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An Advent Calendar of Carols November 30, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in About Me, Advent Calendar of Carols, Christianity, Just for Fun, Music.
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It’s been a busy November, hence the lack of posts on the site. Lots of teaching. A volunteer concert for a local organization. A funeral I was asked to play for, last-minute. A great many things to blog about and no time at all to write them up…

But finally this busy month is drawing to a close, and December – that magical month – is beginning. A new month and time for new blog posts! Tonight I put some Christmas music on while making dinner, and realized how much I’d missed singing carols, together with other childhood pre-Christmas traditions. (When I was young I’d sing carols everywhere…around the house, while walking outside, in the store…does nobody sing anymore, even around Christmas??)

I have always loved the lead-up to Christmas. I come from a family of (partially) German background, and December 1 always makes me think of two traditions in particular – the first being the Adventskranz! 🙂 The Advent wreath was always made out of fresh pine, spruce and cedar bows and decorated with pinecones, red ribbons and four beeswax candles – three red, the last white. Every Friday night during the three weeks before Christmas, we would light the red candles (one the first week, two the second, and all three the third) and, seated around the wreath, sing a carol together. (In later years this expanded to one carol the first week, two the second…we couldn’t get enough carols as far as my sister and I were concerned!) 😀 On Christmas Eve all four candles were lit, the white one last of all, and we would sing the special Christmas Eve carol. (You’ll have to wait to find out which one…)

The other tradition I can’t help thinking of on December 1 is, of course, the Advent calendar! There wasn’t a year when we didn’t eagerly pry open the little window each day to see what picture or chocolate lay behind. Usually we had one “North American” calendar containing chocolates and then another authentic German calendar with beautiful, intricate scenes. We would keep the most beautiful calendars from previous years and use them as Christmas decorations. My all-time favorite was a 3-D “rabbit” Christmas mansion – every window you peeked into, the rabbits would be wrapping gifts, baking cookies or hanging up stockings!

Of course, as we grew up and left home the traditions were dropped or adapted (we still have the Advent wreath, but need to confine the carol singing to the four days immediately preceding Christmas – I think we usually manage to fit them all in, though it’s often been a close call!) But I haven’t had an Advent calendar for years, and I decided it was time to remedy that omission.

This month I’ll be doing a virtual Advent Calendar of Carols on my blog. Each day I’ll post a Christmas carol which has some special meaning or association for me, and talk about why it’s a favorite. There’ll be some traditional, some modern, a number of German carols (as you might expect), some sacred, some secular – the perfect Advent mix. First installment is coming tomorrow!

Enjoy…and Frohe Weihnachten in advance! 🙂

The Contrapuntal Platypus 😀


More Riddles! November 24, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Creative Writing, Poetry, Riddles!, Through the Looking Glass, Truth is Stranger than Fiction.
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Two more riddle poems to challenge and amuse, written just this morning. Enjoy! 🙂

(Note: all riddle-poems posted on my blog are now collected under the page A Treasury of Riddle Poems…with more to be added in the weeks to come!)

1. A trinity of teeth have I
To tear my prey as fast I fly.
Yet since the days of yore are through,
Far oftener I’m chewed, than chew.

Answer: A trident.

2. Traveller, tell me what tomb I must enter
To gaze on the bones of the Tyrant King,
Who ruled a world that never knew winter,
And fell in the year of the sunless spring?

Answer: A dinosaur museum (the “Tyrant King” is Tyrannosaurus Rex, the “tyrant lizard king.”)

– The Contrapuntal Platypus 😀

Autumn Threnody November 20, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Creative Writing, Nature, Photography, Poetry.
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“Margaret, are you grieving/Over Goldengrove unleaving…”

– Gerard Manley Hopkins (Spring and Fall: To a Young Child)

Autumn always makes me want to write poetry.

