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Monday, November 29, 2010

Monday Morning KIG (Kick Into Gear)

It's Monday Morning and time to kick into gear. I'd like to point out that we are about to start the 12th month to end the first decade of 2000. Now doesn't that make things feel a little more significant? So with that in mind, let's get down to business and consider just a few things regarding our life and goal plans.

December of 2010 is about to start. Is there anything we need to complete before the end of the year 2010? Anything we need to complete before the end of this first decade of 2000? Now is the time to get cracking on those things. Even if we can't finish them before the end of the year, we can take the first steps toward the end goal. Any steps you take are a step in the direction of progress and a feeling of self control.

Yes, I know it's hard, especially if you started the year 2010 with great expectations and plans. Beating yourself up about it isn't productive. Just shake your head, clear your mind, and start anew. If it was worth putting on your to do list (and still is), then it is worth putting some time into. If you drop a china plate, you would not then break all the other plates in the set, would you? One broken plate is no justification for throwing the rest of the set out. One lost expectation or unworked plan is no reason to give up on the idea. Just start again.

Let's resolve now to do better in 2011. For this next month, I want you to be thinking about several different things, which I'll be bringing up each Monday for the rest of the month. For now, do an assessment of where you are now. Look at what you have accomplished in 2010, evaluate the quality of those successes, and consider the areas in your life that may need some further thought:

  • Did you accomplish what you wanted this past year? This past decade?
  • Did you leave something undone? Does it need to be done?
  • Did you do too much? (consider this carefully)
  • What do you need to improve in your life?
  • Is there something you would like to accomplish in this next year?
  • Does your personal life give you satisfaction?
  • What areas of your life need attention? Prioritizing? Focus?
  • What people in your life are you neglecting? Spending too much time with?
  • Where do you have trouble setting boundaries? Limits?
  • Where do you need to spend more time? Home? Work? Church?
  • Are there some big life moments up ahead? A milestone birthday? A major life event?
  • If you could only work on one thing in your life (absolutely one thing), what would it be?
  • If you had 6 months to live, what would you do? 3 months? 1 month? 1 week? How do your answers change with each change in time limit?
  • If you aren't doing what you said in the previous question, why aren't you? What's holding you back?
All of these questions are designed to get the creative juices flowing. Your thoughtful answers are the springboard to a new set of goals for the coming year and decade. So grab some paper and do some scribbling.

Yes, I said to write this down on paper. There is some research to support the success of written goals. I recall testing this myself. One year I wrote down a very comprehensive list of goals, at least 20. The goals covered some very "out there" ideas. I figured, why not? Writing these things down didn't mean I really would accomplish them, right? Funny thing, but I lost that list. Just completely forgot about it. I found it a year later, and I had managed to do every single thing on the list, without even being aware of it. I have tried using computer lists, but I think the written word is so much more powerful.

That was a powerful lesson for me. So let me encourage you to write down some of the concerns, questions, thoughts, and ideas you come up with as you read through those questions I listed above. Just get a little notebook and start writing. We'll visit this topic again next week after you've had a few days to think about it.

Meanwhile, if you haven't figured out your personality style yet, read yesterday's blog post and send me a comment about it. And get thinking about your goals!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Who's Got Personality?

About 350 B.C., Hippocrates (founder of modern medicine) described four personality types based on the predominant bodily liquid that manifested itself in that person: Sanguine (blood), Choleric (yellow bile), Melancholy (black bile), and Phlegmatic (phlegm). Knowing what our particular personality style is and learning more about what others' personality styles are is important. Our learning style differences affect our ability to communicate effectively as teachers, parents, or students. So does our particular personality style. When we teach to particular learning styles, we are aware of the most effective ways to communicate information to others. When we teach with regard to the personality styles of the various parties, we are mindful of the best ways to communicate to others in a manner that is comfortable and familiar to them.

Here are the basic definitions of the four various personality styles. Please keep in mind that I am simplifying the discussion for purposes of this blog post. There are several valuable resources that I will recommend for further study about this topic. I will list them at the end of the discussion.

Sanguine: the "popular" personality, the extrovert, the talker, the optimist

The Sanguine's personality is appealing. He or she is emotional, talkative, enthusiastic, cheerful, innocent, and sincere. The Sanguine personality thinks creatively, loves people and compliments, and is spontaneous and never dull. Taken to extremes, the Santuines' personality traits resemble compulsive talking, exaggeration, and naivete. The Sanguine often can't remember names, forgets appointments and obligations, is disorganized and undisciplined, is easily distracted and doesn't follow through, hates to be alone and needs center stage, interrupts and doesn't listen, and is generally forgetful. The Sanguine child tends to control by using his or her charm. To teach effectively to this personality style, a teacher needs to make learning fun by using games, and the teacher needs to remember that the Sanguine student needs attention, affection, approval, and acceptance.

