Another Great Article on Music Education

June 23, 2011

I know…

You’re thinking, “Two (!) posts in one week!”

I can’t believe it myself.

Here’s another concise, elegant article on the importance of music education,  courtesy of the String Visions feed.

It occurs to me though, that here in the US, the people who value music education aren’t the ones who need to be convinced of its necessity. It’s the people who see it as just another “special,” something that can be cut in favor of more math or standardized test prep, who need to be reeducated. Not many people would willingly admit that they think music is somehow less academically important than math, science or reading. But they do, and it’s maddening, sad and incomprehensible. And shortsighted.

Given all the kerfuffle that a recent Atlantic article is causing, maybe some rethinking of how music is actually taught and performed in schools would be helpful.  Music gives us tools to help us become better humans.  Music holds performers and listeners, students and teachers, professionals and amateurs, accountable. Music provides essential building blocks for human character that cannot be obtained through any other  source, or by any other means. It is a skill, it is a coping mechanism, it is a comforter. It is objective, yet intensely personal.  And it is equal opportunity everything.

That is all. (I have to go practice now.)


Benefits of Music Education

June 15, 2011

Since I haven’t had anything earth-shatteringly important to say in quite some time now, I thought I’d pass along this extremely well-written post from a colleague I have never met. Emily Wright is a cellist and music educator and what she has to say about music ed from a “big picture” perspective is a stellar read.  Administrators, school board presidents and parents should take special note of this post, before the sound of music totally disappears from our American educational system.

I sincerely hope she doesn’t mind me linking, since I didn’t ask her if I could.

I’ll eventually return with something (hopefully interesting) of my own to say.

Reflections About Election Day 2010

November 3, 2010

I’ve never told you about my dad. Since this is a violin blog, he doesn’t really have much bearing on that. Well, other than that he basically bankrolled my violin habit until I turned 18. I sort of owe him I guess. My dad passed away in 2002, and I still regret that I wasted many opportunities to tell him he was right, about a lot of things.

Perhaps the two most important lessons I learned from my dad were: my actions, or lack thereof, can make a difference (maybe not for me, but for someone else); and conflict is inevitable, especially when principles are involved.

This year, these lessons had the unusual opportunity to coalesce in the realm of politics. The Man of the House and I both worked on a couple of political campaigns because for us it was not only the right thing to do but the only thing we could do, given what was at stake in this election. Unfortunately, we ended up on the side with fewer votes. You never lose when you stand solidly for what you believe in. I suppose many on the other side are thinking that very same thing. Just as unfortunate is that our social and constitutional beliefs are apparently not even on the same planet.

Free and fair elections are a cornerstone of our system. They would not work if citizens were not willing to step up and participate in the process. On Election Day, I was given the honor and privilege of being a precinct election official. I didn’t think I would actually be appointed when I applied, but they said “election workers needed” so I waved my hand wildly in the air jumped up and down and yelled Oooh, Oooh, pick me! Pick me! filled out my application and mailed it in. It was something I felt I could do. It was the least I could do.

Running a computer is well within my skillset.

It was an interesting diversion from my normal schedule. Even though it was a very long day, I would do it again if asked. It was personally rewarding, fun and I felt like I was truly contributing to something much larger than myself. It far outweighed jury duty on my personal “good citizenship” scale. Plus, I got this cool little gold pin shaped like the state of Iowa, imprinted with “1846-2010 Election Official.” By the end of my 16-hour shift, I sort of felt like I’d been around since 1846.

As anticipated, it was busy all day. People waited in line for upwards of thirty minutes toward the end of the day. It was 9:10 before the last voter in line when the polls officially closed stuck their ballot in the scanner. I did a little bit of everything, from setting up the computers to double checking the election register to handing out ballots to watching the scanner. I registered new voters, helped with provisional ballots, watched the poll watchers, and helped count write-in votes. And I carried the chairman’s snacks into the building before anything else, which earned me major brownie points. See, I know what’s really important about public service: free food.

On a much more personal note, I was taken aback not as much by the results, but by the margins of the results.

And now for a bit of Violinnovator history: I was a Reagan Republican in my early voting days. (Please commiserate if you feel led. Or point and laugh at my naivety.)

