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Friday, July 30, 2010

Violin Pedagogy Tip

After teaching a Violin Pedagogy class at Peabody last week, a comment from a Conservatory pedagogy student, whom I had taught during her high school years, struck me. After working on ways to help young students learn to balance the bow comfortably at the frog, she said “Oh, now I REALLY understand what you were doing with my bow arm all those years!” While it may seem like an insult to our teaching when a student doesn’t fully understand what we have been doing, I think it is a reminder, instead, that even when the motor memory takes over as we work on physical aspects of playing, it is often later that a string player fully understands the concepts behind the motions. Now that she is more mature and is revisiting her own playing from a teacher’s perspective, all those years of martelĂ© strokes and “wobbling” at the frog are making sense on many levels and her own playing is falling beautifully into place with fuller understanding. What does this mean to younger students and parents? It means just keep doing those warm ups every day so you develop freedom and fluidity in your playing, and ask your teacher questions along the way.

Rebecca Henry
String Dept. Chair
Peabody Preparatory

10,000 Hours of Practicing

The following is an excerpt from Malcolm Gladwell's latest book, "The Outliers, the story of success."  This book will challenge your ideas regarding how an individual becomes "successful."  This is from a chapter called "The 10,000 hour rule."  All music students should read this excerpt and parents read the entire book.  It will change the way you look at practicing!


……”achievement is talent plus preparation.  The problem with this view is that the closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role innate talent seems to plan and the bigger the role preparation seems to play.
            Exhibit A in the talent argument is a study done in the early 1990’s by psychologist K. Anders Ericsson and two colleagues at Berlin’s elite Academy of Music.  With the help of the Academy’s professors, they divided the school’s violinists into three groups.  In the first group were the stars, the students with the potential to become world-class soloists.  In the second were those judged to be merely “good.” In the third were students who were unlikely to every play professionally and who intended to be music teachers in the public school system.  All of the violinists were then asked the same question over the course of your entire career, ever since you first picked up the violin, how many hours have you practiced?
            Everyone from all three groups started playing at roughly the same age, around five years old.  In those first few years, everyone practiced roughly the same amount, about two or three hours a week.  But when the students were around the age of eight, real differences started to emerge.  The students who would end up the best in their class began to practice more than everyone else: six hours a week by age nine, eight hours a week by age twelve, sixteen hours a week by age fourteen, and up and up, until by the age of twenty they were practicing- that is purposefully and single-mindedly playing their instruments with the intent to get better- well over thirty hours a week.  In fact, by age twenty, the elite performers had each totaled ten thousand hours of practice.  By contrast, the merely good students had totaled eight thousand hours, and the future music teachers had totaled just over four thousand hours.
            Ericsson and his colleagues then compared amateur pianists with professional pianists.  The same pattern emerged.  The amateurs never practiced more than about three hours a week over the course of their childhood, and by the age of twenty they had totaled two thousand hours of practice.  The professionals, on the other hand, steadily increased their practice time every year, until by the age of twenty they, like the violinists, had reached ten thousand hours.
            The striking thing about Ericsson’s study is that he and his colleagues couldn’t find any “naturals,” musicians who floated effortlessly to the top while practicing a fraction of the time their peers did.  Nor could they find any “grinds,” people who worked harder than everyone else, yet just didn’t have what it takes to break into the top ranks.  Their research suggests that once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works.  That’s it.  And what’s more, the people at the very top don’t just work harder or even much harder than everyone else.  They work much, much harder.
            The idea that excellence at performing a complex task requires a critical minimum level of practice surfaces again and again and again in studies of expertise.  In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

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If it's Good Enough for the NFL

Video: A Critical Teaching Tool

I would like to share with you how to use the medium of video quickly, easily and inexpensively to maximize results and shorten the learning curve of your students. I am on the faculty of Peabody Preparatory and I am the director of the Maryland Talent Education Center which offers violin, viola, cello and piano lessons. This center also runs a public school Suzuki string program which serves 90 students in 1st through 8th grades. Videotaping my students is a critical component and one of the most useful and important teaching tool I utilize in all these programs.

As you may have noticed, this current generation of teens is obsessed with looking at themselves. Turn this obsession to your advantage. I have found that one picture is truly worth a thousand words. For example, sometimes, after years of reminding a student to keep their violin scroll higher, I finally show them a video of one of their concerts and they exclaim with amazement that “wow, my scroll really does drop.” (I think that they honestly believe that we make this stuff up!) Video is also a particularly effective teaching tool when it comes to helping students notice issues with intonation, dynamics, posture, stage presence and for string players, bow distribution.

For my public school Suzuki program, we have “video days” where students will perform solo pieces or selections from their orchestra music. I then upload that video to a MY CITY page that I have created for each child in and write a couple of sentences in the “reviews” section. The parent can then reference the video to better understand the suggestions and comments. Parents and their children can watch the video together and discuss what the child is doing well and what would use some attention. This is critical in a program where parents are not present observing the lessons. Students work more consistently and diligently because they love making their videos.

But I also film all the performances of students in the Maryland Talent Education Center and my students at Peabody. The parents in these programs are at the lessons, but I find that the children really benefit from seeing how they have performed in a live concert setting. It is fun, inspirational and educational to watch a child grow and improve over time. It is sometimes hard for a child to see their own progress on a weekly basis, but watching a video from a performance a few years ago, really shows what has been achieved and inspires both parent and child to continue practicing.

In the past it has always been challenging to figure out how to share video with students and parents. There are privacy and quality issues with sites like YouTube. I have found to be the solution. This website was created and designed with teachers and students in mind. It has thousands of pages of video, links, articles, news, events about the classical music industry which can be discovered in the main city. Each of my student’s families has their own “MY CITY” page in the social network area of the site where their video is archived. The MY CITY pages can be set to private, contacts only or public which solves the issue of privacy and safety and the upload system they provide allows for video clips of more than just 10 minutes and the quality is excellent. (Remember, that some quality issues relate to your internet access speed) Just become a member of and there are instructions for uploading video at the top of the MY CITY page. It is simple and best of all, free.

Recently, I have discovered another very important use for each child’s video archives on their MY CITY page. Students have been using a link to their MY CITY page to fulfill the requirements for the Arts Supplement on the Common Application form for undergraduate admissions. Since there is plenty of archived video of live performances, there is no longer a mad rush and the anxiety of putting together audition tapes.

I encourage you to start using the power of video soon. I believe it is a great shortcut to better results with students.