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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Seven Stages of Learning a New Piece

I have identified seven stages of learning related to acquiring the ability or skills for each repertoire piece. Some of the following topics are areas that are learned concurrently with each other, but there are times when my student and I have to break down the learning process into more concrete parts. The following list and the order of items are generally the model that we consider.

(1) Left Hand Skills
This area involves the notes to be learned. The notes need to be in the correct order and in tune with the appropriate fingerings. Some songs in book 2 are more difficult to play in tune because they present some major new left hand skills. I am careful to teach particular specific fingerings in some songs because of the importance of that fingering in the overall ability development of learning to play the violin. I maintain a careful eye on the student's posture throughout the learning process to ensure that certain new technical left hand concepts do not encourage the student to lax into bad posture habits. This is a big issue in book 2 where new skills often interfere with previously learned posture. In book 2 the student needs to learn how to play new notes without losing the perfect posture learned from book 1, and this is a challenge for students. It takes time to develop precision, accuracy, and confidence.

(2) Right Hand Skills
This area involves learning the correct bowings and making the best possible sound or tone. The bowings must be correct with the indicated slurs, up bow staccatos, good tone, rhythm, and bow "catches" on string crossings. The students learn basic bowing skills in book 1, but bowing skills in book 2 are quite important because these skills set up the student for the bowing skills and demands made in much later Suzuki books.

(3) Memory
By the completion of stages 1 and 2, the student should have everything memorized. Most beginning Suzuki students have songs memorized as they go. An older student though might be learning the piece via reading the music, and so must now memorize the piece. In the event that the student has memory issues, this is the time that we focus on this. I have a suggested rule that a student not plan to perform a particular piece unless the student has memorized the piece at least a month or more in advance of the performance date.

(4) Style
This area refers to the quality of sound in the presentation. Every composer has a particular "style" that stems from the historical period of the music of the composer's time. Bach may have short eighth notes, while other more Romantic period composers such as Schumann might have longer, more sustained notes. I generally teach these various styles "by rote" while the child is in the earlier books. I tell the student that certain songs are played short or long until the student is more advanced and more versed in music history. Also, as the student progresses in technical level, I show the student how to improve the earlier learned skills with more advanced refinement. For example, book 3 will be all about completely full bows, right hand finger motion (if the correct bow hold has been maintained up to this point), and musicality in expression, although I encourage musical expression in the earlier books.

(5) Dynamics
This refers to the little points of "decoration" in our music. The composer asks for some things to be loud, soft, accented, sweet, legato, sustained, cantabile, brillante, and more. Students begin to notice these things themselves in book 4, but I teach my students about these things from the earliest Suzuki volume. I talk about these things in group classes too.

(6) Test Drive
After my students learn the items in the above-described stages, it is time to test everything out to see if there are any remaining "sticky" spots. A test drive could include a home performance, a performance for other students during group class, a school or local community talent show, or some other more informal setting.

(7) Polished
By the completion of the above steps, the technical and musical skills for each piece should generally be in place and occur correctly and consistently. The student and I then consider that the piece is "polished" and ready for more formal performances. However, the student will add more levels of advanced refinement skills to the piece later as the student progresses in his or her studies.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Quick Practice Tip: Tweenie Notes and the "YUCK!" Spot

During one lesson with a young book 1 violin student, I was tuning the student's violin when I noticed a piece of tape across the finger board in an odd place. It had the word "YUCK!" written on it. Curious, I turned to the student's mother and asked her what the tape spot was.

"That's the YUCK! spot," the mother replied, and her daughter giggled.

I put my finger on the spot on the A string and plucked the note. It was not C natural or C#. It was a note sort of in between C natural and C#.

"I'm not supposed to put my finger on the spot, or the note will sound 'yucky,'" my student informed me. "I have to either stay behind the tape or jump over it."

"Oh," I understood. "It's like the moat around a castle. You have to be on one side or the other of it. You don't want to fall in."

I raise miniature long-haired dachshunds. The difference between a standard regular size and a miniature size is just a few pounds. In the dachshund world, if your dog is in between sizes, we call him a "Tweenie." I have called these in-between notes "Tweenie Notes."

If your student starts to get a little sloppy with the second finger not being "high" or "low" enough and is playing too many Tweenie Notes, try using the "Yuck!" tape spot.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Monday Morning Check In: the One Minute Habit

I've been thinking about habits and what tiny steps I could take on a daily basis to bring me closer to reaching my goals, and I've started using a technique that I call the One Minute Habit.

I'm not an excited house cleaner. Housecleaning does absolutely nothing for me. It isn't sexy, it isn't something I enjoy or look forward to, and frankly I could care less about it. I'd rather someone else did the work, and I would not hesitate to pay someone else to do it if I had to. So, things tend to pile up a wee bit at my house. It's usually on my goal list that I will tackle one pile or another on my kitchen counter, dining room table, or bathroom counter, but I soon lose interest and move onto another more interesting activity. It occurred to me that I spend quite a bit of time in the general area of these "piles," and if I were to add up the estimated time I spent in the neighborhood, I would have to claim that I spent at least 15 minutes and more likely half an hour. That would be more than enough time to eliminate the piles and keep them from becoming problem areas in the first place.

So I have come up with the one minute habit rules for myself. Every time I am near one of those three piles, I have to do something that takes a minute or less. It may mean picking up something on the pile and either trashing it, filing it, putting it away, or relocating it (this could also be recycling it).

