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!

’20-’21 Registration Now Open!

Hello WCS Families!

Registration for the ’20-’21 school year at West County Strings is now open and will run through August 15.  (download your registration form here)  Kirby and I are so looking forward to continuing to build on the fantastic work that so many of you have been doing over the summer, picking back up where we left off with those of you who have been away over the summer, and welcoming new students and their families into our community!  The ’20-’21 school year will run from August 24, 2020 – May 29, 2021.

We will be starting private lessons for the ’20-’21 school year on Zoom, but are hopeful this will not go too far into the school year.  This will give us an opportunity to assess how students returning to school affects COVID-19 rates.  If you or your child have been struggling in the Zoom format, please email us so that we can discuss an alternative lesson plan.  We plan for group classes to be a hybrid of outdoor classes as weather permits, as well Zoom group classes, master classes, and performance classes.  We are thankful to generous families who will make our outdoor classes possible!

In talking to each of you throughout 2020 so far, Kirby and I both feel like we have gotten to know each of you and our students more deeply.  We’re incredibly thankful for our relationship for each of you, and your commitment to music education in your children’s lives.  We look forward to this new school year with all of you, and to making it the best and brightest it can possibly be, while prioritizing the health and safety of our students, their families, and everyone with whom they come into contact!

Sincerely,

Brad & Kirby

Summer ’20 Week 7: Playing With Expression!

I remember hearing in a teacher training class, workshop, or seminar once upon a time that a student’s recital piece should be 5 pieces behind their current working piece.  I think that as a rule that’s a little hard to enforce, but as a principle there’s something worth gleaning there.  And that is that students can rarely, if ever, play their newest piece – with brand new musical concepts, technical challenges, and passages to learn and memorize – to the highest level that they’re capable of playing.  Pieces that they’ve known long enough to really master are much more reflective of their playing ability, and generally make for more pleasurable performances for both the student and the audience.

With that in mind, one of the most exciting and encouraging things about the first half of the Summer ’20 Semester has been seeing so many of you grow deeper and stronger in your knowledge of all of the repertoire you’ve ever learned, from the very beginning to the present, as we’ve worked diligently through our weekly review from your review charts.  You guys have really been rising to the challenge of brushing up on your review, and it’s made for some excellent opportunities for us to work on some pin-point aspects of technique, and musical expression.  That latter point is what I’d really like to focus on.

As you go through your review, I want to challenge you all not just to be comfortable playing each piece from beginning to end.  Nor even just to regain your confidence with your memorization of each piece.  Having all the notes of a piece in tune, the rhythms correct, and each phrase played with the marked articulations and dynamics is a good goal, but it should not be our end goal but rather a beginning.  The beginning of the ability to really express oneself in the music.  To create and shape each phase as one intends.  To really pour one’s soul into each and every bow stroke and feel an intimate connection with the music being produced.  To express oneself uniquely and individually in their music, and to play expressively.

Review is the perfect place to do this – where the notes are (relatively) easy to tune; the rhythms (relatively) easy to play correctly; and the marked articulations and dynamics (relatively) easy to play.  So when you’re able to do these things on any given piece, don’t cross it off your list and move to the next one, thinking that you’re “done” with that piece for the day.  Rather, view that very moment as an opportunity to achieve something greater – to play masterfully, artistically, and expressively.  Your overall ability and maturity as a musician will thank you as you do!

Home Concert: Saturday, July 25 at 2:00 p.m.

Hello WCS Students & Families!

It was so wonderful to be able to “get together” and hear so many of your performances in June, that we’ve decided to host another Home Concerto on Zoom on Saturday, July 25 at 2:00 p.m.  Many of you had just started new repertoire at the beginning of the summer, and weren’t quite ready to play in June but playing at the end of July makes a good goal to work towards.

So, whether you played in June and would like to play again, or weren’t able to join us in June and would like to share now in July, we look forward to seeing as many of you as we can for another afternoon of sharing, community, and fun!  Check your emails for the Zoom meeting information as the date approaches.

