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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Unprepared for College?

Recently I came across an interesting article about how so many students are unprepared for college when the time comes to go to college. I have gained permission to share this article with you. I would like to add that financial reasons are also a consideration. I have lost several students in recent years due to financial difficulties. Here is the article:

Unprepared for College?

Monday, February 25, 2013

Monday Morning Check In: The Road to Excellence (Part 2)

Written by Paula E. Bird ©2013

Last week, I wrote part one of an article entitled: "Monday Morning Check In: The Road to Excellence." In that article I discussed what excellence is. If you missed that article, click here. In today's article, I want to address one enemy of excellence.

We may encounter many enemies on our road to excellence, but I believe the main enemy of excellence is our way of handling time. We all start out the day with the same amount of time allotted to us, yet some of us have more difficulty finding or using our time well than others do. How we view time or our ability to manage time will also impact how much ability we can develop.

The time problem has many different names and related expressions: lack of preparation, hurriedness, inattention to detail, misguided priorities, changing priorities, too many activities, time-wasting, lack of direction (no goals), laziness, idleness, frustration, boredom, doldrums, discouragement, emergency, depression, and lack of creativity. Even ill health, spiritually or physically, will affect our use of time.

How to Walk the Road of Excellence

First, get a good handle on your time. Analyze where your daily time is being spent. Decide what your priorities are and eliminate those things in your schedule that do not support your priorities. If your child's ability development is one of your highest priorities, be sure that your daily schedule reflects that.

Set aside the appropriate amount of time necessary to accomplish your priorities. Plan your day, your week, or your month if that is what it takes to find the necessary time to spend time with your child's practice. Do not artificially force your child's learning pace to fit your poorly-managed schedule. Do not inflict too many activities on your child. I see too many stressed out children in the studio and at group classes. There was a time when I would expect to see tension in a child's playing when they reached middle school age. Now I am amazed to find students as young as four and five who exhibit the same sorts of tension problems. Slow down and enjoy your child's learning process.

Set goals and devise a meaningful plan to achieve those goals.

I would not set off on a trip without having some idea of where I wanted to end up. There may be a choice of roads to take to reach the destination, but I would expect to reach that one destination. In the same way, be sure what your destination is. In the case of my students, I try to make that as easy as I can by writing down specific assignments in the student's handbook. Please look over the handbook daily before beginning the practice session in order to plan what your goal for that daily session will be. If you feel you are weak in this area, please talk to your child's teacher about it. Sometimes your child has an idea of what goals he or she would like to accomplish.

After setting your goal, break the goal down (analyze) into the steps necessary to achieve the goal. For example, how does a student play short, staccato notes? There are so many ingredients: strong thumb, soft fingers, soft arm, correct bow hold, correct bow placement, relaxed bow weight. Which area would your child benefit most with improvement and practice? What will you work on tomorrow?

After setting a goal and analyzing the steps to reach the goal, start practicing: repeat the steps, over and over and over. Look for ways to encourage repetition. Ask the child to discover new things with his ears, eyes, and other senses. Make up new games or revisit old ones. Recently one of my students and I invented a game for Etude, and she has delighted in playing the game again and again, while I have devised new challenges and funny penalties and rewards that occur during each playing. Yes, it took us a little time to work out the game, but we had such fun doing it and playing it. I do not regret a single moment spent in those several lessons, and I am fully confident that the student will always know Etude really well as a result.

After setting the goal, analyzing the steps to reach that goal, and actually practicing, there comes the most important time of all -- the time of self-reflection. This is the time when we analyze the progress we are making. This is when we evaluate whether we are headed in the right direction, whether we should stop and catch our breath, or whether we should take a side-trip. If something is not working, our reflection time is important to figure out why it is not working. Are we practicing correctly? Have we followed all of the teacher's directions? Have we practiced daily or have we allowed a few empty days (note the hollow ring to the word "empty") to sneak in and interrupt our progress? Have we found ways to encourage our children if they are in a slump? Do both parents show interest and encouragement in the child's progress? Do siblings also support the child's learning? Does the child's schedule support the child's and parent's practice goals?


