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Thursday, June 28, 2012

Quick Practice Tip: Add-a-Pearl

I hereby declare today as "Add-A-Pearl Day."

When I was three years old, my maternal grandmother presented me with an "add a pearl" necklace. I do not recall this event, but my mother assured me the gift giving took place. I did indeed have a tiny gold necklace with three small pearls on it. The tradition was that I was to be given one pearl every birthday so that by the time I turned twenty-one, the traditional age of majority, I would have "grown" a full size set of pearls on my necklace. Sounded like a terrific idea, although I never got any pearls for my birthdays. I guess someone fell down on the job or on hard times.

I tried to find out more history about this pearl necklace tradition and was unsuccessful. The tradition has been around at least long enough to attract the attention of my grandmother, who was born in the early part of the 1900's. Despite its lack of clear history, the add a pearl necklace can serve as a useful tool for practice. Here's how it works: just as we build the completed product, the full necklace of pearls, so we will build our finished music product by adding "pearls."

First, identify one of those unpleasant passages that you have been putting off. You know that you need to give the passage some specialized attention, but you have procrastinated or pretended to forget to do the practice.

Take a good look at it and start out with just the first few notes. If it is a group of sixteenth notes, then pick two to four sixteenth notes to begin. Look well at the note grouping and then play them as quickly as you can. Repeat. Repeat this at least four times (at least! Remember, three is never enough and five kills your motivation). If you make a mistake, then you are not thinking hard enough about the notes before you begin playing them.

Next, play the passage again but add one additional note. Do this at least four times. Then add another note and repeat that four times.

Continue on in this manner until you have finished working through the passage. As you have probably noticed by now, the first part of the passage sounds pretty good and solid, because you have been playing that part of the passage over and over. The last part, however, seems to be lagging behind a little bit.

There are several ways to address this deficiency. You could just work through a section at a time, and gradually drop the initial grouping of notes little by little as you progress. Or, you could do another Add-A-Pearl Day but do it in reverse, that is, start with the last group of notes and add one note at a time backwards.

I find that I seldom have to repeat an Add-A-Pearl Day for the same passage. Once through with this technique usually cures an ailing passage. I hope you enjoy this little practice gem!

Happy Add-A-Pearl Day!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Monday Morning Check In: Don’t Lose Your Marbles

Our university strings camp began today, and I will be tied up pretty much all day every day for a week. So today’s post will be short, but I hope you find the idea as powerful as I did when I first read of it.

I am a fan of John Maxwell’s books. I find many useful tools and ideas. I read them regularly and recycle them again and again. The other day in Mr. Maxwell’s Daily Reader, I stumbled across a story about an elderly man who was giving advice to a younger man about how to visualize priorities and keep a good handle on them.

In this particular scenario, the elderly gentleman estimated how long he might live and translated that into a number of weeks. Then he figured out how many weeks he had already used up so far in his life and how many weeks hypothetically remained in his estimated lifetime. He filled a jar with marbles for each week that he estimated he had left. Then as each week passed, on a Saturday, he would remove a marble from the jar. In this manner, the gentleman kept before him visually a representation of the number of weeks he had remaining in his estimated life. When he ran out of marbles, he shifted his perspective so that he would now celebrate having been given a little extra time.

I began the summer a few weeks ago with big plans to accomplish a lot of things. Unfortunately, many things came up, and there were other items still on my calendar and agenda that interfered with my big plans. [Sometimes I think I need a personal assistant and a maid to get everything done that I need to do in my life.] After reading about the marbles idea, I went to my calendar and figured out how many more marbles were left in my summer. I will find it useful to visually keep in mind the number of marbles I have left in the summer.

And, while I am at it, I will look ahead and countdown the rest of the weeks in this year 2012. I have several projects that I would like to finish, so this marble visualization will be helpful to keep me focused and on track with my projects. I hope that this marble idea helps you to do the same.
Have some marble fun!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen

Now what does that title have to do with anything? Well, I read over my blog stats on a daily basis, including which blog posts are popular, where my readers come from, how many readers have visited the site, and what search terms bring readers to my little blog community.

Recently several people have been searching for information about Becker Gavotte, Gossec Gavotte, Gavotte from “Mignon,” and some other songs that I recognized instantly as the ones that typically cause teachers trouble. Hence my title today.

I remember when I first realized that I had teaching problems in my studio. I had been teaching for many years, but at the time I had recently opened up my studio full time. Since I was working long hours every day to accommodate a full studio, I was tired at the end of my teaching day. I did not have the reservoir of patience and creativity that I might have had if I only taught ten to fifteen students. I began to consider what areas of my studio did not produce an energizing return for me, and that is when I discovered how to fix the troubles I saw in my studio. Below are some basic lessons I learned and how I began to figure out how to address the problems.

Listening Deficiency

I noticed that some students had a difficult time learning a new piece. I would have to practically stand on my head or write down the notes with some sort of fingering code in order for the student to remember (or even learn!) the piece. Allegretto stands out in my mind as one of these pieces. Etude, Minuet 3, and Minuet in G were others. When I puzzled over why this might be an issue, I considered what tools I could suggest that would improve the learning process. Why, listening to the recordings frequently, of course! So I asked the parent to play the recording of the piece a few extra times every day, and that is when I really noticed the look on the parent’s face. Oh, they were not doing the listening in the first place, I realized.

I stopped being afraid to talk to parents directly a long time ago. Parents naturally want what is best for their child, and if they do not, then they should. So, I stopped hesitating about bringing up these sorts of issues with parents. I believe that parents should do everything they can do to the best that they can to be sure that their child is able to learn to the best of the child's capability. I cannot expect to place the responsibility of playing the recordings daily on the shoulders of a five year old. Gosh, children need to be prodded to brush their teeth before bed, take baths, and eat their vegetables! And that is when they are still in high school! No, a parent’s touch is required here, and if a parent has trouble remembering to turn on the recordings, then I suggest steps that the parent could take to help his or her memory. Sticky notes are good, alarms on the smart phone work well, and text and email reminders from the teacher are really successful!

