Thursday, February 20, 2014

Musical Drive-Thru



Here's one of those THIS IS THE GREATEST IDEAS EVER ideas that has been working wonders at our house.  Musical drive-thrus!  Let me explain...

I have a friend with two kids who play piano - the older a few more years than the younger - and the younger sibling has just zipped past the older sibling.  Both kids are very bright and have to practice the same amount, but the mom told me the younger one sits down at the piano several times to play around on his current song, while the older only practices the required amount.  You've heard of the 10,000 rule, that states that mastery requires time (I'm paraphrasing)?  All those extra few minutes the younger sibling spends really add up, and it shows. This got me thinking...  the Dude made more progress in his last piano book because he knew the tunes and they were easy.  Now that they are more challenging, he's slowed down and hasn't stopped by the piano in between practice times in a while.  So I wondered - how do I encourage him back to the keys?

Enter one of those bursts of inspiration while I'm in the shower.  (I was so excited I almost slipped while I was running out to write it down).

You know how sometimes you want to go out to eat, sit down and be waited on, and sometimes you don't even want to get out of the car and just zip through the drive-thru and be on your way?  What if we approached that philosophy in music practice?  When my kids really dig a song they are learning, they play it every time they pass by the piano and they end up mastering it much faster than the songs they only visit during practice time.

I put blank charts on the wall next to the piano for each child and told them for every time they randomly sit down and play one of the songs they're working on, they get to mark one box off.  They get to choose a reward/goal earn when the page is full (within reason).   The Dude requests to go through an actual drive-thru for french fries when he finishes a chart).  This is an extra thing they are in control of, and I have to force myself to not request drive-thrus.  It's all on their own time and own motivation.  Sure I can praise them when I hear one, but it has to be their thing, or it becomes another chore to do.  And those who know me can attest that keeping my yapper shut is quite the challenge - but I'm doing it(mostly)!!



A few handy tips:

Start with a small chart, just 10 or 20 spaces, whatever seems reasonable - it's much less overwhelming that way.  They were able to fill up their first one quickly and that got them excited for the next one - where I gave them larger and larger charts.

Some days when they need a jumpstart, I tell that that for that day only, I'm offering a special deal - for every 5 drive-thrus, they get one free.  Today only!  Get your deal before it's gone!  You get the idea.

Violin takes more effort in our house.  The piano is right there, but for violins they have to get it out of the case, get the shoulder rest on, tighten the bow, blllaaahhh, and then put it all back.  So I've gotten in the habit of leaving their violins out on the table in the afternoons, and for every violin drive-thru, they earn TWO spaces.  It's kind of a big deal.

Word to the wise - if you have more than one child doing this, print them different looking charts.  They're less likely to compare who has more.  I learned that the hard way!  I use bigger ones for WonderGirl since she's older - just google blank charts.  This page has some cute ones.

I made this ditty up for the Dude to color in with each drive-thru:
download here

And holy moley - WonderGirl had been making sluggish progress this year but in the weeks that we started this, she has started blazing through her book.  I didn't even do it for her, but the change has been so massive!  And the Dude has started picking up speed, too.  I didn't realize how important the in-between practice times were, but holy smokes, I do now!

No begging or pleading - just some quiet motivation.  Try it and let me know if it works in your house!

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Straight bow practice



I took this with with my phone during the Dude's practice this morning.  This little rubber band trick has REALLY helped him feel the difference in using different parts of his arm for his bow stroke.

To help teach little ones to play with straight bows from the elbow and not the shoulder, I put a rubber band around a foot of the shoulder rest and wound it around the right wrist.  The player feels a tug when their bow goes straight down, and doesn't feel that pressure when they play a bow with their shoulder.  We call the straight bows "Springy Bows" since they'll spring back for the up bow, and shoulder bows are "Swingy Bows" because they swing back and forth, not down and up.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Guest post: Memories of my mom, and why I'm in The Polyphonic Spree because of her.






