Author Archives: Brad

Fall ’20 Halloween Group Performance Recap & Upcoming Info

Hello WCS Students & Families!

As we lean fully into the second half of the Fall ’20 Semester, it’s a time to both look back on what’s been wonderful so far this school year, and to look ahead at what great opportunities are on the horizon! 

Halloween Group Performance & Party

Thank you to everyone who came out and joined us for this year’s annual Halloween Group Performance & Party!  We were fortunate to completely dodge the rain and had the encouragement of the light and warmth of a campfire to keep us company.  It was wonderful to hear how much better Fiocco Allegro, and so many other pieces, sounded after a semester’s group classes, even with cold fingers!  And I’m so thankful that students who had consistently been attending group throughout the semester were able to punctuate this semester’s classes with a memorable evening. 

So, group classes for the Fall ’20 Semester are now concluded, and groups will be on hiatus until resuming in the Spring ’20 Semester.  Our original plan, when heading into the school year, was to find another location to hold groups outside from March – May.  However, with churches, community centers, and the like increasingly reopening to the public, we’re certainly going to be exploring the possibility of returning to groups indoors, whether at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd once again, or somewhere else.  We’ll keep you posted!   


December Zoom “Home Concert

With groups now concluded, it’s time now more than ever to focus on our solo repertoire, for things like All-Suburban and All-State orchestra auditions, as well as our December Zoom “Home Concert.”  Since the October solo recital date conflicted with other activities for so many students, and because generally everyone seems to have enjoyed having the opportunity to perform in MayJuneJuly, and again in October, we’re going to add another solo performance opportunity to the calendar on Sunday, December 13.

In all likelihood, we’ll hold performances at 1:00 and 3:00 p.m. once again, although that isn’t set in stone yet at this point.  And since it’s so close to the holidays, it’ll be a great time to share some holiday music and merriment in addition to the normal classical repertoire!  Details will be forthcoming as the date draws nearer.  


Missouri Federation of Music Clubs “Virtuoso Club” 

This past week, I registered our program once again for the Missouri Federation of Music Clubs through which many of you have participated in the “Spring Festival” judging, and quite a few have competed in the Summer Camp Scholarship Competition and Music Major Scholarship Competition (congratulations once again to last year’s Camp Scholarship Competition winners, and well-wishes to our Music Major Scholarship winner from 2019, Wesley, who now studies at the UMKC Conservatory!).  

These events serve as very concrete goals for students to work towards, and give students the opportunity to grow and stretch themselves by participating in something challenging that still fits the West County Strings mantra of being warm and nurturing, with every event judged by fellow music educators.  The “bulletin” for 2020-2024 just arrived yesterday, which will allow us to see what repertoire each of us could work on preparing for our appropriate “class” (level) for next spring’s events! 


I think that about covers it for today.  KIrby and I look forward to seeing you all in your next lesson, and to continuing to learn, grow, and develop with you all as this school year marches on! 

Fall ’20 Play-In & “Icy Pop Social!”

Hello WCS Students & Families!

We’re looking forward to kicking off our group classes for the ’20-’21 school year with our annual “Play-In & Ice Cream Social.”  This event is for WCS students of all ages and levels and their families!  Here’s what you need to know:

Date: Tuesday, August 25
Time: 6:00-7:00 p.m.
Location: WCS students & families, check your emails!

 

In order to keep our Play-In safe this year, we’ll be planning to hold it outdoors with students and their families well over 6′ apart.  So, you might also want to bring:

camping chairs / a picnic blanket
 plenty of water
bug spray
masks for tuning time,
in case you need to use the restroom,
or want to spend extended time catching up
with friends or another family

Kirby and I will be providing icy pops instead of ice cream this year, so we can serve them individually 😊

 

And finally, no Play-In could be complete without repertoire, so here’s a list of pieces to be brushing up on between now and next Tuesday!

