Monday, December 16, 2013

A Poem for My Publishing Friends

Editor Emma and Publisher Paige        
By Alison Taylor, 2013

Editor Emma and Publisher Paige
Worked very hard for a very small wage.
Day after day, hour after hour,
They worked on the books, gave the sentences power.

Editor Emma told Publisher Paige
“We can’t work this hard for this small a wage.”
But Publisher Paige just told Editor Emma,
“I really don’t care, it’s a tiny dilemma.”

Then Editor Emma got really upset.
“You can work this hard, but this you’ll regret!”
But Publisher Paige just shrugged and said, “Fine.
I need this job, it’s my place to shine.”

Editor Emma just stormed out the door,
Leaving footprints all over Paige’s office floor.
But Publisher Paige didn’t stay for a minute,
She kept doing her work for a time infinite.

So in the end, Miss Paige had a job.
But Picky old Emma could only sob.
Homeless and moneyless (she didn’t get paid),
She was regretful instead of Paige.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Enough with the Mommy Guilt

I've been reminded lately that I need to chill out a little bit. It's easy for me to jump to conclusions (somehow they are always bad ones) and assume the worst about a situation. The problem is that in parenting this leads to unnecessary mommy guilt. I walk around with a huge burden, feeling like I'm failing my children. But they didn't put that burden there, I did. I offer you two exhibits as evidence:

Exhibit A:

These notes
greeted me on my dresser one night when I came home from an activity. The kids were already in bed at this point, and my husband told me that around this child's bed were increasingly adamant notes about the tooth fairy needing to make an appearance. "TOOTH HERE!" "TOOTH UNDER PILLOW!" "Tooth fairy, PLEASE COME!" Somehow the tooth fairy has a very hard time making it to our house. Actually, the pizza man does too, because GPS's misdirect them, so maybe the tooth fairy has the same GPS. Whatever the reason, it often takes several weeks for the tooth fairy to pay up. Yes, I feel guilty about this, and I vow to do better, but somehow it's hard for me to remember.

So of course when I saw this note I jumped to the conclusion that this child had lost a tooth weeks previously and had been waiting for us to notice, all the while becoming emotionally scarred because we failed to see the gap in her smile. I was imagining that every night at dinner she'd sit silently hoping that maybe someone would take note of this significant event in her life, and no one ever did. I was absolutely riddled with guilt. I was ready to give this child $20 for her tooth (our usual rate is $1, or $2 if we are really slow at paying, or $3 for a pulled tooth). My husband urged me not to try to buy her off, so we gave her $2, but I still felt terrible. We typed up a very lengthy note from the tooth fairy explaining that she had noticed the lost tooth, and I think we said she had been short of cash.

Now three weeks before this event, this same child had lost a tooth, and not having any dollar bills I had paid in quarters with a little note of explanation. Apparently I had disguised my handwriting well, because I heard the girls discussing the note and agreeing that it wasn't from me.
So on this night, just before I put the $2 and the typed note under the child's pillow, I wondered aloud, "you don't think this is the same tooth that I already paid for in quarters, do you? This child isn't trying to get paid twice for the same tooth, is she? Surely not."

Well, as you can probably guess, it was in fact the same tooth. The child in question had thought that the quarters were put under her pillow by an older sister, and were in fact her own quarters from her piggy bank, so she had tried again. My extreme mommy guilt was uncalled for.

Exhibit B:

Do you see this picture of our family, drawn by my first-grade son? All of us are lined up in age order, and then Dad is above us in a hot air balloon. The psychologists among you are probably thinking what I thought: Why is Dad in a hot air balloon? Does this child think he is absent? Above the rest of us? (probably that one is true). And why does the hot air balloon look like a prison? Does the child think he is imprisoned by work? Surely this picture means something profound.

I had learned my lesson from the tooth fairy extortion of 2013. I would not jump to conclusions, I would ask the child. So I asked him why Dad was in a hot air balloon. My son smiled and said, "I ran out of room." Ah, crisis averted. And putting him in a hot air balloon was actually a pretty clever way for it to make sense that he wasn't standing with the rest of us.

