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Thursday, December 17, 2015

Practice Tip: Golf!

It is that time of year when it seems that there is something in the air that distracts students, parents, and teachers alike from accomplishing good practices and lessons. Perhaps the recent Thanksgiving holiday break from the regular school and lesson routine, the delicious scents of once-a-year foods, the over-the-top energetic bustle and hustle at the mall sales, the sparking colors of the town square holiday decorations, or the Christmas and holiday music piped over the store sound systems add to the students' natural tendency to get excited about the season. How to get any teaching done? How to keep everyone focused on the teaching moments?

Recently a young student and I thought of a fun game to play at his lesson, and this game made things a little more engaging for this season. I do not plan to use this game frequently, but during this holiday patch, the game came in handy.

We had our list of lesson material to cover, and there were 6 things on the list. [I like the number 6 because dice have 6 numbers on them.] We assigned a "par" value to each of the songs on the lesson assignment sheet. For example, for the song "Allegretto" in Suzuki Violin Volume One, we assigned a par value of eight to represent the seven pinkies that I require in the song and the down bow circle before the third part. Then we started keeping a scorecard of how many points the student got for that song.

How do I assign the par values for other songs? I look through each song and determine what things I want the student to remember to include in his or her playing. I assign one point for each one of those things. Teachers could assign different par values at different times depending on the skills and practice items that the teacher has assigned.

This is a holiday season for most folks, and as a teacher I find that children are a wee bit distracted at this time of year. Perhaps teachers and parents are just as distracted. This round of golf may help pull things together a time or two until the holiday break begins.

Let me know how you deal with holiday distractions. What type of activities do you incorporate in your teaching or home practices and what type of success do you find?

Happy Practicing!


Friday, December 11, 2015

Squeezing Practice Time Into a Busy Family Schedule

I thought I would link to one of my favorite posts from my dear friend, Sue Hunt. Here in this post, Sue talks about how to squeeze practice time into a busy family schedule. This post is worth printing and reading often:

Happy Practicing!

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Quick Practice Tip: Rate Your Day

Here is a practice tip that might help you to find motivation to practice or to perform any desired habit. Set up a system to rank yourself each day. Here is how it works.

For this example, let us say that I am trying to lose weight. I set up a list of what I consider to be good health habits that when I follow them, I would be likely to lose weight. These habits could possibly include things like:

  • weigh daily on a scale (1 point)
  • log all food intake in a journal (1 point)
  • stay within a daily calorie limit (1 point)
  • meet any or all of the three Apple Watch activity goals (1-3 points)
  • accomplish any 20-minute period of exercise beyond the 30 minutes recorded by the Apple watch (1 point each 20-minute period)

Then I would give myself a point for performing any of the habits and thereby rating my day. I would keep a calendar that recorded my progress on these habits. I would suggest setting a minimum threshold ranking number and strive to at least attain that number.

How would this work for practice scenarios? How about making a possible list of habits to earn points from these areas?

  • playing a scale or scale assignment
  • playing a review song
  • practicing 30 minutes
  • any 15 minutes practicing beyond the initial 30 minutes
  • playing a repertoire piece
  • practicing a preview exercise or 5 minutes of a technical exercise or etude
Then I would set the minimum threshold points goal at 3, because it would be "easy" to gain points for doing a scale, review song, and 5 minutes of a technical exercise. That would be a possible 10 minutes. I firmly believe that everyone can find 10 minutes in even the busiest day.

Let me know if you try this idea and what you discover that helps. I have successfully used this technique for several months now, and I find it very encouraging to reinforce good habits.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Waking up the Whole Brain

Recently I had an unusual experience and made an interesting discovery with one of my students. I would like to share the process with you.

If you recall my post about the 5 practice questions (click here to read it), I have worked hard with one particular student to help him become more engaged in his learning and practice sessions as well as improve the quality of his preparation for his lessons. I say that I have worked hard, because after spending a very long time with this student, I have not been able to measure progress. It is as if there is some sort of disconnect in this student's ability to evaluate his own performance and execution. He does not seem to hear himself when he plays and seems unable to determine how to fix things.

