Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Failing Better

Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
~ Samuel Beckett

I failed.

Despite my best efforts, I fell far short of my goal of completing the first draft of a novel during PaNoWriWe. I didn't even come close to writing 50,000 words; as of Monday night, my total word count was only 7,056.

The good news? I AM WRITING AGAIN.

And I have about convinced myself that maybe I can find a way to make writing a part of my daily routine. Even after school starts again and I resume full-time music teaching piano practice.

Because while I like to think that I don't waste time, if I am brutally honest with myself I can admit that I do: five minutes here checking blog stats and fifteen minutes there scrolling through the news feed on Facebook and ten minutes somewhere else looking at jewelry ideas on Pinterest, well, right there is thirty minutes that might arguably be better spent writing.

And while there is nothing inherently wrong with any of those things, if I want to write a book - I mean if I really, truly want to write a book, then I need to make writing a higher priority.

Although my story has already taken some twists and turns, I haven't strayed so far from my note card scene outline that it isn't keeping me on track. So what if I were to designate a particular time slot each and every day to writing? Schedule it like I would a piano student, set a timer, pick up where I left off the day before, and write as fast as I can for thirty minutes? Perhaps set a weekly word count goal - say 2500 words - and make up the difference on Saturday and Sunday?

This just might work.

If you're skeptical, I can't say I blame you. If you've been reading this blog any length of time you know I have failed to meet my goals countless times before.

But I remain optimistic. Because maybe this time I have come up with the plan that will get me where I want to go.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Making Beeswax Candles

Who doesn't love the soft glow of a burning candle? But did you know that most candles you buy are made from petroleum based wax and release toxins into the air when burned? And did you know that some candle wicks contain lead which is also released into the air at potentially dangerous levels? Not only that, the artificial colors and scents that many candles contain can trigger allergic reactions in some people. And there is a laundry list of other toxic chemicals that is often present in paraffin and released through burning.


A little bit of research convinced me that unscented beeswax candles are the best alternative. When I stumbled upon this blog post I decided to try making my own candles using beeswax, palm oil, canning jars, and cotton square-braided wicking. Check out the article for lots of good information about the health benefits of beeswax candles, a list of ingredients and supplies, and detailed instructions.

I prepared my jars and wicks, melted beeswax and palm oil, and poured the sweet-smelling mixture into the jars. Here are my finished candles.

It was messy business - next time, for example, I will use a dedicated (or disposable) container to melt the beeswax and palm oil because it took FOREVER to clean the wax out of my glass measuring cup - but I think the results were well worth the effort! Decorated with ribbon or twine and tiny charms, these would make lovely gifts or party favors. This was my first time making candles but it definitely won't be my last!

Friday, July 22, 2016

Where Does Your Tuition Money Go?

The first day of school is right around the corner and I am in the midst of preparation for the new academic year in my studio, Asberry School of Music. Study upon study has demonstrated the positive impact musical training has on brain development and academic success as well as emotional and behavioral growth, not to mention the sheer joy music making itself brings. But occasionally a parent asks me this question: exactly what do my tuition dollars pay for?

Piano teaching is my passion and my full-time career. I earned my Master of Music degree in Piano Performance and Piano Pedagogy from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and have been teaching piano privately since 1979. I keep up my own practice, perform regularly, and am a frequent adjudicator, writer and speaker. So in part, monthly tuition pays for my knowledge, experience and expertise.

But there’s so much more. Statistics suggest that for every hour enrolled in piano lessons, students are actually investing at least two hours of the teacher’s time. I spend countless hours on behalf of my students outside of lessons, including but not limited to such things as:

Planning curriculum and acquiring music for each student.
Scheduling lessons, planning students’ repertoire, communicating with parents (emails, phone calls, text messages, studio newsletter, studio website, Facebook page), planning and physically preparing for recitals and festivals, adjudicating area festivals, attending local and state music meetings and seminars.
Attending meetings, workshops and conventions to continually improve my teaching skills.
Performing organizational tasks involved with planning festivals, recitals, competitions, auditions, and other performance events.
Attending festivals, recitals, competitions, auditions and other performance events.
Belonging to and volunteering many hours to music organizations: Gwinnett County Music Teachers Association, Decatur Music Teachers Association, Georgia Music Teachers Association, Music Teachers National Association, and the National Federation of Music Clubs. Teachers must be active members of these groups for their students to participate in the festivals, competitions, and auditions.

