String teaching during COVID-19, June 2020

It’s already the 13th day of June, 2020, in an undeniably extraordinary year. This year will probably be named ‘hindsight’, as in, “Hindsight is twenty-twenty.”

I don’t know about you, but it’s up and down like a roller coaster from my point of view. There is still plenty to be totally glad about and a bright future ahead if we only dare to focus on the possibilities, and take action to move toward them.

But the dark side seems to be so darn pervasive. Like no matter how much I personally put my mind on the positive, it feels like there is still a massive cloud of sadness hanging over humanity, where COVID-19 continues to ravage the world and racism seems to run rampant. Why is it that people are so inclined to go out and about without masks in regions where the virus is not yet contained, as if it were some kind of ‘right’ to be able to get sick and spread this horrible virus? 

Six months into this pandemic

I personally know three people who have gotten it. Two survived and one did not. In my city, we were fortunate to have had around 86 total cases, (according to Chinese news, out of a population around 8 million, to put this in some context) and all have long since recovered. Six months into this, two months after the last case, and we still wear masks in supermarkets, on the metro and in taxis. We still offer our arms or foreheads for volunteering our body temperatures, as a signal that we are not bringing an illness in. Mine is checked usually twice per day. First, as I enter my school campus, and second when I am entering my compound to return in the evening.

Musical life

How about your musical life? Have you found your stride with working/playing/teaching online? I have taught throughout this period, but there was a month or so when I could not even pick up the violin to play anything for myself. Then one day I changed. For some reason or other I got my violin back out and started playing. Maybe I was inspired by many amazing colleagues around the world playing music and putting their performances out there to help cheer people up. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, if you have done so! But there were no chamber music playing opportunities around here and certainly no live concerts to give or to attend.

Playing in a carpeted ballroom

One day I found out our friend would have his wedding dinner and we were invited to it in mid-May. I was pretty excited about this, since it was only the second Chinese wedding I have ever attended and would be the first performance post-lockdown for me. Then he asked if I wanted to play something, and of course I said “Yes!” The weird thing was, I didn’t have time to practice, and even through dinner I wasn’t sure what I was going to play. Finally, I suddenly decided on “Over The Rainbow” by Harold Arlen. Even if it is a slightly wistful song, everyone knows the melody, and I love the key of E flat! How rarely we get to play in colorful keys like that, so I just went for it.

I was also a little concerned about the room acoustics since it was a huge, carpeted ballroom. Another musician had come and played saxophone with his own pick-up and amplification, which was super loud. I wondered if people would even hear me and my fiddle without any sound-boosting electronics. I walked to the center and just started in. To my surprise and delight, I found that the sound carried perfectly well!

This is a testament to a violin that has good projection. It does not need any amplification at all, as it has its own incredible capacity for resonance. Thank you to Michael Mirampolsky, whom I bought it from years ago. (It’s a living ‘red violin’ with its own colorful history. Sometimes I entertain the idea of creating its story.)

Tech failure

Another thing that happened during this strange period of time is that my hard drive that I brought from Germany died. It had a lot of important personal stuff on it, like essentially all of my business plans and history, not to mention photos from the past fifteen or more years. In short, there was a ton of both sentimental and necessary data on there. Luckily, I had backed up my password sheet not too long before. Ok, it is not the first time I have ever lost data and in some ways it is like being freed. In other ways, it feels like tremendous loss. (I have a back-up in Germany, but that’s not exactly accessible at the moment!)

Daily life – a walk in town

At one point, Bernd and I took a walk down Shangtang Street in the old town part of Suzhou. That was when things were mostly still shut and the majority of foreigners had left China already. It was a nice spring day, so the street was filled with Chinese people enjoying the budding trees and flowers. But we really were the only western folks around, for the entire day. It was a memorable moment for us, because a lot of Chinese were quite curious about us and seemed a bit in awe that these ‘Martians’ were among them.

Others were not bashful at all and asked us about our situation, and even seemed to be allied with us in the sense that yes, the borders are/were closed, and let’s be strong, stay healthy, careful and vigilant together. Nobody shunned us. (There were a couple of times when it seemed that some people wanted to avoid us on other occasions, but by and large, we have not experienced much in the way of extraordinary treatment due to being foreign. If anything, we feel protected here.)

