Friday, February 27, 2015

My Favorite Music for Children

As a classical musician, I'm often asked what kind of music I play for my toddler. Do I play mostly classical music for her, in hopes that it will somehow make her smarter, or someday give her more sophisticated tastes? The answer is yes and no. I do play classical music for her, which I hope with help her learn to enjoy and appreciate art music, but I know that there's very little evidence that just listening to classical music makes children more intelligent (unlike playing music, which does improve brain function). Still, there's plenty of non-classical children's music that my little girl loves, and I think that's great. Here's some great music I'd recommend for parents to play for children.

1. Baby Beluga by Raffi

If you're like me, you might remember this iconic song from your childhood. It's charming and sweet, and my toddlers loves it! She actually points to the Baby Beluga CD to get me to play it, and she's learned to sing along to her favorite songs. It might not be classical, but it inspires her love of music and gets her singing. Many of Raffi's songs also have a good message about treating people (and animals!) with kindness, or appreciating the natural world. 

2. Violin Lullabies by Rachel Barton Pine

I found this CD at the library, and it's a great introduction to classical music for children. The melodies are beautiful and soothing, yet the Pine also includes some interesting modern music as well. It's great for naptime, and a good CD to put on while I'm reading to my daughter or while she's playing with duplos. Pine has a beautiful tone, and listening to it might help my daughter when she learns violin someday.

3. Laurie Berkner Lullabies

A friend recommended Laurie Berkner's music to me, and I found this CD at the library. Berkner has a sweet voice, and her songs are enjoyable even after listening to it over and over again. They're easy to sing along with, and many of them have imaginative or educational lyrics with a good message. My daughter enjoyed them!

4. Gregorian Chant and Renaissance Music

I love Medieval and Renaissance music. Gregorian chant, or music by composers like Hildegard of Bingen, Monteverdi, and Josquin des Pres is often as sublime and gorgeous as any more modern music. I think this music is great for children because it has a pure, soothing tone that's very calming. I also think that young children often like to hear the human voice above all, and this music focuses (sometimes exclusively) on the voice. The meditative quality of the music keeps me, a busy mother, relaxed and focused throughout the day as well. 

5. Joyful songs like Papageno's aria from The Magic Flute

Of course, classical music isn't always soothing--sometimes it's joyful, energetic, and whimsical, like child themselves. When my daughter was first born, I found myself playing The Magic Flute, especially Papageno's aria, and singing along to it (badly). The upbeat song just seemed to suit a happy baby. Now, I often play Irish folk tunes, Celtic music, or other fun, dance-like music for my daughter, and she loves it! Why not play the William Tell Overture while you're giving pony rides? 



Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Sherwood Forest Faire 2015

For the third year in a row, my husband, my beloved daughter and I visited Sherwood Forest Faire, a Renaissance Fair outside of Austin. This year, my mother and father-in-law joined us for their very first Ren Fair. It was a beautiful day, and everyone had a great time.
My daughter showing off her new Renaissance shoes from Medieval Moccasins!
My beautiful baby and her grandparents sitting outside the jousting arena
Sir Henry, wearing a very special hat, at the joust
Sir William, the knight we rooted for in the joust. He fought bravely and won the day.
Lady Elizabeth, on of the female competitors in the skills competition. She caught two inch rings on her lance three times, defeating Sir Henry.
My daughter and her grandfather pet one of the jousting horses, Indigo.
I had my hair braided in a beautiful heart-shaped updo in honor of Valentine's Day.
My baby girl petting her pony on the pony rides.
My sweet baby and her grandfather feed a cow.
My sweet girl pets a goat.
I love Summerwood Soaps, and I bought two bars this time!
We got delicious treats at fudge and more--incredible peanut butter cups and a frozen banana my baby loved.
We had a beautiful day at the fair, and can't wait to go back!

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Review: On Becoming a Novelist

 
I picked up John Gardner's On Becoming a Novelist the last time I went to the library. Unlike most books on writing, this one doesn't try to teach you how to write, or offer any definitive ideas on the creative process. Instead, it reads like a thoughtful meditation on the nature of creativity, inspiration, and the writing process. Amidst the plethora of advice targeted at writers today, this book is notable for its lack of definitive advice beyond, "do what works for you," and "don't quit." I found that one of its most endearing qualities.

