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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.

 

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.


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Save school orchestra – soul call for your help

Do you have a soul?

I just had a conversation this morning about whether souls are real. There really is some debate about this, because so far it is difficult to scientifically state what a “soul” is. The conversation came about because on Saturday, my husband and I participated in an overnight stay at a Buddhist monastery in Suzhou, called Faluo Temple. The event was organized by “Album of Suzhou”, a wonderful group that is designed to help foreign guests learn more about local culture. We visit gardens and museums and even the homes of some artists. When this event came up, I have to admit I was skeptical. All I could do was pepper my husband with questions about it like would there be sheets for us on the beds, what will we do there, what would it be like? In the end, I just decided to be open to the experience and give it a try to get to know this culture better.

I know, you’re probably asking what this even has to do with saving school orchestra; I will explain the connection soon!

The weather here has become somewhere between very warm like a sauna and unbearably warm if you were to stand out in the sun. Luckily here the rainy season is prolonged, so whenever we get the steamy, muggy uncomfortableness of the summer, a storm rolls in to cool things down. I guess my biggest fear about going to stay in a monastery was that there would be no air conditioning. Well, luckily these are modern monks, and at least some of the rooms were climate-enhanced with air-con.

The first hour or so was just relaxing in a cool common room akin to a tea house, with mats and natural colors all around, very appealing to this Virgo girl! We met some friends we had seen before at these events and several new ones too. The location is next to Tianpingshan in the western area of Suzhou, which we absolutely love anyway and go there to hike when the weather cooperates.

Patrick Qu, the Album of Suzhou organizer, took us on a short hike in back of the temple down a very forested (and slippery) road. There we heard lovely birds in the bamboo forest and saw some moths and butterflies while walking along a clear stream among fragrant hills. There are many beautiful yellowish colored rocks that China is famous for. Some rocks have poems written by Emperor Qianlong about the area are inscribed on them. Apparently he visited this very site six times, so the road leading up to the temple is a royal road.

Next was the dinner, which consisted of simply stir-fried vegetables with a little salt, plain rice and spinach soup. We thought it tasted quite nice, actually. Everyone faces the center of the room, in the direction of the Buddha statue. After the meal we were told to leave the dishes on the table.

Pain reminds us that we are still alive

Then we went to the main room again and practiced meditation for ten minutes, sitting cross legged on the floor. I’ve never been able to sit this way very well, even as a child, so I did my best although I found the position to be hard to bear. Another problem was my stomach. Too many vegetables maybe, or whatever; it was giving me some pains. And pain just reminds us that we are still alive, so I was even grateful for that. (Okay, pain also tells us that something is wrong with our bodies, so we still sometimes have to pay attention to its message. 😉 ) Nevertheless, I kept bringing my attention back to my breathing because that usually helps me to empty my mind. I found it really difficult to do in this environment, personally. People’s phone alarms kept going off, was another annoyance. Why couldn’t people put their devices on flight mode for ten minutes?  But it was cool to wear the black robes.

After the ten minutes, the head monk asked for people to talk about their experiences, because really this was just meant to be an introduction to the practice of meditation and Buddhism. Someone asked if he could express in a sentence what Buddhism is. The man kindly stated that it is essentially becoming better, improving oneself, and kindness (which I hope you will continue to the end of this entire blog, because I ask for your help later). Although I am not Buddhist and do not plan on ever becoming one formally, I’ve always gravitated toward these very concepts and strive to live according to these principals. Maybe this is part of why I feel ordinarily so much more at home in China than just about anywhere (although home to me is wherever I am). After some other questions and thoughts, a beautiful musician shared a piece with us.

 

Another monk came in after this with Tibetan prayer bowls. It was a new experience for me to actually take part in a ceremony, which was really thrilling! This time we laid ourselves on the floor on mats and just received the sounds of the different bowls and their frequencies. One had water in it so he could create a kind of wobbly effect in the sound. Another had a frequency that was supposed to resonate with around the same frequency as our brains. After that, he let people come up and used the bowls on their bodies. (We tried it – we enjoyed it very much!) He even put the brain bowl over some of our heads.

