Author Archives: Brad

Summer ’20 Week 4: Let’s Practice Some More!

Hello WCS students and families!

As the weeks of summer have progressed, I’ve noticed a slow but steady decline in the amount of practicing that seems to be going on – not from everyone!  And if you’re one of the dedicated, consistent, slow-but-steady-wins-the-race kind of practicers – thank you!  Your hard work does not go unnoticed!

But in general, a decline in practicing makes sense – it’s summer, and as much as we’d like to think that more free time equates to more practicing done, it’s often just the opposite.  When we lose our daily habits and routines, it’s often hard to get ourselves moving and practice before the day goes by.  This year, with the Coronavirus pandemic and necessitated Zoom learning going on, it’s all the harder to stay motivated.

So, here’s what I’d like to do – each and every student, from the time you read this post, commit yourselves to practicing every day for the next seven days.  It’s not a lifetime sentence.  It’s an injection of intentionality that can turn you around and kickstart your positive practicing habits.

What qualifies as practicing for the day?  Well, ideally you’d spend roughly the same amount of time as your lesson length each day going over your practice assignments for that week, plus listening to your corresponding recordings.  Shoot for that each day.  But at the bare minimum, do 1/3 of your lesson length in order for the day to count as practicing.  So if you have a 30-minute lesson, put in 10 solid, focused minutes.  45-minute lesson?  15-minutes, at minimum.  60-minutes?  No less that 20 for the day to count.

If you’re incredibly busy, the day has flown by, it’s 9:55 p.m., and know you won’t be able to make the minimum, 5 minutes is still better than nothing.  And remember, listening is the easiest way to make progress by far!

Happy practicing!

Summertime by George Gershwin – Larry Adler & Itzhak Perlman

As I tried to think of music to share this week that evoked the spirit of summer, the eponymous Summertime by George Gershwin immediately sprang to mind.  As I looked for a recording, I found a few by violin soloists who are always serious – in both their playing and their personal demeanor – and I was reminded of Dr. Suzuki’s famous quotation, “Strings only sing the heart of the one who plays them,” and I felt determined to find a recording featuring a soloist who’s personality befits the tone of Gershwin’s composition.

The best I could come up with was a recording featuring Itzhak Perlman, who has throughout his lifetime played and spoken with a smile.  He seemed a fitting performer, even if the recording is old and the audio and video quality is subsequently low.  So, I hope you enjoy!

Foundational Principle #2 – Study With Proper Focus

With each passing day, I look more and more forward to the day when we can return to lessons in person.  But while doing lessons over Zoom presents unique challenges, it also offers a unique perspective on students that Kirby and I don’t normally get to see.  In particular, it can often be difficult to catch a students’ attention at precisely the moment that the aspect of what they’re playing that needs to be worked on comes up, and I often find myself waving and saying emphatically, “Wait, wait, wait, wait wait!  Right there!  Right there!  Right there!”  But unfortunately, the phrase or the entire section of the piece often gets completed before I can catch the students’ attention.

This has led me to wonder how much this in-lesson experience mirrors students’ at-home practice experience.  That is to say, if spots that should be practice spots are glossed over even with me trying to draw attention to them, is it possible – or even likely – that they’re glossed over as much or even more at home in individual practice?  I’ve found myself wondering what percentage of practice time is spent truly efficiently – 20%?  10%?  5%?  And how much of it is spent inefficiently – 80%?  90%?  95%?  I think if we were to be  demanding with ourselves in defining “efficiency,” we might conclude that only 5% of practice time is spent truly efficiently, while 95% of it is – unintentionally – spent inefficiently.  Theoretically, it’s possible to spend a lot of time practicing this way, while accomplishing very little, which is something none of us wants to do.

Students of different ages and levels of independence arrive at inefficient practice for different reasons.  For the young student who does all of their practice with their parents, their practice may be inefficient simply because it is difficult for them to settle down physically and focus mentally.  In those cases, it is up to the parents and teacher to do their best to create an environment that sets the child up for success, taking into consideration their sleep, meals, activity level, what time of day they’re most capable of focusing, etc.  It is certainly a daunting task, and one that will never have a 100% success rate in spite of all our best intentions.  But we can certainly move the needle in the right direction.

