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Monday, May 30, 2011

Monday Morning Check In: Building up Reserves

Good morning and Happy Memorial Day! Thank you to all the service men and women who are serving our country at present or have served in the past.

After the flurry of recitals and performances these past two weeks, I can now safely say that summer has officially started here in Central Texas. The hot summer weather has arrived for sure! With summer's arrival also comes an adjustment of finances, as the summer schedule changes. I still teach, but I also perform away from home for several weeks during the summer, and my finances alter accordingly. I have found it safest to build up a reserve during the school year so that I have something to draw from in the event I need funds to cover unexpected expenses. As I prepare to make the shift into "summer frugality," I thought that building up reserves would be a good topic for a blog post.

The word "reserves" is interesting. It not only means a supply of some commodity that is not needed immediately but is available if needed, it also means to keep something back or to refrain from using something. As you can imagine, the subject requires a good deal of self discipline to hold oneself accountable. Reserves can also refer to other things besides money. Here are a few thoughts I have on the subject of reserves.


Finances


I have found it useful to build up a reserve of money in case of emergencies or for use during the leaner summer months. There are several possible ways to do this:

  • Automatic savings program: I use ingdirect.com for this purpose. I set up a recurring auto-deposit from my regular bank account into the special on-line ING account. It is also possible to set this up so that it automatically occurs the day after a pay check is deposited.
  • Designated student tuition: I sometimes take the tuition payments of one or two particular students and put that into my "reserves" savings account.
  • Percentage of income received: I put a percentage of each income deposit into the "reserves" savings account. I make it a habit to "pay myself first" with a savings program and retirement plan. If I deduct the money right at the beginning, then I do not miss it. I have done this ever since I started working.

Emergencies

My husband finds my method of addressing this topic amusing; my family is well aware of my insistence that we are well stocked on essentials (toilet paper).  My family may be amused, but if you have ever lived up north, you will have learned to keep reserves of certain items in the event of bad weather. I recall my neighborhood in Pennsylvania trading household goods between neighbors after a major snow storm hit. We would wade across the street to trade eggs and toilet paper. Now, we may not have snowstorms too often in Texas (more like ice storms), but we do have the threats of hurricanes or tornadoes. With the amount of emergencies that have occurred recently in parts of our country, I think it's a good idea to consider some sort of disaster preparedness program. Here are a few links for information about disaster preparedness:


There are many other links, including organizations such as the Red Cross (www.redcross.org) and the National Hurricane Center (www.nhc.noaa.gov).


Practice

While I began this topic by talking about finances, and I then thought about disaster preparedness, my original thoughts about the topic actually centered on my practicing. Yes, I know, it seems like I strayed far from the topic that I had originally planned to write about.

I build up reserves in my practice. I do this in several ways:

  • I practice on a regular basis so that I am ready at a moment's notice to substitute for someone or to take a last minute gig. Practicing regularly keeps my muscles warm, my joints limber, and my mind and memory fully functioning.
  • I prepare my recital pieces to be ready by memory at least 1 month in advance so that I have time for my memory to become secure. I ask my students to do the same. I have found by experience personally and as a teacher that anything memorized within a month of the performance runs the risk of not being quite solid. I prefer to avoid the stress of wondering whether my memory will hold during the performance.
  • I have a regular listening program. Not only do I regularly listen to material I am learning, but I also listen to other material as well. I find that by having a regular listening program in place, my practice routine is more solid. In the event that an emergency prevents me from practicing (such as having my ring finger get caught in the alpaca shearing clippers a month ago), my listening program will help to fill in any practicing gaps.
  • I practice in the summer for those recitals in the coming year. I like to get ahead in my practicing, because I know that once the school year begins, I will not always have a regular practice time available to me and I may have to rely on catching free moments here and there for practice. I find it less stressful to have learned the bulk of my music for the coming season during the summer months when I have more time.
Happy Practicing!

Friday, May 27, 2011

Congratulations!

