Every teacher needs a little inspiration now and then.
Happily, continuing education opportunities abound for violin teachers, and last weekend I was able to take some time to attend a workshop held at the Colburn School by the Suzuki Music Association of California. Every February the group holds a teacher workshop, in keeping with Suzuki's idea that teachers should also be lifelong learners.
This year, Charles Krigbaum, a Suzuki teacher trainer and the founder of the North Texas School of Talent Education in Plano, spent Sunday and Monday teaching us some strategies for involving parents, making videos at lessons to help with home practice sessions, teaching some specific techniques to young children, and dealing with the business side of having a private studio.
Learning Suzuki violin with a small child is no small commitment, and it's up to teachers to communicate exactly what it means.
"You can't sneak your expectations onto parents, after they've signed up," Krigbaum said.
Parents of Suzuki students need to know their substantial role in their children's music lessons. "Suzuki is not a drop-off activity," he said. After all, beginning Suzuki students are often as young as three years old, so working with this age group requires special consideration. Someone who can't read or write can't take notes, can't be expected to practice on his or her own -- they need considerable guidance!
Parents of young Suzuki students are expected to:
Something Krigbaum said repeatedly was, "Anything that's not going to happen by accident must be planned." It's up to the teacher to plan things and check that the plans are being followed.
Modern technology can help us greatly with practice -- he suggested that parents use their phones to record weekly practice videos with their teachers.
"If Suzuki were alive, there is no doubt that he would have a Youtube channel," Krigbaum said. Krigbaum makes a short video every week, for every student, and he asks that they listen to it at the beginning of every practice session. The video helps them remember exactly what was assigned and perhaps contains a few specific exercises. The video is also a way to make the teacher present at every practice session, and it takes some pressure off of the parents when it comes to enforcing what they are supposed to be practicing.
Krigbaum also did a master class with three young beginners (around age 5) and had all kinds of ideas for helping them to play correctly while keeping age-appropriate. I'll share one that I thought was especially helpful. A girl named Djuna played Bach's Minuet 1 for us, which he followed with some good descriptive praise, "I liked your concentration," he said, "you made this seem easy, and it's not really that easy!" He noticed a problem in her left hand that is extremely common, especially in beginners: a bent thumb that was grabbing the neck somewhat. This common problem can be difficult to fix -- and stay fixed!
"This glob right here is your thumb muscle," he explained to her, pointing to the prominent muscle at the base of his own thumb. "It needs to go down." They found her thumb muscle, then on her muscle he drew an arrow downward, with green pen. "Now make your hand squishy, so I can shape it like Play-do..." and he fixed her thumb on the violin, so that the muscle was pointing down. (It seemed helpful to talk about the muscle, rather than the thumb itself.) It looked great, and she was able to keep it that way. She went over and showed her dad, who took a picture. Then he had her look at his own left thumb on the violin. Is it right? He purposely made it wrong, so she could fix it.
He asked, "Is my thumb muscle squishy, or is it a rock?" He showed her the difference between a tensed muscle and a relaxed one. Then he had her make her thumb muscle into a rock, but when he tapped it, she was supposed to make it squishy. "Keep sending your hand soft thoughts," he said.
This exercise assigned age-appropriate words for talking about this problem, and it also provided a physical way to fix it -- with some reinforcement, in the future a teacher could simply tap the thumb to make it go "squishy" when the student is tensing.
Of course, the squishy thumb in the violin hand made the bow hand go a bit limp as well, so they practiced trying to stay "squishy" with the violin but firm with the right.
"You can practice any song to practice squishy thumb and strong bow; start with Twinkle," he told her.
Great to have a new idea to help with the ever-present thumb problems!
Another topic that Krigbaum addressed over the weekend was the business of music. He teaches entire workshops on this topic, and after hearing his encouraging ideas, I'd highly recommend them to teachers. Among his ideas: charge a living wage, charge by the month, be clear, raise tuition yearly to keep up with the cost of living, etc. In a nutshell: "Charge enough to make a comfortable living, and get paid the right amount, on time, by everyone," he said, adding, "accepting payments by the lesson is a recipe for poverty." He advises setting equal monthly payments for a set number of lessons (he does 30) from Sept. through May. He recommended keeping in the range of what other teachers of similar background charge, and reminded everyone that "it is not wrong to be paid a salary that reflects your education, skills and worth."
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