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Sunday, September 30, 2012

Monday Morning Check In: Are you a Balcony or Basement Person?

Recently a new acquaintance of mine went to a coaching session with a teacher that she had been working with for some time. At the last session, and this will be the last session my acquaintance assures me, the teacher said really negative things, such as that my new friend will fail.

I do not know where I first read about this, but I have carried the idea with me for many long years, that there are two basic types of people when it comes to relationships with others: Balcony and Basement people. I think it is important to understand what both types of people are and to recognize which type of person you meet. I will let you decide whether you want to stay in the company of one or the other; your choice may bear some additional reflection if you are not making the obvious choice.

Balcony people are those folks in our lives who wave handkerchiefs and pendants from the balcony. They cheer us as we pass by in the parade of life, shouting "hurrah" and "well done!" and other warm and fuzzy words of encouragement to spur us on to achieve even greater milestones in our lives and professions. Balcony people serve one purpose -- one mission in our lives, if you will -- and that is to applaud our efforts. Even if these people are also our teachers, they serve to encourage rather than discourage.

Courage. I would like to digress for a moment to talk about the difference between those two words. "Encourage" and "discourage" both have the same word root "courage." Courage is defined by Google as "the ability to do something that frightens one." Dictionary.com defines it as "the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc., without fear." This is admirable, yes? So how does the addition of two or three additional letters to the front of this word root change the meaning?

Encourage. The word preface "en" when added to "courage" changes the word to mean "give support, confidence, or hope" or to "give support and advice to (someone) to do or continue something." (Google) "Encourage" is defined by Thefreedictionary.com as "to inspire with hope, courage, or confidence; hearten."

Discourage. The preface "dis" when added to "courage" means to subtract the word root. Google defines discourage as causing someone "to lose confidence or enthusiasm." My favorite part of Google's definition is to "prevent or seek to prevent (something) by showing disapproval or creating difficulties."

So while encourage means to add courage, the word discourage means to take it away. These are the two types of people we generally encounter on our life's journey, yes? Those who want to build a relationship and connection with us and those who work to build distance between us. Those who embolden and those who deter. And I can tell you which of the two I would prefer to hang around with.

I do not even have to figure out why someone is one type or the other. This may be an interesting exercise in psychology, but to me it has no relevance or usefulness. I do not care why someone is one type or the other, although I might generate more pity for one or the other if I understood the causes or reasons.

Basement people pull people into the dungeons with them. They pull at your ankles and use every psychic trick they can get away with to drag you down into the basement of your mind. They do not wave flags or streamers. Instead they throw rotten fruit, or mark your papers with a heavy red pencil, or make subtle and oh-so-seemingly-innocent remarks that cause you to question your resolve and your purpose.

I heard a story once about a student who got an opportunity to take a lesson with a well respected musician and performer. This student was so excited, that he worked very hard to produce the best possible lesson material that the student could. When the student finished playing for the famous man, the teacher proceeded to tear the student's presentation to shreds with harsh comments and arrogant remarks. The student made a note of everything that this teacher had to say and then asked sweetly in return, "Is there anything else you can teach me today?"

Well, if I had been that teacher, I would have been embarrassed enough to sink to the floor. And I say "bravo!" to that student for having the wherewithal to ask that question, although I suspect this particular teacher was too far "over the edge" for the question to even register.

The next step for a student or person who is faced with a vision killer [for more about vision killers, read the article here] is to exercise the internal locus of control, another future post topic. For now, here are some words to describe Balcony and Basement people. Your assignment this week is to decide which type of person you are and which type of person you would like to be. Then work to adopt more of the qualities of the person you would like to be. At the same time, review the list of people that you spend time with and decide which type of person they are. Is there a way to spend more time with the Balcony people and less with the Basement people?

Here are some examples of the types of words and emotions that Balcony and Basement people favor:

Balcony People
Basement People
You can do it
You will never do this
Let me tell you how I know you will do this
Let me tell you why I know you will fail

So which person are you? Which person do you want to be? What types of people do you spend the most time with? Do you need to make changes?

Have a great week! You cannot see me, but I am standing on my balcony and waving my right arm á la Montel Williams and shouting "whoop! whoop! whoop! Carry on!"

Twinkles Week

The first lessons of a new month occur next week as we head into October. So I hearby declare that next week is Twinkles Week.

I ask all of my students to review Twinkles with me. I have reminded them that we will do this during their lessons this past week. For some of my young students, that is what we are working on anyway, but for my older students, this will involve a revisit down Twinkle Lane.

I listen for all sorts of things in my students' sound and playing depending on the level of maturity and advancement. For example, I would expect much more sophisticated use of the bow in a book 6 student than a book 1 student.

Here is an article I wrote previously about the types of things that I look for when playing Twinkles: Twinkle Points.

Other possible challenges for more advanced students could include using vibrato, playing in higher positions, transposing the song into different keys, starting up bow, playing spiccato or sautillé.

For younger students who can already play the Twinkle Variations straight through, I look to see that the main teaching points are still in place. If a book 1 student is getting near to book 2, then I watch that the student is beginning to incorporate more bow usage. If the student can play each of the Twinkle Variations individually but not as a whole, then I work to see if we can play through the first two or three variations without a break. Eventually my first mini-goal will be to play through variations A-C without stopping, but this may take a few lessons before the student has built up the stamina necessary to do this. Once the student has passed the variations A-C hurdle, I generally find that the student can then play through all the Twinkle Variations without problems.

