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Saturday, April 30, 2011

How Much Time Should I practice?

Recently a university level student emailed me the question of how much he should be practicing. I find this question to be a tricky one to answer for several reasons.

If you practice without paying attention to what you are doing, you are not really practicing the music or skills or whatever is before you on the music stand. Instead you are practicing how to have a wandering mind or lack of focus and concentration. I actually run into this problem quite a bit with incoming university freshmen. Somewhere along the way these students have heard that they should be practicing a certain number of hours per day, and to their credit, they valiantly tried to meet that time goal. Unfortunately, the way they went about accomplishing that time goal did not serve to improve their musical technique. Instead, these students mastered the art of "eyes glazed over." To correct this problem, I give strict instructions not to practice for more than 10 or 15 minutes at a time or whenever the student finds their mind beginning to wander away from the task before them. At that moment, the student must do something physical to interrupt the pattern: stand instead of sit, sit instead of stand, turn around in a circle 3 times (like a dog), get a glass of water, visit the restroom, walk around the room once or twice. Then if the student feels he or she can get back on task, the student may begin to practice again for another practice segment or until the next wandering mind occurs. Just as with a young beginning student, this technique will grow the ability to concentrate and focus at an exponential rate.

Once a student is able to maintain concentration and focus well, then the question of how long to practice can be answered more easily. My husband is fond of telling his students that they need to practice only as much as is necessary to accomplish the assigned homework practicing task. This type of answer might work well for many of my husband's students, but I have several students that might need more direction.

I find that I get more from my students if my goal is to help them establish and reinforce good practice habits. Here are three practice habits that I work on with my students on a regular basis:
  • practicing or playing the instrument every day (100 day challenge, practice log or journal)
  • correctly and carefully identifying the practice issue (is it a missed shift, wrong note, incorrect rhythm, missed bowing, out of tune note, which side of the body is responsible for the error or problem)
  • having an excellent quiver of practice arrows that can be shot at the practice problem
I like to divide my practice time up using the method that Galamian suggested: technique building, interpretation time, and performance time. I warmup with my technique stuff (scales, etudes, Ševčík!), and then look at a piece I am learning and work on the sections I have set out for the day. I might try "performing" something I've been working on to see how it is all coming together.

It's an art form to deciding how, when, and what to practice. Let me hear about some of your routines and ideas.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Vibrato: an Introduction to the Five Stages of Teaching and Learning It

Vibrato excites most students, but most teachers are terrified about teaching it. Vibrato is such a mysterious element of our music making and one of the most individual components of our musical expression. I recall being afraid of teaching vibrato myself as a young teacher, and I remember experimenting with several different teaching methods before I finally found a set of steps that I felt comfortable using. Now I have built up a basketful of various exercises and signposts to help me teach vibrato to any student. I would like to take the sting out of teaching and learning vibrato.

I break down the vibrato learning process into 5 stages: preparation, posture, practice, control, and incorporation. The preparation stage involves my checking to see if the student is physically ready to learn vibrato. During this stage I will introduce several exercises designed to check the student's physical readiness, and we practice exercises that will aid in the student's vibrato muscle development. We also spend some time talking about what vibrato is and what it is not.

The posture stage is when I check the various points where the student touches the instrument. I am looking for the student to be free of holding the instrument with the hands. I also check to see that the student is properly holding the instrument and correctly using the left hand. Of course, I do this at every lesson anyway, but if I have a student or parent who has been reluctant to make any necessary posture corrections, this stage will help to reinforce the importance of holding the instrument correctly and inculcating correct posture habits into the practice routine.

The practice stage is when I show the student the initial vibrato exercises. This stage is when I introduce the student to the actual vibrato movement as it relates to the violin. We perform a specialized set of exercises that are designed to teach the student how to control the speed and width of the vibrato. This stage is broken down into smaller steps as well, as the student moves toward actually being able to turn the vibrato on in first position without any external aids. At first we work to build up the vibrato movement, then we work to make the motion even and strong. This stage lasts the longest, as the student works to increase speed and response using various exercises.

The control stage is when I introduce several activities that are designed to show the student how to maintain control over the speed and use of the vibrato. Remember my previous blog posts about personality styles? I have noticed that a student's particular personality style may have a direct relation to issues of control. Once again, it will be important to know your student well and to identify the student's personality style for optimum teaching and learning.

