fbpx

Strings and the pandemic in Suzhou

violinist with Chinese silk screen of mountains behind her

The past two and a half years have been such an unruly giant squid of experiences and emotions. At the beginning of this, we were on a trip to the US and only made it back into China by the skin of our teeth, so the saying goes, before quarantines and lockdowns became commonplace. After an initial very quiet couple of months from Chinese New Year 2020 until April that year, we taught online. And then, although we wore (and still wear) masks in public spaces, with a local health declaration code and travel record we were able to go back to in-person working and teaching, even domestic travel was possible, although sometimes difficult.

In August of 2020 and in 2021 we were went on holidays inside China, to Yunnan and Gansu, both of which I 100% recommend. Although on our trip to Gansu, there were a few outbreaks around China, including in our province, so we were constantly on alert as to whether we would be put into quarantine, sent home, or something else. Day by day, we managed to fulfill our itinerary and made it home unscathed. Nevertheless, the worst was yet to come.

We even managed to participate in a few concerts in Shanghai with Shanghai Baroque Soloists, although things started to get more complicated last winter when, after the first rehearsal in November, my school forbade me to continue to go to Shanghai. Then another concert should have taken place in March this year, but that’s when things got silly in Shanghai. Bernd had his bass with him and was staying overnight in a hotel because his workplace is also in Shanghai; he’d planned to keep it with him while going to the rehearsals and concert. Then, suddenly things went south. No more commuting.

The city said in a news brief it was not going to lock down. Then, with escalating cases, it declared it would hold two 5-day lockdowns in stages: first in Pudong, then in Puxi starting a few days later on April 1. Then we all know what happened next. Roads were closed, people were locked in place and could not leave their residences. For two months, some could not go outside, and some for longer than that.

After about seven weeks of this, I trudged over in person to my neighborhood committee to ask for help. I was told that only the people who needed their doctor in Suzhou or to go to hospital here had priority, but an application for Bernd to come back would be made. Then the wheels began to turn. He did obtain permission to come back after a few more days, but there was a special process to follow. He had to have a negative nucleic acid test within 24 hours, and then be met by someone at the border between Suzhou and Shanghai where he would be “escorted” to a quarantine hotel. Then they sealed his van, and he stayed in his room for seven days. Next, he had the option to remain there for the second week of being monitored or return home, with the caveat that he quarantined alone at home. After such a long time away, we agreed I would move out for the week.

Thanks to some generous and dear friends, I was able to stay with them and remain in our district. I’ve been teaching online this whole semester though we do have a few weeks in person now to end the term. Suzhou has not survived totally unscathed either. While the entire city was not on “lockdown” per se, the only real difference was that we were able to go outside to walk, but even public parks were closed for some weeks. Also we did have the luxury of buying groceries the whole time, though there were a few worrying moments when it seemed that people had bought up all the fresh foods. (Things were quickly replenished within a few days.) Imports have definitely been disrupted though.

As Suzhou opened a bit (although we are still taking nucleic acid tests every day or two and showing proof of negative nucleic acid tests, travel histories and local health codes), some friends held an opening for their music and costume studio, arranged by Zhang Zhiyan. These are the same friends we played with for an East-West concert combining traditional Chinese instruments with Bernd’s and my bowed stringed instruments. This was the first gathering and musical playing together we have done in months!

When we walked in, I felt stunned in a very lovely way, like I was transported into a timeless zone of ethereal music and styles. It was almost as if I stepped backward straight into history, to several hundred years ago. Some of the ladies you see here are costume designers who created their stunning replica apparel. Here is a clip of music and photos from the party. The instrument in the background is the guqin, played by Sophia. Her teacher, Miss Cao and their sons also performed.

Other instruments that were played were the yue qin (moon-shaped lute) and bamboo flute.

 

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.

Did you enjoy this article? Feel free to share it. AND, just for you, get a Museletter, the string teacher inspirational quarterly which is filled with positivity and ideas you can use. It’s free, ad-free, comes with a no-spam guarantee and hatches just once per quarter.