Also for my book 1 violin students, I teach them how to play the variations along with the piano accompaniment. This is difficult for some students and takes a few lessons to master.

Let me know about some of your favorite ways to practice, review, or use the Twinkle Variations.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Interview with Sue Hunt: Review - Making it Fun, Gets the Job Done

I have been spending a lot of time thinking about and discussing the importance of review. I thought I would talk to an expert. Let me introduce you to my friend Sue Hunt, from England. Sue and I spent some time talking in the middle of the summer on the eve of the Olympics. I found it interesting that Sue was leaving England just as the Olympics were about to start in her country.

Sue: I’ve been attending the American Suzuki Institute since 1999, and I had already registered and paid for flights before I heard the Olympics were happening in the same fortnight. Actually it was much healthier to be practicing, rushing to classes and using my brain, than lying slothfully in front of the telly, thinking, “If only I were younger.” Luckily I came back home in time for the Para Olympics, which I found really inspiring. These young athletes truly embody Suzuki’s belief that Every Child Can.

I try to get to the American Suzuki Institute at Steven's Point, Wisconsin every year for some teacher training.  This year I took another opportunity to review Book One.  As usual, the place was buzzing with enthusiastic families, so there were lots of opportunities to observe the dynamics in teaching and practice sessions.  A special treat for the trainees was a series of three Skyped lectures on how the brain learns by Robert Duke from his studio in Texas.  I can tell you, I've come home bursting with information.

Paula: You have come out with a new book recently that addresses the issue of review. What caused you to write about review as a topic?

Sue: I think that FRUSTRATION is the mother of invention. When my two children were small, I didn’t see the point of playing old repertoire every day. We did it, racing through the easy ones, avoiding Twinkle like the plague, and having tantrums (mostly parental ones) over the bits that always went wrong. Over the years, I have met many families who find review as difficult as we did, and after years of creating review charts that never got used, I decided to do something about the problem.  Review – Making it Fun, Gets the Job Done is the child of my frustration.

Paula: Where did you get your ideas about what to focus on concerning review?

Sue: I published a survey online, to find out what really bothered parents and teachers about review and was overwhelmed by the response. Teachers were bewailing the fact that parents didn’t understand the importance of review. Parents were just as upset that their children didn’t take it seriously. They both reported boredom, lack of focus, rushing, lack of motivation, and memory lapses. A lack of communication came into it. Teachers blamed parents for not paying attention during lessons, and parents blamed teachers for not giving adequate instructions.

It seems that both teachers and parents have done everything in the book from nagging to charts, stickers, games, and rewards. Nothing seems to work for any length of time. It seems that everyone is desperate for a quick fix.

We are often told that review is the cornerstone of the Suzuki Method because of all the benefits that it brings, but we are not told in simple terms how to do it. When I was helping my two through their practice, we were told to review everything every day, which meant, as far as I was concerned, keep the pieces up to scratch. This became more stressful as we progressed through the books and the repertoire became larger. Charts looked huge. I think that giving a review chart to a parent can be very daunting, and I know that some of my families have been totally fazed by them. When a child clearly wasn’t reviewing, this is the first thing I would do, and I was always disappointed by the lack of ticked pieces at the next lesson. Some parents even moaned, “Oh no, not another chart!”

Paula: I know some of your background as a Suzuki parent before you became a teacher may have had an impact on your teaching philosophy. Would you mind sharing some of that history with us?

Sue: I was fortunate to grow up in Bermuda.  The only fly in the ointment was that I desperately wanted to learn the violin and at the time, there were no teachers on the island.  By the time I came to school in England at the age of 17, I was told that I was too old and should learn the viola.  It was love at first sight and within 18 months, I got accepted into music college only to be given to the worst teacher I have ever met.  That was that, till my children came along and I wanted to give them the chance I never had.  This is where Suzuki came into my life with violin, viola, and cello lessons for all of us.  It took me many years before I understood that the Suzuki Method is not about producing virtuoso instrumentalists, but about nurturing the whole child. I must have made every mistake in the book while trying to help them practice.  Ooh, the tantrums and parental meltdowns!  Well, in spite of everything, we have all survived, and I am the proud mother of two lovely, kind, and capable young adults.

Once I began to understand the philosophy of the Suzuki Method, I started to take teacher training courses at the American Suzuki Institute in Stevens Point, Wisconsin and with the British Suzuki Institute in Scotland.  I became fascinated with the way we learn and the ways in which parents can optimize their children's education.  You could say that my mission in life is to help other parents to avoid the mistakes I made and to help them to enjoy the musical journey they are taking with their children.

Paula: Tell us how your book about review came to be.

Sue: I'm insatiably curious about what works and what doesn't and why.  Yes, I'm always the one with my hand in the air, asking too many questions in class.  I love experimenting and finding out what makes things tick.  My new ebook Review - Making it Fun, Gets the Job Done is the product of this curiosity.  Why, when we are told that children like doing things that they can do well, are so many children and parents bored by review?  What can we do to make the job fun?

Paula: Who would benefit from your book?

