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Thursday, July 14, 2011

Book 5: What's the point?

I received a great comment that asked me about book 5, and I thought I would share my thoughts about how I use book 5.

I remember hearing once that several teachers were opting to skip portions of book 5, because the students could "learn G Minor in other repertoire." I myself have experienced difficulty with students in the past and getting these students through the "slump" of book 5.

There may be several possible reasons why book 5 is so difficult. Although I have heard that many Japanese families strive to complete all ten Suzuki violin books by the time a student enters junior high, in my personal experience, most of my Suzuki students seem to hit book 5 about the time that they are in middle school. I wish that all my students would be out of book 5 by the time they turn 13, but alas, that has not been the case.

Why 13? Once upon a time, my educator husband showed me an article that talked about a child's development and the phenomenon of the odd-numbered years. (Occasionally a student will hit one of these developmental periods in an "even" year, but the signs are still the same.)  From what I recall of that article, it discussed the child's brain synapses pulling apart about every two years as the child's body underwent several physical developmental changes. As a teacher, I would have to turn up my "patience" quotient as I worked with such a student. A student going through one of these developmental phases would appear a little goofy and unfocused. Ages 9 and 13, in general, were the most difficult periods. The student would appear to be using just the right hemisphere of the brain and relying on physical motion rather than using logic or reasoning.

When a student hit Vivaldi's Concerto in G Minor at the age of 13, things seemed to progress at an excruciatingly slow pace because of the student's seeming inability to enter into a productive, rational discussion about the piece, the skills to be developed, and evaluation about effective practice techniques. I would get pretty discouraged during these periods. These types of lessons used up a lot of my teaching energy with little return from the student to be expected. I think the parents of such a student suffered even more than I did, as they watched their formerly bright child behave as if aliens had abducted the child's mind during the night. Learning book 5 seemed to take a very long time when a student was in the middle of one of these developmental phases.

Perhaps other teachers have experienced this same "slump" by the time a student would begin learning the Concerto in G Minor. I understand the desire to skip this piece and to approach the G Minor issue in another fashion, but I believe there are definite benefits to Dr. Suzuki's book 5 structure.

Generally, I view book 5 as the middle book of the "intermediate" portion of the 10 Suzuki violin books. I use the book to teach several basic things for a student's development:
  • how to see intervals "across" the strings and the violin fingerboard
  • what reasons to choose particular fingerings
  • how to play off-the-string, i.e., spiccato, collé, and flying staccato
  • how to cement the proper left hand position for upper positions and the G minor key

    Intervals Across the Fingerboard

    Book 4 pretty much wraps up a student's education about intervalic relationships between the fingers on the same string. The Bach double at the end of book 4 explores all finger patterns and combinations. Book 5 then leads the student into learning how to view intervals across the violin strings and fingerboard. For example, in first position, a minor second is played by putting one finger next to or very close to an adjacent finger. Minor sixths feel like half steps as well, since generally one finger is adjacent to another, albeit on another string. However, students do not quite "see" that interval when reading music.

    Starting with the first song in book 5, Dr. Suzuki presents material that includes passage work that involves intervals across the string. Measures 8-16 and 40-48 are good examples of such passage work. The first movement of Vivaldi's Concerto in G minor has several obvious examples of string crossings and intervals: measures 41-43, 85-90, 119-126, and 167-169. The third movement has several such places as well: 101-106 and 172-186.

    One of the best ways to introduce this concept of seeing intervals across the fingerboard is to approach these passages as an exercise in double stops. Certainly I point out to the student how easy it can be to determine whether a particular interval is like a half or whole step by showing the student how to see the interval of a fifth across the violin fingerboard and in the music and then building the interval upwards from the fifth.

