Snow Day

As part of February Album Writing Month, Johnny and I wrote this song.

The lyrics are:

The wind blows The snow falls
It piles up on the ground

Big flakes, small flakes
It falls without a sound
And I can be so quiet too
Quiet as a mouse
When snow falls all around my house.

The wind blows, the snow falls
It piles up on the ground
Big flakes, small flakes
It piles up on the ground
But I can make a sound
I can jump around
My brother and I make a fort
And knock the vase with the tulips down
Vase with the tulips down
Vase with the tulips down

Snow day, snow day, snow day!
Snow day, snow day, snow day!
Snow day, snow day, snow day!

©2013 Nerissa Nields
Peter Quince Publishing ASCAP

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“Mary Wore a Red Dress”


Hoot of the Week is “Mary Wore a Red Dress.” Wonderfully simple (another 2 chord song!) and infinitely adaptable. The lyric is:

Mary wore a red dress, red dress, red dress

Mary wore a red dress all day long.

Substitute names, colors, clothes to recognize everyone present. Or talk about what everyone had for breakfast:

Johnny ate some French toast, French toast, French toast

Johnny ate some French toast for breakfast.

We often use this as a greeting song, going around the room and noting everyone’s name and something (s)he is wearing:

Casey wore a striped shirt striped shirt striped shirt

Casey wore a striped shirt all day long.

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The North Wind Doth Blow

Our first Hoot of the Week post! I just taught this song to my guitar group, and it’s really the perfect song for beginning guitarists. It has only two chords, D and A, and they are both among the easiest chords to play. Also, as you can see in the video, the right hand just strums the chord and waits around for quite awhile between changes. A perfect song for a January day!

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End of the Year with Suzuki

It’s almost December, and I am looking back on the year and thinking about it from the musical family point of view. Last Christmas, we gave Johnny a hand-me-down classical guitar and started him on lessons. He lasted maybe three months, or more precisely I lasted for that amount of time. I couldn’t get past the day he spent the full half-hour lesson lying on the floor refusing to do anything his teacher asked of him.

Today, late in the year,  I know this is par for the course in the musical education of young players (and don’t we grown ups also loll about in our own way when we’re supposed to be doing something enriching?) In retrospect, I am just as happy we gave up the guitar for the violin. The violin is a more suitable instrument for a child because of its size and its similarity to the voice. Guitar is a complex animal, hard to navigate, unsatisfying as a solo instrument and difficult for a 4-year-old to comprehend as an instrument of accompaniment (not that Suzuki has a method for that, anyway.) Moreover, for little boys who have some issues with their pincer grips and with holding a pencil, the work to create the bow-hold is like multitasking physical therapy.

We’re going on three months now with our violin lessons, and NCMC brilliantly has their “Pre-Twinklers” take a group class once a week in addition to their weekly lesson. Johnny is a very different student from Lila, and we also have a different teacher (Lila’s is on maternity leave at the moment). Johnny lacks Lila’s focus and dexterity, though his ear is remarkable. So after three months, he has yet to (legally) play his violin, though he has graduated from a magic marker to a real bow. I am getting impatient. Lila was already playing “Mississippi Hot Dog” by this point. But I keep trying to remember that it’s all about the creation of that daily practice. Every day, Johnny gets a sticker (and sometimes a health-food store M&M) for taking a bow with his little box violin and intoning, “Good evening.” He does his “Up Like a Rocket” and plays “Teeny Tiny Alligator” on his shoulder. He has named his violin Pluto and his bow Delicate, and every day he practices taking them carefully out of their case and putting them back. Last week, he tenderly kissed his violin as he was removing it from its case. Today, he begged me to let him “play” for the boys with whom we carpool.

Meanwhile, Lila has graduated to a 1/8 size which makes a huge sonorous difference. She is almost finished polishing “Gavotte from Mignon,” and we’re diligently listening to Book 3 every day to prepare for what’s looming on the horizon. When she got her new violin, I picked it up and gingerly played a few notes. I still couldn’t really make the A string sound independently, but with the bigger size, my fingers could actually find the pitches. Tom’s uncle Vinnie, an estate lawyer, gave us a broken old fiddle a few months ago, and I just brought it to Stamell to have it fixed. Today I picked it up to see if I can, as Bruce Springsteen says, “learn how to make it talk.” Probably not talk, but maybe squeak. Johnny came with me, and as soon as we entered the sweet violin shop down a little side street in Amherst, he bounded in like a kid in a candy shop, pointing out the violins, the many sized cellos, the huge double bass, the rows of rosin. Matt Stamell, formerly a guitar maker, has nurtured this little gem of a store, making it the local hub for all stringed instrument players (save, oddly, guitarists). He told me he started playing the violin at age 37. “This instrument teaches you patience,” he explained, stroking my refurbished violin. Indeed. In more ways than one.

