Friday, January 28, 2011

Brahms Lullaby of the Otter Mother

This blog is a response to the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which of course makes me lame because I haven’t actually read the book. What I did read (while sitting at the doctor’s office) was the Time Magazine article using this book to question the effectiveness of American child rearing. Like the Tiger Mother, I made the decision to raise my children traditionally. My children are half Native American (Assiniboine). In choosing to raise them in this culture I chose to value freedom and agency over ambition and competition.

And now to make me doubly lame I’m going to paraphrase a book leant to me by a friend with a title I can’t remember. In fact, I recall not particularly liking the book, except for the first chapter which explains what causes American men to envy Native American men. It’s not strength, or rugged good looks. It’s not even spirituality or a perceived connection to the land. It’s freedom. Native American men will do what they do, hang the consequences. They are not boxed in by a societal list of should do’s and honey do’s, duty do’s and oughtta do’s. They simply do what they want to do. Freedom.

To those of you who think this sounds anarchist, let me explain. Yes, this can hurt others, but it can also build others. What if a person wanted to do good? A good example of this is a long summer on the reservation. Factor in unemployment, lack of money, lack of entertainment, lack of variety, lack of activity. What do you get? Boredom. While some people will turn to substance abuse, soap operas and card playing. Others learn to fix, create, and help. In one situation, I saw my brother-in-law repair the potholes in the neighborhood’s streets. He spent days on this activity. Not for pay or praise, but because if he didn’t do it, it wouldn’t get done.

As children, traditional Native Americans are allowed to make decisions for themselves. As often as not these decisions will have negative consequences. One mother whose son ran cross country told me the following. Her son woke up feeling so confident before a race; he decided to jog to his meet. His mother watched him leave without a word of counsel. Later she was there to comfort his defeat. She allowed him the freedom to learn.

In the case of the Tiger Mother, I admire her ferocity. It takes great strength and energy to make children do what they don’t want to do. As a teacher, I know it takes even greater strength and energy to convince kids that they want to and will do what they don’t want to do. There have been days that I have looked at my seven children and felt unequal to the task. Luckily I did not set out to be a Tiger Mother. I set out to be a Sea Otter mother.

A Sea Otter mother knows that she only has four months to teach her child everything that child will need in order to survive in the wild. Side by side the sea otters gather food. Mother shows baby where the good gathering spots are, what kind of rocks (or man-made surfaces) will break shells open. The mother shows her child the beds of kelp where they can anchor and avoid being washed out to sea. Baby otters are allowed to experiment, discovering what food they like and what tools suit them. They adapt to their environment whether wild and formidable or man-made and ominous.

I have created an environment in my home designed to provide my children with opportunities and choice. I celebrate their creations. I give them freedom to make decisions. I allow them the opportunity to help our family unit survive. I listen to and respect their counsel. I give as much precedence to their hopes and desires as I do my own.
Have I raised couch potatoes (what my children refer to as fats)? Last night I arrived home to find that my boys had picked up the living room and kitchen and my 12 year old was doing the dishes. When, I noted the rooms were not to my standard, I grabbed the vacuum and helped the boys identify what more could be done. We got the house clean just in time for band practice.

After a great band practice (JoJo helped us out), and a wonderful sit down dinner, I had a moment to look around and reflect. My 3rd grader was snuggling next to me working on his homework. My 12 year old had brought her homework into the living room as well and was asking periodic questions. My 24 year old was writing an essay for her college class. In the midst of all this quiet, I could hear my 17 year old at his computer, composing a new musical piece. None of this was forced. They were all doing what they wanted to do. Let it be noted that less and less of what they want to do is watch tv. We go days without its mind numbing noise.

I think there was a time that I thought I could live through others. I thought I could teach my children to learn to do all the things I couldn’t do. It has been a great “aha” moment for me to realize, not only can I learn and do what I want to do, my kids teach me.

And to celebrate my kids’ “scribbles” I am posting some more of their creations.

Below is the composition JoJo wrote for SUPAF last year. It earned him a first place award in the original composition category

Saturday, January 22, 2011

How to Lose a Sunday -- Autoharp Edition

Sunday is a good day for me to relax and mess around with the instruments in the house. Yes, I recorded these instruments last Sunday, and I am only just now finding the time to blog about it. I've been thinking about arrangements lately. (In between thoughts of how to give the kids everything they want and how to get a job and keep it.) So how do you come up with just the right instrumentation and "twiddly bits" to keep a song interesting and fresh while still maintaining the spirit of the song?

