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Learning a New Fingering

I love the beginning of a new teaching season.  New students, new energy. I'm feeling great about my teaching and in the mood to share some of my techniques.  Feel free to chime in with your own!

My new student didn't know the fingering for high C#.  We were still on a getting-to-know-you page in the book - something I chose to be intentionally too easy so we could talk about breathing and support and articulation in a non-panicky way, and at the bottom of the page it asked for a D Harmonic Minor scale and we got hung up right there.  This particular fingering isn't hard, but it is totally non-intuitive, and unlike any other finger pattern he'd learned up to that point.

So we started by just using brain power.  I spelled it out for him - 2, 3, 1, C.  His fingers found their way to where they belonged.  Then he tried putting it into the scale and it flopped- he got as far as the Bb before it, and then had to stop and mentally put 231C together again before he could produce the note.

Just telling him the fingering was not enough.  

So we went another way, and focussed on the feeling rather than the spelling.  Play that C#.  Hold it.  Enjoy it.  Now, play a B - a super easy note - and come directly back to this C#, using muscle memory instead of brains.  Let's try using a Bb there instead.  Hold the C# until it feels effortless, go away from it, and come straight back without thinking.  We worked that for a while, using a variety of alternate notes.

Each time, my goal was to get him back on the C# fingering without having to THINK about the C# fingering.  He had just been there, and only needed to return.  Mostly I wanted him to have the feeling of getting effortlessly to this note that had been so unfamiliar.

Next, we thought about the exact interval in question, from the Bb to the C#.  Hold the Bb, sit there on it, and think, think, think about what you are going to do next.  Then when you are ready, go to the C#.  Good. Try it again, this time with a metronome.  Think think think as long as you need, but arrive on the C# on a click.  Good.  Now, can you make the Bb exactly a half note and still get to the C#?  Exactly a quarter note?  An 8th?

No matter how long he holds the Bb, the interval between the Bb and the C# happens immediately.  Here I was aiming to ease him away from thinking and towards doing.

What happens if we try to add the top D AFTER the C#?  Let's hold the C#, and think think think our way to that transition.  Now let's play a slow Bb, C#, D - as slowly as necessary to be perfect.  No rhythm, no obligation but correctness.  Add the A to those three notes, so you've really got the last four notes of the scale going.  Let's just play those over and over, as slowly as necessary, until they feel effortless.  Are they there?  Do it again.  Is it effortless?  Great.

I use EFFORTLESSNESS as the goal all the time.  It's easy for both me and my student to get bored with a given exercise, and call it good enough and move on, but when the stated goal is effortlessness it's very clear when we get there.  It also enables them to move past the feeling of having fought their way to ONE CORRECT ATTEMPT and to take the fight and the angst back out of their fingers.  It doesn't take long to get there once I ask for it.  

Finally, let's play the scale.  Can we just rip through it?  No.  Let's play it at tempo and freeze on the Bb.  While you are there, think think think your way to the C#.   Now, let's see if we can run the scale at tempo all the way to the C# and freeze there instead.  Thanks for freezing - is that the fingering you want?  What did you hit that was wrong?  Can we try again, and run to the C# and freeze.  Great!  Do it again.  This next time, after you freeze on the C# and confirm its rightness, go ahead and roll on through to the D.  Great.  Can you run all the way to the D this time?

When we add real tempo back in, things fall apart again, but freezing on the note enables him to see exactly HOW he missed the fingering. It slows that interval down in his head so there's time to get there.  It feels less intimidating than trying to dash through the entire scale at once, AND it gets us to the goal faster than a long slow metronome game of gradually increasing tempo would.  

In this way - with a combination of repetition and drills and brain power and muscle memory and an ever changing set of challenges - we learned that note.  We learned that scale.  Hopefully he learned a little about how to approach future fingerings, or difficult passages, or just about ANYTHING - the art of practicing is really what I try to teach during oboe lessons.

I love my job.

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