Awesome Search Terms, Vol. 3

April 9, 2010

This week’s edition of Awesome Search Terms deals with a couple of left hand questions.

1. “teaching fingering violin preschooler”

I’m not convinced that teachers can actually “teach” fingering.  Preschoolers typically learn by listening, copying and doing.  Thus, most preschool students (any age student, for that matter) will “learn” fingering on their own by using aural and muscle memory.  The teacher or practice parent helps with finger (i.e., pitch) adjustments, until the student can consistently do it himself.  Usually, the easiest way to do this is to physically move their finger to the proper location and make sure that they hear the difference in pitch.  It’s a good “cause and effect” lesson.  Many teachers advocate using fingering tapes to help with “teaching fingering.”  The tapes are a good tool, but are intended primarily for non-violinist parents, who usually need a visual for the correct placement.  For older students, tapes are meant to be used for memory training, at which time they are removed.  Fingering tapes can cause more difficulties for some students than they solve.   It can also be difficult psychologically to remove the tapes later.  I use them on an as-needed basis and with extreme caution. For the vast majority of my own students,  I have had better luck leaving the tapes off.  But this is a personal preference.

2.  “biggest mistakes when learning major violin scales”

There are several things I think are helpful to keep in mind.  First, know your intervals. In a major scale, the interval pattern is always the same. It has been this way since the beginning of the major scale.  Our current laws of physics and acoustics say that it will never change. Another way to say this: know your half-steps and whole steps and where they fall in the scale.  Or: know exactly where your fingertips are close together and where there is a space between them.  The pattern is: whole step, whole step, half step, whole, whole, whole, half.  Or: space, space, touch, space, space, space, touch.  Always.

Second, use your ears.  Scales are the best, easiest tool we have to help us learn how to play in tune.  Yes, they can be boring.  I’d agree that they are definitely not as much fun as playing pieces.  But because of their relative simplicity, it becomes easier to focus and listen carefully, without a bunch of extraneous notes to distract you.  Look at the notes before you play them.  Sing them, preferably out loud, while placing your fingers without the bow.  Do not give yourself an opportunity to make a mistake.  If you do fluff a note…

Fix it immediately. Always play scales with complete attention.  The more you play flat-out wrong notes or wishy-washy notes, the more your ears and fingers think they are actually correct.  Which makes them really really hard to fix.  Don’t play wrong notes over and over.

Fourth, start at a slow tempo and use different bowing patterns.  Playing slowly helps you develop finger dexterity and precise intonation.  It also helps you develop solid bow skills.  When your tone is warmed up, try adding different bowing patterns, like slurred or hooked groupings, to help you build speed without actually going faster.

Five, review scales on a regular basis. Some teachers (or scale books) focus on a different scale each lesson.  Others recommend a different scale each day.  There are other ways of making them easy and fun to do.  The important thing is to do them, maybe even if your teacher hasn’t assigned any.  They will help you develop confidence and security in your playing in a way that merely playing through regular pieces cannot.

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More Awesome Search Terms

March 31, 2010

Today, I have another installment of Awesome Search Terms.

First up: hugging your violin.

I hug my violin a lot. It’s not that I don’t get enough attention from my DH or my DS, because I do. It feels natural and normal to hug the violin while I’m relaxing between entrances during an orchestra rehearsal, or while I’m listening to a student play. The term “hugging” is often used with preschoolers to describe how we want them to hold the violin. It introduces and reinforces the concept of roundedness. Form in violin playing is all about the perception of round, even though nothing is actually round. How’s that for oxymoronic? Think about it: can you hug your child with stiff arms? I can’t. You can’t play a violin with stiff arms either. Everything is soft, flexible, rounded — the violin hold, the bow hold, the approach to and departure from the string, the bow stroke, the sound, phrasing…everything. The violin must be hugged and loved in order for it to sing, just like you.

Next: violin practice mistake corrects itself.

Sounds kind of like a news headline, doesn’t it? “Extra! Extra! Read all about it!” Heh. It might be news if it actually happened. Mistake correction is not magical, but we’ve all had experiences where mistakes appear to correct themselves with no help. The terms we usually associate with this are “fluke” or “coincidence”.  Mistakes “correct themselves” because you did something different, whether you realize it or not. Something changed, which caused the mistake to go away. Not being aware of mistakes in the first place will sometimes lead a student to believe that they only happen once in a while and correct themselves without effort. You have to realize you made a mistake in the first place before you can address it. Your teacher probably spends at least half of your lesson helping you hear and correct mistakes. In home practice, pay attention to what you’re doing. Listen carefully and with focus. Chances are that if it doesn’t sound right, or feel right, it probably isn’t.

And then there’s this one: playing violin pieces too fast too soon.

If you don’t hear the mistakes, they have an unfortunate tendency to snowball into bigger ones. Before you know it, you’re in way over your head and you have to slow down, stop, or even backtrack to get back ON track.  I don’t necessarily think there is such a thing as “too fast” or “too soon”. Either you can play it at the appropriate tempo or you can’t. There isn’t much in between. The same holds true for “too soon”. Who says it’s too soon? If you can play it correctly and musically, I say yay! Add it to the review list and move on to something newer.  One of my teachers had a saying he used for shifting, but it’s very applicable here: fast and clean is good. It can be fast, but if it’s not clean, it’s not correct.  If you try to cheat or hide it, it comes back to haunt you in the Mistake Snowball. The other problem is that if you try to play a passage too fast too soon, you are setting yourself up for major discouragement. Yes, you can use it as a measurement for how far you still need to go before you reach your goal — sometimes it’s fun to play it until you crash and burn — but many students simply get discouraged and give up. The two absolute worst things you can do are one, whine about it, or two,  give up and try to play the next piece in the book.  If you didn’t fix the mistake in the easier piece, it won’t sound any better in the new one. You’ll never have to worry about whether you’re playing a piece too fast too soon unless you stop reviewing old pieces, or lose sight of the reason why review is important.

Finally, a couple of equipment-related terms: “wolf eliminator” and  “gadget violin attach to bridge to play i…”

I love how WordPress cuts off the term so I have to guess what the searcher meant. It kind of reminds me of Wile E. Coyote shooting off the cliff and the whistle you hear until he hits the bottom. [plop][giggle]

Where was I? Oh, yeah. A wolf eliminator is a small piece of metal that reduces or eliminates “wolf tones.” On a violin (any bowed string instrument, actually), these annoying creatures are strange variations in pitch, usually in the upper reaches of the violin’s G string. They often sound like a howl, hence the name. A true wolf tone will not disappear after changing the string or all the other stuff you can do. So, you can attach a wolf eliminator to the string between the bridge and tailpiece. And voila, no more icky sounds.

There are only three gadgets I know of that attach to a violin bridge. The most common, a mute, attaches to the top of the bridge and dampens some of the vibration. Mutes are made of metal, plastic, rubber or composite and come in various sizes and shapes, to provide different ways of engineering the quality of the sound. The second would be an electronic tuner. Some tuners are silent, meaning they clip to the bridge and measure the vibration but don’t give you a tuning tone. I don’t know much about them because I use my ears and physical memory of the exact frequency vibration of each string to help me tune. The third gadget would be a pick-up, which allows you to plug the violin into an amp or preamp to amplify the sound. Some pick-ups clip on to the side of the bridge; others are built in to the bridge or tailpiece. A clip-on pick-up will easily convert your acoustic gig to electric without damaging your instrument, and you’ll still be able to use it for everything else.