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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

COVID-19 Impact & help for string teachers

Namely, the reason for this post is for teachers who find themselves in the new and somewhat uncharted territory of teaching online. This could be helpful for string teachers, music teachers of any kind and all teachers, actually. Before I give some helpful tips for this I want to issue a warning. At this moment in time I am typing one-handed, because my left arm is not very usable for a while. Kind of this is my own fault, having now used the dining table as my desk for a month because that seems to be the best place for strength of signal from our WiFi box. Anyway something happened and the muscle is as if it got tangled in a knot.

At work we may be set up properly; I was, anyway. I do realize the table is about 2-3 inches too high for my long arms so apparently over time the tension served to weaken my muscles. I did stretches and I did have my seat elevated but this was not enough. Yesterday was more or less agony with what was probably a muscle tear or strain on the upper arm. Forget violin playing for a while. Although our online teaching arrangement is a temporary thing, it has turned out to be much longer than what I had anticipated so for this reason I had not worked too hard at setting up my work space accordingly. We are looking at at least two more weeks of teaching online now, which means six weeks minimum so far here in Suzhou.

Now I have even greater sympathy for all of you who have already gone through shoulder and arm injuries. Funnily enough, I have never had a playing injury before because I had enough proper training on our physiology and violin playing. But teaching online, watch out. I am using my laptop, which creates an awkward situation for people, especially if you have a long neck or limbs. What I see as a solution going on from here is plugging in a keyboard to sit on my actual lap and raising the screen more toward eye level. Also I plan to use a mouse. So please make sure you set up correctly.

  • Have the screen at eye level.

  • Have the keyboard a tad lower than your elbows. 

  • Stretch before using, including wrist rolls, head, neck and arm stretches, as well as at 40 minute intervals.

  • Use a mouse.

From the previous post you may have inferred that I was downplaying the situation on the ground a bit. If so, you would have been correct. It isn’t that things are at a standstill, far from it. Life is still humming along, virus or not. Just today many restaurants reopened to dine in, instead of takeout only.

Besides being confined to teaching online and not being able to get together with friends, the supply chain that we have become accustomed to has been disrupted. That is, some things are available (staples, for example) but other things not so much, or there is no expected timeline for when things will pick up again. We have to take a kind of permission slip each time we leave the compound, and our temperatures are taken when we return. Temperatures are taken at almost every place of business, and wisely so. Everyone here wears masks, but it is more of a cultural tradition and a show of solidarity that one would never want to transmit any illness, especially with something like COVID-19 which may be likely to be transmitted without people having symptoms.

On to a few useful hints that have been helpful so far. I have used Zoom to hold classes every day as well as for staff meetings. There are some great things about Zoom for running a class, such as

  • breakout rooms – assign students to their own rooms for discussion
  • instant reactions (thumbs-up and clapping)
  • chat
  • various other useful controls (sending a private PM to a user, mute button, etc.)
  • so far it has never crashed when I have used it

If you would like to see this for yourself I will hold a Zoom meeting for string teachers or any teacher and I invite you to try it out together. If you let me know when you may be available during the week and your time zone we can set this up for next week (16-20 March). Just send me a note with your interest below and I will set this up.

Because children are having to spend so much time online for all their classes it is more effective in my opinion to have activities which are interactive with each other as much as possible. One thing I use to keep them on their toes is having them call on each other after I start an activity, and ask each other the question at hand instead of me doing it all the time. The social factor is extremely useful here.

I have also used a vocabulary game where, after they have studied the vocabulary, I call out a definition and they raise their digital hand if they know the answer. At the end of the game, the winner is the one with the most points for correct answers, and I put a piece of candy in the candy bank for them for when we get back to the real school. I use the piece of candy at the beginning to help stimulate their excitement. I know, some teachers don’t like external motivational factors, but honestly, some of the time I think it is fun for kids and does no harm. It also makes it seem a bit more real, that they will have something to look forward to when we get back, besides hitting the books!