And finally, the most enjoyable step of all -- celebration. After completing the steps to a particular goal, take the time to celebrate in an appropriate way. In my studio we have found that ice cream is a great way to encourage students to achieve all sorts of varied goals.

A Few More Words About Time

If finding time is your main problem, try keeping track of how you spend time for one week:
  • Divide each day into 15-minute increments and note the activities of your day. Include meals, television, driving time, and other areas of your time-sucking life.
  • Highlight flexible-time activities, like television, video games, movies, talking on the phone, and computer time.
  • Add up the total time that you spent in various activities and consider ways to eliminate time-wasters or shrink the time used up by flexible-time activities.
  • Evaluate whether an activity is really productive and consider eliminating, delegating, or combining it with some other activity. I routinely do odd jobs while I am talking on the phone, such as watering plants, dusting, putting away dishes, folding clothes, and straightening up.
  • Set up a tentative schedule that incorporates the amount of time that you wish to devote to various activities.
  • Test drive the new schedule. Keep track of the time spent and re-evaluate how the new schedule works at the end of the week. Set up another schedule for the following week. Keep doing this for at least a month in order to build a new habit. After a month or two, you may want to go through the time-tracking process again to see if any old or new time-wasters have crept back into your life.

Know Thyself

The most important trick to time management is to know yourself. Be aware of your own personality style. Do you feel more comfortable with leisure activities? Are you more rigidly type-A in your approach to your and your children's schedules? Are you laid back about what best is done when and how? Do you lose track of appointments or activities?

Remember that your personality style and your child's personality style may differ. Be careful that you do not unfairly imprint your style unnaturally on your child. You may be a type A personality, but your child may be more laid back in his approach to life. Neither style is right or wrong, but be careful that by trying to instill your values about time management and priorities in your child that you are not artificially stunting your child's natural personality. We do not want to stifle or stunt a child's development.

For example, a type A personality may grind a more naturally laid-back child's practice schedule into the ground by insisting on unnecessary repetitions. Instead, it would be better to evaluate your child's personality needs and adapt a practice schedule that promotes your child's success. One mother I had would schedule her phlegmatic son for every possible activity at an institute, only to have her little boy plead with her to lighten it up because the heavy schedule made him so tired. This mother learned how to find and follow her son's natural energy rhythms in scheduling activities and in practice sessions.

Successful practice should motivate and encourage a child, not frustrate or discourage him. Successful practice should be what is necessary and should not involve unnecessary repetitions or procedures. Always have a goal in mind to accomplish in each practice session. The goal may be altered to suit the weather, the circumstances, and the child's desires or mood that day.

But what about internalizing a skill or building muscle memory to the overlearning state? Yes, that is a goal sometimes, and I would help a naturally phlegmatic personality child to understand how to work toward that goal.
"Could you play that piece in your sleep? Then we probably need to work on it a bit more. How about we put it on your practice list this week, and on two days, why not just play the third part four times extra?" 
"We still have a spot of trouble in these two measures here. Let's do a Squares of Eight Game this week on this section."
This is not to say that a laid-back child cannot learn the valuable skill of repetition and daily practice. Following up a diligent practice with the following comments may go a long way to instilling the value of repetition:
"Doesn't it feel good to do that so many times and actually get it?" (Nod your head "yes" while you ask this.)
"Wasn't that a great lesson! I'm so glad that we put in so much work this week so we could have so much fun at your lesson (or group class, or recital performance, etc.)?"
Then there is the reverse problem of a laid-back parent and a child who may or may not mirror that personality style. Do you really want your child to copy your personality traits of time management? Perhaps you do, but I suspect that many laid-back personality types would like their children to grow up with better control of their time management and ability development. If that is the case, then consider developing some better habits yourself as you also try to instill these habits in your child's personality. Consider how to keep better track of your time and to help your child to do the same. Your teacher will help you with charts and goal-setting. If necessary, set time limits (or aspirations) to get going. Make a commitment to follow a particular program for at least three weeks, and four weeks would be better to really get a good start on a new habit.