Choleric: the "powerful personality," the extrovert, the doer, the optimist

The person with a choleric personality is a born leader. He or she is dynamic, active, strong-willed, decisive, independent, confident, and goal-oriented. The Choleric personality moves quickly to action, makes the goal, insists on production, thrives on opposition, leads and organizes well, and excels in emergencies. As I frequently like to remind my husband, the Choleric personality knows the right answer and is usually right. On the negative side, the Choleric seems to be bossy, impatient, and impetuous. The Choleric personality comes on too strong for some and appears inflexible. He or she is generally not complimentary nor sympathetic, and he or she overdominates and answers too quickly. The Choleric has little tolerance for mistakes, doesn't analyze details, appears rude or tactless or demanding, knows everything, and is right but generally unpopular in spite of it. The Choleric is a "bottom line" thinker. The Choleric has little tolerance for the sales pitch and generally wants to get to the final answer quickly and decisively. The Choleric makes decisions quickly; if given new information, the Choleric is quick to process it and to make a new decision. The Choleric controls by threat of anger. Teaching to a Choleric personality, the teacher needs to structure the learning so that the Choleric student has a sense of control, loyalty, and appreciation, and so that the Choleric feels that he or she is getting credit for the work he or she does.

Melancholy: the "perfect" personality, the introvert, the thinker, the pessimist (the "black cloud")

The Melancholy personality is deep, thoughtful, analytical, serious, creative, artistic, musical, poetic, sensitive, and conscientious. He or she is idealistic, scheduled, and a perfectionist who is very conscious of the details. The Melancholy is persistent and thorough, orderly, organized, neat, and tidy. This personality needs to finish what they start, and he or she enjoys creating charts, graphs, figures, and lists. The Melancholy is cautious when making friends and tends to stay in the background. The Melancholy personality is faithful and concerned for others. On the negative side, the Melancholy tends to remember the negative and is often moody or depressed. The Melancholy seems to enjoy being hurt and exhibits a lower self-image. The Melancholy is introspective and meticulous, and this trait often lends itself to procrastination at worst and hesistancy to start projects at best, as the Melancholy spends too much time planning. The Melancholy is generally not people oriented, and he or she is often hard to please because the Melancholy has standards that are too high for some. The Melancholy is critical of others and tends to hold back affection. He or she is suspicious of people, has a tendency to be unforgiving, and is skeptical of compliments. The Melancholy controls by threat of moods. Teaching to a Melancholy, a teacher needs to mindful of the Melancholy's need for perfection, sensitivity, support, space, and silence.

Phlegmatic: the "peaceful" personality, the introvert, the watcher, the pessimist

The Phlegmatic personality is low-key and easygoing, relaxed and calm, patient and consistent, sympathetic and happy in life, and competent and steady. The Phlegmatic is an agreeable person with administrative ability and mediation skills, as they tend to avoid conflict and act well under pressure. The Phlegmatic tends to look for and find the easy way. The Phlegmatic is pleasant and enjoyable and shows compassion and concern for others. Consequently the Phlegmatic has many friends. The Phlegmatic can appear unenthusiastic and indecisive, and he or she may have a tendency to avoid responsibility. The Phlegmatic has a quiet will of iron (a stubborn streak) that shows in full strength when the Phlegmatic is the recipient of a well-meaning spouse who is "nagging" them about completing a chore or other household responsibility. As a parent, the Phlegmatic tends to be lax on discipline and doesn't organize the home well. The Phlegmatic takes life too easy, appears to lack self-motivation and goals, is hard to get moving, resents being pushed or nagged, and appears to others to be lazy and careless. The Phlegmatic would rather watch and be uninvolved. The Phlegmatic is not easily excited, and he or she tends to show indifference along with sarcasm and teasing. Basically the Phlegmatic resists change and controls by procrastination. Teaching to a Phlegmatic, a teacher needs to remember the Phlegmatic's need for peace and quiet, a feeling of worth and respect, and the lack of stress and pressure.

My personality style is Choleric-Sanguine. When I analyze my personality test closely, I discover that my strengths fall mostly on the Choleric side and my weakness on the Sanguine side. Knowing this information I have been able to recognize when I might come on too strong for a student with a different style or when I can be frank and direct with a particular student. Knowing this information also helps me to relate better to my spouse, who is a Melancholy-Phlegmatic, and to my stepson, who is a Sanguine. There are several clashing points between the personality styles, and I'll save that for a future discussion.

Other Resources for Further Study

The Public Speaker of the Quick and Dirty Tips folks, has presented this personality concept with regard to communication. You may find this discussion in episode 59 (September 11, 2009):

Florence Littauer has written a series of books about this topic. Her basic book is entitled "Personality Plus." My personal favorite of her series of books, which resonates stronger with parents, is her "Personality Plus for Parents."

And for fun, why not take the personality quiz yourself?


For an exhaustive look at the various personality style theories: http://www.businessballs.com/personalitystylesmodels.htm#four%20temperaments%20four%20humours

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Teaching With Style

I've enjoyed the messages I've received about everyone's various perceptual learning styles. I think I'm mostly visual, but I have a very strong aural and kinesthetic perception as well, and I work to strengthen all the areas equally. Today I wanted to talk about how I teach to the student's basic perceptual learning style, whichever it is, and how I also teach in ways that strengthen the student's weaker styles.

