Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Making Travel Happen

After four years of nonstop career building, Jon and I are unplugging from our jobs and taking the summer off to travel in Europe. We will spend two months hiking and climbing in the Alps, then we'll go to Iceland for 10 days for Jon's conference in September. Our last long trip was in the summer of 2012, when we biked around Western Europe for almost three months after finishing graduate school. We moved out of our basement apartment and stored our stuff. We landed in Amsterdam with two bikes, a shoestring budget, a hotel reservation for the first night, and no solid plans after that. Jon didn’t even have a job yet. We pedaled our way through Europe, discovering its quiet villages, back roads, and scenic mountains. The trip was beautiful, but not without its challenges: torrential rain, a vague itinerary, tight budget, and appetite fatigue due to eating too much bread, pasta, and couscous. During the trip, Jon accepted a postdoc at the UW and we moved back to Seattle where we’ve been working hard ever since. Overall, it was a great first trip to Europe, but we knew that if we returned we wanted to leave the bikes at home and go deep into the Alps. We didn’t know when our next trip would be. Careers, houses, and kids tend to saddle people down and America is notorious for its stingy vacation times. We’ve heard it more than once: “Just WAIT until you have KIDS…”

A series of fortuitous events led us to our current sabbatical. Last summer, Jon accepted a corporate job, but then quickly realized he actually wanted to be in academia. When he won his own 3-year NASA grant, it sealed the deal and he left the consulting firm after just two months. Due to a gap in funding, the University of Washington could only fund him for 0.75 time this year. His supervisor said he could work full time all winter, then take the summer off. I am self-employed, so I make my own schedule. I will miss the Book 9-10 teacher training at the Japan-Seattle Suzuki Institute this summer, which is a bummer, and I will miss my wonderful students. But, those are manageable obstacles for me. Time off: check!

Meanwhile, we have been working hard, living well below our means, and saving diligently for a house down payment. But, Seattle’s real estate market going up faster than we can save. After tracking the market daily for two years, I think that the ship has sailed without us. We are not willing to put ourselves in risky financial territory, so we’ll consider ourselves priced out, for now. Why not spend some of that hard-earned cash on travel? The amount we’ll spend adventuring is just a drop in the bucket compared to the monster down payment required to get a Seattle house that’s in decent shape. Then, with some careful Chase Ultimate Rewards point use, we combined signing bonus points from two credit cards, transferred them to United, and got free roundtrip plane tickets for two. Our landlord agreed to let us sub-let our house, and we found a wonderful renter. The trip feels pretty affordable. The goal is to be frugal at times, but not skimp when it comes to basic comforts (such as eating protein, getting out of the rain, paying for lifts into the high alpine, staying in the occasional B&B instead of camping).  Travel money: check!

We even did a much better job planning the trip this time, and we feel excited but not nervous or afraid. We’re about to board our flight. A car rental and AirBnb await us when we land in Geneva. Our itinerary will be flexible depending on the weather, but we’ve got great details laid out for our adventures in the Alps. Off we go!

Monday, February 22, 2016

Zucchini-Banana Bread for weekend trips

Last weekend we fled dreary Seattle and enjoyed three days in Plain, WA. It was our first weekend away of 2016, which is hard to believe since we usually get out of town often. It's just been so rainy! We skied, hiked, ran, enjoyed Nate and Valerie's good company, devoured many slices of Val's incredible sourdough pizza, and ate zucchini banana bread. We came back re-energized and ready to take on the last few weeks of winter. 

Powder Saturday at Stevens. Snow was still good at 4:00 even though half of Seattle came up to ski.

Sunday snowshoe shenanigans: Jon used his snowshoes to kick snow off of some logs so we could cross a creek and find Twin Lakes..

We didn't find Twin Lakes, but we got 1800' of elevation gain in, some good views, and a moment of pizza bliss on the way down.

In honor of the weekend, here is the recipe! Not to sweet and very satisfying, this quick bread is loaded with fruit, vegetables, nuts, eggs, coconut, and coconut oil. Jon loves to put butter on it, but it’s wonderful all on its own, especially on the trail. A few times a year, I make a double batch of this, freeze it all, and then pull it out for weekend trips. We shred and freeze garden zucchini in the summer, then use it in this recipe.

