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.

She’s a multi-instrumentalist!

Sunday: Today we made a soda-straw oboe. Hilarity ensued, and we joked about how M can now play yet another instrument (on top of the guitar and penny whistle).

On a more-serious note, M’s been making offhand remarks lately referring to “when I start playing a different instrument.” This is a reference to a talk I had with her in April, when I told her that she could switch to a different instrument once she can  play all Book 1 songs with no mistakes, musically, at speed. (This day is still at least 6 months off, maybe more, even though she’s working on Allegro in Book 2 now.)

This has troubled me a little, particularly because our guitar practices have gotten a lot better overall. She’s fighting me less, and we’re getting more done, so I’ve been hoping that she was starting to buy into the guitar. And her remarks about switching instruments made me think that she’s still not buying in.

So today, after a pretty good practice, I asked her: “You’ve talked about playing something else lately. You’re getting so good on the guitar, I was hoping you’d stick with it.” Her response was perfectly calibrated to delight me:

M: Well, when I was talking about playing something else, I wasn’t talking about quitting the guitar. I was talking about learning another instrument.

On a nuts-and-bolts level, M’s studio teacher told M to practice Allegro and see how far she can get without making a single mistake, and to try to get farther and farther with practice.

The point of the exercise is to increase M’s attention and her conscious control of her playing. Right now, her fingers are leading, and her brain is following, so M makes a lot of mistakes because her fingers get into a pattern found in some other song (or in a scale) rather than the pattern of the song she is playing. To play without errors, M must slow herself down, bring her attention to her left hand, and make sure that she is looking ahead and planning mentally before her fingers need to move. Put simply, M needs to keep practicing: “Stop. Prepare. Play.” And she needs to practice this within songs as well as when starting a song.

Today, we worked on the Bach Tanz, 1st section, because she usually makes two mistakes in it: (1) playing a C# instead of a D for the last note, and (2) skipping the repeat. We also worked on the B section of Allegro.

With one of these (I forget which), M asked me to give her a score of from 1 to 5 on each repetition, and she was excited to build a phone number out of her scores. She just loves getting scores! (I let her assign her own score on some of them, but she seemed to prefer getting a score from me.)

Apart from the scores, we didn’t really do any games/gimmicks at all. She just cooperated nicely. (Actually, we had a rough patch to start when we were just doing some singing, to learn the dynamics for a new piece for a guitar ensemble. M was fidgeting around and not really reading the music. But we got past it.)

My girl loves her prizes

Wednesday: I ease into practice today. M and I have dinner, then I head into the TV room to practice the djembe with our instructional DVD. M joins me at first, but quits pretty quickly. I keep going for a few minutes while M visits with her mom, who gets home while we are playing the djembe.

I go into the den to get ready for practice at about 6:50. M joins me and gets involved in arranging pieces of her tea set in our practice area. She wants to earn items from the tea set as awards. Each item has a different value — tea cups are 1st place, saucers are 2nd place, drinking glasses/coffee cups are 3rd place, the sugar bowl is last place (“because you don’t want to eat too much sugar and get fat”), and the creamer is in between 3rd place and last place. Here’s the setup (including post-it labels by M):

Tea set rating system

[I am reminded that when we were just starting out, she loved doing “G scale points” — she would play a G scale, and I would give her from 1 to 3 points for each note depending on how she placed her right-hand fingers. She loved being told how many points she got for a scale. It didn’t even matter if she got a low score (I would always explain which notes earned only 1 point out of the possible 3); she just liked getting some score.]

I let M take her time with it. Meanwhile, I try to play With Steady Hands. I don’t do terribly well. Since M hasn’t played it in a while, I decide we’ll work on it. First, however, she wants to do some songs in Read This First.

We’re in section 1-B now, which introduces reading notes on the 3rd and 4th string (G and D). M does a pretty good job, but I notice that her tone is still kind of snappy — she’s banging on the notes a bit. So I ask her to listen to her tone and try to play as loudly as she can without getting a “yell” tone. (Her tone yesterday on Meadow Minuet was also a snappy, yell tone much of the time.) And she does!

Then I ask to hear With Steady Hands. The first part (A1-A1-A1-A1) goes pretty well, even though she plays it a littler faster than I think is wise.

Then the structure and tone fall apart a bit. She plays B1-B2-A1 // B1-A1-A2 — that is, she skips the A2 section the first time through, and skips the B2 section the second time through.

M starts complaining that she’s hot, which is a troubling sign (it’s a method of passive-aggressive avoidance). But I offer to get her a wet washcloth while she works on the B1-B2 sections. (I gave her a choice of B1-B2 or A1-A2, since those were the trouble sections.) I ask her to pay special attention to her tone and to avoiding yell tones. (When she first played the song through, in the effort to get big on her crescendos, she had gotten way too loud and brutish.)

To my delight, while I am walking to the bathroom to get a washcloth, I can hear her play the B1-B2 sections with terrific attention and much-improved tone. I award her a teacup (1st place) because of her great effort.

We do this two more times: I ask her to play the sections while listening to her tone, and I go get her something (next, it was water to drink out of the teacup she earned).

