Tuesday, February 27, 2007


Years ago I had a casual discussion with an earnest young elementary school teacher about homeschooling. Erin was probably a year or two older than Fiona is now. My acquaintance reacted fairly positively to hearing that we were homeschooling, but raised a few concerns. "I sure see how kids can learn incredible amounts just through following their own curiosities. I guess I'd just worry about quirky little gaps. Like ordinal numbers. That's a kindergarten and Grade 1 task. I'd worry that unless you made a conscious effort to make sure little tasks like learning ordinal numbers were covered, they might get missed. What if your child never got curious about that?"

I was pretty polite. I was new to it all back then, and I didn't find conversations like this tiring. "Well, Erin has certainly picked that up somewhere," I said, and cheerfully shrugged.

Here are are with child number four. Strangely, they've all picked up ordinal numbers somewhere. And now that I think about it (why am I still thinking about this, eight years later?) I am left shaking my head... how could a child not pick this sort of thing up somehow, somewhere, sometime?

Photo above. There's the calendar. It's fascinating to Fiona -- why wouldn't this nifty grid filled with letters and numbers intrigue a child who is delightedly discovering numeracy and literacy skills? Even better: it's the Community Birthday Calendar, and lists the birthdays of dozens and dozens of local people she knows. She climbs up on the bench in front of the desk, onto to desk, then steps over to the top of the filing cabinet and squeezes in behind the floor lamp each morning. She points out the date. "Thirteen today," she says. "So it's February thirteenth?" The next week she asks "do you say 'twenty-wonth' or 'twenty-first'?" She is fascinated by the relationship between cardinals and ordinals. And why wouldn't she be -- there are neat patterns to explore, new words to pair up with old words. Certainly not all kids will take interest in this at age 3 or 4, but how could a child miss out on this forever, not eventually find it interesting and worth knowing?


The kids have been getting allowances for a few years. We consider an allowance to be a tool for learning financial skills. For a while we did the piggy bank thing, encouraging them to divide their coins between "spend", "save" and "give" banks. It didn't work very well. First, they played with their coins, and they all got mixed up, not only between "spend," "save" and "give", but between children. I'm not sure if there was ever any deliberate theft, but I could see that underhanded redistribution of funds was going to be very tempting. As would theft from the "laundry findings," the "change pot" and mom and dad's wallets. Secondly, we would forget to distribute the allowance, and would lose track of how much they were owed. They would go weeks and months without thinking about allowance, and so would we. I loved that they were not waiting with bated breath for a weekly bequest and collecting and hoarding it with single-minded focus, but it was very difficult to keep track of what was owed. Thirdly, they would never have their money with them when they wanted to purchase something, or they'd want to make an internet purchase, so I'd end up using my plastic and if I remembered to pay myself back later from their piggy banks, I would end up with hundreds of coins. And I'm pretty bad about getting to the bank.

Our allowance is not contingent on chores or behaviour. Partly because I don't believe in behavioural manipulators anyway, and partly because to me, contributing collaboratively to family work is just part of what it is to be a family. I cook vacuum and do laundry (I do, really ... just not always as often as I should) not so that Chuck will give me money for an occasional latté, but just because. And I want the kids to contribute "just because" too.

Besides, when Erin was 7 she busked with her violin at the Garlic Festival for 20 minutes and made $75, and I realized right then and there that a smart kid (and I have a few of those) would figure out that busking at a market every few months was going to be far easier and more lucrative than putting away dishes, washing bathroom floors and folding laundry day after day and week after week. If I turned chores into an economy, my kids would find better ways to earn money -- and I would have no recourse.