Practicing daily with my kids has changed me, the way any kind of daily practice is guaranteed to inspire change, no matter what the circumstances. I see what is possible when one devotes a period of time to a subject. Johnny still falls on the floor sometimes (truthfully, so does Lila) but we don’t give up. The longer we stick with it, the quieter the voices in my head that drum the doubts: this is crazy! Why are we doing this? The kid’s going to hate music now! Maybe s/he isn’t meant to study this instrument. Maybe piano/flute/trumpet/kazoo would have been better! S/he’s too young/too old, etc. Today we just show up and practice. Emily has us giving the kids one M&M per review piece for the month of November. Amazing how well that works. Don’t know if I’ll continue for December; I am inclined to.

All this practice with the kids, all this focus on the daily has inspired me to attempt feebly to continue with my own lessons. In the best of all worlds, I would make it to weekly voice lessons and warm up daily, and I’d study guitar and possibly piano and bass, and as I mentioned, become at least proficient at the violin. But this is the reality of a mom with a full time job: I took a few voice lessons over the summer, and three guitar lessons this fall. This week, I took home a bass guitar, plugged it in in front of my children, played a G scale, then the bass part to “Help!” That’s my total repertoire at present. I hope to learn “This Boy” and eventually “With a Little Help From My Friends.” The amazing thing about using the Beatles as one’s curriculum, especially using McCartney’s bass playing is that if one goes chronologically, one naturally moves from simple 4 chord patterns to the most advanced melodies. As I think I’ve said before, I’d love to create a Suzuki-esque curriculum based on the Beatles for young guitar players. Maybe someone will read this and do exactly that, and then I can be their student. Stay tuned.

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Big Ole Lefty Sing Along

Annie Patterson & Peter Blood

Annie Patterson & Peter Blood, authors of Rise Up Singing!

Last Sunday, we did not make calls for Obama, nor did we carry signs for Elizabeth Warren or knock on doors in New Hampshire (though our parents did exactly that in VA, convincing a former air force pilot to vote blue.) Instead, we brought our kids to the third floor of Thornes and staged a Big Ole Lefty Sing Along (BOLSA) with Annie Patterson and Peter Blood. Did we convert anyone? Probably not. We sure cheered ourselves up, though. Something about joining voices in impassioned songs (“Union Maid,” “The Banks Were Made of Marble,” “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream,” If I Had A Hammer,” “This Land is Your Land,”) that lifts my own nervous system to a place of well-calibrated energized serenity. Our kids joined in: Amelia played along on her green ukulele, Johnny ran in circles chasing his friend Saskia, Lila and William sang a little and then spirited themselves into a corner to trade home made Pokemon cards. We left, thrilled to have finally co-conspired with our literary/folk-song-collecting heroes the Blood-Pattersons, full of piss and vinegar and excitement about casting our votes.

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Inching Through Twinkle Variations with Non-Pareilles

Johnny has had four violin lessons and one group class. It’s so strange to see how different two children can be. After years of telling friends that my kids were more alike than not, as violinists at least they show their proclivities. Lila’s bow-hold was right-on from the start; Johnny grabs his fat marker in his fist and doesn’t comprehend that one does not wield it like a sword. We are supposed to be clapping out each of the six Twinkle variations to our new teacher’s words, but Johnny wilts after one-half of one, where Lila dashed ahead, graduating from her Twinkles in less than nine months. I take his fists in my two hands and tap them together for claps, but he says, “Dis gives me a stomach ache.” And more painfully, “Dis is my body and I get to do what I want!” Who can argue with that?

In Paul Tough’s new bestseller How Children Succeed (which I am supposed to be reading but haven’t started yet, but I did listen to half the This American Life piece about it) he argues that the skills most necessary to teach kids are self-control, to learn to focus attention, and to delay gratification. The exercises our teacher gives us are all about these skills. We start with a bow in which Johnny says, “Good morning” or “Good afternoon” or “Good evening,” depending on what time it is. We listen to the Suzuki Slow Twinkle CD and clap along, as I said above, and we listen to the Twinkles up to speed while he sways back and forth, his feet in playing position and his box violin on his shoulder. Then we do “Up Like a Rocket” with his pen-cum-bow and his bunny bow-hold. He wants to make up his own lyrics, but his teacher insists on hers. Delay gratification. He wants to make his pen go horizontally for “back and forth like a choo choo train,” but his teacher makes him keep it vertical. Self control. He ends each practice with “Thank you for the wonderful lesson,” and a bow. Nothing to complain about that. It’s teaching him good manners.

