Sunday, November 29, 2015

Teaching Music Students to Listen

As a music teacher, there's nothing more frustrating than repeating the same instructions over and over and over. It often seems as though students (especially younger students) have a hard time listening effectively. That's why I've often found that teaching my students active listening skills can improve their attention and performance in lessons.

It's easy for young students to get distracted during their lessons--they're often worried about their performance, or their minds wonder while the teacher is talking. Likewise, many students are used to passively listening to music, for example, having it in the background while they work instead of focusing their entire attention on listening. Active listening is listening with full attention and working to understand what you hear. It's a useful social skill in many contexts, but especially important in music.

There are many techniques I use with students to encourage them to actively listen. With young students, I might make it a bit of a game. I tell them that their fingers (or hands, muscles, etc.) don't hear me, but respond better when they (the student) gives them instructions. So instead of me repeating directions, I ask my students to say directions out loud to their fingers. This helps them in many different ways. First, if a student misunderstands what I said, I catch it immediately (there can be a striking difference between what I say and what they hear). Second, it encourages students to take responsibility for their own progress. Instead of relying on me to always catch mistakes and tell them about it, they have to repeat my instructions to themselves and try to recognize their own errors. 

Other skills in active listening might include encouraging students to make eye contact and ask clarifying questions when they don't understand what I've said. Many students aren't used to one on one instruction with a private teacher, so they might look away shyly or fiddle with their instruments while I'm talking instead of listening carefully. I teach them to look at me, especially when I'm demonstrating a new technique. Many students are likewise uncomfortable asking questions at first, but it can help if I encourage them to speak up if they don't understand. 

In addition to teaching active listening techniques, I also try to model them with my students. I give them my full attention when they are playing or talking, and try to ask thoughtful questions about their performances. In my own practice, I've been using active listening when I'm working on new music. I take out my part or a score, and listen to a recording of the piece I'm working on. I try to stay completely focused on listening and engaging with the music. It helps me to hear how my part interacts with the rest of the symphony, and sharpens my aural skills.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Review: Nebula Awards Showcase 2009

This is another book I checked out of the library. Since I've been writing a lot of short stories myself, I figured I should read short fiction by other writers. This book gave me a chance to read fiction by a wide variety of Nebula nominees and award winners, including several writers I'd never read before or even heard of. I found several new (to me) writers with unique and amazing voices. A few of the stories weren't all that appealing to me, I could see why they had been chosen for these awards, and I was glad to read them all the same.

My favorite stories included "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate," "Captive Girl," and "The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs of North Park after the Change." Ted Chiang's "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" is an amazing scifi/fantasy story inspired by the Arabian Nights. It had stories within stories, and kept me guessing about the ultimate fate of the protagonist until the very end. Chiang's depiction of time travel is actually based on how most physicists think it would actually work, which gave the story a fascinating basis in science. 

"Captive Girl," on the other hand, is one of the most disturbing stories I've ever read--it made me question my understanding of love and sacrifice, until I was completely unsure how I should feel about the main character's choices (and whether she truly had any choices). Yet, it's the story's moral complexity and ambiguity that make it so compelling, an uncanny, unflinching masterpiece. 
"The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among Dogs" has a story that's rich in folklore and stories, and I found the dog characters Johnson depicts fascinating. The plot was tense and compelling as well. While this story takes a particularly dim view of human nature (I'm not convinced most people would abandon their dogs once they learned to talk), it does capture the horrors of mass murder and the terrible justifications for genocide we hear all too often. 

I enjoyed several other stories as well, even if I felt they were a bit problematic. "Stars Seen Through Stone" has well-drawn characters, including the odious Joe Stanky, but somehow it's plot doesn't feel climatic enough, though I found the denouement satisfying."Always" is an interesting depiction of immortality, but the ending felt a bit too ambiguous for me to enjoy it. "Titanium Mike Saves the Day" was fun to read and had great moments, but felt a bit uneven (loved the ending, though). The book has poems and essays as well as stories, and I overall liked reading those.

I'd recommend this book to anyone who's interested in science fiction and fantasy short stories, particularly if you want discover new writers.


Monday, November 23, 2015

Texas Renaissance Festival 2015

My husband and I love going to the Texas Renaissance Festival, and this year we had a great time with our friends and our sweet little girl! Here are some of the pictures and video we took.
My husband helps our daughter with a children's fishing game.

My little girl had fun riding a cow at the pony rides!
My husband and our friend Steve pommeling each other at King of the Log:)
My daughter was fascinated by a person in a gorgeous dragon costume!
It amazes me how much crafting goes into these costumes. So beautiful!
My little girl loves spinning rides, but since they make me and my husband way too dizzy, our good friend Kailyn went with her instead.
My daughter and I ride a camel! They are way more bumpy than I expected.
My costume! I love how corsets adjust to you over time. 