It is definitely a challenge to manage the digital classroom but with some creativity and flexibility, it offers some exciting new opportunities too. There is an article about one program already very successfully using online lessons in the March, 2020 Museletter if you’d like to learn more.

For individual lessons, one set-up that I have found that works well is to stream the lesson through my phone on Skype while using the laptop (a tablet or i-Pad would work here as well) with the digital music on it right next to my phone.  Here I feel Skype, Zoom or Facetime could all be nearly equally effective when teaching one-to-one.

If you would like to get the coming Museletter, this is a free quarterly for all who teach, learn and love string music with articles supporting teachers and learners which I offer you as a public service.  Just click here to get access: >>Museletter

Do let me know if I can answer any questions or how I can support your teaching. I am here for you!

Update:

Bonny Buckley is inviting you to a scheduled free Zoom meeting. You can join a free meet-up to learn more about using Zoom and ask any burning questions here. Skype will also be compared. (We use it too.) Any and all teachers welcome, the more the merrier!

Topic: String Teacher Zoom Practice Mtg
Time: Monday Mar 16, 2020 08:00 PM Central Time (US and Canada)

Join Zoom Meeting
https://us04web.zoom.us/j/7787127981

Meeting ID: 778 712 7981

Disclaimer: although I will do everything possible to ensure the smooth running and connection to this meeting, I cannot be responsible for disruptions to Zoom’s service or other unforeseen internet issues.

xx,

Bonny

 

Sponge Blog

violin student in Stuttgart
students soak up a lot more than you think
Students are sponges, so ooze greatness and kindness!

Did you know our students are sponges? Students absorb a lot from us, not only the instrumental technique and musicality we wish to help them master.

They also tend to soak up our energy level, open-mindedness and capacity for joy and enthusiasm, or the contrary. This is one of the reasons it is so incredibly important to consciously cultivate our mindsets as teachers, to be focused on positivity, productivity, kindness and excellence.

It won’t really matter at all if we have a degree from a big-name conservatory but haven’t got the capacity to embrace a wide variety of teaching and learning situations.

With the idea in mind that ours is the only method, or that my is the best way to be followed without consideration for different ages, personalities, wishes, goals and moods, we are in danger of losing out on helping students to reach their potential. We might even lose our students’ trust.

Some of the things that help me to make sure my personal teaching mindset is prepped to give off the things I truly want students to absorb are

  • allowing extra time for planning and preparation time before every lesson to consciously and calmly consider the student(s) I am about to teach, and the single main point I hope to focus on (which is flexible in case the student(s) arrive with a greater need)
  • finding a fun, age-appropriate activity or game I can incorporate to make the lesson more interesting
  • visualizing and focusing on a goal in my own playing and teaching practice
  • reading books and blogs specifically regarding best methods
  • collaborating with and supporting other string teachers

Another thing that I very aware of, is the need to adapt myself to a student’s capacity for understanding. For example, I have found through a bunch of years teaching children of all ages, in really different cultural settings, that a huge number of children up through about the third grade, may not understand a number of ordinary vocabulary words.

Even body parts – I had a highly intelligent, very learning-oriented first grade student who did not know where her shoulders were. To solve this with many children we could play some fun games like “Simon Says” (also with the instrument) to be sure that they know what is what. Other words too, like “emotion” or “encourage” or “discipline” might get you the deer-in-the-headlights look if you use them and are paying attention to the reaction you get. It’s great to teach these words – I don’t mean not to use them – but just be aware that little kids have not got the same vocabulary as you do as an adult and may need you to use synonyms that they do understand, like “feelings,” “help” and maybe “following the learning every day” or to explain in detail the meaning of these important words. Older students need it too—not very many fifth graders would know the words “extrapolate” or “anticipate,” for example.

