Oh well…

Another one bites the dust.  NaNoWriMo has come to an end, and despite my rush of enthusiasm at the beginning, and my best intentions throughout the month of November, I did not finish my 50 000 words.  Instead I got taken up with music exams, choir practice and obsessively playing the Sims on Facebook in order to avoid having to think of something to write.

My animals have also been extremely helpful this month in encouraging me to not reach my goal.  The cat, Madala (‘old man’ in Setswana) has adopted my desk as his favourite place to sleep and chill out during the day.  This has made me feel that I can’t even get started until I have cleaned the layer of cat fur and cat-imported dust smattering off my desk.  But there are times, many times…most times, in fact… when I have lost the will to disturb him after I have been repeatedly mewed at to feed him, or pay him some kind of attention, mostly at 5am.  Not the time of day when I am most inclined to clean up after him.  Or get started with work.

Then there is the dog.  Nala, our delinquent Boerboel/goat sleeps on the paving outside my office window.  Every time there is a slight movement outside the gate, she barks suddenly, and I accidentally hit backspace and lose the last three sentences.  Or put down a word that I don’t want to in Scrabble.  Scrabble becomes a wonderful distraction.  I can justify playing Scrabble because it’s a word game and therefore it is working…sort of.  It’s the same with Word Chaos.  I tell myself that I am exercising my brain and my vocabulary by thinking of as many words as possible in 30 seconds, or making up new combinations of letters in Scrabble in an endless quest to defeat my grandmother once and for all, and then entering them in the Scrabble dictionary and discovering that my interesting combination is actually a real word with a totally obscure meaning.

So you see, there are real reasons that I didn’t finish my novel.  None that would make sense to to anyone else, or be meaningful in anything other than an ‘I just didn’t get round to it’ sense, but at least there are ways to justify it to myself.  And there is always next year.  So, oh well… And on to the next project – Christmas….


The Madness of Clarinetists

The construction of a clarinet. Edited from th...

Tomorrow I will be doing my Grade 8 Clarinet exam.  But this is not a post about nervousness or preparation or any of those good exam-like things.  It is a post about the madness of musicians, and of music teachers in particular.

You see, exams are things that we traditionally associate with school.  As things that you have to do while you are at school, while you are of school-going age.  We also make the assumption that no one chooses to do exams, that normal people would avoid them like the plague.  Enter the first sign of a music teacher’s madness.  I chose to do this exam.  I chose to put my mouth, my fingers and my ears through this, so I have no one to blame but myself.  Except for my teacher.

We have known each other now for 20 years.  She was my primary school teacher when I was in Standard 4, then she became my clarinet teacher, then my teaching mentor, then my colleague and now my partner in crime.  We coach orchestras and choirs together.  We transformed a music department together.  And now she wants me to do this exam.  Don’t get me wrong – of all the people that have influenced my life, she is one of the greatest.  She is an incredible musician, an incredible teacher and an even more incredible friend.  But she is even madder than I am, which is saying something, considering that we are both music teachers.  And clarinetists.

My reasons for doing the exam are all very admirable, I think.  Firstly, Grade 8 is the highest one, and I went off to university and things before I could finish it off.  I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it.  I did my Grade 8 Ballet when I was 23, far too old to be dancing like that, in that clothing that makes curvy women look like elephants, even when they’re not fat (wish I still looked like that though!).  I did my Grade 7 Clarinet when I was 26.  So it’s taken me two years to work up to finishing it off.  I also think that somehow, it sets a good example to all my students, that you are never too old to learn, and that you should never stop learning and developing as a musician, or as anything else.  I also know myself quite well, and I wasn’t going to get any better as a musician just by picking something to play and working at it. I needed a tangible goal, preferably one that was a little scary, to make me do it.  However, now that my fingers are falling off and I can’t sleep because I have the Mozart Clarinet Concerto (I’m playing the 3rd movement tomorrow) in my head, I’m wondering about the wisdom of it all.  Already the butterflies have begun to flutter, and I still have a day of teaching to get through.  At least I am doing mine tomorrow, and all my students are doing theirs on Friday.  I might have a peaceful night and be prepared to make all kinds of mistakes in the accompaniment for my children.  Oh well.  Such is the life of a music teacher.

