Category Archives: For Students

Fall ’20 Play-In & “Icy Pop Social!”

Hello WCS Students & Families!

We’re looking forward to kicking off our group classes for the ’20-’21 school year with our annual “Play-In & Ice Cream Social.”  This event is for WCS students of all ages and levels and their families!  Here’s what you need to know:

Date: Tuesday, August 25
Time: 6:00-7:00 p.m.
Location: WCS students & families, check your emails!

 

In order to keep our Play-In safe this year, we’ll be planning to hold it outdoors with students and their families well over 6′ apart.  So, you might also want to bring:

camping chairs / a picnic blanket
 plenty of water
bug spray
masks for tuning time,
in case you need to use the restroom,
or want to spend extended time catching up
with friends or another family

Kirby and I will be providing icy pops instead of ice cream this year, so we can serve them individually 😊

 

And finally, no Play-In could be complete without repertoire, so here’s a list of pieces to be brushing up on between now and next Tuesday!

Mozart Minuet
Rameau Gavotte
La Folia
Moto Perpetuo (vla)
Country Dance
Vivaldi A Minor, 1st mov.
Gavotte in g minor (vla & vln)
Minuet in G (vla & vln)
Hunters’ Chorus (vla & vln)
Chorus from Judas Maccabaeus
Minuet 2
Bohemian Folk Song (vla)
Perpetual Motion
Allegro
May Song
Song of the Wind
Lightly Row
French Folk Song (vla & vln)
Twinkle Theme & Variations

Happy practicing, and we’ll see you next week! 🎻

Foundational Principle #9: Listen to Superior Models

If you’ve been around West County Strings for any length of time – or even if I’ve only taught you at an Institute for a week, in a group class at a workshop, or even in a 15-20 master class – you’ve likely heard me talk about the irreplaceable value and importance of listening frequently and consistently to quality recordings of the pieces you are working on, have worked on, and will work on in the future.  Here’s roughly what I usually say:

“Listening to your recordings is the number one easiest and most surefire way to make progress on your musical instrument.  And yet, it’s also the number one thing that students and their families do not do nearly enough of.

How does listening to a recording help you make such incredible strides in progress, you say?  Well, I’m glad you asked.  When you listen to a piece, at the very least you get a sense of:

  • The piece’s tempo (speed)
  • The piece’s style (serious, playful, sombre, lighthearted, etc.)
  • The piece’s rhythms
  • The piece’s pitches
  • The piece’s articulations (staccato, legato, etc.)
  • the piece’s structure (do sections repeat, etc.)

And so much more.  The gist of the matter is that when you’ve listened to a piece sufficiently before you come to your lesson, we’re working on how to play something that you already subconsciously know to a great degree.  We’re not working on what to play and how to play it.  That makes lessons incredibly more productive, and over the course of weeks, and months, and years, can lead to graduating all the way through the Suzuki repertoire instead of getting stuck somewhere along the way.

I have to be honest: sometimes I can’t imagine why students and their families wouldn’t listen to their Suzuki CDs or whatever other recordings correspond to the repertoire they’re currently working on.  I was fortunate that my mom kept cassette tapes of all the Suzuki Violin Books interspersed between the car and my bedside radio, so we listened to them on the way to and from school, to and from sports practices, and while we were running errands around town, and I also often fell asleep listening to them, as well.

It’s never been easier than it is today to get ahold of the Suzuki CDs.  Between sharmusic.com, Amazon.com, iTunes, a plethora of local music stores, you can have your hands on a copy in as little as a few minutes.  And the quality of the recordings has never been higher.  Just this year, the Suzuki Association announced the release of new recordings featuring Hillary Hahn – one of the most impeccable violinists to grace the music world today, if not ever.

So, that would be one of my pleas:  Please, please, do not go to YouTube and listen to some random individual play the Suzuki repertoire.  You’re not guaranteed that they’re playing an accurate tempo, if they’re playing with the correct articulations, if they’re playing the dynamics marked in the music, if they’re playing with perfect intonation, or if they’re playing with beautiful tone.  And if you’re watching a video, you can add to that that you can’t be sure that they’re demonstrating good technique.  Just please, please don’t turn to YouTube as a substitute for quality recordings.

