Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Inspiring Practice: Ways to Motivate Children to Practice Violin or other instruments

Ah, practice.  It's rewarding, it's frustrating, it's tedious, and it's divine.  It's especially a challenge to motivate young violinists to practice.  That's because the tricky part of practice is that the more you do it, the more rewarding it becomes.  

I think it's important to set realistic goals for practice, whether it's for yourself or a young child.  To often, parents become frustrated because their child doesn't want to practice, without taking into account how normal that is.  I have yet to see many children under the age of nine who can practice on their own--parents must help them to practice.  Here are some ideas to get you started.  Keep in mind, all children are different, so you might want to try several different activities to see which ones work best for your young violinist.

1. Listening practice

Listening to music can be a very important part of practice, as I mentioned in my post on Suzuki techniques.  It's also a very simple routine to implement.  I recommend uploading the Suzuki CD to your iphone, ipad, computer, etc. so it is easily accessible at all times, then play the CD regularly throughout the day.  For example, listen to it in the car on the way to school.  Put the CD on while your child is drawing pictures and ask them to "draw what they hear in the music." Put it on quietly during nap time.  Have your child sing along with the music.  Have them dance to the music. Have them clap the rhythms or beats for the music.  There are endless activities for active listening, and even if you can't manage any other type of practice, listening will make an enormous difference to your child's progress.  

2. Silly Sounds

I frequently use this when I teach preschool piano.  Letting children explore their instruments and discover the different sounds it makes can really inspire them.  For piano, I simply had the children sit at the keyboard and touch whatever keys they wanted for a few minutes.  The only rule was that they had to only use their fingers and play gently.  At first, this was only a way to keep them occupied while I wrote down notes, but I quickly realized that the more silly sounds the children made, the more quickly they grasped the organization of the keyboard.  On violin, you might let your child try playing on whatever string they like, or whatever notes they feel like playing.  They might also like making "Evel Knievel" noises by sliding their fingers up and down the fingerboard.  I think that sometimes we accidentally make the musical instruments feel too unapproachable--giving kids permission to explore them (with reasonable limits) helps them to learn on their own in a more relaxed way.

3. Bow Hold 

In essence, a good bow hold only takes muscle memory, so when I first teach my students a good violin bow hold, I recommend that they practice it in front of the TV.  Basically, a student should carefully set their hand in a beautiful bow hold, then try to hold it for the commercial breaks of their favorite show.  Even this few minutes of time spent focusing on making a good bow hold can reinforce muscle memory and improve playing.  

4. Card Games 

A fun and productive way to review, this technique takes some effort by the teacher or the parents, but it can pay off enormously.  With just plain index cards and some markers, you make a set of cards for each song, scale, or etude that a child can play.  You make a second set of cards for different techniques a teacher would like the child to master, like good posture, curved pinky (bow hand), curved thumb, relaxed wrist, beautiful tone, good intonation, etc.  Once the cards are done, ask your child to choose two cards--one song card and one technique card.  The child then plays the song and focuses on the technique on the other card.  This can keep students engaged and guessing what songs will come next.  You can also experiment with funny cards (play this piece like you are giving a concert for an elephant! imagine you're performing with your favorite musician!).

5. Singing and playing short, fun songs 

I've heard very good things about Alfred's I Know a Fox with Dirty Socks and other books that have interesting stories or lyrics for children to learn while they master the songs.  Sometimes regular songs can feel very long to a young child, and short little songs might help them stay engaged.  These pieces might be a nice break from practicing more serious music.

6. Engage the other Arts, too 

We're learning music, but other arts can certainly help inspire our musical practice.  Your child might want to draw pictures of musical ideas.  I've had several students who loved drawing beautiful musical symbols like the treble clef, or drawing notes.  It might be especially fun for a child to draw some notes or rhythm patterns and then try to play what they're written.  Or if your child likes reading or listening to stories, maybe he or she could invent new lyrics to their songs.  A theatrical child might want to dress up and perform an imaginary concert, or pretend to be a famous musician or other person when they play.  

7. Practice with friends

It's always great to have a friend who's taking music lessons too.  Children might enjoy playing pieces together, and you can ask the teacher for duet music they might enjoy.  The children could also take turns playing for each other, and they may be able to help each other sometimes.  Keep the environment laid back and avoid too much competition, and your child can have a great time bonding with other kids in music lessons.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Mr. Wok--Delicious Peking Duck in Plano, TX

Mr. Wok is a modest-looking Chinese restaurant in Plano, TX.  Don't let its unassuming exterior fool you.  Inside is some of the best Chinese food I've eaten in the Dallas area at very reasonable prices.

Every meal I've had at Mr. Wok was excellent.  The Thai-grilled sole and the chili garlic prawns are well worth a visit.  But I have deep love of one of their most traditional dishes, the Peking duck.  I know that there are many Chinese restaurants that serve so-called Peking duck.  I've had it at other places.  Mr. Wok's Peking duck is some of the best Chinese food I've ever had, anywhere.  It's usually ordered a day in advance (although they have extras on Friday and Saturdays), so that they can prepare the duck in the traditional manner--airing its skin, hanging it up to dry, and marinating in a delicious glaze.

The chef/owner of Mr. Wok's carves the beautifully roasted duck at the table, filling a serving platter with crispy skin and tender meat.  They serve the duck with Mandarin pancakes, green onions, and hoisin sauce (my husband asks for lettuce wraps instead of pancakes to avoid carbs).  You fill a pancake with meat, crunchy skin, fresh sliced green onions, and hoisin to taste.  It's wonderfully flavorful, and the textures of the different ingredients compliment one another deliciously well.  But the meal has a second course as well--Mr. Wok's offers to either boil the duck bones into a soup, or stir-fry them with vegetables.  The soup is excellent, but the stir fry is incredible.  It might be the best part of the meal--the chef brings out a sizzling plateful of meaty duck bones stir fried with sweet bean sauce.  The meat left on the bones is savory and crispy, and the vegetables in the stir fry have absorbed some of the duck juices.

