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Monday, December 31, 2012

Monday Morning Check In: What's in Your Season?

Written by Paula E. Bird ©2012
Happy New Year, everyone! This is one of my favorite seasons in a year. This is the season when I plan my next twelve months, and the clean slate that lies before me is fraught with possibilities. For many people, the act of making (and breaking) New Year's resolutions has become so commonplace that the thought of goal setting seems almost trite. This is not so for me.

I love to set goals. I love to make plans that break down my goals into manageable steps. I love to measure my progress from day one until the final goal achievement. I love the whole idea of goal setting. As of this moment, I have worked out my top ten goals and annual plan with the Best Year Yet program, as I enjoy doing each year. This year I will be working with the program online. Already I have noticed a change in my perspective about my current life situation, and I know it is due to the act of setting goals and gaining the sense of control over my life that the goal-setting process provides.

But enough about me. How about you? Where do you stand on the issue of goal setting and resolutions for the coming year?

One of my university colleagues has an interesting twist to his goal setting, and I thought you would enjoy considering his perspective. My colleague, Dr. Ian Davidson, is one of the top music professionals in his instrument area (oboe and English Horn), and we work together several times each year in recital and symphonic performances. He has a pie chart hanging on the wall of his studio with the caption: "What's in Your Season?" The pie chart is divided into three equal parts. The three parts are labeled: Lead, Share, Follow. My friend's philosophy is that when planning out the year, the season should include equal elements of all three areas.

Lead refers to those activities where you are the leader. You might be giving a solo performance or conducting a group. The purpose of this portion of the pie chart is that you are in charge of others. You are responsible for making decisions about the direction to take and how the project should run. You are the person in charge.

Share refers to those activities where you share the responsibility of leadership. You might be performing in chamber music performances. The purpose of this portion of the pie chart is that you will join others in making the project come to life. You will focus on collaboration. All members are in charge of decision-making.

Follow refers to those activities where someone else assumes the leadership role, and you are cast in the follower role. You might be performing as a member of an organization, such as a symphony or community orchestra. You are a member of a team, but someone else is at the helm of ship, and your responsibility is to follow direction.

Do you see the value of thinking of thinking about your life in each of these three areas? Each area requires a different set of skills.

Leading requires you to step up and show others how something is to be done. Leading teaches you to learn the power of responsibility, as you will need to consider the people you will lead and their needs in order to build a successful outcome. Leading provides you with an opportunity to build your self confidence, as once you have successfully completed your leadership role, you will have another memory of having achieved something. This memory will serve as a springboard for achieving other worthy projects in the future, and the memory will provide you with a wellspring of courage to do things that might seem scary.

Sharing requires you to work and play well with others. Sharing teaches you about the ebb and flow of collaboration, about how a sailboat navigates with the currents and the wind. Sharing reminds us to be considerate of others if we are to work together toward a common goal in a pleasant and satisfying way. Sharing will provide you with an opportunity to learn much about yourself, as sharing will reveal those areas of your character and personality that are weak and need work. You cannot be successful in a collaboration if you harbor selfish motives, exhibit arrogant attitudes, or rely on dominant behavior to get your own way. Sharing requires you to put your focus on the common good of the group. Sharing will teach you how to be a better person if you approach this part of the pie chart with a teachable mind.

Following requires you to learn submission. Following teaches us how to let others lead. Following will also teach us much about ourselves and our personalities. In the process of learning how to follow someone else, we will learn the art of showing others respect, courtesy, and graciousness. We learn to put our own personal desires to the side momentarily to allow someone else to direct us.

Some of us will find difficult prospects in each of the three areas. The beauty to using my friend's system is that it will help us to find balance. We need to learn how to work well within each of these three areas. We need to learn how to use the skills that each of these three areas will teach us.

Some of us will find leading to be a scary proposition. Eleanor Roosevelt said: "Do one thing every day that scares you." Leading will teach you how to face your fears. Fear will only enlarge if we try to ignore it. Facing fear squarely will shrink it. We need to step up and assume leadership positions in order to learn how to rely on ourselves. We need to learn how to lead others in order to learn how to lead ourselves.

Some of us will find sharing to be difficult because we are impatient about the speed that collaboration may require. The author Brian Adams said: "Learn the art of patience. Apply discipline to your thoughts when they become anxious over the outcome of a goal. Impatience breeds anxiety, fear, discouragement and failure. Patience creates confidence, decisiveness, and a rational outlook, which eventually leads to success." Sharing will teach us how to be patient with others as well as ourselves.

Some of us will find following to be difficult because we naturally lead rather than follow. We are comfortable with our own opinions and decisions. We find it easier to be in charge and to charge ahead on our own course. The author William Paul Young wrote: “Submission is not about authority and it is not obedience; it is all about relationships of love and respect." Following will help us to learn how to give respect to others as well as build relationships for ourselves.

As you contemplate the new year, pause momentarily to consider what is in your season. Do you have a good blend of all three areas -- leading, sharing, and following?

Happy New Year! See you in 2013!

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Merry Christmas!

As 2012 nears a close, let me wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! I hope you can spend some memorable time with family and friends. I will be spending my holiday in my home with my husband and all of my animals:

10 huacaya alpacas
8 dachshunds in the house
4 donkeys in the field
3 Rock Bar hens
2 friendly cats (1 inside, 1 outside)
1 left-brained extrovert horse

and a scrub jay in a cedar tree.

Merry Christmas from the HIll Country of Central Texas!

Monday, December 24, 2012

Monday Morning Check In: The Gift

During this holiday season, I hope that you take some time to reflect on the meaning of the season. For those of us who celebrate Christmas, this holiday represents the most wonderful gift to us humans on earth. God loved us so much that he gave us his Son. That is the meaning of Christmas for those of us who celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday.

Even if you do not celebrate the holiday season in this way, please take time to reflect on the other most wonderful gift that you have been given — your child.

Step Back and Look Closely at the Miracle of Your Child

Your child is a truly unique gift to the world. Your child is one-of-a-kind. There is no other child like yours. You have been blessed by a special, one-of-a-kind gift that no one else was given. Even twins are different one from another. Treasure the uniqueness of your child. Learn to appreciate those qualities in your child that are different from other children and from you. Your child is many other gifts to you as well.

The Gift That You Need

Your child is the gift that you need. Your child is your mirror. When you look at your child, you will see yourself reflected back in mannerisms, facial expressions, gestures, opinions, behaviors, and even political statements and personal biases. Scary, right? This is a gift because this gift will remind you frequently about things that you need to address in yourself.

The Gift of Love

Your child is the gift of love. Love is not finite; love expands to fill the space left for love. Love will never be used up. There will always be room to love more. Your child will offer this gift of love to you if you allow your child to fill up your heart. Your child will then expand the room that your heart allows for love, if you allow your heart to grow.

The Gift of Growth

Your child is the gift of growth. Your life can continue to grow and mature in fulfillment. Your child offers this gift to you, but the magic only happens when you eliminate the negative things in your life. Your child may test your patience, but until you let go of impatience, you will never gain the gift of discovery, fascination, curiosity, and wonder that your child will show you under the guise of patience. Your child may do something that causes you to feel angry, but until you learn to breathe calmly, accept what is, and relinquish the desire to control, you will never experience the gift of kindness and respect that your child will offer to you. Your child may behave in a way that opens the door to your feelings of arrogance and superiority; you may feel defensive or even competitive at times. Until you learn to treasure your relationship with your child and focus on your child’s needs rather than on your own selfish needs, you will not uncover your child's gift to you of selflessness, relationship, and pleasant connection.

