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Friday, November 24, 2017

The Global Community, part 1

There comes a journey . . .
I recently returned from a teaching conference in Remscheid, Germany. There were many things about the conference that inspired me — the picturesque setting of the Academie Kulturelle nestled in a small wooded area of the town, the cloistered atmosphere of the conference itself tucked away from the hustle and bustle of our regular lives, and the opportunities to meet and share and combine our different culture, backgrounds, and ideas.

For me the best part of the conference was the wonderful atmosphere we created about community and sharing and being open with each other. By attending, by coming, by overcoming obstacles of many kinds, we created something truly special together. We overcame travel and distance issues. Sometimes we overcame political or professional hurdles. We overcame philosophical or pedagogical differences. We overcame language barriers. Together we shared moments of connection. We shared photos and videos and stories of our students and our teaching lives. We asked questions and sought answers for our teaching puzzles. We embraced new ideas and connections, made new friends from places far away, and shared our joy of belonging to a vital and uplifting profession. Most of all, we reaffirmed our commitment to a philosophy of education and a community of personalities who share a deep love of children, a desire to contribute our time and knowledge to the world, and a shared vision of a better world through our work as teachers.

There were 3-4 days of many topics and presentations. Mimi Zweig (www.stringpedagogy.com) presented an intensive course about establishing a healthy foundation of violin playing with scales, etudes, and repertoire. We examined closely how basic posture setup could be reinforced with the addition of supplementary repertoire and technical materials. We discussed shifting ideas and techniques for eliciting a beautiful tone and working with students in an ensemble setting. We observed individual student lessons and how these ideas would be drawn into a teaching situation.

The evening presentations were designed to promote discussion and thought. One evening we watched a film about students in Mimi Zweig’s youth music program at the University of Indiana in Bloomington, Indiana. The video documented the growth and aspirations of several of Mimi Zweig’s most advanced high school students and inspired many of us teachers to return to our rooms to practice ourselves or to retire to the local pub together as a group to share our questions and discussions further.

David Andruss
Another evening included a closer look at a new book of songs designed to make technique a fun and enjoyable experience for young violinists. These new pieces included delightful piano harmonies written by David Andruss to underscore insightful melodies and exercises developed by Kerstin Wartberg.

Other presentations included such diverse topics as how a music teacher might effectively use the Internet at a low cost (Wolfgang Fischer and Dr. Ingrid Schlenk), how to prevent shoulder and neck pain while playing the violin (Ursula Benz), Autism Spectrum Disorder (Dr. Ingrid Schlenk), teaching points for early Suzuki violin book 1, Suzuki building blocks, sound production and intonation as they relate to the Paul Rolland and Suzuki pedagogies (Dr. Claudio Forcada), nurturing parents into partnership with Suzuki teachers (Paula Bird and Sue Hunt), group class creativity and music pieces to foster technique in a group setting (Isabel Morey Suau), movement and rhythm (Gino Romero Ramirez), violin literature from Poland (Elżbieta Wegrzyn), and games to spark interest in review (Agathe Jerie). And all of these wonderful presentations were translated by the capable Verena Sophie Lauer.

Charles Krigbaum
On the third day of the conference, the third intensive course began and focused on the basics for very young beginners, especially posture and tone. Charles Krigbaum, Kerstin Wartberg, Kathryn Averdung, Veronika Kimiti, and Heidi Curatolo demonstrated teaching points for posture, tone production, and ensemble for young and early beginning students. Eva Belvelin (Sweden) introduced us to her materials for encouraging technique building in young violinists as well as to her materials designed to aid violin and bow posture. Another evening program included a discussion forum to examine questions and answers to many common teaching issues from the teachers who attended the conference.

Heidi Curatolo & Kerstin Wartburg
I attended the conference for the first time in 2016, and I came home from that first conference filled with excitement and inspiration from all the new ideas and discussions I had experienced. I met many new teachers and made new friends with many of the participants. Teachers came from all over the world — from Thailand, Poland, Romania, USA, Albania, Sweden, Switzerland, Spain, England, Ireland, Germany. These are just a few of the countries that participants represented. The international community represented by the conference participants was perhaps the most exciting aspect of the conference. It reassured many of us to discover that we teachers globally shared similar problems and issues in our teaching situations, and the conference afforded us an opportunity to share our teaching stories of success and disappointment and to allow us to work together to discover new strategies and solutions. At the same time, we forged new relationships within the international community that will allow us to continue this important discussion when we teachers returned home to our own countries.

