Suzuki Breakthrough: Symphony Nanny Nanny Boo Boo

My kids had graduation recitals in November. Grad recitals are a Suzuki violinist’s rite of passage, where the young violinist moves from book to book, or in Johnny’s case, out of Twinkles and into the land of “Go Tell Aunt Rhody.” Practically my whole family attended; great aunts and uncles, grandparents, godparents, adopted aunties, cousins. The kids bowed deeply, played with some real feeling, and wore ear to ear grins. For a shining, gleaming moment, we were on top of the world, and all the hours and years of daily practice suddenly made sense to all of us. Tom leaned over to me at one point, and I could tell by his body language and the context that what he was trying to say was “Thanks for sticking with this. Thanks for showing up, even when I doubted.” But he was too choked up, which was good; because in that state there was no way I could say “I told you so.” And by Tuesday, we were back to the horrible Yelling Evil Suzuki Mom (YES’M). By Wednesday, after they were given a time out for some atrocity I now forget, they retaliated by playing a symphony of “nanny nanny boo boo” on their violins.

Their teacher Emily had given them a “No Complaining” challenge a week before recitals. If they could get through an entire week of practicing without complaining once, she’d give them each a gift certificate for a Herrell’s ice cream sundae.

Many days, I live in the fear that I am slowly and incrementally destroying their love of music. Other days, I think this is the best thing I ever did for them. I may never know.

Suzuki is all about these incremental infinitesimally small additions to the body of knowledge, and of getting knowledge literally into the body. From a neuro-scientific point of view, when a child plays a phrase of “May Song,” she is laying a groove into her brain. We do the same thing when we fry an onion, do a sun salutation with correct form, or bring the mail into the house and decide (or not) where it goes. If she plays that phrase with the correct bowings, with good posture, with attention to intonation, she’ll be on her way to competence and musicality. If she plays it sloppily, she’ll build a groove that is sloppy, and from a musical point of view, something might be lost. But part of what I’m hoping to grow in my kids’ daily practice is simply the understanding that in life, we show up for work. We do things that are uncomfortable sometimes. We pay homage to the discipline. We laugh and goof around, and we play games, but we also respect the song enough to allow it to rise above our own musical shortcomings. Some days, the kids both have temper tantrums, whack their bows on the music stand and tell me I’m the worst mommy ever. Other days, I do a ridiculous imitation of Martha Washington dancing to their minuets, or Lila makes my jaw drop at her passionate interpretation of Schumann’s “The Two Grenadiers”; Johnny sets his dolls and stuffed animals up for a concert of his Twinkles, or makes me guess which one he’s going to play next. And after a year or so, we look back and see how far we’ve come.

A friend recently recommended I read a fine piece of literature called “The New Rules of Lifting for Women.” Women lose about a pound of muscle mass every year from the age of 35 on. (OK, my exact figures might be a little off, but stay with me.) It’s muscle mass that actually consumes the calories we eat. So as we age, we not only have to eat less to stay the same size, but we also dramatically lose muscle. This is the part that’s been distressing me of late. My kids have gotten too heavy to pick up. Not to mention the cans of seltzer water, the jugs of milk and OJ, etc. The thesis of the book is basically the one we all know from the 1980’s: no pain, no gain. If you are doing what you’ve always been doing, in a nice flowy routine, you are not going to get stronger. The only way to strength is to stress out the muscle. Dang! This goes against my whole philosophy of life, which is build it, get into a groove, rinse, repeat. Rest on your laurels! I worked hard a long time ago! Why should I continue to work hard?

My kids show me why. They don’t rest, though they want to. They would like every day to be short practice, or practice for Daddy, where they just play the pieces they know. They hate the practices where the new grooves get built into their brains. That sh*t hurts! No one likes making a new groove. I wanted my book to sell just based on Katryna’s great idea. I didn’t want to actually have to write it. And then, once I admitted that more people would probably buy a book with words and pages, I didn’t want to have to let anyone know about it in an intrusive way. I wanted people to just kind of intuit that it existed.

