Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end…

Editor’s Note- I originally started this entry over a week ago, and then life took over for a bit.  I’m happy to be getting back to it at last!

Summer has once again kept me away from my desk, but what brings me back is a fond farewell.  While school is getting ready to start up and the smell of fresh rosin hangs in the air, I closed the case for the last time on what has become a very dear friend these past two years.  I had the privilege to use a school instrument far nicer than my own as I was in the process of trying to upgrade to a new instrument.  We didn’t always get along, and sometimes we were quite the clumsy couple bumbling our way through Bach or Wagner, but at the end of the day we remained friends determined to do whatever we could to make the other look and sound as good as possible.  As I blew a bit of stray rosin dust off the fingerboard and removed my chinrest to return the original one to its rightful owner I thought back on all our good times together.  We played some truly great music and had some truly wonderful experiences.  From classroom modeling, to playing along with my private students, to bringing life to Vaughn Williams’ masterpiece, to playing my first solo recital in four years, playing Ashoken Farewell for my grandfather and honoring my husband’s grandparents at their 60th anniversary party, it’s been a sweet ride and I’m so grateful.  Who would have thought that in such a tattered falling apart case one would find such a beautiful piece of artwork and craftsmanship?  I am filled to the brim with memories of how this instrument has helped me to learn and grow and deepen my understanding of and appreciation for the immense richness and fullness of which the viola is most capable.  One last bit of closure on my graduate school career before the next chapter begins.

As for the new chapter, I will be teaching 4th grade beginning strings and 5th grade 1st year orchestra at two elementary schools this year in addition to my private studio!  It’s exciting to be getting into a school again, but sad that the program is only supplemental because strings are more and more being removed from the core curriculum.  So, on top of being the best teacher I can be, I hope to go a long way to demonstrating why music education is so vital to overall student development and crucial to creating well-rounded learners.  The adventure started with thousands of questions and few answers as far as where I was going to be and who I would be working with.  As of today, however, I have toured both schools, handed out forms, and so far managed to get the staff excited for the start of strings classes.  The faculty and administration are all very welcoming, encouraging, and supportive already and I am feeling that I was placed very purposefully at these two schools.  There have already been some challenges, and I’m sure there will be more to come, by not being in the buildings throughout the day.  My evenings have been eaten by answering emails, texts, voicemails, and making calls all trying to get this show on the road.  At long last, the students have arrived at school for their first day and it was such a wonderful experience being able to slip in and out of the hustle and bustle of a new school year just getting started as I made my copies and tuned cellos.  I passed a 4th grade class in the hall and smiled at the eager faces, wondering which ones I would get to know well this year.  I thought of the music teachers and rental shop representatives who will be presenting the different instruments to all these students in the coming week and remembering when I was an eager 4th grader with a twinkle in her eye when I first saw a viola and was told that I could learn to play one.  It is such a privilege to now find myself following in the footsteps of my very first strings teachers, and I cannot wait to see all that this year holds.

“Teacher-y Tidbit”- Every music teacher out there can think back to some educator in their past who inspired them.  Not just someone who inspired them as a musician but also as a person, and who saw the potential and the passion in them to pass the torch to the next generation.  Take a moment to remember those teachers.  Some have long since retired, others are no longer with us, and some are still inspiring students every day.  If you are able, find an opportunity to personally thank them and tell them what a difference they made in your life, because without their influence you might not be standing on that podium today.

Lather, Rinse, Repeat

Hello again everyone!  I am back to the blog after a few weeks of vacation.  My husband and I had an amazing time over in England, but it’s good to be home and getting back into the swing of things. 

Now that I’ve gotten back to my lessons and such, I’ve noticed some things that my students and I had just sort of gotten used to as part of our time together.  I hesitate to call it a “routine”, although they have definitely become a subconscious ritual that I wasn’t really aware of until I’d been away from them for a little while.  For the next few weeks, I’d like to address these habits and try to alter some of them.  Although I don’t think any of them make for poor teaching, they have helped me realize some areas of dependence my students have developed in our lessons that don’t transfer well to practicing at home.  My goal is to build up healthy practice habits that begin in our lessons so my students can practice confidently instead of relying 100% on me for appraisal.  For this week, I’ll take a deeper look at assessment. 

