Friday, January 29, 2010

Zeezok: Bringing Composers to Life!

“Oh Susannah, don’t you cry for me!” 

Ever wonder where some of these childhood songs got their start? Ever hear of Stephen Foster? Did you know he is considered to be the composer of “Folksongs for the American People”? 
If you answered “no” to most of those questions, don’t feel unlearned; until lately I was in the fog too (not sure if you find any comfort in that!). However, I recently received two biographies of famous composers from Zeezok Publishing, in exchange for my review. And, what fun I had learning about Stephen Foster, as well as composer Edward MacDowell! Forget the fact that these books are geared toward kids about 6-12 years old! Their simple yet engaging story lines had me reeled into the young lives of these genius men; both of whom showed musical brilliance from an especially young age.
Stephen Foster and his Little Dog Tray, by Opal Wheeler told a lively story of a child musical prodigy growing up in the early 1800’s. At age 2 “Stephy”, as he was called by his family, was imitating tunes he had heard on his sister’s guitar. He loved to hear the African American servant girl sing her soulful melodies and often went to church with her, taking to the spirituals sung by the folks there. 
As he matured, Stephen foster acquired skill in playing many instruments; most simply  by picking them up and playing around with them. Eventually, he would become one of the greatest American composers, with people all over the world recognizing and using his songs. From “Camptown Races,” to “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair,” we have all tried out a tune or two from this talented man. Have your children? I wouldn’t assume so; folksongs aren’t as common nowadays; we must intentionally expose children to them. 
Wouldn’t it be great to know what shaped the soul of such a musician when he was a child? You can actually do better than just reading about Stephen Foster; you can also hear his music on the CD that comes with the set, as well as print out music and coloring pages that coincide with the the book. Furthermore, the study guide is helpful for asking pertinent questions, doing character study, and finding out a little more background info on the composer, as well as giving timelines of what was going on at this point in history. (Please note that author Opal Wheeler uses the language of the day, referring to African American’s as “colored” and “Negro”, as well as referring to the popular “Minstrel” shows in which white performers put black makeup on their faces and sang and spoke in an imitative manner. This is merely an honest recounting of the times and is not done in a derogatory way.)
The other book and study guide that I was given was that of Edward MacDowell and his Cabin in the Pines by Opal Wheeler and Sybil Deucher. Edward was another very talented child who lived from the mid 1800’s until just after the turn of the century. Your young musician may feel better about their 30-60 minutes of practice when they read that he was required to practice for two hours at just 8 or 9 years of age. This was especially tough on the young boy because he was a dreamer that would much rather invent his own songs than practice scales and someone else’s music all day long. He was also quite a talented artist and an avid reader that longed to visit the far off places he read about. 
Eventually he would have the chance to visit many European countries, his music opening the door for him to study and to play; the beauty of the countries inspiring more music for him to compose. His talent would pave the way for him to be one of America’s most famous composers, writing songs, (which, I admit, are not as familiar as the folksongs from Foster) and eventually returning to teach music.
Both books were long enough to be chapter books, interesting enough to be read by slightly older students and sprinkled with illustrations by Mary Greenwalt to keep younger readers pulled in as well. Furthermore, there are musical scores from each composer placed throughout the book and available to print out from the CD-Rom. I will add that the music on the CD-rom is lacking in depth. It is merely a simple (keyboard?) recording of the tunes, without any words. However, if you wanted to get a deeper appreciation for a particular song, the internet would easily give such access.
Each book from Zeezok publishing is $12.95 and the study guides are currently free with the purchase of a biography (normally $4.95). If you buy two sets of biographies ($35.80), you will also get the companion CD for free (normally $7.95). They are pre-grouped so  you will want to check out the website to see how they are paired together. Of course, there are many other titles in this Great Composers series: Mozart, Bach and Brahms to name a few! Look at all the great selections and learn more by clicking here.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Learning Typing Skills with Christian Keyboarding for the Christian School

Keyboarding (aka Typing) is a crucial skill for kids to have in this computer dependent world. The old “hunt and peck” method, just won’t cut it when it comes to kids typing a paper for college or as an adult putting together a resume. The homeschool family may be able to get by with strictly hand-written papers, but that isn’t going to work out well  once the kids grow up!

