Parenting with your knees bent

My son, Bryce.

Before I had a child, I couldn't imagine giving birth to a child who was not me. I knew it was theoretically possible, of course, but was pretty sure that the kid I popped out would look like me, want to do what I want to do, and be utterly delightful. Kid #1 is utterly delightful, and sort of looks like me if you factor in that I'm 36 years older and he's so good-looking that he stops traffic. Let's just call it vague family resemblance. But he couldn't be less like me in most ways. 

Then I had a second child. I couldn't imagine that Kid #2 would be any different from child #1. Certainly at least the two of them would be alike. Wrong. For starters, Kid #2 is a girl. And she doesn't look like me at all, but is interested in many of the same things I am. Her temperament is more like mine. We are both made of music.

My daughter, Evie.

As I watch the parents around me do their very best job to parent their children, I see them struggling: children on the autism spectrum, kids with gender confusion, vision problems, dyslexia, focus issues, attention-deficit disorder, mental illness of many types, attachment disorders, adoption issues, linding brilliance and slow processing, children who are afraid to not be perfect, brain tumors, premature-birth delays, sensory-defensiveness, lack of social skills, lack of spatial awareness, and plain old kids-will-be-kids things like grumpy teenagers and demanding three-year-olds.

I also watch these parents scrambling to pay the bills, struggling to save their marriages while wondering whether they're worth saving. 

If I could give one piece of advice to the parents in turmoil around me, it would be this: keep your knees bent. Some of you who may interpret that to mean I'm advising you to be in a constant state of bended-knee-prayer. That may help as well. But I'm talking about the "keep your knees bent while we ski down this field of moguls because we don't know which ones are big and which ones are small and the only safe position is one which is completely, totally flexible and ready-for-anything and just because it's a quiet moment doesn't mean that the next bump won't be bigger so relax a little while maintaining this ready-for-anything posture."

Substituting parenting jargon for skiing jargon, I suggest:

"Before you begin to face a parenting challenge,  it's essential that you have the right body position: that means your arms and your hips forward, your eyes looking three bumps in front of you and your chest up. Most importantly, you should be able to feel your shins crushing against the front of your boots. (You don't know whether this one's a big one or not. Prepare emotionally and physically for anything.) When approaching a bump at any speed, it's important to start your absorption early. Begin your absorption when you first sense a problem coming your way. When absorbing, bend your knees and pull up your legs against your chest. Make sure that your knees are coming up and that your chest is not dropping down. (You're as flexible as a coiled spring.  Do not lose heart!)  Also, during absorption, be sure sure to drive yourself down the bump and stay front seat, (don't waste time patting yourself on the back for getting the worst behind you - you know not what waits ahead...) while not letting your feet get out in front of you. Once your feet get over  the highest part you need to drive yourself down the back side of the bump and extend your legs. Once you're fully extended you're ready to absorb the next bump. With some practice and hard work, you'll soon find out that that absorbing the bumps is actually quite easy. Good luck!"

Watch this and imagine you are the skier: coping brilliantly with each challenge while maintaining the perfect trajectory. Just keep your knees bent. Oh, and also you might need to fly into the air now and then. Parenting means being ready for anything.

So I Bought This Clock

The enigmatic clock. I always thought it was pretty, but apparently I was the only one who liked it.

The enigmatic clock. I always thought it was pretty, but apparently I was the only one who liked it.

"How do you know what time it is?" asked my student Annie.

"I just look at the clock over there on the wall," I responded, clearly not understanding her problem.

"But it doesn't have any NUMBERS on it!"

Oh. I get it. When you're just learning how to tell time it's helpful to have a clock with numbers. 

Suddenly I was in the market for a clock for my studio. I looked online. I thought it would be fun to have a clock with a ladybug on it. I wanted something classy, with clear, unmistakeable numbers on it. I also thought it might be fun to find something with a Ladybug theme since I'm obsessed with the Ladybug Squeezie and like ladybugs in general.

If my goal was clear legibility, I wasn't sure this Pendulum Clock would help. I could imagine the pendulum making all kinds of noise as the adorable blue flower was swinging back-and-forth.

The Ladybug on Daisy Clock is pretty, but there aren't any numbers. "Two petals past three petals," wasn't an improvement on my numberless clock.

This Ladybug Polkadot Wall Clock was closer, but wasn't legible enough. The polkadots are cute (I hate to admit that I'm fond of polkadots) but I wasn't sold. I wanted absolute clarity and was unwilling to sacrifice it for adorability. I kept looking.

Frankly, this Ladybug Peekaboo Wall Clock scares me. Apparently the eyes are a pendulum and they move back and forth. I can't imagine this being anything but distracting for students, not to mention vaguely scary. But maybe that's just me.

If it's your thing, you'll be happy to know that this particular clock also comes in GoldfishRabbitFrog and Cow.

Now is the part where I'm supposed to tell you that I found this perfect clock and if you just buy this clock it will save your marriage and pay all your bills AND tell perfect time. Except it wasn't to be. I didn't find it. Instead, I bought a clock that fit the bill at TJMaxx. (If you don't have TJMaxx in your neck of the woods, you might want to give thanks. There's a lot of ugly stuff there. Mixed in with the hideousness are some lovely, useful items.) 

This is what the clock face looked like when I bought it. I can't tell if it's 11:05 or 12:24. Can you? (Full disclosure, this one belongs to my friend, Kara, who bought the same clock and is not confused by it. I didn't know there was going to be trouble so I didn't think to take a picture before I started.)

Which brings me to my clock. I bought it, brought it home (I almost omitted the buying it part, but it made it sound like I'd done a little holiday shoplifting which I did not) and put it up on my studio wall. Hooray. Beautiful.

Wrong. I couldn't tell the time. Though the numbers were clear and deliciously obvious, the non-pointing end of the minute hand had a big triangular shape that looked more like the hour hand than the hour hand. Now it was me feeling like Annie. I genuinely could not read the clock.

I whipped out my Phillips-head screwdriver and took the thing apart. All six tiny screws.

First I tried white-out. I literally tried to white-out the offending triangular shape. It looked dreadful. Kind of like a piano teacher had tried to use white-out on her clock. Not acceptable.

