Darn Tootin' · Homeschool · Resorting to Violins · well *I* think it's funny...

Day 530: First Day Back

We began our school day with a back-to-school assembly. Our principal, Mr. December, welcomed everyone back and gave a special welcome to E, who is beginning grade one and is now a full-time student at our homeschool. As part of the welcoming tradition, E had to run around the room getting high fives from everyone. It was adorable and she was so excited.

Of course, no assembly is complete without the school song. I wrote this one to the tune of Safety Dance by Men Without Hats.

We wear pants at our homeschool
we don’t show our bare behinds
but when we say “bare” our mascot gets scared so
we’ll just say “behinds”

We can learn what we want to
just as long as we’re wearing pants
because as you might know it’s our school motto:
Wearing pants leads to excellence.

Put on pants, put on pants
Everybody’s waiting for you
Put on pants, put on pants
It’s the smart thing to do.
Put on pants, put on pants
Even if they show off your shins
Put on pants, put on pants,
That’s how excellence begins!

Oh, we wear pants!
Oh, we wear pants!

I am proud to say, by the way, that 100% of our student body was wearing pants today, as were all staff.

I can’t speak for E, but I had a lot of fun in Grade One today. In only two hours we were able to cover science (criteria for life,) reading (phonics program and storytime,) handwriting, math, and Hebrew. Oh, and grammar. The only thing we didn’t do was flute, but I’m inclined to let that slide for today because she practices every day without being told.

In fact, we had a trial lesson with a flute teacher yesterday. E’s excitement is so endearing—she played a few songs for her teacher and tried everything the teacher showed her. Her lessons begin in earnest a week from Friday; in the meantime I’ve gotten her a subscription to Little Flute Magazine, which contains a recipe for flute-shaped cookies, some fun puzzles, and other flute-related content. Anything to keep up the excitement, right?

I haven’t had the same kind of luck finding a viola teacher for K. One teacher had no space in her schedule; the next only works out of her own studio and we’re committed to finding teachers who will come to us—or at least teach online—so that’s not going to work. I’ll keep looking, all the while hoping that K doesn’t lose the excitement for viola that she gained at camp.

Camping it up · family fun · Keepin' it real · Resorting to Violins

Day 527: My heart is full

…and so is my house.

The three big kids came back from music camp today. Just like last time we picked them up from a camp bus, they talked the entire way home about how great it was. Then K said,

“Eema, I think I’d like to take viola lessons from a teacher again and maybe also join an orchestra. I think I’ll practice more if I actually have to keep up with the rest of the viola section or else sit there not playing and feel like an idiot.”

You could have knocked me over with a feather.

(Okay, I mean, you couldn’t—I was sitting in the driver’s seat and I’m sure I couldn’t have been knocked out of it, as I was wearing my seatbelt. Why is “knock me over with a feather” even a saying?)

K’s announcement surprised and delighted me. I also know full well how important it is to keep that momentum going, strike while the iron is hot, and so on; so I’ve started my search for a viola teacher. I want one who will take the time to learn how K learns best, and who will come to our house to teach. That’s not too much to ask, is it?

That’s only the half of it, dear readers.

R and N did Musical Theatre at camp, which this year consisted of a “Broadway revue”-style show. They learned songs and choreography for thirteen numbers—and both had a fabulous time doing it. Tonight we were in the car on our way home and they started singing some of the numbers they’d learned. K joined in. When they finished the number, someone asked, “what’s next?” and I jumped in:

“Do you hear the people sing?”

Everyone joined in: “Singing the song of angry men…” and as all six of us were sitting in the minivan singing Broadway musicals together, I took Mr. December’s hand in mine and thought, This is it. I’m living the dream.

Best of all, the kids are already planning to go back to music camp next summer.

ADHD · crafty · family fun · Kids · Resorting to Violins

Day 485: Hyperfocus Hurts

Yesterday I had a block of time all to myself, all alone in the house. I took advantage of it to work on a personal music project of mine. ADHD hyperfocus kicked in and before I had realized it, I’d been playing and singing for over three hours.