By this point, it’s almost 7:45, and we’ve practiced for a little over 20 minutes. (The setup took a while).

I could probably get some more good practice out of her, but I decide to end then on a high note and to explain that because of her great cooperation, we are ending early. She whoops with joy. And the whole family eats fresh, ripe pineapple on the back patio.

A good day.

An adorable surprise

Tuesday: I had plans to go to a meeting at 6:30 tonight, so I come home around 4:30 to practice before dinner. I had told M about the schedule change in the morning.

When I walk in the door, M and her summer nanny, Lily, are sitting at the kitchen table, coloring. M jumps up, walks to me, and says brightly, “I have a surprise for you! It’s in the den.”

I walk into the den, and she has set everything up for her lesson — her stool and footstand are out, and her guitar is in its stand. My guitar case is also out.

Me: You set everything up for your lesson. Is that the surprise?

M: Yep!

Me: What a great surprise!

This was all-the-more unexpected because M  had been especially passive-aggressive in the morning when it was time to brush teeth — she had refused to stand up so I could reach her easily with the toothbrush.  I actually had to tell Lily, when she arrived, to wait on the porch until M let me brush her teeth. (M then promptly cooperated.)

The substance of our practice was actually so-so. We worked mainly on Meadow Minuet, and M’s note accuracy left much to be desired. But it was clear to me that she knew when she was making a mistake, and she did a lot of things well. She was also excited to give a concert for her grandma, who arrived at around 5:30 to take over so I could go to my meeting.

But nothing takes away from the sweetness of M’s surprise. Given how much conflict we often have over lessons, I’ve got to treasure days like this and to hope that more will be coming.

There’s nothing like the promise of the pool

Tuesday: We had a nice home lesson today. It was brutally hot, and both M and I wanted to go to the neighborhood pool. So I told her we could go after dinner if we practiced beforehand. She agreed. And when she got off track in our lesson, as she did a few times, I asked her: “Do you want to take a break now? We’ll have to finish after dinner and skip going to the pool.” She returned to business pretty quickly.

I gave her a choice of what to review today. She picked Rigadoon; I picked May Song. We picked the Bach Tanz together, but as things unfolded, I dropped it.

She did a lovely job on May Song, particularly given that she totally botched the structure just a few days ago. And when she did begin botching the structure, she noticed promptly. She was then able to get a couple of repetitions in with the right structure and most everything else done well.

Rigadoon was a little more of a challenge. We ended up narrowing further and further in on the part in the C section where there’s a shift from first to second position. When we broke it down to just two measures, M was able to make the shift in time, with attention.

We finished by doing some work on Serenade in Read This First. First, we clapped and counted; then we said the note names in rhythm; then we played one of the four lines together, with her on the upper part and me on the lower part.

Overall, it was about 50 minutes, though it didn’t seem like it to me, perhaps because I got no real resistance. And we didn’t even use any kind of activity; we just practiced. When I pointed this out to M at the end, she said, “That’s okay.” I don’t mind some activities, but I look forward to the day that making music is the main activity of our lessons!


Redefining “short”

Friday: Despite a long day, M and I had another nice lesson. We worked on the C and D sections of Meadow Minuet.

M had her last day of YMCA camp today. A while after I picked her up, she reported, “I cried today. We were in the woods and I got lost and started crying.” Yikes! I’d cry too if I were six years old and lost in the woods. She must not have been lost long, though, because the staff didn’t mention it to me.

After picking M up, I took her to martial-arts class. We then went out for dinner and ice cream. I knew that all this activity would leave little time for a lesson, so I told M that we would need to do some practice-related activity while we waited at the restaurant for her mother. She was agreeable, and though she did a lot of staring around the room, she actually cooperated pretty well in writing out the C and D sections of Meadow Minuet on these two index cards:

 I helped some, but she figured out and wrote most of the notes herself. (She added a repeat sign at the end “to make it pretty.” Then she drew an exclamation point above the repeat sign to show that it was just for decoration, because the song does not have any repeats.)

This was a nice start to our lesson, because it reinforced the fact that the entire section—not just the first half—has bass notes in it. She has developed an odd habit of playing the first four bars with bass notes and the last five without, and I wanted to work on fixing this today.

We got home at about 7:30, which didn’t leave a lot of time for practice, particularly since she (quite reasonably) wanted to change into cooler clothes. But we also arrived home to find that M’s djembe was on the porch, so I was able to dangle this out as a reward: If she cooperated and we finished on time, I’d let her open the box and try out the djembe.

We practiced for about a half an hour, focusing first on the D section of Meadow Minuet and then on the C and D sections together. I asked M a lot of questions after each repetition about how she thought she did; often she just guessed, but she also sometimes answered accurately, showing that she was listening to herself. The primary technical point we worked on was holding down the melody notes long enough. She’s in the habit of leaving a note early whenever the next note involves a shift. She was resistant to me at first when I tried to correct the behavior by holding down her left-hand finger when she tried to pull it off too early, but after I demonstrated the difference between picking up early and holding down long enough, she seemed to try to hold the notes down and play more legato.  Here’s an audio file of today’s last two repetitions of the Meadow Minuet C and D sections, with discussion afterwards.

