Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Importance of a Good Critique


When a writer cares passionately about their work, it's hard for them to hear it criticized. No one wants to hear that their baby is ugly, or slow, or just somehow not right. Yet, an effective critique empowers the writer who listens to it, allows them to fix problems, and develops their work. At the same time, it's necessary for a writer to stay true to their vision, and not let other people's opinions detract from the power of that vision. How do we find the balance?

I attend a regular writing critique group that's been very helpful for me. Even so, I have often walked away from meetings frustrated or angry with both the criticism I've received and the criticism directed at other writers (particularly ones I enjoy). So I've developed some strategies I think help me to gain the most advantage from the critiques I get.

  1. Don't make immediate decisions. I always give myself a few days to think over whatever advice or changes other people recommend. That way I avoid immediately dismissing valid criticism (especially if the critique is valuable but perhaps the delivery was insensitive). It also keeps me from jumping too soon and throwing out or changing an important aspect of my story. Think and reflect on the advice your given before you do anything (if you're worried about forgetting the feedback, take notes, or bring extra copies of your work for others to mark on).
  2. Try to separate the criticism from the critic. A stopped clock is right twice a day, and even someone you don't normally like or even respect can occasionally give you valuable feedback. Likewise, a writer you admire might point you in a direction that's totally wrong for your story. Normally, the people in my writing group bring multiple copies of their story, so people can write in comments and editing marks as they're reading. When I get my marked copies back, I deliberately mix up the pages to make it harder for me to determine who wrote what comments or markings. This forces me to consider each comment based only on whether I think it's valid or useful.
  3. Consider your intended audience. When I first started writing, I worked as an eighth grade English teacher, and I wrote reader's theater plays to keep my students engaged in reading. One great thing about teenagers—they give very direct, honest, and immediate feedback, even when you don't ask them for it! Yet, that ended up being extremely valuable for me. I quickly learned what they liked, what they thought was stupid, what made them laugh. If you want to write for a specific audience like young adults, try to find readers in that audience to critique you (and if you don't know any teens or kids, or have little interest in meeting any, you probably shouldn't try to write for them).
  4. Stay humble, but strong. It's important to listen to other people and consider their ideas, but remember that your writing is just that—yours. No one (at least no one in your writing group) can force you to make changes if you don't want too. The trick is to think carefully about advice or critiques people give you, even when you don't want too. (Also, see rule 1)
  5. Show respect for others, and they will (usually) show it to you. If you're in a writing group, try to give people the truth with a great deal of mercy. This is hard for me, since I'm naturally a straight forward, honest to a fault type of person, but it's necessary to keep your group cohesive. Avoid unnecessary harshness, sarcasm, mockery, irony, and just plain rudeness. As the great Mary Poppins once said, “A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down!”
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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Dispatches from Genius: Reading the Letters of Famous Composers


 It's all well and good to read biographies of famous composers like Mozart or Beethoven. A good biography can give you a new perspective on the composer's life and a better understanding of their music. But for a truly rich understanding of a composer's personality and artistic vision, I think it's best to go to the most direct source: a composer's own letters.

In the days before telephones and the Internet, people frequently wrote letters. In fact, letter writing even became something of an art form, and some composers' letters (like Felix Mendelssohn's) are highly literary. Other composers, like Mozart, had no clue that anyone would ever be interested in reading in their personal correspondence, so they wrote with little or no "filters." That might make Mozart's letters less literary, but they also make them much more salacious. Letters were often intensely personal, so much so that Brahms actually destroyed many of his letters (and demanded that Clara Schumann do the same), deeming them far too personal or scandalous to ever see the light of day. Yet it's the very intimate nature of these letters that give such enormous insight into a composer's inner life, and what makes them such a fascinating read.


Mozart's letters, for example, reveal much about his life and character. Some of his early letters are notorious for their dirty jokes and toilet humour, showing that even great geniuses sometimes enjoy a good laugh. Yet his letters to his wife, Constanza, show a very tender and affectionate love between them. He makes sexual innuendos, apologizes to her for their arguments, and expresses his longing for her whenever they're parted. His letters to his father, who could be a difficult and stubborn man, often show maturity, restraint, and an enormous amount of compassion and kindness. After his mother's death in Paris, Mozart is tasked with informing his family of the tragedy. Though deeply distressed, Mozart handles the situation with supreme delicacy, taking care to send a good friend to give his father support when he learns the terrible news. Mozart's letters give the reader a vivid impression of his character with their personal details and expressive style of the writing itself.

