Learning Technique for Repertoire

May 1, 2017, 11:05 AM · I've recently become increasingly aware of a problem in teaching violin which seems more and more pervasive. I've heard both students and parents complain about working on a single piece for a very long time. Most often, I find the culprit of this frustrating course of study is the questionable method of teaching technique through compositions.

My first and most influential teacher was schooled at the Belgian Conservatory by Ovide Musin, and I maintain the method I studied and learned from him; a daily regimen of scales, etudes, and repertoire. I've added improvisation to that equation, but strongly believe in this tried-and-true method of developing musicians.


A colleague of mine once performed for a group of my students at a summer camp I was involved with. He played a virtuosic Paganini piece which impressed the young players in attendance. One student asked during the Q & A, "How long did it take you to learn that piece?" The reply was perfect: "It didn't take me long to learn that piece, but it took me many years of study to acquire the technique to be able to play it." That, to me, is the foundation of effective study. We teach technique through etudes which address specific aspects, and then present appropriate repertoire that incorporates those newly learned skills.

Too often I see students having to learn a new skill to play a passage in a piece they've been assigned. The result is they get bogged down and bored with the piece before they have even mastered the technical challenges of it.

For example, one of the earliest pieces I present is the inevitable Vivaldi Concerto in A minor. However, I won't present this famous standard to a student until they have studied third position in exercises and etudes. When they reach third position sections in the Vivaldi, it isn't a new concept, but a musical application of a skill they have already acquired. Likewise with other upper positions, double-stops, spiccato bowing, etc. The repertoire should only incorporate those skills the student has studied and not force them to confront something new and unfamiliar.

I'm always amazed at students who tell me their previous teacher didn't use a technique book, but that they had been working on this concerto or that sonata for the last 6 months!

Another consideration is the type of ensemble a student plays in, whether it's a local youth orchestra, school orchestra, or community orchestra. If the repertoire they're learning requires technical skills which exceed their present level of development, it will inevitably be a negative, discouraging and frustrating experience for the student. Placement auditions should minimize this possibility, but I still see it occur all too often. Nobody benefits when a student has to "fake it" and not contribute in a meaningful way to an ensemble.

So I would encourage both my teaching colleagues and students to be mindful of this basic principal, perhaps expressed simply and eloquently by jazz great John Coltrane: "Practice, practice, practice. Then forget it all and just play." I'd respectfully paraphrase that as "Study, study, study, then enjoy incorporating those skills you've learned by playing music where you aren't preoccupied solely by the technical demands." Happy music-making to all!


May 2, 2017 at 11:28 PM · Richard I agree with you 100%. But just because one is given studies to work on, and scales, doesn't mean that one's teacher will be any less reckless when assigning repertoire. I had no end of study books, but my childhood teacher still assigned me stuff I was not ready for. Partly I think students and parents are reluctant to speak up when the learning curve is too steep. And I think sometimes there are parents who approach their child's teacher with, "Shouldn't my child be working on Bruch by now?" And I hate to say it but I think some teachers might enjoy the "bragging rights" that come with having a 7-year-old who's "doing Book 6" or a teenager "doing" a very advanced concerto. And for that matter, if a student can be hot-housed in repertoire, skipping Bach to do Mozart, (s)he can just as easily (if not more easily) be hot-housed in study books, skipping Mazas to do Kreutzer. My own perception is that people's expectations of progress, on average, are way too high. Everyone thinks their child should be at the very high end of a very wide distribution.

May 2, 2017 at 11:42 PM · I'm with you, Paul. The point is that the repertoire should be incremental to the technical development. I believe Galamian and DeLay had a progression of concerti, which gradually developed from Baroque, through Classical and into the more demanding Romantic and 20th century repertoire. But you are right about people shooting for "bragging rights" and so on. If the student's individual growth isn't the priority, there's a problem! Thanks for your comment!

May 3, 2017 at 12:53 AM · I agree with this view. Many years ago when I first started learning I had a teacher who would do the scales/technique studies/pieces - 3 segments to a lesson. At the moment I am doing scales and then more pieces but I struggle with the pieces and I do get bored with them after a 2 or more weeks. So you are correct, if you don't do the studies and master a particular technique then you will not reach a proper standard on the pieces.

May 3, 2017 at 11:48 AM · Richards,

What you said is very interesting. I'm learning on my own, through an online service given that I don't have a teacher where I live. And at times I get frustrated learning a particular piece and find that it's my lack of etudes is my handicap.

Can you suggest a good technique book that I can use. I'm now in Suzuki Book 3 level

May 3, 2017 at 03:32 PM · Mr. Hajjar

I'd recommend "Wohlfahrt Foundation Studies, Book 1" for various bowing and fingering exercises in first position. There's a new edition out that includes a CD of Rachel Barton Pine performing the etudes so you can hear them. For position work, both Applebaum and Whistler are pretty comprehensive, with Whistler probably a better choice for an adult student. Good luck!

May 4, 2017 at 04:37 AM · I absolutely agree with technical progressive studies and the 'end all', Scale Cycles. The Bernard Tours book (though now out of print, but still available on line) has some great technical work in it. It is also very progressive...and the position studies are a 'must' for reading and concerto work. No one should just be learning repertoire, without this background.

Mary Clarke Victoria B.C. Canada.

May 4, 2017 at 01:00 PM · I am an adult learner (59) and was dutifully plowing through the Suzuki books but felt that something was missing. It took me some time to figure out that what i needed was to focus (really drill) on the basic techniques. At the suggestion of George Wells, a contributor to this site, I purchased the Doflein method books I to IV. Although I thought that book one was going to be too easy for me I was completely wrong. It establishes the basics for the rest of the book and best of all has MANY beautiful pieces of music to practice on. You will not get bored by having to play the same piece over and over again just to practice one technique.

Mohammed I would suggest looking into the Doflein series, especially since our stories and our needs are similar. The Doflein method was written back in the 1930's, maybe earlier, and is geared towards adults. I highly recommend it.

May 8, 2017 at 03:34 PM · Some teachers also require a very high level of polish before they move a student onwards. I had teachers as a child who continued to have me work on a piece long after it had ceased to improve, and as a result, I simply stopped really bothering to practice it. (We are not talking about sloppiness here, merely the tiny difference in polish between, say, winning 1st place in a competition and winning 2nd place.) Frustrating as heck for students who don't have perfection-minded attitudes.

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