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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

7 Types of Students (Humor)

As I traveled through my typical teaching week at the university and my private studio, I entertained myself by categorizing the various types of students that I saw in a week. I came up with seven different types of students. Let me know if any of you have found similar students in your studio or home.

The Stutterer. This student picks a speed that is a bit too fast for playing accurately. The student keeps making mistakes and stopping. Because the speed is so fast, the stopping and starting happens frequently, as if the student were stuttering through the music.

The Drive-by Shooter. The drive-by shooter passes by and makes mistakes, fixing them as he goes along. Related to the stutterer, the drive-by shooter differs in that he does pick a fairly reasonable tempo, but instead of practicing in a way that will fix the mistakes so that they will not occur again, the drive-by shooter hits the mistakes, fixes them at the moment (if at all), and keeps on driving. There is no attention paid to the carnage left in this student's wake.

The Running Starter (aka the long wind-upper). This student does not fix problems where they occur. Instead, when this student makes a mistake, the student backs up several measures earlier in the music and makes another running start at the troublesome passage, as if the student might get it the next time if they have a long enough running start or long wind-up first.

The Fixer-Upper. This student constantly stops during lessons to practice everything. Unlike the other types of students, the fixer-upper enjoys practicing and taking things apart. Unfortunately, the fixer-upper's work is never done. There is always something more to fix up, and for the teacher, there is no continuity to the student's performance. The student keeps practicing during the lesson.

The Midstream Horseman. This student changes the goals midstream. If the teacher asks for the student to play a passage again and focus on a particular area of technique, such as a left hand issue or a bowing problem, this student will play the passage again and allow himself to be completely distracted by some other goal that is not the teacher's requested focus of the moment.

The Turtle. The turtle practices everything so slowly, that the student loses all sense of the melody and the pitch. The turtle makes frequent stops as well. The turtle may take four times longer to play a scale or an etude than other students will.

The Price Checker. This student stops frequently to check whether the student is playing in tune. Rather than checking the pitch while in position, the price checker will jump down to first position and check a pitch from that location against the higher pitch. So instead of teaching himself to play in tune in the upper position or to find a reference pitch in the higher position, this student becomes quite adept at jumping from higher positions to lower positions and back.

Did you recognize yourself or one of your students in the above list? Which one?

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Monday Morning Check In: Practice the Little Things

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.

-- Aristotle

At the beginning of Suzuki Violin Volume 2, there is a lovely essay with quotes from Dr. Suzuki about how the violin reveals the heart. I have found this thought confirmed again and again over the years that I have been teaching.

I recall the time when a beloved university student died tragically and unexpectedly of natural causes. The entire music department was devastated. This student had touched so many areas of the school of music: he won the aria competition as a singer, he won the concerto competition as a double bass player, and he also played viola in the school’s most prominent string quartet ensemble, which was made up of students from every string area studio. I remember how sad everyone was that semester. My student from the quartet played with an entirely different sound that semester. Her heart was sad and hurting, and I could hear that in the way she made music with her violin. Over time I could hear how the student was healing, as her music brightened and became more vibrant with life energy. I never forgot though my experience of listening to and hearing the sadness of this student’s heart in the time after the young man’s death.

When I close my eyes and listen to the sound a student or fellow musician makes, I fancy that I also can hear the message of the other person’s heart. That also means that others can hear the song that my heart plays. I want my music to uplift and encourage others, to act as a healing balm for troubled hearts, and to provide pleasure and enjoyment for my listeners. Therefore, I believe that I must practice small things that will steer my focus in the direction of giving to others.

Toward this end, I strive to make a habit of practicing the little things that will build good character in the long run. I look for small acts that I can perform that will work toward the good of others. I encourage my students to join me in this practice as well. In doing so, we are working to build a nicer place for everyone, including ourselves. One could think of this principle as similar to the boy scouts' aspiration to do a good deed every day. For me it is the principle of practicing the habit of excellence of character and of becoming a fine human being.

