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Friday, September 30, 2011

Quick Practice Tip: Releasing Tension in the Shoulder

The shoulder is a magnet for tension, especially as the student matures in age. Just about all of my older students or adults exhibit shoulder tension. Shoulder tension must be an adult person's most favorite way to "hold it in." I know that this was the case for me. I still work at it, and I have developed a few tricks to help me set my playing posture in a relaxed way.

Try these three simulations or games away from the violin:
  • When driving your car, rest your hands on the steering wheel at the 10 and 2 o'clock positions (please make sure that you are still paying attention to the road!). While you are driving, notice how light your hands feel on the wheel. Now, let your shoulders relax and your arms hang down. If you do this exercise correctly, you will notice that your hands begin to feel fairly heavy and hang from the steering wheel almost enough to pull the wheel down. Your shoulders are now completely relaxed.
  • When you are standing in church, rest your hands on the pew back in front of you. Or if you grocery shop instead, rest your hands on the handle of the shopping cart. Notice how light your hands feel on the pew back or shopping cart handle. Now let your shoulders relax and your arms rest downward. If you do this exercise correctly, you will notice that your hands begin to feel fairly heavy and hang from the pew or shopping cart handle quite strongly. Your shoulders are now completely relaxed.
  • Spaghetti Arms Game: You will need a partner for this game. Have your partner make fists in both hands and hold up the thumbs like joysticks. You grab onto the "joysticks." Your partner will then swing your arms around wildly, trying to take you for a wild amusement park ride and shake you off. Your goal is to stay connected to the joystick but to allow your partner to flail your arms around wherever your partner wants to go. If you are completely relaxed with "spaghetti arms" and still hanging onto the "joysticks," then your shoulders are completely relaxed. Note that this game is the most similar simulation to that of playing the violin. The joystick is your bow hold, which must be turned on. Your relaxed arms are how your shoulder should be: aware, relaxed, and going wherever it is led.
Try these two simulations with the violin:
  • Submarine Air Lock Game: Pretend you are on a submarine, but you need to explore outside the vessel. Go into the air lock chamber. Turn on the mechanism that lets the air out of the chamber. Now you are ready to go outside the vessel. Relate this to the violin.
    • Set your bow on the string at the frog. Now, release the air from your shoulder.
    • "Set, Sink" are the two commands I use.
  • Flat Tire Game: Set your bow on the string at the frog. Now release the air from your tire (shoulder) so that it goes flat.
      Carry this to the next level in review work or group class activities:
      • Play "Song of the Wind" (violin book 1) and stop after every down bow circle. Recite "Set, Sink" before playing the next note. Make sure your bow hold is impeccable.
      • Play "Allegro" (violin book 1) and add  "Set, Sink" after every down bow circle.
      • Play "Perpetual Motion" (violin book 1) with a down bow circle after every note. "Set, sink."
      • Play "Etude" with a down bow circle after every note. "Set, sink."
      • Play "Chorus" (violin book 2) and add "Set, Sink" after every down bow circle.
      • Play "The Two Grenadiers" (violin book 2) and note the three down bow circle places. Are you setting and sinking at those places?
      • In violin book 4 and the Seitz concertos, there are several opportunities to set and sink the shoulder when placing down bows at the start of new sections. Play these concertos and ask the student to find places where the "set, sink" idea will be effective.
      When I first realized how much tension I had allowed to creep into my shoulder while playing my violin, I also found many opportunities to address the issue. I used my teaching in the studio to allow me to practice the exercises I have outlined above. I also found opportunities in symphony rehearsals and concerts to remind myself to "set, sink" before playing The only adjustment I had to make was to get ready to play in symphony a little earlier than usual to allow myself enough time to actually "set, sink." To this day, I still remind myself to "set, sink" after every down bow circle or after I have set my bow on the string.

      I also practice this exercise while driving, singing hymns in church, or grocery shopping.

      Wednesday, September 28, 2011

      Quick Practice Tip: Inside Out Muscles

      Life is stressful, but violin playing and making music should not be. We should enjoy the beauty of creating music and expressing emotion without having to suffer the ill effects of a glitch in our posture or muscle use. To help us be more aware of the dangers of stress due to improper muscle usage, let me suggest that we pay attention to inside and outside muscles.

