Thursday, March 30, 2017

More Classical Music for Kids

In yesterday's blog, I commented that I could have easily come up with 100 more pieces to add to my initial list of 12, but I only added 25. I am taking up my own challenge, and here are 75 more wonderful and worthy classical pieces that can be appreciated by music fans of all ages and experience levels.

Aaron Copland - Hoedown (from Rodeo), Appalachian Spring, Fanfare for the Common Man, A Lincoln Portrait. Copland's brilliant brass work, unexpected rhythms, and open fifth harmonies are among his trademarks. His music has such an American feel to it, and is often based on heavily American themes, such as "Hoedown", the folk tune base of "Appalachian Spring," and the western ballet "Billy the Kid". You can't help but tap your toes and hum along to his music.

Igor Stravinsky - The Firebird Suite. Much of Stravinsky's music has a very abstract, modern feel to it, and some of it, such as "Rite of Spring", has an almost violent feel. But "Firebird" has a more familiar-feeling melodic line, with the lovely, haunting, trilling flute melody handing off to the oboes, the strings, the clarinets, and then to various combinations of instruments, building in intensity and richness through the piece.

Sergei Prokofiev - Troika (from Lieutenant Kije)Peter and the Wolf . "Peter and the Wolf" is an obvious choice to include in a list of classical music for children, but I'm a huge fan of the "Troika" from the film "Lieutenant Kije." The rhythmic sleigh bells, sharp military motif in the trumpets, and swiftly moving string and piccolo lines give it an intensity and crispness that can only be Russian.

Jan Sibelius - Finlandia. The mysterious-sounding opening chords of this piece are intriguing, especially as they quickly resolve into a pretty, delicate melody, but later segue back into ominous chords, eventually giving way to another beautiful melodic section. The center portion of the piece was later rewritten by Sibelius to be a stand-alone piece, to which multiple words have been added, including an unofficial Finnish anthem and the popular hymn, "Be Still, My Soul".

Ralph Vaughn Williams - English Folk Song Suite, Fantasia on Greensleeves. Many of Vaughn Williams' compositions are based on folk songs and hymns, and these two pieces are examples of his rich and complex arrangements of often simple tunes, juxtaposing them with countermelodies or combining two tunes.

Percy Grainger - Lincolnshire Posy. Grainger's unexpected harmonies, and technique of playing a melody simply, then repeating it in a more complex orchestration, or adding a contrasting line underneath, all create a marvelous richness to the simple folks melodies on which this piece is based.

Maurice Ravel - Bolero. In manuscript form, "Bolero" looks like it should be an incredibly boring piece. It begins with a simple drum rhythm, followed by a simple solo flute tune, handing the tune over to the clarinet and then the bassoon while the flute continues with a monotone rhythm, the music ever-so-gradually building in volume and intensity while repeating the same simple melody. Eventually the saxophone and the brasses have a turn, then suddenly a pair of piccolos in an almost dissonant harmony, until at last the entire orchestra joins in on the same melody, yet with a brilliance and intensity that has the audience on the edge of their seats right up until the huge falling-down-the-stairs final chords, which provide the only tempo change in the whole entire piece.

Carl Orff - O Fortuna (from Carmina Burana). You may not recognize the name of this piece, but I guarantee you've heard it. Popular in movies and commercials, the chant-like Latin lyrics create a sense of mystery and nervous anticipation, and change suddenly from a quiet, intense whisper into a loud, multi-octave chord.

Dmitri Shostakovitch - Jazz Suite. I hesitated to include this piece, as some might debate that it is jazz rather than classical. However, for all its jazzy tunes and saxophone-heavy orchestration, it is in a genuinely symphonic setting. Much of Shostakovitch's music is less accessible and more difficult, but I find this suite to be easy on the ears and fun to listen to.

Ferde Grofe - The Grand Canyon Suite. There's a a braying donkey. How can you not include in this list a piece with the clip clops of a donkey's hooves and a stubborn bray when he doesn't want to move? Side note: If you want to tie in a great children's book to this piece, read Marguerite Henry's charming "Brighty of the Grand Canyon" and then listen to the Suite.

John Williams - Olympic Fanfare and Theme, Hymn to New England, Liberty Fanfare, March from 1941, The Cowboys Overture. Listening to music by Williams is like listening to music by 3 or 4 composers all at the same time, mainly because Williams lifts themes from plenty of other composers. But he does it so well that it's truly a tribute rather than outright theft. Each of these pieces has its own charm and paints a unique musical picture of its subject. I couldn't bring myself to eliminate any of these - very different from each other - pieces from this list.

Gustav Holst - Suite in E-flat. Like Vaughn Williams and Grainger, Holst takes simple folk songs and places them in complex and intricate settings, playing them against each other, inverting the melody and playing it against itself, and building layer upon layer of musical texture - and then returning to the original simple melody. Just breathtaking.

Giovanni Gabrieli - Canzona per Sonare No. 2, Canzon Primi Toni, Canzon Septimi Toni. As a brass player, I can't help but adore all of Gabrieli's works, particularly his antiphonal brass arrangements. As the organist of Saint Mark's Basilica in Venice, he took advantage of the unusual acoustics provided by the church's two choir lofts, which faced each other, often placing different groups of instruments or singers across from each other, plus a third group on a stage near the center of the church.