When I was in college, I helped start a jazz ensemble for string players.  One of our members wasn't a string major - Sean was actually a percussion major (and an AWESOME one at that).  He'd played violin when he was younger and had migrated to drums and all that when he got older.  Sean is one of the best musicians I have ever known, and I'm lucky enough to have gotten to play with him for those few years.  He graduated from college with a performance degree in percussion his masters in sound design, and is also an amazing guitarist and arranger and all that - but never gave up playing the violin.  Last year he had the opportunity to join one of my favorite bands - the Polyphonic Spree as the violinist - and has been touring and recording with them like mad.  We're talking Africa, Korea, London - and I even got to see him in Chicago a few weeks ago!  I am insanely jealous of him, but since he's such a fabulous guy I let it slide :)

This last Mother's Day he wrote this amazing essay about his mom and violin lessons and it brought me to tears as a mother, teacher, musician and human being.  It was just so powerful that I go back to read it often to remind myself that it's okay - it's a bumpy road - but it's ultimately worth it.  He agreed to let me share it with you and I am so grateful he shared it with me.  Enjoy!

Memories of my mom, and why I'm in The Polyphonic Spree because of her.

(I know this is long, but I hope some of you read it. It's really hilarious and a tear-jerker, for me at least, especially if you're a parent, and even moreso a mother, thinking of raising musical children)

As some of you already know, I lost my mother Sharon Redman to breast cancer almost 7 years ago (this fact terrifies me. Years go by way too fast these days). She's missed a lot of major things that have happened in my life. Some I'm sad about, and some I don't mind that she didn't have to witness. But the hardest one is the fact that she never got to see me playing violin on stage for a living, the instrument that she started me on when I was 5. I think about her quite frequently at the beginning of our shows, especially when friends or other family come to see me, and I'm acutely aware of her absence in those moments. She would have just told me that we are way too loud, haha, but I know that she would have been extremely proud, and would have told all of her friends when I joined.

When I first got back to Texas last year to regroup and recover, I looked through a lot of old things, and found some amazing stuff she had written, that made me laugh really hard, and cry even harder. She had an awesome ironic sense of humor. This is something I found that she wrote about raising my brother Robert and I to play the violin in the Suzuki program (where mothers come to the lessons with their very young children and learn the instrument with them to encourage/help them), but please forgive us for our bratty or childishly arrogant moments. We were kids after all, haha. I don't know how she put up with us sometimes, and the last paragraph breaks my heart a little that she had to suffer so much motherly doubt (as all mothers do I suppose) in herself and the job she was doing raising us. I would apologize to her a million times if I could.

I think she knew that she succeeded though in raising us right, probably beyond her expectations, although I wish I could tell her and show her that now, with how my life has changed after joining the Spree. And if she had listened to me and let me quit when I was being a little butthole, I wouldn't have performed in London last year, and gone to Uganda this year, and wouldn't be playing for thousands at festivals in Australia, South Korea, France, the UK, and possibly more this Summer. So thank you Mom. Thanks for not giving up on me and for everything that you did to bring music into our lives.

She also sang to and with me constantly growing up, so if any of you like my singing voice, she's probably responsible for that too. So here it is, Sharon Redman's reflections on Robert and Sean. (Most people reading this could probably guess which one I am, but I'm the baby of the family, and Robert is 2 years older.)
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(Reflections while driving to yet another music lesson, listening to squabbling in the back, wondering how I had got through 10 years of music activity)

Once there were two little boys who thought they might like to play the violin. And one said (after three lessons), "This is too hard, we're going to quit, aren't we?" (But we had already paid....)

And the younger one said, "I might as well play violin too, we have one the right size." And the older one said, "I LIKE these songs, I can't WAIT 'til I get to Bouree! Come show me how to play the next song."

(And his mother never forgot he said that.)

The younger one said, "I'll play until I catch up with my brother, and then I'll quit."

The older one said, "How many books are there anyway? That's too many. I guess I'll just finish Book 5 before I quit. That's a good stopping spot." (But he forgot.) Instead, he said, "Mom, that little girl is younger than me and she can play more songs. I have to catch up!"

