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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

May Song

From a teacher's point of view, "May Song" may seem like a "dessert" song (see more about "dessert" songs). Students seem to learn this song quickly, and teachers find it easy to teach. The song is in ABA form like the Twinkle Variations. In fact, the song closely follows the same finger patterns of the Twinkle Variations and can be played simultaneously with the Twinkle Theme as a duet.

Left Hand Skills
  • Little is new for the left hand. Combined with "O Come Little Children," Dr. Suzuki uses these two songs to outline an ascending and descending A major arpeggio.
  • The song uses the same close 2-3 finger pattern as previous songs.
  • The song uses the "super glue" spatial pattern between first and third fingers on the E string, similar to that found in "Song of the Wind."
Right Hand Skills
  • The song introduces a dotted rhythmic pattern that involves various string crossings.
How I Teach the Song
  • If you have not read my earlier post about teaching rhythmic units, you might find it helpful to start there. In that earlier post, I used May Song as an example, and the examples I included in the earlier post follow exactly how I teach the song. (click here for rhythmic unit blog post). Here I will briefly outline my teaching steps, but the actual teaching points I use are contained in the earlier post.
  • Although I usually advocate beginning with left hand skills first in general, in the case of this song, I also introduce a right hand skill on open strings as part of a continuing ear training program. I play a "call and response" game with the student, where I play a series of open strings in a rhythmic pattern and ask the student to imitate what I played back to me.
    • I use the opening dotted rhythmic figure: dotted quarter note, eighth note, and two quarter notes:
    • I ask the student to use the above rhythm but play the following open strings: A - A - E - E. Note that this sequence of open strings matches the string crossing in measure one above.
    • I ask the student to use the rhythm again but play a different sequence of open strings: A - E - A - A. This sequence matches the string crossings in measure 3 below.
    • With this right hand and listening skills game, I now have the student practicing the song's string crossings without also having the confusion of the notes at the same time.
  • I introduce the first four notes of the song: A - C# - E - high A and ask the student to play these four notes several times until the student is easy with the combination. I help the student master the rhythmic units, as described in my earlier post.
  • The student usually figures out the next few notes by themselves.
    • I make sure that the student holds down the index finger (use "superglue" to hold the finger in place on the E string).
    • I ask the student to "toe tap" the 3rd finger while the index finger stays super glued in place on F#.
    • The student and I work through the next pattern of notes.
    • After the student has mastered the first line of the song, we work on the middle part. This part resembles the B part of Twinkle Theme, except for an altered rhythm that inserts an extra E string.

    Later Problems (or just later)

    • Although the rhythmic issue of the dotted quarter note and eighth note shows up right away, I am listing the problem here. What happens is that the student will play the song without the appropriate dotted rhythm, even though the student is conscientious about a listening program. Here is how I address this problem, and I would introduce this exercise whether or not the student has a rhythmic problem, because it is a great coordination exercise and leads to a later skill of using the human body as a human metronome.
      • I teach the student how to "step" to the song, i.e., to march (or step) to the beats of the song and to play the song at the same time.
      • I work on the first measure. I may have to break down the measure into teeny baby steps until the student "gets it." For example, stepping at the same time the student plays the first note may be all the baby step the student can grasp in the beginning. Then we add one note or one foot at a time until the first measure is done. Sometimes a student may take the assignment home to work on. Students do not seem to take longer than one week to figure it out.
      • Once the student figures out the first measure, marching to the rest of the song seems to fall into place.
      • This marching to the beat of the song is a great way to teach a student how to feel the rhythm with the body. It is also a useful tool for those passages when a student might "rush" the tempo. In the case of Perpetual Motion (book 1), it is even funnier if the teacher asks the students to "walk" on their knees in time to the notes. This is a hilarious group class activity, although adults do not enjoy it (hard floors and bony knees do not mix!). The kids look like penguins.
      • The superglue finger comes loose in measure 2 and needs a spot more glue to hold it in place on the F#.
      • The bowing and string crossings get a little messy.
      • Students can play May Song simultaneously with Twinkle Theme as a duet, which is a great ensemble skill builder in beginning group classes.
      I really like May Song, and my students do also. It is a bright, cheerful little thing. In the old books, there was a repeat sign so that the performer would play the entire song through twice. I am sorry that the revised edition took out the repeat. We really like playing May Song.

      Happy Teaching!

      Monday, March 26, 2012

      Monday Morning Check In: I am Home!

      Good Morning!

      I am back home from our New York City trip. For those readers just tuning in, I am a member of the Artisan Quartet, a professional string quartet. A year ago, MidAmerica Productions invited us to be part of its 30th anniversary series in Carnegie Hall Weill Theater. We performed last Thursday night, March 22, to a full house. It was a great concert and a terrific audience. We received a standing ovation and an invitation to return next year.

      We had a lovely time in New York City and loved every restaurant we went to. The people were terrific, our hotel (Hotel Moderne) was exotic and loads of fun (!), and the city's energetic bustle was amazing. NYC is truly a city that does not sleep.

      Please forgive me for not writing more. It was an exhausting trip, and there are many things for me to attend to now that I have returned home. And one of our sweet darlings had four new puppies right after we finished our performance. So there is much that is vying for my attention right now.

      I will get back into the writing swing in another day or two. For now, I want to enjoy the sensation of returning to work after being away for an entire week. Thank you to all the personal good wishes and comments I received prior and during my trip. I appreciate all of you!

      Happy Teaching!

      Monday, March 19, 2012

      Monday Morning Check In: The Adventure Begins

      This is a different Monday morning post, because I embark on a new adventure this morning. At noon today I will board a flight bound (eventually) for New York City (the Long Island airport to be precise). From the airport, I will venture into midtown Manhattan to prepare for a performance with the Artisan Quartet in Carnegie Hall on Thursday evening. The entire enterprise stretches all of us in so many unforeseen ways.

      First, we planned our performance over a year ago. After receiving the invitation to perform as part of the 30th anniversary season of MidAmerica Productions, Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall series, a benefactor stepped forward to cover the costs of our performance. At that point we raised travel costs through fund raising performances that provided us with enough funds to make the journey and stay in an interesting hotel (more on the hotel later, just wait!).

      Next, we worked on a suitable program at the same time that we continued our Beethoven string quartet cycle. We finally chose a program that drew a little bit from our Beethoven series and a little bit from other performances that we gave at other festivals. We were fortunate to perform various aspects of the program throughout the past year, enough so that our chosen repertoire became more like a familiar old friend than a momentary one-concert acquaintance.

