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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Hover Balls, Coloring Books, and String Skin

In recent articles, I have discussed the challenge of teaching and practicing with speed demons. When I first encounter a speed demon, I also encounter other typical playing difficulties, such as the inarticulate articulation and the wispy bow. In these other articles, I discussed ways of handling speed demons, and I will provide links to these previous articles at the end of this article.

I first seem to notice these articulation issues somewhere around Long, Long Ago in Suzuki Violin Volume 1, although these issues can occur at any time. I monitor my own playing closely for this issue as well. Just about the time that students start to develop some ability to play easily and with longer bows, the problem seems to arise. Although I teach staccato since the first lessons, I have to watch closely that the student does not discontinue staccato playing where indicated in the music. Songs that are to be played with staccato articulation wind up being legato, as students try to play faster to emulate the performance recordings. The students have not yet developed the ability to hear the staccato when it is played quickly by a professional. There are so many levels of staccato, or different consonants as I call it, and beginning students have not yet developed the skill to hear these different levels at this stage. So in early book 1, I often have to deal with the issue of non staccato playing when it should be staccato.

Along with the techniques and suggestions I wrote in the previous articles, other teaching methods I use with speed demons to tackle the inarticulate articulation and wispy bow are the hover ball, coloring book, and string skin analogies. Here is how I describe the phenomenon of the hover ball.

Hover Ball

When we throw a baseball straight up into the sky, we know that it will return to earth. When I ask students why this happens, they understand that gravity is the force that pulls the ball's return down to earth. We know too that the ball does not just hit a ceiling in the sky and then scud back down to the ground. There is a moment in time when the ball "hovers" in the air before it begins its descent. If we were to recall our last ride on a roller coaster in an amusement park, we would generally agree that there is a suspension in time after the ride's ascent and just before the ride begins to descend when we feel as if we are floating in air for a brief second. I call this suspension in time the "hover ball," because it resembles the way that a ball hovers momentarily before beginning the gravity free fall.

Coloring Book

Similarly, most students will readily identify with the coloring book scenario. My students understand what it means to color "within" the lines. If I were to tell a student that the student was coloring "outside" the lines of the note, the student would understand what I meant by that description.

I tell my students that notes have a "personal space" between them, almost like a thin skin that separates them. Similar to the hover ball and the coloring book line, the notes have a slight "space" between each other. The bow creates this space when it pushes the string back and forth between down bows and up bows.

When I ask my students to listen and notice the end of one note and the beginning of another note, the students begin to coordinate the right and left hands together better. The students begin to clean up the messy articulation that I previously heard. By asking my students to listen closely to the sound they make and try to discern whether the bow is coloring outside the note “lines,” my students tend to naturally slow down their playing speed so that they can really listen and make the necessary adjustments with the bow and fingers.

String Skin

Once I have a student really listening to this aspect of his or her playing, I then discuss how strings are made, that they have a core that is wrapped with another metal “skin.” Then I ask my student to consider whether he or she is brushing the bow over the string “skin” similarly to a person’s brushing his fingertips over the skin of the arm, or whether the bow is really grabbing onto and moving the string “skin,” as when a person grabs hold of his arm and actually moves the skin back and forth.

When I ask for this method of playing, my student’s tone immediately deepens and increases in volume. Thereafter, all I have to do is remind my student to make sure his or her bow is moving the string skin.

Here are the links to the previous articles about speed demons and the "rushing" issue:

Speed Demons

Speed Busters
The Power of the Stopped Bow

Please leave a comment if you have another teaching or practicing idea to address this issue that you would like to share.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Monday Morning Check In: The Countdown Begins

