Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Practice Really Does Make a Difference

On July 13th, I did my three test pieces from Suzuki Book 3 for my teacher, Strings, and passed, making me, according to Strings, an "intermediate" Suzuki student.  In old D&D terms, I'm level 4!

Before that, for about a month, I was totally focused on memorizing and working on those 3 pieces, getting them to the point where I could play them as well as possible, from memory.  It was hard.  Most days, I was practicing about an hour and a half to two hours because I really wanted to pass into the next Suzuki book before I left.

Part of the issue is that Strings was leaving for a music camp thing, and won't be back here until after I've gone.  And then I'll be birding in Scotland, and won't be practicing then.  And then I'll have to get a violin at the Abbey (they said they probably have one I can use, and if not will help me find a student rental).  But, in terms of memorizing, it would be hard to be away for two or three weeks and then go back to trying to play those pieces from memory.

But it worked out!  And I've started into Book 4.  I've also started back working on the technique books I have.  There are 4 of them.

1.  Ševčík bowing
2.  Ševčík technique (more fingering than bowing) (first position)
3.  Whistler's Intro to 3rd and 5th positions (hand and finger, mostly)
4.  Trott's Melodious Double Stops

Each of these helps me focus on a specific area where I need to focus (and really, pretty much everyone at my level needs to focus on bowing, fingering, positions, and double stops, I guess).  But for the past couple of months, I haven't practiced these as much because of focusing on the three test pieces.

I posted before about working on the Ševčík books, and how hard they are.  That was back in January, and from what it says, I got the Ševčík books last summer, and started working on them.

I've been better about the bowing book than the fingering book.  Today in my practice session, I couldn't even remember where I'd left off with the fingering book, so I decided to start at the beginning, since they're so hard.

As you can see from that previous post, the first set of exercises starts with slurred quarter notes.  Last summer and into winter, it took ten minutes or so to be able to slur the notes in a single measure more or less okay.  So on a given day, I might make it through one new measure, and one old, and then eventually, a whole line of old, and so on.  (Because I did improve.)  And then I'd start the next set, and basically the same slow process.

Today, I started and played the whole first set pretty much straight through, with a few mistakes, but mostly way, way better than I remembered.  It was pretty amazing to me, because I go along practicing, and often don't realize that I've improved, but then I go back, and something that was really hard is not nearly as hard.  And then it's obvious that I actually have improved.  And that makes me feel good!

So I remember for the future:

1.  Ševčík bowing - exercise 4, #30 (page 9)  (Basically, each exercise is a few lines of music, and then the page and next page are full of bowing variations for those few lines).
2.  Ševčík technique (more fingering than bowing) (first position) - back to the first exercise on the A string
3.  Whistler's Intro to 3rd and 5th positions (hand and finger, mostly) - G major, #62 (page 10)
4.  Trott's Melodious Double Stops - played through #1-3, worked on #4.

A Little Adventure before I Go

I have 8 days before I need to be on a plane to London!  I'm excited, overwhelmed, and more overwhelmed.

I've now finished all the big projects that absolutely have to be finished before I go except the whole class prep project.  There are two other projects I should also get further on.  But at least I've taken steps on one of them.

My friend, K, who's going to house sit has moved in.  So far, this arrangement is working out really well.  I hope he enjoys living in the house!  (He's a really good guy, and easy to get along with.)

I started riding my bike again this past weekend, just on a local trail.  And on Sunday, I was thinking about cutting my ride short to work on something else, so I turned off the trail onto a road in order to be able to turn around more easily, and saw a sign that pointed to a landing and said something about the joys of taking your kid fishing.  But I'd never heard of this landing, and it's only about a mile off the bike trail.  I rode up the road, which I'd thought ended at the gravel mine (visible from the trail crossing) and realized that it turned and went on from there.  What I found was a little park area, with a gravel/packed dirt and pothole parking area, a few picnic tables, and a little paved boat ramp with a sign saying that it was four something miles up river to the landing near campus, and 5 something miles down river to a landing further down.