Continuing my misguided resourcefulness, I grabbed my scissors and cut off the offending triangle. Ah. Much better.

I put it all back together (six tiny screws with the Phillips) and put it up on the wall.

Not so quickly, dear. It turns out the the triangular offending portion was actually a counterweight for the long minute hand. At their first meeting, the minute hand got caught on the hour hand. It was 9:48 for several hours before my daughter pointed out that the clock wasn't doing so well at keeping time.

Never fear. I am resourceful. I took it apart . (Six tiny screws with the Phillips) and assessed the situation. I'd wanted a ladybug clock, so I was going to have one. I put a ladybug sticker on the now-too-short end of the minute hand. It worked! I put it back together. (Six tiny screws with the Phillips) and put it back up on the wall.

The ladybug sticker which I thought would be heavy enough (what was I thinking? Ladybug stickers are anything but heavy!) did not do the job.

I took it apart. (Six tiny screws with the Phillips) and took some stinky glue (the kind with the warnings not to use it in an enclosed space like a piano studio) and layered ladybug stickers with glue. This was much heavier and definitely going to solve the problem. I put it back together. (Six tiny screws with the Phillips) and put it back up on the wall.

Husband came in a few hours later.

"Di, uh, I don't think your clock works very well," he said, rather amused by my handiwork. The clock was stopped again.

"Well, what do YOU suggest?" I retorted. I was growing weary of the six tiny screws and the Phillips.

We decided that I would open the clock AGAIN and try to simply bend the offending hands in opposite directions. He coached me. At first I got the hour hand so far bent away from the minute hand that it was dragging on the face of the clock. Husband pointed out that this might result in poor time-keeping. I re-bent the hour hand slightly away from the face. I was sure I would break at least one of the hands in the process, but I did not. 

I am happy to report that at 10:17 a.m. both the computer I'm writing on AND my new Ladybug Wall Clock agree on the time.

You could try doing what I did. But if I could have, I'd just have bought this clock looking the way it does right now. Too bad it doesn't exist. Well it does, and you could make your own. Got a Phillips?


The final product.

My Simple Vote

As the Cliburn competition started to heat up last weekend, I drove down the gorgeous California coast to judge the Carmel Young Artist Competition, which I’d won back when I was in college. It was sweet to be invited back as a judge.The timing was fortuitous. It reminded me anew how difficult it is to pass judgment on artistic performances. 

The best experience I ever had was judging with the composer, Gabriela Lena Frank and the pianist and musicologist Nicholas Mathew. I use their names because there wasn’t a contentious moment between us. It’s rare to find such like-mindedness, willingness to spend extra time discussing each competitor, and complete satisfaction with the outcome. We adored the two performers we tied for first place, ended the day happy and pleased with our work and outcome.

It isn’t always so great. Many years ago, I found myself judging with two men, both quite a bit older than I was. The rules of this particular competition required a unanimous decision.The men wanted to give the award to a rather overconfident but very talented boy who’d played last. 

my simple vote.jpg

The boy was obviously talented, but not well prepared. He’d stumbled through his Scarlatti sonata, and mangled quite a bit of the rest of his audition. What he’d played was perfectly fine, but lacked polish. He wasn't well-prepared. 

Earlier in the day, however, a brilliant young red-haired woman had delivered a stunning performance. I still remember how moved I was by her Danza de la moza donosa by Ginastera. Everything she played was of the highest quality. 

Whether it was the time of day, the fact that she was girl, or what we’d had for lunch, the men wanted the boy to win. 

I didn’t put up with it. 

“We can sit here into the wee hours of the morning, but I’m not voting for anyone else but that wonderful girl. Period.”

We discussed. We each tried to be reasonable. 

Desperate, I blurted out, “Who would you want to pay money to listen to today?”

Without thinking, one of the men said, “Oh, I’d much rather pay money to hear that girl.”

“Me, too!” the other one quickly agreed.

“So, even though you would rather pay money for the girl, you want to give the prize to the boy?”

Finally, I’d said something that made sense to them. The girl got the prize. 

I once judged a concerto competition with two other women. We were conversing politely when one of them said, “I want to give it to that guy who played the Mendelssohn. He has SUCH a cute butt.”

I wish I were kidding. I’m not. She said those exact words. She also wasn’t bothered in the least by the extra beat he’d carelessly added to each measure of the concerto’s slow movement.

The Cliburn competition has an elaborate scoring system. We used the same scoring system when I judged the Amateur Competition. 

The scoring system allowed us to use numbers in an interesting way. We scored each of the 15 contestants between 1 and 25, but could space those scores to reflect how much better we thought each one was. 

A judging sheet might looks like this:

  • Ben Johnson      25
  • Annie Gonzalez  24
  • Sue Leong          19
  • Steven Moore     11

We weren’t allowed to tie anyone, but we could score competitors very closely. The system works as long as everyone is honest. I can imagine, however, a scenario where one judge ranks a popular player unreasonably low to bolster their personal favorite’s score. 

I recently found my judging notebook from the time I judged the Cliburn Amateur Competition.  One afternoon I'd written this:

“1:50 PM: Competitor #10 has reached the middle of the Chopin 4th Ballade. When the playing is cold, the whole experience is awful, painful, embarrassing. But when the playing is good, the magic suddenly wipes away the bizarre social construct. I am a listener who is moved, ecstatic and strangely powerful - I can vote. In this world of amateurs where no tickets will ever be sold, no recordings ever made, that vote in itself is magic. It is an affirmation. Music can move, can lead. Music itself is magic. Your work is soothing to my tired heart. I am grateful and anxious to say so with my simple vote.”

I wish I’d known that when I was a competitor. I wish I could have known how desperately every judge wants to be moved. How they long for the performer who fills their tired heart with magic.

I wish I could tell it to all those who compete in these dreadfully wonderful competitions. Fill up your listeners’ hearts with magic. That's all that matters.


What It's Like to Compete in the Cliburn Competition

I was one of 35 competitors in the Seventh Van Cliburn International Competition held in 1985. Though some things have changed since then, the basic experience is still the same. I’ll start from the beginning of my journey.

