Wednesday, March 23, 2011


I believe when I graduated from high school, you could major in art or music therapy.  I also think at the time, the idea that music or art could have true therapeutic value was still poo-poo'd by "the experts".   Great strides have since been made in this field since I was a senior in high school and trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up.  Had I known that such a field existed (and I could have found a reputable school that had that major), I might be in a very different place than I am now.  Even so, there are aspects of my current situation that allow me a glimpses into this field.

In the last couple of months, I've had two friends suffer terrible losses.  A conversation with one of those friends recently centered around grief and how you work through it.  At the time, I didn't have a good answer for her but it got me thinking about my own experience with grief and how I managed to work through it in the end.

In high school, I had a friend who was very much like an older brother to me.  He kept me on track and certainly wasn't afraid to hassle me when he felt I needed it -- and there were several instances when I needed it!  When I was sixteen, he met a tragic end one night when a drunk driver slammed into his truck. Being a fighter, he hung on for several months, but ultimately died around Christmas. Being sixteen, I dealt with it the best I could.  I had someone to talk to who helped some, but there were many months of me "going through the motions".  I buried myself in my schoolwork and music and eventually I surfaced.  

Almost 20 years later, when I was pregnant with Peanut, I was booked for a solo gig singing Eleanor Daley's Requiem.  Instead of the standard Requiem Mass that most Requiem's use for text, Daley sets poetry about death and dying to music.  The text is powerful stuff.  How she sets the solo is truly amazing -- the line is very exposed  with very little support underneath it.  It is raw, but beautiful and haunting at the same time.  The most often heard movement, "In Remembrance", offers hope and some closure to the pain brought forth by the solo.  

From the solo:

Each night I listened for your call,
when your call stopped
I held my breath, suspended.

I'd grow accustomed to a dialogue with
then wait for the sounds of night

you, dying,
and I but witness to the end

The stillness is a room I've moved into,
and you are not here,
you are gone

the dark heart of a night without song

-From The Sound of the Birds
By Carolyn Smart

And from a choral movement:

"In Remembrance"
Do not stand at my grave and weep.
I am not there, I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glint on snow,
I am the sunlight on ripened grain,
I am the gentle morning rain.
And when you wake in the morning's hush,
I am the sweet uplifting rush
of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there, I did not die.


Perhaps it was the pregnancy hormones talking, but this particular gig brought me right back to that December when I received the phone call.  Fortunately, I had a a couple of months to work through these feelings I had thought long buried before I had to do the actual performance.  In the end, I felt like I had finally made peace with his death and now I can sit with it, but not dwell.  (And the performance itself went well too).

One aspect of my job is service work for funerals.  Sometimes, the music is "set dressing" -- it's there because it's supposed to be.  Other times, though, I have been asked to sing deeply personal songs for the family -- everything from Sarah McLachlan's "Angel" to "golden moldy" hymns to Schubert's "Ave Maria".  Requests could be family favorites,  songs that give comfort, or songs that somehow express the grief of those left behind.  It's a service that I enjoy doing.  As a performer and music teacher, I am well aware of how music can affect people.  It can transport people to another time or place.  It can hurt as well as heal.   If I can give a family even a small amount of comfort or closure during a difficult time, I am happy to do it.

To answer my friend's question:  I still don't have a "magic bullet" answer because grief is different for everyone.  I can only encourage you to continue living your life even if it is going through the motions on some days.  I also encourage you to keep your eyes and ears open along the way.  Comfort and closure may come to you from an unexpected source if you keep your heart open to it.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Do kids really need a teacher to get educated?

It's been a week of interesting and thought-provoking reads.  First, I was pointed to this NY Times Op Ed piece that talks about how a school in Western Mass pulled a small group of students out of the mainstream high school and let them design how they wanted to learn.  They worked with the high school teachers while they designed their curriculum which consisted of a bunch of projects to explore various topics.  Their reading list went above and beyond what the AP English class would have been required to read.  These students, by the way, weren't all over-achieving honors students -- there were a couple that were thinking of dropping out.  These kids ended up excelling and learning a ton.  This morning, I was pointed to this study round-up which focused on young children.  Two independent studies showed that four-year-olds are more apt to learn and explore more if left to their own devices.  