Now I frequently ask parents if they are doing the listening every day. Do they have the CD playing in the car? Can they find the CD? If the parent has put the recordings on the child’s electronic device, how has the parent made sure that the child is actually listening to the recording?

If the parent is playing the recordings and the child still has trouble with the new song, then I recommend doing additional “extra” listening every day for a week or two. Usually the problem clears right up in a week once the parent steps up the listening work.

Daily Practice

This issue would seem to be a no-brainer, but yes, there are still parents out there who think that their child can learn a new skill and develop a high level of ability without actually having to practice the instrument every day. There are also parents who may understand the value of daily practice but who seem to think that a minimal amount of effort is all that is needed to accomplish what needs to be done. I even had one parent who was doing the 100 days club requirements but doing a minimal amount of practice for it (5 minutes per child). I let it slide for a while because the daily practice habit was the purpose of the 100 days club, but after awhile I started urging the mom to step it up and increase the amount the children practiced. I knew they could accomplish more than they were. The parent might establish the daily habit of practicing, but by limiting the practice to five minutes, the parent was not enjoying the experience of finding out how good a parent she could be. As any good Suzuki parent will tell you, the practice issues happen after the first five minutes, when the going gets tough and the parent has to draw on good parenting skills and exercise maximum creativity.

Again, I do not hesitate to ask parents and the student how much practice is being done at home. I find that if I phrase the question in certain ways, that I am sure to encourage the parent to do more in the practice department. This is not the time for my open-ended question technique. Here is when I turn on my lawyer charm: Did you practice every day this week? I like to start out by asking whether the parent has practiced with the child the optimum amount, which is every day. The parent may whittle the answer down into a lower amount, but at least they know where the “top” is.

Intonation Problems

Boy was this a tough one to figure out! There were some spots in the Suzuki repertoire that eluded me for a long time in terms of intonation. The teachers all know what songs I mean: Gavotte from “Mignon,” Gavotte in G Minor, and Becker Gavotte to name just a few. Also, as part of the intonation problem, I had to deal with left hands that fell down under the fingerboard or left index fingers that would not stand up, or pinkies that did not play on their tiptoes. I have written several previous blog posts about addressing intonation, so I will not address the issues again in this post. If you would like to revisit those articles, here are the links:

Learning How to Fish

I am sure you have heard of the paraphrased expression: Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime. Well, here is how I learned how to fish, I mean teach, through the problems I saw. Let me use the Gavotte Three as examples (Gavotte from "Mignon," Gavotte in G Minor, and Becker Gavotte). Here are the discovery steps I used to teach myself how to fish:
  • Identify the problem
  • Specifically identify the problem
  • Discover where the technique was first introduced
  • Develop a strategy to shore up the technique or prevent the problem in the future
  • Figure out how to present my strategy to the student in a palatable way

And here is my further discussion of each of these discovery steps.

Problem: Student plays woefully out of tune. Specifically the student’s left third finger does not stretch high enough, the first finger does not reach low enough, and the pinkie is confused about whether to stretch out to a perfect fourth from the first finger (it is a flat pinkie in the music, after all).

Specific Problem: Usually I will follow the Julie Andrews’ technique of isolating the two notes where the problem occurs. Just as a basketball hoop is missed because of an improper layup or a baseball pitch is missed due to an inadequate swing, so most musical technique problems occur between the note where the mistake is and the note that precedes it. However, in my current problem, I could not identify two notes. Specifically, the problem was that the student did not adequately understand and could not properly execute the appropriate finger pattern. The same problem occurred in both pieces. So the fingering pattern was the problem.

Discover Where the Technique was First Introduced

I identified the technique’s first appearance as somewhere around the Two Grenadiers. To be completely accurate, I could identify the issue as a little exercise that Dr. Suzuki put in the beginning of the previous version of Violin Volume 2, where he had the student hold down the third finger and then silently move the first finger from the regular squared knuckle position to the lowered first finger position of Bb. Once I figured that out, I was able to trace the development of the skill throughout book 2. I found the lowered first finger first in Two Grenadiers. Then I found the finger pattern needed for Book 3 within the middle section of Gavotte from “Mignon.” Ah ha! Now I was onto something.

Develop a Strategy to Shore up the Technique or Prevent the Problem in the Future

From that point of discovery onward, I increased my teaching efforts in book 2 to prepare my student better for the skills required by book 3. I made sure that my student was solid on the lowered first finger in Two Grenadiers, including the little exercise at the beginning of book 2 and using the finger in our Aunt Rhody Goes to Saudi Arabia game (substitute Bb for every B natural in the song). Then I made sure that the middle section of Mignon was absolutely perfect before moving out of book 2. I will explain in the next section how I accomplished that. These small steps paved the way for a much more enjoyable teaching experience for me, and my students were much better equipped to handle the lessons found in book 3.

    Figure out how to Present my Strategy to the Student in a Palatable Way

I have already mentioned the Aunt Rhody Goes to Saudi Arabia game. Other ways I presented the new finger pattern was to teach the student about transposition. Students are already transposing when they play Twinkle or other songs on different strings. They may not have enough theory background at this point to understand what they are actually doing, so I bring up the issue now, although Long, Long Ago in Book 2 is a good place as well (since it is transposed from the original A major version of book 1).

