Thursday, August 31, 2006

Fiona's violin week

Fiona's had an amazing week on violin and she knows it. Last week at about this time she was showing an interest in teaching herself some of the upcoming Suzuki repertoire. I attempted to redirect her into non-Suzuki pieces, since the Suzuki repertoire is usually approached with very specific teaching goals in mind and with specific sorts of emphasis. I wanted her to leave that music to be taught "properly" later. Instead I suggested she teach herself "Mary Had a Little Lamb." She rose to the challenge. It took her only a couple of days of persistent trying to get the whole thing worked out.

But far from distracting her from the Suzuki repertoire, this success gave her an appetite for sounding out more and more pieces by ear, and of course the pieces she knows and loves best are the Suzuki pieces. And so the next day she devoured "Go Tell Aunt Rhody." And the next day it was "Song of the Wind." And the following day, "May Song," "Allegro," "Long, Long Ago" and the first part of "Perpetual Motion."

She has no difficulty getting the endings right. There's always a "long tail" on the first phrase of "Long, Long Ago" and a "short tail" on the second phrase. She never gets the wrong number of note repetitions in the off-kilter descending scale passage in "Song of the Wind." She already knew about the bow retakes in "Allegro" and did them without any direction. It's not like she's been watching and hearing endless daily repetitions of these pieces -- her siblings are working on Book 4+ repertoire. [Confession: I can't remember the last time we played the Book 1 CD.]

She plays a lot. Lately she's been taking her violin out two or three times a day, and not always just for ten minutes. Sometimes she's at her music for up to an hour! While she loves playing through new stuff best of all, she's also content to do some picky focused work on technical issues. She thinks hard about the things I ask her to focus on (eg. 4th finger placement, a relaxed left thumb, using a particular part of the bow for certain notes or placing her fingers on the string on their inside corners). If she makes a mistake or an awful sound, she laughs and says "Oops! I'd better try again" rather than getting angry, frustrated or mortified and shutting down. She loves getting guidance and input and loves the time she spends doing hard work on the violin.

Her appetite for violin is gluttonous and I worry about her burning out. I come home from 5 hours at work and she meets me at the door: "Yay! Now we can do violin!" I have to offer her a treat before bedtime so that she will stop practising. She seems so driven and focused that it almost doesn't seem right in a 3-year-old. So yesterday I started gently encouraging her into some off-instrument music learning that is more playful. I got out some of the beginning music theory materials I'd made up a few years ago. She took to them instantly. She's building "snakes" out of musical alphabet letter-names, and clapping and saying simple rhythmic patterns built from groups of eighth-notes and sixteenth-notes. She's making scale and arpeggio patterns with the note letter-names, and enthusiastically reading off "takataka ti-ti TA takataka."

What an amazing little sponge she is. The joy that radiates about her while she is engaged in music learning is amazing to behold. With the other kids I've seen veiled evidence of such joy at regular intervals but I've never seen it as unselfconciously oozing out of a child's pores as it is with Fiona these days.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006


Why is most high school science so dry and uninteresting? Why do students lose interest in science? Why is science achievement in North America (in the US especially) so poor? Even when the courses are rigorous, why do students retain so little and feel such scant excitement?

Well, first, I'm not sure that most higher level science requires as much mathematics as is commonly assumed. I think that especially in nations where mathematics achievement is relatively poor, taking a mathematical approach to middle- and high-school science is not such a great strategy. The approach seems to be to mention a concept, teach the higher mathematical model that formalizes it, and then to attempt to consolidate the learning of the concepts by providing kill & drill paper-and-pencil practice with the formulae.

I'm thinking of my Grade 10 Chemistry course which focused chiefly on molar equations, balancing valences, and calculations based on Boyle's Law. I did well in it, as I'm good at math and logic, but for the majority of my classmates the math acted as an obstacle to the understanding of chemistry. I assumed that was the way it had to be. I went on to study chemistry at university and found the subject very interesting at that level. I assumed that the slog through high school level stuff was just the necessary prerequisite learning.