Johann Sebastian Bach - St. Matthew Passion, Air on the G String, Little Fugue in G Minor, Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor. Ahhh, Bach. Really, what does anyone need to say about Bach? Listen to his stuff. All of it. I could have listed 100 pieces by Bach alone. Play anything by Bach for your kids and they'll get it.

Edward Elgar - Nimrod (from The Enigma Variations). Elgar dedicated the 14 "Enigma Variations" to his friends and family (including both his wife and himself). The ninth variation, entitled "Nimrod", a reference to an Old Testament patriarch described as "a mighty hunter before the Lord," is dedicated to Elgar's close friend Augustus Jaeger ("Jaeger" being the German word for "hunter"), who was also a music editor and provided Elgar with much-appreciated critiques of his works. A particularly solemn movement, it is often played at funerals and other solemn occasions.

Ludwig van Beethoven - The Consecration of the House Overture. Like Bach, I could have easily included dozens of Beethoven's compositions to this list, but I have limited myself. This particular overture has always been striking to me in terms of its majestic feel, particularly during the fanfare section. It was commissioned for and first performed at the opening of the Theater in der Josefstadt in Venice, and demonstrates plenty of theatrical drama.

Hector Berlioz - Hungarian March (from the Damnation of Faust). I happened to come across this piece for the first time when I was in high school, coincidentally at the same time that I was reading (or at least stumbling through) Goethe's Faust in the original German.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - A Little Night Music, Dies Irae from Requiem in D Minor, Overture to Don Giovanni, Rondo alla turca. Yeah, just listen to all of it. (See also, Bach.)

Georg Frideric Handel - Zadok the Priest, Hallelujah Chorus (from The Messiah). "Zadok the Priest" was written for the coronation of King George II and has been sung at the coronation of every British monarch since. And everything from "The Messiah" is brilliant, but having listened to quite a bit of it, my kids still love the Hallelujah Chorus the best of all.

Sergei Rachmaninoff - Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. This piece for piano and orchestra is actually 24 variations on Niccolo Paganini's last Caprice for violin, and is divided into three sections which correspond to the three movements of a concerto. Funny story which may or may not be child-appropriate: prior to the premiere performance, Rachmaninoff (who was performing the piano part), confessed to a friend that he was nervous about playing the extremely difficult 24th variation. The friend convinced the normally teetotalling Rachmaninoff to have a glass of creme de menthe before the performance to steady his nerves. The performance went so well that Rachmaninoff took to having a glass before every performance of the Rhapsody, causing him to nickname the 24th variation the "Creme de Menthe Variation."

Johann Pachelbel - Canon in D. You know this one. It's in practically every commercial ever made, from shampoo to jewelry to banking services. You can also sing "Jolly Old Saint Nicholas" along with it. Try it. It's fun!

Aram Khatchaturian - Sabre Dance. From the opening timpani to the xylophone in octaves, this dance practically grabs you by the throat and shakes you. The dance is from the final act of Khatchaturian's ballet, "Gayane," and the dancers actually do dance with sabres during the number.

Richard Strauss - Also Sprach Zarathustra. Best known for the use of the fanfare (entitled "Sunrise") in the opening scene of the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey," this piece was actually a tone poem inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche's novel of the same name.

Isaac Albeniz - Sevilla (from Suite Espanola). Suite Espanola was originally written in 1886 for solo piano, in honor of the Queen of Spain. However, a number of the movements were transcribed for solo guitar or multiple guitars, and I find that the guitar arrangement captures the Spanish feel better than the piano version, especially of this particular movement.

Alberta Ginastera - Danza Final (from Estancia Dances). Argentine composer Ginastera's ballet is composed of four movements: The Land Workers, Wheat Dance, the Ranch Hands, and Final Dance, each with its own personality. The first and fourth movements both depict a malambo dance, the fourth movement being at an almost frenetic tempo

Gabriel Faure - Pavane. Originally written for solo piano, but also arranged by the composer for small orchestra and optional chorus, I find this flute choir arrangement to be particularly haunting and lovely.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakoff - Procession of Nobles, Capriccio Espagnol. The "Procession" is from Rimsky-Korsakoff's "opera-ballet" (the title role is danced rather than sung) entitled "Mlada." The opera (ballet?) was not much of a success, but the elegant "Procession" has become part of standard band literature. In his 5-movement "Capriccio Espagnol," Rimsky-Korsakoff carefully used the unique timbre of each instrument, including notes in the score for the use of specific techniques and articulations, to create the exact sound he desired.

If I keep adding notes to each of these pieces, I'll be here forever, so I'll leave the rest of the list for you to discover on your own. If you find one that you (or your kids) particularly like, do a little background research. There are interesting stories behind every composer and every piece!