The ideas presented in these articles aren't new.  Most early childhood educators figured out a long time ago that putting a preschooler in front of a water/sand/rice table and giving them a bunch of items to use with that table will create hours of exploration and fun.  They even manage to learn stuff along the way.  The article about the high school kids takes this idea one step further:  it's not just the little tots who learn by doing, it's the older kids too.  (Giving the older kids ownership in what they're doing helps the process too).  Homeschoolers have an education philosophy around this called "unschooling" which when implemented correctly is all about child-directed learning.   

The general idea here, though, is something that I struggle with regularly.  Peanut is almost five.  She's still at that age the researchers say where she should be, to certain extent, left to her own devices.  Let her explore.  Let her play.  It'll spark her creativity.  On the other hand, this kid wants to learn things that are well above grade level.  She asks for it for by name.  (I'm serious).

My compromise as been to become her teacher for the rote things: phonics, basic math concepts, etc.  I am her teacher for the foundation.  From there, we've got wiggle room.  

Science is easy.  We do lots of experiments and model building.  A month ago, we built a little solar-powered oven using a pizza box to demonstrate that even in the middle of winter, the sun is strong enough to bake cookies.  (It took a loooong time, but we got cookies).   We'll build a soda can robot in a few weeks as part of a little unit on robotics.   We also do lots of reading on whatever topic we're studying.  Next year, we'll start Chemistry.  I actually purchased a Chemistry book meant for grade schoolers that I intend to supplement heavily with additional hands-on stuff and additional reading.

History is a little less easy, but still manageable.  We do tons of reading.  (If you've got a kid who likes to read and be read to, might as well take advantage of it!)  I also find activities that center on the time period.  We cook or bake a food.  We do crafts and/or draw pictures. We play games. Last year, we visited Old Sturbridge Village.  Next year, using a textbook as our spine, we'll start exploring history from the beginning and spend the next several years learning it in order.  The text incorporates all kinds of hands-on activities and additional reading sources which makes my planning even easier!  My goal at this age is exposure.  If we find something that really interests her, we'll dive deeper.

As she becomes better with her reading and writing skills, creativity is easily built into Language Arts.  We've started simple writing prompts.  We read short poems and talk about the imagery and what the poet might be talking about.  I've really enjoyed doing this -- a four year has a very literal mind, so thinking beyond those words on the paper generates some interesting discussions!  

Math has been the surprising one for me.  I remember my days of elementary math class, sitting at my desk, and memorizing my math facts and trying to puzzle my way through fractions.  The highlight of the week was when our teacher broke out the flash cards and played "Around the Room" where you moved around the room based on what you got right.  Nowadays, there are all kinds of hands-on manipulatives: geoboards, tangrams, plastic student clocks, etc.  I know some of this stuff existed long before I was in elementary school, but it wasn't something used in our classroom.  Peanut and I play with flashcards occasionally.  We spend more time with the math toys in the manipulatives bin.

In order for Peanut to go off and learn on her own and explore her creativity, she needs to have the foundation laid so she can do so. Phonics are phonics. Addition is addition. There's only so much creativity you can put into it.  And for those of you who know Peanut, you know she's got creativity in spades, so I think we're onto something with her!  And, finally, to answer the question posed in the title of this post:  Sometimes kids need a teacher.  Sometimes they need a guidance counselor.  Sometimes they need a mentor.  And sometimes, they just need to be left alone to figure it out for themselves, even if it takes them three times as long as it would have if you sat down and just showed them the answer.

