Right-hand technique – videos

Today we worked on right-hand technique, and I took several videos during our practice as teaching tools. M has some habits that need changing — she plays from her elbow or wrist, not from her knuckles, and she plays from the underside of her nails — and I took these videos to help her see what she is doing and what she needs to change.

1. Suzuki’s Allegro – Take 1

2. Suzuki’s Allegro – Take 2

3. Long, Long Ago (rusty!)

4. Bach Tanz

A surprising birthday present

The past few days have been rough, and it’s been wearing me down enough that I’m actually starting to think halfway seriously about switching M to the violin, which she’s said she would prefer to play. But that’s another post!

I expected more of the same today, for two reasons: (1) M is still a little sick (running a fever), and (2) today is M’s birthday. I expected some whining about how she shouldn’t have to practice on her birthday. I did make a special effort yesterday to tell M that we would practice today, but I didn’t think that would totally preempt protest.

Yet it did. When I said at 4:30 it was time to practice, she came right in, even a little cheerfully. She brought with her the two new “Chinese Barbies” (Mei Ling – Lotus Dancer and Black Turtle) she got for her birthday, which she proposed to earn during the lesson depending on how well she did.

We started out easy, by reading a new piece of music: one part of an arrangement of the Twinkle theme that her studio teacher plans to have her students play at the year-end recital in May. Here’s the part:

We approached it in steps:

  1. Clapped the rhythm using fruit names.
  2. Said the note names without worrying about rhythm. (Weirdly, M had a problem with E on the first line of the staff. I had her practice “E-E-E-E,” pointing at all four of them, several times.)
  3. Said the note names with the right rhythm.
  4. Played the A section together.
  5. She played the Twinkle theme while I played this part, to give her an idea of what they sound like together.

Next we worked on the Bach Tanz — specifically, on the same 2-measure portion we worked on yesterday, which requires use of the A (ring) finger on the right hand for the first time in the repertoire. She did 10 good repetitions, twice the 5 we did yesterday. I sat in front of her checking her hand position carefully. A couple of times, when she brought her attention fully to the right hand, she really did a great job. We still need to eradicate a bad habit, though (twisting her hand to start the second measure, which puts her in position to play using the wrong side of her middle finger).

She also still isn’t careful enough with the left hand — she often starts playing when it’s out of position (one string over, for instance). I was able to get her to laugh about it, though, which seems good.

Next we played Meadow Minuet twice through, once with her on melody and me on bass, and once reversed. When she played the melody, she made a lot of errors in the B section that she corrected as she played. When she finished, I asked: “Which section did you make the most mistakes in?” She answered, without hesitating, “The B section,” which is progress.

To finish with something fun, I played a chord progression in the key of G while M improvised on the G scale. She does a nice job of this, and while it doesn’t improve her technique, if it gets her excited and thinking musically, it’s worth it.

I then told her a little about the chord progression (a simple I-IV-V blues progression) and played more with some percussion (slapping the guitar top), and she danced around like a crazy person.

What a nice birthday present from M to me!

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.