Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Lawn mowers

At this time of year, the grass at low elevations and in clearings has greened up, but the snow and shadow in the forest up in the mountains mean that there's no food there for the deer. So after a long snowy winter, the deer are hungry, and they're down on lawns where people live.

This fellow and his friends spent all day mowing our lawn. Look how skeletal he is. He can certainly use the meal. And look at how full his belly is. He certainly enjoyed himself!

I hope they'll be back to eat their fill for a couple of weeks at least -- for their good and ours. We certainly don't need to be firing up the mower tractor any time soon, the snow having only recently receded, but it will nice if the deer help delay the start of lawnmowing season by a few days. Though I must repair the fence around the garden soon!

Someday I'd like to have a couple of llamas to picket out on the lawn. Until then the deer will be more than welcome.

Today we saw the first western tanagers of the year. It's very much spring.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008


Looks like she is indeed feeling brave and adventurous. Time to starting vaccinating and applying for a passport. And getting my head wrapped around the idea that my introverted homebody who has only rarely been away even overnight is in fact eager to head out and see the far reaches of the world for a month or two.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Morning roast

It's quite enjoyable these days, roasting a pan of coffee. I need to do this outside, due to the smoke it gives off. Now the mornings are warm enough that I don't need mittens and a hat, just a warm jacket. There's something about standing outside our forest-nestled house idly stirring a couple of pans of beans for twenty or thirty minutes, long before the rest of the household is up, that makes for a lovely beginning to a day. The songbirds are back and I can pick out the sound of Oregon juncos, robins, varied thrush and the metallic harshness of the Stellar's jays. The chickens are up and clucking about. Sometimes there are deer nearby.

Now we have enough roast beans for week or two. The next roasting will probably not even require a winter jacket. I predict warmer temperatures and the trees beginning to leaf out. Chuck took the snowplow blade off the lawn tractor today. Have we turned the corner for good now? Let's hope.

Bovine theatre

We don't exactly live in an agricultural area. It's mountains and forest here. And snow. We are in an area defined by rural do-it-yourself self-sufficiency, and lots of people eke out little gardens here or there, cheating the short growing season with plastic and glass. But there are no fields of wheat or corn, and farms in the area tend are few and far between, often limited to just a few animals on a small acreage for family use.

Our unschooling friends and neighbours live just outside village limits, on a small bench of land just before the road heads up towards our place and on to the pass. And on that sunny bench of just under three acres, they're entertaining a stab at self-sufficiency. A year ago they installed temporary shelter for themselves, moved to the land and began planting a garden. They fenced a meadow and began accumulating livestock. They're outgoing community-minded people on a piece of land that is highly visible, so lots of folk have taken a benevolent interest in what they're trying to do. They now have dogs, cats, goats, sheep, rabbits, chickens and a dairy cow. Their vast beds of garlic and onions are sprouting already. Everyone is interested in what's new at the new little farm.

So when their dairy cow went into labour yesterday, it was a bit of a community event. It was a lovely warm afternoon; the sun was out and the timing was good for a lot of people, including our family. At peak count there were twenty-seven people sitting on the 'bleachers' (a stack of logs) in the corner of the meadow watching the cow. It really was the social event of the week.

Barb-Rose the cow is the proud mom of a little male calf.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Branching outwards

There were days when she was five or six and wouldn't talk to anyone, and wouldn't peek out from behind my leg in public, when I wondered if I was doing the right thing. I knew she could cope if torn apart from me -- and she didn't wail and carry on, but just endured stoically. But she clearly wanted to stay home and comfortable and with family. Gradually she was able to join classes, to venture out away from home. Eventually she even started to talk a bit. But still she preferred an unadventurous life close to home and family. She liked our cozy safe little rural village where things were predictable and well-known.

Things are changing. Tomorrow she's heading off for the day to Nelson with an adult friend of the family and a couple of 18-year-old members of the community choir. She'll hang out, probably go for coffee, shop a bit, and then head to the church where she'll sing her heart out, and do a great job of her solo.

This summer she'll be heading to Edmonton, and then Montreal, flying without her parents, for a week in each location, being billeted, taking part in an advanced chamber music program with a bunch of teens she's never met. And she's thrilled to have been accepted (it was her first audition).

And next winter, she's considering taking two of her adult friends from choir up on an offer to accompany them on an 'in the rough' trip to southeast Asia for two months. I'm not sure she's feeling quite brave enough for that one, but she's at least seriously considering it.

In my heart of hearts I've always believed that filling kids' needs for attachment unquestioningly when they're young is what gives them the sense of security that is necessary when it comes time to be truly brave out in the real world as they forge lives for themselves. It gives them confidence in who they are and a touchstone they can hold onto as they venture forth.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Pod love

I'd fallen in love with podcasts. "This American Life", "Vinyl Café," BBC documentaries, audiodharma, radio plays, zencasts, language-learning lessons and the like. Thanks to an subscription a few years ago I have a couple of dozen audiobooks in electronic format. And of course there's the addictive lure of all those music tracks just a few clicks away. Want four recordings of the first movement of Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" quartet? Clickety-click.

Except that I had nothing with which to carry all this content around with me. Sophie and Erin own Nanos that they bought with their own money. I was gradually developing iPod envy. So one morning I wondered to myself how much a little iPod shuffle would cost me. I started looking at prices. Not as good as I had hoped.

I decided to take a peek on eBay. I'm a pretty restrained eBay user. I do my research, I don't get caught up in bidding wars and I have the restraint necessary to step back from something I've got my heart set on if the price isn't right. So I put in my search criteria. I wanted cheap, I didn't care if I got a cord or earbuds or any of the peripherals. I didn't need a lot of capacity. I clicked search and started browsing at the top of the list. By the time I realized that the unit at the top of the list was the perfect condition, capacity, price and location, there was a scant 53 seconds left in the auction. With my speediest eBay skills I checked the seller's feedback, read the fine print and assured myself that it was what I wanted. I bid with 4 seconds left and won it for thirty bucks and change. I think about three and a half minutes had elapsed between when I'd said "I wonder how much a little Shuffle would cost?" and when I had bought myself a 2 MB first-gen. Nano. I'm particularly thrilled that I got it used, my anti-consumerism values being what they are these days.

It arrived 4 days later. I've had it about 3 weeks now and I am so happy. Even folding laundry has a certain attraction to it now, provided my iPod is charged up.

The final onslaught

The good news is that it'll all be over on May 11th. We are in the final rush of preparation and rehearsing for a number of concerts which involve a variety of children and ensembles.

