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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Travel Plans

It just occurred to me that there may be some readers who would like to know my upcoming travel plans. Perhaps I will be near to your area and we can meet in person for coffee and talk about teaching and parenting and Suzuki. Shoot me an email (paulabirdviolin@gmail.com) if you are interested in meeting up with each other.

I will be in Victoria, Texas from June 4-8, 2013. The Artisan Quartet will perform at the Victoria Bach Festival (Beethoven op. 135 and Schumann Piano Quintet with Melissa Marse). We will join forces with the Festival Orchestra to perform Beethoven's Missa Solemnis.

I will be in Central Pennsylvania (Hummelstown and Hershey) from June 11-14 (traveling 6/10 and 6/15). I will be visiting my father.

-- Paula Bird

Monday, May 27, 2013

Monday Morning Check In: Do It With Class

Written by Paula E. Bird ©2013

In my younger days, I once witnessed a business systematically purging or downsizing its employee work force. This was not the giant action we typically hear about, such as when a giant company lets go thousands of employees. It was a smaller effort, such as letting one employee go each year when the employee reached a certain shelf life (when it would be time for the company to promote the employee to another level). Rather than promote the employee on the merits, this particular business opted to saddle the employee with conditional employment, almost like a quest or challenge for the employee to retain his or her position. Most of the employees were rightfully hurt and opted to leave the firm.

As I witnessed this, I observed how the targeted employees responded to the situation. Most of the employees were hurt because they felt that their work product and historical loyalty to the firm warranted different treatment. The business demanded much of our free time. Many of us put in 60-80 or more hours per week on company business. The business made frequent travel assignments that took us away from our homes and families. Most of the employees left after angry outbursts and retaliatory remarks. I saw relationships destroyed by thoughtless outbursts and accusations. The work atmosphere for the other remaining employees was a little tense and unsettled, as we waited for the dust to settle.

Then one day, it was my turn. At the time, I was listening to a series of audiotapes in my car about how to improve business attitudes and build up business relationships in negotiation situations. One piece of advice I heard on those audiotapes was that when faced with choices about how to handle potentially negative situations, to choose to "do it with class." When my turn came to handle the situation, this phrase ran through my head: "do it with class." How does one do it with class? Here is the way that I chose.

Instead of responding to the news with anger and hurt, I opted to spend a bit more time writing a really lengthy resignation memo in which I thanked every single supervisor and manager. I addressed my gratitude to each person, with specific comments that pertained only to each individual. I listed the lessons that I had learned from each person, and I wrote of all the things about my working relationship with each person that I would miss. I tried to be as classy as I could while I carefully severed my long term relationship with the business and the people who ran it. This lengthy memo was a public declaration, because each manager and supervisor read it and learned about the gracious things that I said about others.

The results for me were quite different that the results than I had observed with those other employees who were angry and said so. Each manager and supervisor came around to speak with me, and we had wonderful closing sessions between us. Everything remained friendly and pleasant. The best part is that the business sent me quite a bit of contract work for a few months afterwards, which really helped me to stay on my feet as I looked to begin a new chapter in my life.

This all happened another lifetime ago it seems, but the advice still remains valid. Whatever you do, do it with class. If you sever a relationship, make a complaint, offer a dissenting opinion, or champion a new idea, do it with class.

What does doing it with class look like? Sometimes it is easier to define something by looking at what it is not.

Doing it with class is NOT:
  • using your personal power, influence, or fan base to attack someone else on a personal level
  • denigrating or slamming someone with hyperbole or unfair, out-of-context statements about what someone has said or written
  • threatening to bring legal action for baseless claims
  • claiming conspiracies and secret, unprovable actions
  • bullying others into sharing the same opinions or beliefs by causing others to fear that they will be subjected to the same thoughtless treatment
  • being defensive when others subscribe to different ideas or methods
  • saying or presenting things about others in a way that would intentionally cause embarrassment and discomfort
Doing it with class IS:
  • expressing opinions without tearing someone else down in the process.
  • letting the truth stand on its own merits without having to "help" it along
  • allowing others the freedom to suggest other ideas or possibilities
  • graciously allowing others to share the floor when it comes to free discussion of ideas
  • kindly listening to what others have to say
I think that all of us recognize when someone is doing it with class, just as we understand when someone is behaving like a school yard bully. Bullying is nothing more than trying to gain power over someone else through meritless means. Power, real meaningful power that would be recognized as true influence and leadership, is earned when someone does it with class rather than abuse. Let us insist that others treat us with the respect that we deserve as individuals. Let us insist that we all behave in a way that shows we know how to "do it with class."

