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Sunday, February 26, 2012

Monday Morning Check In: Grasshopper or Giant?

We even saw giants there . . . Next to them we felt like grasshoppers, and that's what they thought, too! - Numbers 13:33 (NIV)

Perspective colors our thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors. Which perspective we choose to consider and follow will greatly impact how we develop our character and how we find opportunities to succeed. Consider the scripture verse above. This quotation arises from the biblical story of when Moses sent 12 men to spy out the Promised Land and bring back a report of the inhabitants and the land's fruitfulness. Two of the men returned with an encouraging report and enthusiastically urged the Israelites to move forward and enter into the Promised Land. The other ten men returned with a discouraging report and the quotation above. Let us take a closer look at the ingredients of this quotation. What is a grasshopper or giant perspective? Is one preferable over the other?

Someone with a grasshopper perspective is a person who views him- or herself as smaller than others. A person with thoughts the size of grasshopper is a person who may be fearful and insecure. This person may lack vision to rise above the status quo and in fact may find comfort with the familiar and routine. Lacking confidence in abilities, a grasshopper is likely to shy away from risks and new challenges.

A giant perspective is a person with a belief that he or she is larger than others. The danger in these thoughts is that the person may stray off the path of community and head down the independent road that leads to self importance, arrogance, and aloneness. The giant may not spend much time thinking about offering service to others, and instead may be a stranger to compassion. Because the giant has a large belief in him- or herself, the giant may become lazy and prone to sloth. The giant may even lack a willingness to try new things. Why bother? Who can touch me?

Interesting, yes? Both perspectives yield possible deficits of character and accomplishment. I have referred to the "grasshopper theory" for years, because I witness so many people falling prey to their own negative thoughts and predictions. When I first thought about this post. I intended to focus on the grasshopper perspective as the negative example, and I assumed that the better perspective would be to think as a giant would. However, as I delved into my material, I realized that there was a negative side to giant thinking too.

Black/white thinking is so easy. We humans do it all the time: yes/no, right/wrong, up/down, good/bad. The hardest part about my legal education was training myself to think of more than three answers to a problem. I frequently pushed myself to think of three, and many times strived for four or five, because the mental exercise stimulated my creative juices and freed up any tendency I had to settle for less. As a teacher I frequently encourage students to think of at least three possible solutions to any challenge.

So to take my own advice, I will suggest that there are other perspectives to consider besides the grasshopper and giant. There may be elements of each that when combined will form a new perspective that combines the best of both. There may be a perspective that avoids all the negative  traits of each.

I suggest that we take this week to consider the type of perspective with which we view our lives and work. Are we thinking like grasshoppers or giants?

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Quick Teaching Tip: Vivaldi’s Phone Number

I helped a student today on Vivaldi’s Concerto in A minor, op. 3, no. 6, in the revised edition of Suzuki Violin Volume 4. We discussed some practice ideas for the section in measures 25-28, which I refer to as “Vivaldi’s phone number.” I believe I first heard this particular nickname for these measures from Terry Durbin at an institute, perhaps Elizabethtown over a decade ago.

The nickname refers to the first note of each group of 16th notes. If you recite the fingering for these notes, it sounds like a phone number. Since Vivaldi lives in Venice, Italy, the phone number is quite lengthy to accommodate the international aspect of the call:

4 – 4 – 3 – 1 – 4 – 4 – 2 – 1 – 3 – 4 – 1 (or 4) – 0 – 2 – 3

Vivaldi Concerto in A Minor, measures 25-28

Students stumble through this passage in their initial playing attempts. There is a reason, and I find this passage is a golden teaching opportunity about how to approach passages in a way that will spur students to achieve success quicker. I also use a similar technique in a passage in Seitz Concerto No. 2, 3rd movement, the first song in book 4:

Seitz Concerto No. 2, movement 3 passage

One of the reasons I think students have trouble with both passages is that they are reading every single note, one at a time. For example, in the Seitz concerto passage, the students have great difficulty playing this passage of double notes. When I guide the student to notice that everything is presented as pairs of notes, so therefore, read just the first note of each pair, the student reads the music quicker and with less difficulty.

Similarly with the Vivaldi phone number passage, I find that students are bogged down looking at the trees and not taking in the scope of the forest. Sometimes I suggest that my student take a step backwards and look at the music from a distance that is almost far enough away that the student cannot read the individual notes. Standing farther away encourages the student to notice the scope and breadth of the musical passage, such as the high and low points and the phrasing or grouping of notes.

In the Vivaldi passage, I ask the student to play the first note in each group of 16th notes, in other words, Vivaldi’s phone number. This poises the student to visually group the notes, which is where I want the student to be. When the student plays Vivaldi’s phone number, the student also experiences the bowing direction that will occur in the passage once the student puts all the notes together:

Vivaldi's Phone Number
After playing the phone number, I guide the student to notice that each grouping has the same three notes and bowings after the initial note. How easy can that be to learn, I ask them. At this point, the student sails through the passage with much less difficulty.

What is my point in this teaching tip? My point is that as teachers we need to figure it out. When we notice that our students have difficulty in the same places, we need to figure out what part of the passage causes the students to have learning or playing problems. Then once we figure out the problem, we need to come up with a solution.

I do not know what Terry Durbin’s original purpose was in coming up with the “Vivaldi phone number” nickname. Mr. Durbin is a fun teacher, so my thinking is that he came up with a fun way to turn the student on to learning the passage. My purpose in using Mr. Durbin’s trick was initially to entertain my student. After years of teaching students this passage, my teaching technique has evolved into an understanding of what the problem is in learning this passage and how to teach the passage so that students learn the passage easier.

