Monday, December 14, 2009

Where I've Been

So this time, I have a much better excuse for disappearing from the blogosphere for two months. Namely, this little guy:

I sadly had to leave school in early November after a serious preterm labor scare. Fortunately, my wonderful head teachers were able to quickly arrange for some excellent subs--that took quite a load off my mind, as I was planning to teach until Winter break! I was on bedrest and other interventions for a few weeks, but the morning after Thanksgiving, little Finn Joseph decided he had had enough, and was born at 6:40 AM, weighing 5 lbs. 10 oz. at 34.5 weeks gestation. It was either a very quick (2.5 hrs.) or very long (4 weeks) labor, depending on how you look at it. :-)

Finn spent 11 days in the Special Care Nursery so he could learn to eat, but his lungs and everything else were fantastically healthy from the start. Now he's at home with us and so far, his big sister is completely in love, as are mom and dad. He is quite the little singer--he coos constantly while awake, and frequently while asleep.

As happy as we are to have our healthy little baby, I miss my "other kids" so much and feel sad that I just disappeared on them, though I know they're in good hands. I'm especially missing the holiday sings this week--one of my favorite events of the year. I can't wait to visit in January!

Happy holidays, everyone. :-)

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The first month of school--Middle School

Actually, it's the first 6 weeks of school... we are already halfway through the first trimester! Here are some highlights from my three Middle School electives this trimester.

First Year Music Rotation–This class is required of all MS first-years, and it serves as a bridge between the LS and MS music programs. With just ten or eleven students each trimester, it's a great opportunity for individual attention to students' interests as we explore the world of music through a variety of projects. We started the trimester by listening to a list of ten "mystery songs" from around the world. We discussed how our cultural background colored our own experience of the songs, then learned a little about how the songs would be perceived in their own culture–often polar opposites! Favorites included Tuvan throat singing, the Bulgarian Women's Choir, and the Drummers of Burundi. We then had a lively debate about how to create a universal definition of music. It was not an easy task, and in the end, the only thing everyone completely agreed upon was that music required sound waves! We went on to study rhythm through some drumming experiences of our own. Our first project was to create musical instruments out of found objects. Each student created two instruments, an idiophone and a second instrument that could be a chordophone, membranophone, or aerophone. Most recently we have been studying melody and harmony through our classroom xylophones. On Monday, students will be sharing their original compositions which show off the techniques we've been working on.

A Cappella Choir–Sixth period is the Middle School's first genuine a cappella choir! 15 girls and 1 very enthusiastic boy make up this sweet-sounding group. Creating three- and four-part harmony is a challenge at any age, and these tweens and teens are really rising to it. So far, we've learned an arrangement of "Hey Jude" and we're working on "Blackbird" and the ever-popular "Under the Sea," as well as some beautiful rounds. Stay tuned for a recording!

GarageBand–Another first in the Middle School, in the GarageBand elective we are going past the basics of dragging and dropping loops and learning to use GarageBand as a real tool for creative composition. After an exploration of the many features of this versatile program, we've started exploring style and genre through short projects. So far, students have composed the calm opening music for an imaginary show on yoga and meditation, and a soundtrack for a one-minute clip of an exciting soccer game. Now we're making our own real videos and experimenting with how our music can color, or even completely change, the emotional impact of a scene. You can listen to some of our completed projects at our wiki.

Monday, October 5, 2009

The first month of school--Lower School

I can hardly believe it's already October! The kids are bursting with energy from the cooling weather and the anticipation of Halloween, and they are full of enthusiasm for new projects and activities. Watch out for approaching storms--just today there was a poetry tornado in the Lower School!

