Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Farewell to Amore

Some people go south for spring break. Me?  I’m in St. Paul, for the the second day in a row.

Yesterday, I traveled to St. Paul (that’s 45 miles north of Northfield, for those of you who are geographically challenged) for a dentist visit, and then spent a few hours at the Minnesota History Center looking through the library’s extensive files on Louis W. Hill for more information about my great-grandfather’s cowboy band.

(I didn’t dig up any earth-shattering information, but I did pick up some ideas about how I could better organize all the material I’ve accumulated on G. Oliver Riggs.  That might be a project for another spring break).

Today, I’m at my favorite St. Paul neighborhood coffee shop, Amore Coffee on Grand Avenue, spending the morning writing while Steve works with residents at the United Family Health Center.  Later, we’ll meet for lunch and some shopping.

And the kids?  What kids?  Oh, the three responsible young adults who live in our house?  They opted to stay home and have a leisurely, unsupervised morning.  Perhaps they will clean the house while I’m gone.  Or maybe not.  What’s nice is that they are old enough enough to manage themselves and the dog for the day. 

Farewell to Amore
I wasn’t sure if Amore Coffee would still be open; I’d heard that it lost its lease and would close this spring, bumped out because the building owner wants to put in a big Anthropologie store.

Today’s the last day for Amore Coffee on Grand Avenue.
Turns out, I arrived on its last day.  I discovered this when I ordered a large latte and a maple pecan scone and the total came to $6.66.

“Ooh – that’s ominous,” I said to the coffee shop owner, who rang me up.

“It’s fitting for today,” she said.

The store has served customers in this location for 18 years.  That’s a lot of lattes, and a lot of memories.  It makes me sad that it’s being forced to close.  Although it does have a sister store in West St. Paul, just off the high bridge on Smith Avenue, it’s a long trek for the regulars in this neighborhood – who, as I write this, keep streaming in to buy one last cup and say goodbye.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

271 Reasons to Save Orchestra

Parents, grandparents and siblings packed the bleachers of the Northfield High School gymnasium last night to hear the annual district orchestra concert, involving all seven orchestras from fourth grade through high school.

In the maroon and gold-painted gym, accented with a Raider Pride banner and other sports-related banners, High School Principal Joel Leer told the audience that the number of orchestra students has grown in the past two years.  This year, it involves 271 students in grades 4-12.
Sebastian (viola, 7th grade) and his cousins Frances (violin, 4th grade) and Hannah (cello, 5th grade) pose after the concert.
Leer said the district orchestra concert shows the evolution of a program, as each grade level orchestra and the two high school groups take turns performing their pieces.

“It allows us to see exactly where students are and where they are headed as they move through the orchestra program,” he said.

I was glad to see such a strong display of support for these student musicians and directors Heather Olivier and Natalie Dimberg at this critical time, as the Northfield School Board considers proposed budget cuts for 2011-12.  The school board had a public hearing last week and will decide at its April 11 meeting whether to approve the superintendent’s recommendation to retain elementary orchestra for next year.  A vote to cut fourth and fifth grade orchestra for next year would essentially kill the entire program.

The orchestras displayed impressive technique as they performed songs that were challenging and entertaining.  The sixth grade orchestra added some great sound effects to the “Addams Family Theme.”  I enjoyed hearing Sebastian’s seventh grade orchestra play “All Star” from the Shrek movie, and it was fun to see members of the concert orchestra (the younger high school group) don sunglasses and bring out drums and an electric bass to play the “James Bond Theme.”

The concert concluded with a bang, as all 271 orchestra students played an excerpt from Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture.”