Sue: I wrote my new ebook for:
  • Parents who feel that they are progressing too slowly
  • Parents and children who are bored with the old easy pieces
  • Parents and children who don't understand the point of review
  • Teachers who are having trouble with parents not understanding instructions
  • Parents who need help with specific review tasks for each piece
  • Anyone whose children rush thoughtlessly through review
  • Everyone who is fed up with review charts
  • Parents who don't understand what the teachers want them to practice
Paula: What kinds of topics or activities does your book cover?

Sue: My book contains ideas about why, how, and where to review along with ideas for fun focus. The operative words are focus, fun, and games, no matter how crazy. I'd like to quote Maria Montessori, who said, "Play is the motivation for the child's work."  Although we tend to think of work and play as opposites, they are most effective when they are brought together.  Games give lots of opportunities to practice lightning fast refocusing, as well as giving micro breaks in concentration.

The tools I included for getting review done include:
  • Focus Cards for all pieces in books 1 through 3
  • Review Priority Cards for all pieces in books 1 through 3 (so that parents can see how the bow circles in Song of the Wind lead to Gossec Gavotte and why Twinkle variation C is important for Allegretto and Andantino)
  • Over 100 Variations on Twinkle and Perpetual Motion to use as previews for new pieces
  • Review Challenge Games
Paula: Your new review ebook is not your first publication. Tell us what other books you have created.

Sue: When my children were learning music, my biggest challenge was how to make it fun and focused without forcing the issue.  We were inspired by a friend who turned everything into a game.  If you listen carefully to gifted teachers, they will use colorful metaphors and games to engage all of the senses.  It's enhanced deep focus that we are looking for. We learn more when we pay attention.  It is in human nature to engage with activities that are enjoyable.  We all need to cultivate the art of making practice fun. There is a wonderful sign up offer that will explain how to use games. You can find the offer at: http://www.musicinpractice.com.

Paula: If anyone wishes to contact you for more information, where should they email you?

Sue: I can be reached at info@musicinpractice.com.

Paula: Thanks, Sue, for taking the time to connect with us and tell us about your new book. I am sure that there are other teachers besides me and other parents who could use some help with a review program. Please check out Sue's new book: Review - Making it Fun, Gets the Job Done. For more information about the new book, visit Sue's website at: http://musicinpractice.com.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Teaching Tip: Using “Italian” Vibrato for Speed and Control

I have written several posts previously related to vibrato. Here is another exercise to help a student build up speed and control. I call it “Italian” vibrato because of the lyrics, but the lyrics could just as easily relate to something else. For now, my Italian lyrics are easy for me to remember.

Here are the previous posts I wrote concerning how to teach vibrato:

Once a student can perform the vibrato motions, it is time to build up speed, and with the building up of speed the student gains greater control over the vibrato. Some caveats before I begin.

1. Start on the A String. I generally practice vibrato exercises on the A string for several reasons. I think the hand placement and finger usage on the A string are less stressful all around than practicing on the D and G strings, although those can be future exercises. But, for learning how to do this exercise, I anticipate that the student will be spending a great deal of time on this exercise on a daily basis, and therefore I would wish the student to perform the exercise on the least stressful string area. The E string is fraught with difficulties in that it requires extreme vigilance that the left hand remains at the correct height, and I find that students may not be as vigilant about this matter as I am. So, I ask my students to stick to the A string.

2. Begin with the Ring Finger. I ask my students to begin with the ring (third) finger. As I stated in previous posts, for some reason this finger seems to be the “smartest” concerning vibrato movements. Perhaps it is because it has the best potential arch and springiness in the joints and finger shape. The middle or second finger might also be good since it is a strong finger, but sometimes students have difficulty letting the middle finger joints be loose and easy enough for good vibrato motion. The index finger in its “square” position is a tense posture, and generally most students have difficulty doing vibrato with this finger for this reason. The pinkie finger is the weakest finger, so I save this finger for later, sometimes encouraging the student to try vibrating with both the ring and pinkie fingers together. Sometimes this works for me and sometimes not.

3. Perform Vibrato Without Assistance. The student must be able to perform the vibrato motion in first position without any crutches or external aids. If the student must still rest the wrist against the violin shoulder and perform the vibrato movement in fourth position, then the student is not ready to reap the benefits of this exercise. Once the student is able to perform vibrato, even slowly, in first position, then I think it is time to introduce this exercise.

4. Use Two-Tone Vibrato. The vibrato movement should produce the sound of two pitches, or two-tone vibrato as Ed Kreitman (Teaching from the Balance Point) calls it. Therefore, if I vibrate the note D in first position on the A string, my vibrato should alternate between D and the C# that is one-half step below D. One good reason for using the following exercise is to help the student to maintain the full range of vibrato motion between the two tones. Because the exercise starts with the slowest speed, the teacher and student can monitor whether the student is correctly performing the exercise.

