Category Archives: Teaching

Double Bach

Since January 8th I’ve been reliving adolescence. Hopefully in a good way: I started a job as a Teaching Fellow, training to become a full-time Biology teacher.

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The view from my office window in the morning

Working for someone else 40 hours a week, every day M-F, has required some adjustment after 6 years of part-time work. And getting up before the sun has never been my favorite thing, neither as a teen nor as an adult. But there’s another way in which I’ve been revisiting my teenage self: with my violin, the most reliable time machine yet invented.

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The author as a middle school violinist

Last fall was a whirlwind of music. I played in 3 different orchestras, and I played some of the most difficult repertoire I have yet attempted. I played in San Francisco with professionals! I had solos! It was exhilarating . . . and it was also tiring. At the end I felt like I might be getting tendonitis, or some vague inflammatory condition resulting from overuse. And the larger, heavier viola might have been making things worse.

I took most of December off playing altogether, and as the New Year dawned, I considered whether I might want to take more time off, especially with the new job looming. But an old friend from violinist.com, Jasmine Reese, was returning to the Bay Area to play the Bach Concerto in D minor for two violins, the Bach Double, with the South Bay Philharmonic. And another friend, chamber music partner, and fellow violinist.commer, Gene Huang, was going to be playing the Bach with Jasmine, and the Bruch violin concerto as a solo. I really didn’t want to miss that concert!

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So I arranged to play the violin only for this concert. I had played the violin I part of all the repertoire before, so I thought maybe I’d have less work to do, and I could do what practicing was necessary on the smaller, lighter violin and preserve my hand and wrist.

Some of it, namely Beethoven #2, was quite recent, but the rest goes back. Way back. The Egmont Overture, for example: I first played that during my senior year of high school. I was sitting inside next to the concertmaster and turning pages. The way the sheet music is laid out, the last page-turn is a pregnant pause, a brief break in the tension before all heck breaks loose, horses come galloping in on the wave of a crescendo, and you climb up the ledger lines to the highest notes you have ever seen, and wail away up there as loud as you possibly can, while no one can hear you anyway because the brass is also wailing away as loud as they possibly can . . . and although at this point in my career I have now occasionally seen–and played–higher notes,  the excitement of playing Egmont is still like that for me. I love Egmont! If I listen to it on the way to work, it has the added bonus of waking me up, no matter how early or dark it is outside.

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Car dashboard

Listening to the Bruch and the Bach on my commute, on the other hand, is a little more complicated. One year in my youth orchestra, we accompanied a competition winner playing the Bruch, and that sparked a surge of interest among the violin section players. Have you played it? Have you? Are you ready for it? I had to say no. Unlike many violinists who like to play concertos, I have never studied the Bruch. Back then, I was not ready for it, and now I’m more into viola and chamber works. I did learn the opening bars and I played them while I was violin shopping, to cover all the strings and a decent portion of the violin’s range. But other than that, I have hardly listened to the Bruch since I was back in youth orchestra. Even now, among some violinists, I notice that the piece can take on the role of technical benchmark for comparisons and competitions. That aspect of playing the violin–the comparison and competition–is something I was more than happy to leave behind when I left school.

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Morning stars

On the car stereo in the morning as I prepare to leave, the opening measures of Bruch rise like the first rays of the sun. Then comes the G–just an open G, which on the violin can’t be anything else . . . how does Joshua Bell manage to make a simple open G so expressive? I wonder, and am curious and delighted. But as it goes on, I start to hear tension creep in. A cello pizzicato repeats over and over,  lub-dub, lub-dub, beating like a heart. It’s cool at the beginning but after a while, for me, it starts to evoke more Edgar Allen Poe than Valentine’s Day.