She finished by playing Lightly Row twice. The first time, she sort of phoned it in (didn’t play with all the dynamics and rushed the tempo from the middle to the end, seemingly to get it over with). But the second time, she played with much more attention.

My greatest triumph today, however, was realizing that I’ve successfully redefined what a “short” lesson is. When I told her that we were done after close to 30 minutes, she responded with delight and surprise: “We’re done? With our whole entire lesson? Tee-hee-hee!”

Jamming with Zoë Keating

Thursday: Our morning practice was short and pretty successful. I think we worked on Allegretto some more. (I need to take better notes! Any notes!)

In the evening, I tried something different. I picked M up quite early to give us plenty of time to practice. But rather than asking her to practice when we got home, I figured I’d start practicing on my own and let her do whatever she wanted. I thought perhaps she’d decide to join me.

Didn’t happen. She drew happily by herself in the kitchen for 45 minutes while I did two things: (1) figured out some of the motifs in Zoë Keating’s Escape Artist so M with a mind to improvising to it, and (2) practiced the Canon and Oh How Lovely Is the Evening.

I had a harder time with the Canon than I expected, which gave me new respect and sympathy for M’s struggles with it.

M and I finally practiced together after dinner. Mostly we worked on a few sections of the Canon, which was much improved. M also played Oh How Lovely Is the Evening with no difficulty. We talked about coming up with a plan to work on her review songs, but didn’t actually do any. M was very cooperative.

Then we did some jamming to Escape Artist. M didn’t actually seem to be trying that hard to match her playing with the song — she didn’t really want to be bothered with what I figured out about the song’s notes. But M’s rhythm was good, and she seemed to be having fun, so that’s something.

Back story: Yesterday night I saw Keating perform and got copies of her CDs, one of which she inscribed to M. M and I listened to a few songs from the new CD on the way back from school, but M was more interested in hearing a story (Beethoven Lives Upstairs).

Review is rusty


Morning: I notice that M’s nails are raggedy, so we begin with me filing and sanding them. As I do that, I ask M to read through the music for Rigadoon. To my surprise, she has a lot of difficulty. When I’m done with her nails, I ask her to play the first part of Rigadoon together with me. It’s rusty, and her right hand is moving around too much—instead of plucking with her finger, she’s using her whole hand. I narrow down what she’s doing, so she’s playing just the first two notes. She’s pretty squirrelly, and we don’t have much time, so we don’t get any further. Overall, a middling morning.

Evening: It went better, I think, but I failed to take good notes.

Something’s working

Monday: At breakfast, I mentioned that we’d skip our morning practice and just practice in the evening. I said something like, “I hope it goes well” or “I think it will go well.” After a pause, M said:

I’m starting to like it.

I put out my hand so she could slap me five. I refrained from tap dancing.

In the evening, we had  a good practice for about 1/2 an hour. I proposed to let M earn pennies, nickels, and dimes during her lesson since her teacher is collecting change for Japan. When M was dawdling about going to the practice room, I said, “If you get there right now, you can have a whole dime.”

She jumped up, scurried to our practice room, and was standing there holding her guitar, grinning and ready to bow when I walked in. A dime well spent! (Later, she asked her mom, “Did you see how fast I got ready to practice tonight? I was like—” and then she demonstrated.)

We did three things in our lesson:

  • Worked on the song in Read This First. We went over the first line of the sheet music without the instrument, identifying how she would play each note (finger/string/fret), then we played. We made it through the whole thing with very few problems.
    • She had some difficulty transitioning from the second to third line—a transition that involves moving from the 3rd to 4th string—so we worked extra on that.
    • We played it all through once. She declined when I asked if she wanted to play it as a round. I wasn’t crazy about this, but I asked, so I had to take her answer.
  • Asked M to tell me the notes to French Folk Song, then to conduct and say the note names while I played.
  • Asked M to play French Folk Song. Some small sections were rusty.

It was an excellent practice, and M was entirely cooperative. Yay!

More improvisation and singing

Friday: Another good day with low expectations.


  • We started with improvisation. I played a D/G/A/D progression while M noodled on a D scale
  • M did a few free strokes with three fingers. Her hand tends to twist, and I tried to help her keep it steady.
  • M did some A (1/2 fingers on 2nd fret, 2/3 strings) to E (1 finger on 1st fret, 3rd string) chord shifts, played arpeggiated with i-m-a. We need to work on finger placement.

In the afternoon, M was grumbling about practicing, so we discussed what might be fun to work on. She again picked improvisation and the Canon.

  • We began with D scales, played with a metronome.
  • Next, she improvised over a chord progression. At my suggestion, she played quite a bit up the neck on the 1st string.
  • We finished by working on the Canon.
    • We went through once, playing and singing at the same time. This was a nice exercise, and M kept her singing going even when she missed several notes, picking right back up at the right place.
    • M did a good job listening to herself. When I asked her, after a repetition, where she made mistakes, she was always able to point to the music and identify the problem. We narrowed our focus more and more to work just on the problem areas.