If you’re working on repertoire supplemental to the Suzuki repertoire, or after the Suzuki repertoire, it’s also never been easier to get your hands on quality recordings.  When I was learning concertos back in high school, I would drive from Illinois to one or two music shops in downtown St. Louis in hopes of turning up good recordings of the concertos I was working on.  Nowadays, you can pull up Spotify and literally have the very highest-quality recordings at your fingertips for free!  What a time to live in!

Now, I asked a rhetorical question earlier (“Why wouldn’t students and their families listen to the Suzuki CDs?”) and I know that there are some legitimate answers to that question.  The most obvious and frequent one is that children would simply rather listen to something else in the car, around the house, in their headphones, or before bed than their violin or viola music.  And I don’t want to deny that this can be a tough bridge to cross.  However, I think that if we slowly but steadily create a culture in our homes that listening to violin and viola music is something we do a bit of every day in this family, just like practicing, then it can be accomplished.  And trust me: the benefits far outweigh the struggle.

So, as we head into a new school year, I hope it will be one in which every single one of our students and their families listen to their recordings more than ever before!  In fact, let’s aim to be a community that all listens to their recordings every day!

Summer ’20 Week 12: Get Ready to Delve!

Delve
intransitive verb
2a: to make a careful or detailed search for information
2b: to examine a subject in detail

At the beginning of each school year, Kirby and I set goals with and for each of our students, which we refer back to week by week to keep us on track, and update each semester, or sooner if things are progressing faster than expected.  So, the first lesson of each school year usually involves some time spent asking the question of students, “What goal(s) do you have for yourself this year?” of parents, “What goals do you have for your child this year?” and of ourselves, “What goals do we have for this particular student (and their practice parent) this year?”

We will certainly spend some time in each of the first few weeks of the ’20-’21 school year reflecting on those questions together and honing in on the best possible answers, but I think it’s all the better if we start contemplating how we would answer those questions now, so that we come to the school year with a relatively clear picture of what we hope to accomplish in it and can get right to work making those goals a reality.  Here’s some ideas to get you thinking:

  • Maybe you know that your posture hasn’t been up to snuff – maybe it’s even causing you tension or pain in your playing – and it’s something that we need to solve.  You know that you’ll need to focus on it in everything you do from scales, to review, to new and preview pieces, and especially playing in orchestra.  But you’re willing to take it on!
  • Maybe you know that although you’ve been able to keep learning pieces, your bow hold isn’t as balanced as it should be – maybe specifically your thumb doesn’t stay bent, your pinky doesn’t stay curved, or your middle and ring finger don’t “hug” the frog very well all the time.  Once again, you know that this’ll take focus all the time while you’re practicing to improve, but you want to make it happen and are willing to work on it!
  • Maybe even though we’ve been touching on review every week in lessons, you really haven’t kept your review pieces up to the level you should and you’d like to renew your focus on it and make review and solid, well-rounded repertoire a strong point of your playing.
  • Maybe one of the core techniques that your repertoire demands hasn’t been progressing to the degree you’d like, and you know that improving the fundamentals of your shifting or your vibrato is an aspect of your playing that you’d really like to focus on this year.  It’ll mean making sure that our lesson time and your practice time are both structured to prioritize them, but that’s something you’re willing to do to see improvement.
  • Maybe practice time itself is a category in which like to set a new goal to reach or a higher standard to hold yourself to – whether in the frequency, the quality, or the volume of your practice.  All of these would require a significant commitment of your time and energy on a daily basis, but are certainly worthy goals to pursue!

One thing that I’ve noticed this summer is that because we’ve had the opportunity to see almost all of our students with greater regularity than most summers, Kirby and I are much more attuned to exactly where each student is and exactly what they need to take the very next step in their playing, and then the step after that.  Oftentimes, if we’ve been away or students have been away for large parts of the summer, there’s a bit of a re-acclamation that has to take place in the first few weeks of a new school year, but this year that won’t be the case.  This year, more than ever, we’re ready to hit the ground running and be laser-focused right from Week 1, and we’re looking forward to it!

So, be thinking about your goals for yourself, because we’re thinking of ours for you!

Foundational Principle #8: Be Able To Play Any Piece You’ve Learned!