On May 4th we have our regional Suzuki Celebration concert. We have some general "en masse" Suzuki repertoire to prepare, the Summit Strings are playing a couple of numbers, and our entire complement of local Suzuki kids are playing three ensemble numbers. On May 10th Erin sings in the community choir concert. (They also perform out of town this weekend.) The Summit Strings will be contributing a 'set' to this concert, and Erin and her friend J. will be performing a 2-violin duet. And on May 11th, our community orchestra (photo left) will be presenting its annual concert. Also on that concert will be an ensemble contribution by the local Suzuki student members of the orchestra, a performance by Noah's quartet and a performance by Erin's quartet -- all requiring their own separate rehearsals. So while there are just 3 concerts, there are 9 different combinations of musicians involved, all needing a last two or three rehearsals to ensure that everything is fully polished to performance standard.

Add in soccer, Aikido, art classes and a trip to Calgary, plus an imminent web-publishing deadline, and you would be hard-pressed to believe that I have made good progress in cutting back on my commitments this spring. I do not enjoy being this busy, nor do the kids, but it's only once a year -- and it's been worse in the past. And actually, our trip to Calgary, with its long drive and comfy predictable hours in the motel, serves as a sort of retreat from the mayhem of our at-home responsibilities.

While the snow melts

It may still be too cold and snowy to get outside and kick the ball around, but the girls have their soccer uniforms and therefore all's right with the world. This is Fiona's first year in soccer. She's the tiniest member of her 5-to-7-year-old team. Our local teams don't usually win very many games. But they have a lot of fun, and they wear the nicest uniforms by far.

Since I do all the official team and individual photos, I appreciate the aesthetic value of a nice uniform, especially one that looks good against the deep green of the soccer field. Grass that we will, I believe, eventually get this spring.

Monday, April 21, 2008


Gradually we're losing our snow. As you can see the sun has come out and we are down to a thin blanket of snow, maybe half as much as fell. Last night was clear and cold but the sun will probably make quick work of the remaining snow over the early part of this week. Look at Fiona's poor bike parked on the left by the doghouse. It wants to come out and play.

Yesterday I couldn't get up the driveway to get the kids to Aikido. My "all-season" (i.e. summer) tires, which are brand new and went on three weeks ago, would do nothing in the snow. The day before I'd got Chuck to give me rides to rehearsals and performances in his 4WD truck, but Aikido is out of town and that doesn't work when he's on call. I got the chains out. They don't really fit on the summer tires. After a frustrating 15 minutes of becoming one with the wheel wells of the minivan (and the accompanying muck and slush) we managed to limp to the top of the driveway. The highways were at least dry by then.

Snow tires or not for this week's Calgary trip, that is the question.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Elevated reading

It's now open season on the chin-up bar. We had to take it down to prevent our string players from wrecking their arms and shoulders before the music festival. But after the festival it went back up. It's been used a million and one ways.

Here's the most recent one. Four cushions and a quilt apparently make the bar comfy enough to use as a reading nook. Yes she's actually lying on a bar in the doorway, five feet off the floor.

Here's the kicker. Guess what she's reading?

Kenneth Oppel's ultra-cool pseudo-historical fantasy novel "Airborn."

Purely a coincidence, it turns out.

Library art

With the sudden heavy snowfall we almost expected a power failure. When it came it was in the middle of a standing-room-only memorial service at our community hall. "Thanks be to God, who gives us life ... " said the pastor. The lights went out. Silence.

"Did she say 'God who gives us light?'" quipped someone from the middle of the crowd. People laughed.

In a minute a flashlight showed up. "Thanks be to God, who gives us life ... and light, we hope, soon," continued the pastor. The crowd chuckled.

Within 20 minutes the local dentist had showed up with a generator. Our cool MPP went out into the snow to help us heft equipment around and hook up a make-shift electrical supply. The handful of plugs were used to power a halogen utility light, the powerpoint slideshow apparatus, the electronic piano and the giant coffee percolator. All was good again.

The kids were home alone during the service. It shouldn't surprise me any more that my computer addicts somehow found opportunity in the power failure. Among other things they held a screaming contest, attempted to pop corn on the woodstove, sneaked a snowball into their mother's winter boot which had been left outside the front door. And they re-arranged the chaotic living room bookshelves. "Look!" Sophie pointed gleefully when I got home.

Well, I don't think a career in Library and Information Science is awaiting them any time soon. Fully cognisant of the quirky nature of their approach, they had arranged the books according to colour. It was weird. I took a picture. We speculated about someone coming into a library asking for a book "in a nice off-white, with pink lettering, please." In a library like ours that would be a simple request.

But the crowning moment was half an hour later. I'd had bread ready to go into the [electric] oven when I'd left for the memorial service and it had languished in doughy repose on the kitchen counter. We were speculating on whether it would be possible to bake our now-terribly-overproofed bread loaves inside the wood heatstove. I was wondering aloud how long they'd take to cook at whatever infernal temperature the woodstove was at. Recalling the book I'd bought a few years ago about cooking in adobe ovens, I said "now where the heck is my earth oven book?"

"Well," said Erin, "I'm not sure, but I know it's red!"

And then she proceeded to pull it off the shelf in half an instant. Oh my gosh, we laughed. What a fortuitous filing system.

We baked the bread too. The outer 5 mm was black, but once we carved that off it was quite delicious.

Power came back on a few minutes ago, meaning it was out for about 7 hours. We had Noah's quartet rehearsal in the dark again. We're getting quite used to that.

Soccer cancelled

Sophie's soccer game was cancelled. They couldn't find the field beneath the blanket of snow.

My snow tires have been off for three weeks. Hopefully I can get up the driveway as I have a memorial service to play violin at this afternoon and a quartet rehearsal to coach this evening.

If the snow is still here this evening the kids have vowed to hang Christmas stockings. I think I will play along.

Friday, April 18, 2008

And still more snow

Yarghh. Just this morning I was going to post that most of the snow was now gone from our lawn. But I didn't get out for a photo soon enough. Here's what started about half an hour ago. Sophie is supposed to play a soccer game tomorrow in shorts and a T-shirt. Hmmm.

I think we'll start referring to global warming as Global Weirding instead. Snow in April isn't unheard of here, but snow week after week after week in April is certainly bizarre.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Soccer days again

It's that time of year again. Soccer has struck. Do we really need this on top of three big group string performances, on top of Aikido, on top of a Calgary trip, on top of the music festival honours concert, on top of violin and piano and viola lessons? Not at all.

But for Sophie and Fiona, spring is soccer and that's all there is to it. The Community Soccer association runs two teams, one for ages 5-7 and one for ages 8-10. Fiona has been looking forward to being old enough since she was 2 or 3. Finally, having passed her landmark 5th birthday, she's soccer material. This is Sophie's third season of soccer. Fortunately both teams practice and play games in adjacent fields at adjacent times. Previous years have been a logistical nightmare for multi-kid families, but the schedule works pretty well this year.

