Wednesday, November 29, 2017

I Don't Believe in Prodigies

I recently hosted a house concert where 17-year-old Anthony Pfluke dazzled us with his musical virtuosity. His luscious Hawaiian vocals blended beautifully with his 'ukulele and slack-key guitar playing. Every person who attended told me how impressed they were by his skills and how much they enjoyed the concert.

I first met Anthony last year at an 'ukulele jam session in Maui. Led by Jared Santos, this weekly 2-hour event called 808 Uke Jams took place in a cozy one-room church with a green roof. During the break, Santos invited several people to perform, so it was then that I first heard Anthony play and sing. He had been attending this jam session for several years with his parents, and it was there under the loving support of Santos and the 'ukulele community that Anthony's love of Hawaiian music caught fire. I happened to sit next to Anthony's parents and found out that Anthony (at that time 16 years old) had a weekly gig at a restaurant in Kihei. I took my family there a couple of days later and we all enjoyed his singing and playing while savoring fresh malasadas (delicious Portuguese donuts that are a staple in Hawai'i).

During the concert at my house, several people asked me if Anthony was a prodigy. I replied, "I actually don't believe in prodigies. At least not in the way most people think of them." What I mean is that I believe that Anthony got to his skill level from hours upon hours of practicing. Why did he practice so much? Because he is so passionate about music. How did his passion develop? Going to that jam session week after week and being encouraged to explore the 'ukulele had a huge impact on him. Seeing others make music so happily, including his parents who encouraged his playing. He eventually hooked up with legendary George Kahumoku Jr. (4-time Grammy winner) and now spends one day a week at George's farm pulling weeds and hanging out. So Anthony continues to have a outpouring of support from people around him and that keeps fueling his passion. 

Input = output

If a child is immersed in music, if they see their parents and others around them play and enjoy music, they will also develop that enjoyment. The more input, the more output. 

I have seen this time and again with other "musical geniuses" where their environment is so rich even if their own parents are not musicians. The hit musical "Hamilton" whose composer/writer is Lin-Manuel Miranda is a case in point. Lin-Manuel grew up with parents who were not musicians. However, his parents loved music, especially musicals. His parents played recordings of musicals all the time--at home, in the car. His parents owned over 100 records and Lin-Manuel recalls being immersed in music. He also had an older sister that loved rap, which he also loved. Just like Anthony, Lin-Manuel was bathed in music for most of his life and he got to see others around him enjoy music. It is not surprising that musicians of such caliber come from such musically rich environments.

And that is precisely what Shinichi Suzuki talked about with the mother tongue approach. Just like every child learns his/her mother tongue by being immersed in it, every child can also learn an instrument if he or she is immersed in it. That means the child needs to hear music a lot, see others playing music a lot, and see others enjoy making music. It is also incredibly powerful for parents to see how they do not need to be experts in music or even musicians themselves in order to raise a child to be a musician. Just like language, the younger you begin to play an instrument, the more easily you become "fluent" in playing that instrument. However, for those of us who are adults, it is never too late. I have an adult piano student who is approaching 60 and he has surrounded himself with a musical community that supports and encourages his music-making. Even though he began lessons about 5 years ago, he is able to play an astonishing amount of music.

I recently read a book by Dr. Benjamin Bloom called "Developing Talent in Young People" where it detailed a study of 120 people who are at the top of their professions like Olympic swimmers, tennis players and concert pianists. They probed into these people's childhoods and even asked their parents to give information about all sorts of things including the type of coaches or teachers they had growing up. What was noticeable about the concert pianists is that most of them were not seen as particularly gifted in music. What they all had in common was that their first piano teachers were all warm and caring. Thus, their first experiences with piano lessons were positive and fun. These first teachers were not concert pianists, but they knew how to teach children and they knew how to support and inspire these future concert pianists to love playing the piano. The parents also played a large role by being present for lessons and helping with consistent practicing at home. Thus, in a supportive and encouraging environment like these, the concert pianists were able to develop a passion for music while also learning that practicing can be fun but also a lot of hard work. Similarly, the coaches the top tennis players and swimmers first had tended not to be professionals but definitely kid-friendly, making lessons fun and positive and instilling in them a love of their sport. 

