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.
If you would like to take the first ever worldwide String Teacher Census, be counted as someone standing up for the future of music by pressing >>here now.
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.
Exclusive content only available here alert! Wouldn’t you like to read a Museletter? A Museletter is a quarterly email publication specifically for string teachers, ad free, fee-free and made to uplift you, a public service of SuperStrings Studio, because I want to make the world a more inviting place for our profession. Let’s light up the world with string music together! Subscribe here >> a Museletter
It’s already the 13th day of June, 2020, in an undeniably extraordinary year. This year will probably be named ‘hindsight’, as in, “Hindsight is twenty-twenty.”
I don’t know about you, but it’s up and down like a roller coaster from my point of view. There is still plenty to be totally glad about and a bright future ahead if we only dare to focus on the possibilities, and take action to move toward them.
But the dark side seems to be so darn pervasive. Like no matter how much I personally put my mind on the positive, it feels like there is still a massive cloud of sadness hanging over humanity, where COVID-19 continues to ravage the world and racism seems to run rampant. Why is it that people are so inclined to go out and about without masks in regions where the virus is not yet contained, as if it were some kind of ‘right’ to be able to get sick and spread this horrible virus?
Six months into this pandemic
I personally know three people who have gotten it. Two survived and one did not. In my city, we were fortunate to have had around 86 total cases, (according to Chinese news, out of a population around 8 million, to put this in some context) and all have long since recovered. Six months into this, two months after the last case, and we still wear masks in supermarkets, on the metro and in taxis. We still offer our arms or foreheads for volunteering our body temperatures, as a signal that we are not bringing an illness in. Mine is checked usually twice per day. First, as I enter my school campus, and second when I am entering my compound to return in the evening.
How about your musical life? Have you found your stride with working/playing/teaching online? I have taught throughout this period, but there was a month or so when I could not even pick up the violin to play anything for myself. Then one day I changed. For some reason or other I got my violin back out and started playing. Maybe I was inspired by many amazing colleagues around the world playing music and putting their performances out there to help cheer people up. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, if you have done so! But there were no chamber music playing opportunities around here and certainly no live concerts to give or to attend.
Playing in a carpeted ballroom
One day I found out our friend would have his wedding dinner and we were invited to it in mid-May. I was pretty excited about this, since it was only the second Chinese wedding I have ever attended and would be the first performance post-lockdown for me. Then he asked if I wanted to play something, and of course I said “Yes!” The weird thing was, I didn’t have time to practice, and even through dinner I wasn’t sure what I was going to play. Finally, I suddenly decided on “Over The Rainbow” by Harold Arlen. Even if it is a slightly wistful song, everyone knows the melody, and I love the key of E flat! How rarely we get to play in colorful keys like that, so I just went for it.
I was also a little concerned about the room acoustics since it was a huge, carpeted ballroom. Another musician had come and played saxophone with his own pick-up and amplification, which was super loud. I wondered if people would even hear me and my fiddle without any sound-boosting electronics. I walked to the center and just started in. To my surprise and delight, I found that the sound carried perfectly well!
This is a testament to a violin that has good projection. It does not need any amplification at all, as it has its own incredible capacity for resonance. Thank you to Michael Mirampolsky, whom I bought it from years ago. (It’s a living ‘red violin’ with its own colorful history. Sometimes I entertain the idea of creating its story.)
Another thing that happened during this strange period of time is that my hard drive that I brought from Germany died. It had a lot of important personal stuff on it, like essentially all of my business plans and history, not to mention photos from the past fifteen or more years. In short, there was a ton of both sentimental and necessary data on there. Luckily, I had backed up my password sheet not too long before. Ok, it is not the first time I have ever lost data and in some ways it is like being freed. In other ways, it feels like tremendous loss. (I have a back-up in Germany, but that’s not exactly accessible at the moment!)
