Back to School (kind of…): How Music Helps Your Kids Learn at Home

Back to School (kind of…): How Music Helps Your Kids Learn at Home

Raise your hand if you’ve got a kid learning from home this year.

Yeah, that’s a lot of hands out there. If your other hand is busy wiping the sweat off your forehead right now, it’s normal. Schooling from home for the first time is a lot to handle, especially if you’re trying to balance it with a job. For those of you with kids in online, part-time, or home school, adding music to the daily routine can offer huge benefits for both you and your child. Here are some of the ways it can help your child thrive in these changing times:

It promotes hands-on activity. Even when your child learns music from an online source, playing an instrument is an opportunity to create results with their own two hands. This helps counteract burnout from so much sedentary mental work and allows kids to engage rather than just responding passively to a screen. 

It’s an opportunity to connect with a community. Music is one of the best ways to overcome isolation and build lasting connections through jams, webinars, lessons, and group learning.

It teaches kids how to learn independently. Of course your child might need your help from time to time, but there are certain parts of learning music that only they can accomplish. Not only does this help create independence, but it also gives a sense of accomplishment.

It adds variety to nurture different learning styles . Kids who learn best through sound and movement face special challenges with online learning. Incorporating music into the school routine adds more balance to their activities and can even help them learn better in other subjects.

It expends energy in a positive way. Parents, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you why this is a good thing.

If you’re sold on music lessons for your kiddo but you haven’t found a good online resource for them yet, Fiddle School can help. We offer:

  • bite-sized, self-paced lessons that you can adapt to fit your school routine, whatever it may be. 
  • lessons designed with at-home learning in mind to offer all the resources your child needs, including one-on-one support and group learning. 
  • An alternative or a partner program for in-school music.

However the next school year unfolds for your family, here’s hoping it’s musical.

The Three Pillars of Motivation

The Three Pillars of Motivation

Even when we’re not in the midst of physical distancing and a sea of canceled events, everyone struggles with low motivation from time to time. But you don’t have to bend to the whim of motivation; instead, you can cultivate it consciously. Here’s the recipe to keep motivation flowing: 

feel capable + connected + empowered with choice.

If your musical activities provide you with just one or two of these feelings, you’ll probably notice a slump in your drive to play music. But if you strike a balance between the three, you increase your chances to feel engaged, satisfied, and passionate about your musical life. 

What can you do to get a mix of these three elements in your fiddling? Check out the categories below to get some ideas.

To feel connected:

  • Play music at home with your family
  • Start a music listening group
  • Attend or host a (virtual) jam (you can join our Fiddle School virtual jam here!)
  • Start a fiddle club (learn each other’s tunes, learn a tune together, practice playing guitar with each other, etc.)
  • Attend a (virtual) camp
  • Participate in a group class (check out our webinars here!)
  • Start a musical book club (take a look at the recommended reading list in the Fiddle Lounge for inspiration)

To feel capable:

  • Start using a practice journal (here’s how)
  • Do a 30-day practice challenge (you can use our habit hacks to help you along the way)
  • Take some fiddle lessons (read some ways to play better at lessons)
  • Write a song
  • Reinvent your practice routine (here’s how)
  • Enter a fiddle contest
  • Post a video in our Fiddle School Facebook community
  • Learn a new tune or technique
  • Find a fiddle buddy and help each other progress

To feel empowered with choice:

  • Attend a music camp that looks exciting to you
  • Learn a new tune that you like
  • Learn something on a different instrument (e.g. try learning some rhythm guitar)
  • Host your own music gathering (here’s how)
  • Read about music subjects that interest you (musicology, learning strategies, different styles, etc.)
  • Choose three ways to actively participate in music each month (for example, “this month, I will attend the virtual jam, meet with my fiddle buddy, and post a video to an online group)
  • Join/form a musical group or orchestra that you’ve always dreamed of being part of
  • Attend live music (or watch it virtually)
  • Go busking (play in public)
  • Play for people in need (in normal times, playing for retirement homes or hospitals is a great way to share. Right now, consider sharing with an organization online, like a church or another social nonprofit)
  • Teach your kids or grandkids a fiddle tune

These are just some of the many ways you can cultivate feelings of connection, capability, and choice in your musical life. When you create balance between these three elements, you’ll be amazed how your motivation grows and your fiddling feels more fulfilling. 

The care and keeping of your hands: a fiddler’s guide to fingertip maintenance

The care and keeping of your hands: a fiddler’s guide to fingertip maintenance

We often discuss the loftier aspects of musicianship, but today we’re getting into the nitty gritty: how should you care for your fingertips, and nails? These simple things can make a big difference.