The photo is from a couple of years ago. The grass isn't this green yet, not even in town. I must take my camera to one of Fiona's practices. She is so tiny, so sweet, so intent. I don't think she has much clue about game play, let alone strategy, but that's pretty typical for the 5-to-6-year-olds. She's certainly having fun -- that's all that counts.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Lamb morning

This morning the phone rang a little early. It was our neighbours down the road saying one of their sheep was labouring and did we want to come watch? I had two takers, my younger two girls. The older two kids were still mostly sick with a head cold, and extra tired, so I left them in bed. I dosed myself with a coffee and then Fiona, Sophie and I headed down the road.

Little Lilac was having her first lamb. She was rather bewildered by the whole process, and by the end was getting pretty exhausted. The helpful small hand of one of the neighbour kids was called for and soon the forelegs had been well-grasped and gently pulled free. Lamb followed easily after that. Doesn't Lilac look relieved?

My kids were thrilled to have been there. The lamb was soon up on his feet, searching for that teat while mom obsessively licked him clean. We left them to bond and enjoy each other.

More lambs are expected soon, as is a calf. One of the lovely treats of spring in the country.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Viola magnetism

There's always been something about this boy that has attracted people to him. Not in a brash way. He's the kid you notice after you've noticed the more 'out there' kids in a group, the one that piques your curiosity and makes you wonder what's going on inside him. He comes across as intelligent, sensitive and kind, and you worry that maybe he's a little vulnerable. Despite being introverted he doesn't carry a wall of ego-protectiveness around with him like some of his other family members do. I'm not sure that he is particularly vulnerable -- he's a strong kid with a pretty solid sense of who he is and what's important (and, as a corollary, what's not worth worrying about). But he's such a good kind person that people, especially those with maternal tendencies, often find their protective instincts aroused.

So that's the type of boy he is, and that's the kind of effect he has on people. And when you hand a boy like this a viola in a musical sea of violinists, you magnify the effect. He's not the bright flashy melody in ensembles. He's the sound that's deep inside the music, that helps create a foundation, that responds to the music around him, supporting and compensating, helping it all work without calling attention to himself. But if you watch and listen specifically to him, and tune in to that viola sound, you're amazed. He's there, with everyone else, fitting in beautifully, but at the same time he's different. He's immensely intriguing, but in an understated way.

All of which led him to be the one kid out of the mass of string players at the music festival who got plucked out for special attention. The adjudicator loved him. Too much, I think. We were all a little uncomfortable with the magnitude of the praise and attention, which was to some extent at other students' expense. I wish it hadn't been quite so blatant, but it's water under the bridge now.

Nevertheless I think he has passed a crucial landmark as a violist this year. He is now reaching a level advanced enough to be capable of playing exciting chamber music, and has the musicality and ensemble skills that will carry him far. And because he's a violist, he's going to be in demand. There are never enough violists to go around. He's already been recruited for a summer school orchestra this August, knows he's almost sure to be assigned to the most advanced string quartet at our Suzuki Institute this summer, is the viola section leader in our community orchestra, is likely to be recruited to round out a student string quartet in the third music summer school week, and has been asked to provide a viola presence as a soloist at a regional showcase concert tomorrow. It has begun.

The cupboard under the stairs

We rearranged a few things in the family room last week. For the first time in many years it feels like we've made some significant progress towards decluttering and simplifying our most chaotic of multi-purpose rooms.

One of the results of the rearrangement was the creation of this little nook under the ladder-like stairs up to the loft. It's really just a case of the file cabinet not quite filling the space, but once we added a lamp, a stool and a naugahyde desk surface, it became the perfect little desk for Fiona. Here she is merrily working on some math, though it could be handwriting, drawing or colouring. This kid loves seatwork.

I love the Sonlight catalogue. We have found so many great readaloud suggestions from amongst the pages of the World History Core programs. And we order things from Sonlight occasionally, since they have an inexpensive ship-to-Canada system that gets around all the common glitches. My new copy of the catalogue arrived the other day.

As I flipped through it I wondered to myself -- maybe I finally have a kid who would like a curriculum. Not that I'm about to dive in a buy Fiona some school-in-a-box program at age 5. But maybe, some day, she'll be the one of my children who will want, and thrive on, an organized curricular approach to academics. She consistently and persistently enjoys bookwork. She asks for it daily. She likes working with me. She enjoys being taught things. She enjoys reading, and being read to. She's less perfectionistic, less introverted, than any of her older siblings. She's much more willing to learn "in public", with her mom sitting nearby available to help.

Time will tell. In the meantime, she's enjoying her cupboard under the stairs as she merrily plods through Miquon Math.

Suddenly spring

Four days ago we awoke to fresh snow upon the ground and it seemed that spring was nowhere near. Today ... it's almost 20 degrees C. The snow is almost gone from the open part of the lawn, the driveway is clear of ice and slush, and there is new green to be seen on the ground if you look closely. We packed up the rink liner today and got out the bikes. We hand-graded the worst of the ruts out of the driveway near the carport.

Sophie put up the hammock and ate her lunch outside in it, then swung and read her book. Kids climbed the big rope-swing. The garden beckoned me -- some of the raised beds are now free of snow, and I did a cursory clean-up of things I should have got to last fall. The rhubarb is poking hopefully up through the snow.

It is finally truly spring. It's about three weeks later than usual, I think, but it's certainly making up for lost time.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Back at John's

This time our unschooling friends were busy, so it was three generations of our family that visited. We had slept in after last night's late arrival back from Nelson but when we finally got up we called to see if our friends would like a visit. Sure enough John was keen. He's been doing well lately.

On today's program:

Liszt Consolation No. 3 (Erin, piano)
Lully Gavotte (Fiona, violin)
Handel Bourrée (Fiona, violin)
Sakura Sakura (string ensemble, everyone)
Telemann Concerto in G for 2 violas, 3rd & 4th movements (Noah & Miranda, violas)
La Provencale by Marais (Noah, viola)
Two Grenadiers (Fiona, violin)
Preludio from Bach's E Major Partita (Erin, violin)
Humoresque by Dvorak (Sophie, violin)
Go Tell Aunt Rhody (string ensemble, everyone)
Largo & Gavotta/Allegro from Corelli Concerto Grosso Op. 6 (Erin, Grandma, Sophie, Noah)
Londonderry Air / "Danny Boy" (Erin, Grandma, Sophie, Noah)
Scarlatti Sonata K. 8 (Erin, piano)

I think it's pretty neat that my family is at the stage of being able to pick up and play ensemble repertoire together without any extra preparation. And it is so lovely to have the excuse to do so.