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Mountain View High School, the school my kids attend(ed), before students arrive

Ironically, last year around this same time I blogged about a similar topic from a different angle: Anxiety, Biology, and Playing from the Heart. I had had to teach a heart dissection class for heart-lung day at a school, and it was making me anxious, much as the prospect of playing a solo concerto made me anxious. I eventually made my peace with the dissection and learned to enjoy it. I wonder, as I listen and drive past my son’s high school, if that will happen for me with the Bruch concerto too. Maybe I have been too busy, or too stuck in adolescent ways of thinking, to really hear the piece’s gentler, sweeter side. In any case, the tension dissipates when the second movement arrives along with the full sun.

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The Bach Double was the first major piece I ever learned with my childhood violin teacher, Philip Teibel, a violinist with the Buffalo Philharmonic. He passed away years ago, but his handwriting–his fingerings and bowings–are still vivid both in the music and in my memory. I’ve looked through this piece periodically since then. I played the 2nd movement in church for “Music Sunday” back in Boston in 2008. But the main person I have played it with the most before now, both parts and all 3 movements, was Mr. Teibel, and I still associate it most strongly with him.

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Bach Double, mvt 3. Schirmer edition, annotated by Mr. Teibel, my childhood violin teacher

Mr. Teibel was an older gentleman when I was his student, and he gave me a recording to listen to of the husband-wife team of Leonid Kogan and Elizaveta Gilels playing the violin I and violin II parts, respectively. I had to look up Gilels’ name for this blog. What Mr. Teibel actually said at the time was “Kogan and his wife.” She didn’t get a name. And it went without saying that the husband was violin I and the wife was violin II. I also remember him suggesting to me that I might be able to play the Bach Double with a “nice young man” someday. At the time, I discounted that suggestion immediately. I didn’t aspire to be some famous dude’s nameless second fiddle.

I needn’t have worried. The musical romance implicit in the suggestion never happened. My husband is not a musician, and one of my few regrets in music is that I rarely have gotten together with friends to just jam or play for fun with no goal or performance in mind. While I do that occasionally now, I never did it as a kid. Competition, not fun or connection, seemed to rule the day back then. Even in my unfinished novel, which has a teen violinist protagonist named Hallie, I wrote a scene in which Hallie and her friend Annie try to play the Bach double. The session ends in tears as Hallie comes to a realization that Annie has advanced so far beyond her technically that she feels they can no longer play with each other. In the story, Hallie and Annie are (as I was at the time) also, at least temporarily, losing their fight against the toxic inferiority complex of the second violinist.

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Playing the Bach double with Jasmine

My meeting with Jasmine is nothing like what Hallie and Annie experienced in fiction. I stop by after work; she is staying with friends close by. Her dog Fiji and her hosts’ dog run around joyfully as we are playing, and they occasionally accompany us. There are mistakes but we restart, or play through them. There is a lot of laughter.

What Mr. Teibel knew already then, but what took me 30 years and a 16-year hiatus from the violin to learn, is that one of the best things about this piece, and the memories it holds, is being able to play it with a good friend.

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High School, Again

It’s 6:45 am but it might as well by 1:45 am. Or 2:45. It’s dark as night out and i have to go to work.

I started a new job in January. I am a teaching fellow in a highly academic, STEM-focused school, training to become a Biology teacher. I’ve spent the last 5 years teaching science part-time with a small educational non-profit. While this was good for my family life and my music-making, it was time to go back to work full-time again. My daughter is in college and my son is in high school. They are both pretty self-sufficient now.

As I walk through the noisy hallways of the school, which is located in a converted office building, I am surprised and a little dismayed by a feeling of deja vu. This is a private independent school (which means I can teach here without a teaching credential) whereas I went to a public school in a more typical public school building. But it’s no secret that I didn’t enjoy high school very much the first time around. I was 2 years younger than my peers and a social late bloomer. I have realized in retrospect that I was suffering from at least social anxiety, math anxiety, and their granddaddy, performance anxiety. Awareness of all of these, as with many mental health issues, is much better nowadays, as is treatment. But this time of life can still be fraught for many teens, especially here in hyper-achievement-oriented Silicon Valley.

