Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Inspiring, Helpful Books for Violin and Viola Teachers (and other Music Teachers as well)

Teaching violin and viola is a fantastic job, most of the time. I love sharing music with my students, and I'm excited to see their progress. Still, all students are unique, and it's often challenging to discover what works best for each individual person. I think it's valuable for music educators to continually examine their teaching methods and philosophies, so that we have plenty of tools to help us meet whatever challenges we have. I've made a list of books I think are essential reading for any music teacher. These books have helped me solve problems, in my own playing as well as my students'.

1. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. 

This book expresses the closest thing I have to a life philosophy. In it, Csikszentmihalyi discusses his experiments and his experiences studying "optimal experience." Ultimately, most people describe being happiest and most satisfied, to the point of transcendence, when they have high concentration and focus. How do ordinary people achieve this state of consciousness? By developing the same mental discipline and focus that we learn in music. If we carefully gauge our teaching so that students stay engaged and challenged without being overwhelmed, we can help them discover the state of "flow" in addition to the joys of music.

2. Nurtured by Love, by Shinichi Suzuki. 

This is the classic of Suzuki literature. Even if you think you would never want to use Suzuki method with your students, I'd strongly recommend reading this book. For one thing, the love and caring that Suzuki shows for his students and his intention to teach them to have a beautiful character and a love for music above all else, is inspiring to any teacher whatever their methods. I would also keep an open mind about his thoughts on teaching music. Even if you do not intend to use all of Suzuki method, he has many intelligent ideas about music teaching that any teacher can benefit from using.

3. The Inner Game of Music, by Barry Green and W. Timothy Gallwey. 

As a performance major in graduate school, I suffered from crippling performance anxiety. My teacher even suggested that I try beta blockers or other drugs to try and calm down. Instead, I got a copy of Barry Green's The Inner Game of Music, and his techniques became a life saver. I learned to use awareness to keep my mind focused during tough auditions and nerve-wracking performances. Furthermore, I found Green's ideas for using awareness techniques to communicate with students invaluable. I've found that my students learn more efficiently and effectively, and their performances during recitals benefit as well. I recommend this book to every nervous musician I meet, and doubly recommend it for teachers.

4. Teaching from the Balance Point, by Edward Kreitman. 

I bought this book after I attended one of Ed Kreitman's talks at a Suzuki Institute. He impressed me with his compassionate yet highly demanding methods of teaching. I've re-read this book several times since then, often when I'm feeling frustrated. This book reminds me that there are no short-cuts, only intelligent, efficient hard work. More over, it reminds me of many of the solutions to students' difficulties: patience, high standards, more patience, and constant repetition. I never fully valued the importance of review until I read Kreitman's book, and now I find it an essential tool, especially for students who seem "stuck."

5. Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching, by Ivan Galamian. 

This book is a great classic of violin techniques and teaching. While much of it is highly technical for violinists, it's an important read for anyone who wants to learn how to truly master an instrument. Although one might think Galamian's techniques are too advanced to use with beginning students, I think it's easy enough to start with the simple, basic elements of say, an A major scale, and then grow from there into the more advanced techniques. The helps keep scale practice constantly exciting and new. I also think it's important to remember that the basic techniques we teach a beginner set them up to easily develop advanced skills. By taking the time and effort to train beginners well, we save them enormous amounts of time and frustration down the road.

6. Audition Success and Performance Success, by Don Greene. 

This is another book I bought to help me succeed in auditions and high-stress performances. The techniques in this book are highly compatible with those in The Inner Game of Music. As with the Inner Game, I found that the methods of combating nerves in Audition Success were incredibly useful for my students as well as myself. I especially liked using centering to help students (and myself) stay focused.

7. Intelligent Music Teaching, by Robert A. Duke. 

I enjoyed this book because it gives very clear instructions (with accompanying evidence) for how to be an effective music teacher. He notes that the purpose of music lessons is to teach students to play beautifully, and that requires that teachers give effective feedback, including negative feedback. In fact, Duke notes that avoiding negative feedback, especially when a student can hear how badly they sound, only further emphasizes the mistake by making it seem so bad that it's unmentionable. I also think it's important Duke acknowledges that teachers cannot motivate all students. So many teachers, including myself, expect that we can transform even the most reluctant student into a great musician who loves music. It hurts when a student we've worked hard to motivate quits lessons or refuses to practice. But the truth is that motivation comes from within. Teachers should provide a rich learning environment for their students, and engage them as best they can, but students have to meet us half way.