    How to Choose Appropriate Fingerings

    With the second piece of book 5, the second movement of Vivaldi's Concerto in G Minor, I begin discussing the appropriate reasons to choose particular fingerings. The subject of choosing fingerings is a particularly dense subject and probably a subject best left to one or two (maybe even three) blog posts of its own. However, briefly, I will just say that I introduce the student to five basic reasons for choosing a fingering, and we discuss various fingerings within the piece and how they relate to those five basic reasons. There are many other reasons to choose particular fingerings, but I focus on five reasons in this piece:

    • shifting over the closest distance (preferably a half step if possible)
    • avoiding a shift on a slur, unless the portamento sound is desired
    • maintaining the same string/tone color or avoiding string crossings
    • maintaining a fingering pattern
    • providing a stronger finger for vibrato (or avoiding an open string)
    I do not always use the fingerings as suggested in the revised book 5 Suzuki book. The revised edition provides several choices in some places, and I use these suggestions as starting points for discussions about fingering choices.

    I would like to remind you that I set up the discussion of fingering choices beginning in book 1. In my earlier posts I frequently mentioned songs in which I asked my students to learn a particular fingering sequence in order to build up a fingering habit that would be comfortable throughout book 2, 3, 4, and now 5. So book 5 is basically the continuation of a fingering discussion that I have silently had with my student since book 1. I now use book 5 to have an open discussion about fingering with my student.

    I have also provided my student several places in the Suzuki books where I have given my student a chance to pick a particular fingering over another in some places due to personal preference. For example, I have a very small hand, and I find it very useful to use my "lazy pinkie" or flat 4th finger to play some fingering passages rather than stretching my 3rd finger. I have suggested both fingerings to students in book 2 and have accepted the student's personal preference for one fingering or another.

    Off the String Bowing Skills

    As preparation for the off-the-string bowing opportunities presented in book 5, I incorporate off-the-string playing in review of earlier books. We might do this in group class or just as a general review assignment, when I introduce spiccato. For example, book 4 and the Seitz concertos all include several places where the student can begin practicing off the string in the lower half of the bow. In addition, I also focus on places where the student can use the collé bowing, such as the first Seitz concerto in book 4, the Long Long Ago variation in book 2, Minuet in G trio, Martini's Gavotte, Becker's Gavotte, and any earlier repertoire piece that used the "up-up" bowing, such as Minuet 2 in book 1. This bowing practice incorporated within earlier repertoire then culminates in the first piece of Bach's Gavotte and the later Country Dance in book 5. These bowing skills do not become perfect in most cases at the time the student learns these pieces but later during group class activities or as the student progresses into later Suzuki or other "outside" repertoire.

    When the student gets to German Dance in book 5, I wait until the student has learned the notes before teaching the airborne bowing (remember Dr. Suzuki's suggestion: "Finger, Bow, Go!"). Then we play the two-note slur and single note up bow of measure one as a lifting, in-the-air bowing. It may take the student a few lessons to master this skill. Note that this bowing pattern leads to the faster, mixed spiccato and slur bowing of Veracini's Gigue.

    Left Hand and Upper Positions

    I mentioned before that I have a tiny hand. When I first learned Vivaldi's Concerto in G Minor, I noticed a persistent ache in my left hand. Since I have been playing for 47 years, I thought it was strange. As I analyzed the situation, I happened to be considering left hand issues in general, and I noted that my usual left hand attitude seemed a little low in relation to the fingerboard for the kind of finger passage work that I needed to accomplish in the G Minor concerto. I tried raising my left hand a little bit higher (steeper) so that my left pinkie was curved more rather than straight, and I found that the problem disappeared. The intonation and the tone quality also improved, as I was using more of my finger skeleton than I was using my finger pads. (Yes, there is a place for finger pad playing too). I also use Kreutzer's 5th etude (the one in Eb) to help my university students make that same discovery.