5. Watch out for Things that Will Hinder Vibrato. I watch for certain things in addition to listening for the correct vibrato width of two tones:
  • Squeezing Violin Hold: I look to see if the student is squeezing the violin neck in any way between the left hand thumb and fingers. If there is any squeezing, it is usually between the base of the index finger and the thumb. I ask the students to “unhook” the hand or index finger.
  • Sagging Left Hand: I look to see if the student’s hand maintains the correct height above the fingerboard. Sometimes students attempt to shift their left hand musculature so that more of the hand is underneath the fingerboard rather than to the E string side of it. This left hand placement will cause the student to use more hand muscles rather than finger and skeleton. This placement will also interfere with tone production, causing more of a fuzzy tone as the finger plays with more pad. It will also cause problems later when the student attempts double stops.
Besides, it is easier to vibrate correctly if the hand is at the correct height, which is usually that the base of the left pinkie or the “life line” lines up with the E string level. The fingers will then play more on the “thumb-side corners” of the fingers, which lends more pointedness to the sound because the finger’s skeleton helps to pinpoint the pitch. This can be a problem for students with large left hands, as they can still reach the correct note pitches even though the left hand position is incorrect.
  • Improper Thumb Placement: I look to see if the student’s left thumb remains in the correct place. Some students when learning vibrato will try to move their violin neck so that it rests in the shelf at the base of the left thumb. This is more subtle than a student who makes a “pizza hand,” which is what we call it when a student holds the left hand so that the violin neck rests on the palm of the hand or on the thumb “pillow,” which is the fleshy part below the thumb joints. This posture resembles the way a waiter carries a pizza tray in a restaurant. I look carefully to make sure that the student is not making an almost invisible "shelf" at the base of the thumb in order to hold the violin. I want to be sure that the student maintains the proper hand balance during vibrato movements.
  • Holes in the Violin Hold: I look to see that there are no holes between the left index finger and the neck of the violin. Although we do not want the student to squeeze the neck, we also do not want the student to overcompensate for squeezing by opening up a hole between the base of the left index finger and the violin neck. In general, we touch the violin in three places with the left hand: thumb, base of the index finger, and finger tip. However, when executing vibrato, we must be sure that there is enough “space” between the base of the index finger and the violin neck that the vibrato motion can occur.
My mother used to give me butterfly kisses at bedtime. She would place her eye close to my cheek and she would flutter her eyelashes. This would create the sensation that a butterfly was kissing my cheek with its wings. I often demonstrate this butterfly kiss sensation with my fingertips on a student’s check or arm to show them how lightly the index finger should be touching the violin. The hand should be free to brush along the violin neck with a space of about the width of an onion skin between the neck and the hand.
  • Hyper drive Speed: I watch that the student does not go into hyper drive mode. This term stems from my recollection of a Hans Solo demonstration on the Millennium Falcon in Star Wars, episode 4 (which was the original first episode). When Hans Solo banged the frame of the star ship and sent it into hyper drive, the ship went so fast that the ship’s passengers could not see the star system outside the window. When a student reaches this critical speed, I too cannot see or hear the vibrato because it is too fast. Usually the vibrato is also too narrow, which is another reason why it is fast. Or is this the chicken and the egg question? Whichever, speed and narrowness seem to go together. Refer back to my fourth caveat above concerning the two-tone vibrato.
If a student comes to me with hyper drive vibrato, I have to teach the student how to stop it. This is not an easy task. Perhaps I will devote a post to this topic. Let me make one observation, and that is that this affliction seems to hit those students with more phlegmatic tendencies. Perhaps it is because this personality tends to “let” vibrato happen rather than to work to control it. I also find that students in general mistake how fast vibrato should be. I usually ask students to work up to “40 mph vibrato” and then work on “60 mph vibrato” when we are doing vibrato accents or vibrato during martelé bow strokes. I have to show students how fast 40 mph vibrato is. If a student is playing a two-tone vibrato correctly, then generally I find that the vibrato speed is also correct.
  • Tight Finger Joints: I look to see that the student is actually loose in the finger knuckle joints. If the student is harboring any tension, I will see it when the student’s finger does not extend and loosen with the vibrato motion. If the student’s finger retains the same shape throughout the vibrato motion, then the student is usually harboring unnecessary and inhibiting tension.
  • Unnecessary Tension: I ask permission to touch the student during the student’s execution of vibrato motions. I can often tell in an instant by touching the student whether and where the student might be harboring tension or exerting too much effort. The muscles in the hand and finger should be soft and pliable. If anything feels like a rock, then it is a place that needs to be addressed for loosening undue effort.
Whew! That’s a lot for a teacher to watch out for let alone a student. Now you can understand why students tend to be less vigilant about the process. There are a lot of things to think about in addition to the difficulties of executing vibrato in the first place.

So here is the exercise. Basically we play one note with different rhythms to a metronome tempo of 60 (the speed of a second hand on a clock). I start students off with the slowest level, and we build up from there to the point that the vibrato stops short of hyper drive vibrato or that the student has major difficulty executing the movement. Note in the exercise below that I have written two notes: D and C#. The D note is the main note, and the C# is the vibrato note a half tone below. I do not ask my students to change fingers; instead I ask that the vibrato on the third finger D be done so that a C# is heard. Here is the exercise in its entirety:

Here are the basic words and rhythms I use in the order that I teach them:



"Black Olive, Green Olive"

"I Love Pizza, I Love Pizza"

I do not know where I found the words for this exercise. I have used the rhythms for myself without words, but I find that students have an easier time recalling the exercise with these Italian words.

Of course, after practicing the exercise with the ring finger on the A string, we can add the other fingers and strings as well. I find this exercise to be quite useful for students of all ages, particularly any older students or professionals who need to warm up and loosen up joints and muscles.

