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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Stress and Kids

Last week and yesterday, I wrote about stress and how to manage it. Let us not forget children! They suffer the ill effects of stress just as much as adults and maybe more so since they have little to no control over their lives. Schedule? Someone else does that, and perhaps they remember to discuss it with the child. Activities? Someone else chooses that, and sometimes the child has no say in the matter of how or when the activity takes place.

I recall one student whose mom had a tendency to schedule her child for every single available activity at a Suzuki institute. Finally one summer, the young boy spoke up and begged his mother to enroll him in the basic program. He explained that he got too tired to enjoy his main activities if he had to participate in extracurricular activities at the institute.

Ask your child to take the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's kid-friendly Stress-O-Meter Quiz at bam.gov/sub_yourlife.

There are several wonderful articles on Dr. Laura Markham's "Aha! Parenting" site that discuss ways that parents can connect with their children and help manage children's stress:

Helping a Child Cope with Stress

10 Stress Busting Strategies for Parents

Why Moms Should Care About Reducing Stress

How to Get Your Kid Laughing Instead of Crying

Keep an eye on your child's stress level this week. Are there areas that you could do things differently and that would help your child to reduce the amount of stress in your child's life?

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Monday Morning Check In: 8 Tips to Manage Stress

I have a lot of tips and links for you today. Last week we discussed stress. Today we will discuss how to manage stress. Notice that I used the word "manage" rather than "beat" or "eliminate." In the past few years, I have come to understand that stress may be inevitable in our lives.

When I consider how I might eliminate activities that cause undue stress in my life, my list appears ridiculous, because so many things that I do have the unpleasant potential to turn into unbearable stress. The flip side of looking to eliminate stressful activities is that many of these activities are things that I also enjoy doing. With every activity in my life that I enjoy comes the possibility of not enjoying it. Too much of a good thing, perhaps?

Here is an example. I love to teach. However, I do not love to teach in certain environments:
  • when students are unprepared
  • when parents seem to spend more energy making or looking for excuses not to ensure that the child is prepared for lessons
  • when parents cancel lessons because other activities have a higher priority (and do not think ahead to reschedule)
  • when parents frequently expect me to make schedule adjustments to accommodate the parents’ inability to schedule
  • when parents come late to lessons or group class (one parent brought the child to class one hour late, after I had already dismissed that child’s class level)
  • when parents come early to lessons (more than five minutes) and interrupt my break/lunch/phone/dinner time
  • when parents do not bring their child to lessons or group classes and I have to spend time in lessons making up the material the child would have learned in class
Teaching is a wonderful profession, but because it is a service profession, there are many opportunities for stress to pile up and lead to burnout.

So what about playing in the symphony or other music ensembles? I love to play my violin and piano and enjoy playing in large ensembles and the quartet. However, even these activities can lead to unbearable stress as the groups near a performance date. Other members of the group may be experiencing stress of various kinds at the same moment, and how we each handle our individual stress loads may adversely impact the others around us. I get very irritable when I experience too much stress. Others may become petulant, defensive, and unpleasant to work with.

Here are my 8 personal tips for combating stress. These are not hard and fast rules. Instead I use these items as a guideline to keep me sane during insane times. I may not always follow my own tips, but the fact that I have a list at all of helpful tips is a good step toward managing stress when it rears its ugly head.

#1 - White Space Day: Aim for one day per week that has nothing on the calendar. My husband calls this “white space.” Others may call it a “Sabbath.” The purpose of white space is to allow yourself one day per week to enjoy the fruits of whatever you do on the other six days of the week.

#2 - Plan Ahead: If you maintain a calendar (and you should, at least as a courtesy to others), make a plan to look at it once a week in order to plan ahead. For me, I tend to look at the calendar on Sunday or Monday. I look at the coming week and sometimes the week afterwards. Getting a general feel for what is to come gives me a greater sense of control over the crazy stuff when it hits. For example, this week I have three evenings free. The remaining evenings will involve a long drive to another city. By looking ahead at my schedule in this way, I am aware of the time that I have available for:
  • doing laundry
  • making meals (where is that crock pot?)
  • cleaning the house
  • running errands
  • scheduling makeup lessons
I maintain a small dry erase board in my bathroom, and while I brush my teeth before bed (2 minutes with electric toothbrush), I set out my clothes for the next day and write out the times that I need to wake up, feed the animals, get in the shower, and leave. The next morning, I follow my plan.

#3 - Alone Time: I need some time by myself when all is quiet around me and no one or no thing is competing for my attention. Usually I get a brief amount of time in the morning, when I write some “morning pages” and drink my coffee. The dogs have been taken care of and are snoozing nearby. I also find some time right before bedtime. My family has already gone to sleep, and the atmosphere is quiet again. I use this time for additional writing or for reading. Others may take bubble baths or do yoga. There are some individuals who need social time rather than alone time. Just do the reverse of what is discussed here. Make time to spend with friends.

#4 - Exercise: Physical exercise releases endorphins. It keeps the body functioning and is good for your overall health. I have read suggestions that we do a minimum of 30 minutes' aerobic exercise at least three times a week, but I think it is better if we do something every single day. Get a dog (I have three puppies to give away if you want a miniature long haired black and tan dachshund born March 23, 2012) and walk it every day. Find a buddy, an activity, a gym, and a routine that you can follow and make this important lifestyle change. Even during my most stressful life events, my exercise time has helped me to sleep better and to release a lot of ill-stored negative energy. My exercise time has also revealed some creative solutions to problems that would have consumed valuable time in the rest of my life. Exercise feels good and is good for you.

#5 - Nutrition: If I eat right, I feel better. If I take a few minutes at the beginning of the week and at the beginning or end of a day to plan ahead (see my calendar tip above), then I can plan appropriate meals. Because I teach all day and often have rehearsals at night, I need to have my meals planned and available to be eaten “on the go.” I have a list of usual suspects that I can grab quickly and go about my day. I eat a good breakfast too, which really helps to get my day off to a good start.