Here are some highlights from our first month of music classes in the Lower School (I'll be posting about the Middle School separately):

  • Third-years in Forest and Mountain (as well as our new fourth-years) have received their new recorders! We've already learned to play our first three notes--B, A, and G--and are starting to read those notes on the staff and work in our new music notebooks. Fourth-years have been reviewing their recorder notes and are starting to work independently in the music notebooks. I'm hoping to soon film a few recorder tutorial videos similar to my ukulele tutorial videos so that interested students (and parents!) can refer to them at home. Stay tuned!
  • River and Sky classes have been playing our Orff instruments (xylophones) each Monday. They've learned to play lots of different accompaniment patterns to simple songs, and have had fun making up their own patterns and improvising tunes. Today, we reviewed a favorite song of the second years--"I've got a dog as thin as a rail..." Ask your child to sing it for you, complete with barks!
  • Forest and Mountain have also had their first class of the year playing the ever-popular ukuleles. River and Sky will get to this soon.
  • All classes discussed musical instrument families. We had a stringed instrument day, in which I demonstrated my harp and violin, and the students helped to figure out exactly how the sounds were produced and what all the parts of the instruments were for... plus, why it is that a violin costs so much more than a ukulele even though they both have four strings, and why you can't play a violin directly with a horse's tail no matter how friendly the horse.
  • We have all had our first music sharing day. In each music class, up to eight students signed up to bring in an instrument, recording, or other musical item or performance to share. We have quite a lot of talent in the Lower School, and I look forward to our next music sharing days in a couple of weeks!
  • River and Sky classes are learning the CFS Philosophy Song (you can hear it as sung at 2009 Springfest at our new website) We're discussing and singing one new verse each week. Soon your child will be able to explain to you exactly what CFS is all about, in rhymed verse!
Tomorrow, we'll start learning a beautiful song from our songbooks which your children are sure to sing at home, "Shady Grove." The older classes will learn to sing and play an ostinato (repeated pattern) during the song. This American folk song appears in many versions, some more appropriate for Lower School than others. The standard verses about getting married are sure to get a big "eeeew!", so here are the ones we'll be using. The song can be performed with just two chords, D minor and C major.

Shady grove, my little love
Shady grove, I know
Shady grove, my little love
I'm bound for the shady grove

Singin’ bird in the tree
Singin’ out so sweetly
Singin’ bird in the tree
Sing your song for me

Some come here to fiddle and dance
Some come here to tarry
Some come here to fiddle and dance
Whether sad or merry

Wish I had a fiddle string
Made of golden twine
Every time I played on it
Made music that was mine.

(lullaby verse)
Go to sleep, my little love
Go to sleep, my darling
Go to sleep, my little love
I'll see you in the morning.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Creating a musical home environment

One of the most common questions parents ask me, especially at the start of the school year, is "what should I be doing to help out my child's musical development?" The good news is that there is a lot you can do, without a big investment or any previous musical experience. Here are some ideas, followed by a list of musical resources.