So we do the allowance thing. But because the piggy bank approach was chaotic, we turned to a ledger system. Each child has a ledger into which we enter their credits and debits. At first I worried that because they weren't seeing their money in concrete coinage, it would all be too abstract to them. But it has proved an excellent tool. All money is abstract anyway. Coins and bills are tokens, not things with inherent value. And so much of today's society (especially where we live, far from corner stores and malls) is cashless. Unlike a good portion of the last couple of generations, maybe my kids won't grow up feeling that credit card spending "doesn't quite count". When I forget to enter their allowance, the last date is listed in the ledger, and we can easily play catch-up. When someone is wondering why they never seem to have very much money, they can look back and review their spending patterns and realize that a large bag of chips every two weeks and a Runescape membership fee a month almost equals their monthly income. They can see at a glance that they did have rather a lot of money until they spent a fair bit on two purchases that right now don't seem like they were the most sensible investments. They can review their saving and spending habits and learn from the choices they made in the past. And when they're in Nelson or purchasing on-line they never have trouble accessing "their" money, since it resides in the Bank of Mom, and mom and mom's wallet and credit cards are always close at hand.

We are really happy with the ledger system. It works well for all of us.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Instead of blogging

I've been remiss in blogging because I've been spending all my computer time on the Valhalla Fine Arts website, brochures and registration materials. I think I'm about three-quarters of the way done. If only this work didn't come with a "yesterday" deadline! It's always such a push to get the info together and published and "out there" for students and families to start considering their summer plans. Noah, Sophie and Erin will be enrolled as usual in the Suzuki Valhalla Institute week, but for the first time Fiona, who was a part-time participant last year, will also be doing the whole nine yards. Erin will also do the VSSM week as a piano student, though she will take advanced orchestra instead of piano ensemble, and will add Adult Choir as an option. And then she'll also do the VIP Chamber Music program the week after that on violin. Registrations for SVI are beginning to roll in. It looks like we'll fill early this year.

Thursday, February 15, 2007


Overheard a minute ago:

Fiona, at the piano, sounding out Suzuki's "Allegretto" by ear. She starts on D, naturally, since she appears to have perfect pitch and Allegretto would only sound right on D. She gets the melody and the form right, with one glaring difference -- she plays it in d minor, complete with B-flats, because "I'm playing a different Allegretto." What a cool thing for her to do!

Wednesday, February 14, 2007


Written this morning to a mom on a message board whose 6yo son is unwilling to try anything new:

Some kids tend to learn internally, and they love being able to surprise people by learning with almost no apparent effort. For whatever reason, they're under the impression that they're loved and valued for what they can do, rather than for who they are; their self-worth is tied to achievement. Because of that, they find it frightening to risk failure as they begin to work their way gradually up a learning curve. They'd rather not be a bike-rider than be seen to have tried and (at least temporarily) failed.

There are a lot of things that can be helpful with kids like this (I've got two of them, 13 and 10, so I've been in your shoes), but none of them are going to be quick solutions. It takes years to gradually shift things.

There's a good article here on this type of child, and the praise that may be contributing to his unwillingness -- or at least not helping the situation. It points out the importance of shifting the focus of praise from achievement to specific feedback about good effort, and I think this is crucial.

It's important for parents to model mistake-making. Taking up something that's difficult for you, and working away at it on a near-daily basis in front of your child, humiliating mistakes and all, helps show him that mistakes are all part of the game.

Play games with mistakes. Guessing games are good. "Guess My Number" is a good one, because each wrong guess ("Is it twenty?" "Too big." "Ten?" "Too small.") becomes a clue. This is a great metaphor for trying to learn a new skill like reading... mistakes are our friends, they help us get closer to the right answer.

Consider enrolling your son is a hobby or interest that (a) is individually paced (b) requires regular practice (c) involves the sequential and parallel accumulation of multiple component skills that are built upon each other. Swimming lessons, tae kwon do or some other martial art, piano lessons, gymnastics, flute or violin might fit the bill. As a parent you'll need to put lots of effort into supporting him as he continues to learn, but that successful long-term learning will serve as a touchpoint for him in other areas of his life. You'll be able to say "Remember when your tennis serve almost never went over the net? But by practicing every week, it got better and better and by your second year, you had a real serve!" And he'll sigh and realize that he just needs to keep plugging away at memorizing his three-timestables.

