Musical Celebration of Life

They say hindsight is 20/20, but what would we say about this according to the sense of listening? Audiovoyance? Audiovoyance is 440/440? Wait, don’t answer that. Yesterday students of my colleague and mine played an informal, lovely non-concert: a Musical Celebration of Life.

We invited students and their families to come, for the learners to have the chance to perform what they are working on, and spend some time together visiting, snacking, playing more music, playing games and relaxing afterward.

I’m really not normally one to schedule something like this at this already over-busy time of year but a parent had asked whether we would be holding a musical party, and it sounded like a great idea–thanks Rebecca Oldmixon! After all, children love parties (and so do I).

I put out some dates back in early November and they chose December 15.

My colleague Cornelia Hierlinger and I also put together some duets to start off the event: Wohlfahrt’s Christmas Fantasy and the Blackwells’ Jazzy Jingle Bells. I’d invited a videographer I’ve worked with this year, Philip Fricker, to film the event and my husband also supported us by taking amazing photos and using his fantastic huge bass to support in a trio for a guitar student.

Like Baby Birds Being Pushed Out of The Nest

The children and one adult student were truly adorable and I feel so blessed that they were able to enjoy their new wings as players before a gentle audience. It really was like a nest, where the baby birds are pushed out of the nest, maybe a bit wobbly with their wings, but all of them flew. It made all of our hearts happy and then some.

Ever since I discovered the Ernst arrangement of Schubert’s Erlkönig for Violin and Viola I’ve wanted to play it. So for this occasion I convinced Cornelia that we should play it. To be honest, it was something of a risk. She got pretty big eyes last week when I said we should play it. Why play something with such a sad ending for an uplifting event like this?

Well, life is not always fun and inspiring, but I have loved this piece ever since I heard it properly performed as a young student at the Longy School. I remember Victor Rosenbaum had invited me to a private concert where it was sung, in preparation for a concert at the school. This was long ago, when Longy was an independent school, both a community school and a degree-granting institution and I was a young undergraduate diploma student. I think that hearing this piece then, and many times since then, has made a lasting impression on me.

Although the piece is somewhat dark, it isn’t dark like some atonal garbage that tries to pass itself off as great. It does stretch your ear a bit but I find it to be in good fun, and thought it would be nice for children and families to hear something a bit dramatic.

Siblings In Attendance

Afterward, a lovely mom mentioned her young child who’d been sleeping on her shoulder popped up a couple of times with the excitement and said “Why does it sound like it’s running?” She told her it was the goblin king, and the child went back to sleep.

Another sibling who is an adult mentioned she was so glad we played that piece, that she loved it so much! She had played violin for a bunch of years, but had to stop due to her heavy academic studies; now that she is back working for her parents’ company, she has a bit more time and it looks like she might get some lessons to get started again! So exciting! She had learned a few bars of this piece, apparently, as a student.

I would say that choosing Der Erlkönig was an intuitive choice but it made sense for us that the reasoning, logical mind would probably have argued against.

Another reason it was the right choice was that on the same day I found out our dear friend had passed away, which we knew was coming, but didn’t know exactly that it would be at this time. I mean we are all headed to the same destination and I believe music comforts us if we let it. That’s the muse, holding our heads and hearts when we need rest and comfort.

And playing with Cornelia is always a joy. We actually met as stand partners for Lobgesang, with Laudamus Te in Stuttgart, after which I found out she was actually living close by in my neighborhood.

And if you’ve ever seen Labyrinth, the film with David Bowie as the goblin king, you know that a goblin king might not be all bad.

Background

You have to understand that I’m working in Germany, as a US citizen, running a private business, having built my teaching practice utterly from scratch here, and did not have a single teacher connection when I arrived over five years ago direct from China. (Yes, you read that right, but it’s the subject of a future post.) And to be quite honest, there is no way I would have been able to build a successful teaching studio without the help of my intuition, journaling a lot, taking risks and asking for support.

I write this because it was listening to a parent, and following my intuition that it was a good idea to have a mini-concert, even at this time of year, instead of brushing it off and not following a good idea, that allowed this lovely experience to unfold.