Wouldn't this be a great way to tackle some of our other bad habits? Why not identify 2 or 3 problem areas in our practice and work out some one-minute practice routines that will address these areas. Then at every practice session, why not start or end with one or two of these one-minute routines? It could be a little vibrato practice, spiccato practice, collé or other specialized bowings, or a quick all-purpose shifting exercise. I keep a page of Ševčík in my violin case and use those exercises as a warm up, although his exercises are excellent muscle builders at the same time.

That would bring us one step closer to meeting our goals.

Since writing this blog post, I happened to do a google search, and I pulled up a short post by Adam Dachis, December 3, 2010:

And for those who really enjoy this sort of thing, here is an article from Psychology Today about 10 tips to beat clutter in 5 minutes. Have fun!

Isn't that usually the way it is? I think I'm so clever by coming up with this idea only to discover that someone else thought of it months ago. Well, I'm going to keep putting this into practice -- around the house AND the violin. I've already gone ahead and posted little "one minute!" notes around the piles as reminders to me to get busy for a minute.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Parents & Phones

I have updated my "For Parents" page with an important thought about phones during lessons and home practices. Please be sure to visit this page.

Box Violins: An Update

I was talking to a seasoned Suzuki teacher about box violins, and he suggested that teachers make the box violins out of "Cracker Jacks" boxes and leave the cracker jacks inside. Then when the student graduates, they can open the box and eat the insides. Yummy!

Something to consider:

  • Is there an expiration date to be aware of for the cracker jacks?
  • The cracker jacks box is smaller than the mac & cheese box.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Bus Ride

Please take a minute to watch this short film and then reflect on its message. One of the most important gifts we can give our child is the gift of our time and attention. This is a one minute reminder to be "present" in your child's life in every moment we spend with them and in every activity we share with them.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

New Parent and Teacher Information

I added a little more to my Parent and Teacher Pages, so do not forget to click on those pages!

Study Points for Book 1

I've been discussing the information contained in the beginning of the Suzuki Violin Volume I revised edition. So far we've looked at the basic information for teachers, students, and parents. We've also looked at the philosophical principle that a child's destiny is in his parent's hands and that talent is not inborn. We've also looked closer at the five conditions for ability development. Today's discussion will be about the study points:
  • Nurturing superior musical sensitivity
  • Tonalization
  • Developing a balanced posture
  • Creating motivation
Nurturing superior musical sensitivity

The book suggests that the child listen to the recordings of the pieces to be studied in book 1. This is a parent's responsibility, not the child's responsibility. The parent is responsible for playing the recordings at every available opportunity so that the child has a chance to become familiar with the pieces that the child will be studying. Dr. Suzuki calls this process the development of "internal abilities" and suggests that this is the best way to foster motivation to learn.

As a teacher, I am very much aware when a student forgets to do their daily listening. I hear incorrect notes and rhythms or the child approaches their lessons with a seeming lack of confidence (which could also be due to not practicing enough at home). Even missing a listening assignment for two days will be obvious to me. I recall watching a friend's child play at institute and struggling to get through a tricky passage in the Vivaldi Concerto in A minor, first movement. This wasn't one of my students, but I knew the parent well, and she threw up her hands in frustration and asked me how she could get her child to learn that tricky, swampy section on the last page. I asked the mom how many times the child had listened to the piece. When the mom looked blankly at me, I knew that I had hit the problem on the head. I suggested that she play the piece for the child four or more times that night and see what happened. The next day, the mom looked excited and relieved. The child had made incredible progress that night after having heard the piece several times.

I myself have put this listening requirement to the test for my own practice. I am always amazed at the results. When I was preparing for my book 5 teacher training, I set a personal goal of memorizing all the pieces, just as I would expect my students to do, but I was unfamiliar with some of the pieces in book 5. I started out by playing the book 5 recording every day. After about 2 weeks, I was waiting on stage for a symphony concert to begin and I had nothing to do. I started fiddling around with one of the songs at the end of book 5. To my amazement, I played 1.5 pages of the piece before I came to a point that I couldn't remember the song! I had actually memorized the piece, fingerings and bowings, without having looked at the music, with just listening alone.

When I prepare for solo recital performances, I regularly listen to the pieces that I am studying. I sometimes make up a special listening CD with various recordings and different artists and study my music just by listening. I notice that when I am regularly listening to my repertoire, I am more confident in rehearsals and I learn my music quickly, even if I am unable to do a solid practice week. If I miss a few days, I lack confidence in my playing, even if I have practiced a lot! I've been sold on the listening process ever since.

When a student has a little difficulty learning a new piece, I often suggest that we do some "special listening" that week. I ask the parent to play the piece several extra times a day just for the next week, and we find that the learning problem is easily overcome. There are several songs in the beginning literature that sometimes need extra listening: Allegretto, Minuet 2 and 3, and Gossec Gavotte in book 1, and Musette, Two Grenadiers, Gavotte from Mignon or Minuet in G from book 2. Actually, anytime a student seems to be taking a little longer to process a new song, I heap on the extra listening requirement.

I've also caught parents slacking on the listening requirement as well, and I usually catch it within the first week, which amazes the parents that I can tell so quickly. I also make sure to point out to the parent how much easier the practice sessions will go if the daily listening is being done.

Reminder: the listening is the responsibility of the parent. The child cannot be expected to take responsibility for remembering to turn on the music! I am very clear with my studio parents that I expect them to take this responsibility on for themselves. After all, easier practice sessions benefit the parent, right?