In my studio, my parents and I use the student handbook to assess problem areas. Are Fridays empty days? Sundays? Try varying the practice plan on those days to address the problem. Perhaps a shorter practice session early in the day would avoid the end-of-the-week exhaustion. How about a home concert on Sunday for family or a phone concert for a grandparent or other relative? Maybe your child would like to volunteer to play for others on those days at school or church. Recently several students have entertained nursing home residents. One student played for fellow campers at summer camp. Another played for preschool classmates. These types of performances motivate children and also help them prepare for recitals.

Health Issues

A few words about poor health, which is something that can really slow a child's progress, whether it is the child's or the parent's health issue. Try to keep the child as healthy as you can, but be alert for health problems when practicing. Children do not learn well when they are tired and not feeling well, so do not push during such times. If the parent is ill, try to make alternate arrangements to get your child to lessons, group classes, and practice sessions. Your child's development should not have to follow the same path as a parent's health dictates. This is not to say that a parent can never be ill, but please take note of the number of times that your child may have had to wait through your illnesses. There have been many times when I was discouraged as a teacher because a student and parent were beginning to progress quite nicely during lessons only to be interrupted by one or two weeks of illness. We had to regroup and start over each time and lost the marvelous momentum we had built up before the illness.

Divided Family Issues

Let me add a few words about divided families. Most of my readers know that I once was a practicing family law attorney, so I have some experience in this area. I found it interesting that divorced or separated parents were quick to espouse the philosophy that the child was better off in the new family situation rather than the parents staying together in a relationship that was fraught with discord and unpleasantness. Maybe that is so, but I would like to point out that the child's home situation is quite different once the parents have set up separate households and visitation plans. Unless the parents are the ones who take turns visiting in the home, the child is the person who bears the burden of maintaining belongings and routine in two different households.

If the child were in one home with one set of parents, the child would be following a routine that did not need to shift during weekends or summers or holidays. However, with visitation plans and divided households, the child has to make special arrangements to maintain any sort of routine or schedule that was established in the custodial home. As a teacher, I find it sad that both parents are unable to work together well enough to make the child's schedule and routine as similar as possible between both households. It is not uncommon for me to find complete white spaces on a child's handbook from weekend visits with the other parent where nothing was accomplished, not even a home concert for the child to show off newly-acquired skills to the noncustodial parent. There are ways to avoid this issue if the parents would sit down and focus on the needs of the child and come up with a plan to work together. Even a short practice is better than no practice.

One parent I knew would go over to the noncustodial parent's home and practice for 10 minutes. Another parent would call the child on the phone and do a practice over the phone. A final resort could be to remind parents of the philosophy that all judges and family court personnel focus on: "What is in the best interest of the child?" Let me answer that with what is not in the best interest of the child. When a child is taking music lessons, it is not in the best interest of the child for the parents to interrupt the child's learning in order to take care of court-ordered visits. It would be better for the parents to work together and come up with a plan that better suits the child's needs. Both parents can come to group classes and recitals and lessons. Both parents can be involved in the child's learning. As the teacher, I can just as easily send home homework assignments to both households.

When You Fall Down

There will be bursts of emergencies, unexpected deadlines, illness, special events, and family bumps in the road. This is to be expected from life. The important thing in this situation is how well you handle getting to your feet when you have been knocked over. My university students experience this issue regularly, and I believe the university experience helps students to understand how to handle these issues as a grown up. There will be times in life when a parent will have been up all night with a sick child and will have to show up for a big presentation at work the next day. There will be times of crisis when the family will be handling unexpected emergencies.