Mendelssohn - Midsummer Night's Dream
Giuseppi Verdi - Triumphal March (from Aida)
Franz Schubert - Marche Militaire
Albert Ketelbey - In a Persian Market
Henry Purcell - Trumpet Tune and Air
Jeremiah Clarke - Trumpet Voluntary
Engelbert Humperdinck: Evening Prayer (from Hansel and Gretl)
Gioacchino Rossini - The William Tell Overture
Offenbach - Can Can Music
Amilcare Ponchielli - The Dance of the Hours (from La Giaconda)
Julius Fucik - Entrance of the Gladiators
Luigi Boccherini - Minuet
Emile Waldteufel - The Skater's Waltz
Giacomo Puccini - Nessun Dorma (from Turandot)
Johann Strauss - Radetsky MarchThe Blue Danube Waltz
Antonin Dvorak - Largo (from The New World)
Franz Schubert - Unfinished Symphony
Gordon Jacob - William Byrd Suite
Robert Russell Bennett - Suite of Old American Dances
Bedrich Smetana - The Bartered Bride Polka
Morton Gould - American Salute
Richard Wagner - The Ride of the Valkyries

According to my count, these additions should bring the list to an even one hundred, but just in case I miscounted, here's one last recommendation: Gustav Holst's delightful Song of the Blacksmith, complete with anvil solo.


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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Classical Music for Kids

Yesterday I posted a list of great pop songs for kids to listen to. But if you want to introduce them to classical music, there are lots of marvelous pieces that can ease them into the wonderful and complex world of orchestral, opera, and ballet music. Here are some of my personal favorites (in no particular order).

The Nutcracker, by Petr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

The Nutcracker is a Christmas staple in my family. We began by watching movie and television versions with the kids when they were tiny, and then this year we brought them to their first live performance, by the Boston Ballet. They were mesmerized, and have requested music from the ballet as bedtime music on a regular basis ever since. There are also many beautifully illustrated children's books telling the story - the one illustrated by Maurice Sendak is a particular favorite of mine, and fun to read before watching the Pacific Northwest Ballet's version, for which Sendak designed the sets.

Even apart from the context of the story and the ballet, however, the music is complex and interesting, with memorable melodies and rhythms, and wonderful use of featured instruments for specific themes.


The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflote), by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
What The Nutcracker is to ballet, The Magic Flute is to opera: a visually interesting, musically gorgeous and complex, dramatic and occasionally funny introduction to what can be a difficult genre. The music is incredibly difficult and shows the amazing range of the human voice. Compare Diana Damrau's brilliant coloratura as The Queen of the Night with Rene Pape's rich bass in "O Isis and Osiris". And what child would not be tickled by Papageno and Papageno's funny duet preceded by a trio of young boys who sing while flying (or at least, in this particular version, sitting on the shoulders of "invisible" puppeteers). Many recordings are available in English as well as the original German. The Metropolitan Opera's version, directed by Julie Taymor (of Broadway's The Lion King fame), is particularly accessible to children, because of its use of full-size puppetry (the bears! the witches! the food!) and flying, as well as marvelously fantastical costumes and sets.


Music for the Royal Fireworks, by George Frideric Handel
Handel's majestic, brass- and timpani-laden masterpiece captures the orchestral sound of the era, with harpsichord, various brass instruments (which were all valveless at the time, giving them a distinctive chord structure and sound), woodwinds (especially double reeds), and plenty of strings all being featured. The piece also has the advantage of having an interesting backstory, in that it was commissioned by King George II of England to celebrate the signing of the peace agreement of Aix-la-Chapelle, which ended the War of Austrian Succession, in 1748. But the part of the story which children will find interesting is that the piece was performed publicly at Vauxhall Gardens 6 days before the official celebration, and over 12,000 people attended, creating a 3-hour traffic jam (and, reportedly, "scuffles among the footmen"). But even more exciting than that, the King ordered a huge structure with a "triumphal arch" to be built that would proclaim "VIVAT REX" ("May the King live") in letters of fire which were to burn for 5 hours. However, as the cannons were fired and the fireworks set off, the whole contraption burst into flames. Oops. But to what a score it burned!


Piano Sonata No. 14 in C# Minor (The Moonlight Sonata), by Ludwig van Beethoven
Most of us immediately think of the first movement of this piece when we hear the title "The Moonlight Sonata", and it is likely the most well-known movement. However, if you listen further, you will likely recognize the subsequent movements as well. This piece demonstrates Beethoven's use of both simple and very complex musical construction. The pounding chords and incredibly rapid fingering are typical of Beethoven and help to understand his style of composition, and aid in recognizing his other compositions.


The Barber of Seville (Il Barbieri di Siviglia), by Gioachino Rossini
Let's just admit it: We all know and love "The Barber of Seville" thanks to Bugs Bunny's "The Rabbit of Seville". It's brilliant and funny, and pairs Rossini's catchy melodies with typical Looney Tunes silliness. But the original opera supplies plenty of silliness as well, while retaining all those catchy melodies and adding in brilliantly trained vocalists as well as elaborate and colorful costumes and sets. Rossini's opera is based on the first of three plays written by Pierre Beaumarchais centering around a barber named Figaro (several other composers wrote less successful operas based on the same play; Mozart based his hugely successful opera "The Marriage of Figaro" on the second of the three plays). The plot is a complicated and confusing affair involving disguises, illicit love affairs, gossip, and bribery - all the usual opera devices. Figaro's opening aria is not only one of the most well-known to non-opera fans (again, largely due to Bugs Bunny), it's also really fun to sing along on the "lalalala" parts even if you don't know the Italian lyrics.