For a long time, I thought it was just a matter of not having the necessary information to practice correctly. And so, I gave him that information. We discussed practice tips and strategies. We practiced these types of skills at his lessons. He would finish each lesson with some forward motion and progress, and then at his next lesson, we would begin anew the same cycle of problems.

I thought too that it might be a matter of not practicing enough, and so I addressed this issue with how my student planned his practice sessions and how much time he spent in those sessions to accomplish the assigned tasks. I did see a small amount of improvement. Many of his classmates came alongside him to offer help, collegial support, and ideas. Again, some progress, but not the progress I was looking for.

So, despite all my usual tricks, nothing really seemed to be making the connection with this particular student. Until last week when something magical happened. Before I tell you what it is, however, I need to pause a moment and tell you another brief story.

My husband has been ill for a long time now. It all stemmed from the accident that I had in May 2014, when I crushed my right shoulder. Although I was determined to heal completely and did so quickly, my sweet husband suffered in a different way, as men often do. They call it PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Although I was the person who had the traumatic event, my husband went into a protective mode in his mind, which then grew to affect other areas of his life.

We have been grappling with all of the problems that come with PTSD, but my husband works with a terrific gentleman who has pioneered several techniques to address the PTSD problems. One of those techniques caught my attention. The subject (my husband) would hold a vibrating disc object in each hand, which the therapist controlled with gentle, alternating vibration to each hand, while my husband would discuss upsetting memories. The purpose of the alternating vibration in each hand was to "wake up" each brain hemisphere and keep the whole brain working during the entire memory process.

Fascinating, yes? I listened to my husband's story about this technique, and I recalled that the brain hemispheres were activated by the opposite hand; e.g., the left brain hemisphere with the right hand, and vice versa. Please understand that this a general discussion, and not a technical one. I do not profess to be an expert in these matters, but as a teacher I have been aware of these ideas and have experimented with different teaching techniques over the years. Now back to my student.

When I encounter a student who has difficulty engaging or connecting with his or her learning, I have often suggested that they speak aloud or pick up a pencil and write something in the music. These suggestions are designed to "wake up" the evaluating left brain hemisphere, because speech, logic, and reasoning are the province of the left brain. So during this student's lesson, I began again to offer my usual suggestions to help him wake up and start evaluating his own playing.

"What do you think you should do here? What do you think the problem is?" I asked. Notice that I used open-ended questions designed to engage him in conversation and thinking. Using "what" or "how" questions work wonders in doing this.

After fumbling an answer and not being able to pinpoint what or where the problem was, I helped him here. Then I tried another technique and suggested that my student write down a particular notation in his music, hoping that the act of writing would wake up his left brain more.

And my student obligingly picked up a pencil and wrote in his music with his left hand! That is when it hit me that he was left-handed and that he was really a right-brained student. Everything about him was about impulse, spontaneity, naivety, feeling, emotion, intuition, fun; he had little concept of time constraints and really lived in the moment. Oh boy, I thought, he is a classic right brain thinker. What I did not think about before that moment was that he was almost completely reliant on his right brain.

After witnessing the pencil use with his left hand, which I knew would continue to activate the right brain, I decided to try something related to the story my husband had told of his therapist's technique. My iPhone has a fun app called AppZilla, which has a bunch of little apps within it. One of the apps is a massager. I turned on the massager vibration and put it in my student's right hand. At first, he actually felt his heart rate increase due to fear. He held it for about 30 seconds. Then I asked him to play the part of his music that he had been struggling with. He sailed through it. I began to think that we were onto something here.

A few days later, he performed for the studio seminar class. His was a simple assignment: play the scale routine as assigned to all of my students, which has been an assignment that my student has struggled with since his first lesson with me. My class watched him struggle once again to be able to play the scale, and I watched until the point when I knew that my student had reached "the bottom" and was unable to continue. I walked over to him and handed him my iPhone set to the massager vibration. The class was unaware of what we were doing or why I was handing him my phone. They could not hear anything, and my student and I did not say anything.

After about 20 seconds, I took the phone and walked away. My student then played the scale just fine. The class was shocked. "What magic was that?" Someone asked. "What did you do?" they wanted to know. My student and I then explained what we were experimenting with.

Followup, my student's next lesson was very different. He sailed through his etude at a very fast tempo, without the constant stumbling and corrections (if any) that I was accustomed to hearing. I asked him about his practice sessions outside of the lesson, and he said that he was using the vibration technique to help him.

