Posts Tagged ‘children’

The Voice of God

June 9, 2015

What do you think of when I say the word trombonist?

This, I’ll bet:

No, really, take the time to watch it. I’ll wait.

There. Was I right?

Now listen to this:

So, is that what you were expecting?

Now try this. You don’t have to listen to the whole thing, a few moments will suffice:

Do you think you may want to do some stereotype rethinking?

I do understand that we are talking about musicians who make raspberry noises for a living, whose instruments resemble large kazoos and who seem to always be the ones who provide the musical underscore for any comedic scene in which a pratfall occurs.

Still. Think of a world without William Tell, Beethoven’s Fifth or The Ride of the Valkyrie.

And then consider what a young trombonist has to endure to get to the point where he can play those works.

Picture to yourself a student recital.  Here comes a little violinist. Her teacher takes her miniature violin and tunes it quickly, and the precocious infant scrapes out Song of the Wind.  It’s out of tune, and missing a note or two, but owing to the tininess of the instrument you can barely hear it anyway. And she’s just soooo cute, with that tiny violin and all.

Cheers and whistles and waves and waves and waves of applause.

Here comes a young pianist.

He starts strongly on Spinning Song. He gets hung up on the repeat. He starts it again. He forgets what’s going on in his left hand. He starts it again.

The audience, hushed and sympathetic, concentrates on sending him encouraging vibes.

He eventually bashes his way through to the end.

And is rewarded with cheers and congratulatory cries and loud applause as he half ducks, half bows and throws himself blushing into his seat.

Now a little cellist only eight years old. The audience prepares itself for another nursery song and is completely bowled over by a flashy Popper showpiece, immaculately executed.

The crowd erupts and this time it’s genuine. They leap to their feet as one.

And now comes the brand-new trombone student.

Here I must insert a word of explanation for those of you to whom one instrument is much like another: Before you can start to play a brass instrument you have to have shed and completely regrown all eight of your front teeth. This could put you as late as ten or eleven years old before you can even go to the music store to rent your first trombone. If your parents were wise you’ve at least been given piano lessons in the meantime to keep you interested and help you learn to read music, but no amount of piano study is going to help you with the hideous sounds you are going to be making for the first several months of trombone lessons. Contrast this with the fact that there are violins and cellos made to fit two year olds.

So there you are, a giant, large-footed eleven-year-old in the middle of a growth spurt, too old to be cute, too young to command respectful attention, taking the stage directly following a little kid half your size who just earned a standing ovation…

And the first thing your teacher does is to play a B-flat on the piano and ask you to tune.

So you play a B-flat.  Only it doesn’t come out as a B-flat.  It comes out as a tiny, repressed raspberry. The audience titters. The teacher strikes the note again and waits.  You try again.  This time you produce only a loud whoosh of air, and now the audience is really fascinated. Desperately you blow again and a great honk surges out of your bell and someone in the front row gasps audibly and jumps and then everyone laughs.  Some clown starts clapping and then the whole audience applauds, because that’s funny. You feel like you have to bow but you really don’t want to.

Then your teacher plays the introduction.  It is eight measures long.

You play your very first recital piece, Hot Cross Buns.  It too is eight measures long.

When you stop, the audience just sits there.  Surely this mid-to-large-sized child is going to play something more impressive than that?

Silence continues for a second longer than is comfortable, then all at once an understanding murmur whispers around the room and there is a sudden burst of hearty, warm, genuine, supportive applause – the kind adults do with the corners of their mouths turned down in wry sympathy – peppered with admiring chuckles. Better get used to the chuckles, kid. You’re a trombonist now.

To be unfazed by all this requires a comedian’s temperament.  A child with the temperament of, say, an oboist would never survive as a trombonist.

Someone musically important with the first name of Richard is said to have said, “Never look at the trombones, it only encourages them.” (I get my information from memes and in my short survey of them just now I found that opinion is divided. Some memes say Richard Wagner; some memes say Richard Strauss. I’m too lazy to look into it further but will welcome evidence either way in the comment section.)

The trombone is the only orchestral instrument (as opposed to the banjo and the bagpipes which also take their turns here) to be featured in the old “Hey, I got one!” chestnut, “A gentleman is someone who knows how to play the trombone but refrains from doing so,” a quote upon which the world of memes is again divided – it’s either Mark Twain or Oscar Wilde.

If remarks like these are going to hurt your feelings it’s best to find out right away, while you’re young, while there is still time to switch to the viola.

The word ‘brass’ can be a noun (“The trombone is made of brass”) or it can be an adjective (“The trombone is a brass instrument.”)  More unusually it can be a verb, however, and then it means to endure an embarrassing or difficult situation by behaving with apparent confidence and lack of shame.

Coincidence?  I think not.

I would only argue with the word ‘apparent.’ Trombonists are confident. They have to be. They have no shame. There isn’t room for any. In the natural selection of the musical instrument world, the survival of a young trombonist depends more on his personality than on his physical characteristics.  This is why – in contrast to your typical orchestral section of three medium-sized trumpet players sitting bolt upright in space enough for four (to allow room for the egos), or a mild-mannered, spectacled row of four studious but unpretentious horn players (or eight for Wagner)  – a trombone section will generally be a ragged and unpredictable assortment of regular guys, because trombonists come in all shapes and sizes. They can look like bears or mountain men or plumbers or physicists or surfers or serial killers or writers. The only thing that they have in common is that they have a good sense of fun and can take a ribbing.

They will need these assets throughout their orchestral careers for the jokes from non-musicians are only the beginning. Trombonists are not safe even from their own conductors.

Here is an example of this treachery which you may have seen.

At an Educational Children’s Symphony Concert (which you shouldn’t go to anyway; see previous post “How to Make Your Children Love Classical Music”) the conductor will often attempt to woo the young audience by baby talking down at them about the instruments. One by one he will invite each section principal to stand up and play something. (By the way, if you go, you should know that these are not the actual section principals, even though they are sitting in the first seats. The real principals’ contracts allow them to opt out of the children’s concerts. These poor substitute suckers are just here for the danger money.)

The (substitute) concertmaster will play something fast and flashy like a bit of the Tchaikovsky concerto or The Devil’s Trill or the first few bars of the Prelude of the Bach E Major Partita.

The principal cellist will also play from unaccompanied Bach and the bass principal will play The Elephant from Carnival of the Animals.

The children will stare impassively but at least they won’t boo and that’s the main thing.

Then will come the winds.

The flute will play something that sounds like birds twittering and the clarinet will do something entirely forgettable and then the oboe will be called forth.

Here is where things should become amusing, but no.

The conductor will say, “Now children, everyone thinks that the oboe sounds like a duck.”*

There will be a small ripple of sycophantic laughter from the eight parents and two kids who are still paying attention and the conductor will continue, “But the oboe is actually a very beautiful instrument.”

And then the oboist will be invited to play “Gabriel’s Oboe.”

Young moms will sigh and swoon and older moms will wipe away tears.

After that, to cheer everyone up, the trumpet will play a fanfare, probably something by John Williams (interesting) or Aaron Copland (boring), and the horn will play the opening theme from a Mozart Concerto, the tuba will surprise anyone who’s still listening with the melodious Tubby the Tuba tune, and then the conductor will offer a great treat.

Now, children, let’s meet the clowns of the orchestra!”

