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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Rome Festival Orchestra 2014

Today is an unusual post. I am not writing an article about how to be a better Suzuki parent or teacher. Instead I am making an appeal to my readers and friends.

I am raising funds for 8-10 of my university students to travel to Rome, Italy in summer 2014 to participate in the Rome Festival Orchestra. This is a three-week program, and the students will learn a great deal of demanding repertoire. In additional to orchestral performances, the students will be presenting several staged and costumed opera suites and at least one full-blown opera production. The students will also perform chamber music works and participate in recitals. All of this music-making takes place in the heart of the city of Rome, within the shadow of the oldest part of the city and within walking distance of the Vatican. The students will have opportunities to visit places of historical and cultural significance, including museums.

The students will return home with renewed enthusiasm for their music studies as well as with a new maturity that comes from the travel and educational experience of living in a foreign country, especially a country of such great musical and historical significance.

How can you help? Please visit the following link to read more about my campaign to raise the necessary funds to make this experience happen. Then consider joining my campaign to fund this experience. You can find out much more information by visiting: my campaign.

I have set my campaign for 60 days to reach our goal. Thank you for your consideration. I hope to report great success in the coming months.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Happy birthday, Dr. Suzuki!

How fitting that today, the birthday of Dr. Shinichi Suzuki, I would be having lunch with the parent of a student who attended our former Texas State University Suzuki string Institute! We plan to revisit old, friendly memories about our fun!

Thank you, Dr. Suzuki, for bringing such a joyful dimension to my life. 

Monday, October 7, 2013

Monday Morning Check In: Where are You?

Well, I am obviously not here. After a whirlwind schedule of recitals and performances in the past six weeks, when I finally found a few spare moments, I decided it was best not to try to cram them full with more activities. No, I did not straighten up or dust my house. I did, however, make enough meals to last me through this week of symphony rehearsals in the evening. I also found time to practice for my upcoming performances in the next three weeks.

While I did contemplate writing a Monday morning blog post, I finally made the decision to let it go for this week. I did come up with a few topic ideas that I would like to address sometime in the next week or two.

Did you know that horses breathe through their noses and not through their mouths? That means that horses will "drown" if their noses are clogged up or covered by water. Think of me as a horse this week, as I struggle to keep my nose above the waterline.

See you soon. Send good thoughts my way. It has been a roller coaster these past two weeks!

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Monday Morning Check In: Value your priorities

What is a priority? The Merriam-Webster dictionary instructs us that a priority is the state of being before something else: "something given or meriting attention before competing alternatives." I like this last phrase because it sums up nicely how priorities work.

Our lives are filled with competing alternatives at any given time. How do we manage our time and activities so that we get the most return and satisfaction for our efforts? One way is to use the urgent/important matrix promoted by Dr. Stephen Covey. For more information about the matrix and an excellent article about how to use it, visit the Mind Tools website here. Another way is to focus on your values and give them the time and attention that they deserve.

Why did this subject come up today? I was thinking about the state of the studio, which started back up about a month ago. I was thinking back to the progress I observed with my students and parents as they got back into a regular practice routine. I also observed when parents and students got off the regular routine practice track and noted the causes. This reflection led me to thoughts about priorities and how to help parents and teachers set guidelines for turning things into priorities.

The best way to maintain any regular routine is to establish the activity as a priority. This means that the activity takes precedence over other "competing alternatives." How do we determine which activities take precedence over other activities?

I start out my thinking by deciding which activities are important to me. When it comes to children, the question is a no-brainer for me. Children and their activities have the highest priority in my opinion. If the activities are important enough for us to enroll our children, then it seems to me that we should place importance and devote time and attention to the child's activity.

When I consider my priorities, I begin my reflection about what is important to me and about what I value the most. My values are my foundation, and I would argue that this should be the starting point for all of our decisions. When I talk about values, I am referring to those ideas and principles that I hold most dear: children, honesty, fair dealings, loyalty -- the list can be quite extensive. I assume that for other parents and teachers, children would top the list of values, and therefore priorities. And now I have reached the point that I wanted to stress today.

If children are valuable to us, then anything we do that is associated with children – our children – should be given the highest priority. If we have made the decision to enter our children in certain activities, then we should honor our commitment by following through with what the chosen activity requires such as attendance at lessons and group classes and regular practice.

I want parents to spend this week thinking about this issue of children and priorities. Do our decisions about activities, practice, lessons, and group class attendance line up with our values? Are we giving priority to our children's activities? If our actions do not line up with our value system, then perhaps we need to reevaluate our priorities. Perhaps we need to be clearer about what our values really are.

I think it is an excellent idea to revisit the issue of personal values from time to time, as this one area most affects what decisions we make and what priorities we assign to those decisions. I recommend that we set our priorities to line up with our values, and then we should value our priorities.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Monday Morning Check In: 8 Ways to Survive a Road Trip

I did not have very many good writing topic ideas for today. My brain is fried. I lack creativity and crave more sleep. I need to do laundry, dust my house, and sit down for a time with no demands made of me.

I survived a three day road trip to the furthermost tip of Texas -- the Valley.

The Texas State University string trio, TreSorelle, was invited to visit several school districts and offer performances and workshop clinics to students. It was an ambitious and intense program and schedule, and to really sweeten the pot, we drove the 4.5 hours to and fro. Our days were crammed full with teaching and performing, and we had barely a few hours to call our own. Road trips of this magnitude can be an overwhelming drain on energy and stamina. Trips like this can bring out the worst attitudes and traits in a person.

This trip went so smoothly. It was actually enjoyable. We laughed and smiled a great deal during the entire adventure. We were happy to be doing what we were doing, not only because we enjoy what we do, but because we enjoy each other and what each of us brings to the experience. I have been on other road trips of this type, but this one is a trip that I will remember because of how enjoyable it was to spend a few days in close proximity with some of the most special people I know in my work place.

I thought about what made this experience so easy to handle, and several thoughts came to mind. I thought of 8 reasons why I found it so easy to survive this road trip:

Good Humor. Each of my colleagues has a ready smile and an easy, unaffected laugh. Both of them look on the bright side of things in general, even in negative situations or unpleasant environments. They are quick to forgive and forget slights or other unpleasantness. I cannot recall laughing as often as I did during these past few days. I must remember that a good sense of humor, both as a listener and as a conversationalist, helps to smooth over any rough edges and provides positive enthusiastic energy.

Expectancy. Each of my colleagues maintained an attitude of expectancy. So often people look for bad things to occur. This is also a form of expectancy but not the type that I am writing about now. What I mean by expectancy is that we kept ourselves open to receive anything and everything. We strived to avoid having any preconceived notions about what might occur during this visit to the schools. We kept ourselves open to whatever experience or encounter we met. This attitude made it easy to maintain the next attitude.

Flexibility. The attitude of flexibility means that we were ready for anything that came our way. Some teachers wanted us to perform and talk to the students about our university. Other teachers wanted us to listen to the students perform and then offer constructive ideas for improvement. Still others wanted us to do all of these things as well as offer individual assistance to promising students. My colleagues and I kept our attitudes flexible so that we could accommodate any and all requests. This attitude went a long way toward making our schedule easy to live with. In a way, it was also fun because we were not bored with our schedule. There was something unusual and new in almost every part of our days. Staying flexible made it easier to handle any bumps along the way.

Good Company. I find it easy to enjoy the company of anyone who shares an upbeat attitude, and who is kind, compassionate, open, sharing, friendly, caring, and considerate. My colleagues have these qualities and more, as did the school directors that we worked with and then spent time with at the end of the day. They were all a terrific bunch!

