Tag Archives: orchestra

A GUIDE TO TEACHING CHILDREN MUSIC – Principle 2: “Self-Initiated Learning vs. Imposition”

“Children learn best when the learning is self-initiated, arising from their own curiosity and interests, rather than imposed on them.”

– Aletha Solter, Ph.D., “Principles of Learning”

Godfrey Kneller's portrait of IsaacNewton, 1689
Godfrey Kneller’s portrait of IsaacNewton, 1689

Newton hit the nail on the head with his third law of motion: “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Try verbally or physically trying to make a child do something will make them resist even more.

Examples:

  • Try forcing green vegetables into a kid’s mouth and they will refuse to open their mouth or immediately spit out whatever you put in there.
  • Yell at a child to get in bed and they’re be riled up and less tired or willing to sleep.
  • Try physically removing a child from doing or playing with something they like and they will kick and scream.

When we apply this to music and helping children develop the habit of practicing, negatively forcing a child to play a specific instrument or practice at specific times for specific lengths of time may produce results—BUT, on the other hand,  they might sap away a child’s desire to play over time. This happens especially if those measures result in reluctance, resistance, indifference, apathy, or rejection of musical activities or practice.

There are two types of motivation:

  1. Intrinsic motivation, or an inner desire or interest to do something, usually for the sake of enjoyment or self-satisfaction.
  2. Extrinsic motivation, or a drive to accomplish something in order to receive a reward or recognition from an outward motivator. Motivators include threats, bribes, prizes, fame, competition, pressuring, etc.

In teacher Lara Hansen’s article “The Inherent Desire to Learn: Intriniscally Motivating First Grade Students,” she says,

“When people are intrinsically motivated they feel interest and enjoyment in what they are doing. They also feel a sense of capability and determination. What they don’t feel is tension, stress, and anxiety.”

In general, people tend to enjoy activities more when they can enjoy the experience and develop a personal passion for what they are doing. Any trauma introduced to an activity in the form of external motivators can lead that activity becoming stressful instead of a pleasure to perform.

As teachers and parents, we can provide opportunities for a child learn an instrument, but imposing, pushing, or bribing a child will create resistance and perhaps kill the child’s original curiosity and interest.

But don’t worry! We all have negative experiences with music, like playing a bad concert or being pressured to practice because of an assignment or impending performance. External/extrinsic motivators naturally exist and aren’t all bad unless they kill our passion for music.

And even if desires and passions dwindle, they can be fed and nurtured back to life. Just because a child throws a fit and doesn’t want to go to a music lesson one day doesn’t mean all is lost—you may find the same child excitedly getting their instrument out to show a friend the next day.

They say curiosity killed the cat, but perhaps killing the curiosity in the cat is the sadder scenario. Let’s keep the desire to learn alive and well!

Back to School: Music, Extracurriculars & Life Balance

There are only so many hours in a day. (Photo by Dave Stokes)

Living a balanced life.

Easier said than done. I remember having a high school schedule totally inundated with an overabundance of extracurriculars, especially during my junior and senior years. After all, college applications were due and I needed to beef up my resume. I was hoping for a music scholarship, so naturally I had to be involved in everything possible:

  • Orchestra
  • Wind Ensemble
  • Jazz Band
  • Pit Orchestra
  • Marching Band
  • Youth Symphony
  • All State Orchestra
  • All State Band
  • Western States Honor Orchestra
  • Solo and Ensemble

But what about that academic scholarship? Of course I needed to be involved in more than just music. So in addition to performing, I stayed busy with National Honor Society, lacrosse, the school play, Spanish Club, service projects, church activities, and as many AP courses as I possibly could fit in.

The world was mine. I could do it all . . .

. . . that is, until I found myself completely overwhelmed. One day in particular, I remember breaking down in tears, realizing I couldn’t be in three places at the same time. I had just landed a great role in the spring production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest after auditioning on a whim. Having never been in a play before, I was so excited by the possibility of acting on stage for the first time. But, unfortunately, rehearsals would conflict with lacrosse practice and my youth symphony’s rehearsals and spring concerts.

