The past two and a half years have been such an unruly giant squid of experiences and emotions. At the beginning of this, we were on a trip to the US and only made it back into China by the skin of our teeth, so the saying goes, before quarantines and lockdowns became commonplace. After an initial very quiet couple of months from Chinese New Year 2020 until April that year, we taught online. And then, although we wore (and still wear) masks in public spaces, with a local health declaration code and travel record we were able to go back to in-person working and teaching, even domestic travel was possible, although sometimes difficult.
In August of 2020 and in 2021 we were went on holidays inside China, to Yunnan and Gansu, both of which I 100% recommend. Although on our trip to Gansu, there were a few outbreaks around China, including in our province, so we were constantly on alert as to whether we would be put into quarantine, sent home, or something else. Day by day, we managed to fulfill our itinerary and made it home unscathed. Nevertheless, the worst was yet to come.
We even managed to participate in a few concerts in Shanghai with Shanghai Baroque Soloists, although things started to get more complicated last winter when, after the first rehearsal in November, my school forbade me to continue to go to Shanghai. Then another concert should have taken place in March this year, but that’s when things got silly in Shanghai. Bernd had his bass with him and was staying overnight in a hotel because his workplace is also in Shanghai; he’d planned to keep it with him while going to the rehearsals and concert. Then, suddenly things went south. No more commuting.
The city said in a news brief it was not going to lock down. Then, with escalating cases, it declared it would hold two 5-day lockdowns in stages: first in Pudong, then in Puxi starting a few days later on April 1. Then we all know what happened next. Roads were closed, people were locked in place and could not leave their residences. For two months, some could not go outside, and some for longer than that.
After about seven weeks of this, I trudged over in person to my neighborhood committee to ask for help. I was told that only the people who needed their doctor in Suzhou or to go to hospital here had priority, but an application for Bernd to come back would be made. Then the wheels began to turn. He did obtain permission to come back after a few more days, but there was a special process to follow. He had to have a negative nucleic acid test within 24 hours, and then be met by someone at the border between Suzhou and Shanghai where he would be “escorted” to a quarantine hotel. Then they sealed his van, and he stayed in his room for seven days. Next, he had the option to remain there for the second week of being monitored or return home, with the caveat that he quarantined alone at home. After such a long time away, we agreed I would move out for the week.
Thanks to some generous and dear friends, I was able to stay with them and remain in our district. I’ve been teaching online this whole semester though we do have a few weeks in person now to end the term. Suzhou has not survived totally unscathed either. While the entire city was not on “lockdown” per se, the only real difference was that we were able to go outside to walk, but even public parks were closed for some weeks. Also we did have the luxury of buying groceries the whole time, though there were a few worrying moments when it seemed that people had bought up all the fresh foods. (Things were quickly replenished within a few days.) Imports have definitely been disrupted though.
As Suzhou opened a bit (although we are still taking nucleic acid tests every day or two and showing proof of negative nucleic acid tests, travel histories and local health codes), some friends held an opening for their music and costume studio, arranged by Zhang Zhiyan. These are the same friends we played with for an East-West concert combining traditional Chinese instruments with Bernd’s and my bowed stringed instruments. This was the first gathering and musical playing together we have done in months!
When we walked in, I felt stunned in a very lovely way, like I was transported into a timeless zone of ethereal music and styles. It was almost as if I stepped backward straight into history, to several hundred years ago. Some of the ladies you see here are costume designers who created their stunning replica apparel. Here is a clip of music and photos from the party. The instrument in the background is the guqin, played by Sophia. Her teacher, Miss Cao and their sons also performed.
Other instruments that were played were the yue qin (moon-shaped lute) and bamboo flute.
Why learn to play the violin? Or another stringed instrument, and why should we teach this?
Learning an instrument is a massively great use of time which requires daily attention. But what you reap in rewards are values which truly enrich our lives, things like discipline,delayed gratification, patience, kindness, self-awareness, coordination, fun, respect, accomplishment, culture, aesthetics, musical expression and self-confidence to name a few!
One of the most important benefits of becoming a competent musician is the ability to learn to listen carefully, a skill which we urgently need more of today.
Wait a sec. That was really important.
One of the most important benefits of learning to play an instrument well is learning the ability to LISTEN well, a skill which is important to becoming HUMAN.
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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Tone has another side that’s too often missed, hence this post. (Part I is the previous post on this blog.) What happens when we dictate everything we want as teachers for the student, and don’t notice our own tone in the process? What happens when we demand things from the parents of our students if we overlook their overloaded, overworked, stressed, or just plain ordinarily tiring lives? Our message gets lost, is what happens.
As teachers we should not only deliver great content, but we have to become aware that students are human beings with lives and needs extending far beyond what we see in the lesson. We don’t need to know everything about them; however, what we often struggle with is remembering to consider that our students and their families have demands on them, needs, expectations and lives going on outside of their instrumental music-learning. Life is messy. Students and their families are not spared from this.