Snacks. Part of the fun of the road trip experience were the road trip snacks. Everyone had their favorite road trip snack. I think there is much to learn about a person by the type of snacks they choose on a road trip. Healthy food, garbage food, a mixture? Road trips tend to bring out that side of us that wants to indulge in snacks "just this once," and it was interesting to see what that "once" meant to everyone.

Sharing and Shared Experiences. The road trip brings people together in a close space for a long period of time. It is easy to breed a situation that is fraught with difficulties. In our experience, the more intimate small space of the vehicle we drove allowed us to share experiences on a very personal level. This situation might be difficult with some people, but in our case, the three of us were very happy to share things together. Not only did we share details about our personal lives, but also about our personal hopes and plans for the future. We created a safe environment for all of us to share a part of ourselves with each other, and that sharing allowed us to build a much closer connection with each other as a group. Along with this sharing of our own personal experiences, the long road trip presented us with experiences to share together. We were able to experience the same events and offer each other different responses and perspectives, which allowed us to know each other even better.

Downtime Together and Apart. We spent a great deal of time with each other, yet we allowed each other time and space apart. We might have had a mere thirty minutes before the next activity, but we used that time to find a quiet space alone to practice, reflect, or merely close our eyes and rest for a little bit. Even our time in our motel rooms at the end of our long days we spent alone and allowed ourselves a breather to rest in order to renew our energy for the next day.

Coming Home. When we got home, we were all glad to finish the trip. We had a successful experience. We worked with many students and visited many school directors and programs. We performed numerous times for receptive audiences. When we returned our vehicle, there was a reluctance in the air to separate from each other. We seemed to hang on a little while longer in each other's presence rather than dash off to our respective homes. We really did have a wonderful and successful road trip. It was good to come home though too. I was able to drive away with good spirits because I knew that I would see my good friends and colleagues in a few days.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Monday Morning Check In: Role Models

Written by Paula E. Bird ©2013

When I joined the symphony many years ago, I recall watching a woman enter rehearsal and stride to her seat on the inside of the second stand of the first violins. I could not help but notice her. She walked with a calm air of confidence. She looked like she knew what she was supposed to be doing and would be able to do it well. She had such a strong air about her, and at every rehearsal I would watch her entrance on the stage. I wanted to be just like her. I wanted to exude that same self-confidence and feel that same sense of purpose that I saw in her.

I have talked about the importance of role modeling before, but I have been thinking this week about the importance of having role models for ourselves. As teachers, we are careful to present ourselves publicly in a way that we hope will inspire students, motivate parents, and lead others in a direction that would benefit others as a community. The Suzuki Method places a great emphasis on role modeling: parents for students, teachers for parents and students, and students for other students. All of us who are part of the Suzuki Triangle are role models in some way to each other.

My students are also role models to the other students in their classes. For example, in my current group class configuration, there are some students who are thoughtfully role modeling certain behaviors for other students. Last year, I had a young boy about 7 years old who was quite fearful in his approach to new things. He was afraid to make mistakes and definitely was out of his comfort zone whenever we attempted a new skill. He came to me as a student when his previous teacher moved away, so I did not have an opportunity to teach him from the very beginning, although I did back him up and revisit the Twinkles to make sure that we addressed any bad habits he might have developed.

During group classes, I noticed that this young, fearful boy seemed to be drawn to another older boy of about 13 years old. I watched the interactions between the two boys over the course of several classes. The young boy had an anxious energy about him, while the older boy was much calmer and much more open to trying new things. The older boy had a kind, gentle, and nurturing spirit. The younger boy constantly watched the older boy in everything that the older boy did. If the older boy tried something new, then so did the younger boy. Here is where my story gets really interesting.

I found out when we practiced for our spring recital that the younger boy did not know how to take a bow. He completely resisted my efforts to teach him how to take a bow. He said that it was embarrassing. I pushed as gently as I could, but I backed away from going all the way. At the next group class, I asked the older boy to be our leader and to practice having the group take a bow together, with our goal being to bow simultaneously. To my delight, the 13 year old would slightly rise up on the balls of his feet while taking a bow, giving a really clear signal to take a bow. I had placed the little boy almost directly behind the older one, and the younger child copied the older boy exactly. That was the end of the balking bow issue from that point on. I had an opportunity to talk to the older boy about what a fine job he did as a leader during the group class and how important his job was as far as the younger boy was concerned. From that moment on, I saw the older boy take a personal interest in the younger boy. The older would talk to the younger and show him how to do things, and the older would act very demonstratively about any new skills we brought up in class.

It is a new season and a new group class. The older boy approached me after class the other day to bring to my attention that the younger boy seemed very different this year. The younger was much more courageous about playing new songs and about participating in class. The older boy felt a true sense of worth about the role that he played in the success of the younger boy. That is the power of role modeling. Not only does the modeler provide a strong example that can give a great sense of value to the modeler, but the person watching the role modeling receives a great opportunity to learn.

I have been thinking about those individuals in my life who serve as role models for me. There is the young boy that recently joined my studio. He approaches everything as if it is going to be the most fun thing to do. He has an instant smile, an eager spirit, and great enthusiasm about his participation. I want to be like that. I want to be happy and smiling and enthusiastic about my work and my participation in life.

There are the other members of the Artisan Quartet. These people are important to my life and provide me with many role model behaviors that I want to emulate, such as consistent discipline, artistic musical expression, and general good humor and positive outlook. There are some people that I work with at the university who provide good role modeling for me in terms of collegiality, teamwork, and diplomacy.

Remember that woman I mentioned who sat in the fourth chair in the symphony? She passed away a long time ago. I have had the honor of sitting in her chair for a very long time now, and very seldom does a rehearsal go by that I do not think of that woman and how I admired the way that she conducted herself. I continue to try and emulate her style as much as I can, and I wonder if anyone thinks about me that same way that I thought of that woman.

Who are your role models and what lessons do you learn from them?

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Monday Morning Check In: Good Enough?

My studio began offering fall semester lessons two weeks ago. The first week I thought I had come up with the perfect plan to encourage the start of a daily habit of practicing. I told each student and his or her parent that if the student were to practice every day between lessons, I would give the student a “prize.” I showed the student what the prize would be for practicing every single day until the next lesson: a single page of a color-by-number picture.

This was no ordinary color-by-number item. This page called for ten different color shades and must have had one hundred or more places to fill in for the picture to be complete. This was no simple prize, I assure you. I started filling in a picture for myself, fully intending to hang it up on the studio front door as an example, but I spent so much time coloring that I did not finish my picture.

The students responded well to my announcement, I thought. They seemed very excited about the possibility of getting a prize for practicing daily. Notice that I did not set a time frame for the practices. It was up to the student and parent to structure the practice sessions. I was merely interested in building a daily practice habit. I did not concern myself with how much time was spent or what items were practiced. That would be a subject for another day.

In anticipation of the success of this plan, I prepared 30 copies of the picture that I planned to give as prizes. I have more than 30 students, so I thought that 30 was a good estimate of the number of students who would require a prize. I could not wait to hand out the prizes this past week and to reap the benefits of all those daily practices.

I eagerly greeted each student who entered the studio with, “Did you practice every day this week?” Since I was excited about the prize (it really is an awesome thing!), imagine my surprise when students answered that they had not practiced each day. One by one, I went through my lesson schedule each day, and the majority of my students had not met the daily practice challenge. All told, maybe one-third of my students practiced daily. I was very disappointed in the results of my carrot-dangling, but this is not what disturbed me the most about my experiment.

There were three conversational exchanges that took place about the prize. First came my question: “Did you practice every day this week?” Second came my student's answer: “No I didn’t,” or “I missed one (or two) days.”

