New EP released!

So we finally got it finished! Our new EP is available now on CD Baby, and will soon also appear on iTunes and other music download sites.

Profiile Cover art

We have learned so much from this project that we are already starting on the next one, which will be even better. But as conceptual artist John Baldessari said, “You have to try things out. You can’t sit around, terrified of being incorrect, saying, ‘I won’t do anything until I do a masterpiece.'” So its out there – check it out!




What I learned from teaching in South America

I have always been aware of the Suzuki program in Peru.

  • In 2000, when I took my first SAA teacher training class (Recorder Unit 1A, at Kent State University in Ohio), there were teachers from Canada, Great Britain, and the United States, and students from the United States and Peru.
  • The first time I was involved in coordinating the Recorder Consort program at the SAA Conference in Minneapolis, one third of the students in the Consort were from Canada, one third from the U.S., and one third were from Peru.
  • I followed with interest the articles in the ASJ that described the Suzuki Festivals in Latin America, and one that seemed to be mentioned most often was the one in Peru.
  • As I took more teacher training classes, I met more people who had traveled to South America to teach, and many of them told me wonderful stories about teaching in Peru.
  • When I went to the Leadership Retreat, Caroline Fraser showed me a video of a recorder student playing at a very high level at a festival in Peru.

When I was asked if I could be available to teach at the International Suzuki Festival in Lima, I jumped at the chance to see for myself what was happing in Peru.

I did have some initial concerns about teaching in a foreign country and in a foreign language for the first time. Quizzing colleagues about what to expect resulted in many useful pointers and lots of reassurance: “Don’t worry, you’ll do fine.” After getting up at 3 am to get to the airport and traveling for 20 hours, I looked at the customs & immigration card the flight attendant had just handed me and wondered if that was going to be true. According to this card, I was only allowed to being one musical instrument into the country. Only one? I play and teach recorder! I was traveling with a full consort of 5 plastic recorders (sopranino, soprano, alto, tenor, and bass) in my checked bag, as well as a couple of wooden altos and sopranos (renaissance and baroque) in my carry on bag. What to do? I left that portion of the card blank, and asked  the person who checked my passport as I cleared customs. She directed me to the next person, who took the card from me without noticing that I had left that part blank. I sighed with relief. “OK, so I guess it doesn’t matter.” Then I turned to leave, and discovered that my bag had to pass through another Xray machine before I could leave the airport! I turned back to the official who took my card. “I left this part blank because I had a question…”  He glanced at me: “You are a tourist, and you only have one bag. You do not have a problem.” And so I didn’t. My bags passed the Xray test without any comment, and I was officially in Peru with all my instruments.

That fellow in customs was correct. I did not have a problem. The staff, teachers, and students at the festival were extraordinarily kind and considerate and made sure that my experience working with them want as smoothly as possible. Don’t speak Spanish? No problem, here is someone who can translate for you. Not used to the heat? No problem, your translator will bring you water at the beginning of each session. Is this your first time here? No problem, here is what you can expect, let us show you around, what do you need? (I want to give special thanks to the other teacher trainers who mentored me through my first festival experience!)

The “no problem” attitude prevailed throughout the entire festival. Did a student not have a parent available to accompany him? No problem, have the students come as a group with one or two chaperones. Did some students not have transportation? No problem, all the students from that part of town will come in a bus all together, and wait for each other to return together at the end of their classes. Did one of the teachers have to teach a masterclass at the same time as his teacher training unit? No problem, we’ll just take our break at that time so he can still fulfill his attendance requirement. Is there a shortage of music stands? No problem, we’ll just tape our parts to the back of the person playing in front of us. Did a student have difficulty reading his chamber music part? He worked hard at home and came back to the festival the next year reading complex music, no problem.

This “no problem” attitude was just one symptom of the abundance mentality that prevailed at the Festival. . The general feeling was that there is enough opportunity for everyone, and every child can, despite scarce resources, so we all help each other because we know there will be enough for everyone and we can all grow and learn together. Many teachers were taking training in more than one instrument, in order to provide more opportunities for more students. This was a sharp contrast to the scarcity mentality that I sometimes run across in my home community, where the need to be with the “best”  teacher turns into a race  to grab as much as quickly as possible so my child gets the most opportunities and can  progress faster than the other students. Even though we have more resources than many other communities the attitude sometimes becomes one of competing for those resources rather than sharing them.  At the Lima festival, the cooperative attitude was even present in the pre-concert “noodling”. If one person started reviewing a piece, other students and teachers who were familiar with that piece would join in, and suddenly an impromptu group class would form as they all reviewed the piece together.

