Charles Avsharian: 10-Minute Violin Teaching Strategies

August 3, 2023, 4:52 PM · You may know him as the co-founder of Shar Music, but Charles Avsharian is also a violin pedagogue who has taught for 60 years, having studied as a youth with the great Ivan Galamian.

Laurie and Charles Avsharian's Laurie Niles and Shar Founder Charles Avsharian.

Last spring at the American String Teachers Association conference in Orlando, Florida, Avsharian gave a talk describing "10-Minute Teaching Strategies" - ways to get to the heart of the issue, simplify and teach a violin student what he or she needs to know.

He talked about lesson strategies as well as specifics about the bow arm, violin hand, and how to practice. Here is some of the wisdom he shared:

General Lesson Strategies

First: invest in a mirror for your studio, so that you can teach your students to use the mirror to analyze their own playing. It helps to see what you are doing!

When teaching a private lesson, Avsharian advised that teachers "only work on one issue at a time, whether it's Twinkle or the Shostakovich concerto."

In other words, "if working on producing an ideal sound, do not also comment, 'That’s out of tune,' or 'Hold your violin up,' or 'There is a better fingering'.... deal only on the issue of sound," he said. "Conversely, if intonation is the issue, no commenting about sound, shifting, posture..."

When a student is playing, don't constantly interrupt their playing to interject instructions. "Once they start playing, let them play it straight through," he said. Changes have to come gradually. "Don't dramatically change everything the student is doing," he said.

During the lesson, "look at your student's hands and never stop looking," he said. "Galamian never took his eyes off the student." Not only does that kind of focus and attention help the teacher analyze the student's motions, but also "it's flattering to the student - the student knows that the teacher has nothing else on his mind."

Avsharian remembers vividly, the one time when Galamian looked out the window during his lesson. It was a lesson for which he had not properly prepared, and "I knew I was in trouble!" Avsharian said. "We never talked about it, but I never came unprepared again."

When it comes to clock management, Avsharian believes in punctuality. If you have an hour-long lesson, then "start on the hour and go 50 to 55 minutes," he said. "Allow five minutes at the end for a polite goodbye and to make your notes."

A teacher "must always practice," Avsharian said. "Practice what your students play." Ask yourself, what are the details? What are the techniques involved?

It's also important to have fun and to make the learning process enjoyable for children.

The Right Hand: Teaching Bowing Techniques

When it comes to holding the bow, it is possible to hold it like a baseball bat - "and I can even get a great sound," he said, "unfortunately I can't do anything but saw."

So it's important to teach a flexible but strong bow hand that feels natural to the student.

You can start with the fingers curved, like fingers would be to play the piano - then flip over the hand. The bow rests between the first joints of the fingers, then the thumb is across from the second finger (middle finger).

To analyze a student's bow arm, you can break it down to a number of basic movements from each part of the arm. (Note: these movements relate to the violin and to playing - a physical therapist might quibble with the particulars. But the way Avsharian described them is useful in our thinking as violinists.)

First the shoulder - it is stable, it doesn't need to move for the bow. The upper arm has four movements: up and down, left and right (side to side). The forearm has six movement: up, down, left, right, and rotating clockwise and counter clockwise. The rotating may seem like a wrist or hand movement, but it actually comes from the forearm.

The wrist (or hand) has four movements - also up, down, right and left. Then the fingers are "springs" and have five basic movements: up and down (variations on curling and straightening), right and left. And the fifth is rolling the bow in the fingers to flatten the hair (or otherwise control its angle).

Avsharian described the movements well, and it's helpful to see him demonstrate. I started shooting this video when he was talking about the forearm (so unfortunately it misses his description of the shoulder and upper arm!):

Breaking down these movements can help a teacher identify what a student is or is not doing, and it can also help describe those motions to the student and isolate them for practicing.

Sound Production

When it comes to sound production, it always comes down to the three fundamentals: speed, pressure and sounding point (the place where the bow touches on the string - or the place on the "highway.").

"Let's say someone makes a bad sound," he said. Which of those three fundamental things is off? Often it's possible to "change one of those three things, and then it sounds good."

What do you do if a student is squeezing the stick? "Get rid of fingers," Avsharian said. By that, he meant, take fingers off the bow until it's impossible to squeeze.

