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Thursday, May 31, 2012

Perpetual Motion: How I Teach It

In a previous post, I discussed the two pinkie finger pattern previews that I introduce when I begin to teach Perpetual Motion. To read more about these previews, click here.

Usually the student will figure out the first few notes of the song, but in some cases, I may need to introduce these first few notes: A – B – C# - C#
The song is full of patterns and provides ample opportunities for discussion about patterns in the context of ear training. For example, the first four notes of the song are then repeated in the same pattern, but the notes start one note higher in pitch.

After the student has figured out the first eight notes, then we add the first of the pinkie previews (C#-D-E with pinkie-C# or 2-3-4-2 finger pattern on the A string).

Then we add the last four notes of the phrase, which end with the open E string:

So now the student can play the first two measures:

All that is left to learn is to repeat the same phrase again with the same notes but change the last two notes to the open A string:

At this point, I tell the student that they know half of the song, because the first phrase and the last phrase are the same. I send the student home with the assignment of playing the first phrase of the song along with a continuation of the previous assignment of the pinkie previews.

Often the student will return to the next lesson and present me with the second phrase of the song already figured out, especially if the practice parent has diligently played a recording of the song every day since the previous lesson. If not, then I work with the student to figure out the second phrase. I use the same teaching technique of talking about patterns. Note that the first three groups of four notes in the second phrase are the same pattern but each successive group starts a note lower than the previous group:

We talk about the two different endings, with the first ending on the E string and the second finishing on the A string.
The student may go home with the assignment of two phrases of the song now. This depends on the student. I make a judgment call as to whether the student is ready to move on or whether the student needs to solidify things over the coming week before adding even more new stuff.

Sometimes students figure out some of the notes of the third part on their own, but if not and the student is ready to learn the third part, I begin by introducing the first four notes.
We talk about how these four notes are different from the first four notes. For example, the first notes of the song proceed in stepwise fashion. The first four notes of part three proceed with a backwards skip first and then stepwise.

Then we talk about patterns again, and I show the student how the next four notes follow a similar pattern as the first four notes, but starting one note higher.
 Since my student has practiced the pinkie previews for a few lessons now, it takes just a minute to add the second pinkie preview part to the song, and the student adds the rest.

I usually need to remind my students that the two measures that begin part three need to be repeated a second time. I find that students consistently attempt a short cut and skip the repeated two measures. Students also forget to play the fourth part, which is just a repetition of the first part. I have to be vigilant to step in and prevent the student from jumping right into the variation without playing the fourth part.

At this point, the student can play the main part of the Perpetual Motion song. We continue to work on our staccato bows and check that our pinkie previews are still working properly. There are six pinkies in Perpetual Motion in the manner that I finger the song, so we play the penny game. I lay out six pennies and check to see if the student can earn a penny for each pinkie that the student finds correctly.

Later Problems (or just later)

This song provides opportunities to practice so many other skills to be introduced in the later Suzuki repertoire. Here are just a few examples:
  • We transpose the song into Bb in book two to prepare for Gavotte from Mignon ((book 2, #9).
  • We use the song in group classes to strengthen our ensemble skills:
    • We form a line down the middle of the room with chairs, then we weave around the chairs from one side of the room to the other in “follow the leader” fashion. When on one side of the room, the students play the main song. When on the other side, the students play the variation.
    • We play “start and stop” game. While playing, I stop periodically to see if I can “catch” anyone who is not paying attention.
    • We play “radio” game. While playing, I will turn the imaginary radio button to the “off” position. The students stop playing but keep the song going in their heads. Then I turn the volume “on” again. If everyone kept the tempo in their heads, then we will all be playing again in the same place.
    • We play “pass it along” game. I play a few notes, perhaps four, and then the next student plays the next four, and so on until we have gone around the room and played the song. We play variations on this game until the students are ultimately able to play just one note of the song at a time. I teach the students how to silently play along with their fingers so that they keep their place while other students are playing.
  • We use the songs with more advanced students to work on more advanced technical skills.
    • We use our Bb transposition fingering for Perpetual Motion and learn how to play in higher positions. For more information about how I use this idea to teach higher positions, click here:
    • We insert an open E string in between the notes of the song and use our pinkie to finger the written E in the song. We use this new Perpetual Motion to practice our string crossing skills, especially for playing in early book 4, such as the Seitz Concerto no. 5, first movement (Seitz 2). We practice these string crossings with and without slurs.
    • We learn how to increase the number of notes we can play in an up bow staccato. Here is an example where we have increased the number of up bows to 15 in one bow:
Perpetual Motion is full of gems for teaching many skills and for group class activities. In addition, I use the song to teach finger and bow coordination. I will save this discussion for another post.