Daily life – a walk in town
At one point, Bernd and I took a walk down Shangtang Street in the old town part of Suzhou. That was when things were mostly still shut and the majority of foreigners had left China already. It was a nice spring day, so the street was filled with Chinese people enjoying the budding trees and flowers. But we really were the only western folks around, for the entire day. It was a memorable moment for us, because a lot of Chinese were quite curious about us and seemed a bit in awe that these ‘Martians’ were among them.
Others were not bashful at all and asked us about our situation, and even seemed to be allied with us in the sense that yes, the borders are/were closed, and let’s be strong, stay healthy, careful and vigilant together. Nobody shunned us. (There were a couple of times when it seemed that some people wanted to avoid us on other occasions, but by and large, we have not experienced much in the way of extraordinary treatment due to being foreign. If anything, we feel protected here.)
Another surprising thing, was a colleague of Bernd’s had met another violist on a hike, and since then we found out that she lives in our compound, has a music degree and we have begun to play chamber music together, woohoo! Not only that, but at our first meeting, she invited another violist we had not yet met, who then mentioned that his boss also plays viola! We have since gotten together (all four violists!) and played a Telemann concerto for four, and part of Vivaldi Concerto in b minor transposed for viola to e minor, with Bernd playing bass continuo. This is one of the amazing blessings to come out of this which opens a lot of new doors. We are all very excited about the potential for chamber music with this!
I will teach English and a music course again next fall, and a former student of mine in Germany asked for lessons again, so I will keep teaching both in person at Nanjing Normal University Suzhou Experimental School Cambridge International Assessment Center and give online SuperStrings Studio lessons from the home studio. Kind of exciting to have the honor of offering music appreciation as an elective course to our students! (*We are still looking for a biology/chemistry teacher, in case you know of anyone who is looking. I love my job, and definitely can recommend the program without hesitation, as I was there this whole past school year.)
String changing party
I’ve been thinking of setting a date to have a string-changing party together. Replacing strings has to be one of, if not the most, boring parts of being a string player. So if you think this too, hit me up in a comment or email and let’s find a time to change strings together on a live call, the more the merrier!
PS The next Museletter should be out shortly. Again, it will be a minimalist version, and to be quite frank, even more pared down than the last one. But I do promise an amazing freebie for you, which is a visualization I have made for string teachers, to help you focus your mind on any goal you are working toward, or just to be more focused in general if you don’t have something specific in mind. If you’re not already on the list for it, you can still get the last one from March for a couple more days until the June Issue comes out.
(Below are a few more pictures from our life in Suzhou.)
Yipu Garden – small but charming.
Outside a Gusu district street festival.
The season for loquats has just ended, and now we are in Bayberry season.
Fresh bamboo shoots with a few dozen cloves of garlic.
The restaurant and pedestrian zone at the north side of Jinji Lake is back in full swing.
Art made by a student, exhibited at Suzhou Center Mall.
Sunset at Taihu on a recent visit to Xishan
A famous bridge near Panmen, in Suzhou ancient town.
We know that what we do in our work sends ripples out into the world, helping people not only learn to make music, but it also gives people the chance to become more patient, better listeners, better at thinking, more able to manage the learning “process,” and more connected in our communities. Of course, learning to play strings gives folks a certain sense of accomplishment and personal satisfaction unlike any other activity! So give yourself some credit. There is nothing wrong in acknowledging the good that you are doing, the help you are giving — even in difficult times — and the patience and perseverance that you put into your work.
Put a smile on right now, and please accept a huge virtual hug from me. I totally believe in what you are doing, and the power of music to change lives for the better. See, I can do social distancing too!
Have you had a glass of water lately? Have one now, or a cup of tea. Have you stretched this hour? Do it now. Stand up, stand tall, breathe deeply.
In this time of worldwide turmoil, I believe our communities need us now as much as ever. Whether this is continuing to provide lessons via video-conference, phone or other means, is up to us and our students how to proceed. We should take moments out of our day to care for ourselves–our health and well-being are so important!