And the trombonists, the whole section, will be made to stand up and play Lassus Trombone while all the school children take a break from picking their noses and harassing their teachers to point and hoot at three grown men pandering to them with honking glissandos.  There ought to be a law.

So to drive the point home, the guy who plays the actual comic instrument (the oboe, for those of you who lost track) gets to pretend that he plays the Official Instrument of Heaven, while the guy who plays the instrument which has in fact been described as the Voice of God plays for chuckles.**

What, you think I’m kidding about that Voice of God thing?

“In Luther’s translation of the Old Testament, the trombone is an instrument with which the people of God are called together, important news is announced, and the call to battle is made; the sound of trombones accompanies the righteous fight for God. The trombone is the instrument of the priests when they announce a new king and when they march ahead of the Ark of the Covenant. It is the sound that accompanies the sound of the voice of God and symbolizes the power of God and his judgment. Furthermore, the trombone is played to please and praise God, together with a wide variety of other instruments. In Luther’s translation of the New Testament, the trombone is the instrument that God’s companions, the angels, use to gather his elect to announce the Resurrection, the end of times, Judgment Day, and the Second Coming of Christ. When God speaks, his voice sounds like a trombone.”*** ****

There you go.

For my Adventist friends who are careful about your Sabbath listening, I’ve just opened up a whole new world of possibilities for you.

You’re welcome!

See you in a week or so,


* It does sound like a duck; however, the oboe, despite its sounding exactly like a duck, is always played by someone too sensitive to be the butt of even the mildest of jokes. In the one oboe/duck piece of music I can think of, the one from Peter and the Wolf, the duck is portrayed as suspiciously melodious, indeed not duck-like at all.  Have you ever heard a duck sing like that?  I haven’t.  It’s very beautiful, very dignified, a warm and gentle tune with only a couple of grace notes gently hinting at a quack sound.  Then there’s a faster section to show the duck running, you can hear a sort of waddling quality to it but still it’s fluid and chromatic and probably rewarding to play.  I never heard a duck sound like that, and I don’t think Prokofiev ever did either. In fact, I suspect that what we hear today was his second version.  I’ll bet that the first version sounded all kinds of quacky, but that after the first rehearsal there were tears and cries (“I’m not going to play that!  I won’t! You can’t make me! I’ll quit!  I really will!”) and Prokofiev had to go home quickly and whip up something completely unfunny and not at all duck-like to replace it with.

To be fair, there aren’t many comic songs for violin either, as we violinists tend to be mean and humourless and to take ourselves way too seriously.  Not long ago I attended a comedy violin concert by a violinist who was simply hilarious on stage. I met her afterwards and found that she was as mean and cold hearted as the rest of us. When she deliberately hurt my feelings I actually felt better, because the idea of a happy, jolly violinist with a great sense of humour had been making me feel a little bit uneasy and the calculated snubbing put my universe back on track.  I’ve never met a mean trombonist, though.

** Again, this is because if the oboist was made to suffer the laughter of children for making duck noises he would simply dissolve, but not only can the trombone players take it, it actually doesn’t bother them.

*** Knouse, Nola Reed. The Music of the Moravian Church in America. Rochester: U of Rochester, 2008. 172. Print.

**** Full disclosure:  I should probably have mentioned in the beginning that I’m married to a trombonist. That is, a trombonist trapped in the body of a lawyer.  No possibility of a God complex there.


What to do? What to do?

June 4, 2015

Yesterday I saw an article about the traditional eight-hour workday and for some reason I was drawn to read it despite the fact that I haven’t had an eight hour workday in years; depending on how you look at it I’ve had either a twenty-four hour workday or I haven’t worked at all, except for a few violin lessons on the side and a children’s fiddle group that’s really more like a glorified hobby.

Here’s the article:

For twenty seven years, six days a week from pre-dawn till late evening, I was tightly bound by the non negotiable demands of up to four overlapping schedules, all of which were subject to major change without any notice whatsoever.  I felt like a hero for managing it all and did not welcome comments from the Patient Man about how with only a little effort on my part it could easily be streamlined: “Just make sure all the music lessons and sports all start right after school and end at the same time every day, right before dinner. You could get them all on two days a week and then you’d have three days free. Wouldn’t that save you a lot of time? No? I guess you just like driving down there seventeen separate times every day. It seems to me that you’re making yourself an awful lot of extra work but if that’s the way you want to spend your time I guess that’s your problem.”

For as many moms know, to impose your own structure upon the children’s schedules is very stressful and unless you are Iron Mom  it doesn’t work anyway. So you cease to try. That can be an easy decision for someone like myself, who as a youngest child was conditioned from birth to fall in with the plans of others anyway. Nevertheless, this accommodating spirit exacts a price when after twenty-seven straight years of on-call taxi driving and short-order cooking and putting out everyone else’s fires your own organizational mental skills are just … gone.  When after the children abandon you and you suddenly find you have both time available and tasks you need to do, you just can’t put them together. Without the constant prompts of the emergencies of others you find you cannot initiate anything. Those connections in your brain are just not there any more.

And so here I am cast up useless, weak and shivering on the far shore of motherhood, no longer capable of self-direction, with only the last retreating wavelets of the youngest child’s senior year lapping at my toes before I must pull myself to my feet and trudge off into the wasteland of not being needed at all for anything and not being able to think of anything to do on my own once I get there.

And that is why I have been looking for suggestions on how to structure my day. Well, that’s not phrased quite correctly; the Patient Man would very rightly laugh at that one (see above). I have been looking for any suggestions that might enable me to be able to once again create my own structure.  Yes, Patient Man, I did once upon a time have the ability to organize my own day. Briefly, twenty eight years ago.

The article pasted above is written for the office workplace, not the homemaker, but it looked to me as if the ninety minutes at one task followed by twenty minutes of rest, then ninety minutes at another task followed by another twenty minutes of rest, etc., would probably work well for me at home.  I thought I’d give it a go.

For the first day’s schedule I decided not to choose tasks which have their own rhythm anyway such as laundry, cooking or workout videos. Instead I chose a few of those small, one-time tasks which you really want to do but somehow can never seem to fit in between the many important things you have to do (such as laundry, cooking and workout videos).  I glanced around the house and chose a few such tasks at random:


  • Reprint the Albright Family Tree (my fictional people) and tape it on the wall in a secure and level manner, replacing the crooked one that curled inward about six months ago. It has to be printed in six separate sheets and spliced together, so it’s not as simple as it sounds.
  • Go to Lowes and buy herbs and tomatoes and plant them in the garden I have already prepared.
  • Put away the plastic bins of cookie cutters that have been stacked behind the kitchen table since February.  Also wash everything that was in the open top bin, because I think a raccoon came into the house and rummaged around in there.
  • Make a start in the dumpster that until lately was our basement.  This will have to be a timed task rather than a itemized task because there is no place to begin and no end in sight and really no way to measure progress.
  • Finish the ironing and put away the ironing board.
  • Write a short sixteen measure fiddle thing I promised someone about ten weeks ago.

And here is my proposed schedule in bold, annotated in italics with what really happened:

Starting at 11:00 because I’m too excited to wait until tomorrow. This schedule doesn’t look like so much! I am ready with plenty of energy and determination and with so much coffee in my system that I have to clench my jaw to keep my teeth from chattering. I shouldn’t reward myself with the fun tasks right away, so I think I’d better start with the cookie bins and the ironing. If I finish early I’ll straighten the laundry room too.