I laughed about both of these events, but they made me think. I wish I could stop over-analyzing every situation and assuming the worst. I wonder how many times I have imposed thoughts and feelings on my children that were not even there. I wonder how many times my mommy guilt has been a good thing that leads me to be a better mom, and how many times it has led to unnecessary worry, stress, and anxiety. My guess is that it has only been justified and useful about twenty percent of the time.

I wonder why I always blame myself for every struggle my children have. If they react badly to something or are overwhelmed, it's my fault for not preparing them for it. If they are struggling with a friend, I wasn't the first person they came to for help because I'm a bad mom. If they are struggling in school, it's my DNA that makes that skill hard for them. If they seem down or discouraged, it's my fault for not helping them be happy.

I've had enough. I am ready to own the twenty percent of the mommy guilt that is mine and do something about it, and ignore the other eighty percent. I don't know exactly how to do that, but I hope remembering these two incidents will help. Maybe a good first step is asking my kids what they think of me, like the kids in this video. My guess is that they think I'm doing a better job of this whole mom thing than I think I'm doing. And probably they don't blame me for most of their struggles because they are too busy blaming themselves. Hmmm. Maybe getting rid of unnecessary guilt would help all of us!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

A Good Enough Runner

I've been a little absent here for the past six months or so. The reasons for that abound but I can't quite put it all into words, at least not on paper. Something about finding my focus, or perhaps losing it. Anyway, here we are with a fresh page.

One thing I did this summer was run. I started with a just-over-30 minute 5K in June, ran a just-under-30 minute 5K in July, and finished with a half marathon in November. I still don't feel like a runner, but with three races in just a few months and a mapmyrun statistic of over 400 miles run, maybe I am a runner after all. Here's what I learned this year (for what I learned last year, see here).

1) Training takes time. I was underprepared for the half marathon, and after this experience I am quite sure I do not have time to train for a marathon.

2) But then, I don't think I ever want to run a marathon. Maybe I could do it...maybe...but 13.1 miles is farther than it sounds. I have a new respect for marathoners, especially those with young children.

3) That said, anyone with a reasonable degree of health can run a half marathon. If I can do it, anyone can. It can even be done with less than the recommended training. I got an injury during the last six weeks of training and really fell off the schedule (plus, it was cold and dark in October!). And during the race my knee quit at mile 12 and I absolutely could not run after that point. An ignominious ending, but at least I hobbled my way to the finish line and got my medal. And I finished before 700 other people who ran the same race!

4) Race day really is fun. The excitement, the camaraderie with other runners, the cheering crowds even for those who limp across the finish line like I did are all very inspiring. You should try it!

5) The other great thing about races is that you are motivated to do your best. I was averaging under 10-minute miles for the first five miles, which is faster than I usually can do for five miles in a row. When everyone else is running, you don't stop to walk. If I ever run a half marathon again, I hope that I can complete the full training (no silly injuries) and run it closer or even under 2:15.

6) Two days after my race the soreness has worn off, the disappointment over limping the last mile when everyone else was running to the finish has faded, and I think to myself, I ran a half marathon. That was something. Yes, almost anyone can do it, but not everyone does. 
Here I am at the finish line, grimacing in pain. By the time we got home I almost could not walk.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Hiking Trips and Letting Go

When you tell people that your husband is leaving you alone with five kids to go on a hiking trip...or biking...or what have you, you get a variety of responses. Some people (men mostly) enviously ask, "How long is he gone?" or "Where did he go? That sounds great!" Some people (mothers of young children mostly) ask, "How long is he gone? Do you need anything? When is your turn?" Some people simply ask "Why?" They wonder how he can justify it, how you can support it, or maybe secretly IF you support it. They wonder if it's Biblically defensible to do such a thing, or a little selfish.

