Friday, May 29, 2015

Review: Smoke and Mirrors

After reading The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains, I decided I'd like to read more of Neil Gaiman's short fiction. On my next visit to the library, I found a copy of his short story collection Smoke and Mirrors, so I decided to check it out. While a few of the stories fell flat for me, most were creepy and brilliant, and one or two stand out as incredible works of art. 

In particular, I loved Gaiman's "Snow, Glass, and Apples," a memorable and terrifying retelling of "Snow White" from the point of view of her perhaps-not wicked stepmother. Likewise, though I originally avoided reading "Murder Mysteries" (I'm not a fan of the mystery genre), once I read it, it became one of my favorite stories in the book. The story within a story is deeply compelling, and once it starts to fit within the larger picture and the two stories merge, it becomes a haunting tale of love, death, and regret. Gaiman has a gift for drawing a reader into a story only to reveal that the true story is far deeper than the one you originally thought you were reading. - Read eBooks using the FREE Kindle Reading App on Most Devices

The only stories that didn't work for me seemed ones with a strong masculine point of view. For example, while I appreciated the writing and the story from "Looking for the Girl," it didn't move me all the much, perhaps because I just don't relate to the male gaze it depicts. Still, several stories did give me a interesting glimpse into a man's POV, including "Foreign Parts" and "Mouse." This last story is another great example of the true story not being what you think it is. The main character agonizes over killing a mouse, yet is coldly unsympathetic to his wife after she has an abortion at his behest. It takes talent to make such a selfish and unlikable character conflicted and sympathetic, suggesting that he's buried his emotions so much that he uses symbolic acts to express what he can't even allow himself to consciously think.

Overall, I'd recommend this book to anyone who likes dark, yet whimsical fantasy or horror with a touch of comedy. 

Monday, May 25, 2015

Dealing with Discouraging People

One of the hardest things about being a writer (or a musician) is the terrible vulnerability. Great art requires you to expose a deep part of your soul, to take emotional risks. Every story is your story, a slice of your mind, a bit of the darkness that lives there. There are many kinds of negative people who love to latch on to this vulnerability. I can't pretend to understand all their motivations, but I imagine that many of them are jealous or resentful of other people's talent or dedication. Some of them may just enjoy squashing other people or controlling them in some way. Whatever their reasons, writers, musicians, and artists of all kinds need to watch out for them, and learn how to protect themselves from their negativity.

When dealing with discouraging people, the first question many artists wrestle with is, "do they have a point?" This is because many discouraging people hide their cruelty behind a veil of concern. "I'm just trying to help!" they exclaim as they tell you how much you'll suffer and struggle because everyone knows artists/musicians/etc. don't make any money. They fail to notice, of course, that Everyone struggles in a bad economy. Sure, there are struggling artists and writers who work in coffee shops. But there are plenty people with "sensible" majors working there too. I majored in music performance, and I've always had a job in music, whether it was teaching lessons, or playing in a local orchestra, or playing string quartets for weddings. Yet, I once met a man with a Master's degree in engineering who ended up bagging groceries after he got laid off. Remember when the Nasdaq crashed in 2002? One of my friends who'd studied computers lost his job and ended up joining the army to make ends meet. My point is, yes, you may have to struggle to be an artist. You may work in coffee shops while you finish your novel. But even a STEM degree doesn't guarantee a good job anymore--just ask a physics major.

It is true that all artists need feedback to improve their art. That's why we have writer's groups and classes and books on art/music/writing. That's why we have open mics. Honest, valuable feedback doesn't just tear your work down--it also gives you suggestions to help you improve. Good teachers know it's not enough to criticize a student--you have to actually teach them a better way. But exceedingly wary of someone who offers criticism with no feedback. 

So when you find yourself dealing with someone discouraging, what should you do? It's often difficult to completely avoid those people--they be family members or colleagues or (sadly) teachers. If avoiding someone isn't an option, there are other options like confronting them directly, finding allies, or finding the strength to persevere in spite of them. Ideally, the person being discouraging is open to your feedback, so you can ask them to treat your work with more respect (not always the case, since many people who love dishing out harsh criticism hate anyone critiquing them). If they won't change, seek out other people who will give you encouragement, or at least honest feedback. For writers, you might check out writing forums or sites where you can post your work for other writers to read and critique.

It's hard to find the strength to pursue your passions and dreams. Discouraging people can leech away the confidence and emotional energy you need to devote to your craft. So protect yourself--ignore them, take a deep breath, and keep going.
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Thursday, May 21, 2015

Playing with the Tape

In my career as a professional musician, I've rarely performed with an accompaniment CD or tape. There were a few exceptions, like the time I played Diane Thome's "Like a Seated Swan" with a recording of computer-generated sounds, but for the most part, accompaniment meant a live pianist. So when I started teaching, that's how I taught my students. I'd play with them on a duet part, or we'd have a piano accompanist. However, I quickly realized that both of these methods have limitations. 

