Real progress on right hand

We again focused on open Gs and French Folk Song. M is showing real progress on her right-hand technique. She was able to play the open G more than ten times in a row with nice downward pressure, and she maintained this form when playing French Folk Song.

She has a problem transitioning from the D to the E sections, though, and consistently misses a note because she doesn’t move her right-hand finger to the proper string. So we isolated the problem and tried to work on it. The problem is mainly one of concentration and vision — she needs to look at her right hand when it’s time to move it. It’s hard to make progress on this sort of thing because she tends to stare into space rather than directing her eyes deliberately in relation to her playing.

We did about an hour of this, then went out to Chipotle. On the way there and in line, we did some rhythm sight reading, which she gets a kick out of.

Then back at home, she played May Song (her choice). She had a note accuracy problem here, too — her left pinky was reaching for the D# on the 2nd string/4th fret instead of the G on the 1st string/3rd fret. This provided an opportunity for problem analysis: She’s been playing lots of songs with similar left-hand movements, so those muscle memories have crowded out her muscle memory for this part of May Song. It was also an opportunity to talk about slowing things down when you need to solve a problem.

Not much progress on “ready – aim – shoot” — she’s still impatient, and she doesn’t have a habit of thinking about what comes next.

Maybe we need to practice counting to 20 before starting to play. Something.

Ready, fire, aim

I kept the focus on the basics again today — more open Gs and French Folk Song. I also tried two new things, one aimed at improving how she starts pieces, and the other to help her isolate the right-hand technique we’ve been working on.

Starting pieces

M’s focus consistently lags behind her behavior — that is, she starts playing before she’s paying attention to what she’s doing. This leads to a lot of wrong notes; it also means that she doesn’t always wait for her accompanist.

So I talked about two ways to shoot a bow and arrow (we’ve done it on the Wii):

  1. Ready, aim, shoot; or
  2. Ready, shoot, aim.

She does the second; I thought putting it this way might help her become more aware of it. And when practicing today, I consistently had her say “ready” (check posture and feet), “aim” (check hands), and wait for me to say “shoot.”

This was only partly successful. Often, it seems like her idea of checking her hands is to look at them and see, “Yes, I still have hands.” But it’s worth a try.

Right-hand technique

It’s a big job to get M to play louder yet without tension. She understands what to do (place – pressure – release, per the Pumping Nylon segment we’ve watched over and over), but it’s not her habit.

So when playing French Folk Song, she’d consistently play the first few notes with good finger pressure and then fall back to brushing the strings in one lazy motion, rather than placing, pressing, and releasing.

To help her focus on her right hand, I did something I haven’t done before: I got behind her and fretted the left-hand notes. She then did a much better job focusing on her right hand.

I got the idea from Ed Kreitman, who described helping his violin students learn pieces by taking over the bowing to allow them to focus only on the left-hand (which is responsible, as on the guitar, for establishing the notes).

Nothing but open G and French Folk Song

Our main assignment this week is to work on playing louder. Although our teacher asked us to work on this with three review songs, in today’s practice we only got to one: French Folk Song. And even though we practiced for about an hour, we didn’t practice anything else.

We began as M’s studio teacher suggested, using a mute under the strings (rolled up non-skid padding) to force the issue of loudness — with the mute, to be heard at all, you have to play forcefully.

While I agree that M needs to play louder — to press down on the strings, rather than just brushing over them — I’m worried about creating tension in her right hand. For one thing, right-hand tension has already been an issue for her in the past. For another, I happened to have just finished reading Glenn Kurtz’s charming memoir Practicing: A Musician’s Return to Music, in which a crucial event is Kurtz’s discovery when he arrives at the New England Conservatory to study guitar that this very technique created habits he had to unlearn. Kurtz writes (p. 58):

[W]en I was a child, I’d taken technique classes to build strength. . . . We put a dustcloth under the strings just behind the sound hole to mute the instrument. . . . The cloth mute made the strings less pliable. Increasing resistance, we were taught, strengthened our fingers.

Strong fingers were good, and mine were among the strongest. . . . Now, at the Conservatory, [my teacher] showed me how my strength worked against itself.

“You’re bullying the strings,” he said at a lesson a few weeks later. “Use the least possible force, the least effort.”

Alone in a practice room I returned to basic technique to see more clearly how I had always played. What I saw horrified me. With each fingerstroke I tensed my forearm or shoulders or neck or palm or wrist. Training for strength, it seemed, was a terrible way to teach technique. It had taught me to work too hard. The tension in my arms was just a substitute for a cloth mute, an unconscious attempt to reproduce the resistance my fingers had been taught to expect. Worse still, the mute had prevented the strings from vibrating, teaching me to play the strings without playing notes. I’d learned to focus on the finger, not on the sound.