  • 3 C all-purpose flour, whole what, or a combination of the two. (I use einkorn wheat, which has a lighter texture than standard whole wheat flour.)
  • 1.5 tsp baking soda
  • 1.5 tsp baking powder
  • 2+ tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 4 eggs, room temperature if possible
  • 1 C sugar (I use the slightly less processed evaporated cane juice type of sugar)
  • 1 C extra virgin coconut oil, melted
  • 3 ripe bananas, mashed
  • 1.5 - 2 C grated zucchini (you can press the water out if you want, but I don’t)
  • 1.5 C chopped walnuts
  • 0.5 C finely shredded unsweetened coconut

  1. Preheat the oven to 350.
  2. Grease two standard bread pans. 
  3. Sift dry ingredients and set aside.
  4. In a large bowl, mix eggs with a fork or whisk. Add sugar and oil, mix well. (Note that cold eggs may cause the coconut oil to harden a bit. This is OK, but it's better to either use room temperature eggs or to gently heat the mixture back up so that the oil melts again.) Stir in mashed bananas and coconut flakes. 
  5. Add the flour mixture and stir gently with a spatula until no flour remains.
  6. Fold in the zucchini and walnuts. Pour into bread pans.
  7. Bake 55-60 minutes until a toothpick comes out clean. This loaf will get quite brown and toasty on the top, but since it is so dense it may not be done inside when the top looks golden brown. Mine usually comes out quite a dark shade of brown, but it isn’t burned. Sometimes I have had to bake it slightly longer than 60 minutes.
  8. Cool in pans for 10 minutes, then carefully remove from pans to cool completely. 
  9. Flavors come out best when it’s completely cooled. Freezes very well.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Overused: My experience with repetitive strain injury

Overuse found me in early 2013, but it had probably been brewing long before the symptoms began. That year, my studio ballooned from ten to 33 students. Twenty of my students were young beginners working their way through the repetitious Twinkle Variations. As I taught for up to six hours in a row, a nagging pain developed in my right wrist and thumb. Since then, I have had various overuse problems in my right arm and shoulder, usually as stiffness, slight to moderate pain, and occasional faint tingling. "Injury" is a slightly odd word to describe my condition, since it isn't always painful and isn't linked to one acute event. It crept up on me. And, I kept up with a mostly normal workload and life during the injury. I played fun concerts, conquered difficult rock climbs, put in long hours on the computer, and taught many lessons. But, it wasn't getting better on its own. Three years after it began, I have committed myself to healing completely, and it is going to be a process.

Overuse is an insidious thing, especially when it is connected to work. It is difficult to stop working, and too easy just to do a little more than you should. Unfortunately, injury is also a nearly taboo topic in music. Many (or most) musicians play with pain some or all of the time, but rarely speak of it. Musicians risk losing their already tenuous jobs if they cannot play. They often don’t have good health insurance, and physical therapy is not cheap. So, many people simply keep playing and assume that soreness or discomfort is part of the job. At the same time, however, violin teachers speak constantly about avoiding tension and have heated arguments over what techniques promote or discourage tension in their students' playing. The implicit message if you get injured is that you did something wrong: you played with tension or bad form. You didn’t take care of it soon enough. You are a failure.

However, among my athlete friends, injury is a common and somewhat accepted occurrence. Sure, nobody wants to be hurt, but anyone running ultra marathons, racing bikes professionally, or trying to become a 5.12 climber is pushing the limit of his or her body. They will probably make a visit to the physical therapist at one time or another, and possibly go through a season of resting and recovering from an injury. Taking care of the body and doing strengthening exercises is an important part of sport. Knee, shoulder, tendon, and surgery stories are common topics of conversation, and nobody is frowned upon for injury. Nearly every one of my athlete friends has worked through an injury and come out stronger for it. Further, many of my friends who work for high-powered companies have entire departments dedicated to setting them up ergonomically so they don't get repetitive strain injuries at the computer. Musicians have little to none of this. 

