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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Aunt Rhody: Dessert Tastes Sweet!

After reading and working through my previous posts that discuss the teaching and learning of Lightly Row and Song of the Wind, I am willing to bet that you are ready for a break! I am certain that your students and their practice partners are ready to catch their breath.

Dr. Suzuki understood the need for a “breather” now and then when he put together his repertoire of Suzuki volumes. When I explain this concept to my student's practice partner, I use the analogy of hiking up a steep mountain. Along the way, we run out of breath from exerting ourselves. Periodically we stop and take a rest. We get out our cameras and take pictures of flora and fauna or the vista before or behind us. Maybe we have a snack or a meal. Then, after a brief refreshment, we push forward to the next resting place along the trail.

As it is with mountain trail hiking, so it is with learning the Suzuki repertoire. Dr. Suzuki arranged the material to challenge us with new left and right hand skills and ever increasing complex musical forms. After a few songs, we find a song that breathes a little easier for us. We quickly figure out the finger patterns, and there seem to be few new technical skills included in the song. We find that we can just relax and enjoy the view, catch our breath, and let our muscles and our motivation and enthusiasm for learning get a little bit stronger as we give them a chance to build and harden.

Dr. Suzuki arranged the repertoire to introduce new technical skills, but rather than constantly push us to the edge of the cliff, Dr. Suzuki allowed us to step back a wee bit now and then to enjoy the beauty of playing music and to celebrate how much we have learned about the instrument, music, and ourselves up to this point. I call this type of piece one of Dr. Suzuki’s "dessert" songs. “Go Tell Aunt Rhody” is a dessert song.

I spend very little time teaching my students how to play Aunt Rhody. I use the song to work on ear training skills and to show my students how to translate the musical sounds they hear into the notes and fingers they need to play to recreate the same sound. Occasionally a student has difficulty in this area because of perfectionist tendencies. This song is great for working through these issues.

Here is a basic summary of the skills found in the song:

Left Hand Skills
  • The song is in A major and uses the same finger pattern as the previous book one songs (close 2-3 finger pattern).The song basically moves stepwise, either ascending or descending.
  • There is a finger "tangle" spot in measure 4.
  • The song is in A-B-A form (3 parts and the first and third part are the same).

Right Hand Skills
  • There is a quick string crossing from the E string to the 3rd finger “D” on the A string.
  • There is a later opportunity to teach bow distribution concepts: long bow, 2 shorter bows, long bow, 2 shorter bows.
  • There is a forte and echo place in measures 5-8 where the student can learn about using bigger bows for bigger sounds and smaller bows for smaller sounds.

Previews (How to Teach the Song)
  • I preview the finger "tangle" spot in measure 4.
  • I help the student to practice the string crossing place in measure 6 from the E string to the note “D” on the A string.
  • If the student has not picked out the notes to the song on their own, I use the song as an opportunity to work on ear training skills.
  • I ask them to turn around from me because we are going to play a game. I play the first note and ask the student to try and find it on his or her violin.
    • I may have to guide the student a little bit by asking questions that direct the student, such as whether the student thinks the note is on the A or the E string.
        • Students do not yet understand the progression of pitches up the scale to the next string. This will come later on.
        • Parents do not understand this concept either. Women have a harder time grasping the concept of the pitch getting higher when the string length is shortened. Guys tend to get this right away.
        • I play the first 2 notes of the song and ask the student whether the notes are different or the same. I am establishing the thought process for picking out a new song.
            • I play the first 3 notes of the song and ask the student whether the new note is different or the same. If it is different, did the pitch go “higher” or “lower”? Students can have a hard time with the concepts of “higher” and “lower.” This will also come together with time.
            • I continue working through the first measure, and maybe the 2nd measure as well depending on the student. Once the student is able to play this small segment of the song, I will help the practice partner and student by writing down what we accomplished, e.g., 2A-2-1-A-A-1-1-2-1-A.
                • I know about the discussion of whether to use numbers or note names. I have struggled to remember to use note names from the onset, but I keep forgetting.
                • I find it helpful to enlist the practice partner’s help with this, and I ask them to remind me to stay with the note names.
                • If I use finger numbers, I only list the string name when the string changes. My students understand that they are to play on the same string until I have designated a string change.
              • This is the perfect time to work on those perfectionist tendencies or fear issues, if they exist. If a student suffers from these problems, the student will present in this way:
                  • The student will hesitate before playing anything.
                  • The student will hesitate for longer and longer periods of time until he or she becomes almost catatonic.
                • I encourage the student to stop "thinking" and just play, because “sometimes the fingers and bow know just what to do and thinking about it will get in the way of the fingers and bow.”
                  • I help the practice partner observe the student’s behavior so that they see exactly what I see. A child who is having trouble in this way probably has trouble in other areas at home as well.
                  • Remember, a parent could be the reason behind this problem. E.g., sometimes a strong, confident parent could be squelching the student’s comfort about experimenting.
                  • Also, a perfectionist parent or overly critical parent may promote this problem in the student. If a student cannot play something “perfectly,” or the student is not sure that they can play perfectly or correctly, they will stand before me completely stymied.
                  • If I identify a perfectionist issue, I instruct the parent to “burn toast.” This is my expression for activities that I want the parent to engage in at home and present in a new way.
                        • If the parent makes toast, I tell the parent to burn the toast and then throw a “hissy fit” and threaten to never make toast again because it was not perfect.
                          • If the parent makes peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, I tell the parent to smear the peanut butter or the jelly all wrong on the bread, throw a silly tantrum about it, and go through the routine of never making another PB & J sandwich again because it was not perfect.
                          • The student will quickly get the message. The student will recognize how silly the parent is acting, and this opens the door for great discussions about the whole thing.
                          • This also alerts the parent to recognize when the parent is behaving in a way that contributes to the student’s problem.
                            • Once I work through the ear training exercise with a student, I find that the process of picking out the notes of a new song by ear go much easier with the next song. I continue working in this way through the literature in book 1 until the student at some point “gets it” and can do it for him- or herself.
                          Later Problems (or Just Later)
                          • I do not have very many problems come up later with this song. 
                          • I do use this song later for introducing more advanced skills.
                            • I use Aunt Rhody as a review song for teaching whole bow distribution:
                                  • Whole down bow
                                    • 2 smaller bows at the tip
                                    • Whole up bow
                                    • 2 smaller bows at the frog
                                    • I use Aunt Rhody to teach the low 1st finger pattern by substituting a Bb for B natural on the A string and F natural for F# on the E string. We refer to this as Aunt Rhody goes to Saudi Arabia, because the song sounds like music from that part of the world.
                                        • I use Aunt Rhody to teach the close 1-2 finger pattern on the A string. We substitute C natural for C#.
                                          Group Class and Other Options
                                          • We play the game where Aunt Rhody travels around the world.
                                              • We go to Saudi Arabia: low 1st finger on the A and E strings.
                                                  • We play sad Aunt Rhody. I tell the students that Aunt Rhody is homesick.
                                                      • We play Aunt Rhody with pizzicato and pretend we went to England.
                                                          • We play Aunt Rhody with our bows over the fingerboard (in the ditch) because we went to the rain forests in Brazil and our car got mired in the mud and ran off the road.
                                                              • We play Texas Aunt Rhody, which is a double string version, where we drone A or E string while we play the song.
                                                                  • Aunt Rhody is a great long bow or legato review song.
                                                                      • We use the song in group classes to practice making crescendos and echoes.
                                                                        As you can see, the Suzuki repertoire and how we approach the teaching presentation of the repertoire are full of possibilities. We are limited only by our imaginations. Aunt Rhody is a dessert song in my book, but it is a great song for teaching many possible concepts. Most of my students love Aunt Rhody, so it is always popular.

                                                                        I had a young student who started lessons at age 5. She was one of the brightest students I ever had. She is currently studying in the science field at the University of Texas. When she was 7, she told me that “Go Tell Aunt Rhody” was her favorite song. Whenever she was fearful about something at school, she would sing the song to give herself courage.

                                                                        I have never forgotten that. That was the first time I recognized how powerful the Suzuki repertoire could be to a young child who is discovering the power and beauty of music for the first time.


                                                                        1. Thanks for the great post, it has been very helpfull for me to read it :)

                                                                        2. As a postscript, I've been working with some Albanian students, and they say the Saudi Arabian Aunt Rhody reminds them of a song in Albanian. So perhaps we need to change our travel destination!

                                                                        3. Nice article, thanks for sharing.