Some folks have even asked me, why do this at all? I have a PhD, so perhaps I could get another biotech or project management job. Perhaps. But when I did work in those fields I felt like there was something missing: a human connection, a child-like joy in learning new things. I felt that joy intermittently in music, and with my kids, but rarely at work. I was stuck forever looking for my “passion” in all the wrong places.

Teaching, though, makes sense. In a weird way, it’s like coming home. There is something very primal, and comforting about having a bell schedule and class periods that are the same every day. The subjects are familiar too. While cutting-edge science has marched ahead, high school physics and math remain much the same. They are learned at younger and younger ages though; the AP Calculus I learned as a senior is taken here by sophomores and juniors. And, as Christa McAuliffe said, it touches the future. I’m here now as a teacher in midlife because I wasn’t ready before. I only came to like teaching after I became a parent and taught in a number of informal, non-school settings like church and Girl Scouts. It’s time, after all those years, to face down that anxiety and defang it.

Tomorrow is another day. The alarm rings at 5:45.

Motion

December 20th 2018 was my last day at my old job. I worked as an instructor at the educational non-profit, Science from Scientists, for over 5 years. Fittingly, my last day took place at Lipman Middle School, the same school I started in when I moved to CA in 2015.

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View from the Lipman parking lot, my first day, in 2015

Nestled on the side of San Bruno Mountain in Brisbane CA (pronounced “Briz-bane,” not like the “BRIS-bin” in Australia), Lipman is in an idyllic environment. Like many public schools in CA, it comprises a collection of smaller buildings, which students walk between and among to get to classes. (One aspect of school I always disliked when I was a student was the “closed campus” rule that students couldn’t leave the grounds during school hours. If they did, even to go to, say, the pizza place across the street for lunch, they faced severe consequences. Suspension for getting a slice of pizza—a strange prison-like mentality.)

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Almost the same view, a year later

Lipman, though, has an outdoor classroom the woods, and we were able to do some of our SciSci lessons outside. Beanbag tossing with prism goggles could get a little rowdier than usual outside, and no one would mind.

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Tossing beanbags at a target while wearing prism goggles. “Altered Reality”

Other days, we fished, we looked at the moon, we made DNA origami, and we built models of brains.

Our last class before Christmas break was a lesson called “Rover Restraint.” Many schools do this: students have to build a contraption to keep a raw egg from breaking when dropped from a height of around 8 feet. In our version, we compare it to landing a Mars rover like Curiosity.

And to keep expectations in check and the playing field level for everyone, we limit the planning and building to one class period, using only the materials we bring with us from SciSci. I stand on a stool and drop each entrant from the same height. This procedure usually leads to a nice mix of some eggs cracking and some surviving, and a range of designs and budgets, making it relatively straightforward to pick a winner. (The winning group gets a nice set of SciSci pencils!)

Onward and upward! I’m going to miss Lipman, and Rover Restraint. This post is 2 weeks late for Dr. KO’s Mundane Monday prompt, Motion.

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View from the parking lot in 2018 during the devastating Camp Fire, 180 miles away

 

“Little Women” Holiday Tea Party and Author Talk

 

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Yesterday I gave a talk about Little Women at the Mountain View Public Library. It was similar to my presentations about geocaching and Geocaching GPS a couple of years ago.

The librarian was also a fan of Little Women as a child, and she organized the tea party and made the lovely flyer. I set my childhood copy of the book, and my Madame Alexander Jo March doll (in red), there on the table. And I dressed up like a character from the book too: long brown skirt, high collar with a brooch, lace sweater, hair up. (What does it say about my wardrobe that I had all those pieces easily available in my closet?) This is what I talked about.

The 150th Anniversary

Little Women 150th Anniversary, Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Volume I was published in September of 1868, and volume II, originally called Good Wives, was published in 1869. Nowadays they are usually combined into 1 volume and published that way. Louisa wrote the first part–402 pages–in less than 6 weeks. Good Wives especially was written at the request of her publisher and readers. They all wanted to know who the girls would marry. Louisa herself wasn’t particularly interested in this: she said it was better to be an elderly spinster and paddle your own canoe. And she purposely disappointed all the Jo and Laurie shippers and made Jo what she called a “funny match.”