The Overture to "Candide", by Leonard Bernstein
Although the full operetta may be a bit highbrow for most children, the overture to "Candide" features the most beautiful and sweeping melodies, and the fascinating and unexpected rhythms and changes add lots of fun. Various sections feature individual instruments, including flute, French horns, timpani, and oboes. The link above features Bernstein himself conducting the overture, and it is a delight to watch his casual conducting style and his evident enjoyment of his own work, right up to the perfect final cutoff.

If you do decide to watch the full version, I highly recommend the semi-staged Great Performances special on PBS, which starred Kristin Chenoweth and Patti LuPone, among others.


The Liberty Bell, by John Philip Sousa
No list of classical music would be complete without a march, and naturally, a march by Sousa is always appropriate. Although there are dozens of iconic marches by Sousa ("The Washington Post", "Stars and Stripes Forever", "Semper Fidelis", and "The Thunderer", just to name a few), "The Liberty Bell" is one of my personal favorites. Sousa was inspired to write the march after his son marched in a parade celebrating the return of the actual Liberty Bell to Philadelphia following a tour of the country. Despite being most well-known for its use as the Monty Python theme song, it's a wonderfully American march, right down to the clanging of the bell, which Sousa specifically added to the score (in the case of the recording linked above, the bell used is the ship's bell from the U.S.S. John Philip Sousa).

The march is also an excellent example of the standard march form that Sousa often employed, AABBCDCDC, so it can serve as a easily understood music theory lesson. On the linked recording, the initial A section repeats at 1:06; the B section begins at 1:22, with a quiet section featuring flutes and clarinets which is repeated more loudly by the brasses at 1:37; the C section begins at 1:53 with another quiet, more legato section; section D begins with the clanging bell at 2:26; at 2:51 we repeat C; at 3:23 we're back to D and the clanging bell; and finally at 3:48 we hear a brassier rendition of the C strain with the bells included to complete the march.


Carmen Suite #1, by Georges Bizet
Much like "Candide," the full version of Bizet's opera "Carmen", a tale of a fiery gypsy dancer, is likely somewhat heavy for younger listeners, but selections from the music are much more accessible. And much like "The Barber of Seville" and its Bugs Bunny version, many of us remember hearing the "Habanera" being sung by an animated orange on an episode of "Sesame Street." As well as the "Habanera," most of us recognize "The Toreador Song" (and probably sang it with the lyrics "Toreador-a, don't spit on the floor-a, use the cusipidor-a, whaddaya think it's for-a"). The music included in the suite range from fiery, fast-moving numbers to sweet, quiet waltzes and peppy folk dances.


The Four Seasons, by Antonio Vivaldi

Written as a series of four violin concertos based on each of the four seasons, Vivaldi included a series of poems (it is not clear if he was the author or not) clarifying the elements of each season that inspired his music. This is one of the earliest and most detailed instances of "program music," which includes a story or narrative aspect. My children are fascinated by the recording including the poems, recited by Patrick Stewart (you can listen to "Winter" with Stewart's narration here). These pieces are a beautiful example of music depicting an event and an emotion, and it's a great discussion for kids to analyze what different instruments bring to mind different feelings, or create different images.


Carnival of the Animals, by Camille Saint-Saens
Aside from its brilliant depiction of 14 different animals, I love this particular piece because of the unusual orchestration of two pianos and orchestra. The pianos are often featured without the orchestra in the background, and even in instances when full orchestration might give a richer sound (the most obvious example being the lion's roar in the first movement, which is played by a long glissando up and down the piano keyboard rather than being given to the deeper tubas or string basses). Saint-Saens uses the differing timbres of the instruments to portray everything from lumbering elephants (string basses) to graceful swans (cello) to a cuckoo (clarinet) to dancing fossils (originally written for glass harmonica, but usually played by a glockenspiel). It's a fun game to guess which animal is being portrayed!


In the Hall of the Mountain King, by Edvard Grieg
As a child, I dubbed this piece "Tiptoe Music," because of the quiet, sneaky feel of the opening section, and I always imaged that whoever was tiptoeing was discovered and ran away in the loud and fast latter part of the piece. From Grieg's opera "Peer Gynt", the piece is sung by a group of trolls seeking vengeance on the man who has "seduced the fairest maid of the mountain king" - so my analysis probably isn't that far off. The piece features double reeds and pizzicato strings along with muted brasses at first, then adds flutes and percussion as the volume and tempo both increase, finally bringing in more strings and the brasses, climaxing with loud timpani and cymbals driving the tempo and volume until the piece ends with a series of dramatic crashes and pauses that culminate in a loud timpani roll and one final crash.


