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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Quick Practicing Tip: Long Bow Day!

I hereby declare today to be "Long Bow Day!" If you are not a string player, do not despair! You can still participate in  Long Bow Day! You may want to change the name to suit your instrument, but the concepts will basically be the same whether you play the violin, the piano, or the trumpet.

A Long Bow Day is a day when we play songs that require long bows more than any other bows. You know which songs I refer to: Twinkle Theme, Lightly Row, Aunt Rhody, O Come Little Children, Long Long Ago, etc. These are songs that require legato bowing. If you are a pianist, these are songs that ask for legato phrasing, and there are many songs like this in Suzuki Piano Volume One. In fact, a good deal of the Suzuki Piano Volume One is teaching the student how to play legato with one hand while the other hand learns to play staccato or use the wrist drop/lift motion. For us string players, that means that the pianists are learning how to use both right and left hands independently, as we do.

Have you figured out what ten places you need to practice your legato or long bows? There are three possible ways to approach a Long Bow Day:
  • Tone and Sound Quality
  • Good Form
  • Musicality
For string players, a good tone and sound quality stem from a good contact point between the bow and the violin string and from the absence of tension in the body. Is the bow articulating the individual notes well? Is the tone scratchy or just right? Is the bow on the highway or drifting near the sidewalk (fingerboard) or bridge? Are there any points of tension in the skeletal joints? Is the student releasing tension from "inside" muscles and directing attention to "outside" muscles?* Most of all, is the bow straight (parallel to the bridge)? Get a mirror and check this, or have your practice partner help you to know when your bow is on the straight highway.
  • My students and I use the numbers game to learn when the bow is straight. If the bow is straight and parallel to the bridge, that is the number 5. If the bow goes crooked inward toward the player, that is a series of numbers going down, such as 4 or 3. If the bow goes crooked outward away from the player, then the numbers go up to 6 or 7.
  • As the student plays, the practice partner calls out the number, usually 4-6. This helps to guide the student to know when the bow is straight or crooked and in which direction to move the bow to straighten it out.
  • A student can also learn how to look in a mirror and gauge whether the bow is moving in the straight groove across the string. Parents, please note that when the bow is "straight" and parallel to the bridge, that it actually looks crooked from the player's perspective. The player must learn how to see the bow when it is straight, and this is not easy.
Tone production for a string player may include how much bow the student uses. As the student advances in technical skills and ability, the repertoire requires that the student use more and more bow without sacrificing the tone quality. As pianists learn faster note passages and use the right and left hands more independently, the tone quality should remain consistent. In some cases, the student will learn how to balance the tone between the hands so that both right and left hand parts sound equal. In other songs, the student will learn how to voice the left hand or the right hand part in a way that will bring more prominence to that part.
    For pianists, a good tone and sound quality is how the student executes the note with the finger on the keyboard. Beginning students do not yet have much muscle development in their fingers, hands, or arms, and in many cases, the families do not own pianos but are using electronic keyboards in the home, so that the students do not develop the appropriate musculature to execute a good tone on a real piano keyboard. In the beginning, I use a lot of imitation with students to help them learn how much weight to drop into the piano keys and the notes of the music.

    Good form is always crucial to good tone, no matter what instrument a student plays. Always check posture and the form of execution. Good form also includes whether the student is playing the instrument correctly. If a violin student is not bowing parallel to the bridge or does not place the bow to make good contact with the violin string, then we need to focus on good form, because good form goes hand in hand with producing a good tone and sound quality. When I evaluate a student's form and posture, I start from the bottom and work my way to the top. For violinists, we start with balanced feet. I should not be able to push the student over sideways or backwards. (To learn more about how I set up my violin students' posture, click here).

    Balance is always crucial when playing an instrument. Violinists shift weight from side to side and have to hold an instrument before them (off to the side), and this instrument carries weight too. Pianists need to be able to shift from side to side to reach keys at the ends of the keyboard; if a student is not balanced, then the student will topple over or play with little strength and tone in the sound.

    Musicality refers to the more advanced musical concepts of phrasing, dynamic expression, and how the human body's mechanics create these things. If a student has the physical capability of executing a musical phrase, I introduce how a good musician would end a phrase. Just as humans let their voices trail off at the end of a sentence (or a voice runs out of steam at the end of a long note), we imitate that sound with the instrument. String players learn to let the phrase tail off in a whisper and which bow stroke accomplishes that best. Pianists learn how to lighten up the finger touch on the keyboard in order to create the phrase.

    Now, being good teachers and practice partners that we are, we will follow the one-point lesson. We have our list of ten songs or ten places that require legato playing. Now we will decide which one of the three approaches we will use, and it may be that we use different approaches for different things on our list of ten. For example, a newer song or passage might benefit from attention paid to good form. A more familiar piece might require more attention to phrasing and musicality. And a song that falls somewhere in between might fare best with attention paid to tone production and sound quality. As long as we focus on one thing at a time, we can reap the most benefit from our practice efforts. Remember that younger students will need to focus on smaller segments and may need simpler tasks or smaller steps (baby steps) to work on. You should know your child, so be gracious about forming a practice plan that will encourage and nurture your student's learning.

    Happy Practicing!

    *"Inside" muscles are those muscles that create tension. Think of a body builder's pose down in a weight lifting competition. The body builder leans forward and makes his or her arms tighten the muscles on the inside of the arms. This squeezing causes all the arm muscles, shoulder muscles, chest muscles, and abdomen muscles to appear. "Outside" muscles are the other sides of the muscles. These muscles cause the tension to dissipate. If a body builder were to turn on the "outside" muscles, the arms would lift out to the sides, and the other muscles would not be showing. If I find tension, I help guide the student to turn on outside muscles instead of inside muscles. This one teaching area is probably the issue where I address most of my teaching time and focus because it affects tone and sound quality, good form, and musicality.

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