Of course, composers write about their impression of the music of their day, how best it should be performed, and how they compose or get their ideas. Mozart gives his opinion of composers, singers, and the other musicians he works with, expressing his admiration for composers like Johann Christian Bach and Joseph Haydn and singers like Aloysia Weber. He wrote to his father that in opera, the poetry (or libretto) must always serve the music, not the other way around, in striking contrast to the later philosophy of Richard Wagner. In a letter to a Baron who asked him about his creative process, Mozart described how his ideas came to him when he was "alone and in good spirits," he developed them in his mind until they were fully formed, and then wrote them down from memory. Because almost the entire process took place in his mind, Mozart's scores show very few corrections or edits.

Composers' letters offer great insight into their lives, their music, and their character. This can make them very enjoyable to read; they're full of unexpected jokes, intimate feelings, and often brilliant commentary on their society and time-period. I'd highly recommend them to any musician or music lover.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Awkward Girl in the City: Living & Dating in L.A.: Can I Be Smart and Pretty?

I found this great blog about the way women tend to be classified as either pretty or smart, but almost never both. My little girl is very traditionally pretty, gets told that a lot, and I worry that she'll get boxed in to very limited, stereotypical idea of how "pretty girls" are (or should be). I want her to learn to develop her character and her mind, and not worry too much about her looks! Of course, that doesn't mean I don't call her pretty, or get upset when other people compliment her looks, it just means that we need to remember that women and girls are real people with full lives that aren't defined exclusively by their appearance. Check out what the Awkward Girl says on the topic!



Awkward Girl in the City: Living & Dating in L.A.: Can I Be Smart and Pretty?:      In the first grade I was the best reader in my class. Actually I was the fastest reader, speller and everything else you like to be...

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

"Why Do I Have to Practice My Scales?"


I don't know exactly when musicians first started practicing scales, but apparently it goes back a long, long time. As a young musician, I remember working on my two and three octave scales because my teachers told me to, but I never had any idea of why they were important, much less how I could get the most out of studying them. Once I finished my degree, my scale practice declined. It wasn't until I started teaching that I realized what my teachers had known: scales are incredibly useful tools for developing technical facility and aural skills.

On violin and viola, for example, scales help students learn the geography of the fingerboard, ie, where all the notes are located. Scales require lots of different finger patterns, and learning these combinations of half steps and whole steps helps students play more in tune. On piano, I find learning scales helps students figure out their way around the keyboard and feel more comfortable playing in different keys. Playing scales with both hands together developed piano students' coordination. As for listening or aural skills, major and minor scales form the basis of most Western music. Learning them helps students recognize patterns of whole steps, half steps, and intervals in every key. I think all young instrumentalists can benefit from learning to sing their scales (ideally using solfege, or at least note names) as well as play them on their instruments--it helps to develop their ears.

Scales are important, but in order to really gain the most benefits from them, we need to learn how to practice them effectively. To often students and teachers drill and kill scales until they're bored of them, instead of finding new challenges to stay engaged. As I mentioned in my blog on the book Make It Stick, students absorb and retain knowledge and skills best when practice is spaced out and and variable. For scales, that might mean practicing different scales everyday, instead of focusing on just one scale at a time. Once my students have learned multiple scales, I try to regularly hear a different scale every lesson. I use books like Galamian's Contemporary Violin Technique, which include tons of different idea for rhythmic and bowing variations. Putting different rhythms or bowings with a scale keeps students challenged and make them put in more effort in their practice.


Once I started incorporating regular scale practice into my teaching, especially when I made sure to vary the scales with different rhythms or articulations, I was amazed at my students' progress. Violin students mastered shifting and different positions much more effectively, and piano students developed much more effective coordination. I was so impressed with my students' progress, that I've started practicing my own scales much more diligently. Scales help me maintain my technique in an efficient way. Now that I know how to practice them effectively, I've even started to find scale practice exciting--I'm always looking for the next challenging rhythm or technique to apply to them!

Do you practice scales or use them in your teaching?

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Tuesday, July 8, 2014

A Natural History of Dragons (on Audible)


I've really enjoyed listening to books on audible, as I've written about before. Thus far I've mostly listened to history books or lectures like the History of Ancient Egypt or the Plantagenets, so I decided to try something new for my next book--A Natural History of Dragons, by Marie Brennan. I've been interested in reading this book for a while now, and with audible I listened to it in the car while commuting or doing long distance drives.

