“I know a man in Hell now.” That’s what the Preacher should have said if he were honest. But no one wanted an honest preacher today. Instead he talked of the good parts of the man’s life, how generous, and kind and caring he was, and what a shame it was he died young–all the things everyone wanted to hear. Old women daubed their eyes and a young lady softly whimpered.
The funeral home was unbearably warm, the small room packed. The preacher loosened his neck tie for the third time and talked of heaven and angels, hoping no one noticed the abrupt transition. He didn’t say the man was there, exactly, but he didn’t say he wasn’t there either. Best to let people think he might be.
On Wednesdays I am not only a blogger, I am also a piano teacher for young children. My class is a preparatory class. I do not teach on the piano, I teach music history and theory, relying on good literature and interactive activities to engage the imaginations of children ages 3-10 and cultivate in them a love for music. In addition to books on my family’s shelf, I went through a list of “Popular Children’s Books on Music” that I found on Goodreads. About a quarter of them I found at my local library and personally went through. Below is a list of the books that made it home with me to read. Books I used in my class are marked with an *. All age recommendations are my own, as field-tested in my class.
*Can You Hear It? by William Lach
5 stars // ages 2+
Can You Hear It? is structured different than all the other books I have reviewed here. It covers 12 famous classical pieces and shows children (and adults!) what to listen for in each one. The accompanying audio cd has 2-3 minutes clips of each piece (some are short songs, others are excerpts), the book displays a famous work of art that corresponds in theme to the song, and a side panel lists the instruments used in the piece and what role they play. For example, in Vivaldi’s Four Seasons: Winter readers are encouraged to listen for the “clumsy skater” played by the violins, violas, and cellos quickly moving all the way down the scale. Even young children are able to grasp this concept and listen eagerly for the sounds. As an adult, I felt the book gave me the tools I needed to be more engaged with classical music. Though you could read the book cover to cover in a single sitting, I prefer to focus on one song a week in my class.
Note to Parent: one of the songs, “Fossils” is accompanied by the morbid illustration “The Rattling Skeletons.” Since the book is constructed in a series of two-page spreads, I simply taped the pages together and my students were none the wiser.
The Philharmonic Gets Dressed by Karia Kuskin
2 stars // ages 2-8
I had thought the title was metaphorical, but it is in fact, not. The book is / literally/ about the members of the Philharmonic orchestra getting dressed.
No garment is spared mention or illustration. If you start reading mid-book it’s a cute read–I love the line “one hundred and five men and women dressed completely in black and white have gone to work turning the black notes on white pages into a symphony”–but otherwise I was not impressed.
MY FRIEND THE PIANO by Catherine Cowan
I cannot figure out why this would be on a popular children’s book list unless it was an unruly child or perhaps a free-thinking postmodernist compiling the list. No piano teacher or sensible parent would recommend it. The book emphasizes individuality at the expense of skill and any traditional standard for what is “music.” It is a whimsical story but it encourages children to despise instruction, refuse to practice, and stubbornly pound on the keys at random and consider themselves geniuses for doing so. Not to mention the story-line doesn’t make a great deal of sense. The book ends with the piano in the ocean happily swimming with dolphins and the girl coming to visit it and hear the noise she calls music. I appreciate personification and fantasy elements in literature but this is beyond any reason or meaning.
*Fiddle-I-Fee by Will Hillenbrand
4 stars // ages 2-10
I was surprised by how much the kids took to this book. It is a simple story set on a farm that begins with the lines “I had a cat, my cat pleased me, I fed my cat under yonder tree. My cat plays ‘fiddle-I-fee.’ ” Each page mirrors these lines, substituting a different farm animal each time and adding on sounds that each animal plays like “Old MacDonald Had a Farm,” culminating in the birth of the farming couple’s child who they in turn, feed “under yonder tree” and is entertained by the fiddle-playing cat. The book doesn’t teach any music theory per se, and most of the animals don’t even play real instruments (but rather, improvised farm equipment), but the book has a definite rhythm that children love. If you read the lines right you can give it an iambic pentameter and keep time by tapping your foot as you read. After repeated readings children will begin to hear and imitate the cadence. Even though they don’t understand what meter is, the recitation will train their ears to hear it. This is foundational to early music education.