The Planets, by Gustav Holst
If you have a Star Wars fan in your house, Holst's "The Planets" is the perfect introduction to classical music for him or her, because John Williams shamelessly stole many of his themes for the score to the Star Wars films directly from Holst. For example, listen to the repeated single-note rhythm in "Mars, the Bringer of War," and you will recognize the stormtroopers' theme. Based not so much on the planets or even the gods they were named after, the pieces are based on astrology and the supposed effect on the human psyche of each planet: Mars, the Bringer of War; Venus, Bringer of Peace; Mercury, the Winged Messenger; Jupiter, Bringer of Jollity (my personal favorite, probably because the French horns have some great licks in this movement); Saturn, Bringer of Old Age; Uranus, the Magician; and Neptune, the Mystic. Pluto was discovered several years before Holst's death, but he had no interest in composing an additional movement, although in 2000, composer Colin Matthews was commissioned by the Halle Orchestra to compose a final movement entitled, "Pluto, the Renewer".


I could probably add 100 other pieces to this list, but I'll add links to just a few more that are worthy of inclusion. Happy listening!

The Brandenburg Concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach
Pictures at an Exhibition and Night on Bald Mountain by Modest Mussorgsky
The Minute Waltz by Frederic Chopin
Claire de Lune by Claude Debussy
The 1812 Overture by Petr Ilyich Tschaikovsky
Piano Concerto No. 3 by Sergei Rachmaninoff
Horn Concerto No. 3 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin
La Donna e Mobile (from Rigoletto) by Giuseppi Verdi
Flight of the Bumblebee by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (for an even more fun rendition, listen to The King's Singers' brilliant vocal version - and stay listening for their version of The Barber of Seville overture that follows)
The Typewriter and The Waltzing Cat by Leroy Anderson
Funny Cats' Duet by Gioachino Rossini
Hungarian Dance No. 5 by Johannes Brahms
The Trout Quintet by Franz Schubert
Liebestraum by Franz Liszt
Tritsch-Tratsch Polka by Johann Strauss II
Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach

Okay, that was more than a few - but it's still hardly scratching the surface of all the wonderful, accessible classical repertoire that's out there. So start listening!!


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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Best Pop Songs for Kids

It seems like there is always music playing in our household. In the car, we listen to satellite radio and CDs; at dinner we listen to Pandora or classical radio; when we're getting ready to go out somewhere Dad is often noodling on the piano or Mom is belting out a show tune or the kids are singing a song they learned in church or in music class at school. Our children have certainly been exposed to an unusually wide variety of musical genres. And they're reaching the age where they're starting to express definite preferences and tastes of their own. I'm always delighted when my son requests the Moonlight Sonata or my daughter requests the Nutcracker at bedtime. But I'm often less than delighted when they ask to listen to some pop song or other that may not have the most age-appropriate lyrics. So how do I allow them to listen to popular music without permitting inappropriate music? I do it by carefully vetting their requested songs and making a list of their favorites that are acceptable. And fortunately, there are a lot of great pop songs out there that do have a positive message, and that are musically valuable. Here's a list of the top ten of my kids' favorites that are both popular and positive.

"Happy" by Pharrell Williams

This song has music and lyrics that are catchy and upbeat. I am physically incapable of not dancing when this song is playing. It has a peppy refrain with great harmonies and fun rhythms. The melody is simple, with some lines almost chanted, so it's easy to learn and sing along with. And the message (complete lyrics can be found here) is just as peppy and upbeat, basically saying "I'm so happy that no amount of bad news could bring me down." And there are a bunch of different covers out there (by the Pentatonix, Sam Tsui, Pomplamoose, and Maroon 5, among others), so you can even have fun comparing different interpretations and arrangements.


"Can't Stop the Feeling" by Justin Timberlake

Timberlake's disco-inspired song from the movie "Trolls" is another feel-good, make-you-dance song. Although this is clearly a love song ("And under the lights when everything goes, nowhere to hide when I'm getting you close. When we move, well you already know, so just imagine..." - complete lyrics here), it's clean and relatively non-suggestive.


"Red Balloon" by Charli XCX

Kids' movies are a great source of pop songs that have to be clean due to the nature of the movie, and this song is one of several catchy tunes from the movie "Home" that are extremely popular with my kids. The aspect of the message that I appreciate is summed up in the lyrics, "Today I opened my eyes and now I'm so happy and free, I got my friends by my side and that's all that matters to me" (full lyrics here). It doesn't claim you should not have any worries, but instead that you should learn to let go of them and rely on your friends to help you. I also kind of love the chorus' repeated yodel-esque "ah-ooo!"

One caveat on this one: Most of Charli XCX's music is decidedly inappropriate for younger listeners, so if your kids ask for more music like this song, stick to other songs from the "Home" soundtrack rather than other songs by her (and if you decide to purchase this song, get it as a single or get the movie soundtrack album, not her "Sucker" album, which also contains this track).