8. Nurture Shock, by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. 

This is an important book about how much of the conventional wisdom about child rearing/teaching is completely wrong. For example, praising children for their innate abilities can be terribly destructive. This kind of praise teaches children that their only value in their talent, which they cannot change. Thus when a child encounters a challenging problem, they do not believe that hard work can overcome their difficulties, and so they give up. Instead, it's better to give children specific positive feedback ("Good bow hold!" instead of "You're so talented!"). Bronson and Merryman show how research into child development and learning can help teachers of all kinds (and parents) learn to be more effective.

9. Punished by Rewards, by Alfie Kohn. 

I've already written about this book, but I feel that it's worth mentioning again. Rewards are manipulative, and they can easily destroy children's intrinsic motivation. As a teacher, I try my best to keep students engaged in learning the violin, not getting a piece of candy at the end of their lesson. 

Too often, people think that teaching is an innate ability, but like music, it is a skill that we can develop with practice. Reading these books can inspire teachers, and help them develop the techniques they need to be effective. I know they helped me.

If there are any books that you think should be on my list, let me know about them in the comments!

Related articles on Suzuki Method and Violin/Viola teaching or performing:

For Parents: How to Support your Child's Music Practice and Development

Suzuki Method for Adult Students

Excellent Supplemental Books for Suzuki Violin and Viola Students

Suzuki Method--a Violin Teacher's Perspective

Suzuki Philosophy: Every Child Has Talent

Suzuki Techniques--Listening is the key

Violin Life Lessons

Inspiring Practice

Practicing Violin Effectively

Great Apps for Musicians

Pascale Method for Violin--A Review

More Apps for Musicians and Music Students

Classical Music Isn't Dying--It's in a Recession

Sunday, February 24, 2013

David's Delicious Okra

My husband David and I have been trying to eat healthy food, including more vegetables. We both love okra, and my husband created this dish so that we could eat okra without deep frying it. To my delight, this recipe is so delicious that I think it's better than any fried okra I've ever eaten! It's also quick and easy to prepare, and far less messy than frying.

1/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
Salt to taste (or a large pinch)
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning (or your favorite herbs and spices)
1 pound okra

To begin, line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and rinse your okra. Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.

Trim both ends off the pods, like so.

Combine the olive oil, vinegar, salt, pepper, and spices in a large Ziploc bag (or a large bowl).

Add the okra to the bag and shake until the okra are well coated with the mixture.

Spread the okra in a single layer on your baking sheet.

Place the baking sheet on the middle rack of your 400 degree oven, and bake for fifteen minutes, or until the pods brown slightly.

Finally, eat all the delicious okra!

Why Okra?

Okra are a very low calorie vegetable with no saturated fat and plenty of dietary fiber. Nutritionists sometimes recommend them for controlling cholesterol and weight loss. They are rich in vitamins and minerals including vitamins A, C, and K, folates, iron, calcium, and magnesium. 

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Sherwood Forest Faire

This past Saturday, my husband and I had a wonderful time attending the Sherwood Forest Faire in McDade, TX (outside of Austin). This fair is much smaller than the Texas Renaissance Festival, but it has an intimacy and charm that we enjoyed. 

We arrived at the fair hungry, so we had a chance to try some of the excellent food at Como's Ristorante Italiano. Last year they had delicious fried risotto balls, but unfortunately this year they weren't serving those tidbits (I guess that risotto might be a bit complicated for fair food). Nonetheless, we decided to try one of their new dishes, the mezzaluna, and some fried mozzarella. The mozzarella was well done, although still ordinary. The mezzaluna, on the other hand, was incredible. They slice up an entire eggplant for each order, then coat it in a thin batter and fry it. the result was a crispy on the outside, beautifully soft on the inside eggplant dish served with a tangy marinara. I loved it, and while it was fried, it still felt healthier than typical fair food thanks to the eggplant. At only five dollars for a large plate of food, I also thought it was very affordable. We scarfed down the entire plate before it got cold.

After our lunch, we went to the Paleo Puffin, a coffee and hookah place right across from Como's Ristorante Italiano. My chai was gingery and delicious, and I enjoyed the atmosphere of the tent, which was close enough to one of the stages that we could hear music from one of the bands, VaNa MaZi.

VaNa MaZi sounded like modern gypsy/folk music. Their music and performance style gave an off-beat, exotic flavor to the fair. As a viola player, I especially enjoyed listening to Corinne Zapler on viola--she used the deeper register of the viola to give the music power and earthiness. 

