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Sunday, September 29, 2013

Monday Morning Check In: Value your priorities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 22, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Monday Morning Check In: Role Models

Written by Paula E. Bird ©2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Monday Morning Check In: Good Enough?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who would like to join me in this?

Monday, September 2, 2013

Monday Morning Check In: Just one finger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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