There is another aspect to tone that heavily influences and even overshadows the previous two essays. As a string teacher advocate, I will now focus on how we can nudge ourselves into becoming better teachers by becoming aware of the tone in our life.
There is a way in which we go about our day-to-day lives, with the tone we carry, influencing our general outlook, as well as the decisions we make. There is also the tone we use while thinking. “ How do I sound, in my mind, when I go about my daily life? Am I bossy, mean, kind, or something in-between? Am I harsh or hard on myself? Am I perfectionistic, or contemplative, gentle, artistic or hopeful? Perhaps I am forward-thinking, creative, or possibly giving and forgiving. Have I even noticed my tone? Should I? “
“Yes.” However, the tone I most want to consider is not the negative one when we are concerned about how we look, how a student’s lack of practice or progress reflects on us, or how we felt when we made a mistake or looked foolish. That is our worst tone. It takes us out of the moment and away from our highest values. It prevents us from focusing our attention and mind on the external, the needs of the student in front of us. The type of tone I want us to consider is the one which helps us have an ease and flow and is conducive to reaching our mission as string teachers, a goal which each of us has to define for ourselves.
I’m aware that many people think their thoughts with words–a kind of running commentary–though others think more in terms of intuition, feeling, color, shape, or perhaps a synthesis of all of this. I believe there is a vibrational hum to the tone of our thoughts, conscious and subconscious, verbal and non-verbal.
I will start by noticing the tone I use with myself– the tone I allow to run my life.
For me, the tone humming along in the background of my consciousness (okay, sometimes it reaches the forefront too) has evolved over the course of my life. I’ve become aware that my tone is constantly present, though it wanders in and out of focus. I don’t really want to notice it all the time. It’s as if I’m in a boat, a metaphor for my life, and the sails are the tone that move it along with the wind. “I may not be able to control the force of the wind, but I can, however, adjust my sails.” It’s possible to notice if there is something influencing the tone I’m using. The big difference between running on autopilot and noticing or improving my personal tone is that I have a say in how I handle my sails, my tone, no matter how placid or turbulent the wind.
I notice a marked difference if I redirect my mind when my tone starts to wander into pessimism (which happens more often that I’d like to admit.) I’m convinced we can consciously alter this vibration by choosing the tone we use.1 Have you ever been terse with yourself and something has gone from bad to worse just because of how you thought about it? I have. I see it sometimes with my students, too. The opposite is also true. When I take a breath and give myself a moment to encourage myself, it allows the time to pause and reset from the negative thought. It helps me return to doing my best work, living my best life, and caring more about others. When I give enough attention to this, I begin to discover, or to consciously develop, my optimal tone. Optimal tone is the one which works with my highest values and not against them. It supports and connects with the creativity I need to serve my ultimate purpose. Purpose is something which each of us has to decide for ourselves.
Because I have had years of experience as a public school orchestra teacher, I know sometimes it’s hard to bring our tone back to one that is truly supportive and caring, especially when we’ve gotten used to accepting more responsibilities than we probably should, or we’ve developed the habit of ignoring our personal and even professional needs. It should not be that way, yet I am fully aware of the realities we face when trying to manage two, three, four or more schools, teaching hundreds of pupils with often far less than adequate facilities and conditions. I spent six years in a poor district wrought with poverty, gangs, and drugs and I am deeply grateful for what I have learned from leading their string orchestra program—a light in the darkness, I hope. I empathize with the thousands of string orchestra teachers who work in similarly poor conditions. To my mind, there should be a special presidential honor going to string teachers for this dedication because the mostly unrecognized good they do spreads out into the entire community and beyond. This is all the more reason to take care of our internal tone.
When I haven’t thought about the tone I use with myself, perhaps it’s because I’m always on the go, running from one demand to another, with no time for thinking at all except about what’s next and how to pull it together. However, right now is possibly the best time to slow down and consider it. I should find some time to check in with myself, to carefully observe the tone that threads my thoughts throughout the days, weeks, months, and even years of giving to the community as a string teacher. When I take care of my own tone, I’m able to develop the tools I need to advocate for those of my teaching program and their needs. In short, taking care of my own tone will help me take better care of myself, thus making me a better teacher.
When I was a child, I had a little friend named Melissa, a neighbor who lived in a tattered apartment with “so-called” parents who wasted their resources on drugs instead of providing food and a clean home. When I was just eight or nine years old, I felt tormented by my friend’s situation, both of us rather powerless to do anything about it. I remember pleading with her on a spiritual level, begging her to love herself, that she really had to care about her own dear little self despite the interminable and horrendous circumstances of her life, and toward that end, I taught her to read.
