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Monday, October 31, 2011

Monday Morning Check In: Hidden Messages

"What you are shouts so loudly in my ears I cannot hear what you say." -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

We communicate in many different ways. At one time we communicated verbally and in writing through letters and books. With our current state of technological advancement, however, we can now communicate instantly through electronic communication. I can chat with friends in Italy or Oregon at the same moment I email someone in my home town, talk on the phone with family in another state, and gesture to a family member in the same room. I can video chat, send instant photos, and electronically share documents with anyone anywhere in the world at any hour.

Despite this "advance" in communication ability, we humans still communicate basically and most powerfully in two ways: verbally and behaviorally. We may have many different methods of transmitting our communication, but we can still boil down the enterprise into two basic forms of communication. The problem is that we tend to forget the power of the behavioral communication; we forget the hidden messages we send to others through our actions and instead focus on the verbal communication.

As the Emerson quote above suggests, everything we do communicates more powerfully than anything we say, whether we say it verbally or in writing. Our behavior shows people who we are. We run into communication difficulties when we forget this basic premise. Let me give you seven behavior scenarios and what I think the hidden messages are for each one. Please let me reassure you that these examples do not come from any of my current studio parents; I have compiled them from stories that I have heard or read from other studio teachers or websites or situations from the past.

Behavior: The parent brings the student to the lesson late or frequently misses group class.
Hidden Message: The student's activities are not important enough for the parent to arrange to be punctual or even participate.

Behavior: The parent forgets to bring the student to the lesson or group class. (Yes, this does happen!)
Hidden Message: The student's activity (and possibly the student) is not a high enough priority to the parent in order for the parent to make the effort to remember the lesson or group class time.

Behavior: The parent forgets to bring the student's instrument or lesson materials.
Hidden Message: Again, the student's activity is not on the parent's radar enough for the  parent to remember. After all, if the parent were really interested and engaged in what the student was learning and accomplishing, wouldn't the parent remember to bring the violin or the lesson book?

Behavior: The parent does not complete the teacher's practice assignment or else the parent practices something else entirely than that assigned by the teacher.
Hidden Message: It is not important to do the homework assigned by the teacher. Another message might be that it is okay not to obey authority figures (this would translate to include future teachers and employers), or that it is alright to ignore rules and assignments and make special exceptions. Be careful about this message! Unless a parent just does not understand the homework assignment and is unable to contact the teacher to obtain clarity, then this is the message that the student learns. This is the parent who later laments that the child will not do homework. Hm, where did the child learn that it was alright not to do assigned homework?

Behavior: The parent argues with the teacher about what needs to be accomplished in the lesson.
Hidden Message: The teacher is not worthy of respect, and it is okay to argue or question authority figures. Ooh, does the parent really want to go there? This is just a step removed from the parent's permission to the child to disrespect and question the parent's authority. I do not recommend that the parent go to the dark side here.

Behavior: The parent cancels lessons frequently because of schedule conflicts, either for another child or for some other reason.
Hidden Message: The student's activity ranks lower in priority than the other child's schedule or the other activity.

Behavior: The parent complains during the lesson that the child fights the parent's help and will not practice. Or, the parent complains about something the child does, such as nail biting or some other "misbehavior."
Hidden Message: The parent is trying to embarrass the student, even if the student is really young! The parent is taking the easy way out: rather than working to figure out a solution to the problem, the parent is looking elsewhere for a quick fix. This equates to the message that the parent does not consider the child or the parent's relationship with the child to be important enough to find a workable solution or identify the root cause of the problem. What I think is really sad about this scenario is that the parent is eroding the relationship with the child. When the parent talks about the child in the child's presence in this manner, the parent is sending the hidden message that:
  • The child is invisible (i.e., not important enough for the parent to engage or involve in the discussion).
  • The parent has more power than the child. This attitude and behavior may work until the child reaches the teen years. It will never work with a strong-willed choleric child, who will definitely lose respect for the parent immediately.
As you can see, there are many "hidden" messages. Every behavior has a message, and most of our behaviors have hidden messages that may surprise us once we reflect upon them. It is important that we take the time to consider our behavior (the things we do) and the message that we consequently convey (the things we think). It is not easy to climb inside our own heads and expose the root of our thinking, but if we are going to establish a good relationship with our children and students, we must do just that. We must figure out what we are really thinking and analyze our behavior to see what message we are in actuality conveying to our children and to the world around us.

This week, and today especially, stand back and look objectively at everything you do. Consider your behavior and the "hidden" messages you send to others around you. If you do not like some of the things you discover, make a list of those particular behaviors and some things that you can do instead to convey a different message. For every message there is an opposite message possibility.

Your assignment this week is to consider how to convey the opposite message. If you are showing arrogance, then consider how you might convey humility. If you lean toward  indifference, think of ways to show interest and concern. If you have cultivated the ability to be irresponsible in scheduling and prioritizing, then enlist the help of someone or some tool to assist you to organize your thoughts and activities.

