Friday, August 7, 2009

And then there was a farewell concert.

Had a great day today. Went to Kaichi Elementary School without any clear intent for observation. Our class schedules are in japanese, so although I can identify which level class is in each campus, I can't work out who's teaching it.

So anyway, after starting the morning in one classroom, I went for a little wander. . . and found myself in Matsumoto Sensai's room. Being the delightful and incredibly polite person that he is, he told his whole class how I had helped him in Melbourne and I was "very sweet teacher". His assistant also plays baroque violin (gut strings, truncated bow, tuned to an A so flat my brain kept insisting it was a legitimate G#. A pleasure to play and a challenge; theoretically, since the whole violin is pitched down, my fingers should stay in the same places and relative pitch will be fine. However, being the good Suzuki kid I am, I wanted absolute pitch and fought every position change. Sigh. So our duet handel sonata did have some beautiful moments, but there was a lot of laughing!)

So obviously I stayed and participated in the class as a student. The real drawcard was that phrasing and dynamics (including vibrato control) were being taught with motivation. So every child was asked what was most important to them and that's what the first movement was about. And then HOW to get that feeling was discussed; bow speed, varying vibrato speed, etc.
Both teachers asked every student to play phrases solo and feedback always contained an element of "you can improve THIS thing". Was so nice to be a student and to shape technique from an "artistic" or "creative" perspective.

After the class Matsumoto Sensai asked why I had come to Japan. I explained how I thought it was important to be part of the culture and society - to integrate philosophy into day-to-day, not just teaching. If the teacher stops learning, they're not going to be much use to their students. It's too easy to get complacent and forget just how satisfying learning can be. So I said that too.

A, you'll love that on the bus over to the concert he commented that I was a very Japanese teacher :)
Not sure if he meant in the way I teach or that I parked in his class and enjoyed being a book six student all over again, but I don't think the distinction hugely important. I just took it as a compliment and bowed as low as you can go in a bus seat!

Sake and chivalry are a dangerous mix

The danger of dining out with a Japanese family: each and every member of the family is so attentive to your comfort that your sake cup is refilled after every mouthful. Well, that's what it felt like! And you try counting mouthfuls while following conversation in Japanese. Go on, I dare you!

Really, for 'straines we were very well behaved and it will be a pleasure to entertain this family when we see them in Australia. And (can't quite believe it) am distinctly lacking in hangover this morning :) happy days!

A little girl called me kawaii this morning (cute) and hen said something about manga. Given my black dress for Farewell Concert today, I hope she wasn't saying I look like a manga supervillain.

Some high schools must start back today- oh yes, he bus has just stopped outside the gates of one! Uniforms are pristine but there seems to be a trend for girls to wear the straps of their knapsack so long it's dangling around their knees! Must be their quiet rebellion against knee socks and those pressed white shirts.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Weirder and weirder

Really cool: about one hundred kids (8-15) playing the Mozart-Haffner Rondeau (first piece post-book 10) and you KNOW they don't muck about with tempo! Amazing dynamic control and ensemble; one girl played the first cadenza solo and then a boy the second, another girl the third. VERY COOL.

According to my interviewer I play with great aggression...which my translator hastily amended to passion when she saw my face! We had our last group lesson today and I will NEVER forget how important upside-down bows are :) just don't make me play the Bach A Minor like that again. Please.

But with my wonderful albino skin I stick out of the foreign contingent a mile, and I move about a little when I play, so I probably wrecked every photo the journalist was trying for and they said "We'll make THAT one talk to us!" (on second thoughts, it's probably because this guy works for TERI and saw me at the world convention in april)

A., I can hear you groaning. Mum, you too.
I'm thinking of it as the universe providing me with a vehicle (a nice black Porsche boxster) for change. Or possibly hotwiring it and leaving it in my driveway with a note
"DRIVE ME". As if I'd be able to resist!

So anyway, we had a nice chat about how Matsumoto and Melbourne are different, which was practically an order for me to extol the virtues of team teaching and how well I've seen that work.

I don't think they realized they'd asked the most anti-establishment teacher present to speak. . .
But someone has to be the dissonant to catalyse change. . . ooh, can it be me? Please?!

I think the united teaching approach brings irrefutable benefits to a festival situation; for children, parents, and teachers alike. It has the potential to strengthen the teaching community and the ability of that community, it offers SO MUCH more to the children, and it frees up the parents to learn from the active teacher because their child is better supported and kept on task.

Sorry to bang on about this, but I think it has huge potential. I've certainly seen teachers teach an average block, but immediately afterward they were given constructive critical feedback - just like we give to a student with the hope that they will develop their own understanding and sense of discrimination. Don't we owe it to our student/trainee teachers to nurture their ability to teach in the same way?

