I haven't been blogging recently because I've been in Cleveland where my father is having heart surgery. He is a patient at the Cleveland Clinic, where he had mitral valve repair. The operation went well and he's recovering strongly, and should be able to go home next week. I've been in a guest house next to the clinic for several days with my mom, and now it's time for me to go home and my brother to come take my place.
I'd never been to Cleveland before apart from visiting a college friend in the suburbs over 10 years ago.
The Cleveland Clinic is centrally located, and it's not far from both Case Western Reserve and the Cleveland Institute of Music, which I saw for the first time yesterday. Both are beautiful campuses from what I saw driving by and I was thinking of the v.commies who went or are going to one of those great places in the future.
The vibrant musical atmosphere in Cleveland is in evidence at the Clinic. Classical music plays in the lobby near the main entrance--and I mean truly classical with some baroque thrown in. It's usually violin music, too, making me feel wistful for having left my instrument a thousand miles away. The Clinic has a choir. Our ICU nurse coordinator was a member of this choir, who treated us to a half-hour concert on Wednesday at noon, which was right while my dad was having his surgery. There wasn't much to do at that time but tensely wait, and it helped to have the concert to listen to.
My father was given a CD of guided imagery accompanied by classical music to listen to during the pre-op and post-op recovery period. The caregivers stressed several times that listening to this CD would help with pain management and recovery. My father is not a musician and he rarely listens to music of any kind on his own. But he bought a cheap CD player on doctor's orders. I wish I could report that even he was won over by the music, but he wasn't. He listened to the CD part way through and pronounced it "boring." We bought him a non-fiction audiobook instead, which he is going to try today. Nine hours of Thomas Friedman's "The World is Flat." Updated version.
The Clinic also has a website where you can update a patient's status and family and friends can log in to check it. As the blogger in the family, I was given the job to update my dad's. It became a little obsessive for a while, I'd run to the terminal and update for every little thing: when he was off bypass, when he'd moved into and out of the ICU, when he first got up and walked around the room. But our family is distributed all over the world, from Seattle to rural Pennsylvania to Hong Kong, and people checked in, and appreciated it.
I called home and as I suspected, the kids are running my husband a bit ragged. While I'm not there my daughter hasn't practiced her violin once. My husband is wondering if it's too late to put them up for adoption. The work emails are piling up so thick I'm afraid to log on. Sitting here in my violinist.com T-shirt at the guest house terminal, it's time to go home.
This blog is inspired by the thread, Teaching Tips, and some conversations I've had over the weekend with other parents of kids in the public school string program where my 3rd-grade daughter is currently learning violin. (The title is meant tongue-in-cheek ;-)
There was a nice orientation at the beginning of the school year aimed at getting parents involved, and at that time the string teachers passed out little pink note cards called "What a Parent Can Do" with bullet points describing what a 30-minute practice session should be like. I saved this card and have found it useful, but it doesn't seem to me like the overall plan for parent involvement is really working on a broad scale.
Instead, what I'm finding in conversations is that many parents, especially non-musician parents but even others like me who ostensibly play an instrument themselves, are still pretty clueless when it comes to helping their kids practice. They assume, because they're not musicians, that they have nothing to say and can't help.
And, honestly, there is a small kernel of truth to this idea, one that I don't think the "rah-rah" get-involved language of the orientation really addresses. It's not really ignorance, it's fear. I was called upon one winter evening to help a neighbor's kid's viola. The mother called me, knowing I played the instrument, frantic, because "something happened to it and it's totally messed up!" When I got there, all that I found was a very out-of-tune viola, with one of the strings loose and slack. It looked like one or more of the pegs had slipped. I tuned it back up, felt good that I was able to help and that it was such an easy fix. Not even a broken string. But that girl and her mother, seeing that loose, slack string, were scared. They feared that this expensive, complicated instrument they had rented from the nice people who came to the school at the beginning of the year was BROKEN. And they were going to get in trouble, have to pay hundreds or dollars for it, or both.
As the child of non-musicians, one who started learning the violin in a public school string program much like this one, I was once in that same boat, and I can sympathize. I was scared of my rental violin too for a while when I was a kid: it belonged to some strange adults, and people were always telling me to "be careful" with it, something that as a clumsy, uncoordinated, non-athletic child who often dropped things, I wasn't very good at, in any context. And in fact, the bridge on my first rental 1/2-size violin broke in half midway through the year and had to be replaced. (I don't remember how that happened. Probably repressed it.)