Dr. Suzuki made up this word. Vocalists do something called "vocalization" where they work to develop beautiful refined vocal sounds through various exercises. Dr. Suzuki borrowed this pedagogical idea and coined the term "tonalization" to describe the exercises designed to develop a beautiful instrumental tone. The Suzuki literature is filled with instances of these tonalization exercises, which can be made part of the lessons or group classes. The repertoire itself has many opportunities to practice developing a strong, warm tone as well, starting with Twinkle Theme. I call the sustained tonalization songs "Long Bow Songs" or "Creamy Bow Songs." Here is a list of such songs:

From book 1: Twinkle theme, Lightly Row, Aunt Rhody, O Come Little Children, Long Long Ago

From book 2: Chorus from "Judas Maccabeus," Long Long Ago theme, Waltz, Minuet in G

Developing a balanced posture

The book directs us to work for accurate intonation, balanced posture, and natural bow hold. Developing balance in the students' posture is most of what I do as a teacher, especially with a young child who is constantly growing physically. I have been known to spend almost an entire lesson fiddling with the student's equipment to make sure that the shoulder rest fits the student's growing physique properly. I keep my eyes open to notice when a child is in the middle of a growth spurt and is twisting their feet in one direction and their torso in another. I have to show parents how to correct this evolving posture imbalance so that the child continues to play and hold the instrument correctly.

Creating motivation

How to create motivation to learn should probably be the subject of many blog posts. It is a tricky subject for parents, and I spend a great deal of time discussing this in my parent course. If a child isn't motivated to practice or play, then the entire musical experience will be exhausting for the parent and the child. Motivation cannot be created by telling the child to practice, nor by "scolding," as Dr. Suzuki liked to say. Fostering motivation to learn is definitely an art form, but there are ingredients that can help to make this a reality for Suzuki families. I will save the nitty gritty details for the future.

So far, I've just covered the first pages of Suzuki Violin Volume 1 Revised Edition through page 4, and I've discussed these pages in several blog posts.  I'm not even close to being finished. I have two more pages to cover, but that will have to wait until next time.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Monday Morning Check In: Letters from your Past

Today's Morning Morning Check In will be a little different. If you don't already know about this, then let me introduce you to This is going to be fun!

This organization will send you an email in the future that you write today. So here's how it will work. Sit down this morning and figure out a time period: 60 days, 90 days, 6 months, or 1 year. Then go to the site and write yourself an email describing what your life will look like in the time period that you selected. When that date comes, you will receive your email, and you can compare how you did.

Here are some questions to get your creative juices flowing:

(1) what major projects would you have finished in that time frame?

(2) what major events will have taken place?

(3) how much money will you have earned?

(4) what new habits would you have created?

(5) what decisions would you have made?

(6) what will you have accomplished?

(7) where would you have travelled?

(8) what people would you have met?

(9) what new things would you have started?

(10) what old things would you have gotten rid of or stopped doing?

I have a writing project that I told myself I could complete in the next 60 days, so I'm going to send myself an email about this and set it to arrive 60 days from now. I expect that my knowing the email will come in the future might be enough to keep me moving ahead in my work. I'll let you know.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Five Conditions for Ability Development

Listed at the beginning of Suzuki Violin School, Volume 1, is a little paragraph called "The Five Conditions for Ability Development." This little paragraph contains just five little sentence fragments, but this paragraph is mighty powerful. Let me set these out for you:

1. An early start
2. A superior environment
3. A commitment to practice
4. A superior instructor
5. A thorough teaching method

Let me look a little closer at each one of these items.

An Early Start

These three words refer to the success of the Suzuki Method of Talent Education and the result that we are able to teach students who are much younger in age than were the age of more traditional students of previous decades. It's amazing to me to teach 8 or 9 year old students how to play pieces that I was learning when I was in junior and senior high school. The ramifications of this are tremendous. We are able to develop muscles at an earlier age, which means that these young students are developing stronger muscles than those students who start at a later age. The strength of some of my young students' pinkie fingers is such much more solid than my pinkie muscles were at that age or even 20 years later!

How early is too early? There is literature suggesting that when the child is still in utero, some learning is possible. There have been articles of parents holding headphones on the mother's stomach area and playing a birth piece for the fetus. I have had some students in the studio whose younger siblings were born during a time when the student was working very hard to learn a particular piece, like Vivaldi's concerto in A minor or Bach's double violin concerto. We notice a change in the sibling's behavior when the student plays that piece: all fidgeting stops and the child stares at the student and listens to the music all the way through.

This past year I started a 2.5 year old (pictured at the top right of the blog). I agreed to start this child earlier than my normal 3 year threshold because the mother and I both felt that this child was special, and we both wanted to be sure that we were prepared for the child's learning and development process in the best possible way. I'm glad that we started so early, because the mom has learned so much about how to teach her child in the best way for the child. I have very high hopes that the parent-child relationship will be quite strong as the child matures.

A Superior Environment

This refers to the need for an environment that nurtures, encourages, and supports a child's learning. The environment should be stimulating for the child. Environment involves both the physical and psychological aspects. Physically, the parents should be aware of whether the physical learning environment is free from things that distract the student from focusing on learning: noise, active siblings or pets, and electronics. Physical environment would also include aspects of timing: practice time, snack time, bedtime, and play time. The child's natural life rhythms and physical needs should be considered when deciding the best times to schedule various activities.

Psychological environment would include those activities that motivate the student to learn, sometimes something as small as a parent's loving gesture of approval. Other psychological motivators include: lessons, group classes, attending professional performances, recitals, or concerts, and home concerts. Family psychological motivators would include a parent's applause or request for a favorite song. I had one mom who would tear up when her child played Long, Long Ago (Suzuki Violin Volume I), because the child had played it at his grandfather's funeral. The student always looked to see if his playing made his mom feel emotional, but it was in a good way.