      We finally made our travel plans a few months ago. Making travel plans for four individuals (and one cello) taxed me to my travel savvy limits. How does one list a cello in a way that satisfies the TSA? How will boarding priorities work? Which airline? Which airport (there are three that service the New York area)? Which hotel? Should we stay nearby or within walking distance? Oh right, the cello. We cannot walk too far. Cabs? Coming from a town where its residents rely on driving to their destinations, how would we manage transportation in "the city that never sleeps"? [For that matter, what does the other song mean when it refers to the Bronx being "up" and the Battery "down"?] Aargh!

      Travel plans made, we held one last preview concert this past Saturday night in Austin. We performed our entire Carnegie Hall program for our special friends in the recital hall at Blackerby Violin Shop of Austin and celebrated the coming journey at a reception after the performance. We raised enough funds to cover our expenses and maybe offer the cello a "spa day" if it so desires.

      I saved the hotel for last because this will be our biggest part of the adventure. We will be staying at one of the boutique hotels very close to the hall itself. The hotel is renowned for its Andy Warhol prints and other eclectic decor. I am actually more eager to experience the hotel than I am any other part of my journey. There is much to do and see in New York, but in our short amount of time, I am uncertain how much we will be able to accomplish. I hope to see Central Park (did someone say there were carriage rides?) and the Museum of Modern Art (I want to see those Impressionists up close and personal!). We have our tickets reserved for the 9/11 Ground Zero Memorial and I expect to be emotional. One of our members has compiled a list of recommended restaurants of such length that I worry about how many extra pounds I might bring back home with me. I want to sit in the eclectic hotel lounge and experience my hotel to its fullest. I want to visit with our friends and relatives who are making the journey with us.

      As I scrambled around this afternoon and evening doing laundry, packing, and getting the house and chores in order for my absence, I thought about the ramifications of embarking on such an adventure. Although most definitions of the word include something about it being hazardous or risky, I prefer to think of an adventure as something that is new, fresh, and exciting. I think it is important that we find occasion to step outside of ourselves and follow a path that leads us somewhere unknown.

      Some of my best memories from my Rome trip last summer were my morning rambles that sometimes lasted four or more hours. I would step off in one direction from my hotel with no more intention than finding a good cappuccino and a dolce of some sort, and maybe finding that little basilica or church someone mentioned. Perhaps a few hours into my long walk, I would have to refer to the map to realize that I had completely turned myself around in a circle. I saw things I could not have planned to see, and I found places that I wanted to visit again later. My entire wandering was as aimless as I could let it be, and it was wonderful. My legs were tired, but I did not mind the long walk. Eventually I would discover a tucked-away piazza with a sweet ristorante and a menu outside the door that had three choices of meals (complete with antipasto, pasta, desert, and beverage).

      Eating in Italy and drinking coffee are the most relaxing things I have ever done in a very long time. The experience is lengthy, but the enforced wait is pleasurable. When I returned home to the US, I had every intention of continuing my lengthy sit downs at meals and over coffee. Hmm, too often I lament the fact that I am unable to sit down at the table to finish my coffee or eat my breakfast. I do entirely too much of that in the car.

      But I digress. My point was that the long, rambling walks were the best part of the adventure last summer in Italy. I hope to have a similar experience in New York. I want to step out of my hotel and walk the few blocks to Central Park and then make a decision to go left or right and see what I find. I am certain that I will fill my creative tank with this incredible Artist Date opportunity. For more about Artist Dates, click here.

      I have had fun this past week posting videos on Facebook that are related to the New York trip: Billy Joel's "New York State of Mind," Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York," and the classic "New York, New York" from the movie "On the Town," starring Frank Sinatra and my all time favorite Gene Kelly. My favorite preparation event was when the quartet's Richard Kilmer showed up at our last performance wearing this T-shirt.

      For any of our friends who are going to be in the New York City area this week, please come share our exciting journey with us on Thursday, March 22, 2012, at 8:00 p.m in the Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, where we will perform the Beethoven string quartet in F major, op. 14, no. 1 (which Beethoven transcribed from his piano sonata no. 9 in E major) and string quartet in F major, op. 135 (Beethoven's last quartet). Also on the program is the Grieg string quartet in G minor, op. 27 and the Mambo 7/16 by Roberto Sierra (do not try to dance to this or you will hurt yourself!). For more information about the performance in New York, click here. For more information about the Artisan Quartet, click here. For more about Sierra's "Mambo" click here. You can also leave me a comment below!

      Saturday, March 17, 2012

      Quick Teaching Tip: Rhythmic Units

      When I teach a preview to a new song or introduce a new teaching point, I am mindful of the rhythmic unit involved. Let me use "May Song" and "The Happy Farmer" as examples.

      May Song

      In "May Song," one of the new skills is the dotted rhythm.

      I introduce the four notes so that the student is familiar with the "path" we will eventually travel, but the real focus for me is the rhythmic unit. By rhythmic unit I am referring not to the dotted rhythm but to the smaller quick unit of the C# to the E string (the second and third notes). This is where the student will have difficulty playing. At first glance, the teacher and parent may assume that the student is not playing the rhythm correctly and will focus on the space between the A string and the C#, but in actuality it is the the quickness of the C# to the E string that will make the difference.

      The space between the A string and the C# will be the "thinking pause," where the student will pause for a second to set up the quick rhythmic unit C#-E. There is a lot to think about:
      • The student prepares the C# to stand up tall to allow the E string to be played and not blocked by the second finger.
      • The student prepares to play the up bow on the C#.
      • The student is ready to go quickly from the C# to the down bow E string.
      So in effect, I ask the student to play the A string and then stop, pause, and think in order to prepare the upcoming rhythmic unit C#-E.

      Another May Song example of a rhythmic unit is the second measure:

      It is tempting to play the F#, high A, and F# as a single unit, but actually the rhythmic unit starts from the high A and ends on the E string. I use the initial F# as the starting or set up point:

      • The student sets the F# super glue finger down and holds it in place.
      • The student prepares to play a quick "toe tap" on the high A (tap down and play A, then lift off and play the superglue F#).
      • The student also prepares to remove the F# quickly and play the E string.
      So in effect I ask the student to play the initial F# and then insert a "thinking pause" to set up the steps for the coming rhythmic unit.

      In the second part of the song, there is another good rhythmic unit example:

      I set up this rhythmic unit in the same way I set up the first measure rhythmic unit:
      • I ask the student to set up the third finger on the A string and stand the finger up tall so that the E string is not blocked by the third finger.
      • The student inserts a thinking pause to prepare for the quick rhythmic unit E string to C#.
        • The student is prepared to play up bow on the E string (even while the third finger is still down on the A string).
        • The student is ready to quickly play C# right after the E string.
      Another tricky rhythmic unit in the second part is the quick C#-E-C# spot:
      I ask the student to prepare this spot with the C# first, and again ask him or her to stand the finger up tall enough so that it does not block the E string. We insert a thinking pause here to prepare the rhythmic unit:
      • While the student holds the C# standing tall, the student prepares the up bow on the E string.
      • The student prepares to play the E string and back to the C# quickly.
      • The student also prepares to release the C# and play the 1st finger B quickly.

      Happy Farmer

      In "The Happy Farmer" the challenge is to introduce the student to the hooked rhythm and the hooked bowing. At this point the student has been playing the hooked bowing in several songs in the three minuets that precede Happy Farmer. Unfortunately, the hooked up bows in the minuets are a contained rhythmic unit. In Happy Farmer, the hooked bows do not indicate a contained rhythmic unit. This thinking is why many teachers, parents, and students have difficulty teaching and learning this bowing. Here is the musical example:


      The rhythmic unit in Happy Farmer is not represented by the hooked bowing. Instead, I think of the hooked bowing as an indication of a bowing convenience and not a rhythmic unit. It is pretty easy to teach the bowing once a teacher shifts his or her thinking to this new perspective. Here is how I teach it:
      • I familiarize the student with the initial note path we will travel: D string, 3rd finger G, 1st finger B, 3rd finger D, 3rd finger G again, then finally the second finger C natural.
      • After the student can comfortably play the first few notes (I do not worry about the rhythm just yet), I ask them to try this challenge:

        • Play the D string up bow and the then the next note with a down bow:
        • Play the note B with a down bow and the next note with an up bow:
        • I then ask the student to play the final bowing combination in the rhythmic unit challenge of G to C natural. We play up bow on the G and then play down bow on the the next note C.
      • I just let the student play this combination of three rhythmic (and bowing units) repeatedly until the student is comfortable with the sequence of events.
      • Note that the rests serve as places for thinking pauses to prepare the next rhythmic unit.
      Happy teaching!

      Tuesday, March 13, 2012

      The Case for Perfection

      A thought struck me today: parents today do not want their children to strive for perfection.

      That seems a bit harsh, I told myself. Do you really want to take that extreme position?

      I am not sure, but as I look at parental behaviors concerning their children, I sometimes wonder if this harsh position is not indeed what parents want, or in this case, do not want.

      My next thoughts were, What does perfection mean exactly? Is perfection a good thing to strive for after all? What reasons could parents subconsciously have for not helping their children to achieve perfection? Teachers want perfection in their students, right? Is there anything that we teachers can do to encourage our parents to want this same lofty goal?

      Is anything ever perfect? No, probably not, I concluded. I think perfection is one of those illusory goals. We strive to achieve it for a variety of reasons: accolades, awards, success, challenge. I think, however, that the reason we strive for perfection is that it makes us become more than who we are at the moment we first begin to strive for perfection.

      A muscle does not become stronger unless it is challenged. This muscle challenge process is quite interesting. In order to form or strengthen a muscle, it must first be torn down. We exercise it, but we must challenge the muscle with our exercise. We cannot keep working the muscle the same way that we started or it will not grow. Muscles are made up of many tiny fibers. We must stress the muscle (micro trauma), and tiny little micro tears appear in the fibers. Over the next 48 hours, the muscle will repair the fiber tears more strongly than before. If we stress the muscle again, the process of rebuilding and strengthening will continue.

      When we strive for perfection, the moment at which we attempt to measure whether we have achieved perfection is gone in a flash. We can only evaluate what has now become a memory or past event. If we were to set up another evaluation to measure whether we have achieved perfection anew, we would measure another past point in time. This is what I meant by perfection being one of those illusory goals. It does not remain static. It is by its very definition just out of reach. Like a muscle, however, the striving for perfection will result in strength. Whenever we strive for something, we will become stronger in the process of striving. Sounds circular, I know, like the chicken and the egg scenario. Think of the circle as a hamster wheel. The purpose of the wheel is to encourage exercise. Just get on the wheel already and let the exercise process begin.

      What parental behaviors do I see that leads me to make the observation that parents do not seem to want their children to achieve perfection? Here is a short list of parental behaviors as they relate to the music studio:
      • Parents often do not practice consistently with their children. In many cases, I am unsure whether parents really understand the concept of practice and how it should be done. I spend a great deal of time teaching the parents about practice techniques. 
      • Parents often do not adequately supervise how their children perform and practice.
      • Parents often do not require perfection in practice or practice habits. The child is left to adopt unhealthy posture habits. Parents seem to routinely allow inadequate work to suffice.
      • Parents liberally offer many possible excuses for not doing adequate work at home or for allowing the child to turn in less than stellar home practice work.
      • Parents seem to allow their children to spend an inadequate amount of time to work on developing a skill or ability.
      • Parents often seem not to make many strong demands on their children to do work of any kind, to earn the right to relax and have fun, or to experience the logical consequences to the children's choices regarding behavior. Gosh, even parents do not make this strong demand on themselves, if you review the list I just made.

      Why do I think parents do not want perfection? One reason may be that striving for perfection would involve work. This kind of work might require the parent to step out of him- or herself and operate outside of an entrenched comfort zone. Another reason may be that parents are too busy or want their job of parenting to be easy or easier.

      The sad news, I must tell you, is that the job of parenting is not easy and will not ever become easy. The job of parenting will not end. The job continues even after the child has moved out of the home, become an adult, or married and started a family. My husband calls it the "job for life." Parenting is indeed a lifelong commitment. Parenting is indeed work. If a parent cares at all about the child, the parent will be willing to put in the time and effort to make sure the job is done and done correctly.