What I didn’t realize then was that teaching her to read helped her focus on something external that could really help her in the future and take her mind off the terrible situation at home. It was a tool she would use for her future schooling. Teaching people to read and play music is also something people absolutely can use to help themselves take their minds off other problems, even to help them become more efficient, and settle themselves down. I know many business executives and CEOs who learned to play a stringed instrument and continue to keep at least an hour or more per week for themselves for private practice. It helps them stay mentally fit and brings rigor to their ability in dealing with the demands of running companies.
If we are in this occupation for any length of time, we all come across similar cases where the student in front of us has gotten stuck in a negative pit. This is the perfect moment to alter the student’s awareness with the simple interruption, “Are you thinking about the music or are you thinking about yourself?”2
When we assist someone to turn his attention toward “how” to make music—whichever aspect needs attending at the moment—and away from his embarrassment, he can forget himself. The tone of his thoughts snaps back into place, outside himself, onto the music, and once again in the flow of learning. I’m not a perfect teacher and don’t claim that I always know the best thing for the student at every juncture, but I do know that with time and experience, we do increase our ability to determine (spontaneously) what really does work with a particular person in the moment, and to change direction quickly when we see something isn’t working.
Sometimes a teacher wants to end the lessons when it seems the student is just not paying attention, not ready for, nor interested, in what is being offered. Instead, try to looking at it under a new light. Here’s the opportunity on a silver platter to consider our own tone. “Am I focusing on my desires for the student or for myself, or am I focusing on what the student actually needs?” When there is such a mismatch of expectations, as in the student not ‘getting’ my instruction or doing what I expect, I find that I have to probe further with the student to find out what he’s most interested in learning. Do I even know what type of music he and his family like to listen to? I should find out. Have I ever given him something appealing in the music genre he wants to learn? I can do that. This can turn things around fast. Have I ever tried to play a musical game with him or let him take the lead in some small way? Doing this can elicit trust, confidence and smiles. We usually know which pieces we want to teach to enable the student to gain certain skills, but would it really hurt to throw in a few pieces to spur his interest or let him learn something he’s actually listening to? Have I ever asked him what kind of music he really likes? It’s a question I should ask. How important is it for the student to attend conservatory or perform in a competition? Is it even a consideration for him or is it more important to me, the teacher or to his parents, rather than something he actually wants?
When we make room for the needs and desires of the human before us, it also helps us with the tone we use with ourselves. That’s because teaching is a cyclical experience that involves direct interaction and feedback from the student: teach, observe, assess, refine, reflect, repeat. And what we say outwardly is more often than not a direct reflection of the tone we are using with ourselves.
Feedback need not only be one-way (teacher to student) because it’s necessary to be able to read what the student gives back to us when we teach. When I observe that a student isn’t progressing or practicing as much as I’d like, it’s time to assess my teaching and what I’m not doing to facilitate the student’s motivation. In this case, I’ve missed a piece of the feedback loop. However, I don’t need to be hard on myself in order to adjust my sails and refine my approach, and the tone of my thoughts in making a change. It’s a normal, proper, necessary part of teaching to reflect on and refine our work. Change is inevitable. Our thoughts aren’t set in stone unless we ignore what we’re doing. And therein lies a danger in teaching. When a teacher never reflects on his tone with himself or with others, let alone the tone that he produces on an instrument, he stunts his opportunity for growth as a human and thus as a teacher.
Actually, many wonderful teachers naturally engage in this process and nearly always address the student’s needs, some even going to the extreme of completely customizing a program of study to an individual student. Some of us even create entire methods and systems to try to personalize and improve on the learning materials we can collectively provide. This is an example of being in harmony with our tone and allowing it to help us serve the learner.
Why should I care about focusing the tone of my life onto the student? Because if I’m kind in my tone toward myself and my own learning, I’ll also want this for my student in order to maximize his learning potential and to help him value his own contributions. Remember, teaching is a cyclical process. Personally, I feel in no way bound to any fixed method of instruction, progress, examinations, or levels, except when it’s something agreed upon with the student. Even then, as the authority in the room on the subject of teaching violin, I offer flexibility. My tone is usually very pliable, resilient even, when necessary. More often than not, I find myself combining proven teaching methods with the needs of the individual student. I have found that when my tone is balanced and I’m focused on the needs of the learner, there’s an ease and creativity that functions as a powerful wind to fill my sails and to propel and enrich my most effective teaching. May you also enjoy connecting with and hearing the richness of the tone of your life.
Did you enjoy this article? Feel free to share it. AND, just for you, get a Museletter, the string teacher inspirational quarterly which is filled with positivity and ideas you can use. It’s free, ad-free, comes with a no-spam guarantee and hatches just once per quarter.
2 From an anecdote told by Eloise Hellyer, life-long string educator and author of 1 Teaches, 2 Learn, now available exclusively on Shar in both digital and paperback!