Document, document, document. Find ways to show your son that even at the earliest stages he is making progress. He probably has his eyes on the peak of the mountain he's trying to climb, and so any progress he makes is probably going un-noticed. Point out to him that he's making good progress in the more immediate scale of things, encourage him to notice the work he's doing as he follows his learning path, and he may feel more satisfied. Direct his gaze to more immediate things, rather than that far-off mountain-top. For reading, you might start a Reading Dictionary with him, a booklet of alphabetized words he can read. Use a Hilroy exercise booklet, and put a letter of the alphabet on each 2-page spread. As you notice that he is able to read words, write them in. In the beginning a child might have two or three words only -- his own name, stop and no. In another few days, there might be six words ... and no, he's not a fluent reader of novels, but it's clear that there has been progress. The form your documentation takes will vary depending on the task. Sometimes it might just help to have a chart that you colour in showing the amount of work that's been put into a task (say, for bike-riding ... how many 5-minute sessions has he put in?), or photographs showing the progress of a project like a garden, or camcorder documentation of something like piano playing.

Be clear and conservative with your stated expectations. Don't say "come on, I'll bet if you really tried to ride your bike you could get it down this weekend -- you're so close!" This sort of 'encouragement' increases fear of failure, because it makes it clear that you expect his success fairly quickly and suggests that you will be disappointed if he doesn't achieve this. Instead say something like "If you can do a five-minute try on your bike with me 5 times a week, I think that by daddy's birthday in September, you will be able to ride. And you might learn sooner than that, who knows?" Prepare him for the fact that it's not going to come quickly, that you do not expect his success to come quickly, but that you know it will come in good time.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Runescape quartet

Noah had a heady experience with his first string quartet last summer at our local Suzuki Institute. In the fall he made noises about wanting a regular quartet to participate in. With holidays and the busyness of getting activities started in the fall, nothing really happened. I thought he had lost interest, but then he mentioned it again, out of the blue, around Christmas time. "When do I get to be in a quartet again? Can I start one?" And he didn't let it drop. After Christmas I got a couple of reminders from him too.

A beautifully obvious mix of kids occured to me. They're two brothers (cello and violin) and a mutual friend (violin) plus Noah. Ages are 10-12. The four not only all take lessons locally, but they live within about 5 minutes drive of each other, and are well-matched in their playing level. A year ago this mix of kids wouldn't have worked, but the playing levels and reading levels have evened out between them and it all seemed likely to click. So we approached the other kids and their parents and everyone was keen.

They've been together rehearsing weekly for almost a month now. It's fantastic. They seem to have fun. Noah comes home grinning and talking a mile a minute. They have two simple quartet movements that they've worked on each time and things are starting to gel and sound pretty decent. I'm coaching and Noah doesn't seem to mind at all. He is relishing having a musical pursuit where he is in absolutely no danger of being in the shadow of one of his sisters. He loves having social time with these kids who are just a little bit outside his normal social circle.

With three tween boys playing in the quartet, two of whom have been observed spontaneously trading computer-game soundtrack riffs at group class, it was not great leap for me to hit on the idea of arranging Runescape theme music for string quartet. I've been hearing the stuff for months and months, but not wanting to do any more work than I needed, I found a big MIDI pack of theme music, downloaded it and started picking through the scores of tunes for a few of the most accessible, recognizeable tunes. I slotted them into Finale®, transposed, simplified, re-scored, and pasted together a medley. Pretty easily playable by these kids, nothing too complicated except for a few double-stops, some augmented fourths and a bit of third position work here and there. Today they sight-read through it and I think it's destined to be a big hit with them. They were thrilled to see the odd collection of notes on their page turn into tunes they knew inside and out when melded with the notes on the pages of their compatriots.

Next rehearsal, by popular request they're going to start working on the 1st movement of the Bach Double Violin Concerto in d minor, BWV 1043. That will be quite a combination -- Runescape and Bach. Perfect for them, actually!

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Thumb in

Fiona has moved her thumb inside her bow -- a real "big kid" bow hold. She's now been having regular lessons and practicing virtually every day for almost a year and a quarter. I've given up waiting for the bubble to burst. She's in it for the long haul. Though I never expected to start her on the violin before her fifth birthday or so, she had other plans.

