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Pauline Lerner

Thinking Outside the Box

June 1, 2009 at 7:49 AM

I just finished a lesson with one of my favorite, most talented, creative, and unpredictable students, "H," who is 11 years old. He thinks outside the box, and so do I. I never do much planning for his lessons. I just follow where he leads, taking every opportunity to teach him principles and techniques of music.

This week he hadn't practiced much because of a big project he has for school. He spent so much time procrastinating on the school project that he didn't have much time to practice his violin. I had to be creative and think quickly to teach him something worthwhile about music in this lesson.

I told him, as usual, to warm up with something easy. He started playing something rather difficult, and I told him, "That's not easy." "I wanna play it" he responded and did. The piece was "Bonaparte's Retreat," highly ornamented in bluegrass style, with every note played as a double stop. He loves double stops. Just can't get enough of them. He played the piece allegro, with perfect, clean intonation; strong rhythm; and a feeling of "bounce."

Next we turned to his current obsession, Irish fiddle music. The book we use, The Irish Fiddle Book by Matt Cranitch, is one I recommend highly. In addition to having a great collection of tunes with a CD containing most of them, this book addresses the question, "What makes Irish fiddle music sound like Irish fiddle music?" The author teaches ornaments characteristic of traditional Irish fiddle music, and he does it very effectively with words, written music, and sound (CD). The CD itself is lots of fun to listen to.

"H" is working his way through the book, and he is now in the section on slow airs. This collection begins with some ever popular tunes by the blind Irish harper Turlough O'Carolan, who lived about 200 years ago. "H", who had just played Napoleon's Retreat with such speed and dramatic flourish, played the slow airs so sweetly and gently that he almost sounded like a different person. He got to some airs which didn't sound like much of anything when he played them, so I tried playing a few. On the first one, he told me, "You played some notes that weren't written down." "I know," I replied. "The pages of the open book wouldn't lie flat, and I couldn't see the last measure of each line, so I improvised." "You didn't play the ending the way it was written," he said. "I know," I told him again. "The piece is written in the key of D, and it ended on C. Songs usually sound better, more finished, when they end on the first note of the key they're written in." Aha, I slipped in some music theory. The he played the next air. He played it well, but I felt that it was crying out for harmony. I had him play it again, and this time I improvised some harmony. When we finished, he said, "I don't like the last note you played." He explained that he had played D on the A string, and I had played B on the A string. "It would have sounded better," he said, "if you had played A on the A string." He was right again. The piece was in the key of D, and it sounded better when it ended on a part of a D chord. "You're right," I told him. "Do you remember the scale and arpeggios in the key of D which I had you practice? D, F#, A? If you play D while I play A, we're playing part of the arpeggio of the key of D. This way, the piece sounds like it has come home -- and it has, home to the key of D." Aha, I added to the music theory which I had explained just a few minutes ago.

Shortly afterwards, the lesson ended. I had had a lot of fun, and I hoped he did, too. I also hoped he would remember some music theory and how well it fit the music we played.

Note: I am now accepting comments on my blogs. I'd love to get some feedback from you.

From Jim Glasson
Posted on June 1, 2009 at 3:51 PM

and therein lies the quality of youth - unafraid to take chances and willing to try something "just because".

An excellent post!! 

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on June 2, 2009 at 4:18 AM

Jim, I'm glad you liked my blog.  I liked your comment.  You said something I didn't think of myself, and now I have a new perspective.

From Jim Glasson
Posted on June 2, 2009 at 10:38 AM


Children have this wonderful freedom inate to them - the freedom to try something even if it fails horribly and not become withdrawn because of it.

I truly wish i could recapture a piece of that.




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