I wish I could have captured the look on a child’s face, when he opened a little box set with a nice pen and a tuning fork in it.
The student was moving away, as third culture kids tend to do, and this particular child had put substantially extra effort into his learning. I wanted to recognize this because it seemed the best moment in time to do so. It was going to be either then or never.
He and the other children in the class, and a few moms, looked on.
Then out of the box came the tuning fork as he expectantly unwrapped the box. I think I got more enjoyment out of the expressions on each person’s face than any other lesson I could have taught.
How would he use it? Actually he knew, because I had shown him in his lesson how to use one.
Next came the awe from the other children. Each then took a turn with it and discovering how it can resonate on other surfaces besides on their violins.
I think they most loved resonating it either on the wood floor or their skulls. (Give it a try – it’s silent outwardly but inwardly it is amazing!)
Of course, I know just about everyone has an app now to tune with, or a tuning device which runs on a battery, which are perfectly okay to use. But there is something particularly pure about the tone produced by a tuning fork which to my ears is not replicated by anything else. Well, okay, maybe a glockenspiel or vibraphone or similar thing does come kind of close, but how many of us put glockenspiels to use on a regular basis?
Following our teaching intuition is a great skill to develop after one has paid one’s dues in the process of obtaining a quality education. And using a real tuning fork from time to time is not only fun but inexpensive, useful and might even provide you with glorious expressions of delight.
Do you have a tuning fork? Have you ever showed one to your students? Let’s hear from you in the comments – don’t be shy!
Why should people learn music, anyway?What is the purpose of it, since by itself it has no obvious function, takes significant amounts of time and effort, costs a lot of money and comes with no guarantee that one will succeed with it?
Hm, with all these potential problems how would this possibly fit into the social values common nowadays such as convenience, flash, hype, rat-race, greed, glamour and media-addiction? Well I am glad you are asking these questions!
First of all, once our basic needs are met, human beings still have an innate proclivity toward expression, and have sought to unleash this since time immemorial. Music can and certainly does fulfill this creative side of us if we work to reach at least a basic level of musical aptitude.
Music is art, culture, expression, beauty and many other aesthetic judgment calls. So it would not be out of bounds to proclaim that music for music’s sake is enough reason to do it. Beethoven would probably agree. Maybe Bach, too.
In this blog I am going to list a set of principles which are upheld by the pursuit of music.
One of the massively prescient reasons for embracing the art of music, including music education, is that the sheer number of thought processes required which have to happen at near the speed of light, (particularly when reaching advanced stages of musicianship) appear to enhance brain function. I’m not going to cite any studies here. I’ll leave that to you and Google.
In our ever faster-paced world, where we simply must remain open to learning new skills and systems, the pursuit of music serves a dual purpose. Learn to play music, and as a free bonus learn better thinking skills: synthesis, symmetry, complex organization, multi-level thinking, independence of tactile awareness through sound and touch, heightened sensitivity, changing pace while keeping it steady, measuring sound vibration and differentiating between tensions to name a few extra enhancements.
Yet when a person learns to play a bowed string-instrument, there is another added dimension to the thinking “extras” which includes engaging the left and right hemispheres with even more, and different, simultaneous processes.
One of the earlier aptitudes gained in becoming musically competent is developing the skill of reading music. Like reading a language of words, the language of notes is also transferable to other instruments. In fact music is a universal written language not only between instruments but across cultures all over the world. Like a spoken language, it isn’t limited by visual cues.
So instead of making this particular blog an exercise in describing the cerebral enhancements that would probably put you to sleep, I’m going to shorten things up and get on with my list. If you have any additions, or would like to take the discussion further, please do comment!
PRINCIPLES SUPPORTED BY THE PURSUIT OF LEARNING TO PLAY MUSIC
Enhanced Brain Function
Reading Musical Notation
Working Together to Achieve a Common Good
Adaptation, or the Ability to Respond and Adapt Quickly to Change
Tolerance of Conflicting Ideas
Linear and Non-linear Thinking
Precision and Excellence
Managing One’s Presence
Preparation with Minimal or Less Than Enough Time
Political Refuge (you never know when this might come in handy)
The brother of a friend of mine was spared from re-education in China during the 1970s when he was recruited to play the erhu in the local government’s orchestra, and my friend was on the train to follow suit when the Cultural Revolution finally ended. That’s my personal connection to including the last principle on this list.
Thoughts? Comments? Would love to read your reply. xx -Bonny
Did you know our students are sponges? Students absorb a lot from us, not only the instrumental technique and musicality we wish to help them master.