On a personal note, this past weekend was a special time for us. My stepson Jon graduated medical school. We are all proud of his accomplishments! We look forward to the next chapter in Jon's life.

Dr. Jon!

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Monday Morning Check In: What's in Your Schedule?

What a busy few months I have had! I am sure you all share the craziness with me. I finally finished a few projects and got a little free time, and then I found myself running errands and scheduling  appointments. Before I realized it, I completely used up any small amount of free time I could have carved out, and yet I still face many things that need to be tackled with little or no time in which to do them.

At this point, my husband would love to turn to me and say, "it's your choice how you schedule your life." Grrr, except that he is correct. It really is my choice how I structure my life and spend my time. This is true for all of us.

I know it is not the half-year point yet, but I think we should consider a review of our yearly plan at this point. How far off track might we have gotten? Are we headed where we wanted to go by this point?

I find it helpful to start out such a review by considering those tasks and projects that I have already accomplished this year. Rather then cause myself stress over those things that I have not accomplished (yet), I find it encouraging to contemplate how much I have already done to show for how busy I have been.

Well, when you put it like that, Bird, that paints a different picture, and indeed it does. I need not bore you with a litany of my accomplishments. The purpose of this exercise is for me to give recognition to the fact that I have indeed done many, many things so far this year and to remind me not to beat myself up over the head over the things I still face on my yearly to do list. I may be disappointed with myself for not making as much progress in some areas as I had hoped, but I do not want to lose a grasp of how far along the road I have come.

As I thought about all this, one idea stood out in my mind, and that was that if I needed to find time for certain things, then I was going to have to schedule that time for myself. After all, I am in charge of my own life and am captain of my scheduling choices.

For the next few days, I plan to make a list of the most important things I want to work on in the coming months. I am going to bring out my toolkit items, which have gotten lost under a pile of papers that need to be filed, and I will begin using these tools again in earnest. (To read more about my toolkit, click here).

Most important of all, I will remind myself daily that I am in charge of my scheduling choices. I will begin to schedule the time I need for the projects that I want most to accomplish in the next few months.

Recently, one of my adult students began paying me more money than I normally charge for a lesson. He told me that he thought the time I gave to him was valuable, and that I should be paid a particular amount that he thought more appropriately reflected the value of a minute of my time.

Who am I to argue?, I thought, although I did try to talk him out of this idea. Later I found that I like the idea of thinking about my time as having that particular monetary value associated with it. I found that I made wiser choices about how I spent my time. If I decided to slack a little bit and watch some TV, at least I was more aware of the value of the time I spent in front of the screen.

How much is a minute of your time worth to you?

This week I will spend my time contemplating the state of my schedule and making a list of the things that I need to finish in the next few months. I will devise a plan to address how I will schedule my time to accomplish my remaining tasks for this year. I will also avoid any urge to engage in mental scourging concerning how many items and projects I did not yet accomplish. Instead,  I will focus my mental energy on a scheduling plan that will lead me down the path to fulfill my goals.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Getting Ready for the book 1 Minuets


Written by Paula E. Bird ©2013

Up to this point in our discussion about teaching and learning the Suzuki Violin repertoire in book 1, I have systematically gone through the pieces and analyzed them into four areas:
  • left hand
  • right hand
  • how to preview or teach
  • later problems (or just later for advanced students, group class, or review ideas)
At this point, everyone has most likely figured out how to teach students new songs, and students may be approaching the point when they learn to read music as well. So, I will not go into detail about that. Lately I have used very large index cards (the largest that they make) to list the fingering on the cards for the practice parent, and I anticipate that my students will look at the cards to some extent as they learn the new pieces. Since I have worked diligently on developing my students' aural skills and abilities to play by ear, I am not worried that my students will lose any of their aural or listening skills by referring to a card. My students will learn to read shortly, since I usually introduce reading materials that are age-appropriate at the end of book 1.

We have also engaged in reading preparation activities from the very beginning of lessons by referring to the symbols in the book, such as down bow and up bow indications, repeat signs, fermatas, and by discussing other words that we find in the songs, such as ritard, forte, and other dynamic markings. My students may also look at the way a piece looks, and we discuss the form of songs. Students are likely able to compare the way two phrases look and determine whether the notes look the same or dissimilar. Since I expect my students to play the songs without having to refer to music or a card, and as long as the parents play the reference recordings at home on a daily basis, I am confident that my students' aural abilities will remain strong.