Next stop: Perpetual Motion variation!

Friday, May 25, 2012

Independent Third Finger

Today I want to show you some work I did earlier this year with my student Sky, who is four years old. Sky knows all of her Twinkles, but here she agreed to model how we learn to use our left third finger (the ring finger) independently. By independently, I mean that the finger stands up alone on the fingerboard without other fingers placed not he fingerboard.

When I first begin a student, I note that many of my students have little strength in their ring fingers alone and are unable to stand up the ring finger strong enough that the bow can draw a good tone from the note. For this reason many teachers teach the "stacked" finger pattern, which is stacking up one finger on top of each other when ascending and generally leaving the fingers down. For example, in Monkey Song, the student walks up and down the notes of the A string:

Monkey Song
This is to help the student to learn the walking down fingers of Twinkle in measures 3 and 4. In fact, you will find a similar exercise in the early pages of Suzuki Violin Volume 1.

When I combine all the elements of the Twinkle song that we learned from the Pre-Twinkle songs of Flower Song and Monkey Song, we have a decision to make when it is time to play the third finger. In the beginning, I teach the student to play the first four notes: A-E-F#-E. Then we pause and set up the three fingers on the A string: prepare 1-2-3 (B-C#-D). After the student has all three fingers in place on the appropriate tapes, we then play the descending line: D-C#-B-A, which is the second half of the Monkey Song. My students call this the "Flower-Monkey Song":
Flower-Monkey Song
I continue with this manner of playing Twinkles until the student is able to stand up the ring finger independently and make a good sound. I encourage this finger to grow stronger in several ways:
  • I teach the student the plucking song, which has the student plucking all the notes on the A string and using all the fingers, both ascending and descending. I find that the student will not make a good sound while plucking unless the finger has just the right amount of weight in it.
    • If necessary, the parent or I will "help" the finger to be a little stronger by giving it a little bit more weight. We put on our "heavy boots," and the parent or I will give a little more emphasis on the finger.
    • I make sure that my student's elbow is under the violin so that the ring finger can stand up as tall as he can on his "tiptoe." I find that if the student stands the finger up appropriately, then the finger will have strength and will develop independence quicker.
    • With older beginners, I just ask the student to "swing-plop," which refers to swinging the left elbow under the violin so that the ring finger can "plop" down on its fingerboard place, landing on his tiptoe. If a student performs the swing-plop correctly, the student usually lands the ring finger in the correct place.
  • I then teach the student a three-part finger tapping exercise:
    • We tap the ring finger on the fingerboard on its colored tape mark in a rhythm. We practice this for a week or more until the student appears comfortable standing the ring finger up alone and with the proper posture.
Tapping Exercise
    • We do the ring finger tapping exercise, but then we leave the finger down on the string. We use the bow to play Mississippi Hot dog on the ring finger note D.
      Tap and Play Exercise
    • We do the ring finger tapping exercise and then play the play the note D. Then we put the second finger down behind the ring finger, lift off the ring finger, and play the second finger note C#. Then we continue to the first finger B and play it, and finally we end with the A string. After a week or so, the student appears completely comfortable doing this exercise and using the fingers independently on a descending finger pattern.
Getting Ready for Independent Twinkle Ring Finger!
  • After completing the above steps, we incorporate this new fingering ability into the already learned Twinkle Variations.
Here is a short video of my four year old student Sky demonstrating how we perform the descending tetrachord finger pattern with independent fingers. I find that students are sometimes confused about where each finger goes on the fingerboard when they first learn how to play their fingers independently of each other. In this video, I also discuss a coloring tip I use to make it easier for young students (and their practice partners) to learn which finger goes where.

When do we use independent fingers? I think a general rule of thumb is that we leave fingers down and stacked on an ascending pattern, and we use just the fingers that we need on a descending pattern. Now, there are many exceptions as we go along, but this is a general rule that makes a good starting point. As we work through the repertoire, we will discuss where it is appropriate to leave other fingers down or to pop some fingers off.

Happy Independence Day!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Quick Practice Idea: Turtle Day

We all enjoy playing fast. Dr. Suzuki understood how much we enjoy movement, which is why the first thing a violin student learns is a quick rhythmic pattern: Mississippi Hot dog (or taka-taka-stop-stop), which is four 16th notes and two 8th notes. As a teacher I find, however, that students can take this exciting fast-playing over the edge. Telling them to play slower does not always work. Turning on a metronome or asking the students to step in time to the music does not always work either.

I know somewhere around the beginning of violin book one whether I have a speed demon on my hands. I know it when the student walks in and plays Song of the Wind or Go Tell Aunt Rhody at breakneck speed. Naturally the fingers and bow do not coordinate well, and the bow stroke is messy and bumps other strings.

