Thursday, January 29, 2015

Great Resources on Music Lessons for Children with Disabilities

In the most recent copy of Southwestern Musician (February 2015), I was delighted to find an article on including children with disabilities in music classes. I've taught music to children with disabilities before, so I read the article looking for more insights, ideas, and resources. I'm happy to say I found quite a few great online resources for teaching music to children with disabilities.

The first website I checked out, Exceptionalities SRIG, has information on adaptive musical instruments for students with physical disabilities, helpful teaching apps, and other topics, including a list of documentaries and other movies on people with disabilities. The adaptive instruments were especially fascinating--check out the Amend Music Center! Many of the recommended films looked powerful and informative as well (they even noted which are available on Netflix).

The next website the article recommended, is UT Austin's Center for Music Learning disabilities information page. It had tons of information on specific disabilities, from autism to epilepsy. Each entry had a description of the disability and a list of strategies for teachers and parents. For example, many students with ADHD may benefit from having a posted schedule and an outlet for their physical activity, like playing their instrument standing up. I found this website immensely helpful. I have several students with disabilities including developmental delays and dyslexia, and this website included plenty of useful suggestions to teaching them effectively.

The last recommended resource was the Special Learners Channel of the National Association for Music Education. Their website had two slide shows, Divine Design by Greg Donnellan and Teaching Without Labels by Alice Hammel. Both had good strategies for teaching students with a variety of disabilities. I liked Teaching Without Labels in particular, because Hammel's approach provides a simple way for teachers to customize their teaching to every child, instead of treating them as though they're all the same. In addition to the slide shows, the Special Learners Channel had a great workbook for elementary music teachers by Scott Iseminger, which had a suggested lesson plan and plenty of simple, lovely songs for children to sing.

I'd highly recommend any of the above resources to any music teacher, including the original article from Southwestern Musician. Music belongs to everyone, no matter what their age or ability. I think it's imperative that classical musicians and music teachers reach out to all people, including students with disabilities, to share our love of music. If we want classical music to remain a vital creative force, then we need to encourage and support people with disabilities. Who knows, one of them might be the next Itzak Perlman.

Review: Heir of the Shadows and Queen of the Darkness

After reading Daughter of the Blood, I was excited to read the next two books in the series, Heir to the Shadows and Queen of the Darkness. The books continue to follow my favorite characters from the 1st book, Jaenelle, Saetan, Lucivar, and Daemon Sadi, yet Bishop also develops and expands her world and introduces new characters who are as compelling and original as the ones in her first book.

Some of my favorite new characters are the Kindred, who are animals and mythological beasts with the same powers and intelligence as humans. While they have the intelligence of humans, their perspectives are different and unique, making them fascinating, both familiar and alien. I loved the way they saw humans as well, which was often humbling, touching, and occasionally frightening. For example, far from worshiping or admiring humans, many of the Kindred saw them as weak. One type of Kindred, the 800-pound Arcerian cats, refer to humans as "meat," and only refrain from hunting them because of their love of Jaenelle. Bishop also creates a race of unicorns as noble, beautiful, and mystical as any other I've read in fantasy literature, yet with all the ferocity and killing prowess you might expect from creatures with a spear attached to their heads. 
As for the human characters, we finally get to see Jaenelle grow into the Queen she's meant to be, with Saetan as her wise counselor and Lucivar as her lovably annoying older brother. I loved reading about Jaenelle's development, which was often as hesitant and tentative as any young girl making her way through adolescence and young adulthood would be. Even her touching naivete about relationships rang true for me. Lucivar gets much more time and attention in these last two books, and I enjoyed his spunky, rebellious character. If in the first book I wondered that Bishop could make a darkly brooding character that wasn't annoying, in these books I'm impressed that she makes an arrogant jerk lovable and touching. 

If there's one disappointment Heir of the Shadows, it's that Daemon Sadi spends much of the book in the "Twisted Realm," which to the Blood means he's gone insane. It made sense for his character, but it kept him from being the cold, savage monster with a heart I enjoyed in the last book. It's true that he's back, to some extent, in the last book, but I did wish he would have returned to his senses earlier. 
As for the ending of the series, I can see why some fans were disappointed. The cost of victory was so high, it almost felt like defeat. I've heard that Bishop continued the story in Dreams Made Flesh, which is four novellas set in the same world. I've downloaded the book because I'd really like to see how the story continues. But whatever problems I found in the last two books, I still loved Bishop's characters and her overall story. She's created one of the most unique and compelling worlds I've read in fantasy, and I'd recommend these books to anyone who enjoys dark fantasy and can tolerate depictions of extreme violence. 

