Thursday, September 14, 2006

First Lessons

So here's how today's first lesson went....
My first pupil today was a chap called Jack (not his real name, obviously!). Jack started with me from scratch a few years ago, taking up the box as something to do now that he is more or less retired. He has found it a challenge, but he has a great attitude and I really enjoy teaching him.
We have been working on advancing Jack's left hand fingering options, so we had a look at some of the exercises I had given him last time. These were simple exercises that he had done before with more straightforward fingering, but now that he is moving on to using all four fingers more fluently I had refingered them for more practise. He had done a great job with them, but there were a few rough spots. I suggested that he repeat the difficult changes until they were smooth, rather than running through an entire exercise. I felt this was all that was needed, as they were in pretty good shape.
We moved on to a right hand exercise that we have been doing with the metronome. This exercise is made up entirely of quavers (8th notes) and one of the ways we play it is two notes to the beat. (This means a note played each time the metronome clicks and another note played halfway between each click.) This gives many pupils difficulty, and what I notice is that they often want to nod their head or tap their foot on each note that they play. Marking each note that you play like this will only slow you down, ultimately. It's like trying to run while carrying something heavy, or with bricks strapped to your feet! Lightness, and therefore speed, comes from feeling less pulses per bar, but it can be a little difficult to get a feel for this, especially if when you started playing you had to think about every movement of your fingers quite hard. I feel it's up to me as a teacher to think of creative ways out of this.
I had Jack listen while I played the exercise with the metronome. First I asked him to nod his head really hard and tap his foot on every note that I played. He admitted that he didn't enjoy this! Then I asked him to have a look at what I was doing. I tapped my foot lightly on each click while I played and also gently swayed my upper body a little - to the left on one click and to the right on the next. I asked him to do this along with me while I played. Hmmm...what did this remind me of? Got it! I said to Jack "It's a bit like the way Stevie Wonder moves when he plays the organ." We both laughed, but it gave Jack an image to keep in his mind. We then moved on to playing the exercise together and "doing the Stevie Wonder thing".
Some of the lesson was also spent on questions Jack had about tunes he is working on. He has been playing Westering Home by ear for a long time, but only hands seperately. Recently he has felt like putting the hands together, but had some questions about how some of the rhythms worked. I showed him how to work it out for himself while I played passages over, as all the rhythms in the tune are ones he has played before in other tunes, which he has played from written music. Hopefully, I gave him enough to go on.
He also had a question about how to play a left hand passage in my arrangement of My Love Is Like a Red Red Rose. At one point it moves from a bar of D to a bar of D7 with an A in the bass. I reminded him how this works. The important thing is to keep your sense of the diagonal D row by keeping your 4th (ring) finger on the D bass button, as the shift to the A bass can easily cause you to lose the D7 button. However, if you play the A bass with the 3rd (middle) finger you can keep 4 in place and it should help you feel more confident about the location of the D7 button. He realised that he actually knew this, but the context was slightly different than he was used to. He explained that he wasn't thinking enough about what things were as he moved from one piece to another. I pointed out that sometimes thinking a bit more about the names of things like chords makes them a bit easier to recognise and transplant from one piece to another, rather than just learning the pattern of each piece and then sort of forgetting what you are actually doing.
A More Advanced Pupil
My next pupil was Sam (no, don't worry, I'm not going to take you through my entire day!). I've taught this guy for quite a few years. He has worked really hard to get where he is with his playing, and now plays in a couple of different amateur groups, which gives him a lot of enjoyment. He has also developed into a bit of a learnaholic and attends a couple of informal music classes as well as having weekly lessons with me. He has a particular interest in harmony and arranging.
First off was a question. Sam had acquired an arrangement of Lullaby of Birdland at one of his groups. The compound chords (Major and minor 6th and 7ths, etc.) were pretty heavy going and fast moving as well. Not only was he not sure his left hand was up to the challenge, he wasn't sure what sort of rhythms to do. I suggested that he would need to take his lead from the rhythm section in the group or maybe ask the leader what to do. We looked at ways that some of the chords might be simplified a bit without clashing with, say, a pianist who might be playing all those 6th and minor 9ths and things.
He also asked me about playing the piece solo "someday" as he really likes it. I talked a bit about the difficulty of any musician really doing a jazz/swing piece justice as a solo - at least in my opinion. No one to bounce ideas off, no one to play fills, back your solo, etc. Of course it can be done - especially on piano or accordion as it's possible to back yourself. However, you have to be really good to make it worthwhile. He went away to think about this, happy just to play it for a bit of fun for now.
I then listened to Sam play a piece he arranged himself, originally as an assignment for me. We both thought it was so successful that he is now working it up as a party piece. It is a slow air, slow strathspey and reel all based on the old Scots fiddle tune Pennan Den. The strathspey is basically the original version, the slow air is a sort of reworking of the melody in waltz time and the reel is a wonderful wild thing with a bit of a Cape Breton feel. However it is technically quite difficult, and has as he has had to practise it very slowly it has been hard to find the right reel feeling. It has improved, but I think as a result of working quite hard at the fast end the air has become a bit off hand and mechanical. I suggested that Sam record himself playing this, as I think he will be much more objective about the sound he is making and able to guide himself rather than playing his piece my way! I also suggested that it might help the feel of the reel to play it in a set with some other reels for awhile rather than just following the air and strathspey, as the whole thing sounds a little too routine.
I hope all this has provided readers with food for thought. Please feel free to leave comments or questions. - Kris

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