Whether it be a scale, etude, or solo piece my students all approach it the same way.  I ask them to play some or all of the exercise, they play, and then cock their head to the side and give me a “well, what did you think?” sort of look.  Every single one of them does this, without exception.  I was quite perplexed as I realized each student coming in would do the exact same thing at the end of an excerpt, and I realized that this had become the norm.  They play, I assess, we discuss how to fix the issues, try it again, repeat as needed.  Writing it out like this I have to laugh at the similarities to most hair-care product instructions, but this is the pattern that my students and I have developed in our lessons.  This week as it struck me, I decided to change up the ritual on them a bit and see what happened.  As they gave me their sideways look for assessment and approval, I gave it right back to them and asked “well, what did you think?”  I’ve done this before with some of my older students, but the younger ones were really thrown for a loop.  Some shrugged, some looked at their music intently, hoping to find a secret code that would give them the “right answer”, some stared at their instrument as if they expected that I’d been talking to it instead, and some (the most insightful for their age) owned up and simply answered “I don’t know”.  Each reaction told me a little more about where each student was personally, emotionally, and musically, and it ultimately opened the door to developing musical independence.

I often wish I could be a fly on the wall of my students’ homes when they are practicing.  I hear varied reports from students, parents, and the occasional tattle-tale sibling about how weekly practice goes, and for most students the product of the week speaks for itself.  It’s sometimes a difficult place to be as the teacher, pitted between student and parent as each points fingers at each other for why this was an off week of practicing.  In the end, I’m only hearing a few sides of the story and truly wish I could hear it for myself.  When I asked students how they thought they played an excerpt, I wanted them to step back and honestly assess their own playing to the best of their ability.  I wasn’t asking for a comparison of their interpretation against Grove’s, nor was I asking for them to be able to identify and defend which bowing school they ascribe to, I was asking to reflect on what went well and what could still use more work in light of their overall progress.  For some of my younger students, this is still a fairly abstract concept and while I still want to encourage them to practice their critical listening and basic self-assessment skills, the reflection will be much more question and answer instead of free response, but for my older students this is an excellent opportunity to develop these skills and learn how to take them home to the practice room. 

Sometimes I wonder if my students don’t really listen to themselves play.  I try to encourage them to record themselves at home since they all have iPhones and such, but not many take me up on it.  As I observed this past week some of them really seem to rely solely on my assessment of their playing, and why shouldn’t they, right?  I’m supposed to be the “expert”, the one who’s been doing this since before most of them were born, the one who has spent years studying how to play and teach, right?  Certainly I want to be the most qualified and competent teacher I can be, but there are two concepts I want to make sure that all of my students understand.  The first is that teachers are forever students.  We are always learning new ways to teach, expanding our knowledge in our content area, and studying our students to get to know them and the best ways to teach them.  The second is that a teacher’s ultimate goal is to work him/herself out of a job.  To foster and nurture independent thinkers and spark an interest that encourages students to go out of their classroom or studio and learn on their own, and maybe some will also want to teach others.  These two concepts are so vital to developing musical independence, and I wish I had learned them sooner.  In my earlier years of playing, I approached the little diligent practice I did the same way I suspect that many of my students do.  I played through my entire repertoire, and if there were no major train wrecks I smile and say “Alright!  Nice work, me!  Now let’s see if I can play it faster!”, and in the process I wasn’t really learning anything and merely solidified any sloppiness that already existed and encouraging new sloppiness to join the party.  I have tried extremely hard to make sure my students understand the value of slow practice and stopping and fixing mistakes at home, and in future weeks I have some ideas for how to build those habits more as well, but for starters I want them to start taking a good hard look and honestly listening to themselves as they practice.  Hopefully as the weeks go on we will be able to develop a new habit where the shrugs and stares can evolve into independent thoughts and creative ideas.  I know it will take time, and I’m more than willing to wait, but I feel that this could be a beautiful thing to bring my students up to a new level in their playing and practicing.

“Teacher-y Tidbit”- Take a good long look at your classroom or studio.  Think about any habits that you may have formed over time that have maintained the status quo or kept you always in the driver’s seat for student instruction.  As we move towards a new school year, explore and brainstorm some new strategies to help your students take more ownership of their instruction or to give them something new and unexpected.  Learn from their reactions, and see how you can use the experience to lead them to more musical independence. 

Summer in the Studio

With summer being the time for vacation and travel, many of my students have been in and out for the past few weeks.  Most are very good about giving advanced notice of their absence, but a few tend to forget and I am left playing Diner Dash on my iPod instead of teaching a lesson.  Fortunately, my studio policy still allows me to be paid for my time, but it’s difficult to appreciate when I know we’re going to have to work twice as hard the following week to catch up.  It can also be difficult to be motivated to continue to push my students to their full potential when I don’t know whether they will have a chance to practice in the coming week or whether their family will be on the road.  For some, it’s not the travel that’s the distraction but the afternoons at the pool, trips to the zoo, sleepover birthday parties, camps, relatives visiting from out of town, and just the everyday distraction of not having school for three months.  Some parents and students view summer as an opportunity to catch up and get ahead so the next school year can start on the right foot.  Others view this as “maintenance time” where they want their student to try their best to keep in shape musically and not lose the progress that was made in school, but aren’t very motivated to move ahead.  Every family expects something a little different from summer lessons, and as I’ve been thinking about the different students in my studio as well as those I’ve worked with in the past, I’d like to share some summer lesson thoughts from my experience.