Congratulations to my student Christine, who secured the coveted role of the plate in "Beauty and the Beast"! Christine is excited to be cast as the plate rather than the cupcake! Haha, summer fun!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

June Practice Challenge: Twinkles!

Recently a young student and I were challenging each other with a vibrato exercise. We made a pledge to each other to practice the vibrato exercise every day for two weeks, and we promised to check up on each other via email or text message. Don't you just love the buddy system? We wrote out an index card for each of us that had the number of boxes on it that equalled the number of days we had promised to practice the exercise. Both of us put a card in our violin cases so that we would see it every time we opened up our violin cases to practice.

The challenge has worked well for both of us. We checked in at our last lesson together, and both of us were proud to report that we had been checking off our little boxes on the index cards. We were very excited about our progress, and we shared with each other those things that we had discovered were improving, much to our surprise. Even me! It just goes to show that it is possible to teach an old dog new tricks, it is never too late to learn something new, and that everyone can improve anything if they are determined to do so.

The success of my challenge with Jamey got me thinking of another possible challenge that all of us can participate in. I have several beginning students now who are working towards the goal of a Twinkles Graduation. These students are practicing to be able to play their Twinkle Variations with the piano at a good tempo and without any problems. This is not an easy task! It takes stamina to be able to stay mentally focused throughout the entire variations, and sometimes the student has a little difficulty keeping it all together when the piano is added. Still, we plug away at it for several weeks (sometimes months) until the student has an excellent performance and I'm convinced that the student will be able to continue that level of performance every time. Sometimes I have to turn this entire enterprise into one of those "Dollar Spots" that I wrote about in an earlier post on March 7 (http://teachsuzuki.blogspot.com/2011/03/monday-morning-check-in-practice.html?showComment=1299542007159#c7851575439082633225). In addition, as a celebration of achievement, I give the student a certificate of completion. Sometimes the parent will do something special as well, such as a trip to the local ice cream store or video store. In other words, we make a big deal out of applause and encouragement in my studio.

I've been delighted to see the enormous progress these Twinkle students have made during this time period of working toward the Twinkle Graduation goal. That along with the success of my challenge with Jamey got me thinking that we could all benefit from this sort of challenge, especially with the summer months hitting us and the siren song of the heat doldrums beckoning to us. It's always best to have a plan that lifts us up through such periods. So here is my June Practice Challenge.

Play through the entire Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star Variations from Book 1. Do this every day. Be mindful of the temptation to rush through them just to "get it done." Instead, focus on:

  • the sound that you are creating: are you playing too soft or too loud and scratchy?
  • the intonation: are those fingers on the tapes and producing ringing notes?
  • the placement of the bow on the string:
    • is the contact point too close too the fingerboard?
    • is the bow straight?
    • is the bow hair relatively flat? (book 1 skill)
  • the articulation of the notes:
    • are the eighth notes short with firm, ringing staccato bow strokes?
    • are the sixteenth notes scrubbing with an equal stroke on up bows and down bows?
  • the rhythm: is it accurate, or did some variations get a little sloppy?
  • the posture:
    • is the bow hold correct? be exacting with this!
    • is the violin up on the shoulder or has it dropped down lower in front of the shoulder?
    • is the violin pointing to the side (about 10 or 10:30 o'clock) or is it pulled around in front where it cramps up the left hand?
    • is the body tense in any way? Adults: pay particularly close attention to the muscles in your back, neck, shoulders, and upper back.
    • is  the head dropping forward at an angle or held upright? is the jaw bone resting in the chin rest properly?
    • is the violin against the neck or is there a hole between the neck and the instrument?
  • the concentration and focus: are you able to stay in the present moment as you play all the variations or does your mind wander?
    • Adults may have an easier time with this exercise point.
    • A parent will be able to monitor their child's focus and concentration by noting when the first mistakes appear. That moment is usually when a student's concentration and focus has started to lag or wander.
      • Just keep plugging away at the daily playing, and you will note that this problem begins to disappear.
      • Take a moment to stop when the problem first occurs and take a mini rest, perhaps in rest position while the two of you talk through what happened and what to remember the next time.
      • Sometimes the problem can be averted by taking a moment before playing the variation and talking through the things the child is to remember to do while playing.
  • the advanced level of playing: are you able to add the appropriate level of playing that you can currently do to this earliest of violin learning skills?