They also tend to soak up our energy level, open-mindedness and capacity for joy and enthusiasm, or the contrary. This is one of the reasons it is so incredibly important to consciously cultivate our mindsets as teachers, to be focused on positivity, productivity, kindness and excellence.
It won’t really matter at all if we have a degree from a big-name conservatory but haven’t got the capacity to embrace a wide variety of teaching and learning situations.
With the idea in mind that ours is the only method, or that my is the best way to be followed without consideration for different ages, personalities, wishes, goals and moods, we are in danger of losing out on helping students to reach their potential. We might even lose our students’ trust.
Some of the things that help me to make sure my personal teaching mindset is prepped to give off the things I truly want students to absorb are
allowing extra time for planning and preparation time before every lesson to consciously and calmly consider the student(s) I am about to teach, and the single main point I hope to focus on (which is flexible in case the student(s) arrive with a greater need)
finding a fun, age-appropriate activity or game I can incorporate to make the lesson more interesting
visualizing and focusing on a goal in my own playing and teaching practice
reading books and blogs specifically regarding best methods
collaborating with and supporting other string teachers
Another thing that I very aware of, is the need to adapt myself to a student’s capacity for understanding. For example, I have found through a bunch of years teaching children of all ages, in really different cultural settings, that a huge number of children up through about the third grade, may not understand a number of ordinary vocabulary words.
Even body parts – I had a highly intelligent, very learning-oriented first grade student who did not know where her shoulders were. To solve this with many children we could play some fun games like “Simon Says” (also with the instrument) to be sure that they know what is what. Other words too, like “emotion” or “encourage” or “discipline” might get you the deer-in-the-headlights look if you use them and are paying attention to the reaction you get. It’s great to teach these words – I don’t mean not to use them – but just be aware that little kids have not got the same vocabulary as you do as an adult and may need you to use synonyms that they do understand, like “feelings,” “help” and maybe “following the learning every day” or to explain in detail the meaning of these important words. Older students need it too—not very many fifth graders would know the words “extrapolate” or “anticipate,” for example.
I don’t ever assume a student doesn’t know words but I am in the habit of asking them. If you have a relationship built on trust the student will be able to answer you honestly. If you’re still working on the trust factor, that’s okay, because that is also not something that comes automatically! It’s okay to challenge the student and when they answer that they know something, to ask them, “then what does it mean?” to be sure, or to turn it into a teachable moment.
So far, I have observed that students absolutely love to soak up the meaning of vocabulary that we use to help them in their learning.
Some students who have begun with me recently have given me a massive feeling of gratitude, because their learning style seems to be in super-sponge mode, understanding things about sound and physical technique long before the verbal. Of course, I still expect daily practicing from them, or five to six days per week.
Have you ever done something that before you began, thought would be impossible, or at least highly unlikely?
When I was a kid I thought, wouldn’t it be cool to play in a major orchestra and to live by the sea. Then by the time I reached 30 years old I had done these things, if one counts the Nanjing National Orchestra as major. The salary may not be what one earns in the Chicago Symphony, but we played on national television in China for the return of Macao to the mainland from Portugal, among other fun and large-scale concerts.
“…mindset plays a crucial role in realizing my dreams.”
Or playing in the Shanghai Opera Orchestra, which also offered some memorable experiences, notably combining with the Shanghai Symphony when we played Aida for two nights in Shanghai Stadium.
So how did I cross Death Valley with my fiddle? I didn’t! It’s a metaphor though.
Too many people have the idea that you can’t earn a living doing what you love, and that is one of the silliest mistakes one can make with one’s life. Death Valley for musicians and music teachers is the ocean of nay-sayers who are uncomfortable with your self-confidence, or with your personal growth, or with the idea that someone who is creative could carve out a happy life for themselves teaching others without going broke. The problem with the negative voices is that they are actually uncomfortable with themselves making these creative choices.
In this sense I have crossed Death Valley time after time and probably will for the rest of my life. And that’s okay, because I want more people to learn that it is possible to be a music teacher and experience incredible things.
One of the most important things I have learned about being a musician and being a music teacher, is that mindset plays a crucial role in realizing my dreams. There might even be some bits of Death Valley lurking in the dark shadows of my own mind, like all of us. Those are the moments when I say mean things to myself and the doubts start to creep in. But there are strategies for dealing with it, like visualizing exactly how I want to feel and situations I want to have happen. I know of plenty of other people who do this too and achieve incredible things.