One of my students recently moved back to the area after an extended stay elsewhere on business.  The student was able to finish out the school year with the orchestra class, but was definitely struggling in some areas where other classmates were ahead.  Once school ended, it was clear that this family was looking for an intense summer of “violin calisthenics” to get the student back in shape.  With this student, and other similar students, I’ve had some success with taking a few weeks to go back to basics such as reshape the bow-hand, set the left-hand frame, and take the bow back to open strings and re-introducing the concepts of bow weight, speed and sounding point as they work together.  With a regimen of rote exercises, echo sequences, and sets of activity repetitions this student is slowly getting back on track to catch up to where the rest of the orchestra is and move forward in the coming school year.  To set goals for the summer, it’s important to be familiar with the curriculum and method book used by the student’s school so that you can assess how far the student is behind his/her classmates and how to plan their lessons in the time you have.  Some students require more help catching up than others, and it’s important to be clear in communication with the parents about where the student is at, what they can watch for at home, and how they can be involved.  Like regular exercise is needed to be in good physical shape, regular practice is needed to be in good musical shape, and it’s vital that the student and the parents are well-informed about what it will take to accomplish their goals by the end of the summer.  In everything, be extremely honest with the family.  If the student isn’t staying on track or is getting further behind, check in with the family to see how practicing has been and see if some of the goals for the summer might need to be re-evaluated.

Several of my students are very much in “maintenance mode” where they know that their summer schedule won’t allow for a whole lot of major progress, but they don’t want to see their student fall behind either.  This, in my opinion, is the most difficult type of student to teach.  They come into the summer with often very low expectations for their progress and very low commitment to their practicing because they feel summer should be their time off from any type of work.  With the student motivation and expectation being so low, it’s an added challenge as the teacher to stay motivated and keep the lessons engaging.  With one student in this category, I feel like I’ve taught the same lesson three times.  There was a break while the student was out of town, and when they were back we had to re-do everything we did the last time.  I have to force myself to stay positive and remind myself that I often had a very similar summer-mindset when I was that age and ultimately you never know what will be retained to the next week.  One student after having a rut for a few weeks came in and completely surprised me with how prepared and on-the-ball they were the next week.  As it turns out, this student had been either traveling or having family in town visiting, and once that was all over things were back on track and they were ready to go gung-ho for the violin once again.  Much to my delight, this student has since moved out of “maintenance mode” and has started making great progress once again this summer.

Summer can also be a really neat time for teachers to explore some alternative teaching in areas that maybe they’ve wanted to explore with their studio but aren’t able to during the year.  Depending on your students and their interests, summer can be a great time to offer “workshops” in different styles of playing, or even just incorporate some “just for fun” repertoire into your lessons.  I personally love to bring out duets that we might not have time to work on during the school year but are really fun ways to expand technique and musicianship that keep things interesting over the summer.  You might be able to offer group classes for beginners in the hopes of expanding your studio or just doing something different in your free time for a few months.  As limiting as summer can sometimes seem, it can also open a lot of new opportunities for you and your students, and if you’re excited about lessons over the summer, chances are your students will be too.

“Teacher-y Tidbit”- Regardless of what sort of summer situation you might find you and your students in, always be sure to have fun, stay engaged, and find new ways to get your students excited about music.  Remember that they are on summer break, so when lessons always follow the usual routine it can feel like school for them.  Don’t be afraid to shake it up a little and introduce some fun new things, and be sure to find some fun new things for yourself as well.

Side note- I myself will be traveling over the next two weeks, so I regret that I will be unable to bring you anymore Rosin Files for most of July.  I will be back in full-force in a few weeks, and I hope you all are having a great summer!  Thank you all so much for your support so far, and I look forward to writing again soon!

Meeting Them Where They’re At

As I have continued to add new students to my studio this summer, I am constantly reminded of how vulnerable we can be as musicians.  We put it all out there, bare our souls, and lay a very personal expression on the line for comment and criticism every time we pick up our instruments or sing.  For most of the students in my studio, not only are they struggling with their musical vulnerability, there is a fair amount of personal vulnerability at stake as well given their age and stage of development.  Not only do they wonder if their musical presentation will meet with my approval week after week, they wonder if I like them and value the time I spend with them each week.  While I try very hard to make each student feel like the special individual in my life that they all are, one student reminded me of what an important endeavor this is for all teachers to remember.