That is where the idea of a turtle day was born. I found that I could get a student to slow down if I asked them to play the song at the speed that a turtle would play. Students automatically played slower -- a LOT slower. Then I could teach the student how to hear what he or she played.

Along the learning journey we discovered other benefits to playing our songs at "turtle speed." My older students strengthened their vibrato. Tone grew stronger as intonation locked in to the tonal pitch center. "Super ears" turned on and heard messy articulations -- beginnings and endings of notes. For those students who were working on memorization of a piece, working through the piece by memory at half and 3/4 speed was a true test of the student's knowledge and memory of the piece.

So I hereby declare today to be Turtle Day, and here are some suggestions as to what you can do.

  • Identify those passages or pieces that you want to work on today.
  • Figure out what your usual speed is. Many metronomes have a "tap in" feature that allows you to tap the tempo you like to play and then tells you what speed that is. I use several metronomes in the studio as well as the Tempo app on my iPhone, and they all have the tapping feature.
  • Set the metronome to half the speed you regularly play at. You may also play at 3/4 speed.
  • Decide what you will focus on:
    • intonation (highly recommended first!)
    • articulation
    • vibrato
    • shifting
    • whatever your student or the student's teacher has focused on during lessons
Do not plan to tackle everything on your practice list on a Turtle Day. Pick a few select areas that would benefit the most from this type of practice. You will be delighted to discover that what you work on in a Turtle Day will spillover into other pieces and areas on regular days.

You can do a Turtle Day once a week or do something come una tartarula (in turtle style) every day by working one passage daily at half or 3/4 speed. Be sure you have your particular focus set in your mind before you venture into turtle land.

Happy turtle-ing!

Here are some resource articles that may give you additional insight on your turtle journey:

Super Ears Article
Articulation: Mind Your T's and P's
Popcorn Day (staccato and martelé)
Articulation: Power of the Stopped Bow
Jamey Builds a Tower Rather Than Digs a Hole (the dangerous life of a speed demon)

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Monday Morning Check In: Celebration

I apologize up front for not writing more in the past few weeks. I have several blog posts in the works, but I have had very limited time to spend to finish them. I have played symphony concerts, children’s concerts, and ballet performances, and the Artisan Quartet has been heavily involved in preparations for our next Beethoven string quartet installment this Memorial Day weekend. Somewhere in there I have been squeezing in a few short runs to kick off a new running season with an eye toward the fall (San Antonio Rock & Roll Half Marathon in November anyone?).

Despite my busy season, however, I want to share with you about the value of celebration, because this is a good time for commemorating what we have accomplished during the past school year, from last September through the current May. Many studios in the United States will offer end of the school year performances and recitals, where students will have an opportunity to exhibit the skills and abilities they have accomplished this year.

My studio – the Wildflower Suzuki Studio – gave its spring concert Sunday afternoon. We held it in the recital hall of the Texas State Music Department, so it was quite a momentous occasion for the students to perform in a real concert hall with an excellent piano and resonant acoustics. The atmosphere was formal enough to lend a sober reflective quality to the occasion; students dressed up in their finest clothes and parents set up video cameras and flashed smart phones about to capture photographic memories.

This year I added something new to the program. Rather than the usual program with the students and their pieces listed, I added a short biographical sketch of the students. When I first thought about the recital program, I reflected on how richly I knew my students and what some of their outside interests, hobbies, and accomplishments were, but that few people shared that knowledge with me. Along with the child’s age, grade, and school, I added a few more sentences to paint a more complete portrait about the child.

For example, one of my older students has studied Korean for several years and is about to begin studying Chinese; she wants to teach in Taiwan. She loves all things Asian. Another student (8 years old) is a champion rodeo rider (belt buckle winner). The studio boasts a volleyball champion, a ballerina, a singer, a whistler (yes, she can whistle!), a figure skater, a Karate student, and students who play basketball, hockey, baseball, and who swim, jump on trampolines, and run cross country and hula hoop.

We have Girl Scouts and Cub Scouts, a fiddle champion, horse riders and owners, writers, animal lovers and trainers, and students who can play more than one instrument. We have students who participate in community orchestra, youth orchestras, string music camps, and Suzuki institutes, and students who have part time jobs. We have students who have practiced every day for 100 days, 200 days or one year, and one student who has not skipped a day of practice since she was five (she is now graduating from high school). The list goes on.

But my celebration list does not stop with the students. I want to celebrate the fact that my students’ parents have made this journey with my students and me. The parents have hung on when practice sessions got tough, when students (and parents?) were tired and cranky, and when life’s busy-ness interfered with practice schedules. The parents were willing to bring students to regular lessons and group classes and other community performances. Some families have more than one child and more than one activity to attend each week, and these parents had much to juggle in their weekly schedules. I wanted to celebrate and recognize the parents’ contributions to the students’ success as well.

