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Laurie Niles

November 15, 2004 at 6:01 AM

One of my students is kind of a squirrelly girl these days, and I've been at a loss over how to get anything across to her.

She is a five-year-old beginner, and she learns new pieces at the speed of lightning. Unfortunately this comes at the expense of playing things in tune and attending to the details that allow for technique to advance. She seems to listen to herself play long enough to figure out by ear what the right fingers are, then she saws through pieces, looking at the ceiling and giggling at her mother.

How to get through to this little gal?

The other day, I found myself reciting a long list of things that fell on deaf ears...

“Okay, let's stand up. Watch your fingers. Listen, it's out of tune. Wait, wait, slow down. No, no, do that again. Wait!”

She giggled.

“Can you hear that you are playing out of tune?” I asked her. How crazy, that someone who can learn so much by ear would then play it all out of tune. Obviously, she is an auditory learner.

“Can you hear that you are playing out of tune?” I asked again.

She stood there and smiled, swaying around, always in motion.

“Do you talk?” I asked politely, but with some frustration.

She looked at her mom and giggled.

Fine, then, I thought, getting an idea. I won't talk to you either, not for the rest of the lesson!

I played the beginning of Perpetual Motion completely out of tune, accompanied with rolling eyes and other pained facial expressions. She seemed interested. So I played the same thing perfectly in tune, smiled big, and nodded my head. Then I pointed to her.

She understood. She played the beginning of Perpetual Motion, but inevitably came to an out-of-tune note. I pounced. I played the note she was playing, flat as it was, made a horrible face, then dramatically slid up the fingerboard to the proper place and smiled with satisfaction. Then I pointed to her.

She corrected her note.

We went on like this, correcting many out-of-tune notes. If she did something I didn't like, I simply mimicked it on my violin, with some exaggeration and a bitter face, then played it right and smiled.

When her bow went skittering over the bridge, I pointed to it and shook my head with disapproval. Then I played on my own violin, skittering across the bridge and shook my head. Then I dramatically placed the bow in the right place for me, then for her.

I actually enjoyed the challenge of communicating with her with the violin only, using no words at all. I'm not sure if this will work every single week, but it certainly was a fun experiment. Now I can add, “Charlie Chaplin teaching” to the repertoire!

From Jenni Thompson
Posted on November 15, 2004 at 6:26 AM
What wonderful inspiration you got there! I wish that I had more bright ideas like that when I'm teaching. It comes, I guess :) with proper training and experience. I commend you Laurie (perhaps we have met before? we both live in Pasadena... do you also know Julie Bamberger?)
From Tom Holzman
Posted on November 15, 2004 at 2:13 PM
Being able to mimic what a student is doing is one of the crucial skills for a teacher. The best year I ever had as a student was with a fantastic teacher in Paris named Rene Benedetti who had the gift of being able to mimic everything I did incorrectly and then show me how to do it correctly. I progressed much more quickly and my old teacher was amazed at my progress when I returned from Paris.
From Keri Ottoson
Posted on November 15, 2004 at 11:18 PM
with children that young, stick to one objective per lesson (or 2, max.) You say you gave her a long list of directives that fell on deaf ears. Maybe you were giving too much information at once. Kids like to play through pieces without stopping and fixing. I would isolate the problems, like intonation and tone, and think of exercizes that are related to the piece but not in the piece. This will allow the girl to correct the problem and then apply it to the piece.

Another suggestion: play along with her. Kids often don't know what a violin sounds like when played properly. She is an auditory learner and will hear the dissonance when she plays out-of-tune.

You may also want to consider a grading systme for posture, tone, intonation, etc. Have her achieve a passing grade on all of these aspects before moving on to the next piece.

From Peter Lynch
Posted on November 16, 2004 at 12:56 AM
I may be talking out of turn here since I am not a teacher and am a beginner, but I am a psychologist and work with children. A thought that came to my mind as I was reading your wonderful description, is to have you play an entire peice out of tune and have the child teach you. It may be alittle over her head, it's hard to tell from your post how "old" a 5 year old she is, but I love doing things like that in working with children. A playful mind is a terrible thing to waste.

Peter Lynch

From Inge S
Posted on November 21, 2004 at 6:45 PM
I love your quick and flexible mind, Laurie. You've already inspired me to strange uses for beanbag teddy bears and a stuffed Easter rabbit who hopped by one day and said he had a role to play in practising as well. I'm a squirrely adult, and have had the thought that words often get in the way, and the same concept taught over and over again int he same way is useless. Children are physical beings, and you tapped into that wonderfully. I have a feeling that this child is too quick to wait for a chain of words. I love this episode and grin happily from ear to ear whenever I read it. She sounds absolutely delightful. Isn't playfulness the best way to learn to play, rather than our adult grim determination?
From Laurie Niles
Posted on December 9, 2004 at 6:34 AM
I didn't realize anyone had commented! Yes, I do have fun with this student, she is extremely quick to learn the notes. It's quite amazing. It's just up to me to fill in a few details so we don't get started on bad habits..

Jenni, yes of course I know Julie Bamberger! She is an excellent teacher and friend. Is she your teacher, or is someone else?

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