April 25, 2007 at 2:33 AMWhen 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?
In doing my Suzuki training, I sort of saught out the mavericks among the teacher trainers; those who identified with Suzuki's philosophy but blazed a bit of their own way with a certain amount of the pedagogy and application. Of course, you have to have enough knowledge of your subject to be able to do that.
When observing other teachers teach, a colleague said (of a teacher I'd never observed), "I think this teacher is great, even if the kids are a little bored. She teaches all the teaching points so well!"
My question, "But does she teach the CHILDREN well?"
I think it's an institutional and societal cop-out to put all the responsibility back on the individual moms. As far as I'm concerned, the "mommy wars" jumped the shark a long time ago and it's time for society as a whole to take more responsibility for creating a better environment for raising children, because we're really all in this together. It seems to me a a school orchestra is as good a metaphor as any for this--at its best it's a whole that's greater than the sum of its parts, and a wonderful learning experience. It can't be totally an individualistic experience.
Whatever else my capabilities, I consider myself well suited to oversee my children's musical education and I admit that it isn't easy to buck this system. I let my daughter do the UIL region orchestra thing for three years and she made it in twice and she was always playing etudes that were beyond her preparation. Her teacher was showing her facilitations not techniques. Much was overlooked.
Finally her senior year I put my foot down. I said that I would not pay for lessons that included etudes that were too advanced. She had made region orchestra for her first two years but inexplicably (she had improved so much) she didn't make it her junior year. She didn't balk too much. She was tired of the ambiguity of the process -- an ambiguity that was created by using inappropriately advanced etudes.
Karen - The reason I put it all on moms is because it hurts them and their kids most if they don't act. Does it really matter who to blame when your kid is being hurt? I think time is not on our side to wait for a political solution. Our kids would have all grown up without the benefit.
Well, I'm not particularly interested in placing blame, but yes, I think it does really matter who, or what, is reponsible.
My kids aren't old enough yet for me to comment on how it compares in Massachusetts at the high school level to what Corwin has reported here, but in my interactions with the few music teachers and students I do know, I've never heard of such weird things as requiring Etudes that are too difficult, nor have I really seen state and regional orchestras being such a 900-lb gorilla in that way.
I agree with Ihnsouk that a "political solution" is likely to arrive, if at all, at a glacial pace, but that still doesn't mean everything has to be put on individual moms. Our school district has something like a "Friends of Belmont Music" (maybe not the exact name) parents' group that seems to function somewhat like the PTA, only just for music. They do fundraising, they usher at concerts, they have a newsletter, they post regularly to the town newsgroup. I think as a group they have a lot more clout with the district than any individual mom would have on her own. Would there be any chance of a concerned and musically and politically astute parent like Corwin starting an organization like that in his district?
The other nice thing that I've noticed around here is a proliferation of small, private music schools and private studios. And private community orchestras, music school orchestras, and youth orchestras, some affiliated with churches. So for me and my family, the school program isn't the only game in town and there seem to be real, viable alternatives if we don't get what we need from the school program.
But I can imagine that's not the case in many communities, and there it's kind of bogus to say the solution is still individual choice when the "choice" is between the unsatisfactory orchestra and none at all. Maybe the moms don't "just stop" because they and/or their kids love music.
As a private teacher, I can't stand being dictated to by school conductors. A junior high Orchestra teacher I knew insisted on vibrato in order to make his top group. I questioned him about it one day: "So, you'd choose a student who was profoundly out of tune but could do vibrato over one who was mostly in tune and could not?" The answer? "Yes." UGH.
The entrance auditions are this: Piece of your choice, plus scales of your choice. The scales are tailored to the level of the orchestra. These are live auditions. There is sight reading to weed out the kids who don't read music.
The periodic chair auditions are this: Excerpts from current orchestra repertoire. The auditions are taped, anonymously by a volunteer parent, and then the conductor decides the chair order from the anonymous tape. Totally fair, totally honest.
I personally know all three conductors (and all three are violinists), and if I need to, I can have a nice chat to resolve any issues that might pop up, not that they really do.
With your situation, all I can say is, that if an orchestra conductor demanded one of my students learn an etude above their level...well, I won't go there. I am sorry about your situation. I had heard glowing things about the Texas system from my ASTA journal.
My high schoool (in another state) was in a mostly blue collar neighborhood. Only a few of us took private lessons but we played movements from Mendelssohn, Beethoven, and Bizet works (for example) using original editions. In fact we had a full orchestra, played for an annual musical (Oklahoma, Here's Love, My Fair Lady, Unsinkable Molly Brown) using the Broadway scores.
Here, a full orchestra (winds, brass and percussion) is rare, arrangements are the rule and the musicals (when they have them) are accompanied by pianos.
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