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Showing posts from 2012

Approaching Music like an Athlete

Music is an intellectual pastime. Though any full-time musician will tell you that there is definitely a physical element, I don't think anyone would necessarily qualify it as a "sport." Now, we could go back and forth arguing about this, but it isn't really the point of this particular post. The point I wanted to make is that those that don't play an instrument already will immediately categorize music as a "study" rather than "training."

I think this lack of awareness of the physicality of instrument playing is the cause of 99% of all frustrations for beginning students regardless of age. As soon as they know how to do something they should be able to do that something, right? Well, if you were memorizing history dates, I would say yes. But playing an instrument requires muscles.

Yes, muscles. Those poor finger and back muscles are so easy to forget. Playing an exercise once on your instrument is like running once around a track and sa…

Understanding the Student's Goals

The goals of a music student are something that are easily looked over and often a source of frustration for teachers. Something to keep in mind is that the music teacher is someone already invested in music. He or she obviously values their instrument enough to not only have kept playing over the years but also to now be teaching others how to play. Even if teaching isn't a dream job, they wouldn't be doing it at all if they thought it was a complete waste of time.

This kind of passion is something that every teacher wants to pass on to their students. The "perfect student" is the one that regularly practices exactly what you told them to practice and is excited to learn more. No muss, no fuss.

But the "perfect student" is few and far between. I think this is where the teacher must take a step back in order to figure out what the student wants to accomplish. Are the parents putting their child through music lessons to score scholarships and create the…

Keeping a Child Interested in Practicing

Keeping a child interested in practicing their musical instrument is an extremely difficult task for a parent. The first thing to do is come to grips with the fact that every music student has practicing low points. It is part of the learning process. A month of not wanting to practice is not an indication in the level of interest in the instrument. To expect a music student to be enthusiastic about practicing every day is about as reasonable as expecting someone to look forward to the gym every day.

However, there are definitely way to smooth out the process. Practicing at the same time every day helps make the process a routine. Trouble usually arises when practicing is not part of the usual daily schedule. It needs to become a habit like brushing your teeth.

Giving a student some sense of control over the practice session also helps. With older students this is much easier. They are mature enough to handle solo practice sessions. With younger students, more creativity is req…

Free Time vs. Focused Time vs. Productive Time: They're NOT the same

I am a Suzuki violin teacher.  But I'm also a writer.  I've enjoyed writing since high school but I didn't really start publishing my work until late 2010.  Even then I only really considered writing to be a sort of hobby.  I wrote when I felt like it.  Which meant that sometimes I would have really productive months and sometimes weeks would slip by without a word written.

Now writing, just like playing the violin, is a craft.  It takes both time and effort to hone your skills.  As my writing projects/ideas started to pile up I realized that if I wanted to start seriously making a steady side income from writing, I was going to have to start approaching writing not as a hobby but as a business.

Which meant I had to start thinking about how I was using my time.  When I first started I wrote in my free time.   Free time is kind of a vague concept.  I think if we're honest with ourselves we actually have lots of free time but the only time it really registers with us is …

Staying In Control of Your Classroom

It is the worst nightmare of every teacher to be stuck in a classroom full of energetic children that seem to be set on not listening to a word you are saying. One of the most difficult lessons to learn as a teacher is to not cave into your first reaction to this type of scenario: yelling at them to be quiet. To make improvements, you must analyze why you lost control of your classroom. There could be any number of reasons, but the two most common are: the students have been sitting still for too long and/or the activity is too difficult for them.

Children need to move. There is nothing wrong with having to burn off some excess energy. As adults, we naturally lose some of that energy so it is easy to forget that is an extremely important part of a child’s day. Signs that the children are becoming “antsy” include hopping around in place, bothering the child next to them and frequent glancing out the window. When these signs appear, it is the teacher’s job to redirect t…

Review of O'Connor Violin Method Book 1

When I first heard about these O'Connor fiddle books I was actually pretty excited. I am very open to the idea of teaching kids pedagogically using American tunes and the fiddling world has been long overdue for something like this.  This is a genre of music that really needs to be systemized.  As in, there needs to be readily accessible books/tools for teachers to use with their beginning students.

