Wednesday, October 29, 2014

How to Have a Successful Recital

When I was an undergraduate, I remember being terrified before all my solo recitals. I'd be sick to my stomach for days before hand. All too often, I'd end up disappointed in my performance. I was so frustrated--I knew if I could only get control of my stage fright, I'd play so much better. Lucky for me, a good friend lent me Barry Green's excellent book, The Inner Game of Music, and it helped me get my nerves under control. Now, as a music teacher, I have a different challenge--I have to prepare my students to perform, and many of them are just as nervous as I was! What can I do as a teacher to help my students have a successful recital?
First and foremost: preparation, preparation, preparation. I start preparing students for recitals or auditions as early as possible, so that they have their music thoroughly mastered by the time the performance rolls around. Ideally, they know their music so well that I only have them play it once or twice in their lesson before the show. But preparation means more that simply learning notes--it also means that students have performed their pieces regularly in front of other people. After all, no matter how well you know a piece in the practice room, once you're in front of an audience, things can change.

At the music school where I teach, students have a "Ready, Set, Show!" Sheet they have to complete before they play in a recital. The sheet is very simple: it has the student's piece listed and blanks for signatures. Students must perform their piece, by memory, in front of four different people on four different days, and have each person sign the sheet and give them a score. In order to recreate the recital experience, we also ask that students practice announcing themselves and bowing at the end of their performance. I've found these sheets have really helped students practice for recitals. It's a great way to involve their parents and other family members as well, since I encourage students to perform for their families. Since we've started using the "Ready, Set, Show!" sheet, I've noticed that participation in recitals is way up, and student performances have improved.

I've also found that many of Green's techniques are as helpful for my students as they were for me. Instead of telling students "Don't be nervous," I let them know that being nervous is normal and perfectly okay. Instead of wasting mental energy trying not to be scared, I tell them to accept their feelings but focus past them, on the way the music sounds or the instrument feels. After all, nervous energy can actually enhance a performance if it's channeled the right way.

Recitals are a great way to motivate and inspire music students. With effective preparation and support, any student can have successful performance. And watching students perform to the best of their ability is one of the most satisfying parts of music teaching.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Review: The Red Magician by Lisa Goldstein

The Red Magician is a tragic, yet ultimately uplifting fantasy set before, during, and after the Holocaust. Kicsi, a young Jewish girl who lives in a small village in Hungary, longs for adventure, exotic travels, and magic. She's entranced when a real magician, Vörös, visits her village and stays with her family. But the town's rabbi, a powerful mage himself, mistrusts the stranger. Their conflict draws Kicsi deeper into the world of magic, and prevents her village from recognizing the terrible danger that lurks in the outside world. 
It took me a while to get into this book. The first half at first seems meandering, more a collection of scenes from the normal life of Kicsi's village than a driving plot. Vörös's visit causes some excitement, but when he doesn't return for over a year, even Kicsi starts losing interest in magic. (Spoilers) Yet the second half of the book is a gripping, frightening journey into darkness and despair. Once I got to that part, I realized that the first half of the novel is a homage to all the quiet, ordinary people who lost their lives. It makes Kicsi's experience in the death camps all the more heart-rending, since you understand the shocking depth of what she's lost. 

By the end of the book, I had come to love and understand the characters far more. Vörös, who in the beginning was frustrating and mysterious, becomes deeply sympathetic, and Kisci grows from an awkward young girl obsessed with magic, to a wise young woman who overcomes the palpable despair and guilt that scarred her life. I'd highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys fantasy or historical fiction.   

Monday, October 20, 2014

Keeping Music Students Motivated

It's natural for young students' motivation to practice music to ebb and flow as their lessons progress. After all, even professional musicians have creative slumps, or times in their life when practicing becomes a huge struggle. Yet, if music teachers don't sustain students' interest enough to get them past their slumps, then students can become discouraged and quit. So what can a teacher do to help students maintain their motivation?

First, I think it's vital to have regular performances, recitals, and other special events for students. Recitals motivate students to practice for several reasons. One is the fear of public failure, which can be quite a powerful motivator. But recitals also represent a very tangible goal, something for students to work towards. Without a performance goal, practice can feel aimless. Recitals and other performances (including auditions) keep students focused.