Next we transpose Perpetual Motion into the key of Bb. I do this because it teaches the finger pattern that Mignon and book 3 require. I also teach my students to play a Bb scale, 1 octave (on the A and E strings), and also play the scale in thirds. We have been known to work with a tuner too. Even my little ones find the tuner useful as well as fascinating, and working with a tuner also helps my students to learn how to maintain an even tone with the sustained bow.

Armed with these Bb tools, my students are ready to tackle the middle section of Gavotte from “Mignon.” However, before they do, I staple a $1 bill to the bottom of the song in their book 2. I tell my students that this is a dollar spot. In order to earn the dollar, the student must play it perfectly in tune. Whenever that happens, the student can then remove the staples and we paper clip the dollar to the book. The student must then come in the next week and still be able to play the dollar spot perfectly in order to remove the dollar bill and put it in his or her pocket.

I do not let my students collect the dollar unless they absolutely play the passage correctly and in tune. I am very particular about this. The student may take a long time to earn the dollar. We just keep moving along in the book while the student keeps trying. I do not allow the student to move past book 2 until the dollar is won. Usually the student earns the dollar within a few weeks. [And do not worry about going broke stapling dollar bills to students' music books. Usually the parent produces the dollar bill when I ask if they have a dollar for change. They kind of scurry to produce the dollar bill for me so that I do not have to use mine. Very sweet!]

Since I required these small steps in book 2 (and we focus on them in group classes as well), my later book 3 problems disappeared! Similarly, when I used my discovery steps to analyze problems in book 1, I discovered my answers and my solutions earlier in the book.

I have been teaching many years now, so I have had many opportunities to discover problems and solutions throughout the entire Suzuki repertoire, and I have been offering many of my discoveries to you through this blog and its articles. Try using these same questions and make some of your own teaching discoveries, and let me know about it by posting a comment below.

Quick Practicing Focus: Tin Man Day!

I declare that today is Tin Man Day!

Remember the Tin Man from the movie "The Wizard of Oz"? When Dorothy first discovers the Tin Man, he is standing out in the elements and completely rusted over. None of his joints move. Dorothy and her companion, the brainless Scarecrow, are about to desert the rust bucket and continue on their journey, but they hear a faint sound come from the lips of the man. They hurry to oil the Tin Man's joints and free him from his rusted state, and so enters another character in the great fable of Oz.

I have often recreated the Tin Man character in my studio when I am faced with frozen, immoveable joints and hinges. In fact, this is something that I regularly watch for in my students. Any joint in the body has the potential to become rusted to a standstill. My job is to find those points and to get the joints loosened up again. We do not use an oil can, but we have fun rubbing some special lotion on the area. Somehow the visual representation of putting lubrication on the affected joint helps students to loosen up the rusty hinge.

So today we look for any rusty hinges or joints in the body: neck, shoulder, elbow, wrist, fingers, hips, knees, ankles, and feet. Get that bottle of lotion out and start lubricating the stiff spots! Make up a game to do this, or use the Tin Man story, as I do.

Happy Tin Man Day!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Monday Morning Check In: Golden ZigZag

I learned many things when I studied law, but I want to talk about two things today, because I think they might help parents reach some insight about problems in the parent-child relationship and how to create positive, effective solutions. One item is the directed verdict. The other is the golden zig zag.

When one side in a trial finishes presenting its case, the other side may ask for a directed verdict. This is a request that the judge take the case away from the jury, basically saying that the first party did not prove one or more crucial elements of its case. When we learned about this concept in school, we likened it to looking at one side of your hand. When you look at one side of your hand, you are unable to see the other side, and vice versa when you turn your hand over to see the other side. Asking for a directed verdict means that you think you can tell everything there is to know about how to decide a case just by looking at one side of the hand.

Our perspective is like a directed verdict sometimes. We only see one side and do not have the richness of considering the other side to fill out the complete picture. Intelligent folk strive to be open-minded, considerate, and aware of many perspectives, but let us face the fact that we are not that successful at it when our emotions are at stake. When a parent and child are at odds with each other, it is so easy for the parent to reach conclusions as to the reasons why a child is behaving a particular way. The danger is that the parent is not giving enough reflection to the situation to consider what other perspective might explain what is happening.

Those of us who studied Aristotle and his philosophy in school may recall his golden mean, that moral behavior is the desirable middle or mean between two extreme points: one of excess and one of deficiency. I studied under a wonderful professor, Dean J. Spader, and he wrote an article entitled “Individual rights vs. social utility: The search for the golden zigzag between conflicting fundamental values.” You can find this article in the Journal of Criminal Justice, 1987, vol. 15, issue 2, pages 121-136, if you would like to read the entire article. I am only going to reference one tiny part of the article that caught my interest many years ago and which has stuck with me as a decision-making tool for many years. If you are a fan of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, then you will be familiar with the four quadrants that Covey uses to determine what is important and urgent. Other authors have suggested a similar quadrant box for decision-making. Here is an example of the quadrant box:

Quadrant Box

The quadrant box basically sets out two positives in box one (upper left) and two negatives in box 4 opposite it (bottom right). There are two other combinations of boxes one and four that appear in boxes two and three. Covey used the box to make lists of things along with their importance and urgency factors. Box one was “important and urgent,” box four was “not important and not urgent,” and you can figure out how boxes two and three were completed.

In Spader’s article, he wrote about the struggle to balance social versus individual rights. While it was clear to Spock in Star Trek parlance — “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” — in reality our social and governmental structures struggle daily with this issue. In essence, rather than search for the mean point between two extremes, Spader showed how we made “zigzags” among the boxes as different needs and rights came to the forefront related to different situations.

OK, you are thinking, this is interesting, but where are you going with this? Where is the usual Monday Morning Check In discussion about life and improving our habits and character? I am getting to that. I just wanted to be sure you had the same tools at your disposal that I want to use: the directed verdict hand and the golden zigzag.