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

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

3

Tone – Part I

Tone is probably the singular most powerful category needing our attention in playing and learning violin. When decent, we are happy to hear more; when poor, we want to run away! Okay, that may be a little extreme, because if we are really teaching, we know that ugly tone has a physical, findable cause and it’s our job to apply our experience and patience to remedy it. Now, I know that tone does not exist in a vacuum—rhythm, harmony, melody, dynamics, bowings and more all are necessary moveable parts which we have to successfully teach and learn—it’s just that we can have all these other rudiments in place, but without great tone we essentially have nothing.

WHEN SHOULD I INTRODUCE TONE?

So, when do we approach the topic of tone in our teaching? It can and should be taught early, in one of the first lessons if not the very first one. Kids know and will tell you the difference between nice and not-nice tone if we give them a side-by-side comparison and ask. Plus, there is a very touching reason to bring it up early and often: when a student brings her attention to tone, the student brings her listening awareness to the forefront, and we need this skill and this sense to be developed deeply. Listening awareness is both skill and sense, for the fact that listening can be developed and refined. (We’re born both hearing and listening, though in my opinion hearing is innate and listening is more active–the processing of what is heard and learning from it.) The reason tone is touching is based on our physical sense of listening, since sound is vibration in the air and these vibrations actually touch us—not only coming into our ears but they strike our entire bodies, resonating in our bones, particularly in the skull. If this is a new idea for you, read more about it in the subject of osteophonie (or bone conduction), which is the science of how sound resonates in the bones. There is a whole field of study about how children process sound differently as their auditory systems continue to mature, even into the late teen years which is one of the reasons why they are very clingy and touchy as young kids.* They are actually “hearing” with their bodies more, in addition to using their ears.

I don’t think we can demand perfect tone production from our students in the first lesson or three, but we can demonstrate different types of tone so that the student has an experience and an awareness of it right off the bat, which can be brought up or revisited when it seems that the student forgot to listen to herself. Some of us bring the student’s awareness to tone in every single lesson, as there usually are opportunities each time to do so.

WHAT GETS IN THE WAY

In the course of teaching, there are plenty of reasons why a student forgets to pay attention to tone, though the most gifted and self-motivated seem to be able to grasp the gravity of it earlier and keep it at the forefront more. One of the big reasons a student forgets to listen to tone is that there are so many other things he is told to learn, (bow-hold, bowing patterns, left-hand position, intonation, note recognition, note-reading, nomenclature, rhythm, memorization, breathing…) which in many cases results in listening to tone plummeting to the bottom of the laundry list of ‘things’ in their playing and practicing. It isn’t exactly their fault that tone flies out the window, for during a time span that seems like an eon to them they have to juggle combining so many different skills and aptitudes to establish the rudiments, even when we think we have only given them one or two tasks.

Some of us already approach tone and have people listen for it from day one. Others of us wait, but this results in the consequence that the student may not come around to the idea of really listening to himself for an inordinately long time, to the detriment of possibly not liking the instrument or the experience of learning about music very much.

Are there things we have to teach which legitimately compete with the student’s focus on tone? Probably. Most of us can’t stay on open strings for very long without getting bored, deflated, or crying our eyes out and quitting. So, the grand introduction of the left-hand finger placement is another major tone-displacing diversion for some. Soon comes reading or memorizing or both. All responsible teachers see to it that their students learn to read, in due time, though certainly (or at least hopefully) after the sense of hearing tone is developed. Yet every new aspect of learning to play can cause learners to forget to listen to themselves, so it’s on us to integrate anything new into their growing tonal awareness.

To foster students’ ability to differentiate tone, we might give students (of any age) a chance to hear contrasts, which can be accomplished by listening together to different recordings and interpretations of the same piece while focusing on tone. Even better: take them to a live, in-person concert, where we can elicit growth by asking how a certain type of tone was produced, and how they might be able to do it too. This can also be really effective when done before tackling a new type of bowing.