Happy Week!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

How to Improve Your Teaching

Teaching is not a mystery. Teaching is something that we can all do. Before we had the ability to print books, we learned by emulation and imitation. We apprenticed ourselves to others who were more expert than we, and we followed the advice of mentors. If you are a teacher, or a parent, this blog post is for you. Yes, if you are a parent, then you are a teacher. You teach your child many things before the child even reaches school age:
  • How to dress
  • How to eat with utensils
  • How to show manners ("please" and "thank you")
  • How to pray
  • How to pick up toys
  • Any number of other things depending on your situation. My mother taught us to swim at a young age. I have read of other parents who teach their toddlers how to ski.
In a previous blog post (http://teachsuzuki.blogspot.com/2011/06/quick-teacher-tip-how-to-digest-song.html), I discussed how to analyze a song for the purpose of revealing the song's teaching points and generally considered four areas:
  • Left hand skills ("Finger, bow, go!" Dr. Suzuki said, so left hand skills ranked first in priority)
  • Right hand skills
  • Preview (how to teach or introduce the song)
  • Later problems (the deterioration of skills that happen over time and how to identify them and correct them, or better yet, how to prevent them)
However, there is another step that would improve a person's learning in order to be a better teacher: the ability to see the big picture. Here is how I suggest we do that. After going through the above exercise to determine the teaching points in each song in the Suzuki volume, I suggest we make these additional summary lists:
  • What left hand skills are learned in this book or could be learned in this book?
  • What right hand skills are learned in this book or could be learned in this book?
  • How can we use this current material to prepare for the next book or next set of skills?
  • How can we use this material to cement the foundation of things we have learned already (review program or group class activities)?
When we study a particular volume of teaching material, we tend to think about individual pieces as presented in the volume.  When we consider the volume as a whole and how it fits within a larger picture, and we make a list of the general skills learned in totality in the volume and how these skills relate to future learning, we see a different progression of skill development. I suggest that these summary lists be revisited frequently, because as teaching experience grows, so will the discoveries, and the lists will need to be revised to reflect these new discoveries.

So, in addition to the four quadrant dissection that I advocated in my earlier blog post, I suggest making a summary list of the quadrant of skills developed in the volume of material. With each step backward or "zoom out" step we take to consider a bigger picture, we will uncover a broader list of skills to develop and focus on. The more "big" pictures we discover, the bigger our arsenal of teaching ideas. This ability development -- the skill of seeing the big picture -- is what will improve our teaching ability.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Quick Practice Tip: Nose and Front Teeth Bows

One of the hardest things to teach a beginning student is refinement, perhaps because refinement requires a strong ability to concentrate and focus. Couple this requirement with the younger student's desire to play quickly, and pretty soon the songs the student plays are a mess.

In the beginning, I place a colorful yellow tape mark at the point of the bow where the student's arm forms a "square": the bow is parallel to the bridge and the forearm is perpendicular to the violin strings. I refer to this tape mark as the "sunshine spot" and liken it to the student's backyard and ask the student to stay in the backyard. I am not  dictatorial about how well the student stays in the area, because I do not want to encourage undue tension. I have found that if I am too insistent and focused about whether the student stays in the "yard," then the student tightens up arm muscles.

I find it better to allow the student some room to make some of these discoveries about what constitutes a good tone and good playing under my watchful eye. In this way I look forward to the time when the student becomes his or her own teacher. My goal at all times is to instill in the student those skills necessary to experiment, observe, and evaluate. After all, the student sees me once a week in most cases and needs to be able to understand how to practice and improve on his or her own, even if the student works with a home practice partner or supervisor.

So I let the issue of refinement slide a little at times. If the student plays too far afield, I just point to the yellow spot without having to say anything, and the student automatically starts playing in the taped area. For a very young or new beginner, I find it easier to just pick the bow up and help the student to place it in the correct spot every time. We work together as partners.

My practice tip today is for those students who are really getting loose in their bowing style. An example might a young boy who is excited about playing and in particular about playing fast with a lot of (unnecessary) energy. Just pointing to the yellow spot is not going to be enough to draw his focus away from the fun of moving fast and furious with his bow. So I use my practice tip about Nose and Front Teeth Bows.

I tell my student that we are going to play with bows about the size of his nose and with bows the size of his front teeth, and then my student will tell me what was different about the two techniques. I measure the length of my student's nose with my thumb and index finger (probably about two inches). I hold my thumb and index finger above the yellow spot and help my student to measure off the length of the area that matches the length of my student's nose. The length generally resembles the length of the yellow tape patch (what a coincidence!). Then we measure the length of the student's front teeth. I might place a little sticker on the yellow tape as a mark of the front teeth length (about 1/4" to 1/3").

When asked to try both of these bow lengths, two things generally happen:
  • The student focuses on the bowing and uses more refined bowing technique.
  • The student discovers that using a tinier bow length results in faster playing (and conversely, that longer bows result in slower playing).

Usually the student is delighted to work on the front teeth bows, and that is fine with me because it accomplishes three things for me:
  • The student concentrates more on the bow usage, especially the bow's contact point.
  • The faster speed encourages the student to solidly acquire certain skills: appropriate fingers (independent versus "stacked" fingerings) and good bow and left hand coordination.
  • The student pays attention to what he or she is doing!

The next time you want to help a student to refine a particular technique, try the nose and front teeth bow model. Take what the student is currently doing and find ways to shrink down the challenge area.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Monday Morning Check In: Safety Nets

The weather was lovely this past Saturday as I did my long run. I took my youngest dog "Pocket Puppy" with me. Pocket is a miniature long-haired dachshund and a terrific little runner, and we did about five miles.

Pocket has a lot of natural energy, and I have worked with him to walk and run properly on a leash. Pocket is quite exuberant on a run, and he generally pulls to the extent of the leash. He will back off when I correct him, but generally he still goes to the end of the leash.

A curious thing happened on our Saturday run. I chose a deserted back road loop. Since I had no fear of traffic on that loop, I let Pocket off his leash to run loose with me. Pocket did not run off or ahead of me like he might have done if given his head while on the leash. Instead Pocket actually drew closer to me and ran directly alongside me in exactly the place that he should be when on the leash! And Pocket stayed in that position alongside me for the duration of the run.

