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Saturday, June 18, 2011

How to Land Your Kid in Therapy

Excerpted from the article by Lori Gottlieb:

“Research shows that people get more satisfaction from working hard at one thing, and that those who always need to have choices and keep their options open get left behind,” Schwartz told me. “I’m not saying don’t let your kid try out various interests or activities. I’m saying give them choices, but within reason. Most parents tell kids, ‘You can do anything you want, you can quit any time, you can try this other thing if you’re not 100 percent satisfied with the other.’ It’s no wonder they live their lives that way as adults, too.” He sees this in students who graduate from Swarthmore. “They can’t bear the thought that saying yes to one interest or opportunity means saying no to everything else, so they spend years hoping that the perfect answer will emerge. What they don’t understand is that they’re looking for the perfect answer when they should be looking for the good-enough answer.”

Read the whole article here.

Monday, June 13, 2011


Please don't try this at home!

Diego Stocco - Experibass from Diego Stocco on Vimeo.

Fostering Critical and Creative Thinkers

Frequently in a lesson I will ask a student to play a review piece, passage or exercise with a specific technical issue in mind. I'll say, for example, "play the first line of French Folk Song and notice whether your bow stays on the 'highway.'" Afterward I'll ask for an assessment. Almost always I get one of two monosyllabic replies: "Good" or "Bad" (the latter response always fascinates me because I am very careful in my teaching never to use the word "bad" to describe any aspect of a student's playing).

The terseness of their answers can be frustrating to be sure, but I think it reveals something interesting about their points of view. So much of what kids are expected to learn is presented to them in black and white. It seems like they come to think that every question has right answer and wrong answers. 1 + 1 = 2. 7-3 is not 5. Missippi is spelled M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I. Nairobi is the capital city of Kenya. Phnom Penh is not.

I've noticed that students are very often enthusiastic to answer a question if it has one right answer and they are sure what that answer is. On the other hand, when I ask a student for an opinion or a description they hesitate.

From my perspective as a cello teacher, this is a problem. If kids are thinking about their playing in terms of right vs. wrong, once they have learned to play a piece "right," they don't want to work on it anymore. Instead they want to move on to the next thing. I want them, however, to think of learning music as a continuous process, as having infinite rather than finite possibilities.

Many questions in music do in fact have a right answer? "How many beats are there in a whole note if the time signature says 4/4?" "What is Major key with two sharps?" But many more have many possible answers "How do I want to shape this phrase?" "Should I make this crescendo by increasing my bow-speed or adding more weight?" "What can I do to make this piece sound even better?"

If my goal (or one of them) is to help prepare students one day to become their own teachers, then I need them to be critical thinkers. In fact, one of the many benefits of studying music is that it can help kids learn to think critically and analytically. One hears of study after study that demonstrates that adults who have studied music as kids make successful doctors and engineers and CEO's because they are able to approach problems from a variety of angles, and come up with creative solutions.

So how do we help kids to exercise their critical thinking skills?

1. We encourage them to be creative. We ask questions that have several possible answers. We offer problems that have several possible solutions. We invite them to make up stories to go along with the music. We let them play the role of the teacher, and we the student. We explain things in various ways.
2. We show them that there is more than one way to play a piece, or approach a technical challenge. This is one reason that group classes are so beneficial, because students might have to have the flexibility to play something one way in group and another way by themselves. This is also why I believe it's helpful to work with many different teachers in workshops and institutes, etc.
3. We let them hear recordings and live performances of great musicians. A lot. If students know what the possibilities are, they can form opinions about how they themselves would like to sound, and are more motivated to explore and figure out how to produce that sound themselves.
4. We continue to work on review pieces, so that students will understand that there is no such thing as a finished product in music, but we're always looking for ways to improve that way we play something.
5. We allow them to work collaboratively and encourage them to be open to the ideas of their peers.
6. We allow them to try and to err. And more importantly to try again.

