Category Archives: The Boy

Sparky’s Cello


When we last left Sparky on his resumed cello journey in January after two and a half years of hiatus, he had just started playing on a borrowed cello that needed work. One thing led to another, and we didn’t get it into the shop till a couple of weeks ago.

Readers, it’s dead. The strings buzzing on the fingerboard had gotten worse, to the point where he couldn’t play anything with the first finger in first position on any string. We thought raising the nut would solve it, which is a pretty straightforward and relatively inexpensive fix. He was doing a fantastic job playing through the sour notes, but as we all know, a bad tool creates obstacles that require energy to work around that could be better invested. The luthier took a quick look at it and said there wasn’t much she could do. The neck was warped backward, and to bring the fingerboard down to playable level plus add the necessary scoop would thin it out to a point where it would be thinner than a violin fingerboard. It would be very delicate. On top of that, without the stabilizing strength of a proper fingerboard of the usual cello thickness, the neck could very easily start to warp the other way. In essence, she said she could do the repairs… it just wouldn’t be worth the money.

Sparky began trembling and tears started slipping down his face. He had somehow bonded with this thing, which was somewhat disturbing because it was borderline abusive to him. (Passive abusive, but whatever.) I think part of him worried that this was it, he’d have no cello and would have to stop after he’d made the decision to start again and really apply himself. When I thought about it later, I wondered if he had embraced the imperfections because they would limit him by necessity; he wouldn’t have to worry so hard about doing everything correctly because there would always be this imperfection inherent in the instrument that made him feel safer somehow, and less stressed. Or maybe he felt a kinship with the imperfection. I don’t know.

Anyway, he randomly teared up about it now and then about it over the next few days; no amount of reassurance seemed to get through to him. I pinged a Kijiji listing for a 3/4 cello in the city, made an appointment, and we went to see it this past Saturday after our lesson. The guy selling it was studying music at university; he had a zillion guitar cases in his room, and this little cello that had been his as a teenager. It looks like it has been in the wars; it was secondhand when he got it, and it has all the bangs and nicks a school instrument would have. It has a crack or two, one repaired and one in limbo, but nothing horrendous from what I could tell. The neck was straight (ha, I checked, trust me). It didn’t come with a bow, but I have a fiberglass 3/4 bow left over from my first cello he can use until we get a new one. And coincidentally, this one seems about the same age, with the same clunky style of endpin mine had and a really old similar canvas case (sized for a 4/4 and way too big).

We came home with it. It’s nothing spectacular, but it’s easy to play even in the high positions, and it makes all the sounds it’s supposed to make, which is definitely an improvement. I paid under what he had listed it for and still probably too much for it, but Sparky was starry-eyed, and the university kid was just terrific; and if he was studying music probably needed the money. I ordered a new set of strings (I think the set on it are cheap originals, yikes; they’re pretty dead) and a proper sized case. Sparky spent the first five minutes of his next practice session just blissfully playing the notes the last cello had choked. When I asked him what he was going to call this one, he said Oak. And he retroactively named the other one Buzz, which made me laugh.

Other than the limitations of the cello, he’s been doing great work. He’s progressing quickly through the pieces in the book, which I know is doing a lot for his self-confidence. At the rate he’s going, he’ll start the second book in the fall when lessons resume. He has chosen his recital piece (Rigadoon!), he works diligently on the hard bits of his part for the group pieces, and after I help him tune and review the homework notes I took during his lesson, I walk away and he directs his own practice. I’m proud of him. Hopefully with this new-to-him instrument, things will go even better.

Back Into Things: School and Music Edition

We’re one week into school and such again now that it’s 2017. Both kids were really ready to go back after two and a half weeks off, both consciously (“I miss my kindergarten,” Owlet sighed one day) and unconsciously (my children do not do well without structure for long periods of time).

