Category Archives: Motivation

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!

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!

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!

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!

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!

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!

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

Free from Fear, Learning from Mistakes!

With our oldest doing “distance learning” from home for well over a month now, Kirby and I have increasingly stepped into the role of teacher not just with our violin and viola students, but with our own son in his school curriculum.  Quotes like this have helped me, not to be perfect, but to do a better job of creating an environment in which my son is able to learn.  Kirby and I certainly hope that fear has no place in our studio and our lessons, and that our students learn to “welcome” their mistakes and learn from them!

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Plato on Music

Known as one of the greatest thinkers in the history of the Western world, Plato is known for his foundational contributions in logic, debate, ethics, mathematics, and science.  So, I love that he, of all people, ascribed this worth to music:

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