So at this point in the learning progression, I focus more on the skills to be developed with each new song in the repertoire. I have several questions that I think about routinely as my students enter into the world of the Bach/Petzold Minuets:
  • What skills are to be developed?
  • What tricky bits will challenge the students?
  • What supplemental exercises or repertoire could I use to shore up the technical challenges that students face?
  • How can I reinforce the learning in group classes?
  • Was this skill introduced gently in earlier repertoire?
  • Will this skill be revisited in later repertoire?
I find that if I approach each song in the Suzuki repertoire with these questions, I will find my answers about how to teach the material to my students. Even now, after so many decades of teaching with the Suzuki Method, I still make new discoveries, often with the help of my students! I am sad to hear so many parents or teachers complain about how tired they are of playing or reviewing the "same old thing." The Suzuki repertoire is a collection of wonderful music, and each child sounds different when playing the songs. I can listen to Twinkles all day long because the students never play the Twinkles in the same way. There is an individuality about each student's playing that will never cease to interest me. Each student presents individual challenges and approaches to music and expressive playing. Each student comes to lessons with a different environment and different family situation than other students. Even students within the same household present unique responses to the learning. No student is the same as another, and that fact is a beautiful thing for teachers and parents to embrace and enjoy.

In the next areas of discussion about the later Suzuki repertoire, I will approach the songs with the philosophical overlay I have discussed above as well as the questions I raised earlier. Between us, we will be able to come up with a plan to address teaching and learning concerns with the later Suzuki repertoire.

Let us start with the first Minuet in Suzuki Violin Volume 1. What challenges have you faced with your students or children? Leave a comment below, and we will tackle these issues in the coming weeks.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Exciting News (for me!)

I am excited this morning. Yesterday I noticed that I finally reached the milestone of having 100 followers. To me this milestone means that 100 people made the decision to follow my blog. It also means that I have 100 friends from around the world who choose to read what I write. I am very excited about this.

If you are one of those 100 followers, I offer my deepest thanks for your support!

Monday, May 13, 2013

Monday Morning Check In: Lessons from the Chicken Coop


Written by Paula E. Bird ©2013


Yesterday was a big day at my house, not because it was Mother's Day, but because it was Chicken Coop Day. I have been raising five new hens these past two months. Because my other chicken coop (with three hens) is too small to add more hens, I opted to build a new coop. I bought an outdoor dog kennel run, and my husband built a chicken coop hut to put inside the fenced kennel. Yesterday was the day we finally moved the chickens from their large plastic tub home that was located in my bathroom and into the new chicken coop home.

This was a major event in our house, because we needed to introduce all of my nine miniature dachshunds to the new chicken home along with the new chickens.

As we all visited the girls in their new home and watched as they discovered where their food and water were and how to get in and out of the nesting area, I thought about the past two months and the lessons that I learned. As I discover on a daily basis here on our ranch, there are many life lessons and metaphors to be found in routine country life. So it is with our new chickens. Here are three lessons that I learned from the chicken coop and that apply to teaching.

Environment

I brought the chicks home when they were just a few days old. Because newborn chicks do not have feathers, they are unable to regulate their body temperature. I had to rig up a heating system that would ensure that the little gals had the right body temperature at all times. I had to monitor the set up to be sure that everything was working correctly. I had to observe my little ones to be sure that they were not huddling together under the lamp (too cold) or panting on the far side away from the lamp (too hot). I had a thermometer in the tub, and I checked on my girls every few hours. This process continued for weeks, until the time came for the hardening off stage, when I altered the lamp set up to begin reducing the heat (click here to read the article about The Hardening Off Process).

Nurturing

While I raised my chickens, I took great care to provide the best food for them so that they would grow up healthy. I had to keep the feeder clean and filled with food, and this became a tedious chore in the past few weeks, as the girls tended to make a mess. I also provided the girls fresh water on a very frequent basis, as the girls had a nasty habit of flapping their "wings" as the wings grew and stirred up dust and pine shavings into the water. Later, as the girls grew stronger, they were able to fly up to roost on the top of the water feeder, which introduced more bird detritus into the water. Keeping the water feeder clean and filled with fresh water was a real chore, as the girls were determined to make me work at this.

I also had to keep the plastic tub cleaned of chicken droppings. I would periodically clean out the old pine shavings and replace them with new shavings. As the girls grew, so did my task, until I was cleaning out the tub on a daily basis in this last week. I thought it was important that the girls had a clean living environment, so I kept up with this chore.