  • Listen to lots of music of different genres. Music created specifically for kids is great for the younger set--my daughter and I have lots of favorite children's musicians and their music is wonderful for singing along, playing along, dancing, etc. However, don't limit yourself to children's music, even for the youngest kids. Kids and teens should hear lots of their parents' favorite music, too. Don't worry that it's over their heads or boring, as long as you're not exposing them to lyrics you don't want them to hear or turning it up too loud for sensitive young ears. Also, whether or not you are into classical music or jazz, these genres are fantastic for imaginative play, learning about the sounds of different instruments, and just enjoyment. It is especially important to expose your child to these styles if you plan for him or her to take music lessons at some point. No need to make a big investment--our area has great radio stations dedicated to these styles. Also check out the listening page at Classics for Kids to listen to free orchestral music picked especially for children.
  • Don't just listen to music. Pull out a tambourine or make drums out of pots and pans and play along! Dance to the music--combine it with dress-up play or dance with scarves and streamers. The more parts of their body and brain they engage, the more children learn--and they have more fun! And most importantly, sing, sing along. Children need to understand that music is a participatory experience, not just something other people do for us to hear.
  • Burst into song at any time. Sure to embarrass your teenager, younger kids will love it when you burst into song in the car, at the grocery store, while cooking dinner... So many adults think they can't sing. Sure, not everyone is ready to audition for the Met--or even American Idol--but humans were born to sing. Some researchers even believe the ability to sing and make music is a product of natural selection (more on that in a future post)! When I have a student who claims they can't sing, I ask if their parents can sing. Almost always, the answer is something like, "no, Mom says she's tone deaf." If you truly think you are tone deaf, try this test. Can you sing the universal kids' taunt, "nanny-nanny-boo-boo?" Now can you add words to it? Try, "I feel really silly," if you like. That was easy, right? Now change the words to "I can really sing..." and you're ready to go! Ask your child to teach you a song for inspiration.
  • Play with music technology. If you have a Mac, GarageBand is an easy to use, but powerful music creation tool included with your computer. GarageBand comes with thousands of loops, or little bits of music, that you can drag and drop along a timeline to create original songs. You can also add your own music or even record audio directly into the program. Similar programs exist for PCs. There are also lots of great websites out there to help you learn about and create music, aimed at different age groups. Here are a few:
  • Music lessons. I put this last on purpose, and will cover it in more detail in a future post. Too often, parents jump immediately to private lessons to add more music to their child's life. Don't get me wrong--private lessons are a great thing, nearly essential if your child would like to excel on a musical instrument. Teaching private lessons has been a major part of my career. However, children are rarely successful in private lessons if they do not have a musical environment at home. Younger children (under age 7 or 8) usually benefit more from general music activities than instrument-specific lessons which require a much longer attention span and commitment. If your lower school aged child will be taking music lessons, be prepared to practice with your child much of the time, and preferably, attend his or her lessons. Be sure to interview a prospective teacher before committing to lessons to see if he or she is a good match for your family--if a teacher or music school wants to sign your child up for lessons without meeting him or her first (or at least having a trial lesson or set of lessons), that's a red flag for someone just looking to fill a studio! 
Please feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments! I look forward to creating a positive musical environment with your children this Fall.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Catching up after a long blog hiatus

So it has been nearly 5 months since my last blog post--yikes! Now school is getting ready to start again, and next week I'll be teaching a blogs and wikis workshop to fellow teachers--so I'd better get with the program!

I hope you've all been having a wonderful summer. One reason I never caught up with my blog is that I've been able to spend quite a bit of the summer doing this:

It wasn't all lounging at Jordan Lake this summer, though. I had the opportunity to design and teach three weeks of summer camps at CFS. The first two weeks of the summer, I taught a camp called "Radio Show" for 9-12 year old campers. The subject of the camp was podcasting, and my campers turned into techie journalists, interviewing other campers all over CFS, editing their interviews in GarageBand, and even creating their own musical soundtracks and sound effects. We learned how to post our creations to a wiki for friends and family to enjoy.

The last week of July, I led a camp called "Musicians' Toolbox" for experienced musicians, age 10-13. This is an age when many music students start to lose motivation and have trouble keeping up with practicing their instrument. This camp was intended to inspire and motivate young musicians to explore their instrument and musical world in new ways. We coached each other on works in progress, improvised, composed (for our own instruments and less familiar ones), played with high-tech practice tools such as SmartMusic and GarageBand, played games, and put on a little show on the last day of camp. It was a talented, entertaining group, and I had a great time!

Earlier this week, I had the privilege of attending the annual North Carolina Symphony music educators' workshop in Raleigh. As a classically trained musician and classical music enthusiast, I was delighted to be given some inspirational ideas for my teaching, especially applicable in the Lower School. Not long ago, playing in orchestras and chamber ensembles was the major focus of my career. It is exciting for me to find some better ways to integrate these parts of my life--and to get students enthusiastic about this music!

I've saved the biggest news for last. Next time you see me you may notice that I have grown a bit larger. It's not just too many pints of Ben & Jerry's....