So instead of rushing to a conclusion about why a student isn’t progressing the way we hope he would–or even worse, asking him to leave our studio—let’s try to be aware that there are reasons for everything, including our interpretation of poor progress. Let me first consider my own tone: am I really aware of the person I was hired to teach? Is my tone coming from my ego, hoping to serve my wish for wonderful, hours-long practicing, unfailingly devoted, competition-winning students (to make me look good), or is my tone coming from a place of kindness and love?
Obviously, there is a time and a place for being firm with students and standing up for standards in our teaching and for ourselves. That isn’t the tone I’m talking about here.
We teachers occasionally forget we are not teaching in a vacuum, and the tone becomes one of “I think this, therefore everyone should also think the same.” This happens when we don’t bother to re-read or revise what we wrote, nor attempt to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes before posting. It is even a possibility that we choose to refrain from posting something at all, keeping our opinions to ourselves, once we look at our tone from another perspective. Tone matters enormously and it’s something which is all too easy to get wrong or for readers or listeners to misunderstand if we don’t give it a second thought. Heck, it’s still easy to be misunderstood after four or five revisions.
My advice for prospective students would be to take some time to look up public threads where string teachers discuss their work and form their own opinion about what sort of tone they would want from a teacher. I tell people all the time that they should find a good teacher, but first try to find out their personality before making a long-term commitment. Will it be a teacher who has the ‘my way or the highway’ approach, or will it be a teacher who’s willing to meet the student where the student is right now?
Tone is also reflected perfectly in how we engage with our fellow teachers. We most certainly aren’t alone teaching in the 21st century. Wherever we reside on this planet, we have colleagues, when connected to the internet, and even when not. The way we are with each other, with colleagues known and unknown, is a part of our working life.
Collegiality is the idea of making a shared working environment both amicable and productive, as well as somewhere we’re able to listen and be listened to. In other words, tone is also the way we use words when we talk to or write to each other. (Read more about collegiality in the corporate environment here >>Collegiality.) Are we going to rely mainly on socially acceptable yet rather impersonal e-communication or would we rather set the tone of approachability and welcome a conversation?
Appearance isn’t everything
Although we’re told that appearance is everything, what we look like and what we show people (also online) is not who we are. How we look is just the box that delivers a present. Have you ever received a beautiful present, wrapped with fancy, colorful paper, tied up with a gorgeous bow, and got disappointed by what was inside because it was something unequal to the outside? To put it another way, our tone is what people discover when they open the box.
Think about the saying, “People forget what you teach them, but they never forget how you made them feel.” Some give people doubt, anger, overload, and fear just because they lack awareness of their tone; others give the opportunity for joy, beauty, hope, and kindness. Tone is that ethereal, exquisite thing that shows the world who we really are, whether coming from our instrument, from our voice, or even from the words we choose. So, we really need to take the time to re-read any text we plan to give to our students or their families, or even what we (might) post on social media.
Someone long ago posed a few questions to ask before posting online, which bear repeating or even placing on the wall next to our workspace, because they’re useful for all sorts of communication. These are certainly worth framing!
Would I say it out loud to someone? (Would I speak this way to my mother?)
Though we’re living in the information age, it’s more like we’re living in the TMI-age (too much information age), so wherever we can squeeze the best out of our tone to streamline it, make it kinder, more accurate, and more relevant, we should do it! If we want to grow into our best teaching selves, our tone needs to reflect an awareness of others, as well as serving our own teaching needs. The above questions can help guide our message and our tone.
The thing is, each one of us can choose to make the free and conscious effort to improve our teaching tone and grow into being the leader that teaching requires of us. Let us learn to be kind and creative, with our voices and our instruments, using the thoughtful tone our students need most.
If you haven’t grabbed your September Museletter yet, swipe yours here! >>Museletter13
Tone is probably the singular most powerful category needing our attention in playing and learning violin. When decent, we are happy to hear more; when poor, we want to run away! Okay, that may be a little extreme, because if we are really teaching, we know that ugly tone has a physical, findable cause and it’s our job to apply our experience and patience to remedy it. Now, I know that tone does not exist in a vacuum—rhythm, harmony, melody, dynamics, bowings and more all are necessary moveable parts which we have to successfully teach and learn—it’s just that we can have all these other rudiments in place, but without great tone we essentially have nothing.
WHEN SHOULD I INTRODUCE TONE?