For older students, who do the majority or even all of their practice entirely independently, practice may be inefficient simply because they do not yet fully grasp what efficiency truly looks like.  This must be taught and demonstrated patiently, through frequent gentle reminder, until the student begins to “own” an understanding for themself of what truly efficient practice looks like.  This often means practicing only the two notes that form a shift, practicing only the two notes that form a string crossing, practicing only a single note for the desired tone, and so on and so forth before ever putting any of these “practice spots” back into even a single phrase, much less the larger section, never mind the entire piece!

It also means developing an ever-greater understanding of what quality really means – is that note truly, perfectly in tune?  Is that tone absolutely crystal clear?  Is that dynamic change happening exactly at the beginning of the new phrase, or a split second earlier or later?  Is every 8th note in that phrase actually being counted perfectly rhythmically?  By being progressively and consistently exposed to these kinds of questions and held to these kinds of standards, students can develop their own ever-increasing awareness of what to listen for and how to actually practice to make improvement in their playing.  This is what Dr. Suzuki meant when he said, “Study with proper focus on key points, do not practice wastefully.”  Learning to study this way is a lifelong pursuit, one that I am still in the process of making myself.  Let’s all learn to practice “with proper focus” together!

Foundational Principle #1: Practice Every Day!

You might not know it from looking at me, but there was roughly a decade of my life, from my teens into my twenties, in which I was captivated by lifting weights.  I voluntarily went to bed early to get good nights’ of sleep, I tried to eat a healthy, high-protein diet, I read everything I could get my hands on on the subject, and every weekday after school you could find me at the local YMCA for an hour or two, “pumping iron.”  At this point, as a music educator, I feel the need to say that I was still making a point to get up early to do an hour of violin practice before school, and did another in the evening, but lifting weights was certainly a passion of mine for many years.

I mention this because I heard something quoted as I continued to read and study about how the body actually grows stronger and builds muscle – “strength is skill.”  And one common approach – often employed by Russian and other Eastern Bloc strength coaches and strength athletes was what is known as “high frequency, low intensity” training.  All this simply means is that athletes would train a movement – squats for example – up to 5 times per week, but only ever at low to moderate levels of exertion.  The principle behind this approach to training is that moving weight is as much if not more about training the central nervous system than it is about building muscle.  And by going through the same movements with a barbell multiple times a week at low intensities, the central nervous system is trained and primed without ever overly fatiguing the muscles. It is literally referred to as “practicing” the lifts.

But this type of “high frequency” approach is not unique to weightlifting, nor to practicing a stringed instrument.  In fact, quite the opposite.  The longer I’ve lived, the more I’ve come to see that almost every discipline that one applies themself to benefits from daily practice.  A golfers swing, a basketball player’s dribble and shot, a baseball player’s swing, a soccer player’s dribble and shot – these are all things that you’ll hear the announcer on TV or the radio say, “He’s got such a natural swing,” or “She’s got such a soft touch on the ball.”  But the truth of that matter is that what’s “natural” or “soft” is the result of countless hundreds and thousands of careful repetitions, often carried out daily.  As anyone who has developed skill in a sport can attest – a day or two away from your bat or your ball and your swing starts to feel more unnatural and you start to lose that “touch” on your dribble with your hands or your feet.  That’s your central nervous system saying, “Hey, you haven’t used these pathways in a while.  It’s going to take us a minute to get them up and running again.”

My point is: any physical skill – and playing a musical instrument is most definitely a mental and a physical skill – benefits from being practiced frequently.  The only reason strength athletes have to limit their practice to 5 or 6 days a week is that it’s physically taxing, and there’s diminishing returns on their effort if they don’t give their body sufficient time to rest and recuperate.  Fortunately, the same is not true of practicing a stringed instrument.  Ideally, the practitioner of a stringed instrument finds themself in a perfectly ergonomic position from head to toe as they practice, and exerts little physical effort in producing even the deepest and richest of tones.  With scheduled rest breaks and a bit of proactive stretching, a stringed instrument can most certainly be practiced every day – indeed that’s the way we learn it best, as the connection between our brains and our arms, hands, and fingers grows stronger and stronger through the frequent use and repetition.

Something else I’ve come to understand as I’ve grown older is that “life” simply happens sometimes.  We can’t foresee or control everything, and from time to time the best-laid plans get laid to waste by events outside our power of influence.  However, just because we might not actually accomplish practicing 365 days out of the year, that does not mean that we should not set out with the intent to do so!  Practicing every day might seem like a daunting concept at first, but I can guarantee you with almost 100% certainty that it’s easier than practicing “sometimes,” or “a few days,” or “when I get around to it.”  When the culture in your home becomes that practicing is just as common and expected as eating breakfast in the morning or getting ready for bed at night, a lot of the quibbling and quarreling that we all dread goes right out the window.  And the success that results from daily practice motivates students and parents alike to keep on practicing.