Just as I ask my students to step backwards on occasion and get a bigger picture of the task before them, so I as a teacher also must step back and look at the learning situation and figure out what is going on in my students’ learning sphere.

Every time I successfully identify and solve one of these learning dilemmas in the Suzuki repertoire, I renew my admiration for Dr. Suzuki’s brilliant insight into how we learn. I was surprised when I taught my first adult student using the Suzuki repertoire, that my adult students had the same learning and playing difficulties as my young charges. No matter what the age or ability level, students learn in similar ways. Our job as good teachers is to figure out where students have learning issues and how to solve those issues.

I love teaching! I enjoy these repertoire challenges. I seek to discover new problems in the repertoire and new solution methods. The best part of teaching, in my opinion, is when I "figure it out."

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Big Whyne

If there is one thing that students consistently whine about, it's the scale assignment. I have to vigilantly monitor whether my students are practicing their scale assignment and in what manner. Even when I have put the parent in charge of the scale assignment, I still have to check up to make sure that the assigned homework is being done.

Mostly the whine is about "why":
  • Why do I have to play scales?
  • Why are scales important?
  • Why can't we do something fun instead?
  • Why can't I practice something else?
  • Why can't I do something else? What value is there in practicing scales anyway?
  • Why can't we skip practicing scales, since we get scales practice in our songs anyway?
  • Why are you torturing me?
Well, OK, maybe I do not hear this last complaint so much (unless I am putting the student through my "homework lesson."* [see my footnote below for an explanation of the "homework lesson."])

Why do we practice scales? Why do teachers assign scales? Why has this assignment been passed along from teacher to student for so many generations? There must be a reason, or several. How does a teacher explain the value to a student or parent?

This year one of my talented violin students decided to add piano lessons to his schedule. Because he already played the violin so well, it did not take very long before he was really cooking on the piano. I actually skipped right past the usual popular piano methods and started him on the old John Thompson books, which are my initial piano studies. I enjoyed these books because they provided a great deal of intellectual stimulation, and because they included historical and other information with each song. I have not used these books with my students ever, but with this particular student, I knew I would need something really interesting to spur him to the next level of excitement.

As I revisited my old John Thompson memories with my pupil, I viewed the lessons from the teacher's perspective, which is not something I would have had as a student. One of the first discoveries I made is that John Thompson helps the student to discover and remember how it feels to play in various keys. One set of songs may teach the student how it feels to play in C Major. Another set will focus on G major, and so on. As my student and I discussed these song sets, we started exploring the feel of the various keys.

Since my student was well versed in music theory, I helped him understand a basic chord progression of I - IV - V - V7 - I. We learned this first in C major, which every pianist can tell you feels completely balanced and centered on the piano. When my student learned the G major chord progression, he learned that there was a little bit of a "tail upswing" to the left in that key (due to the F#). We noted and discussed how that felt. We discovered the similar feeling in D major. In F major we discovered no tail, but there was a spreading of the hands between the thumb and index finger (left hand) and thumb and third finger (right hand).

Do not underestimate the value of feeling. Music involves all aspects of our brain or at least more areas of our brains than required by other activities. Kinesthetic sensation plays a valuable part in a musician's craft. My young student discovered this phenomenon for himself in our "key feeling" lesson.

So I will argue that one main purpose in practicing scales is to develop the kinesthetic sensation of playing in various keys. What else?

When I am comfortable playing in a key, I can play quickly. I have practiced the particular physical sensations or developed the muscle memory that allows me to play fast. Repetition in practice teaches my muscles the memory of how the notes and finger patterns feel in relation to each other. Practicing scales helps me to develop more strongly my muscle memory.

Practicing scales also helps to develop my aural skills. Various scale patterns make different demands on my aural reception. For example, I note that my freshman university students generally have difficulty playing a diminished arpeggio. It may take an entire semester before I can help them to successfully hear and play the diminished interval in an arpeggio. Once a student learns the major scales, the student then moves on to learn how to hear and play minor scales (natural, harmonic, melodic, and even Dorian).

There is a mental and visual aspect to learning scales. Mentally, a musician needs to be able to think in a particular key, which includes reading in a particular key. The mental and visual aspects make a connection with the physical.

Have I convinced you yet of the value of practicing scales? The purpose of this post was to impress on you the importance of performing a scale practice on a regular basis, preferably daily. My purpose was not to discuss what a good scale practice routine would be. That is the subject of a future post.

Please leave a  comment with your argument about why practicing scales is important.

PS: Here is a good explanation written by an LA cellist ("Clemzilla") to the Internet Cello Society Foreum, Cello Chat!:
When asked why they should practice scales, I always make a point to tell my students that "scales are the alphabet of the musical language." I then draw the analogy to the English aphabet, and how the various letters can be combined to form hundreds of thousands of different words. Furthering the analogy, I point out that young students need to learn how the word "cat " is spelled before they can negotiate words like  "catapult," "catalogue" or "catastrophe."

Next, I explain to them that arpeggios, scales and scale fragments make up the lion's share of Western Art Music... and the more well-versed they are in playing these elements, the more fluid, natural and attractive their playing will be. But I don't stop there. I then ask them to open ANY piece or etude... and immediately begin pointing out all scale fragments beginning with the earliest example. After about half a page of these examples, and they begin to 'get it.' We move on to arpeggios- same results.

