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Flashcards!

I’ve put together a series of flashcards for beginners playing at the preparatory level.

Note name flashcards

This set of flashcards for the violin gives the music notation of the notes we will play in our first year. This set is in landscape orientation. When printing, choose double-sided, then “flip on short side” to get the answers to align correctly on the back

note name flashcards large

Rhythm flashcards

This set of flashcards gives the rhythm notation for whole, quarter, eighth and sixteenth notes and rests. Print double-sided, “flip on long side”.

note length flashcards large

 

Basic music terms and signs

These flashcards have basic music terms and signs on them that you should learn to recognize, including dynamic markings, accents, staccato and slur markings. Print double-sided, “flip on long side”.

prep flashcards terms and signs

 

Happy learning!

Motivation in music lessons

I recently had a discussion with a parent about the value of things like RCM exams, festivals, etc. This parent felt that these activities were superfluous to the lesson year, and created an additional cost without any tangible benefit. While I understand that some parents may be facing tight budgets, I want to explain why I think the benefits are more than worth the costs.

What is motivation?

As an adult, I am free to do pretty much what I please, when I please (within the boundaries of the law, of course!). I don’t actually have to go to work, or clean the bathroom, or take the dogs for a walk. I also don’t have to practice my music. For many years, I did not practice. I didn’t do scales, or etudes, or even really play, other than accompanying students on the piano or playing duets with them.

So what is it that motivates us to practice? I’m not a psychologist so I won’t attempt to explain intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation. I just know that I go to my day job for the paycheque (extrinsic) while I teach music lessons for the feeling of fulfillment I get out of it (intrinsic). Which do you think I enjoy more?

Goal-setting and Performance

So, how do we get our kids to want to practice for their own sake? Of course, I use extrinsic motivators in lessons, like stickers, and I’m sure parents do too, as in: “Practice your violin for 20 minute and then you can play your video game”. As a short-term strategy, this is fine. But eventually, kids will lose interest if they don’t have their own reasons for continuing to play, and each day will become a struggle.

As a teacher, I feel this is where the exams and festivals can help. One of the flaws in human nature is that we don’t see day-to-day incremental progress and we sometimes need to be forced to step back and take stock to see how far we’ve come. Just like in school, where every kid is excited to graduate and go into the next grade, we can do the same thing with RCM exams. All year long, we’ve worked through fingering exercises, bowing exercises, scales, etudes, and repertoire. Then it all comes together in the final exam! And we get a certificate to commemorate our achievement. For serious and goal-oriented kids, this can be a great incentive to carry on with the instrument.

Festivals appeal to a different element of personality. Performing in front of an audience of peers and parents is a rush! I’ve seen kids who’ve started to get blah about lessons suddenly become incandescent with excitement after participating in a music festival. There’s something about going up on stage and doing something you can do better than most other people that is just so fulfilling.

Other sources of motivation

Another great source of motivation is being part of a group. For music students, this can mean doing group lessons, practicing with friends, or being part of an orchestra. One of my favourite activities with young beginners is to get 2 or 3 of them playing Are you Sleeping, Brother John? as a round. This is a fairly easy tune for beginner violin students to play within the first 2-3 months of lessons, and it turns into a really fun group activity!

I also encourage students to learn duets or play with accompaniment. 2 or 3 students could be learning their separate parts in the private lesson, then come together for a group lesson maybe once a month to practice in that setting. Not only do they get to have fun making music with their peers, they learn invaluable tools like keeping tempo with the group and blending musical voices for a pleasing performance.

Tapping into kids’ creativity

Appealing to their creative side is another way to motivate kids. I think this is a fairly new trend in music lessons, but I believe even beginner students can compose short melodies on their instrument. They may not have the skills to commit their music to paper yet, but it’s always very exciting to see what they come up with. They can also be encouraged to record their own melodies, right from the start. And who knows, they might be budding composers!

Parents and teachers alike have a role in helping their kids find their motivation and these are only a few strategies that I use. I’d love to hear in the comments from other parents and teachers about how you make music lessons fun and motivating!

Lessons with a new teacher

For the first time in several years, I have decided to spend some time working with a new music teacher. I spent a couple of months trying to find a teacher in Calgary who is willing to work with me on my terms, i.e. one lesson per month and is willing to help me work my way through the Grade 8 and up RCM exams.