The final stage is when I help the student incorporate the vibrato into the repertoire. I have specific pieces that I assign that have ideal places to begin the vibrato movement in the music, and later there are other pieces that I use to help the student build up the appropriate vibrato speed. We go back through the earlier Suzuki repertoire and identify good vibrato places in the student's easier songs. Then gradually the student learns to use the vibrato more frequently and for special effects.

In my next vibrato post, I will discuss my preparation steps in greater detail.

I welcome any of your suggestions and comments about how you teach vibrato, along with any special exercises or tricks you use.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Quick Practice Tip: Fish Bowl Staccato

Here is a way to "feel" the staccato bow stroke in your right thumb. You will need a partner for this. Have your partner hold out cupped hands so that you can turn your bow upside down and place the tip of your "fishing pole" in your partner's "fishing bowl." Then have your partner flick down on the tip of your bow. Feel the pinching pressure of the "fish bite" against your thumb. Do this several times until you become familiar with your thumb's feeling the flicking of your partner's "fish bite."

Now when you place your bow on the string to play, try to recreate that same sensation in your thumb. Be sure that everything else about your bow arm or hand is completely relaxed and that your thumb is the only part of your right side that is "turned on." Some students describe the feeling as a pinching of the thumb upward. Some students experience the sensation as a pressure between the upper fingers on the bow against the thumb underneath.

All you have to do is move your bow back and forth on a level plane (not up or down). If you have a firm, strong thumb and you stop your bow correctly at the end of each note, you should experience a slight "ping" to the beginning of each note. This is a lovely, ringing staccato sound. You will not need to press down on your right index finger to produce the pinched staccato.

When a student has difficulty with staccato, I find that the most likely reason is that the student is not stopping the bow adequately on the note previous to the staccato note. Even professionals tend to "dribble" a little from one note to the next, sort of like coloring outside the lines of a picture in a coloring book. Work on cleaning up the ends of notes, and with the fish bowl technique of a strong, firm thumb, you will have a beautiful pinging note start. The note's middle is another topic for another day.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Monday Morning Check In: Be Proactive

Recently a dear friend and i were discussing how easy it was for us to react emotionally to certain triggers or situations. The discussion reminded me of two things that I would like to share with you.

Stephen Covey wrote the best-selling book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. In this book Mr. Covey lists the definitive 7 principles that when practiced regularly enough to become a habit will positively affect and raise one's quality of life.

Stephen Covey: Be Proactive

Mr. Covey's first habit refers to our seemingly innate ability to respond to things in a reactive way rather than in a reflective manner. By reflective, I mean that we take the few moments that we need to think in advance what our response might be.

For example, when reacting to something, I would give my first, non-thinking response. I would just allow my emotions to rule and take over. Like instinct. Proactive responses, however, mean that we take a few seconds to actually create a thoughtful response, hopefully aligning our response with a more reflective and principled answer. As Mr. Covey would put it in the scheme of things;

I am often asked if there is one habit out of the 7 Habits that is more important than the others. Of course, all the habits are important and they form an inter-connected whole or a continuum. For maximum effectiveness, you have to build from one to the other and apply them consistently. From that perspective, Habit 1: Be Proactive provides the foundation for all the other habits. Habit 1 is, undoubtedly, the foundation for leadership at home or at work because it begins with the mindset “I am responsible for me, and I can choose.” All the other habits are dependent upon being proactive and choosing to master and practicing principle-centered living.

The key to being proactive is remembering that between stimulus and response there is a space. That space represents our choice— how we will choose to respond to any given situation, person, thought or event. Imagine a pause button between stimulus and response—a button you can engage to pause and think about what is the principle-based response to your given situation. Listen to what your conscience tells you. Listen for what is wise and the principle-based thing to do, and then act.

Being proactive (Habit 1) becomes much more powerful when connected and related to the other habits. The key to the habits is the power of their combined synergy and meaningful purpose. Leaving one habit out is like having a four-legged chair—when you remove one leg the chair is out of balance.

The key then, according to Mr. Covey, is to develop the ability to "stop" ourselves from reacting at the moment and to strengthen our personal discipline so that we are able to "widen" the moments in between the event and our reaction to the event -- in other words, to widen the space between the stimulus and the response.

This all sounds wonderful. Where do I start? Intellectually, I understand the concept, but how do I put it into practice, especially when I have mastered the ability of reacting quickly? This is where my second step comes in handy.

