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Sunday, June 26, 2011

Monday Morning Check In: How Teachable Are You?

When I write my Monday Morning Check In posts, I find that I usually choose a topic that is something I have been thinking about during the week. This week I have been in a different country, working with different musicians, and involved in different musical scenarios. My attitude and patience has been put to the test in many ways. Let me share some of my thoughts.

We learn in many different ways. Each one of our five senses is a window of learning opportunity from which we can process new information. I have written before about knowing what learning styles we prefer to use, and about how helpful it can be to process new information with our preferred style. Even more powerful is our ability to learn through observation and imitation, sort of an osmosis of learning, if you will.

I have been blessed since 1984 to play under the leadership of a wonderful violinist. Phil Ruder is the former concertmaster of the Cincinnati Symphony, and for many years he has served as the concertmaster of the Sunriver (Oregon) Music Festival, of which I have been a member for 27-28 years. Mr. Ruder plays with very clear intention of what the musical phrase should be. His gestures and physical approach to the violin as it relates to the music he is playing makes it very clear to the musicians who sit behind him what is expected of them. Then for a decade, I was even more blessed to sit alongside him. In the beginning, I was hyperaware of everything Mr. Ruder did. While I played I would hear the voice of my former teacher (Helen Kwalwasser) giving me instructions: make every note beautiful, more vibrato, match the string color, watch the sagging phrase on the down bow, etc. Of course, I realize now that it is not my teacher's voice I am hearing but my own voice that has grown from those years of exposure to Helen's influence. [She really was a terrific teacher, because she taught me how to be my own teacher].

Those ten years with Phil were marvelous for me because of how much I learned just by sitting with him. He did not have to say anything, because I was so open to learning from him. I watched, listened, and imitated. I got so good at this, in my opinion, that there were times when we would be trying to stagger a bow change, and we wound up doing it at the same time. This happened even when we were trying to avoid changing together!

I am currently sitting in various places of the violin section this week. I have rotated as concertmaster, associate concertmaster, and assistant concertmaster depending on the other players who are available on a particular day. I have also been a soloist as a chamber musician, and I have accompanied singers during vocal chamber music and operatic coaching and rehearsals. This means that I have sometimes acted as the leader and given instruction to others, and at other times I have followed someone else's intentions as well as the conductor's gestures.

This week, why not step back and identify the different areas of our life in which we act as leaders (role models) or as followers. Then consider how well we perform those roles and whether there is any area that needs improvement. Along with leadership and following, consider whether we are also acting well as a collaborator.

Happy practicing!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Monday Morning Check In: Putting Things Into Perspective

Greetings from Roma, Italia! I have been in Rome since Friday morning, and I had to hit the ground running. Two of the pianists have not yet shown up, so I was asked to cover more music for the programs. Tonight I accompanied four Schubert Lieder from the "Shwanengesang," and about an hour and half before the performance, a flutist and a singer approached me in a panic because they had not yet found their pianist. So I have been a busy musician!

There's nothing like travel to remind us about the value of understanding perspective. Yes, that is right, "understanding perspective." We all start with perspective as one of the basic components of our personality. Our perspective, gained through our own unique experience, governs much of our approach to life, to others, and to new opportunities. Our perspective is what definitely sets us apart from others. No one else has the same set of life experiences, environmental influences, successes, failures, challenges, or upbringing as we do. It is therefore important that we understand what perspective we have, how we gained that perspective, and perhaps, why we maintain that perspective.

Because perspective is such a powerful thing, we must be cautious about what perspective we allow to gain a foothold in our mind. Sometimes we are at fault in our thinking or we allow some improper influences to shadow our way of thinking about things. Sometimes our perspective stagnates because we refuse to allow ourselves the freedom to venture into new, unfamiliar territory.

I took some Parelli horse-training courses last year, and I was constantly reminded of how much I was not in my comfort zone. I love a challenge, however, because I love the sense of power that I get from venturing into the unknown and gaining new knowledge, so I persevered through the entire first level course. During the training course, we were introduced to a new way at looking at our learning process, and I found this new "perspective" about learning to be another useful teaching tool.

The Parelli horse instructor drew a large circle on the exhibit board and drew a smaller circle inside the larger one. The instructor pointed inside the smaller circle and said that it represented our comfort zone. This area was our familiar territory, where we felt safe, comfortable, and knowledgeable about what we were doing, so much so, that we did not even have to think much about how or what we were doing.

The instructor pointed outside the larger circle and called that the "running scared" or "panic" zone, where we were so uncertain, fearful, and nervous, that all we wanted to do was turn our hind ends and take off running in the opposite direction and not stop, just like a horse, incidentally, but more about that shortly. The instructor wanted us to alert her whenever we were in that panic zone, so that she could "talk us down from the ledge," so to speak, and guide us back onto the proper learning track.

Let me tell you an interesting thing about horses. They were created with the ability to run about 20-21 miles at one time without having to stop. They can even poop on the run so that nothing has to stop them or slow them down. This ability serves them well, because that is the distance needed to outrun the mountain lion, the horse's natural predator. While the horse has turned its hind end away from the perceived danger and is heading out 20-21 miles, the horse is not operating from a rational perspective; the horse is just reacting to the danger and running away, and basically using the right side of its brain, which is the reactive, instinctual part.