Our communities need us now as much as ever
Some of us have been teaching online for years, while others of us only last week got our feet wet or dove in head first venturing into the online teaching realm. From feedback I have received from all over the world, although there were a few people very hesitant to get online to teach, by and large the vast majority found it much better than what they had expected. It isn’t perfect, by any stretch of the imagination. (We string teachers are probably the one of the last professions to go “online”, dragging our feet practically kicking and screaming as the very nature of our work is so tactile, hands-on and personal! So don’t feel bad if you are a newbie to coming online. It is nothing to feel ashamed of.)
Lag time still is an issue for many of us such that we haven’t figured out how to play in real time together but there are some workarounds — i.e. usable free and paid software — which addresses this very issue right now, making it possible to play together. That is right. Playing together online in real time is possible, so I have read. The article I read was by someone who said he still relied on cable (not WiFi) connection to achieve the necessary speed for this to work. It may need a certain amount of fiddling around with, to achieve the right setup with external microphone, interface and so on, but it sounded do-able, even for ordinary string teachers like me. I vow to solve this!
Games and involving the parents are two of the hottest trends
Another difficulty a lot of teachers are facing is that of teaching the very young and how to keep them engaged. There are so many amazing teachers sharing their tips and tricks, I am extremely heartened to see how much we all care about each other! Definitely games and involving teaching the parents right along with them are two of the hottest trends in making this work.
We might be able to convince them to keep taking lessons
When students promptly tell us “no,” that they aren’t going to continue by “online” learning, what are we going to tell them? Tell them off? I don’t think so. It would be better to graciously let them go even when it hurts. We can always leave the door open if we so choose. This isn’t any different to what I would do under ordinary circumstances. Always, always take the high road. But with a little love and open listening, we might be able to convince them to keep their lessons going. After all, how much time have they already invested in this, and aren’t they wanting to play it far into the future anyway? Some families may need some assistance in being shown how to use online lessons, as some may have never used any type of video conferencing before. How many of us were in the same boat until confronted with our current reality, to be fair? So a little extra patience, kindness and understanding may well be in order at this time to help students get set up. Open the (virtual) door for them.
I feel a bit sick, though, at the fact that many of us are truly hurting now due to precarious financial situations made even more tenuous with people canceling lessons (an unnecessary luxury as seen in the eyes of many) and performance jobs being cut almost everywhere. Let’s face it. What we do for a living isn’t quite like fighting fires, nursing, working as a cashier in a supermarket or offering childcare to the front-line workers whose children need a safe place to stay while the front-line workers are on a shift. I would love to hear your creative ideas on how to secure our futures as private teachers while the world slows way, way down. After all, we are in this together.
From my end, I am mighty thankful that I did make the difficult decision to get back into teaching English while in China, to have a legal employer, besides teaching violin lessons. And I can only give high marks to my administrators for looking out for me and caring about the health and well-being of all our teachers and students through this. Their kindness is so very much appreciated!
Our work is like the threads invisibly weaving the fabric of our culture together
Our work in teaching strings is more like the rainbow of threads invisibly weaving the fabric of the culture together. It goes largely unnoticed by the majority yet it would be an entirely different world if it somehow went missing. I know we will carry on with our work as best we can, forging new ground and overcoming obstacles in creative ways. I was so very encouraged last week to meet up with many teachers open to taking their work online and break new ground to meet the needs of our students and communities. We can and we will overcome this age of uncertainty, just watch (and listen to) us!
Comments, criticism, feedback welcome as always. Use the comment form below. And…
Namely, the reason for this post is for teachers who find themselves in the new and somewhat uncharted territory of teaching online. This could be helpful for string teachers, music teachers of any kind and all teachers, actually. Before I give some helpful tips for this I want to issue a warning. At this moment in time I am typing one-handed, because my left arm is not very usable for a while. Kind of this is my own fault, having now used the dining table as my desk for a month because that seems to be the best place for strength of signal from our WiFi box. Anyway something happened and the muscle is as if it got tangled in a knot.
