Be careful what you ask for

After yesterday’s unsatisfactory practice, I thought hard about how to do things differently today. At M’s last few private lessons, her studio teacher has been emphasizing tone production, so I decided to try to make that the focus of our practice today.

Also, today I read some more pages in The Inner Game of Music before I returned it to the library. (My copy’s on its way from Amazon.) And I was reminded of the importance of awareness and self-evaluation.

So to begin today’s lesson, we did two listening exercises:

  1. First, I asked M to listen as she played a scale, and to play the next note only when she could no longer hear the first note ringing.
  2. Next, I asked M to get right up next to my guitar and to listen as I played a note, raising her hand only when the note stopped ringing.

She paid good attention while playing her own scales, but I noticed a new problem: She was keeping tension in her plucking finger after she played the note. I nonverbally drew her attention to the problem by placing my finger on her plucking finger after she played and while she was waiting for the next note, and after a few notes, she started to relax her plucking finger. (She did it in an exaggerated way, but I think it was enough that she figured out and tried to address the problem.)

My other idea when I noticed this tension was to watch the small portion of Pumping Nylon that’s about basic strokes, but I couldn’t get the DVD to play. It’s been a while since we’ve seen it, and it’s probably about time we look at it again as a refresher.

Next, we worked on assessing tone quality on the melody of the first few bars of Meadow Minuet. First, I played, and I asked her to identify which note I played with the best tone and which I played with the worst tone. I realized quickly that I needed to break it down to just 4 measures (6 notes) at a time, because (not surprisingly) she couldn’t keep more notes in her had to compare them.

Then I asked her to play 4 measures and to identify the best and worst notes. And I noticed something odd: She was doing weird, counterproductive things with her left hand (e.g., flattening out her index finger all the way and pressing down too hard with it), as if she were deliberately trying to sound bad.

And she was: She took from her assignment the idea that a note had to be bad, and that she had to be able to identify that note. So, quite sensibly, she thought to herself, “Let me play this note really badly, and then I’ll play a different one well.” She explained this to me when I mentioned that I saw here doing something unusual (and counterproductive) but intentional-seeming with her left hand and asked her why.

So I learned that my first instruction — identify the best and worst notes — was flawed. So instead, I asked her to strive to make every note sound as beautiful as possible, and then if one note was the best, to identify it, and to identify the worst note if there was one.

Also, I realized that I had to be more specific about the tonal vocabulary. When I asked her what her best note sounded like, I was getting answers like, “Pretty good,” and “Nice.” These answers don’t really tell me anything — in fact, they don’t even enable me to tell whether she is just calling a random note her “best,” or whether she in fact really listened to what she was playing. So I gave her a more specific vocabulary: thin, fat, weak, round, bell-like, buzzy, snappy, even.

And on one run-through of a small portion of Meadow Minuet, we had some success: she identified her high E as snappy, which was exactly right. And the rest of the notes were all pretty good. (Her tone was actually pretty good on some other repetitions, which reflects — I think — that she was listening to herself, but she was only expressed an accurate judgment of her playing one time.)

So she didn’t get a lot done on the instrument, but she paid much better attention than yesterday to the things that she did do.

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