Group lesson

Group lesson:

Everyone heads into the gymnasium and finds their level.

Parents stay upstairs with cases and stuff.

Every child has a level on their nametag so they can be helped (lots of 3 and 4-yr-olds)

The time is 'chunked' into three half hours so that 30 minutes in, the least advanced children are returned to their parents (leaving about 700 on the floor. I'm not kidding about the numbers.)

60 minutes in and the next group of kids (200ish) go upstairs.

Mostly they all stay on and observe the more advanced children, so everyone is IN that gym for the full 1.5 hours, but only the advanced kids play all that time.

What do the teachers do? Well, most of the Japanese teachers are present on the floor to keep the show running smoothly; they have line markers (you can see some teachers holding signs in the pic above) so that the children are organised by what piece they're up to, and everyone else (i.e. us) can either participate or observe.

I think it's much more fun (and I learn more effectively by participating) to play, so I do. It's pretty awesome being in the middle of violins en masse like that. I should clarify: Everyone plays from memory, so there aren't any music stands or fumbling; you know the piece you play the piece, you don't know the piece, you sit and observe. That's about it.

That night: Faculty Concert: brilliant. It's expected that, as a teacher, you play the whole repertoire from memory. That's why there are levels of accreditation which test your performace and technical skills - completely separate from your teaching ability. So Suzuki teachers have to be good musicians. Not optional.

Day 2: later.

So where am I anyway?

In answer to Linda: This thing in Matsumoto is a Suzuki Summer School run by the Talent Education Research Institute (Japan). It's a conference over four days for Suzuki teachers and students.

Day 1:- Opening Concert: All students perform.
This takes place in the Nagano Prefectural Gymnasium, which we use every day for group lesson.

Ok, so the photos are a total hack job, but I think you get the idea. I was trying for a panorama shot! These are the Aussie kids (E. who I taught at the World Convention in April is making a peace sign. He lives in Hong Kong.)

So, after e listen to the Suzuki faculty orchestra, and EVERYONE plays about five pieces together (everyone: flutes, cellos, violin, viola, piano teachers' choir) and various people welcome us to Matsumoto, we split up for group lesson.

SO the cellos go somewhere, the flutes go somewhere else... basically, we divide children by instrument and send them to different venues. Group lesson means that all students regardless of age and ability play together.

Here the violins have group lesson in the Prefectural gym hall (like a stadium used for basketball, etc.); the children play on the gym floor, the parents are seated upstairs in the stadium seats (bleachers!).

Thursday. . . Only 28* at 8.30am

Great concert yesterday and then a little recreational shopping in the afternoon. Foundation garments in japan are a very serious business! Then there was coffee and debriefing before ramen and gyoza.
It's very interesting to get an outsider perspective on the hierarchical structure and factionalism that has taken over Australian Suzuki.

So much teacher time gets gobbled up in administration and negotiation... And unfortunately the only real way to change the workings of the assoc is from within, risking all sorts of bitterness and resentment building up. Ok. How about I stop whinging now?!

I am very taken with this apprenticeship model of teaching. This book 3 class has had an hour of work with their less advanced teacher and has just traded across. In about ten minutes the children are being actively engaged. Everything is taken back to first principles and absolute basics so real skill is developed.

Talking is direct and directional rather than explanatory, and focus much better as a result. Less new, more review. ..takes enormous amounts of teacher confidence. From the adult perspective we think "Oh, they must be getting bored, I'd better move on to something new!"

Right. They ARE bored, because with insufficient time to master the skill they can't do it so stop trying and disengage. Unfortunately it seems that classrooms are excellent environments for fostering this withdrawal.

What's the point in practicing if you don't get any better?

Wow. This didn't turn into a rant AT ALL.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Wednesday begins with a bus ride

Massive organisation; between 8.15 and 8.30 buses leave from three points close to matsumoto station. These are organized and paid for by TERI, and run to three different desinations for morning classes. During lunch some students will board buses and change venues for afternoon group class.

Last night BJ and I went out for a drink and happened upon a couple of Japanese Suzuki teachers. One was at the World convention and very complimentary about the Melbournian level of ability. He teaches in Tokyo and his daughter (who was our translator yesterday) is coming to Australia later this year. BJ and I both wrote down addresses and promised winery tours and hot springs :)
We would have promised beaches, but august-sept generally isn't the best time for enjoying them!

We just drove past restaurant skylark gusto. Hmmmm.
Housing is absolutely bizarre, big old places patchworked together next to apartment blocks next to seben erebuen next to shacks surrounded by jungle.
I think we've arrived!

