2019 Reflection Essay

     Right after recital season is the perfect time to reflect on where you'd like to be by next year's recital!  It is a tradition in the Nguyen Music Studio to write a letter to your teacher documenting your answers to the following questions:

1. “One year from today, I would like to have accomplished..."

Think of specific goals such as “I would like to learn 20 pieces by next year” or “I would like to audition for and join a youth orchestra before summer”. Goals such as these not only give you something specific to work towards but also help me to establish your curriculum as we move forward. Things like specific repertoire, physical habits, mental habits, musical knowledge, musical experiences, ensembles, or auditions can be used.

2. “As a musician, something I am proud of learning or achieving this past year is...”

What is something that you are proud to have spent your time and energy doing this past year? Why does it make you feel so satisfied? Was it a big challenge you had to overcome, or was it something that came easily to you? What did you learn about yourself by doing it? Would you do it (or something like it) again?

3. “A non-musically related thing that I struggle with sometimes which prevents me from achieving my musical goals is...”

We love to play music, but sometimes school, chores, socializing, extracurricular activities, or other things can make it difficult to make time or even focus. Maybe you’re dealing with a particularly stressful situation or you may have difficulties with learning or concentrating for long periods of time. Whatever you find personally challenging, please describe it here.

4. “In a perfect world, I imagine that my music lessons would be...”

If you could have the ideal music lesson, what would it look like? How long would it be? What sorts of things would you want to work on? How would you go about learning those things? What would your ideal teacher be like? What would you want to work on during the week to help you achieve your goals? Would there be any rewards?

5. I would like to tell Ms. Quyen...

Anything and everything that you’d like to let me know, please say it here. Whether you enjoy the lessons or wish it were taught in a different style or direction, feel free to let me know so I can help you in the best way possible!     

Alternatively, you can also send your letter by email to your future self, one year from now, by visiting FutureMe.org!

2019 ASTA National Conference Recap

In line with one of our core values that ‘students need an experienced teacher who is committed to ongoing education’, I consider it a necessity to stay up to date with new advances in music education and technology so that we can keep our teaching relevant and engaging.  I was proud to be one of only two San Diego teachers who attended this year’s American String Teachers National Conference in New Mexico, and it was phenomenal! 

Over the course of four days, I attended 28 hours of seminars and workshops led by leading researchers, professors, and clinicians from Europe, South America, Canada and the US.  Topics ranged from acoustical physics and dyslexia research (and how it pertains to music), to applications of music therapy techniques, remediation, and body mapping.  I got to meet two of my heroes, Pedro de Alcantara, who spurred my journey with the Alexander Technique in my early 20’s with his book, “Indirect Procedures”, and Claire Stefani, an ergonomist who works with the Juilliard School and possibly *the* authority on chinrest and shoulder rest setup in violin and viola!

On Day 1, I took a five-hour “Deep Dive Workshop” on ‘Body Mapping: The Full Course’ with Andover Educators, Dr. Judy Palac & Jennifer Johnson.  Body mapping is an extension of Alexander Technique and seeks to educate on how the body optimally moves, which will then inform the brain on how to change our movements so that we can play more easily and expressively, while avoiding discomfort and injury.  Our hour-long segment on breathing helped me re-map my body, and it was the first time in my entire life that I actually felt I had taken a real breath!  The entire course was transformative!

On Day 2, I started my morning with Dr. Wendy Case and her talk on ‘Acoustical Physics and Advanced Violin Technique’.  While I’ll admit that some of the more advanced math went a bit over my head, I was surprised to learn of the seven different ways we can engage a string, and how doublestops, harmonics and articulation actually work on a physics level!  Next was ‘Teaching Musicality’ with Ross Harbaugh who went over the “Two Pillars of Interpretation”, secrets of “Sound Flexing & Sound Sculpting”, and the “Rule of Four” - all ways to turn a bland performance into an expressive one!  Dr. Stephen Benham and industry giant Bob Phillips taught ‘Teaching Rhythm’ which mapped the various intricacies of note reading to different hemispheres of the brain, explaining why many students have so much trouble learning to read music and perform rhythms.  Author of my favored beginning method book, “Essential Elements for Strings”, Bob Gillespie led a riveting talk on ‘Motivating the Adolescent: Research-Based Strategies for Getting Adolescents to Give Their Best’.  This was probably one of the most impactful sessions of the entire conference and really brought me closer to understanding what adolescent students need using the latest psychological and developmental research.  Last of the day was ‘Utilizing Music Therapy Techniques in Teaching Strings’ by Raquel Ravaglioli.  Music therapy has always been something I’ve been deeply passionate about, and it was helpful to see another educator’s take on using music therapy to assist our students!