I puzzled over this. I think the reason Pocket came so close to me when off leash was because he was afraid, nervous, or uncertain. He needed to be close to me in order to gain confidence about what we were doing. I do not believe that we had ever run that stretch of road together before, so this was new territory for him. Unfamiliar smells, new sights, strange sounds. Pocket needed the reassurance of being right with me in order to feel safe about running in this new area.

Having come to this conclusion, I observed whether Pocket's behavior changed at any point during the run. Sure enough, as we turned down our final road of the run, a road that we have run many times together, Pocket pulled out of position alongside me, and behaved as he normally does when on the leash. Afterwards, I spent some time contemplating the experience, and I would like to share my conclusion.

Pocket seemed to feel "safe" and therefore confident when he was on leash or in familiar territory. The leash provided a sense of connection between us, and Pocket gained confidence from that in order to reach (stretch) forward. The familiar patch of road much travelled lent Pocket a sense of confidence because he knew the area well.

I do not mean to compare ourselves to dogs, but I do like to uncover life lessons from our furry friends. In this case, I believe the lesson I learned from little Pocket is that we can gain confidence from familiarity and from a sense of connection. Note that I did not say that we cannot behave with confidence otherwise, because I think that we can always move forward confidently. Because I step boldly in a particular direction does not mean that I do actually feel confident at the same time. Oftentimes I just strike out boldly because I know that it is the right thing to do. and I muster up the courage to take the first steps. I work at being teachable as much as I can in order to build the traits of humility and gratitude.

Still, it would be nice to actually feel confident at the same moment. Therefore, I conclude from Pocket's example that I need to build up familiarity and shore up safety nets. How do I do that?

Familiarity comes from an intimate knowledge of something, in other words, a close association or study of something. Familiarity comes from repetition and habit. If I work out a section of a piece I am learning, I build familiarity when I study the piece, work out fingerings and bowings, and analyze the form of the music. I build up familiarity when I strengthen my muscle memory through repetition.

Safety nets (leashes) come from a different place, through our connections with others. For example, I might rely on a friendship with a colleague, where we share our miseries, goals, and experiences. I might seek to establish a mentor relationship with a more experienced person in my field and learn from observation and discussion. I might have friends with whom I share my intimate thoughts.

This week, consider the areas of your life where you might need to build familiarity or where you might need to create a safety net. Make a note of these areas and choose one area to improve.

Have a great week!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Quick Practice Tip: Get a Really Smart Phone!

Last night I got a text message from my high school senior student asking me for some practice tips for the ricochet bowing. I searched my iPhone for the "Voice Memos" app, hit record, and made an audio recording of a ricochet bowing exercise for my student. I gave the recording a filename and then emailed it to my student. I sent a reply text to alert my student that the recording was on its way.

My students (and their technologically savvy parents) love this! Absolutely love this! My high school senior laughingly refers to it as "having a portable Paula." We have resorted to calling these little snippet recordings "Porta-Paula's." I thank Steve Jobs and Apple for my iPhone. I get a lot of use from it in my teaching arena.

For example, I frequently make short videos of practice exercises for my students and forward them via email to the students and their parent. I have one little boy whose mother does the home practicing but whose father is the person available to bring the boy to lessons. I frequently record practice tips, exercises, and instructions or make short practice videos, and then I email everything to mom. Since she is a Suzuki-trained music educator, I know that these little videos and voice recordings will be all that she needs to stay in touch with what her child and I are doing.

For other students, I make up short practice recordings of songs or areas of songs that we are working on. The students enjoy these recordings. I often use them during lessons as well.  The recordings allow me to have my hands free to work with the student to make adjustments where needed. Not only do the parents have a built-in practice routine that they can follow at home, it also gives me a practice assistant during lessons.

I use many apps on my iPhone for my teaching. I am curious what other apps teachers use in their teaching. This will be a future post for sure!

Happy practicing!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Monday Morning Check In: Stepback Weeks

My regular readers know that I am a runner. I am not the world's greatest or fastest runner. I run for the purpose of exercise and discipline (and to keep my weight under control). I also gain several benefits mentally and spiritually from the discipline of running, and I frequently include the insights I have gleaned from this discipline in my blog posts and my teaching subject matter.

One of the benefits of running regularly is what I learn from setting up and following a training program. I regularly set up a running goal, usually in the form of a particular race event. Then I figure out how far out I need to start the actual training program to prepare me for the running event. For example, if I sign up for the Austin marathon, I know that I need to allow for 18 weeks of training to be in the best possible position to survive the endurance event (which means that I have to begin my marathon training this week). For those who are interested in embarking on a similar journey, I like to follow the training programs offered by:

Part of Mr. Higdon's training program includes a push for two weeks and then a "stepback week." During this week, the training program allows us to reduce our mileage in order to gather strength for the next push forward. Since I like to relate everything that I do to . . .  everything that I do, I considered how to relate this "stepback" week to my work routine.

As I have repeatedly noted in previous blog posts, life gets in our way -- a lot of the time! We have our systems in place and our goals and plans all laid out, and then "life happens." I have found that the best way to handle these little life upsets is to strengthen a positive attitude. But, that just gets us through the day in general. What about something more useful?

As I contemplated the upcoming start of the marathon training program (yes, as I write this I am seriously considering an entry into the Austin Marathon on February 19, 2012), I comforted myself about the trials ahead by reminding myself about the stepback weeks. Every third week I would run less on my long runs -- not a bad thing at all! In fact, it would be something to look forward to! (See how this "positive attitude" thing works?).

