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Go Tell Aunt Rhody: Live Performance

Earlier this week, I described our preparation for Go Tell Aunt Rhody. The above video shows the performance.

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Taking a Bite of the Aunt Rhody Sandwich

This weekend, wee-man is scheduled to play Go Tell Aunt Rhody for recital. Rhody seemed like a good choice since it’s a fair distance from his current piece (Long, Long Ago) and it’s been on review rotation every stinkin’ day since it was polished. But once it was selected as his recital piece, the boy suddenly stopped remembering bits. He began struggling with notes he’d been doing without effort. He started playing the piece out of tune and/or out of time. I was developing a Sam Kinisonesque internal-monolog, which is usually a sign that something needs to change.

Aunt Rhody is a Sandwich
We started by working in “sections”. Because Aunt Rhody has an A-B-A structure: it is like a sandwich. It has a slice of bread (a section*),  a piece of cheese (b section*) and another slice of bread (a Section*). It is also like a sandwich because it’s easier to eat if you cut it into smaller pieces and remove the crust (or have your mom do it). So we started playing the troubled section (namely the cheese) and expanding it to include the full song.

Being One with The Sandwich
The boy has inherited my hair-trigger frustration reflex and he was no happier than I about the lapse of memorization. We both started approaching our own breaking point from the tedium of section review. So I asked him to lie on his yoga mat and listen to the recording for a while. I told him to imagine himself playing the song just as it sounded in the recording. I can’t speak to the effectiveness of this as a visualization technique, but I’m certain having a moment of rest during practice lessened the chance of anyone getting hurt (physically or emotionally).

Aunt Rhody – “Triple Threat”
My son, being a typical five-year-old, is intrigued by anything that sounds sinister or violent, so I created the Aunt Rhody Triple Threat. Here’s the pitch: “Okay, now it’s time for the Aunt Rhody – TRIPLE THREAT! First we’ll play it together, then you’ll play it alone and finally you can play it with along with the recording…” The key to the Triple Threat’s effectiveness is this: there is *one* point of focus, and the focus is lost, we start over. But the winner of the Triple Threat wins BIG. It sounds hokey, I know, but it seems to work. He’s been playing the piece without baulking, and it sounds performance ready.

Here’s a Triple Threat Challenge for Suzuki Parents who might be channeling Sam Kinison in their thoughts: Break It Down, Mix It Up and Relax.

*Go Tell Aunt Rhody Sandwich Sections (A Section: C#, C#, B, A, A, B, B, C#, B, A – E, E, D, C#, C#, B, A, B, C#, A) – (B Section: C#, C#, D, E, E, F#, F#, E, D, C# – C#, C#, D, E, E, F#, F#, E)


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Violin Prodigy Elli Choi: The Nature vs Nurture Debate

I don’t mind kicking around the nature vs nurture debate, but after watching a video of Elli Choi playing violin, it feels like a waste of time. I believe environment and practice is important, but the genetic component is simply undeniable.

It’s true Elli exists in an environment conducive to greatness. She attends good schools, has wildly dedicated parents and access to incredible teachers at a top music program. While her environment is somewhat unusual and enviable, it isn’t completely unique.

There’s been talk on the BAVs group this week about talent. The group mentions Outliers: The Story of Successby Malcolm Gladwell (based on research by K. Anders Ericsson) and his assertion that the best players are simply practicing longer. Maybe so… But according to Elli’s interview on the Bonnie Hunt Show (just before she played Sarasate’s Introduction et tarantella at age 7), she practices about 1-2 hours per day. Let’s try the math: starting about age 3 = no more than 4 years x 365 days x 2 hours per day = 2920 hours of practice. (Even double the practice time, as she is reported to do in preparation for a performance and you have 5840 hours.) I’d wager there are lesser talents logging in longer hours.

Elli’s mother is a Berlin-educated concert pianist, but that fact could be placed on both sides of the debate. The pitiful remnants of information I’ve retained from college Biology classes leaves me at a loss to provide any factual data to support my claim that Elli is genetically “gifted”… Just watch the videos.

I think having the debate of nature vs nurture (or what makes a violin prodigy) is like arguing whether it’s hydrogen or oxygen that makes water. You simply can’t have one without the other. (If you’re thirsty for water, anyway.)


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You Bought Your Fiddle on eBay?

My main instrument is a 1924 John Reek. I know virtually nothing about Mr. Reek, apart from his Michigan residence and that he made at least eight violins. (Mine has a “#8” penned into the label.)

I purchased my instrument on a lark. Sometime around the turn of the century I developed a mild eBay addiction. One evening I found an interesting violin from an estate sale with bids starting around $90. It claimed to have a sycamore back and good sound, so I got caught up in an eBay bidding frenzy. Ultimately I won the auction with a bid of $300.