I had a first lesson with another new student this past week, and when I asked how long the student had been playing, the student turned a bit pink and mumbled about not being sure.  Surprised by this reaction and trying to get a ballpark estimate, I asked if they had played through the whole previous school year or not.  The student answered that it’s hadn’t quite been that long.  I continued to ask my usual questions about why they chose their instrument and what they liked about music and such, when the student gets rather quiet and says “I’m really bad at reading music…and rhythm too…I’m really bad.”  I was completely taken aback by such an unexpected confession, and I really wasn’t sure what to say.  I hadn’t heard the student play yet so I asked the student what made them think that about their playing.  The student shrugged and said that they just had a lot of trouble and couldn’t read the notes and rhythms.  I asked the student to find a piece that they had worked on recently and that they knew very well.  The student played the piece very proficiently with only a few technical problems and I was very pleasantly surprised.  I encouraged the student in the fine job they had done and assured the student that it was hard work to learn a new piece, but it was something that this student was very capable of and had just demonstrated.

From there I pulled up a new piece and asked the student to read it.  Compared to the last piece the student played, this one was complete and utter disaster.  There were several confused notes, confused strings, but most of the rhythms were pretty well in-tact.  I asked the student what was most difficult about playing that piece and what was the most intimidating thing about it which was again met with a nondescript “notes and rhythms” response.  Then the student made a comment about not having the piece memorized and the whole thing clicked.  The student has been learning pieces more or less by ear and has done very well, but when confronted with a note-reading situation has a very difficult time forming the piece together with no aural reference.  This is a common problem for students depending on their musical background and former training, and once I put it together with this student I understood so much more about the frustration and embarrassment that came along with playing the violin.  This student had found a system that worked, but only to a point, and now starting with a new teacher had to come in and start fresh and wonder what would happen if the new teacher found out the student’s secret.  Would the teacher be able to continue to work with the student?  Would the teacher think the student was a bad player?  Would the teacher not like the student anymore or think he/she was a bad student?

There were other indications that there might be other self-esteem and confidence issues going on in life right now, but I tried my best to assure this student that I was so happy they were in my studio and that it was going to be my distinct pleasure to give my undivided attention to our lessons every week.  I think we ended on a good note, and hopefully I can work with this student to dissect the issues at hand and build up the technical skills while boosting confidence in the clearly strong abilities this student possesses.  It will be interesting to watch this student grow and develop as a musician as well as a person, and I look forward to having the opportunity to positively impact the student’s life in any way I can.

“Teacher-y Tidbit”- Make sure your students always know how much you care about them and their place in your studio.  Students bring so much more baggage to their lessons than we realize sometimes, and some are even fighting with the notion that they “can’t” do something.  Whether they formed that notion themselves or someone else in their life did it, we need to be so keenly aware of our words and actions to meet them where they’re at and be ever encouraging and building up students when helping them through their musical struggles.

The Changing of the Guard

This week has brought some new twists to my studio.  Another local violin teacher is leaving soon and I have had the opportunity to inherit several new students as a result.  This has been a very welcome occurrence, but has also come with several unique challenges.  For both students and parents, switching teachers (either classroom or studio) can be a difficult process.  In many ways, starting a brand new student and starting a student who has studied with another teacher are not all that different, but there can be some additional bumps in the road that might arise differently than if the student were starting from scratch.  Between personality differences, teaching styles, methods, routines, and materials used there are a lot of factors that go into making a smooth transition.  During my first lesson with one of my new students this week several of those factors made themselves very present and it got me thinking about how to make smooth transitions. 

Transition Point #1: Changing of the Guard- I introduced myself to student and parents and explained a little about how I like to start lessons and offered that the parent was welcome to sit in or wait outside and asked if they had any initial questions.  The parents opted to wait outside and the student and I continued our introductions in the studio.  I asked about background, how long the student had been playing, what pieces had been worked on, what interested the student about the violin, etc. and then proceeded to tune the instrument.  I pulled out my tuner for the initial A, because I hadn’t yet tuned my violin, and was immediately met with a puzzled “what’s that?”  I explained how the tuner worked to which the student replied “Oh…well, that’s not how my old teacher did it.”  It is only natural for students to compare the present against the way things have been done in the past because that is all they have been exposed to up to that point.  For all my student knew there was only one right way to tune a violin and that was that, and so we talked about tuning and what it is supposed to accomplish and I asked what the student thought about doing it a different way so long as we reached the same goal successfully?  The student thought for a minute and then decided that “well, I guess that would be ok.”  I had to smile, and as much as my initial feeling was irritation at the student’s lack of trust, I hadn’t given the student any reason to trust my teaching ability yet.  In any sort of transition situation, the students will often be quick to pass judgment and scrutinize every little thing under the logic and knowledge that they have, limited though it may be.  As teachers, we also have to careful not to fall into the same trap of passing quick judgment on a student’s abilities, potential, or even on their former teacher because we don’t have all the information and it’s only the first lesson.  