*Zin! Zin! Zin! A Violin! By Lloyd Moss
5 stars // ages 2-10
With dancing alliteration and lively illustrations, Zin! Zin! Zin! A Violin! introduces children of all ages to ten instruments, their look and sound, and teaches children how to count them (“one and two-o, that’s a duo!”). This was another class favorite. Even my repeat students beg to hear the story again and again. With each re-read my students noticed more details in the illustrations (in the background of one page you can see the clarinet player balancing his instrument of his nose and the man playing the French Horn with his head stuck inside the bell!) and with frequent re-readings I used the book as an opportunity to apply the concepts I was teaching them through flash card games (“The Bassoon plays low notes. Which Clef will its notes be on?”).
THE PIANO by William Miller
4 stars // ages 3+
A sweet story set in the Deep South in the early 1900s about a young black girl who loves music and makes a friend with a middle-class white woman who has a piano. The girl doesn’t know how to play and the woman’s hands have grown too stiff to play but together they learn to make music. (Though I love and would recommend the book, I did not read the book in my class because of some racial slurs that I thought best to avoid.)
*Babar: To Duet or Not To Duet by Elaine Waisglass
5 stars // ages 3-10
Babar is a story book about the rewards of diligent practice and an honest assessment of your skills. Babar learns that you cannot become a skilled pianist overnight and that there is no shame in starting small. This is a longer book that some of my youngest students become restless during half-way through, but my mid to older students are always eager to hear again.
*Gabriella’s Song by Candace Fleming
5 stars // ages 3-10
This was the teacher’s favorite. Gabriella’s Song illustrates through story the connective power music has with our daily lives. The sounds of Venice Gabriella hears on her stroll home from the market becomes a song she softly hums, a song the Baker finds “makes his heart light and his feet feel “like dancing” but the widow Santucci considers a “sad song” that makes her long for “younger, happier days.” The song makes its way from the Baker to the Widow Santucci to Luigi the gondolier who dubs it a magnificent love song. The gondolier brings the music down the channels and through the streets. Housewives, dockworkers, and schoolchildren all began humming and whistling Gabriella’s song, bringing the music beneath the window of the brilliant composer Giuseppe Del Pietro who on this day struggled to write even a simple tune. That was it! That was the song he needed for his upcoming performance! It became Del Pietro’s greatest symphony by far and it all began with a young girl listening to the sounds of her beloved city.
*Meet the Orchestra by Ann Hayes
5 stars // ages 5-10
This was another of my favorites. Each page introduces an instrument played by an animal (often one associated in some way with the instrument) with rich poetry describing not only the sound but the mood and unique power of each instrument. For example, Ann Hayes says of the clarinet that “it tootles up and down the scale, never tripping over a note. Its cool tones melt in your ears just like ice cream melts in your mouth.”
I found that this book did not hold the attention of younger students for more than a couple pages though my older ones enjoyed it. (I adored it.)
The Composer Is Dead by Lemony Snicket
4 stars // ages 6-12
A clever introduction to the instruments in an orchestra and the roles they play. I enjoyed the author’s characteristic wit and word-play though some mothers would (understandably) find it too morbid for their children. For example: “THE COMPOSER IS DEAD. ‘Composer’ is a word which here means ‘a person who sits in a room, muttering and humming and figuring out what notes the orchestra is going to play.’ This is called composing. But last night, the Composer was not muttering. He was not humming. He was not moving, or even breathing. This is called decomposing.”
*The Story of the Incredible Orchestra by Bruce Koscielniak
4 stars // 10+
I have yet to get through this book in its entirety in my class. It is an informative and interesting book that goes succinctly and systematically through music history but takes awhile to read and does not engage my younger students. I usually read just one or two spreads each class (each spread introduces the instruments of a single time period), and allow my students to point out instruments in the picture that look interesting to them. I then tell them it’s name and whether it played high notes or low notes. Although it did not appeal to my students–whom are all 10 years and younger–it would be a wonderful resource for older children. The text is dry but the illustrations are bright and engaging. A vast array of instruments both well-known and obscure are pictured and described in their historical context, giving children a fitting introduction to the wealth of musical history.
For those interested, I am offering three options for PIANO PRIMER SUMMER CLASSES this year:
3 day class June 9th, 10th, & 11th
3 day class June 16th, 17th, & 18th
3 week class July 15th, 22nd, & 29th
Woodlands TX area. 50 minutes per day. Time slots to be determined. Ages 3-10, $12 per class per student or $30 for three classes paid at first class, please email email@example.com to register or for more information visit my Facebook page.