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

My Musical Manifesto

Here’s what I believe, as a parent of three kids with music in their blood; as someone who played in band from fifth grade through two years of college; as the daughter of a public school teacher and lifelong musician who continues to demonstrate music’s power to bring people closer together; as the granddaughter of a man who was inducted into the Minnesota Music Educators Association’s Hall of Fame; as the great-granddaughter of one of the pioneers of music education in Minnesota:

Music belongs in the public schools, especially at a time when instruction is so focused on testing.  All students should have the chance to pursue a passion for music – whether it’s through band, orchestra, or choir programs – regardless of gender, race and income level.  It makes them better students and better people.  It makes our communities better places to live.  If a school district loses its commitment to educating students in the arts, it loses its soul.

I believe these things, passionately – so passionately, in fact, that I had some trouble last night keeping the emotion out of my voice when I spoke in front of the school board.  I hope it didn’t deter from my message.

I was one of four parents who addressed the Northfield School Board regarding the possible cuts to elementary band and orchestra for next year.  Here's a link to the story on Northfield Patch.

Parents and other interested community members will also have the chance to speak Wednesday (tomorrow) at a public hearing on the budget, which is set for 7 p.m. at the high school auditorium.

I learned before the meeting that Superintendent Chris Richardson was recommending that the district keep both the elementary band and orchestra teacher positions, which had been targeted for elimination by a committee of citizens and staff charged with finding ways to cut the elementary program budget.  Richardson explained his recommendations in a letter posted yesterday on the school district website.

Knowing this, I didn’t feel it was necessary for me to get up in front of the board and explain all the reasons why I think it’s important to retain elementary band and orchestra.  Plus, the other parents who spoke before me made some wonderful points about the success of the strings program in Northfield, about the developmental reasons for starting kids on string instruments in elementary school, and about how cutting orchestra in elementary school would essentially kill the program at the secondary level.
Sebastian before a 5th grade orchestra concert in December 2008.
But I still felt like I had to say something, if no other reason than to go on record of my support for music in the schools.  So I decided to offer a personal story to illustrate music’s power to inspire.  I explained how Sebastian, my seventh-grader, gets up early every Monday morning so he can be at the middle school by 7:10 for jazz band practice.  And how he stays after school on Fridays for an extra 45 minutes, along with about 25 other middle school students, to play in a chamber orchestra organized this year by their teacher, Mrs. Olivier.
Sebastian playing in the 7th grade orchestra at a festival in Woodbury in February 2011.
Sebastian is 12.  He’s not a fan of Monday mornings, and he’s not a fan of hanging out at school at the start of the weekend, but he does not skip rehearsals.  These commitments are not something his dad and I have chosen for him.  It’s something he has chosen because it feeds some need inside him.  He’s just one of many, many kids who feel this way.

These are dark times in public education funding.  The system is so confusing, it’s easy to tune out, to cross one’s fingers and hope for the best.  But if the governor and the legislature can’t arrive at some solutions, if voters can’t look past their own short-term needs and commit to putting their money behind what’s important for us as a state (yes, I’m talking about raising taxes), the budget cuts will return, year after year, to suck the life out of public education until there’s nothing left.

We all need to stay informed.  We need to encourage creative solutions.  We need to reward innovation and big-picture thinking.

Fortunately, there are some inspirational stories out there.  Just last week, reporter Norman Draper wrote a story in the South section of the Star Tribune about The Beatles Project and other efforts to boost music and art programs in the state.

According to the story, the band director in Brooklyn Center has expanded the band program, and has sought grants to ensure that every student, regardless of income, has access to an instrument.  In the Rosemount/Apple Valley/Eagan district, officials worked to boost the numbers of low-income minority students involved in music at one of its elementary schools, resulting in a jump in band members from 23 to 80.

When asked why a school would expand music programs in a tight economic time, the Brooklyn Center band director was quoted as saying, “My personal philosophy is every kid deserves a chance to participate in band.”

My thoughts exactly.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Betsy-Tacy and the Music Man of Crookston

I spent most of the day yesterday in Mankato, doing research for a travel story I’m writing for the Star Tribune.  The highlight was touring the Betsy and Tacy Houses, made famous in the Betsy-Tacy book series by Mankato native Maud Hart Lovelace.
Me in front of the childhood home of Mankato author Maud Hart Lovelace.
For those of you not familiar with the semi-biographical, fictional books, they are based on Maud’s (Betsy’s) growing up in Mankato (Deep Valley) at the turn of the last century.  My mom introduced me to them when I was a kid, and I’ve loved them ever since, although I haven’t read the entire series for years. 