How a person handles these times of overloaded circuits can be determined in advance. For example, I tell my university students to decide whether they are the type of person who tries to anticipate such moments in advance so that there is some preparation for handling the crisis (proactive approach), or whether they are the type of person who is buffeted about by the winds of fate and handles things one by one as they occur, like a whack-a-mole game at a country fair (reactive approach). University students can learn the appropriate management and coping skills during their university experience, so that they are able to handle shifting life priorities as adults and parents. Parents can make the same choice about how they will handle family emergencies and can practice appropriate preparation or coping skills.

Creativity and Enthusiasm

And lastly, creativity and enthusiasm are the key ingredients to achieving excellence. Always show interest in what effort your child expends. Always be excited about what your child is doing. Be creative about how you get to a particular point. Do not let yourself get stuck in a ditch on the side of a muddy road just because that is the way you chose to go. If a particular pathway does not suit you or your child, consider an alternative. Ask other parents or your teacher for suggestions.

Remember, Dr. Suzuki said: "People either become experts at doing the right thing, which is seen as a fine talent, or they become experts at doing something wrong and unacceptable, which is seen as lack of talent. . . . Depending on these two things -- practice and practice of the right things -- superior ability can be produced in anyone."

"[T]here is no need for any of us to despair. We are all born with a high potential, and if we try hard we can all become superior human beings and acquire talent and ability." Let us take Dr. Suzuki's words to heart. Let us not waste our children's high potential to be superior human beings. Let us help them to acquire talent and ability. Let us help them to achieve excellence.

Today is the eighth Monday of the year 2013, so take out your eighth penny from your penny jar (what's this?). How many pennies are left? What have you accomplished so far? What is left for you to do and how will you spend your remaining pennies? Where are you on the road to excellence?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Tricky Bits Day

Parents and Practice Partners, make a list of all the tricky bits in your student's current repertoire and review material. Today is Tricky Bits Day.

If your child struggles with Variation B, put that on the list. If your child consistently forgets how to play the third part of Allegretto, put that on the list. If your piano student struggles with legato in the left hand versus repeated notes in the right hand in Clair de la Lune, put those measures on the list.

Number the items on the list from 1-6. If you have more items than 6, start numbering again from 1-6 until every item has its own number.

Get your child ready to go and have him throw the dice. Now begin practicing the items on your list.

Check off items that have been completed.

Another way to play this game is with Sue Hunt's Review cards (musicinpractice.com) or with Lindsay Logsdon's Pirates Practice (talentpress.net) (I write the tricky bits places on the practice cards).

Thanks to Sue Hunt for the expression, "Tricky Bits."

Monday, February 18, 2013

Monday Morning Check In: The Road to Excellence (Part 1)

Written by Paula E. Bird ©2013

I recall attending a concert with my father in Lancaster, Pennsylvania given by Bela Fleck and his group "The Flecktones." Fleck is an interesting musician. Classically trained as a youth, he took up the banjo at the end of high school. Since that time Fleck has carried banjo-playing to new heights. A Grammy award winner for his CD recording "Outbound," along with many, many more awards since that time, the music scene finds it difficult to categorize Fleck and his group into a particular genre, whether jazz, bluegrass, or country. Fleck even performs classical violin pieces on the banjo, such as the Bach solo violin sonatas. I have enjoyed several of his concerts and many of his CD recordings, and he and his colleagues are excellent musicians.

What is truly memorable about these fine musicians is the level of excellence to which they have aspired and attained. Each individual member has not only mastered his instrument but has moved beyond the basics and the middle ground to reach a level of performance technique and musicianship that is beyond the norm, which brings me to a discussion today about excellence.

What exactly is excellence? And once we know what it is, how do we go about getting it? Excellence is often defined as quality, distinction, and superiority; its opposite is usually defined as mediocrity, but excellence goes deeper than that.

