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Monday, February 28, 2011

Monday Morning Check In: Useful Tools

I apologize for being late for my Monday Morning Check in, but I haven't been feeling well this past weekend, and I woke up with a fever today. It was a hectic weekend, because the Artisan Quartet performed its opening concerts of its Beethoven cycle. We had standing ovations both nights, and we were delighted to see some folks attend both concerts! Thanks to everyone for making this opening concert in the "Genius at Play" Beethoven series a success!

We know how much I like to use my Mondays as a way to check in with myself to see if I need any course corrections on the pathway to my goals for the year. I've had several different things running around in my brain, so I'll share all of them with you. You yourself might like to try one or all of these ideas for yourself. Let me know what discoveries or thoughts you experience.

Productivity Sheets

I have used my productivity sheets daily (last week's Monday Morning topic), and they are very helpful for reminding me of things that I need to accomplish in a day. When I think of something that I can't accomplish that same day but need to do the next day, I just note those things on the bottom of the page. The sheets are also wonderful for keeping me from getting sucked into the email black hole. I have approached my email box only for the purpose of reaching out to someone on my list or looking for an answer from someone I am expecting to hear back from. Email processing in general is then left for a later time when I actually have time to deal with the requests of others, which is after my own stuff has been accomplished. That's the way it's supposed to work, I remind myself again and again.

I have found it helpful to keep filling out the upper part of the productivity sheet as well, which is a way of reminding myself of steps that I could take to move my three major current projects forward. Even if I'm incredibly busy or sick, as I was this past week, it still keeps these projects in the forefront of my mind. By keeping these items and the possible steps I can take to make progress visible to me daily, I am also keeping my imagination and creativity alive. I make myself aware daily of things that might become part of these projects. I notice or think of possible steps that I could take to make things move forward.

So the productivity pages have been very helpful this past week. Other tools I have used successfully include Morning Pages, Best Year Yet Questions and Personal Guidelines, and Anti-Procrastination Items.

Morning Pages

If you are a fan of Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way, then you are already familiar with her "morning pages" or "brain drain," as I like to call them. This technique is the writing of three longhand pages every morning. I have found this task to be an emotionally satisfying one. I use a regular composition book. I put the date at the top of the page, and then I start scribbling away until I have done three pages. If I'm stuck, I just write quickly and use stream of consciousness. It's amazing how much stuff is stuck up in my head and needs resolution. This is a private affair, so I write freely. Sometimes I use it to plan things for the future. I often get inspiring ideas about future projects or blog posts. I might use it to resolve an emotional issue in my life. I frequently write out favorite quotes or interesting passages I have read. I highly recommend you give this technique a try. Just get a journal or copy book and start writing each morning until you have completed three longhand pages.

Best Year Yet Questions and 3 Lessons for Personal Guidelines

At the end of 2010 and beginning of 2011, I discussed Jinny S. Ditzler's book Your Best Year Yet! This past week I have spent some time (in my morning pages) writing some in depth answers to three of her questions:

(1) What did I accomplish last year?
(2) What were my biggest disappointments?
(3) What did I learn?

Then I took a closer look at what I had written, especially my disappointments and what I learned, and I came up with three lessons. I wrote out these three lessons as personal guidelines to follow for next year. As I reviewed my disappointments, I saw that I was able to come up with three personal guidelines that would cover all the things that were on my list. I plan on reviewing my personal guidelines several times a week.

Anti-Procrastination Items

We all have issues with procrastination. There are things in our lives that we just don't derive enough pleasure from in order to complete them, so they just clutter up our lives. Sometimes the best way to rid ourselves of this kind of mental clutter is to declare a war in some fashion. If you are a fan of Flylady.net, then you are familiar with her Anti-Procrastination Days. These are days when Flylady suggests we tackle those items on our procrastination list and take care of them. Taking care of procrastination items is just another ability that we can develop. Just like a muscle needs increasing weight in order to get stronger, so we should exercise our anti-procrastination muscles. I started out by putting two items on my daily to-do list which I have been putting off. After I completed those two items, I then declared war on four more items the next day. I will admit that it was not easy to do this, but I certainly felt a lot better when I crossed those items off my list!

