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Sunday, August 25, 2013

Monday Morning Checklist: Back to School Checklist for Suzuki Parents

Written by Paula E. Bird © 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Yes, No, and Y-Boy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 16, 2013

Thumbs Up!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Left Thumb

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

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

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

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

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

Right Thumb

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 12, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 5, 2013

Monday Morning Check In: The Perfect Life

written by Paula E. Bird, © 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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