The only problem I've ever had at Mr. Wok's is getting a table.  They are very popular--on a Friday night I've seen the restaurant packed with eager dinners.  I make reservations when we're going on the weekends.  But it's well worth the wait for a table, and I look forward to eating much more Peking duck, and trying some of their other specials, like Beggar's Chicken.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Jungle Beat, by Lynn Kleiner

Lynn Kleiner's Jungle Beat is a music book and CD filled with great games and learning activities for preschool children.  The songs are fun, and the children really enjoy the games Kleiner suggests.  In particular, my students enjoy the "Elephant song" and game.  I use the black edge of my parachute as the "string" the elephants walk on.  As always, the rule is that the children have to stay sitting down while I set up the parachute, then we can begin the game.  The "Boa Constrictor song" is popular, too, although the very young children were sometimes frightened by the imaginary snake.  

If you are trying to teach solfege techniques, several songs are very useful.  "Walking Through the Jungle" is entirely sung on So-Mi, so it's a great song to begin teaching solfege.  The children enjoyed the song and game, which are easily adjustable to whatever "theme" you have that week.  For example, during Ocean week we sang "Swimming Through the Ocean."  I copied the cards from the book for Kleiner's "Walking Through the Jungle" game, which the children liked.  However, I think that it's better to use animal figurines or beanie babies of you have them--I used a beanie baby shark and some my-little-ponies at one point, and the kids were thrilled.

The next song I used from this book for teaching solfege was the "Elephant song." It is all So-Mi-Re-Do, so I had the children sing it on solfege and do their hand signs before we played the game.  The singing and hand signs also gave the children who were waiting for their turn something to do.  

I'd really recommended this book for preschool teachers or parents.  It's fun and enjoyable, and the right person could easily use it to teach musical concepts and techniques.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Forget Sharing--Teach Children to Respect Boundaries

At elementary schools and preschools throughout the United States, it's common to emphasize teaching children to share.  I'm amazed at how often children in my preschool are admonished to share nicely, even though many of the things they are using or playing with are not intended for sharing.  Books, for example--if one child is looking at a book, it's hard to share it without one kid not being able to see.  This usually ends with a struggle for the book, which often ends up torn and broken.  What's more, I don't think that most very young children are developmentally ready to share. Two-year olds don't normally play "with" other children--they play next to them.  That's normal.  It's also normal for children to want to keep some things for themselves.  

I'm not saying that sharing is a bad thing, or that we shouldn't be teaching it in schools, even preschool.  I just think that it might be more important to teach children to respect boundaries.  In my preschool music class, I have been working on teaching the children to ask nicely when they'd like an instrument, instead of grabbing at them, or demanding I hand it over.  When I first teaching preschool, I was annoyed at how children demanded instruments (Give me drum!) or else claimed something rudely (My Drum!) without asking permission, or showing patience.  I immediately started a new class procedure--everyone who wanted an instrument had to ask nicely ("Please may I have a drum?"--or at least "Please," depending on the child's verbal ability) before I would give it to them.  They also had to say "thank you" (often "tank").  It took sometime to get the children used to this procedure, but once they were used to it, I was very happy with how things went.  Teaching manners and respect to my students actually made my classes far more pleasant to teach. Even two-year olds learned to say please and thank you.  

Furthermore, instead of insisting students "share" instruments, which is difficult to say the least, I taught them to respect other students' claims to an instrument.  At first, I frequently had children point to a xylophone that another child was using and yell "mine." I always replied, "No, that's not yours.  Kelly is using that instrument now, and you may have it when she is done.  Why don't you play with the keyboard instead?" I disliked the idea of making "Kelly" share an instrument that wasn't meant to be shared.  Yet, I've seen teachers criticize students like Kelly for not immediately offering to share their instrument, which I find very asinine.  Indeed, the fact that some children insist that everything can and must be shared often borders on bullying--these children yank things out of other kids' hands, or loom over them while they're looking at a book, or demand a piece of anything another child has. If the other child objects, they are often blasted for not sharing, instead of taught how to politely defend their boundaries.  

Female children in particular are expected to share and be "nice," instead of encouraged to stand up for themselves. I remember one girl, Mary, was quietly eating her snack one day when one of the boys, Derek, came up and grabbed at her lunch box. Derek is a special needs child, so he doesn't understand social boundaries--he didn't mean any harm.  But from Mary's perspective, a boy who is considerably larger than her just grabbed her things and loomed over her.  She shrieked and pushed him away.  Granted, pushing is never good behavior, but it's common among two-year olds, and she was disturbed by what he was doing.  The other teacher, however, criticized her for not "being nice" and "sharing." How stupid, I thought.  It's her lunchbox and someone grabbed it out of her hands.  She has every right to be upset.  Instead of criticizing her feelings, which were perfectly justified, it's better to teach her how to use her words to firmly but calmly stand up for herself.  Next time, Mary, use your words to say "That's my lunchbox.  Give it back to me, please." Then if he doesn't let it go, get a teacher to help you.  But the over-emphasis on sharing makes poor Mary the "bad" child.  What kind of message are we sending girls if we teach them they can't defend their own possessions and rights? Is "sharing" really a means of enforcing passivity? That's why teaching respect seems to me a much better system. It's much better that children learn to respect other people's boundaries and politely assert their boundaries than this false emphasis on sharing.