When I accompany my students on duet parts, I have to look at my own part. That divides my attention, so it can be hard to focus on my student or help them get back on track without stopping our performance. As for piano accompanists, they're often only available for one rehearsal before a student performs. That means that the student doesn't have much of a chance to practice with the accompaniment before a performance, and they don't have the benefits of regular accompaniment in their lessons. To address some of these problems I decided to try having my students play along with a recording.

While I've often used recordings as a reference in my lessons, and I've always encouraged students to listen to excellent music, I'd previously been reluctant to have them actually play with an accompaniment CD. Until recently, I found there were many drawbacks to recorded accompaniments. The CD or tape only played at one tempo, which was often far too fast for a beginning student. However, there are several music apps available now that will slow down or speed up a recording without distorting its pitch. I used one of these to set appropriate tempos for my students, and gave the recordings a try. I've been very happy with the results. Since recordings are less "sympathetic" than a teacher or a pianist, they often help a student stay in tempo or play rhythms accurately. It's like a metronome with chords!
Furthermore, hearing the chords and accompaniment improves students' intonation as well. They can match pitch to their part if it's included in the recording, or they can hear how their notes fit into a chord. The accompaniment can help students listen closely, and it gives them something to compare themselves too.

Of course, many of the recorded accompaniment parts are also fun to play along with. They may have parts that sound like a full orchestra or a band instead of just a piano. One student I had loved playing the “Star Wars” theme to an accompaniment that sounded like it came right out of the movie.

Although I was initially skeptical of recorded accompaniments, I'm glad I gave them a try. I still think it's important for students to play with live pianists, and I still play duets with them, but I've discovered that recorded accompaniments are useful tool for teachers—one that's available for every lesson.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Life and Exhaustion

One of the hardest things about becoming a parent is the exhaustion. I have a lovely, but energetic, nearly two year old daughter, who is learning (slowly) to sleep through the night. I also teach violin and viola (part-time), write (as often as I have energy and time), play in local symphony orchestras, exercise (mostly walks in the park with my little girl), spend time with my husband, and keep our apartment from disastrous levels of messiness. Some days (or weeks. or months) I can feel overwhelmed.

It's hard to fight exhaustion when you have so many responsibilities. No matter how I feel in the morning, my sweet little girls needs me. My students need their teacher. And I'm the type of person who wants to do the best job possible for everyone, and give as much as I can. So what to do when my baby has a difficult night and I don't get enough sleep, or when I have to work all weekend playing symphony concerts or assisting at students' performances?

It's tricky, and I don't have all the answers. I've been trying to go to bed earlier and develop healthy sleep habits. Among other things, I'm trying to watch less TV and spend less time on the internet. It's fun to read interesting articles online, but it also sucks into my time. Likewise with TV, and it's hard to watch it when I'm usually too tired to concentrate anyway. I've been avoiding caffeine in the late afternoons as well.

Mostly, though, I'm learning to try and let go of my excess stress. Stress and internal pressure drain away my emotional energy more than many of the physical tasks I do. I've often used techniques like awareness or deep breathing to calm my nerves before performances. Now I'm using these techniques to stay calm in high-stress life situations, from dealing with traffic, to handling difficult people, to staying calm when my little girl manages to coat herself and her new outfit in mud/spaghetti sauce/juice/all the things.

The truth is, I have a great life. I have a beautiful family, a job I love, and great outlets for my creativity. When I stop to think about it, I see how happy I am with everyone and everything in my life. That's why it's so important to stop, to think, and to take a deep breath. Exhaustion is a sign we need to rest, and an opportunity to reflect on what's important in our lives.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Scottish Storm Troopers on Parade and other Videos from Scarborough Renaissance Festival 2015

On our second visit to Scarborough Renaissance Festival this year, I managed to video more of the parade, including a troop of kilt-wearing Scottish Storm Troopers!

Of course, the traditional Scots are a fine part of the parade as well.

Dancer, comedians, and general good fun!

Monday, May 4, 2015

Auditions, Concerts, and Contests: Why they're (usually) worth the stress

Music teachers know that the last two months of school are often packed with contests, concerts, and auditions, with all the stresses and difficulties these events entail. Between solo and ensemble contests, youth orchestra or high school auditions (or worse, college auditions!) and end-of-year concerts, I sometimes wonder if the stress is worth it, or if next year I should suggested that some (most?) of my students bow out of participating in all these events (whenever that's possible). But however tempting that may be, when I think it over, I realize that all the stresses of auditions, contests, and the like ultimately benefit most of my students.

