This afternoon, a student had to cancel our online lesson due to an emotional meltdown. Another has dissolved into tears halfway through the last two lessons. Another is noticeably edgy and short-tempered. Another is depressed and now has intonation problems (flat) that never existed before. Are you noticing a pattern here?
And in case you happen to be reading this a few years from now and everything is “back to normal” (will that ever happen?), I am writing this in Washington State, summer of 2020, in the middle of an extended quarantine.
These kids, ranging in age from nine to sixteen, are suffering. They are trapped inside, not allowed to play with their friends, with little to do (besides practicing) other than play video games, read, or take a walk with a sibling or parent (with a mask on, of course). Camp has been cancelled (except for online – a poor substitute that completely misses the point), swimming pools are closed, vacations postponed. Most are not even allowed to walk down the street to hang out with someone not of their household.
To some of you that might sound trivial, and perhaps it was – for a while. But we are social creatures. School-aged kids need time with their peers. This is a psychological need, invisible but still every bit a need. This is not an inconvenience or a momentary disappointment they’ll just get over. There is a real loss here. My goodness, I am so glad my kids are grown! And I feel so sorry for the parents of my students.
“Yes, but compared to loss of life, this is insignificant.” Except that these kids – or anyone under 40 – are more likely to die from a car accident than from covid-19. For that matter, anyone healthy and under 50 is in the same category. And yet, these children who have virtually no risk of dying have lost so much that makes life worth living.
“But what about the elderly people in their families or communities who might die if they caught the virus from an asymptomatic child?” First, only a couple of my students live with a family member who is vulnerable, and those students will continue with online lessons indefinitely. The rest of them are able to forego contact with grandparents, and other people in the community (such as my husband) who are at greater risk due to age or health can self-quarantine.
There is absolutely no reason at all why everyone else should avoid getting infected. In fact, the most responsible thing we could do about covid-19 is for everyone young and healthy to get infected as quickly as possible. Go to school, go to work, don’t wash your hands, touch your face. Get it and get over it.
Meanwhile, it’s not just children who are suffering from this stunted existence. Calls to suicide hotlines are up 6,000%. Domestic violence and child molestation are way up. Deaths from alcohol and drug overdoses are way up. And time will tell how many people die from cancer or heart attacks who should have gone to the doctor but were afraid of exposing themselves to the virus.
A friend of mine had a stroke last year and was scheduled for pacemaker surgery in March. Her surgery was cancelled because our governor declared it “elective surgery” and therefore not necessary.
And what about all the people who have lost businesses that took decades – maybe even generations – to build? What about their emotional well-being, and that of their families? That kind of stress can take years off people’s lives.
What about all the desperately poor people all over the world who now will not receive charitable aid from formerly wealthy Americans who have lost their livelihoods?
Don’t all of these lives matter, or is it just people who might die from covid-19?
Can you see now why I consider this quarantine to be incredibly selfish? We’re all afraid of getting infected. We don’t even talk anymore about “flattening the curve”, we talk about “stopping the spread of infection” as if getting infected, which used to happen quite regularly without a politician telling us to hide in our homes, is the worst thing that could happen to us. To us. What about all the other people in the world, the poor, the emotionally fragile, the children who are at virtually zero risk of dying? How selfish of us to be afraid of a virus.
Maybe I am more of a risk-taker than most people. I’ll admit it: I am not terribly interested in “staying safe”. But if we as a society are afraid of the risk of dying associated with many normal activities in life, we need to stop driving cars, never fly in an airplane, don’t go to theme parks, outlaw cigarettes and alcohol and salt and sugar, don’t ride a bike, don’t walk in the rain, and don’t own a dog because it might bite you.
The point is, most of the things that make life worth living involve risk. And trying not to die is definitely not the same thing as living.
So here you go: a little happiness at the end of another day –
Speaking of a puppy, we have a new addition to the music studio: Lydia!
For years we have had cats, including my beloved Sophie, her brother Watson, and their mother Stella. And so when the last two died last spring, it felt pretty empty over here. If you’ve ever had to put a pet down, you know how it leaves a hole in your life, your heart, and your home.