On Day 3, Dr. Daniel Levitov from John Hopkins University lectured on ‘Building Musicians Through Bow Technique From the Ground Up’ -  a smorgasbord of all known bowing techniques!  A panel of professors from Oklahoma State University presented on ‘Inspiring Intrinsic Motivation in String Students Using Mindfulness Techniques’.  This was my favorite session of the entire conference and really drove home the idea that it’s our job as educators to reduce the epidemic of disconnectedness and loneliness in this new generation of young people.  Brothers Dr. Kevin Nordstrom & Dr. Stephen Nordstrom reviewed ‘Reciprocal Exercises for Switching Between the Violin and Viola’ which gave me a great prerequisite idea for how to teach shifting!  Dr. Melissa Knecht spoke on ‘Developing a Studio Class Toolbox of Ideas for Advanced String Students’ citing several groundbreaking strategies that shake up the traditional top-down routine.  Another favorite of the conference was ‘Dysmusia 2.0: Informing Music Notation Reading Through Dyslexic Research and Therapeutic Techniques’ by Dr. Elizabeth Morrow.  It was immensely interesting to see how the dyslexic brain functions and how traditional ways of teaching music reading actually exacerbate dyslexic tendencies even in  non-dyslexic learners!  The extremely polished Winifred Crock gave a masterful talk on ‘Lift Offs and Landings: Teaching “Off-String” Bowing Techniques’.  Never before have I seen such a consummate delivery of such a specific technique!  I’m definitely inspired to “up my game” as a teacher!  I ended the day with Dr. Minna Rose Chung & Hans Jorgen Jensen and their groundbreaking work on ‘Revealing the Mystery Behind Great Intonation’.  These researchers have broken the code on intonation utilizing math and physics to finally end the debate of Pytahgorean, Just & Equal Temperament systems of tuning!

On Day 4, I woke up with ‘Feldenkrais for Musicians’ with Colin Pip Dixon.  Feldenkrais is a sister system to the Alexander Technique which supports motions being delegated to the entire body instead of being focused in one singular area.  The results are dramatic!  Dr. Joanne Erwin & Joanne May presented on ‘Top 12 Actions in Paul Rolland Pedagogy’.  Rolland was the first to use science-based research in founding a movement-centered approach to stringed instrument technique.  Aerospace engineer Jeff Van Fossen and Violinist Scott Laird lectured on ‘The Art and Science of the Bow’ where they discussed four different attributes of a bow and how certain attributes are geared towards the various levels of players.  Pedro De Alcantara led a workshop on ‘Expressive Gesticulation: Breath, Space, Freedom’ wherein an unorthodox set of method acting exercises led to real changes in musical expression!  Drs. Colleen Ferguson & Stephanie Meyers did a hilarious skit in ‘Dive into Practicing: 20 Tried and True Strategies’.  Now only were their suggestions extremely helpful, but their reenactment of the teacher-student relationship was spot on!  Finally, the conference ended with the legendary Dr. Brenda Brenner detailing the remediation process used by the Indiana Jacobs School of Music’s String Academy for the past 35 years in ‘“But I Want to Play Tchaikovsky, Not Kreutzer!”: A guide to the Remedial Process’.  I’ve been using many of her ideas in the studio since I’ve returned form the conference with stellar results!

Overall, the experience of getting to learn from and network with the very best in the industry and the world is priceless, and I thank my students and parents for affording me the opportunity to keep my own skills up to date.  I’ve always aimed to be one of the best string teachers in San Diego, but one day, I hope to present at the ASTA National Conference and pass on all of the knowledge that I have been graced with to the next generation of string teachers!

Reflection & Goal Setting

     Right after recital season is the perfect time to reflect on where you'd like to be by next year's recital!  It is a tradition in the Nguyen Music Studio to write a letter to your teacher documenting your answers to the following questions:

1) One year from today, I would like to have accomplished...

     Think of specific goals such as “I would like to be in the middle of Suzuki Book 3” or “I would like to have learned and polished Bach’s entire first cello suite”.  Goals such as these not only give you something specific to work towards but also help me to establish your curriculum as we move forward.  Things like specific repertoire, physical habits, mental habits, musical knowledge, musical experiences, ensembles, auditions, etc can be used.

2) As a musician, the thing(s) I am most proud of is(are)...  Why?

