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Thursday, May 26, 2011

June Practice Challenge: Twinkles!

Recently a young student and I were challenging each other with a vibrato exercise. We made a pledge to each other to practice the vibrato exercise every day for two weeks, and we promised to check up on each other via email or text message. Don't you just love the buddy system? We wrote out an index card for each of us that had the number of boxes on it that equalled the number of days we had promised to practice the exercise. Both of us put a card in our violin cases so that we would see it every time we opened up our violin cases to practice.

The challenge has worked well for both of us. We checked in at our last lesson together, and both of us were proud to report that we had been checking off our little boxes on the index cards. We were very excited about our progress, and we shared with each other those things that we had discovered were improving, much to our surprise. Even me! It just goes to show that it is possible to teach an old dog new tricks, it is never too late to learn something new, and that everyone can improve anything if they are determined to do so.

The success of my challenge with Jamey got me thinking of another possible challenge that all of us can participate in. I have several beginning students now who are working towards the goal of a Twinkles Graduation. These students are practicing to be able to play their Twinkle Variations with the piano at a good tempo and without any problems. This is not an easy task! It takes stamina to be able to stay mentally focused throughout the entire variations, and sometimes the student has a little difficulty keeping it all together when the piano is added. Still, we plug away at it for several weeks (sometimes months) until the student has an excellent performance and I'm convinced that the student will be able to continue that level of performance every time. Sometimes I have to turn this entire enterprise into one of those "Dollar Spots" that I wrote about in an earlier post on March 7 (http://teachsuzuki.blogspot.com/2011/03/monday-morning-check-in-practice.html?showComment=1299542007159#c7851575439082633225). In addition, as a celebration of achievement, I give the student a certificate of completion. Sometimes the parent will do something special as well, such as a trip to the local ice cream store or video store. In other words, we make a big deal out of applause and encouragement in my studio.

I've been delighted to see the enormous progress these Twinkle students have made during this time period of working toward the Twinkle Graduation goal. That along with the success of my challenge with Jamey got me thinking that we could all benefit from this sort of challenge, especially with the summer months hitting us and the siren song of the heat doldrums beckoning to us. It's always best to have a plan that lifts us up through such periods. So here is my June Practice Challenge.

Play through the entire Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star Variations from Book 1. Do this every day. Be mindful of the temptation to rush through them just to "get it done." Instead, focus on:

  • the sound that you are creating: are you playing too soft or too loud and scratchy?
  • the intonation: are those fingers on the tapes and producing ringing notes?
  • the placement of the bow on the string:
    • is the contact point too close too the fingerboard?
    • is the bow straight?
    • is the bow hair relatively flat? (book 1 skill)
  • the articulation of the notes:
    • are the eighth notes short with firm, ringing staccato bow strokes?
    • are the sixteenth notes scrubbing with an equal stroke on up bows and down bows?
  • the rhythm: is it accurate, or did some variations get a little sloppy?
  • the posture:
    • is the bow hold correct? be exacting with this!
    • is the violin up on the shoulder or has it dropped down lower in front of the shoulder?
    • is the violin pointing to the side (about 10 or 10:30 o'clock) or is it pulled around in front where it cramps up the left hand?
    • is the body tense in any way? Adults: pay particularly close attention to the muscles in your back, neck, shoulders, and upper back.
    • is  the head dropping forward at an angle or held upright? is the jaw bone resting in the chin rest properly?
    • is the violin against the neck or is there a hole between the neck and the instrument?
  • the concentration and focus: are you able to stay in the present moment as you play all the variations or does your mind wander?
    • Adults may have an easier time with this exercise point.
    • A parent will be able to monitor their child's focus and concentration by noting when the first mistakes appear. That moment is usually when a student's concentration and focus has started to lag or wander.
      • Just keep plugging away at the daily playing, and you will note that this problem begins to disappear.
      • Take a moment to stop when the problem first occurs and take a mini rest, perhaps in rest position while the two of you talk through what happened and what to remember the next time.
      • Sometimes the problem can be averted by taking a moment before playing the variation and talking through the things the child is to remember to do while playing.
  • the advanced level of playing: are you able to add the appropriate level of playing that you can currently do to this earliest of violin learning skills?

So starting next week on Wednesday, June 1, let's all commit to taking the Twinkles Challenge. Please let me know what discoveries you make about your own abilities. Never underestimate the power of working to achieve the mastery of "simple" things. We will never fully master any endeavor. We just add more and more layers of complexity.

Happy Practicing! And congratulations to Holly for achieving her Twinkles Graduation yesterday!


  1. This is a terrific idea. I've been looking for something to do for the month of August to give a little boost to my students, and I'm going to try this. Thanks, Paula! (I found your blog via the SSA teacher forum.)

    1. We enjoy these sorts of challenges because they give us a sense of sharing in the learning. I think it's a great idea to review Twinkles and really focus on how it sounds. Even us grown ups need to clean up and tune up.