Protection

I have nine dogs in the home (yes, I know, that is a large pack of dogs to have in the home, but I love them all). One of my dogs has a thing for feather dusters, and naturally this thing also relates to chickens. This dog was always alert about the chickens. I had to take care to keep the bathroom door shut and the chicken dog out of the room. Later, as my husband finished building the chicken hut, there was another inspection process that I put him through. I am quite rigid about the level of protection that the chicken coop and run will provide for my girls, because we do have predators in our property area. There are dogs that roam free in our country area, and as recent events in LA county have shown, roaming dog packs can be quite dangerous, despite our ranch fencing. We also have coyotes and raccoons, and these animals are a serious issue as far as chickens are concerned, especially raccoons, who seem to have a tag team system going to kill chickens. So I would not put my little ones into their new home unless I was sure that the new coop was well protected with the appropriate fencing and chicken wire.

How do these three lessons relate to teaching?

Environment

Dr. Suzuki's philosophy of Talent Education and Mother Tongue is all about environment. Dr. Suzuki wrote time and again about the power and influence that environment plays in the lives of children. Dr. Suzuki admonished parents to reflect on their own behavior and about the type of environment that the parents provide for their children. Dr. Suzuki asked that parents create the very best environment possible for their children so that their children would grow up to be fine human beings with noble and good hearts.

Nurturing

Dr. Suzuki encouraged parents to nurture by love. All children need love and affection. The love must be unconditional, with no strings attached. Our lives are so busy, and there are so many possible distractions available to us. Sometimes I despair that our world today neglects the nurturing aspect of love with regard to our children. I often observe parents who seem annoyed with their children on a constant basis, as if parenting were merely one more chore on the parent's "to do list" rather than a labor of love, which is how I imagined the parent envisioned it when the parent first considered having a child. How do parents lose touch with their initial emotional bonds with their children? How can we get back to the loving, affectionate, and nurturing relationship that will help children to grow healthy and strong emotionally and socially? Good nurturing also aids learning. Children do not learn well from an unhappy or stressful place. This is an important life lesson to learn and to consider for children.

Protection

Children are not adults, and children do not have the ability to think and make decisions with the same experience and knowledge as adults. That is why children have parents. Parents have the role of protecting their children. Just as I provided a good protection system for my chickens, so too should parents provide a good protection system for their children.

Protection is not limited to keeping children safe and teaching health and safety rules (hold my hand when crossing the street, do not talk to strangers, wash your hands before eating food (and after handling chickens)). Protection also includes providing children with the learning environment that teaches children how to make good decisions. Parents should take care to teach their children how to identify problems, how to come up with possible solutions, how to plan a course of action, and how to evaluate the results.

I observe many parents who are unable to take the time to teach their children these important life skills. Instead, I see parents "do" things for their children, give answers to questions asked of the children, and sometimes even bark orders and instructions at the children. My theory is that parents are in a hurry and by behaving in this way, the parents are able to "speed things along." Or, perhaps parents are reluctant to acknowledge that their children are growing up and are no longer as dependent on the parents for help.

These are important lessons for children to learn, and parents can start with small tasks and build up to larger ones. In the studio, these tasks can be as simple as learning how to put the violin together, rosin the bow, and put the violin away in the case. Later, the child will learn how to tune the instrument (I start this task at the first lesson) and change strings. There is a learning and problem-solving opportunity at every turn if parents take the time and look to find it.

Take a few moments out of your day today to reflect on these three areas:

  • What environment have you provided for your children? Is it an environment that will encourage your children to learn and motivate them to want to learn? What can you do to improve your children's environment?
  • What nurturing have you provided for your children? Are you nurturing your children as much as your children need? Are your children eating food that will help them to grow up healthy and strong? Are you providing your children with the love and affection that your children need? How can you improve the nurturing that you provide your children?
  • What protection have you provided for your children? Do you allow your children to learn how to solve problems and perform tasks without your help? Do you take the time to allow your children to learn how to grow up and become fine human beings with noble and good hearts?
Environment, Nurturing, and Protection were merely three lessons I learned from the chicken coop, but these three lessons are important ones in the life of a chicken. Children are even more important than chickens. My wish is that parents and teachers will reflect on these three lessons this week as they relate to children and students.



Monday, May 6, 2013

Monday Morning Check In: Always Have an Answer


Written by Paula E. Bird ©2013


I find it important as a teacher to do more than educate my students about how to play a musical instrument. I also want to educate my students' parents about how to be better parents and home teachers to my students. My students and their parents will then become ambassadors of my teaching philosophy to the community. As we are all role models, we will hopefully influence others to espouse the same philosophy about the importance of music and music lessons on the road to growing a fine heart and developing talent and ability, which is the embodiment of Dr Suzuki's vision.