Here are some possible things that one could do to affect others in a positive way:
  • Pick up trash, whether it is in the school hallway, on the sidewalk, or in the restroom.
  • Wipe dry a bathroom counter in a public restroom.
  • Pick up trash along the road in your neighborhood.
  • Find a replacement roll of toilet paper or paper towels before the item runs out and place it within convenient reach of the next person who might need it.
  • Take someone else’s shopping cart back for them. Better yet, use their cart for yourself and then return it to the cart corral. Maybe take a second cart back at the same time.
  • Pick up something that someone else has dropped.
  • Write an email or send a card to someone you want to thank or show appreciation to.
  • Offer to shop for someone who needs help, such as someone who is ill or who is elderly.
  • Phone a friend or write a letter to someone who you know would appreciate the gesture.
  • Hold the door open for someone to pass through.
  • Offer to carry things for someone else.
  • Bus your own table after eating. Bus someone else’s table.
  • Smile at someone who looks like they could use a hug.
  • Always say “thank you” and “please” to others.
  • Accept praise and thanks in a gracious and humble way.
  • Compliment the other person two-fold.
  • Listen to someone else talk. Better yet, initiate the conversation by asking the other person to talk first and then listening.
  • Ask how someone else is, and really listen to the answer.
  • Ask at least one person about his or her family every day or some other personal interest.
  • Hug someone who is having trouble finding his or her own smile.
  • Pat someone on the shoulder.
  • Ask someone to share his or her opinion.
  • Buy a small, unexpected gift or a humorous card for a friend.
  • Share a meal with a friend.
  • Look into someone’s eyes. One can really discover much about what is going on in a person’s life by gazing into his or her eyes. 

It really is not that difficult to find something to do for someone else. I try and make it a point to look for at least one thing to do for someone else every day. I find that just the habit of looking for something soon yields me something that I can do. Looking keeps me in that frame of mind where I see things that need to be done.

What are some kinds of things that you can think of to do that would follow this principle? Please share your thoughts and suggestions in the comments below.

Enjoy your week and consider making excellence of character -- the Practice of Little Things -- a habit that you will practice this week.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Speed Demons

Has anyone else had a speed demon issue show up in the studio? By "speed demon" I am referring to kids who play fast all the time. When a speed demon plays a piece for me, the tempo is too quick, the bowing is messy, there are bumps and jiggles along the way with the notes and string crossings, and generally the sound quality is slippery and wispy.

What happens when students play too fast? What causes this? How can we get these speedsters to slow down and really listen to what they play? How can we reengage the evaluative part of the brain?

What happens when students play too fast is that they no longer listen to what they sound like. On occasion I have written the word "practice" on a piece of paper that I have hidden from the student. Then I ask the student to tell me what I have written down, and I flash the paper in front of the student's face so quickly that the student cannot read it. When I ask them why the student could not read the word on the paper, the student tells me that I flashed the paper too quickly. From this answer I lead the student to make the parallel connection that when we play too fast, our ears cannot hear what we have played.

When students play too fast and can no longer hear themselves, good intonation generally disappears. The tone quality alters for the worse. The bow runs a crooked path across the strings and slips off its contact point, which results in sloppy articulation of notes and uneven (and unpleasant) tone. Notes and rhythms are inaccurate. Posture habits deteriorate.

When this situation occurs, parents ask me how they can address the issue in home practices. Parents frequently ask me how to slow the child's playing down. I can suggest techniques that help, but these suggestions are not complete fixes to the problem of speeding. There is more at stake here.

This situation reminds me of one of my former bosses, a litigation attorney. When asked by a client to estimate the cost of a lawsuit, the attorney said that he could not give an accurate estimate. The client, who worked in the construction industry, did not understand this answer. Surely the attorney could come up with an estimate of the lawsuit cost? Builders and contractors did that all the time.

My attorney used the client's construction industry experience to explain. In an ideal world the builder could give an estimate on a building project. But what if the builder were asked for an estimate and told that every night when the builder left for the day, someone else came in the dark of night and tore down everything that the builder had constructed during the day. Now what estimate would the builder make? Until the underlying issue is taken care of (the destroyer in the dead of night), then the problem cannot be solved.

When we are asked to address the problem of speeding, I liken it to the situation above. The cause of the speeding is like that elusive person who comes in the dead of night and tears everything down. If we do not address the cause of the speeding, then any suggestion I make about how to "fix" the problem will be temporary. We need to discern the actual cause of the problem.

I think that most parents of speed demons assume that this is a natural thing that children do. Is it? Let me challenge this underlying assumption. Do children normally desire to rush around through life? The last time your child played with his legos, did he hurry up to finish his building project in record time? Did your child urge her playmates to dress their dolls quicker so they could move on to the next activity? Could this rushing and hurriedness be something that children have learned? Is there something or someone in a child's environment that teaches him or her to hurry through things?

