Just Carcassi’s Andante

Before describing today’s practice, some background. I see that in my last post, from a week ago, I was congratulating myself on handling M’s tantrum by telling her to go to her room until she calmed down. Well, the very next day, she was getting frustrated and acting uncooperative, and she said, “Aren’t you going to send me to my room?” “No,” I said (because it was late and because I was onto her game).

M: “But I want to go play in my room!”

So the whole “go to your room until you’re ready to practice” might not be sustainable.

Then a few days ago, I did something a little insane. M was being incredibly hostile and contrary, resisting all my instructions. We were working on Suzuki’s Allegro, I think, and she kept making the same mistake. I told her to slow down; she didn’t want to. I said she needed to play the section with no mistakes. (It was a part she knows.) She started to play at her too-fast tempo, and I said, “That’s too fast.” “No it’s not,” she replied.

Instead of arguing, I said, “Okay. I think that’s too fast. But you can play that fast if you want. If you make a mistake at that tempo, though, I’m going to charge you a dollar.”

Smoldering gaze. She plays at the too-fast tempo. She makes a mistake, stops, looks at me, and starts bawling.  “Now you’re going to charge me a dollar. That’s not fair!”

Was it fair? Probably not. But I explained two things to her. First, I said that she had made a choice: Play at the tempo of her choosing, and risk losing a dollar if she made a mistake, or play at a slower tempo set by me, with no risk of losing a dollar. She chose to take the risk. Second, I explained that I would give her the chance to earn the dollar back during another lesson, and I was sure she could. She eventually calmed down, and we practiced some more.

Fast forward to today. I decided to work on the B section of Carcassi’s Andante, her newest working piece. We started with me reading another chapter in Practiceopedia, then we read the sheet music for Andante. The B section has some tricky fingering — a hammer-on, followed by an m-i-a plucking pattern — and I wanted to preview it. After we looked at the sheet music, I had her do the right-hand fingering for the first phrase in the air.

Then we started in on the first four notes: an A in the bass, followed by A-G#-A (hammer-on). She didn’t do a great job paying attention as she got ready, so she was playing wrong notes because of wrong hand placement. I did a little Karate Kid action (drop the jacket; pick it up; hang it up; drop it; pick it up; etc.), asking her to drop her hands, then prepare; drop hands, prepare; etc. She played along and was pretty cheerful.

Then I set her the goal of playing those four notes correctly 10 times in a row. She managed it, but it took probably 15 minutes, because she’d do a couple right, then muff it by not paying attention. Still, she stayed positive, partly because she was just in a good mood, but partly (I think) because she could see that this was a clearly achievable task — she did achieve it, and it was only four notes!

Once she did that part right ten times in a row, we moved to the next few notes, which are a little harder (there’s a dotted eight and sixteenth, and you have to use the a finger). And here, I asked her to get it right 10 times, but not necessarily in a row. She asked to earn money for the repetitions, and I agreed, as a way for her to earn back the $1 I had charged her a few days ago. We decided on 10 cents per repetition for the first six, then we renegotiated, and she had to do the last 4 in a row correct to get 10 cents for each of them; otherwise, each would be worth 1 cent. She earned her dollar back.

From start to finish (including reading Practiceopedia), we spent almost an hour, and we practiced a total of one bar of music. But M was cheerful and cooperative, and we did a heck of a job with that one bar. Every day can’t be like this, but it was a pretty good day overall. She wrote this in her Breakthrough Diary (which we have not regularly been maintaining):

2011 December 19 - Breakthrough Diary - Andante B section

Clearing the rust off Perpetual Motion

Last week, we got a little bogged down in Perpetual Motion. It’s the piece M will be playing for the statewide Suzuki graduation in March, so I asked her to play it on Tuesday or Wednesday. To my surprise, the form was incredibly unreliable: M would skip entire sections.

I thought we were mostly past this stage, because she’s been getting the form of her newer songs down with almost no difficulty (i.e., A Toye, Suzuki’s Allegro). So I was having flashbacks in our home practices last week.

I tried a few things to help M listen to herself better. First, I had her just sing the song. She was pretty reliable. Then, I had her play along with the CD (you have to tune your guitar a fraction of a semitone sharp to match the CD’s pitch). This was a challenge, because the CD is really fast, and she got frustrated with it. I also had her play with the metronome at a pretty good clip, because when she plays slowly, she just lets her mind wander. This all helped some, but didn’t make things entirely reliable. In particular, even if she remembered the form, she often left out any dynamic contrast in the first 4 and last 4 bars.

I do think an analogy helped. At the end of one practice, I asked her, “What’s 4+4?” “Eight,” she replied. “Yes,” I said, “and you never get that wrong, do you? You never answer ‘seven’ or ‘nine,’ because you know it. What’s 4+4?” “Eight.” “Yes. You always get it right, because you know it. And that’s what the form of Perpetual Motion should be like. When you play it, you should always get it right. It’s like knowing 4+4. That’s how you should know the form of this song.”

I’ve since used this analogy again, and I think it helps. As shorthand, I can just say, “You know the form. It’s like knowing 4+4.”

Now, when she played it at her private lesson on Saturday, it still had some problems. Notably, her right hand — which has been getting so much steadier — reverted to old, grabby habits, and she still didn’t add any dynamic contrast to the opening and closing bars (what we call the A1-A2 sections). But she did get the form right, and she got it right again today. So that’s progress.