Third, a number of parents followed the students' answers with remarks such as, “He almost practiced every day,” or “We practiced a lot this week, just not every day.” I could hear the defensive tone in the parents’ voices, and I wondered at that a little bit. I guessed that most of the parents recognized that they had failed the assignment to help their child get the prize. What disturbed me though were the parents’ unspoken expectations that practicing “almost” every day or “a lot” would be good enough to warrant my capitulation into giving the prize anyway.

I felt pressured to give in, but I held my ground because I had been very clear as to how the rules worked. In order to get the prize, the student needed to practice every day. There were no time expectations other than to practice something every day. I was bothered that I even felt any pressure at all. The rules were so clear, weren’t they? If you contract a builder to build you a house, but the builder only builds 80% or 90% of the house, would you expect to pay the builder the full amount that you had said you would pay when the builder built the house? If you order a meal at a restaurant but eat only 80% or 90% of it, would you expect the restaurant to allow you to pay 80% or 90% of the bill? I think not, and I am surprised that many parents seem to think that this would be acceptable. (I suppose  that I could have torn away a part of the prize and presented the student with a picture that represented whatever percentage of the days that the student had practiced, but that seems mean to me.)

As the week went on, I puzzled over why parents would think that giving out the prize when the student had not met the requirements to earn the prize was okay. Where did our society get the idea that it was alright to expect a reward for doing less than all of the work? Was it a TV show? A movie? Finally, not being able to come up with an acceptable answer myself, I began asking other parents – the parents of the students who did practice every day and who did earn the prize. One mother came up with an answer that sounded right to me.

This mother explained that everyone seems to have been conditioned to expect a reward just for “showing up,” as she put it. "No one gets a perfect attendance award anymore," she told me. "Awards are handed out for participating -- showing up -- not for participating completely." This is a sad state of affairs in my opinion. We seem to have lost touch with what it means to actually earn something. We seem to have learned that putting in a good effort will be good enough and that we should be rewarded for our effort, not for whether our effort actually produced the desired end result.

There was a video floating around Facebook and YouTube a while back. I cannot seem to find it again, but its message was so powerful when I first saw it, that I believe I can reconstruct the content. The short movie was about what I recall was a middle school band. During the performance the band director talked to the audience about the importance of music education because it was the one subject that demanded 100% in order to be "A" quality work. The director talked about our grading system, where 90-100 points qualified for the letter grade A award.

As a university instructor, I can tell you that the subject of the number of points that comprise a final grade award of an A is often brought up by students who miss the bottom line. A student with 88 or 89 points will often try to argue that he or she is entitled to be bumped up into the higher A level category. After all, the student is merely one or two points below the A level, the students argue. The student does not think through this issue far enough to recognize that this request is not fair to the students who not only reached the A level line but in some cases far surpassed it by many points. This point spread represents the difference in the quality and effort level between the 88-89 point student and the 98-99 student, and there is a difference in the quality and effort, let me assure you.

The most powerful part of the video message was when the band director offered the demonstration of what it would be like to hear a music performance with 90% of the notes played and 10% missed. The students and director had planned ahead and prepared a piece with 10% of the notes marked incorrectly. When the students performed the music, they sounded awful. The band director made the point, in my opinion. Music study reinforces the concept that 100% is the worthy goal. I can only imagine how horrible the performance would have sounded if the students had missed 20% or 30%. And yet, these are acceptable standards in our society. We are given the message that attaining 70% is “average,” and that 80% is "above average," signifying that the middle ground and slightly above is good enough. But is it? Should it be good enough to merely strive for 70% or 80% or even 90% rather than 100%?

Maybe. There are times when it may be a reward to be able to reach the middle. There are times when I have not been able to summit South Sister mountain in Central Oregon, maybe because I was not feeling well or I was not in optimum shape. Although I might have been pleased with my progress up the strenuous mountain (a respectable amount of exercise in one day!), I still walked down from that experience with the recognition that I did not finish and could not therefore experience the “high” of having accomplished the climb successfully. I also did not finish my first and only attempt at doing a 50-mile trail run race. Did I expect a medal when I called it quits around mile 27? No, I did not. I expected to see a DNF (Did Not Finish) listed after my name. The runners who actually completed the race were entitled to the medal, and I did not want to lessen the accomplishments of the other runners who actually did finish the endurance event by insisting that I be given an award for my efforts.

These past two weeks have opened my eyes to the possibility that we may be allowing our standards to slip. I hereby resolve to refocus my efforts on achieving 100% of whatever task I set before me, and I will encourage my students to do the same.

Who would like to join me in this?

Monday, September 2, 2013

Monday Morning Check In: Just one finger

I grew up in Central Pennsylvania, and everyone in my family would add hot cherry peppers to their cheesesteak sandwiches. Except me. I did not like hot peppers or other spicy foods. I was the bland one in my family when it came to hot spicy food. Then I moved to Texas. While others around me ate jalapeños, I chose to follow my usual lifestyle choice of eating nothing so hot and spicy that I would regret it in the morning.

A few decades ago, we took several junior high and high school students from our Texas youth orchestra program to visit a sister youth orchestra program in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. Our Texas students wanted to thank their Minnesota hosts by cooking an authentic Mexican style meal from scratch. We had fun in the kitchen that afternoon, as we mixed and rolled and kneaded and chopped and sliced and grated. During that communal gathering I discovered that a 12-year-old student of mine had also never eaten anything spicy in his life. The two of us made a pact on the spot to learn how to eat jalapeños. We took the minutest bit of a jalapeño and placed it in the center of a very large nacho cheese chip. Not too bad, we thought. We tried another and another. Pretty soon we were eating regular slices of a jalapeño on each nacho chip. We were pretty proud of ourselves that day, although we paid for it in the morning with tummy aches and the feeling that our upper lips were burning every time we exhaled.

This method is a direct contrast to my mothers preferred method of "full immersion." Let me relate two childhood stories about my mother's style of teaching about swimming and food taste. When my mother taught us how to swim, she dumped us in the pool. She knew that we would not drown, because we were at that part of the pool that was commensurate with our height. She did not let us pussyfoot around and stick our toes in the water either to get used to the colder temperature. She taught us to dive in from step one. Today when I encourage hesitant students to try something, I might tell them, "come on in, the water's fine." This is a reflection of my mother's style.

My second story about my mother's full immersion style involves food -- sauerkraut. I come from a family history of Pennsylvania Dutchmen. My grandparents spoke Pennsylvania Dutch, but unfortunately, my mother refused to let my grandparents speak it around the home, so that language was lost to the grandchildren. I came home from school one day at age 7 or so and sniffed the air and said, "what's that awful smell?" My mother was horrified. "You are from a Pennsylvania Dutch family and you don't like sauerkraut?" She exclaimed. "That cannot be."

At that point, my mother served sauerkraut at every single meal that week. Her full immerson method had some validity in my case, because by the end of the week I actually looked forward to eating sauerkraut. I really liked the taste.

Fast forward to the present. I recently had the opportunity to taste my first kale salad. It was delicious. As I subsequently discovered in my research, kale is one of the healthiest vegetables in the world. I started adding kale dishes to my regular menu on a small scale at first, but now we eat it regularly.

I decided recently that I should be more experimental in my choice of food. I want to explore all the various kinds of foods available today that I have never experienced before. I came across a recipe that called for feta cheese. Now I have not liked feta cheese in the past, for it is a little too strong for my taste. I pondered how I would acquire the taste for something that I already knew I did not enjoy.

That is when I remembered my history with the jalapeño. My memory then triggered another memory of a story a friend of mine once related to me about a young mother who did not enjoy having to say no so many times to her young toddler. This mother came up with the idea of "just one finger." Whenever her exuberant 18 month-year-old would try to touch a new object, the mother would gently speak to the boy,"Oh, look. It's okay to touch with just one finger." With this method, the young mom was able to teach her son that it was okay to look and maybe to touch but gently, with just one finger. This approach taught her boy to be more cautious in how he interacted with new things, rather than burst into a room and spin about with no awareness of what is happening around him.