Foundational Principle #5: Schedule & Increase Your Practice!

As I’ve thought about this principle this week, it’s struck me as being the first that we’ve covered that requires nuance and sensitivity in its application to each individual student.  The principles behind daily practice, intelligent, focused practice, striving for beautiful tone, and being careful to pay attention to good posture can be more or less universally applied.  However, each and every child – indeed each and every student of a stringed instrument, no matter how young or how hold – is so unique in their temperament and tendencies that that each student’s daily practice schedule and time spent practicing will be similarly unique.

Some students may thrive on practicing first thing in the morning.  Others might do their best work late at night.

Some students might practice most effectively in one single, long practice session a day.  Others may do better with several shorter practice sessions spread throughout the day.

Some students may prefer to follow their practice chart from top to bottom in the same order every day.  Others might like to mix up the order that they practice the elements of their assignment from day to day.

Some students might like to practice in the same place in the house at the same time of day every day.  Others may prefer to practice somewhere different every day, and at a different time of day every day.

On Setting A Daily Schedule

I think students thrive as we increasingly discover how they uniquely learn best.  So, how then do we apply Dr. Suzuki’s principle, “Practice according to a daily schedule…”?

I think the best answer is finding out what kind of schedule works well for each individual child (from the parent’s perspective) or each student (from the teacher’s perspective), and then  being consistent in implementing that particular schedule.  Clearly and consistently communicated expectations – and follow-through on those expectations – is the key.  This isn’t as simple as throwing out a blanket statement like, “Each student should practice an hour a day after school.”  It requires more intentionality and effort from parents, teachers, and in some ways even the student, but in the end the result is something attuned to each particular individual, that works best for them.

One other thing that I believe is true is that parents and teachers must work with the student to actually look at how their practice schedule fits into the overall schedule of their life, so that they can be successful in carrying it out.  Between school, extracurriculars, homework, meals, and enough free time to stay sane, students’ days can fill up extremely quickly, and if practice time isn’t actually accounted for in the schedule, it can easily slip through the cracks.  Sitting down with iCal, Google Calendar, or a good old-fashioned pen and paper calendar and scheduling practice into children’s lives is something that parents should help with at home, and teachers can help with in lessons.

On Gradually Increasing Practice Time

If you asked me to run a marathon tomorrow, I’d have to laugh, shake my head, and admit that I’m not up to that task.  But give me 5 years to prepare for it, and I might be able to cross that finish line, albeit not in record time.  I’d have to slowly, incrementally build up my physical and mental endurance and work capacity, following a linear, logical plan that ensured that I didn’t overtrain or injured myself, while still reaching my goal on time.

It’s not all too different when it comes to practicing a stringed instrument.  We can’t expect a student to go from next to no consistent practice to practicing 3 hours a day.  They won’t have the mental “muscle” to make good, focused use of that time, and they likely won’t have the physical, postural muscle to practice for that long without getting hurt.  On the other hand, we can’t expect a student to be able to progress from Twinkle to the Mozart A Major Concerto while still practicing 20 minutes a day.

In between these two extremes of stagnation on the one hand and overzealous ambition on the other lies the more reasonable approach of gradually increasing practice time as students grow older, develop more mental acuity, and as the length and complexity of their repertoire demands it.  But again, we can not simply expect this to magically happen, rather we do better to clearly and consistently communicate the expectation for the increase of 5, or 10, or 15 minutes a day of practice until that has been grown accustomed to, and then we can raise the standard again.

Putting It All Together

It’s important that each and every student has a daily practice schedule, one that’s expectations are clearly and consistently communicated and upheld, and that their parents and families help them plan that practice schedule into the larger, overacting schedule of their life.  But just as each student is unique and individual, so must their schedules be uniquely individualized to best suit their learning styles, strengths, and weaknesses.

