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Sunday, July 31, 2011

Monday Morning Check In: Teacher Character Traits

Last week I introduced the subject of character and integrity as I thought it related to teaching. I spent the week thinking about the qualities of a teacher, both bad and good, and I would like to share my lists with you.

We can approach the defining of something in one of two ways. We can describe something in terms of what it is, and we can flesh out the other part by describing something in terms of what it is not. I struggled at first when I began compiling my list of teacher character traits because I wanted to frame every description in a positive manner. The truth is, however, that there are many negative teacher character traits as well as positive ones. In the end I made both lists. Please leave me a comment with your own contributions. We all have much we can learn from each other, so feel free to share your own opinions in the comment box that follows this blog post.

Here is my list of negative teacher traits:

  • arrogant
  • know-it-all
  • only the teacher's opinion is right or matters
  • proud
  • stubborn
  • inflexible
  • unreasonably strict
  • does not admit when they do not know something
  • does not acknowledge personal mistakes, but pretends otherwise
  • dishonest (not open and frank about problems)
  • dull, uncreative
  • expresses improper emotions
  • moody or grumpy
  • emotionally unstable
  • angry
  • complaining
  • critical without constructive suggestions
  • plays favorites
  • talks too much or interrupts
  • does not listen
  • slovenly appearance
  • undisciplined
  • unprepared
  • unorganized
  • disrespectful of the student or parent
  • disrespectful of the lesson time
  • sloppy practice habits
  • does not keep up with professional standards
  • does not model good performance or posture

Here is my list of positive teacher traits:

  • mindful of time
  • considerate of the next student's time and not holding over unreasonably
  • considerate of the start time of lessons, not tardy
  • patient
  • compassionate
  • respectful
  • cheerful, joyful, smiling
  • creative and interesting
  • encouraging
  • supportive
  • energetic
  • interesting
  • available, approachable
  • technologically savvy
  • can relate to students in the students' current techno language or media
  • high expectations, expects the best from students
  • has ability and willingness to picture what a student can ultimately do
  • inspiring
  • makes the student feel important
  • makes personal connections
  • interested in the student as a person outside of the learning environment
  • sense of humor
  • knowledgeable and passionate about the subject matter
  • good listener
  • organized
  • interacts with the students
  • good role model
  • disciplined
  • self-motivated
  • confident
  • problem solver
  • fair
  • prepared
  • high expectations
  • compassionate
  • good student and learner; always open to improvement

Ouch! These are very difficult lists, aren't they? Making these lists caused me to think long and hard about my own style of teaching and whether I need a "tune-up" in my attitude and teaching method. This is the time of year when I finally take a few days off alone on the coast of Oregon. I spend time thinking about the coming year, what goals I have, what areas I need to improve, and what my next game plan will be to put all of my thoughts into positive action.

In future discussions, I want to visit the issue of how to begin a new teaching season in a way that will bring success. My posts last week and today are designed to get us in the mode of thinking that is necessary before making any changes for the coming season.

Remember to leave me a comment about your own additions to the list of positive (and negative) teacher character traits.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Quick Practice Tip: Summer Doldrums

I have been teaching in my studio this past week now that I am back in the United States and finished teaching at strings camp. The students I have seen for the most part have done great. There is, however, a discrepancy between our usual practice return during the school year and what happens during the summer months. I chalk it up to the summer doldrums.

My students and I cannot blame the doldrums entirely for any lack of practice time, however, because life does get in the way on occasion. There are unavoidable health issues that come up or family emergencies. Even the family vacation time or other special occasion may block the regular practice routine. And I'll be one of the first to wholeheartedly agree that we need a well-timed mental and physical break now and then. I'm all for mental health days, as I call them.

My quick practice tip for the summer doldrums is to: review, renew, and recommit.


The word review can stand for several things. It can be used in the context of reviewing the student's musical goals. The word can also mean the review of the previously learned Suzuki repertoire. For example, right now I have three students in my studio who are reviewing their current books in anticipation of an early fall graduation recital.


I ask my students and their parents to renew their commitment to the practice routine and, in some cases, to lessons and the instrument. I may spend several weeks communicating with a parent both in writing and verbally. Renew can also refer to the student's interest in the violin. If the student's interest has lessened somewhat, the summer might be a good time to review interest in music in general. Perhaps the student would enjoy playing new songs in another style, such as fiddling or movie music. Nowadays, there are so many music books that relate to current movies and that have accompanying Cd's.


I ask my students to recommit to a regular practice schedule and to whatever goals the student and his or her family have set. Sometimes just the act of saying the recommitment aloud will be enough to rally things back to a good beginning and renewal point.

Along with the above suggestions, do not forget how well students respond to structure and routine, so be sure to find ways to use a chart or calendar creatively.

Happy practicing!

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Problem of Pocket Fingers

Ever have a problem with a student's left hand hanging down too low when they are playing on the E string? As a young teacher, I encountered this problem repeatedly, especially at the end of book 1 and throughout book 2. It was difficult to correct too. I just knew that the left hand should be mostly on the right side of the fingerboard with the thumb on the left side, as the student held the instrument. However, I noticed that many of my students would hold the instrument in such a way that their left hands would be straddling the fingerboard on both sides. It got to the point that I dreaded the appearance of the "basement left hand" disease. Then I learned about "pocket fingers," and I was able to stop the problem before it began.

