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Student Becomes Teacher ?

Mendy Smith

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Published: November 26, 2014 at 3:56 AM [UTC]

Last week I had my first ever violin lesson. Not as a student - but as a teacher. This was odd enough given that I'm not a trained teacher by any stretch of the imagination, but also by the fact that I'm a violist.

It started when my colleague saw me hauling my viola out to my car after work to head to my private lesson (as a student) and mentioned that he was trying to learn violin via YouTube videos. After some discussion, it became apparent that he was getting frustrated quickly with his inability to pull any sort of a good tone from his instrument. It turns out that he is playing on a a fractional sized viola strung as a violin (sigh), but it was better than his e-bay violin. So, I offered to bring in my real (and good quality violin) the next day and give him a mini-lesson to get him started after office hours in the break room.

The next day we snuck into the break room after the end of the work-day with various instruments in tow. It was a violin-lesson flash mob-like experience. At one point we were interrupted by a guy working late walking in and being completely surprised by what was going on inside that break room. We couldn't help but laugh, and then proceed on.

I showed him how to figure out how to hold the violin comfortably. The technique I showed him is one that is written about in Primrose's book that has worked well for me over the years. He's starting with no shoulder-rest, but I had him try some sponges. The guy is well over 6' tall, thin as a rail with a very long neck. The sponges made a world of difference in his comfort & overall posture.

I then showed him how to hold the bow by holding out his hand and letting it relax and then bringing the bow to his hand. It took a little work to get his fingers in the right spots, but he got the concept after a few attempts. We then put the two together on open strings alone with a martele stroke. As expected, his bowing was not straight and he skimmed the surface of the string, so I held onto his bow hand and pulled it straight for a few strokes. He had a marvelous AHA moment when he realized that pulling a straight bow was a outward motion, not pulling back with his whole arm. After a few more minutes he had another AHA moment when he realized that it was the weight of the arm and not a pressing down that made the best tone.

And finally we got to making notes other than open strings. His intonation is actually pretty darned good. He has a good ear and corrects his intonation without the need of fingerboard tapes. I showed him how to work with open strings to check his intonation no matter the note. He already had a very firm theoretical and practical understanding of the various intervals. His problem was mostly in a collapsed hand and a weird thing he did with his fingers (curling them up when not in active use). We worked on correcting the collapsed hand and finger curling habit.

We then discussed practice techniques such as practicing in front of a mirror and what to look for, watching the sound point while practicing open strings, using open strings for intonation, and the "click" method for sustaining the tone from frog to tip. Basic and simple things to remember and take home.

Afterwards, he pulled out his mandolin and blew my socks off with his "fiddle" tunes. In exchange, I pulled out Bach and introduced him to the world of the C-string and let him give my viola a try.

At the end of the day, he went home excited to try out the practice techniques I showed him. We will do it again in a few weeks, and next time he promised to give me an intro to mandolin lesson. With any luck, a few of these "lessons" will get him past the initial frustration and into lessons with a "real" violin teacher. In the meantime, we have a really cool way to end a work day every once in awhile and get some "team-building" in while we are at it.

From Karen Collins
Posted on November 26, 2014 at 10:09 AM
Very cool!
From Sue Porter
Posted on November 27, 2014 at 12:33 AM
And the "click method" is . . . please?
From Mendy Smith
Posted on November 27, 2014 at 2:55 AM
The "click" exercise is basically this. Start at the frog, press the bow down on the string and control the movement of the bow (e.g. down-bow) so that the bow makes one and only one clear "click" when the pressure of the bow is released. Keep your bow there and repeat all the way to the tip. What you are doing is a controlled release of tension from the bow while keeping the bow firmly on the string at all times.

I think Buri explained it quite well a few years ago on this site.

From Christina C.
Posted on November 27, 2014 at 5:39 PM
I think you'd be a great teacher, Mendy. As I've mentioned before, I'm always struck by how well you seem to observe & analyze what's going on in your own playing and come up with approaches & solutions to problems. Lucky student!
Posted on December 3, 2014 at 3:01 AM
Many thanks for this warm and encouraging article. You paint such a lovely picture of two people eager to learn and share their experience.

Many thanks for a great little read,

Best wishes

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