Tony Robbins: Change Your State

In Tony Robbins's "Get the Edge" and "Personal Power" programs, he suggests that we make a list of the emotions we experience in a week, whether positive or negative. I would suggest that you do not make a long list for the sake of making a list! Tony then suggests that we make a note of what our body is doing at that time we are experiencing the emotion that we wish to change. What are the physical manifestations of that emotion?

In my case and the case of my friend, we were experiencing anger as the result of perceived frustration at ourselves. I noticed that when I experienced or expressed anger that I tightened my shoulders and upper back and held my breath. In fact, I even squeezed or hunkered down my shoulders into my back.

Tony suggests that we change that physical state in some way. I tried it by relaxing my shoulders and taking deep, slow breaths. Sure enough! By doing these small physical changes, I also changed my physical experience of emotion and changed what I was feeling at the time. In other words, it worked!

So, once we believe that there is value in Mr. Covey's first habit of being proactive, then we are compelled to develop the abilities that Tony Robbins suggests, wherein we work to change our physical state.

My suggestion this week is to make a list of the emotions that you experience and the matching physical characteristics associated with the emotions, and then think of your own physical transformations that could help you to widen the space between stimulus and response.

Happy practicing and teaching this week!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Case for Having a System

In a previous post about when I introduce higher position fingering in the Suzuki repertoire, I discussed my system for introducing positions, and then I asked the question "why have a system at all"?

It is possible to teach a student without having a "system" for introducing various concepts, however, I think there is a danger of overlooking a crucial point without a system in place. It is also possible to teach "outside" the system, by introducing a concept earlier.

Here are some basic important topics that teachers should develop a system for teaching:
  • when to put the thumb "inside" the frog
  • when to begin learning to read music
  • when to introduce higher positions
  • when to teach vibrato
  • when to introduce spiccato
  • when to add music theory assignments
  • when to add supplementary materials
  • when and how to celebrate a book graduation and the requirements
  • when to accept a new student or let one go
What goes into the making of a system? Here are the questions I asked myself when I developed my systems for teaching the above skill topics:
  1. When will I introduce the topic? At what stage of the Suzuki or other repertoire will I begin teaching this topic?
  2. How will I introduce it? What are the steps I will follow to teach this topic?
  3. What materials will I use when I introduce it? Will I use different materials depending on the child's age or readiness to learn this topic?
Have a wonderful rest of the weekend!

    Thursday, April 21, 2011

    Quick Practice Tip: Begin with the End in Mind

    Too often a student will be playing well in the lesson only to trip up somewhere in the last section of the piece. Beginning students will sometimes have difficulty playing the middle portions of a piece without mistake. What causes this?

    I think the problem comes from the tendency to play pieces in their entirety and always starting at the beginning. I recall one Suzuki teacher suggesting that a playing of an entire piece should be considered "dessert" and not done every day. Instead, the student should be taught how to practice more efficiently by discovering and working more on areas that needed the extra practice and saving the "performance" time for some days. Good idea.

    Another way to combat this problem is to practice starting at end of piece and working a section at a time backwards until the student finally reaches the beginning. I have been in the habit of assigning rehearsal letters to pieces that I am practicing. Then I just begin my practice session at the last rehearsal letter. Then I back up to the previous rehearsal letter and play again until I reach the end. I continue in this manner until I have reached the beginning.

    You could even designate particular days of the week to be "backwards" days.

    Happy Practicing!

    Tuesday, April 19, 2011

    When to Teach Positions

    I have noticed that several people have been searching for answers to the question of when to start teaching a student how to play in higher positions. My answer is to teach them any time.

    Now having said that, I do have a system that I will gladly share with you. However, I have shown students how to play higher notes whenever the issue comes up regardless of where we are in the progress of my system. For example, last Christmas season, I was teaching a very young book 1 student how to play "O Holy Night" as a surprise for a family member. We were rocking along just great in a key that was easily accessible for a book 1 student, when we encountered a short passage of the song that required us to either rewrite the passage or to quickly learn how to play the notes in third position. I opted to show this bright little student how to play the notes in third position. She was excited to learn this new "book 3 skill."

    I find that if I present "harder" concepts as "easier" ones, the students learn the new skills just fine. Perhaps we are making things hard by offering the suggestion that the skill is hard to learn in the first place?

    So here is my system. In book 2, I introduce the Bb scale. We then use our new Bb fingers to play Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star theme from book 1 in the key of Bb, which also introduces the word "transposition." We might try another book 1 song in Bb, like Lightly Row, and then we work on playing Perpetual Motion in Bb. I might also introduce this concept as a book 2 and 3 group class activity. Once the student has learned Perpetual Motion in Bb, the next step is to teach the student how to play Perpetual Motion in each of the seven positions using the "Bb fingering" as we move up higher on the A string in the various positions.

