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Monday, April 30, 2012

Monday Morning Check In: The Power of the Overlay (aka The Perfect Day)

I remember a discussion in teacher training with Ronda Cole about how to determine what areas to work on when teaching a student. I believe the question was, “How do you decide where to start when a student comes to you at institute?” I want to share Ronda’s answer with you, as I recall it.

When Ronda works with a student, she pictures the student before her with an overlay of the student playing the Tchaikovsky violin concerto. Ronda then explained that she would keep that overlay in her mind as she worked with the student. Her goal was to bring the student in line with the Tchaikovsky concerto overlay. Similar to training a bonsai tree, Ronda would nip a little here, pinch something there, nudge an idea forward, and place some strictures to guide growth in a particular direction.

I think of the overlay as a transparency, like the ones our elementary school teachers used on the overhead projectors. Our teachers' transparencies were -- well -- transparent, with printed or handwritten notes on them, and the teacher would write additional notes during class. I think of an overlay in the context of this article as an enhanced transparency that has a picture of the student playing the Tchaikovsky concerto but also allows us to view the student as he or she is actually playing the concerto, sort of like a movie embedded in the transparency. [Isn’t it marvelous how technology has changed our vocabulary and view of things? Who would have used the words “embedded” or “enhanced transparency” ten years ago?)

This overlay idea is quite powerful and a very useful tool for parents and teachers for many reasons. First, the overlay is the picture of a long-term goal; it provides an overall vision that can guide teaching and learning. Many folks forget that a long-term vision is the most important part of any endeavor. If we do not know where we want to go, then we might head off in the wrong direction. Second, the overlay idea can be an important measurement tool. We can measure our progress from one point to another by referring to our overlay to see how for we have come or to show us where we have drifted off course.

The Tchaikovsky violin concerto is an ending to a very long spectrum of performance overlay possibilities. There are other overlays that a teacher or parent could use as a reference point. For example, when I begin a student, I use the Twinkle Variations overlay in my mind, and I nudge, prod, and discipline my student in the direction of learning how to play the Twinkle Variations like my overlay. Similarly, I have overlays in my mind for each song, for each book graduation, and for recitals.

Beyond the music education scenario, we can use the overlay idea to create our perfect day, our perfect year, or our perfect life. A crucial part of successful goal setting is to consider long-term goals, and an overlay can be this opportunity. Whenever I encounter a frustrating day or finish a crazy week of “too much to do and not enough time to really savor what I did,” I remind myself about the power of the overlay. I ask myself, How would my perfect day have looked? What would the perfect week have looked like for me? Then I create the overlay picture in my head and consider where I needed to tweak, nudge, and apply discipline to recreate my life and my world to more closely resemble the perfect overlay.

I am a big proponent of reflection time. I am not referring to meditation when I use the word reflection. I use the word reflection to mean active thinking. For me, active thinking involves either talking aloud (to myself or someone else) or writing my thoughts down. I generally rely on the writing technique so that I have a record of my ideas and issues. I find that many problems resolve themselves once I have committed them to the written word and placed them on the page. I am blessed with some time every day in which to think about how things are going in my life. If I am fortunate, I will have a little time to reflect while I drink my morning coffee; I use my morning pages to digest my current issues if I have “coffee time.” I also have another daily reflection time: when I make my rounds to feed the farm animals (4 chickens, 4 donkeys, 1 horse, 10 alpacas, 3 cats, 8 dogs, and currently 3 puppies). Walking outside in natural surroundings will sometimes generate unusual directions and insights in my thinking. My current trick is to find a way to record my outdoor thoughts so that I can recall them later (where does one carry the iPhone for voice memos and pictures when walking around the ranch?). In the meantime, I have gotten into the habit of summarizing my thoughts into a short jingle or acronym of no more than 5 letters.

This is a busy time of year for me, as it is for most teachers and parents. School is winding down, and there are spring recital programs to prepare and present. Our schedule starts to rev up to a much higher idle speed than we have been accustomed to. We lose our vision and forget to check in with our goal compass. Now is the time to turn to the power of the overlay to help us recreate the perfect day where we work to create a life that provides satisfaction and allows us to fulfill our purpose.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Preparing for Perpetual Motion

Perpetual Motion marks the beginning of the intermediate section of Suzuki Violin Volume One and the halfway point of the book. In the first half of the book, the student learned many basic fundamental skills, including various bowing variations, fingering combinations (using the same finger pattern), and song formats. The student has learned notes on three strings but basically plays only two strings in general. Now it is time to step things up a bit and teach the child how to play on the D and G strings, how to use the pinkie, how to deepen the student's concentration and focus, and to strengthen the child's memory. Perpetual Motion will help to do all of that, but before we start working on the song, there are a few things that will help a student prepare for the song.

At this point, my students have been playing with their right thumb "outside" the frog. I am very careful about how my students place their thumbs on the outside frog. The purpose of this beginner bow hold is to help the child develop the habit of rounding the thumb. I have witnessed too many beginning school string programs where students learn the "inside" thumb bow hold from the start, and many of the students have collapsed thumbs that bend inward. This bending inward so that the thumb resembles a banana will prevent the student from later learning how to do specialized and advanced bowings, as the thumb flexibility is curtailed. (To read more about how I set up a beginner's bow hold, click here).

So to prevent this problem, I introduce my beginning students to the "outside" thumb bow hold. Once we reach Perpetual Motion, I officially introduce the "book 2 bow hold" to my students. Most students tell me that the new, regular bow hold is much more comfortable than the earlier outside thumb bow hold. Occasionally a student has difficulty making the change. One thing I consider is the timing of the bow hold. If I have a student who is taking a long time to get to Perpetual Motion, then I might introduce the book 2 bow hold earlier. This case would be the exception, because students should not be taking so long to get to Perpetual Motion unless there is some sort of learning issue.

I ask the student to review earlier songs (which should be happening all the time anyway at this stage), and ask the student to practice the new bow hold with each of the songs. Parents, your child may need to be reminded to play with the new bow hold because the other bow hold is a habit by now.

Although I introduce the use of the pinkie in the pretwinkle stage with the plucking song (for more information about the plucking exercise, click here), I actually do not encourage my students to use the pinkie in the earlier book 1 songs until Perpetual Motion. The revised edition does provide alternate fingerings that include the pinkie, but I prefer to save this for later. I think it is more helpful to teach the students how to cross strings properly. Once the student reaches Perpetual Motion, I begin my systematic campaign of building the pinkie habit. There are times to use a pinkie fingering and times when it is best not to do so. In the beginning, I teach my students certain fingerings and offer little explanation about why I make these choices. As time goes on and the student encounters fingering choices in later repertoire, I will then open up discussion about how to make appropriate fingering choices.

I have two previews for Perpetual Motion, and both previews involve the pinkie:
  • First, I introduce the first four notes in measure two: C#-D-E-C# using the finger pattern 2-3-4-2.
  • Second, I ask the student to prepare the C# (second finger) on the A string and prepare to hold him down while the student plays: E-C#-D-E with the finger pattern [prepare 2, then play] 4-2-3-E string.
  • My students practice these two pinkie previews about 10 times per day for a week.
In the meantime, I ask the practice parent to play the recording of Perpetual Motion extra times in addition to the regular listening program so that the student is definitely saturated with the recording of the song.
    I also ask my student to practice the one-octave A major scale. We already know this scale, but I make sure that the scale gets included again in the weekly lesson assignment. We practice the scale with the various Twinkle variation patterns, and I also introduce new rhythms and bowings to anticipate the Perpetual Motion variation bowing. I figure if the student is accustomed to playing all sorts of rhythms, then some of the "sting" of the Perpetual Motion variation bowing will be alleviated. The variation bowing will then become just another variation in a sea of variations and nothing to worry or obsess about. I have called it a variety of things: rabbit bows, jello bows, ribbit bows (aka Kermit the Frog), Yankee bows (as in "yank" the bow down), kitty bows, and pony bows.