Finding a good keyboarding program is the best means of acquiring the second nature skill of typing. I was recently sent Leanne Beitel’s Keyboarding for the Christian School, in PDF format, to review for the TOS Crew. 
First of all, my kids type quite well, so getting a feel for using this program from the ground up wasn’t going to happen. However, I did print out some more complex sentences and scriptures for the girls to try, as well as some practice on the number pad which I don’t think any of us have worked on memorizing.
A PDF book is easy to use, if you have never tried one before. You just store it on your computer, instead of on the bookshelf, and print out the pages you need for practice. Keyboarding for the Christian School is a “no-frills” instruction manual, with some black and white pictures or diagrams when necessary and very basic page layout. 
Maybe I have been brainwashed by years of color photos and interesting graphics, but for me, the book lacks a lot of flourish. I know, I know, that is not the point!!!! I am aware that there is much to be said about teaching kids sans all the bells and whistles...but I am just one that’s wired to like color and creativeness and I think it has rubbed off on my kids as well. (Maybe the big red and yellow swirl on our kitchen wall has something to do with it). When I contemplate handing the pages from Keyboarding for the Christian School to my kids to learn typing from scratch, as compared to the Typing Instructor CD that we used when they were little (full of graphics and games), it seems like giving them the choice between plain, boiled chicken and seasoned, marinated chicken off of the grill. Which one do you think they will prefer? 
Certainly an older child or adult could appreciate learning keyboarding for strictly the educational value in this keyboarding book, but even then, I think a computer CD-Rom would have more to offer if one was starting from the ground up with no typing skills.
On the other hand, when our kids need to type a paper that they have written, or maybe a quote out of a book, they do need to know how to look at the draft and transfer that to the computer. In this way, Keyboarding for the Christian School provides good practice. There are also scriptures provided throughout the book for many of the keyboarding exercises. However, this is something a parent could provide on their own. 
I hate for this to sound like a negative review because this really is a product that fulfills certain needs. The content is good and provides practice on many things that someone who is fluent with basic keyboarding could use for further typing expertise. Practice with Tabs and Columns and the number pad, as well as other lesser-used skills are tackled in the material. It seems geared toward helping with many Word-processing skills, which I must admit I have very little knowledge about the relevance of in this age of computers. 
But, for kids that are just learning basic, from scratch, keyboarding skills, I would say there would be much more appealing options on the market. However, if you are one that desires no-frills practicality (obviously not me) then this would be a good fit, as well as for those who wish to really work on things less straightforward than typing a paper, with greater Word Processing skills.
To look into Keyboarding for Christian the School further (it can be purchased for $15.95), and to see what other products are offered, check out the website by clicking here.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

For the Love of Music and Munchkins!

Music, like language, is one of those things that is sooooo much easier to learn as a child than as adult, or even a teenager. Whatever the little miracles happening in the brains of toddlers and young children, it amazingly enables them to just grasp and learn the concepts so effortlessly! That’s a great motivator for teaching music. However, what if you don’t have any skills in the music realm, or a limited budget that just won’t stretch to private lessons?

Well, let me introduce you to Kinderbach! They are an online or DVD provider of early music instruction that requires very little from you. A computer, a printer, and a basic keyboard with 36 to 48 full-sized keys (or piano) are the only tools you’ll need to get your child heading in a musical direction.

My daughters have been playing piano for years and are certainly no longer preschoolers (hallelujah!) but we all sat and viewed quite a few lessons together and found ourselves really amused at the creative ways that founder Karrie Gregor has put together the musical concepts.

In a rather “Blues Clues” setting (Ms. Gregor instructing from an animated set) Karrie introduces students to fun songs, rhythms, and keyboarding basics. With the help of her animated friends, (whose names correspond to the notes on the keyboard), she allows students to successfully grasp small increments of music. The lessons are short, yet not bland --nor are they just for entertainment’s sake.

One of our favorites were the “left hand” and “right hand” football teams (one was the Blue Team, one was the Red), that had little talking finger announcers (think Joe Buck and Troy Aikman) and a fun song that taught some “strategy” on the keyboard. The “play” was called and the football fingers had to play the keyboard in a certain order, with a fancy motion of the thumb, tucking under the other fingers to play a note. Very creative and yet it also accomplishes what it set out to do!

Another favorite was “Balk Talk” in which an animated Yohan Sebastian Bach talked with Miss Karrie about composing music. Kids actually get a chance to make up some songs of their own. I thought it was really clever!

