pretty fiercly. That it is as hard-wired into me as my bones and muscles and tendons. It might explain why I do not flinch at the sight of my own blood but the sight of my child’s skinned knee or paper cut makes my stomach flip. Those two moments, Easter weekend ten years ago, were all about how I could not protect my child. I could offer every bit of love and comfort I had, but I could not protect her.

I don’t know how to explain it, exactly, the grace in those moments. But I can tell you I felt it. In real time—not later, after I knew Middle would be okay. I felt it right there in the center of that great blank space.

You have to hope that moments like that change you. It turned out that Middle had RSV, not pneumonia. And she recovered, and I took her home, and I was shaken but life pretty much went back to normal. I think something shifted in me, though, having been in that place. For one thing, there is no hiding from the fact that you don’t always get the ending you want. You know there will be more of those moments as you go through life—the ones you know you cannot handle. And you know that again you will have to say Okay. But now you know, too, about the grace that is there in that moment—in that great blank space—that is too big, too much, for words.

And you have to trust that that will be there again, too.

Subscribe to Dreamer by Email