Veronika Kimiti, Kerstin Wartberg
The list of teachers, countries, and most important, the presenters at the conference, is long and varied. All are respected representatives of their teaching community in their home countries and elsewhere internationally. What amazed me last year and again this year was the openness and interested interaction of all the teachers that I met and spoke with. Everyone who attended the conference stated to me that they attended for the purpose of building a global community of teachers -- both Suzuki and nonSuzuki. We shared the same teaching issues and struggles and often the same teaching point puzzles among our students. I overheard more than one participant share the comfort they received from their discovery that other teachers had teaching experiences that mirrored their own, that teaching was basically the same everywhere.

My favorite conference takeaway was that we are not alone as teachers, nor are we to be isolated and separated from each other by artificial and nonproductive constraints. We all love music and teaching and wish to share our joy of music with the students who have come to us and asked to share our teaching joy and experience with them. The teachers who attended and presented at this conference frequently expressed their interest in connecting with each other as nurturers of young students. We shared the same philosophy that what we teachers do in our profession is too important to try and limit it in a box. Rather than look for ways to exclude people (teachers and students, organizational members or nonmembers, Suzuki or nonSuzuki), we wanted to look for ways to connect with each other. We wanted to focus our efforts on inclusion to the community rather than exclusion.

I believe that this is what Dr. Suzuki wanted. I believe that he expected us to absorb his ideas about philosophy, teaching, learning, and character development and then run away with them down the road until we reached everyone with these ideas. I believe that he encouraged the teachers who attended his presentations, workshops, and trainings to keep growing and to keep looking for answers to solve teaching problems.

"Man is the son of his environment," Dr. Suzuki said. I believe Dr. Suzuki served as the perfect role model for how to develop philosophy and search for new ideas. Dr. Suzuki himself experimented as a matter of course, and he showed us the way and provided us with the model example of how we could continue to develop. He did not close doors to experimentation or membership or training. He opened his arms wide and talked about nurturing, love, growth, and development through the vehicle of music and teaching, and he included everyone. His mission for the world was too great to be limiting.

I was not blessed to have met or study personally with Dr. Suzuki, but I have read his materials, books, and articles. I am an avid reader of all things Suzuki-related, and I appreciate the time and effort taken by those early teaching pioneers in the Suzuki community who wrote books and articles about their experiences with Dr. Suzuki and his workshops and trainings. It is my fervent hope and mission that we will all share our belief in the universal message that all "children have talent" and "character first, ability second."

I found all these ideas and desires reflected in the faces of the teachers who attended the conference. I shared the same joy of teaching in the words that reflected the heart-songs of the teachers who journeyed from all over the world to share the joy of our various teaching experiences. We shared the firm belief in Dr. Suzuki's question and answer: "What is man's ultimate direction in life? It is to look for love, truth, virtue, and beauty."

I returned home from the conference with a joyful heart and a soul at peace that I am where I need to be as a teacher in a global community. The conference once again renewed my sense of belonging to a mission and a teaching philosophy that is larger than I am, that what we do as teachers is so much more important because of the global impact of our influence on students and parents and family and community.  We shared our love of teaching with each other, and we welcomed everyone's ideas and experiences.

I look forward to next year's conference November 2-5, 2018. Please consider joining me. 

Until next time,

Happy Practicing!

----- Paula -----

© 2017 by Paula E. Bird

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Anti-Gravity Eyeball (Teaching Tip)

Here is a photo of my young student Olivia, showing how we use a Halloween plastic eyeball to help us fight the effects of gravity. I got this idea from a Paul Rolland book years ago, and we enjoy doing it every Halloween:

The plastic eyeball balances on the G and D strings. If the violin strings are parallel to the floor (as opposed to the violin body itself, which then means that the strings slant downward to the floor), then the ball will balance.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Habit 1: Be Proactive | Take Charge & Widen the Space

Stephen Covey 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
Habit 1: Be Proactive | Take Charge
I recently began a series of podcast episodes the habits of effective Suzuki teachers and parents, based on the work of Stephen Covey. If you would like to follow along with the podcast habit episodes and blog articles, here are the links:

Habits of Highly Effective Suzuki Teachers & Parents (podcast & series introduction)

What is Your Habit Plan? (article about habit series introduction)

Habit 1: Be Proactive | Take Charge (podcast)

What Does Proactive Mean?

Stephen Covey's first habit is to be proactive. When I looked up the definition of the word in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary [“controlling a situation by making things happen or by preparing for possible future problems”]. I found two words in the definition that made me pause to think: making and preparing. These words are action words. These words require us to do something, not be something or observe something, but to get up and perform some action. The definition of the word "proactive" points us in the direction of action.