Last week was an interesting week for me as a teacher observer. Some of my best studio moms were struggling mightily with child behavior issues. Now there are many possible reasons for the behaviors we saw: school is out, vacation bible school or summer day camps have started, routines are altered, etc. Kids and their parents are just starting to figure out what the schedule is going to be for the summer. As I watched though, I saw how easy it was for my best studio parents to fall into the trap of the directed verdict – seeing just one side of the hand. I understand the reason for this, because a lot of emotion is attached to any part of the parent-child relationship.

I call these my best studio parents because they are open to discussing the problems with me and reflecting on possible solutions. They are also open to hearing any possible observations I have about what might be going on. And I admit, I can be pretty frank about what I see. I am in a unique position as a teacher observer who sees the parent and child maybe once or twice a week. I am not easily inured by the day to day grind, so I can sometimes see quite easily what might be going on. I also have the advantage of watching a pattern unfold from week to week.

I will not relate the personal stories of my studio families from last week. Suffice it to say that we had lovely conversations about what could be going on. I offered up the observation that things were not quite so one-sided if we were to take a step back from the directed verdict and look for the golden zigzag. There are many perspectives and each has its own possibility for directing us to a particular verdict. The truly reflective teacher and parent will instead search to follow the golden zigzag, which will consider and balance all the possibilities.

I will leave you with one personal story that a parent volunteered to share. In this case the parent and child had struggled last week because the parent’s work routine had changed once school let out. That meant that the child’s practice routine changed, and the parent had not been able to work out a great solution yet. This week the parent still had not worked out a good solution, but she had found a way to resolve most of the practicing drama issues.

Mom said she spent time reflecting on what she wanted rather than what she did not want. In this case, she wanted to get back into a practice routine that centered on practice rather than drama issues, despite her summer work schedule changes. This week she resolved her previous week's problems by doing these things:
  • Mom worked to change her attitude and make practicing more fun again, instead of a chore.
  • Mom still had not figured out a great schedule, but she did put practice sessions before something else that the child would want to do, such as playtime.
  • Mom kept it simple and fun.
  • Mom used grandma and the child’s younger cousin to re-inspire the child to play by having grandma and cousin serve as an audience.
  • Mom worked to see more good things in the child’s playing rather than things that needed to be corrected.

Bravo, mom! Rather than facing the situation as “this is the way things are, and you just have to get over it,” mom looked for the golden zigzag. Judging by the success mom reported to me at the end of the week, I would say that mom had found it.

Happy zigzagging!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Lazy Daze of Summer

For most of us in the United States, school terms are over and the summer has officially begun. [Sigh!] Although I have very fond memories of my childhood summers, as a teacher my summers do not hold the same excitement. Here are some of the reasons that my teaching summers may be difficult, and these same reasons may apply to any holiday, vacation, or break.

When school term ends, most families no longer follow any consistent routine. Days seem to drift by with little structure. The kids play outside or in the park or at the pool. Daily practice gets postponed in favor of some other interesting, new, or fun activity [as in, less work]. Families go on vacation and make no arrangements for taking the violin along to continue practice. Sometimes lessons are cancelled entirely as families disappear for the summer.

I am all in favor of breaks and vacations. I use these tools myself to renew, refresh, and recharge my spirit and my teaching motivation. Sometimes I use my breaks and vacations to further my teaching skills by attending institutes and workshops. I also understand when families travel out of the country or across the country to visit extended family for long periods of time.

What I have trouble understanding is when families completely shunt aside the progress they and their children have made in learning a musical skill and developing ability. Children thrive on structure. All research supports this fact. Parents routinely report to me that their music studies and practice proceed successfully when the families follow an established routine and that problems occur when the schedule is not maintained. And yet, as a teacher, I still encounter the summer issue with many of my students.

The problem in some cases may be that we are not on the same page. As a Suzuki teacher who is strongly committed to the Suzuki philosophical point that the Suzuki Method is about creating fine human beings, I view my life's work as extremely important for the child, the child's family, and ultimately for our society at large. When I think of my purpose in teaching music via the violin or piano to young students as developing and nurturing ability, talent, and life skills, then I cannot bear to think about taking an extended break from my work. I have to keep things going in order not to lose any ground.

If a parent does not share this philosophy, then it is likely that the parent will be sporadic about continuing lessons and practice during the summer. The parent will schedule vacations and special events without any consideration given to the continuation of learning and practice. Remember, I am referring to the parents who do not schedule lessons (or who schedule very few lessons) or who do not maintain any semblance of a regular or consistent practice schedule. With the growth of the Internet and online tools, there are ample opportunities to maintain lessons during an extended period of time away from home. There may also be possibilities to take extra lessons per week. There is no reason to limit lessons to a weekly schedule. Why not take two lessons per week during the time the child and family are at home?

I will relate two stories to show support for the idea that summers can be more productive rather than less. One is from my own personal experience. My mother was a public school primary grade teacher, so she had summers free. When I was a child, my mother had a general schedule outlined for us kids. There was a "looseness" about the structure in terms of specifics, but there was a sense of structure. For example, when we got up in the morning, after we ate our breakfast, there was a time to complete some necessary household chores, such as cleaning or laundry or some other activity that would benefit the entire household. Then we practiced. Since my sister and I played two instruments, we would practice both. There was still some time left in the morning (we did not sleep in or late in the summer but maintained a reasonable morning wake up time), so we would run errands. Either we would go shopping for groceries or other items, or we would go to the public library to return books or to check out new ones. The library run was a regular recurrence, because I remember that more than I remember other shopping activities. After lunch, where we were eagerly beginning our new books, we spent the afternoons at the local pool. We would take our books as well and read in between swimming periods. In the late afternoon, we might play outside while mom fixed dinner, or we might pick up our instruments and dabble with some fun things. Mom might ask us to play some things for us while she worked. Sometimes we helped her to make dinner or to set the table. Then when dad was home, we would do family activities. Often my dad would do his own piano practice after dinner, or we would sing some songs together at the piano. I often played piano after dinner to amuse myself. My dad had lots of sheet music to play through. I had great summers. We always continued our lessons and music studies. Sometimes I would even begin reading about subjects I would study the next year (yes, I was a bit of a nerd when it came to school).