I liked this idea and have used it on my dogs (I have nine in the house). I get tired of saying, "leave it!" whenever I want my dogs to leave something alone or I have dropped some forbidden foodstuff on the floor. There are times though when it is natural and okay for the dogs to want to sniff. So I started saying "just one sniff." I am sure that my tone of voice resonates with the dogs rather than my voice command, but I have found that the dogs do tentatively approach and gently sniff the object when I follow this method.

I decided to use this same approach with my feta cheese exercise. Just one finger, just one sniff, just one taste. I made the recipe without the feta cheese. Every time I ate a serving, I added a little taste of the feta cheese. Before I knew it, I was adding bigger amounts to experience more of the flavor in combination with the other ingredients in the recipe. Within three days, I found that I was adding the full amount and then some to my servings. Now I use feta cheese all the time.

Sometimes we can feel stymied when faced with a new situation about how to incorporate all of a new experience all at once and from the very beginning. Perhaps it would be better to stand back and just approach the new situation with just one finger, as I did with the feta cheese. As a teacher, I have been thinking about my students and how difficult it must be for them to constantly learn something new at every lesson. I have been considering how I might apply my feta cheese and kale experiences to my teaching style.

There are times when the full immersion approach may be the best way, such as fully immersing ourselves in the sound of language. Dr. Suzuki suggested this approach when he taught us about the importance of fully immersing the child in the musical environment of the repertoire that the child would learn. There are times though when a more gentler approach may be the best way to introduce a student to something new.

This week I will take a page from my own life experience, and I will be more mindful about how I offer new material to my students. I will look for more ways to gently ease my students into the new skills and repertoire by finding ways to follow the philosophy of "just one finger."

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Monday Morning Checklist: Back to School Checklist for Suzuki Parents

Written by Paula E. Bird © 2013

School is about to start for many children in the United States, and teachers are preparing to open up the teaching studio and fire up lessons for the coming school year. I have been musing about the kind of preparation that I want my Suzuki families to do in order to be ready for the fall semester. Here is a checklist of some items that I think are important for Suzuki parents to consider.

Check the size of the student's instrument. Many children have gone through growth spurts in the months since Spring, and this would be a good time to check that the child's instrument size and the size of the shoulder rest or sponge is still the appropriate fit. For piano students, check the height of the footstool and cushions to be sure that your child's posture is correct.

Renew Supplies: Check that your child has the necessary supplies to start the new school year on the right foot. Maybe this is a good time to throw away that cracked and crumbling lump of rosin that is littering your child's instrument case with sticky rosin crumbs. Does your child have the appropriate music books? Are you ready to order your child's next book level? Do you have the recording that you need? Where is that recording anyway? Maybe it's time to buy a new one because the old one is cracked or lost.

Reconsider extracurricular activities: Take a really hard, honest look at the type and amount of extracurricular activities you have scheduled for your child. Let us be honest here. You as the parent are the person responsible for setting up your child's schedule and allowing it to become overcrowded. Does your child really need to participate in all those activities? Remember a jack of all trades is usually someone who is a master of none. Simplify your child's life and stress level by keeping the amount of extra activities to a minimum. This will allow your child to experience what it is like to reach a higher level of playing ability because your child will have the opportunity to focus and practice to achieve that high level of skill and ability development without a lot of other competing distractions.

Schedule Practice Times: Grab your family calendar again. Take a good look at when you can schedule your child's practice times. Maybe you need to go so far as to actually schedule these practice times on the calendar so that everyone remembers to get it done. Remember too that we are not looking for a quantity of practice time spent practicing. As a teacher, I am glad that my students practice every day. I want to see that, even if there are short practices on occasion. I want to see my students spend more time trying to practice smart rather than a lot. Much more can be accomplished with smart practice then can be accomplished with a lot time spent in practice. Ask your child's teacher for help to determine how to do a smart practice.

Calendar lessons, group classes, and studio events on the family calendar. As you do so, note any conflicts and sort these out in advance. Your teacher may be able to accommodate a change in schedule if you ask in advance. Although I try to be helpful, I find it to be a very difficult adjustment when a parent calls me one or two days before the lesson that needs to be rescheduled. I may have to sit down with these parents who seem to have a chronic problem with scheduling and actually review the family calendar with them.

Clean out the music bag, the instrument case, and anything else you use to hold the materials for lessons, group classes, and practices. Have your child help you do this so that the two of you can share a few giggles over some of the lost treasures you will find. You may even spark a renewed interest in practicing when your child discovers that lost dice that you used to play that practice/review game you used to enjoy so much in the past.

Repair and renew. Make sure your child's instrument is in excellent playing condition to start the new year out on the best foot. Tune the piano at home. Change the violin strings and rehair the bow. Make sure you can lay your hands on the recordings that your teacher expects you to be listening to at home. If the CD is scratched or lost, purchase a new recording. Polish the instrument with the appropriate polish for that purpose. If the instrument needs repairs, take it to a reputable shop that will make these repairs.

Stock up on fun teaching aids to help you and your child enjoy your practice and home learning situations. You will find these aids at your local teacher or educational supply store or on the Internet. I schedule an annual visit to several teacher stores in neighboring towns and pick up many teaching supplies for the coming year as well as generate new enthusiasm for the year ahead and spark new ideas for fun activities.

Renew your commitment to lessons and music instruction. Set a high priority on the music activities your child has -- lessons, group classes, and studio events -- and allow these commitments to hold a high place on your list of things to do. Do not allow other things to distract from the wonderful good things that your child will learn in the studio this school year.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Yes, No, and Y-Boy

I have noticed that there seem to be two types of people in the world: the people who say yes, and the people who say no. Now, we all say one or the other word at times, but my observation is that we naturally have a leaning toward one perspective or the other. Let me give you examples.

The "yes" people welcome your coming to them to solve problems. They are open to consider new ideas and solutions, and they welcome discussion. For example, when I recently had space problems fitting my chair in the orchestra venue in a way that would be comfortable for everyone, including me, and in a way that would accommodate everyone else's space needs, I knew that I could go to our stage manager with the issue. He would not rebuff me but would gladly spend a few moments discussing the issue with me and coming up with possible solutions. He is a "yes" type of person. I visit other "yes" people when I want to bounce around new ideas or revisit old ones that have lost their efficacy. You would know a "yes" person as someone who might use the expressions: "Get 'er done," or the Nike slogan "Just do it."

The people who tend toward the "no" perspective seem to have an invisible shield around them that prevents others from imposing on their time and attention. When I encounter such an individual, I sense an invisible hand held up before him or her, which wards off my asking any questions or trying to involve him or her in any way. For example, if I were to have a special need or request to help me do some aspect of my job better, I would hope that the person I ask for help would be willing to entertain my question or consider a better alternative. When I must make this special request of a "no" person, I do not walk away with a satisfactory answer. To be fair, "no" people may have developed this way as a protective mechanism because of undue or unreasonable demands by others in the workplace. Still, I have observed that "no" people tend to be "no" people most of the time, whether the workplace created that style in the person or not. In other words, "no" people seem to perpetuate the "no" persona even outside of work.

I strive to be a "yes" person. Although I may be tempted to slip into the "no" side on occasion, I still prefer to follow the "yes" style and surround myself with other "yes" people. I tend to avoid "no" people to the best of my ability, because I do not sense a productive energy when I am in the company of "no" people. I find it easier to associate with "yes" people for most of my time, because I feel that together we create more solutions and resolve more problems in productive ways. The atmosphere in the company of a "yes" person seems lighter and happier as well.

