Wednesday, October 18, 2006

By ear, inch by inch

Parents are supposed to obsess over their firstborn's milestones, but I am obsessing over Fiona's. I suppose it's because with the first three I didn't realize how fleeting all this early developmental stuff would be, and now I know it's the last chance I'll have to marvel over these tiny, wonderful accomplishments. And maybe it's because she's so delightfully observable, with none of the secretiveness of her perfectionistic older siblings -- yet! And maybe the four-year gap between Fiona and her elder siblings has made my memory hazy, but she seems the most precocious of the bunch. Who'd have thought I could still be surprised and amazed the fourth time around.

In August, I blogged about the amazing burst of progress she'd suddenly experienced on the violin as a result of discovering that she could sound out tunes by ear. She certainly couldn't nail every note at that point, far from it. But what seemed really exceptional was that she could hold the note she was searching for on her violin in her mind's ear, try out and compare several possibilities until she found a match, and then hit "play" again on her mental image of the tune and pick up where she left off. Because this "pause, compare, unpause" facility was so highly developed, she was able to experience success at a basic level in playing by ear, and her accuracy improved rapidly over the course of a week or two. By the end of August she was able to play "Long, Long Ago" the first time she'd ever tried it with scarcely a stumble.

In the six weeks that have followed, she's focused a lot on her violin technique and tone, and I moved her (a little prematurely, I confess) up to a sixteenth-sized violin since the thirty-second was essentially unplayable on the D-string or with 4th finger down, and she was learning both.

But her by-ear skills continue to accrue, bit by bit. She set to work learning to play the violin pieces she'd taught herself on piano instead. At first she played everything in the key of C. But lately she's trying out F major, and she's managing the B-flats! Today I hear her playing arpeggios up and down the piano, and she seemed to be hearing where the fourths should be. Or perhaps her ear had helped her brain memorize the key pattern ... but she did this in C first and then transferred it to F. Why F? I have no idea. She seems to "hear" C and F major as suitable piano keys. Although she was given a little orientation to middle C way back in the summer, when she was trying to pick out Twinkle, no one has taught her where F is. And she starts pieces on the appropriate scale degree without guidance, so "Go Tell Aunt Rhody" will start on A, and "Minuet 1" will start on C if she's in an F-major mood.

And then last weekend she picked out the first phrase of the Twinkle obligato part on both violin and piano. She's never heard this separate from the theme as far as I know, and she's probably only heard it as a harmony a dozen times in the past year, mostly while she's participating in "playing along" on the theme part. She has so much music in her head!

Last night she sat up in bed and sang in her sleep. It was the sweetest thing.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Grand piano power

Erin has fallen in love with the Sibelius Romance Op. 24 No. 9. She heard it played by a fellow student during the summer. It's a significant step up in difficulty for her. While she has a precocious ability to play quick, bright baroque and classical pieces, the Sibelius is stretching her ability to play chordal passages. It's a piece with a virtuoso-style Rachmaninoffesque middle secttion, and boy, does she power up on our new grand piano!

This isn't an assigned piece, just something she's decided to teach herself, at least for now. She took it on about 5 days ago and is doing a pretty amazing job. She spent long enough at it the first couple of days that she had sore wrists. I love to see her working hard at her music for no reason other than that she wants to learn something.

We're hosting a dessert recital this weekend, partly because she wants a chance to play this piece. Dessert recitals are a tradition we started about 5 years ago. I insituted them one summer in lieu of Suzuki group classes, but they were so popular they've resurfaced in many different incarnations over the years. The basic idea is that one family invites other families with music students over for a musical potluck at their home. The food is generally finger food of some sort, usually dessertish stuff. Everyone is expected to bring a musical offering and a food offering to share. Parents who play an instrument are expected to play, as are their children.

We all get together to perform first. We sit on the floor in whatever room is chosen, and everyone plays one piece. Normal recital standards are not adhered to -- this is very fun and very casual, and teacher approval is NOT required. Students sometimes play pieces they "aren't supposed to have learned yet" or modified versions of old favourites, or duets with their parents or friends, or fiddle tunes or compositions. The hosting child always plays first, and then spins a bottle to decide who goes next. Each performer spins the bottle to choose the next until everyone has played. Some students have two instruments, so they play twice. At the end, we play "requests" from the Suzuki repertoire, and it always makes me feel wonderful to realize that when our little community of Suzuki violinists is together, they want to play their favourite pieces together. Even if the parents are looking longingly at the coffee and desserts, a couple of kids are sure to say "hey, we have to play Witches' Dance!"