Let me know about your favorite vibrato speed and control exercises.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Monday Morning Check In: Building a Community

Community seems to be the world’s big interest right now. There are many buzzwords in use to describe it. One writer (Jeff Goins) coined the term “tribe” to describe the sensation of community. We have all heard the African proverb and title of Jane Cowen-Fletcher’s children’s book: “It Takes a Village” (1994). Other words to describe the sense of community include: social media, brotherhood, association, family, neighborhood, residents, society, turf, alliance, union, fellowship, fraternity, sorority, guild, league, order, club, clan, clique, gang, party, team, congregation, convention, band, assembly.

Well, you get the idea, there are many possible words to describe the concept of community. What is community anyway? Why does it seem so important that we have so many words to describe it? Community is shared agreement and similarity of some kind. We agree and share a common, similar purpose. It seems to be in our human nature to do so. Yes, there are some of us who prefer to spend large amounts of time thinking inwardly about our outside world, but generally most of us belong to some aspect of community.

My university students refer to themselves as a “family” within the music school community, because this term implies that my students will reap the benefits of family. The students serve as big brothers and sisters to incoming freshmen. The students urge each other to do their best, and the students absolutely bond together in the face of obstacles found within the academic community.

My studio students generally refer to themselves as a studio family, as I think of them. The concept of family thins a little as the children age, because families and teenagers begin to distance themselves from each other, which can all be part of the natural growth process. Families get busy with other children and other activities, and sometimes the studio family connection takes on a different significance and plays a role that is less important to the family.

What got me thinking about the concept of community this week is my discovery of some old newsletters I had written for my studio well over a decade ago. As I read through the newsletters and re-familiarized myself with their content, I realized that the newsletters served a purpose much like my blog does now. The newsletters provided a forum for me to express my thoughts related to a major purpose and the success of my enterprise to fulfill that purpose.

I made another important connection between my newsletters then and my studio success at the time. During the newsletters era, I recall that my studio shared a true bond of community. I saw this bond reflected in the subject matter of the newsletters. The topics I included in the newsletters helped to bring all of my studio families into a studio community, where we shared our commonalities as they related to studio teaching and teaching our children in particular. I remember that we did many things as a studio family during that period: we traveled to institutes together, we had studio picnics, parties, and pool parties; we participated in community events as a performing group; and studio families had sleepovers and other special events in arenas outside of the teaching studio.

My parents shared their experiences. New ideas about review or practice motivation were shared in the newsletters, and I acknowledged in print which parents were offering the suggestions. Parents shared poems and successes and offered to serve as mentors to parents who were new to the studio. We maintained a calendar that listed studio events, concert opportunities (symphony concerts or other recitals), and composer birthdays.

The students submitted their achievements in the studio and in practice, such as completed graduation recitals, 100 days practice club milestones (and 200, 300, 1 year and more), 500 club spots (500 repetitions), and talent show performances. I included any and all achievements. I was tuned in to possible submissions. I maintained a folder in the studio, and if a parent or student mentioned something to me, I asked them to quickly scribble it down on a newsletter submission form. Then I added these submissions to the monthly newsletter.

The difference today between my blog and my earlier studio newsletters is that I do not broadcast the names of specific students in the blog unless I am given special permission to do so. I try to keep the identities of my students and their families protected. I still write about the same general topics related to teaching and parenting as I did back in the newsletter days; what is missing though is that close connection in the studio that the newsletters provided.

This week, give some thought to how you can build a community within your studio. Going through this process of reflecting on a sense of community within your studio will help you to identify any areas of your thinking that might not be serving your community well. For example, if you are doing something for the money, this may not be a shared purpose with your studio families, and you may find a disconnect between you and the concept of a studio community.

Here are some key points that I think are important to build a sense of community:

Define your purpose. Why do you have a studio? What are you trying to accomplish? Is this a purpose that will be shared?

Share your purpose. How will you communicate your purpose to your studio? I used my newsletters at one time to share my purpose. I also used my studio policies and procedures statement to define my ongoing purpose in teaching at the studio. My introductory new parent letter is very clear about my teaching purpose. My parent course is very upfront about my teaching, studio, and studio parent expectations. This is one sense of communication, but how will you communicate within the studio on a regular basis? I have a connection provided by the http://musicteachershelper.com website that allows me to email all my parents or students at one time with the click of one button. The site also allows me to maintain a small website that provides me with a place to list announcements that are related to the studio. I think a monthly newsletter along with a monthly calendar might be an easy and small way to provide connection and communication within the studio family.

Build connections. How will you connect your community members with each other? How will your studio families stay in touch with each other? Can you build a contact list? Can you provide a lesson calendar that all families can access? Can you provide a gathering place for families during group classes and suggest possible parent activities during these times? I am working on a studio T-shirt idea, and I plan to provide each of my students with one. I may carry this idea over to the university arena as well.

Encourage involvement. Enlist your studio family members to be a part of the studio. Can you enlist the assistance of your studio family members to arrange performance opportunities, such as local nursing or retirement homes, community venues (libraries or schools), or special events? What special skills, talents, or abilities do your studio members represent? One of my studio parents is helping me to design some awesome T-shirts, and I have another who is designing a special music coloring book for children that is related to the mother’s special art field. This mother’s daughter helps us to come up with some pretty cool phrases for T-shirts. At the last spring recital, I listed short biographies for each performing student in the recital program.

Provide shared challenges. Do you have goals to suggest? Are there some challenges that could be joined studio-wide, such as practice challenges on a weekly or monthly basis or as part of some other time frame (31 days of Halloween scales, 12 days of Christmas Twinkles, Thanksgiving Turkey Twinkles)? Scheduling a performance event can provide a shared challenge, as students in the studio will be working together to be ready for the event.

