Wednesday, March 28, 2012

What we're focused on

This post is about focus, extreme focus.  Although most of us admire this kind of focus, we usually encourage our kids to do things in scheduled increments of no more than an hour.  That's the very best part of homeschooling.  Allowing the kids to work on what they're interested in for as long as they want.

Gus is involved with an amazing project with an awesome bunch of talented musicians.  He's working on it all the time and loving it.  He's practicing the songs for hours a day.  When he's not doing that he's poring through the Mountain Minstrelsy book, picking out more songs, or strumming his banjo, chord chart in hand writing more songs.  Its what he's humming as he plays Legos, and what he's talking about after I tuck him in and turn out the light at bedtime.

This is what Gus's life looks like right now. 

 Helping to make sure that the mikes and recording equipment are set up correctly.

Learning how the sound board works.


 Practicing with the band.

 Composing more Mountain Minstrelsy.

Writing about science.

Making art.

 And, as always, taking pictures of the cat.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Poor Little Soldier's Boy

Mountain Mistrelsy, a book by Henry Shoemaker, arrived in the mail.  We sat down on the porch to read it.  It is a collection of songs from the turn of the century, the previous one not the recent one, collected from the porches, campfires, hunting and lumber camps of Northern Pennsylvania.

You can't open the book and sing the songs.  The tunes were lost, only the words remain.  Soundless songs of loss and despair, of love and death, cries for social change.

A group of local musicians are bringing these songs back to life for a recording project called Mountain Mistrelsy.  Gus has been asked to play fiddle for the project.

We flipped through the book, reading a page where the title grabbed our attention.

Gus was immediately drawn to A Soldier's Poor Little Boy, the story of the orphan of a soldier freezing in a snowstorm and begging an old lady to let him into the warm.  I read the story, but it didn't sing to me.  I only saw words on the page.

He ran to his banjo and asked me to read the first line.  He plunked around and found some chords.  We wrote them down.  I read the next line and the banjo replied with more chords, until we reached the end of the first verse.   He played through it until he was satisfied.

He had reached through the pages of the book and the chords on his banjo drew the outline of that orphan from long ago, freezing in the snow.  

 I played through the chords for him and he listened quietly, then began to play fiddle, first long notes like blowing wind, and then a simple melody that descended with the boy's dispair, and rose with his hope, repeating over and over between the verses.  The notes of the fiddle sketched in the features of the hungry child and the woman who saved him.

We played the song together as a family over and over again, adjusting words and changing the key to accommodate our voices.  It became real to us, a spare haunting melody, like a black and white photo of the boy saved from the storm.

Gus played it for the rest of the Mountain Minstrels.  They played it together on guitar, banjo, bass, drums, mandolin, changing the phrasing and the tempo, round and round until a complete song emerged.  The boy's story, like the boy in the song, had been rescued from the whiteout of time and obscurity.  A complete picture emerged of a lonely woman who had lost her son in the war and the rescued boy, playing and singing their song by the fireplace as the storm receded into the background outside.
photo by Tim Yarrington

Thursday, March 8, 2012

What We're Practicing Today

We're enjoying a two week break from the boys' Suzuki violin lessons for spring break.  Its not that we don't love our lessons, but the break has certainly been a nice change of pace and I realized today that we're playing a really interesting mix of music right now.

Gus has written chords and melody for a couple of old, old, songs.  He wasn't gentle to his new-chord phobic parents, so we're getting much better at our B minor and F chords.  He picked out two songs:  Harry Bell, a lovely little tune about a guy falling into the saw at a sawmill, and Soldier's Poor Little Boy, about a boy freezing to death in the snow.  Surprisingly they have become some of our favorite family band songs, which is crazy because last week they didn't seem like songs at all, just words on a page.  Gus plays banjo on Harry Bell and has worked up a great solo.  We also played through some of our "old standards" tonight: Country Roads, Brown Eyed Girl, Long Black Veil, Nelly Was a Lady...

Huck has worked so hard on the Bach Minuets in Suzuki Book 1 and he has mastered them!  He wouldn't hear of shelving them for a week so he's played them every day.  He's also putting a lot of effort into getting ready for St. Patrick's Day.  He's learned Swallowtail Jig and Road to Lisdoonvarna and is really hoping that Gus will call him up on stage St. Patrick's Day so he can show them off.

Gus is getting ready for his Suzuki Book 3 graduation but was happy to shelve the Bach Bourree for a week.  He took it out today, shook out the wrinkles, and played it with some enthusiasm that it had gotten lost in all the polishing.  He's also getting Jay Unger's Lover's Waltz ready.  He's always followed his graduation piece with a fast and crazy fiddle tune (Orange Blossom Special last time) so he's going to surprise everyone with a slow pretty one this time.  Gus is working on another project that requires him to solo in the key of B flat.  To get used to the key, we pored over the Fiddler's Fake Book looking for fiddle tunes in that key.  There are precious few.  So we settled on Done Gone, which he hated for a day or two but now its his new favorite song.   If only I found this web page sooner, a whole slew of B flat songs.  He's still enjoying working on Elzic's Farewell, and I still can't keep up with the chords on that one.  And he's brushing up on all his Celtic stuff for St. Patty's Day, particularly the Old Hag set.  And then there's the Seitz in Suzuki Book 4, about as close as Suzuki gets to a hokum bow...

I've been working on these crazy mandolin calisthenics called FFcP and man do they hurt.  They're working though.  My pinky is a much more cooperative part of my hand and I can move the whole exercise to any crazy key that I would've said that I couldn't play in just by following that patterns.  And the chop chords, I'm always working on those.
I'm trying to keep up with my 6 yr old on the jigs, but I think he's passed me up.  I better watch out or the cat might too if I spend too much time blogging when I should be practicing.

