Practicing before dinner

We had a pretty free Sunday, so I made sure we practiced before dinner. It made for a more-relaxed practice and (I think) a more attentive M. We did:

  • M sang and conducted Lightly Row
  • G scale on the G string (saying note names, whole and half-steps, and fret numbers)
  • Perpetual Motion on the G string
  • All the Twinkle variations, with a focus on a strong and steady right hand
  • Song of the Wind with the metronome
  • The Fuhrman Tanz

Everything went pretty well, but most notable (for me) was M’s work on the Twinkles. I decided to follow a violin teacher’s suggestion from one of the SAA videos. He recommends starting a practice session with a 3- to 5- minute “workout” focused on your technical issue, beginning with the Twinkles and working forward. So I told M to really concentrate on keeping her right hand steady and getting good downward pressure. And she responded better than I expected — I’m not sure I’ve ever seen her in such a state of sustained concentration for that long.

Slow down, you move too fast

We got home late, so we couldn’t practice until after dinner. While I got it ready, I did “fruit rhythm” music reading with M, which went well. She needed help with syncopated rhythms and sixteenth notes, but overall, she read the 50-measure exercise from her group teacher very reliably.

In our lesson, we only worked on two songs, May Song and the Führmann Tanz.

We picked up where we left off with May Song: M played it through several times focusing on getting good right-hand tone. She only made one real note mistake, and that was the result of not looking at the neck as she moved from natural position to tosto.

But the Führmann Tanz was in bad shape — she couldn’t even sing it, she missed the first repeat, and she mangled the notes in the B section.

So I had her practice the B section repeatedly, without stopping, until I counted 5 repetitions with good tone and no note mistakes. She probably played it a total of 9 times to get 5 good ones. I would have liked to do more, but we didn’t have time.

One aspect of our lesson was not successful: I noticed that she was starting the B section by playing “i-i” instead of “i-m.” I stopped her immediately and asked her if she knew what right-hand problem was my reason for stopping her. Unsurprisingly, the first time, she didn’t know. But it was surprising to me that even after I told her to pay careful attention to her right hand as she started the song, she made the same mistake four or five times in a row, and each time, she couldn’t tell me what about her right hand was incorrect.

But before I told her the problem, she fixed it, and she began the section by alternating i-m. Periodically as she played her alternating was not perfect, but overall it was pretty good.

As I was writing this, a review idea occurred to me: Perhaps we could sing every song each lesson. I can’t understand how anyone plays every song each lesson, unless those songs are at a level of development that is still remote for us. I don’t feel like we’re rushing through the repertoire, yet I keep finding that her review songs are less solid than I expect.

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.

Practice log leads (for today) to holy grail

Today I tried something different. I made up a weekly practice log that lists all the things we need to practice during the week. I set my own arbitrary parameters — e.g., we will practice two review songs a day and will practice all of them in the course of the week. (You can see a blank log on

Within those parameters, though, I let M pick what to do. And each time we completed something, I gave her a blank playing card whose back she can color (I will write the names of practice activities on the front so we can use the cards in future lessons).

After our lesson, which took a little over an hour (note: she didn’t have hands on the instrument all that time), I was telling my wife about the new chart and that the lesson went well. In the background, M chimed in:

I liked doing it.

So for today at least, I found the holy grail: a productive practice that M enjoyed.

We did:

  • Targeted, repeated listening of Meadow Minuet to learn the notes and the structure.
    • For structure, we counted groups of eight measures and said A, B, C, or D at the beginning of each group of eight measures.
    • For notes, we sang the melody.
  • Practiced the C section of Meadow Minuet once I knew M could sing it. I played the bass notes.
  • With Steady Hands — played through once or twice, but because M still has trouble knowing when she’s at the end, we played alternating sections: B1 (me), B2 (her), A1 (me), A2 (her), B1 (me), B2 (her), A1 (me), A2 (her). This way, she was responsible for knowing when the piece ended. It seemed to help.
  • French Folk Song — played through once, but then focused on two 4-bar sections, B and E. We played themrepeatedly  with the metronome and gradually increased it to 176 bpm. M still played with ease at this tempo.
  • Allegretto — played through a couple of times.
  • M conducted me playing Lightly Row and Aunt Rhody while she sang the note names. Flawless.
  • G scale — played a few times.

