Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Travel Tuesday: Howe Caverns and the Iroquois Museum

(Me and my mini-me)
Imagine 100 fourth graders packed into three coach buses for three hours to explore Howe Caverns and The Iroquois Museum. The noise is deafening as the kids happily discuss the trip, seating arrangements, and the exciting and mundane details of their lives. My daughter snuggles up to me and tries to watch a movie while I catch up on some reading. Occasionally, we share snacks and giggles. The noise level reaches fever pitch as our bus turns off onto a small road and parks in front of The Iroquois Indian Museum.

Howe Caverns and the Iroquois Indian Museum lie about an hour west of Albany. The Iroquois Indian Museum is nestled among green fields. Shaped like a giant long house, it reflects the heritage and customs of the Iroquois Indians. Kids pour out of the bus and we are directed to the storyteller amphitheater.

Settling ourselves on the bleachers under the tent, we look at the spears, arrows, bows, rocks, etc. displayed on the table. The group quiets when a woman with striking cheekbones and tightly slicked back hair sits down on a chair in front of the table. She is a storyteller and begins to share some tales of her people. It is the custom that when a child asks a question, the question is answered with a story.

It seems that many cultures find interesting ways to scare children into keeping safe. Fairy tales from Europe such as Hansel and Gretel serve as cautionary tales. The Iroquois nation also follows this pattern. The Story of the Flying Heads (which is gruesome and gory) reminds children to always tell someone where they are going and take along a buddy. The Story of the Half Blanket is a poignant reminder to serve and respect the elderly. Why Dogs Sniff Tails is a funny story illustrating a particular trait of dogs, but also a good reminder that when you play tricks, you can't always guarantee the outcome. The Skeleton Woman reminds children to keep out of other people's business, tell an adult when you notice something is wrong, and to get help when you are sick.

The storyteller holds her audience of 48 children plus adults captive. It's no easy task as the sun is shining brightly and the kids are exciting. Somehow she manages to weave magic around us as she relates these old stories. The charm of these stories is that while they may be old, they are still relevant.

After the storyteller finishes, her father, an upright man with white, long hair pulled into a ponytail demonstrates the different uses of weapons for the Iroquois. His knowledge of the past and the area are extensive. At one time, New York was the grazing ground for gigantic mammals. It is hard for me to imagine as the trees cover New York so densely that the landscape would be entirely different without them.

After the lecture and demonstration the kids explore the museum for a few minutes. The children are captivated by the live turtle living in a little pool.

We load up in the bus again, drive the short distance to Howe Caverns, disembark, and eat our lunch. Then we put on jackets and coats to travel into the Caverns which stay at a chilly 52 degrees. Howe Caverns is filled with some wonderful geological features.

We take a boat on an underground river, which reminds me of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.  In order to maintain the features, a pathway runs through the cavern and visitors are led by a guide. It is a very interesting place.

Back up topside again, the children hit the gift shop and then we get on the buses to go back home.

The best part of the day was being with my daughter, who is so charming, light, and full of joy.


Monday, May 30, 2016

Mothering Monday: Reframing the Mess

When Monday rolls around, I survey the weekend damage with anger and frustration. I often mutter under my breath about lazy kids and an ungrateful family. Sometimes I deliver scathing lectures about feeling unappreciated and the need for everyone to pitch in and help. I very often feel like a martyr as I frantically try to tidy messes, mop floors, fold laundry, and scrub toilets.

As I cleaned my bedroom this morning, I was listening to the Freakonomics podcast about Productivity and a guest said something very profound.

DUBNER: OK, so the implication is that there’s a certain kind of compliment or praise that is more powerful or that leads to higher productivity, yes?DUHIGG: That’s exactly right. What we know is that you can train people to believe that they’re in control of their own life, and more importantly, to get them addicted to that kind of pleasant sensation that kind of comes from being in control. 
I have been viewing the household mess as something I cannot control. That out-of-control feeling is extremely stressful and negative.  It impacts how quickly I clean, interactions with my family, and my general mood.

So what if I chose to reframe the mess and my control of it? Perhaps my thought process would look something like this.

