Monday, January 31, 2011

Practicing practicing

“It's a funny thing, the more I practice the luckier I get”. Arnold Palmer

It turns out children don't come out of the womb knowing how to practice.  They need to be taught to play the instrument, and then they have to be taught how to how to play it on their own.  I came to that realization as a young college student when the parent of a 3 year old student lamented to me that she'd send Suzy to her room with her violin, but she just wouldn't practice.

Now that I've had a 3 year old, that seems a bit daft.  I couldn't even get WonderGirl to get herself dressed without her forgetting what she was doing mid-task and meandering off wearing nothing but underwear and one shoe.  We have to teach kids to use a toilet, blow their nose, brush their teeth, hold a fork, so it makes sense that teaching practicing is just one more skill to put on our agenda.

Right now I'm in the process of teaching WonderGirl (age 4) to practice the piano, and we're having luck so far, remembering these simple rules:
  • She has no concept of time.
  • She needs a list.
It's my fault, partially.  When I say "In a minute," I can mean anywhere from 10 seconds to tomorrow.  So requesting she play for 15 minutes is basically asking her to sit on the piano bench and play with her hair.  I have a pad with charts that we use with Elmo on it, so it is thereby motivationally awesome.

Since she's usually practicing during the 1 year old's naptime, I have her play with headphones.  I give her specific instructions of what to play (i.e. "this page 3 times, then that page 3 times, then all together 4 times, etc.") and mark each box off with each time played, and when that's done, she needs to unplug the headphones and play for me (and a few stuffed animals) a concert of what she worked on.  When she has filled a whole page up, she gets some kind of reward.  I've only had one student that worked better with a set amount of time - every other student liked being given a checklist.  Including yours truly.

The trick is - she did everything I asked, and when she's done with that - she's done. Less whining, more playing, then off to the next adventure of the day.  So woohoo, teaching the art of accomplishing - accomplished!! (for now;)

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Sunday inspiration: Why we do what we do

Teaching music is not my main purpose. I want to make good citizens. If children hear fine music from the day of their birth and learn to play it, they develop sensitivity, discipline and endurance. They get a beautiful heart. - Shinichi Suzuki

Friday, January 28, 2011

How to teach a music lesson to your own kid

Another one of my attempts to use up the leftover Halloween candy.  

I'm going to share today my Greatest Idea Ever.  Really, I'm flabbergasted that this came to me and it has worked like an absolute charm.

One of the biggest issues a teacher can have in lessons with a new student is whining.  They aren't used to sitting/standing there, paying attention for so long, and they inevitably will start asking - "When will this be over?  I'm tiiiiired!"  As a private teacher I can sidestep this, but as a mom, this one is tough.  We can both start getting annoyed with each other and it goes downhill from there.

Except for this gem I am about to share with you.  Pure magic, I tell you!

We sit down at the piano together, and I put 5 M&Ms next to her music.  These are hers for AFTER the lesson.  We go through our lesson, playing, practicing, etc.  If at any time she complains or gets negative, I ignore her and calmly eat one of the candies.  I continue on as nothing has happened.  At the end of the lesson, whatever number of candies are left are for her.  They are hers to lose - and I don't have to get grouchy at her for getting whiny, AMEN!

I explained this to her the first time, and now she is very cautious - I can see her get a little restless, and then she checks herself.  I started with very short lessons - only a few minutes at the most, and now we can go up to 15-20 minutes with only losing maybe one M&M.    It saves me because I can stay positive without nagging, and she leaves the lesson with a (literal) sweet taste in her mouth.  Honestly, I didn't know it would work so well, and I thought I needed 5 candies so she'd at least have one left, but the most she's ever lost were two.  In a while I'll start using less, because she's getting so excited about all the songs she knows that the candy is less of a draw for her.  Which is AWESOME.  It's also handy because I don't let her eat much of the candy she gets at holiday times so we have huge surpluses that we're sloooowly using up.  Last week we broke into the pile of Smarties.  I know people out there all have varying opinions on rewards, so I'm curious to see other ways this could be adopted.  I'm just thrilled it has worked as well as it has!