The madness continues.  My teacher and I are already planning the next exam.  Maybe finish off the piano, or another violin exam?  Or maybe I should now focus on preparing the children I teach for their exams.  One thing I do know, though.  They will all end up as mad as I am.


Welcome to NaNoWriMo!  Or so it says.  I don’t know that ‘welcome’ is how I feel.  Daunted?  Yes.  Intimidated? A bit.  Motivated?  I’m working on it.

The idea is that you write a 50 000 word novel in the month of November.  So I signed up.  My sister is doing it too, so she’s my writing buddy.  Never mind that I’ve never wanted to write a novel particularly.  My leaning is definitely more towards non-fiction than fiction.  But the site asked all kinds of questions about my novel so I chose a genre (Literary Fiction), a working title (Kalahari Rain?) and a name for my main character (Phyllis).  And here we are on Remembrance Day, 11 days into the month, and instead of being my usual self who can happily write 1000 words an hour, I am now stuck on 2066 words in total with no idea where to go next.  Suddenly, even accomplishing 150 words a day has become a struggle.  My talent for procrastination, always pronounced, has achieved epic proportions.  The fridge is emptying at a rapid rate.  My desk has never been so clean.  And I have never taken quite so many turns in Scrabble on Facebook.  I find myself joining conversations and commenting on friends’ posts on Facebook when I haven’t seen or spoken to them since primary school.  I check Twitter obsessively.  I feel the urge to call people I haven’t spoken to in months, mostly because we have nothing to speak about, all in the name of avoidance.  And the part that scares me the most is that in pursuing this goal, I have become my mother!

My mother is one of the most creative people I know and an incredibly talented artist, but it takes more work to get her to paint than it does for her to actually finish the painting.  I have always wondered why it was so hard for her to get going, but now I understand.  And I find that I cannot blame her anymore.  Now I know just how bad it is to be disturbed during the day.  When I have laid careful plans and structured my time, the phone rings.  I get an email that’s not urgent or important but suddenly seems that way.  I have drunk more tea in these 11 days than I have for the past 3 months combined.  I am awash with tea.  And my blog has joined the list of possible distractions.  I justify it by saying, ‘well, at least I’m writing something’, but that isn’t really helping me achieve my 50 000 words.

I understand that distraction and procrastination are the constant companions of the creative person, so I’m working hard on being more disciplined.  In the meantime, I think my cupboards need sorting…

On Visiting Tintern Abbey

Tintern Abbey, Wales

Image by DanieVDM via Flickr

Cows have always been an intensely important part of my life.  Growing up in one of the world’s greatest beef producing nations, cattle have come to have a greater significance than merely as a source of food.  Just how different my attitude is to other people’s with regard to cows, however, was brought home to me on a visit to Tintern Abbey in Wales, made famous in a poem by William Wordsworth. 

In Botswana, cows have a very different status to cows in other parts of the world, specifically, for the purposes of this essay, cows in England.  In the southern African desert republic, cows are a symbol of wealth and life, bringing riches to families and governing the institution of marriage.  They are not sacred beings, as cows are in India, but the theft of a cow still carries a higher penalty than does a conviction of rape.  In England, however, cows enjoy a much more romanticised status, as beautiful, domesticated, doe-eyed and gentle creatures, who provide milk and meat and spend their days cropping the greenest of English grass in picturesque meadows enclosed by white-washed paddock fences.  The Botswana variety, on the other hand, are a much hardier and tougher breed, wandering through the bush as they please, with no restrictions on their movement other than the availability of food and the heavy stick of the herd boy.

Tourists to Botswana, mostly English ones, are often disconcerted by the presence of cattle on the main roads in the centre of the capital city.  A visit to the British High Commission or the Main Mall will most probably involve negotiating one’s way around a herd of cows and calves, the bell on the lead cow jangling languidly as she wanders across a busy main road.  This is a phenomenon that leads most ‘civilized’ people to dismiss Botswana as backward and provincial, with the necessarily corrupt government that inevitably partners such an obvious lack of development.  Expatriates are often disgusted by the need to shoo cattle off the grass verges outside their garden walls before they can reverse their fancy vehicles out of the gate to take the children to school.  Yet these same people will drive for hours in a bid to remove themselves from this peculiar brand of civilization, and to see animals, albeit more dangerous ones, wandering around in the bush.  This romanticisation of ‘nature’ and the wild is akin to what many see as the romanticisation of nature by the Romantic poets, most especially William Wordsworth.