The application form is intimidating. Planning the repertoire I would play was complicated. Included in the application was not only the repertoire for the multiple rounds of the competition, but also a list of my complete solo and concerto repertoire. The application has always been designed to eliminate anyone not ready to play a professional concert schedule.

Many people are cut without even being heard. If one makes it past the application process itself, there are screening auditions where preliminary judges listen to more than a hundred pianists around the world. They choose fewer than 40 to compete every four years in person in Fort Worth.

My journey started with a videotape made at the Los Angeles Cliburn screening location. I had an hour to make a 20-minute video of three pieces. These preliminary auditions are no longer done by videotape. The 2013 prospective competitors performed recitals in front of a live audience and a panel of judges. 

When I got to Fort Worth, Lisa, a pretty girl about my age met me at the airport. She had knee-high walking casts on both her feet. She was recovering from bunion surgery. Bunion surgery wasn’t the first thing I would have dreamed I’d be discussing at the Cliburn, but it filled ten of the twenty-five minute drive from the airport to Fort Worth.

Our first stop was at the Hospitality Suite at the Americana Hotel. We were greeted by numerous well-dressed middle-aged women wearing Ferragamo shoes, sporting BIG hair and charming southern drawls. One of them handed me a giant packet of information.

“Die-yAnn,” as I was called for the following weeks, “Could you please tell us who wrote the cadenza you’ll be playing in your Mot-zart concerto?” asked one woman. “Die-yAnn, do you have any special dietary needs that you may have forgotten to tell us about?” asked another. “Die-yAnn do you have any questions about scheduling or your host family?”

As I left, another enthusiastic volunteer presented me with a large, potted, yellow chrysanthemum. So far the Cliburn competition felt like a meeting of the Garden Club.

Every occasion at the Cliburn is a social occasion. The first event was the picking of the numbers. This was held on the formal lawn of a patron’s estate and was called The Drawing Party.

I had a hard time deciding what to wear because I was keenly aware that the competition was being made into a documentary. I settled on a red sweater and a denim skirt but still looked like a minister’s daughter. (I am a minister’s daughter, which might explain the resemblance.) My host mother, Beth, whipped out a bright red straw hat. Presto! I looked almost artistic.

As each competitor draws and announces their number, the crowd says, “Oooooooh, aaahhhhhhhh! Oh goodness, number 18!” There’s a tradition that number one is bad, so everyone is trying to avoid it.

I walked nervously up to the oversized brandy snifter that held the numbers. I covered my face with my hand as I pulled out my number. “Number 19,” said Susan Tilley, one of the competition officials. I guess the hat was a success because I found a picture of myself in full color the next morning on the front page of the Dallas Morning News.

The Cliburn competition is more humane that others because it gives competitors two chances to play before the jury makes the first cuts.

Number 19 had pros and cons. My 1st round was scheduled for 8 pm. Prime time. The time most concerts are played. Unfortunately, my 2nd round time was at 9 am. Early morning is a dreadful time to play. There are the fewest people in the audience and it means getting up ridiculously early to have a chance to warm up. In 2013 the earliest performance time was 11 am. 

To give some perspective on the amount of repertoire required, this was my program:

Preliminary Phase 1

  • Bach English Suite in A minor (25 mins)
  • Beethoven Sonata in C Major, Op. 2 #3 (25 mins)
  • Chopin Scherzo in C sharp Minor, Op. 39 (9 mins)
  • Etude in G flat Major, Op. 10 #5 (3 mins)
  • Scriabin Etude in C sharp Minor, Op. 42 No. 5 (4 mins)

Preliminary Phase 2

  • Mozart Sonata in D Major, K. 576 (20 mins)
  • Beethoven Sonata in A Major, Op. 101 (25 mins)
  • Chopin Ballade in F Minor, Op. 52 (9 mins)
  • Ravel Gaspard de la nuit (20 mins)

Semifinals Chamber Music

  • Brahms Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34 ( 40 mins)

Recital Program

  • Ravel Gaspard de la nuit  (20 mins) One repetition from another round was allowed that year
  • Corigliano Fantasia on an Ostinato (8 mins) (the required commissioned work which we received four weeks before thecompetition began
  • Schumann Symphonic Etudes Op. 13 (23 mins)


  • Mozart Concerto No. 25 in C Major, K. 503 (30 mins)
  • Brahms Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 15 (40 mins)

This totals 4 hours and 32 minutes of music when played straight through from beginning to end. It’s easy to see why managing so much music requires a plan.

John Perry had explained to me how to maintain such a large amount of repertoire. I was to practice one or two rounds ahead of the round I was about to perform. In other words, I was to practice the semifinal material while I was still in the Preliminary Stages. In competitions which I entered after the Cliburn I did a much better job of this rotation practicing. At the Cliburn I had a hard time with it.

In my competition year, the preliminary round performances were shorter. We had to prepare the about the same amount of music as today, but the judges got to pick and choose from our offerings. 

The first round went well. The repertoire that the judges picked felt wonderful: The Prelude to the Bach A Minor English Suite, the Chopin C Sharp Minor Scherzo, and the first movement of Beethoven Sonata Op. 2 #3. The time of day was favorable, the hall was full and the audience enthusiastic. 

I hadn’t quite adjusted to the two hour time difference when the next round came around. The 9 am time still felt like 7 am to me. I hadn’t slept well, and I wasn’t feeling particularly well at all.

The judges sent their requests from my second round program to me backstage moments before I played. It was all the movements I’d just as soon not have played. Everything I hoped they’d ask for, Ravel’s Ondine for instance, was glaringly absent. Instead, they asked for the first movement of the Mozart Sonata, K. 576, the LAST two movements of the Beethoven Sonata Op. 101, and....Scarbo. I firmly believe that this final movement from Gaspard de la nuit should only be played in the wee hours of the morning in a hallucinogenic state derived from mushrooms, LSD or great sex. It is also the piece about which I’d had my worst anxiety dreams. 

I was terrified that the judges has chosen Scarbo, but I had no choice. I took a deep breath and walked on stage.

There were a few people scattered in the front row flipping their programs around. The light reflecting off them looked as if they were trying to send me a message via Morse code. It was so distracting that I left the stage after the first piece.