"Alone" by Marshmello

This piece is largely instrumental techno-pop, with a simple, subtle refrain sung periodically in the background. But the tune is boppy and is actually a kind of digitally-enhanced vocal scatting that I (and my kids) find pretty catchy and hummable. The song itself doesn't tell much of a story, merely repeating the lines "I'm so alone, nothing feels like home. I'm so alone, trying to find my way back home to you." (Seriously, you don't have to click on any link. Those really are the only words in the song.) But if you want an interesting message to go with the song, check out the music video. It tells the story of a marshmallow-headed teen who gets teased and mocked at school by fellow students and teachers alike, until he asks out one of the pretty, popular girls via a note and she stops by his house to turn him down, but spies him mixing music and dancing, and secretly takes a video. She shows it around the school and soon everyone is wearing improvised marshmallow heads made from sacks and buckets, and dancing to his tunes. The message is clearly that it's okay to be different, and you just need to find what makes you special. I honestly have no idea what the connection is between the song and the story of the video, other than that the boy is obviously feeling very alone at the beginning, but song and video both have value.


"It's a Beautiful Day" by Michael Buble
The story behind the song, as shown in the music video, is not particularly appropriate for younger kids, since the video opens with Buble walking in on his girlfriend kissing her "yoga instructor". But the song itself is more the story of his relief in dodging the bullet, so to speak, and realizing that his life is much better after this heartbreak. Sample lyrics: "It's a beautiful day, the sun is up, the music's playing, and even if it started raining you won't hear this boy complaining, 'cause I'm glad you're the one that got away" (complete lyrics here). The message really is that after pain and heartbreak, things often get a lot better. And Buble's rich, velvet-smooth, pitch-perfect voice is easy on the ears even if your kids want to listen to this song 300 times in a row. And they will.

"Firework" by Katy Perry
Perry's celebratory "power anthem" was released in 2010, but it's still a catchy and popular tune. The message is a great reassurance that we all feel like "a plastic bag drifting through the wind" sometimes, but also that "there's a spark in you, you just gotta ignite the light and let it shine" (complete lyrics here). The pulsing rhythm and repeated "oh, oh, oh" and "boom, boom, boom" lyrics beg to be danced to and belted out, and the positive message is one that can't be repeated too many times.


"Good Feeling" by Flo Rida
I'm no fan of rap music, but my 7-year-old is, so I do occasionally look for rap-style songs with clean lyrics, and this song qualifies (as not many do). With a message of not just "I got a good feeling", but of drive and determination to work hard and achieve your goals (full lyrics here), it's a song about healthy ambition to succeed rather than merely ego-driven desire for power or wealth. A nice change from most rap songs, plus it's more melodic than most fully-spoken rap.


"Shake It Off" by Taylor Swift
Swift's "Shake It Off" was released in 2014, but its message that you can't control what other people say about you, so just "shake it off" (lyrics here) is timeless, especially for school-age kids. What kid hasn't come home in tears because a "friend" made a nasty remark, or someone started a false rumor about him or her? This song is a good reassurance that everyone has to deal with it, even (and maybe especially) people like Taylor Swift. And bopping to its catchy beat is a great way to help shake it off!


"Best Day of My Life" by American Authors
This song takes a bit of a twist on the I'm so happy/this is a great day theme by making a conscious decision that it WILL be a great day: "This is gonna be the best day of my life" (complete lyrics here). It also has a fun echoing "oh-oh-oh-oh-oh" refrain that kids love to sing along to. Plus there's a plucky banjo part, and who doesn't love a plucky banjo?

"Alone" by Alan Walker
Walker's "Alone" is a very different song from Marshmello's song of the same name. The lyrics are not much more complex than Marshmello's version, consisting mainly of the repeated phrase, " I know I'm not alone" (complete lyrics here), but also including the phrase, "Anywhere, whenever, apart but still together", which I like. My son and I had a discussion about feeling a connection to those you love, even when they're not with you physically, which can apply to both loved ones we've lost, such as grandparents, or family and friends who are far away.


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Friday, March 17, 2017

Irish Recipes That I'd Actually Make

It's St. Patrick's Day, which means - since I live near Boston - that I'm supposed to be making corned beef and cabbage and Irish soda bread for supper. But here's my problem: I can't stand corned beef OR cabbage OR Irish soda bread. So what Irish foods can I make that I and my family (which includes two relatively picky children) will actually enjoy? Here's a list of some recipes that are delicious Irish alternatives to traditional St. Patty's Day fare.

Beef Stew with Guinness
I'm not fond of beer, but beer-infused Irish stew takes on the malty richness of the beer without the bitterness that I find so unpleasant. I first had beef stew made with beer in an authentic Irish pub, and I've been a big fan ever since.
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced (or 3 tsps minced garlic)
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
2 pounds beef stew meat, cubed
3 cups stout beer (such as Guinness)
2 potatoes, peeled and sliced

Heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. Stir in the onion, garlic, salt, and pepper. Cook and stir until the onion has softened and turned translucent, about 5 minutes. Stir in the beef, beer, sliced potatoes, and quartered potatoes. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer until the beef is tender, about 2 hours. Season to taste with salt and pepper before serving.