What to do? I didn’t want to let my team down. I didn’t want to let my conductor down, or my section, especially as I was standing principle. But I also didn’t want to let myself down and my own dream to try something new.

So a hard decision was made. I chose to do the play. And as torn and sad as I was to step aside from sports and music for a short season, I look back on my high school years and treasure being a part of The Tempest as one of the most rewarding, memorable, and just plain fun experiences of my life.

Of course, I haven’t acted since . . . but I do still play music. So not all was lost. The truth is, you just can’t do everything and do everything well—at least not at the same time. It was a hard lesson learned, but a truth I had to accept.

___________________

Later, I had a bass student who was in the same shoes I’d been in with too much on his plate. As far as his musicianship was concerned, he just wasn’t progressing as the weeks and months went by. It didn’t take me long to realize that he was too busy running from activity to activity (morning and evening swimming practice, Boy Scouts, service activities, family events, study sessions, etc.) to even have a moment to practice. He barely had enough time to squeeze in that weekly lesson; no wonder we weren’t getting anywhere. It wasn’t long before even lessons slipped through the cracks. Something had to give, which ended up being his musical training.

Truth is, lessons aren’t really just a one-hour commitment per week. Every one-hour lesson requires hours of practice in between to be worthwhile. Music lessons not accompanied by personal practice end up being a waste of resources for all parties involved (the student, the teacher, and the parents). So while it may seem like you’re doing your child a favor to enroll him/her in as many extracurricular activities as you can possibly squeeze in, remember that each activity has the potential of drawing value from the others.

And really, there are so many good choices: music (to which we’re biased, of course), drama, sports, art, dance, clubs, student government, and more. For each individual’s interests, there are good choices–then there are better choices, and the best choices. As Ghandi so well put it,

“Action expresses priorities.”

No matter what you, your child, or your student chooses to do, consider where the heart lies. Doing what you’re passionate about, what brings you fulfillment, and what leads you to your future plans plays a huge role in where you choose to invest your time.

So as the school year begins, and those choices present themselves, keep in mind that there are only so many hours in the day. Still, even with those limited hours, it is possible to achieve great, great things.

Happy learning, and best wishes. Let the school year begin!

Taking the First Steps

At Kennedy Violins, we have always been proud of the fact that all of our employees, no matter their role, are active musicians and teachers and all of us have been where you are.  Whether you are just starting out learning the basics or finding your own voice or personality musically.  Today, I’d like to talk about those very first steps.  The steps you take before the first note is even played.

I’ll start with kids.  As a teacher, I often get asked by parents at what age they should start teaching their kids music.  Well, now!  Today!  Yesterday! In the womb!  It is never too early to start learning the fundamentals and it is very easy to incorporate musical learning into everyday activities.  Does your toddler like to empty the cabinets and bang on pots and pans?  Teach her a rhythm to play while you reach for the aspirin.  Does your kindergarten repeat the same nursery rhyme over and over again?  Turn it into a game where he sings a different note each time he repeats it or have a him create new melody for the same music.

Outside the home, learning in a classroom setting is always beneficial, but I believe it should also be fun and low pressure when children are just starting out.  I have always been a fan of Kindermusik classes.  Kindermusik serves children ages 0-7 and their families all across the US.  They use folk melodies from around the world and classic stories to teach music fundamentals.

Another question that parents ask is, ” How do I know if my child is ready to play the (insert specific instrument here)?”  Well, I find that parents know their children far better than I do and that they usually have answered that question for themselves by the time they ask me.  If you feel that your child is ready to learn an instrument, then she probably is.  Usually, it’s nice for the future student to have shown some interest in learning music, but I have found that it never hurts to try something new just for the sake of trying something new.  You never know!

The best tool for starting out young kids (5 and under) on a musical instrument is private instruction by a qualified teacher.  One on one lessons with the parents present are best because the little ones tend to focus better and it’s not as frustrating when they have the direct support of family.  Group lessons are fun but progress can be slow.  Older kids can be more successful in group lessons and many schools and community programs have great classes that would be little or no cost to parents.  To find qualified teachers or programs try calling your child’s school or a local music store for recommendations.