I think we should stop focusing so much on prodigies or thinking about them as spontaneously skilled people. Yes, everyone is born with different attributes that predispose us to becoming better at certain activities. What most people usually don't notice is how much time these "prodigies" spend practicing their instruments. It is the long hours spent on their instruments that makes the biggest difference. So instead, let's focus on creating a musically rich environment where music-making can flourish. Let's surround ourselves with music by attending live concerts, making music with others, and also buckling down to practice. Then we will have the inspiration to fuel the passion that drives our daily practice. And if we share our music with others, we can then inspire others to make music, too.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Practice Tip #1: Slow It Down

The best way to play fast is to practice slowly.

One of the biggest mistake students make during practice is playing their music too fast.  Slowing down the music allows our brain to process the information so that we can play the notes accurately, thus ensuring we play the correct notes.  I know how tempting it is to play fast or to play the music as fast as we have heard on a recording.  However, if you want to truly learn the notes to a song, you must practice it slowly.  Once you are able to practice that specific part of the song (or the entire song depending on how far along you are), then you can gradually speed up the tempo.

It takes focus and persistence to slow the music down enough so that all the notes that are played are accurate in pitch and rhythm.  Remember, learning to play an instrument develops many parts of your brain.  Not only will you be making music, you will be developing and strengthening skills such as focus, memory, and persistence.

So keep your practicing slow and you will be on your way to musical proficiency in no time.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Watch Out, France! Asian Woman Driving

Do any of these signs indicate the actual street name? Nope.  Welcome to French driving.

Sierra and I slept in until 11:30am the next day.  This was mainly due to the powerful blinds that kept our bedroom a dark cocoon.  Jeff and Tenzin were already awake, which was a role reversal.  They tend to be the night owls, whereas Sierra and I tend to bound out of bed every morning.

Using his limited French, Jeff managed to purchase a baguette and a croissant at the local bakery.  It was delicious to bite into freshly baked bread first thing in the morning.  I didn't even miss my morning smoothie.

Since Jeff had been awake since 4am, he needed to nap.  Thus, I marched out of the house with the girls on a mission.  Since I had been hesitant to drive in France, we walked down to the bus stop a block away.  As we waited at the bus stop, I noticed that no buses were going to our destination.  One of the hardest things about traveling is making decisions on the spot.  It is even harder with children in tow.  Thankfully, neither of them were squirmy.  They just waited patiently and I told them that we would have to go back to get the car so that I could drive to our destination.

"What?" asked Sierra. "Will you be okay?"  She already knew about my reluctance to drive.
"Of course, we'll be okay," I reassured Sierra.  I was also trying to reassure myself.

Even though I read French, the street signs here elude me.  There are about 5 signs at each intersection indicating all sorts of useful information.  Unfortunately, I usually cannot spot the actual street name.

When we got to the car, I instructed both girls to look out for the big street I needed to turn onto, Rue Jean Moulin.  When we got to the street I believed was the one to turn onto, there were no indications I could decipher.  My instincts told me to turn, so I did.  "I think this is the wrong street," I told the girls.  A few seconds later, I spotted it: Monoprix, our first destination.  "Yay!  We did it!" I shouted.  A miracle.

Can you guess where the street sign is located? It's not the green or white signs. If you count from the top, 1-Green, 2-Green, 3-White, 4-White, and then finally right under that last white sign is a tiny dark sign that says "Rue Jean Moulin."  It's not even visible from the street!  I took this picture on a walk later with my friend Ritu so that I could actually see if the street sign existed.

My girls and I went to Monoprix to take photos for our monthly metro passes.  Since the girls and I are staying in France for an entire month, it was more economical to purchase a Navigo card.  The actual physical card costs 5 Euros.  Then, it is 70 Euros for a monthly pass.  There was no discount for the girls, unfortunately.

Have you ever taken an official photo in France?  Here are the instructions:
1) Don't smile
2) Keep a neutral expression
3) Keep your lips closed
4) Don't wear a hat
5) Show your ears
6) Don't tilt your head
7) Make sure your hair is not messy (well, this last one is my guess as to what the instructions were saying)

This is how our photos turned out:

Scary or what? All I could think about was "don't blink, don't smile, keep your lips closed."  We're not winning any beauty pageants with those photos.  I think Tenzin looks the toughest.