Isn't that an amazing story? Especially if we have come across another successful teaching tool?

On a final note, when my husband was working with the therapist on this technique, the therapist stated that he did not think it would take my husband long to get to this whole brain state since he was a musician, and musicians generally use all of their brain. However, this student was not using all of his brain and apparently was not accustomed to using his left brain much at all, judging from his reports of the types of difficulties he has with some school subjects. We are also using my Peterson Body Beat pulsating metronome to gain the same vibration effect as the AppZilla massager.

I am pretty excited about this new idea and look forward to other ways that I might be able to use it. I have met several dyslexic students in the past few years, and I am always looking out for additional ways to help students learn.

Does anyone else have any similar experience like this? I hope that this idea may help someone else in their teaching or practicing journey.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

How to Recover from a Practice Break?

I have been away for a while (trips to China and Italy). Now I’m back and in the midst of summer camps. I have fit a few of my studio lesson students into my schedule as I could. I found that most of them, if not just about all of them, took a break when I was not around. This put an enormous burden of responsibility on my shoulders, because the clear message that I got from this realization was that if I did not offer lessons every week, then my students or their parents did not take on the responsibility of maintaining a practice schedule on their own. In other words, if I am not here to monitor them or provide a reason to practice, then the practice did not happen because my students and their practicing partners could not do this for themselves.

Well, that is no fun for me! I had other thoughts about this phenomenon as well. How come there is such a mismatch of expectations? Why are our belief systems about lessons and music education so different? Are everyone’s lives so very busy that a simple practice schedule cannot be followed? But, this is probably a different article than the one I wanted to write here.

I understand completely the need to “take a break.” I have those same thoughts myself. Mostly I have discovered that when I have that feeling, I may merely need to make a change in what I do. I find that a change is a better plan than stopping what I do completely. For example, if I am complacent (a much better word than tired or bored!) about a particular healthy breakfast that I eat every day, I find it serves me better not to stop eating a healthy breakfast but to substitute another healthy meal in its place. If I want to maintain a writing habit, then I change up what I write about.

If I am complacent about my practicing or schedule, then I will keep up the practicing (and maybe the schedule) but change the makeup of what I do. I will substitute in some different style of music for my usual fare. Rather than a dry diet of etudes, I might add in some popular music or some fiddle tunes. I might practice my reading skills by playing new music or playing chamber music with some friends.

There are other things to try as well, such as inviting other musical friends over for a music party. Have a pool party and play-in or a friendly barbecue with other families. One of my students set up a special recital and made plans to perform many pieces that required her to practice quite a bit. Another student signed up to attend the local institute, and she has been busy practicing her orchestra music and reviewing her list of institute pieces. Other students attended summer strings camps and practiced for the orchestra placement auditions. Other students have signed up to perform for school events that happen at the beginning of the fall semester. Others have practiced to play for special performances at nursing homes or charity events. There are many possibilities rather than taking a break.

Of course, there are the unavoidable life events. The family might take a trip that may be too dangerous to take a violin along. One family wisely left the instrument at home, and later suffered a wild horse stampede through their campsite. Good thing the violin was safely at home. Even in circumstances like this, there may still be some other options to consider. When there is a passing of a relative or close friend in the family, the student might be willing to participate in the memorial services. Sometimes the act of maintaining a practice schedule helps the family to “hold it together.” I still remember vividly the day of 9/11 when one by one my students arrived at the studio throughout the day (I had been teaching the morning of the tragic event). As each parent poked his or her head in the studio door to ask if I was teaching that day, the parents and I would look at each other with that sad knowledge that the world had changed in a big way, while the act of teaching and learning continued its regular course in the perspective of the students. This was the best gift that my parents and I could give the students (and ourselves) at the time.

So how does one recover from a practice “break”? This seems like a silly question, except that the summer is half over, more so for some of us since school resumes in a few weeks here in the South. Whatever we have not accomplished by this point needs to be addressed now. I have written about this subject before (Getting Started After a Break, The Summer Challenge). Here are a few suggestions:

Listen to repertoire pieces daily, old and new. Nothing works quicker to bring back the spark in your student’s playing than hearing the songs that the student is learning. If you are going to take a trip that involves leaving the violin at home for a brief time, make plans to do some daily listening.