I chose that option mostly to spite my dad, who was a lifelong Democrat. But I also foolishly believed that “trickle down” economics would work, and that my life would get better.

That changed in a hurry when Mr. Reagan said that the homeless were homeless by choice.

Because at the time, I was bordering on homeless and having a really tough time financially. It was mostly my fault, through poor choices I made, but still. I knew a lot of homeless people and I volunteered at shelters and donated when I could. The President’s view of reality was neither the one I saw regularly nor the one in which I lived. The first president Bush didn’t help matters all that much with all his talk about “compassionate conservatism.” The only thing even remotely compassionate about it is that people talk nicely to you and nod and smile when you recount your difficulties. It’s still that way, even now. And it makes me cringe.

The results from Election Day 2010 are just as cringeworthy. The people in my district elected anti-immigrant-Hispanic-family-gay-women-Muslim “Christians” to our state legislature and senate, and the governor’s office. Something tells me they won’t be representing those groups or others who hold different views. I discovered some time back that my US Representative doesn’t represent constituents who feel differently than he does.

This election cycle was was ugly, mean-spirited and financed unethically on multiple fronts (thank you, Citizen’s United!) It was filled with innuendo, hate, distortion and outright lies. It wasn’t about jobs or the so-called Obama agenda. It was about discrimination, isolationism and plutocracy. I don’t know about you, but my reading and remembrance of social, political and economic history isn’t very complimentary to the US in the late 19th-century, 1920s, 1950s, 1960s or 2000s. The comparisons to Nazi Germany aren’t too far off the mark, no matter how much we might believe otherwise. (And, no, I don’t think I’m being melodramatic.)

The judicial retention vote in Iowa ended up being a colossal waste of money, on both sides. If this had truly been about changing the law, the emphasis would have been on calling a convention, not on the judges. When a small majority of voters throws out judges based on one court decision yet overwhelmingly rejects a call for a constitutional convention to permanently solve the issue created by said court decision, it is clear that nothing was really changed by the vote. Except that it upset a lot of people and created ill-will on both sides of an issue that never should have been one to begin with. The financial implications to the state were never mentioned, which is strange when you consider that one of the major talking points was saving money and smaller government. Something tells me that’s not going to happen, either. Perhaps one of Governor-elect Branstad’s first orders of business should be to come up with a new state motto. The one that served Iowa well for the past 164 years — “Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain” — was officially torched on November 2. It obviously no longer reflects the will of the people or the climate of our state.

The America that spoke in these elections is not the America I know. The Iowa that spoke is not the Iowa that I know. There must be something wrong with my internal processor, because I don’t understand what happened. I am disheartened, disillusioned, and defeatist. Well, for today anyway. And probably for the near future.

Those of you who read my blog regularly or are actually personal acquaintances and friends know that I don’t wax political constantly and I don’t wear blue donkeys. Or yellow moons, pink hearts and green clovers. Or whatever the heck is in the Lucky Charms box. I don’t proselytize or preach during lessons about anything other than violin. Since violins rule the world. If you didn’t know that, you should.

My life is about to change. Drastically. That is the only thing I know for certain. Other people’s fear — played out in the voting booth — just impinged on my individual liberties and possibly my first amendment right to speak my mind freely. What happened on Election Day 2010 was immoral, unethical and ignorant.  While I sincerely hope that the Republicans will moderate a bit and come back toward the center, I try to be a realist, and some of the proposals that have been put forth by newly-elected officials both in Iowa and Congress are truly frightening in their consequences.

Music soothes both the savage beast and wounded campaign workers. Music is a fitting substitute for conciliation that will not be forthcoming from this new face of America. So, I will go practice before I say something really stupid and inflammatory start railing on truth, justice and the American way. What was the American way is obviously not anymore, so I should stop before I get arrested as a terrorist or something. Because I’m sure that John Boehner has his eye on me. Or my teaching assistant, who is every bit as threatening to our national security as I am:

An Open Comment To Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA)

September 28, 2010

Dear Senator:

I am ashamed to admit that I have voted for you every time I’ve been eligible in the state of Iowa.