Age- and ability-levelling

The regional non-competitive music festival is a three-hour round-trip drive away, and the kids from our little program were heavily involved in the string portion this year. The administrators of the festival, in a bid to encourage our participation, were very kind and accommodating from an organizational standpoint. We kept our kids out of the small, specific classes (like "Romantic Solo, under 12" or "Solo, age 6 and under") and instead put them in the general class ("Recital Group: three contrasting selections, Junior level"). And as a result the festival organizers were able put all our kids' performances on one day.

It made for a marathon day. We left home at 7:30 a.m. and didn't get home until almost 11:00 p.m., but it was a price we willingly paid for not having to make three or four trips. There were five families from our program taking part, so we all arrived together with a real sense of it being a festival, a celebration.

There were some glitches with the rehearsals and accompanying which I won't get into here; suffice it to say that there was considerable extra stress added to the solo performances due to these unforeseen circumstances. But the kids all pulled through gloriously. The under 14 Recital group class consisted of 9 students -- entirely our crew -- split into a morning session and an afternoon session, with a few miscellaneous classes scattered around the edges of 'ours'.

It was such fun watching our kids be in the audience. They've known each other for at least five years. They are incredibly supportive of each other. They sat in various combinations, on one or two of the front pews of the church, smiling, applauding, discretely high-fiving each other after performances, letting Fiona slip from lap to lap, hugging, whispering quietly during the interludes. The ages were 5, 8, 9, 11, 11, 12, 13, 13 and 14. The levels from early Book 3 to post-Book 10.

In the middle of the afternoon session the adjudicator did a kind of double-take, realizing that this vast range of students was all part of the same entry class.

"It's kind of unusual," she said during the verbal adjudication of the spunky 8-year-old who had just played a snappy confident Presto movement of the Vivaldi a minor Violin Concerto, "to have a class where 8-year-olds are together with advanced 13-year-olds. This is where you parents and teachers should talk to the organizers of the festival, so that next time there's a class for 8-and-under, and 10-and-under and 12-and-under. That way you [the 8-year-old] can be in with a group of that's your own."

It was one of those moments when I didn't know whether to laugh hysterically and or pick my jaw up off the floor and start a loud rant. The 8-year-old in question was at that very moment crammed into a pew amongst a joyfully friendly group of five smiling friends who were, in every possible way, "a group of her own." These were her friends, role-models, the kids she's a role model to, her fans and supporters and fellow-musicians. "Just look at them!" I wanted to shout. "What 'group of her own' could possibly be better than this?!!"

Thankfully I just sat there smiling and quietly rolling my eyes. My mom, who teaches all these kids, quickly spluttered "but these are her friends!" The adjudicator acknowledged this obvious fact and moved on, likely without really thinking it through and questioning her assumptions. Is there really anything that can be said that will shake people out of their assumptions that the best learning environment is one that consists of people who are more or less exactly your age and more or less exactly your level? It's just such an ingrained part of how we as a society do education. Even when an amazing alternative model is staring us in the face from the smiling second row of seats at a music festival, we fall back on the same unthinking assumptions.

In the evening the Summit Strings, our seven Book 4-10+ students, ages 8-14, played as an ensemble to cap off their contributions to the festival. The performance was stunning. It said everything that I had wanted to say to the adjudicator about the value of combining ages and levels, but it said it in music -- so much better than any words could have.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

And still it snows

Last year on April 1st we awoke, aghast, to find that after two weeks of snow-free spring yard-tidying and bicycling, snow had fallen again.

Here we are a year and a bit later, on April 9th, and there are still great mounds of snow on the lawn. And it's snowing again today to beat the band. And no one is even surprised.

Spring sure is a long time getting here this year.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008


This afternoon we had to remove the chin-up bar. An easy procedure. It has a telescopic mount. Noah did the deed on his own initiative, though I confess I had wondered aloud rather pointedly earlier in the day if it might need to be removed.

Why? Because my kids don't do things by half-measures. They spent so much time and energy pulling / stretching / swinging / climbing on that bar since it was installed that they were very sore. Sophie explained her trouble with breakfast: "It took me two hands to push the toaster button down." Noah had trouble getting his arm onto the computer mouse this morning. That's when you know things are serious!

They loosened up a bit with some stretching as the day went on. But they couldn't stop using that darned bar, even though they groaned with pain as they swung. They're supposed to play their instruments in performance on Thursday, with relaxed freedom and energy in their bowing. At the rate they were going they weren't going to be able to get their cases open without help.

My goodness my kids have an obsessive streak. Now they've substituted an obsession with Sims2. Far worse than the chin-up bar, but at least they won't ruin their bodies in the next two days playing it.

Music festival calm

It's easy to make the Music Festival seem more important than it is. Everything comes together at once in a way that makes it seem like a bigger deal than, say, a recital or regional Suzuki performance. Amongst my four kids there are twenty pieces that are being worked up for the same four-day event.

I saw the potential for stress and chaos with all that music, so we've kept the scheduling simple. While the festival organizers seem to love offering multiple piddly classes, given the long travel time and the competitiveness that tends to be engendered by age- and grade-levelled classes, we streamlined things and kept everyone in broadly-defined general classes. That's led to delightfully odd juxtapositions, like the fact that Erin and Fiona are in the same class ("String Solo Recital Group, Junior"). In fact, those twenty pieces my various kids are playing are all within only three classes -- Erin's piano class, the junior string solo class and a string ensemble class.

But scheduling simplicity aside, the fact that it all culminates during the same week following a prolonged period of preparation has made it seem bigger than it is. I've always been taught to strive for excellence in preparing kids for performances, but I've just let some of that go this time to help moderate some of the intensity. Noah's quartet has rehearsed twice in the past three weeks, and we actually spent a large part of the last rehearsal reading through things for the future, rather than working on their Festival pieces. They won't even play together for the week prior to their performance. Erin missed her March violin lessons and we didn't manage to get anything worked out in lieu of those lessons, nor did we manage to get her an April lesson prior to Festival. She's actually only had two working lessons on her biggest piece, the last one almost 2 months ago. It'll be what it'll be. There has been no chance for the kids to try their repertoire out with a pianist. That will happen once, less than 24 hours before their performances. (This latter situation is by necessity, not choice, as the festival is having to bring in an accompanist from elsewhere to play with the kids -- the only pianist within the region who can handle concerto repertoire has some family issues that prevented her from accompanying this year.)