At work we may be set up properly; I was, anyway. I do realize the table is about 2-3 inches too high for my long arms so apparently over time the tension served to weaken my muscles. I did stretches and I did have my seat elevated but this was not enough. Yesterday was more or less agony with what was probably a muscle tear or strain on the upper arm. Forget violin playing for a while. Although our online teaching arrangement is a temporary thing, it has turned out to be much longer than what I had anticipated so for this reason I had not worked too hard at setting up my work space accordingly. We are looking at at least two more weeks of teaching online now, which means six weeks minimum so far here in Suzhou.
Now I have even greater sympathy for all of you who have already gone through shoulder and arm injuries. Funnily enough, I have never had a playing injury before because I had enough proper training on our physiology and violin playing. But teaching online, watch out. I am using my laptop, which creates an awkward situation for people, especially if you have a long neck or limbs. What I see as a solution going on from here is plugging in a keyboard to sit on my actual lap and raising the screen more toward eye level. Also I plan to use a mouse. So please make sure you set up correctly.
Have the screen at eye level.
Have the keyboard a tad lower than your elbows.
Stretch before using, including wrist rolls, head, neck and arm stretches, as well as at 40 minute intervals.
Use a mouse.
From the previous post you may have inferred that I was downplaying the situation on the ground a bit. If so, you would have been correct. It isn’t that things are at a standstill, far from it. Life is still humming along, virus or not. Just today many restaurants reopened to dine in, instead of takeout only.
Besides being confined to teaching online and not being able to get together with friends, the supply chain that we have become accustomed to has been disrupted. That is, some things are available (staples, for example) but other things not so much, or there is no expected timeline for when things will pick up again. We have to take a kind of permission slip each time we leave the compound, and our temperatures are taken when we return. Temperatures are taken at almost every place of business, and wisely so. Everyone here wears masks, but it is more of a cultural tradition and a show of solidarity that one would never want to transmit any illness, especially with something like COVID-19 which may be likely to be transmitted without people having symptoms.
On to a few useful hints that have been helpful so far. I have used Zoom to hold classes every day as well as for staff meetings. There are some great things about Zoom for running a class, such as
breakout rooms – assign students to their own rooms for discussion
instant reactions (thumbs-up and clapping)
various other useful controls (sending a private PM to a user, mute button, etc.)
so far it has never crashed when I have used it
If you would like to see this for yourself I will hold a Zoom meeting for string teachers or any teacher and I invite you to try it out together. If you let me know when you may be available during the week and your time zone we can set this up for next week (16-20 March). Just send me a note with your interest below and I will set this up.
Because children are having to spend so much time online for all their classes it is more effective in my opinion to have activities which are interactive with each other as much as possible. One thing I use to keep them on their toes is having them call on each other after I start an activity, and ask each other the question at hand instead of me doing it all the time. The social factor is extremely useful here.
I have also used a vocabulary game where, after they have studied the vocabulary, I call out a definition and they raise their digital hand if they know the answer. At the end of the game, the winner is the one with the most points for correct answers, and I put a piece of candy in the candy bank for them for when we get back to the real school. I use the piece of candy at the beginning to help stimulate their excitement. I know, some teachers don’t like external motivational factors, but honestly, some of the time I think it is fun for kids and does no harm. It also makes it seem a bit more real, that they will have something to look forward to when we get back, besides hitting the books!
It is definitely a challenge to manage the digital classroom but with some creativity and flexibility, it offers some exciting new opportunities too. There is an article about one program already very successfully using online lessons in the March, 2020 Museletter if you’d like to learn more.
For individual lessons, one set-up that I have found that works well is to stream the lesson through my phone on Skype while using the laptop (a tablet or i-Pad would work here as well) with the digital music on it right next to my phone. Here I feel Skype, Zoom or Facetime could all be nearly equally effective when teaching one-to-one.
If you would like to get the coming Museletter, this is a free quarterly for all who teach, learn and love string music with articles supporting teachers and learners which I offer you as a public service. Just click here to get access: >>Museletter
Do let me know if I can answer any questions or how I can support your teaching. I am here for you!