So why is this all so hard for me? Because he doesn’t always want to do any of it, and I feel foolish, frustrated, helpless, and most of all like a Tiger mom. A failed Tiger mom at that. We set up his foot chart (a 20″ cardboard with construction paper cut outs of his feet positions) and it can take 20 minutes for him to get in rest position and bow. Before he can do this, he has to fall on the floor a few times, balance on one foot and go, “Whoa! whoa!” and wave his arms around, ask for a drink, decide he has to pee, take off his shirt, roll up his pants legs, look out the window to see if Gulliver the Cat has come over, look out the window to see if his dad has biked home yet, set up his favorite cars to watch the practice, go get his ducky to watch the practice, count the marbles in his marble jar and then fall on the floor crying and insisting he hates violin and never wants to play again.

And we haven’t even picked up the actual violin.

Lila’s teacher Emily Greene says that whatever you are dealing with in terms of family dynamics will come out in the violin practice. As an author, and a teacher of writing, I notice that whatever is hard for me in life is hard for me on the page, and so it goes with my students. If a student doesn’t know herself, it is hard for her main character to be known. If a student is impatient and in a hurry, her scenes will skim by. If a student is fluent in the language of emotion but slow to take action, her scenes will be rich studies of humanity but lacking plot. And if a person cares more about being liked and well-thought of by teachers and other authority figures (but not little boys) and is the tiniest bit afraid of confrontation, violin practice sessions can turn into the Clash of the Titans.

Today I wised up. I looked at what we were being asked to do. Johnny can’t make it through even one Twinkle, either in the swaying exercise or the clapping one. Our teacher doesn’t know this because I haven’t told her. Instead I have brought her practice sheets covered with stickers (and let’s be truthful: the stickers are for me, not Johnny. I am the one who puts them on and gets a big hit from seeing them taking over the yellow lines of the paper.) But I will go in on Thursday and tell her we need to slow down, even though progress seems snail’s-paced to me as it is. And this morning, I got down a shaker of non pareilles which I used to bribe him to do each item on our practice sheet. I had Johnny bow, do one Twinkle variation for swaying, one for clapping and his up like a rocket. It all took five minutes. I hugged him and praised him and he bowed deeply. “Sank you for a wonderful lesson,” he murmured.

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Suzuki from a Pop Musician’s Perspective

Nerissa: My niece, with her band, has recorded her first single, which she wrote, sings lead on and plays bass on. It’s a rocking song called “Speak Up!” and my kids just got their mitts on a CD of it.

“Speak up, stand up/Don’t let anyone tell you what to do…” sings my 6-year-old daughter, along to her beloved cousin’s vocal. Her little brother mimes playing the descending bass line on air guitar. We’ve listened to the song four times in a row. I am blown away by the confidence, the mastery, the reedy sweetness of the eleven-year-old voice. And, to make matters even more delightful, the song is about music itself, and the deliciousness of coming into one’s identity as a young musician:

“In music there are no lines to cross/In your own song you are always the boss.”

Ah, the freedom of the pop musician. Tom and I just came from a Suzuki parent class, a two-hour affair held for all parents of Suzuki kids of all instruments. I felt tearful–in a good way–by the end of it. Other parents shared their reasons for taking on what is the equivalent of a college class (and we’re talking about just the parents’ role here!):
-“It gives my son confidence and something he can be proud of.”
-“It teaches my daughter that if you practice something, you will get better.”
-“If I am there to guide them, it keeps them from laying down the wrong neural pathways,” -“This is an opportunity to give my child the ability to master something.”
-“She whistles the themes of the music all day long!”

Interestingly, none of the parents said, “Because I want my child to be the next Joshua Bell.” Everyone present was more interested in process than product. In fact, the teacher (Emily Greene) even referred to playing the violin as a by-product of the method. The real fruits are compassion, frustration tolerance, self-control, appreciation of beauty, self-esteem and a closer parent-child relationship.