I had a plan.  It wasn't a particularly cunning plan, but a plan.  I could put the kayak on the car with the bike inside, and drop the kayak at the landing near campus along with my life vest, paddles, and so on.  Then take the car (with the bike) to the new landing, leave the car there, and ride the bike up to the landing near campus, lock it there, get in the kayak, and go down river.  So I could do my own drop off and pick up because it's fairly close.

And that's what I did yesterday.  I was a little anxious about it, especially worried about what if I missed the landing somehow?

The thing is, right across from the landing is a ski jump, and that's visible from pretty far away, and not easy to miss, so the chances of my missing the landing and having to go another five miles were low.

The weather was good, and I told a couple friends what I was up to, and texted them before I got on the water with my eta (and then when I got out again).  But still, doing things all alone makes me a bit apprehensive.  It doesn't usually stop me doing them, but it makes me worry a bit along the way.

Here are some pictures from the adventure:

My kayak at the first landing.  (There's an ice rink right near, owned by the city and university jointly, and the city rec people were kind enough to let me leave my life vest and paddles and such there.  I used my bike lock to lock the kayak to the sign, probably illegally.  But it was out of the way at least.)

At the second landing, ready to get on the bike!

Bike parked at the ice rink, and locked up!

Kayak loaded and ready to go!

Gorgeous day on the river, mostly very quiet and calm.

Ski jump in the distance!  (Why was I worried I'd miss that?  I blame my recent reading of The Mill on the Floss, where Maggie becomes a "fallen woman" because Stephen purposefully "misses" landing at the town where they were supposed to land, and ends up going so far that they have to be sort of rescued by a ship and spend the night on it.)

A much closer view of the ski jump.  I really don't know how anyone has the courage to slide down that and fly through the air.  But they have big competitions here during winter.

The landing (with my car parked up the hill).

Pulled out!
Packed and ready to go back and pick up my bike!

All in all, it was a really lovely adventure, and I'm glad I went.  I'd like to try the next leg, too, maybe next summer!

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Learning Language?

As is my wont, I'm listening to a book on CD in my car.  I usually favor history and lectures and such, because the continuity isn't as important as with, say, fiction.  Today I was running errands, listening to a lecture on language.  The lecturer is going over some of the evidence for/against the idea that grammar is innate/inborn in humans, and as part of his discussion, he's talking about how very easy it is for little kids to learn language compared to adults.  Yes, he basically says that little kids don't even have to work at learning language.

But here's the thing.  If you've spent time with little kids, you realize that they're working really hard for hours every day learning language, learning to manipulate the world, and so on.   I think we're disrespecting little kids somewhat if we don't recognize that they're working really hard at all the learning they're doing.  It looks like it's not work, and hopefully there's plenty of fun and play involved, but even that is brain work.

If I spent 8+ hours a day constantly having people talking to me within a context, giving me feedback on my attempts to talk, I'd learn a language more quickly than otherwise.  In fact, I learned Spanish in an immersion program as a young adult, and within a couple months could hold a pretty decent conversation.  I didn't sound great or perfect, but I could hold a basic conversation with someone who was willing to be patient, and many people were willing.   It was exhausting, too, way more than you might think.

One of my colleagues went to Nicaragua last year to work on her Spanish, doing an intensive immersion program, living with a family, and so on.  She told me about one day when she just broke down and started crying (worrying her host "mother" greatly in the process).  She told me it made her think about when toddler's get so upset about something that seems unimportant because she was just learning a lot of stuff, working hard, being very tired, and very frustrated by not being able to express herself.  And like a toddler (according to her), she just got really upset and started crying over something that wasn't that important.

All this has nothing to do with whether it's harder to learn a language as an adult.  It may well be.  But we rarely learn languages as adults the way we did as children.  (And, for most of us, as an adult, we're learning a second language, so we know to think about things like grammar and such.  It may be much harder to learn grammar and such for a first time if you've never learned language, I suppose.)

The lecturer also talked about accents, but I think that's a bit of misdirection, since we all have accents within our native language, and learning a specific accent in a second or third language may be harder because we've learned to make certain sounds very young.  (Or so a colleague tells me: an infant begins to sort out and imitate specific sounds from that language/s they're exposed to really young.)