I learned a few important things. First, the new laptop we got for the kids has an excellent built-in microphone, so I can just do all my recordings on that computer—no need to buy a mic. Second, I learned that a music degree isn’t a “get out of practicing free” card for the rest of your life. Five minutes at the piano made it very clear to me that I can’t just improvise a piano part and then record it in the same afternoon. And third, I learned that playing for three hours straight is not a great idea for my body, although it is for my soul.

Now, I’m not new at this; I know that playing the same instrument for three hours will cause soreness. That’s why I switched instruments a bunch of times. Different instruments, different muscles—right?

Apparently not. I mean, I guess three hours of playing the same instrument might cause more pain than I’m feeling right now, but switching instruments doesn’t seem to have eliminated the problem.

In a perfect world—okay, maybe just a non-hurting body—I’d channel my hyperfocus into my music for several days straight. In this imperfect world I have to give it a rest for a few days before I get back to it. It’s a good think I’m a dabbler with lots of different interests; I’ll just rotate through them while I wait for my hands to calm down.

Speaking of other interests, I’ve been thinking about quilting again—it’s been years since I made a quilt, probably since my niece was born almost six years ago. But each of my kids was promised a quilt when they moved into big-kid beds. I’m obviously several years behind on this commitment.

In the past I’ve gone so far as to have N pick his favourite fabrics and approve a design. I don’t remember which design it was, but thanks to my avoidance of putting things away properly I know exactly which pile of fabrics is his “yes” pile.

I want to start his quilt, but I can’t. I’m trying to impose some self-discipline here: I have a long list of things to do while the kids are at camp, and making N a quilt is definitely not on that list. It will have to wait.

So what am I planning to do this week? Well, I promised E a fun outing tomorrow afternoon. In the morning I have to return all those fabric samples (I’m really no further ahead and I’m heading over to a different store to find some more options,) buy some more gray spray paint (ran out mid-spray today,) and pick up a prepaid parcel box from Canada Post (R has run out of Rainbow Loom, hardly surprising since she’s probably supplying her entire cabin with it.) After that, fun! At least, I hope it is. One way or another, you’ll hear all about it tomorrow night.

Darn Tootin' · Homeschool · Keepin' it real · Kids · Resorting to Violins

Day 440: 440

Ah, 440.

More accurately, A440. It’s the pitch to which orchestral instruments are tuned—unless you’re one of those weird European orchestras that prefers A438. You’d think a difference of two Hertz wouldn’t make much of a difference, but apparently it causes some consternation for trans-atlantic orchestral collaboration.

Closer to home, we’re working on our latest musical collaboration—the arrangement of Ode to Joy that I was working on back in April. We’ve gotten to the point where fifty percent of us know our parts quite well, roughly 16 percent are just sight-reading their way through it, and the remaining thirty-one percent aren’t really comfortable with their parts yet.

I started working with everyone on their parts in late April. E took to it immediately and was playing all 32 bars of her part within the week. N took a bit longer, rhythmically-challenged as he sometimes is, but he gradually got up to speed. R is still working on her chord changes; to be fair, she is learning a new instrument, whereas N has been learning piano for four years.

And K… well, we had some…unpleasantness…early on. I had written the viola part to be a bit more interesting than just a string of quarter notes; she objected strenuously. The first roadblock was the dotted quarter note at the end of the fourth bar. She didn’t get it. I explained. Then she explained to me why it was a stupid way to notate a beat and a half. Volubly, and at length. Then she refused to practice it anymore.

(Yes, I pointed out to her that she was arguing about musical notation to someone who has a university degree in music. She was unmoved.)

Words were exchanged—many words—about the possibility of me just writing an easier part for her. To put it mildly, she was not in favour. I did it anyway. No “weird” rhythms, nothing too crazy.

Today she sight-read it fairly easily, and we practiced together for half an hour (which in and of itself is a minor miracle.) Then we called in the rest of the kids and tried the piece all together.

It was… not terrible. As you may know, amateur music groups can sound rather awful; we sounded unpracticed, very rough around the edges, but not bad—especially not for a first run-through.

