February 10, 2011 at 12:03 AM
I started violin in 6th grade. I took lessons with my next door neighbor. I was an enthusiastic student, loved to play, loved to practice, moved through my music very quickly. I know she must have told me most of the right ways to play because I look back in my music and it’s all written there: “Straight bow” (that was the big one); “Count”; “Bent thumb”; etc. etc. etc.
Somehow it didn’t take. I do remember working on the straight bow thing on and off. I don’t really remember working on a lot of the other stuff. But I know I got to college thinking I was good, thinking I was ready to be a music major, and then coming to the realization that I really didn’t play well at all and my technique needed a complete overhaul and the high school kids hanging around the prep school were better violinists than me.
So sometimes I look back and wonder how it was that I just didn’t get it. College music major became a journey of learning to practice, relearning literally all of my vital techniques, and trying to master them into my repertoire. I remember feeling my junior year that I finally felt like I understood how to practice and get somewhere. I finished my senior recital and felt like I was ready to come in as a freshman again and do the real thing this time. Somehow with all the music I had played through high school, I had gone through the motions oblivious to so many of the details to playing and musicianship, and I really didn’t know it.
And I wonder if any of my students are on the same journey. How many of them am I teaching and they’re coming back the next week and I’m saying, I taught you this concept—but it somehow didn’t take. You still don’t get it. Why is that? Is it because you just really aren’t trying? (Maybe for some of them.) Or am I just not teaching it in a way you understand it? (Maybe that too.) Or are you just such a natural musician that your instinct kicks in and takes over and you sail through the music, making it work, but not having any consciousness of all that goes into it—and I your teacher may not even realize that till we get off the repertoire and into the scales and you can’t find a C from a C sharp? (That I think was me….)
And so then it becomes my challenge to pry a little deeper, to push a little harder, to get a little more creative and find the ways to get past the rote following of directions, half-execution of a skill, into the “got it” point. I think this is the biggest challenge, because sometimes it’s about my teaching it right, and sometimes it’s about them taking ownership and really learning it, and sometimes it’s a melding of both, and sometimes maybe it’s not fully in my control.
And I get out my own music and practice. Music for my upcoming concert. Music my students need to learn and I need to be fresh on. Music I played in college but just couldn't quite pull off. I’ve taken very few lessons since then, though I’d love to. Most of what I’m learning now is what I’ve discovered myself, or learned through resources like this website, or come to understand better as I’ve taught it to umpteen little elementary kids. But I can do it now. Pretty rusty sometimes, to be sure, but I understand the elements and I know how to practice them and make it work, even the stuff I couldn’t do in college. Every once in a while the students in the hallway may hear cheering coming from my studio as I’m practicing on a break and find I can do something I could never do before! I’ve got it!
Maybe sometimes that’s what it takes—time and space to take ownership and figure it out yourself, an experience or an understanding that just makes it click.
And then- then there is music.
I am a violin teacher, too, and I completely sympathize with your discussion about how to get your students to understand and feel the music, going beyond playing it technically correctly. I teach beginners, and that makes it even more difficult because they have to concentrate hard just to learn all the basic techniques.
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