Sunday, April 24, 2016

Once More Into the Fray! Overcoming Performance Anxiety

I've written before about preparing for performances and auditions, especially when it comes to overcoming performance anxiety. But it's that time of year again, when my students are working hard on their solos for contest, so I'm inspired to take up the topic again. Here are some more tips for having a successful recital/jury/audition/contest.

1. Visualization

Whenever possible, I like to have my students rehearse in the same space they'll be performing in, since that helps them feel more comfortable on stage. Unfortunately, that's not always possible, especially since many contests take place in a different school or location from the one I teach at. In those cases, I try to use visualization techniques to get students to imagine the contest/audition space. I get them to imagine hearing their name called, and picture themselves walking into the room with their music. I might have them visualize all the steps of a good performance, from checking to make sure their piano accompanist is ready, to taking a deep breath and hearing the music in their head before they start playing. Visualization is a powerful technique that many athletes and other high-performers use to prepare themselves, and it works well for musicians as well.

2. Remember the Steps to a Good Performance

These can be different for everyone, but I find it helps my students to develop a "performance routine." This might include checking their technical set-up before they play--bow hold, left hand position, etc. It might include things like taking a deep breath and letting it out before you begin, or trying to hear the music in your head. The routine has the advantage of keeping students focused on the music, not their anxiety or stress, and it makes performances feel less daunting of they're a series of small steps instead of one giant make or break moment. 

3. Find a Healthy Perspective

Musicians can be very intense people, and young musicians even more so. Performances, auditions, and contests can take on an out-sized role in our minds. Even parents can buy into this idea, putting more emphasis on an audition or performance than it deserves. So I think it's always helpful to take a step back and see each individual performance in the context of a person's life or career. Will a child's musical career be devastated if he or she doesn't get top chair in the top orchestra at his or her school? Probably not. After all, Michael Jordan was famously cut form his high school basketball team his freshman year. Sure, it's great to get a one at contest, and wonderful to win an audition. But your family will still love you if you mess up, and you can try again next time. 


Thursday, April 21, 2016

Review: The Myth of the Spoiled Child

It seems like every day I see another angry "these kids today!" type article appearing in my facebook feed. Millennials and their younger brethren have been accused of being spoiled, lazy, materialistic, entitled and so on, to a nauseating extent. It's amazing that our parents' and grandparents' generations seem to despise us so much. What's more, as a parent now myself, I get bombarded by articles and comments from other parents on how to avoid spoiling my own daughter, since everyone knows children are in imminent danger of spontaneous human combustion if we coddle them in the least. Perhaps this is one reason that Alfie Kohn's book, The Myth of the Spoiled Child: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom about Children and Parenting, felt so wonderfully refreshing. I found it at the library, and since I'd admired one of his earlier books (Punished by Rewards), I decided to check it out.

Kohn reveals that ample evidence indicates that most children are not spoiled, and dire media warnings about so-called "helicopter parents," are dramatically overstated at best. In fact, there's not indication that children and young adults are more spoiled or narcissistic than they were fifty years ago. Kohn makes a good case that the rage and anger directed at supposedly coddled children has less to do with evidence about how children thrive, and more to do with deeply conservative ideas about how families should behave. For example, there's plenty of evidence that parental involvement, including keeping in touch with college-aged and young adult children, is actually helpful for most people. In fact, harsh and neglectful parents do far more damage to their children than loving, attentive parents.
The few studies that show a negative correlation between children's happiness and "helicopter" parenting often have chicken and egg flaws. In other words, are children unhappy because their parents are hovering, or are parents more likely to hover if they can sense their children are unhappy? These studies never seriously examine this possibility. Likewise, the definition of "helicopter" parenting is always itself in doubt. Parents who are very controlling of their children, perhaps by pushing them to do well in school or demanding constant achievements are more harmful than parents who offer their children unconditional love and support, yet both types of parents might be considered "helicopter" parents.

Overall, Kohn makes a compelling argument that the harsh, demanding disciplinarian style of parenting is often incredibly destructive to children, and leads to negative consequences for them as adults (the disaster of the Duggar family is a prime example of this--their intensely controlling discipline likely turned their eldest son into a selfish, child-molesting monster). Offering children love and acceptance helps them develop healthy self-esteem, the kind that most often leads to happiness and success.

I'd recommend this book to parents and teachers, or anyone who works with children at all. It's an important reminder that children are human beings who need love and support, not incessant control or harsh discipline. If we want them to treat us with respect, we should start by modelling what that respect looks like in the way we treat them.