The Cliburn competition provides something no other competition does: a “Backstage Mother.” This woman, hand-picked for her motherly nature and unflappable demeanor, stays just off stage throughout the competition. She lovingly hands out Bandaids, glasses of orange juice and water, hugs and reassuring words. She stocks fingernail clippers, Kleenex, aspirin and Neosporin.

I ran offstage and up to the Backstage Mother. “Please,” I begged, “Get those people in the front row to move!”

“OK, honey. Just a minute and I’ll take care of it.” The Backstage Mother was the most humane fixture I ever came across in the world of international piano competitions. 

She got the culprits moved and I walked back onstage to finish my program. From there on it was a blur.

What It's Like to Compete in the Cliburn Competition.jpg

I walked offstage, sure I’d played miserably. The camera crews were waiting for me and caught every moment as I burst into tears. What I didn’t realize was that I’d played quite well and was missing my opportunities for curtain calls by standing backstage crying. Only when I watched the documentary later did I realized what had happened. The producers were quick to use the footage of me crying. At the time I was embarrassed, but now I see it as exploitive. TV producers love footage of people crying, and I had inadvertently supplied them with exactly that. It was a dose of reality television before knew what that was.

I forced myself to practice even though I knew I was doomed to be cue. The following night we all went down to the hall for the judging decision. We waited for what seemed like hours, but was probably only 45 minutes. The Director announced the names of the semi-finalists in alphabetical order. My name was not called.

The worst part of being eliminated from the competition was calling my parents. It felt like my parents’ disappointment was greater than my own. I think the Cliburn should provide someone to call your parents for you. If they are kind enough to provide a “Backstage Mother,” couldn’t they splurge and have someone called, “Surrogate Bad News Giver?” Today this would be irrelevant because the entire competition is broadcast live on the web. But in the old days we had to make those painful phone calls.

When I talked to my Dad he wanted to know if he could turn in the tickets he’d already purchased for the finals. He wanted his money back. I’m sure it seemed logical to him at the time, but it felt to me like going to a funeral and asking if someone had gotten a good deal on the coffin. 

After I got over the shock of not making the cut, I started enjoying myself. If they’d given a “Miss Congeniality” prize I would have won it. I went to all the semifinal and final performances. I made friends with the film crew and administration of the competition. I did press interviews. One thing the Cliburn can do is throw a party. It was delightful to attend them without having to worry about performing the next day.

Since that time the Cliburn has continued to influence my life in ways I could never have imagined. I’ve returned to Fort Worth many times to play outreach concerts and educational programs. I judged the Amateur Competition in 2002 and loved being on the other side of that equation.

When I watched the competition today, I knew exactly how those people felt not hearing their names. I wonder where these amazing performers will end up. I identify with them. I worry about them. I hope for the best. 

My fingers are crossed, hoping that the judges will pick the greatest artist, the most imaginative pianist, the person with the most to say.

If you liked this essay, you might also enjoy exploring Tools for Teachers


Very Truly Your's


It was 1977, the summer Elvis died. I was working in the steno pool at Chevron where my job consisted of typing letters to people who'd complained about dirty bathrooms. Once in a while a racy stolen credit card incident would cross my desk, but mostly it was just the dirty bathrooms.

We were on the cutting edge of 1977 technology at Chevron. I was using an IBM Selectric/Mag Card typewriter with memory which meant I didn't have to redo everything in order to change just one word. I used a different mag card for each typed letter and kept each card until the letter had been mailed. Not only that, we could change fonts by changing the little type balls that spun around inside while we typed.  

Steno pool girl with mag card typewriter.

Steno pool girl with mag card typewriter.

One day I typed up a letter from a superior who had clearly made a careless error.

"Very truly your's, Martin Johnson, Customer Satisfaction Representative

I knew Mr. Johnson would appreciate my correcting the error in his latest letter responding to the condition of bathrooms at a service station. (Dirty.) I typed it up and returned it to him for his signature.

Immediately, it came back with an indignant red box around the word "Yours" and "Your's" written next to it in heavy red letters. 

very truly yours.jpg

I went straight to my supervisor, Marla, who was at her desk smoking. Her hairdo involved an immense barrette and a great deal of backcombing. Her duties seemed to be comprised of making sure the typists had enough work and operating the FAX machine. It was an old-fashioned fax machine and Marla had to take the phone receiver and put it directly onto the machine in order to send or receive a FAX. 

"Marla," I blurted,  "Mr. Johnson just sent back a letter for me to retype so I could put an error back IN . He wants me to put an apostrophe in yours. The word yours doesn't HAVE an apostrophe."

Marla looked up. Barely.

"Put it back in," she said, unimpressed.

 "What?" I shot back. "You want me to put an error BACK IN the letter I just typed correctly? That's ridiculous. I'm going straight to his office to explain to him that he's sending out letters with mistakes every time he writes a letter!"

She took a long drag on her Virginia Slim, letting smoke escape slowly.

"Put it back in," she repeated.

"I won't do it," I said righteously. "I will not knowingly send out a letter with an error just because this guy is so stupid that he doesn't even know how to spell."

 "OK," she said. "I'll just give it to Pearl to retype."  Pearl sat at the desk directly in front of me in the steno pool, chain smoking all day. Except when she was on a cigarette break. She had a rich future ahead in the steno pool. She had no problem with errors, hers or anyone else's.

A week later they tried to hire me as a full-time employee, not realizing I would continue to cause trouble for them as I corrected "to" to "too" too many times. I declined the job.

Now I can see that Mr. Johnson helped me. I left him and the dirty bathrooms and stolen credit cards and Marla and Pearl behind. For all I know, Mr. Johnson is still sitting in his office at Chevron, patiently circling the apostrophe he still thinks is missing in the word "yours." 


Mr. Cliburn

Like millions of other people in the world today, I'm so sad that we have lost Van Cliburn. We all knew it was coming. He'd been ill for quite a while now, and we should have been ready. But we never are ready to lose the great people.

My experience with Mr. Cliburn started when I was a little girl. I learned my first piece from a Bach suite and my teacher, Mrs. Miyamoto, had a brochure from the Van Cliburn competition. She showed me how this piece that I was learning right then would someday perhaps be part of my repertoire that this famous competition named after the pianist Van Cliburn. I guess she was helping me dream big in those days, but I fell for it. I practiced hard and knew that someday I'd already have my Bach suite learned.

