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Fri, May. 25th, 2007, 02:25 pm
Teaching Piano

Suzuki and "traditional" approaches: What's the best way to teach a child a musical instrument?

Tue, Dec. 19th, 2006, 12:08 am

It's what I sometimes used to feel with music lessons. Shortchanged. Or perhaps, more accurately, I gave and got short measure.

It was the repeats that bothered me -- or rather the lack of repeats. It annoyed me immensely. I never got to play them either in lessons or in exams. I practised them. But they were somehow never required at any other time. And it really did bother me.

It wasn't even straight repeats. There'd be a da capo with two different endings. Number one was skipped over; we'd play number two and hurry onto the rest of the piece.

Of course, it was primarily down to lack of time, to fitting things into a very limited space available. At the time, I never felt I had an argument to counter that.

Now, we do the repeats. We practise them, we play them in lessons, and we perform them. I feel absurdly satisfied, despite the fact it is not my fingers on the keys. I feel that satisfied even when practising together, getting through everything we meant to work at, is a huge challenge.

Am I justified? Well, yes. There's something important in doing things properly. So if the composer wrote a particular set of phrases and wanted them twice over (or, indeed, or whatever number of times), then it's not correct to miss these things out. It's not a genuine interpretation. It may be some kind Reader's Digest condensed version, but it's not the real thing.

Then there's the whole notion of stretching how long a piece a performer can successfully attempt. Part of developing is to do bigger pieces: bigger in terms of range, in terms of technical challenges, and in terms of sheer length.

That's what I missed. It's not a problem for Mathilda.

Wed, May. 24th, 2006, 10:25 am
Put your Hands Together!

It deserves more than a round of applause, this next step, quietly slipped in: right hand melody on its own, left hand accompaniment on its own, the two together-- Mathilda nearly fell of her seat! Yes, she was being asked to try the piece hands together. She did the first bar, building it up slowly. We're there. Not a summit, but we've got over a crest and the top's visible along with the entire mountain range ahead.

For anyone not involved in Suzuki piano's programme it might seem strange that after two-and-a-half years we've just started what is a fundamental part of playing the instrument. But that's the way it goes. I think we've got some even more important fundamentals, about posture and producing a good sound, about performance, about listening most of all. It's been a struggle this week to hold Mathilda back from the next step until her teacher told her she was ready. Having a composition concert to work for helped: her piece "Cluck, cluck, hens on Wednesday, cluck, cluck, chickens on Wednesday, cluck, cluck" used both hands and the entire keyboard. But now we have the go ahead our half-term holidays will be spent learning how to put Cuckoo together, plus learning Allegretto II.

Mathilda was quietly pleased with herself when she wasn't giggling (the latter normally indicates excitement).

Mon, Jul. 11th, 2005, 09:52 am
Why we do this

Yes, I know it's really about providing a child with a wonderful way of learning about piano, about music, about all the personal qualities that the Suzuki method develops... but there have to be occasional benefits for the grown-ups too!

Saturday evening supper time (actually Saturday last, 'cos I'm slow at posting sometimes), Mathilda had already eaten with the friend who'd visited for the afternoon. It was getting late, so either supper for the grown ups was postponed (and spoiled) or practice was later than desirable. Or we have a suppertime concert. Mathilda played every piece she knows (so that's twinkles plus eight) and a composition and we ate up. Live entertainment on tap! It's good to be a Suzuki parent!

Thu, Jun. 23rd, 2005, 02:51 pm
Too Hot

It's hot, too hot for the UK, too hot for children to be in school and then be expected to play piano. Yesterday I almost decided not to bother. Instead, and I'm not certain this should ever be regarded as a good way to practice, we played "strip piano". It's like strip poker but without the gambling.

Completing each task in her practice (carefully bundled into the correct number of activities) entitled Mathilda to remove one item of clothing. By the end she was stark naked and rushed off to put clean, cool clothes back on.

There's something to be said for this, beyond the fact that we got it done. I really could see if she was sitting properly: there's no way of hiding a slouch if you're shirtless. I think her awareness of her body and her posture was increased.