This is the last Monday of November. For me this is the signal that the countdown begins. More than any other time of the year, this part of the year presses in on me. I think about all the things I had anticipated in January that I would have done by the end of this December, and I feel the pressure to accomplish even more.
Over at Deep Existence, Stephen Guise's blog about personal development, he wrote last October about a test to evaluate your life. He suggested taking a "picture" of your life as you find it at the beginning of the month. Make a list of where you stand. He calls that point A. Then at the end of the month, perform the same exercise and call that point B. Hopefully, you will see movement. To read this fascinating article, complete with suggestions about becoming active in your life decisions, click here.
I find great value in Guise's monthly exercise, although I generally forget to do it or give myself credit for making any progress. Instead, I find that this last hurrah of the current year gives me the push I need to think about these things. Perhaps it is because the season's activities change. I get a break from some of my teaching activities while I add on more performance activities related to the season, which gives me a little bit of free time to enjoy reflective activities, such as trips to Starbucks, coffee shop writing, and visiting with friends and relatives.
So now is the time when I will think back to where I was last January and where I had wanted to arrive at the end of this December. This is the last month that I will have to make any progress in the direction that I had chosen to walk. In the meantime, I will look back at what I accomplished in November.
I just completed another NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), whose purpose is to spur writers to complete a 50,000-word novel in the month of November. I reached that goal last Friday. I also did NaNoWriMo last November and two other Camp Nanos this past summer. I have done a lot of writing in 2012. I hope to offer some of it to you soon.
One thing that NaNoWriMo and its permutations (Camp Nanos) teach me is that I have two basic choices, and maybe even more. One basic choice is to throw up my hands and lament that "I am so far behind," give up, or do nothing. My other basic choice is to keep moving, keep putting one foot in front of the other (or in my case, write one word after another), and do something. I usually opt to do something, any little thing that moves me forward, because my experience has shown me that these tiny movements add up to a huge movement in the end. Tiny running steps add up to a half marathon at the end of a few hours. 750 words every day add up to over 22,000 words at the end of a month, and 2,000 words a day add up to a novel.
As I look back at where I began in January, my yearly point A, to where I am right now at the end of the year 2012, my point B, I expect that I will see forward progress. I will finish what can be finished on my list in the five remaining Mondays, or 36 days, or five full weeks, depending on how you wish to think of it. I will look ahead to where I want to travel in 2013 and begin the thoughtful decision process that will help me to formulate my goals.
I hope my readers will also join me in this journey of thoughtful reflection.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Quick Teaching Tip: Fasten Your Seat Belts!

Some of my students have long referred to me as the rubber band lady, because of my heavy reliance on rubber bands for various things. I make loops out of the bands to hang things on my music stand or studio door (like nail clippers). I use rubber bands to form a secure holding assembly for wedge sponge shoulder rests. I use rubber bands to give added tension to the claw feet of shoulder rests that have become a bit too stretchy and loose for the width of the instrument. I use rubber bands as visual demonstrations of the elasticity of our brain power. If you give me a need, I can usually invent a method to use a rubber band to address the need.

I use a rubber band wrapped around my frog to give me a feeling of security when I use the bow. My hands tend to be dry and slippery on the bow, and the added rubber band gives me the feeling that I have a secure hold on the bow stick. It weighs next to nothing, but that feeling of the bath mat nonstick surface really helps me to maintain a comfortable hold on the bow.

I have noted though that there are additional benefits. I can feel my pinkie on the rubber band on the stick, and that allows me to "sink" into the pinkie side of my bow hold. This sinking into the pinkie helps to turn on the outside muscles of my bow arm, which are the relaxation muscles. I therefore turn off any unnecessary tension in my bow arm and right shoulder when I rest my pinkie on the rubber band. And the beauty of the rubber band is that I can feel this at all times and can gently remind myself to relax while I am playing. Sometimes the rubber band wrapped around the frog is too tricky for my very young beginners, although the older students, including my university students, find the rubber band "addicting." We have even jokingly referred to our addiction as the "Rubber Band Club."

Sometimes students start leaning on the index finger (which I call pronation) and the pinkie starts to lift off the stick. I check to be sure the student has enough rosin, because this could be one reason the student has done this. Another reason could be that the student has relaxed the bow hold too much. Although we do not want tension in the bow hold, the student still needs to "engage" the bow hold energy. The bow thumb still needs to work to hold up all the other fingers, like Atlas holding up the world on his shoulders.

