Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The History, Mechanics, and Economics of the Piano

N. reading The Piano Book.
This August, Tim, N., and I started shopping for a grand piano.  We bought a cheap Chinese upright when N. was 1 year old and it served its purpose well: he banged around on it for years before beginning lessons, getting to know it, and it had a bright, clear, pleasant tone that helped make the piano an appealing instrument.  He's been taking piano lessons for two years now; he's developed very good technical skill but also has a really strong musicality and expressiveness in his playing, which would only develop further on a better-made, more responsive piano.  Plus we'd read The Piano Shop on the Left Bank and got drawn into the romance of the piano!

So we spent a lot of time this fall reading about the piano.  We pored over Larry Fine's invaluable guide The Piano Book.  We learned the history of the instrument, how they were made in different eras, the histories of different piano companies world-wide, the different sounds preferred by different pianists and composers.  We learned about how the piano produces its sound, about manufacturers' experiments with different parts, materials, and shapes.  We learned about global economics as we read about the impacts of labor and material costs, consumer tastes, and corporate consolidations on piano manufacturing.

But books couldn't tell us everything.  We spent many many hours visiting new and used piano dealers in our region, returning to some repeatedly.  Several dealers ushered us into their repair-and-restoration shops and patiently explained parts and tools to a fascinated N.  N. played a wide range of pianos over and over as we learned to discern subtle differences in their sound.  Though all of these pianos were beyond our budget, we learned that I prefer the bright, clear upper register of European pianos like the Bechstein and Bosendorfer, while N. prefers the more robust lower register of the Mason & Hamlin and the Steinway.  We marvelled at the sound produced by the extra resonating string on the upper notes of the larger Bluthners.  We were wowed by the huge, bell-like tone of the Fazioli.  One evening when the pedal on our upright stopped working, N. and I opened the piano up to explore how it worked.  He loved watching the hammers move while he played.  Eventually N. figured out how to fix the pedal.

Playing our partially disassembled upright.
We talked about the tricky concept of value as we tried to pick information out of the sales pitches of dealers and the reports of our tuner-technician.  We were tempted by a 40-year old Bosendorfer with a crystalline upper register that brought tears to my eyes when N. played it, but the soundboard and pin-block were cracked.  The price was already at the upper end of our budget; what kind of restoration work would it need in a few years?  Tim liked a Kawai R that was at the lower end of our budget and made in the same factory in Japan where Steinway has its lower-priced line, the Boston, manufactured, but I didn't like the sound enough to feel it was worth even its low price.  There were several pre-war Steinways and 1980s Baldwins available in our area for a good price, but until they were restored it was impossible to evaluate their sound, touch, or action.  Tim was continually checking Craigslist and online used piano dealers just in case the perfect piano for us was somewhere on the internet.  For a short time I was obsessed with a Bechstein we'd seen and had worked out a justification of its price relative to the years of private school tuition we aren't paying (or the luxury cars other people buy!), but Tim and N.'s teacher both felt this was too much piano to burden an 8-year-old with, and it wasn't N.'s favorite instrument anyway.   Yet it was also hard to know how much weight to give N.'s opinion; we wanted to pick an instrument that he could grow with, but how could he, or we, know which best answered that mandate?

Finally, after flirting with the Bosendorfer, Bechstein, and several 1920s Steinways, we made a safer and more conventional choice: a Boston GP178 5ft. 10in. grand piano.  It seemed like the best value for the price.  If it is not the most interesting instrument, it will likely provide the most consistency over the next ten years, and if we ever need to it will be easy to resell.  N. really liked the sound and the feel of the action, and I think he still will as he gets older, assuming he continues to play.  I think it is very likely that he will keep playing because he really loves it, but Tim and I repeatedly told ourselves that buying this piano does not mean N. is married to the instrument.  Without holding its price over his head, we talked with N. about what it means for our other financial choices to buy this piano, and we talked more generally about what things cost.  N.'s favorite analogy was with comparing the price of the piano with a Prius hybrid car or other cars.  

Playing the new piano (with temporary marble run in foreground!)!
Our piano was delivered in mid-October and tuned and voiced a few weeks later after it had a chance to adapt to our house.  The day it arrived was so exciting, and for a couple weeks afterwards N. told everyone we knew about it and repeatedly stayed up late playing it.  It is such a pleasure for us to hear N. play the new piano; it's so beautiful! 

We had a lot of fun throughout this process and we all learned so much about the piano.  I am sure that N.'s playing will continue to develop in interesting ways not only because he now has an excellent instrument, but because he has a much richer understanding of its mechanics and its history.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

An Array of Art in Washington, D.C.

Model of the Smithsonian "castle" (one of N.'s faves) at the Botanic Garden
We spent Thanksgiving with my parents in Washington D.C. and enjoyed two fun museum outings.  Friday we went to the U.S. Botanic Garden to see "Seasons Greenings," the holiday model train display.  N. loves this because not only does it feature model trains, but they zoom along tracks in a lovely fairy-land made of organic matter (gourds, acorns, moss, etc.), and the main conservatory of the Botanic Gardens are filled with models of D.C. architectural landmarks made of leaves, twigs, gourds, etc.  This year (we go to this exhibit annually) N. was even more excited by the model buildings than by the trains.

After lunch Friday at the excellent cafe at the nearby National Museum of the American Indian and a brief examination of several canoes in the lobby, we went the the Hirshhorn Museum to see an exhibit of work by Ai Weiwei.  The pieces in this show ranged from whimsical to distressing.  N. really got a lot out of the show even though some of it disturbed him.  He loved a sculpture made from bicycle frames and another made from old temple stools joined together in a kind of sphere.  He was saddened by an undulating arrangement of rebar from school buildings that collapsed in the Sichuan earthquake of 2008 but also saw its beauty as sculptural form.  The piece N. really hated, however, was a series of three large photographs of Ai Weiwei in which he drops an ancient Han Dynasty urn.  In the final photo the urn lies shattered at the artist's feet.  N., despite his dread fascination with certain catastrophes that are at a safe historical remove such as the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1916 or the sinking of the Titanic, has a serious veneration for old things, and he just couldn't understand why Ai would break an ancient urn on purpose.  I liked seeing N. wrestle with this work.  He tried to deal with the challenge it posed by saying, "I hate Ai Weiwei but I like some of his art," but this clearly didn't satisfy him.  And none of us could resolve it for him.  I don't know exactly why he made photographs of himself intentionally dropping an urn, but we talked a lot about why he might have, what it might mean about art and value, old and new.

Saturday we went to the National Gallery of Art to see a new exhibit of 18th- and early 19th-century furniture.  N.'s love of architecture makes the period rooms in museums appeal to him.  He was really absorbed in this exhibit, looking carefully at all the chairs and tables, identifying the features of Queen Anne, Chippendale, and Empire styles that the wall plaques described.  He and Tim have been gotten up to Andrew Jackson in American History so N. had a good sense of the context for the ubiquitous eagle adorning the furniture and his eyes lit up at the unfinished portrait of Jackson himself, or "King Andrew," as N. informed me his critics called him.  I was happy because the exhibit included a large selection of card tables from the period, which I am obsessed with thanks to my book on 18th-century gambling.  My parents went to "The Serial Portrait" photography exhibit while N. and I wandered through some galleries of Italian late-Renaissance sculpture, furniture, armor, etc. and briefly in a period room from an 18th-century French chateau.  Then Tim took N. to see the Degas "Little Dancer, 14 years old" and we looked at some of Degas' smaller sculptures, which N. really liked.  That was more than enough art-viewing for one day for one eight-year-old!

While we've been to D.C. many times and we've gone to many interesting sites, we've seen relatively little art there with N. because he (understandably) seems to find art museums overwhelming.  As I found when we went to London in 2011, the key with him is to have a short, focused visit to an art museum, to choose one exhibit or room ahead of time, and to look for objects, which he is generally more intrigued by than paintings.  While I still want to try to see everything in the whole museum myself, I try to remember that a more focused visit may actually be more memorable, both for N. and for the adults, as was the case during these two rich days.   

Monday, November 26, 2012

Sourdough and Other Strange Creatures

Our jar of sourdough starter.
We have several ongoing fermentation projects that N. and I refer to as "Strange Creatures Growing in the Kitchen" (you have to say this in a spooky voice): our own kombucha, keifer, yogurt, and sourdough.  I abandoned the keifer because it grew faster than I could eat it and no one else in my family liked it.  The kombucha is a seasonal thing because in late summer I can't keep the fruit flies out of it; I've just restarted with a "mother" from a neighbor.  The yogurt is a new endeavor; for about a month I've been making batches of whole-milk yogurt in a small crock pot and it is super-easy and delicious.  The basic method is here (I used a cup of store-bought plain organic yogurt as a starter for my first batch and I don't use a candy themometer).  I am never buying yogurt again!

But the fermenting achievement we are most proud of is our sourdough.  We've kept the same batch of starter alive for 7 years!  I captured wild yeast with the water from boiled potatoes.  I don't remember where I read about the method or much about how I did it, but I think it was something similar to this (Be sure to use organic potatoes.  I used whole wheat flour.  And don't store food in plastic containers!).  Although I started it, Tim is the Keeper of the Sourdough and Maker of the Sourdough Bread (and Waffles, Pancakes, Rolls, etc.).  Here's how he cares for the starter, which we keep in a 1-quart (glass) mason jar in the fridge (loosely covered with a canning lid and ring):  Take 1/2 of starter out of jar and set aside to use in bread.  Add to remaining starter 3/4 c. whole wheat flour and 1/2 cup of water.  Stir well, return to fridge.  Could that be easier?  You feed it as often as you want to use it.  When we go away for a month, we ask our house-sitter to feed the starter once to keep it lively.

Here's Tim's delicious Sourdough Bread Recipe.  It takes 2 days (but requires no kneading!):

Day 1:
  • In a bowl, combine 1/4 c. lukewarm water and 1/2 tsp. yeast (or 1/4 tsp. instant yeast).
  • Grind 1/2 c. walnuts or almonds with 2 tsp. sugar in electric grinder (optional), add to yeast and water.
  • Add 2 tsp. salt to yeast & water.
  • Add 1/4 tsp. caraway seeds and fresh chopped rosemary (or seasonings/herbs of your choice) to yeast & water.
  • Stir in starter to yeast & water.
  • Stir in 1/4 c. ground flax seeds.
  • Stir in 3 1/2 c. whole wheat flour (sometimes we use a combination of whole wheat and "white whole wheat").
  • Stir in 1 1/2 - 2 c. water.  Mixture will be very wet.
  • Cover and refrigerate overnight.
Day 2:
  • Remove dough from fridge, split into two equal balls.
  • Line 2 sieves with well-floured towels, put 1 ball of dough in each sieve on floured towel, lightly cover dough with towel.  Let rise 2-5 hours.
  • Near end of rising time, place pizza stone in oven and heat oven to 450 degrees.  When oven is hot, turn each round loaf out of sieve onto heated pizza stone.  Toss 2-4 ice cubes into oven (makes a crispy crust).  Bake for 15 minutes; turn oven down to 350 degrees and bake for 25 minutes.  
  • Bread is done if it sounds hollow when the bottom is tapped.
The homeschool aspect to all this: learning about bacteria and fermenting, where food comes from, slow food, following instructions but also doing it ourselves through experimentation.  Plus, the deep pleasure of a warm piece of bread topped with melting butter!

The next Strange Creatures I want to cultivate are vinegars, such as apple-cider vinegar and red wine vinegar... 

Friday, November 23, 2012

Hugo Cabret and Georges Méliès

Still from A Trip to the Moon by Georges Melies [Source]
Last March, N. read Brian Selznick's novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret (2007).  I didn't know much about it beyond this: it is about a boy who lives in a train station in early 20th-century Paris and the narrative is partly told through detailed, realistic pencil drawings.  I thought both of these features would appeal to N. and he said he liked the book a lot (in July he read Selznick's newest book, Wonderstruck, which he liked even more). 

N. didn't talk much about Hugo Cabret after reading it, but recently he asked several times if we could find the film "A Trip to the Moon" by Georges Méliès.  He wanted to watch it.  I had no idea what he was talking about, and it only gradually emerged that he'd learned about Méliès through Selznick's novel, in which the pioneering French filmmaker is an important character.  I found this incredible box set of 173 (!) of Méliès's films at the library, and we've been gradually working our way through them, a couple 2- or 3-minute films at a time.  We've already watch "A Vanishing Lady" and "A Trip to the Moon" multiple times.  It is astonishing to watch films made in the 1890s and early 1900s!  

As I've now learned (thanks to the material accompanying the DVDs), Méliès was a practicing magician and he was one of the first to grasp the non-realist potential of cinema while others were using the new medium for documentary realism.  For example, in "A Vanishing Lady," Méliès makes a woman disappear, replaces her with a skeleton, and makes her reappear, all through stop-action filming.  Since N. has only watched 3 full-length movies in his life, including one silent film (Buster Keaton's "The General"), he is not much more sophisticated a viewer than those who first saw Méliès's films at the turn of the century and he is absolutely charmed by them.  They don't seem quaint to him, but amazing.  When N. first watched "A Vanishing Lady," for example he had no idea how the illusion was achieved!  He laughs uproariously at films' physical comedy, marvels at their illusions, and hums the accompanying music all day.  

So we've had a lot of fun learning about the early history of cinema.  I finally read The Invention of Hugo Cabret last week after we'd begun watching Méliès's films, and while I think the writing itself is quite pedestrian, I am grateful to Selznick for sparking N.'s interest in Méliès and leaving clear trails throughout the text and in the Afterword for further exploration.  In an earlier post explaining why we severely restrict N.'s screen time, I describe our view of our parental role as "curators" offering quality visual experiences.  While our restrictions may have made N. more receptive to Méliès's films than more media-saturated kids might be, it's also true that our exploration of Méliès and other early filmmakers was driven by N. and was not "curated" by his parents at all.  I had never heard of Georges Méliès before last week!  The list of things I've learned about through my son's interests is ever-growing.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Introducing The 18th-Century Common

Since many of you who read and comment on my blog seem to be bookish sorts, I want to tell you about The 18th-Century Common (, a new public humanities website that my colleagues and I have just launched.  It's a public space for sharing the research of scholars who study eighteenth-century cultures with nonacademic readers.  The site will present short digests of the research of 18th-century scholars in many disciplines in accessible, non-specialized language, along with links to original texts, objects, images, and resources for further reading.  Scholars will also write blog posts making connections between 18th-century studies and contemporary events.  The site is not aimed at students, but at the sorts of readers who make bestsellers of trade books such as The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (Knopf, 2009) or new biographies of the Founding Fathers -- adult readers who are interested in the ideas, history, art, literature, music, and science of an earlier era. 

We want to tell such readers about our research and the scholarship that we produce.  We think the work we do is really interesting and we want to share that with readers beyond the academy and outside the confines of today's challenging publishing climate.  Furthermore, we hope to build a responsive community among scholars and nonacademic readers, so that eventually the content we post will be generated by interactions on the site as readers ask questions and suggest ideas they'd like to explore.

I hope you'll browse The 18th-Century Common, comment, sign up for updates, follow us on Twitter (@18common), tell your friends, and come back to read more as we add content.  We're excited to take the eighteenth century beyond the academy to the internet!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

A Frank Lloyd Wright Doghouse!

Letters of Note recently featured a letter that a 12-year-old boy wrote to Frank Lloyd Wright in 1956 asking him to design a doghouse that would go with the house Wright designed for the boy's father:

June 19, 1956

Dear Mr. Wright

I am a boy of twelve years. My name is Jim Berger. You designed a house for my father whose name is Bob Berger. I have a paper route which I make a little bit of money for the bank, and for expenses.

I would appreciate it if you would design me a dog house, which would be easy to build, but would go with our house. My dog's name is Edward, but we call him Eddie. He is four years old or in dog life 28 years. He is a Labrador retriever. He is two and a half feet high and three feet long. The reasons I would like this dog house is for the winters mainly. My dad said if you design the dog house he will help me build it. But if you design the dog house I will pay you for the plans and materials out of the money I get from my route.

Respectfully yours,

Jim Berger

You must go look at the images of the original letter, Wright's reply, the boy's follow-up letter, and Wright's plans for the doghouse at Letters of Note!   We thought the gas station in Cloquet was the oddest FLW building, but this doghouse is even more surprising.  We really enjoyed reading about it!

Big thanks to Melissa Wiley for alerting me to this post on Letters of Note.