On a personal note, people sometimes ask me what makes students successful in violin lessons. My answer is often parental support. Some of my most successful students have parents who take music lessons with them, and the whole family plays music together. It's a beautiful experience for everyone. When I taught at a low income school, I often longed for parents to get more involved in their children's education. So the idea that most parents are too involved with their children just doesn't ring true for me. 

Friday, April 15, 2016

Review: Ancillary Justice

I read the opening chapter of Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch)in the Nebula Awards Showcase 2015, and I'd heard a bit about it before that. Since I hadn't read a science fiction novel in a while, and I'm always looking for new authors to read, I decided to give it a try.

It took me a little bit to get into this book. The first couple of chapters were a bit disorienting, since Breq/Justice of Toren's experience of the world is so different from our own, and the politics of the Radch Empire seemed opaque. But as I delved into the story, it really gripped me. It's epic and heart-breaking and mind-blowing like only the best scifi can achieve. I expected the book to be mostly about the world and Breq's unique perspective, but Leckie's story-telling is masterful, and the characters she creates deeply human and touchingly flawed, even when they're AIs.
Leckie does an amazing job of portraying Radchaai as often well-intentioned, even if their entire way of life seems monstrous to us. It's easy to see how seductive their vision of the universe is, and how much it could blind people to the terrible evils they've committed to achieve it. Even the villain is deeply conflicted, suffering from a regret that may be driving her to madness. What's more, the author gives us tantalizing hints at the wider universe, and the deep danger that may or may not be gathering to assault the Radch. 

I loved this book, and I'd recommend it to anyone who likes science fiction. It's a true demonstration of how powerful speculative fiction can be. 

Monday, April 11, 2016

Heavener Viking and Celtic Festival April 2016

My family and I recently attended the Runestone Viking and Celtic Festival in Heavener, Oklahoma. We camped in the park, and had a great time. My husband is one of the Jomsborg Vikings, in the Black Wolves.
My husband and I, in our Viking clothes.
Black Wolves, the Ulfgrimr Lag
Black Wolf with his Ax and furs
Preparing for a demonstration fight.
Shield Wall!
The Black Wolves Styrsman and a brother from Austin test the strength of the wall.
Shields are weapons as well as protection.
Viking and early Medieval musical instruments.
One of the stands I found the most fascinating had a wide variety of early Medieval/Viking age musical instruments, including a rebec, a variety of early harps, and several types of lyre. I got to try to play the rebec, an interesting experience for a modern violin/viola player! These were all made by Instruments of Antiquity, which custom builds ancient instruments for a very reasonable price. Someday... 
A lady with an owl from the Royal Gauntlet Birds of Prey show. Put on by a rescue/rehabilitation organization for birds of prey.
This owl is not happy having her picture taken, so she's swelling up to make herself look bigger!
A beautiful falcon.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Heavener Viking Festival Videos April 2016

I took some great videos of the demonstration fights at the Viking and Celtic Festival in Heavener, Oklahoma this past weekend. As I noted before, the weapons are real, but the blades aren't sharpened. This is very dangerous, especially for anyone who isn't fully trained, so do NOT try this at home. However, if you live in the DFW metroplex, and you're interested in learning more about Viking history, fighting styles, or crafting, contact the Black Wolves Vikings.
Sword and Shield, Right Handed vs. Left Handed Fighter
Spear vs. Ax and Shield
Group Fight: Dane Ax, Spear, Sword and Shield, Ax and Shield

Saturday, April 9, 2016

What Music Do You Practice When You're Finished with School?

In my last post, I wrote about finding time to practice as a working adult. Yet, once we leave school, we also have to decide what to practice. With no teachers telling us what we have to play, and no recital/graduation/jury requirements, it's hard to decide what to work on in my limited practice time. Obviously, I spend time working on music for any upcoming concerts I have, or pieces I need to learn for any other reasons. But I don't have looming concerts all the time, so what to do then?

For me, I've found I like to try different kinds of music, things that don't fit the standard repertoire I learned in college or grad school. I've loved learning Medieval music, for example, or experimenting with playing/singing troubadour songs. Likewise, as a strings player I've learned far more fiddle tunes since I've left school, as well as fun music like movie theme songs. Since so many of my students enjoy playing pop songs, I've learned quite a few of them as well (these are also useful for weddings--Lady Gaga string quartet medleys, anyone?). Learning music like this can be enjoyable, and imitating the human voice encourages me to experiment with tonal colors and other interesting musical things on the violin or viola. 
As a teacher, I often make an effort to learn (in depth) pieces my students are playing or might want to learn, such as All-State audition material. Learning the All-State etudes helps me keep up my technical skills and makes sure I'm prepared for any students who'd like to work on them as well. I also work on other etudes from books I use with my students, including Kreutzer and Campagnoli, for similar reasons. 