So what happens at the end of the 20-21 miles? The horse turns around 180 degrees. At that point the horse's brain draws on its left side, and the horse begins to think about its situation, specifically the question about whether it has run far enough to outdistance itself from the mountain lion, or whether it has to run an additional set of miles.

Note the trend in the thinking process and the various perspectives that correspond with the horse's thinking process. When the horse is reacting, it is unthinking and acting on instinct or conditioning. When the horse has turned around to confront its fears, it begins to think about the situation and to consider what options to follow next.

Isn't this what we as humans also do? When we are in our comfort zone, we are not thinking too much about what we are doing. We are generally just reacting to things as well, based on our past experience or previous perceptions about things. When we are frightened out of our comfort zone and into our panic zone (and by frightened I am referring to that state where we are beyond thinking rationally), we are usually just reacting to things, following our instincts (if we even think that much), and just letting things around us buffet us in a particular direction.

Let me take you back to the two circles the horse instructor drew on the exhibit board. Remember that the area within the smaller circle represented our comfort zone and the area outside the larger circle represented the area where we were "running scared." What about the area in between the two circles?

This area represents our "learning zone." This is the area where we actually learn something. We do not learn anything in our comfort zone. That is our safe place, and and we do not let much happen there that would spur us to new growth. In fact, we are likely to do whatever is necessary to preserve our comfort zone and to prevent any stimulus that would change it or cause us to form a new perspective about it. In the "panic zone," we are not thinking at all. We are just running away without giving any serious look to what we are running away from.

To actually learn something, we need to keep ourselves in the learning zone, in the area outside our comfort zone and within (or before we reach) our panic zone. We need to keep our hind ends turned around and focused on what we are running away from. In this case we should be focusing on what keeps us tied to our comfort zone as well as considering what is causing us to consider panic as a viable option. This area between the two zones is where we will make the best discoveries about our perspective and ourselves.

So how can we gain this new perspective? It is actually remarkably easy by just the trick of a few exercises. Do things differently. If you always order the same thing on a menu, make a point of always ordering something different on alternate visits to the same restaurant. If you write sitting down at a desk, try standing on top of your desk for a few minutes. Wow, let me warn you that this is a great exercise for expanding your perspective! If you are standing while doing something, try doing it sitting down or even better, while lying down on the floor. If you always face north, then face south. Rearrange the furniture. Park in a different spot. Try one (or seven) impossible things before breakfast. Travel to a new place. Stay home instead of going out. Put your feet up, let your hair down. Put your feet down and tie your hair up. Wear purple or fire engine red. Pick up someone else's trash. Bus your own table. Take someone else's empty grocery cart back to the cart bin. Smile at a stranger. Make a grumpy person smile. Startle someone with a gesture of kindness.

Let's get even more personal. Take a lesson with another teacher. Play a recital, which would involve rehearsing and practicing, maybe more than we usually do. Play an audition for someone. Perhaps take a lesson with an important member of the local symphony or a university professor. Come to Rome with me in a future summer and play in the festival. Get a passport. Take karate or a cooking class. Plan a night out with your friends or your spouse or partner. Sign up for a university class, or register to obtain another degree. Travel to another country. Make a recording of yourself. Write a letter or email to someone important that you have never met (I wrote an email to Rudy Giuliani and actually got an answer!). Write a letter to a respected teacher or your parent and thank them for the contribution they made to your life. Express gratitude to a student for the joy they brought to your life. Tip someone generously. Introduce yourself to someone new everyday for a week.

The possibilities are endless. The purpose of the above suggestions is to urge you to try something different, maybe many different things. By adding new experiences to your life, you will be opening up the possibilities that you will alter your perspective, that you will open up the portal that allows entry into your perspective, and that a new thought, even a stray thought, will find its way inside your mind and thereafter affect what and how you think about your life and the opportunities around you.

During this next week, look for opportunities to alter your perspective about things. Ask yourself, "what else could this be about?" Look for other reasons why things happen a certain way. Ask yourself, "what can I do differently today to really experience fully what my day has to offer?" Then, have the courage to do what you need to do. Corraggio!

Have a great week!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Teacher "Parenting"

I would like to address the issue of parenting during the teaching process. So much of what we do as teachers is more than just teaching the student how to play the violin. At least that is the case for me. I take Dr. Suzuki's philosophy of developing the whole child very seriously. Everything I do with a student is geared toward the development of the child to be a productive member of society. I work on posture, self confidence, character, attitude, behavior, concentration, perseverance, and discipline. I just happen to use the violin (or the miniature violin in some cases) as the vehicle to working in these areas. I prefer using the violin rather than the piano for several reasons:

  • The violin is capable of being made small enough to accommodate a particular student's size as opposed to a piano which is full-size for all students.
  • Proper posture on the violin requires that the student use the arms in a way that crosses the "mid-line" of the body, while the piano keeps the hands on each respective side of the mid-line. The crossing mid-line gestures aid in brain development.
  • The violin requires a certain approach to the instrument, and when a student deviates from the optimum approach, the teacher is able to easily discern the problem. Often times the student's personality leads to the playing problems, and the violin quickly reveals the problems.
As a young teacher, I was not comfortable handling behavior or other problem issues in the studio during lessons and group classes. I preferred to have the parents address these problems with their children so that I was able to maintain a teaching relationship with the student at all times. I still prefer that, however, I have learned over the years that I need to step in and take a more proactive role in the child's "training." And I have also found that most parents gladly welcome my help in this area. I am very careful to ask up front about how the parent feels about my involvement. I spend time during my parent course talking to the parent about possible issues and how we might handle them. Still, when lessons actually begin after the parent course is completed, the parent and I find that issues pop up that we hadn't considered. Then it becomes an issue of whether the parent will welcome my involvement in this area.