Last step: I ask them, "do you realize that I don't actually read every note on the page?" Typically, they are shocked... until I explain. "I've been playing scales for so long, I see them measures ahead. I note the first pitch of the scale fragment and the last, and skip over everything in between. My fingers 'fill in the blanks.' Same goes for arpeggios. It's the same as when you read from a page of a novel... you aren't actually looking at every letter on the page, are you? No, you're actually reading the shapes of the words. The only time I actually slow down during the fragments is when there are accidentals present. but I have time to do it because I haven't wasted time reading every single note. Nowadays, I probably only study about 40-60% of the actual notes on the page... fewer, if it's a piece I've played many times. It's a shortcut that allows me to play with more fluidity and LOTS less effort... but it only became a feature of my playing after I'd committed these scales to memory. Better results with less work- pretty good deal, eh?" [At this point, I usually play them the second and third Rococo variations, complete with running descriptive narrative, just to drive home the point]

I finish this little speech thusly: "Look- it's going to take about 3 months of solid study before these scales start to become owned by you. You can do it in 3 months by spending an hour per day on them for the next 90 days, or you can stretch that 3-month period out over the span of YEARS, if you only spend a few minutes on them, every now and then. The choice is yours- invest a lot now, and start reaping the rewards early, or invest a little- and make slower, more painful progress. It'll cost you the same 3 months either way."

This approach works on about 40% of my kids. The other 60% continue to struggle, but get no sympathy from me when they whine... they get the same closing to my initial speech all over again, followed by: "How much of your 3 months have you invested?"

The difference between the quality of an 'average' player (whatever 'average' means) and a top-notch artist is eloquence: how effortlessly and attractively one articulates the language. The vast bulk in acheiving eloquence is in efficiently reading the story on the page. Relegating the fundamentals of the laguage to second-nature is the first big step toward approaching eloquence in one's delivery. Now, one might not ever aceive the same level of artistry as a Feuermann or Rostropovich, but without these base skills, they have no shot whatsoever.

For me, it matters less what method or book is used as the vehicle, as it matters that the student know why scale study is necessary. Grab their imagination, shine the light of truth upon their current status, and convince them that the difference between what they sound like and what the want to sound like begins with scales and arpeggios.... and you have a shot with them. Face it: a teacher can only motivate so much from the studio... the bulk of the motivation to progress must come from the student himself. Without a clear reason to do the boring work of cello practice, noone is going to invest the time and energy. My approach gives them not only a reason to play scales, it entices them with promises of cleaner, better playing and also gives them a timeline to shoot for- important, particularly where young persons are concerned.

Humbly submitted: perhaps it's not the book as much as the sales pitch.

just another .02,


Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Quick Parenting Tip: Let Them Practice it for Themselves

Sunday I bathed eight dogs. Yikes!, you are probably thinking. Uh huh, I have eight dogs in my home right now and three puppies. I had nine but one little guy got snapped up today.

I did some heavy duty cleaning and dust busting on Sunday afternoon. After mopping the floors, I thought that it might be a good idea to wash the dogs too, in case they were helping to spread some of the dust around the place (Texas had a drought last summer, which has helped me to understand The Grapes of Wrath in more depth myself).

As I washed each of the eight dogs, I noticed that I got more efficient at it. I discovered which actions made my chore go swifter, and I hit upon a sequence of steps that offered the best use of my time and efforts.

As I perfected my technique and sequence, I compared this experience with that of practicing and learning how to play the violin. Too often parents and students play through something one time and then seem to consider that a sufficient practice. I have made little practice vignette recordings lately on my phone for students and parents to practice with, and everyone seems to enjoy them. I especially like the results that I see lately. I get these results because I make a recording that actually asks the student to practice. We may go through a sequence of steps as many as four times in varied ways. This is what I consider practicing.

But I digress. My post today was about "letting" students practice things for themselves. Rather than follow along with the teacher's recording or the parent's instruction, I suggest that students be allowed to discover themselves how to do something. Not everything, but some things. Not completely alone, but with guidance.

Today's tip stems from my experience the other day with two of my fun students, Jamey and Elliott. Jamey had to change his strings on Monday, and Elliott had to change his strings on Tuesday. We have changed strings together in the past, and I thought it would be a good idea to let them learn how to change the strings by themselves (while I was there to encourage and guide them). Jamey opted to use most of his lesson time to change to a new set. Here is how I structured the string changing lesson:

  • I helped him sort out his materials first. We laid out the new strings on the table and decided which order to change them. We labeled the string package with today's date and discussed saving the used strings so that he would have a quick, easy replacement if he ever had a string break.
  • I began the process of changing one of his strings. As I changed it, I talked aloud about the string changing process. At first Jamey was eager to jump in and do the whole thing himself. He was sure that he remembered all the steps to change the strings himself. I let him grab onto the process, but I knew that he probably would not remember everything that we planned to do.
  • As I changed the first string, I asked if he had done the other steps that go along with changing a string. In this case, I like to put peg compound on the pegs (to prevent slipping and sticking) and pencil graphite in the grooves of the nut and the bridge (to prevent wear and tear on the string in these places). He had not remembered to do them, so my question was a gentle reminder.
  • For the next string, I let him do the string changing bit, and I took on his role with the peg compound. I asked him whether he did the pencil thing because I had "forgotten."
  • I did not help at all on the third string. I just sat there and watched, maybe doing the "back seat driver" bit occasionally. (Remember to hold the string taut, like when you tie your shoes, etc.).
  • I do not even remember if he changed the last string, because I was busy cleaning up. I wrapped the used strings and put them in the dated string package to store in Jamey's case. Then I helped him to tune, although he did most of that himself.
I know we did not spend much time having a "lesson" per se, but we had a great lesson. Jamey will feel completely competent to change his own strings in the future if he wants to, although I expect he will opt to share the experience with me. We did have a good time. In Elliott's case, we had a good time too, but I know that Elliott will enjoy sharing the time together to perform this menial task.