Drifting Over to the Dark Side

First, it is helpful to understand why students drift to the "dark" side of the fingerboard -- the underside. To understand it, think about how the bow plays the various string levels. Technically, there are seven levels of string crossings, but for a beginning student who does not yet play double stops, there are basically four bowing levels to match the four strings: G - D - A - E. As the student plays each of the string levels starting with the lowest string G and dropping to the highest level E, the student's right arm drops lower with each successive string. It is understandable that a student would try to match the movements of his or her left side with the movements on the right side.

As an example, think about how a student plays "Song of the Wind," the third song in violin book 1. In the third measure, the student plays a sequence of third fingers across the A and E strings. When I teach this fingering pattern, I am vigilant about watching that the student actually lifts the third finger and jumps from one string to the other to play the perfect fifth interval. Of course, as a professional player, I cover both notes on both strings, but a young beginner is not able to do that until later, maybe even as late as book 5 or 6. I believe that Dr. Suzuki's purpose in this fingering sequence skill was to prevent the student from falling prey to the bow's siren call of matching the drop to the E string. I prefer to instill in my students the feeling that the A and E string left hand finger levels are the same and that the student should continue to hold the left hand up high to play properly on the E string.

To this end I teach the Song of the Wind finger sequence as a "jumping finger," and I instruct the home practice partner to be careful to watch that the student practices the finger jump from the A to the E string and does not try to shortcut the jump by "laying down" the finger across the strings instead. For an adult or older student who is working to strengthen the correct left hand position, I can explain a little bit more. I sometimes trace a marker line at the base of the left hand pinkie along the "lifeline." I ask that students hold this marker line at the same level of the E string when playing on the E string. Another visual-physical tool I use is the curved left hand pinkie. I insist that my students always use the pinkie in the curved position, because I notice that when the left pinkie is curved, then the left hand position is correct as well.

Trying to See the Fingers

A second explanation for the falling left hand is our need to "see" what we are doing. Many students are visual, and those who are not still have a similar issue. We want to see our fingers as we put them down on the fingerboard, and in the beginning we teachers have probably reinforced this need by the use of external visual aids, such as fingerboard tapes or faces drawn on fingertips. Unfortunately, there are times when we cannot really "see" the fingers as we play them. I call these "pocket fingers."

Look at one of your hands. You can see all of your fingers. Now place that same hand inside a pocket of your clothing. You no longer can see the hand, but the hand has not disappeared. The hand is still there; it's just invisible because it is hidden by your pocket. I explain and train my students to be aware of the strong pull to the "dark side" by "pocket fingers" and to be ever vigilant about using the pocket and resisting the urge to "see" the finger at the same tine.

One of the earliest songs that allow me to introduce the pocket finger concept is Minuet 2 in book 1. The first four note sequence brings forth two possible problems, if not in the beginning when first learning the piece, then possibly at a later time as the student becomes more proficient at playing the notes. The bow plays on these string levels to play the first four notes: D - A - A - E. At the same time, the student tries to drop the left hand to follow the same path that the bow arm takes for two reasons: (1) to follow the bow's drop to the E string level, and (2) to "see" the second finger G natural.

I ask the student to hold the third finger note D (the third note of the song) down while playing the fourth note G natural with the second finger. Holding the third finger note down before playing the second finger G natural allows the student to place the second finger into the "pocket" on the E string (behind the left ring finger) and keeps the left hand up in the proper E string position over the fingerboard.

Another later song that has a similar reinforcing concept is "The Two Grenadiers" in book 2 in measure 1. In this case the pocket finger is the lowered first finger note F natural on the E string. I ask my students to hold the third finger on the note D on beat 1 and 2 of the song's first measure while the student drops the bow to play the E string and F natural on the E string. Otherwise, the student will likely succumb to dropping the left hand down to play this note when the bow drops to play on the E string level.

There are many similar places where pocket fingers can be used. Whenever I see a student trying to drop the left hand to an inappropriate E string position, I investigate whether there was a pocket finger opportunity that I might have missed.

Other Tools

Other tools I use to encourage good left hand position include:

  • Pinkie Twinkle: holding the left pinkie in a curved position on the D string while the student plays Twinkle Theme on the A and E strings.
  • Pinkie Power: using the left pinkie to do left hand pizzicato on all open A and E strings in Twinkle Theme and Lully Gavotte in book 2.
  • Sevcik Fun: making up combinations of finger exercises that are related to the particular passage we are working on.
  • Suzuki Review: assigning certain passages from the Suzuki Repertoire that will encourage extra reminders of proper left hand position and curved pinkie, such as Song of the Wind and Allegretto (book 1), Waltz and Grenadiers (book 2), Bach's Bourree (#7 in book 3), Bach's Gavotte (#6 in book 3), and the E major section of Seitz concerto # 5, 1st movement (# 2 in book 4).
Sagging left hand position is one of the problems I encounter most often in students, especially students who do not have a private teacher. The correct hand position is crucial for good finger strength and therefore good tone (getting the bones involved rather than just the finger pads), for adroitness and quickness, for ease of vibrato, for good muscle memory and spatial intervals between fingers, and ultimately for good intonation. Keep those pinkies curved!

Happy teaching!

Monday Morning Check In: Character

When we think about people in general, we think in terms of whether we like or dislike someone. What makes us think positively or negatively about someone? I think much of our opinions about someone stem from our beliefs about the person's character. I believe that what a person's character is will be vitally important to how successful the person can be.

H. Jackson Brown, Jr. is credited as the author of the quote: “Our character is what we do when we think no one is looking.” If we find money in the street, and no one is around, what will we do with it? If we find trash on the floor in an empty hallway, what will we do with it? If we pass by a grocery cart that is left somewhere other than the cart corral, what will we do with it? How you would answer these questions will give you insight into your character -- what you would do if no one was looking.