Daily practice. Even a short period of time or perhaps a few small daily practice sessions will be easy. The first few days will be the hardest because you will be working to overcome what I call "practice inertia" -- the tendency to continue moving (or not moving in this example) in the direction you have been moving. Merely set yourself a small time goal (5 minutes might be the starting point) and allow yourself and your student to expand that time period as the going gets easier. When you know that you are permitted to quit after 5 minutes, it becomes easier to stay the course and play for 10 or 15 minutes. From that point, you will find it easier to start focusing on a practice session to achieve particular goals rather than time.

Focus on posture. When we take a break, we may find it easy to fall into bad habits. We forget the correct way to do things, and we begin to do “easy” things, which are basically posture issues gone way wrong. Take the time to focus on correct posture all the time. I like to remind my students that it is as easy to perform a habit correctly as it is to perform it incorrectly. The bad habit merely feels easy when in fact it is not because it will involve major problems later.

Do lots of review. Review is a great way to ease back into a regular routine because it focuses on things that are already familiar. If your student has forgotten material learned earlier, then your student will become frustrated with new material for sure. Focus on reviewing earlier songs until your student remembers the correct posture and the earlier material. Then moving onto new material will be easier.

Set a schedule and follow it no matter what. Part of forming a good habit is to set a schedule for it and set up reminders so that you maintain the schedule. If you set up a schedule, then follow it. Make the schedule be a daily thing so that it remains easy to follow. I call this scheduling for the inertia factor. If you are already following a daily schedule, it is easier to keep following the schedule and harder to skip. See one of my earlier articles about the power of routine.

Keep it simple. Whatever you decide to do, keep your plans simple at first. It is easier to begin small and build a good routine and then later expand the routine than it is to be too ambitious and then become too overwhelmed to follow your plan. Start small and simple and grow from there.

Sometimes it is nice to enjoy the good weather and the summer activities. While you are enjoying your summer activities, keep in mind that one purpose of music education is to teach students life lessons such as discipline, perseverance, and skill development. Coming back from a vacation break can be a good time to reinforce these life lessons as you and your child get back on track. Give a nod to summer by keeping practices short and sweet, but also show your child how to get back on track with the rhythm of practice and learning.

Enjoy the rest of your summer break!

Saturday, May 16, 2015

A Lesson in Gratitude

Here is a simple teaching and parenting tip that applies to any time of the year.

My studio will offer its spring recital later today. As part of the preparations, I sat down and wrote out thank you cards to each of my students. The cards are small and my messages are brief, but what I wrote is unique to each student and comes from the wellspring of my heart. Inspired by Dr. Suzuki's writing individual haikus for students, I included brief cards with tiny messages that were full of life's meaning, which I found in a local stationery store.

As I wrote my cards, I thought about each of my students, what made them unique and special to me, and how much I appreciated them and was grateful for the opportunity to spend time with them every week.

This was a small gesture on my part, but the activity brought forth such feelings of warmth and goodwill and was worth every minute of the time I spent doing it. I highly recommend this exercise to teachers and parents. Do this little and often.

Parents: how nice would it be to teach your children to make a similar gesture back to the teacher?

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Simple Things to Help Your Child Prepare for a Recital

This is the time of year when studios prepare to give spring recitals. As I prepare my own students for their performances, I thought of a few things that parents could do at home to help their student prepare for this big event.

  • Make sure that the student listens regularly to the piece that the student will perform. Extra solid listening will help the student to feel more confident during the performance. 
  • Make sure that the student has learned the correct notes of the song that he or she will play. 
  • Make sure that the student has learned the correct bowing.
  • Make sure that the student has memorized the piece and help him or her to complete this important part of learning a song well. I prefer that students complete final memorization one month before the performance.
  • Make sure that the student plays the recital piece daily in the last month before the performance. Please do not neglect this task as it is key to the child performing confidently under any circumstances.
  • Make sure that the student practices recital etiquette -- the formal bow before and after the performance, the steps to get ready for proper playing position, and how to negotiate any special clothing (make sure in advance that recital clothes do not hamper proper movement while playing, shoes are not uncomfortable, and neckties do not get in the way performance posture).
Simple advice, right? I think this advice is common sense. Still, I found this past month that for some of my students, I have had to resort to practice plans that ask my students to play their pieces a certain number of times each day in order to be sure that the pieces were learned thoroughly and well. I had to resort to this type of assignment -- which I do not generally like because it does not require much thought on the student's or parent's part -- because some of my students and their parents had neglected some or many of the above points. I begin the final preparations for my studio recital around mid-March, after the winter/spring break, so that my students have ample time to be prepared. Still, I find that in some cases I need to resort to more elementary assignments in order to ensure my students' performance success.