So too in life.

Things bog down now and then. Our computers need to reboot and refresh. We need a Sabbath Day to recharge. And a stepback week might be in order as well. Let this be that week if you need the extra rest.

So this past week was my stepback week, and I encourage you to schedule your own stepback week. This was my first stepback week and the first of several more to come. In this next week, I urge you to cut your weekend (or week's work) in half where possible, and to take time to sit back, put your feet up, watch something on TV or Netflix, and just recharge your mental and physical batteries. I ran a tough "marathon" in the past few weeks with an opera, symphony subscription concert, and Artisan Quartet performances (3 in one weekend!). I needed to sit still for a few hours and do nothing on a grand scale. I did sit on my hands to keep myself at rest though.

Here is a little, historical P.S. about me:

I had always wanted to run a marathon. I do not understand this desire or goal, because I was not a runner to begin with. I dabbled with the sport of "jogging" in the 1970's when it first became fashionable as something folks did to lose weight. So, I do not know where this desire originated. However, the hope and determination showed up again when I read "Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner" by Dean Karnazes. Inspired by Karno's story, I took the challenge myself and ran my first marathon in February 2006 in Austin, and I have run several other marathons after that and two ultramarathons (50K). I learned quite a bit about myself, my mental thought processes, and my capacity for endurance and suffering. The lessons I learned from that initial experience were invaluable, and they have served me well in the intervening years (and, I enjoy telling folks that I run marathons when I so obviously do not look like a "runner"). This is why I continue to set running goals of half marathons, marathons, and even ultramarathons (50K is my longest distance) on a regular basis. I encourage everyone to contemplate embarking on this learning experience.

Oh yes, as I wrote this post, I inspired myself, and I have now officially registered for the 2012 Austin Marathon on February 19, 2012. Who wants to join me?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Song of the Wind, part 3: Downbow Circles Preview

Song of the Wind teaches an important right hand skill: down bow circles. Down bow circles are the foundation for all sorts of other skills, from setting the bow on the string to begin a good articulation, to playing double stops and chords in more advanced repertoire. Along the way, down bow circles can test whether a student is still maintaining the bow hold (it tends to fall out of the hand if the bow hold is incorrect) or if the student is holding too much tension in the shoulder (the student can use the circles to learn how to set the bow and release the shoulder tension).

If you have not already done this when teaching the Twinkle variations, place a tape mark on the student's bow at the point where the student's arm forms a "square" (right arm bends 90 degrees at the elbow, and the forearm is parallel to the violin strings) when the student has placed the bow on the strings to play. It is a good idea to check the placement of this tape mark periodically as the student grows, to be sure that the mark still "fits" the student's arm length.

Airplanes and Helicopters

Here is how I introduce the down bow circle:
  • I ask the student to play a down bow on the E string to produce a nice ringing tone.
  • I then ask the student to lift the bow in a circular motion in front of the student's face and land the bow at the marked tape spot. The circle should be done counter-clockwise, similar to the hand gesture that one makes when saying "come here" with the hands.
  • I then ask the student to make several down bow circles. I bring to the student's attention how the bow bounces on the landing, and I ask the student to experiment with eliminating the bounces.
  • I then introduce the concept of airplane versus helicopter landings.
    • Airplanes bounce on landing (at least once, no matter how good the pilot is).
    • Helicopters are capable of landing without a bounce.
    • Airplanes land while still in forward motion, hence the bounce.
    • Helicopters can drop straight down without forward motion.
  • I then have the student practice landing the bow on the E string after a down bow circle while completely stopped in forward motion, as in "helicopter" style. The student is usually able to eliminate the bounce.
  • We play 10 down bow circles on the E string and strive for a good ringing tone.
  • We then progress to down bow circles on the A string just for variety.

Railroad Car Wheels

I also discuss with my student how the "arm" of a railroad car wheel works. If you recall, the railroad wheel has an arm that connects the wheels with each other. That arm moves the same way between the wheels. In such a manner, the frog and tip of our bows should imitate the circular motion of the railroad car wheels. The circle we make at the frog of the bow should be the same size circle as that made by the tip of our bow.

Group Classes

In group class, we use Song of the Wind to practice the down bow circles in several ways:
  • We sing the song using the "Goosey Gander" words, and we practice making circles:
    • On the first verse, we turn in a circle at the places where we would be making down bow circles with our bow. This prepares the student and helps them to remember where the circles actually occur in the song.
Fox has stolen Goosey Gander.
Bring him back to me. (circle)
Bring him back to me. (circle)
If you don't I'll sic my dog
And chase you up a tree-hee-hee. (teeny circle)
If you don't I'll sic my dog
And chase you up a tree.
(circle when making the repeat; no circle after the second verse)

This a loose English translation of the original German lyrics,
"Fuchs, Du Hast die Ganz Gestohlen."
    • On the second verse, we make circles with our bows in the air, using a "come here" gesture to mimic the actual down bow circle motion.
  • We practice making down bow circles using fruit as a measurement for the circle's size. For example:
    • We make circles as large as a watermelon ("What is the largest fruit you can think of?")
    • We make medium-sized circles ("What is a medium-sized fruit?")
    • We make tiny circles ("What is the smallest fruit you can think of? A grape?")
  • We talk about what size circles we might make throughout the song. My goal here is to help the students recognize the need for a grape-sized circle between measures 10 and 11.
Advanced Students

