Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Review the scales

"... When you read you begin with: A-B-C ,When you sing you begin with do-re-mi ..." (from the 1959 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The Sound of Music). You're probably far from the beginning at this point, but the scales keep popping up in the students lessons and they have to be dealt with during the practices. We want to get on with the juicy bits. Shouldn't we work on the pieces themselves to perfect them? Spending so much time on the scales seems a waste of practice time. So, why so much emphasis on scales?

Being a fundamental part of music, the scale is usually required as part of a learning program, and quickly becomes familiar to most students. This familiarity means that it can be referenced to demonstrate parts that need to be played. The key can be set in the student's mind, if the scale is played prior to executing the piece. The base position of the fingers can be identified by the student via the appropriate scale. It helps the student to know which black keys on the piano to play by default and which ones are accidentals. The scale becomes a setup tool, positioning the student's mind and body in the appropriate key.

The scale can aid the student in playing a run in a piece. There are many sequences of notes which are part of a basic scale. Identifying them helps the student to read the music in front of him. The sequence of notes can be seen by the student as a "word" of music instead of a bunch of notes.

The scale remains the same musically regardless of the key played. Knowing what a basic scale sounds like helps the student to execute it in any key. The student will hear the notes played and can identify if the correct ones are being played. This applies to major and minor scales, their associated arpegios, chromatic scales, blues scale, or any other type of scale.

Learn the scale by speaking and singing it: "Dohraymifassolatido". I wrote it like this to resemble how it's pronounced. The scale can be read as a single word instead of each individual notes. It's important to sing it relative to the key we happen to be in. If the key is G, then the "do" happens to be sung as a G.

A bit of warm-up before undertaking the scales would be a good idea. Starting the student with a short, familiar piece which is easy for the student to execute. This will release tension and prepare the muscles for the task at hand. Some of the scales and the quantity of scales required can be physically demanding on the student.

The key and the tone of the piece can be quickly set by playing the appropriate scale. The student will be able to correct himself with knowledge of the sound of the scale. It broadens the student knowledge of music beyond the instrument he is currently learning.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Random bar picking

Ever wonder if there are better ways to practice? If not better, then how about different. Students tend to practice the things they prefer. And the students get more exposure to the beginning of the piece then the end. But the whole piece must be practiced. Each part of the piece should get the same exposure. So, how do we do that? By concentrating on small parts of the piece at a time.

The idea is to start somewhere in the middle of the piece, practice a small part, then select another and start again. It's easy to catch problem spots when you listen to the student playing a phrase, four bars, or even a single bar. The small group of bars can then be played multiple times to perfect them. Intonation can be corrected to remove the guesswork of where to play a note, on a violin for example. Rhythm can be solidified where the note lengths vary, contain triplet or trills. A phrase's dynamics can be emphasized and understood by the student when he only concentrates on a small portion of the piece.

Small parts are easier to repeat than large ones. By separating the piece into manageable bites, the student can work on perfecting only that part. By repeating it they practice efficiently, and quickly assimilate the part. This should be done on pieces the student knows. Even the pieces that he's comfortable with, there is always room for improvement. The student will realize, once he's worked on a section, that the whole piece becomes easier to execute.

By practicing disconnected sections of a piece, the student is able to break out of a cycle where he feels he can only play a piece from beginning to end. The student may be in a situation where he is unable to pick up where he left off after being interrupted. The student will know how each section sounds like separately and be able to recover quicker and adapt to different situations, especially if the student is asked to perform, be it for grandma, the classmates, or a more discerning audience.

To be effective in separating the piece in to small chunks, it's good to be able to identify the phrases. The beginning of the phrase is a logical place to start playing a section of the piece. Each piece is different, and knowing what the whole piece should sound like certainly helps to identify those spots. Often the student will indicate where he prefers to start the small section. Luckily, most pieces the students work on will separate well in four-bar chunks: bars 1-4, 5-8, 9-12, etc. or 1-5, 5-9, 9-13, etc. for those pieces that don't start on the first beat of a bar.