And then we eat and socialize and play and laugh and chat. The social end of it is probably the most valuable part of the evening. Music is the excuse that brings us together, we play and enjoy that, but the fun and food afterwards are what cure the mortar of our musical community into something strong and stable.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Computer programming

Noah has been agitating for a while about wanting to learn to program games on the computer. I know enough about programming to know that programming a decent game, by contemporary standards, is an incredibly complex task requiring years of experience and months of code-writing. So I confess I didn't do a lot to encourage his interest, not wanting to put him through the disappointment of realizing the task was beyond him.

One day I realized he was modding. Writing new parameters and relationships into one of his favourite games, WXSand. He was researching how to do what he wanted on the Modders' Forums, opening script files, copying, pasting, modifying, fixing syntax errors. He spent weeks creating a huge inter-related set of elements that would interact in ways that he defined to simulate life systems, geological events, chemical reactions, electrical circuits, water cycles and so on, all things that the program was never really intended to do. I was amazed.

"I want to learn to make my own games, though," he said. "Not just modify someone else's. I want to build the program itself, rather than just adding onto it."

So I pointed him in the obvious directions -- Squeak, GameMaker and StageCast Creator, all graphical game-building tools. He was intrigued by GameMaker... for a day or two. But he made it clear that he wanted to write code, and wanted a language that would be suitable for 3D games. A couple of years ago I'd heard DarkBasic suggested as a good language for aspiring young game-makers, and I muttered something about it one night before bed.

The next day, when I got home from work, I discovered Noah sitting at the computer with a demo of DarkBasic, creating gosub routines, fixing line-wrap with semicolons, moving animated sprites back and forth across the screen. Amazingly most of my facility with Basic from my 1985 experience with a Commodore C64 came back. He showed me what he'd been doing. Together we worked through most of the tutorials that came with DarkBasic and had a blast. He has taken off on his own in the days since, and is working with PaintShopPro to build his own animated sprite.

I'm not sure if he'll stick with it, but he has certainly displayed an incredible amount of serious interest to date, has done a lot of research, taken a lot of initiative, and learned a lot about computer logic, routines and programming conventions.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Harvest Festival

The GRUBS held their 2nd annual Harvest Festival last weekend. It was a chance to celebrate another successful growing year, to have a feast, to have fun together and to thank the community at large for its support. We churned butter, made herbed garlic butter which we slathered on French bread and warmed beside the bonfire, we prepared a massive harvest soup, we laid out samples of our sweet and dill pickles, our sundried tomatoes and dried prune-plums, our fresh tomatoes and fresh carrots and beans. We made herb tea. We demonstrated our new fruit press by producing a yummy pear/apple/grape juice that everyone tried. And we gave tours of the garden which now sports the foundation of a nature plantscape marsh garden (the digging, lining and backfilling are complete). The weather was beautiful.

That's me in the front with the turquoise butterfly shirt on. Fiona is standing on my right in the stripey pink getup. Noah is in the "22" shirt behind us. Sophie is two to Noah's right in the light green shirt. Erin is back row left in the navy, with the willow-and-flowers crown.

Good fun! It's been a pretty good GRUBS year. We were disappointed that it turned out to be a terrible year for fruit and so our fruit press has been of limited use. Bears by the dozen turned up in our little town of 600 by the end of July because there were no huckleberries up in the alpine areas for whatever reason, and because reproductive rates over the last 2 or 3 years seem to have been higher than normal. Seven bears were shot by wildlife officers in early September, but the fruit was pretty much picked clean of the trees in July and August, long long before it was ripe and ready for the press. Normally the bears show up in late September and timely harvesting is (excuse the pun) fruitful. This year was weird. So the press has only been used 6 times, three times by us and three by other community members. Ah well, it's sure to get more use in future years.