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Monday, April 27, 2015

Making Music with a Twinkle Circle

As a teacher, I struggle with how to teach my students about making music. What does it mean to be musical? How do I teach them about making phrases and connecting the performer's heart and soul with the listener? It seems that however I approach the subject, I lack a connection of insight and understanding with my students. They do not seem to "get it." I explain. I demonstrate. I play examples of fine performances from famous artists. Still, I do not get the response that I desire from everyone. Occasionally I will see a student play "from the heart," but as a whole, I do not get the results that I seek. And then one day, I found the answer!

I showed my students how musicality feels. I let my students feel the experience of making music and feeling others make music. We created the Twinkle Circle.

Let me digress for a moment to attribute this idea to the various sources and roots of my thinking. I have been thinking a long time now about the use of energy. I raise nine miniature dachshunds in my home, and I have a horse, several donkeys, 13 alpacas, and ten chickens. These different creatures respond to different energy approaches, as do different human personalities. I draw my ideas about musical energy from Cesar Milan (The Dog Whisperer), Pat Parelli (The Horse Whisperer), and Edward Kreitman's book, Teaching with an Open Heart. Of course, there are so many possible sources of an idea, but these are the big three that influenced much of my thought in this area.

Music is vibration in the air. Vibration in the air is an expression of energy. We can feel this as well as hear it. We can see the vibrations when we look at our violin strings while we play. When we go to a rock concert, we can feel the rhythmic pulsations. As a seasoned professional musician, I know that we connect our performance of musical energy with our listener. A good performer knows how to do this. How many times have we listened to a "flat" performance from a concert artist? We know that the performance was good; after all, the performer dazzled us with pyrotechnical technique. However, something did not quite "sing" or resonate with our inner being.

I have thought a long time about these questions. As I worked with my animals, I noticed how easily they responded to my use of energy. In this case, when I refer to "energy," I am referring to a definiteness of purposeful motion of some kind. I can stand my ground and block a dog's food bowl just by "claiming" the bowl as my own in my head. I can create a musical phrase by connecting the musical line with my listener. I can feel the zing of my listeners' heart strings when they connect with my musical vibration, and I can weave a musical, magical moment between us.

As I explored these ideas with my students in group classes and lessons, I finally tried out a simple exercise to help my students to begin to feel the energy of musical purpose in the air. We often form a circle in group class just because it eliminates a sense of hierarchy (youngest to oldest) and brings everyone into the same plane in a way. And here is how I used my Twinkle Circle to help my students feel the music:

  • I played a "flat" Twinkle theme that was devoid of expression. Then I played a more musical rendition, where I increased the intensity/volume slightly to mirror the direction that the notes went (ascending notes increased in intensity and descending notes decreased). My students heard the difference! They preferred the more beautiful version.
  • We played the theme together. As we increased our intensity and volume, we slowly walked toward the center of the circle. We could feel the increasing energy of the other members of the circle as we crept toward each other, and we felt the ebb of energy as we backed away from each other as a phrase ended.
  • We played Lightly Row and Aunt Rhody using the same technique. If we thought we should include an "echo" place, then we quickly stepped back to our starting position to indicate the diminished volume.
  • When we got to Long, Long Ago, a curious thing happened. We played the first two measures with a growing intensity, then we began to ebb our energy in measure three as the musical line descended in pitch. However, in measure four, there is another "beginning" to the phrase. My students recognized that little "bump in the road" by stepping forward again toward the center of the circle and then creeping backward. I was amazed that they recognized this musical device. In fact, at this point, I was amazed again and again as my students eagerly looked for ways to step into or away from the circle to represent the musical lines.
  • Then we played Twinkle theme again but stood in our initial position. Instead of walking away from and toward each other, we played in a way that made each other feel the same energetic ebb and flow that we had created earlier through collapsing and expanding our circle.
  • At this point, since my group classes currently include students of all levels from book 1 through the more advanced books, I took the exercise through several other book levels. We played Two Grenadiers and Gavotte in G Minor. We considered how we would do the exercise in the Vivaldi Concerto in A Minor.
  • I used this same exercise in my university studio seminar class. We began with Twinkle theme, and then I performed the same exercise with each student individually on one of the student's repertoire pieces: Mozart's Concerto No. 5 (2nd movement), Bach's D Minor Allemande, Handel's Sonata No. 4 in D Major (1st movement), and so on.
This Twinkle Circle exercise produced amazing results for me. My university students play with more musicality now than I have previously heard from them. My private students sound lovely in lessons, and a group ensemble piece is exquisite to hear.

My favorite reaction from the experience was to watch the mothers' faces in the waiting area during that first group class experiment. The mothers' mouths hung wide open as they heard the most beautiful Twinkle Theme that we have ever played.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Five Practice Questions

Recently I worked with an older student who seemed to have some difficulty focusing on the task at hand, which should have been the performance of his homework from our previous lesson. I realized in the case of this particular student, that we had a fundamental miscommunication of lesson expectations and goals. So in the course of our discussion, as we sifted and sorted our way through the morass of thoughts, expectations, and problems that the student presented me with, we came up with five questions that helped to focus the student in his practice goal-setting, his home practice plan for the next lesson, and in general whenever he plays at any time.

In the anticipation that other teachers and parents face similar problems with their students and children, here are the five questions:


Am I playing at the right speed? Many problems are caused by a student's choice of tempo. If the student is constantly stuttering or correcting mistakes as the student flies through a passage, then the tempo choice is incorrect for the task at hand. My studio rule is that each time a student flubs or plays an error, the student must slow down the tempo. Another error? Another slowdown. After all, if the student were flying a spaceship into a meteor shower, the student would make these sorts of speed adjustments automatically. I am sure that many parents would want their children to understand the necessity for matching speed with conditions, especially once the student reaches the age of driving privileges.

What do I sound like? What is my tone? Is it pleasing to listen to? Am I scratchy, too soft, too airy, too heavy? Am I resonating my strings and pitches? Do I like to hear what I'm listening to? Do I even know what I sound like? A tape recorder or short video recording may help here. I have had some interesting results from the use of an iPhone app called "slopro." I make a short video and then play the film back for the student at 50% speed (to maintain the same pitch but an octave lower). My students have found this very interesting and usually hear the problems immediately and correct them in the next practice/performance go-around. In fact, most students immediately adjust the tempo (see practice question #1 above) in order to correct the problems.

Am I playing in tune? Well, duh, I know this is obvious, but apparently many of my students need to be reminded of this. Again, a recording makes this very obvious.

Is my rhythm accurate? Nothing will ever take the place of a good metronome session. I myself use this technique all the time to remind me of places where I tend to pull away from the established tempo. It is alright to make adjustments for musical reasons, but I believe that the correct and steady tempo must be the default position before I allow exceptions of any kind.

Are there any bumps in the road? When a student hits a bumpy patch in the road, we make sure that we have visited the above questions. There are times, however, when the stretch of road has a bumpy area that really needs to be addressed more than with care and speed. Just as with potholes in a road surface, we have options:
  • drive right through the hole (I don't recommend this, and I find that fathers are especially touchy about the damage done to car tires with this technique)
  • drive around the hole (find an alternate route or fingering/bowing/musical expression)
  • repair the hole (address the problem and work to eliminate it entirely (this involves thought, time, and access to practice ideas; consult your teacher for this type of advanced help).
And those are the five practice questions that I used to help focus my student's attention on practice areas. I am more confident now that he understands how to prepare his next lesson.