So parents, I know it is easier to do things yourself. It speeds things along if the expert tackles the chore. However, if the student can perform at least 80% of the task passably well, it will be worthwhile for the parent or teacher to allow the student to experience the task for themselves. Yes, it takes time, but it is time very well spent. One really learns when one experiences.

Plini: "Experience is the most efficient teacher of all things."
Julius Caesar: "Experience is the teacher of all things."
Tacitus: "Experience teaches."

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Monday Morning Check In: Collecting the Right Stuff

Lots of folks collect things. My husband collects stamps and has since he was a boy. Others collect figurines, dolls, coins, music boxes, or glassware. Elizabeth Taylor collected husbands.

I collect words. Ever since I can remember I wrote down interesting things that I read or heard. I have little notebooks all over the place. Just the other day I found one in my car. I eagerly checked to see what was in it and discovered that I had scribbled something on every single page. Quotes from podcasts I had heard, words from audio books I had listened to, and notes of random thoughts. I spend a lot of time in my car.

I like to use “big boy words[1]” with my students to encourage their curiosity about vocabulary. Last semester I put a “word of the week” on my university studio door. Then I followed the word with an expression that introduced a second big boy word. For example, I wrote:

Word of the Week:


Not to be confused with:


Or “obdurate,” not to be confused with “intractable.”

My students and I had fun coming up with these interesting pairings. It was not unusual for me to open my studio door to the hallway and discover several students standing around the posted word of the week.

This semester I am putting up different kinds of words. These are not words that students would need to look up, I expect. Instead, these are words that I want students to ponder. These are words that say much with just a few letters, and what these words say will have many different meanings for each person who considers them. The other day when I opened my studio door into the hallway, I found a student I did not know loitering outside my door. "I love reading everything on your door!" he told me. Well, thanks! This is one student who obviously "gets it."

I would like to share 100 words with you and encourage you to spend some time thinking about them yourself, about what each word means to you, and how you can show others by your actions what the words mean to you. Please feel free to chime in with your own list of words.

Love, hope, curiosity, acceptance, trust, faith, affection, belief, fascination, expectation, responsibility, perseverance, discipline, strength, encouragement, nurturing, discernment, evaluation, habit, routine, thoughtfulness, kindness, gratitude, graciousness, courage, audacity, solution, searching, fairness, acceptance, challenge, confidence, expressive, character, achievement, decisive, promise, commitment, teamwork, education, choices, presentation, impression, joy, clarity, inspiration, mentor, role model, surprise, laughter, compassion, sympathy, perspective, observation, future, invention, reinvention, teachable, receptive, learning, knowledge, wonder, respect, consideration, motivation, empower, goals, promise, endeavor, practice, success, failure, measurement, ability, skill, time management, smile, refinement, problem solving, repetition, unlimited, perfection, idealism, aspiration, dreams, concentration, focus, willpower, growth, determination, perspicacity, blessing, partnership, performance, sharing, connection, and obligation.

That is a good list for starters. Let us add more words like this to our lists.

[1] My eleven-year old student Jamey is fond of using “big boy” as an expression for anything that I would do as an adult. E.g., if I forget my personal piano music on the music rack and he has to move it out of his way, he refers to it as “big boy music.”

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Suzuki Violin Book 2 Musings

Recently a teacher friend of mine mentioned that she was venturing farther into book 2 with her students than she had previously gone, and she asked me for teaching advice. This conversation sparked me to think about the gifts we discover in book 2.

In general book 2 is designed to “unfurl” the student’s left hand. Whereas book 1 remained within the confines of the perfect fourth interval and ventured to widen the reach between the fingers within that perfect fourth interval, book two challenges the student to stretch the reach between all of the fingers and widen the overall interval to an augmented fourth (or diminished fifth) and a perfect fifth. The book introduces four or five new finger pattern combinations and some stretches between the fingers that span across the strings rather than on the same string (e.g., Chorus and Minuet in G). The last third of the book introduces the trill (preparation in Gavotte from Mignon), and the student learns to widen the space between the trill (half step trill in Lully’s Gavotte and whole step trill in Boccherini’s Minuet).

The right hand skills include longer bows and whole bow distribution concepts in legato (Long, Long Ago) and staccato (Hunter’s Chorus). The up-up hooked staccato bowing from the book 1 “Happy Farmer” is quickened in the Long, Long Ago book 2 variation and then lengthened to four up bow staccato notes in the trio to Minuet in G. There is increased complexity of bowing and rhythm combinations: hooked and dotted rhythms (Witches Dance), slurred dotted rhythms (Minuet in G), bow speed variances, louré or portato bowing (Handel Bourreé and Minuet in G), and the beginnings of the “circle back” collé bowing (The Two Grenadiers).

I separate book 2 into two separate books in my head, because the first and second halves seem to belong to different skill perspectives. The first half of book 2 casts an eye back at book 1 in terms of finger patterns and bowing skill sets. The latter half of book 2 looks ahead to the skills needed to advance into books three and four.

Perhaps the trickiest part about teaching book 2 is to figure out how to introduce a new book 2 skill or teaching point. To prepare for early book 2, what I call book 2A, I focus on cementing the skills that book 1 introduced. I find this easy because simultaneously we are going over what we have learned in book 1 in great detail as we polish the book 1 repertoire to prepare a book 1 graduation recital.