Getting back into the rhythm of things has had some challenges, however. Sparky was struggling with organization, time management, and self-confidence at the beginning of the school year, and with work and support he’d gotten to a point where it was all mostly okay. Time away threw him off, though. During his first week back I saw him doing homework every night and figured he had things under control. It turned out he was doing homework due for the next day and not the extra work he’s supposed to space out over the week so it doesn’t drown him on weekends, though. So this weekend he had to create an outline, rough draft, and polished typed draft of an expository essay, do twelve pages of French, and a pile of math. The essay should have been done in increments, and the French as well; the math was all assigned on Friday and would have been fine if all he had to do was finish typing the essay out and do a page or two of French. He also had to finish a PowerPoint presentation on postmodern architecture, but forgot the handwritten research at school and he couldn’t get hold of his partner all weekend, so I wrote a quick note and he’s planning to finish it at recess this morning. It was a rough weekend, but he handled it all, and we worked through some anxiety and talked about breaking seemingly huge tasks down and nibbling away at them.

He had less homework time than he otherwise might have, too, because this weekend he started cello lessons again after two and a half years off! He had an hour on Saturday morning, where his teacher was delighted to see him. They worked to adjust the new-to-us cello (which has Issues; it’s going to need a new bridge at the very least, a new full set of strings, and possibly the nut and/or the fingerboard replaned because there is a nasty buzzing in first position, on top of paying the family who owned it previously for it) and reviewed the piece he’d last done in concert. This would be Long Long Ago, the piece he’s pretty sure he messed up so badly on in concert that he decided to quit because it was all too stressful. He was assigned his next piece in pizzicato, and given his parts for the group pieces. And then Sunday afternoon was his first group class.

I’m fascinated by how enthusiastic he is. At break during the group class we were laughing about how no one likes to practise when he piped up, “I love it! I love to practise!” And I find it really interesting that it was watching the last recital that made him decide to start again because he wanted to be involved in them, since it was increasing stress associated with recitals that led him to stop. He was cheerful through the entire group class despite being lost most of the time, and didn’t get upset during his lesson when he couldn’t magically do things right. These two years off have really helped him develop a better understanding of what he should expect from himself.

Now instead of Sparky being upset he can’t do things right the first time, it’s Owlet. She is angry that her violin does not make beautiful music as soon as she picks it up. She resents that she has to pay attention and focus on what she’s being shown. I’m really looking forward to a time when I can actually register her for lessons, because again, it will be so much easier when it is not a parent teaching her. And I’m restricted this time by what I know and don’t know; with Sparky I knew how to guide his practise properly. With the violin, I’m one self-taught lesson ahead of Owlet, and I can only do things like teach her the names of the strings, where to place the bow on the string (no, not between the bridge and the tailpiece, between the bridge and the fingerboard please), and reteach her the names of notes on the staff. There are times when she sits and just plays it, fooling around with rhythm and dynamics, telling a story with the music, and that’s great; I wish she would do more of that and associate music time with exploration. But that expectation of perfection right off the bat is an obstacle at the moment. I’m not exactly sure how to help her past it yet.

We’ll see what this week brings.

Christmas Recital 2016

Our studio recital went blazingly well yesterday. I sat and knitted for the entire first forty minutes during everyone else’s soli, and you know, I think I may take a break from doing a solo every couple of years or so. It was so relaxing. I got to really appreciate everyone’s pieces more than I usually do because I wasn’t stressing, keeping feverish track of who was playing so as to ready myself to move up and take my place, or running fingering patterns on my right forearm. The four group pieces all went brilliantly. It’s such a joy to watch everyone get better and better, and to welcome new cellists.

Speaking thereof… guess who said he’d like to try cello again? I suspect watching the three other eleven-year-olds who joined right around the time he quit two years ago may have something to do with it. He’s older now, and I pointed out twenty minutes of practice a day would be his responsibility — I’m not going to argue with him about it — and he agreed. We’re working on autonomy, self organization, and socialization with other kids outside school, so this may slot in nicely. I get to tell my teacher this week at my next lesson.