Remember that the best goal for your student's recital performance is to have a resounding success! Think about what you need to do to create the perfect environment for a resounding success, and then make sure that you follow your plan.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Should Teachers and Parents Succumb to Perfectionism?

In my daily reflections, I have noticed a recurrent topic: perfectionism. Since this idea has come to me so many times this week, I have begun to abbreviate it with a P to save myself time writing. As I think about how this pernicious idea invades and taints my work and creativity, I have come up with some thoughts to share.

Perfectionism is most likely part of all of us. We all have a history somewhere, somehow of how we have disappointed someone or not lived up to someone else’s expectations: a parent, spouse, friend, mentor, or a teacher. Our history influences our present picture of ourselves and our work and creative product. The real issue though may boil down to how much we decide to allow our history to influence our work today as teachers, students, and parents. Is perfectionism a bad thing? Do we need some of it in our lives?

Perfectionism is the refusal to allow anything short of perfection. That statement alone should alert us that something is quite wrong with perfectionism. Does anyone know of anything that is perfect? Of course we have all experienced the perfect moment, such as a sunrise, a flower, a child’s laugh. To have that perfect moment not repeat itself consistently though is to admit that “perfect” is unattainable. To be devotees of perfectionism means that we refuse to accept something if it is not perfect, which in my view means that we cannot accept something if it cannot be repeated or sustained indefinitely. We know that my view is not realistic.

So how does this affect us as teachers, students, or parents?

“Perfectionism is a refusal to let yourself move ahead. It is a loop – an obsession, debilitating closed system that causes you to get stuck in the details of what you are [creating] and to lose sight of the whole. Instead of creating freely and allowing errors to reveal themselves later as insights, we often get mired in getting the details right. We correct our originality into a uniformity that lacks passion and spontaneity. ‘Do not fear mistakes,’ Miles Davis told us. ‘There are none.’” – Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way Every Day, May 2.

So here is an oppositional list, which is one of my favorite ways to approach a subject. I list traits or characteristics on the left side; this is a list of the things that I will want to eliminate. Then I look at my left list and begin transmuting each thought or item into a positive on the right side. These transformed thoughts will possibly become my newest mantra or affirmation.

Eyes of fear
Eyes of courage
Unrealistic expectations
Deal with reality and what is
Unrealistic views of ourselves
Let our weaknesses go
Unrealistic views of our past
Let the past go
Staying stuck
Moving ahead
Being flexible
Focus on details
Focus on big picture, sweeping grand ideas
Paralyzed, constricted
Free, moving, flowing
Passionate, spontaneous

As we prepare for our upcoming studio spring recital, we practice performing for each other in group classes. After each child performs, we ask the other students to offer positive comments about the performance, and the performer then learns to say thank you. This is another ability or skill that students must learn. Later at a more advanced level, I will teach the performing students to do some helpful analysis before opening up to comments from others, such as: "What worked for me during the performance?" and "What will I do differently next time?"

What I noticed in the group class is that one of the moms (who also participates in the group class as a student) was very generous and kind in her comments to students. However, when the performing student was one of the mother’s own children, she had a very difficult time restraining herself from offering corrections during the child’s performance and in offering any sort of positive comment afterwards. This behavior is not new to me. I often see it and am reminded of Dr. Suzuki’s comments:

“I often tell parents that they are much too demanding towards their own children. The facial expressions of a mother are greatly different when dealing with someone else’s child.” – Shinichi Suzuki, Ability Development from Age Zero, p. 36

I have also found this to be the case, and I sometimes ask parents to work with other parents’ children in order to avoid this issue. At the root of this behavior I believe is perfectionism. The parent desires that the child play perfectly, and that may be because the parent is reflecting the parent’s needs to appear perfect onto the child’s behavior and performance.

