A Writer's Notes

A writer's thoughts on the joys and importance of music and writing

Why Write: To communicate - or at least to try!

The English language is a funny, complex thing.  We talked about that a lot in my education class this spring, especially in reference to students who are not native English speakers. One classmate came across a list of problem words that give students grief.

“The bandage was wound around the wound.”

“They were too close to the door to close it.”

“To help with planting, the farmer taught his sow to sow.”

Funny, but true. What’s funnier is this can happen between native English speakers.

My husband needed some new clothes, so I had him go through his closet to see exactly what he had.

“So you need me to fit these on?” he asked.

“No, try them on,” I said.

“But you fit on fenders. You fit on clothes too,” he argued, with his typical gearhead reference.

“No, you don’t,” I said, reminding him I’m the grammarian in the family.

We’ve done this before. In my family you put the car in the garage. In his family you shed the car.

“Oh, like a snake sheds it skin?” I ask.  

Then we go back and forth, teasing each other a little about speaking Nebraska-ese, or being an Iowegan (that’s a person from Iowa). Widen the geographic regions a bit and you run into the pop and soda debate, the Grandma/Memaw usage.

This brings up a concept I found in researching my grammar project, the concept of code switching. People learn to do this when learning a second language, they study the different rules to learn to translate between the languages. People are starting to have to learn with technology too, switch between the codes of Standard English and techspeak (the language of texts and tweets).

Ironically we still need to do this with people from different regions of the country, even just from Nebraska to Iowa.

To keep communicating in all formats, people are going to have to keep switching codes from tech to Standard English, from region to region jargon, from family to family usage.  Multi-lingual is a good thing!

Why Teach? Ah-Ha!

Yesterday was one of those days that reminded me why I teach. A student came for their piano lesson. This student had been asked – well, maybe drafted is a better word - to play bass and guitar at the Easter Sunday service. The student was pretty nervous about it the week before, although they’d practiced the songs and knew what to do. But there is an issue with nerves. We’ve dealt with them before at piano contests and recitals. This week the student came in with a big smile and told me it had gone really well on Sunday. There was some nervousness before they got up in front, but when they got the bass in their hand it turned into pure enjoyment playing with the band. There was a huge crowd, too, and on the last song everybody was singing and clapping along. For them, it was a wonderful epiphany music moment in an Easter Sunday service! For me, it was one of those “Ah-ha moments” we hope our students experience, when they understand the purpose and the joy of learning their craft. This student almost radiated with that joy, and I was thrilled to share in it, because at that moment we were not expert and apprentice, but fellow musicians who’ve experienced the happiness music can bring, to us and to those listening. It was particularly rewarding when they admitted that piano contests had helped learn to deal with the nerves. All in all it was such a good experience that the student is eager to play in church again. And I’m eager to keep teaching.

Why Write: As a foundation!

OK, so I can’t let go of the music angle quite yet. I guess that appropriate since March is Music in Our Schools Month. STEM – teaching for science, technology, engineering and math - has been getting quite a bit of press in the past few years.  Rightly so, but sadly it may have helped with the de-emphasis of music and other fine arts in recent years. Then I saw a good story on LinkedIn, an article that confirmed the importance of creativity in education. The author notes the importance of teaching the arts as well. Cleverly that turns STEM into STEAM.  I was so excited that others corroborate my opinion that I told my husband, and he proceeded to burst my bubble. “What’s left?” Hmm. There are other areas of education not covered in that clever little acronym. Social sciences. Physical education. Grammar and writing. All have their place in life, so you find yourself  thinking kids should just learn everything. Idealistic, but impractical since there’s only so much time, money and energy.  And kids are talented in different areas. I know I wouldn’t get very far in engineering.  Or as a chemist. But the grammar thought (which ties in to writing) kind of sticks in my craw since writing is so universal. You have to use it in Science, Technology, Engineering, Math, and the arts too. Writing is foundational. It’s like water. You can’t live without it, and everything hinges on its being there. I guess that means you can’t get up a good head of STEAM without water (aka writing).

Why Write? for your soul or your career?

I’ve been writing about music for some time now, but noticed the posts are becoming few and far between. I’ve also noticed my chances to play piano are few and far between.  Why is that, I wondered?

Checking the calendar gave me the answer. In less than three months I want to have this graduate degree finished, so that means I’m trading in time on my piano keyboard for my computer keyboard, doing heavy duty studying and writing.  So I’ve decided to switch focus a bit. Instead of asking Why Music I need to ask, why do I write?

It’s one of those innate things don’t have a quick answer for. I just do. One good reason popped up on a Twitter post recently, a story that covered 5 reasons to write. Lumping them together, it’s all about keeping your soul healthy, stress-relief and positive thinking. Especially true for journal writing; not so much for academic writing. That’s more for career, and self-betterment. But writing for the soul was more than enough for this young man. He felt so driven to write that he found a way, despite his disability. And his book is being published, despite his death. He was able to use his passion to triumph over difficulty.

Although my situation is nowhere near as drastic as that young man’s, I’m hoping for something similar with my school writing, and with this blog, for the good things that come from writing for both soul and career.

Time marches on - sometimes in wooden shoes

Are we a week into the new year already? Time is certainly marching along.

When the new year was really fresh and new I saw on the news that the Pride of the Dutchmen marching band of Maurice-Orange City, Floyd Valley (Iowa) had a national stage on New Year’s Day when they took their wooden shoed marching band down the Rose Parade route. I wasn’t a Dutchman, I was a marching West Sioux Falcon from 20 miles away, so to me the concept of a band marching in Dutch wooden shoes was like “Yah, so…”

Those of us who grew up in Northwest Iowa did know all about the band that marched in wooden shoes in tribute to the region’s Dutch heritage. Still it was pretty cool for the whole nation to see how music and heritage can create a unique and exceptional opportunity, all in one musical group.