Shangtang Street in Suzhou

Another surprising thing, was a colleague of Bernd’s had met another violist on a hike, and since then we found out that she lives in our compound, has a music degree and we have begun to play chamber music together, woohoo! Not only that, but at our first meeting, she invited another violist we had not yet met, who then mentioned that his boss also plays viola! We have since  gotten together (all four violists!) and played a Telemann concerto for four, and part of Vivaldi Concerto in b minor transposed for viola to e minor, with Bernd playing bass continuo. This is one of the amazing blessings to come out of this which opens a lot of new doors. We are all very excited about the potential for chamber music with this!

Teaching

I will teach English and a music course again next fall, and a former student of mine in Germany asked for lessons again, so I will keep teaching both in person at Nanjing Normal University Suzhou Experimental School Cambridge International Assessment Center and give online SuperStrings Studio lessons from the home studio. Kind of exciting to have the honor of offering music appreciation as an elective course to our students! (*We are still looking for a biology/chemistry teacher, in case you know of anyone who is looking. I love my job, and definitely can recommend the program without hesitation, as I was there this whole past school year.)

String changing party

I’ve been thinking of setting a date to have a string-changing party together. Replacing strings has to be one of, if not the most, boring parts of being a string player. So if you think this too, hit me up in a comment or email and let’s find a time to change strings together on a live call, the more the merrier!

PS The next Museletter should be out shortly. Again, it will be a minimalist version, and to be quite frank, even more pared down than the last one. But I do promise an amazing freebie for you, which is a visualization I have made for string teachers, to help you focus your mind on any goal you are working toward, or just to be more focused in general if you don’t have something specific in mind. If you’re not already on the list for it, you can still get the last one from March for a couple more days until the June Issue comes out.

(Below are a few more pictures from our life in Suzhou.)

Warmly,

Bonny

Yipu Garden – small but charming.

Outside a Gusu district street festival.

The season for loquats has just ended, and now we are in Bayberry season.

Fresh bamboo shoots with a few dozen cloves of garlic.

The restaurant and pedestrian zone at the north side of Jinji Lake is back in full swing.

Art made by a student, exhibited at Suzhou Center Mall.

Sunset at Taihu on a recent visit to Xishan

A famous bridge near Panmen, in Suzhou ancient town.

 

String teacher progress in uncertain times

Dear String Teacher,

We know that what we do in our work sends ripples out into the world, helping people not only learn to make music, but it also gives people the chance to become more patient, better listeners, better at thinking, more able to manage the learning “process,” and more connected in our communities. Of course, learning to play strings gives folks a certain sense of accomplishment and personal satisfaction unlike any other activity! So give yourself some credit. There is nothing wrong in acknowledging the good that you are doing, the help you are giving — even in difficult times —  and the patience and perseverance that you put into your work.

Put a smile on right now, and please accept a huge virtual hug from me. I totally believe in what you are doing, and the power of music to change lives for the better.  See, I can do social distancing too!

Have you had a glass of water lately? Have one now, or a cup of tea. Have you stretched this hour? Do it now. Stand up, stand tall, breathe deeply.

In this time of worldwide turmoil, I believe our communities need us now as much as ever. Whether this is continuing to provide lessons via video-conference, phone or other means, is up to us and our students how to proceed. We should take moments out of our day to care for ourselves–our health and well-being are so important!

Our communities need us now as much as ever

Some of us have been teaching online for years, while others of us only last week got our feet wet or dove in head first venturing into the online teaching realm. From feedback I have received from all over the world, although there were a few people very hesitant to get online to teach, by and large the vast majority found it much better than what they had expected. It isn’t perfect, by any stretch of the imagination. (We string teachers are probably the one of the last professions to go “online”, dragging our feet practically kicking and screaming as the very nature of our work is so tactile, hands-on and personal! So don’t feel bad if you are a newbie to coming online. It is nothing to feel ashamed of.)

we love string teachers

Lag time still is an issue for many of us such that we haven’t figured out how to play in real time together but there are some workarounds — i.e. usable free and paid software — which addresses this very issue right now, making it possible to play together. That is right. Playing together online in real time is possible, so I have read. The article I read was by someone who said he still relied on cable (not WiFi) connection to achieve the necessary speed for this to work. It may need a certain amount of fiddling around with, to achieve the right setup with external microphone, interface and so on, but it sounded do-able, even for ordinary string teachers like me. I vow to solve this!

Games and involving the parents are two of the hottest trends

Another difficulty a lot of teachers are facing is that of teaching the very young and how to keep them engaged. There are so many amazing teachers sharing their tips and tricks, I am extremely heartened to see how much we all care about each other! Definitely games and involving teaching the parents right along with them are two of the hottest trends in making this work.

We might be able to convince them to keep taking lessons

When students promptly tell us “no,” that they aren’t going to continue by “online” learning, what are we going to tell them? Tell them off? I don’t think so. It would be better to graciously let them go even when it hurts. We can always leave the door open if we so choose. This isn’t any different to what I would do under ordinary circumstances. Always, always take the high road. But with a little love and open listening, we might be able to convince them to keep their lessons going. After all, how much time have they already invested in this, and aren’t they wanting to play it far into the future anyway? Some families may need some assistance in being shown how to use online lessons, as some may have never used any type of video conferencing before. How many of us were in the same boat until confronted with our current reality, to be fair? So a little extra patience, kindness and understanding may well be in order at this time to help students get set up. Open the (virtual) door for them.

I feel a bit sick, though,  at the fact that many of us are truly hurting now due to precarious financial situations made even more tenuous with people canceling lessons (an unnecessary luxury as seen in the eyes of many) and performance jobs being cut almost everywhere. Let’s face it. What we do for a living isn’t quite like fighting fires, nursing, working as a cashier in a supermarket or offering childcare to the front-line workers whose children need a safe place to stay while the front-line workers are on a shift. I would love to hear your creative ideas on how to secure our futures as private teachers while the world slows way, way down. After all, we are in this together.

From my end, I am mighty thankful that I did make the difficult decision to get back into teaching English while in China, to have a legal employer, besides teaching violin lessons. And I can only give high marks to my administrators for looking out for me and caring about the health and well-being of all our teachers and students through this. Their kindness is so very much appreciated!

Our work is like the threads invisibly weaving the fabric of our culture together

Our work in teaching strings is more like the rainbow of threads invisibly weaving the fabric of the culture together. It goes largely unnoticed by the majority yet it would be an entirely different world if it somehow went missing. I know we will carry on with our work as best we can, forging new ground and overcoming obstacles in creative ways. I was so very encouraged last week to meet up with many teachers open to taking their work online and break new ground to meet the needs of our students and communities. We can and we will overcome this age of uncertainty, just watch (and listen to) us!

Comments, criticism, feedback welcome as always. Use the comment form below. And…

>>Top tips for thriving at home – my freebie for you!

>>March Museletter 2020 is available now (free)!

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COVID-19 Impact & help for string teachers

Namely, the reason for this post is for teachers who find themselves in the new and somewhat uncharted territory of teaching online. This could be helpful for string teachers, music teachers of any kind and all teachers, actually. Before I give some helpful tips for this I want to issue a warning. At this moment in time I am typing one-handed, because my left arm is not very usable for a while. Kind of this is my own fault, having now used the dining table as my desk for a month because that seems to be the best place for strength of signal from our WiFi box. Anyway something happened and the muscle is as if it got tangled in a knot.

At work we may be set up properly; I was, anyway. I do realize the table is about 2-3 inches too high for my long arms so apparently over time the tension served to weaken my muscles. I did stretches and I did have my seat elevated but this was not enough. Yesterday was more or less agony with what was probably a muscle tear or strain on the upper arm. Forget violin playing for a while. Although our online teaching arrangement is a temporary thing, it has turned out to be much longer than what I had anticipated so for this reason I had not worked too hard at setting up my work space accordingly. We are looking at at least two more weeks of teaching online now, which means six weeks minimum so far here in Suzhou.

