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Showing posts from 2013

Walking Away from the Puzzle

Sometimes I think that people expect their brains to work like computers.  Like you can just plug in new information, your brain will instantly understand it and once it's in there it's in there forever.  I wish.  Unfortunately, our brains are not computers.  There's no Matrix plug where we can just suddenly learn Kung Fu.

No, our brains are more like dirt.  Note that I said dirt and not "sponge."  I feel like sponge is not a great simile for brains.  Sponges dry out but when you get them wet they instantly absorb liquid again.  Dirt doesn't work like that.  It gets dry and it gets hard.  This means that it won't actually absorb anything if too much water is introduced right away.  It repels the water.  Water must be introduced gradually and consistently.  If dirt is already moist it has an increased capacity for absorbing even more.

On a very simple level, our brains are the same.  Too much time with a certain mindset and it actually repels new informat…

Music is a Social Experience

As a study, I find music fascinating.  And not just intriguing chord progression kind of study.  Like, music as a whole.  It has such a unique and subtle power over humans.

Have you ever thought about this?

To start, everyone has an opinion about music.  They like it or they don't, though most people do.  But everyone's taste in music is completely unique.  I can't think of a single other art medium that has this kind of following.

Not only is music an integral part of nearly all society but it also has the power to evoke emotions and change social norms.  Bounce up and down for no reason and people will give you strange looks.  Bounce up and down while some music is being played and suddenly it's okay.  People might even join you depending on the environment.

Which really leads to the best part of music: it's social.  It brings people -- sometimes even random strangers -- together.

When it comes to teaching a young student, the social aspect of music is frequentl…

Belief in the Student is Essential

Playing a musical instrument is not something inherently fun.  A student may be interested at first because everything is new.  This newness eventually wears off and the real work must begin.

It is absolutely crucial to understand that frustration or a lack of interest in practicing is NOT the same thing as a lack of interest in the instrument itself.  This is also where belief in the student and not belief in the student's interest becomes essential.

Do you think your child can play an instrument?

Do you think your child can learn to talk?  Or use a pencil?  Or learn algebra?  All of these skills are not something a human being is born doing naturally.  They are learned skills.

Playing an instrument is a learned skill.  It is also a skill that takes years to learn.  If you have an unfailing belief that given enough time your child will learn to play just as they learned to speak or use a pencil then they will learn.  As soon as the parent starts to lose that belief, the student b…


Holding a bow is not too dissimilar from holding a pen/pencil.  Have you ever thought about how long it takes for handwriting to develop?

Consider the early stages of handwriting.  A two year old child will grab a marker with a fist and scribble all over a page.  It's not until Kindergarden (almost 3-4 years later) that the child is able to draw pictures that remotely resemble something.  And even then a 5 year old's letters look labored and wobbly.

At what point does the handwriting start to look less labored?  Third grade?  Fourth grade?  At which point the child can write sentences and keep them within the lines on a piece of binder paper but their handwriting still looks nowhere near an adult's handwriting.

When does mature handwriting finally settle in?  Seventh grade?  High school even?  And even then the handwriting you had in high school will not look the same as the handwriting you have as an adult.

Also consider how much a child writes in school.  All the time.  …


Something that comes up a lot in private music lessons is the idea of fairness.  The topic takes many forms.  Sometimes it's a student to student problem when siblings or close friends are both taking lessons.  Sometimes it's a student to teacher problem when the student has been stuck on something for a long time.  And times it's a parent to teacher problem when the parent has different goals from the teacher.

Fairness is not about giving each student the same.  It's about giving each child what they need.

As a teacher, it would not be fair for me to treat each student exactly the same.  That would completely defeat the purpose of private instruction.  Some students have to work on left hand finger skills for a long time because they need to.  Some students achieve left hand finger skills more easily but have to spend a longer time learning how to control their bow.

