’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!


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!

June 27 “Home Concert” Recap

Hello WCS Students & Families!

Thank you so, so much to everyone who participated in our Zoom “Home Concert” on Saturday.  It was wonderful to have a group of you together again, and to be able to hear your performances.  They were so encouraging and uplifting – exactly what music should be!  We loved to hear and see all the developments in posture, technique, intonation, tone, dynamics, shifting, vibrato, musicality, and so much more that you all displayed.

For those who weren’t able to participate in this Zoom “Home Concert,” we plan to have another in late July, so you’ll have another opportunity to perform this summer.

Thank you all once again.  We’re so blessed to have such a wonderful community of students and families at WCS!  Just look at those smiles 🙂

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Summer ’20 Week 5: Keep Listening Alive!

If a student were to ask me what the #1 thing they could be doing better to improve, or a parent were to ask me what the #1 thing they could be doing with, or for, or encouraging their child to do to improve, my answer would almost always simply be: Listen more.

Listening daily to your Suzuki CD if you are a student or family in Suzuki Books 1-10, recordings Kirby and I make for you if you are a Pre-Twinkle student or family, or listening to definitive recordings of your concerto, sonata, or solo piece if you are a student beyond the Suzuki Books or working on supplemental pieces outside of the Suzuki literature is  without a doubt the easiest, and probably also the most effective, way to make progress.  Here’s a few things listening helps you do:

  1. Learn or remember the melody of your current, review, and preview pieces.
  2. Learn or remember the tempo of your current, review, and preview pieces.
  3. Learn or remember the structure of your current, review, and preview pieces (once through, repeated, A B A, AA BB, AA BB CC DD A B, etc. etc.)
  4. Learn or remember the rhythms in your current, review, and preview pieces.
  5. Learn or remember the articulations (staccato, legato, accented, lifted, brushed, spiccato, sautiélle, collé, etc. etc.) in your current, review, and preview pieces.
  6. Learn or remember the dynamics (forte, piano, mezzo-forte, mezzo-piano, fortissimo, pianissimo, crescendos, decrescendos, etc. etc.) in your current, review, and preview pieces.

The list could go on and on.  The gist of it is this: Listening to your recordings at home turns your lesson from a session about what to do and then how to do it, into a session about how to do what you already unconsciously know should be done, because you’ve heard it.  Think about how much more productive your lessons could be if that huge portion of the work was already being done passively throughout the week!

And that’s the great thing about listening: You get all of these benefits without even having to stop whatever else you’re doing and being fully engaged.  You can listen while you have a conversation in the car.  You can listen while you’re doing your homework.  You can listen while you’re mowing the lawn.  You can listen while you’re falling asleep at night.

The reason I bring this up this week is simple: I hear a lot of lessons in which the melody, the tempo, the structure, the rhythms, the articulations, the dynamics, etc. etc. of students’ pieces are clearly hitting them for the first time when I play or explain them.  To me, that says that not much listening is happening, if any listening is happening at all. And often when I follow up by asking, the answer is the same: not much listening, if any listening is happening at all.

Let’s change that starting today!  We’re all home more than ever!  The Suzuki recordings are on iTunes and are dirt cheap for the value you get from listening to them.  You can find the best recordings of concertos, sonatas, and solo pieces on Spotify for free!  There is no reason that we shouldn’t all be listening to the music we’re studying as much as possible.  Let’s start doing more listening today!

Home Concert: Saturday, June 27 at 2:00 p.m.

Hello WCS students and families! 

Don’t forget that this upcoming Saturday, June 27, we’ll be holding a “home concert” on Zoom at 2:00 p.m.  This is the perfect opportunity to share a piece of music that you’ve been working on over this first part of the summer in a supportive, low-pressure environment, for all to enjoy! 

Ms. Kirby and I have had a chance to talk to many of you about participating and your piece selection in lessons. But, if you’d like to participate, please email me or Ms. Kirby so that we can confirm that you’ll be able to join us and what piece you’ll be playing.  Also, check your email for the Zoom meeting info! 

We’re looking forward to seeing as many of you as possible this Saturday, and hearing you perform the pieces you’ve been working on thus far this summer! 

Foundational Principle #3 – Strive For Excellent Tone!