We live in a busy society with many competing distractions and packaged sound bites. Children are surrounded by examples of the busy-speedy message. Even our country's leaders cannot engage in a civilized debate without interrupting and truncating each side's message. We are in such a hurry. Hurry for what? What do we need to do so quickly? I wish I had a dollar for every parent who told their child to "hurry up" and get ready for their lesson instead of allowing the child and the teacher to casually reconnect with each other at the beginning of the lesson. I find it interesting that parents generally have not considered coming to lessons five minutes earlier in order to allow the child a chance to leisurely prepare the instrument and comfortably focus the child's mental state and attitude on the lesson about to begin.

 It seems to be fashionable of late for parents to enroll their children in every imaginable activity: hockey, soccer, baseball, football, swimming, music lessons (more than one instrument), dance lessons, choir, martial arts, and fiddling to name a few examples from my own personal studio experience. I also hear parents complain rather frequently that they have little time left for practicing, and it is no wonder! Who has time to even sit down as a family and eat a meal together with such a pace? I have even heard parents complain because they have to practice 30 minutes every day, as if 30 minutes took up such a huge chunk of the day. In thirty minutes I can make brownies, wash a load of laundry, vacuum the house, feed all my farm animals (well almost all of them), and watch a TV comedy show. Thirty minutes is not much in the grand scheme of life. Instead, I would think that thirty minutes of quality time daily with my child would be a gift to treasure.

Many parents are proud that they have limited the child to one musical or other learning activity and one sport, because the children need exercise, right? Unfortunately, in my experience, the organized sports activities seem to take up even more of the family's time than the musical activities. There are several practices each week, and when the games and tournaments season hits, there are numerous games and tournaments that demand the students' and parents' participation. Parents and children feel guilty if they do not attend these games, because they serve as members of a team. I recall one family excusing themselves from attending group class because they had to show up for a game because other team members were missing, and the team would have to forfeit otherwise. How did my young students get trapped into the role of taking up the slack for other missing team members?

Oh if we music teachers would be able to develop such an attitude in our studio families! I have tried to do this, and every year I discuss how group class attendance is similar to being a member of a team, because we learn how to play together for future performances. However, I have less success with this argument than I suspect the sports coaches have, because playing as part of a sports team is an experience we can all relate to, and playing on a music group team less so.

When confronted with a speed demon issue, here are some of the questions that I ask the parent in order to discover what might be at the root of the speeding issue:
  • Does the child speed through other activities generally or just the music practice? The answer to this question might uncover additional helpful information.
  • What happens after the child is finished practicing? Is the child (or parent) in a hurry to do something else afterwards?
  • Is there a finite list of practice goals, such that once the child has "run through" the list, the practice is over? Maybe the list of practice goals may need more fleshing out rather than just being a list of pieces to play.
  • What possible role models exist that might be teaching the child to speed through practice? Usually when I ask the parents this question, the parents immediately recognize how the rushing tendency may have been created in the child.
  • Do the parents exhibit this same tendency to rush through things hurriedly?
  • Does the home practice parent generally work through practices quickly (maybe with the thought that he or she is being efficient)?
  • Is there a short amount of time available for practice? Is the child's day too filled already with other activities, leaving little time for reflective practice?
  • Is practicing a chore or is it fun? If the parent or child approaches the practice session as if it is another chore to cross off the list of daily activities, then the child may be obliging the desire to be done with practice sooner rather than later.
  • How has the parent or teacher handled the speeding problem so far?
  • How well have past solutions worked to address the speeding?
Practicing in general needs time. I have pockets of busy days in my life, and I have learned how to be the master of short, efficient practices during these times. There is much that can be accomplished in five minutes; some days I manage to find several five-minute blocks of time throughout the day. I help my students and their parents to identify what items on their practice assignments would work well in a five minute practice, and we work together to structure possible practices like that "just in case." Remember though, that these five-minute practices should be the exception rather than the rule. Refer to my previous article about the perils of making "life happens" an excuse for not practicing (to read that article, click here).

The best practice sessions include plenty of time for thinking, digesting, considering, experiencing, and in general enjoying the process of creating, working, and discovering. In the Suzuki world, parents are very much involved in their children's music education. This parental involvement is a wonderful opportunity for parents to spend quality time with their children if done with this positive attitude in mind. In those families with more than one child taking lessons, parents tell me that practicing takes up a lot of time on the parent's part. I can easily understand how parents might look for ways to hurry practices along.