God is in the bad stuff as well as the good stuff. God reconciles it all, somehow. We don’t get to know how, or why, except that somewhere deep down, each and every one of us must have the sense of mercy. We want the knave to go straight; we see the knave in ourselves and want mercy for those parts of ourselves that are still angry, still yelling, still incapable of holding it together. We yell. We try all day to be good, and then we lose it on our kids, or our spouse. Or maybe it’s something else; maybe we have a secret in our past that we are sure is unforgivable. But God reconciles it all somehow.

Lila and Johnny just couldn’t take Emily’s No Complaining challenge. They knew that would be too much for their little nervous systems. They have to be able to yell at me. They have to be able to throw down their bows and storm out of the room. And in fairness, so do I. I can’t show up perfectly for music any more than they can. And yet, we also couldn’t go on like this. Something had to change. I don’t want to be YES’M any more. I don’t want my kids to yell at me anymore either. Not everyone lives this way.

Something did change. One morning while we were practicing the new section of “Humoresque,” Lila threw her bow down and screamed. She just couldn’t figure it out. I took a breathe, said a prayer and said, “This is really hard. Let me just play it for you on the piano.” She did not like this solution. She, like her mother, wanted to just intuit the right notes, not have to actually painfully learn them, and she really didn’t want someone else to teach her. She screamed through my playing. But rather than lose my patience, I just plodded along, playing the phrase over and over. Tom came into the room with Johnny on his tail. They both looked at us horrified. “This is NOT acceptable!” Tom said in his “shouty shout” voice. “Well, actually,” I said calmly over all the screaming. “It is really frustrating for her. This is hard stuff. No wonder she’s screaming. I would be too.”

Those, apparently, were the magic words. Lila crumpled into my arms, wailing, but not with frustration anymore. With something akin to relief. She needed to know that it’s OK to be frustrated. She needed to know I was on her side.

I can’t say we’ve never had another fight since, nor can I say that they’ve stopped playing “Symphony Nanny Nanny Boo Boo,” but I can say the mood has shifted dramatically since that morning. Lila knows that I see that what she is doing is work, and that it’s work worth doing. And it’s OK to complain once in a while.

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How to Overcome (Song)Writer’s Block


Nerissa and Katryna debuting new songs at the Parlor Room in Northampton, October 12, 2013

A few months ago, I was struggling to write songs. This fact totally shocked me. I have been a songwriter from the age of 13, and for quite some years, I was averaging one new song a month. Starting in 2008, I have been a loyal participant of February Album Writing Month, and while I never succeeded in writing 14 songs that would make a decent album, I usually came out with a pretty great take.* But last February, I fell way shy of my goal, and not only that, the process of trying to write was excruciating. (I was destroyed by social media, if you must know, but that’s altogether another story, though about that I will say that the root of all evil is busy-ness. Being too busy and overloaded with Thoughts, and Things To Do) 

Bent, but not broken, I sat back and contemplated my shocking case of writer’s block. What was wrong? What could I do to make it better?


I moonlight as a coach for creative types, and so I have some tricks up my sleeve.  Here’s my general advice for beating songwriter’s block:


1. Give yourself permission to write some really bad songs. In fact, TRY to write the worst song ever.


2. Along these lines, if you do get a good idea for a song (say someone, like your sister who is also your bandmate, gives you an excellent idea, since you currently have zero ideas), tell yourself that you will write no less than five versions of this great idea song. That way, you won’t be overwhelmed by the great idea. That happens to me. I think, “Man, this is such a great idea. And now I am going to wreck it, because I am so completely uninspired.” And I think, “I’m supposed to write a song about a princess! But I have so many divergent feelings about princesses! How can the case of princesses be summed up by one mere song? It’ll have to be a great song! That’s way too much pressure!” So then I think, “OK, I’ll write five princess songs!” I give myself leeway, again, to write some bad stuff. And since we always think what we’re writing is bad, we’ll be pleasantly surprised when we find a good line or two.