But what struck me as cool in this story was not the shoes, not the regional ancestry, it was the size of that band. Around 180 members, about 40% of the high school population! How do they do that?  These days most bands are shrinking, or gone due to budget cuts. School finances can put another sliver in the issue - keeping quality instructors. Over the last 12 years our local high school band hasn’t had the same instructor for more than three years in a row! Students can’t get much continuity or feel the importance of the program without continuity. Apparently the MOC-Floyd Valley instructor has been there at least 20 years.  But he also he credits the rest of the school faculty and staff with supporting the students can excel in the fine arts, not just academics or athletics. Community support has to be an important factor too, because the entire tab for the trip - $300,000 – came from fundraising, not a penny from the school’s budget.

I wish the Dutchmen could bottle that combination and market it, because the importance of music to an education is priceless! Hopefully the sight and sound of wooden shoes will inspire some school districts and school boards to re-emphasize their music programs before it all turns to sawdust.

Don’t judge a hymn book by its cover

Well what happened this fall?  I ‘fell’ off the blogging wagon I guess, with a few things going on in life.

I’m jumping back on, with a New Year’s resolution to write every day, and blog regularly.

Musical thoughts that hit me recently – don’t judge a hymn book by its cover.


My father-in-law passed away just before Christmas. I played “Faith of our Fathers” as a tribute to the faith example he was for the family. The sermon was based on my father-in-law’s confirmation verse, his faith foundation, so it was a perfect fit. Then I thought the well-planned service would fall apart with the closing congregational hymn. Since it was almost Christmas, Pastor suggested a Christmas carol.  I thought he was nuts. Christmas is about birth, not death. And then you get to verse 3 of Hark the Herald Angels Sing.  Born that man no more may die, Born to raise the sons of earth, Born to give them second birth.” OK, so Pastor’s not nuts. He saw the whole picture, which my snap judgment clouded from me. Things are not always what they seem, so the song was a perfect fit, and added an important meaning to our weird, non-traditional Christmas.  With birth comes death, but with Christ’s birth comes re-birth. And hope and comfort. That was the nicest Christmas gift I got this year. All because of music. I can’t wait to see what music lessons I’ll learn in the new year.  Happy musical New Year to all!

Why Music? Better Memory

I was at a funeral the other day, for a former neighbor who couldn’t fight the leukemia any longer. Apparently, a whole lot of other people wanted to show their respect for this kind and friendly man, because the church was packed.

I ended up in the back on a folding chair.  When it came to the congregational hymns, we didn’t have hymnals in the back, and there was no media screen to display the words.  I had to go from memory.

I did pretty well, since I’ve got quite a history singing and playing hymns, but I noticed something interesting. I found I had a better understanding of the words. I could catch the meaning better, the intent and concepts came through more clearly.  Verses 2 & 3 of Amazing Grace hit me like they never had before.

I hadn’t realized how the simple and seemingly mindless process of reading can trip up your cognition.  This was a perfect example of why musicians often play from memory – it removes any stumbling blocks to the musical feelings and the meaning of the words.

Course, it doesn’t hurt that it’s good for the brain function, keeping your mind sharp.  So who needs Sudoku – just memorize a song!

More Why Music

Like what you read? Try what you see. Check my videos on vimeo.com. The latest installment is at vimeo.com/janewhymusic.

Why Music? For Creativity

My eight-week trial with blogging is almost over. The answer to the question of whether I could adapt to this new form of communication is “yes.”  The answer of where will I go from here is less black and white. Sheet Music Plus posted an appropriate quote on Facebook last week.

"The aim of music is not to express feelings but to express music. It is not a vessel into which the composer distills his soul drop by drop, but a labyrinth with no beginning and no end, full of new paths to discover, where mystery remains eternal." - Pierre Boulez

So as I continue on my musical/writing path, where this blog will take me is a bit of a mystery too.  I have ideas brewing on the beauty of music, how music touches emotions, how it touches the soul, among other things. So this blog is not a finale, just a bridge to another movement. That fits in with another story, a supposed true story about the Polish-American pianist and composer Ignacy Jan Paderewski. When my piano students graduate high school I give them a parchment with the story of Paderewski and the little boy at the concert. It begins with a mother taking her young son to a concert by the piano master, and while she stops to talk to a friend, the boy slips away.  Then,

Suddenly, the curtains parted and spotlights focused on the impressive Steinway on stage. In horror, the mother saw her little boy sitting at the keyboard, innocently picking out ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.’ At that moment, the great piano master made his entrance, quickly moved to the piano, and whispered in the boy’s ear, “Don’t quit.  Keep playing.”  Then leaning over, Paderewski reached down with his left hand and began filling in a bass part.  Soon his right arm reached around to the other side of the child and he added a running obligato.  Together, the old master and the young novice transformed a frightening situation into a wonderfully creative experience.”

Don’t quit. Keep playing. Or in this case, keep blogging. Good advice, which will hopefully transform into a wonderfully creative experience.

Why Music? For Performance Part 2:

In my earlier blog this week I touched on the advantages of performance for kids. But what about the perks for adults? Grown-ups, too, recognize the benefits of music and music performance, maybe even more than children. In fact, an article in the Journal of Research in Music Education says adults are a fast growing population amongst music students. Some study music to improve skills, but a lot find personal benefits to music.

There is a group of adults in our town, all very musically talented, who have pooled their abilities, put in some practice time, and now perform around the area.  They call themselves “Plum Crazy.” Lead singer Janie says “I love seeing the people’s faces as we perform. I have always felt that music was the language that all hearts, all people can relate to even if there are no words. Music to me is the freeest form of expression. My soul relates to the music and often so do the words.”

There’s nothing crazy about that.