Many modern women writers claim to have been inspired by Little Women and its unforgettable protagonist, Jo March. Among them are J.K. Rowling, Simone deBeauvoir, Nora Ephron, Maxine Hong Kingston, Jhumpa Lahiri, Margaret Atwood, Doris Lessing, Zadie Smith, Gloria Steinem, and Ursula K LeGuin.  Singer-songwriter and punk rocker Patti Smith wrote

There are some moments within literature when a new character is born, one who sits at the summit with others, emblematic of an age, or steps ahead of it. There have been many high-spirited characters before Jo March, but none like her, who wrote, remained herself. Creating Jo at a time when women had not yet won the right to vote was an unflinching move. She was an activist by example. And standing apart to extend a sister’s hand, she has always been there to greet maverick girls like myself, with a toss of her cropped hair and a playful wink to say come along. To guide us, provide encouragement, lay her footprints on a path she beckons us to follow.

Louisa May Alcott

Louisa May Alcott was a writer, Unitarian, feminist, and abolitionist living in Concord Massachusetts. She hobnobbed with the Transcendentalists and had a crush on Ralph Waldo Emerson. She was was the first woman to register to vote in Concord, when women were given school, tax, and bond suffrage in 1879 in Massachusetts.

As many of us know, Little Women was largely autobiographical. Like Jo, Louisa wrote, published, and supported her family with what she called “blood and thunder tales”–gothic thrillers with names like “Pauline’s Passion and Punishment” and “The Abbot’s Ghost or Maurice Treherne’s Temptation.” She wrote under the androgynous pseudonym AM Barnard.

But when asked by her publisher Thomas Niles to write a book for girls, she acquiesced, writing in her journal: “Marmee, Anna, and May all approve my plan. So I plod away, though I don’t enjoy this sort of thing.”

Bronson Alcott and Fruitlands

Louisa’s father, Bronson Alcott, was an idealist, philosopher, progressive educator, and man ahead of his time. He was not, however, a practical man, a farmer, or someone who knew how to put food on the table. When Louisa was 10, Bronson moved the family to Fruitlands, a utopian community based on Transcendentalist principles that he founded with Charles Lane in Harvard Massachusetts. This community had high ideals–for example, they eschewed cotton clothing, because cotton was picked by slaves, and they were abolitionists. But Fruitlands lasted only about 6 months. The men were more interested in talking about the Oversoul than bringing in the harvest, and the women and children couldn’t do all the work themselves. Louisa later wrote about her Fruitlands experience in the satirical short story, Transcendental Wild Oats.  Because of Bronson’s inability to make money, the Alcott family was often poor. Louisa’s writing career was a passion born of necessity. 

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When the book was first published, it  was extensively pirated, and now it is in the public domain, but it is estimated that more than ten million copies were sold, not including abridged editions. It has been through 100+ editions and been translated into more than 50 languages. Her publisher persuaded Louisa to take a royalty rather than a flat fee, and as a result, the book and its sequels supported her and her relatives, plus some of her relatives’ relatives, for the rest of their lives.

Little Women and I

So what about me and Little Women?  I had a Jo doll, whose head and legs I had to reattach to bring her to the library. I was pretty into playing with dolls back then. I didn’t play mother and baby much though; I used dolls to act out stories. Little Women was one of those stories, and the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder were another. Some of my dolls had an elected government, with Chrissy, a tall leggy redhead whose hair grew when you pushed a button on her belly, at the top. It was like a girls’school or a women’s college: girls did everything.

