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Laurie's Violin School: How to Have an Amazing Breakthrough

Laurie Niles

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Published: December 29, 2014 at 8:42 PM [UTC]


A few months ago, a parody article hit the Internet rounds: Student Has Amazing Breakthrough by Doing What Teacher Says.

It made me laugh, both from the perspective of a teacher and from the perspective of being a one-time (and ever-more) student. The article describes how the violin student "John Man" has been struggling for years to overcome his limitations as a musician. He kept playing the way he wanted, over and over again, but he never seemed to make any progress.

"Finally, out of sheer desperation, Man started doing what his teacher had been telling him to do in every lesson for the past five years. 'The results have been incredible!'"

Well, Duh!

But why does this article strike our funny bone? It seems to tap into a fairly universal truth: We like what feels comfortable, and we resist good advice that makes us change our habits.

Today I was encouraging a student to play nearer the frog, more often. She explained to me why she tends not to do so: "My arm just seems to go to this place that's in the middle of the bow."

"That's because that's the comfy part of the bow," I said. "You need to visit the un-comfy part of the bow. If you keep visiting the uncomfy part of the bow, every day always, then it will also become comfy. You have to make the uncomfy place comfy by going there a LOT and getting used to it."

But who really enjoys getting out of his or her comfort zone, acknowledging weakness and putting effort into the things he or she doesn't yet do well? It's likely that the advice your teacher gives you is exactly the advice that is the most difficult to take. It is often prescriptive, or corrective. It doesn't fit into an easy groove.

Incorporating your teacher's advice isn't about just traveling down the familiar path again and again. It's about zeroing in on the most challenging aspects of your technique, making a change, and making it part of you. It's about going widening your comfort zone. It's work! But if you do that work, you may just have an "Amazing Breakthrough"!

From Paul Deck
Posted on December 30, 2014 at 12:45 AM
Laurie, in your experience both as someone with complete training as a violinist, and as a violin teacher, how much do you think students gain, percentage-wise, from breakthroughs, and how much from gradual, incremental improvement? I always cherish the lessons I had where there is an amazing moment of clarity, but the at-home follow-up often takes a lot of concentrated effort.
From Laurie Niles
Posted on December 30, 2014 at 1:16 AM
Well, "amazing breakthroughs" don't really happen overnight, or even in one moment of clarity. You may have that moment of clarity, during which you suddenly understand something you can change or do better. But you haven't really "broken through" until you've taken that idea and made it manifest, first with very careful and incremental action, then with repetition of the correct action (hundreds of reps), then habituating it into your regular playing and then one day, "Wow I'm doing spiccato (or this passage, or a scale, or a double-stop exercise...) 'effortlessly'! "

But I would say that all the steps are interrelated.

Posted on December 30, 2014 at 1:34 AM
Funny, when I was in school (many, many years ago) my violin teacher always made us start at the frog if possible. The teacher I have now seems to want to keep me where it is more comfortable and advises me not to go close to the frog. She seldom can tell me where I have gone wrong or how to make my playing better. I think sometimes it isn't the student but that some teachers, even though they can play well, don't know how to teach.
From Laurie Niles
Posted on December 30, 2014 at 3:51 AM
Another point: the "most challenging aspects of your technique" are often not things like 10ths or fingered octaves or breakneck runs. They are often simple things, right at the core of your playing: drawing a straight bow, or playing closer to the bridge, or holding your left hand in a certain way. It can feel like you aren't making progress when you practice these things, but you really are. Having a good, functional set-up allows you to build.
From Mathew Schneider
Posted on December 31, 2014 at 7:30 PM
I've seen this quote about "The Job" on the door of an office near my teacher's. It's somewhat infuriating to me.

It's akin to saying that in order to give a compelling theater performance, you should mind things like punctuation, words, and capitalization in the script.

And they go on to say that saying this is what they're paid to do?

This person has some more compelling things to say about it, starting at ~1:15:

From Laurie Niles
Posted on January 3, 2015 at 3:58 AM
Which quote is that, Mathew?

I think in that TED talk, she is a musician who is rather beyond needing a teacher; she's someone who can control her technique.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on January 3, 2015 at 3:04 PM
LOL! I was getting together my thoughts for a blog that I'm preparing to write, and had decided that a theme of this blog was going to be, "listen to your teacher and do what s/he suggests."
From Peter Charles
Posted on January 3, 2015 at 3:40 PM
She is a thinking musician who can also think laterally. We need more like her.

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