I've written about my husband's first camping trip, and how it led to an identity crisis for me. I'm not there anymore. Now I totally "get it" that he needs time away. Maybe it's because now I take yearly jewelry-making trips myself. Maybe it's because he comes back so refreshed. Maybe it's because the kids are a little older now, and the whole thing is a lot less daunting. Maybe it's because his several international trips of two weeks have made these 5-7 day trips seem like nothing. (Well, almost nothing...the night I was trying to finish up teacher gifts and teacher cards on the heels of celebrating a child's birthday was a little stressful.) Maybe it's understanding more of God's grace to me and being able to extend it to him in response.

All the same, for those who wonder, here is why I think these camping trips are a good idea, even Biblically defensible:

1) God made us to need rest. That's what the Sabbath is all about--a gift from Him for our tired bodies and tired souls. And in this day and age it isn't always easy to rest. So sometimes you need to get away so far that you can't be reached by cellphone or email or nervous-nelly wives.

2) The change of routine is good for all of us, even those who are left behind. It's good for the kids to have a few days of realizing mom can handle things on her own, and to learn to pitch in a little more than usual. It's nice to be reunited after a time apart--it makes us all appreciate each other a little more. I've even found I can be more productive on some of these long weekends of single parenting when there is no compelling reason to make a fancy dinner or clean the house.

3) It's good to enjoy God's creation, and though you can kind of do that in Illinois, I think you can do it better in the mountains, or by a lake, or somewhere equally beautiful. Seeing new parts of the world lends a certain perspective on our faith. It helps us remember that God is bigger than our little family, or our little corner. It's impossible to see a beautiful vista and not be driven to worship if you're a believer.

4) It stretches us. I don't know if my husband was stretched on this trip, but I know I was stretched by him going. Hiking snow-covered mountains in June that are supposed to be attempted in August when the snow has melted, well, I didn't like that part. I wasn't real thrilled to hear they needed helmets and ice axes. Add to that three very optimistic men, and it could have ended badly. I let my husband go knowing that there was a chance he wouldn't return, but knowing that if he didn't, it was okay. God was still in control. My husband wasn't taking an unreasonable risk, and I knew he could just as easily die on the ride to work tomorrow morning as on top of a mountain. I'm happy to report that he is returning safe and sound. And I'm also happy to report that I let him go and I didn't fall apart. My faith grew a little this week.

What do you think? Are there other good reasons for a week away from wife and children that I haven't thought of?

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Sunday Morning: Keeping It Real

Here is what my five-year-old wore to church this morning.
Note the tattoos on his arms, which he applied using a stamp after I tucked him in last night. And if he seems confused about the season, you really can't blame him because it was 46 degrees a few nights ago and 85 last week.

Here is what the three-year-old wore to church this morning.
Now guess which one I helped dress, and which one I didn't see until we got out of the car at church.

Monday, May 13, 2013

An Unexpected Blessing

Have you ever reacted to something differently than you thought you would? Maybe it was the pregnancy hormones, but I am ashamed to admit that when I found out my fourth baby was going to be a boy, after having three girls, I cried. I was surprised. And scared. I knew how to do girls. They were like me. But a boy? What on earth would I do with a boy? And how could he possibly turn out normal in a family of all girls? Would I have to buy him dinosaurs? Because I really don't like dinosaurs--I think they are icky.

A few days later the dust settled and I decided I would just not encourage any dinosaur toys, and I felt a little better. I figured a baby is a baby, and I could do babies, and we'd figure out the whole boy thing as we went along.

Surprisingly, having a boy felt different to me from day one. I had a sense that he and I had a bond that was meant to prepare him to move away from me in a way that was different from the girls. With daughters, you'll always have "girl things" in common with them. But with boys, they grow up and move on to be a man with a family of their own. And that reality somehow makes the bond you have with them all the more sweet. Maybe it seems unexpected in some way.

But the thing I was most unprepared for was the way a boy melts your heart when he brings you a bouquet of flowers. You expect girls to pick you flowers, and you know they like the flowers as much as you do. But boys? Somehow it seems like it was just done for you.

