September 27th, 2009 :: Teaching Days
Because I don't require my students to do regular written theory work, I am always looking for ways to incorporate theory into the lesson. Technique work is an obvious place to begin, because Five-Finger Positions, scales, chord progressions and arpeggios not only work on finger dexterity; they also can be used to review and drill key signatures, to work on spelling scales and chords, and to reinforce relationships within the Circle of Fifths. But if I am truly going to claim that my students have a working knowledge of music theory, then I can't stop there. We must connect our technique and theory work to our music.
The longer I teach, the more I realize that I'm never going to get on top of the time issue. I will never have the luxury of extra time in lessons, so I have to use our time well. Intentionally using the assigned music to work on theory kills two birds at once: we practice our theory knowledge, yes, but perhaps more importantly, we gain a deeper understanding of the music at hand, which should make the learning process go quicker and more smoothly. In upper levels this is easy: we can analyze the form of our music, identify key centers and harmonies, mark phrases. It's the beginning levels where I have been rather haphazard about this work. Partly it is because beginning music is so simple (duh) that there is little to talk about. Sure, we can identify similar phrases or sections, but in two or three lines of music let's face it: this isn't going to be a long (or maybe even very enlightening) conversation.
One of the biggest challenges for beginning student is learning to read music. I have a variety of games and strategies using note-flashcards (I particularly like the ones Bastien sells. The notes are big and they print the whole grand staff on every card, something other brands don't do.), but students often struggle a bit making the link between the flashcards and the notes on the page. This has always been mysterious to me, but nevertheless it's a widespread bump in the process. And then there are the kids who seem to immediately to lose all their note-identification skills the minute they "graduate" from flashcards. I have long needed another way to firm up the connection between the knowledge of the notes on the flashcards and the notes on the page, and to drill note recognition after the students no longer have flashcards as part of their assignments.
One day, during a frustrating lesson with a stubborn 6-year-old, I stumbled upon a solution: I-Spy. This was a rather liberal adaption of the old car game, translated to the music lesson. "Let's play I-Spy," I said. "Follow my directions: Second page, third line, fourth measure, right hand first beat: what is the note?" This child (who had only moments before resisted all my attempts at correcting her wrong notes or even answering my impatient question, "What is this note?") suddenly became animated. "Wait! Say it again." I repeated the instructions, and she happily (and correctly as it turned out) identified the note in question. We continued this game for a while, the student becoming faster at following directions involving pages, lines, measures and beats (I quickly figured out that it is important always to prompt the line of questioning in the same order: page, line, measure, then beat). A tense moment was diffused. She got some good theory drilling of note-identification. In addition, she had to practice following verbal cues: Second page, second line, second measure, second beat... and so on, which will serve her well in any ensemble work later in life. Most importantly, I got that damn wrong note fixed in her playing.
Since that day, hardly an afternoon goes by without a game or two of I-Spy. I use it to correct wrong notes (it's less threatening than saying, "You played this note wrong. What it is supposed to be?") and to regularly drill theory concepts with my beginning students. Sometimes they identify notes, sometimes intervals, sometimes rhythmic things, but I always begin the same way: "Let's play I-Spy...."
As I explained to a young teacher recently, there are a thousand components to good teaching, but some of it is just having tricks to turn to. I-Spy is one of these a trick, but it has proven to be a valuable one. I wonder if it would work on my husband? "Let's play I-Spy. Marigold-colored study, purple chair, random pile of clothes. Whose are they and when are they going to be put away?"
September 20th, 2009 :: Recipes for Technique
I am suspicious of people who don’t
write in their books.
Mine are marked like a map into my
soul. I write my name and date in books when I buy them, often scribbling the
location and bookstore. With a
glance, I can tell that I bought this one at Victor Hugo Bookshop on Newbury
Street in Boston or that one in New Orleans during a trip made on my 26th
birthday. I often date when I read
them, and jot in the margins as I go.
Countless times I have been able to follow the journey of my own growth by simply reading my remarks along the edges of the pages. Sometimes, years later, the same
passages are meaningless to me, or I realize I missed the point entirely the
first time around.
It is with this same degree of
enthusiasm that I read published journals and devour artists' sketchbooks. By doing so, I am convinced I will gain fresh insight into living, or a new understanding of the creative
mind. Often, I am shocked to
realize that these brilliant people were merely human beings who struggled with
the same insecurities and fears that I fight on a daily basis. Writers don’t always write well in
their private lives. Highly
creative beings are frequently terribly uninspired on a daily basis. Somehow such knowledge gives me
So, it with equal suspicion that I
don’t trust musicians who don’t mark their music. Mine is a mess of colors and scribbles and remarks: Slow
down! Listen for every
sixteenth-note. Quiet!! Sometimes
I mark dynamics in colors or record metronome tempi like swimmers might record
race times. In my filled-to-a-brim
life, I don’t have time to make a mistake more than once. It doesn’t matter what it is—an
accidental, a rhythm, a missed rest—the pencil comes out. I am equally aggressive with the colored pencils when teaching, my students’ music becoming a rainbow of colors and corrections. “What color should I use
today?” I frequently ask
students. Such markings allow me
to see at a glance what is a repeated mistake, and with every color that is added
students know they can’t hide their lack of careful practicing. At the same time, the absence of color
across the page is its own sign of progress.
