Monday, March 30, 2015

My Review of The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman

In preparation for submitting (or possibly self-publishing) my novel, I decided to pick up a few books on writing and editing as a reference/inspiration. That's one reason I got On Becoming a Novelist from the library. On that same trip, I also found The First Five Pages: A Writer's Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile. Though I checked it out, I initially hesitated over reading it, since it seemed One of my primary objections to the traditional publishing world is how narrow-minded and stuffy it seems. Everyone claims to be searching for a "unique, original voice!" that happens to sound exactly like Stephanie Meyers, Steven King, or James Patterson. Still, I figured if I wanted to polish my manuscript, it wouldn't hurt to read what agents and editors were looking for when they scanned the first few pages of a submission.

At first, the book seemed to offer the typical advice writers hear all the time: standard format, limit adverbs, basic advice for handling dialogue, etc. Yet, Lukeman gives great examples, and he explains why some of these "rules" or so important. Still, I couldn't help skimming over advice I'd read a million times before (the next person to chirpily tell to me "show, don't tell!" will end up with a terrible case of the smack-downs). As I read further into the book, I found that Lukeman's more in-depth chapters were the most helpful. Anyone can write about common grammatical errors or annoying stylistic quirks, but rarely have I read advice on subtlety, tone, and characterization. Lukeman has keen insights into what gives great literature its power.

Overall, this book is worth reading if you're an aspiring writer, though more experienced writer may want to skip the opening chapters. It's motivated me to re-edit my novel, and that alone makes up for the fine I have at the library for keeping it so long:)   

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Five Great Works of Classical Music Left Unfinished

Before the modern era of vaccines, penicillin, and germ theory, people often died young or unexpectedly. Many great composers, including Mozart and Schubert, died before the age of 35. Too often, this meant that incredible works of music were left unfinished by the composer's untimely death. Though sometimes a student or colleague would step up to complete a work, as with Mozart's Requiem, the end result still leaves the listener wondering about what the original composer might have accomplished, had he lived. Here's my list of great unfinished music.

1. Mozart's Requiem 

In one of the tragic ironies of history, Mozart's final, unfinished masterpiece was a Requiem, or Mass for the Dead. Though movies like Amadeus dramatized the work's origins, suggesting that a mysterious masked man commissioned the Requiem to drive Mozart to his death, it's actual history is far less dramatic (though more bizarre). In fact, a man named Count Franz von Walsegg made a habit of commissioning works from other composers, then passing them off as his own. He asked Mozart to write a Requiem Mass that he could then dedicate to his recently deceased wife. Unfortunately, Mozart himself grew desperately ill (possibly from kidney failure) while he worked on this last masterpiece. In the end, he completed the Introit, and most of the Kyrie, Dies Irae, and Offertory, as well as the first eight bars of the heart-rending Lacrymosa. After his death, his widow, Constanze, gave the music to Mozart's student Franz Xavier Sussmeyer, in hopes that he might complete the score. 

2. Puccini's Turandot

Puccini discovered that he had throat cancer shortly after he began work on his last opera, Turandot. He received radiation treatments, which were state-of-the-art at the time. Despite the treatments, his doctors realized he was seriously ill, although they did not tell Puccini, only his son. Still, Puccini caught on enough that he desperately tried to finish his opera. The first two acts were completed in their entirety, but much of the third act was in the form of a piano/vocal score, and some parts of the libretto didn't have music at all. After his death, his editor chose Franco Alfano to finish the score using Puccini's sketches. Nonetheless, at the first performance, conductor Arturo Toscanini stopped the performance at the point where Puccini's writing ended. He said "Here the Maestro laid down his pen," then walked off the stage, in a tribute to the terrible loss of Puccini.

3. Bartok's Viola Concerto

William Primrose, a fierce advocate for the viola and a famous viola soloist, commissioned Bela Bartok to write a viola concerto. Unfortunately, Bartok was in the final stages of leukemia when he began work on the concerto and was only able to complete a few sketches before his death. Bartok's friend Tiber Serly initially completed the concerto in 1949. Since then Bartok's son Peter and violist Paul Neubauer completed another edition. Though violists everywhere love the Bartok Viola Concerto, we mourn that Bartok never had a chance to finish it. 

