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.

Time management starts young – my response to “I can’t practice because I have homework” from a student in Grade 2

One of the major concepts in Suzuki philosophy is taking the long term view. Especially since the very young students do not have the long term experience yet to look beyond the moment, the parents and teachers have to help establish this. So let’s look at this in the long term. When you are in high school, the homework will take more time, and the extra curricular activities will also demand more time. Juggling homework and practice at this stage, when both activities only take a few minutes, is training for time management for high school and college.

When my daughter was small we juggled homework, practice , and the freelance schedules of both parents. If we knew the day was going to pose challenges for getting things done, we would discuss how we were going to schedule everything over breakfast (or in the car), come up with a few possibilities, and our daughter would help decide which one we would use. Then we would have to stick to it no matter what (which was sometimes very difficult) but we got it done (sometimes less than we wanted but enough to at least touch on everything). But now we have a kid in Grade 12 who has the next two years planned out in terms of what courses she will take at school, which ones she will do independently on line, and the timeline for which RCM exams she has to prepare in order to get her high school graduation, her ARCT diploma in recorder, go on tour to Europe with her choir and take a gap year before college.

That ability to plan ahead was developed in the car on the way to elementary school.

The Million Dollar Lesson By Ed Kreitman

The million dollar lesson is designed to help young students learn what is and is not  appropriate lesson behaviour.  In my experience teaching, I have found that most young  children eventually decide to “test the water” of lesson behaviour to see exactly what they can get away with.  When this happens, the parent and teacher have the opportunity to teach the child that it is alright to manipulate the lesson, wasting everyone’s valuable time, and the parent’s money, or we can teach the child that inappropriate lesson behaviour is unacceptable.

First let’s define inappropriate lesson behaviour. Hiding under a desk, in the corner or under the piano is inappropriate lesson behaviour. Clinging to mother’s skirt with a thumb stuck in the mouth is inappropriate lesson behaviour. Acting bratty, and refusing to cooperate with the teacher is inappropriate lesson behaviour. Having an all out temper tantrum in the middle of the studio because you don’t want to play Lightly Row is inappropriate lesson behaviour.If we allow this type of activity to go on in our studios, the child will learn that he or  she is able to control the lesson. I have had several who whined for 25 minutes until the next student showed up, then threw a temper tantrum because it was time to go and they     couldn’t have a lesson. This type of thing never happens in my studio anymore. Years ago, I learned from my mentor, Jeanne Luedke,  that we need to address this situation even before it happens. With every new parent that enters my studio, part of the parent education is to discuss exactly how we will handle any situation dealing with appropriate lesson behaviour. Our goal is to train the child quickly and easily to have a productive lesson. I tell the parent that eventually, the child will come to the lesson and be tired, or fussy, or just decide  that today is the day to test the perimeters of my patience, and pull something that is inappropriate. When that happens, the parent and I have a plan. First the parent is asked to take the child outside of the studio and have a talk. See if perhaps they need a drink, bathroom break, or whatever, to try to get it together. If this does not work, we agree that the parent will remove the child from the studio immediately, with no discussion. I usually say something like, “looks like today is the day” with a smile. The effectiveness of this lesson is lost if there is discussion or delay. The child needs to experience that hiding under the desk this minute produces the result of being in the car on the way home the next minute. The important part about having this plan set up in advance with the parent is that there is no anger on the part of the teacher, and no embarrassment on the part of the parent. We are simply going through the motions together of a necessary routine which will bring about a very positive change in the child’s behaviour.

I would say that almost every child I have taught has had the million dollar lesson once.     A few have had it twice, and if a child needs to have it a third time. I usually suggest to the parent that the child is not quite ready for formal instruction, and perhaps a break period of 3 to 6 months might be advised.

Incidentally, I call this the million dollar lesson, because one time as the mother was taking her screaming child out the door, she asked over her shoulder if there would be a makeup, or a refund for the lesson. Without thinking, I replied, “Oh no, you are definitely getting your money’s worth this week. This is the MILLION DOLLAR LESSON.”    

And you know what? That girl played Bruch Violin Concerto on the solo recital last Sunday.

Why practice the easy stuff?

As I was practicing this morning, I realized that as I was warming up I was doing the same, or very similar things, to what I have my junior and intermediate students do.  It made me stop and think.

Why was I doing these things that I have been practicing for years if I can do them already? Is this a waste of time?  Am I bored? I don’t feel bored.

As I thought about it, my answer is: I do those things very well and very easily because I do them every day.  If I didn’t spend a few minutes going over all the basics of violin playing every day they would all be much more difficult and I would be unable to successfully perform complex music with the necessary ease to communicate with an audience.

So when we practice we apply knowledge to develop skill.  The easier it gets the more precisely we are able to apply the knowledge and the more finely tuned our skills can become.

To quote Shinichi Suzuki “Knowledge is not ability.  Knowledge X 10,000 times is ability.

The Joy of Procrastination

The urge to procrastinate is a good thing! I never thought I would say this, but I have been introduced to a radical new idea thanks to Seth Godin.

In his new book The Icarus Deception (which I highly recommend) he refers to the urge to procrastinate as a sign that you are about to make some really good art. Since creating really good art also makes you vulnerable, it also activates your sense of self-preservation. Your sense of self-preservation then activates your “fight or flight” response, which manifests as an urge to put off making the art. Therefore, the urge to procrastinate is a sign that you are about to create something really good.

That is the best explanation I have ever heard for the common experience of artists, writers, and musicians – that it is a joy to practice your art, but so very difficult to get started. So the next time I feel like procrastinating instead of practicing,  I should paradoxically feel a stronger urge to practice because I know I will accomplish something really good.