Where should I expect calluses to form? As your calluses form for the first time, you’ll feel some initial fingertip discomfort from the friction and pressure of pressing down the strings. Hang in there through the discomfort. In a couple short weeks, you’ll notice your fingertips begin to develop calluses and playing will quickly become more comfortable. You might even get a callus on the tip of your right thumb where you hold your bow. Many folks also develop a “fiddle hickey,” which is a mark (and maybe a rougher skin texture) just below the left side of your jaw where you hold the fiddle.

These changes are all part of the deal, but muscle pain in your hands shouldn’t be. If you notice aches and pains beneath the surface, it’s worth reexamining your technique so you can nip bad habits.

How long should my nails be? We see you, manicure-lovers, but we’ve got to break it to you: there’s really no place for long nails in fiddling. When your nails extend past the tip of your fingers on the left hand, you won’t be able to push the string down and you’ll get nasty, buzzy sounds instead of that clear tone we all want. Clip your nails close to the quick, but be careful not to hurt yourself. If you’re nervous about cutting them that close, you can also use a file. You should expect to clip your nails more often than you’re used to, probably every few days or so, including the thumbnail on your bow hand.

How should I take care of my calluses? Calluses often don’t require much maintenance at all, except for regular practice. It’s normal for them to peel off every once in a while and reform, too. What about when you have the opposite problem: calluses that are too thick? You can tell your calluses have gotten out of hand (eh?) if they begin to crack or they cause your fingers to touch other strings inadvertently as you play. When this happens, you can soak them in warm water and then use a pumice stone to slough off some of the extra skin. Try not to get rid of all of the protection that’s built up, only as much as you have to. 

Fingertip care often goes unnoticed but is one of the most basic and essential things you can do for yourself as a fiddler. Now go give yourself some TLC!

How to let go of left hand tension

How to let go of left hand tension

Practicing fiddle is like stretching your muscles: it lets you notice areas that need attention and give them extra care until you notice improvement.

For many people, the area that needs a lot of special attention is their left hand, where tension commonly builds up. To counteract this, you should consciously and consistently relax your hand. 

“Sure, relax,” you say, probably doing the exact opposite of relaxing as you read that piece of advice for the hundredth time. “But how?” I hear you. It’s not always intuitive, so we’ve created a simple warm-up structure designed to help you release tension in your left hand. Look at this warm-up as some targeted TLC for the days when your left hand needs it (and sometimes, that’s every day.)

1. Begin with the Popcorn Fingers exercise.

To do this exercise, begin by getting your left hand in position with an open palm, straight wrist, and curved fingers. Then, beginning on your A string, pop one finger at a time down on the string so that you can hear the “plunk” of each pitch as your finger lands. Try this on every string with every finger. Since you don’t have to focus on bowing at the same time, you can monitor your left hand closely to notice tension and release it.

2. Move on to thumb taps.

Reset your left hand posture before you continue to this exercise. The reset is important because, even if your hand “feels right,” you might be reinforcing old habits you don’t even know you have. After you reset your hand, you’ll love how simple this warm-up is. Take your left thumb, where tension is often stored, and tap it gently three times on the neck. Then place your first finger on the fingerboard and tap three times again. Continue this process with each finger on each string. Practice pushing your fingers down without gripping in your thumb. Thumb taps are also great to mix in throughout your practice to keep your hand relaxed.

3. Practice neck slides.

Again, reset your left hand posture. This time, practice sliding your left hand toward you up the neck and then back down to where it began. Then pop your first finger down (lightly) and repeat the slide process. Go through the steps again with each finger on each string. Remember, we’re not using a bow at all for these first three exercises. That’s because the goal isn’t to sound good (or sound at all.) The focus is solely on calming your left hand, so put all your attention on that. 

4. Play mindful scales with a mirror.

By now, you’ve gotten some good practice being mindful of your left hand. You can always return to any of these exercises throughout your practice session when you need to release tension again. To finish this mini-warm-up, let’s combine what you’ve worked on by playing scales in front of a mirror. 

You’re probably accustomed to watching your right hand when you practice in the mirror, but right now your left hand is still the star of the show. Before you begin, be sure your left wrist is straight, your palm is open, and your fingers are poised to land on their tips. At a very slow tempo, play a scale (I recommend G or A), still focused on just your left hand. This is the first time in this sequence you’ve used a bow, so fight the urge to spread your attention too thinly. Only focus on your left hand. Keep it soft and open as you play on every string, and play through the scales several times. Check the mirror repeatedly to see if your hand is doing what you want it to.

Voila! You’re cured. Wait, what’s that you say? You did the warm-up and your left hand is still tense? Before you get down, know that you’re not the only one who has a hard time with this. It takes time to change habits, and left hand tension is an especially sticky habit. Despite that, it’s a challenge that you can overcome. I promise, no matter the shape of your hands or the history of your fiddling, you can get to a place where great left-hand technique feels second-nature to you. Trust the process and you’re on your way.

