{concerning vocation} liberating society

Wrapping up lessons with my piano students is one of the most sentimental parts of this season of endings. I’ve been overwhelmingly blessed with a career that uses my talents and training, and after three years of a job that definitely  wasn’t like that, I have been especially grateful for every single day of this experience.

[image source here]

[image source here]

Maybe the most fulfilling part of this job is that it puts me in control of my success for a day of work. I don’t have to worry about choosing between making a customer or my boss happy. All I have to do is get along with this kid for this half-hour, and I really enjoy that I tailor my lesson plans based on what I know is best for each student because of our established relationship. I love that I am in control of studio members, so I can easily weed out students who don’t want to cooperate and parents who are manipulative or difficult. Most of the time those issues are probably just personality differences, but it’s a huge gift that I decide where I get to draw those lines.

Self-employment is an experience you can’t understand until you’ve done it yourself. I think it’s my best fit, and I’m excited that moving provides a great opportunity to make a few changes for better growth as a business owner… even though it does mean basically starting over with clients, too. This sets me apart a bit from others who don’t understand what it means to work for yourself, and I find the comments from people who don’t “get it” pretty laughable. Most people have been spared the hassle of billing, fees, bookkeeping, paying taxes that aren’t withheld by an employer, saving up for unpaid sick and vacation days, and selecting a single-payer private health-insurance plan for a woman in her mid-twenties, but those are just as much a part of my day-to-day business operations as sitting at the piano. 

I learned a lot of lessons in my season of office work and I think that strengthens my perspective in many aspects of life. I’m still not at the point where I would say I’m glad I went through that. I wish I hadn’t believed the doubts and been brave enough to start moving towards this sooner. On the other hand, self-employment is not for the faint of heart, and I still think we were a little bit crazy to jump forward while Aaron was in grad school and we had a mortgage and wanted to have kids, but it has enriched our lives greatly. In the face of other significant heartbreak and waiting, it has been a special gift to be so fulfilled and delighted in my job.

I’m grateful the days I have worked are leaving more behind than a bunch of pay stubs. I’ve marched around my living room to the beat of a metronome to demonstrate that two eighth-notes fit in the same amount of time as a quarter note, watched hard work and discipline result in beautiful self-expression, and explained how JS Bach’s Crab Canon is like one giant math problem on a Moebius strip. I’ve helped kids prepare songs to play at their grandparents’ funerals, admonished unprepared students to develop a stronger work ethic, and taught them how to fairly evaluate their own improvements. The best part of a day is telling a child, “You worked hard and I am so proud of you!” Piano lessons? Sometimes it feels more like I’m teaching “Life Lessons.” I’m okay with that.

While I’ve been told I earn a “killing” (ha) to “stay home and sit around,” (ha) and have been told charging a fair rate is “greedy” (ha), none of that is true. I’m pretty sure I’ve been wildly blessed in this job and I’m grateful for that. How many people can say the cornerstone of their career is “rocking”? Not many. I’m in a happy minority.

music HA HA

reading round-up (10.04.13)

Too bad it’s controversial to argue that the primary purpose of high school is educating students. Here’s an article I found really interesting about a school that ended their high-school sports programs in favor of a (much cheaper) school-wide fitness initiative. Most of my teacher friends say school sports should be abolished in favor of intramural or club teams, which would take no money from the school and no class time away from the students, and I would love to read about more schools trying this!

This month my piano students and I are celebrating “Bach-tober,” in honor of the German composer Johann Sebastian Bach. I enjoyed reading about the Resurrection themes of his life and music. Anyone interested in a further look at his life might enjoy Evening in the Palace of Reason, by James R Gaines, and anyone just wanting to listen to some cool music should check out the Bach-stiftung YouTube channel.

So, speaking of education and music… Why Tough Teachers Get Good Results explains a lot (to me) about what worked and didn’t work in my academic classes last year, and Peter Lawler’s follow-up Teaching As Shouting is helping me evaluate my philosophy as a music teacher. Private music lessons are still mostly a “bonus” activity for many families, and I’ve always had the impression the kids who most need some straight talk about their work ethic or focus are the ones with parents who would withdraw them from the studio if they ever cried during or after a lesson.
Lawler also had some interesting comments on stress. I found the first sentence alarming and the rest encouraging: “The best way to handle stress is to routinely experience it. [OH NO!] As Aristotle says, the best way to come to possess the moral virtue of courage is actually to be in situations where courage is required to live well. The more the virtue becomes your own, the easier it is to keep your head, choose well, and even be happy in risky situations.” I think instead of saying my life feels stressful right now, I want to start saying it is full of risky situations. That sounds more adventurous.

