Category Archives: Summer ’20 Weekly Updates

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 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 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

Summer ’20 Week 1: So Much Fun!

Hello Everyone!

I hope you’re enjoying the beautiful weather.  As St. Louisans, we know that we get approximately 6 really nice days of weather a year, so take it all in!

I just wanted to take a moment to express how incredibly fun lessons this first week of Summer ’20 were for Kirby and me.  I think there’s something about the feel of a fresh start – a new beginning – that invigorates and energizes.  And seeing you on different days, at different times, and in a different order is just enough variety to spice things up. Plus, even though students have been at home for the past several months, there’s a big, very noticeable difference in students’ energy levels with the pressures of schoolwork relieved.  It all made for a very fun first week.

It was really, really exciting to begin new projects all of you who we saw this week – and those of you who we didn’t see this first week, we’ll get started on your own new projects in your first lesson this summer.  I was struck by what a solid place we’re all starting from this summer.  Across the board, I heard really good intonation and tone, and saw a lot of really good technique.  If that’s our starting point, the sky’s the limit on where we can end up by the end of the summer!  One big component of this summer’s work is strengthening review, so if you haven’t gotten a chance to print our your violin or viola review charts for the summer, please do so now!

In addition to lessons, we’d like to put a few other studio activities on the calendar for June, including:

  • A studio “hangout” on Saturday, June 13th at 10 a.m.  We’d like to use this opportunity just to give all of our students the opportunity to share what they’re up to this summer, have them be able to see their group class friends and classmates, and generally bond as as studios and as program overall.  Even if you didn’t regularly participate in group classes in the ’19-’20 school year, please put this on your calendar – we’d love to have you there!  A separate Zoom invitation for this event will be sent in the week leading up to it.
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  • A “home concert” on Saturday, June 27th at 2:00 p.m.  We want to give all of our students concrete goals to focus on and prepare for this summer, opportunities to continue to develop as performers, and the ability to share their music with their friends, classmates, and studio family and friends.  Being about a month away, we’ll all have an opportunity to select a new piece of repertoire and work on polishing it.  Again, a separate Zoom invitation for this event will be sent prior to the concert date.

We look forward to seeing you all again in lessons this upcoming week!