Yearly recitals are excellent opportunities to bring everyone together in one place and take a celebratory look at the fruit that the past year’s lessons and classes and practice sessions have yielded. Students enjoy the opportunity to show what they have learned, parents enjoy patting themselves on the back for all the hard work done at home, and teachers can memorialize the year’s progress in the recital program.

Some of my fondest childhood memories centered around piano and violin recitals. I recall my parents taking my sister and me out to the ice cream parlor after a performance, which was always a big treat! One year my parents gave us portable transistor radios. Some of my readers may be too young to know what a transistor radio is (one of the early forerunners to an ipod or MP3 player but much larger and needing batteries). I loved my radio; it was my most treasured possession! I went to sleep every night with the music playing under my pillow. I loved recitals if it meant that we would have ice cream and get cool gifts like radios!

Recital celebrations serve another important purpose that will touch both the students and the parents. Recitals allow students and parents to watch other students. A young beginner has the opportunity to watch a graduating high school senior play something in book 11 (something outside and beyond the Suzuki book 10 level). A beginning student’s parent can see what is possible if the parent is willing to commit to a regular practice and listening schedule. Older students and their parents can serve as role models and mentors for younger and less advanced students and their inexperienced parents. Younger, less advanced students will serve as reminders of where all students begin in the process of ability development.

Perhaps my most favorite part about the recital celebration is when parents share all their photos from the event. I receive photo and video links on Facebook, in email, and via text messages for days afterwards. It is so fun to keep a photographic record of how children look at a particular age or stage of progress. I can quickly assess which children have grown and need a new size violin or a different shoulder rest or sponge.

So if you have not yet had your celebration, take some time this week to plan one.

I just remembered what my absolutely most favorite thing about a spring recital is. It is the reception afterwards, when my studio parents and students can visit and congratulate each other. And, someone always brings chocolate cupcakes. I love chocolate cupcakes!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Monday Morning Check In: Face Your Fears

Fear is a strong emotion. Although defined as an anxious concern, fear is often a very strong reality for many people and often impacts negatively on a person’s life of purpose.

As a child, I had interesting fears. Although most folks would probably describe me as a bold person who was full of courage and unafraid to charge ahead, in reality there are oftentimes when I have to work rather hard to convince myself to move forward. As I have written about before, it is easier for me to stay home than it is to attend a gathering that includes unknown people. Unless I am in a work or performance situation, I am very uncomfortable meeting new people in general.

As a child, this fear translated itself into the fear of buying something at a store. I did not mind going into the store, but I balked at having to actually make a purchase at the checkout counter. Often I would hover about the checkout area until all the other customers had left, and then I would venture forward with my purchases. I would not buy anything too compromising or private either; I preferred to let my mother do that shopping for me.

As an adult, this fear carried over and morphed into the fear of talking to someone unknown on the telephone. I recall my first assignment as a summer law clerk for a well-known law firm. The senior partner asked me to call an attorney in New York and find out some information. I did my best not to let on how terrified I was at the prospect of calling the other attorney. I spent 30 minutes thinking of every possible question the attorney might ask me and noting every possible piece of information I would need to get from the attorney before I made the call.

Too funny, you are probably thinking. Yes, it is, ha ha. This phone difficulty carried over into my law practice years later. Thankfully, caller ID took away a lot of the stress I had concerning the phone. Once I saw who was calling me, I could then choose to answer the phone or give myself a little time to consider the possible reasons the person would call me.

Fears come big and small, obvious and less than obvious. Our job, as mature adults and especially as teachers, is to identify (recognize) our fears and those of our students and to develop a plan to eliminate or reduce these fears.

A big, obvious fear is one that we easily recognize:
  • If I drive without a current vehicle inspection sticker, I am fearful that a policeman will discover this and give me a ticket.
  • I live in the country, and one neighbor has two pit bulls that roam out freely and unfettered into the street. If I run or if I walk my dogs on a leash, I am fearful that the pit bulls will chew me or maul one of my little dogs.
  • I have a student who is fearful of making a mistake. During these moments, he freezes up and cannot play.
  • I know people who are fearful of performing a task at a less than perfect level. These same people tend to procrastinate and never get started.

The smaller or less than obvious fears seem related to emotional baggage that we carry with us from our past. For example, those of us with perfectionist tendencies (fear of making a mistake, fear of failure) may be following through on an emotional pattern that a critical or demanding parent initiated in our childhood. Our workaholic tendencies may stem from our refusal to face squarely an unresolved emotional issue in our lives. Any addictive tendencies may also be signs that we are running away from a problem rather than trying to solve it.