So what exactly does monthly tuition pay for?

My time spent with student in lessons, performance classes and rehearsals, as well as time spent at recitals, festivals, and competitions
My time spent on behalf of my students outside of lessons, as detailed above.
Business expenses such as recital expenses, gifts and awards, certificates, repairs and maintenance of the piano(s) and studio, software, incentive programs and prizes, professional membership dues and journals, teacher expenses incurred in festivals and competitions, materials, postage, and normal operating expenses any small business incurs (i.e. telephone, internet, electricity, copies, etc.)
Continuing education such as conferences, conventions and workshops to help keep me current on methods and techniques of teaching and playing,  attendance at concerts and other musical events that cost money to attend.
Going to the music store or purchasing music online, incurring travel expenses or shipping charges that are not passed on to the student when billing for books.
Property taxes, self-employment taxes, health insurance, business insurance, retirement; since I am self-employed, I have no company to assist with these and do not have the benefit of sick days, paid vacations, disability insurance, etc.

It is clear that monthly tuition payments cover much more than the actual one-on-one time I spend with children at lessons each week. Each student registered at Asberry School of Music is scheduled to receive 36 lessons per academic year. For ease in billing and budgeting, tuition is prorated equally over 11 months, August through June, for all activities that occur throughout the entire academic year, not only for individual lessons.

The investment parents are making in music lessons today will provide lasting benefits throughout theirchildren’s lives and is one of the best investments they can make in their children's futures. I trust that my own students' parents consider their tuition dollars money well spent and am very grateful for the trust they place in me.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016


Keep these concepts in mind: You've failed many times, although you don't remember. You fell down the first time you tried to walk. You almost drowned the first time you tried to swim. . . . R. H. Macy failed 7 times before his store in New York caught on. Babe Ruth struck out 1,330 times. Don't worry about failure. My suggestion to each of you: Worry about the chances you miss when you don't even try.
~ Sherman Finesilver

My faithful dog Karma will be by my side every step of the way.
I just spent a very pleasant hour or so going over my note cards and the few pages I managed to complete of the first draft of the Christmas novel I started last November. Last Wednesday, I declared July 23rd-25th PaNoWriWe, or Pam's Novel Writing Weekend, and the closer it gets, the more excited I become.

I am feeling much better by now, fully recovered from the strep I was diagnosed with upon my return from Dallas, although I did have a bit of a setback Sunday night when I was waylaid by some intestinal virus that is apparently going around where I live. About an hour and a half after going to bed I woke up with some some of the worst stomach cramps I have ever experienced; shortly afterwards, I became violently ill and was up most of the rest of the night, finally sleeping fitfully for another hour and a half or so. When my alarm went off at 7:00 the last thing I wanted to do was get up but I was committed to teaching at a summer music camp this week and when I say I'm going to do a thing, well, I do it. So I dragged myself out of bed, took a shower, made myself a breakfast of dry toast and ginger ale (which, unfortunately, came right back up), and headed off to work.

Bad things don't happen to writers. It's all material.
~ Garrison Keillor

Other than the fact that I crashed on the floor of my classroom during my hour-long lunch break I navigated through the day reasonably successfully and enjoyed my two small classes of piano students very much. Mid-afternoon, I nibbled on a handful of soda crackers and managed to keep them down; at the conclusion of camp, I came straight home, made a hearty dinner for my son and me, ate my fill, and went to bed at 7PM. Twelve hours later, when my alarm went off at its usual time, I was feeling like my usual self again. Tonight after I got home from camp I decided it was time to curl up with my laptop and make plans for the weekend.

I started by reading the first fifteen pages of Christmas at Ticklebelly Hill (working title - can you say "southern fiction?"). At first, I was disturbed by huge gaps in the storyline, then I remembered I didn't actually start at the beginning and write chronologically. Last October, in preparation for NaNoWriMo, I outlined the story from beginning to end describing individual scenes on note cards with the intention of writing the scenes as inspiration struck placing them in the manuscript in note card order. Ah, better! Once I figured that out, although there were a few things that made me cringe, my thoughts generally ran along the lines of "Did I really write this?" and "Wow, that's actually pretty good!" - which is way better than the alternative.