So in that sense, this book does a credible job.  It nicely lays out fiddle tunes in a progressively more difficult order.  The CD accompanying the book is well put together.  Throughout the book there are also suggestions on little variations you could add here and there to each piece if you wanted to get experimental and try some improvisation.  I actually kind of wish this had been emphasized more since improvisation is such a large part of fiddling.

From a teaching perspective, the O'Connor method book does not teach basic violin technique quite as smoothly as the Suzuki books…

How DO Suzuki Students Learn Their Pieces?

There is nothing especially mysterious about the process of teaching a three, four or five year old how to play an instrument. I have experienced many instances where parents have inquired about music lessons for their young child and repeatedly asked during the conversation “so they’ll actually be able to play an instrument?” The straightforward answer to this question is another question: “do you think they can play?”

The Suzuki method breaks everything down to the simpler task. This is why sight reading is taught as a separate entity. It would be difficult for anyone of any age to attempt the complex task of playing an instrument while trying to figure out how to read music at the same time. Therefore, beginning students are taught their pieces by ear; listening and repeating is a skill most people have already mastered at a young age.

Most of what goes in to learning an instrument has nothing to do with the actual playing. One really good example would be the ability to sit …

Interview with Laurie Niles on and the Internet Changing Musical Education

Welcome to Rethinking Genius, Laurie! Please introduce yourself and tell us how came to be.

My name is Laurie Niles, and I'm a violinist, teacher, and the founder of the website I first spotted the violin in my public school classroom, and it was love at first sight. I took lessons, I practiced many hours. I earned a Bachelor's degree in music at Northwestern University, then a graduate degree in journalism at Indiana University. That's where I also met my husband, Robert, who started building websites in the mid-90s. As for me, I played in many orchestras, taught violin, and also worked as a newspaper reporter.

You might guess, it was this combination of my intense love for the violin and his for the Internet that led him to buy me the domain name "" as a Christmas present in 1996. The website evolved, based on how I thought it could help people. At first, I started a directory to allow people post their resumes on the…

Practice What You Teach While You Teach It

The catch 22 of teaching an instrument is that often times you will be too tired to play at the end of the day simply because you've been playing said instrument all day with your students. This presents a bit of a problem in the area of self-improvement.

I haven't had a violin lesson in over 10 years. I switched to viola and it became my primary instrument through high school and college. I realized that if I wanted to continue to grow as a violin teacher, I was going to have to find a teacher for myself; just to keep my playing in check.

After much searching, I found a teacher who could take me on a monthly basis. This was perfect since I'm pretty sure weekly lessons would have been the last straw that broke the camel's back. We had our first lesson a few weeks ago and she was simply excellent to work with.

One thing my new teacher was extremely helpful with was giving me technique to work on WHILE I play with my students. I realized then that I really undervalued…

A Constant State of Learning

One of the best things I ever did for my teaching/playing was not sign up with an orchestra; I signed up for Tai Chi instead.

When I had finished with my Bachelor's degree and my teaching was just starting to get underway, I was looking into activities that would get me out of the house. My first inclination was to check out orchestras. I figured it would be a great way to meet local musicians and network.

For several months, I looked into various adult volunteer orchestras. I talked to conductors, checked out past and present concert lists.... the works. In the process of doing this, I started really thinking about something a teacher trainer once told me about how it's important to always be in a constant state of learning.

I most definitely do not know everything there is to know about music. And being in an orchestra would have for sure put me in a state of learning. But I realized how easy it would be for me to be consumed by musical activities. Music is my job and…

Interview with Lynn McCall on Suzuki Early Childhood Music Education

This interview is a follow up with the host from last week's video, Lynn McCall.  You can watch the video here.
Welcome to Rethinking Genius, Lynn! Please start out by introducing yourself and telling us how you got into Suzuki Early Childhood Education (SECE) classes. Maybe also tell us a little about your school?

Hi my name is Lynn McCall and I am the Director and co founder of the Alyla Suzuki Early Childhood Music Center. Our school is the Pilot program and the first in Conn. to offer the Suzuki Early Childhood Education program. This unique, program, taught through Sinichi Suzuki’s renowned “Mother Tongue Method” was introduced about 10 years ago in the U.S. and is gaining recognition throughout . It is fully sanctioned and offered for registration through the Suzuki Association of the Americas. Since starting the pilot program in 2006 we are now in many Suzuki programs throughout Conn, and the U.S.