Now, let’s talk about grown-ups (from a strictly educational stand point, I place anyone beginning after age 12 in this category of learning…one day I’ll explain in further detail).  We have written several posts about how it’s never too late to discover (or rediscover) a love of music.  The tips I have aren’t much different.  I would stress, though, that even in today’s advanced age of technology with online videos/lessons on You Tube and Vimeo, having private lessons with an experienced instructor is HIGHLY valuable!  Personally, I feel the videos should serve as a supplement to strengthen what you learn in private lessons.

However, more than videos and lessons, to have a successful start I feel that the thing adult learners need most is guts.  It takes a courageous and humble individual to stand up and say, “Hey, I don’t know anything about this, but I want to learn.”  I have great respect for the adult beginners that dive in with their whole heart.  For the adventurous ones, there are many community orchestras that welcome players of all levels and ages and music camps to give them the experience every musician should have.  You just have to go for it!

The Fine Art of Tuning

A cello section tuning.

In high school at the beginning of each concert, like all orchestras, we would take some time to tune.  Once the squeaking and squawking settled into a common A natural, our conductor would say, “Thank you very much.  Our first song was ‘The Fine Art of Tuning.'”  The audience, slightly confused, would laugh and we would move on to the actual concert.  His comment, while quite dry, actual holds a lot of truth.  The concept of may seem like simply matching pitches but there is “fine art” to it that I see even advanced musicians missing out on.  In my experience there are two main things that will help you master the fine art of tuning: a strong pitch reference and good tuning habits.

A Strong Pitch Reference: Unless you were born with “perfect pitch,” you will need a reference to the correct pitch.

-A tuning fork is the classic tool for tuning.  It is a piece of metal cast into a specific u-shape so that when struck, it emits a particular pitch. *NOTE:  Never strike a tuning fork on your instrument.* I’ve seen this happen which is why I have to say it…

-For beginners, an electronic tuner is useful because they can either emit the desired pitch or show you digitally what pitch you are playing.  There are even some that clip directly on the instrument.  I suggest investing in a tuner that doubles as a metronome.  It’s less to carry around!

Pitch pipes are lightweight and easy to use as well.  All you have to do is blow.  The down side is that if they get dropped or beat up, the notes on the pitch pipe will get out of tune themselves.

Pianos are best used in a band setting.  They aren’t exactly portable like the other options but they are the best choice if you are going to be playing with a piano (I’ll explain that later).

-If you want to be super tech savvy, there are several apps for mobile devices that turn your phone into a tuner.  Just be careful which one you get, the free ones aren’t always accurate.

Clockwise from top left: a chromatic pitch pipe, a tuning fork, a violin pitch pipe, and a mobile app.

Good Playing Habits: some of this may seem like common sense, but it’s good to be reminded.

-The best habit to have while tuning would be listening. It’s not enough to simply look at the tuner see that you are in tune (or worse, just play a note and turn the pegs until you are tired of it or the rest of the group stops tuning).  Listen to what it sounds like to be in tune and out of tune.  On a stringed instrument, you will need to listen to the intervals between the strings.  Traditionally, violin, viola, and cello strings are tuned in fifths (sounds like the beginning of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”).  If you are playing in a group, listen to the other players and “agree” with their tuning.  At times, the people you are playing with may have instruments that aren’t perfectly in tune and can’t be tuned without great difficultly.  I’m not talking about stubborn viola pegs or sticky clarinet keys, but a 250 year old pipe organ or a tinny house piano at a bar.  Your instrument may be perfectly in tune on its own, but if it doesn’t match the instruments you are playing with you will sound out of tune.