At this time yesterday I was feeling less than positive about K’s progress in music this year. Tonight I’m feeling a lot more hopeful. As long as the part is mainly quarter and half notes—and let’s face it, many viola parts are—she can sight read it with little trouble. Maybe once she can sight read a little better she’ll be able to develop a solo repertoire. For now she’s happy playing music with other people… as long as she approves of her part. But that’s a fight for another day.

Darn Tootin' · DIY · family fun · Homeschool · Resorting to Violins

Day 395: Finally, the Payoff

Yesterday I used my Music Therapy degree for the first time in what feels like ages.

I painstakingly transcribed the main theme of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (aka Ode to Joy) using some musical notation software. Then I listened over and over again to the original orchestral piece, stopping every few bars, humming, transcribing the parts to solfege, and then notating them in C major, the only key in which E can play her flute.

It brought back memories of a fourth-year assignment we had in one of our Music Therapy classes: to take a piece of orchestral music and arrange it for a hypothetical group of clients, using common music therapy instruments. I chose Also Sprach Zarathustra (a.k.a. the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey) and arranged it for three reed horns, metallophone, bass drum, and piano.

This time I’m arranging a piece for my family to play; the kids all seem to enjoy playing music together and it teaches them how to listen and respond to each other, so I’ve made it my goal to do some ensemble work with them. Several hours spent on a musical arrangement seems excessive—but then again, how else will I be able to get an arrangement for flute, clarinet, guitar, viola, and piano? And if I could find such a thing, I highly doubt that the parts would be perfectly matched to the kids’ disparate levels.

No, this was definitely a job I had to do myself. Finally, all those years of musical dictation and transposition have paid off!

Darn Tootin' · family fun · Fibro Flares · Homeschool · Keepin' it real · Resorting to Violins · whine and cheese

Day 383: Doin’ it with flare

How does one homeschool their kids in the middle of a fibromyalgia flare-up? It turns out that the answer is: as little as possible, as honestly as possible, in as much comfort as possible.

It was a gorgeous day today, so I pushed all of us out the door and to the nearest park. We did our workout on the playground equipment. At one point N got lazy and started lolling around on the climber instead of doing the exercise. I set him straight: “Listen, mister. If I can do it today, then you sure as heck can do it too. Get moving.”

I find one of the most difficult things about fibromyalgia is gauging how hard I can push myself. Exercising during a flare-up doesn’t do any damage to my body; it just hurts. So I guess the question is how much pain I feel like tolerating, given the expected payoff. Going to the park with the family improved my mood substantially, but it didn’t help my pain level at all.

Mr. December worked on chemistry and math with the older kids while I helped E with her writing, reading, and flute (which is going really well, by the way.) The rest of my morning was spent ordering groceries on Instacart and sitting in a hammock alternately reading and spacing out.

The kids joined me in the living room to discuss their next writing assignment. I stayed cocooned in my hammock with my furry blue blanket and patiently answered all their questions. Then I went upstairs to lie down for an hour. I have no idea what the kids ate for lunch, but I think it’s safe to assume that if they were hungry they would have eaten something.

We reconvened in the living room after my nap and I read aloud about Ancient Greek democracy. Then, for art, I asked them to bring over all the sketchbooks and markers and introduced them to meandros, those Greek key designs that you can draw without lifting your pen (did you know the word meander comes from the name of a river in Asia Minor? I was today years old when I learned that.)

By 2:30 I was done. I went to the back porch and cocooned myself in the outdoor hammock for a bit of a change. Groceries arrived around 4:00 and I dispatched my child labour force to bring everything in and put the perishables away. Dinner—rotisserie chicken and potato wedges from the supermarket—was at 5:00 and by 5:30 the kids were clamoring for more screen time.

“Not until you’ve practiced your instruments,” I stared levelly at R and K, “You haven’t done that for a week or so.”

I’m proud (and a bit surprised) to say that both R and K went off and practiced on their own. After a while K invited me to join her on the back porch for her practice; shockingly, she was very receptive to my suggestions and did some really good work.

And now here we are, after an hour of British reality TV about kids of varying backgrounds having playdates at each other’s homes (E loves this show,) and I’m about to tuck in three of the four kids.