Acknowledge achievement. Do you have a place to feature students who have achieved a milestone? We have a practice chart in the studio, but we also have places to hang children’s artwork, children’s pictures, completed practice incentive charts, certificates, ribbons, etc. Whenever I award a special certificate of accomplishment or achievement to a child, I offer the child the option of taking the certificate home or hanging it in the studio. Very seldom does a student opt to take the certificate home.

Be open and vulnerable. Most important in my opinion is learning how to be open and vulnerable to your community. Sometimes teachers and parents get caught up in the “being strong” mode, and we forget that this mien actually erodes the sense of community. Community is about shared agreement and similarity. If one person is always strong and never in need of anyone else’s help, then there is no sharing or connection here. Like other things, being open and vulnerable is something that can be learned and practiced until it is an ability. Learn how to ask for help. Learn how to share your concerns appropriately.

This blog has been a new community for me. I still have the same purpose as a teacher that I had decades ago. Now, instead of limiting myself to my teaching studio, I have opened up the possibility of building a world-wide community that shares the same purpose of teaching our children to be better human beings and using music as the vehicle to accomplish that. Along this journey, we are also learning how to be better parents and teachers so that we can be more effective in working to achieve our purpose.

This blog is about to turn two years old. I started it at first as a self-discipline exercise. I like to write and have always done so since I was a child. However, life and profession pull me in different directions frequently. I started the blog as an exercise in consistency. Also, I wanted to write down some of the things that I taught so that I could use them as reference materials for my students and their parents. My first post was October 27, 2010. Since that time, I have reached readers from over 103 countries. About 7,000 viewers visit each month as of this writing. Along the way I have met many other teachers and parents all over the world who have wrestled with the same teaching issues that I have, and we enjoy sharing our experiences, our struggles, and our solutions with each other. I hope that this community grows and grows over the next year, because I think our noble purpose is exactly what our world needs to share more of today.

Join the community. Join the discussion.

Change the world -- one child, one student at a time.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Everyone Can Improve

I wanted to share an experience with you. I have a university student who showed up as a freshman without ever having much in the way of private lessons before arriving at the university. This student learned most of what he could play on the violin in his school music program. He had some chops, but the biggest problem is that his left hand posture interfered with his ability to make improvement. In fact, just about everything about how he held the violin impacted on how he played.

We made the necessary adjustments, and this student got better. Along his university journey, he discovered that he enjoyed teaching and was quite good at it. Although he was not a great role model when it came to showing students how to do things right, he had very strong analytical and teaching skills. So he took on a few private students and began working with the university string project. Students liked him. He could relate to students that other teachers found difficult to reach.

As he progressed in his teaching career, he came to me frequently with insightful questions. He is one of my regular blog readers. He expressed interest in more formalized Suzuki teacher training. I started going through the Suzuki books with him, beginning with the Twinkle Variations. I noticed something interesting as we went along.

This student started to improve everything! Once I showed him the various teaching points involved in the songs, and he discovered many of these points himself while teaching his own private students, he started to improve his own playing. His posture solidified in the right direction. His bowing and tone production sounded much better, and his skill as a violinist grew. It is actually quite exciting to see the changes from week to week, all because he started at the beginning of the Suzuki violin books and worked through the material.

I know that I myself have grown as a musician and violinist because I teach the Suzuki repertoire. My first year of taking teacher training, I embarked on a review program of all ten of the violin books. I made up a blank calendar form of the 7 days of the week, and I started filling in the calendar form with each song, allowing each Twinkle variation to fill up one box. I filled in across the chart and then continued filling in songs in the second row, the third row, etc. When I finished putting in each song or concerto movement on the chart, I would just look at the songs that fell under the particular day's column and do review. I skipped repeats or repeated sections, and generally did what I could to minimize the amount of time I spent. It generally took me about an hour to play the review section for the day. I could have cut down that time by dividing up my review chart to span two or three weeks or even an entire month.

I made so many discoveries about my own playing. I struggled with some of the same issues that my students have to struggle with when they learn a piece. I found out how to play Vivaldi's concerto in G minor without my hand muscles aching through most of it (play on the thumb-side corners of the fingers) -- something that plagues a person with small hands. I learned so many things and solidified so many of my technical skills. It was a great experience that summer.

Now, of course, I review quite often because I am teaching all of this material to students. I still draw from my own personal review experience when I teach. I highly recommend that teachers and performers take the time to review and really study the Suzuki repertoire. When we approach the material with a thoughtful and analytical mind, we will reap a great many benefits and discoveries.

I am reminded every teaching day of the genius of Dr. Suzuki. He put together a masterpiece of material for teaching students. I hope that everyone can share in this wealth.

Quick Teaching Tip: Appreciate Your Partners!

I am a choleric personality style. If you want to understand what this means, check out my previous articles about this topic:

If you understand the choleric personality, you will know that we do not need much praise and encouragement. We do just fine by ourselves. I have learned, however, that my personality style needs differ than those of other personality styles. For example, a sanguine style needs appreciation and attention! The melancholic is self-sacrificing, but a little appreciation goes a long way. The phlegmatic will accept appreciation if offered but not if it involves work.