You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.
~ A. A. Milne

In addition to the note card scene outline, I found a couple of pages of character sketches with names and descriptions of all the main characters in the story as well as about five typewritten pages of backstory. All of will help me keep straight who my characters people are, where they come from, and what makes them tick. I wish I hadn't thrown away all my old magazines after I finished my last vision board; a collage with pictures of my characters, story settings, and other visual clues might prove very helpful as I get back to the actual writing. On the other hand, time is running short; I guess I will be just fine without all that.

Now, about the actual writing. My goal is to have a 50,000 word rough draft completed during the 72 hours between midnight Friday and midnight Monday. I have 50 scene cards drafted, so assuming each scene is approximately a thousand words, roughing out all these scenes will bring me to my goal. And since I have nearly 5,000 words written already, just 15,000 words each day will get the novel finished. That's a thousand words an hour, fifteen hours each day. That still leaves me with an hour per day for food and restroom breaks, and eight hours each night to sleep.

I think I can.

Be careful or you'll end up in my novel.
~ Unknown

Although my eventual goal is an 80,000 word final draft, polished and ready for submission to enthusiastic agents and editors (thinking positive here), the revision will necessarily take place more slowly. Even in the midst of my regularly scheduled life as pianist and teacher, perhaps I can make time to revise a scene a day or (more likely) dedicate a chunk of time each weekend, perhaps a few hours every Sunday afternoon, to revision.

I don't know how this all will end. Worst case scenario, I will spend a long weekend drafting a novel that no one besides myself will ever read. On the other hand, this could be the start of something big.

Stop being afraid of what could go wrong, and focus on what could go right.
~ Unknown

Monday, July 18, 2016

Crafting with Capiz Shells

Last week, during one of my frequent forays to my local craft store, I picked up a bag of Capiz shells. I brought them home, dumped them out, and started playing.

18" necklace and matching earrings.
As I fastened Capiz shells to a length of copper chain, I began to wonder just where these shells actually come from. So after this project was completed, I turned to the internet to get some answers.

A Capiz shell is the protective shell of a type of mollusk. This species of oysters,  Placuna placenta, is found in southeast Asia (particularly the Phillipines) and also along the coasts of India, the Gulf of Aden, the Malay Peninsula and in China. In fact, the name "Capiz" comes from a province in the Visayas region of the Philippines where these mollusks thrive. Windowpane oysters are cultivated in some areas as well. These mollusks to inhabit shallow and sandy sea water up to a depth of more than 300 feet and subsist on plankton, which they filter from the sea by letting the current pass through their shells.

Placuna placenta.
The windowpane oyster has been used for thousands of years as a natural substitute for glass because of its unique combination of durability and translucence. The Chinese especially were known for outfitting their domiciles with the Asian creature's exoskeleton. A pair of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology studied the shells to find out what made them so strong, despite the fact they they are almost entirely from brittle calcite. Their findings suggest these mollusks evolved a nanostructure allowing light to pass through nearly unobstructed while also isolating any any penetration damage at the atomic level, thus preventing cracking. Such a trait proves useful against predators; further research might help with the improvement of synthetic materials such as armor.

Today, Capiz shells primarily used for decorative items such as window panes, lighting fixtures and kitchen utensils. And jewelry, of course! They are are also used as a component for manufacturing products such as shellac, glue, soldering lead and paint. The meat from farmed Capiz shells, with its high protein content, is used as an ingredient in poultry and prawn feeds.

Available at Pottery Barn. I need this for my kitchen.
The world's largest consumer of Capiz shells include the United States, Japan and several European countries. The shells are rated according to its size and quality with shells reaching more 75 millimeters in diameter considered as first class and anything lower than 60 millimeters in diameter considered as fourth class.

Cleaned capiz shell ready for processing.
My curiosity fed, I went back to my craft room with a new appreciation for these lustrous shells. Three pairs of earrings later, I felt I had done them justice.

Turquoise seed beads, copper and Capiz shells.
Copper Capiz shell chandeliers.
Shoulder grazers. Almost 4" long!
All of these new pieces, along with many others, are for sale in my Etsy shop. Click HERE to see my current stock. I add new items frequently, so I hope you will visit often!

Friday, July 15, 2016

Living My Dream

If it's challenging you, testing you, and pushing you, it's helping you become more of who you were meant to be.
~ Mandy Hale

The last quarter of this past academic year was a whirlwind of musical activity.