#6 - Breathing: Breathing is also good. It helps to relax tense muscles. I think we do not breathe deeply enough in general. When we experience stress, we generally tighten up muscles. When we take the time to practice deep breathing, we can relax knotted shoulders, tense  neck muscles, and a constricted diaphragm. Breathing will loosen all of that up. Breathing will also change your "angry" state, if you are feeling irritable due to stress. There are several good yoga breathing techniques that are useful to learn (Yoga Breathing Techniques, Breathing Techniques for Beginners, or Long Deep Breathing Techniques).

#7 - Writing: I believe that writing will go farther than anything else to combat stress. Even if it is just 10 minutes a day spent writing in a journal, I believe that we will sort out problems, create solutions, and anchor memories better with writing than with any other technique. There are wonderful books available to help us learn about journaling. Many of them are in Kindle Format, which makes it easy for me to carry my library with me wherever I go. Here is a list of my current favorites, and all are available in my Teach Suzuki Resource Store:
  • Life’s Companion: Journal Writing as a Spiritual Quest by Christina Baldwin
  • Journal to the Self: Twenty-Two Paths to Personal Growth by Kathleen Adams, M.A.
  • Writing Down Your Soul by Janet Conner
  • Write it Down, Make it Happen by Henriette Anne Klauser
  • Put Your Heart on Paper: Staying Connected in a Loose Ends World by Henriette Anne Klauser
  • Journalution by Sandy Grason
  • The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
  • With Pen in Hand: the Healing Power of Writing by Henriette Anne Klauser
#8 - Reading: Reading can be good for entertainment, but reading can also provide us with knowledge. Knowledge helps us to grow. Knowledge helps us to be prepared better for difficulties. I have a source list of books and materials that I regularly refer to in order to keep feeding my mind with information that I can use to strengthen my character, shore up my professional craft, and teach me how to improve all areas of my life. I am a big fan of John Maxwell and his numerous books about character and leadership development. I also read other websites and blogs, and I will make up a list for you of my favorite sites to visit. I have several Maxwell books and another book by Dr. Kevin Leman (Stopping Stress Before it Stops You: A Game Plan for Every Mom) in my Teach Suzuki Resource Store.

Along with my above suggestions, here are my top five websites that you may find useful on your journey to combat stress.

Helpguide.org is a non-profit organization designed to provide ad-free tools for making better choices that concern your mental health, your lifestyle, your family, and aging well. The site is dedicated to Morgan Leslie Segal by her parents, Robert Segal, MA., and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D. Morgan committed suicide in 1996, and her parents believe that their daughter’s tragedy could have been prevented if their daughter had access to better information regarding antidepressants. The site collaborates with Harvard Health Publications, the consumer health publishing division of Harvard Medical School. Please visit the site’s managing stress toolkit and consider making a donation to keep the site ad-free.

The Mayo Clinic staff have put together a series of articles about stress and relaxation techniques. Visit this site to gather more information and ideas about ways to combat stress in your life.

#3 - WebMD
WebMD is a site that seeks to provide better information for better health. Part of its site is dedicated to stress management health with numerous articles about stress, its causes, and how to avoid it.

#4 - About.com
About.com is part of the New York Times Company and provides information about a variety of topics. One topic is stress management. The site provides articles related to managing stress overload, how stress affects your health, the causes of stress, how nutrition can help you manage stress, and stress effects.

The main purpose of this site is to combat aging by providing information to help you live longer and “stay young forever.” This link takes you to an article that provides 5 ways to combat stress, many of which are already included in my list above.

Please be sure to leave me a comment about your favorite methods to manage stress. Hang in there this week!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Andantino Warning: Elephants Sneeze and Frogs Ribbit

Andantino is one of my favorite songs and a cinch to teach. I foreshadow the song by telling my students how quickly they will learn the song, and I hint at the stories to come that will accompany the song. I have two stories: one story stems from the words to the song from the Suzuki Pre-twinkle Book, and the other story is simply one that I made up to provide drama for the fermata in the last phrase of the song.

I do not have to teach much of the song, perhaps giving the starting note and a little guidance here and there when the student gets confused. About this point in a student’s learning, the parents begin to take a back seat – not because the child is able to take more responsibility for learning the song or because I have asked the parent to relax, but because the parent begins to feel overwhelmed by all that the child learns and how quickly the child progresses (if the parent has set up the learning environment well).

I begin to monitor closely how involved the parent is at this point. The child still needs the parent’s help and guidance at home, and especially the parent’s encouragement and enthusiasm. The learning may seem more complicated now from the parent’s perspective, and often the parent’s tendency is to abdicate more and more responsibility to the child, which in turn lays more and more work at the feet of the teacher during lessons as a result.

The child, however, is not ready for the parent to disappear. So, I make an effort to keep the parent involved here, even if it is to keep an eye on the student’s physical form. This is also a good time in the child's learning and development to check in with the parent's habits concerning daily practice, the listening program, and taking notes at lessons. I make a point of checking in with the parent to see that everything is running smoothly at this point and that we address any problems the parent has during home practices.

I do not have a formal system for doing this. I try to be subtle about it. I check in with casual questions here and there, and I pay attention to the parent's and student's behavior and attitude during lessons. If there are any problems in home practice sessions, there will be a negative spillover at lessons too or in public generally.

Andantino is the last song in what I refer to as the “intermediate” section of Suzuki Violin Volume 1. Next to follow will be the new finger pattern of G major, which will continue throughout volumes 2 and 3 in various forms.

Left Hand Skills
  • The song is in D major and uses the same finger pattern as the Twinkle Variations.
  • The song’s format is A-A1-B-A1 (with fermata and ritard in the last phrase).
  • There is an opportunity here to teach the student a fingering habit:
    • In the first measure, the notes are mainly on the D string. If the student uses the pinkie in the first measure, then all of the notes will remain on the D string and therefore maintain an even string tone “color.” 
Pinkie Fingering
    • Then the student will use the open A string in the third measure, as the notes continue onto the A string.
Open String Fingering
  • The song uses similar finger patterns at the ends of the first, second, and fourth phrases, but on different strings.
Phrase 1
Phrases 2 and 4
Right Hand Skills