Fear is a natural part of life. Fear is a useful tool in that it reminds us that something dangerous may be ahead and that we should take the appropriate precautions to prepare for the danger. The problem is when we allow ourselves to fear things that will diminish our quality of life rather than to address the fear and take the appropriate precautions to prepare for or eliminate it.

How can we recognize our fears? The bigger, more obvious fears are easy to spot. Anytime we have feelings of anxiety, butterflies in the pit of our stomachs, or elevated heartbeats, we can most likely assume that we are experiencing a big, obvious fear. We need to deal with these situations as quick as we can: swerve out of the path of the oncoming car, run to safety and lock the gate behind us, do the best preparation we can for the upcoming recital, or stop thinking or obsessing about how we might make a mistake and focus our thoughts on something else.

In the case of less obvious fears, I look for these sorts of subtle signs:
  • My thoughts keep returning repeatedly to the same issue. I keep mulling over something but never make any progress toward solving the issue.
  • I never quite finish something, despite my apparent best efforts to get it done.
  • I make excuses or find reasons not to do something that I know would be good or the right thing to do.

When it comes to knowing and facing fear, I rely on the RAP plan: reflection, awareness, and plan to overcome:
  • First, I spend reflection time somewhere in my day. It may be a time of prayer, writing, exercise, or even commuting in the car. I actively think about how fear may be a part of my life.
  • Next, I make myself aware of times when fear is part of my life, and I especially work to recognize when fear may have disguised itself as something else, such as a perfectionist tendency, a spate of crazy work responsibilities and scheduling, or the fear of meeting new people.
  • Finally, once I have identified a fearful tendency in my life, I write out a plan to overcome it. Just as our musical ability and skill is developed by practice, so is our ability to eliminate fear or at least to reduce it to manageable components.

I joined a new gym recently. The gym’s construction has just been completed, so the membership numbers have not yet swelled to make me uncomfortable about meeting new people. The fact that I can work out at all hours of the day or night is attractive to me, because I can avoid dealing with any fear about meeting new people. I have yet to work out at the gym when someone else was there. I still have to make myself go through the door in the first place, though, because someone might be there, and someone might come in during my workout. I am taking this process a step at a time.

The journey to eliminate unhelpful fears is an opportunity to discover things about ourselves, whether it is to learn about what we fear and possibly why we have the fear, or whether it is to discover much about our strength of purpose and our discipline based on how we decide to handle our fear. Let this week be an opportunity for all of us to make some discoveries about ourselves.

Happy Fearless Week!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Square Up Those Shoulders!

Recently I was talking with a good friend of mine, Helen Bravenec. We got in a discussion about posture problems and some easy solutions to some fairly common issues. Here is a quick tip I learned from a yoga instructor friend about how to get those shoulders squared up effortlessly.

As Helen and I talked about it, Helen confessed that she usually stands with good posture, as the above video showed us. However, when I asked her to sit down, her posture drooped dramatically. So we worked through the exercise again, and as you can see, Helen's shoulder posture improved dramatically with this simple exercise.

Try this exercise for yourself. Here are the steps:
  • Let your arms dangle by your sides.
  • Turn your thumbs outward. As you do, feel your shoulder blades move to the back and "hang" onto your back rib cage.
  • Leave your shoulder blades on the back of your rib cage while you return your thumbs and hands to the neutral starting position.
  • Center your head on your spinal column until it feels light and balanced.
Congratulations! You are now standing up straight! Do you feel more confident? Stronger? If you walk like this, you will feel lighter. See how long you can maintain this posture in your daily activities.

Happy Posture!

Perpetual Motion: Introduction

Perpetual Motion is the first song in the last half of Suzuki Violin Volume One. The song marks the halfway point, and in my opinion, the song introduces the intermediate portion of book one. I lump Perpetual Motion, Allegretto, and Andantino in my designated “intermediate” section of book one.

When I first began my article about Perpetual Motion, I realized that this is a monster piece in terms of teaching points, presenting the song to the student, and discovering all the hidden value and uses of the song for teachers and students at a later time and for group classes. The task of organizing all of these gems into a format that would be easy to present to readers to help them understand my teaching process was daunting. After spending a few days thinking about it and summarizing some key points for myself, I decided to divide and conquer the task into smaller articles.

For now, here is a brief introduction to some basics about Perpetual Motion. 

Left Hand Skills

  • The song is in A major with the same close 2-3 finger pattern that the Twinkles introduced.
  • The song has four parts and is in the form: A-B-C-A.
  • The song uses all of the notes of the one-octave A scale above middle C.
  • I use this song to introduce the first of several fingering habits that I want my students to learn. In this particular song, I teach two places where the student uses the pinkie rather than the E string (measures 2, 4, 10, 12, 14, 16).