It started with an April performance of the For Now Chamber Players based at University of North Georgia, Gainesville. I played my toy piano along with two other toy pianists and a saxophonist in a number of contemporary compositions written just for us AND did my own personal rendition of John Cage's 4' 33". That was arguably the longest four and a half minutes of my life. I don't have any photos or videos from the concert but I do have this.

Also in April I played a concert with the Redeemer Piano Ensemble of Atlanta, celebrating 50 years under the baton of conductor Mary Hinely. That might have been the most fun I've ever had performing, solo or otherwise. Here's to our next 50 years together! 

April concluded with Gwinnett County Music Teachers Association's Ensemble Extravaganza Concert, in which piano duet and trio teams competed for awards. I was the local chairperson for this event, which for obvious reasons is near and dear to my heart. Here is a photo of two of my own talented students performing their duet in the concert.

Over Mother's Day weekend, I played both piano and clarinet (clearly not at the same time) with the Gwinnett Symphony Wind Orchestra under the baton of Dr. Thomas Wubbenhorst and was a featured pianist in what might have the first ever performance of Percy Grainger Children's March using two pianos and a wind ensemble. I will post a link if I ever get the video edited.

In June, my piano students presented their annual spring recitals - three in all - performing solos, duets and concerti, and composer-pianist Cory Lavine made a special guest appearance at one of them.

After that, I was off to Dallas, Texas for the Texas Music Teachers Association at the Hyatt Regency Hotel

where I attended informative workshops with teachers from all over the country and had the privilege of presenting my own workshop Taking Care of the Teacher.

I took advantage of a photo op with our keynote speaker Ingrid Clarfield

and even managed to get out of the hotel my last afternoon in Texas for a bite of Tex-Mex

and a tour of the Sixth Floor Museum in Dealey Plaza, where I learned much about the life, death and legacy of Present John F. Kennedy.

Then I took the elevator to the top of Reunion Tower and sipped a glass of wine while watching the sunset.

Yes, the last quarter of my academic year was a busy one, with many long hours spent teaching, practicing, rehearsing, performing, and traveling. I look back on those three months with a great deal of pride and satisfaction. My students worked hard and made great strides on their individual musical journeys; I set myself some significant musical goals and I accomplished each and every one of them. None of it was easy but it was all worth it.

I have even bigger plans for the months ahead, including a spring concert with my new piano duo partner, future performances with the Redeemer Ensemble and the Gwinnett Symphony Wind Orchestra and the For Now Chamber Players, and continued work with the sixty or so piano students who visit my studio each week. My days are hectic and fulfilling, exhausting and exhilarating, challenging and ultimately rewarding beyond measure. I am living the dream that began in me when I was seven years old. And I don't take a single moment of it for granted.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Thinking Out Loud

The day before something is a breakthrough, it's a crazy idea.
~ Peter Diamandis

I have a crazy idea. As a matter of fact, it's so crazy that it just might work.

I wear many hats in my daily life. I am a musician and a teacher, a jewelry designer and seamstress, a flowerpot gardener and a baker, a mother and a sister and a daughter. And that's just for starters.

I am also a writer - although last year when my piano studio exploded, my dream of being a traditionally published author of fiction (preferably of the New York Times Bestseller variety) was brutally shoved to the back burner and placed on a very, very low simmer.

Now don't get me wrong; this professional explosion has generally been a very good thing. I am teaching and playing like never before, closer than ever to living the life I always imagined for myself. But whereas common sense suggests I should just be content with what I have, the truth is I love writing too. And I have missed it.

I've even taken little stabs at it. For example, last October I drafted an outline for a Christmas novel that was to be my NaNoWriMo project. Unfortunately, November is an insanely busy month for me as a teacher; last November, I presented at the Georgia Music Teachers Association state conference, my students participated in a local competition, and I performed my first concert with the Gwinnett Symphony Wind Orchestra, playing both the piano and the clarinet. Finding two or three hours a day to write during that those weeks turned out to be completely unrealistic. I started strong and gave it my absolute best shot. But about three weeks in, with less than five thousand words under my belt, I finally admitted defeat.

However, I still believe in that story; I still want to finish it. And recently my thoughts have wandered again and again to The Wishing Box, the very first book I ever wrote. Badly flawed as it is - it was my very first attempt at fiction writing, after all - it is still the book of my heart, although now when think about it, the characters are fifteen or twenty years older than they were before, and they are sharing different tales with me. I am itching to get them all down on paper.