I don’t ever assume a student doesn’t know words but I am in the habit of asking them. If you have a relationship built on trust the student will be able to answer you honestly. If you’re still working on the trust factor, that’s okay, because that is also not something that comes automatically! It’s okay to challenge the student and when they answer that they know something, to ask them, “then what does it mean?” to be sure, or to turn it into a teachable moment.

So far, I have observed that students absolutely love to soak up the meaning of vocabulary that we use to help them in their learning.

Some students who have begun with me recently have given me a massive feeling of gratitude, because their learning style seems to be in super-sponge mode, understanding things about sound and physical technique long before the verbal. Of course, I still expect daily practicing from them, or five to six days per week.

string teacher sponge blog
sponge blog for teachers of stringed instruments

Lately I’ve been truly blessed by the concept of the sponge. I was even overjoyed to be reminded of this as I stumbled upon a package of sponges we had bought and forgotten, that had fallen under a seat in the car. Sponges are actually quite beautiful. Here is an amazing documentary on sponges in case you might be interested in drawing your own analogies. Our students are beautiful and multifaceted too, every single one of them. Thanks for reading my Sponge Blog.

What about your students? How are they absorbing what you teach? Got a story to share? Write it in the comments – we’d love to read it! ♥

segno, SSS Logo, superstrings studio logo

 

Crossing Death Valley with My Violin

Have you ever done something that before you began, thought would be impossible, or at least highly unlikely?

When I was a kid I thought, wouldn’t it be cool to play in a major orchestra and to live by the sea. Then by the time I reached 30 years old I had done these things, if one counts the Nanjing National Orchestra as major. The salary may not be what one earns in the Chicago Symphony, but we played on national television in China for the return of Macao to the mainland from Portugal, among other fun and large-scale concerts.

“…mindset plays a crucial role in realizing my dreams.”

Or playing in the Shanghai Opera Orchestra, which also offered some memorable experiences, notably combining with the Shanghai Symphony when we played Aida for two nights in Shanghai Stadium.

 

 

So how did I cross Death Valley with my fiddle? I didn’t! It’s a metaphor though.

Too many people have the idea that you can’t earn a living doing what you love, and that is one of the silliest mistakes one can make with one’s life. Death Valley for musicians and music teachers is the ocean of nay-sayers who are uncomfortable with your self-confidence, or with your personal growth, or with the idea that someone who is creative could carve out a happy life for themselves teaching others without going broke. The problem with the negative voices is that they are actually uncomfortable with themselves making these creative choices.

In this sense I have crossed Death Valley time after time and probably will for the rest of my life. And that’s okay, because I want more people to learn that it is possible to be a music teacher and experience incredible things.

 

One of the most important things I have learned about being a musician and being a music teacher, is that mindset plays a crucial role in realizing my dreams. There might even be some bits of Death Valley lurking in the dark shadows of my own mind, like all of us. Those are the moments when I say mean things to myself and the doubts start to creep in. But there are strategies for dealing with it, like visualizing exactly how I want to feel and situations I want to have happen. I know of plenty of other people who do this too and achieve incredible things.

Another thing I have realized lately, which I think I have intuitively known all along, is that teaching is one of the greatest professions that there is because it is so soul-rewarding! Sure, we can make money, but what we can do with our reach is exponential and somewhat unfathomable. This is probably why it has attracted me more solidly than performing as the main income has. Another reason it is a great profession is that if you love learning, you may continue to improve, learn and adapt for as long as you are alive.

For any other closet physicists out there or if you love science, being a music teacher also scratches this itch with the fact that we use sound as our medium, which is energy that passes through air and resonates with our whole being and not just our ears. That is to say, if you are interested in acoustics or the science of sound, we can be extremely exacting and in fact must be in order to attain excellence and mastery.

There are certainly dozens more reasons why being a music teacher is an awesome profession but I’ll stop here for now. My point is that the world needs more excellent music teachers and the stigma that teachers get from society doesn’t necessarily hold water. What’s your reason for teaching or for learning your instrument? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.♥

 

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