Visual students seem to have the most difficulties playing by memory and learning to play by ear. Visual students can play by memory, but they are easily distracted by visual interruptions during a performance. Any movement by the audience -- someone turning program pages, someone dropping the program, someone shifting in his or her seat -- can immediately distract the visual style performer and cause a memory slip. I have often found this to be my own particular problem, which is why I sometimes close my eyes during performances by memory. I strengthen my aural memory by adding in extra listening to my repertoire before performances. I also practice visualization during the "twilight" time, which is my name for those last minutes before actually falling asleep. I mentally practice performing my piece while I am in this relaxed, almost dream-like state. I can feel myself playing the piece, and I think that this strengthens my kinesthetic sense. I also go through specific exercises with my visual students to help them develop the five various kinds of memory, which I will discuss in a later post.

Visual learners typically learn to read music rather quickly, and there are some students that almost learn how to read music without my guidance. Sometimes rhythm can be a challenge, but when I present the visual learner with rhythmic charts that show the proportion between notes, the issue may clear up. {Teaching rhythm will be another topic for another day.] Visual learners also respond well to hand signals and cues or cards. They need to look at something when listening to music or playing by memory. I recall one young student playing an entire piece while staring at the piece. I told her that she did a fine job, and all that was left was to memorize the piece. She then told me that she had played the entire thing by memory. I understood then that she may have been "looking" at the piece, but she wasn't "seeing" it. Looking at the piece just gave her a place to rest her eyes so she could concentrate on playing by memory. It's an interesting trick and one that I haven't been able to master myself.

Since visual learners have the hardest time learning to play by ear, I start working on this skill very early in the Suzuki books. My students' parents are already following a daily listening regimen, but I find that my visual students need my specific guidance in the area of learning how to play by ear. I ask the student to look away from me, or we use a blindfold. Then we play the "mystery game." I play the A or E string and ask the student to tell me what I played. I ask the student to match the pitch I just played on their own violin. Usually the kids get this right away. Then I might play F# on the E string. I'll ask the student on which string they think the note is. They usually get this one too. Then I'll play a combination of 2 notes with "Mississippi Hotdog" rhythm, such as A then E string, and ask the student to imitate what I played.

I work at this at every lesson. I help the student learn to differentiate between pitches that are "steps" (seconds), "skips" (thirds), or the same note played twice. What fascinates me is that the student's finger may be correctly in place to answer my queries, and yet the student will not play. Somehow the student's body knows what the note is, but the student's mind is refusing to let go and just experiment. Those students who do finally let go and experiment with all the possible notes, learn the quickest how to play by ear.

I experienced something similar when I went back to church a decade ago. During my youthful formative years, I used my music training to sight read from the church hymnals. Now many churches do not use hymnals, and in the case of my own church, we read the words of the songs on a screen with not a single note in sight. I tried listening to the song through one time, but I still had trouble mastering the new material. Then I tried singing along from the first moment the song was played by matching the pitches as they occurred. I found that by the second verse I could actually sing the song. I see something similar in the way that students "experiment" with finding the notes of a new song by using their ear. Those students who let their fingers do the playing seem to figure out how a new song goes much, much quicker than a student who stands frozen and balks at putting down any finger.

Aural learners easily learn music by listening. They have no trouble playing by ear and quite often progress very quickly in the Suzuki world. They have an easier time learning to read music if they can sing or say note names or rhythms. They can quickly memorize music if they listen to recordings. In fact, aural learners may have difficulty memorizing a piece if they are only looking at the written part. These students may need lyrics for certain passages. Although an aural learner can respond to verbal cues, it may be distracting. I find it better to use some other sound as a cue rather than actual words: tongue clicks, finger snaps, or soft vocal sounds ("sh, sh, sh" or "tst," "tst," "tst"). To strengthen an aural learner's visual sense, I demonstrate new material for the student without actually playing the notes. I show my fingering or my bowing without making a sound. The student can only use his or her eyes to figure out what I am doing.

Because aural learners learn very quickly to play by ear, I find it crucial to teach them how to read music at a very early stage in the game. There is a tricky window of opportunity here, and if I miss it because I have poorly timed when to teach the student to read music, then I will miss altogether the chance for the student to learn to read well. For example, I have had new students come to me from another teacher who may have delayed the reading stage until the student was well into book 3 or even book 4. Unfortunately, this is way too late for an aural learner, who probably learned how to play by ear early in book 1. Now the student needs only to hear something one time, and they have the piece fairly well on the road to being learned. They never learn to use their eyes well. I try and correct this difficulty by giving the student other music that has no recording. We play duets or easier etudes -- easier anything! -- just to get the reading practice going. So whereas I might hold off on teaching a visual student to read until the playing-by-ear skill is developed, I teach an aural student early. [When to teach music reading is another post for another day.]