Other students might let their bow hold slip by not curling the fingers around the frog and stick enough. The stick should sit in the first knuckle joints of the fingers. I have a few students with some double-jointed fingers, and if the students do not place the bow fingers low enough on the stick to reach down to the first knuckles, the stick presses against the fingers in a manner that engages the finger's double-joint. The solution is to bring the bow fingers down far enough, but this is sometimes difficult for students to remember to do, and parents are not always vigilant about maintaining this good bow hold habit.

Personally I had this problem myself with my bow hand pinkie, and I never addressed it until I was well into my adult career. Then one day I hit on a solution in my particular case. For a few weeks, I brought my ring finger down lower on the frog than is customary or correct. I did it on purpose and for just a few weeks. When I lowered the ring finger, my pinkie had to curl up past the point of engaging the double-joint. When I played like this for a few weeks, my pinkie joint muscle got stronger. Now I cannot even engage the double-joint on command.

This was a great solution for me, but the question arose as to how to help some of these students who had bow hold issues. Recently, a young string teacher shared a new use of the rubber band with me -- the seat belt.

With a few deft twists around the frog, the rubber band creates a seat belt and an "X" across the top of the frog. The X is for placement of the pinkie, which lands just behind the X on the back of the top of the bow stick above the frog eyelet. The seat belt is for the ring finger. For some younger students I might also add a small patch of Dr. Scholl's Molefoam as a little cushion for the ring finger. We call this the car seat. Here is a brief video showing how to wrap the rubber band around the frog to form the seat belt.

By using the car seat and seat belt analogies, which all young students are familiar with, we also reinforce the concept of getting ready before playing. Students understand that the driver should not begin to drive off before all the car passengers are strapped into their car seats and other seats. So my students learn to check that everyone is "strapped in" before beginning to play.

The rubber band is easily wrapped around a larger size instrument bow, but occasionally the band is too loose for the smaller sizes. In these cases, I begin my frog wrap from the end of the bow rather than inside the bow, and that extra loop takes out the slack in the rubber band.

Recently I overheard two young students, about 7 and 8 years old, comparing notes. "Do you have a seat belt too?" Maybe I'll have to start a "Seat Belt Club."

Monday, November 19, 2012

Monday Morning Check In: Gimme a Break!

This is the week of Thanksgiving in the United States, a time of family, feasting, and celebration of our country’s early history. As wee children in elementary school we learned about the Pilgrims sailing to America, landing at Plymouth Rock, and about their early struggles to survive a harsh climate and establish a thriving colony.

As a grownup teacher, I have a different perspective of Thanksgiving now. Yes, the holiday does still hold some of the elements that I learned about as a child, but the holiday holds so much more meaning for me now, because this is one of the only times during the year WHEN I GET A BREAK!

What? How can that be? Don’t you get holidays throughout the year? What about vacations? Well, this is a tricky subject for me. Let me explain.

I am a musician, and my profession’s history is tied in to the church calendar. The church traditionally used musicians quite a bit during the special religious holidays of the church calendar, such as Christmas and Easter, for example. This practice still holds true today. I have some of my most busiest playing during these holidays. I also have other performances that are tied into the holiday season, such as the Symphony Christmas Sing-a-long, the Messiah, the Nutcracker, and the New Year’s Pops Concerts. I play Christmas Eve services as well as other special Christmas Oratorio performances throughout the month of December.

Once the Thanksgiving holiday weekend has ended, I hit the ground running. My university responsibilities begin to wind down with end-of-semester recitals, juries, and final exams. My private teaching studio gears up for its Christmas program at our local community theater as part of the Christmas Trail of Lights display. The symphony begins the busy holiday music season. Basically I will not have a single day or evening free again until Christmas Day itself. Even Christmas starts later since I will be getting to bed around 2 am after the late night Christmas Eve services that I play in a neighboring town. If Christmas were to fall on a Sunday, I would also have morning church services to play as well. After Christmas, the Pops Concert rehearsals begin immediately.

