The other day I heard from a dear friend whom I met at a summer music program almost 30 years ago. As summer Suzuki Institutes get underway, and as I put the finishing touches on my own summer camp, Horizon Strings, my mind is on the relationships that form at these special times.
Lutheran Summer Music was my introduction to the wider world. Coming from Wyoming, I had no idea there were other people who liked to connect around spirituality and music. Going away from home as a high school student to stay for a month on a college campus, to be challenged by an orchestra that was better than anything I had ever experienced before, to take private lessons and be in a quartet, to have theory and ear training classes, AND to have worship services every evening that were as much about music as about spirit--all of that radically changed the course of my life.
But the best part was the people I met. Looking back, some of the most important people in my life came from that summer camp.
In the case of my friend, it is truly an amazing thing to look back on all the ways our lives have taken twists and turns over the years. We have both since married, divorced, married again, had children, moved, moved again, taught, performed, lived abroad, and started businesses. Through it all our shared love of music kept us connected. Occasionally we have reconnected and played together, her oboe blending with my violin, and even convincing me to tune my instrument a quarter tone down to "sound more baroque." What fun! And very fulfilling as the years go by.
So what kind of friendships might be formed at summer camp? Answer: Life Long!
Will you take some time to explore this?
May you and your children experience the serendipity of meeting new friends this summer at something musical. It is truly life-altering.
Here are a few reflections for you as you head into summer, around the topic of meeting friends at music camp:
Take some time to reconnect to an old friend you've known for a long time. Perhaps you met them during a summer camp! It could be a deeply healing thing for you to rediscover ways your life was impacted by that person.
Think about what kind of friendships might be formed for your children if you sent them to attend a summer music camp, Suzuki institute, or music academy, and how their life might be changed
Do some investigation into the possibilities for future summer music experiences. Especially if your children are young, investigating the possibilities now will help you plan. Deadlines come quickly, and there is always financial planning involved.
Here are a few ideas, some mentioned above, to start your search:
I am always curious about what produces good practice habits. Even when lots of good progress has been made, sometimes students slip backward in their consistency.
Recently I came across the following anecdote in a book on how to influence behavior:
Two groups of recovering addicts in a treatment center were asked to prepare their employment history, to be completed sometime that day. The first group were told nothing else. They went through the day and (perhaps not surprisingly) did not complete the assignment. The second group was given additional instruction: to write a statement of intention following the form If/When/Then... “If/When lunch is done and there is space at the table, then I will start my employment history.” A majority of this group followed through and wrote down their employment history, completing the assignment that same day.*
When I read this, I was struck by the fact that we are all like this. It could have been a study of anyone! How often have you had a thought to do something important (say, while you were in the car) and then never actually followed through?
I also had the thought, This is like practicing. When we say to ourselves “I will practice sometime this week” it isn’t specific enough to produce action. Our brains aren’t built to follow through on that sort of vague intention.
The formula for change
Using a When/Then formula gets around this vagueness problem. It goes something like this: “When I get up at 7:00 a.m., and take an hour to eat breakfast, get dressed, brush my teeth, and pack my backpack for school, then I have twenty minutes to practice from 8:00 a.m. to 8:20 a.m.” That kind of statement has the granularity to produce action.
I used this formula with my stepson who is also my student, and it produced the kind of practice habit in him that resulted in the good technique and enjoyment of playing he has now. He can be lazy, forgetful and unfocused. But telling him to stop being lazy, to pay attention and to focus more, only makes him mad. What works better is to give him the positive action (practice at a certain time) AND a positive self-talk statement to help him get there in his own brain.
Parents, here it is adjusted slightly for you as the practice partner: “When [child’s name] gets home from school/sports/activities, then I will let them have a 20 minute break with a snack and immediately get them into the practice room. I promise to do this even if I am tired.” OR “When we clear plates from dinner, then we will go into the practice room together for 10 minutes, even if we are tired.”