With all this said, I don't advocate doing anything more than what a child's ready to do. Peanut and I started this process earlier than most kids because she made it clear that she was ready and interested. I would have also been just as content to let her play and explore on her own had she shown that inclination.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Annual Review

This month marks my fourth year teaching voice.  In the grand scheme of things, I haven't been doing this for all that long considering that my coach was in her 70s when I started working with her and she'd been at this for a long time.  We all have to start somewhere and every year, I reflect on what I managed to accomplish and what I want to work on for next year.  This year, I happen to have a convenient place to do so.

Keyboard Skills:  Those 10 or so years of piano lessons in high school went up in smoke when I basically didn't play the piano for about 15 years.  I played a little here and there but never enough to keep up with it.  Prior to teaching, I took 6 months of piano with my boss, Malcolm Halliday, to help me find my chops again.  Six months of lessons does not undo 15 years of not doing anything, but it got me to a point that I thought I could sit and play for my students as we worked.  (Please note that many voice teachers aren't proficient enough at the keyboard to play for themselves let alone students -- they're stuck with hiring a studio pianist to play which can double their fee). 

Every year, I'm a better pianist.  I have a whole mess of bad habits that I'm aware of that I will probably never correct, but I screw up less when I'm playing for students and I can play increasingly more complicated pieces.  I'm still not comfortable playing outside the confines of my studio.  Malcolm is pushing me to do some solo piano work -- he doesn't ask if he doesn't think you can do it.  So that's my goal for this year.  We're working on a piano/organ duet based on the Meditation from Thais right now.  I hope to have it ready to go for late April or May.

Languages:  This past year, thanks to Bach's "Wachet Auf" (not the Bach, but one of his sons), and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, I conquered German.  This was a language that I have sung in, but not frequently enough to get cozy with it.  Now I'm feeling cozy.  I hope to continue to refine my pronunciation and not forget everything I learned this past year.  Now I'm on to French, my arch-nemesis of a language.  I did a program with Malcolm and tenor, Stanley Wilson this past Fall which featured a couple of Pauline Viardot's pieces in which she set text to Chopin.  I really enjoyed the music and would like to learn more, but the French was a challenge.  I suspect it may take me awhile to get really comfortable with the language.  I am also hoping to pick up a book on IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet).  Had I attended conservatory instead of engineering school, I would have learned it there.  This is one of those holes in my education that I would like to fill.

Teaching:  I'm always on the look out for new exercises and different ways to explain a given concept.  This Fall, I expanded my library with a few books on singing and great singers.  I've found some new gems to add to my collection.  I also did my periodic review of my notes from my coach and dusted off a few exercises I forgot about.   I also went shopping for new music books.  Some girls like to go shoe shopping.  I like new music.  (Oh heck.  Who am I kidding?  I dig the shoes, too).  This year, I plan to continue expanding my teaching resource library and I also plan on joining NATS (National Associatin of Teachers of Singing).

Project Work:  I was really pleased with the variety of music I was able to work on this past year.  I sang the role of Narrator in "Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" while simultaneously working on the solo the Mozart Requiem or the RPI Festival Chorus.  I returned to RPI this Fall for Beethoven's Ninth and renewed some connections and friendships in doing so.  In between all of this, I had several smaller projects.  I have one project already in the works with pianist Tom Hill which will feature spiritual music and oratorio.  I am in the planning phases of two other projects and who knows what else will pop up along the way? 

Self-Promotion:  I was sad to find out that Borders Bookstore in Shrewsbury changed their bulletin board over to community events only.  This has been a great resource for me in the past.  I still have a few other places to post flyers and I still regularly post to Craigslist.  I've found Craiglist to be more and more of a hassle for less of a reward.  I know when my ads are live because I get bombarded with spam and phishing expeditions.  I plan to get a website together and NATS will provide some promotional opportunities as well.  I'd also like to advertise my services on some of the homeschool mailing lists that I'm on.  I've seen others do this and as long as you aren't obnoxious about it, it's usually allowed.  I'd like to pick up another 3 - 5 students this year.  I've got a nice studio right now, but I see myself losing at least one student in the near future and I'd like to get a few more people in the door so when I lose one, it doesn't hurt the wallet so much.