The Gift of New Perspective

Your child offers the gift of new perspective, and this gift will be unique to you. Because your child is one-of-a-kind, you are blessed to receive your child’s unique perspective about the world, whether it is about people, things, or ideas. Your child will open the door for you to experience a new outlook about the people you know. Your child will blurt out observations that will startle (and possibly embarrass) you, but these thoughts are most likely quite true and insightful. Your child may challenge your beliefs, opinions, and habits, but until you learn to listen to your child, you will not learn to see things differently in your world. You will be stuck in the rut of your own beliefs and habitual patterns.

The Gift of Understanding and Insight

Your child is the gift of understanding and insight. Your child may puzzle you and challenge your assumptions about how things work in the world (i.e., how children learn, how children respond to parental direction, how children perceive the world), but until you can let go of your own beliefs, biases, and assumptions, you will never experience the gift of compassion and empathy that comes from the understanding and insight gained by looking through another’s eyes.

The Gift of the Joy of Living

Your child is the gift of the joy of living, or as the French call it, joie de vivre. Your child will divert you to the path that leads you to the joyful moments of living, whether it is a joyful perspective, a joyful outlook or take on things, or an experience of the pure joy of just “being,” like doing something physical, or just gazing at something wonderful. Your child will tax your sense of timing by interrupting your planned schedule, but until you understand and accept the idea that life is not about how well you maintain a calendar, you will not receive your child’s gift of finding joy in every moment of life’s possibilities.

The Gift of Possibilities and Timelessness

Your child is the gift of possibilities and timelessness. Your child has many gifts that can open your eyes to the beauty and wonder in the world. Your child may demand more time than you think should be given, but until you allow yourself to live in the moment, you will not feel the expansiveness of possibility. You will not learn the lesson of timelessness. Life is a mystery that must be experienced and discovered. Your child will teach you about life’s possibilities and about taking time to make important life discoveries, if you learn to let go of your assumptions about life being a problem to be solved and instead embrace the gift of timelessness that your child brings to you.

This holiday season, take a few moments to reflect on the wondrous gifts our children have given us. Our children are our most precious gifts, and we should appreciate and treasure our children for all of the gifts that they bring to our lives. Children bless us with the keys to the kingdom of life. Children will direct us to the paths that we need to take to improve our lives. Children will guide us to those moments that show us that we need to make improvements. Children will lead us to the place of joy, possibility, and timelessness. Children will teach us how to live life to the fullest and how to take advantage of every possibility. Children will show us what love is and how to love to the utmost of our being.

Please take a few moments during this holiday season to reflect on the gift of your child. Your child is your unique gift. Go give your child a hug from me and resolve to give your child a hug every day.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

Monday, December 17, 2012

Monday Morning Check In: Why Are We Doing This?

Dr. Suzuki wanted to raise the next generation of children to be fine, noble human beings. He lived through World War II in Japan, and he saw up close the devastating effects his country's aggression initiated. The problems were not limited to Japan though. Dr. Suzuki also witnessed the savage tendencies of the world in general, and it was his life's passion to raise children who would become fine citizens and make the world a better place.

With the events of last Friday -- the shooting of innocent children and teachers at a Connecticut elementary school -- there is a need for all of us to pull together and bring Dr. Suzuki's vision to its fruition. Now more than ever, we can see how much the world needs to raise fine, noble human beings.

Dr. Suzuki's work was primarily aimed at teaching children, but his work also focused on teaching parents how to be more effective as parents and teachers. Dr. Suzuki's books showed parents how to be better parents, thereby helping parents to raise up their children to be better parents, and in turn these new parents would then raise up their own children to be better parents, and so forth.

In May 1999, one of my studio parents called me to talk about the parent’s struggles with her child during home practices. I wrote a brief newsletter article at the time for my studio on the topic of the important reason that I thought the studio parents and I should work through these issues to teach the children how to play violin. Looking back more closely at the date that I wrote this short article, I discovered that I had written it one month after the Columbine High School shooting of April 1999. Since I found myself thinking along the same lines this past weekend as I had over a decade ago, I thought I would reprint my article from that previous sad time, because my answer to the question of why we do this remains the same now as it was in 1999.
Why Am I Doing This?
(Printed in the May 1999 issue of the Bird Suzuki Studio Newsletter)
A parent called me recently to ask, “why am I doing this?” Now is a good time to remind ourselves what our goals were when we began the Suzuki program of music education.
In one of Jeanne Luedke’s newsletters, she stated that the Suzuki experience is not just about learning to play an instrument, but about developing the whole child. The whole child is the goal, and the study of the musical instrument is the means we use to work toward that goal. Along the way the child develops several abilities through music lessons:
(1) the ability to listen 
(2) the ability to observe and imitate 
(3) the ability to memorize 
(4) the ability to concentrate 
(5) the ability to perform 
(6) the ability to be disciplined 
(7) the ability to persevere, and 
(8) the abilities of the heart
At this time of our society’s history, it may be the abilities of the heart that are the most crucial reason that parents should persevere in music instruction for their child. Dr. Suzuki said that “a child raised on Bach from a young age will develop the noble soul, powerful personality and the religious sensitivity of Bach. The force that makes a child want to live and survive will absorb the traits of Bach’s music to a high degree.” (Ability Development From Age Zero, by Dr. Suzuki, Ability Development Associates, Inc., Athens, OH, p. 40).
We are working with our children and exposing them to the best and most noble music and art that our culture has produced in the hopes that we will guide their young hearts into developing into the best and most noble person that they can become, and we hope that by doing so our children will not grow up to build bombs and take guns to school to destroy other human beings.
That is why we are doing this. 

Go and give your children a hug.

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Chip Game

Long ago, I bought a bag of plastic chip counters from a store that specialized in teacher supplies. The chips are of two colors: red on one side and yellow on the other. I have found so many uses for them over the years. Whenever we encounter a tricky spot in a lesson, we pull out the chips to play "the chip game." The chip game is not one game, but many, and I am sure that we will invent even more ways to use the chips in the future. Here are some of my favorites.

Basic Behavior Rules

When a student first starts lessons, I might use a chip game to help me gain a bit of control over the physical situation with the student. I stack 10 chips in front of the student while I explain the rules of the game. Throughout the lesson, I will remove ("steal") a chip from the student's pile to begin my own chip pile every time the student violates one of the rules. At the end of the lesson, we will see who "wins" the game. We also discuss what it means if we have the same number of chips in the end; in my studio, a tie in the chip game means that no one won. In effect, this means that the student has four chances to stay the winner before the game advantage swings over to my favor. I also permit the parent to remove a chip from the student's pile if the parent thinks the student has violated the rule, because sometimes I get so involved while working with the student that I fail to notice that the student is violating a rule in some way.

Usually I limit myself to three behaviors, and I often use two and leave the third one open for later. For example, the first basic rule is that I want the student to stay in the teaching area. If they are using a Twinkle mat or foot chart, I can easily mark when the student leaves the area. One of the first things a student will do is test the situation. Even though I might have explained the rules thoroughly, I find that a student will almost immediately touch her toe off the mat to see what I will do. I calmly transfer a chip from the student's pile to start my own pile. Exceptions to this rule are if the student asks permission to step off the mat, I ask the student to step off the mat, or the student is very young and needs to touch base with the parent by exchanging a hug. Giving a hug to the parent is always an exception to any chip game rule to stay on the mat!

The second basic rule is for the student to follow instructions. Now this game is a gold mine! At first glance the basic rule to follow instructions seems to be a limited rule; the student just has to follow directions. However, we have expanded this rule to include other things like taking too long to get ready to play, having to ask the teacher to repeat an instruction, and the student's not performing the instruction at the instant the teacher gives the instruction. Just about any behavior that I might address can fit under the follow instructions rule.