With my husband’s illness and our planned travels in May and August, it seemed like good timing and so we endured the loss. I got in touch with a breeder of mini aussies who plans on having a litter ready to adopt in December 2019. We put ourselves on the list for a female, black and white mini.
And then, I got this picture in a text from our son Jamie, with the words “Look what Grandma and Papa have!”
Oh my, something was up. They already have two big dogs. And we were due to arrive at their house for a visit in a week.
My dad teaches piano at ASU, and one of his doctoral students bought a puppy for her children to play with while she practices long hours. Unfortunately, potty training was a challenge in these circumstances, and so at four months the pup was still making messes all over the house. Stressful! And so, knowing that my parents are great with dogs, she asked them to take her.
She just happens to be a female, black and white mini aussie. Perfect!
And so Lydia came home with us. It’s a little earlier than we were planning on, and 90% of her care (and exercise!) falls to me. However, she has quickly and thoroughly filled the hole in our lives, our hearts, and our home. Yes, we have had to work hard to get her potty manners under control, but because her first family’s children played violin and cello, she settles nicely during lessons (as long as we ignore her). Priorities, people!
We were out for a walk the other day, and I saw a front doormat that said “I hope you like cats”. I need one that says “I hope you like dogs” because when you come for your lesson, you can count on a warm welcome from our sweet, extraverted little Lydia. She loves you all! And hopefully one of these days I’ll get her to keep all four paws on the ground when you arrive. 😊
I haven’t written much over the past two years because my husband has been fighting a long illness, and then last May we ended up with a puppy. So free time has been in short supply!
However, I remembered a finger independence exercise from my childhood last week when I was in a lesson with my student Evie. I don’t know what it’s called, so we named it “Second Finger Sit-Ups”.
Evie is at the point in her beginner book when she is playing tunes with both high and low 2nd fingers, sometimes back-to-back or with just a note in between. She has a great ear, but her fingers don’t always do what they are supposed to.
And so, Second Finger Sit-Ups:
With just the left hand (no bow), place your 1st finger on the D string (on an E) and your 3rd finger on the A string (on a D). Then move your 2nd finger back and forth from F# (high 2 on the D string) to C natural (low 2 on the A string) while keeping the 1st and 3rd fingers down.
Go slow at first, and make sure your hand stays relaxed. Tapping your thumb while keeping the fingers down helps release the tension, and imagine your left hand hanging on the fingerboard by the tips of your fingers.
Use your 1st and 3rd fingers as guides for where to put your second finger: high 2s just behind the 3rd finger and low 2s just in front of the 1st finger. And you don’t have to raise the 2nd finger very high – just enough to move it cleanly to the next string.
Be sure to tap the 2nd finger on the tip, inside corner, and keep all your fingers round and relaxed.
Evie had trouble at first lifting and lowering the 2nd finger. It’s like you’re looking at the finger, but it won’t move and you don’t know why. Try touching the top of the second finger to help your brain make the connection.
At first it feels a little like the first time you tried to tap your head and rub your stomach, but if you go slowly and do it a little every day, you’ll get it.
I usually write about music and teaching music, but this is one for the “running the business” side of having a music studio.
Like many private studio teachers, my students come to the house. I love this arrangement. There is no commute. I can grab a cup of coffee between students or throw in a load of laundry. I get to keep all the money rather than pay a percentage or rent to a commercial studio or music store.
But there are downsides. My teaching hours are restricted to those times that don’t disrupt the rest of the household, which for me means no evening or weekend lessons. I have to keep the house clean and neat and the lawn mowed. Morning students sometimes get a whiff of breakfast bacon and coffee or dinner in the crockpot. And we have cats.
My husband happens to be allergic to cats. But before you conclude that he is being a hero and a martyr to my desire for cats, let me point out that I am a dog person. He is the cat lover, so we have cats because he wants them. And in order to make this work, we discovered Ace Allergy Drops, which also happens to benefit my students and their family members who are also allergic to cats.
Here is how it works. People are generally not allergic to the actual fur or dander on cats, they are allergic to the protein in the cat’s saliva which gets all over their fur when they clean themselves. And someone very clever discovered that if you give cats a very lose dose of acepromazine (a pet tranquilizer) they stop producing that protein in their saliva.