A Commitment to Practice

As a practicing professional musician, this statement seems obvious to me, but when I monitor my students and parents, I understand that there are different levels of commitment to practicing. Obviously, in order to develop ability, one must commit to practice. Sometimes I enter into discussions with parents and students about sports training, because I have found that this is an area where most folks understand the value of practice. I recall once having an interesting discussion with my student Jamey (see the 1/19/11 blog topic about Jamey's practice book) about Don Shula, former coach of the Miami Dolphins and a proponent of "overlearning." I think it was a very powerful example for Jamey, because his father (and therefore Jamey) were big Miami Dolphin fans, and Jamey knew who Don Shula was.

A Superior Instructor

It is crucial in any activity to ensure that the teacher (role model) represents the highest caliber. Although it is possible to have a teacher who can teach well without actually playing well, I don't recommend going that route. The student may need instant feedback during a lesson, and the teacher's role model performance is important as a psychological motivator and as a way to help the student and parent visualize a successful outcome.

A Thorough Teaching Method

Having used the Suzuki materials since 1976, I will attest to the thoroughness of the teaching method. Anyone who has taken Suzuki teacher training will understand exactly what I mean. Dr. Suzuki spent years putting together the most thorough repertoire, which introduces violin technique one tiny step at a time while building on previous steps. It is an amazing graded repertoire -- so amazing that most educators use this method and the materials in one form or another.

I will make sure to read this little paragraph with all of my studio parents during the parent course.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Monday Morning Check In: Suzuki Thoughts

When I thought about what to write about in today’s Morning Morning Check-In, I thought I would focus on the wonderful material found at the beginning of each Suzuki Violin Volume. Since each book offers different material, I will discuss each book separately over the next few weeks.

In volume I, the Introduction contains information for the student, the teacher, and the parent:

Student: The volume is part of the Suzuki Method of teaching and contains a companion recording and piano accompaniment book.

Teacher: To be an effective Suzuki teacher, the book suggests that the teacher be involved with continuing education via teacher training courses (long- or short-term), conferences, and institutes. In addition, the book encourages the teacher to become a member of the Suzuki associations, whether  local, regional, or international.

Parent: The book states that credentials are essential for Suzuki teachers and recommends that the parent ask the teacher about his or her credentials and teacher training courses taken.

Let me comment on the information related to the teacher and parent. In all the years I have been teaching, not a single parent has ever asked me what my teaching credentials are. Now that I am listed on the Suzuki Association of the Americas teacher referral list on the SAA website, my credentials are listed, as they are on the Internet as part of my university and Artisan Quartet bios. In my case, most of my families are aware that I am a member of the symphony and the Artisan Quartet and that I teach at Texas State University, so obviously I have some credibility as a teacher and performer.

As a Suzuki teacher though, I am very much aware of how much I learned from my Suzuki teacher training courses. Most everyone in the world now uses the Suzuki materials, because the materials are an excellent example of graded repertoire. The materials are available to everyone, however, whether they have taken training or not. I know there are teachers out there who believe that they have the expertise to teach using the Suzuki Method by virtue of the fact that they were "raised Suzuki," but please let me encourage you to take teacher training courses. Despite my vast teaching experience, I still learn something every time I take a training course or observe another teacher or master class. Please, please, continue your learning by involving yourself in continuing education.

In the Foreword to the violin volume 1, revised edition, there is a brief statement from Dr. Suzuki entitled, "The Destiny of a Child is in His Parents' Hands." This statement tells us that the child's education is important and begins from the date of birth. Dr. Suzuki stresses the point that ability is not inborn, and that "[h]eart and ability depend entirely on the manner of nurturing." Dr. Suzuki continues to urge parents to be active and attentive to their child's development and not just be satisfied with the thought that "My child was born this way."

Does it matter whether my student's parents believe this philosophy? I believe it is crucial, and that is why this discussion point is one of the first points that I raise in my parent education course. If a parent believes this point, then they will do whatever they need to do to ensure that they are developing their child's ability. If a parent does not believe this, then they will use the excuse that their child isn't talented to avoid the work necessary to build ability.

During my parent course, I discuss this Suzuki philosophy of ability development and talent not being inborn, and I make it very clear to my parents that I expect them to share this philosophy with me. I stress the importance of this belief so that parents understand that the responsibility for their child's ability development rests with us and is not dependent on some twist of fate or genetics. I hammer this point home in my parent course so that parents will not quit at the first sign of difficulty during lessons or practice. I encourage parents to think about this point so that the parents examine their motivations for picking an activity for their child to learn, such as music lessons, and the purpose for doing so. When a parent completes my parent course, we are all sharing the same belief system. If a parent later decides to quit lessons, that parent will never be able to claim the rationale that their child did not have talent.

This may sound harsh, but consider that making the opposite statement unfairly puts the blame on the child, and how can this be? What child has the experience and knowledge to make an informed choice about whether to continue with lessons or not? I am concerned when I hear of parents allowing their young child to make decisions about whether to continue music lessons or practice. I'm reminded of a story I read somewhere, and I apologize to the person who wrote it for not recalling who that was.

A young man took violin lessons but pestered his mother to quit when he was about 13. Later in college, this young man attended concerts in which his roommate played violin. The young man called his mother and asked her why he never continued his violin lessons so that he could continue to play as an adult. The mother replied, "Don't you remember how much you complained and argued with me about taking lessons and practice?" The young man answered, "But you're the parent! Why would you let a 13 year old child tell you what they should do?"

I remember one of my young elementary school students (7 or 8 year old) telling her mother," "You're the mother. Don't let your daughter take your choice away from you. She's the daughter." Ah, out of the mouths of babes come such words of wisdom!

