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!

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American Festival Orchestra Inner Mongolia Tour

2019.12.25 – 2020.01.02 AFO (American Festival Orchestra Tour)

Musicians of Germany, Malaysia, Uruguay, China and the USA met up on December 25, 2019 in Yinchuan, Ningxia Province for a symphony orchestra tour of several cities in Ningxia and Inner Mongolia. Many of the players comprising the orchestra are regular players in the York Symphony of York, Pennsylvania and the Yakima Symphony Orchestra of Yakima, Washington. Half of the program was traditional Chinese music and the other half was western classical favorites.

Yinchuan, Ningxia Autonomous Region, China

After a somewhat grueling first rehearsal, we enjoyed an elegant, fantastic holiday dinner together on December 25, 2019 which was hosted by the organizer and the hotel. Some members stole away back to the theater to attend the last performance of Phantom of the Opera interpreted by the Cuban National Ballet, one of many astounding unexpected pleasures.

Christmas in Ningxia, China with AFO
Holiday dinner for musicians

The first concert was held at the Yinchuan Theater, where we were warmly welcomed and the public stuck around for some pictures and interaction afterward. The second concert took place in Ningxia Theater, also in Yinchuan, which was also enthusiastically received by the public.

Holiday dinner on 2019-12-25 in Yinchuan, Ningxia Province, China with AFO American Festival Orchestra tour

Next stop was Alxa in Inner Mongolia (阿拉善盟 • ᠠᠯᠠᠱᠠ ᠠᠶᠢᠮᠠᠭ), passing through the Helan Mountains to reach the destination. Along the way, we enjoyed the landscape and passing by wild camels.

a segment of China’s Great Wall built during the Ming Dynasty along the border between Ningxia and Inner Mongolia in the southern Helan Mountains.

So far on the tour, this public was even more excited about our visit, being the first western orchestra concert ever to be held there. This, I gauged by the third standing ovation, for which we were running out of encores. It was also televised for the local schools. The organizer also mentioned that a teacher comes there (a two hour drive) from Yinchuan to teach violin classes, so it seems the need for and love of stringed instrument education certainly does reach far and wide.

Inner Mongolia – Alxa, Erdos and Baotou, China

Erdos (also written as Ordos) is a fascinating area known for Genghis Khan, its cashmere and wonderful museum.

Erdos Museum, AFO Musicians 2019.12.31

Erdos Theater by day

The concerts on such a tour are amazing, to be sure, but even more incredible are the friendships and relationships formed by doing this. Music has brought together professionals from five countries to promote friendship and music between each other, China and western countries.

One of the highlights for many of the musicians was contact with the audience after the concerts. A lot of kids and adults loved to take pictures together after the wonderful musical experience together.

Another incredible fact regarding this tour is that each orchestra player (professionals willing to spread international friendship through the language of music to far-flung places) has footed his or her own bill to reach China, while the tour organizer arranged for all of the ordinary domestic expenses such as the hotel, transportation and meals. Thus, there were some hours available for exploration and touring, which we took full advantage of!

Of course, it would not have been possible without the patience and persistence of the people leading this through to completion, such as Mary Winterfeld (Yakima Symphony Orchestra Manager and patron saint of patience), Lawrence Golan (Music Director) and Dr. Larry Lang of Fred Fox School of Music of the University of Arizona, not to mention the 60 or so talented and dedicated musicians who gave up their holidays to become musical diplomats during the coldest part of the year in China.

Pagoda climbing in Yinchuan, Ningxia Province in December, 2019
Ice biking, dragon boating, chair racing and all around fun at -14 C in Alxa, Inner Mongolia with the Helan Mountains in the distance

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Thinking, a powerful tool

There is an old saying about when you think you can’t, you are probably right and when you think you can, you are also probably right. Thinking is likely our most powerful tool, so let’s use it for the benefit of all.

There are a lot of things that I want to accomplish in life, some of which are only now coming clearly into focus. One of these things is to be more of an interface between the public and live string music. In my personal experience, I have observed that most people in the world do not have much, if any, experience with live music played on stringed instruments up close.

I love to play music on my violin or viola for people in smaller venues, where I can interact with people personally, in a way I cannot do from big concert stages. (I enjoy playing on famous stages too, which is why we also play in Shanghai!)

We have gotten to know a local Toastmasters Club in Suzhou through a colleague of mine, and last Tuesday we were asked to talk during their special Saturday meeting in what they call a ‘sharing’ session. Well, this resonated with Bernd and I, and we decided to give a 30 minute talk / presentation / mini-concert on the topic “Music: the language of the heart”.

That meant there were three days to prepare this. Yikes! What had we gotten ourselves into?! Despite the short amount of time we had to prepare, we worked on this together, and finally had what we thought would work. It didn’t come completely easily. We definitely discussed and argued over it a lot, just to let you know we are entirely human.

It took me a long time to reach the place where I was ready to start talking in public and I am still working on this. And honestly, playing music on the stage is far easier than giving a speech, (for now). But once I told myself I wanted to do this and just let myself be open to the possibility of getting practice speaking, the opportunities have been knocking.  In fact it’s even led the way to making some really nice friends.

At the venue, we listened to two speakers working through their pathways toward ‘confident communicator,’ both of whom spoke well. And then it was our turn.

What I discovered is that people really responded to both the music and discussion, and it also seemed that people were hungry for more. I am not saying this to shine light specially on us, but to make this fact known, that people genuinely respond to live string music (probably all instruments, to be fair) and many folks actually like it once they have this kind of exposure.