For one thing, these events give students goals. I've found that kids are far more interested in working on their music if they know they'll play it for a contest or audition. They want to succeed, and that motivates them to practice. Indeed, the students I have who rarely perform or participate in contests frequently drop out of lessons. Without a goal to focus on, even the ones who stay learn slowly and spend less time practicing. They sometimes jump from piece to piece without ever digging deep into the music or developing strong technique. Ultimately, this unfocused approach to music prevents them from challenging themselves enough to fully develop their talents.

Without regular public performances, auditions, or contests, students don't learn how to play under pressure or manage their performance anxiety. Many of these students "psych" themselves out--they may refuse to try more challenging music, and treat public performances like a march to the scaffold instead of a routine part of being a musician. We learn to manage fear and nerves by confronting them, not turning away. Music is a performance art, and part of being a musician is sharing your music with others, whether in a public performance or among your friends and family. Regular performances help students develop their musical expression and learn to share their gifts with confidence. 

Finally, risking failure is an important part of the learning process. It might hurt to lose a competition or flub an audition, but setbacks give us a chance to learn resilience. If we don't allow students to take risks and fail, then we're not preparing them for the real world. Struggles, setbacks, and failures are a part of life. We don't need to shelter students from them, but give them the skills to cope with mistakes or failures in a healthy way. Musicians learn from their mistakes then move on. When students take auditions or participate in contests and performances regularly and with the support of a good teacher, they learn to put those things in perspective. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but most of all, you need to keep learning!

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Saturday, May 2, 2015

Renee's Author Spotlight: Interview with Alexis

Renee's Author Spotlight: Magical Muse Collection Anthology - Author Intervi...: Alexis Lantgen is a musician and writer who holds a master’s degree in music performance from Florida International University, as well as...

The Magical Muse

Dark, light and inspiring fantasy creatures fill The Magical Muse, an anthology of prize winning short stories by authors including Andrea R. Cooper and yours truly.
Where Darkness Hides
An excerpt from The Magical Muse
By Andrea R. Cooper

Where does the night hide, when the lights are on? It is there, in the closet, peeking out from the cracks around the door.

There, deep within, all blackness hides.

I join the night, alone, inside an elevator which burrows down. It reminds me of a coffin sliding through the depths of the earth. As it moves, passing through the floor, it rumbles and shakes—groaning like old wood chewed by fire.

The door opens, to reveal a place where crimson fires burn a dull light. Strange creatures dance with the dark, celebrating this festive night…their Halloween holiday.

Is this a shady dream? Or are these servants of the night demons?

They offer me the wine of pleasures. Its fiery flavor screams down my throat, leaving behind wetness inside my dry mouth. The earthy smell tickles me and steals my breath. My mind swirls, and I close my eyes as I spin deeper into the night.

Authors Bio:
Andrea R. Cooper found the characters she once imagined as a child calling her back to their fantasy worlds of danger, romance, and bewitchment. Her stories, stoked by these familiar friends, reignited a bonfire of love and enchantment. Her novel, The Garnet Dagger received the UP Author’s 2013 Seal of Approval. For more visit

Friday, May 1, 2015

Writing Short Stories

While I spend most of my writing time working on articles or my new novel, I've also written several short stories. I like to write short stories because it's satisfying to finish a writing project quickly, but they also have particular challenges that make them tricky for me to write.

For me, short stories are hard to get started. My most successful stories, including "Switched," which appears in the anthology The Magical Muse, felt like they wrote themselves. I had a powerful feeling for the world and the characters I was writing, and a clear plot in mind. This allowed me to condense the elements of the story and get right to its heart without sacrificing the clarity of the plot or the strength of the characters.

Still, it's tricky with fantasy stories because often the worlds we create in fantasy or scifi are unique to our imaginations. This is why many fantasy writers spend so much time "world-building," or writing about the setting of their stories or novels. For short stories, our world-building needs to be minimized as much as possible. We need to suggest the nature of our world in as few words as possible, or else our "short story" quickly swells into a novel with a limited, short-story plot. I handle this by trying to keep the world entirely within one character's perspective. If that character knows little about the nature of magic or magical races, than don't give the reader an explanation either. It's often more dramatic and emotional if characters don't completely understand what's happening to them, or how things work. Life is often bewildering.

Short stories are also good way for writers to explore different genres or writing styles without committing to an intense project. If you normally write serious, dramatic novels, you could try writing something light-hearted or funny in a short story. I've written short stories about minor characters from my WIP. That allows me to flesh out these side characters and give them more depth.

While writing short stories is a challenge, it's also a fun way to work through ideas and find inspiration. After I finished my last novel, I was a bit lost and didn't know what to write next. I had several ideas bouncing around in my head, but each time I sat down to write something, nothing seemed to come together. Finally, I wrote an emotionally intense short story set in an elaborate fantasy setting. I became so fascinated by the world and the characters, that I've started writing a novel set there!