      Have you ever seen a muscle "pose down" in a weight-lifting competition? This is the portion of the body building competition when the competitors strike various poses and tense their muscles in order to produce the optimum tensed muscle for the presentation. Notice that I said the competitors "tense" their muscles. If you watch such an exhibition, you will note that the contestants tend to pull their poses "inward" in order to add the tension necessary to stimulate the muscle formation for the pose.

      Try this experiment. Form fists in both your hands. Now, facing both fists toward each other in front of your body, pull your elbows outward to the side. Hunch forward a little in your shoulders and squeeze your arms and the backs of your shoulders, while you try to tighten and lift your pectoral (chest) muscles. Notice how your muscles form. Notice also how much stress and tension you created by turning on the "inside" muscles of your arms.

      Now turn on the "outside" muscles of your arms. Notice how the tension completely lifts and dissipates, leaving your arms light and feeling like they can float away. This is the release of tension.

      Now pick up your instrument and bow. Set the bow on the A string (if you play violin). Feel the tension of the inside muscles in your right bow arm. Now alter your bow hold or position so that you can turn on the outside muscles instead. For most violinists, turning on the outside muscles involves weight distribution in the right hand toward the pinkie side of the bow hold, which will release the tension in the right arm and ultimately the right shoulder.

      Aaaaah! Doesn't that feel great? Let's just sit with that feeling for a bit. Keep your bow on the A string, and move your right arm up and down a few times to make sure that your right shoulder is loose. Tip your bow hold silently from the G string level over to the E string level and feel the looseness in your right fingers.

      Remember: inside muscles were designed to create tension, and outside muscles release it. Learn to recognize when you are using inside or outside muscles, and look for opportunities to release unnecessary tension.

      Sunday, September 25, 2011

      Monday Morning Check In: Systems

      I have discussed the importance of habits and how to build them. I am a firm believer in habits. I may have picked this up from my dad. I recall one episode when I forgot to take my driving learner's permit to school on the day I had driver's ed class. I realized my error as soon as I had gotten to school and I phoned home. Dad was the person who fielded that call, and he was not a happy man when he arrived at school to hand me my forgotten permit. Along with the permit, he handed me some timeless advice: when something is important, you should build a habit around it to make sure that you take care of it properly. In this case, my permit belonged in my wallet, because my wallet would likely be with me during any of the times that I would need my permit as well.

      I followed my dad's advice for other things, and I still do. I keep my keys in the same pocket of my purse. That way I always know where to look for them. I do not need to waste time looking for them somewhere else because I ALWAYS keep my keys in the same place. This little useful tidbit of advice can apply to eyeglasses, bills, shoes, pens, and homework.

      This idea of a place for everything and everything in its place is a "system," a set of activities that work together, so to speak, to form a more complex whole. Systems are related to habits, and I create a great number of systems to keep my busy life flowing in the right direction as smoothly as possible. There are many possible areas in a person's life that would benefit from having a system, and I recommend that you invest the few minutes of time that it takes to create a system list or a systems notebook. A system frees up your mind from having to remember what should be done next, and in many cases, a system will help you to save time over the long haul.

      Borrowing from an idea that I learned from flylady.net, I have three basic systems hanging in my bathroom, which is also my wardrobe and dressing area. I have a morning list, an evening list, and a weekly list. These lists are the basic activities that I need to complete in order to get out the door in the morning (my morning list), to get to bed at a reasonable hour (my evening list), and to finish out the week with the most necessary chores taken care of (my weekly chores).

      I typed out giant versions of my three lists with large boxes to be checked off when I complete the tasks. I placed each list inside its own plastic sheet protector and hung each list on the wall along with a dry erase marker. As I complete an item on any of my three lists, I mark it checked off the list. At the end of the day, I wipe off the marks I made with a tissue so that the lists are ready for use in the morning. Here is an example of my morning list:

