Tuesday, December 29, 2009

free counters

Christmas Time

Dana and I are testing something with my blog. Because, frankly, I have no idea how many of you people read this. So (because I am both vain and snoopy) I am trying to set up a tracking system to see how many of ya'll read.

This post has next to no content, sorry about that.

Christmas has been fun. My favorite thing about America is that you can decide to run an errand, run the errand, and get home all with in half an hour. Isn't that amazing?

Friday, December 18, 2009

Back in Seattle

I made it back to Seattle and have settled in nicely- falling asleep at the totally reasonable hour of half nine and then managing to stay asleep past four am! Life is good. The flights were uneventful, if long and I had nice seat mates the whole time. So, whew!

Thanks to Mical and Dan for picking me up at the airport and then taking me for delicious sushi. (I do love sushi) Laine showed up towards the end of the meal which was wonderful also.

But lets take a moment to go back a couple of days, yes? The tykes put on a show! And I have videos of it! It hadn't occurred to me before Wednesday just how difficult it is to take a video of a children's performance. It isn't that the kids are moving around so very much (we had them trained up good) so much as it is the parents popping up every ten seconds to take another picture of their *child!* Which, fair enough, but maybe we could have, like, a press corps section of the hall? All photographs and video cameras in a special designated area where they can just get in each other's way and not disrupt- you know *MY* video? Because I'm all greedy like that?

I will say that my favorite part of the video is during the reception performance when near the end one of the fathers waves his hand to get his tyke's attention and then when that fails to work he snaps. Um. Not like he got angry- he just clicked his fingers...never mind. C. also spends most of the video with her fingers up her nose. (By "trained up good" I mean that relatively speaking. They are only four after all.)

Anyhow- it was a riotous success and super fun, and if you're in Seattle you're more than welcome to come to see the videos which I can't put up online for obvious privacy reasons.

After the show we went to the staff Christmas lunch. I've never been to a proper work Christmas do before so that was very exciting. It was at a restaurant that was technically only a 10 minute walk from school- assuming you went in a reasonably straight line. The music teachers decided as a group not to take a taxi there with everyone else since it was snowing lightly and prettily. In retrospect we probably should have double checked that we knew where we were heading first. It took us about 40 minutes to walk there because we basically went in a giant, cold, snowy circle. What this *did* mean however is that when we finally arrived we were cheered. So alls well that ends well.

We had received an email that morning notifying us that the school had ordered enough wine for everyone to have about half a bottle each and if we wanted more alcohol after that we were just going to have to pay for it ourselves! Hmmph. I want to let you know that in order to set the stage for this next part- remember that there was a performance that morning and that in the lead up to the performance everyone in the basement early years section of the school had been listening to and singing these songs over and over and over and over and over (etc.) again. We were all waking up with the songs running through our head and and all falling asleep with them running through our heads still. There were two in particular that seemed to have special, sticky properties. Those were "Etoile de Noel" (Which is still stuck in my head) and "Snowflake Serenade"

So a group of tipsy early years teachers, a charming and beautiful young music teacher (that's me, guys), and snow dumping it down outside the window- my boss turned and pointed to me and said "this is your fault!" before leading a rousing rendition of Snowflake Serenade in a public restaurant while everyone was wearing colorful paper crowns from the Christmas crackers. Nice.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Learning Going On Everywhere

Things I have learned from doing the nativity play and carol sings:

1. Make rehearsal CDs. Make them early. Have the track list on a USB drive in case anyone loses their copy of the CD. Make my *own* copy of the CD so that I don't need to keep borrowing classroom copies.

2. Learn to play the piano! My gosh, all of this would be *so* much easier if I could play the piano instead of relying on CDs (which keep getting lost/scratched/etc.) and/or hoping that Linda is available for rehearsals.

3. It is important to have the set lists early on so that we can see in what ways the songs need to be edited- is the key too high? Too low? Are the words too complicated? Are the words so simple that the tykes get bored singing halfway through the song and trail off before staring into space? This is good to know before the show!

