Tuesday, April 29, 2014

What I learned about being a good teacher from Dr. Browne

Dr. Douglas Browne is retiring this year after 33 years as choir director at Grove City College in Pennsylvania.  This last weekend, I flew back for the tribute concert in honor of his retirement, along with Peter, who was taking a look at the college.  And we visited with Daniel, a current sophomore.  It was a joyous, draining weekend, capped by a concert at which 220 alumni joined current choir members and maxed out the capacity of the stage.  Facebook has been buzzing with activity ever since.

When I first arrived at GCC in the fall of 1985, I was a painfully shy and insecure Literature major (Communications and French were in there too).  I actually got to know Mrs. Browne before Dr. Browne, since she was the faculty advisor for the campus pro-life group.  She modeled hospitality, generosity and genuine friendliness to all students who came her way; I took this for granted, because I was used to it from my own mother, but in retrospect, this is a rare and beautiful group of qualities and I wish I had expressed my appreciation for it earlier.

Although there was never a time in my life that I did not love music and singing, I found it terrifying to audition for anything.  I mustered up the courage for "Carnival" freshman year, and the children's theater production of "H.M.S. Pinafore" my sophomore year.  It was after this that I knew it.  I would become a choir groupie, whatever the cost to my anxiety levels.  You could sign up for Baccalaureate Choir and stay for graduation, without an audition.  I took this path, and then signed up to audit choir in my junior year.  It wasn't until my senior year that I joined Touring Choir, the elite group.  It was perhaps the biggest boost to my self-confidence I've ever received, and Touring Choir rehearsals became a highly-disciplined, hard-working foretaste of heaven.  It was truly a highlight of my college career; and in 2005, Steve and I were fortunate enough to sing together with an alumni choir group in  a tour of the British Isles.  Once again, a taste of what heaven will be like.

Dr. Browne is the kind of director who expects singers to read music and make progress in sensitivity of expression, whether they are music majors who have taken more than a decade of lessons or kids who gave up on piano in middle school and only sing along with the radio.  The instant you sing through the first song in your first rehearsal, you have to sit up straighter and step up your game several notches.  If you want to stay, you learn the subtle signals: the raised satirical eyebrow that says something about the pitch isn't right; the hand motions that shape the line of music; the downbeat, the cutoff, the "back it off" light fingers.  And you want to stay, because not to stay is nearly unthinkable.  It would mean giving up the music, the high standards for music that open a whole new and beautiful language to you, but at the same time ruin you for anything less than perfection (or at least, near perfection).

So, fast-forward 25 years.  Although I am a language teacher rather than a music teacher, I have to pay tribute to Dr. Browne for being one of the teachers who most influenced me when I found myself, unexpectedly, teaching middle school Latin.  Here is a partial list of what I have to thank him for:

  • High standards and high expectations.  No apologies for being a demanding teacher, seasoned with a huge amount of humor and a sense of being in it together.
  • Relentless egalitarianism and a lack of judgementalism.  Music majors and everybody else were on the same footing.  I have the kind of voice that blends pretty well in a choir, not a prima donna voice.  It's the musical equivalent of being a B student who works hard.  And I have to love my own B students who work hard.  Dr. Browne is the kind of teacher who, at Robert E. Lee high school in Texas at the start of his career, once gave the role of Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music to a gangly black kid when that kind of thing just wasn't done.  Why?  Because he had the best voice for it.  I had never heard this story before last weekend, and I was very moved by it, but not surprised.  It was in character.  Physical disability or other special needs?  Make the adjustments you have to do and move on.
  • The task-focused nature of teaching.  When you teach something as complex as music, or an ancient language, the sheer content required to achieve proficiency is daunting.  The only way through it is to be fairly businesslike, and break down monumental obstacles into smaller skills.  You work on a variety of little things in each class period so no one gets bored, and at least once you have to let people see the big picture so they'll know how cool it is.
  • There is always a deeper layer of meaning in a song, or a piece of text.  Each time that you revisit it, you will find something more, and richer.  Students appreciate being let in on the meaning even if they can't fully master it at that point; they will remember the richness and revisit it themselves later on.
  • Some things, you have to let go.  No performance (or class) can be perfect in this life, and you can only do your best and be gracious about the occasional misstep.  With maybe a subtly raised philosophical eyebrow, you go on.