Perhaps the best description I have read for the road to excellence comes from Amy Tan's book, The Bonesetter's Daughter (G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 2001). In the book one of the characters describes a book of brush paintings done on mulberry paper entitled "The Four Manifestations of Beauty." The emphasis added below is mine. In the book the character says:
"[W]ith any form of beauty, there are four levels of ability. This is true of painting, calligraphy, literature, music, dance. The first level is Competent. Competence . . . is the ability to draw the same thing over and over in the same strokes, with the same force, the same rhythm, the same trueness. This kind of beauty, however, is ordinary. 
"The second level . . . is Magnificent. This one goes beyond skill. Its beauty is unique. And yet it is simpler, with less emphasis on the stalk and more on the leaves. It conveys both strength and solitude. The lesser painter would be able to capture one quality but not the other.
"The third level is Divine. The leaves now are shadows blown by an invisible wind, and the stalk is there mostly by suggestion of what is missing. And yet the shadows are more alive than the original leaves that obscured the light. A person seeing this would be wordless to describe how this is done. Try as he might, the same painter could never again capture the feeling of this painting, only a shadow of the shadow.
"The fourth level . . . is greater than this, and it is within each mortal's nature to find it. We can sense it only if we do not try to sense it. It occurs without motivation or desire or knowledge of what may result. It is pure. It is what innocent children have. It is what old masters regain once they have lost their minds and become children again. . . . It is the simplicity of being within, no reason or explanation for being there. It is the natural wonder that anything exists in relation to another, an inky oval to a page of white paper, a person to a bamboo stalk, the viewer to the painting. . . . This fourth level is called Effortless." 
Step One: Competence

Using Amy Tan's descriptive words, the first step on the road to excellence is Competence. We usually think of competence as being an ability, proficiency, or skill. In his book Nurtured by Love, Dr. Suzuki defines the beginning as the "bud of ability" and states that the beginning will be slow until this bud of ability takes hold. "It is therefore a matter of patience and repetition. . . . [A]bility breeds ability."

Thus, we bring about competence by practicing a skill, by repeating it over and over until it is mastered. Dr. Suzuki agrees with this: "The development of ability cannot be accomplished by mere thinking or theorizing, but must be accompanied by action and practice. . . . Only through action can the power of the life force be displayed. Ability develops through practice. An idle person will not develop ability."

Competence grows with each practice of the skill until it becomes Magnificent, the second step of the road to excellence. And how the skill is practiced is important. Using proper technique in practice will produce the proper mastery. Improper practice habits will not produce mastery or competence; instead they will foster inability and incompetence.

Step Two: Magnificence

The magnificent portion of the road to excellence suggests movement toward artistry. Magnificence is a few steps beyond mere ability. It reaches a higher level of ability. It shows more than one dimension. Instead of just showing the proper notes, bowing, and rhythm, the student demonstrates the art hidden within the music. There is less emphasis on the actual technique used to produce the music; other musical qualities manifest themselves, such as phrasing and dynamics.

Step Three: Divine

The third level, the Divine, is the next step on the road to excellence. At this stage we move beyond technique and the production of art into the realm of true artistry and craftsmanship. When we achieve this level, others are often at a loss to understand how we achieved it. Our listeners are moved beyond mere listening and enjoyment. Instead of playing to exhibit the perfection of our technique, we share our gifts in a way that touches the hearts of others.

In order to find this level of excellence -- the divine -- we need to have something to share beyond our physical ability. We need to have something to express through the physical skills that we have developed. We need something in our hearts, some feeling of expression. To truly reach a listener, we must have something to communicate with the listener. Dr. Suzuki said that "[a] true artist is a person with beautiful and fine feelings, thoughts, and actions."

I am reminded of a story I read about the famous cellist Yo Yo Ma, who continually strived for a technically flawless performance. One night he felt he had achieved that goal only to find that he felt flat about his performance. He was not energized or fulfilled. By focusing on the accomplishment of flawless physical performance, he had forgotten to include a message in his music, a gift from his heart.