Character can be defined broadly, such as being those features and traits that distinguish an individual from another. Or, character can be defined as "[t]he mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual," as stated by dictionary.com. Does it matter what our character is? Maybe not for some, but for teachers, I believe that what our character is will be absolutely crucial to our success. Parents entrust their most prized possession, their child, into our care and under our influence and tutelage. I believe that parents care immensely about the type of character that we embody.

Many times we often see or hear the word "integrity" associated with character. Integrity is defined by dictionary.com as "[t]he quality of being honest and having strong moral principles." However, the part of the definition of integrity that intrigues me the most is "[t]he state of being whole and undivided." It is this sense of wholeness and completeness that truly gives substance to the word integrity as it relates to character. But, more about this subject in coming weeks.

For this week, take a few moments to reflect on what you want your character to be and in what areas you think you should strive to improve. I started my thoughts by making a list of positive and negative traits of teachers. I took a piece of paper and folded it in half to form two columns. I labeled the left column with a negative sign and the right column with a plus sign. Then I started listing character traits, flaws and strengths, in the appropriate column as I thought of them. I plan to spend this week completing this list by considering teachers I knew and what qualities about them that I liked or disliked. I am certain that there are several qualities that I myself possess that will show up on one side or the other of my ledger.

For this week I will form no opinions or judgments. I will just reflect, consider, and record my thoughts about character traits, good and bad, that I have experienced or observed in myself and other teachers. I want to visit this topic over the course of several weeks in order to develop a plan to strengthen our character in positive ways and with an eye towards that elusive quality known as integrity.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Quick Practice Tip: Warming Up is Hard to Do

I have never enjoyed warming up. I understand the reasons why warming up is a good thing, but in general, I have never been very good at it. Even when I exercise, whether weight training or running, I tend to move right to the good stuff rather than start slow with stretching or slow movement.

Warming Up for a Recital

When I am preparing for a recital, I find it useful to "warm up" on the very first piece that I intend to play on the recital, at least the first half page. That is because in my experience I feel "cold" when I begin a recital, no matter how much I have warmed up before the recital. Despite this cold feeling I am confident anyway, because I have practiced performing this part of the recital from a "cold" start. Nothing unsettles me psychologically about the "cold" start anymore because I have prepared myself to perform well under these conditions.

Also, when I am playing regularly, I seldom actually go "cold" in the first place. My memory and physical state stay ready. The most that I have to do is use some hand lotion to lubricate my dry skin. Otherwise, I am pretty much ready to go.

Warming Up for Practice in General

Still, I understand that there is a value to routine, and so I continue to construct a warm up routine that will suit my lifestyle of the moment. At this moment, I have little free time because I am teaching at a strings camp in a neighboring town over an hour away. So what warm up or practice time I have is limited in time and scope. I need to pack a wallop in a short time. I have turned to Kreutzer to help me do this.

I have identified four of the earlier Kreutzer etudes, and I play them every day. You might select four different etudes to fulfill your needs, but the four I selected suit me perfectly for right now. I play through #5, 8, 10, and 12. Here are my reasons why.

#5 causes me to hold my left hand a little higher to accommodate the Eb finger patterns. My left hand is quite small (I should be playing a 7/8 size violin), and Eb is tiring unless I hold my hand a little steeper. I play this etude and focus on keeping my left hand high enough to keep a nice curved shape to my left pinkie. I might add one or two of the bowing variations suggested.

#8 causes my left hand to stretch to play the E and B major finger patterns contained in this etude. These finger patterns are huge reaches for me, so practicing this etude daily helps to keep my left hand limber and unfurled. I also add one or two of the bowing variations, but just playing through the etude is quite a chore by itself.

#10 is one of my favorites. I have always enjoyed this one since the day I first learned it. My teacher Helen Kwalwasser had me perform the etude at opposite ends of the bow. I would play a whole bow on the first eighth note and the next groups of 16th notes at the tip, and then play a whole bow on the next eighth note and play the 16th note grouping at the frog. This style encouraged me to play equally at opposite ends of the bow. I would be careful to make good contact points at the tip and to use the appropriate amount of finger motion at the frog. I would work to make my notes at the tip sound stronger and my notes at the frog match the volume of those at the tip (and vice versa). There are good opportunities to make thoughtful shifts as well.

#12 is a good exercise in shifting, intonation, arpeggios, and extended fingers in the higher positions. I have always found this etude to be a little tough, because it requires the extended reaches at the top end of the arpeggios. I can easily play this etude if I were to rewrite the fingerings to a more accommodating position for my small hand, but I find it useful to insist that I continue stretching my left hand at every appropriate opportunity, always being careful not to over do things and injure myself.

Every day I play through these four etudes. Even after a few days, I noticed a huge improvement in the ease of playing them. Maybe sometime down the road I will switch to four different etudes. There are occasional days when I do different Kreutzer etudes just to add variety, but generally, I like these four etudes. I hope to have them completely memorized so that I can draw on them at any moment.

What are your favorite warm up routines?

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Case for Having Parents in the Lesson

I recently read through someone's blog that mentioned their child's music lesson. It seemed that the parent was not actually in the lesson but was observing the lesson from a window between another room and the teaching area. I wanted to share my thoughts about that.

