BTS Deals: School Supplies to Improve Music Practice

picture of colored pencils

It’s that time again and here in St. Louis, we are all settling into the new school year. But while you’re getting your backpacks, markers, and rulers, there are some items that pop up at stores this time of the year that can help with music practice. Most are available year round, but a lot of school supplies are marked down in August and September, so it’s the perfect time to stock up on things that will help with music practice.

New binders

This is the cheapest you will see three-ring binders all year. If your lesson binder is looking the worse for wear, replace it now. I’ve seen binders fall apart before important auditions throwing papers everywhere. Don’t let this happen to you!

Reading Timers

These little guys have been showing up in deals section of Target. If your child needs to practice something for a certain number of minutes, this flat bookmark timer will fit in their music book and remind them to practice. Here is a link to a similar reading timer available on Amazon.

Practice Mirrors

In the dorm section of Target and other big box stores, you can now buy long over-the-door mirrors for around $5. Buy one and mount it in the area where your child practices so they can watch their own posture, bow hand, bow tracking, etc.  A mirror is an invaluable practice tool for the advancing student and they are deeply discounted right before school starts.

Pencil Toppers

You can use these to place on the tip of the bow for bow hand exercises. You can also use finger puppets.

Counters

Get an abacus to count repetitions. They’re on sale now, or available year-round at IKEA.

Fun Erasers

If you have a student who is working on posture, balancing one of these fun erasers on the top of the violin or viola will be a treat. Target often has seasonal erasers in the dollar section near the front of the store, or check out the dollar store.

Dry-Erase Foam Dice

I found these at our local Dollar Tree in the teacher section and can’t wait to try them out. You could write twinkle rhythms, review pieces, or number of repetitions, the choices are endless. Then you can erase and change them after next week’s lesson.

Charts

I’m not a fan of giving out stickers for practice because I want students to develop intrinsic motivation, but some students just love seeing their progress over time. You can use the dollar tree charts to track how often your child has played a certain review piece, or how many minutes of practice they did on each assignment. These charts can be found in the teacher section of dollar tree, office stores or big box stores.

Picture of sand timer.

Old-Fashioned 2-Minute Timers

I’ve seen these at dollar stores. I often use an app on my phone for minute timers, but these are too much fun. Just turn it over and practice a small section of music until the timer runs out.

What do you like to stock up on during back to school season?

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What I’m Reading Now: Beyond the Music Lesson

Beyond the Music Lesson-Habits of Successful Suzuki Families

Summer is a great time to catch up on on some reading. I’m off to Wisconsin soon and will be gone for a few weeks, so I was excited to get a new book in the mail with just enough time to read it before I left town. The book is called “Beyond the Music Lesson: Habits of Successful Suzuki Families”  by Christine E. Goodner, a Suzuki teacher and parent. I’ve enjoyed reading the author’s blog, The Suzuki Triangle, so when I found out she was publishing a book, I knew I wanted to check it out.

“Beyond the Music Lesson” is the reading equivalent of taking a knowledgeable, friendly music teacher out for coffee and picking their brain about how to help your child succeed in music lessons. When I got the book in the mail, I’ll admit I was a bit surprised that it’s on the shorter side at just 141 pages. But as I read on, I realized that the shorter length is an asset. There are many wonderful books about practicing and teaching which are much longer and focus on lots of little details. They are great resources, but this book has the real advantage in that it is easy to read small chunks at a time without getting lost. The format of the book means that even the busiest parent could read a couple of paragraphs when they have a moment throughout the day and still get a lot of helpful information.

Before my Suzuki students begin lessons, their parents are required to attend a series of orientation sessions which include information on Suzuki philosophy as well as practical help in how to practice with their child. These sessions are invaluable in getting parents and students get off to the right start, but parent education should be a continuing process so that families continue to experience success in lessons and feel confident at home. As time goes on, new issues can arise such as what to do if a child being resistant or argumentative about practice, how to structure review practice, or just the daily grind of other activities crowding out practice time. There’s a lot to talk about! “Beyond the Music Lesson” addresses these common practice issues and more, in a simple, down-to-earth format that is accessible to non-musicians. It is written from a Suzuki perspective and for Suzuki parents, though there are some tips that would also apply to parents whose children are in traditional lessons as well. Although the author is a violinist and violist, the advice in the book is not instrument specific.

This book is not a comprehensive encyclopedia on efficient music practice. For a more detailed, nuts-and-bolts guide to practice, I would recommend “The Practice Revolution” by Philip Johnston, which is aimed more at music teachers rather than parents. Noa Kageyama over at the Bulletproof Musician Blog also has a list of recommended books that deal with learning and performance optimization. “Beyond the Music Lesson” is aimed more at big picture and practical issues such as how parents can find time for practice, how to create a daily listening habit, and why repetition is important. Just writing about it, I realize that for Suzuki teachers, these may seem like no-brainers, but it’s so important to keep coming back to basics, especially when working with families who are new to lessons. The book also cites research to back up ideas about practice and character development and provides resources for further reading.

For teachers, the last two chapters about mastery (including a long discussion on review) and on looking at the big picture are especially valuable.  I found it enlightening to reflect on ideas such as how I can help to create a positive musical environment in the studio, thinking of long-term goals to get through short-term frustrations, and helping students to cultivate a growth mindset. As all music teachers know, you can never really get too much of revisiting the basics. I’m glad to have added this book to my own library, and I’m hoping that my studio families will find it helpful as well.

What’s on your summer reading list?