I would love to read your comments and thoughts about the topics I post. So many people read the blog from all over the world (over 1700 readers from 40 countries!). It would be amazing to have a discussion going about the topics we are interested in. Let me hear back from you!

I hope your week goes well.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011


In the past week, I have had several “upstream” days. We have all had upstream days, where we spend most of the time working hard to move forward and make progress, and yet no matter how much effort we are putting forth, we feel as if we are trying to run underwater. Or, inanimate objects start behaving peculiarly: things fall down, refuse to open, refuse to close, become impossible to find. Or, students look at you like you are speaking a foreign language, or they don’t bring a single bit of material to work with. Aaarrrgh!

If you are anything like me in your private moments, you will be hopping mad when things don’t work the way they are supposed to work. For example, last week there was a day that was extremely cold outside. I had on multiple layers of warm clothing and several pairs of mittens, and I was still cold. Worse yet, I was on a tight schedule and trying to feed all the big outside animals within a certain time frame or my teaching day would begin late. I found out that it’s fairly tricky to do outside farm work with two layers of mittens on: gate latches won’t open (or close), and feed bin lids won’t open, close, or stay on the shelf, to name just a few issues. I actually have to admit that I got so worked up about a reluctant feed bin lid that wouldn’t close, that I actually pummeled it a few times for good measure after finally closing it, and I threw a swift kick at the can for good measure too. It probably didn’t make things work any better, but I felt pretty darn good after doing it.

During the rest of the day I thought about what causes upstream days and how they could be avoided or at least managed. My quartet buddy Bruce has a saying in his family: “innate perversities of inanimate objects.” Yup, that was my morning for sure, but what causes that? Here are a few of my thoughts:

Time Management
When we don’t leave enough time to complete a task adequately, we run the risk of suffering an upstream day. What’s that old saying? “Haste makes waste”? Could it have been that I was working too quickly to allow the time for my body and brain to work in synchronicity?

That’s Life
As one student’s mother observed, sometimes that’s just life. Things happen. How we choose to deal with these kinds of events is what is important. Hmm, guess that means I shouldn’t have pummeled or kicked the can?

It could be that my attitude wasn’t right to begin with. Since I was in a hurry for time pressure reasons and because I was really, really cold, I may have adopted the “rush, rush, rush!” attitude and approached everything too quickly to handle well. Then instead of recognizing that the problem was with my attitude, I instead directed my frustration at the feed bin can. As I write this, of course, I understand the absurdity of my pummeling and kicking, although at the time I just enjoyed it. Nothing is as satisfying as an adult having a two-year old’s kicking, screaming tantrum. Trust me, sometimes it feels great. Just try and do it when no one can see or hear you.

How to Cope
After some reflection (and a few days to consider a different perspective), I have come up with a few coping strategies for upstream days. These strategies focus on three possible areas: physical change, mental change, or language change.

Physical Change
The next time I’m reacting badly to a situation, I’m going to notice what my body is doing during my emotional experience. Since I tend to get angry more than anything else, I know that my body tends to tighten up, I hold my breath, and my shoulders and neck get tight. So if I have another upstream day, I’m going to work on breathing deeply as a way to loosen myself up.

Perhaps others respond to upstream days by feeling depressed. I imagine that depression manifests itself in the body by the head hanging lower, the eyes looking down, the face going slack, and the breathing becoming shallow. So reversing this physical trend may go along way to reversing the upstream day feeling.

Mental Change
Mental changes involve changing the mindset of the moment to something else that will elicit a different mental or emotional response. For example, if we were to stay curious about what was happening or become fascinated by what was going on around us, we would be examining the situation with a lot less stress, maybe even with humor. Sometimes just adjusting our focus will fix our mental outlook. When we are in the throes of innate perversities of inanimate objects, focusing on what is working will help us to stop obsessing about what isn’t going according to plan.