Thanksgiving holiday is my only break. It lasts for four days, and I look forward to the peace and quiet of these days. In fact, my goal is usually to see how many days I can spend in my pajamas. It is an interesting goal, but try as I might, I never spend even one day in that attire. One of my other Thanksgiving goals is to clean my house up enough to actually have guests. Some years I have more work to do in order to meet this goal. This may be such a year.

I am in the middle of another NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month: write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November), and I am well on the way to finishing sometime this week. I just finished a recital performance last Saturday night at Texas State University along with other faculty members (the TreSorelle Trio plus one). The symphony is about to perform Rite of Spring before it begins its holiday season.

I love my students and my playing responsibilities, but at this time of year I need a short period of time to refresh my batteries and renew my spirit.

I need some time to myself. I need some time to build my appreciation and thankfulness for having all my students and studio families in my life. I need time to celebrate and be thankful for the blessed life I have. I need time to rest physically and mentally so that I regain my equilibrium, my center, and my balance. I need time to reconnect with family and my dog pack, as well as spend time with the "big boys" out on the back forty (my donkeys, alpacas, and left-brained, extroverted horse). I need time to watch all the television movies and shows I recorded and read all the books I downloaded on my iPad's Kindle app. I need time to enjoy the cool, crisp air and smell the smoke from the fireplaces that my neighbors have lit.

No, it is more than that. I need the time so that I will spend the time being thankful, because deep in my heart I really am thankful for my full life. I am thankful that I have good health and am able to sustain such a full life. I am thankful for my readers and for the many emails and comments I receive from readers and friends from all over the world (the blog has reached 108 countries to date).

Thank you, everyone, and have a blessed, thankful holiday and restful week! 

Monday, November 12, 2012

Monday Morning Check In: the Finish Line

I ran a half marathon in San Antonio on Sunday. It involved getting up very early on two days so that I could pick up my race information and other racing paraphernalia on one day and return to run the race the next day. I finished the event and received my finisher's medal, which is quite neat. I have decided that I enjoy doing half marathons better than full marathons because the shorter distance run generally does not take up an entire day, although yesterday, the event certainly seemed as if it was a full day.

Finisher's Medal

One thing I enjoy while running these events is the direction that my mind takes during the run. There are the typical moments when my mind flits from one curious subject to another puzzling one. There are also those instances when my mind seems to think about nothing in particular and is more receptive to what my senses take in, such as the small flock of about 15 birds that kept changing direction overhead on one stretch of the race. I just watched without any specific thoughts about what I witnessed, other than the beauty of the coordinated movements.

Despite these fleeting moments of non-thinking, my thoughts do generally make observations, and sometimes quite a lot of them. Later I then take these thoughts and try to transform them into lessons that I learned from my experience. Please indulge me as I share some of my lessons from today, because I promise that I will connect them up with teaching and parenting.

There are a lot of people around. A lot of them. I do not know how many people were signed up and present to run this event, but there were enough to fill up 32 corrals or starting points. It took 40 minutes  after the start gun before my corral finally reached the starting line.

We are all different. As I looked around at everyone, I realized that we are all different. Really different. There were short ones, fat ones, skinny ones, tall ones, big ones, round ones, muscular ones, freckled ones, birth-marked ones, tattooed ones, young ones, old ones, bald ones -- well, you get the idea. We had so many differences between us. I entertained myself during the hour and a half wait before my group began running by watching the people around me.

We share many things in common. While I noted that there are a lot of people and that we were all different, I also had the presence of mind to note how many things we all shared in common. I cannot say that we completely shared these things all together. It was more like a wall map with straight pins pushed into the map to represent all the people, and strings being tied here and there between the people to represent common connections between them.

Some of us wore the same brand of shoes or clothing, while others shared a different sense of fashion with another group of runners. There was an Elvis impersonator (a bad one, and I think he garnered himself some television attention), a Mad Hatter, and several tutus. Some preferred to walk most of the distance, some to run, and some to do a combination of both. Some talked and walked in smaller groups, while some of us preferred to concentrate more on a solitary pursuit. Some of us shared the same training plans, and some of us shared the same race strategy. Some of us suffered from the heat of the warm and humid day, and others seemed to do just fine. I spent most of the race making all of these observations, and I was never at a loss for thinking up new ones.