It is also interesting to me that while I am competent on both the piano and the organ, I continually have music envy over other instruments. I very much enjoy practicing the organ and can recognize the improvements that I make. But I stew, and "fret" (get it), and work to frustration on instruments that annoy the snot out of my children and friends.

I have made my boys hate the ukulele (I love it so). All but one of my children HATE the baroque recorder (Oh, Jojo and I love our early baroque music. He'd love it even more, i'm sure, if he could keep up). The kids really hate my autoharp. And yet there are times I play it and play it wishing I could go beyond hammering out a tune (ala the Loving Spoonful). I wish I could really make it sing! Like this video

I've been working out how to pick out a melody. I haven't gotten to the point that I can pluck melody and arpeggiate an accompanyment yet, but I did get it sounding a little like a dulcimer, which gave me the idea that maybe I should try blending it with dulcimer. I added another track to the "Come, Come Ye Saints" I posted last week. But then I thought (like a cook tasting her stew) we are a little heavy on melody and a little light on harmony. I added a fourth track, melodica. Judea mixed in a little visual. And viola, I have a new music video!

If you find yourself sitting at home on a Sunday preevening with nothing to do but mess with your autoharp, take a look at this tab. I have noted the buttons needed to pick out the melody of Come, Come Ye Saints (this is in the same key as needed for the dulcimer). I have also added a harmony line for a c instrument such as melodica or melodeon.

Come Come Ye Saints Melodica

Friday, January 14, 2011

I'm Tired. I'm Pooped. I wanna go home.

The old lady band practice got off to a good start. We practice again on Monday and we are anticipating two more members to join. Besides harmonizing and messing with different instrumentations, we considered names for the band. I suggested something with the word "Lily" in it as a nod to the state flower. Jenna came back with the "Ungilded Lily" and that's pretty much  where we're at, but we will be working toward guilding that lily.

I have not blogged in a couple of days because I have been thinking. I've been thinking about why we do the things we do -- more specifically, why I do the things I do. I have a great fear of becoming Mary Bennett. I don't know if I've told you yet, but I see the world in terms of "Pride and Prejudice." I have quite a few post ideas built around P&P quotes, but I don't think any of them have made it past the editing stage. Today one will.

Mary Bennett carries piano books with  her where ever she goes. Like a good boy scout, she is always prepared. The minute anyone suggests that entertainment might be in order, she races to the piano. She is just as anxious to sing. However, she is not "the best". She takes no joy in giving pleasure to others. It is doubtful that the mechanics of playing even give herself pleasure. And her singing voice is best described as painful.

My voice is not a solo voice. I like to think of it as "filler voice." I am aware of the pitch. Most of the time I can sing on pitch. All of the time I am acutely aware of notes that are off pitch. Nobody would pay money to hear me sing. On the other hand, you couldn't pay me enough money to get me to stop singing. I love to sing. I love even more to sing with others. I love even more even more to sing in harmony with others.

But why? I will never be "the best". Even at instrumentation (for which I have a much better aptitude) I will never be the best. And that is discouraging. Unlike Mary Bennett, however, music gives me great pleasure. Last night I was playing "Count Your Blessings" on the autoharp (ala Maybelle Carter) to see if that would work. As I sang, I was so caught up in the lyrics, I could hardly sing for choking back the tears. "Count your many blessings; ev'ry doubt will fly, and you will be singing as the days go by."

The appropriate response to life's quirks, whether good or bad, is song.

I want to thank Judy for sending me a video of her original piece "Wanda the Waitress." The story of Wanda sums up my whole blog. Wanda's life was not easy, but you never heard Wanda say, "I'm tired. I'm pooped. I wanna go home." The plus side of this is everytime we sing this song, we get to say it!

P.S. Judea wants it noted that of course Wanda is a "real" song, she just thought it was a song that should be known outside the family.

Wanda the Waitress

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Honor's Band

I attended the honor band concert tonight. It was especially good this year. The high school band played with power and enthusiasm. The middle school honor band was the largest band to date -- 150 musicians. I am forever impressed with the quality and dedication of music teachers instructing in the public schools.