So, when do we approach the topic of tone in our teaching? It can and should be taught early, in one of the first lessons if not the very first one. Kids know and will tell you the difference between nice and not-nice tone if we give them a side-by-side comparison and ask. Plus, there is a very touching reason to bring it up early and often: when a student brings her attention to tone, the student brings her listening awareness to the forefront, and we need this skill and this sense to be developed deeply. Listening awareness is both skill and sense, for the fact that listening can be developed and refined. (We’re born both hearing and listening, though in my opinion hearing is innate and listening is more active–the processing of what is heard and learning from it.) The reason tone is touching is based on our physical sense of listening, since sound is vibration in the air and these vibrations actually touch us—not only coming into our ears but they strike our entire bodies, resonating in our bones, particularly in the skull. If this is a new idea for you, read more about it in the subject of osteophonie (or bone conduction), which is the science of how sound resonates in the bones. There is a whole field of study about how children process sound differently as their auditory systems continue to mature, even into the late teen years which is one of the reasons why they are very clingy and touchy as young kids.* They are actually “hearing” with their bodies more, in addition to using their ears.
I don’t think we can demand perfect tone production from our students in the first lesson or three, but we can demonstrate different types of tone so that the student has an experience and an awareness of it right off the bat, which can be brought up or revisited when it seems that the student forgot to listen to herself. Some of us bring the student’s awareness to tone in every single lesson, as there usually are opportunities each time to do so.
WHAT GETS IN THE WAY
In the course of teaching, there are plenty of reasons why a student forgets to pay attention to tone, though the most gifted and self-motivated seem to be able to grasp the gravity of it earlier and keep it at the forefront more. One of the big reasons a student forgets to listen to tone is that there are so many other things he is told to learn, (bow-hold, bowing patterns, left-hand position, intonation, note recognition, note-reading, nomenclature, rhythm, memorization, breathing…) which in many cases results in listening to tone plummeting to the bottom of the laundry list of ‘things’ in their playing and practicing. It isn’t exactly their fault that tone flies out the window, for during a time span that seems like an eon to them they have to juggle combining so many different skills and aptitudes to establish the rudiments, even when we think we have only given them one or two tasks.
Some of us already approach tone and have people listen for it from day one. Others of us wait, but this results in the consequence that the student may not come around to the idea of really listening to himself for an inordinately long time, to the detriment of possibly not liking the instrument or the experience of learning about music very much.
Are there things we have to teach which legitimately compete with the student’s focus on tone? Probably. Most of us can’t stay on open strings for very long without getting bored, deflated, or crying our eyes out and quitting. So, the grand introduction of the left-hand finger placement is another major tone-displacing diversion for some. Soon comes reading or memorizing or both. All responsible teachers see to it that their students learn to read, in due time, though certainly (or at least hopefully) after the sense of hearing tone is developed. Yet every new aspect of learning to play can cause learners to forget to listen to themselves, so it’s on us to integrate anything new into their growing tonal awareness.
To foster students’ ability to differentiate tone, we might give students (of any age) a chance to hear contrasts, which can be accomplished by listening together to different recordings and interpretations of the same piece while focusing on tone. Even better: take them to a live, in-person concert, where we can elicit growth by asking how a certain type of tone was produced, and how they might be able to do it too. This can also be really effective when done before tackling a new type of bowing.
LANGUAGE ACQUISITION AND TONE
Think of language acquisition, where sounds are heard from even inside the womb, and the baby is born knowing at minimum the sound of its mother’s voice. Tone is what a growing baby uses to learn language for a few years before speaking, and even more years before reading or writing. That is to say, listening naturally develops in humans before speaking words. Therefore, it follows based on human physiological development that learning to hear, create, and differentiate types of tone is naturally something we can give high priority early (and onward) in the education of our string pupils.
Learning to hear, produce, differentiate, and appreciate tone on stringed instruments is remarkably similar to what we do when learning language. Even learning a first or second language, there are development milestones in comprehension and use, the first of which is the ability to understand what is heard. And what is heard is largely tone, organized and punctuated in the unique way of a particular language. The more precisely we learn to listen to these tones, the faster we learn the language. The same goes for the language of strings.
Stay tuned for Tone Part II, coming in a few rotations of the earth!
You can also obtain a thoughtful, beautiful, free set of student reflection pages for 52 weeks for use in lessons (perfect for discussions and thoughts on tone) just by taking the String Teacher Census. It’s also available for sale if you would rather just buy it here >>Thoughtful Lessons Journal.
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What do you actually do to grow in our profession? Because you know, once we are out of school, and if we are not teaching as a certified school teacher, there is nothing forcing us to do anything to develop anymore (and even in a school it isn’t always easy to find meaningful professional development opportunities as a string teacher). There are a lot of things we can do, however, which are easy, fun, educational, and even repeatable, to keep up our skills and learn new ones. That goes for both playing as well as teaching. And I am of the mind that we need different points of view to keep us honest and forward-moving, which we find when we get a little bit out of our familiar comfort zones. What follows are some easy string teacher tips for professional development.
First of all, we can read books. What was the last thing you read? I’m reading Talk Like Ted right now, and it is very enlightening if you want to learn how to give a speech. You might not think you need to speak in public as a teacher, but even in the classroom and when speaking to groups of parents or students, it is a critical skill that helps us convey messages more effectively.
