Sunday, November 21, 2010

Children and Classical Music Musings

Many of us are brought up to disdain classical music as though it is stuffy, incomprehensible, dull, or elitist. But, this is only because we are not exposed to it from the very beginning. Maybe, to some, it is, an acquired taste, but, like anything else, the more you listen to it, the more comfortable you become, and the more comfortable you become, the more you will want to incorporate it into your  life.

I tend to talk a lot about classical music and it's importance for children. Sure it's complex, but, so are kids. Yes, there are no lyrics, but, that is what is so great. This allows the imagination to figure out the story and connect it's own dots. I am not a scientist, but, I believe with all my heart that classical music aids imaginative thinking and artistic development in profound ways. I know it did for me, so, when our daughter was tiny it was a natural thing for us to listen (and still do) to KING FM, which is one of the great classical music stations in the world. She would sit in her car seat and conduct. She loved opera. She loved Vivaldi. She still does. (You can listen to KING FM while you are online. Take it for a test drive, it's amazing!) Whether or not my daughter's incredible focus and artistic bent is because of this exposure I will never know, but, I'm guessing it has made a positive and long lasting influence. If you have any doubts, Just watch this!  Pretty amazing, huh? Now, clearly Jonathan is a gifted little thing, but, still just try putting classical music on with a small child and see what happens. I guarantee he/she will not be sitting still.

There is something so transcendent about playing your favorite classical music DVD and losing yourself in  your creative activities; writing, sewing, painting, cleaning your room. With classical music playing I always feel like I am able to go to a deeper, more focused and satisfying place with my projects. I mean, even bill paying becomes less tedious when spent with Yo-Yo Ma, Mozart, Tchaikovsky,  Vivaldi, or Bach. The same is true with children. Try putting on your favorite classical music CD when the kids are doing their chores. It will be much less of a battle and I bet it will get done faster. It works for me.

Classical music also has a tremendous calming effect on kids. It's great to study, read, write, or think to. I believe the brain really loves it.

Here is a list of my current favorite classical music CDs:
1. Vladimir Horowitz The Complete Masterworks Recordings 1962-1973, Vol. III
2. Vladimir Horowitz The Complete Masterworks Recordings 1962-1973, Vol. III, continued
3. The Compleat Four Seasons Narrated by Patrick Stewart - Perfect for this time of year and Patrick Stewart has one of the best narrator voices ever!

4. Midori, violin/ Robert McDonald, piano Encore! This CD is intoxicating and addictive. 
5. Yo-Yo Ma plays Ennio Morricone (this is really film scores played by Yoyo, but passes as classical, come on it's Yo-Yo!!!) I also love it because the score to Cinema Paradiso, which is my no.1 fave film of all time is on this recording. Bliss!
When I was a kid I was obsessed with. . .
6. Nancy Carlos' Switched On Bach (first released in 1968 and recently remastered). I am going to go out on a limb here - You will LOVE this!!! This is funkified Bach to the enth degree and I dare you and your child to sit still while listening to it. It's simply hilarious and still sounds current. Anecdote: When this first came out I was playing the organ every Sunday for one and many times two Masses every week. I tended to get bored playing the same 'ol, same 'ol, so, during Communion I would jazz up my Bach by "Switching it On" with some of the more techno stops on my organ, speeding it up; people loved it. There is no reason music in church needs to be dull as dishwater, right? It should be a celebration of epic proportions!

Specially for children:
7. Serfei Prokofiev's Sneaky Pete and the Wolf Written and Narrated by Peter Schickele with Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. 
For the most part I think kids like listening to the same classical music recordings as adults. Sometimes the recordings specifically for children feel a little condescending and silly. There is absolutely no reason to water down  perfection. Kids are smart and sophisticated. Share exactly what you love and they will respond. 

Here is a treat; if you've never heard of Benjamin Zander take 20 minutes, go to TED, sit down and be prepared to have your classical music paradigm toppled. He is a consummate musician, conductor, communicator, passionate artist with energy, talent, and humor galore. He takes us on a thoughtful and emotional ride with a classical music passage that he plays on the piano. Listen to his talk with your children and see what they think.

To be continued. . . 

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Teenagers are Great!

I love teenagers! I've collaborated with teenagers on several important projects. I think, many times, teens are highly underestimated, but, once they feel trusted, they never cease to amaze me with their openness, willingness, and original creative energy. When I work with teens my life is enhanced beyond description. Sometimes we forget how amazing they are. In my opinion the only reason teenagers get all tough acting is because they don't feel heard. They don't feel honored.

