conspiracy, in theory

The twins are slowly but steadily improving, despite having given up the Blow Pops practicing chart – practicing is still too much work, even if it means free candy. Now instead I give them letter grades on each piece: an A+ earns them a sucker. And I am not a lenient grader.

They have progressed enough that they are now getting acquainted with accidentals. As to be expected, Smash kind of gets it but has no patience or interest in really understanding what’s going on. His main interest is doing well enough to earn candy. For Clever, candy is a bonus (and awesome, obviously) and something to hold over his brother, but not his primary motivator. I can’t say he genuinely enjoys piano, but he’s certainly more interested than his brother and he’s quick to understand. So last night during his lesson, after we worked through a song in C position but with E always flatted, I thought this would be a good time to give him a peek ahead into the world of major and minor. He apparently had other ideas.

Me: There’s a question at the bottom of the page. “Which note is flatted throughout?”
Clever: Which note…. wait, what?
Me: What note always has a flat?
Clever: Ummmm…. A. No, G.
Me: What clef are we in?
Clever: OH! Um… E. E flat.
Me: Yes, good. Write that in.

He takes the pencil and writes “E” on the answer line. Then he keeps writing. This is not surprising; both he and Smash like to write and draw weird things on the music whenever they get hold of the pencil. Usually having to do with “Bobby,” their imaginary friend/alter ego (I have not been able to pin down which, exactly. “Bobby” can also apply to other people, such as me. For some reason). So I let him finish. He pulls his hand away and I see a triangle with… an eye in it? Is that…?

Me: What is that?
Clever: (matter-of-factly) Illuminati.
Me: Okay then.  …why, exactly?
Clever: Wait.

He keeps drawing. I can’t quite see around his hand. There’s a shape, with some letters? And now he’s writing. This ought to be good. I wait until he pulls his hand away, and…

There’s a rectangle with some letters in it, and some words. And before I can piece it all together:

any ideas?

illuminati eating butter

Clever: Butter.
Me: Butter?
Clever: Illuminati eating butter.

I couldn’t get any more information from him. Every time I asked a question he just repeated it as if it were a very simple and basic truth. I didn’t ask him if it had anything to do with “Bobby” – I’m honestly not sure I want to know the answer. But there it is, whatever it is. Illuminati eating butter.

(By the way, if anyone has any ideas/conspiracy theories, throw them my way. This one’s a puzzler.)

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Filed under adventures in teaching, story time, this actually happened

damn nature, you scary

I was at Cincinnati Nature Center this morning hiking a few trails. Saw lots of wildlife including two deer. Between trails I decide to stop at one of their two bird blinds.

For those of you who don’t know what a bird blind is, let me explain. At its most basic, it’s a wooden wall with viewing slots in it. You can see the birds but they don’t notice you. The ones at CNC are actually small wooden buildings, like long sheds. There’s an open doorway and one long viewing slot along the opposite wall (about a 4″ gap, you can stick part of your forearm through it), several wooden benches, and that’s it. It’s a very basic structure, but comfortable and shielded from the elements.

I sit down for some bird viewing. I count almost ten species within a few minutes. Chickadees, cardinals, nuthatches, titmice, downy woodpeckers. Then one of the tufted titmice scares the crap out of me – flies through the viewing slot and out the door of the blind, missing me by not more than two feet. Now I know titmice are clever and curious and and cheeky, but this is obviously unusual. He somehow knew I was there and purposely got my attention. I notice he landed in the trees just outside the blind and as I turn back to the gap he starts yammering in his loud raucous distress call. Alright, something is agitating him. But he’s on the wrong side of the blind for that, all the birds are on my side. Then I hear a second one join him. They’re fighting? No, I don’t hear fighting sounds, just yelling. This doesn’t add up. So I stick my head out the door.

They’re both very close to the door; one flies higher up as I poke my head out but the other just hops to a different branch. I figure it’s over, whatever it is. But as soon as I go back inside he hops closer to the door and starts yammering again. What the hell? He’s right by the door.