Language Change
This one is so simple, that I have to laugh at myself for not remembering to try it. After a very unpleasant upstream morning, I then proceeded to have upstream moments throughout the day. Next thing I knew I was having an upstream day the next day also. Then I heard myself complaining about it: “I’m having another upstream day!” I thought, That’s it! I’m telling myself to have an upstream day! Yikes!

At that moment, I changed what I was saying aloud (yes, yes, I talk out loud to myself), and also what I was thinking. Instead, I started saying, Well, the morning may have seemed upstream, but not now! Things are just cooking right along now! And things did indeed improve. Whew! I’ve got to remember this trick a lot sooner than a day later.

Other Tricks
There are other tricks to dealing with upstream days:

·      Manage time better: If I had planned my morning better, I would have allowed a little extra time to factor in the difficulties that inclement weather presented

·      Plan for gremlins: If had planned my morning better, I would have allowed for the possibility that a gremlin would muck up the situation.

·      Have priorities: I don’t always remember to prioritize what I do, and then I find myself scrambling around to get things done in time. Priorities can mean something as simple as laying my next day’s clothes out beforehand or making my lunch for the following day.

·      Reprogram my thoughts: This is similar to the above tip about mental and language changes. Just altering the way I look at or approach a situation will often cut the problems down to a manageable size.

·      Refocus my attention: When we are in the midst of an upstream day, we lose sight of our ultimate outcome. Gently reminding ourselves to re-focus back on the original task may lighten up the upstream load.

Hope everyone is having a great week with no upstream days!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Monday Morning Check In: Productivity Planner Page

It's Monday again, although not the morning anymore here in Texas. It has been a very busy two weeks with symphony and ballet rehearsals, and any spare moments I had were spent in rehearsals with the Artisan Quartet. We are embarking on a Beethoven cycle beginning this weekend and spanning the next year. Our series is "Genius At Play," and our first program will include:

  • String Quartet in F major, op. 14, no. 1
  • String Quartet in F major, op. 18, no 1
  • String Quartet in Eb major, op. 74 "Harp"

I'm writing this as an explanation for my posting less in the past two weeks and for why this post is not being submitted on the Monday morning.

I have a new productivity idea to share with you. I have tried it out for the past few days, and I find it very useful for gathering my thoughts together and planning out my necessary activities and priorities for the day. I learned about this tip from Brendon Burchard, an marketing and entrepreneur expert. I put together a form that included the elements of Brendon's planning formula, and here is what I came up with:

Let me walk through the form. The top section has three columns. These are usually the current major projects that you might be working on. Everyone probably has three of these. In each column, you would list five things that would move that particular project forward. It doesn't mean that you would actually do those things today, but the act of filling in these columns helps you to think in a forward motion toward activity. I find it very useful in that the act of coming up with five things encouraged me to be more thoughtful (and creative) about what I could do that would make progress toward my goal of completing the major project.

The middle section concerns the people that you may need to contact throughout the day. Perhaps there are some folks that you need to call or email about something. The left column is the place where you would list their names and perhaps include any information about why you need to contact them. The right column is the place where you would list the names of those people that you are waiting to hear from. Perhaps it is an email or phone call. You have put out the request, and now you are waiting to hear back.

The purpose of this middle section is to prevent or thwart email-ism, which is that black hole that sucks up and destroys any free time you have when you sit down to check your email. This middle section also puts email on your terms, because now you only open up your email when you need to send an email to someone, and you only open those emails that are from people you are looking to hear back from.

But when do I check my email otherwise? you ask. Later, after you have completed the third section, or plan to look at email at certain prescribed times during the day. I try to check it at stop lights (I do a lot of driving in a day), during rehearsal intermissions, while waiting in a line, or while waiting for a student. I also check email around dinner time. Other than checking email during the times I have mentioned, I check it maybe two times a day, usually noon and 6 p.m. In fact, my email signature says that I am only checking email at those times, and if someone wants to reach me otherwise, they must send me a text message. I generally cannot do much business on the phone because I am usually teaching throughout the entire day and do not have a lot of time for lengthy phone calls.