Shepherd's Pie
The dish I usually make by the name of shepherd's pie is really cottage pie, as it uses ground beef rather than lamb, and corn instead of peas and carrots. But this traditional recipe, flavored with onions, rosemary, and a pinch of cayenne, is a completely different - and even more delicious - creation. 
1 tablespoon olive oil
2s tablespoon butter, divided
1 onion, diced
2 pounds lean ground lamb
1/3 cup flour
salt and pepper to taste
2-1/2 cups water, as needed
1 (12 oz.) package frozen peas and carrots, thawed
2-1/2 pounds Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and halved
1 pinch cayenne pepper
1/4 cup cream cheese
1/4 pound Irish cheese (such as Dubliner), shredded
1 egg yolk
2 tablespoons milk

Place olive oil and butter in Dutch oven over medium heat. Stir in onion and ground lamb; brown the meat, breaking it up into small crumbles as it cooks, about 10 minutes. Stir in flour until incorporated, then mix in salt, black pepper, rosemary, paprika, cinnamon, ketchup, and garlic; cook and stir until garlic is fragrant, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in water and scrape up any brown bits from the bottom of the Dutch oven. Reduce heat to medium-low and bring mixture to a simmer; cook and stir until thick, about 5-6 minutes. Remove lamb mixture from heat and stir in peas and carrots until combined. Spread lamb mixture into the bottom of a 9x13-inch baking dish and set aside.

Place potatoes into a large pan of salted water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium, and cook until tender, about 15 minutes. Drain well and return potatoes to pan. Mash butter, cayenne pepper, cream cheese, and Irish cheese into the potatoes. Mash until combined and potatoes are smooth. Season to taste with salt and black pepper. Whisk together egg yolk and milk in a small bowl; stir into the mashed potato mixture. Top the lamb mixture in the baking dish with the mashed potatoes and spread evenly to cover.

Bake at 375 degrees until the top is golden brown and sauce is bubbling up around the edges, 25 to 30 minutes.

Bangers and Mash
I always assumed that "bangers and mash" was simply sausages served with a side of mashed potatoes. Not so! Irish "bangers and mash" have a wonderful rich wine and vinegar onion gravy that is served over both the meat and the potatoes. 
2 pounds pork sausage
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 lbs. Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cut into large chunks
salt and pepper to taste
1/3 cup milk
4 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 red onions, sliced thinly
1-1/2 teaspoons flour
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
1 cup full-bodied red wine (Shiraz or Malbec works well)
1 cup beef stock

  1. Place sausages in a roasting pan, drizzle with vegetable oil and toss to coat. Spread in single layer and bake at 400 for 30 minutes, turning halfway through cooking.
  2. While sausages are cooking, place potatoes in a saucepan, cover with water, add about 1/2 teaspoon salt, and bring to boil. Simmer about 15 minutes, until potatoes are tender. Drain, cover with a kitchen towel and let stand until dry, about 5 minutes.
  3. In same pan over medium-high heat, combine milk and butter and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and set aside.
  4. Place potatoes in a bowl and mash. Add hot milk mixture and beat until smooth. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  5. To make gravy, in a wide shallow saucepan over medium-low heat, melt the butter with the olive oil. Add onions and cook, stirring frequently, until soft, about 20 minutes. Stir in flour and cook until lightly colored, 2-3 minutes. Stir in vinegar and cook until evaporated. Stir in red wine and stock, increase heat to medium-high and bring mixture to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer until a rich sauce forms, about 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  6. Divide sausages and mash among individual plates. Spoon gravy on top and serve immediately with extra gravy on the side. 
Boxty
This Irish version of potato pancakes gets its name from the Gaelic words "bac", which means "hob" (a metal shelf in a fireplace used for cooking), and "stai", which refers to an open fire, which is where this dish would have originally been cooked. 
1 lb. potatoes, peeled
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
2 tablespoons flour
2-4 tablespoons butter
  1. Line a large bowl with a piece of muslin or cheesecloth, or a clean linen towel. Using the large holes of a box grater, grate the potatoes into the bowl. Squeeze the cloth to extract as much of the liquid as possible. Discard the liquid, return the potatoes to the bowl, and stir in the onion, eggs, salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Add the flour and mix well.
  2. In a large skillet, melt 2 tablespoons of butter over medium heat. Drop the potato mixture into the skillet by tablespoons, leaving space between cakes. Flatten each cake with a spatula and cook for 3 to 4 minutes on each side, until lightly browned and crisp. Add more butter to pan if necessary for subsequent batches. 
  3. Keep the cakes warm in a low oven until ready to serve. 
Steak Pasties
Pasties (pronounced "pah-steez", not "pay-steez" - that's a different word entirely) are a delicious use for leftover cooked beef, whether it's Sunday's roast beef or Saturday's filet mignon. If you don't have any leftover beef, throw a roast in the crockpot with some onion soup mix and water until it falls apart, then make these. You can also use beef gravy from a jar or a mix instead of making your own.
1 lb. roast beef, cooked and cubed (or shredded)
3-4 potatoes, cooked and cubed (you can also use frozen cubed hash browns; no need to thaw)
salt and pepper to taste
2 prepared pie crusts (buy pre-made refrigerated or make your own dough)
roast beef drippings (if you have them)
1-2 cups water
2 teaspoons beef bouillon
2 tablespoons cornstarch dissolved in 1/4 cup water

Mix the beef, potatoes, salt and pepper in a large bowl. Unroll the pie crusts and cut in half. Put a good amount of filling in each crust, fold over, and seal. Place each pasty on a greased cookie sheet. Make a couple of small slits in the top of each crust. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until crust is golden brown. 