  • The rhythmic bowing pattern is the opposite of Twinkle Variation C (“Cat Kitty, Cat Kitty” or “Pull Pony, Push Pony”). The rhythm is “Kitty Cat, Kitty Cat.” No, I do not use this illustration in order to advocate that we sing words to songs. I realize that there are folks who disapprove of this method, and I understand Dr. Suzuki did not support words to the songs. However, using a shorthand rhythmic designation is helpful to get everyone on the same page immediately. Parents quickly understand "Kitty Cat" versus "Cat Kitty."
  • The bowing accents in Andantino are the opposite of those learned in the previous song Allegretto. Rather than an accent on the third note of the three-note grouping, as Allegretto requires, Andantino has the rhythmic accent weight on the first note of the three-note grouping.
  • The song brings back the fermata that the student learned in Allegro, 3 songs earlier. This provides another opportunity to reinforce what a fermata is and how to play a ritard, which follows the fermata. I have one young student who added an additional flair to the last four notes to make the ending even cuter to his listeners.
Previews (How I Teach it)

There really is not much to teach. I might have to suggest the starting note for the song if a student has not figured it out by now. Maybe I will suggest a few notes to begin the phrase. At some point I guide the student into choosing the pinkie or open A string fingering, and we will discuss why we choose one fingering over the other.

I talk about string tone color to illustrate fingering choices. This may seem like a complex subject for a little child to understand. but I assure you that we will revisit the subject in the second song of Suzuki Violin Volume 5 (the Vivaldi A minor Concerto, 2nd movement). For now, I introduce the fingering concept and ask the student to execute the finger pattern as I instruct. My purpose is to build a fingering habit. We talk about the fingering choice, but I realize that I will have to discuss this several times more in future lessons and in repertoire to come before the fingering concept will formally stick.

We talk about the string tone sound in terms of color. Although I do not hear colors of notes or tone (I have absolute pitch), I have discovered that most of my students claim that an E string sounds “green” or “yellow.” The A string has a warmer color sound, such as “orange.” Since my students seem to recognize tonal colors, I use that language in my discussion of fingering choices.

We talk about how we paint the walls of our homes or businesses with one color. Seldom would we blotch a different color in the middle. So it is with string tonal colors. If we are playing on the D string color, we would avoid blotching our sound with a one-note open A string in the middle of our phrase if we could keep the same tone color by using the pinkie instead.

Believe it or not, many students fail to recognize that the open A string and the pinkie on the D string represent the same note A in music. Sometimes students do not recognize this until book 3.

I mentioned two stories that I refer to in my teaching of the song. The first story contains the lovely words found in the Pre-twinkle Book about elephants sneezing. If you do not own this book, I highly recommend it. Yes, I know all about the controversy concerning whether students should recite words when learning new songs, but sometimes it is just plain fun to sing a song when we learn it. I have been singing since I was a wee child and grew my love of music in this way. I say, why not encourage a love of music and singing by introducing song words? You can find a link to the song book here in my Teaching Suzuki Resource Store: click here.

The frog story is just a story about a lazy frog who is sunning himself in the middle of a pond on a lily pad. A pesky fly repeatedly circles the frog's head and interrupts the frog's pleasant nap in the sunshine on the lily pad in the middle of the lily pond. Somewhere around phrase three, the frog sparks an idea of how to get rid of the pesky fly, which follows the slowing, introspective meanderings of the third phrase of the song. Finally at the time the student reaches the fermata in the fourth phrase, the frog lashes out with a quick dart of its tongue ("ribbit, ribbit"), and the pesky fly is no more. The last ritarded notes of the song represent the frog's self-satisfaction. Silly, I know, but young children are fascinated by such stories, and we teachers love to perform all the characters!

Later Problems (or Just Later)

Later problems seem to include memory of form. Students may remember the finger patterns but forget which string to play the pattern. Students may forget to use the pinkies where I have instructed to use them. Sometimes students forget the fermata or the ritard.

I enjoy using Andantino at group classes for teaching musical phrasing. We practice asking questions (the antecedent part of the phrase) and giving answers (the consequent part of the phrase). This translates to two- and four-measure phrases and teaches students “spillover” phrasing (sustaining the musical line to extend the phrasing from two to four notes). To read my article about spillover phrasing (and Frank Sinatra), click here.

Other problems include incorrect rhythmic weighting in the phrase. If we combine this song with Allegretto, the student can practice the different styles in both songs. When I discussed Allegretto, I gave the illustration of karate punches in horse (“ready”) stance to give emphasis to the rhythmic weighting. That same exercise would work here with Andantino's special rhythmic weighting. Students can also practice the different rhythmic weighting in the songs Allegretto and Andantino by playing a special Twinkle Allegretto Variation or Andantino Variation in place of Twinkle Variation C.

Allegretto Twinkle Variation Rhythm 
Andantino Twinkle Variation Rhythm
The Suzuki duet for Andantino is lovely, and the part adds so much harmony to the melodic line.

I hope that you fall in love with Andantino and teaching the song as much as I have. I think it is a terrific song and fun to play! I look forward to teaching it when it occurs in a student's musical journey.

(Ribbit, ribbit!)

Next Stop: Preparing for Etude.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Monday Morning Check In: STRESS!

We have reached that season of the year when I devote a few posts related to combating the stress of the past year and renewing our spirit for the coming school season, which starts next month for many teachers and families. Today is the first such article to get the conversation flowing.

What is Stress?

Stress in and of itself is not a bad a thing. Stress is normal. Stress is a physical response to something that threatens or unbalances us in some way. For example, if we were faced with a fire in our home or an angry dog chasing after us, stress would be our body’s response to the danger. Stress causes our bodies to react rapidly to the situation with the stress response, or the “fight or flight” reaction. Stress is how we physically protect ourselves. With stress, we are able to focus our concentration and energy, gain additional strength, or move quickly.

Unfortunately, like most everything else in our lives, too much of a good thing is, well, not good. Too much stress in our lives will damage our health, our emotional well being, our relationships, and how well we do in the work situation. Also bad is the fact that stress can become a habit. We become inured to it; stress begins to feel familiar. We stop recognizing stress in its overloaded state, and so we embark on the dangerous stress road, which will wind ever tighter over time.

We respond to stress differently from one another as well. Some folks handle larger amounts of stressful events with little effort, while others need time and space to reflect. Others experience stress overload in a combination of both ways.