Another thing I have realized lately, which I think I have intuitively known all along, is that teaching is one of the greatest professions that there is because it is so soul-rewarding! Sure, we can make money, but what we can do with our reach is exponential and somewhat unfathomable. This is probably why it has attracted me more solidly than performing as the main income has. Another reason it is a great profession is that if you love learning, you may continue to improve, learn and adapt for as long as you are alive.
For any other closet physicists out there or if you love science, being a music teacher also scratches this itch with the fact that we use sound as our medium, which is energy that passes through air and resonates with our whole being and not just our ears. That is to say, if you are interested in acoustics or the science of sound, we can be extremely exacting and in fact must be in order to attain excellence and mastery.
There are certainly dozens more reasons why being a music teacher is an awesome profession but I’ll stop here for now. My point is that the world needs more excellent music teachers and the stigma that teachers get from society doesn’t necessarily hold water. What’s your reason for teaching or for learning your instrument? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.♥
A question came up recently about attrition, and digging a little deeper I realized this is something we all face unless we actively work to build enthusiasm and excitement into orchestra classes and rehearsals. The context here is in regards to teenagers, or tweens, when the social phase and brain development is underway.
As adults this time of our lives is easy to lose touch with but we all go through it. If you want the science on this, read up on it >>here or >>here, through respected academies and journals. For a very cursory explanation, this period of seemingly strange behavior during teen brain development is due to the fact that the frontal cortex, or where we learn the ability to reason and think before taking action, develops later, even into adulthood. (Although as with any theory, there are certainly scientific inquiries which would just as easily disagree.)
Off the top of my head I mentioned that it is important to make sure we are addressing the social needs of teenage participants, so what follows are things I and others have used to generate enthusiasm and retention beyond an intrinsic respect for excellence in music preparation and performance. These suggestions are not things you would use for every rehearsal, but should be built into a yearly plan so that over the course of a year there are things to look forward to.
It has been wonderful to see many of you at our concerts during the past academic year – thank you so much for your patronage! Live concerts are really the way to get to know this musical art form.
In June Bernd and I are honored to play in the symphony orchestra of JSPE, the Junge Süddeutsch Philharmonie Esslingen for their 60th Anniversary. This is the orchestra I first played with in Germany six years ago, with the amazing cellist Sol Gabetta as she received a prize in the castle in Weikersheim.
The program is fantastic with awesome Mozart and Schubert symphonies, plus a concerto for the double bass by Menotti. We do not often play in this orchestra any more due to our busy lives but we just had to make time for this one, as it is a very special and rare day for the double bass to have its moment in the spotlight!
If you have a love of classical music or would like to get acquainted with it you could make an event out of this; spend a few hours in the medieval town of Esslingen and have a nice dinner afterward. It’s not a late concert, on Saturday, June 16, starting at 18:00, so even children could come and enjoy this great concert.
This post will be a little different. I‘d like to tell you more about myself because I recently discovered something.
When I was a teenager I fell in love with the Bach Violin Concerto in E Major. I think it was an Anne Sophie Mutter record that I used to play. I didn’t understand why I loved that key so much. I also fell deeply for the whole Solo Partita by Bach for Solo Violin in E Major. There really wasn’t much else that I had in my repertoire in this key but for me it was as though the sun came out and shined golden on my life with E Major.
Since then I have always loved this key and key signatures never have bothered me a bit since properly learning all the scales and arpeggios. I don’t even get it when people complain about the number of “enemies” on a piece, meaning a key with a lot of sharps or flats. (Okay, I do get it actually, because this means that the complainers simply have not acquainted themselves fully enough with their instruments and all of the keys that we play in.)
Now that I have been using guitar a lot more in my teaching and accompanying it suddenly hit me like a ton of bricks, that this is THE Guitar Key, HELLO!
Classical guitars are often tuned E-A-D-G-B-E so it naturally follows that the strongest chord you can get from this tuning is E Major, with the two open strings ringing out and another E in between on the D string.
In German there is the word “Schicksal” which means “fate.” It’s like my fate is to make guitar and bowed stringed instruments live forever happily together ever after. So today, to help my students and anyone who is learning guitar, I published a set of one-finger major scales for guitar starting on each open string. This may exist elsewhere but in the time it would take me to find it I decided to make it myself. Just let me know if you would like a copy.
Wow, it is hard to believe that our lovely student recital is already past, but I want to congratulate every single performer on their hard work and massive improvements. Thank you and your family for your effort and participation! If you would like to make a donation to the nonprofit organization who hosted us out of their own kindness and generosity, you may make a bank transfer to:
Evangelische Bank eG Kto.-Nr. 3691543 BLZ 520 604 10 IBAN: DE 48 520604100003691543 BIC: GENODEF1EK1
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