So starting next week on Wednesday, June 1, let's all commit to taking the Twinkles Challenge. Please let me know what discoveries you make about your own abilities. Never underestimate the power of working to achieve the mastery of "simple" things. We will never fully master any endeavor. We just add more and more layers of complexity.

Happy Practicing! And congratulations to Holly for achieving her Twinkles Graduation yesterday!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Quick Practice Tip: the Summer Challenge

Summer is almost here. It certainly feels like it has arrived in full force here in Central Texas. With summer's arrival, there are two problems that arise from a teacher's perspective:

  • students stop taking lessons
  • parents let practice and lesson routines disintegrate
Let me discuss both of these issues in the hopes of convincing parents to re-think their summer plans.

Lessons


During the school year, students and parents generally work quite well to achieve many goals. Usually the school year ends with a spring recital, which allows the students to showcase their achievements and allows the parents an opportunity to celebrate their children's (and their) hard work and practice.

When parents stop taking lessons in the summer, several disturbing things occur. First, the opportunity is there for students to pick up new habits, and these habits are not usually the good kind. Once a student picks up a bad habit, it may take years to unlearn. I recall one student coming to me as a teacher when he was two-thirds of the way through book 1. He used "blocked" fingers (when the fingers land simultaneously as a clump). This student is now in book 5, and I am still struggling to get him to lose all vestiges of this bad habit. Another little three year old came to a lesson one day with her bow arm elbow held high in the air. During the lesson I discovered that the child had practically no rosin on her bow, and she was raising her elbow up so that she could "press" down on the string to make a sound. Ten years later, we were still working to eliminate that habit.

Both of these examples are extreme, to be sure, but these are all good students. I offer these illustrations to impress upon my readers the difficulties of unlearning a habit. Consider all the folks in the world who are searching for ways to eliminate bad habits: smoking, overeating, slovenliness. Anyone who has ever tried to eliminate or replace a bad habit will understand the difficulties that I'm talking about.

When a family discontinues lessons throughout the long summer period (about three months), the opportunity is ripe for a bad habit to sneak in. I train my parents well, but for some reason, even my best parents tend to take a "break" during the summer months. The parents and I will have more work laid out for us in the fall when lessons resume if there have been no lessons or very few lessons throughout the summer months. In my opinion, it is best to continue the momentum of the school year by maintaining some sort of lesson schedule, even if it is only a few lessons scattered throughout the summer.

I am usually around about six weeks throughout the summer months. I encourage my students to find four possible lesson times spread out through the summer, which accommodate the family vacation schedule and other summer activities. I also offer different times for lessons rather than just the concentrated schedule of hours after school.

Practice


I have noticed that students lack the same level of focus and concentration that they have during the school year. This behavior resembles the same behavior I encounter after holiday breaks. I believe that it is due to the families' letting the practice routine and schedule slide. The students' daily routines are "loosey goosey" and have no structure. Children need structure. Gosh, even adults need structure. Yes, we all need a break, but I raise the question of whether we all need a three month break? A few days here and there are great ways to boost our mental and physical state, but a child will thrive better on a routine, even if it is a special summertime routine.

My mother was a primary school educator and understood the value of routine and structure for children. Our summer routine went something like this:

morning practice: We did our practice routine first thing in the morning so that it was finished for the day and not something we would have to struggle to fit in later in the day when we were tired from our summer activities. My friends all knew to wait until a certain time in the morning before coming over to play, because my mother let it be known that this morning time was our practice time. Practice time was sacred in our house. We continued our routine all the way through elementary school until we graduated from high school. My mother was quite wise in this respect. It never occurred to my sister and I to do things any other way.

chores or errands: We did our cleaning or other tasks that benefited the home or family or took  trips into town to do errands. We usually ended our trips at the public library to pick up more books to read.