It's a boy!! Due 1/1/10. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Brain stuff

This post is primarily for fellow CFS staff, but parents may find it interesting too! During today's staff development workday, I attended a session led by Jon and Ida following up on our research on the brain in education. Matthew encouraged me to live blog the session, something I've never done but that connected nicely to his workshop on RSS (and gives another example of how we can take advantage of cutting edge technologies at CFS). My live blog is just a series of notes, and includes a bunch of books we discussed as well as some ideas as to how we can implement this knowledge in our teaching. Click on the play button below to view it. Below the live blog, I've pasted a copy of Jon's resource list for studying the brain. It's really fantastic!

Back to music in my next post. Enjoy!

Jon's Brain Resource List:
Resources for learning about the brain and neuroplasticity (in no particular order…)


The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge. This is by far the best book I read on the topic. This is accessible, remarkably interesting and reads quickly. Doidge makes some very convincing arguments about the relationship between neuroscience/neuroplasticity and his own background as a psychoanalyst, across the brain/mind divide. While he pushes to find some extreme examples of plasticity and wants to see plasticity everywhere, overall, this is a wonderful work that seems really in line with the emerging general consensus about the brain’s plasticity. It has also gotten very positive reviews from many neuroscientists.

The Brain Explained by Daniel Drubach. A solid primer on contemporary understandings of the brain. Pretty accessible.

Best of the Brain from Scientific American edited by Floyd E. Bloom. This is fantastic and broad collection of short, accessible and very interesting articles about a wide range of topics in contemporary brain science. Very short reads for the lay person. The 2008 anthology is out, but isn’t in the library yet, so I’ve only read the 2007 edition.

Cerebrum 2007: Emerging Ideas in Brain Science edited by Cynthia A. Read. A wonderful anthology from the Dana Foundation’s online journal that offers focused articles on some of the most contemporary and pressing issues being raised by brain science. This anthology seems directed to those interested in psychopharmacology and related medical fields, but this is still interesting an informative. I really liked the article on animals’ aesthetic sense. The 2008 anthology is out, but isn’t in the library yet, so I’ve only read the 2007 edition.

Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind by Gary Marcus. A book that is focused on the evolutionary construction of the brain’s architecture. This is a bit redundant and seems to be an intervention into the debates about Darwinism (against “Intelligent Design”), but it is accessible and gives a great overview of major topics related to the “mind” functions of the brain (such as memory and language), discussing their biological basis.

Welcome to Your Brain: Why You Lose Your Car Keys but Never Forget How to Drive and Other Puzzles of Everyday Life by Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang. This is a concise and accessible overview of how the brain works, but much more conservative in terms of plasticity than what Doidge offers. This is entertaining and a pretty quick read, but not as informative as some of the other resources I came across. I would recommend this as a supplementary resource.

Defining Right and Wrong in Brain Science: Essential Readings in Neuroethics edited by Walter Glannon. Neuroethics rocks! This is a fantastic anthology of the emergent field of neuroethics and covers a great range of legal and moral issues raised by the recent knowledge of how brains work. I think these will be the key questions about ethics and knowledge that our students will face in the future and this anthology also points to the ways in which neuroethics also raises questions about ethics and human identity. I call dibs on a neuroethics class, but I’d love to co-teach it. Hmmm, what would a Quaker neuroethics be like?

Zen and the Brain: Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness by James H. Austin. This groundbreaking book is written by a neuroscientist who is also a practicing Buddhist. By drawing on both, Austin writes a fascinating book on how and why meditation expands the brain. I’ve had this on my shelf for 9 years. I still haven’t finished it, but I was happy to have a reason to start reading it. Maybe I’ll finish it before another 9 years goes by.


“Inside the Teenage Brain” A really wonderful frontline program. If you want to watch it online, head to

“The Secret Life of the Brain” Available at CFS! An awesome PBS documentary on recent developments in brain science, though a few years old. For the companion website, go to


“Developmental structure in brain evolution.” An academic article on the brain and brain evolution.