The third rule can be more specific to the child. One parent wants her children to answer questions in a particular way, using "ma'am" in the response. If the child forgets, then the parent removes a chip. For another student, we remove a chip if the student begins to lean on the teacher's table. One student lays her violin down every chance she has, so we use the chip game to help her learn how to put her instrument in rest position (and at the ready) when she is not playing. One young boy had a habit of putting his hands in his pockets all the time, and we wanted to help him learn to feel comfortable without using his pockets. Another child interrupted the lesson frequently by chattering about things that were unrelated to the lesson. We used the chip game to help the child gain better control over herself.

Some students forget to get set up to play with the correct form. In these cases, I will wait until the student finishes playing before I remove a chip for forgetting to do the setup steps. A child who "noodles" while in rest or play position will lose a chip. Noodling is when the child fidgets with the instrument: plucking strings, making squeaky noises with the bow, or playing while the teacher or parent is giving instruction. My point is that the third rule, if we have one, will be something more specific and unique to the child. There are so many possibilities.

I do not use the chip game when students are having "one of those days." Sometimes students have trouble focusing because of other things happening at home, such as spotty practice sessions, exciting holiday preparations or birthday parties, or upset daily routines. I know my students and their families well enough to recognize when the student might be having one of those days. It is a balancing act, because sometimes the behavior rules chip game may be just the thing that the student needs to help the student pull himself together and focus. On other days though, the student will easily lose the game, so I avoid going there in the first place and try other things instead.

The prize for "winning" the behavior rules chip game is a tiny lollipop at the end of the lesson. I stock up on Dum Dums
® or miniature Tootsie Roll® pops during Halloween season. When a student ends the lesson with more chips than I have, the student has had a good lesson and is entitled to the lollipop if the parent permits it. There are two more studio rules associated with retrieving the lollipop prize: the student must ask with the word "please," and the student must remember to say "thank you" within an acceptable amount of time after getting the lollipop. I got the idea for these two rules from Ron Clark's The Essential 55, which you can find in my resource store. Students are very careful to remember to say "please" and "thank you," because they understand that we will throw the lollipop away if the student forgets. I have never had to do that, but the possibility is rich for the student. I even had one mother call me on the way home, because the little student was afraid that I had not heard her say "thank you."

Over time, perhaps in just a few weeks, the student and I forget to "play" the chip game. We still do the lollipop thing at the end of the lesson, but I seldom need to pull out the chips for the behavior rules game. If the student's behavior becomes a problem later, the parent and I know that we can always dust off our chips and perform the game again.


I use a variation of my behavior chip game to help students play better in tune. If a student is not carefully placing her fingers on the finger tapes, then I will pick the most offensive finger and turn that into the reason for the special chip game.

For example, let’s say that my student is not placing her left index finger in the correct place on the fingerboard. The student probably has a tape mark on the correct spot but is not paying attention to where her finger lands. I will stack up chips on the table next to the student and explain that one of us will get a chip every time the student plays her first finger. If the finger lands on the correct place on the fingerboard (plays in tune) then the student will get the chip. If the finger does not land on the correct place, then I get the chip. “I wonder who will get the most chips and win the game?” I ask my student.

I help my student to remember by foreshadowing her use of the first finger in the beginning. I might lean forward in anticipation. I might reach for the chip a few seconds before my student is to play the first finger. My actions alert my student that there is something she is supposed to remember to do correctly. As my student gets better at this, I eliminate any foreshadowing.

Parents have reported success using this game at home as well. I have even had students come to their lesson and announce that they won all the chip games at home (“mom didn’t get a single point!”). After the student gets better at placing the index finger correctly, we sometimes add the ring or third finger placement as a chip game objective. Perhaps the student needs reminding about the other fingers, such as the pinkie or the middle finger. The chip game can be used for all of these reasons. I start out small in the beginning with a single finger and then build on the skill by playing the games for other fingers later.


The chip game is a great way to engage the student’s focus and concentration. I lay out 10 chips. I explain to the student what the activity will be. I will perform the skill or activity first while the student holds the instrument. Then the student will imitate what I did without my help. The student then tells me whether the student’s attempt sounded identical to mine. I permit a “do over” if the student asks for it before giving his own evaluation.

Here is a specific use of the chip game. I am working with my student on how to play with a good tone. I set up the chips and announce to my student that we will play the chip game. While my student holds the violin and bow, I make the bow move to create the sound I want. For example, I might play “Mississippi Hot Dog” on the E string. Then the student will play the same thing without my assistance and then tell me whether the student's effort sounded exactly the same as the way my effort did.

In the beginning of the game, I might be a little more lenient about some of the sounds I hear, but as the game progresses and the student gets more chips, I will become more exacting in my standards and will insist that there be no scratches, squeaks, or fuzzy dirt in the sound. This game is also useful to help a student to work back to a good staccato bow stroke if the student has gotten lax in articulation. The game also helps students to make a better legato sound. The chip game can be used in this fashion for just about anything. The beauty of the game is that it helps the student to listen better, to pay attention better, and to stay engaged in the activity. The students also learn how to evaluate their playing.

Habit Building (Pinkie Hunt)

I use the chip game when we are trying to make good habits. For example, I begin teaching my students how to use the pinkie in certain situations beginning with Perpetual Motion. I use a pinkie fingering in measures 2 and 4 to maintain the same string color. I assign the pinkie fingering in Allegretto and Andantino for the same reason — to maintain the same string color. My student learns how to use the pinkie finger on the descending two-octave G major scale, in order to help the student learn how to bring the left elbow under the violin to facilitate playing on the lower string levels.

Over time, students forget the pinkie fingerings, and parents do not always remember to look for the pinkie fingerings when the students play. This is when I use the chip game during a lesson to help the student and parent to remember. I will count out the number of pinkies that will occur in the song, and then I instruct the student to “see how many pinkies you can find.” As the student plays each pinkie, I will award a chip. If there are any chips left at the end of the song, then the student will try again to see if he can find all of the pinkies.

Along with pinkies, this particular use of the chip game could include searching for anything. For example, perhaps the student has trouble remembering the three down bow circles in "The Two Grenadiers" or the seven down bow circles in "Song of the Wind." The chip game could be used to help the student remember.

A container full of plastic counting or poker chips is a valuable tool that every teacher should have in the studio and every parent should have in the home practice area.

What other uses for the chip game do you use or can you think of?

Monday, December 10, 2012

Monday Morning Check In: My Big Three

I like to read and listen to motivational speakers. I enjoy revisiting these friends of mine at least once a year, because each year I am in a different place in my life, my thinking, and in my positioning, and I hear and learn different things. I read and listen to many different motivational experts and read material from many influential and successful people, but I have three particular favorites. Let me share my favorite lessons from my big three concerning habits, time management, and significance.

Jim Rohn: Habits

The late Jim Rohn was an American businessman and philosopher, who mentored many of the most successful pillars of this generation’s motivational speakers, such as Tony Robbins, Brian Tracy, and Jack Canfield. I have viewed many of Jim Rohn’s videos on YouTube and gleaned many useful lessons from my old recordings. Most of my Jim Rohn material is so “old” that it is on cassette tape. I have to dig through my old electronics to find a cassette player to listen to Jim’s old speeches.

My favorite memory of a Jim Rohn lesson starts out with Mr. Rohn talking about the old adage: “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” He then asks, “What if it’s true?” It is such a simple thing to eat one apple a day, and if it really is a good thing to do, then why do people not eat one every day?