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Summer Projects

It's been a busy summer, full of projects of varying sorts.

I did some professional stuffs, and still have more to do.  But on the housing front, I got my floors done, powerwashed the deck and part of the house, and am in the midst of painting the exposed structural wood on the underside of my deck.

The floors look great (and involved moving stuff out of half of the house, and back again, with lots of trips to various places to donate clothes and such.

The deck looks WAY better than it did!  And I've fallen in love with the power washer.  (Good tools are amazing!)  (You can get a sense of how dirty it was in the top picture.)

I'm about one third done with the final coat (well, I hope I don't need a second coat of paint), and all primed (two coats) on the exposed (and very weathered wood) structural framing for the deck.  I think the color is a little different than what's on the rest of the lower part of the house, but it should be okay.

I have two more projects (both professional) that will probably take about a week each, maybe less, and then more reading prep for teaching at the Abbey.  But so far, things are beginning to feel more ready.  I'll feel a lot better about leaving with the house in good shape for the winter.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Review: Will

I watched the first couple of episodes of Will last night, thanks to my Sister-in-Law who told me it was on and where to find it.  (Because I'm slow on pop culture stuffs.)

Things I liked:
It felt like the producers/directors were trying more to catch the sense of shockingness, wildness, and "on the make-ness" of early modern London (especially from the point of view of a newcomer from a smaller community, Shakespeare), rather than being "accurate" in terms of music, costuming, and so forth.  It was like watching a really good modern production of Shakespeare that's trying to do the same sort of thing.  (It's sort of like making some things feel familiar rather than emphasizing the estrangement of the past.)
Cast diversity.  (First, England in the early modern period was more diverse than popularly thought, and second, give those actors a job!)
Music.  (I laughed at "London Calling"; I liked that it wasn't all Purcell and lutes.)
Staging the Theatre.  (That dance scene early on with Will Kemp: chaos.  Fun.  You definitely get a sense that the audience had a lot of power and was active in the theatre.  I found putting women in the background/offstage at the Theatre interesting, but I'm not sure I buy it.)
Edward III.  (They gave it to Shakespeare, which was interesting.)

Things I didn't like:
Torture.  (I just can't watch torture.  Or won't.  Showing torture in explicit ways seems really popular on TV in the past couple of years, and probably contributes to me watching less TV.)
Shakespeare's Catholic.  (Maybe.  No one really knows.  It gives them lots of tension.  I usually don't get that much sense when I read early modern lit and such that most people were really focused on anti-Catholicism in the 1590s because Mary Stuart was dead and the Armada defeated.)  (I bet they read Stephen Greenblatt, eh?)
Chronology?  (Shakespeare's first plays get performed in the early 1590s, but they've killed off James Burbage via torture, though he didn't die until 1597.  I don't know how he died, but it seems like they missed opportunities to do more with Burbage.)

If this becomes a "thing," then we can expect our students to declare with confidence that Shakespeare was Catholic and so forth.  Worse things have happened.  (At least it doesn't show Oxford or Bacon writing the plays, right?)

I'm probably not going to watch more because I really dislike torture.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Rules of Three

You've heard about these, no?  The idea is you prioritize three things, and that's it.  You make a big list:

3 big goals
3 things for the year
3 things for the month
3 things for the week
3 things for the day

Or whatever.

I have my doubts.  Maybe I'm totally wrong.  No doubt I will never be a great Shakespearean, biker, birder, or violinist.  (See, four things!  And not even the most important.)

Or the people who do this successfully have someone else in there life who handles all the other things?

Let's imagine, here's my lists.

Big goals: being a kind and responsible person, professional success, adventure

3 things for the year: teaching at the Abbey, publish an article, [not public]

3 things for the month: study Victorian lit, prep courses for the Abbey, [not public]

3 things for the week: read Mill on the Floss, study Victorian lit, [not public]

3 things for the day: read Mill on the Floss (pages), power-wash deck (part), practice

But here's the problems.  First, the being kind and responsible seems huge, and important, but not something that you say for a month, well, this is the thing I'll do to be kind and responsible.  Instead, being kind and responsible probably means I need to say "yes" when a friend needs help (moving, for example).