So my point in the previous paragraphs is that the child's speeding issue might be something that the child has learned from his or her environment. The parents might be showing the child how to do this behavior and the child has just learned the lesson well. We might want to be careful about how much we teach our children to rush through life. Here is another article on the subject that Dr. Laura Markham wrote: 11 Ways Your Child Loses When You Rush Him Through Life.

In another future article, I will discuss some methods to address the speed demon issue during lessons and practice sessions. I address the rushing issue in group classes as well. Before I address ways to "fix" the speeding issue, I wanted to be sure that we had reflected well on what might be the underlying cause of the speeding.

I would welcome any comments or suggestions that others have regarding the speeding issue. I am always looking for many different ways to approach the problem. I want my parents to have a quiver full of many ideas to draw upon if the speeding issue comes up in practice, so be sure to submit your ideas in the comments below.

In the meantime, enjoy your practices!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Monday Morning Check In: It’s a Small Thing (or How to Practice, part 6)

I have written several articles already that discuss various aspects of the mysterious art of practicing. You can read these articles here:
At some point in our musical development, I notice a curious phenomenon, usually about eighth or ninth grade and upward, with a heavier concentration occurring around tenth grade. I notice tendencies toward inertia. A student comes to his or her lesson without having marked the practice handbook, even though the student did indeed practice. The student just did not record the practice, despite the fact that it would have taken the student perhaps 10 seconds at the most to make a notation in the practice record. Or the student continues to make the same fingering or bowing error and cannot bring himself to make an appropriate notation in the music.

I usually hear the same excuse too, that the student did not have or could not find a pencil. Well, I find that the best way to eliminate excuses is to take care of the complaint immediately. I maintain a box of pencils ready to dole out to those students who suffer from pencil paucity. The following week though the excuse might be a variant, such as the student mislaid the pencil or it was inconvenient to use.

The real problem is inertia. You remember learning about inertia in physics? Inertia was the tendency of an object to resist a change in its state of motion. If the object were at rest, the tendency is for the object to remain at rest. If the object is moving, then the tendency is to remain moving unless another object or force upsets that motion.

So it is with practicing, but are we in motion or at rest? Somehow I believe that we can argue that both are occurring, which may explain why it is so difficult to pick up a pencil. On the one hand, we are playing, practicing, moving our bow and fingers; we are in motion. We would have to exert effort to stop what we are doing in order to then pick up a pencil and make a note. On the other hand, we are in a state of rest, in the zone, or on a different plane in our thinking, and it is difficult to wake us up out of that state and exert effort to pick up a pencil and think about something else.

One way I have of combating this pencil issue or the inertia of remaining in a particular state is to periodically stop and have my student mark something here and there on the student’s music. Maybe it is to cross off a completed etude and to circle and date the next etude in the lineup. Or perhaps it is to add a note to complete the student’s scale chart. I come up with as many opportunities as I can to invite the student to pick up and use the pencil. I do this so that the student can practice the habit of picking up and using a pencil. The student is also practicing the habit of combating inertia as well.

I usually take a few minutes to discuss this issue in a conversation. I have many conversations with my young charges about practicing, and in some cases, with my adult students as well. I believe that we can learn much from each other about this illusive idea. My conversation about practicing as it relates to using a pencil is about how to exercise the small thing of discipline.

I believe that our discipline “muscle” can be strengthened by our devising various tasks that call upon us to exercise discipline. I do not believe that every task of discipline practice needs to be a monumental effort. In weight lifting, a bodybuilder might use a heavy weight for a fewer number of repetitions of the exercise and derive a muscle building benefit. Another person might lift a small hand weight for a larger number of repetitions and also build up muscle.

Disciplining ourselves to do small tasks, such as to record items in the practice handbook, make notations in the music, or to pick up a pencil for any reason while we are practicing, will help to strengthen our discipline ability. By teaching ourselves and practicing these small things, we can then be ready to handle the bigger things.

If you would like to read the previous articles that I wrote about practicing, you can find them at:
His master replied, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. – Matthew 25:21 (NIV)

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Hand Position Week (aka Bow Hold Week)

This week we will celebrate our hand positions on the instrument. I usually call this bow hold week, but bow holds only apply to stringed instruments. For other instruments, the hand placement plays an important role in how well the student can play the instrument. So, I have changed the nomenclature to "hand position week."

If your child plays a stringed instrument, focus this week on how well your child holds the bow. Make sure the finger placement is correct and that there is no unnecessary tension in the bow hold. I say "unnecessary" because with stringed instruments it is important to maintain a strong thumb and to keep the thumb active and engaged rather than "turned off." Every finger placement is important; incorrect placement of one finger may lead to a deterioration of the bow hold in general.