Why do these two distinctions matter? If we believe that we are in control of our lives and the things that happen to us (internal locus of control), then we will take the necessary steps to address problems or find solutions. We believe that we retain the power to effect change. If we allow an external locus of control, then we are more likely to view ourselves as victims and powerless to solve our problems. We focus instead on reacting to the world around us. I call this, "being buffet by the winds of fate and change."
Stephen Covey 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
Reactive: Victim, Helpless

When we consider what our current situation or problems are, then we squarely face what is in front of us. We hone our focus and turn our direction toward the personal and direct. We own our situation. We own our complaints. We own our problems. Our thoughts become more acute and realistic about what is happening in our lives.

Dr. Covey reminds us that we are responsible for our lives. One of my favorite books, The Non-Runner's Marathon Trainer, discusses this subject in one of the early chapters. The runner's book frames the issue as one of the perception of control -- where we think the locus of control for our lives resides. If we believe that we are in control of what happens to us, then we have an internal locus of control. If we think that control for what happens to us lies comes from others or forces outside of our control, then that is an external locus of control.

How to Recognize Proactivity

Dr. Covey reminds us that we are responsible for our lives, that we have the "response-ability" to make our lives what we want them to be. Here are some ways to recognize proactivity:

  • We understand that we are responsible to make things happen, and we take the initiative to do what needs to be done.
  • We understand that we can choose our own actions, and even if we are unable to change or do something, we still retain the ability to choose how we will respond to the situation.
  • We understand that we can work in small areas and groups. We can work to be proactive in smaller, more focused areas of our lives and then branch out to wider areas of concern.
  • We understand that we can focus on our "circle of influence" rather than our "circle of concern." We can change what we are able to change rather than be pulled to change something that is outside of our control.
  • We understand that mistakes happen, and we learn from these errors. A proactive approach means that when we make mistakes, we correct the errors and then learn the lesson we can take from the mistake.
Widen the Space

One of my favorite Stephen Covey quotes is:
"[T]here is a gap or space between stimulus and response, and . . . the key to both our growth and happiness is how we use that space."
I offer this quote as a reminder that whatever happens in our lives -- whether we truly retain the power to control or effect change -- we will always retain the ability (response-ability) to choose our response. There is a gap or space between what happens to us and how we respond. We will be wise to widen that space as much as we can to allow ourselves the time we need to choose -- proactively -- the best response.

Building the Proactive Habit

So let us look at how the habit Be Proactive might look in the context of Suzuki teaching and parenting. How could we put this habit into practice?

First of all, make a list of those areas of your Suzuki life that may be less than satisfying. Perhaps as a teacher, you think that your students do not practice enough or that your studio parents do not follow the program as closely as you wish they did. If you are a parent, perhaps your child does not want to practice or do the work that you think he or she should do to prepare adequately for lessons. Or, perhaps you are a parent who has difficulty making adequate time for practice with your child on a daily and consistent basis.

What are the typical reasons you offer to explain why these problems occur in your life? Write down a list of the reasons you give. Then take a hard look at what you have written. If I were to tell you that it was your fault that these problems occur, what would you think? How would you approach the situation then? Let us take a closer look at the typical problems that I wrote above. I suggest that you write down what you discover.
  • Inadequate practice: What is your response to this? How do you handle this situation?
  • Unengaged parents: How do you approach the parents to discuss alternative behavior?
  • Reluctant students: How have you allowed your children to be rewarded for undesired behavior?
  • Over-scheduled parents: What are your reasons for failing to say "no" to a schedule that is too busy? How can you frame your priorities in a way that allows you to build a schedule that is more relaxed and productive?
You may answer the above questions with many possible solutions. The idea here is to frame the questions in such a way as to turn our focus toward how we can structure or explain things differently. We want to believe that we can make changes and control the way things happen. Each of these beliefs, attitudes, and spurred calls to action represents the proactive approach, which feels pretty darn good. These approaches also turn our focus to solutions rather than problems or complaints. We will diminish the attitude of helplessness and happenstance and instead increase our expectations of promise and purpose.

