This week I`ve been looking at Chee-Yun masterclasses and performances. She is a terrific player with a gorgeous sound and tremendous musical sense. I watched three teenagers being taught by her and was very impressed by her ability as a teacher. However the masterclasses themselves probably didn't reveal as much as one could wish for since it seemed to me that she was in a slight dilemma: a masterclass is not a setting in which one begins tearing down an unknown student's technique and yet that clearly needed to be done with two out of three of these young players at the most basic level. As a result I think Chee-Yun found herself in the position of having to just briefly mention the most basic weaknesses (core of the sound, vibrato control etc.). Anything more than a simple suggestion was not really possible.
But the problems of the participants did, in my opinion, raise some very important points. Clearly those players not only had talent, but had worked hard on their major concertos. And it's pretty impressive to be getting through the Tchaikovsky and Bruch at pre-college level, I suppose. But what we saw was to my mind a classic demonstration of the failings of the teaching profession on all continents, which is letting down talented kids like these, through no fault of their own.
I believe this is linked to the following issue. Traditionally violin study has revolved around scales, etudes and pieces (some people started doing songs for some reason, but I have never understood that....) The average talented kid who plays in a good youth orchestra and may or may not go to music college will play scales badly, do a limited number of etudes without knowing exactly why and learn progressively more difficult pieces according to their potential while retaining the same fundamental flaws in the Tchaikovsky that they has in Nardini, Accolay and Kabalevsky.
The reason for this is that violin study actually revolves around exercises, scales, etudes and pieces. The problem is that the majority of teachers don't actually know that many exercises other than the handful they got from their teacher (which may be extremely good). And yet, if I had to choose only two out of four of the above it would be exercises and pieces, hands down. That is why when Simon Fischer published his groundbreaking work Basics ten or so years ago the teaching profession really no longer had any excuses left .
What exercises do is save time. They get to the core of the problem or provide an intense focus on one issue, in a way that many studies don't. And that is how we work best: Short, focused work on one thing. Very often, the exercises in Basics are played on open strings. Again, this enables them to be more focused than etudes because we are only worrying about one thing at a time. That is why I have frequently suggested in a number of forums that teaching exams at music institutes require a working knowledge of Basics. Had the students at that master class been given tone production exercises, intonation exercises, vibrato exercises and so on, in very small doses from an early stage they would not be being held back as they are now by simple things like being unable to use the lower quarter of the bow.
The power of exercises has also created a potential revolution in adult education and late starters. Those players can now build up quickly and easily any aspect of their technique without the help of a teacher who may not even want to be bothered by them. Sadly I often meet resistance to the book by members of this group who feel a little over-whelmed by its apparent density. (Actually its extremely clear and simple.)
Aside from complete beginners, this need not be the case. Slow, careful study of the tone production, vibrato, tapping, finger patterns or whatever exercise will automatically feed into your general playing, perhaps without you realizing it, until suddenly people start complimenting you.... An adult beginner who approaches Basics slowly and thoughtfully in the same way they might learn a new computer program for their job will not only know more about the fundamentals of playing but actually be more competent in performance at their level than those hapless teenagers who, through no fault of their own, will probably never know how good they could have been or how badly they have been let down.
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