Making of an Artist: Rafi #5

New Violin!

Rafi has turned 5 years old and now has moved up to a 1/10 size violin! This means everything is a little bit bigger, requiring an adjustment of the left finger spacings. The bow is also going to be a little further out than on his 1/16 violin. 

The adjustment necessary to play in tune is evident while Rafi is playing A major and D major scale. It takes a little bit of time but you just train the hand to follow the ear. 

He has also started Go Tell Aunt Rhody, which is the fourth song in the Suzuki book. 

At the time of this video he hadn’t quite learned the middle part of the song. The two phrases, do do-re mi mi fa fa mi-re do; do do-re mi mi fa fa mi are very similar and thus can be a bit confusing. It is best to try to fix a problem with a student when it happens (much like when disciplining a child, it’s best to do it when the misbehavior has occurred, not hours or days later). If I keep letting Rafi play Go Tell Aunt Rhody incorrectly, it sends him mixed messages and will be more difficult to change later. To get him to learn the music, it’s important to remember that everything we do is a direction from the brain- the fingers move because of the mental concept of how a song sounds. Thus when you are learning something or fixing something, you are changing your mind’s concept of the song. In my teaching experience trying to play it over and over usually does not work- instead you have an exhausted and frustrated student. A more direct approach is to simplify the problem- here it is not that Rafi doesn’t know how to play the notes but that he’s got the notes in the wrong order. So the most efficient way to learn the correct notes of a song is to sing it without the distraction of the violin. And solfege is the best way. In my earliest teaching days, I used to have my students sing C# C# D E E F# F# E D C#. It was a mouthful and not appealing. Switching to solfege has saved so much time and is a much more musical, pleasant experience. 

La La Sh Sh is a foundation song that is a big part of the early learning stages. It may seem simple, but to play it beautifully takes a lot of knowledge and concentration. This is still practiced everyday because it is a great warm-up and reinforces a respect for the basics.

The new bow song, See Saw is the first song that combines the bow with left hand- we add one finger, si, and this is a big step!

At the end of the video Rafi is letting the bow bounce- this is very fun to do and helps keep the bow fingers loose in the early stages. It is never too early to practice spiccato as well!

Making of an Artist: Rafi #4

Rafi has added the following songs to his repertoire: Jingle Bells, A major scale with arpeggio, Happy Birthday, and Lightly Row (the second song of the Suzuki Book 1). He is able to use all four left hand fingers now with a lot of control. Happy Birthday and Lightly Row are still new, so it is easiest for him to learn the songs while I help place the fingers. Whenever I place the fingers, I also make sure his fingers are curled and relaxed.

For bowing, Rafi is still working on La La Sh Sh, starting down bow (middle) and up bow (from the tip). He has learned to keep his fingers more  relaxed on the bow. While he is playing I am constantly checking that all limbs are moving efficiently. That includes raising his left arm if it has drooped down. I am adjusting the position of the violin this way. 

Also I am keeping my hand on his right shoulder to make sure it doesn’t go up during the bow stroke. A shoulder that goes up creates physical tension and an unpleasant sound; thus it is to be avoided at all times. 

With my other hand I am also supporting his right elbow. Here I am making sure his elbow is at the same level as the bow and that the entire bow arm adjusts to the different heights necessary for the La and Mi strings. Basically, you want your shoulder to be down and your elbow to be up!

Additionally, Rafi is simply resting his right arm on my hand, allowing the weight of the arm to rest in my hand. Using the arm weight of the right arm is essential for beautiful sound production. It takes a while to get the feeling of letting the arm be heavy while suspended in space instead of letting it flop down completely. It is super helpful to have someone hold your arm while practicing bowing to get the feeling of this (I wish I had learned like that when I was younger!). In the production of a beautiful violin tone, there is a lot that can be seen with the eye (such as seeing the bow touch the strings with the correct angles) as well as ones that cannot be seen, such as the weight of the arm that is released into the string.