When I address a roomful of parents, I like to ask for a show of hands of how many of the parents took music lessons as a child. Pretty much all the hands go up. Then I ask for a show of hands of those parents who continued to play as an adult. The majority of hands go down. Then I ask how many of those same parents wish that their own parents had insisted that they continue lessons. The hands go back up again.

Now, which one of these parents do you want to be? The one whose child continues lessons or the one whose child wishes they had continued lessons.

There is so much more material in the beginning of volume 1. I will save that for next time. If you are a teacher or parent, I have added some more material to the teacher and parent pages. Please check that out.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


You asked for photos of the incentive pads. These are just 4 of the many designs available. You can do a Google search and pull up several sites that sell these pads, including:

I just shop at my local teacher store. Sometimes I can find a wall chart that matches one of the pads. I look for pads that have 25-30 squares on them.

There are some pads that have more squares, but for my purposes here, the smaller size suits us. I know it costs money for these things, but the cost is well worth the results I've been getting in terms of practice.

I thought you'd enjoy seeing my new incentive pad wall paper. I took the picture early last week. The paper has spread with even more color now. My students are really excited about hanging up their charts. Now my students have been bugging me to let them pin the chart to the wall.

This is my current wall chart for recording points. The student gets one point for:

every 3 practice days
attending lesson
attending group class (or a youth orchestra or string project program)
a completed incentive pad chart
a completed assignment (e.g., a written music assignment)

Let me explain why there are a few students who have minimal points on this chart. One child broke her arm in 2 places. Two other students only recently joined us.

Hope you enjoy these colorful photos!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

How to Start a Beginner, part 1

As I was looking through blog posts that were still drafts, I came across the following post. From my records, it does not appear that I ever published this one. So, to complete the series, this was part 1 of the "How to Start a Beginner" series.

Starting a beginning violin student has a great number of parts to it. I will try to make some sense out of all the steps and also to give some sort of order to the presentation, but I want to warn you up front that I often do many of these steps all at the same time. In the beginning, I think I was much more careful about keeping the steps apart from each other, but I have been teaching for so many years that I am accustomed to what steps follow each other, and I have found ways to combine many of them into a single teaching point. Perhaps this teaching ability could be the subject of a future blog post?

Concentration and Focus

Although how I start a student depends on the age of the student, there are certain basic principles I follow. First I work to establish rapport, focus, and concentration. We talk a little bit -- sometimes a minute, sometimes more -- until I get a general sense of where we are. Remember, when I start a new student, I am also starting the parent on the journey as well, and I need to take the full measure of the parent in order to be the most effective teacher that I can be. So I talk to the student a little, and through this talk I get a general sense of what the parent is all about:

·    Does the parent interrupt the child by correcting what they say or answering the question for the child completely?
·    Does the child look to the parent as if looking for a cue? Sometimes the parent will answer for the child but at the moment is on his or her "best behavior."
·    Does the parent exhibit nervous energy, or is the parent very, very energetic in general or impatient with the progress or speed of the lesson?
·    Is the child highly energetic, excited, talking about many things, or easily distracted or sidetracked?
·    Is the child shy or bold, responsive or taciturn, ready to start or hesitant and needing more "warm up" time with me?

How I proceed next depends on my answers to these questions. If the child is too hesitant or reserved, I may need to work a bit with the parent until I sense that the child is ready to proceed. Oftentimes it may take my giving a two-minute lesson to the parent to whet the child's complete attention and interest in trying it too.

Once I have the child engaged with me or interested in what I might do next, I proceed to the biggest lesson of all: building concentration and focus. Here are a few of the activities I might use with a beginning student to get their complete attention on me and to help strengthen the student's concentration and focus:

·    The Bow: In the Suzuki world, we begin and end each lesson with the formal bow. This is also the first thing I teach a new student. We put our feet together, hands at our side, and then I tell the student that we are going to bow, and I show how by making a bow myself. Then I ask the student to do it with me at the same time. I make it obvious when I am going to bow by taking a big breath right before I bow, just as a singer or wind player would breathe before playing a note or as a conductor might breathe during his or her upbeat cue. We then bow together. We practice doing the bow together with our eyes closed, and of course we have no trouble doing it at the same time because the student can hear my breath cue. This is my first introduction to musical breathing, and breathing is also a crucial part of ensemble playing as well. And we've added it to the first lesson already! There may be critics of the bowing ritual, and I myself sometimes forget to do it, but I like to do it in the beginning because it helps to establish the right tone. When the student bows, he or she is saying, "Please teach me." When I bow, I am saying, "Thank you for coming to a lesson," and often I say exactly that when I bow. I didn't bow very much as a young student myself, and I had difficulty feeling comfortable with it as an adult. Since I have been a Suzuki teacher, I have no problem at all doing it. It's as comfortable to me now as breathing.

·    Staring contest: The student and I look at each other and maintain eye contact until the student breaks eye contact or the time we set runs out. It's all right to blink or giggle but not to break eye contact. In the beginning a little boy might take about 2 seconds to break eye contact. That will change by the next lesson. I find that the concentration span increases exponentially with each practice session.

·    Concentration at a standstill: We place a small toy on the child's shoulder (or on the box violin if we have introduced one), and we stand in place while I play Twinkle Variation A on my violin or on the CD. I like using my violin because it keeps the child's attention pretty much riveted on me. As soon as the toy falls off, we stop the exercise. I want to build concentration, and the best way to do that is to stop the moment the concentration ends. A child will not learn to "pay attention" because we tell him or her to pay attention. No, this kind of admonishment only serves to teach the child how to stand still and look like they are paying attention, when in reality the child's attention may be anywhere else in the mind. This is another exponential growth area.