-Having strong fundamentals is another habit that will make the tuning process easier and more effective.  In the violin family, a good bow hold is key to quality sound production.  If you don’t have a strong bow hold, you won’t be able to produce a good sound to tune from .  Also, applying too much or too little pressure with the bow can cause the note you are trying to tune to go in and out of tune.  Long and steady bow strokes at medium volume are best for tuning.  Likewise, having the correct shape and placement in the left hand directly impacts the intonation of the notes you are trying to play.  I hate to say it, but it’s best to practice scales over and over again to strengthen tuning in the left hand.

-Lastly, take the time you need to make sure you are in tune.  I remember when I first started tuning my own instrument, the time it took to get it right was frustrating and felt like everyone else I was playing with was getting in tune faster.  Yet, I know that my stand partner and my teacher always liked it when I took an extra 30 seconds to make sure that I was in tune.

Other Helpful Articles: How to Install Strings and Keep Pegs from Slipping, Strung Out on Strings, Beginner Basics, Stringed Instrument Care and Maintence Part One, and Part Two.

A Touch of Class: Concert Etiquette for Dummies

Maybe you’ve seen it before. You’re at a symphony concert in your best evening wear to find yourself seated next to an obvious newcomer. The lights dim, but a glow next to you reveals your friendly neighbor whipping his phone out from the pocket of his oh-so-fashionably torn jeans. After a storm of texting, he answers a call during the first movement of Elgar’s Enigma Variations, leaning over to you, mid-call, to ask for a piece of gum. The movement concludes, but not knowing the piece is entirely over, your neighbor bursts into applause just as the conductor is about to begin the second movement. And just when you think you might settle into the peace of the evening’s repertoire, he stands up in the middle of the piece, edging through the aisle and loudly saying, “Sorry, when you gotta go, you gotta go!”

Well. We’re all newcomers to the classical music scene at some point in our lives. So if you’ve wondered what to wear or when to clap, here are a few etiquette tips when attending a classical performance, be it a solo recital, symphony concert, quartet salon, or the like.

1. Dress appropriately. As public events become more and more casual, symphony halls may be one of the few venues around where a higher standard of dress is not only welcome, but encouraged. As a general rule, avoid jeans and tennis shoes. Collared shirts for men are appropriate, as are skirts, dresses, or nice pants for women. Dress as if your grandmother were your date for the evening–and she never leaves home with a run in her stockings.

2. Be punctual. There’s no sneaking into a classical concert during the first piece if you’re late. If you are, many venues may even ask you to remain in the lobby until intermission. If you’re lucky, you may be able to sneak in between pieces, but not movements. Keep in mind that classical concerts may only have 2-4 pieces on the program (with multiple movements), so if you are late, you could end up missing out on a sizeable chunk of music. Try to be in your seat about 15 minutes prior to the concert starting.

3. Applaud when appropriate. Unlike during jazz or rock concerts when applause and shouting are welcome as the music is going on, applause at a classical concert is reserved for when

  • a) the conductor enters,
  • b) the conductor or announcer speaks or thanks patrons,
  • c) an entire piece concludes (not a single movement),
  • d) a soloist enters the stage, and
  • e) a concert concludes.

4. Know when to make your escape. If you must use the restroom, try your best to hold out until intermission. And even if you find the concert a little tiresome, try not to leave at intermission unless you must. Don’t stand up to exit mid-music or even during the silence between pieces or movements. An important element of classical concerts is each individual’s effort to preserve a quiet, peaceful atmosphere for everyone’s enjoyment, so avoid doing anything that will draw attention to yourself.

5. Don’t talk, whistle, or whoop. Save the commentary for your friend/date/mom for intermission. A quick, “That was beautiful!” to your pal during applause is passable, but keep quiet during the performance. And unlike at other types of concerts, whistling and whooping for performers during applause isn’t appropriate in a symphony hall. If you really like the music, feel free to give a standing ovation instead of offering your best cat-calls.

6. No munching. As tempting as it may be to sneak out that crinkly, cellophane-wrapped chocolate bar, next time leave the snacks at home. Don’t even chew gum (or blow bubbles!) Some venues offer refreshments during intermission or following the concert, but hold out during the actual performance. The one exception? Cough drops! We can excuse one wrapper opening if it means saving your neighbors from a cacophony of coughs.