If you’d like more support in your own string teaching or learning, or as a parent,  get a Museletter, the free quarterly magazine to uplift, inspire and encourage string teachers worldwide. The nice thing about this magazine is that it includes helpful tips not only for violin players and teachers, but for other stringed instruments too. Sign up right here >> http://eepurl.com/dw59LL

Concert on the first Sunday of Advent

This morning I started off thinking about our concert today in Heilbronn, Germany, which marks the first Sunday of Advent.

We will be performing two cantatas, one by a local composer which was written in the 1970s, and the other by Vivaldi – Vivaldi Magnificat RV 610. (When I say “we” I mean the orchestra and choir of the Deutschordensmünster of St. Peter and St. Paul in Heilbronn.)

The church building itself, originally constructed in ca 1300, was destroyed in air raids during World War II in 1944. In 1948, reconstruction began and was finished in 1951.

The modern piece on today’s program contains a message about praising the merciful. But the music is at odds with the message. I wonder if this had anything to do with the lyricist and the composer.

After the rehearsal I asked Ingeborg, the section leader, which piece would be first on the program. She didn’t know, but she agreed it would be a tragedy if it was the Vivaldi.

In other words, we both wanted to leave the concert feeling uplifted by the glorious music of Vivaldi.

I have a bit of trouble understanding the words in both cantatas, but as an instrumentalist it doesn’t concern me that much. As a musician and as a teacher, however, I am interested in the lyrics because they form an integral part of the form and the whole experience. Besides, I just like to know what is being sung to decide for myself if the meaning seems to fit.

Praising the merciful is the main theme of the modern piece. But it breaks so many rules of harmony I wonder if there was personal animosity between the two individuals responsible for the work. It just does not bring the words to life for me. Hopefully my opinion will change in the concert.

Thank heavens for Vivaldi. When lyrics accompany music, I want the music to convey the message even without understanding the words. Vivaldi manages this and then some.

If you enjoy Vivaldi, leave a comment and let me know!

Tuning Forks

I wish I could have captured the look on a child’s face, when he opened a little box set with a nice pen and a tuning fork in it.

The student was moving away, as third culture kids tend to do, and this particular child had put substantially extra effort into his learning. I wanted to recognize this because it seemed the best moment in time to do so. It was going to be either then or never.

He and the other children in the class, and a few moms, looked on.

Then out of the box came the tuning fork as he expectantly unwrapped the box. I think I got more enjoyment out of the expressions on each person’s face than any other lesson I could have taught.

How would he use it? Actually he knew, because I had shown him in his lesson how to use one.

Next came the awe from the other children. Each then took a turn with it and discovering how it can resonate on other surfaces besides on their violins.

I think they most loved resonating it either on the wood floor or their skulls. (Give it a try – it’s silent outwardly but inwardly it is amazing!)

Of course, I know just about everyone has an app now to tune with, or a tuning device which runs on a battery, which are perfectly okay to use. But there is something particularly pure about the tone produced by a tuning fork which to my ears is not replicated by anything else. Well, okay, maybe a glockenspiel or vibraphone or similar thing does come kind of close, but how many of us put glockenspiels to use on a regular basis?

Following our teaching intuition is a great skill to develop after one has paid one’s dues in the process of obtaining a quality education. And using a real tuning fork from time to time is not only fun but inexpensive, useful and might even provide you with glorious expressions of delight.

Do you have a tuning fork? Have you ever showed one to your students? Let’s hear from you in the comments – don’t be shy!

Just click here on this link to >>subscribe for free to a Museletter

Why Learn Music?

Why should people learn music, anyway? What is the purpose of it, since by itself it has no obvious function, takes significant amounts of time and effort, costs a lot of money and comes with no guarantee that one will succeed with it?

Hm, with all these potential problems how would this possibly fit into the social values common nowadays such as convenience, flash, hype, rat-race, greed, glamour and media-addiction? Well I am glad you are asking these questions!

First of all, once our basic needs are met, human beings still have an innate proclivity toward expression, and have sought to unleash this since time immemorial. Music can and certainly does fulfill this creative side of us if we work to reach at least a basic level of musical aptitude.

Music is art, culture, expression, beauty and many other aesthetic judgment calls. So it would not be out of bounds to proclaim that music for music’s sake is enough reason to do it. Beethoven would probably agree. Maybe Bach, too.