Right Hand Skills

  • The song is a good vehicle for practicing staccato.
  • The song will help the student learn to better coordinate the left hand fingers and the bow to play together.
  • The variation will reveal any difficulties that the student has with the timing of the fingers and the coordination of the fingers and the bow.
  • The song presents opportunities for numerous group class activities.
  • The song presents other possible variations to introduce the student to more advanced technical skills.

How I Teach It

I will discuss my teaching plan in a later post as well as some group class ideas and advanced technique ideas. In the meantime, if you would like more information about how I prepare my students to learn Perpetual Motion, click here.

I think Perpetual Motion is a terrific song because it provides me with many, many teaching possibilities. I frequently refer back to this song when I work with my advanced students. Even my university students are encouraged to keep this song in the repertoire in case we need to refer to it while working on another skill at the university level. The song is such a useful tool for so many things, as you will discover in my future posts.

So folks, if you have not reviewed Perpetual Motion in a while, then you had better get cracking! This is a big one, and you will understand it better if you can play it well.

Happy Reviewing!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Quick Practice Idea: Backwards Day!

How about a Backwards Day? I find this particular practice tip useful to get out of the rut of practicing the same way from beginning to end, from left to right, from top to bottom. As is typical with most of my students, the first parts of everything in a song, as well as the song itself, are always in better shape than the later parts, hence my creation of the "backwards day."

Here is how it works. Identify a spot that you need to work on. Perhaps it is just a tricky passage or phrase. Then start from the end of the phrase and work backwards. Take the last little bit of the passage and work that through a few times until it feels easy. I ask my students to do a repetition of at least 4 times (sometimes more, but at a minimum 4). Then we back up a few notes from that spot and work that area. Notice that when you do this, you tend to play the section you previously practiced as well, giving it an added practice boost. This extra practice and repetition does not usually occur in our normal practice routine.

Continue working back a few steps at a time until you complete your practice of the passage you identified. If you are working through a song, then start with the last section of the song and work through that section. Then back up and work the section previous to the last section. Continue on in this manner until you have reached the beginning of the song or the place where you wanted to finish.

I have successfully used this technique to help students get over the hump of learning the tricky endings in the phrases of Becker's Gavotte (book 3, #5), the Vivaldi concerto "swamps," and numerous other spots throughout the Suzuki repertoire.

So today, let it be "backwards day"!

Monday, May 7, 2012

Monday Morning Check In: Like You Own the Place!

I have noticed that people in general, and musicians and music students in particular, do not know how to present themselves in way that would promote them in the most positive way. I encourage you to experiment with this idea for yourself. Take a moment to look around you and focus on the individuals you see. I am willing to bet that you will find very few that strike you as exuding confidence and purpose. Why is that?

Like any skill and ability, promoting ourselves in a positive, self-confident way, is something that we must practice in order to do well. There are several components of this particular ability, which I refer to as GAP: Gesture, Attitude, and Posture.


A stage actor learns how to project his- or herself in a grand way with larger gestures in order to make connections with persons throughout the performance venue. The actor cannot make hand gestures so that only the front row of spectators can see and recognize nuance and subtlety. No, the gestures must be purposeful and far-reaching in order to be effective. The actor or musician must command the audience’s attention: “Here I am! Look at me! I have something to play for you, and you will want to listen!” The performer does not put the instrument up as quickly as possible. Instead, the performer draws the attention of the listeners by taking up the instrument up in a wide arc with elaborate set up steps that catch the listener’s focus and curiosity. The performer does not end the piece by putting the instrument back into rest position as quickly as possible. No, the performer freezes movement for a few seconds as the last note fades away and holds the listeners in the performer’s musical spell for a few seconds more. I recall performing Mozart’s Adagio in A Major, and I had to practice putting my bow down into rest position very slowly, because the orchestra ended the piece several measures later than I did. I practiced this grand gesture in front of a mirror so that I would be most effective in keeping the audience’s attention drawn to the music and not to my movement.


I have spent much of my adult life learning how to control and benefit from my use of my thoughts. Not only do I continually train my mind to ignore unproductive thoughts, I also practice to strengthen my ability to focus on productive thoughts. I discovered that this act alone will accomplish much in terms of creating the right attitude for everything. A bad attitude usually stems from particular thoughts that drag us down the wrong attitude path. Good thoughts steer us in the right direction.

I work to eliminate thoughts that are negative, unproductive, and unpleasant. I have many devices to use to accomplish this purpose. I need an arsenal of strategies to rely on to make it possible for me to create a good attitude. I have also learned how to create a good attitude by planting good thoughts in my head, by focusing on the positive attributes of a situation or person, and by learning how to consider different possibilities and to shift the direction of my perspective. Sometimes I have to plant positive affirmations in my subconscious. Sometimes I just have to ask myself, “what else could this be about?”