The last section of the productivity planner is reserved for those items that need to be tackled today, hopefully ranked in importance. If you have more than 10 things to put on that list, then you are doing WAY too much work or have too much on your plate. Six things would be ideal, but most of us need to remember to schedule laundry and household items (grocery shopping, clean out cat litter, check propane tank levels) on the list too.

Here is how to use the list. First thing in the morning, possibly while you are enjoying your first coffee of the morning, start filling in the form. I copy seven forms and staple them together so I can keep a week's worth together. I like looking back at the week I have completed, although you may prefer just doing one page to carry around with you. Anything not done from the previous day gets re-evaluated about whether to be put on the next day's list.

Once you have completed the form, go about your day. Tackle items on your list in reverse order. Do section three first, then the middle section, and then if there is any time left over, you can tackle items on the first part of the form.

I have enjoyed filling out the form and using it to complete many daily tasks. I have found the tool useful in helping me to gain clarity about my priorities and need-to-do items. And I have found the tool helpful in keeping me focused on making forward progress on my major projects.

I hope you find this tool useful. If you would like a copy of the form in a PDF format, send me an email, and I'll put it on Dropbox.com.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

From Buchenwald to Carnegie Hall

I want to write you a different type of story today. Last night I was checking my blog analytics, and I noticed that someone had found me using the search term "Marian Filar." This brought back of flood of exquisite memories for me, and I wanted to share this incredible story with you.

Many of you may already know that I am a pianist as well as a violinist. In fact, I began music lessons as a pianist at age 3, when my mother taught me several little songs or Christmas Carols on our grand piano. At age 5 I began formal instruction with a teacher other than my mother, and I continued private lessons all the way through high school. My junior and senior high school years, I had an excellent piano instructor, Merle Freeland, who was a retired university professor and a lovely gentleman. I added violin to my repertoire when I was 9.

Although I was a violin performance major at Temple University studying under Helen Kwalwasser (another excellent teacher and the best violin instructor I ever had!), I kept up my piano work. We were required to take a class piano, but I easily passed out of that. At first I was assigned with another student to "share" a lesson with a private instructor, but I didn't like that at all. I made little progress, and in fact, I don't remember anything more about that semester of piano. I complained to my old piano teacher, Mr. Freeland, and he apparently knew the piano dean at Temple. I don't recall if Mr. Freeland made a call or if I just made an appointment to talk to the piano dean, but I remember having that meeting with Dr. Wedeen and being reassigned to Marian Filar as my piano instructor.

I loved my lessons with Professor Filar. This was a time period in my musical growth when I became aware and discovered what musicality and musical expression were. I fell in love with music beyond just enjoying the physical playing of it. I attended concerts of the Philadelphia Orchestra under Ormandy, and I heard world-class soloists on a regular basis. I heard things in the performances I attended that touched me emotionally and very powerfully moved me to individual emotional expression. I started copying the musical and physical gestures of the performers I watched.

I studied some beautiful works of music with Professor Filar: Beethoven's piano concerto no. 2, Bach's Preludes and Fugues, and Chopin Nocturnes. One of my fondest memories of Professor Filar was when I asked him to play the Chopin Nocturne op. 27, no. 2 in Db Major. As I sat listening in a chair by his side, I was mesmerized by the beautiful sounds and expression he put into the music, which is gorgeous in itself. I was moved to tears because it was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard. To this day, when I contemplate making "music" out of a piece of music that I'm playing, I think back on that day long ago when my eyes were opened to what true musical expression is and how powerful it is on the listener.

Professor Filar was a lovely gentleman from Poland. In the arrogance of youth, this is all I knew about him until last night when I searched his name in Google. I was lead to Amazon.com and a link for a book: From Buchenwald to Carnegie Hall by Marian Filar and Charles Patterson (University of Press of Mississippi 2002). I had no idea that my wonderful piano teacher was a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, the concentration camp Buchenwald, and the Holocaust. I sit here now as I write this and just cringe at the thought of my wonderful teacher's horrific memories from that terrible time. Professor Filar did not talk about his past experience in the 40 years before this book was published. Now his story is laid bare for others to consider.

