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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Thanksgiving Game

Here is a short video that I made today of one of my young students, who came up with a great idea to help himself remember various skills in Gossec's Gavotte:

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, May 26, 2014


I apologize for not writing very much recently. An interesting series of events occurred recently. This is the busy season of the year, and I got sucked into the vortex of end-of-school-year activities and recitals and graduations and preparing for all of these events. Then a surprise occurred. While I was feeding my big animals last week, I tripped sideways on some small stones that jetted out of the ground, and the force of my hitting those stones tossed me into the air in a trajectory arc that dumped  me with a thud on my right shoulder. The result is a broken humerus bone and a smashed right shoulder. I have surgery scheduled for tomorrow at 1:45 PM with a shoulder expert doctor. In the meantime, however, it has been interesting to participate in the activities I have listed above with the use of one hand.

I am getting rather good at the use of my left hand alone; I have had practice. If you recall, I recently posted an article about becoming left-handed. In this article I talked about the lessons that I learned on this new skill set journey. If you missed the article the first time, Click here.

I am still able to write, and I anticipate that I may have a little bit more free time to do so in the future after the surgery, but for now it is easier for me to dictate rather than type. I also find that I lack energy right now due to the medications. I can work for a few minutes, then I need a nap.

What this means for the future I will not know until after the surgery. Until then, I am hanging in there. My kiddos gave a nice studio recital yesterday. Many students and parents went out of their way to help me so that things went smoothly. We will see what lessons this latest surprise will reveal to us.

Happy Memorial Day!

Monday, May 5, 2014

Monday Morning Check In: Change the Story

Written by Paula E. Bird, copyright 2014

Last week I had a particularly difficult lesson with one of my young nine-year-old students. Actually, I should say that I had another particularly difficult lesson. The student is troublesome, because for the first year of lessons, her mother and I spent about 98% of our lesson and practice time addressing unproductive behaviors.

On the day after her lesson, I was getting ready for my day and taking a shower. (Don't you find that some of your greatest ideas come while taking a shower?). As I showered, I ran over in my mind the students that I had taught the day before. Amidst many sighs, I thought about the unproductive behavior and then about the kinds of general misbehaviors that I had encountered in the last few lessons. I thought about how I felt during these periods of my student's acting up and acting out and about how her mother responded as well. Then I said to myself aloud, "You'll just have to change her story." And I shrugged and prepared to get out of the shower and get on with my day.

Wait! Something about what I said resonated with me. "Change her story." What was her story? My student's story was the story that I told myself about her every time I thought about her. My student's story was the story that her mother revealed with every interaction she had with her daughter. I do not know about any other stories I could learn about this child, such as from her teachers, classmates, or her father. I suspect there are similar stories in those quarters as mine.

Yes, the child could drive us nuts with her misbehaviors, but take a step back and think about this. She is, after all, a child. We are the grownups. We are the ones who are charged with knowing (or finding out) how to handle these things.

I wanted to change her story because I wanted to change the way that I thought about her. I wanted to change my thinking about her in order to change my feelings and behavior towards her. When I began to think about our teacher-student relationship as they related to basic story lines, I then recalled one lesson when this child and I had joked about making up a story with the child as the center figure. Our working title was, "The Day that Julia Turned into an Alligator." (Fictional Name). I do not recall why we came up with the idea of making the child into an alligator; I suspect it had everything to do with the kind of behavior that the child exhibited that day. I do recall that by turning our thoughts and feelings into a story that we could share together, we built a rather interesting connection between us that day, and I believe that this connection is what the child needs. She loves to give me hugs during her lesson, especially at her most difficult moments. (Maybe we should have made her turn into a Porcupine in the story since she likes to be so prickly).

This story idea gave me an even bigger idea that I would like to share with you. Why not create a story that features the child but not as a child?  The process of creating a story will help to reveal the nature of our thinking about the child. Perhaps once we fully understand our feelings and thoughts about the child will we then be able to effectuate a change in those feelings and thoughts by changing the story.

Here are the basic ingredients to get you started on creating your own story about one of your students. You need a beginning, a middle, and an ending. The story can be three lines long or much more depending on your needs.

Once upon a time, there was a girl/boy named _____. _____ was a _____ (animal, bird, amphibian, flower, insect, dragon, fictional character).

_____ had a problem (or a need): {name the problem or need and explain it}

{Write how _____ struggled to solve the problem or fulfill the need or grow stronger to handle the problem better}

Then one day, _____ {describe the culmination of the struggle}

Here is an example of such a story (no names, although I bear an uncanny resemblance to the old, wise teacher).

Once upon a time, there was a very old and wise teacher who loved to open the front door of her little cottage and welcome in the birds and animals of the forest. Then when the birds and animals would come to visit, the gentle teacher would allow them to enter her cottage and talk with her a while. Sometimes they would play games together, and sometimes they would play music together.

One day a very unusual creature came to the teacher's cottage and demanded to be let in. The teacher happily opened the door to welcome the newcomer, but then she was surprised when during the course of the visit the creature changed into a bird and began to flit around the room. At first the teacher ran after the bird and tried to catch it to keep it still in one place, but just as she got close enough to snatch the bird into her hands, the bird changed into a porcupine. The teacher cautiously stepped back away from the porcupine lest she be pricked by any of the animal's quills.

The next time the creature came to visit, the creature turned into an alligator, which carelessly swung its enormous tail from side to side as it walked, knocking over the teacher's lovely delicate treasures on the cottage bookshelf. The teacher hurried over to catch the items that the alligator had knocked over with its tail. Then the creature turned into a lion and raised her gigantic paws to claw the air and hissed loudly at the teacher.

"My Goodness," the teacher said to herself. "It's very difficult to love this creature! It won't let me near it. I can't get close enough to give it a hug." Still, the teacher would open the door and let the creature come into the cottage and visit. The creature took many forms: a braying donkey, a jumping rabbit, a squawking crow, and a screeching monkey. The teacher was kept very busy trying to keep up with all of the different shapes and noises. Sometimes when other animals were visiting at the same time, this new creature would bump into the other animals with its tail or scare away the other animals with its unpleasant noises.

One time the creature was skittering about on quiet feet, appearing like a little dormouse or squirrel. The wise, old teacher had her back turned to pick up her violin and play some songs for her visitors and did not realize that the creature -- who had now become a quiet, little squirrel -- had sneaked up behind her. When the teacher swung her violin up onto her shoulder and turned around to play music, the scroll of her violin smacked the little creature's head with a resounding thump that brought tears to the little creature's enormous black eyes. The teacher felt very sad about having hurt the little creature, but she did not know how to explain the mishap. The little creature spent the rest of that visit along the back fringe of the other animals who were there to visit.

The wise, old teacher was determined that she would show this creature that it could be loved, no matter what kind of animal it became. It took courage and some time to work up enough nerve to do this. One day the teacher was convinced that she would be able to love the creature no matter what it would turn into that day. She hatched a plan and thought about her plan for several days, over and over. She thought of all the ways that she could show her love to the creature, no matter what the creature turned into. She practiced smiling a lot, no matter how she felt, even when she did not feel like smiling very much because she was tired or had a sniffle or had eaten horrid liver snaps in her oatmeal (which was a mistake, since she thought she had put crushed almonds in her porridge but had forgotten to put her glasses on when she cooked her breakfast).

One day the teacher was ready. She smiled to herself all day as she anticipated seeing the creature and putting her plan into action. With each smile that she practiced, the teacher felt stronger. And a curious thing happened, the teacher did get stronger because with every smile she practiced, she grew happier. The teacher found out that it was not her music that was the magic that made the animals and birds of the forest want to visit her. Her smiles made the magic happen, and just as wonderful as magic is, we find out that the magic can grow even stronger merely by the practice of it. The teacher's constant practice of smiling brought her more and more happiness, which made the teacher smile even more.

And that is as far as I will go with the story, as it is my story to finish. Do you see how the story revealed different aspects of the teacher-student relationship? At first, the teacher welcomed visitors. The teacher thought of herself as having something to offer the visitors. This new creature, however, changed the teacher's story by causing the teacher to do things differently, to reflect more about how to be effective, and to figure out how to reach this child in a different way.