Kinesthetic learners may find it easier to learn a piece by coming up with a dance or other physical routine that fits the music. Sometimes it helps to have the student stand in different places for different parts of the piece. Kinesthetic learners may also enjoy learning to conduct simple beat patterns or even direct the flow of the pitches, moving the hand up when the note pitches ascend and down when the note pitches descend. I have read that kinesthetic learners may benefit from using the Kodaly method when learning notes. Any kind of motion would be useful, even walking around the room. When working with a kinesthetic learner, I can make adjustments by physical touch alone.

Because the kinesthetic learner's muscle memory is so strong, I find it imperative that this student work very carefully in order to learn the correct fingerings and bowings from the very first notes. If the kinesthetic student learns a piece with incorrect fingers or bowings, the student may have a tough time unlearning the mistakes. In some songs, I might suggest that the kinesthetic learner actually learn the piece or passage with "separate hands" by using pizzicato for the left hand notes (plucking the notes on the strings without using the bow), and then learning the bowing by moving the bow up and down in the air without the violin before trying to put the bowing and the notes together. Pieces like Minuet 3 (#15 in Suzuki book 1), Musette (#2 in book 2), and The Two Grenadiers (#7 in bk 2) are examples of such kinesthetic repertoire swamps.

To summarize how I teach to the student's other styles in order to strengthen them, I basically find ways to cut off the student's primary perceptual learning style. If it's a visual student, I find ways to eliminate sight from the equation. If my student is aural, I eliminate sound. If my student is kinesthetic, I eliminate touch and use simple, one-word verbal cues. My goal is always to develop a completely well-rounded student who is strong in all perceptual learning styles.

I first learned about the perceptual learning styles theory through an article by Cheryl L. Cornell ("How Best do They Learn?), published in the American Suzuki Journal in the summer of 1998. at the time, Cheryl was the Director of Northwest Missouri Talent Education in Maryville, Missouri, teaching violin and viola. I have always wanted to contact Cheryl to thank her for the wonderful article she wrote about the three perceptual learning styles. I have relied on the information that Cheryl wrote for many years now. I found the information very valuable and useful as a teacher, and I hope that you do too.

Don't forget to vote in one of the polls here on the site, usually to the right of the blog post. If you have some polls you would like to suggest, please leave me a comment.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Are you working SMART?

It's Sunday night and you know what that means. Time for some goal setting for Monday morning! After I write down my goals, I review them and consider whether they comply with the SMART model:

S: Specific
M: Measurable
A: Attainable
R: Realistic
T: Timely

Specific: Specificity helps us to focus what we are doing and clearly define what it is that we plan to do. I use "what," "why," and "how" to determine whether my goal passes the specificity test. I use present tense action words. I don't write down that I'm going to improve my spiccato. Instead I write down exactly what I plan to do to accomplish this step.

Example: I am practicing 2 minutes every day playing Perpetual Motion (or the D major scale, 3 octaves, with double 8th notes) with spiccato bows. I consider whether my up bows are as strong as my down bows.

Example: I am practicing 5 minutes of spiccato on one passage at various metronome speeds and listening for an evenness between down bows and up bows.

Measurable: How will you know that you have achieved your desired result? You need a way to measure your progress and your ultimate achievement. For example, if you plan to lose weight, how will you know when you have achieved it? We would know because hopefully we worded our goal so that we could measure the result, such as pounds lost. The best goals are those that have several possible measuring points along the road to success, which makes it easier to mark off progress. Measuring goal progress is a great way to stay on track and to encourage yourself to keep going.

Example: I am practicing 100 days in a row for a minimum of 10 minutes.

Example: I am practicing this specific passage using the metronome and increasing the tempo a little bit every day for 30 days.

Attainable: Make sure that your goal is something that you can really achieve. If your goal is something that is important to you, then you will start to think of how you might make your dreams come true. You will see opportunities to build your skills, change your attitude, rework your schedule, and put your finances in order. You will think of more ways to bring yourself closer to achieving your goals. If your goal is not attainable, then you really won't give your best to achieve it. You will know subconsciously that it's too much for you. It's OK for your goal to stretch you -- these are the best kind of goals.

Bad example: I am a concert pianist in 1 month.

Good example: I practice piano daily for a minimum of 20 minutes. I attend weekly private lessons. After 1 year, I play an instructor-assigned piece in a recital.

Bad example: I lose 60 pounds in 1 week.

Good example: I lose 1 pound a week by eating fruit instead of sugary sweets for dessert and by exercising 30 minutes at least 5 times a week.

Realistic: Is this goal something that you can actually do or will it break you in the trying? I expect a learning curve when embarking on a new goal pathway, but it's not a realistic goal if my learning curve rises before me vertically. Be careful though that you need to use some effort to attain your goal. A goal that's too hard to reach will set you up for failure, but a goal that demands too little from you sends you the message that you don't have much ability.

Timely: Set your goal within a time frame. Give it an end point so that you have a target before you. Time limits build urgency to take action now. The time must be measurable, attainable, and realistic as well as the goal.

Your focus assignment this Monday morning is to review your goals for the week (the month/year/decade) and see if they are SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely.