      Yes, I believe that teachers want their students to strive for and achieve perfection, whatever perfection should look like at the moment. I believe that teachers choose this profession because of their innate desire to make the world a better place, even an "ideal" place if you will. We teachers do the best we can under the circumstances. We have the opportunity to teach the child a fraction of the time in a child's week, and yet, we generally approach our job with as much effort as we can. We strive for perfection because this is the way we can bring out the best possible result in a child.

      How can teachers encourage parents to share this vision of the value of striving for perfection? There may be several possible ways:

      Role Modeling: As a teacher and performing professional musician, I model for my students and their parents what it looks like to strive for perfection. I am not perfect, but I do not lower my standards for myself. I continue to challenge myself with new repertoire and new performance opportunities. [I am performing in Carnegie Hall next week with the Artisan Quartet -- a dream come true for any musician!] I continue to study new subjects and revisit old subjects with new perspective.

      Standards: I set high standards for myself, my students, and my students' parents. I expect my students and their parents to do the best that they can. I am here to help at all times, but I will not permit my students or their parents to allow me to do the work for them which should rightfully be completed by my students and their parents.

      Information: I provide a great deal of parenting and teaching information to my studio parents in the form of my initial parent education course and throughout the course of a student's musical study program with me. I maintain this teaching blog, and as many of you know, I spend a great deal of time sharing useful information about parenting as well as teaching.

      Love: Finally, let me urge parents to love their children. When a parent loves his or her child, the parent will do what needs to be done to help the child. The parent will want what is best for the child, and the parent will seek out other people who can help the parent to achieve that lofty goal. I believe that perfection is a lofty goal and most definitely in the best interest of the child.

      Where love is deep, much can be accomplished. -- Dr. Shinichi Suzuki

      For another perspective about perfection, please visit Dr. Laura Markham's newsletter issue: "Perfection is too low a Standard".

      Sunday, March 11, 2012

      Monday Morning Check In: Looking Outward

      My husband has this really neat granddaughter, who is currently living nearby while she attends university. I enjoy hanging out with her, and we have the greatest discussions about things. Recently we had a lovely chat about public presentations. This lovely young lady studies theater arts and frequently acts in various productions. She talked about how difficult she finds public speaking, and this surprised me because of how successful she is as an actress.

      Nerves are nothing new to a performing musician. As a teacher, I see many students battle the issue of nervousness before and during performances. Recently I heard from a friend who had been successfully working through Toastmasters. She gave a brief presentation to an audience right before her string quartet performance. Normally my friend is not nervous to play quartet recitals, but in this instance my friend was amazed to discover she found herself with a case of nerves after she gave her speech and just in time for the recital performance. I had a similar experience myself. I gave program notes right before one of our quartet performances. Although I am no stranger to public speaking and find it quite easy to do, I was surprised in this instance to find that it took me well into the second page of music before my "nerves" quieted down to normal.

      I understand the physical aspects of nervousness. Our body produces adrenaline, which is part of the body's "fight or flight" response. People experience this influx of higher adrenaline levels in various ways: heart pounding, shaky hands, cold hands and fingers, trembling knees, or pounding in the ears. How can one handle this? Many musicians resort to beta blockers, such as inderal or propranolol. Someone who has heart problems and needs to take this medication might use 800 mg per day. A musician or other performing artist may use 10 mg on occasion. The purpose of this medication is to keep the adrenaline flow the same as normal. The medication is available through prescription only because certain people who might need an adrenaline increase should not take this medication, such as asthmatics.

      I am fascinated by the subject of how to handle a case of nerves or what causes them in the first place. I have not done any formal research but instead rely on my observations. When a student presents me with a case of nerves, I try to dig down deeper and figure out what the person's self-talk is. What is the person saying to him- or herself? What is the person thinking? The answers provide me with clues of how I can help the student to manage any performance jitters.

      Usually the student tells me something along the lines of worrying about playing well and avoiding an embarrassing performance. The student worries about what the audience might think about him or her. The student wants to make a good impression. The student wants the listeners to think well of the student and the performance. The student wants to play better than another performer or wants the audience to think that the student plays better in comparison to someone else. Perhaps the student is highly critical of him-or herself and makes this same critical evaluation of other student's performances.

      I would like to point out that in the above suggestions, the student is looking inward. The thought process and subject matter are all about the student. I think this inward train of thought is the root cause of much of a student's performance anxiety. All the ingredients for performance anxiety are available. The student's thoughts have set up the strong possibility of failing. Once the student has a bad experience (or less than a good one), the student is likely to perpetuate the experience with the next performance, a phenomenon I refer to as "looking over your shoulder for the tiger." A psychiatrist friend once told me that someone in India would grow up with the imminent danger of tigers and would frequently check over their shoulder for tigers. Then when the person came to New York, he might still look over his shoulder for tigers because that is what he was accustomed to do. A similar experience happens when a performer experiences performance anxiety. Once the performer experiences the danger of tigers, the performer continues to look over the shoulder for another tiger. The mind is very powerful; the mind will create the tiger vision if you look hard enough for it.

      As a young child, I used to read a series of books about a nurse named Cherry Ames. I recall when she did her surgical rotation. Cherry had looked forward to the rotation because she had thought she wanted to be a surgical nurse. However, Cherry found instead that she did not do as good a job as a surgical nurse as she needed to do, and her supervisor discussed with Cherry that she needed to improve her skill at anticipating what the surgeon would need next and being ready. Cherry eventually solved her situation by spending time with the patients before the surgery. Because Cherry got to know the patients personally, she became more invested in the job she did on behalf of the patient as a nurse. She found that she was more involved in the surgical process because she wanted to do the best she could for the benefit of the patient she had come to know.

      I would like to suggest that we turn our focus around and look outward. I help my students build a connection with the audience, whether it is to entertain or to lead the listeners into an enjoyable experience. Sometimes it helps my student to go visit the audience a few minutes before a performance so that the student gets "to know" something about the audience members. I teach my students to sense the energy in the air from the listeners. We learn how to "feel" when the audience is listening and not to start playing until the attention is upon us. I teach students how to notice when the audience enjoys the performance and how to encourage the audience to become even more interested.

      Recently one of my high school students auditioned at various colleges. I was amused to hear her description of what the various audition panel members did during the audition. My student informed me about which panels paid attention when she played and which ones did not. How did you know? I asked. My student told me that she stood there ready to begin and waited until she felt the panel pay attention ("like you taught me," she said). She said only one professor on this particular panel was listening. She made up her mind that she did not want to attend that school. "They weren't interested in me. Why should I be interested in them?" This is one student who has learned how to look outward and feel the connection with the audience!