When we went over the practice log before starting, M added a practice item to our choices by writing on the page: “Make up song.” Then she wrote a song name with arbitrary German letters. Today’s completed log, with M’s annotations:
Suzuki guitar book 1 practice log – first draft, filled out

Notes aren’t enough

Pretty weak lesson today, not surprisingly: M went to a birthday party after school and jumped around in bouncy castles for 2 hours, which would sap anyone’s energy.

So she was tired and distracted during our lesson. We worked on:

  • the A scale;
  • French Folk Song; and
  • Tanz 2 (J.C. Bach).

The two songs were really rusty, and she played Tanz 2 so carelessly it was depressing. I think we need to break these review songs down into smaller pieces and have her play those small pieces with care. I certainly don’t want more of what I got today, which was M playing as if playing the right note, regardless of how she played a note, was all that she should do.

But fatigue surely dragged M down today, so I’m thinking happy thoughts and telling myself that today was an aberration.

Still injured

M’s still got a cut finger, and we got started late today, so in a short lesson we did:

  1. Conducting: M conducted me playing Aunt Rhody and Lightly Row. We used the metronome.
  2. Perpetual Motion on the G string. She is really getting this.
  3. Allegretto and Lightly Row in “zero position,” i.e., played with the 2/3/4 fingers instead of 1/2/3.

Proof that she listens at group class: At breakfast, as she was holding a banana in her hand, she exclaimed,

Look! It’s like a guitar! It’s a ganana!

And in fact, she was holding the banana with all four fingers on one side and the thumb on the other, in (almost) the proper position for the left hand on the guitar neck — a position that her group teacher demonstrated last week:

holding a banana like a guitar neck

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.”

Still Twinkling

Today we did some note reading, using the note page I posted a few days ago. Then we kept working on the Twinkles, doing repeated takes of the Theme, Ice Cream Cone, and Strawberry Popsicle. We got good takes of the first two, and I added them to my earlier post of Twinkle recordings. (I added a Strawberry Popsicle too, but it’s not a great take.)

This makes three days in a row of playing nothing but Twinkles.

You might expect M to get bored, but the opposite happened. Indeed, today she volunteered, “I kind of like playing Twinkle.” And she’s learning that it’s okay to practice the same thing over, and over, and over — a crucial lesson.

On an unrelated note, we got our confirmation today of registration for the Colorado Suzuki Institute. It’s nice to have that on the schedule as a motivator for M.

Listening; small rewards


This month, I’m taking an SAA online course of sorts for Suzuki parents (“Parents as Partners Online“). It’s a series of short videos.

One video was notable. Michele Horner, a Suzuki guitar teacher/violin parent, advocated “listening like a maniac” — listening to a student’s working piece and upcoming pieces over and over again. (A summary of the same talk is in this SAA newsletter.) Specifically, she talked about getting great results from creating CDs containing:

  • 10 x working piece
  • 10 x next piece
  • 10 x next piece.

Her supporting anecdotes were convincing, as was a testimonial by her 14-year-old daughter. And given how insecure M’s mental image seems to be of many of her pieces — including pieces that she has played in recitals — I decided to give this a try. So I created 4 identical CDs, each containing Steady Hands (working), Meadow Minuet (next), the Führmann Tanz (two pieces ago), and the Bach Tanz (previous piece).

Review; small rewards

M and I haven’t been reviewing her past repertoire broadly enough. We  do some review songs in each lesson, but we don’t have any method for ensuring that they all get covered regularly.

So I decided to follow a suggestion I saw on a teacher’s site: write song names on slips of paper, place them in a bag, and pick out a few to practice every lesson. (Some teachers suggest practicing every review song every lesson, which strikes me as nuts. Our teacher hasn’t given us explicit instructions about how much to review.) M wrote half of the slips (and thus worked on her handwriting), and I wrote the other half. For slips of paper, we used business-card-sized blank punch cards from a coffeeshop I used to own.

These were a great choice for two reasons. First, they have ten boxes on the printed side on which I can record when, and how many times, we practice a song. Second — and more importantly — M thought they were cool. So cool that she wanted to earn them in her lesson, as “money” that she could then decorate. What better way to motivate your kid?

“Play through that song, and I’ll give you a piece of scrap paper! Do a great job, and maybe you’ll get more than one!”

On a more-serious note, it occurred to me later that I should give her the chance to decide how many pieces of paper she should get, to continue to develop her self-evaluation skills. Continue reading Listening; small rewards