Debate about GMO crops hits close to home for us because of Aaron’s research in that field and, contrary to some public opinions, actual scientific research about the safety and benefits of crop engineering has been overwhelmingly positive!

sharpened pencils

This rest of this summer was brutally dry and hot, but now our mid-August weather has mellowed into a gentle respite of 70-degree days. With a cool breeze at night, sleep comes easier and deeper. (At last. I never sleep well in the summer.) And after that, these mornings are just right for steaming cups of coffee on the patio. I love this. The very end of summer signifies a turn to my favorite season, fall, and I usually call these weeks of changing weather “Pre-Autumn” in anticipation. I spend them obsessively dreaming about piles of leaves, apple cider, flannel shirts, butternut squash (not spaghetti squash – I will never eat that again), mugs of chili topped with sour cream, wool sweaters, hot tea, crisp mornings, thick socks, and orchard apples. Also, school supplies. I can’t get enough. I love the feel of paper, the tab dividers on folders, the sharp open-close of the rings on 3-ring-binders, and, second only to sticky post-its, I love writing with regular sharpened wood pencils. I usually indulge myself in some unnecessary stationery purchases during this time because that urge to browse the school supply aisles is so overwhelming.

“Don’t you love New York in the fall? It makes me wanna buy school supplies. I would send you a bouquet of newly sharpened pencils if I knew your name and address.” – Joe Fox in You’ve Got Mail.

This year I join my teacher-friends in a collective mid-August panic attack because school is starting. On Monday I leave this state of suspense and enter my favorite season with exciting challenges that will stretch me in many different ways for ministry and business. (And luckily, I feel like the business is a bit of a ministry, too.)  There are thirty-one students registered for fall semester piano lessons, I’m leading a group of other ladies in my Bible study program, I’m on a Sunday-School rotation at church, and I’m directing six academic subjects for a group of ten home-school students in 8th and 9th grades.  It was a huge leap for us when I quit my job and let my marketable skills and budding entrepreneurial spirit take us into uncharted income territory, and it’s wonderful to see this dream coming to fruition. I’m overjoyed that this is happening, but I’m also hyperventilating every time I look ahead to how much is already filled in on my calendar.

But I think fall is a great time to be stretched. Nature will provide some important lessons, because I know there is a lot that has to die and fall away in my life during the next few months. I’m thrilled about my new adventures, but also very aware that  last year’s leisure is almost entirely over. There will be a lot of dying-to-self required this year. There is beauty in that mortification. And there are also freshly-sharpened pencils, so I’m sure it will all be okay!

a bouquet of pencils via u-create.

customer service

[Image via emilymcdowelldraws on etsy]

Last week marked one full year since I finished my old job so I would have more time for my music studio to make a living teaching piano. We have both learned a lot this year, and I am overwhelmed with thankfulness that the life I had turned into the life I have now.

I worked at a bank for three years, and somehow I think I’ve blocked out most of my bad customer service memories. It was especially amusing when people tried to lecture me about bank policies, as if they were training me or I could change anything about it. Word to the wise: in almost any business, that first person behind the counter has 0% power and deals with 90% of the complaints. It’s a grating position to be in. I loved many of the customers I worked with, but it’s hard to deal with difficult people when you can’t enforce healthy conversational boundaries. The negative interaction that tops them all came inside my first six months there. It began when a customer came in flustered and crying. In addition to expecting me to approve of some dangerous financial practices, my role became difficult when she explained that she just found out her 30-year-old son in the military was being sent to Afghanistan. She didn’t understand why his Commanding Officer wouldn’t change the orders – or give her the time of day – when she called to complain about it.

I had to say something like “Oh, that’s too bad. That must be frustrating,” when I wanted to say “HELLO?! You can’t make a phone call to get your son out of fulfilling his duty to the country just because you’re mad about it. Nobody wants to send their son to war, but he wasn’t forced to enlist. And, by the way, he’s 30!”

Perhaps because my supervisor was standing right over me, I didn’t mention my own experience in this area: I’m a military wife, my husband was deployed (dangerously so) while we were dating, and I’m working here in the midwest because additional deployment scheduling conflicts meant we moved to Iowa instead of southern California after our wedding. Apparently my lack of pity for her helicopter parenting was evident, and she finally wailed, “Well, what am I saying? It’s not like YOU’VE faced any hard times so you’re probably too optimistic or naive to know what I’m talking about.”  Well… not quite.

I have been thinking the combination of people becoming ruder and standard customer service practices are a bit dehumanizing to the people who work behind cash registers. Self-employment is not quite as easy as it sounds, but I’m grateful for the freedom to do things I’m good at and the flexibility to decide who I work with.

friday five: classical music for halloween

One of my goals in life is to get more people listening to classical music. I believe this would be a great weekend to explore some of my spooky favorites, which are shared here in chronological order. (Admittedly, some of these youtube videos are not that exciting.)

1) Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by JS Bach (1685-1750). Such a classic.

2) Erlkonig by Franz Schubert (1797-1828). This sad story is from a poem by Goethe, and you can hear  the child crying “My father, my father!” in terror before being kidnapped.

3) Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz (1803 – 1869). This is just the fifth movement, called “The Witches Sabbath.” This selection depicts the vulgar and grotesque sounds of a pagan gathering. The witches’ dance becomes a diabolical joke as it melds with the tune of a “Dies Irae” chant, which was used in churches to teach about Judgment Day.