Six Ways to Energize Your Playing from Home

Six Ways to Energize Your Playing from Home

by Celeste Johnson

 

Let me guess: you’re reading this from home. 

Hopefully, you’re also wearing your favorite pair of slippers and sipping a good cup of something. But even if you’re happy to hibernate at home for a while, some of the changes in our routines can be hard to navigate, and music is no exception. That’s why we’re spending some of our time in quarantine writing this Fiddle from Home series! 

In these posts, we’ll give you strategies, support, and inspiration to help you navigate your new musical routine while everything’s topsy-turvy. This series is here to support you, so tell us: how can we feed your fiddling right now?

In office hours, emails, and social media, all the questions and curiosities you share help us create content that meets your needs and nourishes your musical life. Let us know how we can support you by sending your topic suggestions, questions, hurdles, and eureka moments to learn@fiddleschool.com.

In this first Fiddle from Home post, let’s talk about six ways to energize your playing while we’re all cooped up at home right now.

1. Read a book. Although it’s indirect, reading is a great way to incorporate new meta-concepts into your musicianship. especially if you’ve been stuck in a rut or frustrated with music lately, which happens to all of us. I love reading when I feel this way because it feeds the part of my brain that loves to understand the process of how things work. If I can see how successful, motivated people approach their craft, I feel much better equipped to look at mine in a positive, motivating way too. Need book recommendations? Check out our Fiddle School Reading List under the resources tab in the Fiddle Lounge and drop your own suggestions below!

2. Reorganize your practice. The way you practice makes a difference. If you feel like you’re not progressing as quickly as you’d like, it might be time to overhaul your practice routine. By streamlining your practice, you can use the natural structure of the learning process to your advantage and become more efficient to boot. If you don’t know where to start, check out our article about how to use a practice journal.

3. Listen to new music. And I don’t just mean fiddle music. Listen to whatever gets you jazzed, even if it seems like it has nothing to do with fiddle. Just the act of listening to something new inspires me and makes me curious to discover my instrument all over again. If you feel frustrated with your practice, this is a lovely way to remind yourself why you fell in love with making music.

4. Buddy up. One of the best parts of fiddling is the community that sustains the music. That community sustains us musicians too, but it can be hard to feel connected when we can’t play together.Now more than ever, it’s important for you to know that you’re never alone on your musical journey. The best way to remember this is to find a fiddle buddy. You can decide what you do together: maybe you Zoom every couple weeks and show each other the new tunes you’re working on, or maybe you swap new listening recommendations. Maybe you just check in with each other every once in a while. Do whatever works best for you. If this idea sounds a little awkward, step out of your comfort zone and give it a try. It might be just the jump start you need.

5. Change your strings. Every time I put on a new set of strings after a long run on the old ones, I feel like my fiddle’s just had a spa day. I hear my fiddle anew, as if I’ve somehow been playing underwater for weeks, and the crisp, clear sound makes me want to practice for hours on end. If you’ve been playing on the same set of strings for a while, do yourself a favor and switch them out.

6. Connect with your local fiddle organization. Are you part of your statewide fiddle organization? Good! Reach out to them and see how you can support them and stay involved (can you make a donation? write them a publicity blurb for the local newspaper? attend their next meeting?) Since many summer fiddle contests are getting canceled, these organizations are feeling the burn and can really use support and involvement from the communities they serve right now. If you’re not a member of your state’s organization, now is the perfect time to join.

I hope these tips help keep you inspired and remind you that we’re still part of a strong, vibrant, passionate musical community. We can still be here for each other, even when we’re not with each other.

Chance Happenings: How Fiddle Found Me

Chance Happenings: How Fiddle Found Me

You know the little forks in the road that completely change the course your life? Crossroad moments that, if they hadn’t happened the way they did, would have left you a completely unrecognizable person? Maybe it’s the story of how you found the love of your life at a party you almost didn’t go to, or the time you traveled to the other side of the globe with someone you met when you went back to school on a whim, or that time you encountered a wizard on the street and discovered that you yourself have magical powers far beyond what you ever would have expected… I digress. For me, it was a chance happening like this that began my journey as a musician. I often find myself wondering how my life might look if that lucky encounter hadn’t occurred. Would I have become a scientist, or a politician, or a really good juggler? Or was I always destined to fall in love with music? I’ll never know, but I’m glad I dodged the bullet on the juggling thing, at least.

This divine moment of serendipity happened when I was only five years old, walking down Pearl Street in Boulder, Colorado with my family. The street was full of interesting novelties: colorful kites, jugglers, bustling shoppers, candy stores. And then, amidst all the chaos, I saw her: a street musician sitting humbly behind her case, playing something beautiful on her violin. I paused and stood there for what felt like an hour until my parents gently pulled me back into the real world. But for the rest of the day and months afterwards, I couldn’t stop thinking about what I’d heard. Even today, I sometimes think back with gratitude and send thanks out into the universe to that musician.

