To the Class of 2014

I graduated from high school 10 years ago today.  I went to a very small school in a town where everybody knew each other.  The year we left was particularly significant, because only a few months before, the newly elected School Board

I graduated from high school 10 years ago today.  I went to a very small school in a town where everybody knew each other.  The year we left was particularly significant, because only a few months before, the newly elected School Board decided to look into merging with another district. I probably shouldn’t reopen old wounds or bore anyone else with all the details, but it was an extremely controversial issue, and the effects it had on my class were made very clear during the ceremony and the speeches.

It’s hard to believe it was really 10 years ago. In some ways it doesn’t feel like it was that long, but in other ways it was a completely different lifetime (and has been for awhile). It was amazing that on that day, nothing else mattered. It wasn’t important that we were considered one of the “bad” schools, or that we didn’t have winning sports teams or offer AP credits. All that mattered was that we were 17 years old with the whole world in front of us and able to do anything we wanted; nothing was standing in our way. Of course we promised each other that we would always come back, and that we would keep in touch and stay friends, and I do believe that we truly meant every word, and really thought we would do it. After everything that had happened over the last few months, if any class truly would “stay together,” it would have been ours.

And yet things changed. We moved on from our small school and teachers who knew of our reputations before we even became their students. It almost seemed like as soon as we left, the real world of jobs, bills, loans, marriage, children, and even death hit us. And of course, even though we kept going back for Homecoming and Thanksgiving Day football games for a few years, eventually we came to know fewer and fewer people, and stopped going altogether. I think the time when it really hit me that I had moved on was the last year I went back for a Thanksgiving game. I saw somebody who I knew and talked to, but we were never really „friends,“ and our paths were brought together only because the school was so small and we didn’t have much of a choice. That last time though, we were separate people, and nothing that had happened before mattered. We may not forget our experiences, but we can move on.

So to the graduating class from my high school, and all graduates, enjoy your moment. When you leave, things will change. They may not change immediately, but at some point you will look back and realize you aren’t the same person you were the day you graduated from high school. For those who go to small schools it can be tough: sometimes it feels like you almost have to justify your school’s existence (that’s how it was to me anyway), and you feel more pressured to stay attached. But it is okay to leave, it’s okay to grow apart, and leaving does not, in any way, take away from what you gained while you were there. It won’t be easy, and there will be moments where you may start to regret some of the choices you’ve made, but somehow you will succeed. And if you make the most of your last few days in high school, you will be able to look back years later and happily remember these moments in your lives.

Happy 10 year anniversary to the class of 2004, and congratulations to the class of 2014.


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The “Click”

If you’ve spent any amount of time learning languages, you’ve probably had people tell you that one day everything you’ve been learning and studying will all “click” together.  I’ve found that these moments do happen occasionally, and they’re incredibly motivating, but it’s a long process, and doesn’t always happen at one particular moment.

I can definitely remember my first “click” moment with German.  It was after I had been listening to German from my teacher for about 3 months, was barely understanding anything, and then watched the movie “The Producers.”  There’s one line in the movie where somebody starts singing German lyrics, and at that moment, I knew exactly what he was saying.  I thought, FINALLY, I’m staring to “get” it.  After a semester of sitting in class and not understanding what was being said because no English was used, being able to understand even one line was a great way to motivate me to continue studying.  It took about 90 hours to get to that point (I think…I wasn’t very good about going to class that semester because it was so difficult for me.  So it probably wasn’t really 90 hours).  I wish I could say I’ve had many moments like these.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have one with German again until recently when I overheard two people talking about a colonoscopy.  Now that was quite a realization–first, that I knew and had read/listened to enough vocabulary that I was even able to recognize what they were discussing, and second, that I no longer had the luxury of being able to not understand a conversation I would have rather not heard!