I have used this song or at least the down bow circle skill to help an advanced student learn how to play double stop chords and to check for shoulder tension:
  • We practice making a circle bow and setting the bow, stopped, on the string before drawing out the notes of a double stop chord.
  • We practice making circle bows, and checking for tension by saying:
    • "Set" (is the bow set on the string and stopped?)
    • "Sink" (has the student released the tension/energy/air from the shoulder?)
  • Song of the Wind is also useful for checking the state of a student's bow hold. If the student has let his or her bow hold posture slip or get sloppy, this song will reveal it.
Dr. Suzuki

Someone once told me a story about Dr. Suzuki and his teacher training classes in Japan (the story may have come from Pat D'Ercole. After Dr. Suzuki explained how to make proper down bow circles, he then told his teacher trainee students to practice the circles 10,000 times. Apparently the American teachers responded with the idea that Dr. Suzuki really wanted them to practice the circles a lot! The Japanese teachers responded by buying special notebooks so that they could begin keeping track of the number of circles they practiced until they added up to 10,000. I do not know if the story is true, but if it is, the story does illustrate a difference in response between the American and the Japanese.
    This pretty much wraps up the discussion about Song of the Wind. As you can see from the numerous blog entries I have posted, this song is full of useful teaching points. I frequently refer to this song in master classes, as it contains so many valuable uses for both the left and right hands.

      Wednesday, October 12, 2011

      Quick Practice Tip: Magic Patterns

      This practice tip is about building up speed in difficult passages but in a manner more advanced and complex than the earlier practice tip I posted about building up speed through the use of thoughtful chunks. I call this technique "magic patterns" and use it mostly with my advanced students. Currently here in Texas there are several auditions for students coming up that require the performance of several fast etudes, and my advanced students are struggling to build up speed.

      Here are the 11 magic patterns in a nutshell:

      Magic Patterns (11)
      Each pattern in a measure is a separate pattern to be applied to the passage being worked on. The above patterns apply to passages that involve a multiple of four notes (16th notes, 8th notes). There are three requirements:
      • Keep the same fingering.
      • Keep the same bowing.
      • Play correctly, no mistakes. If there are mistakes, then the speed must be adjusted or the length of the "thinking pause" in the pattern execution must be lengthened.
      I think of the above Magic Patterns as a floor, and each particular pattern will reveal a weakness in the floor that may need an extra nail hammered into it. A weak finger or a slippery shift may be causing a problem the student was not aware of. Maybe a bowing does not quite catch the string at a good contact point. The magic patterns will uncover all the problems one at a time. Some patterns may seem trickier than others, and this sensation may vary from passage to passage.

      When a student has struggled through the entire exercise of applying the magic patterns, I ask them to play the passage as originally written. The students always acknowledge how much easier the passage feels after being massaged by the magic patterns: "It's magical," they say. And it is.

      I then take two brand new rubber bands and show them to the student. We compare the color and the length of both bands; they are the same. I set one band aside and take the other. I stretch out the second rubber band eleven times, which is the number of magic patterns the student completed. After completing my stretching exercise, we compare the two rubber bands again. The stretched rubber band has a different color and is much longer than the first rubber band.

      "One's mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions." -- Oliver Wendall Holmes

      I explain to the student that when we made the passage harder by applying varied rhythms and increasing the complexity, we stretched the student's mind. When the student returned to the passage as originally written, the student found it to be much simpler and easier to play.

      I seldom have to repeat my magic pattern exercise. Once through a difficult passage and the passage then becomes "mine." Occasionally in extremely difficult repertoire, I may have to apply other patterns. If the passage is separate bows, I add slurs and mix up separate and slurred bowing. If the passage is slurred, I play without slurs or spiccato. The goal is to find ways to play the passage differently and to make it even more difficult.

      To increase speed, I practice with the patterns, include larger thinking pauses, and speed up the moving notes as quickly as I can.

      I use similar patterns for passages in 6/8 or other multiples of threes.

      Happy practicing!

      Tuesday, October 11, 2011

      Quick Practice Tip: Building up Speed with Thoughtful Chunks

      Recently a friend and I were talking about our students' struggles to increase the speed of a passage once they had learned the notes and bowing. I remembered when I first studied more advanced repertoire, I puzzled over the same issue: how to go faster and how to measure my progress. That was when I discovered the metronome and its power.

      I would decide what my ultimate tempo goal was, and I set the metronome somewhere about half that speed. Every day I would play the passage with my metronome and increase the speed gradually until I had reached my ultimate tempo. Along the way I became quite familiar with the ins and outs of the passage because I spent so much time thinking about the passage while I was playing.

      And that is the problem with this traditional approach of using a metronome and increasing speed a little at a time. The entire exercise takes a very long time to complete, especially in this day and age of digital metronomes that can increase speed at the excruciatingly slow speed of a click at a time. There has to be a faster way, and there is but you must practice carefully and precisely. I call this method "thoughtful chunks."

      I will use the Seitz Concerto No. 5, 3rd movement (Suzuki Violin Book 4, #3) as my example of how this process works. I will use the passage in measures 101-108.

      The difficulties for the student in this passage are that the bow has to play a large number of notes in a slur (6) and the student may not be the best reader yet. I teach my students how to play this passage pretty much at full speed from the beginning using the method I am about to describe.

      After my student plays the first note of measure 101, I ask them to stop and consider the next series of notes to be played with the bow (in this case, the 6-note slur on an up bow plus 1 note F# on a down bow).

      When the student is certain that he or she can play the little snippet without a mistake, I ask the student to go ahead and try it. If the student succeeds, we celebrate. If the student stumbles, I suggest that the student may not have thought long enough, and we try it again.