One last thing--I think forced sharing might actually inhibit children's natural sharing instincts.  When children are forced to share everything, it can make them feel insecure, like their possessions might be taken away or used by someone else at any moment.  Insecurity actually makes them cling far tighter to their things than they might if they felt they had more control over the sharing.  Let's say that Jenny is happy to share her doll with Stacy, because Jenny knows that Stacy will treat her possession gently and be kind to her in return.  But Jenny doesn't want to share her doll with Liam--he throws toys around and breaks things.  If a teacher insists that Jenny has to share her doll with the whole class, which includes destructive Liam, she won't want to share at all.  Sharing in that case means a broken or messed up doll.  But if the teacher respects Jenny's boundaries and says it's fine to share her doll if she wants to, it's likely that Jenny will immediately share her beloved toy with her gentle friend.  Furthermore, if Jenny refuses to share the doll with Liam and he gets upset about it, that is an excellent teaching moment for him.  "Liam, you throw things and that's how they get broken. People don't want to share with you if you might break their things."

I think we need to re-think the emphasis on sharing in our schools.  Sharing might be an important social skill, but it should take a back seat to respect.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

A Feast of Ice and Fire--delicious recipes inspired by Game of Thrones

I really admire George R.R. Martin's book series A Song of Ice and Fire, which is the basis for the HBO's stunning TV series, Game of Thrones. I have eagerly read every book in the series, and I love the TV show (Peter Dinklage rules!).  

Since my husband and I also enjoy cooking, we were especially excited to discover Inn at the Crossroads, a recipe website run by two avid fans of George R.R. Martin's series.  For those of you who haven't read the books, George Martin lovingly describes every detail of the imagined Medieval feasts his characters consume.  Every book makes your mouth water for recipes like honeyed chicken, or lemon cakes.  So Chelsea Monroe-Cassel and Sariann Lehrer, two excellent cooks and devoted fans, decided to research recipes to match the food described in A Song of Ice and Fire.  They usually include both a Medieval and a modern recipe for each dish, so that a reader can opt to go true traditional, or try an update of the food.  My husband and I loved trying many of the recipes from their blog, and we bought their new cookbook as soon as it was released. Some of their recipes have become staples in our house.  Honeyed chicken? It's wonderfully simple, and as delicious as it sounds.  I recently made Umma's Olive Loaf, a recipe from the blog, and I was delighted to discover that the bread it made was absolutely mouth-watering, and totally simple.  Seriously, I normally can't make bread to save my life, but this recipe turned out perfect and delicious.  Some other favorite recipes include the Medieval beef and bacon pie, which has a tender saffron crust and a savory/sweet filling my husband adored, the Medieval Iced Blueberries in Sweet Cream, and the Sister's Stew.  

If you like to cook and Medieval feasts sound like your idea of a great time, definitely check out the book A Feast of Ice and Fire or visit the Inn at the Crossroads.  It's definitely worth it.    

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

P. G. Wodehouse--Funny, Lighthearted, Enjoyable

I tend to be a serious person.  I like to think, I like to read, I'm concerned with the world around me, and I'm a classical musician.  Therefore, I need to laugh and find lighthearted pleasure when I can or I go completely mad. There are several authors whom I can thank for saving me from the madness.  Douglas Adams, who wrote the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and other wonderful books, is one.

But Douglas Adams did more than write excellent books himself--it's through his final, posthumously published work, The Salmon of Doubt, that I learned about PG Wodehouse, an author that Adams himself raved about.  I trusted Adams' recommendation, and bought some of Wodehouse's books.

I loved Wodehouse's writing--it's fresh, funny, and light, but still beautifully written.  Wodehouse's crisp writing never feels stupid or inane, as most of the BS that passes for comedy nowadays feels. Bertie Wooster gets himself into outrageous situations, but his resourceful, brilliantly intelligent butler Jeeves always finds a solution.  What makes this comedy work is wonderfully is that Wodehouse treats his readers with respect--there is never an indication that he thinks his readers are as silly as his characters.  Quite the opposite--his meticulous writing suggests that he has a great deal of respect for his readers (it's amazing how many writers seem to enjoy being condescending or self-righteous to their readers).  I think the closest modern comparison is the comedy of Louis CK.  When I watch Louis' show, I'm always impressed with how much compassion he shows, even for people he clearly disagrees with.  Likewise, Wodehouse might see the absurdity of his characters, but it's clear that he still loves them, whatever their foibles.  It's this sense of nearly boundless compassion that makes reading Wodehouse a balm for the soul.  However outrageous my mistakes in life, or however dire things might seem at the moment, Wodehouse reminds me that all people have their own absurdities and scrapes, and he's a wise enough writer to forgive us for them.  

Monday, August 20, 2012

Spoiled Children, Ruined Lives

I have heard parents actually brag about spoiling their children.  I have seen parents send their children out in public wearing clothes that read "My mommy spoils me!" or "Spoiled Rotten" or some other equally repulsive nonsense.  And I think it's past time for people to knock it out.

For one thing, there's nothing funny or cute about a spoiled child.  Bragging about spoiling your kid is like saying "I'm proud to make my child a social and emotional cripple!" It damages your child's true happiness, and can possibly ruin his or her life.  That's the meaning of "spoiled"--it refers to something rotten or diseased that once was fine.  So how does spoiling ruin a child?
First, there is an important difference between what children want, and what children need. Children might want to eat ice cream until they throw up.  They might want to stay up until 11pm on a weeknight.  But letting children eat all the sweets and junk they want is a viciously cruel thing to do.  Imagine that child's future--all the years of playground torture, all the painful, miserable years of teenage rejection, and then their ruined future health.  Imagine the sadly low self-esteem you inflict on an innocent child when you abdicate your parental responsibility to instruct and discipline this very young being who does not yet realize the future consequences of their actions. 