·    Other concentration and memory games: We play other games that build concentration and memory.

o   I have an iPhone app called "I Say" that delights the kids. It is a 4-color wheel, and each segment of the wheel randomly takes a turn in a particular sequence. The student watches the sequence and selects the colors to match. The sequence starts out with one sound and then progresses to two, three, four, until the game ends due to the student missing a part of the sequence.

o   Another similar game is played using a long string of numbers. The teacher says "5," and the student repeats it. The teacher then says "5-1" and the student repeats "5-1." The teacher continues adding a number to the end of the sequence until the student stumbles. I find that the students tend to collapse around the 6th or 7th number. The trick is in reciting the number in a monotone, not singsong like we do when reciting our phone number (which is why phone numbers are grouped as they are, to make them easier to remember).

o   Depending on the child's age, I put 4 or 5 varied objects on a tiny tray. I ask the student to look at the objects, and I talk to them about the colors, or whether the objects represent something living or a toy. Then I ask the student to turn around and tell me what are all of the objects in the tray. Students really like this game and they always insist that I add more and more objects.

o   Another favorite is a variation on the old TV series "Concentration." I take 4 pairs of cards and mix them up. Then I lay them face down on the table in an array. The student turns over 2 cards at a time. If the cards match, then the student leaves them turned up. The student continues turning over 2 cards at a time until all the pairs have been found. I keep adding more and more pairs of cards to the game. There are also special card decks sold for the purpose of this memory game.

After working on concentration and focus, I next work to establish the correct bow hold. This may take an entire lesson, even if the student is an adult. Making sure that the student holds the bow correctly is crucial to future success, since the bow is 90% responsible for the beautiful sound on the violin.

After making the correct bow hold, we then practice:

·    Repetition: making several bow holds in a row, at least as many as the child's age (with a minimum of 5). In later lessons I may ask the student to close his or her eyes and make a bow hold without looking. I may hand the bow to the student from behind their back or from the wrong side. I do this to test how comfortable and familiar the student has become with making bow holds.

·    "Up Like a Rocket": This is a little ditty we chant as we move our bows up and down, side to side, around and around, and then check at the end whether our thumbs are bent and our pinkies are curved.

·    Whisper Tube: I use an empty toilet paper roll and place it on the child's violin shoulder. I whisper "Mississippi Hotdog" to the tube, and then we move the bow inside the tube to whisper back to us. The child repeats the whispering and the bowing a few times.

·    Making Soup: We pretend to make soup and stir it around while holding the bow upright. I ask the student what soup they are making, and then I always make unusual soup to try and stimulate the student's imagination, such as Popsicle, green lizard, and juicy hot pepper soup.

·    Bus Song: We sing this popular children's song while we move our bows in the direction of the words in the song ("up and down," "side to side," "swish swish swish," round and round").

·    Through the Hoop (or Ring of Fire): I hold a canning lid ring up in the air (or use my hands to form a circle between my thumbs and forefingers), and the student tries to stick the bow all the way inside the circle and then retrieve it without touching the ring or my hands. I have a friend who likes to pretend her hand circle is a ring of fire that grows wider and narrower in order to introduce an element of "alertness" to the game and prevent the students from going too fast.

·    Pass the Cup: I put a small plastic or paper cup on the end of my bow. Then I hand off the cup to the student just by using the tip of my bow to pass the cup. The student picks up the cup using the tip of the student's bow.

·    Hand Puppets: We put small hand puppets on the tips of our bows and then march around the room to the CD recording of the Twinkle Variations.

·    Diamond on the Bow: Sometimes students are a little too wild and crazy with their bows, so I will pretend to remove a diamond from inside my ear and put it on the tip of the student's bow. I do this with a lot of care and circumspection, and I make this gesture very deliberately. I find it hilarious to watch the student pretend to do the above exercises without letting the diamond fall off the bow. If the diamond falls off the bow, I scramble around on the floor until I "find it." Great ceremony! After we complete the exercise, I very carefully put the diamond back in my ear.

·    Air Bowing: Here we just move our bow up and down to a particular rhythm such as "Mississippi Hotdog" (four 16th notes and two 8th notes) or in time to the syllables of a song we sing, such as "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star."

There are many such exercises and many others in various books. A teacher doesn't need too many of these in his or her arsenal. The above list contains my students' favorites, and we recycle them in lessons and group classes. You may create your own exercises. Just remember your goal is to find ways to make a good bow hold be a habit. Ask yourself what you could do to have your students holding or using the bow correctly for a length of time.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Monday Morning Check In: Practice Incentives

"The paradox of patience and discipline is that it requires both of them to develop each of them." -- Thomas Sterner, The Practicing Mind

Let me share with you a fun technique we have been using at my studio, and it's been a great hit with parents and students alike. Recently I was shopping at one of those education stores that carry a lot of home education products -- curricula, tools, charts, books, and stickers. Just about everything a teacher could ever want or need. I picked up some new charts for my wall along with some supplies. I also picked up two "incentive pads," which are little charts with about 30 squares on them (6 rows of 5 squares). At the time I purchased the pads, I didn't have any definitive purpose formed in my mind for how to use them.

I hung the large wall chart on my studio wall and put the names of most of my students in the left margin. If a student showed up to a lesson or group class, they got a point on the wall chart. At the weekly lessons, I asked each student how many days they practiced during the week. For every three days' practice, I gave the student another point on the chart. If the student practiced 5 days, they only got 1 practice point. The student would need to practice all 6 days to earn 2 practice points. My purpose at the time was to come up with a way to visibly record my students' efforts to attend group classes and lessons and to practice on the days in between lessons.