So I had three goals for M today:

  1. to play louder,
  2. without extra tension, and
  3. while listening to herself.

I had her spend a lot of time just playing open Gs. I noticed her hand rotating from side to side — i.e., instead of placing her fingers straight down, she was rotating so that i and m were placed far apart — so we played “fix me”: I did what she had been doing and (after much work) got her to see when I was doing it.

When we got to French Folk Song, she played it with no dynamic contrast. She was aware of this after the fact, but had a hard time doing anything about it. And she typically started the song (or an individual section) with good downward pressure, but quickly reverted to brushing the strings, and it didn’t seem like she ever noticed the change. I asked her to play just the B section several times with her eyes closed and listen to whether  her tone changed, but she couldn’t reliably tell me anything about her sound.

We did do one modestly successful awareness exercise. Each section ends with a dotted half note, and that note’s duration provides time to think about what’s coming. Two sections (C and D) should start quiet and crescendo, and M was not playing this way. So I asked her to let treat each dotted half note as if it had a fermata, and let it ring until she could no longer hear it. Only when it stopped ringing should she start the next section, and she should start quiet if she’s on the C or D sections. With this instruction, she did manage to play the crescendos at least one time through.

On the behavior front, this wasn’t our best lesson — she was very fidgety and didn’t take direction as well as I’d like. I got to the point of saying that if we couldn’t achieve what I wanted to achieve in the time I had set aside for practice, she wasn’t going to be able to go to a play that we had planned to go to. In a way, this is a natural consequence — if you have a job to do and can’t do it in the allotted time, that screws up your schedule and you may have to change plans — but it functioned more like a threat. I don’t like making threats, but I’m still not skillful enough to always refrain from them.

Be careful what you ask for

After yesterday’s unsatisfactory practice, I thought hard about how to do things differently today. At M’s last few private lessons, her studio teacher has been emphasizing tone production, so I decided to try to make that the focus of our practice today.

Also, today I read some more pages in The Inner Game of Music before I returned it to the library. (My copy’s on its way from Amazon.) And I was reminded of the importance of awareness and self-evaluation.

So to begin today’s lesson, we did two listening exercises:

  1. First, I asked M to listen as she played a scale, and to play the next note only when she could no longer hear the first note ringing.
  2. Next, I asked M to get right up next to my guitar and to listen as I played a note, raising her hand only when the note stopped ringing.

She paid good attention while playing her own scales, but I noticed a new problem: She was keeping tension in her plucking finger after she played the note. I nonverbally drew her attention to the problem by placing my finger on her plucking finger after she played and while she was waiting for the next note, and after a few notes, she started to relax her plucking finger. (She did it in an exaggerated way, but I think it was enough that she figured out and tried to address the problem.)

My other idea when I noticed this tension was to watch the small portion of Pumping Nylon that’s about basic strokes, but I couldn’t get the DVD to play. It’s been a while since we’ve seen it, and it’s probably about time we look at it again as a refresher.

Next, we worked on assessing tone quality on the melody of the first few bars of Meadow Minuet. First, I played, and I asked her to identify which note I played with the best tone and which I played with the worst tone. I realized quickly that I needed to break it down to just 4 measures (6 notes) at a time, because (not surprisingly) she couldn’t keep more notes in her had to compare them.

Then I asked her to play 4 measures and to identify the best and worst notes. And I noticed something odd: She was doing weird, counterproductive things with her left hand (e.g., flattening out her index finger all the way and pressing down too hard with it), as if she were deliberately trying to sound bad.

And she was: She took from her assignment the idea that a note had to be bad, and that she had to be able to identify that note. So, quite sensibly, she thought to herself, “Let me play this note really badly, and then I’ll play a different one well.” She explained this to me when I mentioned that I saw here doing something unusual (and counterproductive) but intentional-seeming with her left hand and asked her why.

So I learned that my first instruction — identify the best and worst notes — was flawed. So instead, I asked her to strive to make every note sound as beautiful as possible, and then if one note was the best, to identify it, and to identify the worst note if there was one.

Also, I realized that I had to be more specific about the tonal vocabulary. When I asked her what her best note sounded like, I was getting answers like, “Pretty good,” and “Nice.” These answers don’t really tell me anything — in fact, they don’t even enable me to tell whether she is just calling a random note her “best,” or whether she in fact really listened to what she was playing. So I gave her a more specific vocabulary: thin, fat, weak, round, bell-like, buzzy, snappy, even.