Back on the bus

Spent the morning at Daichi elementary school observing classes 1-6 (twinkle rhythm through to Handel Bourree).
Pretty cool and funny; the same kind of age range (majority 3-6) in each class. I know there's a certain someone about to fall off her chair with shock horror... They TEAM TEACH in EVERY class.

No less than three teachers, occasionally four. Not because the classes are large (10-15 mostly) but to catch every child quickly when their attention might be wandering or they just need help. Children stay in the same classroom with the same group of teachers all morning and the teachers lead blocks of activity; very much an apprenticeship model.

No sitting on your butt taking notes here!
I would love to know if this "apprentice" teaching time is counted in training the same way we count observation hours. It's not something I've heard discussed before so will observe book 2+ tomorrow with interest to see if it's the same.

After lunch, group lesson in the main gym. This means ALL the violins! It's an hour and a half total but structured so that roughly on the half-hour the lead teacher changes and the lower level children are led upstairs to the stadium's seating and reunited with their parents. Of course, they all stay on and observe! It's amazing to be down on the floor playing, the sound of so many violins in unison is stunning. Lots of playing with upside-down bow again; pivoting across the strings and checking that G bow is perfectly horizontal - and if it isn't or you're not in the right part of the bow, a teacher will quickly materialize from the sidelines to correct!

Opening concert marvellous.
Ensembles beautiful and soloist absolutely stunning. She finished up concert with a boisterous, wandering czardas. . . Which we ALL know to be a crowd-pleaser! Plans are afoot to visit the castle tomorrow after group lesson ( the format is rather different here; EVERYONE has tutorials in the morning and group lesson en masse after lunch) making me glad I did it yesterday.

As BJ and i discussed en route to the bus after the debacle of waiting for people and general fussing about, Australians and committees don't work very well. My hypothesis: that living relatively spread out we tend to do what's best for the individual with little thought; we feel that our actions don't directly impact others so often act accordingly.

Of course, sheer population density in (predominantly) Asian countries means the exact opposite; perhaps my suzuki experience prepared me for ashram life!
I guess I'm taking the long way of saying that it's much easier to understand suzuki's philosophy and it's origins in context.

Lucky it just took another aquarian (5 years and 5 days older) to kickstart my philosophical musing :)

and a little more Tuesday

Orientation very helpful today; there are twelve? Teachers here from aus, two from America, and one from germany; eight or nine countries and three thousand students.

Opening concert today was so very well organized and incredible to see so many cellists... And TONS of piano teachers, who performed as a choir. I think there are less flautists here than in melbourne though! Has been interesting to chat with the next generation of teachers today; starting to feel like I'm not the new kid on the block... It's only taken eight years!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009


Have just seen one of the children I taught at world convention this year :)
And the bus driver just said something completely incomprehensible which I take to mean we're leaving in about five minutes.
Yep. I'm so awesome. Bus is go!

Since i'm the only aus teacher on the bus and have no-one to talk to except the Americans behind me who have spent the last five minutes bagging the bakery beside matsumoto station ("oh, that's where they all go to stuff themselves with pastry... And you should see it, all coated in sugar and sweet...") I'm drafting my blog instead.

Re the pastry comment, I am yet to see an overweight Japanese person. Sadly, I can't say the same for Americans.
A note on fashion though; everyone carries a parasol. Not an umbrella (rain Prevention).

Monday, August 3, 2009

Day one in Matsumoto

I've had the loveliest day. Eaten random food (eel sushi, and NUT sushi, which was far stranger) and consumed strange drinks with abandon. Pseudo-shopped (that's where you don't buy anything) at the Japanese equivalent of David Jones, which is unhelpfully located a block away from my hotel, blitzed out at the 100 yen shop; lots and lots of patterned origami paper and Hello Kitty STUFF and generally recognisably Japanese stuff. Seem also to have lost my ability to type somewhere along the way...typos! ArgH!

Have learnt that when it comes to directions I'm a strictly kinesthetic learner. Unless I pound the pavements for myself, occasionally getting lost and very occasionally getting distracted by shiny things, I don't get anywhere.

However, the crap thing about getting distracted here is that it's all completely uneconomic. In Melbourne a unique little store will be mostly overpriced, but things will be on SALE and they will be of happy-making price. Here? Hm. On sale and hang on, let me divide by 69....NOPE. Still more than I'd like to spend on a night's accommodation, let alone a garment. That's probably why I was SO very happy to discover the 100 yen shop. What else?

Ooh, did something touristy, visited Matsumoto Castle. (600 Y)The best part is that you can walk around inside it. So climbed up and down all the stairs (very steep; ballerina duck feet handy for SOMETHING) and marvelled at the 400-year-oldness of the place. As you go in you're given a plastic bag for your shoes and so everyone wanders about in socks or bare feet (mostly bare feet; today's weather 36C) along these amazingly polished wooden floors; originally lacquered black, so you can see the wear of knees at the apertures designed for firing arrows upon the enemy. Very cool. Left channeling my inner (inner?) ninja.