I received the Illustrated Junior Library Edition of Little Women as a gift. I read and enjoyed the book as a tween, and my mother also read it to me. One of the things about this book that has stayed with me since childhood is the image on the cover: the family gathered around the piano singing. Even though I’m not much of a singer, I am a musician. I play the violin and viola. My daughter played a number of different instruments growing up and my son plays the cello. I’ve always felt that was the highest purpose in music, not performance or musical skill or putting in your 1000 hours, but to bring people together.

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Susan Bailey reading Little Women

When I started playing the violin and viola again after a long break, I started blogging at violinist.com.  I wrote about reading Little Women to my daughter, and my blog was noticed by Susan W Bailey, author of the blog Louisa May Alcott is my passion, who contacted me. I started reading and following her blog, and there I found out about the anthology, Alcott’s Imaginary Heroes, edited by Merry Gordon and Marnae Kelley at Pink Umbrella Books

As they explain in this interview, Gordon and Kelley believe that Little Women is a pivotal book for many women, one that they return to in different phases of life and learn something new each time. “I’m delighted to be part of it,” says Gordon of the anthology, “and to connect with a community of readers who are as passionate about the book as I am.” 

Finding the Googleplex Beautiful

I reworked the ideas from my violinist dot com blog and submitted them as an essay called “Finding the Palace Beautiful.” As part of the publicity for the anthology, the publisher asked the authors to send a picture of themselves reading Little Women next to a local landmark. I chose the Googleplex.

One hundred and fifty years later, is Little Women still relevant?

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Louisa May Alcott’s grave on Author’s Ridge at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord MA. Fans pay tribute by leaving pens at the site. Photo courtesy of Richard Ragan.

When I told my writers’ group that I would be doing this reading,  one guy said that he tried but he couldn’t get past the first chapter of Little Women. And some people claim, not without justification, that it’s not really a feminist novel. Everyone gets married off. Ambitions get smaller. Beth dies from her own self-sacrifice. And Jo marries Professor Bhaer, a man who deprecates her writing. Tween and teen girls these days read dramatic tales with kickass heroines like The Hunger Games and Divergent and The Hate U Give.  Is there still space for a book about four flawed sisters in which nothing much really happens?

For me the relevance of Little Women 150 years later is captured well in Joan Acocella’s New Yorker article of August 2018, called “How Little Women Got Big”.  Acocella argues that Jo had to marry Friedrich Bhaer, a poor immigrant Professor, because Jo, unlike her rich neighbor Laurie, thinks hard about things and fights (her) way through them in darkness.

Not surprisingly,  since like Jo I moved to New York and married a German, I’m “team Friedrich” not “team Laurie.” But even without that personal analogy, Jo’s marriage to Professor Bhaer isn’t just a funny match to me. It is a marriage of true minds and intellectual equals. Jo asks him to sing, “Kennst du das Land,” a favorite song that at first meant to him Germany, his country of birth, but later meant to both of them a purer, higher vision of home and love. The book’s ending is Louisa’s transcendentalist love letter and her philosophical masterpiece.

Thursday Doors: Birthday Library

For my birthday this year, I got my own Little Free Library. I’ve wanted one for almost as long as I knew that they existed, but I had been a little intimidated by the cost or by the thought of having to build one myself. Then I was also not sure about how to put it up in the yard. It seemed like a lot of effort.

But I really like these little libraries, and I’ve included a few in past Thursday Doors posts, for example here.

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This library sits outside the UU church of Palo Alto, which I have attended a few times. There is another outside Brewer Island Elementary School (where I taught about photosynthesis this morning), painted blue like the school.

And I recently found a geocache in this Little Free Library in Redwood City, in a neighborhood near Roy Cloud Elementary, where I am teaching tomorrow. It kind of looks like an elf lives there.

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I wish I’d been more systematic about taking pictures of all the libraries I’ve found, especially the ones where I’ve found geocaches.

Because finally, I am going to have my own! I got an unfinished one for my birthday. Right now it is still sitting on the floor in the front entryway, next to the shoe rack.