When a colleague of hers bought a Boesendorfer piano, Mrs. Miyamoto made sure that I got to try it. "In case you're ever in the Van Cliburn competition and you need to pick one piano out of many choices. You'll need to know if you like to play a Boesendorfer." It seemed a bit far-fetched at the time, but she turned out to be right. I did play in the Cliburn competition. It changed my life. (I still think it might have gone a bit better if Keith Snell and I hadn't been in a terrible car accident the day before I left, but that's another story.)

Van Cliburn handing the trophy to Jose Feghali in 1985, the year I competed in the competition.

The memories are still so vivid. Listening to Mr. Cliburn speak at the opening night gala. Inspirational in a way I've never heard from another person when talking about music. He was completely unique.

What I'm most grateful to Mr. Cliburn for is the opportunities the competition gave me indirectly. The Cliburn Foundation put me to work doing educational concerts and playing outreach concerts.

I played a concert on a New Year's Eve in Fort Worth in a massive bank lobby. I remember looking at the hundreds of people sitting on the floor in the bank lobby and greeting them with, "This is unusual. I feel like I should lead you all in a chorus of Kum-Bay-Yah."

Years later I had the pleasure of judging the Van Cliburn International Amateur Competition with some amazing colleagues including Frederic Chiu, Carol Leone, Jon Nakamatsu. It was almost eerie to be back in the same venue where I'd played in the "regular" Cliburn competition so many years before. Mr. Cliburn was backstage with us as they tallied the votes for the finals. It was such a guilty pleasure to be backstage with him and to sit on a stage with him as one of the judges. Goodness.

It's not that I think my experiences were so special. It's that they weren't. Thousands of pianists and musicians around the world were influenced by him in ways I don't think he could have ever imagined. We all have our stories.

These stories aren't special. They're just mine. I will always treasure them.

Dangerous Diane

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post called Not Ever. In the post, I quoted a post from a piano teachers' group. The quote was unattributed. There was no way to know who had said it unless you were already a member of that particular group and had seen the quote.  I talked about my visceral reaction to the posted advice, and how much the suggested behavior distressed me.

It upset me. I wrote about it. My blog post was picked up and reposted by the Thinking Person's Guide to Autism. My brilliant friend Christa Dahlstrom, creator of the show Flummox and Friends shared it. 

Yesterday I was expelled from that piano teachers' group. At first, I admit, I was upset. I want to be liked. I'm the eager-to-please youngest of five children. My father, who died three years ago at age 92, was a dynamic Lutheran pastor. He preached his last sermon on his 90th birthday. In fact, he preached twice that day. I've always been a good girl. (Well, there was that time I successfully petitioned the San Francisco School Board to let the girls at Commodore Sloat Elementary wear pants to school, but I digress.) I was a straight-A, academic and music scholarships kind of student. Expulsion was not something I expected to ever be a part of my life. 

But maybe I don't belong in that group. The moderator told me that it was too dangerous to the other members. There were no guarantees that I would not quote other members and write about them. (There was no policy in place when I wrote my original post that prohibited quoting from a post. They have since changed that policy, and I had agreed to abide by it.) But that wasn't enough. They wanted me to pull down my original post and apologize. 

I've thought about it. I've thought about it every day since the day I wrote and posted it. There were some pretty nasty comments on my link to the post on my Teaching Tips Page, so I took down the link. Though I'm not responsible for the comments of others, I thought perhaps the quoted person would feel better if I removed my link.

Apparently, that wasn't enough to eliminate the danger.

So here's the thing: I think it's OK to disagree. I think it's fine for people to criticize the things that I make and what I believe. Some people don't like the music that I write. Some people don't like the piano method that I wrote. Some people don't like my recordings. (And I can guarantee that some people won't like the post you're reading right now.) But I think it's perfectly acceptable for people to disagree about important things like parenting and teaching. I feel so strongly about this that I am willing to have people not like me. Willing to be expelled. Willing to be dangerous.

My favorite book about parenting and "discipline."

Weaving in Issues of Alcohol, Drugs and Sex

Each year I try to be a little more professional in my teaching studio. This year I decided to print out a copy of my online studio policy and ask parents to sign the last page. Mostly I wanted to be sure that they were OK with me putting their kid's picture or video up on or my teaching tips page on Facebook. It was a pretty simple idea.

Eloise's Dad brought her to her lesson and I handed him the printed out policy for him to read and sign. Didn't think twice about it.

"I really have a problem with this policy about weaving in issues of alcohol, drugs and sex," said Steve.


"What?" I said, flabbergasted.

I snatched back the policy. Sure enough, the first thing I saw was a section called "Truth and Privacy, Weaving in Issues of Alcohol, Drugs and Sex."

I had inadvertently given him a handout about parenting teens that had come from the Quaker School my daughter attends. It's actually a very good handout, including lots of information about handling sex and drugs. But it would not make an appropriate studio policy.

You can be sure that next time I hand a parent four printed pages it will be my studio policy.

Revolving Kids

Bryce is home from a month-long adventure in New York. He turned 17 while he was gone, the first birthday he'd been away from home.

Bryce modeling in New York.

Bryce modeling in New York.

Evie left for three weeks at Camp Tawonga just before he got returned to San Francisco. Tawonga is a Jewish sleep-away camp. No, we haven't converted. All her friends were going and she really wanted to go. That would be all her friends from the Quaker school she attends. It's like that in San Francisco. No one keeps to themselves. The city is just a great big hot tub and we all jump in and get to know each other.

Evie will get home just in time to leave again for San Francisco Girls Chorus Camp. This year she's a section leader in the highest level.  

Over the years I've grown accustomed to students coming and going. I like to think I've learned to say goodbye with some grace.  My own kids? It's not so easy. The best way to let go as a parent is to have both you and your child be a little uncomfortable. They should feel like you're being a little too strict and limiting. You should feel like you've given them a little too much freedom.

Today is Evie's 13th birthday. She's celebrating it with the kids at Tawonga and I'm sure she'll have a great day. Me? I'm a little uncomfortable.