Gardner, a brilliant novelist and creative writing teacher, begins by noting that few, if any, writing teachers can tell which students will ultimately become successful writers. He considers the difficulty of the task of evaluating a youthful writer, especially considering how much success ultimately depends on a writer's dedication to the craft ad refusal to give up or withdraw. He offers a critique of the most common methods of teaching writing and the inane, repetitive, and often destructive advice heaped on young writers. For example, the "write what you know" trope that so many creative writing teachers push ignores the fact that fiction is based on the imagination. While it's true that characters and settings need to feel vivid and real, writers can use their imagination and their sense of empathy to create whole new worlds and populate them with unique characters. Rather than "write what you know," Gardner advocates writing honestly and avoiding overly optimistic ("Pollyanna") or overly cynical cliches. He reflects that all great art is about finding and sharing truth, and we make poor artists when we can't see or understand what's true about human nature.
Gardner is at his best when he tries to capture those elusive and brilliant moments of creative flight that all artists have in their best work. Indeed, the writing process he describes is about capturing those dreams as closely as possible, then meticulously going back over the work to make sure it communicates the writer's intention. I loved his description of the vivid, creative dream-like state of creative inspiration--it comes closest to the feeling I get when I know what I'm writing is good, or when I'm playing music and everything just falls into place.

I'd recommend this book to anyone who needs an antidote to all the writing advice that gets heaped on you the second you start talking about writing. Gardner notes that there are many kinds of writers, and everyone of them has a different process. What matters is that you work to perfect your craft, keep yourself honest, and hone your sense of observation.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Preventing Musical Injuries

Musicians don't often think of themselves as athletes, yet performing music requires delicate control of your hands (for strings and piano) as well as your lips, jaw, and tongue for vocalists, winds, and brass. In fact, our physical bodies are as important to our performances as our ears or our mind, and musicians often suffer from pain and physical injuries from overuse, strain, and incorrect posture or hand position. According to a recent article, as many as twenty-five percent of pianists and a whopping sixty-seven percent of professional symphony musicians suffer from repetitive-strain injuries. I myself have often struggled with back pain from playing constantly and carrying heavy instruments. Yet few musicians want to discuss these issues, often out of fear that admitting they have an injury will damage their careers. So how can musicians prevent these kind of career-damaging injuries, and how help ourselves heal?

One way to avoid injuries is by stretching and warming up before you play difficult music. Musicians are fine-motor skill athletes, and just as athletes must warm-up, we need to as well. Develop a routine of warm-ups and stretches to help you get ready to play your instrument comfortably (you can find some suggestions here). I also work with my students to find good ways for them to warm-up during practice or before rehearsals and performances. Give yourself and your students time to build up to practicing the most difficult passages and techniques on your instrument.

While warm-up routines might vary depending on your instrument, all musicians need to develop and maintain good posture. I try to stay hyper-aware of my posture, since I know that slouching or poor posture contributed to the constant back pain I suffered a few years ago. Now, I'm careful to keep my posture relaxed and up right, and I teach my students to do the same. I've started to research Alexander technique for tips in keeping a comfortable, balanced posture while standing and sitting. It can also help to stay aware of the tension levels in your hands or your body while you play. Many of my students have raised shoulders or tight hands, and over time this constant body tension can lead to injuries. I find that students have a freer, more beautiful sound when they spend time releasing the unnecessary tension in their hands or shoulders, and those techniques also prevent injury.
Many musicians have to carry heavy instruments, music bags, stands, and other things to and from rehearsals. Now, I try to carry only what I'm comfortable lifting. There's no point in injuring yourself to prove a point, and it's fine to make multiple trips or ask for help if you need it!

Last, it's important that musicians take care of their overall health. It's hard to eat healthy or exercise when you have a demanding career that often involves tons of travel, yet maintaining a healthy body prevents injuries and helps us play better. There's tons of studies that show sitting for a long period is unhealthy, so if you can stand up and play, spend some of your practice time standing instead of sitting. Otherwise, go for a short walk after you've practiced for an hour. It's important to take breaks during long car trips or intense practice sessions to stretch your legs. And if you do get an injury, make sure you see a doctor and rest long enough to fully recover before you start playing again! 


Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Review: The Very Best of Kate Elliot

The Very Best of Kate Elliottis a collection of science fiction and fantasy short stories as well as a handful of Elliot's essays on writing, fantasy, and having compassion. Many of the stories in this book are haunting and tense, with deeply evocative characters. "The Gates of Joriun" is one of the most taut, suspenseful fantasy stories I've read, and it's ambiguous ending leaves the reader yearning for more. Likewise, "A Memory of Peace" is a harrowing tale of growing up in the midst of a brutal war. Yet, Elliot's collection contains a wide variety of genres, settings, and tones, and several stories are lighthearted, even funny. "My Voice Is in my Sword" is breezy science fiction romp that takes place among a company of actors sent to perform "Macbeth" for an alien audience. Elliot creates the most odious narcissist I've ever read, then gives him a well-earned comeuppance.

In stories like "Leaf and Branch and Grass and Vine," Elliot skirts the line between tense drama and deeply ironic comedy. What else to say about a story where the main character, Anna, survives a treacherous ordeal because her enemies are so used to ignoring poor, middle-aged women that she can pass right by them unnoticed? The author turns the invisibility that society inflicts on older women and turns it into a powerful weapon.

A few stories fall short. "With God to Guard Her" seems like Elliot is trying to write a modern update on typical Medieval "virtuous female saint" stories. While I appreciate what she's trying to accomplish, the story doesn't quite work--It feels too methodical and predictable. I found the story "Sunseeker" a bit tedious as well.

I enjoyed reading Elliot's stories, and the four essays were a treat as well. Her essay "The Omniscent Breast" was a funny take on a pervasive problem that too many writers and readers don't think about until it's pointed out to them. As a writer myself, I hope to stay aware of the male gaze and its effect on my writing. "And Pharoah's Heart Hardened" is a heart-felt essay on the importance of treating people with kindness and compassion, especially people who've been oppressed. It's an important reminder that oppression like racism and sexism happen because people dehumanize others and harden their hearts against other people's suffering.

This is a book I'd recommend to anyone interested in a fresh take on science fiction or fantasy, and if you're a writer yourself, don't skip the essays!

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Go to the Library!

There are plenty of writers who like to write outside the home. Just looking around a Starbucks or a Barnes and Noble or an Independent bookstore/coffee shop (remember those?), you're bound to find at least one person writing/blogging or procrastinating when they'd like to be writing/blogging. Yet, I rarely see studious writing types at the one place that seems perfect for them: the library.

I go to the library regularly because I have a toddler, and libraries are awesome places that have story-time, indoor children's areas, and shelf after shelf of relatively sturdy board books. But after my daughter gets chance to play with books and puzzles and things, I take a few moments to check out the main part of the library. It's wonderful. There are tons of books, CDs, audiobooks, and plenty of quiet spaces to read or write. And unlike bookstores, all these things are FREE to check out.

What's more, the selection of books and audiobooks at the library is often more diverse than you find in bookstores. For example, while bookstores focus on newly-released and popular books, libraries often have older books that you rarely find in brick and mortar stores nowadays, though they might be available on Amazon. Our local library has an excellent collection of audiobooks as well, with far more selection than I've ever seen in a store. The largest public library near me even has its own adjoining coffee shop!

Most libraries have computers available which you can use to write on if you don't want to haul around your laptop, and WiFi if you prefer using your own computer. They have printers you can use for a small fee, which is a lifesaver to those of us with cranky printers we forever forget to fill with ink.

Since I've started going to the library regularly, I find myself reading more, and choosing "riskier" books or CDs, instead sticking with what's familiar. I think that helps to broaden my reading habits and improves my writing. And if you're like me, being around tons of books has a soothing, calming magic that's all its own. The library feels like a sanctuary--a quiet, gentle space that's welcoming to everyone, no matter what your financial situation. So like Hermione, go to the library!
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