Friday, July 31, 2015

Saying Goodbye to Students

Musicians often change jobs frequently. We have lots of short-term gigs, and our circumstances are always changing. I've spend three years working at a particular music school, but this year I couldn't make it work with my schedule. I'll have to say goodbye to students I've developed strong relationships with, after I've watched some of them develop from playing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star into young musicians playing pieces by Bach. So how do I say goodbye to my students when I can no longer teach them anymore?

I'm not sure of the answer to that question. I've been deeply touched by their heart-felt thanks, lovely parting gifts, and sweet, hand-drawn cards. I know I'm doing what's best for my family, and I hope that their new teachers will be kind and tough and inspiring. But I know that I'll miss them, for a while they'll miss me too.

This last week, I made sure to ask students if they had any last questions for me, or if there's anything we could work on that will help them practice on their own until they start lessons with their new teacher. I've tried to remind them of the tools they have at home to practice effectively, from their metronome and tuner to a mirror where they can check their hand positions. I tell them to keep practicing and remind them of all their progress. Still, I worry about them. 

Relationships between students and teachers are a delicate balance. Teachers need to care about their students, but we also need to have enough distance to assess their progress as objectively as possible. We need to encourage them, but also give them tough challenges and trust them to overcome them on their own. It's hard to find the right mix of compassion and tough love that keeps students excited and engaged without being overwhelmed. The longer you know your students, the easier it becomes to strike that balance. That's one of the things that makes teaching music such as challenge—each student is unique, and they bring their own strengths and weaknesses to every lesson. And for students, adjusting to a new teacher, who may have different methods, expectations, and personality, can be difficult.

Still, I hope that I've prepared my students well enough that they'll adapt to their new teachers no matter what methods they use. In some ways, a new teacher is just another challenge that they'll have to face. Anyway, it's a natural part of education—they get new school teachers every year, and new grade levels. As for me, I'll have plenty of new students myself, many of whom are nervous and excited to meet me, and maybe worried over how I'll compare to their old teachers. I'm sure we'll get along just fine. 

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Sonnet: Summer Morning

In some ways, it's been a busy summer. I've had to work several weekends, since my students had several recitals this summer, and I had symphony performances of my own. Perhaps that's one reason I love lazy summer mornings with my daughter so much--I just want to soak up every moment.

Summer Morning

Her warm milk breath blows softly on my face
The sweetest morning snuggles as I wake
A treasured peaceful time, a slower pace
There's comfort in these moments that I take

The sun is raising pink and gold and fair
A sip of coffee while I watch her play
A scrawl of brilliant colors drawn with care
I listen to each word she learns to say

Look, mommy, see me run and draw and dance
Or splash in cooling water, summer's joy
She sings and climbs on things at ev'ry chance
But then she wants to hold her softest toy

I smile at my beloved little one
As she enjoys the shining morning sun

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Family Music: When Parents and Kids Learn Together

Perhaps the most common question parents ask me is "how do I get my child to practice their instrument?" There are lots of potential solutions for this problem: make a practice schedule, make practice a part of his/her daily routine, use games to make practicing fun, etc. Yet few consider the most powerful method I've seen so far: make learning music a family affair. How so? By taking lessons with your child and practicing together.

So many parents tell me how much they wish they'd learned an instrument as a child, which is why they're putting their children in lessons. To those parents, I say, it's never too late. I often teach parents and children in the same lesson, and many of those children have become my most successful students. Why? 

1. Good Examples

When parents takes lessons alongside their children, they're demonstrating their own commitment to music and learning. It's one thing for your mom to drop you off at violin lessons and then nag you to practice. It's another thing to watch your mother struggling and persevering to master difficult techniques herself. What's more, when parents learn an instrument themselves, they can become excellent home teachers who give helpful feedback. Young children often learn best when they can see a parent or teacher demonstrate a technique. If you love classical music, don't just tell your children that, show them!   

2. Fun Duets and Ensemble Music 

One of the difficulties with private lessons (as opposed to learning in school) is that there's fewer opportunities to perform with other people (though I try to play duets with my students as often as I can). But when families learn together, they can play together as well. I have a family who loves performing trios every Christmas. They have several books of trios for string instruments, and the mother, father, and child rehearse and play together for the rest of the family. Playing together helps students develop their ensemble skills and gives them the opportunity to try new and exciting music. What better way to make music joyful than to share it with the people you love?