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Exploring Music: What I've Been Listening To Lately

Since I discovered I can check out CDs from the library, I've made an effort to discover new things to listen to as well as revisiting out favorites. It's been an enjoyable process, one I hope to continue! Here's some of the music I've been listening to lately.

1. The Tannahill Weavers

I wanted to explore more folk music, since I love Renaissance Faire music so much. I found this CD at the library, so I decided to check it out. I'd never heard of the Tannahill Weavers before, and it turns out they're a Scottish folk band. I love their music--it's fun, and the bagpipes give it a distinctly Scottish sound. They're a bit like an early version of Tartanic, in the best kind of way. The CD had a good mix of songs, from rousing fiddle tunes to sweet ballads, including a version of "Auld Lang Syne" sung to a different melody than I'm familiar with (but still beautiful). I'd recommend them to anyone who enjoys folk or Renaissance Faire music.

2. Beethoven's String Quartets, Op. 18

Beethoven wrote sixteen string quartets throughout his life. His first published collection of quartets were the six string quartets in his Op. 18. As a musician, I've played many Beethoven string quartets, including several of the Op. 18 pieces, but I'd never listened to a recording of all six. I found a CD collection of the complete Op. 18 quartets by the Julliard Quartet at the library. It's been years since I'd played or listened to this music, and it was great to hear them again (and discover a few I never listened to, like No. 3 and 5). Beautiful music, and considering the composer and instrumentation stays the same throughout the CD, they contain a surprising amount of variation. I'd recommend these to anyone who loves classical music.

3. Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream (Ein Sommernachtstraum)

Musicians reading this are likely surprised to see this on the list! Pieces from Mendelssohn's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" appear so frequently on audition requirements that any professional violin or viola player has played parts of them (and listened to the music) hundreds of times. But that's the rub--I'd only ever played or listened to the audition music sections of the piece (Scherzo and Overture), never the whole thing. So when I saw the entire piece at the library, I decided it was high time I heard the rest of it. I think Mendelssohn might be one of the most underestimated classical composers (likely thanks to anit-Semitism and Wagner's vicious attacks on his music). His music can be light and sparkling, yet capture profound loss. Listening to the whole of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" gave me a greater understanding and appreciation for the audition sections, and made a piece that had because onerous enjoyable and fresh. 

Saturday, November 14, 2015

How Teaching Makes Me a Better Musician

Many teachers will tell you that they learn from their students. As a violin and viola teacher, I've found that teaching has helped me improve my practicing and develop my own musical skills. In fact, in some ways teaching has been more effective at improving skills like ear training than any of my classroom learning.

Listening and Aural Skills

A music teacher needs sharp ears. We have to identify when a student is out of tune or plays a wrong note and be able to immediately correct the problem. All this intensive listening has dramatically improved my aural skills. I remember getting so frustrated in my college classes; I didn't think music theory was my strong suit, especially the sight-singing! Now, I have plenty of practice singing notes on pitch, since I frequently encourage my own students to sing their pieces before they play them. Years of honing in on student's out of tune notes has also given me a better sense of melodic intervals and how particular notes fit into a chord. If my theory professors could see me now, they'd probably be shocked.


When I went to my first teacher-training class for Suzuki Violin, I did not expect that it would be one of the best classes in violin technique I'd ever had. Yet the more I teach, the less that surprises me. Teaching has made me think deeply about the fundamentals, since I'm constantly analyzing my students' technique, from their posture to how they hold their instrument or their bow. As I work with a student to solve their technical issues, I gain insight into the underlying logic of the violin and viola. All this focus and understanding has strengthened my performance abilities, from tone production to intonation to musical expression.

Musical Analysis

Looking back, I think I was too passive as a student. I was always waiting for my teachers to tell me how to play, instead of looking at the music and discovering it for myself. Now that I'm the teacher, I have to be the one looking of the music, interpreting it to the best of my understanding, and then finding a way to communicate that to a student. In one way, that's very exciting! I don't have to rely on anyone else when I'm practicing, and I can play the music how I see fit, not according to another person's ideas. What's more, my experience inspired me to teach my students how to analyze music on its own. The more I think that way about music, the easier it becomes.     

Teaching and performing should not exist in separate spheres in a musician's mind. Instead, teaching can be an excellent opportunity for musicians to develop their fundamental techniques and listen carefully. 

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Puccini's Tosca at the Dallas Opera

My husband and I went to see Puccini's Tosca last night at the Dallas Opera, and we both loved it! The music was gorgeous. I particularly enjoyed Emily Magee's Floria Tosca, who was charming and lovable in the first act, but fiery and tragic as the opera progressed. Her rendition of "Vissi d'Arte" was as pure and beautiful as I could have hoped--she has a truly lovely tone. Raymond Aceto's Baron Scarpia also stood out. He had rich voice that somehow oozed slimy, villainous lust in his scenes with Tosca. Aceto's Scarpia laughed at the pain he caused, like a vicious school yard bully. It made him all the more hateful for being so familiar.