      • Heat water (I put a glass measuring cup of water in the microwave for making coffee)
      • Take dogs outside (I have 6 grown dogs and 6 little puppies right now)
      • Make coffee (aaaahhhh!)
      • Writing-Thinking-Planning time (I do morning pages, a bible study, and my day's activity and to do lists)
      • Exercise
      • Feed big animals (donkeys, horse, alpacas, chickens, and outside cats)
      • Feed little animals (inside dogs and puppies while I also make my own breakfast, which I will eat on my way to work)
      • Clean something (wipe kitchen counter, empty or load dishwasher, scour sink)
      • Shower and dress (maybe clean a portion of the shower while I am there)
      • Put something away (because I have a propensity to clutter and can always find something)
      My evening list looks like this:
      • put out clothes for next day (including running clothes if I am running; I also plug in my running watch for charging)
      • put something away
      • swish and swipe something in the bathroom
      • review next day's schedule
      • pull together things I need to take the next day
      • back out my schedule on my whiteboard hanging on the wall (I have a dry erase board where I back out my morning activities from the time I must leave so that I allow enough time to complete everything I need to do; everything on my morning list is assigned the time I need to start that activity in the morning)
      • get food together (I plan my day's meals the evening before so that I have my packed lunch or dinner ready to go in the morning)
      • take dogs out for last time
      My weekly list includes things like remembering to trim my dogs' toenails, vacuuming, dusting, mopping, laundry, grocery shopping, bathroom cleaning, and similar activities. Once I've done them for the week, and the activities are checked off, I'm done for the week with regard to chores. I give myself permission to relax and enjoy the rest of the week or weekend.

      Try setting up your own systems. They can be great time savers.

      Have a great week!

      Boring!

      The subject of boredom comes up every so often, and we should probably look at it a little bit. There are several different scenarios I have encountered:

      • one of the parents is bored or is worrying that the child is bored (or will become bored)
      • the child is bored
      • the teacher is bored

      In my pre-twinkle group classes and with my beginning students, we play a great number of "easy" songs, including open string songs. My students love them! We have catchy piano accompaniments to go with the songs, and the students more frequently request these songs than any others. I even have two songs that are exactly the same but that use different words for each song. The students actually believe that these are two different songs!

      The most frequent scenario that I have encountered is the one where the parent is bored or worried about boredom. I believe I read in one of Dr. Suzuki's books that he believed that children actually learn about boredom from someone else, most likely a parent. This statement, if I have indeed correctly attributed it to Dr. Suzuki, makes sense to me. Dr. Suzuki was very big on examining the child's learning environment to make sure that it was the optimal situation and that we were putting in the child's environment only those things that would encourage the child to learn and be motivated to learn.

      If it is true that children learn boredom from the adults in the child's life, then we should be very careful to examine our behaviors to be sure that we are not teaching the child about boredom. If we are enthusiastic about our child's learning and give encouragement for our child's efforts and praise for the child's achievements, then I find it difficult to imagine how the issue of boredom even rears its ugly head. There are so many different ways to play something and so many different possible skills to develop within every song.

      I recall someone once asking me how many times I had to listen to students play the Twinkle Variations in a week (a lot), and how I could stand listening to the same song over and over. The answer is that listening to a lot of Twinkles every week is not a problem. That is because every child plays the Twinkles differently. Every Twinkle sounds different. Each child is unique in terms of whatever particular skills and expression the child is working on. I never get bored listening to the Twinkles. I think that a teacher who claims to be bored probably just needs a break. Maybe a short vacation or even just a lunch meeting with one or two other teachers to get energized again about teaching.

      As for a child being bored, I have only heard that one time and it was recently said by a potential new student. I was a little bit startled to hear it, because the child I was just meeting for the first time was so adamant about announcing how bored she was. And I wasn't even talking to her at the time! Her mother and I were in conversation. As the child continued to announce how everything she saw or heard about playing the violin was "boring," I realized a few things:

      • the child needed to get attention, even if it was negative attention (this was an introductory meeting between the child's mother and me)
      • the child needed to control the conversation ("this is boring!" is certainly a conversation interruption)
      • the child did not really seem to understand what the word meant (the student is 5) (I thought she was using the word in a way that indicated that she meant something other than that she was bored)
      • the child had probably heard the word from someone else (actually, she had heard it from an older cousin she had visited recently)
      In the case of this recent student encounter, I believe the issue of boredom is more likely one of behavior issues. The mother and I are looking forward to beginning lessons soon after our parent education classes are finished, and we anticipate that there may be the need for a "million dollar lesson" in the child's future.

      Generally, though, I believe that boredom is not a good word in anyone's vocabulary. Boredom to me is a sign of someone who cannot or will not take the time to figure out how to be interested. With the imagination that children have about their world around them, it surprises me to hear a parent lament that their child is bored or that what the child is learning is boring. I tend to feel sorry for the parent because I know that if left unaddressed, the parent's attitude about boredom will indeed become a problem later when the child adopts this same attitude.

      Let us stay focused on the task at hand: teaching our child new skills so that the child can develop the habit of developing ability. I refuse to believe that this is boring for the parent, child, or teacher. Let us dig deep and keep ourselves enthusiastic over the process of learning and refining.