I am sure there are many different styles of teaching, but I would like to make the case for having a parent in the same room as the lesson. I want my parents there for several reasons:

to take notes: In the beginning, the parent takes notes for his or her own use at home and as reminders of the teacher's assignment. Later the student will rely on the parent's notes to remember what the lesson homework is. When in the midst of a lesson, students often forget what the teacher has requested.

to get clarity: If the parent is nearby, he or she can quickly ask a question for clarity. As a teacher, I can also quickly gauge whether the parent understands what I am saying.

to observe carefully: If the parent is nearby, he or she can easily see the attention to detail that I am giving in the lesson. A parent cannot see accurately what I am doing from 12 feet away! Some of my parents cannot even see what I am doing from two feet away! I need the parents near so that I can be sure the parent understands what I am doing and how I want things accomplished. (Many of my parents also read this blog to keep their memories refreshed as well).

to interact: I prefer that my parents not interact during the lesson except to ask questions for clarity. This means that I ask my parents not to make noises of any kind (no yawns, frustrated sighs, or helpful hints to the student). Removing the parent from the lesson will make this easier for the parent and for me, but having the parent in the same room is actually very enlightening to me, the teacher, about the sort of relationship the parent has with the student and the need the parent has to make an impression on me. Both of these types of observations help me a lot to devise ways of teaching the parent to be a better parent and to have a better parent-teacher relationship with the child.

A parent that needs to "help" their child by giving them helpful fingerings or translating my questions into their child's "language" is not helping the child at all. After all, the child needs to be able to answer questions no matter who asks them and no matter what form the question words take. It is arrogant on the parent's part to assume that they alone understand what the child is thinking or that the child needs to have help remembering something. Helping the child to remember something by reminding them is also not helping the child to strengthen their memory skills. It is the actual act of recalling that helps a child remember something over the long term. Sometimes little children need things repeated many, many times before they actually internalize the information. How many hours did the parent drive a car before it became easy to drive?

If a parent is truly doing a good job in the home practice (practicing daily, practicing accurately, letting the child learn rather than telling them what to do, and actually PRACTICING by accurate repetition of difficult spots or new skills more than just once or twice in a practice session), then the child will probably not need such helpful advice from the parent during the lesson. From these sorts of parent behaviors I am able to identify a parent who wants to look good in my eyes (but not necessarily by doing the assigned homework) or who wants to take the easy way out in practice sessions by telling the child what to do. Sometimes too such a parent is just naturally prone to be authoritative, and maybe even a little dictatorial in style. Some personalities find that style to be natural. I happen to be one of those choleric types, so I understand all too well the temptation to get involved in a lesson. When I went to institute and observed one of my students in a group class situation, I found it very difficult not to engage my student during the class, even though I knew that I should not interrupt the teacher's connecting focus with the class participants. When the institute teacher glanced at me during one of these trying moments, I knew I would either have to leave the class or sit on my hands and keep my mouth clamped shut. I chose to stay and focus on the teacher rather than my student.

to learn: I ask my parents to try out the same skills that I am teaching to their child. If the child is learning how to make good bow holds, then I ask the parent to make good bow holds (I find that the student comes to the next lesson with the same bow hold that the parent makes, so I make sure the parent can demonstrate the bow hold I want the student to come to the next lesson with). The child often enjoys having the parent be part of the process, at least in the beginning, and I find it useful to have the child help me to teach the parent. Remember the following proverbs and quotations about the value of teaching someone else something that we ourselves learn:

"I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand." -- Chinese Proverb

"If you would thoroughly know anything, teach it to others." -- Tryon Edwards

"By learning you will teach; by teaching you will understand." -- Latin proverb

I think that goal is best served by working together with the parent and not by building distance between us, such as by banishing the parent to another room or by insisting that the parent address me by a fancy title. My parents address me by whatever name they wish the child to call me, however, in emails and personal conversations we use more familiar names. That is because I am embarking on what I hope will be a lifelong relationship and friendship with that parent. I am building a lengthy and very personal partnership with the parent. Our joint goal is to create a fine human being out of the parent's most prized "possession" -- the child. Of course I want the parent there to be a part of this wonderful growth experience!

There are times when a student comes to me from another teacher or later in life, and I find that the student does better when the parent is not part of the lesson. I find this state of affairs sad. Of course, when the student finally reaches the independent phase of learning, I understand the desire to have the parent be elsewhere during the lesson. I also understand that this "distance" is a natural part of the student's growth as an individual.

In this blog post discussion, I am not talking about this independent "distance" phase of development. I am talking about the earlier phases in a child's learning, which is all the time before the "independent" stage. When does a student go independent? When a parent asks me this, my usual answer is: "when you feel comfortable handing over the car keys." For some parents (and students), this major event might not happen until after the child leaves home.

What if a teacher insists that they want the parent out of the room? As a parent, I would want to understand why the teacher had that policy. I would listen very carefully to the explanation. I would make sure that I as a parent could duplicate the teaching assignment accurately at home. Perhaps the teacher finds it easier to teach without the parent's presence distracting the student. I would want to understand very clearly what the teacher's concerns are, and I would also want the teacher to afford me an opportunity to address the areas I discussed above. Would there be an opportunity at the end of the lesson for me to ask questions for clarity, for me to take notes and get an accurate assignment, for me to observe closely and learn the same skill so that I could duplicate it at home?

Parents, please do not be intimidated by your child's teacher! Although the teacher is due your respect and that of your child, please do not park your natural understanding and education at the door to the studio. If something doesn't seem right to you, ask respectful questions and seek more information. There are many good teachers out there, and you may find a teacher that fits your desires for your child more comfortably. Do not hesitate to consider this option.