I didn't know I needed a boy, but God did. I didn't know how wonderful and sweet boys could be, but God did. And I didn't know that my life wasn't complete without this sweet face in it to challenge me and light up my life, but God did. I'm so thankful He gives us what we need rather than what we ask for!

Monday, May 6, 2013

Releasing the Creative Wonders Within, Part 2

Last week I wrote about part one of the creative process: just go do it. There is discipline involved in this soul-healing act of creating. Sitting down in your creative space is half the battle. But there's another part too, and that is learning to silence the critic in your own head.

It's not good enough. I don't like this part of it. This isn't how I thought it would turn out. I like hers better....

It's kind of a metaphor for life, isn't it? We look at our circumstances and think we're not doing well enough at life. We feel like we're failing someone. Or everyone. We don't like what's happening around us. Things don't turn out like we expected them to, and we would rather have someone else's life. We acutely feel the disconnect between the-way-it-was-supposed-to-be and the-way-it-is. The curse of sin and death is all around us.

So, what should we do about it? And how does this relate to creativity? I think the way we are supposed to face life is to focus on the constant of God's character and filter our impression of life through the lens of that truth. If you look at the book of Job in the Bible, Job's problem wasn't that bad things happened to him and his friends gave him bad advice (although both of those things are true); his problem was that he lost perspective. He began to view God in terms of his experiences rather than viewing his experiences through the unchanging truth of who God is. God didn't change, and His love for Job didn't change, but Job allowed his circumstances to deceive him. He began to suspect God rather than trusting Him.

I think all of this relates to the creative process. The most important aspect of who you are is that you are created by and loved by the almighty God. And if you rest in that truth, the flaws in your creations don't matter so much. You can ease up on the negative self-talk and enjoy creating because you know your Heavenly Father delights in you and in all you do in His name. Just as you delight in everything your child lovingly creates for you, God lovingly delights in YOU, and in everything that you pour out of your soul and into your creations. Your accomplishments start to not matter so much, because you know deep in your soul that you are loved absolutely. And when you feel that way, you are freed up to enjoy releasing everything God put inside you without worrying about what others think.
The just-turned-three-year-old's self-portrait.

The almost-six-year-old mainly draws monsters these days.

Something I created this week.

So, dear sister, I hope that today you know that you are loved, and I hope that you know that no matter what your life looks like God is still good and He will always love you and work for your good, and I hope that the deep knowledge of those truths enables you to live free from self-criticism, free to be all that God created you to be.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Releasing the Creative Wonders Within, part 1

I started writing this last night, when the children were heading for bed and I was in a peaceful frame of mind. This morning has not been very peaceful, and my children have made me feel like an absolute failure as a mother. The weather outside is cold and gloomy, and the last thing I feel like doing is being this is now for me more than you!

You, dear friend, are an artist. You can create amazing things. And in fact you are supposed to create amazing things. That's why God created you in His image--to create.

So, today, go create something. It'll make you feel better. I promise. Maybe you want to get out some crayons and color something. Maybe you want to write. Or cook. Maybe you want to sew, or make jewelry, or garden. Maybe you want to make music. Whatever it is, go do it.

I give you permission to leave the dirty dishes on the counter, to ignore the laundry for one more day. I give you permission to order pizza for dinner rather than cook. I give you permission to let the kids create along with you or do their own thing, whichever they prefer. I give you permission to give a few precious minutes to yourself, to create whatever makes you smile.

You don't have time, you say? Ninety percent of this creative process is showing up. It's pushing aside all the excuses and going into your creative space (which may be your kitchen table or your yard) and doing something. It's starting anything, even if your first few tries are not things you ever want to be seen or heard by anyone else. It's taking the risk of putting pen to paper or hand to trowel or spoon to mixing bowl.