With Polish it’s been a little different.  I can’t say I noticed a particular moment where I suddenly realized I understood more, but looking back I can guess where the comprehension started to improve.  For this one it wasn’t until around 280 hours.  Yes, that long.  I’m not really sure why I had such a sudden moment with German but not with Polish.  Maybe because German was my first language and I was so anxious about passing the class that I immediately noticed when I understood more.  Or maybe some languages just don’t give you those moments.  Whatever the reason, I’m no longer looking for specific points of comprehension.  Language learning isn’t a quick and easy process, and even when you have a time where you understand everything, there are many more hours of listening and reading ahead. 

But I’m still hoping for a few more motivation moments! 

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Children as the newest opera stars?

I’m hesitant to post much about this, because it usually tends to be misunderstood.  I confess that I watch a lot of those America’s Got Talent type of shows.  It’s actually an easy way to practice my languages when I watch the shows in different countries.  So I’ve become very familiar with the “child operatic soprano” performance.  Actually, I should say right now that I realize it’s NOT the children themselves who are saying they’re singing opera, it’s the adults promoting and managing them, and the public which generally doesn’t hear a difference between opera, art song, and classical crossover. But these types of performances tend to follow a typical format. It’s usually someone 13 or under singing “O Mio Babbino Caro” “Nessun Dorma” “Pie Jesu” or “Ave Maria.”  It seems like this really took off when Jackie Evancho sang on America’s Got Talent.  This past year on “Holland’s Got Talent” they had two of these child singers, Amira Willighagen and Sofia Asgari

When these singers get mentioned, people tend to fall into two camps.  One group thinks they’re very talented, have beautiful voices, and should be promoted.  The other group thinks they’re too young for the music they’re singing, and probably a lot of people fall in between.  Part of me thinks that if you’re going to sing an aria, you open yourself up to being assessed based on standards used for that type of music, regardless of age.  At the same time, I don’t think that’s very fair.  I get the impression that the music is being chosen more based off of someone else who sang it first, and not based off of what a teacher suggested.  I also don’t agree with some of those criticizing the singers by saying they aren’t using their “real” voices.  I can tell you I had a similar sound to Jackie Evancho when I was that age, and my voice always did remain darker.  Now that I fixed the bad habits (and had some time to get a little older!) the color really comes out, and this time with volume as well.  There may be a certain degree of mimicry involved, but I wouldn’t go so far to say that they aren’t using their real voices.  Maybe it’s just a reaction from having heard plenty of people say that about my voice that I see a need to defend Jackie here! 

Now, I do want to make it clear that I really think these girls have a lot of talent and potential.  There are some very beautiful qualities in their tone (Evancho), range (Asgari), and projection (Willighagen).  Those are very good qualities to have, and could be developed further if they wanted to sing classically.  Having potential and talent though does not make a singer a child prodigy.  When a listener is given such a limited range of music to hear, it’s really hard to say how well someone’s voice is developed.  As an aside, I’ve sung a lot of English choral music, which has so many solo lines specifically written with this age group in mind (nevermind that I can’t sing any of them because mezzos weren’t exactly the favored voice in that tradition, but that’s a completely different post!).  From listening (and I admit I tend to look up Jackie Evancho a lot on Youtube because I love hearing young voices develop), I have a hard time picturing these singers performing “O For the Wings of a Dove” or the Stanford “Magnificat in G.”  It’s not that they don’t possess the range or the vocal quality, but the breath support and ability to navigate easily through registers is not there yet (and that’s okay, there’s plenty of time to develop it).  I will say that one particular singer is able to do this pretty well.  Patricia Janeckova has demonstrated an ability to sing in a very controlled way.  This particular piece is seemingly very simple (just sung on a vowel), but she phrases it beautifully, and as a result it highlights her voice and shows that she doesn’t sound like most singers that age.  I will say I don’t think she’s ready for Song to the Moon.  She has a beautiful voice, but it doesn’t have the tonal range required to sing it.  Instead of highlighting the parts of her voice that really make her stand out as a child singer, it makes her sound pretty “ordinary.”  I really don’t think it’s a “bad” performance, and I wouldn’t consider any of the child singer performances “bad.”  They all tend to have the correct pitch, come in at the right times, and it’s clear they’re paying attention to phrasing.  But I wouldn’t say most of the music really shows off their abilities. 