I've read about a million books and articles and blog posts about how to write a novel in as little as fifteen minutes a day. But getting up fifteen or thirty or sixty minutes earlier and writing before my teaching day begins just doesn't work for me, especially now that I teach before school every morning. Neither does trying to write after my last student leaves at nine o'clock at night, when I am both ravenously hungry and physically and mentally exhausted. In between, I am busy keeping up with paperwork and doing my own music practice and attending meetings and rehearsals and doing a thousand other necessary things. I'm not making excuses here. I've literally made myself ill by overdoing in general.

There's one thing I do know about myself though: I have done some of my best work when I was up against a deadline, locked in my bedroom wearing pajamas with an abundant supply of coffee and dark chocolate and biscotti, completely immersed in a project until it was done. I have completed term papers, professional presentations, and magazine articles under just that kind of duress. So what if I were to set aside a long weekend - three days, perhaps - and spend it doing nothing besides crank out the first draft of a novel?

I know I am capable of writing as many as fifteen thousand words a day. I have done it before, a few years ago at the bitter end of NaNoWriMo when I was absolutely determined to cross the fifty thousand word mark or die trying. I had already purchased my winner's t-shirt; I felt I had no choice but to earn the right to wear it. Of course, that first draft was pretty awful, as most first drafts are. But, as they say, you can't edit a blank page. And even though I am unable to do much actual writing in fifteen or thirty or sixty minute blocks of time, perhaps revision could be accomplished in smaller chunks.

So here's my plan. I hereby declare July 23rd-25th PaNoWriWe (Pam's Novel Writing Weekend) and dedicate those three days to finishing the Christmas novel I started last November. If all goes well, I can imagine PaNoWriWe becoming a part of the natural rhythm of my life. Perhaps I could draft a novel every summer, when my teaching load is a bit lighter than it is when school is in session. Then I will just have to figure out a way to find time to revise, even if it's just a couple of hours every Sunday afternoon.

I won't know unless I try.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Health and Restoration

Self-care is the easiest thing to toss aside when the mundane aspects of daily life take over. Compared to everything we have to do and everywhere we have to be, attending to ourselves occurs as frivolous, indulgent, and irresponsible. And, Sisters, there are consequences.
~ Regena Thomashauer

Over the past twelve months, I have developed a number of health issues. On top of the hypothyroidism (under control with medication), I've been plagued with colds and intestinal bugs, migraines and exzema, diagnosed with high blood pressure and strep . Currently I am on my second round of antibiotics and cough syrup in what I hope will beat the latest strep infection. Obviously, the nature of my job makes me vulnerable. As a piano teacher, I spend eight to ten hours every weekday with children of all ages and am exposed to all the illnesses they bring home with them from school. And clearly my immune system has been compromised by battle with repeated infections. But that's not all. Poor eating habits, insufficient rest and inconsistent exercise have taken their toll as well.

I'm ready to make some changes. I'm not looking for a quick fix, but my birthday is five weeks from today, and I would like to begin my the next year of my life weighing a few pounds less and feeling a whole lot better. It's time to get serious about establishing some sound habits.

Moving forward, taking care of my health is going to be my number one priority. Diet, exercise and rest are the obvious places to start. Based on past successes and a bit of research, here's the plan: no coffee past noon; no alcohol; no unrefined carbs or sugar; emphasis on protein, healthy fat, and low-carb veggies; one "cheat meal" per week; resume daily walking habit; be more consistent about taking my physician-recommended supplements (fish oil, Vitamin D, lysine, probiotics); floss every night; no electronics past 9, light out 10:30; up at 6:30 (although I will have to tweak this  after school starts again).

But there are other, less direct steps I can take that will contribute to my overall well-being. Practice piano FIRST, spend less time on social media and more time doing all the things that make my spirit soar (writing, making things, cooking, baking); listen to more music; take a bubble bath every Sunday afternoon; get a pedicure every two weeks; cuddle with my dog.

And while I'm at it, I will work on letting go of the past, doing a better job of keeping in touch with the people I love, making some new friends.

There is so much ugliness in the world outside; even those I hold nearest and dearest cannot seem to agree where the solutions lie. Like many, I feel overwhelmed, confused, nearly helpless. But one thing I can do - TODAY -  is take steps to restore myself. Moving forward, I will do what I can to affect change one habit, one kindness, one person, one day at a time.