Even as I type this, I feel slightly hesitant about posting this due to the stigma of overuse injury among musicians. However, I think music needs a cultural change, so I am going to be part of that change by sharing my story. Musicians are athletes. Overuse is not a personal failure, it is a mechanical breakdown resulting from fatigue and moving repetitiously in less than ideal ways. The injury needs to be treated and the patterns need to be re-trained; better yet, the patterns need to be prevented and cared for in advance. When you do a repetitive task, even if you usually have good posture, muscles and tendons can get tired and strained. If you push through fatigue, your alignment might slouch and other parts of the body will try to help out to protect the strained muscles. Slowly, unwittingly, your body begins to compensate. These compensations are subtle, but they often become a permanent, unconscious habit over time. For me, my right arm dropped forward and down about a centimeter when I was fatigued. Then, I played the violin for hours in this position, put in long hours on the computer in a less-than-optimal setup, and spent many hours riding road bikes in a position that exacerbated the imbalance and nerve compression. (Great article about road biking and TOS here.) Pain may not show up for years after poor movement habits are formed. Even though my right arm had always felt fine, my sudden increase in work in 2013 was likely the straw that broke the camel’s back. 

Like most musicians, I kept up my life and career during the injury. To my credit, I was very aware of the dangers of overuse and tried to figure things out early on. I went to physical therapy and massage right away, but didn’t make a full recovery and then the insurance company denied a renewal to my prescription because they don't cover chronic injury. I studied body mapping, Alexander Technique, and tried to use good alignment when I played. I learned a lot about the body. But, I was also busy building my career. Gradually, my Twinklers turned into Book One students, then Book Two students...some of them have finally reached Book Four! The less motivated students moved on and the good students told their friends about me. My studio got better and better. This spring, I tried physical therapy again and made some progress, but didn't really understand what was going on and why. Then, Jon switched to a corporate job and they gave us lousy insurance with a very high deductible. I also had a whirlwind spring and summer this year: concerts, workshops, and guest teaching opportunities. In August, I took a whole month off of playing and teaching, hoping that my arm would heal and be back to normal when school started. Instead, I spent the whole week of my Oregon coast bike trip with a numb right arm: my touring bike puts me in a posture that compresses the irritated nerves in my neck, leading to numbness in the arm. I came home and dove into to a big, stressful music festival scheduling project that left my neck and shoulder muscles knotted. Rest hadn't worked. My arm was in no better shape than before. The musician's life is not conducive to recovering from overuse!

Well, it was time for a big life change. I quit the two music festival scheduling projects I'd been doing. Reluctantly, I emailed my orchestra director to let him know I was taking some time off. I signed up for an introductory yoga class and resumed studying Alexander Technique. Jon went back to work at the UW and we switched health insurance AGAIN, our fifth new policy in three years. Thankfully it's a generous policy. I found Kinetic Sports Rehab, where I have a fantastic team caring for me and coaching me through my recovery. They spent a long time watching me move and testing me before explaining exactly what movement patterns led to an injury called thoracic outlet syndrome, a nerve compression in my right neck/shoulder. My case isn’t too severe, thankfully. Any tingling I have is very faint and intermittent, aggravated by specific movements and positions. But, treating it is a long process, since the surrounding muscles and tissues are constricted due to years of overuse. Right now, I can’t bike, rock climb, or play the violin much, and I am going to Kinetic three times a week. Each visit, they work on my arm to free up the tissue and mobility. I get kinesio tape put on my shoulder or neck to cue up my muscles and remind my body of good alignment. They coach me through very specific exercises that help me re-train and strengthen my body. I can feel it starting to work. Life goes on somewhat normally. I can teach just fine, I'm running a lot lately, and enjoying yoga.

Fortunately, the body knows a lot. When you return to better movement patterns, it feels good. You get stronger in the right places and re-train your muscles, which then helps you move even better. It becomes a virtuous cycle. I can feel myself entering into this cycle. I will make a full recovery, study the body and its mechanics, and become an even better teacher and violinist than I was before. Every time I finish working for the day, I'll take ten minutes to decompress (literally) and roll out the muscles that just worked so hard, just like an athlete cooling down. Speaking of which, I have been on the computer long enough for one day and I am starting to feel it a bit. I think I’ll go do my PT exercises right now.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Mount Sir Donald

Short version: Iconic Mount Sir Donald loomed in my imagination for nearly a decade before I finally climbed it on August 17, 2015. It lived up to my expectations: big, exposed, scenic, and long. I went into it exhausted, which gave me the opportunity to test my resolve and stamina. 

Longer version: The final notes of Perpetual Motion sounded. I said “good job” to my last student, wiped the rosin from my strings, loosened my bow hair, and put my violin in the case. Sighing, I shut the lid with a sense of finality. A long and fruitful music season was done, and it was time to re-connect with the outdoors, Jon, and myself. That week, Jon walked out of the office for good, ending his two-month stint in the corporate world — consulting is just not his cup of tea, it turns out. He had recently won a three-year NASA grant, which helped him realize he really could make it in the competitive world of academia. So, he signed back on at the UW as a research associate and arranged to have a month of time off before starting.

The first agenda item of our month off was a ten-day road trip to climb Mount Sir Donald and attend our friend Olin’s wedding in Kalispell, MT. Vacation started out slowly, with a short drive to Leavenworth on the first day. We visited my cousin Jenny, ate at the farm-to-table restaurant where she works, and hiked the Icicle Gorge. 

I appreciated the simple beauty of a river more than ever that day.

The next day we kept the A/C on and drove through apocalyptic wildfire smoke until it finally cleared in the Okanagan Valley of Canada. We camped a few hours south of Rogers Pass, noticing the large proportion of expensive pickup trucks on the road.

Smoke that looks like a storm. Not as bad as smoke that looks like a fog.

The next morning, after more driving, we finally saw the mighty Sir Donald from the highway. Epic! 

There it is on the far right! 

We pulled over at the Rogers’s Pass visitor’s center to get our bearings. The plan was to take a pretty warmup hike that day and spend a restful night at the campground before climbing the following two days. 

But, sometimes, even the best-laid plans go haywire. 

“I’m sorry, but due to problem grizzly bears, you can’t climb Mt. Sir Donald, or hike any of the trails on that side of the park, unless you are in a group of four,” the climbing ranger informed us. What?!? 

[Insert about 5 hours of chaos]

"Welcome to Parks Canada!"

Five hours after glimpsing Sir Donald for the first time, I found myself at a trail head, standing in front of a grizzly bear sign with a full pack, smiling for a picture. Beside me stood Sheena and Meg, two Canadian climbers who were in the same dilemma as us. They turned out to be perfect partners for this trip! My stomach churned a bit, and not just from nerves and the stress of the past weeks and hours...I was also suffering from some womanly woes. All I will say is, they don’t call it the curse for nothing! Nevertheless, I knew I had climbed many mountains and was capable of doing another, even if I didn't feel 100%. Spirits were high as we set off at a steady pace, discussing our climbing plans: an early start, soloing as much of the mountain as possible, roping up if or when we felt it was necessary, and the fact that the descent would probably take longer than the climb.

The hike in was steep, beautiful—and bear free. Sir Donald loomed overhead. 

Trust me, it is FAR bigger than it looks.

At the lower bivy, we found a small tarn, bear lockers, and a pit toilet. My appetite was pretty low from the combination of stress, hormones, and altitude. Eating dinner was a bit of a struggle, but I managed a few bites. It got dark soon after our arrival. 

Wish we'd had more time to enjoy this place. 

4:30 AM: the alarm punctuated the pre-dawn silence. I woke instantly. We moved about camp quickly, and soon turned off our headlamps as the sky grew light. No other parties climbed that day, despite the perfect weather and this route's classic reputation. Perhaps the bear rule worked to our advantage in that way! The hike to the Uto-Sir Donald col took a little longer than expected, but we were rewarded by classy mountain bathrooms.

if we ever manage to get a house with a master bathroom, we'll hang a collection of mountain toilet pictures!

There it was! The huge Northeast ArĂȘte, looming above us! Wow, it looked big. Should we rope up? Or trust the beta and solo it? We donned our rock shoes, put hoods on over our helmets to protect us from the frigid wind, and walked up to base of the ridge. “It looks good to me,” Meg said, as she made the first move. We followed, and agreed. Solo climbing felt good, so we continued, keeping our heads clear and egos in check. 

Starting to make some headway on the ridge

The route lived up to its reputation: blocky, easy moves with spectacular exposure and scenery. Every move of the climb up was fun and engaging. I kept a few pieces of gear on my harness, and put in a cam to briefly protect one move that felt a little exposed. Other than that, we made rapid progress, climbing close together. 

I didn’t feel hungry, but knew to keep taking bites of food every 15-20 minutes. I did keep up with eating, but skipping dinner the previous day left me feeling a bit weak. We had been warned that the mountain would keep going and going, but that didn’t quite sink in until we got to the upper ridge. From there, it the summit looked close, but the climbing really started to drag on. We roped up near the top and did some fast simulclimbing. By then, I felt cold, less courageous, a bit fatigued from the constant exposure. I felt distinctly small as I searched below for our tiny tent. 

higher, and higher, and higher...

At last, the summit! It was absolutely beautiful. We were also only halfway done.

Some swirling clouds parted just at the right time.

So many new mountains, ice fields, and glaciers... 

happy Jon

We elected to go down the summit bypass route, which featured a well-cairned scree tail. It was a little exposed, but after many years of mountaineering I felt comfortable on it. There was some good scree plunge-stepping.

This was Sheena's first big alpine climb and she handled it like a pro! 

We did quite a bit of down climbing once we reached the ridge, but before long we all agreed it was time to rope up. I think exposure has a time limit for me (and probably others). After a certain number of hours, my brain just couldn’t handle fifth class you-fall-you-die solo climbing anymore. 

Jon down climbing the exposed ridge, a few minutes before we roped up.

We made an endless number of rappels. The tent was still tiny. We passed the “death” rappel, where a woman tragically rapped off the end of her 50 meter rope and fell to her death in 2006. Jon made the same mistake she did - tossing the rope down the wrong side of the buttress - but since we had a longer rope we were in no danger. Still, that rattled me a bit. The tent slowly grew more visible. Hours ticked by. Food and water ran out. At last, we were done rappelling. We stumbled to the bivy, ate the last of our food, and began the long hike down.

various reactions to being done rappelling

By the time we got to the car at 9 PM, we had been on the go for about 16 hours. We slept in car in the parking lot, filthy and exhausted. After, I was incredibly sore, and more than content to play tourist in Yoho National Park, Banff, and Jasper for the next few days. Mount Sir Donald still looms large in my imagination, as a memory of good company, challenge, and finding deeper levels of endurance. 

Saturday, October 24, 2015

If I could re-live one day...Sahale Peak

For me, the high alpine is one of those “thin” places where the boundaries between heaven and earth blur. Many of my summers have been organized to leave plenty of time for pilgrimages to the mountains; however, this year, music ruled my calendar.  In June, a beautiful month, only got out on ONE measly local hike before work. In mid-July I got to do Kaleetan, another fun local scramble, with Becca, an old college friend, but unfortunately I felt sick for much of the day - probably due to some unfortunate combination of waking up in the middle of REM sleep, forcing breakfast down too early, being tired, etc. Her good company and conversation made up for it, and after a quick nap in a meadow I felt much better. My final chance to get out into the mountains before mid-August was on July 17. The trip would involve driving home from the mountains and taking me to the airport that same night, so Jon and I chose to climb Sahale Peak, a familiar place we'd both visited several times. 

This day was a gift. If I ever had the chance to re-live a day of my life, this one would be near the top of the list. Energy, weather, and terrain all worked in harmony. We woke up very early, but I was alert when the alarm went off, we saved breakfast for later, and the drive went quickly. At Marblemount, the rangers told us that the high bivy sites were all booked, so we would have to do the climb in a single day and camp near the parking lot that night. While I had been looking forward to a scenic camp up high, doing the climb in a day would lighten our packs and make it less stressful to catch a flight the next day. 

We hiked up the Boston Basin climber’s trail, taking care to keep the pace steady. The steep trail went by smoothly and we emerged into this little piece of heaven:

 In the basin, rushing streams and calving glaciers punctuated the pure silence. We wove through streams and rocks.

Beauty surrounded us, small and large. 

Delicious ham sandwiches filled us up and energized us for the climb of the Quien Sabe glacier. We donned crampons and I led up the glacier with a big smile on my face. I hadn’t been on a glacier for nearly a year! 

Familiar mountains were everywhere! My crampons were crunching on ice! Crevasses were nearby!

Before long, a quick rock scramble brought us to the summit, where we gazed out upon our beloved mountains, many of which we have climbed and know by name. We would descend by a different, easier route, a beautiful walk down the Sahale Arm trail. We stopped often to take it in. I savored every moment.

We rested at Cascade Pass, where we met a USGS geologist who shared some good mountain stories with us. Finally, we booked it down the somewhat tedious trail, plowing through 30-some switchbacks until we finally spied the car. Exhausted, we cooked up some couscous, then stumbled to the Johannesburg “backcountry” camp, 1/4 mile from the parking lot, where it was difficult to find a flat spot to pitch the tent. Finally, we slept, not waking for nearly 10 hours. We made our way home the next morning, stopping to pick blueberries in Darrington. At home, my institute teaching bags were already packed. Before I knew it, I was flying through the sunset, seated next to an Alaskan bush pilot who had some amazing mountain stories of his own. I landed in Walla Walla at dusk, ready for the next adventure of teaching a Suzuki Institute, grateful for the magical day I’d been given. It strengthened me for the fun, high-energy week to come. Thinking of this day still fills me with gratitude.

Friday, August 14, 2015

The harvest begins

This week, during the ritual morning garden inspection, I walked into a spider web. Noooo! Fall is coming! Though Seattle keeps breaking heat records, summer is starting to fade a little. This hint of cooler days to come, the sudden ripening of my garden, and our upcoming travels caused my harvesting (or hoarding?) instinct to kick in full force! 

Let’s start with tomatoes. Oh, the tomatoes! We are growing Sungolds, Early Girls, Brandywines, cherry tomatoes, and a fancy Russian heirloom beefsteak whose name I forgot. This year, we learned all about pruning suckers. As a result, our plants are less chaotic and more productive. 

Jon is the main tomato caretaker this summer, as I had to travel so much for music stuff

We eat tomatoes right off the vine, in Caprese appetizers, on sandwiches, with eggs, etc. 

Colors of Italy right there.

This week, the tomatoes started ripening so quickly that made our first batch of sauce. Last year, I committed to stop using commercially canned tomato products in the metal cans, due to concerns over the BPA in the can lining. Thankfully, our jars of frozen garden tomato sauce lasted until late July. This evening, just weeks after using the last of 2014's tomato sauce, we roasted three huge trays of tomatoes until the skins were lightly browned. I don’t bother to peel or seed the tomatoes; that is so much work that it would stop me from growing and preserving tomatoes. We puree them and then freeze in jars. I made a polenta lasagna with this roasted tomato sauce and froze three more jars. Divine!

this many tomatoes turned into four pints of delicious sauce

Some of our basil turned into pesto for the freezer...

Then there's zucchini, the prolific home gardener's crop. Our lone zucchini plant keeps on valiantly producing, despite its struggles with powdery mildew and blossom end rot. We’ve enjoyed a zucchini with nearly every dinner this week. And, because one can never have enough zucchini, we nabbed a free “heaver” from our neighbor Mary. The nickname heaver comes from Barbara Kingsolver’s amazing book, Animal Vegetable Miracle: a Year of Food Life. When their zucchinis sneakily grew as big as cats, they joked about heaving them over the fence into the woods. Thus, the name heaver. 

Jon about to annihilate his nemesis

The “heaver” got shredded in the food processor and frozen, to be used in recipes this winter. A little of it went into a delicious zucchini frittata. 

1 C zucchini, three eggs, a tomato, and some cheese

All the fruits ripened EARLY this year. I posted on my neighborhood’s message board asking if anyone had extra fallen fruit I could collect. I spent a very satisfying cloudy Saturday afternoon biking around loading up my panniers with apples, plums, and pears. Jon and I picked a boatload of juicy blackberries at Magnuson Park. The pears are on hold in the fridge until we have time to ripen them. Then we’ll dehydrate them. I got pounds and pounds of Italian Prunes that would have otherwise rotted. I wasn’t as successful with the apples, but I managed to make a few jars of “neighborhood applesauce” and plan to get more apples in the fall. My old college roommate Sydney visited for a few days and we made 12 jars of delicious plum-blackberry jam—all from FREE fruit that would have gone to waste otherwise!

While I was at it this week, I made muesli, kefir, a berry crisp, pumpkin bread with the last of 2014’s pumpkin puree, and blanched and froze some green beans and squash. Yeah, this could be considered hoarding. Or maybe it was my way of de-toxing from the arduous task of making my student's fall schedule. 

Don't forget about the consequences of hoarding: a lovely, full freezer, and boatloads of dishes to wash before, during, and after marathon kitchen sessions. Long live the harvest!