This time I actually leave the structure, walk a few paces, looking around. He stops yelling. I turn toward him – he’s sitting in a tree between me and the blind, about five feet away, eye level, looking right at me. Alright, what’s up? Then I see a piece of black garden hose by the doorway start to move – no, no, that’s… not a hose. That’s a snake. Aha – I’m guessing this is what titmouse is yelling about?

The snake lifts its head up, about a foot. This is… not a small snake. Then starts slowly slithering into the blind. And keeps slithering… holy shit this snake is big. I’d say about six feet, conservatively. The titmouse flies away. Yeah, that’s definitely what titmouse is yelling about. Hey, big dumb human, there’s a giant snake! Seriously he’s right there! Right behind you! Watch your back! Thanks buddy! Good call!

snakeI snap a quick picture of the snake on the floor of the blind and start assessing the situation. He’s a medium sized snake, dark colored, almost black, with some kind of pattern on him, can’t see it too well in the shade. Triangular head, white belly. Being in Ohio not Australia, I figure statistics are on my side for him being not poisonous. Judging by the bulge in his middle, he’s eaten a small bird or rodent within a day or two. I follow him inside the structure staying back a little bit. I’m super curious, but he’s a snake. I’m not dumb.

He slithers along the back wall and up onto one of the benches. He’s slowly headed toward me. I move into the blind to see him better and give myself more room to maneuver. He doubles back toward the support beam he used to get on the bench. I hear something new… that’s not a bird sound. Is that… rattling? I get a little closer to see his tail. There’s a slight notch about half an inch from the tip, and sure enough it’s a tiny version of a rattle. As I’m watching, the snake slides his tail against the back wall, using it as a soundboard, amplifying the rattling. Welp. This human attended Zoo Camp and knows when she’s being threatened. Though likely not poisonous, he is a snake, and he is rattling at me. I don’t need to be told twice.

Okay, so now what? I’m in a dark bird blind, with a six-foot rattlesnake, and though I’m not scared, there are families with children everywhere. I hang in the doorway of the blind, hoping to see an official of some kind, keeping an eye on the snake which has crawled up the support beam and is now hiding itself in the eaves. The first humans to come by are a family of four; dad, mom, and two young boys:

Mom: Come on guys, let’s go see the birds!
Me: Uh, just so you know, there’s a big snake in here, probably a rattler.
Youngest son: COOL! (he heads straight for me, standing in the doorway)
Mom: (catching him) No, not cool. Thanks for telling us!
Me: Have you seen any employees or officials around? They should probably know.
Dad: No, but we can call them, here, I’ll look up the number.

Dad gets on the phone with the main desk, giving them the blind’s location and situation while I point out the snake to mom and the kids. I thank them and give them the location of the other bird blind. Dad says they’re sending someone over. I hang around for another few minutes waiting just in case I need to warn someone else with small children. The snake has meanwhile completely concealed himself in the eaves, probably curled up for a nap.

Eventually two park employees come, a man and a woman. He looks excited – he says he’s got his snake stick with him. Now I’ve seen snake sticks – they’re those mechanical grabby arms, or at the very least a long forked stick. This guy had a 6″ twig. I didn’t know what exactly he was planning to do with that against a 6′ snake, but I’m not the professional here. I point him up to the rafters. He stands on a bench and flashlights his phone to get a look. Yep, he’s in there! Probably curling up for some sleep. We all take a few pictures of the snake who is now wondering what the crap all these humans are doing, it’s naptime, go away.



The guy thanks me for calling him and explains that it’s a black rat snake, which can get to be eight feet long – not technically a rattler, but uses its little rattle to imitate one and will actually use dead leaves as an amplifier. I tell him about it rattling against the wall which we all agree is very cool. I have the woman text me her pictures because my phone’s camera wouldn’t focus in the dark. I thought they might post a sign or something, but they don’t. The snake is harmless unless provoked, just big and scary looking. I come back two hours later to see if the snake is still there. He is; curled up sleeping in a different cubby hole up in the eaves. I hope he doesn’t scare the crap out of some poor unsuspecting birder when he finally comes down – hopefully that brave little titmouse will be there to warn them too.