Of course, the bow is a tricky item - at the tip you have no leverage, at the frog it's all weight. What is the cure? Practicing martelé strokes. "Martelé" means "hammer" in French; in terms of a bow stroke, it is a strong and fast stroke.

"Martelé is the greatest single practicing tool we have," Avsharian said. He teaches it in three steps:

  1. Rotate (or pronate) the wrist to put "weight" into the string
  2. Shoot the bow
  3. Halt, while taking the weight off the bow

You can start with just three-inch bows. "The halt is a magic thing," Avsharian said. You can use Kreutzer Etude No. 7 to practice martelé with string crossings - in that case, "the halt comes on the new string."

Another helpful stroke is "collé," which translates to "picking" - a stroke done with the fingers, right at the frog. Again, you can use Kreutzer 7 also to practice this stroke.

When looking at issues of tone quality, it's helpful to think about the fact that the string moves, or vibrates, in order to make sound. Thus, "every time the bow changes, the string stops ringing." The string continues to ring if you lift the bow.

One habit that can develop in a student is to hesitate at either the tip or the frog, out of a sort of fear of getting through the bow change. "The less fooling around with the fingers (at the bow change), the better," Avsharian said. Another piece of advice: you can rotate the stick so that there is more hair touching the string at the tip and less at the frog, which helps balance the difference the issue of less "weight" at the tip and more at the frog.

You can also have the student turn the bow upside down, holding it near the tip instead of the frog, in order to make the challenge of the bow-change more pronounced and thus help the student to focus on the solution.

A slight increase in the bow speed can also help the bow change - likewise, "slowing down is suicide!"

The Left Hand: Teaching Finger Techniques

Avsharian also described an amusing hierarchy of left-handed fingers, ie. which ones are more capable than the others (we can, of course, argue over this!). Generally, the first finger is smartest, the second is not bad, the third is about 25 percent, and the fourth has no brains at all. Based on this, "the first finger is your anchor," he said. And considering the general lack of reliability in the rest of them, "the least amount of movement is best," he said, adding that "fingers are not popcorn - don't take a finger off unless you have to. Keep fingers in their place."

The key to controlling fingers in fast passages is to keep the fingers close to the string.

Practice Methods

When learning a fast passage, slow it down to get it right, and then try practicing it in rhythms.

“Solving technical problems has been laid out in numerous etudes and scale studies. No matter whichever method book- Galamian , Sevcik, Schradieck, etc., the most important issue, and one ignored almost 100 percent of the time, is the execution," he said. "That is, performing the practice method with exact precision. If not executed exactly, then rhythms, accent series, bowing patterns and more - those methods will not solve the problem."

"Mistakes happen almost always on string crossings and shifts," he said. To practice string crossings, you can practice double stops where they occur. To practice shifts, treat the note before the shift like a hot potato - practice getting off that note as fast as possible.

In Conclusion

"Never take your eyes off the student," Avsharian said, and come up with creative ways to address issues. For example, the right hand can teach the left. Make a detaché passage into a slur, so the left hand has to come along for the ride. Or if the fingers are uneven in a slurred passage, force the issue by playing the passage spiccato so the left hand has to keep up.

Avsharian recommended two books for teachers, first the one written by his mentor, Ivan Galamian, Principles of Violin Playing & Teaching; and also a new book by Eloise Hellyer, 1 Teaches 2 Learn.

"There is no such thing as a mistake when a student plays," Avsharian said. Their playing offers information, and a teacher has to be attentive to all of it. Telling a student to simply "play it again" offers no solutions. It's the teacher's responsibility listen closely and help the student discover ways to practice and make progress.

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August 4, 2023 at 04:46 AM · A real master teacher. Thanks for sharing that summary, Laurie.

August 4, 2023 at 11:41 AM · Thank you for this wonderful recap, Laurie! My teacher from age 7 through high school definitely subscribed to the "Never take your eyes off the student" approach. Mr. Avsharian is correct that it is flattering to the student and also creates an environment in which the student knows there is little room for being unprepared. At least that was the impact my teacher's focus had on me.

August 4, 2023 at 01:58 PM · A teacher "must always practice," Avsharian said.

Not only the violin. Teaching is not automatic. Prepare and be proactive, not reactive. Problem solve when the student is away. Sweat it if the student is competitive.

August 6, 2023 at 06:26 PM · Sharing that interview is a great service.

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