Friday, January 23, 2015

Getting in Shape this Year

January's the month for resolutions, and I've been reading and writing like crazy to practice my New Year's Resolutions for Writers. Of course, I have personal goals as well, and like many Americans one of them is losing weight and getting in shape. After my sweet little girl was born, I've had a hard time getting rid of my pregnancy weight. This Christmas I got a fitbit, and I've been using it to track my progress.

With the fitbit, my goal is to get 10,000 steps per day. It's my first time using a pedometer, and I had not realized exactly how much walking it takes to get to 10,000 steps. It's at least an extra hour of dedicated walking, in addition to your normal movement, to reach the goal. I usually only make it about two or three times per week, but I'm making progress. The fitbit also tracks things like sleep, the number of stairs you climb, and you can enter in your diet and exercise information if you'd like. It's been a useful tool--I'm definitely more motivated now that I know how much movement I'm actually doing per day.
In terms of diet, I'm making an effort to eat more vegetables. In part, I want to encourage my daughter to eat healthy, so I want to be a good example. Instead of tying myself down to a set plan, I'm going for a eat more good stuff and less bad stuff approach.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Seven of My Favorite Parenting Books

Like many parents, I often read about parenting to find tips and methods to keep my sweet baby healthy, happy, and reasonably well-behaved. Since I'm a teacher as well, I frequently read these same books for ideas on how to manage my students. I have several books that I like, both because their methods worked for me and their advice is delivered in a non-judgmental, respectful way. So here's a few books I'd recommend for any new parent, or even parents of older children and adults.

1. The Happiest Baby on the Block

My pediatrician lent me the DVD of "The Happiest Baby on the Block," and it was one of the single most helpful things anyone could have done for my husband and me. If you are pregnant or have a newborn baby, the five "S" techniques described by Dr. Karp are essential. We were able to calm our infant daughter whenever she started crying, and that made her first few months sweet and cuddly, instead of the nightmare we'd been warned about (although we were still super sleep-deprived). I had so much success with The Happiest Baby on the Block that I bought Karp's follow-up book for toddlers, The Happiest Toddler on the Block. His techniques for building a loving, supportive relationship with your toddler help you to stop or avoid tantrums without harsh discipline. I cannot recommend these books enough! Seriously, if you are pregnant or have a baby, buy these books or add them to your baby registry. Bring them to your pregnant friends' baby showers. They're lifesavers.

2. Heading Home with Your Newborn

This is a good general guide to babies. It tells you what's normal, when to worry, and has great ideas for trouble-shooting. I used it as a reference book for my baby's first year, and it was definitely helpful. It has good practical advice on everything from feeding to changing to bathing your baby. What's more, it's very tolerant and open to different methods of parenting.

3. Parents Who Love Too Much

I picked this book up in a used bookstore, and I've been very impressed with its ideas. Now that my darling daughter is a bit older, I've been looking for books on working with older children. This one is a good reminder that children don't need us to do everything for them, and it's actually better for them in the long run to struggle sometimes. One of the things I liked about this book is it's a good corrective to the prevailing "helicopter" parent culture. In fact, the title is misleading--it's really about how to love and support your child in a healthy way, instead of veering back and forth between being overly strict and controlling, or far too lenient. The best way is to walk the middle ground--enforce boundaries and rules in a loving, sympathetic way. It's not kind or loving to do everything for your child--it can keep them from developing important skills and feeling competent and capable. 

4. Parenting with Love and Logic

I originally bought Teaching with Love and Logic, which I tried to use when I taught eighth grade language arts and ESL, and then again when I worked as a preschool teacher. Now that I have a daughter, I've bought the parenting versions. I like the methods in these books because they help children learn to be responsible for themselves, and help parents and teachers avoid power struggles. For example, I love how Love and Logic books emphasize that you don't have to come up with immediate consequences, but it's better to think it through. In fact, delaying consequences might make kids think more about what they've done, since the process drawn out. Meanwhile, it allows parents a cooling off period, so we can calmly decide how to react to a child's misbehavior, not lose control. So many parents think they need to immediately react when a kid does something wrong, but to me it's a relief to give myself time to cool down and think before I react.