Thank you, Dr. Browne.  May you enjoy "lots more time with Susan" and at least another third of a century of eschewing mediocrity.

Friday, April 25, 2014


Peter and I flew out very early yesterday morning to arrive in Pittsburgh, and then drove a rental pickup truck (it was the "Manager's Special," and I'm getting used to it) north to Grove City.  We had to take a detour around a rather nasty accident that closed the interstate.  I remember my time in Pennsylvania very fondly, but I can live without Pennsylvania roads, where the speed limit is still stubbornly 55 but the average native seems to drive 75.  We noticed lots of roadkill along the way.

We've had a very nice visit with Daniel.  Peter took the official prospective student tour today and had an interview, and we sat in on a couple of classes.  Things are gearing up for the special Alumni Touring Choir concert tomorrow in honor of Dr. Douglas Browne, who is retiring after 33 years of inspiring and excellent choral conducting.  I had the honor of being part of the choir in my senior year (1988-89) and once again in 2005 for a special summer alumni choir tour of the British Isles. Both of these experiences were highlights of my life, and I am far from alone.  Approximately 200 former choir members are coming back for this event. The day will be packed with rehearsals, a tribute lunch and a reception after the concert.  Rain is forecast; metaphorically too, as the Facebook group for this event is abuzz with predictions of emotional outporings.  Peter and Daniel will be hanging out and doing college stuff for most of the time.  The people are warm and welcoming here.  I am guilty of taking for granted how much the College and the people in it have blessed my life.  It is good to remember.

A college campus is a funny thing.  You wander through the physical spaces populated with inspiring architecture and landscaping, and remember the far-off days you spent in a particular spot, and a quick image will burst in on you.  Or when they have completely renovated a building, you have a bit of cognitive dissonance with past images superimposed on the present, as if today's students are really shadows of the students of bygone eras, only without the dated hair.  In totally new buildings, you wish you could break from the tour guide and explore for a bit.  What are you looking for?  Probably that thing that C.S. Lewis called "joy."  It is thick on campus, where people at the most intense parts of their lives have lived intensely for so long.  It is odd coming back, knowing that I am no longer young, and finding the joy still floating freely about for the taking, mingled with the raindrops and dreary weather that are all most people see, most days.  And of course, just because there is joy doesn't mean it won't make you cry, or even break your heart.

Tomorrow the songs I will be singing are likewise marinated in joy for me.  Each one I have sung with Dr. Browne directing before, most of them as part of a tour.  It will almost not matter if I can't hit the high notes or I don't meet up with everyone I used to know.  We are all archetypes on campus.  It is both intensely real and bewilderingly unreal at the same time.

  • Salvation is Created, Pavel Tschesnokoff
  • Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, Hugo Distler
  • Holy Radiant Light, Alexandre Gretchaninoff
  • The Majesty and Glory of Your Name, Tom Fettke
  • Soon Ah Will Be Done, arr. William Dawson
  • Give Me Jesus, L.L. Fleming
  • I AM, arr. Roy E. Bronkema
  • Yet Will I Sing, Alisa Bair

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Raccoon

 I chased a raccoon up a tree last week.  It was hard to get the camera to focus right, at first.
He just sat up there taunting me.  Then Steve came home from work and we fruitlessly threw pine cones at it.  No raccoons were harmed in the process, more's the pity.  We would like it to go away.  Even if it is a little teeny bit cute.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Randomday Book Roundup

It's been awhile.  I blame my Kindle Fire.  Here are some of the books I've been reading:

The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag, by Alan Bradley.  In the second book in the series, the obnoxious but (very) vaguely endearing Flavia de Luce meddles in a grotesque murder involving traveling puppeteers, cannabis consumption, a tragic death of a young child, and friendly ex-Nazi fighter pilots in post-war Britain.  I am enjoying this very well-written series, but as I am around at least one strong-willed 11-year-old constantly, I'm planning on spacing the books out.  Flavia is better in small doses.