One of the issues that could easily become a problem for teachers and students to attend the festival was travel. The distances and expenses involved in getting there for many people were similar to that which I am familiar with in Canada (with the additional issue of the paperwork required for international travel, depending on country of origin,) so I was very interested to see how they coped with these issues. There isn’t much you can do do to reduce the distance and cost, but what you can do is make the experience once you get there as rich as possible to make it worth the effort and expense. So on the very first day when we gathered for the opening concert and faculty introductions, all the people there who came from different countries and districts were acknowledged and applauded. This acknowledgement was repeated at all the concerts and events. Later in the festival, at the Latin American concert, groups from each country performed together, walking on stage under the banner of their respective national flags to uproarious applause. The acknowledgement of the effort people made to come from great distances was also reflected in the organization of the Festival.  The teachers’ conference, or ”Ecuentro” was scheduled on the weekend in between the two weeks of Festival classes, so that teachers could attend both events while they were there. Instead of offering SPA or the Practicum as a separate course, a “Teaching Strategies” course was provided at the end of each Book unit to provide extra training in the practical application of what had just been learned that week. So the teachers were able to take a book unit course, have a mini-practicum, and attend a conference but only have the expense of one trip.

The opportunity to share and learn together was celebrated at every opportunity. Photographs were taken to commemorate every event. Not only was there an official photographer for the entire Festival, there were special times set aside in the festival schedule for people to congregate to take photos of their class and instrument groups. The students who did not have cameras mobbed their teachers for commemorative autographs on their festival programs, folders, and Suzuki books.  Certificates were presented to all the participants, both students and teachers, and the teachers had a special presentation ceremony that was attended by everyone who took a teacher training course that week. All the participants cheered each other on for completing each course. The feeling was that attending the Festival was a major life event, like a wedding, birthday, or school graduation, and as such it deserved to be commemorated with similar ceremonies, certificates, and photographs.

photo credit: Sergio Aguilar

A group of Peruvian recorder players demonstrating that a shortage of music stands is not a problem. photo credit: Sergio Aguilar, Festival Internacional Suzuki, Lima, Peru.

Being part of the the International Suzuki Festival in Lima, Peru, was certainly a major life event for me. There are things from that experience that I want to bring back to my home community. I am inspired to create more opportunities to celebrate what we are doing, for both students and teachers! I want to create an abundance mentality in my home program that not only will promote more sharing and support between families, but also extend out to helping Suzuki programs in areas where they have fewer material resources. I am encouraged to continue with ongoing projects to increase accessibility to Suzuki instruction in isolated areas of my own country, and I sense possibilities for more international cooperation and communication in the group of recorder teachers who have been staying for an extra week after the SAA Conference to take teacher training together. But most of all, I want more people to be be able to feel what I felt when I was performing a song from Quebec in a school gym in Peru with a group of teachers and students from every county in between – maybe music can save the world!

“Why don’t you just tell us what notes to play?”

To answer a parent’s question: “Why don’t you just tell us what notes to play?”

You expressed two concerns in your last lesson.

  • You wanted to be able to tell your child what note to start on.
  • I wasn’t telling you what note to start on.

I want to address these concerns

First let’s look at the ultimate goal:

  • Your child needs to know what note to start on without you needing to help him.
  • How can he figure this out independently?

1) Listening to the the recording

You have been doing the listening at home. You told me that everyone in your family recognized that adding the “C” to Mary Had a Little Lamb sounded weird when your child started the song on B. This tells me that everyone in the family has a very clear idea of how the song sounds when it is played correctly. You all developed this idea from listening to the recording. Excellent!

You all realized that there was something not quite correct about his way of playing it because you were all comparing it to your idea from the recording. Excellent!

Next step: If you are not quite sure of something, refer to your reference recording. Go back and listen to it again, and then try playing the piece again. The discrepancy in the first note would become much more immediately obvious. When I do this with students in lessons, they often just automatically make the needed correction without realizing it after hearing the recording. (Then I have to ask them – “What did you just do differently?”  “Oh…”)

The most important part about this approach is that the student gets to figure it out independently. If a student has difficulty, parents and teachers can guide his attention to a specific spot by asking questions – “Did your first note sound the same or different than the first note on the recording?” – or by playing just a short section of the recording instead of the entire piece.

2) Reviewing previous repertoire

When we learn new fingerings, we transpose the “toolbox” songs to start on different notes. This is to change the key of the piece, to incorporate a new fingering in a familiar melody. Because the melody is very familiar, anything that sounds “odd” directs the students’ attention to the accuracy of the new fingering.

By reviewing these toolbox songs starting on different notes in the daily home practice, the student recognizes that there are multiple options for playing these tunes in different keys, and learns to hear the difference when the the tune starts on an A or a B by daily direct comparison.

