Tone III

There is another aspect to tone that heavily influences and even overshadows the previous two essays. As a string teacher advocate, I will now focus on how we can nudge ourselves into becoming better teachers by becoming aware of the tone in our life.

There is a way in which we go about our day-to-day lives, with the tone we carry, influencing our general outlook, as well as the decisions we make. There is also the tone we use while thinking.  “ How do I sound, in my mind, when I go about my daily life? Am I bossy, mean, kind, or something in-between? Am I harsh or hard on myself? Am I perfectionistic, or contemplative, gentle, artistic or hopeful? Perhaps I am forward-thinking, creative, or possibly giving and forgiving. Have I even noticed my tone?  Should I? “

“Yes.” However, the tone I most want to consider is not the negative one when we are concerned about how we look, how a student’s lack of practice or progress reflects on us, or how we felt when we made a mistake or looked foolish. That is our worst tone. It takes us out of the moment and away from our highest values. It prevents us from focusing our attention and mind on the external, the needs of the student in front of us. The type of tone I want us to consider is the one which helps us have an ease and flow and is conducive to reaching our mission as string teachers, a goal which each of us has to define for ourselves.

I’m aware that many people think their thoughts with words–a kind of running commentary–though others think more in terms of intuition, feeling, color, shape, or perhaps a synthesis of all of this.  I believe there is a vibrational hum to the tone of our thoughts, conscious and subconscious, verbal and non-verbal.

I will start by noticing the tone I use with myself– the tone I allow to run my life. 

For me, the tone humming along in the background of my consciousness (okay, sometimes it reaches the forefront too) has evolved over the course of my life. I’ve become aware that my tone is constantly present, though it wanders in and out of focus. I don’t really want to notice it all the time. It’s as if  I’m in a boat, a metaphor for my life, and the sails are the tone that move it along with the wind.  “I may not be able to control the force of the wind, but I can, however, adjust my sails.” It’s possible to notice if there is something influencing the tone I’m using. The big difference between running on autopilot and noticing or improving my personal tone is that I have a say in how I handle my sails, my tone, no matter how placid or turbulent the wind. 

I notice a marked difference if I redirect my mind when my tone starts to wander into pessimism (which happens more often that I’d like to admit.) I’m convinced we can consciously alter this vibration by choosing the tone we use.1  Have you ever been terse with yourself and something has gone from bad to worse just because of how you thought about it? I have. I see it sometimes with my students, too. The opposite is also true. When I take a breath and give myself a moment to encourage myself, it allows the time to pause and reset from the negative thought. It helps me return to doing my best work, living my best life, and caring more about others. When I give enough attention to this,  I begin to discover, or to consciously develop, my optimal tone. Optimal tone is the one which works with my highest values and not against them. It supports and connects with the creativity I need to serve my ultimate purpose. Purpose is something which each of us has to decide for ourselves.

Because I have had years of experience as a public school orchestra teacher, I know sometimes it’s hard to bring our tone back to one that is truly supportive and caring, especially when we’ve gotten used to accepting more responsibilities than we probably should, or we’ve developed the habit of ignoring our personal and even professional needs. It should not be that way, yet I am fully aware of the realities we face when trying to manage two, three, four or more schools, teaching hundreds of pupils with often far less than adequate facilities and conditions.  I spent six years in a poor district wrought with poverty, gangs, and drugs  and I am deeply grateful for what I have learned from leading their string orchestra program—a light in the darkness, I hope. I empathize with the thousands of string orchestra teachers who work in similarly poor conditions. To my mind, there should be a special presidential honor going to string teachers for this dedication because the mostly unrecognized good they do spreads out into the entire community and beyond. This is all the more reason to take care of our internal tone.

When I haven’t thought about the tone I use with myself, perhaps it’s because I’m always on the go, running from one demand to another, with no time for thinking at all except about what’s next and how to pull it together. However, right now is possibly the best time to slow down and consider it. I should find some time to check in with myself, to carefully observe the tone that threads my thoughts throughout the days, weeks, months, and even years of giving to the community as a string teacher. When I take care of my own tone, I’m able to develop the tools I need to advocate for those of my teaching program and their needs. In short, taking care of my own tone will help me take better care of myself, thus making me a better teacher.

When I was a child, I had a little friend named Melissa, a neighbor who lived in a tattered apartment with “so-called” parents who wasted their resources on drugs instead of providing food and a clean home. When I was just eight or nine years old, I felt tormented by my friend’s situation, both of us rather powerless to do anything about it. I remember pleading with her on a spiritual level, begging her to love herself, that she really had to care about her own dear little self despite the interminable  and horrendous circumstances of her life, and toward that end, I taught her to read.