Learning an instrument is not the same as going to school.  There's no timetable.  Memorizing facts…

Finding Your Musical Voice

The concept of finding your musical voice has recently "clicked" with me.  I've heard the term countless times over the course of my musical career but the meaning never fully registered with me.  I always thought of it like it was some sort of artsy saying.  Like you have to soul-search so you can communicate your artistic interpretation of a piece.

I never had an artistic interpretation of any piece.  I'm not that type of person.  I enjoy playing music, I enjoy the challenge of figuring out a piece, I love the bond I feel when I play with other people... but interpretation?  Not so much.

Through a fortuitous combination of events (teacher training, parent meeting and what students are currently working on) I began to really think about this musical voice thing.  It suddenly dawned on me that the thing I was missing about the saying was what the word "voice" meant.  I was so fixated on the ideal of "musical" that I ignored "voice."


Finding Balance Between Easy and Hard

An important job for both a parent and teacher is to provide a student with an appropriate level of stress.  A good example of this outside of the music lesson is the first day of school.  A child has to attend school.  It's going to be unfamiliar and there's no way to totally prepare them for every little thing that might happen.  Therefore, it's stressful.  But not all stress is bad stress.

Successful people are those that deal well with failure.  This is not the same thing as setting a child up to fail.  But it does mean presenting a child with challenges.  A good teacher should not give the student all the answers.  Rather, a good teacher should teach a student how to find the answer.  All the building blocks should be in place and then it's up to the student to figure out how to piece them together.
The main difference between challenging and hard is the student is prepared for the former and not prepared for the later.  A task that is challenging will not necessa…

The Eternal Student

We never stop learning.

Students will often ask me how many Suzuki books there are.  I'll tell them there are ten violin books.  And then they'll follow it up by asking something along the lines of what happens after book ten (like it's stopping point or something).  I tell them I've been playing for over twenty years and I still don't know every piece there is to know on the violin.

I think the fact that you can study it your whole life and still only scratch the surface is one of the coolest aspects of music.  You could even play a single piece your whole life and still find ways to perform it more beautifully.

Therein lies a difficult lesson.  There is a very thin but important line between being proud of your accomplishments yet always striving for more.  Perfection is both an unwanted and unreasonable goal.  It's impossible to play a piece perfectly.  Even if you were a robot and hit every note with mechanical accuracy, the piece would lack emotional depth…

Taking the Lesson Home

The parent plays a critical role in the Suzuki lesson environment.  Of the three people involved -- teacher, student, parent -- the parent by far has the most difficult job.  But they also have the most power to change a student.  The teacher may be an excellent teacher but if the lesson concepts are not reinforced at home a child will not learn them.

The teacher has something of an advantage in that they are usually not the child's parent.  So even if the student is comfortable with their teacher, they will almost always be more attentive in the lesson compared to their at-home practice.

Which leads us to the classic scenario that unfolds something like this:

Student has a good lesson, assignments for the week are given.  Parent tries to have the student do the assignment at home.  Apocalyptic tantrum begins, World War III follows.  Student attends next lesson not having practiced.

Which is why I joke that being a private music teacher is just shy of being a full-fledged therapis…

Interview with Daniel Gee on Starting a Suzuki Summer Institute

Welcome to Rethinking Genius, Danny! And congratulations on your institute's inaugural year. Why don't you introduce yourself and tell us a little about why you decided to start the Greater Austin Suzuki Institute.

Thank you, Danielle. I am actually an Austin transplant. I grew up on Long Island in New York and came to UT Austin to pursue my Masters in Music and Human Learning and work at the UT String Project. Austin was so wonderful that I could not leave. I currently teach Middle School Orchestra in Round Rock ISD and run a private Suzuki program- Suzuki Strings of Austin with a few of my colleagues.

The idea to host an Institute was a group effort. Having an Institute in Austin was not a foreign idea. There had been a history of an Institute in the past run by Laurie Scott and Bill Dick. There was also a Suzuki Institute at Texas State in San Marcos under Paula Byrd. However, there has not been anything for a number of years in our area. The Greater Austin Suz…

Dr. Suzuki Began Playing at the Age of 20

Shinichi Suzuki did not start out as a violin teacher.  His father was a violin maker but he did not actually start learning how to play until the age of twenty.

