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Pauline Lerner

Adult Beginners and Pandora's Box

April 22, 2009 at 5:37 PM

I was having a bad hair day. First, I studied the printed and online information from my new health insurance company to see whether they would adequately fund some of the treatments I need. They would not.

Next I did battle with my computer. It has been behaving very, very badly. I feared that I would have to have it nuked and rebuilt it, as I did once before. I sent a desperate email to a friend who is a top notch trouble shooter of computers and asked him to help.

After that, I tried to clean up the mess I got when I downloaded Henryk Szeryng's Bach S&P recordings from amazon.com. Somehow, not deliberately, I downloaded six copies. Fortunately, amazon.com only charged me for one copy. The tracks were thoroughly randomized, and I tried to put them in order, hoping that I could outwit Microsoft. I couldn't.

By this time, I felt like doing some heavy exercise or punching someone out. Suddenly someone knocked on my door. I looked at my watch and realized that one of my adult beginner students had just arrived for his lesson.

That student was like the hope in Pandora's box. He was an adult male, and this was his second lesson. In the first lesson, I taught him how to hold the violin and bow and how to play the open strings with long, smooth bow strokes, making a pretty sound. He caught on unusually quickly. During the following week, he got bored playing open strings and tried to play some songs, but he didn't know where to place his fingers. He came to his second lesson with energy, excitement, and a sense of purpose.

Like most of my beginners, he experienced tension in his left shoulder after playing for a short time. Adult males have the most trouble with this because they have the biggest muscles. In his first lesson, I had showed him several exercises which would stretch his shoulder muscles and relieve the cramps and discomfort there. The strongest of these stretching exercises is the deltoid stretch. At his second lesson, he was still getting shoulder cramps frequently, sometimes after playing just a few notes. He didn't let it bother him, though. He would just put down his violin, laugh, shake his head, stretch, and resume playing. I admired him for his ability to laugh at himself and for his dedication to doing things correctly. I decided that he needed more help with relieving, or better still, preventing the cramps. I stood up and walked around him, a full 180 degrees, watching his left hand all the time, knowing that a little excess tension in the hand can create cramps all the way up the arm to the shoulder. Playing under my srutiny didn't bother him. He played as long as he could, then put his violin down, laughed, and stretched. I thought that I would never be able to do what he did -- continue working while my teacher circled around me like a hawk looking for good places to attack. My investigation was fruitful. I found several places where he could adjust his left hand to ease the tension in his shoulder. One by one, I showed him his sources of stress and ways to relieve them. He was quite excited to learn, especially because the changes helped him so much. I watched him concentrate while he played, knowing that when a person concentrates intensely on one part of his body, he often gets tense in a different part of his body. This student clenched his jaw. While he played, I frequently told him to relax his jaw, and he always laughed when I caught him in the act. I knew that this guy really wanted to learn to play the violin and didn't let a myriad of mistakes dampen his enthusiasm.

All of this happened while he was playing open strings. When I asked him whether he would like to learn to play some notes, his answer was an enthusiastic "Yes." This fellow had a strong sense of adventure, and I admired him for it. I started by teaching him how to play short "scales" on each string (for example, A B C# D C# B A on the A string). I played with him and had him match my pitch. At first, his fingers groped for the right places, and I sometimes gave him a clue, either "higher" or "lower." He caught on fast and loved it. He kept saying, "Wow! This is so satisfying." By then, we had gone a few minutes beyond the scheduled lesson time of 45 minutes, but he and I were having so much fun that I didn't stop.

I went to my computer to print out a cheat sheet (fingering diagram) for him, and he kept playing scales by himself -- almost always perfectly in tune. I was impressed with him.

I handed him the cheat sheet and gave him a preview of his next lesson by playing Twinkle. He got really excited and wanted to try it, so I taught him the first two lines by ear. He loved it. "This is so satisfying," he told me. He also said that he was eager to play the whole tune for his three year old daughter.

I checked the time again and told him that we had gone 20 minutes beyond his lesson time and we had to stop. He thanked me, told me that he was eager to go home and practice, and left.

Teaching that lesson had turned my day around. It was so satisfying.

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