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Tuesday, June 28, 2016

GTD for the Music Studio Teacher

How do You Get Everything Done?
GTD next action pad folio picture
GTD Next Action List

Some of my readers and podcast listeners have emailed me or made comments to me in person about how much I get done, and I thought I ought to give credit where credit is due. Summer time may be the best time to work on this sort of "project" as we sort out our papers and teaching materials from the past year and think ahead to what we want to accomplish in the coming teaching year.

I use the GTD system. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this system, let me simplify the explanation of what it is, point you in the direction of the book itself, and then I will follow it up with a series of posts over the next month that will explain the system in more depth and provide suggestions as to how it might work for a music teacher's studio.

What is "GTD"?

GTD is a method for "stress-free productivity," as its creator David Allen describes it. Mr. Allen advocates getting to a "mind like water" state, and he points out that our brains are not created to be information storage banks. In fact, our brains do a lousy job at this. For example, I was grocery shopping the other day, and while in the middle of the store, I recalled that I needed to put out a special concert clothes outfit when I got home. When I got home, I remembered that I was also supposed to buy toothpaste at the grocery store, but I had forgotten to do that. If my mind truly had been created for the purpose of information storage and retrieval, then why did my brain fail to remind me of these crucial points at the time when I could have done something about them?

The answer lies in Dr. Allen's methodology: our brains were meant for creativity, not information storage and retrieval. Because so many of us strive to remember things and insist on carrying these reminders in our heads, we actually spend less time and effort being creative, because our brains are tied up with other things. Enter GTD.

Why does GTD Work?

The beauty of following the GTD method is how quickly it points out that we have not made important decisions about things in our lives that need to be done. We have not actually figured out what "done" looks like. We still have what David Allen refers to as an "open loop." And our brain is cluttered with open loops. If you are a clutterer as I am, or you have an email inbox that spills over to another page (or perhaps several pages), then you have most likely fallen victim to the open loop problem. GTD can rescue you, and you will be amazed at how much more you accomplish and how much more free time and space you have in your head for those important creative ideas.

Because I learn by writing about things, I have spent a great deal of time considering the many parts of the GTD methodology. I am going to share with you my thoughts about this important philosophy. Today in this article, I will introduce and briefly summarize the five main points of the GTD methodology. Here are the five basic steps of the GTD methodology:
  1. Capture
  2. Clarify
  3. Organize
  4. Reflect
  5. Engage
Now let us look a little closer at each of these five parts.

Capture: This is the part when I look around my surroundings and also inside my own memory. I look at my various inboxes, piles of "stuff" lying around on counters and tables, review my calendar for the past week or so, and look ahead at my upcoming commitments, and I gather all of it in one place. I will talk later about what that "one place" might be, but for now the general idea is to "capture" all of those loose ends together.

Clarify: In this step, I spend some time thinking about the stuff I have collected. I consider what "done" looks like. The GTD book actually has a lovely flow chart that asks some basic questions, but I had to come up with my own words to steer me in the correct direction. So I made up a form of questions that fill up the size of a smaller sized post-it note. I clip one of those little slips of paper on each item (file folder, piece of paper, mail) and answer the questions. By the time I finish going through my stack, I have figured out what needs to be done. As a side note, when I complete this step, I have also figured out why there was a logjam at this point (I had an open loop that needed me to make a decision about what needed to be done). And my little note also directs me to the next step I need to take, including whether I need to make this into a project (more than 1 step) and where I want to keep the folder or item. I also do any item that takes 2 minutes or less to complete.

Organize: It helps me to put things in the proper folders. Is this information related to work? Home? The studio? The University? Something else? Are these phone calls to make, errands to run, things to read, or material that I need to store for future reference? In this step I decide what category my inbox items should be, and I put things together with other related items. I will explain a bit more about this step when I discuss tools.