4) Danse Macbre by Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921). This gruesome “Death Dance” isn’t quite as exhilarating and terrifying as some of these other songs, but the xylophones are supposed to sound like rattling bones.  Creepy!

5)  Night on Bald Mountain by Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881). This is another Witches Sabbath scene from a Russian composer.

I hope you can explore some interesting music this weekend!

do what you love what you do

There have been some big changes for us in the works for the last several weeks and I’m really excited to share the news about moving forward into some new life adventures. So here it is: After almost three years of working full-time at a bank, I’m starting a new part-time job so I can focus more time and energy on teaching piano lessons from home. Hooray!

It’s difficult to know what to say about leaving the bank job. I have learned a lot, but it’s hard and sad to think about spending so much time and energy on something I’m not cut out for. I really struggled with many aspects of my duties there. I’m not a “type A, everything in it’s place, just follow the rules, order-without-beauty” person. For most of my time there, there hasn’t been opportunity to exercise my personal strengths and I’ve felt very stifled. Furthermore, the regular full-time job thing means that my employer controls most of my life. Someone else chooses when I have to work, what I can wear, when I can eat lunch,  if I can snack between meals, in some cases even when I can use the bathroom, whether or not I can have time off around the holidays to see family, how I can use e-mail and the internet, and so on. This is just part of life for most people, but it has weighed heavy on me this whole time.

I’ve been teaching piano in the evenings for about a year, and since that started I’ve turned down several families seeking afternoon lessons because I had to be at my regular job during that time. What? I can’t get paid fairly to do what I love because I’m too busy getting paid a lot less to stay at a job I don’t love? Who’s brilliant idea was that? We realized the absurdity of this situation. I would definitely prefer to be working from home doing things that I’m actually good at, so we began thinking about other boring, very grown-up topics that would impact this dream of responsible self-employment: health insurance, taxes, retirement savings, coupons, groceries, mortgage payments. It was clear that I would really need to work about 20 hours a week in some sort of flexible job, because music income would likely be a little shaky with school breaks and the variation of my students’ disposable income.  So a few weeks ago, amid prayers and tears and a big part of me wondering if those lame-o money details would ever come together…

…a really flexible part-time job landed in my lap.

This is truly a gift. It’s so hard to feel like you’re slaving away, that your work-life (and consequently, the rest of your life) is just one giant blob of frustration and deadness, reading countless application rejection letters and wondering if anything will ever get better. Maybe because I have been through a long season like that, I can say pretty confidently that landing this new job was not of my own doing. Even in my gratefulness, it’s easy to wonder “Why now? Why not two years ago?” I don’t know why this came together now. Or why it happened at all, really. But grace opened a door and we’re running through it.

Naturally, I am thrilled – I’ll be working partially from home with quite a bit of control over my schedule, and the flexible part-time hours will give me more chances to market my music business and connect with future students. This means… from here on out, it’s all on me. This is a big change and a new sense responsibility on me. I’m excited, and a little nervous about jumping back into the role of the confident self-starter I was before my current job. Hopefully it will not take long to excel in this re-entry into a life of true self-government. Of course I know I can do this, but I’m not going to pretend there is no anxiety or sense of uncertainty somewhere deep inside me as I prepare for this.

Enough blabbing about these details, though. Plenty of people get through their whole lives not even knowing what they’re good at or what they would do if they could choose anything. The point is, I’m 25, I already know I’m good at some of the things I love, and I get to make a living doing something I’m really passionate about. And be my own boss at least half of the time. That’s pretty awesome.

[photo from kara paslay designs]

a valley exalted

Every Valley Shall Be Exalted


Last week I had the privilege of singing Handel’s Messiah with a community orchestra. I love the entire Oratorio and we listen to it frequently at home, but what a powerful experience to be there in the midst of it all. Just feet away from soloists and a small orchestra – oboes! violins! a harpsichord! And the astounding way Handel expresses the scriptural text with his masterful composing! I can barely describe what a fabulous, moving, spiritual experience this was.


I’ve heard this all many times, but I was richly blessed by the very opening:
Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem and cry unto her that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned. The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness: prepare ye the way of the Lord. Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low; the crooked straight and the rough places plain.

And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.

How beautiful that this is the first statement we hear in a work written to tell the story of the Messiah. Comfort. He came (and is coming again) to comfort His people.

How appropriate to consider the voice crying out in the wilderness during Advent! And is not this “wild desert” so often an apt description of my own heart? Yet in those times of seeming desolation, He always comes. So as we celebrate the season anticipating Christ’s arrival – both the remembrance of his birth and the glorious revelation all flesh shall see together when he returns – I cling to Him. This is my prayer:

Cry out and be heard in my wilderness.
Make straight in my desert a highway.

Make what is crooked in my heart straight.
Exalt me in my valleys and make my rough places plain.