Overall, I'm pleased with all that I managed to accomplish this past year. I'm hoping to use this year to continue building on my studio and my skill set.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Just the facts, ma'am

A recent discussion on the gifted homeschoolers mailing list centered around IQ testing.  It has been a fascinating conversation for me, in part, because I know very little about it.  From it, I've started to get a sense of what all the acronyms mean and what they specifically test for, etc.  One parent asked if it was really necessary -- especially if a child has no learning disabilities (which these tests can also show), and the parent is not trying for a grade skip or to qualify for a special program or service.  I was interested in this aspect of the discussion - this is exactly our situation!  Would it help me teach Peanut better if I knew her IQ and what percentile she is?  Would this test tell me more about her learning style, which up to this point, I've been guessing (seemingly correctly) about?  Even before this conversation started, testing crossed my mind a few times -- I just never got to the point of researching the options and the costs (which I understand to be quite high).

I waffle between needing the cold, hard facts and just letting my instinct and Peanut drive the boat.  On one hand, I wonder if I'm doing everything that I can for her.  Am I holding her back by insisting she finish up that phonics book?  Are my homemade science units doing enough to satisfy her curiousity?  Am I going to somehow screw her up for life because I've opted to homeschool an only child?! 

On the other hand, Peanut is pretty good at showing me when her brain is "full" and what she wants to focus her energies on.  If I'm listening to her and not having a "but we need to cover X and Y more before we get to Z" moment, I can roll with it.  This is probably the toughest thing for me -- remember in school where we had to do something 20 times just to prove we know it?  Much of the homeschool curriculum available still uses this concept and it's easy to get sucked into this notion.  Sometimes Peanut needs the reinforcement.  Sometimes she gets it on the first or second try -- and when she's got it, she's GOT IT. It does help to regularly remind myself that she's just shy of 5.  We're in no hurry here. She's already doing stuff that kids 3 - 5 years older than her are just starting on.  If there is a hole somewhere along the lines, we have plenty of time to fill it. 

I have a direction for our future -- it's something I do frequently think about.  We subscribe loosely to the Classical method of teaching.  The big tenets for this style are the focus on logic and rhetoric, learning from the classics (including learning Latin), and teaching history in order.  Obviously there's a little more to it than that, but those are the big things.  The over-reaching idea is to give them a solid foundation to that they can teach and think for themselves.  This methodology doesn't completely work for us since we need to accelerate and compact the curriculum we use for her, but it gives me a nice framework to work from.  I ultimately see a need to supplement with outside resources as she gets older - whether that be community college, a tutor, or a co-op program.  I do not see us sending her to a 4-year college before her 18th birthday - I have some strong feelings about this, in fact. 

With that said, I try to bear in mind that this direction might change a whole bunch of times even in the next year.  It helps me plan to have some sort of general direction so long as I don't get so caught up in the details that I lose flexibility.  The one thing I cannot anticipate -- and I'm not sure testing would help me with this or not -- are the developmental leaps.  In two weeks time Peanut's reading abilities jumped several levels.  She literally went from reading easier picture books with some help to reading whatever you put in front of her with little or no help.  She's done that in other areas as well, at seemingly random times.  We go from plugging away little steps at time to one hee-yuge change.  (And of course, that hee-yuge change usually means that everything changes in terms of how I approach educating her).

During all of this, I also think some about my childhood.  My parents weren't big believers in gifted program which they thought fostered snobby, elitist kids.   I'm also pretty sure that they didn't believe me gifted because I had to work hard, especially at math.  I have since learned that this didn't make me less gifted.  In fact, I think a lot of my own giftedness is in the musical realm since that's where stuff comes more easily to me.  Academically, I did end up excelling as well.  I wasn't, however, one of those kids who didn't need to study before taking the test.  Anyways, I wish my parents had taken it a little more seriously.  I understand that they worked with the info they had available to them, but had they pursued it, I think I would have been a little more comfortable in my own skin earlier in life.

An introduction...

Welcome to my blog!  Let me show you around...