The Page Turner

It's called The Green Room. It's big. The kids looked really tiny. The girls were wearing fancy dresses. Jacob was wearing a seersucker suit. Beyond adorable.


It was my student's Mother's Day recital. Somehow, though the room is big and they are tiny, the children played like real musicians. They bowed and smiled and even enjoyed themselves. There were challenges: a forgotten chord or two, a bra strap slipping slowly down an almost teenager's arm while she played something fast and flashy, a teacher (that would be me) who had a little trouble remember the first section of an accompaniment to a piece that she wrote a two weeks ago. (So many notes in this head by now.)

They were wonderful. Such an array of personalities.

After the student recital, I played a recital with my friend, the soprano Julia Hunt Nielsen. She was glorious. I was just fine. Together we were pretty spectacular. There is something to be said for just making the music myself instead of always trying to get someone else to do it. I love to teach, don't get me wrong, but sometimes it's nice to get rid of the middle man and just play. No nerves any more. Don't have time for any of that nonsense. Enjoy the music and the chance to share it. Life is too short for anything else.

This was the first time my daughter, Evie, was able to turn pages for me for a recital. She's ten now and quite a seasoned performer herself. The San Francisco Girls Chorus will do that to a girl. It felt like a rite of passage: I'd never let myself hope that she would be such a fine a musician that she could turn pages not only for songs (the lyrics help keep track of where you are) but for a Russian etude by Liapounov. Lots of very black notes flying by like lightning. It was impressive. The page turning, I mean.

If you're feeling like a guilty pleasure, try watching the movie The Page Turner. It's a 2006 French film about a young girl -- just about Evie's age, who becomes obsessed with a concert pianist, infiltrates her life and ruins her career. It's a revenge movie about a ten-year-girl. No, I am not worried about Evie and me.  There's room for both us both. But I'll be extra nice to her, just in case.


Kudos to Iliana, age five, who apparently performed under duress. (She ended up in the Emergency Room with a 104 degree fever and pneumonia.) The things we do for art.

The Good Ones are Allergic to Garlic

They're both allergic to garlic: Bebe and Dave. That's Bebe Neuwirth and David Kessler. Yes, that Bebe Neuwirth. And yes, well, that David Kessler. Probably. (There's another one who you might have heard of, but this one is more important.) I didn't know he was important when we met.

He showed up at my door like any other piano student, a stunningly grey-haired-dignified-yet-hip Robert De Niro. Dave played some Bach for me. We spent most of his first lesson discussing ornamentation. He knew more than I did. He still does. He needed me, though. I play better than he does. I could help him make the music he could hear in his head come out of his hands. That was twenty years ago.

Over the years, I became more than fond of Dave. I started to love him. I think the love started in 1999. He had taken time during a trip to Paris to visit a designer boutique. He brought me back my favorite baby gift. It was wrapped in an oh-so-French-baby-blue cake box. Inside was a delicious three-piece ensemble sewn of a mother's dreams of her adorable, perfect, baby boy.

Dave was a good sport a few years later when said boy, then a 3-year-old, ran into the room during Dave's lesson, picked up an end table and hurled it across the room. It just missed Dave.

His comment:

"Well, I didn't think I was playing that badly."

We continued the lesson.

We started to have my adult student get-togethers at his beautiful Victorian home. Tidbits of information trickled out. He was a forensic psychiatrist. Sometimes he would come straight to his lessons from visiting an inmate at San Quentin. Most of his cases involved murder. No wonder he wanted to play some Brahms.

I broke my rule; I went to his house to give him his lessons. He had gotten a rare form of leukemia and his immune system was compromised. I couldn't imagine him coming to my home: land of child-born germs and table-throwing.

He recovered completely. He resumed coming to my place.

The movie Milk came out. Dave started telling me about his life in the 70's in San Francisco. He had known Harvey Milk. In fact, he had spoken at Harvey's memorial service at the Opera House in San Francisco.

The prosecution had asked Dave to testify as an expert witness in the trial of Dan White. Dave had declined because he was afraid the defense would have said that his objectivity had been compromised. He wonders to this day if the trial would have ended differently had he testified. The Twinkie Defense wouldn't have held up. I'm sure of it.

This week, on Dave's 80th birthday, twelve of Dave's closest friends surprised him with dinner at Masa's.  Dave loves good food.

For my second course I had:

Composition of Early Spring Vegetables

roasted purple and white cauliflower, cipollini onions, brussel sprouts,

baby spring leeks, rapini, maitake mushroom "cream", pine nut "dust"

But I digress.

Dave's cousin, Helen, brought along a copy of a People Magazine article from May, 1979.  It featured Dave, then 48. His coming out made history. He was the first president of Bay Area Physicians for Human Rights, the nation's first formal organization of gay doctors. If any of you are relieved that being gay is no longer classified as an illness, thank Dave.

I showed the article to my daughter, Evie.

"Mom," she said. "Can I have this? I want to put it up on my wall."

I love that she's proud of him. I am too.

Small Claims Court

"Could you please explain to me exactly how her piano teaching damaged the oven? Did she bake her piano students?"

We didn't want to sue our landlord. We really didn't. We just wanted him to give our security deposit back.

We began to think it was a case for Judge Judy. When your former landlord wants to charge you for exposing the garden hose to light, you gotta figure that Judge Judy would eat him up.

What we weren't expecting was that we would find our very own Judge Judy in Small Claims Court right here in San Francisco. There wasn't any audience, and he wasn't quite as funny, but he was certainly wonderful.

Before the judge heard our case, we exchanged everything we intended to use as evidence. Tony and I showed our former landlord, Art, our massive binder full of information. I love office supplies and this was a perfect opportunity to make that work for us. Our evidence was organized into 8 separate sections, each clearly labeled. This took a lot of time to put together but I we wanted to do it right. It included a gigantic, lovely periwinkle binder with  lay-flat rings. Did I mention that I have a thing for office supplies?

Art gave us a half-inch stack of papers including our lease and copies of his ridiculous letters to us.

The judge called us forward and asked if we had exchanged our evidence.

"Yes," we all replied.