Filed under story time, this actually happened


I hate celery. I mean I really hate celery. Raw celery. Cooked to mush and absorbed into other things, like soup, I can overlook. But raw? I will be a petulant small child about it. I will pick it out of my food piece by piece. And if that’s not possible, I just won’t eat it. And I won’t do that with any other food I dislike – I’ll suffer through coconut, I’ll force myself through the texture of eggs, and I’ll even deal with mint which gives me actual migraines. But I will. not. eat. raw. celery.

People who like celery cannot comprehend this – and I’m thinking of one of my relatives in particular. “How can you hate RAW CELERY? It tastes like CRUNCHY NOTHING.” (This went on for no fewer than 20 minutes.) Well obviously it doesn’t if it tastes like the blue-ribbon winner from Satan’s personally cultivated vegetable patch. So why the disparity? What’s with this? How can most of the population think it tastes like crunchy nothing (or maybe slightly salty nothing, according to some), and a bunch of us think it’s the taste to destroy all other tastes?

I think it’s genetic. Like cilantro – does it taste like lemon or soap? Or like lemons – is it bitter or just tart? I’m convinced there’s a gene somewhere that when turned on makes celery taste like a Vegetable of the Apocalypse. And I’m volunteering to be one of those subjects for the genetic study that figures this out, so I can tell all those diabolical celery-lovers that they’re wrong and Nature has gifted me with the ability to see celery for what it really is – evil.

If you’re interested in conducting this study, you know where to find me. …as long as I don’t have to eat the damn stuff.

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“son ate”

So I’m trying to convince Hare that ‘winging it’ is insufficient and he actually has to read the notes on the page when he interrupts:

HareOH! Today we learned about these things in music class!

He draws a picture on top of the page: an eighth note without the head filled in. So I ask him:

Me: Do you know what those are?
Hare: I don’t remember, but they’re really fast.
Me: They’re called eighth notes.
Hare: OH YEAH! Don’t they go like this? (plays one key, a single time, as fast as he can)

Sidenote: if I had a dollar for every time a kid asked if that’s how you play an eighth note, I could retire by now. I have no idea where they get this notion.

Me: There are two eighth notes for every quarter note. Here, let me show you.

I draw him quarter-two eighths-quarter-quarter and play it for him, counting out loud, so he gets the idea. He does it himself.

Hare: But what about this one? (referring to the one he drew)
Me: Well, they have to be filled in, you don’t see open noteheads on eighth notes.
Hare: But they look like this.

Not understanding what he’s talking about, I pull out my Brahms score. Wall-to-wall eighth notes.

Me: Here, look at this. All these are eighth notes.
Hare: Whoa! That’s so many! But what do you do when you see all of these together?
Me: Oh, that’s just six of them stuck together. You know how bar lines make it easier to read? Barring eighth notes in bigger groups help you read them faster.
Hare: (scouring score) THERE! That’s what I was talking about! (points to a single eighth note – with a flag!)
Me: Ah, yes! when there’s only one of them, they look like that. But if there’s more than one, they join them together.
Hare: Can you play this for me?
Me: No, I’m not playing it for you.
Hare: Why not?!
Me: Well, first, I’d need a violinist…
Hare: There’s a violinist here! (referring to another teacher at the studio)
Me: Well, I don’t know if he knows it, and I’m not going to ask him. And on top of that, this piece is ten minutes long.
Me: Yeah. And that’s only the first movement. It’s like… the first chapter.
Hare: Well how many are there?
Me: Three.
Me: Roughly.
Hare: You play for 30 minutes?
Me: Yes, regularly.
Hare: Wow, I’m gonna look it up! Is it on YouTube?
Me: Yes.
Hare: Okay. “Son Ate.” That’s how I’m gonna remember it. S-O-N-A-T-E. Son ate. (the score was German). (Very clever! But…)
Me: As much as that’s a great idea, you actually can’t look it up like that.
Hare: But why!? That’s the name of the song! (Yeah, song.)
Me: Yeah, but that’s a generic title. If you typed that into YouTube you wouldn’t find it. That would be like going to the library and asking for “book”.
Hare: (laughing) Okay okay I get it. So what do I look up?
Me: (writing a sticky note) Just type this in exactly: “Brahms Sonata Op. 78” and you’ll find it no problem. It’s incredibly pretty.
Hare: Okay I will!