Attend conferences or workshops We can also attend conferences in our cities, state, region or at the national or even international level. That is a sure way to learn something useful and help us expand our professional knowledge and experience.
Take a course
We could take a course, either a single course, a certificate or a degree program. Learning is something we ourselves need to engage in frequently and enthusiastically to be our best teaching selves. It is a great idea never to forget what it is like to be a beginner. Being a beginner is great, anyway, as it gives us a chance to be bad at something so we can learn from it and improve. Of course, it also helps us relate to our beginners more too.
By the way, don’t forget to sign up for clock-hours you can report to your school district as that is future money in the bank as you rise up the salary scale! Check with your district’s HR to find out if a course qualifies for clock hours. They are sometimes a bit flexible with string teachers.
Be active in or join an organisationWe could participate in an organisation that represents us, such as ESTA, ASTA, AUSTA, American Viola Society, or RSTA, the Royal String Teacher Association, where we can easily find curated materials on an on-going basis. There are wonderful opportunities to be had by joining a group.
We could take some lessons ourselves with another teacher for a different point of view. We might even learn to play a similar or closely related instrument, or hone our singing or accompaniment skills.
We might even mentor another teacher if we have some years of experience to draw from.
In the past year, I have had the chance to be a sounding board for a young teacher here in China who has entered the profession of teaching strings and is going to be a trainee to teach string music formally in a renowned international high school. It really is a monumental decision to enter this profession, as it is so encompassing of our lives.
If you have taken the plunge into teaching strings or music in school, you know this is not a light decision and the magnitude of learning which ensues really needs some extra support. I did not set out to become a teacher mentor, but I’m so glad I have had the chance to help! It is a good match, in that we are both international females teaching strings in China during the pandemic. It also teaches me a lot because it forces me to reflect on things I wouldn’t have thought of by myself. I remember back to the first year I was teaching orchestra in the US, and part of the program I was in included having monthly meetings with a mentor, and how much that meant to my survival!
To sum up, there are a handful of great ways to develop ourselves more as string teachers, including reading, attending workshops and events for teachers, taking a course or lessons, joinin organisations, and even mentoring. We don’t need to do all of these things all of the time, but it is certainly helpful – not to mention inspiring – to do at least a few or some of them on an on-going basis. You just might make a great friend or two and learn something valuable you didn’t expect to.
Have you learned something by reading a book, taking a course, attending a workshop or webinar, or having done mentoring lately? I would love to know what, and I will celebrate it with you!
I am going to tell you the truth. The fragility of violins is something of a myth.
Of course, violins will be broken if you drop them on a tile floor or if something heavy like a car or a human smashes down on top of them. Really there are myriad ways to damage a violin enough that it would need to be repaired by a luthier or possibly given a proper burial. Cremation, anyone?
I suppose it may depend on the instrument itself, whether its glue and components are of the highest quality or not. Let’s just say that while a violin is certainly breakable, it is not as delicate as a glacier lily.
We learn to take loving care of our dear violins, to wipe them carefully, to change strings regularly, to have the sound post adjusted from time to time or the fingerboard planed, and little dings cosmetically enhanced.
Here comes the confession. (I am admitting to my innate clumsiness and am sharing some of my most humiliating moments here, so please cut me a little slack.)
I have broken my dear, lovely baroque violin twice in my adult life, quite severely. Both were accidents, and each time seemed as though they would be the kiss of death.
The breakage was not light, either time. The damage was truly horrifying on both occasions.
The first time it happened I was 21 years old and I had just been admitted by Roman Totenberg to the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Massachusetts for my undergraduate diploma. Living in a tiny studio apartment which had a little foyer when you opened the door, I had my music stand in this space. Here is where I did the thing that no violin learner or player should ever, EVER do. I left the violin hanging on the edge of the stand. This is a terrible thing to do and don’t you ever do it! In the morning when I was stumbling around in the dark only half awake, I bumped into it and it came crashing down on the antique tile floor. The sound it made was shocking, with the wood splitting, and my heart breaking.
The department head was willing to give it a try
First, I was petrified at how stupid I had been to let this happen. Second, I made myself numb to the financial impact it would have on me, being a student with basically a zero-sum bank account. Nevertheless, I took it around town (Boston) having it examined by various strangers who were the famous reputable luthiers willing to help me. The prices they were demanding were all far out of my budget (again, I had no budget so this was doubly painful), and to add insult to injury, their prices came with the clause that there was no guarantee that a fix would hold up.
Finally, exasperated, and ready to give up, someone mentioned to me about the North Bennet Street School of Violin Making. As a last resort, I tried not to get my hopes up too high, but actually the department head was willing to give it a try, to glue it without removing the top, also with no guarantee. I cannot recall what I ended up paying but it was a fraction of what the others had demanded. In the end, it worked! You could see some small lines where it was glued, but in the many years since, it has never once opened along those cracks.