Ballet

The fall season of extracurricular activities has just begun. Sparky casually mentioned he’d like to maybe try guitar, so we looked into that, but we just couldn’t afford it right now. He’s happy to continue with his art classes.

Owlet has been waiting to turn five, because now she is old enough to register for ballet at the arts centre where she previously did art and intro to music. She and her friend Audrey have both registered, and we took them to buy their ballet shoes a week and a half ago. Owlet is extremely thrilled with them and wears them any time she remembers they exist… like when it’s time to climb into bed for bedtime stories.

The first day was exciting. She naturally wanted to wear a dress, but I managed to get her to agree to wear black leggings and a tunic shirt instead. There are fifteen kids in the class (fifteen!) and the teacher is terrific with them. Her choice of music is admirable, too; the way to get me to appreciate your commitment to teaching is to have both a track from Michael Nyman’s score for The Piano and a prelude from a Bach solo cello suite playing in the first ten minutes. (Also, wow; you can make a playlist on a phone or mp3 player and just plug it into an amplifier in this day and age. When I took ballet classes, there was a live accompanist, because it was that or a portable record player.)

So far, so good. There was a hesitation halfway through the class when she didn’t want to keep going, but after watching the other girls learn how to do “cat jumps” she threw herself back in with enthusiasm, because who doesn’t want to learn how to jump like a cat, right? And we committed the faux pas of not bringing water bottles with which the girls could hydrate at half time, the way all the other girls (who had obviously all done this before) had done. A note has been made for next time.

Sparky came home from his first art class that afternoon with spots of paint all over him, so that’s going as well as it usually does!

Cottaging

Things have been pretty stressful around here for a variety of reasons. So when our friends Megan and Jason invited us to spend a day at their family cottage an hour north of the city, we said yes.

It was one of those transitional days we get at the end of summer, where the sun is shining but there’s a breeze and a chill to the air, especially outside the city. It was the kind of weather where you’re happy to be able to pull out a sweater.

I got about an inch knit on my sweater for Rhinebeck. The kids tromped around and found sticks, poked them into the water, pretended to fish, and played happily in the sand pit. The adults managed to play a game of Settlers of Catan without being significantly interrupted, which was a major achievement. And at the end of the day, a small fire was built and we taught the kids how to roast marshmallows.

It was a wonderful day, and we all really needed it.

Rites of Passage, Including Kindergarten and Grade Six

Rites of passage are something that I consider important. Not big splashy ones; just marking milestones. And there have been a few of them lately, this last week of August and the first weekend of September.

Owlet had her intro to kindergarten the last week of August. On Tuesday we went in for an hour-long session in her class, listening to her teacher talk through the structure, the subjects, and the schedule. After that there was a barbecue in the schoolyard, which she partly like because of hot dogs and being able to play with her friends for daycare who had also advanced to kindergarten, and partly disliked because the music was too loud. The next day she went in with half the class for a morning of kindergarten. Despite being told over and over, she didn’t fully understand that I wasn’t coming in with her again for that session, and there were almost tears; she and her buddy from daycare held hands for support as they followed the teacher inside. Then she had a day off, and then Friday was her first official full day of school. Again tears threatened, but her teacher introduced her to another girl in the schoolyard while I slipped away. At the end of the day the teacher brought out the non-bus and non-daycare kids, but Owlet wasn’t among them, even though she had been when they left the classroom. It turned out that she had split off from the group to follow a new friend to the daycare programme; her teacher found her sitting with the daycare kids, happily munching a daycare granola bar.

