“Why don’t you just tell us what notes to play?”

To answer a parent’s question: “Why don’t you just tell us what notes to play?”

You expressed two concerns in your last lesson.

  • You wanted to be able to tell your child what note to start on.
  • I wasn’t telling you what note to start on.

I want to address these concerns

First let’s look at the ultimate goal:

  • Your child needs to know what note to start on without you needing to help him.
  • How can he figure this out independently?

1) Listening to the the recording

You have been doing the listening at home. You told me that everyone in your family recognized that adding the “C” to Mary Had a Little Lamb sounded weird when your child started the song on B. This tells me that everyone in the family has a very clear idea of how the song sounds when it is played correctly. You all developed this idea from listening to the recording. Excellent!

You all realized that there was something not quite correct about his way of playing it because you were all comparing it to your idea from the recording. Excellent!

Next step: If you are not quite sure of something, refer to your reference recording. Go back and listen to it again, and then try playing the piece again. The discrepancy in the first note would become much more immediately obvious. When I do this with students in lessons, they often just automatically make the needed correction without realizing it after hearing the recording. (Then I have to ask them – “What did you just do differently?”  “Oh…”)

The most important part about this approach is that the student gets to figure it out independently. If a student has difficulty, parents and teachers can guide his attention to a specific spot by asking questions – “Did your first note sound the same or different than the first note on the recording?” – or by playing just a short section of the recording instead of the entire piece.

2) Reviewing previous repertoire

When we learn new fingerings, we transpose the “toolbox” songs to start on different notes. This is to change the key of the piece, to incorporate a new fingering in a familiar melody. Because the melody is very familiar, anything that sounds “odd” directs the students’ attention to the accuracy of the new fingering.

By reviewing these toolbox songs starting on different notes in the daily home practice, the student recognizes that there are multiple options for playing these tunes in different keys, and learns to hear the difference when the the tune starts on an A or a B by daily direct comparison.

The allows the student to recognize patterns from previous pieces in new repertoire, even if the patterns start on different notes.

So if something sounds “odd” in practice, questions to be asked can include: “Can I play this piece in a different key (on a different starting note)?” “Will what I am trying to do work better in one key or another?”

So this is my philosophy:

All new pieces will be introduced with these questions in mind:

  • “What is in this piece that I already know?”
  • “What is in this piece that is new?”

Beginning with the “same / different / higher / lower” pitch identification game in our first lessons, all the way through to finding the start of the recapitulation in a classical sonata-allegro concerto movement, the process of learning the music remains the same, only the complexity of the material changes. We identify when it is the same, and when it is different.

  • If a student does consistent review of previously learned material, he has a repertoire of “same” things that he can access for immediate comparison.
  • If a student listens consistently to the reference recording, he will recognize things that are different and try to imitate them.
  • If his imitation is successful, he has just solved the “different” problem independently by combining known material in a new way.
  • If his imitation is not immediately successful, direct comparison to the reference recording and guiding questions from the practice parent or teacher can help him find the answer.

Yes this takes longer. WAY longer than just saying “It starts on an A”. But only at the beginning. If we invest the time in learning this process at the start, we can sit back later and enjoy how competently our students master new material quickly and independently. I have also seen the alternative, where students who have depended upon their parents to tell them what to do have quit playing the instrument once they get to an age where depending on the parent isn’t that fun anymore but they haven’t got the skills to do it themselves yet. I would rather foster a student who can work independently at a high level, so at an age when he desires more independence he can go off and work on his own with continued success.

Peer modelling

I was teaching a little 5 year old beginner today, and she came up with a question.

“Is that your daughter playing on the Book 1 CD?”

Now my 16 yr old daughter has been acting as my assistant in the beginner group class, and she will often play the tune while I guide the students in the activity.

I found it really interesting that for this child, imagining an older child playing the music on the recording  was more immediate than imagining an adult doing so.

So I told her, “No, that is not my daughter. But it sounds like it could be her because she has listened to that recording so much. But anybody can learn to sound like that, they just have to listen to the CD lots & lots.”

Student: “Mommy, can we go home and listen to the CD for 20 .. no, 40 minutes?”

Time and Practice

I just watched a TED talk by Abha Dawesar, “Life in the digital now.”

