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!


Meadow Minuet, with accompaniment

Monday: M had her private lesson today. As we walked to the car, she said, “Yay, we don’t have to practice today.” Sigh.

At her lesson, M played Meadow Minuet all the way through with her teacher playing the accompaniment. Man, that’s a busy accompaniment! I had a hard time hearing M’s part. But M soldiered through, playing a number of repetitions and improving each time. [Later, I will post some audio.]

Musically, her teacher taught M to introduce a ritard plus a fermata, and then a return a tempo, in the middle of the D section, leading up to the C# on the 9th fret of string 1. M did a nice job.

Her teacher suggested we work on the closed A scale to get ready for book 2. (We have already worked on this scale in the past.)

On the non-guitar-related front, I have decided to more actively develop both M’s voice and my own in the following ways:

  • For M, I recently bought Voice Lessons to Go for Kids. We listened to the CD this weekend, on the way to the beach, and the whole family (me, M, and S) sang along. My first impression: the instructional content is solid, but the presentation is pretty dry. M was game for it the first time I played it, but since then, she has said she doesn’t want to listen to the CD.
  • For me, I recently bought Harmony Singing By Ear by Susan Anders. I am loving this! The instructor proceeds in sensible steps, her presentation is clear, the production is good, and the songs are lovely. I’ve listened and sang along a few times with M in the car, and I could hear her sometimes singing along from the back seat. I can’t think of a better way to introduce basic chord-building theory than using these CDs. I will probably review them more thoroughly later. You need a reasonably good ear and ability to match pitches to use the CDs, but you don’t otherwise need a lot of singing ability.

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!”

Opening day at the Colorado Suzuki Institute

Monday: M wakes up cruelly early — 5:30 am Colorado time. (I know, for some families this is not unusual. But we’re blessed with a good sleeper.) I let her watch some Nickelodeon while I check email, etc.

After an expensive but satisfying breakfast at the hotel buffet (make your own waffles!), we check out the surroundings. It’s a nice walk from our hotel, through the woods, up to the “village” of Beaver Creek — a complex of hotels and stores that sell everything from absurd Western-themed artwork, to furs, to jewelry, to $6 gelato (delicious!).

M and I stop by the institute to check in and pick up our tote bag and schedule. M is excited to learn that she got into the bass “enrichment” activity, her top choice. Registration goes smoothly.

The kinks come later, and there were four:

  1. My map of class locations wasn’t accurate.
  2. A promised tour of classroom locations, scheduled for 2:15, inexplicably did not happen. This left me on my own to find the classrooms and to figure out the mistake on my map (enabling me, later, to help another parent whose map included the same error).
  3. During the institute welcoming talk, someone had the terrible idea of holding an impromptu auction for a CD by the Preucil family to raise funds for scholarships. The spent ten minutes trying to get audience members to bid on something no one really wanted, after we had been sitting for over a half an hour later. Note to organizers: do not hold unannounced auctions for worthless items when a large portion of your audience is in elementary school. Just when I was about to hand up a note saying, “Cut this crap out,” the cut the crap out.
  4. The guitar “play in” took place in an incredibly crowded meeting room in one of the hotels, and the leader (a good teacher and nice man, despite what I’m about to say) played way too many advanced songs for the group. The younger kids, including mine, were forced to sit through song after song that they did not know and could not even play a simple accompaniment to. The teacher said up front that the guitars don’t do a traditional play-in (where you start with advanced pieces and just work your way down, adding kids as you go). They should.

The other thing I noticed has nothing to do with the institute per se: there are a shocking number of kids here whose technique is so bad you can scarcely call them guitarists, yet they are butchering their way through songs in Book 2 and Book 3.

I probably shouldn’t be surprised; it’s the same thing I saw at the Minnesota Suzuki graduations. But I am surprised. I would think that people willing to spend the time and money to come here would also be people committed enough to the Suzuki method to have developed minimally competent technique. I was wrong.

The other notable feature of the play-in: A parent let her 18-month old toddler wander across the room, through the guitarists, not once, but twice. After the second time, I went out in the hall to ride herd on the kid, thinking that her mother must not know what’s going on. The kid tries to go in the other door for a third circle, and I block her way. She starts whimpering, and reaching for the woman standing behind me, in the doorway. It’s the kid’s mother. She’s been standing there, watching her kid stroll through the group, doing nothing. I say, “Could you keep your daughter from walking through the group?” “Sure,” she says.

As luck would have it, her 7- or 8-year-old son ends up in M’s group class and master class. But that’s a story for another day.

As for practice today, I worked on Rocky Mountain Twinkle with M in the afternoon and she was very cooperative. And then, of course, the guitarists didn’t play it at the play-in. Because guitarists are different.

One moment of the play-in was tender for me. After most of the kids had set up, M turned out to be behind some other kids, so the leader (who taught M’s master class last year at a different institute) asked if she’d like to move and sit up front. “My dad put me here,” she said. Something about that melted me — that she respected me enough to think that if I put her somewhere, it was where she should sit. Naturally, I helped her move.

Finally, I was surprised that M didn’t try to play along when they got to With Steady Hands. She knows it. When I mentioned it later, she said she just didn’t feel like she knew it well enough. Which tells me her confidence still needs building.

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).

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.

Dodged a bullet

Thursday: Things looked shaky this morning. When it was practice time, M was draping herself across her stool and refusing to cooperate. I kept my annoyance in check and asked her what we could do that would be fun. Eventually she agreed that improvisation might be fun, so that got us started.

After we did some improvisation (M soloed on the D scale over a D/G/A/D progression), we worked on the Lightly Row duet. M had some problems keeping track of the song and screwed up the last section (she played the first section again, not the last section).

In the evening, we returned to Lightly Row, but this time I asked M to sing and play at the same time. This helped her identify the problem areas.

Overall, she did well today. The morning could have become a meltdown, but somehow I steered us in the right direction.