Later that year, when I wrote my letter to Santa to tell him what I wanted for Christmas, I begged him to please bring me a violin. As long as that happened, it didn’t even matter if he ever brought me any other presents ever again, I said—big talk from a five-year-old. And lo, on Christmas morning, a quarter-size violin appeared beneath the tree (thanks, parents, for heeding my constant babbling). I kept opening and closing the case all day, running my fingers over the orange varnish and plucking the strings. I even tried playing it once or twice, but the instrument’s immediate complaints made both me and my parents believe that perhaps, if anyone were to go on living without a constant headache, it would be best to seek out a teacher to help me get started.

Thus, a couple months later, I found myself sitting across from Miss Carol, a wonderful woman with the patience of an old oak tree. She taught me in the Suzuki method for about a year and then she decided to host what she called a “fiddle boot camp,” a weekend during which she invited a local fiddle teacher to come give some workshops. From the moment I heard the first fiddle tune that weekend, I was hooked. The local newspaper even stopped by to get a look at all the musicians and snapped a shot of me (the one pictured above), my neck craned, jaw slack with awe as I looked up at the teacher towering feet above me. As you can see, my rest position was still a work in progress.

After that camp, I wanted nothing but fiddle music and its bubbling, joyful sounds. I stopped taking classical lessons and took up fiddle lessons with the teacher from the camp. She gave me recordings of jam sessions and contests that I listened to constantly: on my Walkman, in the car when my mother wasn’t already too “fiddled out,” at night before I went to bed and in the morning when I woke up. I couldn’t get enough.

After a year of fiddle lessons, I entered my first fiddle contest. I was terrified. My hands shook, my stomach turned, and it seemed like I couldn’t wipe the sweat off my palms often enough. But I did it anyway, because underneath my nervousness was explosive excitement. I met fiddlers my age and saw grown-ups in the contest who sounded like the recordings I loved so much. In fact, I met many of my great musical heroes at that contest in the coming years, including Dick Barrett, Texas Shorty, and Joey and Sherry McKenzie, among others. And of course, it was where I met Katie for the first time. But I didn’t know any of those big names during my first year there. I only knew that playing in the contest gave me a rush of excitement and happiness like nothing I’d ever experienced.

I started attending as many contests as I could over the coming years, first going to the smaller summer contests at county fairs and then working my way to bigger contests. I found fiddle paradise when I finally attended the National Old Time Fiddlers’ Contest in Weiser, Idaho. At least it felt like “finally,” though I was only ten years old the first time I went. When my time to play came, I played the tunes that I’d prepared, but my nerves jittered and the voice in my head was loud and discouraging. The pressure felt intense and I made mistakes that I never expected to make. When I came off the stage with hands shaking, I felt defeated. I had come so far just to do that? My cheeks flushed and my eyes watered. I was so disappointed in my playing. But even though the competition rattled me, Weiser blew me away. It felt like I’d stepped into a dream world where everyone loved fiddle just as much as I did. There were all-night jams, a week-long contest, and an entire town that celebrated “fiddle week” right along with the contestants. It was a musical home and a family, and more than anything, I wanted to feel like I was really a part of it. And so I found myself at another crossroad.

That year, I went home and practiced harder than I ever had. Some days, my mom had to tell me to stop practicing so that I could eat dinner with the rest of the family. The more I played, the more I loved it. On days when I skipped a practice, I thought I could feel an ache in my left hand, as if my fingers missed the feel of the strings. The next year, I went back to Weiser feeling different about it. I didn’t go to try and “do well” in the contest. I went because I loved the music and I wanted to be surrounded by people who loved it like I did. That year, when I played my rounds, I smiled, took a deep breath, and played with more feeling than I knew I could. And that year, when I stopped playing for a trophy and started playing for a feeling, was the first year I won my division. It felt incredible, but the best part was the support and love from my fiddle family.

A few years later, as I began high school, I took my first lesson with Katie, another crossroad. Katie had always always a fiddler I admired, but when I started taking lessons with her, my appreciation grew to a whole new level. She modeled an incredible drive and attention to detail that still awe me today, and she opened my eyes to new styles of music that I’d never explored. She was also one of the first and strongest voices of encouragement to nudge me to pursue a career in music. Throughout several years of lessons with Katie, I came to see a world of possibilities in music that I’d never seen before. I started playing in bands, grew my teaching studio, and began to explore genres outside of Texas style. It felt like a time of change and possibility in my music, a feeling that continues today.

I’m still at the beginning of my musical life story, and that excites me. I know I have so much to learn and discover. Some days that feels daunting, some days it feels exhilarating. But every day, without fail, I give thanks that I have music to carry me through life and all its crossroads, and I’m so excited to see where those crossroads lead next.

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