We share a common purpose. Despite all of these differences and similarities, we did all share one common purpose, and that was to get to the finish line. We shared the same activity, although we approached it and performed it in different ways.

Now, let me relate that to teaching and partnering with our students' parents. There are many of us around. There is never a shortage of parents around, and there are plenty of teachers available, especially with the handiness of the Internet and Skype. We are all different though. We are unique in our teaching styles, learning styles, personality styles, approach to problem solving, emotional background, and desire to learn. And yet, there are many commonalities between us. Some of us have shared many of these various traits with each other, although not all of them.

As a teacher with a great deal of experience, I have to remind myself periodically that one size does not fit all, and that there will be times when my great ideas do not work for a student. These moments are great puzzles for me, especially when my ideas work for 99 other students except for this one student who stands before me. These are the moments when my teaching and analytical skills are honed. These are the moments when I make new discoveries about learning, about the Suzuki repertoire, about parenting, and about teaching.

Sometimes this period of time in the learning-teaching process can be quite frustrating and puzzling. This is when I remind myself that despite our differences and commonalities, which do not appear to be working at the moment, there is something bigger and more global that will see us through to success.

We share a common purpose.

My studio parents and I share the same common purpose, and that is my teaching philosophy that all children can learn, that talent is not inborn, and that parents are the most important influence in their children's lives and have the most impact on their children's development, motivation, and desire to learn. We are all different in our pace and approach to learning, but we are all on the same road to the ultimate goal: to grow the child into a fine human being with a good heart. This is the finish line in my studio.

Yesterday, as I ran (or walked) alongside all the other runners in the San Antonio Rock 'n Roll Half and Full Marathons, I celebrated the great number of us who shared a common purpose, and that was to reach the finish line. Thanks to all my friends who supported me on this latest running journey.

This week, consider what your "finish line" is. Do you have a stated teaching or parenting philosophy? Take a few moments to write out this statement in one sentence. Post this philosophical statement in a prominent place where you will view it daily.

Would you be willing to share your philosophy in the comments below? Consider visiting the Teach Suzuki Facebook page and liking us.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Speed Busters

A few weeks ago I wrote about the problem of the speed demon. (To read that article, click here). I promised then that I would write again about some possible solutions that would help the student slow down.

Basically the problem is that the student is not paying attention. The student is not listening to the end product. Instead, the student is caught up in the physical sensations of playing fast, kind of like sprinting for the sole purpose of the exhilaration of running. The trick then is to find ways that will slow the child down or cause him or her to slow down and listen.

There are artificial devices, of course, that can provide a constricting pulse, and that may be a solution for a time. I have been known to provide a metronome marking for some students for etudes and scales in order to keep the exuberance in check. The metronome can be a worrisome issue for some students though. Some students react negatively to the distracting sound of the device and prefer a visual cue. Others have trouble matching the sound. In most of these cases, and in general anyway, I find it more useful to ask the student to be a human metronome. I will ask the student to step in time to the music or march in place while playing. Many rhythmic problems resolve themselves with this technique.

Here is a short video of one of my students who has just learned how to step in place and play the first measure of May Song. It is still a bit rudimentary, but my student shows how it is done. I might add that the student finally played the rhythm correctly after learning how to coordinate her playing actions with her feet.

Other Physical Methods
Other physical methods that I incorporate in my teaching include knee walking, marching, and hand clapping. I find knee walking to be particularly useful in group classes with Perpetual Motion. I ask the students to gather on the long side of the group classroom and get down on their knees. Then the students begin to knee walk to the other side of the room in time to the music. This is one of the most humorous sights. The students look like a flock of penguins on the march.

Students can also march around the room in a follow-the-leader game, and students tend to march in step with each other eventually. This activity may also lend itself to a discussion of pulse and rhythm, especially when some children opt to march to quarter notes and other children choose to punctuate half notes.

Hand clapping is also useful. One subset of the group can clap while the other students play in time to the clap. A parent could also provide the clapping cues for their student.