I tend to analyze things in black-white fashion. I find it easier to begin looking at problems by first looking at what something is and then looking at the opposite. I start from this position so that I have at the very least defined the outline of the issue. Then I fill in the gray areas. Up until this week though, I have merely considered the "yes" and the "no" types of people. Then I learned about the "Y-Boys"from a work colleague.

I had not heard this expression before, so I asked my coworker about it. My colleague shared my same opinion about "yes" and "no" people, but my colleague told me that there were other people who pretended to be "yes" people but who in fact were not. He called them "Y-Boys," because these people would answer any request with a "yes, but" and then string a series of conditions that had to be met before they would participate in the project. Rather than say "yes" and then work things out in a favorable way, Y-Boys would say "yes" but then put all sorts of limitations on projects. The result of a Y-Boy encounter is that the other person often walks away with an answer that is in effect a "no," but since the answer was disguised as a yes but came saddled with limitations, others walk away with the confused impression that the Y-Boy is a "yes" person when in fact he or she is not.

Which one are you? Maybe you are bits and pieces of each of these three types of persons. Maybe you had not realized that you were a "no" person or even a Y-Boy. This is a good question to consider this week. Yes? No? Yes, but . . . . .

Friday, August 16, 2013

Thumbs Up!

That pesky thumb! Which way should it go? Well, which thumb are we talking about? Because, both thumbs have different roles and different "attitudes," if you will. Let us take a closer look at the role of both thumbs.

Power Grip
The thumb is the "first" finger on each hand. In piano vocabulary, the thumb is indicated by the fingering number 1. Not so for violin or viola. We do not use the thumb to play our notes, so we begin our fingering designations with the index finger instead. (Not so for cello, bass, guitar, or banjo, which do use the thumb).

The thumb is a powerful finger because it is so different from the other fingers on the hand. For example:
  • the thumb has two joints rather than the three joints that the other fingers have (I am counting the joint at the base of the finger as one of the joints).
    Precision Grip
  • The thumb stands in opposition to the other fingers of the hand and moves in a direction that is counter to the other fingers. This counter-direction ability allows the thumb to form two kinds of grip: a power grip and a precision grip.
  • The power grip is when the palm muscles squeeze to clamp down or hold something, like a hammer or other tool or a jar lid, and the thumb provides counter pressure.
  • The precision grip is when the fingertips press against the thumb to provide a more "precise" grip, such as holding a writing utensil.
Precision Bow Hold
Many students confuse the use of these two thumb abilities when making a bow hold or "holding" a violin. For example, I have many adults and younger students who attempt to hold the bow with a precision grip, using the fingertips to hug the bow stick, rather than letting the bow hold rest within the hand.

Power Bow Hold (note the squeezed thumb)
There are even some younger students who still want to "grasp" the bow with the power grip -- remnants perhaps of the Palmer grasp (which is the grip that babies make when they hold onto someone's finger with their entire hand). By the way, whenever I meet someone's baby for the first time, I initiate the opportunity for the baby to grasp my finger. Then I immediately shape the fingers a little bit to form the perfect bow hold. Voilá, I cry, this baby has the perfect bow hold for studying the violin. Let's get him into lessons soon!

Precision Violin Hold
The left thumb is a problem too. Some students try to hold the violin with a precision grip, using the tip of the thumb on one side and hanging the left hand lower on the E string side so that the fingertips provide opposing pressure to each other, or the students leave a "hole" at the base of the index finger along the neck of the violin, which causes major intonation difficulties.

Pizza Hand
There are also those students who attempt to use the power grip to hold the instrument, squeezing the hand muscles (especially the "thumb pillow" at the base of the thumb) to form a "pizza hand" (so-called because when the thumb is used in this way, the wrist bends backwards to resemble the way a waiter carries a pizza tray).

Both of these thumb uses are incorrect when playing the violin. I do not see so much of these uses and problems in piano teaching, where students generally attempt to play everything with flat fingers (like pressing levers), so I will focus the rest of this thumb discussion as to how it relates to string playing.

Left Thumb

The purpose of the left thumb is to provide counter-weight. Notice that I did not use the word "pressure." I think of the left thumb as the balancing tool that tightrope walkers carry. The purpose of the balancing tool is to aide the balance of the tightrope walker. The purpose of the left thumb is to balance the feel of the left hand. It is not part of a gripping sensation. The left thumb merely rests softly and comfortably on the opposing side of the violin neck and provides a sense of balance to the hand.

Hitchhiker "Banana" Thumb
This means that the thumb is soft, relaxed, and inactive other than to form a balance. I have a tiny hand myself, so my use of the thumb is rather low under the violin neck in general. However, with my students, since they are playing instruments that have been correctly sized for them, I do not expect their thumbs to be as low under the neck as mine often is. The left thumb resembles more of the banana shape, or the hitchhiker's thumb.

Mustache Man
No Smothering Moustache Man!
I have begun using "mustache man" in my teaching to help my young charges understand how to hold the left thumb against the violin neck. I draw two eyes, a nose, and a mustache on the student's left thumb. Then we position the thumb alongside the violin next, across from and a slight bit behind the index finger (toward the scroll side). The eyes are visible. I tell the student that it is okay to smother the mustache but not okay to cover up the nose. If I have drawn the mustache and nose in the correct places, then the student will form the correct violin hold.

Inward Bent Thumb
Instrument Too Big? (note outward elbow)
When the student attempts to bend the thumb inward against the violin neck, I find that the student tries to form a counterpressure against the other side where the left hand fingers reside. I usually find that the student is holding the left hand too low on the E string side, or the instrument is improperly placed on the student's shoulder (too far in front of the student or too low on the shoulder). In some cases, as when I teach at summer camps or institutes, occasionally I find this same posture issue because a student has been incorrectly saddled with an instrument that is too big for the student.

I recently encountered an older high school student at a summer camp who had a major left hand issue. This student attempted to play with only his fingertips. He held his left hand away from the violin neck, leaving a large hole between the base of his index finger and the side of the violin fingerboard. There was not much that I could do in this case, because the student had a teacher and the purpose of the camp was to learn the orchestra music. I observed though how difficult it was for the student to find the correct intonation when he played, because he was fingering "in the dark." In other words, he did not have all three reference points (thumb, base of index finger, and fingertip). Similar to the triangulation used to pinpoint someone's location, we have difficulty finding our pitch location on the fingerboard if we do not use all three of our reference points.

Right Thumb

The right thumb serves a different purpose with the right hand than the left thumb does with the left hand. Instead of acting as a balance point for the other side of the hand, the right thumb serves to provide all of the support below the bow frog for the right hand above. How the thumb is placed against the bow stick will determine the type of weight that the hand and arm muscles provide and the direction that the weight will go.

As I wrote earlier, many students attempt to play with the fingertips. When we form the bow hold, these students attempt to grasp the bow stick with the first knuckles of the fingers, forming a grip similar to the precision grip we use to hold a pencil. These students are trying to control how the bow moves in a micro-management style, if you will. This kind of thumb use will result in a lighter tone and a wispy draw of the bow across the strings. The student may feel more secure when he uses the bow in this manner, but the type of sound produced will not reflect a good tone. These students tend to straighten out the thumb or allow little or no bend to it. Instead of using the tiptoe of the thumb, these students are using the backside of the thumb tip, like a precision grip between the finger pads.

Other students may understand the need for using the tiptoe of the thumb -- the uppermost tip end of the thumb -- but misunderstand how to place the thumb tip on the bow and at what angle. This placement is extremely important, because how the thumb is placed will determine which other muscles groups are in play, which in turn will affect the type of sound, volume, and tone that the student will produce with the bow movement.