In this blog I am going to list a set of principles which are upheld by the pursuit of music.

One of the massively prescient reasons for embracing the art of music, including music education, is that the sheer number of thought processes required which have to happen at near the speed of light, (particularly when reaching advanced stages of musicianship) appear to enhance brain function. I’m not going to cite any studies here. I’ll leave that to you and Google.

In our ever faster-paced world, where we simply must remain open to learning new skills and systems, the pursuit of music serves a dual purpose. Learn to play music, and as a free bonus learn better thinking skills: synthesis, symmetry, complex organization, multi-level thinking, independence of tactile awareness through sound and touch, heightened sensitivity, changing pace while keeping it steady, measuring sound vibration and differentiating between tensions to name a few extra enhancements.

Yet when a person learns to play a bowed string-instrument, there is another added dimension to the thinking “extras” which includes engaging the left and right hemispheres with even more, and different, simultaneous processes.

One of the earlier aptitudes gained in becoming musically competent is developing the skill of reading music. Like reading a language of words, the language of notes is also transferable to other instruments. In fact music is a universal written language not only between instruments but across cultures all over the world. Like a spoken language, it isn’t limited by visual cues.

So instead of making this particular blog an exercise in describing the cerebral enhancements that would probably put you to sleep, I’m going to shorten things up and get on with my list. If you have  any additions, or would like to take the discussion further, please do comment!

PRINCIPLES SUPPORTED BY THE PURSUIT OF LEARNING TO PLAY MUSIC

Enhanced Brain Function

Reading Musical Notation

Listening In-depth

Self Expression

Working Together to Achieve a Common Good

Coordination

Connection

Community-building

Culture

Friendship

Excellence

Adaptation, or the Ability to Respond and Adapt Quickly to Change

Self-Confidence

Tolerance of Conflicting Ideas

Hope

Independence

Conformity

Aesthetics

Personality Development

Lifelong Learning

Spatial Awareness

Complex Problem-solving

Linear and Non-linear Thinking

Cultural Appreciation

Confidence

Elegance

Precision and Excellence

Managing One’s Presence

Art

Sharing Ideas

Change

Preparation with Minimal or Less Than Enough Time

Political Refuge (you never know when this might come in handy)

The brother of a friend of mine was spared from re-education in China during the 1970s when he was recruited to play the erhu in the local government’s orchestra, and my friend was on the train to follow suit when the Cultural Revolution finally ended. That’s my personal connection to including the last principle on this list.

Thoughts? Comments? Would love to read your reply. xx -Bonny

Sponge Blog

violin student in Stuttgart
students soak up a lot more than you think
Students are sponges, so ooze greatness and kindness!

Did you know our students are sponges? Students absorb a lot from us, not only the instrumental technique and musicality we wish to help them master.

They also tend to soak up our energy level, open-mindedness and capacity for joy and enthusiasm, or the contrary. This is one of the reasons it is so incredibly important to consciously cultivate our mindsets as teachers, to be focused on positivity, productivity, kindness and excellence.

It won’t really matter at all if we have a degree from a big-name conservatory but haven’t got the capacity to embrace a wide variety of teaching and learning situations.

With the idea in mind that ours is the only method, or that my is the best way to be followed without consideration for different ages, personalities, wishes, goals and moods, we are in danger of losing out on helping students to reach their potential. We might even lose our students’ trust.

Some of the things that help me to make sure my personal teaching mindset is prepped to give off the things I truly want students to absorb are

  • allowing extra time for planning and preparation time before every lesson to consciously and calmly consider the student(s) I am about to teach, and the single main point I hope to focus on (which is flexible in case the student(s) arrive with a greater need)
  • finding a fun, age-appropriate activity or game I can incorporate to make the lesson more interesting
  • visualizing and focusing on a goal in my own playing and teaching practice
  • reading books and blogs specifically regarding best methods
  • collaborating with and supporting other string teachers

Another thing that I very aware of, is the need to adapt myself to a student’s capacity for understanding. For example, I have found through a bunch of years teaching children of all ages, in really different cultural settings, that a huge number of children up through about the third grade, may not understand a number of ordinary vocabulary words.