To prepare to teach book 2B, the last half of book 2, I introduce new concepts and skill exercises. The first really new skill will be the wider stretch required between the index and second or third fingers in The Two Grenadiers and in Lully Gavotte. Most teachers introduce this stretch by altering Go Tell Aunt Rhody to resemble a more Middle Eastern sound. We play Bb instead of B natural and F natural rather than F# throughout the song:

Aunt Rhody Goes to Saudi Arabia
The parents are usually interested to hear how this change in fingering alters the sound of the song so completely, and the students want to learn this skill because their parents are so interested. This is also a great group class activity, as Aunt Rhody makes a stop in Saudi Arabia when she takes a trip around the world. See my previous post about this: Around the World with Aunt Rhody.

Another new skill in book 2 is the Bb finger pattern, so I introduce the one-octave Bb scale on the A and E strings. We often work with a tuner.

Bb scale, one octave

I find that the best teacher of the Bb finger pattern shows up when the student learns to play the Bb scale in broken thirds:

Bb scale, broken thirds

We definitely use a tuner for the broken thirds exercise to make sure that the third fingers are in tune. This exercise also affords me the opportunity to talk about ringing third fingers in octaves with a lower string:

tuning the 3rd finger

One other useful tool to prepare for the second half of book two is to teach the student how to play Perpetual Motion from book 1 in the key of Bb. Twinkle Theme in Bb is also useful. Once the student has mastered the Bb fingering for Perpetual Motion in Bb, the student will be able to later use this fingering to learn how it feels in various positions:
Each song in book 2 requires a different set of previews of skills for both the left and right hands. My purpose here was to give a brief summary overview of some of the major skills that book 2 will introduce and to lay out a few of the basic preparation tools I use to pave the way for teaching the last half of Suzuki violin book two.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Quick Practice Tip: Holes and Towers

I have a delightful eleven-year old boy in the studio who is on the cusp of book 6. We have spent much of this year in lively discussions about practicing and what constitutes good practice habits. I would like to share one of our recent conversations about this topic.

Eleven-year old boys are enamored with speed and movement. They generally have lots of energy and enjoy playing things as fast as they can. I understand the seductive lure of playing fast, but I also understand the pitfall of allowing the fun of physical sensation to encourage the ears to take a siesta from doing their job. When a student plays a passage too fast, the ears cannot hear it accurately. The trick is getting the student to learn how to play the passage quickly enough to garner speed but also slow enough to check for intonation and accuracy. I covered the topic of practicing methods to build up speed in previous posts:

I had discussed these various methods with my student, but in this instance, my student was caught up in the fun and excitement of playing a very cool piece (Bach's Violin Concerto for Two Violins in D minor, violin 1 in book 5) and had little enthusiasm for accuracy for the moment.

I isolated a passage whose perfection eluded my student: tricky finger pattern, difficult bow articulation and slurring, and advanced aural interval for intonation. I asked my student to play the passage a little slower and really listen to what he played. Our conversation went like this:

What did you hear?

My student looked at me with a puzzled expression.

Were you playing the correct notes?

I could tell that he was not sure about the answer to that question.

Try playing it again much slower and really listening to whether the notes are correct and in tune.

It took a few more tries before my student could play the passage slow enough for his ears to start working accurately and identify problem areas.

Let's suppose that I asked you to build up a big pile of dirt for me. And, you eagerly did that, except that you dug a hole instead.

"O . . . K . . .," my student said, clearly puzzled about where I was headed.

When I checked up on the work you did, I found that you dug a huge hole instead of building up a pile of dirt. I would tell you: "Jamey! I asked you to build a pile of dirt! I wanted to build a tower and needed a pile of dirt. You dug a hole instead!" What would you have to do now to fulfill my request?

"I would have to fill up the hole and then build a pile of dirt on top of where I had the hole at first."

Exactly! So how much work did you do in order to finally build up the pile of dirt I initially asked you to make?

"I would have to do two sets of work. I would have to fill up the hole I dug and then have to pile more dirt on top of that to build a pile -- No! Wait! -- I would have done 3 sets of work! Because, I would have dug the hole in the first place, then I would have had to fill it up, and then I would have had to build it up. I did three times more work than I should have done."

So, how much work would you have done if you had just built up the dirt pile in the first place?

"I would have done the work once."

When we practice, we also have to decide whether we want to practice to dig a hole or build a tower, right?


So what do you want to do in this piece when you practice? Dig a hole or build a tower?

"I want to build a Castle, not a Moat!"

Lesson learned! Thanks, Jamey! Happy Valentine's Day back at you!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Monday Morning Check In: Artist's Dates

 I let myself out of the house today.

You wonder about that statement? Yes, I suppose it makes little sense to others, but it tells me a lot.

I do not enjoy leaving the house to do something that is not related to work. Yes, I confess, I work way too much. I tire out others when I explain what I do every day. I am frequently out of the house, but generally because of some work-related activity. As I think about today though, I realize that there is a pattern. I just like working. I do not enjoy doing things that are not related to work unless they are activities that I can enjoy alone, such as reading, writing, or watching movies or TV. Or doing something in my home. You would probably say I am a loner type. The folks I work with would be amazed to hear this, but as I have said earlier, I generally have no problem doing anything that is related to work.

I am a big fan of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and her strong suggestion that we creative types engage in the ritual of writing morning pages. I have done this activity for years, and I encourage others to join me. I gain so much insight and personal peace by sifting through my thought snippets each morning. If my mind is too full of things, the morning pages help me to carve out a route to the other side. If my mind is empty and drifting, the pages draw out helpful suggestions to pull me together again.

