Tone Part II

Tone has another side that’s too often missed, hence this post. (Part I is the previous post on this blog.) What happens when we dictate everything we want as teachers for the student, and don’t notice our own tone in the process? What happens when we demand things from the parents of our students if we overlook their overloaded, overworked, stressed, or just plain ordinarily tiring lives? Our message gets lost, is what happens.

As teachers we should not only deliver great content, but we have to become aware that students are human beings with lives and needs extending far beyond what we see in the lesson. We don’t need to know everything about them; however, what we often struggle with is remembering to consider that our students and their families have demands on them, needs, expectations and lives going on outside of their instrumental music-learning. Life is messy. Students and their families are not spared from this.

So instead of rushing to a conclusion about why a student isn’t progressing the way we hope he would–or even worse, asking him to leave our studio—let’s try to be aware that there are reasons for everything, including our interpretation of poor progress. Let me first consider my own tone: am I really aware of the person I was hired to teach? Is my tone coming from my ego, hoping to serve my wish for wonderful, hours-long practicing, unfailingly devoted, competition-winning students (to make me look good), or is my tone coming from a place of kindness and love?

Obviously, there is a time and a place for being firm with students and standing up for standards in our teaching and for ourselves. That isn’t the tone I’m talking about here.

We teachers occasionally forget we are not teaching in a vacuum, and the tone becomes one of “I think this, therefore everyone should also think the same.” This happens when we don’t bother to re-read or revise what we wrote, nor attempt to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes before posting. It is even a possibility that we choose to refrain from posting something at all, keeping our opinions to ourselves, once we look at our tone from another perspective. Tone matters enormously and it’s something which is all too easy to get wrong or for readers or listeners to misunderstand if we don’t give it a second thought. Heck, it’s still easy to be misunderstood after four or five revisions. 

My advice for prospective students would be to take some time to look up public threads where string teachers discuss their work and form their own opinion about what sort of tone they would want from a teacher. I tell people all the time that they should find a good teacher, but first try to find out their personality before making a long-term commitment. Will it be a teacher who has the ‘my way or the highway’ approach, or will it be a teacher who’s willing to meet the student where the student is right now?

Tone is also reflected perfectly in how we engage with our fellow teachers. We most certainly aren’t alone teaching in the 21st century. Wherever we reside on this planet, we have colleagues, when connected to the internet, and even when not. The way we are with each other, with colleagues known and unknown, is a part of our working life.

Collegiality is the idea of making a shared working environment both amicable and productive, as well as somewhere we’re able to listen and be listened to. In other words, tone is also the way we use words when we talk to or write to each other. (Read more about collegiality in the corporate environment here >>Collegiality.) Are we going to rely mainly on socially acceptable yet rather impersonal e-communication or would we rather set the tone of approachability and welcome a conversation? 

Appearance isn’t everything

Although we’re told that appearance is everything, what we look like and what we show people (also online) is not who we are. How we look is just the box that delivers a present. Have you ever received a beautiful present, wrapped with fancy, colorful paper, tied up with a gorgeous bow, and got disappointed by what was inside because it was something unequal to the outside? To put it another way, our tone is what people discover when they open the box.

Think about the saying, “People forget what you teach them, but they never forget how you made them feel.” Some give people doubt, anger, overload, and fear just because they lack awareness of their tone; others give the opportunity for joy, beauty, hope, and kindness. Tone is that ethereal, exquisite thing that shows the world who we really are, whether coming from our instrument, from our voice, or even from the words we choose. So, we really need to take the time to re-read any text we plan to give to our students or their families, or even what we (might) post on social media. 

Someone long ago posed a few questions to ask before posting online, which bear repeating or even placing on the wall next to our workspace, because they’re useful for all sorts of communication. These are certainly worth framing!

>>Frame-worthy Questions to test my message:

  • Is it relevant?
  • Is it necessary?
  • Is it kind?
  • Could it be condensed?
  • Would I say it out loud to someone? (Would I speak this way to my mother?)

Though we’re living in the information age, it’s more like we’re living in the TMI-age (too much information age), so wherever we can squeeze the best out of our tone to streamline it, make it kinder, more accurate, and more relevant, we should do it! If we want to grow into our best teaching selves, our tone needs to reflect an awareness of others, as well as serving our own teaching needs. The above questions can help guide our message and our tone.

The thing is, each one of us can choose to make the free and conscious effort to improve our teaching tone and grow into being the leader that teaching requires of us. Let us learn to be kind and creative, with our voices and our instruments, using the thoughtful tone our students need most. 

If you haven’t grabbed your September Museletter yet, swipe yours here! >>Museletter13

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String teaching during COVID-19, June 2020

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.

Musical life

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.)

Tech failure

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.)

Shangtang Street in Suzhou

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!

Teaching

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.)

Warmly,

Bonny

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.

 

String teacher progress in uncertain times

Dear String Teacher,

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.)

we love string teachers

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…

>>Top tips for thriving at home – my freebie for you!

>>March Museletter 2020 is available now (free)!

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GET WITH THE JA

Sort out the “gah” and get with the “ja!” Wait, what? Get rid of the extraneous and keep on going with what’s great, that’s what that means.

How could that possibly be relevant to us, as string-instrument teachers or learners? Well for me personally, it recently meant a commitment to solving something that last year seemed unsolvable. In fact last year I just gave up on it, and made a compromise instead, which wasn’t the worst thing in the world either.

This year I committed 100% to finding a place for our student spring recital. Should be easy, when you’re employed in a school. That’s a more or less non-negotiable aspect of the job, in fact! But when you’re a self-employed teacher, this becomes a whole other ball game. Even harder when you are not a church member in Germany.

I suppose if one had cash flowing like a waterfall you could just rent a glamorous concert hall. And truly I hope that will happen with SuperStrings Studio soon so that we can provide an amazing space for super-prepared and awesome students. Right now we are still a young studio, though, and our need for a space is strong, for students to get some experience performing and sharing their learning to a wider audience.

This year was no easier to find a space big enough and appropriate enough but what was different was me. I did not let go of the goal and kept working at it until…a beautiful stage has been offered to us! Yes, offered! And it’s in a wonderful care facility for people, exactly what I envisioned, where our students can share their music and people can enjoy it as part of a wider local community.

The thing I learned is that when you need something, keep asking for it until you find someone who is willing to help. 

One of the best things we can do with our lives, is to improve something for others. That’s one of the big reasons for SuperStrings Studio. We help bring joy and connection to families and individuals in an often disconnected world. I hope all of our students will take a few moments, not only to perform their lovely music, but to greet and interact with some of the residents at this home. A HUGE thanks to Rebecca Jones-Buerk and Mr. Joerg Treiber and team at the Stuttgart Pflegezentrum Bethanien!