Frankly, I expected the violin to be a conversation piece. But the instrument arrived sounding better than the instrument I was currently playing. So at the advice of my teacher, I took my newly acquired fiddle to the violin shop of John Waddle in Saint Paul, MN. For anyone that knows John, you can imagine his lack of enthusiasm when I mentioned the violin’s origins. After a long, reproachful pause, he agreed to look at it. John noted the violin’s peg box was designed wrong, the top had repaired cracks, it needed a new bridge and a new sound post. He also noted the back was made of elmwood; not sycamore.

We replaced the bridge and the sound post right away, which made a huge improvement. Half a dozen years later, we completed the balance of the repairs. Modifications to the instrument totaled $1000., for a $1300. total instrument cost. Would I do it again? Absolutely not. Do I regret it? Not for a minute. I have a lovely instrument with an interesting story. I plan to pass the instrument on to wee-man someday and get a hand made violin of my own.

I would advise new violin players to avoid buying instruments on eBay, though. It’s really important to hear how an instrument sounds before purchasing it. Anyone who knows as little as I did back then would be better served getting advice from a reputable teacher or local violin shop. Chances are they offer a rental program which offers little risk and options to buy.



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Landing Airplanes and Shooting Arrows | One Thing at a Time, Please

Song of The Wind & Arrows: Here’s The Set Up

    • “Song of The Wind.”
    • LOOP
    • ITEM 1: “Okay, find the fuzzy spot with your ring finger.” (bow hand).
    • “Keep you thumb bent.” (bow hand).
    • “Keep your eyes on the finger board, focus on your tapes.” (finger board).
    • “Rocket wrist… keep your violin hand nice and long. It looks like you’re trying to deliver a pizza.”
    • “Honey, we need to pick a tempo and stay with it.”
    • GO TO ITEM 1
    • END LOOP

        That’s an abbreviated version of my monologue during yesterday’s practice. For crying out loud, you’d think I was trying to land an airplane. The look in wee-man’s eye said he was ready to throw me into the nearest lion’s den. It’s no wonder so many of us “type A” parents want to start popping valium when we help our kids practice.

        I take copious notes at my son’s lessons, which is a blessing and a curse. It’s important because I would otherwise forget important points. (Are we supposed to be playing fast-fast-slow or slow-slow-fast? Was the thumb supposed to be pointing toward the first finger or the pinkie?) But it’s disastrous when I try to accomplish every point on my list simultaneously.

        Choose one arrow at a time, and make sure the target’s fairly close.” – Edmund Sprunger

        In his book, Helping Parents Practice: Ideas for Making It Easier, Suzuki teacher trainer Ed Sprunger explains that children can really only work on thing at a time.  He advises parents to stop and re-prioritize when they find themselves giving their child more than one thing to pay attention to. Sprunger points out that trying to “shoot more than one arrow at a time” will overwhelm the child and make the parent feel incompetent. (Or desperate for valium.)

        Ed’s book is brilliant, and I would recommend it to any Suzuki parent feeling a little lost, frustrated or overwhelmed with practice.


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        Essential Violin Accessories | The Skinny on Violin Rosin

        “All This Awesome Power, In An Itty-Bitty Little Package”

        As I gazed upon my small collection of chipped rosin cakes this morning, I started to wonder if I needed something new. The less than pristine chunks I have on hand could conceivably last until I’m well into retirement, but still. Part of me just really likes buying new rosin. So I started thinking about what kind of rosin I might try next. Then I started thinking “What do I really know about rosin, anyway?“. This lead to a little digging.

        The Basics About Rosin

        • It’s typically made from the resin (sap) in pine trees.
        • It usually comes in a cloth or a box.
        • Beeswax is commonly added in the rosin making process.
        • Some rosins contain particles of metal, like gold or silver; thought to produce a greater clarity of sound.
        • It’s not a good idea to switch between metallic and non-metallic rosins using the same bow.
        • When switching rosins, the old rosin will remain audible for a few hours. (Some players use a different rosin for each bow.)
        • It’s available in light or dark. (Both colors make white powder when used.)
        • It comes in varying degrees of stickiness. (Stickier = less powder.)
        • Darker rosins are typically sticker than light rosins.
        • Stickier rosins work better in cooler climates.
        • On a cheap bow, the type of rosin you use won’t make much difference.

        Looking for more information about rosin?

        Bonus: Here’s a fun fact I learned on BAVs this week: A wine (or champagne) cork works well for cleaning rosin off your strings. I’ll drink to that!

        What kind of rosin do *you* use? Click here to chime in and see what others are using (2 Question Poll).



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        Quick Poll 1: How Much Time Do You Spend Practicing Your Instrument?

        Think you practice more, less or the same amount as your peers? Last week, I made some assumptions about how much time musicians need to practice based on their skill level. I posed the question to the beginning adult violin students group (bavs) on Yahoo! and got some interesting feedback. Being a lover of graphs, I decided to pose the question again – in the form of a poll.