11:00 to 12:30 – work period (cookie bins and ironing)

11:11 – Okay, that was embarrassing.  The cookie bin project took eleven minutes, including replacing all the plastic bags and sterilizing anything the raccoon might have touched.  It conveniently ended right at 11:11 so I could make my wish (yes, I’m a thirteen-year-old at heart) which is “Health and Happiness, Wealth and Success, and Love, for all my children.*” Honesty compels me to remind everyone that the bins have been sitting on the floor for FOUR MONTHS.  It took ELEVEN MINUTES to clean them, reorganized them and put them away.

Now the ironing.

It’s summer, so I’m putting the school button downs to the bottom of the pile and starting with the odd stuff.  First an apron inherited from my mother, a vintage piece in a colour of green that has not existed since the 1970s. The ‘vintage’ imitations that are becoming popular now are not even close.  The apron is printed in a rather loud pattern of skunks and posies and the shape is somewhere between that of a maternity smock and very large scrubs. Odd to think how oversized and matronly I once thought this apron was. Actually it is very chic and retro and I love wearing it.

Next a tiny white apron of battenburg lace, the kind of perky little thing that springs to mind when you hear the word “apron.” It was left here by Young Maria Callas, who wore it as part of her costume when she sang Marzelline in Fidelio last  year.  I remember she had to wrap it around her waist twice so the tails of the sash wouldn’t drag on the floor.  I hold it up and look at it.  I’m not sure it would even fit around my neck.  Ugh.  I starch it thoroughly and hang it next to the skunk smock.  Isn’t that just a metaphor for my life: feeling so good about myself and then something perky comes and stands next to me and after all I’m just a big green skunk smock. Upon consideration I take the little apron straight upstairs and hang it in YMC’s closet.

Uh-oh, next a favourite striped shirt belonging to the Patient Man, a shirt which very recently I swore my eyes out that “I have NOT seen, and why don’t you check your closet again?” Perhaps that one had better go straight upstairs too, and hide in the back of the closet between two shirts PM never wears.

Oh no.  Here’s my very favourite skirt ever.  I’m not sure it fits anymore.  Maybe I’d better add the exercise videos back in after all.

Two dress shirts. Why? Dress shirts are supposed to go to the cleaners.

A casual tartan button down of Yale Man’s, so new it’s still crackly. Marked Wrinkle-Resistant, but apparently not when it has been buried under a stack of laundry since Christmas which is when I think he left it here. I probably owe it to him to at least run the iron over it quickly.

It’s getting warm in the laundry room.  I should have done this yesterday when the high temp was only 45.  I open the screen door, but quietly, not in the way I deliberately bang it sometimes when the neighbors are outside with their tiny yappy dog, which I do that so the dog will bark and annoy them. Then I wait till they get it to stop and I bang it again.  This is justified because they are the kind of jerks who leave the dog outside when they are not home, which is most of the time, which means that I have to be very careful not to bang my doors or even go into the backyard because any noise at all activates the dog for the rest of the afternoon. I’m the kind of jerk who only cares about this because it annoys me, not because I feel sorry for the dog (I’m pretty sure he’s enjoying himself out there) and I like them to have to suffer their own damn dog’s yapping when they’re trying to relax on their day off.

Ah.  12:29. Time to turn off the iron.  Five shirts, two aprons and a skirt.  I did not get nearly as much done as I had thought I would; ironically this makes me feel better after the embarrassingly short eleven minutes it took me to deal with the cookie bins.


12:30 to 1:00 – rest period (30 minutes because it covers lunch)


At 12:31 on the dot one of the adult children, one of those who moved away and left me adrift and structureless, calls for a lengthy phone consultation which lasts until 12:43.  Bien sûr. Children do not outgrow their “mom-is-sitting-down” sensors.


1:00 to 2:30 – work period (buy garden plants and plant them in prepared beds)


1:02  – I catch the Pokerface Joker heading upstairs to take a break from his SAT math review.  I decide to drag him  back so I can do SAT vocab flashcards with him for fifteen minutes because I love words and I enjoy playing with the flashcards.

Then the remote adult child calls again for some further discussion.

1:29 – I’m able to think about heading to Home Depot for the plants.

I go there and buy plants, seeds, and stakes.

2:15 – I get home. The Patient Man is home early.  Oh, that’s not going to disrupt anything at all.

I carry the plants to the backyard.

Ugh.  The garden bed isn’t quite as prepared as I thought it was.

Totally forget about the scheduled 2:30 to 2:50 rest period.


Extract rototiller from garage and get it started with Patient Man’s help. Extract the Pokerface Joker from his video game break and cause him to rototill the garden boxes.

Plant garden consisting of:

  • 3 Roma tomatoes plant
  • 1 Beefsteak tomato plant
  • 40 Walla Walla onion sets
  • 3 basil plants
  • 2 rows of carrots

Reflect that this is actually quite a lot of work for a very small amount of food which I could easily buy fully formed as needed at the farmers’ market for very little money – and which, considering the vagaries of weather, travel, insects, and my own forgetfulness, may or may not ever come to fruition.

Skipped the 2:30 break so decide to go directly to a 15 minute rest period an hour late, at 3:30.

What are the odds the Patient Man will catch me resting, even though he is downstairs in the garage and I’m being very, very quiet?

Yup, 48 seconds into first game of Bejeweled Blitz, Patient Man strides purposefully into room and looks pointedly at the computer screen and says, “Oh.  I guess I didn’t realize we had stopped working.”


2:50 to 4:20 – (work in basement)


I think about going down there after my belated, disrupted, totally spoiled, cruelly truncated break. But if I go down there and start sorting things, Patient Man will want to know why I’ve changed plans and gone to work on something else when I had been right in the middle of working in the yard.  I would show him the 90-20 minute cycle plan, which clearly schedules both jobs, but he would either not get it or pretend to not get it – although he’s the one who always complains I never have a plan.

I go back to the backyard although I’m really finished there. I walk around doing nothing.


4:20 to 4:40 is scheduled for a rest period.

Not falling for that one this time.

Instead, I go directly to:

4:40 to 6:10 – work period (family tree and music writing)

This was earmarked for getting the family tree ready to reprint.  I scheduled it late in the day because I don’t know how to change the ink in my printer and the Patient Man would be home to do it for me.

But now Patient Man is setting out the sprinkler system for my garden, which I really do appreciate, so I don’t think I’ll bring up the ink this evening.

I’m also supposed to write the sixteen measure thing during this time, but what if I get caught wasting time writing more fiddle music when I already have over two hundred pieces of music that all sound exactly the same?   

I sit down in the porch swing to admire the sprinkler system.

6:10 to 6:20 – a beverage.

Yes.  I’ll have a beverage.

6:20 – dinner prep and serve

Sure.  I can’t imagine anyone will object to this.

Alrighty then, time to call it a day.

I think this schedule thing is really going to bring new meaning to my life.

See you soon,


*Love goes last, not because it’s the least important, but because the words flow best in this order. Also I know that second comma shouldn’t be there but that’s where I pause.

The Letter Z (A-to-Z Challenge)

May 1, 2015

Markus Zusak, The Book Thief

Toward the end of the alphabet I manipulated some of the letters pretty excessively so today I thought I’d better pull myself together and end on an honest and upstanding note. To this end I Googled “list of authors beginning with the letter Z.”

And here I found Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief.