4. Schubert's Symphony in B minor

While most of the great works on this list are unfinished because of the tragic death of the composers, Schubert completed the first two movements of his B minor Symphony six years before his death, then abandoned the work. Scholars don't know the exact reasons he stopped working on such a promising symphony. He may have associated it with a severe illness, or possibly he was distracted by another composition. Still, the two movements Schubert did complete are a beloved part of the repertoire.

5. Alban Berg's Lulu

Like Puccini, Alban Berg had completed the first two acts of his opera before his untimely death in 1935, but the third act was only in the form of a piano/vocal score. His widow immediately enlisted the help of Berg's mentor, Schoenberg, to orchestrate the final act. Schoenberg initially accepted the task, but when he realized how much work it would take, he backed out. Angry, Berg's widow Helene refused to allow any other composer to finish the score, so for years only the first two acts and the completed parts of the third were performed. It was only after Helene's death that Friedrich Cerha orchestrated the final act of the opera, allowing Lulu to be performed in its entirety.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

More Excellent Supplemental Books for Suzuki Violin and Viola Students

As I've talked about before, I love using Suzuki's methods, philosophy, and books for teaching violin and viola lessons. I think that his method of teaching is the kindest and most effective for teaching music. However, it's not possible for one set of books to contain all the music that people love to play! Therefore, I like to give my students additional books and music to supplement their repertoire and help them hone specific skills. I made a list of great supplemental books here, but since then, I've found so many other books I like, I felt I needed to do another post! So here's more excellent supplemental books for Suzuki violin and viola students! 

1. I Know a Fox with Dirty Socks

This book has tons of short little songs with accompanying teacher duets. I love using it for very young students, because the first pages have fun songs with cute lyrics that they can play on the open strings, or just using first finger. It's great for giving students a small break from their Suzuki pieces, and good for sight-reading practice as well. It has several familiar tunes, including Hot Cross Buns and shortened version of Jingle Bells, as well as little made-up tunes like the eponymous "I know a fox." Well worth having for a studio, especially if you teach very young students. The duets might be fun for group classes too.

2. The Lord of the Rings Instrumental Solos for Violin (or Viola)

I originally got this book for me (I'm a huge fan of the books and the movies), but it turns out many of my students loved the Lord of the Rings too! This book has lots of great songs from the movies, including the creepy, chromatic "Ring Wraith" theme. They are a bit challenging, so this book would be better for students in Suzuki Book 2 or above.   

3. Theory Time Book Series

The music school where I work suggested that I used these books with my students, since that allows them to take the Texas State Theory tests for their grade levels as well. At first I was skeptical--the books teach treble and bass clef, and since neither violin or viola students use bass clef on their instruments, and violists don't use treble clef until they're shifting into higher positions, it seemed unnecessary. However, there's a ton of good information about rhythms, keys, and intervals in the books, and when I tried them with my students, they seemed to like it. The books are clear and concise, and they give students plenty of opportunities to practice. I found the primer, 1st, and 2nd level books a bit to simplistic, so I prefer to start my students in book level three. I like skipping around in them to focus on what techniques we're using in their music. 

4. Ivan Galamian's Contemporary Violin Technique (Vol. 1--Scales & Arpeggios)

I have a soft spot for this book, because my first private teacher recommended it to me, and I've been using it ever since. It's an excellent technique builder for advanced students! However, there are some crucial differences between the violin edition and the viola edition. The viola edition begins with two octave scales and includes double-stop exercises in thirds, sixths, and octaves, but it leaves out the one position scales and the one string scales. The violin edition has the extra scales, but the double stops are in Volume 2. Nonetheless, it's a challenging book that requires plenty of shifting, especially in the three octave scales and arpeggios. It's great for advanced or very dedicated intermediate students.

5. Wohlfahrt Etudes

I vaguely remember playing some of these etudes as a kid, but I didn't use them with my students until this year. I got a new student who's previous teacher had assigned her Wohlfahrt etudes, so I explored some of them with her. Seeing how the etudes helped her develop her technique, I started using them with my other students as well. Wohlfahrt is good book for students in Suzuki Book 2 or above--the first volume is all in first position, but it explores different keys, finger patterns, bowings, and rhythms. I like that the Schirmer edition includes both volume one and two, and it has some suggested variations for students try. I've seen my students' dexterity and felicity improve quite a bit after playing through a few of these etudes, and the bowing variations allow students to master different rhythmic patterns and bowing techniques. 