Setting your own When/Then intention, regardless of the obstacles and difficulties of your own day (including your own tiredness), is critical to your child’s success.
This makes successful practicing not just about “getting things done” but about effective self-talk. It is better to focus on teaching a child supportive self-talk, than to get a set of tasks done. If you have to skip Twinkle or Mozart Concerto practice for a day, so be it. Sitting down to talk about this When/Then intention is worth any temporary delay in progress on the music.
Playing the long game
The When/Then plan is playing the long game. It aims to establish a habit of mind. It reminds me of the old saying “If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, but if you teach him how to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.” Perhaps there is something even more valuable than how to fish: how to talk to yourself about fishing. You might know how to fish, or how to move a bow on a violin. But you must be able to talk yourself through to the discipline of doing it, consistently, day after day, if you want to do it to “feed yourself”. Children do not have this self-talk mastered. We must help them learn to do it.
I believe that Suzuki’s “Beautiful Tone, Beautiful Heart” is also about how gently, how rigorously, how winsomely we talk to ourselves. You can stop during the day and ask yourself, How is my self-talk tone? How is my child’s? Changing self-talk changes behavior.
And again, for your own priorities, if you have to eliminate an activity of your own for a day, so that you can actually write a statement of intention for yourself, you will reap dividends far into the future.
The When/Then Contract
I have put together a simple tool for you to use with your child: The When/Then Contract. Very simply, it asks you to fill in the blank “When _______________ Then _________________” with specific events and actions. The more granular, the better. At the bottom is a place to sign your name. Teachers can hand this out to encourage practicing during the summer months. Parents, print out multiple copies and use one for yourself!
Why not sit down right now and start a When/Then intention statement for an action you know needs doing? Be sure to involve your child. When you do, they will show you the same kind of follow through as was produced in the study.
If you encourage the When/Then Intention, the rest of the practice discipline you are hoping to see will manifest itself more easily.
Dr. Suzuki is reported to have said that he could tell the quality of player you are by how well they play Twinkle.
Playing Twinkle is the first major milestone in Suzuki. But the goal is not to play it one time and forget it. Repetition builds stamina, muscle memory, and practice discipline.
The purpose of the 100s Chart is to play Twinkle one hundred times. I got this idea from Edmund Sprunger and have used it with every student who starts from scratch.
Specifically, this is how it works for playing violin:
Student learns to play Twinkle and Variations. (It is recommended to start with the Twinkle Variation rhythms on open strings first (see the Twinkle Cards).
Once the student can play Twinkle satisfactorily, I hand out the 100s Chart.
Each time the student plays Twinkle in any rhythm, they get to put a sticker, smiley face, or mark into a box.
Students take the 100s Chart home and bring it back to each lesson. (I usually write “100s Chart” on their Practice Sheet, or ask the practice parent to write this down when taking notes.)
Check back in each lesson to the progress. Play through the variations again in a lesson, fill out more of the chart together, and encourage the student that it won’t take long to get to 100.
As they are filling out the chart I begin asking them to play two rhythms in a row (two complete Twinkle Variations), then do three in a row, and so on. To graduate Twinkle, I have students fill out the 100s Chart and be able to play all the rhythms plus theme back-to-back without stopping.
Students often ask for another chart after they complete one.
Playing Twinkle over and over helps with memorization, ease and fluency of technique, and it serves as basic repertoire to build on. The sense of accomplishment they have at the end of this process is profound, and guarantees a new level of dedication as you move into the next pieces in Book One.
Sometimes the best things happen when we don’t plan them.
Once I asked a student who was getting tight with his playing, and also very bored and restless, how he could play a little more crazy.
What could happen if you left things a little more open-ended?
He thought for a moment. “I know!” he said, eyes lighting up. “I’m going to start with one piece, and end with another one!” He did it with Song of the Wind and Twinkle Variation A. His playing became more lively and more focused.
The best part is that I never would have thought of that.
