A detailed window into learning A Toye

Thursday: We had some rough moments, but we stayed out of disaster territory.

We started practice relatively late, at close to 7 pm. First, I read M the second chapter of Practiceopedia, about using “blinders” to help focus your practice time. (The author means it literally: he suggests laying on top of your score a piece of paper with windows only over thA e measures you want to practice. This doesn’t quite work for practicing the Suzuki repertoire.)

Next, I tried to get through the first two pages of Dan Fox’s Rhythm Bible at 72 bpm, which is faster than we’ve done before. M did pretty well on page 1, though she made a careless mistake in the third-to-last measure. When we moved to the second page, though, she was paying less attention, and clapped quarter notes for a half note. When I stopped her, she petulantly denied having made any mistake. She wanted to argue about it, so I decided to move on to something else.

I asked her to start with the Bach Tanz, playing it with a metronome. She started on autopilot, but then turned her mind to the piece and did a nice job. She did a few more repetitions, and her mind was wandering further and further from her playing, to the point where she started messing up the structure. We got into a little bit of a standoff when I told we would move on to something new as soon as she played with better concentration than the previous time. When I could tell she was playing on autopilot, I stopped her, and she didn’t like that. After a standoff (she sat holding her guitar; I told her she had to sit there until she played another repetition with good concentration), she played it through passably once. She didn’t actually show better concentration than the repetition I told her to improve on, but I didn’t think I was going to get what I asked for no matter how long I kept her at it, so we moved on.

Next she played the Meadow Minuet, also with the metronome. (At one point M suggested drawing a bunch of metronome people, and I suggested she draw “metrognomes.” She liked that (after I explained the silent “g”).) It was only okay; she stared into space most of the time she was playing.

Thinking that she might concentrate better on something new, I asked her to work on the first four bars of A Toye. The first time through, she picked her own pace. It was too fast, but she did better than I would have expected. I got her to slow down and play with the metronome, and playing all 4 bars seemed to be working — until it wasn’t. At some point, the second two bars became a train wreck. So then we focused just on those. After a few repetitions, it was time to be done so M could have a shower. M finished by playing the first 4 bars of A Toye for her mom, which was adorable.

Here’s our work on A Toye (all tracks add up to about 10 minutes):

House concert; starting A Toye

Saturday: M practiced with her quartet, then had her private lesson. I wasn’t thrilled with M’s behavior during the lesson (she was sloppy with her guitar when she wasn’t playing), but it wasn’t too bad. Her teacher started us on A Toye, pointing out the importance of shifting between 1st and 2nd positions.

She had an especially charming way of making the point about shifting. She put a little puppet on her thumb, and the puppet peeked over the guitar neck. When she shifted, the puppet shifted with her. Then she demonstrated not shifting — i.e., rotating the left hand to stretch the fingers — and the puppet fell back behind the neck as her thumb rotated. It was memorable!

Sunday: In the afternoon, M played a house concert for a friend of her mom’s who grew up playing Suzuki violin (and who now plays fiddle and sings). M played the Bach Tanz and Meadow Minuet. She got the form of both right, which has probably been my biggest concern, so that’s good.

In light of the concert, I told M we’d have a very short lesson. To improve the chance of her cooperating with me, I came up with this plan at dinner. We ate early, which left us some time. So I proposed that we all make cookies, then while they were baking, M and I would practice. If it went well — and only if it went well — we would eat a cookie after practice. This isn’t a straight-up bribe, because we were going to eat them anyway, but it created a clear incentive for cooperation.

And it worked. We practiced A Toye for about 1/2 an hour, and M did a nice job on the melody of the first four bars. Then she played Allegro and Long, Long Ago (which has been out of rotation). She paid good attention on both.

Here’s the concert:

Keeping score with goddesses

Thursday: We practiced after dinner. Overall, things went pretty well. M had a really charming idea about how to keep track of things during our lesson that I thought I’d share.

Frequently, M wants to “earn” something for repetitions, and she wants to earn different things depending on how good a job she does. Today, she had her own idea about what to earn. She has a book of one-page biographies of various world goddesses that she really loves, and she decided to write down their names on a piece of paper, then assign some goddesses to “good,” others to “so-so,” and others to “great” and “bad.” (She did such a good job during the lesson on one song (I forget which) that I added “awesome.”). She also decorated it a little. This was her drawing:

Goddess names - keeping score during the lesson

As we practiced, after each repetition (which today were mostly entire songs), we’d discuss the quality level, then I’d let M pick which goddess of that quality level she wanted to earn. I’d then put a hash mark underneath the goddess.

You can see that Juno, “bad,” got 3 hash marks. Each of these was an instance where M was staring into space and made a lot of mistakes.

She also got two “goods” (Chang-O and Etsanatlehi), a “great” (Freyja), and one “awesome” (Xochiquetzal). Notice the word “Hash-Brown” and the silverware under Freyja: When Maura did a “great” song, I said I would write a “hash mark” under Freyja for it, and M made the connection “hash mark – hash brown,” and wanted to add silverware for eating the hash brown.

For what it’s worth, the goddesses are from Kris Waldherr’s The Book of Goddesses, which looks like this:

Cover of The Book of Goddesses, by Kris Waldherr

Tone and thumb-stroke exercises; recital prep and review

Tuesday: We’ve had a pretty good couple of days.

Yesterday I picked M up from school at about 3:30 so we could practice before dinner. We ended up practicing both before and after dinner. We did a lot: Rhythm Bible, reading her quartet music, playing the Bach Tanz, Meadow Minuet, and Allegro, plus French Folk Song. M was generally a trooper, though we didn’t start off well (I tried to get started on harmonica, but she wasn’t doing what I told her, so I put it away.)

Today, we had only about 1/2 an hour, so we did a little harmonica to ease into things and then worked on the Bach Tanz.

My main goal continues to be helping M learn to concentrate all the way through a song. She still can’t do it.

But I have noticed one thing that works. Whenever M decides to have “stage presence” — namely, to smile and sit up straight — she also does a much better job looking at her hand and focusing on her playing. So today, after she had played the Bach Tanz with some notable mistakes (including skipping a measure in the C section) and had then played it a few times while staring into space, I reminded her to try to have good stage presence. She sat up and put on a fake smile and proceeded to focus on her playing much more effectively than she had before. For some reason, lately at least, focusing on stage presence more than anything else (e.g., tone, legato phrasing, dynamics) gets her to focus on her playing.

Also, she’s doing well with her two assignments from her teacher: tone exercises (a-m-i on the 1st string, descending chromatically down the scale) and thumb strokes. In fact, today she decided to keep going on her tone exercise even after she had done the assigned repetitions.

We have been skipping the free-stroke exercises that led to conflict last week. But her right-hand technique is getting better when I instruct her to play without resting her thumb on the lower strings. When the thumb is resting, she tends to play with a grabbing motion; but when the thumb is up, she does a much better job moving her fingers from the knuckle joint.