So here we are in the lee of the busy festival days shrugging our shoulders and just letting it happen. There's so much music to be played that even a little bit of preparatory stress will quickly add up. We are part of the Festival mostly for social and educational reasons and neither of those purposes are going to be better served by obsessive preparation.

Erin played in a piano class yesterday. The adjudicator spent a lot of time on master-class-like teaching at the end of the class, which we always like. I got the first inkling that maybe Erin is going to need a new piano teacher before too long. The adjudicator had clearly taught this piece before and could play it brilliantly well. Erin's current piano teacher has certainly taught at this level before, and has an excellent pedagogical approach to technique, but Erin already plays better than she does. There were a few [in retrospect] fairly obvious corrections to pedalling, fingering and rhythmic issues that were pointed out immediately --and easily fixed. It kind of made me wonder. I'm not a pianist by any stretch, though I can thrash my way through Grade 7/8 stuff. But I'm no help to Erin with this repertoire -- and yesterday we both got a little glimpse of where there may be limitations studying with a teacher who doesn't have inside-out knowledge and mastery of the advanced repertoire. It's food for thought; her current teacher has suggested that occasional lessons in Calgary might be a useful supplement and maybe I need to take this more seriously than I have.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Homeschool beginnings 4

The year Erin 'missed the bus' for the first time, we were telling ourselves and everyone that we were just holding back on school enrolment until she was emotionally a little more ready. But even from the beginning of that year I had an inkling that the sort of delight-driven child-led natural learning that had been serving her well for over 5 years was going to continue to serve her well as time went on. And I wanted to do my best to make that clear to the people who cared about her.

That year I put a fair bit in the way of resources and energy into creating a picture of a robust and 'successful' homeschooling experience. It was a robust and successful experience already, from my perspective, but I wanted other people to see it as such. I zealously provided resources for Erin -- software, a globe, reference books and library books, art supplies, craft tools, booklets and games and toys. And I documented her learning experiences in several ways. First, I created and updated a web-page with lists of resources, photographs and descriptions. And then I put together a 'creativity scrapbook' for a couple of the pivotal extended family members filled with photos, art work and other creative output.

I was earnest and I wanted to create an impressive record that no one could argue with. I found photos that 'covered' math, and visual art, and physical education, and I wrote and captioned according to subject area. I was blessed with a kid who was of an age and stage to make all of this easy.

I also wrote a lot for my own comfort. I chronicled our days, I watched my children play and I wrote about what I saw beneath the surface of their play. I adored them, and I processed my pride and adoration by writing it down so that I could admire what was going on right at my feet, in my very own living room, under my very own apple tree. I developed a deep sense of comfort with what was naturally evolving amongst my children at home. It was in many ways an extremely challenging year; Sophie was mobile, Noah was a rascal of a preschooler, Erin was never an easy-going child. Being a stay-at-home mom was a very difficult job at that stage. But their learning and growing was a delight to watch, and I worked on my mindful awareness of what was going on every day over a big bin of Duplo. It helped.

This was the year that I allowed a lot of Erin's eggs to be thrown into the homeschooling basket. I happily let her start piano lessons, knowing full well that it would be next to impossible to continue lessons (out of town) if she were to go to school at some point. I helped her make social connections within homeschooling circles, scheduling regular Wednesday morning playdates. Homeschool art classes and swim lessons, in Nelson, 90 minutes away, were other homeschooling endeavours that I enthusiastically supported her in pursuing.

By the time we got to the end of the year I was able to say "well, we could put her in school next year, but if we did that she'd have to give up piano, and swimming, and art classes, and Wednesday get-togethers with Catherine, and nature days with the homeschool groups ... " It was a very effective tactic. Typically if friends and family have concerns about homeschooling these are concerns over what kids will miss out on. I was able to show them the flip side -- things that were already a part of Erin's life and working beautifully for her that she'd have to give up in order to go to school.

It never really came up as a major issue, though. I had, over the course of that year, stopped thinking about school as a possibility. I don't think Chuck and I ever did what we'd both intended to do, which was to informally re-evaluate together our educational choice. We never got challenged by extended family. A few asked casually that summer at the end of her Kindergarten year whether we were indeed continuing. And we shrugged and said we figured so, and that what the last time it ever came up.

And I think that's the end of our Homeschool Beginnings. I stopped feeling like I had anything to prove. Erin was busy being a poster child for unschooling, reading her eyeballs off and obsessively learning about the human body, dinosaurs, great artists and world geography. She was involved in arts, sports and other group activities. Homeschooling had just gradually become something that we did, a way we lived our lives, rather than a choice that we were making or needed to justify.

Hanging out at the bar

Every week when Noah's quartet rehearses at the home of the 1st violinist, at break time my kids (Noah, plus Fiona, and occasionally Sophie has come along as well) gravitate to their doorway chin-up bar to play. A couple of times I'd asked where they'd got it, but I'd never managed to track one down, retail shopping not exactly being a simple prospect where we live.

This past weekend the 1st violinist and her mom made the 4-hour trip to a medium-sized city west of here. They came back with a thank-you gift for our family ... a thank-you to Noah for initiating the whole string quartet thing, to me for being coach and occasional taskmaster, and to Fiona for "hanging out and playing with" the 1st violinist's mom, who just happens to be one of Fiona's favourite people in the world, and mine too if truth be told.

And the gift was our very own chin-up bar! A perfect minimally-space-taking enticement to active indoor play through the kind of weather we're having now (slush / frost / rain / muck / heaps of wet dirty snow). Of course it's much more than a chin-up bar. It's a skin-the-cat bar, a swing, a feet-on-the-ceiling bar, a hang-from-your-knees bar, a run-and-jump bar, an inverted pretend tollbooth, you name it.

Hopefully none of the kids tear their arms out of their shoulder joints, what with all their upcoming music performances.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Backwards 9's

This is a page of math Fiona did not too long ago. I love it for a few reasons. First of all, I'm proud of what she understands about math. I'm delighted that she enjoys putting it down on paper and has no hangups about workbooks -- they're just fun the way crossword puzzles might be for adults. But I also love this example because it puts an unschooling spin on what could be a pretty conventional schoolish program.

I mean, look at this ... here she is doing addition and subtraction easily and correctly, with an understanding of place value, but she's still writing 9's backwards. And about half of her 3's too, and occasional 6's and 4's as well, though you don't see those here. For Fiona a solid vibrant foundation in math has nothing to do with knowing how to make tidy numerals that point in the right direction.

I remember Sophie at age 7, doing multi-digit multiplication, and incorporating fantastic mental math shortcuts that demonstrated a firm mastery of place value, but still occasionally writing "13" as "31" and other such incongruous mistakes.