6. Kreutzer Etudes

Last but not least, I give Kreutzer etudes to my advanced students--those in Suzuki Book 4 or higher. These etudes are very challenging. Many of them require students to shift into high positions, or they teach very advanced bowing or fingering techniques. The famous second etude has a plethora of rhythmic and bowing variations that are fantastic for building a strong bow arm. Kreutzer is a classic for a good reason; in addition to building strong technique, many of the etudes are tuneful and enjoyable to play. These are a must have for any studio, or any advanced student.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Compassion vs. Tough Love

One of the toughest challenges of teaching music is determining what students need from you as a teacher. This might seem simple, and many people will say that all kids just need discipline/love/strict rules/positive reinforcement, etc. It seems that while people think students all need something from a teacher, no one can agree on what that might be. That's because students are all different, and therefore they each have their own individual needs. It's a teacher's job to figure out what works best for each child.

There's two broad categories of discipline styles, which I think of as tough love and compassionate nurturing. Both have their uses. For example, I've seen some students thrive under teachers with a challenging, aggressive style. These students respect their teacher's no-nonsense attitude and like direct, straight to the point feedback. They may also have a thick skin or a wicked sense of humor. Other students wilt in such high-pressure lessons. They need a reassuring, compassionate teacher who patiently explains and demonstrates for them, giving gentle feedback. Teachers who only use tough love might drive away sensitive students, maybe even blaming the students themselves for not responding properly to their methods. On the other hand, students who crave tough love might find themselves dissatisfied and frustrated with gentle, nurturing teacher--they might refuse to practice or follow instructions. Indeed, some students might need both compassion and tough love from a teacher, depending on what mood or situation they're in. So how can we know what students need form us at any given moment?

First, consider the student. Are they active and brash, or quiet and reserved? Do they seem reluctant or impatient? Once you have a good idea of their personality (and it may take several lessons to figure them out), consider the circumstances. Even an ordinarily tough kid might have a stressful or difficult day once in a while, where they might need some compassionate encouragement. I try to be especially sensitive before and after performances--even brash students get nervous before they go on stage. Other times, a normally quiet student might start acting disrespectful or difficult (particularly if they're tired or stressed), and might need a little tough love.

Teachers may feel more comfortable using one method more than another. Early in my career, I found myself using the same harsh, high-pressure approach I'd endured with all my students. Many of my students frequently broke down in tears, just as I had in my lessons. I realized that I couldn't bear the idea of treating children that way anymore, so I took a class in Suzuki Method and worked hard to become a loving, compassionate teacher. Yet, I sometimes have students ask me to be tough on them, or push them hard to succeed. For those students and a few others, I'll break out the tough love, but I'm glad that's not the only tool I have to work with.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Sonnet: The Beauty of Chaos

It's been a while since I've written any poetry (at least any I'm willing to post on my blog), so I though it was time I tried writing some again. Writing poetry allows me to think about the rhythm and the sounds of words in a deeper way than writing prose, so I think it's good for all writers to try their hands at it occasionally. Besides, some experiences in life just call out for poetry, and to me chasing an energetic toddler is one of them.  

The Beauty of Chaos

Wild children are the beauty of chaos
Toddlers revel in pure selfish desire
A mother's "no" fuels such intense pathos
They're primal innocence and raging fire

Young hearts contain both terror and passion
For mommy and daddy, the first true loves
Baffling giants in strange adult fashion 
Stare down at a child from high up above

Civilization's veneer stripped away
No corruption gnaws at their inmost souls
No subtlety infects their buoyant play
They are free of lies, good manners, and goals

All loving cuddles and furious fists 
Yet not one moment I'd want to have missed

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors

Since I enjoyed listening to the Audible version of Dan Jones' The Plantagenets, I decided to try listening to his next book, The Wars of the Roses, as well. It's an excellent follow up to the first book, yet Jones' explanations of the history and issues behind the Wars of the Roses is so thorough that I think you could easily read it without having read the first book. 