Part of me really dislikes the idea of child prodigy vocalists.  Unlike a violinist or pianist, the voice has to wait until it matures before it really becomes nice.  It’s very interesting to listen to recordings of singers when they first enter voice programs and when they graduate from programs.  There are some nice changes that take place between 18 and 21, and as beautiful as the 18 year old voice may be, it will not be comparable to that same voice a few years later with proper training.  Personally, I would say my own voice didn’t start to sound pleasant to listen to until around 25.  I’ll also add that it’s frustrating when the sopranos seem to be developing faster, but certain voice types just need more time to develop and settle.  So I think that with child vocalists, the “prodigy” aspect has to cover the technical aspects (how well they can navigate the passagio, total range, ability to blend registers, etc.) instead of purely listening to the voice itself. 

Perhaps the thing that bothers me most about this obsession with child singers is the amount of pressure placed on them to keep their voices.  Again, the voice does not stay the same, and what you sound like at 13 will be different from how you sound at 23.  Many times when I read about this subject, a lot of people will say that they hope the singers don’t turn into “typical” opera singers, or that they hope they keep their “soprano voices.”  I think this encourages girls who I think tend to not have teachers guiding them to force their voices into something else.  Just because somebody can sing very high and light as a child doesn’t mean they will keep that same range or quality as an adult.  Considering deeper voiced females aren’t exactly popular in the classical crossover genre, I wonder if they would fall out of popularity should one of them develop that type of voice.  I also wonder if they would have even become so popular had they been adults instead of children who “sounded” like adults, or if they would have sung music written more appropriately for children. 

If you made it through this exceptionally long post, I do want to emphasize that I’m actually happy I get more singers to check out every so often.  I find it exciting to listen to young voices come into their own, which is why I hope they continue to sing for many years to come.  If they care for their voices properly, and (try to!) patiently wait, they may very well be able to sing some gorgeous music and able to perform it beautifully.  So I hope they continue to sing, study, and learn.    

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I started to become serious about studying Polish this past year.  This was also my first Slavic language that I attempted to learn.  Because I had no idea what I was doing, I ultimately ended up going from having what seemed like no resources, to having what seemed like an overwhelming amount of resources (which are finally understandable and no longer long sentences of slurred speech or consonant clusters).  But there is one particular resource which I would recommend to Polish learners, and it’s

There are a lot of reasons I would recommend it.  First, it’s all in Polish.  In case anyone is put off by that at first, it’s really not impossible once you get used to listening.  Piotr speaks very slowly and clearly, and tries to use very basic language to talk about interesting topics.  Some of the posts are longer, others are shorter.  Piotr recommends listening many to the recordings, and this has been incredibly helpful.  It’s also a great opportunity for writing practice.  There’s a small but steady community over there who will comment on articles, and Piotr really does respond to everything.  By the way, if you write in Polish, he will respond in Polish–which, it should also be mentioned, he is a language learner himself, learning English and Spanish.  It’s a very supportive community where you know that you will be able to use what little amount of language you do have.  Finally, you do get to learn many interesting things about Poland and the Polish culture and language on the site; he writes about several different topics, and I’ve picked up some great vocabulary from there much sooner than I probably would have. 

In short, this is probably the most valuable resource I’ve found for learning Polish.  I hope that everyone who is at the awkward beginner stage and looking for materials visits his site and tries to listen to a few recordings. 


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December 21, 2013 · 4:36 am

Just an entertainer?

So like most people, I do check my Facebook pretty frequently throughout the day.  The thing that has been popping up today is an “open letter to Kanye West” from an Ohio police chief.  Actually, I don’t know what exactly Kanye West said–I don’t know that I’ve even heard one song of his.  Apparently he compared himself to a police officer or a soldier, and then said he’s greater than Nelson Mandela…  Probably not worth trying to figure out what he meant; sometimes I think celebrities say things like this just to get attention. 