Mozart Minuet
Rameau Gavotte
La Folia
Moto Perpetuo (vla)
Country Dance
Vivaldi A Minor, 1st mov.
Gavotte in g minor (vla & vln)
Minuet in G (vla & vln)
Hunters’ Chorus (vla & vln)
Chorus from Judas Maccabaeus
Minuet 2
Bohemian Folk Song (vla)
Perpetual Motion
Allegro
May Song
Song of the Wind
Lightly Row
French Folk Song (vla & vln)
Twinkle Theme & Variations

Happy practicing, and we’ll see you next week! 🎻

Foundational Principle #9: Listen to Superior Models

If you’ve been around West County Strings for any length of time – or even if I’ve only taught you at an Institute for a week, in a group class at a workshop, or even in a 15-20 master class – you’ve likely heard me talk about the irreplaceable value and importance of listening frequently and consistently to quality recordings of the pieces you are working on, have worked on, and will work on in the future.  Here’s roughly what I usually say:

“Listening to your recordings is the number one easiest and most surefire way to make progress on your musical instrument.  And yet, it’s also the number one thing that students and their families do not do nearly enough of.

How does listening to a recording help you make such incredible strides in progress, you say?  Well, I’m glad you asked.  When you listen to a piece, at the very least you get a sense of:

  • The piece’s tempo (speed)
  • The piece’s style (serious, playful, sombre, lighthearted, etc.)
  • The piece’s rhythms
  • The piece’s pitches
  • The piece’s articulations (staccato, legato, etc.)
  • the piece’s structure (do sections repeat, etc.)

And so much more.  The gist of the matter is that when you’ve listened to a piece sufficiently before you come to your lesson, we’re working on how to play something that you already subconsciously know to a great degree.  We’re not working on what to play and how to play it.  That makes lessons incredibly more productive, and over the course of weeks, and months, and years, can lead to graduating all the way through the Suzuki repertoire instead of getting stuck somewhere along the way.

I have to be honest: sometimes I can’t imagine why students and their families wouldn’t listen to their Suzuki CDs or whatever other recordings correspond to the repertoire they’re currently working on.  I was fortunate that my mom kept cassette tapes of all the Suzuki Violin Books interspersed between the car and my bedside radio, so we listened to them on the way to and from school, to and from sports practices, and while we were running errands around town, and I also often fell asleep listening to them, as well.

It’s never been easier than it is today to get ahold of the Suzuki CDs.  Between sharmusic.com, Amazon.com, iTunes, a plethora of local music stores, you can have your hands on a copy in as little as a few minutes.  And the quality of the recordings has never been higher.  Just this year, the Suzuki Association announced the release of new recordings featuring Hillary Hahn – one of the most impeccable violinists to grace the music world today, if not ever.

So, that would be one of my pleas:  Please, please, do not go to YouTube and listen to some random individual play the Suzuki repertoire.  You’re not guaranteed that they’re playing an accurate tempo, if they’re playing with the correct articulations, if they’re playing the dynamics marked in the music, if they’re playing with perfect intonation, or if they’re playing with beautiful tone.  And if you’re watching a video, you can add to that that you can’t be sure that they’re demonstrating good technique.  Just please, please don’t turn to YouTube as a substitute for quality recordings.

If you’re working on repertoire supplemental to the Suzuki repertoire, or after the Suzuki repertoire, it’s also never been easier to get your hands on quality recordings.  When I was learning concertos back in high school, I would drive from Illinois to one or two music shops in downtown St. Louis in hopes of turning up good recordings of the concertos I was working on.  Nowadays, you can pull up Spotify and literally have the very highest-quality recordings at your fingertips for free!  What a time to live in!

Now, I asked a rhetorical question earlier (“Why wouldn’t students and their families listen to the Suzuki CDs?”) and I know that there are some legitimate answers to that question.  The most obvious and frequent one is that children would simply rather listen to something else in the car, around the house, in their headphones, or before bed than their violin or viola music.  And I don’t want to deny that this can be a tough bridge to cross.  However, I think that if we slowly but steadily create a culture in our homes that listening to violin and viola music is something we do a bit of every day in this family, just like practicing, then it can be accomplished.  And trust me: the benefits far outweigh the struggle.

So, as we head into a new school year, I hope it will be one in which every single one of our students and their families listen to their recordings more than ever before!  In fact, let’s aim to be a community that all listens to their recordings every day!

Summer ’20 Week 12: Get Ready to Delve!

