Category Archives: For Parents

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!”
    a
  2. It keeps the lesson fast-paced, energetic, and with a sense of anticipation for what’s yet to come, and…
    a
  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.
    a
  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.
    a
  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.
    a
  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.
    x
  • 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!

Spring ’20 Solo Recitals Recap

Hello Everyone!

Kirby and I want to extend a tremendous thank you to all of the students and their families who participated in our Spring Solo Recitals this year.  It was truly a new and unique experience for all of us, but it was wonderful and beautiful in so many ways – from the exceptional performances themselves to simply being able to be “in the same place” as you all at the same time, which we have missed so much.   We love the community of families that makes up West County Strings, and the ability to share in the journey of music learning with you all!

So, while we certainly do look forward to being able to return to live, in-person recitals just as soon as possible, we plan to hold some extra Zoom performances over the summer to give you all a chance to connect, goals to prepare for, and opportunities to share your talents and music with one another.  We look forward to seeing you at the next one!

 

Summer ’20 Kicks Off Monday, May 25!

Thank you all to everyone who participated in our Spring ’20 Solo Recitals via Zoom this past Sunday.  What a wonderful, joy-filled experience that was, and we’re looking forward to offering more community building performance opportunities this summer!

Lessons for the Spring ’20 Semester extend through this Saturday, May 23.  So, we look forward to seeing you all for the last time of the ’19-’20 school year at your regular times before we move on to the summer.  What an incredible school year this has been, in spite of the difficulties.  In fact, I think the difficulties have challenged us to learn and grow in new and unexpected ways, and we’re so proud of each of our students for their perseverance and dedication.

The Summer ’20 Semester will kick off on Monday, May 25, and we look forward taking on new projects, applying new approaches, and taking the next steps with all of our students.  You all energize, invigorate, and inspire us to reach new heights as teachers, and we can’t wait to continue this journey together!

– Mr. Brad & Ms. Kirby

Group Classes Extended!

I don’t know about you, but I have enjoyed seeing everyone on Tuesday evenings.  I would love to plan to continue through the end of April if there is still interest.  This leaves us with two more group classes for the semester:  April 21 and April 28.

These classes take a lot of planning and forethought to get the technology up and running, so I thank you for your patience with me in our new format!  It was been super fun to learn new things, and I look forward to new challenges each week.

We are brainstorming ways to have a “solo recital” without all being together.  Let’s look forward to that together!

– Kirby

Education: Character, & Ability

When I first saw this quote by Dr. King, my mind was immediately drawn to very similar – perhaps even stronger – words spoken by Dr. Suzuki: “Character first, ability second.”

The Suzuki Method is certainly unique for many reasons: the “mother tongue” approach in which music is learned primarily by listening as opposed to reading, the “Suzuki triangle” of parent, teacher, and child all involved in the learning process, the focus on memorization and review, and many more.  But perhaps the central core of Dr. Suzuki’s philosophy was that music education is a means to mold and shape the character of students for the better such that they become what he called “more noble human beings” (emphasis mine).

We certainly have the privilege of teaching some of the noblest human beings we’ve ever known, and we’re grateful every day for the opportunity to share the joys of learning music together!

IMG_8904