      One of my other students once told me that she pretends she is the character "Michelle," which was a part she played years ago in a community play. When my student becomes "Michelle," she has no trouble with nerves and performs beautifully.

      Back to my husband's granddaughter (such a neat gal!) and our discussion about nervousness and public speaking. When I asked her why she was not nervous when performing as an actress, she told me that she was acting in character. Her purpose was to make a connection between her character and the audience. She was working to make her audience believe her character was real.

      It is Monday Morning again. I wonder how many things we do this week have our focus turned inward. Do we have the spotlight trained on us? Can we turn our focus around and shine the spotlight on others?

      Wednesday, March 7, 2012

      O Come Little Children

      This song is the fifth song in Suzuki Violin Volume 1 and part of the beginning songs and skills of volume 1. The song is a German Christmas carol and falls on the heels of “Go Tell Aunt Rhody,” the “dessert” song (see my previous post about Aunt Rhody and dessert songs here). The song introduces new concepts and reinforces previously learned skills.

      Left Hand Skills

      • The song is in A major and follows the previously learned Twinkle finger pattern of close 2-3 fingers.
      • The song reinforces the independent use of the 2nd and 3rd fingers learned in Lightly Row and Song of the Wind.
      • The song “reviews” the spatial relationship between the 1st and 3rd fingers learned in Song of the Wind but in a different combination and order of fingers.
      • The song introduces a “pocket finger” and another opportunity to build independence between both sides of the student’s body. (see my previous post about pocket fingers here).

      Right Hand Skills

      • The song contains a lot of string crossings in irregular and complex patterns.
      • The song introduces the up bow pickup note.
      • The song introduces the repeated up bow in a manner that allows for a thinking pause. The phrase ends with an up bow, and the new phrase begins with an up bow pickup note after a rest).

      How I Teach the Song

      • I introduce the beginning of the song as part of my continuing ear training work. I have the student turn around and we play the “mystery song” game.
        • I play the E string once and ask the student to play it back. Then I play the E string twice and ask for the student to echo me. Then I play E-E-C#.
        • I do not worry whether the student starts up  bow or down bow for now because in a minute it will not matter.
        • I ask the student to play E-E-C# two times. (See why it does not matter? The student will now have practiced playing it down bow and up bow, just as it is in the song).
        • By this point the student is beginning to think they might know the song and have heard it before. So I let them explore it a little. They often figure out the next two or three notes by themselves. I mostly step in to help around the last three notes of the phrase.
      • Now that the student is able to play the first phrase of the song. I tell them that the first part happens twice.
      • I make sure to mark the student’s book so that the up bows are clearly indicated in the music. Sometimes the markings are unclear for the parents.
      • Now I introduce the song as an up bow song. I do not worry about where the student starts the up bow. I will refine this skill later. For now, I just stick to the “larger” skills required to play the song. We will refine things as we go. Many times students figure out a lot of what they need to do just by getting familiar with the song.
      • I usually do not need to do much to help a student remember how to play the first two phrases. I find that students will gradually add on a few notes to the song until finally they have figured it all out for themselves. I very seldom have to help students pick out the notes to the song at this point. All of our ear training work in Go Tell Aunt Rhody and in group classes has taken root. I just mark one or two “key” notes with a fingering and tell my student that the parent has my permission to give this fingering “hint” if my student needs it, but ONLY if my student needs it.
        • I mark the F# at the end of the 3rd phrase because students usually miss it and because I want parents to be ultra-vigilant here that my students keep their left hands up in the correct playing position and do not sag beneath the finger board.
        • I also mark the C# in the 4th phrase, because students try to play a D instead. I want to keep students from “practicing” this mistake by repeating it too many times.
      Later Problems (or just later)
      • Students may tip the left hand over to the E string side when playing the pocket finger F# at the end of the 3rd phrase rather than holding the left hand upright while the bow dips down to the E string.
      • Students forget the up bow pickup note at the beginning of the song or at the beginnings of each phrase.
        • We practice this at group classes and involve parents. When we reach the end of the song, we recite, “up again!” to help us remember the up bows.
        • We also play a silly game at lessons. When we reach the rest at the end of each phrase, we stop and say, “I think I’ll take another up bow!” in the silliest, goofiest voice we can muster. We have a lot of fun trying to best each other with our crazy voices.
      • Students may forget the fingering in the 3rd and 4th phrases because they have double practice of the 1st (and 2nd) part every time they play the song. There are some weeks when I ask my students to play the 3rd and 4th parts 25 times each and fill out an extra incentive chart for an extra point on the studio wall chart.
      • bowings and why down bow versus up bow.
      • I use the song to reinforce the bow distribution skill. Play whole bows on quarter notes and half bows on eighth notes. My students like to label the frog end of the bow as their “home town.” Then we label the tip end of the bow as the neighboring town. When we play the song, we practice “driving from town to town.” This game seems to make it easier for the students to practice bow distribution.
      • Sometimes we play the song backwards and start with a down bow and do double down bows at the end of each phrase. This is more of an intellectual exercise than anything at this early stage of violin learning, but it is interesting.
      • Students who have been using the pinkie finger can substitute it for the E string in the song and avoid the string crossings, which could be part of a lesson plan about fingering choices.
      • The Suzuki duet part is lovely, and the song is popular in our studio in the fall because it is a Christmas song. We usually include it in any holiday performance we give.
      Although O Come Little Children introduces many new skills and concepts, it still resembles a “dessert” song in a way (like Minuet 2). The students genuinely enjoy learning and performing this song. It is a lovely melody and interesting to play. The song may be tricky, but because the students love it so much, I have an easy and fun time teaching this song.

      Monday, March 5, 2012

      Monday Morning Check In: Location

      I posted this weekend about the power of routine. Today’s Monday morning post has a related theme, because location can play a major part in establishing a routine.

      Dr. Suzuki stated, “Man is the son of his environment.” This is a major tenet of the Suzuki philosophy of talent education. Tweak the environment, and you can produce amazing results in what a child learns.

      Location is one aspect of environment. There are actually two parts to environment: the physical and the psychological. The psychological environment can be the subject of many posts, as it relates to enhancing the possibilities of environment in order to motivate the child to learn. There are many avenues to accomplish this, from individual lessons and home practice to group classes, from home concerts to public performances for the community, from attending a symphony performance to busking at the local market days.