This scenario needs more time and attention. We should carefully consider our beliefs and attitudes in order to develop a system of statements and explanations about what we do and why. We want to spread the word about the importance of what we do and encourage others to join in our adventure.

Dr. Suzuki has written several statements that embody his philosophy about Talent Education. These statements include:

  • Talent is not inborn.
  • All children have talent.
  • Man is the son of his environment.
  • The environment determines the person.
  • The fate of a child is in the hands of his parents.
What statements would you make to reflect your philosophy and beliefs? You may adapt or borrow someone else's statements, philosophy, and beliefs as your own, as I did with those statements that Dr. Suzuki made. You may also have other beliefs that reflect who you are and what you stand for. Perhaps you have not systematically thought through this subject area. I recall one terrific visiting university professor -- an excellent teacher -- and his encouragement that we students spend the time to develop our own "Bill of Rights." This teacher's name was Dean J. Spader (University of South Dakota), and he encouraged us to consider the principles and beliefs that we stood for and to write out statements that reflected the importance of our beliefs. In this way we would have statements of principle that would shape and guide our life's direction and would provide a framework to influence others in a positive way.

Here are a few questions to get you started as you think about what you stand for:

What is your purpose in life? What do you want to accomplish? If you have trouble with this one, think about what people might say about you in a eulogy. What do you want people to remember about you and your life?

What attitudes are important to you? Make a list and reflect on why these attitudes are an important part of your makeup.

What beliefs do you stand for? Write out some statements that reflect your beliefs so that you can readily share your philosophy with anyone who asks.

I regularly write and think about my beliefs and philosophy about teaching and life in general. I am always ready to explain the Suzuki philosophy of Talent Education to anyone who asks or whenever an opportunity arises to talk about it. That is because a long time ago, I wrote out an essay for myself about the Suzuki Method. Teachers who regularly attend Suzuki Teacher Training will have probably gone through a similar exercise. Over the years I have also written many letters, emails, and articles about the Suzuki philosophy. These tasks exercised my thinking about what I do and why. Because I spent time thinking and writing about my personal philosophy, I now have a series of philosophical statements that I can share with others at a moment's notice or whenever asked by someone about what I do. I have even written a lengthy letter to potential new parents. This letter shares my philosophy about teaching and music education and is part of my initial contact with a parent of a potential new student.

Take some time this week to consider your beliefs, attitudes, and purpose. How would you explain these things to others? Be prepared to tell others why it is that you do what you do.

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. 1 Peter 3:15 (NIV).

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Quick Practice Tip: Continuous Vibrato Exercise


Here is a neat little tip I learned during a recent cello master class that my colleague, Dr. Karla Hamelin, gave at Texas State University. The student in the master class had lovely vibrato, but the student did not use the vibrato continuously. Instead, the student would vibrate obvious long notes, and then continue the passage without vibrato. In effect, since the student selectively used vibrato, the notes that were vibrated stood out apart from the notes that were not vibrated and vice versa.

Dr. Hamelin showed the student a little exercise to help develop the student's continuous use of vibrato. She asked the student to choose a particularly resonant note (in the case of the cello, she suggested the note "G" on the cello D string). Then she began to vibrate on the fourth finger while she drew a long slow down bow. As she changed to a slow up bow, she slipped her ring finger onto the same note and continued the vibrato without stopping the vibrato between the fourth and third fingers. Then as she changed to another down bow, she slipped her middle finger onto the note without stopping the vibrato. Finally, she changed to up bow and vibrated on the note with her first finger. She performed this exercise entirely without stopping the vibrato. After going through each finger one time, she reversed the process beginning with the index finger first.

I tried the exercise myself shortly thereafter and was delighted with the results. I found it easy to continue the vibrato because I could hear when the vibrato stopped between fingers. By using the same note, I could hear myself continue the vibrato on the note. I used the note "E" on the violin A string. The exercise could be the note "A" on the viola D string.

Try this exercise for yourself. The exercise is short and can be easily performed as part of a warm up routine.

For other articles about vibrato, visit these links:

Vibrato: An Introduction to the Five States of Teaching and Learning It
What is Vibrato? -- Preparing for the Big Event
Vibrato: Pig Nose & Wibble Wobbles
Teaching Tip: Using Italian Vibrato for Speed and Control