5. How Children Succeed

This is a book that challenges much of what we think about success and how children attain it. In America, we tend to have a "cognitive" bias--in other words, we believe that intelligence is the key to success. However, there's plenty of evidence that intelligence on its own does little to improve children's outcomes. In fact, many emotional traits, such as self-discipline, curiosity, persistence, and grit, determine children's success as much or more than their intelligence. How Children Succeed is a wake up call for parents and teachers to pay more attention to children's character development. If books like The Happiest Toddler on the Block teach parents how to develop children's self-control and patience, this book tells us why it's vitally important that we help them develop these character traits. 

6. NurtureShock

When it comes to raising children, effective techniques can be counter-intuitive. In Nurture Shock, the authors explore some surprising research on childhood development. For example, the most brutal, hurtful person in a child's life might very well be their sibling--but playing make-believe together helps brothers and sisters build a strong bond that lasts into their adult life. The writers also discuss the terrible problems that come from a lack of sleep. In fact, there's evidence that the stereotypical surly teenager becomes a happier, kinder person when they get enough sleep. Overall, this book is a great read with lots of new and exciting ideas about childhood development based on science. (It also goes into great depth about the negative effects of praise).

7. Nurtured by Love

The author of this book, Shinichi Suzuki, was a beloved violin teacher who developed a method for teaching young children to play the violin. Yet, even if you're not interested in teaching a child music, Suzuki's book is full of beautiful ideas about how children learn and develop, as he put it, a beautiful character. Most important, Suzuki emphasizes how essential parents are to young children, and how they learn from our example. Nurtured by Love reminds me that children listen to everything we say, and how we say it, and one of the best things we can do for them is to behave well ourselves. If we don't show our children patience, courtesy, and respect, we can't expect them to learn it. 

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Destructive Power of Praise

Many parents today believe in the power of telling children they're smart and talented. As a music teacher, I've had parents ask me, often at their child's very first lesson, whether or not they had talent. I get it--I'm a parent too, I love hearing about how wonderful my baby is. Yet, research overwhelmingly shows that praise, especially the wrong kind of praise, does not have the effect parents think it does. In fact, praising children for their intelligence or their talent undermines their motivation and leaves them helpless and unhappy. How could something with so much good intent behind it fail so miserably?

In her research, Stanford University Psychologist Carol Dweck discovered that praising a child's talent created a "fixed" mindset. In other words, kids start to think that the only things that matters to success, talent and intelligence, are set in stone and no amount of work or effort will change their abilities. In a field like music, where practice is an essential part to developing our musical abilities, students with a "fixed" mindset might avoid practicing too much, since they think talented people don't need to practice. It's hard to imagine a more destructive idea, yet I've heard variations of this in students of all ages. Often, these students quickly become frustrated with their progress, and give up instead of working on difficult sections or techniques. So how can we s teachers (and sometimes parents) avoid creating a "fixed" mindset in our students?
First, it's important to understand the difference between praise and positive feedback. Praise is the generic kind of "good job!" encouragement we give out to students without really thinking about it. Positive feedback, on the other hand, is thoughtful and specific. For example, "you sound much better now that you're keeping your bow parallel to the bridge" or "you play more smoothly now that you have a better hand position." Positive feedback reminds students that good playing depends on what they do, not some mysterious inner quality they might not possess. Over time, it also empowers students to identify and correct their own mistakes, so they can practice more effectively. Generic praise, on the other hand, can make students dependent on the teacher to constantly validate and encourage them.

When we do give praise, it's best to praise a student's hard work and effort, not a supposedly fixed quality like talent. Dweck's research showed that students praise for their effort developed a "growth" mindset. Because these students believed they could increase their talent and abilities with effort, they had more motivation, put in more effort on difficult problems, and did not give up. In music lessons, creating a growth mindset might mean praising a student for practicing, staying focused in a lesson, and making an effort. I also tell students that everyone has to practice their music to sound beautiful. After all, even Beethoven and Mozart practiced the piano and worked hard to perfect their talents. The best musicians in the world don't practice less than other musicians because of their amazing talent--they often practice more.