And on one run-through of a small portion of Meadow Minuet, we had some success: she identified her high E as snappy, which was exactly right. And the rest of the notes were all pretty good. (Her tone was actually pretty good on some other repetitions, which reflects — I think — that she was listening to herself, but she was only expressed an accurate judgment of her playing one time.)

So she didn’t get a lot done on the instrument, but she paid much better attention than yesterday to the things that she did do.

Starting Meadow Minuet, working on wandering eyes

Today we did:

  • A little note reading off of the instrument.
  • Meadow Minuet
    • First, we listened all the way through. Then we worked through the first 8 bars, stopping at one point to listen and sing along a few times. M got frustrated at one point when she wasn’t hearing the next right note, but eventually she got it when I played it on my guitar out of her sight. M also kept trying to play the bass part along with the melody, and I had to remind her that it wasn’t part of our assignment.
  • Song of the Wind with the metronome.
    • M did well on this when she watched her hands, but her gaze and attention often wandered, and she missed a lot of notes whenever that happened.
    • To combat this, I gave her a noticing job along with her listening and playing jobs: I asked her to notice where her eyes went as she played. And after each repetition, we compared notes about where her eyes had been. During one repetition, she played the first half of the song nearly flawlessly while looking at her left hand, and then botched the second half the minute she started staring around the room. I pointed this out to her right when it happened, and I think it had an effect — I think she’s buying in to the notion that if her eyes wander, her mind wanders, and her playing suffers.

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

Working under constraints

Today, M cut her left index finger while doing a craft. It was a pretty good cut, right on the tip, so I knew that (at least for today) she wouldn’t be able to fret any notes with that finger.

To work around this, we did four things in our lesson, two with the instrument and two without:

  1. note reading off of the instrument;
  2. review of the first floor or the music-theory memory palace (she remembered everything even though we haven’t reviewed it in days);
  3. Perpetual Motion on the G string only, fretting each note with the middle finger (2) of the left hand; and
  4. The Twinkle Theme in what I called “zero position.” That is, she used fingers 2, 3, and 4 (middle, ring, and pinky) in place of 1, 2, and 3 (index, middle, and ring).

The “zero position” exercise forced M to pay close attention to her left hand — she knew which notes to fret, but her hand kept trying to use the normal fingers. M had to actively intervene on each fretted note and consciously choose to use a different finger.

This exercise would not have occurred to me had I not been forced to think about how M could still practice without her left index finger. It goes to show the value of practicing under constraints — in adapting to the constraint, you may have to do something different, which both creates interest and calls for heightened awareness.

I think I’ll sometimes ask M to play other Book 1 songs that use only 3 fingers in “zero position.”

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

Free stroke, or, the problem with repetition targets

This is just a brief lesson recap. We did:

  1. A scales, some with single notes and others with i-m-a on each string
  2. Steady Hands
  3. Free stroke — tried to start Book 2 Twinkle, but it didn’t work out
  4. Two Twinkle variations (Run Kitty and Strawberry Popsicle) at 60 bpm (but not with metronome)

I tried out having her pick her own rewards (blank cards or little sticker dolls she made). Didn’t seem to make much difference. Continue reading Free stroke, or, the problem with repetition targets

Watch where you’re going!

At group class yesterday, the teacher discussed the key to shifting one’s left hand around the neck: looking at the fret you are aiming for, not the fret you are coming from (nor at the moving hand). It struck me that this is the concrete manifestation of the importance, as you’re playing, of keeping in mind what’s coming next, or “imaging ahead.”

“Eyes on the target” is a universal principle, governing not just sports and pastimes (golf, basketball, tennis, pool, archery, fencing) but even something as simple as driving, as I explained to M as we were driving around yesterday afternoon.

So today in our home lesson, when M was playing wrong notes and shifting her right hand toward tosto at the wrong time in Huckleberry Apple Twinkle, I paused to do a fret-jumping exercise in which we broke down every step:

  • fret and play a note at the 5th fret;
  • look at the 12th fret;
  • pause;
  • fret and play a note at the 12th fret;
  • look at the 5th fret;
  • pause;
  • fret and play a note at the 5th fret; etc.

It took several repetitions to get her to look at the target fret before moving her hand — she naturally wanted to watch her hand as it moved, rather than looking ahead. But she did get the hang of it.

I then tried to explain that just as she looked ahead to see where she was going physically, she needed, when playing a song, to look ahead mentally and know what was coming next.  Continue reading Watch where you’re going!