The formula: one 5 mg acepromazine tablet crushed up and dissolved in 30 ml (one ounce) of distilled water. Store it in the refrigerator and shake it up before adding about 5-6 drops to the cat’s food once a day. It should take effect within 2-4 weeks.
You’ll need a prescription from your vet. Ours was skeptical, but was willing to make up the solution for $30 a bottle, which lasts us about 3 months. We have not noticed any behavioral effects on the cats – no lethargy (well, aside from the fact that they are cats), no tendency to get sick more easily, no dullness in their emotional connection to us. They still hate each other. They are utterly themselves, even with the drops.
About a month ago we were really busy with back-to-back trips and visits from family when we ran out of the drops. My husband said he didn’t think they were working anyway, so I didn’t get the prescription refilled. Then the mother of one of my students asked me at the end of a lesson if we were still giving the drops to our cats. Her nose was runny…. Yay! They do work.
When someone decides to start taking violin or viola lessons, here is the typical list of equipment:
For some reason, music stores and music teachers talk a lot about the different kinds of shoulder rests available and how to adjust them to fit the shape of your shoulder. But we almost never talk about the importance of getting the right chin rest, even though they are easy to replace, inexpensive, and play a critical role in how comfortably you can hold up your instrument.
Most chin rests mount to the left of the tailpiece, even though only about 30% of the population fits this style. The rest of us need some version of the center-mount chin rest, because that is where our jaws naturally fall when the instrument is properly balanced on the left collarbone. (Btw, it really should be called a “jaw rest”. You don’t put your chin on it, you rest the side of your jaw on it.)
Even if you need your chin rest on the left, there are several different shapes available and the one you have on your instrument might not be the most comfortable for you.
I’m currently teaching a beginner viola class at an elementary school (a terrible way to learn a stringed instrument, btw, but we do our best for the kids who will never take private lessons) and for most of these kids, holding their instruments correctly is really uncomfortable. They try to adjust by holding the viola in front, “viola beard” style, because it doesn’t hurt that way. How do you tell a kid that even though it hurts, they are doing it right? “Play” is supposed to feel good, not hurt. That goes for playing an instrument too.
And so, I wish that every music store that rents violins and violas would stock a good variety of chin rest styles, and that they would spend time helping the student get the right chin rest for them, just as they make sure the student gets the right size instrument and the right shoulder rest. It should be a standard part of fitting a student to the right instrument.
Here’s how it works:
Have the student stand facing you. Tell her not to move anything, but to let you place her hands/arms/head around the viola. Balance the instrument on her left collarbone, all the way against her neck, parallel with the floor, at a 45° angle. If you are standing in the middle of the room facing a wall, the scroll should point into the front left corner.
Place the student’s left hand in playing position with the palm of her hand up against the shoulder of the viola and her fingers hovering like an umbrella over the strings.
Have her move her head up and down and side to side (like saying “yes” and “no”) to make sure her head is comfortably upright and centered. Then help turn her head slightly to her left and gently rest the left side of her jaw down on the instrument. Her head should drop just an inch, and the natural weight of her head should make it easy for her to hold the viola up with her arms down at her sides.
Is the current chin rest cupping her face comfortably? Or is it off to the left, and her jaw comes down on the edge of the chin rest, or sits on the tailpiece? Does she instinctively want to stick her chin out, or cock her head, or move the viola higher on her shoulder or down in front of her?
Try different chin rests until you find the one that sits directly underneath her left jaw and feels comfortable. It should feel to her like the viola is nestled comfortably, not pulling away from her. There should be no sharp edges poking under her jaw or hard lumps pushing her head out of the way. She should be able to turn her head to look forward and back down the fingerboard.
Here are several styles to try: https://www.sharmusic.com/Accessories/Chinrests/
If you are renting your instrument, keep the chin rest that came with it somewhere safe so that when you return it, you can put it back on.
Email me if you have any questions.
This summer I was able to take a break from teaching and be a student for 10 days. The Indiana University Jacobs School of Music has an annual summer violin & viola teachers’ “retreat” – but as intense as it is, there is no retreating about it. I came home with a thick binder, a notebook full of notes, and a head exploding with information to apply to teaching my own students. It was very good, but it is going to take me a while to process it all.