    Dr. Suzuki's inclusion of the G minor key of Vivaldi's Concerto in G minor provides the teacher with several opportunities to monitor the student's left hand position. If you'll recall from earlier posts, I've pointed out several other places in which Dr. Suzuki included repertoire that provided opportunities to correct falling left hand positions: Minuet 2 and the problem of "pocket fingers,", Two Grenadiers, Gavotte from "Mignon, Seitz 3, Vivaldi's A Minor concerto movement 3, and so forth. Now he has included more such opportunities in book 5. In addition, Dr. Suzuki has included repertoire that requires the student to learn the higher 4th and 5th positions, which I have found to be places that the student may lapse into a falling left hand position.

    This blog post was intended as a general introduction to some basic issues that I focus on in book 5. Needless to say, each repertoire piece included in book 5 has its own list of detailed issues to be considered, and each student brings his or her own list of possible issues to each new repertoire piece.

    The learning process is never cut and dried. The process of learning, and of teaching, continually expands. As I journey alongside each of my students in book 5, I gain additional insight into Dr. Suzuki's brilliant repertoire structure. Each student teaches me something new about the book 5 repertoire, and I then pass it along to the next student. As I pass along this basic information to you now, I will also be adding to my current understanding of the book within the next semester, as I have several young students embarking on the book 5 journey. I hope to share more thoughts about book 5 in the coming year.

    I hope you will leave me more comments about particular issues in book 5 repertoire, or any other Suzuki repertoire.


    1. Thanks so much! I'm the teacher who requested some tips on book 5, and I appreciate your taking the time to write this.

    2. I appreciate your comments too. As a violinist myself and parent of a 10-yr old daughter who has been "slumping" through the 1st mvmt of the g minor for, oh, 4 months now, I'm so glad to hear that others have the same issues!

    3. Hi, Heidi. I am not surprised to hear that so many students and teachers give up learning the Suzuki repertoire with book 5 difficulties. It can be a nightmare, it seems! Recently I have had a large batch of students hit book 5 at the same time, and inwardly I cringed because of past experiences. But I have been improving my teaching, I think, because many of the past difficulties have disappeared. I think I'll share some of my insights in a blog post about this topic. Write me about some of your particular nightmare places, and I'll use those as starting points. birdtull@prodigy.net

    4. Thanks, Paula, for the interesting post about book 5. We were just asking students last week, what is your weakest piece? (For their afternoon practice sessions, they choose one or two weaker old pieces to work up.) Several of them chose book 5, identifying the identical passages in the 3rd movement of Vivaldi's G minor concerto. It amazed me how specific they were. By contrast, books 6 and 7 didn't show up on their list!

      Cheers, John Berger johnsberger@gmail.com

      1. I recall overhearing several teachers talk about avoiding book 5 in the past and substituting other pieces in G minor. It was a book to struggle with. I prayed that my students would reach it and be done with it before they turned 13. Alas, it did not happen that way in many cases.

        With the revised version, however, and the fact that most of my students have worked through a lot of William Starr's "Scales Plus" book, including the position work included in the book, when we get to book 5, my kids just sail through it now. The nice thing about the revised version is the choice of fingerings. Sometimes I prefer the older version fingers, but with the nice, open layout, larger print, and choice of fingerings, my kids enjoy this book as much as the others. Thank heavens for these revised books and the larger, spread out layouts. Even I had trouble reading the squashed notes and tiny print!

    5. This is such an interesting post. I started learning Suzuki at age 3 and I did end up at Book 5 around age 13 - where I was stuck for what felt like an eternity. Obviously it wasn't the revised edition back then and I really struggled. Unfortunately, I DID end up putting down my violin at age 14. I had completed Book 5 but never went on to Book 6. I really wish I had, because now (17 years later) I have picked back up my violin and after brushing up on Books 4 and 5 have started learning Book 6 on my own and am progressing well and having fun. Now, as an adult, I'm going back to the Book 5 songs and choosing my own fingerings, and I'm astonished by how much better I can play them.

      1. Thank you, Sarah! I am so excited when I hear that adults pick up an instrument later in life. There are so many playing opportunities in community orchestras, and so much fun to be had!