While it's understandable that parents and teachers want to praise kids for their talent, it's important that we realize that the wrong kind of praise saps students' motivation and robs them of a growth mindset. Rather, it's important we let students know that struggle and hard work is an essential part of learning. Musical talent isn't "fixed," but it's largely dependent on practice. Even one of the greatest musicians of all time, J.S. Bach, said he believed that anyone could achieve his level of ability if they worked as hard as he did. Bach was being extraordinarily modest, but his attitude shows that he had a growth mindset as well.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Why I Dread Students who got Violins for Christmas

Every year, students come to violin lessons in January with new instruments they got for Christmas. I've come to dread this ritual so much I've considered begging parents to avoid giving musical instruments as Christmas or Hanukkah presents. I can understand the appeal--a child is interested in music lessons, and what better way to introduce them than a brand new violin under the Christmas tree! Actually, there are many, many things that can go wrong with "Christmas violins," all of which make starting lessons far more stressful and difficult than normal.

First, the instruments themselves. Violins and other string instruments come in many different sizes. We have tiny little one-sixteenth size violins for three-year-olds, full size violins for adults, and many different sizes in between for different ages of children. Unfortunately, parents don't always know about this, so I often have them show up in January for lessons with an adult-sized instrument that's impossible for their seven-year-old to play. Everyone is disappointed. Parents, for spending so much money on a violin their child can't play for years, and children because they can't play the shiny, new violin they got for Christmas. Me, for having to break the news to everyone that they need to buy or rent another instrument. This has happened so many times that I've started asking the parents of new students to hold off buying a violin until after their first lesson. I have a selection of different sized instruments in my studio that kids can try out, or I can measure the child to find the right size. It also gives the child a chance to try out violin lessons to see if it's something they're really interested in before they get an instrument. Furthermore, I can recommend a reliable place to buy or rent an instrument to the parents. 
Which brings me to the next problem with gift violins; they're often bought by people who don't know anything about musical instruments, and sometimes unscrupulous stores take advantage of their customer's ignorance. While most music stores are staffed by good, knowledgeable people, I've seen many parents burned by the bad ones. Recently, I had students who get violins of such poor quality they were completely unplayable. Fragile, easily breakable chin rests, too small bridges that barely lift the strings off the fingerboard, bows with hair that immediately fell out, cheap, brittle strings that break when they're tuned the first time--these are some of the many problems I've had with poor quality instruments. Often, the same stores that sell these terrible instruments charge outrageous prices for the necessary repairs as well. I had one student with a broken, but easily fixable fine-tuner who was told he needed to buy a whole new violin. Again, these poor quality violins leave everyone disappointed. I've often had to spend an entire lesson changing strings and performing emergency violin repairs, which keeps students from actually learning to play and robs them of the enjoyment and fun they thought they'd get from their new Christmas present.

Worst of all, I've had students who came to their first lessons hurt and disappointed--they found a violin under the Christmas tree, but with no training, they couldn't get a good sound out of it and cried the rest of the day. Or unskilled parents tried to tune the violin or "fix" it somehow, and ended up breaking multiple strings. While I strongly believe that music lessons benefit children (and adults!), it's far better to discuss music lessons with your child, find a teacher he or she likes, and attend a lesson before buying an instrument. Then your child will have a better idea what instrument they'd like to play, and the teacher can recommend what instrument to buy, or what store to go to. Maybe your child would prefer piano or guitar to violin--that's okay! Surprising a child with music lessons and an instrument as a Christmas gift puts a lot of pressure on them, pressure that can make even the most excited child wilt in their lessons. 

Monday, January 12, 2015

Book Review: Daughter of the Blood, from the Black Jewels Trilogy

 In keeping with my New Year's Resolution to read more books, I picked up a copy of Anne Bishop's Daughter of the Blood, the first book of the Black Jewels Trilogy. I'd never heard or read anything about this book when I bought it, but I'd read a short story of Bishop's in the anthology Black Swan, White Raven, and I'd admired her writing. I'm glad in a way that I didn't read any reviews of this book before I got it, because otherwise I probably wouldn't have read it, since I generally avoid books with extreme depictions of violence.