I think it’s my favorite season of the year; there’s something about that scent of dying leaves, the crisp, clean air (free now from the summer’s suffocating humidity), the pale blue of the sky and the all-too-brief but brilliant sunlight that stirs up strange emotions. All my poetry written in autumn comes out dark, even morbid, with a sense of irrecoverable loss running through it – much like the Hopkins poem I quoted above. Odd for my usual optimistic self…

So here is some (rather Hopkinsesque) autumn poetry by the Platypus, some autumn pictures I’ve taken on walks recently, and some beautiful autumnal Brahms to listen to while you explore (not in that order.) I wrote the poem several years ago while living on the west coast of British Columbia. There autumn marks the end of the dry, clear summer season; the winter rains, rather than snowfall, start in November and last more or less continuously until March or April, hence the reference to “winter’s tears” in the last line…

Autumn Threnody

Who would have thought such beauty lay in death?
Flame-fretted leaves in daylight’s dwindling ray,
Proud, flaunt their festive colors of decay,
That heady scent that permeates each breath.
Flight-weary moths that each night flutter less,
Wind-tattered webs of scattered thistle seeds,
Pale golden grass sun-seared, bone-brittle reeds,
And berries swollen ripe to rottenness.

And it must pass; this twilight season lies
In its slow-seeming perishing. Fast nears
The day the sun is hid, and from the skies,
In keen regret at all the vanished years,
The driving winds must desolate arise
And lash the woodland with a winter’s tears.

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

Beethoven’s Phone Number November 5, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Flights of Fancy, Just for Fun, Music, Teaching, Through the Looking Glass.
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Another teaching anecdote…this one’s not deep or profound, but it IS hilarious. 😀

Today one of my younger students began working on “Shepherds’ Song” from Piano Adventures Book 1. It’s an arrangement of the theme from the last movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony (which is one of my favorite pieces. If you haven’t ever heard it…please do take a moment and remedy this omission before going on :D)

I played the piece for him and explained it was taken from one of the symphonies of Beethoven, a very famous composer. He nodded sagely as he pointed to the words “Ludwig van Beethoven” written on the right-hand side of the page above the music.

Then he indicated Beethoven’s birth and death dates (1770-1827), printed below the name. “And here’s Beethoven’s phone number,” he proudly announced.

Okay, admit it…could you have stopped yourself from nearly falling over laughing? Didn’t think so. Me neither.

When I got a handle on myself again I explained to him that, regretfully, Beethoven had been dead for quite some time and, that even when he was alive, he was almost entirely deaf…so if telephones had been around in his time he wouldn’t have been able to use them at all.

Still, I had to admit I liked the idea – a telephone directory of Famous Composers of Western Music. Now the question is who would you call first? I’m torn between Bach (my all-time favorite) and some of the Renaissance/Baroque composers, like Josquin du Pres, whose lives we know so little about. If only…

– The Contrapuntal Platypus 😀

Never Be Afraid To Improvise (Teaching Lesson of the Day) November 4, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Flights of Fancy, Music, Serendipity, Teaching.
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Today was one of those days that make any piano teacher rejoice…a day when things “click” for students, not just once but in almost every lesson. One student who, week after week, had done essentially zero work on her pieces (I’d begun to dread her lessons) came in having prepared them so well that I had to stare in amazement. :O Another who announced she’d “forgotten” (??) to work on a song nonetheless sat down and played it perfectly. We went on to try some theory and ear training – new concepts for her, but she caught on quickly and enjoyed them.

But the best sort of lessons are the ones where I learn something too…and one of those happened today as well.

I hate to admit it, but I’ve always been terrified of teaching young beginners. It’s a horrifying sense of responsibility: I’m providing the foundation for the rest of their musical lives. I continually worry that I’m not getting new concepts across in a way they understand, as they’re often only five or six years old. It’s also difficult to hold a really young child’s attention for half an hour – especially because pieces for beginners use just a few notes and are often not that “interesting.” I often have this nagging feeling that if I were a TV program, they would have pressed the “change channel” button on the remote long ago. 😉

My beginner student today – let’s call her Jasmine – had just started learning how to read music a week or two ago. Today we were tackling a new piece from the Primer level of Piano Adventures. Now, this is by far the best series of “beginner” books out there on the market: the pieces are fun, unique, and impressive at an early stage. They don’t contain huge distracting or “babyish” illustrations like so many primer-level books. The upper-level pieces (books 2b and on) are, really, masterpieces of “miniature” composition; I’m continually in awe at how the writers (Nancy and Randall Faber) managed to create so much from a few five-finger patterns or chords.

