Monday, February 29, 2016

Short Story Second Round Blues

As I've mentioned before, I've been writing quite a few short stories lately. My goal for this year is to write one a month, and while I haven't quite made it (one short story did end up exceptionally long at around 9,000 words), I've been writing and submitting at a good clip. And I've gotten some good results--three of my stories made it to the second round for pro and semi-pro magazines/podcasts (Apex, Pseudopod, and Andromeda Spaceways, if you're curious). But I haven't yet made it all the way, which has become a bit disheartening.

The frustration of making it to the second round is that you feel so agonizingly close. You made it past one hurdle--the rest should be easier now, right? But that does not seem to be the case. Don't get me wrong; part of me is thrilled to have made it this far. "Almost" is better than an outright "not in your life." But it's still a "no."

I guess the only way to beat the second round blues is to keep going--write more, submit more, and push myself to get good enough that "almost" becomes "yes." I've been reading more magazines to get a better idea of what editors like (though I'm getting annoyed with one magazine, which shall remain nameless, that sends out a form rejection letter insisting I buy their magazine to help my chance at submissions. A. That's cliche advice available to any writer who googles "short story submissions," and B. Stop trying to sell your magazine via form rejection letters. Seriously, that's annoying, and I'm sure you can come up with a better marketing strategy than that). I feel like my writing gets better the more I keep working, and hopefully that will pay off soon with a lovely acceptance letter. Besides, eventually I'll have more than enough stories to fill an anthology. 

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Learning How to Learn

One the most difficult things to learn (and to teach!) is how to learn in the first place. In other words, what is the process behind learning and mastery? How do we as musicians or other artists use our mistakes to grow and get better?

This is a difficult thing for many students to understand, because in school we are often taught (sometimes unintentionally, sometimes not), that learning is meant to be a passive experience. We sit still and listen to the teacher, then regurgitate what we've been told. We memorize information for a test, then forget it a few weeks later. Schools are often not structured to allow for true mastery of any particular skill, and much of the information they teach is irrelevant enough in day-to-day life that students don't bother mastering anything it on their own. They've never learned to take control of their own learning process, or what are the steps towards the deep learning mastery takes.

I see this all the time with music students. They learn the notes of a piece, but not how to make it sound beautiful or expressive. They do what the teacher asks in class, but when they go home to practice they don't actively correct their mistakes or think carefully about their technique. Instead, they just play through pieces, making the same mistakes over and over again in hopes that somehow it will get better the next time.

It's very tricky to get students out of this mindset. I've tried many different approaches. First, I try to have students repeat back instructions in their own words. This tells me if they understand what I'm saying, but more importantly, I hope that it teaches them to be their own teacher. After all, that's part of our goal--to get students to recognize and fix their own mistakes when they practice, instead of relying on a teacher to hold their hand.

Next, I try to focus on "process" instructions, instead of basic corrections. I want my students to have a "routine" to run when they make a mistake. If they hear a wrong note, for example, what steps do they need to take to fix it? Each technique might require a different set of steps, but once they know the routine they can fix problems on their own. When students are playing wrong notes, my first step is to have them sing the note names. Subsequent steps might be playing very slowly or playing pizzicato.

It's important that students take active control of their practicing. I tell them that they should feel like their brain is really working the entire time that they are playing. If they lose focus, it's time to try a variation or find a different approach that keeps them on task.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Writing a Second Article for Renaissance Magazine

After I had my first article published in Renaissance Magazine, I wanted to write even more! So I thought carefully about my next idea. I did research even before I wrote my query letter, partly because I wanted to be sure I'd have enough sources to write a good article. In fact, I had to discard several ideas when I realized I wouldn't have enough material (information on Medieval and Renaissance composers can be scarce). Eventually, I decided to write about the Trobairitz--female poets/composers who wrote secular music in the South of France during the 12th and 13th centuries. The whole article is now available in this month's issue of Renaissance Magazine (issue #107), so check it out!

What I love about writing this type of non-fiction is how much you end up learning. In researching the Trobairitz, I discovered fascinating details about women's lives in the so-called long 12th century. These details not only inspired my article, but they gave me exciting ideas for my fiction writing as well. This is one reason I'm glad to write non-fiction; it helps enrich your fictional world, and gives you valuable insights into different historical perspectives. Writing non-fiction also allows me to explore topics I'm interested in while still developing my writing skills. I love music and history, so writing about the Trobairitz gave me a chance to geek out about music history.

So if you're stuck in your fiction writing, consider trying to write some non-fiction, especially something related to your story. If you write scifi, research scientific topics and write about them. If you write thrillers, maybe try a little true crime writing. And of course, writing about real life relationships could help you give characters depth and interesting, realistic interactions.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Listening to Gustave Mahler's Songs

I enjoy discovering classical music I haven't heard before. Since I've played in symphony orchestras for so long, I've heard/performed many of Gustave Mahler's Symphonies, including the epic "Ressurection" and the 6th symphony. But I haven't listened to many of his art songs, so I when I found a CD of "Songs of the Wayfarer" and "Kindertotenlieder," I decided to check it out.

"Songs of the Wayfarer" is a haunting and emotional meditation on the fleeting nature of love and happiness. It's a cycle of four songs, which chart the protagonist's lost love. The songs alter between hope and joy, melancholy, and wild, seering grief. As usual for Mahler, the orchestral colors are subtle and sublime, and the music aches with emotion. It's exquisite music.

