Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Power of Review

I'm almost ashamed to admit this but it wasn't until recently that I really got the purpose of review pieces.  It only took me seven years to figure it out but I guess better late than never, right?

To clarify, I have always had all my students do review pieces.  I warm up with review pieces in every lesson.  I would use review for exercises and drills.  I would have my students do review pieces only (never current) when performing at our solo recitals.  So it wasn't as if I didn't understand the value of review.

What eluded me up until recently was why a student should really maintain all her review pieces.  When a book three student came into a lesson unable to remember book one's Happy Farmer, I didn't ever sweat it.  I would tell the student to clean it up at home and maybe the student did and maybe she didn't.  The end result of this was an entire studio full of students reviewing only the pieces they liked and remembered how to play.

I admit that I did find this a tad troublesome.  Most of my students could play roughly a book and a half back.  I would have liked all the book three students to remember Happy Farmer but I had a hard time rationalizing in my brain why I needed to spend time and energy harping on these more advanced students to relearn a piece that they have long since mastered all the teaching points on.  I mean, does a student polishing up Gavotte by Becker really need the simple double down and double up bow practice of Happy Farmer?

For seven years I answered this question with a "no."

The thing that changed for me was when I took my violin unit 6 training a few months back.  Sherry Cadow was leading the session and she made this offhand comment about how, to her, the real difference between students who "make it" versus those that petter out was in how effective they were in their review.  At the end of the training she shared with us the practicing chart that she uses with all of her students.  Unlike other charts I had seen and used, this chart was merely a way to keep track of all the different pieces, not how many times each piece was played.

For some reason, these two things made me really stop and think about my review piece attitude.  And the fact that I had more advanced students that couldn't remember book one pieces bothered me enough that I wanted to make a change.  So, with newfound resolve, I flew home and immediately handed each of my students one of these charts with an explanation on how to complete it.

As expected, there was a lot of whining after the first week.  Since a piece could not be checked off until it was back in "review shape" and this could not be covered up with playing other--more polished--pieces dozens of times, the first week was a slog for most.  Dust had to be brushed off the ol' book one CD.

But I stuck to my guns.  I had avoided doing this for years and I had to commit if I was going to make a change.  So I made a point of asking to see every review chart at the start of the lesson, knowing that if I didn't the chart would be mysteriously "lost."

By week two the difference in playing was shocking and by week three it was mind-boggling.

When I saw the first few students at the beginning of week two I thought it was just a fluke.  Perhaps they had all had especially good practicing weeks.  But no!  Every single one was coming in playing lightyears ahead of how they played the previous week.  And they weren't even doing anything special!  They were simply playing review.

It was then that I suddenly got review.

The pieces in the Suzuki books are exercises.  By only playing the select pieces that were favorites or--more often--remembered off the top of one's head, only certain muscles ever got worked.  It was like going to the gym and only lifting weights with one arm.  They were not well-rounded players.

By getting every piece back into review shape it allowed mastery to start taking place.  And that was the thing I was missing.  A book four student can play Twinkle beautifully and with ease.  I suddenly understood what a powerful thing it would be if a Seitz Concerto could be played with that level of ease.  It meant that a student could hear herself play at that incredibly high level, which, in turn, sets the standard for any new piece.

So now when I wonder if it's worth playing the simple double downs and ups of Happy Farmer, the answer is a resounding "yes."  Because I want a student to be playing Happy Farmer with the same ease as a Twinkle.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

9 MORE Tips for Observing Your Young Musician

There are two different teachers present in a young student’s private music lesson environment: the parent and the teacher. While the private studio teacher is there to offer expertise on the instrument, the parent will be the one that has the most lasting impact on the child’s musical career. Consider that the teacher usually only sees the child once a week while the parent will be there for the young student the other six days.

Learning a musical instrument is no easy task. Besides the obvious physical challenges there are a great many emotional hurdles to overcome. This means that the parent must play an active role in the child’s learning if he is to become successful.

The parent must learn how to observe the home environment objectively since this is where the child will be doing most of his playing. It is also the area where the teacher has no hand in anything that goes on. If issues crop up then it will be up to the parent to report back in order to figure out a solution.
You can find this booklet on Amazon, Kobo and most other major e-book retailers.

Thursday, July 16, 2015


I've reached an interesting point in my teaching career.  After nearly seven years of teaching I finally have a batch of book 4-becoming-semi-advanced level students.  From a teaching perspective it means that I am finally faced with the task of producing an artist rather than just someone who plays with a very basic level of control.

This is a daunting prospect.

It's one thing to start a beginner.  The worst I could do is render the student frustrated and unable to play.  It's quite another thing to try and explain to a twelve-year-old how this sonata she is playing needs more emotional depth.  Where does one even begin?

I ask these questions rhetorically, of course.  Like just about everything else in teaching there's never one clear solution to a problem.  But as I explore different ways to help a student learn musical depth I've noticed that it's actually starting to change my playing.

Like every other twelve-year-old on the planet, I never gave much thought to the contours and shape of the music I was playing.  Even through college I would sort of blindly imitate recordings, totally oblivious to the musical story I was trying to tell.  It wasn't until I had to coach students through these concepts that I began to think, "Oh wait, there are layers to this piece."

I suppose it really is true when they say: to teach is to learn twice.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Why Play a Smaller Size Instrument?

It is a cornerstone of Suzuki Method philosophy to teach a child with the "one point lesson" in mind.  In other words, information and technique adjustments should be given in small, able-to-master bits.  This is why sight reading is taught as a separate skill.  The task of understanding the value of a dot on a page is removed from the task of producing a sound.

It is with this idea in mind that Suzuki teachers tend to size a student down rather than up on instruments.  The teacher's goal is to give the student the tools to play fluently or, as Shinichi Suzuki used to always say, "with beautiful heart."  This does not happen if the student is struggling to support the instrument itself.

Fractional instrument size should imitate how the instrument is held by an adult with a full size instrument.  This means that wrists should not have to be hyperextended or torsos twisted into painful shapes in order to produce a sound.