The allows the student to recognize patterns from previous pieces in new repertoire, even if the patterns start on different notes.

So if something sounds “odd” in practice, questions to be asked can include: “Can I play this piece in a different key (on a different starting note)?” “Will what I am trying to do work better in one key or another?”

So this is my philosophy:

All new pieces will be introduced with these questions in mind:

  • “What is in this piece that I already know?”
  • “What is in this piece that is new?”

Beginning with the “same / different / higher / lower” pitch identification game in our first lessons, all the way through to finding the start of the recapitulation in a classical sonata-allegro concerto movement, the process of learning the music remains the same, only the complexity of the material changes. We identify when it is the same, and when it is different.

  • If a student does consistent review of previously learned material, he has a repertoire of “same” things that he can access for immediate comparison.
  • If a student listens consistently to the reference recording, he will recognize things that are different and try to imitate them.
  • If his imitation is successful, he has just solved the “different” problem independently by combining known material in a new way.
  • If his imitation is not immediately successful, direct comparison to the reference recording and guiding questions from the practice parent or teacher can help him find the answer.

Yes this takes longer. WAY longer than just saying “It starts on an A”. But only at the beginning. If we invest the time in learning this process at the start, we can sit back later and enjoy how competently our students master new material quickly and independently. I have also seen the alternative, where students who have depended upon their parents to tell them what to do have quit playing the instrument once they get to an age where depending on the parent isn’t that fun anymore but they haven’t got the skills to do it themselves yet. I would rather foster a student who can work independently at a high level, so at an age when he desires more independence he can go off and work on his own with continued success.

At the School

So my idea of posting daily blog updates has been revised due to the unreliability of the internet connections, but I am now back after a pause to reorganize my communications. (First world problems 🙂 ) At the school where I am teaching my classroom door opens into an open gallery that overlooks this lovely courtyard, with a formal garden complete with palm trees.

Lima - 261

First Impressions

I arrive in Lima at midnight, after getting up at 3 am to get to the airport. The air feels thick and warm and wet. Yet I am informed that it never rains here! I wake to a foggy mist that gradually clears until I can see the Pacific Ocean from my hotel room window.

Some of the teachers who have been here before take me for a walk to get some lunch and see the waterfront. It is a very steep slope down to a narrow gravel beach. I am introduced to a typical Peruvian dish: Causa. It looks like polenta, it is make from yellow potatoes, it is served plain or layered with fish, cheese, or vegetable, and it is delicious! Later we will have the teacher’s organizational meeting over dinner at the director’s home. Tomorrow the work begins!

Lima - 27

Peer modelling

I was teaching a little 5 year old beginner today, and she came up with a question.

“Is that your daughter playing on the Book 1 CD?”

Now my 16 yr old daughter has been acting as my assistant in the beginner group class, and she will often play the tune while I guide the students in the activity.

I found it really interesting that for this child, imagining an older child playing the music on the recording  was more immediate than imagining an adult doing so.

So I told her, “No, that is not my daughter. But it sounds like it could be her because she has listened to that recording so much. But anybody can learn to sound like that, they just have to listen to the CD lots & lots.”

Student: “Mommy, can we go home and listen to the CD for 20 .. no, 40 minutes?”

Time and Practice

I just watched a TED talk by Abha Dawesar, “Life in the digital now.”

Here is the link:

She had some very interesting things to say about time, and I quote:

“Our story, therefore, needs two dimensions of time: a long arc of time that is our lifespan,and the time frame of direct experience that is the moment. Now the self that experiences directly can only exist in the moment, but the one that narrates needs several moments, a whole sequence of them, and that’s why our full sense of self needs both immersive experience and the flow of time. Now, the flow of time is embedded in everything, in the erosion of a grain of sand, in the budding of a little bud into a rose. Without it, we would have no music…

…You and I know exactly what it means like to be truly present in a moment. It might have happened while we were playing an instrument, or looking into the eyes of someone we’ve known for a very long time. At such moments, our selves are complete. The self that lives in the long narrative arc and the self that experiences the moment become one. The present encapsulates the past and a promise for the future. The present joins a flow of time from before and after.”

The idea of existing at a point where the long narrative intersects the present moment spoke to me.

As a musician, I put in long hours of practice, building the skill to be able to communicate through the sound I create with my instrument. Yet when I perform, I exist in that moment only – when the performance is over, the music has vanished. You can’t step back and say, “Look at what I just played!” It is not there anymore. Yet without the long story of daily practice, it would not be possible  to have that performance.