At these concerts statistics are often shared with parents such as the studies that indicate participation in the arts improves academic performance. Sharing these statistics with the parents in attendance is as effective as "preaching to the choir". Tonight however a different statistic was shared.

Generally it is accepted that only 40 percent of band/orchestra students continue musical studies through their senior year of high school. The number has decreased over the past few years. This year the percentage of students participating in band and orchestra through 12th grade dropped to 8 percent. Yikes.

Contrast this with El Systema in Venezuela. El Systema was started about 30 years ago by José Antonio Abreu . Over 250,000 children participate in the privately funded music training program. The program is free (including instrument) for students. Students audition for enrollment, and parents must commit to support participation and attend concerts. In this way, not only do students develop musical skills, but communities develop deep music appreciation. The 125 youth orchestras and 30 symphony orchestras are leveled. The opportunity to audition for better more prestigious orchestras encourages students to practice and improve.

El Systema has been an effective tool to promote community and national pride as well as reduce truant and gang related activity among youth. The youth orchestras of Venezuela are national and international stars.

Now if only we could figure out a way to build and maintain that kind of enthusiasm in America's youth.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

If you don't enjoy practicing, you don't have the right toys

I attended a trumpet festival at the University of Las Vegas last year. We went to support Joe's friend who is a fantastic trumpet player. Bobo, in her first year of trumpet playing, went along as well.

It was a very informative and worthwhile experience. The presenters got everyone playing. They encouraged attendees to practice and study, and they gave several recitals. At the recitals, these professors played a variety of instruments in the trumpet family including a round cornet, "natural" trumpets, and rotary trumpets.

Enthusiasm was high throughout the weekend. These trumpeteers had so much passion and enthusiasm for their instruments, it was contagious. The love the participants showed for their craft and their instruments was obvious to those in attendance. I was, however,surprised at the passion these professors held for the history of their instrument. The collection of older instruments was impressive, but not nearly as impressive as the owners abilities to play them.

One presenter exclaimed, "If you don't love practicing, you don't have the right toys."

Musicianship, or "talent" if you will, is really all about opportunity. As we discussed a couple of blogs back, some geographic areas do not have people with the skills to fill church musical callings. This is not caused by a lack of talent but by a lack of resources. It is a luxury to have a piano in a home. It is even more of a luxury to have an organ in the home. (I call it my "pipe dream".)

A few months back a young woman in our ward was asked to play the piano for relief society. At the last minute, she decided that her piano skills were not good enough. She brought her viola instead. She played hymns on her viola for prelude and postlude. The opening hymn was "A Poor Wayfairing Man of Grief." When we were done singing, I don't think any eyes were dry. The simplicity, beauty and historical significance of the music invited the spirit into the meeting in a way that touched everyone.

It has encouraged me to use older instrumentation on the hymns at home. These older instruments also help me and my children to practice playing by ear. One of the easiest tunes for me to play by ear is "We Thank Thee O God for a Prophet." I tell my kids that this is the one song I can play on any instrument. It is the only song I can truly play on the harmonica.

A great instrument for practicing ear training is the mountain dulcimer. It has two string drones set against a melody string. To play a song, simply pick out the melody, the drones do the rest (of course you have to play it in the key in which the dulcimer is tuned). Another great instrument for ear training is the bowed psaltry.

Bobo's favorite song to play on the dulcimer is "Come Come Ye Saints." I tabbed it out for her and Judea and I've embeded the pdf in this post. I've also included an mp3 of our dulcimer accompanied by our bowed psaltry playing this hymn. It is tabbed in the key of D because I use the A D D dulcimer tuning.

Come Come Ye Saints Dulcimer ADD

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

How to Get Kids to Practice

I am writing this blog from the point of view of a mother, not of a music educator. However, one of my educator theories factors in -- the theory that children are like cockroaches. No matter how effective a solution is, sooner or later they will develop an immunity.

Method One

I made confession to my mother, "Did you know I used to practice to get out of doing the dishes?" With out a beat she responded, "Did you know I used to let you get out of doing the dishes so you would practice?"

In my house the dishes are a great motivator as well. Oddly enough my kids will do just about anything to get out of doing the dishes. And I -- a full grown mother -- will gladly do the dishes in order to get the kids to practice, do homework, edit a video, etc.