     What do you feel the most skilled at?  Rhythm, intonation, tone, musicality, stage presence, theoretical knowledge, and posture/form are just some examples of what you can cite.  Also, please explain why you feel this is your best asset.  Is this because you spend more time concentrating on it?  Do you particularly enjoy it?  Does it come easily to you?

3) As a musician, the thing(s) I would most like to improve on is(are)...  Why?

     Where do you feel that you have the greatest room for improvement?  Rhythm, intonation, tone, musicality, stage presence, theoretical knowledge, and posture/form are just some examples of what you can cite.  Also, please explain why you feel that it would be important to improve on these things.  What do you think would be an effective way to go about solving your issues?

4) I feel most successful when...  Why?

     Try to explain how you best tackle challenges and come out successful.  Do you prefer smaller, easier challenges or larger, more difficult ones?  Do you find constructive criticism more useful and motivating for you or do you enjoy being praised and the positive motivation inspires you to accomplish even more?  Why do you think this is?

5) I would like to tell Ms. Quyen...

     Anything and everything that you’d like to let me know, please say it here.  Whether you enjoy the lessons or wish it were taught in a different style or direction, feel free to let me know so I can help you in the best way possible.  Also, if you feel music has helped or hurt you in any way, please feel free to share your experiences!

     Alternatively, you can also send your letter by email to your future self, one year from now, by visiting FutureMe.org!

How to Succeed Onstage

With recital season right around the corner, it’s a good idea to start preparing as soon as possible. The following tips will make your performance extraordinary!

Depending on how you look at it, performing can either be rewarding and enjoyable or intimidating and nerve-wracking. After years of performing as a soloist, chamber musician, and orchestral player, I have discovered several ways to make your performances as successful as possible:

★ Practice as if you were performing - When you practice, visualize your run-through as a performance. Imagine that everything matters: posture, tone, technique, stage presence, etc. The way you practice is the way you will perform. So, practice intelligently and pay attention to all of the small details.

★ Perform for as many people as you can before the real deal - Being nervous is normal. So, if you perform in front of a practice audience, you will give yourself the opportunity to get used to the feeling of nervousness. When you’ve gotten your nervous energy under control, you will be able to focus 100% of your concentration on a good performance.

★ Remember to breathe and control your movements - When people get frightened they produce a hormone called adrenaline. Adrenaline causes the body to tighten up and take shallow breaths. Instead of giving in, focus your attention on controlling your body movements, and remember to take deep, slow breaths.

★ If you make a mistake, don’t sweat it - Good performers understand that each and every performance won’t be perfect. In fact, even the best performances have some mistakes. If you make a mistake, don’t worry about it. Remember - performances aren’t about being perfect; they’re about doing your best!

★ Relax and enjoy yourself! - When you get onstage, smile and have fun! Remember that performances are a chance to show people how much you love what you do! Audiences come to watch people perform at their best. So, get out there and show them how fun it is to perform! 

Winter Weather Woes

    During the Winter months, instruments are subjected to extremes in dryness and coldness. Understanding how your instrument is affected by these two factors can help you look out for any signs of damage in need of repair. 

     Since stringed instruments are made of wood, they shrink and swell with fluctuations in humidity and temperature. Although your instrument and bow will be affected in a variety of ways, the following are the most common Winter weather ailments: 

     In dry weather, pegs tend to shrink and their contacts in the peg box become loose and eventually slip. One solution is to use a friction-enhancing agent such as peg compound (peg dope) or peg drops (I prefer drops as you don’t need to remove the peg from the instrument to apply the product). The other solution is old-fashioned elbow grease: As you turn the peg, use mild to moderate pressure to “screw in” the peg into the pegbox. Take care not to use too much pressure, otherwise the pegbox can crack. Please be careful not to over-tune strings as they break more easily in cold weather. If you are not experienced with tuning with pegs, I recommend taking it to a violin shop or a teacher for re-tuning. 

     Another way low humidity affects instruments is cracking and seam opening. Many wood glues need moisture in the air to work. If left without moisture for too long, the glue tends to become brittle and loses its ability to bind. You’ll know you have a seam opening if you experience a huge drop in volume (which is most noticeable in the lower two strings). To prevent this, simply use a hygrometer (an instrument which reads humidity levels) and install a humidifier (such as a Dampit). Ideally, you are looking for a humidity level in the case of about 50-60%. If you end up having a seam opening or crack, it should be re-glued immediately. Simply take it to a reputable violin shop, and have a professional luthier repair it. 

     Don’t forget about your bow! Bow hair tends to become shorter in cold weather, and when you transfer your bow to a warm stage under hot stage lights where the stick expands, it can be overly tight and possibly break under the excessive tension. Monitor your bow’s tightness constantly, and make sure to always loosen it when you are not playing.