3 Huge thanks to Eloise Hellyer and Betsy Hornik for their editing!2
Tone has another side that’s too often missed, hence this post. (Part I is the previous post on this blog.) What happens when we dictate everything we want as teachers for the student, and don’t notice our own tone in the process? What happens when we demand things from the parents of our students if we overlook their overloaded, overworked, stressed, or just plain ordinarily tiring lives? Our message gets lost, is what happens.
As teachers we should not only deliver great content, but we have to become aware that students are human beings with lives and needs extending far beyond what we see in the lesson. We don’t need to know everything about them; however, what we often struggle with is remembering to consider that our students and their families have demands on them, needs, expectations and lives going on outside of their instrumental music-learning. Life is messy. Students and their families are not spared from this.
So instead of rushing to a conclusion about why a student isn’t progressing the way we hope he would–or even worse, asking him to leave our studio—let’s try to be aware that there are reasons for everything, including our interpretation of poor progress. Let me first consider my own tone: am I really aware of the person I was hired to teach? Is my tone coming from my ego, hoping to serve my wish for wonderful, hours-long practicing, unfailingly devoted, competition-winning students (to make me look good), or is my tone coming from a place of kindness and love?
Obviously, there is a time and a place for being firm with students and standing up for standards in our teaching and for ourselves. That isn’t the tone I’m talking about here.
We teachers occasionally forget we are not teaching in a vacuum, and the tone becomes one of “I think this, therefore everyone should also think the same.” This happens when we don’t bother to re-read or revise what we wrote, nor attempt to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes before posting. It is even a possibility that we choose to refrain from posting something at all, keeping our opinions to ourselves, once we look at our tone from another perspective. Tone matters enormously and it’s something which is all too easy to get wrong or for readers or listeners to misunderstand if we don’t give it a second thought. Heck, it’s still easy to be misunderstood after four or five revisions.
My advice for prospective students would be to take some time to look up public threads where string teachers discuss their work and form their own opinion about what sort of tone they would want from a teacher. I tell people all the time that they should find a good teacher, but first try to find out their personality before making a long-term commitment. Will it be a teacher who has the ‘my way or the highway’ approach, or will it be a teacher who’s willing to meet the student where the student is right now?
Tone is also reflected perfectly in how we engage with our fellow teachers. We most certainly aren’t alone teaching in the 21st century. Wherever we reside on this planet, we have colleagues, when connected to the internet, and even when not. The way we are with each other, with colleagues known and unknown, is a part of our working life.
Collegiality is the idea of making a shared working environment both amicable and productive, as well as somewhere we’re able to listen and be listened to. In other words, tone is also the way we use words when we talk to or write to each other. (Read more about collegiality in the corporate environment here >>Collegiality.) Are we going to rely mainly on socially acceptable yet rather impersonal e-communication or would we rather set the tone of approachability and welcome a conversation?
Appearance isn’t everything
Although we’re told that appearance is everything, what we look like and what we show people (also online) is not who we are. How we look is just the box that delivers a present. Have you ever received a beautiful present, wrapped with fancy, colorful paper, tied up with a gorgeous bow, and got disappointed by what was inside because it was something unequal to the outside? To put it another way, our tone is what people discover when they open the box.
Think about the saying, “People forget what you teach them, but they never forget how you made them feel.” Some give people doubt, anger, overload, and fear just because they lack awareness of their tone; others give the opportunity for joy, beauty, hope, and kindness. Tone is that ethereal, exquisite thing that shows the world who we really are, whether coming from our instrument, from our voice, or even from the words we choose. So, we really need to take the time to re-read any text we plan to give to our students or their families, or even what we (might) post on social media.
Someone long ago posed a few questions to ask before posting online, which bear repeating or even placing on the wall next to our workspace, because they’re useful for all sorts of communication. These are certainly worth framing!
>>Frame-worthy Questions to test my message:
- Is it relevant?
- Is it necessary?
- Is it kind?
- Could it be condensed?
- Would I say it out loud to someone? (Would I speak this way to my mother?)
Though we’re living in the information age, it’s more like we’re living in the TMI-age (too much information age), so wherever we can squeeze the best out of our tone to streamline it, make it kinder, more accurate, and more relevant, we should do it! If we want to grow into our best teaching selves, our tone needs to reflect an awareness of others, as well as serving our own teaching needs. The above questions can help guide our message and our tone.
The thing is, each one of us can choose to make the free and conscious effort to improve our teaching tone and grow into being the leader that teaching requires of us. Let us learn to be kind and creative, with our voices and our instruments, using the thoughtful tone our students need most.
If you haven’t grabbed your September Museletter yet, swipe yours here! >>Museletter133
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)
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 Museletter1
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.
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.
Finally, exasperated, and ready to give up, someone mentioned to me about the North Bennet Street School of Violin Making. As a last resort, I tried not to get my hopes up too high, but actually the department head was willing to give it a try, to glue it without removing the top, also with no guarantee. I cannot recall what I ended up paying but it was a fraction of what the others had demanded. In the end, it worked! You could see some small lines where it was glued, but in the many years since, it has never once opened along those cracks.