Signs That We Are Not Proactive

As part of my in depth look at habit one and proactivity, I considered easy ways to recognize when we were not focusing on habit one. Here are two things I watch for:
  • Complaining: When we complain, we generally make noise to someone who lacks power to make any change, and we do not point ourselves in the direction of doing anything about the problem. Complaining is easy and involves little work. Actually doing something about the problem would be proactivity.
  • Overusing objective pronouns and weak verbs: When we are not proactive, we rely on objective pronouns, such as you, he, she, it, them, me, or us rather than I or we. When we are proactive, our language reflects this attitude. We use action verbs. We put ourselves as the subject. We are the heroes in our lives. Any other type of pronoun indicates that we are sitting back and allowing others and circumstances to control us rather than taking charge ourselves.
Self-Reflection Questions (Proactive)

To set yourself up for success with habit one and being proactive, I urge you to create a system that will allow you regular and consistent time to do some self-reflection. Whether you journal, write morning pages, pray, or meditate, some sort of system that encourages you to sit quietly to reflect and consider the state of things will help you to shore up your habit one proactive skills. Get in the daily habit of asking and answering these types of questions, which are designed to turn your focus to identifying what you can do to alter your current situation and achieve your own priorities:
  • What did I accomplish?
    • What were my successful strategies?
    • What were my stumbling blocks?
    • How could I change my approach to use more successful strategies and avoid or overcome obstacles?
  • What lessons did I learn from my success or difficulties?
  • What things puzzled me?
  • What am I grateful for?
  • What am I 100% committed to do tomorrow?
Let me remind teachers and parents that what we do in the Suzuki method is so much larger than ourselves as individuals. What we do today with our students and children will have lasting impact on the future civilizations of our world. This mission is important enough to require us to spend time and focus working on our ability to use habit one to be proactive.

Most important of all, when you focus on building up the proactive habit, notice whenever you think about problems as somehow being someone else’s fault or the product of some world circumstance. When your thoughts turn this way, develop the habit of stopping at that moment to recognize that you and your thoughts are the problem there.

Until next time,

Happy Practicing!

----- Paula -----

© 2017 by Paula E. Bird

Monday, August 14, 2017

What is Your Habit Plan?

Stop the habit of wishful thinking and start the habit of thoughtful wishes.
-- Mary Martin (Broadway actress and singer)

Stephen Covey wrote a terrific book about 7 habits that he identified in highly effective people. I began a podcast series for Suzuki teachers and parents based on Dr. Covey's book but related to the types of issues that we Suzuki teachers and parents face. I thought it would be helpful to write summary blog articles as companions to the podcast episodes.

If you want to follow along with the actual podcast and the introductory episode, click here: Introduction to 7 Habits of Highly Effective Suzuki Teachers and Parents.

In the first episode of the podcast series, I spent some time discussing the subject of habits. I believe that if we understand how habits are created, we will do a better job of creating and maintaining habits that will lead us to success. We will avoid falling into the trap of bad habits because we will be aware of the types of behaviors that might lend themselves to unwanted habits.

I highly recommend two books that provide very helpful information about habits:

I based my podcast series on Dr. Covey's book about the 7 habits. Dr. Covey includes a great deal of information, thoughtful insight, and interesting stories in his book, which I was unable to include in my own discussions in the podcast and blog articles. I highly recommend this book to be a part of everyone's library.

Charles Duhigg wrote his fascinating book about how we form habits, and I found the stories and information very interesting to read and think about. Within the first chapters, I already recognized most of my students' behaviors as they related to bad practice habits. After reading this book, I finally understood why my students and I struggled to create and maintain good habits. The book is structured around stories that are self-contained. I read the book over a long period of time, and I found that with every story -- whether corporate or individual -- I learned something useful that I could use in the teaching arena as well as in my personal life. A best-selling book (and for good reason!), I will keep this book on my bookshelf of teaching resources.

One of the first things I reflected on after reading the Duhigg book were those behaviors that I engaged in frequently but without much awareness. I often remark to my studio parents and university students that when we do something one time, it can be an accident or a once-in-a-while thing. Once we engage in the same behavior a second time, then we are on the threshold of initiating a habit. A third time? Good luck now, because we are already well down the road of habit formation.

Be Mindful

As I reflected on the scary thoughts of how easy a person can create a habit and that our brains are wired to build habits and routines in order to conserve mental energy for more important things, I spent more time being mindful of the habitual behaviors I engaged in. I made a list as I worked through a typical day. I was astonished, as you will be, by the sheer volume and number of habitual little behaviors we engage in with little to no conscious thought or awareness.

Not all habitual behaviors are bad. Some are good behaviors to cultivate. My advice is to become mindful so that you can devote more time and attention to support the good behaviors and to eliminate the undesired habits and routines or supplant them with new ones. Mindfulness was the first step.