It was said that this activity would help us sleep very well. In truth, Bernd and I did not sleep well at all, but we think it was because we are not used to hard beds. A monk came by at about 4:43 a.m. with giant rhythm sticks to wake us up for a morning ceremony that took place shortly after 5:00 a.m. It was funny to hear him grumbling about how no one was getting up and turning on lights yet and worrying that we didn’t know what we were supposed to do.

During this ceremony there was a lot of singing by the monks, which was amplified and accompanied by a lot of bell ringing and drum beating. We also placed small pieces of wood into a small bowl of smoldering ash, twice, which later caught on fire (on purpose) and burned. We followed the head monk for when to bow and stand and where and when to walk. I enjoyed the motions of the bowing onto prayer pillows. I had always wondered what that really felt like. To me it felt like surrendering all my burdens and thoughts. I wasn’t praying to Buddha, I was praying like I always pray, to the universe, which I consider as a loving intergalactic fabric connecting everything everywhere.

After the ceremony we filed into the canteen for a very simple breakfast of rice gruel, some peanuts and soybeans, dried salty vegetables and baozi (a steamed bun filled in this case with either vegetables or a sweet red-bean paste).

Next was some time in the main room when we meditated for twenty minutes. Again I struggled. The leader this time played some recorded music. I feel certain this was intended to help people to focus but for me it was distracting. I couldn’t move my mind away from it. I brought my thoughts back to focus on my breathing again and again but just could not get away from the repetitive motifs, which I found somehow unpleasant, artificial and loud. (I’m sure that if I were in this environment several times I would get used to it but to be quite honest, I’m glad I have my own practice with either ambient sound from the neighborhood where I live or else a guided visualization that I’ve created or I use one made by someone whose message I love.) A lot of people just fell asleep.

electric Buddha

Afterward, the leader talked about the history of Faluo Temple, apparently originally established over 400 years ago as a natural garden, which was attractive to people and still is! We then walked up to the top area of the temple to a huge statue of Guanyin, Goddess of Mercy. Again it was a pleasant reminder that we love to hike in these hills and plan to come again when weather permits.

Soon, we had lunch, again some stir-fried vegetables, rice and spinach and mushroom soup. This time I was seated next to one of the monks, who showed me the ritual of placing the empty bowl and chopsticks in a particular way at the edge of the table at the end of the meal. Afterward we had a rest, and I really fell asleep for an hour or so.

In the afternoon, our friend whose studio we visited on the last Album of Suzhou event, Guo Ai Min, came to the temple to show people how to do a beautiful fan painting. Actually, none of us felt we were to the level of being able to create such a fan, but we all tried to write the words of the poem in calligraphy as practice. It was my first time ever to try calligraphy – wonderful!

Later, at home, we really felt exhausted. We spent some time on the couch being couch potatoes and even ordered dinner in, since it seemed as if it would storm again at any moment. In the morning, the question came out again, what about the soul?

I believe we have souls, or perhaps pieces of a collective soul; I am not sure. My mind tells me that the soul is ever present in us yet is poorly understood. My soul tells me that indeed, it is very real but science is not yet able to measure it, at least not by traditional means. My own soul tells me that music is a connection to souls everywhere—probably this is why it is used in every culture and religion. I say this with a grain of salt, as I haven’t studied every culture and every religion, and I am certainly aware that there are great differences in how different religions use music and make specific regulations regarding its use.

It just drove the point home to me, that music really is powerful, by taking part in this Buddhist ceremony. I really do not mean to criticize this particular ceremony, because truly it was a wonderful moment, but from my personal experience, what the amplification of the chanting did, was to dull the power of the natural overtones. And yet the overtones were still coming out.

We are called to help humanity

What I came away with, and I do not say this lightly, was the reconfirmation (in my life, because I am writing from my own personal perspective, though I hope that at least one person reading this shares this) that we are called to help heal humanity, one ear at a time, starting with our own.