Of course, there's more to discipline than simply controlling a child's diet and watching out for their health.  There's also the fact that someday, your child will want to have successful relationships and a satisfying career.  Spoiling a child teaches them that their wants are more important than other people's feelings or convenience or happiness.  They learn to put themselves first, always.  That does not make healthy relationships, only destructive ones.  I know a beautiful, intelligent girl in her mid-twenties who is eager for a long-term relationship.  But her parents spoiled her so completely that she makes incredibly unrealistic demands on all the men she dates.  She is jealous and controlling, and has a near maniacal need to be the center of attention.  This beautiful girl is lonely and unhappy, because she never learned that relationships require give and take.  Her self-esteem is terribly low, because she although she's learned to manipulate her parents into giving her what she wants, she has not ever achieved anything on her own.  In order to accomplish anything worthwhile, children must learn to face challenges and overcome obstacles.  If parents are constantly smoothing the way, bending over backwards to ensure that their baby never struggles, then their are ruining a child's chance to develop independence and inner strength.

Finally, think of all the people who will have to deal with your child's terrible temper and poor behavior when you spoil them.  We had a new child at our school, I'll call him Kevin.  Kevin was a perfectly bright, pleasant enough kid at first glance.  He was attractive and sweet the first class I taught with him.  But the very next day, everyone saw an extremely ugly side of Kevin, that even the other children found unpleasant.  We were singing some children's songs, first in solfege, then with their words.  For those of you who don't know, the tune for "Twinkle, Twinkle" is the same tune used for the "Alphabet Song." After sing the tune in solfege, I asked the children which words they would like to use, "Twinkle" or "Alphabet." One little girl politely raised her hand and asked to sing the "Alphabet Song." I said, that's great!  But then little Kevin raised his hand--he wanted to sing "Twinkle" instead.  That's fine, I told him.  We can sing "Alphabet" first, and "Twinkle" next.  You would have thought I killed his puppy.  He threw himself on the ground and screamed, seriously screamed.  I was shocked.  The other kids just stared at him.  Finally, I set him in the "time-out" spot and tried to ignore him and continue class.  He continued screaming.  Eventually the school director showed up to see what all the fuss was about.  When she tried to take Kevin to her office, he kicked her in the face and continued screaming.  Kevin didn't last much longer at the preschool after that--no one wants to deal with a child who's behavior is so out-of-control.  

It's bad enough to have a young child who's spoiled, but when a kid like Kevin grows up spoiled, he can get into far worse trouble as a teenager or an adult.  If you never teach your child self-control or responsibility or respect for other people, he'll never have the self-discipline to resist temptations like drugs.  He'll never study, or do his work in school, or achieve anything.  Being spoiled is a blight on the life of an otherwise perfectly healthy, normal kid.  So cut it out.  Teach your children discipline and respect, and while they may resent it at first, your commitment to their needs, not their wants, will pay off in the end.  

Lynx, the Lord of Shoes

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Growltiger's Last Stand

Growltiger is another character from Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats who's very popular with  my preschool students.  He's a pirate cat, who terrorizes the towns along the Thames river. But when he's feeling sentimental one night, he goes to visit his lady friend, Griddlebone.  While the two are distracted, singing their last duet, a bunch of Siamese cats sneak up on Growltiger, seeking revenge for his violent attacks on them.  Griddlebone escapes, but the vicious Growltiger is forced to walk the plank.

The children really loved the pictures of Growltiger from the book illustrated by Axel Scheffler, and they enjoyed the idea of a pirate cat.  The story has action, and quite a bit of wry humor for the adults. T.S. Eliot's poem did use a racial slur, "Chinks," to describe the Siamese cats.  Because I didn't want to use that word in front of the children, I replaced it with "kitties" instead.

This poem inspired one the most enjoyable classes I've had with the children.  The dance teacher was absent that day, so I got to take the five-year olds during their dance class.  The dance teacher had tons of dress-up clothes for the children to make fun costumes and dance around.  I put on the Cats CD, and child wrapped an orange scarf around his face, put a pirate hat on his head, and decided to play "Growltiger." It was so much fun to watch!

Friday, August 17, 2012

Kostas Cafe in Plano, TX

Kostas is an amazing place to eat, and it's run by excellent people.  I first went there on a date with my future husband.  He had worked there in college and is still good friends with Dmitri, the owner.  I still remember my first taste of the delicious Saganaki, which is Greek flaming fried cheese.  It's crispy on the outside melted cheese, but with a wonderful tang of alcohol, which definitely makes it far better than your typical fried mozzarella.  And the dolmas! Dmitri makes dolmas that are far superior to any I've ever had anywhere else.  They are warm, stuffed with ground meat, and served in a lemon butter sauce that's a thing of beauty.  For other appetizers, the tzatziki is delicious with Kostas' warm pita, and although it's not always listed on the menu, Dmitri makes some incredible falafel.  Most Mediterranean countries claim to have invented falafel, but given how delicious the falafel are at Kostas, I think maybe Greece has the best claim.  Instead of being dry, grainy, or bland like other falafel, Kostas' are well-seasoned, soft on the inside, and beautifully crisp on the outside.

I love the traditional Greek dishes like gyro, spanakopita, or souvlaki, but I'm always impressed with how delicious the fish is at Kostas.  One of my favorite things to eat there is the Swai--it's beautifully sauteed with light, crisp coating, then a bit of butter-lemon sauce that makes it out of this world.  In fact, Kostas is one of my favorite places to go for fish.  The side items are great too.  The Greek potatoes are mouth-watering.  Try the Greek coffee too, if you like traditionally-made coffees.