One of Julia Cameron’s other creative tools is the artist’s date. I am not so good about doing this requirement. Part of the problem is that I am generally too busy to take the time to do something like this. The other part of the problem is that I do not like to do something that is unrelated to work.

I made up my mind to do something this year about my problem. Recently I got a notice about a university theater performance of a Steve Martin play. I duly noted each of the performance dates on my calendar and especially noted which would be the last performance date, so that I would not get bogged down into thinking that I could "skip it this time and go next time.”

Today was the last performance. I had even thought that I would call up a friend to accompany me; I procrastinated making the phone call all week. Too many reasons came up. The weather looked bleak, I felt tired lately, the flu bug has been making its rounds so I should take precautions, and the dogs needed to spend more time with me. I let each performance date slip past me.

I did tell you that I got out of the house today? Yes, I did. It took a three-year old to accomplish this, one of my students. She was celebrating her fourth birthday a few days early, and at first she had planned to have a party at the local regional zoo. When the weather turned cold and icy, she moved the party indoors to a local pizzeria.

I accepted the zoo invitation, because that would have been an activity that allowed me to wander in solitude if I needed it and would definitely fit Cameron’s definition of an artist’s date. When the celebratory plans and venue changed, I said no at first, then later changed my mind. I really, really wanted to share my little student’s birthday enthusiasm. She had talked about her birthday cake all through Saturday’s group class. She was clearly excited about the event and about my coming and joining her friends. I thought about how disappointed she would be about the change in plans, and I thought I could help her mom to ease the disappointment of having the party in a new place. I would rise above my petty problem about not leaving the house to do things outside of work for the sake of my three-year old student.

And that is what I did. I attended the birthday party at the pizzeria. I met lots of people I did not know, and everyone was lovely. I had no trouble interacting with the kids, and my little student was such a pleasure to watch as she opened up her presents and walked over to personally thank and hug every single person who gave her a gift. When she finished opening up all her gifts, she announced, “Thank you, everybody!” She said it more than once. Wow, I do not know any adults who do that as well!

I had a lovely time, and I realized later that I was fulfilling my original purpose of embarking on an artist date. Cameron’s purpose for the artist’s date is to do a solo expedition about something that interests the individual. For me, however, the artist date will involve something outside of myself, because I understand now that any successful artist date for me will entail my having to overcome the problem of going outside of my comfort zone of work. I also understand now that the reason I have not succeeded at meeting the artist date requirement is that I have this work compulsion problem. Solitary excursions are not difficult for me; I embark on solitary artist explorations all the time because I enjoy being by myself. My future excursions will require me to involve myself in community outside of work no matter how uncomfortable; I will gain new insights from my social observations, and I will learn something about myself in the trying.

Maybe I should ask my little student what I should do for my next week’s artist date? Maybe we can go to the zoo?

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Smiling Your Way Through Violin Practice (or How Not to Quit)

Someone asked me how to practice with her child and feel like smiling at the same time. Let me describe how I would do this if I were a parent.

If the child were very young, I would sit with her on my lap and hold her. I would give generous hugs. I would turn my voice into a soft blanket and let my love warm our connection. Here is how the conversation might go:

“Mommy loves you very much,” I would say with a smile. “Do you know how much? Let me tell you.”

I would smile and look in their eyes with as much love as I could muster.

“What do I do when you are hungry?”

You feed me.

“That’s right. I make sure that your tummy is full of food.”

I would touch or pat the stomach area.

“What do I do when you are thirsty?”

You give me something to drink.

“That’s right. I give you something to drink.”

I would touch my fingers to the child’s lips and maybe give them a little kiss.

“Why do you think I send you to school?”

You want me to learn things.

“That’s right. I want to fill up your mind with things that are important to learn and know. I am feeding your mind.”

I would touch the child’s forehead.

“Do you know why we practice the violin together and go to music classes and lessons? 

Here I would touch the area above the child’s heart and smile deeply at the child.

“We learn the violin together because we are feeding our hearts and spirits. We are filling up our hearts with beautiful music.”

Now the real lesson begins.

“If you are hungry, would I stop feeding you? Of course not! I am a good mom and I would make sure that you were not hungry.”

Hugs and smiles again.

“If you are thirsty, would I stop giving you a drink? Of course not! I would always give you a drink because I love you very much.”

I would offer more hugs, smiles, and hair stroking.

“If you wanted to stay home from school every day, would I let you? No, of course not! I want your mind to be full and not empty.”

And the big question comes next.

“If you did not want to practice the violin or go to violin classes and lessons, would I let you stay home?”

I would wait for the child to answer this question, because the child knows that the parent loves him or her.

No, you would not let me stop practicing or going to violin class.

“That’s right. I want to fill your heart with beautiful music. I want you to share in the wonderful gift that music will bring to your heart and spirit.”

“I want this gift for you because I love you very much. Are you ready to practice together now?” And I would smile as big as I could.

Imagine how wonderful our practices together would be if we focused on the beautiful gift we gave each other rather than on the work!

I am puzzled to hear that students want to quit playing or studying a musical instrument. I wonder how that situation came to be. If the parent were to accede to the child’s complaints and desires to stop instruction, I can only wonder how the parent would think that listening to a young child is the answer. After all, is that not why there are parents in the world? Who would think that a 4 or 7 or even a 13 year old would have enough life experience to understand what the benefits of music education are? I might listen to the argument that a child made and discuss it, but as an adult, I think it is my responsibility to make decisions based on my adult education and experience and not that of a child.

