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!

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.

Dynamic and pitch contours

In our studio lesson this weekend, M’s teacher diagrammed the dynamic shape of a passage in With Steady Hands, M’s working piece. She numbered each note in the phrase, then drew the numbers from small (quiet) to large (loud) and back to small (quiet again).

Because M and I are still working on recording the Twinkles, and particularly on incorporating dynamic contrast into them, before our lesson I decided to try making a similar diagram for the A section of Twinkle. The diagram is below.

Looking at the staff, M noticed that the notes rise and fall just like the volume, so  we discussed the similarity between the dynamic contour and pitch contour. She did the “pitch shape” drawing in the upper right-hand side of the drawing and labeled it. Her pitch shape is more accurate than mine!

This exercise translated unevenly into her playing. Yesterday, she typically had great dynamic shape on the first A section and both B sections, but when she got to the last A section, she played it all at the same volume. Today, she had some dynamic shape in both A sections, but the shape was too flat — she started piano and never got much louder than mezzopiano.

The trick now is to get her to use her range. (You’ll note that I ruled out the extreme soft and louds in my diagram: when she plays very soft, her right-hand technique falls apart, i.e., she brushes the string rather than lightly plucking it.)
Twinkle Twinkle Little Star – dynamic and pitch shapes

Almost all of the Twinkles

Today we recorded some more of the Twinkles in preparation for the Suzuki Association of Minnesota graduations in March. We forgot Ice Cream Cone, but we got most of the rest pretty well. And apart from a brief meltdown at the end of the lesson (at almost 6:45, when I asked M to run through Wish I Had a Little Pony a second time), M was cooperative and paid good attention.

It probably helped that I explained up front:

  • we would practice as long — or as short — as it took to get a good recording of each variation; and
  • if we had enough time after finishing, we would be able to have some ice cream — but whether we would have enough time was up to her, because it depended on how she cooperated.

Sadly, as I listen to these again, I notice that I forgot to turn off the furnace for at least two recordings (Strawberry Popsicle and Theme). Dang it!

Update 25 January 2011: It’s taken three more days of trying, but we finally got a good take of Ice Cream Cone and a much-improved, furnace-free take of Theme. We also got an improved take of  Strawberry Popsicle, but I think M can do better.

Update 28 January 2011: Now we’ve got a decent Strawberry Popsicle. The player below has the best recording of each variation. All done!

Lesson recap: singing and playing, continued

M was a little hyper after dinner. As we were heading toward our practice room, I said, “You seem a little all over the place. You’ll need to settle down, otherwise things aren’t going to go well.” (I think I said this mostly like an observation, not a threat. I really try to avoid threats — or, as M has called them, “threatens.”)

In fact, she did settle down, and we had a nice lesson. Afterwards we had some ice cream, and I said, “You did a nice job cooperating today. Thanks.” She responded, “I heard what you said.” Meaning (as I confirmed) that she took heed of my direction at the start of our lesson to settle down. This may have been an explanation in hindsight rather than a reflection of her thought process earlier, but I’ll take it!

Today, we sang and played each song that we practiced. We also went over the song structure before playing. We did: Continue reading Lesson recap: singing and playing, continued