So stop worrying about whether you  have three hours to devote to it, or if you're in the mood, or if you're going to like what you come up with. Stop feeling guilty about the should-be-doings. And just let the creative juices flow for 15 minutes. Or five. Or However long you have. Put away the excuses and create.

Ready? Set. Go!

p.s. Tell me what you made. But more importantly, tell me how it made you feel. I bet you'll feel happy and content and empowered when you're finished.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Weary of Sin

I woke up this morning with the sun streaming in my window at 6:30. It was heavenly. And then I cozied down in my chair with my cup of coffee and read my Bible before the day began. I was in a great frame of mind...until the kids made their appearance.

Sometimes I wish they would just grow up a little, ya know? Yesterday two kids lied to me and forgot important things I had reminded them about repeatedly. Others bickered with each other and whined when asked to do basic maintenance on their own space (in other words, pick up the pile of socks and underwear in the middle of their room). Today we're at it again--arguing about whether or not to do what mom said, or just plain not doing it and then "running out of time." I'm weary of the task of parenting.

Of course, they are acting their age. It is part of being a kid to be irresponsible (although maybe not quite THIS irresponsible), to lie, to be lazy, to fight against authority...Just like it's part of being an adult to be impatient and unloving. It's all called sin.

In my Bible reading this morning I read Nehemiah 9, which is the account of the people's repentance after the wall was completed. There is a long prayer that the Levites gave, recounting Israel's history and God's faithfulness. I made a list in my journal of all the things it says about God...He is gracious, merciful, provider, creator, slow to anger and full of unfailing love, forgiving, just, true to His word. I came up with 21 adjectives from this chapter. Then I made a list of all the descriptions of the people...stubborn, rebellious, unfaithful, disobedient, obstinate. There isn't one positive description of the people, unless you count the fact that at that moment they were repentant.

It was a good reminder on a day when I'm weary of parenting that this muddle of sin we're in is part of life, but there is hope. Kids will act like kids and adults will act like kids and we are all stuck in sin but for this: "You are a God of forgiveness, gracious and merciful, slow to become angry, and rich in unfailing love. You did not abandon them..." (Neh. 9:17). And He will not abandon us. His gracious help is always available when we ask for it.

If today is one of those days for you, and you're a little tired of the sin in your heart and the sin in those around you, take courage. God is merciful and gracious, full of unfailing love for you and for everyone around you. Even our stubborn and rebellious hearts do not make Him love us any less!

Friday, April 26, 2013

Life with No Regrets

We pause and catch our breath when we hear of a friend's cancer diagnosis, or a child who has died way too young, or a deadly explosion at the finish line of a race. We vow to hold our children tighter, to live with no regrets. And we do slow down for a moment or two, until life starts racing by again and we have to run to catch up with it.

We hear older parents tell us that they wish they had enjoyed life more, that it all went by too fast, and we decide to learn from their experiences and slow down. We ponder the passing of time, perhaps shedding a few tears for all the milestones that have come and gone. And we again vow to live with no regrets, to savor each moment.

That perspective is good to keep in mind, but we do still have to live. Children need to be fed and clothed. Careers need to be managed so they can be productive and fulfilling. Houses need to be cleaned lest we end up on an episode of Hoarders. Life is time-consuming, and much of it is mundane. We can't escape the dailiness of it all. Nor should we--God gave Adam and Eve the garden to tend, good work to fill their days.

The question of what I would do today if this were my last day on earth has to be balanced with the question of how I can prepare for tomorrow in case this isn't my last day. I think it's about grasping and loving the "heaven moments" AND the "have-to-dos." We don't want to miss a moment to slow down and talk with someone we love, but we also mustn't neglect putting dinner on the table.

I think living with no regrets is more about having a contented and grateful outlook than it is about anything else. My problem isn't that I don't realize my children are growing up too fast, my problem is that I spend too much time mourning that fact and feeling guilty if every day I spend with them isn't full of wonderful tea parties or exciting outings to the zoo. I look at the drops that are falling through my hands instead of the living water that remains.