Every person we meet and every thing we encounter in our lives become teachers to us when we open ourselves up to a learning experience. For me, Professor Filar taught me about making music and touching the hearts of the listeners. I will never forget my listening experience in his studio as he poured his Chopin Nocturne over my soul. I hope that I get a chance to tell him how much I appreciate the beautiful gift he gave me that day in his studio.

As a teacher now, I myself appreciate those moments when I hear from a former student (or a current student) about their learning experience in my studio. If you haven't thought about your own special teachers in a while, why not take a few moments today and remember the gifts those teachers gave to you. Even better, drop them a note and thank them for the time and care they invested in you. It's never too late to show appreciation.

I have been blessed by many wonderful teachers over the course of my life, and Professor Filar was one of my most memorable teachers. I am reading the rest of his story now, having bought the book last night. I will write him a letter soon and tell him about his impact on me. I still think about him every time I play piano. That Chopin Nocturne has been my personal favorite since the day Professor Filar played it for me.

"At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us." -- Albert Schweitzer

Monday, February 14, 2011

Monday Morning Check In: New Twists to To-Do Lists

I was pretty busy this past week and weekend playing a ballet run. Yesterday during the performance, I was also thinking about my to-do list while I was counting rests in the music. At first, I couldn't think of anything to put on my list, but after a minute's reflection, I thought of one thing. Following on the heels of that thought were two more quick thoughts that I needed to put on my list as well. Three I could handle in my mind, I thought, and I could hold those thoughts until intermission in the performance when I would have time to write those thoughts down or enter them in my iPhone.

My mistake. Just my having those three thoughts was enough for the creative juices to flow. I quickly grabbed a piece of paper from my purse and scribbled down my thoughts. Within 10 minutes I had at least 10 items on my list. And having 10 items, brand new too I might add from items that have been on my list last week, was enough to discourage me from taking any more steps. Not good.

Then I remembered the to-do tips from Stephanie Winston's book Getting Organized. In her book, Ms. Winston recommends a master to do list. This is the catch-all list for everything you need to do. If you think of something that needs doing, put it on the master list.

The master list is not the same thing as the daily list. It is the master list of everything that needs doing. I think I've mastered the master list. I have compiled a masterful master list. OK, enough with the jokes.

It is true though that I have no trouble coming up with things to put on the master list. My problem is that my master list is too overwhelming for me to make much progress on it, at least not in that form. I need a way to sort through the items on the master list.

I use a trick I learned from Brian Tracy. Mr. Tracy has written and recorded so many different programs, and I have listened to most, if not all, of them, that I'm not sure where exactly I got this next tip. Mr. Tracy advocates going through the master list according to the A-B-C-D-E approach:

A - Assign a task "A" if it is urgent, needs to be done right away, has an immediate (or very soon in the future) deadline, or dire consequences will result if you do not complete the task now.

B - Assign a task "B" if it is important but nothing bad will happen if it isn't done today.

C - Assign a task "C" if it would be nice to do but nothing bad will happen if it isn't done (and perhaps it needn't be done, hint, hint).

D - Assign a task "D" if it can be delegated to someone else for completion.

E - Assign a task "E" if it should be eliminated.

I go through my master list and find all the A tasks. Then I find the B tasks. Then C tasks. I cross out E tasks and talk myself into putting some tasks on the D list if at all possible.

Next I go through and pull out the A tasks in a separate list. I go through the A tasks and look for the most important one and assign it "A-1." Then I go through the rest of the list and find the next most important A task, and the next, until I've assigned a number to all of the A tasks. Sometime I need to number my A tasks in a particular sequence because some tasks need to be completed before others can be done.