Method Two

The second method is also stolen from my Mother's toolbox. She once told me that you can yell at your little ones to pick up their rooms, it won't get done. But the minute you say, "Let's pick up your room," they are all over it. And if you maintain a pleasant attitude as you work together, they may even enjoy themselves.

Practicing is the same. You can yell at your kids to practice. If you're insistent, they might sit in front of their instrument and pout. But if you say, "Let's practice," they might actually make some progress. When you work on songs as a family, as a duet, as a trio, your student understands the need for counting, for a metronome, for being in tune. Family bands also help with communication in a family. Everyone, including the adults, learns how to give and take appropriate feedback without locking oneself in the bathroom.

Method Three

This is an academic method. English teachers take their students through a five step writing process. (Think, Write, Make it Better, Make it Correct, Make it Public). The same approach can be used in learning new music. Help your child make sense of the progressions, identify chords and repeated lines. Site Read. Practice line upon line. Practice just the hard bits. Celebrate your student's success in public.)

Method Four

Provide incentives. This does not necessarily mean pay them money. While tying practice time into allowance is effective, so is giving your child events to work toward. Find festivals where they can perform. Help them play with friends. Create "gigs" and house shows. Arrange for them to perform at church.

Method Five

Practice in front of them. Let your students see you practice and let them know how much you enjoy it. Parental attitudes are more influencial than I'd care to admit. I've known kids who were told "You can quit taking piano lessons once you can play the hymns." These kids grow up to be the adults who tell me, "I took lessons as a kid. I wish I hadn't quit. I can't play at all now." In this scenario, "quitting lessons" is held out as a reward. When I practice the organ, I spend a minimal amount of time practicing hymns. The majority of my time is spent practicing Bach. When I am in front of a crowd, I play less well than how I play alone. It is important that I can play better than I need to, so even with diminished skills I can perform to expectations.

The cool thing about practicing, is once someone is practicing, inevitably, someone else will want to practice. The warning here is to identify several areas in the home where people can practice so that it is possible for more than one child can practice at a time.

Method Six

Listen. Even if they are a beginnig string player. Do not complain. Do not criticize. Let your child know how much you love it when they practice. How much it adds to your loving home -- and threaten to thump any family member who complains about the noise. Practicing takes precedents over tv, video games, computers, and reading. It even takes precedents over doing the dishes.

If you have any more suggestions, put them in the comments. I would love to learn more methods. I have a couple of popular duets notated on the Piano Resource page.

Also check out the new Native Music page.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

If you want to earn a real living, get a real instrument.

In Robert Rodriguez’s movie, El Mariachi, the unnamed hero (El Mariachi) goes from bar to bar looking for employment. He wants to play guitar and sing like his father and grandfather did. But the world has changed and nobody wants to listen to a lone Mariachi anymore.
In one joint, the proprietor tells him, “Why should I hire you, I already employ a whole band.” The camera cuts to an electronic keyboard in the corner.

After the keyboard is put through its paces, El Mariachi is told “If you want to earn a real living, get a real instrument.”

It’s been nearly 20 years since that movie was made. Electronics are sounding more and more acceptable and less and less cheesy. So why bother to learn an instrument? Those of us who use Sibelius or Finale to arrange and compose know that it offers flawless playback. I can plug my computer into my midi capable electric piano and hear full-toned perfection from any score I choose.

To make matters worse, the LDS church provides pre-loaded organs to areas that have no musicians. The hymns are selected from the internal memory of the organ and the congregation sings along. Is this really the direction music is taking?