Fortunately my kids don't read curriculum-writers' scope and sequence. They don't know that multi-digit multiplication shouldn't be taught until they've sorted out whether twenty-four is written as 24 or 42. They don't know that work with parentheses and multiplication should wait until after you have learned to print a numeral 9 correctly.

I love these little incongruities. They're like the little stories I can sometimes read outside, the ones made of a bicycle left near a copse of trees, a discarded jacket, a pile of special stones, a stick in the ground. And one sandal. How odd. Where is the other one? What happened here?

These little trails of clues are evidence of my kids charting their own unique course, led by interest, veering off in unexpected directions, finding unusual ways of looking at things and moving where they decide they should. The backwards 9's are evidence that my kids are going at things their own way, according to their agenda.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Senza Nome String Ensemble

The nameless string ensemble is becoming something that needs a name. Last year I challenged the most advanced half dozen Suzuki violinists to learn the Pachelbel Canon in its original entirety by memory. They did a great job, polished it up very nicely, and it was one of two pieces our local Suzuki program contributed to a regional Suzuki Celebration Concert. They pulled it out to perform again a couple of times last spring and fall, and added another piece or two to their repertoire. Before Christmas, we had them learn a couple of movements from Vivaldi's "Winter" of "The Seasons" fame. As time went on, and the kids got gradually tighter and more versatile, we began thinking of this motley collection of more senior students as an ensemble.

There are seven of them. There's not a lot of music written for six violinists and violist, so we end up arranging music specifically for the group. If we choose the repertoire carefully the re-arranging is simple: we give the viola part to the 3rd violin stand, and the cello part to Noah to play on viola. Although he's alone on his part, he's learned how to power up and hold his own against the six violinists.

Next week they'll be performing three short pieces as an ensemble at the regional music festival. And then in May they have the distinct honour of being invited to share a concert with the Valhalla Community Choir. Locally speaking this means they've hit the big time! The local choir has high musical standards and they've never included another local group in their performances. Yes, we're big fish in a small pond, but it's a high-quality small pond!

We think the group should have a T-shirt or polo shirt uniform of some sort, and a name. I like "Summit Suzuki Strings", but the kids are not convinced. I also think that "Cadence Strings" is a lot of fun, because depending on the day they could be an imperfect cadence, a perfect cadence or (wait for it!) ... a deceptive cadence.

Lunch out

Once or twice a month the kids and I go out for lunch. We all love this tradition, especially because we tend to do this on the spur of the moment, in a way that makes it feel like a special surprise. The most recent lunch occasion was right after visiting John & Will. First stop was the Post Office. Taking the key and heading to the squat little 1960's post office building to open our box and look for the day's mail is one of Fiona's favourite jobs. You can see that she is joyfully skipping her way up the street with Sophie. We mail-order a lot, so sometimes there will be a parcel. Sometimes there are magazines for the kids, and once or twice a week a Zip DVD arrives. It's always exciting to see what's in the mail, even if it's just "boring doctor stuff."

Generally speaking we alternate between our two favourite restaurants. One of the two is a sort of phantom restaurant. It is a home-based soup-making business that takes over a summer-time restaurant owned by someone else every Wednesday during the off-season, serving its own simple fare. It's open for three hours once a week and that's it. There is usually the choice of two different soups, and on a good day there may be one other choice. There are beverages and a few cookies and brownies to choose from but nothing else. Payment is by cash only. By mid-afternoon on Wednesday the place is empty and closed up and you'd never know that there had been thirty locals crowding their way in for some of the best soup they'd ever tasted -- and a coming-out-of-the-winter-woodwork social event that has friends who might not have seen each other for a month or two greeting each other, sharing news and complaining about the snow and the muddy ruts on their mountain laneways.

But if it's not Wednesday when we surprise ourselves with lunch out, we go to the other café, the one that's been around for many years and is a local institution. The Apple Tree has a lovely little garden and picnic benches where people eat when the weather is warm, but at this time of year, the indoor tables suffice. There's a cozy wood stove, and an owner and staff who have a lot of fun with their jobs. This is a café with a lot of personality. Click on the photo to see an enlargement of the sandwich-board sign for a glimpse of the personality of the place. Informal and formal community meetings are often held at the Big Table, arrangements are made, messages are left, news is exchanged and the wheels that move our community are greased.

We've been going there for lunch every month or two for so long that the staff knows us well. Chuck rarely joins us for lunch, but on one memorable occasion I wasn't there and he was trying to order on the kids' behalf at the counter -- and the staff filled him in on what he should be asking for. "They'll have 'Burkholder Bagels' -- sesame bagels with half orders of cream cheese, toasted, and with a dill pickle on the side. And usually limonatas."

There is no fast food where we live. In the summer, tourism kicks in and the Apple Tree gets crowded but things don't speed up. Sometimes, at the height of summer, we have to wait more than half an hour after ordering for our sandwiches, and we have to share our picnic table with other people. The café is tiny and the owner has no interest in expanding his business; like so many people in our area, he's here because he has found a pace and simplicity of life that suits him. He isn't about to let "success" upset that balance. It was less than a year ago that he finally caved in and began accepting something other than cash as payment. "Welcome to the 21st century," I commented, noticing the little debit card rig on the counter. "No, I think it's 'welcome to the 1980's,'" he replied. Indeed.

Friday, April 04, 2008

The big red machine

Thirteen years ago my affinity points at the area grocery store had increased to such a point that I was able to get, for free, my first-ever stand mixer. It was a white KitchenAid classic, with the 250W motor. Little did I know how crucial it would become to my kitchen work. When our breadmaker broke in a power surge 8 years ago, I discovered that with the mixer I could make bread with pretty much the same efficiency. And then, as fresh whole grains become more alluring and available, the addition of a Family Grain Mill attachment put the mixer to even more use.

And so for years the mixer was being used probably 8 to 10 times a week, whether for grinding grain, whipping eggs, kneading bread dough or mixing muffin or cookie batter. I was amazed that our little entry-level model was holding up so well. More than a dozen years of heavy, heavy use, including the toughest jobs of all -- bread-dough kneading and grain-grinding.

But it was getting cranky. The main pivot joint was getting looser and looser, bits of trim had fallen off, the enamel on the paddles was peeling, and the locking mechanism had to be held in place with a firm hand the whole time it was working. Still, we carried on.

And then it finally just burned out. Chuck had a go at repairing it, but there was something irreparably damaged in the speed adjustment mechanism. And while we considered sending it off for parts and repairs, that had huge logistical obstacles and would probably cost us well over $150 as well as taking a couple of months to get out and back. A new mixer, the Artisan, with a beefy 325W motor, was available to us for free in red as the result of ever-accumulating points. We caved in and ordered it.

