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Saturday, February 25, 2012

Quick Teaching Tip: Vivaldi’s Phone Number

I helped a student today on Vivaldi’s Concerto in A minor, op. 3, no. 6, in the revised edition of Suzuki Violin Volume 4. We discussed some practice ideas for the section in measures 25-28, which I refer to as “Vivaldi’s phone number.” I believe I first heard this particular nickname for these measures from Terry Durbin at an institute, perhaps Elizabethtown over a decade ago.

The nickname refers to the first note of each group of 16th notes. If you recite the fingering for these notes, it sounds like a phone number. Since Vivaldi lives in Venice, Italy, the phone number is quite lengthy to accommodate the international aspect of the call:

4 – 4 – 3 – 1 – 4 – 4 – 2 – 1 – 3 – 4 – 1 (or 4) – 0 – 2 – 3

Vivaldi Concerto in A Minor, measures 25-28

Students stumble through this passage in their initial playing attempts. There is a reason, and I find this passage is a golden teaching opportunity about how to approach passages in a way that will spur students to achieve success quicker. I also use a similar technique in a passage in Seitz Concerto No. 2, 3rd movement, the first song in book 4:

Seitz Concerto No. 2, movement 3 passage

One of the reasons I think students have trouble with both passages is that they are reading every single note, one at a time. For example, in the Seitz concerto passage, the students have great difficulty playing this passage of double notes. When I guide the student to notice that everything is presented as pairs of notes, so therefore, read just the first note of each pair, the student reads the music quicker and with less difficulty.

Similarly with the Vivaldi phone number passage, I find that students are bogged down looking at the trees and not taking in the scope of the forest. Sometimes I suggest that my student take a step backwards and look at the music from a distance that is almost far enough away that the student cannot read the individual notes. Standing farther away encourages the student to notice the scope and breadth of the musical passage, such as the high and low points and the phrasing or grouping of notes.

In the Vivaldi passage, I ask the student to play the first note in each group of 16th notes, in other words, Vivaldi’s phone number. This poises the student to visually group the notes, which is where I want the student to be. When the student plays Vivaldi’s phone number, the student also experiences the bowing direction that will occur in the passage once the student puts all the notes together:

Vivaldi's Phone Number
After playing the phone number, I guide the student to notice that each grouping has the same three notes and bowings after the initial note. How easy can that be to learn, I ask them. At this point, the student sails through the passage with much less difficulty.

What is my point in this teaching tip? My point is that as teachers we need to figure it out. When we notice that our students have difficulty in the same places, we need to figure out what part of the passage causes the students to have learning or playing problems. Then once we figure out the problem, we need to come up with a solution.

I do not know what Terry Durbin’s original purpose was in coming up with the “Vivaldi phone number” nickname. Mr. Durbin is a fun teacher, so my thinking is that he came up with a fun way to turn the student on to learning the passage. My purpose in using Mr. Durbin’s trick was initially to entertain my student. After years of teaching students this passage, my teaching technique has evolved into an understanding of what the problem is in learning this passage and how to teach the passage so that students learn the passage easier.

Just as I ask my students to step backwards on occasion and get a bigger picture of the task before them, so I as a teacher also must step back and look at the learning situation and figure out what is going on in my students’ learning sphere.

Every time I successfully identify and solve one of these learning dilemmas in the Suzuki repertoire, I renew my admiration for Dr. Suzuki’s brilliant insight into how we learn. I was surprised when I taught my first adult student using the Suzuki repertoire, that my adult students had the same learning and playing difficulties as my young charges. No matter what the age or ability level, students learn in similar ways. Our job as good teachers is to figure out where students have learning issues and how to solve those issues.

I love teaching! I enjoy these repertoire challenges. I seek to discover new problems in the repertoire and new solution methods. The best part of teaching, in my opinion, is when I "figure it out."

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