In addition to eating regularly at the restaurant, my husband and I had Kostas' cater our wedding.  Dmitri made a special menu for us, with baked Greek chicken, bifteka, and other amazing foods.  Our guests loved it!  It was delicious and unique, and helped to make our wedding feel special.

Kostas Cafe on Urbanspoon

Furby Returns!

While digging through my closet the other day, I happened to find my old baby furby.  I've always like furbies--I thought of mine as a simple substitute pet to have while I was living in college dorms.  since I hadn't seen a furby around for quite a while, I wondered what had happened to them.  They had been pretty popular when I was in college. While I know some people thought they were weird or creepy, I think that they were pretty cute, and entertaining (maybe I'm easily amused).  A quick google search told me that older furbies were still available for adoption, but more importantly, furby will return! In fact, you can pre-order new furbies at Walmart.  

Adorable robot toys.  I totally want one.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Joe's Italian Cafe in Addison, TX

If you are ever looking for good Italian food in the Dallas area, Joe's Italian Cafe is the best place to go.  I discovered this restaurant while exploring my new neighborhood with my then fiance.  I had been terribly spoiled by the excellent Italian food I ate while living in New York, and I had found most Dallas Italian restaurants very disappointing.  But Joe's Italian Cafe is a big exception.  The food is delicious, and very affordable.  

I love real Italian food, and Joe's feels authentic but also creative.  My first visit, I had the fried calamari  which was crisp, but still tender, and served with a suitably tangy marinara sauce.  But it was the pasta with eggplant that won me over.  Unlike lesser Italian restaurants where the marinara tastes like it came straight from a can, this sauce was alive with flavor and freshness, which beautifully complimented the eggplant.  The dish had a topping of melted mozzarella that had the rich texture of good quality cheese.  The whole dish felt fresh, and with none of that nasty grease layer that ruins too many pseudo-Italian dishes.   

In subsequent visits, I sampled their lasagna, which is wonderful, and my personal favorite dish, the gnocchi with Gorgonzola sauce. The Gorgonzola sauce is beyond amazing--it captures salty earthiness of the cheese, but it's surprisingly delicate, and never overwhelms the subtle flavor of the gnocchi themselves.  I loved the restaurant so much, that we ended up having the rehearsal dinner for our wedding there.  By the way, if you are planning a wedding, I can say that Joe's staff was a pleasure to work with--planning the rehearsal dinner was probably the easiest and least stressful part of our whole wedding planning experience.  Their prices were very reasonable, and they were very flexible.  Although the Addison location did not have enough room for our party, we were very happy with the amount of space they had at their new location.  For our rehearsal dinner, we had fried calamari as an appetizer, and guests could choose from about four different options on their menu (which we chose).  I had the lobster ravioli, which were incredible.  They even brought out mini-cannolis for a dessert, which were a perfect finish for an excellent meal.  

If you love Italian food and are in the Dallas area, this is the place for you.  It's also an excellent place to have a party or large event.  
Joe's Italian Cafe on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Healthy Snacks that Children Eat

Too often, parents complain that children won't eat healthy snacks, and only want fattening or sweet foods to eat.  While it's true that most kids like cookies, I know that most children will happily eat many kinds of healthy snacks.  In fact, I've often seen children actively prefer snacks like fruits and vegetables to sweets.  If you offer healthy choices, most children will eat healthy foods. The problem is that fattening, sugary convenience foods make it very easy for parents to only offer  highly processed junk foods. So here is a list of healthy, easy to make snacks that I have seen children eagerly devour.  

1. Carrot Sticks

I remember eating carrot sticks and loving them as a child.  Baby carrots come in small, single-serving packages that make great snacks. Celery sticks are a good choice, too.

2. Blueberries

Kids really like small finger-friendly foods, and blueberries are a perfect size for them.  I have seen kids refuse cookies in favor of a simple, zip-lock bag of blueberries.

3. Cut-up Strawberries

These take a bit more preparation, but strawberries are always a big hit at snack time.

4. Grape Tomatoes

This is another finger-friendly, easy to eat food.  Just put a handful in a zip-lock bag, and you have a great snack that kids love. Remember, if your child is under a certain age, you might need to cut the grape tomatoes in half to prevent them from choking (just like with regular grapes).

5. Yogurt

This can be a low-calorie way for children to get the calcium they need.  Most yogurt comes in individual sized servings which are easy to put in a lunchbox.  

6. Grapes

They're finger-friendly and delicious.  In Texas, where children can easily get dehydrated from the heat, fruits are also a good way to stay hydrated.  

7. Low-fat cheese sticks

These can be a bit treacherous, because cheese sometimes has a lot of fat, but the low-fat ones are equally delicious.  Children at my preschool love cheese sticks.  

8. Baked, multi-grain crackers

These are always popular.  While crackers can be highly processed and fattening, you can find delicious baked multi-grain kinds that are perfectly fine.  

9. Applesauce

This comes in squeeze-able packets that are a great snack for kids--they're healthy, easy, and no mess.  I've never seen a child who didn't want their applesauce.

10. Avocado slices

This might take more effort than some snacks, but one child at the preschool brought them everyday and loved them. His mother cut the avocado into slices, and put the slices in a zip-lock bag.  Avocados are a super food, and they happen to be one of my personal favorite foods.  

I chose not to add some foods like almonds or peanuts to this list because while they might make for good at-home snacks, many preschools do not want their children bringing nuts to class.  Some children are so highly allergic to peanuts or other nuts that even another child having them in the lunch room could put them at risk.  That said, if your child is not allergic, I think that nuts like almonds or peanuts might make an excellent at-home snack.  A warning though--nuts do have a lot of fat, so be careful that your child doesn't eat more than a child-size handful.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Violin life lessons

There are some things that I've learned as a musician, especially as a Suzuki teacher, which have profoundly impacted my life outside of music.  These ideas have helped me live a better life, and I try to pass them down to all my students.  The skills and mentality that help students master difficult music will also help them achieve mental peace and success in life.  I think that is behind Suzuki's idea that early music education does not only create beautiful music, but develops a beautiful character.  So here is what I learned about excellent character from playing music.