Once you make the necessary corrections and stay on top of this, you will probably also notice a marked improvement in the student's sound and playing in general. Messy bowings or uneven tone production will usually clean up because the student is now able to maintain a straight bow and make the proper contact between the bow and the string.

For pianists, proper hand placement will include the curvature of the fingers. Many students today have double-jointed knuckles, and it is imperative to encourage the students to maintain a rounded, "natural" hand placement. This task also includes watching the angle of the wrist, elbow, and shoulders to the instrument.

Because we work to build good posture habits, I find that we can practice building a habit by holding the proper position for a certain length of time. I have a little egg timer sand "hour" glass that measures the span of one minute. My students will practice a good bow hold while we watch the egg timer measure out the one minute. Sometimes my students ask to do this for two minutes. Just imagine how easy this habit would be if the parents had the students practice this one minute bow hold or curved hand position several times a day.

I find that if I periodically announce such special focus items, such as hand position week, that my parents do a better job of being vigilant at home. I hope that you will have an opportunity to join us in the week's focus.

Happy Hand Position Week!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Life Happens but Let's Not Make a Habit of It

Life happens. We are rocking along, singing our song, and whoops, something comes up and we are tugged off course. Something upsets our routine, and we cannot get to our regular practice or music lesson or group class. It is just for a brief time, we tell ourselves. We just need to get through the next few days, or this week, or through the weekend, we promise. Maybe we should not go to our lesson this week because we really are not as prepared as we should be.

We go anyway. We hang down our heads and admit that we did not practice well this week. The teacher is understanding. After all, the teacher is a nice person and kind and gracious. The teacher smiles and teaches the same lesson as last week. Or so we think, except that our child is not the same child as last week. So the teacher has to take a few steps further back than the previous lesson. Why is that?

Life does happen. Life happens to me as well. I have pockets of time when life seems to skitter out of control. I have my routines and systems in place to help guide me through these full patches of activities, and I understand how easy it is to get pulled under by life's periodic undertow.

As a teacher, I respond to these parental pronouncements with kindness, understanding, and graciousness. I truly understand. But, I also make sure that I help parents pull out of the downward spiral. Here is how I do that.

First, I explain to the parent what we might see from the child during that lesson today:
  • inappropriate behavior
  • dawdling or reluctance to follow instructions
  • hesitation to participate in any lesson activity
  • frustration that pops up quickly
  • new bad habits
  • shorter attention span
  • lack of concentration and focus or for a shorter period of time than usual
  • improper posture
  • memory slips
Sometimes the parents try to discipline the children for these behaviors, but I try to head that off before it happens. Is it really the child's fault that he or she did not practice adequately the week before? Can we really in good conscience correct the child's behavior for something that the adults created? I think not, but that is what many parents try to do. Instead of examining the cause of the situation, parents are quick to act as if the child can easily spring back to normal with the snap of a finger. And yet, parents are not able to do that. How can we expect a child to snap back to normal that quickly when the parent was unable to do that during the week?

Life does indeed happen. After I explain to the parent what we might see from the child during the lesson, I then discuss how easy it might be for the parent to make "life happens" a habit. Because the parent skipped practices and routine the week before, the parent has now created a big pile of inertia. It is much easier to stay stuck in the mud of nonpractice. One week turns into two weeks. Now nonpractice and the excuse that "life happens" are the new habits and routine.