But then recently, Noah (9) has asked me to put together a chemistry "program" of sorts, as he has developed rather an interest in the subject. We started with "The Mystery of the Periodic Table" by Benjamin Wiker, an entertaining narrative about the history of chemistry and of the discovery of the elements. From there we went on to explore conceptualizations of atoms and to study of the Bohr atomic model and how it informs our understanding of chemical bonding. Larry Gonick's "Cartoon Guide to Chemistry" has provided some ancillary information and entertainment. Then we got our hands on a semi-space-filling molecular model kit and had an amazing time building molecules of all sorts (ethanol looks like a puppy dog!). From there the concept of valences was naturally explored. And then we watched a set of four lectures from a college course entitled "The Joy of Science", intended for non-science majors, which explores chemistry history and concepts in a fair bit of depth, and to a chemistry curriculum for youngsters (Real Science 4 Kids Chemistry I) which again puts concepts ahead of higher math, exploring all the basic chemistry concepts from subatomic particles to covalent bonding to polarity, pH and various reactions, polymerization, basic techniques for chemical analysis, and on to biochemistry, the form and function of DNA and DNA polymerase, etc.. He's learning some of the stuff that I only got into at the university level and, like me, finding it thrilling. But the difference is that he hasn't had to spend hours calculating the number of moles of CO2 contained in a balloon that expands by 3.2 L when heated by 14 degrees C at atmospheric pressure to get to the interesting stuff. Why shouldn't all children get to build ethanol doggies? Why does this nifty pastime have to wait until after the mastery of Boyle's Law arithmetic?

I think that if science was taught by people who really loved it as a subject area, who were passionate about the effective and inspiring teaching of it, who loved the concepts and the theory and the beauty of cogent unifying theories, rather than who simply have somewhat of an aptitude for the mechanics of it, we would get science teaching that excited students at all levels rather than filtering out those without the tolerance for big doses of the mathematical mechanics. One of the things that struck me when reading Liping Ma's wonderful book "Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics" was how passionate Asian elementary school mathematics teachers were about their subject matter and pedagogy -- how it is standard practice for them to meet regularly to share teaching strategies, to garner advice on conceptual challenges particular students were facing, to trade tricks, to share their passion and experience with other teachers. Can you imagine a Canadian public school teacher saying to his colleagues "hey, let's meet once a week to talk about how we're doing at teaching math to our students and to trade ideas"? The sort of teacher who would suggest that here would be exceptionally passionate and considered an oddball -- yet the practice is de rigeur in China.

Here in the west, we seem to think that a systematic science education should start with the smallest, most tedious details, and build gradually outwards and upwards to the more interesting and more elegant parts. In fact, scientific exploration tends to proceed in exactly the opposite manner, starting with observations about interesting stuff, and only gradually finding its way into the kernel of fundamental mathematical relationships. Why should we expect our 12-year-olds to maintain their interest any other way?

I think that in North America there is too much focus on rigor at the expense of passion. Teachers' creativity and passion are discouraged by the top-down approach to curriculum design and by systemic problems that disempower teachers. And that focus on rigor at the expense of creativity and passion trickles directly down to students. I'm really happy that my own kids are free of all that.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Our New Baby

On Day 4 of the Suzuki Valhalla Institute, the pianos arrived at the school for the following week's piano summer school. They come on loan from a piano store, but are all on sale while here. Two of them were nice used baby grands with nice sticker prices, further discounted and with free delivery. Out of the blue, my mom came up to me and said "I think you need one of those grands." Not only that, but she offered to pay for it!

For years I'd been trying to get advice on when a student would need a grand. My mom has a good friend who is a Suzuki piano teacher who has significant success at convincing the parents of her 4yo beginners to purchase baby grands at the outset, who believes that all students should have the best instrument their family can possibly afford -- even if that means a second mortgage. At the other extreme, several of the piano teachers I talked to sighed and shrugged and said "I'm just happy when I can get parents to upgrade from an electronic keyboard to an acoustic instrument." Some teachers suggested that students working at a Royal Conservatory of Music Grade 9 or 10 level (Erin is a solid Grade 9 now) should be on a grand, but when asked for their reasoning, they said that because RCM exams at that level are done on grands, students should be practicing on the same. Since Erin has no interest in doing RCM examinations, that reasoning doesn't really apply to us.

I realize now that throughout all my research, I was looking for someone to give me a good push to go out and buy a grand. Thanks for the nudge, mom!

