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Emily Grossman

The Long Road

November 21, 2011 at 9:46 AM

This is a letter I wrote to a far-off teacher who contacted me a while ago about a specific, nagging question: are my teaching methods producing results? (We are using the Shirley Givens method books, which take a different route than most standard methods.)

Hi xxxx,

I apologise for the extremely long delay in my response to your letter. Quite frankly, you asked such a stumper of a question that I had to stop and think about it. It's a real soul-searching question: am I getting my students to progress at a fast enough speed? I've asked myself this question from time to time, and I wanted to be as honest with myself as possible before deciding yes or no.

It can be difficult to tell how your students progress when they aren't participating in level exams or competing. I suppose it's easier for me than you to handle this aspect, because the exams don't exist in my area, and I am practically the only teacher, anyway. Yes, progress is slow at the beginning, especially for some who have a poor sense of pitch. But this curriculum is especially good because it addresses the issue head on from the beginning: if you can't hear in your mind what something is supposed to sound like, you can't properly replicate that sound, and you will be always guessing as to whether something is in tune. And for those who have difficulty with this, yes, the path to gaining this ability can be long.

But the great power in developing the ear and the eye's ability to recognize intervals on a page and hear what they will sound like before they are played is that once you can do this, you can read and play anything in tune, at any level, so long as the technical skills are there. But a student's ability to do this has to be there, however long it takes to develop it. Otherwise, you will continually be telling the student "high second finger", "low first", etc. because they won't hear that they're off.

A lot of students can get away with manually training their fingers without addressing ear-training weaknesses for many years, even passing exams. I've taken in intermediate/advanced students from other teachers/methods, and in assessing their playing, find that most of them have large gaps in their understanding of interval relationships in major and minor keys. We always have to go back and fill this in before they can proceed to more difficult pieces.

Quite frankly, I would much rather listen to a student play something simple, with proper technique and sense of pitch than Vivaldi A minor with all the half steps out of whack, or slightly flat. When I hear this (and I've run into this so many times!) it makes me sick to my stomach because I know they aren't hearing what they're doing.

Anyway, for what it's worth, here's your light at the end of the tunnel:

I've been teaching for nearly eight years now. I've been using Givens' books for six of those years. All the students that I've been able to start from scratch on these books and have kept with it don't really begin to reap the full benefits until the upper levels. For instance, when I throw second position into the mix, it takes a while for their fingers to reach for the right place, but they know if they've got it or not. Or say, the key of A flat major. No problem. The different keys all open up at once, and accidentals make sense, both tonally and theoretically speaking. They know the circle of fifths. They are working on tone production exercises, various bow strokes (martele, portato, rubbing detache, etc.). They've had little bites of various etudes from different etude books. They have proficient shifting skills. By the time they graduate from the books, they are ready to join our local community orchestra.

A final word of advice: you don't have to hold a student back when you see that they fully understand a concept. For instance, some of my older students do not need all of the exercises at the beginning, and we usually graze the first three books lightly. I began a diligent violist this fall who is getting ready to finish 2A already (oh yes, I transcribed them). The more years you teach, the easier it will be to pick and choose the path each individual needs. Also, I supplement as the student gains skills in order to cater to their individual taste and needs. For instance, they'll work on a couple of student concertos toward the end of the books if that's what they crave. Or, we'll do some bluegrass or celtic training at the side.

The ear is an incredibly powerful tool, and this is why I've made it such a priority in my teaching. We may take the long slow road, but anyone who perseveres gains incredible empowerment: they gain a voice-like connection with their instrument. They can pick out anything they like by ear. They can compose, transpose, and they will be able to self-govern their practice time most effectively, since they will always know beyond a shadow of a doubt when they've got it right. Those who are not willing or able to cultivate the ear they need to play the violin (and I've had my fair share) should switch to a safer instrument, like the piano. Actually, the piano is a wonderful tool to become familiar with for musical ground-laying, regardless of instrumental preference. I highly recommend it.

I guess I'm more interested in cultivating a relationship with music, not in meeting a certain standardized test's requirements. The proof is in the pudding. The more years I've taught these methods, the better musician I've become myself.

Every teacher must find what works best for her. As you become more familiar with what you want your goals to be and how you work best with students, you will be more confident about the decisions you make with your teaching. Good luck, and please keep in touch; I promise I won't be so long in responding next time!

Thanks for connecting with me, and I hope all is well with you!


From Francesca Rizzardi
Posted on November 22, 2011 at 7:15 AM
Thank you, Emily. It was very thought provoking. I KNOW I need to work on intervals, but my teacher isn't covering them. (Oh, well, she has a lot to cover!) And my daughter just started trumpet. Before she got into it, I thought valves would be a walk in the park compared to lack of frets. But I was wrong. Trumpets also require ear training.
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on November 22, 2011 at 11:55 AM
What do you do for remedial ear training, when you get a student who has progressed in other ways but doesn't have a particularly good ear? Especially if they have practice time constraints and, for example, have to learn orchestra music.
From bill platt
Posted on November 22, 2011 at 4:01 PM
Something's gotta give. Drop orchestra, or fake it. Or drop facebook etc...

From Tom Holzman
Posted on November 22, 2011 at 6:18 PM
Fascinating post. I like your system. Keep up the good work!
From Emily Grossman
Posted on November 22, 2011 at 6:30 PM
Karen, the scenario you describe is the very one I dread the most. It doesn't seem to just get better on its own. I only have, oh, one student right now that falls into this scenario. When she first came to me a couple of years ago, I practically crushed her by taking her out of the Suzuki books and off the Vivaldi for a while to work on her ear. She didn't practice much, so most of the progress was made during the lesson. I finally put her back on Vivaldi because I knew she was on the verge of quitting. We don't seem to have gotten very far. Her interest always hangs by a thread, and she's too busy with other activities to really practice. I get away with sight-reading simple duets each week, and I can work with her ear a little bit that way. If I was just a little bit more cold-hearted, I would have dismissed her a year ago, but I always hope to connect with her, and even though there are some major issues yet to be addressed, I can't help but hope that I've at least kept her liking music, at least a little.

I'd be open to suggestions from other teachers who have been there. Any student who has been willing to go back to the remedial ear training has done well, but not every violinist wants to do this. It's a yucky situation, and for that reason I would much rather take on a brand new student.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on November 22, 2011 at 6:47 PM
What I'm wondering is, what specifically is the remedial ear training? If you took someone off Vivaldi and Suzuki books, and they had a thick skin and were willing to do something else instead, what would it be? Playing intervals on the piano (assuming they had access to one)? Some type of scales? Redoing the entire Adventures in Violinland series from scratch? And how do they know when they are ready to start Vivaldi or whatever again?
From Emily Grossman
Posted on November 22, 2011 at 8:46 PM
Karen, so many individual things come into play here. Depends on the age, the enthusiasm, the amount of practice time, technical foundation, rate of progress, how well they retain their ear training when introduced to various distractions, etc. It's been something I've been working hard to better understand, and I don't have all the answers yet, Sorry!

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