Recitals are also a great chance for students to get public recognition for their efforts, which powerfully reinforces their hard work. Which brings me to another valuable way to keep up students' motivation: recognizing their progress. Recitals and other special events are excellent platforms for recognizing students' achievements, but even in regular lessons teachers can take a moment to discuss with students (and their parents, ideally) how much progress they've made. As with any positive feedback, the trick to be honest and specific. Generic praise, like a meaningless "Good Job!" doesn't have the same impact as a specific "Your bow-hold has really improved the last couple of weeks" or "You play this phrase with beautiful expression." I know some teachers who videotape or record students over the course of a couple of lessons, so the students can hear or see how much progress they've made.
If students are not making any progress in their lessons, then it's time to re-access the difficulty of the pieces or techniques they're working on. Music lessons should be challenging without being overwhelming. If students feel overwhelmed or don't seem to be "getting it," it's time to try a different approach. Perhaps they need to work on an etude or an easier piece that focuses on the same skill before trying again on their current piece. Perhaps they need to practice slower, or isolation difficult sections of the music, or try approaching the piece in a different way. I've often had positive results when students clap difficult rhythms or sing the notes before playing something challenging. It's also possible that a student simply doesn't like the music they're working on, and they might have a better experience on a piece of music they enjoy. I try to stay flexible with students and always give them a "fun piece" that they really love to play in addition to their more challenging repertoire.

Finally, students often have more motivation when they have some control and some choices within a lesson. It's hard to have someone constantly telling you what to do when, especially for young teens. Instead, I offer students choices: "Would you like to play your scales or your etude first?" "Which piece would you like to start with today?" These simple choices let students have some say in how their lessons go, and that keeps their motivations much higher.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Cat Thoughts, Cat Pictures

 Human baby hug me.
 So much hug.
 Must hide. Use human baby tunnel?
Perhaps bathtub instead.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Isaac Asimov's Foundation--Reading a Science Fiction Classic

Since discovering that my excellent local library has books on tape, I've been happy to check out some classics I've never had a chance to read. One of the first books I listened to was Isaac Asimov's Foundation. I'd read some of Asimov's short stories, but this was my first experience with one of his novels.

As a whole, I enjoyed listening to Foundation, even though it has some flaws as a novel. On the good side, the ideas behind the novel fascinated me. The psychohistory, the image of an empire on the verge of collapse (it's clear that Asimov is well versed in Roman history), and the clever way the Foundation's leaders save it during each Seldon crisis--these make for a compelling storyline. I liked many of Asimov's characters as well--Hari Seldon makes for a great enigmatic genius/scientific prophet, and Salvor Hardin shines as a ruthlessly brilliant politician. However, Hober Mallow and Ponyets seem too similar to Hardin, and could have benefited from more unique characterization.

Yet, the novel has some problems, especially from a modern point of view. Though science fiction is famously prescient about technology, Asimov apparently didn't foresee computers very well, much less smart phones or the internet. It's a bit jarring when the Encyclopedists discuss distributing their massive magnum opus via microfilm. Or that the only form of energy used by the Foundation is atomics. There were definitely moments where the book felt dated.

Worse, in the entire novel, there's only two female characters who ever speak at all. Women, children, family life, and sex barely exist in the world. Asimov was writing at a very different time, and later in life he acknowledged that he'd failed to write female characters well out of inexperience. He tried to rectify his mistakes in future books and even supported feminism. Still, it's jarring to read a book where women are completely invisible.

Despite its flaws, Foundation is still a fascinating read full of compelling ideas. Asimov's depiction of a civilization clawing its way out of chaos gives the book an type of large-scale epic drama you rarely see in science fiction today. In contrast, much of our modern fiction feels so small scale, even narcissistic. This sci-fi classic is well worth reading. 

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Reality of Writing: Guest Post by M.J. Moores

Author, editor, and freelance writer M. J. Moores began her career as an English teacher in Ontario, Canada. Her love of storytelling and passion for writing has stayed with her since the age of nine. M. J. relishes tales of adventure and journeys of self-realization. She enjoys writing in a variety of genres but speculative fiction remains her all time favourite. Her first novel, Time's Tempest is available on Amazon in print and as an ebook.
The Reality of Writing
By M.J. Moores, OCT. Author. Editor. Freelance Writer.