    When do I actually introduce higher position fingering in the Suzuki repertoire? I actually wait until book 3 to do so, starting with "Humoresque." I know that there are teachers who introduce positions somewhat in book 2. For example, teachers sometimes introduce the octave harmonic A on the A string in Boccherini's "Minuet" and the octave harmonic D on the D string at the end of "Musette." Some teachers try to avoid the fourth finger pinkie stretch in Lully's "Gavotte." Do not do this until later. Have your student master this pinkie skill first! The reason is that book 2 is all about the student's learning to unfurl the left hand. Note some of the fingers that get stretched in book 2:
    • "Chorus", "Bourree," and "Witches Dance": 3rd finger stretches to play D# on the A string
    • "Musette" and "Bourree": 2nd and 4th fingers stretch to play G and B on the E string
    • "Hunter's Chorus": 2nd and 3rd fingers stretch to play D-C natural on the A string in repeated hiccup section
    • "The Two Grenadiers": first finger stretches back to play Bb and F natural on A and E strings
    • Lully's "Gavotte": pinkie stretch and 1st and 2nd finger stretch in middle section; 3rd finger stretch to G# on D string in first section
    • "Minuet in G": stretched 3rd finger; first finger plays A# on A string; C natural on A string stretched to 3rd finger G# on D string (if you opt for this fingering rather than the lowered 4th finger)
    I introduce third position in Humoresque in Suzuki volume 3. However, since my students have been doing some reading since the end of book 1, they have already been introduced to positions through the use of William Starr's "Scales Plus!" book. Introducing third position is a piece of cake then because we've already done it in the "green book," as my students refer to Mr. Starr's book. In group classes, when we review earlier book 1 material, I show my more advanced students how to play easier songs in different positions. As I've said before, if I don't tell my students that it's hard, then they just do it with little effort.

    Later, as we review previously learned repertoire, we will add new fingerings in positions as the students are able to do so. I note also that the revised edition of book 3 has several new ornaments that can only be accomplished well by using third position, e.g., Minuet by Bach (#2 in book 3). I hold off adding these particular ornaments until later after the student has learned the song.

    Sometimes I wait to teach the third position fingerings in Humoresque until after the student has learned the piece in first position with the ridiculous pinkie slide on page 2. This slurpy slide is the perfect place for a discussion about the need for a better fingering, and so we discuss why positions are useful to know. Since my students work with Mr. Starr's book, we are already having these discussions, because different keys feel easier to play in different positions, and we talk about the reasons why that is so.

    Why have a system at all? This is a great topic that I think I'll save for a future blog post.

    Sunday, April 17, 2011

    Monday Morning Check In: Epicness

    The late Jim Rohn used to tell about his goal setting experience as a young man with his mentor Mr. Shoaf. When Mr. Shoaf looked over Jim's list of life goals, Mr. Shoaf noted that Jim had not put down "make a million dollars" as one of his life missions. Mr. Shoaf told Jim to add that to his list because of what Jim would become in the process. This is what I like to refer to as "epicness."

    One of my favorite movies is "A Race for the Soul," which is the story of the grueling ultramarathon called Western States. This 100 mile event takes place annually in late June in the California Sierra Nevadas and tells the story of some of the participants and the history of the race. Gordon Ainsleigh, the first man to complete the 100 mile race and under 24 hours (he was 27 at the time) tells us in the movie that everyone at the race will have an epic event. No doubt about it.

    I enjoy watching this film because it reminds me of the need for a big vision when it comes to goal setting, as well as the discipline and perseverance that any epic goal will require in order to achieve success. But whether one finishes the race or not, the point of an epic event is what you will become in the process of working to achieve it. Even if you are unable to complete the event, you will learn an invaluable life lesson in the process of preparing for the event.

    I decided to run my first marathon in 2006. This required me to embark on an 18-week training program (http://www.halhigdon.com). I got up very early on many days to complete my training runs, which increased in length as the weeks passed. On the day of the marathon, our area got hit with an ice storm and below freezing temperatures. The race start had to be delayed to accommodate the poor driving conditions to get to the event. I was parking at the time the starting gun went off, so I just raced from the car to the starting line. All the water stations offered water that had been sitting in freezing temperatures for hours. I was cold as I ran the race, and drinking the cold water at the aid stations made me even colder, despite my many layers and pairs of mittens. I made it to the finish line that day, but as a result of my cold experience, I could not tolerate cold weather for another two years after that.