The thing I will most regret is if I wish away all my daily tasks searching for some elusive life-without-regrets. I don't want to be guilted into despising the work I need to do. Living without regret means finding the rainbow in the dish soap, as Ann Voskamp reminds us, or savoring the sweet smile on my toddler's face as I help them get dressed. It's thanking God for hours of editing work, even if it does keep me from playing in the yard with the kids all day--and then really enjoying the 15 minutes I do have to play in the yard. God made us to need daily bread, so the work we have to put in to get that daily bread is every bit as sacred as the celebration of eating it.

Today, I will live without regrets by thanking God for every moment, the highs and the lows. I will rejoice in the simple things. I will enjoy my work. And I will live without the guilty voice inside that tells me to savor the time that slips through  my fingers--living gratefully IS savoring.

Ready for the Weekend

Someone in our house is ready for a weekend of sun and relaxation!

Thursday, April 25, 2013

What about Practicing? part 3

Practicing. The word probably brings you back to your own childhood, to days spent inside chained to your instrument while you listened to the neighborhood kids playing outside. Once you've decided to invest in music lessons for your child, you face the task of getting them to practice so your money isn't wasted.

Any way you look at it, some days your kids just don't want to practice. It is sometimes a chore. It is often difficult. It is occasionally close to torture, and if your kids feel that way then usually you do too. But it has to be done. So, how can we make it more fun? Some of these tips will apply mainly to Suzuki parents, but lots of them can apply to anyone who takes music lessons.

1) Rewards and charts. Some kids are motivated by putting a sticker on a practice chart, keeping track of consecutive days of practice, or adding up practice minutes per week. Put pieces in a Mr. Potato Head for each successful repetition. On a particularly difficult piece, give M&Ms or mini marshmallows for each good repetition. These can help them persevere on boring days. Ask your teacher if they'll set up a reward system or help your child set a goal and provide a reward for reaching that goal.

2) Add in unpredictability. If they're well into a Suzuki book, have your child pull numbers or song titles out of a hat and play them in that order. Or if they're learning a difficult piece, number each line and pull a number out of a hat and play the line that matches that number. Create a game spinner with musical keys and have then play the scale of the number they spin. Roll a die to determine how many times to play a piece. Anything to make it feel like the parent isn't controlling every aspect of practicing helps.

3) Break up the practice session. Sometimes I can only fight the "time to practice" battle once in a day, and in that case I do all the practicing in one shot. But sometimes, especially with younger kids or when we have a lot of activities in one day, it's nice to break it into 10- or 15-minute increments. Long enough to accomplish something, but short enough to keep it interesting.

4) Focus on one thing each day. I'm notorious for disobeying this rule, but it is best to focus on one thing per practice session--hand position, steady beat, dynamics, or whatever. At least try to keep it to one thing to concentrate on for each piece. Perhaps the Debussy needs dynamics and the Chopin needs slow metronome work. Don't try to do everything at once. Manageable, achievable goals help keep kids motivated and make them feel like they are accomplishing something.

5) Building off of #4, Focus on something for each piece. Don't just treat a practice session as a list of boxes to check off or you will both be bored. Unless a piece is merely for review, there is always something to have the child concentrate on: hand position, dynamics, steady beat, expression... Find clever adjectives to help it be more interesting: "pretend like your fingers are fairies dancing across the keys on this one"; "pretend like I'm trying to dance to this one--slow down so I can keep up"; "make this one sound like a stream flowing down the mountain."

6) Let (or make) them perform often. Maybe the child should play for the non-practicing parent each week. If grandma comes to visit, that's a great time for a recital. Performing reminds kids of why they are practicing (to perfect the piece) and helps them become more comfortable with the idea of performing.

7) Let them choose some of their music. Kids need to play standard repertoire, but as they get a little further with their instrument it's great to let them choose songs they want to play and even try their hand at improvising. Playing "fun" stuff reminds them of why they are working so hard--so they can get to the point where everything they play is something they've chosen to play.