There's a shadow list, too.  Here's the real list, with the shadow list in bold:

3 things for the year: teaching at the Abbey, publish an article, [not public], violin (vibrato, Book 4), time with friends, adventure (birding, etc), prep/teach new senior seminar in spring

3 things for the month: study Victorian lit, prep courses for the Abbey, [not public], pass Book 3 test on violin, [not public], garden, bike, kayak (ie. be outside!), eat meals, do laundry, spend time with friends, help friend move, work on paper

3 things for the week: read Mill on the Floss, study Victorian lit, [not public], practice Book 3 stuff a lot (solidify memorization of 3 pieces), [not public], power-wash deck and north side of house, take down wild grape vines off trees in the back of the yard 

3 things for the day: read Mill on the Floss (pages), power-wash deck (part), practice, eat, do laundry, garden stuff, grocery shopping.

I'm probably forgetting some things.  But you see the difficulty.  One of the [not public] things is something that's important to a friend.  It's important to me because of my friend.  It will take some serious time.  But it doesn't achieve the sorts of things most people who use these three priorities put on their lists, I don't think.  (And it does contribute to the overall being kind and responsible.)

Laundry, for example.  It doesn't take lots of time, but it's necessary to keep from being dirty and really stinky, so for basic social function.  Someone has to do it, no?  And that someone is me.

Grocery shopping takes more time, but again, unless I'm going to call for take out pizza every day (not much else is delivered around here, I don't think), I need to go shopping.

I've spent a ton of time this month practicing the violin, trying to pass my Book 3 test before Strings leaves town for a month, since I'll be gone before she returns.  When I go, I'll be away from the violin for at least 10 days, maybe more.  I'm worried that if I don't pass the Book 3 test (which involves playing three pieces from memory to my teacher's approval given my level), then the time away will mean I have to rememorize the pieces again.  (I should have access to a violin at the Abbey or help finding a student violin to rent.  And then Strings has offered to teach me via skype if we can work out the timing.)

I think I've accepted that I'm too scattered to be really successful in some peoples' terms of success.  I'll never be a famous/great Shakespearean, never be a pro-biker, never be a really good birder.

Do people really use the rule of threes in a happy and serious way?

Thursday, June 29, 2017


I've been booking a birding trip, theater tickets, train tickets, hotels, and even a symphony ticket.

So far, everything looks good.

I've had a couple of glitches.  My cell phone set up can't call internationally.  But the birding place was kind enough to call me, and then again (after I called my bank to tell them that I did, indeed, want to give money to a Scottish birding company), and voila, I am booked for a week of guided birding (with a group) in Scotland and out to the Hebrides!

I tried to book tickets for the RSC at the Barbican, but got rejected.  And the same for the London Symphony.  So I used the email about the rejections (with my code number), and explained that I couldn't call them.  (I also called my bank to make sure they weren't doing the rejecting.)  And a few minutes ago, someone from the Barbican just called me and we got it sorted out.  (At least, I hope it was someone from the Barbican, because I gave them the credit card information...)

My brother (I'm on his family phone plan) is arranging for my phone to do international stuffs while I'm there!

So far, I'm booked to see two shows at the Shakespeare's Globe (I got seats this time, having stood before), 2 shows at the RSC in London, 1 show at RSC Stratford, and a performance of the London Symphony Orchestra!

I'm spending two days in Inverness between the birding trip and when I need to be at the Abbey.

What else should I book now?

In other booking news, I've almost completely reconstituted my house; yesterday, I put books in place.  Mostly.  Still two more boxes of stuff to unpack, and lots more to put away again.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Failure and Resilience

These are the code words these days.  You've probably read the recent article by Jessica Bennet in the New York Times, about an initiative at Smith to help students deal with failure.  It's an interesting article, with discussion of not only Smith's initiative, but several other schools' work in the same area.

The basic idea is that the students at these schools have never really experienced failure, and then when they get into college and don't do as well at something (they're talking B-land grades and such as failure), the students have difficulty dealing with it.  First recognized, according to the article, at Stanford and Harvard as "failure deprived," these students basically haven't fallen down and picked themselves up enough to shrug off the next fall.