I was not comfortable disciplining a child when I was a younger teacher, however, I have learned over the years that I have to be on top of this issue in order to maintain an effective teaching situation in private and group lessons. For this reason, I recommend that teachers spend time in their professional development learning how to be good in this area. You will need the knowledge and skills to keep students in line, to solve behavior problems during lessons and group classes, and to help guide parents to solve problems in the home. Believe me, there are many parents out there who will look to you for major guidance and help in this area. Just because we as teachers might not have children (as in my case), the parents are faced with new situations themselves and will welcome any advice we can offer.

I find it particularly useful to use the studio as as "training ground" for certain social skills. For example, I have a container full of Dum-Dum lollipops, and students may choose one after a "good" lesson. I have certain rules, however, that govern whether a student is "eligible" to get a lollipop.

First, a student must actually have a lesson. Ha ha, that sounds funny, but there are times when a student is having a "million dollar lesson" day, and the student really doesn't have the lesson because we are having another sort of "lesson" concerning behavior.

Second, depending on the parent's values (and I haven't met a parent yet that didn't have this value), the child must ask for the lollipop appropriately. "May (can I) have a lollipop, please?" For really little kids, "please" or some semblance of "Pweeze" will do. The magic word is "please" or some semblance of it.

The second step is excruciating for the parent and teacher because, believe it or not, the child will often balk at having to say "please." Maybe it is just a comment on the human condition in general, but more often than not, the student will opt to enter a power struggle at this point. They will button their lips closed in a tight line, shake their heads (or their fists in the air), and absolutely refuse to say the magic word. Recently at a lesson, the not-quite-two-year-old sibling was faced with the choice of "asking" for the lollipop by saying please. For about three minutes, the mom and two younger sisters kept cajoling the little brother to say "please." A lot of gyrations and wheedling went on. Finally I shushed everyone and asked the definitive question: "does anyone here think that 'Marcos' [fictitious] does not understand what he is to do?" Everyone agreed that Marcos was very clear on what he was to do. He just was not doing it. I told his sisters and mother to put the lollipop back unopened. If the lollipop had been opened already, I would have thrown it in the trash can while the child watched. What do you want to bet that this child will say "please" at the next lesson?

The third step, once the student has said the magic word, is that the student must remember to say "thank you" within an appropriate amount of time. If the student does not remember to express gratitude in a reasonable amount of time, I will take the lollipop back, even if that means that I will throw the sucker in the trash can. I do not want to foster the attitude in children that they are entitled to things without having to express gratitude and appreciation in return.

This rule may seem harsh, but it works like a charm in my studio. I have seen students remind each other of the proper behavior. This peer pressure is even more effective than something from a parent or teacher.

This is just one example of a rule in my studio. I subscribe to the Cesar Milan "Dog Whisperer" philosophy of raising dogs: provide them with rules, boundaries, and limitations. Not that my students are comparable to dogs. Still, we all benefit from the discipline and knowledge gained from dealing with rules, boundaries, and limitations, especially me. And in the process, the parent and I learn even more about the student's personality and what future problems we might encounter.

I'd like to recommend several sources as a starting point to developing a teacher's training skills to run the studio in a constructive way:

  • 'Have a New Kid by Friday" by Kevin Leman
  • "The Essential 55" by Ron Clark (also a movie called "The Ron Clark Story" starring Matthew Perry)

There are several training "areas" in my studio:

  • the lobby area has a different color carpet and siblings are not allowed into the blue carpet teaching area until after the lesson is over; siblings or other students must remain in the brown carpeted area until their lesson begins. This rule is great for siblings. They must stay in the "waiting area" until the lesson is over, which frees the mom up to take notes and pay attention to the lesson. The siblings learn to stay in a certain area (impulse control).
  • the lollipop routine: I have discussed how we set up students and younger siblings to ask for something and to express gratitude within an appropriate amount of time.
My most favorite lesson recently was a young boy with a new violin. He wanted to be "first" in the lesson before his sister, but he took so long to get his act together, that I was convinced that he had another agenda. Knowing the little boy as well as I do, I figured his agenda was still in the area of testing me and also in his need to control everything and everyone in his world. I waited a reasonably short amount of time for him to get ready for his lesson (violin out of the case, shoulder rest put on, bow wound up and rosined, and everything laying on the teaching table awaiting tuning), then I announced that I would start the lesson with his sister. The "teachable moment" happened seconds later when he asked "why." I explained that he was taking too long, and we were losing valuable teaching time. During his lesson time, we discussed the matter in greater depth. I mentioned that his mom could even help him to think about this on the way to his lesson next time, so that he would remember what he needed to do to be "ready" to start his lesson.

Today was the "next time," and this little boy raced into the lesson (early, while I was still teaching someone else), had his violin whipped out and everything ready to go, and was sitting on the couch waiting until the lesson before his had finished, while his little legs were swinging back and forth with impatience. Now that was a great lesson!

