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Saturday, April 14, 2012

Long, Long Ago

Long, Long Ago is one of my favorite songs in the Suzuki repertoire. The students learn it fairly quickly, and I find so many opportunities throughout the song to teach my students about how to make music. I rarely need to guide a student to learn the notes, because my efforts up to now to teach ear training skills and to help my students learn how to pick out a song are bearing fruit. Most of my students figure out a good deal of the song without my help and seem fascinated about doing so. On occasion I might find a student who has some difficulty with this learning process, and I really pay attention at that point, because this is about the time that I might discover some other kinds of learning issues in general. These are issues that may not be so readily apparent up to now, and they may impact on reading skills. More about this “mysterious” diagnosis in future posts.

What usually happens is that a student who is working to polish aspects of May Song comes into the studio and proudly announces that he or she has figured out how to play the next song. Of course, the parent and I are very excited to hear the child’s efforts, and we listen patiently as the child stumbles through several notes. (This is another fun mystery: how the student gets all excited to show off something learned at home but then completely falls apart during the presentation in the studio). I will hear maybe the first or second part of the song; students tend to confuse these two phrases. The student usually presents me with a good chunk of the first part of the song and is excited to learn more.

I give my student’s home practice partner or parent permission to “cue” a few notes in the song, and perhaps the child may not need these cues. I also indicate to the parent and mark the place in the music where the student will need to take a “bow circle” in order to prepare a down bow for the third phrase of the song. Here is how I mark the music, although I put pieces of color highlighter tape on the “cue” notes.

Here is my teaching summary of Long, Long Ago:

Left Hand Skills
  • The song is in the A-A1-B-A1 form.
  • The song is in A major and follows the finger pattern learned from the beginning with the Twinkle variations: the close 2-3 fingers.
  • The song introduces a note on the D string: first finger on D string, the note “E”.
  • The song builds a spatial relationship between the first and third fingers across two strings (1-3 between the D and A strings).
  • The song is mostly stepwise motion except for the third phrase with the new D string note.
Right Hand Skills
  • The song introduces the D string level, which involves more right shoulder effort to reach the bow up to the D string level.
  • The song presents a bow distribution opportunity (long—short—short bowing pattern).
How I Teach It
  • I introduce other opportunities to play on the D string.
    • I introduce the D scale to practice playing on the D string level.
    • We play previously learned songs on lower strings. For example, we play Twinkle beginning on the D string. We pretend that we broke our E string and that we have to start a string lower.
  • If a student has not yet picked out the song, I would help him or her to play some ear training games as a disguise for actually helping the child get started on figuring out the song for him- or herself:
    • I would do a “call and response” with the first few notes, starting with one note, then adding the second note, and adding one note at a time until I had a little chunk of the song.
    • I would ask these questions as I introduced each new note into the mix:
      • Are the notes the same or different?
      • Do the notes go up or down?
      • Do the notes sound like they are steps or skips?
  • I find that the learning process goes quicker if the parents or I give a few “cues” along the way. These cues are for notes that I generally find the students miss almost always in the beginning of the learning process.
  • I teach the mud puddle section in the third phrase:
    • First the student jumps the first finger onto the D string note “E,” which I call the mud puddle.
    • “Oh, no!” I exclaim, “Now your pointer finger is stuck in the mud! We need to ask your third finger to help pull him out!”
    • Then we use the ring finger (3rd finger) to “pull” the pointer finger out of the mud. This motion is a gentle rocking of the hand and fingers.
  • We discuss the form of the song: A-A1-B-A1. By now most of my students have done this with me in earlier songs, so they get this pretty quickly. For parents and teachers reading this for the first time, here is how I present this:
    • We put a box at the beginning of the first line. Since it is the first phrase of the song, we write “A” in the box.
    • We put a box at the beginning of the second line. I ask the student whether the second phrase sounds the same as the first phrase. The student knows that it sounds the same but it has a different ending. Because the phrase sounds the same, we will use the letter “A,” but we will add a “1” after the “A” to show that the phrase ends differently. Hence, we put “A1” in the box.
    • The fourth phrase is exactly the same as the second phrase, so we put “A1” in the box.
    • The student recites the contents of the boxes in order, and that is the form of the song: A-A1-B-A1.
  • We do extra practice on the third phrase on “Bits & Pieces” days, because this phrase gets played the least and tends to lag behind in progress. For more information about what a "Bits & Pieces" day is, click here.
Later Issues (or just later)
    • I teach bow distribution concepts, especially in book 2 and 3 group classes. We use longer bows (whole bows when in book 2 and above) on the quarter notes, and then we play the eighth notes at the tip or the frog depending on the bow direction.
    • I help students to take advantage of the echo opportunity in the third phrase.
    • I help students to learn how to do the “spillover” Frank Sinatra phrasing discussed below.
    • I help students to pay attention to later messy string crossings.
    • Bows tend to go crooked and get messy later, so we pay attention to that.
    • We talk about more advanced concepts of musical phrasing, using vocabulary such as periods and commas, and questions and answers.
    • Long, Long Ago is a great song for working on musical ideas such as dynamics and phrasing. Many of these ideas are great for group classes.

    If students know what a period and a comma are, I will talk about how we can imitate that in music. Regardless of whether students know what a period and a comma are, all students understand the difference between a question and an answer. We use the first phrase of the song to show the difference in sound that we will make when we play the music like questions (commas) and answers (periods) or just periods. Just as our voice rises up at the end of a question, so we can make our music sound like that also.

    "Spillover" Phrasing
    This rising up is what I refer to as the Frank Sinatra “spillover” phrasing. Instead of letting the phrase sag at the end of bar 2 (a period rather than a comma), we hold our music “up” so that it spills over into the answer part of the phrase. Any teacher or adult who has listened to Frank Sinatra will understand my reference to this kind of phrasing. He was a master at it. Frankie never let his phrases sag.

    This teaching concept reminds me of a funny incident at the Pennsylvania Suzuki Institute many years back. Ronda Cole was the teacher. She had a little 6 or 7 year old student playing Long, Long Ago. Every time the boy reached this place in the music, he would lift his violin up and move it in an arc to the right side, then lower it back down as he played the ending part of the phrase. It was hilarious to watch. I understood that the home teacher had been trying to show the student how to make the “spillover” phrasing, but the student had turned the whole thing into a physical habit. Ronda had to tie a shoelace around both violin scrolls to keep the boy’s violin in place. I still think about that arc movement every time I play this song.

    We also experiment with playing the first phrase like two answers. Then we play the phrase like a question and answer, and I let the students decide which way they prefer. With this exercise I am encouraging my students to think about the music and to consider the kinds of musical effects and responses they want to make to or receive from the audience. Students are learning how to be musicians, and this type of process helps students to take ownership in the music-making process.


    I teach students how to make the dynamic expression follow the musical notation. As the notes rise up in pitch, we rise up in volume. As the notes descend in pitch, we diminish in volume.

    We add the echo in the third phrase. This is a great place to talk about how to keep music interesting. I tell students that the death of music is when the audience gets bored. Echos and dynamics are ways to add sprinkles on our vanilla ice cream rather than having it plain. It is okay to have plain vanilla once in a while, but too much of the simple stuff and our listeners will stop paying attention to our music.
    Third Phrase "Echo"
    Group Activities
    • We divide the class in half. One half plays the question parts of the phrases, and the other half plays the answers. Then we reverse roles.
    • We rise up with our bodies and lower back down as the notes ascend or descend in pitch. We use our bodies to imitate the dynamics.
    • We play “copy cats” so that I can teach them good ensemble skills.
      • With this game, I will stop at various places during the song, and the students are to stop when I do. I try to catch a student who is not paying attention.
      • The places that I stop are at those ending points in a phrase where we want to be sure that we start the next few notes together. For example, at the end of measure 2 and going on to measure 3, we need to be together.
      • This game prepares students early on to be better orchestral musicians. It teaches students when are appropriate places to check in with a conductor or fellow musicians in order to make good ensemble.
    • The Suzuki duet book has a lovely duet for this song. I teach my more advanced students this duet part, and we practice ensemble skills by playing the song along with the duet.
    • We practice playing on the G string by starting the song on the D string. This will prepare students for learning Allegretto a few songs from now, when a note on the G string is introduced. At the same time, other songs learned in book 1 can be played on the G and D strings (along with songs on the D and A strings). This expands the students' repertoire threefold, because the students usually tell me that the songs sound completely different on other strings.
    • More advanced students can use this song for vibrato practice. At first we vibrate on the long notes, but gradually we add vibrato to all the notes.
    • Students can add the pinkie finger instead of the E string in measures 3, 7, 9, 11, and 15.
    • More advanced students may introduce more advanced fingerings that use higher positions.
    That is Long, Long Ago in a nutshell. A lot of detail, but this song is full of possibilities for musical development and group class activities.

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