4. Actions for every part of the song (don't leave one verse with the tykes just standing there because you couldn't think of a good action for "shepherds"). Simple is better. Reinforcing the lyrics is best. Sure, let the kids help out with the actions- but only one action per line- that's how it will end up anyway and doing too many just confuses the issue.

5. Sort out the choreography of leading- are the teachers doing everything? Am I doing everything? Either I need to get out of the way and the teachers need a chance to practice the whole group standing up bits or I need to know when each and every kid has their line so that I can cue and prompt when necessary. Again- figure this out early on! And ask the teachers what they would prefer! Having the classroom teachers totally on board is both polite and necessary.

That's what I've got off the top of my head right now, I'm sure there is more that I'm currently forgetting...

Nativity Play Update

The tykes are coming along. I have been in nearly every day for the past two weeks doing run throughs and extra rehearsals and sorting out CD's to practice with and all the nitty gritty of putting on a show that is easy to forget about.

Today was our dress rehearsal! My gosh the costumes are cute. I hadn't realized that the nursery kids were going to have costumes as well (the Receptions tykes obviously do since they are putting on a proper play with characters and everything!) The nursery tykes made star wands to wave around during the French song "Etoile de Noel" (Star of Christmas?) and have made reindeer headbands! So cute! The antlers are bronze hand prints cut out and stuck onto a brown circle of construction paper on their heads.

The reception tykes rocked their dress rehearsal! Well, sort of. The costumes are great, they know all the words, and for the most part they do the hand actions (though there are a couple of tykes who will do the actions for all the songs that they are *not* singing in as well. I think that's hilarious). What we're currently having trouble with is a case of too many cooks spoiling the soup. Any and all adults who have been involved with this show are sitting in front doing the actions along with the kids and so they have *no* idea where to look.

We did not do a good job of sorting out the choreography of their attention.

As much as I would like to be at the head of the show boosting them along and leading it- I think I need to back off (along with B.,, the head of Early years, who doesn't even *know* the actions! Stop! You're confusing them! Look at their faces! Con-fused!) and just let the classroom teachers lead the show. It's going to be great though- they are adorable in their costumes and it will be fascinating to see how the excitement of having their *parents!* in the room will affect them.

Nursery tykes. Oh, nursery tykes. You are so very cute in your reindeer hats. But nursery tykes? If you sit there moping and not making a sound then this isn't going to work. Mope-y tyke-y reindeer are cute and amusing- but they're not really the vibe we're going for. You know, nursery tykes? So what do we need to do? How can I help tomorrow so that on Wednesday we are the *excited* and *awesome* baby reindeer that I KNOW we can be? Hmmm? Let me know nursery tykes. We can do this together.

In other news I woke up with "Xanadu" stuck in my head and it hasn't left yet. Olivia Newton John- I'm a fan and all, but that song is terrible!

Things I learned on Sunday

Sunday was the first of the Christmas concerts with the Kids singing "Snowflake Serenade" at the beginning of the music service recital. The concert was in Christchurch about a five minute walk from Gloucester road. (I think I have found where I want to live when I have buckets and buckets of money- there is a mews behind the church that is full of charming and cute little houses with large planters and pots outside just about every door and climbing plants growing up the fronts of the buildings. It was just beautiful; especially as since it is Christmas time the whole road was lit up with fairy lights as well.) The church was lovely but very cold. All the teachers got there at 1pm to have a staff meeting before the students started trailing in to practice with their accompanists.

The meeting was a little bit silly- it is a new organization and while things are generally going well there is more that the org would like to do and expand upon- which is all well and good. A chamber music programme *would* be a great addition to the offerings, as would composition workshops. Absolutely.