      We progress in this fashion, snippet by snippet, chunk by chunk until we have gone through the entire passage or whatever length we have determined was our goal for the day.

      The student must learn to spend time thinking about the passage before playing it in order to ensure that the student plays the passage correctly. Incorrect playing is incorrect practicing. Remember the old adage: practice makes perfect. In actuality, practice makes permanent, so the student had better be sure to play everything correctly the first time and every time.

      Practicing the passage in this manner accomplishes several things:

      • The student will teach his or her fingers how to play fast from the initial practice session.
      • The student will build "fast" muscles.
      • The student will learn to consider the music in chunks, which helps the student's logical thought process and ability to read music.

      The pauses that the student uses between the chunks of passage notes I call "thinking pauses." The length of the thinking pauses can be as long as the student desires. In fact, long pauses are best, because they give the student's brain a chance to really consider the passage thoroughly and ensure successful playing.

      Since I have adopted this method of thoughtful, fast practice, my learning time for fast passages has been considerably shortened. Students seem to enjoy it as well, since they are pretty much playing at the correct speed from the initial moment they learn the passage. This method of practicing almost seems like more of a game than hard work. And, rather than teach our minds to wander by slogging through a passage in a slow tempo, we are offering our brains a challenge in concentration and focus, which is precisely the good thing we want to encourage at every juncture.

      Stay tuned later this week, as I address another way to practice fast: Magic Patterns!

      Monday, October 10, 2011

      Monday Morning Check In: Thank You, Steve Jobs

      Did you ever have one of those days?

      You know what I mean, I am sure. The kind of day when things seem to resemble a Salvador Dali or Picasso painting, where things are oozing out of their boundaries or disconnected and sliding along unfamiliar geologic fault lines.

      I have had that kind of day. In fact, I have had several days like that. I have been working on an article for posting about the Grasshopper and Giant Complex, and I cannot seem to finish it. I officially gave up about midnight and decided to look at my new Flipboard application for iPad. As I looked through the suggested feeds and selected some items for my new Favorites list, I stumbled across several feeds and photo streams related to last week's earth-shattering event in the Apple world -- the death of Steve P. Jobs. That is when I recognized why my days have been so abnormal. The death of Steve P. Jobs bothered me more than I anticipated. We all have our own thoughts about this, but here is my story.

      I have been associated with the "Apple" world since the early 1980's when my ex-husband brought Steve Jobs to my attention and brought home my very first computer. After listening to my ex talk about Steve Job's philosophy regarding computers and the future, I was caught up in the technology myself. We owned an Apple IIe, and I was fascinated with the possibilities. This all occurred at the same time that I had gone back to school to finish my undergraduate degree, actually switching majors to an entirely different field from music to criminal justice with the plan of attending law school afterwards. I used our new computer, my first ever, to write papers, and there were lots of those in my chosen major of "judicial administration." I also secured permission to use Apple's version of "Basic" to program assignments in my Computer Literacy class. I still remain thankful to that instructor from UTSA who allowed me to venture into an additional computer programming world other than the "Basic" program taught at the universities at the time.

      I did go on to attend law school, and I was the editor for the Women's Law Caucus newsletter. I did not have my beloved Apple IIe computer with me at the time, and I recall having to do all of my formal Caucus writing on the school's "Wang" system. Thankfully, I had enough training in my UTSA course to understand enough about how the system worked in order to use it. Basically, I got through law school with my old electric typewriter and the school's Wang system computers at the time.

      From law school, I then entered the legal work force. Yes, I was still a musician, and I have always been a musician. The other careers I have explored have always been my "seconds." I have given them 100%, but my heart has always been with music and teaching. Still, I am grateful for the opportunities I have had to continue my learning and to broaden my abilities to explore other ways to use technology to teach.

      Fast forward to my first job as an attorney. I recall getting my first credit approval. It was not to purchase a new car; it was to buy a new Macintosh computer. Fortunately my new boss from the law firm happened to enter the Apple store at the moment I was making my purchase and was able to give the official approval of my employment. I recall that my first purchase was a big decision, as the purchase was expensive. I believe that Apple has not changed this part of Steve Job's philosophy: one pays for quality. I cannot say that I have ever heard Steve Jobs actually make this statement, but Apple's policy of charging a bit more for things and then delivering the commensurate quality also sent me the message that this was Apple's philosophy: one pays for quality.

      Amusing anecdote: When I came home with my new Mac purchase in 1989, my current husband Bob asked me why I had bought the computer. "I need to build a database," I answered, and then tried to explain that I had a 3-foot stack of newspaper clippings and other articles that I needed to organize so that I could complete the book I was writing in law school about Hermine Tobolovsky, the author and spearhead for the Texas Equal Legal Rights Amendment. I used the Mac to write that book and also to complete my legal education and pass the Texas bar exam. I also used the Mac in my profession. I took the Mac to my legal office, and I did much of my work on it. I would then print out what I did and hand it to my legal assistant to finalize.

      Unfortunately, in those days, there was no compatibility between Macs or Apple products and PCs. The systems were completely separate from each other, and email was not helpful in the business setting at that time. Basically, I kept up my use of two systems for several years. I like to compose with a keyboard rather than a dictation machine, although I have tried both. I type faster with a keyboard than I think with a machine, so I have always preferred the computer and the keyboard. I used my Mac in the office to compose my memos and other legal briefs, and then I printed out my work for my legal assistant to transcribe. Unfortunately, I did not have the technological setup to make corrections to my legal assistant's work.

