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Monday, November 12, 2012

Cellist of the Week #17: Emanuel Feuermann

NPR Story on the Role of Struggle in the Learning Process

"Granting that there is a lot of cultural diversity within East and West and it's possible to point to counter-examples in each, Stigler still sums up the difference this way: For the most part in American culture, intellectual struggle in schoolchildren is seen as an indicator of weakness, while in Eastern cultures it is not only tolerated, it is often used to measure emotional strength."

Monday, October 1, 2012

Cellist of the Week #12: Gautier Capucon

For the month of October, I'm going to feature outstanding cellists of a younger generation. Of course the list should include Alisa Weilerstein, but she was already featured in a previous post.

This week's cellist is one of my favorites. The French artist, Gautier Capucon, who will be here in Chicago later this month to play the Brahms Double Concerto with his brother Renaud.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

NYT: Early Music Lessons Have Longtime Benefits

How to Be Ready for the Big Test « The Talent Code

How to Be Ready for the Big Test « The Talent Code

"I love that line, not just because it resonates with what I observed with the SEALs, but also because it gives us some insight into what real preparation for big tests truly is. You do something over and over – every single contingency – until you are tired of it.

This is not normally how we think about preparation. In normal life, we think that practice ends when we get it right a couple times in a row. But in truth, that’s when practice truly begins. The goal is not to do it right once. The goal is to do it often enough, in realistic conditions and under pressure, so that you can’t do it wrong." (My italics).

-Daniel Coyle

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Other Suzuki Triangle

"The discipline of practice, the constant listening and the habit of continuous self reflection, things that are manifested in the mature musician, are born in the youngest students in the nurturing environment of the Suzuki studio. Suzuki Education is much more than a collection of pieces from the classical repertoire. It is the gateway to a life filled with music of all kinds, played with clarity, joy and respect. Suzuki education is the gift of music to the masses."

-Mark George, Chair of the SAA Board

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Most Valuable Lesson I Learned from Playing the Violin | The Creativity Post

The Most Valuable Lesson I Learned from Playing the Violin | The Creativity Post

"When it comes to understanding expertise and expert performance, psychologist Dr. Ericsson is perhaps the world’s leading authority. His research is the basis for the “10,000-hour rule” which suggests that it requires at least ten years and/or 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve an expert level of performance in any given domain – and in the case of musicians, more like 15-25 years in order to attain an elite international level.

Those are some pretty big numbers. So large, that at first I missed the most important factor in the equation.
Deliberate practice.

Meaning, that there is a specific type of practice that facilitates the attainment of an elite level of performance. And then there's the other kind of practice that most of us are more familiar with."

-Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Mariachi Connecticut Serenades a Beluga Whale

7 Ways to Improve Progress

One of the greatest motivators to musicians of any age is the ability to improve in a continuous and perceivable fashion. As we approach a new school year, it is a good time to find ways to enrich the experience of studying music. Here's a (hopefully) concise list of suggestions. Perhaps not all will apply to your family, but you might benefit from implementing even just a few.

  1. Practice every day. In our busy lives, it's easy to take days off, but much harder to recover from them. In general, it takes about two days of practice to recoup from one missed day, sometimes more.  
  2. Listen repeatedly to the current working piece and to the next couple of pieces.
  3. Listen ahead to the next book. It doesn't hurt to listen to all of the Suzuki books on a somewhat regular basis. 
  4. Listen more. Really this is the easiest thing to do on this list, and one of the most helpful. Just press play and let there be cello music in the background.
  5. Engage in your child's lessons and group classes as an observer and note-taker. Remember, as the parent it's your lesson too. Take precise and detailed notes, and make videos, either of the whole lesson or parts so that you can review them at home.
  6. Attend performances whenever possible. Inspiration is vital, and should be an ongoing pursuit.
  7. Set specific attainable practice goals, but be careful not to set deadlines.

Cellist of the Week #6: Raya Garbousova

Like Janos Starker, Raya Garbousova was the teacher of one of my teachers.