As for myself, I’m going to take the reminder of this Foundational Principle as a challenge, and in addition to teaching I’m going to plan to do some personal practice of my own every single day between now and the end of our Summer ’20 Semester.  I’ll extend the invitation to anyone who wants to accept that challenge along with me.  Who’s in?

Summer ’20 Week 3: Playing As “We!”

Hello WCS students and families!

Lessons this summer have continued just the way they started – incredibly productive and wonderfully fun!   It’s been so exciting to chart new territory with each and every student, and to see and hear so many techniques and skills developing.

One thing that we really miss, however, is the ability to play in unison and to play duets with each of our students.  Students eyes and ears can pick up on so much simply by us being able to play in unison with them – posture, tempo, intonation, bow length, speed, contact point, and weight, dynamics, phrasing, expression, and so much more.  And playing duets adds an extra layer of complexity to pieces that are already well-learned, asking the student to continue to play what they have developed at a high level while simultaneously listening to, reacting to, and making music with another part and another person.

So, beginning today, Kirby and I are going to make a concerted effort to record ourselves playing both the students’ part to their pieces – so that students can play in unison with us throughout the week, as well as the duet parts where applicable – that students can play their polished pieces with us and those added layers of complexity.

We look forward to playing “with” you throughout the week!

Summer ’20 Series: Foundational Principles

Over the course of the Summer ’20 Semester, we’re going to be taking a “deep dive” into the 9 principles, or what Dr. Suzuki called “practices and conditions in people who excel,” that are laid out at the beginning of Suzuki Violin Book 3.  Although they’re found at the beginning of Book 3, don’t be fooled – these principles are the foundation of success  at any level of playing, even to the highest levels.  We’re looking forward to really digging into each one individually, one week at a time.

As you look over this list of 9 principles, which one(s) are new ideas to you?  Which one(s) are habits that you already have in place?  Which one(s) are areas that feel like natural strengths of yours?  Which one(s) are areas in which you have a lot of room to grow?  We are all, Kirby and myself included, continually learning, growing, and striving to become better and better at implementing these principles as we develop greater ability on our instruments, as musicians, and as people.

We look forward to this study with you this summer!

Studio Hangout: Saturday, June 13 at 10 a.m.

Hello WCS students and families!

Don’t forget that this upcoming Saturday, June 13, we’ll be holding a “studio hangout” on Zoom at 10 a.m.  We’ve so missed being able to see each of you in person over the past several months, and having you all be able to interact with each other at group class and in the space before and after lessons, too.  So, pull up a chair, grab a snack, and come hang out with us for a while.  We’d love to hear what you’re up to!  Check your emails this week for the Zoom invitation.

See you there!

Summer ’20 Week 2: So Much To Do!

Hello West County Strings students and families!

As this second week of our Summer ’20 Semester has gone by, I’ve been struck in every single students’ lesson by just how fast the lesson time flies by.  I always arrive at the end of each lesson feeling like there was so much more I still wanted to get to, but I think this is good in several ways:

  1. It means that we’re learning, progressing, and charting new territory every lesson.  In many, many lessons this week, a student has demonstrated progress that has literally “made my week!”
  2. It keeps the lesson fast-paced, energetic, and with a sense of anticipation for what’s yet to come, and…
  3. It forces me to really think through what’s most crucial for each student to get to in each week’s lesson, knowing that we can’t possibly cover literally everything I might want to get to each week.

All that said, I think there’s a few things that we can do to make sure that we’re making the most of our time together in lessons each week:

  1. Sign into Zoom a few minutes before your scheduled lesson time, and have your instrument and materials ready to go right at your scheduled start time.
  2. Have your instrument tuned to the best of your ability before your lesson.  I know several of you are in the stages of learning to tune – and making tons of progress as self-tuners as a result of this quarantine – and we can certainly check your tuning together.  But in general, tuning ahead of time will buy us a lot of time.
  3. LISTEN to your Suzuki CDs or other non-Suzuki recordings as applicable as much as possible throughout the week.  The more the pitches, rhythms, dynamics, mood, and tone of a piece are internalized through listening, the less we have to slowly chip away at learning in lessons and the more we can work on how to produce the things you’ve internalized through listening.
  4. And this one goes without saying, but practice, practice, practice!  I was struck this week by a quote from Dr. Suzuki found in the beginning of Suzuki Violin Book 3: a