Increasing Speed Through Sequencing & Coordination

     Sports psychologists believe that there is an inverse relationship between speed and accuracy - that is, the faster you play, the less accurate you will be, and vice versa. However, if you’ve seen any world-class performer, you’ll agree that high speed and flawless accuracy are both attainable at the same time. The secret is in understanding how sequencing and coordination play a role in developing both aspects at the same time.

“The Train Method"

     The Train Method involves dividing the music up into small rhythmic cells (anywhere from two notes to one measure). These cells are then practiced by playing the cell itself plus the first note from the very next cell. Think of the cell as a ‘train car’ and the additional note from the next cell as the ‘coupler’ which connects one train car to the next train car. Once two train cars are independently mastered, you may then practice them together as one larger train. Continue mastering new train cars, then adding them on, until the whole passage or piece is one long, giant train! Essentially, “train”ing helps the brain effectively sequence a long chain of notes. 

“Need for Speed”

     Once you’ve “train”ed the whole piece together, you are ready to work with a metronome. Choose an extremely slow tempo that allows you to play the entire passage with 100% accuracy and comfort. You want to feel completely in control of how coordinated the passage is, with no jerky motions, pauses, or hesitations. Once you’ve reached this level of mastery and comfort, you may then advance the metronome by one click. Aim for two to four clicks per practice session, until you reach the desired tempo.

“Rhythm-izing” the Passage

     Eventually you may reach an upper limit of how fast you can go by using the “Need for Speed” method. This is due to a lack of reflexive coordination and can easily be trained by applying rhythms to your passage. Divide the music up into groups of two or three notes. Assign one note in the group to be held long while the other note(s) in the group should be played as quickly as possible. Once you feel completely comfortable playing the sequence, switch the placement of the held note, and repeat. By creating this reflexive response in the brain, you will be engaging a “domino effect” and be able to play much faster! 

Reducing Tension

     Many musicians suffer daily from playing-related pain and discomfort, and an alarming majority of them believe pain is a normal consequence of perfecting their craft.  At its core, all playing-related pain is due to physical inefficiency.  Watch out for these three common problems:

Rigid Bow Holds

     Most players don’t realize that the majority of the bow’s weight rests on the strings while playing, minimizing the amount of effort needed to hold the bow.  Instead, many people try to control and suspend the weight of the bow with the fingers and thumb, causing plenty of undue stress.  

     With the middle of the bow on the string, challenge yourself to relax the fingers of your bow hold so that more of the arm’s weight sinks into the string, instead of creating weight through the index/middle fingers & thumb.  Remember that leverage for your bow is best supplied from the height of your elbow, rather than from the small, weak fingers of your bow hold.  Be careful that you don’t drop the elbow too much, otherwise, you may supinate the hand so much that it peels the bow off of the string.

Excess Left Hand Pressure

     Many string players tend to push down harder than they have to, especially while using vibrato.  Often, the intensity of the music is so great that this bleeds into our playing as physical tension.

     Try an easy one octave scale and notice how hard you are pressing into the fingerboard with your fingers.  Do your fingers have to press that hard?  Try to reduce the finger weight until just before the sound becomes fuzzy.  You want the finger to stop the string, creating a new pitch length, but you don’t want to play so lightly with the fingers that it doesn’t produce a stable sine wave.

Raised Shoulders

     Your shoulders should be relaxed and “stacked” on top of your ribcage, instead of suspended by the rhomboid or trapezius muscles.  

     Violinists & Violists: Check that your chinrest/shoulder rest combo is the proper height and angle so that both arms can be level.

     Cellists: Check the height of your endpin, and the angle & tilt of your instrument to make sure that your arms are able to access the instrument easily and efficiently.

2016 Practice Contest Results & 2017 Practice Bank

     In 2016, students at NMS participated in the 2016 Practice Contest and competed to be one of the first few people to master sixteen pieces of music (or 160 lines of music for advanced students). I am happy to announce the winners of the NMS 2016 Practice Contest:

  •      1st Place - Kiana Thacker, cello - $60 Amazon.com gift certificate
  •      2nd Place - Malia Thacker, violin - $40 Amazon.com gift certificate
  •      3rd Place - Cierra Shaw, violin - $20 Amazon.com gift certificate

     Congratulations to all of the winners! ——————————————————————————————————

     For 2017, we will have a new type of practice contest that I am calling the Practice Bank! Just like in 2016, students will earn points by mastering repertoire and receiving “yellow stickers” on their weekly assignments. However, this year will not be a race against others, and will instead focus on individual accomplishment. Regardless of the student’s current ability or level, each student will be able to achieve and be rewarded for their efforts.