But here's the thing- one of the things that I learned during my IPE rehearsals this summer was that if I was prepared with a number of possible ideas for how a portion of the piece could go then things went swimmingly- even if the devising process left my ideas in the dust. The important part was to have an *idea* of a solution (if, as the director, I couldn't think of a way to make it work, isn't it a bit presumptuous to think that other people are going to take the problem and run with it? Okay- sometimes that was exactly what was needed because I was beating my head against a brick wall and needed help- but that's not what I'm talking about- this is more at the beginning of the process.)

For instance say I wanted a story to be told through a piece of music. And presented it to my group exactly like that: "hey guys! Lets put a story to music! So...what story do you want to do?" It's awfully open ended, and totally not helpful. They may completely agree with me that putting a story to music is brilliant, what a fabulous idea! But I, as director, am going to need to put a little bit more in to it. A lot more in to it. "Hey, lets try little red riding hood with the oboe as the main character- do you think we could have a recurring bassoon part for the wolf? Maybe based a little bit on the wolf theme from Peter and the Wolf and oh! Hey! Maybe we could do a whole concert of pieces based on stories with wolves and use that as our common thread through the whole evening...." etc.

Yeah, a chamber music program is a great idea, but during this meeting we're not going to be able to organize that and figure out all the logistics and think of who should play with who and blah blah blah.

Here's how, in retrospect, I would have run that portion of the meeting (oh, it dragged on so!):

"We think a chamber music option would be great to have at the school- any first thoughts?"
(five minutes of discussion)
"So it sounds like using the students current lesson times isn't going to work for a number of reasons including disrupting already short lesson times, matching up groups of the same level who are having lessons at the same time, and figuring out how the payment works. What about if we tried having chamber music taster sessions to see if the students and parents are interested?"
(five minutes of discussion)
"Am I correct in understanding that most of you think Sunday would be a good day to do this? Is there anyone who is particularly interested or particularly not interested in joining in with this idea/plan?"
(raised hands or around the circle- 2 minutes)
"Wonderful then the four of us who are gung ho- lets be in touch via email about specific dates. Next on the agenda is..."h

See? streamlined! Repeating and clarifying the key points! Creating a sub-committee!

Anyhow- this morning I wrote a list of "things that I have learned about Kid's Christmas Recitals"

1. If it is in a church, dress you child in a turtleneck. Old stone churches are hard to heat and they get *cold.*
2. Kids in choirs are cute. Kids in choirs with over sized Santa hats are cuter still!
3. Treats and tastiness are a great idea for the interval. (And children drink mulled wine in the UK? Isn't it...alcoholic? I guess the cooking takes care of that?)
4. Two hours is far too long for a children's recital.
5. Sketch books are useful for keeping multiple teachers/tutors entertained
6. Question: is it alright to tell of other people's children when a: the child is noisily and repetitively interrupting the concert and b: the parent is doing nothing about it?
7. For those of you who ever messed up in a recital: no one minds- we're all just so proud of you for even getting up there.

It was really nice to spend some time with the rest of the tutors. They are all lovely people and since we never have a chance really to speak while we're teaching- it was particularly nice to get a chance to just hang out a little bit.

One of my favorite Kids is moving back to France after Christmas so this week is the last time I get to see him. Fortunately his parents and two little sisters were helping out with the treats and tastiness so I was able to spend a bunch of time talking to them as well. It was a bit of a mutual appreciation society: "Oh! M. just loves your class! Talks about it all the time!" "Well M. is such a good singer and he catches on to concepts so quickly! He concentrates hard and he's a joy to have in class, I'll miss him!" etc.

All in all a good experience.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


I saw my first pantomime today. There was a traveling production called Mother Goose that the nursery and reception kids watched this morning.