      Thursday, September 22, 2011

      Quick Practice Tip: Swing, Plop -- finding the 3rd finger on the A string

      Many teachers put some sort of tape or marker on the beginning student's violin fingerboard to indicate where to place the violin fingers. Most teachers think that we do this in order to make it easier for the student to find the correct pitches for the beginning finger patterns. Then the issue later becomes, when do we take the tapes off?

      I have noticed in my teaching that many students really do not pay much attention visually to where the fingers go on the fingerboard, which leads me to ask, who needs the tapes at that point? I get my answer when I talk about removing the tapes. "No!" moans the mom, "I won't know where the fingers go!"

      I ask the student, "Will you know where to put your fingers?" The student is a lot more confident than the mother usually is.

      I have found a fairly accurate way to place the third finger (ring finger) on a descending scale, such as the one found in the Twinkle Theme in the third measure. Here is how we do it:

      • Make sure that the first finger and left thumb are set up in the correct place to play the correct pitch for the first finger. In the Twinkle song, the first finger needs to be ready to play F#.
      • Swing the left elbow under the violin toward the inside (toward the E string side).
      • Plop the third finger down onto the A string.

      If the elbow swing is done correctly, the third finger will usually land precisely in the correct place on the fingerboard. The problem later is that the student does not remember to swing the elbow under and instead chooses to reach the third finger, often falling short of the mark.

      I have seen pre-twinkle exercises that involve playing the E string and then the third finger note D on the A string, but I have had little success just playing this two-note skill alone, as the students tend to leave their elbows under the violin during repetitions. Instead, it might be more fun to practice the skill as part of another song, such as Mary Had a Little Lamb in D major:


      With this little version, there are three opportunities to practice the swing-plop. This would be a great chance to practice learning a song by ear, and I would do this in a group class setting. The song can later be practiced in the key of G major beginning with the first finger note B on the A string.

      As for tapes, I use them but I try not to rely on them. I remind myself of the time I watched a young student in a master class at a Suzuki Institute. The master class teacher pointed to one of several (!) tapes on the student's bow and asked what the particular tape was for. When the student did not remember the reason for the tape, the master class teacher then observed that perhaps it was time to remove the tape. I put tapes on and off a student's violin throughout the early learning stages. Some students really do not need the tapes. Sometimes students need tapes for just a few weeks when switching to a larger instrument or learning a new finger pattern. I try to remember the Institute lesson and remove unnecessary tapes whenever possible.

      Happy Practicing!

      Tuesday, September 20, 2011

      Teaching Lightly Row

      Lightly Row is the first song in Suzuki violin book 1 that comes after the Twinkle variations, which are a tough act to follow. Therefore, Dr. Suzuki must have given this song special importance in his mind to have placed it in such a prominent place. Let us take a closer look at the treasures to be found in this song.