        Want to find out how your practice time stacks up to other musicians? Click here to complete a completely anonymous, one question poll. You’ll see poll results instantly and you can check back later as more answers are collected.


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        Is Your Violin Case a Zen Garden or a Junk Drawer?

        Zen gardens, minimalist and organized, are thought to encourage contemplation and perhaps enlightenment. Junk drawers, while arguably fascinating and useful, are far from relaxing or enlightening. But couldn’t the visual stimulation and juxtaposition of objects inspire creativity? It reminds me of a plaque I read on a friend’s wall: “Dull people have immaculate houses”. What, if any, relationship does organization of supplies have on performance? When playing with other musicians, I’m fascinated by their instrument cases. Some players keep a minimalist, Zen garden-like case. Others have a less rigid approach, keeping their cases more like, well, junk drawers. Many players tuck a photo(s) of special people or animals tucked in the bow ribbon, and almost everyone seems to keep a shoulder rest, a bow and a tuner on hand. Would you consider your instrument case more like a Zen garden or a junk drawer?

        Mine is a little of both. On one hand, I try to keep my case clean, organized and stocked with useful items. On the other hand, I have a plastic sandwich bag, batteries (the quintessential junk drawer item) and packet of tic-tacs purchased circa 2007 in there. Articles come and go from the case based on what I’m doing, but here’s what’s in my case *right now*:

        * A violin
        * A shoulder rest
        * Two violin bows
        * Peg Dope
        * L’Opéra Jade Rosin
        * Cherry passion flavored tic-tacs (see above)
        * Embroidered ornaments from a wedding performance
        * Extra violin strings (new strings in tube)
        * Used violin strings in plastic bag (see above) for emergency use
        * A Korg tuner
        * A Seiko metronome
        * Two AA batteries (see above)
        * A fingernail clipper
        * A clip-on pick-up and audio cord (in front pocket)
        * A turquoise marble (pre-twinkle exercises)

        What’s in your instrument case? Do you keep a Zen garden-like minimal case: violin, bow, rosin – or is your case brimming over with post-it notes, memorabilia and used tea-bags? More importantly, does it matter? In a perfect world, what *would* be in your instrument case?


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        And Stretch; Two, Three, Four…

        A reminder to stretch before practice came to me at the chiropractor’s office, of all places. The boy and I get adjustments somewhat regularly and the chiropractor noticed tension in wee-man’s left shoulder during our most recent visit. I questioned whether it might be related to his violin practice. She thought playing violin might be the cause and suggested a little massage before and after each practice.

        Notice anything a little “off” in the image above?

        Upon further inspection, it seems my son’s left shoulder is a bit higher than the other. The fact he’s been using it to hold an instrument every morning for the past few years *might* have something to do with it. Well, we’re certainly not giving up our instruments over some tight muscles or a slightly raised shoulder, but the idea of taking care of our bodies just makes good sense.

        I turned to a book I purchased several years ago when my bow hand and wrist were in pain from a lot of practice and computer work: The Athletic Musician: A Guide to Playing Without Pain. While I don’t totally share Barbara Paull’s belief about weight training avoidance, she has a lot of good exercise and posture suggestions for preventing injuries. We’ve been using many of her stretches and warm ups before practice and I’m finding a noticeable improvement in our sound quality. In a perfect world, violin practice would follow an hour of yoga, a hot shower and a soy latte, but that routine’s going to have to wait for retirement.

        Stringed players of the world, what’s your warm up routine? Before you delve into your scales and etudes how to you prepare your *body* to play?

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        Twinkle with Harmony or Everyone Look Happy for the Camera

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        Watch on posterous

        Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star with Harmony Take 1 (in 1 Take).

        Suzuki parents (and students) back me up here: listening to / playing the Twinkle Variations gets OLD. Sure they’re good for you, like Brussels Sprout, and you might even like eating them… the first 9,999 days. But, and I’m pretty sure there’s a book about this on my to-read list, after day 10,000 who wants to eat that again? It doesn’t even smell like something edible, let’s be honest. Finding creative ways to break up the monotony is your only hope. You add some melted cheese on those sprouts, or a Hollandaise sauce.

        That’s why I was so excited to get my copy of Trio Book: Suzuki Violin Arranged for Three Violins yesterday. It has harmony parts to the Suzuki Books 1-3 repertoire. Today the boy and I tried out the Twinkles and some Folk Songs. In the video above we tackle Twinkle Twinkle Little Star à la Mein Trio-Buch.

        I promise to read Suzuki Parent’s Diary: Or How I Survived My First 10,000 Twinkles and cook up some more fun things to try. In the meantime, what tips can you share for keeping things interesting in the early days of practice? Are you a 10,000 Twinkles survivor? I want to hear about it.

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