Here is how I help parents to get out of the rut:
  • We look at the week's calendar together and discuss when practices might occur. I discuss this openly with the parent and sometimes the child too, because I want to be sure that this issue gets addressed. I know the parent is already battling the inertia of not practicing from the previous week, so my partnering in this discussion helps give the parent the sometimes added kick-in-the-pants that the parent needs to get moving in the right direction. Believe me, if I could really offer a physical kick to the parent's rear, I would gladly do it for the sake of the child. I settle for the figurative kick by having this frank discussion about schedule and calendar.
  • We plan a short practice plan for the next 2-3 days, and then a gradually longer plan for the days thereafter. Depending on the current family home situation or the child's age, the short practice might be a five or ten minute practice list. My purpose here is to offer the parent and child something easy to accomplish. This little jolt to combat the nonpractice habit may be enough to get things rolling again.
  • I throw in an element of randomness to the practice plan to get the child's attention and interest. It might be a new game that involves a spinner or dice or a timer. This intrigues the child and helps to reignite the child's and parent's interest in practice.
    • We might make up colored pieces of paper for various activities and then throw a dice of colors to see which activity to do first.
    • We might do a 1-minute bow hold or violin hold to get back into the habit of correct posture. We use a small hourglass (a minute timer) for this or my iPhone's timer.
    • I find that I must completely provide this practice plan in order for it to happen. If I just suggest the idea, the parent is likely to let this slip by. Instead, I actually make up the practice game right there at the lesson. I set up a Popsicle stick game, I provide the spinner and dice, or I make up the colored paper list of practice tasks.
  • I show the parent and child some possible practice sheets that they could use for the coming week. I have downloaded several great examples from Leslie Thackeray's website: The Practice Shoppe. If the parent finds one they are interested in, I send an email link to the particular practice sheet to the parent.
  • We discuss the possibility of trying the 100 Days Practice Challenge. Leslie also has a nice example of that too: 100 Days.
    • I have several prizes that I offer to a student who has completed the 100 days challenge. I give a little Mozart statue, a small violin pin, and another round pin that says "Outstanding Student" along with a certificate and other little doodads. Usually once a student has seen the loot that I will award upon completion of the 100 days challenge, the student is full of interest and motivation.
    • I also explain how parents can help a younger child to make it through the long 100 days period by breaking it up into smaller, more digestible segments. For example, one family promised to award their six-year old son a small fish aquarium on the 100th day, but along the way, the parents awarded the child the parts to the final prize.
      • On the 30th day, the child received the empty aquarium.
      • On the 50th day, the child received the gravel that would go inside. The child was then able to begin putting his aquarium together.
      • On the 75th day, the child received the plastic plants and other figures that would go inside the aquarium, and the child could begin to arrange his aquarium scenario.
      • On the 100th day, the child received the fish.
  • I extract a solemn promise from both the parent and child that they will practice every day in the coming week. The parent and child hold up the bow hand (right hand) and promise to practice. I also note in the student's handbook that the parent and child have made this promise. That way I will be reminded of the promise at the next lesson. Sometimes parents will text me during the week to tell me that the child is being very serious about fulfilling the promise.
  • I might send an email or text message to the parent the next day to follow up on whether the parent has followed through with the practice plan. It amazes me to have a discussion such as all that I have written above here, and yet when I check in with the parent and student the next day, I find that again life has happened and that no practice plan has been followed. Such a short attention span!
I have met some parents here and there who seem to have trouble getting back on track despite my help. These are tougher cases for me. I might have to delve a little deeper into the reasons why the parent wants the child to have lessons when the parent is not helping the child to benefit from the lessons. And on occasion, I might have to let this parent go from the studio. It breaks my heart to do that, and I do not do it lightly or often. I might spend a year or more trying to turn the situation around; parents go through stages too, but that is a different article for another day.

Starting out small with tiny steps for a few days usually gets the parent and child beyond the inertia of nonpractice, although there might be a few days of bumpy drama, as both the parent and child need to work through the inertia together; this is not easy.

My main focus at this point is that life happens, but we do not want to allow this excuse to become a habit.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A Visit to the Practice Shoppe with Leslie Thackeray

As I have been focusing on the topic of review and how important it is, I recently spoke to Leslie Thackeray from thepracticeshoppe.com about her website. I love to explore the items that Leslie has listed, because they spark a creative idea or two in my head about practicing and teaching my students better. I especially appreciate all the free downloadable charts that Leslie offers for review and repetition purposes. There is a review chart for everyone of every level.

Because I enjoy browsing Leslie’s website, I thought I would find out more about her and how she came to create her site.

Leslie: I started playing Suzuki violin when I was 4 and don't have many memories of practicing as a young child, except that I hated it. My mom never let me quit. She knew I liked playing, because when I'd perform, I'd be happy with myself. I sure dreaded practicing each day though, to the point that I would do all sorts of things to try to get out of it (taking long baths is one thing I remember in particular).

Paula: You are jogging my memory of my own childhood. My mother set a kitchen timer for 30 minutes, and the hard and fast rule in my house was that practicing got done first thing after school. If a friend came knocking at the door to ask if I could come out and play, my mother politely told them to come back when my 30 minutes were up. How did you handle the practicing issue with your own children?