I encourage you to take the bigger view of what being a teacher is all about. Do not just teach the violin and how to play it. Instead, be a teacher and teach about the bigger life issues!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Going Out of Town

I have been blessed with a wonderful performance opportunity this summer. I will be in Rome for 3.5 weeks performing with the Rome festival orchestra. Not only will I be a member of the symphonic, ballet, and opera orchestras, I will also be performing Schubert's Trout Quintet and serving as a rehearsal pianist for the opera chorus and several vocal master classes and chamber performances. I am very excited to be returning to Rome, which is a beautiful city. What a wonderful opportunity!

I am not sure what Internet access I will have. Sometimes the hotels have Internet access and sometimes I have to visit an Internet "cafe." It may take me a few days until I figure this all out. So bear with me, because I want to continue posting at least three times a week if not more.

Quick Practice Tip: Using the Fourth Finger

I like to teach my students how to use the fourth finger as soon as I can under the belief system that "it's just as easy to use the fourth finger as it is to use the other fingers." I find that if I do not make a big deal out of something, then the students will approach the new concept with little trepidation. The students will respond as if it is just another thing that we do.

In earlier posts about starting a beginner, I have mentioned the left hand pizzicato exercise as a way to get all fingers involved in the learning process from the beginning. I do not, however, introduce the use of the fourth finger formally until Perpetual Motion (song #9 in Suzuki Violin Volume 1). Although I have introduced the fourth finger in the very beginning, and the student and I have practiced using it, I formally include it later at the half way point of book 1, beginning with the fourth finger previews in Perpetual Motion in measures 2, 4, 10, 12, 14, and 16, and in subsequent songs in book 1 and thereafter. Sometimes a student will voluntarily go back to earlier songs in book 1 and add the fourth finger. I think that is great, and I encourage it.

My main reason for waiting to introduce the fourth finger formally in book 1 is that it gives me half of the book to teach the student how to cross carefully and correctly between the A and E strings. Another reason is that the student's playing the open strings leads to a strong development of warm, clear, and ringing tone. Later when we introduce the fourth finger "again," the student automatically strives to make the fourth finger sound as vibrant as the open E string.

Dr. Suzuki worked quite extensively on the development and progression of the Suzuki repertoire teaching materials. He carefully introduced certain fingering and bowing concepts at certain times after particular concepts had already been developed and mastered. I want to honor and respect his choices, because I have found from personal experience how wise Dr. Suzuki was in the formation of his method. The students learn to use the fourth finger very nicely later on in the Suzuki repertoire, so nothing is lost by waiting until Perpetual Motion. However, I do not advise waiting beyond this point.

As I progress through the Suzuki repertoire, there are many opportunities to introduce the concept of fingering choices and philosophy. I am mindful of when it is a good idea to introduce a particular fingering sequence to make it a habit for the student now for later use. I found that Perpetual Motion was a good place to build that fourth finger habit in the measures I indicated earlier.

The next piece, Allegretto, uses the fourth finger in a different way than Perpetual Motion, and it also introduces the idea of using the open string when going up to the next highest string. Andantino reinforces this idea with the different fingering for measures 1 and 3, for example. I definitely use the fourth finger options contained in the Minuets and thereafter because I believe that Dr. Suzuki was building the skill of extending the left hand, which continues from the mid-point of book one and throughout book 2.

I wrote a post earlier about the case for having a system for things. How one is to teach the usage of the fourth finger is just such a concept that a wise teacher will take the time to develop a system for teaching.

Happy Practicing!

Sunday, June 12, 2011


Congratulations to Elliott, who presented his Suzuki Violin book 4 graduation recital today. What was really fun was when he took me back to his room to hang up his new book 4 completion ribbon. As he was hanging the ribbon in his trophy/commemorative case, I noticed a few other items there. He had a few awards and statues, and I recognized them as awards that I had given for completing various practice challenges. Elliott had a 100 day practice challenge award and a one year award. It is no wonder then that Mr. Elliott had such a great recital today. Now he's on to book 5!

Monday Morning Check In: Believing the Big Dream

Today I want to talk about the big dream and how to get closer to it. First, let us discuss an interesting mental phenomenon we can all tap into.

Have you ever had one of those dreams that caused you to waken in a highly frightened state? Perhaps you were trying to scream or cry out, but your voice was paralyzed. You awoke and found your heart racing and your body tensed as if ready for a fight or flight, and yet there was nothing there. It was a dream. It was not real.

This is the beauty of it: your mind did not know the difference between reality and your dream. Let me say this again, because it is a powerful thing. Your mind did not know the difference between reality and your dream. Why is this powerful?

If your mind cannot tell the difference between reality and a dream, your mind will work to make your dream a reality. If you keep telling yourself that something is a particular way, then your mind will work to bring reality in line with what you are telling your mind.

Because of this phenomenon I am vigilant in avoiding negative statements. I do not want to create a negative state. If I find myself saying something negative, I immediately reframe what I have said into the form of a positive statement.

For example, do any of you have trouble remembering people’s names? How many of you also keep saying that you have trouble remembering names? I tested this out a while back. I have always had trouble remembering people’s names unless I see them written down or repeat them a few times.  I also went around telling everyone that I had trouble remembering names. And guess what? I had trouble remembering names. I kept saying that, so my mind kept making that my reality. Once I understood this phenomenon, I reframed what I said: “I used to have trouble remembering names, but I am remembering names really well now.” I started remembering names. "I used to have trouble doing pushups, but I'm getting stronger." I can do more pushups.