Warning Signs and Symptoms

We can categorize the warning signs and symptoms of stress into four categories: cognitive (intellectual), physical, emotional, and behavioral. Here are some common warning signs and symptoms:

Intellectual Problems:
  • Memory
  • Judgment
  • Negativity
  • Anxiety
  • Worry
  • Lack of concentration

Physical Problems:
  • Aches and Pains
  • Intestine Issues
  • Nausea, dizziness
  • Rapid pulse
  • Frequent colds or other illness

Emotional Problems:
  • Moodiness
  • Short temper
  • Keyed up physical state
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Isolated, lonely
  • Depression, unhappiness

Behavioral Problems:
  • Eating issues
  • Sleeping issues
  • Isolation
  • Procrastination
  • Neglecting responsibilities
  • Substance abuse
  • Nervous habits

Stress and Teachers

So how does stress affect teachers? Stress can result from workplace difficulties, such as demanding responsibilities or unpleasant relationships with co-workers. One unpleasant co-worker can make the workplace a very stressful environment for many other people. Along with workplace stress, there is also stress due to financial worries, seasonal deadlines, extracurricular job responsibilities such as before or after school music programs in addition to the regular school schedule, and a general unpleasantness in faculty meetings.

Stress can result from a long bout of an overcrowded schedule. As the school semesters near their end, teachers face special holiday or end-of-year programs and recitals. If a teacher also performs professionally with a symphony or other music organization, there are the added rehearsal and performance schedules to fit in with the day’s work responsibilities. As teachers prepare for the summer slow down in terms of income and students, many teachers add additional performance opportunities (weddings and other “gigs”), special workshops or summer camps, or new students. The summer slow down also provides additional financial stress for many teachers.

During the teaching year, teachers often suffer from financial stress because students and their parents may not pay tuition bills promptly, or families cancel lessons that provide expected income. Most teachers would prefer to teach rather than take on the role of comptroller or treasurer, so having to keep track of tuition payments as well as other financial record keeping responsibilities for the teacher’s studio business can provide additional stress.

When I closed my law practice to focus 100% on my teaching efforts, I had about $40,000 in accounts receivable that I would never receive. This is probably a typical expectation for most attorneys. I call this phenomenon the “cave syndrome.” Remember when you last visited a cave formation and were asked not to touch things inside the cave because doing so would destroy the natural beauty? Individually we think that just to touch one little thing will not cause much damage, and perhaps that is true. Unfortunately, most everyone who passes through the cave will think that, and pretty soon, all those finger touches and hand swipes add up into a mass of destruction. When clients paid off their bills, I noticed that when they got within $100 or so of paying off the final amount, that the clients often stopped paying the remaining balance. Perhaps the thinking was similar to the cave syndrome: “It’s such a small amount. Surely the attorney can absorb that amount.” Yes, the attorney probably can absorb that small amount, however, when various combinations of clients make the same decision, the attorney winds up with $40,000 of accounts receivable.

For those teachers who maintain their own private teaching studio business, financial stress also stems from the record keeping that is associated with running a self-employment business. I find this particular aspect of teaching to be very stressful as it requires a great deal of time and energy to maintain my records in a way that will be useful and efficient when I have to prepare my taxes. I must confess that this has been the most difficult thing for me as a private studio teacher. There are wonderful services available to us, such as www.musicteachershelper.com, but I still find the entire process time-consuming. I recently made the acquaintance of a dentist during my performance stint at a music festival in another town, and he told me that he works four days a week. He saves his fifth day for paperwork. He says he loses income with this method, but he gains peace of mind. I am seriously considering this idea for my own situation.

Other less obvious causes of teacher stress relate to students and their parents. I say that these are less obvious because they do not seem to occur to parents or students. Teachers are very familiar with the frustrations associated with students who come to lessons unprepared or parents who spend little or no time at home working to prepare their child for lessons. These two things are the most stressful things for teachers. Let us take a closer look at why this is. I will use my perspective.

My Story

Many of you have come to know me personally (and if you haven’t, why not leave me a comment?). For those who do not know me well, here is my story.

I am a highly skilled musician. I have been studying my instruments since I was three years old. I am now approaching my 57th birthday (yes, Mary Kay Ashe, a woman who will tell her age will tell anything, and so I shall), which means that I have devoted 54 years to my craft. I had parental role models that showed me the value of discipline and hard work and the love of things creative, such as music, art, and education. I love my parents for providing me with the gift of the love of learning and especially music. Without my parental support financially and at home in between lessons, I would not have had the most beautiful life of music and creativity. I have had a fabulous life, and it was a real treat for me to sit on the stage at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Theater and play for my Dad this past year and to spend time with him in New York in the days surrounding the event.

I am highly educated. I have an undergraduate and two post-graduate degrees. I have played in professional symphony orchestras since I was fifteen; my first job was with the Harrisburg Symphony while I was in high school. Yes, I auditioned and was accepted for the position. I have continued my education in music and teaching with the Suzuki Association of the Americas teacher training programs. I have continued my lifelong joy of learning by reading constantly, writing, and researching.

I have taught since 1976, when I was a freshman in college. I was blessed to have an excellent set of teachers: Helen Kwalwasser on violin and Marian Filar on piano at Temple University, along with several master teachers in various music subjects, such as my music history professor. I taught at a music store in New Jersey, and it was there that I was introduced to the Suzuki Method. The store owner may have been Japanese. He handed me Dr. Suzuki’s book Nurtured by Love, and he let me watch several lessons. Then the rest was up to me. Through the years thereafter, I continued my experiential research into the Suzuki Method. I read and practiced what I read. Since I came from a family of educators – mom taught primary school, and dad taught high school biology and later worked in the department of education (PA) as a science specialist in the field of biology – I knew how to teach.


My purpose in relating my background and education is to stress my experience and preparation for my profession as a teacher. When a parent contacts me for lessons for their child, I think two things:
  • The parent wants what is best for their child.
  • The parent thinks that my teaching experience and education is the best for their child.
Notice that I did not write things like:
  • The parent thinks that I am the most convenient teacher: i.e., that I am located within a reasonable driving distance, or have the most amenable schedule or lesson schedule openings.
  • The parent thinks that I have the best tuition rate: i.e., that I am the cheapest teacher in town.
  • The parent thinks that I give violin lessons, i.e., that I am just some generic music teacher, and that the parent has done a little homework to discover whether I have value to offer to the parent and their child.
No, I assume that when a parent contacts me about lessons that they have done a wee bit of research to discover whether I would be a good addition to the child’s development and education. And so I will be, if the parent and I are on the same page.