To me, this is hugely significant when trying to understand a method of teaching that prides itself on being able to work with very young children.  The founder of this approach to teaching was not some child prodigy, he was an adult beginner.
I think this speaks volumes for the power of time and consistency.  I've lost count of how many times an adult has told me it's too late for them, they're too old to start.  Yes, there are advantages to starting a child young.  Areas of the brain are activated that would otherwise be sealed off.  But this doesn't mean an adult can't learn.
If a child starts music at the age of four and sticks with it, there is no question that they will be a decent musician by the age of twenty-four.  But let's be honest here: anyone who devotes twenty years of serious study to

Remembering What Was Fun for YOU

I work with young children all the time.  Part of what goes into successfully teaching kids is being able to relate to them.  This doesn't mean you have to become best friends or anything.  But you should feel comfortable talking to them.  A student comfortable with their private music teacher will be more receptive to learning.

I think one of my best teaching secrets when it comes to relating to young children is allowing myself to revert to my inner child.  Everyone has one deep down.  This doesn't mean behaving like a child.  Far from it.  But it does mean allowing myself to remember what was fun for me when I was young.

I'm always walking through toy stores.  The main reason is to keep an eye out for any fun teaching supplies I could use in the lesson.  But it's also a great time to tap into that inner child.  When I'm walking through I let myself revert to "little kid" mentality.  What was it that made a toy fun?  What were the things that I used to …

The Practice Week

Let's talk about "the week."  The week is a very different concept from "a day."  It boils down to this: the week is planned, a day is not.

The concept of a day is finite and irregular.  A day activity is something spur-the-moment.  You know vaguely that you will eat meals.  Maybe some of the meals are planned, maybe some are not.  What you ate "that day" may be different from what you ate the day before.  Maybe something came up at the last minute that made you change your mind about dinner plans.

Day activities are flexible and changing.

The week is your schedule.  Certain things like work or school must be planned by the week.  You work from 9-5 Monday through Friday so you plan around that.  Weekly activities are not spur-the-moment.  Weekly classes, for example, are something that you are paying for so other less important activities move around this weekly class.

Weekly activities are regularly occurring and change less frequently.  They are pla…

Music is Sound Art

....Or the art of sound.

This is something I tell my students or the parents of my students and they always give me this look like I just said something really revolutionary.  I don't know how/why it happened but somewhere along the way music got separated from the other arts.

It's strange.  People see music as an art but they don't necessarily think of music falling in the same category as painting or sculpting.  But it is an art.  It's just as much of an artistic expression as a painting.  The difference is in which sense is being stimulated.  Painting is a visual art.  Music is auditory.

And just like any other art form you must study the masters.  This means listening to other artists perform your pieces.  The Suzuki Method has become famous (for better or worse) for making children listen to their pieces.  Unending discussions have arisen about teaching students to play by ear and whether this "Suzuki" approach is really all that much better than a "…

Body Position for String Players

Technique is a subject musicians will constantly obsess over. If the player is a beginner he worries about making unappealing noises. If the player is advanced, he will work on adjusting here or moving there in order to achieve the best possible sound.

When working on technique, musicians generally focus on the sound coming out of their instrument and the immediate body part connected with the sound they wish to improve (such as the motion of the bow hand). However, the body is not a collection of separate parts. Rather, it is a complete “package” which must be addressed as a whole in order for the player to truly improve.

There are many different schools of thought on how a string instrument should be played. The purpose of this booklet is to give the musician a brief overview of their body and how it “performs” so that injury can be prevented and technique sharpened.

You can find this manual on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and most other major e-book stores.

Every Child Can... Not Every Parent

This post is for all the parents that are thinking about starting their young child in music lessons.

Music is a HUGE commitment.  Teaching music is my career and I will be the first to admit that leaning to play an instrument well is going to take a lot of time and a lot of money.