3. Fill the well. When I am empty of ideas, I need to be filled. So I start listening. I start watching TV. I go to the movies. I read read read read. I make sure to read and watch a lot of junk, as well as some good stuff. I just go into collection mode. I become a packrat of ideas. I let it all settle down at the bottom of my river, like so much flotsom and jetsom. Or, to use another metaphor, I collect a lot of scraps for compost and let it all meld together. Rich soil, effluvium, for later.

4. Along these lines, I listen to my old favorites: Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Joni Mitchell. Last month, I wrote a princess song that was totally inspired by Joni. More on that in a moment…


5. I also listen to new stuff. Brandi Carlile, Ingrid Michaelson, Miley Cyrus. (Just kidding about Miley Cyrus.)


6. Study an instrument. Usually when I get writer’s block, I work on my guitar playing. This time, I started taking piano lessons. Piano! 


I have to digress at this point to wax poetic about my love for the piano, and my piano teacher, Maggie Shoellenberger. In just 5 lessons, Maggie has unlocked the secrets of the keyboard for me, taught me some blues, helped me to improvise for the first time, not to mention taught me “Imagine,” “Hey Jude” and “Woodstock.” I practice my “chord gym” every day, and I even played “Imagine” and “Sarah’s Circle” in church last month. Studying piano has restored the freshness of music to my tired ears. I hear totally differently now, as a budding pianist. 


But did these ideas work in terms of my songwriting? YES! Last month, Katryna and I debuted two new songs: “River,” a Gillian Welch-inspired sister to my song “Give Me a Clean Heart;” and “Princess,” an ode to princesses and anti-princesses everywhere. (And I only had to write one princess song, as it turned out.) We’ll sing these songs, and many others on Friday Nov. 15 at Passim in Cambridge. Hope to see you there!


*Songs written during February Album Writing Month: “Good Times Are Here,” “I Am Half My Mother’s Age,” “Between Friends,” “Rise and Shine.” Plus a bunch of HooteNanny songs.


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Nields Family HooteNanny October, November, December! Sign Up Now!


The first NFH was a huge success;, thanks to you for coming and singing and playing! We had 20 families, which is our goal number, at First Churches in the parlor room. Highlights for me were having Caleb play fiddle, Chris Haynes play accordion, Ben Demerath’s mandolin, the kids dancing with dance wands, and the way you all nailed the 4-part harmony on “All My Trials.”


Going forward, here’s what we’ve decided:


There will be a monthly NFH until June. Dates for the fall are

Oct. 20

Nov 3

Dec. 15

We’ll announce 2014 dates in December.


There will be two ways of coming to NFH. The first is the subscription: you pay ahead of time for a season (in this case, Oct., Nov. and Dec) and you are guaranteed a spot in the room. If we don’t sell 20 subscriptions, there will be space available for drop ins. Also, we’re going to offer the books to anyone at a cost of $15 apiece, but we hope to have extras available, so that if you don’t want to buy one to take home, you can probably find one at class time.


Subscription: $25 x 3= $75 (with book, $90)

Drop in: $30

Book: $15.


Requests? We are still working on the book, so if you have requests, now is the time to give them to us!

To secure your spot, send a check to The Nields at 415 Prospect Street Northampton MA 01060.

We love this community! Thanks for coming, families. Can’t wait to make more music with you all!

Love, Nerissa and Katryna

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Nields Family HooteNanny Starting Sunday Sept 22!