    While I was driving through the bad weather to get to the race and facing the possibility that I would not reach the event in time to participate (driving and parking conditions were at a standstill), I realized that the important lesson of the marathon was not about actually running the event. That would be the last step, yes, but the entire experience was so much more than that last day and that last run. The marathon experience was really about the days and weeks that led up to the marathon itself. It was all about my getting up on running days and putting in the mileage and the effort despite the weather conditions, my lack of sleep, my health, my schedule (8:00 a.m. music theory classes after evening symphony rehearsals!), or my desire to stay in bed. What really mattered was all of my effort to get to the point of being able to complete the marathon.

    If I had just set my sights on a 5K run (3.1 miles), I would not have experienced the empowering feeling that I got from completing the epic event of a marathon. Although a 5K distance is a worthy goal for a beginner, I had been running 3 miles on a regular basis. No, I needed the marathon distance, my million dollar goal, to encourage me to stretch beyond what I perceived my limits to be. What to do after a marathon? Run several more. Run a Distance Challenge. Run an ultramarathon, which I did twice (50 K). Check, check, and check! Done!

    I encourage my university students to consider doing a half or full marathon because of what they will learn about:

    • how their personality tends toward certain behaviors and decisions
    • how to prepare or plan for problems and handling them
    • how to build the appropriate locus of control (inner-directed versus outer-directed)
    • how positive thinking can be valuable in negative moments and how to create it
    • how to persevere when the going gets tough
    • what strategies to employ to get through tough patches
    • how to muster discipline in "low" moments
    • how to find that "tunnel" of complete concentration and focus and expending effort in the present moment (the "practicing mind")
    • how to improve concentration and focus
    • how to experience and benefit from the empowering strength the student will come away with after the event is over.

    I liken the lessons that are learned from completing the marathon or half marathon to the same lessons that are experienced in preparation and performance of senior recitals. My students will experience the same life lessons as those that come from a marathon or half marathon training and event.

    When you think about your goals for the coming year, consider adding a goal to your list that has the quality of "epicness." Perhaps it is a recital, whether it be a solo recital or one that is shared with a colleague. Perhaps it is an audition for something. Perhaps it is a physical event, such as a marathon or half marathon. Perhaps you have another challenge in mind -- something that will push you beyond your comfort zone.

    Be sure to put something epic on your goal list. Then start your training program today.

    Celebration! 3,000 Blog Views!

    I have officially reached the 3,000 views mark! That means that my blog has been viewed 3,000 times. I'm celebrating, because I have been keeping a log also of the various countries that my viewers have come from. There are 45 countries so far!

    Now 3,000 views could mean that one person from each of the 45 countries has viewed my blog enough times that the statistics have reached 3,000 views. It could also mean that 3,000 people have viewed my blog, or some number in between. I'm still excited about the fact that so many folks have found my blog and have been reading it, or at least "viewing" it.

    Don't hesitate to contact me if you would like to have certain topics discussed. I look through the various search terms used, and I'm happy to address some of the issues that are raised. Please email me if you have any questions or desire any specific information:  birdtull@prodigy.net.

    Saturday, April 16, 2011

    100 Days Challenge!

    Congratulations to Maddie and Emma for completing the 100 Days Challenge! I know their mom is not far behind in her own 100 Days Challenge. Congratulations to Mary Stella also for completing the 100 Days. I wish I had a picture of everyone who has successfully completed their challenge. When I asked whether the students were going to "take a break" or continue with another 100 days, the unanimous answer was, "We're going to continue!"
    Maddie and Emma

    And now, a 2 second video from our youngest student: "I love the violin!"

    Quick Practice Tip: Using a Whisper Tube

    When working with beginning students, I often use a whisper tube to help the student understand the sound of rhythm. We use empty toilet paper rolls. We place the bow inside the tube and the tube on the violin shoulder. Then we turn our head to the tube and "whisper" a rhythm to it, such as "Mississippi Hotdog." When the bow moves, the bow plays back the same rhythm.

    One mom took the idea a creative step further and decorated the tube with stickers and pictures. Then she encased the artwork with a layer of packing tape. We could also use shelf or drawer liner paper with pretty designs or colors.