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Music Season!

The more music I do, the fewer mountains I climb. This year, I've had a string of amazing professional opportunities. So, instead of my usual outdoor-related blog post, here is an update on all the cool violin-related things I did this year!

In September, I launched my fully-independent home studio and we had a great year filled with lessons, recitals, and workshops. I now have 34 students and a long wait-list. Some of the kids I started 4-5 years ago are finally making it to the Suzuki Book Four level. Hooray! It takes a long time to build a studio and start them out right. I think that all my time spent in the trenches of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” will reap dividends in the coming years. For me, an average student takes 6-12 months to learn all the Pre-Twinkle material and complete the Twinkle variations. Once they master that, they have pretty good posture, play in tune, have nice tone, and know how to focus during lessons. 

me with most of my students at a recital

In March, I made the schedule for the Seattle Young Artists Music Festival. I don’t get paid for doing this monstrous job, but I do get a free dinner with the adjudicators! I had the privilege of meeting Cornelia Heard from Vanderbilt and Mimi Zweig, a renowned professor of violin pedagogy from Indiana University. Both of them were amazing teachers and they had great things to say to our young local talent. I decided to go to Mimi’s summer string teacher workshop in Bloomington, a class I’d wanted to take for a few years.  First, though, I had a busy spring to get through. Right after spring break, my students had a few fiddle-packed weeks that culminated in a fiddle workshop with Sarah Comer. I took some lessons with Sarah over the winter and was pretty clueless about fiddle to begin with, but under her guidance I learned a lot about the nuances of the bowing and the “accent” of the fiddle language. I taught my students some basic tunes to prepare for the workshop, where Sarah coached them on style and improvisation. Then we had a big jam session and Sarah finished the day by leading some folk dances for the students and parents while her band played. It was awesome. 

Improvising on "Possum's Tail"

Unfortunately, teaching all those fiddle pieces took a toll on me. It meant a lot of extra playing during my lessons. I’m a Suzuki teacher, meaning my young students don’t read music right away, so I have to show them new pieces by playing bits for them to repeat, play it again, etc. It can get pretty repetitive. My right arm has been over-used and slightly injured since early 2013, when my teaching load went from twelve to 30 students and I re-joined orchestra. My wrist/arm flared up painfully this spring when I had to cram-teach a lot of fiddle tunes. I limped through the fiddle workshop and my spring orchestra concert. Meanwhile, Jon decided to leave the UW for a corporate job, which meant kissing our sweet NASA benefits goodbye. I started physical therapy to take advantage of the great health insurance while we still had it. I spent 10 hours a week on PT in May and June and things improved. Unfortunately, the pain sometimes comes back when I get sloppy with my posture and slack off on my exercises. It is not a severe injury (no tingling, etc.) but I am trying to stay on top of it. Meanwhile, Jon sought treatment for a shoulder injury that turned out to be a partial rotator cuff tear. Needless to say, body-care is going to be a big focus in the Toner household from now on. 

Jon falls asleep during PT exercises. 

The school year ended with a bang: my students had a recital June 13, and my parents came to watch and provide moral support as I ran around putting on the event. Jon was climbing Mt. Challenger, having a last “hurrah” before starting his new corporate job June 15. [Yeah, Jon played in the mountains a lot this year while I was doing music stuff.] I did all the household duties while Jon transitioned to his new job, endured the inevitable flurry of year-end lesson re-schedules, puzzled together my summer lesson schedule, and cajoled burned-out kids through their last lessons. Next year, I’m stopping lessons before school gets out!! My wrist was hurting and I was ready for a break. But, no rest for the weary: I had a major performance looming! Over Father’s Day weekend, I got to perform in the Bellingham Music Club’s 100 year anniversary gala concert, re-uniting with other Ferndale High School alumni to play some fun chamber music. We had received the music months before and I had practiced my parts thoroughly, but all the group rehearsing took place in the 48 hours before the concert. I worried that my wrist would fail me, or that my muscles would seize up. But, it was great fun and my wrist felt amazing. It was special to perform with my former teachers and coaches, including Joanne Donnellan, my early teacher of 9 years. One more piece of the puzzle learned: “real” playing, where I’m sitting up and really paying attention to what I’m doing, doesn’t hurt. Playing during lessons, on the other hand, does tend to hurt if I get tired or slouchy. Posture. 