Since I am opening up my heart here and sharing my clumsiness in the public blogosphere, I will now tell you about the second time this happened, in Germany. This time it was at the end of teaching a lesson.
Trying to convince myself that the damage was not too bad
The child had finished, she was already packed and ready, and there was something she had asked for that prompted me to open my violin a second time. Only the problem was that this time, having been distracted by something else, I did not close it properly and zip it up. So, when I finally did intend to leave and picked the case up by its handle the whole thing went plummeting down onto the floor. This floor was wood, but that was not soft enough to cushion such a blow. My face must have conveyed the utter loss I felt in the moment, for the student yelped out “Ms Buckley, is everything okay?!” (It wasn’t.) I just lied and said don’t worry, it would be okay, probably trying to convince myself more than her.
I did not know what the future would hold in this case, as the break seemed much worse than the earlier one. But I did know a fine luthier, Susanne Müller, who lived in our county of Böblingen, near Stuttgart. I took it to her in fear of the worst, but she was willing to try to salvage the instrument. She also would not guarantee anything, but I was only able to hope for the best once again, as I did not see any other way forward. This time the bill was much higher, but it was absolutely worth every penny.
A second miracle
It was returned repaired and glued back together with some rib-stitches (ouch!). In the end, to my sheer amazement, it never sounded better. I am definitely not saying to go out and break your fiddle, (but if, in the off chance it should happen, try not to worry too much unless it’s smashed to smithereens).
Wood, in my experience, is an incredibly forgiving, long-lasting, and malleable material. We should be so grateful for the wonderful, time-enduring trees which gave us the raw material for our beloved fiddles.
Take the string teacher census yet? Find it right here >> String Teacher Worldwide Census
Did you know that I publish a free quarterly letter just for string teachers? Get a Museletter now and don’t let this fabulous resource pass you by! >>a Museletter1
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.
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.)
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.)
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!
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.)
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.
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.
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!1
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:
Notice: Undefined variable: fblikecode in /home/superstr/public_html/wp-content/plugins/wp-fb-share-like-button/wp-fb-share-like-button.php on line 751
Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type null in /home/superstr/public_html/wp-content/plugins/wp-fb-share-like-button/wp-fb-share-like-button.php on line 751
Notice: Undefined variable: fblikecode in /home/superstr/public_html/wp-content/plugins/wp-fb-share-like-button/wp-fb-share-like-button.php on line 753
Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type null in /home/superstr/public_html/wp-content/plugins/wp-fb-share-like-button/wp-fb-share-like-button.php on line 753
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.
December 27, 2017
When someone outside the profession of string music education learns that I am a violin teacher, there is often a reaction of “oh you must be so patient, to listen to all the mistakes” or something similar. Perhaps there is a tiny measure of truth in that, but it isn’t like you’d think.
I remember back in high school when a band teacher complained that he didn’t like going to concerts because he couldn’t really enjoy them as he heard all the tiny flaws. I also remember thinking, how sad for him, because what a pathetic life one would live as a teacher of music and being so wrapped up in hearing the mistakes that one couldn’t enjoy concerts! I knew at that moment that he was missing something important.
First of all there is no perfect concert. Second of all, everyone has to go through the learning process who wants to become a musician. This involves making some mistakes (and hopefully intentionally learning from them).
As a teacher we do much more than teaching how to make nice sounds, because it isn’t that simple to get good sounds, especially from stringed instruments. There is so much more one has to learn with one’s body to get those sounds and to take care of ourselves while doing this.
Listening, after all, is done with the whole body and not only with the ears.
Many people might be startled to learn that children actually hear more with their bodies than their ears until around seven years old. It’s one of the reasons they love to climb and be on us, to get closer, to feel our sound vibrations. You can feel them too if you allow yourself to and focus on this. It’s pretty amazing how different tones seem to react more strongly in different parts of the body.
The second part of listening is something I believe to be metaphysical yet unique to people: listening with one’s heart or soul. A child’s off key song, for example, might not be worthy of being performed on a stage, but if we are listening with our hearts it surely brings a moment of enjoyment into our lives, unless we’re listening only with the mean “searching for mistakes” kind of listening. It all depends on where we put our focus.
As a teacher we listen for what we can build upon and take it from there. We do have to use the kind of listening which hears the mistakes, it is true, but it doesn’t have to obliterate the enjoyment or intention for top-level instruction and improvement. The critical listening we use as teachers can (and should) be done kindly, respectfully and lovingly. In this sense it is always rewarding because there is as much potential for growth and development as for the intrinsic joy of helping others to learn to create something beautiful.
© 2017 SuperStrings Studio