I’ve always seen the guitar as a doorway to musicianship for my daughter, rather than an end in itself. I certainly hope that she’ll love playing guitar some day, but I recognize that she didn’t pick it, and that she may someday quit playing.

Because of my desire to help my daughter become a musician, rather than specifically a guitarist, I’m often introducing other instruments into our practices. At various times, we’ve played the ukulele; the pennywhistle; the harmonica; and various percussion instruments (the djembe, the snare drum, the claves). (Note: I can’t really play any of these instruments. But I enjoy trying.) I use them to help develop sightreading skills, rhythm awareness, and music theory.

Recently, I’ve gotten obsessed with the bass. Specifically, I’m obsessed with the Kala Ubass. It’s a baritone ukulele body equipped with special polyurethane strings, and, when amplified, it sounds almost exactly like an upright bass. I haven’t bought one because it’s around $400, but it’s a tossup between whether I want it or an iPad more.

My daughter is not obsessed with the bass, but she did ask to play upright bass in her enrichment class last year at the Colorado Suzuki Institute. More recently, at this year’s institute (at the MacPhail Center for Music), she played the bass part in a guitar-quartet piece, and since then she has continued to play the part on her own during any small breaks in our home practices (much to my annoyance). I’ve actually never seen something stick in her head like this bass part. Mind you, we practiced it a ton during the institute, but it got me wondering whether I could keep her enthusiasm about that bass part alive by starting to teach her bass.

So that’s what I’ve started doing, using her guitar. Since the lowest four strings of the guitar are tuned the same as a bass (just an octave up), you can learn bass-clef reading and the fretboard geography of the electric bass (or the Ubass) using an ordinary guitar.

So I picked up David Overthrow’s Beginning Electric Bass, and two days ago M and I started sight-reading a scale-like warmup exercise in the beginning of the book. I taught her the lines (GBDFA) and the spaces (ACEG) of the bass clef and the associated mnemonics (Good Boys Do Fine Always and All Cows Eat Grass). Then we read the music off the instrument, just saying the note names, and then moved to saying and playing the notes. Since this particular exercise is all stepwise movement, it was pretty doable. Today (our second day on the piece), I added a fun twist: one of us read the notes as if they were on the treble clef while the other read them on the bass clef. Thus put us in harmony a sixth apart, which sounded pretty good. We traded off doing it each way.

We probably can’t do this every day, but I think its worthwhile for any musician to have a working familiarity with the bass clef. (Having played the piano for a couple of years, I can read it, but not nearly as easily as the treble clef.) And if I ever get a Kala Ubass, M will have a head start on learning how to play it. I love the idea of her being able to play both the guitar and the electric bass.

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

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.

More bridge building in working pieces

Friday: We focused on M’s working pieces today, since her lesson is tomorrow. With Allegro, M can play each section quite well, but at the end of each one, she pauses to figure out what comes next. So we worked on the bridges between sections.

With A Toye, we’re still in the assembly stages. M was only assigned the B section last week, so we are just working on stringing the sections together. M did a pretty good job of the first 16 bars.

Today’s Breakthrough Diary:

Breakthrough Diary, 2011 November 4

Building bridges

Today or the day before, I read M the Practiceopedia chapter about “building bridges” — connecting sections. It was timely, because as M is learning the individual sections of both A Toye and Allegro, she’s having trouble stringing them together. So today we focused on bridges. For instance, I had M play the last measure of one section of A Toye and the first two measures of the next section. It seemed to help.

I also had M play Allegro with the metronome, and we played and sang Christmas carols. Here’s today’s Breakthrough Diary:

Breakthrough Diary, 2011 November 02

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:

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.)