UPDATE 2/20/14:  Now that I teach two of my own kids, I have to say this is still the greatest bit of inspiration I've gotten, teaching-wise.  I have even tried this with private students, and it works amazingly - especially wee 3 year-olds. We don't use M&Ms - sometimes it's fruit snacks, pretzels, marshmallows, chocolate chips or pennies, whatever the kid is motivated by.  Eventually, they learn proper lesson habits, they forget about the treats and I quietly stop getting them out for lessons.   Now and then they hit a grumpy phase where lessons become a battlefield again, so I quietly get out the treats and stop nagging/arguing/begging, and they magically stop whining.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Making maestros

3 year old Jonathan conducting to the 4th movement of Beethoven's 5th Symphony,
via Rosie (thanks!)

We're not at THIS point yet, but we do love some conducting around here.  Sometimes we quiet the wiggles in church by helping the kids conduct the music from their chairs, and sometimes we conduct to the music on the radio in the car or living room.  It's a great way to get them moving and start learning rhythm.

Every Monday we have family night and open with a song and WonderGirl, ever the drama queen, insists on conducting it.  One week, and we all sang and followed her tempo exactly.  At first, she was amused that suddenly the movement of her arms could be so powerful and she had a ball slowing things down and then speeding them up again.  Sometimes my husband or I take turns conducting and she has to follow our tempo.   The one-year-old Dude has no idea what we're doing, but he finds it, like most things it life, hilarious, and runs around in circles while we sing, laughing hysterically.  Do you have any games that you use to teach tempo?  Share!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Philharmonic Gets Dressed

Back when I was in college, one of my students gave me this book for Christmas.  I'm glad I hung onto it because 13 years later, my daughter loves it!  This book is exactly what the title says - the ninety-two men and thirteen women of the  New York Philharmonic getting dressed for a performance.  It shows the different ways they bathe, don their concert black, travel (the brass guys use the subway, the conductor has a limo:) and come together at Philharmonic Hall to become one musical unit.  

It takes me back to my own orchestra days, and WonderGirl loves to pour over the details on the pages and point out all the differences in the way each musician does the same thing.  Check your local library for The Philharmonic Gets Dressed by Karla Kuzkin, illustrated by Marc Simont and tell me what you think!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Living Room Dance Party #2

Hot Air Balloon by Owl City is magic.  Honestly, it's magic.  From the time the Dude was a teeny tiny baby and acting as such, if I happened to turn on this song, he was suddenly transformed into a wiggling ball of literal happiness.  Something about the xylophone-y goodness is just - magical.

 I dare you to not start dancing by the 10 second point.  When our whole house has the grumps, this song sends them packing.  Enjoy!  What are your favorite blues-banishing tunes?

How to teach your own kid how to play the piano - Part 1

I have a lot to try and share, but let me start off with a disclaimer:
  • I am not a great pianist.  I'm a Prefers To Not Play Any Black Keys kind of pianist.  You don't have to be a virtuoso (or even good) to teach your child piano, you just have to be a good teacher
Today I'll start out by talking about materials.  Suzuki is a learn-by-ear/mother tongue method, and so when I was recruited to teach group piano lessons a few years back, I went with that.  Somehow, for me, learning without sheet music on the violin makes total sense, but it didn't work on piano.  The piano is so visual, and the books are so well-written, I ended up buying my students some piano books and they taught themselves easily.  I'm not knocking Suzuki piano - if I was trained in it, maybe I would have done better, but these new method books are so kid-friendly it's amazing.

My mom is a veteran piano teacher and is now teaching my nephew and sister-in-laws, so I called her before I went shopping for material.  She told me she uses the Alfred Prep Course, and that in mind, I looked through our local store's selection.

Of everything I saw, this was the best for WonderGirl's age group (preschooler).  There are engaging pictures, lyrics, simple duet parts easy enough for me to play with her - and every technique is dissected into the easiest possible increments.  Plus, the Prep Course has companion books - there's a book of solos, a book for exercises and a book for theory, activities, flashcards and more- and they all correspond with each other.  For example - on the top right-hand corner of the pages of the Lesson book, it lists what pieces from the Solo book they are ready to play at that point.   There are so many resources, it's dizzying!  For now all I'm using is the Lesson Book Level A with WonderGirl, but I am planning on branching out to the other books soon.  I thought it would be overwhelming for a 4 year old, but everything is broken down into such small steps that it is completely manageable for us.  I'm teaching a 7 year old boy from church right now, and he's using the Lesson, Technic and Solo books together seamlessly.

