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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

When to Teach Positions

I have noticed that several people have been searching for answers to the question of when to start teaching a student how to play in higher positions. My answer is to teach them any time.

Now having said that, I do have a system that I will gladly share with you. However, I have shown students how to play higher notes whenever the issue comes up regardless of where we are in the progress of my system. For example, last Christmas season, I was teaching a very young book 1 student how to play "O Holy Night" as a surprise for a family member. We were rocking along just great in a key that was easily accessible for a book 1 student, when we encountered a short passage of the song that required us to either rewrite the passage or to quickly learn how to play the notes in third position. I opted to show this bright little student how to play the notes in third position. She was excited to learn this new "book 3 skill."

I find that if I present "harder" concepts as "easier" ones, the students learn the new skills just fine. Perhaps we are making things hard by offering the suggestion that the skill is hard to learn in the first place?

So here is my system. In book 2, I introduce the Bb scale. We then use our new Bb fingers to play Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star theme from book 1 in the key of Bb, which also introduces the word "transposition." We might try another book 1 song in Bb, like Lightly Row, and then we work on playing Perpetual Motion in Bb. I might also introduce this concept as a book 2 and 3 group class activity. Once the student has learned Perpetual Motion in Bb, the next step is to teach the student how to play Perpetual Motion in each of the seven positions using the "Bb fingering" as we move up higher on the A string in the various positions.

When do I actually introduce higher position fingering in the Suzuki repertoire? I actually wait until book 3 to do so, starting with "Humoresque." I know that there are teachers who introduce positions somewhat in book 2. For example, teachers sometimes introduce the octave harmonic A on the A string in Boccherini's "Minuet" and the octave harmonic D on the D string at the end of "Musette." Some teachers try to avoid the fourth finger pinkie stretch in Lully's "Gavotte." Do not do this until later. Have your student master this pinkie skill first! The reason is that book 2 is all about the student's learning to unfurl the left hand. Note some of the fingers that get stretched in book 2:
  • "Chorus", "Bourree," and "Witches Dance": 3rd finger stretches to play D# on the A string
  • "Musette" and "Bourree": 2nd and 4th fingers stretch to play G and B on the E string
  • "Hunter's Chorus": 2nd and 3rd fingers stretch to play D-C natural on the A string in repeated hiccup section
  • "The Two Grenadiers": first finger stretches back to play Bb and F natural on A and E strings
  • Lully's "Gavotte": pinkie stretch and 1st and 2nd finger stretch in middle section; 3rd finger stretch to G# on D string in first section
  • "Minuet in G": stretched 3rd finger; first finger plays A# on A string; C natural on A string stretched to 3rd finger G# on D string (if you opt for this fingering rather than the lowered 4th finger)
I introduce third position in Humoresque in Suzuki volume 3. However, since my students have been doing some reading since the end of book 1, they have already been introduced to positions through the use of William Starr's "Scales Plus!" book. Introducing third position is a piece of cake then because we've already done it in the "green book," as my students refer to Mr. Starr's book. In group classes, when we review earlier book 1 material, I show my more advanced students how to play easier songs in different positions. As I've said before, if I don't tell my students that it's hard, then they just do it with little effort.

Later, as we review previously learned repertoire, we will add new fingerings in positions as the students are able to do so. I note also that the revised edition of book 3 has several new ornaments that can only be accomplished well by using third position, e.g., Minuet by Bach (#2 in book 3). I hold off adding these particular ornaments until later after the student has learned the song.

Sometimes I wait to teach the third position fingerings in Humoresque until after the student has learned the piece in first position with the ridiculous pinkie slide on page 2. This slurpy slide is the perfect place for a discussion about the need for a better fingering, and so we discuss why positions are useful to know. Since my students work with Mr. Starr's book, we are already having these discussions, because different keys feel easier to play in different positions, and we talk about the reasons why that is so.

Why have a system at all? This is a great topic that I think I'll save for a future blog post.


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