Mr. Rohn’s conclusion is that the reason people do not do things that are good for them is because it is also easy for people NOT to do them. The lesson I learned is that if I want to do something, I must learn how to make it hard NOT to do it. I can do this in several different ways. I can create a small habit that is tiny and easy to do — so easy, in fact, that it is almost too hard NOT to do it. Or, I can set up my circumstances so that it is hard to do the wrong thing. For example, I keep only the right kinds of food and drink in the house, or my driving route passes by the places that encourage my correct habit.

The other lesson I learned from Mr. Rohn is that I should dream big and set big goals, because of what these big dreams and goals will make of me in the process of working to achieve them. Character is not developed by chance or good luck but by work — sculpting, lifting, and exercising my character muscles.

My personal philosophy is that when it comes to achieving my goals, it is not about big gestures or actions but about the tiny little steps I take on a regular basis and the habits I create and follow on a regular basis.

Brian Tracy: Time Management

Mr. Tracy is a motivational speaker and prolific writer about goal setting. I own a comprehensive set of Mr. Tracy’s CDs, which cover just about every aspect of life.

My favorite memory of a Brian Tracy lesson is his questions about how to determine the work I should tackle next. Many a time I have looked at the pile of work on my desk and asked myself Mr. Tracy’s two questions:
  • What is the best use of my time right now?
  • What could I do now that would produce the most results in the least amount of time?
I have learned many useful skills that relate to time management and setting priorities from Mr. Tracy.

Steve Jobs: Significance

The late Steve Jobs was the co-founder of Apple Inc. and the creator and CEO of Pixar Animation Studios. He is not known as a motivational speaker but as an innovative entrepreneur. He has made my big three list because of what he represents to me in terms of life philosophy.

My first computer was an Apple IIe, and I was one of the first to own the Mac computer. I was an Apple fan for many years before the polarized workplace forced me to head into PC territory. Later, once I joined the university team, I took my computer training workshops on both computer models because I owned a PC at home and used an Apple at work. A few years ago, with the advent of the iPod and the iPhone, I returned to the Apple family, and I will stay there, happily synced between my iPhone, my iPad, my MacBook, and my workplace iMac.

When Steve Jobs passed away in the fall of 2011, much of the world mourned his passing, as did I. I read every article and interview I could lay my hands on. His biography still fascinates me.

My favorite Steve Jobs lessons come from the video of his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford University. Here are the philosophical tidbits that I learned from the video of Steve Jobs:
  • Connect the dots. What you do today will impact on tomorrow, but it is impossible to make the connections by looking forward. You can only look backward to make the connections. Right now, you must trust and believe that the dots will connect, and have the confidence to follow your heart.
  • Embrace love and loss. Loss is painful, but it can be a good thing, because you can experience being a beginner again. Take risks. Find what you love. Do what you believe is great work. Do not settle for less.
  • Do the death mirror test. Look in the mirror every day and ask, “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” I have a picture of Steve Jobs on my computer desktop at the university. I use his picture as my “mirror.” Every time I turn on that computer, I look Steve in the eye and ask myself this question. So far, I have been able to answer “yes,” but I know that if I were to ever answer “no” too many days in a row, I would need to make a change in my life.
    • “I’ll be dead soon.” Steve used death as a way to help him remember to let loose external expectations, fear of failure, and pride. Steve had an actual “brush with death” several years before he passed away, so that his “death” statement became an even more powerful motivator for him.
    • Death has a way of revealing what is truly important, letting the unimportant fall away. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
    • Your time is limited, so do not waste it living someone else’s life. Do not be trapped by dogma (other people’s thinking) or other people’s opinions. Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.
I have spent so much time reading and listening to my big three, that I have trouble today separating their voices from my own. I have internalized the messages and lessons from these three giant men, and I have grown as a person because of their contributions to the improvement of our world. There are many more motivational speakers to learn from. Here is a short list of other speakers and authors to learn from:
  • John Maxwell
  • Tony Robbins
  • Vic Johnson
  • Jack Canfield
  • Chris Widener
  • Dennis Waitley
  • David Allen
  • Stever Robbins
  • Napoleon Hill
  • Dale Carnegie
Your life is worth the time you devote to enriching it. Spend some time this week thinking about from whom you can learn and from what resources you can learn even more.

To view the video of Steve Jobs giving the commencement address, click here.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Hearts Filled With Music

Recently a university student of mine gave me a written paragraph about what he thought about the importance of music in everyone's lives. I wanted to share this quote with you. It was written by Joshua Arrieta, a senior computer science major and one of the violin teachers with the String Project at Texas State University.

Music is a power that drives darkness from the hearts of men and replaces that darkness with passion for life. When you have music in the heart, you cannot help but seek out music everywhere you go. You strive to shun hatred and intolerance, fear and ignorance. You instead find compassion and beauty, love and unity. You pursue things that bring people together and scorn that which drives them apart. You gain hope and lose despair. Music makes the heart noble, passionate, humble, and understanding. There is nothing we need more in this world than hearts filled with music. -- Joshua Arrieta

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Monday Morning Check In: You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby!

Remember the old ad catch-phrase for the Virginia Slims cigarette? “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby.” The ad campaign was aimed at young professional women and how far they had progressed in terms of access to the workplace and equality in terms of pay and promotion, although I fail to see the parallel with regard to cigarettes. I have a different meaning behind the slogan today.

As any of my regular readers know, this is the time of year when I wax nostalgic for the days gone by, in this case, the days of 2012 that have passed by. I am a big fan of Jinny Ditzler and her “Best Year Yet!” book, and I write about this topic each year. As we near the close of 2012, I have begun the Best Year Yet! process by evaluating my year 2012.

For those readers who are new to this topic, here are links to my previous articles about Jinny's Best Year Yet! program and the questions she uses in her program:

The main reason I revisit Jinny’s program and her ten questions every year is to remind myself about question number one: what did I accomplish last year? We are so good at labeling the things that did not go so well and forgetting to acknowledge or even recognize that we did accomplish things, and in many cases, we accomplished a great number of things.

Busy as I am, I too forget to reflect on this question until Jinny’s program forces me to look once again at the underlying context that supports my answer to this question. What have I accomplished this year?

As it turns out, I have accomplished a great deal. I need not bore you with my personal specifics, but there were several significant events in my life this year, and I accomplished several major goals that surprised me. Funny how that is. We roll along our life’s pathway and think we are accomplishing something, then when we actually do accomplish it, we are surprised about it.

I have always wanted to write in general and to write a book specifically. I did that in the past year, in fact, I've actually written two books and part of a third. I did not expect to list any of that on my list of accomplishments this year, even though writing a book has been on my goal list for a very long time. I find it interesting to discover that somehow, deep down, I did not expect to accomplish it, that it just seemed like a good goal to have at the time. The late motivational speaker, Jim Rohn, used to tell the story of his mentor telling Jim to put “become a millionaire” on Jim’s list of goals because of what the goal would make of Jim in the trying. "Write a book" has been that sort of goal for me -- the sort of goal that would make something more of me for the trying. This tells me that perhaps I was not all that serious about my goal. This little insight will certainly alert me in the future if I should entertain similar thoughts or expectations.

As I made my list of accomplishments, I found my attitude brightening. My outlook completely changed. I felt lighter, more positive, and generally more cheerful. There is a value to this first step, and I highly recommend that you take a few moments to reflect on your own accomplishments this past year. The length of your list may surprise you, as it did me.

I have written before about Stephen Guise’s suggestion that we take a snapshot at the beginning of every month and then compare it to another snapshot taken at the end of the month (click here for the article). We should see movement between point A and point B. By answering Jinny’s first question, we are making a list of the items we have found in point B that were not there in point A. I find this exciting. My year seemed so much more productive once I focused my attention in this way. I found it so much easier to accept those disappointing lessons I also faced this year.