The sets and costumes were excellent as well. After some of the scaled back productions that the Dallas Opera did in previous seasons, it was really wonderful to see them go all out with big set pieces and fabulous period costumes. The scenes with the chorus were wonderful--the background mass had all the beauty and solemnity you'd like, while scenes with the children's choir had plenty of antics and lively fun.

Tosca is a great opera. Though it's a crucial part of the repertoire for opera fans, it's also very approachable for opera newbies. I'd recommend it for anyone!

There are a few more performances this season, and if you'd like tickets, you can buy them online at the Dallas Opera's website.    

Monday, November 9, 2015

Review: The Time of Contempt

The Time of Contempt (The Witcher) is the third book in Adrzej Sapkowski's series of books on the Witcher. I really enjoyed the first two books, and this one did not disappoint. The story focuses as much on Ciri as it does on Geralt, but both their stories are exciting and interesting. What's more, for a book with plenty of action, the story is surprisingly philosophical at times. Geralt tries to do what he thinks is best to protect Ciri and do the right thing. Yet, time and again Sapkowski shows how tricky it is to determine the "right" path in a complex, morally ambiguous world. The haunting tragedy of war, and the terrible choices that people make when confronted by devastating circumstances become a running theme.

I loved the characterizations of Geralt and Yennefer--their relationship has complexity and depth, and the reader ends up sympathetic to both characters even when they seem opposed to each other. Their touching love for Ciri shines through their actions, even when they disagree about what's best for her. Even Dandelion becomes a fascinating character, one with more complicated connections than you might think. What's more, Dandelion's "translations" of Geralt and Yennefer's discussions is both touching and hilarious.

For those of you who love the games, this book gives quite a bit of backstory on characters like Phillippa Eilhart and Dijkstra. It also reveals the origins of the political strife and warfare from the games.

I'd recommend this book to anyone who enjoys fantasy or the Witcher games. Though part of a series of novels, I think it could stand alone for anyone who's played the games (though really, why not read The Last Wish and Blood of Elves?).

Monday, November 2, 2015

Halloween Pictures!

My Little Sweetheart dressed as Toothless from "How to Train Your Dragon." We got her costume from Epic Inspiration on Etsy.

My husband as Chewbacca, my sweet daughter as Toothless, and me as Kaylee from Firefly
Happy Family Halloween!
Chewbacca and Kaylee:)

Sunday, November 1, 2015

When Auditions are NOT Worth the Stress

Not that long ago, I wrote about how auditions, concerts, and contests are usually worth the stress for students. I still believe this is the case, but the key word here is "usually." There are times when it's better for students to avoid a particular audition or contest, or avoid having too many of them in a short period. So under what circumstances should a student withdraw from an audition, and when should they tough it out?

1. Injury or Illness

Many musicians rely on the fragile muscles and bones of their fingers and hands to perform, while singers and wind players also develop fine control of the muscles in their mouth and throat. While we can try to prevent injuries  and illness as best we can, sometimes the worst happens. When it does, we must take time to rest and recover. Playing or performing with an injury risks exacerbating it, possibly doing permanent damage to delicate muscles, tendons, and tissues. Repetitive stress injuries have ruined careers. Don't let it happen to you! No audition is important enough to risk it (besides, how well can you play with a serious injury anyway?)

2. When It's Distracting 

While auditions and contests can be a great way to set goals, it's important to keep in mind students' "long game." One particular audition is rarely a make or break moment in a student's career, especially if it's a small scale, local event. If the audition is taking up a student's time and energy from more important goals like developing excellent technique or preparing for more important things down the line, then it's better to withdraw or not participate. There's no point in stressing out over a small scale audition and losing focusing on the bigger picture. 

3. When It's Unfair

We all know music schools that hold competitions that are supposedly open to anyone, but are somehow magically won only by students who attend that school. Or students who study with one of the judges. What's the point in participating in anything like that? They just want to collect entrance fees from outside participants to fund scholarships or reward money for their favorites. I once was visiting the home of a music professor I knew, and I noticed a pile of dusty tapes and CDs on the floor. When I asked him what they were, he said they were audition recordings for a festival where he would teach that summer. Then he told me he didn't plan to listen to any of them--he'd already picked out which of his students were going to the festival. I remember looking at that sad pile of CDs, thinking of all the times I'd sent off recordings like that, and wondering how many of those carefully recorded auditions ended up on someone's floor. 
Auditions can be a valuable learning experience and a great goal for many students, but make sure they choose their auditions wisely and keep a healthy perspective. 

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