Bonny Buckley is inviting you to a scheduled free Zoom meeting. You can join a free meet-up to learn more about using Zoom and ask any burning questions here. Skype will also be compared. (We use it too.) Any and all teachers welcome, the more the merrier!
Topic: String Teacher Zoom Practice Mtg Time: Monday Mar 16, 2020 08:00 PM Central Time (US and Canada)
Disclaimer: although I will do everything possible to ensure the smooth running and connection to this meeting, I cannot be responsible for disruptions to Zoom’s service or other unforeseen internet issues.
Today is Saturday, February 29, 2020 and we are back in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, China and have been since the 6th. This area has not been very hard hit by the COVID-19 virus, although many precautionary measures are still in place. No new cases in a week or so, and of the 87 total cases, the one serious case was downgraded to a common case and 59 were discharged according to bendibao news.
Spring blossoms at Jinji Lake, Suzhou
It was an unusual experience to have a visit with family in the states voluntarily prolonged by my school and airline. Also was strange when the US canceled all flights to China, so luckily the airline got creative and let us re-route through Canada. Lastly Snoqualmie Pass closed due to accidents in a snowstorm when we should have headed over it to be on time for our flight, but we just braved it anyway and it did reopen a few hours later. When it snows heavily on the pass, it is a good reminder to slow down.
It is pretty much forbidden to have any kind of get-together, most restaurants are closed and it is discouraged to go out. When we do go out, we wear masks and have to take a permission card from our guards, which we give back when we return and they take our temperature. But life goes on. I am counting my blessings in that we are safe, we can still get groceries (even imported things we like, like cheese) and we are able to work. The calmness suits me very well.
I still teach violin using the internet, and I still teach students studying to take the IGCSE exams through a Cambridge International Assessment Centre at Nanjing Normal University Suzhou Experimental School. But the latter also has to be done online for some weeks until school in China is allowed to formally reopen.
This makes for an unusual set-up as for managing teaching and learning in a high school. We hold a daily meeting as a staff in the afternoon, also by video conference. I can’t say I mind not commuting across town and it also isn’t too bad having a lake view in my pseudo-office. This is also more carbon-friendly.
On the other hand, it certainly is not the same as seeing students face-to-face in the classroom. We do see each other through the screen, but this has its drawbacks as well, since cameras get moved and some students feel like it’s fine to play games on a phone while pretending to pay attention. The problems are compounded by the fact that most parents have already gone back to work so the kids are left home to take their classes online, but unsupervised, or high school students are left in charge of a younger sibling also while being expected to take classes.
That being said, a lot of students actually respond very well to learning using the internet, and even enjoy it more. (I have a great link to a story which shows evidence of this also in music education with a special distance learning program – get the next Museletter if you still need to sign up! It comes out in March.)
A lady who is taking violin from me via video conference continues to make progress, and I pretty much always find it a joy to teach her, as she patiently and consistently puts forth effort and persistence. Her most recent accomplishment is having learned sautillé bowing, which honestly I did not know if I would be able to manage teaching online. Somehow it worked! And for me, that was the win of the week despite the virus, despite a hiatus of lessons with her due to time zones, international travel, and even postponing her latest lesson. It just goes to show that persistence is something which accomplishes a lot more than wit, money or background. Persistence is something freely available to all of us at all times. Let us all persist in the matters that are meaningful to us. What’s that for you?
2019.12.25 – 2020.01.02 AFO (American Festival Orchestra Tour)
Musicians of Germany, Malaysia, Uruguay, China and the USA met up on December 25, 2019 in Yinchuan, Ningxia Province for a symphony orchestra tour of several cities in Ningxia and Inner Mongolia. Many of the players comprising the orchestra are regular players in the York Symphony of York, Pennsylvania and the Yakima Symphony Orchestra of Yakima, Washington. Half of the program was traditional Chinese music and the other half was western classical favorites.