Sometimes by putting things into a story format we will discover the hidden underpinnings of the relationship. By allowing our minds to create a story format that contains the ingredients of our problem, we might instead discover that the problem is not what we first thought it was. Instead we may find ourselves digging deeper into the story-behind-the-story until we find that we have created our own solution and found our own satisfying "happily ever after."

Why not give this technique a try? You will find it is easy to get started.
Once upon a time . . .

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Unsent Letter

I was working on a series of journaling exercises this week, and one technique was to write an unsent letter to a child. I do not have children of my own, and my sister's daughter is no longer a child. So I wrote a letter to an unknown student, whom I expect to meet next year. This is the letter that I would send that student, and I thought I would share it with you.

Dear student that I will meet next season at the studio:

I know that we have just met and that you are quite young. Your life is so far ahead of you, that you cannot even glimpse the pieces of it. You look down the road ahead of you, and your eyes are not strong enough to even see as far as the horizon. My eyes, however, are much older and stronger. I can see all the way up to the horizon, maybe even beyond, because I have walked all the way to your horizon and even farther -- way farther -- as far as my own horizon. I'll be going back there again today, and I might have a chance to see even farther beyond. Because I have seen much of the landscape that you are likely to come across on your own life walk, let me give you some advice -- the kind of advice that I wish someone had taken the time to tell me when I was your age. My advice will help you to stay on this path and avoid those ragged edges along the shoulders of the road -- the places on the path that will slow you down, pull you off course, and put nails in your way that hurt you.

There will be people in your life who say things that may crush you inside. These people are not bad people, they just say things that are unthoughtful. The words sometimes come out of their mouths without much thought or concern. Perhaps they are tired, hungry, cranky, busy, or distracted by something that seems more important than you and whatever you have asked from them. Because you are so young, it will be difficult for you to understand this. Because you are still able to live in the here and now in the undeniable present moment, you will accept these thoughtless moments as deserving of importance. They are not. When someone tells you something, please accept the truth of it carefully, but better still, learn how to be your own guide and counsellor. Learn for yourself how to evaluate the state of things and the world, your desires and interests, and your love and passions. Learn how to be your own judge of whether you hit the mark, because only you will be able to know deep inside whether you are coming close to following the path that you have chosen to walk. Only you can see inside your head and heart to know whether you are fulfilling your dream. Let you be the one who decides whether you are successful.

There are many successful people today who were not successful for a long time. Although they knew that they were doing the right thing and doing their best work, they were not receiving the praise, encouragement, or acceptance that they thought their work deserved. I am sure that they felt just terrible, disappointed, and perhaps discouraged and lost. I know that I felt that way myself. But something inside them spoke up and demanded that they keep on walking and doing anyway, because their work was worthwhile and good, maybe even visionary. Perhaps the others around them were not ready to receive and therefore could not recognize.

This decision to keep going is a very hard thing to do, so start now working on your ability to do it. You are about to start your music lessons, and you will learn how to work through tricky things from the very first lesson you have with your teacher. Embrace this lesson and learn how to apply it to everything else in your life. As you work on this most important life skill -- the ability to persevere -- let the music that you create give you the cushion that you need to rest your problems, your sorrows, your struggles, your fears, and your joy. Let your music help you to connect with others and more importantly with yourself. Let your music be your vehicle to carry you through the many parts of your life journey. Let your music be your answer to anyone who tells you that you cannot do something or that you fall short of the mark. Let your music be a constant reminder that you have it in you to do the impossible, to believe the incredible, and to endure the unbearable. Learn to listen to the words in your heart first so that your mind will be reassured.

Then, and only then, after you know for yourself what is the truth for you, only then open the door to admit the opinions, thoughts, and words of others. Because now you will have the truthful answer in your heart with which to measure all else. If other's words and pictures do not match those that your heart knows to be true, do not admit them into yourself. Let them bounce off your heart's outer walls and skitter away like confetti into the air. When you do receive truth from another, let it add to the spark inside of you. Embrace it. Let it warm your heart, and cushion your joy.

You will have a long and wonderful journey filled with beauty and knowledge and joy.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Unicorn in the Woods

I tell my students that I saw a unicorn once. They accept my story with solemn eyes. This is one of the traits of children that I adore so much, that they believe in the unbelievable, in the impossible. Here is my story.

One early morning, I was running down a country road a mile or more beyond where my little ranch farm is located. It was really early in the morning, and I was still wearing my headlamp to illuminate the road. The air is quiet and still at this time of day because the sun has not risen yet and the wildlife has not fully awakened to the new day.

As I ran in the darkened stillness, a sudden rustle disturbed my concentration. I whipped my head to the left to find the source of the sound and saw the most beautiful unicorn standing about ten feet from me in a thicket of brush. The creature's whiteness glimmered in the dawn's light, and it was not much larger than I am (about 5 feet tall). I breathed in sudden awe as I saw the beautiful horn that graced the creatures forehead. As I gazed upon the stunning sight of the delicate creature, the image before me altered slightly until all that remained was a small white pony.

For those five tantalizing seconds, the possibilities were amazing. That experience has stayed with me for years. Now however, I have come to accept that I really did see a unicorn. I suppose the fleeting nature of the image is the essence and nature of the unicorn, that the creature eludes our attempts to capture it. For me though, the unicorn image represents something much deeper. The unicorn represents our adult inability to believe and have faith in unexplainable things, and I believe that this is the reason that the image changed before my eyes, because I did not believe the image as I first saw it.

This is why I tell my students that I saw a unicorn once, because I believe that I did. The creature was beautiful and unlike anything I have ever seen. I want to believe that such creatures of beauty and myth do exist in my world. I need to believe that such creatures share my time and space in this universe. I need to have a strong belief and faith that anything is possible.

My young students share my belief and faith that such things are possible in the world. Not one of the students I have told my unicorn story has ever questioned the validity of my story. Instead they ask questions: what was the color like, how big was it, where did I see it, could I touch it, did I see it again. Their questions help them to share in my belief and faith that we can do and see everything if we believe we can and if we stay upon to the possibilities.

This is why I am a Suzuki teacher, because I know that there is a unicorn in the woods.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Monday Morning Check In: Surviving the Season Finale

Written by Paula E. Bird, copyright 2014

I have noticed that the tenor of my friends' Facebook posts have changed lately as we enter into the finale part of our season. I read about additional stress due to the activities that end our semesters: recitals, final exams, graduations, final papers and projects, season finale performances by symphony and opera companies, and special church events. The activity level has stepped up or is about to increase, and several friends have warned that there will be little let up until the season is finished. So too my own schedule is about to ramp up and get crazy for the next few weeks. How does one survive this finale season without overwhelming stress? For me, there are three things that I do.

Calendar Minutes

First, I carve out some time every week to sit and contemplate my calendar for the coming week (or two). This is not the same time that I will use for reading before bed or watching television. This is actual dedicated time that I will spend for the purpose of looking at my calendar. It is a little time to spend and I do not need more than 10 minutes or so, sometimes less. I find it imperative though that I actually look at the calendar and fix it in my mind. As my readers know, I maintain my iPhone calendar and have a week-at-a-glance type of calendar open on my dining room table for my husband to refer to. My iPhone calendar has a great deal of detail while my tabletop calendar has the big outlines of where I need to be and when.

During this short little time, I check that both calendars match. I do not want anything to sneak into my iPhone calendar that is forgotten on the tabletop calendar. Looking at the overall week I find helpful for many reasons. It reminds me when there is time for basic life activities, such as laundry and grocery shopping, cleaning the house, making meals-to-go for busy days, and paying bills. I figure out the best days or time of day to accomplish errands or schedule appointments, or even reschedule lessons to accommodate my students'  spring softball games or practices. If my life is really crazy, I may have to stop and focus on the calendar every few days for a minute or less. I find that the written calendar greatly helps me to feel as if I am tied to my life, as if I am truly connected to the activities in my life.

