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Improve a fool with a tool.

September 19, 2009 at 11:41 AM


weird kind of day.  Leave the house at six to race to first school sports day.  Put up marquees,  do warm up stretching in front of 1000 kids in opening ceremony,  pretend to look busy and then cheer kids for two hours. Get on bike and repeat procedure at next school minus the ceremony.  Get on bike and race to third school. Repeat procedure.  As I watched one forty meter dash of four seven year olds I suddenly realized I was watching a very important lesson unfolding before my eyes.  The fastest,  strongest runner of the group was out in front by a meter or so and for the duration he kept twisting his head from side to side to check if anyone was catching him.   He won by about ten cms.  I knew he could have run much faster but he didn`t.     Keep turning your head from side to side to see how you compare with everyone else and only a small fraction of your potential will ever be realized.

Now how about this for a tool:

`...a pocket knife that had a blade to take care of nearly all physical situations in the world,  and some spiritual ones.  It was equipped with blades that were scissors,  with blades that were files,  awls,  saws,  can-openers,  beer openers,  corkscrews,  tools for removing stones from a horses foot,  a blade for eating and a blade for murder,  a screwdriver and a chisel.  You could mend a watch with it or repair the Panama canal.  It was the most wonderful pocketknife anyone has ever seen,  and we had it nearly two months ,  and the only thing we ever did with it was to cut sausage.   BUt it must be admitted that the knife cut sausages very well.`

That of course comes from Steinbeck`s `A Russian Journal.`   I was mentally comparing that tool with one being advertized on a twenty meter neon billboard outside my local station.  Today`s billboards are not static of course.The image changes and there is sound IE even if you don`t have a TV you can no longer avoid seeing the same TV commercial everyday.  The tool in question was a combination cellular phone and hair styler/curler or whatever women call those things. You`ve guessed it-  one end was a phone and the other the two heated prongs that open and close to leave Japanese women`s hair exactly as straight as it was before it was curled.  Aside form being profoundly inelegant at double the length of a regular phone and also a lurid pink it seemed to me to be egregiously dangerous.  What happens when you answer the phone and put the wrong end round your ear?

There are good tools and better ones.  I is up to the violin teacher to have a whole chest of them to apply to any given situation.  This is not to deny information to students if you consider the point that the student is also the teacher with responsibility for changing and developing themselves.

I was idly speculating on what kind of programs and demands I would create if I had a free rein to shape a music institute.   One rule i think I would introduce is to upgrade the usual rather farcical teaching diplomas handed out.  In order to graduate the student would have a written exam posing a rather simple question that correlates with any section of Basics.  Something like `A student needs to improve their independence of left and right hand.  Describe an exercise and give a variation on it.`  or `A student changes string with very abrupt and violent bow movements?`  Say how you would explain the problem to a student and then what exercises you would prescribe.`   In order to pass this exam one would be required at the end of four years to have read and reread Basics and experimented with the content.   It wouldn`t automatically create a great teacher but it would mean that people had an adequate supply of tools to begin the job.



From Royce Faina
Posted on September 20, 2009 at 8:32 PM

I was just thinking about Luis Claudio Manfio's Blog about carving the neck of a violin and about his tools.  To do good work, have good tools!

From Philanthi Koslowski
Posted on September 20, 2009 at 8:43 PM

I copied and pasted the first portion of your post about comparing oneself to others. I have a VERY bad habit of doing this to the extent that I stress myself unbelievably. However, w/the violin, I am determined NOT to let this happen and have vowed to take everything in stride.

Thank you for sharing your "weird day" :-)


From Rosalind Porter
Posted on September 20, 2009 at 11:49 PM

Ahhh, but the way I would regard the kid in the race is completely different...  I'd say that he was being extremely intelligent by not expending any more energy than he absolutely needed to in order to win the race.  After all, you can win by 10cm or 10m but you still win...  so why wear yourself out more than you have to! 

From Philanthi Koslowski
Posted on September 21, 2009 at 1:41 AM

Guess it really depends on each individual's understanding of themselves and their personal definition of winning. Neither is right or wrong--just different.

From Emily Grossman
Posted on September 21, 2009 at 7:52 AM

I just read that Steinbeck quote to George--love it!

Your hypothetical exam reminds me of my bag of tricks.  Over the years, the bag's gotten bulgy with ideas gleaned from all over the place, and I smirk confidently each time I reach into it to solve a student's present problem.  It almost qualifies me for some kind of superhero status, I think.

The problem with tools, though, is that you can't just hand them to the student and step away.  I'm a firm believer of practicing what you preach, and this past week's practice sessions have consisted mostly of me trying out my own advice, in order to avoid the scrutiny of observant pupils who enjoy throwing my lesson back at me.  I actually practice their lessons.  I think it's a good, humbling experience for any teacher.

From Laura Dalbey
Posted on September 21, 2009 at 2:05 PM

If you ever decide to write that test, I'd sure like a copy! It would be a very good tool for self-improvement!

From Tess Z
Posted on September 22, 2009 at 1:19 PM

I agree that music students should not just be taught how to play well and win competitions...but why specific exercises improve their playing.

Not all teachers are created equal.  Some are good problem solvers and others tell the student to practice more if they want to play better.   One teaches good technique while the other encourages mediocrity. 

Perhaps Basics and Practice need to be part of the college curriculum.  Imagine how much better we would all play if we took the time to work through the exercises in those texts with a competent teacher.  Why not?

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