One topic that really caught my attention in your video is that idea of a calm …

Building the foundation for a lifetime: Suzuki Method for Early Childhood Education

A very interesting video on Suzuki Early Childhood Education classes.  Shows the classes in action and what participating parents think about the program.

Like Brushing Your Teeth

One of my teacher trainers told me that practicing should be like brushing your teeth. There is never a day when your tooth brushing is affected by other events in your day. The process is completely emotionally detached.

I mulled over her words of wisdom for quite some time after she said them to me. What struck me the most was the suggestion of emotionally detaching myself. All my life I have been told that music is supposed to express emotion. So it was almost like it would be wrong to try and strip that away.

For me, the teeth brushing example was a very interesting concept. I realized that the level of habitual repetition of that daily routine is rarely achieved in any other life areas. Dishes get put off, vacuuming, shopping for groceries.... but I always make the time to brush my teeth.

Always making the time for practice? A lofty ideal indeed.

Interview with Dorothy Jones on Suzuki Early Childhood Education

Welcome to Rethinking Genius, Dorothy! Please introduce yourself and give a us a little background on your history with the Suzuki Method.

I am a Suzuki specialist in Early Childhood Education.  I founded a Suzuki School in London Ontario Canada. In 1993, the ISA approved my program in Early Childhood Education and designated my school as a world Teacher Training Centre.

Past President of the Suzuki Association of the Americas (SAA) past board member of the ISA, I was a founding member of the Board of the Suzuki Association of Ontario and served as President of that organization. I have been a Suzuki parent, Piano Teacher Trainer and keynote speaker at conferences and workshops around the world for over 41 years. I am recognized as a Suzuki Early Childhood Education (SECE) teacher trainer in the Suzuki Association of the Americas (SAA), the European Suzuki Association (ESA) and the Pan Pacific Suzuki Association (PPSA).

Explain to us what Suzuki Early Childhood Education (SECE) classe…

Establishing an Independent Musician

A quintessential point made by Dr. Suzuki is that music teachers are not just making better musicians; they are making better human beings. This somewhat daunting task may be boiled down to the more tangible goal of creating an independent musician. The establishing of an independent musician begins as soon as that very first lesson.

Young children rely on their parents for just about everything. The parent is their provider and protector. So, in many ways, the parent is a child’s medium to the outside world. They pick up cues from their parents on how they should respond to strange situations. This is very important for a teacher to keep in mind especially when first interacting with a young student. It should not be a teacher’s goal to instantly befriend the child. Rather, the initial main focus should be on the parent. If a child sees that their parent is relaxed and willing to talk around this new and unfamiliar person, so too will they be relaxed and more inclined to talk…

Be Willing to Listen and Change

It’s an interesting irony that in the process of teaching a student how to expand their mind with music a teacher can, in fact, become close-minded. A teacher is expected to have the answers. But in order to be this authority figure, the teacher must be firm in why they teach things a certain way. “This is what you should do and this is why you do it.”

This firmness of opinion is not necessarily a bad thing. Students need that sense of structure to help them move forward. When working with young children, the parents need the reassurance from the teacher that they are making the right decisions.

By constantly being an authority it is easy to forget that you may not actually have all the answers. Equally important is a willingness to listen and change. You may know how to teach the violin but the parent may know their child better than you.

In order for learning to take place there has to be a meeting in the middle ground somewhere. The job of the teacher is not to super…

Let's Have Fun, Kids!

"I am mentally preparing myself for the five-year-old mind. I want to come down to their physical limitations and up to their sense of wonder and awe." -Dr. Suzuki

As a violin teacher, a subject that seems to crop up a lot in my daily work is the notion of "fun." Students would, of course, rather have fun than work. Teachers strive to create both fun AND productive activities. Parents worry that their child is not having fun anymore while practicing at home.

There are mountains of books written (which, of course, I've read) pouring over how to make a fun learning environment. What does and doesn't work in different educational settings is covered ad nauseum.