90 Degree Thumb
If the student places the tip of the bent thumb against the underside of the frog (I am talking about the beginner introduction to the thumb, with the thumb placed under the frog) and places the thumb at a 90 degree angle to the frog and bow stick, then the student will lean on the index finger side of the bow stick, the pinkie will straighten up, and the shoulder and arm may rise up because the student's bow grip will activate the "inside" muscles of the arm. The tone may be wispy because of the too high elbow and shoulder, or the tone may be too heavy and scratchy from the added weight of the hand and arm muscles leaning on the bow stick from the top.

Other students may deactivate the thumb and shift the hand weight to the pinkie or back side of the hand. This type of bow grip will prevent proper arm, hand, and finger movement. I have on occasion come across a student who allowed the bow hold to shift direction from index finger to pinkie finger as the student drew the bow across the strings, resembling the way that the balls of a Newton's Cradle pass the kinetic energy from one side to the other. This shifting right hand motion affected the student's finger motion and ability to used advanced bowing techniques.

The proper placement of the right thumb is at a 45 degree angle to the frog. The thumb should be bent at its first joint to allow for maximum flexibility and to provide strength to the weight created by the resting of the hand and arm on the bow stick. Notice that I used the word "resting." I am very careful to avoid words like "press" or "push down." Instead I use words like "rest," "sit," and "cradle." If my words imply any sort of action, I want my words to encourage action that releases or lets go of any action or activity. The arm weight is naturally heavy. There is no need to add to the force of gravity by pushing down on anything. Simply allowing the arm and hand to rest on the stick in a relaxed fashion will be enough to draw out the richest, fullest tone. But that's another article for another day. Today we focused on the thumb.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Monday Morning Check In: 8 Simple Habits for a Better Life

Last week I wrote about designing the perfect life, and as you can imagine, I am still in the process of thinking about that. Designing a perfect life is serious business and should not be done quickly. I have spent a week thinking about the things in my life that I want to keep, eliminate, add, or limit. This may take a while, but that is alright. A perfect life is worth the time spent designing it. After I design my perfect life, I will need to build in some options from time to time to allow for flexibility. Life does not remain stagnant.

Today I want to discuss simple habits. These simple habits are those little routines, rituals, or "traditions" that we perform on a routine basis. These simple habits are important because from the culmination and totality of the habits we perform are created the results that we experience in our lives, whether we welcome these results or not. Lack of fitness and good health due to poor exercise and eating habits may have devastating effects on our quality of life over time. The simple habits of poor time management or the inability to say no to over-scheduling leads to stress that affects every part of our lives: physical, mental, social, and spiritual. I think of stress as a pinpoint prick in the bottom of a bucket that allows the good things in life to leak out, slowly perhaps, but inevitably. Because the pinprick is so tiny, we often ignore it, if we even realize that the hole is present. Over time, however, the effects become obvious as the bucket level diminishes. Another way to think of stress is like a termite or the creature in the Pac-Man game. Over time the little devil chews away at the good things and leaves us with tunnels and empty spaces.

Simple habits are important for everyone, adults and children alike. Teachers and parents need to build a life of simple habits in order to role model these good life habits and skills to students and children. I am referring to the good habits, not the habits that lead us down the path of impaired quality of life. I think habits are good things if they are done with reflection and intent. Here is my brief list of 8 simple habits that would lead to or enhance a pleasant life:

Take a daily walk. Exercise is important and what simpler exercise is there than walking? Start with 10 minutes or a jaunt to the corner intersection. Add a few minutes or additional distance every few days until you reach the time limit that you are comfortable with and that you can sustain over time and a busy schedule. One benefit I noticed in my own walking program is that over time I took less and less time to walk the same distance, so I added distance to my daily walks and kept my walking routine within the same time frame. If you have a dog, then a daily walk is a great thing for your pet. Walks are also aids to good thinking. You will be amazed at the thoughts that visit you and the solutions to problems that will reveal themselves on a daily walk.

Get some sleep. This will always be something I have to work at because I have never been a terrific sleeper. What I have found that helps me is to get up at the same time every day. This daily alarm helps me to be more mindful of my bedtimes. Sleep is a necessary function for good physical and mental health. If you build up the daily walk habit, you will have an easier time getting to bed on time. Nothing helps your body to remind you to go to bed at a decent hour than a regular daily exercise routine.

Drink plenty of water. This is another area that gives me trouble. I know that I need to drink water, but unless I feel really thirsty, I tend to gloss over this requirement. I have an iPhone app now that reminds me to drink water. For sure I drink a glass upon rising and at meals. I find it helpful to drink some water before bed or with an herbal tea, although others may not enjoy this same ritual.

Eat food that is good for you. Food is fuel, Tony Horton of Beachbody and P90X fame tells us. "You are what you eat" is another expression that tells us the same thing. Our bodies and minds will perform better if we are more mindful of what we eat. We should eat a decent breakfast, watch our caloric intake, and make sure we have adequate sources of protein, nutrients, and other minerals and vitamins in our food choices. We should eat a big salad once a week or a smaller one on a regular basis. We should eat more vegetables and perhaps go meatless for a meal or two. We should avoid fried foods, and for sure, stay away from fast foods. In fact, the closer to the source of our food we can go, the better for us ultimately. This means that fresh food is better than packaged or frozen or canned. Whatever diet lifestyle choice we make, the best habits related to food in any program are to eat breakfast and to watch how much we eat.

Plan your day. I have written about this many times before because the benefits are so spectacular in terms of time management, scheduling, and priorities (More Productive DaysWhat's in Your Toolkit?Got a Moment to Spare?). Looking at our next day's schedule before retiring takes a few seconds. Pulling out our clothes and making sure our meals and other takeaway items are ready to go will take a minute or two at most. The savings in time and stress level the next morning will be priceless. I also find that this habit easily spills over into a "plan your week." I like to sit down on Sundays and look over the week's calendar. This larger view of my upcoming time helps me to do a better job of managing my daily schedule.

Do something creative every day. I recommend a daily writing habit. Visit 750words.com. Other people may enjoy some sort of craft hobby, such as yarn crafts, painting, sewing, model building, car restoration, gardening, listening to music (or attending concerts), or pets and animal husbandry. This type of activity draws on different areas of the brain and may well involve social aspects as well.

Stimulate your mind every day. Read a book, spend 10 minutes learning a language, work on a crossword or Sudoku puzzle, take a class, learn a new skill, or take up a new venture or hobby. Research suggests that these activities have a beneficial effect on staving off deteriorating mental issues that visit us with time and aging.

Talk to someone every day. This is an especially important habit for me because I have a tendency to turn into a turtle if I do not have social interaction. I especially have difficulties during holiday times when I may go for several days in my home and not see anyone other than my husband or animals. If I do not make an effort to "get out and about," I begin to lose the ability to actually converse with others. I have a 3-day limit. I must talk to someone outside of my home before my three-day window expires, even if it is merely a trip to the local feed store and a conversation with the helpful folks who run the place. Research also shows that social interaction leads many to experience greater longevity than those individuals who lead more isolated lives. I am talking about "in person" interaction, not the kind that comes via a computer or a letter. Actually get out of the house and talk to someone. Even a phone call will suffice.

Eight simple habits. Simple because they are easy to do. Simple because not much thought is required to do them, yet the results from each of these simple habits are great and worth the small effort required to implement them.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Monday Morning Check In: The Perfect Life

written by Paula E. Bird, © 2013

I am writing you from Oregon, where I go annually to play in the Sunriver Music Festival (since 1984). I customarily spend a few quiet days alone on the Oregon coast before heading inland to the festival at the end of the week. I look forward to this solitary time because it gives me an opportunity to unwind, reflect, and be free of animals and humans who compete for my time and attention. I hike, I walk, I go to movies, eat a lot of clam chowder, and I look in windows a lot (I am not a big shopper, but on these annual trips, I do enjoy looking in windows). Once I get to the festival, I visit rivers, lakes, pine forests, and mountains. There is something to be said for the mountaintop experience. There is nothing quite like the perspective that a mountain can give about the significance of one's life.