Yes, I know, sometimes it is hard to persevere when the child is frequently grousing about practice or going to lessons (or doing homework or taking out the garbage or going to school or not seeing enough of their friends or boyfriends). That is why there are parents in the world, because we have had the time and life experience to weather these storms of complaint and melodrama. These moments of frustration and dissension may be golden opportunities to offer the lesson of perseverance and discipline, which will eventually lead to the ultimate prize of high self-esteem that comes from achievement, fulfillment, and diligence.

One parent told me that she handled the situation by labeling the family in a way that discouraged the child from wanting to quit. “You are a Smith [fictitious name]. The Smith family does not raise quitters. We don’t even understand what it means to quit.” And then she walked away. She said that the child never brought up the subject again.

My personal story shares some elements with the Smith family. I began learning the piano when I was three years old; my mother, a primary school teacher and singer/pianist, was my first instructor. My mother and I had some difficulties working together, although her motivation was good. She did the best that she knew how, and we did not have parent education/Suzuki training courses in those days. Our practices together evaporated, and I was left to play by myself.

My father also played piano; he is a most excellent jazz pianist! My sister and I were treated to my father’s wonderful jazz music every single day that we lived at home. We fell asleep to his practicing, and we learned a lot about jazz musicians of the time and various styles. It was a real treat to put in our special requests for songs on our way to bed and then to fall asleep waiting to hear our father entertain us with our favorites.

Inevitably I wanted to be just like dad. When I was 5, I asked to take piano lessons again. This time my mom had a serious talk with me. If I really wanted to take lessons, I would have to think long and hard about what that meant. If I were to take lessons, I would have to continue taking them until I graduated high school or no longer lived at home. If I were to take lessons, I could not quit. Period. That was the end of the discussion. My mother left me with that and told me to think about it and make sure that I could live up to my decision when I made it.

I did think about it. I know I was only five years old, but I was a fairly smart cookie even then. I vividly recall lying down under the baby grand piano and looking out the front window of our house as I thought about it. Did I really want to play the piano and take lessons for that length of time [yes, I was smart enough to figure out on my fingers how many years it would be until I graduated high school]? Could I live with that decision for such a long time? (13 years is a very long time for a 5 year old to consider). I made the positive decision, and my mom got me started with lessons with a lovely teacher. I studied with her for seven or eight years before moving to another town and starting with another teacher.

Did I continue playing piano until I graduated high school or left home? Yes, I played all the way through college, and I continue to play and perform as a pianist and accompanist to this day, even though my primary profession is as a violinist. I have played piano for the San Antonio and Austin Symphonies. I have accompanied university musicals. I have accompanied many, many students of various instruments, as well as professional musicians in recitals. In fact, just the other day, I was accompanying two of my husband’s trombone students at a regional school performance event, and I ran into two band director friends whose pianist had not shown up (there was some very bad weather that caused traffic snarls and closed roads). I stepped in at the last minute as an emergency accompanist for these students. I love playing piano professionally and for my own personal enjoyment.

When I was 7 years old, I ran away from home. I packed a suitcase, unloaded my money from my piggy bank, and marched off about 2 miles away from home to camp out in the little wilderness area behind our local grocery store. I planned to live on Muenster cheese and chocolate Life Savers. The funny part is that I left my parents a note telling them that I was running away but not to worry because I would be back on Wednesday for my piano lesson.

I guess my mother’s lesson about commitment really took hold. I am still practicing piano and violin.

Happy practicing!

Monday, February 6, 2012

Monday Morning Check In: Pithy-ism and cliches

It’s Monday Morning, and I want to talk about pithiness. As a teacher I find it useful to boil down important concepts into tiny word pictures. As a person journeying through life, I also find it useful to hang my hat on several succinct phrases – short on words but long on concepts. I keep my eyes open for these little gems and find ways to use and reuse them in many areas of my life.

I recall one conversation with a great Texas litigator, Joe Davis, formerly of Hilgers & Watkins, P.C. I asked Mr. Davis why so many litigators flashed clichés around like hot money. As a writer, I understood that clichés were to be avoided because they lacked originality.

Mr. Davis explained that clichés were a useful litigation tool because they painted a vivid picture with few words. When the cliché was good, the cliché would paint a picture that would resonate with a jury. The cliché would build a connection, tell a story, and draw on the individual jurors’ personal experiences with the use of a few words.

Ah, I thought, maybe writing should strive to achieve the same result. I may or may not use clichés in my writing, but I do find comfort in pithy expressions with my students, my friends, and myself. Here are three I enjoy spreading around:
  • Don’t Break ALL the Dishes
  • Throw a Lick at a Snake (the A minus philosophy)
  • Soap is Soap

Don’t Break ALL the Dishes. The dishes example came from something I once heard at a Weight Watchers meeting. The story example discussed at the meeting was about people falling off their diet plans. The dish analogy was that once someone made a dietary choice that was different than planned, the person tended to use that as an excuse to continue making bad dietary choices. In other words, having broken one dish, the person now feels justified as having permission to break all the rest of the dishes in the set.

I remind myself of this little phrase and the concept it represents whenever I make a mistake or fall short of my expectations. The temptation in those situations is to give up, give in, or give out. This phrase reminds me to pick myself up, hang in there, and give it another go.

Throw a Lick at a Snake. I first learned of this phrase with the community. I understand this phrase to mean that I do not need to be perfect, although striving for perfection in any endeavor is always the best motivation. Sometimes, though, it is good to throw a lick at a snake. Throw enough at them and surely one or two will hit it. Any lick that hits will be good and make a difference.