Be Positive

I also spent time thinking about the attitude I brought to the exercise. Was I thinking of my habits as negative or positive? I recently listened to a TED Talk video about how difficult it is to change a negative attitude into a positive outlook while we can easily change a positive attitude into a negative one. My next step was to turn my habitual thinking and attitudes into positive outlooks. I ceased to think of my problems as stumbling blocks and instead reframed my thinking about problems and difficulties as merely things that need to be taken care of first in order to reach my ultimate goal. When I think of difficulties as preliminary steps on my habit journey, I find that I can more easily maintain my good attitude and consider a different approach.

Be Analytical

My third step was to go through a special analysis to develop the kind of habits that I wanted to create or maintain in my life. This analysis led me to a four-step process.
  1. Identify Behaviors 
  2. Build a Plan
  3. Take Action
  4. Evaluate
I began with exercises to identify behaviors and routines that I wanted to continue, eliminate, or change. I tried a variety of techniques to identify these sorts of behaviors. I thought about the areas of my life that dissatisfied me or made me feel uncomfortable. Those feelings helped me to build awareness of areas in my life that needed habit work. Sometimes I added the techniques of brainstorming or mindmapping to gather and sift through ideas. I picked one thing to work on at a time, and I carefully considered whether my habit goal was clear and specific. I made sure that I turned my bigger goal into a series of measurable small steps that I could follow that were within my control and would inevitably yield results over time.

I would then build a plan to follow with the list of steps I would take toward my goal. I found that I could accomplish a goal much easier if I built a plan around a series of small steps rather than some vague sense of working toward a goal. For example, I may not lose 10 pounds in two months by framing my goal in that way, but I am more likely to achieve that goal if I step on a scale daily, walk 30 minutes or run daily, measure and keep track of my food, and write everything down. If I do all of these steps or at least achieve a minimum level for each step, then my success is more likely to occur.

The most important step after building a play was to take action on the plan. I began to execute my plan. I did not wait until I thought my plan was perfect. I took immediate action. I did not wait until the next day or some nebulous and uncertain future date to get started. In fact, I frequently asked myself, "why not start today?" Why not take the momentum and excitement of the current moment and slingshot it into the first action steps?

Review is the most important part of any habit exercise. If we reflect on what we have done, consider the reasons for our success or failure, identify any good or bad patterns of behavior, and renew our commitment to the ultimate goal or habit, then we have the best chance of success. We will learn from our behavior and be mindful about the reality of our situation. Review is extremely important, and I recommend that you set aside a regular period of time to reflect.

Finally, build on your experience. Add new things. Build on old things. Experiment with mini 30 day challenges and allow your experience to grow into a larger experience. Have patience with yourself as you journey along your habit road.

Until next time,

Happy Practicing!

----- Paula -----

© 2017 by Paula E. Bird

Friday, July 14, 2017

7 Habits of Highly Effective Suzuki Teachers & Parents

Stephen Covey wrote a book called The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. This powerful book has been around a long time and is still popular, because Dr. Covey's book relates information that is timeless and valuable. Dr. Covey studied the "success literature" in order to glean the lessons that pertained to building and strengthening our character at its core, and the result of his study were 7 habits.

As my readers know, I am fascinated with the development of our personal character. I have written about this important subject many times (Rock or Sand -- Shifting Priorities) (Enliven Technique with Basic Goodness). This area of personal development is so important, that I think we need to spend daily time reflecting on how we can improve ourselves in this area. As I reviewed my copy of Dr. Covey's infamous book, I began to think of ways that this subject could relate to Suzuki teachers and parents. How would the seven habits look from the perspective of the Suzuki Method?

I began creating podcast episodes for each of the seven habits along with an introduction about habit formation in general. You can find the Teach Suzuki podcast on iTunes or whichever is your podcast provider. I thought it would be helpful to follow along with the podcast series in the blog as well for those folks who prefer reading rather than listening.

So stay tuned in the coming weeks, as I post articles that correspond to the podcast series about the 7 Habits of Effective Suzuki Teachers and Parents. If you want to listen to the podcast in advance of the blog articles, you can find the following episodes here:

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Suzuki Teachers & Parents (introductory episode)

Habit 1: Be Proactive | Take Charge

Habit 2 (Begin with the End in Mind | Scrooge & the Future Ghost) will be released on Sunday, July 16, 2017, at 3 p.m. CST. If you wish to subscribe on iTunes, click here. The podcast is well over a year old now and has over 100 episodes.

If you would like to follow along with the series in Dr. Covey's excellent book, click here (affiliate link: no extra cost to you but small benefit to the blog).