To those parents who claim that they prefer not to be in their child's lessons, I as a teacher have to wonder why the parent would prefer not to be involved in their child's learning. If the parent and child have a difficult relationship, then I would think that the parent would want to understand why and to work to build a more pleasant and stronger parent-child relationship. If the parent and child have a strained relationship, then something is wrong. Please, please take the time to discover why and to work to improve the relationship.

If you are studying with a Suzuki teacher, please understand that the Suzuki way involves the parents. The parent learns the instrument in many cases and is part of the learning process. If you were to read Dr. Suzuki's book "Ability Development from Age Zero," you would find that Dr. Suzuki frequently addresses a parent's understanding and attitude toward their child and their child's learning situation. I believe that Dr. Suzuki well understood the importance of a child's parents in the child's development, and I also believe from what I have learned about Dr. Suzuki, that he did not hesitate to be firm in his expectations of a child's parents.

One of Dr. Suzuki's philosophical points was that he sought to develop the whole child and not just concert artists. He used the violin as the vehicle to impart the necessary life skills to achieve a productive member of society in the long run. Toward this goal, I believe it is imperative that we involve the parents as much as we can in the learning process. I want my student's parents to partner with me every step of the way. If I can help a child's parents to become even better parents due to my specialized knowledge about teaching, parenting, and child psychology and development, then I think it is my duty to share that knowledge as long as the parent welcomes it.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Monday Morning Check In: Solving Problems with Bicycle Tires

Last Monday I talked about some guidelines for making decisions. Today I would like to talk about solving problems. With my older students, I frequently explain the problem-solving steps by using the analogy of changing a bicycle (or car) tire, assuming that the student is familiar with the process of changing a flat tire and checking for repairable leaks. I use the music practice or lesson situation to demonstrate appropriate problem-solving skills to students as well as to the observing parent. Let us look closer at the tire changing process and then relate it to the problem-solving steps.

First, we notice that a tire is flat. With a car, there is a blowout if you are unfortunate, or otherwise you notice that the car lists somewhat to one side or another. With a bicycle it is more obvious, as the bicycle does not move very well.

Next we remove the tire or bike tire tube and check for leaks. This step uses bubbling water to find the air hole or leak. After we have located the leak, we then make the necessary repairs or patches.

We replace the tire back onto the vehicle, pump it full of air again to make it strong, and then test drive it to see if the repair will hold.

Looking at the steps described above and summarizing, the steps involved in problem-solving the flat tire are:

  • identify the problem
  • come up with solutions to solve the problem
  • pick a solution and try it out
  • evaluate the solution and determine whether it solved the problem

Those are the same steps we use to solve other problems, whether in a life circumstance or in a music practice session. Since this is a blog about teaching music, I will focus on the music practice session for an example of putting these steps into practice.

Before I continue, I would like to put in a plug for a skill that I think is more important than any other -- awareness. I use the term of "awareness," but I have heard other words used in a similar context to refer to the same skill: mindfulness, mental presence, focus, concentration, thoughtfulness, reflection, in the moment, paying attention. Without our being aware of what we are doing, we are unlikely to be able to identify a problem accurately.

It sounds silly for me to say this, but I am amazed at the number of students, teachers, and even professional musicians who play without seeming to actually hear what they are playing. I am frequently fond of asking my students how they can expect others to listen to their playing when they themselves are not listening. When I ask my students to really focus on what they are doing, they are themselves startled to hear how many extraneous noises are coming out the instrument and that escaped their notice. It is an interesting phenomenon, and I also work hard to improve this skill in my own playing.

This awareness, or lack of it, shows up in professional situations too, such as symphony orchestra rehearsals and performances. It puzzles me when a player hangs onto notes longer than anyone else in the entire orchestra or plays notes in a different style (or intonation) than the other players. This is a blatant example of lack of awareness. This type of musician (or student) just does not "get it." This laziness of paying attention stems from such a person's general malaise of not engaging in their own life very well. As a teacher I spend the time necessary to build up this awareness skill in my students. I ask a lot of questions rather than give the student many answers. I use a lot of open-ended questions (they generally start with "what" or "how") in order to engage the student in conversation of more than a few words.

So first, there must be an awareness of what is happening. The student then identifies the problem. I find this step to be quite difficult for many students. They think they understand where the difficulty is, but frequently the students are off the mark. I recall listening to an interview given by the wonderful singer Julie Andrews ("Mary Poppins" and other wonderful films), where she recalled the best and most useful advice she had received from her singing instructor. When she missed a note, her instructor helped her to understand that it was generally right before the note that was the problem. If a basketball player misses a shot, it usually is not because they missed the actual shot. The missed hoop is generally due to a faulty layup preceding the actual shot.

Students are quick to identify the problem: missed shift, faulty intonation, bow slipping off the note, missed slur. However, it takes my guidance in general to help the student discover that the actual problem is the anticipatory note before the missed shift, intonation, slipped bow, or missed slur. Once we figure this out, I guide my students to narrow down the problem area to two notes, because I believe that every faulty musical area can be distilled down into two notes: a shift, an interval between two notes, or a string crossing between two notes.

After correctly identifying the problem area, I guide the student into thinking about possible practice ideas to address and correct the problem or to make the passage easier. Then the student selects an option and puts it into play. When the student decides that enough practice has been done to correct the problem, the student then test drives the problem area by putting it into context. This means that the student goes back earlier in the material and plays an entire passage to see if the problem has actually been corrected or eliminated.