My second story is my former student "little Katie" who attends university now and wants to work for NASA some day as an engineer. Little Katie, so named to distinguish her from an older, taller Katie in the studio at the time, was a very busy child during the school year. She loved her summers because it gave her a chance to "get ahead" in her practicing. If she was learning book 3, she used the summer to finish the book and graduate and get a head start on the next book. Katie used this summer method of hers for many years.

You read the title of this article correctly. I meant to type "daze" rather than "days." As a teacher, what I see in the child as a result of an unstructured summer (few lessons or none, sporadic practice or none, unfocused activities), is a dazed child. They stand before me and present themselves with little focus and concentration. They are easily distracted by anything else going on. Their thoughts seem diffused, as if they are oozing out of their ears before my eyes.

Here are my recommendations to avoid the summer daze:

  • Look through your calendar and schedule as many lessons as your schedule and your teacher's schedule will allow. It is okay to have more than one lesson in a week. The teacher can focus one lesson on one aspect of technique and use the other lesson to work on something new or fun.
  • Think about your day and how you can arrange your schedule so that you arrange suitable moments for daily practice.
  • Think about times during the week when you can arrange a special concert. Your child would love to perform for others, and this would be a wonderful reason to do some practice during the week to prepare for the event, even if the event is a phone call to grandma.
  • Perhaps you can arrange a special music play date with some of your child's other music friends. I recall a trio of young students who regularly arranged sleepovers that involved the violin.
  • Look through the local concerts and plan to attend several concerts in the park. Our local symphony offers several possibilities. It offers special art and music park events every Wednesday morning throughout the summer, and each week features a different section of the symphony (strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion). The symphony sections each present monthly concerts in the park, and families can bring lawn chairs and pets to the concerts. The big summer event is the July 4 concert with the 1812 overture.
  • Plan your vacation with your child's instrument in mind. Children can carry their instruments onto airplanes. I have camped out with my instrument and practiced under pine trees beside lakes. One time a railroad train blew right past me as I played. I had no idea that I was 30 feet from a railway line. That was interesting!
  • If you are unable to take the instrument, then plan to maintain a listening program for the child so that the child remembers the pieces he or she is learning or has already learned.
  • Make plans for your child to attend a Suzuki Institute or other music camp. Some of my fondest summer music experiences were my summer camps. I went to strings camps, and later as a teacher, I attended Suzuki Institutes with some of my students. We had a lot of fun! The parents who came along learned a lot as well.
  • Plan special summer events. This summer might be a great time to arrange a summer Olympics for the violin. Set a few dates for special Olympic trials and races, and have the child start preparing for those events. Then arrange to make medals and certificates for each event that the child participates in.
Summer time can be a fun time for music. I hope you find ways to add music into your summer fun.

Happy Summer Practicing!

Monday, June 11, 2012

Monday Morning Check In: Excuses, Excuses!

I find it fascinating that we humans spend an inordinate amount of time inventing creative excuses to avoid something, like work. I am amazed at how creative our excuses can be and at how much of a habit excuse-making can become for many people.

What is an excuse? An excuse is something we put forward as a way to justify, explain, or excuse something we feel guilty or responsible for. In my book, an excuse is not only a rationale to justify or explain away something we may have done wrong, but it is also something we put forth to justify why we should not do something that we know we should do.

Okay, it is a natural human condition that we tend to avoid work. There may be a few of us out there who thrive on working hard at all times, but for most of us, work is something we have to do, but we try to find ways to avoid it or make it easier. I understand this. Really, I truly do, because I myself do the same thing. There are aspects to my life where I try to avoid the work associated with it, such as housecleaning, filing my tax returns on time, making phone calls to strangers (boy this one is hard for me! see my previous post about facing your fears). I recognize that we will have moments such as these in our lives. As long as I have determined that the excuses I allow relate to activities that do not claim a high priority for me, I can live with that.

What really astonishes me is the number of parents who have made excuse-making a general habit. As a teacher, it disturbs me too to recognize that the young student is also copying (and therefore perpetuating in the future) these same excuse-making behaviors. In the case of parents making excuses to avoid the work associated with their child's learning an important skill or developing a high level of ability that will pay large dividends in the child's future life, I believe that parents should not develop an easy relationship with excuse-making.

I am a student of Stephen Covey's "7 Habits of Highly Effective People." One of the 7 habits is to be proactive.This habit refers to the human being's ability to choose his or her reaction to something. Originating from a quotation of Victor Frankl, a WWII prisoner of war, Stephen Covey writes: "Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In those choices lie our growth and our happiness." This means that we have the ability to choose our response. We have the ability to decide what our reaction shall be. We can build the habit of widening the space between stimulus and response so that we have the time to choose wisely what our response shall be. We can choose to be happy. We can choose to avoid other behaviors or responses that do not lead us to happy and productive results.

There are many things in today's world that compete for our time and attention, and there are some things we have little or no control over. One subset of things that compete for our attention contains those activities that we can exercise some control over. It is this subset area that we need to focus on. If we waste our efforts trying to work in the arena in which we have no control, we will beat our heads against the wall, feel frustrated and defeated, and generally waste a lot of our time and energy. Instead, if we focus our efforts on the subset area over which we can exercise control, we will generate feelings of satisfaction, success, and self-confidence.