Leslie: As a mother practicing with my own children, I kept thinking of fun ways to practice so it wouldn't be such drudgery for my children. I saw a cute bead counter at my daughter's violin teacher's house and wanted one for myself. When I looked online, I found they were too expensive for me to afford at the time. My husband is always up for a project, so I told him what I wanted, and we went out to find the right materials. I remember we had all this extra time because it was Thanksgiving break 2009.

After playing around a bit with some different ideas we finally came up with our bead counter. I emailed a bunch of my teacher friends and asked if they wanted to buy some for their kids or students for Christmas (to recoup the cost of the materials). The response was extraordinary and I was overwhelmed with orders all Christmas season. I've improved the quality of the product so it would last longer and withstand the wrath of children.

Since then I’ve used the bead counters nearly every day in my practicing with my children and my teaching with my students. It's incredible to watch the concentration of the student to finish a task 10 times when I pull out the bead counter.

Paula: You have many colorful bead counters, and the themes are terrific. You also sell other things besides the bead counters. Tell us how you started doing that.

Leslie: We have an amazing Suzuki Institute here in Utah, and we decided to sell the bead counters at the Institute. Again, the response was great, so I decided to see what else I could sell to the parents and teachers at institute. Every time I wanted something for practicing with my kids or for my studio, I would search and search for the best price and buy it in bulk so I could sell it to other teachers and parents around.

As teachers, we use so many different doodads and gadgets from lots of different places. My goal is to provide some of these fun practicing supplies all in one place for a good price.

Paula: My favorite part of your website – and the pages that I visit the most – are your links to downloadable review and practice charts. There are so many charts and such clever themes. How did these charts come about?

Leslie: I was always searching online for fun practice charts for my own kids. I never could find very many creative ideas, but I figured I could come up with some. I feel that I can put these practice charts online really quickly and share them with everyone for free. I always love finding free printables online.

I love when I get emails from people who love my practice charts, because it makes me feel like I'm helping someone for very little of my time. These free printables are the biggest draw to The Practice Shoppe. I love when people give me their practice chart ideas to add to the website. I would love to be a major source of practice chart printables among Suzuki teachers and any music teacher.

Paula: I see that you have added dice, some jewelry items, puppets, and other specialty items. I have a huge collection of dice in my own studio. There are dice for all sorts of purposes.

Leslie: I also love using dice in my teaching and have searched high and low for all sorts of dice. The kids love to roll dice to see how many times they have to practice. I have some more dice in production that will be coming out soon. I'm so excited to launch these new products.

Paula: Thanks, Leslie, for taking the time to talk about your website. For anyone who is interested in seeing these products on Leslie’s website, visit: www.thepracticeshoppe.com.

If you would also like to read my interview of Sue Hunt about the importance of review and Sue's new book Review -- Making it Fun, Gets the Job Done, you can find the article here and the book on Sue's Music in Practice website here.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Book Review Week

Last week was the first week of the new month. We reviewed Twinkles at every lesson. This is the second week of the month. I suggest that we review the songs in each student's particular book. If the student is in book 1, then I begin with the first song after the Twinkle variations and proceed until we have reached the point that the student is learning. Along the way, I make sure that the teaching points are still in place, I point out to the parent where the teaching points will lead to in the future, and I reinforce to both the student and parent that review is important. If the student is in another book, then I begin at the beginning of the book and work through each song consecutively until we reach the point in the book where the student is working.

If a student or parent has fallen down in the review area, this is my opportunity to help them get back on track. Sometimes students and parents do not understand the need for review, and I can discuss the subject with them. Sometimes a parent has not fully committed to the idea of group classes or to making group class attendance a priority. I can use the review subject as a way to encourage parents to attend group classes, as we do a lot of our review during group class.

This week is about reviewing the student's book. As we review the student's book, I find that this concentrated review of the student's current book helps the student to play the later songs of the book better. It also helps the student to prepare for a book graduation recital. It is a very powerful review session. The first book review we do in the fall semester usually takes one or two lessons to complete. After parents and students realize that I will perform the review again in a month, I find that the book review is better organized the next month. I also remind parents that the Twinkle or book review is coming up.

Give this a try and see if my suggestion helps your students and parents as well in their Suzuki journey.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Monday Morning Check In: 15 Times When Failure Is Not a Bad Thing

We have been raised in a society that talks about failure as if it is a bad thing. I gave that idea some more reflection this week, and I came to a different conclusion. I think that sometimes failure is not a bad thing under certain conditions.

