What is music?

Saturday: We begin with group class, then skip swimming for a birthday party, then have our private lesson. In the afternoon, M plays the Bach Tanz for her former nanny.

Group class

Group class starts with rest position, and M volunteers the answer to Alan’s question, “Why is rest position important?” (Because you need to wait while someone else is playing.”). But when they play 2 G scales, M is not ready either time. As they play several scales, Alan asks the kids (while they are playing) to ask themselves:

  • Am I comfortable?
  • Are my feet flat?
  • Are my shoulders square?
  • Are my fingers hanging from the neck.

They do a G scale with knocking. Next, Alan points out a left-hand technical issue: kids are waggling their hands as they play, in and out. The left hand needs to be steady.

Alan points out that sound and touch are more important senses than vision because you can’t really see what your hand is doing from “the back of the auditorium.”

They play Rigadoon plunky and play a plunky D scale. He’s giving the kids less to think about, and forcing them to relax their hands, so they can improve their fingering.

Next, he takes a break to talk about musicality. I don’t much care for the opening bid — he talks about “appreciating” playing as meaning “putting a price on it.”

Then he does a demonstration with a necklace that works better. First he has a solid-colored necklace with beads that ascend and descend in size. Next, he has a bowl of beads, and a set of the same beads arranged in a necklace. He invites the kids to discuss what makes them pleasing: color (related to tone color), size (related to volume), closeness (related to articulation). I’m not sure how much gets through, but I liked the idea.

Then the kids played hide and seek with an Easter egg and were supposed to direct the seeker by playing staccato (far) and legato (close). The kids couldn’t do it, possibly because they didn’t understand what they were supposed to do. (M volunteered and pretty much played everything legato.)

Private lesson

M’s studio teacher spent most of her time on Suzuki material, only working on the Canon (which we practiced all week) at the end.

My notes about M’s playing:

  • May Song was freakishly rusty. M didn’t watch her hand at all.
  • With Steady Hands was as bad as I would have expected. She played E in the bass a lot and it wasn’t even clear she knew it was a mistake.

M’s behavior left a lot to be desired. She was so sloppy with the guitar when she wasn’t playing that, once, I gestured to her teacher to deal with it, and a second time, I interrupted to tell M to please hold the guitar more carefully.  M also was extremely slow to follow her teacher’s directions. They played a game of rolling dice and moving a game piece, and the teacher regularly said, “If you don’t get ready, I’ll get double rolls” (or something similar). It drove me nuts.

Technically, M needs to work on her right thumb stroke. Assignment:

  • Play 2 bars of With Steady Hands 10 times, doing a crescendo/decrescendo.
  • Practice thumb strokes only, with no buzz (i.e., using flesh just before nail).

On the way out, we took a look at a plaque for the 10-performance club. Suzuki students who play a piece 10 times get their names on the plaque. I’m trying to get M excited about doing this with the Bach Tanz.

Recital for nanny

M agreed to play the Bach Tanz for her former nanny who came over for a visit.

I was glad that she played, but she made a hash of it. Her eyes and her mind were wandering all over the place. I wonder if I’ll be able to productively review a video of it with her.

Back to the normal routine

With the Olympics an SAM graduation behind us, it was back to the grind: group lesson, swim lesson, lunch out, and private lesson (plus, today, some errands).

Group class was small, and the teacher kept it very simple, working largely on rhythm and listening. Here’s what they did:

  • He had three rubber balls, small, medium, and large. He dropped them and asked the kids to play a G when it hit the ground (forte for large, mf for medium, and piano for small). He built in some crescendos/decrescendos.
    • He made one great point. He told the kids to notice if they are early or late and said noticing this is just as good as being on time.
  • G scale with knocking. This was rusty.
  • Huckleberry Apple (I’m A Little Monkey) on the G scale, first all together, then all around the room with one kid per note, then around the room with eyes closed, which really forced them to listen.
  • Again with the bouncing ball, this time letting it bounce two or three times.
  • Improvising on a G major scale against a chord progression.
    • He made the mistake of asking kids if they wanted to do it. The shy ones said no. M was not shy, though, and she improvised with a lot of confidence.
  • Playing Perpetual Motion and counting out loud, 1-2-3-4.
    • Twice he asked a song’s time signature, and both times M eagerly shouted, “cut time!” She was not right either time. I’m not sure why she’s so excited about cut time; she’s done this before.
  • He did a variety of exercises with this:
    • He played, kids counted.
    • He counted, kids played.
    • He played, stopped on an arbitrary beat (actually, it was always 1) and asked the kids to give the beat number.
  • He ran a tone contest with the kids and talked about nails.
    • M did several cool things when she played. First, when she played Twinkle, she played with great dynamics and some vibrato. Then, when she played Perpetual Motion (a few bars), she deliberately ended on a fretted G, not an open G, so she could do some vibrato. (She actually missed the note, but it was  a cool idea.)