What I didn’t realize then was that teaching her to read helped her focus on something external that could really help her in the future and take her mind off the terrible situation at home. It was a tool she would use for her future schooling. Teaching people to read and play music is also something people absolutely can use to help themselves take their minds off other problems, even to help them become more efficient, and settle themselves down. I know many business executives and CEOs who learned to play a stringed instrument and continue to keep at least an hour or more per week for themselves for private practice. It helps them stay mentally fit and brings rigor to their ability in dealing with the demands of running companies.

If we are in this occupation for any length of time, we all come across similar cases where the student in front of us has gotten stuck in a negative pit. This is the perfect moment to alter the student’s awareness with the simple interruption, “Are you thinking about the music or are you thinking about yourself?”2

When we assist someone to turn his attention toward “how” to make music—whichever aspect needs attending at the moment—and away from his embarrassment, he can forget himself. The tone of his thoughts snaps back into place, outside himself, onto the music, and once again in the flow of learning. I’m not a perfect teacher and don’t claim that I always know the best thing for the student at every juncture, but I do know that with time and experience, we do increase our ability to determine (spontaneously) what really does work with a particular person in the moment, and to change direction quickly when we see something isn’t working.

Sometimes a teacher wants to end the lessons when it seems the student is just not paying attention, not ready for, nor interested, in what is being offered. Instead, try to looking at it under a new light. Here’s the opportunity on a silver platter to consider our own tone. “Am I focusing on my desires for the student or for myself, or am I focusing on what the student actually needs?” When there is such a mismatch of expectations, as in the student not ‘getting’ my instruction or doing what I expect, I find that I have to probe further with the student to find out what he’s most interested in learning. Do I even know what type of music he and his family like to listen to? I should find out. Have I ever given him something appealing in the music genre he wants to learn? I can do that. This can turn things around fast. Have I ever tried to play a musical game with him or let him take the lead in some small way? Doing this can elicit trust, confidence and smiles. We usually know which pieces we want to teach to enable the student to gain certain skills, but would it really hurt to throw in a few pieces to spur his interest or let him learn something he’s actually listening to? Have I ever asked him what kind of music he really likes? It’s a question I should ask. How important is it for the student to attend conservatory or perform in a competition? Is it even a consideration for him or is it more important to me, the teacher or to his parents, rather than something he actually wants?

When we make room for the needs and desires of the human before us, it also helps us with the tone we use with ourselves. That’s because teaching is a cyclical experience that involves direct interaction and feedback from the student: teach, observe, assess, refine, reflect, repeat. And what we say outwardly is more often than not a direct reflection of the tone we are using with ourselves.

Feedback need not only be one-way (teacher to student) because it’s necessary to be able to read what the student gives back to us when we teach. When I observe that a student isn’t progressing or practicing as much as I’d like, it’s time to assess my teaching and what I’m not doing to facilitate the student’s motivation. In this case, I’ve missed a piece of the feedback loop. However, I don’t need to be hard on myself in order to adjust my sails and refine my approach, and the tone of my thoughts in making a change. It’s a normal, proper, necessary part of teaching to reflect on and refine our work. Change is inevitable. Our thoughts aren’t set in stone unless we ignore what we’re doing. And therein lies a danger in teaching. When a teacher never reflects on his tone with himself or with others, let alone the tone that he produces on an instrument, he stunts his opportunity for growth as a human and thus as a teacher. 

Actually, many wonderful teachers naturally engage in this process and nearly always address the student’s needs, some even going to the extreme of completely customizing a program of study to an individual student. Some of us even create entire methods and systems to try to personalize and improve on the learning materials we can collectively provide. This is an example of being in harmony with our tone and allowing it to help us serve the learner.

Why should I care about focusing the tone of my life onto the student? Because if I’m kind in my tone toward myself and my own learning, I’ll also want this for my student in order to maximize his learning potential and to help him value his own contributions. Remember, teaching is a cyclical process. Personally, I feel in no way bound to any fixed method of instruction, progress, examinations, or levels, except when it’s something agreed upon with the student. Even then, as the authority in the room on the subject of teaching violin, I offer flexibility. My tone is usually very pliable, resilient even, when necessary. More often than not, I find myself combining proven teaching methods with the needs of the individual student. I have found that when my tone is balanced and I’m focused on the needs of the learner, there’s an ease and creativity that functions as a powerful wind to fill my sails and to propel and enrich my most effective teaching. May you also enjoy connecting with and hearing the richness of the tone of your life.

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1 https://neurosciencenews.com/consciousness-vibration-10217/

2 From an anecdote told by Eloise Hellyer, life-long string educator and author of 1 Teaches, 2 Learn, now available  exclusively on Shar in both digital and paperback!

3 Huge thanks to Eloise Hellyer and Betsy Hornik for their editing!

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