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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.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Monday Morning Check In: Simple Gifts


Written by Paula E. Bird ©2013

First, let me apologize for not writing much in the past month. I have been teaching at two summer camps and am currently in the middle of the second camp. I have very little time to devote to my writing on the blog because this current camp is out of town. What free time I have found has been devoted to touching base with my family and furry friends on the ranch.

I had a little time this weekend to catch up with some overdue chores. Now that the house is sparkling fresh again for the most part, and I have done a little bit of hard physical labor (shoveling wheelbarrows of cedar chips to spread in certain areas of the alpaca pastures), I have at last found a few moments to call my own to do some writing. As I contemplated what I would write about during my home chores, I hit upon the subject of Simple Gifts.

"Simple Gifts" is one of my favorite hymns. Written in 1848 by Joseph Brackett for the Shaker community in Alfred, Maine, this hymn was used several times by the American composer Aaron Copland, most notably in his "Applachian Spring" ballet. Here are the lyrics:

'Tis the gift to be simple,'tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain'd,
To bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come 'round right.

The words are simple and sweet. The meaning is timeless. The tune itself is simple and lovely. Such a small thing, but the music is often requested at weddings, and children love to learn to sing the song.

As this thought occurred to me in the midst of the donkey pasture, I thought about how simple it really was to look around me and discover the gifts laid out before me. The land is dry here in Texas, as we are suffering through the third year of drought conditions, and yet my animals that I refused to sell off have given me the simple gift of enriching nutrients that will replenish the soil, although many of my readers may not find the same enjoyment that I do in shoveling these gifts around. The cedar trees that we chipped and shredded last year are my gifts to areas of the pastures that need building up. My hens leave me lovely gifts of eggs daily, and the canine pack refreshes me with unconditional love.

As I frequently do, I turned my thoughts from the property and the animals to the students that I have been working with at the summer strings camp. I thought about the discussions that some of my students have had about using personal energy to connect better as chamber musicians and as orchestra section players. We also discussed our personality styles and how each style related to each other in a music setting.

Each discussion revealed the many gifts that each individual student (and teacher) brought to the ensemble and the classroom. These gifts may be small and simple, but the value of the gift is not diminished because of its size and complexity. We needed to remind each other to look around outside of ourselves and to learn to recognize the gifts that were before us. We needed to remember to accept the gifts we found and to allow the gifts to empower us to do something bigger than ourselves.

As I begin this last week of the summer strings camp, I will remind myself to be more mindful about the joy of teaching. Each student, parent, and fellow teacher has many simple gifts to offer, and I plan to look for every one of them this week.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Summer Daze


Summer hit with a vengeance here in Central Texas. We had record temperatures last weekend, topping off my Saturday evening with 108 degrees. Then a "cold" front thankfully breezed through at 69 degrees Sunday morning.

Summer hit the studio as well. I have had a busy June, so the studio has been open for one week in mid-June and now this week. I have noticed a trend among my studio families: the Summer Daze. Even my most regular families have been hit with this affliction.

There was a flurry of activity in the studio during May as my students and their families prepared for the studio recital that marked the end of the school year. Then students came to their lessons about two weeks later all fired up with new material learned. Now two weeks later, my students are dragging themselves into their lessons looking listless and unengaged. Sometimes the parents even forget that they had scheduled a lesson. Practice routines have fallen by the wayside, and practice goals have evaporated.

The Summer Daze is a slow down in commitment, routine, and action. The schedule is lighter than the school year and there are less demands on everyone's time. Unfortunately, if families spend the entire summer in the Daze, then the entire summer will pass by very quickly with little to show for it.

I am all for enjoying the free time and loose schedule. However, let us be very honest. Free time and a loose schedule does not mean that we should sit around on the couch and do nothing. Nor does it mean lolling around a swimming pool and soaking up sunshine. All of these activities are wonderful, but not all of the time, not if you want to have something to tell others about how you spent your summer vacation.

I have written a previous article about this subject with ideas about how to survive this time with a modicum of self respect. Click here if you want to review those suggestions. Today I will focus on commitment, routine, and action.

COMMITMENT

The summer is an excellent time to refocus our efforts. There are fewer competing interests for our time and attention. Why not use this time to think about the direction our next goal path will take? Let us recommit to our purpose of taking music lessons to raise children with fine abilities and noble hearts. Go back and read through some of the articles in the blog archives. I have probably written about every subject involved in music lessons, so search for a subject in the search box above and read an article a day to renew your enthusiasm and commitment.

ROUTINE

I stress the importance of routine in the summer, but we do not have to be rigid about this. A summer routine does not have to be as jam-packed as the schedule that families maintain during the school year. Rather than schedule every hour, as parents and schools typically do during the school year, why not schedule chunks of time that are designated for certain activities. For example, why not schedule a two-hour period first thing in the morning for breakfast, practice, and general cleaning chores (making beds, dusting, wiping counters). Then another two-hour block could be designated for major chores or errands (one major chore, such as vacuuming or laundry, or going to the library, bank, grocery store, or music lesson). Then there is a lunch period, and the afternoon could be longer periods devoted to sports activities or swimming at the local community pool. Evening time blocks could be devoted to family activities, visits with other families, making craft projects, or special events.

