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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.

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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.