I have one expectation in my studio, and that is that new studio parents will attend my parent education course and learn how to be the best possible studio parent and home practice partner for the child. I give a ten hour course that covers serious subjects such as:
  • learning and parenting styles
  • how to teach effectively at home and avoid unhappy practice sessions
  • how to create a learning environment that motivates the child to learn
I am in the process of writing and filming this course so that other parents can benefit from the material. Every one of my parents has come away from the course with insight, knowledge, and necessary information to work effectively with the child at home and to help create the best possible learning environment.

However, this article is about stress and in particular, about stress as it relates to teachers. Too often teachers experience stress that stems from parents who do not fully embrace the role of a parent that supports the child’s learning and development. A parent who causes stress is a parent who:
  • Forgets to bring the child’s lesson materials (or does not plan for this contingency by checking whether the student has remembered to put the lesson materials in the book bag.
  • Forgets to check on whether the child is practicing, or in the case of younger children, forgets to actually practice with the child.
  • Forgets to plan or schedule lessons, practice sessions, or other activities related to lessons.
  • Creates masterful excuses as to why the parent should not play a role in the child’s learning.
  • Creates masterful excuses as to why the parent did not execute the teacher’s practice assignment, including the excuse of “I told him to practice, but [he didn’t],” as in “”it’s his fault, not mine {even though my child is 3 years old}.”
  • Thinks of music (violin) lessons as another activity that the parent can “throw “ at the child, in the hopes that the child will grow in development (in a good way): “We do not know what the child will excel at, so let’s just try lots of different things and see what sticks."

I am a follower of the Suzuki Way. I believe that everyone has talent and that ability stems from development and practice. Hence, I developed my parent course to teach parents to be better parents and teachers in the home.

But, this post started out as a post about stress. What does this diatribe have to do with stress?

Believe it or not, what I described to you above contributes to the “big disconnect” between parents and teachers. Recently I met with a wonderful teacher at a neighboring university about a young high school student I taught at a summer music camp. I had a great picture of the student’s potential, but the student’s private teacher told me a story that shed a different light, and this sort of thing is what causes teacher stress.

The student had a lot of potential. He needed a “kick in the pants.” Unfortunately, he was not getting the necessary kick in the tush. Oh yes, his teacher did what she could, but she received no help from the family support system. Even sadder, I learned that the child’s parent was a professional musician. I have to wonder about the psychological reasons that support the parent’s lack of “music parenting” for this child.

When a teacher faces yet another lesson with a student who has nothing to bring to the lesson, the teacher is faced with the decision to throw out the preconceived lesson plan, come up with a new plan “on the fly,” steel him- or herself to live through the half-hour or hour lesson with little energy flow in return for the teaching energy expended, and to face a parent who can justify the situation with whatever lame excuse. THIS CAUSES TEACHER STRESS!

Teaching should be a partnership, not just between the teacher and the student, but also between every other important adult in the child’s or student’s life. Usually that other adult is the parent, even though teenagers like to show different. So when there is no partnership, then the teacher experiences stress. By the time the summer begins, the teacher experiences a great deal of the effects of stress. It is time to regroup and re-evaluate.

This is why I go away for a few weeks in early August. I have performed with the Sunriver Music Festival in Oregon since 1984. I use this time as a personal retreat. I will leave on my retreat in two weeks, and I have great plans for my retreat agenda. This is my goal-setting time, when I recharge my batteries and reflect on the past year and what is to come. This is when I catch up with some of my paperwork that is related to the start of the university semester. This is when I sit on top of a mountain or beside a large ocean, and when I consider my small role in a larger universe. [This is also where I celebrate my birthday].

Please comment below about the areas of your life that cause you stress, especially as they relate to teaching or parenting. Everything we share with each other will help to grow all of us.

Next week on Monday Morning Check In: Ways to Combat Stress (or how to handle it).

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Monday morning Check In: 9 Vision Killers

Two weeks ago I wrote about visionary leadership and how to build a vision statement. Today I have a list of nine vision killers that will bring a visionary leader to his or her knees.

Tradition — “This is the way we’ve always done it.”

This is the structure built by always doing things the same way and resisting opportunities to try new things. Tradition can be a comfort in times of distress or sorrow, as it provides a familiar framework when all else around us seems to be in turmoil. The problem with tradition is that it can lead to stagnant thinking, a lack of creativity, and ennui in general.

Fear — “Everyone will laugh at my idea or think it’s silly.”

Fear may be more than just a fear of ridicule. It could also be a fear of failure (“What if I can’t do it?”) and even a fear of success (“My life will go crazy if this works out. Am I ready for that?”). This is a big topic and deserves big consideration. There may be many psychological forces at work, and we may find many closets of emotional and historical baggage that need clearing out.

Gatekeepers — “I won’t let you do this unless you do _____ first.”

Ever notice how someone with a small territory sets up a huge gate to go through before you can receive assistance? When I worked as an attorney, I often encountered people who had small “kingdoms” and who had set up large castle gates and moats as the price of admission into the castle. I found this attitude in file clerks, lower level paralegals or secretaries, and even university professors whose work load had been reduced by the administration. In fact the smaller the territory, the larger the admission fee in many cases.

Naysayers — “It will never work. You can’t do that.”

Just as we suffer through our own personal or individual list of vision killers, so do others. Someone else’s tradition or fear could impact our vision by spreading an atmosphere of doom and gloom or a cloud of negativity. Nothing is more exhausting than having to navigate around a negative rock in the middle of the stream or a wet puddle in the middle of the road. Naysayers eat up our time and energy by causing us to deal with negative "what ifs" and debilitating "you can'ts."

Complacency — “If it ain’t broke, why fix it?”