This single statement forms the basis of my life. It isn’t only about making great music, though that is part of it. It isn’t only about teaching students how to play an instrument, though this can be and is also certainly a part of it. It isn’t only teaching teachers how to teach more effectively, though this also makes up an important part of our work. It isn’t only teaching students to understand that music is spiritual, and it definitely is spiritual! As you already understand, there are many reasons why we are string teachers, many of which go against the status quo, yet reasons that give enduring character to our communities and our lives.

Collectively supporting one another in this field is of the utmost importance

But one of the things I think a few of us miss, is the fact that collectively supporting one another in this field is of the utmost importance, especially right now. Studio teachers, I am talking to you in particular (I am one, too). If you are a studio teacher in the USA right now, I am asking for your help. Parents, you can help too.

Orchestra teachers across the country are facing a serious crisis, not only because of COVID-19 but because of the reactions of school districts and decisions that districts have made to either cut programs or threaten students with attending orchestra in person or nothing. A lot of districts put college-track courses at the same time as orchestra class, which places many families in an uncomfortable and unfair bind. I know many principals and superintendents do not know what exactly to do going forward, and the plan that they have is what they think is best (although we know that cutting orchestra is not in anyone’s best interest) that they have come up with, not intentionally leaving people behind.

But every school orchestra teacher who has to recruit is also facing a crisis. Numbers are a fraction of what they ordinarily would be and this is no joke. Recruitment in the best of times is still a significant, often unpaid or underpaid additional responsibility on teachers’ shoulders. Orchestra teachers are just hoping to have their programs survive this coming school year. If there is an occupation which we can give some love to, right now, it is our orchestra teachers.

So what I am asking you, private teacher in the USA, parents, or anyone with connections to families in schools, is to have a conversation. Ask parents, “What is the situation for your school string program this fall?” Ask parents to go to their school board and collectively express that they want to have orchestra in their schools. Yes, I am very seriously asking you to ask them and to help facilitate this. Because if we don’t, who is going to? Help parents save their orchestra programs because I know very well from my own experience that when parents talk, districts listen. It was one of the most important lessons I learned as a school orchestra director in a rural district which by itself would have done away with strings years ago.

If you haven’t built up a relationship with the parents of your students, start now. Also, here is a template you can use or parents can use to fit their school to reach out to their school boards with. Petition to save our orchestra

Another thing I want to ask you for your help with is to reach out to the school orchestra teacher in your district. I want you to tell them you are here for them and support them (even if it has never crossed your mind before to do so). We need them very much! You might not think you like them, you might see them as competition, you might disagree with what they have to do to run their classes, you might have a lot of reasons why you might not want to do this.

We need orchestra teachers to be supported

But we need thriving string orchestra classes in order to give many young people a chance to experience music, both now and in the future, and not only the ones in our studios. And to have programs that even survive, we need all the voices available and willing to come forward to take a stand on this. We need orchestra teachers to be supported to help them through this dark night of pandemic.

We all know that not all kids who become great musicians (or even just competent ones) do not come from rich enough backgrounds to be able to afford private lessons. The least we can do is have compassion for the string teachers who have devoted themselves to the public service of teaching school orchestra. These people have my utmost respect and I hope they have yours too, for what they provide society overall and the impact on their communities.

We can work together, and we need to work together on this, private teachers. I know many of us have had a boon in enrollment due to people being stuck at home. It is time now to see beyond our own studio walls and support the bigger picture, extending our love, support, charity and hive mind to the future of our public-school music students and their teachers. Reach out, if only because my big-picture enhancing soul implores you to do so.

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

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

 

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String teaching during COVID-19, June 2020

It’s already the 13th day of June, 2020, in an undeniably extraordinary year. This year will probably be named ‘hindsight’, as in, “Hindsight is twenty-twenty.”

I don’t know about you, but it’s up and down like a roller coaster from my point of view. There is still plenty to be totally glad about and a bright future ahead if we only dare to focus on the possibilities, and take action to move toward them.