Trying to catch up on a few movies I've never had the time to watch I rented Freedom Writers. This is an important film that will inspire dialogue with your kids on many levels; tolerance, education, prejudice, violence, etc. It is filled with such love and compassion, so grab that kleenex box, because  I bet you and your kids will shed a tear or two just like we did. Personally I lost count at 5 times during my viewing.

Hilary Swank's performance is spot on, never mind the first time actors playing the kids! They are all fabulous. The energy jumps off the screen.  As Erin Gruwell, Swank is vulnerable, determined, and relentless in her desire to give time and a chance to a group of students who are rough gang members and considered to be categorically unteachable. She successfully battles an education system that simply doesn't work (hmmmm, sound familiar. . .Waiting for Superman?) and reaches these kids through literature they can relate to. She then gives them each a simple, yet, profound gift and the opportunity to put their pain into something they've never had; their own personal and private journals. As they write about their remarkable stories they learn to trust, and find out they are not alone in the world of horrific experiences. Ms. Gruwell teaches them about the Holocaust and in turn they learn about themselves and what they are truly capable of.

Eventually the real life Erin Gruwell, with the help and permission of her students (above), went onto publish their astonishing stories in a book entitled The Freedom Writers. Check out Erin Gruwell's website to witness what is possible when we take the time to honor, respect and teach each of our children.

To be continued. . .

Thursday, November 11, 2010

It's Never Too Late

I'm going to go slightly off topic today, but, I believe my musings will circle back to my main purpose and that is; to encourage the creative process no matter what the age.

My husband has been the most supportive person of my endeavors from the moment I met him. He has literally been my No.1 fan following me to L.A. for my career, attending ever single performance I've ever been in (that has been no small feat) and helping me produce my children's DVDs. So, in the past few months when he was trying to decide what direction to take his career we had an interesting conversation that led him to recommit himself to his writing. He is now pursuing screenwriting full time through the UCLA screenwriting program and is getting kudos and support from all directions.

My husband is the type of person that is always there for people if they need help, no matter what it is. For his 50th Birthday I decided that friends and family should come together and help him create something to affirm his new career choice. That "something" is a brand new "Man Cave Screenwriting Hut". Let me tell you, that when a person is committing to something they absolutely love to do, the universe doesn't say "No". The universe comes together with a resounding "YES!" to give support. Our friends and family, in the pouring rain, helped to erect the walls and attach the roof of the MCSH in less than 6 hours. What is being created in our back yard is a glorious place for my other half to escape, reflect, create, and be true to his talent and creative spirit. I also believe that this magical event will serve to encourage our friends to create a space in their own lives to do the same.

We have already committed to assist in building another studio for one of our friends. These kind of activities save people money, solidify friendships, make memories, and it's just plain fun. Don't wait to give yourself a place to be creative. Plan it and ask for help.

We first decided to do the MCSH a little over a month ago. This was our process in a nutshell:

1. We looked online for backyard studios we liked and sketched one to scale using bits and pieces from ones that resonated with us. Here is one that we particularly liked and used as a jumping off point:

2. We looked for materials on Craigslist, i.e. windows, door, lumber, OSB, roofing, roofing felt, etc.
3. We also found a gorgeous desk that was originally $550.00 for $125.00 on Craigslist and a black leather office chair to go with it.
4. We already had a preexisting 10' x 12' concrete pad with electricity so that saved a bunch.
5. We sent out invitations for an Old Fashioned "Mat Man Cave Screenwriting Hut" Barn Raising
6. In the month before the party (while we were working and going to school) we built the foundation, subfloor, and my husband also assembled all 4 walls and painted all the siding so that on the day of the party we literally had the walls and roof joists up in a couple hours. (Trust me, I wish I would have thought of doing this in the summer! It was pouring rain, but, we were thrilled there was no wind!)
7. Because of the weather and time of year we were lucky that my in-laws had a 20' x 20' circus tent that we put up. This was a life saver! It kept our materials and us dry on the big day. And it was crazy festive with big yellow and white stripes.
8. The day after the party we finished the roof and put up the tyvek and part of the siding. 
9. Now we just have to finish the siding, install  windows and the door and start on the interior finish work.
10. We have left over bamboo flooring from the house that is the exact amount we need for the floor.
11. The walls are going to be bare, but, sealed OSB with stainless steel rivets in the corners and wainscot on the ceiling. We are going for a modern, semi-industrial look.
12. We will hang a few movie posters that are on our top 10 list and Mat will be off and running, writing the next great screenplay.