Her daycare educator e-mailed to see how the first days had gone, and I was glad to be able to tell her that things were fine. Owlet finally gets to use her Star Wars lunchbox, and get a juice box in it — a treat that was withheld from her until she started kindergarten. She is excited about the great playground equipment (restricted to the younger grades), about learning computers (two in her classroom, an entire computer lab next door), having new markers and coloured pencils. She coloured a picture for her new teacher on Friday morning, hugged her leg before leaving on Friday afternoon, and has been practicing her teacher’s name and saying “bonjour” and “au revoir” (the latter with a truly adorable rolled ‘r’). The one thing I’m not thrilled about is the fact that she’s in the only kindergarten class in the basement; the three others are on the main floor with large windows. But her teacher has made it colourful, and the music room is right across the hall. She hasn’t said anything specific about being frustrated or sad about not understanding what her teacher says — she is very good at using gestures to illustrate what she is saying, and I’m certain it will only take a couple of weeks before Owlet starts nattering in French.

Sparky’s first day was a breeze. The schoolyard was packed with hundreds of kids and parents looking for their class lists, saying hello after the summer, and generally goofing around. Once he found his friends, there was no point to me staying, so Owlet and I walked to the park behind the schoolyard and hung out there until the classes started being called inside. The grade sixes were last, of course, and the teachers gathered all four grade six classes on the field to take mass photos before they went in. They’re the top of the heap this year, the last before high school. The night before the school held an info session for parents, and I got to meet his teachers and hear about their policies, their units of inquiry, and the planned field trips. There’s a lot of science and focus on renewable energy, which is going to be exciting for Sparky. Math will be focusing on stabilizing and reviewing the material they’ve already learned, much to my relief. He’ll have a new math resource teacher, as his past one (who, incidentally, has also been his math tutor this past summer) has her own class in another school this year. His homeroom teacher happens to be the same teacher who taught him French In kindergarten at his first school, which he finds amusing.

The day before school started, we went out to brunch, which is a nice new tradition, I think. Megan and Audrey came with us, as Audrey was starting kindergarten the same day Owlet did.

The other recent rite of passage was baby Ivy’s blessing. HRH and I were honoured to be asked to lead the ritual by Ivy’s parents, who are friends of ours. It was the first real ritual Owlet had observed; she had been very interested in the whole idea of a baby blessing leading up to the event. (What is a blessing? Why do we ask the gods to protect her? Will the gods sit or stand? If they’re not there, will the gods hear us even if we don’t shout?) The wish Sparky made for the baby was for a long life, and Owlet (even though she hid behind me and was too shy to say it) had prepared a wish that the baby always feel comfortable enough to be herself. (I said it for her. It was a really good wish, and I was very proud of her for coming up with it.)

Of all the formal rites of passage I am privileged to perform for my spiritual community, baby blessings are my favourite. I only wish we’d been in a better state to stay afterwards and enjoy food, drink, and company, but I was exhausted and rapidly going downhill (fibro has been particularly difficult lately), Sparky was fighting a cold, and Owlet was having that kind of weekend where she needed to get home to have a quiet supper and regular bedtime.

It’s been a busy week.

Santa 2015

The mall in which we usually visit Santa redesigned their holiday set and it’s uninspiring. We tried anyway on a school strike day, but the lineup and noise got to me before we’d been there five minutes, so we made the executive decision to try the Santa at Dix30.

Success!

Sparky shook Santa’s hand when he stepped up. Owlet was very serious; she did not want to sit on Santa’s lap, and because consent (I’m not going to convince any kid it’s okay to sit on a stranger’s lap these days), everyone agreed she could sit on the stool and hug a Christmas stuffie instead. I wish I’d been more with it; I would have suggested Sparky sit on the other stool and look serious as well, and then it would have been like an old-fashioned portrait where no one smiles. (Except Santa. That would have been even funnier.)

It was in a little cottage-type thing built right on one of the avenues at the Dix30 complex. That meant the line was outside, but there was an elf entertaining those who waited. (Although Owlet was highly suspicious of him as well. Sparky was moderately impressed; this guy was great at physical comedy and minor acrobatics.) The photo was digital only, but free. All in all it was a decent experience, and I think we’ve found our new Santa destination.