Monday, January 23, 2017

New Semester, More Violin

It's the first day of the semester around here.

I have a reassignment this semester, so I only teach 6 credits (instead of 11).  I've got a Tuesday/Thursday teaching schedule, which is unusual for me.  But it's nice, because I mostly won't have to be in the office on Mondays and Fridays (well, every other Friday for sure I'll be in for meetings).

But today, I'm here.  Plugging away.

For my senior seminar, I make one-time use PDFs for readings from journals and such, and put them up on our closed system.  (My understanding is that this is legal under fair use.)

Last week, I put in some copy requests for the department student worker.  One of the requests was a book.  I filled in the card: 1-14, 35-52, and 220-228 (I just made up those numbers).  I penciled the bibliographic information on the first page, at the top (it's a book I own, so okay to write in, and bibliographic info doesn't offend me), because I want students to have access to the information, and I require that they cite texts, so they need it, and I want to model how to keep track of bibliographic information.

I got this one request, PDFed, except it had page 114 (and the rest), and was organized so students looking at a screen would have to move backwards rather than forwards in the usual way.

I took it back to the student, and she said "oops."

Then I got the PDF, and it had completely cut off the bibliographic information, but at least was oriented properly.  So I took it back.

And finally got it PDFed so that it's readable and has the bibliographic information.  WIN!

But boy, having to check every single PDF and go back and forth is irritating.  (The student just stopped by to double check something, because I have made her very careful.  Maybe that's a good thing.)


I had a violin lesson last week.  I'd practiced well, and hoped I was ready to move on.  I was very not ready.

I played the first piece quite well, for me.

The second piece, my memory slipped a couple times, and it wasn't good.

By the third piece, I was nervous and botched it badly.

So my teacher (very kindly) reminded me of two practice strategies and taught me how to do harmonics, which is necessary for one of the later pieces.  And she also reminded me (even more kindly) that I'd basically taught myself the last two pieces.  (She'd had time to point out some spots, but not enough to teach me the harmonics thing.)

I was really upset at myself after the lesson because I hadn't played as well as I should have, and I'd gotten nervous, and I'd really wanted to play well but hadn't.  By evening, though, I'd gotten over myself and practiced.  (If I practice the same day as a lesson, then I can incorporate what I've learned way more effectively.  It makes a noticeable difference.)

Here's what I learned: harmonics.  Usually, when you finger on the violin, you press your finger pretty hard to stop the string from vibrating beyond your finger up the fingering board.  That changes the pitch.  For harmonics, though, you barely touch the string at JUST THE RIGHT PLACE up the fingerboard, and both sides of the string on either side of your pinky vibrate, but at a higher pitch.  (The part I'm doing has me basically cutting the string two halves, which makes it vibrate a full octave higher.)  It's so so very cool.

Practice stuffs.  Two things.

The first is what's called "random practice." 

So, usually, you practice by taking your piece and working through the parts that are hard, and then you work through them again, and then again, and so on, and then maybe try the whole piece, or move on to another hard part.  The thing is, you work on a part again and again.  That's called "blocked practice."  It's how you learn stuff.

For random practice, you split out the parts you want to really learn (I've split my two less successful pieces into 8 parts that make sense musically as parts), and then you do something to randomize.  (I roll an 8-sided die, but you can also put numbers on pieces of paper, whatever.)

You roll the die (pick a paper), check the part (because I haven't memorized which is which number), and play it (by memory, in my case, since memorizing is hard right now for these, and a big part of the problem).  You play it ONCE.  And you make notes about where you mess up, or if you don't, whatever.  And then you move on to the next number.  It's sort of fun.  (If you don't need to memorize it, you could be looking at the music.)

What happens, is your brain says, not, "I'll do better next time" but "I have to get this because I don't get another chance."  So there's this pressure that's a bit more like performance.  And you're doing things not in an order, so you really have to know them.  But it takes a while for my brain to switch over.

After you've done this a bit (it doesn't take a long time for me to hit each of my 8 parts a few times), you look at your notes about your playing and find patterns.