Daughter of the Blood is truly Dark Fantasy, and Bishop has created a world full of savage violence and cruelty, the result of a terrible war between the sexes with victims and vicious perpetrators on both sides. In the decadent world of Terreille, women of the Blood (the magic users) have enslaved the men via torture and terror. In return, many men have pledged to destroy young witches before they come of age, robbing them of their powers and their sanity through rape, sexual abuse, and torture. This bloody spiral has continued for so long it seems normal, even natural, and a young witch, Jaenelle, may be the only person with the power to stop the abominable cycle. But Jaenelle is only a child, and she's at the mercy of a family who doesn't love her and thinks she's mad. If something happens to Jaenelle before she reaches her potential, the Blood could destroy themselves in their mad quest for power. And there are many who are searching for her, for good and evil.
So why did I like this book even though it's darker and more violent than I usually care for? I loved Bishop's characters. Jaenelle is alternately joyful, vulnerable, and frightening. She seeks out the High Lord of Hell, Saetan, to teach her magic craft, and their encounters are surprisingly funny and touching. Saetan is a powerful undead guardian who's ruled Hell for thousands of years, but Jaenelle surprises him, exasperates him, and enlivens him. Meanwhile, Daemon Sadi, who's been searching for Jaenelle he longs to serve a good witch, manages to be tortured, brooding, and resentful without being annoying, which I would have thought impossible until now. I think it's because unlike most tortured guys, Daemon's actually as concerned about others as he is about himself. It's clear he would have abandoned Terreille long ago if it hadn't been for his brother, Lucivar, and a few other friends he protected and cared for.

Daughter of the Blood is an intense, entertaining fantasy novel. Still, I'd only recommend it for people who can tolerate a high level of violence and cruelty. If you think Game of Thrones is too gory, this is not the book for you. As for me, I'm already reading the second book, and I hope to finish the series.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Writing My Second Novel

As I mentioned in my New Year's Resolutions for Writers, I'm currently working on my second novel. As I progress with this new work, I've been thinking about how the experience of writing a second novel is different than writing the first.

For one thing, my personal life is completely different now than it was when I wrote my first novel. I found out I was pregnant with my first child shortly after starting my first book, and I finished my first draft a few months after my daughter was born. Pregnancy could be exhausting, and caring for a newborn took a huge amount of time and energy. Yet my daughter is also an inspiration for me--she's young and achingly vulnerable, so I spend a lot of time thinking about how to teach her to be a strong, kind, capable woman someday. I wanted the main character in my first novel to be someone she could look up too, yet also someone real and flawed and human, so she could learn that everyone makes mistakes. Now that my daughter is older and I feel more confident as a parent, I'm writing a more adult novel. My second book is darker and the main character is often morally ambiguous. I hope someday my daughter reads it, but maybe not until she's in college.
I've also been experimenting with a different point of view in my new novel. The first book I wrote is 3rd person limited, but my new novel is in 1st person. I couldn't tell you right now which point of view feels better to me, but it seems to depend on the characters and the story. I've done some 1st person in short stories, but this is the first time I'll try to spend an entire book in a character's head.

If I'd hoped that writing my second novel would be easier than writing the first, I was wrong. I do feel more confident and experienced in some ways, but it still takes effort to get into a character's head and feel where the story is going. What's more, I think my standard for my writing and ideas has gone up, so I can see the flaws in my writing more clearly. Still, I know I can do it--I've already finished one novel, so I know I can finish this one if I keep writing. What's more, I know how to schedule my time so I can write, and how to set realistic goals for myself. I may not be a NaNoWriMo type writer who can finish a novel in a month, but I can keep writing a  little each week until it's done. That's tremendously encouraging, and I imagine that feeling will only increase by the time I get around to writing novel number three!

Monday, January 5, 2015

New Year's Resolutions for Writers

I had a great 2014 in many ways. I revised and edited my first novel, wrote a few short stories, and did plenty of blogging. In my personal life, I loved seeing my daughter turn one, learn to walk, and say many of her first words. This year, I want to focus on appreciating all the good things in my life, from my loving husband and my beautiful baby, as well as pushing myself to do better on other things, like writing and keeping in shape. With that in mind, I'm thinking about doing multiple sets of New Year's Resolutions. So here's my New Year's Resolutions for my writing in 2015.