Breathing Exercise

Second, I use a little technique throughout my busy schedule. I read about this technique in a little book called The Seven Whispers by Christina Baldwin. I first discovered Ms. Baldwin's work almost two decades ago when I considered adding the journaling habit to my life. I found her books inspirational and beautiful. In fact, I have recently ordered the same book that I first began with so that I would have a fresh copy to scribble in (Life's Companion: Journal Writing as a Spiritual Quest). In Baldwin's Whispers book, she writes about a centered breathing exercise. Take three breaths. In the first breath, "let go." In the second breath, "be here." and in the third breath, "now what?" This exercise takes maybe a minute, but the effect is instantaneous for me. I add one little step before performing the exercise, and that step is to let all my breath out before taking the first breath.

I learned from the Dog Whisperer Cesar Milan how to calm myself down. I took a long time to discover that it was not the breathing in that would center me but the initial breathing out that did the trick. When I want to slow down or relax a student, we focus on letting all our air out first before we take a deep breath.

This three-breath exercise is dynamic in that it brings almost instant focus and clarity to a situation. Skittering thoughts are stopped in their tracks. Muscles are relaxed. The mind is stilled into a quiet place where reflection can occur. I use this breathing exercise as often as I need it. I have the three statements on sticky notes in strategic places to remind me to perform the exercise throughout the day or evening.

Silence the Phone

Finally, I turn off the phone ringer. I still have my phone set on vibrate, but the ringer is silenced. I do this so that I do not forget to turn the phone off during rehearsals or lessons. Text messages and emails still appear on the screen, so nothing important will escape my attention, but I find that I do not need to be constantly reminded. With the ringer turned off, the air has less distracting noise in it. Then I resolve not to look at it as often.

I learned this trick when I began teaching 10 hours on Fridays. I did not have time to look at my phone except to glance at it to find out why a student did not show up on time or at all. I found that I missed very little by not checking my phone all day long. My email signature states that I check my emails twice a day, noon and 6 pm. If someone wants to reach me sooner or get a response from me, I ask that the person send me a text message. Then I stick to that twice-a-day plan for emails.

These are my basic "big three" to survive a stressful period in my schedule: sit and contemplate my weekly calendar for a few minutes every week, do a 3-step breathing exercise, and keep the phone ringer turned off and check it less frequently. Keep it simple.


Have you seen the Violinist.com Interviews book? Laurie Niles, who maintains this excellent website violinist.com, which is dedicated to the violin, has published a collection of her famous interviews. Click here to find out more information and order the book.

For those teachers and parents who are looking for inspiration about practicing, click here to find a few helpful books on this subject.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Pinkie Practice

Yesterday, I had a fun lesson with one of my young students. We came up with a little pinkie practice exercise to get her using the pinkie more in preparation for Perpetual Motion coming soon. Her father brought her to the lesson, so I made a quick video to send home for mom, so that mom would understand my lesson notes about home practices. My student was cute in the video, so I thought I would share our fun. Here is the video:

Monday, April 21, 2014

Monday Morning Check In: Life Metaphors

Written by Paula E. Bird, copyright 2014

One Texas wintry afternoon, I was lazily cleaning up horse manure into a wheelbarrow and hauling it to a budding compost pile. My horse and one of our donkeys kept me company nearby. While I worked, I was casually texting a friend of mine who owned a horse farm. As I worked to clean up a well traveled pathway, my horse Keeper walked right over to the spot I had cleaned up and dropped another load directly in front of me (Work is never done on the farm). As I texted this information to my friend, her pithy response was: "It's a life metaphor." Yes, indeed, life metaphors abound in the world of teaching too.

Dr. Suzuki understood life metaphors. He sprinkles his writing with them. He talks about nature and life skills and shares his lessons with the world. He talks about children being like seedlings: "Unless the seedlings are well cared for, beautiful flowers cannot be expected." Ability Development from Age Zero, p. 12.

Other metaphors include: "Music is vibrating air. Therefore, it is similar to wind. A baby acquires the ability to feel music. Acquiring the ability to feel beautiful music or discordant music is decided by the music in the environment of the baby." Ability Development, p. 10.

"When a person reflects, he opens his eyes to truth. Parents who do not reflect in this way are merely training their children as they would farm animals." Ability, p. 31.

Teaching is not merely the instruction of how to play a musical instrument or how to understand the music symbols on the printed page. As Dr. Suzuki understood, the study of music is the study of life and connection and relationship. Dr. Suzuki focused so much on the relationship between the child and the parent, instead of the student and the teacher, because he understood the power that the child's parents had over the development of the child. The parents have such an important responsibility in Dr. Suzuki's eyes for the ability development of their child, because the study of music is merely one avenue for teaching and learning life skills.

The study of music develops many abilities besides the ability to play an instrument. The study builds and reinforces such skills as memorization, discipline, perseverance, listening, observation, imitation, concentration, performance, and emotional expression. The child's heart is touched in a way that invites emotional connection with the composer, other performers, the teacher, parents, and other listeners. The child learns to feel the music (the vibrating air or wind) and interpret this feeling in a way that connects with listeners. Dr. Suzuki's intention was that developing this ability to feel and touch and connect would lead to a better world because it would develop empathy, compassion, connection, and love. Just as "[A]nger is the ability to become angry" (Ability, p. 48), so these traits are a reflection of the ability to become empathic, compassionate, connected, and loving.

When I assign homework that involves working to improve a tricky section of the child's working piece, I am also teaching the child about the importance of working through life problems. I work with the child and the parent very thoroughly on many different practice ideas so that the child and the parent understand that there are many different ways to work through difficulties, just as there are many different solutions to thorny problems in life.

On the opposite side, there are many ways that teachers or parents can upset ability development. When we teachers mindlessly assign high numbers of repetitions for particular passages without adequate explanation or without any possibility of making the repetitions interesting, we are teaching our children how to lose focus, concentration, and interest. "Only bad and ugly things develop from thoughtless repetition." Ability, p. 17. Scolding, impatience, non practice, and even hurried and sloppy practices, impart larger life lessons that may foster poor relationships and less than stellar work product with future colleagues, and future employers. Many of these same poorly learned skills will spill over into personal relationships as well.

We teachers must be mindful of the larger life lessons that we are sharing with our students and their parents. We need to spell out directly what we are working to accomplish. I learned a long time ago in my teaching career that I cannot assume that parents understand what I am doing, that they will reflect on the larger lessons to be gained, or that they agree with me about the purpose of music instruction (one of my parents in the past actually told me that they were "paying me a service fee"). As a teacher I have the same important responsibility as the child's parents -- possibly even greater -- to make sure that my students understand the importance of our lessons together and the study of music, that my students and their parents understand the life metaphors and develop the ultimate life abilities.

This week, reflect about the things that you teach, learn, or discover. Look for the life metaphors in these things. What are the larger life lessons that are gained from developing these new skills and abilities? How will the child, the parents, the teacher, and ultimately the community be served by the child's developing these abilities? How can you help your students' parents understand and partner with you in the development of these life abilities?

Life metaphors are all around us if we are open to finding them.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Monday Morning Check In: Getting Behind? Schedule an Action Day

written by Paula E. Bird, copyright 2014

I got a wee bit behind last week, and unfinished tasks pulled at me. I could not seem to catch up, no matter how many to do lists or schedules I made. So I pulled out all the stops and scheduled an Action Day. I posted my intent on Facebook and found a partner to join me. Then I planned for the event.