The Wars of the Roses were a violent, unstable period of English history that saw murder, civil war, and insanity take decimate the English nobility, leaving room for one of the most ambitious and unlikely dynasties in European history, the Tudors, to seize control of the crown. Indeed, if you've ever wondered why Henry VIII had such intense fear of leaving his realm without an heir, this book gives some explanation. Furthermore, the historical figures that Jones describes include the real-life inspirations for many of the characters on "Game of Thrones," including the Mad Kings of England and France, Charles VI and Henry VI, and Henry VI's manipulative wife, Margaret of Anjou (a real life Cersei Lannister). Indeed, the stories of these historical figures, their lives and characters, is as griping as any fiction. The complicated and heart-rending tale of Edward IV, his young sons, and his brother, Richard III, is as tragic and violent as any fiction. Jones notes how deeply Edward IV trusted his brother the Earl of Gloucester, who was known as a noble, great-hearted man until his lust for power and bizarre paranoia lead him to murder his nephews. 

I have heard the Wars of the Roses described as a period of English history so complicated and confusing that it baffles people who read about it, but Jones' account is as clear and easy to follow as can be. The many Edwards and Richards who populate the narrative have such clear and distinct characters that I didn't have trouble distinguishing them. Furthermore, Jones demonstrates the true issues underlying the wars--not dynastic succession or a struggle between powerful families, but an inability for England's political system to cope with a weak, often insane king like Henry VI. The vacuum of power during his reign created a slew of rival claimants to the throne, resulting in a savage civil war that pit men against their cousins, brothers, and nephews.

I'd recommend this book to anyone interested in late Medieval history. It's a great read, full of dramatic events as well as exciting and tragic historical characters. 

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Review: The Nurture Effect

The Nurture Effect is a thoughtful book about the psychological theory of behaviorism, and how it could be used to help reduce crime, improve health, and allow people to thrive. It was fascinating to read and it inspired me to hope that small changes in our society could create a better, safer world. However, I do feel the author should do more to address criticisms of behaviorism, including research  published by Carol Dweck and Alfie Kohn.

Anthony Biglan, the author, does an excellent job of explaining the origins of behaviorism and its primary ideas. Effectively, behaviorism is the idea that human beings are shaped by their environments. For example, if a child grows up in a nurturing, loving environment with rich opportunities, he or she will likely thrive. But a child who grows up in an abusive or deprived environment will suffer terrible effects from it, and without intervention will likely engage in negative behavior like taking drugs, committing crimes, and using violence in their personal relationships.

Biglan begins by describing how behaviorism applies to one on one human interactions, particularly within families. He notes that families with high amounts of conflict and adverse events tend to produce aggressive children who are more likely to commit crimes or fail in school than children in low-conflict families. Biglan then gradually expands his thesis to how the science of behaviorism applies to organizations like schools or hospitals, then society as a whole. He passionately believes that broadly applying behaviorist principles will create a happier, healthier, more harmonious society. He gives plenty of evidence to support his thesis, including multiple scientific studies and case histories from successful programs like the Nurse-Family Partnership and campaigns to encourage people to quit smoking.
Where I feel the book falls short is his dismissal of critiques of behaviorism. Alfie Kohn, a major critic of behaviorism, argues that using rewards like gold stars and excessive praise drains kids of motivation and leaves them feeling manipulated. Though he grudgingly admits his own son did not respond well to his excessive praise, he mostly dismisses Kohn's argument. He doesn't even mention Carol Dweck, though her research indicates that telling children things like "You're smart!" can actually have negative effects on their self-confidence. I think the author could easily address some of these criticisms. For example, Dweck's research indicates that children do best when they're praised for their effort rather than their innate intelligence--this kind of praise leads to a "growth mentality" which reassures children that their success depends on their efforts. Likewise, Kohn makes a thoughtful distinction between praise (which he considers empty and manipulative, like mental candy) and positive feedback, which research shows is enormously effective (positive feedback differs from praise in that it's specific). I think Biglan's book would have benefited from him making distinctions between positive feedback and praise, as well as addressing how many of the successful programs he mentions are the opposite of manipulative. In fact, I was struck by how programs like the Nurse-Family Partnership or the child-centered parenting methods show so much compassion and respect for their clients.

Overall, this is one of the most inspiring scientific books I've ever read. It gave me a great hope for our future. As the parent of a toddler, it also had some great practical ideas for building loving and harmonious family relationships, using positive discipline, and helping my little girl become a thriving, prosocial, happy adult. I'd highly recommend it to anyone.