When I asked him what he could do to “play more crazy” I was taking a risk. Would he just scribble on his strings? Wiggle around? I don’t want to waste time in the lesson (what teacher does?) and perhaps giving him this much rope was not going to work.
But for this student, it did. After doing this little bit of invention, not only was he re-engaged with the music, he was playing with better technique, with none of the previous stiffness.
The Story of the Bear
One student was stuck in a bland version of Hunter’s Chorus. No amount of correction seemed to work. Until I asked her to invent a story for it. What or who is the hunter? “There is a bear,” she answered, “and he jumps out and surprises the people!” She said. “Then they spray him with pepper spray!”
We laughed. Then I asked her to play the music in such a way that I would know when these parts of the story happen. Suddenly there were accents, fortes, heavier articulation at the frog (to indicate the bear!) without me having to harp on technical points.
There are many benefits of improvisational moments, but two in particular stand out to me for performance:
1) The brain is more alert when it must pay attention because something is happening in an unpredictable way, and
2) It decreases fear of making mistakes, which in turn increases fluency and comfort with playing.
Sports performance experts know that to get the body to perform in the game, when it counts, it must be relaxed and in the flow. Often we can’t get there with students because they are worried, anxious, even on a subconscious level. But when we focus on something that excites our imagination, the body often comes along, giving us that very relaxed alertness that was so elusive a moment before.
Catch your child’s best playing
Dangling the hook
But here is the key: in order for our imagination to come of hiding, we have to give it permission to be open-ended.
A pre-programmed outcome will kill that spark of possibility that is the lure for creativity. Think about this for music: the notes on the page are a pre-programmed outcome! Doing all the pieces in order in the Suzuki books is another pre-programmed outcome. I’m not saying it is a bad thing (I tend to follow the Suzuki book order to the letter) just that we need to be aware of just how top-heavy we are in pre-planning outcomes for students.
Asking for improvisation is like dangling a hook out there, we are hoping to catch the big fish of a student’s best playing. The bait is improvisation, an open-ended invitation to create. But it involves risk on our part as adults.
Risky, but we can’t have their best expressive playing without it.
Knowing that, how willing are you to let some unexpectedness happen? Time to get a little bit crazy?
I want a clean, neat desk when I work. I want a teaching space free of clutter when I teach. I believe that neatness helps to clear up my thinking. I was once told by a personality researcher that my brain “likes to organize chaos”!
I regard orderliness is a professional practice, and for good reason. We’ve all seen classes where chaos severely impeded learning, where lack of planning resulted in poor time management, and where teaching systems are so dysfunctional that no substantive learning takes place.
I also happen to live in a small house, where any dirty dish or sock left out is an unpleasant experience for the rest of the family. So from a personal as well as a professional standpoint, I want to un-messy things whenever I see them.
But something made me pick this book up off the shelf, and I’m glad I did. By the second chapter I felt my attitude shifting. When unexpected things happen, sometimes a flash of inspiration comes as a result. This creative disorder can even be planned.
David Bowie by Patrice Murciano
Messy begins with stories about musicians working with a mess. Jazz pianist Keith Jarrett once had to play a concert on a broken piano, and the sonority he came up with was completely original. David Bowie intentionally messed up his own creative process, finding sounds that nobody had ever heard before.
Producer Brian Eno made artists such as U2 and Phil Collins switch instruments and play in ways that were uncomfortable, so to put them deliberately in an unfamiliar place. We are all the beneficiaries of their music that came from such a process.
We need help to navigate the tension between order and messiness
Music is a good example because it is a precision-oriented practice. We repeat certain movements over and over to get them just right. We want to be exact with pitch, rhythm, articulation, and following a host of written cues in the music.
This exactness requires focus and “executive function” to control what we are doing. We strive to help our students mature into this kind of disciplined, ordered playing. After all, you don’t see symphony orchestras wildly running about on stage. It is all very proper and orderly.
What kind of life and energy are we sacrificing by over-controlling the output we expect from students?