What have you accomplished in 2012? Look back to your starting point and celebrate the forward movement you have made. Chances are that you've come a long way, baby!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Hover Balls, Coloring Books, and String Skin

In recent articles, I have discussed the challenge of teaching and practicing with speed demons. When I first encounter a speed demon, I also encounter other typical playing difficulties, such as the inarticulate articulation and the wispy bow. In these other articles, I discussed ways of handling speed demons, and I will provide links to these previous articles at the end of this article.

I first seem to notice these articulation issues somewhere around Long, Long Ago in Suzuki Violin Volume 1, although these issues can occur at any time. I monitor my own playing closely for this issue as well. Just about the time that students start to develop some ability to play easily and with longer bows, the problem seems to arise. Although I teach staccato since the first lessons, I have to watch closely that the student does not discontinue staccato playing where indicated in the music. Songs that are to be played with staccato articulation wind up being legato, as students try to play faster to emulate the performance recordings. The students have not yet developed the ability to hear the staccato when it is played quickly by a professional. There are so many levels of staccato, or different consonants as I call it, and beginning students have not yet developed the skill to hear these different levels at this stage. So in early book 1, I often have to deal with the issue of non staccato playing when it should be staccato.

Along with the techniques and suggestions I wrote in the previous articles, other teaching methods I use with speed demons to tackle the inarticulate articulation and wispy bow are the hover ball, coloring book, and string skin analogies. Here is how I describe the phenomenon of the hover ball.

Hover Ball

When we throw a baseball straight up into the sky, we know that it will return to earth. When I ask students why this happens, they understand that gravity is the force that pulls the ball's return down to earth. We know too that the ball does not just hit a ceiling in the sky and then scud back down to the ground. There is a moment in time when the ball "hovers" in the air before it begins its descent. If we were to recall our last ride on a roller coaster in an amusement park, we would generally agree that there is a suspension in time after the ride's ascent and just before the ride begins to descend when we feel as if we are floating in air for a brief second. I call this suspension in time the "hover ball," because it resembles the way that a ball hovers momentarily before beginning the gravity free fall.

Coloring Book

Similarly, most students will readily identify with the coloring book scenario. My students understand what it means to color "within" the lines. If I were to tell a student that the student was coloring "outside" the lines of the note, the student would understand what I meant by that description.

I tell my students that notes have a "personal space" between them, almost like a thin skin that separates them. Similar to the hover ball and the coloring book line, the notes have a slight "space" between each other. The bow creates this space when it pushes the string back and forth between down bows and up bows.

When I ask my students to listen and notice the end of one note and the beginning of another note, the students begin to coordinate the right and left hands together better. The students begin to clean up the messy articulation that I previously heard. By asking my students to listen closely to the sound they make and try to discern whether the bow is coloring outside the note “lines,” my students tend to naturally slow down their playing speed so that they can really listen and make the necessary adjustments with the bow and fingers.

String Skin

Once I have a student really listening to this aspect of his or her playing, I then discuss how strings are made, that they have a core that is wrapped with another metal “skin.” Then I ask my student to consider whether he or she is brushing the bow over the string “skin” similarly to a person’s brushing his fingertips over the skin of the arm, or whether the bow is really grabbing onto and moving the string “skin,” as when a person grabs hold of his arm and actually moves the skin back and forth.

When I ask for this method of playing, my student’s tone immediately deepens and increases in volume. Thereafter, all I have to do is remind my student to make sure his or her bow is moving the string skin.

Here are the links to the previous articles about speed demons and the "rushing" issue:

Speed Demons

Speed Busters
The Power of the Stopped Bow

Please leave a comment if you have another teaching or practicing idea to address this issue that you would like to share.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Monday Morning Check In: The Countdown Begins

This is the last Monday of November. For me this is the signal that the countdown begins. More than any other time of the year, this part of the year presses in on me. I think about all the things I had anticipated in January that I would have done by the end of this December, and I feel the pressure to accomplish even more.
Over at Deep Existence, Stephen Guise's blog about personal development, he wrote last October about a test to evaluate your life. He suggested taking a "picture" of your life as you find it at the beginning of the month. Make a list of where you stand. He calls that point A. Then at the end of the month, perform the same exercise and call that point B. Hopefully, you will see movement. To read this fascinating article, complete with suggestions about becoming active in your life decisions, click here.
I find great value in Guise's monthly exercise, although I generally forget to do it or give myself credit for making any progress. Instead, I find that this last hurrah of the current year gives me the push I need to think about these things. Perhaps it is because the season's activities change. I get a break from some of my teaching activities while I add on more performance activities related to the season, which gives me a little bit of free time to enjoy reflective activities, such as trips to Starbucks, coffee shop writing, and visiting with friends and relatives.
So now is the time when I will think back to where I was last January and where I had wanted to arrive at the end of this December. This is the last month that I will have to make any progress in the direction that I had chosen to walk. In the meantime, I will look back at what I accomplished in November.
I just completed another NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), whose purpose is to spur writers to complete a 50,000-word novel in the month of November. I reached that goal last Friday. I also did NaNoWriMo last November and two other Camp Nanos this past summer. I have done a lot of writing in 2012. I hope to offer some of it to you soon.
One thing that NaNoWriMo and its permutations (Camp Nanos) teach me is that I have two basic choices, and maybe even more. One basic choice is to throw up my hands and lament that "I am so far behind," give up, or do nothing. My other basic choice is to keep moving, keep putting one foot in front of the other (or in my case, write one word after another), and do something. I usually opt to do something, any little thing that moves me forward, because my experience has shown me that these tiny movements add up to a huge movement in the end. Tiny running steps add up to a half marathon at the end of a few hours. 750 words every day add up to over 22,000 words at the end of a month, and 2,000 words a day add up to a novel.
As I look back at where I began in January, my yearly point A, to where I am right now at the end of the year 2012, my point B, I expect that I will see forward progress. I will finish what can be finished on my list in the five remaining Mondays, or 36 days, or five full weeks, depending on how you wish to think of it. I will look ahead to where I want to travel in 2013 and begin the thoughtful decision process that will help me to formulate my goals.
I hope my readers will also join me in this journey of thoughtful reflection.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Quick Teaching Tip: Fasten Your Seat Belts!

Some of my students have long referred to me as the rubber band lady, because of my heavy reliance on rubber bands for various things. I make loops out of the bands to hang things on my music stand or studio door (like nail clippers). I use rubber bands to form a secure holding assembly for wedge sponge shoulder rests. I use rubber bands to give added tension to the claw feet of shoulder rests that have become a bit too stretchy and loose for the width of the instrument. I use rubber bands as visual demonstrations of the elasticity of our brain power. If you give me a need, I can usually invent a method to use a rubber band to address the need.

I use a rubber band wrapped around my frog to give me a feeling of security when I use the bow. My hands tend to be dry and slippery on the bow, and the added rubber band gives me the feeling that I have a secure hold on the bow stick. It weighs next to nothing, but that feeling of the bath mat nonstick surface really helps me to maintain a comfortable hold on the bow.

I have noted though that there are additional benefits. I can feel my pinkie on the rubber band on the stick, and that allows me to "sink" into the pinkie side of my bow hold. This sinking into the pinkie helps to turn on the outside muscles of my bow arm, which are the relaxation muscles. I therefore turn off any unnecessary tension in my bow arm and right shoulder when I rest my pinkie on the rubber band. And the beauty of the rubber band is that I can feel this at all times and can gently remind myself to relax while I am playing. Sometimes the rubber band wrapped around the frog is too tricky for my very young beginners, although the older students, including my university students, find the rubber band "addicting." We have even jokingly referred to our addiction as the "Rubber Band Club."