Throughout my teaching career, I’ve generally been blessed with students and parents who “trust the process” and aren’t too overly eager to race blindly ahead through the repertoire.  This has never been more true than at present, and I’m extraordinarily grateful to be able to work by and large with students and parents who share a similar vision of the path of developing musical ability that includes repetition, review, and a logical, sensibly-paced progression through selections of music that match students’ ability.

That said, how many of us can truly say that we can “play any piece… no matter how long ago we have learned it,” much less play it “well?”

As I’ve thought about this principle this week, I’ve likened developing ability on a musical instrument to several images in my mind:

  1. A pyramid under construction.
  2. A skyscraper being built.
  3. A growing tree.

I’ve always been moderately fascinated with ancient Egypt, and the engineering and architectural marvels they were able to accomplish without the use of modern tools.  When it comes to building pyramids, one simple principle is always at play: the higher the planned pinnacle of the pyramid, the wider the base of the pyramid must be.  I relate this to developing ability on a musical instrument by thinking that the greater heights of musical accomplishment we want to achieve the “wider our base” must be.  In this case, a “wide base” is being able to play every piece we’ve ever learned, and play them well.  What would happen if, as the workers continued to work on building the pyramid higher, the foundational layers began to crumble and fall into disrepair?  Would the structure ever be able to come to its envisioned fulfillment?

I’ve also aways been awed by the Chicago skyline, highlighted by the Sears (now Willis) Tower, and have on many occasions enjoyed walking through the streets of downtown Chicago, surrounded on all sides by almost unimaginably-high walls of steel and glass.  Skyscrapers are truly a modern engineering marvel, and one simple principle is at play in their design and construction: the greater the planned height of the skyscraper, the deeper the foundation that must first be dug, almost always accompanied by steel beams driven all the way down to bedrock.  Once again, I relate this to developing ability on a musical instrument by thinking that the greater heights of musical accomplishment we want to achieve, the “deeper our foundation” must be.  In this case, a “deep foundation” is once again being able to play every piece we’ve ever learned, and play them well.

And finally, I’ve always loved trees.  In fact, I often imagine that if I ever have a second career it would hopefully be in something like reforestation.  Or, in a perfect world, maybe I could find a way to raise support for preservation of the rainforests through musical benefits.  I digress.  When I think about trees, I am reminded that before they explode upward and outward, they spend the first several years of their life putting down roots, which continue to grow deeper and wider underground as the tree does so visibly above ground.  And what happens to a tree if its root system is damaged?  No matter how healthy the tree is above ground, it will suffer to some degree, and if the roots are damaged enough the tree will die.  I relate this to developing ability on a musical instrument by thinking that the higher, and wider, and more blossoming and beautiful we want our ability to be, the deeper, and wider, and stronger, and more healthy we need to keep our “roots.”  And in this case, our “roots” are every piece we’ve ever learned, and maintaining the ability to play those pieces and play them well.

I do still get the occasional request to “move ahead faster,” to “focus more on new material,” or to “spend less time on review.”  And while I can understand the desires that motivate these requests, and think they’re often if not always well-intentioned, I think they miss out on a key element of developing ability on a musical instrument that lies in having a deep, wide, strong, healthy base of repertoire that in itself teaches and reinforces good technical and musical skills.  I hope that reflecting on this particular of Dr. Suzuki’s principles will help bring us all into a more unified vision of what creates long-term, sustainable success as we prepare to head into a new school year together!

Summer ’20 Week 11: A Time for Reflection

As always seems to happen every school year and every summer, somehow we’ve blinked and the Summer ’20 Semester is already almost over!  With nearly 11 full weeks behind us, we have just over 2 weeks of summer left until the ’20-’21 school year is upon us.  That makes this a good time for each of us to pause and reflect on what we’ve accomplished this summer, what we can yet accomplish in the next two weeks, and what some good goals for the upcoming school year might be.

One of the things that I’ve been most proud of, and most impressed by, is how so many students have taken on the challenge on working through the Circle of 5ths on their scales and arpeggios.  With 12 weeks of lessons in the summer, and more students than ever at home and able to take lessons every week of the summer, it seemed like the perfect time to tackle the ambitious task of working through all 12 Major and all 12 minor keys’ scales and arpeggios.  And an ambitious task it was!  But I’ve been blown away by how students’ have risen to the challenge, worked consistently week after week on their scales in various keys, and have dramatically improved their technique, tone, and intonation as a result.  Bravo, students!