The Book of Dragons, selected and illustrated by Michael Hague
Read August 24th-31st
This collection features several delightful dragon stories I’d never heard before or heard only in part. My one critique is that the illustrations didn’t always fit, the dragons often being more cartoonish and whimsical than fierce and magnificent as the stories describe them.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Other Stories by Robert Louis Stevenson (Wordsworth Classics)
Read from October 20th-27th
The featured and famous short story “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” is refreshingly Calvinistic in its eloquent and provocative portrait of human depravity. I give it five stars. The other short stories in this collection range from 1 star to 4. One crossed the line into useless and awful horror for its own sake (“Thrawn Janet”), several were dull and dragged, lacking the refinement of Stevenson’s later mastery of the short story form but still containing several lines worth underlining, and two stories, “The Merry Men” and “Markheim”, I found almost as riveting and intellectually stimulating as “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde.”
The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic by Jennifer Trafton
Read November 6th-8th
The story opens and moves with the kind of childish silliness that makes you purse your lips, roll your eyes, shake your head, then smile despite yourself. Despite my grown-up sensibilities I caught myself laughing at wandering mangrove trees, giant poison-tongued tortoises that drop out of willow trees on unsuspecting victims, an imaginative girl determined to save the world (from–whatever it needs saving from!), a 12-year-old King who works to tears the citizens of the Island-At-The- Center-Of-Everything to provide a steady supply of pepper to satisfy his inordinate appetite for the spice, a man so long accustomed to shrinking from danger that his body has begun to shrink inside his now-oversized clothes and–of course, at a giant that is asleep under the island and may at any point wake up. Especially if the Leafeaters keep digging around his toes.
But underneath the ridiculous is a current of serious thought that will take you by surprise. You never stop laughing but somewhere along the way, so subtly that you don’t know quite when it began, you start thinking as well. You think about bigness and smallness. Of fear and adventure. Of strength and weakness. Of mystery and life’s frailty.
Life is both more terrifying and wonderful than we realize. It is “a mess and a miracle. So pick up a broom and dance.”
The Time Machine by H. G. Wells
Read October 30th
The first couple chapters were exciting. I loved the style of narration and was immediately draw into the unfolding story. But in the end, the story left me burdened by the sadness dystopias always bring me.
I am increasingly leery of the dystopian craze among my own peers. I think that the occasional dystopian novel is helpful to the Christian because of its unique ability to explore the implications of secular worldviews in a way abstract arguments can’t. Instead of telling you that communism is a dead- end road, they make you feel the oppression, ride the roller-coaster, and recoil in horror as the oppressed pigs of Animal Farm come to take on the likeness and behaviors of the Farmers they overthrew; instead of telling you that Darwinian evolution offers a hopeless future, they make you feel the coldness, the despair, and the emptiness of a godless universe deep down in your bones.
I need these reminders now and then, of just how hopeless the world is without Christ, of just how hopeless the espoused beliefs of many of my neighbors are. But I also think that if this kind of literature and film becomes our main staple and dominates our minds and affections, despite our cognitive disagreement with the worldview presented, the coldness and darkness of it will still subconsciously creep into our own worldview. We’ll begin to accept their view of reality as congruent with our own. I see it in young people of my generation manifested in a profound skepticism that there is hope for the world on the horizon, forgetting that Hope has arrived and He’s coming back and that that has profound implications for humanity. The future we face is neither dark nor cold nor uncertain and we need to be reminded of the hopefulness of our faith at least as often as we are reminded of the hopelessness of all others.
Other Fantasy and Sci-Fi books read in the second half of 2014: Peace Like a River by Leif Enger, the Harry Potter books 1-4, The Hobbit (again)
Other General Fiction books read in the second half of 2014: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (click for review)
Are you ready to hear something possibly surprising about this book reviewer? Here goes: sometimes, I read a book and I weigh every word, I analyze the themes and motifs, let the plot sink in, evaluate the characters, then I close the book and…have no idea what I just read means. Sometimes the scenes of the book tumble and jumble in my head, noisily knocking around like Mexican Jumping Beans and I can make no sense of them. I can grasp no common thread or foundation to build on.
This must mean, you might say, that it’s a badly written book. But what if this book is a classic? What if this book is universally recognized by literary scholars as a Madonna of American Literature? Then, you would be forced to say what I was forced to see, that this blogger was missing something and needed help.
When I first heard that Disney was bringing my favorite princess to the silver screen I was excited. Rapunzel was always one of my favorite fairy tales. As a little girl, I dreamed of having floor-length hair like hers by the time I was 20. But as I reach behind my back and feel the ends of my hair brushing just beneath my shoulders I am reminded that not all dreams come true.
THE SNOW QUEEN
(The inspiration for Disney’s hit film, “Frozen” and perhaps C. S. Lewis’ book “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe” as well)
How does Frozen compare with the original fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson?