Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Field Trip: Pittsburgh

Inspecting a Stanley Steamer at the Frick Car & Carriage Museum.
We drove up to Pittsburgh two weekends ago for a short visit with dear friends.  In addition to wonderful conversations, meals, and kiddos playing and reading together, we did some fun building- and vehicle- and music-related sight-seeing.  At the University of Pittsburgh, we toured Heinz Chapel, where we appreciated the stained-glass windows that celebrate artists, musicians, and writers rather than traditional religious saints.  N. especially enjoyed hearing the organ pipes booming during a student lesson as we explored the neo-Gothic chapel.  Also at Pitt we were shown around the Cathedral of Learning (including many of its "nationality classrooms").  N. thought this was a very cool academic building. 

We also toured Clayton, the late nineteenth-century house of Henry Clay Frick and his family.  N. really liked the Fricks' orchestrion, which is an automatic orchestral music machine, sort of like a player organ with additional instruments (in this case, percussion).  We appreciated that the docent leading the house tour was more honest than most grand-house-guides about Frick's ruthlessness toward the laborers whose work funded his Gilded Age mansion and art collection.  The docent explained in detail Frick's conflicts with the striking workers in 1892.  (This was in marked contrast to the presentation at Biltmore, where the sources of Vanderbilt wealth are opaque.) 

On the grounds of Clayton there is a Car and Carriage Museum and N. loved seeing all kinds of fancy and odd old vehicles, including a Pierce Arrow that reminded us of Cheaper By the Dozen, although it was probably in much better condition than the Gilbreth's old jalopy.  And another day the guys in our group went to the Pittsburgh International Auto Show to ogle acres of new cars.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Field Trip: Korner's Folly

Recently N. asked me to take him to this funny house (do check out the website -- it's a crazy place).  It was begun in 1878 and dramatically remodeled several times by its owner, a sign-painter and interior designer.  We'd been there three times before, but N. continues to enjoy marveling over its outlandish decorations and strangely proportioned rooms.  Although it seems that the Korners had some personal pretensions to grandeur, their house is unusual among the many fancy historic homes we've visited with N. because it doesn't seem to take itself too seriously.  It's a folly! 

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Recent Reading in the History of: Music, Science, Railroads, Objects

The part of their day that Tim and N. call "school time" gradually evolved out of their daily reading together (Tim has been the stay-at-home parent in our family since N. was two years old), from picture books to fairy tales, to "random encyclopedia entry," to magazines like National Geographic, to James Herriot, to Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi, to the Bible and the Odyssey, to a string of biographies and autobiographies.  In the morning, after N. has read in bed for a while, eaten breakfast, and read, drawn, or played for a while more while Tim eats his breakfast, they sit down together in the sun room, N. at his desk with his drawing things and Tim in his chair, and Tim begins to read aloud.  This signals the start of "school."  Since finishing Raymond Loewy's autobiography in November, Tim has read N. parts of a biography of Mozart and parts of a biography of Bach.  Then he started reading him a book called The Chronologer's Quest, which recounts the history of efforts to ascertain the age of the earth.  (This builds on the history-of-science reading they've done in earlier years via The Story of ScienceUncle Tungsten, and Madame Curie.)  They've also begun a couple other books, and now they are rotating, reading from a different book each day: The Great Railroad Revolution: The History of Trains in America; Grand Central: How a Train Station Transformed America; and A History of the World in 100 Objects (accompanying website here).  After they've read from one of these four books, they also read a short section in the American history textbook they've been working from for some time, A History of US (obviously we all really like history!).  Then N. goes on to do some other schooly tasks: Daily Math, composition and/or grammar, sometimes a science experiment.

In addition to the variety of topics they cover, the four books Tim and N. are currently reading offer a range of approaches to history.  The Great Railroad Revolution is a big-picture, national overview of railroads and their cultural impact while Grand Central tells the story of one building and the company behind it.  Both The Chronologer's Quest and A History of the World in 100 Objects are as much about science and archeology as they are about the stories we tell ourselves about our origins, and about the continual modifications we make to those stories as we reinterpret or uncover new evidence. 

Monday, February 4, 2013

Music Theory, In Theory and Practice

N.'s piano teacher has from the start been diligent about teaching him the foundations of music theory.  He took to this right away and seems to enjoy thinking about the structure of music.  He's learned the major, minor, and relative harmonic scales, intervals, the circle of fifths, etc.  Recently he and Tim have been listening to a set of audio lectures that Tim bought a few years ago for himself from the Teaching Company called "Understanding the Fundamentals of Music." The lecturer Robert Greenberg has an energetic, utterly clear, emphatic style; he peppers the lectures with the kind of reinforcing repetition that aids retention.  Since Tim had listened to all 16 45-minute lectures himself already, he didn't start at the beginning when listening with N. (which might have been both too basic and too detailed) but chose a starting point in the middle that suited N. and they've jumped about a bit in the lectures.  Recently they were learning about melody and harmony.

Lectures are often considered less effective than other forms of teaching (I rarely lecture at length in my classes), but for pure content delivery (as opposed to skills development) their efficiency is hard to beat, at least for certain kinds of learners.  Part of what makes the content stick, however, is that N. puts it into practice every day at the piano; he and Tim talk about the concepts they've learned when they appear in N.'s music, and I am often told about them at dinner as well.  Sometimes, his practical experience of the material described in the lectures comes through other serendipitous means as well.  The day after N. learned about the melodic form of "sequence" we went to hear The Venice Baroque Orchestra; in the pre-concert talk a lecturer played examples from Vivaldi and Telemann to explain features of baroque music and N. lit up with recognition almost before the word "sequence" came out of the speaker's mouth.