Besides doing the in-person teaching part (which is another beast, we'll discuss that soon), all the busy work is done for me!  There are a many piano methods out there for ALL ages (Alfred alone has dozens of options) - and for my daughter, this was the best fit.  Do some research yourself for what works for you and your child.  Are there any method books you rave about?  Let me know!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Let's Sing Together video #1

I have such a fantastic model (the Dude) I thought I'd make videos of some of the nursery rhyme-type songs we sing together.  We learned this at story time a few weeks ago and he laughed so hard you couldn't even hear the librarian!  Ignore my insane just-got-out-of-the-shower hair.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Sunday inspiration: Patiently Passionate/Passionately Patient

"Hi you!!" 

A few years ago,  I took the book 1 Suzuki* teacher training course, taught by Alice Joy Lewis.  She was one of the early pioneers who brought the method to the USA, and she actually took her son to Japan to study with Shinichi Suzuki when he was young (Brian Lewis is now a famous violinist and pedagogue).   She is just a joy to be around - literally, because she loves what she does and loves to share it.

She told us a story that embedded its way into my psyche and changed how I approached teaching children.  I'm going to paraphrase here, but picture a huge beaming smile on the face of the narrator.   It's from the period when she was living in Japan and studying from Suzuki in his studio.
One day, during the course of regular lessons, Mr. Suzuki turned to us [the observing teachers] and asked me with a twinkle in his eye - "Should we teach the children patiently?"  From the look on his face, I could tell it must be a trick question but I couldn't think of how - so I answered a slow "yes?"  He grinned.  "Do you eat steak patiently??"  
The answer spoke for itself - when it's something you enjoy, you don't approach it as a chore, but with passion!!  Patience, yes, we need that in BULK at our house, but the greatest gift we can give as teachers is an excitement for learning, for giving and for life.  I want them to want this for themselves - and the only way I know how to give them the best example I can.  And BOY do I want them to want music!!

What did your parents give you a lifelong passion for?  (Thanks mom for that violin thing! :)

*I snagged this from Wikipedia as a reference for whomever isn't familiar with Suzuki - I refer to it lots and lots:
The Suzuki method, also called Talent Educationmother-tongue method, or Suzuki movement)is an educational philosophy which strives to create "high ability" and beautiful character in its students through a nurturing environment. Its primary vehicle for achieving this is music education on a specific instrument (often violin or piano...). The 'nurture' involved in the movement is modeled on a concept of early childhood education that focuses on factors which Shinichi Suzuki observed in native language acquisition, such as immersion, encouragement, small steps, and an unforced timetable for learning material based on each person's developmental readiness to imitate examples, internalize principles, and contribute novel ideas.

Howard's Screechy Violin

My heart skipped a beat when I saw this book in the store a few years ago.  I not-so-secretly would LOVE my kids to choose to play the violin, and not-so-secretly share my propaganda with them at every occasion, so a book about a kid playing violin (on sale, even)??  I bought this so fast my credit card was a-smokin'.

The story is so fantastic - a boy wants to play the violin and practices at home, but the screeching and squawking drove his family and neighbors crazy.  After a while, they had a family meeting, decided if you can't beat 'em, join 'em, and they all picked up an instrument of their own and started a family band.

How awesome is that??  Especially because I also not-so-secretly want to start a band with our whole family and all be rockstars together.  It's published by Fischer Price and is a Grade 3 level book (although WonderGirl does a pretty good job reading it herself, and she's reading around a 1st grade level).  You can find it here on Amazon for a$.01 and up.  Score!

I have LOADS of favorite music-y books to share with y'all (I'm kind of a junkie), but I'd also love to hear what you have.  What music type books do you love to share with your kids?

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Living Room Dance Party #1

Hands down, my favorite Living Room Dance Party CD is the San Francisco Symphony & Chorus' recording of Orff's Carmina Burana.  Dramatic, loud, epic, it's fantastic.  If you don't regularly rock out to symphonic music, THIS is the one to try.  I've spent at least half of my life sitting in orchestras, and this is my all time favorite thing to play (and I'm a verra picky player).  There isn't a moment in the entire piece where I ever get bored, and it's perfect to play with kids around, since all 26 movements are around 2 minutes in length, and the longest is only about 4.
The version I adore is the San Fransisco Symphony & Chorus 1991 recording with Herbert Blomstedt.  They nailed it.  (and I've heard some disasters - beware!)

And people - it absolutely lends itself to interpretive dance.  This is the kind of thing that window blinds were made for - go nuts.  Take the first movement here (the first 2 and a half minutes) - it's like the choreography writes itself.