    Friday, April 15, 2011

    Quick Practice Tip: Filling up the Back Car Seat

    I help students to gradually adjust to the feel of the various positions by using the song "Perpetual Motion." In book 2, I introduce my students to this song using the transposition to Bb Major, starting with the first finger Bb on the A string. Once a student learns how to play this song using this fingering, I introduce the concept of playing in upper positions by using the "Perpetual Motion" Bb fingering and starting the first note in second position (starting first finger on C natural on the A string). We then try third position (starting first finger on D natural), and so forth on up the A string until the student has practiced playing "Perpetual Motion" in every position.

    As the student plays up the fingerboard in the various positions, I remind them of the crowded feeling one gets when riding in the back seat of a car that gradually fills up with more and more occupants. For example, first position is a roomy position because there is only one person riding in the back seat. Second position feels like two people sharing the backseat. Third position starts to feel a little more crowded and close, but there is still some wiggle room between the riders. Fourth position feels like four people in the back; folks are starting to edge their bodies a little bit to accommodate the lack of extra space.

    Fifth position feels like five people in the back seat, and there are definitely some folks who are edged a bit sideways. Sixth position has six people in the back, and some of the riders may be resting a bit on others. Seventh position is extremely crowded.

    I find that the backseat analogy helps students to understand the need to bring the fingers closer together as the student climbs into the higher positions.

    In a group class setting, we throw a giant die on the floor to determine what position to try. If we land on a "1" or a "6" we sometimes add them together to get 7th position.

    Tuesday, April 12, 2011

    Why use a box violin?

    Recently I put up a new picture of one of my young students. This little boy just began lessons a week ago, and the picture was taken on day 2 with the box violin. If you look closely, you will notice that his torso is a bit twisted. That is because he is in the middle of a growth spurt. Torsos tend to develop this slight twist during growth periods, because our bodies do not grow evenly. In the coming weeks, his mother and I will work to straighten out this kink in the boy's body, which will last until his next growth spurt.

    Since putting up that photo, many folks have asked me why I use a box violin or what is the significance of starting a student with a box in the first place. Here are some of my reasons.

    First, the box violin weighs next to nothing, so it is light and comfortable for young students to hold. When I first started teaching, I made a box violin with newspaper stuffed inside, but the violin was too heavy for young students. Using packing peanuts for the inside of the violin gives the box instrument some weight and helps the box to retain its shape in the event that someone sits or steps on it.

    Second, the box violin is easily made and replaceable. So while the student is learning how to take care of and play the new "violin," the parents and I do not need to worry about any damage to the box violin. Pets can tear it apart, or younger siblings can sit or step on it, and the parents and I will not cry over it or call the insurance adjuster. We'll be able to use the experience as an object lesson for the child about how to take better care of the instrument.

    Third, the box doesn't make any musical sound, although it does make rhythmic sounds. This is helpful because the student doesn't get distracted from the tasks we are working on during lessons -- usually posture and bowing rhythms. If we had to factor in good tone production and eliminating squawky sounds at the same time as we are focusing on good posture and rhythmic impulse, the student would go crazy with all the things to be handled at one time. Using the box helps the parent and me break the skills learning into a smaller set, which keeps the student from becoming overwhelmed by too many points to think about. We can continue to build concentration and focus, instill good posture habits, and awaken the inner rhythmic pulse.

    Fourth, using the box violin is a strong motivational tool. The box is the step before a real violin. I frequently mention during lessons that we are learning skills that we will be using with the real violin when we finally get to that point. I often discuss openly with the parent (in the student's hearing) about the skills that we are working to master that will signal when it is time to move to the real violin. Most students are so eager to get to the point of having a real violin, that they will practice anything 100 times if it means that they will move closer to getting the real violin.

    Is there ever a time when I start a student on a real violin? Yes, if it is an adult beginner or an older child. I consider each situation carefully before beginning lessons to decide whether a real violin is appropriate. In the case of a child, I might still have 1 or 2 lessons on the box just to get us going, and I make sure that the student understands that the box is extremely temporary.

    Another instance when I might consider moving to the box violin quicker than usual is in the case of a student with a well developed aural ability. I have two such young students right now. One is the 3 year old girl who was featured on the blog home page for the past several months (the student who started when she was 2.5 years old). I recently switched this student from the box to the real violin because she was doing so well with her skills on the box. She has quickly adjusted to the violin and is copying the rhythmic musical sounds she hears.