Even though I, like my niece, have relished the freedom I have had as a folk/pop/rock musician to be the “boss” of my own songs and my own music practice, I am all for Suzuki, especially the fruits listed above. And the above are the reasons I show up day after day to the practice sheet our teacher makes, and insist Lila pick up her fiddle and play her repetitions of “Allegro” and “Witches’ Dance,” even when she responds by becoming boneless and falling onto the floor.

We parents also went around and shared what is hardest for us about Suzuki. Most said the conflicts arising around practice. I added that for me the biggest fear is the thought that plays in my head when Lila doesn’t want to practice and I am making her: I am destroying her love for music! And: how will she become the boss of her own musicality? (Most specifically, will she have the courage to compose?)

Why do I have these thoughts? Because sometimes I hear from other rock musicians that they were forced to take music lessons when they were kids and they hated “that classical sh*t.” (Of course, they went on to become professional drummers…) Or because my father said he hated having to practice his cello growing up (of course he plays guitar now, all the time, whenever he can get his hands on it, and no one makes him…) Or that my daughter herself says, “I’m sick of practicing!” (But if I tell her she can quit, she immediately goes running for her instrument.)

Music is hard. There’s no getting around the fact that in order to play half decently one has to put in some hours. And most musicians have some kind of internal struggle with practicing. (Some don’t. My friend Pete Kennedy told me he still practices 3-5 hours a day, and I can’t imagine he “makes” himself do this. His guitar seems like an appendage of himself.) But anything worth having a lifelong relationship with takes time and perseverance and has hard spots. Somehow we (I) get the idea that music should be all pleasure. Nothing is all pleasure. Everything that matters in life takes work: getting to see a great view from the top of a mountain. Having an incredible relationship with another person. Writing a beautiful poem. Painting a picture. Creating a garden from a patch of weeds.

At the outset of lessons, neither parent nor child counted on the struggles that can often come between them during practices. First lessons often start after children have seen other children performing – or perhaps playing games in group class. The parent-child duo takes up an instrument with beautiful images of working together happily to produce delightful sounds. There’s usually a honeymoon period, but before long, parents begin to realize that the work of practicing resembles gardening with your bare hands more than arranging fresh flowers in a vase. (And don’t be fooled: even the parents who appear that have practices as graceful as an ikebana also run into a thorn now and then.)

An important truth from gardeners can help parents who practice with their children: you can’t tug on a play to make it grow. You have to trust the process. But there’s nothing wrong with fertilizing, watering, and generally caring for a plant. That’s what gardeners do. Parents need to do it as well. In the process of tending beautiful flowers and nutritious vegetables, gardeners also encounter weeds. And pests. They also get some dirt under their fingers. In their own way, so will parents.
(from “Building Violin Skills,” Ed Sprunger)

This beautiful quotation from the Suzuki teacher, violinist and psychotherapist Ed Sprunger hit me where I lived yesterday when Emily read this to us. As a writer and a teacher of writing, I realized the universality of this thought. You can’t tug on your writing, either. You can’t tug on your relationship. You are not the creator, and as a certain president recently said, no one is really self-made.We all need each other.

You have to leave space for the serendipitous, like your 11-year-old-budding-rock-star niece lighting a fire under your 4-year-old pre-Twinkler. For as soon as he’d finished listening to his cousin’s single (5 times in a row,) Johnny, who just had his first lesson last Thursday, grabbed his tiny 1/16th size violin and started playing her pop song’s rhythm on the E string. We waited until the next day to inform him that, as a pre-Twinkler, he can’t actually touch the violin yet (this produces tears, but it also builds a powerful desire.) So now, the violin’s hanging on the wall, next to his sister’s; under my guitar.

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Strengthening Family Bonds Through Music

Three generations singing at Falcon Ridge Folk Festival 2012

Last night, Katryna and I played a show for the Williamsburg elementary school–a sort of pre-opening end-of-the-summer hurrah. Because of the rain, the event was held indoors and families spread their blankets out on the floor of the gym to have their picnics. But within minutes, Katryna was teaching everyone “ A Ram Sam Sam“, and the room was full of big arm movements and waving. Hard to eat pizza that way. A little later, the sixth graders had bounded down from their seats in the stands and were front and center dancing to “Going To Boston.” I kept thinking, “What an easy way to make people happy–just add music and dancing.”