Turtle Day
Aside from physical movements, I have had some success slowing students down by asking them to play the song in the speed of a turtle. I declare “Turtle Day” on occasion and we play everything slowly, as we would expect turtles do play. I might ask the student to suggest a slow, lumbering animal, and I have had suggestions that included elephants.

Blind Man's Bluff
The biggest difficulty is finding ways to have the student listen to how they sound. One parent wrote in to say that her child paid attention more to the sound of his playing when he had his eyes closed or played in a dark room. “Blind Man’s Bluff” is a good game for this. We put blindfolds over the student’s eyes or turn off the lights. Sometimes we put our hands over the student’s eyes and say, “no peeking!” These techniques may work to some degree and for a period of time.

My favorite solution is to ask for staccato bows. I have noticed that speed demons tend to lose the clear articulation between notes, and in particular, these students also drop all pretense of playing staccato bows. I find this when we review songs that incorporate staccato, such as Variation A, Variation B (especially this one!), Variation C, Song of the Wind, Perpetual Motion, Allegretto, and Etude. Variation B is particularly troublesome for many students as they tend to play it without staccato bows on every note except for the second note of the three-note group, which is the note before the rest.

If the staccato bows have completely disappeared, I may have to help the student to relearn how to play staccato, stopped bows. Sometimes students have morphed the staccato into a forced bow stroke, where the student is using force in some way to stop the bow or push out the staccato “pop” from the string. That is not how I teach staccato in my studio. For a quick teaching tip video about my “fish bowl staccato,” click here.

In order for the student to establish the crisp popcorn bow staccato that I want, the student inevitably slows down to a speed that is more conducive to crisp staccato bows. In the process, the student cleans up many bowing articulation problems. I plan to write an article about hovering balls and coloring books, and this will explain some of the articulation issues that I address. The staccato performance now reveals messy bowing and string crossing. If the bow is crooked and wispy, the staccato will reveal that and help the student to address the problem. Periodically, I declare a Popcorn Day (click here) to help promote the tonal development that stems from good firm staccato bows.

Chip Game
I use the chip game to engage the student in using the left brain hemisphere to evaluate what the student is playing. This simple game can be played with pennies, plastic poker chips, small plastic counters, peanuts, M&Ms, tiny marshmallows, or chocolate chips. Some teachers invite the students to earn a few of these items first, but I start out my game by giving the student 10 freebies. I explain that we are going to play a game where I play something first and have the student imitate me back. Sometimes I will play my own violin, and sometimes I will have the student hold his or her violin while I move the bow for them. I prefer this last method because the student will gain the added benefit of actually hearing the correct sound directly in front of them from their own instrument, as they would if they made the sound themselves.

I explain that if the student does not match my sound, then I get to snatch away one of the chips from my student’s chip pile. If the student matches my sound, then they get to keep the chip. At the end of the game, the winner is the player who has the most chips. We also discuss what happens if there is a tie (no one wins because we have the same number of chips each). I allow the student to request a “do-over” if necessary, but only before we evaluate the sound.

I make the first sound, of course correctly making exactly the sound that I want my student to imitate and recreate. Then the student plays the same thing, and I ask the student whether the sound was exactly the same or not. I ask the student to do the evaluation so that they pay attention. If they do not pay attention and cannot answer the question, then I take a chip from the student’s pile. I rarely have a student be less than honest. In those debatable cases, I will ask the parent to decide. Occasionally I will ask the mother to be a little bit more lenient. I think parents can be too demanding at times, probably because they are trying to look perfect in my eyes. It is a balancing act on my part, because I am not only teaching the student but also the parent.

Penny Lane
Sometimes I will place a stack of pennies on the music stand and start taking them away if a problem persists. I may not even explain why I am taking a penny away. The student usually figures it out, because my act of taking away a penny causes them to become involved in trying to figure out what I am doing. When I teach in a classroom setting, such as a summer strings camp, I use a similar technique by writing students' names on the board and making a check mark beside a student’s name when certain behaviors occur or when I want to acknowledge extra points for special behaviors, such as remembering to bring a pencil to class.

