Playing the Blues
The Improv Project has taken a side step for a couple of weeks. The students continue to incorporate dynamic elements into the daily warm-up scale which keeps one element of expressive control in their fingers. On Friday I asked them to play the scale at volume 7 with "happy" quarter notes just to make sure they had retained some of the original lessons. It's amazing to hear them--they know exactly how to create that effect.
The kids enjoy their march through the pages in Essential Elements so we've focused on covering ground. It's important for me to put this in perspective: students want to see their accomplishments in a method book. Checking off the numbered exercises is their goal. Introducing them to expression while they learn an instrument is my goal. I want to keep the lessons balanced.
Around the time we took a break from playing with sound I introduced them to 12-bar blues. The bass player and cellist were given a simplified walking bass line. The upper strings are playing a simplified part as well--just the root for now. All I put on the board is the note names so they get to choose which D, G and A they play. Having a note option teaches them more about their instruments and about music. Yes, there really are A's all over your violin! We also work on rhythm by having one student tap 4 quarter notes on each bar.
After two weeks the chin fiddles are completely comfortable with their part. And the walking bass is coming along. They love playing this so much that we started adding dynamic expression. I asked the students to suggest volume levels and we added some finger snaps in addition to the tapper. A usually mild-mannered student asked to play volume 12. So far, ten has been our loudest volume. At the end of 12 bars he was still playing like a rock star sawing frantically on his violin. He was having a blast! Now that's priceless.
Near the end of our class period they almost always ask if we can play 12-bar blues. It's a great way to play for enjoyment. And this kind of music is definitely more fun with a group. I think it teaches them to work together. In future classes we'll try different rhythms, new notes and more of our expressive techniques. The possibilities are limitless!
Whether your student is taking private lessons or learning with a whole classroom of students, chances are they've played many times for a teacher. The others who have heard them play might be fellow students, parents and siblings. Most often students find themselves in their bedrooms playing for an audience of tongue-tied dolls while the family dog races for the nearest exit. (This is based on personal experience--one of my dogs used to rub her ears and howl when I played! Not so supportive; definitely hilarious.)
In the course of learning an instrument students will be presented with various opportunities for performance. Last weekend a few of my private students participated in our school district's solo contest. These violinists and violists prepared solo pieces to perform in front of a judge for oral and written critique. Judge? Critique? Whoo boy--a silent teddy bear is starting to look a whole lot better! At least you're guaranteed a hug.
Whether it's the familiar setting of a studio recital or the institutional feel of an adjudicated festival, students need additional preparation. Once a student has spent time learning a piece we talk about the nuts and bolts of performance. For my youngest students bowing politely is one of their first lessons. We work on ignoring distractions by playing focus games. Older students practice starting their piece with a few silent measures of introduction before the bow even touches a string. This kind of preparation teaches performance etiquette, concentration and how to play your best from the very first note.
In spite of all the preparation no one can predict the outcome. We can plan and prepare but a live performance is…well, it's live. And that means it's subject to any and every variable. What happens when the piece is over? How can we support young, tender feelings? That's where emotional preparation comes into play. That can start during lessons, in the classroom and at home. In Suzuki training we were taught to always start with a positive compliment. After that you can move on to suggestions and ideas for improvement. Parents can also offer support with this method.
It's never too early to start performing. Practicing performance skills with your students and children will help them grow as musicians. Encourage your students to perform often in familiar settings. Beginning students can arrange weekly family concerts. Students in group classes can play individually or in small groups for the rest of the class. As a teacher, it's my job to make sure students are prepared before they take the stage. As a mentor, I can assure them that performance isn't the goal; it is just one step on a journey.
Daily R & R
It was a great article to read on a Monday. "Where do good ideas come from?" a book review posted by The Improvised Life blog. Steven Berlin Johnson's book, "Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation" suggests innovation is not only a collaborative effort it's also sparked by what we do during our down time. And that got me thinking. While I worked on the day's and the week's "to do" list I was also inspired to fit some more play into my days.
Several years ago I read a terrific article about devoting 10% of your life to what you truly love. That has been a great source of inspiration. Think about it. Ten percent of a 16 hour day is about an hour and a half. Ten percent of a year is 36 1/2 days. Most of us don't have an extra month of time off. But look at it this way. If you could spend even an hour a day doing what you loved most how would you use your time? A recent example that I found delightful is the Ohio State fan who devoted 2 years worth of his off hours to build a replica of the school's horseshoe-shaped stadium with Legos. How fun is that?
Johnson also talked about Google employees who are given 20% of each work day to devote to their own creative projects--and that's where half of Google's innovations begin. My favorite "finding your inner artist book," The Artist's Way asks you to go on weekly dates, with yourself. The purpose--to take a break, have some fun and recharge. Think of it as making the opportunity for inspiration.
How to fit it in? I won't say it's easy but I will guarantee it's worth the effort. Like anything new it helps to start small. Getting started is the key. Take 10 or 15 minutes each day to figure out what you love. Then keep that 15 minutes in your day to start on your idea. Or take a short artist date this week just to try it. Remember: twenty one days makes it a habit. My students who may be reading this already have the right idea--recess! For those of us who have only faded memory of the playground, let's make a pact to have more fun.
Last week was a double loss--Colorado lost a native son and the classical music world lost a history maker. The great violinist, Eugene Fodor passed away on February 26 at age 60. This artist made his impact on the classical music world by becoming the first
American to achieve the top prize in the International Tchaikovsky Competition. The year was 1974 during the height of the Cold War. Being an impressionable young musician I remember the excitement. He was a hero of the classical music world. And a hero of mine. I was lucky enough to hear him play live at the Saratoga festival in the late 70's.
Eugene was a charming ambassador for classical music able to bridge the gap between the concert hall and popular culture. But with fame also came infamy. An arrest for drug possession in 1989 stalled his promising career. He continued to record and perform but it was never the same.
Investigate his videos on You Tube to hear more from this talented violinist. Rest in peace, Eugene Fodor. May the memory of your artistry live on.