Here I could kill two birds with one stone.  The Book Thief became popular just as my youngest was aging out of the target audience and so we missed it.  I was always sorry about that so I was delighted that today I had an excuse to buy it and spend the time to read it.  I took out my phone and went right over to Amazon and searched “The Book Thief Kindle edition.”  First offer was a special movie edition with video clips included and that’s a little fancy for me.  Then a Sparknotes type thing, and next several unrelated books with the word “Thief” in the title.  Finally halfway down the page there was a book plainly labelled “The Book Thief by Markus Zusak” for $2.99.  I bought it with one-click.

Then I had to charge my kindle because it was dead. While I waited I paced around doing housework in a desultory and slipshod way because I was so excited about reading a wonderful new book.  Eventually the Kindle burst into light and I seized it and settled myself and opened the book to the title page, which read “The Book Thief by Markus Zusak: A Review.”


I think that was a little deceptive, to put in huge letters on the cover “The Book Thief by Markus Zusak” and make “a review” in tiny print, but that’s really beside the point.  That was really my own fault for trying to read small print on my phone. That’s not why I’m walking around the house breathing heavily through my nose and slamming the laundry baskets around.

It’s because when I went back to Amazon to return the review for a refund and leave a nasty one-star review, I looked at the “The Book Thief Kindle edition” search results list again saw that it was absolutely clotted with these “summaries,” these trashy little cheat-sheets that you run out and buy the night before the test if you were too lazy to read the book.

I am not talking about study guides, those useful enrichment exercises which are designed to enhance a student’s understanding of a book he has already read through thought questions, vocab review and character studies.  I am talking about summaries, which are designed to enable the ‘reader’ to fake a one page book report or eke out a B minus on a test if they had been too busy playing video games or texting or watching whole seasons of stuff on Netflix or painting their nails or whatever to bother with reading something marvelous which had been written just for them, which would not only have entertained them but made them into a better person.

Isn’t anybody paying attention to what’s going on out there?  Does not anyone see a problem?  Do you not see the irony? Fine.  I’ll spell it out for you.

This is a story** about a girl who copes with the hell of Nazi Germany by painstakingly and with difficulty, with her adopted father’s help, learning to read at a later than usual age, and then over a period of years risks imprisonment or death to one by one acquire by stealth a library of books that you could count on your digits with some toes left over.  A magnificent writer has taken years of his life to craft this plot into an irresistibly readable story for young people and someone has the effrontery to write and sell a pamphlet* the only purpose of which is to enable these young people to get by with not bothering to read it.  It makes me so angry I could spit.

Now, this is not Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  This is not Paradise Lost or even War and Peace.  This book is written at the fourth grade reading level; it is aimed at young people in grades seven through twelve. This is a book that I want to read because I see fifteen-year olds talking about it in hushed, rhapsodic whispers so as not to spoil the ending for their friends who haven’t read it yet. It is not only readable, it is magical.  As I discovered between 4 pm and midnight yesterday, it is a book that cannot be put down, even to make dinner.

This is why I cannot be a classroom teacher.

If I gave my students the privilege of reading a book such as this and found out that they had declined to do so and had instead read a summary, I would not only give them a Zero – Zip, Zilch*** – for that assignment, I would also take away all the credit for all the work they had done on anything else and then throw them out of my classroom.  Then the school board would want to have a word with me, and I’d resign. I can feel myself getting overheated already, so enough of this.****

I know you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.

This is beyond that.  This is like try to stuff hundred dollar bills into someone’s pockets and they yank them out and tear them up and throw them on the ground. This is like giving your kid a Porsche for his sixteenth birthday and him rolling his eyes in disgust and asking if he couldn’t just ride his old tricycle instead. This is like the dwarves sitting in a circle convinced that they are eating stable litter, refusing to see the glory of New Narnia all around them.

What on earth is going on here?

Why are adults writing these summaries?  Why is Amazon – of all ironies – selling them? There should be an analogy for that too but I’m just too angry to think of one.

I’m truly sorry to end the A-to-Z Challenge on this note.

I’ve got a busy weekend, but I hope I’ll see some of you on Monday for the reflection post,



*It’s almost beside the point that the person who wrote this review could not manage to make it through a single sentence without changing tenses.  I don’t mean from one sentence to the next; I mean, changing tenses within the sentence. Practically every sentence. Look it up and read a sample if you don’t believe me.

**Yes, I understand that it is fiction.

***There are some honest Zs for you.

***I gave myself twenty-four hours and I hope I’ve been able to tone it down some.  Lately I read an article by someone who was so angry at people who stupidly insist on putting two spaces instead of just one after a period that she was practically choking on her own spit.  It seemed excessive and, I thought, a little tasteless, and I was hoping to avoid the same kind of thing here, but I’m afraid I may have crossed the same line.

The Letter S (A-to-Z Challenge)

April 22, 2015

The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas* **


The Three Musketeers is one of my five beloved paperbacks, the soft and cuddly ones I mentioned before that are as comforting as old shoes and as welcoming as old friends.  I think I read once that the real genius of Alexandre Dumas is his gift of dialogue, and if I didn’t read that somewhere I should have because to me that is the whole charm of The Three Musketeers.  Open your copy and find a place where Athos, Porthos and Aramis are bickering, possibly with one or more of their servants involved as well, and then D’Artagnan shows up and joins in.  They can go on for pages.  None of the lines needs the speaker to be identified because there is never a question of who is speaking.  I love this, and because natural dialogue has never been my forte several years ago I set myself to write from memory amusing or important conversations that happened around me.

Two recent events reminded me of that exercise.

Event the First:  This past weekend on the closing night of Young Maria Callas’ opera scenes show, Little Miss Sunshine and I took her and a new friend of hers out for a celebratory dinner. This new friend asked if we had any amusing and hopefully embarrassing childhood stories about Young Maria Callas, and since we were feeling pretty jolly by that point I took out my phone and opened one of these conversations I had saved.  I read it to him, using the various appropriate voices, and after that our table became very hilarious indeed.  It occurred to me then that it might be fun to post that conversation here, later on, after A-to-Z is finished, because it sheds light on the personalities of both Young Maria Callas and the Pokerface Joker whom most of my readers have never met.

Event the Second:  This morning I realized guiltily that although in the beginning of the Challenge I was very faithful about visiting five blogs daily and leaving thoughtful comments, I have lately gotten out of that habit.  I decided to do this before writing today’s entry because I knew if I left it until afterwards I would very likely run out of time and not do it.  So before I even got out of bed I poked through the list of participants, clicked on an appealing title, and discovered to my utter delight someone whose entire A-to-Z theme is the recounting of faithfully recorded conversations and these conversations are not only natural and lifelike but also very, very funny indeed.***

Is it not amazing how when you really want to do something you can find all sorts of signs indicating that you really should go ahead and do that thing right now without delay.

So out the window went poor Alexander McCall Smith,**** who was to have been the subject for the  Letter S, and in came Alexandre Dumas (who at least has an S at the end of his name, and plus he shares a first name with Alexander McCall Smith whose last name does begin with S) because he can serve as a springboard to the brilliant use of dialogue and from there to this dialogue exercise of my own!

And so now without further ado here is the conversation:


The Pokerface Joker and I are lying on his bed. I am reading to him. Young Maria Callas enters the room, stomping, and towers over us, frowning.

Young Maria Callas: There aren’t any band-aids.

Me: Do you need a band-aid?