lunch: We usually read through lunch, or for a special treat, we were permitted to watch a game show on TV (usually "Hollywood Squares" or "Jeopardy."

afternoon activities: We would go to the local swim club, where we spent a good part of the afternoon reading and swimming.

evening activities: We did family activities, such as badminton, croquet, or some other family activity. Sometimes we would go back to the swim club again or go to a movie or visit grandparents. Sometimes we would just stay at home and watch TV or continue reading. This was a family time though. We always ate dinner together, and we always had music around the house. Either we had the Hi-Fi playing recordings, or my dad was practicing his jazz piano numbers (he was an excellent jazz pianist in addition to his day job at the Dept. of Education as a science specialist).

Monday, May 23, 2011

What is Vibrato? -- Preparing for the Big Event

What is Vibrato? Basically, vibrato is an oscillation of pitch. Precisely, vibrato is the oscillation of a pitch from the main note to a note that is 1/2 step lower, e.g., vibrato on the note D will be an even oscillation between D and C#. I have been involved in discussions about whether the vibrato should go to a higher pitch, but in my experience, if the vibrato goes to a point higher than the original pitch, the note will consequently sound sharp to the listener. The teacher must also take care to monitor the student's vibrato to make sure that the oscillation is an oscillation between pitches and is not a movement across the strings (resulting in no pitch change) or in a circle (resulting in crazy pitches).

Three aspects of vibrato are important: width, speed, and evenness. At this beginning stage, all we can do is introduce the student and parent to the concept of vibrato. Vibrato involves some specialized movements of the student's muscles, and these muscles must be made ready before the student can successfully produce vibrato.

First I provide the student with a series of activities to help me determine whether the student is holding the violin correctly between the chin and the shoulder. The student should not be using the left hand or fingers to hold up the violin. To check that the student's posture is correct, I ask the student to perform these exercises:
  • peg knocking
  • waves
  • silent slides up and down the string with the ring finger
  • "sirens," where we use our bow to sound out the slides up and down the string. Sometimes we speed it up so that it sounds like the sirens used on ambulances in England

video

video

At this point, I check the student's equipment. In some cases, I might make adjustments to the student's shoulder rest to help the student maintain good contact with the violin through the shoulder and chin rests. Sometimes a student needs the shoulder rest adjusted to allow for more height in the front of the shoulder and less in the back to enable the student to hold the instrument a little flatter. This slight adjustment may also correct improper left hand position or the case of the left pinkie curling into the hand when the student is playing on the left ring finger.

Another important issue is the left hand posture. If the student is in the habit of letting their left hand fall under the fingerboard too much, then this student will have difficulty learning how to vibrate properly. Instead this student might be using muscles in the palm rather than in the fingers. Since I am usually teaching vibrato at the beginning of book 2, and book 2 is the point in the Suzuki repertoire when students start trying to let their left hands drop under the fingerboard, this is a crucial teaching point for me. I watch the student's left hand posture like a hawk from Minuet 2 onwards.

neutral relaxed starting position
backwards fall; relaxation
Muscle preparation exercises include holding a shaker egg or a film canister filled with a few beans in the left hand and letting the hand fall backwards and return forwards in a rhythmic motion. I am careful to make sure that the student does not move the hand too far forward to produce tension. See the illustrations for examples of this exercise, including the neutral relaxed starting position, the relaxed backwards "fall," and the improper forward motion.

improper forwards motion; produces tension

I generally talk with my student about the various kinds of vibrato: hand/wrist, arm, and finger. I prefer to teach the hand/wrist vibrato first, although there are some students who find the arm vibrato easier to learn. I have encountered so many students who develop tendinitis issues in their left elbows or wrists, and I wonder if using arm vibrato exclusively may be contributing to this problem. I prefer to follow the system suggested by Ed Kreitman in his book "Teaching from the Balance Point." He suggests using hand/wrist vibrato in lower positions and arm vibrato in the upper level positions.