My husband and I have chosen certain specialized roles within our marriage. While he is working, I maintain the house and cook. We both share parenting responsibilities. He helps when he gets home, but I can manage the bulk of the cleaning. On weekends, we make the choice to work on bigger projects as a family that include: gardening, home improvement and repairs, and family activities. We include our children in these projects so they can learn how to work together in a group, spend time with my husband and I, and learn skills. Our family also needs downtime to play and relax. I choose to take that time as well. My kids are learning how to help and maintain cleaning zones most of the time. During this busy time of year, there are a lot of extra events that we attend. They haven't finished their work because they were doing homework, babysitting while I attended school concerts and symposiums, or busy finishing up big projects.

When I clean, I can celebrate the fun things we did, the things we are learning as a family, and the opportunity to learn via podcasts and audiobooks. I'm choosing to clean because I appreciate order, cleanliness, and structure.

I choose not to clean obsessively or worry about some of the minor details such as smudges on the windows or dirty walls because I also want to devote time to developing my talents. I'm also doing a lot of work during the day to maintain and develop habits that will lead to mastery of valuable skills such as writing, blogging, scrapbooking, Swedish, and scripture study. I am also working on family history and that is an important endeavor.

I have also committed my time, effort, and talents to serving as Relief Society President in my ward. That means I am simplifying my housework so I can minister to those in emotional, physical, and spiritual need. Consecrating myself to this work means there is less time for an immaculate house but the benefits of my work override what I get out of a clean house.

I am in control here. I am making choices that make sense for my situation and circumstances. I haven't been trading an immaculate house for unimportant or wasteful activities and so I am going to be OK with where I'm at right now.

Do you struggle with something similar? Have you ever faced a situation that you reframed? What happened when you did that? 


Sunday, May 29, 2016

Spiritual Sunday: Letting Go

Wow! It has been an incredibly busy time of year. I feel like I need to duplicate myself ten times over to adequately tackle all of the things on my to-do list. There are times when I feel enormously inadequate as I strive to fulfill my responsibilities as a mother, a wife, and in my church callings. I know many of you carry heavy burdens in your own lives and may feel inadequate as I often do. In times like these I feel tremendously comforted by the Savior’s words in Matthew 11:28-30 where He says, 
 “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."

Elder Richard G. Scott shared his powerful testimony of the Atonement in his October 2013 General Conference address, “Personal Strength Through the Atonement of Jesus Christ”. He said, “Because your Father in Heaven loves you profoundly, the Atonement of Jesus Christ makes that strength possible. Isn’t it wonderful? Many of you have felt the burden of poor choices, and each of you can feel the elevating power of the Lord’s forgiveness, mercy, and strength. I have felt it, and I testify that it is available to each one of you.” 

  Let us drop burdens that we do not need to shoulder. If we are heavy laden with burdens of sin, this is the time to cast them off with the help of the Savior’s Atonement. Let us shed those burdens that take us away from our families and diminish our capabilities to live up to our privileges. Let us open our hearts and allow the Savior to help us carry our loads. I know that Savior loves us and desires to help and bless us.
The Savior has promised us that He will help us carry our loads. In the case of sin, He has promised to remove that burden when we repent. When we struggle with sorrows and pains, He also promises to lighten our loads, to strengthen our shoulders, and give us comfort.


Saturday, May 28, 2016

Scrapbook Saturday: Stories to Tell

Per last week's post where I detail my creativity killers, it only seems fair to post the solutions I have found. I will tackle each of the six creativity blockers in individual posts.

One challenge I often have is trying to figure out a story to scrap. For me, scrapbooking is ALL about the memory keeping. I enjoy making a pretty page just for the sake of it, but for the hobby to be most meaningful, I think each page should have a story attached to it. Sometimes generating those stories is hard. I have a few solutions that always seem to work for me.

1) Start with the photos.  I think this is probably the easiest solution because you can get started right away. Find a stack of photos, flip through it and pull out photos that catch your eye or trigger a memory. An important caution: When sorting through your photos, don't stop and label every picture. Just pull a few pictures that spark something in your head. Start small or you will get overwhelmed. When you have pulled 10 or so photos, divide them into groups and then label them with a sticky note. Sometimes I use an index card and attach it with a paper clip to the picture. This method works best when you have big stack of printed photos waiting to be scrapped.