Reflect: There is power in this step too. This is the weekly review step, when I take a few minutes of my time (maybe longer depending on the amount of "stuff" I have accumulated in my inboxes and to-do lists). Once a week I quickly scan through everything on my lists. I make sure that everything has a "home" somewhere in my system. I also may consider (or reconsider) my priorities, deadlines, and even whether I want to pursue the matter any further anyway. I often have a lot of creative ideas that with the passage of time do not seem as exciting as when I first imagined them. I sometimes find it hard to do this step, but my current capture tool has made this much easier for me, so I get this review done more likely than not.

Engage: It is not enough to gather, clarify, sort, and reflect. I need to actually engage with my system and do some work. I need to use the system and get the most mileage from it that I can.

Those are the basic steps in the GTD system. There are many tools available for these five steps, both electronically and old-school paper and pencil. Along with a look at these tools, I will outline how a music studio might benefit from using a GTD-based system. If you are interested in reading the book yourself, here is a link.

Until next time,

Happy Practicing!

----- Paula -----

Disclaimer: the link provided above is an affiliate link. Although you are never under any obligation to buy anything, should you be in the market to do so, using this link will provide a benefit to me and help to support the production of the blog and podcast.

© 2016 by Paula E. Bird

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Teaching Tip: Decahedron and Other Whiteboard Dice

whiteboard dice
Decahedron Whiteboard Die
I am constantly on the lookout for exciting new ideas to make lessons and practices fun. Although this teaching tip does not involve a new idea, it is a fun idea and may be new for many students and parents.

I use a decahedron die. This is a 10-sided die, and there are five faces on the bottom and five faces on the top as you see in the picture. What is special about this particular die is that the surfaces are whiteboard and can be written on with a dry erase marker, and then erased and changed. That means this die is particularly useful for different students and situations.

For example, the other day I had a young student who is sometimes difficult to focus on lesson tasks. I used this die at the beginning of the lesson, and the student and I put together a list of 10 things that we wanted to do in the lesson. We included some fun things, and mom suggested one or two things that she thought he needed help with, and I added a few new things that I wanted to work on or build on from previous lessons. And finally, we put a star on one of the sides, and this side would represent something different. We decided that if the student threw the die and it landed with the star side up, whoever was the first person to call out an activity would be the winner.

In practice, this game was a lot of fun. Whenever the student threw the die and it landed on the star, it was very entertaining to see how quickly he would shout out his favorite activity. As we got better with the game, I would try to beat him at calling out an activity. When we completed each activity, we erased that item from the die so that it was blank again. We also had the option of writing an additional activity if we preferred.

There are many such whiteboard dice. Here are some links to several that I use in the studio. These are affiliate links, which means they benefit the blog but they are no additional cost to you. If you are in the market for these items, please consider using the links to help support the blog and my writing. I greatly appreciate it!

Magnetic Dry Erase Whiteboard Die

Magnetic Whiteboard Dice (set of 4 smaller)

Happy Practicing!

----- Paula -----

© 2016 by Paula E. Bird

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Beating the Summer Daze

The following article is an updated version of a previous article from 2012. Obviously this subject rears its ugly head every year. I hope that you will find some useful suggestions to help you beat the suummer "daze."


Summer hit with a vengeance here in Central Texas. We had record temperatures last weekend, and our heat index is warning us to be cautious about outdoor activities.

Summer hit the studio as well. I have noticed a trend among my studio families: the Summer Daze. Even my most regular families have been hit with this affliction.
Sleeping Dog
Dog Days of Summer

There was a flurry of activity in the studio during May as my students and their families prepared for the studio recital that marked the end of the school year. Then students came to their lessons about two weeks later all fired up with new material learned. Now a few weeks later, my students are dragging themselves into their lessons looking listless and unengaged. Sometimes the parents even forget that they had scheduled a lesson. Practice routines have fallen by the wayside, and practice goals have evaporated.

The Summer Daze is a slow down in commitment, routine, and action. The schedule is lighter than the school year and there are less demands on everyone's time. Unfortunately, if families spend the entire summer in the Daze, then the entire summer will pass by very quickly with little to show for it.