LANGUAGE ACQUISITION AND TONE

Think of language acquisition, where sounds are heard from even inside the womb, and the baby is born knowing at minimum the sound of its mother’s voice. Tone is what a growing baby uses to learn language for a few years before speaking, and even more years before reading or writing. That is to say, listening naturally develops in humans before speaking words. Therefore, it follows based on human physiological development that learning to hear, create, and differentiate types of tone is naturally something we can give high priority early (and onward) in the education of our string pupils.

Learning to hear, produce, differentiate, and appreciate tone on stringed instruments is remarkably similar to what we do when learning language. Even learning a first or second language, there are development milestones in comprehension and use, the first of which is the ability to understand what is heard. And what is heard is largely tone, organized and punctuated in the unique way of a particular language. The more precisely we learn to listen to these tones, the faster we learn the language. The same goes for the language of strings.

Stay tuned for Tone Part II, coming in a few rotations of the earth!

*For nerds like me who appreciate the work and the science done by others, see the following sources for some enlightening rabbit-holes. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4612629/

https://www.academia.edu/49040417/4th_International_Conference_of_Dalcroze_Studies_The_listening_body_in_action_Habron_2019_  (pp. 66, 100)

https://www.academia.edu/1867384/_Good_music_teachers_should_Conceptions_of_conservatoire_elementary_level_students_with_regard_to_teaching_string_instruments

You can also obtain a thoughtful, beautiful, free set of student reflection pages for 52 weeks for use in lessons (perfect for discussions and thoughts on tone) just by taking the String Teacher Census. It’s also available for sale if you would rather just buy it here >>Thoughtful Lessons Journal.

Enjoyed this article and the ideas around teaching it evoked? We are building something incredible just for string teachers – with monthly SuperTopics, meet-ups, free class-dazzling graphics and more — be part of the foundation for something groundbreaking for our profession and join the Royal String Teacher Association waitlist! (Opening SOON!)

Shhh… Did you know we publish a free quarterly just for string teachers? Get a Museletter now for a no-ad, no-spam, positive resource with ideas, tips, and interviews you will not find anywhere else! >>a Museletter

1

The Myth of Violin Fragility & A True Confession

I am going to tell you the truth. The fragility of violins is something of a myth.

Of course, violins will be broken if you drop them on a tile floor or if something heavy like a car or a human smashes down on top of them. Really there are myriad ways to damage a violin enough that it would need to be repaired by a luthier or possibly given a proper burial. Cremation, anyone?

I suppose it may depend on the instrument itself, whether its glue and components are of the highest quality or not. Let’s just say that while a violin is certainly breakable, it is not as delicate as a glacier lily.

We learn to take loving care of our dear violins, to wipe them carefully, to change strings regularly, to have the sound post adjusted from time to time or the fingerboard planed, and little dings cosmetically enhanced.

Confession

Here comes the confession. (I am admitting to my innate clumsiness and am sharing some of my most humiliating moments here, so please cut me a little slack.)

I have broken my dear, lovely baroque violin twice in my adult life, quite severely. Both were accidents, and each time seemed as though they would be the kiss of death.

The breakage was not light, either time. The damage was truly horrifying on both occasions.

The first time it happened I was 21 years old and I had just been admitted by Roman Totenberg to the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Massachusetts for my undergraduate diploma. Living in a tiny studio apartment which had a little foyer when you opened the door, I had my music stand in this space. Here is where I did the thing that no violin learner or player should ever, EVER do. I left the violin hanging on the edge of the stand. This is a terrible thing to do and don’t you ever do it! In the morning when I was stumbling around in the dark only half awake, I bumped into it and it came crashing down on the antique tile floor. The sound it made was shocking, with the wood splitting, and my heart breaking.

The department head was willing to give it a try

First, I was petrified at how stupid I had been to let this happen. Second, I made myself numb to the financial impact it would have on me, being a student with basically a zero-sum bank account. Nevertheless, I took it around town (Boston) having it examined by various strangers who were the famous reputable luthiers willing to help me. The prices they were demanding were all far out of my budget (again, I had no budget so this was doubly painful), and to add insult to injury, their prices came with the clause that there was no guarantee that a fix would hold up.