2) Look for gaps or holes in an album. I will pull out an incomplete album and flip through, looking for gaps in the album that need to be filled. I keep a list of things that should be added. Then I go to the computer and find the necessary photos and either print or send them out for printing. Keep your list with the album as a reference. I think this is a good method when working chronologically. It also would work well if you used a story-based album approach. If you use the Library of Memories System, perhaps you could look for gaps in stories that haven't been told. For instance, I noticed that my albums right now feature layout after layout of my youngest daughter, who is two. I haven't been taking pictures of my teenagers right now, but the changes they are experiencing are significant. 
This picture only happened because the boys were so focused on laughing and I was very sneaky.
I can't help it. She is so cute and is always willing to smile for me when I take her picture.

3) Make a list of categories and try and come up with story ideas. I wrote down a few categories and then wrote down ideas that came into my head. It doesn't have to be fancy. I just used lined paper and just started writing down. You could brainstorm or mind map for ideas.

4) Think of the past for the future. I am endlessly curious about the lives of my grandparents and their parents. My grandfather's grandfather was 30 years old when the Civil War broke out. He is only separated from me by about 150 years. So much has changed since then and there is so much I wish I knew. It is pretty simple to apply this approach to your own personal storytelling. Think of questions you wish you could ask of your grandparents and then answer them for yourself. You could do this from the perspective of trying to understand their lives or as a chance to share with your posterity about your life. 

My great-uncle was an army engineer in WWII. I asked him questions about his service and he shared some fascinating stories, including mundane details about KP duty for thousands of men on a ship. 

If trying to make a page about yourself, you could ask: "Have I witnessed any important historical events, and if so, how was I involved? How did I feel?" For many Americans, we can remember vividly the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 9, 2011. My parents remember the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. While they weren't present at the event, they still remember what they thought and felt when the news was delivered. 

Some further questions you could ask that can be applied to the past and present are: 

What economic challenges have you faced?
What were your parents like?  
What kind of food do you make? 
What did your bathroom look like as a child? 
What was your education like?
What was your childhood like?
Did you have pets?
How has technology changed in your lifetime? 

Sadly, my grandparents aren't around to answer questions for me. But I can do my children and grandchildren a favor by answering questions for them in my scrapbooking. 

5) Use story prompts. There are great websites filled with story prompts to get your thoughts going. Here are a few of my story prompts based on categories.

Personal History
  • How did you get your name?
  • Where you born? 
  • Did you stay in your hometown or did you move?
  • Did/do you move around lot? Why?
  • What is a big challenge you have overcome?
  • What are 5 life lessons you have learned?
  • What activities were you involved in high school?
  • What are your dreams?
  • Where do you work and why?
  • Who are your friends and what do those friendships mean to you?
  • What are your hobbies? 
  • Who do you like spending time with?
  • What are five unique things about you?
  • What are your strengths?
  • What are your weaknesses?
  • What are your favorite books?
  • What is your favorite song?
  • What is your motto?
  • Someone on Facebook posted a professional picture of the High School Marching Band I was in. I saved it and told the story of being in band for 6 years. 


  • How did you meet your spouse/friend/partner?
  • What is your child like right at this moment? What are their likes and dislikes?
  • What are your before and after school routines?
  • What talents and interests are your children developing?
  • What are you children's favorite games?
  • What is your relationship with your siblings or parents?
  • What are your family traditions?
  • Which holiday do you like best?
  • One of my top 10 favorite layouts because of what I shared about being a mother during a specific time. 

  • What kitchen appliances do you use everyday? What can't you live without? (I can't live without my 12-inch cast iron skillet. I use it every single day.) 
  • What are your favorite things right now? (This is also a great question to ask every family member. Give them a journaling card with the prompts and then use it for your layout.
  • What are your favorite flowers? 
  • What is your morning routine and what things do you use during that time to get ready?
  • Share your cookbook collection! What is important about each cookbook?

(This page documents all my Swedish cookbooks. It is one of my favorite pages because it shows a really important part of my life and my cooking!)
  • Where do you feel happiest?
  • What place sparks the most memories for you?
  • What is your favorite vacation spot? 
  • Do you have unfulfilled travel dreams? 
  • What is your home like?
  • How many homes have you lived in?
  • Do you have a favorite park that you like to visit?