One lady honestly remarked to me that she had recently been to a classical music concert for the very first time, and that it really wasn’t like what she had expected. She said it really wasn’t that terrible. 😊 That might sound a bit on the negative side, but to my mind, for someone who may have been completely closed off to the idea of listening to a concert before, then having attended one and then seemed to be saying that she might be open to a future concert, was actually a little bit inspiring.

Other people wanted to know when they could hear us play more, and still others told us how much they enjoyed this session. It did seem that this topic boosted the energy and enthusiasm of the group.

All of this is to say that I see myself as an interface between the public and classical music, helping people get more experience listening to live chamber music. The bonus is getting more experienced on the stage to promote this fabulous form of music and art.

So if you want to let people know about live string music, and you are a string player or teacher, why not step outside your comfort zone and share your music in your community? There is such a need for this now, as the more people use texting, email, chat and non-verbal or impersonal means of communication, the need for interpersonal experiences is only going to increase. Think of exactly what you want, how this might work, and let your mind come back to that thought again and again. This is a powerful intention. Our thoughts are ours to choose so let’s choose wise ones, for what we put in our thoughts, our minds go toward.

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Resilience and International String Playing

Music opens doors. This essay is about how resilience supports life as an international string player and teacher. Sometimes I think that “resilience” is what keeps opening the doors.

Because I’ve made the effort to apply my training and expertise as a violinist and violist, I have been invited to play on some incredible stages and in some wildly beautiful concerts in China, Germany and the US. My husband, who is a double-bass player at the semi-professional level, has also helped a lot in getting to know some orchestras to play with in Germany.

Having a Washington State professional teaching license in K-12 Instrumental Music has also been a real help in supporting my teaching practice as a credential in addition to a performance degree.

The music I have been so blessed to have been a part of so far has encompassed chamber music, solos, symphonies, chamber orchestras and even full-production opera orchestras. I really miss playing operas – it has been a while since I played any.

As far as teaching, I have had an abundance of different positions thus far in my life, from teaching young violin majors at Nanjing Normal University, to running the orchestra program of a busy rural school district int the US, to directing and teaching music in Shanghai at an international school, and more recently as a private teacher with small group classes out of my home studio in Germany.

That being said, this has not always been smooth sailing. There are a few perils which I and others have faced and which string players and teachers all have to overcome, whether working internationally or not.

international air travel is for the birds

To be honest I also do not care one whit for international air travel. What used to be slightly glamorous and fun is now more like riding a crowded bus through the skies, with the pleasant experience of having your body, documents and belongings checked at many points before boarding. It ranks right up there in my book with going to the doctor, which I tend to avoid.

(Travel even within Europe is very strict – airports have their own 1-L clear resealable bags in which all of your liquids must be contained in carry-on items.)

Another potential difficulty is timing. Simply put, I would never plan to have a long-distance drive immediately following a long-haul flight, to any address I did not already know, in a town I had never been to before, without a cushion of say six hours, give or take.

I was at a string teacher conference, where an invited guest who was to be the highlight of the event, finally did show up an hour or so later than planned due to difficulties finding his way. It turns out we are not super human after all and are still limited by the realities of new roads, road construction, traffic and unforeseen detours. It is better to allow ample extra time, if only to take a nap and be really refreshed if an event is following closely after a long overseas trip.

This is really an example of learning how to cope with a very dynamic, ever-evolving world, the one in which our conservatory education did not prepare us for.

But really learning our instruments to an advanced or professional level does help us hopefully with a very important quality which is sometimes lacking in our formal education: resilience.

The Value of Resilience

Playing, living and working as an international musician gives us the perfect opportunity to practice the value of resilience.

I know, values are not the sexy topic of many popular blogs, but the values we teach as string teachers are some pretty hefty pillars of human evolution which I believe help bring more joy, empathy, help, creative thinking and brain development in general to the humans residing on the third rock.

When you start working long-term in a foreign culture, one of the first tests of your resilience is about being willing to be a beginner again. When we find ourselves in unfamiliar territory and a new culture and maybe language, we get the chance to absorb all the subtle and not-so-subtle new ideas, nuances and ways of being. It’s in some ways like being a baby, taking everything in anew.

It also lets you sometimes be “off the hook” for mistakes you make that you don’t know you’re making.

Other times it doesn’t.

I had it in my mind to do banking with a local bank, for example, where I wanted to have an account because this particular bank supports culture a lot in the area. First I set up an account, and then due to a bunch of things taking up my time and attention, which was completely my fault, I didn’t fund the account in the necessary amount of time. So the bank supposedly closed the account.

Later I went back to apply again, and kept on getting the cold shoulder. I persisted, however. Finally a representative gave me an ear-full, berating me and complaining that there was an outstanding fee (that I had never seen any notice for) and that my business was not wanted. I inquired politely about how much the outstanding charge was. He then became a bit quieter, perhaps even embarrassed, and told me it was for .85€. Yes, that was actually for 85 cents. I still to this day don’t know what the charge was for but I did go and pay it, and was able to open a business account at this institution. I call it my 85-cent ear-full. 🙂

For the most part, people seem to be very kind and helpful when they realize we have come from somewhere far away. I think this is a natural human tendency, when one’s basic needs are being met, to enjoy helping others.

And having this basic language of music in our pockets, so to speak, gives us a doorway to walk through to connect with the unfamiliar in the a new culture if we’re willing to apply it.

How about you? Have you had any interesting overseas experiences where your music ability opened or closed a door? Do you think resilience is worth teaching? Follow this blog if you think string music education helps people learn resilience.