Nothing is wrong with complacency per se, but if we learn to rest in the armchair of complacency on a regular basis, then it will become harder over time to wake up and spring into action in new directions. The self-satisfaction of complacency often lulls us into ignoring deficiencies. We may rest on our laurels on occasion, but we should limit the amount of time we do so. It would be better to allow a rest for a time, but then to schedule a time to “wake up” and check in lest we become couch potatoes in our thinking.

Fatigue — “I’m too tired.”

Fatigue is weariness or exhaustion caused by labor, exertion, or stress. We also use this word to describe the tendency of metal or other material to break when repeatedly placed under stress. Fatigue can result from poor lifestyle choices and habits, such as overeating, lack of exercise, or substance abuse. Fatigue can also result from a stressful lifestyle caused by over scheduling, emergencies, and negative relationships or home environments. Without proper rest, nutrition, proper attention to physical needs (e.g., exercise), and reflection, we run the risk of fatigue.

Burnout — “I don’t care anymore.”

Burnout is a very real possibility for anyone in a service profession: family law attorneys, teachers, nurses, and general practitioners, for example. If special attention is not given to the warning signs, then burnout is a real possibility. I suffered from this affliction several decades ago, and I found it very difficult to move forward. Burnout looks much like depression. Fortunately at the time I had this problem, I happened to attend a continuing legal education workshop, and one of the speakers at the workshop presented on the topic of burnout. Once I learned what the problem was, I was able to follow certain steps that afforded me relief and allowed me to find my joy again.

Short-Term Thinking — “I want it now. I’ll worry about that later. “

Short-term thinking is the failure to consider how our choices today will impact our lives tomorrow. Short term thinking by itself without a balancing with long term goals and thinking will lead us into more trouble due to short-sightedness.

The above list may is not exhaustive, nor are the items on this list necessarily or inherently bad. My purpose in making this list was to provide items that can kill a vision if we do not pay attention. We have a message – our vision – and we need to pay attention to anything that may kill our vision.

Are there any items on this list that resonate with you?

Friday, July 13, 2012

Teaching Allegretto

Teaching this song is tricky if the student has not figured any of the notes on his or her own. I have not yet figured out what the secret is, although I strongly lean in favor of the need for more listening to the song’s recording. I have students who struggle to learn the notes and to recall the song’s structure, and then I have students who figure out all the notes and can even play the song beginning on a different string. As always when I encounter a learning struggle with a Suzuki repertoire song, I encourage the home practice partner to play the song’s recording many, many times at home so that the student’s environment is saturated with it.

Another teaching aid is to line up the song so that the song’s phrases begin together. For example, each one of Allegretto’s phrases begins with two eighth note pickups. I have a copy of the music where I pasted the four song phrases on a separate sheet of paper with the phrase pick up notes lined up. I made this study copy for the benefit of the parents, not the students. Most parents do not yet understand about phrases at this point, so I find that this special study copy is an easier visual representation of the music when it is in this form.

Along with this altered representation of the song, I have written another version that includes just the finger numbers. I am not a big fan of this method at all, although I know that there are many books out there with this style of fingering included. If I were to give this fingering rendition to a parent, I would have them take a vow that they would not allow their child to use it. On occasion though, I have allowed a student who was really, really struggling with the song to use it on condition that the student uses it for only one week. I confess that sometimes this is the only way for some students to figure this out. Allegretto is just such a tricky song for some students.[1]

If I have to teach the student to help the student learn Allegretto, these are the general steps that I follow:
  • I play the first few notes D-E-F# and have the student play the same notes back to me.
  • I play the next three notes F#-A (pinkie)–G.
  • I play G-B-A, A-G-F#.
  • I send the student home to practice just these 12 notes this week. The student also does some review work on the home practice assignment sheet.

From that point on, I watch to see what happens. I help tweak the amount of listening to the song that the student does, and help to guide the student to figure out the remaining notes of the first part of the song.

The song has four phrases and follows the form: A-A1-B-A1. Because the song phrases are so similar, and also so confusing, I recommend that the student only practice the first phrase of the song until the student has mastered that part. Of course, students will move ahead at home, but I find that when they return to their lesson, they are still confused between the two A section parts. That is the reason that I recommend focusing on one part at a time. When I do have a student who is trying to differentiate the two A section parts, I suggest to the student and parent that the homework assignment be limited to the first two phrases of the song.

Finally, the student is able to play both the first and second phrases. Then we work on the third phrase, which starts out with a skip and a step backwards.

We hop our first finger into the mud puddle on the G string, and then the finger jumps back out of the puddle to land on the D string.

I have listed a lot of detail here about teaching the song, but in actuality, I try not to teach very much of the song because it is so confusing to students. Sometimes a teacher’s or parent’s well-meant help actually distracts or confuses the student. The best thing that we teachers and parents can do is to play the recordings A LOT, and to allow the student the necessary room to experiment and figure out the notes without our assistance, our words, or our interference. That, and keep the learning segments short, sweet, and to the point. Whenever a student comes to lesson and is confused, I send the student home with an assignment that is shorter by half. If the student struggles with differentiating between the first two phrases, then I assign only the first phrase. If the student struggles with the first phrase, then I send the student home with the first 12 notes (half of the phrase).

Most of all, I just do not sweat it. No pressure on the student or the parent. The song will happen when the student is ready for it to happen. I think the hardest aspect of teaching this song is for the teacher and parent to be patient and wait for the student. I find as many opportunities as I can to work on aspects of the song outside of lessons. In group classes, we might have other students play the song. I might play the song recording while the student is getting his or her violin ready to play. I might play through the song myself for the student at the end of the student’s lesson. In other words, I reinforce the listening and the visual presentation for the student. Usually the learning issues clear up with the extra listening assignment at home.

Next stop will be Andantino, another dessert song! (It’s a piece of cake!).

[1] We also use this fingering style when trying to quickly learn songs for a Christmas performance. In the ideal situation, we would have plenty of time to learn how to play all of our songs by ear. However, in reality, often times we prepare for a show in a minimal amount of time, and some of the younger students really want to participate in more than one song, hence, the fingering shortcut idea to learn how to play Christmas songs. True to the Suzuki way, however, these same students quickly learn and then memorize the songs, so that these fingering study copies are rendered unnecessary after the students learn the songs.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Monday Morning Check In: The Latrine List

I had an inspiration the other day to create something called the "Latrine List."