Lots of music theory

Monday: We got started around 6:30 and did music stuff until 8:00. I say “music stuff” because we spent very little time with hands on the guitar. In fact, we started out with the D harmonica, which I used as an ear-training/music theory tool. I took a piece of dry-erase paper with a staff and drew 20 boxes (2 rows of 10) to correspond to the blow and draw notes of the D harmonica. Then I had M fill in the box with each note, which I would play on the harmonica and then have her find on the guitar. Because the first 9 blow notes on a diatonic harmonica are the I chord of the harmonica’s key (here, D-F#-A) repeated in 3 octaves, I had occasion to reinforce the formula for building a major chord (1-3-5).

Once we got the boxes filled out, we worked on Skip to My Lou on the harmonica. M found it a little frustrating, understandably — it’s can be hard to get a clean note on a harmonica, both because it’s hard to pucker your lips right, and because it’s easy to bend some of the notes by a half-step or more. But we stuck with it for a while.

Next, we worked on coming up with a cadenza for M to play in Suzuki’s Allegro. This is something her teacher worked on both in group class on Saturday and in M’s private lesson. M generally doesn’t do well coming up with a cadenza because she simply plays notes without having any idea of what, musically, she’s trying to do. So instead of sounding like a musical idea, her cadenzas just sound like random notes. Her teacher asked M to sing her cadenza on Saturday, saying that if you can sing it, you can play. To which I would add: If you can’t sing it (assuming you transpose it into your range), then you can’t play it, because it doesn’t have any genuine musical shape.

So I started out by having M sing on “la” while I played a simple I-IV-V chord progression. After doing that for a while, I gave M an A to start, and had her sing a little musical fragment for her cadenza. The fragment was unreliable at first; that is, she wasn’t singing it consistently the same. But she finally settled on a little two-bar tunelet. Our next step was to figure out the tune itself, which we did by having M sing and try to pick out the notes on her guitar. As we did that, I had M write the notes down on a page of dry-erase staff paper.  Eventually, what we wrote down turned out to be basically two bars of Aunt Rhody, in the key of A. But that’s okay!

After all of that, all we did on the guitar was work on Suzuki’s Allegro for a while, focusing on right-hand technique. M got frustrated because I was setting demanding standards — I insisted on proper alternating fingers, and I tried to get her to place her fingers more and more carefully as we worked through it. But she calmed herself down, and she sounded okay by the time we stopped practicing.

Tuesday: It’s dance day on Tuesdays, so we only had about 15 minutes to practice. To increase the instructional time, we talked music theory at dinner: how to build a major scale (whole-whole-half-whole-whole-whole-half), how to build a major chord, what the typical chord progression of rock, folk, blues, and country music is (I-IV-V). Then to illustrate the chord-progression info, and just for fun, we started our actual practice with me playing and singing — with M joining in — Sugarland’s Stuck Like Glue, which has been in heavy rotation around here since M watched Pentatonix’s performance of it on The Sing-Off.

Then, I asked M to play Perpetual Motion, since she’ll be recording it pretty soon for the Suzuki graduation that happens in March. It was better than I expected. She missed quite a few notes when she played it at about 60 bpm = 1/8 notes ((I’m guessing; I let her choose the tempo and wasn’t using a metronome), but that was mostly because she was staring into space. When I set the metronome to 100 bpm = 8th notes and reminded her to watch her left hand, she played it much better.

Then she did a few repetitions of the A section of Suzuki’s Allegro. She’s still a little unreliable in her alternating, and she doesn’t reliably play with her nails, but she very gamely did several repetitions, and she got better every time. Overall, she’s making progress on the song and on her technique.

Right-hand technique – old videos

Apart from the lice, two other things have been interfering with my blogging: (1) my stupid computer, and (2) my backlog of audio and video. The computer is now mostly working, and I’m slogging through the backlog.

Things have been going remarkably well lately. We started working on Carcassi’s Andante two weeks ago, beginning with the first phrase (about 2 bars). Today, we started working on the next phrase. My main focus has been M’s right-hand technique. I’ve done three things that, together, have really succeeded in getting M to focus on her right hand.

  • First, I’ve been using video during our lessons. My phone takes worse video than my point-and-shoot, but the playback screen on the phone is so much bigger that it works well to take phone video during our home practices. (The phone audio is atrocious, but I can edit the video and substitute the audio from my handheld recorder. Of course, this introduces further delay in doing anything blog-related with the videos and audio.)
  • Second, I’ve been placing a mirror in front of M so she can watch herself.
  • Third, I’ve been using a point system to judge each note she plays. As I’ve mentioned before, she loves getting scores. I have her play the first 10 notes of Andante, and give her a score of from 0 to 2 (or rarely, 3) for each melody note she plays. Some days, I give her a half a penny for each point she earns, which she gets excited about. But mostly, she just likes the instant feedback. What I’ve been surprised by is how much, and how quickly, she has internalized the standards — if she plays a 1 or a 0, she usually knows it. And she is so interested in getting a good score that she really concentrates on what she is doing.

I don’t have any recent audio or video ready to post, but I did finally get around to posting a few videos from November 11. I posted them on a backdated post for November 11 here (I’m trying to keep the blog in chronological order).