Sometimes students start leaning on the index finger (which I call pronation) and the pinkie starts to lift off the stick. I check to be sure the student has enough rosin, because this could be one reason the student has done this. Another reason could be that the student has relaxed the bow hold too much. Although we do not want tension in the bow hold, the student still needs to "engage" the bow hold energy. The bow thumb still needs to work to hold up all the other fingers, like Atlas holding up the world on his shoulders.

Other students might let their bow hold slip by not curling the fingers around the frog and stick enough. The stick should sit in the first knuckle joints of the fingers. I have a few students with some double-jointed fingers, and if the students do not place the bow fingers low enough on the stick to reach down to the first knuckles, the stick presses against the fingers in a manner that engages the finger's double-joint. The solution is to bring the bow fingers down far enough, but this is sometimes difficult for students to remember to do, and parents are not always vigilant about maintaining this good bow hold habit.

Personally I had this problem myself with my bow hand pinkie, and I never addressed it until I was well into my adult career. Then one day I hit on a solution in my particular case. For a few weeks, I brought my ring finger down lower on the frog than is customary or correct. I did it on purpose and for just a few weeks. When I lowered the ring finger, my pinkie had to curl up past the point of engaging the double-joint. When I played like this for a few weeks, my pinkie joint muscle got stronger. Now I cannot even engage the double-joint on command.

This was a great solution for me, but the question arose as to how to help some of these students who had bow hold issues. Recently, a young string teacher shared a new use of the rubber band with me -- the seat belt.

With a few deft twists around the frog, the rubber band creates a seat belt and an "X" across the top of the frog. The X is for placement of the pinkie, which lands just behind the X on the back of the top of the bow stick above the frog eyelet. The seat belt is for the ring finger. For some younger students I might also add a small patch of Dr. Scholl's Molefoam as a little cushion for the ring finger. We call this the car seat. Here is a brief video showing how to wrap the rubber band around the frog to form the seat belt.

By using the car seat and seat belt analogies, which all young students are familiar with, we also reinforce the concept of getting ready before playing. Students understand that the driver should not begin to drive off before all the car passengers are strapped into their car seats and other seats. So my students learn to check that everyone is "strapped in" before beginning to play.

The rubber band is easily wrapped around a larger size instrument bow, but occasionally the band is too loose for the smaller sizes. In these cases, I begin my frog wrap from the end of the bow rather than inside the bow, and that extra loop takes out the slack in the rubber band.

Recently I overheard two young students, about 7 and 8 years old, comparing notes. "Do you have a seat belt too?" Maybe I'll have to start a "Seat Belt Club."

Monday, November 19, 2012

Monday Morning Check In: Gimme a Break!

This is the week of Thanksgiving in the United States, a time of family, feasting, and celebration of our country’s early history. As wee children in elementary school we learned about the Pilgrims sailing to America, landing at Plymouth Rock, and about their early struggles to survive a harsh climate and establish a thriving colony.

As a grownup teacher, I have a different perspective of Thanksgiving now. Yes, the holiday does still hold some of the elements that I learned about as a child, but the holiday holds so much more meaning for me now, because this is one of the only times during the year WHEN I GET A BREAK!

What? How can that be? Don’t you get holidays throughout the year? What about vacations? Well, this is a tricky subject for me. Let me explain.

I am a musician, and my profession’s history is tied in to the church calendar. The church traditionally used musicians quite a bit during the special religious holidays of the church calendar, such as Christmas and Easter, for example. This practice still holds true today. I have some of my most busiest playing during these holidays. I also have other performances that are tied into the holiday season, such as the Symphony Christmas Sing-a-long, the Messiah, the Nutcracker, and the New Year’s Pops Concerts. I play Christmas Eve services as well as other special Christmas Oratorio performances throughout the month of December.

Once the Thanksgiving holiday weekend has ended, I hit the ground running. My university responsibilities begin to wind down with end-of-semester recitals, juries, and final exams. My private teaching studio gears up for its Christmas program at our local community theater as part of the Christmas Trail of Lights display. The symphony begins the busy holiday music season. Basically I will not have a single day or evening free again until Christmas Day itself. Even Christmas starts later since I will be getting to bed around 2 am after the late night Christmas Eve services that I play in a neighboring town. If Christmas were to fall on a Sunday, I would also have morning church services to play as well. After Christmas, the Pops Concert rehearsals begin immediately.

Thanksgiving holiday is my only break. It lasts for four days, and I look forward to the peace and quiet of these days. In fact, my goal is usually to see how many days I can spend in my pajamas. It is an interesting goal, but try as I might, I never spend even one day in that attire. One of my other Thanksgiving goals is to clean my house up enough to actually have guests. Some years I have more work to do in order to meet this goal. This may be such a year.

I am in the middle of another NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month: write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November), and I am well on the way to finishing sometime this week. I just finished a recital performance last Saturday night at Texas State University along with other faculty members (the TreSorelle Trio plus one). The symphony is about to perform Rite of Spring before it begins its holiday season.

I love my students and my playing responsibilities, but at this time of year I need a short period of time to refresh my batteries and renew my spirit.

I need some time to myself. I need some time to build my appreciation and thankfulness for having all my students and studio families in my life. I need time to celebrate and be thankful for the blessed life I have. I need time to rest physically and mentally so that I regain my equilibrium, my center, and my balance. I need time to reconnect with family and my dog pack, as well as spend time with the "big boys" out on the back forty (my donkeys, alpacas, and left-brained, extroverted horse). I need time to watch all the television movies and shows I recorded and read all the books I downloaded on my iPad's Kindle app. I need time to enjoy the cool, crisp air and smell the smoke from the fireplaces that my neighbors have lit.

No, it is more than that. I need the time so that I will spend the time being thankful, because deep in my heart I really am thankful for my full life. I am thankful that I have good health and am able to sustain such a full life. I am thankful for my readers and for the many emails and comments I receive from readers and friends from all over the world (the blog has reached 108 countries to date).

Thank you, everyone, and have a blessed, thankful holiday and restful week! 

Monday, November 12, 2012

Monday Morning Check In: the Finish Line

I ran a half marathon in San Antonio on Sunday. It involved getting up very early on two days so that I could pick up my race information and other racing paraphernalia on one day and return to run the race the next day. I finished the event and received my finisher's medal, which is quite neat. I have decided that I enjoy doing half marathons better than full marathons because the shorter distance run generally does not take up an entire day, although yesterday, the event certainly seemed as if it was a full day.

Finisher's Medal

One thing I enjoy while running these events is the direction that my mind takes during the run. There are the typical moments when my mind flits from one curious subject to another puzzling one. There are also those instances when my mind seems to think about nothing in particular and is more receptive to what my senses take in, such as the small flock of about 15 birds that kept changing direction overhead on one stretch of the race. I just watched without any specific thoughts about what I witnessed, other than the beauty of the coordinated movements.

Despite these fleeting moments of non-thinking, my thoughts do generally make observations, and sometimes quite a lot of them. Later I then take these thoughts and try to transform them into lessons that I learned from my experience. Please indulge me as I share some of my lessons from today, because I promise that I will connect them up with teaching and parenting.

There are a lot of people around. A lot of them. I do not know how many people were signed up and present to run this event, but there were enough to fill up 32 corrals or starting points. It took 40 minutes  after the start gun before my corral finally reached the starting line.