Oh, I got your attention? Let me explain.

I attended girl scout camp when I was age 9 or 10, and we were assigned to do certain chores. Most of the chores were assigned with a random factor involved. As a teacher I have come to appreciate how effective the seductive element of randomness and chance can be. I regularly set up a situation involving a spinner or dice. The lesson or skill assignment does not change, but how the student approaches the practice situation does alter depending on the surprise result of the spinner or dice. In this manner, the girl scout camp counselors set up an element of chance in how chores were assigned. If there were eight students at the dinner table, there would be five chores that five students would complete at the end of each meal. That left the chance that three of the students would not have to perform any chore.

There was also the chore assignment of being the "hopper.' This job assignment was to scrape off all the leftovers from the plates after the meal ended and prepare the plates and utensils for washing. The regular chores were set up so that the students would have to pick a popsicle stick out of a coffee can that contained eight sticks, 1 for each camper at the table. Five of the sticks had chores written on them, while three sticks were empty of any chore assignment. Three students would luck out of doing meal time chores. The camper who elected to be the "hopper" was automatically exempt from other after meal chores. Another chore was to be the server. The server would get up and down throughout the meal and bring the food stuffs from the kitchen to the table. Like the hopper, the server was exempt from other after meal chores.

I always volunteered to be the hopper, because I enjoyed being finished with my chore at the same time that the meal ended. That freed me up to play the piano in the corner of the mess hall while the other students finished washing and drying dishes. I was amused to see how many other campers were more interested in taking a chance that they would pick the empty chore stick and not have to do any after meal chores. I would wonder to myself why these same students did not just volunteer to be the server or the hopper and be assured of finishing early. I still wonder about this.

There were other camp chores that involved washing floors and cleaning several public areas. Students could also volunteer to clean the latrines. Most students elected to pass up the latrine chore because of the odors. Not only was there the lovely aroma of the outhouse in general, but the camp provided PineSol® as the cleaner. The combination of odors on a hot day was truly memorable! I volunteered to do latrine cleaning duty because that would exempt me out of other chores I did not particularly enjoy, such as sweeping out certain rooms that were notorious for offering shelter for neighborly spiders and other crawly critters. Nope, the latrine was for me!

I thought of those things I have collected on my to-do list, and I realized that there are several things that I really enjoy doing. And, there are some things that just need to be done but that I would prefer I could hire out. I have decided to group these things I do not want to do onto a separate list that I will call "The Latrine List," and I will commit to completing at least one Latrine List item per week. I might take an entire week to complete one item, because I might choose to do the task in short intervals (10 minutes seems reasonable).

By naming this list with such a funny name, I hope to generate humor, which I hope in turn will spur me on with an extra jolt of current to tackle one of those tasks per week. Just as I chose the latrine and the hopper chores in order to free up my time for something I enjoyed, so I hope that creating and tackling the Latrine List will give me some additional piece of mind and free up my time (and my cluttered home and studio).

Who wants to join me on this?

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Allegretto: The Dragon

One of my favorite songs in Suzuki Violin Volume One is Allegretto, written by Dr. Suzuki. Allegretto was not always my favorite; oh no, we had a difficult relationship together for quite awhile. Over time and as I became more and more familiar with the song and the various difficult skill bits for students, I came to understand and appreciate the song's complexity and how to teach the song to students.

Whenever students tell me that they do not like a song they are about to learn or have just started learning, I usually tell the students that their reactions to the song tell me that they will probably come to love the song, and that the song will become one of their favorites after a time. Students usually come back to me with similar reports after spending some time learning the song. Students may announce their dislike of Allegretto to me but later find that they enjoy playing the song quite a bit. Allegretto was one such song for me as well. The song may be a dragon to learn, but we can come to appreciate and enjoy the beauty of the dragon as well, and when we spend time in close proximity to it, we will become accustomed to the heat as well.

Why is the song so difficult for students? There are several culprits:
  • two new "fat" strings to play on
  • a new note on the "fattest" string
  • a pinkie on a lower string
  • a new pinkie fingering combination
  • fingers that skip in thirds rather than walk in steps
  • an awkward bow accent.
How is that for starters? Here are a few of my goals at this point in order to ease the student's learning pathway.

Play on Lower Strings

I start the Allegretto learning process while we are still a few songs away from beginning Allegretto. By this point I have encouraged the student to play previous repertoire on lower strings. For example, instead of playing Twinkle theme on the E and A strings, now the student will play Twinkle theme on the A and D strings, or the D and G strings. We continue in this manner, adding songs on different strings until the student can play any song on a different string.

We learned the A major one octave scale earlier in volume one, so now we add the D scale. The finger patterns are the same. For fun, we often add the lower octave of the G scale as well. This prepares the student for the longer two octave G scale that will introduce the finger patterns of Etude.

Both of these activities are great items for group classes as well as individual lessons and home practice.

Awaken the Pinkie

I have introduced the left pinkie several times by now. When I teach a pre-twinkle student, I introduce a left hand plucking exercise that involves the pinkie (to read more about the left hand plucking exercise, click here). So my youngest beginner has experienced the use of the pinkie since the early days. We may need to revisit this exercise at this point. I also have the student play six pinkie places in Perpetual Motion. In the revised volume one, there are additional pinkie fingering suggestions in the early songs of the book, although I prefer to wait to teach these additional fingerings until later because I want my students to learn about string crossings and building tone through the use of the resonant open strings for a time.

Train the Ears

Since Lightly Row, I have worked to strengthen the student's ability to recognize several basic ear training skills, not only in lessons, but also in group classes. I often make up new songs on the spot in group classes so that we can practice our ear training skills:

  • Walking Fingers: These are scale-like passages where the notes ascend or descend by step. Students have a great deal of difficulty with the concept of ascending and descending pitch when it involves a string crossing. Some students "get it" but many do not without extra guidance from me.
  • Skipping Fingers (aka "doorbells" or "cuckoos"): These are passages that contain interval skips of a third, such as the opening notes of Lightly Row or O Come Little Children.
  • Patterns: These can be passages of rhythmic or melodic patterns. For example, the opening notes of the first two measures of Lightly Row are melodic and rhythmic patterns. Measures 7, 8, and 9 of Song of the Wind are melodic patterns.
Allegretto will involve all of the above, which is why students are sometimes so confused when they first learn it. For example, the first three notes are walking fingers, but then there is an ascending skip and a step backwards, and it involves a pinkie too! Then the rhythmic and melodic pattern is repeated but a step higher, and then we reverse the walking fingers down. Why, it is no small wonder to me that many teachers and parents come up with nonsensical words to make the process easier to remember. Sometimes I just want to tear my hair out! I cannot imagine what a parent must go through at home as they watch the child struggle to puzzle out what they hear on the recording with what the child can match on the instrument.