Since I personally do not need much attention and appreciation, I am lax as a teacher when it comes to expressing appropriate praise and acknowledgment for accomplishment. Not towards my students, but to my parent partners. I know that I need to improve this area. So here is what I propose.

Once a month I will go through my parent list, and I will write an email to that parent and express my appreciation. I will have to be careful to limit myself to appreciation, because I know my tendency towards improvement. I want my words to encourage and not discourage my parent partners. This process may take more time than just a week. I hope to go through my list every week, send emails to parents now and then, and hopefully send something to each parent in my studio at least once a month. As lessons occur, my opportunities to share my enthusiasm will present themselves. I can tailor my comments to fit the things that happen in lessons.

One of my studio parents has a plan to have her children write one letter a week, usually on a Monday. Following this plan, i think I will try and devote my Mondays to thinking about writing an email to my studio parents, a few at a time per week, maybe doing it on Mondays as the new week starts.

As Suzuki teachers, we are in a partnership with our studio parents and students. We should think of ways to encourage each other in our respective roles. I think that expressing appreciation for the work that we do will go a long way toward strengthening our partnership. Sometimes our partners are fellow students, professional colleagues, or the parents who entrust their children to us teachers. Let us rise up and live up to the responsibility that parents give us teachers!

Let us work together! Send a note or word of encouragement to your partners on this musical journey!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Quick Teaching Tip: Review Lessons

I have committed to doing more review this year. Yes, as all Suzuki teachers do, I assign review pieces to be done. However, I find that sometimes the review is not done as I think it should be done. Either families get too busy and skimp on the review portion of the practice assignment, or the review gets rushed through and teaching points are no longer in place within the piece. So, here is my solution this fall, and so far it is working after just one try.

On the first lesson of the month, I review the entire Twinkles with the student. I play along. I catch slipped articulations, posture issues, and improper bowing style (legato versus staccato). I also add more music to the phrasing and suggest things that the student might add to increase the song's beauty.

On the 2nd lesson of the month, I review through the book the student is working on. If that is book 1, then I start with Lightly Row and go in consecutive order with each piece in the book until we reach the pieces that the student is working on. If there are any teaching points to be strengthened, I do that as we go. If the student has trouble remembering a particular piece, we work together to make that piece memorable again. That piece gets added to the next week's homework, and we pick up the review songs at the next lesson from that piece. If the student is in a later book, I will add the in between books at other lessons, but I will do them on a rotating basis.

I've only just begun this "lesson review," but already I have noticed a big improvement in the studio. As we play our review in lessons, I can also introduce the parents to the important new skills that I will be adding to these songs when the student reaches more advanced levels. In this way I can help parents to understand the importance of review. One mom last week in fact made this observation herself when she said, "Now I understand why we need to keep these pieces learned." I also point out to the parents and students what elements of each song came from something the student had learned in earlier songs. In this way everyone also sees the connections between earlier songs and later or newer ones.

I am interviewing two people about the issue of review, and I look forward to sharing these interviews and their review suggestions with you.

Happy Practicing and Reviewing!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Monday Morning Check In: Figure it Out

A violinist friend of mine told me of her recent experience when she had a coaching session to improve her audition skills. She said the woman sat with closed eyes and listened to my friend play. After my friend finished playing, the woman began to list undesirable things that happened. For example, “your bow jumped a little in the second measure when you changed to the G string,” or “your articulation was uneven in measure 8.” My friend accepted the list of observations and waited expectantly for the woman’s suggestions, but the only advice the woman gave was, “you need to figure it out.” Huh? My friend’s story amused me, but I have thought about the woman’s advice quite a bit since I heard of it, and I think there is something valuable for us to learn from it.

Too many times we do things without really paying attention to what we are doing. We have all heard the advice to “live in the present,” “live in the moment,” or as one author puts it, “live deliberately” (Hrvoje Butkovic, Living Deliberately, 2011). We can gain great value when we discipline ourselves to stay focused and present, and to be deliberate in what we choose to do or say at any given moment.

If I had been in my friend’s place, I could have chosen to slough off the woman’s advice. At first, that was indeed my reaction to my friend’s story. However, as I thought about the story off and on for the few weeks after, I began to notice a new trend in my thinking. I started to notice times during my practice sessions and places in my music when things did not sound as I wanted. I found bowing skips and slipped articulation catches, and sometimes the bow would not bounce when it was supposed to. I began to pay attention to these moments, as I tried to “figure it out.” At first I did this to entertain myself; I may have giggled the first few times this happened, as I thought about what the woman would have said to me if I had played for her.

Then I realized that I actually did figure it out. I paid attention in a closer way. I noticed things, I observed problems, and I found that this type of thinking gave me the perspective of a teacher’s evaluating a student as he or she played, only I was the student in this scenario. I made a great deal of improvement in many areas since I started using this technique of figuring it out.

I want to urge parents and teachers to pay closer attention to things this week. Really pay attention to what is happening. Be sure to look at and listen to your child. Really look and listen. Notice the facial expression; hear the tone of voice. Sometimes I look at a student and see that they are not feeling well. There are circles under their eyes, and the skin tone is paler. Other times I hear the tinge of a whine or a tearful edge to a student’s voice when they have come too close to the maximum frustration level. Sometimes these little things signal a greater stress happening at the moment in the student’s life. I notice similar things in the faces of my students’ parents. When I pay attention to things outside the studio, I might notice that a colleague’s eyes no longer smile or that the shoulders droop. Perhaps I need to figure out why and see if there is anything that I can offer him or her that would help to brighten the day.

