The Well Aging Fiddler: Getting the Most from Lessons

September 4, 2018, 11:37 AM · If you're a violin student, and you take notes, make recordings, and do what you can to remember your lessons, let me propose something else for you to consider. Recently I tried something that has given me a whole other dimension in seeing how I’m doing with my lessons. Let me share it with you.

Over the past 15 months I’ve had 52 lessons on the violin. [Note: While 52 lessons should cover a year, my teacher, Mirabai Peart, is an active, professional musician drawn away from the studio at various times through the year to play music in Europe, here in the United States, and Australia. Hence, I have a few breaks in lessons from time to time. Here is an example of her playing. ]

In any case, that’s 52 hours of lessons. 52 times I’ve stood there and played, listened, discussed, and on and on. It's been over 15 months of this. So, what have I learned and retained over the course of these lessons? Do I remember everything? Did my mind wander? Did I misunderstand things? Get things wrong? What happened?

Here is how I do it.

From the start, I made recordings of all the lessons. Each week I brought a small recording device, set it on a chair and recorded the lesson. Next, I uploaded the recording into my computer, then the following morning I would sit and make notes of the lessons. At first the notes were rather general because everything I was being taught was new, but over time I learned how to listen to the lessons, what to write that was important, and how to organize the notes. Finally, I’d print the notes and keep them on the music stand for my daily practice. I’d read the notes before starting, and refer to them when needed throughout the practice session.

About a month ago, I realized I was about to hit lesson 50, and I wondered what would happen if I went back and read all the lessons once again? Going one step further, I made the lessons into a book with a table of contents, a list of the songs we covered, what lessons we worked on those songs, and an index of all technical and theoretical work we’d accomplished. I took the book to a local Fed Ex office and had them make a second copy and bind the pages with durable covers.

(As much as I’d like to think I’m a cool, sophisticated, witty elderly gentleman – I have to admit I'm also something of a nerd who loves to do stuff others consider deathly dull. If you ever have trouble falling asleep, just call me and I'll talk to you about my enthusiasm for ethnographic patterns in the structure of middle schools, and their influence on students learning in American schools in the Upper Midwest. I think it's really nifty stuff, but I'm also sure you’ll be asleep in three minutes.)

Next, I gave my extra copy to my teacher so she could read it if she felt an uncontrollable urge to revisit 50 lessons from one of her students on some dark, rainy Portland, Oregon, winter night.

Then I sat down and read all 50 lessons marking them with a highlighter pen to see what emerged. I asked myself three questions – What gets repeated over and over? What is new? What tidbits of knowledge did I let slip away?

Also, I approached this with a little mantra I learned long ago when I worked as a stage manager one summer at the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. When critiquing a play we always asked three questions:

  1. Where is the work today?
  2. Where do you want it to be?
  3. What do you need to get it there?


In other words, looking at notes from when I started in May of 2017 through September 2018, I would expect to see some growth, (and I have) but I know there is more in these lessons than I’ve been absorbing.

In any human situation we can only absorb so much information. At the start of lessons things can be quite overwhelming. Everything is coming at the student at the same time. The room where the lesson is happening is new. The teacher is often someone we don’t know. The very basics of just holding a violin and a bow are complicated – I equate it to spinning several plates on the end of a bunch of sticks and trying to keep them all spinning at the same time.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zhoos1oY404

Then there is the music itself, the notes on the page, thumbs, the sounds we make, the length of the lesson, and all of that comes rushing at us at the same time. Try as we might, we can’t absorb all of it at once. (Well, perhaps you can, but I’m not in that league.) Indeed, week after week, we get told about our bow arm, intonation, elbows, thumbs, finger placement, and on and on. There is a high likelihood that although this gets repeated, we don’t hear it. It's something we’ll get-to-once-this-other-stuff is learned.

So this is where rereading lesson notes can be helpful. Looking at the lessons through a wider lens exposed patterns that weren’t obvious to me from the close proximity of weekly recordings and notes. It took me about four days to go through the 50 lessons, simply because several issues kept repeating that I’d tossed so far into the background that the very sound of my teacher telling them to me became background noise. Sort of like being a kid and having your mom tell you to clean your bedroom, or as an adult and being asked to take out the garbage. It’s that kind of thing.

In this context, however, away from the studio, and being told to me over and over in the notes, I couldn’t ignore the messages. Bend my thumbs, keep my fingers down on the fingerboard, lead with my elbow, and above all a note that surprised me. I need to relax and slow down.

Stepping back shows the patterns we can’t see when we are close to the overall picture. Stonehenge looks like a bunch of rocks in a field, which, in a way, is exactly what it is. However from above, it’s something else. A 1,000 piece crossword puzzle needs close, detailed work to be completed, but you also need to step back so you can see the context of the individual pieces.

violin and notes


So, when I finished reading the lessons, I knew what to concentrate on. The background “noise” became the primary focus of my practices. I’d been focusing on important issues, but I’d also been making general assumptions about other issues that contributed to the plateau I’d been on for a few weeks.

I went into my 51st lesson with a new focus, and my playing – while far from perfect – had a marked improvement.

So, I’ll pass this on to you. Record your lessons, take the time to write the notes, and then, most importantly, read them, and read them again. Weekly notes are helpful, but pages of notes can reveal elements that are so obvious that they are taken for granted.

It helps.

Replies

September 5, 2018 at 06:25 PM · Wow, I love your commitment. I do record my lessons, but I must admit I don't take notes or watch the replay so thoroughly as to take great notes. I will try to up my game in that regard, following your example.