As teachers, we often do the same thing with our students. How many of us have participated in local Suzuki association institutes or graduation recitals and found ourselves cringing or making facial gestures as we react to our students’ mistakes or missteps? I have to guard against this during lessons too. I have to remind myself that I have a higher purpose here, and that a student’s lesson or performance is not “about me.”

This is not an easy thing to face, but I am determined to keep myself aware of it and to be watchful about my own behaviors and attitudes. I want to be a good teacher, not an unrealistic one. I want my student to grow up healthy and not have my teaching experience with them become a burden to overcome as an adult.

I hope that I am not the only teacher, student, or parent who faces these troublesome issues. As I explore my own thoughts and behaviors, I welcome any suggestions, explanations, or techniques that others can suggest.

I want to keep my focus on the sweeping large ideas and not get lost in the trivial details. Who is with me?

Monday, April 27, 2015

Making Music with a Twinkle Circle

As a teacher, I struggle with how to teach my students about making music. What does it mean to be musical? How do I teach them about making phrases and connecting the performer's heart and soul with the listener? It seems that however I approach the subject, I lack a connection of insight and understanding with my students. They do not seem to "get it." I explain. I demonstrate. I play examples of fine performances from famous artists. Still, I do not get the response that I desire from everyone. Occasionally I will see a student play "from the heart," but as a whole, I do not get the results that I seek. And then one day, I found the answer!

I showed my students how musicality feels. I let my students feel the experience of making music and feeling others make music. We created the Twinkle Circle.

Let me digress for a moment to attribute this idea to the various sources and roots of my thinking. I have been thinking a long time now about the use of energy. I raise nine miniature dachshunds in my home, and I have a horse, several donkeys, 13 alpacas, and ten chickens. These different creatures respond to different energy approaches, as do different human personalities. I draw my ideas about musical energy from Cesar Milan (The Dog Whisperer), Pat Parelli (The Horse Whisperer), and Edward Kreitman's book, Teaching with an Open Heart. Of course, there are so many possible sources of an idea, but these are the big three that influenced much of my thought in this area.

Music is vibration in the air. Vibration in the air is an expression of energy. We can feel this as well as hear it. We can see the vibrations when we look at our violin strings while we play. When we go to a rock concert, we can feel the rhythmic pulsations. As a seasoned professional musician, I know that we connect our performance of musical energy with our listener. A good performer knows how to do this. How many times have we listened to a "flat" performance from a concert artist? We know that the performance was good; after all, the performer dazzled us with pyrotechnical technique. However, something did not quite "sing" or resonate with our inner being.

I have thought a long time about these questions. As I worked with my animals, I noticed how easily they responded to my use of energy. In this case, when I refer to "energy," I am referring to a definiteness of purposeful motion of some kind. I can stand my ground and block a dog's food bowl just by "claiming" the bowl as my own in my head. I can create a musical phrase by connecting the musical line with my listener. I can feel the zing of my listeners' heart strings when they connect with my musical vibration, and I can weave a musical, magical moment between us.

As I explored these ideas with my students in group classes and lessons, I finally tried out a simple exercise to help my students to begin to feel the energy of musical purpose in the air. We often form a circle in group class just because it eliminates a sense of hierarchy (youngest to oldest) and brings everyone into the same plane in a way. And here is how I used my Twinkle Circle to help my students feel the music:

