Sharing a Mission

Ordinarily certain moments stand out in a busy conference: a warm conversation, a quick reunion with a student, or funny story shared by a colleague.


At the convention with Tanya Charlton and Martin Cothran

But in this year’s Great Homeschool Convention in Cincinnati, every moment seemed to stand out! This conference rivals anything in the country. The long list of simultaneous sessions is impressive, and yet the rooms are filled with eager listeners. The attendees are fired up and full of questions. Our booth stays abuzz from the opening “bell” on Thursday evening until the last moments of the Saturday schedule. I love it.

But, as we careen through the night on our way back home to Texas, one moment did stand out, now that I think of it. Actually it’s a person. I won’t say too much to identify her except that she once again renewed her annual Circle of Scholars membership even though, I suspect, her kids may be just about grown up. She was one of our earliest customers, maybe even all the way back to that first year when we came to Cincinnati in 2010. There we stood in our long-since abandoned pop-up booth, sporting only a brochure for our signature course Discovering Music—not yet finished. We struggled to find the right words to proclaim our mission which, to be honest, we hadn’t quite identified!

The people who stopped by either already loved the arts or were curious enough to see what these newcomers had in that brochure. Some even bought the course, or, more accurately, the promise of a course that would be ready later in the year. They were bold, don’t you think?

Step by step we’ve added courses, created online curricula, filmed (and filmed and filmed), written books, and yes, found our mission. I like to say we Teach History Through the Lens of the Arts. And our battle cry goes like this.

Our Western cultural heritage is not an elective. It’s a treasure!

These past days in Cincinnati, greeting, chatting with, and embracing the flow of students, families, and tutors who use our materials, I just shook my head in wonder. How simply beautiful that we could have shared music, art, architecture, dance, theater, poetry, and literature with so many people. How grand it is that they took the leap with us, and found themselves on solid, and inspiring, ground. And how inspiring it is when we hear them say, “What’s new this year? We want more.”

That’s partly the magic of the arts. We do want more. We hear a terrific piece and we want to hear another one. We go to a marvelous play and we come out thinking: “I’ve got to go to the theater again soon.” And when we walk through a gallery of unfamiliar paintings only to have one of them reach across the room and pull us towards it to gaze in fascination or wonder, we know that we have joined with viewers past, present, and future in encountering the power of art.

Community always matters, and this community of people seeking learning, treasuring education, and working every day against great odds to instill wisdom and virtue in their children matters. They share our mission, and sharing their journey has been one my life’s greatest privileges.

And so, to you, most lovely woman who yet again came to my talks and watched me fumble with my iPad as I rang up your renewed annual membership, may I express my gratitude? Thank you for jumping into the race with us and cheering us on. I’ll do everything possible to have new courses and interesting publications for you next year, that’s for sure. But I’ll never forget that you and others trusted us when all we had was a brochure and a dream.

Prepare To Teach the Fine Arts

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had parents  tell me they don’t know how to teach Fine Arts. Yes, teaching any subject can be intimidating. But many people never received any meaningful exposure to the Fine Arts in their own education.

I hear the same thing from teachers who do exceptional work in their chosen field, but suddenly find that they have been given a  new responsibility of teaching art appreciation.

What are reasonable goals for a Fine Arts course? Where do you find the materials? How do the Fine Arts fit within the overall curricula?

These are just some of the questions that we will be answering in our symposium “Teaching the Arts Classically” on Saturday, May 13 in Plano, Texas. We have a great line-up of speakers for this event. We also present a workshop in sacred music, an exhibit of the works of Russia artist Evgeny Fuk, and a panel discussion where we take on your questions.

Don’t miss these presentations:

carol-camuzaggo-sm Keynote: A Classical Approach to Artistic Literacy
Dr. Carol Reynolds
 matt-post Dr. Matthew Post, Graduate Director of Humanities and Classical Education, University of Dallas
FrG-229x300 Poetry and Meaning: Theories and Strategies
Fr. Garrin Dickinson, Rector, Church of the Holy Nativity
Jenny headshot-crop Vitruvius and Beauty: Lessons from an Ancient Architect
Jenny Dickinson, Architect/Classical Educator

Click here for more information and registration.

Captivated by Pushkin

pushkinA young lady came up to me during last week’s Great Homeschool Convention in Fort Worth, Texas. A high-schooler, she is taking our Imperial Russia course and had recently passed the milestone unit on Pushkin. Aglow, she told me how excited she was to have discovered the existence of the hither-to unfamiliar author Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin (1799-1837). She was captivated both by the story of his life (and death), and by his writings, in particular his pithy, monumental novel-in-verse Eugene Onegin.