7. Turn off the phone. Don’t even put it on vibrate. Classical music has its quiet moments when even the scuffle of a shoe, the scratch of a head, or the buzz of a phone can be heard clearly. Let the music speak for itself without interruption.

8. Lastly, relax! Okay, maybe you’re getting the impression that classical concerts are only for the uptight and unforgiving. No way! Mind your manners, but enjoy yourself! After all, that’s what it’s all about.

Ensembles Large and Small: Try Them All!

I am a huge fan of ensembles.  The elementary school that I went to offered a strings class to 5th and 6th graders.  I was excited to play the violin and then the cello.  My favorite part of the entire class, though, was getting to work towards a common goal with my classmates.  I love being around people.  I’m an extrovert.

As I progressed in my musical studies, a lot of the repertoire that I was learning included Bach’s Unaccompanied Cello Suites.  This was not as much fun for me.  Yes, I know that I learned valuable techniques and skills, however, it was lonely.  No one to play off of or interact with because I was by myself.  Hours in a practice room, by myself.  Sitting on a stage during recitals…BY MYSELF!   Still, I made it through the suites with my sanity in tact (my college roommates might debate this).  The one thing I think that aided my study of Bach, was my involvement in musical ensembles large and small.

Like myself, being involved in a musical ensemble is “built-in” for many beginners.  Many still start in a classroom setting through a school music program or teacher’s studio.  It’s a great way to start.  Not only does it fill any need for human connection and camaraderie, but it builds listening skills and intonation, as well as rhythm and playing together.  For some, they are able to continue in a group setting in a middle or high school orchestra.  Yet, how can a student be involved in an ensemble if there are no school programs?

Here are some options:

Duets and Trios (2 and 3 players)-There is a lot of music out there written for two or three, so practically any skill level, beginner to advanced, can participate.  Playing a duet is a simple as asking a friend or family member to play together.  Your young musician can even ask their teachers if they can play with another student in their studio.  Often times, teachers are pleased to play with students too. *Free Participation*

Quartet (4 players)-The traditional string quartet consists of 2 violins, 1 viola, and 1 cello.  Like Duets and Trios, there is a lot of music available but, this exact combination of musicians can be trickier to find.  It can take some time to get everyone together.  You may have to start playing as a duet or trio and add people as you meet them. *Free Participation*

Church/Synagogue Groups-These groups usually perform once a week and are usually open to any musician.  Playing in this setting can yield combinations of instruments that you won’t find anywhere else and the live performances keep your “chops up.”  If you aren’t “religious,” don’t worry, many groups don’t require that, they just want you to play.  *Free Participation*

Community Orchestra-Community Orchestras are much larger that any of the other groups I’ve mentioned.  They are often a full orchestra of strings, wind, brass, and percussion.  They are great because they can provide the chance for a young musician to play with other musicians that are much more experienced.  Plus, they have a will get play more challenging music in the modern orchestra repertoire.  While most members will be adults, many community groups are open to proficient students although an audition may be required.  Also, a lot of community groups hold “Young Artists” competitions for talented young musicians to perform a solo with a full orchestra. *Free Participation*

Youth Orchestras-Dot Rust posted a blog about this in February.  It’s worth the read.  She describes how they began in the U.S. and how your student can be involved.  The only thing that is different from the previous groups is that there is tuition involved.  Many groups offer tuition breaks or scholarships for any needy student. *Cost to Participate*

Jazz Band/Combo-We all know Bass players are in jazz bands, but violins, violas, and cellos?  Say it with me: Yes we can!  See Stephane Grapelli, Lucio Amanti, and Judith Insell for some great examples.  Your student may want to learn jazz scales and basic improvisation techniques before jumping in, but it’s so worth it.  Even if they don’t become the Dizzy Gillespie on the viola, playing jazz opens up a whole new world of tonality that will be helpful if they ever dive into some Bernstein or Ives. *Maybe Cost*