When we waste our time and energy creating excuses, we are not working to develop any productive character traits. Instead we are building reasons why we do not have to try, succeed, or work at something. I do not know about you, but I do not want to go through life giving reasons why I cannot succeed at something. Instead, I want to hold my head up high because I have actually accomplished something. If I make excuses, I am not accomplishing anything other than to add more empty words to the atmosphere around me.

Here are some typical excuses I might hear from parents during the week [along with my personal observations]:
  • We forgot our books [again!].
  • [Alternatively] How come we are taking so long to get through the theory book? [Because you have forgotten it every week for a month].
  • We had a busy week. We just couldn't find any time to practice. [not even 5 minutes, but we found time to waste every day watching television].
  • My child (my student) gave me a hard time when it came to practicing. So, we didn't practice. [The child runs the house, and the parent is not acting like a parent].
  • My work schedule changed and we could not have successful practices. [I cannot figure out how to fit practice into my new schedule].
  • My child's schedule is too busy to find adequate time to practice [and I don't feel like taking control of my child's schedule].
  • I didn't understand the assignment [and apparently do not understand how to use the phone, write an email, or send a text message to ask for clarification].
  • The child's instrument was out of tune [and I could not find time to telephone the teacher so she could help me tune it over the phone.]
  • I am tired of listening to my child's practice. Do they have to keep playing the same song? [in other words, do I really have to listen to my child repeat things until they perfect them? Do I have to listen to my child's daily practice? What does it matter that my children are trying to please me?].
  • I can't get my child to practice or repeat things for me like they do for the teacher [and I have not taken the time to reflect on why this is so].
  • I can't be on time to lessons (again). I just seem to run into things that hold me up (time and again). [In this case, I fear that even if I were to set their lesson 15 minutes later, they would still show up 15 minutes late. Maybe I should tell them that their lesson starts 15 minutes earlier and then expect the lesson to actually begin 15 minutes later? Bummer though on the one day that they actually show up on time and discover that I'm late].
  • I forgot __________. [Forgot what, you ask? Just fill in the blank.].
  • My other children had something that interfered with my child's schedule [in other words, this child's activities rank lower in priority than my other children. I know there are unforeseen circumstances, but in this case I refer to family situations where this has become a routine or habit].
  • We had out-of-town company [and we couldn't figure out how to turn this visit into a performance opportunity or a chance to encourage the out-of-town company to join the Suzuki community].
A while ago I wrote a post about whether we are a W, C or E. click here to read the post. The W stands for Whining, the C for Complaining, and the E for Excuse Makers. There are some helpful tips in that post about how to transform a W, C, or E personality into something that is more productive and less excuse-ful.

Come on, folks! We can do better than this! Let us make a commitment that we will stop making excuses. Let us just say "I'm sorry," and then address the personality trait and behavior. When we refuse to acknowledge a mistake or a failure on our part to do something we ought to do — when we make excuses — we also refuse the unwanted gift of perfecting our mistakes. We can then focus on what we need to do to actually accomplish something.

Parents (and teachers), be careful that you empower your children (and students). Examine carefully the excuses you make. Here is a powerful example of the negative impact excuses have on our ability to develop talent and our belief that we have the control to make this ability happen:

"I was not born with enough talent to be great."

"Talent is not inborn."

Dr. Suzuki actually made both of these statements in his book, Ability Development From Age Zero, which you can purchase from my Teach Suzuki Resource Store (featured above on the right side of the blog). Fortunately, Dr. Suzuki recognized the debilitating falseness of the first statement, which limited his efforts to develop talent and foster a belief in the results of his efforts. The second statement sets up the basis for success, because it reminds us that the power to develop ability lies within us.

As long as we do not make excuses.

He that is good for making excuses is seldom good for anything else. — Benjamin Franklin

Friday, June 8, 2012

Set Up Steps

I thought today might be a good day for videos. Here are some of my younger beginning students demonstrating various aspects of getting set up to play.

I asked one of my students to model the set up steps we like to use in the studio to prepare to play. Here is the video. Enjoy:

In this video, I show a teaching technique that helps the teacher to set up the student's violin in a way that encourages good elbow placement:

And another video with one of my wee ones:

And finally, a cute little bow from the youngest member of the studio. This little fellow is the younger brother of one of my older students. He started asking for a violin, so here is how we started. We began lessons with the bow. Then I place the instrument on his shoulder and teach him to stand still looking at a little rubber toy that I put on the box violin. This little fellow is an active one. It was a challenge to get him to stand still initially, but at this point he can concentrate his gaze at the toy for a minute and more. And we have added a few more things to his lesson. We started with lessons of less than a minute; currently we can go about 5 minutes. We are making progress. I believe that he is a very active two year old. Note the inhalation he makes before doing the bow. I teach this as preparation for playing in orchestra and working with a conductor. Breathing and phrasing are important musical concepts. A student is never too young to start learning these skills:

Happy Set Up Steps!

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Perpetual Motion: Double Trouble


Perpetual Motion is in two parts: the main song part, consisting of staccato eighth notes, and the variation, consisting of detaché sixteenth notes. For more articles about Perpetual Motion and how I teach the main staccato note part of the song, including group class and later advanced skill introduction ideas, visit these posts:

Sometimes a student will figure out the double note variation on his or her own. Occasionally I have to give more direction. I prefer to give the student more leeway to figure out the variation on their own, because I believe that the more the student experiments, the quicker he or she will learn how to pick out notes for a song that they do not know. There is some sort of magic that happens in the connection between the listening ear and the searching fingers. Once a student learns how to “let go” and allow the fingers to experiment with finding the notes and pitches that the ear hears, the student will have successfully developed the skill of picking out songs by ear.