For a long time, I had a hard time choosing solo music to work on. I'd grown pretty tired of the standard repertoire at school, so once I was on my own, I didn't feel like breaking out the same concertos I'd played for years. Instead, I sought out unusual pieces I'd either never heard on recitals, or only heard rarely. Switching instruments often helps too. Since I studied viola in college, I never worked on most of the violin repertoire. But I actually ended up playing violin frequently once I graduated, in orchestras as well as private violin lessons. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to learn those gorgeous violin pieces I'd always loved but never played. I even worked a bit on my (admittedly poor) piano playing.

When I first graduated, I felt a bit lost. Without a recital or an audition to practice for, what was I supposed to work on? Now, I enjoy the freedom and flexibility of choosing pieces for myself. It's given me a chance to explore music outside the narrow repertoire I learned in school, and I think that's made me a deeper, more interesting musician.   

Friday, April 8, 2016

Review: The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England

I love reading about Medieval history, so when I found this book on audible, I was very interested. The book isn't a novel, so much as a popular history based on what it would be like to travel through England between the years of 1300 and 1400 AD. What would you see, smell, and hear? Who would you meet? What would it be like to live there? It's a fascinating concept, one that treats the past more like a living, breathing place than a remote, long dead era.

The author, Ian Mortimer, makes some starling observations. For example, how young everyone is. Because so many people don't live to old age, nearly everyone is under the age of twenty five. At 16, a boy is considered a grown man, one who can lead troops into battle or become a king in his own right. The youthful society goes a long way towards explaining the lack of education and the sometimes fanciful beliefs many people have. Likewise, the catastrophic effects of the Black Death are hard for modern people to comprehend. By the end of the 14th century, England has half the population it had in the beginning. The population didn't recover until the 1600s. Entire villages would be wiped out, so that walking around the countryside might be like being the survivor of a zombie apocalypse (especially since contracting the plague likely meant certain death).
The author also rightly points out that while they may not have bathed as often as modern people, people in the 14th century made an effort to keep clean, despite our beliefs to the contrary. Cleanliness was a sign of good manners, and so prized that people in particularly filthy occupations bathed every day, and soap was a valued commodity. Almost everyone would have washed their faces and hands every morning, and manners required you to wash your hands before every meal. It's true they might not have been clean by modern standards, that doesn't mean they didn't value cleanliness and try to achieve it.

While this book does have a few slow chapters--I found the section on money a bit tedious--overall, it was a fascinating exploration about what it was like to live in a different time. As a writer, I found it an invaluable resource. It gave me great ideas for stories and intriguing details for Medieval settings. I'd recommend it to fantasy/historical fiction writers, as well as anyone interested in Medieval history.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

When You Aren't Up for Writing...

Some days you just want to lay on the couch and bury your head in a pillow.
I've been a bit exhausted lately. I was very busy with Easter performances over the weekend, and I injured my back somehow, which means I've been in pain, which wears me down even more. All in all, I've tried to get some writing in, but I haven't been able to focus the way I'd like. So I decided to give myself a bit of a break. But, I still wanted to use my time well. So how could I work on writing, but not write? Here are my ideas.

1. Read

I love to read, but it's hard to find the time to focus on a novel (one reason I often read collections of short stories). But this week, I read one non-fiction parenting book, and I'm getting into Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice, which I've been meaning to read for a while. Reading helps recharge my writing batteries.

2. Edit

I've been meaning to re-read a few old short stories to polish and edit them some more. I don't have the energy for intensive editing, but sometimes it's good to get a quick overview of where the story's at, and if it's working the way I want it to.

3. Outline

I've been a bit stuck on the novel I'm working on (I'd been mostly working on short stories the past two months), but I want to get back into it. I've been developing an outline to sort of clarify the plot in my head, and that's helped a lot.

4. Sleep

I don't do this enough. That makes thinking hard. I'm trying to catch up.

5. Long Walks

These are a good time to think, reflect, and imagine. I've always enjoyed being outside, and I'm hoping the exercise will do me good. It helps me clear my head, and gave me the idea for this blog.