When did school music start taking precedence over individual development in violin playing?
I played in school music programs every year from fifth grade on. In high school my music teacher was (somewhat coincidentally) my private teacher. School music and private lessons never conflicted. My teachers never allowed me to bring orchestra parts to lessons. I studied the lessons that they dictated.
It hasn’t been that way for my kids and certainly isn’t that way for any youth here in Texas. Orchestra is expected to come first and private lessons are second. The culprit is the University Interscholastic League and the TMEA under whose aegis solo and ensemble competitions as well as region and all state orchestras are conducted.
Orchestra directors in Texas (being typical human beings) promote themselves on their accomplishments and school districts that are largely middle class place great stock in the success of their music programs as measured by youth placed in region and all state orchestras as well as ratings in solo and ensemble competitions.
Many orchestra directors require all the strings to prepare the required etudes for region orchestra auditions whether they plan on auditioning or not. This last year one of the etudes was Paganini Caprice No 16. Can you imagine it? Local teachers were horrified. Some of the better teachers are demanding that their students drop high school orchestra. This year’s Paganini was extreme but the etudes are typically from the harder Kreutzer and Rode etudes. These are typically appropriate for the kind of player who really can play in an all state orchestra in a big state like Texas. But, in spite of our Texas size egos we cannot populate region orchestras with players who can play advanced etudes well. One audition judge described the process of filling out a region orchestra as arbitrary at best. The best players were easy to pick and the totally incompetent were easily weeded out but that still left 15 stands to fill with 50 mediocre violinists.
Meanwhile back at school everyone is required to play the etude for chair test whether they plan on auditioning or not. This is simply ludicrous. Etudes need to be presented to a student when the student has the foundations for the technique of the etude. I would not permit my children to study etudes without their private teacher’s permission. I complained one year and the school teacher basically told me butt out. It was an opportunity to teach my daughter the trade-offs between real learning versus ambition and recognition. Interesting she played the etude (as required) without study or preparation and did relatively well on the chair test.
I wonder if I really ought to be blaming the teachers. Is it their fault or is it our achievement oriented culture that demands success early and often? My parents financed music lessons for us but there was no soccer, ballet, baseball, basket ball etc. I know families that have their kids doing something extracurricular every day after school. Moms are frazzled and the kids are stressed.
Is this anyway to develop life skills?
I bought a digital recording device a few months ago so I could hear my playing. It was an opportunity for reflection on what makes violin playing sound good and what doesn’t. From that experience and from being in the audience at several recent student recitals, I can list three big flaws that are characteristic of amateurish (not necessarily amateur) performance (1) a mewling tone (2) poor intonation (3) false accents
My biggest problem is false accents. I have started listening more carefully for them and I have tried to identify situations that seemed to give rise to false accents. (1) string crossings in legato passages (2) poor bow distribution (e.g. one bow with several notes followed by a bow of fewer notes) (4) reaching for an extension (3) the note after a long shift (5) bow changes (6) a the end note of a large melodic leap (7) an inverse accent (i.e. a note where vibrato and a full tone are expected but where the expectation isn’t realized) (8) a combination of any of the above (9) the start of any passage.
I am sure that this list is far from complete. But making the list has made me much more aware of what I am doing when I practice. Sometimes I try to consciously practice with no accents at all. The nature of western music provides adequate pulse without accents. This also makes me much more conscious of where accents should be placed and how willful I need to be when I make an accent. To be sure, an accentless performance is very boring and quite unmusical but consciously adding the accents back seems to be a correct step towards control and a more polished performance.
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