Teaching targeted practicing

I took lousy notes, but here’s what I mostly recall about today’s practice:

  • We did half before dinner and half afterwards. This worked pretty well. We stuck with tossing coins.
  • We started with lots of note reading. She continues to enjoy it and excel at it.
  • We worked on Song of the Wind, and M kept making the same mistake in one section. I coached her to identify the mistake, and then we played the problem section together over and over.
    • I discussed the concept of targeted practicing: figuring out what particular area of your playing needs work, then focusing on that when practicing.
  • We worked a little on With Steady Hands (perhaps just on the B1/B2 sections?). Though we haven’t practiced it much, she’s doing well with it.
  • We probably worked on some other song or exercise, but I’ll be darned if I can recall what. I’m sure we talked about playing musically, since that’s one of our assignments this week from her studio teacher. (Perhaps I asked M to play the Furhman Tanz with attention to musical details? Who knows?)

This recap is embarassingly vague. I usually ask M what she thought of her playing when she finishes a song, and I always make her give me specifics, since “good” or “not so good” isn’t informative enough. And here I am, very short on specifics.

Pitching pennies before dinner

We had a pretty good practice, but I continue to be baffled at how little we get done in an hour. And M was generally cooperative! We did:

  • Sight reading in Read This First. We played two songs, three times through (first saying beats; second saying notes; third saying fruit rhythms). I suppose this took longer than it seemed.
  • The double-note Perpetual Motion variation, with a stuffed rabbit to help M keep her wrist up.
  • The Fuhrman Tanz. Per M’s studio teacher, I asked her to focus on playing “musically” (we first went over a list of “musical” items she could add to her playing — crescendo, ritardando, vibrato, etc.). She got some things in, and she got the structure right. There’s still room to improve. What I noticed and discussed was how she could play more legato by not bringing her pinky down on the high A too early.
    • As an exercise after the Tanz, I asked M to play A-F# repeatedly 10 times and watch her timing to keep it legato. She did perfectly!
  • As our inter-song activity, M pitched pennies in a glass. This was a pretty good choice (low distraction, not too time consuming), except when she started to get upset when she was missing. This will probably work better if she has a higher success rate.

The one bummer for me today was how M responded (during a play date) to a friend’s dad’s questions about playing the guitar. First, when he asked if she played an instrument, she said, “I’m a rock star!” So far so good. But then he asked, “What do you like about playing the guitar? Do you have a favorite song?” She answered “nothing” and “no.”

Normally this doesn’t bother me much (though obviously I wish she answered differently), particularly since she has bought into the guitar in other ways (as shown by the “rock star” remark). But the mother of M’s friend had earlier been telling me about her daughter’s ice skating and gymnastics and had remarked with pleasure that her daughter really seemed to enjoy both activities. The contrast with M’s attitude about the guitar struck me.

On the positive side, while M and I were making a Keva-plank structure, she liked something I did and said:

You rockstarred it!

Here’s the bunny we used during our lesson (M kept it under her wrist while she played Perpetual Motion):

sparkly bunny

The power of the stopwatch

I have been a terrible blogger. I haven’t been posting daily, so naturally I can’t provide great specifics about the previous few days.

At a general level, the most notable event this week was the arrival of the stopwatch. Based on the notion that we change the things we measure, I decided to use a stopwatch to keep track of time M wastes during our lessons by dawdling. It drives me nuts, and I’ve tried to explain that if she wants more time to herself after our lessons, she can waste less time during them. But this hasn’t worked, so I thought to myself, “I need to show her exactly how much time she is wasting to make it real for her. I need a stopwatch.”  I got this simple one:

She responded well all week — whenever she took too long to do something (e.g., pick up her guitar, get into ready position), I’d reach for the stopwatch, and she’d almost always immediately do what I’d asked. The most wasted time I clocked in any lesson was about 1:30.  We’ll see how long it lasts.

Technically, this week our focus was big tone and a steady right hand. Some of last week’s work has sunk in, and she regularly gets a nice, loud sound. Now she needs to work on keeping an elevated wrist. I did a lot of silent correction on this toward the end of the week — and it turned out to be the main thing her studio teacher pointed out at her private lesson on Saturday. Nice to know I was on the right track.

I can’t quite decipher my notes for Wednesday the 23rd through Friday the 25th, but it looks like we did:

  • Some note reading to start every practice (most days, both fruit rhythms and the see-say note page; Friday, just the note page).
  • Scales, iuncluding a ping-pong D scale on Thursday.
  • The G scale on one string.
  • Song of the Wind with the metronome.
  • The Fuhrman Tanz, with an emphasis on playing legato.


