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Monday, November 5, 2012

Speed Busters

A few weeks ago I wrote about the problem of the speed demon. (To read that article, click here). I promised then that I would write again about some possible solutions that would help the student slow down.

Basically the problem is that the student is not paying attention. The student is not listening to the end product. Instead, the student is caught up in the physical sensations of playing fast, kind of like sprinting for the sole purpose of the exhilaration of running. The trick then is to find ways that will slow the child down or cause him or her to slow down and listen.

There are artificial devices, of course, that can provide a constricting pulse, and that may be a solution for a time. I have been known to provide a metronome marking for some students for etudes and scales in order to keep the exuberance in check. The metronome can be a worrisome issue for some students though. Some students react negatively to the distracting sound of the device and prefer a visual cue. Others have trouble matching the sound. In most of these cases, and in general anyway, I find it more useful to ask the student to be a human metronome. I will ask the student to step in time to the music or march in place while playing. Many rhythmic problems resolve themselves with this technique.

Here is a short video of one of my students who has just learned how to step in place and play the first measure of May Song. It is still a bit rudimentary, but my student shows how it is done. I might add that the student finally played the rhythm correctly after learning how to coordinate her playing actions with her feet.

Other Physical Methods
Other physical methods that I incorporate in my teaching include knee walking, marching, and hand clapping. I find knee walking to be particularly useful in group classes with Perpetual Motion. I ask the students to gather on the long side of the group classroom and get down on their knees. Then the students begin to knee walk to the other side of the room in time to the music. This is one of the most humorous sights. The students look like a flock of penguins on the march.

Students can also march around the room in a follow-the-leader game, and students tend to march in step with each other eventually. This activity may also lend itself to a discussion of pulse and rhythm, especially when some children opt to march to quarter notes and other children choose to punctuate half notes.

Hand clapping is also useful. One subset of the group can clap while the other students play in time to the clap. A parent could also provide the clapping cues for their student.

Turtle Day
Aside from physical movements, I have had some success slowing students down by asking them to play the song in the speed of a turtle. I declare “Turtle Day” on occasion and we play everything slowly, as we would expect turtles do play. I might ask the student to suggest a slow, lumbering animal, and I have had suggestions that included elephants.

Blind Man's Bluff
The biggest difficulty is finding ways to have the student listen to how they sound. One parent wrote in to say that her child paid attention more to the sound of his playing when he had his eyes closed or played in a dark room. “Blind Man’s Bluff” is a good game for this. We put blindfolds over the student’s eyes or turn off the lights. Sometimes we put our hands over the student’s eyes and say, “no peeking!” These techniques may work to some degree and for a period of time.

My favorite solution is to ask for staccato bows. I have noticed that speed demons tend to lose the clear articulation between notes, and in particular, these students also drop all pretense of playing staccato bows. I find this when we review songs that incorporate staccato, such as Variation A, Variation B (especially this one!), Variation C, Song of the Wind, Perpetual Motion, Allegretto, and Etude. Variation B is particularly troublesome for many students as they tend to play it without staccato bows on every note except for the second note of the three-note group, which is the note before the rest.

If the staccato bows have completely disappeared, I may have to help the student to relearn how to play staccato, stopped bows. Sometimes students have morphed the staccato into a forced bow stroke, where the student is using force in some way to stop the bow or push out the staccato “pop” from the string. That is not how I teach staccato in my studio. For a quick teaching tip video about my “fish bowl staccato,” click here.

In order for the student to establish the crisp popcorn bow staccato that I want, the student inevitably slows down to a speed that is more conducive to crisp staccato bows. In the process, the student cleans up many bowing articulation problems. I plan to write an article about hovering balls and coloring books, and this will explain some of the articulation issues that I address. The staccato performance now reveals messy bowing and string crossing. If the bow is crooked and wispy, the staccato will reveal that and help the student to address the problem. Periodically, I declare a Popcorn Day (click here) to help promote the tonal development that stems from good firm staccato bows.