In one particularly difficult classroom setting, we had a very talkative and disruptive student that could not seem to get a grip on his behavior. (I am sure that I worded it in a much more pleasant, "teacherly" way.) I pulled out four quarters and asked him if that would be something that might be worth his trying to learn to control himself and his talking outbursts. To my surprise, two other students chipped in some additional change, saying that they would also find it worth it to them to have this student behave differently.

I put the change in a bowl and proceeded with the class. The first time the young man forgot and began to disrupt the class with his loud talking, I picked up one of the quarters and handed it to one of the students who had chipped into the pot. The second time it happened, I removed another quarter and gave it to the second student who had chipped in. The boy did not have a problem after that. The class proceeded smoothly, and we all had a great time. I could see how much effort the young boy was putting into the exercise. At the end of class, I ceremoniously presented him with the change remaining in the pot, and the other classmates congratulated him on “winning.” To my surprise, the next day, the boy opted to behave differently without the enticement of money in a pot. He announced that he enjoyed the change in attention that he got from his classmates so much more than the negative complaints he had received previously. He decided that he wanted the positive regard more than the negative. From that day forward he was a changed student, and we grew to really enjoy having him in class.

Practice Time Changes
Sometimes changing the times in which the student practices may help the problem. If the practice time is a rushed or hurried affair because the family’s schedule leaves a finite amount of practice time, this may be contributing to the speedy problem. Perhaps the practice could be divided into more than one session to permit a more relaxed approach.

What's For Dinner?
It might be possible to find a reason to use time limitations to create a practice venue that is conducive to good playing. For example, one busy mom routinely asked her daughter to provide some music for her as she worked to put dinner on the table. She regularly told me how much she enjoyed hearing her daughter play the violin while she cooked, and I enjoyed watching her daughter wiggle with pride at hearing her mother’s praise and compliments about this lovely “dinner music” gesture.

Stop & Start Game
Another group class activity could include the “stop and start” game. In this game, I stop periodically during the song to see if I can “catch” anyone who is not paying attention. I find this game to be a particularly effective way to teach students when to pay attention to sticky ensemble places in the music. For example, when we play Martini’s Gavotte or Becker’s Gavotte in Violin Volume Three, I stop at the ends of phrases, so that students get in the habit of waking up at these moments to be sure that they are watching and playing together. Sometimes I wish our symphony’s conductor could play that game with us so that all of our members would learn to pay attention to each other and to the conductor at the same moments.

Slow Down Game
Another game I will play when students rush in group class is the "slow down” game. Without telling students that I am playing this game, I just start playing slower and slower every time I notice that students are rushing or are not paying attention. With each burst of speed from my students, I slow down. Sometimes we wind up playing at a crawl speed. Then when I have everyone’s attention again, I gradually start to speed up to the regular tempo again. I find this to be an interesting way to play Perpetual Motion and Etude in a group setting.

Squares of Eight
I enjoy using the squares of eight game, which is a tip I picked up from the practicespot.com website. We fold a piece of paper three times to make 8 squares. Then I label each square sequentially from one to eight. I put a game piece or some other marker on square one and ask the student to play a particular passage. If the student plays it correctly, then we move forward one square. If the student does not perform the passage correctly, then we move the game piece back a square. This game really works, and along with engaging the child’s attention, the game also reinforces proper practice habits and repetition. Here is the article I wrote that explains the squares of eight game: Practice Rut: Expand Your Thinking

Speeding Tickets
I have a medium-sized hand puppet of a policeman, complete with a little radio attached to his shoulder with Velcro and a whistle. I have made up little cards of speeding ticket violation fines. When a student starts speeding, I blow the whistle, and I have my hand puppet hand out a speeding violation, complete with a "dangers of speeding" speech. The speeding violation fine might include: playing 10 Mississippi Hot dogs on the E string with perfect staccato bows on the hot dog notes, 10 circle bows, or something related to an area that the student is learning.

