Play it again! Fun ways to practice repetitions.

We used to have a downstairs neighbor who was a very nice, polite guy who worked in sales and, as far as we knew, had no music background. My husband told me one evening that he had run into our neighbor in the garage. “It’s nice really nice hearing Eliana practice, but it seems like she just plays the same thing over and over again!”, the neighbor had remarked. Because many non-musicians only ever see the finished product of a piece performed in concert, they don’t realize that practice often involves playing short sections of a piece many times until they are in the muscle memory. Particularly with my older students who are practicing independently, I  have to sell them on the idea of playing a tricky part again and again.

Play It Again, Sam!

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No More Squeezing, Gripping, Squishing: Games and Tips to Relieve Left Hand Tension

No More Squeezing , Gripping, Squishing!1

One of the most common technical hangups with string players is excess tension in the left hand. In the beginning, many students don’t yet have the finger strength to be tense, but as soon as they do, it can seem like they are holding the violin or viola like a vice! This can be a difficult habit to break because the student can’t  see the tension and often isn’t aware they are squeezing.

Over the years, I have found these simple games and activities to help relieve left hand tension and promote good position. I have divided them into two categories: games that support holding the violin/viola without the left hand helping, and games that help with left hand to relax. Read More »

Celebrating Every Child: Diversity in the Suzuki Studio

Celebrating Every Child_ Diversity in the Suzuki Studio

Today In the United States, we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a national holiday focused on community service and social justice. It’s also a day off of teaching for me, and I’ve gotten to thinking about how music teachers can continue Dr. King’s dream of providing opportunities for every child. Just a quick glance around practically any large Suzuki school, workshop, or institute will show that, unfortunately, our Suzuki communities do not yet reflect the diversity of our communities. This is, of course, not just an issue with Suzuki. Due to the income disparities in our country which often fall along racial lines, most extracurricular enrichment activities for children tend to skew towards white, upper or middle-class families. I don’t have an easy answer for how we can get to a place where every child has access to a quality music education, which was Dr. Suzuki’s dream.Read More »

Viola Hero! Rockin’ at Regular Practice

Here in St. Louis, we are currently under an Ice Storm Warning and my regular Suzuki Saturday classes have been cancelled, so even though it is a Saturday, it feels like a Snow Day. Having moved here from upstate New York, I tend to laugh at the hysteria that takes hold of Missourians when there is more than a dusting of snow (Cancel school! Mob the grocery store! It’s the Apocalypse!), but the weather reports for this storm aren’t looking good, so I’m glad to be warm and cozy inside and working on getting ready for our new semester, which starts on Tuesday. One of the things I’m finishing up is my new practice challenge. I love a good theme, and this semester’s theme is “Viola Hero”, like Guitar Hero but for viola. I also have a few violin students, so they get to use the “Violin Hero” Chart. Both charts are available at my TpT store. Here’s a sneak peak of the Viola Chart:

viola-hero-practice-challenge-chart

 

Not Working:

The Weekly Lesson Chart

I have pretty much always used a weekly practice chart for lesson assignments which my older students read and check off as they practice throughout the week. As I have gotten to know my students better, I began to see patterns in practicing.Read More »

7 Ways to Get Your Students to Play Louder Without Saying “Play Louder”

Get Your Students to Play Louder

 

In any given year, I will have a few students in my studio who struggle to play with a big, rich, projecting tone. Sometimes this is due to shyness or insecurity, or perhaps the student lacks the technical skills to play with a big tone. Often it is a combination of both. If left unchecked, a weak tone come recital time can lead to confidence issues and difficulty being heard above the piano part. When the standard advice of “use more bow” and “stay in the highway” isn’t enough for some students, I pull out one of these tricks.

1. Use a visual. Every time I visit Home Depot or Lowes, I pick up a few of those paint chip sampler sheets in various colors (the ones with the different shades). I explain to my student that the lightest color is playing very soft and the darkest color is a strong, beautiful tone. When my student plays their piece, I will show them which color they played. I (or their parent) will also point to the different colors as they play or, even better, ask them to point to which color they think they played. This exercise helps them to become more sensitive to the levels of sound they can get out of their viola.

640px-paint_swatch

2.  Focus on posture. Bad posture is the biggest tone-killer there is. In addition to checking that the viola is securely on the shoulder and being supported in a balanced way, Read More »

How I Keep Track of Student Assignments in My Large Studio

When I was a new teacher, I experienced a particular dread that I can still recall quite vividly: that of not remembering which song one of my students was working on. The student would come in, perhaps after I had already been teaching for 5 hours straight, and my mind would suddenly go blank as I tried to recall what we had worked on in the previous week. “Are they on Allegro, or did we start Perpetual Motion?… Have we started learning shifting yet?…Have they played the C Major scale yet?” The whole time while these thoughts were swimming through my head, I was also trying to listen to my student playing their warm-up and think of something helpful to say. You can imagine that this was not the most productive scenario!

I would try to take notes on each students’ lesson, but as I am sure other teachers will appreciate, trying to write anything coherent while also managing the transitions between lessons, while a 4-year-old student may or may not be having a meltdown or an 8-year-old student may not understand the concept of hurrying, well… you get the idea. I needed something quick and easy that I could reference at each lesson to get a good overview of what I had covered with each student. Introducing: the student progress charts. Armed with a decent working knowledge of table tools, I created a progress chart for each Suzuki book, which could be used for the entire semester.

suzuki-progress-chart-viola-cover-page

Here is a sample of what it looks like for a Book 1 viola student:
suzuki-progress-charts-viola-1-to-4-page-2

I have a key that I use to quickly fill out the chart every week. A check mark means we have played the entire piece. For new pieces, a “P” will mean preview, or I may be even more specific and write “1/2” meaning we have learned the first half. If there is a particular song or exercise I want to make sure we get to in the next week, I will mark that week’s square with a circle.

There have been several unanticipated benefits to using these charts, but the greatest has been peace of mind. I no longer have to wonder if I have been consistently teaching vibrato, or doing enough review, or progressing to new songs in a reasonable time frame because I can see the entire semester at a glance. Because I have this “bird’s eye view” of that student over a longer time period, I can also spot red flags. If a student has been on Minuet No. 1 for 10 weeks, I know we have a problem. Before it was difficult to spot those kinds of long-term trends.

A few months ago, in a discussion on the ISTEX Suzuki Facebook Group (if you’re not a member, join now because the discussion is awesome), I shared how I use my excel-like tool and was surprised to have a large number of teachers ask to see it. To make my progress charts readily available, I recently added them to my Teachers Pay Teachers Store. For either viola or violin books 1 through 4, you can download a file for $3 and can print as many as you want for your whole studio. Here is the product listing for viola and for violin. The charts are not currently editable (that may take a while, because there are so many fields to fill out), but that is a long-term plan of mine and for now there are blank fields in each chart so you can add your own songs or exercises.

I very much hope this will be a help as you begin the New Year and new semester. Please let me know in a comment if you find this to be useful, or if you have any tips and tricks for keeping track of your own students’ progress.

Happy Practicing!

Eliana

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