Nerves on Stage

by Faith Lau, Suzuki Niagara violin teacher


Performing and playing for others is such a rewarding and necessary part of any musical education. In many cases though, it is often the performance aspect of learning an instrument that terrifies and gives many students the greatest feeling of unease. Performance anxiety is a reality that many will face at some point in their musical journey, and in light of the upcoming Kiwanis Music Festival, here are some practical reflections on this topic.

As music teachers, we love for our students to have a performance goal to work towards.

As music teachers, we love for our students to have a performance goal to work towards.


I remember when I was a young student, I would get frustrated at the many well-meaning comments I would get before a performance. "It will be okay", or "you'll sound great!", or "don't worry so much, it'll be fine!" were among some of them.  As nice and well-meaning many of these comments were, they did little to ease the dread and fear that often accompanied an impending appearance on stage.  It often felt like people didn't understand the depth of the fear and frantic thoughts that would run through my mind.  Perhaps some of you resonate with a few of these: “What would they think? What if I make a mistake? What if I forget and get completely lost? I’m nervous and I don’t know why! There are so many people watching!”

It takes a tremendous amount of courage to face these fears and still walk on stage, and I think the acknowledgment of this courage is often missing from our well-meaning attempts to placate our children and students to perform.  For these reasons, here are a couple responses and actions that I would have appreciated as a student who was feeling anxious about a performance:

  1. Affirm their feelings - Ask them how they are feeling, even if they seem ok.  Validate that feeling instead of trying to convince them that it’s not that big a deal. It absolutely makes sense to feel nervous about performing in front of people, and is a common experience for everyone.

  2. Affirm and commend their courage - Regardless of how the performance might go, assure them that the simple act of getting on stage is an extremely brave and courageous one, and that you are extremely proud of them for that.

  3. Remind them why it is worth it - Although performing is scary and hard, it is worth it, because there is nothing as rewarding as conquering one's own fear and seeing how appreciative people are because of that.
     

To students who are nervous about an upcoming performance, or performances in general, here are a couple practical steps that I have found really helped me face those fears on stage:

 

  1. Practice performing your piece in front of people who make you nervous before the actual performance.  I hated doing this as a student, but nothing prepares you for the stage more than practicing playing while nervous.

  2. Imagine your favourite place to practice in your house, and transport yourself there In the moments before starting your performance. Sway, bend your knees, or do any kind of subtle movements to prevent your knees from locking or shaking

  3. Focus on one thing as you begin your performance.  None of us can handle thinking about every little detail when our adrenaline is pumping from being on stage. Focus on the music, and trust that all your hard work with notes, bowings, and technique will show.

  4. Remember that you are not alone! You have a wonderful accompanist who is on stage making music with you. The beautiful thing about music is that it is almost always a team effort.

There is so much more that can be said on this topic, but the comforting truth is that whether you have been playing for one year or twenty, this is a shared struggle, and we are all on this journey together.  Students, I can’t promise you all that it won’t be hard, but I can say with confidence that with time and practice, it does get easier. Perhaps more importantly though, I promise you will become more courageous and confident people because of it.  It is our hope that Suzuki Niagara will be a place where teachers, parents, and students alike can encourage, support, and affirm each other as we strive to become better musicians, and ultimately, people.  

Essential Supplies for String Players and Other Musicians

by Liam Calhoun, Suzuki Niagara violin/viola teacher

Although a good set of ears and a quality instrument are the most important tools a musician needs, there a few essentials that can sometimes be undervalued by the inexperienced student. Here are 4 things that every beginning string player can’t live without!

1.       Tuner

For even advanced musicians, a tuner remains as a reliable A440 reference point for those of us without perfect pitch. Beginners will find an even greater use for a chromatic tuner, as one is able to tune their strings based on the visual reference to the tuner’s needle. It is extremely important for the open strings on any instrument to be in tune. When learning intonation, the strings must be in consistent intervals in order for the fingers to be able to adapt to where they must reliably land. Wonky fifths would certainly give a beginner’s ear a workout trying to adjust on each string crossing, but this would definitely be detrimental to the left hand’s muscle memory imprint. For more advanced students, open strings are a very useful way of checking certain notes harmonically with the other strings. These other strings must be accurate in order for this to be a reliable tool!