There were a few little issues. First, of all families, ours probably could afford to buy one outright. Eventually we agreed to go halves with my mom, and she would take her gift out of our inheritance :-).

Secondly, where the heck would such a beast go? Our house is already too small! But six months ago I had given away the couch in the "computer room" (family room), looking for more floor space and a reallocation and redefinition of function and space, a project that was still on "pending" status. Together with Chuck, I thought things through and realized that with the upright gone from the living room, that room could finally take on its intended use as a family gathering space, while the computer room could take on more of a learning / music / creativity function. We would move the TV out of this room (perhaps into the living room, or perhaps to the tiny basement room that is my teaching studio) creating more useable space and more storage space. And we decided to remove the three cubby desks that are so cute and fun and useful in theory, but have mostly served a clutter-collecting function for the past five years.

Finally, the really fun issue was "the Yamaha, or the Kawai?" We had lots of help with that one, since Erin's piano teacher, our piano tuner, and the two advanced piano faculty from the summer school whom we've known for a number of years were all in town, and in contact with both pianos throughout the following week. The Yamaha had a lovely bright sound, but had some global mechanical quirks, a lot more cosmetic dings, and would have required the purchase of a humidifier given the wide temperature and humidity fluctuations in our wood-heated home in the winter. It also cost a little more. The Kawai wasn't totally free of mechanical issues, but these appeared to be relatively minor things, and it came with a Dampchaser humidifier/dehumidifier.

So Elmer and Wilf from World of Music delivered it the day after the piano school, took away our nice Klingerman upright, and we christened the 6-foot baby grand Kawai that night with a performance for my mom of the Lento from the Telemann G major Concerto for 2 violas with Erin accompanying Noah and me.

The arrival of the piano has precipitated a number of changes:

  • Fiona has declared that she wants to be a piano-ist, and that she is no longer willing to wait until she is six to start learning, and she wants "real lessons from a teacher" and now would be a good time to start.

  • Noah has pulled out some of the books he was working on a year or two ago and is trying to "heal" his piano skills. He may consider lessons after he has completed that process.

  • Sophie is working through some early primers on her own, though making no noises about lessons.

  • Erin has resurrected much of her favourite repertoire and albums she never quite got around to mastering to her satisfaction and to my surprise was very receptive, dare I say even enthusiastic, about the prospect of recording an album of modern impressionistic pieces as a keepsake and gift to friends / extended family. On the hypothetical play list -- Robert Starer's "Colors" suites 1 & 2, Seymour Bernstein's "Birds" and "Birds 2" suites, and Robert Benedict's "Watercolours for Piano" suite.

  • The spot in the living room where the Klingerman once sat has been vacated to reveal a grimy, much scratched and dented wall seriously in need of repainting. We intend to paint this week and then move the bookcases over to that wall ... and then we'll shop for a matching entertainment centre for the stereo and buy a second chair, and repaint the other two walls (the fourth wall is log & brick).

  • The piano music has all been organized and filed in the wall cupboards.

  • Erin has a cubby desk in her little cabin.

  • Horseplay and food are no longer permitted in the computer room.
All good changes. Hurrah for nudges!

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Maturity and pseudo-maturity

Someone wrote on a message board about an acquaintance who was banning her newly-5yo from watching "little-kid TV" or playing "little-kid computer games." I think that this parent's approach is indicative of a serious misunderstanding of what maturity is. She wants her daughter to grow and mature, but she's using assumptions about maturity that are very shallow, and is in fact getting the whole thing backwards.

Maturity is about knowing deep down inside who you are and what you stand for, and acting according to those values. Pseudo-maturity is trying to act like people who are older than you. Pseudo-maturity, because it's play-acting one's values and interests, actually interferes with the development of real maturity. If you are trying really hard to act like you're interested in A, B and C, how can you possibly figure out what your real affinities are?