Then she did something that generally only a Russian would do. She pulled a copy of Eugene Onegin out of her backpack. “Probably this is strange,” she said shyly, ”but I’ve been carrying it around with me ever since I found out about it.”

I, of course, jumped up and down and gave her a big hug. Eugene Onegin holds such important status in Russian culture, one akin to a volume of “The Complete Plays of William Shakespeare.” Its seemingly ordinary story and unique poetic structure became a launching pad for much of the subsequent development in 19th-century Russian literature, from Turgenev to Tolstoy. Pushkin’s characters, particularly his cynical, yet vulnerable Onegin and the delicate, heroic Tatiana, still inspire passionate discussion among today’s Russians. When you add in Pushkin’s tragic plays such as Boris Godunov, his incomparable lyrical poems, his short stories like The Captain’s Daughter and The Shot, and his beguiling accounts of ancient fairy tales, well, you have a powerhouse!

And yet, English speakers, particularly in America, frequently have not heard of him. I’ve almost decided that, next conference season, I will present a talk called “Pushkin: Russia’s Most Important Voice.” What do you think? Will it catch people’s attention?

But for now, let me just tell you how marvelous it is to witness a teen falling head-over-heels in love with a piece of literature. In the educational circles I now occupy, one frequently sees young people enamored with classics such as The Odyssey or The Confessions of St. Augustine.

But Pushkin? Not so often. Not nearly often enough.

So, while it was one vignette from a busy conference filled with talks and streams of conversations, I want to tell this young lady (whose name, alas, I did not get) that she made my day. Please contact me again. Let’s meet up and open our copies of Eugene Onegin together, reading out loud Pushkin’s most tender (or most outrageous) commentary about his iconic characters, and particularly his beloved “Tatiana.”

On A Clear Day

On a clear day
Rise and look around you,


Well it was indeed a clear, sunny day. I had just delivered a mid-afternoon talk on the history of Calypso to an audience of fellow-travelers as we steamed across the Caribbean Sea towards Philipsburg, St. Maarten.

Giving talks on these glamorous ships winds me up, as does the chance to chat with attendees, many of whom have their own expertise in the area. One gentleman told me about his memories of sitting up late with the great Calypsonian legend “The Mighty Sparrow,” marveling at his magnificent extempo, or rapier-sharp improvisations. It’s nice when the words from a podium match up with real life.

Suddenly, while pouring myself a cup of tea in the café on Deck 5, a memory from my real life blasted through me. A song I had long forgotten drifted over the speakers.

And you see who you are.

I first encountered On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (Alan J. Lerner and Burton Lane 1965) at a delicate point in my life. I wasn’t the happiest kid in high school—for no reason, I might add. I was moody and resentful of the fact that, as a talented pianist, I needed to practice long hours. Top grades were expected too. None of this was hard, but I resisted much of it.

But then, in the 10th grade, I was asked to do something positively glamorous! I was hired to accompany a girl named Rita who sang On a Clear You Can See Forever in a beauty pageant. I don’t remember whether she was vying for “Miss Roanoke Valley” or was already a queen, competing for the Miss Virginia pageant. But I can tell you that pageants were a big thing back in those days. And while I’d played the organ for fancy weddings, the sparkly atmosphere of a beauty pageant was far different.

We rehearsed a lot. Rita was nervous, despite her lovely voice. Broadway songs are never as easy to sing as they seem.

On a clear day
How it will astound you
That the glow of your being
Outshines every star.

Well she shined a lot that night, although she didn’t win the crown. She won a special talent award and something like Miss Congeniality. I have no idea what her future held: she was a mighty senior from a high school across town and I, a lowly sophomore, was out of her class.

But I gained two important things from the venture. First, I fell in love with accompanying singers. A good accompanist performs the song as much as the singer, yet must know how to retreat into a subsidiary role. Nonetheless, the accompanist breathes each breath with the singer and is attuned to the curve and strength of every phrase. The accompanist stands ready in a split-second to advance, retreat, or cover whatever is needed should there be a faltering on the part of the vocalist. It is never dull.

I also learned that I would never be glamorous. In awe of the girls aglow with rhinestones and perfect makeup, I listened to their chatter as if it were a foreign language.