If families were able to maintain a block schedule of time periods, the families would be able to take advantage of the feeling of looseness in the summer scheduling and yet have some structure in which to feel a sense of purpose and routine. Children, who thrive on routine, would have a better ability to predict what happens next. Lessons and practice would be more productive and more predictable. Practicing is so much easier in general if it is a daily habit. My studio families will assure you that any deviation from the daily practice schedule often leads to practice problems: behavior issues, reluctance, and arguments. My studio families will agree that it is so much easier to maintain a regular and consistent practice schedule and routine.

ACTION

When we take action, something wonderful occurs. We overcome static inertia (the body's state of being at rest) and begin to build a new momentum (body in motion). Sometimes a small action, a baby step, will be enough to urge us forward through the doldrums. Like magic, even the smallest of gestures or activities may be enough to wake up our motion sensors and generate energy for further activity and accomplishment. So here are a list of a few smaller activities that you might consider adding to  your morning time blocks:

Clean out the music bag. You have probably accumulated a lot of things that no longer need to be kept. Throw away the trash and broken pencils and rosin pieces. If you have loose papers, visit the local office supply store in your errand time block and buy a notebook or two to store your lose papers. The process of cleaning out the book bag will energize your enthusiasm for making music again. Invite your child to assist you. Watch how distracted your child will be about each discovered treasure in the bag. As these items spark memories, your child will be likely to want to play the instrument.

Clean out your child's instrument case. Vacuum out all the rosin dust and other debris inside the case. Repair latches. Replace rubber bands and other worn out teaching aids. If your child plays the piano, have the child assist you in really cleaning the piano. Dust all the legs and the underside and back. Your child will not mind climbing underneath the piano, which will make the cleaning chore so much easier for the parent. You might consider polishing and cleaning the instrument too. Be sure to use the special polish that is made for this purpose; do not use regular furniture polish. This might also be a good time to change the strings on your child's instrument or to have the piano tuned. Enlist the help of your teacher in replacing the strings.

Schedule a lesson. Nothing helps momentum and activity to grow like a deadline. Call your child's teacher and set up a lesson. Even if you do not feel that you are ready for a good lesson, your child's teacher will help you to get back in touch with your momentum and enthusiasm for practice.

Plan an event. Schedule a music sleepover, a special house concert, or a pool party. There are many music-related possibilities for summer events:

  • Ice Cream Sunday: tie a performance with an ice cream party
  • Practice Picnic: tie practicing with a picnic party, even if it is in the backyard. Keep the instruments out of the sun though!
  • Summer Talent Show: invite your child's friends and their families to participate
  • Pool Party Play Down: a pool party that includes a group activity of playing the music lesson and group class repertoire from most advanced pieces to least advanced songs.
  • Fiddle Friday: invite your child's music friends to join together for a fiddling afternoon or evening. Parents or other friends who play guitar, mandolin, or banjo will enjoy making music together. Students could plan to learn a new fiddle song a week.
  • Backyard Bar-B-Q: tie in a special performance or friendly gathering along with a Bar-B-Q potluck event.
Summer Camp. Texas State University held its annual summer strings camp last week. There are other music camps available. Consider hosting your own music camp and invite your child's teacher to provide music theory, music reading, or other music-related activities.

These are a few ideas to get you going. Please write and let me know your special ideas to help you through the Summer Daze.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Monday Morning Check In: Principled Decisions


In last week's Monday article, I shared my thoughts about making tough decisions. Today I wish to share some guidelines and principles for making those tough decisions. I offer three principles that I use to guide many of my decisions, and I find that when I rely on these principles, my decisions are a little bit easier to make. At least I can sleep at night with the knowledge that I have made the best decision that I could.

Remove money from the equation. I am often surprised that decisions become very easy to make once I eliminate money from the picture. I ask myself, if money were not involved here, what would I do? I am not sure why money can cloud our thinking, but I am certain that without money involved in the process, making a decision becomes clearer.

Look out for the lesser ones. There are many people out there who are not as fortunate as we are. There are some who do not have a voice or do not wield the power to encourage things to happen. These people are still valuable to the world and have worthwhile contributions to make. Sometimes others abuse their power or work to achieve their own agenda at the expense of others or the good of a group. In cases like this, I find it important to look out for those people who are unprotected or who need a champion of sorts.

Do the right thing. Often I find that if I say this little phrase that I will understand what I should be doing. I also find that when I tell someone, I know that you will do the right thing, I witness the person actually do the right thing. In the scheme of things, sometimes the right thing is also the hardest thing. Matthew 7:13 says: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it." I have found this principle to be true, that the right decisions are sometimes the hardest ones to make. This difficulty does not in any way diminish the rightness of the decision.

There may be many other principles that we can rely on in our decision making. I welcome your ideas. I have had many a good night's sleep when I followed the above principles in my own decisions.

PS: I checked the calendar yesterday and discovered that it was the 26th Monday of 2013. We are halfway through the year. That discovery encouraged me to revisit my goals that I made last January. Better get cracking on what is left for the rest of the year.

Monday, July 1, 2013

On Overload

I will be late with the Monday Morning post. It was a full week: university strings camp, faculty recital, conductors' workshop at neighbor university, Patriotic Sunday at church (I am the pianist), a wedding, and two Artisan Quartet performances. I have been a busy girl this past week, and today is vet day for three of my little ones plus teaching at the studio.

I will write later.