For those who are new to the concept of an Action Day, click here to read the article about it. I have participated in a few action days with Stever Robbins himself, and I have found them to be quite useful to spur me on to finish some pesky projects that never seem to quite lend themselves to accomplishment in a normal day. In a nutshell, here is how an action day works:

  • Set a particular day for the event. It is helpful to have most of a day set aside for this, but it is possible to have an action day during a normal working day.
  • Decide the time frame when the action day will take place. I live in the Central Standard Time Zone, and I have friends who may participate from all around the world. Coordinating the time zones may be an issue in some cases. My last action day began at 8 am and finished at 3 pm CST.
  • Find a partner or several who will join you in this venture. The iPhone allows up to five phones to be conferenced together, and that may be the upper limit to the number of participants with a phone. There are ways to use go-to-meeting software, but I wanted my action day to be on a smaller scale.
  • Set some ground rules. Here are some suggestions:
    • No chatter or socializing. The purpose of the action day is to get busy and accomplish things, so eliminate the need to converse as much as you can. I make notes about conversational topics that occur to me throughout the day. I can contact the person later if I am interested.
    • No judging or advising. Let everyone explore his or her action day without comment or suggestion.
    • Decide who will do the calling. Will everyone call one central number of will one person call everyone else?
  • Start the action day.
    • At the first call, have everyone introduce themselves and state what overall goal they have set for the day. Then have everyone state what they plan to do for the next hour.
    • Hang up and get started.
    • At the next hourly call, have everyone report what they did in the previous hour and what they plan to do in the coming hour.
    • Hang up and work on the next hour's activities.
    • Rinse and repeat until the end hour of the Action Day.
Here is how my action day worked. I planned for my action day. Knowing that I would spend most of my Wednesday on the action day, I planned the things that I wanted to do and made sure that all my supplies or files or equipment were ready to go. I actually got up really early that day to complete my typical morning farm chores before the action day began rather than use one of my action day hours for my chores. This choice freed me up to tackle my big action day projects that much sooner in the day.

At 8 am I called my friend. We stated what we wanted to accomplish generally in the day. Then we stated what we planned to do in the coming hour. We hung up the phone and began our work. I set an alarm to buzz five minutes before each hour so that I could wrap up what I was doing at the moment the alarm rang and could prepare to call my friend for the next hour. I also found it helpful to scribble down a few notes about what I had done the previous hour and what I planned to do in the coming hour. I found later that these few notes to myself provided me with the report that I needed to make in the hourly calls, and at the end of the day I had a brief written summary of my day's work.

At the next hour, I called my friend and we reported to each other what we had accomplished in the previous hour. Then we stated what we wanted to accomplish in the next hour. Sometimes unexpected things occurred to derail our original plan for an hour, but knowing that we planned to call and report to each other in an hour kept both of us on track the entire day. Knowing that I was to make that hourly call, I kept my lunch break to its minimum and put off attempting that additional level in the Candy Mania game. I enjoyed hearing about my friend's choice of activities because it gave me a window glimpse of what her life is like, as my activities gave my friend a good shot of what I do in my life.

We both agreed at the end of the day that we had accomplished quite a number of things in the day. Knowing that we would be held accountable each hour in a phone call kept our focus and concentration on the tasks that we set before us. I made a great deal of headway in my tax project, which was my big goal for the day. My friend made a great deal of progress in her goals as well.

An Action Day is a great way to get things done. You may devote your day to tackling a major project, as I did, or you may use it to accomplish a lot of smaller items that you have been procrastinating about, as my friend did. The day was so productive, that I immediately wanted to schedule another in the coming week, but I have found that it is best to let Action Days occur less often.

If anyone is interested in pursuing a future Action Day with me, please send me an email at paulabirdviolin@gmail.com, and I will contact you the next time I schedule one.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Group Class Art

Written by Paula E. Bird, copyright 2014

At a recent group class, my students practiced drawing treble clefs. I have special plastic sleeves in which I slide pieces of music paper. The students then write on the plastic sleeves with dry erase markers, which the students can easily erase with a tissue.

My intent was to practice writing music, but we got sidetracked, as we can easily do since group classes are so much fun. Once upon a time, I drew parts of a smiley face as part of a treble clef to be amusing to my students. I added a half rest as a top hat and drew a flower stem coming out of the hat rest. My students must have remembered this, because before I knew it, they had drawn several variations. As you can see, the movie "Frozen" is quite popular right now, and many of the students drew characters from the movie.

Check out the clever transmutations of the treble clef:

Olaf the Snowman
Olaf the Snowman
Wild Hair Treble Clef
Critter Treble Clef
Sven the Treble Clef Reindeer
Sven the Reindeer
Treble Clef Critters
Treble Clef with Flowers in his Hair
Treble Clef Person
I once had an interesting conversation with a psychologist about the left and right brain hemispheres and what sorts of activities might be good for helping to integrate these two sides. The discussion came about during my first year in law school, when I was having difficulty "switching gears" from one type of thought pattern to another. Let me explain a little bit.

I have a very analytical father, and I tend to follow his example of thinking in most things. Having spent a ten-year hiatus from college before going back and completing my degree (and then some), I used to depend on researching things for my answers, always figuring that I was missing something because I had not finished college. I would look for answers everywhere: encyclopedias, books, and libraries. I was a voracious reader and still am. I am excellent at research as a result of practicing these sorts of research skills for so many years.

When I returned to finish college, I carried this same approach with me. I had a great deal of success using this method of finding and regurgitating factoids. I graduated summa cum laude. Then I went to law school, and I chose a law school with a reputation for developing good legal thinking and analysis, not teaching to the bar exam alone. That meant that I had trouble because this type of thinking did not have answers in encyclopedias, books, or libraries, although these things provided plenty of cases and examples to extrapolate answers from. My contracts professor assured me that I would "get it" sometime that first year, and I finally did get it in my second semester.

I had to switch my thinking patterns in order to get it though, and I used to dub these different thinking approaches as right and left brain thinking. The left brain was the analytical side, which dissected and parsed and outlined every little detail to be gleaned from the material. Then I would have to take a step back from my analysis, flip an imaginary switch in my head to toss my thinking to the right brain hemisphere, and then I would contemplate how this worked together. What connections could be made? What was the big picture? Instead of nibbling around the edges, I would think about what it was I was nibbling and how that would affect my arguments and decisions.

This mental "flip the switch" between both sides of my brain's thinking went on for many years afterwards. I finally made this switch an easy road to follow by trying the suggestion that my psychologist friend made. Think of a shape, such as a square, triangle, or circle. Draw that on a piece of paper. Now stare at the object and imagine a picture that could be drawn around that shape, which becomes the centerpiece of the picture. Another variation on this idea is to look at a common object and describe the object in more poetic or descriptive terms. For example, the rope rigging on a sailing vessel could be described as the latticework of a spiderweb. The wind brushing through the dry fronds of a palm tree could be likened to the sound made when one steps on spilt popcorn on the floor.

As a teacher, I use these sorts of descriptions wherever I can. The feeling of the right thumb on the frog resembles the feeling one gets from making that first dig with the thumb under an orange peel. Adjusting the speed of the violin bow to accommodate the first measures of Brahms's "Waltz" is similar to the feeling of pushing someone on a swing (beat 3 of the first two measures).

Group classes are not limited to playing music. We have spent this year working on rhythm patterns, and my students enjoy playing with rhythm sticks. We have worked through all of the easy rests and note rhythms in 2/4, 3/4, and 4/4. We have put together a Harry Potter Puppet Pals rhythm sketch using our own names as part of the rhythm. This group class art project was the start of a push to read and write music. As you can see from the clever drawings made from the treble clef as the starting point, my students are already integrating both brain hemispheres with this activity now.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Bow Police and the Hats We Wear

Written by Paula E. Bird, copyright 2014

In a recent group class, my students came up with the idea of making hats. One of my students was having a particularly difficult time maintaining her bow hold posture, and I tried to think of a fast way to make her more aware of the issue. In cases like this, I often ask the student who needs the reminder to act as the patrol officer for that issue. If we are focusing on bow holds, then we designate someone to be the "bow patrol" or "bow police." I have found that the student we designate to patrol us will then become hyper aware of the posture issue. Hopefully this awareness will translate to remembering to correct the student's own bow hold.

I have done this sort of thing several times before, but during our recent class, something sparked a new idea for my students. "Let's make a hat!" And so we grabbed some construction paper and quickly made hats. Most of us remember how Curious George taught us how to make hats. Some of the students opted to draw pictures of bows or police badges and write "bow police" on their hats. One student made an origami samurai hat. Then my students took turns wearing the hats they created while they took turns sharing the bow police role.