It’s been a very musical summer. We started off at Kripalu the week of July 4 and led a Family Music Camp there, complete with drum crafting, harmony singing, a trip to Tanglewood to see and hear James Taylor, and a performance at the conclusion, complete with a (Suzuki) string section and ukulele Orff. A few weeks later, we took our four kids to Falcon Ridge where they reprised their guest appearance with Guitarchestra (and violins) and joined us on “ Mango Walk“–including the grandparents.

Most recently, we spent time with our sister and her kids and our parents in the Adirondacks. One night we put on a play for our father in honor of his turning 70; the kids made up most of it (it was a sort of hybrid of Harry Potter–the hero was Granddaddydore–and our own family mountain climbing lore). And we three sisters sang him a song with new words to “The Unicorn Song” (a feat taught to us by our dad and written about extensively in our book All Together Singing in the Kitchen.) Later that week, we pulled out guitars and violins and Loogs and sang together: “Red River Valley,” “Sweet Baby James.”

There really is nothing like music to strengthen family bonds. I know we say this all the time–in fact it’s our mission in life to live this truth and teach it to others–but sitting there in our shared house inAll together singing. the mountains, playing guitar across from my niece, whispering the chord changes to her so she could follow along, and having that long, never-ending musical conversation, I was so grateful for every music class I have taken, every time I really listened to a record album, every scale I played on guitar or piano.

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Babies LOVE music. Make some!

Twins rock out to Dad’s guitar

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Alignment Enlightenment

Nerissa: Each week, our violin teacher gives us a practice plan, a sheet with a grid on it with the days of the week horizontally across the top and various items listed vertically on the left hand side of the page.

At the top of every sheet, as you can see, is something Suzuki teachers call Main Focus. One week the focus might be on the bow hold; another week it could be getting the hand and wrist aligned. Recently we were focusing on intonation (getting the notes in tune, which is no small feat when there are no frets, sez this guitar player–and made me realize how like singing violin playing is since one needs to rely on one’s ear for pitch.) This week the Practice Point is about getting the fingers to stand up, so that the tips touch the string and are not flat like pancakes.

Correct Alignment

We practice to make it easy, says our teacher Emily Greene. And we make it easy by doing a little every day, not forcing perfection (which is the enemy of the people, as the great Anne Lamott is fond of saying) but nodding at improvement. OK, wildly applauding improvement. With a six-year-old, it’s pretty stunning how quickly the brain absorbs the teaching, and how, when guided gently, the playing grows and improves. On the other hand, a phrase learned with a wrong bowing and not corrected is fairly difficult to unlearn. We tend to have the same “sticky” passages everyone else has, but if we learn them right the first time and go slowly to learn them, we pass by these obstacles with ease. If I let her play them over and over, knowing vaguely there’s something wrong but not having the energy to get off my seat and check the video (yes, I video the teacher playing the piece correctly during the lesson), then Lila will have to do many repetitions later on to get it right.

Today in my yoga class, my teacher came by while I was in a pose called Shalambasana (on the floor, prone, with my hands clasped behind my back, lifting up my head, chest and feet.) “Nerissa, your feet are a little too wide apart. There you go, that’s better.” And as I let her adjust me, and as I felt the internal adjustment my body was making, I felt the sweet bliss of alignment. I also felt a little dismayed. I have been practicing yoga for longer than I have played an instrument. I am halfway through a teacher training, and I do a sun salutation every day that incorporates this very pose. Every single morning, I thought, I have been doing this pose wrong! What’s the use? I should sleep in; I’d cause way less damage.

I can see I am on the way to a lengthy sermon here on the merits of making mistakes and living with mistakes and how, in fact, mistakes are our greatest teachers. I heard a story recently about pilgrims who ascended a mountaintop to speak with a Great Wise Enlightened One. “Tell me, GWEO, what is the secret to becoming Wise?” The GWEO thought for a few moments. “Good choices,” he wheezed. “But how do you make good choices,” the pilgrims persisted. “Experience,” he nodded sagely. “And how, GWEO, do we get experience?” “Ah,” said the Wise One. “Bad Choices.”

Are we really taking Suzuki to win some kind of violin competition? Were we ever? For me, anyway–I can’t speak for Lila–I’m in it for the same reason I practice yoga. To be present. To make art with love, and to make love with art. To pay attention. For progress, not perfection, and ultimately to attain that sweetest and most elusive of all qualities: humility. And while I was there on the floor (humility comes from the root humus, soil, ground, after all) my despair turned to gratitude. Here was my chance to change my choices, which as an artist, musician and a lover is all that I have.

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