Friday, January 29, 2016

Jaap van Zweden Leaves Dallas for New York

My Facebook feed exploded the other day with the news that Jaap van Zweden, the highly esteemed conductor of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, would be leaving Dallas to become the music director for the New York Philharmonic. As a Dallas-area musician who's attended many of Jaap's concerts and loves what he's done with the DSO, I had plenty of mixed feelings about the news.

It's not surprising of course--Jaap had long been considered a contender for the New York position, even if he was a bit of a dark horse. I knew that he had the chops for the job--he's an incredible conductor who's lead the DSO in some brilliant performances. His version of Mahler's Resurrection Symphony stands out in my mind as tight, intense, and deeply powerful. His performances of the traditional repertoire are exciting, but he's also supported new music. He conducted the world premier of Margaret Brouwer's viola concerto with the wonderful Ellen Rose as soloist (I studied with her at SMU), which I attended.

Jaap has helped to raise the standards of the DSO to National, and even International levels, but not without ruffling quite a few feathers along the way. He's known to be scrupulously honest, and often abrasive. He's had some conflicts with the musicians in the DSO, though all the musicians I know there deeply respect and admire him.
I'm happy for Jaap that he's gotten such a prestigious position, and I think his success reflects well on Dallas and on the DSO. But we'll miss him. It will be hard to find a conductor to fill Jaap's shoes, and match his achievements in the Dallas music scene. He's been a shot of energy and excitment, a rising star. We're lucky that he'll still be in Dallas for the 2016-2017 season, and won't leave permanently for New York until the following year.

Jaap's appointment reflects one of the difficulties that regional orchestras face in retaining talent. While exciting, up and coming musicians and conductors may get their start in regional orchestras, many of them head for more prestigious jobs once they've matured. It makes it difficult for those orchestras to develop and establish themselves the way more famous orchestras have. Hopefully, the DSO will find another amazing conductor--Jaap has laid the groundwork for his successor to carry on his legacy and help the DSO have even higher standards.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Camping trip in Davy Crockett National Forest

My family and I had a great time camping in the Davy Crockett National Forest near Nacogdoches, TX. It was a great trip, and we all had fun! 
My little girl and I enjoying the fresh air on a walk around the campground.
It was cold that weekend, so we had to bundle my little girl in her puffy coat and gloves.
Walking around the forest with her daddy.
Daddy teaches her how to throw an ax (with plenty of supervision:)
Snow pants, puffy jacket, and an Elsa hat--what more do you need to keep out the cold?
In the morning, we had a beautiful sunrise.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Review: Nebula Awards Showcase 2015

After reading the Nebula Awards Showcase for 2009, I was interested in reading a showcase for a more recent year. Since I've been writing a lot of short stories lately, I figured it would only help me to read high quality, award-winning stories. As I've mentioned before, anthologies this like are also a great way to discover new and amazing authors. Since I got a couple of Barnes and Noble gift cards for Christmas, I thought I'd see what they had in my local store. I found the Nebula Awards Showcase 2015, and decided to check it out.

From the very first story, Rachel Swirsky's haunting "If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love," this book captured me. Swirsky's writing is lyrical, even whimsical, yet she builds the tension into an unexpectedly tragic end. Likewise, Sylvia Spruck Wrigley's "Alive, Alive Oh" is a deeply moving story of a mother trying to give her daughter a happy childhood despite their unnatural circumstances, only to have her well-intentioned efforts lead to heart-rending tragedy instead. These two stories stayed with me long after I read them, a tribute to their profound power. I also enjoyed Sophia Samatar's "Selkie Stories Are for Losers," a story about abandonment, loss, and the pain of adolescence, and Matthew Kessel's "The Sounds of Old Earth," a dystopian vision of a future where the Earth is scrapped for parts.
The only one of the short stories to fall flat for me was "Selected Program Notes from the Retrospective Exhibition of Theresa Rosenberg Latimer." This story was structured as program notes, which after a few paragraphs felt unwieldy and pretentious.

Of the novelettes, I most enjoyed Aliette de Bodard's "The Waiting Stars" and Henry Lien's "Pearl Rehabilitative Colony for Ungrateful Daughters." Bodard creates a fascinating world, with a unique and imaginative take on AI. Likewise, Lien's world is rich and intriguing, but his narrative voice is what makes the story so wildly entertaining and often hilariously funny. Alaya Dawn Johnson's "They Shall Salt the Earth with Seeds of Glass" begins as a typical "humans oppressed by aliens" story, yet as the main characters' journey progresses, it becomes a sharp satire of the Iraq War, with all the tragic misunderstandings and horrible consequences of nation-building in a country that's been devastated by war.