For me, the beach is the place where I am happiest during the summer. I love documenting every trip because of how peaceful I feel there.

What triggers stories for you? How do you find your stories? 


Friday, May 27, 2016

Friday Favorites: A Course in Productivity and Mastery

Freakonomics consistently produces an interesting and informative podcast that I don't ever want to miss. The past few weeks have focused on various aspects of mastery and productivity. I learned quite a lot from the episodes and think that everyone should listen for a mini-course on personal improvement.

The first episode, How to Be More Productive, focuses on both personal and work productivity. There were lots of insights to be gleaned, especially as a busy mother to six children.

The second episode, How to Be Great at Just About Anything, discusses the elements that are needed to achieve mastery and excel. Both talent and significant effort are important.

The third episode, a bonus episode, is an extended interview with author, Malcom Gladwell.

The fourth episode, How to Get More Grit in Your Life, gave me a lot of insights and points to ponder about grit.

The fifth episode, How to Win Games and Beat People, while funny and oddly charming, wasn't as helpful. Then again, I do not enjoy competitive games. If you are a game player, this would be worth your time.

The sixth, and final episode, How to Be Tim Ferriss, nicely rounds out the series.

Have you listened to this series? Was it helpful to you? What insights did you glean?


Thursday, May 26, 2016

Throwback Thursday: Daylight in the Swamps

When I was growing up, my dad would get my sisters and me up with a roar shouting, DAYLIGHT in the SWAMP! We hated it and called it Daylighting. Nothing got us out of bed faster than the threat of being daylighted.

Fast forward twenty years and I’m reading a book set in the late 1860s in a logging camp in the Michigan forests. Imagine my total shock and surprise when I read that the camp cook would wake up the lumberjacks with the call, “Daylight in the Swamps”. The story explained that it was a unique phrase that began in the golden era of logging for white pine in the forests of Michigan in the post-Civil War era. In order to get the country back and running, massive amounts of logs were needed. White pine was like gold and was found in Michigan. The lure for money and also solitude was strong for men recovering from the trauma and horror of the Civil War. Farmers who needed extra cash to make their farms run would spend their winters logging.

It dawned on me that I have deep family roots in Michigan. James Carlos Christler, my great-great grandfather, was born in New York in 1830. He moved to Flint, Michigan as a boy and lived and died there. Flint, Michigan was right at the heart of the logging boom following the Civil War. It is conceivable that either he or a family member took up logging to help their families. And even if they didn’t, the phrase originated in that area so they would have heard it and probably used it.

My dad said that his Uncle Elmer used to say that to him in the morning. This phrase originated from the post Civil War era in Michigan and has traveled over 150 years through generations of Christlers. I don’t say this to my kids, but I’m going to now and I’ll tell them the story of how words can last forever. 


Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Wondering Wednesday: An Interview with Composer Dan Montez

I am very fortunate to be friends with the extremely talented composer, Dan Montez. Dan is one of the most creative individuals I know. Last year, I interviewed Dan about his oratorio, Daniel. His answers and insights were fascinating. If you want to learn more about Dan and his work, including his opera company, The Taconic Opera, you can go to his website.