3. Mutual Compassion

As I've talked about before, sometimes parents can put tons of pressure on their children to succeed. I've had parents get impatient when students struggle with a concept or a piece. Yet, unless they are musicians themselves, few parents truly understand how difficult music can be, and the amount of effort and discipline even "easy" technique or pieces require. That's why it's great for parents to learn alongside their children. After all, it's much harder to judge, or worse, berate a child for messing up when you've had to struggle through the same section. Likewise, children can appreciate the effort parents put into learning music. (Of course, it's a bit different if the parent is already an accomplished musician. If that's the case, try to remember what it was like when you first started).

I often hear people talking about how their grandparents or parents played music together, or the whole family sang/played for special occasions. Music teachers should encourage these beautiful family traditions, and help to build new ones around the joy of music.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Why I Hate Articles on "Helicopter Parenting"

If you haven't been paying attention lately, then you might not know that helping your children, or signing them up for any kind of class or sport, is out. What's in? Letting them run around unsupervised, like kids back in the good old days. According to multiple articles from sources like Slate, the Washington Post, and the New York Times, this will make kids happier and teach them to handle problems in the real world. The only problem? I suspect it's all a load of free-range BS. Why? Let me count the ways.

1. Massive Privilege 

Let's face it, most ordinary parents don't have the time, money, or energy to be true helicopter parents. It's not as though after school tutors, music lessons, or sports are exactly free. As a private violin and viola teacher, I'm well aware that lessons, instruments, music books, and other necessities cost money. Especially nowadays, how many people can afford to load up their children's schedules with activity after activity? Most ordinary people stick with one or two activities for their kids, not a crazed schedule of events (though it may sometimes feel that way). The other issue of privilege is time. If both parents work, it's likely difficult to find the time for all these activities anyway. I have one daughter, and even scheduling summer swimming lessons becomes tricky when I have to juggle my teaching schedule. In short, I suspect the helicopter parenting phenomenon is concentrated among wealthy or at least upper middle class families, not ordinary people. 

2. Cry Me A River 

The poor, poor little rich kids are apparently so depressed because their parents are controlling, demanding hover monsters. They can't figure out anything themselves cause mommy and daddy intervene all the time. All those activities didn't help at all, except for that whole "getting into Havard" thing. Or in the case of the Dallas "afluenza" teen, the "getting out of jail" thing. Does no one consider that these depressed college kids are adults who are capable of uttering the word "no" to their eager parents? I find it hard to imagine these excellent sheep never had any moments of rebellion, so if they don't have the courage or desire to strike out now, perhaps it's more to do with entitlement and privilege than being incapable. BTW, if the Ivy Leagues are so plagued with whining, entitled brats and their ennui, maybe they should start enrolling more students from middle class or poor backgrounds. I have no doubt they would have way fewer helicopter parents if they didn't give such a boost to legacy applicants. Most poor and middle class kids had to earn their achievements for themselves. 

3. Finding Your Passions 

As a music teacher, I don't see any benefit to forcing students to study instruments they don't care about. It's stressful for everyone, including me, and it takes my time and energy away from the students who love music. But in order for students to discover their love of music, they need the opportunity to try it in the first place. When over-privileged people start acting like kids don't need music classes or activities, because "free-range," that gives me shivers. I know it's not the privileged, over-scheduled wealthy students who'll see their orchestra programs cut; it's the poor and middle class schools that suffer from a lack of interesting activities, from music and arts to computer programming clubs. Then when these bored, under-stimulated poor kids act out, they'll suffer hideous consequences because they don't have wealthy helicopter parents to save them. School activities might be a wretched forced march when you're checking off items on your "get into Ivy League" to-do list, but for other students they're a chance to find their passions, develop valuable skills, make friends, and feel successful. Music and arts programs in particular have been proven time and again to keep kids from dropping out of school.