The trusty Korg CA-1. Not very loud and has been known to eat AAA batteries when used as a drone for long periods of time, but I have been using this tuner for a long time.

The trusty Korg CA-1. Not very loud and has been known to eat AAA batteries when used as a drone for long periods of time, but I have been using this tuner for a long time.

Other uses of a tuner include:

-droning a pitch on the tuner (often the tonic or dominant of a specific passage’s key) in order to keep a center of pitch and harmonic foundation

-using the tuner’s needle in order to check an individual note that might be difficult to hear, such as a very high note that is preceded by a large shift.

 

2.       Metronome

Probably the most useful tool on this list, and the one that can be neglected the most easily is the metronome. Metronomes tend to be a great final test to see if one REALLY knows something inside and out technically. When learning a new piece, a great way of simplifying it is by taking away all the rhythm and focusing only on tone and intonation. When practicing with a metronome, we put all the rhythm back in, in the strictest regard.

For a tuner/metronome combo, these are pretty great.

For a tuner/metronome combo, these are pretty great.

Problematic spots will often speed up or slow down – the best way to check this is to slow the tempo down, but ensure utmost togetherness with the metronome’s beat, locking in and unifying the pulse. Funny enough, if there isn’t enough rhythmic stability, it won’t matter how slow the metronome goes – you will simply be unable to keep a cohesive flow. There must be more problems to solve!

Another very useful use of the metronome is to subdivide rhythms to ensure that they are played accurately. The most common instance of this would be practicing dotted rhythms to ensure they are not “tripletized”, or subdividing the beat into triplets to ensure that triplets remain even.

 

3.       Music Stand

I do love a good music stand, and this is something seriously worth investing in. Although solid music stands are a little more expensive than wire ones, they are very durable and practical for using at home, often never having to be replaced in a lifetime.

This is my favourite music stand! Even though it tends to "pop up" when tilted sideways to carry, it extends to a cool 70" tall and is perfect for having music at eye level without using other furniture to boost it up.

This is my favourite music stand! Even though it tends to "pop up" when tilted sideways to carry, it extends to a cool 70" tall and is perfect for having music at eye level without using other furniture to boost it up.

It is essential that notes being read are able to be at eye level in order to promoted good posture and avoid the slump that many beginning violinists experience (especially when concentrating greatly!). As a tall person, I definitely greatly value full-sized music stands’ ability to go very tall and force me to stand up straight, which also has a great positive impact on my sound. Younger people also have this tendency to not stand up straight (I remember being a very slouchy teenager), and this problem is compounded by an instrument that needs to be supported by muscles that aren’t used to holding up a violin, along with a music stand that is too low! A solid

A solid music stand will support books, legal sized sheet music, pencils, and tuners and metronomes with ease. Plus, if it is ever used outside, it blocks wind (every sheet music-reading musician’s worst enemy with ease).

4.       Rosin

For something specifically string-related, being equipped with some good rosin is essential. Trying to get a violin to speak using the bow without enough rosin is a bit like trying to say sentences with no tongue – impossible to say most consonant sounds!

A unique aspect of playing a stringed instrument is the wide variety of articulations that are possible using the bow. Being able to “grab” onto the string with the bow and giving the beginning of the note clarity and a defined start is only possible with the grippy nature of a bow with sufficient rosin!

A lovely chunk of dark rosin. Note the chips on the side - be careful when rosining the lower half of the bow and try to avoid hitting the frog!

A lovely chunk of dark rosin. Note the chips on the side - be careful when rosining the lower half of the bow and try to avoid hitting the frog!

Rosin varies in stickiness, in which stickier rosin will allow for more grip, but less speed. The amount of stickiness should go along with the weight of the bow, and inertia of each particular instrument.

Usually when in doubt, the bow needs more rosin. The worst thing that can happen is that a bit of a cloud of dust will come off the bow when it is played on the string.

5 Ways to Hype Up Practicing During the Holidays

by Lisa Szczepanski, Suzuki Niagara piano teacher

December can be a write-off for many people, with holiday parties, family get-togethers, shopping frenzies, and a million and one school and extracurricular functions to attend. While us music teachers are experiencing the same holiday madness, we’re also rocking back and forth in the corner of our studios biting our nails anxiously hoping our students will practice their latest musical endeavour. Suzuki music parents know they have an obligation in facilitating practice sessions when their youngsters are juggling many activities, so we gathered our top 5 favourite activities to assist you in keeping up the progress you, your child and your teacher have worked on.