M also said something nice at lunch. When I brought our lunch back from the counter, I told her that I had been telling the staff about our day (in response to their comment that it was daddy-daughter day) and how much we did, and they called me a “slave driver.” I told M that I responded that she was very accomplished and liked doing her activities. She agreed, saying, “I do. I like it.”

At her private lesson, M rocked the section of the Canon, though her rhythm wasn’t totally secure. M also did a great job reading another song in the key of D. And M played a section of With Steady Hands and, though she missed notes, was in fact very steady (her teacher balanced an eraser on her hand and it stayed in place). Our assignments are:

  • Bring With Steady Hands back into the rotation. Do a balance game with it, placing something flat on her hand and seeing how long it can stay in place.
  • Work on the 2nd section of the Canon.
  • Work on the Canon while tapping her foot, counting beats, or both.
  • Work on bass notes in Meadow Minuet separately from the melody. Try saying them as we listen, and consider using the music. (I’m not crazy about that idea.)
  • Also, we have a new Twinkle accompaniment to learn for the end-of-semester concert.
  • And we need to work on the Bach Tanz for Colorado!

Three medals!

We had an early private lesson today, before group class. They played through the Twinkles, and M did great. She played with big, fat tone. Her teacher recommended using higher-tension guitar strings so M can play louder without buzzing. Our assignment is to work on Meadow Minuet, add in bass notes, and work on left-hand pinky position (need curve).

At the Guitar Olympics in group class, M tried every event. Her teacher adjusted the medal recipients on the fly, so they didn’t exactly reflect everyone’s relative performance, but M got three medals, one for the 50-measure hurdles (reading fruit rhythms), one for note reading, and one for Song of the Wind with the metronome. I watched her do that, conduct Lightly Row, and play Perpetual Motion on the G string, and she did a good job on each. Her Perpetual Motion was not smooth, but she caught and fixed every mistake and didn’t drop any sections, which shows she was listening to what she was doing. Overall, she was proud of herself, and I even got her to agree afterwards that it’s a good thing we practice a lot, since that’s why she’s doing so well.

Performance anxiety in a private lesson

Today M had group class and her private lesson. The group teacher focused a lot on left-hand technique and mindfulness, asking the kids to “prepare in the air” as they played a D scale. He also demonstrated, by way of a contest with a student, the importance of keeping the left-hand fingers close to the neck: He and the student raced to play a note, one starting with a finger close to the neck, the other with a finger splayed out. Whoever had the finger closer to the neck won the race.

Then he had M and one other student demonstrate their left-hand technique for the class on a short portion of the scale. They each did different things with the pinky — his was straight but close to the neck, and hers was curved but further from the neck than it had been. The teacher said M’s technique was “healthier,” while the other kids was “safer.”

Apart from this, M was not as lively as she usually is. She didn’t volunteer for something she knows how to do (Perpetual Motion on the G string), and when we did the note-reading page, she got way more notes wrong than I would have expected. I think two things were happening: (1) she was tuning out of class, and (2) she experienced some performance anxiety. (The note reading was done in teams, and individual team members read a line on the staff while the rest of the class listened and tried to identify mistakes.)

At M’s private lesson, her teacher went over several of the Guitar Olympics events from group class, and M underperformed. She forgot to say the note names when she conducted Aunt Rhody; then she said the note names but lost the tempo. Then M made a hash of Perpetual Motion on the G string. Both of these are things she usually does much better at home, and M appeared nervous to me.

On the plus side, M did a nice job on Meadow Minuet. Our assignment is to keep working on it as follows:

  • Learn the rest of the melody, with me on the bass.
  • Start learning the bass, with me playing the melody.
  • Perhaps start asking M to put them together. But I don’t want to rush that.

As M and I were leaving, I told M that I think we should make up a practice plan for the week in advance, to make sure we get to everything. She’s got a lot to practice for the Guitar Olympics, and With Steady Hands is still not even close to solid. In fact, I felt bad when her teacher asked M to play it today — M missed all kinds of notes, which is kind of my fault, given that we didn’t practice it all week.

I did manage to get some note-geography quiz practice out of M on the car ride to a party this evening, so that was a good use of the commute time.