"Practice does not make perfect; practice makes consistent."

To often we ask ourselves why we are caught in negative cycles.  These might be bad relationships, or failures at work, or even personal failings.  In music, we might get frustrated with our progress, or irritated by our failure to master a particular piece or technique.  That happens to everyone at some point in their life.  But if we want to improve our life (or our violin technique) we first have to look at how we are approaching the problem.  Are we being self-aware?  Are we repeatedly practicing in the same destructive way?

I think that Barry Green's The Inner Game of Music has many helpful techniques to help us breakout of destructive cycles in our practice.  The first, and in my opinion the most important, is awareness.  We have to examine ourselves.  If we are consistently practicing mistakes--wrong notes, bad articulation, poor tone, then we are only reinforcing the negative parts of our violin playing.  That makes our practice almost worst than useless, because we are not developing the good habits we need to play beautifully.  Likewise, if we are constantly making the same destructive choices in life, it's time to reassess what we are doing.  Maybe we need to approach problems in a different way.  Maybe there is an underlying problem in our lives that we're not addressing.  Once we have identified the issue that is holding us back, we need to stay vigilant.  That means keeping our awareness active so we avoid old patterns and practice new, better ones.

"Patience is merely the absence of expectation." 

This is a quote from Dr. Suzuki himself.  I am trying to stay aware of my expectations, because I recognize that having too many expectations creates a lot of frustration.  As a preschool music teacher, it's easy for me to feel impatient with children sometimes. I heard myself saying things like "you understood this rule just fine yesterday.  Why are you so disobedient today?"  So these past couple of weeks I decided to imagine that every day was a new beginning.  Everyday, each child gets a clean slate--I forget as many of their past mistakes or tantrums or problems as possible.  Instead of dreading nap time because I knew that little Jim wasn't going to sleep, and might make enough noise to wake up other kids, I pretended that it's Jim's first time to nap.  Instead of letting myself feel annoyed Kay because she never wants to try to play piano, I pretended that it was Kay's first lesson, and that she was exploring it for the first time.  I was amazed at the difference it made.  Little Jim went to sleep at nap time, probably because he could sense that I was more relaxed and confident.  Kay played piano beautifully, maybe because I stayed more pleasant and welcoming than I had before.  By keeping expectations open, I kept myself from stressing about things that hadn't happened yet, and gave the children a chance to escape my preconceived notions.  

Flow by Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi

I read Flow as part of a graduate class in music education, and it might be on of the best resources I've ever found on effective practice, learning, and joy in music.  Csikzentmihalyi's concept of flow is completely focused motivation--a task that is challenging enough to keep us engaged, but not so difficult that we feel overwhelmed.  It's hard to find the exact balance, both for my students when I teach, and for myself when I practice.  But it does give me a good goal to work towards, and when you find that sweet spot in your playing or teaching, it's amazing.  The other day, I had an amazing practice with my Scottish music band, Dal Riata.  I was so excited about the music, and loved playing every minute.  It's an experience I hope to repeat often in my own playing, and I hope to find it in other parts of my life as well.  Flow explains why boredom can feel like such misery, and why it's important to fill your life with enriching experiences.  

There are many wonderful things about being a musician, but above all, I'm glad for some of the emotional life lessons I've learned in my career.  These things will never leave me, and they have helped me to pursue an enriching life outside of music as well.

Related articles on Suzuki Method and Violin/Viola teaching or performing:

Suzuki Method--a Violin Teacher's Perspective

Suzuki Philosophy: Every Child Has Talent

Suzuki Techniques--Listening is the key

Violin Life Lessons

Inspiring Practice

Practicing Violin Effectively

Great Apps for Musicians

Excellent Supplemental Books for Suzuki Violin and Viola Students

Inspiring, Helpful Books for Violin and Viola Teachers

Suzuki Method for Adult Students

For Parents: How to Support your Child's Music Practice and Development

Overcoming Performance Anxiety: How to Help Music Students Prepare for Recitals, Auditions, and other Performances

Music Lessons for Children with Disabilities 

Seven Ways to Develop Listening and Aural Skills in Music Students

Pascale Method for Violin--A Review

More Apps for Musicians and Music Students

Classical Music Isn't Dying--It's in a Recession

Sunday, August 12, 2012

My Obsession with "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"

I love "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." I love the series, I own the graphic novel, and I have pretty much watched every movie or TV show that Joss Whedon has ever had anything to do with, because "Buffy" is so wonderful.  I have watched the series at least four or five times, and I've read the Tales of the Slayers graphic novel.

What's funny is that I never watched the series when it was originally on TV.  I am a latecomer.  I actually watched "Firefly," which I also love, long before I had ever seen an episode of "Buffy." So what made me start watching this show, years after it was off the air?

I was in a lonely place.  I had just moved to Dallas, after a devastating year.  I was broke in a new city.  I already owned a well-worn, much loved copy of the Firefly DVDs.  I had had a friend in high school, a slightly geeky girl from the Academic Decathlon team, who was obsessed with the series.  We'd had a lot in common, so I was always curious about the show.  But life gets in the way, and I was too busy to watch much TV anyway, so I never gave it a shot.  

Until I was bored and lonely in my small apartment in Dallas, so I decided the buy the first season on DVD.  It was used on Amazon, and I figured it wouldn't hurt to check it out.  I'm deeply glad I did.  I watched "Buffy" fight her way through seven seasons, and as I'm sure Joss Whedon intended, her life became a metaphor for my own.  