So, to recap the problem-solving steps:

  • identify the problem
  • come up with solutions to solve the problem
  • pick a solution and try it out
  • evaluate the solution and determine whether it solved the problem

Next time you encounter a problem or difficulty in your life or your music practice, try out these steps. If you have trouble solving problems effectively, spend a bit more time working on your skill of awareness and make sure that you are identifying the actual problem. If you need help in this area, then visit with a teacher, read some teaching materials, or leave me a comment or question.

Have a great week!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Quick Practice Tip: Use the Sevcik Connection

In the past year I have been reacquainting myself with the materials put together by Otakar Sevcik, a Czech violinist in the latter half of the 19th century, early 20th century. Sevcik was appointed professor of violin at the age of 23 with the Russian Music Society in Kiev. He also later taught violin at the Prague Conservatory and Vienna Music Academy.

Sevcik's materials were staples in the technical repertoire during my formative years, and his comprehensive books are still around today. The books include studies in bowing, finger patterns, double stops, and shifting. They are valuable teaching and practicing tools. Although these materials may not be the current pedagogical fashion today, I believe that teachers (and students) might benefit from reviewing and considering the value of these materials.

There has been a renewed interest in some other technical materials written by Sevcik. These materials include analytical studies of various concertos or repertoire pieces. Currently these materials are being revisited and revised in translation. For more information, there is an interview published on violinist.com concerning the new editions of these analytical materials (http://www.violinist.com/blog/laurie/20111/12018/).

Some of these materials may be studied now on the International Music Score Library Project website: http://imslp.org (Pretrucci Music Library), along with the other Sevcik materials. Although I have been purchasing my own personal copies of the analytical studies as the revised versions become available, I have spent a great deal of time immersed in Sevcik's gems of technical exploration of some of my favorite concertos and pieces (Brahms, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, and Wieniawki's "Scherzo-Tarantelle").

As I studied these materials, I analyzed Sevcik's work to form today's practice tip. I believe that Sevcik's philosophy is all about making connections -- connections between intervals, fingers, notes, bowing, and rhythms. After identifying these connections, Sevcik devised exercises that physically focused on repeating the connections.

I have experimented with these ideas with my university students, and we have had great success. We identify a tricky little passage, and then we analyze how to turn it into a finger exercise. Then we repeat this finger exercise over and over. My goal is to perform the exercise at least four times (3 times is never enough, and 5 seems excruciatingly long to a young student; 4 is like Goldilocks and the Three Bears and "just right.").

Here is a simple example of how this "Sevcik" practice tip works. Consider "Allegretto" (song #10 in Suzuki Violin book 1). Students often have a spot of trouble learning the fourth finger pattern in the 4th, 5th, and 6th notes of the song -- F#-A (4 on D string)-G. If we were to use my Sevcik practice tip, the student and I would play those three notes several times. We would also play several permutations and combinations of these three fingers. For example, I would play F# and 4th finger A over and over about four times. Then I would play the A and G over and over four times. Then I would play the three notes up and down a few times. Then I would change the pattern and play each pattern a few times: F#-G-A-G, or F#-A-G-F#, or F#-A-G-A, or A-G-A-F#, or A-F#-A-G. The student and I have fun coming up with new possibilities and connections. After we have done all of these, I ask the student to play the passage as it is written. I am constantly delighted to see my student's face light up because the passage has now become incredibly easier.

I am willing to bet that there are very few folks out there who enjoy practicing. I have spent many years coming up with ways to entertain myself in practice sessions. Using the Sevcik ideas, I have discovered the kind of amusement that keeps my active mind engaged and diverted in a good way. If I have a tiresome passage of 16th notes, I might play the passage with an extension that repeats each of the four-note groups of 16th notes four times. In this way, I might extend a 16th note passage of 24 notes to a 16th note passage of 96 notes. Then because I play so many notes continuously, I do not have the feeling that I am "practicing," at least in terms of practicing as hard work. Instead, I feel as if I am "playing," even though I really am practicing very efficiently and effectively. And I am enjoying myself in the process.

I am teaching a summer strings camp right now, and I frequently employ these Sevcik practice tips during orchestra sectionals with great success. I hope you enjoy this practice tip as well. There are many places in the Suzuki repertoire that lend themselves rather well to the Sevcik practice tip. And wait until we get to double stops! Sevcik practice tips become really fun then! Oh, the combinations of Sevcik possibilities!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Book 5: What's the point?

I received a great comment that asked me about book 5, and I thought I would share my thoughts about how I use book 5.

I remember hearing once that several teachers were opting to skip portions of book 5, because the students could "learn G Minor in other repertoire." I myself have experienced difficulty with students in the past and getting these students through the "slump" of book 5.

There may be several possible reasons why book 5 is so difficult. Although I have heard that many Japanese families strive to complete all ten Suzuki violin books by the time a student enters junior high, in my personal experience, most of my Suzuki students seem to hit book 5 about the time that they are in middle school. I wish that all my students would be out of book 5 by the time they turn 13, but alas, that has not been the case.

Why 13? Once upon a time, my educator husband showed me an article that talked about a child's development and the phenomenon of the odd-numbered years. (Occasionally a student will hit one of these developmental periods in an "even" year, but the signs are still the same.)  From what I recall of that article, it discussed the child's brain synapses pulling apart about every two years as the child's body underwent several physical developmental changes. As a teacher, I would have to turn up my "patience" quotient as I worked with such a student. A student going through one of these developmental phases would appear a little goofy and unfocused. Ages 9 and 13, in general, were the most difficult periods. The student would appear to be using just the right hemisphere of the brain and relying on physical motion rather than using logic or reasoning.

