Category Archives: Summer ’20 Series: Foundational Principles

Foundational Principle #5: Schedule & Increase Your Practice!

As I’ve thought about this principle this week, it’s struck me as being the first that we’ve covered that requires nuance and sensitivity in its application to each individual student.  The principles behind daily practice, intelligent, focused practice, striving for beautiful tone, and being careful to pay attention to good posture can be more or less universally applied.  However, each and every child – indeed each and every student of a stringed instrument, no matter how young or how hold – is so unique in their temperament and tendencies that that each student’s daily practice schedule and time spent practicing will be similarly unique.

Some students may thrive on practicing first thing in the morning.  Others might do their best work late at night.

Some students might practice most effectively in one single, long practice session a day.  Others may do better with several shorter practice sessions spread throughout the day.

Some students may prefer to follow their practice chart from top to bottom in the same order every day.  Others might like to mix up the order that they practice the elements of their assignment from day to day.

Some students might like to practice in the same place in the house at the same time of day every day.  Others may prefer to practice somewhere different every day, and at a different time of day every day.

On Setting A Daily Schedule

I think students thrive as we increasingly discover how they uniquely learn best.  So, how then do we apply Dr. Suzuki’s principle, “Practice according to a daily schedule…”?

I think the best answer is finding out what kind of schedule works well for each individual child (from the parent’s perspective) or each student (from the teacher’s perspective), and then  being consistent in implementing that particular schedule.  Clearly and consistently communicated expectations – and follow-through on those expectations – is the key.  This isn’t as simple as throwing out a blanket statement like, “Each student should practice an hour a day after school.”  It requires more intentionality and effort from parents, teachers, and in some ways even the student, but in the end the result is something attuned to each particular individual, that works best for them.

One other thing that I believe is true is that parents and teachers must work with the student to actually look at how their practice schedule fits into the overall schedule of their life, so that they can be successful in carrying it out.  Between school, extracurriculars, homework, meals, and enough free time to stay sane, students’ days can fill up extremely quickly, and if practice time isn’t actually accounted for in the schedule, it can easily slip through the cracks.  Sitting down with iCal, Google Calendar, or a good old-fashioned pen and paper calendar and scheduling practice into children’s lives is something that parents should help with at home, and teachers can help with in lessons.

On Gradually Increasing Practice Time

If you asked me to run a marathon tomorrow, I’d have to laugh, shake my head, and admit that I’m not up to that task.  But give me 5 years to prepare for it, and I might be able to cross that finish line, albeit not in record time.  I’d have to slowly, incrementally build up my physical and mental endurance and work capacity, following a linear, logical plan that ensured that I didn’t overtrain or injured myself, while still reaching my goal on time.

It’s not all too different when it comes to practicing a stringed instrument.  We can’t expect a student to go from next to no consistent practice to practicing 3 hours a day.  They won’t have the mental “muscle” to make good, focused use of that time, and they likely won’t have the physical, postural muscle to practice for that long without getting hurt.  On the other hand, we can’t expect a student to be able to progress from Twinkle to the Mozart A Major Concerto while still practicing 20 minutes a day.

In between these two extremes of stagnation on the one hand and overzealous ambition on the other lies the more reasonable approach of gradually increasing practice time as students grow older, develop more mental acuity, and as the length and complexity of their repertoire demands it.  But again, we can not simply expect this to magically happen, rather we do better to clearly and consistently communicate the expectation for the increase of 5, or 10, or 15 minutes a day of practice until that has been grown accustomed to, and then we can raise the standard again.

Putting It All Together

It’s important that each and every student has a daily practice schedule, one that’s expectations are clearly and consistently communicated and upheld, and that their parents and families help them plan that practice schedule into the larger, overacting schedule of their life.  But just as each student is unique and individual, so must their schedules be uniquely individualized to best suit their learning styles, strengths, and weaknesses.

It’s also necessary that students practice schedules slowly and steadily expand to incorporate more focused, quality practice time each day, so that students can continue to keep up with the length and complexity of the music that their advancing ability allows them to study.  But again, the key here is that these additions are made slowly and steadily, not overnight, and that the raised expectations are communicated clearly and consistently and then that students are given the support at home to meet these expectations.

None of this is an easy undertaking, to be sure, but it not only helps students become better practicers of their stringed instrument, but also equips them with the discipline and experiential knowledge necessary to tackle the many other types of challenges they will meet in their academic lives, work lives, and lives in general.

Happy practicing!

Foundational Principle #4: Attend To Your Posture!

Posture.  It might be the single most important aspect of playing a stringed instrument and yet generally no one wants to seem to talk about it.  Often, if a lesson is spent primarily in addressing postural issues, I get the feeling from both students and their parents that they feel the lesson was wasted.  After all, we didn’t actually play much.  Honestly, I get it – posture isn’t the most fun thing to work on.  However, posture is the literal, physical foundation to everything that we do as string players.  If it’s crumbling, everything that’s built on it will start falling apart too, and how can we build anything more?  But if it’s solid, everything built with care atop it will be “straight,” and “square,” and long-lasting.  It’s crucially important.  So, let’s talk about it.