I think that there are many pressures in our culture trying to turn children into adolescents long before their childhoods should be over, and then work to keep them that way long past the time when they should be fledged as adults. Two hundred years ago a thirteen-year-old girl was likely to still play with dolls, and a sixteen-year-old girl might very well be getting married and starting a family of her own. A thirteen-year-old boy might be playing with sticks and balls, while a fifteen-year-old might be going off to war or apprenticing as a cartwright. While I think full fledging into adulthood was often too soon and too brutal in those days, I do think it's important to note that adolescence, or "not-quite-adulthood", was a brief transition from childhood to adulthood, not a way of life.

Nowadays adolescence is a cultural identity of at least 10 (or maybe even more than 20) years of taking your values from the peer group and mass media, of acting as grown up as you can, but without taking any real responsibility, of pushing limits while still wanting to be bailed out if real mistakes are made. Ten to twenty years when you are neither a child nor a parent, neither an adult nor a kid, when "family" does not form the core of your universe. An entire generation of people, from age 8 to 30, are in a state of suspended personal development, trying to "find themselves" and work out who they are and what they ought to be doing with their lives while socially disconnected from their families and those they ought to be taking their values from.

I think it's done some terrible things to western culture, as it's created a massive demographic of people who are concerned primarily with themselves without reference to their inter-relation with family and society. People like the parent described above are out at the leading edge of this phenomenon, not just swept up in it with a sense of vague unease, but helping actively promote it in the lives of their own children. What a shame.

I've always said, half-jokingly, that "we aren't doing adolescence in our family." I've tried to help keep my children children, to help them develop real maturity in a strong sense of self and values before they run the risk of getting swept up by peer culture and losing their bearings. I half-feared that I would have to eat my words, but so far so good. Erin is still interested in playing with Playmobil and being home with her younger siblings, while at the same time she is gradually learning to take on adult-type roles and responsibilities. What she is not doing is pretending to be more grown up than she is by adopting the trappings and outward behaviours of an older group. Hurrah!

Sunday, August 13, 2006

SVI 2006

We just finished our main week of music summer school. I'm heavily involved organizationally and had all four of my kids enrolled in the Suzuki Valhalla Institute, a family-based week-long music workshop for Suzuki violinists, violists and cellists in our little town. Last year the program attracted 41 students, this year 69 with a waitlist, so things were busy! Erin had 5 hours, Noah and Sophie 4 and Fiona 3. Each student had (a) a master class where individual instruction was shared between three or four students in turn (b) a group class of 10-18 students playing common repertoire together (c) an Orff / movement / singing / improv class of 10-18 agemates with a wonderful energetic leader and (d) a chamber music ensemble (this last hour omitted for Fiona and the very youngest beginningest kids). In addition each student had a rehearsal and recital performance, two or three group performances and a variety of social and musical evening events. And of course, time for individual practicing. Add in all the organizational stuff and loose ends like faculty social events, custodial work, and hospitality-type tasks for all the out-of-towners and it was an incredibly full week.

Amazing, though!

Noah's first string quartet experience thrilled him. I think he is in love with his coach, a young, creative, fun and very talented cellist of Chinese-Canadian descent who grew up a Suzuki student and also happens to be an accomplished Flamenco dancer.

Erin became a real leader-by-example this week, as the most advanced student. She did a super job of her Beethoven String Quartet 1st violin part, exuding personality and joy in her playing and never ceasing to smile and chatter (this? my kid who would once have met the criteria for Selective Mutism?).

Sophie had to join the older two in being an independent student for most of the week and did a great job of keeping track of the time and her schedule and getting herself to her various classes, to the lunchroom and rehearsals promptly and correctly.

Fiona was stretched in ways I didn't anticipate; for at least a year she's been eagerly joining in on her siblings' lessons and group classes, but I didn't realize how much it was their presence that drew her in. In her own class of 3-to-6-year-olds, without her siblings there, she was much more reticent. She was the youngest but almost the most advanced in her group class, but struggled to leave my lap at times. Still, by the end of the week she had made big gains in group participation, and of course had eagerly performed solos and in larger groups (where her siblings were playing also) as always. She soaked up lots by observing and was cheerful throughout.

Tellingly, the kids spent yesterday checking their watches at intervals and commenting wistfully "I'd be finishing up in Joanne's class right now," or "my quartet would just be starting," and demanding that we make the institute 2 or 3 weeks long next year (ain't gonna happen in my lifetime!). How amazing to come through an exhausting week like that dying for more of the same!