Since I haven’t spoken to my teacher yet in person, I will refrain from identifying him for now. Anyway, this blog entry isn’t really about my teacher, but about me, and how I feel about starting lessons with someone new.

Stage Fright

I always tell people I don’t believe in stage fright. Since I’ve been up on stage many times, performing in one way or another for at least 30 years, I think this is true. When I am well-prepared, be it for a speech or a briefing at work, or a vocal/instrumental solo or group performance, I am never nervous. I think my mom told me once: just remember, you know your piece better than anyone else in the room. Which is true… because I’m a perfectionist.

I don’t get up on that stage until I’m 100% ready. Each note is pitch-perfect, each tempo is exactly as written. I’m such a technical perfectionist that my early violin teacher M. Letourneau once told me: “You are technically perfect but you lack soul”.

Nowadays, I try to be more expressive in my violin playing. Maybe at 12 I wasn’t really feeling it. But the strange thing is, I’m still a perfectionist. Only I’ve found so much more to be perfectionist about. Not only do I want the pitch and tempo to be perfect, but also the expression, the dynamics, the bowing, etc. All those elements of “sound” I talked about last week.

Failure

Which brings me back to my teacher. When I was searching for a teacher, it was all excitement. Reading bios, sending out emails to try to find someone willing to work with me, waiting for a response. Now, I have a date and time at which to present myself at my new teacher’s studio. And I find that I’m nervous.

I’m nervous because this is one of the few times that I’ll be playing for someone who quite possibly knows the piece better than I do. Certainly, he has a far greater musical background than I do, even if he’s a violist, and thus possibly not intimately familiar with all the violin repertoire.

As a perfectionist, I recall vividly each time I have truly failed at something. In particular, I remember a spectacular failure in my early teens. I’m not sure whose idea it was for me to audition for the Quebec Conservatory of Music. I can’t possibly think it was mine. It must have been cooked up between M. Letourneau and my mother. Regardless, I had an audition. The man evaluating my audition was (and still is!) the concertmaster of the Orchestre Symphonique de Quebec, Darren Lowe. Now you have to understand that Darren was something of an idol to me. Not so much as Itzhak Perlman of course, but in a somewhat more attainable way. Any young violinist at least considers the possibility of a career as a musician, and to me Darren represented what a career like that could look like. I could never in a million years see myself as an Itzhak… but maybe if I worked really hard, I could be a Darren.

I failed. It was a failure for the ages. I was so nervous, M. Letourneau told me later, that I had used a grand total of about 3 cm of my bow the entire time. The simple fact of being in the same room with someone I admired and who was judging little old me was simply too overwhelming.

Moving forward

In hindsight, this was not the end of the world, of course. I don’t think I would have ended up choosing a career as a musical performer, even had I passed that audition. Anyway, I had intended to become a vet from age 4, but that’s an entirely different story. But it does serve as a reminder that perfectionism can be an asset in a lot of ways, as long as you don’t let it get out of hand and handicap you.

I am trying to remember this as I practice for my lesson. On the one hand, my nervousness at meeting my new teacher is a good thing. I’ve practiced more diligently in the past week than I was before. I don’t skimp on my scales or my double stops. I work more consciously in my practice, dedicating practice time to individual elements of a piece rather than just playing a piece through a few times and being satisfied with that, as I would have done at 14.

But I can’t help that niggling feeling of “what is he going to think of me? Who do I think I am thinking I can impress this guy?”

Thoughts on memorization

With the Brooks Music Festival happening 2 weeks ago, I had the chance to talk to a lot of people active and interested in promoting music education in our community, both parents and teachers. One thing that came up repeatedly was memorization. At the Brooks festival, we do not currently require performers to have their selections memorized. However, both for the provincial festival and Royal Conservatory exams, memorization is required. So today, I thought I’d explore why I think all selections should be memorized and even more so, why memorization should be one of the very first steps in the process of learning a new piece.

Why memorize?

If you’ve gone to any music show, be it pop or classical or anything in between, you will find that the lead performer almost always has their music memorized. At a symphony performance, you might even be surprised at how many orchestra members only occasionally glance at their sheet music, and most of the time in my experience that’s to count out rests that can last several measures so we don’t miss our place to jump back in when it’s our turn.