     Students will then trade these points at the end of the year for a special prize that is uniquely tied to their hard work!

2017 Practice Bank Rules & Regulations

  •   1 point will be awarded for each “yellow sticker” or every 10 lines of music (whichever yields more).

  •   Points will be totaled at the end of the year on December 31st, 2017.

  •   Students will receive a gift certificate to Amazon.com in a dollar amount equal to the total number of points they have earned.

  •   In order to receive awards, participants must be current students in good standing with the Nguyen Music Studio.

  •   For students who did not win the 2016 Practice Contest, any remaining points from 2016 will be carried over as their starting balance for the 2017 Practice Bank.

         If you have any questions about the 2017 Practice Bank, please don’t hesitate to ask. I look forward to a fruitful year full of individual accomplishment and achievement! 

Lesson Lengths & Frequency

     Often, I get asked what an appropriate length of time is for lessons.  Many factors including attention span, age, work ethic, and learning style play a role.

Beginning Students - In general, I recommend that beginning students start out with 30-minute lessons once per week.  If a student has a particular slant towards kinesthetic learning, 45-minute lessons may be recommended.  At a minimum, your lesson length should provide enough time to assess what you’ve been working on and explain new assignments, with time left over for any questions to be clarified.  Lessons at this stage build up over time to include a healthy “diet” of repertoire, etudes, and scales.

Intermediate Students - At the beginning of Level 4 in the NMS curriculum, I recommend students increase their lesson time to 45-minutes, once per week.  Typically, we begin to incorporate solo Bach at this level which runs on a different timeline than the typical three pieces in rotation that students have gotten used to in Preparatory through Level 3.  Due to the increased workload, students simply require more instruction time.

Advanced Students - When students begin Level 6 in the NMS curriculum, I consider them advanced students, and I recommend that they increase their lesson time to 60-minutes, once per week.  Typically, we introduce orchestral excerpts at Level 6, which adds a third layer of study: Repertoire/Etudes/Scales, Solo Bach & Orchestral Excerpts .

Special Circumstances:

Bimonthly Lessons - For students who display an incredible amount of discipline and who are beyond the rudimentary stages of building left and right hand form, bimonthly lessons may be an attractive option.  Usually these lessons are in 60-minute increments so that all of the repertoire studied over the two-week period can be addressed, while giving time for assigning new material.

90 & 120-Minute Lessons - Longer sessions are only recommended when preparing for an important performance or audition, or for chamber music ensemble coaching.  Usually, you’ll need enough repertoire to warrant a longer session, with the maturity and attention span to match.

"Fixed" Versus "Growth" Mindsets

    As 2017 begins, many of us have turned our attention to our New Year’s Resolutions - things we’d like to change or do differently than we have in previous years.  Whether it’s making more progress in our careers, relationships, being more active, or devoting more time to the things we love, our goals are well-intentioned.  

     However, many of us have also experienced a moment where we start to lose the motivation, drive and willpower needed to achieve those goals, and our gym routine or our dedicated practice time gets pushed aside.  Believe it or not, our ability to persevere when things become difficult is a direct result of a mental state that favors a capacity to grow versus one that celebrates perfection and ease.

     Psychologists refer to a “fixed’ mindset as one which means being perfect and having things come easily.  Someone with a fixed mindset might say, “I feel successful when I don’t make any mistakes” or “I feel successful when something is easy for me, but other people cant do it.”

     Conversely, a “growth” mindset highlights a capacity to learn, grow, and make progress over a period of time.  They might say, “I feel successful when something is very difficult, and I try really hard and I’m able to do something I wasn’t able to do before” or “I feel successful when I work on a project for a long time and I feel like I’m starting to figure it out.” 

     A Columbia University study found that people with a fixed mindset who believed that things should come easily (and if they don’t, then it must be a sign that they can’t or won’t be successful) were more likely to give up when they struggled and avoided challenges in which they believed they would not be immediately successful.  On the other hand, people with a growth mindset who believed that potential is not outwardly apparent and that change and growth is always possible, did not see struggling as a sign that they have reached their limits and showed more grit when faced with adversity because they believed they would “eventually figure things out”.

     So, the next time you’re thinking of letting go of your New Year’s Resolutions, remember that it’s not about being perfect and having things be easy.  Instead, focus on the little bits of progress you’ve made, however small it may be, and know that the next revelation is right around the corner!  For more information, click here!