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But it is pretty close to being ready to go. And, because this is Thursday Doors, notice the nice doors on it! My husband ordered it from LittleFreeLibrary.org. The post came the next day. It is extremely tall (I include some of the room furnishings for scale):

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I’d like to paint it with some kind of music theme, or space/sci-fi theme. But the picture hasn’t quite crystallized yet. And it looks like I will have to dig quite a deep hole for that post!

Thursday Doors is a weekly feature allowing door lovers to come together to admire and share their favorite door photos from around the world. Feel free to join in on the fun by creating your own Thursday Doors post and then sharing it, between Thursday morning and Saturday noon (North American Eastern Time), on the linky list at Norm 2.0’s blog

Mundane Monday: Assembling the Bones

This week’s Mundane Monday theme is “bones.” For this theme, Dr. KO has a nice picture of an alligator snapping turtle skeleton, which you should definitely check out (also, raise your hand if you knew before this that there was a such thing as an “alligator snapping turtle.” My hand is not up). At first I was concerned I wouldn’t have anything for this week, and then I remembered. This is a great lead-in to the topic that’s been on my mind recently: Back to School!

I have not had much time for blogging lately because my teaching job has started up again. I teach middle-grade science with a non-profit organization called Science from Scientists. Regular school, including my kids’ high school and college, started already a while ago, but SciSci gives the teachers and students a week or two to get settled in before we start our visits. This year I have two completely new schools and two new co-Instructors to work with. I’m also going back to two schools I worked with last year and liked.

One of our most popular lessons at SciSci includes the dissection of an owl pellet. Most of my prior exposure to owls has been via children’s fiction, and I first learned about the pellets as an adult when I taught this lesson.

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Mr Rogers’ neighborhood had an owl in it!

Owls don’t poop. They eat their prey whole and digest it in the gizzard, a second stomach. They absorb nutrients like we do from the soft parts of the prey, and eventually regurgitate a pellet containing the indigestible bits (mainly fur and/or feathers and bones). This is a YouTube video of the process that we show our students. It was taken in Ontario in 2014:

Will you ever look at Hedwig quite the same way again?

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One of the many cool things about owl pellets is that you can dissect them and find out what the owl has eaten. If you buy the pellets from Carolina Biological Supply like we do, you usually find a mouse skeleton, maybe two, in the pellet. Occasionally you might find a bird. The prey animals can be identified by the skulls, and sometimes a large portion of the skeleton can be reconstructed.

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Students dissecting an owl pellet and reconstructing a skeleton

These bones are quite small, but very interesting!

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Mundane Monday: Fingerprints

This week’s Mundane Monday theme #164 is “A Use for Hands.” I am posting it on Tuesday because of European hotel wifi bandwidth failure.

Last week my hands were used in a fingerprint forensics STEM outreach activity.

There are 3 classes of fingerprints: arch, loop, and whorl. Arch is the least common, with only 5% of fingers in the USA exhibiting an arch print. My right index finger happens to have a good arch.

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So, I made a bunch of examples.

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They were used in an outreach activity at a STEM festival last weekend. Kids who came to the booth had to figure out who stole the candy, based on fingerprint, hair, and cryptology evidence.

Here’s one of the suspects. (My hair is not really pink: it’s an app!)

IMG_3494Mug shot of the Strawberry Snatcher

We are the World Blogfest: Strings for Haitian Musicians

This is the second year that the Musicians of the Utah Symphony (MOTUS), led by their music director Thierry Fischer, have gone to Haiti to teach young musicians there in an orchestra institute. Last year’s institute received coverage in The Salt Lake Tribune, the Deseret News, and others.

Fischer said the students’ work ethic and eagerness to learn quickly dispelled any qualms about “talking about intonation when they don’t have a roof over their heads.” Beyond musical technique, he hopes the lessons learned at the institute strengthened skills and traits the students can use throughout their lives: “persistence, consistency, determination, discipline.”

–Salt Lake Tribune, April 30, 2017

The Utah Symphony musicians are in Haiti right now for this year’s Institute, and are blogging about it here on Tumblr: MOTUS in Haiti.