Though I live in the Seattle area, I just happened to be in the Midwest the week before the workshop at my parents’ 60th anniversary party at the south shores of Lake Michigan, not far from their hometown of South Bend. The lake house where we were staying was just a half day’s drive south to Bloomington for the workshop.
I got up early Friday morning, missing the first half day of the workshop and the last 2 days of my family’s reunion. No one else was up except my husband and parents to see me off. And as I was closing up my suitcase, I saw a tick. Then discovered one on the back of my neck. Took off my blouse, and found two more! Thankfully my husband was able to confirm that there were no more on me while my parents went through my stuff.
I didn't find any more ticks, but I was still a bit rattled when I arrived at the workshop, having missed the orientation and barely making the first lecture Friday afternoon. But Brenda Brenner, who manages the workshop and is a friend of mine, gave me a hug after her lecture that afternoon. Brenda is a pedagogy professor at IU and founder of The Fairview Violin Project, which is a public school program that teaches beginning violin classes in a Title 1 school near Bloomington, IN. Brenda and I played in the youth symphony quartet together back in high school. And she went to the prom with my brother Greg. 😊
And then at dinner, I happened to sit next to Rebecca Henry, one of the workshop's professors. As we talked, we discovered that we are both from South Bend; that her parents went to all my dad’s concerts when we lived there in the late 60s/early 70s; and that her sister Ruth was a friend of mine in elementary school!
The workshop is headed by Mimi Zweig, renowned pedagogy expert at the Jacobs School, founder of string academies in Wisconsin and at IU, and former teacher of violinist Joshua Bell. (Here is Joshua while he was studying with Mimi; and here is Joshua as an adult.) Her eclectic mix of theoretical approaches includes Suzuki, Paul Rolland, and several others as well as her own thoughts on setting up a "non-judgmental environment" for students to learn.
And then there were several other pedagogy professors from around the country, all proteges of Mimi’s. My group and private teacher for the workshop was violist/violinist Jim Przygocki from the University of Wyoming and founder of the UW String Project. (Are you seeing a pattern here?) Such a nice man and an excellent teacher! His wife, violinist Sherry Sinift, also gave some of the lectures and played on one of the several excellent concerts we were able to attend.
All of the professors at the retreat are involved with community string programs, including Rebecca Henry. She teaches pedagogy at Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore and is also the founder of ViolinPractice.com.
Also teaching at the workshop were Elizabeth Zempel and Bonnie Greene, both experts in teaching young children and both from Wisconsin. Bonnie has collected folk tunes from all over the world and publishes her own collections and others' string music at One World Strings.
I don’t know about previous summers, but this year was quite international. There were several from Canada who are involved with El Sistema, a music education program that started in Venezuela to teach children from the slums. There were teachers from Korea, Japan, Australia, Spain and Portugal, Brazil, and India, as well as several states in the US.
This summer also drew a lot of young teachers in their late 20s to early 30s. There were a few around 40, and then the three of us "older" ladies: me, Sarah from Muncie, IN, and Jane from Prestwick, Scotland. All three of u are on our second (or third) careers and set up our teaching studios two years ago. It was lovely to get to know these women! We were often joined by our friend Paul from SoCal. Here is a picture of the four of us at the Irish Lion in Bloomington.
And here are Jane and Sarah:
On the last day of the workshop we all gathered at Mimi’s house for our last session (Kreutzer etudes!) and brunch. We got a chance to chat with the professors more, and I was surprised to learn that they thought this workshop would run for a few years and then stop – because there would be no more teachers interested. But every summer they get a new crop of about 30-35 teachers, even now after a couple of decades. I hope they continue. It is excellent.
If you are interested in attending the workshop and have any questions about my experience there, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Somehow, the word “discipline” has become synonymous with “punishment”. Corporate HR departments and public school administrations have “disciplinary procedures”: the process to follow when someone breaks the rules. A parent might be referred to as a “disciplinarian”, meaning they are the parent who punishes you when you disobey.
This isn’t particularly new. In fact, Merriam Webster says that in the 13th century, the term referred to religiously inspired punishment, such as self-flagellation. These are probably the same people who misunderstood the proverb “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” More on that in a minute.