8) Praise, praise, praise. Here's another one I'm not good at. Kids will love playing and tolerate practicing if at the end of their time they feel good about what they've done. Find something positive to say at the end of each piece.

9) Build community. Some instruments are mainly ensemble instruments, and in that case there is built-in community. But some instruments, like piano, can be isolating. Find places and opportunities for your child to play with other people. Send them to music camp. Play sibling or parent/child duets. Let them improvise with other kids or try their hand at accompanying a soloist or their school orchestra.

10) Provide many opportunities to hear beautiful music. Go to concerts, listen to a variety of types of music in the car, and let them hear older children play.

Your turn: What are your best practicing tips? How do you help your child stay motivated?

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Which Music Lessons? part 2

I hope you read yesterday's post about why we spend our money on music lessons rather than on something else. Today we're talking about the different kinds of lessons you can choose. For Suzuki case studies, see the videos at the end!

Once we had made the decision--or perhaps I should say fallen into the decision, because somehow it felt more like a compulsion and less like a choice--to put our then-three-year-old daughter into music lessons, the question was what kind. In music instruction, you kind of get what you pay for and you definitely get what you put in as far as practicing. You can luck out with a very talented high schooler who only charges you $10/lesson and has a knack for teaching and a child who loves to practice an hour a day, but for most of us that doesn't fall into our laps. The basic types of music instruction are:

1) Traditional lessons. You start these around age 6 or above, when the child has a grasp of reading and can therefore learn to "read" the notes right off the bat. This is how I learned, and I progressed at probably an average rate and after 7 years could pluck out a hymn with lots of practice and work really hard at the simplest Chopin pieces for a recital. I was okay, but I certainly didn't have the knowledge or confidence to accompany our high school choir or anything like that.

2) Suzuki lessons. These lessons start at age 4 or 5 (I recommend age 5 for boys). This type of music instruction is based on the idea that young children can learn music the same way they learn language--by hearing it and imitating it. Each day they listen to a CD of the pieces they are learning, so when they come to learn the next piece in the book they already know how it should sound and can learn by ear. The student has a private lesson and a group lesson each week, and there is a huge emphasis on regular performance. The Suzuki student can play impressive pieces at a young age and always has two or three memorized pieces they can play at a moment's notice.

One of the complaints about Suzuki instruction is that kids don't learn to read music. This has not been true in our experience. For the first year (age 4 to age 5) they are learning their first 18 or so pieces, the music in book one. Then they have a recital in which they play all of those pieces in order. Learning book one well enough to have your recital takes one or two years, usually. When that is completed, students begin to learn to read music from a typical note-reading curriculum while also moving on to Suzuki book two, which is much harder than book one but miraculously (it seems miraculous to the parent, anyway), they can do it. It takes a few years for their sight reading to catch up with the Suzuki pieces they learn mainly by ear, but around book three or four it does catch up. I'm not saying they can sit down and play any piece perfectly the first time, but then I couldn't do that with my traditional lessons either!

The other important piece of Suzuki instruction is that the parent practices with the child each day and attends each lesson. If you are a really good Suzuki parent you sit with your child and practice each piece with them, reminding them of what the teacher said and making sure the student plays it correctly. I am not a really good Suzuki parent. When my first child started taking lessons the week she turned four, I had a four-month-old baby to attend to during practice sessions. Now I have four kids in Suzuki lessons, and I am often making dinner while a child is practicing. On a given day I am 80 or 90 percent attentive to the youngest child, 60 percent attentive to two of the others, and not even present for the last child. That's life. But we muddle along and they are doing well in spite of that.

3) Yamaha lessons. I don't know much of anything about these, but my limited research indicates that for the first two years kids are only given group instruction, and then they move into private lessons after that. There is combined emphasis on ear training and note reading, I think. If I'm right in saying that they start out with only group lessons then I'd guess kids move more slowly than they would in Suzuki, but have a better ear than kids with only traditional lessons.