I talk with my students about how vibrato is produced. Most, if not all, students assume that the finger is shaking, because that is what it looks like from the students' perspectives. I ask my students to imagine that they have a pony tail. Then I ask each student to shake the pony tail. Then I ask the student to shake the pony tail but not move the head or use the hands. The student realizes that it cannot be done. The head moves the pony tail. From this realization I move to compare the pony tail and head motion with the vibrato motion. The finger is the pony tail and the hand is the head that moves the pony tail. The vibrato motor is in the back of the hand, somewhere between the 2nd and 3rd finger knuckles.

I also explain that we will be teaching just one finger how to do vibrato, because the left ring finger is absolutely the most brilliant finger at learning how to vibrate. The ring finger will learn how to do it first; then this finger will teach all the other fingers how to vibrate too.

A crucial exercise I find is to do some "air bow" vibrato. In this exercise, we use only the bow. I ask the student to pretend to be playing with vibrato as the bow moves slowly across the violin "strings." At first the student is likely to either move the bow at the same speed as the "vibrato" or to slow down the vibrato to match the slow bow speed. Here are two videos to show what I mean.

video

video

One additional exercise is the dust rag vibrato. In this exercise, I drape a cloth or tissue over the student's fingerboard. The student uses the ring finger to "dust" the fingerboard with the cloth. At this point I usually hold up a mirror to show the student what the finished vibrato will likely look like.

video

My student may work on these exercises for quite some time before we move to the next stage of actually learning vibrato. I have taught vibrato to one high school sophomore at a university summer strings camp, and she worked so hard at the exercises and the dust rag exercise in particular, that she actually learned vibrato in that week of camp.

Next step is to teach vibrato! Stay tuned for my post "Vibrato: Pig Noses and Wibble Wobbles."


Sunday, May 22, 2011

Monday Morning Check In: Dealing with Setbacks and Roadblocks

The title of this blog post seems particularly appropriate since I've missed the last few Monday Morning Check Ins myself. I came back from my Cincinnati trip, and the end of the school year and symphony season hit with a bang! As I raced to finish up all the final performances and recitals and juries of the season, I encountered a few surprises, setbacks, and roadblocks to my forward progress.

A few weeks ago I learned that two dear friends were burdened with major health issues. As I spent time thinking about both of my friends, I learned several valuable lessons while I watched how these two friends responded to the trials ahead of them. Both of them approached the issues dead on. If there was any fear or concern, neither showed any to the public. Instead of wallowing, whining, or whimpering with self-pity -- and no one would have begrudged them the right to do so -- these two ladies marched ahead strongly. Both sought out the necessary facts available for dealing with the issues and then matter-of-factly made the arrangements to handle the problem. As I considered the mountain of issues these ladies tackled, I found that my own set of issues were the size of hillocks in comparison.

Let me share some of my thoughts with you in the hopes that we may all benefit in the future.

I think that our first step when dealing with problems is to consider the attitude with which we ponder our fate and our dilemma, because I think it is our choice of attitude that may determine how difficult it is to face and deal with our burdens. If we consider the lessons of nature, we can learn that nature invites balance and working together. Water goes over and around obstacles. Although water can eventually drill itself through something, like rock or canyon walls, the process takes more than we will see in a lifetime. Likewise, we can work with our circumstances or around them, but to choose to bang our heads against them may take more effort and time and energy than we can handle effectively or comfortably.

Our personality most likely has much to do with our choice of dealing with problems. I'm mostly choleric in personality style, and I recall my mother describing to me how I would try to force my stroller through a spot in the wall because I thought that a door should go there and I was determined to force it to happen. Sort of the bull or hammer approach. Sanguines would tend to talk their problems to death. Melancholics would wallow in it or elect to spend some "turtle time" in bed. Phlegmatics would likely shrug it off and do something else or even nothing at all.

Most of our stress in life, I believe, is caused by our failure to make a decision: start or stop, get in or get out, yes or no. Our choice of language will indicate this waffling avoidance, as we whine such words as "maybe, not sure, perhaps, later, but, what if." These are words that kill ambition, resolution, decision, and motion.