But the dark side seems to be so darn pervasive. Like no matter how much I personally put my mind on the positive, it feels like there is still a massive cloud of sadness hanging over humanity, where COVID-19 continues to ravage the world and racism seems to run rampant. Why is it that people are so inclined to go out and about without masks in regions where the virus is not yet contained, as if it were some kind of ‘right’ to be able to get sick and spread this horrible virus? 

Six months into this pandemic

I personally know three people who have gotten it. Two survived and one did not. In my city, we were fortunate to have had around 86 total cases, (according to Chinese news, out of a population around 8 million, to put this in some context) and all have long since recovered. Six months into this, two months after the last case, and we still wear masks in supermarkets, on the metro and in taxis. We still offer our arms or foreheads for volunteering our body temperatures, as a signal that we are not bringing an illness in. Mine is checked usually twice per day. First, as I enter my school campus, and second when I am entering my compound to return in the evening.

Musical life

How about your musical life? Have you found your stride with working/playing/teaching online? I have taught throughout this period, but there was a month or so when I could not even pick up the violin to play anything for myself. Then one day I changed. For some reason or other I got my violin back out and started playing. Maybe I was inspired by many amazing colleagues around the world playing music and putting their performances out there to help cheer people up. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, if you have done so! But there were no chamber music playing opportunities around here and certainly no live concerts to give or to attend.

Playing in a carpeted ballroom

One day I found out our friend would have his wedding dinner and we were invited to it in mid-May. I was pretty excited about this, since it was only the second Chinese wedding I have ever attended and would be the first performance post-lockdown for me. Then he asked if I wanted to play something, and of course I said “Yes!” The weird thing was, I didn’t have time to practice, and even through dinner I wasn’t sure what I was going to play. Finally, I suddenly decided on “Over The Rainbow” by Harold Arlen. Even if it is a slightly wistful song, everyone knows the melody, and I love the key of E flat! How rarely we get to play in colorful keys like that, so I just went for it.

I was also a little concerned about the room acoustics since it was a huge, carpeted ballroom. Another musician had come and played saxophone with his own pick-up and amplification, which was super loud. I wondered if people would even hear me and my fiddle without any sound-boosting electronics. I walked to the center and just started in. To my surprise and delight, I found that the sound carried perfectly well!

This is a testament to a violin that has good projection. It does not need any amplification at all, as it has its own incredible capacity for resonance. Thank you to Michael Mirampolsky, whom I bought it from years ago. (It’s a living ‘red violin’ with its own colorful history. Sometimes I entertain the idea of creating its story.)

Tech failure

Another thing that happened during this strange period of time is that my hard drive that I brought from Germany died. It had a lot of important personal stuff on it, like essentially all of my business plans and history, not to mention photos from the past fifteen or more years. In short, there was a ton of both sentimental and necessary data on there. Luckily, I had backed up my password sheet not too long before. Ok, it is not the first time I have ever lost data and in some ways it is like being freed. In other ways, it feels like tremendous loss. (I have a back-up in Germany, but that’s not exactly accessible at the moment!)

Daily life – a walk in town

At one point, Bernd and I took a walk down Shangtang Street in the old town part of Suzhou. That was when things were mostly still shut and the majority of foreigners had left China already. It was a nice spring day, so the street was filled with Chinese people enjoying the budding trees and flowers. But we really were the only western folks around, for the entire day. It was a memorable moment for us, because a lot of Chinese were quite curious about us and seemed a bit in awe that these ‘Martians’ were among them.

Others were not bashful at all and asked us about our situation, and even seemed to be allied with us in the sense that yes, the borders are/were closed, and let’s be strong, stay healthy, careful and vigilant together. Nobody shunned us. (There were a couple of times when it seemed that some people wanted to avoid us on other occasions, but by and large, we have not experienced much in the way of extraordinary treatment due to being foreign. If anything, we feel protected here.)