Exasperated

Finally, exasperated, and ready to give up, someone mentioned to me about the North Bennet Street School of Violin Making. As a last resort, I tried not to get my hopes up too high, but actually the department head was willing to give it a try, to glue it without removing the top, also with no guarantee. I cannot recall what I ended up paying but it was a fraction of what the others had demanded. In the end, it worked! You could see some small lines where it was glued, but in the many years since, it has never once opened along those cracks.

Since I am opening up my heart here and sharing my clumsiness in the public blogosphere, I will now tell you about the second time this happened, in Germany. This time it was at the end of teaching a lesson.

Trying to convince myself that the damage was not too bad

The child had finished, she was already packed and ready, and there was something she had asked for that prompted me to open my violin a second time. Only the problem was that this time, having been distracted by something else, I did not close it properly and zip it up. So, when I finally did intend to leave and picked the case up by its handle the whole thing went plummeting down onto the floor. This floor was wood, but that was not soft enough to cushion such a blow. My face must have conveyed the utter loss I felt in the moment, for the student yelped out “Ms Buckley, is everything okay?!” (It wasn’t.) I just lied and said don’t worry, it would be okay, probably trying to convince myself more than her.

I did not know what the future would hold in this case, as the break seemed much worse than the earlier one. But I did know a fine luthier, Susanne Müller, who lived in our county of Böblingen, near Stuttgart. I took it to her in fear of the worst, but she was willing to try to salvage the instrument. She also would not guarantee anything, but I was only able to hope for the best once again, as I did not see any other way forward. This time the bill was much higher, but it was absolutely worth every penny.

A second miracle

It was returned repaired and glued back together with some rib-stitches (ouch!). In the end, to my sheer amazement, it never sounded better. I am definitely not saying to go out and break your fiddle, (but if, in the off chance it should happen, try not to worry too much unless it’s smashed to smithereens).

Wood, in my experience, is an incredibly forgiving, long-lasting, and malleable material. We should be so grateful for the wonderful, time-enduring trees which gave us the raw material for our beloved fiddles.


Take the string teacher census yet? Find it right here >> String Teacher Worldwide Census

Did you know that I publish a free quarterly letter just for string teachers? Get a Museletter now and don’t let this fabulous resource pass you by! >>a Museletter

1

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)!

1

American Festival Orchestra Inner Mongolia Tour

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.

Christmas in Ningxia, China with AFO
Holiday dinner for musicians

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.

Holiday dinner on 2019-12-25 in Yinchuan, Ningxia Province, China with AFO American Festival Orchestra tour

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.

a segment of China’s Great Wall built during the Ming Dynasty along the border between Ningxia and Inner Mongolia in the southern Helan Mountains.

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.

Erdos Museum, AFO Musicians 2019.12.31

Erdos Theater by day

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.

Pagoda climbing in Yinchuan, Ningxia Province in December, 2019
Ice biking, dragon boating, chair racing and all around fun at -14 C in Alxa, Inner Mongolia with the Helan Mountains in the distance

Like it? Share it! 🙂

If you enjoyed this blog, you’ll love our non-commercial quarterly Museletter with stories and interviews by and for string teachers around the world! Sign up (free) here >> a Museletter

 

Thinking, a powerful tool

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.

Are you reading a Museletter yet? Get it now!

 

Music opens doors

Music opens doors. This essay is about how resilience supports life as an international string player and teacher. Sometimes I think that “resilience” is what keeps opening the doors.

Because I’ve made the effort to apply my training and expertise as a violinist and violist, I have been invited to play on some incredible stages and in some wildly beautiful concerts in China, Germany and the US. My husband, who is a double-bass player at the semi-professional level, has also helped a lot in getting to know some orchestras to play with in Germany.