There is a kind of glamour associated with writing and being an author; it’s the perception of the uninitiated. One common misconception is that if you can call yourself an ‘author’ then you must be doing pretty well for yourself. Another is that unless hundreds of thousands of readers (and non-readers) have heard of you, you’re probably not that good. Both of these myths have been refuted and challenged throughout the years but the idea that’s still the most misunderstood is if writing is your profession then you must have it easy.

Of course these uninitiated are usually aware of J.K. Rowling’s rise from obscurity and near poverty to stardom, but they see this as a unique case – for the wrong reasons. It’s not uncommon that as a writer J.K. had to work multiple jobs as a single mother and cram writing in whenever she could, but it is out of the ordinary for a writer to reach her fame and stature, period.

Writing professionally (i.e. not as a hobby or something to fill time when you retire) is hard work. What might surprise you is why it’s difficult. Anyone can tell a story but not everyone call tell it in such a way that other people will want to hear it again and again – or read it over and over, but that’s a skill of mastery dedicated crafters will learn (or not, as the case happens to be for so many emerging self-published writers these days). However, that in-and-of-itself isn't the hard part, that’s just time consuming.

The hard part is being a writer and dealing with reality – even if you write non-fiction.

Life happens and life is messy. Whether you’re going through school and trying to study, complete assignments, do lab work or anything else associated with education, or you’re a professional with a job, maybe a family, probably friends who vie for your time, and have adult things to do like bills to make payments on – finding time to write and balance your life’s reality is trying on the best of days. Things tend to get even harder when your writing is seen by others as “indulgent” and those close to you don’t “get it.”

For me, it’s bad enough that when I was working professionally as a teacher the only time I found to write was during the summers; now, as a stay-at-home mom I don’t even have that time off. Between educating, feeding, and playing with my young son (as well as being the parent who gets up in the middle of the night to see what’s wrong since I don’t have to leave the house to go to work in the morning), I’m exhausted. I nap when he naps and I go to bed early at night in order to wake up with him at the crack of dawn.

But you see I’m one of those ‘happily married’ mothers – so I also have to feed my husband when he gets home from work (2 hrs after my son eats) and keep the marriage happy (which is hard enough for the average person these days). So that eliminates any time for writing in the evenings after my son goes to sleep. Okay, weekends you counter – chores I return with an incredible overhand smash just inside the line (tennis reference – not that I play). There’s the usual three meals a day for both husband and child, laundry, dusting, vacuuming, and errand running to do. Yes, I hear all you equal opportunity people out there – “What about your husband?”
My husband leaves for work 20 min. after our son wakes up and often gets home after the boy has already gone to bed. My child misses his father; so come the weekend they are inseparable, as it should be. They play together and work together. If the lawn needs to be mowed, my son finds a way to help; if the garden needs to be weeded, my son has his own set of tools; and if something needs to be fixed, our little guy carts his plastic hammer and drill around after his father. It’s great bonding time.

So, when do I write? How is it possible that in the past year I've had nearly one article a month published by an online writing magazine, have written two non-fiction e-books containing advice for writers in publishing and publicity, got an essay published in a writer’s guide, and a 376 page fiction novel published (not to mention the freelance editing I manage to squeak in from one month to the next)?

No, I haven't borrowed Hermione’s Time Turner (or J.K.’s for that matter). I steal time at every possible moment. Those nights I actually get to sleep without having to run into my son’s room at 3am mean days that I don’t need to have a nap. Weekends mean one dinner instead of two and a few dusty shelves or one less load of laundry done. And one afternoon a week, Grandad takes the boy for 2 hrs.

Writing will likely never make me rich (in fact I’ll be lucky to make even a small profit for all my troubles) but it’s an intrinsic and vital part of who I am – it is my reality. And while I may have to sit down with my husband once a month to re-convince him of this fact, for a pessimist he’s incredibly supportive. My life is not unique – the cold hard facts are that writing is not glamorous or easy but it is rewarding when it’s done right.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Review: The Tropic of Serpents by Marie Brennan

Since I enjoyed Brennan's A Natural History of Dragons so much, I decided to buy the next book in the series, The Tropic of Serpents. I'm glad I did, since this book is one of those rare sequels that's just as good, if not better, than the original.