    Another student who is 4 is using a real violin because she was more responsive to the actual musical sounds of the violin than she was to the rhythmic sounds of the box. Since this particular child is highly energetic, I felt we needed the added sounds in the air for this student to make a better connection between physical movement and sound production on the violin. So far it is working.

    Have a good week. Check out the short three second video below for some sage advice from a 7 year old.

    Monday, April 11, 2011

    Monday Morning Check In: What is a Habit Anyway?

    I was talking to one of my younger students about the importance of choosing good habits, and it occurred to me that I ought to check whether my student even understood what a habit was. After all, words that I use at my age do not always hold the same meaning to a seven year old. My student replied, "A habit is something that you've done so many times that you don't have to think about it."

    That pretty much sums it up, doesn't it? As a teacher my concern is always, first and foremost, what habits my students choose to form or rely on -- good or bad? As always, whenever I think about what I require of my students, I also take the time to reflect back at myself. The question then becomes: what habits do I choose for myself -- good or bad?

    I've been reading through an interesting book called The Habit Factor by Martin Grunburg. I'll let you know more about it when I finish it. For now, let me say that I enjoy the discussion about habits, what habits we choose  and why, and the importance of choosing wisely. I have even installed the iPhone app of the same name.

    I find it helpful to determine activities that I would like to adopt, that when I performed regularly would become the sort of habits to put me further down the road toward achieving my goals. I find it to be an interesting intellectual exercise to determine what potential "habits" might be related to achieving particular goals. For example, if I am trying to lose weight (who isn't, right?), I might want to establish the habit of exercise. In my case, I have decided to work on establishing a habit of running 3 times a week. The iPhone app helps me to track whether I am performing this activity often enough to build a "habit" over time.

    What are some goals you have that would benefit from your setting up a small list of "habits" to cultivate? Think about the areas of goals we usually visit: health, finances, career, family, and spiritual. This week, why not take a few moments to consider what your goals are in some of these particular areas. Then reflect on whether there are any particular actions you can take on a regular basis -- build a "habit" in other words -- that would bring you closer to achieving your goals.

    Thursday, April 7, 2011

    Twinkle as a study tool

    I thought you would enjoy this short movie. This is one of my young students, who is learning the phonetic sounds of Chinese, which is part of her heritage. Here this sweet girl shows me how she uses Twinkle Theme to practice saying her sounds.

    Wednesday, April 6, 2011

    Using Your Neighbor's Fence to Find Higher Positions

    I like to help my students find positions quickly on their instruments, and I find it works well to relate the physical sensation of touching the instrument in various places with different parts of the body. Here's what I mean.

    Remember the television comedy "Home Improvement"? The show starred Tim Allen, his family, his co-worker Al, and a mysterious next door neighbor whose face was always kept hidden from us in some way: by a fence, a misplaced garden tool, or by some other obstruction. I use the neighbor-behind-the-fence illustration to help my students get a picture of what a particular position might "feel" like as the position relates to the shoulder of the violin. I use a music stand as my "fence."

    First position: students know this position already because that's what they've learned first. Still, we know it's first position because we can "feel" or sense other parts of the violin, such as the pegs, the fingerboard nut, or the place where the scroll and peg box connect to the violin neck.

    Second position: this is the scary position, because it feels like there is no floor beneath us. Second position is part way between first and third position. Sometimes I just have to go back to first position in order to find second, or else I just practice shifting between the higher position and second position until I get a feel for the intervalic relationship I'm searching for.

    3rd position
    Third position: here I start using the fence illustration. To find this position, I show students how to jut their wrists forward at a slight angle to "bump" into the violin shoulder. This resembles standing next to the fence and resting one of our feet up against the bottom of the fence but the rest of us stands back about a foot away from the fence. Once my students have found the third position using this method, I encourage them to "let go" of the touch point.

    4th position
    Fourth position: finding this position resembles standing directly up against the fence, as the neighbor did in the television show. We didn't see the neighbor because he did not hold his head up above the fence. I show my students how to bump up against the violin shoulder using the hand completely. I encourage most of my students to maintain the same hand position in fourth position as the students do in the first three positions: keeping the base area and side of the index finger touching the fingerboard and neck. Only if a student has very tiny hands will I consider encouraging the student to raise his or hand higher over the violin shoulder. I have very small hands, but even I hold my hand in fourth position in the same manner as I do first to third positions.
    5th position

    Fifth position: At this point I introduce the concept of the "hump" or "hill," which is my euphemism for the ascent over the violin shoulder. I liken the feeling of fifth position to that of standing behind the fence but resting one arm on the top of the fence. I encourage my students to raise their violin hand just enough to start climbing over the hump. This can be a tricky area for students, because some students may try to "climb around" the shoulder along the side. I discourage this practice because it causes the students to play with lengthened rather than curved fingers, which causes the fingers to sound weak in tone and also makes it difficult in some cases for students to reach the accurate pitches.