The article talks about programs at Stanford, Cornell, Harvard, Princeton, U of Pennsylvania, U of Texas-Austin, UCLA, and Davidson College, all of which encourage students to try things and be willing to fail at them.

I gather from Meansomething (in a facebook conversation, mostly) that there's so much pressure and competition to get into the right college that High School students are being taught to focus primarily on what they're good at, and not to try as much new stuff that they're not already good at.  That way, they get to show how wonderful they are on transcripts and stuff, and don't have to risk having that poor grade in [subject they aren't already good at] to hold them back.

I guess I have a couple issues with the idea.

First and foremost: The schools listed above pretty much are all way elite.

NWU isn't elite.  But I've had relatively few students in my time at NWU who have emotional difficulty when they fail.  Usually, they mess up on something, get a little upset, and either work harder, figure out how to do better, or get over it and mess up some more.  If the colleges told their admissions offices that they want students who've demonstrated an ability to fail and deal productively with that failure, they'd get a different population of students, probably including some like my own.  Those schools can change their perceived problem if they decide they're willing to risk admitting students who've demonstrated failure and resilience.

In fact, I'm guessing their really exciting students have already experienced lots of failure and recovery.

Which brings me to my second point: if you're doing anything difficult and working to your capacity at it, you're failing a fair bit.  That goes for athletes, musicians, scientists, humanists, everyone.

I bet every single day, Yo-Yo Ma fails at something in his cello practice/playing.  His failure's probably pretty much at the level of not playing quite as he wants a given piece, or missing a fingering slightly, or whatever.  But he's a darned good cellist, and yet working at his level, challenging himself, he probably fails a lot.  And then he practices more, and in performance, most of us wouldn't hear the slight imperfection that he knows is there at some point or other.

The same goes for athletes.  How many incompletions did Joe Montana throw.  A lot.  But he also threw some amazing, beautiful passes.

A high school musician who's really doing their thing is failing a lot, and then practicing some more, and dealing with it.  The same with an athlete.

But if all the science students are doing is cook book science, following recipes in the chem lab and getting an A for following directions well, then they aren't really doing science, and they aren't really working at a high enough level.  Of course, there's a point at which chem students have to learn basic stuff without being in danger of blowing up their schools.  But somehow, they aren't doing in their field what the musician or athlete is doing in theirs; they aren't figuring out what's been done before, a bazillion times, on just some level for themselves.

The musician playing a C major scale isn't doing something new.  And they should have guidance.  And yet, they're doing something cognitively different than following a chem class recipe book, no?

That Girl Scout who plans a camping trip, even with adult guidance, is doing the cognitive work, and may fail on some level, in fact, probably will.  And hopefully, she'll learn from that failure.

I'm guessing the really exciting students at Stanford or wherever, are the ones who've done something like music, athletics, scouting, started a business or community project, failed, and figured out how to go on again.

And I'm guessing the ones who are less resilient, less able to deal with failure, are the ones who've done really good work at cook book chemistry (or whatever).  They've followed directions really well, and worked hard to do things just right.  And they did things just right.

So how do high schools teach students to fail?  Or would it be enough for colleges to look for signs of successful failures when they're admitting students?

I'm not picking on chemistry, but it seems to me, from my own experience, that beyond learning basic lab safety and procedures, I didn't do much chemistry in my chemistry labs, not in two years in high school, not in several years in college.  And I don't know if there's a way that could be done differently, since there's so much pressure to teach large numbers of students in lab classes.  But somehow, in biology, we did little actual experiments, often trying to grow some plant with this or that different condition, and sometimes, they failed.

Can students productively fail assignments/exercises in my courses?  There's certainly lots of room for students to fail at their research projects on some level and still get an A on the project for failing well.  (When they really try to learn something and run into a brick wall, and learn something else, for example.)  But other work?

What about you?  Did you fail and learn from it early?  Or no?

Do you teach students how to fail?


Learning violin is taking me to whole new levels of failure these days.  But Strings says that she's never satisfied with her performance at a concert, even though other folks don't even realize she's made a mistake or something.  She just has expectations about the level of playing she wants, and doesn't (she says) ever quite get there fully.