Delve
intransitive verb
2a: to make a careful or detailed search for information
2b: to examine a subject in detail

At the beginning of each school year, Kirby and I set goals with and for each of our students, which we refer back to week by week to keep us on track, and update each semester, or sooner if things are progressing faster than expected.  So, the first lesson of each school year usually involves some time spent asking the question of students, “What goal(s) do you have for yourself this year?” of parents, “What goals do you have for your child this year?” and of ourselves, “What goals do we have for this particular student (and their practice parent) this year?”

We will certainly spend some time in each of the first few weeks of the ’20-’21 school year reflecting on those questions together and honing in on the best possible answers, but I think it’s all the better if we start contemplating how we would answer those questions now, so that we come to the school year with a relatively clear picture of what we hope to accomplish in it and can get right to work making those goals a reality.  Here’s some ideas to get you thinking:

  • Maybe you know that your posture hasn’t been up to snuff – maybe it’s even causing you tension or pain in your playing – and it’s something that we need to solve.  You know that you’ll need to focus on it in everything you do from scales, to review, to new and preview pieces, and especially playing in orchestra.  But you’re willing to take it on!
  • Maybe you know that although you’ve been able to keep learning pieces, your bow hold isn’t as balanced as it should be – maybe specifically your thumb doesn’t stay bent, your pinky doesn’t stay curved, or your middle and ring finger don’t “hug” the frog very well all the time.  Once again, you know that this’ll take focus all the time while you’re practicing to improve, but you want to make it happen and are willing to work on it!
  • Maybe even though we’ve been touching on review every week in lessons, you really haven’t kept your review pieces up to the level you should and you’d like to renew your focus on it and make review and solid, well-rounded repertoire a strong point of your playing.
  • Maybe one of the core techniques that your repertoire demands hasn’t been progressing to the degree you’d like, and you know that improving the fundamentals of your shifting or your vibrato is an aspect of your playing that you’d really like to focus on this year.  It’ll mean making sure that our lesson time and your practice time are both structured to prioritize them, but that’s something you’re willing to do to see improvement.
  • Maybe practice time itself is a category in which like to set a new goal to reach or a higher standard to hold yourself to – whether in the frequency, the quality, or the volume of your practice.  All of these would require a significant commitment of your time and energy on a daily basis, but are certainly worthy goals to pursue!

One thing that I’ve noticed this summer is that because we’ve had the opportunity to see almost all of our students with greater regularity than most summers, Kirby and I are much more attuned to exactly where each student is and exactly what they need to take the very next step in their playing, and then the step after that.  Oftentimes, if we’ve been away or students have been away for large parts of the summer, there’s a bit of a re-acclamation that has to take place in the first few weeks of a new school year, but this year that won’t be the case.  This year, more than ever, we’re ready to hit the ground running and be laser-focused right from Week 1, and we’re looking forward to it!

So, be thinking about your goals for yourself, because we’re thinking of ours for you!

Reminder: ’20-’21 Registration Due August 15!

Hello WCS Families!

The end of summer is flying by and the start of the school year is rapidly approaching!  We’re looking forward to seeing you all for our ’20-’21 school year, which will run from August 24, 2020 – May 29, 2021.  Registration for the school year is due by August 15th, so this is the last week to sign up! 

We’re planning on starting the year with private lessons on Zoom, but we hope to be able to transition back to in person lessons just as soon as possible when we see a decline in COVID-19 cases in St. Louis County specifically, and are able to asses how schools reopening affects the student body, teachers, and the population at large. We’re thankful that Zoom lessons have been working so well for so many students, but if your child isn’t one of them please contact your teacher as soon as possible to discuss alternatives.

We’re also planning to start the year with outdoor in person group classes on Tuesday evenings, as weather allows.  Group is so vital for retaining review repertoire, developing artistic, expressive playing of pieces, and building the ensemble skills that allow students to engage and succeed in a wide variety of musical endeavors.  Plus, small class sizes in an outdoor space will allow us to have students socially engage in a time that they need it more than ever!