In the poem, Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, Wordsworth refers to picturesque ‘pastoral farms’, but makes no mention of cows or other traditional farm animals.  Yet when I actually visited Tintern Abbey, the field behind the Abbey was home to a herd of heifers.  I overheard a foreign, possibly German, tourist, deprecating the presence of these animals and claiming that it detracted from the beauty of the scene, even though cows can be considered part and parcel of pastoralism.  And I also felt that the presence of cows somehow spoilt the majesty of the ruined Abbey.  But why should it be so?  In a moment of self-realisation, I pinpointed my tendency to over-romanticise things, and dismiss those creatures or objects which don’t quite fit into my picture of how I think things should be.  Thinking back now, with a couple of years’ hindsight, it strikes me that the modern building housing the gift shop and tourist information office should have been what detracted from the romanticism of the scene, and the cows should instead have added to it.  Perhaps they didn’t fit into my picture because Wordsworth made no mention of them in his poem, and neither did cows appear in Sergeant’s painting of the Abbey.  Yet in a modern postcard souvenir, the cows and hay barn are an intrinsic part of the scene.

During my recent holiday back in Botswana, I was again struck by the presence of cows in the middle of the city and outside my garden gate.  At the end of the dry season there are more cows in the city, looking for tended lawns and easily accessible water supplies, as well as more donkeys, goats on top of cars trying to reach the tastiest acacia leaves, and sheep, wandering fairly aimlessly across the only highway.  Incidentally, for the sake of providing a useless piece of information, the harming of the cattle that wander in the middle of town carries a greater penalty than the harming of other cattle, since those that are allowed in the city centre are all part of the President’s herd.  I’ve been thinking again about the fact that when I’m away, the discussion of this characteristic of Botswana is both what makes me impatient with the backwardness of the country, but yet also makes me feel like I belong there.  What to one person may make a place alien, uncomfortable, and unfamiliar is precisely what another may find the most familiar and endearing thing about a place.  I know that home wouldn’t be the same without the cows.

By the same token, I now know that I wouldn’t find Tintern Abbey nearly as charming without the cows.  Even when I visited two years ago, despite the fact that I didn’t really appreciate the presence of the cows, I would have felt very differently about the Abbey.  Time and others’ descriptions and impressions of it have clouded any personal response to its atmosphere, and have made it an intimidating and majestic place.  On the other hand, by accepting the heifers as an intrinsic part, as probably the only part that were also there when the Abbey was still inhabited by monks, walking then cloisters in silence, Wordsworth’s delight in the pastoral scene is reinforced.  Although the Abbey is no less impressive for having cows and farmland surrounding it, it does become less intimidating, and seems as though there is nothing that separates it from the beauty of nature around it.  And for those people that live near the Abbey, those cows have probably also become a part of what makes it home, and comforting and familiar, just like the Botswana cows have done for me.



Thursday Bliss

I love Thursdays.  I love them for all the normal reasons – it’s close to the end of the week, the weekend is in sight, and so on.  But I have more reasons than most to love Thursdays.

Thursday is my bliss day.  No make-up, floppy comfy clothes, normally paint-spattered or covered in holes – the kind of clothes no one wears in public.  And then I do whatever moves me.  The house is completely peaceful and quiet, except for the occasional bark from one of the dogs, or sporadic and noisy demands from the cat.  My phone doesn’t ring.  I play Mozart very loudly.  I sit and write outside in the sun, watching the creepy crawly laze its way round the pool.  I have endless cups of tea, I read (normally searching for inspiration and then get accidentally stuck in a book), I rearrange my office.  I ignore my to-do list.  For the most part.  I eat when I feel like it, if I feel like it.  I try to make sensible food choices.  But mostly all the things I usually worry endlessly about are hushed.  I feel calm.