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Kate (L) with Mercedes (R), the principal flutist at the Utah Symphony

A violinist friend of mine, Kate Little, pictured at left and on the Tumblr blog, collected used-but-usable strings to be sent along with the musicians in their luggage. The climate in Haiti is such that strings deteriorate quickly, so they can make good use of our old used strings that are still in decent shape.

Kate put out a call for strings in some online music groups that I am a part of and I collected them from friends and teachers and sent them on to Kate, who gave them to the traveling musicians to take in their luggage.

The collection of strings pictured here is a selection of what was donated by friends I play music with in local community orchestras. It includes violin, viola, and cello strings! My son’s cello teacher also gave me a large envelope containing strings, collected from her professional colleagues and her own closet.

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The orchestra under Maestro Fischer is currently rehearsing Tchaikovsky’s 5th symphony!

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We are the World Logo

We Are the World Blogfest,” posted around the last Friday of each month, seeks to promote positive news. There are many oases of love and light out there, stories that show compassion and the resilience of the human spirit. Sharing these stories increases our awareness of hope in our increasingly dark world. The #WATWB co-hosts for this month are:  Belinda Witzenhausen,  Sylvia McGrath, Sylvia Stein,  Shilpa Garg, and Eric Lahti. Please check out their posts and say hello!

From the Heart

A Cyrenian coin from the 6th century B.C., with a silphium seed imprinted in it. KURT BATY/FAIR USEThis past week brought us Valentine’s Day, Ash Wednesday, Lunar New Year, and . . . Heart-Lung Day! I’m teaching at a new elementary school with Science from Scientists, an educational non-profit that brings hands-on science education to schools for grades 3-8. This was only my second time at this school and I was working with a new teaching partner. The school teachers wanted us to do two heart-related activities with the students, “Heart Health,” a lesson with blood pressure cuffs and stethoscopes, and “Heart Dissection,” which is what it sounds like: dissecting a preserved sheep heart. I’m a biologist, so people might reasonably think that I enjoy dissections. They can be an excellent way to learn anatomy. And yet . . .

In high school Biology class, dissection was traumatic for me. The smell made me sick to my stomach, and I was squeamish about the visuals and the texture. I watched as my lab partner struggled with the bulk of the work, and tried to participate by writing our names on the specimen’s identifying tag. A “friend” told me later that my lab partner had been annoyed and complained during the next class period about how little I had done and how I’d written my own name first, and larger, on the tag, even though she’d done all the work.

I was ashamed of my behavior but couldn’t do anything about it. The teacher, whom I otherwise loved and admired, made light of it and laughed. At that time in my life, many things felt out of control. I was ambushed by waves of performance anxiety about things that other people seemed to be able to do just fine. There were some narrow avenues of things that I was good at and that didn’t make me feel this way, and I concentrated on those and let others go. I let a lot of things go due to anxiety and shame, including public speaking and solo violin performance.

Because she’s new I gave my co-teacher a choice of which lesson she wanted to lead. She admitted to being squeamish herself and picked the Heart Health lesson, leaving me with the dissection. In this job, I had assisted with it once before and it went okay, so maybe leading this dissection was another chance for me to conquer some old demons. I didn’t view it that way at first–at first I was dreading it, procrastinating preparing because my old companion, the anxiety, was rearing its ugly head. My logical brain reminded me that procrastination would just make everything worse, but even that knowledge wasn’t enough to get me going.

What finally did was realizing that it was “just” anxiety, and I’d seen it before. Sure, anxiety can be pretty debilitating, but it is also something that I’ve been able to cope with in other situations by taking small concrete steps to support myself. I’ve learned, for example, to keep my hands warm during anxious violin playing situations by wearing fingerless gloves. That makes a tangible difference in how I feel, and how I sound, which leads to a virtuous feedback loop: I feel better, and then I play better.