I had one little student who was not making much progress on a new song. I knew she wasn't slacking in her practice. Instead this particular student sometimes hesitated to learn new material if she sensed that it was a challenge. I had been trying to think of a way to encourage her to get past her mental "mountain." I tried two tricks. One was to take a $1 bill and staple it to the bottom of her new song. Then I marked the part of her song that had the "Dollar Spot." I told her that in order to earn the dollar, she would have to perfect the spot. It wouldn't be enough to just play the spot passably well; she would really have to play it just about perfectly -- completely in tune with the correct notes and bowings. In this case, my Dollar Spot was the Bb section of Gavotte from "Mignon" by Thomas in Suzuki Violin Volume 2 (song #9 in book 2). I told my student that when she finally mastered the spot, I would remove the staples from the dollar bill and hand it to her. The student could then put it in their case, but they would have to return the next week and play the spot for me again. If the spot still held together correctly, then the student would then be able to put the dollar bill into his or her pocket and spend it later as they chose.
My student's eyes got pretty excited about the possibility of earning a dollar, and she started immediately working to learn it. I will tell you that it took her about a week to have the notes pretty much under her fingers, and then another week to get the passage completely learned. I'm a taskmaster about the dollar spots. I will not let a student pass the dollar test unless it is completely in tune. As any Suzuki violin teacher will tell you, this section of the Mignon Gavotte is difficult for students to master, because it is a major skill that unlocks the ability to "unfurl" the left hand position. It is crucial to teach students this new finger pattern (Bb scale fingering) and help them to stretch between the index finger (Bb on A string) and ring finger (D on A string).

That was one step to encourage my young student. The other step was to use the incentive pad. I find that the Bb scale is a useful tool to learning the finger pattern needed in the Mignon Gavotte, along with Perpetual Motion from Book 1 but transposed into Bb starting on the first finger. I grabbed an incentive pad sheet and filled in the student's name. I wrote Bb scale as the assignment, and told her that when she brought back the completed sheet, I would give her an extra point on the wall chart. The next week, the student brought me her completed sheet and was very excited to watch me give her the extra point on the chart. I also tacked the completed sheet onto my studio wall with a push pin.

The little student asked me for 2 incentive pad sheets for the next week. I picked a few more little tricky spots. I may have given her the new finger pattern in the next song, Lully's Gavotte. After another week, and two more extra points later, my student asked for 3 more sheets to complete. Meanwhile, other students were catching on to the extra points I was putting on the wall chart and to the completed charts I was tacking onto the studio wall. I started getting a lot of requests from other students for some of those charts and extra points.

Then I wrote out a lesson plan for two families, which involved playing 5 things every day. I wrote what things they were to do on the back of the incentive pad sheet. When the student did the 5 things on the list, they could check off the 5 boxes in the row with stickers or pictures or check marks. If they did the 5 things every day, they would get the extra point on the studio wall chart and the satisfaction of seeing their chart put up on the studio wall.

I went to the education store today and bought 10 more incentive pads of various colors and designs. My studio wall is looking pretty colorful now.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Steps to Twinkle: Putting It All Together

After setting up the violin, the bow, and the left hand, it's time to start taking the steps that will teach the student how to play the Twinkle, Twinkle Variations of Suzuki Violin Volume 1. Here are some basic steps I follow, although I make adjustments along the way to accommodate the physical, mental, or emotional issues of each individual student, including concentration problems. The steps I am presenting here do not follow necessarily in any particular order, although some are logically progressive. I'm just compiling a list of items from which I draw. If the student is using a box violin, then I save some of these exercises for when the student has a real violin, although there are some exercises that can be done with both box and real violin.

Left Hand Pizzicato

While my students are working on the bowing rhythms, I am also teaching them the proper left hand setup. In a previous post, I discussed how I set up the violin with colored tapes to match the first finger pattern my students will learn for Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star: A-B-C#-D on the A string. I have the student practice putting each finger down on the appropriate tape that corresponds with that finger, and then the student or the practicing partner or parent plucks the note. At first, the student usually has little strength in the left hand or fingers, and the sound comes out a bit "thuddy." I am careful not to tell the student to press down or harder. Instead I just put a little bit more weight on the finger myself, saying something like, I'm helping the finger to put on its heavy shoes. I let the student gradually discover how much weight is necessary to have the vibrating string "tickle" the finger, and thereby play the correct tone.

We perform the exercise like this:
  • I shape the student's left hand to get ready, spreading the fingers open like a fan and making sure they aren't clenched or squeezing.
  • I pluck the A string and say "A" at the same time.
  • I place the student's index finger on the yellow tape mark, making sure to shape the hand and finger appropriately. Then I pluck the note and say "B".
  • I place the student's middle finger on the red tape mark, make sure that the finger and hand are shaped correctly, then pluck the note and say "C#."
  • I put the student's ring finger, the weakest finger, on the green tape, make sure that everything looks good, then pluck and say the note "D." This note is often indistinct in the beginning, but over time the student's finger grows stronger and the note resonates clearer.
  • I curve the student's pinkie onto the blue tape, make sure the hand is gently rounded and not squeezing, then pluck and say the note "E" or "pinkie E" to distinguish between the E string and the pinkie note. Even though I won't be teaching the student how to use this finger in songs until halfway through book 1, I find it useful to introduce it in the beginning.
  • Then I reverse the process and return down the scale.
Variation A Bowing

While the student is practicing the left hand pizzicato exercise at home, I am also teaching the Variation A bowing. There are many different names for this rhythm: Mississippi Hotdog, Mississippi River, Taka Taka Stop Stop, to name a few. I have had parents make up entire epic poems based on this rhythm, for example: Armadillo Cowboys, riding up the canyon, eating poky cactus, and so forth.