We are all different. As I looked around at everyone, I realized that we are all different. Really different. There were short ones, fat ones, skinny ones, tall ones, big ones, round ones, muscular ones, freckled ones, birth-marked ones, tattooed ones, young ones, old ones, bald ones -- well, you get the idea. We had so many differences between us. I entertained myself during the hour and a half wait before my group began running by watching the people around me.

We share many things in common. While I noted that there are a lot of people and that we were all different, I also had the presence of mind to note how many things we all shared in common. I cannot say that we completely shared these things all together. It was more like a wall map with straight pins pushed into the map to represent all the people, and strings being tied here and there between the people to represent common connections between them.

Some of us wore the same brand of shoes or clothing, while others shared a different sense of fashion with another group of runners. There was an Elvis impersonator (a bad one, and I think he garnered himself some television attention), a Mad Hatter, and several tutus. Some preferred to walk most of the distance, some to run, and some to do a combination of both. Some talked and walked in smaller groups, while some of us preferred to concentrate more on a solitary pursuit. Some of us shared the same training plans, and some of us shared the same race strategy. Some of us suffered from the heat of the warm and humid day, and others seemed to do just fine. I spent most of the race making all of these observations, and I was never at a loss for thinking up new ones.

We share a common purpose. Despite all of these differences and similarities, we did all share one common purpose, and that was to get to the finish line. We shared the same activity, although we approached it and performed it in different ways.

Now, let me relate that to teaching and partnering with our students' parents. There are many of us around. There is never a shortage of parents around, and there are plenty of teachers available, especially with the handiness of the Internet and Skype. We are all different though. We are unique in our teaching styles, learning styles, personality styles, approach to problem solving, emotional background, and desire to learn. And yet, there are many commonalities between us. Some of us have shared many of these various traits with each other, although not all of them.

As a teacher with a great deal of experience, I have to remind myself periodically that one size does not fit all, and that there will be times when my great ideas do not work for a student. These moments are great puzzles for me, especially when my ideas work for 99 other students except for this one student who stands before me. These are the moments when my teaching and analytical skills are honed. These are the moments when I make new discoveries about learning, about the Suzuki repertoire, about parenting, and about teaching.

Sometimes this period of time in the learning-teaching process can be quite frustrating and puzzling. This is when I remind myself that despite our differences and commonalities, which do not appear to be working at the moment, there is something bigger and more global that will see us through to success.

We share a common purpose.

My studio parents and I share the same common purpose, and that is my teaching philosophy that all children can learn, that talent is not inborn, and that parents are the most important influence in their children's lives and have the most impact on their children's development, motivation, and desire to learn. We are all different in our pace and approach to learning, but we are all on the same road to the ultimate goal: to grow the child into a fine human being with a good heart. This is the finish line in my studio.

Yesterday, as I ran (or walked) alongside all the other runners in the San Antonio Rock 'n Roll Half and Full Marathons, I celebrated the great number of us who shared a common purpose, and that was to reach the finish line. Thanks to all my friends who supported me on this latest running journey.

This week, consider what your "finish line" is. Do you have a stated teaching or parenting philosophy? Take a few moments to write out this statement in one sentence. Post this philosophical statement in a prominent place where you will view it daily.

Would you be willing to share your philosophy in the comments below? Consider visiting the Teach Suzuki Facebook page and liking us.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Speed Busters

A few weeks ago I wrote about the problem of the speed demon. (To read that article, click here). I promised then that I would write again about some possible solutions that would help the student slow down.

Basically the problem is that the student is not paying attention. The student is not listening to the end product. Instead, the student is caught up in the physical sensations of playing fast, kind of like sprinting for the sole purpose of the exhilaration of running. The trick then is to find ways that will slow the child down or cause him or her to slow down and listen.

There are artificial devices, of course, that can provide a constricting pulse, and that may be a solution for a time. I have been known to provide a metronome marking for some students for etudes and scales in order to keep the exuberance in check. The metronome can be a worrisome issue for some students though. Some students react negatively to the distracting sound of the device and prefer a visual cue. Others have trouble matching the sound. In most of these cases, and in general anyway, I find it more useful to ask the student to be a human metronome. I will ask the student to step in time to the music or march in place while playing. Many rhythmic problems resolve themselves with this technique.

Here is a short video of one of my students who has just learned how to step in place and play the first measure of May Song. It is still a bit rudimentary, but my student shows how it is done. I might add that the student finally played the rhythm correctly after learning how to coordinate her playing actions with her feet.

Other Physical Methods
Other physical methods that I incorporate in my teaching include knee walking, marching, and hand clapping. I find knee walking to be particularly useful in group classes with Perpetual Motion. I ask the students to gather on the long side of the group classroom and get down on their knees. Then the students begin to knee walk to the other side of the room in time to the music. This is one of the most humorous sights. The students look like a flock of penguins on the march.

Students can also march around the room in a follow-the-leader game, and students tend to march in step with each other eventually. This activity may also lend itself to a discussion of pulse and rhythm, especially when some children opt to march to quarter notes and other children choose to punctuate half notes.

Hand clapping is also useful. One subset of the group can clap while the other students play in time to the clap. A parent could also provide the clapping cues for their student.

Turtle Day
Aside from physical movements, I have had some success slowing students down by asking them to play the song in the speed of a turtle. I declare “Turtle Day” on occasion and we play everything slowly, as we would expect turtles do play. I might ask the student to suggest a slow, lumbering animal, and I have had suggestions that included elephants.

Blind Man's Bluff
The biggest difficulty is finding ways to have the student listen to how they sound. One parent wrote in to say that her child paid attention more to the sound of his playing when he had his eyes closed or played in a dark room. “Blind Man’s Bluff” is a good game for this. We put blindfolds over the student’s eyes or turn off the lights. Sometimes we put our hands over the student’s eyes and say, “no peeking!” These techniques may work to some degree and for a period of time.

My favorite solution is to ask for staccato bows. I have noticed that speed demons tend to lose the clear articulation between notes, and in particular, these students also drop all pretense of playing staccato bows. I find this when we review songs that incorporate staccato, such as Variation A, Variation B (especially this one!), Variation C, Song of the Wind, Perpetual Motion, Allegretto, and Etude. Variation B is particularly troublesome for many students as they tend to play it without staccato bows on every note except for the second note of the three-note group, which is the note before the rest.

If the staccato bows have completely disappeared, I may have to help the student to relearn how to play staccato, stopped bows. Sometimes students have morphed the staccato into a forced bow stroke, where the student is using force in some way to stop the bow or push out the staccato “pop” from the string. That is not how I teach staccato in my studio. For a quick teaching tip video about my “fish bowl staccato,” click here.

In order for the student to establish the crisp popcorn bow staccato that I want, the student inevitably slows down to a speed that is more conducive to crisp staccato bows. In the process, the student cleans up many bowing articulation problems. I plan to write an article about hovering balls and coloring books, and this will explain some of the articulation issues that I address. The staccato performance now reveals messy bowing and string crossing. If the bow is crooked and wispy, the staccato will reveal that and help the student to address the problem. Periodically, I declare a Popcorn Day (click here) to help promote the tonal development that stems from good firm staccato bows.

Chip Game
I use the chip game to engage the student in using the left brain hemisphere to evaluate what the student is playing. This simple game can be played with pennies, plastic poker chips, small plastic counters, peanuts, M&Ms, tiny marshmallows, or chocolate chips. Some teachers invite the students to earn a few of these items first, but I start out my game by giving the student 10 freebies. I explain that we are going to play a game where I play something first and have the student imitate me back. Sometimes I will play my own violin, and sometimes I will have the student hold his or her violin while I move the bow for them. I prefer this last method because the student will gain the added benefit of actually hearing the correct sound directly in front of them from their own instrument, as they would if they made the sound themselves.