4) Early childhood music. There are kindermusik and similar programs for younger kids, from baby up to about six, and I love these classes. They are fun parent-child bonding, and they teach kids the basics of music (fast/slow, loud/soft, matching pitches, rhythm patterns, and the like). It's organized musical playtime you do with your child. All my kids took various early childhood music classes, and I think it set them up to do better in formal music instruction. But even if the child never takes formal music lessons, early childhood music classes are a great thing to do. I thought they were more fun and interesting than the mom-and-me tumbling classes we took.

Since you're probably familiar with how kids sound who take traditional lessons, I'll give you a few cases studies of how Suzuki kids play and let you draw your own conclusions. This first one is Bethany at 7 1/2 years, which means she had been taking lessons for 3.5 years. I love the glare she throws over her shoulder when the audience applauds between movements.

This one is Alison at the same recital, so she was 4 (almost 5) and had been taking for less than a year. I don't know why we let her play a piece that she didn't yet know the left hand of. But she's got poise and great accents where they belong!

And these are from a year ago. Alison at age 9, after 5 years of instruction.

Bethany at 12, having taken for 8 years.

Meredith's performance at last year's recital wasn't great, so somehow the only video we have of her playing is this one, from when she was 6. It's not a Suzuki piece, so this shows her sight reading level after 1 year of music reading (2.5 years of total instruction).

Up tomorrow: practicing tips. If you have any questions related to music and kids, send them my way and I'll try to answer them!

Monday, April 22, 2013

Why Music Lessons? Part 1

Hey, what do you know, I can still access this blog after so many months off! Today's post is inspired by a conversation I've had many times with many different people about music lessons. Tune in the rest of this week for more on the topic! These are my impressions and experiences, and will probably not match everyone's experiences.

We spend an awful lot of money on piano lessons for our oldest four children. As in, way more than we spend on anything else except the mortgage. It's rather alarming, really, in a one-and-a-quarter income family. So the question comes up, why? Here's our answer:

1) Music is a whole-life skill. I think music is one of the only things that kids need to start early to be good at and will pursue for their whole lives. Sports are great, and if a kid is going to be a professional athlete I'm sure it's important to start on the early side. But at some point your body starts to wear out and you lose some of your ability, and many sports you can pick up for recreation at any point in your life and improve. Music, while you can start later, you will make much slower progress because your brain isn't as agile as a child's.

2) Music makes you smart. Music is good for kids' brains, so you're helping them with things like discipline and perseverance AND you're making them smarter. For proof, read articles here and here. Music lessons are sort a one-stop shop for lots of great things--character development, brain boosting, and self-confidence, to name a few.

3) Music gives you self-esteem. It's really nice for kids to have something they feel good about. Recitals may not be my favorite way to spend my Sunday, but what a great thing for my kids to regularly perform by themselves, conquer their fears, and succeed at. And on the rare occasions when they don't succeed, they learn that the world doesn't end just because they didn't do as well as they wanted to, and they usually practice more before the next recital.

4) Music makes you more sensitive. It teaches kids to pay attention to sound, to play soft and loud, to express their feelings in a different way. One of my kids I thought at 5 needed a little softening, and I think music has done that.

5) Music teaches discipline. I'm putting this one toward the end because I think there are a lot of kids' activities that do this. Anything they have to work at and struggle through is good for them in the long run. Music is the arena I've chosen for my kids to learn these life lessons in.

6) Music trains them for worship. When our oldest child showed unusual music perception, it felt like it would be poor stewardship of the gifts God has given us to not start her in music lessons. And part of that is because I want the next generation of believers to have educated musicians to lead them in worship. And people sitting in the pews who can read a line of music. And people who appreciate classical music as well as the latest praise song. Even if you're not a Christian, music has the ability to touch us and move us as nothing else can, so it's important for a culture and a society to have skilled musicians and educated music-appreciators.

Come back tomorrow for part 2 of this series, what the Suzuki method is like.