    At first I introduce the bowing variation as a double bow with a rest, as Dr. Suzuki suggested in his practice tip for the Perpetual Motion variation. You can also incorporate physical rhythm games with this practice tip by having the child play the double note and then take a step forward in the rest. As the student learns how to coordinate this action better, the student also learns how to feel syncopation and offbeats. Later, the student can play the bowing variation without the rest.

    And finally, the last thing I might do, depending on the student, is introduce the first few notes. Usually I wait a week while the student improves the pinkie previews and builds the pinkie fingering habit contained in the two previews. At the very least, I might ask the student if he or she has figured out what the song's first note is, as I play it at the same time.

    I send the student and practice parent home with a practice assignment that includes the new bow hold, review songs that will use the new bow hold, the above previews, and the A scale with variations, including the double note variation that will show up in the Perpetual Motion variation. After a week of this specialized practice, I find the student is very well prepared to learn the rest of the notes of the song.

    Wednesday, April 25, 2012

    Popcorn Day!

    Today is Popcorn Day! Last week we focused on our long bows, but this week we can focus on our "short" bows.

    A note has three parts to it: the beginning, the middle, and the end. By a short bow I am referring to a bow stroke that focuses on the crisp beginning and end of a note, especially the beginning. We have difficulty understanding someone who speaks and mumbles his or her words; we need to hear enunciated consonants in order to clearly understand verbal communication. As musicians and audience members, we need to hear the bow's articulation of the notes in order to hear crisp beginnings to the notes and to understand the rhythm and musical style of the musical presentation or performance. I ask my students to create and listen for the "pops" and "bites" at the beginning of the notes, hence my nickname "popcorn bows."

    Sometimes the ending of the note is important too. If the bow keeps dribbling on the note and colors "outside the lines" into the next note, then the articulation suffers. Also, how we end a short note may influence the quality of our rhythmic presentation as well. If we end with a "snap" to the rhythm (not an accent), we may reinforce the rhythmic pulse we feel and play.

    So how do we do a Popcorn Day practice? First, identify five to ten places in our repertoire or practice assignments where we have short bow opportunities. These could be songs or phrases that require staccato bows, such as Song of the Wind, Allegro, Variation B and C of Twinkle, Perpetual Motion, or Etude. For more advanced students, these places may require the more advanced martelé stroke, such as in the Vivaldi or Bach concertos.

    Work through those places and listen for the quality of the initial articulation. Sometimes the up bows sound weaker than the down bows and need a little more "oomph" in the up bow to even up the volume and articulation. Is the bow placement correct? Is the bow straight and making a good contact point?

    Next, work on how the endings of the notes sound. Are the notes bleeding into one another? Does the ending of the note clearly indicate or fit in with the overall rhythm of the song or phrase. When I practice on a Popcorn Day, I often stop after playing a staccato or martelé to give my body a moment to bleed out the energy and reset my bow for the next note. I practice in this careful way to reinforce the physical sensation of how the bow stroke is properly played in slow motion.

    Finally, and maybe this would be an even better place to start on some Popcorn Days, consider how your posture habits may be adversely affecting your short bow execution. I use the Dr. Suzuki "panda thumb" as the starting point for my crisp staccato bow sound. (For more information about my "fish bowl staccato" technique, click here to read the post). I check whether there is unnecessary tension in my shoulder  (for more about releasing shoulder tension, click here). Sometimes a back muscle is triggered too much on the right side below my shoulder, which could be causing me to "jump" ahead a bit in my bow's articulation.

    Have fun with Popcorn Day, and be sure to break out the real popcorn afterwards!

    Happy Practicing!

    Monday, April 23, 2012

    Monday Morning Check In: Practice Awesomeness!


    I have a young student in the first half of book 1 who loves to play and perform. Music is one of her languages, and she loves to entertain. The problem is that she is so eager to get playing that she does not take the time to do her set up steps and get into proper playing position. If we do not stay vigilant every moment, she will let things slide, and bowing gets messy and her posture falls apart completely. She has such a good time though that she does not notice how she looks and sounds.

    At her last lesson, I had to step in and remind her to do her set up steps. That reminder was not enough, however, as her posture fell apart within a short time once she started to enjoy her playing. Before I had a chance to get her sorted out again, her mother spoke up:

    “Practice Awesomeness!”

    When the child heard that, she immediately straightened up, corrected her bow hold and left hand, and improved how she sounded. I looked at her mom with amazement.

    “What’s that?” I asked. “Practice awesomeness?”

    My student’s mom, Michelle Robinson, explained that they had spent some time during the week talking about awesomeness and trying to remember to make awesomeness part of everything they did during the week, no matter what it was. I think this is a great tip, so I want to pass it on to you.

    What does it mean to “practice awesomeness”? What is awesomeness to you? When someone experiences awe, they are witnessing something terrific or excellent – so terrific or excellent that the person is amazed to see or hear it. The "something" must be really amazing though to cause the witness to experience awe. Ordinariness does not inspire awe. The commonplace does not inspire awe. Just getting by and doing what is required does not inspire awe.

    Awesomeness is something more than mundane, average, or ordinary. It is more than routine and commonplace. Instead it is unworldly, exceptional, and extraordinary. What does that look like to you? Sometimes I encourage students to give me more than their ordinary best by asking them to pretend that they are playing for God or the president of the United States or a special person in the student’s life. Just as I find that people straighten up their posture and speak with grammatical correctness the minute they find out that I am also an attorney (retired), so my students stand up straighter and play with better tone and attention to detail when I ask them to do this pretend game.

    In the case of my young student, awesomeness meant fabulous posture and something more. I watched her straighten up and correct her posture, but she had an additional sparkle to the way she looked. I find it difficult to define what the extra sparkle was other than to suggest it was charismatic. She was reaching out to me, her listener, and working to make a connection between us with her music. That was truly awesome!

    Once you define what awesomeness entails in your particular situation or moment, look to something specific that you can work on to add the awesomeness factor. One of my favorite instructors at Texas State is Dr. Joey Martin, the director of Choral Activities and Assistant Dean of the School of Music. I have watched Joey coax marvelous performances from his student chorales. He explained his technique to me once. He takes a small section of the piece the students are learning, and he rehearses it until it reaches the highest level of perfection. It may be just one phrase in the music, or a small section, but Joey teaches the students how to attain awesomeness one detail and one layer of complexity at a time. Joey explained that after he spends this time teaching the students what his expectations are and how to place similar demands on themselves, Joey finds that the students apply these same principles elsewhere throughout the music.

    I call this technique the “specific to general” principle. Start with something small and specific, work on it, and then let that specific work effort grow to influence a larger, general area. I center on this principle in the “Bits & Pieces” practice days (for more about this practice tip, click here). When we focus on small areas and really work to perfect them, we will find that our efforts spill over into the bigger picture. We will have raised our standards and expectations, and we will view other areas of the work before us with a new eye toward improvement.

    This week, look for areas to practice awesomeness. Hang up a few signs in your home or studio and talk to your students and family about what awesomeness is and how everyone might be able to practice it together.

    Happy Awesome Practicing!