Here is a my list of fifteen times when I believe that failure is not a bad thing:
  1. When we keep trying
  2. When we learn from the failure
  3. When the failure reveals something about ourselves that we did not know before
  4. When we learn something about someone else that we did not know before
  5. When the failure stretches us to do more than we thought we were capable
  6. When the failure shows us what we really want or care about
  7. When the failure shows us what we should pay attention to
  8. When the failure shows us a weakness
  9. When the failure shows us that we might want to rethink things
  10. When we learn that we need more preparation
  11. When we learn that we need to ask for help
  12. When the failure shows us how to be more teachable
  13. When we become stronger
  14. When we use the failure to teach others
  15. When the failure reveals the extent of our limits and where we can improve
We shy away from failure or anything that might possibly end in failure. Instead I believe that we should embrace failure and teach our children to be good acquaintances with it. Failure can teach us many things about ourselves and our approach to learning and life if we allow failure a place in our lives. Instead of being afraid of failure, I think we should learn to be comfortable with it. We should permit ourselves to try new things that might admit the possibility of failure so that we can learn from it and become strong individuals.

No one enjoys failing at something we want to accomplish, but I believe that success is often just a long road that is bumpy with many failures along the way. It is how we choose to navigate the bumpy spots as we travel that will enrich or distract our lives.

Spend some time this week reflecting on your approach to the subject of failure. Are you open to the possibilities of what failure might teach you, or do you avoid anything that might prove unsuccessful? Does the possibility of failure keep you from attempting new things or working to accomplish a cherished life goal? How can you do things differently?

Happy failing this week!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

"The Magic Phone Table" by Paula Bird

Once upon a time there was a young child. The child could have been a boy or a girl. The child could have been very young, a youth, or somewhere in between.  The child expressed interest in music lessons, and because the child was loved, mom or dad took the child to a music teacher.
“I can help your child learn to play music,” the teacher said. “This is a wonderful gift you are giving to your child, because it will be something that your child will enjoy for many, many years, and because music is a gift that your child will then be able to give back to you and also to other people.”
Mom and dad and child were very excited about lessons. At first, everyone clapped at the slightest sound the child made on the instrument, even if the sound was not as refined as it could be. Everyone smiled a lot. The child was excited to learn and to play. The parents were interested in how well the child learned how to play, and the parents would watch the lessons carefully so that they could practice with the child at home and have as good a time in home practices as the teacher had during lessons.
Then one day, a phone appeared during the lesson.  The parent was sorry that the phone tried to play its music at the same time as the child, and the parent hastily put the phone away out of sight. Then another parent “had” to take or make a call, so the phone stayed on during the lesson, and the parent quickly ran out of the studio to answer or make the call. There were other parents who did not enter the studio at all, but who stayed outside in the car to make phone calls. Another parent sat in the next room working on phone calendar appointments rather than attending the lesson.
Soon, even more parents seemed to have phones out and about during lessons and group classes. The phones did not make any noise, but they vibrated and sparkled with fun apps to play, emails to read, text messages to answer, and Facebook posts to laugh about.
The teacher began to worry. The teacher watched as one child would turn around during group class to see if mom and dad were watching how well she played, only to find that mom and dad were not watching. Both parents were so busy looking at their phones that they never saw the child turn around to look at them.
Then the teacher began to observe during lessons whether the parent was watching the lesson and understood what the teacher was helping the child to learn, except the teacher found that the parent was not paying attention to the lesson. The parent was instead looking at the phone’s screen and whatever was more interesting there.
Lesson after lesson, the teacher noticed that the phones demanded more and more of the parents’ attention; the little children were not as powerful as the phone and could not gather their parents’ attention away from the phone. So the teacher looked around for an idea that would lessen the phones’ magic power.
The teacher found a special table. The table was special because it had magic power of its own, and this magic power was greater than the magic power of the phones. Parents could not pass by the table and enter the studio room with their phones. This phone table magically required parents to leave their phones on the little table until it was time to leave the studio. The table also magically eliminated any special powers the phones had to demand the parents’ attention. The parents no longer felt a need to pick up or look at their phones as long as the phones were on the magic table.
Everyone was happy again. The parents were excited to watch how well the child learned to play music. The child enjoyed playing music for the parents, who seemed to clap with enjoyment and enthusiasm for everything the child played. The parents began to enjoy lessons and group classes because they were paying attention to how the teacher instructed the child. The parents had their hands free to take notes about the lessons and group classes. The parents now understood once again how to help the child at home in between the lessons.
Magic Phone Table and free parent notebooks
And they all lived happily ever after.  --- THE END