Buffy is a superhero, but her life is never easy.  She makes mistakes, fights with her friends, has the love of her life turn evil and try to kill her.  But she keeps on fighting.  I related to her with an intensity I've never felt before with any character.  I related to every mistake, every break-up, every betrayal.  Buffy is gifted, but her abilities are as much a curse as a blessing.  She isn't always perfect either--she retreats into herself, sometimes alienates or runs away from her friends.  

I know the some shows aren't for everyone, but if you haven't watched "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," I'd highly recommend it.  There are few shows that have the heart and soul of this one, and even fewer that make every season an exciting, beautifully written arc.  

Why the obsession with "gifted" children?

I recently read a post from Jezebel that really bothered me.  The writer, Tracy Moore, discusses why all parents think their child is "gifted" and how baby milestones are "an amazing catchall for basically anyone alive," which leads every parents to conclude that their child is soooo special.  Moore's article is obviously a bit tongue in cheek, and she clearly recognizes that so-called gifted children rarely live up to their parents' hype.  But that is not what bothers me.

I teach preschool music, so I come in contact with a lot of children.  Most of them are perfectly normal, average children, but one two-year old, I'll call him Jay, was very different from the others.  Although many twos have not met all the developmental milestones listed by the CDC, Jay hadn't met a single cognitive, emotional, or language milestone.  He had only met one physical milestone (running--he was hard to catch!).  The preschool teachers all knew almost immediately that something was very wrong with this child.  Try telling that to his parents.  Our director started with subtle hints--she sent home information about the milestones.  Then she called a social services organization so that Jay could receive a very inexpensive appointment with a specialist, so he could be diagnosed and receive therapy.  His parents ignored this.  I don't know how it's possible to miss the fact that your child does not look at people, or recognize anyone, or only makes helpless moaning sounds, not a single word. I don't know how you can miss that he is incapable of feeding himself even simple finger foods. Nonetheless, it wasn't until the owner of the preschool confronted the boy's father directly (she really got in his face) that his parents excepted that there was a problem and got him some therapy.  

So it's a bit blase and insensitive of Tracy Moore to assume that baby milestones are such an "amazing catchall for basically anyone alive."  Plenty of babies don't meet milestones.  Sometimes the delays are temporary--not all children develop at the same rate, and many will end up perfectly normal, or even "special."  But sometimes parents get heartbreaking news.  Not every baby will be lucky enough to be average.  That's one thing that makes the obsession with having gifted children so asinine.  Every parent should be thrilled to have a healthy, perfectly normal child.  If that's not enough for you, spend a day volunteering with children who are severely disabled, or autistic, or mentally challenged.  Sometimes average is a blessing.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Addis Abeba, an Ethiopian restaurant in Dallas

I recently had Ethiopian food for the first time at Addis Ababa, a restaurant in Dallas around I-75 and Beltline.  The food was excellent, and I had a great time learning to eat with my fingers.  I started with an order of vegetarian sambusas, which are flaky fried pastries filled with lentils, onions, and jalapenos.  They were delicious, similar in texture to Indian samosas, but with a unique flavor.  I also had a small cup of traditional Ethiopian coffee, which was similar in taste to Turkish coffee--in other words, very good.

Next, my husband and I ordered the Misto, a combination plate of yebeg alitcha and yebeg wot, and the yebeg tibs.  The yebeg alitcha is chopped lamb cooked in a mild sauce with spiced butter, and it was my favorite part of the meal.  The lamb was juicy and tender, and the sauce flavorful and delicious without overwhelming the taste of the meat.  The yebeg wot was my husband's favorite part of the meal, and I also enjoyed it immensely.  It was a spicy red lamb stew, made with berbere sauce, a traditional Ethiopian condiment.  It contrasted beautifully with the yebeg alitcha. Finally, the yebeg tibs was lamb sauteed with onions, garlic, and jalapenos.  It was quite good as well, though we both preferred the other dishes.  The meal was served with injera, a spongy crepe-like bread made from Tef, an Ethiopian grain.  To eat the meal, we scooped up some of the sauces, stews, and or lamb in small pieces of Tef.  I really enjoyed the Tef--it had a flavor somewhat like sour-dough whole wheat bread, and the spongy texture was interesting.  It complimented the stews beautifully.

Finally, because we were at the restaurant celebrating a friend's birthday, the restaurant brought out a delicious tiramisu. I was very impressed with this restaurant, which had very friendly service in addition to excellent food. I'm eager to try more Ethiopian food--it was exotic and delicious, and served in a fun way.  

Addis Ababa Ethiopian Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Sound of Music--Solfege is Fun!

I have already written about how much my preschool students love Cats, both the poems from Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats and songs from the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.  One of the other things that I have been teaching the children is solfege, which is a way to teach sight-singing and ear training using syllables like do-re-mi.  If this sounds familiar, it's either because you were taught solfege in music class, or you've seen the famous scene from the movie The Sound of Music where Maria teaches her charges to sing using the famous Do-Re-Mi song.

Solfege is a great way to help children learn to sing on pitch and develop their listening skills.  I've used it to teach piano to the four and five year olds at my school (children that age learn by listening very well). I think its best to introduce solfege syllables gradually, so that children have time to fully absorb each new note.  I also taught the hand signs for each note, which the children really enjoyed doing--it kept them active while they were singing.  As is standard in Kodaly Method, I taught the syllables so and mi (the fifth note and the third note of a Major scale) during my first week.  The second week, I introduced re and do, and we stayed on so-mi-re-do for two weeks.  Then I introduced la and fa (again, we spent two weeks on these notes), and finally ti.  Once the students had learned all the solfege syllables, I introduced the classic Do-Re-Mi song from The Sound of Music.