However, even the Fabers had, apparently, some trouble making the first 5 notes of C major interesting. And as I played today’s piece (“Fourteen Little Frogs”) for Jasmine, she appeared distinctly underwhelmed.

“Fourteen little frogs…sat upon a log…”

No, this wasn’t going anywhere. And honestly, what self-respecting five-year old would want to learn a song about Fourteen Little Frogs when all the amazing diversity of rock and pop and jazz and country and, yes, classical music was an iPod button push or a YouTube click away? In fact, I had to respect her simply for coming and sitting in front of a piano for half an hour when the rest of her friends were all too audibly laughing and talking in the next room.

As my mind was busy grappling with this sad truth, my fingers were approaching the end of the song:

“One by one they jumped into the little waterfall…”

Jasmine’s eyes were glazing over, and at that moment I knew I had to do…well, SOMETHING quick. Something like:


…I suddenly heard myself shout, while my hands hit a big loud “tone cluster” – also known as “random group of black and white piano keys all next to one another”. 😉

Jasmine jumped, startled. (Believe me, I was as surprised as she was.) Then her face lit up. Her eyes brightened. “SPLOOSH!” she echoed, banging a similar handful of random notes.

All of a sudden she wanted to learn Fourteen Little Frogs. I told her, of course, that she had to play all the notes in the song before she could do the surprise ending. That was fine by her, as long as she was allowed to do the “sploosh” at the end. I’ve never seen someone so eager to learn a beginner song.

It’s amazing what a simple tone cluster can do, correctly placed. 🙂

The moral of the story: never be afraid to improvise. Your students will thank you for it…and they’ll pay a lot more attention if you have some surprises up your sleeve. Who doesn’t like pounding out a sudden tone cluster or sweeping a glissando down the piano? And they make a much better reward for diligent practicing than chocolates or even stickers… 😉

Even more importantly, though, it keeps the lessons fun for the teacher as well.

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

Rainbows and Rumi November 1, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in About Me, Environment, Just for Fun, Nature, Serendipity.
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Three times a week I walk to the private school where I teach, about half an hour away. In fact I tend to walk almost everywhere (living in the downtown core, most services are pretty conveniently located) and, though I’ve thought several times about getting a car, it simply doesn’t seem worth it…either financially, ecologically or from a health perspective. (An hour a day of brisk walking is excellent exercise!) On those rare occasions when it is raining or snowing hard enough that I can’t bear the thought of slogging through the mess, I take public transit.

Given the amount of walking that I do, a friend of mine suggested I should always carry a camera with me, and as I was running out the door last Thursday I actually remembered to grab mine. The walk to the school was unmemorable but on the way home I snapped some beautiful shots. It had been raining and to the west, the nearly-setting sun was gleaming through a rift in the clouds, flooding the scene with golden light and creating a gorgeous rainbow…

About a minute later, a second arch had appeared above the first…pretty faint, but visible. (Note the color reversal on the second arch…red at the bottom, green/blue at the top. Now that’s awesome.) 😀

The same friend had asked me for more pictures of my spoiled rotten but oh-so-adorable golden pussycat known affectionately as Rumikitty, so I obligingly snapped a few when I got home. Here he is looking absolutely kittenish and innocent, a pleading look in his big round waif-like eyes… 🙂

…And here he reveals his true devilish personality. 😉

(As I write this post, my little feline friend is curled up in a ball on the table beside my laptop, napping contentedly as he soaks up the warmth and affection and giving no hint of the bounding, leaping, demonic clawed terror he will become in a few hours. (sigh) Cats…the Jekyll and Hyde of the animal world.)

– The Contrapuntal Platypus