I could have titled this article “pay attention,” but that seems to be only one part of the exercise. When we admonish ourselves instead to “figure it out,” we give ourselves the mandate to ferret out the kernel of a lesson. From that kernel will grow the discovery and the education.

Since I have begun adding the “figure it out” advice to my life, I have discovered more things that need my attention. I have helped more of my students to be better teachers of themselves at home during practice sessions. I have shown more parents how to relate better to their children when they are truly involved with what is happening with their children at any given moment.

“Figure it out” means that we stay connected in a more meaningful way with what we are thinking or doing at the moment we are thinking or doing. We do not just glance our attention over things by sliding our focus from one place to another. Instead, we zero in on what is before us at the moment and consider what could be really happening below the surface of our attention.

If you have not been paying attention in your life as well as you might, I have some advice for you: “Figure it out.”

Friday, September 14, 2012

It’s That Time of Year (Christmas, Part 1)

Frosted window panes
Candles gleaming inside
Painted candy canes on the tree
Santa's on his way,
He's filled his sleigh
With things, things for you and for me

It's that time of year
When the world falls in love
Every song you hear
Seems to say
Merry Christmas
May your New Year dreams come true
And this song of mine
In three quarter time
Wishes you and yours
The same thing too

-- The Christmas Waltz by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne

My dad had an album of old standards in the piano bench, and I fell in love with the above song when I was advanced enough as a pianist to play the song. I still enjoy playing it, and I have even arranged it for string quartet for those audiences who might be familiar with the song.

I know, it is a little early to be thinking about Christmas and the future holidays. Still, fairly soon now the stores will be yanking Halloween goodies off the shelves and stocking them with Christmas and other holiday favorites. We keep our eyes open during the fall television season to see which one in our family will be the first to spot the first Christmas or holiday commercial. (Hint: look for the sparkly gold things and the lit candles, the large dining room tables laden with full platters of turkey, ham, and other roast feasts, and colorful stockings hung from a fireplace. Sometimes the first holiday commercial is subtle, which is why we look for the gold sparkly things first).

For teachers, however, this is the time to begin learning holiday songs. We have already begun working on holiday songs in my studio, so I thought I would share some of my studio’s favorite selections and the keys in which we play the songs.

About the time a student learns “Lightly Row” (Suzuki violin volume 1, song #2), the student is then ready to learn the first Christmas song. I teach “Jingle Bells” first because that is by far the most requested song in my studio. Every time I ask young students what their most favorite Christmas song is, the students answer with “Jingle Bells.” The song presents some challenges in terms of learning the rhythm and the notes to the verse, but the song’s popularity motivates students to practice and master the song.

Jingle Bells and Backup Fiddle

I teach the chorus to all my students. I have come up with a solution for the challenging verse section for my less advanced students. For the verse section, my more advanced students play the notes and my less advanced students play back-up fiddle with "kitty cat-cat" rhythm. If the student can play double open strings, then I teach the part as written in the above example, otherwise, I teach the student the top notes only, which are: E string, A string, E string, A string.

Verse Notes

I have to confess that I frequently resort to "shorthand" music writing when I teach these songs, because generally I am teaching students and parents who have not yet learned to read the music as I have written it out above. I know, it sounds hypocritical to do this when I often lament about how fiddle teachers go to such lengths to write out elaborate tablatures when it would just be simpler to learn to read the actual notes. Still, I have found that it is faster for my newer students to learn the songs with this shorthand. Their ability to read music later does not seem to suffer much. So here is my shorthand music version:
Shorthand Music Version

The long dashes are pauses in the music, and if you sing the chorus, you will understand why these pauses are listed. The underlined notes are played quickly.

There are simpler Christmas songs, but I find that my students are highly motivated to learn this particular song first. After the students learn this first song, I introduce some other easily learned songs, which I will discuss in a future post.

In my studio, we are already planning a Christmas performance at our local "trail of lights" show. The performance is very popular with my students, because the venue treats them to hot cocoa and hot dogs cooked on a stick over an open fire. I like to do performances at local nursing homes as well.

Do not underestimate the power of learning Christmas songs. Last year one studio mother worried that her son was focusing too much on Christmas songs rather than on technique and the Suzuki repertoire. I took the time to show her the spots in the Christmas songs that followed the patterns in the Suzuki repertoire. For example, Jingle Bells presents similarities with Lightly Row and has the same notes. Students still progress when we learn Christmas or other holiday songs. In fact, sometimes the students improve even more because of what they have learned in the Christmas and holiday songs. And let us not forget that one of the purposes of learning to play an instrument and make music is to share the fun and joy of it with others. Holiday seasons are great times for students to learn the lessons about giving back to others and sharing gifts. Why not use the instrument as a vehicle for learning these important life lessons, as Dr. Suzuki intended?

For now, this song is a good start to the holiday season, which will be upon us soon. Why not learn the same notes as the other songs we find in the early book one volume to the Suzuki violin books? Slap some reindeer ears on the cutest little one in the studio, place him or her in the center of the performance line up, and listen to the audience murmurs of delight as the students play their favorite holiday songs?

Here are some links to different versions of the Christmas Waltz. Enjoy!