I took my daughter to Johnson String Instrument yesterday to try out a 3/4 size violin, which they confirmed she needs. When I mentioned my price range, $500 or less for an outfit, they suggested renting. We discussed the relative merits of renting vs. buying for a few minutes. When my daughter got into the room with all the violins and had one in her hand, all her shyness and introversion came back. She wouldn't play it. I asked the friendly, helpful salesman if he would mind stepping out of the room. He smiled, said "not at all," and left. She then tried a few squeaks that sounded a little like Frere Jacques and wailed "Nooo! I don't want to play here! I want to play at home! I want to buy a violin, and I want tapes!" (meaning the tapes on the fingerboard for the fingers).
So I played the 3/4 violin for a few minutes and confirmed that it sounded much better than "Lucy," the 1/2-size VSO she has now. I've played Lucy too, more than I care to, and I know she has to work too hard to get a robust sound out of Lucy. But that doesn't matter to her. She doesn't want to give up Lucy (and Rocky, the bow). Or if she does, only for "someone" new that is really HERS FOREVER. And under no circumstances does she want to rent anything from the nice people who come to the school at the beginning of the year.
So, I thank the nice, friendly salesman when he comes back. I tell him we're just looking and that we have to talk it over with my husband. I also mention that although I agree with him about the sensible-ness of renting, my daughter wants to own. I know also in the back of my mind that there is no way in he** that my husband (a non-musician software engineer whose thoughts on the matter closely resemble most of the other non-musician parents I've talked to) will agree to paying $685, which is how much it would cost to buy the outfit that we tried out. I go home and look at the Shar catalog. This page makes me feel much better.
So, what about practicing, and the role of parents? I'm still just making it up as I go along here, but I think I'm coming to some general rules of what works and what doesn't, at least for my daughter and maybe for other non-virtuoso, non-prodigy, "normally" talented kids. The parents' role is to address and smooth over the *emotional* context of violin learning first and foremost. Sure, it's nice if you can tune the viola in the middle of the night, or evaluate a nice-sounding non-VSO, but that's not essential. What is essential is addressing the kid's fears and insecurities in a caring way that doesn't make them feel bad or stupid or scared. No musical training or talent is required for that.
The other piece that seems missing here is written records. I started keeping a practice log and lesson log as an adult, only recently when I started playing again after an 8-year break. I find it very useful, essential really, to have something written down to remember what I am working on and to keep myself on track between lessons and even from one practice session to the next one, the following day. The classroom teachers in other subjects like reading and math seem to get this too. They give out written assignments, have kids keep nightly reading logs, and so forth. But from the music teachers, there's nothing. I have to figure out for myself or rely on my daughter to tell me what she's working on--not just pieces, but also "issues" (high 2's, crunchy bow strokes, rhythm, music reading, pretty much "the usual" for beginners, but anyone who didn't play violin wouldn't necessarily know any of this).
My own violin education was pretty much the same. I did have one teacher in high school who encouraged me to write down what he called "TTR's" ("things to remember") after lessons. That was a good idea in theory, and his advice actually inspired my current practice log, but at the time he had me doing it in a music manuscript book which didn't have any space for writing words, and made it almost impossible to read or organize. And it was haphazard, there wasn't any continuity or checking. For example, we never followed up on last week's TTR's in the following week's lesson. I think I ended up stopping doing them because I didn't get the point, it just seemed like more busywork.
I have worked with conductors, too, who don't tell you what you're going to be rehearsing from week to week. Orchestras who don't mark parts beforehand have been discussed recently on this forum.
It seems to me that this problem of lack of written records and teaching aids goes all the way back to elementary school, to the very beginnings of string teaching. Maybe because music is, well, *auditory* in its very nature, it doesn't occur to people who are steeped in it all day that many learners don't retain and internalize important lessons very well with only that one kind of input. It even feeds back into the "fear" issue that I wrote about above. From my own experience I know that I can start to feel deeply uncomfortable when I'm expected to remember and learn off the top of my head without being able to write anything down for later review and reflection. The fact is, without the writing, the review and reflection rarely take place.