Transition Point #2: Triage and Diagnosis- I asked the student to play a piece that was comfortable and played well, perhaps a piece that had recently been completed to get an idea of where the student was at.  As the student played, I had to force myself to watch and listen all the way through as tempting as it was to stop and fix things along the way as I do with many of my other students. I needed to step back and assess the situation as well as triage and diagnose any problems.  I found myself thinking about how the bow hand shape needed to be refined, the student’s stance was a bit lop-sided, and the left wrist couldn’t decide where it needed to be.  Which of these issues should I address first?  There needs to be a balance of correction with encouragement to avoid trying to completely overhaul the student in the first lesson, and so I picked the area that seemed to be causing the most trouble which was the bow hand shape.  We isolated the finger placement and hand/wrist motion and gave some simple repetition bow exercises to hopefully iron out those issues fairly soon.  The next area covered was the left wrist which proved to be slightly more of a challenge than I was initially anticipating, but I feel we got off to a very good start with that setting us up nicely for the coming weeks.  With regard to encouragement, I was very impressed with the student’s intonation and made sure to acknowledge that it was going very well so far, but it is a constant skill to be worked on and enhanced and we discussed ways to do that for the weaker spots for next time.

Transition Point #3: Communication- At the end of the lesson, I stepped out to chat with the parents as I always do while the student is packing up.  I made sure to ask if they had any questions after I summarized what had been done and what would be worked on for the coming week, and the parents had some good questions about my studio policy and routine and such which was encouraging.  I always appreciate when parents care enough about their students’ music education that they not only pay for them to take lessons and rent and instrument, but they also take an active interest in the students’ instruction as well and how they can get involved at home.  For the next few weeks I will be very active in my communications with both parents and students so that everyone will be on the same page and so the parents can feel confident that I greatly value their role in their students’ instruction and want to be open to address any concerns that may arise.

“Teacher-y Tidbit”- Be very aware of how your students and parents are managing in a transition situation.  Whether it be in a private lesson or a classroom, transitions can be bumpy, and it’s important to instill confidence and trust very early on so that students and parents feel more at ease with the changes happening.  As you assess your new students, always be thinking ahead to the lessons in the coming weeks and start to plan a roadmap as they start this new leg of their musical journey with you.

Taking Off the Training Wheels

Two years of hard work and dedication finally paid off this afternoon as I was awarded my Master of Arts in String Pedagogy.  It’s been an amazing journey and I have so many fond memories, but I am very much looking to the road ahead.  I can’t believe it’s over, and I don’t know yet what is in store for me, but I am feeling extremely blessed and excited to move forward.

This week as the gravity of this accomplishment has sunk in and I have transitioned out of my life as a student, I have felt very much like a set of training wheels has been removed.  I remember when I got my first “big kid’s bike” with streamers on the handlebars and a basket in the front.  I think it was a birthday gift, and it was the best.  I rode up and down the driveway ad nauseum getting more and more confident with my balance and steering, until one day my dad took out his tools and we said goodbye to the two little wheels in the back who had been instrumental in my learning process to that point.  For the first few weeks of riding completely independently I remember glancing back periodically to make sure they were gone and remind myself that I was a big girl riding my bike now.  Now looking back at a total of six years of higher education and studying with some of the foremost pedagogues in my field, the training wheels have been taken off and I am ready to get on the other side of the podium.  While my role as student has been scaled back, I am very much looking forward to the opportunity to learn from my students, and I am also looking forward to continuing in my studies as a performer.  I know that the learning part of life never stops even though I’m done going to school and I can’t wait to apply what I’ve learned thus far and see all that I will learn along the way.

While this has been a very significant “training wheels” experience for me, we take off training wheels routinely throughout our lives.  Every time we stretch and challenge ourselves to grow and learn a new set of training wheels is removed to make way for a new phase of life.  Sometimes these wheels are larger than others marking the accomplishment and they represent, but no matter the size it is a sign of great progress when one is ready to ride like a big kid.  One of my students had this experience this week.  This student has been holding the bow at the balance point for some time now and I have been carefully observing the hand, wrist, and arm motion to see when it might be time to move the hand shape down to the frog.  We have been working on several exercises to increase flexibility and control, and this student has progressed immensely in the past few weeks.  Last week, I decided that we were ready to move to the next step.  I explained the change and how excited I was for this student to take this big step in learning to play the violin.  The student was a little timid at first, and once we re-established the hand shape down at the frog and the student bowed a few open strings with the new positioning I heard a groan.  “It’s really hard!” the student exclaimed.  I asked the student if he/she have ever ridden a bike with training wheels on it, to which the student replied “Yeah, when I was little, but training wheels are for babies”.  We talked about how the beginner bow hold was like training wheels, and now we were ready to hold the bow like a big kid.  I think that made things look a little better to this student, but it will definitely be a transition over the next few weeks.  I’m excited for this student, and though he/she doesn’t realize it now, there are so many new possibilities that have just been opened and can now be explored with the beautiful hand shape he/she has been exhibiting.  I am thrilled to be able to discover this new world with this student, and I hope that in time he/she will feel the same way. 