I hope he actually listens to it.

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So I’m at Kroger, in line at the deli picking up some bologna and cheese when this man, probably about 40, walks up and asks nobody in particular:

Man: Do they have mortadella here?
Me: I think so, I’ve seen it here before.
Deli lady: I don’t see any in the case, I’ll go open a new one.
Man: Oh, thank you, so much. I’ll take a pound.

I am impressed with this guy.

Me: I haven’t had mortadella in years, not since I left New York. And I haven’t seen anyone else order it!
Man: Oh it’s so good, isn’t it?
Me: Yeah, I know.
Man: So what are you getting?
Me: Just some bologna today.
Man: (his face brightens) You know, we always forget about the simple things, like bologna!
Me: I know! I grew up in an Italian and Polish neighborhood, so I got the real stuff. And this is as close to that as I’ve found.
Man: Oh really? What are you getting? Which bologna?
Me: The regular one, not the all-beef, just the plain old cheap stuff. It’s as close to homemade out in the smokehouse as I’ve had.
Man: I’ll have to get half a pound of that!
Me: And if you like garlic…
Man: I LOVE garlic…
Me: you’ll have to try their garlic bologna. It’s not kidding around.
Man: I will definitely do that! Ah, the simple things. (Another man who I presume to be his partner comes by with some baguettes; he mentions the addition of bologna to the order and they are both pleased at the idea.) So what are you going to do with yours? Sandwiches?
Me: Sometimes I do sandwiches but I’m actually going to fry it up with some eggs…
Man: I LOVE IT FRIED! Fried bologna is the best. We had these friends in Russia who just loved it that way. We got hooked!
Me: Yeah, I grew up on the stuff, learned it from my dad.
Man: So good and so simple! Ah, perfect.

By that point the woman handed me my bologna and cheese. So I wished the man well as he ordered his own bologna. We were both smiling. Seriously, how can you not? Boar’s Head makes some seriously good bologna.

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don’t shoot the messenger, she’s a quicker draw than you

This week is spring break where I teach, so I am using the opportunity to do makeup lessons for all my students who are still in town. Of them, most are getting a full hour lesson this week, which both kills two makeups in one shot and gives me an opportunity to focus more on proper form and technique and catch up on theory. Also most of them are under 12 years old, so attention span can be a challenge.

My first lesson of the day is with Fidget – a bright 11 year old girl who cannot sit still ever. She is learning the easy piano version of “Let It Go” – I’m trying to impress upon her that she has to count instead of playing what she thinks she knows. I am consequently making her count out loud as she plays and teaching her how to use a metronome, painful as it may be. We are getting down to business when the business phone rings. I do not answer; I am teaching. We are technically not open. I even purposely left the main lights off. At some point I hear the little electronic doorbell. The mailman has already delivered; it must be a student. Not mine. After a few minutes I hear it again. Probably that student figured out there was nobody here and left.

Fidget’s attention is waning; metronome work is harrrddddd. I sympathize. You can only do that crap for so long. I switch it up with flashcards. I hear the electronic doorbell again. Still can’t be my student. Why all this traffic? I’m the only one teaching today. Then I hear:

Woman: Hello? Helloooo!!!!!

I leave my room. A tall-ish blonde-ish middle-aged woman is approaching the desk. In all likelihood the mother of Doorbell Student. She is clearly looking to pick a fight. I am inclined to let her try. Her tone and demeanor are giving me no reason to be anything more than honest and professional. And it could be fun.