Leave me a comment and let me know what kinds of goals you might be working on this week.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Do You Have ***"Style"***?

When I ask whether you have "style," I'm referring to your learning style. Everyone has a favorite style in which to process new information. We might be visual, aural, or kinesthetic.

Visual folks rely more strongly on their eyes. Aural folks rely on their ears. Kinesthetic folks rely on their sense of touch. You may know which style you are, but if you don't, think about the language you use. Often our word choices reflect our learning style preference. Visual folks say things like, "I see" or "it's crystal clear." Aural folks say things like, "I hear you" or "it sounds alright to me." Kinesthetic folks say things like "I get it" or "I have a gut feeling." Me? I actually practice changing my word choices on purpose. Sometimes I use visual language, sometimes I use aural or kinesthetic. I want to be a well rounded teacher, so I work on all of my possible learning styles.

Why does it matter what learning style you are? By understanding your own personal learning style, you can also structure your learning or practicing environment to learn new things quicker or to learn previous material more thoroughly. As a teacher or parent, it is helpful to understand what learning style your student is as well as your own style in order to communicate more effectively between you.

Visual learners need to see what they are learning. They need to look at the music on the page or the way the fingers should be placed on the fingerboard. They have a tendency to mistrust verbal instructions and an even stronger need to look at the music rather than play something by ear. They can memorize music, but they may have a hard time performing from memory because any visual distraction might disturb the performance. In a classroom situation, I can pinpoint the visual learners the first time I give out bowing instructions. They immediately ask me or their neighbor to repeat the instructions, or they turn around or lean over to look at what their neighbor has written. I help visual learners practice repeating instructions or verbal cues under their breath in order to learn how to "hear" them. It really works!

Aural learners need to hear what they are learning. They don't need to look at something. In fact, if you demonstrate something to them, they may not even "see" what you are doing. Instead they will describe what they hear you are doing. For example, I had a young boy who used way too much bow and sounded very sloppy and messy. I tried to demonstrate this for him. I played a passage with two different styles: (1) I played with concentrated bowing and very clean, then (2) I played with huge messy bows. The student heard that I was louder and scratchier with the second example. I realized that he was describing sound and not the visual cues I had given him (I was pretty obvious about it too, using monster bows in example 2). I then played the examples again, but I left my bow up in the air. I went through the bowing motions, but I made no sound whatsoever. The student immediately figured out that I was using smaller bows with number 1 and shorter bows with number 2. Mission accomplished!

Kinesthetic learners need to feel what they are learning and to involve their bodies in the process. Kinesthetic learners have historically been the more challenging of the learning styles, at least in the public school system, which has historically been geared more toward visual learners. In years past, when a parent complained to me that their child was getting behavior referrals from the child's school, I understood that the school wasn't handling the child's kinesthetic needs very well. A kinesthetic child needs to use his or her body in the learning process. Such a child finds it difficult to sit still and just take in instructions. They need to interact in some way. If only children were allowed to mark their school books, many of our kinesthetic "behavior issues" might disappear. I have taught kinesthetic children to read music or instructions by having them underline or circle words in their music or theory books. The action of writing or drawing helps to calm the kinesthetic need for physical activity.

When I teach, I identify the learning style of both my student and his or her parent. I do that so that I can figure out where there may be difficulties in communication between the student and the parent when practicing at home. For example, a visual type parent may communicate with her aural type child by using language that doesn't "ring a bell" with her child. Perhaps the parent is pointing to something in the music, while the child is just looking away. The visual parent will then say something like, "look at me when I'm talking to you." That sort of thing amuses me. What does the parent really want from the child? Does the parent want the child to look at the parent or to hear what the parent is saying? Many times aural children don't "look" when they are listening. It doesn't mean that the child doesn't hear them.

There are problems with mismatches of other learning styles. Aural parents tend to talk at their child more, and visual students need to see the instructions more than they need to hear about them. Kinesthetic learners tend to move around; they have a hard time sitting still to look at things or to listen to what's being told to them, although I often find that kinesthetic learners have good aural skills too. I wonder if it's akin to how blind people have more developed senses of hearing and touch. Perhaps kinesthetic folks have higher senses of hearing and touch as well.

In a future post, I'll talk about specific ways to teach to the particular learning styles. For now, I will note that I identify the student's learning style, and then I strive NOT to teach to that style unless I need to get a point across quickly. Instead I think it's more important to strengthen the student's other senses as much as possible to help the student to become the best they can possibly be. My future posts will tell you how I do that.

Write me a comment and tell me what learning style you think you are and how you think that impacts your lifestyle or learning environment.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

It's Fascinating!

The first thing I do with a new student is work to extend the student's concentration and focus. In order to do that, I find and build on whatever the student is already fascinated about. With a young child, I start out with a staring contest. We can laugh and giggle, but we cannot break eye contact. While this goes on, I am counting aloud. The minute the student breaks eye contact, the game is over, and we note how long the student was able to stare continuously. This particular game builds concentration and focus very quickly. Parents report to me that they play the game at home in between the first and second lesson and reach up to 100 seconds. With particularly young children or children with more kinesthetic interaction with the world, I will add some sort of physical touch to the game. I'll go back and forth touching our noses respectively, which keeps the student focused on me and on my touch. It's the same game but played a little differently.