This is the cute little Renault we are driving.  We swapped cars as well as houses with the French family, so we can go anywhere we want.  Of course, gas prices are more expensive.  Don't worry, France, I'm not driving into Paris.  We are in a cute little suburb called Antony where cars are just a bit slower, and that is just my pace.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Day 1: Journey to France & House Swapping

I woke up this morning with unusual anxiety and excitement.  "We are going to France!" I thought.  But first, I needed to clean.  Not only were we going to France for the month of October; we were also swapping houses with a French family.  This was our first time swapping houses, so the task turned out to be bigger than I had anticipated.

We had some last-minute mishaps.  My computer completely crashed as I was printing out the 6 pages of instructions that detailed information such as WIFI passwords, how to use the television, and when to take out the trash. Then, the garage door stopped working properly.  All was solved as I thumb-typed on my iPhone on the way to the airport.

Two weeks.  It took two weeks to sort, clean, discard, organize, and wipe every surface imaginable in our house.  By the time we left for the airport, I secretly wished we could spend a day at home just to experience our house in this never-before pristine condition.

Tenzin at SFO

Plane travel with my girls has gotten easier throughout the years.  When we took our first overseas plane ride to Taiwan five years ago. Tenzin was 4 and Sierra was 2. Thirteen hours on the plane could easily make someone go mad. Luckily, that never happened to us during our four trips to Taiwan.  Our 10-hour plane ride to Paris was quite fun, especially now that everyone has a screen.  I am so thankful we restrict screen time so that these plane rides are easy.

The exchange rate at the airport ATM was not too good, but we used it to get us going with cash.  Plus, it was much better than changing actual dollars to Euros.  Our taxi ride to the house in Antony cost 86 Euros. Sierra kept looking for the Eiffel Tower, occasionally shouting out, "I think I see it!"

Jeff found rocking chair in the living room and immediately relaxed into it.

Our house in Antony is quaint, clean, and cozy.  The girls went to each room excitedly to explore.  We were shown around by Nadine, the mother of Sandrine (the house owner).  Nadine spoke English because she lived in America for 20 years.  My French is still incredibly rusty, so it was nice she spoke English.  Jeff and I were getting more and more tired but managed to stay awake as she explained how to work the alarm, the door (the lock seemed impossible!) and the car.

The girls sunbathe in the backyard.

After Jeff and I napped, we walked down to Franprix, the local grocery store.  We found a rotisserie chicken and basics for our food supply.  Thanks to my sister Kelly, we now have the Bank of America Travel Rewards credit card.  That means no transaction fees when we use it overseas.  We used it at Franprix and it worked!

We also found a BNP Paribas ATM, which is the sister bank to bank. That means we don't have to pay the $5 withdrawal fee.  That ATM had a much better exchange rate than the one at the airport.

Sierra and I are so excited to be here!

We came back to the house with all the provisions, made some rice and veggies, and ate a hearty meal.  After dinner clean-up, we explored the path to the RER, the metro line that serves the suburbs.  It was only a 5-minute walk, and we also found dessert. 

It was definitely a fun-filled day.  I can't wait for more.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Fun with the Batman Theme Song

My mentor Kimo Hussey always reminds me that my job as a teacher is to make playing the 'ukulele fun.  That was my purpose when I taught my students the "Batman Theme Song" this past year.  I know that fun is a powerful motivation tool for students.  However, what also made this song so fun was the skill that the students developed while working on this song for many months before.  They needed the finger dexterity to pluck the notes, the memory that comes with repeated playing, and a keen ear and flexibility to play well with others.  Of course, the masks help, too.  A big thank you to "The Empty Jeeps" who exceeded my expectations with their first year of playing the 'ukulele!

Friday, June 27, 2014

Music Camp Day 5: Hawaii

We made it to our final destination:  Hawaii!  I wore my purple mu'umu'u for today's camp and we began the day with making leis out of tissue paper.

Even though this is only a two-step process, making these leis took quite a bit of time.  Each camper had to make every flower out of tissue paper and then string them together.