So, to use Dawesar’s analogy,  the practice is the long narrative arc, the performance is the moment, and when the two intersect, that is where art is created.

This makes me feel like practicing.

The Power of Intention by Annie Murphy Paul

The Power of Intention by Annie Murphy Paul

See the original article at

This is so relevant to the way we teach, with the emphasis on learning by ear.

The Power of Intention

Monday, October 28, 2013

Listening and observing can be passive activities—in one ear and out the other, as our mothers used to say. Or they can be rich, active, intense experiences that lead to serious learning. The difference lies in our intention: the purpose and awareness with which we approach the occasion. Here’s how to make sure your intentions are good.
Listening With Intention

Research on how we learn a second language demonstrates that effective listening involves more than simply hearing the words that float past our ears. Rather, it’s an active process of interpreting information and making meaning. Studies of skilled language learners have identified specific listening strategies that lead to superior comprehension. What’s more, research has shown that learners who deliberately adopt these strategies become better listeners.

In 2010, for example, University of Ottawa researcher Larry Vandergrift published hisstudy of 106 undergraduates who were learning French as a second language. Half of the students were taught in a conventional fashion, listening to and practicing texts spoken aloud. The other half, possessing the same initial skill level and taught by the same teacher, were given explicit instruction on how to listen. In the journalLanguage Learning, Vandergrift reported the results: The second group “significantly outperformed” the first one on a test of comprehension. The improvement was especially pronounced among the less-fluent French speakers in the group.

So what are these listening strategies?

• Skilled learners go into a listening session with a sense of what they want to get out of it. They set a goal for their listening, and they generate predictions about what the speaker will say. Before the talking begins, they mentally review what they already know about the subject, and form an intention to “listen out for” what’s important or relevant.

• Once they begin listening, these learners maintain their focus; if their attention wanders, they bring it back to the words being spoken. They don’t allow themselves to be thrown off by confusing or unfamiliar details. Instead, they take note of what they don’t understand and make inferences about what those things might mean, based on other clues available to them: their previous knowledge of the subject, the context of the talk, the identity of the speaker, and so on. They’re “listening for gist,” and not getting caught up in fine-grained analysis.

• All the while, skilled learners are evaluating what they’re hearing and their own understanding of it. They’re checking their inferences to see if they’re correct, and identifying the questions they still have so they can pursue the answers later.

Such strategies are all about metacognition, or thinking about thinking, and they yield a variety of benefits. Research indicates that learners who engage in metacogniton are better at processing and storing new information, better at finding the best ways to practice and better at reinforcing what they have learned. In a 2006 study by researchers from Singapore, Chinese speakers who were learning English as a second language reported increased motivation and confidence after they were taught metacognitive strategies.

Observing With Intention

You’ve heard it before, and it’s true: we learn by doing. But we also learn by watching. Whether it’s a salsa teacher running through a dance sequence, a tennis coach demonstrating proper serving technique or a science professor conducting a dissection in front of the class, observing an expert at work is an opportunity to hone our own skills.

This is especially true in the case of motor movements, and research in neuroscience is beginning to show why: when we watch someone else’s motions, the parts of the brain that direct our own physical movements are activated. Observation accelerates the learning process because our brains are able to map others’ actions onto our own mental representations, making them more detailed and more accurate. Using brain scans, scientists are figuring out how this process works—and how we can make the most of what we see.

Scott Grafton, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has employed studies of dancers to investigate the operation of what he calls the “action observation network,” a circuit in the brain that is stimulated whenever we observe a movement, imagine performing it or actually engage in it ourselves. In a study published in the journal Cerebral Cortex in 2009, Grafton and his co-authors asked participants to rehearse a dance sequence set to a music video.

For five days they practiced the routine; on each day they also watched a different dance sequence without trying it out for themselves. The subjects’ brains were scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) before and after the five-day period.

The second round of scans revealed that the dancers’ action observation networks showed similar patterns of activation as they watched both videos—the one with a dance sequence they had practiced, and the one with a dance sequence they had simply watched. “Human motor skills can be acquired by observation without the benefit of immediate physical practice,” Grafton and his colleagues concluded.

We derive the most benefit from observation when have in mind the conscious intention to carry out the action ourselves. In a 2006 study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, psychologist Scott Frey of the University of Oregon scanned the brains of participants as they watched videos of someone putting together and taking apart a toy made of several parts. One group of subjects simply watched the demonstration; another group was aware that they would be asked to reproduce the actions they viewed on the video.

Although members of both groups were lying completely still inside an fMRI machine, the brains of the second group showed activation in a region involved in motor learning. Simply knowing that we will be expected to carry out the motions we observe seems to prime the brain to learn better.