Until next time,

Happy Practicing!

----- Paula -----

© 2017 by Paula E. Bird

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Nightmare Teachers Have

I could tell the minute a student entered the studio that school had ended. Many students plopped onto the couch and sat there motionless for a few minutes before the parent or I had to remind them to open up the violin cases and get the instruments ready to play. Others seemed to move in slow motion as they performed the get-ready tasks with lethargy and low energy. And then there were the lessons with glazed eyes, listless playing, and lack of focus and attention.

Yes, summer has arrived, I thought.

I have written several articles in the past about the Summer Daze problem, as I like to call it. And I suppose that I will write many more articles about this issue in the future.

What is "summer daze"? It is a student (and quite possibly a parent) who has lost focus and energy about music lessons. It is a student and parent who have stopped practicing, coming to lessons, or listening to the repertoire to be studied. It is a student and parent who have decided consciously or unconsciously to take a break and rest.

It is every teacher's nightmare.

Rather than completely stop the road to progress, I recommend that students and parents rearrange things in the home so that the ability development journey continues. I want to remind my readers that the Suzuki journey is more than just a method to learn how to play a musical instrument. It is a philosophy that teaches life skills, raises children with noble hearts, and improves family relationships. It is important that this philosophy continue even during periods of vacation.

It is alright to alter schedules and routines during vacation times, and I highly recommend this. A few minutes' attention to the ways that a family can arrange lessons, practices, and musical activities will inspire refreshing changes and renew enthusiasm.

Here are a few of 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. Perhaps your teacher can suggest some additional music to learn, such as fiddle music or popular songs from current movies.
  • 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 -----

© 2017 by Paula E. Bird

Monday, May 8, 2017

My Child Refuses to Practice | Guest Post by Beth Ringel

parent and child play in sandbox
Playful Learning
The following is a guest post from Beth Ringel, current President of the Greater Austin Suzuki Association.

In his book, Nurtured by Love, Dr. Suzuki wrote:

 "My child refuses to practice at home." Quite a few mothers bring this complaint to me. That is because they fail to understand that their children's motivation in learning the violin stems from the sense that the violin is fun, and that they, too, want to have fun. "I'm paying tuition every month, to have the training turned into playing? That's just . . ." -- that is how the adults feel. In other words, calculation enters into education, and that calculation dominates the process. The failure rate is very high in those cases. Start the child off with the pleasure of having fun, and steer her in the right direction by taking advantage of the pleasure of having fun -- no matter what the area, this is where early education must start.
The moment we rigidly convince ourselves, "Education is what we're after," we warp a child's development. 
-- Shinichi Suzuki, Nurtured by Love
As we are gear up (wind down?) for the summer, take a moment with me to stop and think about how we approach our children’s musical practices. Specifically, I want to talk about play. The action of making music on an instrument is referred to as “playing.” What I’d like to examine is whether we are doing our best to bring this verb to life. As you can see from Dr. Suzuki's quote above, he clearly sees “playing” an instrument as fun and enjoyable, not just an action that applies to making an instrument produce sound. As I’m sure most parents do, sometimes I feel myself turning into the skeptical parent in Dr. Suzuki’s example, feeling as if there should be more work involved in the process. After all, isn’t that what I experienced growing up? (Of course, if I recall correctly, that experience led me to quit piano after one year at age eight, so perhaps that’s not the best path to go down.)

We know from our own personal experiences as well as observing our children that they (and we!) learn best when there is enjoyment in what we are doing -- when playing. What play looks like for each child may differ, but there are similarities we can outline. In fact, I have been questioning several of my students over the past month about what they think play is, and here are some of their answers:

  • Playing isn’t always fun, but you feel good afterwards (as in a soccer game in 100-degree heat).
  • Playing involves movement (maybe that’s why singers don’t “play” their instruments).
  • I asked several of them if they thought playing involves choice, and without exception they said sometimes but not always. One particularly astute fifteen-year-old said that playing exists on a spectrum, encompassing free, unstructured play on one side and structured play on the other.
  • Playing feels a certain way.

I’d like to address how play can be connected to practice using a couple of theorist/educator examples. First of all, the physician/educator Maria Montessori (1870-1952) famously said, “play is the child’s work,” (not “work is the child’s play!”). Do we approach practice as work that masquerades as play (I’m thinking of external rewards and games that actually distract from the focus)? Or do we approach practice as play, where work can be done as a natural byproduct? I think this is an important distinction to make, especially when working with the youngest of children.

