Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Summer 2017

OMG, it's been 3 years long since the last time that I posted! Let's see, what has happened in between:

- got back my old job on Jan. 2015 of a different academic title and 25% salary original salary with no benefit, but continued to work full time;
- revised a scored but not funded research grant on March 2015;
- applied a job of a lowered acedemic title with 75% of original salary in another state on April 2015;
- got the offer on May 2015 immediately following an interview;
- prepared and sold the house on June/July/August 2015;
- found out the grant revised on March scored at top 2%; which is 3 months too late :(
- moved into a small house in August 2015 close to the new job in a Southerner state;
- started a new job at the end of August 2015;
- skied on CO mountains on Thanksgiving;
- skied on Utah mountains on Christmas holiday;
- promoted myself to 100% salary with a well-deserved academic title on Jan. 2016;
- learned to work for a boss and to be a boss in the same time;
- short trip to China on April 2016;
- short trip to France on June/July 2016;
- skied in CO mountains on Thanksgiving holiday;
- vacation to Mexico on Carnival Cruise Ship for the first time in my life on Christmas holiday;
- trying to be my own boss again by applying a new job;
- skied on CO mountains on the kids' school Winter break 2017;
- landed on a new job and promoted myself with a 20K increase in salary on April 2017;
- hired a last person into my lab formally yesterday, finally, my lab is now rebuilt!

Here I am, when the family of 3 are on vacation in France, I am trying to write a blog post. Now, let's greet to each other, shall we, how are you all, my friends on the internet?

Saturday (06/24/2017) afternoon - said goodbye at the airport;
Sunday morning - joined a dance group of girls;
Sunday afternoon - visited a friend's luxurious house close to our house and then hosted 2 other dance girls late lunch;
Sunday night - worked overnight at work; slept from 6-8 am!
Monday - drove myself in the middle of tropical storm Cindy following a dinner at a friend's Apt, which was super dangerous when I was severely sleep-deprived.  Felt lucky to be alive!

Now it's Tuesday afternoon and I wrote this post within 30 min. because I wanted to take a break from all the administrative work that I have been doing ever since April!!!

Monday, December 8, 2014

The making of a pianist IV - Ms. Elena

If you read my last post you would know that Ms. Elena is our current piano teacher since this fall.  Yesterday, one semester was over and we had our very first recital with her studio and finally got to meet all of her other students!

The recital started with possibly Ms Elena's most senior student's dress rehearsal for her performance at a Precollege Scholarship recital.  Following that was the youngest student of the class who is barely 4.  The little fella came on the stage holding the teacher with one of his little hands and a big cardboard with the other.  Slowly they both moved to the center of the stage, he then put the cardboard on the floor, stood on it, smiled, and bended his body forward!  A bow, all he did was taking a bow to his audience!  The cutest and shortest performance ever!  After that, it came to the turns of the rest of the students - they went on the stage according to their grades - so Niuniu was the 4th and Zhuzhu was the 6th to perform.  They both did exceptionally well and click here to enjoy it yourselves.

What I did not know until now is that our switching piano teacher has automatically changed our piano learning experience from recreational to an enrollment of the music precollege program offered by our University!  Thanks to Ms. Alice's recommendation our kids had skipped the process of public audition and replacement and been directly admitted into this prestigious program to study together with bunch of talented pre musicians.

Needless to say that Zhuzhu and Niuniu are one of those youngest and weakest piano players among this group.  But that does not bother me because this means that they have the best potential to grow among their peer.  What makes it so great, you ask?  Well, for one, our piano teacher Ms. Elena is truly inspirational.

It's hard to believe our luck sometimes.

What she has accomplished so far in short is to make the kids fight to getting on the piano!

I guess some of you who randomly land on this site are the ones that are interested in education, let's get inspired by her teaching style here, shall we?

As part of the faculty body, Ms. Elena was given a spacious studio that has 3 pianos in it for his teaching duty.  After greeted her at the door, we were told that we did not have to wait outside when it would be our lesson time.  We only need to gently open the door, enter, take shoes off, sanitize our hands, and then quietly sit on the sofas - 2 of those are set close to the 2 grand pianos on the back of the room.  There is one upright piano at the right side of the room, which connected to a big wool floor rug that we later found out is for students' group lessons.  Her desk with a desktop computer is close to the entry door and above it were few of certificates of her credentials, awards, and diplomas.  There are few armchairs scattered around the room as well.

The artist is tall and was elegantly dressed that day.  Her voice is silvery and soft, a perfect profile fitting Zhuzhu's taste.

Niuniu was the first to get his audition/lesson started.

The first thing for him to learn was to take a bow, during which students and teacher are supposed to stand still, make eye contact, smile, and then bend towards each others.  Pretty much like we saw in those KongFu movies, in which apprentices bow to their masters each time they fight against each other.