Most of all, I have had to learn how to widen the time I have to react. Stephen Covey said: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In those choices lie our growth and our happiness.” I work continuously to widen my space so that I react in the best possible manner to things. Attitude may be the most important ingredient to the best life we can have, so I think it is one of the most important things we should focus on in our lives.


Posture is one of my most favorite topics. Most every student and person I meet does not seem to understand the power of good posture. Learning how to stand up straight will strengthen our ability to project ourselves in a self-confident manner. People will respond to us in a positive, respectful manner if our shoulders are back and our head held high. When we slouch, we are sending out the signal that we do not value ourselves very highly, and why should you? When we stand up as forthrightly as we are able, we send out the opposite message. We should be taken seriously and are entitled to respect and due consideration. It amazes me how a little posture adjustment will help a student to feel confident and perform in a confident manner.

I wrote a series of blog posts about posture issues a while back. Here are some links to those articles if you would like to read more about the posture issue as it related to building self-confidence in my students. One of the posts discussed how I sometimes use my dogs to teach students how to build leadership skills and how I used one particular dog to identify posture problems.

  • Posture Checklist for Violin
  • Steps to Putting the Violin on the Shoulder
  • Fundamentals Start with Natural Posture
  • Kaiser, the Posture Watchdog
  • Posture Followup
  • Can Posture Affect Self Confidence?
  • "Square 'Em Up" Practice Focus

  • It is recital time, and we are practicing our GAPs [Gesture, Attitude, and Posture]. How do my students improve his or her recital GAP?

    We practice walking onto the stage for the performance. We talk about how to walk with the right posture and attitude. We walk onto the stage or into the room, “like we own the place.” We are not asking permission to perform for you, we are offering our gift outright. My students and I practice our walk, our gestures to get ready to play, and how to test the energy in the air to be sure that the listeners (and the accompanist – ME!) are ready. We talk about our attitude and the importance of reaching out to share our gift of music making and making a connection with our listener. This one step alone really helps most students to turn their focus outward rather than inward, and it is useful to eliminate nervousness in general. We perform all of these tasks in our practice for the recital performance, and we spend a great deal of time discussing and tweaking or improving our posture.

    My students will practice walking on and off stage numerous times. We laugh and have fun while we practice our moves, but that is okay. The studio is a safe place for my student, his or her parents, and me to talk about those issues that impact on a performance. I find that students often act a bit dorky about the stage issue thing, and I know I certainly did not understand the value of the entrance and exit when I was a young student.

    Most of all, my students perform better because we have practiced our GAPs for the recital. Because we have practiced our GAPs, we have developed the ability and skill to perform better.

    Happy GAP-ing this week!

    Wednesday, May 2, 2012

    Practice Focus: Square 'Em Up!

    Today's practice focus is about posture, as in "square up your shoulders." I like to set aside one day every week where I check in with my posture, usually on a Monday but it could be any day you choose. An alternative might be to check posture on one thing everyday, such as a scale. I look in a full length mirror as I practice and note how straight my bow is and whether I am standing correctly when I play.

    For me the easiest way to check in on my posture is to travel along my checklist from the bottom to the top. I start with my feet, then my knees, then my pelvis, torso, shoulders, arms, and finally neck and head. My body has not changed much in terms of height, so I have not had to make many adjustments with my shoulder rest. In the case of my students, however, I frequently tweak the shoulder rest to accommodate any growth changes.

    Here are links to some of my earlier posts about posture:

    We have many things to accomplish in our practice sessions. For today, however, just focus on whether your posture is correct, in alignment, and set up for success.

    Tuesday, May 1, 2012

    Quick Practice Tip: The Power of the Stopped Bow

    Over the years of teaching the Suzuki method, I have come to appreciate the power of the stopped bow. The Twinkle Variations that Dr. Suzuki put together are brilliant in terms of what the pieces teach the student about impulse control and the proper use of kinesthetic energy. The more I teach, the more I discover or uncover all the gems that Dr. Suzuki has included in the Suzuki repertoire. Nothing is more powerful to me than the lessons learned concerning the stopped bow.