The staring contest is similar to peek-a-boo, which is a game that universally delights babies and toddlers. When parents play this game, they can help to build their child's ability to concentrate and focus by delaying the peek-a-boo part of the game as long as possible. Have you noticed how babies behave when they are asked to play with car keys or other noisy objects as they sit in a restaurant high chair? The babies quite often throw the objects to the floor and then delight when the parents pick up and return the keys. A parent could play the fascination game here by delaying the return of the object or moving the object around slowly like an airplane.

Another game is to ask the student to sit quietly and listen carefully. Then I pluck my A string and ask the student to raise his or her hand when the sound has completely gone away. My students usually raise their hands rather quickly, but I hold back raising my own hand until the note and its vibrations have completely disappeared, which is sometimes as long as 10 seconds later than my students hear. Another quiet sitting activity is to ask the student to be quiet and then turn the head to look directly at whatever sound he or she hears: the hum of the electric lights above, the whirring of the air conditioner, or the sound of moving traffic outside. This is a good activity for anyone of any age. This activity also helps to calm down an excited child.

Any time a child is fascinated by a toy or puzzle or book is an opportunity to build fascination and concentration. Encourage any activity that fascinates a child into sitting and studiously looking at or working with something. Try to keep extraneous noise at bay; nothing destroys concentration better than simultaneous noise or other activity.

With advanced students who are weaker in concentration, I assign a scale routine that requires a great deal of concentration in order to play correctly. I use the "acceleration" scale exercise found in the Galamian scale book. It takes a student quite some effort to be able to play the exercise correctly: 24 notes going up and down in slur patterns of 4-6-8-12-24 with a half note = 50 on the metronome. I believe that slurring 4-6-8 is a slow enough speed for the student to be able to use his or her left brain and evaluate performance during execution. Slurring 12 and 24, I believe, uses the right brain and requires the student to "let go" of conscious thinking and allow the practice and training to take over. I find that when a student is finally able to master this exercise, then his or her concentration and focus has noticeably grown stronger than when the student began learning the exercise.

I sometimes encounter students who are unable to play the same bowings and fingerings on a consistent basis. I believe that this problem stems from weaker concentration and focus. In these cases I forbid the student to practice more than 10 minutes at a time. I encourage the student to do many sessions of 10 minutes daily, but I ask the student to set a kitchen timer for 10 minutes and actually stop playing when the timer goes off. The student should then put the instrument down and do something physical: use the restroom, drink water, sit down, stand up, turn around in a circle, cross the room, or whatever the student can think to do that takes 10 seconds or so. I also instruct the student to stop playing and do one of these things whenever he notices that he is no longer paying attention, in case the student's mind wanders more often than every 10 minutes. This advice also works for the wandering mind during study time. If the student stops paying attention to the material under study, I tell her to stop at that moment and do something else briefly to help get the focus back. My students report that this works quite well. Within a week my students notice a great improvement in their concentration and focus.

What kinds of activities or advice to you recommend or give to your students about building concentration and focus?

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Importance of Being Earnest

Forgive my little pun on the Oscar Wilde play of the same name. Today I want to talk about the importance of working to develop self-discipline. So, what is self-discipline anyway? There are all sorts of definitions out there, but the meaning of the word basically boils down to character and regulation: what sort of character do you show when no one is looking, and to what regulation do you put yourself in the pursuit of anything?

Clear as mud, right? OK, how about this? Self-discipline is the ability to regulate one's behavior in a way that is socially acceptable. Umm, yes, it is that, but it's even more than that. Discipline comes from the word disciple, which means to teach by instruction. Tack on the word "self" to the beginning of the word, and there you have it: teaching the self by instructing the self.

OK, you're probably wondering what I'm actually rambling on about. You have to admit, though, that this is a tricky concept to actually define in a way that makes sense. Do you have self-discipline? Do your students or children? Your spouse or colleagues?

In the area of teaching, we would all like our students to be so good at self-discipline that they would take it upon themselves to practice without being reminded or policed. How can we get them to do that? Is that an impossible dream?

I think that we can get students and children to that point, but it doesn't come easily or quickly. First, I think we work with our students to develop a skill or skill set. After repeating the skill or skill set numerous times, we begin to create an ability. After creating an ability, the student starts to exhibit pleasure in showing that ability, and we encourage that pleasure with applause and opportunities to show off. After the student begins to feel pleasure in the activity, the next step is that the student starts to take some ownership in the activity. And at that stage, we are well on the path of saying that we have helped the student to understand the importance of being earnest and self-disciplined.