In my opinion, all of this is a misunderstanding of the word. Just as “discipline” sometimes refers to a body of knowledge or field of study, the word originally referred to the activities of a student who is learning something or following a particular teacher. That student is a “disciple”.
Learning something well requires regular, consistent, persistent, and sometimes repetitive action. This is discipline, and it takes time. No punishment is needed, just motivation to do it, do it correctly, or at least do it better than the last time, and keep on doing it.
Few things in life require as much discipline as learning to play an instrument. This is one of the reasons why music students score higher on their SATs, do better in math and science classes, and are pursued by law schools and med schools. In order to succeed in learning an instrument and getting good at it (where the fun really begins) you have to have developed a capacity for discipline. Therefore, you are already used to the dedication needed to study law (so much reading!) or medicine (long, long hours) or any body of knowledge that takes concentration over a long period of time.
One of the hardest things I do as a violin teacher is teach my students how to practice. It isn’t consistent with our culture to stop playing with your friends, or turn off the video game, and go practice. Alone. Doing something that, at first, feels awkward and sounds terrible! And later, it sometimes feels like a journey that never ends. It's hard to notice improvement, which would be so encouraging if it were obvious!
I don’t believe in punishment for failure to practice, by the way. That “rod” that we’re not supposed to spare was originally referring to a shepherd’s crook. And a shepherd would never use his rod to hit his sheep! If he did, he would either damage them or chase them away. He might use the rod to hit or threaten a predator, but for the sheep, the rod was for guiding and keeping them on the path and moving in the right direction. This is what a good parent does.
Parents play an important role in helping their child to practice – not being there with them, though occasionally that is a good idea, but creating the conditions that make good, consistent practicing possible. Parents can help by setting aside a space that is relatively free from distractions (the TV isn’t on 20 feet away), setting a regular time every day that doesn’t conflict with other desirable activities (“We’re going to the park to play; you stay here and practice.”), reminding the student that it’s time to play violin, and not tolerating excuses.
Here are some ideas I have come across that might work for you:
I once heard discipline described visually in this way:
Water is the talent. The riverbanks are the discipline. If you have no riverbanks, you have a swamp full of stagnant, smelly, muddy water. But if you have good boundaries, the water flows – sometimes very rapidly – in one direction, eventually reaching its goal.
Forty years ago, I switched from violin to viola. Jeff Irvine – fresh from a master’s degree at Eastman – was my first viola teacher, and the best string teacher I ever had. Several years later he became my sister-in-law’s viola professor at Oberlin Conservatory. And this last weekend we were all together at the Viola Festival at UNLV, where Kate is the viola professor.
Jeff was the featured guest, escaping from the snowy weather in Cleveland for a few days in the Nevada sunshine. He gave a master class, played in the viola choir, and hung out with Kate and me. Just as I remember him, Jeff is kind, generous, and engaging. He obviously cares about the people he is working with. He always starts with positive feedback before identifying the weaknesses. He asks questions, uses insightful analogies, demonstrates and coaches through new techniques and approaches to problem solving. Jeff was the first teacher who walked all around me while I played, observing my form from all angles and correcting a bow hold here or a neck tilt there. It was unnerving at first, but he caught things my previous string teachers hadn’t noticed for years. I soon came to appreciate his unconventional style, and rapidly improved.
Cuban American violist Yunior Lopez gave the master class for high school students from the community. In addition to performing and teaching viola students, he is the founder and conductor of the Young Artists Orchestra in Las Vegas. I didn't get a photo of his master class, but you can check out these excellent performances by Yunior and a few of his high school musicians: Bach Chaconne for Four Violas and Brandenburg #6.
If you’re not sure you like the sound of the viola, listen to a viola choir – you will develop a new appreciation for this beautiful, rich sounding instrument. Twenty-five of us gathered on the stage to play a few pieces, where finally, with no violins in sight, we got to play the melody. And that melody wasn’t just for the Viola 1 part: violists are nice people, and we like sharing. Each of the four parts took turns playing melody, harmony, and accompaniment.
It was a great group of violists – visiting professionals, teachers and musicians from the community, college students and high school students. And Joey, the extremely well-behaved black Pomeranian mix, who wandered among us on stage during the viola choir rehearsal wagging his tail and enjoying the beautiful music.