I explain that if the student does not match my sound, then I get to snatch away one of the chips from my student’s chip pile. If the student matches my sound, then they get to keep the chip. At the end of the game, the winner is the player who has the most chips. We also discuss what happens if there is a tie (no one wins because we have the same number of chips each). I allow the student to request a “do-over” if necessary, but only before we evaluate the sound.

I make the first sound, of course correctly making exactly the sound that I want my student to imitate and recreate. Then the student plays the same thing, and I ask the student whether the sound was exactly the same or not. I ask the student to do the evaluation so that they pay attention. If they do not pay attention and cannot answer the question, then I take a chip from the student’s pile. I rarely have a student be less than honest. In those debatable cases, I will ask the parent to decide. Occasionally I will ask the mother to be a little bit more lenient. I think parents can be too demanding at times, probably because they are trying to look perfect in my eyes. It is a balancing act on my part, because I am not only teaching the student but also the parent.

Penny Lane
Sometimes I will place a stack of pennies on the music stand and start taking them away if a problem persists. I may not even explain why I am taking a penny away. The student usually figures it out, because my act of taking away a penny causes them to become involved in trying to figure out what I am doing. When I teach in a classroom setting, such as a summer strings camp, I use a similar technique by writing students' names on the board and making a check mark beside a student’s name when certain behaviors occur or when I want to acknowledge extra points for special behaviors, such as remembering to bring a pencil to class.

In one particularly difficult classroom setting, we had a very talkative and disruptive student that could not seem to get a grip on his behavior. (I am sure that I worded it in a much more pleasant, "teacherly" way.) I pulled out four quarters and asked him if that would be something that might be worth his trying to learn to control himself and his talking outbursts. To my surprise, two other students chipped in some additional change, saying that they would also find it worth it to them to have this student behave differently.

I put the change in a bowl and proceeded with the class. The first time the young man forgot and began to disrupt the class with his loud talking, I picked up one of the quarters and handed it to one of the students who had chipped into the pot. The second time it happened, I removed another quarter and gave it to the second student who had chipped in. The boy did not have a problem after that. The class proceeded smoothly, and we all had a great time. I could see how much effort the young boy was putting into the exercise. At the end of class, I ceremoniously presented him with the change remaining in the pot, and the other classmates congratulated him on “winning.” To my surprise, the next day, the boy opted to behave differently without the enticement of money in a pot. He announced that he enjoyed the change in attention that he got from his classmates so much more than the negative complaints he had received previously. He decided that he wanted the positive regard more than the negative. From that day forward he was a changed student, and we grew to really enjoy having him in class.

Practice Time Changes
Sometimes changing the times in which the student practices may help the problem. If the practice time is a rushed or hurried affair because the family’s schedule leaves a finite amount of practice time, this may be contributing to the speedy problem. Perhaps the practice could be divided into more than one session to permit a more relaxed approach.

What's For Dinner?
It might be possible to find a reason to use time limitations to create a practice venue that is conducive to good playing. For example, one busy mom routinely asked her daughter to provide some music for her as she worked to put dinner on the table. She regularly told me how much she enjoyed hearing her daughter play the violin while she cooked, and I enjoyed watching her daughter wiggle with pride at hearing her mother’s praise and compliments about this lovely “dinner music” gesture.

Stop & Start Game
Another group class activity could include the “stop and start” game. In this game, I stop periodically during the song to see if I can “catch” anyone who is not paying attention. I find this game to be a particularly effective way to teach students when to pay attention to sticky ensemble places in the music. For example, when we play Martini’s Gavotte or Becker’s Gavotte in Violin Volume Three, I stop at the ends of phrases, so that students get in the habit of waking up at these moments to be sure that they are watching and playing together. Sometimes I wish our symphony’s conductor could play that game with us so that all of our members would learn to pay attention to each other and to the conductor at the same moments.

Slow Down Game
Another game I will play when students rush in group class is the "slow down” game. Without telling students that I am playing this game, I just start playing slower and slower every time I notice that students are rushing or are not paying attention. With each burst of speed from my students, I slow down. Sometimes we wind up playing at a crawl speed. Then when I have everyone’s attention again, I gradually start to speed up to the regular tempo again. I find this to be an interesting way to play Perpetual Motion and Etude in a group setting.

Squares of Eight
I enjoy using the squares of eight game, which is a tip I picked up from the practicespot.com website. We fold a piece of paper three times to make 8 squares. Then I label each square sequentially from one to eight. I put a game piece or some other marker on square one and ask the student to play a particular passage. If the student plays it correctly, then we move forward one square. If the student does not perform the passage correctly, then we move the game piece back a square. This game really works, and along with engaging the child’s attention, the game also reinforces proper practice habits and repetition. Here is the article I wrote that explains the squares of eight game: Practice Rut: Expand Your Thinking

Speeding Tickets
I have a medium-sized hand puppet of a policeman, complete with a little radio attached to his shoulder with Velcro and a whistle. I have made up little cards of speeding ticket violation fines. When a student starts speeding, I blow the whistle, and I have my hand puppet hand out a speeding violation, complete with a "dangers of speeding" speech. The speeding violation fine might include: playing 10 Mississippi Hot dogs on the E string with perfect staccato bows on the hot dog notes, 10 circle bows, or something related to an area that the student is learning.

Other People
Using other people may help the speeding problem. I had a young student play Long, Long Ago from Suzuki Violin Volume One at his grandfather’s funeral. After the funeral, at the student’s next lesson, he played the song for me to show me how he had done. As he played, his mother teared up with the memory of her son’s playing for her father’s funeral. Thereafter, every time the little boy played that song, he would turn to see if he had made his mother cry. It was a very moving thing to watch how the two of them interacted in this way. The mother’s reaction and her obvious emotional response to her son’s music drew the two of them close to each other each time. It was very beautiful to watch. The little boy had been quite attached to his grandfather.

I have asked some students to imagine playing for God, the president of the United States, or the Pope, just as Dr. Suzuki suggested that his adopted protégé, Koji Toyoda, play in church for God. I notice that students make a marked improvement in their posture and their sound when they imagine playing for an important listener. One of my parents coined the phrase, “Practice Awesomeness,” as a signal to her daughter to adopt this kind of playing posture and attentiveness.

Parking "Violinations"
For my older students, we might have a conversation about speeding and violations, which I like to call "violinations." For example, just the other day, I discussed parking fines with one of my university students. I asked him why he thought so many people violated the parking restrictions on the university campus. After a little discussion, we concluded that it might be because the fines were low enough to turn a parking violation into a viable choice. If the fines were $500 or the loss of a hand, then there would certainly be fewer parking violations.

I then selected a passage of about 20 measures in my student’s etude, and I told him that I was giving him a virtual $1,000, but I would charge him $20 per “intonation violation” in the passage. I pointed out that I was not instructing the student to go at a particular rate of speed, but that I would “charge” him $20 for every note that was out of tune. Ready? Go! It was very interesting to watch how carefully my student played that passage for me. He lost a few $20 bills along the way, but his playing of the passage improved immensely. And he learned something along the way.

Speeding can be corrected once the problem is addressed. Two weeks ago I discussed possible reasons why students speed. I hope that today's article helps to spark the creative juices to find methods to address the problem and help the student to start engaging again in the process of making music.

Please leave me a comment about some of the ways that you have discovered that might help to address the speeding issue. I really would like to build up a community of interested teachers and parents who are willing to share their ideas. Do you have a favorite way to address this issue with your child or student?