The 5 year old boy could not appreciate the seriousness of this important procedure so he pretended to lose balance to all 4 directions!  What the teacher did, you asked?  Well, she kept quiet at first, then asked him to repeat, but failed to straighten him, so she zipped away, the sudden move of her drew Niuniu's attention.  The teacher then said from another side of the room, "Look what I found!"  She exclaimed.  We all looked at her direction and followed her eyes to "discover" a letter-sized cardboard laying on the floor.  Pretending to be surprised, she said, "Ah ha, just what we need."  She picked the cardboard, returned to her original position, handed it to Niuniu and said, "Hey Remy, would you do me a favor?  Could you put this under your feet and trace around your both foot prints with this sharpie for me?"

Her sweet and soft voice was like singing to our ears, even the "smarty pants" Niuniu could not help but obediently accepted the challenge.  Carefully and slooooowly he drew 2 circles around his feet, and then left the cardboard to return the pen to the teacher.

"Thank you and now, look at that, you did a great job tracing your feet!"  She praised then said, "Now, could you put your feet back inside those circles."  He did.  Then she said, "Could you look at me."  He did, and then she said, "Could you do me a favor.  Now I am going to ask you to bend your up body forward and then down again.  But this time, could you promise me to keep your feet inside those circles?"

Barely kept his feet from moving out of the circles, he took a semi-perfect bow.

First victory! 

The teacher responded to Niuniu's naughtiness with additional demands - effortlessly and unnoticeably.  She also broke a small task into smaller tasks!

"Thank you for trying so hard to keep your feet inside and for standing still.  You have done such a good job and I think you should get 2 stickers for that.  What do you think?"  The teacher complemented, purposely overlooked his imperfections!

Then she patiently waited for him to choose stickers - that took forever!  

Watching the minutes ticking away, I began to be losing my calm, but could only wait with her.

After sticking 2 green frogs slooooowly onto his standing board, Niuniu was directed to take a seat in front of the grand Steinway.  The teacher adjusted the height of foot stool and chair, while telling him and me that would be his Mom's job on the next lesson.  Then she said, "Now I want you to sit back on the chair imagining that you were a dinosaur with a long tail all the way up to that door."  Niuniu listened attentively, bended his up body carefully forward a little, pointed his rear up in the air, and then slowly sat back down.  It amazed me how seriously and accurately this little boy could follow instructions from the authority, after having been with the teacher for a few minutes!  Then Ms. Elena gently put her hand on his back and said, "Keep your body straight and tall."

She quickly awarded him another sticker for putting on a professional pianist posture.

Following that was the attention span test.  She asked Niuniu to stare at toy for as long as he could, but for only about 10 second she moved the object away from him - she could tell the little guy obviously did not have any attention deficit.

Finally it came to the time to meet the grand piano.

"This big thing is going to be your best friend for hopefully a long long time."  She pointed to the grant piano, carefully put the lid up, and played a short song from Suzuki Book I.  Then she turned to Niuniu and asked, "Do you know the name of the song I just played?"  He answered correctly, which surprised me, as I certainly did not know when and how he learned the name of the song.

"You just earned another sticker!"  The teacher announced.

At that point, Niuniu must have pleased Ms. Elena so she said to Zhuzhu, "Would you like to play your favorite song for me?"

"We just got back from a long vacation and she has not touched piano for a while."

Seeing Zhuzhu was lost in her owe watching the whole process and did not know what to answer, I answered for her.  The understanding teacher agreed, "Yea, vacations always throw things off a little bit." - now I know that I should have kept my mouth shut, tightly, while lessons are in progress, as our talks challenge the teachers' authority and become interferences rather than helps - the experienced teacher quickly dealt with me with this obviously polite/unwilling agreement, then turned to Zhuzhu, "Why don't you pick 2 of your favorite songs from Suzuki Book I to practice at home and then show me at your next lesson then."

Next lesson, yes, she did say that, my ears were functional, she did offer us precious spots, not just one, two!

I was all over the moon.

So I completely ignored the worries of Fabrice's worrying about our finance situation (I just resigned at the end of June to stay at home, but that's a story for another day), I ran to the registration office first thing next morning to secure our spots by paying their full tuition.

A bonus to marrying Fabrice is that I can rely on his total understanding of that that arguing with a true tiger is a waste of time.


...it turns out that the tiger's instinct is absolutely right.

I simply believed that Ms. Alice had given careful considerations to all her students when she was trying to place them to different teachers at the time.  I practically begged for this audition based on my trust in Ms. Alice.

(Indeed, I later found out that we almost could not get her lesson slots, as Willie's older brother, a super talented piano player, had been told to find another teacher and he landed elsewhere.  Either because Ms. Elena values Ms. Alice's recommendations more or she just likes younger students more.)

Great teachers don't come around very often and I do know we are very lucky to have her.  

The past 4 months the kids have been in love with their teacher.  Her personal charisma and her creative teaching style have turned piano learning process into fun.  To say that the kids now are regularly fighting to get on to the piano and anxiously looking forward to their next lessons is not an exaggeration.

She is magical!