Me: Hello?
Woman: (serious sass) What’s going on? Where is everybody? Are you guys not open today?
Me: (keeping it stone cold and professional) We’re on spring break. I’m only here doing makeups.
Woman: (getting seriously pissed) Well why didn’t [teacher] tell my son you were on spring break?
Me: (That’s it. You want your fight? You got it. First off, how the hell should I know. Shut up. Second, don’t give me attitude, I don’t know you or your kid. Third, you’re interrupting my lesson. Fourth, you should have figured it out when nobody else is here. Fifth, he didn’t have to tell you because, most importantly,) It was on the newsletter you received when you signed up for lessons.
Woman: (hand to the holster, ready to draw) What newsletter?
Me: (too late, sweetheart) The one with all the important dates and makeup policies on it. It’s also posted right behind you on the wall (indicating literally right next to her elbow, next to the door)
Woman: (narrows her eyes at me, then the schedule) (mutters something and leaves)

Sixth, don’t blame me for a mistake that was entirely preventable by you.

Seriously don’t start with me. I’m always locked and loaded.

Or, if you prefer a moral to the story, be polite. It will get you far; it will make me want to help you and be nice and maybe even apologize for the inconvenience. Being confrontational will get you no mercy and expose you as an idiot. Choose wisely next time.

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Filed under adventures in teaching, this actually happened

why am i not getting better?

One of the teenagers I inherited from my predecessor is technically one of my most advanced students. I say “technically” because she’s in Level 3B, but her skill level is more around 1B. She should be able to play Anna Magdalena Bach easy pieces but I wouldn’t even attempt it on her. Her note-reading is painfully slow. Any rhythm more complicated than quarter notes baffles her. She doesn’t know what articulations are, much less what to do with them. She knows that sharps and flats indicate black keys, but which black keys elude her. Sometimes she even forgets which one is which. Putting hands together is almost painful. It takes her more than a month to play a piece that should take two weeks, tops. And she plays everything slow. Really slow.

And the thing is, she’s not dumb. She understands when I explain or demonstrate. She can demonstrate back. It’s clear in her lessons that she gets it. But whether it will stick is anyone’s guess.

So for the third week I was helping her with a simple dotted-quarter rhythm in 4/4 time (yes, really), trying to get her to count it out loud. Write in the beats, coordinate the notes, it was a struggle.  At this point I don’t know what else to do – I’ve done all my tricks and techniques.

Me: Okay, so you know what to do?
Her: Yes.
Me: You’re doing really well right now, just keep counting out loud. Go downbeat to downbeat, write in the beats if you have to. It applies to the whole piece so there’s not much new that will pop up.
Her: Okay.
Me: Do you have any questions? Anything else I can help you with? Anything I can do to make your life easier?
Her: Not really. I think I got it.

And she does appear to know what she’s doing right now. So I’m thinking, hell, maybe this will just take a while. For a second I toy with the idea of moving her back a level in a different series, but almost immediately decide against it. I just need to give her something fun and easier while she catches up on this. So I suggest to her:

Me: You know, why don’t you go bring back an old book and we’ll brush up some stuff you already know? It’ll give you something fun to play while you’re doing the really hard work. I can only imagine you’re feeling frustrated right now, wondering why things aren’t going faster.
Her: Yeah, yeah. I am kind of.
Me: Then definitely bring one in, maybe your 3A books. The nice thing about being musicians is we can bring back pieces we’ve already played and they’re still enjoyable – just because we’re done learning them doesn’t mean we’re done with them. We can find new things to work on in them and they will be easier than last time. So you’ll have some fun things in between the hard work.
Her: Okay, that sounds good.

I think I’ve come up with a great plan. And it will also give me a chance to reinforce all the things she should know (dynamics, articulation, counting, fingering) on pieces she’s already familiar with. So just to get the lay of the land, I ask:

Me: Just out of curiosity, how much do you practice?
Her: Well I generally practice every other day.
Me: Okay, how much do you practice when you do?
Her: About ten minutes.

Do I really need to continue?

I told her I have my little kids aim for 20 minutes a day, and at her level I expect 30-40. I asked her to aim for 30 a day, split into two chunks if she likes. I explained that we’re actually developing a skill, so we need to put time into just doing it. And that if she just spends more time at the piano every day, I can guarantee she’ll see improvement.

I also wanted to ask her if she was effing serious, but thought better of it.

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Filed under adventures in teaching, this actually happened