Some students learn this skill quickly and early in book 1. Other students develop this skill later over time, and I find that it helps if I get involved a little in this process. I have learned over the years though to be careful about how much I do. I have little trouble playing by ear. I have been playing for a very long time and have gotten quite good at it. If I am not careful, I can actually cause a student to hesitate even more because they are afraid of making a mistake in front of me. I realize that I have to be a careful guardian of my attitude and reaction while I watch a student work through this “picking out” phase. Sometimes the process seems so easy to me, but I must remind myself that this is not the case for several students.

Teaching the Karate Chop

If I do need to involve myself with teaching a student how to play the double note variation, I start out first with teaching the double note bow stroke. I want to point out to my readers that I do not believe the stroke is just two notes. For the sake of future clarity of articulation and finger-bow coordination, I work with students to teach the stroke as an impetus stroke. Let me give an example as an explanation of what I mean, and I may need to submit a video to show you how this works.

There is a karate “chop” called a knife-edge strike. This is the striking blow that uses the hand in a straightened form, aiming to strike the opponent with the heel side of the hand, or the “knife edge.” Most people recognize this stroke as the one normally associated with breaking bricks or boards. I myself use this stroke to punch out the plastic parts of lids on coffee creamer and Parmesan cheese containers. If I strike the lids with a knife-edge stoke just so, the heel of my hand will punch out those plastic inserts with little effort. I digress. Let me get back to the example of an impetus stroke.

When someone throws a karate knife-edge stroke, the force is directed at the throw of the stroke (or the down bow direction, if you will allow me this comparison). No attention is given to the natural rebound that occurs with the karate chop. There is no need, as the hand naturally recoils after making the initial strike. The out-and-back strike does not have equal parts. The down bow and up bow components of the strike are not equal. If I tried to do a knife-edge chop with equal down and up bow impetus, I would dissipate my blow’s force (and look ridiculous in the process). To be effective in my karate chop, I need to focus my attention and effort into the strike itself, the down bow pull. The strike is a "bam" move in one motion, not a "1-2" move in two parts.

This is exactly how I teach my students to play the double note variation stroke in Perpetual Motion. The variation has had many suggested words: jello, rabbit, darn-it. I sometimes use “yank it!” I teach students to give a strong pull on the down bow and let the up bow rebound take care of itself in terms of rhythmic impetus and weight. Over time the student will focus less on how to create this stroke and will just play.

Why is this double note stroke different than Variation E and the four note rhythmic stroke of the Twinkle Variations? I am not sure, but it certainly is different, as any experienced teacher will tell you. Playing the double note sixteenth notes presents different physical challenges for the left and right hands, and that is my purpose in teaching the variation in this way.

Practice Tip

Dr. Suzuki includes a practice tip for the variation in which the student plays two sixteenth notes followed by an eighth rest:

 I use this exercise in one of two possible ways:
  • I may use this exercise to teach a student how to play the variation.
  • I may use this exercise later to help a student to “clean up” any messiness between the bow and finger coordination.

How I Teach the Variation

I ask my student to play the first four notes of the main song: A-B-C#-C#. Then I ask the student to double the notes: A-A-B-B-C#-C#-C#-C#. The students usually get this, but occasionally a student will be a little confused about the double C#. In these cases we chant: “double – double – double trouble.” Here is what I mean:

This seems to help a student grasp the double note concept and the double-double note places throughout the song. I send the student home with the assignment of getting easier with the double notes variation for the first part of Perpetual Motion. Usually the student comes back with the rest of the variation figured out. If not, I just help out at whatever part of the song the student has reached.

Later Problems (or Just Later)

The biggest problem that shows up later is that students forget the song's variation ends with one note. Even teachers have been known to forget this. I like to tell my students that audiences fall asleep or stop paying attention. When we end with one note, we are in effect alerting the audience that the song is ending and it is time to wake up and clap. In some cases, students get pretty lazy about remembering to end the song with one note. In these serious cases of just plain inattention, I make a big dramatic display of putting my hand to my head and exclaiming, "Oh no! You forgot the one last note at the end! Now we have to play the WHOLE SONG again!" It only takes one or two times of this, and a student will remember the one note at the end. I do have a good time playing the drama queen though.

Most later problems include messy bow and finger coordination. Either the bow changes in a mishmash with the fingers in the double note variation, or  the fingers do not change quickly enough for the bow to catch the note changes cleanly in the main part of the song. For the first problem, I have already discussed how I use Dr. Suzuki's exercise with the added eighth note rests as a way to help students clean up their articulation.

In the second problem, the lateness of the left hand finger placement on the fingerboard causes the bow to make unwanted scooping sounds, as if the student were trying to play slurs between the notes:

For this problem where the fingers do not change quickly enough for the bow in the first variation, I try another idea. I have the student play the first four notes very slowly, as if there were an eighth rest between each note:

I teach the student to place the finger down in between the notes, and I try to help the student do this in a sort of rhythm.

Note that nothing happens between the C# double notes. We say "vacation" in between these notes so that the student does not do anything in this place.

What is the value of this practice exercise? If you were to videotape yourself playing a song and then replay the recording in excruciating slow motion, you would discover that your finger anticipates your bow ever so slightly. This is a mental exercise as well as a physical one. The students have to figure out how to coordinate the timing of the finger placement of the left hand in between the right hand bow articulation. This is a very powerful exercise, and I also use it with some of my university students on occasion. We are never too old or advanced to learn from simple foundations and basics!

As I have observed before, Perpetual Motion is a fruitful garden of ideas. Whenever you need to teach a student a skill or fix something that is not working well, you will find that Perpetual Motion provides an excellent backdrop for whatever you are trying to teach.