Last week I wrote about spheres and in particular about connection and community as suggested focus areas of our lives. My recent group class activity reminded me that we wear many hats in our lives; our hats represent many roles. Because we wear so many hats, I find it a good idea to take inventory now and then of the hats that I wear in order to increase my awareness of the roles I have taken on in my life. Are some of these hats still necessary or a product of a former time and no longer needed? Are some of these hats taking up too much shelf space and causing my schedule to be too crowded? Are some of these hats a bit neglected and gathering dust in the corner of a back shelf? Are there some hats that I need to add to my collection? Taking stock of what I have in my collection now may help me to clear out the storeroom of unwanted or unneeded hats and to give more time and attention to the hats in my collection that I cherish because of their importance in my life.

In exercises like these, I find it particularly helpful to write down my discoveries. In the past I have used a journal for this purpose, and my journals were as simple as 99 cent copy books. Even if I never revisit the journal, I find great comfort in knowing that the information is stored somewhere in retrievable form. Nowadays I type my journal entries rather than write in a journal, and that is because I save the wear and tear on my hands. Typing is simpler for me. I use 750words.com for this purpose because I can use the program wherever I am and with whatever computer I have available. I am able to save and print out my entries if I so desire, and the website is fun with its measure of moods, distractions, and other information. Any type of written record would do though. I have typed journal entries in word processing programs, and I have used journal applications.

Journals are great places for making lists, and making a list of hats is a great way to kick off some personal reflection that may spur us on to some important personal growth issues. This week, grab whatever journal-like tool that you may have available and make a list of the hats that you wear. Then in the coming week, spend a little time each day considering the list that you made. Are your hats still in fashion? What insights have you gained about the roles in life that you play? What adjustments might you need to make?

Try making your own hat:

Monday, March 24, 2014

Monday Morning Check In: Connections and Community

Written by Paula E. Bird, copyright 2014

When I think about goal setting, I typically think in more traditional terms: linear progression and areas of responsibility. For example, linear progression refers to steps 1-10, and areas of responsibility refers to physical, mental, spiritual, or business, personal, and family. Lately though I have been involved in some planning of projects that I expect to spend a long period of time developing. I find that my traditional thinking is not serving me well in this process, and I have been considering new perspectives.

I came across an interesting article written about one couple's work to become completely self-sustaining and self-sufficient on their property. Aside from the details that result from that sort of project, what caught my attention was the authors' choice of words to describe how they measured progress on their goals. The authors preferred to employ the term "sphere" to describe any of several areas of projects or concerns that the authors deemed important enough to develop. In this particular example of homesteading, the authors outlined six spheres that would demand their attention over a span of many years in order to ultimately reach the authors' goal of complete self-sustainability on their homestead, which meant that the authors would no longer need to supply their needs with outside sources.

The term "sphere" caught my attention, because of the nature of the word's description. Somehow this term changed my perspective in a different way than I experience when I think in traditional, straight-line thinking. Because spheres are round and three-dimensional, my thinking has to alter in order to fit this new picture that I have in my head. Yes, sphere also refers to influence or activity, but it is the roundness of the object that I picture in my head that has changed due to this new word use.

Now that my perspective and my way of thinking has altered, I have been considering  my own life in terms of spheres. What are the spherical areas that my life might contain? As I develop this picture, various ideas come to mind, and I want to mention two that came to mind yesterday: Connections and Community.

I have long known that I have a tendency to isolate myself. I am perfectly happy spending large amounts of time alone (or at least in the company of a nonhuman), and I have to monitor this tendency and guard against allowing too much time to pass before human interaction. Yesterday I realized that this tendency may be harmful if I give in to it at all. Instead, I feel a need to not only combat the inertia of aloneness but to develop a plan to eliminate it, if at all possible.

Yesterday I was able to join in a group meeting of our local Suzuki organization, the first meeting that I have been able to attend since the group formed over a year ago. I became better acquainted with several wonderful teachers with whom I have not developed a relationship before, and I renewed my friendship with several teachers whom I have not seen or talked to in quite some time except through electronic means. Most importantly, I met with several teachers for the first time. Rather than be quick to move back into my comfort zone of isolation though, I embraced the experience and found many things to enjoy about my new activity and the new connections that I made.

I found it entertaining to listen to others talk and express their ideas. At times, something someone said would spark an idea in my own mind. Other times I would think about how I could help the group with my own knowledge. Most of the time though, I was content to listen to what others were interested in and how they expressed their concerns and ideas. I learned much about the teachers personally, and I came to understand the group dynamic better than I would have through electronic communication alone.

I realized during the meeting that although my isolationist tendencies are pleasant and serve to recharge my energy and enthusiasm, for the most part my aloneness may not be adding anything more useful to my life. I need more connection and communication.  I need to spend time with others outside of my work sphere, even if the time spent is in a work-related meeting. This is valuable time for me to spend broadening my thinking. I also need to develop a stronger community within my studio. We need more of a studio "identity" if you will, which will come about through our connections within our own local community and the larger Suzuki community. Although my studio is located in a rural area, we need to join forces together with other students and teachers and studios outside of our area so that we can share and broaden our larger Suzuki community vision.

The homesteading article talked about community as a sphere, and I believe this is an important area of concern for teachers. We need to stay connected with each other, for encouragement, motivation, and creativity. We need to develop relationships beyond ourselves and our studio in order to bind ourselves more closely to the larger purpose behind what we do: ability development and talent education. This sphere of community is not limited to direct connections between teachers, but opens up the connections to include any relationships: teacher and parent, teacher and student, parent and student, parent and parent, teacher and teacher. Further, our educational purpose can spread to include others outside our direct sphere of interest, such as extended family, school administrators, and community and business leaders. These types of connections will strengthen the likelihood that our global message that "Any child can" will mean more than merely one teacher's attempts to teach a few students. The type and number of connections are limited by our ability to imagine possibilities.

Take a few moments this week to consider your sphere of community and connection. What relationships can you broaden? How can you strengthen your bonds of connection within your studio and your community?

Let us change our world -- one child, one student at a time.


I am pleased to announce that Sue Hunt (musicinpractice.com) has a new app in the iTune store! If you recall, I interviewed Sue about her review program ideas two years ago (article). The app is free (a paid version with premium features is in the development stage). Please check out Sue's contribution to our Suzuki community: iTunes link).

Monday, March 17, 2014

Monday Morning Check In: Emergency Plan

Written by Paula E. Bird, copyright 2014

Occasionally my Monday mornings are an adventure to decide what to write about for a Monday morning post. Most often I have an easy journey. I sit down to write with a spark of an idea, and the words flow from beginning to end. Other times, I sit down and wonder if the words will ever come. Today is such a day. I sit here thinking and thinking, and so little seems to spring to life. Thank heavens I already have a plan to take me forward in moments like these.

Today is the first day after the completion of our spring break. I had busy bookend weekends with a span of five free days in between. I flew to Pennsylvania to visit my father and to see how things were going up there. My father will turn 82 next month, and I worry about the things that children worry about for their parents at that age.

Although I had a lovely visit, I used up my free time during this visit. I came home to find the same pile of things to attend to sitting on my kitchen counter. The same problems and issues that I left behind me when I boarded the airplane were there to greet me when I returned.

But what about your plan? you ask. Yes, that is right. Stay on track, I tell myself, although I also feel my mind tugging itself to skitter around. What do I do when I am faced with many things that need to be done and very little time to do it? I clean and organize, and in moments like these, I pull out my emergency plan.

This sounds so simple and perhaps trite, but this really helps. I am not sure where I learned this trick in the past, and I rarely use it (therefore, keeping it as a special trick), but this is the fastest way that I have discovered to clear my mind and set my sights on a fresh path in moments like these. There are some folks who might suggest that doing this is a form of procrastination, and perhaps there is some truth to that. However, I am talking about my emergency plan, and this is different than the usual cleaning and organizing that I would typically do on a daily basis. Be prepared to be surprised, because this emergency plan is simple and frightening in its effectiveness and how quickly the plan achieves complete clarity.