Shangtang Street in Suzhou

Another surprising thing, was a colleague of Bernd’s had met another violist on a hike, and since then we found out that she lives in our compound, has a music degree and we have begun to play chamber music together, woohoo! Not only that, but at our first meeting, she invited another violist we had not yet met, who then mentioned that his boss also plays viola! We have since  gotten together (all four violists!) and played a Telemann concerto for four, and part of Vivaldi Concerto in b minor transposed for viola to e minor, with Bernd playing bass continuo. This is one of the amazing blessings to come out of this which opens a lot of new doors. We are all very excited about the potential for chamber music with this!

Teaching

I will teach English and a music course again next fall, and a former student of mine in Germany asked for lessons again, so I will keep teaching both in person at Nanjing Normal University Suzhou Experimental School Cambridge International Assessment Center and give online SuperStrings Studio lessons from the home studio. Kind of exciting to have the honor of offering music appreciation as an elective course to our students! (*We are still looking for a biology/chemistry teacher, in case you know of anyone who is looking. I love my job, and definitely can recommend the program without hesitation, as I was there this whole past school year.)

String changing party

I’ve been thinking of setting a date to have a string-changing party together. Replacing strings has to be one of, if not the most, boring parts of being a string player. So if you think this too, hit me up in a comment or email and let’s find a time to change strings together on a live call, the more the merrier!

PS The next Museletter should be out shortly. Again, it will be a minimalist version, and to be quite frank, even more pared down than the last one. But I do promise an amazing freebie for you, which is a visualization I have made for string teachers, to help you focus your mind on any goal you are working toward, or just to be more focused in general if you don’t have something specific in mind. If you’re not already on the list for it, you can still get the last one from March for a couple more days until the June Issue comes out.

(Below are a few more pictures from our life in Suzhou.)

Warmly,

Bonny

Yipu Garden – small but charming.

Outside a Gusu district street festival.

The season for loquats has just ended, and now we are in Bayberry season.

Fresh bamboo shoots with a few dozen cloves of garlic.

The restaurant and pedestrian zone at the north side of Jinji Lake is back in full swing.

Art made by a student, exhibited at Suzhou Center Mall.

Sunset at Taihu on a recent visit to Xishan

A famous bridge near Panmen, in Suzhou ancient town.

 

String teacher progress in uncertain times

Dear String Teacher,

We know that what we do in our work sends ripples out into the world, helping people not only learn to make music, but it also gives people the chance to become more patient, better listeners, better at thinking, more able to manage the learning “process,” and more connected in our communities. Of course, learning to play strings gives folks a certain sense of accomplishment and personal satisfaction unlike any other activity! So give yourself some credit. There is nothing wrong in acknowledging the good that you are doing, the help you are giving — even in difficult times —  and the patience and perseverance that you put into your work.

Put a smile on right now, and please accept a huge virtual hug from me. I totally believe in what you are doing, and the power of music to change lives for the better.  See, I can do social distancing too!

Have you had a glass of water lately? Have one now, or a cup of tea. Have you stretched this hour? Do it now. Stand up, stand tall, breathe deeply.

In this time of worldwide turmoil, I believe our communities need us now as much as ever. Whether this is continuing to provide lessons via video-conference, phone or other means, is up to us and our students how to proceed. We should take moments out of our day to care for ourselves–our health and well-being are so important!

Our communities need us now as much as ever

Some of us have been teaching online for years, while others of us only last week got our feet wet or dove in head first venturing into the online teaching realm. From feedback I have received from all over the world, although there were a few people very hesitant to get online to teach, by and large the vast majority found it much better than what they had expected. It isn’t perfect, by any stretch of the imagination. (We string teachers are probably the one of the last professions to go “online”, dragging our feet practically kicking and screaming as the very nature of our work is so tactile, hands-on and personal! So don’t feel bad if you are a newbie to coming online. It is nothing to feel ashamed of.)

we love string teachers

Lag time still is an issue for many of us such that we haven’t figured out how to play in real time together but there are some workarounds — i.e. usable free and paid software — which addresses this very issue right now, making it possible to play together. That is right. Playing together online in real time is possible, so I have read. The article I read was by someone who said he still relied on cable (not WiFi) connection to achieve the necessary speed for this to work. It may need a certain amount of fiddling around with, to achieve the right setup with external microphone, interface and so on, but it sounded do-able, even for ordinary string teachers like me. I vow to solve this!