Press play and try some of my sweet moves here:

0 - :22  Clomp around like you are a dinosaur.
:22 -1:36  Pretend like you are sneaking about, searching for lost treasure.
1:37- 2:16: Run around like a maniac (you found the treasure, woohoo!)
2:17 - 2:26 Spin spin spin!
2:27 - 2:30 Try to stand up, fall down on top of each other because you are all crazy dizzy.

Seriously, try it!  When I turn this puppy on, the energy level in the house skyrockets and the kids get absolutely giddy.  Now, when I turn the music on and have to step out for a minute, I come back and both kids are doing all the same moves, every time.  Even the 17 month old!  He especially anticipates the spinning part, he knows exactly where it is, and even sings along with come of the the melodies, too!  These kid-things are like sponges!  WonderGirl, my 4 year old, plays choreographer with following movements and barks out orders ("Now you're frog, looking for flies!  HOP!!").

What are your favorite tunes for Living Room Dance parties??

Friday, January 21, 2011

Car talk

Time spent in the car can be oh-so educational.
During the commute to WonderGirl's preschool, the local NPR station changes from news to classical music.  I'm more of a Romantic period and beyond person, though our local station usually starts with some Baroque and early Classical periods and reserves the wilder contemporary stuff to play during the pledge drives.  Grrr.... but I digress.  I still loves me some Bach, and so do the kids.

When the music comes on, we play a game of Name That Instrument - where I ask her what instruments she can hear and how many we can identify.  This morning there was a Baroque trumpet concerti so the soloist sounded like a Alvin and the Chipmunks-type version of the trumpet.  I ended up having to spell the word out for her so she could guess it that way - woohoo, throwing in a spelling lesson!

Do you play any listening games in the car?  Elsewhere?  Share!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Treble Maker Manifesto

I am a mom...... and a caterer, chauffeur, doctor, bodyguard, janitor and activities director.  I am my childrens' first and most important teacher; so it is up to me to expose them to the wonderful things this world has to offer.  I want them to be able to appreciate good music, be able to express themselves through music, understand how to make it and gain self-confidence as they build their ability to achieve.  Whether they grow up to be astronautssalesmen or surgeons, they will be able to bring joy to themselves and others with their lifelong music skills and make the world a better place.  

And when they've shared this with their own children they can all play me concerts on my birthday (I'd prefer music over yet another World's Greatest Everything sweatshirt/snuggie).  I promise to clap loudly.

Are you a Treble Maker too??  Share your story (, and grab the button on the sidebar for your blog to spread the awesomeness!!

The downbeat

my brother and I practicing violin under the watchful eye of our teacher/aunt, circa 1991

As a former full-time musician, sometimes I get a little lost as a new full-time mom.  I've been practicing and playing the violin for about 28 years now, but I've only got 4 years of experience into this parenting thing.  When my now 4 year old daughter WonderGirl was a newborn, the one thing I felt confident doing was changing her diaper.  I couldn't figure out how to feed her, how to get her to stop barking at me - yes, literally barking - but when I changed that diaper she went from dirty to squeaky clean.  I felt a surge of accomplishment, dagnabit.

 (Of course now that I have my second baby - the Dude - I'm feeling better about my abilities so you you are welcome to come by ANYtime and do some diaper changing for me :)

My parents are musicians and teachers, so we were raised with music at the core of our family.  We all grew up singing, dancing and learning instruments - all four of us played the piano, then we split off evenly with two clarinetists and two violinists.  Then I spent my college years getting my undergrad and graduate degrees in performance, while always teaching private lessons in both violin and piano (full disclosure - I was raised Suzuki, did teacher training, teach it and love it).  I even did a stint as a high school orchestra teacher.  I married guy who plays the guitar, bas and drums and plays styles I had never even known existed.  Punk yes, but ska?  It gets a little interesting when we jam.

When I reach into my bag of tricks for inspiration , I go to what I know.  We sing, we listen, we dance, we rock.  Currently we are living in a small town with very few instrumental teachers, so I'm teaching WonderGirl the piano by myself, gulp.  Violin is an ongoing experiment.

I'm not an expert parent, but I'm kind of an expert at this music thing. Part of the purpose of this blog is to follow the music part of of my parenting journey and learning to teach an instrument to my own kids (gulp!), but also to share some of the materials I use, what works (and what doesn't!) and most of all to get some ideas out there from the other awesome Treble Makers out in the big wide intrawebs (that's you!  please!).  Got it?  Let's go!

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