      Left Hand Skills
      • "skipping" fingers: the new finger pattern employs the fingers alternately rather than consecutively
      • same finger pattern as in Twinkle variations (half step between 2-3 fingers)
      • A-A1-B-A1 form (1st part is similar to the 2nd part with a different ending; the 2nd and 4th parts are identical)
      • "walking fingers" at the end of part 1 resemble Twinkle variations but in reverse sequence from Twinkles
      Right Hand Skills
      • If you teach this song with open E string (rather than 4th finger playing E on the A string), the student learns how to drop the bow arm to the E string level and get a good ringing tone
      • open E string teaches good string crossings
      • later as the student advances in ability, the teacher may introduce bow distribution (using longer, slower bows for longer, slower notes, and quicker bows for shorter, faster notes); e.g., quick, quick, slow for the opening quarter note, quarter note, half note at the onset of the song
      Previews
      • teach the different endings to parts 1 and 2, measures 3 & 4 and 7 & 8
        • walking fingers: A-B-C#-D-E-E-E (measures 3 & 4)
        • skipping fingers: A-C#-E-E-C#-C#-C# (measures 7 & 8)
      • doorbells or cuckoos in measures 1 and 2:
        • E-C#-C# (measure 1)
        • D-B-B (measure 2)
      • expanded doorbells or cuckoos in measures 5 & 6:
        • E-C#-C#-C# (measure 5)
        • D-B-B-B (measure 6)
      • Once the student learns the different endings to the first and second parts of the song, we play the song together.
        • I play the beginning of the song (first two measures) on the student's violin and then quickly flip the violin around to place it under the student's chin.
        • the student plays the walking fingers section that ends the first line of the song.
        • I quickly grab the violin and then play the opening measures of the second line of the song.
        • I pass the violin to the student to play the skipping fingers ending of line two of the song.
        • We continue passing the violin back and forth with a sense of urgency so that together we partner playing the entire song.
      • As the student learns the doorbells or cuckoos, the student expands the number of notes that he or she plays when we play the song together.
      •  Third part of the song: I employ the student's aural and kinesthetic senses when we learn this part.
        • I play the first four notes of the third line (B-B-B-B of measure 9) and ask the student to imitate me. I do not tell the student how many notes B I play. I want the student to hear and repeat the same number back to me.
        • I ask the student to take a step to the side and then play B-C#-D (measure 10)
        • Once the student can play both measures 9 and 10, we play them together;
          • B-B-B-B
          • take a step to the side and play B-C#-D
        • I then teach the student measures 11 and 12 in the same way:
          • I play C#-C#-C#-C# (measure 11) and ask the student to imitate me
          • We take a step and then play C#-D-E (measure 12)
        • I carefully instruct the home practice partner (mom or dad) to reinforce the way I taught the song, with the various steps to new positions for each measure.
        • I am careful NOT to teach "play B five times then C#-D" of measures 9 and 10 because this does not reinforce the natural rhythm of the song.
      Later Problems
      • The student forgets elements of the song:
        • walking versus skipping finger endings to parts 1 and 2
        • mixing up the doorbells and cuckoos between the beginnings of parts 1 and 2
        • forgetting the correct number of repeated notes in part 3
      • left hand falls down on the E string
        • the student tends to imitate the left hand motion with the right hand bow, dropping the left hand to mirror the dropping bow to the E string level
        • this is a good opportunity to teach independence between the right and left hands
        • some teachers prefer to have the student prepare the C# at the beginning of the song before playing the first E string note of the song to counteract this tendency
      • Bow use becomes messy
        • messy string crossings, sometimes due to a bow hold that becomes too loose and falls apart
      Group Class Ideas
      • play the song as partners: divide the class into two parts, and each part of the class plays a different part of the song
      • students pluck E strings with left hand pinkies and bow the other notes
      • walk around the room or step to the song while playing
      Advanced Students
      • use fourth fingers to replace open E string
      • bow distribution: longer, slower bows on half notes
      • use bigger bows as preparation for book 2 bowing skills
      • book 3 students learn duet part
      • as students learn higher positions, incorporate alternate fingerings
      • incorporate vibrato
      I use Lightly Row to teach various skills, which I will expand upon in later songs. To summarize:
      • I begin working on ear training:
        • by asking the student to distinguish between notes a step apart and notes that skip an interval of a third
      • I use Lightly Row to develop the child's memory skills. Note that many string orchestra books include Lightly Row but that the version employs a simpler form (A-A-B-A). Dr. Suzuki's version requires the student to employ more mental energy to remember the slightly altered form. I prefer Dr. Suzuki's version.
      • I use Lightly Row to reinforce the different string levels with the bow between the A and E strings. Later I will ask the student to use fourth finger in the song as another opportunity to strengthen the pinkie.

      Sunday, September 18, 2011

      Monday Morning Check In: Living Outside Ourselves

      We all have good and bad days, and we all know the importance of working to transform all our days into positive ones in order to keep our mental health and even our sanity some days. Would you like to live a life that was always rewarding and happy and satisfying? I expect that some of you are smiling at my boldness or perhaps my Pollyanna outlook, but I do believe this is possible, and I am certain that this way of living can be cultivated repeatedly so that it becomes a habit and a lifestyle pattern. Let me show you how. I call this the habit of Living Outside Ourselves.

      Living outside ourselves is simply the habit of looking beyond our own needs, desires, and plans and focusing on the needs, desires, and plans of others. By focusing on what others need and helping others to reach their goals, we will have less time and inclination to look inward and possibly dwell (or wallow) on our own problems and disappointments. And, as you know, when we focus on problems or other negative circumstances, those tend to grow in size and "importance." But how can we have the audacity to assume that our problems are so much greater than those of someone else? Why not focus instead on building and then maintaining the habit of assisting others?