So this too is something that parents can do for their children, even in the absence of teacher enforcement: write it down! Review and reflect. Hopefully, with time and maturity, the student will be able to take this role on for him or herself.
My daughter had violin class in school yesterday and it sounds like it's going well. She says she's now in a "face-off" with another girl to decide who plays the solo. She is not playing Frere Jacques after all, she is playing the Can-Can, which is harder. Her opponent is playing Lightly Row. Both in D major, key of beginning string programs everywhere, and both of them have to watch their High 2's.
I'm not sure I love all these sports metaphors (the guy behind it is really a band teacher, what can you do . . ;-), but if this means she is in the Top Two third grade violinists, that's cool with me!
(added later): Michael's comment below makes me feel like I should add something. I'm personally ambivalent about competition in this context and especially at this age. But it seems to be all in fun and to be having a positive effect on my daughter, so I'm trying to keep an open mind about it.
A couple of months ago my daughter handed me an American Girl "wish list:" Clothes and accessories for her favorite doll, Nellie. Expensive clothes and accessories. I tell her if she practices violin for 30 days she can get something from the wish list. She also has to write it down in her practice log so we can verify she actually did it. After a 2-day burst of enthusiasm, we poke along and take another month to get to day 10. She remembers and mentions the wish list. I mention that we are on day 10. We poke along some more.
Johnson String Instrument then sends the catalog for their spring sale. My daughter needs a new violin, because she has outgrown the 1/2 size VSO she is currently playing. She sees the catalog and is interested. I point out that we are now on day 12. Why would we buy another violin if she isn't playing the one she has? It's too small, mom. True, and what about the American Girl accessories? There's a clear path forward toward both of those goals and she knows what it is. Hmm.
A few days later she says that someone from each instrument in the 3rd grade--a violin, a viola, and a cello--are going to be chosen to play a solo for the spring assembly in school. She wants to be chosen for the violin. Really? (She has always hated solos in the past, but I don't remind her of this). Yes. Okay. Well. There's a clear path forward toward all of those goals and . . .
The whole past week we haven't missed a day. This morning we are really getting into Frere Jacques and This Old Man. This Old Man is used by EE2000 to introduce the G string, the Grandpa string.
She's not getting lost in the round anymore when I come in. Either she can start or I can start, and she comes in correctly. She has decided that Frere Jacques what she wants to play for the solo, if she's chosen. I remind her that there are many kids who want to be chosen, and say that it's enough if she deserves it. It will be hard for the teacher to pick among everyone who deserves to play, but everyone who gets to that level can be proud of themselves. And she is getting closer to deserving it now that she can hear when her two is too low and correct it, or just put it down correctly in the first place.
We talk about the left hand and the right hand. She does some string crossing exercises that I suggest: D-G-D-G-D-G. This Old Man used to be on life support in a Nursing Home. The next day he got out of bed and was Rolling Home in his wheelchair. The next day he managed to use a walker to shuffle down the hallway. And now this morning This Old Man is sort of doing something that sounds like a knick-knack patty-whack. Maybe.
And there's that new violin and American Girl accessories too.
I want to put this on record for future reference to read when/if I get discouraged again: a frustrating lesson can be a sign that better times are ahead.
At my last lesson I had a lot going on. I missed a lesson due to a work conflict. And when I'd been playing, I'd been playing mostly violin, and mostly orchestra music. I'd been frustrated with the lack of continuity and uniformity in the first violin section bowings and that unsettled feeling had been causing me some stress at rehearsal. The back pain that I thought I'd finally seen the last of started to return, seemingly due to stress (it's gone again, hooray!). I went on a long vacation without my instrument. And my lack of focus (not just in life, but in sound) was trying even the patience of my wonderful teacher.
I had another viola lesson today, and things have turned around. I got back in sight of my goal to audition on the viola for the Longwood Symphony in September. I practiced viola regularly since the last lesson, committed the Clarke Passacaglia to memory, and did scale, vibrato, and right hand work. I am managing to put my fingers down with clarity rather than fuzziness. I was concerned that what sounded like a big improvement to me might not sound like a big difference to anyone else, but my teacher confirmed that today was indeed a big improvement over how I played two weeks ago. I don't know if I will ever actually be able to look forward to an audition, but at least I'm not feeling dread about it four months in advance. Who knows, it might even be fun.
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