Instead I prefer to think of these words: "retrench, reboot, rethink, retry, disassociate, repent, accept, help, evaluate, chisel." These words imply action and spur me to consider movement in some direction. I remind myself that I can always turn around or go in another direction. One choice does not exclude a different choice later. I try not to grieve too much because grieving is a more static state, and by focusing on something to such a strong degree, we are inviting ourselves to enter the "dark side" of wallowing, anger, or self-pity. Instead I do not permit my mind to do more than glance at a negative emotion or thought. Instead I gently remind myself of these two questions:
  • Did I do anything wrong? If I did not do anything wrong, then I just accept what has happened and move on. I look ahead to what I can do in the future. If I did something wrong, I look to learn from it. I repair or restore whatever I might need to fix and then work to rebuild a stronger preventative response for the future. I move on and look ahead.
  • Would I do anything differently if I had to do it all over again? If my answer is no, then I just move on and look ahead. If I would do things differently the next time the situation comes up, then I work to figure out what that something might be and how I might accomplish it in a better way, and then I move on and look ahead.
Notice that whatever answers I give to myself, I wind up ultimately moving on and looking ahead. Again, I think that movement, in particular forward movement, is crucial to a successful and happy attitude. Note I said "happy" and not just "positive."

Do I feel disappointment? Absolutely. Am I saddened by a particular turn of events in a direction that I did not expect? Certainly. Do I feel like crying or yelling. Sure, that happens too. I just refuse to allow myself to go there if I can work my way out of that place. Such emotions and expressions do happen. They do help us to heal our emotional and mental state. Tears are part of life. Anger happens too. Both things may be natural but I find that they can lead to a lot of unhelpful thoughts and actions, so I try not to dwell unduly in those dark places more than just a few fleeting moments here and there. I work to remember what Dean Karnazes ("Ultramarathon Man") said: "There's magic in misery." The magic is different for everyone, but it is there if we look for it. The negative thoughts are there, but instead of dragging us down to a dark place, they can spur us on to seek the light. We just need to remember to turn our backs on the negative side and face the light.

"Pain is inevitable. Suffering, however, is optional." Thank you, Ultramarathon Man, Karno. In his own words (from Run, by Dean Karnazes): "Just as a problem-free life never makes a strong and good person, smooth roads never made a good runner. As the runner fights the urge to stop, she masters her very mind. In overcoming adversity, she better understands the inner workings of her psyche. Life becomes bigger, bolder, filled with greater potential. 'In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity for growth,' Einstein wrote." These profound words illustrate my reasons for maintaining a running program. These words illustrate the types of lessons I learn and experience on a regular basis. Running reminds me to "grow." Running reminds me to cope.

Instead of wallowing in disappointment and enjoying my negativity, I focus on "just the facts, ma'am." I find the words of the Johnny Nash song illuminate the appropriate state of mind for handling a roadblock or problem:

"I can see clearly now the rain is gone.
I can see all obstacles in my way.
Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind.
It's gonna be a bright, bright, sunshiny day."

So the next time I bump up against what I might perceive as a stumbling block or setback, I will remember my two friends and the lessons and thoughts they inspired in me. I will think about the courage my one friend showed when she lived through a double mastectomy and faced the news that she would need heavy chemotherapy in the sudden span of two week's notice. I will then recite the words of my other friend Ana, who may be dealing with horrible physical pain on a daily basis and struggling to get out of bed every morning to deal with the next steps in her treatment program. I will focus on her new mantra: "That's alright. It's all part of it." And I will move forward and look ahead because it's alright, and it's all part of it.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

May 17, 2011

I apologize to everyone who has been coming to the blog recently only to discover that I have not posted anything new. I've had a crazy schedule since May 5, 2011, so I haven't had a chance to sit down and answer comments, put up photos, or post the videos about vibrato. After university juries 5/5, I had symphony and ballet performances, and this week I'm in the middle of symphony young person's concerts (every day!). In addition, the Artisan is putting the finishing touches on its upcoming performance (#2 of the Beethoven cycle) at the end of May. The Artisan will be featured on "Classical Austin" with Dianne Donovan of 89.5 KMFA-FM on Wednesday, 5/18, 8 :00 p.m.