I am all for enjoying the free time and loose schedule. However, let us be very honest. Free time and a loose schedule does not mean that we should sit around on the couch and do nothing. Nor does it mean lolling around a swimming pool and soaking up sunshine. All of these activities are wonderful, but not all of the time, not if you want to have something to tell others about how you spent your summer vacation.

I have written previous articles about this subject with ideas about how to survive this time with a modicum of self respect. I have also published a podcast episode about 100 Things to do in Summer (click here), to help families and teachers find ways to stave off the summer doldrums. Today I will focus on commitment, routine, and action.


The summer is an excellent time to refocus our efforts. There are fewer competing interests for our time and attention. Why not use this time to think about the direction our next goal path will take? Let us recommit to our purpose of taking music lessons to raise children with fine abilities and noble hearts. Go back and read through some of the articles in the blog archives. I have probably written about every subject involved in music lessons, so search for a subject in the search box above and read an article a day to renew your enthusiasm and commitment.


I stress the importance of routine in the summer, but we do not have to be rigid about this. A summer routine does not have to be as jam-packed as the schedule that families maintain during the school year. Rather than schedule every hour, as parents and schools typically do during the school year, why not schedule chunks of time that are designated for certain activities. For example, why not schedule a two-hour period first thing in the morning for breakfast, practice, and general cleaning chores (making beds, dusting, wiping counters). Then another two-hour block could be designated for major chores or errands (one major chore, such as vacuuming or laundry, or going to the library, bank, grocery store, or music lesson). Then there is a lunch period, and the afternoon could be longer periods devoted to sports activities or swimming at the local community pool. Evening time blocks could be devoted to family activities, visits with other families, making craft projects, or special events.

If families were able to maintain a block schedule of time periods, the families would be able to take advantage of the feeling of looseness in the summer scheduling and yet have some structure in which to feel a sense of purpose and routine. Children, who thrive on routine, would have a better ability to predict what happens next. Lessons and practice would be more productive and more predictable. Practicing is so much easier in general if it is a daily habit. My studio families will assure you that any deviation from the daily practice schedule often leads to practice problems: behavior issues, reluctance, and arguments. My studio families will also agree that it is so much easier to maintain a regular and consistent practice schedule and routine.


When we take action, something wonderful occurs. We overcome static inertia (the body's state of being at rest) and begin to build a new momentum (body in motion). Sometimes a small action, a baby step, will be enough to urge us forward through the doldrums. Like magic, even the smallest of gestures or activities may be enough to wake up our motion sensors and generate energy for further activity and accomplishment. So here is a list of a few smaller activities that you might consider adding to  your morning time blocks:
  • Clean out the music bag. You have probably accumulated a lot of things that no longer need to be kept. Throw away the trash and broken pencils and rosin pieces. If you have loose papers, visit the local office supply store in your errand time block and buy a notebook or two to store your loose papers. The process of cleaning out the book bag will energize your enthusiasm for making music again. Invite your child to assist you. Watch how distracted your child will be about each discovered treasure in the bag. As these items spark memories, your child will be likely to want to play the instrument.
  • Clean out your child's instrument case. Vacuum out all the rosin dust and other debris inside the case. Repair latches. Replace rubber bands and other worn out teaching aids. If your child plays the piano, have the child assist you in really cleaning the piano. Dust all the legs and the underside and back. Your child will not mind climbing underneath the piano, which will make the cleaning chore so much easier for the parent. You might consider polishing and cleaning the instrument too. Be sure to use the special polish that is made for this purpose; do not use regular furniture polish. This might also be a good time to change the strings on your child's instrument or to have the piano tuned. Enlist the help of your teacher in replacing the strings.
  • Schedule a lesson. Nothing helps momentum and activity to grow like a deadline. Call your child's teacher and set up a lesson. Even if you do not feel that you are ready for a good lesson, your child's teacher will help you to get back in touch with your momentum and enthusiasm for practice.
  • Plan an event. Schedule a music sleepover, a special house concert, or a pool party. There are many music-related possibilities for summer events:
      sleeping dog
    • Ice Cream Sunday: tie a performance in with an ice cream party
    • Practice Picnic: tie practicing with a picnic party, even if it is in the backyard. Keep the instruments out of the sun though!
    • Summer Talent Show: invite your child's friends and their families to participate
    • Pool Party Play Down: a pool party that includes a group activity of playing the music lesson and group class repertoire from most advanced pieces to least advanced songs.
    • Fiddle Friday: invite your child's music friends to join together for a fiddling afternoon or evening. Parents or other friends who play guitar, mandolin, or banjo will enjoy making music together. Students could plan to learn a new fiddle song a week.
    • Backyard Bar-B-Q: tie in a special performance or friendly gathering along with a Bar-B-Q potluck event.
  • Summer Camp. Universities hold their annual summer strings camps during summers. There are other music camps and institutes available. Consider hosting your own music camp and invite your child's teacher to provide music theory, music reading, or other music-related activities.
These are a few ideas to get you going. Please write and let me know your special ideas to help you through the Summer Daze.