The best advice I can give parents is to make sure to play the recording a lot at home. I mean a lot! When a parent saturates the child's environment with Allegretto, the child will learn the song much quicker.

Stimulate the Rhythmic Pulse

Allegretto has a great rhythmic pulse: tah-tah-DUM, tah-tah-DUM, etc., which propels forward melodically, similar to our natural physical rhythm. At first, the student has to focus attention most on the melodic elements of the song, and so the rhythm may suffer while the student masters the finger patterns and notes. For more information about useful ways to teach rhythmic chunks, click here. For another practice tip idea that focuses on the work of Ševčík and how it can be applied to Allegretto, click here.

While a student learns Allegretto, I may focus on karate punching practice in group class. My students seem to enjoy my mixture of martial arts with music (we have a martial arts studio next door, and I have studied Kim Soo Karate). We stand in "horse stance" or ready stance and practice throwing karate punches, first with the right hand and then the left in time to the accents of Allegretto (on the quarter notes). Not only do we get a physical workout, we get a rhythmic lesson as well!

Stay tuned for an in-depth look at how I analyze and approach Allegretto specifically.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Monday Morning Check In: Visionary Leaders

Buzz words. Business is full of them, and they change constantly. Two sets of buzz words have been with us for awhile, and I want to talk about them today: leadership and vision statements.

I think we are all pretty clear on what a leader is. Even if the leader is not a very good one, we still understand the concept of leadership, that a leader is someone who gets others to follow him or her in a good or bad direction. How we become better leaders is a lifelong pursuit of knowledge and understanding, and I certainly have not come up with all the definitive answers.

We also understand that we need leaders in order to move forward, to make progress, to inspire, to motivate, and to set an example. We need followers too, but that is a discussion for another Monday Morning Check In.

Teachers are leaders. Parents, you are also teachers, so count yourself in the teacher group too. Not only are teachers the leaders of the next generation (and beyond), but they are also leaders of the current generation, including colleagues and members of the larger social circle. Teachers can potentially influence and lead an exponential number of people. The big question is: how do we teachers become the best possible leaders that we can be?

“What you see is what you can be.” John Maxwell wrote this in The Maxwell Daily Reader. Mr. Maxwell refers to our potential. What can we see about ourselves? What is our vision?

I agree with Mr. Maxwell that a vision comes first in order for a good leader to emerge. “People do what people see.” In order to motivate others, a leader must have a vision, be willing to implement that vision, and be able to communicate effectively about how to follow the vision. The leader must be responsible for how the vision grows and communicate his or her passion about the vision’s importance to others. The leader must pursue the vision wholeheartedly and inspire others to join the journey.

How do you develop or find a vision suitable for a visionary leader? That is the stuff of vision statements. Do not be confused between mission statements and vision statements, because these terms differ from each other. Although both refer generally to organizations, the terms can also be applied in an individual context as well. As defined by James Manktelow and the MindTools™ website, mission statements generally define a company’s purpose and primary objectives and are designed for an organization’s internal perspective and for measuring how the company will define its success.

A vision statement on the other hand looks externally. Like a mission statement, a vision statement also includes a purpose, but the statement focuses more on values and beliefs as the vision statement defines how things will be done. A mission statement will just sum up your SMART goal statements (for more about SMART goals, click here). A vision statement will sum up your beliefs and values about how you achieve your goals. A good leader will be remembered by the quality of his or her vision.

Here are three steps to build a vision statement:

  • Determine what your mission is and what value your mission has for others. This is the part where you incorporate your beliefs and values into a framework that will reveal your future as you dream it.
  • Determine what others will value most about how you accomplish your mission. What is the best that others will remember or appreciate when you accomplish your mission? Your mission may never end; the vision itself of what is possible may be something that generations to come will aspire to carry on.
  • Sum up the above items and write out your vision statement in words that will inspire, energize, and motivate others.
I have always thought that teaching and music were my spiritual gifts. I have spent my entire life working to develop the expertise and ability to do well in both areas. In the past decade, and more specifically in the last few years, I have given a great deal of consideration to my mission and my vision. Dr. Suzuki's vision was that every child can learn. I believe that statement. I truly do.

What I also truly believe is that we teachers (and that includes parents too) and how we teach children have an enormous impact on how easily and well a child will learn. We can be stumbling blocks, disinterested spectators, and tired babysitters instead of effective, inspiring, and nurturing teachers. I know this because I see it everywhere. I hear from teachers everywhere who desire to learn more about how to guide the teacher's studio parents more effectively. I talk with other teachers about problems that arise in the teaching process, and many of these problems have little if anything to do with how to play the musical instrument!

I see parents who are without effective parenting skills, and they are publicly scolding their children or goading the children into obeying or following senseless (from the child's perspective) commands. I see parents who appear to be indifferent to their children and how their children will grow up, because the parents are so busy away from the home that they seldom interact effectively with their children in the home.

Parenting may not be easy. Every family has its own challenges and "growth spurts." I understand how difficult it must be for parents everywhere to be effective parents and teachers to their children. As a teacher who interacts frequently and intimately with this parent-child learning process, I have many observations to offer, knowledge to suggest, and expertise to share. I want to create a better world in which children will thrive and in which parents will enjoy the learning process with their children as much as I do.

Dr. Suzuki had his vision that every child could learn, and his mission was to develop the whole child into a fine human being with a fine heart.

My vision is that every child can learn and that I can equip parents and teachers to make that learning road as smooth as it can be. My mission is to build the best possible connection between the parent and the child in the parent-child relationship and to inspire other teachers to do the same.

What is your vision?