And yet. We should ask, where is the creativity in all this propreity, exactitude and order? How do we capture a feeling of discovery, expression, and passion? These things are often sacrificed at the altar of tidiness. How can we balance the need for sequential, organized rehearsal with open-ended, untidy exploration of sound and color? What kind of life and energy are we sacrificing by over-controlling the output we expect from students?
We can also let messiness happen outside of teaching. Messy presents studies on e-mail use that show how organizing e-mail into folders does not help you find things more quickly. Or on project management: trying to make sure people are always “in sync” (i.e., over-collaboration or over-reporting to serve a tidy organizational chart) often prevents effective action. On goal setting: establishment of a single target is often an oversimplified numerical distortion that corrupts results as much as it helps. These errors are made out of a desire for tidiness, and Messy proposes ways to do them differently and more effectively.
Messy suggests that we have a deep insecurity about messiness, evolved out of a need for safety and security. Therefore we are prone to over-tidying our spaces, our projects, our relationships, and our lives. This often prevents us from living fully, having truly wonder-filled moments, and for teachers, helping students reach their full potential.
The takeaway is that letting things be a little less tidy will actually help us take action and move forward.
If you are in a rut, wondering what the next step might be, you will want to pick up this book. It may help you to ask, What new worlds could you discover, if you opened the door and allowed a little more messiness?
There are two basic things that a child needs in order to feel comfortable and cooperative with learning. The first is a sense of control over their choices. The second is a sense of competence, the ability to perform what is being asked of them.
Giving kids a sense of control and ability is key to their cooperation
When people (not just kids) feel out of control, a kind of primal panic can set in. Imagine being caught in a crowded elevator that stops suddenly mid-floor. You don’t know how long you will be there, you feet claustrophobic, and there’s nothing you can do.
The next time your child or student begins acting out, remember they are feeling something similar to what you would feel in that elevator.
How Long Will This Take?
When a child does not know how long something will take, he begins to search for the exit ramps. This may mean literally looking at the door or out the window, acting wiggly or silly, or complaining.
Telling them exactly how many minutes you are going to do something is one way of giving them a sense of time. Letting them help decide how many repetitions to do at home is another way of giving them back control over the amount of time spent on the activity.
Can I do this?
Many children assume that they are incapable. They have not yet had enough life experience to know that just because something is new and unfamiliar, doesn’t mean that they can’t do it.
For some children, “I can’t do it” is reinforced by peers, siblings, parents, and even teachers who have given disempowering messages. These children will automatically assume they are incapable of doing what you are asking of them, because they have no internal sense of security or confidence. Their emotional “muscles” of resilience and self-worth have not been built yet.
Their resistive behavior is not about being naughty. They are trying to tell you they believe they are incapable.
How to Give Control and Competence
It does not work to shout “You can do it!” over and over. That has the effect of making a student jaded: “Parents/adults/teachers always say that.” Better to have pedagogical methods that accomplish giving control and competence without all the superficial cheerleading.
Here are five ways I’ve found to give more control and competence to a student:
Be clear on structure
Separate behavior from identity
Go below their level
Be Clear on Structure
When students know what the structure is, they can regulate their behavior better.
Communicate how much time you will be spending on something. For an hour long class I recommend the 25-10-25 rule, or 25 minutes of learning separated by a 10 minute break. The break can be a sit-down game, a snack time, a video, or simply a talking break. I like to use a 5-question break followed by chatting time (see previous article on 5Q break.)
Separate behavior from identity
“You are not a bad person,” says the teacher. “But some of your choices are making it difficult for others to learn. Do you understand why that is a problem?”
This is the kind of conversation I have had with repeat offenders who are disruptive. The reason why we want to separate behavior (“I made a bad choice”) from identity (“I am a bad person”) is that behavior can change but identity feels permanent, unchangable. It is disempowering to a student when they believe that they cannot change because they are simply acting from who they are. We can teach them that their behavior is not permanent, their habits are not set in stone.