Ate ice-cream from a vending machine (you can buy ANYTHING from vending machines here!) and wandered. That pretty much sums up my whole day. Just getting to grips with the coinage! (A little tricky when you have a 500Y coin; brain says "Hello small shiny silver thing, you must be the equivalent to a dollar" or something like that... and then you stop to do the math. Hmmm. $7.24. Awesome. Not complicated at all. I wish this was Bali. Then everything would be super cheap. Sigh. Time for bed. I had a whole three? hours sleep this morning. I think it's starting (!) to show.

REAL sleep, please.

So I checked into my hotel after a free taxi ride when I got a little bit over it all at about 5 am. (Remember that overnight train thing? Well, I left Shinjitsu at 11.59 and rocked up at Matsumoto at 4.30. My neck will never be the same again.)

The driver was incredibly nice and it would have been quite easy (theoretically) for me to walk to my hotel if I had (a) a sense of direction and (b) understood Japanese directions. I didn't, he drove, it took 2 minutes and many ARIGATOU gozaimus and then I was freed to the arduous process that was checking in.

I have a lovely room (pics later) and today plan to visit Matsumoto's castle, sometimes called Crow Castle (all black and white). May also be able to get a bike from the museum, which would speed up my sightseeing a little! Thank goodness for free internet access in the lobby :)
Have already skyped husband (I'm such a techie;) ) and eaten the full Japanese breakfast pictured above. Rice, miso, juice, coffee and some potatoey thing which was like breakfast dessert. And to the castle!

sumimasen, sumimasen, sumimasen!

Wowee. We are so incredibly inefficient as a nation. The funny part is that as an unseasoned sixteen-year-old my parents let me go off to America to stay with a family for several weeks. My transit involved changing flights and rechecking luggage at Sydney, and an overnight stay in a Tokyo hotel.

Disembarking at the Gold Coast Airport and again at the terminal in Narita today has given me a measure of empathy with their anxiety. Narita Airport hasn’t changed much in ten years and unfortunately, neither have my language skills (although I have a very nice accent which has twice prompted floods of incomprehensible Japanese from helpful airport/Japan Rail staff). Awesome.

A little less awesome is my current sleep quotient. I slept about 4 hrs last night, and maybe 2 more on the plane today? It’s now 10 pm Melbourne time (9pm Tokyo time) and I’m hurtling toward Shinjuku station via the Narita Express. Once I get there (eta 10.30 pm) I get to hang about for an overnighter train (leaves 11.59 pm, arrives 4.30 am) to Matsumoto. I hope my hotel (just across the road from Matsumoto station) has 24 hr reception or I may have to sleep in their lobby.

Darling husband, should you be reading this, I am VERY grateful you got up at 4am to drive me to the airport for a 6 am flight. I hope Open Day was wonderful and you got to play with lego robots and entice masses of students into the exciting field of Comp.Sci. Hopefully your free lunch and wonderful dinner at your mom’s place have made up for the very long day.

If it’s any consolation, mine too is dragging just a little. I’m very glad I took your advice and wore glorified pyjamas (baggy black pants, layered singlets) rather than jeans, as I think I’ll try a little light sleeping between midnight and 4am. (A, feeling your pain!)

Delightfully funny moment that could well have resulted in me hysterically exiting plane AS IT TOOK OFF from the Gold Coast; plane begins to taxi, faux-pop is circulated (you know, covers of stuff by cheap and nasty voices) and what do I hear with my little ear?

“I can’t stand to fly,

I’m not that na├»ve,

Men weren’t made to ride

With clouds between their knees….

I’m only a man in a silly red sheet…..etc. etc. etc. “

Oh, the delicious irony.

Otherwise my Jetstar flights were quite unremarkable. It was much nicer to eat breakfast and lunch of my own volition rather than being fed like so much cattle, although I did (on someone’s advice; I forget who told me this, but thank you!) buy a pie (dinner option) which was followed by a mini weiss bar. Hook me up with some more of those pies. Have nearly exhausted all of my reading material but bought a copy of Nick Cave’s “And the Ass saw the Angel” at the Gold Coast when I was seized by a fit of panic and forgot the two novels stashed in the top of my violin case.

About two-thirds through “The Pornographer of Vienna”, which isn’t quite as seedy as the title suggests, only nearly. Feeling a little desperate for a drink (alcoholic, non, whatever at this stage!) but I’m sure I can find something in Shinjuku with my ninety killable minutes. So, that’s currently the extent of my pilgrimage… will post when my computer finds a network. Jaa, mate nai.