      The physical environment may take a few paragraphs to explain, but it will have one of the greatest impact on what the child absorbs in terms of learning, because a major aspect of the physical environment is that it, in large part, does not move around. We are stuck with this huge elephant; physical environment is difficult to alter in terms of its spatial dimensions.

      The ingredients of physical environment are time and location. Time is an easy aspect of environment too. Just figure out the best time to do something and fine-tune the timing to reach the optimum results. Should we practice in the mornings or afternoons? Should we practice before or after a snack? Before or after dinner? Time involves a clock and a calendar.

      The location aspect of the physical environment relies on different questions. Where is the best place to practice? What other things occur there or in the surroundings that might cause a detrimental distraction to an optimum learning environment? Is the ambient noise level conducive to focus and concentration or will the dog running through the space or the phone ringing nearby interrupt practice? Should we face the back wall or face in the direction of the big picture window that reveals the squirrel running along the tree branch or the bird hopping on the ground outside? Some children need more or less stimulation or noise.

      Do not underestimate the power of location. I have discovered many fabulous environments in the past several decades. In the past I have worked quietly in a back guest room on a clean desk, the front library room in front of a large window, at the dining room table in the family area, and most recently, standing up with a laptop on my kitchen counter. I recall reading about a famous writer (whose name escapes me at the moment) who used to write standing up with a writing pad on top of a small refrigerator, which is what I tell myself to comfort me regarding my choice to write standing up at the kitchen counter in a room that lets me be a part of my dog pack at the same time.

      The beauty of a choice location is that you can build a habit with the physicality of the space. Just as a writer can overcome writer’s block by building the habit of writing once the writer’s rear end hits the seat of the designated chair in the writing space, so a young child can overcome practicitis by building the habit of practicing in the same place (and preferably at the same time of day).

      This week, give some consideration to what you have created in your physical environment. Is there something about your physical location that you can tweak in order to be more productive? Is there something in your environment that you can alter in order that your child is encouraged and supported in his or her learning efforts?

      Please comment and suggest your favorite practice locations.

      Sunday, March 4, 2012

      Quick Parenting (Practicing) Tip: The Power of Routine

      A wise parent shared a discovery she made this week. She told me that she had missed one day of practice with her child this week. She also had some trouble sticking to a practice schedule that occurred at the same time every day due to a varied work schedule. Her discovery was that both of these things adversely affected the progress she and her daughter made this past week.

      Hard to believe that missing one day would have much of an adverse effect on overall progress, I know. However, it is true, and I frequently tell parents this. I have also told parents that I can easily tell when the parents and students skip one day of the listening assignment. So I was not surprised to hear that this parent made a similar discovery regarding a practice schedule and routine.

      The Internet offers many articles about the need for daily routines for young children. There are even articles that provide suggested daily routines. Routines offer many positive benefits for young children and families.
      • Routines help the child feel safe. Routines lead to predictability, which in turn leads to stability. Stability leads to security; the child feels reassured that his or her needs will be met.
      • Routines help the child learn healthy habits. Most households set hygiene routines, which are reinforced daily and perhaps several times a day. These routines become habits that can last well throughout an adult’s life.
      • Routines help the child learn how to be responsible. Routines teach the child skills that will lead to the child taking ownership and responsibility of various aspects of his or her life.
      • Routines provide opportunities for children to be successful at an activity; successful accomplishment builds self-esteem and confidence.
       Here is a list of benefits for using routines from Dr. Laura Markham’s website "Aha! Parenting":
      • Power struggles are eliminated.
      • Stress and anxiety are reduced.
      • Rebellion and opposition are lessened.
      • The concept of “looking forward” to an activity is learned.
      • Schedules are developed.
      • Consistent parental expectations are maintained.
      My parent complained that by skipping one day, a crack appeared in the smooth practice operation that she and her daughter had built. For the next few days after, the parent had to contend with “drama,” as she calls it, meaning that her young one was balking about doing practice or was insisting that practice be curtailed.

      Granted, young children are forever changing in their development, both physically and mentally. What works today may not work tomorrow. Even taking that factor into account, this parent could point to several undesirable behaviors that her child newly showed after they missed that one practice. My parent found that after missing one day in the usual practice routine, she had to spend several days thereafter reestablishing the routine and the positive results that normally flowed from the practice.

      Despite my frequent advice to parents about the importance of establishing a daily practice routine, many parents do not take my advice. As a result, as a teacher I am frequently confronted with the aftermath of such a sad decision. More often than I care to see, a student and his or her parent come to the lesson with inadequate preparation or practice since the previous lesson. I have to wonder in this situation what it is that the parent expects me to do. I liken this situation to that of a master sculptor. I am well trained to create a beautiful and lasting sculpture, a real thing of beauty that will touch and remain in the child’s heart forever, but the parent brings me no clay to work with or the parent brings me clay that has not been taken care of in between my work sessions and is dried up and crumbling. I can well wonder what miracle the student’s parent expects from me.

      Five or ten minutes a day is not a long time, and a parent and child can accomplish a great deal of learning in that short period of time. Five or ten minutes will not produce a master artist in a short period of time, but it will help a parent and student establish an effective working routine that will carry over into other daily activities.

      I assume that parents want what is best for their children. Therefore, I am puzzled about why some parents find so many excuses for not spending quality time of five to 10 minutes per day in a powerful learning situation. Not to do so must mean that the parent has found something much more important to focus on, except that I expect that this is not the case.
       “As adults, we have the advantage of controlling many aspects of our lives. Often we arrange things (work schedules, child care, friendships, appointments, etc.) to enhance convenience and reduce hassle, making life just a little bit easier and probably a bit more enjoyable. How would you feel if you had no idea what to expect in your day? What if you didn’t know why you were leaving the house, where someone was driving you, when you were going to eat next, where you could go to use the bathroom, or when you were going to get back home again? Children don’t have the privilege of arranging their days the way adults do; they have very little control over their environments. Consequently, children try to find ways to control their surroundings, often resulting in undesirable outcomes, such as tantrums, defiance, and other inappropriate behaviors. Routines and schedules help kids make sense of their day—morning, noon, and night—and know what to expect. This reduces anxiety and apprehension, and allows for more time for kids to enjoy and learn from their surroundings instead of stressing out about them.” ("Ready, Set, Routine!! The Importance of Routines in Children's Lives" by Maci Elkins, MSW, Program Manager of the Lower Shore Early Intervention Program; click to read more).
      I recall reading an interesting tip from a children's author. When asked how she set up her writing routine, she explained that she maintained a table in her writing notebook. This table provided three columns: date, word count, and explanation. Every single day, this author wrote an entry in her table. She listed the date, the number of words she had written, and if she had not done any writing, she wrote a description of her excuse. Because she had to write an excuse or explanation for why she did not meet her writing goal, she found motivation instead for completing her assignment. Perhaps this would be a good solution for some of the parents in the Suzuki family.