That's not all we do on a beautiful March day.  After we practice we go out to play.

Monday, March 5, 2012


Gus has been working on putting music to the words of some awesomely morbid old songs.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Day 351 and the Prize

My last post ended with a cliffhanger.  Will Mom come through with a reward for Huck for practicing every day for 350 days or will he be disappointed?  I couldn't leave you hanging.  I was a little worried myself.  Although we had given the kids trinkets for minor milestones and gifts at 100 days, we had nothing for 350 days.  Should I call Dad at work and ask him to purchase a Lego set on the way home?  I couldn't because we had been invited by some new friends for dinner and he would be late already.  So there wouldn't be a reward.  Huck would just have to be satisfied with his accomplishment.
Or would he?

What is an appropriate reward anyway?  What would be worthy of his effort? 

Reward-less, unless you count the lovely pineapple dessert that the kids had made, we went to have dinner with our new friends, David and Christine.  Their house was full of instruments, recording equipment, and a real record player.  The kids were amazed.  What could be better?  

Well, they found out after dinner.  We got out our instruments and started playing Reuben's Train, Huck's favorite song.  At the first solo break David jumped up and pushed the record button on the big old reel-to-reel recording system that took up an entire wall of the room.  Huck belted out the words into the microphone, thrilled to watch the needle go up and down on the display.  Gus stomped and cranked out solo after solo.  Christine laid down some awesome rhythm on drums and David played guitar and piano simultaneously.  Eric and I kept strumming on the chords.  We sang through the lyrics and played instrumental verse after instrumental verse.  Then we did it all over again.  When we ran out of steam, David rewound the reel-to-reel, adjusted the mix, and played it back for us.  There was a actual recording of Huck singing Huck's favorite song, backed by a real band and his family.  What reward could be better than that?

When Huck went to bed last night he said, "Tomorrow I want to paint my face and play music all day."  What could be better than that?

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Day 350 Practice Challenge! Exclusive interviews!

Music is forever; music should grow and mature with you, following you right on up until you die.
Paul Simon

Today is day 350 of our practice challenge.  The challenge was to practice every day for 100 days.  Then we extended for another 100 days, then another.  At first we celebrated every milestone, 10 days, 25 days...  Now we don't really pay much attention except on the big numbers, like 350.

In honor of our 350th consequetive day of practice, this blog provides an exclusive interview with Gus (8) and Huck (6), the boys who have practiced every day for the last 350 days!

What kind of music do you like to play?
Gus -  Bluegrass, classical, fiddle, Celtic, Old-Time.
Huck - Suzuki and fiddle

What is your favorite song?
Gus - My favorite classical song is Pachelbel's Canon.  I don't really have a favorite fiddle tune.  I like them all.  My favorite family band song is Mountain Roads.
Huck - I don't really know

What is the hardest song you ever learned?
Gus - Orange Blossom Special was pretty hard.  It took a long time to learn. I was walking around the house playing little parts of it until I got it.
Huck - Minuet 2

What do you want to learn?
Gus - More songs.

Huck - I want to finish Minuet 3.

What is your favorite part of playing music?
Gus - Jamming and playing with my family and friends.
Huck - Playing alone.

How did you get started on your practice challenge?
Gus - One of my friends had started a practice challenge and invited us to do it with them.  I thought it was a pretty cool idea so my family and I decided to give it a try.

How did the practice challenge change the way you practiced and played music?
Gus - Practicing for 100 days really increased my skills.  Before I did the practice challenge I often missed days and the rest of my family missed even more days.
Huck - Before I did the practice challenge, sometimes we skipped days, but Mommy got the idea of a practice challenge.

If it was a 100 day practice challenge, how did you end up at 350 days?
Gus - After we hit 100 days we decided to add another hundred.
Huck - I just decided that I should keep going.

Gus - Because we had gotten used to practicing every day.  So once we hit 200, we kept going.
Huck - Because it was fun not skipping days and it was fun keeping score of how many days we'd practiced without stopping.

What about days when you are sick or just don't feel like practicing?
Gus - Whats amazing how I've managed to do it even when I'm sick and I don't ever really feel like not practicing.  Something is always driving me to hit a bigger number in the practice challenge, like 400, 700.
Huck - I don't care that I don't feel good.  I just practice.

What kinds of things can you do now that you couldn't do 350 days ago?
Gus - Play the 2nd song in Suzuki Book 4, play banjo, play guitar.  Also my family and I can play songs together.  I've learned a lot of new fiddle tunes, probably by at least 30 songs.
Huck - I couldn't play Minuet 1.  I couldn't play Old Joe Clark.  I could only play 2 songs with family band.  But now I play many more than two.

Gus - Its fun.  I just got a new capo for it yesterday so that we can play in a key other than G. 

Can you offer any advice to someone who wants to get better at an instrument?
Gus - Practice every day and go to Bluegrass festivals.  Take lessons from a master.  
Huck - Yes, its your decision if you want practice a lot or not.  That's why we did the practice challenge and not skip any days because that gets you a whole lot of practice.

What do you want to be when you grow up?
Gus - a musician and an inventor
Huck - a musician and I want to design rockets too and design playgrounds like Daddy.

Is there going to a prize at the end of the challenge?
Gus - Maybe when we get to 400 we're going to go for lots of bike rides.
Huck -  Yes, I think we should have a prize today.  350 is a really big goal!  You should do it and not tell me.

Any suggestions?