My Wildflower Suzuki Studio gave its spring recital this past weekend. I want to congratulate all the students who performed for us! It was a lovely recital and included students of all levels, from Pre-Twinklers to Book 10!

Stay tuned in other words. I've got several posts ready to go. I just haven't had a free moment to embed the videos into the posts. More vibrato information is coming!

Such is the busy life of a professional musician and Suzuki teacher: rich and rewarding, never dull, never ending.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Monday Morning Check In: Dig Down, Tunnel Deep

I ran the Cincinnati Flying Pig Half Marathon yesterday morning. Yes, I finished, and I was pleased with my efforts, especially in the last 5 miles, which can be the hardest part of the experience. As I ran the course I thought about the important lessons I learned from the race that I wanted to share with you.

As in life, running a race is filled with high and low points, and not just due to varying terrain. There are times when I need to dig down and pull up more "stuff" to see me through the next hard section. The race course had some hills. I could have walked the hilly portions of the course as many participants do, but I have learned that if I walk alone, I will pay for it later in terms of major soreness. No, I need the balance that comes between experiencing hills and downhills. So instead I have learned to dig down and find that extra reservoir of energy and mental toughness that will see me through the next section of work.

It helps to remind myself of these things:

* These tough patches are temporal. They last a short while. They are not endless. I can suffer through anything for a short time, I tell myself. And so I do.

* I can do it, I have done it before several times, and this is familiar territory. "You can do it, you know you can" is a very useful affirmation in these demanding moments.

* Little steps add up to larger accomplishments. Running a few steps will eventually add up to a larger distance when repeated.

And so I "put my head down" and plow ahead from the starting line to the finish "swine" as the Cincinnati folks like to call the finish line.

Along with the above steps to help see me through the physical and mental effort, I find that I need to go to my special concentration place as well in order to maintain my effort over 13.1 miles. I work on my concentration all the time in my life, not just when I am in training for my running events. I recall in Stephen King's novel "Misery" that he described the writing process as working and writing to a "tunnel." I find that to be an apt description of the place of concentration -- a tunnel of focus. When I asked a seven year old what was her understanding of the meaning of the word "concentration," she told me it was being able to think of something without thinking of anything else at the same time." Brilliant definition.

Notice the child did not say that we think of nothing. No, we think of something to the exclusion of anything else. That is a skill to be developed. Here are some ways to do that. If I find my mind wandering, then as I do with my students, I stop the exercise. I give myself a little break and interrupt my state in some way. Here are some ways to strengthen your concentration:

* 100 Square Exercise: I draw up a square on my computer that has 10 columns and 10 rows. Then I randomly assign the numbers from 1 to 100 in the squares. I make up many of these squares so that the numbers are all different. There may be a computer macro that will do the randomizing for you. Then once a day I take a square and begin by crossing ofF the number 1, then 2, and so on until I have crossed off all the numbers up to 100.

* Look at Me Exercise: I look long and hard at a common object and really notice it. For example, I look at the bottom of my running shoes. I look at the tread, the wear pattern, the debris that might have lodged in the treads, the textures, the layers of material used in its construction, and so forth. When I am in symphony rehearsal, I might take an extended period of non-playing and look really closely at my violin or bow and note the grain, the purfling, the decoration, the wear. You can practice this exercise everywhere and with anything.

* Cross off the Letters Exercise: I read an article in the newspaper and cross off the letter "t" in every place I find it. As you get better at this, try crossing out the letter "f" or some other letters.

We need concentration and focus in many areas of our lives. I need to have a highly developed ability in this area when I practice, and as a teacher I work to develop and strengthen my students' skills in this area as well. Multi-tasking is much touted in the world today, but I believe it is a myth that we can devote our time and attention to more than one thing at a time and do more than an adequate job with either activity. Maybe we can do an "adequate" job, but we would do a much better job and more efficiently, I believe, if we were to devote our full time and attention to the task before us.

Have a happy week!