    Saturday, April 21, 2012

    Allegro

    Allegro is another dessert song and a popular favorite. Made memorable in the movie, "Music of the Heart," which starred Meryl Streep and Aidan Quinn (for more information about the movie, click here), the song was composed by Dr. Suzuki and is usually included on every student recital. Here is a brief summary of the skills and opportunities presented by this song:


    The notes of Allegro
    Left Hand Skills
    • The song is in A major and uses the same close 2-3 finger pattern as the Twinkle Variations.
    • The song provides additional exercise work between the first and third fingers.
    • The song introduces the popping second finger in measures 2, 6, 11, and 14.
    • The song teaches the student to keep the left hand upright in correct position while playing on the E string.
    • The song challenges the student to coordinate between the left and right hands in measures 2, 6, and 14.
    Right Hand Skills
      • Each part of the song begins with a down bow. Since each phrase also ends on a down bow, the student must use the "circle bow" skill first introduced in Song of the Wind. Note that the student has worked hard until now on various bowing direction skills:
        • The student learned how to start with a down bow in the Twinkle variations.
        • The student learned how to do down bow circles in Song of the Wind.
        • The student learned how to use an up bow to begin a new phrase after ending on an up bow in O Come Little Children.
      • Now the student "relearns" how to do down bow circles.
      • The song challenges the student to use the right and left hands together with an emphasis on "bow-driven" movement in measures 2, 6, and 14.
      • The song uses staccato notes, which I gradually lengthen over time as the child progresses in technique until the student can execute a full bow martelé.
      • The song contrasts the staccato/martelé bowing with legato bowing in the third phrase.
      Other Teaching Points
        • The song is in A-A-B-A form.
        • The song introduces some music vocabulary in Italian:
          • There is a fermata after the last note in phrase three.
          • There is a ritard and an a tempo.
          • The song title Allegro invites a discussion about tempos and how they are designated. For example, allegro is the Italian word for cheerful or happy. When I ask a student how fast or slow a person might walk when they were feeling cheerful or happy, the student usually tells me that the person would walk quickly. Then I explain that we use this word to indicate that we want a fast or brisk tempo, something lively and cheerful.
        • The song provides a great opportunity for students to learn leadership skills in an ensemble setting. I use the song to teach how to start an ensemble, how to lead a ritard, and how to begin anew in tempo after a ritard and fermata.
        How I Teach the Song
          • I teach the popping finger in measure 2:
            • The student sets the F# on the E string and super glues the finger in place for the next few notes.
            • The student plays the second finger G#.
            • The student plays the third finger high A while popping off the second finger at the same time.
            •  The student plays F#.
            • The student plays two E strings.
          • We repeat the popping finger segment several times.
            • This is a good "500 club" spot, so we start keeping trace on a special chart.
            • Some practice partners will roll their eyes at the suggestion of doing another 500 club spot so close on the heels of the jumping fingers 500 club spot in Song of the Wind, but the students usually like this if I offer up a good prize as an incentive. Usually a certificate is enough. I offer to let the child take home the certificate or to allow me to hang it up on the studio wall for everyone to see. So far, all my 500 club students have opted to let me hang the certificate on the studio wall.
            • Parents: please remember that your enthusiasm (or lack thereof) will set the tone for your practice sessions with your child. Why not head in the more positive direction?
          • We work on coordinating the left and right hands together. The popping finger spot is actually driven by the bow movement, although most students slow the bow down to accommodate the finger speed, which is ponderous initially. I play a game here with students to help them to learn how to focus on the "bow-driven" aspect of the fingering place.
            • I ask the student to play "hot dog, hot dog, Mississippi hot dog" on the E string.
            • Then I ask the student to play the popping finger place.
            • We repeat this alternation of open E string rhythm with the fingering until the student finally can play the Allegro fingering in the correct tempo.
          • The student usually figures out much of the song on their own once I give them a starting note. In most cases, the student has figured out the starting note for him- or herself.
          • The song includes the finger tangle spot from Aunt Rhody. For more information about the finger tangle, read the post here.
          • The song is rather repetitious, with the first, second, and fourth phrases being the same in general.
          • The third phrase includes the popping finger section but in an augmented form (for the nonmusician, augmented form means that the passage is slowed down in rhythm; in this case the rhythm is slowed down by half).
          • I introduce the fermata and ritard once the student has figured out the third phrase notes.
          Group Class Ideas
          • I use the song to teach ensemble skills. The down bow circles at the beginning of each phrase are great places to wait and see if students are paying attention to the leader.
          • At the fermata, I ask my students to freeze and not "move a muscle." Then as the leader slowly prepares the next down bow, the students copy that slow motion and get ready for the final phrase.
            • I used to threaten to charge someone $500 if they moved at the "freeze point." I had one parent who was playing guitar forget to wait, but that was an easy exemption, since the "freeze" command only applied to students.
            • Then one recital, a mom came forward to take a picture of her son as he played. He was on the end of the front row, and she closed in for a great close-up shot. Unfortunately, she snapped the flash at the "freeze point," and the flash startled the poor little kid into jumping right ahead into the last phrase. I could not charge the child for the parent's silly error.
            • And now, folks, perhaps you understand why your local symphony and ballet announce that there are to be NO PICTURES during a performance. It can be dangerous if you flash at a dancer, and it is very distracting to a musician to have a blinding light shone into the eyes while playing. Turn off the flash!
          Problems Later (or just later)
          • The popping finger stops popping off.
          • The student forgets the down bow circles.
          • The superglue finger needs more glue to keep it in place.
          • Students forget the ritard or the fermata.
          • The bowing gets pretty messy as the student works to increase the bow length.
          • Sometimes the student forgets the staccato or martelé bowing and plays everything legato.
          • The student forgets to set up the a tempo after the fermata in a way that will lead other students to join in the ensemble.
          We love to play Allegro. Students are very eager to learn this catchy tune. I use the song to end group recitals.

          Happy Teaching!

          Friday, April 20, 2012

          The Prize Box

          Every Christmas, a former student of mine would give me a gift card for our local Target department store. The gift card was for a small amount, but I derived so much pleasure from redeeming it. I would visit the store and spend an hour and more just walking around looking at all the possibilities. Even though the amount might be small, I enjoyed the experience of looking through everything in the store and coming to a final decision about what I might buy. Along the way I might also add several other things that I would pay for from my own funds. This experience was the inspiration for the prize box.

          I keep a prize box in my studio and I have found several different ways to use it. Throughout the year, I look for opportunities to add to my prize box. I find things in the local grocery store, in gift shops at museums or other local attractions, and even at flea markets. Anything that is $4 or less might be included in my box.

