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general ideas for teaching

June 19, 2008 at 12:09 AM

A lot of newbie teachers are turning up here these days which has me wondering what kind of advice to give and why. I think they are pretty lucky to have this site actually. My first teaching was terrible and mirrored Emily’s experiences to an uncanny degree. IE I started with the Suzuki books because that s all anyone knows in Japan although I have no training in Suzuki. Unfortunately this doesn’t really work so well. Then I discovered Adventures in Violinland and that is extraordinarily helpful and paced which helped me get thing under control but I still don’t enjoy teaching complete beginners as children. (Adults I welcome with open arms). Everyone has their niche.
Over time I have concluded that there are a few universal rules for teaching which apply across the board to all students. These are somewhat outside the realm of specific points such as `let’s start vibrato this week.`
First and foremost is the question of goals. I don’t mean this in the usual sense of having a five year plan and so forth. Rather I refer to what the teacher sets the student to do each week. There must be time set aside at the end of every lesson in which the teacher and student sit down and come to a clear understanding of what the student is expected to achieve by the following week. Without this discussion the teacher has no right to feel aggrieved when a student forgets to or doesn’t bother to do a particular scale or technique which the teacher may have felt was the whole point of the lesson. It is also important that these instructions are much more precise than typically given. For example, there is often no value in saying ` learn this movement/piece in rough` since the student probably has n idea what in rough means. Unfortunately this is typical. The student needs to understand exactly what is required IE be able to play these lines at a slow tempo (mm40 or whatever) in tune. I strongly recommend teachers read the book `The Practice Revolution` and consult the related web site to see how this kind of work can be very clearly spelled out to the student so there is no confusion or frustration on either side. The task or goal for the week must be written down in a practice notebook. If this is not done then the work will never be done as intended and the teacher is as likely to make an unreasonable demand in the next lesson as the student is to try and avoid doing something by claiming it wasn’t mentioned;)
Second, never try and teach more than one point in a lesson. Or, don’t give too much information at one time. The simple act of referring to something obvious to the teacher concerning the left hand followed by a throw away comment about bowing may well cause complete collapse. It is really hard for anyone to focus on more than one aspect of playing at a time.
Third, I would recommend training students to learn how to analyze their own playing by using the system devised by Burton Kaplan in his book `Artistic Development.` this system can be adapted for younger kids, but it really does teach anyone to listen first in a slightly general to sense to identify the area of weakness and then more specifically where that manifestation of that particular weakness occurs.
Fourth, I recommend a whole slew of interesting games for variety, but a really useful one is improvisation and imitation. Have the students play simple melodies that you repeat back and vice versa in every lesson. The activity can be extended to dynamic patterns, rhythm patterns and combinations built up over time.

From Emily Grossman
Posted on June 19, 2008 at 6:48 AM
Hey, thanks for the encouragement! After reading your points, I would say my weakest area would be in the second point, teaching only on point at a time. Although, it's interesting how a concept will continually bring itself to the forefront of a lesson and become the theme for the day. Those things kind of happen by themselves, it seems.

Funny you mentioned that last point; it's something I stumbled upon during the past year or so. I began to use it when I sensed that a student was being distracted from listening to themselves and to me. We both turn away from the music and experiment with sounds for a while. This usually turns into call and response, usually beginning with simple phrases and slowly building onto a concept I'm trying to get across (spiccato, for instance, or major thirds). It's amazing how much better we can hear when we use this format.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on June 19, 2008 at 12:24 PM
>Or, don’t give too much information at one time. The simple act of referring to something obvious to the teacher concerning the left hand followed by a throw away comment about bowing may well cause complete collapse.

Ooh, yes. As an adult student I would second this to new teachers. Even now, after three years, I think sometimes my violin teacher doesn't realize how much is second nature to her that still sounds foreign to me and will make me lose my concentration while I'm playing. Even calling out certain notes or their intervals or any one of a dozen terms a music performance student has heard all their lives that has little meaning to a newbie.

From janet griffiths
Posted on June 19, 2008 at 12:42 PM
For me its really important that the student understands exactly what you want them to practice.If I hand out new material we always go through it in the lesson and they sight read the piece,study or excercise.Any problems can be solved then and there.If a student doesn't understand they simply wont practice,I mention this as I know many teachers who set new pracice material without going through it in the lesson first.
From Anne Horvath
Posted on June 19, 2008 at 12:56 PM
I like to set the practice goals for each piece/scale/etude at the end of that particular segment of the lesson. I tend to save the very end of the lesson for more general encouragements.

I also am a big fan of the post-it notes. Instead of writing everything down in notebooks that seem to be in the high risk group for general waywardness, I write down directions on a post-it note, and then place that directly on the music page. The note can be reused, or tossed. They also come in a choice of nifty colors.

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on June 20, 2008 at 7:30 AM
In another discussion on this topic, Laurie said that she and the student cooperate on writing goals and they make the goals very specific, i.e. "low 2." I think this is very good advice.

I also like your recommendation of using a notebook. I've been using separate pieces of paper for each lesson, and my students generally misplace them or mix them up.

Thanks, Buri, for your your suggestions. They are very good, and I'll try them.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on June 20, 2008 at 11:01 AM
I really like your points about being specific and clear about what and how the student should be practicing. Such an approach would have been so helpful to me when I was a student!

But what if your students say that the simple, well-defined exercise you've given them is boring and/or sounds bad in isolation, and they just don't want to do it for that reason? They'd rather hack through the whole piece instead, because they need to see/hear the whole, and playing dismembered, slowed-down parts makes them anxious. Arguments about how progress will be faster if they practice the "boring" exercise seem to fall on deaf ears.

From Helen Martin
Posted on June 21, 2008 at 12:53 AM
Is seems you are - bravely - willing to offer leadership, especially for new teachers. So, I do hope that you will review my approach and the sample accompanying materials.
The musical foundation of my materials is Edwin Gordon's Music Learning Sequences. A quick, but perhaps dangerous, introduction might be the JUMP RIGHT IN CD 2 - All Strings. ($10 from GIA) Echoing, orally, each item represents a snapshot of essential musicianship. Yes, I believe that the student’s oral response reveals the student's musical development. Technique then become less complex.
From Pauline Lerner
Posted on June 21, 2008 at 2:51 AM
Karen, what I do when a student doesn't want to practice something he considers boring is to have him practice only the first half (find a good stopping place) the first week. When he can play that reasonably well, I have him play the second half. So far this approach works on my students.

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