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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

How to Beat a Speeding Ticket

I recall when Jeffrey Reynolds, former bass trombone with the LA Philharmonic Orchestra (1969 to 2006) once remarked that he didn't understand how musicians could play in a "hole" in the music. By "hole" Jeff was referring to those empty spots in the composition where the orchestra has a few beats of silence. In initial rehearsals it is inevitable that someone "falls into the hole" and plays when they should be silent. To Jeff, however, this type of mistake seemed inconceivable. If a musician was paying attention, couldn't they have quickly "swallowed" the note before they played it?

In the same manner I am amazed that students miss shifts in practice sessions, and I then need to, once again, devote some of our lesson time to discussing proper practice habits. (I find that I need to reinforce this concept thoroughly and often.) A student will be playing through a shifting exercise (e.g., Ševčík op. 1, part 3), and they will miss the shifts. Sometimes they will correct the shifts as they go along, but sometimes they just let the bad shift hang there in the air while they continue with the exercise or passage. Despite my repeated (ad nauseum) reminders that the student is only practicing "missing the shift," I find some students continue to do the same thing, over and over.

The reason is speeding. There ought to be a way to give a student a speeding ticket and fine them. For younger students, that is exactly what I do. I have a police whistle, and if I catch a student speeding, I blow the whistle and give them a citation for speeding, usually the repetition of the passage or finger tangle spot about 10 times in a row perfect. For an older student though, it is even more problematic, because they seem determined to continue this bad habit. I have stood on my head trying to point out that by practicing too fast, they are letting many, many, many things go by unchecked and incorrect, thereby actually practicing how to do things INCORRECTLY. Doesn't seem to matter. Speeding still occurs.

I have discovered a delightful game on, and for the time being, this game is extremely popular with my students. I fold a piece of paper in half and continue folding it in half until I have divided the paper into 8 squares. After unfolding the paper, I number each of the squares from 1-7 and put a big star in the number 8 square. Then the student selects a "game piece," I isolate a particularly unsettled passage in the music, and we start playing. The student starts on square 1 and plays through the passage I identified. If the student plays the passage through correctly, they can advance the game piece to square number 2. Notice that I gave the student no information about whether to play a particular speed. I actually think it's terrific if the student discovers for himself or herself to put a thinking pause into the music to make sure that the student plays accurately. It usually takes the student about 3-4 tries before he or she plays the passage correctly and in tune and can advance to square number 2.

Now the student has something to lose. If the student plays the passage correctly again, he or she may advance to square number 3, however, if the student makes a mistake or plays a note out of tune, the student must move back a square. Thus, the game proceeds. After a few frustrated tries, the student will alter the manner in which they are playing. They tend to slow the tempo down, they pause for a second or two to refrain from playing an incorrect fingering, and they may stop long enough to actually THINK about what should happen next with the fingers or the bow. And all of this occurs without much guidance from me! Whoot!

To my amusement, certain areas of the game board are problematic. One of my younger students calls squares 3 and 4 the "habit breaking spot" while another of my older students calls squares 6 and 7 the "make it or break it" squares. Each student is unique too in the areas of the game board that typically trip them up. Some students do great for one row of the game but have difficulty advancing to the second row. Other students make it to the higher numbered squares, only to lose their advantage and slip back to lower and lower numbered squares. I find that all sorts of reasons are at play, with impatience and cockiness heading the list.

I haven't tried this game on my really advanced students yet. Instead I just prefer to play along with them. In that way I can completely control the tempo and intonation, and I provide the correct model for playing with evenness of tone, bow distribution, bow usage, and left hand fingering. Don't overestimate the power of good role modeling!

I have started adding challenges to the game of squares. Just the other day I circled the number 4 square for one of my six year old students and drew an arrow pointing back to square 3. I told my student that if she was on square 3 and waiting to advance to square 4, she would need to play it absolutely correctly, and if she did she could completely skip over square 4 and jump to square 5. If she did not play it correctly, she would have to play it 4 times correct in a row, and then she could just move to square 4. In this variation, we have put a little bit more pressure on the student because there is more at stake: the student can actually skip over a square for a chance to skip some practice! And the downside is that if the student is not careful, they will wind up playing the passage more times in the end just to make a little bit of forward progress. Get the idea? I'm trying to instill the student with the concept that by a little careful practice in the first place, the student can make MORE progress and by being inattentive, the student will wind up having to practice even more. This is a very powerful concept and ties in handily with the old adage "haste makes waste."

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