This morning I have dusted and cleaned all 1200 of my books.  I’ve re-categorized my bookshelves according to my own private system.  Very rarely according to author.  Sometimes I use subject, sometimes I use colour.  But whichever way I do it, I know exactly where each one is.  My family think this is sad.  I just think it’s being organised.  And tidy.  And it prevents them pilfering because they will always get found out.  Maybe that’s why they think it’s sad…

So now I’m sitting in my office, in my new blue chair that is better for my back and provides distraction when I swivel around in it.  The cat is curled up in his usual spot on the chest in front of the window.  A cool breeze is blowing – unusual for this country at this time of year – and the shadows of the jacaranda tree are playing across the driveway.  And I have a beautiful feeling – all is right in my world.

Happy Thursday!

Why I Want to Write Like Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson is one of my literary heroes.  He is a master of going off on tangents and adding wonderfully interesting but loosely connected pieces of information to any given topic.  That makes him sound loose and unfocused, but his research is impeccable, and above all, he’s funny!  He has an amazing ability to compare the strangest things in ways that make sense and make you laugh.  Maybe it was all the time he spent in Yorkshire – another Yorkshireman with this ability is Jeremy Clarkson.  But more about him in a different post…

I have loved every book of Bryson’s that I’ve read, and I regularly revisit my favourites.  No one can explain complicated concepts to a layman quite like he can (A Short History of Nearly Everything).  I don’t remember most of it but when my boyfriend finishes it, I can re-read it.  I’ve been told not to lay a finger on it in the meantime….  The one I’ve read most recently, though, is At Home: A Short History of Private Life.  Being a lover of history and of Bill Bryson’s writing, this book is a true gem.  He makes our ordinary everyday lives into something extraordinary and throws some amazing humour into it too.  My all-time favourite Bryson book, however, is Made in America, an examination of American English and English English and why they differ the way they do.  The origin of motels, the expression ‘Gordon Bennett’, and whether having a stiff upper lip is really an English concept are all covered.  In fact, Bryson covers almost everything you were ever curious about but couldn’t find the answer to.

I want to write like Bryson because I want my research to be impeccable, and I want my writing to be about unusual and interesting topics that no one else (except Bryson) writes about.  If you haven’t read one of his books yet, do so immediately.  Then you’ll understand what I mean!

And the Music Plays On…

Last night was the second practice of the PPC National Youth Choir.  We didn’t have our full complement of singers, but we had enough to make a good start.  A couple of our members had even brought friends whom they thought could sing to try out for the Choir, and so we have two new members in the soprano and alto sections.

Since we didn’t really do much singing at our first practice, last night was time to see what kind of noise we could make together.  It was a small sound, due to so few being at practice, but a promising one.  As they sing more together, their voices will blend better and we’ll have a more coherent sound, but for the moment at least we’ve given ourselves some direction and something great to work with.  I chose a simple song for last night. “Asikatali” is a South African protest song from the 50’s that has also been recorded by Pete Seeger and others.  It’s a beautiful song, with the strong bass harmony line really bringing out the Zulu feel.  We were all so impressed with our lead bass, Kgotso, who got the harmony line perfectly and adds such a strong resonance at the bottom of the scale.  The rest of the choir can’t wait for him to sing more challenging stuff that really shows his talent!

And so on to planning for next week!  I’m glad we sang something simple, because those that missed practice should be able to catch up easily, and it enabled us to finish a whole song and leave practice feeling like we’d achieved something.  I’m so proud of all the choir members too – Zulu songs are hard to learn when you don’t have a clue what the words mean or how they’re pronounced.  So wish us luck for a more challenging task next week!

A Musical Adventure

And so begins a new chapter in my musical adventures.  The PPC National Youth Choir had its first practice last night.  With 20 founding ‘youths’, we will be a small choir for a while, but what a sound there will be!  It was fantastic to hear these kids singing together, knowing that 2 months ago, when they auditioned and I last heard them sing, I made the right decisions about who I picked.

We spent most of our first hour together getting to know each other.  I seem to be very good at making children play silly games, which immediately breaks the ice.  To sing well together, these youngsters have to like each other, know each other and trust each other, so last night was step 1 on the road to being an awesome choir.  I did, of course, have the assistance of the estimable Neelo.  Neelo has been one of my flute and singing students for about 3 years now.  She is nothing but a ball of smiling, welcoming, friendly energy, and she bounced around the room making everyone feel as comfortable as she was.  Even the shyest individual cannot remain so after a Neelo onslaught!