Young Maria Callas: No. But I might soon, and there wouldn’t be any. PJ, did you use all the band-aids again?

Pokerface Joker: No.

YMC: Yes, you did. You took them all and stuck them all over yourself. There isn’t even one left.

PJ: No, I didn’t.

YMC: Yes, you did. When you weren’t even hurt. You just waste them. You do it all the time.

PJ: No, I don’t.

YMC: Yes, you do.

PJ: Well, I didn’t this time.

YMC: Yes, you did. You always do that.

PJ: No, you always do that.

YMC: No, you always do that.

PJ: No, you always do that.

YMC: No, you always…

Me: Stop it! Stop it!

YMC: (ostentatiously turning her head away from the Pokerface Joker) Mom, we need more band-aids. PJ took them all and stuck them all over himself when he wasn’t even hurt just like he always does.

PJ: No, I didn’t

YMC: Mom, we need more band-aids.

Me:  Alright, Young Maria Callas, I will buy more band-aids tomorrow. I cannot do it tonight. Do you need a band-aid now?

YMC: (reluctantly) No. But I might. And then there wouldn’t BE any, because PJ took them all and stuck them all over himself when he wasn’t even hurt. Just like he always does.

Me: Tomorrow I will buy some more. And PJ won’t do that anymore.

PJ: She’s the one who does it.

YMC: Fine.

PJ: Not me.

YMC: Shut up! Just shut up!

Me: Everyone! Stop it! I will buy band-aids! No one will waste them anymore! Okay? Can I read now?

YMC stares down at us with folded arms while I try very hard not to laugh. My mouth twitches. I can’t help it. She begins to retreat furiously. As she reaches the door the Pokerface Joker mutters.

PJ: She’s the one who does it.

I can’t help it. I snort.

Young Maria Callas slams the door hideously. I ignore this and begin to read aloud. Young Maria Callas opens her own door across the hall and immediately there is a terrible crash followed by horrific shrieking. The Pokerface Joker and I lie very still. We are very afraid.

The shrieking stops.

Young Maria Callas’ door opens and closes.

The Pokerface Joker’s door opens.

Young Maria Callas enters and glares at us. She seems to sort of float across the floor toward us on a wave of fury.

YMC: In case you care, even though you didn’t bother to ask, I’m okay. Except I stubbed my toe.

My mouth is twitching and I can’t seem to breathe in or out. I don’t dare blink. I speak very evenly.

Me: I’m sorry, Sweetie. Are you alright?

And then the Pokerface Joker speaks very sweetly.

PJ: Do you need a band-aid?


Alright.  Thanks for your patience.  Tomorrow we will talk about an actual book, I promise!

See you tomorrow for Letter T,


*I did mention earlier that I’m a champion rationalizer and manipulator of rules and that the constraints of the alphabet would be as nothing to me in the way of limiting what I might choose to feature for any particular letter.

**Probably here ‘S’ should also stand for Self-Serving Segue.


****Actually nothing would please me more than to spend the day immersed in the eighteen or so Alexander McCall Smith books I’ve got lying around but unfortunately I’ve got one or two things to do this afternoon, so the signs and omens directing me to switch over to something I’d already written were very welcome indeed.  Just to clarify, I don’t actually believe in signs and omens.  Unless of course they tell me something I want to believe anyway.

The Letter F (A-to-Z Challenge)

April 7, 2015

Frog and Toad series by Arnold Lobel

  • Days With Frog and Toad
  • Frog and Toad are Friends
  • Frog and Toad Together
  • Frog and Toad All Year

When it comes to children’s ‘literature’ there is so much crap out there.  I’m sorry, I don’t usually say ‘crap,’ but I’m afraid it applies here and I must just say it.

Go to the ‘early reader’ section of any bookstore and take a look at some of the books available which are meant to entice children to make the effort to learn to read. The fact that I find so many of these books to be irritating and stupid* is totally beside the point; the point is that I’ve never known any children to find them appealing either.  I can’t tell you how much money I spent on a certain book collection whose title purports to encourage children by telling them that they can read.**  I guess it was my fault they didn’t like them.  I had been snobbishly cramming good books down their throats – books like Charlotte’s Web, the Narnia books, the Little House books, Heidi, Caddie Woodlawn, The Secret Garden, Little Lord Fauntleroy – and apparently this did the children the disservice of turning them into little critics who thought they were too good for a storyline that included a second grader who by dint of believing in himself was able to transform into a flying superhero with special abilities which enabled him to tame the dinosaur that was stealing everybody’s lunches.  Sorry, but I’m afraid I’m not sorry.

And then we discovered Frog and Toad.

The miracle of Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad books is that they are actually literature.

Using only understated, simple language, Mr. Lobel created tiny, elegant gems of stories told in words of one or two syllables.***  In these stories the short, fat Toad and the tall, thin Frog play together and work together and make plans which do or do not work out.  Toad is shortsighted and impetuous and a little bit lazy and largely ruled by his emotions, while his best friend, Frog, is sensible and kind and patient and helpful.  In some stories, Toad, who does not always think things through, does something a little thoughtless and then the kindly Frog demonstrates entirely by his own actions a more reasonable way to act.****  No calamity befalls Toad, he simply gets it and Frog tactfully pretends not to notice.  How kind.  But in most of the stories they just have fun together.

I am a fan of the occasional use of biggish words in books for small children as long as the words are used simply and naturally**** and not in a condescending, instructive sort of way.  In Frog and Toad, however, the fact that the words are all tiny and simple is a big part of the attraction.  It creates an appealing rhythm and style that is a work of art.  We didn’t use these books as reading primers.  We read them because we loved them and we read them again and again and again and they never stopped being funny and profound.  That is the miracle of Frog and Toad.

If you can read the ice cream story***** aloud without whooping and shrieking and gasping and without tears and snot running down your temples into your ears (assuming you are lying down reading aloud to a child) then you are a stronger person than I.

If you can read the dream story****** without choking up, you are cold-hearted and unfeeling.

If you have any children in your life, you must immediately go and buy them the Frog and Toad series as a gift, and be sure to claim the read-aloud privileges for yourself.

See you tomorrow for Letter G,


*I am not going to name any titles, but they include books about child superheroes, books whose only raison d’etre is a trendy politically correct theme or character, books based on tv shows, cartoons or movies, books about monsters (I don’t think children actually worry about monsters until they are told they do by adults), books where they use the word ‘wacky’ or stupid made up words like ‘fudgelicious’ and books full of daringly outrageous potty humour because the author thinks that children think that bodily function jokes are really hilarious.  Children may may think so, when they’re the ones making the jokes, but when adults do it children are perceptive enough to realize that it’s both inappropriate and pandering.

**I can read, yes, but if this is all that’s available why would I bother to?

***In all of the four books I don’t believe there is even one word that a child would need to sound out more than once or have to ask the meaning of.  In one story of fewer than four hundred words I looked at this morning, there is only one word (“remember”) which is longer than two syllables.  I would give you a more accurate word count but I kept getting caught up in the story as I was counting.

****But gently!  And Frog never lets on that he notices.  And there’s no adult figure hovering and waiting to break in and stop all the fun and preachily reiterate the lesson.

