I've recently become increasingly aware of a problem in teaching violin which seems more and more pervasive. I've heard both students and parents complain about working on a single piece for a very long time. Most often, I find the culprit of this frustrating course of study is the questionable method of teaching technique through compositions.
My first and most influential teacher was schooled at the Belgian Conservatory by Ovide Musin, and I maintain the method I studied and learned from him; a daily regimen of scales, etudes, and repertoire. I've added improvisation to that equation, but strongly believe in this tried-and-true method of developing musicians.
A colleague of mine once performed for a group of my students at a summer camp I was involved with. He played a virtuosic Paganini piece which impressed the young players in attendance. One student asked during the Q & A, "How long did it take you to learn that piece?" The reply was perfect: "It didn't take me long to learn that piece, but it took me many years of study to acquire the technique to be able to play it." That, to me, is the foundation of effective study. We teach technique through etudes which address specific aspects, and then present appropriate repertoire that incorporates those newly learned skills.
Too often I see students having to learn a new skill to play a passage in a piece they've been assigned. The result is they get bogged down and bored with the piece before they have even mastered the technical challenges of it.
For example, one of the earliest pieces I present is the inevitable Vivaldi Concerto in A minor. However, I won't present this famous standard to a student until they have studied third position in exercises and etudes. When they reach third position sections in the Vivaldi, it isn't a new concept, but a musical application of a skill they have already acquired. Likewise with other upper positions, double-stops, spiccato bowing, etc. The repertoire should only incorporate those skills the student has studied and not force them to confront something new and unfamiliar.
I'm always amazed at students who tell me their previous teacher didn't use a technique book, but that they had been working on this concerto or that sonata for the last 6 months!
Another consideration is the type of ensemble a student plays in, whether it's a local youth orchestra, school orchestra, or community orchestra. If the repertoire they're learning requires technical skills which exceed their present level of development, it will inevitably be a negative, discouraging and frustrating experience for the student. Placement auditions should minimize this possibility, but I still see it occur all too often. Nobody benefits when a student has to "fake it" and not contribute in a meaningful way to an ensemble.
So I would encourage both my teaching colleagues and students to be mindful of this basic principal, perhaps expressed simply and eloquently by jazz great John Coltrane: "Practice, practice, practice. Then forget it all and just play." I'd respectfully paraphrase that as "Study, study, study, then enjoy incorporating those skills you've learned by playing music where you aren't preoccupied solely by the technical demands." Happy music-making to all!Tweet
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