I realized the other day after coming across the above Dr. Suzuki quote that it's kind of ironic how much adults over-analyze "fun." What a fun lesson really boils down to is: if the teacher is not having fun, why should the kids? The essence of fun is that it's entertaining, …

Allowing Yourself Time to Learn

Playing a musical instrument is an all-encompassing activity.  It can become therapeutic for people just by its very nature. It forces the student to take time to examine himself or herself in a way that our culture does not normally require. Often times the difference between a beautiful sound and squeaks on the violin is just taking a moment to ensure that your bow is on the right part of the instrument. The student may know where the bow goes; it’s that taking a moment to check that must be trained.

With so many things going on in our lives (jobs, families, social activities, extra activities, etc.), private music lessons are a good way to press the “reset button.” In a world where instant knowledge is widespread, learning a slow, difficult task will make you reexamine your concept of time.

Much of a student’s success with an instrument will depend on if they allow themselves the time to learn. Starting something new is exciting but eventually this excitement ends and the re…

Rethinking Genius

Last week I posted a blog questioning why it is that we classify Bach as a musical genius. The subsequent discussion began to touch on what the word "genius" really means. I would like to expand on that discussion.

I am the type of person who learns best through debate. I like to present theories to have holes poked in them. With this in mind, I would like to present the following theory: in American culture, the concept of "genius" has been blown out of proportion to the point where it is now used as an excuse for failure rather than a description for merit.

My arguments for this theory are as follows:

The purest definition of genius is synonymous with idiot-savant. An idiot-savant is someone who excels in one particular area to the point that they are dysfunctional in all other areas. For example, an idiot-savant in math can do incredibly complex math calculations in their head. But, in these cases, math calculations are usually all they can do. They will h…

What Makes Bach a Musical Genius?

I was sitting in my music appreciation class the other day. Since we are studying the Baroque period, the teacher showed us a short film on the life of Bach. The film was one of those typical history documentaries: lots of British narration interspersed with commentary from experts in various fields.

One thing I've noticed is that people (myself included) always assume Bach's genius. In the film I watched in class, both a neuroscientist and a psychologist spoke in-depth about the brilliance of Bach and how this may be attributed to the musical centers in his brain being slightly larger than average.

At this point I had to pause and think: why do we assume this man is a genius? I've heard that enlarged brain story and I don't buy it. Every single musician has enlarged music centers in their brain. Cat scans and research have proven that (see Oliver Sacks). Was it his amazing output of music? Bach came from a musical family. His composition efforts were encourag…

Beginning Improvisation

I would like to continue with the train of thought from my last blog. Previously, I had discussed the importance of experimenting with improvisation. Improvisation teaches a different set of skills that can help to enhance your abilities as both a classical musician and performer.

While it's important to teach these things to students, it is difficult to introduce subjects that you, as the teacher, may be uncomfortable with. Despite its daunting appearance, learning to improvise is no different from learning a technically complex violin concerto. It must be systematically broken up into smaller tasks that can be easily managed.

One of the easiest things to do is to start listening to improvisation. Get all the books you want, but the "jazz swing" is not something you can notate accurately. Reading music as a jazz violinist rather than a classical violinist is an acquired skill. Knowing how a particular genre should sound is a huge step in the right direction.


10 Repetition Games for Young Musicians

The idea of not just practice but repetition is one of the hardest lessons to instill in a young student.  A five year old student is not going to understand why he has to practice now so that he can play really well later.

Games remove the emotional aspect of tedious repetition.  They become the neutral third party that "decided" how many times something must be done. This transforms a frustrating activity into something fun. A student that is having fun will be more open to corrections which makes the work they’re doing more productive.
I have put together a booklet to give a parent/teacher ideas for repetition games.  All of the games are things that I have tried myself in the private lesson environment.  I explain both how to play the game and what it is about the game that makes it interesting to children.  An old game can often be made new and interesting my merely adding/changing one small element.

You can find this booklet on AmazonBarnes & Noble and most ma…

Rethinking Improvisation

I think that improvisation is often overlooked these days by classical musicians. Classical music is, in many ways, very safe. Everything is already figured out for you. Notes, dynamics, key changes, even fingerings are already written down. As musicians, all we really have to do is get the coordination to play it and maybe add a little of our own artistic interpretation. Easy right?