Then you do block practice to work on the pattern of problems.  Except before you move on, you make sure you can play the part at least 5 times IN A ROW well.  (For me, "well" is different than it is for a more experienced student, of course.)  So, you play it once well, good.  Twice, good.  Three times, mess up, start over.

It's incredibly frustrating, and boy, by time #4, I'm getting really careful!  But it also works if you're ready for it.  (That is, if you can actually play the bit well enough once, so after you've done your learning blocked practice.)

I have my next lesson Thursday, and my plan for today is to play each of my 8 parts well 5 times, but in random order.

My teacher had taught me both of these strategies before, but I wasn't using them.  And I need to.  I think I wasn't using them because I hadn't really thought through the problems I was having well-enough to recognize them and use the strategies.  For most of the stuff I've learned, blocked practice has worked well enough.  But when I really have to learn it by memory for a "test," it's not enough for me.

It makes me think about the cognitive work we ask students to do in literature courses.  A lot of times, we read something, talk about it, introduce a concept, incorporate it, and move on.  But we don't do tons of repetition.  Of course, using a music model, students would be doing repetition through review and rereading the way I practice the violin, on my own, a little bit every single day.  But the reality is that students don't really do that repetition unless it's quite overtly assigned or there's a test coming up (which, frankly, is also inspiring my practice right now).

So, how do I get students to learn a concept or skill well enough to employ it independently when they read something else?  That's the real key, in a way, isn't it?  I mean, I want them to know the basic plot and stuff of As You Like It or something, but even more, I want them to know how to read verse well, to think about theatrical issues, social stuff, cultural stuff, textual stuff, so that when they read or see 1 Henry IV on their own, they get more out of it.


(edited to change the title, since I used that title more than once before.)


  1. "So, how do I get students to learn a concept or skill well enough to employ it independently when they read something else?"

    I don't have the best or only answer, but how I try to get my students to repeat discreet tasks, like using the concordance or doing close reading, is that I make them practice it in in-class writing assignments. For instance, I'll give them a prompt like this:

    "In act 2 of Henry V, two of King Henry's friends will die -- his former friend, Falstaff, and his 'new' friend, Lord Scrope, who is arrested for treason and will be executed. Remembering Falstaff's declaration in 1 Henry IV, "Never call a true piece of gold a counterfeit," write about the king (Henry V) and friendship. Use the text (quotes) to illustrate your points."

    The students have 30 minutes to write, and they can use two things: their book and the concordance. They have to use quotes in their writing, and they have to be able to be able to think about the Renaissance concept of male friendship, which we've discussed in class. Then, what I'm also looking for when I read their responses is whether or not they are able to talk about (1) friendship - which we've already covered, (2) the two deaths mentioned in the prompt, (3) the implications for Henry V as he moves on from these losses (one of which he probably doesn't even know about, even though it seems like Fluellen does, potentially). Implied in the question is whether or not kings can have real friends. Richard II and Edward II suggest no. (Of course, they don't know that, since we don't have time to read those plays, but within the context of Henry V, it's pretty clear that the court and the band of brothers are "peers" only in terms of followers, not equals or "friends.")

    Then, after the in-class writing, we talk about what they have written. Usually, there's some disagreement or at least differing opinions, and we have a fruitful discussion in which we emphasize using the text (if they haven't already), or tracing specific word choices, etc. (By the way, "counterfeit" is the greatest word trace in 1H4, in my opinion. Wow. So powerful.)

    We do these in-class writings five times over the course of the semester, and they get pretty good at it. They regularly tell me that no other professor has them focus on one word so much. (I have them write an essay on one word in a Shakespeare play -- like counterfeit.) They take it to heart, and since we're a small school I always have repeat students. People who have had Shakespeare with me tend to focus a LOT on word choice, and it almost always impacts their writing, too.

    Again - I don't have all the answers, but this is one way I try to get students to do both close reading and contextualization in a more self-aware way. It usually pays off.

  2. What a great assignment! Would you be kind enough to email me some of the words you give them as options for Shakespeare, please?

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Just emailed you! I'm interested to see what you come up with!

      (sorry - I was writing on my phone in the previous comment, and it went all stupid on me.)

    3. Thank you! Got it!