Viola Teachers Discuss Current Trends and Challenges in College-Level Studio Teaching

June 27, 2016, 2:34 PM · How do you motivate a college student to practice? How do you create a culture of support within a studio? And what does a music major do for a living, after graduating?

These were the kinds of questions that six viola professors and educators from top music schools and conservatories discussed at a panel discussion held at the American Viola Society Festival earlier this month at Oberlin Conservatory. Experts on hand included Heidi Castleman, Carol Rodland, Peter Slowik, Kathryn Steely, Daniel Sweaney and Adam Meyer.

Viola Teachers 2016
L-R: Adam Meyer, Carol Rodland, Kathryn Steely, Heidi Castleman, Peter Slowik and Daniel Sweaney. Photo by

Students do all kinds of things after graduating from music school. Certainly, many go into music-related fields: playing in orchestras, free-lancing, teaching privately, at a college or in a school. But many do other things. "If you're smart and good at music, you can do anything," Slowik said. "Some of my (former) students, I'm proud to say, are not in music any more." Some of the more interesting "other" jobs listed by teachers included yoga instructor, blogger, micro-brewer, rabbi, doctor, lawyer.

Castleman actually had tallied up the number of students she'd taught in her 20 + years at Juilliard -- 123 -- and where they were now: 33 were still in school, and of the 90 others, 20 were full-time orchestra musicians, six administrators, 23 chamber musicians, 16 music teachers, three outreach educators, 10 in other fields, and 12 unknown. "In each of these categories, there was a lot of diversity in what people are actually doing," she said. "Being prepared to do many things is key." When searching for direction, students often find that "the intersection between the music we love and other fields is where the future is going to emerge."

How do these teachers create a healthy environment in their studios?

"We have to build people in a lot of different ways," Rodland said. At Eastman, the age of students ranges from 18 to 35, and she finds that the hot-shot young ones inspire the older ones to practice, and the older ones helps mentor the younger ones. Sometimes she'll even create smaller groups, like a "left-hand support group" for those who need special work on left-hand technique.

"You're always trying to have your students mentor each other," Steely said. At Baylor she sometimes encourages practice partners, or even more specifically, something like scale partners, to "get people working with each other in many different ways."

Why shouldn't a teacher just work hard on the most "promising" students, those who they think will make him or her famous?

"Every member of the studio is super-important," Slowik said. "Every person has something to bring." He compared it to a chandelier with many individual lights that contribute to its overall brightness.

Motivation is key in any studio.

"I try to set a culture around goals and a work ethic," Sweaney said. Where does the element of fear enter into teaching, is it something you use?

Sweaney described a lesson that he had had with Castleman, while in school, when he confessed that he hadn't been very motivated. Castleman said to him, "Isn't fear a good motivation?"

"It is now!" he said.

All joking aside, "I value the studio being a safe place for people," Castleman said.

Sweaney said that he gives students a speech on how to give comments to each other and encourages mutual respect.

And in this day of instant and constant communication, how much should a student and teacher communicate? It's possible to reach a point of diminishing returns. Meyer described sending an e-mail to Castleman, then his teacher. The e-mail was highly detailed and asked a lot of clarifying questions. Her answer? "I would really like you to be more self-directed in your learning..."

One thing that is important for music students, who face not only the pressure of regular classes but also of performing and practicing, is to learn balance.

Since Oberlin has all undergraduates, Slowik emphasizes the importance of each individual finding his or her own mental, physical and emotional system of working.

"They have to be efficient in their practice," Rodland said, "But it's also important that they know when to stop." Some of our best work occurs in the subconscious mind, away from the physical work itself.

"How to organize your time is so important," Steely said. She has had students write out a schedule -- and she finds that many students need to schedule sleep and downtime, if they expect it to happen on a regular basis.

Of course, there are students who also need to up their game. To that end, Sweaney was inspired by a Suzuki teacher's practice challenge. For his students, he asked them to practice at least four hours a day for 10 days. For some students it was a revelation, "I really can practice for four hours!"

Steely said that a practice journal can help make practice more efficient for students, but it depends on their personality. Some will write pages upon pages; others will resist writing anything at all.

Slowik said that it's important for a teacher to establish hard lines around important things, but much of the rest of it will happen in its own way. "We don't make great students happen," he said, "we draw them out."

"I think having high expectations is the key -- and assuming the student can get to them and helping them get there," Castleman said.

"That belief then becomes their belief," Slowik said.

Rodland talked about the value of spending time learning one's art and craft. Studying in Germany gave her a chance to explore a slower pace. While in the U.S. "everybody has to fund their education," working while they are at school and also trying to minimize the time and money spent; in Germany, that pressure is not as great.

"Part of practice is sitting there and thinking, feeling it through," she said. "You really do have to defend your quiet time because that's your creative time. The music doesn't come on your schedule."

You also have to prioritize.

"You can get smart about knowing which corners to cut," she said. Hint: Don't cut corners on practice!

Castleman noted that the last 10 years have seen an explosion in new communication technologies, and today's student cannot afford to ignore the modern world.

"Given the way our society works, having the ability to shift focus is important," she said. So answer the text or the e-mail, but then go right back to your practice. That said, "We can't always be in our brains, spinning around, or we'll crash." She recommended a book called Thrive, by Ariana Huffington, to help get perspective on coping with the noisy and distracting world around us.

The new generation needs not only information, but information literacy. The Internet may give access to recordings of Heifetz, but it also will give us plenty of bad information, bad performances, bad editions of music.

"Being present is an important part of today's world," Slowik said. "Technology has changed the way we think. There have been advantages, but there are also serious limitations." Among them: a shorter attention span; "narrowcasting" as people self-select into tiny intellectual niches; and also "people are owning less knowledge." With the ability to Google anything, we carry less knowledge in our memories. That limits our thinking, because "when we own knowledge, we have pillars we can connect with independent thought."

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