How many of you tell others that you are terrible at math or some other skill? How about trying to turn that around this week and reframing what you say into something that lines up with what you would rather be?

This brings me to my main thought today: the big dream. We have all heard the expression “I’ll believe it when I see it.” Dr. Wayne Dyer turns the words around: “You’ll see it when you believe it.” I’ve struggled with this idea for some time. When it comes to the big dream, whatever form that dream takes in terms of a particular goal of the moment, I find that I have to work to wrap my mind around the idea, and until I can successfully see my dream in my mind, then I have difficulty attaining it.

For example, I ran my first marathon (26.2 miles) several years ago, and then I started thinking about wanting to do fifty miles or maybe even a 100-mile event. I have since changed my mind about doing a 100-mile event, but I still have it in the back of my mind that I want to do 50 miles some day.  I just have a little trouble getting my mind around that distance, which is why I haven’t yet done 50 miles. I’m not mentally ready for it right now. I am going to have to work up to this in some way.

When I considered doing my first 50K (31 miles), I dallied with the idea for a few weeks, as I tried to make up my mind whether I should sign up for the event or not. I asked the advice of one of my former students, who was considering the Navy SEAL program at the time. His answer was succinct: “It’s just another five miles more than a marathon.” Of course, just five miles. I knew I could do a marathon, because I had done one several times before. Could I do another five miles on top of the marathon? Of course I could! I could walk or even crawl that distance in my sleep! That tiny comment from my student was all I needed to get my mind wrapped around the idea. I signed up and ran the event. When I ran the event the next year for the second time, I did even better than the first time, because then I had a mental picture in my head to guide me. My problem in the first place was that I was considering the total distance from the starting point. I only needed to consider the added distance I wanted to tack on, which was just five miles more than what I already knew how to do.

Do you have any dreams on hold right now that need some “believing” before you see them? Why not tackle one of those dreams now? What can you believe right now that will help you to get the results that you want?

Have a great week!

“Obstacles are those frightening things you see when you take your eye off the target.”
-- Curt Carlson of Carlson Companies

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Quick Teacher Tip: How to Digest a Song for Teaching Purposes

When I first began teaching, I found that introducing a new song could seem daunting. Over the years I have picked up a few ideas here and there, but my favorite solution to song analysis from a teacher's perspective comes from Marilyn O'Boyle. If you ever have a chance to take some teacher training from her, I highly recommend it. You will come up with a very thorough approach to teaching the book that you study under Marilyn.

Marilyn prepared charts for each song. I took her idea and drew up a chart with two big columns down half the page, followed by 2 large square rows. I labeled the left column "Left Hand Issues" and the right column "Bowing Issues." The next row I labeled "Previews and Teaching" and the last row "Later Problems."

Song Analysis Form

When I analyze a song with this form, I have a complete picture of what the song involves and a good idea of how I need to present things. The last row is something that gets completed with teaching experience, and I'm willing to provide information for any song that someone wants. Just leave me a comment.

Question for my Readers

I have a question for my readers. Please comment and let me know what book you or song you want me to discuss in the blog. It could be a general idea, such as "what is book 6 about?" Or it could be a specific problem with a song, such as "how do I teach Minuet 2?" Or, "what are the teaching points of Becker's Gavotte?" Please let me know what interests you right now. Perhaps I can turn my answers into quick practice tips.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Quick Practice Tip: 2 to 1!

When demonstrating a new skill, it's a good idea to follow the rule of thumb: demonstrate it two times, then let the student play it once. If you follow this general pattern of always playing it for the student (or helping the student to play it) two times for every one time the student performs it without assistance, then there is a greater possibility that the student will learn it correctly and quickly. So remember: show it two times, let them try it once. Then repeat.

Speaking of "showing" a student, I want to pass on another great tip I learned from watching Marilyn O'Boyle teach at a Suzuki Institute. When she taught a child a new song, such as "Flower Song," she did not tell the student how to play it. In fact she really didn't say much of anything about what notes or fingers to play. She just played the song slowly with great exaggerated motions so that the student couldn't miss her placement of the bow on a particular string or her use of a finger.

I've carried that forward just a little bit by asking questions. I'm a big believer in the use of open-ended questions. This probably comes from my legal training, my familiarity with the Socratic Method, and my mediation training. Anyway, I play Flower Song twice, a la O'Boyle, and then I ask the student a few questions to see what a good watcher they were. While I played, of course, I was giving as many visual cues as I could.

  • What string did my bow start on?
  • What string did my bow finish on?
  • Did I use any of my left fingers? Is so, which one?

Then I play it again. At that point, the student is hopping up and down with eagerness to try it.

"Flower Song" is the first concrete step to learning Variation A of the Twinkle Variations. The song is comprised of the second, third, and fourth notes of the Twinkle Variation followed by the bow movement back to the A string, which happens in the fifth note of the Twinkle Variation. Having said how "Flower Song" is related to Twinkle, I still find that my students won't make that connection even when I spell it out for them. By learning "Flower Song," my students become accustomed to the feeling of the proper muscle movements needed to play the Twinkle Variations.