*****Beatrix Potter’s use of the words ‘soporific’ and ‘alighted’ comes to mind.

*****”Ice Cream,” from Frog and Toad All Year.

******”The Dream,” from Frog and Toad Together.

The Letter C (A-to-Z Challenge)

April 3, 2015

A Child’s Garden of Verses

Robert Louis Stevenson

When Young Maria Callas was three years old and cheerfully holding center stage at all the family parties by reciting poetry, a beloved great aunt now deceased presented her with Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, requesting that she would please learn the poem My Shadow and helpfully marking the page with a yellow paper clip so that we would not forget.*

YMC was more than happy to learn the poem, and I was delighted to find that the very first poem in the book was Bed in Summer, which I had read long ago in the margin of a first or second grade language-enrichment textbook and had nearly forgotten:

Bed in Summer

In winter I get up at night

And dress by yellow candle-light.

In summer, quite the other way,

I have to go to bed by day.


I have to go to bed and see

The birds still hopping on the tree.

Or hear the grown-up people’s feet

Still going past me in the street.


And does it not seem hard to you,

When all the sky is clear and blue,

And I should like so much to play,

To have to go to bed by day?

As I read the verses again I remembered that as a seven year old I had loved the poem but had also found it confusing. How could a child in bed hear people’s feet in the street?  Why did the child in the poem have to get up so early during the winter, and why would he have been put to bed in the middle of the afternoon during the summer, when surely there wasn’t even school the next day? Was he being punished? The illustration showed an unsupervised child in a nightgown holding a candle so obviously it had been written a long time ago, before there was electricity and before parents knew that allowing children to play with fire was dangerous.  Perhaps in those olden days the nights and days were of different lengths.

Of course now the magic of Google tells me that in Edinburgh, Scotland (Robert Louis Stevenson’s hometown) the sun rises at 8:44 am in the deep of winter and sets at 10:03 pm in the height of summer.  In Riverside, California (my hometown) the latest winter sunrise is at 6:55 am and the latest summer sunset is at 8:05 pm.  So that clears that up.  As to the people walking in the street, young RLS must have had a bedroom at the front of his house at 17 Heriot Row, for he writes in the poem “The Lamplighter”


For we are very lucky, with a lamp before the door,

And Leerie stops to light it as he lights so many more;

And O! before you hurry by with ladder and with light,

O Leerie, see a little child and nod to him tonight!


And that is why a little boy in a front bedroom of a house in Edinburgh can hear the sound of people’s feet on the pavement below him, and a little girl in a back bedroom of a tract house in Riverside, California cannot.

Finally, as to the unsupervised candle-handling, that was probably the illustrator’s error.  I think it most likely that the nurse took care of the candle.

I was delighted to have a whole book of verses by the writer of that beloved poem and for years I carried A Child’s Garden of Verses from bed to bed every evening as one by one I read the children to sleep.  In much the same way that I had loved yet wondered at Bed in Summer, the children and I found the whole volume to be both endearing and confusing. Some of the poems were instantly appealing:  Windy Nights, Where Go the Boats, The Land of Counterpane, The Swing, and these we read together over and over, but many other poems seemed odd to us and after one or two baffled attempts to ‘get it’ we skipped them. Now, as an adult reading it at my leisure (and without having to concentrate on getting four children to bed) I understand that these puzzling verses are the specific personal memories of RLS.  This volume was a childhood memoir expressed in poetry, a tribute to his own nurse, to his mother and father, his aunts and cousins and playmates.  Read in this light and as a whole it is a beautiful homage to a happy childhood.

Here is a contemporary review that appeared in the Guardian on May 13, 1885:

To write good verse for children – verse which is neither stilted nor bald, neither sentimental nor prosaic – is among the difficult achievements of literature, and Mr Stevenson’s delightful little volume is quite a triumph in its kind. A child’s way of looking at things is so different from ours that a grown person in trying to express it almost feels as though he is using a foreign language, while yet from the nature of his task he is bound to the greatest simplicity and homeliness.

This difficulty Mr Stevenson escapes through his wonderfully sympathetic imagination. He not only knows what the children like, but he likes it along with them. His verses are full of the surprises which children themselves constantly give us in their odd mixture of fantasy and realism. They are admirable pictures of wholesome child-life, “innocent and honest”, to use his own words – old-fashioned we had almost said, but, alas! for the world if so it is – delighting in its own wayward play.**

I can’t walk beside a stream without reciting, “Dark brown is the river, Golden is the sand…”  

It makes me happy, and sad, and seven years old.

See you tomorrow for Letter D,


*She did not forget.  For months to follow a highlight of family parties was Young Maria Callas’ performance, standing on a table and solemnly lisping, “I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me, And what can be the use of him is more than I can see…”

**”A Garden of Delights, A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson, Reviewed in the Guardian, May 13 1885.” The Guardian. N.p., 1 Aug. 2003. Web. 3 Apr. 2015.

I Read A Lot, But That Doesn’t Make Me a Better Person

January 16, 2015

I don’t remember being read to much as a child, but if you take this statement at face value it would be a terrible slander of my mother.  I know she read to me constantly until I learned to read at the age of four but after that I wanted to do my own reading.  I have a brilliant, sparkling memory of the moment I realized, sitting cross-legged on my bedroom carpet in a sharply edged square of bright morning sunlight, that I could read.  The thin shadows of leafless lilac branches shivered on the pages of the book I had just pulled out from the bottom shelf of the white-painted bookcase my dad had built for me.  My dad and brother were on ladders outside the window doing something, perhaps pruning the lilacs or washing the windows, and I could see the shadows of their upper bodies moving as they worked and spoke to each other.  I looked up and saw them, my dad in his paint stained work shirt and my brother in a short sleeved shirt of plaid, and then I looked down at the words on the page and realized that I knew what they were. I read through the whole book to be sure, then double-checked with another book, and it was true.  I stood up and banged on the window and shouted, “Hey!  I can read!”  And there was great rejoicing.

I became a good reader, a fast reader with excellent comprehension skills, and I showed this off horribly, developing the obnoxious habit of carrying thick books with bookmarks placed ostentatiously near the end.  This was always remarked upon by adults who must have seen through my motives but kindly humoured* me anyway with expressions of disbelief and admiration, even if I sometimes had to hold the book right in their faces to elicit these compliments.


My parents certainly encouraged me to read, but not to read for twenty-four hours a day to the exclusion of everything else which is what I probably would have done if left to myself.  Reading was a treat for the end of the day, after the work was done.  Back then I worked about as willingly as I do now, which is not very willingly at all.  It was not my parents’ fault that I could stretch a twenty-minute set of chores over three very difficult and whiny hours.  I could not simply do the chores quickly and efficiently and then read; no, I had to be sneaky.  I stashed books all around the house, under sofa cushions, in the garage in case I was sent there on an errand and could snatch a few sentences before I had to go back into the house, under the stack of towels in the bathroom cupboard, cleverly concealed leaning upright against the front wall of the deep lower dining room cabinet where we kept serving dishes.

In order to read at the table (also forbidden, of course) I kept a book on my seat of my chair at the dining room table, concealed by the long tablecloth.  I developed a way of sliding into my chair without pulling it out all the way, my rear end grazing the chair seat and sliding the book into my left hand so I could catch it while pretending to adjust my skirt.  Then I could hold the book in my lap and by sucking in my stomach I could see to read the bottom half of the pages.  When I needed to read the top half  I dropped a fork or napkin on the floor and, leaning down to retrieve it, read quickly while I groped blindly around the floor with my right hand.