      This is a simple thing to do. Here are some ideas to get you started on developing your own personal habit of Living Outside Yourself:

      • Spend the day asking questions rather than making statements:
        • How are you?
        • How are things going?
        • How can I help you today?
      • Think of someone who would love to hear from you or who needs to hear from you and call them.
      • Thank someone and tell them how much you appreciate them.
      • Look around you to see if there is someone who could use your help:
        • Opening a door
        • Picking up a dropped item
        • Carrying something
      • Write a letter or send a card to someone. An email can work too, but handwritten missives are very special in this day of digital communication.
      • Do something for someone else daily.
      • Give hugs generously.
      • Smile at everyone, especially those folks who cannot find their joy.

      As for creating and reinforcing the daily habit of living outside ourselves, ask yourself the following three questions every day. Write them on your bathroom or dresser mirror with a dry erase marker (shower doors work well too).

      • Who can I help today?
      • Who can I contact today?
      • What can I do today to make life easier for someone else?

      Write these questions on a card that you carry with you today and read and refer to often. Notice how positively your day unfolds when you keep your focus on living outside yourself.

      Enjoy the day and let me know how your experience was.

      "Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed. If one person falls, the other can reach out and help. But someone who falls alone is in real trouble. Likewise, two people lying close together can keep each other warm. But how can one be warm alone? A person standing alone can be attacked and defeated, but two can stand back-to-back and conquer. Three are even better, for a triple-braided cord is not easily broken." Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 NLT

      Friday, September 16, 2011

      Quick Practice Tip: Working through Sections

      When I start working on a piece, I identify the sections of the piece. For example, in a concerto movement such as Vivaldi's concerto in A minor (Suzuki violin book 4, #4), I will beginning identifying the sections starting from the beginning. I will label the first Tutti section as letter A, the first solo section as letter B, and so forth until I have reached the end of the piece.

      As the teacher, I help my students to identify the most difficult section of the piece as the place to start working. My teacher training courses helped me to understand which sections need some preview work, but that is not my purpose here in this post, because we have probably been doing the previews for the particular piece before we ever began learning the piece.

      After learning the previews, I then start my students on the new piece officially by beginning with the trickiest section of the piece or the section that might take the longest to learn. In the case of some of my youngest students, they may find it difficult to start somewhere other than the beginning of the piece. It is common for many students in book 4 to have difficulty playing if we do not allow them to rewind the "tape" in their heads back to the beginning each time they begin playing. I keep plugging at it, however, and eventually they develop more confidence about starting somewhere other than the beginning of the piece.

      The benefit of working in sections is that the student focuses more on the goal of "mastery" rather than on just playing through something. We talk about the elements that need to be addressed, and I prefer a particular order because I believe that Dr. Suzuki identified this same order with his philosophy "Fingers, Bow, Go!"

      • Left Hand: notes, fingerings, shifts, hand position, note preparations
      • Right Hand: bowing, articulation, slurs, good bow catches
      • Memory: if the child is learning with music (as I expect my book 4 students to be doing, even if still at rudimentary levels), then memory would be the next step. Often times a student commits things to memory rather quickly; this is the Suzuki way.
      • Style: proper articulation, staccato versus legato, composer's or time period's style
      • Dynamics
      • Test Drive: we do a practice run through as a group class performance, a solo at group class, a performance at a nursing home, or as part of a family's home concert
      • Polished State: at this point the student is ready to perform this piece beautifully with all the appropriate elements in place as a solo on a recital or other performance
      I use this sectional technique at all levels of my teaching, whether pre-Twinkle stage or university level. The sectional idea allows me to guide the student to develop adequate practice "think-throughs" to promote intelligent and efficient practice habits.

      Monday, September 12, 2011

      Useful Parenting Tool: The Power to Walk Away

      I am going to tell you a teaching and parenting story from my real life studio archives. This story I am about to share with you illustrates one of the most effective teaching and parenting tools I have ever discovered: the power to walk away.

      Once upon a time I took a course in negotiation, and I learned many useful tips. The most important lesson I learned was: "don't lose the power to walk away." A person loses the power to walk away when they become afraid of the consequences of not reaching an agreement about something. They are afraid that they will lose any part of the opportunity if they do not agree with whatever is on the table at the moment. That is the point, however, when the negotiating power can be at its strongest, because the other side also has the fear of what they will lose when they walk away from the negotiating table.

      What does this have to do with teaching and parenting? Absolutely everything. I say that with complete conviction because I have been observing children and their parents for almost four decades. The issue also trends in popularity at various times. Right now I find the issue quite common because parents are truly too busy to spend the time necessary to correct and instruct (discipline) the child concerning unacceptable behavior.