I take an empty box and I clear everything off my desk (or my kitchen counter, or my dining room table). I completely empty the surface of anything and everything. There! Now, I can sit down and begin my work, one thing at a time, one step at a time. I can deal with the box if I like, but later. Sometimes in the past, I find that things stay in that box, and after a certain length of time has passed, I find it much easier to deal with things in the box. Obviously if I have not needed anything in that box, then I should seriously attack the box, throw things out, or file/store the contents in appropriate places. Usually I find that I can quickly sort through the box later with a clear head and a box of file folders. I keep the box handy, mostly for its psychological value. If I know the box is nearby then it is not so frightening to put everything in it. For my desk area, I stow the box underneath the desk. Someplace nearby.

So there you have it -- my plan to bring a sense of focus to this moment in time when I feel overwhelmed. I am not worried that I will forget anything important because I already have my other systems in place for dealing with my "stuff." I have my calendar and my day journal calendar (my Smithsonian calendar that stays in my home for my husband to see and serves as a tickler file for important bills and reminders). I am careful to keep my calendar up to date. I have my to do template notebook, which I use pretty much daily (sometimes it takes me two or more days to complete one list). I continue to use my day's planning form (half hour increments). I also use Omnifocus for iPhone 2 to keep track of my life and my ideas. Siri helps me to stay on task with reminders, which also get loaded into my Omnifocus program. (For those folks who follow David Allen's GTD system, I highly recommend Omnifocus 2 for iPhone as a way to follow that system easily).

Despite all of these wonderful daily tools, I do find on occasion that it helps to have my emergency plan -- the empty box -- available for use.

The clear work surface reflects the clear mind. Now I have some room upstairs for ideas and creativity to spark and ignite.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

What Bows to Use with Box Violins

Written by Paula E. Bird, copyright 2014

My purpose in using a box violin is to accustom the student to how to hold a real violin. I have given my reasons for using box violins in an earlier post [article link here]. I stay on a box violin as long as the student needs it. I do not advocate staying on a box violin for too long, merely long enough to establish some good posture habits and to make sure that the student has learned how to take proper care of it.

The best bow for a box violin in my opinion is an actual bow. I do not use healthy regular bows, however. I visit my local fine stringed instruments shop and ask if they have any broken bows. I found out that the shop keeps a collection of bows that have broken for one reason or another in order to return them to the manufacturer. Many of these bows are still perfectly fine for the purpose of a box violin. The bow does not need hair on it, nor does it matter if the frog is cracked a little in some way. As long as there is a frog that the student may put the thumb under and the bow stick is still good, then the bow is still usable. I set up this kind of bow with my usual set up, as I covered in my earlier post about starting beginners. [article here]

Dowel rods work very nicely though. Depending on the age of the child, I select a dowel rod of the correct length and circumference to suit the child. A younger child may need a thicker dowel rod. It is possible to decorate the rod in some way. To mark an area of the "bow" that reflects the student's "square" arm, I sometimes use stickers and then wrap clear packing tape around this area to keep the stickers securely fastened and visible. [insert picture of this]

I use various bow grips for box violin bows. I have used the Bowmaster on one end and have supplemented that with corn pads for placement of the thumb and pinkie. I have also used the Bow Buddy, although I have issues with both of these items when it comes to long term use. Sometimes I have just used the fish from the Bow Buddy. There are many possible items that can be used for this purpose.

For the very young child, I may allow the child to do the Palmer grasp on the bow until the child has developed some ability to use fine motor skills to form the bow hold. The Palmer grasp is the first grasp that babies and young children use when latching onto something. If you have ever had a baby grasp your finger, then you know that the Palmer grasp is the perfect bow hold. As the child progresses, I find it simple to begin adjusting the pinkie to its proper placement.

Here are three pictures of bows that the students find to be fun. The first is a bow that one of our university students constructed using a dowel rod, rubber eraser, and electrical tape.

Eraser and Duct Tape

Here is a "bow" made with barbecue skewers and plastic beads. This bow is light and delicate and makes a satisfying sound when drawn across the box violin "strings."

Barbecue Skewer
A variation of the bead bow is one made with much larger "beads." Here is the younger brother of one of my students. When I explained about the bead bow, this mom made up a different version of it with much larger and colorful beads.

Dowel Rod and Big Beads
And here is the dowel rod with the Bowmaster on one end. You can see the corn pads placed to make it easy for my student to find the thumb and pinkie placement.

Bowmaster and Corn Pads

There are many possibilities when it comes to an appropriate item to use for a box violin bow. My favorite item is an actual bow. No matter what bow item that I use, I keep in mind that this item is to be used on a temporary basis. The purpose of tools is to make it easy to get good posture habits started. Once the correct posture is in place, I find no reason to maintain the tool.

Please comment below and let me know what tools you use to start beginner violin students.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Monday Morning Check In: What are Your Strengths?

written by Paula E. Bird, copyright 2014

Recently I listened to a few sermon messages about talents: what talents (or gifts) we are given, how we use them, and whether we are living up to the promise of our talents.  I began to think about this subject area as it relates to becoming a better teacher or parent, and I wanted to share my thoughts with you.

Since I am a Suzuki teacher, I do not per se believe in talent as something that is inborn. Talent is not inborn and all children have talent are two of the main tenets of the Suzuki philosophy. I believe that we develop our talent with environment, repetition, and discipline, along with many other important actions. For this reason, whenever I hear or read the word “talent,” I substitute the word “strength.” I believe that the word “strength” adequately fits within the Suzuki model; Dr. Suzuki referred to this as a spectrum of abilities to adapt to various environments. I prefer to use the word “strength” to refer to this larger area of meaning.

As I thought about the importance of capitalizing on our strengths as teachers and parents, I also thought about how we could use our Suzuki belief to develop our strengths further. These sorts of thoughts led me to a broad consideration of what our strengths are and what different types of strengths there might be. At this point, I have identified four possible strength areas that we generally have: apparent, perceived, aspirational, and attitudinal.

Apparent Strengths

Apparent strengths are the strengths that we can readily identify in ourselves. These strengths are obvious to us as well as to others. For example, I am a person with extremely high energy levels. I identify high energy as one of my strengths. I am able to endure long time periods for performing and teaching. I am also decisive, which I think of as one of my strengths to make quick decisions based on available information. I am also curious, and this strength leads me to perform and enjoy research on many subjects that are related to teaching. All of these are my apparent strengths. I am sure that we all have several strengths we can identify in ourselves.

Perceived Strengths

Perceived strengths are those strengths that others perceive in us. Unfortunately, perceived strengths may not be something that we can readily identify in ourselves. Perceived strengths are different than the “mask” that we might think we present to others. Sometimes the only way we can uncover our perceived strengths is to ask others whom we trust to identify them for us. For example, although I would never have identified this trait in myself, my studio parents frequently tell me that I am very patient. I have been told this enough times that I now believe that I am a patient person when it comes to teaching. Other traits that others have described to me include self confident, knowledgeable, and gracious or kind. When I hear these types of descriptions applied to me, I wonder about it. I find it interesting that people describe me in these ways, because I would not have chosen these descriptors for myself. What others perceive as my strengths opens up my eyes to a different view of myself, including how I handle the information. Am I disbelieving, self-deprecating, humble, amazed, thoughtful, or indifferent? Thinking about this strength area will open up new conversations within myself.

Aspirational Strengths

Aspirational strengths are those strengths that would be needed by the person you want to become. If you want to be a good teacher, then you would decide what a good teacher is, what qualities that person would have, and what qualities you need to develop in order to become that good teacher. The same would go for any other goals that you might set. What type of person would you need to become in order to achieve these goals? These are all good questions to ask about yourself in order to keep growing as a person and a teacher. You are what you think about, so when you continually thing about the types of strengths that you need to have in order to become what you want to become, you will create these strengths in yourself and adopt these strengths as your own. This cycle will perpetuate itself, feeding and growing until you reach your goal.

