Are We Teaching?

August 25, 2017, 10:13 AM · Many years back, through exchanges that I don't recall, I gave a “once-only” violin “lesson” to the singer/actress Millicent Martin. I knew her name but wasn't really aware of how prominent she was. In any event, she was doing a play, if memory serves, on Broadway. A scene required her to “play the violin” on stage. Of course, the actual music would come from the concertmaster in the pit, but she wanted to look convincing on stage. I thought, if only Basil Rathbone had possessed your work ethic in the old Sherlock Holmes movies!

We met at the Danbury Music Centre where I was conducting their Community Orchestra, directing their Summer String program, and giving private lessons. I approached this with a degree of trepidation; I needed to make her “look” the part, not musically perform the part. She was delightful, humble, and eager to learn.

My best memory is that, upon my request, she had brought the sheet music. We worked together for close to 2 hours, and, given her keen, perceptive actor-eye, by the end she had great hand positions, a solid bow grip and looked like she was playing! The sound was another thing, but not the concern.

I never heard anything of her play or reviews after that, but I hoped she pulled it off after my efforts.

While this makes for a nice little “brush with greatness” story, it also depicts a sad trend in private music teaching. How many of us find ourselves having to “tutor” students to keep up with their school music program while not having the time to address their fundamental technical needs? Instead of straightening out the problem, we do a quick-fix. We write in fingerings. We pencil in arrows to aim up or down on accidentals. We emphasize bowings. And we ultimately realize it's just like Millicent Martin's stage illusion. The student has not really advanced, they've learned a piece by hook or by crook! They'll be okay in the school concert, Mom and Dad will be proud, and the student will feel a sense of pride for having participated in a concert.

As a violin teacher, I find this very troubling. I want to develop the ear, the technical skill, the music reading ability. I want to talk about tension and release, about expression, about interpretation. But too often I'm just back coaching Ms. Martin...getting ready for an audition or a concert and not building a solid foundation.

Most of my students now have had previous instruction and I find myself attempting to do damage repair. I find so many “one finger players!” My teacher always taught me that 4th finger means 1-2-3-4th finger! I see students just reaching arbitrarily for their their 4th finger! And inevitably it is out of tune.

I must admit, that many of my views of teaching have been influenced by doing it. I was gifted, in that many concepts my teacher presented to me I took to quickly. I remember that I practiced at home with vibrato, imitating my teacher, but never daring to do it in front of him. One day, he said in a lesson, “today we'll do vibrato.” I started doing what I'd already learned from him, and he just shrugged and said, “Ok...you've got it.” To this day, I have problems teaching vibrato, because I was never taught it! I just learned by imitation.

So I guess the whole point here is this. There is a struggle going on out there. I understand them both, having participated in both. The public school teacher needs to present a concert that displays that the students have practiced on the taxpayers dollar and can present a cohesive performance. But the private instructor is looking to build an artist. Maybe not a great artist, but one who is instilled with the fundamental skills to play their instrument with competence, who understands music to even a basic degree, who can play in tune, who understands how to practice, and can ultimately achieve satisfaction in their playing on whatever platform they choose.

I wish I had an answer to this conundrum. But I don't. I struggle with it every day I teach. I just wonder if there might be a better way. How can we present music to the populace as an athletic sport? That's what it is! An old saying is that music is the development of “the little muscles.” But it's so much more! Playing in a Mahler Symphony and being moved to tears by the emotion of the moment is not the same as winning the 100 yd. dash at an athletic event and crying for your success! Music combines physical, mental, and emotional components like nothing else!

So I fear I ramble. I dislike preparing students for music beyond them. I like developing students to appreciate their world through music. And I love nothing more than a student who is properly prepared to perform a piece of music, in any context, to their enjoyment and the enjoyment of the listening audience. That is what it's all about! Let's not lose sight!

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