1)      As a teacher, there are many things we can do to motivate children to rush to their instruments before or after school. An easy way is to host a practice challenge in your studio (or between studios!). A little bit of competition can get students excited and feel obligated to contribute to some sort of quantitative and physical progress put in place. For example, this year, fellow Suzuki Niagara teacher Liam Calhoun and I are hosting a simple practice challenge between our studios. Students receive points based on certain activities they complete at home.

Liam and I's Christmas Practice Challenge! It's Team Santa vs. Team Rudolph - whose studio can earn the most practice and performance points?

Liam and I's Christmas Practice Challenge! It's Team Santa vs. Team Rudolph - whose studio can earn the most practice and performance points?

2)      Another thing teachers can do is to host a holiday recital or a holiday party. Something I have done in the past is hold “piano parties” and theme the parties around certain things my students were working on. To spare the parents hearing the six renditions of jingle bells, only the students attended, sharing the music they were learning and playing music-related games together.

3)      At home, students can have a have some kind of practice chart/counter to work from to get them through the month of December without too many interruptions. A great example I heard a parent use was an advent calendar. Yes, usually teachers should refrain from using treats to incentivize practicing, as we want to develop an intrinsic desire for students to play their instruments. However, having practice sessions tagged along with a little bit of tradition that they can look forward to every year can be rewarding and spice up the habitual routine we strive to set for our children.

Other crafty counting ideas could be filling up a snowman with cotton balls or adding ornaments to a special tree.

4)     When I was a student, holidays meant performance time. I would practice more when I knew that every time a relative or friend walked through the door, it would be an opportunity for my mother to say “Lisa, play us something!” We ultimately want to teach our children from a young age that performing is a skill that will be used for the rest of their lives. Teaching them to be at ease with presenting their work to others (and never use the word “nervous”!) is one of the more valuable lessons that can be taught. Teachers and parents alike should encourage the young student to share their musical talents with others, and a performance opportunity is a great reason to brush up on Christmas carols!

 

5)    Parents can create great opportunities for their children to present their latest piece as well (performer-willing, of course!). Set up a holiday party just for you and your family. Part of the itinerary will be to have a short full-out performance of all the pieces your child was working on. Get creative and make up programsfor the family, bring out the treats, invite “special guests” (neighbours, grandparents, a favourite stuffed animal, etc.). You can even prepare to record this session as a special gift to those who do not have the opportunity to see your child perform. After all, one of our missions as Suzuki teachers is to share the gift of music!

 Remember, each part of the Parent-Teacher-Student "Suzuki Triangle" is equally important! With valuable instructions or opportunities presented by the teacher, taken on by the student, and supported by the parents, success in learning, whether slow or fast, is almost guaranteed.

All About String Instrument Sizing

by Danielle Marconi, Suzuki Niagara violin teacher

Stringed instruments are some of the few instruments that are available in multiple sizes, to suit the needs of students of all ages and physical builds. If you are reading this, you may be in the process of searching for an instrument for your child. Common sizes available are, from smallest to largest: 1/10, 1/8, 1/4, 1/2, 3/4, and 4/4 or full-size. First I will begin with what I CAN'T tell you about instrument sizing. I can't tell you through a blog what size to buy. Please do not try to pair your child with an instrument according to age, or arm length. You cannot simply measure your child's arm, or use his/her age and then find the corresponding violin size on a chart somewhere and be certain that you've found the right size. 

It's certainly easier to tell when an instrument looks too small or big when it is actually played!

It's certainly easier to tell when an instrument looks too small or big when it is actually played!

So let's move on to what I can tell you.  

Personally, I can tell you that playing a stringed instrument, whether it be violin, viola, cello, or bass, is an amazing experience. From the first note played, to the first polished song performed at a recital, to the moment you've mastered a concerto you've always wanted to play, you must be able to be "one" with your instrument, and this requires the right size! You need to feel comfortable playing your instrument, be able to move with it, support it, and not be physically strained or sore after playing. You will not enjoy playing if you are not able to hold the instrument with ease, or if you experience pain after playing for only 15 minutes. Your instrument should not dominate you, rather, you should be able to feel in control of it and use it for your musical expression.