I'm not really sure how to describe a panto for Americans...they are generally based around a fairy tale or nursery rhyme, I gather that usually there is quite a lot of cross dressing, it is for children(ish) but contains a number of topical pop culture/news references, you yell out at the actors on stage (In ENGLAND! I think this is one of those cases where something is SO taboo that an event is created where the taboo is lifted once a year. Is there a word for that? A fancy anthropology word?), and they happen every Christmas- generally with some random celebrity headlining (Case in point- this year Pamela Anderson is in one in Wimbledon. Seriously? Pamela Anderson?)

The panto started at half past nine so that meant that I had just enough time after the tykes arrived to gather them all up into one room and *try* going through all of the songs for the nursery's Christmas Carols performance. It was at about a quarter past nine that I realized that I had never seen all of the nursery children in one place. Do you know how many of them there are? *63!* And do you know how short they are? In order to get their attention I started with our basic physical warm up: wiggling fingers on our heads, clapping together, a big "shhhhhhhh!", and a bit of vocalizing. That mostly worked except that I was literally tripping over children. (The room was far too small to have a circle and we hadn't been organized enough when they were entering to keep any semblance of order- the tykes were willy nilly around the room/my ankles)

There is still a lot of work to be done on the songs but it was such a good thing to get all of them into one room. We'll be doing that again multiple times next week- at least then the shock of performing and being surrounded by their mommies and daddies (and babies! Don't forget the babies Miss Casey!) won't be compounded by the shock of having all three nursery classes together for the first time.

We went through the songs for the show, I sang "snowflake serenade" (the late entry to our set list) at them since they just need to hear it a lot at this point, and then we still had 10 minutes to kill and did I mention this was disorganized? The teachers were mostly sitting at the back of the room either dealing with a few tykes who are unable to handle crowds or exhaustedly taking a moment to breathe- which is when it occurred to me that I was in charge. That I was running this rehearsal, no one else had any particular agenda, and any decision about what we were going to do was in my hands since I was the expert in the room. Weird. So we sang some movement songs and I got them all quiet and then LOUD and we were princesses and princes (a first, actually), and spiderman (not a first), and eventually we were able to go into the cafeteria/hall to watch the panto. Oh, the panto.

Quick Plot Summary: Old Mother Hubbard and Silly Billy have adopted Priscilla the Goose and are worried both about money and about their evil neighbor who is a famous chef with a famous restaurant called Hells Kitchen. Priscilla lays a golden egg, the evil neighbor kidnaps her, and eventually Silly Billy saves her. Woo!

Oh, something I forgot about pantomimes, you *always* end up shouting "He's/She's BEHIND YOU!!" (also, according to Ella, "oh yes he is!" "Oh no he isn't!" and "BOOO!" with appropriate thumbs down gesturing)

We sat all of reception and nursery down on short benches and the floor and, for the first half (it was an hour and a half long show! For four year olds! I was impressed), I sat in amongst the tykes on the floor. The tykes: they got in to it.

*N. kept standing up and screeching with a big grin on her face because she was SO! EXCITED!
*M. was practically bursting out of her skin trying to help Silly Billy and Mother Hubbard out. She was pointing her arm out with her back arched and all of her muscles taught, clearly holding her breath as though if she could just squeeze herself enough the good guys would win. With her help and inside information. Obvs.
*T. wandered on to the stage, looked up at Silly Billy, and then was whisked off again by a teaching assistant
*P. got "cross" with the villain and during one quiet lull yelled out "You'll not be getting a biscuit!"

The whole thing was pretty hilariously cute.

Winter Wonderland

A bit of scene setting: it has been pouring down rain like no one's business for days/weeks/years now. Quite a bit of the UK is flooded and, in Hyde Park, there are rivers flowing through the horse trail.

So it's a little bit wet.

Apparently, at Christmas time, Hyde Park turns into a Winter Wonderland. This is a fully stocked portable amusement park. Seriously, the thing is huge. Craft stalls, noodle stalls, a bier tent, mulled wine booth, waffles, cotton candy and popcorn, a kiosk with assorted hand and neck warmers, and the most (okay, only) portable ATM's I've ever seen. And an ice rink. And a Ferris wheel. And the tallest portable free drop in the world (why do I know this? Because there was a flashing sign on the top that told me)

And the rides. Oh! The rides! I spent the whole time walking through fair ground repeating to my self "this would be an irresponsible use of money, this would be an irresponsible use of money" But, roller coasters! In the pouring rain! It would have been neat.