  • I played a "flat" Twinkle theme that was devoid of expression. Then I played a more musical rendition, where I increased the intensity/volume slightly to mirror the direction that the notes went (ascending notes increased in intensity and descending notes decreased). My students heard the difference! They preferred the more beautiful version.
  • We played the theme together. As we increased our intensity and volume, we slowly walked toward the center of the circle. We could feel the increasing energy of the other members of the circle as we crept toward each other, and we felt the ebb of energy as we backed away from each other as a phrase ended.
  • We played Lightly Row and Aunt Rhody using the same technique. If we thought we should include an "echo" place, then we quickly stepped back to our starting position to indicate the diminished volume.
  • When we got to Long, Long Ago, a curious thing happened. We played the first two measures with a growing intensity, then we began to ebb our energy in measure three as the musical line descended in pitch. However, in measure four, there is another "beginning" to the phrase. My students recognized that little "bump in the road" by stepping forward again toward the center of the circle and then creeping backward. I was amazed that they recognized this musical device. In fact, at this point, I was amazed again and again as my students eagerly looked for ways to step into or away from the circle to represent the musical lines.
  • Then we played Twinkle theme again but stood in our initial position. Instead of walking away from and toward each other, we played in a way that made each other feel the same energetic ebb and flow that we had created earlier through collapsing and expanding our circle.
  • At this point, since my group classes currently include students of all levels from book 1 through the more advanced books, I took the exercise through several other book levels. We played Two Grenadiers and Gavotte in G Minor. We considered how we would do the exercise in the Vivaldi Concerto in A Minor.
  • I used this same exercise in my university studio seminar class. We began with Twinkle theme, and then I performed the same exercise with each student individually on one of the student's repertoire pieces: Mozart's Concerto No. 5 (2nd movement), Bach's D Minor Allemande, Handel's Sonata No. 4 in D Major (1st movement), and so on.
This Twinkle Circle exercise produced amazing results for me. My university students play with more musicality now than I have previously heard from them. My private students sound lovely in lessons, and a group ensemble piece is exquisite to hear.

My favorite reaction from the experience was to watch the mothers' faces in the waiting area during that first group class experiment. The mothers' mouths hung wide open as they heard the most beautiful Twinkle Theme that we have ever played.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Five Practice Questions

Recently I worked with an older student who seemed to have some difficulty focusing on the task at hand, which should have been the performance of his homework from our previous lesson. I realized in the case of this particular student, that we had a fundamental miscommunication of lesson expectations and goals. So in the course of our discussion, as we sifted and sorted our way through the morass of thoughts, expectations, and problems that the student presented me with, we came up with five questions that helped to focus the student in his practice goal-setting, his home practice plan for the next lesson, and in general whenever he plays at any time.

In the anticipation that other teachers and parents face similar problems with their students and children, here are the five questions:


Am I playing at the right speed? Many problems are caused by a student's choice of tempo. If the student is constantly stuttering or correcting mistakes as the student flies through a passage, then the tempo choice is incorrect for the task at hand. My studio rule is that each time a student flubs or plays an error, the student must slow down the tempo. Another error? Another slowdown. After all, if the student were flying a spaceship into a meteor shower, the student would make these sorts of speed adjustments automatically. I am sure that many parents would want their children to understand the necessity for matching speed with conditions, especially once the student reaches the age of driving privileges.

What do I sound like? What is my tone? Is it pleasing to listen to? Am I scratchy, too soft, too airy, too heavy? Am I resonating my strings and pitches? Do I like to hear what I'm listening to? Do I even know what I sound like? A tape recorder or short video recording may help here. I have had some interesting results from the use of an iPhone app called "slopro." I make a short video and then play the film back for the student at 50% speed (to maintain the same pitch but an octave lower). My students have found this very interesting and usually hear the problems immediately and correct them in the next practice/performance go-around. In fact, most students immediately adjust the tempo (see practice question #1 above) in order to correct the problems.

Am I playing in tune? Well, duh, I know this is obvious, but apparently many of my students need to be reminded of this. Again, a recording makes this very obvious.

Is my rhythm accurate? Nothing will ever take the place of a good metronome session. I myself use this technique all the time to remind me of places where I tend to pull away from the established tempo. It is alright to make adjustments for musical reasons, but I believe that the correct and steady tempo must be the default position before I allow exceptions of any kind.

Are there any bumps in the road? When a student hits a bumpy patch in the road, we make sure that we have visited the above questions. There are times, however, when the stretch of road has a bumpy area that really needs to be addressed more than with care and speed. Just as with potholes in a road surface, we have options:
  • drive right through the hole (I don't recommend this, and I find that fathers are especially touchy about the damage done to car tires with this technique)
  • drive around the hole (find an alternate route or fingering/bowing/musical expression)
  • repair the hole (address the problem and work to eliminate it entirely (this involves thought, time, and access to practice ideas; consult your teacher for this type of advanced help).
And those are the five practice questions that I used to help focus my student's attention on practice areas. I am more confident now that he understands how to prepare his next lesson.