As a teacher, my next steps would be to show the student ideas about:

  • how to handle the blah days when the student doesn't want to practice
  • how to handle days when success is outweighed by disappointment
  • how to break down overwhelming tasks into smaller more manageable steps
  • how to set goals and measure progress
  • how to celebrate the achievements
How do you handle this issue with a student? How do you handle the issue with the student's parents? Sometimes my biggest problems are the parents who can't wait for their child to become solely self-sufficient in the area of practicing. I find that very sad. Here is an opportunity for the parents to be directly involved in the child's learning a skill and ability, and then the parents are in a hurry to pass by this chance to really get to understand the child.

As a teacher, I feel very blessed to have the opportunity to share the gift and ability of music making with my students. I wish that more parents could also experience that joyful blessing.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Monday Morning Goal Setting

It's Monday morning, and you know what that means. A new week in which to accomplish things, even if we just take a few steps forward. But what steps will you take this week?

First, have you set any goals? I think it's a good idea to review goals periodically and to think of them in three possible ways. I start by thinking long term. What goals would I like to accomplish in my life in 5-10 years from now? I consider how old I will be in that time period, and then I start making my list. I am quite expansive in this area. I have written as many as 100 things on this list. I don't always look at the list again for another year or so, and when I do, I am amused to find that I have accomplished many of the items I have written.

Second, I consider what I might like to accomplish in the mid-range of time, like 1-5 years. I figure out my age during that time period, and then I think of the things I would like to complete in that time range. Third, I think short-term and consider what I would like to do in 6 months to 1 year. This list might also include initial steps that I might take to accomplish any of the mid-range and long-term goals.

In all of the process I have described above, I write everything down on paper. I have read of studies conducted at a major institution of higher learning, which asked students to think of a master list of goals to accomplish. The students were contacted later to report the progress they made on accomplishing their goals. The study found that those students who wrote down their goals on paper accomplished more goals than those students who did not write them.

So, start thinking and writing those goals.

Weekly focus challenge: consider your posture when practicing or in other activities. Make an effort to correct any misalignments in your body.

Weekly review challenge: Variations A & B of the Twinkles. If you are in book 2 or 3,  strive to use longer bows. If you are in book 4 or above, start the variations with up bow and play them with "upside down" bowing. The sound should be similar to a down bow variation. You might also challenge yourself by playing the variations all on one string or on different strings.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Posture Checklist for Violin

When I evaluate a student, these are the posture items I consider, starting from the ground up:

Feet: I look at how the student has lined up his or her feet. If the feet are too close together or too far apart, then the student's playing balance is adversely affected. I demonstrate this unsettled balance to the student by playfully pushing them over from the side if the feet are too close together or backwards if the feet are too far apart. When in doubt, I ask a student to jump up and down a few times. How the student then lands on the feet is usually the perfectly balanced place. I ask students to allow for a "V" formation, and I adjust the feet when they are pointed inwards.

Knees: This is a problematic area. Many students tend to hyper-extend their knees backwards. This is not a good position, because the rest of the torso will be out of alignment. I ask the student to have soft knees. I use two exercises to help those students who have difficulty with the knees. One is to have them stand with locked knees as I hand them something a little heavier than a violin, like a small box. We talk about the pressure the student feels in the lower back and how unnatural it feels to stand like that when holding something heavy. Then I ask them to soften the knees and tuck under the pelvis as I hand them the heavier object again. This feels natural to the student. I find that although the student will now understand the correct posture, they still will have trouble remembering when they practice. So, my second trick is to place two books about 1-1.5" thick on the floor and ask the student to place the toes and upper ball of each foot on each book. Then when I ask the student to soften the knees, it feels completely easy and natural to do so and to retain this position throughout the practice. I figure that if the student practices like this on a regular basis, then the student will be creating and reinforcing the habit of softening the knees.

Thighs and Pelvis: After softening the knees, I ask the student to bring the thighs forward. Some students better understand when I ask them to tuck under their kitty cat tails. Bringing the thighs forward causes the pelvis to tilt and round upwards. Instead of swaying the back outwards, a pelvis that is tilted slightly upwards will help to curve the spine in a more desirable and natural way. In The Chi of Running by Danny Dreyer (http://www.chi running.com), the author talks about holding the pelvis in a way that doesn't spill out the runner's "chi." If the pelvis is tilted towards the back of the body, the pelvis cradle acts like a bowl that is tipped forward and over, allowing the chi to spill over and out of the body. If the pelvis is tilted upwards, the bowl retains the chi. Holding the pelvis in the "bowl" position helps to release the legs in a relaxed manner from the torso.

Hips and Torso: I next check the hips and torso to see that the hips are squared up and the torso is not twisted. When younger students are going through growth spurts, I often find that the body develops a slight twist in one direction or another. This is because the body does not grow evenly: the student could be lengthening 1/4" on one side and not the other; a slight twist will accommodate the additional length without the student tilting over to the side. I adjust for this and show parents how to watch for this posture issue and correct it. In teenagers or older students, I check that the students aren't putting more weight on one foot rather than the other and jutting out one hip.