Due to registration being pushed back 15 days this year, we have a quicker turnaround time before the start of the school year than ever before.  If we receive everyone’s registrations by the end of registration, we’re generally able to create a schedule that comes very, very close to giving everyone one of their preferred times.  However, if we receive your registration after August 15th, we may have already assigned all of your preferred times to other families – and we don’t want that to happen!

As always, let us know if you have any questions, and we look forward to hearing from you soon!

Foundational Principle #8: Be Able To Play Any Piece You’ve Learned!

Throughout my teaching career, I’ve generally been blessed with students and parents who “trust the process” and aren’t too overly eager to race blindly ahead through the repertoire.  This has never been more true than at present, and I’m extraordinarily grateful to be able to work by and large with students and parents who share a similar vision of the path of developing musical ability that includes repetition, review, and a logical, sensibly-paced progression through selections of music that match students’ ability.

That said, how many of us can truly say that we can “play any piece… no matter how long ago we have learned it,” much less play it “well?”

As I’ve thought about this principle this week, I’ve likened developing ability on a musical instrument to several images in my mind:

  1. A pyramid under construction.
  2. A skyscraper being built.
  3. A growing tree.

I’ve always been moderately fascinated with ancient Egypt, and the engineering and architectural marvels they were able to accomplish without the use of modern tools.  When it comes to building pyramids, one simple principle is always at play: the higher the planned pinnacle of the pyramid, the wider the base of the pyramid must be.  I relate this to developing ability on a musical instrument by thinking that the greater heights of musical accomplishment we want to achieve the “wider our base” must be.  In this case, a “wide base” is being able to play every piece we’ve ever learned, and play them well.  What would happen if, as the workers continued to work on building the pyramid higher, the foundational layers began to crumble and fall into disrepair?  Would the structure ever be able to come to its envisioned fulfillment?

I’ve also aways been awed by the Chicago skyline, highlighted by the Sears (now Willis) Tower, and have on many occasions enjoyed walking through the streets of downtown Chicago, surrounded on all sides by almost unimaginably-high walls of steel and glass.  Skyscrapers are truly a modern engineering marvel, and one simple principle is at play in their design and construction: the greater the planned height of the skyscraper, the deeper the foundation that must first be dug, almost always accompanied by steel beams driven all the way down to bedrock.  Once again, I relate this to developing ability on a musical instrument by thinking that the greater heights of musical accomplishment we want to achieve, the “deeper our foundation” must be.  In this case, a “deep foundation” is once again being able to play every piece we’ve ever learned, and play them well.

And finally, I’ve always loved trees.  In fact, I often imagine that if I ever have a second career it would hopefully be in something like reforestation.  Or, in a perfect world, maybe I could find a way to raise support for preservation of the rainforests through musical benefits.  I digress.  When I think about trees, I am reminded that before they explode upward and outward, they spend the first several years of their life putting down roots, which continue to grow deeper and wider underground as the tree does so visibly above ground.  And what happens to a tree if its root system is damaged?  No matter how healthy the tree is above ground, it will suffer to some degree, and if the roots are damaged enough the tree will die.  I relate this to developing ability on a musical instrument by thinking that the higher, and wider, and more blossoming and beautiful we want our ability to be, the deeper, and wider, and stronger, and more healthy we need to keep our “roots.”  And in this case, our “roots” are every piece we’ve ever learned, and maintaining the ability to play those pieces and play them well.

I do still get the occasional request to “move ahead faster,” to “focus more on new material,” or to “spend less time on review.”  And while I can understand the desires that motivate these requests, and think they’re often if not always well-intentioned, I think they miss out on a key element of developing ability on a musical instrument that lies in having a deep, wide, strong, healthy base of repertoire that in itself teaches and reinforces good technical and musical skills.  I hope that reflecting on this particular of Dr. Suzuki’s principles will help bring us all into a more unified vision of what creates long-term, sustainable success as we prepare to head into a new school year together!

Summer ’20 Week 11: A Time for Reflection

As always seems to happen every school year and every summer, somehow we’ve blinked and the Summer ’20 Semester is already almost over!  With nearly 11 full weeks behind us, we have just over 2 weeks of summer left until the ’20-’21 school year is upon us.  That makes this a good time for each of us to pause and reflect on what we’ve accomplished this summer, what we can yet accomplish in the next two weeks, and what some good goals for the upcoming school year might be.

