Author Archives: Brad

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!

July 25 “Home Concert” Recap!

Hello WCS Students & Families!

huge thank you and round of applause to all of the students who participated in this past Saturday’s Zoom “Home Concert,” and many, many thanks to the parents, extended family, and friends who joined in as the audience!  It was wonderful to see so many of you in one place again, and you all played so incredibly beautifully.  It’s truly inspiring and encouraging that in spite of all of the difficulties of this summer’s circumstances, you all are persevering, learning, and growing!

In fact, these “home concerts” have been one of the brightest highlights of this summer of isolation.  The fact that we’ve been able to do more performing together as a program throughout the summer is one of the silver linings of us all being at home perhaps more than ever before.  We love hearing from you all that you enjoyed the afternoon, too.  It’s a privilege and a pleasure to be able to host these events and share this time with you all!

See you on the next one!

’20-’21 Registration Reminder!

Hello WCS Families!

We are now 1 week into registration for the ’20-’21 school year, and it’s been wonderful to hear from so many of you.  Now, more than ever, open communication is key as we prepare for a school year unlike any other that any of us has ever experienced.  Many thanks to those of you who have already submitted your registration for the upcoming year by mail, or email!

Registration is due by August 15, and we know that many of you will need all that time to figure out what this school year is going to look like for your family overall.  However, if you’re able to submit your registration earlier, it helps us tremendously as we plan our classes, curriculum, concerts, and more based on the educational needs of the specific students we know will be participating!

As we’ve talked to each of you, we’ve heard that some families prefer lessons on Zoom, while others want to get back to in person lessons, and still others prefer a hybrid of the two.  The same is true for group classes, performances, and special events.  And everyone has a slightly different comfort level regarding safety precautions.  The good news is that our size and the relational nature of our program allows us to be flexible, adaptable, and to meet everyone’s needs to the best of our ability, while prioritizing everyone’s health and safety until that day we’re all looking forward to when life gets back to “normal.”

Thank you for your support, encouragement, and the relationship we share with each one of you.  We look forward to this upcoming school year with you!

Summer ’20 Week 9: Make the Most of Your Time!

Living in the Midwest, it’s almost impossible to get too far without catching sight of a cornfield.  And as the summer has gone by, I’ve watched the corn go from seedlings, to young plants, to now nearly fully mature plants that’ll be ready for harvest in a few months’ more time.

It’s a good reminder that time’s passing, and passing fast!  Depending on where you go to school, we’ve got about 5 weeks of summer left.  And while Kirby and I certainly want you all to be enjoying every ounce of sunlight, and warm weather, and playing outside, and reading good books, and everything else that your free time enables you to do, we also know that same summer free time affords you more opportunity to practice – and we want you to make good use of that opportunity, too! 

One good goal to focus on is our Zoom “home concert” on Saturday, July 25.  Many of you have pieces that are just almost ready to perform, and with a good, solid week of practicing could make for a really special experience!  Another good goal would be to really reach a new level of mastery with each piece on your review charts over the rest of the summer.  Or to really get a good grasp of the scale studies we’re progressing through each week.

The options and opportunities are endless, so as we enter into this final stretch of the Summer ’20 Semester, I just want to give you this simple encouragement to start off your week – make the most of your time!

Foundational Principle #6 – Practice Your Review!

One of the things that makes the Suzuki Method unique, is that instead of primarily being a series of progressive exercises it is a series of progressive pieces of music.  Both approaches are similar in that if the exercises are taught correctly, they progressively develop good technique and ability in the student.  Where the two approaches differ is that learning a progressive series of pieces is inherently more fun for the vast, vast majority of students than learning a series of progressive exercises is (Dr. Suzuki was, after all, a big proponent of joy in students’ playing and their lives, and could almost always be found with a smile on his face).  And when all is said and done, the Suzuki student is left with a large catalogue of pieces they have learned which they can enjoy playing.

The problem is that, all too often, we fail to give review (the frequent, intentional replaying and restudying of the pieces we have already learned) its proper place of importance in our overall learning experience.  Instead of remaining pieces that are easily accessible at our fingertips, review pieces often become shelved in the furthest recesses of our mind that must be dredged up with great pain and difficulty.  This defeats the entire purpose of both being able to enjoy our review pieces, and to use them as the ideal platform on which to improve the quality of our playing.

A foreign language teacher once used this metaphor with my class once we had taken all the basic courses in the language and were on to more advanced translation and application.  He said, “Knowing a foreign language is like pushing a huge stone wheel (think of one taller than yourself).  Once you’ve got it rolling, it takes just the occasional little push to keep it moving.  But let it grind to a halt, and you will have to exert all the effort in the world to get it moving again.”

Maybe many of you reading this find yourself in the place where you know that your knowledge and facility with your review pieces has ground to that metaphorical halt.  One of the great opportunities that we’ve had this summer, as we’ve followed our weekly review charts is to get those juices flowing again – to get that stone creeping forward once more.  But don’t ever, ever let up!  Listening to your recordings (which will be the topic for a future week) and being a good student of your review are two of the single most important things you can do to be successful at learning your instrument, to enjoy playing your instrument, and to become a mature, accomplished musician.

So, here’s to review.  We’ll be going over some in your lessons this week!