So, how do we break the piece up into bite sized sections? You can choose the bar number to start on with this table and a 20 sided die. You can get a 20 sided die at most games store. Roll the die, find the number on the left, the number on the right is the bar number to start on. Re-roll the die to get a new bar number if it is greater than the number of bars in the piece.
1-1 ... 11-41
2-5 ... 12-45
3-9 ... 13-49
4-13 .. 14-53
5-17 .. 15-57
6-21 .. 16-61
7-25 .. 17-65
8-29 .. 18-69
9-33 .. 19-73
10-37 .. 20-77

The student plays the four bars once to determine what needs to be worked on. Look for the difficulties starting from the most basic and specific, to the more complex and general, so that nothing gets overlooked. Repeat the four bars as necessary to see an improvement, then select a new chunk to review. The student does a set, of these random 4-bar chunk reviews. The whole piece is then played to incorporate what he learned. On the following day, when the student replays the piece, point out to the student anything that improved that is a direct consequence of the previous day's practice.

This technique smooths out rough spots that tend to be forgotten when the whole piece is played through. It distributes the work put into the practice of a given piece, not just the beginning and not only the parts the student prefers or finds easy. It intensifies the practice, concentrating effort on a small section, and giving that section the best opportunity to get better. The student will play better and be more aware of the structure of the piece he's playing.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Motivation through rewards

"Do I hafta practice today?" Now, how many times do parents hear this? Even the teachers hear it sometimes. But the students have to practice to get better. They have a place to practice, they have allotted time to practice, the instrument is tuned and prepped ready to be used. It's just calling out for the student to fill the air with music. But still the student needs more than that to entice him. We need that little extra to lure the student to the practice. What can we do? How about a reward program.

A reward program gives the student a short term goal, a reason to practice. All students, at one time or another require a feedback of the work they've put into the practices. They won't see enough progression, in their capability to play the instrument, for it to be sufficient to get them to practice. Especially in young students, where the decision to learn an instrument may stem from the parent desire for them to learn, and not from themselves. It becomes the reward for practicing, even if the true reward comes later with the ability to play, which is achieved in the long run. The idea is to reward constancy of the practice, not the quality of the practice or the playing itself. The fact that there is always a progression towards a goal, in this case more rewards, with the actual goal, which is learning to play the instrument, practically being a side effect of the program.

The reward in the program should be to highlight the fact that the student practices. The reward for achievements is not a part of this program, that comes separately. The two should be unrelated to each other and should be rewarded distinctly. A student should receive praise for practicing every day without necessarily being able to play correctly.

The rewards given to the child should be of token value. It all depends on the resources of the rewarder. The exact reward should be fun or at least pleasant for the student, but in the grand scheme of things, it should be insignificant. It should not offer enough satisfaction to prevent the student from ever practicing again. The reward should not take away the desire to get the next reward. The reward program will work if the actions, the student takes to indicate his progression, are done as part of the practice, and the reward will have value to the student if he can see the state of his progress whenever he chooses.

The reward program is a personal one. Each student should have his own program and be able to see his absolute progression. When you have multiple students, like in a family setting, invariably there will be comparisons between the students. Ignore the student's interactions, and only intervene if a student loses confidence because of rivalry. The student's program is his own, and only he should be praised for his progression, no matter how slow it happens to be.

Here's how I went about it with my kids. I offered my kids a calendar and a bunch of stickers. Each day they practiced they could put a sticker on a calendar on that day. At one time they would rush to the calendar after the practice to stick a sticker. As for the actual reward I offered: when they had stuck 20 stickers, on the calendar, they could receive a small gift. In my case this gift was a dollar-store item that they could pick out themselves, something they really liked to do as they were not usually allowed to choose toys when we would take them shopping. This is the most basic reward program and it is a great motivator for kids 4-9 years of age. Older students may also find it useful to track their progress or to show how much work they have put in to the instrument. For older students I would suggest comparable rewards like the choice of DVD to rent, or the choice to purchase an extra item for a hobby they are pursuing. Often it will be the student that can tell you what he would like as a reward and could be negotiated with the parent.

A reward program gives the student a sense of progression and a reason to practice. It's not the only reason to practice, but it does give an extra reason. Eventually the student will not need the program anymore as the habit sets in. The hope is that the student eventually simply accepts that he must practice and for the student the reward program will simply become a past novelty.

I hope this was useful, let me know what you think.