      When I finally opened up my own law practice (still performing with the symphony), I bought my first PC computer. I did it only because that was the way things had happened in the previous office. And that is the way things continued for many years, I am sorry to say. Finally, I began teaching at Texas State. The school used Mac computers, but there were still throwbacks to PCs as well. I took my PC laptop into my office to complete work. It was a hassle to take the machine back and forth from home, but I did it. When I took technology training, I took it on a Mac machine so that I would be able to function on either system.

      The day finally came when I made the switch back to Mac and Apple. I had tired of having to keep my PC running smoothly. I was finished with having to "Scan Disk" and "Defrag" and purchase another update of Virus scan software. Enough already! I used my educational discount to buy a Mac Book. I even paid extra to get it in black.  Then I bought an iPhone. Then I bought my husband a Mac Book (in white). Then I bought an iPad. Then I upgraded to another iPhone. And I have never looked back.

      I spend so much less time keeping my computers and other technology devices running smoothly than I did with the PC world. I love my devices. I love the connectivity I have. I love the technology and the philosophy. I am connected in a useful way. I use apps in my teaching. I use iTunes and GarageBand and Mobile Me for so many things in my teaching, group classes, and writing.

      Steve P. Jobs was an amazing man. I am not writing this blog post to inform you about Steve and his life, because I do not know much about him (I have pre-ordered his autobiography for December delivery). I have listened and watched his Stanford commencement address and learn something from it every time. I have always been impressed with him since the day I first learned about him from my ex-husband, and I am still learning from Steve's example. If you have not watched this commencement speech, I urge you to do so. You will find it interesting and learn something about Steve as well.


      I am part of the generation that was faced with a choice about the future. Do we hang on to the way things were done in the past, or do we grab onto the comet of the future? We were confronted with the pivotal decision of whether we would stick with the way things were as we knew them or whether we would venture into the unknown and learn something new about ourselves and the future.

      I choose to follow Steve Jobs. The news of his death this past week hit me harder than I expected. I have spent the week contemplating why that is. My conclusion is that I admired the man. I admired him because he had a vision, a philosophy, and a plan, and he was not afraid to venture into unknown territory. I admired him because he did not settle for defeat but found a way to reinvent himself and to move forward in the face of adversity. I admired him because his presence in the world basically held up a mirror in front of me and frequently reminded me of what I needed to do to make my own mark on the world.

      For now, I have Apple's picture of Steve Jobs from its website on my desk top and home screens, and I think I will keep it up there for  a while. I want to remember Steve's legacy.

      Thank you, Steve Jobs. You are the reason I am on a computer right now. You made it simple. You made it part of my world. You made it believable, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

      Saturday, October 8, 2011

      Song of the Wind (part 2): Jumping Finger Preview

      Jumping Finger Preview

      In this preview, I will introduce the jumping finger section of measure 3. First I play measures 3 and 4 for the student a few times first and ask some questions to help the student develop awareness through the eyes and ears:
      • Which finger did I hold down?
      • Which finger jumped?
      • What strings did my bow play on?
      I ask the student to place the first finger F# on the E string and "superglue" the finger throughout the exercise. I then ask the student to play "Mississippi Hot Dog" rhythm (4-16th notes and 2 staccato 8th notes) on the F#.

      While the student holds down the super glued first finger F#, I then instruct the student to "cross over" the third finger (ring finger) to play Mississippi Hot Dog ("MHD") on the D on the A string. Sometimes I cross my right leg over my left as a reinforcement illustration of this finger crossing.

      While still holding down the F#, I have the student "jump" the third finger (ring finger) over to the high A on the E string and play MHD on the high A.

      While still holding the F# down, the student lifts off the third finger to reveal the F# still in place and plays MHD.

      We remove the "superglue" finger (the student lifts off the F# finger) and the student plays MHD on the E string.

      The student repeats this sequence of notes and finger execution several times until the student remembers what to do and the parent is comfortable with duplicating the lesson at home.

      I build on this basic skill by gradually shortening the length of time on each note in the jumping finger pattern. I ask the student to play the sequence again and shorten the rhythm on each note using these rhythms:

      Mississippi Hot Dog



      Hot Dog

      And finally, the student plays the jumping finger passage as originally written:

      Original Passage

      The student will need reinforcement to remember these important teaching points:
      • Hold down the F# throughout the execution of the jumping finger segment. This superglue finger is important, because it aids the student in learning the spatial distance between the first and third fingers. This is an important skill in shaping the proper left hand set-up on the violin. As time goes on, the student gets a little sloppy about this requirement, so the parent and I are vigilant about watching this.
      • "Jump" the third finger from the A to the E string rather than laying down the finger to cover both strings. Be sure the mom or other home practice partner understands the difference between a jumping third finger and a third finger that lays down across the two strings as a short cut!
        • More advanced players will develop the skill of covering both strings with the same finger.
        • This is not the time for introducing this concept, as allowing the student to lay down the third finger encourages the bad habit of allowing the left hand to fall down.
      Students will exhibit the problem of the "falling" left hand as they progress through books 1 and 2, and Dr. Suzuki set this song up in the beginning of book 1 to provide a vehicle for keeping the left hand from falling. For this reason, Song of the Wind is an excellent song for review!

      Sunday, October 2, 2011

      Monday Morning Check In: The Name Tag Theory

      I have a lot of theories. I create theories to explain phenomena in my life. Sometime you will have to ask me about my Cockroach Theory. Today, however, I would like to discuss my Name Tag Theory.