      I have one truly terrific parent in my studio, however, and I want to share this amusing and powerful story with you.

      Last week I had a lesson with a three year old who has been coming to lessons about six months and doing a terrific job learning how to play the violin. This last lesson, however, was not so great. The child's family routine had been disrupted due to some unexpected travel out of town to help a grandparent move. Although the mom did her best to maintain the child's practice, the schedule was disrupted, and the child was reacting unpleasantly to the change in routine. The practice sessions were not happy and were becoming less and less productive overall. Mom was doing everything short of standing on her head, and things had not improved.

      At the child's lesson, I spent some time helping mom to come up with a few little practice games and routines to try at home. Then I began teaching the child. I got very little cooperation from the child. She fell apart like a jellyfish the minute I let go. She would not hold a single position in place. Finally, about five minutes from the end of her "lesson," the child stopped even turning her head to the left to put on the violin. She absolutely balked, and then refused to turn her head and put it on the violin.

      I turned to mom at that point and said that was all for the lesson that day. "What was the fun thing that you WERE going to do after her lesson today and which is NOT happening now?" I hinted. Her mom told me that they had talked about buying a little toy on the way home from the lesson if the lesson had gone well, which it most definitely had not. I reminded mom that buying the toy would NOT happen now, would it?

      It took the child about 30 seconds for the reality of the consequences to sink in. During that short window of time I quickly instructed the mom about what to expect and do next to be sure that we were both on the same page. I warned mom that there would be a huge blowup momentarily, and that it would be pretty nasty for about 20 minutes. And under absolutely NO CIRCUMSTANCES was the mom to change her mind or give the child an opportunity to earn the privilege back that day. The opportunity was completely lost. Period.

      And that is when the caterwauling began. Wailing, crying, and desperate clinging measures were used. The child kept tugging on mom's arm and urgently repeating, "I'll be good, I'll be good, I'll be good! I'm sorry, mommy, I'll be good!" Mom started to turn around and talk to the child, probably in an attempt to calm the child down, but I engaged the mom in a pleasant conversation instead. Actually the two of us were trying very hard not to giggle at the situation, because we had predicted that this would happen. Mom could have asked the child to comply with any direction at that moment, as the child was completely compliant, obedient, and absolutely desperate to go buy that toy.

      I am so sorry that we did not have a video camera running during the entire episode, because this was a classic "how to" video for parents. Thankfully, the child's mother is a great mom and is strong enough to withstand all the child's tactics.

      Here is the power tool that my student's mom employed:

      • Say it once
      • Turn your back
      • Walk away

      What do you say? "I'm sorry, but I didn't like [fill in the blank.] So, we are not going to do [fill in the blank.]" You do not discuss the matter any further than your first pronouncement. That is the "turn your back" and "walk away" part. And that, my friends, is the simple yet incredibly effective tool of "the power to walk away."

      How does the story end? I got a text message from mom today: "I'm soooo happy! [The child] feels horrible about last week and has practiced everyday without drama. She'll say, 'I'll practice without the drama.' :)"

      So the next time you are tempted to give in to your child's demands, remember to give "the power to walk away" a try.

      If you want more information about how to use this tool effectively, read Dr. Kevin Leman's book Have a New Kid by Friday. You can purchase the book to read on your Kindle or Kindle app.

      Sunday, September 11, 2011

      Monday Morning Check In: Keep Your Eye on the Prize

      Life is a series of ups and downs. We cannot avoid trouble or problems, nor can we ignore them. We may prefer to experience joy and celebration in every moment of our lives, but pinning all our hopes and expectations on this wishful thinking is unrealistic. We will be riding life's roller coaster of ups and downs, so we had better find a way to survive the ride until the end.

      I do not think we have any trouble finding ways to enjoy our life's up swings, however, learning how to successfully hang on during the down swings may be another story. I would like to share one technique that can help you stay focused and moving forward in the face of adversity: "Keep your eye on the prize."

      I had a fruitful discussion with a close friend and colleague this week about creating a different sort of goal statement than the types of goal setting I have previously espoused in this blog. Rather than a specific set of goals to accomplish, my friend and I talked about a goal that was more global. We were in effect discussing the creation of a mission statement or purpose for my work. I have discussed Stephen R. Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People in earlier blog posts. Creating a mission statement can span two of the seven habits:

      • habit #2: begin with the end in mind
      • habit #3: put first things first

      Habit #2, begin with the end in mind, involves developing a principle-centered personal mission statement that includes long term goals based on personal principles. Habit #3, put first things first, involves spending time doing those things that fit within my personal mission and finding balance between all the various roles of my life.