Since Rafi is getting better at La La Sh Sh, the next step is adding the rhythm and bowing patterns to his practice. The “I like chocolate ice cream,” “Grasshopper,” “Mississippi is a river,” and “strawberry, blueberry, pineapple” tapping rhythms (see video 1) are now played with combinations of quarter and half bows. These bowing patterns will be used in the future to play the first song in Suzuki book 1, the Twinkle Variations.

Making of an Artist: Rafi #3

In this video Rafi is plays Eggs, Sol Re Sol, Saita, and the entire Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star all by himself. He is now able to use his left third finger (ring) for Twinkle independently. He has improved so much on all these songs since the first blog post. The comfort and confidence is very different now when he plays the violin. We have gotten to this point by practicing all his songs three times each day. In the last few weeks we practiced every day except two. 

A delightful part of his musical development right now is his ear's ability to listen for intonation. At 1:24 Rafi fixes his C# in Saita, lowering the note the second time because the first time was too sharp. Again at 1:50 he fixes the F# in Twinkle, also lowering the second F# of the phrase (The F#s fall on the word "lit-tle" in the lyrics "Twinkle, twinkle, little star"). 

In my teaching once the left third finger is mobile (ring finger), I introduce Old MacDonald had a Farm to incorporate the fourth finger (pinky finger). Naturally this finger is going to need extra help at first. But it is so important to get all the left hand fingers working as a team sooner rather than later- physically and psychologically, as I have met many young violinists who have a mental block when it comes to using their fourth (pinky) finger. 

Around 2:50 in the video Rafi is talking about the notes sounding "weird". Once again, he is talking about the intonation not being correct.

We move on to the bow, where now during La La Sh Sh Rafi and I take turns. In blog post #2 I moved the bow for the entire song, so here also is big improvement due to consistent practice. Making a full sound with the bow is still tricky, however, and Rafi is at times too loose with the bow, getting a soft, thin sound (at 5:50). The key to getting a nice tone (making the string vibrate well) is to be able to feel the the interplay of the bow with the resistance of the string. Thus, it feels like pulling the bow against the string on the down bow, and pushing the bow into the string on the up bow (up bow here is Rafi starting at the tip and ending in the middle of the bow). Controlling the string vibration this way is easier when the bow starts from a good contact with the string. Thus I am emphasizing stopping the bow at the end of each stroke so that the next 'start' of the bow is a good one. 

The bow doesn't move well either when the right fingers are gripping it too tightly - at 3:55 when I notice that Rafi's last bow stroke had a scratchy edge to it, I know that he is squeezing his thumb and fingers. So I ask him to tap the first finger on the bow - this usually releases any extra tension on the bow so that he can reset the fingers and start with a clean plate for the next notes. 

This lesson is split into two videos because the cameraman inadvertently stopped the recording, then was able to resume recording (about 3 seconds pass between the videos). So here Rafi and I finish working on La La Sh Sh for the day - you can see that Rafi has better control stopping and starting the bow here.

Performance: Rafi

With the coming school year, there is a flurry of sign-ups for after-school activities. Three of my private students auditioned for the local youth symphony that begins rehearsing in September. In preparation for the audition, I organized a mini-recital for the students to play their scales, solo piece, and orchestral excerpts. I really enjoy this kind of audition-prep recital partly because it is so great to hear students perform scales. This experience elevates the scale beyond a tool of music theory and technique- we work on every element of making the scale sound beautiful. 

Besides the more advanced symphony students, this recital also featured three beginners on their pizzicato songs. Here is a video of Rafi performing Mary Had a Little Lamb- a big step forward since the earlier blog post where I first helped him put his fingers on the correct notes with this song!