I’m actually fairly neutral on Chief Oliver’s response, for the most part.  It seems like he’s no stranger to social media and had a following on Facebook for awhile before this happened.  I can see why–he has a really entertaining style and after this I may very well go and “like” his page.  Actually, I had to laugh at the one part covered in sarcasm where he said something along the lines of if you rap really fast without a chance to inhale you could pass out.  It’s funny because last week I actually did start to feel lightheaded from a combination of singing in a dress that was tight enough it made it impossible for me to get as much air as I normally need to sing, and not eating or drinking enough beforehand.  I wouldn’t say passing out was a completely unrealistic possibility!  Lesson learned, never sing in a tight dress without at least having some kind of nourishment beforehand!  Who would have thought you actually need to think “safety first” as a singer.  Although I didn’t see that as “dangerous,” just another addition to the collection of funny stories during performances.  Now, organists who actually build and restore pipe organs as well…they’re the ones doing the really dangerous stuff; it’s entertainment all on its own to sit back and watch them crawl through pipes some 100+ feet in the air where they could fall at any minute.  They’re the real daredevils of the music world!     

I digress.  But all reminiscing aside, there’s one thing he said that is troubling.  Chief Oliver says that part of the problem in society includes “entertainers thinking they are something more than entertainers.”  I’m not sure I know what he really means by that.  Does he really see no value in the arts?  I probably shouldn’t assume that, as I have no desire to slam a police chief or to receive internet notoriety, nor do I wish to defend anything said by a rapper I don’t even know.  My problem isn’t with that one sentence, but with the whole picture of both artists and non-artists alike not understanding what it is we are really supposed to do when we perform.  Because to me, being a musician is much more than just standing on a stage for a few hours. 

I should clarify:  I’ve been involved in classical music, not rap, and certainly would never consider myself a celebrity–unfortunately “celebrity” and “classical musician” almost never go together in the same sentence.  Let me explain how it works for most musicians in the classical world:  you perform on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Holy Week, Easter, weddings, and funerals.  If you’re able to make a full-time living out of it, you can expect to perform every weekend.  Ultimately, you give up your weekends, miss family events, and cut your own holidays short so that you can make other people’s weddings Christmases and Easters beautiful.  Strangely though, most musicians don’t complain much about it.  Sure, there’s always a bit of insanity involved in trying to stay on top of everything, but in many ways it’s those times you spend with other musicians during those busy periods that help bonds and friendships develop.  And I will say, there is something enjoyable about spending a few hours in a church singing for Easter Vigil, getting home close to 2am, and then being awake, warmed up, and ready to go by 8:30am on Easter Sunday!  Surprisingly it can be a real confidence booster when you do that and still manage to make it sound musical. 

Now, I’m probably being too sensitive to the whole thing.  I doubt Chief Oliver was actually thinking of classical musicians when he referred to “entertainers.”  I doubt most people even consider it entertainment!  But I do think those of us who have spent some time in this field ultimately know that we are more than just people who perform.  Musicians practice, train, have the honor of being able to perform at weddings/baptisms/confirmations/graduation parties of our friends and families, and then after awhile are finally asked to use our music to commemorate those same friends, family members, children, and yes, even fallen police officers and soldiers at their funerals.  Whatever the event in life, I like to think that there are musicians and entertainers who are there to help us experience all of the emotions of it.

Again, I’m not one to bash others online, and I don’t wish to defame or defend Kanye West.  I don’t think I know one song by him–I don’t even like rap or hip-hop, and it’s very possible that in 50 years nobody will even remember who he was.  I do hope that he and all of the “real” celebrity entertainers think more about what it is they really set out to do when they perform.  Maybe part of the reason most people think music has little value is because too many celebrities have forgotten why they’re even performing.  Maybe part of the reason they say things that sound ridiculous is because it’s been so long since they’ve had a real connection with their audience.  But maybe that’s also judgmental on my part. 