The winner for best novella, Vylar Kaftan's "The Weight of the Sunrise," is a beautiful and evocative depiction of a world where the Incan Empire never fell, and Colonial Americans must seek the Incan Emporer's aid in their fight against the British in the Revolutionary War. It's a compelling concept, and Kaftan's depiction of the opulent Incan empire is rich and complex. Yet, it's seeing the "noble" American Revolutionary through the eyes of a humane outsider that gives the story it's power. Incan society has deep rifts--the Emperor runs a totalitarian government, and demands child sacrifice and absolute obedience from his subjects. Yet, the American who professes to believe in Democracy keeps slaves, including his own brother, in abominable conditions. Instead of offering the Inca an end to small pox out of decency and humanity, the Americans would use their vaccine to barter for gold, which the Incans consider sacred. If the ending of the story feels a bit forced, the strong characters and keen insight into what makes a society truly admirable makes this story well worth reading.

I'd highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys science fiction or fantasy. Beautiful stories by a wide variety of writers--what more could a fan ask for?

Thursday, January 21, 2016

A Visit to the Caddo Mounds

After a recent camping trip, my family and I visited the Caddo Mounds outside of Nacogdoches, TX. It's an interesting historical site with a newly renovated museum. The mounds themselves are the ceremonial burial ground for the Caddo Native Americans. The site dates back to 800 AD. While the museum was small, it was a nice place to visit and I learned quite a bit about early Texas history. 
My daughter running towards one of the Caddo Mounds.
Caddo Mound with its historical marker.
Inside the museum, an example of Caddo houses.
Interestingly, the Caddo constructed houses shaped similarly to the "beehive" huts they used in Ireland at around the same time period.
Examples of objects found near the mounds. 
My little girl loved playing on the traditional drums.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

How to Find (and Keep) Private Music Students [Part 2]

This is the second part of this article.

4. Support Classical Music in Your Community

So you have business cards--but where should you hand them out? One of the best places to network for musicians is at concerts and other musical events. You can meet people interested in classical music, many of whom might be interested in lessons for themselves or their children. With permission from the concert organizers, you might even think about setting up a table in the lobby. 

5. Smart Advertising and Networking

A lot of advertising doesn't work because it misses its intended audience. However, very targeted ads or networking can help students find you. For example, flyers in random places might not bring you students, but hanging flyers in local music stores is much more helpful. Likewise, while business-oriented networking events might not help you, contacting the music departments at local universities can. In fact, if you live close to your alma mater, that can be an excellent resource for you. University music departments often keep "gig books" that have the information of people who called looking for private teachers or performers. With your permission, they may also recommend you to people directly, including giving out your contact information. University and music store bulletin boards can be a great source of potential jobs and students as well. In fact, I first made contact with an orchestra director looking for private teachers via her flyer on a University bulletin board, and I've been working closely with her for the last five years.   

What are some ways you keep students in your studio?

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

How to Find and Keep Private Music Students [Part 1]

Would you like to start a teaching studio, but you're having a hard time finding and keeping music students? Here are some things that worked for me (part two coming next week).

1. Get Recommendations from Orchestra and Band Directors

This is the single best piece of advice I have for anyone looking to set up a teaching studio. If you have a good relationship with a band or orchestra director, their recommendation will bring you tons of students. It's a win-win for everyone--students get individual attention, directors have help preparing students for solo and ensemble contests and concerts (and better technique in their ensembles), and private teachers have students to teach. I keep these relationships strong by talking to orchestra directors about what they'd like students to work on. Their insights into student's need are extremely valuable, and students benefit when their teachers work as a team. 

2. Communicate with Parents

I like to send monthly updates on students' progress to parents via email. However, if a student is struggling or having problems, I find staying in touch with parents, including having parent conferences, a huge help. After all, a student may only be in a lesson thirty minutes a week, but they see their parents every day. Parents can help students build a good practice routine, and they can give me helpful information on how their child learns best. With this kind of support, students are more likely to stay in lessons. What's more, happy parents will recommend me to their friends, which brings in more students.

3. Keep Business Cards on Hand

I've often had surprise encounters with people where having a music-oriented business card is very useful. One of the orchestra directors I work with even hands out my card to students interested in lessons. It's a simple way to give your contact information to people who are interested in you, and I find that a physical card gets more responses than an email (I think this is because we associate email with spam, so people ignore email more than a physical card). Besides, face to face interactions are very powerful--parents feel more comfortable sending their children to a teacher they've met in person than one they haven't.

Continue to Part 2...

Monday, January 11, 2016

How to Use Rejections to Improve Your Writing

Rejection is a fact of a writer's existence. Even people who choose to self-publish still experience rejection in the form of poor reviews, or simply being ignored in the marketplace. Those of us who submit to agents, or who submit short stories/non-fiction to magazines or websites, get tons of rejections. In one of the most surprising twitter interactions I've ever had, Neil Gaiman (an author I deeply admire), tweeted he was sad one of his poems was rejected for an anthology. I replied to Neil, saying I was shocked that a writer of his stature ever got rejected. He actually responded to me that "All writers get rejected. All of them."