The text of Daniel is very poetic, spiritual, and literary. What kind of study and preparation did you undertake to create the text?
*I wish I could take credit here. As I think about it, first, I have studied the language of scripture since I was a small child. I’m right at home with the King James way of speaking—thees, thous, and ending “eth”s. I have also been playing, singing, and studying choral literature from a young age. I get religious language. Most of my oratorios actually comes directly from the scriptures. However, it has to be adapted for rhythm, meter, and sometimes rhyme. When that happens, I fret a lot—wanting to get the message right, but wanting to maintain the spiritual feel of the language. I want it to sound like scripture in both message and vocabulary. I avoid modern English idioms otherwise it would be jarring. Second, use words differently based on whether I feel the part of the story needs to be told by a soloist or the chorus. Chorus, generally, creates commentary on the narrative. Sometimes soloists do that too, but not always. Opera, which is my background, separates the recitative (the action of the drama) from the aria (the commentary on the drama)—if you are lucky you get a fit of emotion at the end in a cabaletta:) I try to decide which thing I am doing, creating narrative or commentary, first. Then I try to be concise and get to the point. Don’t want to bore people too much. How do I study for a particular work? I start by reading the actual book of Daniel, for instance. As I read, I wait for dramatic and spiritually exciting moments to just hit me as if I were witnessing a performance by the author. I MUST be moved myself or I must feel that this part of the story is important enough to include it in my oratorio. I also like to limit my themes in a particular oratorio. For example, Jonah is really all about the same problem…judgement verses mercy. Everything relates to that. Daniel and his companions is all about taking a step of faith into the dark and not caring about the consequences. I look for a way to portray that theme throughout the text.
You have been composing Oratorios for a few years now. Have you always wanted to compose an oratorio or did it happen gradually? How did you get from having an idea to actually creating?
* I actually composed my first oratorio 25 years ago…fresh out of school. However, I was trying to show off my modern musical vocabulary. I wasn’t very good. It also wasn’t cohesive…sort of a mishmash of different styles and periods. The modern stuff wasn’t beautiful. I started composing at 15 for my school orchestra. I wrote some violin duets and actually orchestrated a piece for my High School orchestra…I was lucky to have a music director that let me do that at such a young age! At college, I was on piano and voice scholarships at the same time, but had also applied for a composition scholarship. The head of the department called me in and said that the three areas were arguing about giving me money because they didn’t know what I was “going to end up doing.” Then he said, “You need to choose, Dan, you will be good at a lot of things but not great at anything unless you focus on one thing for now.” That was great advice. After a lot of introspection and prayer, I gave up my piano and composition scholarship and went whole hog on the opera. I don’t think I would have sang at Lincoln Center and other large opera houses had I not made that decision. Later, I had lots of contacts in the business…and I called one conductor friend one day and said, can I play a piano concerto with your orchestra? He said, “anything you want.” So I played Prokofiev 3rd with his orchestra. It was, of course, a vanity performance, but it was awesome nonetheless! Got my cake and got to eat it too!. Over the years, I conducted three 100 voice choirs in three states, and my own Ward choir for like 20 years. So that gave me a lot of time to compose for them as well. Making the leap to oratorio, was a natural outgrowth of the years of liturgical composing. The thing that was holding me back was that I wanted to get the orchestration right. So, since I was running an opera company, I began doing oratorios once a year. As I conducted these oratorios, I studied the orchestration techniques of the Masters: Brahms, Verdi, Rossini, Faure, Cherubini, Mozart, etc…After 7 years of that, I decided I could try my hand at orchestrating my own oratorio. I felt compelled to start with the prophet Enoch, especially since his book had been mistakenly removed from the Bible for political reasons and was the most quoted book in the New Testament. I was drawn to tell his story.
Does fear play a factor in your creativity? Do you fight fear when you compose?
* I do get afraid from time to time….Are people going to hate this music I wrote? I find myself more angry than fearful. I know that is sort of weird. My problem is, that I want to be accepted by the intellectuals at Universities and composers of historical note. But if I compose their way, I will lose most of my audience. In addition, frankly, I want to compose beautifully not just intellectually. I want to reach people—as many as possible. But I also don’t want my music to be trite. I can hear my professors in my brain criticizing my work for its triviality. It’s all been done, etc…But I also want to be turned on by it. I now just try to to compose what I want to hear. But I’m always concerned that people who reject it are rejecting me if I actually like it. Yes, a bit neurotic.
You also manage an opera company and deal with many of the mundane but important details of performance. Does that stifle your creativity or does it energize you?

Totally stifles. Not even a question. Running the business side of a company gets in the way of my creativity every day. I’ll be in the middle of staging and opera and every idea I have immediately has a price tag attached to it. At least with composing, I can say, “ok, this is the level of the chorus and the size and level of my orchestra—what can I compose FOR THEM” Without a performance opportunity, it is HARD to be motivated to compose. I would give anything to have someone come to me and tell me they will take over the business side of my company and just let me direct, compose, conduct—make music. I’ve tried to find someone for 17 years…no one wants the job! But without someone doing it, I can’t create. Catch 22.
Did you study composition formally or was this something you learned over the years as a performer and artist?