When congratulated on finishing Book One, the younger one was startled to tears and shouted, "But I didn't WANT to!" (He was only 5 and hadn't realized how much he had learned.)

Once, at a Suzuki Institute, the older one ran to me shouting, "Quick, I have to learn Minunet in G. They're playing it on the recital this afternoon and I want to play it too!"

And the younger one said, "Mom, stop playing with me, you play out of tune and get me off."

And the older one cheered out loud in group class when he discovered he had caught up to his friend. (and she was annoyed, because she didn't even know there was a contest!)

And the younger one said, "Don't we have any other tapes to listen to but violin? I don't have to listen anymore. I already know it. I hate practicing, I want to watch TV. I hate my teacher, she wants me to hold my violin up.

(I have to interject for a second here, because I actually LOVED my teacher Mrs. Robertson to death. Kids say jerky things sometimes...),

I hate double stops. I CAN'T do them. I won't learn the cadenza. It's too hard, nobody will know the difference. I won't carry the violin, my friends would know I played!"

And the older one said, "Find me another talent show Mother. I want to win again!" And the younger one said, "Leave me alone, don't talk while I'm practicing." (and five minutes later he shouted, "Come quick and tell me what I'm supposed to do here!") And the older one said, "Now that I'm in orchestra, I don't need to take lessons anymore. I'm good enough."

And the younger one said, "I'm definitely going to quit when I finish Book Ten, (by the way, Mom, we have to find a better piano accompanist, you don't play fast enough.)

And Grandmother cried when they played, and Granddad was proud, and Great-Grandmother said, "At last! Somebody in the family who can really play!"

But the little boys didn't understand why yet, and whispered, "They were just saying it because we are their family."

And the younger one said, "I don't think I want to play forever." And the older one said, "I'd rather play trumpet", and the other said, "I'd rather play percussion." (And they did that very well, too.)

And one said, "I guess I'll keep playing in the string quartet because nobody else would play as well as I can." And one said, "If you find us more jobs for money, I'll keep playing."

And once, when she had heard "I hate violin" once too often and thought it might be time to quit, one came in and said, "Watch my fingers, Mother, see how they play this fast part. They're just doing it by themselves!" And she thought, maybe a LITTLE longer.....

(and their mother tried to be very quiet and not say anything wrong, but it was hard to know what was right, and sometimes she did say the wrong thing, but maybe sometimes she said the right thing, but what was it? She couldn't remember...)

Friday, August 2, 2013

Sweet rewards

Having a baby is marvelous, but it can muck up my morning lesson routine when said baby needs a nap but is fighting a nap and I have to rock the baby instead of the piano.

Luckily, WonderGirl has a lot of review songs in her brain, so I can make her a list and rush off to baby-tend. Today I thought I'd sweeten the deal and give her chocolate chips to eat after every song. And 2 bonus chips because she'd stepped in and practiced with the Dude when the baby got fussy during his violin lesson.

Do you sweeten up practice time when things get chaotic? I'd love to hear your tricks!

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

DIY recitals



I used to worry that as my children's only teacher, they were missing out on being a part of a studio and doing the typical studio things like recitals.  Then I decided I was being silly and had my own.  Recitals don't have to be stodgy, terrifying experiences.  I have some friends who have children who take lessons and I invited them all to our house for a evening concert.  The ones that wanted to participate prepared for it, and one friend actually taught her kids just so they could join in!  Her 3 year old daughter played a piece I named "Tiny Sonata in in C, first movement" - which was her getting up and finding middle C and playing it for us.  It was so sweet!  My mom was visiting so she accompanied some of the violinists too, although we also thought about hiring a local pianist to be our official accompanist.  Maybe if mom isn't visiting that will be our plan next time.

I printed up a little program, the kids dressed up or dressed down, and took their turns standing in front of the crowd and bowing, playing, then bowing again.  Then we put the instruments away and had root beer floats.  It was a blast!  Giving the kids goals to work towards - even a simple house concert - are fabulous motivation tools.  And if you look and the Dude's face, you can see how great it makes them feel when they accomplish something.  It was his first time playing for an audience, and after seeing all the other kids playing piano, insisted on starting piano lessons the next day.  It's going great so far, but that's a whole other post.