I start with the A-1 task and do that until it's finished. Then I start in on A-2 task and continue with my action steps. Every few days I review my master list and see if there are any new A items or any B items that now need to be reassigned to the A category.

Perhaps this seems like a bit of work to get the to-do list items organized, but consider that the work you put into this organization of your to-do list also helps you to clarify your thinking about the project and about the tasks that you need to complete. Just thinking about your tasks in this manner will go a long way toward helping you to complete your action items.

So what should you do with new items or any items left on your master list? Here's a tip I learned from Stever Robbins, the Get it Done Guy, http://quickanddirtytips.com:

Draw a line at the bottom of your master list, and add any new items below the line. Every time your review the items above the bottom line, you must do something about those items. If you go through the list three or more times without actually doing anything on the list, you need to consider just eliminating the items on that list. Meanwhile, you have been adding and sorting and prioritizing the new items that you've written below the line.

You can continue in the same fashion or just start a new list on a new page, which sometimes makes it so much easier to think about when the page is clean. Make your master list, then draw a line at the bottom. Go through your list prioritizing and sorting. Every time you look through your list, you should take action on something on the list. If you go through the list three times or more without doing anything on any item above the line, then consider dropping the item. It is fine to cross out the item and move it to the bottom of the new list.

I've also developed another trick to remind me of my to-do list. I write my smaller list on the Notepad function of my iPhone. Then I take a picture of the to-do list in my notepad application (hold down the power button and press the home button at the same time. When the buttons are released, you will hear the phone taking a picture). Then I set that picture of my to-do list as the lock screen on my phone. Every time I turn on my phone, I see my current to-do list. Whenever I change my to-do list, I take a new picture.

Hope everyone has a great week!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

How to Start a Beginner, part 4: Setting Up the Left Hand

We’ve looked at several topics about setting up a beginning violin student: how to build concentration and focus, how to stand correctly, how to hold the bow, how to hold the box violin, and how to make a box violin. Now we are ready to move on to getting the left hand set up properly on the violin. Obviously I would wait to do this until the student no longer uses the box violin and now has a real violin.

I believe that parents and teachers should place the child’s violin on their shoulder for a long period of time to help the student build the habit of “what feels right.” This period of time may last as long as a year, depending on the age of the child. When I determine that the child is ready to learn how to place the violin in playing position, I have a procedure that I like to follow that promotes success. But before we move to putting the instrument on the child’s shoulder, there are some preliminary chores that I have to attend to first.

When the child comes to his or her first lesson with the violin, I closely inspect the instrument in front of the child and parent, making comments periodically about how beautiful it is, how careful we must be to keep it in a safe place away from younger siblings, how we must handle it gently at all times, how we must protect it from bumps by other students in group classes, and how we should walk carefully (never run!) when we are carrying it. While I do that, I am getting my supplies ready for the next steps.

  • ·      Colored tape (yellow, red, green, blue)
  • ·      2 rubber bands
  • ·      Wedge sponge or other shoulder rest, preferably wedge sponge in the beginning
  • ·      Dr. Scholl oval-shaped (medicated) corn pads
  • ·      Mole foam (optional)

First I cut off strips of colored tape. I use 3M decorator tapes, which resembles the tape used to wrap electrical wires. It’s called Scotch® Colored Plastic Tape - Catalog No. 191. I find my tape supply at Ace Hardware Stores in the school supplies section, or you may find it here:

I like to use this tape because the width is 1.5 inches, which is about the width needed to wrap around the fingerboard of a student violin. The tape does not tend to slip from its initial place, and when it does (generally when a student is practicing a lot!), then I just replace it. I like to use different colors to represent different fingers:
  • ·      Yellow – index or first finger (B on A string)
  • ·      Red – middle or second finger (C# on A string)
  • ·      Green – ring or third finger (D on A string)
  • ·      Blue – pinkie or fourth finger (E on A string)

These are the beginning notes in Suzuki Violin Volume 1, so those are the notes that I mark.