Elantris, by Brandon Sanderson.  This stand-alone book by a prolifically imaginative author is intriguing, an exercise in world-building, with some insightful things to say about leadership, and some enjoyable characters.  Even granting its fantasy world setting, though, the human characters are not completely human in some important aspects, and I found it off-putting, perhaps an offshoot of the author's Mormon religion. Daniel and I were able to attend his book-signing a few months ago, and he strikes me as truly talented and happy in his successful writing career, as well he should be.  I look forward to reading more (preferably by audiobook) in the future.

Red Rabbit, by Tom Clancy, is one of the Jack Ryan series I had missed somewhere along the line.  This one is set in the early 80's, and a young Ryan, through a series of completely improbable coincidences, becomes enmeshed with a Soviet defector who has important intelligence about the plot to kill Pope John Paul II.  As always, the plot is a page-turner, the F-bomb shows up on just about every page, and the research is so well done that it's completely possible that large portions of the book are pretty close to the way it happened.

The Empire Striketh Back by Ian Doescher is the next episode in the Shakespearean rendering of the immortal epic.  There's much to enjoy here: Yoda's haiku, R2D2's soliloquys, the Ugnaught chorus, Chewbacca and Leia's duet. There's an added scene where two random guards discuss the oddity of Imperial architecture that inexplicably requires hazardous, bottomless shafts to be inserted where anyone could stumble into them.  It's a valid point, and even the bit characters get their moment on stage.  I look forward to when the Jedi Doth Return.

Freddy and the Ignormus by Walter Brooks -- If you haven't yet encountered Freddy, one of the great pigs of children's literature, try to find one of the charming audiobooks at your local library.  Full of old-fashioned wit and a cast of humorous animal characters, Freddy and friends are great for the under-10 set, and fun to read aloud, too.

Several other books are in process.  Also making good progress is Italian.  I'm almost to 1500 words in my DuoLingo vocabulary, and I've informed Steve he can take me to Italy any time now.  They recently upgraded the Kindle Fire interface from the DuoLingo app I originally installed and in the process I discovered the online community and a lot more opportunities to enrich my own language study.

I'm not making much progress at all in quilting or knitting.  Getting a little worried about next week's trip to Pennsylvania and the choir songs I'm supposed to have ready.  My voice has not fully recovered from the walking pneumonia and my high notes are not what they should be.  In fact, I have yet to sing more than 2 songs in practice without getting the cough back.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Spring Break Laziness

This is the first Spring Break in years that we haven't made a cross-country road trip, usually to Arizona to visit family.  Steve and Peter are on an in-state road trip to visit colleges, and I'll be doing my flight out to Grove City in a few weeks with Peter as well, to check out the college and sing in the farewell concert for Dr. Browne.  I'm normally a productive and motivated person, but that hasn't really been happening this week.

(A pile of wool noodles, from a chunky-weight sweater I'm unraveling.  It's a metaphor).

The walking pneumnonia a few weeks ago really has been difficult to shake.  The cough is much better but the fatigue is real.  I've been feeling like going to bed around 8:30 most evenings, and so I've mostly been listening to my body on that.  I'm still drinking plenty of fluids, and I still haven't graded all of last Friday's quizzes.  That's probably going to come back to bite me sometime.