The judge asked us to give him anything we wanted to use as evidence. I handed him the periwinkle binder. He looked a little annoyed. I think its sheer size was daunting. Art handed him the papers he'd shown us AND a large stack of photographs.

"Excuse me, your honor," Tony very politely interupted. "We haven't seen any of those photographs."

"I thought you said that you had exchanged evidence," the judge shot back.

"We did," Tony and I replied in unison.

The judge glared at Art.

"Are you planning to use these as evidence?" the judge grilled him.

"Uh, well, yes."

"Why didn't you show them to the plaintiffs?"

"Um, well, I thought that..."

"Get out of here and show them the photographs." The judge was not amused.

This was looking good. Art had already shown his true nature. It felt delicious.

We looked at the photos. Art wanted to narrate the slide show. We asked him, politely, to keep quiet.

There was only one that I couldn't figure out. It was a photo of the lower half of a wall.

"What's this?" I asked him.

"That's the missing doorstopper," Art replied. "And the damage that the missing doorstopper caused."

OK. That was one electrifying photo.

We went back in and the judge heard our case. Art's main point was that we had somehow defrauded him by not telling him that I was a piano teacher before we moved in. Since his parents lived next door to the house we rented, it was ridiculous to think that we wouldn't have told him. But he lied. He said that he had no idea that I was going to move a piano in and teach. Kind of strange, since my occupation was listed as "Piano Teacher" on the rental application. But I digress.

This piano teaching, he asserted, had somehow caused incredible damage to the house. All those people, coming and going. His father testified, too, to the coming and the going.

What I think Art hadn't counted on was that those people, the same ones who kept coming and going,  would write letters on our behalf. That was part of the reason the binder was so big. The letters were so numerous and lengthy that I couldn't count on the judge reading them all. I just highlighted things so he could page through and see,

"In my opinion, the manner in which this landlord is conducting himself with respect to the termination of the lease is petty, greedy, and unethical."

"I have never known the Hidy/Smith family to be anything other than dependable, responsible and considerate. The landlord's failure to reutnr the deposit to the Hidy/Smith family seems unreasonable and unethical."

"Over the years we have come to know her well, and thinks of her as, not just the piano teacher, but a valued friend."

"I know her to be a hard-working and responsible person with a well-cared for family and home."

"I have found her to be reliable, conscientious, hardworking and honest."

"I cannot help but view any charges of neglect or damage levied by the landlord as unwarranted."

"I attest to their honesty, reliability and decency. I can attest without reservation to her integrity, diligence and excellence as a teacher, a friend, and a member of our community; she holds herself to the highest standards both personally and professionally."

They went on like that, each one warming my heart as they came in the weeks leading up to the court case. Even if the judge ruled against us, having a Blue Monday file full of those letters would comfort me any time I felt unloved or unseen.

But you know what? The $3,549.49 is going to feel just fine too.


Obama got health care passed. It's a miracle. I'm thrilled.

It made me think of my friend, Nancy because I know she's going to be unhappy about it. She found McCain too liberal and thought Sarah Palin delightful. It's true. What she thinks and that she's my friend. I have a friend with whom I don't see eye-to-eye. Not even eye-to-chin.

Nancy and I violently disagree about all things political. She votes right, I vote left. I live in a world of art and music; she lives in a world of hardware. Literally. She works for her family's hardware distributorship. You'd think we wouldn't have anything to talk about but that isn't the case.

I call Nancy my oldest friend because our mothers were friends when my Mom was pregnant with me. That makes it all old: her, me, our Moms and our friendship.

I love Nancy's humor. She gave me a card last year for my 50th birthday. She took a print of "The Allegories of Music," a painting by the French artist Vanloo (1705-1765). It's a painting of three very cherubic children: a girl playing a pre-piano keyboard, and two boys looking on adoringly. It's sweet, but what I adore are the speech bubbles added.

The girl playing the keyboard (carefully labeled Diane H) says, "Someday I will play Carnegie Hall!"

To my right is Paul H, (my big brother, who has just adopted his fourth child, two from China, one from Nepal and the latest from Ethiopia,) who says, "Someday I will save the exotic baby at a time!"

The adoring boy on my left, Carl W (her big brother) says, "Someday my sister Nancy and I will sell hinges and slides to all of the custom cabinet shops in the State of California!"

Inside she inscribed,

Dear Lady Di,

May our childish dreams continue to be fulfilled.

Love, Nancy-girl.

I have lots of friend now, both new and old. I have people with whom I can talk about music, art, literature, parenting, gardening and politics. But if I really want to laugh and feel like there's someone really there hanging on every word, I call Nancy.

I called her when my Dad passed away a few months ago. She used to laugh, "My parents have been married 55 years and you are the only person that doesn't impress."

My parents were married for 68 years last June. She knew that 55 years was nothin'.

It was my Dad who went first. We'd both been dreading the moment when the first one went. We knew that all four of our parents had been living on borrowed time, especially our fathers.

She may vote for all the wrong people. She may cancel out every vote I'll ever make, but Nancy is my oldest friend and my dearest. I hope that when my daughter turns 50 she'll have a "Nancy" to write her a card that shows her understanding of her life and everything that matters to her.

Old friends are hard to find. Especially funny ones.

His Wedding Ring Slipped Off

My grandparents were married for 68 years. When my grandmother died I asked my Mom if I could have Nana's wedding ring. Mom clearly thought I was odd. I said I really admired anyone who could stay married for 68 years. I wanted the ring to remember them and to inspire me. At the time I was years away from meeting my future husband.

Now my parents have been married for 68 years. They were married in 1941 and are still together. Mom's 89 and Dad is 92.  Dad's not doing too well. He's fading away, one day at a time. And we are fading away from him as his hearing disappears. He reads lips when he's awake enough to hear our attempts to speak to him. If I speak VERY LOUDLY directly at him, (and he's awake,) he may or may not "hear" me.  He sleeps a lot.

This morning he wheeled his walker out and announced that his wedding ring had slipped off his finger. He didn't know where it was, only that it must have slipped off. It makes sense; he's so thin now.

"Maybe we shouldn't have taken the garbage out," said my sister Carol said, grinning.

One "you are completely out of your mind,"  look from Mom dismissed even the idea of going through the garbage in the can on the curb in the 95 degree heat.