I will post pix of our finished and fabulous MCSH at a later date.

FYI - Check the building permit codes in your county. Most structures under 144 sq. ft. don't require a permit. Ours is 120 sq. ft. so we are good. Plus, this is the 3rd structure in 33 years that has been on this concrete pad. There had been a hot tub with gazebo and a storage shed before.

Another idea is to turn one of those utility sheds into a backyard office for writing, art, quilting, sewing, etc. There are some amazing prefab office sheds that you can buy and have assembled. The cost for one of these is $5k up to about $60k. We purchased and built this amazing studio for between $2500 and $3k. Quite a big difference. It also helped that Mat had a ton of construction and roofing experience.

It really is never too late to commit to your own creative desires or process, and even if you feel like you didn't get that freedom as a child, go ahead, do it now. I promise, it will be the best thing you ever did for yourself.

To be continued. . .

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Amelia Bloomer; women's rights, history, and FASHION!?

You Forgot Your Skirt Amelia Bloomer
Written by Shana Corey & Illustrated by Chesley McLaren

This spunky picture book is very sneaky. It takes on an important part of American Women's History with charm galore. The Ludwig Bemelmans (of Madeline fame) inspired illustrations are full of whimsey. Even the font was designed by illustrator McLaren and gives the fact filled text a feeling of fanciful fun (And she is incredibly prolific! You must check out her fashion illustrations. They are utterly charming.)

Amelia Bloomer, born in 1818, was one of the key women's movement voices of the 19th century when women's clothing was at it's oppressive height. Corsets that displaced women's internal organs, topped with 20-40 lbs. of fabric, lace, wool, and flannel were considered "proper". No wonder their waists were tiny! Of course fainting was part of the bargain. Oh, and they couldn't move their arms very well either. Doesn't that sound like fun? Anyway, when Amelia's friend returned from Europe where all of the women were wearing pantaloon type undergarments under shorter dresses she sewed some of these pantaloons up and began wearing them around town. She created quite an improper fashion stir riding around on her bicycle. Thus, these pantaloons were dubbed "Bloomers" after her.
Amelia Bloomer wasn't just a fashion feminist; Hear Ye! Hear Ye! In 1849 she also founded and became the editor of The Lily, the first newspaper devoted entirely to women's issues. BRAVO! Not bad for a girl who only had a two year education. Check out this website for more info on one of our country's most remarkable women.

This picture book is so clever and fun that it could become your little girl's favorite book. It certainly is one of mine.

P.S.- You Forgot Your Skirt Amelia Bloomer is appropriate for 5-8 year olds and even older if a child is looking for user friendly research material for a history report.

To be continued. . .

Wednesday, November 3, 2010


The great thing about children's books is that, even though they live on a shelf, they don't have a shelf life. An author I am crazy about and who will never go out of style is Newberry Award winning author Betsy Byars.

Writing about this author is like dessert to me. I absolutely can't put into words how much I love her work. Betsy was born in 1928 so she's over 80 years old and she has been published in every genre since 1962. That 48 years and 60 wonderful picture books, mysteries, and young adult novels. Not a bad track record.

The Betsy Byars book on the top of my "Love It!" list is:

Keeper of the Doves
Published 2002 by Viking Press

The year is 1891 and Amen is the unexpected, not particularly wanted fifth girl in the McBee clan. From the git-go she is a sensitive, voracious reader and an incredible wordsmith. When Amen is eight her grandmother comes to visit and brings the latest Kodak camera which infuses excitement into the air of the McBee family. There is the reclusive neighbor and dove trainer, Mr. Tominski, who Amen's sisters, "the Bellas" swear is dangerous, but Papa says is harmless. Amen, with the help of the camera, will have to find out for herself. Keeper of the Doves is a most touching story about "nothing is ever what it seems". This book reads aloud beautifully and, in fact, is worth multiple reads. I dare anyone to not shed a tear or two during the last few pages of this glorious book.

FYI - Betsy Byars reads her manuscripts aloud as she writes to make sure all of the dialogue rings true, so her books are easy to read aloud to children no matter what their ages. I have read her books to the 6-9 crowd and 10-12 year olds.

Check these out. . .

The Herculeah Jones Mystery Series
Betsy Byars, Published by Puffin
There are 7 books in the Herculeah Jones series. I've read three of them and they are too much fun! Every single chapter in these books is a cliff hanger. Thirteen year old Herculeah Jones is the only child of a divorced Private Investigator Mom and Police Detective Dad, so, of course, she has access to tricks of the trade, never mind her expertise in eavesdropping. Fearless Herculeah, along with her reluctant, hysterical, best friend, Meat (how great is that for a name?), get themselves into major pickles as they go about solving crimes that the grownups don't even know exist of just can't seem to figure out. For my time, and this is big, these are way more fun than the Nancy Drew series. For those who love mysteries, Herculeah Jones is the ticket!