Yinchuan, Ningxia Autonomous Region, China
After a somewhat grueling first rehearsal, we enjoyed an elegant, fantastic holiday dinner together on December 25, 2019 which was hosted by the organizer and the hotel. Some members stole away back to the theater to attend the last performance of Phantom of the Opera interpreted by the Cuban National Ballet, one of many astounding unexpected pleasures.
The first concert was held at the Yinchuan Theater, where we were warmly welcomed and the public stuck around for some pictures and interaction afterward. The second concert took place in Ningxia Theater, also in Yinchuan, which was also enthusiastically received by the public.
Next stop was Alxa in Inner Mongolia (阿拉善盟 • ᠠᠯᠠᠱᠠ ᠠᠶᠢᠮᠠᠭ), passing through the Helan Mountains to reach the destination. Along the way, we enjoyed the landscape and passing by wild camels.
So far on the tour, this public was even more excited about our visit, being the first western orchestra concert ever to be held there. This, I gauged by the third standing ovation, for which we were running out of encores. It was also televised for the local schools. The organizer also mentioned that a teacher comes there (a two hour drive) from Yinchuan to teach violin classes, so it seems the need for and love of stringed instrument education certainly does reach far and wide.
Inner Mongolia – Alxa, Erdos and Baotou, China
Erdos (also written as Ordos) is a fascinating area known for Genghis Khan, its cashmere and wonderful museum.
The concerts on such a tour are amazing, to be sure, but even more incredible are the friendships and relationships formed by doing this. Music has brought together professionals from five countries to promote friendship and music between each other, China and western countries.
One of the highlights for many of the musicians was contact with the audience after the concerts. A lot of kids and adults loved to take pictures together after the wonderful musical experience together.
Another incredible fact regarding this tour is that each orchestra player (professionals willing to spread international friendship through the language of music to far-flung places) has footed his or her own bill to reach China, while the tour organizer arranged for all of the ordinary domestic expenses such as the hotel, transportation and meals. Thus, there were some hours available for exploration and touring, which we took full advantage of!
Of course, it would not have been possible without the patience and persistence of the people leading this through to completion, such as Mary Winterfeld (Yakima Symphony Orchestra Manager and patron saint of patience), Lawrence Golan (Music Director) and Dr. Larry Lang of Fred Fox School of Music of the University of Arizona, not to mention the 60 or so talented and dedicated musicians who gave up their holidays to become musical diplomats during the coldest part of the year in China.
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There is an old saying about when you think you can’t, you are probably right and when you think you can, you are also probably right. Thinking is likely our most powerful tool, so let’s use it for the benefit of all.
There are a lot of things that I want to accomplish in life, some of which are only now coming clearly into focus. One of these things is to be more of an interface between the public and live string music. In my personal experience, I have observed that most people in the world do not have much, if any, experience with live music played on stringed instruments up close.
I love to play music on my violin or viola for people in smaller venues, where I can interact with people personally, in a way I cannot do from big concert stages. (I enjoy playing on famous stages too, which is why we also play in Shanghai!)
We have gotten to know a local Toastmasters Club in Suzhou through a colleague of mine, and last Tuesday we were asked to talk during their special Saturday meeting in what they call a ‘sharing’ session. Well, this resonated with Bernd and I, and we decided to give a 30 minute talk / presentation / mini-concert on the topic “Music: the language of the heart”.
That meant there were three days to prepare this. Yikes! What had we gotten ourselves into?! Despite the short amount of time we had to prepare, we worked on this together, and finally had what we thought would work. It didn’t come completely easily. We definitely discussed and argued over it a lot, just to let you know we are entirely human.
It took me a long time to reach the place where I was ready to start talking in public and I am still working on this. And honestly, playing music on the stage is far easier than giving a speech, (for now). But once I told myself I wanted to do this and just let myself be open to the possibility of getting practice speaking, the opportunities have been knocking. In fact it’s even led the way to making some really nice friends.
At the venue, we listened to two speakers working through their pathways toward ‘confident communicator,’ both of whom spoke well. And then it was our turn.