It is not an exaggeration to say that I always either had a book openly in hand or concealed about my person or I knew exactly where the nearest one was. You have seen the anxiety that some teenagers exhibit when they are deprived of their phones.  This is how I felt if there was nothing to read. I remember in desperation reading the label on a fire extinguisher, and this more than once.  This led to planning ahead.  (If you ask The Patient Man, he will say that this was probably the only planning ahead I have ever accomplished.)  Each week I carried a thin book to church concealed between my Bible and my quarterly. At school, against the rules I carried a book out to recess tucked up under my jacket and pressed against my body by my left arm, or in good weather, simply stuffed into the front of my jeans and covered by my blouse, so that I could read on a playground swing, my back to the classroom window or the recess supervisor, idly pushing at the ground with my toe when I remembered to do so. For my during class time fix there was a book flattened open and carefully counterweighted and cantilevered to project from the narrow top shelf of my desk so that by tipping back in my chair and looking sneakily from the corner of my eye I could snatch a few sentences between spelling words or during absolutely pointless explanations of stupid math topics which would do me no good to listen to anyway.  During sixth grade science class I once awoke to the fact that the lecture had ceased, the classroom was silent and the teacher was nowhere to be seen.  I finally located him directly behind me; he was looking over my shoulder at the book I had propped open behind my open science book.  I wasn’t sure how long he had been there but I definitely had the impression it was quite awhile.

Of course I read in bed but I was expected to turn out the light and go to sleep at a reasonable time which did not seem at all reasonable to me.  I did not read by flashlight with my head under the covers because I don’t like things over my head, but I would get out of bed and lean against my dresser over by the slightly open door, shrugging this way and that to avoid the angular brass drawer pulls, awkwardly tilting the book to best catch the narrow wedge of light from the hallway.  Our house had deep carpeting over thick padding laid on concrete floors, as silent as poor frightened Lucy Pevensie found the Magician’s House, but fortunately the light source was at the far end of the hall and anyone starting toward the bedrooms cast a long warning shadow.  The silent floors worked to my advantage, too, as I dashed for my bed.

Having just spent way more words than necessary describing my love of books, it may seem hypocritical when I tell you that I shudder when people smugly describe themselves as ‘avid’ or ‘voracious’ readers.  These terms seem so self-congratulatory.  Why is a person, like me, who takes their entertainment in book form to be especially congratulated?  Reading is my form of escapist entertainment and why should it necessarily, regardless of content, rate higher on an intellectual scale than watching television?  The books on my current list are hardly erudite.  Here is what is stacked on my nightstand at the present moment, part of my latest haul of practically free books from the Goodwill:  Accordion Wars by Annie Proulx, three books by Alexander McCall Smith (The Miracle at Speedy Motors, Tea Time for the Traditionally Built, and The Charming Quirks of Others), a glossy-covered thick hardback called Past Imperfect by Julian Fellowes which I grabbed because I love Downton Abbey and I hope it’s the same Julian Fellowes, although I haven’t investigated this yet, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, which I meant to buy back when it was new but didn’t want to pay full price for,  and Next of Kin by Joanna Trollope which I chose because I loved The Rector’s Wife and The Choir.  (As far as I’m concerned, though, Next of Kin isn’t in the same league.)  I started reading Joanna Trollope because she is a descendent of the novelist Anthony Trollope, a fact which I envy her, but after I read and liked her books I realized I hadn’t actually ever read anything by the illustrious ancestor, so when I happened upon a boxed set (obviously unread) of the Palliser Novels I grabbed them, and they are sitting over on my dresser (still obviously unread).  One of these days.

Anyway, as you can see, the above selections are not the reading list for a serious course of self-improvement; perhaps none are as low on the scale as Two and a Half Men, but they really do not rise much above, say, The Big Bang Theory on the low end and Downton Abbey on the high end.  That, however, doesn’t at all prevent me from putting on a seriously superior attitude and selecting some of my biggest, nastiest words to use in sharp, pointy sentences when I’m trying to read and The Patient Man is thoughtlessly ruining my peace and quiet by roaring at whatever fourth-rate sitcom happens to be on at the moment even though he’s seen it fifty-two times already.  The number of times I might have already read the book he’s so rudely interrupting is totally beside the point.

That’s enough for an introduction.  In the next installment I’ll give you a list of the beloved books of my childhood.  They probably won’t be the books you are expecting.

Alrighty then, see you next week,


 You may notice that I use many British spellings.  This is because I am a snob.

How to Make Your Children Love Classical Music

January 8, 2015

You have heard about the Mozart Effect and want to add this accessory to your Perfect Parenting Portfolio, but unfortunately you do not know anything about Classical Music.  Do Not Panic.  Here is handbook containing everything you need to know.  I have arranged it in a handy Do and Don’t format.


DO Take the Family to the Symphony

Taking kids to a regular symphony concert can be perilous, as we have recently been reminded by Michael Tilson Thomas* and if you take children under the age of eight or so to a long, indoor major symphony concert you should probably sit way in the back the first time to see how it goes.  However, an outdoor symphony concert on a perfect summer’s evening can shine in a child’s memory forever. The smell of freshly cut grass and the wafting smoke from citronella candles, the flicker of fireflies and shooting stars, the bright ozone taste of a nearby thunderstorm, the clink of plates and glasses and the soft creak of lawn chairs, the tuning of the orchestra in the big tent and the sudden settling and hushing of the crowd around you, the applause, the bow, the downbeat, the swell of cellos and tympani in the gathering dark…a child who falls asleep lying on the blanket at his parents’ feet while gazing at the stars even before the overture has finished is a child who has experienced a very pleasant emotional association with classical music.


DON’T Take the Family to Musical Events Aimed at Children

At all costs stay away from anything calling itself a Classical Cartoon Fest, unless you like paying a lot of money to spend the day in the company of frantically perfect parents who can’t seem to stop desperately insisting in high pitched voices that their screaming, ice-cream smeared toddlers are totally enthralled by the music, and on that same note under no circumstances should you ever agree to go to a Children’s Concert either because if you do you will spend two hours sealed in a concert hall stuffed with hundreds of field-tripping children, the music overlaid by the hum and whine of starving, bus-crazed third graders and punctuated by thumps and crashes as they bounce frenetically and not quite rhythmically in the wooden folding chairs. They will wad up their programs and throw them, they will yell to their friends rows away, a few of them will vomit from excitement.  You can watch the teachers and chaperons swiveling constantly from back to front and side to side, hissing and swatting, trying to quell the most immediately egregious concert etiquette violations in a hideous game of whack a mole, which is kind of funny, but other than that it’s a horrible experience and you will leave with a migraine like none you have ever experienced.  Don’t do it.  I know it’s supposed to be educational, but all you’ll remember later is discovering you have spent the morning sitting in half a peanut butter sandwich that the kid behind you put down the back of your chair when you weren’t paying attention, and possibly you’ll have a vague memory of some completely incomprehensible piece of music about a hut that gets up and walks around.** Don’t.  Just…don’t.