Soloists, however, always have their part memorized. Let’s watch another of my favourite violinists, playing my all-time favourite piece for violin: Anne-Sophie Mutter plays the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64

The why, I believe, is simple. When you are playing the violin, there is a lot going on: bow stroke, fingering, vibrato, intonation and that elusive concept, sound. If on top of all that you’re reading the music off a piece of sheet music, you just can’t concentrate properly on getting that “sound”. When you free yourself from sheet music, you free yourself to pour your heart and sould into the interpretation of the repertoire.

The building blocks

So, having established that memorization is essential, how does it fit into the development of repertoire?

building blocks 2

This pyramid represents how I approach learning a new piece of music.

Sight Reading

The very first step is sight reading. This step is where I figure out where the notes are, get my fingerings correct and start to get a feel for the melody. I might play the piece through a few dozen times with the sheet music and make notes where I experience difficulty with fingering, rhythm or bowing.

Memorization

Once I have a feel for the piece, and that should take no more than a few days, I begin memorization. This is the one step where a lot of the work can be done even without the violin.

My first step in memorizing is to sit down with just the sheet music and hum the melody quietly to myself as I tap out the fingering on my thigh. I often do this while car pooling to work and I can get a movement committed mostly to memory within a day or two.

How does this work? Basically, I use a form of kinesthetic visualization, the use of which is well established in elite sports. I tap my fingers in the rhythm of the music and according to the fingering, using my thumb for open string. I find this method to be most effective. Just humming the music can be helpful, but connecting it to the tapping of my fingers seems to cement the link that much more quickly in my mind.

I start with one or two bars, sight reading and tapping and then repeating it until I have it down. Then the next few bars. Then all 4 or 5 together. And so on until I have whole phrases and before long whole movements memorized.

Now at this stage, memorization won’t be perfect but you’ll be well on your way there for when you pick up your violin. Again, playing from memory as much as possible, play through the piece, section by section, translating the fingering onto the violin, with positions as applicable.

The entire process of memorization can be completed for a short movement in the space of a week. For the 6th movement of the Bach Partita I am playing at the exam, which I showcased in yesterday’s post, I spent 2 days in the car practicing without my violin and another 2 days of practice time (about 10-15 minutes each day) to get it pretty much memorized.

Moving forward

The next steps to perfecting repertoire are outside the scope of this blog post but I will briefly touch on each one so you’ll know what I’m referring to.

Intonation

Up until now, I have not concerned myself with being pitch perfect while practicing my piece. It is still very rough and certain notes may end up being slightly off pitch. The next step is perfecting the intonation. The last thing you want to hear your violin teacher say is: “it’s a bit pitchy”!

Rhythm and Metre

Now that we are pitch perfect, it’s time to pay attention to rhythm and metre. Working with a metronome at this stage is helpful. For faster pieces, it can take some time to get up to the indicated tempo while maintaining proper intonation, so pay particular attention to this step.

Bowing and Dynamics

Now that we know the piece by memory and are playing it in tune and in “time”, we can start putting the finishing touches on. Bowing refers to the use of different bow strokes, which will be a series of posts in itself. Dynamics is the use of varying degrees of “loudness” from pianissimo to fortissimo and everything in between.

“Sound”

Call this what you like. Sound, interpretation, artistry… I like to think of it as making the violin sing the story. This is where you’ll hear the music come alive. To really understand this concept, let’s finish off with Itzhak Perlman playing the Theme from “Schindler’s List”. I don’t know about you, but I think he’s almost crying and his violin definitely is crying plaintively but oh so beautifully. Kind of makes you want to shed a few tears too…

Maintenance

A final note on what I call maintenance. When preparing for an exam or a recital, it’s difficult to predict exactly when we will “peak” as they say in sports. With music, there’s really no downside to peaking early, other than the need for maintenance. What I mean by this is that once the piece is “perfect” to our ears, with all the preceeding elements mastered to our satisfaction, we need to keep practicing it to maintain it in the repertoire. There is no longer a need to practice the piece for 15-20 minutes a day unless things start to slip. A couple of runs 2 or 3 times a week is usually sufficient.

This gives us some breathing space to make room for the rest of the repertoire we need to learn for that exam!! Time to get practicing that Partita!