The next step to learning Variation A is learning "Monkey Song" (http://teachsuzuki.blogspot.com/2011/03/steps-to-twinkle-putting-it-all.html). I play this in the same style as Marilyn O'Boyle -- play two exaggerated times. Here are my subsequent questions:

  • What string did my bow and fingers play on?
  • Was there any finger who did not get to play?
Remember the left hand pizzicato exercise? This exercise was designed to get the student accustomed to how the fingers will play "Monkey Song."

Happy Practicing!

It's Showtime!

i thought you would enjoy seeing a few videos of one of my three year old students as she plays "Squeaky Mouse" and the left hand pizzicato exercise.

The "Squeaky Mouse" song is a song that developed by accident. A teacher must always be prepared to pounce on a new idea the minute it rears its head. In this case one of my former three year old students was struggling with "Flower Song," and she inadvertently let the bow slip off the track. The bow veered behind the bridge, made a horrible pipsqueak, and thus was the new "Squeaky Mouse" song born!

The words are quite simple: "Little Mice are Squeaky" repeated four times, and the notes alternate between the E string and F# (1st finger on E string). At the end of those four notes, the student puts the bow behind the bridge and plays a nasty squeaky sound.

The kids love this, and I enjoy setting it up as something fun to do because it will "annoy" and drive the child's parents crazy. All good fun! Here is one of my current three year old students playing "Squeaky Mouse" for you. This video gives you a good idea of how much interaction the teacher or the parent has with the child at this stage. This student has been playing this song for about 2 weeks now.

In a previous post, I described how I set up a child's left hand posture. One of the preliminary exercises I use is the left hand pizzicato. Here is the same three year old student performing this exercise. She had been doing this about 2 days when I took the video. I am not shushing her when she giggles; I'm actually saying "whoosh" as I whoosh each finger up after playing.

And finally, my 5 year old student Pajia wanted to show you how she gets her bow hold ready. Pajia is just beginning to learn "O Come Little Children." We noticed that her bow hold was starting to slip a little bit, so she started getting her bow hold ready very carefully without her violin. She places the bow on her shoulder and then very slowly and precisely sets all her fingers where they belong. Here is our little video of this process. It was tricky for me to film this and hold onto her violin at the same time.

I thought you would enjoy these next videos because of the cuteness factor. The little 3 year old girl is just the cutest, and her 5 year old brother was so excited about having his very first lesson on a real violin that he couldn't stand still. Enjoy.


I AM SO EXCITED (but trying to look cool)!

In this next video, we had been talking about the recent Artisan Quartet concert, which was the second concert in its Beethoven cycle. The Artisan had performed an all-Beethoven program, including the Grosse Fuge. When my little student heard us talking about Beethoven, that got her talking about her favorite symphony, composer, and song. She needed a little prompting to repeat her words for the video.

What? Ode to Joy? Not the Grosse Fuge?

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Scale Cards on the Studio Wall

Some sweet person wrote a comment asking me to put up a picture of the scale cards on my studio wall. I am so sorry that I've taken this long to answer you. I just kept forgetting to take the picture. But here are the cards. As you can see, it's quite simple. Office Depot sells these half-size colored index cards.

scale cards

A string cards
E string cards

Johnny Can't Read

In the past Suzuki teachers have been so excited about the possibilities revealed by the Suzuki Method and its emphasis on aural learning, that we have many times failed to adequately address the issue of reading. I have seen the results of this in university summer strings camps and other youth orchestra programs. Students do not read as well in many cases as they might if raised in a more "traditional" fashion.

As a teacher I have also learned that there are several windows of opportunity for learning good reading skills that might get lost or become harder to learn if left until a later time to learn. Too often I have worked with a student that comes from another teacher who does not emphasize good reading skills in the student's learning program, and I have had to monitor the student's learning to read very closely to be sure that the student is actually reading and not instantly playing by ear.

For these reasons, I introduce reading very early. There are some teachers who use the rule of 5 to determine when a student is "reading ready," as they call it. This rule basically states that if a child's Suzuki book level and school grade level add up to 5, then it's time to introduce reading. That means a child in first grade in book 4 should be learning to read, or a child in 2nd grade in book 3.

I think that when a student is in book 3 or book 4, that it is too late to introduce the reading concept. I also find it to be a really, really difficult burden to place on the home practicing parent's shoulders to learn a new piece in these later books without the student being able to read. I find that what happens in these cases is that the student learns the new piece by listening alone, which just reinforces the listening skill and does nothing to improve the reading skill. Students just continue on this path of learning to play everything by ear and never quite get off the playing-by-ear carousel. I cannot even play along with some of these exceptional "listening" (non-reading) students because they almost "hear" what I'm going to play when my finger goes down. I have one particular student that I have play something for me every week that can only be played by reading. There are no recordings of it, and I do not play the piece for the student. Gradually this student has progressed to the point that his reading is much more on par with his ability to play by ear.

I want my students to play with good reading skills and not by listening alone. Good listening skills and the ability to play by ear are additional technical skills in the overall arsenal of good technical musical skills, but one skill should not be given precedence over all the others. Just as I work to improve all possible learning styles in my students, I also strive to teach the student to be well-rounded in all technical skills required to be a good musician.