Next I put on the two rubber bands on the back of the instrument to form a “holder” for the wedge sponge. I stretch a rubber band from one lower back bout across to the other lower back bout. Then I loop the second rubber band around the first, pulling one end of the rubber band through the other so that it knots. Then I stretch the other loop end around the chin rest. This rubber band set up is quite secure.

Then I put a wedge sponge through the rubber band holders, flat side against the violin back and large end of the wedge placed so that it rests on the front of the child’s shoulder when the violin is put into place.

Next I place the violin on the child’s shoulder and check to see whether I have the correct sized wedge sponge. The purpose of the sponge is to make it easier for the child to hold the violin with the chin without having to scrunch up the shoulder to close the gap. Sometimes a small child needs a larger sponge. I keep a basket of sponges of various sizes and interchange them as needed.

After the violin is placed on the child’s shoulder and I have determined that the sponge is the correct size, I put a Dr. Scholl’s oval-shaped medication corn pad (remove the medication!) on the fingerboard where the child’s left thumb should go. This type of corn pad feels cushiony for the child and yet it supplies a little depression so that the thumb feels as if it has a place to be.

The final step is teaching the child how to touch the violin with the left hand. Note that I did not say we would teach the child how to hold the violin. I am very careful to impress on the child and his or her parent that the left hand does not hold the instrument, but that the chin does. So I use the phrase “touch up” to signal that the child is to practice putting the left hand up into place touching the violin. In the beginning, I just put the child’s thumb and index finger on the instrument in the correct place. For an adult student, here is how I introduce the left hand concept.

I ask my adult students to stick their left hand out in front of them as if they were traffic cops giving the signal to “stop.” The thumb should be rigid against the main part of the hand. When the student does that, the thumb forms a natural “vee”. When I turn the hand around in this position, I can then set the violin fingerboard into this vee. I then ask the student to relax the thumb, and voila! Perfect left hand.

Occasionally my younger students will start to place their left hands behind the fingerboard nut, just at the beginning of the peg box area. This is not a good habit to develop because it teaches the hand and fingers to shape themselves much too rounded. The index finger (first finger) needs to be “square” in the initial Suzuki book 1 finger patterns, so that would place the base of the index finger in front of the nut and away from the peg box area. If a student starts to do this incorrect placement, I work with the parent or practice partner to do two things:
  • ·      I cut a small piece of mole foam and put it alongside the nut. I tell the student that this is a guardrail and that I put it there to block the finger from going behind the nut. I tell the student that this is not a resting pillow.
  • ·      When the child places his or first finger on the string, I help to guide the student by gently pushing in the knuckle at the base of the index finger. I make sure the parent or practice partner understands how to do this as well.

That’s just the beginning, and it’s a simplified version too. It’s difficult to cover in one blog post all the various issues that might come up in teaching the left hand setup. Teaching is always a learning process, and this process continues indefinitely.

Please be sure to leave me a comment about the kinds of issues you encounter when setting up the violin with a beginning student.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Monday Morning Check In: Action Steps

It's Monday Morning. You know what that means: time to check in with ourselves to see if we need a course correction.

Last week many of my university students came to their lessons with a completed goal assignment I handed out the first week of the semester. I did not require my students to show me their specific goal list, but many of them volunteered to do so.

I had asked students to write out a list of goals that were long-range (5-10 years), mid-range (1-5 years), and short-range (6 months to 1 year). I looked over each list and discussed ways to re-frame many of the goal statements to be positive and in the present tense. Then the two of us looked more specifically at two aspects of the goal statements:

(1) whether the goals fit within the prescription of SMART goals, and
(2) whether the student had identified the next steps to make progress on the goal.

The prescription of SMART goals refers to my earlier post about how to set a goal in a way that would lend itself to success. You can read that post from November 14, 2010 to learn more about SMART goals.

I want to focus on the next steps or questions that follow the setting of a SMART goal, and that is the action plan. I asked my students to look over their list of goals and to determine 1-3 goals that the student wanted to focus on. Then I asked these questions:

(1) What step could you take now to move you closer to achieving your goal?
(2) What are the next steps necessary to move you closer to achieving your goal?