Happy Practicing!

----- Paula -----

© 2016 by Paula E. Bird

Friday, June 10, 2016

Lazy Daze of Summer

The following article was published on June 14, 2012, but the material is still valuable and true for today, and I have updated it just a wee bit. Enjoy!

* * * * * * * * * *

sleeping dog
It's a Dog's Life!
For most of us in the United States, school terms are over and the summer has officially begun. [Sigh!] Although I have very fond memories of my childhood summers, as a teacher my summers do not hold the same excitement. Here are some of the reasons that my teaching summers may be difficult, and these same reasons may apply to any holiday, vacation, or break.

When school term ends, most families no longer follow any consistent routine. Days seem to drift by with little structure. The kids play outside or in the park or at the pool. Daily practice gets postponed in favor of some other interesting, new, or fun activity [as in, less work]. Families go on vacation and make no arrangements for taking the violin along to continue practice. Sometimes lessons are cancelled entirely as families disappear for the summer.

I am all in favor of breaks and vacations. I use these tools myself to renew, refresh, and recharge my spirit and my teaching motivation. Sometimes I use my breaks and vacations to further my teaching skills by attending institutes and workshops. I also understand when families travel out of the country or across the country to visit extended family for long periods of time.

What I have trouble understanding is when families completely shunt aside the progress they and their children have made in learning a musical skill and developing ability. Children thrive on structure. All research supports this fact. Parents routinely report to me that their music studies and practice proceed successfully when the families follow an established routine and that problems occur when the schedule is not maintained. And yet, as a teacher, I still encounter the summer issue with many of my students.

The problem in some cases may be that we are not on the same page. As a Suzuki teacher who is strongly committed to the Suzuki philosophical point that the Suzuki Method is about creating fine human beings, I view my life's work as extremely important for the child, the child's family, and ultimately for our society at large. When I think of my purpose in teaching music via the violin or piano to young students as developing and nurturing ability, talent, and life skills, then I cannot bear to think about taking an extended break from my work. I have to keep things going in order not to lose any ground.

If a parent does not share this philosophy, then it is likely that the parent will be sporadic about continuing lessons and practice during the summer. The parent will schedule vacations and special events without any consideration given to the continuation of learning and practice. Remember, I am referring to the parents who do not schedule lessons (or who schedule very few lessons) or who do not maintain any semblance of a regular or consistent practice schedule. With the growth of the Internet and online tools, there are ample opportunities to maintain lessons during an extended period of time away from home. There may also be possibilities to take extra lessons per week. There is no reason to limit lessons to a weekly schedule. Why not take two lessons per week during the time the child and family are at home?