Games and involving the parents are two of the hottest trends

Another difficulty a lot of teachers are facing is that of teaching the very young and how to keep them engaged. There are so many amazing teachers sharing their tips and tricks, I am extremely heartened to see how much we all care about each other! Definitely games and involving teaching the parents right along with them are two of the hottest trends in making this work.

We might be able to convince them to keep taking lessons

When students promptly tell us “no,” that they aren’t going to continue by “online” learning, what are we going to tell them? Tell them off? I don’t think so. It would be better to graciously let them go even when it hurts. We can always leave the door open if we so choose. This isn’t any different to what I would do under ordinary circumstances. Always, always take the high road. But with a little love and open listening, we might be able to convince them to keep their lessons going. After all, how much time have they already invested in this, and aren’t they wanting to play it far into the future anyway? Some families may need some assistance in being shown how to use online lessons, as some may have never used any type of video conferencing before. How many of us were in the same boat until confronted with our current reality, to be fair? So a little extra patience, kindness and understanding may well be in order at this time to help students get set up. Open the (virtual) door for them.

I feel a bit sick, though,  at the fact that many of us are truly hurting now due to precarious financial situations made even more tenuous with people canceling lessons (an unnecessary luxury as seen in the eyes of many) and performance jobs being cut almost everywhere. Let’s face it. What we do for a living isn’t quite like fighting fires, nursing, working as a cashier in a supermarket or offering childcare to the front-line workers whose children need a safe place to stay while the front-line workers are on a shift. I would love to hear your creative ideas on how to secure our futures as private teachers while the world slows way, way down. After all, we are in this together.

From my end, I am mighty thankful that I did make the difficult decision to get back into teaching English while in China, to have a legal employer, besides teaching violin lessons. And I can only give high marks to my administrators for looking out for me and caring about the health and well-being of all our teachers and students through this. Their kindness is so very much appreciated!

Our work is like the threads invisibly weaving the fabric of our culture together

Our work in teaching strings is more like the rainbow of threads invisibly weaving the fabric of the culture together. It goes largely unnoticed by the majority yet it would be an entirely different world if it somehow went missing. I know we will carry on with our work as best we can, forging new ground and overcoming obstacles in creative ways. I was so very encouraged last week to meet up with many teachers open to taking their work online and break new ground to meet the needs of our students and communities. We can and we will overcome this age of uncertainty, just watch (and listen to) us!

Comments, criticism, feedback welcome as always. Use the comment form below. And…

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

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

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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

 

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!

 

String Teacher Moves to Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, China

This string teacher has moved house to Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, China.

Mostly I’ve been quiet in the blogosphere lately because after our wonderful student concert in Stuttgart (along with the lovely and very talented, kind & generous string teacher Cornelia Hierlinger and her student), I had to focus my attention on our move to Suzhou, Jiangsu Province in the People’s Republic of China.

Those of you who know me, know l am no stranger to China. I’ve taught and performed in China for ten years so far, so what’s three more in the big picture, after all? Plus, it will force me to brush up on my Mandarin skills. I love it when l can read some characters l had no idea l still knew. Memory is a funny thing; it seems very much like a computer sometimes in that skills and pictures get stored beyond our consciousness and are retrievable based on demand. I don’t mean you can just willfully call up something you think you forgot; it isn’t that simple, at least for me. But l do experience a place-based awareness which l believe is really a thing.

Like when l go back to my hometown, l know and recall all kinds of things l don’t have conscious access to when l’m overseas, largely because l don’t need it constantly, just when in that place.

With music though, l use it everywhere, and this special language never really gets lost as much as verbal language does. Could be that that’s because it’s something l use more constantly. I’m finding it easier to manage switching between German, English and Chinese now too. Just don’t ask me to be an official translator! That’s a whole different ball game and not one l am interested in jumping into. Of course, unofficially, l do it all the time.