Kindertotenlieder translates to "Songs on the Desth of Children." This tragic song cycle is narrated by a grieving father, yet the pain and sorrow of the music is often surprisingly restrained and subtle, which makes it all the more poignant. The text of one song, from a poem by Friedrich Ruckert, begins "I often think they've only gone out! Soon they will be back home again!" In the context of the song, the narrator's wishful thinking reflects his hope of an afterlife and his deep longing for his family. The music is uneasy--it rapidly alternates between major and minor, and the rhythms feel slightly off. The next song in the cycle, which begins "In this weather, in this tumult, I'd never have sent the children out; someone took them, took them out." Here the narrator is bitter and angry, his deluded hopes from the previous song turned dark. The songs reflect different stages of grief and pain, often modulating within a song from tumultuous anger to gentle sorrow. I think the subject matter is particularly painful for parents, and it's a haunting reminder that not so long ago many children didn't survive past the age of five (also, a bit off topic--vaccinate your children! They used to die of all the diseases that we stop today with vaccines!).

I love Mahler's Symphonies, and these gorgeous songs have the same subtle, exquisite orchestration and depth of emotion. I'd recommend them to anyone who enjoys Mahler.

Friday, February 12, 2016

How YouTube Can Make You a Better Musician and Teacher

I think there's times when every musician or teacher feels a bit stuck. With me, it happened when several of my students were still struggling with their bow holds after months of lessons. I'd tried every trick I knew, told them what I thought was the best way, demonstrated bow holds again and again. But somehow nothing seemed to help. Finally, I decided to try something different. I found several YouTube videos of famous violinists demonstrating their bow holds, including one by Itzhak Perlman, and showed these to my students. I saw such dramatic improvement in their bow holds that I started showing the videos to all my students.

There are tons of videos of classical music available on YouTube for free. From instructional videos and masterclasses, to great performances. I've found that watching performances on YouTube can help me as much as it does my students--I can watch master musicians explain their technique or their musical interpretations, and hear incredible performances by top orchestras or musicians I'd never be able to watch otherwise. Many orchestras even have their own YouTube channels for performances.

So why does YouTube make a difference to students, when the videos often repeat the same things I've been demonstrating or explaining for so long? I think the key is variation. As I've mentioned before, regular variation helps learning. This is one reason why a teacher constantly repeating themselves gets diminishing returns--students start to tune out voices and words that sound repetitive. I've tried to combat this by having my students repeat instructions out loud to themselves, but YouTube is another novel new way to get across information. The subtle differences in instructional techniques, the different voices and appearances of the performers in the videos, and other unique factors grab students' attention in a way that their familiar teacher doesn't.

Another advantage to using instructional videos is authority. One of the more frustrating experiences I've had (one common to many teachers, I think) is students suggesting that what you've told them isn't accurate, or that they can do things differently (because of course middle school kids who've played for less than one year know better than you). The videos show them that the best musicians use the same techniques that you're teaching.

Finally, students can watch YouTube videos at home when they're practicing. I only see students for a short time each week, so having them watch a video to reinforce my lessons helps to keep them on track.

As a musician and a teacher, I think it's best to use all the resources you have at your disposal to improve your musicianship, and the musicianship of your students. YouTube can be a great resource for all musicians.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Reading the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (Dec/Nov 2015)

Since I've been writing and submitting short stories to magazines, I thought it would be wise to read a few of them to see what the editors there like. I decided to start with the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction for several reasons. First, it's well-established--it's been around since 1949, and over the years it's had plenty of short stories nominated for prestigious awards, including the Nebula and the Hugo awards. Second, and perhaps equally important, I've found them to be a great magazine for writers. The submission process is easy, and I get a very quick response from their editor, C.C. Finlay. Though I've not yet had a story accepted there, Mr. Finlay has always offered me a short critique of the rejected story, as well as encouragement to send more. That's helped me keep going even when I've gotten tons of rejections.

I found F&SF at my local bookstore, though it's also easy to buy on their website and on Amazon. Considering the prices of most books (and it's pretty much the length of a short book), it's very affordable. I bought the 2015 Nov/Dec issue, and I've been very impressed with the overall quality of the stories. My favorite ones were "Dreampet" and the novelette "Tomorrow is a Lovely Day." "Dreampet" begins like a fairy tale of the future, where pets are genetically customized. Kittens stay kittens forever, and they grow pink and purple fur with a child's name written in it. The narrator works for the Dreampet company, and he appears deeply enthusiastic about his products, having given Dreampets to each member of his family. Yet, his family's indifference and neglect of their splendid pets introduces a creepy, discomfiting note to the story that builds to a disturbing conclusion. 
"Tomorrow is a Lovely Day" is a hard to describe--it's the story of a man stuck reliving a terrible day over and over, stuck in a nightmare that he hates. As the story unfolds, he slides deeper into the horror of his situation. Can he figure out a machine's mysterious last riddle, or will he be doomed to relive the same bitter moments again and again?

I enjoyed many of the other stories in the magazine as well, including the tragic and haunting "Gypsy" and the thoughtful meditation on war in "Thirteen Mercies." The only one that didn't work for me was the first story, "The Winter Wraith." While the story was atmospheric, it lacked a strong climax, and the ending felt too ambiguous. The other story with a subtle, ambiguous ending, "Cleanout," had a stronger emotional core and more interesting characters. F&SF has non-fiction articles as well, including book and movie reviews, and these were interesting and turned me on to books and movies I'd like to check out.

Overall, I'd recommend this magazine to anyone who's interested in reading or writing science fiction and fantasy. The stories are really strong, and it always helps to see what editors like.