Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Magic Pebbles

I was reading the other day about my favourite guitar composer, the Paraguayan Agustin Barrios. It is said that he practised with a bag and upto 50 pebbles. He'd play a short, difficult passage. If he got it right, he put a pebble in the bag. If he got it wrong, he emptied the bag. He carried on like this until the bag was full. The method really works, although I quickly decided that five pebbles are probably enough for ordinary mortals to use in their day to day practise to start with. I've started using the technique when teaching. Small children, it seems, are enthralled with the idea of putting "magic pebbles" in a bag, and before they know it, they can play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

In addition to being an important composer, Barrios was also a great performer and an interesting character. At one point he started calling himself Agustin Barrios Mangore (Mangore being the name of a legendary Guarani chief) and sometimes performed in full Indian costume. For the last five years of his life he was Professor of the Guitar at the National Conservatoire in San Salvador and he was so well-known that when he died in 1944, people left their market stalls to join the procession behind his cortege.

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The Weaver of Grass said...

I love the thought of people leaving their market stalls to follow his cortege - that is real fame.
We enjoyed our music-making last evening - isn't it great to make "live" music together.

BarbaraS said...

That's a great incentive scheme, I must try that on my kids!

Rachel Fox said...

Great post all round. I think you should post some more of your own playing now. Please.

Susan at Stony River said...

What a fascinating man, both in art and personality. Definitely will try the pebble idea with my kids too!

Niamh B said...

I'm going to try out the pebble idea on myself, Thanks!

Now I just need to find suitably magical pebbles...

John Hayes said...

Fantastic music & intriguing idea about the pebbles. Thanks!

Get Off My Lawn! said...

I'm stealing the pebble idea for teaching. It could work for math.

Dominic Rivron said...

Thanks for these comments everyone. If you go on to try using pebbles for anything, it would be great to hear how you get on!

WG: Quite right. One doesn't leave a market stall lightly and you can't beat live music.

BarbaraS: It hardly ever fails to make them really work hard if my experience of using them so far is anything to go by. Like all such strategies, the novelty will wear off - although, even when it does, the pebble-user should realise they've learnt an important approach to practising which will hopefully have become second nature.

RF: Thank you for the request! I quite like the idea but I'm weighed down with school report writing at the moment and recording takes time! (That's why I've not been blogging more recently).

Susan: He certainly was a fascinating man - worth googling.

Niamh: I can obtain special magic pebbles imported from South America. They cost £50 a bag... (OK, so they all come from our gravel drive. I'm a bad liar).

JH: It is a good technique for practising. It sounds obvious - but what is particularly good is the rise in pressure on you as you fill the bag and, obviously, one needs to learn to perform under pressure. And it forces you to pay attention to detail.

GOML: I'm sure it would work - certainly on younger children. Possibly good for foreign language vocab learning as well, not to mention school recorder-groups (or are they just a UK phenomenon?). Older children are quite amused too, especially if you introduce the idea of "magic pebbles" with a touch of irony!

Niamh B said...

Since you ask, I tried it last night to memorise a poem, using coins instead of pebbles, and went with the 5.
It was infuriating, but fun. Think it takes a certain personality to enjoy it. Possibly the same kind of personality that makes boring tasks bearable by saying, I'll see how many I can do in an hour and then try and beat my score.
I'll take half a bag, can't afford a full one, don't mind where they're from - long as they are in fact certified magic. Thanks

Anonymous said...

A great tale. Not a name known to me and now I must find out more. I love the pebble discipline.

Dominic Rivron said...

Niamh: Never though of using it for memorisation!

patteran: There's quite a lot about him on the internet. The pebbles are a good discipline - I hear children getting better in minutes using it. No doubt the novelty will wear off. These things usually have a shelf life of about 2 weeks - but I hope the approach to practise it fosters will stick. It's not just about repetition: the more pebbles you get in the bag (or from one end of your music stand or whatever to the other) the more carefully you play.

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

Dominic,this is very interesting. Even though I lived in Paraguay for years and have quite a few records of Paraguayan music, strangely enough I never heard of him. Thanks for this.
I wonder if the pebble system would work for overcoming procrastination about various to-do things?

Jessica Maybury said...

this *is* really cool! Definitely something to think about :) My piano teacher made me put a mirror on the wall so that I could always see someone in my peripheral vision, and not be afraid to play for people. And also fix my posture.

post some videos of you playing!