When my daughter Ava was 5, she told us at breakfast that she felt the violin might be lonely in the next room while we ate our delicious food. After all, it was the most important meal of the day, right?
So, on a whim, I said we could take our breakfast to the next room to play some open strings and give the violin some company. This was the day Violin Breakfast was born in our family.
But here’s what I didn’t know at the time…I didn’t know it would start our morning off with beauty and connection. I didn't realize how much I could enjoy simple open string exercises and the uncomplicated sound of my own instrument. And I didn’t know it would end up being the biggest factor to my daughter’s progress and long-term happiness on the instrument. Here we are, five years later, and we are still doing our morning fundamentals... only now they have gotten a little more difficult and a LOT more fun.
I also didn't know that it would grow into an online community that has sustained our motivation through the pandemic.
This past fall, we started our fourth conservatory year together at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where I am on the Pre-College Faculty for violin and Ava is a student. Even though Ava has consistently studied with another teacher on faculty, we still have our love of fundamentals together and we never miss our daily session. Currently, that connection we are used to feeling in-person with other musicians at SFCM is on hold and has been for more than a year now.
As a homeschooler, Ava lived for Saturdays, when she got to walk to conservatory and spend time with her friends in the cafeteria, classes, and on stage. It has been such a difficult adjustment during the pandemic, and we know we aren't the only ones. The conservatory, like most music schools and studios I know, is going above and beyond to meet the needs of all the students and families. What we missed the most at the start of the year however was human contact, something unfortunately not easily replicated during a pandemic. At some point, we addressed our feelings and had a long talk. With concerts almost entirely online, goals needed to pivot and our focus shifted to mainly technique and unaccompanied works. Ava and I found ourselves developing more patterns and fun things to do in the morning to cheer ourselves up. We would share them on Instagram and Facebook and spread them in my private studio and in the technique class I teach to students at SFCM.
Many times over the last few years in San Francisco, I have considered taking our Violin Breakfast online to share it with other like-minded students or teachers. But something else always seemed to take priority. Then the pandemic hit.
During lockdown, Ava and I made a conscious effort to reconnect and deepen relationships with the students and families we knew online. With a newfound interest in starting a class, we worked thoughtfully to form an online community of students looking to boost their fundamental training together. Many students and families were feeling more isolated, without goals or concerts. They also just needed company. At a certain point, we realized that these feelings exist even when schools are in session -- because kids like this are prone to isolate and stay home practicing. The pandemic just made those feelings more palpable.
The more we put the word out about Violin Breakfast, the more responses we received. It was wonderful and surprising. We realized that this idea that we had put on the back burner for years was making its way to the top of our to-do list now. It was finally time. The word spread quickly and we received requests and questions from all over the world. I wondered, "How will we pick the right time for breakfast?"
I turned to my husband for moral support about the scheduling and he smiled and reminded me that breakfast was somewhere all the time. He talked about cruise ships and all-you-can-eat buffets. We laughed a lot, and I felt the tension and fear of failure lift. I had to stop thinking about it in a narrow way and just make it for everyone. I didn't need to understand everyone else’s time zone, only my own. He told me to let them work it out - and something just clicked.
At the end of the day, there is order in scales. There are patterns, and symmetry. I have always found refuge in them. I was one of those kids that loved puzzles, and prisms, symmetry, and finding patterns and numbers lining up everywhere. I would watch mirages appear in front of our car in fascination for hours as we drove to the beach each summer. And yes, when the world was too much, I would sit in my practice room playing scales and fundamentals.
In the end, we all have scales in common and everyone can agree at their importance and relevance to a young violinist’s daily work.
I just needed to start. And so I did.
As I started organizing registration, the process of building something new and involving people from so many time zones was daunting. I made so many lists, organized so many email chains, lesson planned for hours, studied zoom settings, and answered countless questions preparing for our first week. Instead of having a few classes a week, we invited people to join us every day. We practice our fundamentals every day, so class would be the same. I created a fee system for all-month access, so people could attend any live class and receive video replays to use in their practice.
The night before we started, I doubted myself and wondered if an email had fallen through the cracks, whether my methods of teaching would translate to children from so many different countries, and basically whether I had bitten off more than I could chew. I didn't sleep well that night, and I didn't know quite what to expect.
But we began our first day with a full class, and the feeling was powerful. The students were eager to learn, and truly excited to find a way to enjoy fundamentals. They grew wide-eyed as I introduced their fellow students from all around the globe: France, England, Italy, Australia, Japan, China, Iceland, Ukraine, Dubai, Belgium, the Netherlands, and even Vietnam. They connected immediately. They knew they weren't alone - and they soon realized, they never had been alone. Before long, there was a palpable culture of mindful practice. As soon as the videos went on, I could see the excitement in their faces. I thanked them for joining us every day. We needed their faces in our house, on our screen. After each class, Ava and I looked at each other, happy with what we started. She had created something so beautiful all those years ago when she invited the violin to breakfast! Our pandemic motivational fog was officially lifting.