“Your amazing brain…” A great, comprehensive (by topic, if not in terms of topical depth) website (with teacher resources) from the University of Bristol.

“Neuroscience for Kids” This is a phenomenal resource from the University of Washington. I wish I had had this when I took a brain science class in college!

From the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a solid list of brain-oriented resources for various topics, focused especially on brain development.

“Early Brain Development: What parents and caregivers need to know!” A good primer on early brain development with a top ten list of early development needs.

“Inside the Teenage Brain” This is the companion website to the PBS Frontline series of the same title. Fantastic and very accessible. So that’s why my students don’t turn in essays on time…

“Understanding Brain Development in Children” An NPR show, available in podcast for the auditory learner. A very nice interview to focus on brain development in the childhood years.

The first site—“Abnormal Surge in Brain Development Occurs in Teens, Young Adults With Schizophrenia”—overviews some recent research, as does the second one—“Study Enhances Understanding Of Brain Plasticity And Motor Skills, Signaling Advancements For Future Rehab Practices.” Interesting articles on these topics—gives a sense of how the research on brain plasticity is being applied to medical work.

“Scientists find why we need to re-read a page” A neat article about brain science and attention issues related to learning.

From MarketWatch, an online resource about economic trends, this article gives a sense of the booming industry that markets tools to help aging brains maintain their performance.

A great article from Science Daily, an online science resource, about the latest resource on the neurobiology of learning. Also, this has a great set of links to take you to other resources on related topics.

“SharpBrains” An online resource for brain training and fitness. Some great information about brain plasticity that is commercial, but not too commercialized.

From the Society for Neuroscience, “a nonprofit membership organization of scientists and physicians who study the brain and nervous system,” a briefing entitled “Brain Plasticity, Language Processing and Reading.” A great resource on that and the website is very rich for all things related to neuroscience (though not all for the lay audience).

For an interesting article about how research on plasticity is changing educational practices, see this news article. More information about FastForWord is available in Diodge’s book.

“How Brain Research Relates to Rigor, Relevance and Relationships” This is a very accessible academic paper on the relationship between neuroplasticity and K-12 education, with attention to what makes the best learning environments.

“Learning in the 21st Century” A wonderful PowerPoint online that is made by educators, for educators, about the relationship between brain science and education in the context of the current media-saturated environment in which our students are coming into themselves. This is concise without being too dumbed-down. Unlike my own PowerPoint.

From The Science Network, a great video on the relationship between science and educational practice, entitled “Brains R Us.” This is work that is sponsored by the National Science Foundation in an effort to make the work of neuroscientists more immediately applicable in education.

“Emerging Brain Plasticity Research,” a video hosted by Dan Rather. Shows the connection between neuroscience and meditation.

“Neuroscience Perspectives on Disparities in School Readiness and Cognitive Achievement” A section from a really great article discussing how research into neuroplasticity is related to debates about achievements gaps in education. This is from a collaboration between Princeton University and the Brookings Institute.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Online Ukulele Lessons and Tools

As a specials/electives teacher, I hand all my evaluations and comments to classroom teachers and advisors the day before conferences start. I get to spend the two parent/teacher conference days working on all those projects that keep getting pushed to the back burner.

I've been delighted by the number of kids who have let me know that they're playing ukulele at home--whether they dusted off that old uke in the closet, or bought a new one. However, some kids and parents have also told me that they're having trouble practicing at home because they aren't quite sure what to do, and don't know how to tune the ukulele. I decided a good use for all this high tech stuff I'm always promoting would be to put some videos on my blog to help families get started with ukulele at home. So during my work days, I sat down and recorded five video tutorials, from tuning your ukulele to first songs. I hope you find them useful! Here's the first one, and the rest can be found through my channel at YouTube.

The rest of the videos will teach you a couple of songs on the open strings, the C chord and F chord, and several two-chord songs including "Hey Lolly" and "Simple Gifts."