It arrived today. I'm like a 19-year-old guy with a new sports car. Check this baby out! It will knead two big loaves of bread dough without protest. It does not need to have its locking lever stabilized with a hand while it works. It matches our backsplash contrast tiles. And oh, how it gleams! Here's what's on the go right now:

Cottage Cheese Bread

A high-protein family favourite.

2 cups of cottage cheese
1 cup of water
2 eggs
2 Tbsp. sugar or honey
1/4 cup of butter
1 1/2 Tbsp. instant active yeast
2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. baking soda
Enough flour to make a barely-not-sticky dough,
all-purpose, whole wheat or a combination

Place the cottage cheese, water, butter and sugar or honey in a microwaveable bowl or small saucepan and warm ever so gently to a little better than lukewarm. Empty into gleaming bowl of swanky new KitchenAid stand mixer (or just any bowl) and pitch in all the other ingredients except the flour. Mix well.

Now pitch in about 4 cups of flour and mix well. Continue adding flour, a cup at a time, mixing in each addition. Use a stiff spoon to do this manually, or the dough hook with your stand mixer. At some point the dough will stop sticking to the inner surface of the bowl and will come away cleanly into a ball. At this point, add just a little more flour (half a cup to a cup usually), until the dough is barely not sticky to the hands. Turn out on a floured surface and knead for 10 minutes, adding small amounts of additional flour if necessary to prevent sticking. Or complete the kneading in your skookum red stand mixer.

Place dough in an oiled bowl, cover and leave to rise until a damp finger leaves a depression that doesn't fill in or falls slightly -- about an hour. Punch the dough down, reform a ball, and leave for another rise which will usually take about half as long.

Punch down dough. Grease two large (9x5") loaf pans. Divide dough in half. Shape each half into a loaf by flattening it and rolling it up into a cylinder, and place in loaf pan. Cover pans and leave to rise to the desirable height. I find this recipe rises very high because of all the yeast and gives a wonderful springy loaf.

Bake in a 375 F oven for 45 minutes. Remove from oven, turn out of pans and leave to cool for at least 15 minutes before slicing. This bread keeps pretty well and is great for sandwiches.


Sophie, Noah and Fiona had their violin / viola lessons as usual this week at their grandma's studio. As we were leaving I noticed a sketch one of her students had done on the little table she sets aside for quiet sibling activity during lessons. It occurred to me that my kids almost never draw any more. They used to take part in some wonderful, now-defunct community art classes that encouraged them to "do art" of various types, but since those stopped, the older kids seem not to experience the urge to draw or paint. I know that they create art in other ways, but I looked at the little piece of art on the table and my mom's place and thought to myself "I wish my kids would do stuff like that." My kids tend to read, or play with Lego or blocks or do Sudoku during their siblings lessons. I started thinking about what I could do to encourage them to engage in traditional visual-artistic pursuits like drawing again.

A few minutes later we were at the café we visit after lessons. As usual Linda had our order on the go almost before we had opened the door. We like being welcomed as regulars. We sat down an complimented her on the improvement in the chocolate-syrup stripes she attempts to create down the inside of the sundae-style glasses she serves the kids' hot-chocolates in. And then we got chatting and Noah said something about his sketch.

"Your sketch?" I asked.

"I did a sketch at Grandma's," he said. "It was hard, because I was trying to match my shading strokes to Fiona's music, but she kept jumping around playing parts of different pieces, so I had to keep changing my rhythm."

Oh my gosh -- so it was my kid who had done that drawing I'd briefly and wistfully admired! So at the next available opportunity I tried to stake my claim on the sketch, which had been left behind on Grandma's table. Noah was clearly not attached to his product; for him the sketching was all about process -- a diversion to enjoyably fill a half-hour. As it turned out, both my mom and I wanted it. We're sharing it. Today it's with me.

I love the sketch itself, but I'm even more in love with the simple fact that Noah drew. Just for pleasure.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

The real world

The other day there was a call from a friend about John. John is one of our community elders, universally respected, the author of several books, amateur historian, gardener and steward of the natural world, retired schoolteacher, amateur pianist and lover of classical music. A gentleman in the truest and best sense of the world. He's also dying of cancer. Our mutual friend suggested that John would enjoy hearing some music in his home if any of us would be able to come and play.

So we went, with some musical unschooling friends of ours. We went and spent a lovely hour with John and his partner in their fantastic living room. The kids took turns playing and tried out some duets. Erin sight-read the accompaniment part to Noah's new concerto movement. Erin and I sight-read our way through the second movement of the Bach Double concerto. Erin pulled out Mozart's fabulous 12-variation treatment of "Twinkle," and played that, knowing that Mozart is John's favourite composer of all. And there were a number of other pieces.

The house has such good energy about it. My normally reticent kids felt very very comfortable, even though they hadn't been there in a couple of years. Even before we were done playing, Noah was hatching plans for things he'd like us to play next time. And yes, I feel sure there will be plenty of "next times." We told John's partner that he should call us any time he thinks some music would be helpful -- even several times a week. There is something powerful about the giving of this sort of musical gift. I guess we're a sort of musical palliative care team. Involving the kids in giving to members of our community in this way so valuable -- and the kids are truly aware of the value of what they're doing.

And of course it got me to thinking ... there's no way we could do this sort of thing if we weren't homeschooling. Unschooling has given my kids the time to pursue their musical passions whole-heartedly, and to achieve a high level of ability on their multiple instruments. They have lots to offer a listener. And our educational approach gives us the freedom to offer to be in John's living room for as many hours as are helpful over the next few days or weeks. My older three kids remember when they "helped grandpa die" four years ago ... by just being there with him, playing music, chatting, filling his environment with life and interest and music. If I ever again hear a parent of a schoolchild comment that "kids have to learn to deal with the real world," I will think of yesterday, when local schoolchildren sat in age-segregated classrooms doing their best to perform in accordance with curriculum expectations, whilst mine were in the living room of a community elder helping him die surrounded by life and the music he loves. Which is the realer world?

Family meetings

The following was written on a message board as advice to someone who wanted to institute family meetings as a way of getting her family to co-operate more on household work, and who was looking for advice on what sort of approach to use:

Our family meetings are not a situation where I'm trying to get the kids to do more of what I want them to. That doesn't produce the long-term result I want from a family meeting. Instead it produces a lawyerly sort of stance amongst all the participants, where they say the right things and appear to be negotiating in good faith, but are really trying to find ways to concede as little as possible. Any commitment to change is made under some sort of mild duress, as a concession rather than a gift. I found that if meetings are about "how to get kids to do more of what parent think they should", any gains are hard-won and short-lived.