Other People
Using other people may help the speeding problem. I had a young student play Long, Long Ago from Suzuki Violin Volume One at his grandfather’s funeral. After the funeral, at the student’s next lesson, he played the song for me to show me how he had done. As he played, his mother teared up with the memory of her son’s playing for her father’s funeral. Thereafter, every time the little boy played that song, he would turn to see if he had made his mother cry. It was a very moving thing to watch how the two of them interacted in this way. The mother’s reaction and her obvious emotional response to her son’s music drew the two of them close to each other each time. It was very beautiful to watch. The little boy had been quite attached to his grandfather.

I have asked some students to imagine playing for God, the president of the United States, or the Pope, just as Dr. Suzuki suggested that his adopted protégé, Koji Toyoda, play in church for God. I notice that students make a marked improvement in their posture and their sound when they imagine playing for an important listener. One of my parents coined the phrase, “Practice Awesomeness,” as a signal to her daughter to adopt this kind of playing posture and attentiveness.

Parking "Violinations"
For my older students, we might have a conversation about speeding and violations, which I like to call "violinations." For example, just the other day, I discussed parking fines with one of my university students. I asked him why he thought so many people violated the parking restrictions on the university campus. After a little discussion, we concluded that it might be because the fines were low enough to turn a parking violation into a viable choice. If the fines were $500 or the loss of a hand, then there would certainly be fewer parking violations.

I then selected a passage of about 20 measures in my student’s etude, and I told him that I was giving him a virtual $1,000, but I would charge him $20 per “intonation violation” in the passage. I pointed out that I was not instructing the student to go at a particular rate of speed, but that I would “charge” him $20 for every note that was out of tune. Ready? Go! It was very interesting to watch how carefully my student played that passage for me. He lost a few $20 bills along the way, but his playing of the passage improved immensely. And he learned something along the way.

Speeding can be corrected once the problem is addressed. Two weeks ago I discussed possible reasons why students speed. I hope that today's article helps to spark the creative juices to find methods to address the problem and help the student to start engaging again in the process of making music.

Please leave me a comment about some of the ways that you have discovered that might help to address the speeding issue. I really would like to build up a community of interested teachers and parents who are willing to share their ideas. Do you have a favorite way to address this issue with your child or student?

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Monday Morning Check In: Small Steps

I have long been a fan of the author Julia Cameron's suggestion that we write morning pages each day. In her book, The Artist's Way, Ms. Cameron recommends that we write three pages daily in longhand. These pages may contain whatever we want. They might yield nothing better than a stream of consciousness brain dump, but the act of releasing whatever is swimming around upstairs in our heads will free up some space for us to create bigger and better things. For more information about the morning pages and The Artist's Way, visit here.

I used composition notebooks for this purpose because they were small and inexpensive. I bought them by the caseload. I have some difficulty now writing in longhand and prefer typing, so I was delighted to learn about 750words.com. This is a website that follows Cameron's morning pages idea, but it allows us to type in our morning pages. I highly recommend this website. The gentleman who set it up has calculated that three pages of longhand writing equates to 750 words. The website tracks what you write and provides you with feedback that is unique to you.

I started using this website on August 3, and I have not missed a day so far. What really struck me though was when I learned how many words I had written in a month just using this website and the morning pages principle. If you do the math, you will find that 750 words per day equates to about 23,000 words in a month. I did not think I had written that much. I realized that my little steps of writing 750 words per day added up in the end to a monumental amount of material. What a powerful thing it is to take small steps toward a larger goal! But in this instance, I did not have that particular goal in the end. My goal instead was in the front of the process, which was to make a habit of daily morning pages.

I think back to my Central Oregon hiking treks up the South Sister mountain. Over the years I have tried many different tactics to make that grueling hike easier. I finally settled on the tactic of taking it one step at a time, and sometimes I would count my steps as I went along, stopping for water or a breather after reaching a certain number. So too with my marathon trainings over the years. I would take the long runs one minute at a time or a certain number of steps.

I find that by focusing on the small steps of the process rather than how far away the final goal is from where I am in the process of working toward the goal, that I can more easily make progress. One small step at a time. One daily habit at a time.

This week, try looking at your larger goals from the front end. Is there a small daily habit that you can concentrate on, that over time will lead you to the success you want to achieve?