There’s a comedic video out there on the internet that goes something like this: One week of piano, and the student can plink on one key with one finger; one week of violin lessons, and the student is scratching away an open string with poor technique and horrible tone.  One year of piano lessons, and the student is playing scales and simple pieces fluently that are pleasing to listen to; one year of violin lessons, and the student has added an additional open string with the same poor technique and horrible tone as the first week.  Five years of piano lessons, and the student is playing concertos with great mastery and virtuosity; five years of violin lessons and the student has added one out of string finger to their two open strings while still paying with the same poor technique and horrible tone as the first week.

Now, of course this is hyperbole for comedic purposes, but as is often the case with a joke there’s a grain of truth in it – it requires a tremendous amount of knowledge and ability to “simply” produce a good tone on an open string on a stringed instrument, much less to add the fingers into the equation.  As a result, there’s a stereotype about beginning string players that involves “screeching” and “scratching” tones being produced from the instrument while the parents run from the room covering their ears.  Now, as a teacher I’m want to push back on that that stereotype by first saying, “Well in their first month of lessons, much less their first week, neither a violin or a bow should’ve been involved, but  they should’ve learned the postural principles and fine motor control that would allow them to produce a good tone as soon as their bow first touched the string!” And that leads us down the path of pursuing good tone from the very beginning, and in every subsequent lesson, and indeed every time we pick up our instrument for the rest of our lives.

So, what exactly is “tone?”  I most often describe tone as the quality of one’s sound.  Is it beautiful?  Is it resonant?  Is it clear?  Is it pleasing to listen to?  These might be some of the more basic questions to ask at a beginning to intermediate level.  Does it have color?  Does it evoke emotion?  How wide of a range of colors and emotions can one produce?  These are questions that might be asked as a student progresses to a more intermediate to advanced level.  At every level, though, the pursuit of a “good tone” – a quality sound – is central and crucial to development as a string musician.

For this reason, our practice must always contain several elements:

  1. Focus on our core techniques.  Without good posture, a good bow hold, and correct shape to the left hand and fingers, good tone will always remain elusive.  We focus so consistently on technique in our lessons and group classes not simply for technique’s sake, but because good technique is the foundational building block of good tone.  At every level – from a first-year student to the high school student who’s been playing for 10 years – practice must be carried out in a way that keeps these techniques ever in mind.  For the young student, this will require the practice parent’s help.  For the older student, it requires mindfulness and constant self-awareness.
  2. Priority placed on the quality of our sound.  It is somewhat unfortunate that the easiest metric by which students and parents often tend to gauge a student’s progress is by their movement through the Suzuki Books, or other supplemental materials.  The problem with using this forward movement as a gauge of actual development of ability is that a student can move from piece to piece without ever actually making much, if any, growth as a player.  If, instead, we use the quality of our sound as the gauge of our progress, we will have a much better sense of a student’s growth and development.  The difficulty with this, of course, is that there is no “tone-o-meter” that can measure the development of our tone for us, and taking note of the development of our tone requires us to become deep, careful listeners, which leads to the next point:
  3. Listening to high-quality recordings.  This point will actually receive its own post later on this summer, but for now suffice it to say that one can only ever achieve to the heights they know are possible.  This is the problem with listening to low-quality YouTube recordings of the Suzuki pieces or other supplemental pieces.  It may be better than nothing, as it can help students’ learn the overall structure of the piece they are learning, the gist of the rhythm, and perhaps even articulations and dynamics.  However, such recordings often paint a poor picture for students’ ears of what’s achievable, and truly desirable when it comes to tone.  Years and years of work has gone into producing the Suzuki CDs, and they are well-worth the investment of a few dollars for your child’s progress as a string musician!

Finally, Dr. Suzuki was famous for his saying that, “Strings are mindless entities,” they “only sing the heart of the one who plays them.”  This is evident when listening to people like Itzhak Perlman or Yo-Yo Ma play.  Their lives have been full of, in addition to music, humanitarian efforts, and their tone is full of love, joy, peace, and happiness.  This is no accident.  By contrast, there are famous soloists who are known to be cold and self-important, and this shows in their playing, as well, which though masterful and technically perfect never contains the same warmth and joy as the likes of Perlman or Yo-Yo Ma.

So, make tone – the quality of your sound – not simply progression through pieces, be the #1 focus in your daily practice.  Hold yourself to a high standard of clarity, beauty, and richness in everything you play.  And put your heart into your playing – make it your own!  You will never have a tone exactly like someone else, and no one else will ever have exactly the tone that you alone can offer to the world!