Here are few examples how this talented teacher elicits the kids' inner motivation to make her demands meet:

- Constantly moving feet on the step stool - standing up and leaving her chair to go fishing treasures in her purse, "Ah ha, perfect, I've found them."  Then she showed the kid 2 pennies and asked him to put one under each foot.  "Please cover the pennies up tightly and not let me see them.  If you can keep them covered during our entire lesson time, they are yours to keep, deal?"  This technique had been used 2-3 times to accomplish the goal.

- Tense up at play.  "Could you hold this squeeze puffball up above the piano?" She gives students the toy, and asks, "Open your hands and let it drop."  The puffball lands softly on the keys.  Then she directs, "Could imagine now your whole arm is this puffball?  Could you let your arm drop down onto the piano?  Please listen to the sound that you are making."  Few repeats later, the kids understand what "relax your arm while playing" means.  This dropping arm technique also allows one to make solid and strong sound.  

- Wrong fingering.  "Have we played 'freeze and go" yet?  "Here is how this game goes, now you need to stop at the notes that you are playing when I say, "Freeze!" and then we both check the fingers and you continue to play when I say "go!", okay?"  This game is still being used whenever needed.

- Soft sounds at Forte notes.  Different from Ms. Alice who had always asked Zhuzhu to lift fingers high and then "play to the bottom of the key" to make strong and solid sound, Ms. Elena asks Zhuzhu to raise her whole arm up to the sky and let go down by the gravity.  Then she explains to Zhuzhu, "Your fingers are still tiny.  To play Forte you would have to use the whole arm's force."  Zhuzhu still constantly needs to be reminded at Forte notes, which reflects her timid personality, but I was pleased to hear her comments one day about her new teacher, "I like Ms. Elena more (than Ms. Alice) because I can understand her.  I never could understand Ms. Alice.  She just kept asking me to play the same notes over and over, but I did not know what she meant."   

- Balanced hand shape.  "Turn hands upwards, flip back down, and play."  She demonstrates as she requests and keeps repeating them, if necessary.  I have not experienced any of her pointing out or correcting kids' mistakes.  

- Play difficult sections.  Using the number counting device, toys like colorful animals, Red Easy Button, "Seriously?" sticky note pad...to repeat as many times as the student can stand.   

- Fundamental techniques.  Niuniu hates to repeat simply tasks.  Asking him to play twinkle variations A-C at home is nearly impossible for me.  I had to borrow Ms. Elena's techniques by rolling a dice to decide which variation to start with.  This rolling dice has been one of the most frequently used game at home for us.  This gives the students a sense of being in control.

- Strong fingers.  Ms. Elena also uses rolling a dice technique to choose which finger to use to play every note in an entire twinkle theme song.

- Accompany students to play.  For Zhuzhu, it's straightforward, the teacher usually plays one hand while trains students to play another.  For Niuniu, however, she is super creative.  Sometimes she goes behind him, kneeling down and puts both of her hands on the piano, other times she asks him to rest his hands on the top of hers as if the beautiful melody was coming out of his hand - she only teaches him to play the right hand at the moment, but plays often the left hand to train his ears for those tones.

- Help little kids to focus and memorize.  Taking turns to play random parts of the song: one person plays and stops at any notes of the song, the other follows to play the next few more nots, and then the first plays and stops...until they finish the whole song...they are having so much fun to try to trick each others.

- Dynamics.  Copy cat game, as she calls it.  She plays few measures, then student repeats what he/she just heard.  She shouts out loud "Forte!" then whispers "Piano" to her students' ears.  Or she flashes Forte or Piano cards in front of students while they are playing, to remind them gently.


A smart teacher always works with parents as well, right.  What did she teach me, you ask?

- Take lesson notes at each lesson.

- Don't correct mistakes with words.  "Don't tell them that they are wrong.  Don't explain why they are wrong.  Just keep showing them the correct ways and ask them to do what you are doing until they get it or are tired.  Give them time and no rush into things."


On the car ride home after the recital yesterday, I congratulated the kids and reminded them how lucky they were to have such great piano teachers.  Zhuzhu then remembered Ms. Alice and said, "I really miss Ms. Alice."

I wanted her to stay on the topic a bit more, as I myself also miss her and thought of her often, so I asked Zhuzhu why she missed Ms. Alice yet cried frequently prior to piano lessons.  To my surprise, Zhuzhu had her own answer, "I sometimes was just too nervous to go to her lessons, but I really like that she is strict, which is good in a way."  I immediately praised her for being understanding.

Thought that we ended our conversations there, but then few minutes later, I heard Zhuzhu squeezing out an important clarification, "But I like Ms. Elena much more because she is as strict and demanding as Ms. Alice, except she does not show it!"

I agree, kiddo.

A good teacher is strict and demanding, but a great teacher is strict and demanding without letting his/her students know!!!  It takes a lot of skills and preparations!!!

But still, I do know that if it were not because Ms. Alice's love for us, we would not have been blessed with Ms. Elena!