Good Violin / Viola Posture Starts With Good Everyday Posture

In order for a violin or viola to have the proper “shelf” of collarbone and shoulder to rest on, a student must be in the habit of standing straight, and tall, and “proud” with their sternum raised and their shoulder blades back.  This is not to say that posture should be exaggerated, indeed it should be relaxed and tension-free.  However, because so much of students’ lives these days involves being hunched over a laptop computer or touch phone screen, it is often necessary to unlearn some bad postural habits and learn some good ones even before their instrument is taken into consideration.  If a student maintains poor everyday posture, it will be nearly impossible to play their instrument with the requisite good posture.  On the flip side, the more that good posture can be learned and practiced in everyday life, the easier it will be to bring the instrument into the equation.


Good Violin / Viola Posture Requires Experimenting With Different Equipment

As a student, it never crossed my mind that the violinists of the 18th and 19th centuries did not play with the use of a shoulder rest or even a chin rest.  In fact, the chin rest wasn’t invented until the early 1800s, and was originally created to protect the tailpiece of the violin or viola, and the “bar” shoulder rest like most of us use today, didn’t come into the picture until the early 1900s.  And there are still some of the best violinists and violists in the world today who play without the use of a bar shoulder rest.

However, in general, music has evolved greatly over the years.  One has only to look at the difficulty and virtuosity of early Classical-era violin concertos as compared to Romantic or Modern-era to see how a proper “setup” of a combination of chin rest and shoulder rest equipment is necessary to help facilitate comfortable, sustainable playing for the majority of violinists and violists.  In the Baroque and early Classical Periods, a violinist or violist could get away without ever leaving 1st-3rd position, did not need the freedom to vibrate notes with varying widths and intensities, and was not required to produce such deep, powerful tones from their instrument.  The left hand could get away with helping support the instrument without the aid of a chin rest or shoulder rest.  This is much less the case for the majority of players today.

I say “the majority of players” because there will always be those like Itzhak Perlman whose bodily proportions allow them to seemingly wedge their violin right between their shoulder and chin without the use of a shoulder rest.  In fact, I have even seen him conducting – waving both arms – with his violin tucked under his chin with no shoulder rest!  In a way, I envy him.  I can promise you that if I attempted the same thing, my violin would be in pieces on the floor in short order.  My shoulders naturally slope, even when I stand with good posture, and my neck is quite long.  My anatomy simply does not allow for me to play with the same “setup” that Perlman uses.

And this is why I say that facilitating good posture requires experimenting with different equipment.  Every students’ body is unique, and no two students will benefit equally from the exact same chin rest and shoulder rest combination.  What works wonderfully for one might produce horrendous results for another.  What’s more, each student grows and their body changes, meaning that maintaining a healthy, ergonomic, sustainable posture with their instrument requires frequent attention and adjustment.


Good Violin / Viola Posture Is Based On A Few Key Principles

Even though each and every students’ body is shaped and proportioned uniquely, there are a few principles that govern posture for each and every student:

  1. While standing with tall, proud, but relaxed posture, the backplate of the violin or viola, near the button, should rest on the student’s collarbone.
  2. With the instrument being held parallel to the floor, the gap between the underside of the instrument and the student’s shoulder should be observed, and a suitable shoulder rest should be chosen to fill that gap.  Thus, the student’s instrument can be held parallel to the floor without the shoulder being raised and subsequently tensed.
  3. With the backplate of the instrument still resting against the student’s collarbone, and the shoulder rest filling the gap between the underside of the instrument, the student should stand with their head tall and relaxed, resting balanced atop their spine.  Then, as they turn their head ever so slightly to look towards the scroll of their instrument, the gap between the top of their instrument and their jaw should be observed, and a suitable chin rest should be selected to fill that gap.  Now, the student’s instrument can be supported in an ergonomic position that enables good technique and freedom of movement in both arms and hands.

The goal in all of this is to allow the student’s instrument to be held in a manner that keeps that body as close to its good, natural, everyday posture as possible.  All too often, students will assume a contorted posture to support their instrument, which induces muscular tension, inhibits the freedom of movement that allow for good intonation, good shifting, good vibrato, and good tone, and often ultimately leads to pain and injury.  However, with proper attention, this can all be avoided or corrected.


Bringing It All Together

Posture might be student’s and parents least favorite aspect of studying a stringed instrument to talk about, but it might also be the most important, particularly when it comes to a student’s health and the longevity of their playing career, but also when it comes to allowing all the other things we talk about, like a good bow hold, a straight violin / viola wrist, a relaxed bow arm, a freely-swinging violin / viola arm, bow strokes that are parallel to the bridge, the ability to shift into high positions, and so, so much more to take place.

Maybe we’re in the process of setting up good posture with your beginning student.  Maybe we’re in the process of unlearning some bad postural habits and relearning some better ones with your beginning, intermediate, or advanced student.  I hope that this post has helped you understand the importance of that time spent in lessons, and some of the principles that we’re striving to put in place.  Whatever the case, make sure that “attending to your posture” is a part of your daily practice every day!

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! 

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 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!