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'Are We There Yet?' A Vacation Inspired Blog

Amy Beth Horman

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Published: July 24, 2015 at 10:10 PM [UTC]

Like last year, as I sit on vacation, I have room to think and ponder the year behind us. This is a welcome change to the hustle of the studio day in and day out as much as I thrive on that energy and love my work wholeheartedly.

I found myself thinking quite a bit about the strategy of getting from one level to another and how in my studio, it is not one size fits all. Often, a student comes to me in the middle of their violin journey and I am picking up where they left off. Sometimes we need to go back together, gather some missed information, or take a detour and discover a few technical elements before we can get back on track. Other times I am teaching them from the beginning, trying to make sure they get what they need from day one.

Inevitably, as things start to really progress, I will get asked questions which can be summed up in the title of this blog.

“Are we there yet?”

This question could refer to starting a new piece, embarking finally on a favorite concerto, the readiness to compete, adding vibrato, learning about shifting….the list goes on. The question itself indicates sometimes a level of impatience. Other times it is just genuine curiosity as to where we are going and how we are doing. Sometimes it is both.

Too often I think students (and parents too) are a few years ahead of themselves when it comes to expectations on literature. Teachers aren’t generally surprised by this. Students have no way of knowing how things should go with building techniques and how one thing leads to another. With very talented kids this is especially commonplace and I can genuinely empathize! I remember wondering when I would get to certain pieces and sometimes it truly didn’t make sense once I started them WHY I was now being granted access. “Wait, NOW we are here?” Then, ironically, there was often rapid fire fears or insecurities along the lines of “Are you sure I am ready?” What a roller coaster!

Once students start to acquire virtuosic technique things can become very exciting. They’ve worked hard for this and the anticipation is powerful.

“Are we there yet?”

Suddenly, in their minds eye, they can almost feel their hands playing giant works. They watch great artists and recognize the mechanics now behind the techniques enough to describe how they are executed. Surely, we must be close! But then from my vantage point, there is still the need for refinement so we find ourselves working on Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven to correct the bow, heighten awareness, achieve supple hands, and refine sound or pitch. This can last months.

I have sensed great tension in the studio over these choices. The pieces don’t sound as readily impressive (they are of course!), they don’t compete as well (such a shame, really!), and frankly the students aren’t ignited by them most of the time. What they really want is to get to that showpiece they have been dreaming of for years now and who can blame them? Sometimes the parents are equally dissatisfied. There are palpable question marks in the room looming over us. How long will this take and what is it offering us? Nevermind that most large competitions require a full Mozart Concerto and/or a lyrical work by a Classical composer in the earlier rounds. It is hard to get students to live inside that reality. Forget that Curtis or other large conservatories require a full unaccompanied Bach Partita or sonata by memory. This is a worry that could feel years away. When big concerti and dazzling showpieces dominate local competitions, it can feel like ambition cloaks the very room we work in. It is disorienting. So how do we re-focus? How about discussing what those compositions teach us as musicians? Or how does learning and performing these pieces yield to a greater ease of technique? But these are more long term rationalizations...

The success of advanced training in my opinion hinges on expertise and trust - sometimes in equal parts. Parents and students won’t understand why we need to learn in a specific order and that should be expected. They don’t have the background the teacher does to fully understand. Having said that, it is human nature for them to want to understand the reasoning behind some of the pedagogy, isn’t it? Especially if it brings dischord to practice and motivation with the student at home. And I don’t mind trying to explain. The problem starts when everyone needs to completely understand to fully support. Sometimes no explanation will suffice because the background to understand is just not there. In these cases, the drive to succeed eclipses the knowledge on deck. Then we have a potential roadblock! Like many teachers, I have had parents leave the studio over this.

In the past, l have felt friction for months while teaching new literature. I could feel the tension from a parent not able to understand its place in the pedagogy. I could feel the detachment of the child, uninterested in the literature at hand. I have found myself growing very frustrated, pained almost, realizing this is the absolute last way I would choose to coach Mozart, Beethoven Romances, or unaccompanied Bach. It is some of the most miraculous music ever written and somehow nobody in the room was as enthusiastic as me! Gradually, as I taught more and more, I realized I couldn’t expect everyone to love the music as I did on a schedule that lined up with their development. I learned to forge ahead undaunted, generating my own kind of enthusiasm. I discovered new things about the works every time I taught them and this helped me stay thoughtful and present. Sometimes we would get lucky and my enthusiasm for a piece enables the tide to turn in the room. Sometimes it didn’t.

I have frequently seen pieces students initially disliked become their favorites. These pieces are generally ones I chose to shine a light on technique that is underdeveloped or needs re working. I like to remind the students that it is unlikely they will like a piece when it makes them sound awkward or unaccomplished and that this is not the composition’s fault. But then, once we resolve the technical issue, that piece becomes special to them. It is the vehicle that helped us to jump over that technical hurdle. Success! Lyrical pieces tend to present a challenge to some of my younger students. Their brains and emotions move so fast and a lyrical work is not stimulating to most of them the way it is to an adult. So we write stories, create characters, draw pictures, use color wheels, anything to keep the creative spirit engaged. After all, it isn’t a bad idea to make a student’s energy slow down or roll differently. Witnessing a very active spirited child spin a beautiful story through a lyrical composition can be incredibly gratifying for everyone, even them!

Our studio parents are some of our greatest allies. They support practice, listening, attending concerts, and fuel the energy behind the learning process that happens 6/7 days a week. Currently, I have the strongest group of studio parents that I have ever had, and I thank my lucky stars for them. We work together and there is a definite team atmosphere a lot of the time. In the end though, I decide on literature and the order and they respect that based on my expertise. Sometimes I will deviate but it is generally to add, not subtract! I am very fortunate that my parents trust me and painfully aware that this has not always been the case.

Now that I have been teaching over 20 years, I have learned to press through these challenges. There will always be some friction as we journey together. I have realized that it is a blessing when everyone is equally excited in the room with the literature we are studying. The ebb and flow of these emotions comes with the territory of teaching. In the end, a violinist’s development is my job and it isn’t always going to be smooth or predictable - but it is always worth it. Because when they ask me, “Are we there yet?” my answer might be “No, not yet.” But the operative word is “yet”.

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