When a student hit Vivaldi's Concerto in G Minor at the age of 13, things seemed to progress at an excruciatingly slow pace because of the student's seeming inability to enter into a productive, rational discussion about the piece, the skills to be developed, and evaluation about effective practice techniques. I would get pretty discouraged during these periods. These types of lessons used up a lot of my teaching energy with little return from the student to be expected. I think the parents of such a student suffered even more than I did, as they watched their formerly bright child behave as if aliens had abducted the child's mind during the night. Learning book 5 seemed to take a very long time when a student was in the middle of one of these developmental phases.

Perhaps other teachers have experienced this same "slump" by the time a student would begin learning the Concerto in G Minor. I understand the desire to skip this piece and to approach the G Minor issue in another fashion, but I believe there are definite benefits to Dr. Suzuki's book 5 structure.

Generally, I view book 5 as the middle book of the "intermediate" portion of the 10 Suzuki violin books. I use the book to teach several basic things for a student's development:
  • how to see intervals "across" the strings and the violin fingerboard
  • what reasons to choose particular fingerings
  • how to play off-the-string, i.e., spiccato, collé, and flying staccato
  • how to cement the proper left hand position for upper positions and the G minor key

    Intervals Across the Fingerboard

    Book 4 pretty much wraps up a student's education about intervalic relationships between the fingers on the same string. The Bach double at the end of book 4 explores all finger patterns and combinations. Book 5 then leads the student into learning how to view intervals across the violin strings and fingerboard. For example, in first position, a minor second is played by putting one finger next to or very close to an adjacent finger. Minor sixths feel like half steps as well, since generally one finger is adjacent to another, albeit on another string. However, students do not quite "see" that interval when reading music.

    Starting with the first song in book 5, Dr. Suzuki presents material that includes passage work that involves intervals across the string. Measures 8-16 and 40-48 are good examples of such passage work. The first movement of Vivaldi's Concerto in G minor has several obvious examples of string crossings and intervals: measures 41-43, 85-90, 119-126, and 167-169. The third movement has several such places as well: 101-106 and 172-186.

    One of the best ways to introduce this concept of seeing intervals across the fingerboard is to approach these passages as an exercise in double stops. Certainly I point out to the student how easy it can be to determine whether a particular interval is like a half or whole step by showing the student how to see the interval of a fifth across the violin fingerboard and in the music and then building the interval upwards from the fifth.

    How to Choose Appropriate Fingerings

    With the second piece of book 5, the second movement of Vivaldi's Concerto in G Minor, I begin discussing the appropriate reasons to choose particular fingerings. The subject of choosing fingerings is a particularly dense subject and probably a subject best left to one or two (maybe even three) blog posts of its own. However, briefly, I will just say that I introduce the student to five basic reasons for choosing a fingering, and we discuss various fingerings within the piece and how they relate to those five basic reasons. There are many other reasons to choose particular fingerings, but I focus on five reasons in this piece:

    • shifting over the closest distance (preferably a half step if possible)
    • avoiding a shift on a slur, unless the portamento sound is desired
    • maintaining the same string/tone color or avoiding string crossings
    • maintaining a fingering pattern
    • providing a stronger finger for vibrato (or avoiding an open string)
    I do not always use the fingerings as suggested in the revised book 5 Suzuki book. The revised edition provides several choices in some places, and I use these suggestions as starting points for discussions about fingering choices.

    I would like to remind you that I set up the discussion of fingering choices beginning in book 1. In my earlier posts I frequently mentioned songs in which I asked my students to learn a particular fingering sequence in order to build up a fingering habit that would be comfortable throughout book 2, 3, 4, and now 5. So book 5 is basically the continuation of a fingering discussion that I have silently had with my student since book 1. I now use book 5 to have an open discussion about fingering with my student.

    I have also provided my student several places in the Suzuki books where I have given my student a chance to pick a particular fingering over another in some places due to personal preference. For example, I have a very small hand, and I find it very useful to use my "lazy pinkie" or flat 4th finger to play some fingering passages rather than stretching my 3rd finger. I have suggested both fingerings to students in book 2 and have accepted the student's personal preference for one fingering or another.

    Off the String Bowing Skills

    As preparation for the off-the-string bowing opportunities presented in book 5, I incorporate off-the-string playing in review of earlier books. We might do this in group class or just as a general review assignment, when I introduce spiccato. For example, book 4 and the Seitz concertos all include several places where the student can begin practicing off the string in the lower half of the bow. In addition, I also focus on places where the student can use the collé bowing, such as the first Seitz concerto in book 4, the Long Long Ago variation in book 2, Minuet in G trio, Martini's Gavotte, Becker's Gavotte, and any earlier repertoire piece that used the "up-up" bowing, such as Minuet 2 in book 1. This bowing practice incorporated within earlier repertoire then culminates in the first piece of Bach's Gavotte and the later Country Dance in book 5. These bowing skills do not become perfect in most cases at the time the student learns these pieces but later during group class activities or as the student progresses into later Suzuki or other "outside" repertoire.

    When the student gets to German Dance in book 5, I wait until the student has learned the notes before teaching the airborne bowing (remember Dr. Suzuki's suggestion: "Finger, Bow, Go!"). Then we play the two-note slur and single note up bow of measure one as a lifting, in-the-air bowing. It may take the student a few lessons to master this skill. Note that this bowing pattern leads to the faster, mixed spiccato and slur bowing of Veracini's Gigue.

