Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Joys and Challenges of Teaching Children

How many of you teach music to children? I currently have 5 kids: two girls, ages 11 and 14; and three boys, ages 6, 7, and 8 (or thereabouts). I'll be focusing on the three youngest for this discussion. I’ve never taken an elementary ed course, though I did sit in on quite a few when my mom taught it. But I mainly go on what I’ve observed over the years—I’m a people watcher so I observe behavior and how people interact and save the good stuff in the back of my head. I also go on instinct and my own interaction with children, usually at church or family gatherings (I've never had a babysitting job—crazy, I know).

Over the years I’ve learned several important lessons about children. First, they are more sensitive than I thought. Such generalizations won’t apply to every child, of course. But I’d say my kids definitely fall into that category. One student—we’ll call him T—gets upset and frustrated fairly easily. I'm not a "meanie" or a slave driver by any means but he has teared up a couple of times in his lessons. He once missed a lesson with no advance warning and the next week his mother explained that he got so overwhelmed when looking at what he had to practice that he didn’t practice at all. She asked if I could lessen the amount of homework I give and I happily obliged. I don’t wanna give this poor child an ulcer over Mary Had a Little Lamb!

This leads to my second realization--children are resilient. I kind of knew this already, but it's amazing how quickly then can bounce back from a low point in a lesson. I worked with T a couple of weeks ago on things he can do when he gets frustrated during practice time. I gave him three options: He can 1) take a deep breath and try again, 2) play a song that he likes or can play well, or 3) put the violin down and do pinky pushups with his bow (he's really good at them). There are many variations on this, of course. Last week was awesome because if a lesson went downhill I just had to mention Harry Potter coming out on Wednesday. Then I played a bit of the theme on my violin and they thought I was the coolest ever.

Last, I’ve seen evidence of something else I already knew: Kids are fast learners. They really are like sponges and if you have their attention you can teach them so much! The possibilities are endless when a child is truly excited about learning something. Another student, D, began his study with a friend of mine. She’s moving and she referred his father to me. D is my youngest (6 years old) and he’s very bright. He shied away from using the bow so my friend let him focus on pizzicato. I start kids on the bow as soon as they know their strings and understand common time (read: count to 4 over and over). I let them pluck first before going to arco for a while but moving on to the bow is very important.

So near the end of D’s first lesson I asked him if he would like to play a song with his bow. He explained that he didn’t like it so he had plucked, and I asked him to just try it. I have learned that this is a huge risk—we were only 5 minutes away from finishing and the whole thing could’ve gone terribly sour. I want kids (all my students!) to leave their lesson feeling like they’ve accomplished something, you know? But I took the risk and decided that I’d let him pluck his favorite song if the bow didn’t work out. But it did work out and he didn’t even need much coaching! Of course the bow wasn’t straight but he got a decent sound and—the best part—he enjoyed it. His little face lit up and suddenly it was as if he could see the world of potential he’d just discovered! Cutest thing ever.

When teaching children I have to remember all these things I've mentioned plus their attention spans! I could go on and on and tell more stories but I’d really like to hear from you all. What are some of your experiences with younger students? Methods and approaches that worked, ideas which backfired horribly, etc.? Leave a comment so we can all share in your learning experience. Thanks!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Soloist

I saw The Soloist a few weeks ago at the $1 theater (which is really the $2/$4 theater) with a friend. Overall, I really enjoyed it. Even though I don't really care for Robert Downey, Jr., he did a good job. And I enjoy seeing Jamie Foxx in serious roles--he did a great job.

Being a musician--especially a string player--I went in knowing that I'd be unhappy with certain things. For example they had coaches for Keri Russell and other actors who portrayed musicians in August Rush, yet the majority of the musical performances were just terrible. I want to hug Ben Hong and Jamie Foxx because it takes a combination of good teacher and good student to achieve the wonderful musical performances that Foxx gave. He was convincing in not only the articulation-to-bow relationship but also the note-to-finger relationship. I was not expecting the latter! Being a nerd with frustratingly good relative pitch (some say it's perfect pitch but it isn't) I noticed that there were only a couple of places where we heard an open string but he had a finger down.

Now for some symphony things. I found it cool that the Juilliard Orchestra was seated like the UT orchestra, with the viola and cello sections switched. What I found very odd was that the Los Angeles Philharmonic had the celli seated where the 2nd violins traditionally go (second from stage right). I'm sure there's a reason behind it but... it really threw me off!

*turns off music crit--Oh, one more technical thing. When Steve gave Nathaniel the donated cello, Nathaniel lovingly ran his hand along the hair of the bow and I cringed. I had to restrain myself because I really wanted to scream "Don't touch the hair, Mr. I Went To Juilliard!!!!"

Okay. *turns off music critic* My one non-musical critique deals with the Beethoven sequence during which we see (what I'm guessing is) a representation of how Nathaniel's brain interprets the music. It's very bright and colorful (read: psychedelic) but it did quite a number on my already-hurting head. Pretty soon I think we need to start putting warnings on movie trailers for people who are prone to migraines or photosensitive epilepsy. Anyone else feel this way?

All that aside, it was a good movie with a good message. I immediately put the book on my wishlist so maybe after my birthday I'll be reading it... :-D

Favorite moment:
  • The principal cellist gives Nathaniel a copy of the Bach cello suites to play and says "If it weren't for Johann Sebastian there would be no Ludwig van."
I'd love to hear anyone else's thoughts. Have you seen the movie? Do you have the soundtrack and if so what do you think of it? I look forward to hearing from you!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Georgia Aquarium

Howdy, all! I hope those of you who celebrated July 4th had a wonderful weekend. Actually, I hope you had a good weekend whether you celebrated or not! :-D

I had a great time at my family reunion in Atlanta. While there I visited the Georgia Aquarium with my dad. I made an album of photos and a couple of videos at Flickr: Georgia Aquarium What's really cool is this: after I tweeted about my visit, the Georgia Aquarium followed me on Twitter. How awesome is that?

Upcoming Blog Posts: A review of The Soloist and some thoughts on teaching violin to elementary-age children.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Happy Independence Day!

Hello from downtown Atlanta, GA! The family is waiting to take a group picture before the banquet. Expect pictures from the aquarium sometime next week.

For mini updates be sure to check my twitter page: :-D Have a great weekend, especially my fellow Americans--have a safe and happy 4th!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Robyn James Trio, est. May 2005

I'm messing around with Picasa, Google's free photo editing program. I decided to make a photo album for my trio's website so I've been going through our photos from 2005 to today. Talk about a trip down memory lane!

This is from our very first photo shoot. It took at place at the UT music building. My friend Connie volunteered to photograph us. Connie, have I told you that you rock? Because you do!!

If Picasa doesn't turn on me like all other new-fangled technological things I attempt to learn, you'll be seeing more pictures soon. Maybe I shouldn't say soon. You'll be seeing more pictures later. ;-)

To all my American readers, have a great holiday weekend! To everyone else, have a great regular weekend.
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