Our family meetings put relationships first and are built on the assumption that we are all on the same side and can solve anything. Anyone can bring anything to the table -- except negativity directed at each other. "I statements" are encouraged (like "I feel discouraged by the never-ending housework load") but "you statements" are discouraged (like "you aren't pulling your weight around here -- you expect me to pick up after you").

The idea is that we are there to discuss our feelings and to help our family "work" better, to increase the general goodwill and efficiency and to make our family a happy place. We discuss whatever issues have been brought to the table, and brainstorm solutions collaboratively (often with humour). We try to reach a consensus on one or two smallish changes that we agree to try for a week. If we try to reach the ultimate solution for now and forever we inevitably end up discouraged when we encounter the first little implementation glitch and then we abandon the plan. By making small changes and agreeing to a week's trial, we give ourselves time to encounter glitches and persist through them, knowing that if at the end of a week we're still not happy, everything is on the table again. More often than not those little challenges have faded from relevance by the time the next meeting rolls by and we agree "yeah, sometimes I don't feel like doing it that way, but overall it's been an improvement." And we work from there.

I would be very careful with the first few meetings to bend over backwards to make it clear that the meetings are not about mom getting a chance to air her grievances. Try to be extremely positive and encouraging, and try to focus the meetings around your children's needs much more than around dealing with your complaints. So even if your kids haven't put anything on the [informal or formal] agenda, you might raise things on their behalf.

eg. "I know you guys don't like a lot of what I buy for groceries and you think our suppers are really boring. I do tend to buy and cook what I'm used to because that way I don't have to think as much. Do you have any suggestions for changes to our food habits and organization that would make suppers more interesting?"

or "You three wish you had more computer time in the evenings. Any ideas what we could do to deal with that?"

Brainstorming should be fun, funny, outside-the-box and engagingly co-operative. This is the time to pour on the creativity. As you work through all the suggestions, keep an open mind and remember that whatever you agree to try it's just for a week. Often my kids surprise me by making unexpected things work very well, or by making me question my assumptions and expectations in ways that didn't feel comfortable at first -- much to the good.

If your kids feel happily engaged in a creative, co-operative process, they will enjoy meetings as an opportunity to truly be heard. They will enjoy the little rituals that surround your meetings (a special snack, a little talisman you pass from person to person as you take turns communicating, whatever). They will relish the opportunity to participate in change and to work creatively on the same side as their parent and siblings for a common goal -- that of greater family harmony and efficiency. Meetings should not be about grievances and guilt but about empathy, creativity and hope.

Get there gradually. Three or four meetings where you make an effort to be fun, humble, self-deprecating and upbeat will encourage them to buy in to the process. Only then should you begin ever so gently air your grievances -- again, with "I statements" rather than judgements and demands.

Good luck! We started holding family meetings about five years ago and I am thrilled with the effect they've had on the entire atmosphere of family relationships. We've gone from being a family of parents trying to get children to do what they want to a family of six people who are all trying to work together to honour each other's needs and feelings. I credit our meetings as the driving force behind that shift.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Kid sushi

Today our Ethnic Cooking Co-op (a.k.a. "Kitchen Club") did a quick foray into Japanese cuisine. We have a lot of bits of Japanese culture on the periphery of our lives. We have kids who say "sumi masem" and "domo arigato gozaimasu" at Aikido, and who have been raised in the Suzuki music paradigm, who have had periods of obsession with anime, reading Japanese kana, and who live in a tiny town with a significant population of Japanese-Canadians ... enough that until five or ten years ago Japanese was probably the second commonest language spoken here. Our grocery store, which is really only the size of a good convenience store, with a produce "aisle" that's a single cooler 8 feet long, has a Japanese food section with a choice of three different types of wasabi and six different types of seaweed, among numerous other options. They even had red bean mochi cakes (above, upper right).

We know sushi pretty well here, but I don't think any of the kids had ever rolled it for themselves. Pictured above are a couple of plates of their creations. I think they did very well!

There was extensive use made of the Buddha board over the course of the morning for practising calligraphy (mostly hiragana), and lots of origami was made. Strangely enough, these ever-so-appropriate side-forays into Japanese arts and culture were completely initiated by the kids. If the parents had suggested them, the kids no doubt would have found the whole thing contrived and teacherish and gone off to do something else.

We paired the sushi with a simple miso soup and finished off with delectable green tea gelato.

Green Tea Gelato

1/4 cup of loose green tea, or about 16 teabags
5 cups of milk
1/3 cup instant dry milk powder
3/4 cup granulated sugar
6 egg yolks
1 1/2 cups heavy cream

Bring about half of the milk to a simmer in a saucepan. Add tea and steep on low heat for 10 minutes, then remove from heat and allow to sit for half an hour. Strain out the tea and press to extract as much of the milk as possible from the leaves. Return milk to saucepan. Stir in the sugar and the egg yolks. Place over very low even heat and cook, stirring constantly, until a thickened custard has formed. Mix in the remainder of the milk, plus the cream and the dry milk powder.

Chill overnight. The next day freeze in ice cream maker or shallow pan, stirring frequently until desired consistency has been achieved. Yum!

Thinkin' about vibrato

Hurray for new, bigger, more playable, high-quality fractional instruments. Hurray for the big tone that inspires little kids to care about the clarity of their sound. Hurray for the gains that have been won since the end of January. They've been well earned with loads of good work.

At group class yesterday we played a game where kids chose one of two "body language costumes" to put on before playing a short easy selection for an audience who watched with their hands over their ears. I was trying (somewhat successfully, I think) to make that point that your body language adds something important to your performance, and that a "body language costume" that doesn't match your performance is confusing and depressing. I had a silly tea-cozy hat that the kids wore, and beneath it would be their choice of two body language messages... something like "prepare to be amazed -- I shall paint you a masterpiece of sound" or "ummm, sorry about this; I'm having a really bad day." After performing in keeping with the hidden message, they would read it out to the rest of the class.

Fiona chose to play in the style of "I'm having a really bad day." Oh my gosh we laughed. She really thought she was looking depressed and bored; she understood the point of the exercise and gave it her best. But she was having such a great time being the centre of attention and playing this cool game, and just being up there playing her violin, that she couldn't help looking happy and pleased with herself. What a wonderful "problem" to have!

Today she was practising and I grabbed the camera. Look how her wrist has opened up! And this week her wonderful reaching-out bowing is clicking again. She's playing so beautifully these days.

Here she is honing in on the last note with a twinkle in her eye. You can tell she's thinking about throwing her wild and wooly approximation of a vibrato in on the last note.

Yup, and here it is -- vibrato face! "Weewahweewahwee!"