The good news is that I'm improving on violin by failing and working through difficulties.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Progress: Floors and Summer Projects

As of last night, the floors are laid, sanded, and stained.  At this moment, the floor folks are putting on the second coat of finish.  Then it dries for the weekend, and on Monday, they'll come put up baseboards and such.  It looks every bit as good as I hoped!

In other progress, here's what I had to do, with the done parts stricken out.

Now I need to finish a third hurry-up project, and then I can begin the real summer projects!

1.  Studying Victorian lit and culture  (I should probably make a whole list for this!)
2.  Repainting some woodwork on the back, outside of the house.  (Last year I did some in the front of the house.)
3.  Finishing a paper and sending it out.

And some other projects, small and large:

1.  Learning the next violin song.  (and working on shifting, vibrato, and double stops)
2.  Planting my garden (yep, it still isn't in.  Maybe tomorrow...)
3.  Updating hard drives.
4.  Getting rid of some old electronics stuff (after checking the hard drive and emptying it...  I hope!)
5.  Doing a book of pictures for my friends' kid's third birthday
6.  Making all my reservations for the UK

I've made MOST of my reservations for the UK. 
Hotels for August before birding and December (for the British Library)
Between Birding and Starting << suggestions?  I'll be in Scotland for birding, near Cairngorms National Park.  Should I go to Glasgow?  Inverness?  (I've been to Edinburgh, and while it's wonderful, I'd like to see something new.)

In the violin world, at my last lesson, my teacher agreed that I'm ready to start memorizing and working towards my Book 3 test.

So, lot's to do this weekend, and then in the coming week, I get to move back into the rest of my house!

Thursday, June 08, 2017


The wood has arrived!  This is a lot of red oak, and from the great North Woods, I'm told.

(My sliding glass door is super dirty, but it seems silly to clean it before it gets exposed to all the more dust.)  

I submitted my syllabi for the courses at the Abbey today.

I still have some paperwork to submit (emergency info, for example), and have to have a physical so a doctor can fill out a form (because they won't fill out a form if you haven't been in within the year, seems).

Now I need to finish a third hurry-up project, and then I can begin the real summer projects!

1.  Studying Victorian lit and culture  (I should probably make a whole list for this!)
2.  Repainting some woodwork on the back, outside of the house.  (Last year I did some in the front of the house.)
3.  Finishing a paper and sending it out.

And some other projects, small and large:

1.  Learning the next violin song.  (and working on shifting, vibrato, and double stops)
2.  Planting my garden (yep, it still isn't in.  Maybe tomorrow...)
3.  Updating hard drives.
4.  Getting rid of some old electronics stuff (after checking the hard drive and emptying it...  I hope!)
5.  Doing a book of pictures for my friends' kid's third birthday
6.  Making all my reservations for the UK

I think it's time to stop, drop by campus to pick up a book (because parking anywhere near my building during working hours during the week is impossible this next month) so I can work on the third hurry up project.

Then time to practice.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Emptying the BardiacShack

As I've posted before, I'm getting new hardwood floors in part of the BardiacShack.  That means I have to empty out about half of the main floor, and put everything either in the basement or in the areas that are tiled.

This is the empty living room (the last picture was taken at night to avoid some of the window glare from afternoon sun).  I'm thinking next year, I may paint a new color...  (taking suggestions, please!) (The floor folks are going to move the heaviest of the furniture, which includes empty bookshelves.)

Here's a view of my home office.  I'm the only academic I know who actually has plenty of bookshelf space at home.  (There's a case behind the door on the right, and additional cases in the master bedroom, a bedroom downstairs, and the great room.)

This last is my red room, which is where a lot of stuff is piled.  There's also more in the dining area.  And in the basement.  (I put plastic over the windows in the red room during winter, and haven't taken them off yet...)

Editing to add a few more empty house photos:

The Hive Mind is Magic

I've put out several calls for suggestions on facebook recently, and it's amazing how helpful the hivemind is, and how much people know and are willing to share knowledge.

I've found a hotel that looks good for when I want to work at the British Library.

I've found texts.