Lynn Harrell's Cello Workshop -- Volume 1 Pt.1

Sound Production Principles

Listening Like a Maniac

Dr. Suzuki was very specific that simply listening to a piece a few times is not sufficient if the goal is to learn that piece by heart. Often I will see a student get stuck while attempting to play a piece in a lesson. When this happens my first question is, "how often do you listen to this piece." Occasionally the student or parent bows his or her head and confesses that the CD has been missing for three weeks. More often the parent shrugs and says something like, "we listen to the CD every day while we're getting ready for school." The fact is sometimes listening once a day is not nearly enough. Etude from Book 1 is a case in point. Playing that piece is like navigating a complex maze, because the form of it is not so clearly defined as in previous pieces. The more one listens, the more detailed and useful the mental map with which one can navigate that maze.

Suzuki Guitar Teacher and Suzuki Violin Mother, Michelle Horner, described in a video for the recent online Parents as Partners seminar on the SAA website, the system for listening that she and her daughter have come to use in their home. Both parent and child had been frustrated by what they viewed as relatively slow progress, despite practicing and listening every day as they were supposed to do. So they decided to begin listening like maniacs. This meant:
  • Listening to the current working piece 10 times in a row
  • Listening to the next piece 10 times in a row
  • Listening to the piece after that 10 times in a row
They saw almost immediate improvement in the rate of progress, and in the overall level of playing. Horner explains that they have continued to listen like maniacs over the years, and that she encourages her guitar families to do the same, with great success.

Try it in your home. Do you notice a change in the quality of playing or in the quality of practice?

Ask the Experts #6: Practicing and Psychological Development

Excerpted from Edmund Sprunger's excellent article on the SAA website.

Even when the work is broken down into manageable chunks, I notice that children often complain about doing some things; but once they get going their own initiative kicks in. Sometimes it’s helpful to say “This is really hard isn’t it?” or “Tell me what the worst part of this is…” and then let the child talk. The child is often ready to go, and in reality this empathizing usually takes less time than it does to pull out a prop. Jumping to a “fun activity” too quickly, then, runs the risk of thwarting the child’s developing awareness that there is pleasure to be had in accomplishing things with one’s own efforts.
Read the whole article here:

Softness is Strength

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Brahms Dble Cto Oïstrakh Rostropovitch Kondrashin 1/1

The Value of Preparation

I lectured a student the other day about the apparent inefficiency with which he seems to practice. This is a student who can memorize and play material "correctly" (i.e. with the right notes, fingerings, bowings, rhythms etc.), but who often doesn't employ the accuracy of intonation, purity of tone, and mature artistry of which I know he is capable. On my way home I found myself asking, what exactly is it that I would like to see him do differently.

The answer can be summed up with one word: Prepare.

This particular student (like so many others - including myself) has a habit of correcting things after the fact. If a note is out of tune, he hears it and adjusts his finger. If the tone is less than ideal, sometimes he'll go back and try it again. Sometimes not. But that alone does not guarantee that the problem will happen again in the future.

What that student needs to do when he practices is to apply a strategy that can be helpful and productive in just about every circumstance, and which I've heard teachers prescribe in a number of different ways:
  • Stop. Prepare.
  • Place then play.
  • Fingers. Bow. Go.
  • Feel the note before you play the note.
The process is as follows:
1. Work in chunks. Pick a unit of music that addresses one issue at a time (probably no more than a few notes).
2. Identify what needs to be done to play a given 'chunk' as you would like it to happen in performance.
  • Where should you be in the bow?
  • Where should the bow be on the string?
  • How much bow should you use?
  • How should you balance your body/set up your posture?
  • How do you adjust the balance of your left arm to go from one note to the next?
  • How do you handle a string crossing?
  • How can you eliminate excessive tension?
  • How can you eliminate excessive motion?
3. Once you've thought about how best to execute that 'chunk,' identify how best to prepare for it.
4. Only then are you ready to play it.

Notice, there is much more thinking in the process than actual playing.

CelloBello Blog

Click for a link to a great blog edited by the great cellist and pedagogue Paul Katz (of the Cleveland Quartet and New England Conservatory), and including contributions from a variety of other great cellists.