Bluegrass Band-Your young musician may want to trade their violin in for a fiddle. Side Note: violin=fiddle.  Bluegrass bands are welcoming to all ages and levels and there are competitions in every region that can offer cash prizes to winners.  Bluegrass bands often play by ear and by rote instead of reading of sheet music, so this is a great chance for your student to practice memorization. *Buy lots of Rosin*

Marching Band-Alright, I’ll admit.  I don’t know of any marching string orchestras.  I’m just putting up here hoping someone out there might actually do it.  The technology exists now to make it happen (carbon fiber instruments + wireless pick-ups hooked up to a stadium sound system!)…but it would be expensive.  Okay, for this one, your student would have the be the relative of an eccentric millionaire that is about to die. *Cost: Priceless*

Really, the sky is the limit when it comes to having your young musician participate in an ensemble.  There are numerous possibilities and numerous benefits.  Plus, many options are free of charge.  Helpful hint: if you need to provide sheet music for the group your student is playing in, check out the International Music Library Score Project.  They provide copies of free sheet music for ensembles of many sizes.

Where can my kid play?

PYP_1916-550x198

OK, so you’ve taken the plunge and started your child on a stringed instrument. They’ve practiced, gone to lessons, done group recitals, maybe even started playing in a school orchestra.

But what if your school doesn’t have a string program? Many school districts around the country are cutting back, and usually the first programs the school administration looks at for cuts are the arts programs – music, art, etc. And then they look at enrollment in those programs, the cost of keeping a specialist teacher on staff and the first thing you know, there’s no orchestra program. Gone, bye-bye, so sorry.

Of course, there’s still a band program because that usually also supports the sports programs, and heaven forbid the sports programs get cut! (Don’t get me started on the merits of arts education over football – that’s a whole blog unto itself.)

But, OK, you’ve got a kid who is really getting along rather nicely with their instrument and has no groups to play in. What to do?

It’s important that your child not only learn the instrument, but also to have opportunities to perform and play with other students – hopefully with students at varying levels of proficiency.

The very act of sitting in an orchestra surrounded by other musicians who play the same instrument you do, takes on a significance and adds an educational and experiential level that you simply can’t get while practicing alone or one-on-one with your teacher.

So playing opportunities are important to the development of any musician.

The obvious place to start is to ask your child’s teacher for recommendations, as they are the most intimately familiar with your child’s development and skill levels, and can readily assess your child’s readiness to step into the world of ensemble playing.

If you live in a larger metropolitan area, there are usually youth orchestra programs available.

The oldest youth orchestra in the United States resides in Portland, Oregon. Over the 80+ years of its existence, Portland Youth Philharmonic has developed a program comprised of several groups, from younger intermediate level players all the way through some of the most advanced college students.

This venerated program very early on became the prototype for youth orchestras across the United States and continues to train young musicians to the highest levels. In fact, there isn’t a major symphony in the United States that doesn’t have someone playing in it that came up through the Portland Youth Philharmonic. It truly is a training ground for very successful musicians.

Admittance is by audition only, but once admitted, you can be assured that your child will receive some of the best musical training available.  Parents are expected to be very involved and as dedicated to their child’s experience in the orchestra as their child.

Check out this video of a young woman who came up through the PYP system. You’ll see how it changed her life:

YouTube Preview Image

This particular orchestra is, of course, only available to students in the Pacific Northwest, but there are many, many similar organizations around the country. One need only to consult Mr. Google to find lists upon lists of youth orchestras. One search yielded a pretty terrific site that covers the US, as well as many other countries. Musicalchairs.com is a great place to start your own research – you can find the listing of youth orchestras across the country here.

Even if you live in a small town, there are usually community groups available to play in that are organized by like-minded people who simply love to play and want to have a place to play.

Ask around, find a place to play and get your child involved. It will change your kid’s life, and give them something enriching and fun to do for the rest of their lives.

We at Kennedy Violins are all products of that early involvement and training and are here to help you bring your child up in a musical tradition that will stay with them their whole life.  From beginning instruments all the way through professional quality instruments, we are here to assist and encourage what we already know can be a life-enhancing activity.