After listening awhile, we decided to indulge ourselves with some of the sweets the fair had to offer. I got some chocolate/peanut butter fudge from Fudge and More, while David got a chocolate funnel cake. I loved the fudge; it was smooth and velvety, not at all grainy like too many inferior fudges. The chocolate/peanut butter taste was rich and intense--even a little bite felt decadent. The chocolate funnel cake was excellent as well, if more typical fair food.

After our dessert, we decided to watch some of the shows. I thought the joust was fun and exciting--it was clear that the combatants were actually hitting each other with their lances, and the plot of the show felt engaging and enjoyable.

After the joust, we watched the Combat Tournament of Sherwood, an entertaining show featuring different styles of armed combat, with a considerable dose of humor. 

Once the shows finished, my husband and I explored the many booths and stands of the fair. Sherwood has plenty of costume shops, armories, and other stands to explore. I bought soap from Summerwood Soaps, and a lovely feathered hair ornament. My husband shot arrows at the archery booth, where we were impressed by the attendant's knowledge and expertise. 

All in all, we had a great day at the Sherwood Forest Faire, and we are hoping to visit again before the end of the season.

Other Renaissance Fair Posts:

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Stop the Disrespect: How Boys' Negative Attitudes Towards Women Harms their Performance in School

In a recent article in Time, Erika Christakis asks "Do Teachers Really Discriminate Against Boys?" Evidence shows that teachers actually do not discriminate against boys when they show the same enthusiasm for learning and good behavior that girls do, but that boys who misbehave are graded more harshly. Though Christakis concludes that the problem might lie in teachers' misunderstanding of active, kinesthetic learning styles, I wonder if the true problem is much deeper. It's been my experience that many boys are not taught to show respect to women, and since most of their teachers are women, this lack of respect leads boys to behave negatively in the classroom. If we want to improve boys' school performance, teaching them to respect women is crucial.

I taught eighth grade language arts in a poverty-stricken, almost entirely minority middle school in Dallas ISD. While my experiences in the school could constitute an entire book worth of analysis, the short version is, I was miserable, and though I tried my best to help my students learn, it often felt like the odds against them (and me) were overwhelming. One of the greatest obstacles was the constant  bad behavior, especially from boys. It's true that a lot of the ordinary misbehavior was typical restless teenager problems--talking to much and goofing off in class--but the worst of it had a far darker and uglier aspect. Male students drew sexual pictures of me in their books, with extremely explicit taglines referring to me by name. Other students (mostly male) screamed curse words at me in class. Of course, I was not the only target of their attacks. One male bully took off his belt in my class and used it to hit one of my female students. He spent one day in ISS before he was back in my class, bullying and harming other students. I saw similar behavior in the boys who viciously bullied New York bus monitor Karen Klein.

The constant disrespect directed at me by male students was one of the most degrading and dehumanizing aspects of my job. Essentially, their disrespect made it enormously difficult for me to manage my class, much less teach students what they needed to learn. I do not think that I was solely to blame for my experiences being sexually harassed by my own students, although the administrators at my school frequently blamed me. They refused to take bullying or sexual harassment seriously, whether it effected students or teachers. This corrosive environment leaves female students and teachers vulnerable to abuses, and keeps boys from getting the guidance and help they need to improve their lives. I strongly believe that intervening to protect the victims of harassment, while educating young men to treat women with respect can help undo a vicious cycle. How can young women learn when they are so often subjected to such derogatory treatment? How can young men learn when they have so much contempt for the women who try to teach them?

I'm not suggesting that simply teaching boys to respect women is the only solution, but if we don't address the severe behavioral problems so many impoverished boys develop, then we will inhibit their learning as well as their social development.

So what can we do to improve boys' attitudes towards women? I have several suggestions.

1. Positive Male Role Models Who Show Respect for Women: I think some of the best people to correct boys' destructive attitudes are positive male role models. When one of my students yelled curse words at me on the playground, a male teacher he respected called him out on his behavior. That man told him how inappropriate and rude his behavior was, and criticized him for behaving that way towards a female teacher. I saw an immediate improvement in that boy's attitude. Once an older man told him to show respect, a light went on in his head. He needed that role model to guide his behavior. Likewise, when fathers, not just mothers, showed up to parent teacher conferences, they were often very influential on their sons. I remember a dramatic change in one boy's behavior after his father told him to show respect for me. Professions like teaching tend to be female-dominated, while engineering is male-dominated. Perhaps balancing things in those professions, with more women becoming engineers and more men becoming teachers, will help give both boys and girls more positive inspiration.

