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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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