Maybe not. But with so much initial information presented to us before we even attempt to play, the chances of playing a piece "wrong" the first few times is much higher than playing it "right." This is not an entirely bad thing. It instills in us a drive for perfection. To work hard until the desired result is achieved.

But this sense of achieving perfection must be balanced out. We've all hit ruts at some point when learning one song or another. Even when the teacher is encouraging, we still think on some level "I didn't play that piece correctly because I mes…

Teaching En Masse?

I would like to explore the stereotypical school music setting. From what I understand from talking to friends who teach in this type of environment, students are assigned or pick out an instrument to play in orchestra or band. The teacher then covers basic, basic technique for each instrument. Students are then highly encouraged, but not always required, to seek instruction from a private teacher outside of school.

Does this work? Granted, I do not have a ton of experience teaching orchestra in the school setting. But when I did, it kind of felt at times like I was babysitting with instruments. To me, this seems like a really frustrating learning experience for everyone involved. The teacher can't possibly give everyone the individual attention they need. The students are drowning in a sea of new material. And then the parents get frustrated when they think their kid is being ignored in class.

I kind of have to wonder that if this is the face of music in schools, would chi…

Interview with Chris Graber on Google Groups

Welcome to Rethinking Genius, Chris! Let's start out by having you introduce yourself. Tell us about your own musical background and why you ended up becoming a Suzuki parent.

My daughter and I have been learning Suzuki violin for about two years now. As a child I was always drawn to music, but never had any formal training. Throughout the years I've played all sorts of instruments in different settings, but in a very "self taught" way.

As a past kindergarten teacher, my wife has a strong background in early childhood development. We both thought it would be good to have our children start learning instruments very early on. She had heard of the Suzuki method through the grapevine, so when our daughter was turning 6 we did a little research and found a teacher in our area. We knew that learning violin required some structure and the Suzuki method seemed to provide just that. Our teacher was open to teaching adults as well, so I thought it'd be a great opportun…

Musical Talent: Nature vs. Nurture

For the most part, I don't believe in a "musical gene." I will concede that there is such a thing as a musical genius. But these people, regardless of the field they crop up in, are more the exception rather than the rule.

A child growing up in a musical family will have a distinct head start in a musical career over children who come from a non-musical family. I think that examples of this that are seen in history are largely responsible for this notion of a "musical gene." "Of course Bach was a musical genius. He inherited all those good musical genes from his father." Bach's father and all of his uncles were professional musicians. He was encouraged from a very early age to explore music. Bach's musical accomplishments were loudly applauded by his entire family rather than discouraged and frowned upon. How could the young Bach fail to have, at the very least, an interest in music with this kind of environment?

What is sad for me to…

Interview with Renata Bratt on Alternative Playing Styles

Welcome to Rethinking Genius, Renata! Why don't you start out by telling us about yourself and what kind of teaching background you have.

I’ve been teaching since I finished my undergraduate work at Pomona College in Claremont. For a while I was the “regular” cello teacher at the Claremont Community Music School and Rick Mooney (a registered teacher trainer with the Suzuki Association of the Americas) was the Suzuki cello teacher. I was fortunate to be living in Claremont for a number of years and to observe the beautiful teaching styles of the cello teachers at the National Cello Institute which is based there. I was able to take a couple of masterclass series with Margaret Rowell – a cello teacher who has been a huge influence on Suzuki style cello teaching.

Then I finished up my Master’s degree in performance from California State University at Northridge and moved down to San Diegowhere I got my Ph. D. in music from the University of California there. Directly after I finished…

Sure they can hear it.... but can a Suzuki student read Music?

It was suggested to me via private message responses that I cover sight reading in the Suzuki method for my next blog. I feel like this is an excellent facet to touch on.