Listening skills are very important, but I cannot do my job as a professional symphony and chamber musician by learning my repertoire by ear alone. For example, I just received a list of the repertoire that I am to have prepared in the next 10 days, which includes a full staged opera, several opera suites, several symphonies, Rosenkavalier Waltzes (R. Strauss), and the Trout Quintet (Schubert). That's an example of the type of literature I must know in the next 10 days ON THE VIOLIN. I must also be prepared to serve as a pianist for vocal master classes, vocal chamber music, and opera choral rehearsals. The good news is that I will be doing all of this fun stuff in Rome, Italy!. The other good news is that I have excellent reading skills. How I got those skills is a topic for another time, although there is an article that I wrote about it for the Journal of the Suzuki Association of the Americas. I forget what year the SAA published the article; maybe it was a decade ago.

I have fortunately played just about everything on the repertoire list before, sometimes several times, but the task would have been daunting if I had had to rely on learning my repertoire by listening to a recording alone. Instead, I listen and read at the same time. The listening helps me to determine what phrasing, bowings, and fingerings I might use. I check my rhythm and musical expression, and I enjoy playing with recordings on occasion. Listening also helps me to memorize my repertoire very quickly too. I still use my reading skill at the same time, as I ferret out the composer's written details in the music and study the score to determine how my part fits within the entire musical whole of the composition.

So I answer the question about when to teach reading: at the end of book 1 or beginning of book 2, no matter the age of the child. Now, I do adjust the materials I use to teach reading depending on the child's age. Some students just have a hard time with reading in general. I thought I read somewhere that our eye muscles are not fully developed until age 9, so that could explain it. I have no idea where I read this idea, but in practice I have found it to be true in some cases.

 fermata signs, staccato marks, up-up bowing marks, slurs, sharp signs) and to discuss the form of various songs. Even little children are able to compare two different parts of a song and tell me whether the music on the page looks the same between the two parts or different.

Many times we save the reading activities for group classes. The kids enjoy doing reading games. We have card games we use and flashcards, and each child has a little music paper notebook for practice in drawing various notes and musical symbols or clefs.

Oh, in case anyone is interested, my personal opinion is that learning to read is part of learning music theory. I also think that proficiency in understanding music theory is a very important skill to master as well. And, I ask my students to learn both treble and bass clefs. In some cases, my students also learn alto clef so that they can experiment with the viola.

I welcome other teacher's and parent's comments on this topic. How has the reading issue worked in your particular situation?

Monday, June 6, 2011

Monday Morning Check In: Watch Your Attitude!

Good morning, and welcome to the start of another work week. For some of us it is also the first week of summer, as school is no longer in session. As we begin the summer season, I thought it might be a good time to do some reflection about the next teaching season. The first topic I wanted to bring up is "attitude."

It took me many years to learn the lesson that our attitude is largely in our personal control. The fancy term for this is locus of control. If we have an external locus of control, that means that we allow our attitude to be dictated or controlled by circumstances outside of ourselves. If we have an internal locus of control, that means that we choose our attitude and therefore control the emotions we experience.

Sounds simple, right? This is an on-going project for me, but it has become easier to do as I've grown older. I am ever vigilant, however, about what my attitude is and what thoughts I am running through my head that lead to the attitude. I work to be aware of my self talk every minute of the day so that my attitude reflects what I am thinking.

We amuse ourselves with the riddle of which came first, the chicken or the egg. Here too is the same sort of dilemma: which came first, the thought or the emotion? It may be unclear, but everything is connected. I just work to control what I can. That means I control my thoughts. If I catch myself expressing or experiencing a bad attitude about something, I work to eliminate whatever thought I am focusing on and then substitute a more positive thought in place of the negative one. In other words, I work to fill up my head and my heart with as much of the good stuff as I can. Sometimes I have to hang around with different people and enter into different conversations to keep from perpetuating the negative thoughts. This is not always easy to do in a work situation, but I do what I can to disassociate from negativity wherever I find it. Criticism builds distance in a relationship, so I try to avoid criticism as well.

There is a scripture verse that sums this up in the best possible way in my opinion: "Whatever is in your heart determines what you say." Luke 6:45b (NLT). If my heart is filled with unpleasant thoughts about something or someone, then it is likely that these thoughts will manifest themselves with a spillover out of my mouth in some unpleasant way. Therefore, it is crucial for me to be aware of what I treasure in my heart. I work to keep my heart filled with good feelings and my mind with good thoughts. Then if anything leaks out, I am confident that it will most likely be something good.

This week, try listening to what thoughts you are whirling around in your head and what treasures you are storing in your heart. If you do not like what you find, work to substitute or change it.

Reminder: we are in the second week of the June Practice Challenge. We are playing our Twinkles through every day. Last week I focused on playing my Twinkles in the square of my bow arm and with good coordination between the left hand notes and the bow strokes, and I focused on keeping my bow straight. As an adult, I also focused on whether my back and other unneeded muscles were soft and relaxed. It was a useful exercise. This week, I am going to practice my Twinkles with bigger bows, as I am an advanced student. For those students in book 4 and above, try playing the Twinkles with reversed bowing. If the variation starts with a down bow, try starting the variation with an up bow instead. Keep the sound exactly as it was when the variation started down bow.