Monday there was a fair amount of housework done - vacuuming primarily.  I took the girls to Barnes and Noble and they picked out books (and Quarta picked out a "science" kit to make sour candy).  Then we went to Ikea and toured the floor, which the girls found, as I do, fascinating but exhausting, and a little too overwhelming to buy anything big.  Tuesday we went swimming at the Marshall center, which was exhausting, then a late lunch at the Pita Pit.  The amount of housework has been tapering off since Monday but a little has been done.  More than happens when I'm teaching, that's for sure.  Yesterday I accomplished very little other than beating Heroes of Kalevala and going for a massage and chiropractic adjustment.  Oh yes, and a quick grocery run.  And I dusted the TV.  The girls and I watched Jumanji in the evening, Steve called, and I yawned all my way through the phone conversation.  Yep, really exciting life right now.  If I could just get my girls hooked on a modest amount of organization progress with lots of quiet time, I could live like this indefinitely.

But there wouldn't be much to blog about.  Wait! Book reviews!  I need to do book reviews.   But I'm too tired now, and I've got a plane to meet soon.  Maybe tomorrow.

Saturday, April 5, 2014


Mixed emotions.  Conflicted.  That's how most moms would probably describe seeing their 17-year-old son enlist in the Army National Guard.  Good: he will finish high school and earn money for college.  Bad: he's growing up way too fast.  Well, that was going to happen anyway.
Good: he will be a weekend warrior, so it's not like he's going off to fight in the trenches.  Bad: he'll do basic training in Oklahoma this summer and miss the family reunion we've been planning for awhile now.  And I have no idea how he'll manage to do weekend warrior stuff and be a senior in high school.

Good: he scored in the 89th percentile on his ASVAB test, which means he could make a career out of it and have a lot of flexibility in choosing a job he's suited for.  Bad: of all the jobs, he chose doing things with field artillery, which means he wants to be in action on the front lines.

Good: the officer at his swearing in gave a talk about the honor and pride of serving one's country, mentioning that only a third of all applicants complete the process, and stressed the importance of a college education.  Bad:  I cried all through the swearing in ceremony.  Good: I smiled a bit to myself when I thought how my late mother would have cried through the whole thing, too.  Bad: I cried even more because she's not here to cry with me and laugh about it later.

Good: I guess since he's all grown up now (even though he's not 18 yet) I need to stop using the "Secundus" blogname.  Congratulations, Peter!  We're proud of you and you know we'll worry about you.  A lot.  So be safe.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

April Fools, April Goals, WIPs and Yarn-Alongs

I finished all my March goals... April Fools!
No, really.  The only goal I actually worked on at all was #3, knit the Mint Chocolate sweater to the halfway point.  It might be halfway, but I'm not that confident.  I also worked a tiny bit - microscopic - on the string star quilt.  I didn't expect everything that happened in March... the walking pneumonia, the son enlisting in the National Guard, which looks like it's really going to happen.  The coyote in the back yard -- turns out it was actually a dingo.  The neighbor kids' pet dingo.  Who is supposedly good with cats.  Yeah.  It was that kind of month.  I pretty much gave up on the crafting.

I read a lot of books - most recently The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag by Alan Bradley, Elantris by Brandon Sanderson, and Keep it Pithy by Bill O'Reilly.  Never say I am not eclectic.  I'm overdue for a book review day sometime soon.

I may not be sewing much, but Quarta whipped this little table-topper scrap quilt up Sunday afternoon while I was napping.  It was from some scraps from that epic estate sale I went to last year, and she just improvised it up.  Pretty cool for an 11-year-old.
She's made three quilts so far.

So, should I even bother to set goals for April?  Let's just modify the March goals:

  1. Knit the body of the sweater.  Sleeves can be another month.
  2. Make small progress on the string star.
  3. Make small progress on the machine quilting of Farmer's Wife.
  4. Do a spring cleaning of the sewing area.
I'm really looking forward to Spring Break next week.  I hope to get rid of the last of the pneumonia cough and have lots of time to read and craft.  I've been too tired to stay up later than 9:30 most nights lately.  Steve will be taking Secundus on college visits and I will try to keep the girls from going stir crazy here while not actually doing much.  It sounds wonderful to me, but I'm afraid the natives will be restless.