* We were required to compose regularly in college as part of our theory classes. I was obsessed with perfection in my theory. I became an official University Theory Tutor for the Music Department for a time. Even though I didn’t matriculate in composition, I learned a great deal preparing the over 100 opera productions and 30 years of choral conducting as well. I studied everything in depth. My piano skills and time working with orchestras for 35 years played a huge part as well.
You are an accomplished opera singer as well as a brilliant pianist. What drove you to focus more on creating performances and music instead of performing yourself?

Performing is really about re-creating something that has already been created. Composing is more purely creative. After performing over 50 leading roles and directing another 60 or so operas, plus endless years of piano playing…I was really getting tired of re-creation. I was somewhat creative to do those things, but I wasn’t feeling like it was all of me. I wanted more creative control. Directing was a step there from singing because I could control everyone in the show and the overall direction of everyone’s interactions on stage…but I still wasn’t writing the music. I found myself trying to “fix” problematic compositions with my directing. One of my director friends came to a production of mine of Lucia di Lammermoor and said “Ah, so you fixed the inherent problems of Donizetti, did you?” That was not a compliment. I was indeed interfering. Horowitz used to get away with that. He would re-compose famous piano works, and composers would actually tell him that his version was indeed better. But I can’t claim that I’m a Horowitz in any stretch of the imagination!
How do you get your ideas for your Oratorios?

I’m in love with liturgical music. Handel wrote over 30 oratorios, many of which are Biblical. But we only hear the Messiah these days—that he wrote in about 17 days. Most religious works are either baroque (or earlier), in Latin, or they are extremely modern and inaccessible to most laymen. I was sad about that. I wanted to have something in the language of the people and also tell the story in a spiritual way. I love the Old Testament prophets and icons. These stories have much to say that most do not know about. Jonah isn’t just about a whale, David isn’t about the den of Lions, Enoch just didn’t disappear, Job isn’t just about bad things happening to good people. There is deep doctrine and meat there that I believe deserves to be told through music. The messages are moving and profound and I have my own visions of these great stories that I feel I want to share.
When composing music, do you start with a text and then work on the music or work with the music first and then add text?

Always, always, always text first. I believe you rarely get a good product going the other way. Start with the narrative. Then get to the subtext (the message and perspective underneath the words), then use your developed palate of musical paints to make your audience experience exactly what you are feeling about those words. I believe in intention. Many composers and artists, especially these days, do not. They feel it is fine for each person to walk away with their own perspective of their work. I am not happy when that happens. I want them to have MY perspective—to see it, hear it, and feel what I feel about these stories. They don’t have to agree with my vision! Don’t get me wrong. But I have something specific to tell them and the compositional style I use, I believe is well suited for relaying a liturgical narrative.
Do you have a mentor or someone that critiques or edits your compositions?

My wife use to be it. Fortunately, she also has a degree in music and is a great critic. Now I have a Kessa, my daughter, who has become a professional musician in her own right. She listens to my stuff too. But, she does have her own taste, and it isn’t always mine…but that is ok. We can still respect what the other is doing and what moves them individually. Trying my pieces out with my own opera company group helps a lot too. I can see their reactions to the different works and I learn from them and those reactions each time a compose my next oratorio. Hopefully, I’m getting better as I go along. Also, my orchestra has been very helpful in giving me feedback about what their instruments do best and how I can improve my orchestration. They’re not critical in any negative way, because I know they all are rooting for my success, but they are honest. I like that.
How long does it take you to compose the music for a choral hymn? How long does it take you to compose one of your Oratorios?

