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.

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!