Not to be done in public and it helps that Mathilda's only six and hasn't learned to be self-conscious about her body.

Thu, Jun. 23rd, 2005, 02:44 pm
Bank of Twinkle

It's become increasingly difficult to persuade Mathilda to twinkle. I'd like to start every practice with some twinkling, but she resists. So it goes in with the rest of the tasks to be drawn out at random. (Interestingly, this does sometimes mean she plays them later on in her practice better than she played her first pieces: there may be some benefit in putting them later sometimes.) Really, she'd rather not bother with them at all.

When she does play, she's on auto-pilot. The number of repeats of the central phrase varies from zero to three. She occasionally starts the first phrase and finishes the piece at the end of it, apparently unaware that's she's not played it all. She's even got stuck in a loop, repeating the middle section and the end several times without apparently noticing she's done so.

We need rewards or incentives (even if I secretly think of this as bribery(=bad)). We've gone down the awarding stickers route several times: sometimes interest in collecting stickers falls off rapidly, sometimes sticker collecting becomes the be all and end all and swamps all other thoughts. It's definitely time for something new.

We've opened a bank: Bank of Twinkle. Into this bank we deposit 1p per perfect twinkle played. When the jar's full, we'll count out the total and she can have it in something more portable than pennies. It's a smallish peanut butter jar, but even so, quite a challenge. There's no restriction on when she twinkles (within reason) so if a couple are played in the morning, al well and good. I'm not putting a maximum number per day (... yet).

Is it working? We twinkle first, every practice on her say so. She's concentrating. She's listening to herself. We're not necessarily playing a lot more of them, but the hits are going up. There's a small, but visibly growing, pile of pennies in the jar. There's a satisfying, chink each time one's dropped in.

My only worry is I'm running out of pennies!

Wed, Jun. 1st, 2005, 03:47 pm
It's not the icing, it's the cake underneath

Mathilda started learning Au Clair de la Lune yesterday. We worked through the first four bars, after we'd done everything else. What was most interesting was not the fact that we were learning another new song, but the way in which she played while trying to fathom out the notes. Before, as soon as she's begun to concentrate on learning the notes to a new tune all sign of good playing technique has vanished: she's poked and prodded and bashed and the shoulders have hunched and the wrist dropped. Yesterday, it was all as good as her best playing, despite the fact she was thinking of a new tune and not about making a beautiful sound.

A new tune's mere icing on top of that growing technique.

Thu, May. 26th, 2005, 11:13 am
Progress and Granularity

On Sunday, Mathilda played through London Bridge. She then told me she needed to practise the final phrase. I asked her how many times and she said three. This is the first time she's made an independent decision about what needs more work and then volunteered to do it.

The list of pieces now runs as follows: Twinkles in C, B and F#, Cuckoo, Honeybee, Lightly Row, French Children's Song, Mary Had a Little Lamb, London Bridge. This week we learn Aunt Rhody and next week, maybe, Au Clair de la Lune.

The other thing to note is that we've cracked lucky dips--and the secret is granularity. We can't have a card for every single thing, but batches work fine, especially when we're working on concentration an playing more pieces together.

Tue, May. 17th, 2005, 09:26 pm

... tuned for another year.

Tue, May. 10th, 2005, 12:11 pm

I felt so ill on Friday night (a bug caught from Mathilda who'd just gone back to school after a couple of days off) that the thought of sitting up and paying attention whilst Mathilda did her practice was too much. At seven o'clock, which is when we send Mathilda off up to get ready for bed, she piped up: "I've not done my practice."

It's bedtime. And I really don't feel well enough to help."

"But I want to do my practice." (The beginning of tearfulness sounds in her voice.)

"OK. Why not do a concert instead. Play me your twinkles and your songs. We'll all listen." (All? It helps to have attentive cats!)

With a bit of further argumentpersuasion, that's what we did.

It is something of a breakthrough to have Mathilda wanting to practice--even if, as I suspect, it's a lot to do with sticking stars for perfect performances on her perfect performance crown.

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