"You could get him another one," Carol suggested helpfully.

Mom grunted.

"Look. HE knows he's married and I know he's married and that's just FINE."

I guess she's comfortable with him pushing his walker around the house lookin' like a single guy.

A River Runs Through Musical Fossils

I loved the movie A River Runs Through It. Really loved it. It made me cry. It made me laugh. I was convinced it was the best movie ever made. As I walked slowly, sobbing, out of the movie,  I told my husband how I was feeling.  He was very kind.

"Di, I know that you really liked it, but some people might not find quite as much to relate to in it as you did."

"What do you mean?" I bit back. "There is no one who wouldn't appreciate that movie," I stuttered through my tears.

"Well," he said, "Not everyone is just like you. You kind of have a lot in common with the characters in the movie."

"Like what, exactly?"

"Well, you come from a family where your father is a protestant minister, you have a brother, and an aging father who used to love to fly fish. Not to mention that your Uncle Pete was one of the most famous fly fishermen ever."

He had me. I had to admit that that movie resonated with every inch of my minister's daughter, younger sister, fly-fishing niece soul. At the risk of recommending a website with the fervor I once recommended A River Runs Through It, I feel certain that Musical Fossils is a wonderful website.

Some adults can already play the piano. A lot more adults wish they already could; Some of them are doing something about it. Sometimes they come to me.

I love to teach adults. First, they can read. Second, there's no chance that their parents are forcing them to take the lessons.  Third, they are  grateful for someone who takes their learning seriously. I do.

 Musical Fossils  is a site about adults learning to play the piano. The founder, Matthew Harre, teaches adults and seem to feel quite a bit the way I do about it. I am particularly fond these articles:

What I Learned About Teaching Children From Teaching Adults

An Appreciation of Adult Amateurs

There's a lot more on the site to appreciate. Whether you teach adults, are an adult, or plan on being one someday, (that about covers it, right?) there's lots to learn. And if it's not your cup of tea, then you might not like A River Runs Through It a whole lot either.

Flying Kites in the House

I have a new student. She is six years old. Her name is Eva. (Pronounced Ava, and not to be confused with my daughter, Evie. Or Anya, whose babysitter is named Eva - pronounced EEva.  There was one year when I had three girls almost the same age named Elisa, Elise and Aliya. They all had long, gorgeous red hair. I think my tombstone will say, "Never called any one of them the wrong name. But I digress.)

Eva is in the Piano Town Primer. I turned the page to the piece, Kites for Sale. She immediately grabbed a pencil, jumped off the bench and started running around the room "flying a kite" using the pencil as the string. When I finally got her back on the bench, she was very interested in the art. It shows a man selling kites for $2 each.

She eyed the man suspiciously.

"Only $2 for a kite? Those won't be very good kites," she said. "Because you really get what you pay for, and that's not enough to pay for a good kite. You should pay more, like maybe $10 or $20."

I reassured her that things are kind of magical in Piano Town and that the kids would be able to get a wonderful kite for only two dollars.

She learned the piece and loved it. Maybe not as much as she loved Purple Paint. When I asked her if she wanted to play that one again with me playing the duet she said, "Yes. I want to play it 30 more times." We settled for five.

My husband drew all the art for Piano Town. Late in my teaching days I really appreciate him. Without him, there would be no $2 kites to inspire a world of wonder.

Mrs. Miller

"Hello. This is Mrs. Miller. I am cancelling my son's lesson for this Tuesday afternoon. I found someone closer."

A bit abrupt, but I do believe in finding the best teacher in the most convenient location. I often try to talk my students out of driving so far to work with me. It doesn't work, but I do try.

Here's the weird part: This message was on my machine when I was returned from five days at the Music Teachers of California convention. I hadn't spoken to anyone named Mrs. Miller before I left. There were no other messages from Mrs. Miller. She didn't leave a number, so I couldn't even consider phoning back which, I must admit, I probably wouldn't have.  After all, she was cancelling a non-existent lesson - at least in my book.

A few hours later the phone rang.


"Hello. This is Mrs. Miller. I'm calling to cancel my son's lessons for Tuesday afternoon because I found someone closer."

"Ahhh, Mrs. Miller. I'm very glad that you've found a teacher who's conveniently located for you, but I've never spoken with you before."

"Yes we did. We set up this lesson for Tuesday, but I found someone closer."

"I understand that you found someone closer, but you must have spoken to someone else because we have never spoken before."


"Yes. Really. We have never spoken before, but I certainly wish your son every success with his new teacher."

"Oh. OK."

Whew.  I suppose that it's admirable that she wanted to be sure to cancel a lesson that she (thought) she had scheduled, but I would actually prefer a parent who knew who I was and thought I was conveniently located.

Vanishing Villain

I write pieces for kids. I write pieces for specific kids. I'll explain.

I have a particular student who defies a usual "music student" category. She is a tall, willowy 9-year-old. Her mother is almost six feet tall; I see that in her future. She is bright, an avid reader, has an excellent ear for melody and sings beautifully with a round, mellow tone. I've taught her for several years now and each lesson has been a challenge.

Why? Because she has attentional issues. She has everything she needs to play the piano beautifully, except that it's really hard for her. Therefore, it's really hard for me to find "just the right" piece at any particular time. So I've taken to writing for her.

I write pieces for her with catchy rhythms, with patterned melodies, with challenging rhythmic accompaniments, but no small surprises.  That's not a typo. It's the little things that trip her up. Give her a difficult chord progression and she's fine. Give her continually slightly changing tasks and she's bound to fail. Particularly if the changes are part of a large homogenous rhythmic structure. (All the notes look exactly the same, but they aren't. Quite.) Think: needle in a haystack.

I recently wrote a piece, Vanishing Villain, for her. It was a success and gave her everything she wanted. She could move all over the keyboard in a predictable way, the middle section melody was catchy and best of all...there's a great, big, fat disaster-proof glissando to end it all. What more could a kid want?

What interests me is this: What is it about this girl that inspires me to write for her? I could give up on her, I realize. I could give her to another teacher. But no, she's mine and I love her and I will continue to write pieces for her that make her sound amazing.

It's my job. I like my job.