It’s also necessary that students practice schedules slowly and steadily expand to incorporate more focused, quality practice time each day, so that students can continue to keep up with the length and complexity of the music that their advancing ability allows them to study.  But again, the key here is that these additions are made slowly and steadily, not overnight, and that the raised expectations are communicated clearly and consistently and then that students are given the support at home to meet these expectations.

None of this is an easy undertaking, to be sure, but it not only helps students become better practicers of their stringed instrument, but also equips them with the discipline and experiential knowledge necessary to tackle the many other types of challenges they will meet in their academic lives, work lives, and lives in general.

Happy practicing!

Summer ’20 Week 6: What Can We Fix?

At the beginning of every school year, Kirby and I sit down with each student, and their practice parent when applicable, and set a goal.

Occasionally, we’ll have a goal to reach a certain piece or graduate from a certain book, but those are never standalone goals because they’re not actually very good indicators of progress.

The best goals are usually intentions to concretely improve a specific aspect of playing technique:

“I want to play with a more bent bow thumb / curved bow pinky.”

“I want to play with a straighter violin / viola wrist.”

“I want to keep my violin / viola fingers on their thumb-side corners.”

“I want to keep my bow on the highway.”

“I want to play with a more relaxed bow arm for deeper tone.”

“I want to work on making my shifts more relaxed.”

“I want to develop 3 different varieties of vibrato.”

“I want to keep my violin / viola parallel to the floor while I play.”

That list could go on and on forever.

But sometimes it’s also good to set a goal for practicing in general:

“I’m going to practice every day for the rest of the summer.”

“I’m going to listen to my Suzuki CD / other recordings every day.”

“I’m going to increase my practice time by 15 minutes (or 30, or 60) of quality, focused practice time a day.”

“I’m going to memorize all my review pieces.”

“I’m going to work on practicing with a better attitude.”

“I’m going to get my practice done first thing every day, so that I can enjoy the rest of my day knowing that my work is done.”

And so on, and so forth.

So, as we reach the midway point of the Summer ’20 Semester, and of 2020 itself, let’s all take a moment to ask ourselves what one thing would benefit each of us the most to work on, to improve, to “fix.”  And then let’s do it!

Foundational Principle #4: Attend To Your Posture!

Posture.  It might be the single most important aspect of playing a stringed instrument and yet generally no one wants to seem to talk about it.  Often, if a lesson is spent primarily in addressing postural issues, I get the feeling from both students and their parents that they feel the lesson was wasted.  After all, we didn’t actually play much.  Honestly, I get it – posture isn’t the most fun thing to work on.  However, posture is the literal, physical foundation to everything that we do as string players.  If it’s crumbling, everything that’s built on it will start falling apart too, and how can we build anything more?  But if it’s solid, everything built with care atop it will be “straight,” and “square,” and long-lasting.  It’s crucially important.  So, let’s talk about it.


Good Violin / Viola Posture Starts With Good Everyday Posture

In order for a violin or viola to have the proper “shelf” of collarbone and shoulder to rest on, a student must be in the habit of standing straight, and tall, and “proud” with their sternum raised and their shoulder blades back.  This is not to say that posture should be exaggerated, indeed it should be relaxed and tension-free.  However, because so much of students’ lives these days involves being hunched over a laptop computer or touch phone screen, it is often necessary to unlearn some bad postural habits and learn some good ones even before their instrument is taken into consideration.  If a student maintains poor everyday posture, it will be nearly impossible to play their instrument with the requisite good posture.  On the flip side, the more that good posture can be learned and practiced in everyday life, the easier it will be to bring the instrument into the equation.


Good Violin / Viola Posture Requires Experimenting With Different Equipment

As a student, it never crossed my mind that the violinists of the 18th and 19th centuries did not play with the use of a shoulder rest or even a chin rest.  In fact, the chin rest wasn’t invented until the early 1800s, and was originally created to protect the tailpiece of the violin or viola, and the “bar” shoulder rest like most of us use today, didn’t come into the picture until the early 1900s.  And there are still some of the best violinists and violists in the world today who play without the use of a bar shoulder rest.