Karrie Gregor is not only a talented musician but also an accomplished artist and she has provided the illustrations and animation for the fun lessons. Furthermore, she sings along and interacts with the characters in a way that is cute without being cheesy (for the age group she is teaching to!). Most lessons have a worksheet that can be printed out to coincide with what is being learned, and there are also coloring pages of concepts and different characters that are a part of the lessons, as well.

Kinderbach will engage little minds and allow that musical part of the brain to be stimulated and developed in the formative years. Research continually affirms the correlation between music and brain development in preschoolers. This product is recommended for ages 3-7. There’s also a program for preschool groups available if you teach a coop or have a ministry to children.

For the individual lessons, there is a choice of using the online lessons or ordering DVD’s to be used at home (that would come with CD’s to print out the material and coloring pages to go along with the DVD’s). The prices vary depending on the method preferred, however, you will come out way ahead of the cost of private lessons. Furthermore, all of Kinderbach’s products come with a 30 day, no hassle, money back guarantee and all DVD’s have a lifetime replacement offer in the event that they are damaged. For all the information you need to get started, click here and check out Kinderbach for yourself!  From the home page, you can try some free lessons as well as print out various pages in order to see if this program is a good fit for your family. And a one and a two...

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Book Review: Bertie's War

Bertie’s War by Barbara Tifft Blakey takes the reader on a short trip back in time to the turbulent 60’s where Communists and bomb shelters loomed large on everyone’s radar. For twelve year old Roberta, or “Bertie”, it is a reality that stifles her with fear. But, at age twelve, pretty much everything seems to strike fear into Bertie’s heart.

For most of Bertie’s life, she has used “pretend” as a way to escape her anxieties, retreating into her imagination to places that are safe and where she can control the outcome. However, as she is maturing, as she is caught in the in-between place of childhood and young adult, she is finding less comfort in her private world of pretend. Or, maybe, the world and its implications are becoming so big, they are encroaching on her ability to be a child. Either idea is something Bertie really doesn’t want to contemplate.

Thus the reader finds himself in the trenches of the mind of a twelve year old, a mind with quite a fertile imagination, at an age most of us adults wish to never revisit. Yet, author Barbara Tifft Blakey takes us there with care and tenderness, with honesty and and humor. The lessons learned at such an impressionable age will last a life time for Bertie and help younger readers to see that there is a bigger picture in each situation, that their insecurities, although normal, should not be allowed to define them or have the last say in their character.

My eleven year old could certainly relate to the power of pretend from Berite’s perspective; in fact, reading about Bertie sometimes made me think my daughter must have been secretly observed. Yet the times inwhich Bertie lived were a little closer to what I remember and what I can relate to growing up in the early 70’s when my dad kept a large container of non-perishables in the garage “in case the Russians attacked”. Bomb shelters and Communists were made much more of in the media in my day than the threat of Islam and Jihad are in the present politically correct climate. Still, the dilemma of how much to let the big problems facing our nation affect the oft bigger problems of sorting through life when you're twelve can be overwhelming at any point in history.

Besides missiles in Cuba, Bertie worries about having the approval of her father who is frequently stern and aloof. Trying to win an elusive nod of approval from him becomes almost an obsession. Trying to stay out of the woodshed (where consequences are meted out) is a close second. If Bertie can just do everything right...then everything will be alright...right?

Seems like a simple equation for peace and happiness but that all unravels in many ways as the reader walks through and processes life a la Bertie. The war that sat at the doorstep of our nation back in the early 60’s will eventually become a minor character as the war within Bertie breaks out on multiple fronts. 

Bertie’s War is an excellent Coming of Age story that reveals the depth of complexities within the seemingly simple things of life. Without preaching, it explores matters of the heart while assuming, and eventually healing, with matters of faith. 

I hope you will get your own copy of Bertie’s War, from Kregel Publications, by visiting this link. It’s also a great way to expose your child to the issues facing our nation in the early 1960’s without allowing the perversion of the times to taint their innocence. 

*I was provided with a free copy of Bertie’s War in exchange for my honest review as part of the TOS Crew. 

Friday, January 8, 2010

New Year, New You...Yeah, Right

It’s that time of year again. Time for self examination and self determination...a.k.a. New Years Resolutions. How does it come around again so quick? Surely it hasn’t been a whole year since I examined all of my flaws and resolved to at least pick one to eliminate. Of course, instead of eliminating it, it has only become more glaringly obvious. In fact, I pretty much resolved not to make any resolutions any more. I’m tired of setting myself up for failure. However, that doesn’t stop my mind from thinking about what I would resolve IF I thought I might want to maybe sorta try and do something. Perhaps. Possibly...