Rejection hurts, but it's a part of being in any creative field, so instead of treating it like a tragedy, we need to learn how to use it. When you see rejection as feedback and let it prompt you to improve, rejection loses much of its sting and becomes a useful tool. There are plenty of ways to accomplish this, and here are some of my suggestions.
There are worse things than rejection--like getting stalked by a T-Rex on your vacation.

1. Give yourself time to mourn, but not much

It's okay to feel bad about being rejected. You might have loved the story/novel/article you wrote. Your writing group/mother/significant other might have loved it. But then you sent it into the world, and someone did NOT love it. That's hard, but it's also life. Let yourself feel bad for a day or so, but do NOT complain to the person who rejected you, beat yourself up, or makes any changes to your manuscript YET. Give it time to sink in, then take a deep breath and get to work (also, save all your drafts!).

2. Carefully Read Your Rejections for Feedback

It's true that not all editors or agents send feedback on a rejected manuscript. That's why it's encouraging and extremely helpful when they do. I'm not talking about form letter platitudes, of course, but actual information. Did they like your characters but find your plot dull? Was your writing polished enough? Look over their critiques very carefully, with an open mind and a clear head. Then give yourself a couple of days to think over what they said. Do you think they may be on to something? It may be one person's preference, but it may be their criticism is valid. Try to decide for yourself in a calm, thoughtful way.

It's also important to distinguish what's wrong with a story from someone's advice on how to fix it. It may be that you decide that even if their criticism is valid, you'd rather fix the problem in an entirely different way than the one they suggest. That's fine too--you are the writer, and it's ultimately your story.

*One note--if an agent or editor promises to give feedback on your query letter or first five pages (this seems to be becoming a popular thing for agents to do occasional--offer short query critiques), take them up on it! Even a few sentences from a professional can give you valuable insight.

3. Fix the Story (or use the critique to improve your next story)

Sometimes this is small changes, sometimes it's a total rewrite. Sometimes it may be you'd rather start a new project than fix an old one. That's a valid decision too. Whatever you decide, let the critique you've received help you improve your work. If an editor wants a more involved plot, try to think of one for your next novel/story. If they want more polished writing, read a book on writing well like On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner or The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman.

One last note--I realize that there are people on review sites who leave mean-spirited reviews just to troll authors. The best you can do is do ignore those people. Focus instead on reviewers who give you thoughtful critiques that indicate they've actually read your book. Likewise, if an agent or editor sends a form letter rejection, don't take it to heart. Plenty of books/stories are rejected for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the manuscript. 

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Review: Sister Emily's Lightship

I first discovered Jane Yolen through her children's books, the adorable "How Does a Dinosaur?" books. I checked them out of the library to read to my little girl, and we ended up buying How Do Dinosaurs Clean Their Room?. These are lovely books for toddlers and young children--good messages delivered in a charming and imaginative way. However, on a later library trip, I discovered Sister Emily"s Lightship, and realized the author of some of my daughter's favorite books was also an award winning science fiction and fantasy writer for adults! I had to check the book out.

This book has twenty eight short stories, each one unique. In fact, it's hard to sum up Yolen's work, since the stories are so diverse in tone. Yet each one was interesting in its own right. I loved the lyricism of stories like "Become a Warrior" or "The Traveler and the Tale," as well as the cheeky impertinence of "Lost Girls." Yolen has a particular gift for re-telling fairy tales in a fresh, often startling way. "Granny Rumple" is penetrating examination of the Rumpelstiltskin story, one that reveals the original's unsavory origins. Likewise, "Allereirauh" and "Godmother Death" are haunting versions of folk tales and the bitter truths they hide. "Allereirauh" deals with the tragedy of incest and child abuse, and the horrid cycle it produces in one generation after another. Yolen also has several very funny stories, including a hilarious critique of Romeo and Juliet in "Dusty Loves" and the raunchy but enjoyable "Dick W. and his Pussy; or, Tess and her Adequate Dick."
Out of so many vastly different stories, I found it hard to pick my favorites, but if I had to, I'd say either "Sister Death" or "The Memoirs  of a Bottle Djinn." "Sister Death" is a dark tale about Lillith, yet the twist at the end, especially with its uncertain hope of redemption, makes it a powerful tale. I enjoyed "The Memoirs of a Bottle Djinn" because it was so evocative of the glories and joys of life, and the way that asceticism and religious fundamentalism rob life of its meaning. But the best part of the story was its wise protagonist, who recognizes that all the pleasures in the world are meaningless without love and companionship.

I'd recommend this book to anyone who loves science fiction and fantasy. And I'd also recommend Yolen's children's books to parents everywhere!

How Do Dinosaurs Clean Their Room?