Taking the training wheels off is not always a pain-free experience.  It can mean re-learning old skills in a new way, it can mean learning new skills that seem impossible to us, and sometimes it can mean moving forward in a different direction than we had been heading previously.  It doesn’t always look like a step forward, and sometimes it feels like 10 steps backwards, but when the next set of training wheels come off it is such a beautiful feeling to look back and remember when we rode like a big kid for the very first time in this phase.  There have been times in the past week where I’ve glanced over at my training wheels now sitting in the corner and wondered if I was truly ready to take them off.  It’s frightening to look at the real world and wonder what my role in it will be from here on out.  Then I think of how I felt coming into graduate school and how there were days when I thought I would never make it to Commencement.  And yet, here I am, I did this, and I know I can handle whatever comes next.  I might fall a few times and get some bumps and scratches along the way, but I am confident that my training wheels have set me up well for the future and I am excited.  Bring on the big kid bike, I’m ready to ride.

“Teacher-y Tidbit”- Always be thinking ahead to where your students are going next.  Be aware of the “training wheels” and be careful not to let them become a crutch to the students or to you.  As the students grow and continue to progress, the level of teaching they require must also grow which can be daunting.  Consider your own training wheels and always seek to challenge yourself as a teacher while you challenge your students, and don’t be afraid to ride along with them.

A Week of Lasts

This has been a week of many lasts.  I had my last academic class, my last viola studio class, my last orchestra rehearsal, and I played my last concert with the University Orchestra.  I feel relieved, anxious, impatient, excited, free, and intimidated all at the same time.  Relieved that all the hard work I’ve put in is finally giving me the piece of paper I’ve earned, anxious and impatient to get through this last week before graduation, excited about what’s to come, free to do all the things I’ve had to put on the back burner for the past two years, and intimidated that I’m going back out into the “real world” for the second time in my career.  This time through school however I’ve definitely kept one foot in the school world and one foot in the professional world and I think it will help the transition.  One of the things I’m going to most miss is working with some of the most amazing musicians I’ve ever had the privilege to know.  I’m especially going to miss the viola studio and all our special moments together.   Camaraderie like ours doesn’t come around every day and I have grown so fond of our crazy viola club and the fabulous alto clef family we’ve built.  I didn’t really start getting emotional about leaving until I thought about not seeing all of them in rehearsals and studio class and it almost made me not want to leave.  I love you all dearly, thank you for welcoming me into the club and making me feel like an integral part of the group.

Another last that I experienced this week was the last lesson with one of my violin students.  The student’s parents approached me a few weeks ago asking about taking a break for the summer and the student possibly wanting to switch to guitar instead.  I expressed my concern at stopping violin for the summer if the student was planning on continuing in the fall, but I understood if the student wanted to explore other musical possibilities.  I’ve been extremely blessed to have a very high retention rate in my studio having had very little turnover since I started teaching here two years ago, especially considering that I teach at a music store.  I’ve only lost a few students, and never for a clash of personalities or anything like that.  Still, it’s hard not to take it personally.  It’s also hard to say goodbye to them “just for the summer” because the vast majority of students who take a break don’t end up coming back.   With this student in particular, we have made so many huge strides together in the past several weeks that I feel if the student does return in the fall we could be starting from scratch.  Hopefully there will always be musical opportunities and experiences for this student, and maybe we will study together again. 

“Teacher-y Tidbit”- Students come and go, and regardless of the reason they choose to leave it’s hard not to feel like they’ve taken a little piece of you with them.  Make the most of any time you have with a student, even just a trial lesson or masterclass.  You never know the lasting impact even that brief time can have on them.

The Adventures of Super-Plunk (and other stories)

First, my recital is over!  Thank you all who have followed me through the journey of preparation, the struggles and the triumphs.  It all paid off and I am very pleased with my performance. There are a few spots I would love to take back and do over, but on the whole I feel it was a very successful presentation.

This week I was completely struck by my students’ creative imaginations with regard to their instrument and repertoire.  I try to use engaging, creative methods for teaching technique or trying to make challenging or seemingly dull skills interesting and fun as much as possible, and sometimes my students give it right back to me.  It started with one of my younger students who has been struggling with 4th finger for a few weeks now.  This student has the technical skill for the motion and ear to hear the intonation, but often lacks the confidence to just go for the note, especially if the music has a larger leap to get to the 4th finger.  With the song we were working on today, it was a jump from 1st finger to 4th finger that was giving us trouble.  We’ve tried finger taps, slow practice, and several other focused exercises, but when it comes time to jump to that 4th finger the student chickens out every time and walks the fingers up instead of what I call “plunking” or placing all the necessary fingers down as a group.  We had a conversation today about how we just need to go for that finger and not be afraid of it being slightly out of tune, because that can be fixed next, but we just need to get there.  I compared the student’s hand to a superhero  who laughed in the face of musical peril and always plunked away to save the day and that this superhero needed to muster that confidence to be able to save the day in the nick of time.  The student lit up with a grin and said “We could call me Super-Plunk!”  Soon we had a whole saga of Super-Plunk possibilities, and while the student still wasn’t 100% convinced of the power that could be wielded there was more motivation to keep trying.  While I was chatting with the student’s mom after the lesson, I couldn’t help but notice a caped-figure being drawn on the corner of the page and I cannot wait to see what Super-Plunk looks like next week.