    I teach many students who play other violin music, such as fiddling or mariachi. I frequently encounter students who literally cannot stop their bow. The bow dribbles from one note to the next without ever clearly defining the end of one note and the beginning of the next note. Wait! Who am I kidding? The bow is not dribbling, it is moving 100 m.p.h.! This constant movement issue results in several problems:
    • Messy bows and unclear articulation
    • Rushing tempo or a tempo that pushes the “toe-side” of the beat rather than the “heel-side” (the energy is forward directed rather than “sitting in the saddle”)
    • Inability to play staccato well
    • Tight joints, especially the right elbow
    • Squeezed back muscle, especially below the right shoulder
    • Poor tone production: either a pressed sound because the student is squeezing the notes or a wispy sound because the student is so tight in the right elbow and back muscles, that the bow can put little weight into the sound
    • Poor practice habits: inappropriate practice tempos and a failure to consider the actual sound made
    Sometimes it may take me a few years to teach a student with the stopped bow problem how to get a good stopped bow staccato. If only I could take these students back to square one and the Twinkle Variations! The Twinkles are the foundation of all the necessary stopped bow combinations that the student will encounter in the later Suzuki repertoire.

    Here are some beneficial uses of the stopped bow:
    • It gives the student an opportunity to consider whether the bow will make a good contact point with the string in order to produce the next note.
    • It gives the student a chance to place the bow properly on the appropriate string level (or string levels in the case of a double stop chord).
    • It allows the student to consider how his or her body should pivot the bow quietly from one string level to the next without lifting the bow off the string.
    • It allows the student an opportunity to “check in” with muscles and joints to unlock any unnecessary tension.
    • It allows the student to “ping” the beginning of the next note to start the vibration of the next note, which helps the student to generate good, strong tone.
    • Most of all, it allows the student to actually consider what sound the student makes when playing.
    I also work with the student to uncover any unnecessary tension in the bow arm, right shoulder, or back. If I am working with a high energy level student, then this issue alone will take a long time to address. I may have to spend a considerable amount of time addressing posture issues, including how the student directs his or her physical energy in a playing stance.

    If I work with an advanced student, I might ask them to play Perpetual Motion so that we can work on these issues, but anything will do, even a basic scale. My goal will be to get the student to slow down and actually stop playing after one note so that the student can prepare the next note. In some cases, I need to actually address the student's playing stance in order to encourage a more successful outcome.

    I used several terms above that might require further explanation. When I talked about the "toe-side" and "heel-side" of the beat, I referred to the front side versus the back side of the beat. If you lean forward on your toes, you will feel the inevitable pull forward. Did you know that we walk by falling forward and then catching ourselves? This is how the front-side of the beat works. We fall forward when we play, so that the tempo surges forward and speeds up. When we put our weight in our heels, we add the sensation of grounding to our playing.

    For anyone who is familiar with horses, the concept of toe-side and heel-side energy dissemination makes sense. Horses are very sensitive creatures. If you want to start moving, all you have to do is think about it. You bring your energy level "up" and "forward" and the horse starts moving. How much energy you send forward will direct how fast the horse will comply. When you want to slow the creature down to a stop, you turn your energy "off," let your breath out, and settle back into the saddle. The horse stops.

    Students can relate to "toe-side" and "heel-side" as descriptions of playing stances. We experiment with both so that students understand how each stance feels. Then we practice "sitting back in the saddle" so that students learn the physical sensations of relaxing and grounding. The students learn how to shift their weight to the heels of their feet and to tilt their pelvises under so that the torso weight shifts backwards (they tuck their "kitty cat tails" under and between their legs). For good measure, I might suggest that they also practice letting all the air out of their lungs. Being the high energy person that I am, I often practice breathing out my air in a slow whoosh. I find that I can calm my energy level down to a stop when I practice this technique.

    The most recent student that I worked with to learn how to play a stopped bow (it took us four semesters to master this skill at the university level), had to learn how to curb his energy level and his expression of energy while playing. In other words, he had to learn how to turn things "on" and "off." My long time readers know how much a fan I am of the "Dog Whisperer" show with Cesar Milan. I learned a lot about using energy properly from watching this show on the National Geographic channel. I have a dog pack of six adult dogs and one youngster. Currently I also have three puppies about 5 weeks old. Anyone who has that many dogs will know what I mean about how one uses one's physical energy. I can rile up or calm down my pack of sweethearts in two seconds just by how I turn my energy level "up" or "down." I have even taught this skill to several of my students in order to teach them how to improve their posture or to learn leadership skills. But this is another blog post for the future.

    For now, look to yourself and your students. Observe how you and your students are doing with their stopped bows and staccatos. If you find problems, consider whether you or your students are too energetic in your playing and then work out a step-by-step program to "slow" things down.

    This blog post began as a quick practice tip and quickly became a long discussion about the physical manifestation of energy while playing. No, I am not an alien. I really do think about these things -- a lot. I apologize that the "quick" practice tip was anything but quick. This week, think about the power of a stopped bow and check whether you are providing yourself and your students with the opportunities to create good stopped bows. If you or one of your students has difficulty in this area, consider whether the student is physically standing and playing in a way that would discourage or encourage a good stopped bow.

    Happy practicing!