DO Take the Family to the Opera

I tell you the truth when I say that opera is great for children.  Big, loud, outlandishly dressed people running around on stage caterwauling and shouting at each other, brandishing swords, knocking each other over, fighting endlessly over silly misunderstandings and falling for deceptions that even a child would see through, many of the characters ultimately collapsing upon the floor to die but continuing to sing for several minutes in what children find to be a very comical voice, seriously, this is terrific entertainment! Nearly all operas are sung in another language (Italian or German, mostly) but if you actually care about the plot there are English supertitles provided. You should always read the synopsis before you go just to be sure there isn’t too much murder or mayhem or outrageously immoral behavior, but of all the operas we have been to only Rigoletto and Lucia di Lammermoor would have been seriously inappropriate for young children.  Many of the Mozart operas are hilarious, though, and that is where you should start. The Abduction from the Seraglio and Cosi Fan Tutte are totally violence-free and  pretty much pure slapstick all the way through and Magic Flute has enough bells and whistles and fireworks and smoke and things that explode in both the vocal score and the staging to keep a whole family of kids happy all evening.  Rossini is also extremely entertaining.


DON’T Forget to Research First

Don’t pick your first opera based solely on which titles are familiar to you.  You might end up at Madame Butterfly and unless you’ve had trouble sleeping lately and don’t mind paying $75 for a solid four-hour nap, you’re going to feel as if you’ve been had.  You should probably save anything by Wagner for much later in your opera-going experience as well.

Further, look into the particular production you are thinking of seeing. Read the description carefully to be sure that the staging is not described as ‘trendy’ or ‘edgy’ or ‘modern’ or even ‘new.’  Don’t go see anything that is set in a dump, on a spaceship, in a disco or in an abandoned building until you have seen some traditionally staged operas.  Sumptuous and glittering period staging is half the fun.  Once you’ve booked the tickets, remember that this is a fun and entertaining family outing (like going to the movies) rather than an improving experience (like going to the Museum of Work and Industry).  Don’t gather a lot of boring educational materials and force them upon the children.  They’ll hate it and it will put them right off the idea of opera, even (especially) if you read the educational materials aloud to them in a voice of breathless wonder and delight.  By all means study the synopsis yourself and then share the information, but only because you yourself find it interesting.

DO Listen to Classical Music As You Go About Your Life

Here is a list of totally accessible and instantly enjoyable music.  You can buy CDs or you can buy them in other formats and put them on any of your electronic devices (which I will not show my ignorance by listing) and then listen to them around the house and in the car. These selections are totally non-threatening, non-taxing, and extremely appealing to all ages:

  • Mendelssohn – Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture, Symphony No. 4 (Italian), Symphony No. 5 (Reformation), Violin Concerto in e minor.


  • Beethoven – any symphonies but especially numbers 5, 7 and 9, the Choral Fantasy, also Consecration of the House overture.


  • Grieg – In the Hall of the Mountain King, Wedding Day at Troldhaugen


  • Vivaldi – The Four Seasons, the Mandolin, Lute and Guitar Concertos


  • Praetorius –  Dances from Terpsichore (lots of fun, plus some of the instruments sound like kazoos***)


  • Bach – Brandenburg Concertos, Double Violin Concerto, the Suites for Unaccompanied Cello


  • Scarlatti – Keyboard sonatas


  • Prokofiev – Lieutenant Kije Suite


  • Smetana – Bartered Bride Overture, The Moldau


  • Glinka – Russlan and Ludmilla Overture (You might have heard this during the opening credits of the sitcom ‘Mom’)


  • also any brass music by Gabrieli and by Scheidt, as well as


  • anything by Shostakovich


  • And Telemann.  Only this morning on my way home from dropping off the Pokerface Joker at school I heard a Telemann Divertimento that was so charming, so elegant, so full of courtly cheer that although it ended just as I was pulling into the driveway I turned off the engine and sat in the garage with my eyes closed for several minutes, reliving it until it faded from my memory.

DON’T Patronize!

Do not patronize the children.  They can tell, and they don’t like it. Don’t throw on a bargain bin Best of Mozart CD, make them stop whatever they’re doing so they can listen to it, and then instantly start cooing, “This is Mozart, children!  Isn’t it pretty?”  Just pick something nice but not too taxing and play it at a moderate volume while you’re all quietly doing something else nearby. Don’t make much of it.  Don’t draw attention to the fact that you’re listening to anything different than the usual. Do not say, “This is Wonderful!  You will love it! Stop talking and having fun and LISTEN!”

That won’t work.

Also, don’t compare it to whatever music you usually listen to. Don’t say that it’s better, or more exciting, or even AS exciting.  Just play it from time to time. Sing along in nonsense syllables once you get the drift but for goodness’ sake don’t invite them to sing along too and if they should happen to do so, pretend not to notice!  And most importantly, when talking about the new music DO NOT use any voice that requires you to put on an engaging smile and go all shiny-eyed and magical, and you can apply this rule to all parts of your life if you like, not just when talking to your children about music.

Regarding your Local Community Orchestra: A Warning

Taking your impressionable young children to concerts of your Local Community Orchestra (hereinafter known as LCO) was not included in the list above.  This was not an accidental omission.   Subscribing to your LCO in a wholesale way is not necessarily a good idea.  You have to be careful.  Let me tell you a story about our LCO.

Our LCO, a semi-professional group of which I try to be supportive, has a music library which is not huge and therefore has some favourites which it performs often.  Inexplicably one of these staples is the Prokofiev Classical Symphony, a deceptively difficult work which, depending on how it’s played, can either sound sublime or sound like a middle school band playing a bad arrangement.  In the second movement of this Classical Symphony the first violins have a theme which begins way on up double high H in 37th position on the e string, a thin spiral of notes twirling down like the few first snowflakes in the holy light of a Christmas Eve midnight — except when the first violins are all fearful and tentative and not quite in unison, in which case it sounds like a metal garden rake being dragged down a chalk board. For years I shivered in my seat as I endured this passage, and closed my eyes and massaged my forehead and curled my toes and tried not to think about it. Having never heard it played elsewhere, I thought the Prokofiev Classical Symphony was really the most horrid thing in the whole world.  

So imagine my frustration when we were on a quick trip to London and the only London Symphony Orchestra concert we could get to featured the Prokofiev Classical Symphony.  We had to go, of course – it was the London Symphony! – but the outrage of paying $85 to have broken glass shoved down my ears was almost more than I could bear.  As the passage approached I activated the special sound shields that we violin teachers develop in our ears…and then the violinists gently moved their bows and the most lovely melody spun softly upward from the strings and floated gracefully into the ceiling and drifted back down upon us like a fall of angels’ feathers. It was exactly like being gently cosseted in a soft fluffy comforter still warm from the dryer when I was expecting to get whacked over the head with a shovel.

The problem is, how many people in our LCO audience finally couldn’t stand it anymore and just stopped trying? I’m just saying, if you want your LCO to be an enhancement to your classical music experience rather than a detriment, you’ll have to pick your concerts wisely.  And it might take a little experience for you to be able to do that.

And of course…

Finally, and probably most importantly, give your children instrument lessons and as soon as possible enroll them in a youth orchestra. Yes, you will have to go to all the concerts, and I’m afraid that it may hurt your ears for quite some time, and for that I am sorry. All I can say is that in the end it will be worth it.

This is true, I promise.

Alrighty then, see you next week.



* I don’t know how to paste a link, or the legally correct way to do so, so if you’re interested you’ll need to google ‘Michael Tilson Thomas New World Symphony asks mother and child to move’ and there will be plenty for you to read about that.  In the interest of full disclosure, I totally support his action.

** Mussorgsky, The Hut of Baba-Yaga from Pictures at an Exhibition.  It’s on EVERY Children’s Concert program. No one gets it.

*** the krumhorns