Our previous Frank Lloyd Wright encounters:  his Autobiography, his gas station, his estate in Wisconsin.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Artist Trading Card Swap 2012

In October I signed N. up for an Artist Trading Card Swap run by the blog bright eyes + blue eyes.  We'd never participated in one before, but N. had a lot of fun drawing tiny buildings, trains, and cars on 2.5-by-3.5-inch cards and mailing them out to the list of seven 8-year-olds we were given.  Even more fun was receiving a whole bunch of mail with colorful cards enclosed!  He immediately wanted to find another swap to participate in.


Sunday, November 11, 2012

Sunday Morning Monopoly

Enjoying a mellow Sunday morning game of monopoly, practicing math and perfecting our vulture capitalist ploys...

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Learning to Love Learning in Jane of Lantern Hill

(Drawing by N.)
In the comments on my post on architecture in children's books, Melissa Wiley mentioned Jane of Lantern Hill, one of the few novels by L.M. Montgomery that I'd never read, so I indulged and read it practically in one sitting recently.  Of course I love it, and it is indeed centrally concerned with the architecture of "home."  I was also struck by the description of how Jane's father uses narrative to make learning appealing for the emotionally abused heroine for whom school had been simply another venue for humiliation and failure.

Jane had been forced to read the Bible aloud to her grandmother and consequently hated it; in contrast her father (with whom she has recently reunited) reads the Bible aloud with deep feeling and love for its language.  As Jane engages with the Bible freely and experiences her dad's fascinating observations about it, she comes to love it. 
"When dad had converted her to the Bible, he set about making history and geography come alive for her.  She had told him she always found those subjects hard.  But soon history no longer seemed a clutter of fates and names in some dim, cold antiquity but became a storied road of time when dad told her old tales of wonder and the pride of kings.  When he told the simplest incident with the sound of the sea in his voice, it seemed to take on such a colouring of romance and mystery that Jane knew she could never forget it.  Thebes... Babylon... Tyre... Athens... Galilee... were places where real folks lived... folks she knew.  And, knowing them, it was easy to be interested in everything pertaining to them.  Geography, which had once meant merely a map of the world, was just as fascinating."
 Such a moving account of Jane's intellectual awakening!  This poor girl who has had almost no friends and almost no love blossoms when, after she has made friends and felt love, she discovers that learning is yet another form of friendship  -- with her father, with the people of the past.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Political Learning

(N.'s quick rendition of the Obama campaign symbol)
Our recent hands-on lessons in government and politics culminated with a thorough reading of the newspaper over breakfast this morning!  Although some of our state results disappointed us, we were thrilled that equal rights for gay couples fared so well in several states, and we were relieved and excited about Obama's victory.

N. knocked on doors with me in 2008 and this year he hung out with me at our local campaign headquarters on Election Day while I waited to drive voters to polling places.  In 2008 he echoed our passion for the Presidential campaign without a deep understanding of what it was all about and this year I found it fascinating to discover through our many conversations about politics what he now understood and what he was still confused about.

Politics has been a model for me of family-based learning (which is essentially what homeschooling is) since my own childhood.  My dad has worked in politics for most of my life and the two-year election cycle of the U.S. House of Representatives was the circadian rhythm of our family.  I remember my dad joining us late at a rented cabin some Junes when the Minnesota DFL nominating conventions ran long; in later years our family vacations were timed to the Congress's August recess.  My three siblings, my mom, and I couldn't help but learn a lot about government and politics from my dad.

Even though our national political discourse often leaves much to be desired, politics is a great learning vehicle.  Whether you care about the big picture or a particular issue, there is something in politics for everyone to get passionate about and there are always opportunities to get involved locally.  N. has been really interested this season in parsing the visual symbolism of the campaigns, especially as he's been learning about Raymond Loewy's visual branding techniques.  We can think about international relations and national and world history though politics.  We learn how to respect differences as we discover that friends and family members don't share our views.  I grew up caring about politics because my family talked about it and family conversation is an excellent way to learn.  I've mentioned before that I love the long learning trajectories of homeschooling, the opportunity to revisit ideas and engage more deeply; election cycles give us the chance to re-examine issues, reinforce learning, and build on knowledge every couple of years. 

Friday, November 2, 2012

Celebrating Halloween

Red Riding Hood and a bat
I love Halloween!  I love the crowds roaming the neighborhood at night.  I love watching our son and his friends revel in the spooky decor that used to terrify them.  I love Halloween's defiant spirit of excess.