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Thursday, June 21, 2012

Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen

Now what does that title have to do with anything? Well, I read over my blog stats on a daily basis, including which blog posts are popular, where my readers come from, how many readers have visited the site, and what search terms bring readers to my little blog community.

Recently several people have been searching for information about Becker Gavotte, Gossec Gavotte, Gavotte from “Mignon,” and some other songs that I recognized instantly as the ones that typically cause teachers trouble. Hence my title today.

I remember when I first realized that I had teaching problems in my studio. I had been teaching for many years, but at the time I had recently opened up my studio full time. Since I was working long hours every day to accommodate a full studio, I was tired at the end of my teaching day. I did not have the reservoir of patience and creativity that I might have had if I only taught ten to fifteen students. I began to consider what areas of my studio did not produce an energizing return for me, and that is when I discovered how to fix the troubles I saw in my studio. Below are some basic lessons I learned and how I began to figure out how to address the problems.

Listening Deficiency

I noticed that some students had a difficult time learning a new piece. I would have to practically stand on my head or write down the notes with some sort of fingering code in order for the student to remember (or even learn!) the piece. Allegretto stands out in my mind as one of these pieces. Etude, Minuet 3, and Minuet in G were others. When I puzzled over why this might be an issue, I considered what tools I could suggest that would improve the learning process. Why, listening to the recordings frequently, of course! So I asked the parent to play the recording of the piece a few extra times every day, and that is when I really noticed the look on the parent’s face. Oh, they were not doing the listening in the first place, I realized.

I stopped being afraid to talk to parents directly a long time ago. Parents naturally want what is best for their child, and if they do not, then they should. So, I stopped hesitating about bringing up these sorts of issues with parents. I believe that parents should do everything they can do to the best that they can to be sure that their child is able to learn to the best of the child's capability. I cannot expect to place the responsibility of playing the recordings daily on the shoulders of a five year old. Gosh, children need to be prodded to brush their teeth before bed, take baths, and eat their vegetables! And that is when they are still in high school! No, a parent’s touch is required here, and if a parent has trouble remembering to turn on the recordings, then I suggest steps that the parent could take to help his or her memory. Sticky notes are good, alarms on the smart phone work well, and text and email reminders from the teacher are really successful!

Now I frequently ask parents if they are doing the listening every day. Do they have the CD playing in the car? Can they find the CD? If the parent has put the recordings on the child’s electronic device, how has the parent made sure that the child is actually listening to the recording?

If the parent is playing the recordings and the child still has trouble with the new song, then I recommend doing additional “extra” listening every day for a week or two. Usually the problem clears right up in a week once the parent steps up the listening work.

Daily Practice

This issue would seem to be a no-brainer, but yes, there are still parents out there who think that their child can learn a new skill and develop a high level of ability without actually having to practice the instrument every day. There are also parents who may understand the value of daily practice but who seem to think that a minimal amount of effort is all that is needed to accomplish what needs to be done. I even had one parent who was doing the 100 days club requirements but doing a minimal amount of practice for it (5 minutes per child). I let it slide for a while because the daily practice habit was the purpose of the 100 days club, but after awhile I started urging the mom to step it up and increase the amount the children practiced. I knew they could accomplish more than they were. The parent might establish the daily habit of practicing, but by limiting the practice to five minutes, the parent was not enjoying the experience of finding out how good a parent she could be. As any good Suzuki parent will tell you, the practice issues happen after the first five minutes, when the going gets tough and the parent has to draw on good parenting skills and exercise maximum creativity.

Again, I do not hesitate to ask parents and the student how much practice is being done at home. I find that if I phrase the question in certain ways, that I am sure to encourage the parent to do more in the practice department. This is not the time for my open-ended question technique. Here is when I turn on my lawyer charm: Did you practice every day this week? I like to start out by asking whether the parent has practiced with the child the optimum amount, which is every day. The parent may whittle the answer down into a lower amount, but at least they know where the “top” is.

Intonation Problems

Boy was this a tough one to figure out! There were some spots in the Suzuki repertoire that eluded me for a long time in terms of intonation. The teachers all know what songs I mean: Gavotte from “Mignon,” Gavotte in G Minor, and Becker Gavotte to name just a few. Also, as part of the intonation problem, I had to deal with left hands that fell down under the fingerboard or left index fingers that would not stand up, or pinkies that did not play on their tiptoes. I have written several previous blog posts about addressing intonation, so I will not address the issues again in this post. If you would like to revisit those articles, here are the links:

Learning How to Fish

I am sure you have heard of the paraphrased expression: Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime. Well, here is how I learned how to fish, I mean teach, through the problems I saw. Let me use the Gavotte Three as examples (Gavotte from "Mignon," Gavotte in G Minor, and Becker Gavotte). Here are the discovery steps I used to teach myself how to fish:
  • Identify the problem
  • Specifically identify the problem
  • Discover where the technique was first introduced
  • Develop a strategy to shore up the technique or prevent the problem in the future
  • Figure out how to present my strategy to the student in a palatable way

And here is my further discussion of each of these discovery steps.

Problem: Student plays woefully out of tune. Specifically the student’s left third finger does not stretch high enough, the first finger does not reach low enough, and the pinkie is confused about whether to stretch out to a perfect fourth from the first finger (it is a flat pinkie in the music, after all).

Specific Problem: Usually I will follow the Julie Andrews’ technique of isolating the two notes where the problem occurs. Just as a basketball hoop is missed because of an improper layup or a baseball pitch is missed due to an inadequate swing, so most musical technique problems occur between the note where the mistake is and the note that precedes it. However, in my current problem, I could not identify two notes. Specifically, the problem was that the student did not adequately understand and could not properly execute the appropriate finger pattern. The same problem occurred in both pieces. So the fingering pattern was the problem.

Discover Where the Technique was First Introduced

I identified the technique’s first appearance as somewhere around the Two Grenadiers. To be completely accurate, I could identify the issue as a little exercise that Dr. Suzuki put in the beginning of the previous version of Violin Volume 2, where he had the student hold down the third finger and then silently move the first finger from the regular squared knuckle position to the lowered first finger position of Bb. Once I figured that out, I was able to trace the development of the skill throughout book 2. I found the lowered first finger first in Two Grenadiers. Then I found the finger pattern needed for Book 3 within the middle section of Gavotte from “Mignon.” Ah ha! Now I was onto something.

Develop a Strategy to Shore up the Technique or Prevent the Problem in the Future

From that point of discovery onward, I increased my teaching efforts in book 2 to prepare my student better for the skills required by book 3. I made sure that my student was solid on the lowered first finger in Two Grenadiers, including the little exercise at the beginning of book 2 and using the finger in our Aunt Rhody Goes to Saudi Arabia game (substitute Bb for every B natural in the song). Then I made sure that the middle section of Mignon was absolutely perfect before moving out of book 2. I will explain in the next section how I accomplished that. These small steps paved the way for a much more enjoyable teaching experience for me, and my students were much better equipped to handle the lessons found in book 3.

    Figure out how to Present my Strategy to the Student in a Palatable Way

I have already mentioned the Aunt Rhody Goes to Saudi Arabia game. Other ways I presented the new finger pattern was to teach the student about transposition. Students are already transposing when they play Twinkle or other songs on different strings. They may not have enough theory background at this point to understand what they are actually doing, so I bring up the issue now, although Long, Long Ago in Book 2 is a good place as well (since it is transposed from the original A major version of book 1).

Next we transpose Perpetual Motion into the key of Bb. I do this because it teaches the finger pattern that Mignon and book 3 require. I also teach my students to play a Bb scale, 1 octave (on the A and E strings), and also play the scale in thirds. We have been known to work with a tuner too. Even my little ones find the tuner useful as well as fascinating, and working with a tuner also helps my students to learn how to maintain an even tone with the sustained bow.

Armed with these Bb tools, my students are ready to tackle the middle section of Gavotte from “Mignon.” However, before they do, I staple a $1 bill to the bottom of the song in their book 2. I tell my students that this is a dollar spot. In order to earn the dollar, the student must play it perfectly in tune. Whenever that happens, the student can then remove the staples and we paper clip the dollar to the book. The student must then come in the next week and still be able to play the dollar spot perfectly in order to remove the dollar bill and put it in his or her pocket.

I do not let my students collect the dollar unless they absolutely play the passage correctly and in tune. I am very particular about this. The student may take a long time to earn the dollar. We just keep moving along in the book while the student keeps trying. I do not allow the student to move past book 2 until the dollar is won. Usually the student earns the dollar within a few weeks. [And do not worry about going broke stapling dollar bills to students' music books. Usually the parent produces the dollar bill when I ask if they have a dollar for change. They kind of scurry to produce the dollar bill for me so that I do not have to use mine. Very sweet!]

Since I required these small steps in book 2 (and we focus on them in group classes as well), my later book 3 problems disappeared! Similarly, when I used my discovery steps to analyze problems in book 1, I discovered my answers and my solutions earlier in the book.

I have been teaching many years now, so I have had many opportunities to discover problems and solutions throughout the entire Suzuki repertoire, and I have been offering many of my discoveries to you through this blog and its articles. Try using these same questions and make some of your own teaching discoveries, and let me know about it by posting a comment below.


  1. Gabriela BohnettJune 22, 2012 at 6:18 AM

    How wonderful it is to have an opportunity to wake up and find so much teaching knowledge at my fingertips. Thank you so much, Paula, for sharing your great insights and discoveries with all!

    1. What a wonderful comment to wake up and find, Gabriela! You made my day before it even started!