Here is the link: http://www.ted.com/talks/abha_dawesar_life_in_the_digital_now.html

She had some very interesting things to say about time, and I quote:

“Our story, therefore, needs two dimensions of time: a long arc of time that is our lifespan,and the time frame of direct experience that is the moment. Now the self that experiences directly can only exist in the moment, but the one that narrates needs several moments, a whole sequence of them, and that’s why our full sense of self needs both immersive experience and the flow of time. Now, the flow of time is embedded in everything, in the erosion of a grain of sand, in the budding of a little bud into a rose. Without it, we would have no music…

…You and I know exactly what it means like to be truly present in a moment. It might have happened while we were playing an instrument, or looking into the eyes of someone we’ve known for a very long time. At such moments, our selves are complete. The self that lives in the long narrative arc and the self that experiences the moment become one. The present encapsulates the past and a promise for the future. The present joins a flow of time from before and after.”

The idea of existing at a point where the long narrative intersects the present moment spoke to me.

As a musician, I put in long hours of practice, building the skill to be able to communicate through the sound I create with my instrument. Yet when I perform, I exist in that moment only – when the performance is over, the music has vanished. You can’t step back and say, “Look at what I just played!” It is not there anymore. Yet without the long story of daily practice, it would not be possible  to have that performance.

So, to use Dawesar’s analogy,  the practice is the long narrative arc, the performance is the moment, and when the two intersect, that is where art is created.

This makes me feel like practicing.

Time management starts young – my response to “I can’t practice because I have homework” from a student in Grade 2

One of the major concepts in Suzuki philosophy is taking the long term view. Especially since the very young students do not have the long term experience yet to look beyond the moment, the parents and teachers have to help establish this. So let’s look at this in the long term. When you are in high school, the homework will take more time, and the extra curricular activities will also demand more time. Juggling homework and practice at this stage, when both activities only take a few minutes, is training for time management for high school and college.

When my daughter was small we juggled homework, practice , and the freelance schedules of both parents. If we knew the day was going to pose challenges for getting things done, we would discuss how we were going to schedule everything over breakfast (or in the car), come up with a few possibilities, and our daughter would help decide which one we would use. Then we would have to stick to it no matter what (which was sometimes very difficult) but we got it done (sometimes less than we wanted but enough to at least touch on everything). But now we have a kid in Grade 12 who has the next two years planned out in terms of what courses she will take at school, which ones she will do independently on line, and the timeline for which RCM exams she has to prepare in order to get her high school graduation, her ARCT diploma in recorder, go on tour to Europe with her choir and take a gap year before college.

That ability to plan ahead was developed in the car on the way to elementary school.

Why practice the easy stuff?

As I was practicing this morning, I realized that as I was warming up I was doing the same, or very similar things, to what I have my junior and intermediate students do.  It made me stop and think.

Why was I doing these things that I have been practicing for years if I can do them already? Is this a waste of time?  Am I bored? I don’t feel bored.

As I thought about it, my answer is: I do those things very well and very easily because I do them every day.  If I didn’t spend a few minutes going over all the basics of violin playing every day they would all be much more difficult and I would be unable to successfully perform complex music with the necessary ease to communicate with an audience.

So when we practice we apply knowledge to develop skill.  The easier it gets the more precisely we are able to apply the knowledge and the more finely tuned our skills can become.

To quote Shinichi Suzuki “Knowledge is not ability.  Knowledge X 10,000 times is ability.

The Joy of Procrastination

The urge to procrastinate is a good thing! I never thought I would say this, but I have been introduced to a radical new idea thanks to Seth Godin.

In his new book The Icarus Deception (which I highly recommend) he refers to the urge to procrastinate as a sign that you are about to make some really good art. Since creating really good art also makes you vulnerable, it also activates your sense of self-preservation. Your sense of self-preservation then activates your “fight or flight” response, which manifests as an urge to put off making the art. Therefore, the urge to procrastinate is a sign that you are about to create something really good.

That is the best explanation I have ever heard for the common experience of artists, writers, and musicians – that it is a joy to practice your art, but so very difficult to get started. So the next time I feel like procrastinating instead of practicing,  I should paradoxically feel a stronger urge to practice because I know I will accomplish something really good.

Never too old

Betty had always wanted to play the flute. As a doctor’s wife, she had been a patron of the arts and had always loved music, but she never actually played an instrument herself. When she retired, she started taking flute lessons. After a couple of years, her teacher said “That’s as much as you will be able to learn because you started when you were so old.”  Being a doctor’s wife, she sought a second opinion. That is when she came to me for lessons. After a few more years of study, she was playing Handel sonatas at the level of the RCM syllabus grades 6 to 8, and enjoying herself immensely.