In terms of training the choir itself, I have the unwavering support of another Lynn, the Lynn who has been my music teacher for close on twenty years (she taught me at primary school, so neither of us are as old as you think!)  Lynn is always an inspiration and an incredible accompanist, so she will be helping me make sure their general musical education is not neglected in the midst of too much fun at choir practice!  I also have Celeste, who has already been working with Lynn and I for a couple of years.  Celeste will be in charge of being organised (for the best chance of success, I cannot be expected to organise anything, except what we’re going to sing) and has made an excellent impression on all the students.  Celeste will also be a conductor in training, so hopefully, not too far from now, she will be standing in front of this choir and directing it.

It is an incredible privilege to work with this talented bunch!  I made all sorts of resolutions about taking photos, but I only get a very few, very bad ones, so I’ve learned my lesson and next week Celeste will be in charge of the camera too.  That way, maybe we’ll have some pics to share on Facebook and some videos to post on YouTube.  I look forward to sharing our progress with you!

Top Tips for Teaching One-on-One

Teaching and coaching one-on-one can be extremely rewarding, both for the teacher and the student. It allows the teacher to be completely focused on the needs of one learner, rather than having to accommodate the different learning needs of a group. Here are some tips for successful one-on-one teaching.

Enthusiasm – Always be enthusiastic and full of energy when you are spending time with a student. Whether your student is an adult or a child, they will respond to your energy and the lesson will go accordingly. Your enthusiasm will allow the student to make mistakes with confidence, so that they can be corrected.

Understanding – Understand the needs of the student you are with. Knowing whether your student is primarily visual, kinesthetic or auditory will allow you to adapt your teaching method and materials to the specific needs of the student. When you are teaching to the primary learning style of your student, they will grasp the material more easily, and you are less likely to have to re-teach the concept the following week.

Creativity – Be creative in the teaching strategies you use. If the student comes to you daily or weekly, creative teaching methods will help to maintain their interest in the subject and your enthusiasm for the class. Your creativity will encourage the student to put forward their own ideas and be creative too.

Organisation – Be organised and prepared for the lesson. At the beginning of the lesson, discuss specific goals and objectives for the lesson, so that both you and your student experience a sense of achievement at the end. Tasks set for the following lesson should reinforce the concepts covered, or pre-assess knowledge of the next topic. When you are organised and clear about your objectives, take home tasks are easier to plan.

Focus – It is vital to remain focused on the task at hand throughout the lesson. If you allow yourself to become distracted, the student will become distracted too. However, don’t be afraid to leave the student time to think or plan during the lesson. Your one-on-one time allows a flexible goal schedule, so use it to encourage self-directed learning and assessment.

Feedback – Always provide feedback at the end of the lesson, even if the task is not complete. It always helps if feedback is presented in a positive manner, particularly with children, as it will encourage them to look forward to their next session with you. If they are looking forward to the next session, they will find it easier to get any take home tasks done.

All of the above factors help to create a positive and personal relationship between teacher and student. For those, like me, who make the jump from classroom coaching to one-on-one teaching, this is the best reward of all.

Article Source: http://EzineArticles.com/6407132

A Suitable Boy

What an achievement for the morning!  I have just finished reading ‘A Suitable Boy‘ by Vikram Seth.  The book is incredible – it makes for rather a long journey, but each character is so well drawn that you feel close to all of them.  And now that I’ve had to put it back on the bookcase, I feel bereft.

Set in India in the early 50’s, just after partition, Seth weaves together law, politics, religion, family and cricket.  The book centres around Lata, a young student at Brahmpur University, and her mother’s quest to marry her off suitably.  The extended family of brothers, sisters, in-laws, grandparents and friends are drawn into finding a ‘suitable boy’ for Lata, of the right colour, religion, and economic status.  In the meantime, Lata meets and falls in love with a young Muslim, Kabir.  Obviously, this relationship is doomed from the beginning, and Lata’s family find her a suitable boy.

This book is Middlemarch meets India, and like Middlemarch, you feel there is so much more to find out about each character after the book ends.  Seth is a master of language, so even though the book’s sheer size can be daunting to begin with, it is truly one of the most rewarding reads I’ve ever had.