One of my older students had a similar creative burst this week.  We’ve started working on a duet that is simply called “A Dramatic Story”.  No further guidance is given as to what the story is about or who the characters are, and being a little longer piece than we’ve worked on previously this student found it daunting.  I encouraged the student to take it in pieces and try to figure out what is happening in each segment of the story and sort out some of the details as it was practiced throughout the week.  Tonight the student came in with a huge smile and couldn’t wait to share the story.  I opened the page and saw notes written all over giving directions about style and bits of the story line as it was occurring, character names, and set locations.  It was as if the student had written a ballet or silent play to accompany the piece, and it was wonderful!  It started out with a Romeo and Juliet type of forbidden love story, and then there was intrigue, danger, escape, magic, dancing, battle, and victory.  The student had me hooked, I could not wait to start playing and see how it all turned out.  As we played it, the student asserted more leadership playing the top line of the duet and also had a lot more variety of articulations, phrasing, dynamics, and overall characters than I’ve seen previously.  The piece truly came alive for the student this week and it was really neat to see the student’s creative abilities in other areas spilling over into music and making something really special.

On a more whimsical note, my last student today was playing a song called “Song for Maria”.  The student got about 2.5 measures in when suddenly the student stopped and turned to me with a quizzical look and said “is Maria a frog or is she supposed to be a person?”  There is nothing on the page or in this book or that we have discussed to my knowledge that would have suggested that Maria was anything other than a person, so I chuckled and said that I thought she was probably a person.  “Why do you think she is a frog?” I asked, to which the disappointed student replied “I don’t know.  It just sounded like frog music!  It would be so much cooler if it was a song about a frog!”  I said I didn’t see anywhere that Maria had to be a person, so we dubbed Maria the Frog and played an ode to fair amphibian and at the end I had to concede that it did indeed sound like “frog music”, which pleased my student greatly.

“Teacher-y Tidbit”- whether it means inventing new superheroes, setting music to a story, or learning to play “frog music”, find ways to tap into your students’ creative sides.  They have so much outside of music to offer, and in lessons and rehearsals it can be easy to be all business all the time.  There is a lot of overlap between music and other disciplines that can be creatively explored, and students don’t need much encouragement to use their imaginations.  Use the gifts they have to broaden the scope of your classroom or studio and you might find new ways to engage them that you never knew were there.

Taking Time to Smell the Roses

The time is finally here.  This is the moment I’ve been preparing for in my private lessons for the past two years, and this is the moment that has kept me most anxious for the past several weeks.  By this time on Sunday I will be on my way to dinner with friends and family to celebrate my recital and I will be that much closer to graduation.  My week has been full of logistical details about food for the reception, breaking in my new shoes, practicing in the recital hall, and getting my programs printed.  I’ve had two opportunities to play through my program this week.  The first was in studio class where I performed most of my repertoire and got feedback from my peers, and I also had my final dress rehearsal where I played the whole program in order in the recital hall with my accompanist.  The recurring theme of all feedback I’ve gotten from my teacher, my peers, and even myself was the need to slow down and let the music breathe.  I don’t know if I just feel like I’m boring people and try to get to the end as soon as possible to not waste their time, or maybe I’m just in full-blown survival mode trying to fight my way to the finish.  Regardless, between the little voice inside me saying “Hey, this train is going kind of fast…okay, now this train is going really fast…SLOW DOWN!” as I was playing and then receiving the same feedback in comments afterword I have been trying really hard to relax and just breathe and let the music relax as well.

It felt really weird at first, but the more I consciously and purposely try to play slower than I would ever think to play the piece, the more relaxed I felt.  It was like everything inside me just breathed a huge sigh of relief.  The craziest part was that I was expecting my teacher to comment on how under-tempo I was playing, but instead he encouraged me that I’d found what my performance had been lacking and needed to keep it going.  It is so perplexing how our perception of time changes when we get into a high-stress situation.  Time seems to pass so much differently than under normal circumstances.  While it felt like eternity, taking time to smell the roses was just what my repertoire needed to become something really special.  At the end of the day I felt much more at peace about some passages that had felt like they were going to fly off the tracks a few days before and I hope I can maintain that feeling and keep bringing it back through the entire performance.  Sunday is coming, and the closer it gets the more I find myself exchanging nerves for anticipation.  I know I have the ability to give a performance I can be truly proud of, and I look forward to sharing this repertoire with everyone who comes to hear it.