There is something about a new year that just  begs a reflection on the past one, at least in my mind. Not allowing myself to ponder it a little is like trying not to blink. Eventually the urge just overtakes me. Before I know it, I am wallowing in disgust and disappointment at my lack of ...anything... and feeling compelled to renew that commitment once again. Why is change so hard?

Well, I have at least come to realize that any change apart from the help of God Almighty is pretty unattainable. Even when I sort of muster some up on my own, it is about as flimsy as cheap wrapping paper. And, honestly, even when I allow the Lord to help me accomplish a little something, the right way, at some point I will inevitably take my eyes off of Him and high-five myself. My hands are still stinging from the smack when I have stumbled back to square one. When Paul wrote those words in Romans 7:18-20 concerning always doing what we should not do, instead of what we know we should do he was pretty much summing up my life of eating too many sweets and avoiding exercise. In fact, there's a picture of me, next to this verse, in the original Greek text. 

So, what’s a failure like me to do? Throw my hands up in the air, flop on the couch and grab a few cookies? Well, that doesn’t sound half bad except I know deep down that with God all things are possible. I know that He who has started a good work in me will be faithful to complete it. I know that through Christ we are more than conquerors. I know God’s word is faithful and true and I can keep coming to it’s truth and clinging to it and renewing my tired out, flabby mind and finding ever-present help in my times of trouble.

Eating unhealthy foods and avoiding exercise may seem like piddly things on a spiritual scale, but that is where my battle continually lies. Ultimately it is about my character. I have grown up choosing to only do those things that come easily for me. I was a skinny, lazy junk food junky. Now it is time to grow up and I know that as I commit, once again, to letting the Lord reign over ALL of my life, it will inevitably spill over into other parts in multifaceted ways. 

What are your struggles? What habits have you decided you can afford to live with, or that you just can’t seem to live without? I hope you will allow yourself honesty before God (and perhaps with yourself) and also the vulnerability with others (i.e. close friends, or... a blog that you know others will read and learn your deepest, darkest secrets...)  because having some accountability will go a long way toward helping you reach your goals or conquer your fears. Trying and failing keeps us humble, but trying again after failing so many times and THEN succeeding...well, I can’t wait to find out what that’s like! 

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Worship Guitar Lessons on DVD

I was suffering from Guilty Parent Syndrome. It was a quiet sort of suffering, yet it was always there, right under the surface. Ever since my youngest, who was nine at the time, saved up her own money and purchased a fairly decent first guitar, I have felt guilty for not giving her any instructional help.

At first, I actually did purchase a DVD that taught basic guitar. It was really lame and hard to follow. I realized that I could watch the DVD and learn it myself, then pass on my newfound knowledge to her. I actually tried one lesson. One part of one lesson. Then the guilt set in. Not only did I not realistically have TIME to learn and teach guitar (nor, honestly, the ability) but I was going to have to cut my nails!!! I just couldn’t quite bring myself to do that. So, I settled for feeling guilty instead. 

My intention was to find something different to enable her to learn. I did ask a friend to show her a few things. He tuned the guitar and then played it like crazy, not exactly sharing it in his enthusiasm for the great sound from such an inexpensive guitar. Soooo, it just sort of sat in her room, propped in a corner, strummed on occasionally and shooting guilt-laden daggers my way when I tucked my daughter in at night. I have let my heart grow callused to lessen the effects of the syndrome. 

Enter Jean Welles Worship Guitar, Volume One. When this arrived in the mail, a free DVD for me to review, I had one happy little girl! She wasn’t as little as she once was, for two years she has waited patiently (most likely giving up hope), for a chance to learn the guitar. Now thanks to reviewing for the TOS Crew, she had another opportunity to try.

I feared a repeat of the first DVD I purchased two years before: Low budget, grainy, hard to see and follow. However, I was pleasantly surprised that there was a clear picture, no distractions, and a nice, easy going style that Jean Welles brought to the video. The only draw back was an echo-y sound whenever she spoke, though it didn’t hinder how well she could be understood. Maybe it was necessary for picking up the sound of her guitar, I don’t know.