      I suggest that you make it a goal to practice every day and to note how long you practiced. Find a way to record this, whether it is on your daily calendar or on a special computer-designed form. If you have to skip a day's practice, record your excuse or explanation on your calendar or form. Hopefully, this action will provide the necessary motivation and incentive to go ahead and complete the practice anyway.

      Another suggestion I have is to develop a good understanding of what a ten minute period really consists of. Carry a small kitchen timer with you or use a watch or Smart Phone feature, and record some basic activities that you perform this week. See how long many routine activities actually demand of your time. My theory is that you will discover that ten minutes is a relatively short amount of time to spend on any activity, and yet if you were to sit still and do nothing for 10 minutes, you would most likely discover that ten minutes feels like a very long time.

      If you have difficulty with a ten minute routine, then start smaller. Strive for a three or five minute routine and do it more than once in a day. Experiment with different times of the day. My parent discovered that they have no problems when practice is initiated in the mornings, but that afternoons are more complicated. So this parent strives to fit practice times into morning times and routines in order that the rest of the day flows smoother.

      If anyone has any other suggestions, please comment and share them. As a professional musician, I must practice on a consistent basis. I made a commitment to practice every single day this year, and so far I am on track. I gave myself permission to practice a short amount of time if necessary rather than try to strive for a longer period of time. I found that for me, giving myself permission to do a short amount of time actually encouraged me to engage in longer periods of practice time. If I insisted that I practice for an hour or more, then I would be tempted to give up and skip the practice.

      Ten minutes is a good round number. I seldom practice this short amount of time, but the ten minute minimum really gets me going. I accomplish much. A young child can accomplish a great deal in this amount of time.

      Thursday, March 1, 2012

      How to Teach a Suzuki Group Class

      When someone asks me how to teach a Suzuki group class, my short answer is to spend a lot of time working out the perfect lesson plan, then throw it in the trash can within the first five minutes of class.

      I have spent a great deal of time developing lesson plans and group class themes over the years. Unfortunately, I seldom had opportunities to teach some of them, although I have taught bits and pieces. The mental exercise that lies behind lesson plan generation helps me to focus my ideas, and it builds up my arsenal of activities and possibilities.

      I have to be light on my feet and mentally flexible for a variety of reasons:
      • Students forget to tell you they will be out of town (or playing in a sports tournament or fiddling contest)
      • Funerals and illnesses occur unexpectedly
      • Some folks do not know how to use a calendar well
      • Birthday parties and sleepovers are more fun
      • Families get too busy
      • Other siblings take precedence that day
      All of these excuse possibilities make it difficult for me to come up with the definitive group class lesson plan that will apply on any given group class day. I might have been annoyed at one time, but not anymore. I have learned how to make up a group class lesson plan on the fly. I do not intend my idea to be a substitute for advance planning. Quite the contrary, I still generate lesson plans. I find, however, that I need to be good at making lesson plans so that I can make up a new one quickly to fit the particular situation as I find it on group class day. Here is how I do it.

      I divide my group class into several parts:

      Warm up and Tune up:
      • The students and I tune up our instruments. This gives me a moment or two with each child and possibly the parent and a sibling. We touch base with each if we have not seen each other in a few days, and it helps me to get my student relaxed and get a sense of my student's energy level for that day.
      • I begin the class with introductions. I make sure that everyone has met everyone else and remembers other student names.
      • We get ourselves organized in terms of space. Everyone chooses a place to stand and checks to make sure they have enough bowing room.
        • Sometimes we stand in a line and sometimes we stand in a circle.
        • One fun game during a group class is to spell out the letters of a particular word, such as "violin." First we group ourselves to form the letter "V." Then we will form the letter "I" and subsequently "O." This is a great game to help students gain spatial understanding as it relates to themselves and their surroundings. This is not an easy task for adults either!
      • If I have a group class theme going for the year, semester, or class, then I remind my students what we are working on. If we have a recital at the end of the semester or some other performance, then I remind students about this.
      • This opening time is also a great opportunity to make announcements or give reminders to parents and students.
      Set up steps and bow:
      • We center ourselves. I ask students how I can tell if they are ready. My students answer that I know they are ready because they are looking at me. Then I go down the line and point to each student as they look at me: "You're looking at me. You're ready." This repetitive activity helps to settle everyone down and get their attention. Everyone knows that I will look at them, so they get themselves ready and look at me.
      • When everyone is ready, I do a deep inhale and then bow.
        • I have added the deep breath as a preparation to every bow I do with my students from the very first lesson.
        • I believe that it is important to teach instrumental students about musical "breathing" and phrasing. One day my students will play in an orchestra, so I want them to learn how to collectively breathe with a conductor so that they start playing together.
      • I go through the set up steps routine and take a few seconds to make adjustments to posture as needed. In the case of little ones or beginning students, I ask the parents to be part of the class and make these adjustments for me so that my class is not bogged down.
        • feet first, get them planted
        • thumb spot, scoop the hand under
        • Statue of Liberty
        • put up on "high" shoulder
        • check bow bold: strong bumpy thumb (young thumb), two sleepy best friends, curved pinkie, Captain Hook (as opposed to Captain Hog)
        • If my students seem a bit out of it, I might add some other copy cat games or warm up activity to muster the students’ attention onto me. Copy cats is a great way to get everyone paying attention.
      Tonalization
      • We warm up with some "call and response" Mississippi Hotdogs (Taka taka stop stop, Pepperoni Pizza, Armadillo Cowboys, etc.) on E string, then A string.
      • We do some open string songs: Bunny Song, E string Concerto, A string Concerto, David Tasgal's "Blast Off" or "Duck Song," or a song I've written (Squeaky Mouse, Dirty Doggie Scrub Scrub).
      • For older students I will use long bow tone songs, such as Twinkle theme, Chorus from Judas Maccabeas, long tone scale, Dr. Suzuki's tonalization exercises, or 15-30-45-60 second bows.
        New Skill:
        • If we are working on a new skill, I introduce group activities that will teach or reinforce the skill. Group classes are great places to reach a larger number of students at one time for these topics:
          • vibrato
            • higher position fingering
              • longer bows
                • fancier bowing skills
                  • string crossings
                    • duet parts to earlier Suzuki volumes
                      • dynamics and accents
                        • articulation (bowings and sound production)
                          • music vocabulary: crescendo, decrescendo or diminuendo, fermato, ritard, tempo markings
                            • music history: composers, music analysis, historical music period
                            • Last fall I introduced a few segments of listening to different kinds of music.
                              • I played a Japanese film set to a different orchestral transcription of "Pictures at an Exhibition." The kids enjoyed watching the movie on my iPad while listening to the new music.
                                • We listened to a different composer at each group class, such as Tchaikovsky (1812) or Haydn ("Surprise" Symphony) and discussed some of the story behind the pieces.
                                  • We listened to an introduction to the instruments of the orchestra, which was from a recording I loved listening to as a child. 
                                Ensemble:
                                • This is the best part of a group class! We learn how to play together. I will leave the finer points of how to accomplish this for a later post. For now, let me just say that we find ways to work on whatever we need at the moment and build up our ensemble skills.
                                  • If I have a student in book 3 and one in book 5, I might work on playing Gavotte in G Minor or Humoresque (book 3) and show the students by my leading how to make phrasing together as an ensemble.
                                    • Then I would play something with my book 5 student to demonstrate this same principle while my book 3 student watches. For example, my student and I might play Country Dance together (book 5) because it is a tricky piece to play together.
                                    • There is something about ensemble skills for every conceivable level of playing. My pre-twinkler students can learn ensemble with Mississippi Hot Dog or by reciting a jingle from William Starr's "I Know a Fox, With Dirty Socks" (which is a very popular book with my students 6 and under! Do not underestimate the appeal of rhymes and jingles!).
                                      • It is possible to teach "ensemble" playing by something as simple as setting a metronome to a reasonable speed and passing a stuffed toy around a circle of seated students in time with the beat.
                                        • Marching, clapping, and other physical movements (including speech) are also ways to teach ensemble skills. Have you ever seen the YouTube video "Synchronisation"? The person sets five different metronomes ticking at different speeds, and after a short while, all of the metronomes are ticking at the same time. Eerie! A roomful of marching children creates that same effect. [http://youtu.be/W1TMZASCR-I]
                                          • Nothing is funnier than doing the knee walk! This is a great way to curb "rushing." I ask the students to get on their knees and "walk" across the room while they play Perpetual Motion, for example. An entire room of knee walking students looks like penguins. Warning: adults do not enjoy doing this game! Too hard on the knees.
                                        Other Considerations:

                                        • It is helpful to follow the Muzak principle when structuring a group class. If you notice, Muzak plays peppier music earlier in the day and slower music later in the afternoon in an attempt to mimic most folks' energy levels and biorhythms.

                                        • I usually start my classes standing up and build energy and enthusiasm as I go.

                                        • I find opportunities to slow things down by having the children participate in a sitting activity. 

                                        • Group class activities do not have to involve the violin! There are some wonderful ways to introduce musical concepts, posture or habit reinforcements, or listening skills without the instrument or bow in hand. Get creative with this!
                                        And now the moment you have been waiting for! What was my personal experience with group class in the beginning?

                                        I taught for several years and did not teach group classes. When I embarked on the SAA Teacher Training program, the curriculum included discussions and observations of group classes. I learned quickly that there was a great value to a group class. Not only would I reach a larger number of students at one time, but I would also be able to use the classes to motivate students to want to learn. Older (or more experienced) students would learn how to be strong leaders and role models, and younger (or less experienced) students would learn by watching. I cannot put my finger on the exact moment when these roles would cross over the line for a student, and that is a fun part of teaching, as I watch a student grow from young beginner to a student who turns to a younger, less advanced student and offers help or advice with the voice of authority and experience. Very cool.

                                        So I finished up my summer teacher training courses determined to begin a group class program. I was a nervous wreck! Would students come? Would parents buy into the group class program idea? Where would I hold this class? What would I do? How would I structure the class? Yikes! Thank heavens for the group class book "Group Class Lessons for Violin and Viola" by Carolyn McCall! I spent several hours coming up with a great lesson plan for my first class. Looking back on this preparation, I have to laugh, because the class would have lasted five hours if I had completed every item on my list. I was younger then and had a lot to learn. Those parents of my students who remember that first class still laugh about how awful the kids sounded that first time.

                                        There were two things I did in that first class that were terrific and set the tone for me to remember what is important and useful in the future: clapping together and Twinkle/May Song duet:

                                        • I asked everyone to sit on the floor and close their eyes. Then I told them to clap together with me at the same time. I gave no signal. Of course the clapping was ridiculous, as everyone guessed when to do it; it was a mess! I asked everyone why we were not together. I got lots of answers and lots of suggestions of things to try to improve our ensemble, and we tried every single one. After five minutes, one of my youngest students called out that we were not playing together because we could not see each other. So we tried clapping together with our eyes open and looking at each other, and we were perfect! That lesson was learned!

                                        • I am an older and more experienced teacher now. I can get students to clap together with their eyes closed just by breathing. I have added this skill to my arsenal of teaching ideas.

                                        • Some of my students knew Twinkle Theme really well. Others knew May Song really well. Both songs when played together make a nice duet This was the very first ensemble piece that I taught my students. It was a mess! We got better at it.
                                        Like any other skill and ability, group class teaching gets easier with practice. I know several teachers who join forces together to do group classes. In this way, they can gain the benefit of group class instruction even though they have a small number of students in the studio. Every time you teach a group class, you will learn something new as a teacher. You will improve with practice.
                                        My favorite group class was the day that I had just two students show up: a pre-Twinkler (6 year old) and a student at the end of book 1 (12 year old). We had a great class, and I am still amazed to think about it. Both students taught each other something, and I was able to think of something to do with each student to challenge them and make the class interesting.

                                        But . . . I would still like to use one of those perfect lesson plans one day.

                                        Want to see something incredible like the metronome video? Check out: http://youtu.be/V87VXA6gPuE