So, in this blog l wanted to give you an update on SuperStrings Studio and what’s happening in my work life, the Royal String Teacher Association and a Museletter.

Although we’re living in Suzhou, Shanghai is something of a magnet pulling me happily back there with concerts to perform and friends to visit! Luckily for us there’s a fast train station nearby which has frequent trains taking just 20 minutes to Shanghai. For about the same price as what we had to pay to go from Böblingen to Stuttgart we can get to Shanghai about 50 miles away, and faster. (Overall it does take longer because foreigners have to show up in person at the station to buy tickets, which one does in advance or else face frequently sold-out trains if one waits till the last minute, and some destinations inside Shanghai take an hour or more to reach too.)

If you’re available, l would love to invite you to these wonderful concerts, all of which will take place in Pudong at the Shanghai Oriental Arts Center. I have to thank our good friend Stephan Brandel for inviting us to play music together with his ACMP friends. Through Stephan and colleagues from previous concerts I’ve played, I’m very grateful to be asked to play in these concerts.

Why do l sacrifice time away from building my business and teaching to perform in concerts? The answer is simple: it’s fun, even if it’s a lot of effort. The music is of a very high standard and l love the repertoire! It’s great to reconnect with colleagues and meet new ones. In short it soothes the soul and makes the world a better place. It’s nice to be paid and it’s also fun to show students what might be in their futures if they pursue it.

A Museletter arrived in early June 2019, the fifth issue, and continues to be a way to connect with other string teachers around the world, encouraging, supporting and generating a fun vibe for all engaged in string music education. The June 2019 edition features the incredible and lovely Wendy Velasco, a cellist and cello teacher with some fantastic things to say about music and how she teaches. In case you’re new to it, there’s no charge for a Museletter but it’s full of real teacher news, interviews, tips and inspiration. Since it’s a publication l produce out of love and compassion for our profession and the dear teachers who already sacrifice so much for our students, l offer this free of charge as a service each quarter to give back. My life has been immeasurably enriched by my students and their families; if l can share some of this wealth of knowledge and experience with you then l am very pleased to do so. The only thing it “costs” is your subscription by email, because l want to send it out only to people who truly want it. l put my heart and soul into it as well as a significant amount of time and effort (read: blood, sweat & tears). In case you’re on the fence and are wondering whether to subscribe or not, there’s no catch at all. That’s a promise. I am not going to spam you and won’t share your contact information with any third party except for the mail client Mailchimp, which l use to make pretty formatting and to send it out. I host the issues myself on SuperStrings Studio’s website. You can also unsubscribe at any time, no questions asked. But l hope you’ll fall in love with it and will look forward to reading it every three months!

As far as teaching, l thank my students and their families in Germany so much, as well as my dear colleague Cornelia Hierlinger and Sarah Kupke, Head of School at the International School of Stuttgart in Sindelfingen, for our work together and the beautiful experiences (and progress) we shared. I continue to teach a few by video conference and am excited to play concerts in the Shanghai Oriental Arts Center.

The Royal String Teacher Association is still taking shape and will become available later this year. Members receive

  • Monthly Super Topics which will dive deeper into subjects relevant to string teachers in the 21st century (only available to Royal String Teachers)
  • Live video round table discussions each month
  • Invitation to join a live meet up in China (possibly Germany and the US in future)
  • Collegiality, friendship, fun and support from me and other amazing members in a private group on Facebook
  • The ability to be matched with another teacher to have a professional colleague to pair with and be accountable to for any goal you’re working toward or just for general support
  • Option to participate in a self-evaluation certificate program to improve your teaching (no additional charge for members)
  • The chance to be part of something growing and keeping pace with the times using digital communications & social media to enhance our teaching and professional relationships

Founding members join at a ridiculously low price, which will remain permanently in effect as long as one continuously remains a member, even when the price increases for the second and subsequent membership offers, and even when additional valuable services and content are added!