1. Read Books!

It's a truth universally acknowledged that no one can write well unless they read regularly. While I love to read, it's easy to let reading slide to the wayside when there's so much to do and so many distractions in everyday life. But I have a stack of books on my nightstand, a new series I'm starting, and plenty of time in the evenings if I stop watching as much TV. I'm also planning on reading a wide variety of books, from classics to science fiction/fantasy to nonfiction, so I can feed my brain a balanced diet. I'm also going to read to my baby every day, so I'll know all the great children's classics :)

2. Finish the First Draft of a New Novel

Yes, I know there are plenty of you NaNoWriMo types who finish a novel in a month. With working and taking care of my baby, I don't really have the time or energy for NaNo, and anyway it doesn't suit my writing style to rush like that. So my goal is to finish 60,000 words or more on my second book sometime this year.

3. Write 5-10 New Short Stories

I've enjoyed writing short stories, since they can be a nice break from my novel. I've had one accepted into an anthology, and I'm hoping to have more accepted into magazines or other anthologies. In addition to being good writing practice, shorts feel like a good way to get my name out there.

4. Write 100 Blog Posts

I've actually written over two hundred blog posts since I started blogging a couple of years ago. Some have taken off, others haven't, but recently I noticed that I wrote more posts in my first year of blogging than I ever have since. So this year I'm going to try for a hundred more posts. I think that more blogging will keep my writing skills sharp.

5. Attend a Writing Conference

I think it would be fun and inspiring to attend a writer's conference, and they have a big one here in Dallas every year. I want to try pitching an agent in person, and I've heard the workshops are helpful and interesting.

Do you have any resolutions for your writing this year? If so, let me know in the comments!

Friday, January 2, 2015

Can Music Make You Smarter?

It's long been suggested that music has a powerful effect on the brain. From the disproved "Mozart Effect," to more recent theories that musical training helps children develop mathematical skills or boost their IQ, many people think that music, especially classical music, improves brain functions. While some research has questioned the cognitive benefits of musical education on non-music subjects like math, there are new studies showing that learning a musical instrument improves the executive functions of the brain.

Executive function comprises a person's ability to stay on task and pay attention, as well as their working memory and delay gratification. As any teacher might already know, this makes executive function essential to success in school, and indeed, in life. According to a recent article in Scientific American's Special Collector's Mind issue, scientists at Northwestern University's Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory have found that music training improves students' listening skills and enhances their working memory. Of course, for music teachers, memorization and listening are vital skills that we encourage our students to exercise regularly. What's more, playing an instrument requires an enormous amount of attention. In the average orchestra rehearsal, for example, a young musician must focus on playing their instrument, reading the music, following the conductor, and staying together with their section, all while constantly monitoring their tone, intonation, and rhythm. It's quite a mental workout. 

There are still plenty of questions, however. For example, do different instruments or types of music lessons change the effects of music on the brain? How long and how much does a student need to practice before they see the effects, and are the changes permanent? It will take much more research before we can know the answers to these and many other questions. However, there have been many tantalizing clues. In his book Frames of Mind, Howard Gardner developed a theory of multiple intelligences, including musical, mathematical, linguistic, spatial, and others. As part of his research, Gardner first tested children's strengths in his eight different intelligences, then had them take a traditional IQ test. Though Gardner expected that a high traditional IQ would correspond to linguistic or spatial ability, in turned out that musical intelligence most strongly predicted which children had the highest IQ. Yet that still leaves the question--does musical training increased brain power, or is it that highly intelligent people are attracted to playing music? 

I also wish that more research would study the benefits of music lessons for adults. There's quite a bit of anecdotal evidence that music can help older students recover from strokes or stave off dementia. I've even heard of adult students who find playing an instrument vital for maintaining their dexterity, not to mention the immense social benefits that come from playing in community bands or orchestras. While the evidence is incomplete, I think musical training does benefit the brain, which is one more reason why school and community music programs are more vital than ever.