Making of an Artist: Rafi # 2

After some comfort level is reached playing Eggs and Sol Re Sol, it is a good idea to introduce the bow. I have put tapes on Rafi's bow (the wooden part) marking the halfway point as well as each quarter point. He also has a pinky house, the most fantastic teaching tool, at the bottom of the bow for his right pinky (you can see it prominently around 1:10 in the video above). In my previous blog post I mentioned the importance of training the left pinky for a great left hand technique- likewise, keeping the pinky on the bow hand flexible is equally valuable. Human beings are mainly creatures of habit after all, and if you can start your bowing experience with a supple pinky that can bend and not lock, well, you are light-years ahead in the mastery of violin. The pinky house does just that, putting you in a perfect bow-hand position!

In the video Rafi and I start off with some bow exercises apart from the violin. The exercises here (Stir the Soup, TV Antenna, Unicorn, Pinocchio, Butterfly, Wind-Shield Wipers) cover the big muscle movements required in bowing as well as some fine finger movements and are fun to do. We also "bow" some rhythm patterns using a tape roll. This is a brilliant way of practicing the arm movements in a bow stroke because the tape roll keeps the bow moving up and down in the same spot- this motion of keeping the bow in the same angle is crucial for a beautiful tone on the violin. You might also notice that throughout this video I am adjusting Rafi's fingers on the bow- I am checking that his fingers are naturally relaxed on the bow, especially the thumb. One way I can do that is by having him tap the fingers on the bow (shakes out any tension). It is human instinct to grip something (ever notice how babies have such a mighty grip?) so balancing the bow with the right amount of flexibility and strength is a learned behavior that requires constant reminding.

In the beginning it is best to learn to use the upper half of the bow, as it is much easier to manipulate than the lower half. Already there is a lot going on- balancing the violin on the collarbone, balancing the fingers on the bow, and then putting the two together! Rafi is doing silent string-crossings, where he rolls the bow from string to string using the arm like a lever. Then I help him play La La Sh Sh. By moving the bow for him, he gets to hear a nice violin tone and to get a kinesthetic feel of how the bow moves when the bow is making a clear tone. As I mentioned above, we are creatures of habit and by hearing a better sound with the help of a teacher or a parent moving the bow for the student, the student will be able to produce a beautiful tone much sooner (in my early violin study I just moved the bow however which way, completely oblivious to the tone quality- this took years to correct).

It is important to spend many weeks going over the bow exercises and to be able to play La La Sh Sh with fluency. It takes time for the body to get used to these movements, but it is one of those instances where 'you spend time to save time'. In the long term of violin playing you save a lot of time by learning to use the upper half of the bow really well now. 

Making of an Artist: Rafi #1

Here Rafi and I are going over the first steps of learning to play the violin. The most important step is being grounded in your body from the feet up. We find our balance by putting our feet together and then taking a step so that they are shoulder-width apart. Feet apart are better than feet together- if you think about it, when you throw a ball or get ready to hit a tennis ball, you automatically connect your feet to the ground apart, never feet together!

The first songs to learn, Eggs and Sol Re Sol, use the left hand pinky finger. By using the smallest finger from the beginning, we train it well and this leads to a beautiful left hand position. All too commonly, violinists are not taught to use their pinky finger until months into their study (this happened with me when I was a child) which creates many difficulties learning more advanced songs and negatively affects intonation, shifts, and anything regarding left hand technique! However, by teaching Eggs and Sol Re Sol, my experience has been that students have an excellent start to a great left hand. Additionally, these songs are simple enough that at the end of the first lesson they can engage in chamber music (here, playing with piano accompaniment). By playing with another person, you learn to listen and feel rhythm very naturally. A powerful aspect of music is the act of sharing, and it is utterly enjoyable to make music this way from the beginning.  

Next Rafi is also playing some songs with pizzicato (Italian musical term for plucking the strings). They include Saita, a Japanese melody, the beginning of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, and Mary Had a Little Lamb. Currently Rafi feels comfortable playing the Twinkle by himself, and in the other songs he prefers that I place his left hand fingers. By helping him, I can make sure that his hand stays supple instead of squeezing too hard. In time he will be able to pizzicato all these songs and will not want my help at all.

We will do a video using the bow next time!