          I have used the box in several different ways:
          • If a student earns a certain number of practice points in a semester, they have an opportunity to shop in the prize box. I determine what an acceptable number of practice days that a semester might include (such as an average of five days per week), and then I determine how many points that would be, perhaps minus one or two points to allow for family emergencies or times when practicing cannot be done because of family trips or vacations that cannot include the violin.
          • Sometimes I have allowed group class attendees to pick out of the prize box if I am trying to encourage group class attendance. The word spreads!
          • Any time a student does something special, like play a special recital or other event such as a graduation recital, a fiddle contest, or a school talent show, I reward the student's efforts by suggesting that the student pick a prize out of the prize box.
          I have included these sorts of items in my prize box:
          • Small boxes of crayons.
          • Coloring books.
          • Bottles of soap bubbles.
          • Whistles, clickers, kazoos, and harmonicas.
          • Card games, musical or otherwise.
          • Coin purses.
          • Small kaleidoscopes.
          • Glittery pens and pencils and pen/pencil toppers.
          • Different numbered die or colored spinners.
          • Stickers! Lots of these! Sometimes I find small books of stickers.
          • Tiny games.
          • Books with special marking pens that contain invisible ink that will reveal secret words in the book. Many of these books include mazes, and the correct path is revealed by the special ink pen that comes included with the book.
          • Dot-to-dot books.
          • Small reading books.
          • Small stuffed toys (I have to find these on sale to make them affordable for the prize box).
          • Tiny, jeweled or glittery treasure boxes.
          • Pencil sharpeners. Kids actually like these, especially if they are larger or colored.
          • Markers.
          • Jacks and marbles.
          • Balloons. One day a student picked this out of the prize box and proceeded to blow up balloons for everyone and make balloon sculptures. We had fun also getting the balloons all full of static electricity and sticking them all over each other.
          • Water pistols. Yes, this can be a lot of fun on a hot Texas group class day. Instruments must be put away first!
          • Small puzzles.
          • Small wooden toys.
          Every year I visit two special places on the Oregon coast during my summer vacation before the Sunriver Music Festival. I check in at the Tillamook Cheese Factory in Tillamook, Oregon and spend about an hour in the factory's gift shop. I find a gold mine of prizes that I purchase and take back home to Texas. I also visit the "Funky Monkey Toys" in Florence, Oregon and purchase a lot of small items there also. Then when I return home in late August, my local grocery store chain HEB has many other items on sale in the school and toy section. Austin also boasts several teacher specialty stores, such as Teacher's Heaven, where I can buy fancy pens, pencils, plastic animal-shaped counters, dice, spinners, flashcards (and in colors too), pencil toppers, fancy pencil erasers, and stickers.

          As you go about your regular routine, keep an eye open for possible prize box items. There are many items that are $2 or less, but I sometimes allow myself to go as high as $4 if there are some really worthwhile items at this price.

          My favorite thing about the prize box is watching how long kids take to sift through all the items in the box until they finally select the one item they will take home. Just as I spent a lot of time wandering around Target as I considered what I might buy with my gift card, so my students spend a lot of time weighing each item in the prize box before they finally pick the one treasure that they want that day.

          It is so fun to watch this as a teacher. It is also fun to watch students peek into the box after a lesson to see what might be there and what might be worth coming to group class or practicing in order to earn it. I am teaching the value of working to earn something. And it is fun for me as well!

          Wednesday, April 18, 2012

          Quick Practicing Tip: Long Bow Day!

          I hereby declare today to be "Long Bow Day!" If you are not a string player, do not despair! You can still participate in  Long Bow Day! You may want to change the name to suit your instrument, but the concepts will basically be the same whether you play the violin, the piano, or the trumpet.

          A Long Bow Day is a day when we play songs that require long bows more than any other bows. You know which songs I refer to: Twinkle Theme, Lightly Row, Aunt Rhody, O Come Little Children, Long Long Ago, etc. These are songs that require legato bowing. If you are a pianist, these are songs that ask for legato phrasing, and there are many songs like this in Suzuki Piano Volume One. In fact, a good deal of the Suzuki Piano Volume One is teaching the student how to play legato with one hand while the other hand learns to play staccato or use the wrist drop/lift motion. For us string players, that means that the pianists are learning how to use both right and left hands independently, as we do.

          Have you figured out what ten places you need to practice your legato or long bows? There are three possible ways to approach a Long Bow Day:
          • Tone and Sound Quality
          • Good Form
          • Musicality
          For string players, a good tone and sound quality stem from a good contact point between the bow and the violin string and from the absence of tension in the body. Is the bow articulating the individual notes well? Is the tone scratchy or just right? Is the bow on the highway or drifting near the sidewalk (fingerboard) or bridge? Are there any points of tension in the skeletal joints? Is the student releasing tension from "inside" muscles and directing attention to "outside" muscles?* Most of all, is the bow straight (parallel to the bridge)? Get a mirror and check this, or have your practice partner help you to know when your bow is on the straight highway.
          • My students and I use the numbers game to learn when the bow is straight. If the bow is straight and parallel to the bridge, that is the number 5. If the bow goes crooked inward toward the player, that is a series of numbers going down, such as 4 or 3. If the bow goes crooked outward away from the player, then the numbers go up to 6 or 7.
          • As the student plays, the practice partner calls out the number, usually 4-6. This helps to guide the student to know when the bow is straight or crooked and in which direction to move the bow to straighten it out.
          • A student can also learn how to look in a mirror and gauge whether the bow is moving in the straight groove across the string. Parents, please note that when the bow is "straight" and parallel to the bridge, that it actually looks crooked from the player's perspective. The player must learn how to see the bow when it is straight, and this is not easy.
          Tone production for a string player may include how much bow the student uses. As the student advances in technical skills and ability, the repertoire requires that the student use more and more bow without sacrificing the tone quality. As pianists learn faster note passages and use the right and left hands more independently, the tone quality should remain consistent. In some cases, the student will learn how to balance the tone between the hands so that both right and left hand parts sound equal. In other songs, the student will learn how to voice the left hand or the right hand part in a way that will bring more prominence to that part.
            For pianists, a good tone and sound quality is how the student executes the note with the finger on the keyboard. Beginning students do not yet have much muscle development in their fingers, hands, or arms, and in many cases, the families do not own pianos but are using electronic keyboards in the home, so that the students do not develop the appropriate musculature to execute a good tone on a real piano keyboard. In the beginning, I use a lot of imitation with students to help them learn how much weight to drop into the piano keys and the notes of the music.

            Good form is always crucial to good tone, no matter what instrument a student plays. Always check posture and the form of execution. Good form also includes whether the student is playing the instrument correctly. If a violin student is not bowing parallel to the bridge or does not place the bow to make good contact with the violin string, then we need to focus on good form, because good form goes hand in hand with producing a good tone and sound quality. When I evaluate a student's form and posture, I start from the bottom and work my way to the top. For violinists, we start with balanced feet. I should not be able to push the student over sideways or backwards. (To learn more about how I set up my violin students' posture, click here).



            Balance is always crucial when playing an instrument. Violinists shift weight from side to side and have to hold an instrument before them (off to the side), and this instrument carries weight too. Pianists need to be able to shift from side to side to reach keys at the ends of the keyboard; if a student is not balanced, then the student will topple over or play with little strength and tone in the sound.

            Musicality refers to the more advanced musical concepts of phrasing, dynamic expression, and how the human body's mechanics create these things. If a student has the physical capability of executing a musical phrase, I introduce how a good musician would end a phrase. Just as humans let their voices trail off at the end of a sentence (or a voice runs out of steam at the end of a long note), we imitate that sound with the instrument. String players learn to let the phrase tail off in a whisper and which bow stroke accomplishes that best. Pianists learn how to lighten up the finger touch on the keyboard in order to create the phrase.

            Now, being good teachers and practice partners that we are, we will follow the one-point lesson. We have our list of ten songs or ten places that require legato playing. Now we will decide which one of the three approaches we will use, and it may be that we use different approaches for different things on our list of ten. For example, a newer song or passage might benefit from attention paid to good form. A more familiar piece might require more attention to phrasing and musicality. And a song that falls somewhere in between might fare best with attention paid to tone production and sound quality. As long as we focus on one thing at a time, we can reap the most benefit from our practice efforts. Remember that younger students will need to focus on smaller segments and may need simpler tasks or smaller steps (baby steps) to work on. You should know your child, so be gracious about forming a practice plan that will encourage and nurture your student's learning.

            Happy Practicing!