Chip Game
I use the chip game to engage the student in using the left brain hemisphere to evaluate what the student is playing. This simple game can be played with pennies, plastic poker chips, small plastic counters, peanuts, M&Ms, tiny marshmallows, or chocolate chips. Some teachers invite the students to earn a few of these items first, but I start out my game by giving the student 10 freebies. I explain that we are going to play a game where I play something first and have the student imitate me back. Sometimes I will play my own violin, and sometimes I will have the student hold his or her violin while I move the bow for them. I prefer this last method because the student will gain the added benefit of actually hearing the correct sound directly in front of them from their own instrument, as they would if they made the sound themselves.

I explain that if the student does not match my sound, then I get to snatch away one of the chips from my student’s chip pile. If the student matches my sound, then they get to keep the chip. At the end of the game, the winner is the player who has the most chips. We also discuss what happens if there is a tie (no one wins because we have the same number of chips each). I allow the student to request a “do-over” if necessary, but only before we evaluate the sound.

I make the first sound, of course correctly making exactly the sound that I want my student to imitate and recreate. Then the student plays the same thing, and I ask the student whether the sound was exactly the same or not. I ask the student to do the evaluation so that they pay attention. If they do not pay attention and cannot answer the question, then I take a chip from the student’s pile. I rarely have a student be less than honest. In those debatable cases, I will ask the parent to decide. Occasionally I will ask the mother to be a little bit more lenient. I think parents can be too demanding at times, probably because they are trying to look perfect in my eyes. It is a balancing act on my part, because I am not only teaching the student but also the parent.

Penny Lane
Sometimes I will place a stack of pennies on the music stand and start taking them away if a problem persists. I may not even explain why I am taking a penny away. The student usually figures it out, because my act of taking away a penny causes them to become involved in trying to figure out what I am doing. When I teach in a classroom setting, such as a summer strings camp, I use a similar technique by writing students' names on the board and making a check mark beside a student’s name when certain behaviors occur or when I want to acknowledge extra points for special behaviors, such as remembering to bring a pencil to class.

In one particularly difficult classroom setting, we had a very talkative and disruptive student that could not seem to get a grip on his behavior. (I am sure that I worded it in a much more pleasant, "teacherly" way.) I pulled out four quarters and asked him if that would be something that might be worth his trying to learn to control himself and his talking outbursts. To my surprise, two other students chipped in some additional change, saying that they would also find it worth it to them to have this student behave differently.

I put the change in a bowl and proceeded with the class. The first time the young man forgot and began to disrupt the class with his loud talking, I picked up one of the quarters and handed it to one of the students who had chipped into the pot. The second time it happened, I removed another quarter and gave it to the second student who had chipped in. The boy did not have a problem after that. The class proceeded smoothly, and we all had a great time. I could see how much effort the young boy was putting into the exercise. At the end of class, I ceremoniously presented him with the change remaining in the pot, and the other classmates congratulated him on “winning.” To my surprise, the next day, the boy opted to behave differently without the enticement of money in a pot. He announced that he enjoyed the change in attention that he got from his classmates so much more than the negative complaints he had received previously. He decided that he wanted the positive regard more than the negative. From that day forward he was a changed student, and we grew to really enjoy having him in class.

Practice Time Changes
Sometimes changing the times in which the student practices may help the problem. If the practice time is a rushed or hurried affair because the family’s schedule leaves a finite amount of practice time, this may be contributing to the speedy problem. Perhaps the practice could be divided into more than one session to permit a more relaxed approach.

What's For Dinner?
It might be possible to find a reason to use time limitations to create a practice venue that is conducive to good playing. For example, one busy mom routinely asked her daughter to provide some music for her as she worked to put dinner on the table. She regularly told me how much she enjoyed hearing her daughter play the violin while she cooked, and I enjoyed watching her daughter wiggle with pride at hearing her mother’s praise and compliments about this lovely “dinner music” gesture.