Attitudinal Strengths

Attitudinal strengths are those strengths that derive from the way that your attitude looks at things. In other words, attitudinal strengths are what you make up your mind to be and think. For example, my husband might describe me as uptight and a perfectionist, but my positive attitude approach would be to think of myself as a high energy and precise, detail-oriented person. “Bold” is a more positive descriptor than “reckless,” and I prefer "cautious" to "fearful."

I think it is important that we be aware of what our strengths are in all of the four areas I have discussed. We should identify our apparent strengths in order that we may draw upon them to do our best work. We should discover our perceived strengths because we may then live up to what others believe about us. We should consider what our aspirational strengths should be in order to keep moving forward in the direction of our dreams and goals. Finally, we should be mindful of our attitudinal strengths in order that we discipline ourselves to stay in the positive zone of approaching life within our personal growth plan.

This week, consider your strengths and think about any strength areas that you can improve. Being mindful about ourselves will make us better observers of others and better teachers and parents in the end.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

6 Ways to Address Whining

Written by Paula E. Bird, copyright 2014

Nothing annoys me more than when students whine. I do not enjoy hearing a child (or an adult) whine. The sound grates on my ears and psyche. Whining has no influence over me except to annoy me no end. I believe that whining is one of the most unattractive behaviors and unproductive utterances that exists in the world.

There, now that I have gotten that off my chest, let me discuss whining in more detail, because I believe that parents and teachers suffer this same affliction in equal measure as I do. If I look at the definition of the word, I am likely to find things like "high-pitched sound," "complaining," "plaintive cry," "fretful," "cranky," and so forth. How nice. Those definitions make me want to snap to attention and deal with the issue. You too?

The above descriptions make me want to pull out my ear plugs. I cringe and back away, even when I hear adults do this type of behavior. I am ever vigilant with my own language choices as well, because I understand how unattractive a person appears when wallowing in the whining mindset.

Having now vented (or whined a bit, if you will) about this subject, let me address whining with more useful information. Why do children whine? I have read that whining is a bid for attention and that whining may indicate that children may feel the connection with their caregiver has been broken in some way. A whining child may feel overwhelmed, powerless, or lacking control over the current situation. Whatever the reason for the child to whine, the child is communicating important information. The issue then becomes what is the appropriate way for parents and teachers to respond to the communication.

When my university students whine, as I wrote about in my previous article about the importance of being teachable (click here to read the article), they are generally letting me know that they need my personal attention and help in learning how to do something. I naturally gravitate to their vicinity the minute I hear the whine and give the student some personal attention and physical correction. I also make a joke of the whining, in case the student was unaware of the behavior: "Did you just whine? Wow! How attractive is that?" We usually laugh about it, and now the student is more aware of the behavior in the future (I hope). I am also more ready to make that same observation the next time the student whines. Toddlers and young children may have the need to whine as a form of communication, but adults have much higher level skills of communication, or they should. I insist that grownups (like my university students) not whine when they talk with me.

So how do I cure whining? Here are six ways that I use to address whining and solve the underlying issues that whining represents:

Do not give in. The most important tool is the refusal to give in. I believe that one of the main reasons that whining is such a prevalent issue for parents and teachers is that the behavior is rewarded by giving the whiner what they are whining about. Nope, not me. My reaction is the opposite. I will not give in to whining except as I describe above with my university students, and I try and turn that into a learning point when I do respond. The type of whining that I refer to here is the type that is seeking to get something: Can't I have ice cream now? Can I buy this candy? This is that annoying, unproductive whining, when a child is demanding immediate gratification about something that is inappropriate at the moment. Children use whining in these situations because whining works. It wears down the unprepared parent, who may give in to get rid of the unpleasant whining noise.

Become deaf. One of my favorite tools that a parent shared with me was to be unable to hear what the whiny child's voice said. This parent would completely not respond to the child's whiny cries. When the child would tug on her mama, the mom would then explain that it was really, really hard for the mom to hear the child's voice when it adopted that tone. Other parents may head this behavior off in the beginning by explaining that the parent cannot hear the tone and then role modeling the correct way to communicate.

Imitate what you hear. Some parents report success when they parrot back the whiny tone and exaggerated speech patterns. When the child hears how the communication sounds, the child may recognize the ineffectiveness and unpleasantness of the speech. For sure the moment will be funny, and a reconnection may be established between the whiner and the whinee.

Address the underlying issue. If the whine is due to a disconnection between the parent and child or teacher and student, then address the disconnection. If the whine is about discomfort or pain, address that issue. Once I get past the whining tone -- usually by repeating the child's distress call with more appropriate communication (The chin rest feels uncomfortable with that size shoulder rest? Your thumb hurts when it sits against the frog?), I address the discomfort. I take every complaint about discomfort and pain very seriously and treat the child's complaints as true. I find it easy to dismiss a child's complaints as just another bit of noise in the universe, except that with my many years' teaching experience, I have come to realize that many children genuinely experience discomfort if the instrument setup does not exactly fit the child's needs. So I spend a great deal of time addressing the fit of shoulder rests, chin rests, and other areas of connection with the instrument. I have been known to use a lot of mole foam to cushion areas that cause perceived pain or discomfort.

Learn to tell the difference between the real and the fake. Some children or students whine because they do not want to do the activity, not because there is a real issue of pain or discomfort. I call this sort of behavior "fake" pain, and I handle this in a different way. When a student complains that the thumb hurts when it sits inside the frog (rather than on the outside of the frog, which is the generally accepted method that Suzuki violin teachers employ with beginning students), I tell a story. Never underestimate the power of story for getting and holding a student's attention and for sending a powerful message.
When I took karate classes, one of the exam requirements to get to the next belt level was to break a board. I remember how my karate teacher asked me to prepare to break my first board with my hand. (Here I gesture with the heel of my hand to show the student which part of my hand was expected to do the board breaking). My teacher took me to a brick in one corner of the room. Do you know what she wanted me to do with the brick? (Here I let the student interact with guesses, always wrong of course, but this engages the student in my story).
My teacher asked me to rub the heel of my hand across the top of the brick several times a day. (I gesture my hand rubbing the brick in time to "Mississippi Hot Dog" rhythm, back and forth several times). Can you guess what that did to my hand? (More silly guesses). Rubbing my hand on the brick made the skin on my hand tougher. I got a callous on my hand. My skin got stronger, so that I could easily break the board and not feel a thing. 
(Here is my favorite part.) 
So I think we need to take your whiny thumb to that brick over there and teach him how to be stronger and tougher. Let's go.
I then walk over to the brick and take the spot on my thumb that will touch the frog and rub it back and forth on the brick in time to Mississippi Hot Dog rhythm. The child willingly joins in the activity to imitate me. We will do this about ten times. The child learns the lesson. Even funnier is when the child complains about something else the next time, like the chin on the chin rest. I start to go through the same spiel about the brick, and usually the student is one step ahead of me and decides that the chin does not need the brick therapy after all.

Recognize different sensitivity levels. Some students have lesser tolerances for discomfort than other students. For example, my stepson Jon had very little tolerance for discomfort. Poking him with my finger could elicit an "Ow!" in an instant. I carefully consider whether my student's level of comfort sensitivity is an issue and address this with one of the methods above.

Whining may be a simple case of noise-making to indicate an imminent tantrum, or it may indicate something else, such as a disconnection in the relationship or real discomfort. Keep an open mind about the underlying reasons for the whining and patiently address the possible issues. Although whining may be unpleasant to listen to, the sound may reveal some information that is useful for effective teaching.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Monday Morning Check In: 3 Ways to Keep Standing

Written by Paula E. Bird, copyright 2014

Good Morning, everyone. Another Monday in the year's march toward December. Today is the 9th Monday in 2014, if that helps anyone to feel that fire lit beneath them.