            *"Inside" muscles are those muscles that create tension. Think of a body builder's pose down in a weight lifting competition. The body builder leans forward and makes his or her arms tighten the muscles on the inside of the arms. This squeezing causes all the arm muscles, shoulder muscles, chest muscles, and abdomen muscles to appear. "Outside" muscles are the other sides of the muscles. These muscles cause the tension to dissipate. If a body builder were to turn on the "outside" muscles, the arms would lift out to the sides, and the other muscles would not be showing. If I find tension, I help guide the student to turn on outside muscles instead of inside muscles. This one teaching area is probably the issue where I address most of my teaching time and focus because it affects tone and sound quality, good form, and musicality.

            Monday, April 16, 2012

            Monday Morning Check In: How Sensitive Are You?

            Did you ever notice how evil fosters evil? Perhaps I put that a little too bluntly. How about this? Ever notice how bad behavior tends to encourage bad behavior? "Come on, everyone is doing it." I am sure we have all experienced this phenomenon, when someone goads us into doing something that we think we should not do. Before long we are in the middle of whatever it is we should not be doing.

            Recently the parent of one of my young students complained to me about the behavior of children in a gymnastics class. The average age of the children in the class was about 4-7 years old. This parent related to me how appalling much of the children's behavior was: shouting, running around, not listening, talking to each other. The thing that bothered my parent so much was that no one seemed to be doing anything about it. The teacher did not have  control over the situation, and the parents did not step forward and claim any responsibility. This parent just itched to jump into the fray and straighten everyone out, but she resisted because her child was not the problem, and we do not correct other children's behavior but our own, right?

            After a really lively discussion about the "state of affairs" of children's behavior in general in public, we threw out ideas as to why things seem to have reached this level of disorder. Why do so many children misbehave in public? Why are parents apparently so desensitized to bad public behavior?

            I was reading an article by the author Rick Warren, where he said, "One of the ways . . . deviant behavior [becomes] acceptable is to get you to laugh at it. Once you've laughed, your barriers have lowered. If you [are] laughing at something that is wrong or sinful, you've already lost the battle."

            That statement got me thinking. I am a big advocate about watching your thoughts and guarding what you put in your mind. It is one thing when the problem is an obvious one, such as looking at pornography or witnessing casual drug use in your presence. You know what is wrong, and you know what you should do to handle the situation. And we teach our children how to handle these things too. Obvious situations like this are fairly easy to understand and to know what is the right thing to do.

            The problem is the less than obvious situations. There are a lot of sitcoms on television currently that draw their humor from situations that offer humor that comes at the expense of embarrassing someone, disrespecting someone, or behaving rudely to someone. Yes, I have laughed at many of these things myself. I loved watching "Frazier," and the bantering repartee between the two brothers and their father. They were nasty to each other, and it was hilarious. I never thought there was anything wrong at the time I watched the show, probably because the humor was so outrageous that the viewer knew it could never be part of true life.

            However, in retrospect, there are many who view these things and do not recognize the difference between reality and fiction. I recall meeting a lady in the supermarket checkout line and listening to her lament about some ridiculous claim on the cover of one of the gossip magazines. "Do you believe that's true?" I asked. The claim was really silly and patently constructed to fit the tenor of the magazine. "Of course!" the lady told me. "It's printed in the magazine." Huh.

            But that is what many folks think. If it is printed in the newspaper or magazine or shown on television or in the movies, then it must be the way of things. Look around you. Do you see that bad behavior over there with that little child in the office supply store? The child (probably about three or four years old) is pitching a fit that should raise the dead on aisle three. What would you do as a parent?

            Many parents would placate the child with candy or giving into whatever whim the child seeks to indulge with the tantrum. In this real life scenario, I watched closely to see what mom would do. She had the right instincts: walk away as if you did not even notice the fit. It does not affect you. This is tough today, because we do not live in a safe world. Still, I watched mom take a few steps away. I signaled to her that I would also keep an eye on the child. The screaming child had an older sister, however, who did not understand what was the correct thing to do. She kept trying to get the little one to stop screaming. I finally told her to just walk away and go to her mother.

            What happened next was hilarious. I wish I had had the foresight to film it. Mom and sister walked out of the little hellion's sight. The child screamed about three seconds more, then stopped, got up and walked to the aisle where mom and sister were. The child threw herself to the ground again and began pitching the fit anew. Mom took sister by the hand and moved to another aisle. I hovered nearby, watching. The child stopped screaming, walked to the new aisle, and began the fit again. It took about 10 minutes. This was a very determined child. I was proud of this particular mother, because she did exactly what I would have advised, and she lasted out the entire episode longer than the  child did.

            The child's purpose in pitching a fit was to gain attention in some way. The mom refused to give in. The lesson that the child learned that day was that temper tantrums do not gain the objective. The parent (and older sister) did not pay attention to the child's fit. The child accomplished nothing with this bad behavior.

            Have we become desensitized to bad behavior? Is it so common place now that we do not even recognize it? I hope not. When I see bad behavior on a television show, I consider whether this bad behavior is a regular part of the show's presentation. If that is the case, then I am careful about my viewing habits of this show. I enjoy a good show, but I frequently remind myself about the difference between comedy in La-La Land (television) and reality, at least the reality as I would like it to be.

            So what is my Monday morning message? Guard what you put in your mind! Are you desensitizing yourself to something that should be unacceptable? Are you clear about your own code of acceptable behavior, as it applies to you or your children?

            A few years back I reached a milestone birthday that encouraged me to be a bit more blunt about my opinions and observations (I think I am old enough to wear purple and do all the things that the poem entails; click here for the poem). If I see something that should be addressed, I ask questions about it. I have stopped being intimidated about things or people. I speak up. I ask why things happen in the way that they do, and I frequently ask about bad behavior. I ask why parents or children or co-workers or friends or even enemies behave badly. And more importantly, I ask why the rest of us allow this bad behavior to prevail.

            If I do not ask, how can I live with myself when things go awry? I cannot stand by and allow children (and their parents) to behave badly. I will not permit the entertainment industry to try and coax me into believing that bad behavior is funny and acceptable. If I do watch such a show, I will do so with my eyes open and my reality antennae working overtime. I will not allow myself to be desensitized into accepting bad behavior because I have been made to laugh about it.

            Saturday, April 14, 2012

            Long, Long Ago

            Long, Long Ago is one of my favorite songs in the Suzuki repertoire. The students learn it fairly quickly, and I find so many opportunities throughout the song to teach my students about how to make music. I rarely need to guide a student to learn the notes, because my efforts up to now to teach ear training skills and to help my students learn how to pick out a song are bearing fruit. Most of my students figure out a good deal of the song without my help and seem fascinated about doing so. On occasion I might find a student who has some difficulty with this learning process, and I really pay attention at that point, because this is about the time that I might discover some other kinds of learning issues in general. These are issues that may not be so readily apparent up to now, and they may impact on reading skills. More about this “mysterious” diagnosis in future posts.

            What usually happens is that a student who is working to polish aspects of May Song comes into the studio and proudly announces that he or she has figured out how to play the next song. Of course, the parent and I are very excited to hear the child’s efforts, and we listen patiently as the child stumbles through several notes. (This is another fun mystery: how the student gets all excited to show off something learned at home but then completely falls apart during the presentation in the studio). I will hear maybe the first or second part of the song; students tend to confuse these two phrases. The student usually presents me with a good chunk of the first part of the song and is excited to learn more.

            I give my student’s home practice partner or parent permission to “cue” a few notes in the song, and perhaps the child may not need these cues. I also indicate to the parent and mark the place in the music where the student will need to take a “bow circle” in order to prepare a down bow for the third phrase of the song. Here is how I mark the music, although I put pieces of color highlighter tape on the “cue” notes.