I came home from the Bellingham performance, taught one day, then packed up and flew to Bloomington, Indiana, for a teacher training course with Mimi Zweig and some other amazing string professors. During a layover in Minneapolis, I checked my email and saw a message from Julia Gish-Salerno, a Suzuki teacher I met years ago in my Book One Course. She is the director of the Walla Walla Suzuki Institute and wanted to know if I would join the faculty for their weeklong institute July 19-24. Whoa! I said yes in a heartbeat! When it rains, it pours…I wondered if I’d be able to keep my energy and motivation high, without burning out or getting sick, but decided that if I was really careful to give myself enough rest and sleep, I could do it.

I arrived in Bloomington, checked into my Airbnb basement apartment two miles from campus, and then lived and breathed violin pedagogy for the next eleven days. I walked or bussed to campus, where I had classes and observation opportunities from 8 AM to 6 PM every day - even on July 4. It was cool, rainy, and humid there. Perfect weather for being indoors in windowless rooms! 

There must be a law somewhere against putting windows in ANY music classroom or practice room!

I crammed my brain full of as much pedagogy knowledge as possible, focusing on connecting ideas and gathering little missing pieces information.  I think the workshop really improved my “big picture” view of the teaching process. We covered just about everything from the beginning to the highest levels of playing!

geeking out about bow strokes..

I LOVED the faculty and my fellow workshop students. People who choose violin teaching for a career are generally kind, intelligent, and wonderful people, if I do say so myself :) I left feeling really excited, affirmed, and more informed about violin teaching. Here is Mimi working her magic on Kelly, who happens to live in Seattle.

More news: while I was in Bloomington, Jon called and said he wasn’t happy at his new corporate consulting job. It's a great company with nice people, but the pay isn't great and when he said "there is no artistry in the work," I knew he needed to return to academia. Fortunately, he had just found out that he got a three-year NASA grant of his own (!!!) and he had until August to accept it. So, as of today, Jon has accepted the grant and will be returning to the UW in September as a Research Associate, knowing that academia is where he really wants to be. He will be pursuing more grants, broadening the scope of his research, and possibly teaching a class or two at the UW. 

I came home from Bloomington, rested one day, taught two full days, then took a “staycation” week where I didn’t do much other than ride my bike, lay around, and take a few hikes. I had just worked for five weeks straight with only two days off, and I was exhausted. But before I knew it, I was at SeaTac AGAIN, flying out to Walla Walla for a week of Suzuki Institute teaching, another new, sink-or-swim experience. 

It was a great week. I taught five hours each day and we had an event most evenings. I was assigned two master classes, where three students shared an hour and each got a short individual lesson with me while the others watched. I fixed LOTS of posture problems - look at this beautiful new bow hold!

I got to coach a string trio and introduce some very hard-working 8-10 year olds to the awesomeness of chamber music.. 

And then, the wildcard… I had two group classes, each with a large spread of ages and playing levels. Group is something that I have gradually gotten more comfortable teaching over the years. I’m an introvert and it takes a lot more personal energy for me to get up in front of 20 or so kids and lead a fast-paced and fun Suzuki violin class. You can make a plan for a group class, but once you start, it is kind of an improvisatory process. You have to constantly read the class, engage them as a group, and keep them learning. I decided to view it as a challenging, but cool, opportunity, rather than something to dread. Overall, it was great. Sometimes, the pre-teens in the back were bored; other times, the pre-schoolers in the front were totally out of control. I felt exhausted after a few of the classes. But, most of the time, I was having fun while teaching and the kids were engaged, which meant they were having fun and learning, too. I’ll call it a success. Finally, perhaps the best part about the Institute was spending a whole week with my colleagues. I just love them!

An army of violinists at the final play-down

This week I'm at home catching up with my own students, securing rental spaces for recitals and workshops, and making the calendar for the coming school year. The Japan-Seattle Suzuki Institute starts in a few days, where I will be take my Book 7 teacher training. I’m tired, a little less fit that I would normally be in late July, and my over-use injury is still nagging me a bit…but I’ve been living into my calling and love it. I don’t want to be this busy with violin all the time, and I am looking forward to it slowing down after next week's class, but it’s been a good music season.