Step Four: Effortless

The fourth step on the road to excellence is Effortless, something that Amy Tan's character suggested we can all continually strive for, and something that perhaps we have naturally as children and then lose as we become adults. It is the simple wonder of just being in the moment or the present, of allowing intuition and innocence and wonder to open our senses, our hearts, and our minds to discover the beauty of what we are doing. In music, effortless playing is when the artist is unaware of the mechanics of scraping horsehair across metal strings attached to a wooden box and hears instead the sound of a singing bird or a beating heart or a whispering breeze. The musician plays effortlessly when he or she can move beyond the created sound waves to reach inside the soul and express the heart's overflowing feelings.

As audience members we will always remember performances like this -- when the music seemed to wash over us, brought tears to our eyes, made us shiver with excitement, or healed our pained hearts. Do we not all wish that our children could experience this sort of artistry? Why is excellence and effortlessness such a difficult thing to achieve?

Dr. Suzuki wrote that intuition was "the reliability slumbering at the base of rational experiences, and it works in an instant when needed. Without training, intuition (just like other abilities) cannot grow." Ah, there it is again. Training! The development of ability! But how do we do that with our children?

Actually, with the Suzuki Method, it is not so difficult to develop ability in our children. Children are already further along the road to excellence than we adults are. In Dr. Suzuki's words: "Children are examples of life in its truest form, for they really try to live in pure love and joy." Children already know how to live and play in the present moment. It is the adults who are responsible for guiding the child's learning who have difficulty, for we adults have strayed from the same path.

Next week I will continue the discussion about the road to excellence, and I will show you the enemy of excellence and how to walk the road of excellence. For this week, consider at which point along the road to excellence you are with your child.

Today is the seventh Monday of the year 2013, so take out your seventh penny from your penny jar (what's this?). How many pennies are left?

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Dear Suzuki Parent (an Open Letter to Parents):

Written by Paula E. Bird ©2013

You left me a phone message yesterday that told me you were confused about what your 7-year old child should be focusing on at home. I have written out a very detailed practice list, including the amount of time that each item on the practice list would take to complete, and I have put the list in your child's violin case under the violin itself so that you will easily find it the next time you open your child's violin case and take out the violin for practice.

Your phone message raised a few points of discussion, however, and I would like to address them in this letter.

The Suzuki Method works quite well when all of the pieces are in place and the parties involved are working together. The parties involved are the Teacher, the Parent, and the Child. We refer to this as the Suzuki Triangle:
You may find more information about the teacher's responsibility and the Suzuki triangle by clicking here.

It is difficult to strengthen the working relationship between all three parties if one of the parties is frequently absent. You did not attend your child's lesson last week, nor the week before. Coming into the lesson during the last 5-10 minutes and asking me what the child should practice at home does not satisfy the requirement of holding up your end of the working relationship. You will not need to phone me or leave me messages about what the child should practice if you attend the lessons and take notes about the items that we are working on during the lessons.

If you plan to involve the other parent in this working relationship, then I ask that both of you take on a more active role during lessons. Rather than have the other parent drop off the child or sit through the child's lesson in a different room (and pay attention to the parent's phone rather than the child's lesson), please plan to have the parent sit inside the lesson area and take notes. I am happy to provide both of you with a parent notebook for the purpose of taking notes of things that your child needs to focus on at home.