When students feel in control of their own behavior, they will exhibit more control in a class.
Go below their level
Going below a student’s level can be done in two ways: 1) Assigning them to do something you know is easy for them, and 2) placing yourself below the student in some way, such as letting them be the teacher.
The first option is easily done: simply ask them to play something you know they are good at, or that they have already passed. Ask them to name some things they do now that they didn’t do a month or a year ago.
When you let a student teach you something, they instantly feel more in control, more competent. Competitive students especially enjoy this tactic.
Sometimes I will literally get below a student, as in kneeling down so my face is below theirs, or letting them sit where I normally sit, while I play on my knees. This is so effective for disarming them! Especially the reserved ones who operate behind a fortress of silence, I notice they will open up when I get at or below the level of their face.
Games are the best, because they feel like a break, they are fun AND they allow students develop skill
Games give kids a sense of competence and control
Games allow students a structure that they can control, such as choosing a card or rolling dice, taking turns with other students, and getting to a finish line. They feel more control and competence when the activities in the game are at or below their level of ability.
For example, taking out 5 pennies and telling the student they can keep them if they do 5 instructions, will dramatically increase a student’s level of satisfaction and accomplishment. This works especially well for boys.
It is easy to make your own games, but if you feel you don’t have the time or energy for that, here are two I use over and over: Leprechaun Violin Playing Cards and Twinkle Cards. Leprechaun is especially good for competence and control because they get to choose which color comes next.
Have some fun with this. Games feel like a break and you can still teach a lot of skill development. Students feel as though they are doing something fun AND developing self-identity of competence.
Stay tuned to this space for more ideas on games in future articles.
It’s every teacher’s nightmare: students disappear in droves over the summer as people go on vacation, send their kids to camps, and seek a more flexible schedule. Practicing goes down, and kids forget all the progress that they made during the school year.
Declining summer attendance is also a major cause of drop in teachers’ income. What to do about this problem?
A number of years ago I realized that I had enough material from my group classes to run a summer camp. I set up a two-hour “half day” camp, from Monday to Thursday for one week in August. It was exactly what parents were looking for and in an affordable price range. Not only was it a fun and engaging way for students to continue summer learning, it provided the studio with an income boost when there is traditionally a decline.
Camp resembles group classes with games, repertoire, and special technique development. With the extra time, I can expand into more of each area and add music theory and improvisation work.
Working on note writing for compositions
This year's theme was “invention.” Students worked on basic note writing and inventing patterns on their instrument. As a class we composed an ABA song form, which I performed for them at the final concert.
Each year the camp grows and evolves; the key is to start small and simple, trusting that your experience teaching group classes will translate to a memorable experience for the kids.
7 Reasons to Start a Camp
Here are seven reasons why you should consider starting your own camp:
Boost income - parents are looking for summer camps and activities for their kids; this is a valuable thing to offer and people will be happy to pay you for it if done well
Students enjoy guest teachers
Manage summer schedules - it takes pressure of the rest of the summer -- for you and for your students -- if some of your teaching hours are done in a large group setting
Diversify learning - Student feedback indicated strong positive feeling about learning other things besides their main instrument. These enrichment times are meaningful to kids and give them a sense of the wider world in music.
Collaboration with other professionals - guest teachers can add value to your camp. This year’s guest topics included conducting, composing, singing, and clarinet.
Challenge the advanced students - By offering an "Ensemble Class" extension hour to the main camp, you can give time for more advanced students to be in a trio or quartet, and use their experience at reading music to challenge themselves.
Small group attention - students can get personalized attention by keeping the camp numbers small, and as the camp grows continuing to provide a small teacher-to-student ratio.
Ensemble class challenges older and more advanced students
Community building - many students don’t really know each other, even though they are in the same studio, attend group class, and play in recitals together. Camp is a great way to break down those barriers with small group games and partner activities.
If a camp is something you are thinking about adding to your studio, be sure to sign up for the newsletter so you can be a part of an upcoming teacher mastermind.