Since those days I have spent a substantial part of my life in fancy dress, performing and speaking on glamorous stages. But I never gained comfort with the idea, or process, of being glamorous. Instead, what I did gain is a chance to live out the lyrics of the song:

You will follow every mountain, sea, and shore.
You will see from far and near a world you’ve never seen before.

When Rita sang these words, I had a child’s limited view of the future. I doubted I’d ever get past my back yard, much less past the Shenandoah Mountains that ringed my hometown. But things turned out differently. I’ve had opportunities to follow mountains, seas, and shores in ways unimaginable to me, even today.

Many a singer has put a mark on this lovely tune, including Frank Sinatra, Shirley Bassey, Johnny Mathis, and Harry Connick Jr. But I’ll always treasure the voice of Rita, who stepped on stage in a shimmer of sequins, and sold the song to her audience. That song served as a promise unaware, pointing to the clear skies that, one day, would lie before me.

Image: Henrik Winther Andersen (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Is Classical Music Relaxing?


Those of you in the early stages of discovering classical music may become frustrated when much of what you hear is so unfamiliar. You may be tempted to retreat back into familiar territory and decide you don’t “really like” these kinds of pieces. Or, depending on the music you encounter, you may find yourself puzzled, saying: “Isn’t classical music supposed to be relaxing?”

Well, no, it really isn’t necessarily relaxing. And becoming acquainted with the classical canon is quite a different process (initially at least) from “liking” or “disliking.”

Unlike so much of the pop music we encounter and automatically like or dislike, many compositions from the classical repertoire are meant to be challenging and to evoke a full spectrum of emotions (“relaxing” being just one of them). Properly undertaken, exploring Western European compositions written from the late Renaissance until today should take you on the wildest artistic ride of your life. People who pigeonhole the experience as “relaxing” either aren’t paying attention or have not cast their nets very far into the ocean.

To appreciate serious music, you have to become familiar with a sufficient amount of it (which means taking the time to do so). You must be willing to be stretched in new, sometimes uncomfortable directions. There are good strategies for doing this, as well as bad ones. Our Discovering Music course provides much context for understanding music in this manner, as well as a detailed listening plan.

The listening plan consists of a framework that can help to inspire the listener to create new patterns for hearing music. The exploration of context involves considering many non-musical topics: politics, science, fashion, philosophy, geography, religion, you name it. Neither conscientious listening nor a nuanced study of context necessarily will play into our instant response to pop music. Yet both are essential to a full appreciation of classical music.

To turn the equation around, you can also state that cultivating a stronger understanding of music from the Western canon holds the key to unlocking the study of history, literature, religion, philosophy, and even the sciences. This kind interdisciplinary study is the proper focus of the field formally called “historical musicology” (and more popularly called music appreciation). Woven through any such purposeful study of music will be the threads that compose what we can call “music aesthetics”: a systematic cultivation of our musical tastes and deepening of our perception of beauty in music.

All of this sounds serious, doesn’t it? It is . . . and it isn’t, because such study is quite natural. Anything valuable requires some level of seriousness. Mastery of anything first requires us to acknowledge that the area of endeavor is serious. Maybe we cannot imagine ourselves standing in full mastery of concerto form or tragic opera, but we can open our ears and the doors to our heart to unite with their dramatic power and message.

I doubt I’ll ever learn how to design or build modern highway overpasses, but I nonetheless stand in awe at the process. I fully enjoy watching as the almost imperceptible process of constructing these towering webs of concrete filigree moves forward daily. I suspect that if I stood daily on the same spot at a road-construction site and watched what the giant machines and individual workers were doing, I’d be able in time to grasp something of how a complex system of overpasses moves from a two-dimensional design on a piece of paper to a glittering weave of concrete ribbons high in the air that easily support thousands of tons of metal. But to reach that understanding, it would take patience, diligence, analysis, and a spirit of inquiry.

Concrete mixers and concerto form? Could they have something in common? Well, you know I like to draw my analogies far afield. Furthermore I espouse a belief that everything is connected to music and the arts (and music and the arts are connected to everything).

So, stay tuned for more thoughts on this topic. And let me hint that we’re working on something that digs deeply into how we come to learn and understand music. Such a journey rises far above whether one “likes” or dislikes the sound coming from an instrument, a singer, or an mp3 file. Liking and disliking are vivid emotions, but they barely start the motor. Far more discovery awaits you once the ears get moving: the unfamiliar will become more familiar, your enjoyment of music will grow by leaps and bounds, and the ride definitely gets wilder. Sound fun?

Advent IV – St Joseph


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Advent III – Gaudete


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Saint Nicholas

St. Nicholas

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