The student may need to do a little bit more work on paper to answer these questions and to set up the "next steps" action plan. Perhaps it would help to set up a page of paper for each goal, and just list the steps that would be involved in achieving the goal. Then the student could prioritize the steps or put them in a particular order to be completed.

This next step of preparing an action list is crucial to keep you moving in the direction of your goals. I will include a link here to an engineering paper that is very helpful for this purpose. You may write your goal in the left hand column and any other notes you might have just below the goal. Then in the subsequent columns expanding to the right, you can list the various steps that you need to take to bring you closer to achieving your goal. Then all you have to do is check off the corresponding box when you have completed that action step. With this paper you can see at a glance what action steps have been completed and what steps remain.

http://incompetech.com/graph paper/engineer/engineer.pdf

Let's prepare our action plan and action steps today.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

How to Make a Box Violin

  • Macaroni and cheese box, empty, preferably with lid still intact or hinged on at least one side; some teachers use empty margarine stick boxes, which are more square in shape rather than the rectangular shape that I prefer
  • Packing peanuts
  • Paint stir stick (free at hardware or paint store)
  • Mole foam (not mole skin, which is too thin)
  • Shelf or drawer paper; I prefer the kind that has a backing that peels off and leaves a gluey surface to the paper; the student may prefer a blank paper so that the student may decorate the box violin
  • Packing tape, clear
  • Rubber bands
  • Wedge sponge shoulder rest
  • Decorative stickers

Take the empty macaroni and cheese box and fold over the open top. Cut a slit in one edge of the top’s hinge to fit the width of the paint stir stick. Fit the paint stir stick through the slit until it completely enters the empty box and touches the box bottom. Whichever side of the box that the paint stir stick is closest to, make sure that the side of the stick without the writing is the side that faces up. You might secure the paint stick to the inside of the box with one or more pieces of packing tape to keep the stick from sliding back out if pulled by an unsupervised younger sibling. Fill the box with packing peanuts, and then fold down the top to close the box with the paint stir stick now half in and half out of the box. Secure the lid closed with packing tape.

Lay out the shelf paper flat with the decorative surface face down. Lay the box on top of the paper and cut around the paper to accommodate the size of the box. Here’s where your talent at wrapping gifts will come in handy. I won’t give you detailed directions for cutting the correct size of the paper, because you may have a terrific way of doing it, and I’m not sure that my way is the best way.

After cutting the shelf paper, peel off the backing, lay the box on the sticky side of the shelf paper, and start folding the paper around the box. I do some snips here and there to make flaps in the shelf paper to fold over and seal the top, bottom, and corners of the box. I seal up these places tight with the packing tape if needed.

After the box is covered with the shelf paper and the paper’s corners are secured with packing tape, I then cut an oval shape about 2 inches wide or so out of mole foam. Mole foam is better than moleskin because it has a bit of cushion to it. I peel off the backing and affix the sticky oval to the bottom left side of the box violin top surface, where the chin rest would go. Then I wrap a rubber band around the violin from top to bottom on the left side and another rubber band on the right side. The rubber bands serve several purposes: we can pretend that they are violin strings, they provide a way to secure a shoulder rest wedge sponge underneath the box violin, and they can act as “seat belts” for a toy when placing it on the violin.

I put a sticker on the backside of the violin at a place that is right underneath the place where the stick comes out. This is the “thumb spot,” which is where I want the student to place his or her thumb when taking the box violin from rest position to playing position. We won’t get to this place for a few lessons, but I get the box violin ready for all of this right from the beginning.

For some younger students, they might enjoy putting more stickers on the box violin or even coloring their own design. I have a student who enjoys horses, and her mother has drawn several pictures of horses on her violin.

My students generally do not spend too much time on the box. When they have mastered the basic list of necessary skills, I move them to a real violin and bow in stages, which I’ll cover in a future discussion. For my very, very young students, I will keep them on the box violin for a much longer time.