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Laurie Niles

Starling-DeLay Day Four: Robert Duke on the nature of expertise

June 2, 2007 at 4:20 AM

NEW YORK -- I'm glad someone invited wind player Robert Duke, professor at the University of Texas at Austin, to the big violin party.

Duke, who wrote Intelligent Music Teaching: Essays on the Core Principles of Effective Instruction, brought some perspective to this group of experts who are so steeped in violin playing. He spoke Friday morning on "The Nature of Expertise" at the Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at Juilliard.


When we teach the violin, we need to help our students understand why certain things work or don't work. We need to allow them time, not just to parrot back acceptable answers, but to find those answers and fully explore why they are right.

"Young people who are just starting to teach often can imitate all the things that wonderful teachers can do," Duke said. They can imitate voices, they can tell pithy stories. "But the magic runs deeper than that."

"There are a lot of things that are salient, that are not important," Duke said. "And there are things that are important, that are invisible."

"How do I decide where to focus the learner's attention? There are 50 things you can talk about," Duke said. "Try to find the one idea that makes 30 things better."

A teacher must start with a vivid image of the piece, performed beautifully by the student at hand.

"Many lessons I watch I would describe as acoustic repair," Duke said. The problem is that "this allows the lesson to be determined by what your student presents."

The "good student" is attentive, diligent, inquisitive, skillful, literate, patient, thoughtful, meticulous and discriminating.

"A lot of what goes on in the teaching environment can elicit those qualities," Duke said, "or discourage them."

For example, children tend to be naturally musical and have a sense of inflection and dynamic.

"We teach a lot of that OUT," Duke said.

Also, the class environment can foster an avoidance of finding answers. How a teacher handles a "wrong" answer is very important. "If I don't know an answer, my goal becomes to mask the fact I don't have it," Duke said, "Not to find the answer."

Some kids can learn to get the answers right, without ever exploring why those answers work. "Many students who are really good in school aren't the best thinkers," Duke said.

In music, students need to learn to connect what they are doing to why they are doing it: to communicate with an audience. When they are conveying something in music, they have to convey something TO someone.

"I love teaching writing," Duke said. "Everyone who is a lousy writer isn't writing TO anybody." And why should they? "At school, when you were writing a paper, WHO were you writing to? Who were you explaining it to?" The teacher already knows all about your topic.

"It's amazing to me how much my students' writing changed, once I had them write TO someone," he said. For example: write a letter to your mom about the acoustics of the violin. You'd have to start with, how much does she already know about it? What doesn't she know? What do you need to explain?

Similarly, "when you are playing, who is listening?" he said. "You have to convey it TO someone. When we play music, we want to move somebody. But you have to have the somebody."

When one teaches, one must do it from outside your expertise. It's easy to forget, when something has become such a part of you, that your students need certain details filled in. He gave the example of computer manuals, "written by evil people! They omitted critical information!" If you have a new computer in the box, and the first instruction is "boot the system," how do you know how to set it up?

"Learning is a generative process, not a receptive one," he said. Asking a student to do what you say, "that's just recall and memory. Where learning takes place is where you go home and do something in response to new knowledge."

It's possible, though, to operate at a very sophisticated level of a discipline and still have the fundamentals out of whack. He gave the example of an experiment in which MIT graduates were asked to light a bulb with a battery and a wire. An overwhelming percent of them could not do it.

"If one cannot light a build with a wire, everything built on that concept is faulty," he said. "There are a gazillion things to learn, but they are organized around a few basic things."

Duke talked about a project that compared math classes in the U.S. with those in other countries. The U.S. math class "looked just like my eighth grade math class," he said. The teacher shows how to do something, then gives hands the kids a worksheet and has them do it many times. In Japan, where kids outperformed those in the U.S., children were given one problem, then asked to work on solving it, without an explanation from the teacher. Then the kids worked for 20 minutes on the one problem and later discussed their approaches.

"This noodling around, figuring out and failing is not tolerated in the U.S. -- it takes too much time," Duke said. If you try to cover too much, you will likely give short shrift to important concepts. "You have to do less stuff in more time."

When you intervene to adjust something in a student's playing during a lesson, you must be committed to it. You can't just have them play something several times and give up without accomplishing the goal. "They are going to practice the way you practice them."

"If it matters enough for you to say it, it matters enough that you aren't going to leave it until it's accomplished," Duke said.

In teaching, often a student will do something, then the teacher tries to fix it by simplifying it a little, then having the student try again, Duke said. If that doesn't work, we make it a little more simple, and try again. This can keep going: simplify, try, simplify try. Maybe we do it eight times before it's simple enough for the student to accomplish. Then once they get it, we go back to the passage and have them try again.

During this process, with each failed attempt, “the learner is thinking: wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong....,” Duke said.

“Rather than inch back and then leap forward, we should leap back, and then inch forward,” Duke said. “Leap back to a task that is very accomplishable.”

This doesn't always mean to play something slower. It can mean to play it in rhythms, or to work on the fundamentals of the technique involved. Either way, the student needs to be able to achieve success, there in the lesson.

“How is a student going to do, ALONE, what you can't get them to do in your studio in 20 minutes?” Duke said. “This principle goes across all levels: set them up in a way that they can do the thing we demonstrate.”

Duke's final plea was for violin teachers to let their students learn repertoire that is appropriate to their levels, not to rush them into extremely complex and difficult literature.

"It is often more valued to play difficult repertoire kind of badly then to play easier repertoire well," Duke said. "When repertoire is rather difficult, the good habits float away. I would change juries -- no one could play anything on a jury that they can't play beautifully."

From Maura Gerety
Posted on June 2, 2007 at 10:58 PM
Excellent, thanks for posting.
From Albert Justice
Posted on June 3, 2007 at 2:52 AM
I really enjoyed his views on what I call integrative learning, or one thing learned leading to another--within reason. I've practiced this in my life in a lot of arenas, and not only can one skill be applied differently, but in a completely different context with innovative-think.

And his remarks about teaching inflection 'out' of a student's thinking. I've experienced that directly with violin because I took it so seriously. But, when I started interpreting Segovia's version of BVW 997 #3 from guitar to violin, I'm thankful I didn't let myself become completely overwhelmed by my seriousness. It's gonna rock--at least in my mind ;).

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on June 4, 2007 at 2:19 AM
Good teachers should both push students to do difficult repertoire and help them to polish the easy ones because this two-pronged approach imposes different demands on students and students will learn different skills technically and emotionally as a result.
From Yixi Zhang
Posted on June 4, 2007 at 2:55 AM
I should add though it is probably easier for a teacher to push students to play hard pieces than polishing the ealier ones. I believe the latter demands more detailed work as well as technical and musical abilities from the teacher, as the latter would likely to involve more of fixing some stubborn bad habbits while the former mostly aims at finishing the piece.

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