Composing used to take so long about 25 years ago. I remember suffering for an entire hour just to compose one measure. Now, I can compose a hymn in not much more than that. An anthem can take a few hours and even my oratorios are much faster now. My first oratorio took a year, I can crank one out in about 2 months, depending, in spite of all the other things I’m doing. It actually takes me more time to input all the music and expression marks into my computer than to compose!
Are you internally motivated and disciplined to create or do you need external pressure and deadlines to finish your work? How do you establish the motivation to finish your work?
I go through spurts with most things in my life. My wife is the opposite. She is a star at creating daily habits. I was good at the habit of daily practice, but I don’t always compose daily unless I do have a deadline. Composers are different this way. I suppose we have to each adapt to the weaknesses or strengths of our own personalities to get things done. I know for me, Summer is my oratorio time. by the time fall comes I am into administration and directing with my operas and just don’t have the time. So i know I must finish be a certain time. So I set weekly goals of how much I want to get done that week. Again, it is extremely motivating to know that is a performance on the horizon.
When you compose, do you hear the notes or melody in your head and then try to capture what you imagine or do you work the other way? Do you sit at a piano to compose?
I always sit at the piano to compose. I hear harmonic progressions in my head…I believe a good harmony can make up for a bad melody any day. Although, most melodic elements have been done before. Since most of what I compose begins with words, I make sure that all the important words of a sentence lands on the downbeat of a measure. I also make sure that phrases are clear and have the right amount of measures. I am a fan of order and form this way. The formlessness of modern music and art is painful for me. I’m tired of people trying to endlessly answer the questions regarding “what is music” or “what is art”. We are done with that—no need to be making obnoxious statements about the answer to those questions anymore. Let’s try to reach people again, move them, change them, and inspire them.
What kinds of things inspire you to create? How do you maintain your momentum? Do you struggle with creative blocks? If so, how do you overcome them?

Sure, there are days when I don’t feel like writing or have no idea what to write. On those days I either don’t compose, or, if this has been going on too long, I force myself to sit down and start writing—even if it is bad. Usually, that snaps me back into creative mode. I do think it is important most times to just make yourself do it. And if you are a performer, I’m a HUGE believer you must do SOMETHING daily no matter how you feel. One thing you must do as a creator, and that is be willing to write garbage and throw it way if it doesn’t work. Even if you spent days on it, sometimes, you just need to throw it away. Our willingness to quickly and spontaneously come up with creative solutions to problems, no matter how bad the idea, is faster than sitting and struggling trying to come up with a perfect answer because you are afraid of failing. I say, FAIL at the top of your voice, then move on.
You are one of the busiest people I know. You have an opera company, put on multiple performances during the year, fundraise, teach piano and voice lessons, AND you are a very engaged father of three children, etc. Yet you still manage to be creative. How do make that all work?
Well, first, we chose to homeschool. That saved a truck load of time and gave us more time with our kids to really raise them. It also allowed them to pursue their own artistic dreams. We connected with them. Second, I work out of my home too. I tried having an office for a few years…big fail. I couldn’t stand being away from home! Sometimes, I am inspired to compose and I need to —immediately follow that voice inside and start writing what I am hearing. I couldn’t do that at work. Third, I am a schedule fiend. I schedule most of my life, but am also willing to give up something on my schedule if I need to. This is why I need to be self-employed. I need to have power over my own schedule to be creative. There are two types of work, physical and mental. I find both to be equally exhausting…in fact one can often be a great relief from the other. So I need to switch often. Also, I truly believe that one needs to work smart—not hard and not a lot. Creativity requires engaging with the beauty of the world—and even relaxing quite a bit. Go to movies, watch tv even. People need mental breaks to be creative. When you do work and do create, you need focus. I see to many musicians, for example, that don’t even understand what practice means. They spend endless hours in unproductive repetition. Work smart, not hard. Accomplish more in less time is my mantra. Repetition is mindless and lazy.
Sometimes I think of artists as people who have a tough time balancing family and their art and yet you have a great family. How have you been able to successfully manage a marriage and children on top of being very artistic and active in the music world?
*Well, no one raises their kids perfectly! We are all imperfect humans helping other imperfect humans the best we can. First, I believe family comes first. I was singing full time for 14 years and in the end was traveling about 10 months a year and not seeing my family. It was anguish. I quit singing for that reason. My agent wasn’t happy—he had invested in getting me to the top opera houses, but once you have some fame, everyone wants you and you start being married to your work. That wasn’t for me. I personally don’t believe you can separate the art from the artist. If art is supposed to show us a better way, to show us how to live better lives, then how can an artist who doesn’t know what it is like to sacrifice for family or community even know what it is like to live a real life? How can they tell me how to be a better person through their art? I don’t think they can. My family always comes first for me. And my wife, before my children—and they know that too.