One of the things that I’ve been most proud of, and most impressed by, is how so many students have taken on the challenge on working through the Circle of 5ths on their scales and arpeggios.  With 12 weeks of lessons in the summer, and more students than ever at home and able to take lessons every week of the summer, it seemed like the perfect time to tackle the ambitious task of working through all 12 Major and all 12 minor keys’ scales and arpeggios.  And an ambitious task it was!  But I’ve been blown away by how students’ have risen to the challenge, worked consistently week after week on their scales in various keys, and have dramatically improved their technique, tone, and intonation as a result.  Bravo, students!

A second challenge that many of us undertook this summer was to work through all of our review pieces over the course of the summer.  Again, with 12 weeks of summer lessons to work with, we divided all the Suzuki Violin and Viola repertoire up into 12 portions, and took on each weeks’ work bit by bit.  And students really applied themselves to the task, relearning pieces that had fallen by the wayside, re-memorizing pieces that had grown foggy, and developing greater musicality, artistry, and mastery across all levels of their repertoire throughout the process.  I’ve been incredibly proud of how students have dedicated themselves to practicing their review week after week, and have loved to see the incredible results of their hard work!

A third challenge we took on this summer was learning new repertoire.  After a long ’19-’20 school year, Summer ’20 was an opportunity for many of us to step into something fresh and new – a change of pace, a new challenge, a different type of repertoire calling us to learn and apply new and different techniques.  And as with scales and review, it’s been so exciting and encouraging to see student step up to the plate, meet the task at hand, and put forth some truly amazing performances, as our June 27 and July 25 Zoom “home concerts” displayed.

This summer has certainly presented unique challenges to all of us.  One silver lining is that students have had perhaps more uninterrupted time than ever before in their lives to practice.  And I feel like we’ve seen the results of what can happen when students are really able to apply themselves to their instruments.  I was unsure whether students would be able to meet the challenges of cycling all the way through the Circle of 5ths in the course of one summer, whether they’d keep up with all their review, or whether they could rise to the level of their new repertoire – and they’ve been able to do all this and more!

As we prepare to enter into another school year, we know that students won’t have the luxury of as copious of amounts of time as they had this summer.  But our sights are still set high!  We’ve seen what students can accomplish, and even as we enter back into busyness, we want to hold onto as much of that standard of excellence as we can day after day, week in and week out.  Practicing 7 days a week should always be the expectation, even if it can’t always be met.  Suzuki CDs or other recordings of current and review literature should be listened to daily, which is almost always possible under every circumstance.  And a weekly review chart should be a part of daily practice, so that everything that has been learned stays learned!

So, with everything that’s been accomplished this summer, we’re very much looking forward to the ’20-’21 school year and all that it holds in store.  Let’s make the most of these last 2.5 weeks of summer, and head into a new year riding that wave of good habits and productivity!

Reminder: ’20-’21 Registration Due August 15!

Hello WCS Families!

It’s been great to hear from even more of you in the past week, and to start to see the “class” of ’20-’21 at West County Strings begin to take shape!  Registration for the ’20-’21 school year is open through August 15, at which point Kirby and I will sit down to make our teaching schedule for the year incorporating all of your lesson time requests so that we can get those out to you as soon as possible before the school year starts on August 24!

As a reminder, Kirby and I plan on starting private lessons for the ’20-’21 school year on Zoom, at least until we are able to assess how schools reopening affects the Coronavirus situation at all levels.  At that point, we will be happy to continue offering lessons on Zoom for all those who remain more comfortable with them until Coronavirus is a thing of the past, while progressively reintegrating students who would prefer lessons in person as the situation allows.  If you would prefer to start the year out with lessons in person, please contact me or Kirby so we can discuss those options with you.

As I said in our Zoom “Home Concert” this past Saturday, Summer ’20 has certainly been unlike any that I imagine any of us have ever lived through.  But the adaptability and resilience that our students have displayed, and the progress that they have made in the midst of difficult circumstances gives us great hope, and joy, and encouragement.  We look forward to what will undoubtedly be a unique school year, but what we also have every confidence will be an exceptional school year with each of you!