I loved listening to A Natural History of Dragons. The narrator's voice seemed perfectly suited to the content, and the book itself was excellent. Lady Trent is one of the best female characters in fantasy since Lessa and Menolly in Anne McCaffrey's series Dragonriders of Pern. Lady Trent, called Isabella Camherst in the first book, is obsessed with dragons and science, two topics considered inappropriate for young ladies in her Victorian-esque world. Despite all the obstacles and discouragement she receives, she pursues her studies to distant lands with her faithful husband, who gently tolerates and eventually encourages his wife's passion. Isabella Camherst is a flawed but lovable woman, whose curiosity both gets her into trouble and leads her to new discoveries about the mysterious and dangerous Vystrani rock-wyrms she studies. But perhaps the most enjoyable part of her character is the striking contrast between her cool scientific exterior and her warm, deeply passionate heart. To often women in science fiction or fantasy are depicted as either sexless nerds or some hero's girlfriend, but Isabella is a loving wife with a brilliant scientific mind. She defies the stifling conventions of her time and place without rejecting her womanliness, and by the end of the book (spoilers) she's even become a mother. It's refreshing to read (or listen to) a book with a fully developed female character.

I enjoyed this book so much that I recently bought its sequel, The Tropic of Serpents, and I look forward to reading more about the adventures of Lady Trent.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Fun Things to do with a Toddler in DFW (Indoors)

I love going places with my little girl, who just turned one year old. We both love going to parks and the zoo! Unfortunately, Dallas gets fiendishly hot in the summer, which makes it hard to enjoy outdoor activities the way we do in the spring. So where can we go that's fun and child-friendly, but not in the searing heat? I've found a few places we enjoy.

1. Perot Museum of Nature and Science

This is one of Dallas' newest museums. It's located right downtown, and the building is beautifully designed. It has tons of dinosaur skeletons, a gorgeous exhibit of minerals and gemstones, and a fun kid's area downstairs. The kid's area has a huge sandbox where kids can dig for dinosaur bones, a water table, and a place for babies to crawl around. It's free for children under two, and $15 for adults without a membership. My sweet girl might only be one, but I love exposing her to science, and she loves looking at all the exciting exhibits. This is definitely one of my favorite places to visit with her. 

2. Dallas World Aquarium

We went here this past week! The indoor "jungle" areas were fascinating, and we loved seeing animals like the giant anteaters, the golden lion tamarins, and the giant otters. The penguins were fun too. The exhibits are well designed, with live trees, verdant green plants, and two gorgeous waterfalls, so that it feels as though you are standing in the middle of a rainforest. However, the paths were narrow, and there were quite a few people there. I didn't even attempt to use my stroller, instead carrying my little girl in her baby bjorn. It's also a bit expensive--children under two are free, but adults are $20.95. Still, I had a great time, and my baby really enjoyed seeing the animals as well. Most of them anyway--she was afraid of the jaguar! 

3.  Dallas Museum of Art

The DMA has free general admission everyday, and lots of great family programing, including storytime on Tuesdays during the summer. They have beautiful collections of art, from the ancient art of Asia, Africa, and Rome, to European art of the 18th-20th centuries, to modern and American art. I love visiting the museum and showing the artwork to my baby. She might be too young to appreciate it just yet, but it's free, air-conditioned, and interesting. It's also right across from Klyde Warren Park, which has a fun playground, delicious food trucks, and plenty of activities like concerts. I often like to visit the museum as a family, then have lunch or dinner at the food trucks.

4. Malls with Play Areas

There are lots malls in DFW with children's play areas. I frequently visit Stonebriar Mall in Frisco, which has a fun play area with cartoon-like figures of trains, animals, and buildings for kids to climb around on or slide down. My little girl loves climbing (or trying to climb) on the slides, and there are always plenty of children around who are happy to play with her. She crawls through tunnels and cruise around to her heart's content, and even practicing walking in between the plastic animals. There are similar play areas at the Shops at Willow Bend and the Galleria. While North Park Mall doesn't have a play area, it does have an area with adorable live ducks and turtles, and my sweet baby loves watching those when we go there.

5. Libraries

I visited the Euless Library with my little girl when we lived there, but we've since moved, and I haven't had a chance to check out my nearest library. Still, libraries usually have storytime for little ones, and I'm looking forward to taking my sweet daughter when we get a chance. 

What kid-friendly places do you like to go to with your toddler? Let me know if there are other great places in Dallas for us to visit!

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