“Look Miss Amy!” little
Joey announced to me, “there are less colors on this page.” He is proud of his careful work; I am too.
In spite of all this happy scribbling,
I resisted keeping a practice journal for years, certain that I remembered just
fine what need to be done from day to day. But as I gathered and adopted more and more different
practice techniques, I found that the inefficiency of forgetting the details of
my practicing made me impatient.
Not only was I losing ideas that came to me during particular practice
sessions, I wasn’t hanging onto small triumphs or discoveries that I stumbled
upon. Overnight I would forget what metronome marking I had managed to achieve
in my current Czerny Etude, or when the last time was that I had reviewed my memory
of a certain piece. So, rather reluctantly at first, I began keeping practice
notes for myself in a blank notebook.
The results were immediately
obvious. Now when I had a flash of
insight about what a piece needed, but no more time, I could simply write a
note to myself and try it the next day.
When after practicing a certain way one day, I realized that the music
really needed this next, I wrote it
down, freeing my conscious mind to bounce around in other ways. There are no rules about what goes in
my practice journal: I make notes about great recordings or books I want to find. I scribble down quotes I want to remember. I draw maps
and graphs when I am memorizing. I use it to brainstorm words and concepts when trying to
break through to the essence of some piece of music. I suppose such a habit of keeping a practice journal serves
the same function journaling serves in other areas of our lives: it forces us to think through and make
sense of our actions.
Whatever the reason, I’m hooked.
I don’t have the time or patience to return to my random pre-journaling
But here is a perfect example where
lessons learned in one area of my life don’t quickly transfer to other areas, because even after swearing allegiance to my practice journal, I didn’t start keeping teaching notes for a long time.
Now I do, religiously. It’s
hardly a model of meticulous record-keeping; my good organizational skills are hidden
behind a rather haphazard approach.
But my 12x9 inch blank sketchbook is a wealth of information---each
teaching week gets its own page and over the course of my lesson days I scribble down random information in wild colors: Sophie---begin minor
chords. Lucy—ask about student
recital. George---duet with Jason?
I also record reminders to myself:
check on Fantaisie-Impromptu
edition. Order rote pieces. Play through Arabesque. My mind is a sieve.
Without these promptings I’m likely to waste precious moments staring
blankly into space. But a quick
glance at my teaching journal gives me direction in the odd extra minute. I rarely have large swatches of
time to devote to anything, but I can move mountains in the random empty
moment here and there.
It is from years of teaching
journals that I have collected dozens of technique ideas,
and my own notebooks give me quick ideas when I’m not feeling inspired, which, I
should admit, is more days than not.
The next couple of variations are an advanced version of the one I
suggested way back in an earlier technique post. My students and I call these 5-Finger Positions “Doubles and
47. Do Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi Re Do--RH (Singles and Legato)
Do Do Re Re Mi Mi Fa Fa Sol Sol Fa Fa Mi Mi Re Re Do Do---LH (Doubles and Staccato)
played at the same time---RH will be quarter notes, LH eighth notes.
48. Reverse---LH Singles and Legato, RH Doubles and Staccato
The next two are harder than the above for some reason I have never completely been able to figure out. Obviously, all these work the technique of one hand playing legato while the other hand is staccato, but the next two seem to get right to the point. I suggest doing #47 and #48 first before tackling the following. It's also a good idea not to assign both---#47 and 48 or #49 and 50--on the same week. Often with young beginners they can handle one way---RH singles, LH Doubles for example--but the other way isn't simply the reverse, but rather a whole new coordination to conquer. Take it slow.
49. Do Re Mi Fa Sol Fa Mi Re Do
RH legato, LH staccato
50. Reverse---RH staccato, LH legato
September 13th, 2009 :: Reading Days
When love is felt
or fear is known,
When holidays and
and such times come,
arrive by calendar
When seasons come
as seasons do
old and known,
but somehow new
When lives are born
or people die
When something sacred's sensed in soil or sky,
Mark the time.
Respond with thought or prayer
or smile or grief.
Let nothing living, life or leaf
the fingers of the mind
for all of these are holy things
we will not, cannot, find again.
Contact Amy Greer at: firstname.lastname@example.org