      My friend and I spent some time discussing my personal mission statement as it related to my work at the university. After discussing the various roles I played and the university's expectations of its faculty, my friend and I developed a three-point mission statement that covered the various aspects of my university teaching work. It covered my personal development and the performance of my teaching duties, my work as it related to my colleagues and working conditions, and my role in the larger university collegiate arena.

      After developing this mission statement of purpose, I wrote it on a small card of bookmark size. For several days I referred to the bookmark often and read the statements that we had written on the card. I spent several days reflecting in my morning pages on the areas of my work that would fall under each of the three points. And finally, I used the card and my reflection time to develop specific items or goal areas that I wanted to effect improvement in myself and in my working relationship with my colleagues and work partners.

      When those times of adversity arrive, and arrive they surely will, you will have a prize to fix your eyes upon. You can use the bookmark or card to remind yourself frequently what your purpose and mission statement is. When you are in the midst of a necessary confrontation, you will have something to remind you of your purpose and personal mission. If you keep your eyes fixed on the prize that you have set before you on a card or bookmark, you will have something to direct your steps during those times when you are being buffeted by unimportant distractions.

      To try this idea, write a basic three-point mission statement of purpose for yourself. As with the Covey habit program, develop a statement that addresses and moves you through each of these three areas: dependence, independence, and interdependence. Make your own series of cards or bookmarks with your basic three-point mission statement, and place the cards or bookmarks in various places in your environment so that you are frequently reminded of your identified purpose and mission in life.

      "Remember that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize. You also must run in such a way that you will win." - 1 Corinthians 9:24.

      "And let us run with endurance the race that God has set before us." Hebrews 12:1b

      For a good summary of Stephen R. Covey's 7 Habits, visit: http://www.quickmba.com/mgmt/7hab/.

      Monday, September 5, 2011

      Monday Morning Check In: More Productive Days

      Last week we discussed two tools that generally help us to get a big picture of our life as we unfold it from day to day. I suggested Morning Pages and Life Lessons journals as methods to help us gain perspective about our purpose, our dreams, and our lessons learned. Today I would like to suggest two tools that can help us to make our days more productive. I keep both of these tools handy beside me when I am working my morning pages, and I complete them as I complete my morning tools.

      I got this idea from something that John Maxwell wrote. He suggested that in order to have more productive days, we had better plan our days. As I considered that statement, I realized that unless I had a master plan for my day, I would indeed be more likely to be distracted from the things that I wanted to accomplish. Rather than be subject to the vagaries of circumstances and other people, I considered John Maxwell's suggestion to be sound. Here is what I do to help my days flow and to keep me on track.

      Activity Log
      I use an activity log. It is 8.5" x 11" piece of paper with lines broken up by the hours of the day, from 5:00 am until 12:00 pm. I xerox a blank log every day. As I am writing my morning pages, I fill out the log with the activities and appointments that I know I have on my schedule. Although the log is a full sheet of paper and has lots of room on it, I find that the extra room makes it easier for me to write down more than one thing on a line if more than one thing occurs in an hour. I also use the bottom margin to make notes of things I want to remember.

      Essential Things To Do List:
      Along with the activity log, I use a smaller tool that I refer to as my "essential things to do list." This is a sheet from a small notebook put out by Mead in a 3.5" x 5.5" format. I tear out a page each day and make a list of the essential things I need to do that day. If I will be teaching at the university, I list that as one item. I also list my studio teaching as one item, along with any rehearsals or any errands I need to do. As I note this information, I also record the item on the activity log in the hour slot when I will do this item in my day, and I include any driving time that is involved.

      Although I may fill up the entire side of the small to do list, I may not get to every item. I try to be very careful just to put my essential things to get done in a day and not just everything that I might want to accomplish. I refrain from being too ambitious because I have learned that too long a list actually has the reverse effect and encourages me to procrastinate instead. Six things accomplished in a day is plenty in my opinion (as Mary Kay Ash used to promote), and I find that I almost need a day to recover if I try to do anything more than that.

      Both of these forms are simple to create. I have included copies of the forms I use here:

      Activity Log


      To Do Form (2 on 1 page)
      I hope you will find these tools as useful as I have.