I also found this great little interactive ukulele chord chart:

If you're really ready for a challenge, check out the huge selection of songs at Dr. Uke. Happy playing!

Monday, February 9, 2009

Middle School visits River City, and a shout-out!

It was a big weekend at the Middle School--months of hard work culminated in an amazing run of "The Music Man." All three shows were sold out, and we even had quite a few folks at our open dress rehearsal. The actors were amazing! I feel so honored and blessed to work in such an energized, positive, and talented community. As I told many friends and parents, musically directing this show was such a blast that it didn't even feel like work--except learning to play that darn scene change music at the last minute! During the shows, I acted as musical director/pianist/producer of sound effects... and performed my debut on snare drum, hitherto heard only on my drum pads for Rock Band 2 for the Wii.

One of my favorite parts of the MS show experience was the opportunity to work with Toni (director) and Henry (producer). I look forward to many more musicals with this team. I'd also like to give a shout-out to Henry's blog, where he publishes his wonderful poetry. His most recent entry, "giving enough time," includes a sweet picture of my little one.

Trimester 2 is drawing to a close, and our third trimester will begin right after Feb. parent/teacher conferences. I'll miss musically directing, but I'll have the opportunity to teach two new classes. In "Renaissance Consort," students will learn about the Renaissance while putting together a consort of soprano and alto recorders. In "That's Whack," we'll pretty much whack on things. Those things will include Boomwhackers (musical plastic tubes), small percussion, and "found" instruments. Both groups will perform late in the trimester. I'll also be teaching the remaining third of the first-year class in music rotation.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

GarageBand, Music Man, and LS Ukuleles

Welcome back to school, a few weeks late! There is so much going on it's hard to know where to start. Here are a few highlights:

In First-Year Music Rotation in the MS, we finished up our unit on melody and Orff instruments, and moved on to the much awaited GarageBand unit. I love using GarageBand with students because it's so intuitive--almost like a musical version of desktop publishing software. With just a little knowledge you can create an appealing first project, but the sky's the limit for a creative musician. Next week we'll have the mobile lab (thanks Jim!) to work on individual short projects, so last week, we learned the basics by creating a collaborative class song. Click here to listen. I think it sums up our trimester pretty well. :-) I'll post some of our individual projects next week, and stay tuned to hear about next year's GarageBand elective!

"Music Man" opens in less than a week. Yikes! At this point in a production, the directors always feel like they need another month to be ready for opening night... and this show is no different! But we have an awesome cast and crew, and I know we will pull it together. It's mostly sold out, but if you miss out on tickets, please come to our open dress rehearsal this Wed. from 6:30-9:30. I have thoroughly enjoyed my first musical theater project at CFS, and can't wait for the next!

The first week back from the holidays, I gave my Lower Schoolers a clue about a big surprise coming to music class. The clue was this: "There are hundreds, maybe thousands of songs that only have one or two chords in them." To their great frustration, I refused to answer any questions about the clue or the surprise. Last week, they were presented with 18 shiny new ukuleles!
Ukuleles have become a fixture in the Middle School, thanks to the efforts of Ida and Matthew. Now, we'll be starting them in the Lower School and kids will soon be able to take advanced ukulele electives in the Middle School. River and Sky will learn the playing position, the parts of the uke, the basics of the four strings, a basic strum or two, one or two chords, and some individual notes for playing tunes. Forest and Mountain will learn all this, then add on more chords and fingerpicking. We'll continue to play recorders in Forest and Mountain, too, so all our older kids will have wind and string experience.

I'll be sending an email to all our LS parents to give you more details about the ukuleles, including information if you'd like to have one at home (completely optional). I highly recommend High Strung in Durham for all your uke needs--it's a great local store and they are one of the only places that professionally sets up even their cheapest ukuleles. Once "Music Man" is over, I hope to create a couple of short video tutorials you can use at home if you decide to purchase a ukulele.