Pretty good practice today, but we started after dinner, and it might have showed in M’s concentration. We did:

  • Note reading (see-say note page @ 42 bpm)
  • Note reading/rhythyms (50-measure hurdles with fruit rhythms)
  • G scales (normal)
  • May Song, focusing on right-hand technique, then doing radio on/radio off
  • The Fuhrman Tanz
  • The A2 section of With Steady Hands

I decided to start with the note reading off of the guitar, since M finds this fun, and she was nearly flawless: she missed a single note on the see-say note page and only one or two rhythms (and they were hard ones). I have mixed feelings about working off of the instrument, but at least it gives us a positive starting point.

As for her playing, her physical technique is still pretty good (she’s playing with vigor and steadiness in the right hand), but her mental technique is a mess. The first time through May Song, she played it like a salad — instead of returning to the beginning at the repeat, she went to the middle, which she then played three times. She also cut the ending off too soon. And then, when I asked her how it went, she said she played all the right notes!

To deal with this problem, which is a concentration lapse, we did some radio on/radio off, first with her playing and then (for fun) with me playing and her directing. She did fine.

But she then blew the structure of the Fuhrman Tanz the first time through. A third time through, she did a great job, including playing with nice dynamics. Finally, she did a nice job on the A1/A2 sections of With Steady Hands. Given that we haven’t played it in a week, she did surprisingly well.

I remembered to stop on a pretty positive note. As her inter-song activity, I read to her from a Red Riding Hood picture book. And she told this joke:

Once upon a — I’m telling time!

Another good (mostly) predinner practice

Today was a snow day for the family, so we were able to do most of our practice before dinner. We did:

  • Note reading two ways: the see-say note page (note names) @ 40 bpm, and the 50-measure hurdles with fruit rhythms
  • G scale on the G string (saying note names; saying step constructions; and knocking)
  • Lightly Row and Go Tell Aunt Rhody as a right-hand “workout” exercise
  • The Fuhrman Tanz
  • The D section of Meadow Minuet (melody only)

Today we started with note reading off the instrument, and M had fun with it. It’s nice to be able to ease into the lesson by sitting together on the couch and reading together.

After some of the practice items, I gave M blank playing cards that I got a while ago, and I gave her some time to write on them. She decided to write the names of the songs plus a “secret code” that only she and I know. The code was an arbitrary string of numbers, like so:

Song cards with secret codes

I think everything else went pretty well, but sadly, I’m writing this the next day, which means I can’t remember all the details. Must blog every day!

Practicing before dinner

We had a pretty free Sunday, so I made sure we practiced before dinner. It made for a more-relaxed practice and (I think) a more attentive M. We did:

  • M sang and conducted Lightly Row
  • G scale on the G string (saying note names, whole and half-steps, and fret numbers)
  • Perpetual Motion on the G string
  • All the Twinkle variations, with a focus on a strong and steady right hand
  • Song of the Wind with the metronome
  • The Fuhrman Tanz

Everything went pretty well, but most notable (for me) was M’s work on the Twinkles. I decided to follow a violin teacher’s suggestion from one of the SAA videos. He recommends starting a practice session with a 3- to 5- minute “workout” focused on your technical issue, beginning with the Twinkles and working forward. So I told M to really concentrate on keeping her right hand steady and getting good downward pressure. And she responded better than I expected — I’m not sure I’ve ever seen her in such a state of sustained concentration for that long.

Slow down, you move too fast

We got home late, so we couldn’t practice until after dinner. While I got it ready, I did “fruit rhythm” music reading with M, which went well. She needed help with syncopated rhythms and sixteenth notes, but overall, she read the 50-measure exercise from her group teacher very reliably.

In our lesson, we only worked on two songs, May Song and the Führmann Tanz.

We picked up where we left off with May Song: M played it through several times focusing on getting good right-hand tone. She only made one real note mistake, and that was the result of not looking at the neck as she moved from natural position to tosto.

But the Führmann Tanz was in bad shape — she couldn’t even sing it, she missed the first repeat, and she mangled the notes in the B section.

So I had her practice the B section repeatedly, without stopping, until I counted 5 repetitions with good tone and no note mistakes. She probably played it a total of 9 times to get 5 good ones. I would have liked to do more, but we didn’t have time.

One aspect of our lesson was not successful: I noticed that she was starting the B section by playing “i-i” instead of “i-m.” I stopped her immediately and asked her if she knew what right-hand problem was my reason for stopping her. Unsurprisingly, the first time, she didn’t know. But it was surprising to me that even after I told her to pay careful attention to her right hand as she started the song, she made the same mistake four or five times in a row, and each time, she couldn’t tell me what about her right hand was incorrect.

But before I told her the problem, she fixed it, and she began the section by alternating i-m. Periodically as she played her alternating was not perfect, but overall it was pretty good.

As I was writing this, a review idea occurred to me: Perhaps we could sing every song each lesson. I can’t understand how anyone plays every song each lesson, unless those songs are at a level of development that is still remote for us. I don’t feel like we’re rushing through the repertoire, yet I keep finding that her review songs are less solid than I expect.

A one-pointed one-song lesson

We picked up today where we left off yesterday: with the left-hand problems she was having in May Song. And like yesterday, we started practice before dinner.