Nields Family HooteNanny!
Full Family Fireless Campfire Chorus
Sing-along and Jam-along

Created and led by Nerissa and Katryna Nields 

It’s been seven years since we started HooteNanny, our early music class. Since then, we’ve expanded to include HooteNanny Singers, HooteNanny Parent Guitar and now,
Nields Family HooteNanny! This latest incarnation of HooteNanny brings us full circle in more ways than one. Katryna and I got our start singing with our parents around the kitchen table, and at campfires with other families. As we grew older, we bumped into each other quite often in three- and four-part harmony groups at our high school. (This was the first time we both realized the other one was a “real” singer!) We learned how powerful, fun and exciting harmony singing could be, and how—even though it was sometimes hard work—the effects could bring our group closer together. We both went on to participate in several singing groups in college. Katryna sang in the famed Trinity Pipes, and Nerissa started an a cappella/guitar group called Tangled Up in Blue. We’ll be including some of these arrangements in Nields Family HooteNanny, along with peace rounds, favorite campfire sing-alongs, and three-chord folk and rock songs to jam with. We’ll begin each class building a new version of “This Little Light of Mine” or some similar familiar spiritual. Then we’ll share a quick family music moment from the week before. We’ll warm up with a round, sing something classic around our proverbial campfire, and then get to the three or four part harmony song. We have some budding instrumentalists who will be given parts to play, and we hope any aspiring guitarists or ukulele players bring their axes and join in. We’ll end with “Sweet Rosyanne,” our traditional “Bye Bye” song.

This group is a work in progress. We hope to learn from you to see where the group goes. And we hope at some point to bring our show on the road, just a bit. As the campfires of summer die down, let’s not let the warmth get away from us. Here’s a chance to build lasting bonds with your family members and community through music.

We can’t wait to start singing with you!

To participate, write us at Or just show up Sunday Sept. 22 at 4pm at First Churches of Northampton in the Church Parlor. First Churches is the big brownstone located on the corner of Main and Center Streets. Cost is $25 per family, or $10 per individual.


Nerissa & Katryna


Song list


Autumn Leaves

Peace Round

Dona Nobis Pacem

Rock My Soul


Easy Part Songs




3-4 Part Harmony

Come Go With Me

All My Trials





Waltzing Matilda

Country Roads

This Land is Your Land

City of New Orleans

With a Little Help From My Friends

Down By the Riverside

When the Saints

Organic Farm

This Train

If You Want to Sing Out

Night Rider’s Lament




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Wild Mountain Thyme, Guitar Part

A beautiful song for summer time, now that the summer is really coming. Here’s how to play it on guitar.

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If You Want to Sing Out Sing Out

My guitar class is learning this song to perform in The Day the Music Thrived, a concert/barnraiser/awareness raiser/fundraiser for Yes! Northampton to encourage the town of Northampton MA to say YES! to an override to raise taxes to support (among other worthy causes) Arts and Music in our public schools. Come to the show on June 9 at 3pm at First Churches on Main and Center in Northampton. The Nields will be playing a rare full band show, and students from the public schools (led by their wonderful teachers whose jobs may be cut) will perform too.

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Live Music Soothes

Live Music Soothes

Excellent story in the New York Times about the benefits of singing to preemies.

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The Importance of Music Education

A few days ago, I had the pleasure of holding a baby just 10 days old. It was mid afternoon, and I was guessing her poor mama hadn’t really slept since the birth. Elle and I took turns cuddling the baby, while my friend crept upstairs for a much needed nap. After a few minutes, the baby began fussing. I picked her up, walked around the room, sang our version of “Hush Little Baby.” Still gritchy. I switched to “All the Pretty Horsies” and did a gentle canter-y gait. More fussing. Then I started in on Ledbelly’s “Bring Me Little Water, Sylvie.” The baby pulled her head off my shoulder (strong baby!) and stared at me as if in disbelief. She stopped crying and listened as I sang. When her mother came downstairs fifteen minutes later, I told her what had happened.

“No wonder,” said her mother. “We played that song and sang that song many times while she was in the womb, and since birth.”