There could be endless debates about whether certain professions or vocations are more valuable than others, and during those debates the arts would very likely fall pretty low on the list.  Personally, I don’t see the need to compare.  We all have different gifts and abilities, and there is always a way to provide a service even if your vocation is perceived as “less valuable.”  Indeed the most poignant experiences I’ve had have been seeing military veterans remain very composed through discussing traumatic experiences and seeing their fellow officers being buried, yet as soon as they hear “Taps” playing, the wall is able to come down and deep emotions are exposed.  Maybe we are “just musicians,” but I like to think that in some of those moments we manage to connect with people whom we will never see again and provide some sort of comfort and “service” in our own way.  In this day of social media connections, where it is becoming more and more difficult to truly reach somebody, those moments, to me, are the value of being a musician and an artist (and yes, a rapper as well), and are more valuable than any monetary compensation, public recognition, or celebrity status combined. 

I wish my entire blog audience a beautiful holiday season, and I hope Kanye West at some point gets to experience the beauty of a Christmas filled with classical music. 

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Serving in code

We recently had Veteran’s Day in the United States, and it’s a day where you recognize and thank those who are serving or have currently served in the military.  There is plenty around the Internet about the military and the need to support the military, but today I want to focus on one part which is very frequently overlooked:  the Navajo code talkers of WWII.

Of course, when I mention the Navajo code talkers, that’s really my umbrella term for the groups of Native Americans who used their languages to assist in WWI and WWII.  It was successful because so few people outside of the native speakers themselves could speak these languages, and they weren’t intelligible with other known languages.  It’s supposedly the only code that has ever been unbreakable.  As someone who loves languages and seeing how languages can affect outcomes, it’s very interesting to read about their contributions and learn how they really did provide a critical service to the United States during that time.

From another perspective though, it’s actually quite amazing what service they truly provided.  The history between the United States and its native inhabitants is long, complicated, and in many circumstances dishonorable.  The way Native Americans were treated is not a positive part in American history.  These are people who had literally everything taken from them so quickly; their land, their homes, their families, and even their language.  Yet, when they were called to use the very language they were punished and forbidden from using for so long, these men still served. In some ways, they understood more than anybody else what was at risk if there were a different outcome. 

Thank you, Code Talkers, for your incredibly selfless and unique service that you provided.


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Learning two related languages: how hard could it possibly be?

Apparently, pretty difficult!  At least not nearly as easy as I thought it would be.  Since trying to learn Afrikaans I’ve noticed a few things that have really made for slow progress.  My biggest issues are:  a lack of resources designed for beginners, and, assuming I would be able to just passively absorb all of the vocabulary I needed and immediately be able to use it actively.  That’s not even including the fact that I want to Germanize everything I say. 

I think when you learn a language that’s so clearly related to one you already speak, there’s a temptation to think it will be easy to learn the language to a fairly usable level rather quickly.  I admit I thought that with Afrikaans.  After all, none of the issues that kept my German from progressing are here; there are no genders, no cases, and the word order is essentially what I’m already used to doing.  Apparently I never considered the fact that passive understanding and active use are completely different.  So I can read Afrikaans pretty well, but I certainly wouldn’t be able to reproduce it. 

Of course, I’m not exactly thrilled that it took me about a month to realize that listening and reading without any real “study” and making an effort to learn (MEMORIZE) vocabulary isn’t going to work for me.  The fact that I’ve been reading and listening and have been able to do that means that I’m still seeing Afrikaans through a German-speaking mindset, which makes it harder to have any active use.  I really should be much further along than I am now.  I don’t see that as a complete failure though.  I think there is still a lot to be learned from mistakes, including mistakes in learning methods.  So here’s what I need to do for the rest of the year:

1) treat Afrikaans as the separate and distinct language that it is and learn the basic (even if boring) vocabulary

2) be more consistent with actively using the language–when reading, write out a summary of it in Afrikaans. 

3) make vocabulary lists (I hate to do it, but because I’m such a beginner, I really need to do it for right now). 


Hopefully these changes help to make the language progress further! 

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