At the beginning of the book, we find Isabella Camhurst still chafing at the restrictions of her Victorian society, especially the expectations placed on mothers like herself. Though it's clear Isabella loves her son, she'd much prefer to be his intellectual mentor than his nursemaid. This tension between Isabella's role as a mother and her desire to continue studying dragons gives this book greater emotional depth and maturity than the first book. What's more, despite the Victorian-esque setting, Isabella's inner conflict feels surprisingly modern and relatable.

Like its predecessor, The Tropic of Serpents has plenty of adventure, fun, and of course, dragons. Isabella's scientific discoveries are hard won, but they also reveal a whole new dimension to her favorite creatures. Brennan's sympathetic depictions of the different societies, especially the non-European ones, make her world fascinating and diverse.

If the book has a weakness, it's Brennan's secondary characters. Tom Wilker is well drawn, and the awkward tension between him and Isabella is as funny and stiffly British as I could have hoped. But Natalie, Isabella's companion, has no real character apart from being Isabella's engineering friend. She seemed more like a convenient placeholder than a fully-realized person. That said, I think the concept of a female engineer in this time period could be exciting. Perhaps in the next book Brennan will develop her more.

In short, I'd highly recommend The Tropic of Serpents to anyone. It's a fun book, with an incredibly memorable and complex heroine. I'm looking forward to reading the next book in the series, Voyage of the Basilisk!

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Music Banned by the Nazis

Last week, the American Library Association had "Banned Books Week" in order to raise awareness of censorship and intellectual freedom. In honor of the occasion, I'm writing about music that was banned by the Nazis. In Nazi Germany, there were two types of banned music: music by Jewish or Black composers, or music that sounded modern or atonal.

The Nazis banned music by brilliant composers such as Gustav Mahler and Felix Mendelssohn, because they were Jewish. They went so far as to ban Debussy, because he had married a Jewish woman. Jazz music was banned because so much of it was composed by Black or Jewish American composers, such as George Gershwin. Composers trapped within the third reich, such as Viktor Ullmann, composed music even after the Nazis imprisoned them in concentration camps. In the end, these talented composers, like so many others, died at the hands of the Nazis. Composer Leon Jessel thought he would be safe because his music, including the operetta Schwarzwaldmadel, was wildly popular in Germany. Even Hitler and Himmler acknowledged liking it. But Jessel was Jewish, and despite his popularity his music was banned. After the Gestapo intercepted one of his letters about the plight of Jewish musicians, they arrested him and tortured him to death.
Other composers, like Paul Hindemith, Igor Stravinsky, and Alban Berg were banned because their music was considered savage or "degenerate." The Nazis hated atonal music as well as music that sounded sexually suggestive or politically undesirable. They ruthless tried to suppress music that sounded modern, leaving many composers struggling to survive. Hindemith and many other composers left Europe out of fear or desperation.

Even composers who collaborated with the Nazis suffered at their hands. Richard Strauss accepted a position in the Reichsmusikkammer (a Nazi music organization designed to promote "good German music") to protect his Jewish daughter-in-law and grandchildren. Yet Strauss spent much of the war pleading with the authorities for his family. His son and daughter-in-law were arrested by the Gestapo, and kept under house arrest for most of the war. Nazis banned his opera Die schweigsame Frau because its librettist, Stefan Zweig, was Jewish.

The Nazi ban on music had terrible consequences for European music long after the fall of the third reich. Many composers and musicians lost their lives in the Shoah or in WWII. Much of their music was lost or forgotten. Erwin Schulhoff was a talented, prolific composer whose music was widely performed and critically praised until the Nazis banned it, then killed him. Today, he has little recognition and his music is rarely performed. Viktor Ullmann, a Czech-Jewish composer, composed extensively while in Theresienstadt Concentration Camp. While his works from the camp survived, much of his previous music was lost during WWII as a result of his persecution. This lost music serves as a haunting reminder of the terrible blow that persecution, extremism, censorship can deal to classical music as a whole.