    6th position
    Sixth position: I liken this position to that of resting both arms on top of the fence. Again, I am careful to show my students how to climb up over the "hump" or "hill" and allow the hand to rest on the top edge of the shoulder and let the chin hold the violin.

    7th position
    Seventh position: At this point, this position feels like someone has not only rested both arms on top of the fence but has begun to lean over the fence as if to reach something on the other side. The students are sometimes uncomfortable about how this position feels in relation to the closeness of the fingerboard, but I am ever vigilant about making sure that the students maintain the correct finger curvature (pinky curved!) in order to maintain finger strength.

    In my next blog post, I will tell you how I use the back seat of a car to show a student how it feels to play in higher positions.

    Monday, April 4, 2011

    Monday Morning Check In: How to Survive a Busy Season

    My life has been quite hectic these past few weeks, and it doesn't look like it will be improving this week either. The Austin Symphony just completed a week of rehearsals that culminated in two subscription concerts ("Pictures at an Exhibition"), and the Artisan is gearing up for some major performances at the end of May and early June of different program content. As I contemplated what I would discuss on this Monday Morning Check In, it occurred to me to discuss that topic that I know the best: how to survive a busy season.

    As you may recall from earlier posts, I am a master at filling up my schedule. I don't know whether this problem is due to my not saying "no" very well, or because I am a "people pleaser," as my husband likes to say. I just like to be busy. I come from a family that was busy, and I am sure that I learned the productive habit from my home family. I am not complaining about my busy life. I enjoy just about everything I do.  At the end of my life, I want to be able to look back and say that I lived a full life.

    The down side to having a busy life is the time pressure and the stress it encourages. I am not a worrier, and if that describes you, I would recommend that you employ strategies to eliminate this personality propensity. Instead, I sometimes pile one too many things onto my plate or cram one too many activities into my schedule. Here are some of my tips for handling these sorts of problems when they happen.

    The first thing I do is make sure that I know what I have on my plate. I try to make it a regular habit to check in with myself every Sunday (or at least Monday morning) and review my calendar for the week. I take note of important events or appointments, any unusual activities, places I need to go, and things I need to accomplish on a certain day.

    The next thing I do is make a list of the things that I need to get done during the coming week, including any errands that need to be run. I make a list and then I quickly go through and mark the tasks with the letters A-B-C-D. Anything with a D means that I can delegate this task to someone else. I can call in a favor or just assign the task to someone else. Sometimes it is worth it to pay someone else to accomplish the task. I note whether an item is something I absolutely must do (my A list), whether the item is important but not urgent (my B list), or whether the item is something that would be nice to do but that nothing bad will happen to me if I put off finishing the item (my C list). I cross off any item that does not make it on my A-B-C-D list.

    It may be possible to fragment a task into a smaller task. The key here is to focus on the question: what is absolutely essential here? What must I actually accomplish? If I'm writing a paper, does it need to be the final draft? Could a quick outline suffice? Could a rough draft fit the bill for now?

    Once I am satisfied that I have an accurate and complete picture of what I absolutely must accomplish during the coming week, I then start with the A list items and keep going. That's the key, of course -- perseverance. As musicians and teachers, we know all about this ability. We train it in our students every time we teach them how to master a new skill, or fingering, or bowing, or musical passage. We know how to do this, so here is an opportunity for us to role model this ability in real life.

    I start with the A list and I do not do anything except A items until the list is completed. Sometimes a B item gets bumped up to the A list because the passage of time has now made the activity increase in importance. I absolutely do not do any C item until my A and B lists are completed.

    I find that my stress outlook actually improves if I remember to schedule in some down time. It could be a short run in the early morning or at night. Others might prefer a bubble bath or some other calming ritual. I have several books going at once. Sometimes I will read for 10 minutes before retiring or as a reward for working hard at completing my tasks.

    To summarize my various techniques for handling a busy season:

    Delegate or ask for help
    Fragment or break down the task into its smallest essential elements

    If all else fails, I procrastinate. Sometimes there is a lot to be said for this technique.

    Have a blessed week!