    Left Hand and Upper Positions

    I mentioned before that I have a tiny hand. When I first learned Vivaldi's Concerto in G Minor, I noticed a persistent ache in my left hand. Since I have been playing for 47 years, I thought it was strange. As I analyzed the situation, I happened to be considering left hand issues in general, and I noted that my usual left hand attitude seemed a little low in relation to the fingerboard for the kind of finger passage work that I needed to accomplish in the G Minor concerto. I tried raising my left hand a little bit higher (steeper) so that my left pinkie was curved more rather than straight, and I found that the problem disappeared. The intonation and the tone quality also improved, as I was using more of my finger skeleton than I was using my finger pads. (Yes, there is a place for finger pad playing too). I also use Kreutzer's 5th etude (the one in Eb) to help my university students make that same discovery.

    Dr. Suzuki's inclusion of the G minor key of Vivaldi's Concerto in G minor provides the teacher with several opportunities to monitor the student's left hand position. If you'll recall from earlier posts, I've pointed out several other places in which Dr. Suzuki included repertoire that provided opportunities to correct falling left hand positions: Minuet 2 and the problem of "pocket fingers,", Two Grenadiers, Gavotte from "Mignon, Seitz 3, Vivaldi's A Minor concerto movement 3, and so forth. Now he has included more such opportunities in book 5. In addition, Dr. Suzuki has included repertoire that requires the student to learn the higher 4th and 5th positions, which I have found to be places that the student may lapse into a falling left hand position.

    This blog post was intended as a general introduction to some basic issues that I focus on in book 5. Needless to say, each repertoire piece included in book 5 has its own list of detailed issues to be considered, and each student brings his or her own list of possible issues to each new repertoire piece.

    The learning process is never cut and dried. The process of learning, and of teaching, continually expands. As I journey alongside each of my students in book 5, I gain additional insight into Dr. Suzuki's brilliant repertoire structure. Each student teaches me something new about the book 5 repertoire, and I then pass it along to the next student. As I pass along this basic information to you now, I will also be adding to my current understanding of the book within the next semester, as I have several young students embarking on the book 5 journey. I hope to share more thoughts about book 5 in the coming year.

    I hope you will leave me more comments about particular issues in book 5 repertoire, or any other Suzuki repertoire.

    Monday, July 11, 2011

    Monday Morning Check In: Making Tough Decisions

    I am back home again in Texas after spending three very interesting and fulfilling weeks in Rome, Italy. I played a lot of piano and violin and had a lovely time becoming even more familiar with this wonderful city. Although this blog post is late, I hope you will still find it useful as a Monday Morning Check In.

    Recently a good friend of mine was faced with a tough decision that related to his future in the music industry and whether he might receive a letter of recommendation to benefit his future. I found that watching my friend go through the process of making a decision left me with some useful informational steps to making a decision.

    Curb Your Emotions

    Some of us do not handle change or confrontation well, and in many such cases, change comes dressed in the attire of perceived confrontation, which leads to our angry response. I am one of those personality types that often responds to the perception of confrontation with anger. Therefore, I strive to make my first response line up with the scripture verse observation of Psalm 15:1: “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” Emotions come from our perceptions, so we should watch that our perceptions actually lead us in the direction that our emotions should go. I work to rein in any emotions that I might experience in favor of discovering the inner personality development issue that leads to my faulty presumption.

    I ask myself a series of quick questions and follow that up with a few reminders that keep me on the track of solving whatever dilemma I found myself in.

    What Else Could This Be About?

    This question reminds me to pay attention to my presumptions. We all make them, but our presumptions are not always correct. Uncovering exactly what we are thinking and then discovering the possible reason why we create these types of presumptions usually reverses the flaws inherent in our heads, if we pay attention and work to make personal discoveries about the formation of our psyches.

    Go to the Source

    Have you ever noticed that people tend to complain to folks who have no power to make any effective change? For example, we might complain about something that our boss did, but instead of bringing our grievance directly to our boss, who is the one person who could clearly offer a solution, we tend to make our complaints to co-workers or our spouse – people who are clearly not in a position to do anything about our problem. The better course of action is to bring our grievances directly to the source. We should take care to work through our fears and directly approach the source of our problem. At the very least, we should visit with the source in order to make sure we have made accurate assumptions about what is actually going on.

    Take Money Out of the Equation

    I discovered early in my life as a “people watcher” that there are some decisions that are complicated by the presence of money. When I reframe the dilemma in a way that does not include the consideration of money, I find that most confusion completely vanishes. Then the directions become:

    Take the Higher Road

    What action should I take that gives me the highest position in the moral sense? Which position gives me the moral advantage? The other party might be arranging things to indicate a “perfect life” with no complications. The other party might try to use me (or my finances) to pursue a direction that I do not approve. In these cases, I believe that by taking the morally higher position, I place myself in a position that favors my overall global crusade.

    Directions that I give myself to help me determine what the higher road might be include “do the right thing” or “whatever you do, do it with class.”

    Own Our Own Contribution

    When we take this step, we are showing the ultimate in maturity. This step encourages us to “own” our own contribution to the problem. I have heard many a psychologist state that it takes two people to generate a quarrel or disagreement. If we can dig down deep enough, we can find the resources we need to show us where we might be at fault or have taken steps to “fan the fires” or cause the problem to inflate. This step asks us to face our own motivation to keep the problem afloat. Instead, if we were to focus on changing our own attitudes and presumptions, we might eliminate the problem or at least alleviate it just by changing ourselves.

    Sometimes it is easy to make a decision, and other times it is not. I find that if I consider the above questions and topics that I am ultimately satisfied with the decision I make.