Everything still hurts, possibly more than this morning. But I did it—I managed to preside over some learning, music practice, and dinner, which feels like a massive accomplishment right now. I think a warm bath and a cup of tea is what’s needed now, and then maybe if I get lucky somebody will tuck me in.

Darn Tootin' · education · family fun · Kids · Resorting to Violins

Day 334: Darn Tootin’

“Now that you’re six,” I told E, “it’s time for you to really learn an instrument. Is there something you’d really like to learn?”

“Drums!” she shouted.

“No way.” Mr. December and I said at the same time. “Pick something else.”

Here I’ll interrupt the narrative to explain that E started learning violin pretty much from birth. She had her own solid wood violin to hold and play while her siblings practiced. She was just starting to play a real violin—and to complain about practicing—when I got my concussion. We shelved violin lessons after that and picked them up again in September 2019. I don’t think I have to tell you why the lessons stopped in March 2020. Anyhow, E’s been dead set against violin lessons since then.

I play six instruments, three of them reasonably well (guess which ones!): Voice (my major through high school and university,) guitar, piano, viola, violin and flute. I know from personal experience that people can feel very drawn to one instrument and thoroughly hate playing another; I hated piano lessons for the ten years I took them, but was immediately drawn to the violin and viola, which I could practice all day if my hands didn’t protest. That’s why I decided to give E a choice of instruments instead of forcing her to continue with violin. And now, back to the story.

“Oh, I know!” her face lit up, “flute! I love flute! I play it at Savta’s pool!” (She was talking about those bath toys that you fill with water to change the pitch. In case you didn’t know, it doesn’t matter how much water you put in. Invariably a small child will blow as hard as possible, which will always result in a loud screeching sound.)

“Okay,” I said, “I’ll see what we can do about getting you started on flute.” At that, E went into raptures.

I found an instrument designed for small kids as an introductory flute. It’s called a Toot, and after reading all the reviews and advertising copy, I decided to buy it along with the introductory music book. E got to choose her colour (black with blue keys). She was thrilled.

The following week I said, “I can’t wait til your flute arrives!”

“I don’t wanna play flute!” E declared crossly. “I HATE THE FLUTE!”

This is where I started channeling my inner 1950’s parent: “You’re going to learn flute, and you’re going to learn to like it, because I already ordered it, and paid for it, and it’s on its way to our house!”

The flute arrived yesterday. The moment I placed the package in E’s hand, she was excited. We took out the Toot and I showed her how to hold it and how to play the first three notes. She got it very quickly and started reading the songs in the book (graphic notation, not the type of sheet music you might be picturing.)

“I love this! I’m so good at it! Listen, everybody!”

All I wanted was to spent ten or fifteen minutes with the instrument and then put it away for another day, but E insisted on practicing for another half hour. This morning when I sat at the table to drink my coffee, I could hear E’s practice wafting in from the library.

Later in the morning I was working with K on some viola duets when N wandered in. We invited him to accompany us with a simple drone on the piano. E was next through the door, and she was very excited to be able to join us on her Toot.

It’s early days yet, and I’m sure she’ll resist practicing as soon as it gets difficult, but this week I’m just going to bask in the excited glow of a six-year-old falling in love with her first flute.

education · family fun · Homeschool · Keepin' it real · Kids · Resorting to Violins

Day 322: And that’s all the time we have for today…

K put off her viola practice until late this evening. Then she spent a lot of time huffing, whining, and saying “I can’t.”

Normally I’d try to talk her through it, on the theory that I can help her learn how to reframe her frustration. Tonight I did a bit of that, but then I looked at my phone’s clock: 8:22, eight minutes to E’s bedtime.

(Yes, I know that’s a tad late for a six-year-old. Believe me, when K was that age she went to bed at seven thirty every night and we had a few hours of child-free time at the end of the day. But with older siblings, that’s just not happening for E.)

Where was I? Oh, yeah. Almost E’s bedtime, and we hadn’t even had the bubble tea I promised for bedtime snack. Frustrated at having spent 20 minutes with K and her having played maybe two notes in all that time, I decided that I was done coddling her.