Group class — musicianship exercises

Excercises in today’s group class:

  • The G-scale knocking exercise. The teacher again asked the kids to shout the note names — inside their heads.
  • A listening/note geography exercise with the G scale on the G string. While the kids’ eyes were closed, the teacher played a portion of the G scale and stopped, then asked a student what note he just played, on what fret. Then he made it harder by getting more and more melodic. The kids did better than I would have.
  • Note geography: The teacher showed off the “five-fret” rule, i.e., the fact that 4 of 5 strings sound like the next-highest string at the 5th fret. The kids are supposed to learn the name and location of the notes on the first 5 frets.
    • Coincidentally, the flash cards I ordered from Andrea Cannon arrived Saturday, and this note geography is precisely what they cover.
    • I went over the note geography at lunch time with M by drawing a diagram of the neck on an index card and working out with her what note was found on each fret. She bought into it so much that she made sure we showed our drawing to her studio teacher at our lesson after lunch.
  • Scale construction: The teacher took the kids to the piano to give them another look at whole steps and half steps and how a scale is constructed. (They’ve been building it in terms of frets — 2-2-1-2-2-2-1 — rather than whole and half steps.) He used a mnemonic that was new to me:
    • Babies Cry = only a half step between the notes B and C
    • Elephants Fly = only a half step between the notes E and F
      • M later came up with her own mnemonic for this: Ernie Feather.
  • Radio on/radio off: He asked a student to be the radio switch for “radio on/radio off” Perpetual Motion. In radio on/off, the students play while the switch (the leader’s arm) is up, and stop playing — but keep the tune going in their heads — while the switch is down. It’s a great listening exercise. But the student ignored the teacher’s instruction to turn on or off at the end of phrases, not in the middle of phrases, and thus it was too hard for the kids who were playing to stay with the music.

Continue reading Group class — musicianship exercises

Group class: mindful scales, note reading

At M’s group class, the teacher led the students through two mindfulness-enhancing scale exercises plus a note-reading exercise. All three help build key mental skills.

Exercise 1: G-scale with knocks

The G-scale with knocks is hard even for adults.  It’s kind of like the B-I-N-G-O song, but in reverse: you repeat the G scale, saying the note names as you play, but dropping one more note from the end each time and knocking on the back of the guitar neck instead. The final repetition is all knocks, and then you shout “Hey!” in time, on the beat that follows the last imaginary note. So it goes like this:

  • G-A-B-C-D-E-F#-G (played and spoken or sung)
  • G-A-B-C-D-E-F#-knock (each played note spoken or sung, silent on knock)
  • G-A-B-C-D-E-knock-knock
  • G-A-B-C-D-knock-knock-knock
  • G-A-B-C-knockknock-knock-knock
  • G-A-B-knock-knockknock-knock-knock
  • G-A-knock-knock-knockknock-knock-knock
  • G-knock-knockknock-knockknock-knock-knock
  • knock-knock-knockknock-knockknock-knock-knock-HEY!

To be successful, you have to hear in your head the notes you’re not playing, which helps kids strengthen their imaging skills. You also have to remember what you just played (“Did I just play G-A-B, or was it G-A-B-C?”) so you know when to start knocking, which helps kids (and adults!) build concentration.

Exercise 2: D scale, “prepare in the air”

This second exercise gives kids practice at explicitly preparing themselves to play what comes next — i.e., at “imaging ahead.” They played a D scale, but they played each note 4 times (if I recall correctly). As they played, the teacher told them to “prepare in the air” for what comes next. So while the student is playing a D, he is “preparing in the air” to fret the upcoming E, and the multiple repetitions of the D give the student the time she needs to think ahead.

This exercise also helps kids learn to focus on good left-hand shape — fingers curled in evenly toward the fingerboard, rather than splayed out wildly. (The teacher demonstrated this shape in a way I hadn’t seen before. He placed a pen on the left thumb, then curled the fingers in to meet the pen, forming the optimal shape.)

I’m luck that M already has good left-hand shape, because I made it a priority early on — I would sit in front of her and hold my hand flat in front of hers, gently adjusting her fingers if they started poking out.

Exercise 3: Note reading

The teacher handed out the page below and discussed two uses for it (other than the obvious one of asking your kid to read the notes).

First, he picked an arbitrary note — say, A — and asked a student to start with the first one and race his finger along the line until he came to the next one, saying the number under each one he encountered. The goal here is to move as quickly as possible, thus developing the ability to track along the staff.

Second, he suggested we practice with a metronome, and ask our kid to stay with the metronome, skipping any unknown notes and maintaining forward progress. In effect, he suggested that we teach our kids to “read through their mistakes” in the same way we usually teach them to play through their mistakes.
See-Say note page – treble clef