Herculeah Jones Tantalizing Titles:

The Dark Stairs
Tarot Beware
Dead Letter
Death's Door
Disappearing Acts
King of Murder
The Black Tower

To be continued. . .

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Sound of Music

When our daughter was little one of the songs I sang to her every single night while putting her to bed was "My Favorite Things." Oscar Hammerstein's brilliantly written lyrics have the ability to get a parent and child to focus on feeling gratitude for the simplest of life's pleasures while calming down at the same time. The mere phrase "Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens" kind of chokes me up right now just thinking about them and even though my girl is 13 she still asks me to sing it to her. I always sentimentally indulge.

For the first time in 45 years, Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer, and the entire Von Trapp Family cast from The Sound of Music was reunited on Oprah this past week. I found this to be such a celebration for more than a few reasons;

1. The Sound of Music is maybe one of the most perfectly filmed musicals of all time. It is definitely in my top 10 list and holds up with each and every viewing
2. Julie Andrews was beyond divine and the chemistry within the cast was flawless.
3. And perhaps the most important; I thought I was Julie Andrews "mini me" when I was 10. Everyone told me I looked like her and never mind that I was called "Julie" until I was 18. I must have played the sound track on the hi-fi a trillion times re-enacting "I Have Confidence" (suitcase and all) and "I Am Sixteen" with perfect choreography, wearing a flouncy skirt and hopping from chair to sofa, in our living room a billion times. (Yes, I have just outed myself as being a child when the film was released, proud Baby Boomer that I am!)

The Sound of Music, the story and the film, survives because it joins two very important ideas; 1) music, the universal language, connects people on the cellular level and 2) music is stronger than war. The Von Trapp Family singers found strength and resilience in their music and found collected strength in each other to stand up to adversity. Without the music they probably wouldn't have escaped Austria during the initial stages of the WWII. It was the music that broke open Captain Von Trapp's heart so he could see what was really important to his family. The music became their message. The music saved them. The music gave them a new life.

I'm not saying anything particularity new here, but, I do think we need to revisit or introduce our children to certain classic stories and films on a regular basis. They are life affirming and there isn't anything better that singing along with your favorite musical with your favorite family members.

So, "When the dog bites, when the bee stings", go to your DVD player, pop in The Sound of Music and sit there with your child while they sing "Do, Re, Mi" (learning the scale - kind of like hiding the vegetables) and "The Lonely Goatherd" (seeing the magic of puppetry) with you and revel in the power of the music.

To be continued. . .

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

God Bless the Child

Jazz. The Great Depression. The Deep South. The Great Migration.

These don’t sound like the usual subject matter for a children’s picture book, but, wait; think, Billie Holiday and the timeless recording of her own lyrics (along with Arthur Herzog Jr.) “God Bless the Child”.

God Bless the Child
Written by Billie Holiday and Arthur Herzog & Illustrated by Jerry Pinkney

A picture book tells a story with pictures in tandem with words. Like a film, the words guide the story, but the visual is what makes those very perfect words take flight.

To me, God Bless the Child’s illustrations are very reminiscent of the 1990 August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize winning play “The Piano Lesson” that starred Charles S. Dutton. Dutton turned in one of those riveting, soulfully authentic performances that stay with audience members for decades. I can’t help but think that seeing Billie Holiday perform “God Bless the Child” as a similar experience.

Illustrator Jerry Pinkney has captured the dusty, hopeful feeling and muted colors of the Great Depression with historic perfection. He works in an interesting way; costuming friends and relatives, creating a theatrical scene, photographing them, and then turning that photograph into an illustration. Mr. Pinkney has been illustrating since 1964 with over 100 books to his credit. How's that for prolific?! He is a 4 time recipient of the Caldecott Honor Medal, 4 time Coretta Scott King Award winner, 2 time Coretta Scott King Honor Award winner, along with countless other awards.  I encourage you to visit Jerry's website and read his extensive bio and be wowed by his treasured illustrations. You will need a separate library just to accommodate these works.

God Bless the Child” comes with the original soundtrack recording of Billie Holiday that runs on a loop so a child can take their time look at the illustrations while listening to one of the great recording artists of all time. Now, that is what reading and art is all about!

To be continued. . .