My daughter enthusiastically began the first lesson, guitar poised. She was absolutely thrilled with the instruction on how to tune a guitar to itself. That may sound like an oxymoron, especially in a grossly out of tune guitar, but it really did work! By the end of the first lesson, she actually could play a simple worship song with two chords! I got a really big “thank you!” from her, even though I really had nothing whatsoever to do with it.

Day by day my daughter has been working through the lessons and building on each new concept. Sometimes the pace is a bit fast and she certainly uses the pause button but I think that is to be expected. She also said she wishes that Ms. Welles would call out the chord changes in a song and slow down a bit. However, since Ms. Welles has been teaching for over 30 years, I am sure there is a reason on both counts.

In fact, Jean Welles has some really impressive credentials. She has a Master’s in Guitar performance from USC. Her instructional DVD’s are in nearly 60 countries and 1500 stores. Over 100,000 students have learned guitar with these lessons. And now I can count my daughter among the successful masses. We haven’t quite made it through all 7 lessons but I am already impressed with the songs she has learned and she is really pleased with the results. I also appreciate the focus being on Christ and using our gifts to worship him.

In all, there are four different volumes of Worship Guitar Class. Each DVD can be played in either English or Spanish and is suitable for children or adults. Also, if you visit Ms. Welles website by clicking here, you can also view the first lesson from some of the programs for free and you can even download the music. The DVD (along with a book containing the lessons and music) is $29.95. There are also DVD’s for piano, percussion, electric guitar, violin and voice. 

So, we now have the best of both worlds: my daughter is learning guitar and I still have my nails. All is right with the world and hyperbole lives on.

At the Intersection of Creation and Evolution: A Dream

The alliterating story below is based on a dream I had several years ago. Please contact me for permission to reproduce.

Darkness devours me.

I am enveloped in emptiness.

Are my eyes open or are they closed? I strain against this shroud of night and still see nothing.

What is this place?

An image illuminates in front of me. A large, leafy tree streaks past and vanishes.

It deserts me to the darkness again.

In a moment, more images appear. A rapid succession of snapshots and thoughts clamor before my eyes and mingle in my mind.

I see seedlings. Several supple shoots have emerged before me and then swiftly stream away.

“The first trees on earth were not seedlings”, my mind observes. “They were not created as small insignificant saplings.”

That thought is rapidly replaced with a vision of a man.

He’s maybe 30; he is muscular and needs to shave.

He fades away.

In his place I see an infant.

A tiny bundle of pink skin upon a soft blanket flickers briefly in my brain.

“Man was created with age,” is the next statement I hear. “Adam did not begin his life as a baby, he began as a grown man.”

The voice seems like my own.

The thoughts do not.

Reeling before me now is a blur of rivers, forests, mountains and even layers of the earth. It is like a movie rushing rapidly before my retina.

The soundtrack of this epic is proclaiming a peculiarly plain concept:

“The earth was created with age. Creation and evolution are not in total opposition. There is a reason that science finds the earth to be quite old: it was made that way.”

Thoughts continue to tumble through my mind; pictures parade before me. I listen in amazement to what seems to be puzzlingly profound and yet rather apparent all at once.

“Adam was created as an adult. Trees and plants were made fully grown.”

I suddenly feel quite certain that, if I were to chop down some of the trees that had been spoken into existence, I would find a range of rings running through their trunks.

“The earth was brought to life with age built into it… just like Adam. He did not begin life as an infant. The earth came into being with what it would need to sustain the life that was created. It was old when it was young. The world was
made with maturity; it was also produced with purpose.”

These thoughts are thrilling. Why had I not seen this before? It seems so simple. Obtusely obvious. Had others not observed this correlation? If they had, why wasn’t it being candidly conveyed?

In the span of thirty seconds I have been ravaged by a radical revelation. I feel the weight of its worth resting on me; it is tantamount to tangible.

I am neither a theologian nor am I a scientist. I don’t claim that the ethics of evolution are completely compatible with the Bible’s account of creation. But certainly Science can come concurrent to creation and affirm our faith with facts.

Of course, the Omnipotent Originator of the Universe is exceedingly elusive to what our mind could ever envision. Above what science could ever extensively elucidate.

Accordingly, creation is confounding too. Each diverse discovery deems it more marvelous to grasp. Many scientists have reluctantly relented to the theory of Intelligent Design.

That’s why, alongside those facts, we also need faith.

Lying inexplicably at the intersection of those two essential elements is an exceptional endowment: the intermittent insight of our dreams.