            Here is my teaching summary of Long, Long Ago:


            Left Hand Skills
            • The song is in the A-A1-B-A1 form.
            • The song is in A major and follows the finger pattern learned from the beginning with the Twinkle variations: the close 2-3 fingers.
            • The song introduces a note on the D string: first finger on D string, the note “E”.
            • The song builds a spatial relationship between the first and third fingers across two strings (1-3 between the D and A strings).
            • The song is mostly stepwise motion except for the third phrase with the new D string note.
            Right Hand Skills
            • The song introduces the D string level, which involves more right shoulder effort to reach the bow up to the D string level.
            • The song presents a bow distribution opportunity (long—short—short bowing pattern).
            How I Teach It
            • I introduce other opportunities to play on the D string.
              • I introduce the D scale to practice playing on the D string level.
              • We play previously learned songs on lower strings. For example, we play Twinkle beginning on the D string. We pretend that we broke our E string and that we have to start a string lower.
            • If a student has not yet picked out the song, I would help him or her to play some ear training games as a disguise for actually helping the child get started on figuring out the song for him- or herself:
              • I would do a “call and response” with the first few notes, starting with one note, then adding the second note, and adding one note at a time until I had a little chunk of the song.
              • I would ask these questions as I introduced each new note into the mix:
                • Are the notes the same or different?
                • Do the notes go up or down?
                • Do the notes sound like they are steps or skips?
            • I find that the learning process goes quicker if the parents or I give a few “cues” along the way. These cues are for notes that I generally find the students miss almost always in the beginning of the learning process.
            • I teach the mud puddle section in the third phrase:
              • First the student jumps the first finger onto the D string note “E,” which I call the mud puddle.
              • “Oh, no!” I exclaim, “Now your pointer finger is stuck in the mud! We need to ask your third finger to help pull him out!”
              • Then we use the ring finger (3rd finger) to “pull” the pointer finger out of the mud. This motion is a gentle rocking of the hand and fingers.
            • We discuss the form of the song: A-A1-B-A1. By now most of my students have done this with me in earlier songs, so they get this pretty quickly. For parents and teachers reading this for the first time, here is how I present this:
              • We put a box at the beginning of the first line. Since it is the first phrase of the song, we write “A” in the box.
              • We put a box at the beginning of the second line. I ask the student whether the second phrase sounds the same as the first phrase. The student knows that it sounds the same but it has a different ending. Because the phrase sounds the same, we will use the letter “A,” but we will add a “1” after the “A” to show that the phrase ends differently. Hence, we put “A1” in the box.
              • The fourth phrase is exactly the same as the second phrase, so we put “A1” in the box.
              • The student recites the contents of the boxes in order, and that is the form of the song: A-A1-B-A1.
            • We do extra practice on the third phrase on “Bits & Pieces” days, because this phrase gets played the least and tends to lag behind in progress. For more information about what a "Bits & Pieces" day is, click here.
            Later Issues (or just later)
              • I teach bow distribution concepts, especially in book 2 and 3 group classes. We use longer bows (whole bows when in book 2 and above) on the quarter notes, and then we play the eighth notes at the tip or the frog depending on the bow direction.
              • I help students to take advantage of the echo opportunity in the third phrase.
              • I help students to learn how to do the “spillover” Frank Sinatra phrasing discussed below.
              • I help students to pay attention to later messy string crossings.
              • Bows tend to go crooked and get messy later, so we pay attention to that.
              • We talk about more advanced concepts of musical phrasing, using vocabulary such as periods and commas, and questions and answers.
              • Long, Long Ago is a great song for working on musical ideas such as dynamics and phrasing. Many of these ideas are great for group classes.
              Phrasing

              If students know what a period and a comma are, I will talk about how we can imitate that in music. Regardless of whether students know what a period and a comma are, all students understand the difference between a question and an answer. We use the first phrase of the song to show the difference in sound that we will make when we play the music like questions (commas) and answers (periods) or just periods. Just as our voice rises up at the end of a question, so we can make our music sound like that also.

              "Spillover" Phrasing
              This rising up is what I refer to as the Frank Sinatra “spillover” phrasing. Instead of letting the phrase sag at the end of bar 2 (a period rather than a comma), we hold our music “up” so that it spills over into the answer part of the phrase. Any teacher or adult who has listened to Frank Sinatra will understand my reference to this kind of phrasing. He was a master at it. Frankie never let his phrases sag.

              This teaching concept reminds me of a funny incident at the Pennsylvania Suzuki Institute many years back. Ronda Cole was the teacher. She had a little 6 or 7 year old student playing Long, Long Ago. Every time the boy reached this place in the music, he would lift his violin up and move it in an arc to the right side, then lower it back down as he played the ending part of the phrase. It was hilarious to watch. I understood that the home teacher had been trying to show the student how to make the “spillover” phrasing, but the student had turned the whole thing into a physical habit. Ronda had to tie a shoelace around both violin scrolls to keep the boy’s violin in place. I still think about that arc movement every time I play this song.

              We also experiment with playing the first phrase like two answers. Then we play the phrase like a question and answer, and I let the students decide which way they prefer. With this exercise I am encouraging my students to think about the music and to consider the kinds of musical effects and responses they want to make to or receive from the audience. Students are learning how to be musicians, and this type of process helps students to take ownership in the music-making process.

              Dynamics

              I teach students how to make the dynamic expression follow the musical notation. As the notes rise up in pitch, we rise up in volume. As the notes descend in pitch, we diminish in volume.

              We add the echo in the third phrase. This is a great place to talk about how to keep music interesting. I tell students that the death of music is when the audience gets bored. Echos and dynamics are ways to add sprinkles on our vanilla ice cream rather than having it plain. It is okay to have plain vanilla once in a while, but too much of the simple stuff and our listeners will stop paying attention to our music.
              Third Phrase "Echo"
              Group Activities
              • We divide the class in half. One half plays the question parts of the phrases, and the other half plays the answers. Then we reverse roles.
              • We rise up with our bodies and lower back down as the notes ascend or descend in pitch. We use our bodies to imitate the dynamics.
              • We play “copy cats” so that I can teach them good ensemble skills.
                • With this game, I will stop at various places during the song, and the students are to stop when I do. I try to catch a student who is not paying attention.
                • The places that I stop are at those ending points in a phrase where we want to be sure that we start the next few notes together. For example, at the end of measure 2 and going on to measure 3, we need to be together.
                • This game prepares students early on to be better orchestral musicians. It teaches students when are appropriate places to check in with a conductor or fellow musicians in order to make good ensemble.
              • The Suzuki duet book has a lovely duet for this song. I teach my more advanced students this duet part, and we practice ensemble skills by playing the song along with the duet.
              • We practice playing on the G string by starting the song on the D string. This will prepare students for learning Allegretto a few songs from now, when a note on the G string is introduced. At the same time, other songs learned in book 1 can be played on the G and D strings (along with songs on the D and A strings). This expands the students' repertoire threefold, because the students usually tell me that the songs sound completely different on other strings.
              • More advanced students can use this song for vibrato practice. At first we vibrate on the long notes, but gradually we add vibrato to all the notes.
              • Students can add the pinkie finger instead of the E string in measures 3, 7, 9, 11, and 15.
              • More advanced students may introduce more advanced fingerings that use higher positions.
              That is Long, Long Ago in a nutshell. A lot of detail, but this song is full of possibilities for musical development and group class activities.

              Thursday, April 12, 2012

              Quick Practice Tip: Bits & Pieces Day!

              I am officially declaring today to be "Bits and Pieces" day. I hereby give everyone permission to practice with this technique. Here's how it works.

              Pick ten things that need practice attention. These things might be some tricky measures in a repertoire piece you are learning or perhaps an entire phrase in a song. Parents, one of these things might be that one line in a Suzuki song that always seems to lag behind the others. You know the line I mean. It is the line where your child seems to make a mistake every time or forgets one or two notes and needs reminding. For example, the third part of O Come Little Children or Long, Long Ago, or the middle part of Aunt Rhody or May Song. It is the part that your child learned last or that has been repeated the least number of times overall.

              Got your list of ten places? Now work those places. Really perfect them. Do practice perfect repetitions. Do factorial repetitions (see my previous post about factorial repetitions).

              One absolute rule about bits & pieces day is that you are not permitted to play any piece from beginning to end. You are only allowed to play bits & pieces.

              So what is the purpose behind a bits & pieces day? I recall one Suzuki teacher explaining to a parent how best to practice. The teacher advised that playing through an entire song should be reserved for the rare occasion; this type of playing should be reserved like "dessert." This is the end stage. Just playing through a song beginning to end repeatedly does not help a student to learn how to practice well or to perform "in the moment." Instead, I find that seemingly endless repetition practice of playing a piece beginning to end helps a student to learn how NOT to focus. Unless the student is given a specific assignment to pay attention to or focus on during the performing of the piece, such as finding vibrato notes or adding certain dynamics, the student learns how to play the piece so well that they go into "autopilot mode." This is when the student plays as well as they ride their bike. They are playing but they are not paying attention to what they are doing. They have tuned out. This is the time when bad habits slip in. The bowing gets messy, the fingers get lazy, and things start to sound a little fuzzy around the edges.

              A bits & pieces day on occasion reminds us of the purpose of practicing, which is to find and isolate problems and to find solutions that correct the problems. Playing a piece from beginning to end is not practicing. Finding bits & pieces to strengthen or correct is practicing at its finest.

              Performing a place has its place in a practice routine, but this should not be a daily technique. Instead, give bits & pieces a try. Use this technique more often than any other.

              Happy Practicing!

              Sunday, April 8, 2012

              Monday Morning Check In: Rock or Sand?

              The bible (Matthew 7:24-27) relates a story about two men who built houses. One man built his house on a rock. When the rain came down, “the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.” This is the wise man, the man who builds his home on a solid foundation. Not so the foolish man. He built his house on sand, and when the rain came down, “the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” (NIV)

              Even children relate to this story in its fairy tale form about the three little pigs (The Nursery Rhythms of England by James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps (London and New York, c. 1886))). One little pig built his house of straw, but the wolf blew it down and forced the pig to seek safety with his brother. The second pig built his house of sticks, but the wolf blew down that house as well. The third pig built his house of bricks and it withstood the wolf’s attack.

              My purpose in relating these two stories is to bring up the issue of priorities. Recently I have observed parents on various forums ask about how to find time to practice with their child, while at the same time defining the situation so that it would appear that the parent had absolutely no time to practice. I read the parents’ questions as if they were seeking permission NOT to practice. One parent went so far as to suggest that he or she might be looking for something like an exercise program that promised “rock hard abs” in a few minutes per day.

              I had to sit for a while after reading that particular parent’s situation, because I would think that most of us in the world know that it is impossible to get or build something worthwhile without putting in the time and effort that are required to get there. As much as we would all like to be thinner, stronger, faster, or better, it just is not going to happen in a short amount of time. We need to pay our dues. We need to put in the time and effort. And that is where I want to go today.

              Life is all about priorities. There are many things that compete for our attention, all day and well into the night. Our job as adults and particularly as parents is to sift through all of the “stuff” and sort things according to the priorities we set. As parents, we owe it to our children to teach them this important life skill – how to set priorities. If we fail to teach this life lesson, then we are dooming our children to drift through life working to accomplish someone else’s goals.

              Which house are you building? Are you situated on a rock? Do you know where you are going? Do you know what to do when things are falling apart all around you? Do you have goals? Are you putting your goals as top priority?

              Or, are you situated on sand? Are you going wherever the moment takes you? Are you being buffeted by the demands of others rather than being clear about your needs and priorities and those of your family? Have you decided what is important to accomplish in your life? Do you have a plan to get there?

              For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. – Luke 12:34 (NIV)

              If you want to understand what your current priorities are, take a look at where you spend most of your time. Your time is your most valuable asset and gift to yourself and others. Your time is not something you can save or store up. When time is spent, it cannot be recaptured. If you waste a minute, it will be gone forever.

              So look closely at where you spend your time and with what people. I think that most adults would say that they spend the biggest part of their waking day with people at work. I understand the need to make a living, but I raise the issue of how much time we should spend on making a living versus the time we spend with the things or people that matter most to us. If you are a parent, then I assume that your children and your family are your most important things in life. If that is true, then reflect on whether your life actually reveals this situation to others. Do you spend time with your family? What is your priority?

              Back to the distressed parent who had to work so long in a day that the parent had no time to devote to the child’s practice. It may be that this particular parent has decided that her heart truly belongs to work. That decision is none of my business unless the parent asks for my opinion. Parents can decide how to run their lives and raise their families and I do not have to be involved in any way. I do, however, want to be sure that these parents are being truthful with themselves. If this is truly the parent’s decision and priority – to be so busy with work and other activities that there is no time left in a day for the child’s practice, even ten minutes – then I want the parent to be able to say that aloud to themselves and be able to admit that to others. Be honest. If this is your priority, then say so. Please do not try to give the rest of us the illusion that you wish things were different if you really do not.


              Should the parent’s treasure be somewhere else? I hope that busy parents take some time this week to look at this issue. Find out where your heart truly is. Is it with your child? Is it with a music practice schedule that seeks to teach your child a skill that will be useful in many different areas? Or is the priority and attention directed elsewhere? Is that where you want it to be?

              Here are four steps to discover where your treasure is:

              Where do you spend your time?

              In order to find out where your treasure is, you need only look at where you spend your time. Fill out an activity log or hourly calendar this week with every activity that you do, including work, driving time, sleeping, and watching TV. Do this for one week and you will most likely be amazed at what you discover. Of course, what you choose to do about your discovery will be interesting. Are you wasting time? Are there some activities that drain you of time? Are there different things you could do that would yield more satisfactory results with the time you choose to spend?

              What do you want to accomplish?

              Do you know what you want to accomplish? Do you have a set of goals or even one thing that you want to see happen this year, this semester, this summer, this month, this week, or even today? I usually have a few goals floating around each year. I have them written down. Sometimes I go through periods when I refer to them often or on a daily basis, but I find that once I have written my goals down, I usually remember them. There have been several instances when I wrote a list of goals and forgot about them only to rediscover my list later and realize that I had accomplished everything on the list. I believe that writing down your list of goals is the key to accomplishing them.

              The purpose of having a list of goals or any goal is that you will be more in control of how you spend your time. You will be more aware of when others take you away from your goal path and when and what activities drink up the time you could spend on your goal plan. Think about what you want to accomplish.

              I use my iPhone exclusively for scheduling, however, at the beginning of every week I take a few minutes to write my schedule out by hand on a day planner, which my father sends me for Christmas every year from the Smithsonian. The planner serves two purposes for me: (1) I get a “global” view of the week to come, and (2) I can quickly see where I have pockets of available time to accomplish things related to my goals. I scribble a few items that need to be finished during the week, such as paying particular bills or calling the car dealership to schedule a car servicing. I use tiny post-it notes and stick these items on the days when I think I might have the best chance of completing the task. Another use from the calendar is that it is then available for anyone in my household to glance at and find out where I might be at a particular time. This helps my husband to figure out when I am at symphony rehearsal in the evening.

              Most of you may recall that I fill out a tiny sheet of paper (3.5” x 5.5”) with my daily to do list. My goal is to accomplish six activities per day, although my list may be longer than that. If I have to be somewhere, that place is put on my list because it is something I need to do. I use the back side of the to do list to capture notes about the day, including future items that will need my attention, phone numbers of calls to be made, or even writing topics.

              How will you reach your goal?

              Do you have a plan? Having a list of goals is a great step, but developing a plan to reach those goals is an even stronger step. Figure out what steps need to be taken and in what order. I use a project notebook to jot down ideas related to my goals, but any notebook or legal pad would do. I devote a page of the notebook for each project idea I might consider. Then I pull out one project sheet at a time and carry it around with me. I jot additional ideas down on my project sheet, and sometimes I turn them into lists of action items.

              Get Started!

              Remember the Nike slogan, “Just Do It!” This is the best advice I can ever give to any parent or student. My other favorite unspoken part of the slogan is, “stop whining,” or as I like to tell my university students, “stop why-ning” (Why do I have to play scales? Why do I have to go to this concert? Why? Why? Why?). Yup, stop the "why-ning" and just get started! The time it takes to think of creative excuses is time that you could use for something more productive, like practicing with your child!

              I hope that my readers will take some time this week to consider where their hearts truly are and what treasure they seek to find. Are your priorities built on rock or sand?

              For your amusement, here is a very short movie of one of my students at her most entertaining. She was showing me how she had combined elements of Twinkle Theme and May Song together with a few other surprises, but she encountered a problem. Enjoy!


              Thursday, April 5, 2012

              Steps, Skips, and Jumps

              Before we begin a discussion about Long, Long Ago ("Long Ago") and the subsequent songs, I thought it would be a good idea to consider how to teach some basic and simple ear training skills and how a teacher can relate these skills to book 1 songs.

              Up and Down

              By the time my students reach the level of Long Ago, they are able to play an ascending and descending A scale with no difficulty. My students understand the concept of "walking up" and "walking down" the scale. Sometimes my students and their parents get confused about how pitches are changed to go "up" or "down." I may have to talk about blowing air over the opening of a bottle as an example of how to make the pitch change. Most everyone has tried this exercise at some point, and they understand about putting in more water in the bottle to make the pitch go up and removing water from the bottle to make the pitch go down.  From this point it is another step or two to explain that it is the adjustment to the column of air in the bottle (more air, longer column, lower pitch versus less air, shorter column, and higher pitch) that determines the actual pitch. Some students and parents also understand the difference in the pitch as it relates to the size of a woodwind instrument; for example, the bassoon plays lower notes than the tiny piccolo, which plays the highest notes in the orchestra. Then I relate the column of air in the bottle to the length of the string on the violin.

              When a student masters the one-octave A scale, we can transpose it to the D string and play a D scale using the same fingers but playing one string lower. This prepares the student to play on the D string, which is what will be introduced in Long Ago. While I am at it, I also encourage the student to play the G scale starting on the G string, which prepares the student for Allegretto that will occur a few songs after Long Ago.

              Flashcards and Scale Card Toss

              If a student still stumbles a little over the "walking up the scale" concept, I might also use the flashcard trick:

              • I write the notes of the A scale on eight miniature index cards and lay them in order on the floor.
              • The student and I walk on either side of the scale cards, saying the names of the notes and playing each one as we step alongside it.
              • Once we reach the end of the ascending scale, we walk backwards "down" the scale and say the note names as we play them.
              • Another fun game would be to have the student play the notes on the card as the teacher steps alongside the various cards but in no particular apparent order. The teacher could "direct" this game by making sure that the notes form a familiar song, like Mary Had a Little Lamb or Hot Cross Buns or even Jingle Bells. (Do not underestimate the powerful motivation that learning jingle Bells can be for most students.)
              • The student and teacher could change places, and the student could make up a song by standing at various notes in a different order while the teacher plays the notes on the scale cards as indicated by the student.
              • Once the student is familiar with the scale and the order of the notes, I check the student's understanding by taking the scale cards up off the floor in their correct order, placing them in a nice neat pile, and then THROWING THEM UP IN THE AIR! The look on a student's (and parent's) face when I do this is entertaining! Reminiscent of the old car game "52 card pickup," the "Scale Card Toss" is just as fun! It is the student's job to put the scale cards back in their proper order. Then I let the student take the cards home to use at home.

              Steps, Skips, and Jumps

              The purpose of the scale is to help me teach students what a scale step is. Over the years I have developed my own language to describe the basic, simplistic intervals between notes in a scale. I start using this vocabulary as early as I can and continue to use it with my more advanced students.

              A "step" is the interval between two scale degrees or notes. At this stage I do not make a distinction between half and whole steps. If it is a different note (and the next alphabet letter), I refer to that interval as a step.

              A "skip" is when we skip a finger when walking up the scale. For example, in May Song we have a skip between the first and second notes (A-C#). We also play a similar skip in Lightly Row between the first and second notes (E-C#). We might practice walking up and down the scale about five notes or so (A-B-C#-D-E-D-C#-B-A). then we play the same thing but skip every other note (A-C#-E-C#-A). These are examples of skips between the open string note and the second finger on the A string . There are skips between the first and third fingers as well, such as in measure two of Lightly Row and May Song, and Song of the Wind has a skip in the "jumping fingers" preview from the F# on the E string to the third finger D on the A string.

              A "jump" is when the same finger jumps from one string to the other, as in a perfect fifth interval. There is a jump in the jumping finger preview of Song of the Wind. Remember, in the early part of the Suzuki repertoire we are playing actual jumping fingers. We do not introduce the fingering that covers both strings at once (found in book 3) until later. Using the jumping finger in the earlier Suzuki repertoire helps the student maintain excellent left hand posture and position. I also explain that it is a "jump" between the A string and the E string on the violin.

              Later when beginning students start to read music, I relate this basic intervalic vocabulary to what the student sees on the page. The "step" is when the music goes from a space note to the very next line or from a line note to the very next space note. A "skip" is from a note on a space to a note on the very next space, or a line note to a note on the very next line. A "jump" will be a space note to another space note but jumping over a space note in between, or a line note to another line note that jumps over a line note in between.

              Ear Training

              While students learn these concepts of steps, skips, and jumps in individual lessons, I also talk about these intervals in group classes. In a group setting, we may experiment with ear training exercises that use all of these intervals. We practice singing the intervals, singing songs with the intervals, and sometimes we will divide the class in half and have each side sing different pitches as a "duet." The "I Know a Fox With Dirty Sox" book is full of little singing jingles that students find entertaining and that also provide some basic opportunities to practice easier ear training skills and intervals.

              Now that my students have a clearer understanding about the basic musical intervals of steps (seconds), skips (thirds), and jumps (fifths), I help my students to recognize these intervals when my students seek to discover how to play new songs. Now we are ready to learn Lightly Row.

              Happy Teaching!

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              NEW TEACH SUZUKI RESOURCES STORE!

              Check out the new Teach Suzuki Resources Store! The store shows links to books and other items that I have discussed on my blog. It is a convenient way to find the materials I have mentioned and to explore similar items. Best of all, you can order these items with just one click on the page, which will take you to the Amazon.com website and shopping cart. Check it out by clicking on the "Teach Suzuki Resources Store" page in the right margin above under the initial blog picture, or click here.