Even body parts – I had a highly intelligent, very learning-oriented first grade student who did not know where her shoulders were. To solve this with many children we could play some fun games like “Simon Says” (also with the instrument) to be sure that they know what is what. Other words too, like “emotion” or “encourage” or “discipline” might get you the deer-in-the-headlights look if you use them and are paying attention to the reaction you get. It’s great to teach these words – I don’t mean not to use them – but just be aware that little kids have not got the same vocabulary as you do as an adult and may need you to use synonyms that they do understand, like “feelings,” “help” and maybe “following the learning every day” or to explain in detail the meaning of these important words. Older students need it too—not very many fifth graders would know the words “extrapolate” or “anticipate,” for example.

I don’t ever assume a student doesn’t know words but I am in the habit of asking them. If you have a relationship built on trust the student will be able to answer you honestly. If you’re still working on the trust factor, that’s okay, because that is also not something that comes automatically! It’s okay to challenge the student and when they answer that they know something, to ask them, “then what does it mean?” to be sure, or to turn it into a teachable moment.

So far, I have observed that students absolutely love to soak up the meaning of vocabulary that we use to help them in their learning.

Some students who have begun with me recently have given me a massive feeling of gratitude, because their learning style seems to be in super-sponge mode, understanding things about sound and physical technique long before the verbal. Of course, I still expect daily practicing from them, or five to six days per week.

string teacher sponge blog
sponge blog for teachers of stringed instruments

Lately I’ve been truly blessed by the concept of the sponge. I was even overjoyed to be reminded of this as I stumbled upon a package of sponges we had bought and forgotten, that had fallen under a seat in the car. Sponges are actually quite beautiful. Here is an amazing documentary on sponges in case you might be interested in drawing your own analogies. Our students are beautiful and multifaceted too, every single one of them. Thanks for reading my Sponge Blog.

What about your students? How are they absorbing what you teach? Got a story to share? Write it in the comments – we’d love to read it! ♥

segno, SSS Logo, superstrings studio logo

Crossing Death Valley with My Violin

Have you ever done something that before you began, thought would be impossible, or at least highly unlikely?

When I was a kid I thought, wouldn’t it be cool to play in a major orchestra and to live by the sea. Then by the time I reached 30 years old I had done these things, if one counts the Nanjing National Orchestra as major. The salary may not be what one earns in the Chicago Symphony, but we played on national television in China for the return of Macao to the mainland from Portugal, among other fun and large-scale concerts.

“…mindset plays a crucial role in realizing my dreams.”

Or playing in the Shanghai Opera Orchestra, which also offered some memorable experiences, notably combining with the Shanghai Symphony when we played Aida for two nights in Shanghai Stadium.

 

 

So how did I cross Death Valley with my fiddle? I didn’t! It’s a metaphor though.

Too many people have the idea that you can’t earn a living doing what you love, and that is one of the silliest mistakes one can make with one’s life. Death Valley for musicians and music teachers is the ocean of nay-sayers who are uncomfortable with your self-confidence, or with your personal growth, or with the idea that someone who is creative could carve out a happy life for themselves teaching others without going broke. The problem with the negative voices is that they are actually uncomfortable with themselves making these creative choices.

In this sense I have crossed Death Valley time after time and probably will for the rest of my life. And that’s okay, because I want more people to learn that it is possible to be a music teacher and experience incredible things.

 

One of the most important things I have learned about being a musician and being a music teacher, is that mindset plays a crucial role in realizing my dreams. There might even be some bits of Death Valley lurking in the dark shadows of my own mind, like all of us. Those are the moments when I say mean things to myself and the doubts start to creep in. But there are strategies for dealing with it, like visualizing exactly how I want to feel and situations I want to have happen. I know of plenty of other people who do this too and achieve incredible things.

Another thing I have realized lately, which I think I have intuitively known all along, is that teaching is one of the greatest professions that there is because it is so soul-rewarding! Sure, we can make money, but what we can do with our reach is exponential and somewhat unfathomable. This is probably why it has attracted me more solidly than performing as the main income has. Another reason it is a great profession is that if you love learning, you may continue to improve, learn and adapt for as long as you are alive.