Foundational Principle #7 – Don’t Rush Ahead!

I remember when I was growing up, recitals were always organized such that they would start with the least-advanced piece and end with the most-advanced, and progress linearly in between those two points.  So, it was very easy to end up comparing oneself to other students, and it felt like there was a lot of the mentality of, “I’m only in Book 4 when so-and-so, who’s my same age is already in Book 6,” floating around.  That’s one of the reasons that we try to mix beginning, intermediate, and advanced repertoire throughout our recitals these days.  We also hope it makes for more enjoyable performances for the audience to listen to overall!

I’m very pleased that, from what I can tell, there seems to be very little competitive comparison between students at WCS or their parents.  For the moment we start comparing ourselves to others, we’re very likely to fall into the trap that Dr. Suzuki describes here, of wanting to “rush ahead” instead of being focused on improving the fundamental aspects of our playing like our posture, technique, intonation, and tone.  The only thing worth comparing ourselves to is the version of ourselves that we were yesterday, and trying to improve that person.  Everything else is outside our control, or really has no bearing on us.

I think one of the difficulties is that improvements in posture, technique, intonation, and tone can be very, very hard to quantify, whereas moving through repertoire and “finishing” Book 3, 4, 5, 6, and so on can feel like quantifiable progress.  The trouble is that it’s entirely possible to be “playing” a piece from Book 6 with lesser quality than a piece from Book 3 could or should be played.  To put it another way, it’s entirely possible to “progress” through repertoire without making any actual progress or improvement as a player.  This is where we need to recalibrate what progress actually looks like and means.

This is not easy to do, but it can be done.  It means learning to prioritize posture, and viewing playing the same piece – or even a review piece – with better posture as making progress.  It means learning to pay close attention at all times to the finer details of one’s bow hold, or the shape of one’s violin hand and fingers, and viewing playing a scale, an etude, or any piece of repertoire with consistently better technique as measurable improvement.  It means progressively developing an ear that can hear more and more precisely whether or not a note is in tune, and practicing in such a way that one actually plays consistently more in tune.  And it means listening with the greatest of attention and care to one’s tone – the quality of one’s sound – and holding playing anything at all with a more beautiful tone in the highest regard.

For many of us, this is a big recalibration.  It means caring less about what you’re playing than about how you’re playing it.  It means learning to focus more on quality than on quantity, if you will.  But in the long run, it means truly becoming a better musician, which is what all of us here at West County Strings are about!

Summer ’20 Week 10: Playing With Friends!

Almost every lesson, I start off by asking students what they’ve been up to in the week since I’ve last seen them.  Occasionally, a student will reply with something surprising that was exciting for them, but more often than not this summer students’ answers are some variety of, “Nothing much.”  And increasingly, students have been expressing how bored they are, and how much they miss doing various things with friends.

One thing that I was reminded of during this past Saturdays’ Zoom “Home Concert” is that playing a duet with someone isn’t just twice as enjoyable as playing a piece by yourself, it’s exponentially more fun and rewarding!  And fortunately, thanks to the wonders of technology and the ability to get together in person taking the necessary precautions, playing music together is something that has carried over relatively well into this quarantined summer.

Many of you have siblings who also play a stringed instrument, and you can do duets for 2 violins, or violin / viola duets.  Some of you even have multiple siblings who also play stringed instruments, and you can work on trios for 3 violins, or trios for 2 violins and viola!  Some of you have parents who play a stringed instrument, and believe it or not – yes, teenagers, even you! – you can have a lot of fun and make some great memories  working on duets with a parent.  Others of you have parents or a sibling who can play piano and can accompany you on your solo repertoire.

If no one in your family circle is a musician, many of you know other WCS students from school or group class, and could meet over Zoom or for a socially-distanced get-together to work on Suzuki duets or other ensemble music.  And if setting something like that up doesn’t work, Kirby and I are always happy to record duet parts so that you can work on playing with some “live” accompaniment to your pieces throughout the week!  And if you’re looking for repertoire to explore, we’re always happy to offer suggestions, too.

So, happy practicing – hopefully now with more duets, trios, or even quartets than in previous weeks!