Having a Washington State professional teaching license in K-12 Instrumental Music has also been a real help in supporting my teaching practice as a credential in addition to a performance degree.

The music I have been so blessed to have been a part of so far has encompassed chamber music, solos, symphonies, chamber orchestras and even full-production opera orchestras. I really miss playing operas – it has been a while since I played any.

As far as teaching, I have had an abundance of different positions thus far in my life, from teaching young violin majors at Nanjing Normal University, to running the orchestra program of a busy rural school district in the US, to directing and teaching music in Shanghai at an international school, and more recently as a private teacher with small group classes out of my home studio in Germany.

That being said, this has not always been smooth sailing. There are a few perils which I and others have faced and which string players and teachers all have to overcome, whether working internationally or not.

International air travel is for the birds

To be honest I also do not care one whit for international air travel. What used to be slightly glamorous and fun is now more like riding a crowded bus through the skies, with the pleasant experience of having your body, documents and belongings checked at many points before boarding. It ranks right up there in my book with going to the doctor, which I tend to avoid.

(Travel even within Europe is very strict – airports have their own 1-L clear resealable bags in which all of your liquids must be contained in carry-on items.)

Another potential difficulty is timing. Simply put, I would never plan to have a long-distance drive immediately following a long-haul flight, to any address I did not already know, in a town I had never been to before, without a cushion of say six hours, give or take.

I was at a string teacher conference, where an invited guest who was to be the highlight of the event, finally did show up an hour or so later than planned due to difficulties finding his way. It turns out we are not super human after all and are still limited by the realities of new roads, road construction, traffic and unforeseen detours. It is better to allow ample extra time, if only to take a nap and be really refreshed if an event is following closely after a long overseas trip.

This is really an example of learning how to cope with a very dynamic, ever-evolving world, the one in which our conservatory education did not prepare us for.

But really learning our instruments to an advanced or professional level does help us hopefully with a very important quality which is sometimes lacking in our formal education: resilience.

The Value of Resilience

Playing, living and working as an international musician gives us the perfect opportunity to practice the value of resilience.

I know, values are not the sexy topic of many popular blogs, but the values we teach as string teachers are some pretty hefty pillars of human evolution which I believe help bring more joy, empathy, help, creative thinking and brain development in general to the humans residing on the third rock.

When you start working long-term in a foreign culture, one of the first tests of your resilience is about being willing to be a beginner again. When we find ourselves in unfamiliar territory and a new culture and maybe language, we get the chance to absorb all the subtle and not-so-subtle new ideas, nuances and ways of being. It’s in some ways like being a baby, taking everything in anew.

It also lets you sometimes be “off the hook” for mistakes you make that you don’t know you’re making.

Other times it doesn’t.

I had it in my mind to do banking with a local bank, for example, where I wanted to have an account because this particular bank supports culture a lot in the area. First I set up an account, and then due to a bunch of things taking up my time and attention, which was completely my fault, I didn’t fund the account in the necessary amount of time. So the bank supposedly closed the account.

Later I went back to apply again, and kept on getting the cold shoulder. I persisted, however. Finally a representative gave me an ear-full, berating me and complaining that there was an outstanding fee (that I had never seen any notice for) and that my business was not wanted. I inquired politely about how much the outstanding charge was. He then became a bit quieter, perhaps even embarrassed, and told me it was for .85€. Yes, that was actually for 85 cents. I still to this day don’t know what the charge was for but I did go and pay it, and was able to open a business account at this institution. I call it my 85-cent ear-full. 🙂

For the most part, people seem to be very kind and helpful when they realize we have come from somewhere far away. I think this is a natural human tendency, when one’s basic needs are being met, to enjoy helping others.

And having this basic language of music in our pockets, so to speak, gives us a doorway to walk through to connect with the unfamiliar in the a new culture if we’re willing to apply it.

How about you? Have you had any interesting overseas experiences where your music ability opened or closed a door? Do you think resilience is worth teaching? Follow this blog if you think string music education helps people learn resilience. Leave a comment!