Many parents, with good reason, like the idea of giving their child the gift of music.  As a field of study it helps develop areas of the brain that regular school subjects will not.  It opens up the possibilities of new social circles and opportunities (scholarships, tours abroad, etc...).  Plus it's a pastime anyone can enjoy no matter how old.

But there's a reason why only a small percentage of people play a musical instrument proficiently.  In fact, there are several reasons.  These are basic reality facts:

Instruments cost money.  Your child will have to have multiple instruments throughout their music career as they grow both in size and ability.  Instruments are an investment.  If an acoustic …

Review of I Can Read Music Volume 1

I've yet to find a book that introduces sight reading as smoothly as this book.  Do keep in mind that this book is designed for the student that knows nothing about reading notes.  A student that knows beginner level basics might not find the material to be challenging enough.
"I Can Read" separates pitch reading from rhythm reading which is absolutely brilliant since they really are two completely different skill sets.  This separation of skills makes this sight reading book perfect in the Suzuki Method setting but could really be used with any teaching approach.
Because the concepts are so simple, there's a high probability that any at-home sight reading assignments will be done correctly.  This is advantageous when the student is young and the parent is not musical themselves.  The less confusion, the better.
This book is definitely worth checking out if you teach beginner students of any age.

"Adaptation is the Key to Survival"

I never quite outgrew watching cartoons.  It's not like I get up every Saturday at 7am to watch them like  I did back in the good ol' days.  But I rent series on Netflix on a pretty regular basis.  Good cartoons can have very provoking plot lines and interesting characters.  "Avatar: The Last Airbender" being an excellent example.

One of the lastest series I've been going through is "Star Wars: The Clone Wars."  At the beginning of every episode they have what one of my students calls "a Yodaism" (we bond over the episodes we've seen).  It's a little one or two sentence bit of wisdom/life advice that usually has something to do with the episode that will follow.

So one one of the episodes I recently watched it said: "Adaption is the key to survival."  It struck me as really relavant to a topic that has been coming up a lot lately in lessons.  I currently have this large batch of students that have "stuck it out."  M…

7 Steps for Introducing Improvisation to Young Musicians

Giving students a chance to tap into their creative juices can be a very refreshing exercise. Everyone has, at some point or another, fallen into ruts while learning a particular piece, even when the teacher is consistently encouraging. Offering students opportunities for success is critical. Improvisation can bolster confidence by providing an environment where there are no “wrong notes.” This leads students to become more self-assured performers.

Introducing improvisation can be an intimidating prospect for both the student and the teacher. If the teacher has no previous experience with improvisation the concept can seem totally foreign. But a classically trained teacher may have more improvisation tools than he or she realizes.
You can find this booklet on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and most other major e-book stores.

Martial Arts and Music

I remember a few years ago I was having a conversation with one of my adult students about martial arts and music.  I always looked forward to my conversations with this student because she happened to be a fabulous Montessori teacher and founded what ended up being one of the biggest Montessori schools here in San Diego.  So she was this wealth of knowledge and it was such a privilege for me to be able to "pick her brain" from time to time.

Going back to the conversation, she observed that music and martial arts work really well together because they both required the same type of focus.  I have practiced martial arts for almost ten years so this is an opinion I have had for a long time but it surprised me to hear it coming from someone else.

Both music and martial arts revolve around the idea of a focused body and mind.  Teaching an extremely young student how to keep their instrument in place for one Twinkle is more mental training rather than physical.  Holding a light …

Interview with Michiko Yurko on Music Mind Games and Sight-Reading in the Suzuki Method

Welcome to Rethinking Genius, Michiko! Please introduce yourself and tell us about your company, Music Mind Games.

Hi, Danielle! I am Michiko Yurko and I am the creator of Music Mind Games, a project I have been working on for 40 years. It’s been great! Music and education were important to my parents. Although they followed different professions, my father sang and my mother played the piano. I was always supported in my music and dance lessons and related activities so I have very positive memories of those years. My mom was an elementary classroom teacher and her extraordinary devotion to her students and her creativity taught me to be innovative in my own work.