I will relate two stories to show support for the idea that summers can be more productive rather than less. One is from my own personal experience. My mother was a public school primary grade teacher, so she had summers free. When I was a child, my mother had a general schedule outlined for us kids. There was a "looseness" about the structure in terms of specifics, but there was a sense of structure. For example, when we got up in the morning, after we ate our breakfast, there was a time to complete some necessary household chores, such as cleaning or laundry or some other activity that would benefit the entire household. Then we practiced. Since my sister and I played two instruments, we would practice both. There was still some time left in the morning (we did not sleep in or late in the summer but maintained a reasonable morning wake up time), so we would run errands. Either we would go shopping for groceries or other items, or we would go to the public library to return books or to check out new ones. The library run was a regular recurrence, because I remember that more than I remember other shopping activities. After lunch, where we were eagerly beginning our new books, we spent the afternoons at the local pool. We would take our books as well and read in between swimming periods. In the late afternoon, we might play outside while mom fixed dinner, or we might pick up our instruments and dabble with some fun things. Mom might ask us to play some things for her while she worked. Sometimes we helped her to make dinner or to set the table. Then when dad was home, we would do family activities. Often my dad would do his own piano practice after dinner, or we would sing some songs together at the piano. I often played piano after dinner to amuse myself. My dad had lots of sheet music to play through. I had great summers. We always continued our lessons and music studies. Sometimes I would even begin reading about subjects I would study the next year (yes, I was a bit of a nerd when it came to school).

My second story is my former student "little Katie" who attends university now and wants to work for NASA some day as an engineer. Little Katie, so named to distinguish her from an older, taller Katie in the studio at the time, was a very busy child during the school year. She loved her summers because it gave her a chance to "get ahead" in her practicing. If she was learning book 3, she used the summer to finish the book and graduate and get a head start on the next book. Katie used this summer method of hers for many years.

You read the title of this article correctly. I meant to type "daze" rather than "days." As a teacher, what I see in the child as a result of an unstructured summer (few lessons or none, sporadic practice or none, unfocused activities), is a dazed child. They stand before me and present themselves with little focus and concentration. They are easily distracted by anything else going on. Their thoughts seem diffused, as if they are oozing out of their ears before my eyes.

Here are my recommendations to avoid the summer daze:
  • Look through your calendar and schedule as many lessons as your schedule and your teacher's schedule will allow. It is okay to have more than one lesson in a week. The teacher can focus one lesson on one aspect of technique and use the other lesson to work on something new or fun.
  • Think about your day and how you can arrange your schedule so that you arrange suitable moments for daily practice.
  • Think about times during the week when you can arrange a special concert. Your child would love to perform for others, and this would be a wonderful reason to do some practice during the week to prepare for the event, even if the event is a phone call to grandma.
  • Perhaps you can arrange a special music play date with some of your child's other music friends. I recall a trio of young students who regularly arranged sleepovers that involved the violin.
  • Look through the local concerts and plan to attend several concerts in the park. Our local symphony offers several possibilities. It offers special art and music park events every Wednesday morning throughout the summer, and each week features a different section of the symphony (strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion). The symphony sections each present monthly concerts in the park, and families can bring lawn chairs and pets to the concerts. The big summer event is the July 4 concert with the 1812 overture.
  • Plan your vacation with your child's instrument in mind. Children can carry their instruments onto airplanes. I have camped out with my instrument and practiced under pine trees beside lakes. One time a railroad train blew right past me as I played. I had no idea that I was 30 feet from a railway line. That was interesting!
  • If you are unable to take the instrument, then plan to maintain a listening program for the child so that the child remembers the pieces he or she is learning or has already learned.
  • Make plans for your child to attend a Suzuki Institute or other music camp. Some of my fondest summer music experiences were my summer camps. I went to strings camps, and later as a teacher, I attended Suzuki Institutes with some of my students. We had a lot of fun! The parents who came along learned a lot as well.
  • Plan special summer events. This summer might be a great time to arrange a summer Olympics for the violin. Set a few dates for special Olympic trials and races, and have the child start preparing for those events. Then arrange to make medals and certificates for each event that the child participates in.
  • Listen to the Teach Suzuki Podcast episode: 100 Things to do in the Summer and try a few suggestions.
Summer time can be a fun time for music. I hope you find ways to add music into your summer fun.

Happy Summer Practicing!

----- Paula -----

© 2016 by Paula E. Bird