What I discovered is that people really responded to both the music and discussion, and it also seemed that people were hungry for more. I am not saying this to shine light specially on us, but to make this fact known, that people genuinely respond to live string music (probably all instruments, to be fair) and many folks actually like it once they have this kind of exposure.
One lady honestly remarked to me that she had recently been to a classical music concert for the very first time, and that it really wasn’t like what she had expected. She said it really wasn’t that terrible. 😊 That might sound a bit on the negative side, but to my mind, for someone who may have been completely closed off to the idea of listening to a concert before, then having attended one and then seemed to be saying that she might be open to a future concert, was actually a little bit inspiring.
Other people wanted to know when they could hear us play more, and still others told us how much they enjoyed this session. It did seem that this topic boosted the energy and enthusiasm of the group.
All of this is to say that I see myself as an interface between the public and classical music, helping people get more experience listening to live chamber music. The bonus is getting more experienced on the stage to promote this fabulous form of music and art.
So if you want to let people know about live string music, and you are a string player or teacher, why not step outside your comfort zone and share your music in your community? There is such a need for this now, as the more people use texting, email, chat and non-verbal or impersonal means of communication, the need for interpersonal experiences is only going to increase. Think of exactly what you want, how this might work, and let your mind come back to that thought again and again. This is a powerful intention. Our thoughts are ours to choose so let’s choose wise ones, for what we put in our thoughts, our minds go toward.
This time around I’m ready. I can’t wait to get back into the routine, get to know the students and my colleagues, planning, preparing lessons and teaching. What I am not quite ready with is my work visa, though I hope very much that it will be completed this month. I’ll probably need to take a trip to Hong Kong to apply for it. I thought I had all my documents in order, but I have to update some things like my health certificate, background check and diploma authentication, which is why it’s taking longer than I had thought to be able to apply for the work visa.
I’m really excited about my job teaching Cambridge English ESL and Music in a Chinese boarding school. My colleagues are all intelligent, kind and enthusiastic, and the teaching materials are high quality. Even the work-environment is good with lots of trees and beautifully landscaped gardens; the workload is fair and the lunch is amazing – large variety to choose from at a very reasonable price, which was a pretty strong deal-maker for me even though I hadn’t tried it out in advance. I believe people are much happier and learn better when they have a good diet, and that is certainly the case in this school.
It would be difficult to find a more ideal teaching environment. It’s unusual to not only get along with all your colleagues and the administration but actually like them and enjoy them all. I am definitely thanking my lucky stars on this one.
What I find to be truly blissful in my current position is that there is enough time and flexibility for planning, preparation, collaboration and evaluation. That is rare indeed in education these days. The program director makes himself easily available to the teachers and even teaches a section of economics, so he also has day-to-day contact with the students.
It’s an amazing program, really, considering that these high school students are taking all of their subjects in English, compressing two years of instruction into less than one, because their goal is to attend university overseas in the UK, the US or a major Chinese university. Imagine for a moment an entire class of native English speakers (or any other native language) learning Chinese well enough to take their whole high school program in Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses in Chinese! That is the caliber of students we have. I have deep respect for the effort that these children and their parents have put into their education, and I am delighted to have been chosen to be their teacher.
The levels of bureaucracy between countries when one is an international teacher are actually not very different from each other. Everyone who is qualified (with an accredited degree and preferably also teaching certification) who wants to teach in China should be able to manage it, it just requires a certain number of official documents to be processed and it takes some time to get them. Patience is definitely an asset because there are several things which take weeks or longer to process. There is also an age limit, but it varies depending on the subject, the need (read: desperation level to fill a post) and one’s highest degree.
This school is a joint venture between the local Suzhou government, Nanjing Normal University and a private education group. I worked at Nanjing Normal University teaching violin to violin majors ages ago! It never occurred to me that I would ever be teaching for the same institution again in China, but I’m very glad I am.
Like the old saying, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” Only in this case, when the teacher is ready, the students will appear!
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