During this trip, I intend to do quite a bit of reflection about my life, its current state, and the direction in which I wish to go in the future. I generally do this sort of reflection every year, but this year I want to actually come up with "the perfect life." I want to paint a picture in my mind and down on paper of what my life would be if it were "perfect." Perhaps this sounds silly, but for me this sort of reflection has a much stronger meaning to it than merely reflecting on "how things are going," which is what I typically do every year at this time. No, the thinking about what a perfect life would be is the sort of project that fits right in with my current thinking about my land and home life in general.

You see, I have been bitten by the permaculture bug. For those of you who are new to this subject, permaculture is a set of design principles that integrate human existence with its landscape and planet in a way that nurtures and protects the land and the humans who rely on it. I do not want to go too deeply into the entire realm of permaculture philosophy, but suffice it to say that it is a very global concept that affects the entire planet and can be as simple as growing plants on a kitchen windowsill. As I began delving into the entire "perma" culture, I began looking at my ranch and land in a new way. I began reflecting on its possibilities and imagining what a perfect landscape would look like. From those moments of reflection and imagination, I began to envision the plan to follow to build that design and foster that vision.

It was inevitable that I would continue this habit of thinking and imagining and let it spill over into my regular daily life. I began to consider the possibilities that a designed life of perfection would yield to me in terms of peace of mind, beauty, and creative artistry.  If I can design a perfect landscape that is self-sustaining and nurturing, why can I not design a perfect life that sustains and nurtures me, and therefore aids me in giving back to others in my teaching, writing, and performing?

So this trip will have a different meaning for me in terms of my annual reflection. Instead of considering how things are going, I will give more focus to how I want my life design to look. I will create a life landscape that provides me with the kind of lifestyle that sustains me emotionally, physically, spiritually, and mentally. I will put my thoughts about lifestyle design on paper so that I can readily see where I need to give my efforts and attention.

As I write this article, I am aware of the obvious next steps after creating my personal lifestyle design. My next steps are to consider the simple habits that I need to create and follow in order to turn my life design into a successful project in the long run. Simple habits are always a good topic to consider at any time. It is the simple habits that we create and then mindlessly follow on a frequent recurring basis that get us where we ultimately wind up. Overweight? Too many habits that led us down the path of wrong choices. Out of shape? Too many habits that excused us from making time to get in shape. Too busy? Burned out? Too many habits that led us, well, you get the idea.

That's where my lifestyle "perma" culture design reflection will come in. This week, why not join me and reflect on what your perfect life would be?

Monday, July 29, 2013

Monday Morning Check In: It’s All About Me!

Written by Paula E. Bird © 2013

Whew, I almost made it through July. There were lots of concerts, teaching, and generally trying to hold things together. It just occurred to me today how far along we were in the summer. I leave for my annual Oregon trip next Sunday, and I will not return until the last part of August when school begins. This coming week will be my last opportunity to do anything that I had planned on accomplishing this summer.

And that thought brought me to another thought, and this is a rather important thought: when am I scheduling “me time”? In truth, I have to report that I have failed dismally at scheduling time for myself this summer. Instead, I have left myself open to the desires and demands of others. I opened up many teaching slots that ate into full days. Any time left over, I allowed summer camps and evening rehearsals for recitals to creep into my schedule. I have had to squeeze in personal appointments wherever I could around my already heavily scheduled life.

This is not the best life plan. I know that. I have written about that several times before (Got a Moment to Spare?8 Tips to Manage Stress, and Take Care of Yourself). Since we are more than halfway through the year 2013, I think that now is a good time to regroup and reconsider this important issue. When am I scheduling “me time”?

My husband calls it an aversion to white space; I am allergic, he says, to seeing white space on my calendar. After so many years of experiencing this problem, I have to agree with my husband’s assessment. He knows me well. As I looked over my calendar for the coming week, I was amused to see that I had penciled in one day this week as a “white space day.” That means that I leave the entire day white and schedule nothing.

Now, I may decide to do something on that day, and the sky is the limit, but I am forbidden to schedule anything. I can do laundry, clean the house, or experiment with a new recipe. I can walk the dogs, go to the gym, or take a nap. I can do whatever I want or nothing at all. It is all about me and my choice on that day. I am discouraged from making a list of things that must get done. You know what I mean, because we all do this. We make our list of things to do that we plan to get to when we finally have a day off. For me though, that list does not really get taken care of. If I try to take care of the list, I find that I am listless, mentally unfocused, and enervated. [I throw in vocabulary words for my dear friend, Nina, who says she finds at least one word in each article that challenges her to find her dictionary.]

Dr. Stephen Covey would consider this white space day concept under the 7th effective habit that he refers to as “sharpening the saw.” Dr. Covey's 7th habit encourages us to do activities that recharge our batteries, fill us with renewed energy, and rekindle our interest in life. Julia Cameron urges us to go on an Artist’s Date, which is a once weekly solo excursion that nourishes creativity and refreshes the spirit. The bible refers to this as the 4th of Ten Commandments: remembering the Sabbath as a day of rest dedicated to the Lord. In this case, the Lord commanded the gift of time, which cannot be destroyed in the same way that physical objects can be.

My husband and I call it “white space day.”

Here is how to find white space days. You need to start this process well in advance, otherwise it is unlikely that you will find any possible white space day candidates. For example, this week may already be shot for you. My good fortune in having a white space day this week is that I set up my teaching schedule two weeks ago and had the brilliant idea of designating a white space day on this coming week. That was three weeks before the actual day. The cause may not be completely lost, however, and if you are able to find a day in this coming week, then congratulations!

Typically I will look at my schedule a week from now to see if there are any possible days. In my case, there will be several, since I will have about 3-4 days that are open before I begin my music festival in Sunriver, Oregon. I generally have a list of fun activities that I want to do or places that I want to visit. The festival is kind enough to schedule a white space day for me, and I already have ideas about several possible long hikes that I might take on that day. Thereafter, though, I will need to diligently search for my white space days.

Because I generally teach about 6 days a week, I may have to designate my Sundays as white space days. Even though I go to church in the morning (I am the pianist for the traditional service in the earlier morning service), I will still be able to have the remainder of the day and evening free. I may need to schedule that block of time as white space in order to keep it free. For other folks, Saturday may be the white space day.

Consider using the white space technique as a general rule to give yourself time to recharge your batteries. As we near the end of the summer and the beginning of our fall teaching journey, now would be a good time to focus on the habits that will give us the most return for our effort and will enhance our quality of life and work.

For those still counting, today is the 30th Monday of 2013. There are 22 Mondays remaining this year.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Quick Practicing Tip: Teach Me!

It was a hard year for us. One particular child challenged her mother and me to look for many different ways to handle spontaneous behavior disruptions during lessons and home practices. The child's home life changed quite a bit in the past year and a half, and for a typical seven year old girl, this student was handling it as well as we could expect. Still, the behavior problems prevented lessons and home practices from occurring smoothly. The child threw temper tantrums regularly and insisted on vying for control over every step in the teaching process, from telling me what to do and in what order, to refusing to follow instructions. Recognizing that the difficulty the child had stemmed from her altered home life situation, her mother and I rolled with the punches during lessons and practices and later spent time on the phone encouraging each other to "hang in there."

