Tone III

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2

Save school orchestra – soul call for your help

Do you have a soul?

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.

electric Buddha

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.

The first ten subcribers will receive a beautiful set of 20 stringed instrument graphics which you can use, royalty free, for use with your students in a private studio or school music classroom.

They are digital and can be used with online teaching for creative projects as well. 

 

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CONGRATULATIONS ON A SUCCESSFUL PERFORMANCE

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