Stop & Start Game
Another group class activity could include the “stop and start” game. In this game, I stop periodically during the song to see if I can “catch” anyone who is not paying attention. I find this game to be a particularly effective way to teach students when to pay attention to sticky ensemble places in the music. For example, when we play Martini’s Gavotte or Becker’s Gavotte in Violin Volume Three, I stop at the ends of phrases, so that students get in the habit of waking up at these moments to be sure that they are watching and playing together. Sometimes I wish our symphony’s conductor could play that game with us so that all of our members would learn to pay attention to each other and to the conductor at the same moments.

Slow Down Game
Another game I will play when students rush in group class is the "slow down” game. Without telling students that I am playing this game, I just start playing slower and slower every time I notice that students are rushing or are not paying attention. With each burst of speed from my students, I slow down. Sometimes we wind up playing at a crawl speed. Then when I have everyone’s attention again, I gradually start to speed up to the regular tempo again. I find this to be an interesting way to play Perpetual Motion and Etude in a group setting.

Squares of Eight
I enjoy using the squares of eight game, which is a tip I picked up from the website. We fold a piece of paper three times to make 8 squares. Then I label each square sequentially from one to eight. I put a game piece or some other marker on square one and ask the student to play a particular passage. If the student plays it correctly, then we move forward one square. If the student does not perform the passage correctly, then we move the game piece back a square. This game really works, and along with engaging the child’s attention, the game also reinforces proper practice habits and repetition. Here is the article I wrote that explains the squares of eight game: Practice Rut: Expand Your Thinking

Speeding Tickets
I have a medium-sized hand puppet of a policeman, complete with a little radio attached to his shoulder with Velcro and a whistle. I have made up little cards of speeding ticket violation fines. When a student starts speeding, I blow the whistle, and I have my hand puppet hand out a speeding violation, complete with a "dangers of speeding" speech. The speeding violation fine might include: playing 10 Mississippi Hot dogs on the E string with perfect staccato bows on the hot dog notes, 10 circle bows, or something related to an area that the student is learning.

Other People
Using other people may help the speeding problem. I had a young student play Long, Long Ago from Suzuki Violin Volume One at his grandfather’s funeral. After the funeral, at the student’s next lesson, he played the song for me to show me how he had done. As he played, his mother teared up with the memory of her son’s playing for her father’s funeral. Thereafter, every time the little boy played that song, he would turn to see if he had made his mother cry. It was a very moving thing to watch how the two of them interacted in this way. The mother’s reaction and her obvious emotional response to her son’s music drew the two of them close to each other each time. It was very beautiful to watch. The little boy had been quite attached to his grandfather.

I have asked some students to imagine playing for God, the president of the United States, or the Pope, just as Dr. Suzuki suggested that his adopted protégé, Koji Toyoda, play in church for God. I notice that students make a marked improvement in their posture and their sound when they imagine playing for an important listener. One of my parents coined the phrase, “Practice Awesomeness,” as a signal to her daughter to adopt this kind of playing posture and attentiveness.

Parking "Violinations"
For my older students, we might have a conversation about speeding and violations, which I like to call "violinations." For example, just the other day, I discussed parking fines with one of my university students. I asked him why he thought so many people violated the parking restrictions on the university campus. After a little discussion, we concluded that it might be because the fines were low enough to turn a parking violation into a viable choice. If the fines were $500 or the loss of a hand, then there would certainly be fewer parking violations.

I then selected a passage of about 20 measures in my student’s etude, and I told him that I was giving him a virtual $1,000, but I would charge him $20 per “intonation violation” in the passage. I pointed out that I was not instructing the student to go at a particular rate of speed, but that I would “charge” him $20 for every note that was out of tune. Ready? Go! It was very interesting to watch how carefully my student played that passage for me. He lost a few $20 bills along the way, but his playing of the passage improved immensely. And he learned something along the way.

Speeding can be corrected once the problem is addressed. Two weeks ago I discussed possible reasons why students speed. I hope that today's article helps to spark the creative juices to find methods to address the problem and help the student to start engaging again in the process of making music.

Please leave me a comment about some of the ways that you have discovered that might help to address the speeding issue. I really would like to build up a community of interested teachers and parents who are willing to share their ideas. Do you have a favorite way to address this issue with your child or student?


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