Since I am opening up my heart here and sharing my clumsiness in the public blogosphere, I will now tell you about the second time this happened, in Germany. This time it was at the end of teaching a lesson.
Trying to convince myself that the damage was not too bad
The child had finished, she was already packed and ready, and there was something she had asked for that prompted me to open my violin a second time. Only the problem was that this time, having been distracted by something else, I did not close it properly and zip it up. So, when I finally did intend to leave and picked the case up by its handle the whole thing went plummeting down onto the floor. This floor was wood, but that was not soft enough to cushion such a blow. My face must have conveyed the utter loss I felt in the moment, for the student yelped out “Ms Buckley, is everything okay?!” (It wasn’t.) I just lied and said don’t worry, it would be okay, probably trying to convince myself more than her.
I did not know what the future would hold in this case, as the break seemed much worse than the earlier one. But I did know a fine luthier, Susanne Müller, who lived in our county of Böblingen, near Stuttgart. I took it to her in fear of the worst, but she was willing to try to salvage the instrument. She also would not guarantee anything, but I was only able to hope for the best once again, as I did not see any other way forward. This time the bill was much higher, but it was absolutely worth every penny.
A second miracle
It was returned repaired and glued back together with some rib-stitches (ouch!). In the end, to my sheer amazement, it never sounded better. I am definitely not saying to go out and break your fiddle, (but if, in the off chance it should happen, try not to worry too much unless it’s smashed to smithereens).
Wood, in my experience, is an incredibly forgiving, long-lasting, and malleable material. We should be so grateful for the wonderful, time-enduring trees which gave us the raw material for our beloved fiddles.
How quiet it is here on a Saturday morning, just laying in bed and reveling in nothing but the absence of noise. We’ve been in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, China since April of 2019, at least for this most recent adventure. In total I have lived nearly 12 years in China so far.
On COVID-19, there are only a few cases in China now, mostly brought in from overseas. All people are tested upon arrival and must quarantine. Just as of yesterday or so, new restrictions were placed on eight countries, banning entry to everyone coming from them. There have been a few outbreaks which were quickly contained, some of which are of unknown origin. Minks, perhaps? Most recently was one in Xinjiang, with something like 150 asymptomatic cases and 3 with symptoms. In this province, nobody has died from the virus, at least officially. Actually, there was another outbreak last month in Qingdao too. But officially there haven’t been any deaths of it in months.
Countries do, however, have different methods of pronouncing “cause of death” so numbers can vary widely. China and Germany, for instance, would not count COVID-19 as a cause of death if there were underlying conditions.
That being said, people are still a bit jittery and we still wear masks in many situations. As for where I teach, we taught online for about two months last spring, and were back in the school to teach in person in April, though there were restrictions. Students had to stay on campus for 11 days at a stretch, for example, and went home for 3 days every two weeks. As for teachers, we had alternating weekends of one day off and 3 days off. Now we are all back in the regular routine of 5-day weeks.
Concerts and theatres tentatively have reopened in the past few months, first at 50% capacity; now concerts are allowed to hold 75% capacity. Masks are required. There is no oversight for smaller venues and so we have had several performances.
We have attended an English Toastmasters Club since last year and decided to join it to work on our leadership and public speaking skills. These meetings are now held as OMO, or “online-meets-offline”. This means that while the live meeting is being held, we stream it over Zoom to attendees who are either across town, in another province or overseas who also participate. We have even had main speakers give their talk from overseas a few times.
Last weekend we attended the Music China musical instrument expo in Shanghai, where we saw all sorts of instruments from Europe and China, local and international. Our neighbor Samuel Shen also had his display, as he was one of the original vendors 20 years ago when it was getting started. I enjoyed meeting Niyu Lin of W.E. Hill and Sons, who came all the way from London and did the quarantine which is a requirement when coming here from abroad.
We could not resist these tiny violin and bass miniatures.
Watch out for value and VSOs as always. In a shop we saw away from the event, what looked to us like a VSO was shamelessly priced at around $4000, pure greed and rather disgusting. The reason I believe it was a fake was you could see that the pegs and tailpiece were obviously not ebony, not even sanded down to look smooth. It was yet another reminder that not all shops sell great student instruments, even though at least in person one can get a sense of the sound and quality by doing a personal inspection. Students, and families of students, please consult your teacher before splashing out a lot of money on an unknown instrument.
As for travel in China, it is open for domestic travel, though at least as of a few months ago certain areas required a COVID-19 test before you could visit. Because of this, we decided to travel in Yunnan Province, where we made our way from Kunming-Dali-Lijiang-Shangrila. We definitely could feel the effect of the high altitude. I felt it the first night in Kunming, a bit light-headed and dreamy, over a delicious dinner at a Bai nationality restaurant. I didn’t feel it again until we arrived in Shangrila. We loved our visit enormously, though we would have liked to have been able to stay longer to enjoy it even more after a few more days of acclimatization.