Honest Practice

 Here's a thoughtful blog post on the subject of practicing by my friend and colleague Eric Miller. If you have a moment, please follow the link and read the whole thing.

"In college, I was always in awe when I went to a percussion student's recital. The recitals, unlike those of string players and wind players, were always perfectly executed; not a single mistake. I also noticed the pieces were usually memorized. In order to get to the bottom of it, I read a book by a percussionist named Steven Schick called The Percussionist's Art. In the book, Schick, who is an outstanding performer, outlined his practicing process. He memorizes the first note, then the next, always returning to the beginning and playing through, adding notes each time."

2012 National Summer Cello Institue. Bach/Varga Chaconne from Partita in...

Monday, August 6, 2012

Cellist of the Week #4: Janos Starker

As a cellist, Janos Starker is widely known for his incredible precision and accuracy. As a pedagogue, there is perhaps no one, at least in recent years, who has given so much to the field. Just as many pianists can trace their lineage back to Franz Liszt, many cellists can do the same with Starker. At 88 years old, he remains on the faculty of the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University.

NY Times: Raising Successful Children

From the article:

 "Think back to when your toddler learned to walk. She would take a weaving step or two, collapse and immediately look to you for your reaction. You were in thrall to those early attempts and would do everything possible to encourage her to get up again. You certainly didn’t chastise her for failing or utter dire predictions about flipping burgers for the rest of her life if she fell again. You were present, alert and available to guide if necessary. But you didn’t pick her up every time.

You knew she had to get it wrong many times before she could get it right."


"There is an important distinction between good and bad parental involvement. For example, a young child doesn’t want to sit and do his math homework. Good parents insist on compliance, not because they need their child to be a perfect student but because the child needs to learn the fundamentals of math and develop a good work ethic. Compare this with the parent who spends weeks 'helping' his or her child fill out college applications with the clear expectation that if they both work hard enough, a 'gotta get into' school is a certainty. (While most of my parent patients have graduated from college, it is always a telltale sign of overparenting when they talk about how 'we’re applying to Columbia.')"

NY Times: Raising Successful Children-Madeline Levine

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Cellist of the Week, #3: Jacqueline Du Pre

Multiple Sclerosis brought an unfortunate and untimely end to this week's cellist's life and career, but in that short time Jacqueline Du Pre's artistic contributions were invaluable. Among them, probably the most celebrated interpretation of Edward Elgar's great cello concerto.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Cellist of the Week, #2: Pablo Casals

Among his varied accomplishments, this week's cellist is largely responsible for making Bach's Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello the staples of the repertoire that they are today.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Learning by Ear vs. Learning by Rote, and Why the Former is Ultimately Better

I distinctly remember my first solo driving experience. It was dusk. It was disconcerting to be the only person in a moving vehicle for the first time in my life. Much about the experience was foreign to me, to be sure, but I was not worried about getting lost. I was headed to a youth symphony rehearsal, and it was a route I had ridden at least a hundred times before. I knew where to turn, I knew when to signal, and I knew when to change lanes.

Thank goodness I knew the route so well, because while I had had plenty of practice driving on my learners permit, the actual skills of driving - how much weight to apply to the pedals, how soon to apply the breaks, how to keep a safe following distance, how to turn on the wipers - while I could execute them successfully, were by no means second nature. They required quite a bit of mental energy. If instead I had been unfamiliar with my destination, and had to remember a complex set of directions in order ("Turn right at the second stop sign. When you see the bank with the purple sign turn left. Get into the center lane." etc.), in addition to thinking about basic driving skills, in addition to being distracted by the eerie silence of a car that doesn't have other people in it, I might easily have gotten lost, or worse, had an accident.

 The route to youth symphony rehearsal was one I knew by heart, because I had lived it many, many times, even if not in the sense that I had driven it myself. I was therefore able to focus on my driving and to arrive safely, and without incident. I was also able to enjoy my new-found independence.