Many decisions from those early days stuck, and they remain at the heart of Violin Breakfast.
For example, I don't require a set amount of live attendance a week. I also don't take attendance. I decided to teach whomever shows up, no questions asked. I could see who attended most often, but more than that I could see their progress. As a teacher and a mother, I came to appreciate their choice simply to be there with us. Some kids came EVERY day. It felt like a daily affirmation of their commitment to their instrument and to their own growth.
Another early decision was asking them to share their work and ideas with me via my phone. Soon I found my texts full of scales and bowing patterns. Sure, it might sound like an A major scale to a normal person but I see beautiful round spiccato with correct sounding point and a straight head. I am always here for that!
BELOW: Here is the huge celebration we had for our 250th "Violin Breakfast" class, which I did live on Facebook:
To keep morale high during such a difficult time, I developed themed classes to celebrate different holidays. We had a spooky Halloween class, holiday classes, and this month a Vibrato Workshop to celebrate Valentine's Day. We do monthly Dance Party classes, templating disco and tango rhythms into our scales. We also have Violin Petfest, inviting our furry friends into our practice space with us. As fun as these classes are, I make them challenging and include high-level exercises to reinforce the idea that you can have a lot of fun while doing very high-level things.
I also decided to teach most of the class without a score. If I do use a score, I share it in class to build their knowledge of a fingering template or pattern, and then we play without. I wanted to them to experience the freedom of being off-score with their fundamentals, so they could put their focus on their body, breathing, and posture. So much can be gained by shifting our focus to our bodies, and it can be so distracting to be in front of a stand. We use bow clips to organize our bow and develop bow mapping techniques. We use our screens to check angles in our playing.
Most importantly, I've prioritized disposition and mindset. Yes, the exercises could be hard. But no, we would not repeat them into tension. When we needed to break things down, we did it. We showed patience for one another. I made plenty of mistakes in front of them and in recordings, and I let them see me take it in stride. I took a lot of questions and I listened to a lot of demonstrations, giving live comments and suggestions. I wanted them to be challenged just enough to feel the power of achievement but not feel overwhelmed. To do that, we used graphics, color charts, videos for inspiration and counted on one another to produce a group disposition and mindset for success. Their creativity was contagious, and I never let a child-led suggestion fall by the wayside. With their help, I was able to create a space that had the promise of a consistently healthy mindset and creative disposition.
By the end of 2020, the students had mastered all of their three-octave scales and were conquering four octaves too. I created bowing patterns and bow mapping exercises that would scare any collegiate student - yet these kids would take them and somehow eat them for breakfast (pun intended!). They were bright-eyed, willing to make mistakes in front of each other, and wanting to make the exercises even more interesting. They offered ways to expand the exercises and increase the difficulty. Often I presented an exercise, wondering if they would be willing to meet the challenge, and then I left class being challenged myself but full of energy.
Certain exercises were a total hit in class with all of the kids, igniting their motivation to get the violin up on the shoulder and EXPLORE. As they became more comfortable with contributing ideas and collaborating, the exercises expanded and the class grew in enthusiasm. I worked with them to create exercises and patterns in bowings that challenged them while retaining a sense of tactile beauty to promote artistry.
In response to this, I started a workshop entitled Bow Lab, where we examined what makes a great pedagogical exercise. I invited them to write their own patterns for three- and four-octave scales to then show to the class. We identified and reviewed their favorite Violin breakfast exercises as examples for them to explore why they worked so well and what made them special. I outlined how I had come up with each of them. Their presentation to the class was to include a demonstration, a graphic, and an engaging speech complete with what makes it useful, fun, and inspiring for the player. They surprised me with full “Shark Tank”-inspired pitches that "sold" each pattern to be considered for classes in 2021.
The kids became a lot closer, going to these extra lengths in class together, so we formed a community directory to encourage pen pals and friendships. Every Saturday, a small international group now meets on their own on Zoom to practice running through their pieces. They text and email each other ideas all week long.
As a teacher, I have grown so much from starting this online community. My playing has certainly become stronger (demonstrating four-octave scales in patterns for replays will do that for you!) but also I have gained a new faith in the power of community. I am so proud of these kids and the Violin Think Tank they represent. They hail from all over. They are the future, and they should know that they are never alone in their journeys. We are creating memories together every day that will last in my family for years. I will always look back at lockdown and remember their bright faces and the joy they brought to our house.
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