I am the Diva.  No, I'm not one of those pompous Sopranos who think they're all that and a bag of chips.  But I am a singer and a voice teacher.  Teaching became a passion of mine later in life.  I hold a bachelors of science from WPI and worked as a database designer for many years.  After the birth of my daughter, Peanut, I switched back to my first love of music and started teaching.  In my nerd life, I still managed to pick up gigs here and there and landed the job of Soprano Section Leader at First Congregational Church of Shrewsbury, a job that I still hold today. 

Music started very early with me.  My mother, an accomplished alto, would sit and play the piano with me either in her lap or next to her on the bench when I was little.  By the time I was 12, she had me up in front of the tiny Methodist church we attended singing duets with her for the Sunday service.  I started piano lessons in 2nd grade and was my piano teacher's youngest student for a time -- I continued my studies through 12th grade on the piano.  I seriously considered going to school for piano performance.  My parents, practical sorts that they are, nudged me in the direction of an education that would "lead to something".  After graduating from WPI, at the urging of the music director for the community chorus I sang with, I started voice lessons.  Twelve years later (or so), I am accomplished soloist, an on-again, off-again musical director, and a voice teacher with a growing studio.  This alone has been quite a journey.

But I haven't even gotten to the second half of this blog's title - the Brain.  The Brain is my daughter, Peanut.  She's always been a little small for her age and has had this nickname since birth.  She turns five in May.  Early on, she made it clear to us that she wasn't an ordinary little kid -- although, I'm not so sure there's anything ordinary about any kid.  She started speaking between 6 and 9 months - her first words were "kitty cat".  She learned signing as a baby and had a significant vocabulary before her verbal skills caught up.  By age three, we started to use the word "gifted" to describe her.  Somewhere around this age, I was pointed to Deborah Ruf's Work which turned into an eye-openning read for us.  Peanut was somewhere between level four and level five!  At about age 3.5, I started formally homeschooling her -- at her insistance.  She had so many questions (usually at inconvenient times, like say, when I was trying to get dinner on the table) that she needed answers for. Right. Now. Sitting down for a couple hours a day to do school filled her need and saved us a few burned dinners.  As of this writing, her reading is somewhere around a 3rd - 4th grade level and her math skills are 2nd - 3rd grade. 

Yes, I've gotten flack from people about starting school so early with her.  And yes, I believe some people think I'm just one of those over-achieving stage moms.  If I met me at some random point in time, I might think the same thing.  And believe me, this is a balancing act of sorts.  Peanut is still very much a 4 (going on 16) year old girl.  She likes to wear skirts, get her nails painted, play Barbies, run around at the playground, and mix her Play-Doh colors together until they make a fine shade of grey.  She also has tantrums, won't eat her vegetables, and doesn't listen to reason.  So while we can use "gifted" to describe her, I use it more to keep me focussed on how best to help her navigate the world academically and to help her understand why her thought processes go where they go.  It's not there to encapsulate her -- one word is never enough to describe a person.

So what's this blog all about?  No, it's not a bragging page about Peanut's intelligence, although, the rewards and challenges of working with a highly intelligent child will certainly come up regularly.  It's also not a shameless self-promotion page.  I will be putting together a website in the near future for that.  What I hope this becomes is a place for me to record this journey.  I admit, for Peanut, that I'm not so good at writing stuff down.  I never obsessively kept a baby book for her.  Aside from one-liners on Facebook about what mischief she's currently into, I don't write down milestones either.  There is a mailing list for gifted homeschoolers that I post to frequently with little snapshots of our lives, as well as questions and concerns.   I realized yesterday as I was posting that what I was writing was more than just a little piece of advice to someone else -- it was a true picture of our family, something that might be worth reading again at some point. 

I also want a place to track myself as a teacher -- as the homeschooling mom and as the studio teacher.  I have a lot of stuff just randomly kicking around my head.  It might help me to work through it to actually put them on paper (or the screen).

So, again, welcome!  I look forward to sharing our journey with you.