There is also full transparency with the Royal String Teacher Association, as what is promised is what is delivered.

As far as readjusting to life in China, that’s an ongoing process but now that we have an apartment, things are starting to feel more at home. I’m also now the proud owner of a chocolate colored bike, not that I would’ve chosen the color but there was only this model, and it was the only one that looked like it would hold up. Most people in Suzhou either drive cars or ride electric scooters, and of those riding bikes, they mostly use free city bikes. (Non-carbon dependent transportation is something we all can use more of!) Those city bikes are also handy because you don’t need to worry about theft and can simply leave them when done with them.

After visiting the local court house for my husband’s work unit today, l was reminded how much bureaucracy l have endured so far in my life. I’m honored because without it l couldn’t have moved to Germany once and China three times. I think l’ve about earned a PhD in it by now! And there are myriad little things about daily life here that l won’t bore you with but are decidedly different from life in the west.

There is a period of adjustment to living in the middle kingdom, even though l have already spent ten years working in China. One good thing l can say with certainty is that the diet is better because it is so much more heavily plant-based. I seldom even have coffee any more, but when l do l can appreciate it so much!

How about your life in strings? Have you got recitals planned or an informal play-in for your friends or students? I’d love to hear from you in a comment!

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Why Validate String Students?

Three Easy & Honest Ways to Validate String Students

What does that mean, to validate students, anyway?

Validating students shows learners that they are of value, not only as customers, but that they are valuable as human beings. Everyone needs the feeling of validation, and giving this to students costs nothing but attention and a few seconds, yet this practice can do wonders for both learning and teaching.

Read the rest of this article in the fourth issue of a Museletter, coming out in March, 2019! (It’s free, & comes out each quarter.)

Get on the list & never miss a beat:

 

Why join the wait list for the Royal String Teacher Association?


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Today is an Earl Grey day in the life of the growing wait list for the Royal String Teacher Association. It snowed early this morning, leaving a beautiful sugar-coating on the wonderful world outdoors. And now, according to my plans, I’ve promised myself I’d write a blog. That’s one of my goals this year, to write blogs at least twice per month. The thing is, when I write a blog, it often takes days of revision to get it shaped into something worthy of your eyes. So for me, twice per month is a milestone! I’ll check back in on this intention in a year.

So what is RSTA? Simply put, the Royal String Teacher Association Worldwide helps string teachers all across the globe have more fun, earn more money and have more success than ever in their teaching.

 

 

Since time is always a commodity we never seem to get enough of, RSTA puts together amazing super-topics on a monthly basis to teach new skills and implement digital tools, helping you avoid overwhelm and stay on top of your teaching business.

Each month, members will receive training and inspiration on a relevant super-topic, in the form of a workbook and presentation (which is an educational workshop just for string teachers) to help with the ever changing day-to-day business of our teaching.

 

Members are invited to join live monthly video meetings – with real string experts and industry helpers – related to the super-topic and have access to replays of live events. The private member group is available at any time for members to ask questions, offer suggestions, give and receive support, and connect with other amazing string teachers all around the world.

I am so honored to have met a number of incredible, wonderful and inspiring teachers in 2018, through ESTA-Deutschland, the violin groups on Facebook like The Violin Guild, Facebook Violinists and International Music Teachers Exchange. For those of you I’ve met in person, whether playing chamber music or at a conference, I am super happy that we got to cross paths and am very thankful for you, more than you can know! For those of you whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting via video conference, or by phone, I thank you too, for your trust and your willingness to employ technology, some of you having used video conference for the very first time! And for many others, with whom I have exchanged a few comments or shared a laugh via forums, I thank you too. You add joy and value to all.

Receive a free printable on whether one needs to rehair the bow or not, right now to use with students, and get occasional updates (monthly or so) on this unique, first-of-its-kind opportunity to know more about RSTA! Just hit the button below and join the wait list for when the doors open for membership.

Note: we use MailChimp as our email host so be sure to whitelist bb at superstringsstudio dot com to receive your goodies!