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Blog 3B (Adam): Teaching The Whole Person, Mini-Studies, and Left Arm Alignment

Adam DeGraff

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Published: January 16, 2014 at 9:45 PM [UTC]

EDITOR'S NOTE: Violin teacher Adam DeGraff and adult violin student Claire Sylvester are sharing their thoughts from their Skype lessons together in this series of blogs. Here are links to other blogs in the series: Blog 1: Claire's introduction: Approaching New Year - reflecting and resolutions. and Blog 2: Claire's question: Squeezing the Sponge

This is a response to Claire Sylvester's Blog 3: On the subject of hurt, and a disembodied left hand...

Blog 3B (Adam)
Teaching The Whole Person, Mini-Studies, and Left Arm Alignment.

First off, this blog post will only make sense if you first read Claire Silvester’s Blog 3, as this is my response.

Teaching The Whole Person
I won’t lie. Claire has come to me a mistreated violinist. A very, very good violinist, but one that was abused by a terrible system that, frankly, I don’t understand. Truthfully, I am glad that I don’t understand it. It is sad to me that somebody as talented, hard working, and creative as Claire could end up with such darkness and negativity attached to her playing. I believe it came from a system/teachers/schools that did not address her as a whole person. As a teacher, this is possibly the single most important thing you can do. Get to know your students. Figure out what makes them tick. Throw your damned methods out the window and invent a personalized method for THIS student in THIS moment. Learn how to speak their language. Teach them to understand yours. Learn what motivates them and help them figure out where they want to go with the violin and how to get there. Technique and Musicality are just the icing on the cake. Figure out how to teach the whole person you are working with.

One of my favorite ways of doing this is by creating personalized miniature sudies/etudes for and with students. Assuming your students are playing pieces that are appropriately difficult for them, they can usually play about 75% of the piece without much trouble. It’s that last 25% that’s the hard part. And of that 25%, it’s usually a particular shift, or finger pattern, or set of double stops that are the REAL problem. So teaching a student how to find these spots and distill them down is really important. I often ask them “What is the essence of the problem?” Ahhhh, it’s the shift. “Why is that shift difficult?” It’s difficult because it comes after an open string. (I call these blind shifts. What do you call them?) So how do you practice a blind shift? (or insert the challenge of your choice.) We practice a blind shift by creating musical scaffolding around the problem. You can’t practice your blind shift after the open string, but you could do it before the open string. You can add guide notes into your shift, use your “unnecessary” fingers to help create a mapping of the shift geography. In essence, by creating mini-studies you are adding shifts and extra notes all over the place. You are writing yourself a little etude right then and there to help you with this one problem. I do this ALL THE TIME for myself and for my students. Kreutzer, Dont, and Rode did it too. They just turned the more common issues into Studies/Etudes. And yes, we practice them, play them, blah, blah, blah! I find it SO much more satisfying to create on-the-spot studies for and with my students that address exactly what their issue is right here and right now. Incidentally, they seem to much prefer this method of study/etude practice over “just do this because it will make you better” series of Etudes.

Left Arm Alignment
In my lesson with Claire last week, this led us to a very specific study… left arm alignment. Most students learn early on that it is important to cross strings (with your bow) using your elbow. If you don’t, your bow angle ends up all out-of-whack. Similarly, it is important to cross strings (with you left hand) using your elbow. Really, you want to keep those left fingers as calm, quiet, and aligned as possible. Yes, they stretch up and down, but really, the necessary movements are quite minimal. Yet, if you forget to swing your left elbow under the violin and move it towards the front of your body, you will be calling on your fingers to do some extra work. They will have to reach laterally to grab notes on the lower strings. NOW they are moving up and down AND across. But across on an instrument like the violin isn’t really across. Have you ever considered all the incredibly complex angles there are on the violin? One little adjustment and things are totally different. Less so if you use big chunks (read, large muscles) to do the bulk of the work. So what was a very complex problem that Claire was having (ummm… playing a passage in tune with consistency) became a very simple fix. We figured out that she needed to incorporate a left elbow move into her consideration of this passage and BOOM! she got it! Then, to “practice it in” we created a little mini-study around the area so she could practice the necessary left arm movement. Tomorrow, I see her for her Skype lesson and I bet she has got it figured out. Very exciting.

Before I sign off for now, I will say that writing about this subject is very difficult. Video is a far easier form of demonstration. But Claire mentioned in her blog that the extra explanation that comes from a Skype lesson is helpful to her. And it got me thinking that having to put things into words can be very powerful. I talk a LOT in lessons. I talk because what things feel like inside is really way more important than how things look from the outside. So consider asking your students questions about a problem passage or about their life. And encourage them to answer you with words, not just a demonstration.

If YOU have a passage that is giving you trouble, and you just can’t figure out how to make it work, respond in the comments below with a link to a YouTube video of yourself doing your best to figure it out. I will respond with a video of my own showing you how to turn it into a mini-study. 

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