2. Take Sexual Harassment/Bullying Seriously: Even more than the behavior of the boys, I was deeply disturbed by the reactions of the administration at my school. Instead of addressing the serious behavioral problems of the boys, they blamed me for not controlling them. They steadfastly refused to address severe bullying as well (after several students were physically injured by bullying at our school, I sent a letter to the school board about the problems), which I saw as connected to the epidemic of destructive behavior. It is vital that schools create a culture of respect, and that means addressing bullying or sexual harassment via positive interventions like education, and if necessary, disciplinary actions or police involvement. No student should be allowed to bully and terrorize other students or teachers.

3. Encourage Positive Changes in Popular Culture: When boys lack positive male role models, they often turn to pop culture influences. Yet as anyone paying attention to pop culture knows, it is rife with misogyny and disrespectful attitudes to women. Thus one way to improve boys' attitudes towards women might be to encourage them to play video games, or watch TV, or listen to music with positive messages, and limit their exposure to media that shows disrespect towards women. Parents should make sure that their sons are not consuming media that might damage their perceptions of women.

4. Talk about Gender Issues in School: Many teachers are hesitant to discuss sensitive issues like racism or sexism in class. But I think it's important to directly confront issues like these. An honest discussion of how hurtful and destructive stereotypes can be might help these boys (or girls, for that matter) confront their negative attitudes towards women or people of other races.

5. Help Boys Find Healthy Outlets for their Emotions: Too often, our society communicates to men and boys that they should suppress their emotions. This leaves men with few outlets to talk about or address emotions like fear, anger, or pain. Teaching boys how to discuss their emotions in a healthy way might keep them from using violence, bullying, or harassment to express their anger or pain. Most teenage bullies/harassers aren't monsters; they are only frightened, nervous children who are going through enormous physical and emotional changes. Without the social/emotional skills to address their intense emotions, they can easily become lost on a destructive path.

In her article, Christakis suggest that schools should adjust themselves to become more friendly to boys, but perhaps the truth is that we need to teach boys to be friendlier to school. If we show them how to find more emotional stability, positive role models, and healthy, respectful attitudes towards women, boys will likely have a dramatically easier time in school.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Chapter Five from James Joyce's "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man"

The last chapter of Joyce's "Portrait" at first left me unsure how to write about it. Unlike the previous chapters, which showed a clear trajectory and theme, this one seemed more complicated, since Stephen Dedalus's emotions and identity seems to continually shift and reform. This increasingly complex depiction of Stephen's changeable nature and shifting thoughts foreshadows the stream of consciousness Joyce uses throughout Ulysses. Yet that doesn't mean that chapter five lacks structure or direction, and after much consideration I think the key to chapter five is that it contains a condensed version of Stephen's development in the first four chapters.

For example, the opening of chapter five makes several direct references to Stephen's experiences and character in chapter one. The pool of water under his jar of dripping reminds him of "the turfcolored water of the bath in Clongowes," and his mother washes him as though he were still a small child. It is as though he has temporarily reverted to state of childhood. He does not even know what day it is, and he realizes that he will be late for his classes at the University. Even the poetry that comes to his mind is "drivel." Yet when he reaches Trinity college, Stephen remembers the warmth of his friend Davin, which dimly reflects his memory of the boys at Clongowes celebrating his courage in speaking to the dean about his unfair punishment. Yet though Stephen remembers Davin warmly, he also realizes that his friend's worship of the "sorrowful legend of Ireland," limits his intellectual development, trapping him in the "attitude of a dullwitted loyal serf." However appealing Davin's warmth and kindness are, to Stephen they also represent another trap.