“Listen,” I said, “I don’t have any more time for this—I have to give the others their bubble tea. You can keep practicing by yourself and then later I’ll come listen to what you’ve done… or don’t. Your choice.”

“Don’t?” She echoed, “Is not doing it even a choice? Can I just not do it?”

I nodded. “Sure. If you want to not do it, just hand over your phone tonight before bed. You’ll get it back the day after tomorrow.”

K grumbled. I left the room.

The kids begged me to read to them while they drank their bubble tea. I did. But the story was very long, and it was way past bedtime at this point. When I asked N to see what time it was he said, “Uh, it’s 8:40.” He’s not a very good liar when it comes to realizing that there’s actual evidence to the contrary.

“Sorry guys, it’s almost nine. We’re out of time for tonight. We’ll stop here and pick it up again tomorrow.”

“NOOOOOOOOO!!! NONONONO!!!! NOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!” The four of them howled in concert.

“Can’t you please keep going? We all want you to!”

“Nope. I’m sorry. Sleep is important.”


I kind of enjoyed the howling, actually. My kids were complaining because I refused to finish the Greek myth we were reading. It’s not that I’m a magical unicorn who makes children want to learn stuff, it’s that Rick Riordan is laugh-out-loud funny. But their eagerness to learn from his book tickles me anyway.

I tucked in N, R, and E, vaguely aware of the sounds of a viola wafting up from the library. When I (finally) finished with the tuck-ins I went back downstairs and checked on K.

“Want to show me what you’ve been working on?” I asked.

She did—and she had made some small but noticeable progress on her own. This time when I offered some instruction she accepted it eagerly; she learned a few more bars of the song she was playing and practiced them until she had the correct notes and bowings. By the end, she was feeling pretty good about the work she’d done.

So twice today I had to stop things because I’d run out of time. In the case of K’s viola practice, it was the kick in the butt she needed to actually sit down and do some work on her own. In the case of the book, the kids went to sleep just dying to know what happened on Psyche’s quest to the underworld. Maybe I should run out of time more often.

Speaking of which, it’s 10:19 and Mr. December just asked, “How did it get so late?”

Isn’t the answer obvious? We’ve run out of time.

DIY · education · family fun · Homeschool · Jewy goodness · Kids · Resorting to Violins

Day 273: They Started It.

I want to trust the process. I really do. I want to believe that the kids will regain their natural curiosity and will want to learn without my cajoling them to. Mr. December doesn’t trust it at all—he thinks we need to push and demand. Most days we see no evidence of self-directed learning from any of the kids. And then we come to a day like today, and my faith in my children’s self-direction is renewed.

Lately E has been refusing to even look at a book with someone. I presume it’s because she doesn’t want to be asked to try to read anything. But this morning she said to me, “You know, I think I have a story I want to tell.” So I sat down at her desk and turned to the laptop she had just been using for a Zoom class.

“I’m listening,” I told her, and then I wrote her story precisely the way she told it.

I suggested that it would make a great book. She agreed on the condition that she not be made to illustrate it. I printed it out, folded it, and showed her how to sew a binding. When she was done, she looked at the book, and then at me, and whispered excitedly, “I can’t believe I wrote a book and I’m still so young!”

Then she ran off with her book to show it to everybody in the house.

Oh, did I mention that she lost a tooth?

R and K have been very sweet to N since his surgery, offering to run and fetch things or just keep him company when he’s miserable. Tonight N was hungry, and K offered to make him a smoothie. She proceeded to invent a flavour that tastes very much like green marshmallows.

“I should remember this recipe,” she remarked.

“Why don’t you just write it down?” I suggested—with absolutely no ulterior motive whatsoever.

“Oh yeah, good idea.” K said, and collected some paper and pens before sitting at the table. Then she thought for a moment and said:

“I’d better write a rough draft first so the good copy doesn’t have any mistakes.”

(Did you hear that loud thump? That was the sound of my jaw hitting the floor.)

You see, to call K a reluctant writer is a massive understatement. Writing assignments are usually met with resistance, then anger, then tears. She can spot a writing assignment from a mile away and will dig in her heels in preparation for the fight.