While pasties are baking, prepare gravy by whisking together remaining ingredients in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil and simmer for a minute or two until slightly thickened. 

When the pasties come out of the oven, brush them with melted butter and serve with the gravy. 

Irish Whiskey Cake
No food blog of mine is complete without dessert, so here's an NC-21 recipe to bring out after the kiddies are tucked into bed with visions of shamrocks dancing in their heads. Don't forget to save a drop or two of whiskey for the hard-working chef!

For the cake:
1 (18 oz) box yellow cake mix
1 (3-1/2 oz) box instant vanilla pudding mix
4 eggs
1/2 cup oil
1 cup milk
1-1/2 oz whiskey
1 cup pecans or walnuts, chopped

For the icing:
1/2 cup butter, melted
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup whiskey

  1. Combine all cake ingredients and mix by hand for 3 minutes. Pour into well-greased bundt pan and bake for 50-60 minutes at 350 degrees, until toothpick comes out clean. Do not remove from pan!
  2. Combine all icing ingredients in a saucepan over medium heat. Cook, stirring, until sugar dissolves completely and mixture begins to brown. Remove from heat. 
  3. While cake is in pan, poke holes into cake with a toothpick and pour 3/4 of the icing onto cake. Let set 15 minutes. Invert cake onto serving plate. Brush remaining icing onto top and sides of cake.



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The Beauty of Irish Poetry

In honor of St. Patrick's Day, I give you: A collection of Irish poetry. Slainte!



This Heart That Flutters Near My Heart (James Joyce)

This heart that flutters near my heart
My hope and all my riches is,
Unhappy when we draw apart
And happy between kiss and kiss;
My hope and all my riches -- yes! --
And all my happiness.

For there, as in some mossy nest
The wrens will divers treasures keep.
I laid those treasures I possessed
Ere that mine eyes had learned to weep.
Shall we not be as wise as they
Though love live but a day? 



The Lake Isle of Innisfree (W.B. Yeats)

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core. 


Canal Bank Walk (Patrick Kavanagh)

Leafy-with-love banks and the green waters of the canal
Pouring redemption for me, that I do
The will of God, wallow in the habitual, the banal,
Grow with nature again as before I grew.
The bright stick trapped, the breeze adding a third
Party to the couple kissing on an old seat,
And a bird gathering materials for the nest for the Word
Eloquently new and abandoned to its delirious beat.
O unworn world enrapture me, encapture me in a web
Of fabulous grass and eternal voices by a beech,
Feed the gaping need of my senses, give me ad lib
To pray unselfconsciously with overflowing speech
For this soul needs to be honoured with a new dress woven
From green and blue things and arguments that cannot be proven.


Digging (Seamus Heaney)
Between my finger and my thumb   
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun. 

Under my window, a clean rasping sound   
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:   
My father, digging. I look down 

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds   
Bends low, comes up twenty years away   
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills   
Where he was digging. 

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft   
Against the inside knee was levered firmly. 
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep 
To scatter new potatoes that we picked, 
Loving their cool hardness in our hands. 

By God, the old man could handle a spade.   
Just like his old man. 

My grandfather cut more turf in a day 
Than any other man on Toner’s bog. 
Once I carried him milk in a bottle 
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up 
To drink it, then fell to right away 
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods 
Over his shoulder, going down and down 
For the good turf. Digging. 

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap 
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge 
Through living roots awaken in my head. 
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them. 

Between my finger and my thumb 
The squat pen rests. 
I’ll dig with it.


A Lament (Oscar Wilde)
O well for him who lives at ease
With garnered gold in wide domain,
Nor heeds the splashing of the rain,
The crashing down of forest trees. -
O well for him who ne'er hath known
The travail of the hungry years,
A father grey with grief and tears,
A mother weeping all alone. -
But well for him whose feet hath trod
The weary road of toil and strife,
Yet from the sorrows of his life
Builds ladders to be nearer God.


The Meeting of the Waters (Thomas Moore)
There is not in the wide world a valley so sweet
As that vale in whose bosom the bright waters meet;
Oh! the last rays of feeling and life must depart,
Ere the bloom of that valley shall fade from my heart.
Yet it was not that nature had shed o'er the scene
Her purest of crystal and brightest of green;
'Twas not her soft magic of streamlet or hill,
Oh! no, -- it was something more exquisite still.
'Twas that friends, the beloved of my bosom, were near,
Who made every dear scene of enchantment more dear,
And who felt how the best charms of nature improve,
When we see them reflected from looks that we love.
Sweet vale of Avoca! how calm could I rest
In thy bosom of shade, with the friends I love best,
Where the storms that we feel in this cold world should cease,
And our hearts, like thy waters, be mingled in peace.



And how else to end but with the traditional Irish blessing:


May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again,
may God hold you in the palm of His hand.




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