She practices cheerfully and eagerly most of the time. At least half the time she's the one who initiates practicing. A couple of months ago, after a long grind working on D-string issues, I think she was losing steam, and there were a few days that got missed and then a few where I gingerly nudged her to practice. I worried that this was the beginning of the end of the easy ride I was getting with this kid. I was concerned that the gentle nudges I gave would change the equation and produce resistance. But then she rallied. We're back on track this month. Once again I have a little girl who regularly decides that 5 repetitions isn't enough, that she wants to do fifteen or twenty. Or who says "no, I want to play it again; I think I can do better" when I suggest moving on to a new task in her practicing. And yet she's not a perfectionist in that paralyzing way that the older siblings have experienced at various stages. She will laugh and say "hoho! that was terrible" and matter-of-factly leave something until tomorrow if it's really giving her trouble.

Yesterday she performed a beautiful "Long Long Ago" at the local nursing home. She's happily preparing for a formal recital of this piece in early March. On Sunday she "tricked" Sophie by playing her the first eight bars of the Seitz Concerto No. 5, 1st movement (which Sophie has been recently polishing). She's eagerly learning Minuet 1 and polishing Etude. She can play almost anything by ear if she knows it well inside her head. On Tuesday she was thrilled to play along with the Big Kids (Book 4+) who are learning the Pachelbel Canon. She played the first 16 notes with the biggest grin on her face.

Her bowhold is stable, and her bow-direction is better controlled, with her thumb inside, in the grown-up place, so tonight we decided it will just be there full-time. I told her that this made her "not a beginning violinist any more." She loves the feeling of gaining competence and becoming more and more like her older siblings with her violin ability. I love the feeling of finally having "an easy one" for a Suzuki child. Part of me thinks I deserve this after the other three. The rest of me knows I don't, that I've still got outstanding bad karma due to my own behaviour as a Suzuki child a generation ago. Oh well. I'll take what I can get.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Music Listening

When Erin was born, my mom gave her a little tape player and a couple of cassette tapes of music, compilations of selections from classical music that were varied, pleasant, simple and tuneful. We're a family that "does" classical music, so it was a suitable welcome to the family. There was no Baby Einstein agenda at work; music is a language we enjoy, and it seemed right to share some of our favourites with her from infancy. We listened to them at home and in the vehicle. Over the years we added to those tapes. By the time Noah was born we had four or five, and we also created a new tape specifically for him, with a 'bouncy' side and a 'settling down' side. By the time Sophie was a tyke, we were burning CDs and the kids had CD players in their rooms. Fiona has her listening selections on a little hand-me-down MP3 player.

The principle behind the compilations is the same, regardless of the medium. We're trying to deliberately expose the kids to a small selection of good music covering a range of composers, styles and timbres for repeated listening so that over the months and years, these pieces become their friends.

Recently I found the cassette case of one of those first compilation tapes Erin had. The tape had been eaten years ago but listed on the liner was the Mozart G Major violin concerto. I'd long forgotten that it had been on one of her tapes. But there it was, and it explained to me why last year, when her violin teacher offered her a choice to learn either the G Major or the A Major concertos, she had chosen the G Major without a doubt. That piece was an old friend from way back in toddlerhood, even though she'd probably only heard it once or twice between ages 3 and 12. She plays it beautifully and will be performing the first movement as a soloist with the community orchestra in a couple of months.

Someone recently asked me for a list of recommendations for creating a similar compilation for her child. It's very easy now to purchase by the track at iTunes or a similar service and create a CD for your child's bedroom or for the vehicle, without having to go out and purchase dozens of CDs. Here are the suggestions I offered.

Baroque Era
Bach's Brandenburg Concertos are amazing. Numbers 3 and 5 are mostly strings. The others include lots of recorders, trumpets, horns, etc. as well as strings. Lots of joyful melodies.

Bach's Orchestral Suite in No. 3 in D includes some amazing movements. I love them all. I always put the famous "Air" on my kids' compilations, in a set of slow pieces.

Two other Bach slow movements that are drop-dead beautiful in my opinion are the 2nd movement of the Bach Double for 2 violins in d minor BWV 1043 and the 2nd movement of the Bach Double for violin & oboe in c minor BWV 1060.