“Teacher-y Tidbit”- Make sure you give your students pieces that force them to take time to smell the roses.  Today’s world continues to offer them fewer and fewer opportunities to enjoy the leisurely passage of time and music can be a great outlet for that.  Help them to understand why music breathes the way it does and help them to craft performances that they can enjoy and appreciate in the moment instead of letting the moment fly by. 

The Final Item on the List

While I don’t have a terribly long “bucket list” for my life, my musician “bucket list” is even shorter with only three items on it.  The first item is to perform on the stage of Severance Hall, home of the great Cleveland Orchestra.  I don’t know if this dream will ever come true for me, but who knows?  The second item is to perform as a session musician in a recording studio.  I had an opportunity to do that for a friend in college who was putting together a pit orchestra to record the soundtrack for his senior composition project.  The final item on my list is to perform in a lowered orchestra pit for a production.  I remember when my family went to the ballet when I was little and my favorite thing to do was run down the aisle at intermission and peer over the railing at this magical basement room where all the music was made and wave at my fellow violists.  Every time we played music from The Nutcracker in orchestra around the holidays I would think about how violists all over the country would be playing this music in pits everywhere and dreaming that one day that could be me.  Well, it wasn’t Tchaikovsky, but my opportunity to check this item off the list finally came this week.

The orchestra began rehearsing Verdi’s comic opera Falstaff at the beginning of this quarter back in March.  When people started talking about the performances and I learned that the hall had a lowered pit, I was ecstatic!  It seems like such a little thing, but I couldn’t believe that something I’ve dreamt about for years was going to happen.  The first night of dress rehearsals I came in and descended into the bowels of the concert hall to where the pit entrance is.  When I went in the first time it was a very weird feeling.  I couldn’t see anything above me except the walls and ceiling of the auditorium and could only hear lots of scuffling on the stage.  The feeling got weirder after we tuned and suddenly there was a low hum and we were going up.  The pit is at basement level so the musicians can get in and out, but then the giant elevator takes us all up a floor to where we are positioned directly below the stage.  It was so neat! 

In addition to the “coolness factor” I also learned a lot as a performer.  For example, the setup of a pit orchestra can be a bit different than traditional orchestra setup.  In our case, it was strings on the right, winds/brass on the left, and violists bridging the gap  It was weird not having anyone behind me, and it was also weird not being able to see our principal player hardly at all with very little I could do about it.  I did however have an excellent view of the podium as I was nearly sitting on it, which made for an interesting change of pace.  In addition, I never fully appreciated the creation of earplugs until we began pit rehearsals.  My stand partner and I found ourselves sitting directly next to one of the most piercing instruments ever made: the piccolo.  When played well it can contribute to many an excellent orchestral excerpt, but it can also take about 25 years off your hearing if you’re not careful. 

Few performances have tested my musical awareness and ability to play with a group like a live show.  You never know what will happen in the “real thing” that never happened in rehearsals.  There are also audience reactions that you never hear during rehearsals and not being able to see what is happening on stage could be very distracting if you don’t stay focused on your part, those around you, and the conductor.  One key instance of this was at the very end of the opera where the title character has a line before the grand finale.  Everyone drops out and waits to start the ending fanfare once this line has been delivered.  Feeling inspired, the character took a lot of time before his line which meant that we had to be alert and ready to go at the blink of an eye when the cue came.  In general, it is very active throughout, and there are very few breaks for the strings which can make it easier to lose focus if you’re losing energy.

I was so sad when the pit lowered for the last time and the final show was over, and I have determined that there are few ways to make an entrance that are as fantastic as rising up out of the floor.  While I’m still holding out hope for The Nutcracker someday, this was such an excellent experience for me as a performer and such a neat opportunity to do something I’ve always wanted to do.  To truly bring the memories full circle, there were even two little girls at intermission during our last show who came running over as soon as the lights came up, peered over the railing, and waved at the orchestra.  I smiled and waved back, and who knows?  Maybe those girls will find themselves in a pit someday playing Falstaff and smiling to themselves as they remember that afternoon their parents took them to the opera.

“Teacher-y Tidbit”- Find some way to give your kids an unforgettable performance experience.  Maybe it’s taking a class trip to perform at a theme park or somewhere cool out of state.  It could be a local church or other venue with amazing acoustics for your studio recital.  Perhaps it’s bringing in a guest artist from the local symphony to perform with them.  Whatever it is, those are the experiences that kids remember for a lifetime and can inspire them to want to come back next year.