Hopefully, this will become an annual event!
Fingering: One of the first things for more advanced students to do – when the basics I’ve already described become second nature – is look through the music to see what notes go higher than first position. Once you are used to shifting you will be able to figure out a good place to shift up and when to shift down. And if you can figure this out before you get there, you won’t need to stop and figure it out.
Articulations, Dynamics, and Other Nuances: For more advanced music and musicians, you’ll want to look at the markings the composer has written into the music – e.g. slurs, staccato or spiccato, up-bows and down-bows; mezzo-pianos and fortes and crescendos; fermatas and caesuras and ritards; and so on. Just take a quick look over the page to be aware of what’s coming up so it won’t take you by surprise.
Intervals: Musicians who have had ear training have a huge advantage over those who haven’t. If you’re one of the lucky ones, you can hear intervals in your head when you look at the notes. This helps you anticipate what the next note is going to sound like. When your eyes, ears, and fingers are all helping, you will be much more fluent in your note reading.
Scale degrees: For more advanced students, I ask them to look at what note the piece starts on. Where in the scale is that note? Musicians who know their scale degrees and intervals can hear it in their heads, and can hum the music out loud.
Eventually, your goal is to read music the way you read a book. You don’t know how the story goes before you turn to Chapter 1, right? But as you read the words, the story unfolds. You can hear the words and get pictures in your mind as you read. Sight reading music is the same: by looking at the music, you will hear it and feel it without playing a single note.
Over the last two months I have been writing about sight-reading skills. First I discussed the importance of developing these skills, and the levels of ability. Next I outlined the basics I start with when teaching young and less advanced students. Here, I go into more detail, and I'll post a bonus section for more advanced musicians next month.
More details about key signature
Major & Minor Keys: Usually at first, we are just working with major keys. But when we come across a minor key, I explain the concept of relative minor and show the student how to find the minor key a minor third down. It’s a little tricky for younger and less experienced students to understand, but with repetition everyone gets it eventually.
To explain the concept of relative minors, I talk about relatives having the same signature – the same last name – but are different people. This helps students remember that E minor and G major, for example, are relatives; they have the same last name and “sign their names the same way” – with an F#.
Next I point out that a lot of music starts and ends on the tonic (e.g. C is the tonic in C major). Not always, but it’s a clue if you’re not sure (and might be a clue that this one is in the relative minor). And I have them find the lowest of that note on their instrument and play a scale in that key so they orient their ear.
Accidentals: I ask students to look for accidentals, so they’re ready when they get to them. And I ask: Will you just slide your finger up or down when you get to that note, or is that going to be an extra wide stretch from first to third finger, or…? Those might just be chromatic notes, or they might indicate a modulation to another key.
More details about rhythm and meter
Rhythm: In addition to clapping the rhythm, I also have students look for anything unusual; for example, a triplet in 4-4 time, syncopated notes, or ties across a barline.
Tempo Marking: We look at the context for the rhythms and meter, because the tempo can have a dramatic effect on how the music sounds and is played.
Form: I might also have students take a step back to look at the big picture, the “road map”.
Putting It All Together
Once a student can do all of the basics pretty easily with prompting, I start having them do it silently in their heads. We turn the page to a new piece of music, and I wait while they look at all the basic elements. When they’re ready, they give it a shot (starting with a quick one-octave scale if they want to orient their ear), and then I compliment them on the parts they got right and have them take another look at the sections they missed.
What we are aiming for is a musically expressive rendition of what’s on the page. Slowly (with practice) students move from the music equivalent of “See – Jane – run – see – Dick – run – see – Spot – run” to a dramatic interpretation of whatever the composer wrote. And eventually, musicians learn to do all of this pretty quickly. You won’t need to play a quick scale to orient your ear to the key, because you’ll be able to hear the notes in your head and translate that as you play.
Things that help:
Have fun, and don’t be in a hurry. You will learn how to do this, but it will take time. If you want, record yourself trying to sight read something today, and then in a year record yourself again. If you have been working on it consistently, you will be amazed at how much better you are!
Quodlibet: A piece employing several well-known tunes from various sources, performed either simultaneously or in succession. (Schirmer Pocket Manual of Musical Terms)