On Saturday Ella and I went shopping on Oxford Street looking for boots for her before she heads off to Poland to visit her boyfriend who is gigging over there currently. Oxford street on a Saturday is mad enough, but Oxford Street on a Saturday during Christmas season? Insane. They had shut down the street to cars so it was completely pedestrianized which was helpful because even with doubling the amount of space to walk it was still difficult to weave a path through all. the. people.

Fortunately *I* wasn't stressed out about finding anything in particular so I mostly just soaked in the atmosphere, got covered in fake snow bubbles, gazed at the impressive shop window displays, and hurried after Ella who dismissed any and all boots for being uncomfortable (i.e., not feeling exactly like her 3 year old pair that are falling apart. I'm not being totally fair- I didn't actually try any of the boots- but I have to admit I am inclined to think that she is completely discounting the whole idea of, you know, wearing leather in...)

Getting into the tube station to go home was challenging. They kept shutting the entrances because there were too many people on the platform- and that was fine because I do appreciate them making sure that no one got pushed on to the tracks.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Tykes Put On a Play

Wednesday is my usual teaching day, but today ended up being a full out, full on day anyway. The reception tykes are totally on top of things- they know their songs, they've been practicing their songs, and they are golden. Plus, the teachers are really good about working on it with them.

In nursery I have to keep reminding myself that this is my first time doing a year cycle and thus my first Christmas and hence it is alright that I've been screwing up. The set list keeps changing, the kids don't know the words, the teachers are confused about the tune, and I hadn't yet managed to make a CD of the songs so that they could *practice* Oops.

So this morning I came in early with my audio recorder and Linda and I sat down at the piano and got to work. It was actually totally, totally fun. We went through all of the songs that the nursery years are singing and recorded them with the alternate verses and in some cases slightly-different-than-notated-rhythms that I've already taught to them. Linda and I kept screwing up and then giggling and then getting down to work again.

Sample exchange:
C: lalallaaaa lalal aaa! (singing)
L: plink plonk plink plonk (piano)
C: Oh my gosh, Linda! I just realized! Look at my sweater...it's cabled. And my shirt? Cables. And my socks!! Sheesh, I'm all cabled up.
L: Good thing you don't work for a telegram company then, hmm?
C: ...

So we got that all recorded- which of course took longer than expected because these things just do. Then I went around to all of the nursery classes for a quick run through of the proposed set list, which kept getting tweaked as I went from class to class.

The singing teachers in the nursery division are not evenly distributed- all the teachers and teaching assistants who like singing and are comfortable singing are all in one class, which means that their students are ON it (they've had more practice) and some of the other classes still aren't clear on the lyrics to the two songs we've been doing since half-term. Oops.

BUT! Now everyone has a CD to practice with and we're going to have a quick little jive through the songs tomorrow morning before they go to see the traveling Pantomime that is at school tomorrow.

So that's getting there. And I was a whiz at the CD creation and CD burning, which is good.

We decided that it would be a really good idea to have a run through with the reception kids today as well- not with their lines yet, but just to get them all in one room to sing their songs and to listen to the other class's songs.

They are rock stars.

Seriously, they rocked so hard. They knew the words, they knew the actions, they sang loudly, the hardly hit each other at all (only a little bit of smacking) and then, for the reprise at the end? The teachers weren't sure whether I had taught their students the words yet (I had, but only very briefly) and so the tykes- without waiting for the CD accompaniment immediately started singing the reprise with the correct words in the correct order at *almost* the correct tempo.

I was so proud.

I AM so proud.

Those little tykes. They're good'uns.