The video above is from inside the Potatso National Park, a very tranquil place to breathe clean, albeit thin, air, view yaks up close and enjoy yourself in nature. The one below is in Shangrila, in front of Songzalin Monastery. If you travel there it is worth getting out a half mile or so early so you can walk along a walkway built into a marsh and around this pond, where you can have such a stunning view of it (which is impossible when you are standing right in front of it.)
In case you are not familiar with this province, it lies in the southwest, bordering Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar internationally, and Sichuan, Guizhou and Guangxi provinces domestically. There are at least 25 ethnic minorities in Yunnan and an extremely varied topography, so it is a wonderful place to lose yourself on an adventure. It was mushroom season when we visited, so we had a lot of different mushroom dishes. It would be hard to pick a top moment or destination, but we really enjoyed riding bikes along Erhai Lake in Dali, and making Chinese pizza in an ancient town nearby. From tropical areas in the south to staggering mountains and Tibetan areas in the north, this province shows a wide variety of people, cultures and lifestyles.
Suzhou: culture, education & garden capital
We have a number of interesting places nearby (in Suzhou) to explore, with hills and lakes, water towns, parks and gardens to explore. A few weekends ago, for example, we found an area to hike just behind Tianpingshan, with beautiful stone formations and many trails. And if this isn’t enough, we can be in downtown Shanghai faster than someone taking the ordinary metro from somewhere in Shanghai, as we live about a ten minute bike ride from a high-speed railway station.
Musically speaking, my husband Bernd and I have been playing duos and chamber music for fun at some parties and small public gatherings, notably at Suzhou Arts Collective near LiGongDi, which doubles as a dance studio. A first for me was last month, playing Vivaldi’s Concerto in F “Autumn” with Claude Lepetit, cello. It was the first time I have ever played a concerto before an audience, which I really enjoyed and hope it won’t be the last. The children really seemed to love it, which is what was most important to me. I won’t forget one girl, about four years old I would say, laying on the floor close to my feet looking up at me while I would glance down at her through my playing. Really that was the best vantage point a person could have with the cozy, resonant wood dance floor creating amazing acoustics. I remember a similar experience at the Concerts in the Barn of the Olympic Music Festival, where as a student I attended their string quartet institute, and that summer Robert Merfeld let me lay under the grand piano while he practised Bartok Night Music from Out of Doors.
Musical interludes aside, a couple of momentous accomplishments for laying groundwork in SuperStrings Studio and the (future) Royal String Teacher Association have been an interview with Francesca Raimondi in Italy, who specialises in teaching very young children, many of whom are special needs children, to successfully play the violin. Watch the interview here >>SuperStrings Studio Vlog 6 Interview with Francesca Raimondi.
The other important thing was helping another budding young foreign string teacher to secure her first substantial, full-time teaching position at a prominent international school in Shanghai.
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I just had a conversation this morning about whether souls are real. There really is some debate about this, because so far it is difficult to scientifically state what a “soul” is. The conversation came about because on Saturday, my husband and I participated in an overnight stay at a Buddhist monastery in Suzhou, called Faluo Temple. The event was organized by “Album of Suzhou”, a wonderful group that is designed to help foreign guests learn more about local culture. We visit gardens and museums and even the homes of some artists. When this event came up, I have to admit I was skeptical. All I could do was pepper my husband with questions about it like would there be sheets for us on the beds, what will we do there, what would it be like? In the end, I just decided to be open to the experience and give it a try to get to know this culture better.
I know, you’re probably asking what this even has to do with saving school orchestra; I will explain the connection soon!
The weather here has become somewhere between very warm like a sauna and unbearably warm if you were to stand out in the sun. Luckily here the rainy season is prolonged, so whenever we get the steamy, muggy uncomfortableness of the summer, a storm rolls in to cool things down. I guess my biggest fear about going to stay in a monastery was that there would be no air conditioning. Well, luckily these are modern monks, and at least some of the rooms were climate-enhanced with air-con.
The first hour or so was just relaxing in a cool common room akin to a tea house, with mats and natural colors all around, very appealing to this Virgo girl! We met some friends we had seen before at these events and several new ones too. The location is next to Tianpingshan in the western area of Suzhou, which we absolutely love anyway and go there to hike when the weather cooperates.
Patrick Qu, the Album of Suzhou organizer, took us on a short hike in back of the temple down a very forested (and slippery) road. There we heard lovely birds in the bamboo forest and saw some moths and butterflies while walking along a clear stream among fragrant hills. There are many beautiful yellowish colored rocks that China is famous for. Some rocks have poems written by Emperor Qianlong about the area are inscribed on them. Apparently he visited this very site six times, so the road leading up to the temple is a royal road.