I remind myself of this phrase whenever I find myself beginning to obsess about my performance in a particular area. My anchor for this phrase and its advice come from a past history during my stint as Director of the Texas State University Suzuki String Institute. I had a lovely conversation with my cello instructor, Donna Davis, in which she was trying to encourage me during a very stressful week. Here is her story:

Donna volunteered to build a Thanksgiving centerpiece for her child’s kindergarten class. She had the idea of using each letter in the word “Thanksgiving” to represent a particular concept related to the Thanksgiving theme, such as “thanks” for the letter T, “harvest” for the letter H, “appreciation” (or “apple”) for the letter A, and so forth. She got stuck over the letter K. She called the child’s teacher in a panic and asked for advice and help. The teacher must have known Donna well, because the teacher’s response was, “Donna, can a C minus be good enough this time?”

Donna and I had a good laugh over that story, because we understood that we both suffered from a similar problem – the need for perfection. Thereafter, I told that story to my Assistant Director (the best assistant director in the world, Robin Adamo!), and she had instructions to give me the signal at any time that I was heading over to the dark side of perfectionist tendencies. Robin would look me in the eye and ask me, “Can an A minus be good enough?” We would laugh, let the momentary obsession go, and move on.

Soap is soap. This little expression tells us that it does not matter what soap you use. Soap is soap. It fascinates me that there are so many possibilities of soap and shampoo available to us. When I was overseas, I realized that the hotel provided “soap” in most Guest bathrooms. That meant that I had soap for my hair and my body. Instead of waiting for the perfect solution, I would settle tor using the tools that completed the job satisfactorily.

OK, I get it now. It is funny how this works. As I wrote this post, I discovered that I had an overall theme: perfectionism can be hazardous. I notice that my favorite pithy phrases all reflect this theme.

What is your theme? What is the issue that you struggle with the most? I recommend reading as much as you can and visiting websites that may help you to find the quotes or phrases that would help you remember how to handle your issue or problem. Try these interesting sites:

Optimism Inc. on Facebook: community of optimists who share humor, motivation, and a whole lot of optimism. daily inspirational and motivational quotes. daily affirmations; there is a companion podcast; parental warning: this website may contain explicit material that is not appropriate for children or teens (or adults), but I have found more enjoyable and useful material in general on this site.  this foundation provides for weekly newsletter inspiration from Napoleon Hill, who wrote the popular “Think and Grow Rich” in 1937. produced by Nashville recording producer Brian Hardin, this daily podcast provides a daily reading of scripture, including old and new testaments, psalms, and proverbs, along with commentary and a discussion of prayer and community issues. Brian has the perfect recording voice, and Brian has often raised strong issues for me to reflect upon.

There are many such subscription opportunities that provide inspiration, motivational quotes, and affirmations. I believe that it is helpful to frequently fill my mind with information that is encouraging, uplifting, optimistic, positive, and motivational. Most of all, I look for phrases and quotes that give me pause to reflect on the deeper messages that will spur my life forward in positive directions. I frequently visit blogs, books, websites, and recordings by Jim Rohn, Brian Tracy, Tony Robbins, Steve Pavlina, Vic Johnson, Napoleon Hill, John C. Maxwell, and Leo Babauta.

I subscribe to all of the above items. Sometimes I am too busy to read and reflect on the items I receive, but I think that it helps to have a constant diet of such information to consider. I think it is important to keep my mind filled with the right kind of thoughts so that I can inspire my students and be a positive influence or support to my colleagues and studio parents.

I apologize for all the clichés that I included in today’s blog post. I could not resist the temptation to pepper my writing with as many clichés as I could generate to illustrate the theme of this post. Although I generally try to avoid clichés when writing, I do find them as useful as my lawyer friend Joe Davis suggested. As a teacher, I have built an arsenal of clichés and expressions designed to paint vivid pictures, build a connection, and resonate with my students.

This week, think about the issues you face personally. Visit some of the sites or information that I suggested above and see if you make a connection with one or more of them. Begin to collect catch-phrases of your own that provide powerful messages that will inspire you to keep on keeping on.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Quick Parenting Tip: Smile

I am a big fan of the “Dog Whisperer,” Cesar Milan. I have read most of his books, watched many episodes of his television program, and participated in his online learning program. Let me tell you about one of Cesar’s useful training tips that I think parents should practice regularly with their children.

During the feeding ritual, before actually releasing the dog to eat his or her food, there is a moment when Cesar asks the human to gaze at the dog with a smile and expression of love. This smiling gaze lets the dog feel the human’s positive, warm energy. This is a bonding experience for the dog and the human, who is the dog’s pack leader. The gaze is momentary, but the ritual helps the dog to maintain a calm and relaxed attitude.

Imagine how powerful this ritual would be between a parent and child. What a lovely habit for a parent to develop! The benefits to both the child and parent would be immeasurable.

I understand how difficult it may be for parents to love their children 24 hours a day amid the daily problems and behavior issues. I have often witnessed a parent’s struggle to maintain calm, assertive leadership that would also allow the parent to express love, gentleness, patience, and kindness. Sadly, there are times when I wonder whether a parent likes his or her children because I witness the parent’s seemingly constant battering of sarcasm, impatience, and anger.

Children are important. Like my canine companions, children are dependent on adults for everything: food, shelter, and nurturing. Food and shelter provisions attend to children’s physical needs. Nurturing and a parent’s expressions of love apply to children’s spiritual and emotional needs. A parent’s love and attention to a child will fill up the child’s emotional tank with the most important thing the child will need to face the world with strength and to grow into a secure and stable adult.

 Please spend some time today thinking how you can develop the habit of looking at your child with love and a smile. From this simple habit will grow the larger habit of loving your child.