So can a Suzuki student read music? Talk about a loaded question. More often than not, "traditionally" taught teachers and players will scoff at the Suzuki Method for this reason alone. It is a very common misconception that the "Suzuki Method" teaches students to learn by ear alone. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Regardless of the method being taught, a great deal actually depends on the teacher (shocking, I know). When the Suzuki Method hit the United States, it created this huge phenomenon. Suddenly there was this series of books out there that practically taught students for you! How easy is that?!? The pieces build on themselves in regards to techninque, there's no higher power saying that you have to be "authorized" to teach Suzuki, all you have to do is tell…

Interview with Christine Nguyen on a Parent's Perspective of the Suzuki Method

Welcome to Rethinking Genius, Christine! Why don't you start out by introducing yourself. How long have you been a Suzuki parent, do you have any musical/teaching experience, what made you decide on a Suzuki teacher, etc...

I am a mother of three beautiful children, a science teacher and a Suzuki parent for just over 3 years. As a child, I learned the mandolin until that “stubborn” phase when I refused to practice. My parents were business people so it was up to me to practice on my own. There was no one to help me through the difficult patch I got discouraged and practice became more of a chore than a joy which led to the eventual termination of the mandolin.

When my oldest child was two and a half, I was introduced to the Suzuki method by a friend who lent me Dr. Suzuki’s book, Nurtured By Love.  Two things that left a tremendous impression were that talent can be learned with practice and diligence and that learning to play the violin well is similar to learning the mother la…

Music Education vs. Music Therapy: Should there be a line?

I studied music therapy in college. At the end of my four years I decided to forgo the internship necessary to become certified and took up teaching the violin. I mention this only to make clear that I have exposure to the field but am not a certified, practicing music therapist.

What was interesting to me in my therapy classes was the emphasis placed on drawing the line between the fields of music education and music therapy. In many ways this makes perfect sense to me. Music therapists must define their role in order to "sell their product." They wish to work in a therapist capacity rather than be hired to direct the high school band or teach an instrument.

About three months ago I took on a special ed violin student. He has ADHD and occasional anxiety attacks. He's doing really well on the violin and his mom commented to me that playing the violin has improved his fine motor skills and has really helped him to organize and focus his thoughts. That comment made …

Fiddling Around With Multiple Genres

I really enjoy Howard Gardner's books on his theory of multiple intelligences.  In a nutshell, he delves into how there's really no one type of intelligence.  Schools assume that an "A" student should get As across the board.  But if you look at reality, no one is good at everything.  A person that may be brilliant in astrophysics is not necessarily going to be brilliant in creating artistic masterpieces.  The two fields require two entirely different sets of strengths and weaknesses.

You can see the same divisions even if you narrowed it down to just one field such as music.  The skills required to make a beautiful instrument are very different from those required for virtuosic performance or those required to teach.  Again, each subcategory has it's own type of intelligence.

The division can be broken down even further.  Take violin performance as the example.  Someone who excels at classical music may not necessarily play other genres such as jazz or bluegrass…

That darn Suzuki CD is too fast!

Of all the Suzuki method criticisms, some of the harshest seem to be directed toward the CD that accompanies the method book. "It's like twinkle on speed!" One parent exclaimed to me.

This is why I think it's important to clear up what the CD is ACTUALLY for. Most people seem to believe that Suzuki students are supposed to listen to the CD, memorize the song, and then play it along with the CD. This is only half true.

What partially makes "the Suzuki method" different from "the traditional style" is the approach to sight reading. When young students (3 or 4 years old) are learning the violin, it would be almost impossible for them to make any sort of progress if they were asked to play the violin (which involves a high level of fine motor skills) AND read music (most of them can't even read books yet). Doing both of those things is even incredibly difficult for an adult beginner who can read. So we separate the two tasks. This allows t…

Breaking down some Suzuki myths

As a student who was raised in the Suzuki method and a current Suzuki teacher, I've come to notice that many people don't actually know exactly what a "Suzuki student" is all about. There are a lot of myths and even more stereotypes revolving around this method. I think that educating fellow musicians and teachers is a vitally important task.

Shinichi Suzuki's major breakthrough in child education came from watching hundreds of newborn infants. He realized that every infant eventually learns to speak the "mother tongue." Children have an incredible ability to assimilate auditory information. He also observed no parent doubts their child's ability to learn to speak. They always encourage and practice constant repetition. From these observations he drew the conclusion that given the right environment, every child can play music.

With these things in mind, we can move on to the actual method. The Suzuki method revolves around auditory learning an…