I place the student's violin bow on the E string so that the student's right arm is bent at a 90 degree angle, thereby forming a "square." I have already marked this area of the bow with yellow tape, which I refer to as the "sunshine patch." I tell the student that this is the "yard" and that the student's bow is to stay in the yard area. Then I help the student to play Mississippi Hotdog on the E string. Sometimes I am pulling the bow while the student goes along for the ride, and sometimes I let the student draw the bow. Ideally the student continues to maintain the proper bow hold and has a relaxed elbow that opens up and works like a hinge. This allows the student to play and keep the bow "straight" (parallel to the bridge). My goals here are a good sound, a straight bow, and starting with a down bow.

Previous to this point, the student and I have done many rhythmic games to awaken the student's sense of rhythm. We have tapped, clapped, knocked, patted, and marched to this rhythm in previous lessons and group classes. We have made finger chains, shaken hands, scrubbed our left arms, and moved our bows in time to this rhythm.

My goal is to get eight solid Mississippi Hotdogs in a row on the E string because one of our group Pre-twinkle songs is the "E String Concerto" by Sonja Edén. This is a catchy little piano accompaniment to the students' playing eight Mississippi Hotdogs on the E string.

After learning the E string, I introduce the bowing variation on the A string. This might be at the same lesson or at a later date depending on the student. My goal is that the student can play eight solid Mississippi Hotdogs in a row on the A string so that we can play the "A String Concerto" by Eva Bogren, which is another of our group Pretwinkle songs.

Another song we play is the "Bunny Song." I believe that I found this song in the Maurer's String Book

Bunny ears are pink, pink (Variation A rhythm on the E string)
Bunny nose is pink, pink (Variation A rhythm on the A string)
Bunny paws are pink, pink (Variation A rhythm on the E string)
Bunny tail is pink, pink (Variation A rhythm on the A string)

Other Open String Songs

For variety, we also learn other open string songs in our group classes, such as "Open String Blues," which is another song I've used for years and accompany on the piano by memory but no longer seem to be able to put my fingers on the actual music. The song consists of the student playing each open string 8 times while the piano part plays a common blues progression in the key of C major.

My students also enjoy playing three of our favorite songs by David Tasgal from his The Family String Method ( "Blast Off," "Duck Song," and "Lullaby." For even more variety, my students have come up with some footwork to accompany the "Duck Song." Although "Lullaby" is a very slow song for young beginners, I find that my students are highly motivated to learn this song because they like it so much. I find that my students improve their concentration when they work hard to master this song.

First Finger Pretwinkle Songs

The next step to learn while the student is working on the open string songs and the Variation A bowing on the E and A strings is how to use the left index finger, or "first finger." At first we practice curling up the finger to form a square joint (the flesh folds will form a "Y") and placing the fingertip on the yellow tape.

Then we lift the finger up. We continue placing the finger down and lifting it up a few times. The student usually expresses some interest in hearing what the note sounds like, so we eventually play the F# note.

There are several pre-twinkle songs that use the E and A strings and the F# note. The classic pre-twinkle song is "Flower Song," by Marilyn O'Boyle. Marilyn is a registered Suzuki teacher trainer and well known in the Suzuki world. She is currently the director of the New Mexico Suzuki Institute. If you ever have a chance to take teacher training courses with Marilyn, I highly recommend that you do. You will walk away from the experience with an incredible wealth of information and useful teaching materials.

In addition to "Flower Song," one of my former students sort of composed a song when she was three years old. We were working on playing F# when my student's bow slipped off the string and made a horrible squeaky noise. We both laughed, and then we came up with a new song that used the squeaky noise. To this day, I credit my former student, Mila Martinez, with having composed the song "Squeaky Mouse."

Little mice are squeaky (Variation A rhythm on the E string)
Little mice are squeaky (Variation A rhythm on first finger F#)
Little mice are squeaky (Variation A rhythm on the E string)
Little mice are squeaky (Variation A rhythm on first finger F#)
(then place the bow behind the bridge and play a squeaky Variation A rhythm)

Kids love this, probably because it annoys their parents, similar to fingers scraping down a blackboard.

Monkey Song

This is another pre-twinkle song composed by Marilyn O'Boyle. It uses the A string and the first three fingers A-B-C#-D on the A string, walking up the A string notes and returning back down step-wise. Sometimes I need to help my students to place their ring fingers with enough weight to make a good sound when played.

A Scale

After learning "Monkey Song," the student is ready to learn how to play the A scale (1 octave) on the A and E strings. First we talk about the music alphabet. Most kids today, even three year old students, know the regular reading alphabet, so we talk about how the music alphabet is shorter -- just 7 notes repeated over and over. I write the names of the A scale on a set of colored half index cards. I fill out the four A string notes on cards of one color, and the E string notes on cards of another color. Then I set the cards on the floor in order, like a linear hopscotch pattern. Then we hold hands on either side of the scale cards and "walk the scale" forwards and say the names of the notes as we walk (sometimes we hop). Then we walk the scale backwards. This gives the student practice saying the alphabet in both directions.

Then I gather up the scale cards into a neat pile. I pick up the pile, and I throw the cards into the air so they land in a mess. I ask my student to pick them up and put them in the right order. When we're done, I let the student take the scale cards home to keep.

I have a set of A scale cards hanging up on my studio wall going up in a diagonal line. Sometimes I find it useful to have a place where I can visually trace the notes of a song.

The above list is a good starting point for beginning a student on the road to playing the Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star Variations. I hope you find these steps useful in your own studio.