Grade 8 repertoire

Welcome to my new series on repertoire from the Royal Conservatory of Music violin syllabus. One of the easiest things you can do to improve your violin playing is to listen to recordings of the music you are learning. Henceforth, I will be publishing a selection of repertoire from each grade list, from Preparatory through Grade 10. Starting today with Grade 8, because yours truly decided to work towards her ARCT after all this time.

I chose to start with Grade 8 because the repertoire is attainable (for me) within a relatively short practice timeframe and it will allow me to get a feeling for the exam format before attempting something more challenging. Since I am the teacher, as well as the student, I curated my repertoire selections myself.

RCM repertoire is organized by “lists”. For the Grade 8 exam, a candidate must select repertoire from each of 4 solo repertoire lists: List A Concertos, Airs variés and Fantasias; List B, Sonatas and Sonatinas; List C, Concert Repertoire; and List D, Unaccompanied Repertoire as well as two selections from the Orchestral Excerpts book.

For lower grades, you will get to see Miss Jetske in action, but for today, I’ve chosen to showcase some of my own idols.

List A – Concertos, Airs variés and Fantasias

J. B. Accolay – Concerto in A minor – Itzhak Perlman

No list of my heroes would be complete without Itzhak Perlman. I have loved his performances since I was a small child. I was lucky enough to see him in concert at the National Arts Centre once.

Although I can’t recall what he played that day, I do remember he played a Paganini caprice for an encore.

List B – Sonatas and Sonatinas

Mozart – Sonata No. 18 in G major, K301 – Hilary Hahn

Hilary Hahn is an impressive violinist with a lovely sound. Although she is an advocate for contemporary music, I’m glad to see that she still performs the classics. The grade 8 syllabus requires either the first or second movement.

List C – Concert Repertoire

Massenet – Meditation de Thais – Yo Yo Ma

I have always loved this piece and I’m breaking with tradition here by linking a cello version. Yo Yo Ma is of course the master, and the sound of the cello brings a lovely warmth to this piece.

List D – Unaccompanied Repertoire

J.S. Bach – Partita in E major, BWV 1006 – Itzhak Perlman

And it’s back to Itzhak Perlman. This is an older recording but I love the video because it shows him grinning to himself as he plays. I feel like Bach partitas are meant to be fun so seeing him smile makes me think maybe he agrees with me?

For this partita, the only movement to be performed at the exam is the 6th mouvement “bourree”.

Orchestral

Starting in Grade 7, the violin exam includes a section on orchestral excerpts. In grade 8, candidates have to perform two contrasting orchestral excerpts.

W. A. Mozart – Symphony No 25 KV 183 – Salzbourg Orchestra

There are several recordings of this first selection on youtube and I chose this particular one because of the level of expression in the first violin section. Orchestral excerpts are generally quite short (a few dozen measures) and have sections removed so as to only reflect the portion being played by the 1st violins which is to be evaluated. In this case, I will be playing parts of the first movement.

J.S. Bach – Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G major – Orchestra Mozart

I enjoyed this last piece because baroque music sounds so nice with a harpsichord accompaniment. The section to be played on the exam is portions of the third movement.

 

Here’s hoping my music selections go over well (and technically perfect!) on exam day.

Winter 2019 Calendar

Winter 2019 Calendar

Check out the calendar for the Winter 2019 semester.

To note for this semester:

  • For Friday and Saturday students: No lessons during Easter weekend but 5 lessons in March
  • No regular Tuesday lessons last week of April. This date is reserved for makeup lessons as per the cancellation policy.
  • Music Festival is scheduled for 31 March – 5 April 2019. Please note that Friday lessons may be rescheduled to Tuesday or Wednesday evening as strings classes are expected to be held on the Friday. Communicate directly with the teacher at your earliest opportunity to reserve a time for earlier in the week. Remember this will be your last chance to practice performing your piece with Miss Jetske! And good luck to all!

New violins are on their way!

I am ecstatic to announce that I’ve put in my first order for a number of student violins from SAGA instruments.

SAGA offers a range of violins, from affordable starter student violins to high-quality instruments for the discerning amateur. I’ve ordered a couple different Cremona models in a few different sizes to get a feel for the quality of the instruments for the price. All these new violins will be available for sale or rent under the violin rental program.

Just for fun, I ordered this little beauty also:

purpleviolin

The SV-75 is their “premier novice violin” and comes in sparkling purple, among other fun colours. I wish these had been around when I was just learning to play as a child!