I had the children stand in a circle, and I started playing the CD.  To keep the children engaged in the song and reinforce the lesson, I sang along with the great Julie Andrews, all while doing Kodaly hand signs for each note.  I encouraged the children to do hand signs for each note, and sing along once they had learned the words.  This has been a great "game" for the kids--they love the song!  I had them stand so that they would get a break from sitting, and that has also encouraged them to have fun dancing to the music.  Even children as young as two and a half have mastered the solfege syllables and the hand signs, thanks in part to this song. 

I can honestly say that the children's singing has improved dramatically since I started teaching solfege to them.  I think that too many people assume that children cannot learn to sing on pitch very well, so they teach with low expectations.  That was the situation I encountered when I first started at my job--the music teacher expected very little from the children, and she got very little in return.  I decided right away that I would try my best to improve the children's singing and listening skills, and it made a huge difference.  After all, "when you know the notes to sing, you can sing most anything!"

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Great Rumpuscat

I had not intended to read the poem "Of the Awefull Battle Of The Pekes and The Pollicles Together With Some Account Of The Participation Of the Pugs and the Poms, And the Intervention of the Great Rumpuscat" (comically long title!) from Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, but when the students saw Axel Scheffler's picture of the Great Rumpuscat, they really wanted me to read it to them.  The poem has a fun story, although it does contain some dated lines about "Heathen Chinese" (referring to Pekingese dogs, but still).  The children loved it, and it gave them some great characters to act out, namely the police dog and the Rumpuscat.  The CD I had did not have the Rumpuscat's song, so I just played the Overture from my CD.   

For other fun Cats games, see my posts on Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat and Macavity the Mystery Cat.

Suzuki Techniques--Listening is the key

I've discussed some of the philosophy behind the Suzuki Method in previous posts, so now I'll discuss some of the practical techniques that Suzuki teachers use to help students learn music.  Suzuki has two important innovations in music teaching--listening to reference recordings and regular review.

In traditional music lessons, children begin learning to read music at the same time that they learn to play the instrument.  I think this creates a lot of unnecessary frustration, especially for young strings musicians.  For one thing, learning to create beautiful sound on a violin or cello is an absolutely crucial skill. When a student is distracted by note-reading, their sound quality and posture often dramatically declines.  That encourages bad habits, and keeps them from focusing on making a good tone.  Trust me, no one likes to practice when they have bad tone.  Thus, instead of focusing on reading music, I first teach students to play their instruments with a beautiful sound.  Many traditional teachers think that means Suzuki teachers don't teach note-reading, but that's not true.  Instead, I teach note-reading at an appropriate time.  I think it's good to begin note-reading once a child has some skill at reading or writing language--around first grade, but maybe sooner depending on a child's skills.

So how do children learn to create good tone? They listen to reference recordings. A good teacher will have many ways of demonstrating good tone and helping a child to master the technical aspects of their instrument in lessons, but it's critical that they listen regularly to their reference recordings.  These CDs help a child learn how a violin or piano or cello is supposed to sound, and help them learn the notes to their pieces before they even arrive at their lessons.  Ideally, children would listen to their CDs everyday. The regular listening also helps children develop their ears.  I find young children can quickly learn to play their violins by ear, and that is a valuable skill for any musician.

The other crucial part of Suzuki method is regularly reviewing the pieces that a student has learned.  In traditional music lessons, students learn a piece, perform it once or twice at a recital, then never practice it again.  That's a very limiting and frustrating way to learn music.  For one thing, it means that a student rarely gets to play through pieces that they've truly mastered.  Students are often in a horrible "between" pieces stage, where they have not yet mastered their current piece, and they've forgotten how to effectively perform any of their previous pieces.  But in Suzuki, students regularly review all the music that they've played before, so they instead develop an extensive repertoire of "finger-ready" music that they can perform at anytime.  Imagine how much confidence a young musician feels when they can beautifully play not just one piece, but many.  Furthermore, by following the pattern of beautifully ordered pieces found in the Suzuki book, students maintain all the skills they need to be an excellent musician, instead of focusing only on the skills they need for the "next" piece they are learning.
Review is often misunderstood, and parents can sometimes grow frustrated when their children are still practicing the same pieces all the time.  It's important to understand that learning to play beautiful music is a process, not a destination.  The goal is learning discipline and the love of music, not making it to Book 5.  It is much better that children master each step, and play each song beautifully, than they rush forward and play more difficult music badly.

When I started using Suzuki techniques in my teaching, I was amazed at how effective they were. Although my goal was not to have students win contests or play amazing recitals, I saw my students succeed again and again.  Even my youngest students played confidently and beautifully at recitals, from memory.  My oldest students frequently won auditions for all-region orchestras or other school contests.  This is thanks to careful review, focusing on beautiful tone, and listening practice.

Related articles on Suzuki Method and Violin/Viola teaching or performing:

Suzuki Method--a Violin Teacher's Perspective

Suzuki Philosophy: Every Child Has Talent

Suzuki Techniques--Listening is the key

Violin Life Lessons

Inspiring Practice

Practicing Violin Effectively

Great Apps for Musicians

Excellent Supplemental Books for Suzuki Violin and Viola Students

Inspiring, Helpful Books for Violin and Viola Teachers

Suzuki Method for Adult Students

For Parents: How to Support your Child's Music Practice and Development

Overcoming Performance Anxiety: How to Help Music Students Prepare for Recitals, Auditions, and other Performances

Music Lessons for Children with Disabilities 

Seven Ways to Develop Listening and Aural Skills in Music Students

Pascale Method for Violin--A Review

More Apps for Musicians and Music Students

Classical Music Isn't Dying--It's in a Recession