The mother renewed her commitment to continue lessons for the coming year. She bought herself a violin, and we fixed it up. Then the mother enlisted the aide of her daughter to teach the mother how to play. The child enthusiastically rose to the occasion. Now she had an excuse to be in charge, and she thrived on having the tables turned like this.

The mother has reported to me that the child has also altered her own behavior patterns. Whereas the child would refuse to play something if she thought she could not play it perfectly right away, would refuse to acknowledge that she made a mistake in the first place, and would gloss over her errors in general, her mother did the opposite. Whenever the mother made a mistake, the mother would stop and tell her daughter that she could not continue until she had corrected her mistake. Then the mother would practice her trouble spot a few times and ultimately play the passage again to see if the mistake was fixed. The mother noted to me that the daughter began copying this behavior as well. Yay! We have finally shown the child that it is alright to make mistakes and how to fix them in a practice session.

The mother was also able to teach her daughter about manners as well. Whenever the daughter is impatient about teaching the mother or says something in a tactless or unkind way, the mother points out that the daughter's choice of words caused the mother to feel hurt or whatever the emotion is. The two of them can then discuss what might be a more appropriate way to "teach" the mother.

During the child's lesson, I am able to use the mother's participation to teach the daughter. Whenever the child wants the mother to practice or learn something, I always remind the daughter that she must show the mother how to do it first. This method helps me to get the child to play. I have noticed that the child is playing much better now that she needs to role model the best playing for her mother. When the child complains that the mother's bowing is messy in Lightly Row, then I ask the child to show her mother how it would sound if the bowing were not messy. We then watch how carefully the child plays the song to avoid messy bows. Voilá! Excellent teaching and learning environment!

Try this practicing tip. Have your child be the teacher and flip the tables on him or her. Use this tip to reflect the child's behavior. As Joseph Joubert said: "To teach is to learn twice."

Monday, July 22, 2013

Monday Morning Check In: Burst Your Bubble

Written by Paula E. Bird ©2013

I recently finished a summer strings music camp in San Antonio. As I taught my classes, I was amused to note how many times students appeared to be in their own personal bubbles during orchestra and sectional rehearsals. These personal bubbles prevented students from playing together, in tune, and on time. Students appeared not to notice conductor cues, nor to hear their fellow classmates. It was a curious phenomenon, and it happened often during the two-week camp.

On the last concert day, at the time scheduled for the ultimate grand finale rehearsal, many students arrived to the rehearsal quite late (15-30 minutes late). Since the students themselves could not drive, I can only blame the parents for this tardiness. As I stood observing the latecomers as they dribbled in, I was amused to realize that the parents themselves appeared to be in a personal bubble. To their credit, some parents appeared stunned when they walked into the large auditorium and discovered that there were over a hundred students seated and rehearsing at that moment. I was happy to see that these parents were greeted with the knowledge that they were late! I remarked to one of the orchestra directors next to me that I was happy these particular tardy parents had to suffer through the panicky "I'm late!" experience, and the director responded, "well, it would be great if these parents actually noticed that they were late."

I looked closer at these latecomers, and I noticed that some of them seemed cavalier about their tardiness. I also saw that the response of the student did not always match that of the parent. While the tardy parent might have been relaxed and nonchalant about being late, the student was anything but that. The student entered, confused about where to go (coming on time meant that the student would understand where to unpack the instrument and store personal belongings), and uncertain where to sit within the larger group dynamic (tardiness meant that the student would be seated wherever there was room, not where the student was accustomed to sit with his or her orchestra peers).

My director friend was correct: tardy parents did not seem to recognize the impact that their lateness had on their children. The tardiness created an atmosphere of disruption within the learning environment, as the late students scurried around trying to find a place to store belongings, get music and instrument ready, and then actually play. The lateness created a disruption for the orchestra directors, who had to wait while the late students had a chance to organize themselves for the rehearsal and to minimize the disruption to the rehearsal flow for the other students.

For me, the saddest thing that I witnessed was the effect that the parents' tardiness had on their children. The students were edgy and panicked, as they tried to figure out what they were supposed to do. Some of the children actually shut down emotionally; they would find a place to sit, and then they would behave as if they were overwhelmed by all the energy around them. Teachers would have to help them to determine the next steps: unpack your instrument, store your case and belongings over here, go over to this side of the stage and join your group, etc.

I watched one student over the course of the two-week camp. She came 10 minutes late to the first class. I was annoyed and wanted to point it out to the student because she was older; I held off from doing so, and opted to notify the camp director instead. The second day the student came 15 minutes late. I made a joke of it at the morning faculty meeting. Over the remaining days of the camp, the student arrived at the first class progressively later, until finally the student reached the point of missing the class entirely. Somewhere in the midst of this, I recognized that the student was way too young to drive herself, and that she was entirely dependent on someone bringing her to camp. She was coming late to class or missing class entirely because her supervising adult was bringing her to the camp late.

This is the problem with the bubble approach to life.

What do I mean by a bubble? I mean that persons seem to be in their own little world, completely oblivious of what might be happening around them in their lives at the same time. It is as if these persons were shielded and completely separated by a Plexiglas barrier between the person and the world around them.

We tend to create bubbles in our lives. We create behavior habits. Habits are good things, but sometimes habits create negative situations because we are inattentive to what we are doing. We become complacent with our routine, our responsibilities, and our time constraints. We forget that what we do will have an impact on someone else.

If we have someone who depends on us, then we cannot afford to allow a bubble to grow up around us. We must remain engaged with our life and with what is happening around us. Especially where a child is concerned, I think it is crucial that we stay open and aware of how our actions impact on the child's environment and emotional stability. We cannot afford to lose touch with this important aspect of the child's emotional needs. It saddened me to see so many parents completely out of touch with their child's emotional experience.

I understand that parents may be busy with schedules, other children's needs, and unexpected things that demand immediate attention. However, I often worry that parents become inured to the unexpectedness of things, that parents become accustomed to these things and so build up complacency in general. That is the bubble in the making.

How do we eliminate the bubble or stop it from forming? Here are my suggestions:

Empathy. Let us focus on what it feels like to be the other person. If we are in charge of someone else, let us focus on how the other person feels. If I am responsible for driving my charge to lessons or a rehearsal, I should remember to respect how the other person feels. Many times, I have parents who come to lessons or rehearsals late, on a regular basis, and these same parents have children who detest this practice. Why does the parent not understand how important the attendance timeliness is to the student? That poor student who came to class late every day, and then finally arrived so late as to miss the class entirely, was at the mercy of her driver. How embarrassing it was for that student to arrive daily at a late time and have the other students completely focus on her as she entered the room! And these students were at that age when such things mattered (middle school age). Then the students would be aware of her lateness again, because she would create slight disturbances as she unpacked her instrument and set up her music stand and music. I began to feel really sorry for her situation as the camp days progressed.

Reflection. Dr. Suzuki suggested that parents needed to reflect on their behavior and attitudes on a frequent basis. I think this is an excellent suggestion! If parents would spend a few minutes every day reflecting on how their behavior impacted on their children, I believe that parents would understand better what their children actually experience daily because of the actions of their parents. Parents would not be tardy. Parents would arrange their time to better accommodate their children's needs for security, routine, and social acceptance.

Time. Make time to allow empathy to grow. Spend time in reflection. Most of all, make time to spend with your child so that you understand what your child's needs are. Spend time understanding what your responsibilities are for your child, and then allow the appropriate amount of time to make sure that your child is able to participate fully in whatever activities you and your child have chosen.

This week, let us be mindful of how our decisions and actions impact on others, especially those who are dependent on us. I do not have children, but already I can think of ways that I can be more mindful of how my animals can be better served by my being more considerate of their needs and how my actions can adversely or positively impact on their environment and schedule.