September 5, 2018 at 08:09 PM · Thank you for this article. I don't record my lessons but in reality my teacher doesn't usually have much to say except to correct intonation. Or just to tell me that this week I need to concentrate on this page. Nothing about my bow arm or fingers. I have come to understand that when she doesn't say anything things are going at least pretty well. When I do bring up some questions that I think are important he usually makes light of them, so I don't really ask many questions. Do you have any comments/advice? I love my teacher and as an older adult student I know that I would not be playing as well as I do without him. Right now I am in the middle of the first movement of Wieniaski 2nd violin concerto with lots of challenges doing double stops. Sometimes I think that the music he chooses is too much above me but usually I end up playing it sort of well after a long time.

September 5, 2018 at 08:27 PM · Michael,

I think I'm safe in assuming that you are/were an awesome teacher with tremendous attention to detail. Not a bad student either.

Not all of us have that level of discipline although discipline is essential to being a musician.

September 6, 2018 at 02:58 AM · Thank you George, and thank you 199.30.121.46. I was a teacher for 37 years, teaching English and Theater. I loved it. I taught International Baccalaureate English, and got into the habit of digging deeply into literature and poetry with my students. Hence, doing something like this with my violin notes seemed rather natural. However, I held back on submitting this article, because I thought it was way over the top with what I do to get some perspective on learning the violin.

After all, using literary analysis techniques to examine violin lessons isn't a common practice. Then I thought, why not? I can't be the only one that does this sort of thing. Well, I hope not anyway.

And to the person who goes by the name, 70.164.16.146 - With what your teacher is asking you to do, I get the impression that your playing is so beyond what I'm doing, I can't possibly offer any helpful suggestions. It sounds to me like your teacher has a lot of confidence in your technique, and your work is well beyond the basics. Best of luck!

Someone wrote in and asked what my teacher said about all of this, and I'm happy to say she was pleased. I will be surprised, however, if she actually reads the notes. If I were her, I'd pick a good old trashy detective novel over violin notes any day of the week.

September 6, 2018 at 08:18 PM · Wow - a fellow nerd. Over the course of a couple of years of viola lessons I did something quite similar: record the lesson, review the recording, and make notes. I didn't go so far as to print them out (let alone give my teacher a copy), but those files are still sitting in my computer somewhere. This might be the incentive I need to go back and take another look at them in my copious free time (hah!). And then real life intervenes... I barely have enough time to practise at all, and what little time I find goes toward working on orchestral material (here we go with a new season full of goodies like Dvorák's Symphony No. 8).

But thanks for the article. It'll sit in the back of my mind and one day will no doubt spur me into action.

September 6, 2018 at 09:48 PM · Hi Charlie. I'm retired, so I've got time to do all this detailed stuff. We all do what we can, when we can. Best wishes.

September 6, 2018 at 10:17 PM · In response to the IP address, teacher should provide specific feedback. “Work on this more” certainly doesn’t work for me.

September 7, 2018 at 01:55 AM · What a fantastic and honest account. Thank you for sharing!! And your teacher plays beautifully!

September 7, 2018 at 11:44 PM · Good timing -- I'm about to start viola lessons after having years of violin lessons. I'll ask my teacher if she'll let me record.

Out of curiosity: what kinds of responses have teachers given their students when they ask if they can record the lesson?

September 8, 2018 at 02:11 PM · Well, I'd think any tool to help a student retain and learn the lesson would be welcomed, so I don't think anyone would mind their student recording lessons. In my case, the suggestion to record lessons came from my teacher.

September 9, 2018 at 01:49 PM · Wow, you bring the meaning into focussed practise. I can see the usefulness of such discipline. Do you make a point of stating what bar you are working on during the lesson? Otherwise how do you recall which part of the music the teacher's comments relate to?

September 9, 2018 at 07:13 PM · Well, I've only been doing this for about 16 months, so the length of my pieces are rarely beyond one page. When taking notes, I mark the time when we discuss various issues and songs. For example, I'll write, "Minuet 1, second half (28:50)." Then, if I'm unclear with where we are in the music, I can simply go to that place on the recording.

September 10, 2018 at 08:53 PM · I loved reading this .. thank you.. so eloquent, interesting and inspiring.

September 11, 2018 at 12:38 AM · Thanks, Ella. Best wishes to you!

September 11, 2018 at 02:20 PM · Really enjoyed reading this and thank you for putting it together. I've been learning the violin for 5 years after taking it up again to help my daughter. I don't record my lessons, but I do write my teacher's comments in pencil on the music. The repetition in my lessons is about smooth bowing, dynamics and I am inclined to get stressed and start sawing, although I haven't done that so much recently.

I can relate to analyzing things in detail. My grandmother was a concert pianist and music critic and her writings recently went online and I've been transcribing them and listing them chronologically into a Word document. In 1950 alone, she wrote 28.000 words and as I reached the end of it, I was begging her to stay home. You've done enough.

However, it was interesting to read what she was picking up out of these performances.I was amazed at all the nuances she picked up and felt she was writing in between the notes.

I sometimes wonder why I've persevered with the violin. I think it's because it's the instrument which most resembles the human voice. I have always loved singing but have some health complications and it can be difficult for me to sing. My violin has become my voice. Indeed, sometimes when I play a high note, I get all chuffed as though I've reached it with my own voice. Perhaps, I'm just a bit unique. Thought I'd provide a link to my blog: http://www.beyondtheflow.com

Best wishes,

Rowena

September 11, 2018 at 04:03 PM · Thanks, Rowena, I appreciate the support.

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