So many of you have responded to our Notes from a Suzuki Mom series that I contacted Nerissa Nields and asked for another article. Nerissa kindly agreed to allow me to repost her latest Suzuki entry from her blog Singing in the Kitchen. In today's entry, Nerissa shares a terrific practice game and again highlights the rich give-and-take of teaching and parenting. If you'd like to contribute to our blog – as a string musician, parent, or teacher – email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It’s been a good week, for a change, for the Reluctant Suzuki Mom, AKA me, Nerissa. Last week, we participated in a bi-annual recital in which Lila played Bach’s Minuet 3 (From the Anna Magdelena Notebook). We sat next to a ten-year-old Suzuki prodigy, an absolutely darling girl and her equally darling mother. I know we are not supposed to compare kids, parenting, how accomplished a student is by his/her age, or any of that in the Suzuki world (or any world) but I have to say, for me, this mother/daughter duo walk on water. And so when the recital was over, I came over to praise the playing of the ten-year-old (who played the Vivaldi Concerto in A Minor–2nd Movement: Largo– with the sensitivity of a thirty-five-year old virtuoso, using her whole body to make her violin sing. Anyone who thinks Suzuki kids are automatons needs to check this young lady out.) In the course of our conversation, the mother, very kindly and probably erroneously, said we were on the same trajectory as her daughter. “But did you have Suzuki wars?” I asked hopefully.
“Of course!” she said. “In fact, we’ve made a truce that goes like this: mom stays out of practice. Which is fine with me. I love to listen now. My days as Suzuki dominatrix are over.” (Okay, she didn’t really say dominatrix, but some days that’s how I feel.) “But I do remember what worked when my daughter was your daughter’s age was to play lots of games.” And she gave us a great idea for a practice game.
It goes like this: we start with this great deck of cards, a mere $8 from our violin teacher. I take the eight or so cards representing the pieces we are playing that day and hide them around the room. Lila tunes up, takes her bow, plays her G scale and then goes off on a scavenger hunt. Whichever card she finds first is the one she plays next. Sometimes we have to play a little “Hot/Cold” to find each and every one. But it sure has made practice war-free this week.
On the other hand, we got snagged up on a “reading rhythm” exercise. Lila is just beginning to learn to read music. And it’s as fascinating to me to watch her learn to read notes as it is to watch her learn to read words. One thing that’s clear is that it’s a lot easier for her to recognize the notes on the staff and name them by their letter names than it is for her to comprehend the rhythmic notation. Understanding rhythmic notation is just as crucial to learning how to read music as knowing where to place the spaces between the letters is to learning to distinguish words from a sea of letters. Standard time was not so hard. But now we are learning three-quarter time. For the first week, every time she tried to read the very first exercise–three quarter notes, then a half note and a quarter, then three quarters, then a half note and a quarter–she collapsed in a fury on the carpet. And anything I said, or tried to say because I usually couldn’t get out three words, got shouted down. She refused to try clapping the rhythm. And when I clapped the rhythm, she ran screaming out of the room with her hands over her ears. She really doesn’t like being told she has something wrong. I can’t imagine where she got that from.
But a couple of days ago, after an especially fun scavenger hunt and a highly successful rendition of Handel’s “Chorus from Judas Maccabaeus,” I said, “I have an idea. Let’s bounce the rhythm.”
I should add that one of our strategies for making practice work is a lot of cuddles between pieces. She is often on my lap. I don’t let her actually play her pieces on my lap because I want her to learn good posture, but I do let her do her reading from my lap. So I counted the notes out and bounced her up and down in time to the rhythm: “short short short, lo-o-ong short, short short short, lo-o-ong short…”
“OH!” she shouted jumping off my lap and grabbing her violin. “I get it!” and she played the rhythm perfectly.
The next day she forgot the new rhythm and was back on the floor wailing. So I tried a trick Emily has taught us, which is to let the kids show the grown-up where the error is. It went like this:
Me: (picking up claves) I am going to just tap out this rhythm for you.
Lila: NOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (hands over ears)
Me: No, wait! I really need help with this! Can you come sit on my lap and tell me what I am doing wrong? (Lila reluctantly gets off the floor and climbs into my lap. I play the rhythm with just quarter notes and no half notes to the end of the measure.) How was that?
Lila: (grabs claves) No, Mama, like this.
And she played the rhythm perfectly once again.