I’d certainly heard of this happening–baby recognizing pre-womb music post-womb–and in fact, we wrote about this phenomenon in our book <a href=”″>All Together Singing in the Kitchen: Creative Ways to Make and Listen to Music as a Family</a>. But I’d never witnessed it so directly. (Well, maybe I did. Maybe it happened with my own kids, but I was so sleep deprived then, I have no recollection.)

Today in Jay’s Suzuki class the teacher had the four-year-old pre-twinklers form a circle. She played “pass the Twinkle,” playing the first line of “Mississippi Stop Stop” to the child on her left, who in turn, wordlessly passed it on to the child on his left, and so on, around the circle. “Isn’t it amazing,” she said. “How you all knew what to do, and could do it without even saying any words. Music is a language we can all understand.”

Plans for SOS-SOA are looking up. Emails are circulating. I am making phone calls, juggling schedules, refining our focus. Meanwhile, doing a lot of thinking about the role of music in our children’s lives. Why fight to keep music in the schools?
-it’s a language we all share.
-it cuts through reason and goes right to the heart.
-when I look back on my own school memories, so many of them have to do with music class, performing, practicing an instrument. Maybe that’s just because I am a musician, but I can’t imagine growing up without all the music I had.
-it unites a group of disperate kids
-it’s the only academic discipline that is equally left-brained and right-brained

What about you? What do you remember about music education growing up?

For more about music education, visit the <a href=””>National Association for Music Education</a>.

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All the Pretty Little Horses

I am teaching this wonderful lullaby to my HooteNanny Parent Guitar class, which meets on Tuesdays in my living room. We are learning first position, mostly 3-chord songs this winter, but everyone loves fingerpicking. This fingerpick is called an arpeggio, and it is similar to “um-chuck” in that the three fingers (I, M and A, or index, middle and ring) each stay true to just one string on the guitar.

I=first string, or E string
M=second string, or B string
A=third string, or G string

The thumb, or “P”, alternates among the bottom three strings (E, A and D) depending on the chord being played.

The song can be chunked down like this:

First phrase=Am Am Dm G7 (play one arpeggio per chord)
Second phrase=C walk down to Am (see video–you “walk down” the A string with your thumb, playing the notes C, B and open A.)

Then there’s a third phrase: C C Am Am  followed by the second phrase C walk down Am.

And that’s it!

Hush a bye, don’t you cry
Go to sleep you little baby
When you wake, you shall have
All the pretty little horses

Dapples and greys, pintos and bays
All the pretty little horses.

The song is in 6/8 time, which gives it a lovely rocking quality–great for lulling a baby or young child. My children loved this one when they were babies.

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The Fox

“The Fox” is one of the first songs Katryna and I ever learned. Our father sang it to us frequently, and there’s a recording of our baby sister Abigail, age 2 or so, singing along on the “town-o’s.” It’s an ancient song, possibly from a poem in Middle English, and our father undoubtedly heard it from Pete Seeger (who came to his school to play in the 50s), or on an Odetta or Burl Ives CD. This song has it all: life, death, survival, robbery–high drama!–and finally a cozy family scene. I have good friends who are vegans who don’t like the message, and I can understand and respect that. But foxes aren’t vegans.

(Here’s a Wendell Berry poem which speaks to this issue–see bottom of the post.)

From a guitar playing point of view, it’s pretty simple, though the pace is fast for beginners. It’s a typical three chord song (here it’s in A, though on our recordings it’s in D). I demonstrate my father’s “Um-chuck” pick which works very well for many children’s songs. It’s also a really easy pick once you get the hang of it.

The Hidden Singer

The gods are less for their love of praise.
Above and below them all is a spirit that needs nothing
but its own wholeness, its health and ours.
It has made all things by dividing itself.
It will be whole again.
To its joy we come together —
the seer and the seen, the eater and the eaten,
the lover and the loved.
In our joining it knows itself. It is with us then,
not as the gods whose names crest in unearthly fire,
but as a little bird hidden in the leaves
who sings quietly and waits, and sings.
Wendell Berry

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