Anxiety is also something that can be supported and worked through if other people are understanding about it. The education field has come a long way since my Biology teacher laughed and graded students on participation. Now we encourage participation but we explicitly allow students to sit back and observe if they are squeamish. We tell them that the sheep hearts come from animals that are being slaughtered anyway, for food, so we are using specimens that would go to waste otherwise. We let students leave the room if they don’t feel well. And we don’t grade them or judge them on the dissection; it’s a learning experience. What if I’d had that kind of support? Would my attitude towards dissection have been different?

So I made a list of all the things that made me anxious about this experience. The smell came to mind first. I read on the internet that Carolina Biological Supply now has something to preserve specimens called “Carolina’s Perfect Solution®,” which is supposed to be non-toxic and not require excessive ventilation. And I’ve used it before, last year: sure, it still smells a little funky, but it doesn’t bring to mind the maw of hell. I know I can handle it.Screen Shot 2018-02-17 at 11.51.46 AM

Another anxiety provoker was diagrams like this one, which make my eyes glaze over. Despite the fact that I’ve seen any number of blue and red diagrams with lots of labels at various levels of detail, I still can’t remember which vessel is the aorta, which one is the pulmonary trunk, and which one is the superior vena cava.

I went online and looked for some other diagrams. My favorite was this poster, available from Etsy, by artist Rachel Ignotofsky. It reminded me of another resource I saw in school and loved: the movie Hemo the Magnificent, directed by Frank Capra. Beethoven’s Eroica opens that 1957 movie, and Hemo, representing blood, talks and has a face. Smiling faces and all, the poster still has too much information for my class, but this is background information, the point being to make myself feel less anxious about the material, and it accomplished that.

Lub Dub goes the Heart by Rachel Ignotofsky https://www.etsy.com/listing/177478811/lub-dub-goes-the-heart-anatomy-poster
Lub Dub goes the Heart by Rachel Ignotofsky https://www.etsy.com/listing/177478811/lub-dub-goes-the-heart-anatomy-poster

Finally, I read the lesson plan slowly and just sat with it, and my feelings, for a while. I put on some relaxing music and listened while I was reading and sitting. As I listened, read, and sat, I told myself it was okay to be anxious. Wouldn’t that be normal for leading a complicated lesson for the first time at a new school? Wouldn’t that be expected, given my history with dissection? Wouldn’t that help me be more empathetic with any students who had misgivings?

I can do this.

The class didn’t go perfectly. Some kids were indeed bothered by the smell and put their sweatshirts over their noses and mouths to block it out. Most of them also didn’t remember the difference between the aorta, the pulmonary trunk, and the superior vena cava. At least one student said “this is awesome,” though. And a parent I saw as I was leaving called out to me, “my daughter loved that heart thing you guys did today!” I even had fun myself; I watched and observed all the different approaches the students brought to the activity, I marveled that you could stick your finger all the way through the aorta into the left ventricle and feel its elasticity and see its thick muscular wall. I felt my own heart steadily beating.

IMG_2540On the way home I drove a little ways to find my geocache for the day in a birdhouse. I had the Telemann viola concerto playing on the car’s sound system, as I do every day now. The day was warm, sunny, even though the winter sun was low in the sky, and I was struck again by how beautiful and joyful the piece is in its simplicity.

I’m still in that phase where I’m trying to get it all together technically. I’m memorizing it, I’m cleaning up the intonation, I’m using the metronome, I’m getting used to the Baroque bow, I’m fiddling with the bowings. I’m recording it every day and posting these recordings to the 100 Day practice challenge on Facebook. I’m trying to keep the weird faces and swaying to a minimum. The time will come, though, when all this will be a prelude to the main event. The time will come when I will have to play from the heart.

I can do this.

Violin Hearts, sculpture by Karissa Bishop https://fineartamerica.com/featured/violin-hearts-karissa-bishop.html
Violin Hearts, sculpture by Karissa Bishop https://fineartamerica.com/featured/violin-hearts-karissa-bishop.html