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!

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!