Handel's Water Music Suite is full of great melodies and interesting timbres.

Vivaldi's "The Seasons" is justifiably famous. Many of the strong melodic/rhythmic elements evoke sounds of the natural environment. "Summer" has a terrific thunder and rainstorm.

Classical Era

Mozart's Clarinet Quintet is a stunner. The "Requiem" is choral and not exactly bright and chipper, but the music is gorgeous and I thought it was nice to have some choral music on the compilations. Mozart's "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" is a very famous orchestral suite that has nice short recognizable tunes.

I have a special fond spot for Haydn's "Lark" string quartet but almost anything by Haydn is a good bet. And the Haydn Horn Concerto in D major 1st movement is terrific. As are any of the last movements of Mozart's E-flat major horn concertos (my personal fave is K. 495, last movement.

Another fun suite is the "Kindersinfonie" or "Toy Symphony" attributed commonly to Haydn but probably actually written by Leopold Mozart. All three main movements are fun. Whistles, cuckoos, rattles, toy trumpets are played and the tunes are terrific.

Romantic Era

Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, no. 6. The whole thing is beautiful and evocative. It depicts scenes and natural occurrences like thunderstorms and brooks.

Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata 1st movement is famous and beautiful as part of a set of calm pieces.

Prokoffiev's "Peter and the Wolf" is worth owning in toto. It's a narrated Russian folk tale set to music. The instrumentation and themes are used to depict the various characters and the tunes are wonderful.

Saint-Seans' "Carnival of the Animals" is also worth owning in toto. Evocative short tunes depicting various animals. An interesting range and combination of instruments, including piano and all the orchestral groups.

ate Romantic & Impressionist Eras

Grieg's "Peer Gynt" suite no. 1 is excellent fun stuff, from the famous "Morning Mood" to the equally famous "In the Hall of the Mountain King"

Debussy wrote some wonderful pieces that are great for children, many for solo piano, sometimes arranged for other instruments too: "The Girl with the Flaxen Hair," "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun," any of the "Arabesques," "Claire de Lune." They're lovely combined with other slow pieces.

Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" (arranged most famously for orchestra by Ravel) has many great movements which interpret paintings at an art exhibition. The most famous movement is "Great Gate of Kiev" but there are lots of little gems in here.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Viola power

Noah is pretty proud to be a violist. He can participate in all the same stuff as his sisters, but he's just that funky bit different. He reads the alto clef, he has a C-string. It's true he has to endure viola jokes, but that's a small price to pay.

Honestly, I didn't think it through when I offered him the viola option two and a half years ago; at the time I just thought he'd enjoy being on a slightly different path from his older sister, and I'd tracked down a fabulous 1/4-size Sabatier viola that I thought he'd love. But I had noticed his tendency to hear his way inside the music; when he composed melodies at the piano at age 5 or 6, they came with harmonies he already had worked out in his head. He is the kid who makes up harmony lines for familiar tunes, often without even noticing he's doing so. His harmonies are often complex and contrapuntal. As he plays Runescape on the computer, he is constantly humming new descant or alto lines to go with any of the countless theme music tracks.

Tonight at Suzuki violin group class we played a new game. We dragged the piano out of a nearby room and sat Erin down at it. She was charged with playing the left hand of any of the accompaniments to familiar Suzuki violin pieces. The job of the remaining students was to guess what the piece was, and, if they knew how to play it to pop up and jump in on the melody where the accompaniment indicated.

We ended up disqualifying Noah after about 5 rounds because no one else was even getting a chance. He even beat his grandmother, a Suzuki teacher for over 30 years, to one or two of the difficult ones. Most of the rest of us hear the melody, because that's what we play. The piano part is like wallpaper in the background -- pretty, but we don't really notice it unless something's wrong with it. But Noah, even though he plays the top layer, hears the inside of the music. Viola is such a perfect instrument for him.

Bach, Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart and Dvorak all played viola preferentially over violin, Noah has been delighted to discover. They probably all liked to get to know their music from the inside out too.