Happy Perpetual Motion!

Monday, June 4, 2012

Monday Morning Check In: Be Present

I was born in the mid-1950s, and it seems to me that during my entire lifetime I have heard folks talk about newfangled ways to make things easier, more efficient, more convenient, and faster. In my childhood, television made a mass-market appearance, and along with it came TV dinners. Our housecleaning evolved to electric vacuum cleaners from push brooms and sweepers. Our old Royal Underwood typewriter faced off with the electric typewriter when I took my Clerk-Typist I civil service exam for a summer job in high school. Gadgets and appliances filled up empty spaces in our cabinets and closets, and then the home computer hit the market (my first computer was an Apple IIe back in the early 1980s).

As the computer insinuated itself into our homes and our lifestyles, we added new words to our verbal repertoire. “Multi-tasking” made its appearance around 1966 as a computer term to refer to the “concurrent performance of several jobs by a computer.” (Merriam-Webster). Today it also refers to the performance of multiple tasks at one time by a human. This is where I think we now find ourselves with a problem: we no longer are able to “be present.”

What does it mean to be present? To me being present means being involved in the “now.” It means being completely focused on what is happening at the moment. When I am present, I am thinking about what I am doing. I am not thinking of things other than the task before me. I am completely focused, involved, and engaged in what I am doing. I am not distracted by other things that vie for my attention. I am doing one thing at a time and paying attention to what I am doing in that moment.

My refrigerator magnet
Why does it matter that we are present? The human mind does not multi-task as well as a computer. For instance, I once read about a technique to calm the mind: think about two things at the same time. For example, if you were to think about “purple tree” and “orange grapefruit,” you would notice that your mind quieted. It did not awaken and shift into a higher gear. Despite protests to the contrary, most of us would find that we accomplish more things with better quality when we focus on one thing at a time. Yes, it saddens me to publicly acknowledge that I am less efficient when I attempt to do two (or three or four) things at the same time.

I discovered this phenomenon during my law practice days. I found that some days I left the office feeling very satisfied with the work I had accomplished. Other days, my “point one (.1)” days, left me completely enervated. Point one refers to the practice in law of recording work time in increments of 6 minutes or .1 of an hour. A point one day was a day that I accomplished many little things, each lasting about .1 of an hour. A point one day meant that I frequently switched from one task or file or client to another every six minutes, and I would be exhausted at the end of such a day – physically and mentally.

As a teacher, I spend a great deal of my teaching time developing my students’ abilities to focus and concentrate. I myself had to learn this skill in my first semester of college. My university teacher, Helen Kwalwasser (Temple University) correctly identified that I lacked the ability to concentrate. I had been told that I needed to practice many hours per day, and I had indeed put in many hours of practice during my high school years. However, I did not practice in the moment. Instead of building up my ability to concentrate, I developed the ability to play without focus and attention. Helen broke me of this habit within one week by insisting that my practice sessions be limited to 20 minutes at the most. I was permitted to practice as many times as I wanted during the day, but I was not allowed to practice beyond 20 minutes at a time.

As a teacher, it matters that my students are present when they learn or practice, because my students are more efficient in their efforts. They do not waste time. They practice while they are aware of what they are doing, and so they are engaged and listening. They practice mindfully and therefore accomplish more in a shorter amount of time than they did when they practiced while unfocused or distracted.

How do we develop the ability to be in the present? There are many resources on the Internet that suggest ways to improve this area. One of my favorite articles was written by Leo Babauta (for article, click here:  Being Present - Zen Habits). I have found three things that work in my life: running (or exercise), writing, and raising dogs.

I have run several marathons and half marathons, and two ultra marathons (50K or 31 miles). I have also written many term papers and completed several other large writing projects. I have found a direct relationship between the concentration involved in both areas. When running a long distance, I learned how to focus my mind on the task before me (such as an entire day of running). When writing a large project, I focused my mind in the same way.

I raise miniature long-haired dachshunds, and I currently have a pack of 6 adult dogs, 1 youth dog, and 3 puppies that need to move on to new homes (contact me if you are interested in a puppy born the night of our Carnegie Hall debut 3/22/12). Dogs live in the moment. They do not fret over what they did not accomplish yesterday or what embarrassing mistake they made in the past. They are not concerned about what the future holds. They live here and now, and they are great reminders to us of the value of living in the present.

I have noticed that many families and parents have lost touch with the ability to be present in the moment. Perhaps cell phones are one of the culprits as to why we are increasingly distracted from our present moments. I have turned off my phone’s ring tone. I hear the phone vibrate when someone calls, but I do not hear the phone indicate when new email or text messages arrive. Still, my phone sends me notifications and alerts, and my screen lights up. I have even noticed that the phone screen diverts my students’ attention.

As a teacher, I know the value to the student of a parent who pays attention to the student during the lesson. Many times a student will turn around during a lesson to see if the parent is watching. One group class, one of my young pre-twinklers turned to look at her dad and his new girlfriend, and unfortunately, both adults were completely engrossed in their smart phones. Another mother sometimes spends the entire lesson making phone calls.

These are egregious examples of parents who are not showing interest in their child’s lessons. Not all cases are this severe. We fall prey to the competing distractions that attack us from every direction today. We can all use a reminder about paying attention.

Being in the present is a skill and ability that we need to nurture in ourselves and our children and students. I hope that parents strengthen this ability of being present so that their children reap the benefit of the parent’s full attention. I hope that students develop the ability of being present and focused so that they learn and accomplish more in an efficient way while practicing or in lessons. I hope that teachers learn how to be present so that they can role model this powerful skill and ability for their students and their parents.

Have a great week! Be present!