I used to teach in a terribly poor, almost entirely minority middle school. Do you know the number of times parents complained to me about their children's grades? Never. Not once. I had to call parents again and again, send letters home, and hope that someone would show up to parent-teacher conference night occasionally. The kids may have learned independence, but they also felt alone. Without parents' help and encouragement, many students struggled and fell between the cracks. So please don't think that there's anything wrong with helping your kids. Sometimes they need it, no matter what the pundits think.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Review: Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

 After reading The Best of Connie Willis and remembering how much I'd loved Doomsday Book when it first came out, I decided to read it again. Luckily, soon after that I found a copy at a library book sale. I'm glad I did--this book is one of the most moving, humanistic science fiction novels I've ever read. If anything, it was even better reading it a second time. As an adult I could relate more to Mr. Dunworthy, and being a mother made the chapters in Medieval England all the more poignant.

(Spoilers) In Doomsday Book, Willis depicts two completely different eras that share a common thread--a future Oxford where time travel is used to study history, and Medieval England in 1348, the year of the Great bubonic plague. Uniting these two world is Kivrin, an idealistic and determined young historian who visits one of the most deadly time periods in human history, against the advice of her worried mentor, Dunworthy. Yet, past nightmares aren't so far away. Even as Kivrin departs (supposedly for 1320, a far safer date than where she ends up), a deadly flu epidemic begins spreading in Oxford, preventing Mr. Dunworthy and the other history faculty from realizing that there's been a terrible error in the dates until far too late.
What makes this book work is its profound sense of humanity. Medieval England is far more filthy than Kivrin expected, and thanks to the plague, far more dangerous. But the people she meets there treat her with kindness and compassion, and she learns to love them. The characters are vividly drawn, from the energetic and mischievous child Agnes, to her beleaguered young mother, to their simple, compassionate, and deeply devout village priest. Willis depicts the deep cultural differences of the Middles Ages while still reflecting on the universal struggles, emotions, and experiences that bind us all together, no matter what time period. The plague is one of the great tragedies of history, and Willis' Doomsday Book expresses its terrible loss.

In short, this is a masterpiece of science fiction with a rich vein of historical fiction running through it. I'd recommend it to anyone--it's the type of powerful, moving story that I think we all could fall in love with. 

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Playing Violin for My Daughter

When I first had my daughter, many of my musician friends asked if I played my viola or my violin for her. Sadly, the answer was no. There may be other new mothers out there who successfully played for their infants while the baby watched/slept, but I was to busy caring for her to even think about getting out an instrument. Not to mention too exhausted! As my daughter got older, I tried again. I got out my violin after she watched an episode of Sesame Street about the violin (it was a segment of Elmo's World, and super cute!). She seemed so excited when she saw it on the show, I pulled out my instrument to play for her. The good news was she loved it! The bad news was she loved it so much she tried pulling my instrument out of my hands so she could play it herself. While it warmed my heart to see her excited about the violin, I knew an eager toddler could not be trusted with a valuable wooden instrument, I decided to try again when she was a bit older.

This past June my sweet little girl turned two, and she's at least somewhat calmer and more careful. What's more, she got a ton of drawing materials for her birthday, and she loves to sit and draw with her markers and crayons. I figured that would be a perfect time for me to try playing the violin for her (and me!) again. So I set her up with her markers (I took the advice of a good friend and had her draw in her high chair), and got out my instrument. The results have been wonderful. She loves watching me play--she claps her hands and cheers, she dances to the music, she sings along in her soft baby voice. I love the chance to play music at home and having such a great audience.
I hope that watching her mother play for her will inspire my daughter--that she'll grow up loving music, keep her enthusiasm, enjoy taking lessons herself. But for now I'm focused on the present, where she claps her hands and smiles and sings along with me. It's a beautiful moment, and seeing her excitement inspires me. Thus far I've kept to light repertoire so that I can keep an eye on her while I'm playing, but she seems to love it all. For anyone who's curious, I've mostly played pieces from Suzuki Books 1, 2, and 3, and Medieval Music for the Violin. I might try some Bach solo sonatas or Mozart concertos once I'm sure she won't get up to something while I'm playing (imagine playing a concert where at any moment the audience could start coloring on your pants with markers). 

For all the musically-inclined parents out there, do you play your instrument for your child/children?