Next was the dinner, which consisted of simply stir-fried vegetables with a little salt, plain rice and spinach soup. We thought it tasted quite nice, actually. Everyone faces the center of the room, in the direction of the Buddha statue. After the meal we were told to leave the dishes on the table.
Pain reminds us that we are still alive
Then we went to the main room again and practiced meditation for ten minutes, sitting cross legged on the floor. I’ve never been able to sit this way very well, even as a child, so I did my best although I found the position to be hard to bear. Another problem was my stomach. Too many vegetables maybe, or whatever; it was giving me some pains. And pain just reminds us that we are still alive, so I was even grateful for that. (Okay, pain also tells us that something is wrong with our bodies, so we still sometimes have to pay attention to its message. 😉 ) Nevertheless, I kept bringing my attention back to my breathing because that usually helps me to empty my mind. I found it really difficult to do in this environment, personally. People’s phone alarms kept going off, was another annoyance. Why couldn’t people put their devices on flight mode for ten minutes? But it was cool to wear the black robes.
After the ten minutes, the head monk asked for people to talk about their experiences, because really this was just meant to be an introduction to the practice of meditation and Buddhism. Someone asked if he could express in a sentence what Buddhism is. The man kindly stated that it is essentially becoming better, improving oneself, and kindness (which I hope you will continue to the end of this entire blog, because I ask for your help later). Although I am not Buddhist and do not plan on ever becoming one formally, I’ve always gravitated toward these very concepts and strive to live according to these principals. Maybe this is part of why I feel ordinarily so much more at home in China than just about anywhere (although home to me is wherever I am). After some other questions and thoughts, a beautiful musician shared a piece with us.
Another monk came in after this with Tibetan prayer bowls. It was a new experience for me to actually take part in a ceremony, which was really thrilling! This time we laid ourselves on the floor on mats and just received the sounds of the different bowls and their frequencies. One had water in it so he could create a kind of wobbly effect in the sound. Another had a frequency that was supposed to resonate with around the same frequency as our brains. After that, he let people come up and used the bowls on their bodies. (We tried it – we enjoyed it very much!) He even put the brain bowl over some of our heads.
It was said that this activity would help us sleep very well. In truth, Bernd and I did not sleep well at all, but we think it was because we are not used to hard beds. A monk came by at about 4:43 a.m. with giant rhythm sticks to wake us up for a morning ceremony that took place shortly after 5:00 a.m. It was funny to hear him grumbling about how no one was getting up and turning on lights yet and worrying that we didn’t know what we were supposed to do.
During this ceremony there was a lot of singing by the monks, which was amplified and accompanied by a lot of bell ringing and drum beating. We also placed small pieces of wood into a small bowl of smoldering ash, twice, which later caught on fire (on purpose) and burned. We followed the head monk for when to bow and stand and where and when to walk. I enjoyed the motions of the bowing onto prayer pillows. I had always wondered what that really felt like. To me it felt like surrendering all my burdens and thoughts. I wasn’t praying to Buddha, I was praying like I always pray, to the universe, which I consider as a loving intergalactic fabric connecting everything everywhere.
After the ceremony we filed into the canteen for a very simple breakfast of rice gruel, some peanuts and soybeans, dried salty vegetables and baozi (a steamed bun filled in this case with either vegetables or a sweet red-bean paste).
Next was some time in the main room when we meditated for twenty minutes. Again I struggled. The leader this time played some recorded music. I feel certain this was intended to help people to focus but for me it was distracting. I couldn’t move my mind away from it. I brought my thoughts back to focus on my breathing again and again but just could not get away from the repetitive motifs, which I found somehow unpleasant, artificial and loud. (I’m sure that if I were in this environment several times I would get used to it but to be quite honest, I’m glad I have my own practice with either ambient sound from the neighborhood where I live or else a guided visualization that I’ve created or I use one made by someone whose message I love.) A lot of people just fell asleep.
Afterward, the leader talked about the history of Faluo Temple, apparently originally established over 400 years ago as a natural garden, which was attractive to people and still is! We then walked up to the top area of the temple to a huge statue of Guanyin, Goddess of Mercy. Again it was a pleasant reminder that we love to hike in these hills and plan to come again when weather permits.
Soon, we had lunch, again some stir-fried vegetables, rice and spinach and mushroom soup. This time I was seated next to one of the monks, who showed me the ritual of placing the empty bowl and chopsticks in a particular way at the edge of the table at the end of the meal. Afterward we had a rest, and I really fell asleep for an hour or so.
In the afternoon, our friend whose studio we visited on the last Album of Suzhou event, Guo Ai Min, came to the temple to show people how to do a beautiful fan painting. Actually, none of us felt we were to the level of being able to create such a fan, but we all tried to write the words of the poem in calligraphy as practice. It was my first time ever to try calligraphy – wonderful!