Luckily, violins come in quite an assortment of different sizes. Pictured are 1/8 sized violins, all the way up to full-sized.

Luckily, violins come in quite an assortment of different sizes. Pictured are 1/8 sized violins, all the way up to full-sized.

 

Children grow at different rates, and have different builds. Just look at a classroom of children who are in the same grade and are the same age. Not all of these children will be the same height, have the same size arms/legs/hands/fingers, or have the same strength in their neck, back and core. So here are some things to consider when looking for an instrument. 

 

1. Consult a professional (preferably a teacher or a luthier). Ask someone who has experience sizing instruments, and someone who will be able to see easily if an instrument "fits" or not. Please keep in mind that staff at local music stores are not always trained in this area. Your teacher is the best person to consult, or someone who specializes in making/repairing the instrument (who is trusted by your teacher). 

2. Try a few different sizes and brands to be sure you've found the right fit. Instruments of the same size can still vary from one to the next. Personally, when I was looking for the full size violin that I play now, I tried about 20 different options before I found one that fit me the best!  

3. Hold the instrument in playing position (with the help of your teacher). Check arm reach, finger length, and range of motion with the bow. There are many mechanics involved with playing a stringed instrument, and all of these require ease of motion, being able to get where you need to be without straining. 

4. The size of the instrument should be comfortable! When your child is trying out a violin for example, he or she should be able to support the instrument with ease without hands! That means that the weight of the instrument should be supported on the shoulder, using the weight of the head. 

5. Smaller is better. When in doubt, go with a smaller size. Many injuries can result from playing on an instrument that is too large. We do not "grow into" instruments, rather we "grow out" of them. 

Cellos have different sizes too! Here is a 1/8-sized cello compared to a full-sized.

Cellos have different sizes too! Here is a 1/8-sized cello compared to a full-sized.

Keep in mind that with the sizes available, and considering how many years ahead your child may have of playing, that they may end up using one size for a few years. Or, if they have a year with an incredible growth spurt, that may initiate a move to a larger size sooner. Please keep in communication with your teacher about this and do not make a decision about changing instrument size without him/her. Students are often eager to move "up" a size because they often see this change from one size to the next as a mark of progress; but that is NOT so! I have seen many very young children playing on small violins who are much more advanced than students on larger instruments. Keep progress and instrument size separate. Sometimes students are also eager to move to a bigger violin once they have discovered that the tone of a larger instrument is "better". I've put that into quotations because tone can be improved and mastered on a small instrument, and often tone is a matter of the quality of the instrument that you have, not its' size.

Finding the right sized instrument is a lot like finding a perfectly fitting pair of shoes or a dress. Take your time, try out the instruments, and find one that speaks to you! 

 

2016-2017 Welcome - President's Message

I am so happy to be able to welcome everyone back to our 2016-2017 year. We are looking forward to a brand new year with confidence and excitement. Welcome to everyone new as well.

This is a chance for us to remember all of the high points of last year. We had a wonderful fundraiser in February and a successful launch of our Suzuki Niagara Summer Camp. It was so enjoyable to hear how everyone was developing in our recitals. I look forward this year to more growth as we welcome new members to our family.

It has been a pleasure to have Liam Calhoun and Lisa Szczepanski join us as instructors. They have brought with them a lot of new ideas and vitality. It is a great thing to have forged great friendships with all of our instructors, Faith Lau, Danielle Marconi, Liam Calhoun, Lisa Szczepanski, Gordon Cleland, and our accompanist Ingrid Heidebrecht.

Suzuki Niagara Teachers

We are trying something new this year—we are going to become a fully registered nonprofit organization. That will bring a few changes to how we do things. We will have a board of directors, currently the faculty of Suzuki Niagara. We will be asking families to pay Suzuki Niagara directly again. This was something we did a few years ago and we feel that this will give us a better reflection on our annual budget. Suzuki Niagara will pay the instructors. It will not change personal relationships between faculty and student families. 

We would love to be able to post pictures on this site. That means that the permission to post pictures in our registration forms need to be signed and that families may feel free to submit pictures if they have something fun and interesting for us. 

I look forward to another great year.

George Cleland, President of Suzuki Niagara