Think of movement that young children want to do. They are primed for action. If we think of practice as a space to play or to move (in the context of playing the instrument), we will accomplish much more than if we think of it as a chore or the job of the child. At the very least, we will have strengthened our relationship with our child through the process, instead of weakening it, which to me is an important measure of success.

Montessori also emphasized play/learning as containing intrinsic rewards. This is where the work comes in. The act of learning in itself is its reward, not externally-placed goals or physical rewards. The question is, how do we encourage motivation to learn in our children without external rewards? Well, let’s go back to the basics as per Suzuki: listening to the recording (a lot!) and playing with other children. These happen to overlap with Montessori, in that a Montessori environment is set up to encourage the child's natural curiosity (i.e., wanting to learn how to play the songs because the children hear them all the time), as well as children learning from other children. Sports are tremendously successful in this aspect: most involve a team. Music is no different. Without the team, it’s just not as much fun. The relationships are extremely important in maintaining motivation over the years.

Russian psychiatrist Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) defined play only as being sociodramatic, that is, make believe. Vygotsky’s play included the creation of imaginary situations and roleplay, guided by rules (either created by the “play”-er or demonstrated by a teacher). A key concept in Vygostkian theory is the zone of proximal development. This concept refers to the point of development where a child wants to learn something but is unable to do it without some assistance, either from a teacher or (even better) a peer. These specific situations, knowledge, and roles are influenced by a child’s social context; thus a child raised in Norway will exhibit different play and learn different content than one raised in Africa, each according to his surroundings. Sound familiar? Suzuki, of course, often expressed his amazement that a child will master his mother tongue, no matter the difficulty of the language, simply from being immersed in it and relating to it in a natural way.

2 brothers learn violin bow control together
Two Brothers Play Together

Applications of Vygotsky’s play ideas are not as obvious in musical instrument study, but we can draw two important connections. First, when we examine the idea of roleplay, where do we think children are getting these roles from? Other, more advanced, children, of course. Older children are the model. That’s how a child can imagine himself progressing. The child must have a way of picturing what is possible. That’s one reason you see hotbeds of high level of ability: children are surrounded by examples of high-quality, and "talent" begets "talent."

Second, part of the joy of making music is embodying its spirit and communicating this to an audience. I am as guilty as anyone else for failing to prioritize the communication and make-believe/emotional aspect of music (the ‘play’) and focusing instead on technique (the ‘work’). Our adult brains want to focus on the how instead of the why. When a child builds a train track, he or she does not usually think about the cognitive skills the child is developing. The child enjoys the tactile sensation of linking the tracks and running the train over them and imagines that the child is the engineer who guides the train on an adventure -- even more so when mom, or dad, or sibling comes down to the child's level and joins in on the child's play.

When a child plays an instrument, how much fun it could be to pretend to be someone else or an animal, or to explore different emotions. That’s part of why Dr. Suzuki said that music develops a beautiful heart -- we are practicing emotions to communicate with other people, as well as to receive them. Much like with spoken language, the purpose of music is communication. The technique is there to serve this purpose; that’s what we address in Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development. We have to get in the zone first to create the desire to develop better ability, and that’s where play comes in.

I’d like to leave you with a few questions to ask about your practices:

  • What space are you giving you and your child to let play happen during practice, or are you trying to educate?
  • What goal are you working towards? The how of playing or the why?
  • What environment are you structuring to support you and your child (e.g., listening and group attendance)?
  • What are you doing in your practice sessions to strengthen (or weaken) your relationship?

These are some heavy questions, and they are not meant for you to judge yourself harshly. I know as much as anyone else that being a parent gives many opportunities for self-doubt, self-criticism, and guilt. I am a Suzuki parent as well as a Suzuki teacher, and I experience all of these doubts firsthand, every day. My hope is that if I keep working on myself, I can help support my son’s learning in the most productive and enjoyable way possible and also continue to forgive myself when I fall short of these expectations.

parent and two children in pumpkin patch; bio family picture for Beth Ringel
Beth Ringel and Her Family
To conclude, I’d like to challenge you to have a conversation with your child about what the child thinks play is and how it relates to playing an instrument. I’m always impressed and surprised by what children have to say about this, and children are always delighted to be asked!

Yours in play,

Beth Ringel
Suzuki Early Childhood Education and Cello Teacher
Mother of a Suzuki pianist and Suzuki ECE’r

The Twinkle Project by Paula E. Bird

A resource that guides teachers and parents of violin students
from the beginning steps through the Twinkle Variations.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Wheel of Music (Group Classes Can Be Fun!)

We used a new tool at group class -- the color spinning wheel. We called it the "Wheel of Music."

spinning color wheel on tabletop
The Wheel of Music
For a few weeks before using the wheel, I had it prominently displayed on a table in the studio, so that the wheel attracted my students' attention.

"What's that?"

"What is it for?"

"How do you use it?"

The wheel generated a lot of buzz among the students, and not just the youngest students. Parents and siblings showed interest in it as well. During this preparatory time leading up to the wheel's initial use in class, I thought of ways to use it. Here are a few activity ideas and my discoveries of what the various colors on the wheel could represent:
  • Students could touch the tip of the bow to something in the studio that has the same color as the color that the wheel spin lands on. This was another bow game activity that was very popular with the younger students, although there were some laugh-out-loud moments with the older students as well when I turned around and found two older students locked in a tableau of pointing their bows at something on each other's shirts. One boy stood there as if he were about to commit harikari.
  • The students helped me decide what activity to put on the wheel. Occasionally I would alter a suggested activity to add something new and pique their curiosity ("What are we going to do with the 'toy bears'?" In this way I learned quickly which were their favorite activities and games, because they were eager to shout them out to me to put on the wheel. They included things like: water cups, hide the rosin, and even the Twinkle Variations.
  • My students came up with nicknames of their own for the Twinkle Variations: "eat boogers" (Variation C), "Pika-ch-u" (Variation B). [What can I say? The studio enjoys the energy of a few younger boys.] I was surprised how much fun the students had with the simple activity of writing things on the wheel before class officially began.
  • The colors could represent a kind of activity, and there could be lists of things on a color chart or paper:
    • Bow games: Up Like a Rocket, Pass the Cup, Through the Loop
    • Concentration and focus activities: water cups, zombie walk, toy bear sticks
    • Twinkle Variations: Twinkle reviews and new challenges (G Major Twinkle, different keys, higher positions, backwards bows, upside down bows)
    • Singing activities
    • Spinner's choice: I asked students to consider in advance what activity they might choose if the wheel landed on this space, so that the student would be ready to go with a choice of activity
    • Special "challenges":
      • Stick out your tongue
      • Stand on one foot
      • Play with eyes closed
      • Stand back to back with another student for posture
      • Stand with the back of the upper bow arms touching each other for posture
      • Play song sections out of order (Scramble Game)
As the students finished each activity on the spinning wheel, we erased the dry erase mark from the wheel. At this point, we had additional options to consider:
  • The students could add a new activity to replace the activity they had just completed
  • Students could leave the space blank and continue spinning until all activities were finished
  • There could be a combination of things added to the wheel, such as student's choice, teacher's choice, and parent's choice
There may be other options to include:
  • Students could also play for the other students in order to "earn" the chance to spin the wheel.
  • The wheel colors could represent a pick from different prize boxes. The prize boxes could include very simple items, such as craft beads of matching colors.
My favorite idea, which was borne out of a conversation with a young student who made the mistake of saying they sometimes got "bored" at home, was to make a "Boring Chores" wheel at home. The parents and students could list various "boring" chores on the wheel, such as "take out the trash," "dust your room," or "clean a toilet." Then if someone were to say they were "bored," they would have to spin the wheel and do the chore listed on the wheel. This idea led some of my students and parents to come up with all sorts of variations, from performing regular chores to earning special treats.

My students had a great deal of fun with the color spinning wheel in group class. Even my shyest students really got involved in the spinning activities. There was so much excitement and fun, and I noticed that even my most fearful students lost themselves in all the fun.

We use the larger version of the wheel in the studio, but there are smaller versions available as well. If you try this idea, be sure to comment below or email me and tell me your favorite ways to use the wheel. I highly recommend this fun activity and teaching tool!

For more information about the spinning color wheel, click here (affiliate link). The wheel also comes in other sizes. We use the wheel that is linked here.

Many of the activities listed above can be found in my new resource book, The Twinkle Project. I wrote this book as a collection of resources and teaching steps from the beginning stages of learning the violin up to and including the Twinkle Variations. I include many activities to build concentration and focus and explain in depth the many possible ways to learn and later combine the parts of the Twinkle Variations to get the most optimum concentration and focus benefit. For more information about the book, click here. Here are links to the two videos about the book: (Why Did I Write This Book? and What's the Book About?).

suzuki method violin beginner resource teaching materials
The Twinkle Project
I am eager to hear of your teaching ideas with the spinning wheel!

Happy Practicing!

----- Paula -----
 © 2017 by Paula E. Bird

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