Now I have even greater sympathy for all of you who have already gone through shoulder and arm injuries. Funnily enough, I have never had a playing injury before because I had enough proper training on our physiology and violin playing. But teaching online, watch out. I am using my laptop, which creates an awkward situation for people, especially if you have a long neck or limbs. What I see as a solution going on from here is plugging in a keyboard to sit on my actual lap and raising the screen more toward eye level. Also I plan to use a mouse. So please make sure you set up correctly.

  • Have the screen at eye level.

  • Have the keyboard a tad lower than your elbows. 

  • Stretch before using, including wrist rolls, head, neck and arm stretches, as well as at 40 minute intervals.

  • Use a mouse.

From the previous post you may have inferred that I was downplaying the situation on the ground a bit. If so, you would have been correct. It isn’t that things are at a standstill, far from it. Life is still humming along, virus or not. Just today many restaurants reopened to dine in, instead of takeout only.

Besides being confined to teaching online and not being able to get together with friends, the supply chain that we have become accustomed to has been disrupted. That is, some things are available (staples, for example) but other things not so much, or there is no expected timeline for when things will pick up again. We have to take a kind of permission slip each time we leave the compound, and our temperatures are taken when we return. Temperatures are taken at almost every place of business, and wisely so. Everyone here wears masks, but it is more of a cultural tradition and a show of solidarity that one would never want to transmit any illness, especially with something like COVID-19 which may be likely to be transmitted without people having symptoms.

On to a few useful hints that have been helpful so far. I have used Zoom to hold classes every day as well as for staff meetings. There are some great things about Zoom for running a class, such as

  • breakout rooms – assign students to their own rooms for discussion
  • instant reactions (thumbs-up and clapping)
  • chat
  • various other useful controls (sending a private PM to a user, mute button, etc.)
  • so far it has never crashed when I have used it

If you would like to see this for yourself I will hold a Zoom meeting for string teachers or any teacher and I invite you to try it out together. If you let me know when you may be available during the week and your time zone we can set this up for next week (16-20 March). Just send me a note with your interest below and I will set this up.

Because children are having to spend so much time online for all their classes it is more effective in my opinion to have activities which are interactive with each other as much as possible. One thing I use to keep them on their toes is having them call on each other after I start an activity, and ask each other the question at hand instead of me doing it all the time. The social factor is extremely useful here.

I have also used a vocabulary game where, after they have studied the vocabulary, I call out a definition and they raise their digital hand if they know the answer. At the end of the game, the winner is the one with the most points for correct answers, and I put a piece of candy in the candy bank for them for when we get back to the real school. I use the piece of candy at the beginning to help stimulate their excitement. I know, some teachers don’t like external motivational factors, but honestly, some of the time I think it is fun for kids and does no harm. It also makes it seem a bit more real, that they will have something to look forward to when we get back, besides hitting the books!

It is definitely a challenge to manage the digital classroom but with some creativity and flexibility, it offers some exciting new opportunities too. There is an article about one program already very successfully using online lessons in the March, 2020 Museletter if you’d like to learn more.

For individual lessons, one set-up that I have found that works well is to stream the lesson through my phone on Skype while using the laptop (a tablet or i-Pad would work here as well) with the digital music on it right next to my phone.  Here I feel Skype, Zoom or Facetime could all be nearly equally effective when teaching one-to-one.

If you would like to get the coming Museletter, this is a free quarterly for all who teach, learn and love string music with articles supporting teachers and learners which I offer you as a public service.  Just click here to get access: >>Museletter

Do let me know if I can answer any questions or how I can support your teaching. I am here for you!

Update:

Bonny Buckley is inviting you to a scheduled free Zoom meeting. You can join a free meet-up to learn more about using Zoom and ask any burning questions here. Skype will also be compared. (We use it too.) Any and all teachers welcome, the more the merrier!

Topic: String Teacher Zoom Practice Mtg
Time: Monday Mar 16, 2020 08:00 PM Central Time (US and Canada)

Join Zoom Meeting
https://us04web.zoom.us/j/7787127981

Meeting ID: 778 712 7981

Disclaimer: although I will do everything possible to ensure the smooth running and connection to this meeting, I cannot be responsible for disruptions to Zoom’s service or other unforeseen internet issues.

xx,

Bonny