A second challenge that many of us undertook this summer was to work through all of our review pieces over the course of the summer.  Again, with 12 weeks of summer lessons to work with, we divided all the Suzuki Violin and Viola repertoire up into 12 portions, and took on each weeks’ work bit by bit.  And students really applied themselves to the task, relearning pieces that had fallen by the wayside, re-memorizing pieces that had grown foggy, and developing greater musicality, artistry, and mastery across all levels of their repertoire throughout the process.  I’ve been incredibly proud of how students have dedicated themselves to practicing their review week after week, and have loved to see the incredible results of their hard work!

A third challenge we took on this summer was learning new repertoire.  After a long ’19-’20 school year, Summer ’20 was an opportunity for many of us to step into something fresh and new – a change of pace, a new challenge, a different type of repertoire calling us to learn and apply new and different techniques.  And as with scales and review, it’s been so exciting and encouraging to see student step up to the plate, meet the task at hand, and put forth some truly amazing performances, as our June 27 and July 25 Zoom “home concerts” displayed.

This summer has certainly presented unique challenges to all of us.  One silver lining is that students have had perhaps more uninterrupted time than ever before in their lives to practice.  And I feel like we’ve seen the results of what can happen when students are really able to apply themselves to their instruments.  I was unsure whether students would be able to meet the challenges of cycling all the way through the Circle of 5ths in the course of one summer, whether they’d keep up with all their review, or whether they could rise to the level of their new repertoire – and they’ve been able to do all this and more!

As we prepare to enter into another school year, we know that students won’t have the luxury of as copious of amounts of time as they had this summer.  But our sights are still set high!  We’ve seen what students can accomplish, and even as we enter back into busyness, we want to hold onto as much of that standard of excellence as we can day after day, week in and week out.  Practicing 7 days a week should always be the expectation, even if it can’t always be met.  Suzuki CDs or other recordings of current and review literature should be listened to daily, which is almost always possible under every circumstance.  And a weekly review chart should be a part of daily practice, so that everything that has been learned stays learned!

So, with everything that’s been accomplished this summer, we’re very much looking forward to the ’20-’21 school year and all that it holds in store.  Let’s make the most of these last 2.5 weeks of summer, and head into a new year riding that wave of good habits and productivity!

Summer ’20 Week 10: Playing With Friends!

Almost every lesson, I start off by asking students what they’ve been up to in the week since I’ve last seen them.  Occasionally, a student will reply with something surprising that was exciting for them, but more often than not this summer students’ answers are some variety of, “Nothing much.”  And increasingly, students have been expressing how bored they are, and how much they miss doing various things with friends.

One thing that I was reminded of during this past Saturdays’ Zoom “Home Concert” is that playing a duet with someone isn’t just twice as enjoyable as playing a piece by yourself, it’s exponentially more fun and rewarding!  And fortunately, thanks to the wonders of technology and the ability to get together in person taking the necessary precautions, playing music together is something that has carried over relatively well into this quarantined summer.

Many of you have siblings who also play a stringed instrument, and you can do duets for 2 violins, or violin / viola duets.  Some of you even have multiple siblings who also play stringed instruments, and you can work on trios for 3 violins, or trios for 2 violins and viola!  Some of you have parents who play a stringed instrument, and believe it or not – yes, teenagers, even you! – you can have a lot of fun and make some great memories  working on duets with a parent.  Others of you have parents or a sibling who can play piano and can accompany you on your solo repertoire.

If no one in your family circle is a musician, many of you know other WCS students from school or group class, and could meet over Zoom or for a socially-distanced get-together to work on Suzuki duets or other ensemble music.  And if setting something like that up doesn’t work, Kirby and I are always happy to record duet parts so that you can work on playing with some “live” accompaniment to your pieces throughout the week!  And if you’re looking for repertoire to explore, we’re always happy to offer suggestions, too.

So, happy practicing – hopefully now with more duets, trios, or even quartets than in previous weeks!

’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!

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!