Music Mind Games, LLC was founded in 2005 after Warner Bros (my publisher for nearly 20 years) was sold to Alfred. Although they believed in my work and continue to publish the book Music Mind Games, Alfred said they could not afford to produce the Music Mind Games materials. My husband, Cris and I discussed all sorts of op…

Deliberate Participation

Over my years of Suzuki Method teaching, parent participation is a subject that comes up quite a bit.  The teacher, parent and student are the three parts of the triangle.  Each must work with each other in order to achieve the greater goal and each part is equally important.

Ideally, both parents should be at every lesson.  The teacher only gets to see the student once a week so the parents must become the at-home teachers for the other six days.  Unfortunately, it is not always possible to have both parents at every lesson.  Work or the other siblings create time constraints.  So it is suggested that one parent, preferably the same parent, attends every lesson.

Having one parent attend every lesson and then work with the child at home usually works out well.  But, inevitably, the other parent begins to feel left out which leads to what I call "random participation."  Random participation can easily become a bone of contention if left unchecked.

Before I go on, I feel it…

"Suzuki" vs. "Traditional" Music Lessons

One question I get asked all the time is how "Suzuki" is different from "Traditional" lessons and which is better. I think it's easiest to answer this question by breaking things down into several important points:

1) There is really no such thing as "traditional" music lessons. To say that there are would mean that someone had systemized this approach and all traditional teachers follow a uniform approach to teaching. They don't. Every music teacher is going to be different. You'll even find huge differences between Suzuki teachers and their approach has been systemized!

2) What I think people are often thinking is that Suzuki = no sight reading approach while traditional = the sight reading approach. Which is really not the case. Suzuki students are initially taught by ear but sight reading is a part of the method. This would be different from an approach where the student is taught how to play by having the sheet music placed in f…

15 Strategies for Practicing with Young Musicians

When students of any age start music lessons they first go through what I call “the honeymoon period.” The instrument is new and exciting, everyone has a positive attitude about the experience and the student approaches new assignments with an open mind. Once the honeymoon excitement fades away the real work must begin. This is a natural and necessary next step to the learning process.

The purpose of this booklet is to present fifteen different strategies or adjustments you can make to your at-home practice in order to make the whole process smoother. Every child will respond to activities differently. Successful practice requires constant analysis of how you, the parent, are presenting the material.

You can find this booklet on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and most other major e-book stores.

Music Therapy in the Private Lesson Environment

The process of learning or participating in music is therapeutic by nature. It has been scientifically proven that musicians develop certain areas of their brain that non-musicians do not (see works by Oliver Sacks). Even those who do not play an instrument will use music to affect their mood. For example, people will listen to different types of music in order to become excited versus trying to relax.

One of the most interesting things about music is that it stimulates both the logic/math (tempo, rhythm) and the creative/artistic (expressing yourself, creating beautiful tone) parts of your brain at the same time. This means that music is not a pastime that you can just partially focus on if you wish to be successful at it.

The idea behind the field of Music Therapy is to use music to work on a goal that may not necessarily be musical. Due to the fact that playing an instrument requires such a wide range of skills, a music therapy patient may work on anything from muscle development to …

Teachers Need Encouragement Too!

The emotion that goes into private teaching has to be one of the hardest things to learn how to deal with. It's different from a school teacher who already knows from the get-go that they have students for a set amount of time. A private music teacher should, ideally, be taking students with the intention of teaching them over a long period of time.

So much focus tends to fall on the student's struggles. How is the student progressing? What are the student's goals? Should the student be with this teacher or that teacher? Very rarely is the teacher as a person even considered in all of this. They are simply "the teacher."

Yes, it is the teacher's job to be "the teacher" rather than "a friend." But private teaching is not an easy task. It requires an enormous amount of energy to try and keep a student motivated when the student is so clearly losing interest. Being connected enough to share a laugh with a student but at the same time being abl…