Maud (Betsy) was one of my inspirations for becoming a writer.  She wrote 24 books in all, and she inspired a children’s choice book award, the Maud Hart Lovelace Award, which is celebrating its 30th year.
A plaque on the site explains Maud’s life.  She died in 1980 and is buried in Mankato.
Maud was born in Mankato in 1892, and she lived there until 1910, when she graduated from high school and enrolled at the University of Minnesota.  The years depicted in her first eight books (1898-1910) coincide with the years my great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs, directed the city band in another Minnesota river town, Crookston.

One of the neat things about looking through the books now is that it helps me visualize what life was like for G. Oliver and his family in those years.  My grandfather, Ronald, was born in 1901 and was closer in age to Maud’s younger sister, Helen, born in 1898.  Through Maud’s stories, we learn the everyday details of life, like how children played, how women called on each other and left their cards, how exciting it was to see the first horseless carriage, and to visit the new Carnegie library.
The Carnegie Library in Mankato opened in 1904 and is now an arts center.
It was interesting to compare Mankato to Crookston, which I visited with my parents last June (I wrote about Crookston for the Star Tribune, too: Step Back in Time in Crookston).  Both are college towns with architecturally significant buildings on the National Register of Historic Places.  Both have former Carnegie libraries (yes, I am a little obsessed with Carnegie libraries; see my previous post here). Both towns also have lost some historic structures over the years.

I was thrilled to visit the Betsy House, which was under threat of demolition when the Betsy-Tacy Society rescued it in 2001.  Renovations took several years, and it’s been open for tours since 2009.  Across the street, visitors can tour the Tacy House, the childhood home of Maud’s lifelong friend, Frances Kenney.  This home also was purchased and restored by the Betsy-Tacy Society; it houses an interpretive center and gift shop.
The childhood home of Maud’s friend, Frances (Tacy).
Sadly, some of the places mentioned in the Betsy-Tacy books are long gone, like the Saulpaugh Hotel, called the Melborn Hotel in the books.  It was torn down in 1974 and replaced with a Holiday Inn, which is now the Mankato City Center Hotel.  The loss of the majestic hotel reminds me of how the Palace Hotel in Crookston recently was lost to the wrecking ball.

Another building mentioned in the books that no longer exists is the Opera House.  Built in 1893, the Mankato Opera House was the center of culture and entertainment for many years.  John Philip Sousa’s band performed there on Nov. 11, 1898.  The rising popularity of movies doomed the building, and it was torn down in 1931.  Again, I was reminded of Crookston and its Grand Opera House, where Sousa’s band performed in 1899 and 1902.  That building was destroyed by fire the 1980s. 

When my parents and I visited Crookston, we found the house where G. Oliver and his family lived during their second stay in Crookston, from 1914-1919.  My grandfather, Ronald, was living in this house when he graduated from Crookston High School; the family then moved to Bemidji, and my grandfather enrolled at the University of Minnesota (just like Maud!).

The house is located on Washington Avenue in a neighborhood prone to flooding, and it appeared to be vacant.  I’m not sure it will survive.  If I had an unlimited supply of money, I would consider moving it to a safer site, renovating it and giving it new life as the G. Oliver Riggs Music Museum.
Dad and G. Oliver in front of the former Crookston home.
My grandfather, my dad and my uncle Bob visit the former Crookston home in the early 1950s.
But I don’t have an unlimited supply of money.  If I did, it would probably make more sense to establish a G. Oliver Riggs scholarship fund for youth who want to learn to play instruments, but can’t afford to rent or buy them.  That would be a fitting tribute to a man who contributed so much to the culture of a little Minnesota river town at the turn of the last century.