Today is a stiff day for me for many reasons. Usually my life rolls along with interesting things happening nearly every day. I enjoy my students and my life. On occasion, however, there are times when unpleasant things or people appear in my path, and I am forced to reckon with the problems that they represent. I find these times and situations to be extremely stressful. I am sure that others have similar difficult moments. How do we handle these situations and moments and the pressures that come along? How do we get through these sticky wickets and move on? Here are three things that I find helpful and remind myself about during these difficult times.

Keep focused on the big picture. Remind yourself what your purpose is. Stay focused on the big picture and not the muddy potholes by the side of the road. Do not let someone else steer you down a road that you do not wish to travel. Resist the temptation to wallow and complain. Get up, get motivated, look where you want to go, and get moving again. I have a fearful little boy who wrestles with perfectionist issues on a frequent basis. I played the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers number about picking yourself up, dusting yourself off, and starting all over again. He loves it and sings it regularly back to me whenever he makes a mistake. We adults need to do the same thing. If you want to see Fred and Ginger, click here).

Watch your thoughts. When we wallow about hurts and disappointments, we dwell on negative ideas. This negativity takes a toll on us emotionally, mentally, and physically. Stop those dangerous negative thoughts in their tracks and immediately refocus your thinking on something positive. Look for something that you can do that will make a positive difference.

What are your strengths? Foster those. Find a person that you can uplift and help in some way. Take your head out of your own head and put it in a different place that will lead you to the sunshine, not the darkness. This step is probably the hardest step for most people. Despite efforts to stay in the positive, the negative thoughts creep back in relentlessly. Be disciplined about cutting off and veering off those thoughts. Write them down if you must think about them at some point (I use the 750words.com site for this purpose), but be sure to get these thoughts out of your head. Replace them with more positive ideas.

Be sure to surround yourself with good things and good people. Find your peeps and stay with them, not for purposes of complaining or whining, but to absorb their happy energy. You need injections of positiveness and enthusiasm, not dumping grounds for your negativity.

Stay healthy. Get plenty of rest, eat good food, and move yourself with an exercise program of some sort. Do not succumb to any desires to do something otherwise. Losing sleep will stress your system and leave you prone to infection and illness. Bad food, even if labeled "comfort" food, is bad for you. Food is fuel and you need good fuel in moments like this. Do not give up on your exercise program. Moving yourself with exercise will help to eliminate the effects of stress and release endorphins that may help you to feel better. No matter how busy you are, make the time to stay healthy so that you can fight this battle from your strongest vantage point.

Times of disappointment are tough to handle and difficult to experience, however, they are a part of life and will rear their unpleasant little heads often enough that it behooves us to get a good grip on how to handle these issues when they arise. These three tips above are my top three ways to get myself through these moments and come through the other side with my goals intact, my attitude upbeat and useful to uplift others, and my health strong and supportive of my life.

Have a good week. That is my plan.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Monday Morning Check In: The Importance of Being Teachable

written by Paula E. Bird, copyright 2014

One of my favorite university classes is my section of String Techniques classes that includes non string players. In this class my task is to teach future band directors how to be future orchestra directors. During the class I teach my students how to play a stringed instrument, although I do not expect that these students will continue to play the violin or viola (they might). The reason I enjoy this class so much is because the students strongly remind me of our need to be teachable.

Both parents and teachers can easily run afoul of this character issue. I have a theory that many teachers were drawn to teaching as a profession because of our innate ability to tell everybody what we know. As a teacher or parent, we are daily put in positions to instruct and guide students or children who do not know as much as we do. We can find it easy therefore to forget how to be students ourselves.

What does it mean to be teachable? Perhaps it is easier to describe someone with an unteachable attitude. When someone is not teachable, you will see such behaviors as:
  • Whining. This behavior includes expressions that make noise but do not really contribute anything useful to the learning process. What is a teacher supposed to do when the student says things like:
    • This is hard.
    • This is uncomfortable.
    • This is weird.
    • It hurts when I do that.
    • My hand aches when I hold it that way.
  • Stubborn Resistance. This behavior includes reasons why the student does not have to execute the instructions:
    • My body just doesn't work that way.
    • My hand isn't big enough.
    • My arms aren't long enough.
    • I can't reach around to play that way.
    • I don't really need to play in order to be able to teach.
    • I don't intend to be an orchestra director (I make sure this student has my phone number so he can call me later when he gets his first orchestra director job or assignment).
  • Passive Resistance. This behavior includes continued incorrect posture despite frequent teacher corrections and instruction. Instead of openly defying instructions with verbal comments, this type of behavior is unexpressed. Still, I believe the underlying mental comments that produce passive resistance include:
    • I don't need to do this the way you tell me.
    • I can still make it work when I do it differently than you instruct.
    • Why can't I just hold it this way?
  • Frustration. This behavioral reaction is typical in most learning situations because students expect things to come easy and are disappointed when new skills or abilities do not come after one or two attempts.
  • Defeat. This behavior includes expressions as to why the student should be permitted to quit. This attitude shows up after a few attempts. Probably this is the hardest attitude that I have to combat as a teacher.
    • I can't do this.
    • I'm not cut out to play the violin.
    • This isn't the best instrument for me.
Notice that the above attitude responses have one thing in common: they are negative responses to a positive situation. Instead of greeting the instruction or task with a can-do attitude, the student minimizes the assignment by thinking and expressing reasons why it cannot work, why the student cannot do it, or why the student should not even bother to attempt it. The student expresses an unwillingness to even try and accepts a justification that excuses the student from even learning the skill.

I do believe that the above attitudes are natural human expressions. We all do these same types of behaviors. These are natural responses. We have all had our glorious moments of unteachableness. So how do we practice being teachable? Here are a few suggestions:
  • Learn a new skill. This can be something as simple as learning how to knit or play the guitar, to learning a new language or starting a new hobby. Take a class. Sign up for something that is entirely new and that places you in the position of student.
  • Watch your language. Be aware of any negative language that may creep into your learning environment. Avoid expressions such as I can't or this is hard or I'm uncomfortable. Cultivate positive expressions, empowering affirmations, and uplifting and encouraging statements.
  • Guard your attitude. Placing yourself in the position of student is a humbling experience. You are admitting that you do not know everything, and this attitude can be difficult for many of us to accept, if we even recognize that we have this problem. As students we need to cultivate the mindset that we are students and learning from someone else. We need to accept the instruction that our teachers give us with good grace and an open willingness to give it a good shot, and maybe five to 10 times of repetition. If we are Suzuki proponents then we need to give it 10,000 repetitions in order to prove that we are indeed Suzuki proponents. We need to close the door on any attitude that allows us to refuse to do something, to give up, or to excuse ourselves from the task. We need to focus on the attitude that does not allow ourselves to divorce ourselves from the work that is required to develop a new ability.
  • Enjoy the process. Rather than suffer frustration because of unreasonable expectations that you will learn things quickly, discipline yourself to enjoy the process of learning. Where does the attitude that we can learn things quickly come from anyway? We know that it is impossible to learn things quickly, whether we are children or adults. Skill development takes time. Allow yourself to experience the learning process. Be fascinated with how you learn, with how you approach new things, and with the joy that comes from adding something new to your human experience.
  • Foster fascination. Allow yourself to discover new things about yourself, how you learn, how you follow instructions, what you find tricky, what you perform easily, and what your attitude strengths and weaknesses are. Let the learning process fascinate you as you discover who you really are underneath the teacher or parent facade.
Learning something new and cultivating the attitude of teachableness is a good discipline for all teachers and parents because we will become better at teaching and parenting if we understand what our students and children experience. When we place ourselves in the same learning process, we remind ourselves what it is like to be a student. We can be more patient and accepting of our students' or children's experiences when they experience bumps in the road.


Thursday, February 27 (followup): After writing the article posted last Monday about being teachable, I told my section of string techniques class about the article I had posted that day. I showed them the blog post on the screen, and they read through the article. As the class read, there were moments when one student or another would speak up with delight, "There I am!" or "That's me!" Even though I had not written specifically about any particular student, they were intent on finding themselves represented in the article. The rest of the class was quite enjoyable, as each student seemed to find joy in catching themselves whenever they whined or complained.