Category Archives: For Parents

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.
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  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:
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  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! 

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

Hello WCS students and families!

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

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

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

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

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

Happy practicing!

Foundational Principle #2 – Study With Proper Focus

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

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

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

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

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

Foundational Principle #1: Practice Every Day!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summer ’20 Week 3: Playing As “We!”

Hello WCS students and families!

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

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

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

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

Summer ’20 Series: Foundational Principles

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

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

We look forward to this study with you this summer!

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

Hello WCS students and families!

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

See you there!

Summer ’20 Week 2: So Much To Do!

Hello West County Strings students and families!

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

  1. It means that we’re learning, progressing, and charting new territory every lesson.  In many, many lessons this week, a student has demonstrated progress that has literally “made my week!”
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  2. It keeps the lesson fast-paced, energetic, and with a sense of anticipation for what’s yet to come, and…
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  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.
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  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.
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  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.
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  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