Now, of course, I have involved my kids in many of my artistic endeavors. My kids all started singing with my opera company in the children’s chorus at age 5. So that gave me even more time to spend with them. Kessa, my oldest who is about 20 now, remembers the years of moving, painting, and building sets. She is a concert pianist, be she knows her opera and sings like a dream. The things my children have learned being artists, to me, are more important than all of the other school subjects they learned. Something about the arts makes you learn faster, and learn better. We had to spend very little time homeschooling. Kessa, for example, took the SAT as her first test ever. She aced it and got an academic scholarship because of it. I credit her intellectual abilities to her artistic endeavors. I believe schools have it all wrong when it comes to getting rid of arts programs first when they run out of money. That should be the last thing they get rid of. Everyone has the same 24 hours a day as everyone else. We are all seeking balance in our lives and when we want one thing, we often have to give up another. However, I’m a big believer that people can do more than they think if they work smarter rather than harder. Create good soil with the arts and you will accomplish more in less time allowing you to do more. Our family always had a full family day where we were not allowed to work but needed to spend the day with our family. We could have made more money, but that time was precious to us. 

All photos were taken from Dan Montez's facebook page with his permission. Please do not copy or reproduce any pictures without written permission from Dan Montez.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Travel Tuesday: Israel Flashbacks, Pt. 5

This is a series of blog posts recounting a family trip to Israel in 2007.  You can find Part 1Part 2Part 3, and Part 4 in the archives. 

The Western Wall
After pizza in the Jewish Quarter, we went to the Western Wall.

The Western wall is one of the holiest places for the Jews. 

Originally, it was not really a part of the Second Temple that Herod built. It was one of the walls that supported the Temple Mount Podium. The Romans destroyed the temple in 70 A.D. but the wall survived.

During the Post-crusader era, the Wall became a more important place. Now it is a sacred site for Jewish worshippers to come and pray and write little hopes and prayers on paper and then push the papers into the cracks.

The right side of the wall is for women and the left side (which is quite a bit larger than the women’s side) is reserved for the men. There are fountains of water to wash before you go to the wall. I did not wash because I am not Jewish. But I saw those who did. I went alone to the women’s side of the wall (I did carry Brooke). Several women asked for donations for the poor and were handing out prayer cards. I was touched by the sincerity of devotion of the women as they prayed. Some were reading their scriptures and praying. To me, it was a sacred place as people went there to feel close to God and to ask for His help with their lives.

I did not take pictures of women going to the wall as it didn’t feel right to do so.

I saw many Ultra-orthodox men taking their children to the wall. I thought was very special to see families going together.

 I have read that some people hold Bar Mitzvahs at the wall. That must be quite a sight!


Monday, May 23, 2016

Mothering Monday: Summer Plans

My kids still have four weeks of school before we have summer break. I'm glad to have a few weeks to think about our summer plans. However, June promises to be busy with two moving-up ceremonies, class parties, class trips, end of the year meetings, etc.

My philosophy about summer is that we should be outside as much as possible and preferably near water. I also want to have some structure, but not too much structure.

Places to Visit/Explore and Activities to Try
  • Attend the Philadelphia, PA temple open house (and visit some of the cool sites there.)
  • Go to the Adirondacks.
  • Possible day trip to Plymouth, MA
  • Local lake and beach
  • Visit a beach in Connecticut
  • Two-week trip to Wyoming (parades, rodeo, spelunking, zip-line at Sleeping Giant, Thermopolis to swim in the hot springs, Yellowstone, the museum...)
  • Possible trip to Albany for a choir festival
  • Dutchess County Fair
  • Historic Hudson Valley Homes
  • Drive-in movie theater
  • Dollar theater
  • Michaels Craft program

Summer Goals
  • Refinish our deck.
  • Grow a successful garden.
  • Teach kids more cooking skills by having them take turns cooking dinner.
  • Have fun!
  • Swimming lessons for younger kids and possible sports camp for older boys.
  • Keep up with a regular chore system.

  • Read 3 books a day.
  • Practice handwriting. 

  • Practice handwriting.
  • Review multiplication facts.

  • Read.
  • Kahn Academy

  • Practice Spanish using Duolingo app.
  • Kahn Academy.

  • Science Research
  • Review French
  • Eagle Project

What is on your list for your summer?