      Many years back while I attended a teacher training in Ottawa, Kansas, I did some shopping in the little town square. As I paid for my purchases, the counter lady addressed me by name.

      "How do you know my name?" I asked.

      The lady pointed to the name tag hanging in a holder around my neck. Oh, of course. I still had my institute name tag on. I immediately cast back to the recent encounters I had just had with the local community of Ottawa, Kansas, which is a small rural area. Fortunately, I was unable to think of any embarrassing or unpleasant behavior on my part. Whew, good thing, because if I had, the folks I might have been unpleasant to would likely have remembered who I was and might even have mentioned it to the Institute Director. After all, it was a small community, the Institute was a well known, years old event in the community, and the Director was a prominent and well known member of the community. Someone could have mentioned in passing at the local grocery that they had met an unpleasant person who had attended the Institute, someone named Paula Bird. Yikes!

      Of course I intend to be pleasant and helpful with everyone I meet, but we all know how frail our intentions can be when we are hungry, tired, frustrated, or in a hurry. We mean well, but we all have had moments when we were less than perfect in our dealings with the world outside of our home (let alone, our dealings with the members of our own household, but this is another theory and blog post discussion).

      I considered removing my name tag, but I thought better of it. I liked that wearing the name tag around my neck made me more conscious of my behavior in public (once I realized that I was wearing one). I liked that my name tag reminded me to use proper courteous behavior, even when I did not feel like being proper or polite. I wore my name tag proudly throughout the entire Institute and was amused by how many folks addressed me by name. Sometimes I even wished that everyone else wore a name tag!

      I wonder if the world might change a little bit for the better if we all wore name tags. I believe that name tags would help us to remember how to be courteous to each other. That is my Name Tag Theory.

      Today, why not put my theory to the test? Write up a name tag and wear it. If someone asks why you are wearing a name tag, you can use the opportunity to explain that you are testing out my theory. Carry around a few spare name tags and offer to make up a tag for every person who asks you about yours. Be sure to let me know how your day goes and whether you notice anything different in it.

      Recently I attended a major donor event for a music festival, and we were encouraged to write and wear name tags. Frequently, folks would visit with me and ask, "Why does your name tag say 'donkeys, dachshunds, and alpacas' on it?"

      I also find it amusing to use my name tags as conversation starters.

      Saturday, October 1, 2011

      Song of the Wind, part 1

      Song of the Wind is the third song in the Suzuki Violin Volume 1. The song is full of teaching gems, and I have found the song to be a useful teaching tool for younger students, a review song for more advanced students, and a great song for group class activities. Here is an overview of the skills contained in Song of the Wind.

      Left Hand Skills
      • Song of the Wind is in A major and uses the same finger pattern as the Twinkle Variations and Lightly Row (close 2-3 finger pattern).
      • The song begins with ascending "walking fingers" as previously introduced in Lightly Row (exactly the same except for an additional E string).

      Walking Fingers + E
      • The song introduces a "jumping finger" section in measures 3 and 5 to teach the student the spatial relationship between the first and third fingers, which:
        • is the basic foundation for the general shape or frame of the left hand.
        • supports good intonation by strengthening the "feel" of the distance between the first and third fingers.
        • teaches the student to hold down the first finger as a "corner fence post" to set up future finger patterns and combinations.
      Jumping Finger
        • The song generally moves stepwise throughout the song except for the jumping finger section.
        • The song uses the descending scale pattern as learned in the Twinkle variations with the added complexity of changing pitches in a different rhythmic pattern in measures 7-9, 11-13).

        Descending scale

        Right Hand Skills
        • I prefer that my students use the staccato bow stroke.
          • Using staccato in the beginning of book 1 skill learning will set the student up for the creation of good tone production because staccato teaches good articulation (beginnings) of the notes.
          • Staccato, which is a stopped bow stroke, helps the student to use the brief "thinking pauses" between notes to set the bow properly to make good clean string crossings.
          • The song provides additional string crossing practice.
          • The song introduces down bow circles (4 circles on the first pass through the song and 3 on the repeat).
            • Down bow circles teach the student to stop and set the bow before proceeding, which will set the student up for later practice with double stops and chords.
            • Down bow circles afford the teacher an opportunity to check whether the student is retaining tension in the right shoulder.
            • Down bow circles teach the student about the importance of maintaining a good bow hold, since the student might lose control of the bow during the circle if the bow hold is not maintained well.
            Other Skills
            • The song builds up the student's ability to move the right and left hands and arms independently of each other.
              • The right bow hand drops down to the E string level when performing the jumping finger section of measures 3 and 5, but the left hand must retain its position on the A string level. Students tend to lay down their left third fingers when making the "jump" because they are trying to mirror the motion of the right side of their bodies.
              • The student has to fight the temptation to drop the left hand down a string level to match the right hand motion.
            • The song introduces the concept of holding down pivotal fingers. In this particular song, the first finger F# on the E string becomes the "corner fence post" or "superglue finger" with which the third finger can use to stretch into position on the A and E strings. In later songs, Dr. Suzuki will introduce other such sustained finger placements.
              • I live in a rural community, and most of my students are very familiar with the construction of fences.
              • We dig a hole for the corner fence post and put it in cement. Once the corner post is secure in cement, we are able to add additional fence posts and to stretch the fencing wire in between the posts.
              • I use the corner fence post analogy when discussing the sustained F# finger for my slightly older students, and I use the "superglue finger" idea with my younger students.
            There are a lot of previews to the skills that a student will learn in Song of the Wind, and I will address those previews and my teaching methods in part 2 next week.

            Happy Teaching!