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Laurie Niles

An extraneous vocabulary lesson

June 7, 2006 at 5:30 AM

One of my students is a small, brilliant, but very distractable little genius girl of seven.

By brilliant, she learns everything in an instant, by ear, and rather voraciously. A few weeks into Suzuki Book 2, she pretty much had the whole thing memorized and could play it all, which is to say she could put all the fingers down in the right places at the right time. A considerable feat, but one I'm completely ignoring as we meticulously go through each piece in the book to learn the lesson we need to learn from each one.

By distractable, sometimes these pieces are so far inside her head that she literally drifts off in the middle of playing one. The tone gets soft and whispy, scratchy and small. Her eyes roll to the heavens, and the music trails off. I'm convinced it continues in her head, probably in a perfect version that in no way resembles the noise coming out of her little fiddle.

Now, how can I get a voracious but distractable consumer of music to focus in a few beautiful details? It's like trying to make a hungry food lover to sit down for a sixteen-course meal at Spago, one that requires four different forks for tiny little servings.

"I'm noticing," I told her, "A lot of extraneous noises when you are playing."

She looked at me curiously and furrowed her brow.

"Do you know what extraneous means?" I asked. The puzzled look continued. "It means extra. Weird noises. Like extra notes and scratches. Did you hear them?"

A big smile. Then a strong nod in the affirmative.

"I have an idea. Do you suppose you could play the Twinkle theme with no extraneous noises? I'm going to stop you the minute you play even one extraneous noise, I wonder how many notes you can play before I stop you!"

She looked at her mom and giggled. She was up for the challenge.

Three notes later, "STOP! Did you hear it? Extraneous!" She did. She totally heard it. In fact, she hears absolutely everything.

The next week she brought me the Twinkle theme, and we counted only two extraneous noises, and it was the best I'd ever heard her play.

It's become a new feature in our little list of tasks for each week: review, note reading, new piece, and the "no extraneous noise piece"!

From Sydney Menees
Posted on June 7, 2006 at 5:34 AM
Wow! Cool! So, she gets all caught up in the music. I wish I could do that sometimes!
From Elizabeth Chavez
Posted on June 7, 2006 at 6:36 AM
awww that sounds like a wonderful student you have there! =]
From Charlie Caldwell
Posted on June 7, 2006 at 3:34 PM
That was a funny story.
From Aaron Robertson
Posted on June 7, 2006 at 5:45 PM
I agree, it is very funny and cute. And you are doing exactly what needs to be done to correct the problem. I was and still am a person who plays by ear, but to break out of that I had to learn to literally read a passage over and over and over again and force myself to read the music and not go from memory. I can play a song resonably accurate that I hear in a matter of minutes, if the notes are clear. However it really is harder when you go to site read for an audition and you have never heard this piece before and you have not trained yourself on reading. So you are helping her to learn to read and not guess. That is something invalauble.
From Eileen Geriak
Posted on June 7, 2006 at 11:39 PM
wonderful story ! Love to hear the girl 10 years from now ! I hope she stays with it.
I have the opposite problem as far as reading vs. "hearing". I am so dependant on the music that it's hard for me to play by ear. I can do it but it's hard. When I listen to a piece of music, I can hear all the harmony parts...I just don't know how to play, I've only been at this for a few years. I need much more practice playing by ear. I envy those who can do that.
Thanks for the story...and what an insiteful solution to the problem ! :-)
From Karin Lin
Posted on June 8, 2006 at 12:44 AM
That is so sweet, Laurie! Wish you were in northern CA---I'd love to have to as my daughter's teacher. :)
From Pauline Lerner
Posted on June 8, 2006 at 6:04 AM
Laurie, I can really relate to your story. I have students who are talented and quick learners, up to a point. They learn to read and play the notes, but that's not the same thing as playing music. Their attention wanders, and they sound as if they're not listening to the sounds they make. Perhaps they hear the music correctly in their head, but what's inside their head does not match what comes out of their violin. The problem is often impatience. I keep telling them that it is more important to play smoothly and correctly than to play fast. I have tried many, many things to get them to listen to their own sound, and I have made long lists of what I've tried. I'll be happy to share these with you. Different approaches work well for different students. I've been successful with all of these students except for one. She is driving me nuts because she can play much better than she does play. When I can convince her to play slowly and concentrate on one particular thing (for example, second finger placement or quarter notes vs half notes), she plays correctly once and then zooms ahead and plays terribly. I'm familiar with the technique you described (focus on just one thing and see how far you can go in the piece playing that one thing correctly; other mistakes are OK). I learned about it in William Starr's book "The Suzuki Violinist." It's the one thing I can think of that I haven't tried with her. She gets frustrated very easily and will burst into tears if I try to get her to play the same note(s) correctly more than once. She sounds terrible. Almost all of my students have praised me for being very patient, but I don't have the patience of a saint. Aaaaaargh! Any suggestions?

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