Shoulders: I check that the shoulders are resting on top of the torso and rib cage. I check whether there is a lot of tension in the shoulders and upper back. I can touch a student lightly in those places and instantly feel the tension. It feels rock hard when the student is holding tension in various joint points of the body, although technically it is the muscles surrounding the joints that are tense and not the joints themselves. I will discuss in greater detail in future blog posts about tension in the shoulders, how to identify it, and how to ease it, but for now I just check to see that the shoulders look natural, that they are not curved forwards or upwards, and that the student is releasing any tension.

Neck and Head: The head is as heavy as a bowling ball and may weigh as much as 12-18 pounds. The head should float on the spinal column in a way that feels centered and balanced. The chin and neck should not jut forward; this often occurs because the violin is improperly held away from the neck of the body with a slight gap, caused either by the student placing his or her chin improperly on the chin rest or by the use of a pad on the violin that covers the instrument's bottom button (and thus creates space between the instrument and the student's neck). I will discuss at a later time about good placement of the head on the chin rest, but for now I'm just checking whether the head and neck are in alignment.

Arms, Elbows, and Hands: I check whether the arms and hands look natural. I will discuss in greater detail about the placement of the hands and fingers on the instrument, but for now I just check to see that everything looks relaxed and natural: the shoulders aren't pulling upwards to the student's ears, the elbows aren't higher than the student's hand (which I call chicken wings), and the wrists are generally flat and not kinked.

Joints: Students will hold tension in various muscles that surround the joints of the body, so I chack all of these as I travel from the top of the body back down towards the feet in reverse order. And just because I eliminate tension in one joint area doesn't mean that the tension completely disappears. The student may just move the tension to another joint area. For example, if I eliminate tension in the wrist, I find that the elbow, the shoulder, or the neck may become tense. For some students the search for and release of tension is an ongoing process.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Can Posture Affect Self-Confidence?

Can one's posture really affect one's confidence? I think so.

I recall several years ago when a tuba student approachi me after class about a goal-setting exercise I had assigned. In her assignment, the student had stated that one of her top priorities was to build up her self-confidence. I said that I could help her with just a few minor suggestions, and the student approached me later to ask for those suggestions.

The only suggestions I made were to show the student how to stand erect with good posture. I told her that although it didn't feel "normal" (since she had been standing inappropriately for some time), "it is just as easy to practice a good habit as it is a bad one." I told her that every time I met her in the hallways, I expected to see her walking or standing erectly with the proper posture. Then after two weeks, I asked her to report back to me with her observations.

Two weeks later, the young lady returned to see me with erect posture and a huge smile on her face. She told me that standing up taller and more erect had boosted her self-confidence level completely. Even when she felt insecure, she would still manage to walk or stand correctly, and she would then begin to feel more confident. In other words, she acted confidently and therefore became more confident.

I think it's more than that. As I observed this young lady and my student Joseph as they made positive posture transformations, I realized that the changes themselves were only part of the end result. Because these students stood in a way that is universally recognized as exuding self-confidence, leadership, and command, the people around these students responded as if the students were self-confident leaders and in control and command. Then to complete the circle, because these students were being treated as self-confident leaders, they behaved even more like self-confident leaders. And all it took were a few minor posture adjustments!

Look around you. People don't seem to remember how to walk erectly. We seem to be poster children for the Julie Andrews movie "The Princess Diaries," where the queen admonishes the princess for her posture: "We don't schlump."

What happened to Joseph? Stay tuned. Joseph is set to retake his upper level exam early in December. I have high hopes that he will succeed this time. He is a completely different person this go-around. I am excited about the transformation and its possibilities!

Next time, we will continue our discussion of what makes good posture as it relates to the violin. I invite you to comment or make suggestions. If you have questions, send those as well.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Summer Transformation

A few days ago I told you about my university student Joseph, his encounter with my Posture Watchdog Kaiser, and Joseph's unsuccessful attempt at the upper level review. Let me continue the story. I gave Joseph an intensive summer workout program to address the issues raised by the jury committee during Joseph's upper level review performance. In addition, we had another long talk about the need to present oneself in a confident and commanding manner. Then I dismissed Joseph for the summer and prayed that he would finally listen to all that I and everyone in the studio had suggested to him in the past two years.

When Joseph returned in the fall semester, he was a different student and person. I almost didn't recognize him, because he looked like a new person, a different person. He had cut his hair rather short, but it wasn't his hair that caught my attention. It was his bearing. He stood completely upright, almost military. I know that the changes he made were very slight ones, but the final appearance result was a complete transformation. He exuded confidence and leadership with every move. When he interviewed for one of the university string project positions, the other interviewer remarked immediately on the transformation and was all talk about confidence, strength, and leadership. It was a truly amazing change.

I brought my dog Kaiser into the office again shortly thereafter, and the little fellow noticed nothing out of the ordinary. Kaiser didn't even seem to notice that Joseph had entered the room. This was a great change from the previous year. Joseph had passed the Kaiser test.

Can one's posture really affect one's confidence level? It's a question worth considering, and I have two student stories to share that might persuade you. I will tell you more tomorrow about my conclusions regarding the uplift in confidence that Joseph experienced as a result of altering his posture.