After I explained the idea behind targeted practice, we did some targeted practice of the section that had been a problem (G-B-D-G, which she had been playing G-B-D-D#).

It only took a few series of 10 repetitions to get this down, and it was simple enough that she could also focus on getting loud, fat tone from her right hand (or, as she put it, “shooting a rocket ship down to earth” — pressing down with her finger)  — the “one point” assigned to us this week by her studio teacher. On top of that, M was doing well with “ready – aim – shoot,” taking her time getting set up.

And as she started to play May Song through the first time, I thought: “This is it! She’s playing stunningly!” Every note was right; her hands look great; her tone was fat; she remembered the dynamics and the position shift to tosto and back; her eyes were on her left hand; her tempo was even; it was a tour de force.

For the first half of the song. Shortly into the repeat, she crashed and burned — the wrong notes piled up on top of each other.

When she finished, I asked her to tell me about it. She assessed her playing accurately. We talked about how great the first half was. Then we talked about why the second half fell apart: because her eyes and her mind wandered.

When I asked her to try again, things got worse, not better. After a few attempts, I called a halt for dinner.

After dinner, we were more successful. She still didn’t play as well as she did earlier, but she managed to get through two repetitions with pretty good tone, no serious mistakes, and pretty steady concentration. Today’s lesson really showed me the value of review — she was able to polish this piece to a high level, and to work on a new technical issue (right-hand volume) because the piece itself was very secure.

We did one other fun thing: sang May Song with “fruit rhythms” (peach pit -pear -pear – pear – apple – peach, peach pit – pear – pear  – peach – peach).

The lesson timing had the added bonus of creating motivation at the end of the lesson. Usually we practice up until it’s time to get ready for bed. But today, because we had practiced before dinner, after dinner I was able to say that if she focused well enough to play May Song well twice in a row, we could be done, and she would have about a half an hour to play or read stories before going up to get ready for bed. Performance goals with tangible rewards often elicit good work from her, and they did tonight.

Real progress on right hand

We again focused on open Gs and French Folk Song. M is showing real progress on her right-hand technique. She was able to play the open G more than ten times in a row with nice downward pressure, and she maintained this form when playing French Folk Song.

She has a problem transitioning from the D to the E sections, though, and consistently misses a note because she doesn’t move her right-hand finger to the proper string. So we isolated the problem and tried to work on it. The problem is mainly one of concentration and vision — she needs to look at her right hand when it’s time to move it. It’s hard to make progress on this sort of thing because she tends to stare into space rather than directing her eyes deliberately in relation to her playing.

We did about an hour of this, then went out to Chipotle. On the way there and in line, we did some rhythm sight reading, which she gets a kick out of.

Then back at home, she played May Song (her choice). She had a note accuracy problem here, too — her left pinky was reaching for the D# on the 2nd string/4th fret instead of the G on the 1st string/3rd fret. This provided an opportunity for problem analysis: She’s been playing lots of songs with similar left-hand movements, so those muscle memories have crowded out her muscle memory for this part of May Song. It was also an opportunity to talk about slowing things down when you need to solve a problem.

Not much progress on “ready – aim – shoot” — she’s still impatient, and she doesn’t have a habit of thinking about what comes next.

Maybe we need to practice counting to 20 before starting to play. Something.

Ready, fire, aim

I kept the focus on the basics again today — more open Gs and French Folk Song. I also tried two new things, one aimed at improving how she starts pieces, and the other to help her isolate the right-hand technique we’ve been working on.

Starting pieces

M’s focus consistently lags behind her behavior — that is, she starts playing before she’s paying attention to what she’s doing. This leads to a lot of wrong notes; it also means that she doesn’t always wait for her accompanist.

So I talked about two ways to shoot a bow and arrow (we’ve done it on the Wii):

  1. Ready, aim, shoot; or
  2. Ready, shoot, aim.

She does the second; I thought putting it this way might help her become more aware of it. And when practicing today, I consistently had her say “ready” (check posture and feet), “aim” (check hands), and wait for me to say “shoot.”

This was only partly successful. Often, it seems like her idea of checking her hands is to look at them and see, “Yes, I still have hands.” But it’s worth a try.

Right-hand technique

It’s a big job to get M to play louder yet without tension. She understands what to do (place – pressure – release, per the Pumping Nylon segment we’ve watched over and over), but it’s not her habit.

So when playing French Folk Song, she’d consistently play the first few notes with good finger pressure and then fall back to brushing the strings in one lazy motion, rather than placing, pressing, and releasing.

To help her focus on her right hand, I did something I haven’t done before: I got behind her and fretted the left-hand notes. She then did a much better job focusing on her right hand.

I got the idea from Ed Kreitman, who described helping his violin students learn pieces by taking over the bowing to allow them to focus only on the left-hand (which is responsible, as on the guitar, for establishing the notes).