Then she surpassed herself again by asking, “Eema, do recipes count as writing?”

“Of course they do!”

“Well then, can I please write a recipe book for my next writing project?”

And with that, she dove into drafting her recipe.

When I had a concussion (most of 2019) we had to give up on violin lessons for the girls (N had already defected to piano.) It required too much pushing and coercion; Mr. December and my mum weren’t willing to fight for an hour each day to get them to practice. When K passed two lessons with her teacher in complete silence—a standoff—we cancelled all remaining lessons and withdrew from group classes. It was a serious disappointment for me.

Any time I had suggested to E that she could start playing violin again, she vehemently refused. I started to wonder whether I should just sell all the violins except mine.

And then last weekend, E invited me to play some music with her. She set up the assortment of small drums that I used when I taught mom-and-baby music, and invited me to choose any instrument. I picked violin. We improvised for a while (finally! my music therapy training comes in handy!) and then she said, “This time you play the drums and I’ll play my violin!”

And she did. I said nothing other than to comment on the music we made. No comments of approval for her picking the violin up again. I just thanked her for making music with me.

Tonight I had a few minutes to myself. I began practicing my viola while watching that the chanukah candles didn’t burn the library down. After about ten minutes I heard a tentative knock, and then E came in.

“Can we both play violin and viola together?” She asked.

It was already bedtime; I could have said that it was too late at night. But I know that you have to seize the moment when it comes, so I agreed that we could play until the Chanuka candles went out. We improvised together for five minutes or so, and E was satisfied.

“Can we do that again sometime?” She asked.

These kinds of events make me feel like Little Bo Peep. You know: “Leave them alone and they will come home, wagging their tails behind them.”

As I said earlier, my faith in self-driven education is renewed.

(For now.)

education · Kids · parenting · Resorting to Violins

Day 79: Do it again.

I felt like a broken record this morning. N’s work screams “I don’t care about any of this.” His writing looks like he could barely be bothered to hold onto his pencil; I suspect many trained animals could do better. He’s accustomed to his teachers giving up in the face of his silent and polite resistance. I, on the other hand, have very few other students and (apparently) nothing better to do than ensure his future scholastic success.

“Here, Eema.” He thrusts his workbook at me. The sentences don’t start with capital letters, half the words run together, and the letters themselves vary widely in size.

“I can’t read this. It looks terrible. Erase it and do it again.” And he does.

“Here you go, Eema. I’m done.” Slightly better, but not good enough.

“Are you aware that there should be spaces separating the words?” Now he’s avoiding eye contact. “Go back and do it again.”

The third time he has made his corrections by writing over top of his previous work; it’s illegible. The fourth time we review the fact that certain letters should dip below the line, while some should stretch above. “Go back and do it again.”

This is exhausting, even though he’s the one doing the work. All I know is that the time to set expectations is right at the outset, so here I am, holding firm.

Later in the afternoon I’m helping R with her violin practice; she’s working on a Bach minuet. “Wait!” I interject. “That’s a C natural — Low 2. Not high 2. Go back and do it again.”

She rolls her eyes and huffs. Then she keeps right on playing.

“That’s not practicing, you know,” I inform her. “It’s just you bulldozing your way through mistakes. Your daily chart says ‘practice’, not ‘bulldoze.'”

“Fine,” she huffs, “I’ll do it correctly five times.”

“That’s all I ask. Just go back and do it again. And again. And then three more times.” And she did.

Lest I make myself sound like a tiger mom, I have to tell you that I still let some measure (read: a lot) of mediocrity slide. But if they don’t learn how to achieve excellence (or, let’s face it, basic competence) in something now, then they won’t be able to do so even when they want to.

I’m not sure if my kids believe me when I say, “Believe me, I’d rather be outside gardening than in here policing your work,” but it’s true. Not that I don’t want to spend time with them, but I’d rather not have all our interactions be adversarial.

And yet… I want them to learn how to do things well. So I’ll go to bed now. Tomorrow I’ll wake up bright and early — and do it again.

Practice makes perfect… or at least competent.