For any other closet physicists out there or if you love science, being a music teacher also scratches this itch with the fact that we use sound as our medium, which is energy that passes through air and resonates with our whole being and not just our ears. That is to say, if you are interested in acoustics or the science of sound, we can be extremely exacting and in fact must be in order to attain excellence and mastery.

There are certainly dozens more reasons why being a music teacher is an awesome profession but I’ll stop here for now. My point is that the world needs more excellent music teachers and the stigma that teachers get from society doesn’t necessarily hold water. What’s your reason for teaching or for learning your instrument? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.♥

Enthusiasm in Orchestra

A question came up recently about attrition, and digging a little deeper I realized this is something we all face unless we actively work to build enthusiasm and excitement into orchestra classes and rehearsals. The context here is in regards to teenagers, or tweens, when the social phase and brain development is underway.

As adults this time of our lives is easy to lose touch with but we all go through it. If you want the science on this, read up on it >>here or >>here, through respected academies and journals. For a very cursory explanation, this period of seemingly strange behavior during teen brain development is due to the fact that the frontal cortex, or where we learn the ability to reason and think before taking action, develops later, even into adulthood. (Although as with any theory, there are certainly scientific inquiries which would just as easily disagree.)

Off the top of my head I mentioned that it is important to make sure we are addressing the social needs of teenage participants, so what follows are things I and others have used to generate enthusiasm and retention beyond an intrinsic respect for excellence in music preparation and performance. These suggestions are not things you would use for every rehearsal, but should be built into a yearly plan so that over the course of a year there are things to look forward to.

Helping players take responsibility for their contributions in addition to concert preparation
Continue reading “Enthusiasm in Orchestra”

Junge Süddeutsch Philharmonie Esslingen 60th Anniversary Concert

It has been wonderful to see many of you at our concerts during the past academic year – thank you so much for your patronage! Live concerts are really the way to get to know this musical art form.

In June Bernd and I are honored to play in the symphony orchestra of JSPE, the Junge Süddeutsch Philharmonie Esslingen for their 60th Anniversary. This is the orchestra I first played with in Germany six years ago, with the amazing cellist Sol Gabetta as she received a prize in the castle in Weikersheim.

The program is fantastic with awesome Mozart and Schubert symphonies, plus a concerto for the double bass by Menotti. We do not often play in this orchestra any more due to our busy lives but we just had to make time for this one, as it is a very special and rare day for the double bass to have its moment in the spotlight!

If you have a love of classical music or would like to get acquainted with it you could make an event out of this; spend a few hours in the medieval town of Esslingen and have a nice dinner afterward. It’s not a late concert, on Saturday, June 16, starting at 18:00, so even children could come and enjoy this great concert.

Get tickets here >>ESSLINGEN CONCERT 2018 

I’d love to see you there!

xx

Bonny

A SMALL PERSONAL EPIPHANY

This post will be a little different. I‘d like to tell you more about myself because I recently discovered something.

When I was a teenager I fell in love with the Bach Violin Concerto in E Major. I think it was an Anne Sophie Mutter record that I used to play. I didn’t understand why I loved that key so much. I also fell deeply for the whole Solo Partita by Bach for Solo Violin in E Major. There really wasn’t much else that I had in my repertoire in this key but for me it was as though the sun came out and shined golden on my life with E Major.

Since then I have always loved this key and key signatures never have bothered me a bit since properly learning all the scales and arpeggios. I don’t even get it when people complain about the number of “enemies” on a piece, meaning a key with a lot of sharps or flats. (Okay, I do get it actually, because this means that the complainers simply have not acquainted themselves fully enough with their instruments and all of the keys that we play in.)

Now that I have been using guitar a lot more in my teaching and accompanying it suddenly hit me like a ton of bricks, that this is THE Guitar Key, HELLO!

Classical guitars are often tuned E-A-D-G-B-E so it naturally follows that the strongest chord you can get from this tuning is E Major, with the two open strings ringing out and another E in between on the D string.

In German there is the word “Schicksal” which means “fate.” It’s like my fate is to make guitar and bowed stringed instruments live forever happily together ever after. So today, to help my students and anyone who is learning guitar, I published a set of one-finger major scales for guitar starting on each open string. This may exist elsewhere but in the time it would take me to find it I decided to make it myself. Just let me know if you would like a copy.

Just thought I would put that out there for you!