To help you catch up with what your child and I have been learning together, let me summarize what I have been trying to accomplish:
  • Concentration and Focus: Your child is 7 years old. Your child's attention span is limited, since this is the first time she has ever been involved in the study of skill development. Therefore, her concentration and focus need to be developed and strengthened. The first year of music lessons spends a great deal of time on this area. The child needs to establish a routine in her home practices so that she will actually learn how to concentrate and focus. Please plan to practice daily with your child at home. For more information about building concentration and focus, click here.
  • Habit Formation: We develop skill and ability through repeated actions. We spend our first year of music instruction learning how to establish good practice and learning habits. We will not be able to accomplish this if your child practices once or twice during the week in between lessons. To build a habit, you must do the action repeatedly, preferably every day. Even a few minutes a day will help immensely to build up a habit and develop skill and ability over a period of time. Please plan to practice daily with your child at home, preferably at the same time every day. In the beginning, aim for 5-10 minutes as a starting point. As your child becomes accustomed to the habit and routine, your child will naturally increase concentration, focus, and attention span and be able to practice for longer periods of time and to learn even more skills and develop even greater abilities. Note also that you will spend less and less time on correcting bad posture habits if you practice daily. At this point, your child's practices are so sporadic and unproductive, that much of lesson and most likely home practice time is spent correcting poor posture habits. Your child will understandably have trouble remembering the correct way of doing things if she merely visits them a few times now and then. If you want to read a bit more about what a habit is, click here.
  • Discipline and Perseverance: Your child will derive many great benefits from studying music. One of the greatest benefits will be the ability to be disciplined and to persevere. These abilities will serve your child throughout your child's lifetime. These abilities do not spontaneously create themselves in a vacuum. You must actually perform specific actions in order to learn how to be disciplined and to persevere through the sometimes tricky learning process. Your child will learn these skills at an incredible pace if you would role model these abilities yourself as a parent. When you practice daily with an established practice routine, you are showing your child how to perform these same behaviors. You are also sending your child the message that this is an area that is important to you and important for your child to learn. This parental role modeling will occur when you show the discipline of practicing daily and role model the perseverance of finding time daily in a busy schedule for practicing. In addition, you are teaching your child how to set priorities in your life schedule and how to show the child how interested you are in what the child is learning in lessons. For one parent's brief discussion about the power and value of a ten-minute practice, click here. For more information about the power of routine and the strong benefits that children derive from routine, click here.
Although I have listed these goals for the student, they are also mighty important for the parent to accomplish as well. When a parent first comes to me for lessons, I notice that the parent also has issues of concentration and focus, habit formation, and discipline and perseverance. A parent has difficulty paying attention to lesson content and group class activities. The parent falters at the challenge of finding and setting a regular time in the parent's daily schedule for working with the child. The parent falters at the trial of role modeling discipline by practicing daily and then considers the ultimate failure of quitting lessons rather than enduring the discomfort of persevering.

The first year of music lessons is very important, not only for the child but also for the child's parent. Music lessons provide an opportunity for the child to learn a skill and to develop a fine ability to express the child's spirit and emotions creatively. The Suzuki Method model provides the parent with opportunities to learn about the child in ways that the parent would not otherwise have in the regular scheme of things. The parent can observe the child as the child interacts with the teacher and other children. The parent will also learn more about the parent and the parent's relationship with the child through the parent's interaction with the child in home practices. And most of all, the home practice sessions are the parent's best opportunity to build a strong, loving, and nurturing relationship with the child.

Your phone message indicated to me that you are having troubles in all the areas I have discussed above. So here is my suggestion for you this week:

  1. Schedule: Work on building the habit of practicing daily, preferably at the same time each week day. Look at your calendar today and find that time block, starting with 10 minutes. Write that time block into your family calendar so that everyone will honor it, especially you. It sometimes helps if you schedule practice time before another activity that your child enjoys. That way, if your child wastes her practice time with unproductive behaviors, the child will be wasting the child's time for her favorite activity. The sooner the child completes her practice assignment, the sooner the child will be able to begin the child's favorite activity, whether it is playing outside with friends, watching a favorite television show, or playing with toys.
  2. Prepare Your Materials: Put your child's instrument in a safe place, and open the case. Make sure that the child's instrument is put together, but leave the bow loosened. You will find it easier to get started with practices if the instrument is ready to go. All you have to do at the time you have scheduled for practice is to go to the practice area and tighten up the bow. Everything else is ready for practice to start. You can even rosin the bow at the end of your practice session before you loosen it so that the bow is ready to go.
  3. Set the Mood: Since you and your child are still novices, it is important for both of you to work on proper posture habits. Daily practice will make all of this much easier, you will find. For now, have the child stand in rest position and then take a bow.
  4. Bow Hold Practice: Ask the child to show you her best bow hold. If you need help remembering how to make the correct bow hold, click here for some examples. Have your child hold this good bow hold posture for one minute. You may also play some bow games if you wish, such as doing the "Up Like a Rocket" jingle or passing the cup back and forth between you. Because good bow hold posture is so important to your child's future success at producing a good sound on the violin, find opportunities to practice bow holds whenever you can. Have your child make three good bow holds before each meal at home and before bedtime. If your child watches television, have your child hold the bow correctly throughout commercial breaks. Write yourself a note or two and post them somewhere that will remind you to do this.
  5. Set Up Steps: Next, have your child follow the set up steps with the violin that I have taught you and the child so that the child is set up for success concerning her playing posture. If you need help remembering the set up steps, click here  and here to watch some of my students show you.
  6. Violin Hold Practice: Once the child is in playing position, have the child stand there for one minute. You may balance a toy on the instrument, and you may play the recording of the Twinkle variations while your child is practicing her good posture. Eventually your child will be playing all of the Twinkles without a pause, as the recording does, so having your child stand in playing position at this point helps your child to build the stamina to hold the instrument for the same length of time that it takes to play through the Twinkle variations.
  7. Twinkle Practice: Your child has learned how to play each Twinkle variation, but she lacks the stamina right now to play all of them at one time. So she will need a rest in between each variation. Have her stand in rest position in between each variation. This might be a good time to reinforce the proper bow hold. Have your child repeat the set up steps before playing each variation. Before the child begins playing the variation, talk through the points that the child needs to remember while playing the variation: fingering issues, good clean string crossings, staying on the bow highway, short staccato stopped bows. Pick one thing or point at a time. Because we are working at building up Twinkle stamina at this point, I want your child to play all of the variations at each practice. In future weeks, we will be working out different practice plans, but for this week and the next, we will be playing all of the Twinkle variations. If your child is having "one of those days," I think it would be alright to cut the practice short with just two Twinkle variations, but please do not make a habit of this or allow your child to make a habit of this. Use this shortened practice plan only on those really, really bad days, and no more than once every two weeks or so.

Ten-Minute Practice Plan: Please note that you will not be spending more than ten minutes a day on this practice plan. The rest position, bow, bow hold practice, and violin hold practice last a little over two minutes. The Twinkle variations may require five minutes or more. I have timed my students, and they generally do not take longer than five minutes to perform all the Twinkle variations. It is the time spent in between playing the variations that is wasted on dawdling, stalling, and other unwanted behaviors. If you use a timer with your child, you will notice that your child spends less time on wasted behaviors. Also, regular practice will eliminate much of the practice drama that you may be experiencing currently at home.

No Excuses: Please do not come to next week's lesson with the excuse that you were too busy to find ten minutes every day. Everyone can find ten minutes in a day. We probably waste a lot more than ten minutes on completely unproductive things. If you find that you still have trouble finding ten minutes a day, please bring your family calendar to your child's next lesson, and I will help you to find time in your schedule. I must note, however, that if you have such a busy life already on your and your child's schedule, then perhaps this is not the best time to start music lessons, or else you need to eliminate some of the activities you are currently involved in.

I believe that music lessons are extremely important for the child's development -- physically, mentally, and spiritually. Some of these developmental issues are only addressed through the study of music. Please consider this when you plan your schedule.

I hope that this letter addresses the question you raised in your phone message. Please call me if you have any questions about what I have discussed here or if you have any problems completing the practice homework I have assigned for this week.


Paula Bird

PS: You might find it helpful to review the Parent Report Card.