Do not misunderstand me. I am not criticizing the LDS church. I am criticizing a world-wide lack of can-do spirit. I know why I am an organist. I am an organist because of a long-ranged plan my mother set in motion. She took her calling as stake music director seriously. In addition to organizing quarterly trainings in conducting and keyboard skills for musicians and would be musicians, she also set aside time to train her daughters. I remember after one particular lesson she told me, “I bet if you practice you’d be ready to play in church when you are thirteen.” I practiced, and at thirteen I was called and set apart as the organist for our ward. (Special shout out here to my three sisters who also play the organ)
That is not an amazing story. I’d had eight years of piano lessons by then. Let me tell you a couple of amazing stories. When my friend Mary was a teen, her father was made branch president. They lived in a rural area in Minnesota and he had no one to call as branch organist. He turned to her one day and said, if I pay for you to take piano lessons, will you be ready to play in church in a year. She’s been playing organ ever since (and yes, she uses the pedals).  
I was approached by a woman a few years back. She had a calling in the Young Women’s organization. The young women’s leaders are encouraged to work on personal progress along with the young women. Sis. Bell told me as part of her personal progress she wanted to learn to play the organ. Could she play prelude for me one week. She subbed for me on Easter Sunday. Later she was called as the ward choir accompanist. I love the opportunity to sing in the ward choir, and Sis. Bell was the heart of the choir. She was full of ideas and passion. A choir member complimented her abilities, and asked her how long she had been playing. I was knocked off my feet when she answered, “3 years.”
As a grown woman with a husband and children, she decided she wanted to learn to play. And after three years she was ready to play in church!
                Musicianship is not about perfection, it is about the quest for perfection and harmony. It is about the “true grit” needed to face our fears and our imperfections. It is about opening up to the spirit, to our fellow men, and to ourselves. I don’t believe the world has places that contain no musicians. I believe there are just pre-musicians – those who have not yet found the time or the guts.
                My final note. With God, all things are possible. It is not a vanity to pray before you perform, nor is it wrong to ask the Lord’s blessing as you practice. Musical callings in the church are wonderful. Not only are you pushed into learning and improving, you are blessed with learning and improving.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Big, dumb, and tone deaf. I'm so glad I was unconscious for all of this.

I love the Emperor's New Groove, and one of my favorite characters is Kronk. When we first meet Kronk on screen he is sneaking and singing. Kuzco narrates, "Oh, he's doing his own theme music? Big, dumb and tone deaf. I am so glad I was unconscious for all of this."

I like to point out to my kids what a superior mother they have. If I don't point it out, they don't notice. So when I clean the viruses off their computers, I say, "Other people's mothers don't clean up viruses." Or when I fix the car, I say, "Other people's mothers don't fix cars." (Other people's mothers don't have to)

Imagine my surprise when BoBo says, out of the blue, "Other people's mothers sing to their kids." Yes BoBo, I know that. "No," she says, "Other people's mothers change the words to songs and sing them about their kids." Surprise. It's not just me. We are all tempted to do our own theme music -- whether it was my dad singing "Have I told you Lately That I Love You," or me singing "A BoBo a Flea and Three Blind Mice sat on the curbside shooting dice" (boom boom -- ain't it great to do the dishes?) big dumb and tone deaf keeps me happy. I do think, in my defense, my genes go a little further than the average sing-to-the-kids.

Judea is angry at me. She's a senior in college and she just completed a documentary on the Native punk band Blackfire. When she was pitching the idea, she said, "They recorded one of the lost Woody Guthry songs." Says home schooled college boy, "Who's Woody Guthry?" This Land Is Your Land. Every heard of it? "Nope." Judea, then, is used to the idea that not everyone knows the folk songs she was raised on. 

You've never heard of Wanda the Waitress? We sing the chorus all the time. "I'm tired. I'm pooped. I wanna go home. I'm achin'. I'm sore. Won't you leave me alone." That's why Judea's mad at me. She just found out my sisters wrote that song. So of course nobody's heard of it.

But her day will come. Her brother JoJo just wrote a song that all the kids sing. And one day her children will angrily retort, "What? Uncle Joseph wrote that? I thought it was a real song!"

And it is a real song. It's the songtrack to our lives.

P.S. Judea -- who is a professional college student -- has just pointed out the irony in this video. I think she is inferring we put too much work into it.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Hello World

Welcome to the inaugural post for my blog celebrating music. Whether I am merry or sorrowful music enriches my life. I am getting older and in my middle age, I am remembering the childish things that have made me who I am. For example, Snoopy formed my attitude toward life. From him I learned that I can choose to be crabby or I can choose to be happy. I choose to sing and dance. No matter how hard or disappointing life can be, if I'm still singing, I'm ok.

The internet has made my learning, teaching, and performing music easier and more accessible than I ever thought it would be. It is only after I have exausted the internet, that I finally sit down and create resources that I cannot find. Because of how much I have benefitted from the efforts of others, I have decided it is time I give back.

Please take a moment to check out my blog, especially the pages dedicated to Beginning Piano Resources, Ukulele Fun, and Family Band Time.

If you have suggestions an arrangement you would like to share or an arrangement you would like to see, please indicate in the comments section.

Thanks for visiting,