Plus it was a great motivation for me to get the house all cleaned up.  Win-win!

Friday, July 5, 2013

Party of 5!

It's a boy!  Again!  We were blessed with him back in March and the adjusting has been pretty minimal.  This kid is AWESOME.  
(these pictures are from my 365 photo-a-day project - hence the numbers)


Boy #1 has been having violin lessons for 6 months now and has been making progress - slowly but consistently!


He has some fine motor issues, so it has been so impressive to see him begin to be able to move his fingers independently of each other.  I'm so thankful we are doing violin now to strengthen his hands!  Interestingly - I taught his sister piano first and violin second because piano was so much easier for me to teach and for her to learn lesson skills since it's so straight-forward.  Plus she could read so reading piano books was a great first step.

Boy #1 can read already, but since we only have an electric keyboard, the distraction of all those buttons is too much to ask him to concentrate.  Violin has no distractions - just me and his instrument.  For a 3 year old boy, that seems like the best first fit.  I thought I had it all figured out after the first one - and this second child is doing everything backwards.  It's such a great education for me as a teacher.  I am curious to see what curveballs our new little brother will throw at us!


Teaching music to my own children has taught me to get rid of my preconceived notions of what I think they would be doing with a different teacher, and how I was taught in the past.  I can't push and make everything fit some mold - there is SO much flexibility required.  I have to be willing to be humble and go with the flow - which is difficult since I've spent so much time being a teacher to other people's children.  I can't be as strict, but I can't be lax either.  It's such a interesting balance.


 I adore these three munchkins.  There are so many unknowns in their future - but if I can at least teach them how to work and practice and try - then I think I can breathe a little easier.  And here's nothing more adorable than seeing them race to get their instruments so they can jam with Daddy on the guitar.  That makes it all worth it :)


Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Move slowly and don't stop.


I'm here!  I'm alive!  And this has been my mantra for the last 7 months or so, since I discovered morning, noon and night sickness again.  Yes, we are being blessed with another member to our family next month!  But it has taken a serious toll on my ability to do just about anything.  The guilt, the messes, the guilt - ak!  There are weeks where I don't have the energy for daily violin and piano with WonderGirl, and I repeat this to myself again and again - MOVE SLOWLY AND DON'T STOP.  The only way I can fail is if I quit.

When I started teaching WG, my mom gave me the best advice - you can make a mountain one spoonful at a time.  So even if I couldn't heap on tons every day, just constantly adding a bit more to our pile of experience would equal something bigger someday.  This has been very helpful during my pregnancy, especially because piano lessons are increasingly difficult with a 3 year old brother dying to steal the piano away.  So some weeks, we've had to settle for one of two sessions together - but I didn't beat either one of us up about it, I knew it was all just another spoonful for our mountain.  Some weeks violin practice is very thin or nonexistent, but we're not quitting, we're just taking a different pace.  We are still growing!  The important part is connecting with each other, giving her a new skill to develop and accomplishing something she can take pride and enjoyment in.

She's just hit the 2nd Faber Piano Adventures book on piano - eep!  - and one song away from completing the first Suzuki violin book while learning to read violin music.  I couldn't be happier, especially because we are traveling this journey together.   And you won't believe it - my 3 year old begs for violin lessons now!  I've taken the same mountain building approach and his lessons are just a few minutes each - and so far, his wee hand can manage a bowhold and he can hold the violin without dropping it for a good long while.  I don't care if he ever reaches massive technical feats on the violin, I do care that he is learning to stand quietly with me, learn something new and develop his ear and body.  It's a magical thing to witness in a 3 year old who rarely stands still for anything.  Or course he knows at the end of the lesson there is the chance to earn a treat... something from his Halloween stash usually, so there is definite motivation there :)

I have friends with much more regimented schedules and they are an inspiration to me - but I have to constantly stop and check myself before I start comparing and feeling inadequate - I am doing all I am capable of doing right now, and most importantly - no matter how slow I move, I will not stop.


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