Trinity College

Davin also reflects Stephen's sexual desires and fantasies, referencing Stephen's experiences in chapter two. Stephen recallst Davin telling him about walking home from a hurling match. Davin got lost in the dark, and finally stopped at a lonely cottage. A young woman, half undressed and possibly pregnant, answered the door with a large mug of milk. She tells Davin her husband is gone for the night, and asks him to stay the night with her. But Davin does not go in (unlike Stephen, who goes into a prostitute's room in chapter two), but leaves in a fever of desire. Stephen only breaks from his reverie when a woman lays her hand on his arm to offer to sell him some flowers. This gesture recalls Stephen's first experiences with a prostitute, who had laid her hand on his arm to lead him to her room. But the woman in chapter five is not seducing Stephen to bed, but only enticing him to buy her flowers. This time, Stephen does not follow the girl, but only roughly tells her he has no money. Within the previous context, Stephen's rough answer might be understood to reflect his bitterness at the tawdry financial motives of the women he slept with. Indeed, though he initially sees the flower girl as guileless, when he looks closer he "saw only her ragged dress and damp coarse hair and hoydenish face." Yet, Stephen's refusal of the flowers also indicates his loneliness, that perhaps he does not have a girl he loves enough to buy flowers for. His self-absorption leaves him without a partner or true love.

Stephen's Green

Having left the flower girl and his sexual reveries behind, Stephen now enters into Trinity college, a center of Jesuit teaching which reflects religious conversion Stephen experiences in chapter three. As he enters his physics classroom, he finds the dean lighting a fire. This fire seems to represent the religious passion Stephen experienced in the earlier chapter, or perhaps it even suggests the hell fire that so terrorized him. If this is the case, then the terrible fires of hell Father Arnall threatened him with have been reduced to a small, domesticated flame, as Stephen's religious passion has waned. In fact, Stephen tells the priest "I am sure I could not light a fire," perhaps indicating his lack of faith, or at least his lack of religious passion.

Yet, while at Trinity Stephen shows the kind of cold, passionless intellectualism that he imagined he would embrace as a priest in chapter four, indicating that he has not escaped completely from the bounds of religion, especially its contempt of the body and its passions. His discussion of beauty with the dean reflects this rigid intellectualism. Instead of putting forth his own ideas, Stephen answers the priest's question about the nature of beauty with a series of quotes from Aquinas. Instead of wrestling with his own writing and creativity, Stephen focuses excessively on the exact meanings of particular words, like "detain." The priest meanwhile surprises Stephen by not knowing the word "tundish," which the Irish call a funnel.  This small misunderstanding leaves Stephen humiliated and wondering if he, as an Irishman, will ever have the command and comfort speaking English as an Englishman.

After his class, Stephen encounters his classmates, and repeatedly demonstrates his emotional distance from them. He refuses to sign a petition for universal peace, and resists taking sides in his classmates' arguments and political discussions. He mocks his friend Davin for signing the petition for universal peace when he has Fenian pamphlets in his room. Though Davin entices him to join the Irish movement, Stephen passionately refuses, arguing that "no honorable or sincere man...has given up to you his life and his youth and his affections...but that you sold him to the enemy or failed him in need or reviled him and left him for another.  And you invite me to be one of you. I'd see you damned first." If Stephen demonstrated a cold intellectualism talking to his dean, once he escapes the confined atmosphere of the classroom, he shows some of the passion and desire for freedom that an artist needs. By rejecting both the icy rationalism of the priest and the hot-headed passions of his Fenian friend, Stephen forges a path to his own artistic freedom. He tells Davin "when the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets."

There is one net, however, that Stephen fails to mention. He has a young lady he's interested in, the elusive EC. He is angry at her because he imagines he saw her flirting with a priest at an Irish language class. His failure to understand or empathize with women leaves him baffled, while his jealousy leaves him frustrated and bitter.  It's only after he recognizes that his beloved might have a bird's soul of her own, and that he has judged her harshly, that he is inspired to write a poem for her. Though many critics have doubted the quality of Stephen's villanelle, as a writer and musician myself, I think that the quality of the poem matters less than the fact that Stephen is writing at all. Great writing, like great music, takes an enormous amount of practice, and Stephen's youthful talents might be refined and developed through great effort. Indeed, Joyce mocks the artistic pretensions of Little Chandler in "A Little Cloud," partly because Chandler imagines himself a great poet when he's never written a single line or even read a volume of poetry.

The last net Stephen faces is perhaps friendship and companionship. Before he leaves Ireland, he speaks to his friend Cranly about his intentions. Cranly reminds Stephen that leaving would make him "alone, quite alone...and you know what that word means? Not only to be separate from all others but to have not even one friend." Stephen, perhaps naively, imagines that Cranly is projecting his own loneliness onto him. Yet by rejecting the quiet offer of friendship Cranly makes, Stephen has escaped Ireland's last net. At last, he is free to leave Ireland for what he hopes will be the beginning of his artistic life.

Other blogs for James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Blogs for James Joyce's Dubliners:

Blogs for James Joyce's Ulysses: