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Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Allegretto: The Dragon

One of my favorite songs in Suzuki Violin Volume One is Allegretto, written by Dr. Suzuki. Allegretto was not always my favorite; oh no, we had a difficult relationship together for quite awhile. Over time and as I became more and more familiar with the song and the various difficult skill bits for students, I came to understand and appreciate the song's complexity and how to teach the song to students.

Whenever students tell me that they do not like a song they are about to learn or have just started learning, I usually tell the students that their reactions to the song tell me that they will probably come to love the song, and that the song will become one of their favorites after a time. Students usually come back to me with similar reports after spending some time learning the song. Students may announce their dislike of Allegretto to me but later find that they enjoy playing the song quite a bit. Allegretto was one such song for me as well. The song may be a dragon to learn, but we can come to appreciate and enjoy the beauty of the dragon as well, and when we spend time in close proximity to it, we will become accustomed to the heat as well.

Why is the song so difficult for students? There are several culprits:
  • two new "fat" strings to play on
  • a new note on the "fattest" string
  • a pinkie on a lower string
  • a new pinkie fingering combination
  • fingers that skip in thirds rather than walk in steps
  • an awkward bow accent.
How is that for starters? Here are a few of my goals at this point in order to ease the student's learning pathway.

Play on Lower Strings

I start the Allegretto learning process while we are still a few songs away from beginning Allegretto. By this point I have encouraged the student to play previous repertoire on lower strings. For example, instead of playing Twinkle theme on the E and A strings, now the student will play Twinkle theme on the A and D strings, or the D and G strings. We continue in this manner, adding songs on different strings until the student can play any song on a different string.

We learned the A major one octave scale earlier in volume one, so now we add the D scale. The finger patterns are the same. For fun, we often add the lower octave of the G scale as well. This prepares the student for the longer two octave G scale that will introduce the finger patterns of Etude.

Both of these activities are great items for group classes as well as individual lessons and home practice.

Awaken the Pinkie

I have introduced the left pinkie several times by now. When I teach a pre-twinkle student, I introduce a left hand plucking exercise that involves the pinkie (to read more about the left hand plucking exercise, click here). So my youngest beginner has experienced the use of the pinkie since the early days. We may need to revisit this exercise at this point. I also have the student play six pinkie places in Perpetual Motion. In the revised volume one, there are additional pinkie fingering suggestions in the early songs of the book, although I prefer to wait to teach these additional fingerings until later because I want my students to learn about string crossings and building tone through the use of the resonant open strings for a time.

Train the Ears

Since Lightly Row, I have worked to strengthen the student's ability to recognize several basic ear training skills, not only in lessons, but also in group classes. I often make up new songs on the spot in group classes so that we can practice our ear training skills:

  • Walking Fingers: These are scale-like passages where the notes ascend or descend by step. Students have a great deal of difficulty with the concept of ascending and descending pitch when it involves a string crossing. Some students "get it" but many do not without extra guidance from me.
  • Skipping Fingers (aka "doorbells" or "cuckoos"): These are passages that contain interval skips of a third, such as the opening notes of Lightly Row or O Come Little Children.
  • Patterns: These can be passages of rhythmic or melodic patterns. For example, the opening notes of the first two measures of Lightly Row are melodic and rhythmic patterns. Measures 7, 8, and 9 of Song of the Wind are melodic patterns.
Allegretto will involve all of the above, which is why students are sometimes so confused when they first learn it. For example, the first three notes are walking fingers, but then there is an ascending skip and a step backwards, and it involves a pinkie too! Then the rhythmic and melodic pattern is repeated but a step higher, and then we reverse the walking fingers down. Why, it is no small wonder to me that many teachers and parents come up with nonsensical words to make the process easier to remember. Sometimes I just want to tear my hair out! I cannot imagine what a parent must go through at home as they watch the child struggle to puzzle out what they hear on the recording with what the child can match on the instrument.

The best advice I can give parents is to make sure to play the recording a lot at home. I mean a lot! When a parent saturates the child's environment with Allegretto, the child will learn the song much quicker.

Stimulate the Rhythmic Pulse

Allegretto has a great rhythmic pulse: tah-tah-DUM, tah-tah-DUM, etc., which propels forward melodically, similar to our natural physical rhythm. At first, the student has to focus attention most on the melodic elements of the song, and so the rhythm may suffer while the student masters the finger patterns and notes. For more information about useful ways to teach rhythmic chunks, click here. For another practice tip idea that focuses on the work of Ševčík and how it can be applied to Allegretto, click here.

While a student learns Allegretto, I may focus on karate punching practice in group class. My students seem to enjoy my mixture of martial arts with music (we have a martial arts studio next door, and I have studied Kim Soo Karate). We stand in "horse stance" or ready stance and practice throwing karate punches, first with the right hand and then the left in time to the accents of Allegretto (on the quarter notes). Not only do we get a physical workout, we get a rhythmic lesson as well!

Stay tuned for an in-depth look at how I analyze and approach Allegretto specifically.


  1. Perfect timing for us! My child is lukewarm when it comes to practising Allegretto. Now you gave me a few ideas. Thanks,

    1. I sometimes have to invent all sorts of activities to perform while listening to Allegretto in order to get some extra listening in. Parents too often get "bored" with the amount of repetitious listening that a child may need in order to "understand" how the song is put together. Let me know what ideas you try, what worked best, and what other games your child may think of. Many times my most creative students will come up with pretty neat things to do when listening to a song. It is so easy for parents to neglect the fun that can be had while listening to music. I remember my parents listening and discussing music with us during meal times. We had such fun together with music.

      Thanks for writing in! I really appreciate it. It is pretty quiet in here alone.