Happy practicing and Keep up the Good Attitude!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Steps to Putting the Violin on the Shoulder

Rest Position
One of the most difficult things for a beginning violin student to learn is how to take the violin from rest position (violin tucked under the right arm) to playing position (violin placed on the left shoulder). I approach this skill in two stages:

In the first stage, I ask the home practicing partner to place the violin on the student's shoulder. I ask the parent to do this so that the student learns how it feels to have the violin in the correct place.

Another way to reinforce this feeling is to place a small bean bag on the child's left shoulder. This is the place that the violin will rest, and the feeling of the bean bag is very similar to how it will feel to have a violin placed there.

In the second stage, I teach the child a set of ritualized steps to follow in order to place the violin on the shoulder. I use these steps as a reminder to the home practicing partner and the student as to the things to remember about setting up correct posture. Here are the steps that begin from rest position (with bow hold already in place):

(1) Zip-step with the feet

(2) Scoop left hand under the violin (and put thumb on sticker on underside of violin) and grab around the violin shoulder to hold the violin body and strings

(3) Pull the violin out and hold it up like the Statue of Liberty

(4) Turn the violin upside down and then place the violin on the left shoulder (all of the shoulder should be covered by the violin)

(5) Check bow hold one last time

I have my students hold the bow with the correct bow hold while they are in rest position. I do this to save time and to avoid the issue of holding the violin while making a bow hold, which is when students sometimes slip in their violin posture.

"Zip-step" is when the toes turn outward to allow the feet to form a vee, and then the student takes a step (doesn't matter which foot) to widen the stance to about shoulder width. I do not subscribe to the former Suzuki recommendation that the left foot be placed forward. I find that such a stance is unbalanced, and that it leads to teenagers standing improperly with their right hip jutted out like a bad attitude. Instead, I ask that the feet be placed in a naturally balanced position, as they would be if we were to jump up and down several times.

Teen Hip "Attitude"

To test the student's placement of the feet, we play the "push and pull" game. If the student's feet are too narrow, then I can push or pull them over sideways. If the feet are too wide apart, then I can push or pull them over forwards or backwards. The kids think this is a fun game! For younger students, we pretend that the student is a tree in the middle of a storm being buffeted by wind.

thumb spot
grab strings
I place a sticker on the violin "thumb spot," which is the place on the back of the violin where the neck joins the violin body. I ask my students to place their thumb on the sticker and to wrap their fingers around the body of the instrument so that they catch hold of the violin by the strings. I do this because it actually helps the student to feel completely comfortable about getting the violin all the way up on the "high" shoulder. If students just grab the neck of the violin, they will not be able to get the violin twisted around enough without going through some contortions. Most students will not do this, and as a result the violin will not be placed high enough on the shoulder. By grabbing the violin lower around the body and strings, the student is able to pull the violin all the way up and onto the shoulder.

Statue of Liberty
The Statue of Liberty stance is to help the student to stretch themselves tall. I try to do as many things as I can to help young students learn how to stand tall. Turning the violin upside down and placing it on the shoulder is the next step. All this activity on the left side of the student is meant to draw the student's attention to the left, so that the student will turn his or her head.

After the Statue of Liberty, the student swings the violin up onto the shoulder.

The last bow hold check is to be sure that nothing has slipped.

Having a set of numbered steps is useful for a group situation. It looks very nice when the entire group is getting ready to play in the same manner. By following my above list of steps, I am sure that my students will correctly place their violins into playing position posture with the best chance of success.

To summarize the five steps:

(1) Zip-Step
(2) Thumb Spot
(3) Statue of Liberty
(4) Violin on Shoulder
(5) Bow Hold Check

Quick Practice Tip: Finger Patterns in Suzuki Violin Volumes 1 and 2

Several folks have asked about the finger patterns used in the first Suzuki books. Here are the ones that I have hanging on my studio wall. I assigned a color to each of the patterns just for reference. The notes I have listed here are the notes of the finger pattern as it applies to the A string. The song in parenthesis is where I first noticed the pattern.

Suzuki Volume 1:

  • Red: A-B-C#-D-E, 2nd and 3rd fingers are a half step apart (Twinkle)
  • Blue: A-B-C-D-E, 1st and 2nd fingers are a half step apart (Etude)
  • Yellow: A-B-C#-D#-E, 3rd and 4th fingers are a half step apart (Minuet 2)

Suzuki Volume 2:

  • Purple: A-Bb-C-D-E, no half steps (Two Grenadiers)
  • Pink: A-B-C-D-Eb, half steps between 1st and 2nd and 3rd and 4th fingers (Witches Dance)
  • Orange: A-Bb-C-D-Eb, 3rd and 4th fingers are a half step apart (Mignon Gavotte)
  • Green: A-Bb-C#-D-E, 2nd and 3rd fingers are a half step apart, wide space between 1st and 2nd fingers (Lully Gavotte)
  • Black: A-B-C-D#-E, 3rd and 4th fingers are a half step apart, wide space between 2nd and 3rd fingers (Minuet in G)

The revised Suzuki volumes now include these finger patterns. I use these finger patterns as a way to warm up. I play each pattern with a slur four times in one bow.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

June Practice Challenge Reminder

Welcome to June! Remember my practice challenge for this month was to practice the entire Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star Variations from Suzuki Violin Volume 1 every day for the entire month of June. For more information about the challenge and the study or teaching points to consider while practicing, visit my blog post of May 26, 2011.