A child learning by ear to play a piece of music, should have a similar experience. While it might take a lot of concentration (a tremendous amount in the beginning stages of learning the piece) to execute the technical skills that the piece demands, it should not be difficult to remember how the piece goes. Unfortunately, people often confuse the concept of learning by ear with the concept of learning by rote - a misconception of which I too have been guilty in the past. Too often a teacher will say "this week please learn to pluck first phrase of Go Tell Aunt Rhody," and then the parent in the practice session at home sits down with the child and says "okay, play F-sharp, F-sharp, E, D, D . . . " or worse "play '3, 3, 1, D, D." This is completely understandable of course. For one thing, at first such an approach can seem very successful. If you say "play 3, 3, 1, D, D" and your daughter plucks the = D string, with the correct number of fingers down for each note, then she got it right. For another thing, she did it without reading the music, and after all, isn't that what it it means to learn by ear?


The process of learning by ear is one in which the child uses the skills and knowledge available to him to figure out how to play on the instrument a piece that he already knows by heart. The child figures it out. The child does the work of discovering the right answers. The parent's role is not to provide the answers, but to help guide him to it with helpful questions ("is the next note higher or lower or the same?", "does that match the song in your head?", "is it a step or a skip?"), and of course to provide encouragement. Then it is the parent's job to say, "Great job! You figured out how to play the first five notes. Now let's see if you can do it six times in a row."

In the first days (and sometimes weeks) of learning a piece by ear, the process looks much messier than learning by rote. Trial and error often generates a lot of frustration on the student's part, and it is often hard for a parent to watch. Again, it's completely understandable when a parent just wants to give a kid the answer, because that seems easier for everyone. The problem is that when we do the work of learning for the child, then the child doesn't learn, at least not as well.

When you find yourself saying to your child "come on, Suzie, you had this yesterday," ask yourself how you worked on it with her yesterday. Did she figure it out herself with your guidance, or did you feed her answers? If she's having trouble remembering it today, it could very well be that she simply needs a lot more repetitions of it (24 hours is a long time for a small child - plenty of time to forget things). But it is easier to remember something one has figured out for oneself than to remember a set of instructions that came from someone else.

That struggle, even the frustration of getting it wrong, is important. It's where the bulk of the learning happens. Kid's need support and encouragement as they go through the process of struggle, and then once they've arrived at the solution, they need plenty of opportunities to repeat their success (a child whose practice consists of only struggle and no progress will eventually not want to continue). But they also need to struggle to figure it out. As Dr. Suzuki famously said, "A child can fail at 500 times, but succeed at five thousand."

So the distinction between learning by ear and learning by rote is a simple one: learning by rote may seem easier, but it isn't actually learning at all. It may consist of giving a child information (though not nearly enough to be as successful as he can be) but it does not consist of developing a skill that the child can use again. Learning by ear is about skill development.

What can you do to make the process of learning by ear go more smoothly and easily?

 1. Listen several times in a row to the reference recording of the piece right before starting to figure it out in a practice session.
 2. Allow your child to start listening way ahead of time to pieces that he will learn in the future (at least a year ahead is ideal).
 3. When your child has figured out a little bit, give her the chance to play that little bit several times, so that it starts to become easy.
 4. Be patient, especially when your child is not being patient.
 5. Be willing to say "We've figured out enough for today, and we'll work on it some more tomorrow."
 You don't have to learn the whole thing all at once.

The bottom line is, when a child knows a piece by heart and then learns to play it by ear, she can play more beautifully and more successfully because she does not have to worry about how the piece goes, and can therefore focus on the skills needed to play it well. She also knows more about the piece. She knows what it sounds like when played in tune, with a beautiful tone, and elegant phrasing, and she can work toward those things when she plays it herself.

Cellist of the Week #1: Rostropovich

It's important for Suzuki cellists to listen to not only to the Suzuki recordings but to other great cello playing as well, and to know the names of the giants in the field. So I am instituting a new weekly series titled, Cellist of the Week. Who better to start with than the great Mstislav Rostropovich?


Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Getting Kids to Practice Music

Click here for a great blog post from NPR on the subject of practice motivation. Many of the ideas come from students who've performed on "From the Top."

Monday, March 5, 2012

Music is a Curricular Activity

Music is an Extracurricular Activity

The perception (or rather misconception) seems to have evolved unfortunately, that music is a supplemental activity - beneficial, to be sure, but a luxury outside the "core" curriculum.

In truth, however, musical training develops innumerable skills and cognitive processes that are applicable to a wide range of disciplines. Whether or not a child grows up to be a professional musician, that child will have been better prepared for her career having studied music than not having studied music, even if she chooses to become a doctor or an architect or an archaeologist . (Please see Brian Pertl's outstanding blog post Everything I Know About Business I Learned at the Conservatory).

It is therefore important to think of musical activity as curricular rather than extracurricular. I my mind, the distinction is this: curricular activities are non-negotiable. Children are expected to complete their Math homework - even those children who will not become accountants or engineers. A conscientious parent does not allow her child to blow off Math or Science or English homework, simply because the child doesn't feel like doing it, or because the child has soccer practice or ballet that evening. 

Daily practicing and listening should likewise be non-negotiable. It is each Suzuki student's ongoing assignment to practice what his teacher has worked on in the lesson, to practice review repertoire, and to listen to the reference recording. He may not receive a grade for cello lessons, but as we know, the grade isn't the point of studying Math, and neither is it the point of studying music. In order to reap the greatest benefit from musical training, regular follow through is vital.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

How Much Practice is Too Much?

Click here to find out.

"We don’t just need to learn a task in order to perform it well; we need to overlearn it."

-Annie Murphy Paul

Friday, February 17, 2012


Babies are exposed even before birth to the sounds of their parents language, and they eventually work out, just by hearing, observing and imitating, how to pronounce words, what those words mean and eventually how those words can be strung together to form meaningful sentences. No one gives the baby specific instructions what to do with her teeth, lips, tongue and vocal chords to produce the sounds. No one is explaining verb conjugation to an eleven-month-old. Kids simply absorb the information. A child's brain is remarkably wired to learn that way.

Suzuki students also learn by ear, because they hear recordings and live performances of music (particularly the reference recordings of the pieces they will learn to play - which they should listen to as often as possible - several times a day, ideally), and learn more efficiently and more thoroughly than they ever would if merely given a series of rote instructions as to how to play the piece. A lot more.

  • Grammar - We learn the complex systems of grammar in our native languages mainly by ear (not to mention the idiosyncrasies that might be specific to our households, neighborhoods or regions). We learn the rules of rhythm and harmony by ear as well. Even before we have the conceptual framework and vocabulary to explain why, we can tell when something sounds 'wrong.'
  • Dialect - What kids learn by ear they learn with incredible detail. Kids who grow up in Boston learn to say "car" differently from kids who grow up in Nebraska. Kids who grow up in Georgia will stretch into two syllables words that kids in Washington state will pronounce with only one. In Wisconsin, where I went to college, the locals have a certain peculiarity (apart from their propensity to wear hats shaped like cheese wedges). What the rest of us refer to as a drinking fountain, Wisconsinites call a "bubbler." I had never heard of a "bubbler," I've met people in neighboring Illinois who have never heard of a "bubbler" and I met people in Wisconsin who had never heard of a "drinking fountain."  The point is, regional dialects persist, they are by no means universal, they are incredibly complex and specific, and yet kids learn them anyway. In fact, there is no other way to pick up an accent than by hearing it. By the same token, music students can only learn subtleties of phrasing, style, articulation, tone, intonation, etc. by hearing music and hearing it often.
  • Inflection - Consider the following sentence: "I enjoyed the symphony concert yesterday." It can be spoken several ways, each conveying a slightly different meaning, though the words are the same. We learn to pick up on these cues because we have been listening to people speak all our lives. In the same way, music students can learn how to express a musical phrase in a variety of meaningful ways, simply by listening.
    • "I enjoyed the symphony concert yesterday" - implies that my companion did not.
    • "I enjoyed the symphony concert yesterday" - refutes the suggestion that I did not enjoy the concert.
    • "I enjoyed the symphony concert yesterday" - suggests that the string quartet on the previous program played out of tune.
    • "I enjoyed the symphony concert yesterday" - implies that the performance was fun, but the dress rehearsal was brutal.
    • "I enjoyed the symphony concert yesterday" - implies that the performance the day before was a complete disaster.
  •  Motivation - Babies hear adults and older kids speaking, and eventually develop the desire to speak as well. Musicians who listen frequently also develop a desire to play and to play beautifully and expressively.
  • Self-evaluation - Children who listen are able to recognize when the sounds they are producing do not match the sounds they are trying to produce, and make adjustments accordingly.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Ten Tips for Practicing, by Timothy Judd

Here is a list of helpful tips for practicing by violinist Timothy Judd.

Parents as Partners

Speaking of taking advantage of resources, this years SAA Parents as Partners online seminar begins next week. Link below:

Parents as Partners

Institutes, Workshops etc.

January in Chicago is a time of blustery wind chills and heavy snowfall, and so it's hard to imagine thinking about the upcoming Summer. Nonetheless, it is the appropriate time to begin making plans for summer camps and activities.

As we all know, learning an instrument is a long, complex endeavor. We need support from a variety of sources, the perspective of a variety of different teachers, and so it behooves us to take advantage of as many opportunities as we can to participate in workshops and summer institutes and the like. The adage "it takes a village to raise a child" is no less true when we are talking specifically about nurturing the growth of talent. Summer Suzuki institutes provide an invaluable chance to interact with other teachers, students and parents, and to keep the musical muscles moving during those months when there often aren't group classes and recitals to help keep us motivated. An institute is a week-long camp-like experience for students and parents. The typical day includes:

  1. A mini-lesson (or full hour lesson for advanced students) in which the teacher pics one aspect of the students technique on which to focus intensively over the course of the week. This is a great way to make a lot of progress in a specific area.  In addition, families can observe and learn from the other students' mini-lessons.
  2. A small group class which focuses on developing and refining technical skills appropriate to that child's ability level. This is often both very challenging and a lot of fun.
  3. A large group class which focuses on repertoire in preparation for a concert at the end of the week.
  4. A supplemental enrichment class (e.g. Music and Movement) for appropriate ages and levels.
  5. Orchestra, chamber music and cello choir for appropriate ages and levels.
  6. A student solo recital every day, which features a variety of instruments, and students of every ability level playing pieces they've worked up to a very high degree of polish. Not every student plays on these recitals, but every student has the opportunity to audition. The real value, however, is as an audience member getting to hear excellent student performances.
  7. Faculty recitals, guest artist recitals etc.
Teachers can and do attend institutes to take training and professional development courses, to share ideas with colleagues, and to see what other students from around the country can do. This means that many of the gifted teachers on institute faculties are SAA teacher trainers with vast experience and expertise.

Students of all levels can participate, from pre-twinkle to pre-collegiate.

The SAA lists all of the Summer institutes in the Americas, along with their dates in its quarterly journal, as well as online (link below).

For Chicago area students, the Chicago Suzuki Institute has an outstanding cello faculty, and is conveniently located in the North suburbs.

The American Suzuki Institute, Ithaca College Suzuki Institute, Southwestern Ontario Suzuki Institute, and National Cello Institute are also great options.

 The benefits of participating in institutes are innumerable, but they include:
  • New friendships with other students, families and teachers from around the world
  • Intensive focus on certain technical and musical skills
  • 3-5 hours a day of playing in lessons, group classes, rehearsals and practice. Imagine getting a month's worth of practice done in one week!
  • Lots of opportunities to listen in live performance settings
  • Intensive review
(A Suzuki workshop is when a guest teacher [or teachers] comes for a weekend to work with students in their home programs, but it provides a taste of what the institute experience looks like).

I hope you'll all make a Suzuki Institute part of your Summer! You won't regret it.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012