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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.

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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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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!

 

 

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

 

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!