However, in general, music has evolved greatly over the years.  One has only to look at the difficulty and virtuosity of early Classical-era violin concertos as compared to Romantic or Modern-era to see how a proper “setup” of a combination of chin rest and shoulder rest equipment is necessary to help facilitate comfortable, sustainable playing for the majority of violinists and violists.  In the Baroque and early Classical Periods, a violinist or violist could get away without ever leaving 1st-3rd position, did not need the freedom to vibrate notes with varying widths and intensities, and was not required to produce such deep, powerful tones from their instrument.  The left hand could get away with helping support the instrument without the aid of a chin rest or shoulder rest.  This is much less the case for the majority of players today.

I say “the majority of players” because there will always be those like Itzhak Perlman whose bodily proportions allow them to seemingly wedge their violin right between their shoulder and chin without the use of a shoulder rest.  In fact, I have even seen him conducting – waving both arms – with his violin tucked under his chin with no shoulder rest!  In a way, I envy him.  I can promise you that if I attempted the same thing, my violin would be in pieces on the floor in short order.  My shoulders naturally slope, even when I stand with good posture, and my neck is quite long.  My anatomy simply does not allow for me to play with the same “setup” that Perlman uses.

And this is why I say that facilitating good posture requires experimenting with different equipment.  Every students’ body is unique, and no two students will benefit equally from the exact same chin rest and shoulder rest combination.  What works wonderfully for one might produce horrendous results for another.  What’s more, each student grows and their body changes, meaning that maintaining a healthy, ergonomic, sustainable posture with their instrument requires frequent attention and adjustment.


Good Violin / Viola Posture Is Based On A Few Key Principles

Even though each and every students’ body is shaped and proportioned uniquely, there are a few principles that govern posture for each and every student:

  1. While standing with tall, proud, but relaxed posture, the backplate of the violin or viola, near the button, should rest on the student’s collarbone.
  2. With the instrument being held parallel to the floor, the gap between the underside of the instrument and the student’s shoulder should be observed, and a suitable shoulder rest should be chosen to fill that gap.  Thus, the student’s instrument can be held parallel to the floor without the shoulder being raised and subsequently tensed.
  3. With the backplate of the instrument still resting against the student’s collarbone, and the shoulder rest filling the gap between the underside of the instrument, the student should stand with their head tall and relaxed, resting balanced atop their spine.  Then, as they turn their head ever so slightly to look towards the scroll of their instrument, the gap between the top of their instrument and their jaw should be observed, and a suitable chin rest should be selected to fill that gap.  Now, the student’s instrument can be supported in an ergonomic position that enables good technique and freedom of movement in both arms and hands.

The goal in all of this is to allow the student’s instrument to be held in a manner that keeps that body as close to its good, natural, everyday posture as possible.  All too often, students will assume a contorted posture to support their instrument, which induces muscular tension, inhibits the freedom of movement that allow for good intonation, good shifting, good vibrato, and good tone, and often ultimately leads to pain and injury.  However, with proper attention, this can all be avoided or corrected.


Bringing It All Together

Posture might be student’s and parents least favorite aspect of studying a stringed instrument to talk about, but it might also be the most important, particularly when it comes to a student’s health and the longevity of their playing career, but also when it comes to allowing all the other things we talk about, like a good bow hold, a straight violin / viola wrist, a relaxed bow arm, a freely-swinging violin / viola arm, bow strokes that are parallel to the bridge, the ability to shift into high positions, and so, so much more to take place.

Maybe we’re in the process of setting up good posture with your beginning student.  Maybe we’re in the process of unlearning some bad postural habits and relearning some better ones with your beginning, intermediate, or advanced student.  I hope that this post has helped you understand the importance of that time spent in lessons, and some of the principles that we’re striving to put in place.  Whatever the case, make sure that “attending to your posture” is a part of your daily practice every day!