Book Review-Beyond the Music Lesson

The Joy of Scales: 7 Reasons All Students Should Practice Scales

7 Reasons All String Students Should Practice Scales.

I have a confession to make: I love scales! There is nothing I like better than starting the day off right with a cup of coffee and some slow, mindful scale practice. I know that both students and professionals have differing opinions on scales, but love them or hate them, scales are an essential part of string technique. Here’s why I think they are so important. 

 

7 Reasons All String Students Should Practice Scales

 

They Improve the Left Hand Frame

Scales are “multiple vitamins” for the left hand. Practicing scales strengthens the left hand frame, and reinforces the exact placement of half and whole steps used throughout western classical music.

 

They’re “Easy Wins”

When trying to form a new habit or improve in a certain area, productivity experts emphasize the importance of “easy wins”. Success breeds success and scales are short and sweet enough to give students an immediate sense of accomplishment, which gets the ball rolling on greater challenges.

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Suzuki Summer Review-a-Thon

 

Suzuki Summer Review-a-thon

Private teachers know that things are, well, a bit different during the summer. I believe that summer lessons are crucial to continued student success and Christine Goodner recently wrote a great article about the importance of summer lessons over at the Suzuki Triangle Blog. While the majority of my students do continue lessons over the summer, many are also doing camps or taking vacations and I’ve noticed that consistent practice habits can start to slip in the midst of all those competing activities. To keep motivation and interest up, my studio will be participating in a summer “review-a-thon”, focusing on Suzuki review pieces. As many students are in and out of lessons, a review-a-thon will be more appropriate to the pace of the summer, rather than a time-based challenge, like the Viola Hero or Practice Wars challenges that I have held during the academic year.Read More »

For Better Tone: Hang Like a Monkey

Pin. Better Tone with Help from a Monkey!I work on bow hold a LOT in lessons because it is foundational to producing a beautiful tone. But even when my students have learned a correct, relaxed bow hand posture, that ease doesn’t always translate into the bow arm. To get the maximum tone, the bow elbow should generally rest slightly below the wrist. If the elbow starts to go above the wrist, the student is not able to transfer the weight of their arm efficiently into the bow, and both tone and bow control suffer.

Some students may have heard that they need to “push” or “apply pressure” to the string to make a sound so they suspend their arm weight from lifting the elbow or shoulder, producing either a weak, unfocused tone, or they press downward to make a scratchy, unpleasant tone. It often takes a lot of repetition over many weeks and months to help a student  learn to release their arm weight into the bow, but when they do, the professional-sounding tone is worth the wait. Here are some fun ways I help my students use their arm weight in producing a good tone:

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I Love Parents As Partners Online

OI Heart Parents As Partners

 

The practice partner/home teacher plays a crucial role in a Suzuki student’s success. As a teacher, I’m lucky that our program has a robust and comprehensive parent education for new Suzuki parents, but parents who have been practicing with their child for a while can often use some extra help and inspiration in home practice beyond what I can fit into the weekly lesson. Enter Parents As Partners Online!

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Red Light/Green Light: A Simple Game to Improve Music Practice

Red LightGreen Light(1)

Do you ever come across an idea so simple yet effective that you wonder: “Why didn’t I think of that?” The Red Light/Green Light game is that idea for me. During the summer when many of the young viola students whom I had started were reaching middle school and were starting to take more ownership of their own practicing, I was looking for ways to help them to practice more effectively to solve problems, rather than just repeat passages mindlessly. Enter my Violin Book 3 training course with the wonderful Joanne Melvin. She had devised a genius little trick to encourage self-reflection in her students. Up to that point, I would try to ask my students questions about how they had played, but I have found this game to be a much more succinct and specific version of those conversations. My students have since become much better practicers because of this game and I hope you will enjoy it as well.Read More »

The Shifting Formula

The Shifting Formula

There are a lot of method books that help students with beginning shifting. When I was just starting out as a teacher, it was overwhelming the amount of shifting materials I could find. But although many books contained helpful exercises in practicing shifting, there was nothing that actually explained how to shift. When I was in graduate school, I had already been shifting for about a decade and had gotten some great teaching in how to shift. “Lighten up”, “keep it smooth”, “no jerky motions”, “use a link note”. I thought I was a pretty good shifter, but as usual, my brilliant teacher, George Taylor was able to boil a technical issue down to its essence and reveal how I could be doing better. He’s the one who taught me the Shifting Formula.Read More »

Suzuki, Ben Folds and the Power of Listening

Ben Folds

I am very lucky to have a studio full of students who are diligent and consistent with daily practice. This has not always been the case in my teaching career, so I recognize what a blessing it is to work with children and parents who understand and commit to the value of daily practice. They make my job easy! I’m often surprised, therefore, that the same attention is not always paid to listening to the Suzuki recordings. My older students keep a daily practice log, which includes a space at the bottom for listening assignments. I’m shocked when a student who has accomplished all the scales, etudes, and repetitive practice of difficult passages I assigned has not also listened to the CD. Listening is supposed to be the easy part! I am always looking for ways to emphasize the crucial importance of listening to my studio families.Read More »

Prevent and Treat “Shifting Panic”

 

Shifting Panic! Fun exercises for violin and viola students.Shifting is the great divide for my viola studio. On the one hand, I have always had a handful of students who are excited to start shifting, perhaps after they have seen an older student deftly moving all over the fingerboard. Other students approach shifting with reticence and sometimes outright dread, particularly my transfer students who may have gotten a rushed introduction to shifting in a piece from school. To get my shifting-averse students on board with the process, I’ve come up with a lot of games and special review pieces to make shifting less scary.Read More »