“I consider the following practices and conditions to be the basis of achievement in people who excel: (1) to study daily without exception; (2) to study with proper focus on key points, and not to practice wastefully; (3) to strive daily to produce excellent tone; (4) to attend to one’s posture with proper care; (5) to practice daily according to a set schedule, and to gradually increase one’s practice time; (6) to practice pieces already learned so as to continually improve one’s performance.  This is one effective method to cultivate ability; (7) not to rush ahead but to dedicate oneself to attaining excellent tone; (8) To be able to play any piece well, no matter how long ago one has learned it; and (9) to listen frequently to superior models.”

As I write those things out, it strikes me that they deserve their own post, or posts.  So, I’ll plan to break those down in more detail in future updates, because there’s so, so much wisdom in those principles.

Suffice it to say for now that there’s plenty to do, and it feels good to be doing so much with each and every student.  So, keep up the listening, keep up the practicing, keep up the good work, and we’ll see you again next week!

– Brad

Summer ’20 Week 1: So Much Fun!

Hello Everyone!

I hope you’re enjoying the beautiful weather.  As St. Louisans, we know that we get approximately 6 really nice days of weather a year, so take it all in!

I just wanted to take a moment to express how incredibly fun lessons this first week of Summer ’20 were for Kirby and me.  I think there’s something about the feel of a fresh start – a new beginning – that invigorates and energizes.  And seeing you on different days, at different times, and in a different order is just enough variety to spice things up. Plus, even though students have been at home for the past several months, there’s a big, very noticeable difference in students’ energy levels with the pressures of schoolwork relieved.  It all made for a very fun first week.

It was really, really exciting to begin new projects all of you who we saw this week – and those of you who we didn’t see this first week, we’ll get started on your own new projects in your first lesson this summer.  I was struck by what a solid place we’re all starting from this summer.  Across the board, I heard really good intonation and tone, and saw a lot of really good technique.  If that’s our starting point, the sky’s the limit on where we can end up by the end of the summer!  One big component of this summer’s work is strengthening review, so if you haven’t gotten a chance to print our your violin or viola review charts for the summer, please do so now!

In addition to lessons, we’d like to put a few other studio activities on the calendar for June, including:

  • A studio “hangout” on Saturday, June 13th at 10 a.m.  We’d like to use this opportunity just to give all of our students the opportunity to share what they’re up to this summer, have them be able to see their group class friends and classmates, and generally bond as as studios and as program overall.  Even if you didn’t regularly participate in group classes in the ’19-’20 school year, please put this on your calendar – we’d love to have you there!  A separate Zoom invitation for this event will be sent in the week leading up to it.
  • A “home concert” on Saturday, June 27th at 2:00 p.m.  We want to give all of our students concrete goals to focus on and prepare for this summer, opportunities to continue to develop as performers, and the ability to share their music with their friends, classmates, and studio family and friends.  Being about a month away, we’ll all have an opportunity to select a new piece of repertoire and work on polishing it.  Again, a separate Zoom invitation for this event will be sent prior to the concert date.

We look forward to seeing you all again in lessons this upcoming week!

Welcome to the Summer ’20 Semester!

Hello West County Strings Students and Families!

Welcome to the Summer ’20 Semester at West County Strings.  Kirby and I are thrilled that you are here and we look forward to each and every moment of learning and fun that we are going to be able to have with you all this summer!

Private lessons kick off on Monday, May 25.  Be sure to check your inbox for the Zoom meeting link and password for summer lessons.  Kirby and I are excited to dive into some new summer-long projects including scale studies, new technique exercises, new pieces of repertoire, and sight reading, aural skills, and music theory studies.  It’ll be fun to look back at the end of the summer and see just how far we’ve come in these 12 weeks!

We also plan to hold additional informal performances throughout the summer on Zoom, as well as “listening parties” where we can study and explore some music literature together.  Keep your eyes out for finalized dates for these events.  Our community is an incredibly special place because of you – the incredibly special families that make it up – and we benefit from being in each other’s company now more than ever.

So, get ready to dive in to all that there is to explore in the wonderful world of music.  It’s going to be a great summer!