I am a small business owner. There is one person in my company. Me. I can’t afford to be a member of the Chamber of Commerce or any other big business organization. But I am, nevertheless, accountable to a lot of people who pay me good money for what I do.  It keeps my family in groceries.

My husband, however, has been off-shored out of a job not once, but twice. He isn’t in manufacturing. He’s a highly-trained, well-respected software engineer who specializes in a particular program that isn’t widely used, but is very important in the industries which still use it.

I thought you were a normal guy. Especially when I saw you driving around in your little old orange Chevette in Cedar Falls a few years ago when I was a student at UNI.  I thought you were a moderate who was truly interested and passionate about doing right by your constituency.  The super-duper-expensive toilet seats were just the tip of the iceberg. Boy, was I wrong.

Your vote today to block providing incentives to American companies to bring jobs back to America from China, India, Mexico and other countries that both oppress their citizens and are sources of below poverty-level-wage labor is a slap in the face to those you are supposed to represent.

I will do everything in my power to see that Roxanne Conlin kicks your a** in November.


The Violinnovator

Not cool

September 18, 2010

I am definitely not cool.

It is soooo not cool to go two months without posting anything.

But I did.


I am as uncool as it gets.

And a very bad blogger.

Then again, I’m not really a blogger.

I do plan on posting again, in the near future. Or sometime. Especially since I seem to still be getting visitors. And you probably would like something to read that is more interesting than this drivel I am posting right now.

Never fear, The Violinnovator is here. She just stepped out for a short break. 🙂

In the meantime, the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis is in full swing.  The performance schedule is here. The sidebar on that page will get you to the live stream of the performances, as well as archived audio and video of the preliminary round. There is some really fine stuff there.

We now return you to your regular programming.

Random Thoughts: Is Today Your VIOLINDEPENDENCE Day?

July 2, 2010

[Note 1: This is not intended to be a political commentary. ‘Nuf said?]

[Note 2:  I had to “shout” the title because lower case L and upper case I look the same when written in a normal tone of voice. Heh.)

Imagine what might have happened had our Founding Fathers had given up on July 3, 1776.   “I say, dear Mr. Jefferson, ’tis not worth the effort to complaine against the Crowne.  Let us be content therewith, take leave of Philadelphia and return to our families.”   hey had high expectations, high enough that the last line of the text of the Declaration of Independence states that they were, as a group, willing to pledge their lives, fortunes and honor.

No one is asking the Violin Students of the Universe to lay down their lives or fortunes for the violin.  But I wonder sometimes if the concept of honor — having high expectations and upholding them without regard to personal consequences — has become so foreign, so antiquated, to our modern sensibilities (both socially and politically) that its demise has irreparably damaged our system.  The Founding Fathers were not willing (thankfully!) to stop at “good enough”.  Should we expect any less of ourselves today as citizens, parents, musicians and humans?

In keeping with my penchant for making lists, here’s another list of random thoughts based on the following quotes.  As you read and think about them, notice that all three are simply different slants on the same basic idea:  honor.

“Ten thousand times breeds ability.” Shinichi Suzuki

“If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?” John Wooden

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Albert Einstein

My Random Thoughts:

  • New pieces are not an indicator of ability.
  • Ignoring a problem with technique or intonation will not make it go away.
  • There is no magical solution. The closest thing to magic is learning to hear yourself as your teacher hears you.
  • “Are you insane?” is a legitimate question for a violin teacher to ask.  With a smile and a wink, of course.
  • One hundred times builds a habit.  One thousand times builds security.  Ten thousand times builds ability.  This process can make you either an excellent violinist or an excellent mistake-maker.  You get to choose which path to follow.
  • A mistake means you’re one step closer to getting it right.
  • Mistakes become normal if allowed to go unchecked and uncorrected.
  • Mistakes are tools for developing excellence.
  • What do you expect from yourself?
  • Do you expect to sound good?
  • Do you like how you sound?
  • Do you expect yourself to play in tune?
  • Do you sound better than you did a year ago? Six months ago?
  • Are your expectations at least as high as your teacher’s?


