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 Moves to Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, China

This string teacher has moved house to Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, China.

Mostly I’ve been quiet in the blogosphere lately because after our wonderful student concert in Stuttgart (along with the lovely and very talented, kind & generous string teacher Cornelia Hierlinger and her student), I had to focus my attention on our move to Suzhou, Jiangsu Province in the People’s Republic of China.

Those of you who know me, know l am no stranger to China. I’ve taught and performed in China for ten years so far, so what’s three more in the big picture, after all? Plus, it will force me to brush up on my Mandarin skills. I love it when l can read some characters l had no idea l still knew. Memory is a funny thing; it seems very much like a computer sometimes in that skills and pictures get stored beyond our consciousness and are retrievable based on demand. I don’t mean you can just willfully call up something you think you forgot; it isn’t that simple, at least for me. But l do experience a place-based awareness which l believe is really a thing.

Like when l go back to my hometown, l know and recall all kinds of things l don’t have conscious access to when l’m overseas, largely because l don’t need it constantly, just when in that place.

With music though, l use it everywhere, and this special language never really gets lost as much as verbal language does. Could be that that’s because it’s something l use more constantly. I’m finding it easier to manage switching between German, English and Chinese now too. Just don’t ask me to be an official translator! That’s a whole different ball game and not one l am interested in jumping into. Of course, unofficially, l do it all the time.

So, in this blog l wanted to give you an update on SuperStrings Studio and what’s happening in my work life, the Royal String Teacher Association and a Museletter.

Although we’re living in Suzhou, Shanghai is something of a magnet pulling me happily back there with concerts to perform and friends to visit! Luckily for us there’s a fast train station nearby which has frequent trains taking just 20 minutes to Shanghai. For about the same price as what we had to pay to go from Böblingen to Stuttgart we can get to Shanghai about 50 miles away, and faster. (Overall it does take longer because foreigners have to show up in person at the station to buy tickets, which one does in advance or else face frequently sold-out trains if one waits till the last minute, and some destinations inside Shanghai take an hour or more to reach too.)

If you’re available, l would love to invite you to these wonderful concerts, all of which will take place in Pudong at the Shanghai Oriental Arts Center. I have to thank our good friend Stephan Brandel for inviting us to play music together with his ACMP friends. Through Stephan and colleagues from previous concerts I’ve played, I’m very grateful to be asked to play in these concerts.

Why do l sacrifice time away from building my business and teaching to perform in concerts? The answer is simple: it’s fun, even if it’s a lot of effort. The music is of a very high standard and l love the repertoire! It’s great to reconnect with colleagues and meet new ones. In short it soothes the soul and makes the world a better place. It’s nice to be paid and it’s also fun to show students what might be in their futures if they pursue it.

A Museletter arrived in early June 2019, the fifth issue, and continues to be a way to connect with other string teachers around the world, encouraging, supporting and generating a fun vibe for all engaged in string music education. The June 2019 edition features the incredible and lovely Wendy Velasco, a cellist and cello teacher with some fantastic things to say about music and how she teaches. In case you’re new to it, there’s no charge for a Museletter but it’s full of real teacher news, interviews, tips and inspiration. Since it’s a publication l produce out of love and compassion for our profession and the dear teachers who already sacrifice so much for our students, l offer this free of charge as a service each quarter to give back. My life has been immeasurably enriched by my students and their families; if l can share some of this wealth of knowledge and experience with you then l am very pleased to do so. The only thing it “costs” is your subscription by email, because l want to send it out only to people who truly want it. l put my heart and soul into it as well as a significant amount of time and effort (read: blood, sweat & tears). In case you’re on the fence and are wondering whether to subscribe or not, there’s no catch at all. That’s a promise. I am not going to spam you and won’t share your contact information with any third party except for the mail client Mailchimp, which l use to make pretty formatting and to send it out. I host the issues myself on SuperStrings Studio’s website. You can also unsubscribe at any time, no questions asked. But l hope you’ll fall in love with it and will look forward to reading it every three months!

As far as teaching, l thank my students and their families in Germany so much, as well as my dear colleague Cornelia Hierlinger and Sarah Kupke, Head of School at the International School of Stuttgart in Sindelfingen, for our work together and the beautiful experiences (and progress) we shared. I continue to teach a few by video conference and am excited to play concerts in the Shanghai Oriental Arts Center.

The Royal String Teacher Association is still taking shape and will become available later this year. Members receive

  • Monthly Super Topics which will dive deeper into subjects relevant to string teachers in the 21st century (only available to Royal String Teachers)
  • Live video round table discussions each month
  • Invitation to join a live meet up in China (possibly Germany and the US in future)
  • Collegiality, friendship, fun and support from me and other amazing members in a private group on Facebook
  • The ability to be matched with another teacher to have a professional colleague to pair with and be accountable to for any goal you’re working toward or just for general support
  • Option to participate in a self-evaluation certificate program to improve your teaching (no additional charge for members)
  • The chance to be part of something growing and keeping pace with the times using digital communications & social media to enhance our teaching and professional relationships

Founding members join at a ridiculously low price, which will remain permanently in effect as long as one continuously remains a member, even when the price increases for the second and subsequent membership offers, and even when additional valuable services and content are added!

There is also full transparency with the Royal String Teacher Association, as what is promised is what is delivered.

As far as readjusting to life in China, that’s an ongoing process but now that we have an apartment, things are starting to feel more at home. I’m also now the proud owner of a chocolate colored bike, not that I would’ve chosen the color but there was only this model, and it was the only one that looked like it would hold up. Most people in Suzhou either drive cars or ride electric scooters, and of those riding bikes, they mostly use free city bikes. (Non-carbon dependent transportation is something we all can use more of!) Those city bikes are also handy because you don’t need to worry about theft and can simply leave them when done with them.

After visiting the local court house for my husband’s work unit today, l was reminded how much bureaucracy l have endured so far in my life. I’m honored because without it l couldn’t have moved to Germany once and China three times. I think l’ve about earned a PhD in it by now! And there are myriad little things about daily life here that l won’t bore you with but are decidedly different from life in the west.

There is a period of adjustment to living in the middle kingdom, even though l have already spent ten years working in China. One good thing l can say with certainty is that the diet is better because it is so much more heavily plant-based. I seldom even have coffee any more, but when l do l can appreciate it so much!

How about your life in strings? Have you got recitals planned or an informal play-in for your friends or students? I’d love to hear from you in a comment!

1

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.