Later, at home, we really felt exhausted. We spent some time on the couch being couch potatoes and even ordered dinner in, since it seemed as if it would storm again at any moment. In the morning, the question came out again, what about the soul?
I believe we have souls, or perhaps pieces of a collective soul; I am not sure. My mind tells me that the soul is ever present in us yet is poorly understood. My soul tells me that indeed, it is very real but science is not yet able to measure it, at least not by traditional means. My own soul tells me that music is a connection to souls everywhere—probably this is why it is used in every culture and religion. I say this with a grain of salt, as I haven’t studied every culture and every religion, and I am certainly aware that there are great differences in how different religions use music and make specific regulations regarding its use.
It just drove the point home to me, that music really is powerful, by taking part in this Buddhist ceremony. I really do not mean to criticize this particular ceremony, because truly it was a wonderful moment, but from my personal experience, what the amplification of the chanting did, was to dull the power of the natural overtones. And yet the overtones were still coming out.
We are called to help humanity
What I came away with, and I do not say this lightly, was the reconfirmation (in my life, because I am writing from my own personal perspective, though I hope that at least one person reading this shares this) that we are called to help heal humanity, one ear at a time, starting with our own.
This single statement forms the basis of my life. It isn’t only about making great music, though that is part of it. It isn’t only about teaching students how to play an instrument, though this can be and is also certainly a part of it. It isn’t only teaching teachers how to teach more effectively, though this also makes up an important part of our work. It isn’t only teaching students to understand that music is spiritual, and it definitely is spiritual! As you already understand, there are many reasons why we are string teachers, many of which go against the status quo, yet reasons that give enduring character to our communities and our lives.
Collectively supporting one another in this field is of the utmost importance
But one of the things I think a few of us miss, is the fact that collectively supporting one another in this field is of the utmost importance, especially right now. Studio teachers, I am talking to you in particular (I am one, too). If you are a studio teacher in the USA right now, I am asking for your help. Parents, you can help too.
Orchestra teachers across the country are facing a serious crisis, not only because of COVID-19 but because of the reactions of school districts and decisions that districts have made to either cut programs or threaten students with attending orchestra in person or nothing. A lot of districts put college-track courses at the same time as orchestra class, which places many families in an uncomfortable and unfair bind. I know many principals and superintendents do not know what exactly to do going forward, and the plan that they have is what they think is best (although we know that cutting orchestra is not in anyone’s best interest) that they have come up with, not intentionally leaving people behind.
But every school orchestra teacher who has to recruit is also facing a crisis. Numbers are a fraction of what they ordinarily would be and this is no joke. Recruitment in the best of times is still a significant, often unpaid or underpaid additional responsibility on teachers’ shoulders. Orchestra teachers are just hoping to have their programs survive this coming school year. If there is an occupation which we can give some love to, right now, it is our orchestra teachers.
So what I am asking you, private teacher in the USA, parents, or anyone with connections to families in schools, is to have a conversation. Ask parents, “What is the situation for your school string program this fall?” Ask parents to go to their school board and collectively express that they want to have orchestra in their schools. Yes, I am very seriously asking you to ask them and to help facilitate this. Because if we don’t, who is going to? Help parents save their orchestra programs because I know very well from my own experience that when parents talk, districts listen. It was one of the most important lessons I learned as a school orchestra director in a rural district which by itself would have done away with strings years ago.
If you haven’t built up a relationship with the parents of your students, start now. Also, here is a template you can use or parents can use to fit their school to reach out to their school boards with. Petition to save our orchestra
Another thing I want to ask you for your help with is to reach out to the school orchestra teacher in your district. I want you to tell them you are here for them and support them (even if it has never crossed your mind before to do so). We need them very much! You might not think you like them, you might see them as competition, you might disagree with what they have to do to run their classes, you might have a lot of reasons why you might not want to do this.
We need orchestra teachers to be supported
But we need thriving string orchestra classes in order to give many young people a chance to experience music, both now and in the future, and not only the ones in our studios. And to have programs that even survive, we need all the voices available and willing to come forward to take a stand on this. We need orchestra teachers to be supported to help them through this dark night of pandemic.
We all know that not all kids who become great musicians (or even just competent ones) do not come from rich enough backgrounds to be able to afford private lessons. The least we can do is have compassion for the string teachers who have devoted themselves to the public service of teaching school orchestra. These people have my utmost respect and I hope they have yours too, for what they provide society overall and the impact on their communities.
We can work together, and we need to work together on this, private teachers. I know many of us have had a boon in enrollment due to people being stuck at home. It is time now to see beyond our own studio walls and support the bigger picture, extending our love, support, charity and hive mind to the future of our public-school music students and their teachers. Reach out, if only because my big-picture enhancing soul implores you to do so.
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