The Cost of Choice

June 21, 2010

Beth Blackerby, owner of ViolinLab, recently described the experience of dealing with latent emotions that surfaced when she took on her first adult student several years ago.  She writes :

“…because I started as a child, I had never experienced what my adult student had: the burning desire to learn the violin; the self-propelling passion that comes from choice, the will to continue because it was what I wanted more than anything.”

I would like to thank Ms. Blackerby for raising this topic, because it is a tough one to discuss.  Most of us, musicians or not, are so busy with gigs, work, family commitments and life in general that there is little time for self-reflection.  But I can’t help but think that the feelings referenced in her beautifully-phrased, wrenchingly-honest quote are related to some factor other than age.  Why?  Because Ms. Blackerby described perfectly and precisely what I did experience as a child of seven, then eight, and finally nine, when I was allowed to start lessons.   I was prepared, ready and determined to do great things with the violin.  But when I failed to meet expectations — mostly my own — I was not prepared for the emotional aftermath.

Playing the violin was a choice, the first real choice I ever made.  I didn’t have to be prodded, cajoled, bribed or threatened to practice.   On the other hand, maybe choice isn’t the right description, because I have always felt compelled by something that I could not explain, driven by a desire that I can only describe in terms that are probably not suitable for younger audiences.   The childlike amazement and wonder, as well as pigheaded stubbornness remain some thirty-five years later, and I am no closer to being able to explain it today than I was as a child.

Playing the violin was also empowering.  People paid attention to me when I played, although at the time I couldn’t figure out what all the fuss was about.  I was labeled “talented,” “gifted,” “special,” as if those words all meant the same thing (they don’t).   I didn’t understand why; I simply read the directions at the front of the book, did what they said, and checked my effort against the reference LP.  (The directions are, by the way, exactly the same today, but with more pictures.)   And I was sufficiently rewarded for my direction-following skills by moving through the repertoire at lightning speed:  all ten Suzuki violin books in about six years.   It took me a lot longer to learn that the more you achieve, the more people expect from you.

I’ve heard of students who “see the light” after they’ve been playing for a few years and suddenly outperform everyone in a studio.   As a teenager, I saw it firsthand in my own teacher’s studio.   One day, Kris was average, a couple of grades and a couple of books behind the advanced kids.  No one suspected a thing, because she was so quiet and did her best to stay under the radar. And then, out of nowhere, BANG! She killed at All-State seating auditions, earning Violin I, chair 4 (out of 40 first violins and 40 seconds.)  To the best of my fuzzy recollection, the highest I ever sat was Violin 1-9.  It was a clarion call for me, discouraging and painful.   Because I was in the second violin section that year (3rd chair) and she sat directly to my right, I was constantly reminded of how I failed to meet expectations.  Deep down, I knew I should have been sitting where Kris sat.  I had let my teachers and parents down.  I had disappointed myself.   I had been a horrible model for my classmates.

There is a cost associated with that passion, that desire to obtain regardless of any consequences.   The emotional toll of choice is not a topic of general discussion or debate during orchestra breaks.  I don’t know, maybe most other violinists don’t have problems with it.   Or maybe many do, but they are convinced that no one else would understand.

Outside the world of music, economists call it “opportunity cost.”  Psychologists label it OCD, and in “advanced” stages it can be crippling.  In my case, it manifested as depression. I was able to get it diagnosed and treated before it ended my academic and performance careers, but not before it cost me a marriage, relationships with other people I loved and respected, much emotional and psychological devastation, and deeply-rooted performance anxiety.  It is still difficult to admit it, much less talk about it, and it is much more complicated than I can discuss here.

The specialness has long since worn off.  I’m skilled, well-trained, not talented or special.  I am a realist, although my husband says I’m much too critical of myself.  (A musician he is not. But he makes pies and cakes and enchiladas for me.  And the programmer-slash-analyst in him doesn’t look at me like I have two heads when I ask a stupid computer question. So I think I’ll keep him.)   I am no longer willing to give up everything for the violin.  While I strive to be extraordinary and can easily hold my own professionally, the reality is that I am just an average violinist among thousands of other average violinists trying to buy groceries.

Dreams come and go, evolve, and help us grow.   Sometimes they even come true.   Dreams keep us alive, keep us motivated.   But they can become nightmarish in the absence of reason and sense.   And age has very little to do with it.   This I know from experience.