One of the nice things about teaching is that I always get to learn something new.  One camper strung her lei a bit differently from my lei and it looked quite nice.

The leis are finally finished!

With leis on, we all danced to Pearly Shells with one of the students showing the hula moves.  

During snack time, everyone happily gobbled up the fresh pineapple.

We then reviewed all the places we've visited this week...until we came to Hawaii.

I reminded everyone that Hawaii is a part of Oceania and explained that the earliest type of music found in Hawaii was mele (chanting).  

We watched a few videos that featured several Hawaiian instruments such as the ipu and 'uli'uli.  Since a few videos featured the Merrie Monarch Festival, I talked about that festival and about the Merrie Monarch, King David Kalakaua.  The students also learned about Hawaiian hymns and hapa haole songs.

Here are the pages we completed today that pertain to Hawaii.

I had asked every camper to write an appreciation for everyone in the group, so everyone received kind words to paste in their books.

I also developed photos of our week for each student, so they pasted those in their books as well.

Our travels would not be complete without obtaining the visa stamps in our passports.  Here is a look into one of the passports.

Here is the cover of the book we made during the week.  

Thank you to all of my campers this week!  It was a pleasure having you at camp.  I really enjoyed your enthusiasm, curiosity, and energy.  A big thank you to the parents who supported my camp--some for the second year in a row.  

I am also grateful for the people who helped me with the ideas for this year's camp, particularly my sister Jenny.  Not only is she a fountain of knowledge, but she is endlessly creative and knows what activities interest and engage kids. And finally I would like to thank my husband Jeff for his continual support and hard work that makes my creative energy possible for these big projects.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Music Camp Day 4: Israel

Before we traveled to Israel, we first revisited South Africa this morning by finishing the djembe drums. 

The paint had ample time to dry over night, so the students spent focused time drawing intricate designs on the drums.  Most of the students also added yarn to look like the rope that is often a part of these drums.

Two students wanted make braided handles but did not know how to braid the yarn, so another student kindly taught them. 

Here are the finished djembe drums.

Of course, we had to test them out.  Everyone danced and drummed to South African drum beats.

One of the students brought in a calabash rattle to show everyone.  She passed it around and all the students admired the beautiful work inside and outside the calabash.  The sharing that has been happening this week has been remarkable.  Another student brought in treats from his home country to share with everyone.  

This is actually the second day in a row that he brought in treats.  Everyone gladly tasted the sweet caramel nuts pastries and bread sticks from Ukraine.  Thank you so much!  Yum!

When we finally journeyed to Israel, I talked about the location of Israel and how its geography lends it to many influences.  The music of Israel has been influenced by Russian folk music, Greek music, Jewish Yemenite music, Klezmer music, and many more.  We watched videos of several types of Israeli music including a group of people dancing the hora.  We then all got up and tried the dance ourselves.  There was much laughter as we twirled and kicked in a circle.

One of the students is in love with Greece, so I also showed a video of Greek-influenced music in Israel, which featured the bouzoukia (the stringed instrument above).

In some ways, talking about music in Israel is much harder than other regions we have covered because it is so diverse.  Thanks to my sister Jenny who is immersed in the Jewish culture, I learned about many aspects of Jewish music and discovered the song "Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu," which we all sang today. It's a song about peace with lyrics in Hebrew and Arabic.  Here is a wonderfully upbeat version that we listened to today.

These are the pages we completed today in the World Music Book.  

Our treat from Israel comes from the Jewish tradition.  The matzoh and haroset (above) are a part of the Passover celebration.  I thought they would be more enticing than the horseradish and salt water.  I told the students the story of Exodus and the origins of these foods.

Every day in camp, I make sure the students are able to recall the important aspects of all the cultures we have visited.  Here is a fun and furious question and answer session as everyone tries to answer questions about music from Argentina, Taiwan, and South Africal.

Our craft today was tambourines, which is made from an embroidery hoop, jingle bells, pipe cleaners, and ribbon.  The most tedious aspect of this craft is wrapping the yarn around the hoop to cover every part of it.  I was impressed by the focus everyone maintained to complete their tambourines.  

We have one more day left of camp.  Our final day will be spent in Hawaii, and some of my students are already preparing 'ukulele pieces to play.  Stay tuned!