Dumbing Down

May 4, 2015 at 03:38 PM · Early teenagers with tape on everything, yet they have a good vibrato, they call 1/8 and 1/4 notes tee and ta ta, they have to write the fingers numbers over the notes before they can play it, they have to go through a little rhyme before they can tell you what note is represented by the space or line of the staff, suppressing creativity, adulation for poor playing...

What are some dumbing down (making things too easy, doing too much for them) techniques that drive you crazy? Do you fine these techniques work or, like in my case, the students don't learn the real or easy ways of doing things after years of playing, and then retraining becomes a grind.

Replies (29)

May 4, 2015 at 04:26 PM · Like using a shoulder rest? Just kidding. :)

May 4, 2015 at 04:36 PM · In my early 'teens my cello teacher would tell me to close my eyes and then play a note he'd chose at random, which could be anywhere on the fingerboard, and he'd tell me with which finger and on which string to play it. Tough in the beginning (and the best teachers were, and still are, tough), but that training has stood me in good stead ever since. In my mature years I've used it of my own volition when learning the violin.

Half a century ago "dumbing down" was unknown, either as a phrase or as a method of "teaching" in any subject.

May 4, 2015 at 04:54 PM · Yes, let's not baby these kids.

If they can't handle the heat, they best step aside for someone who can...

*sarcasm alert*

As an adult learner, if I did not have finger tapes to know where to put my fingers for the first phase of my education, I would likely have been overly frustrated at my lack of progress.

May 4, 2015 at 06:45 PM · Dumbing Down, as you folks call it, has enabled thousands of talents to be revealed, which would have been ignored otherwise.

As a child, I might not have "handled the heat", but I'm the only one who should decide whether I "step down" or not!

May 5, 2015 at 12:36 AM · What we need is a 'Whiplash' style of teacher for the violin.

"You will never be any good until somebody has a thrown a violin at you. '

Perhaps we have finally found a good use for all those VSO's ?

May 5, 2015 at 02:49 AM · Oddly I find myself in agreement with Dave to some degree. I don't find the use of "dumbing down" a bad thing if it speeds the learning process, but there does come a time where moving away from some of these things is only in the benefit to the player/student (i.e. memorizing note names vs using mnemonics). For communication purposes, it would be beneficial to refer to notes by their name, instead of "low 2", "high 3", etc. Finger tapes, as mentioned above can save a student a lot of frustration in the beginning, but become an impingement if the student relies predominantly on their visual faculties, as opposed to their aural.

I guess in short, what I'm saying is "dumbing down" isn't a bad thing if it helps the student. It only becomes a bad thing when it hinders later progress.

May 5, 2015 at 04:05 AM · > For communication purposes, it would be beneficial

> to refer to notes by their name

While we should not "dumb down" concepts to the point where teenagers that should be musically literate are still stuck with entry-level skills, it is not helpful to try to generalize that all such approaches, such as the terms "high two" and "low two," or visual aids for fingering and bowing are bad. They are developmentally appropriate for children within a determined range of cognitive ability, and should be used when appropriate.

May 5, 2015 at 04:42 AM · There are no wrong ways to learn the right things.

June 8, 2015 at 01:12 AM · Am I reading a lot of "ends justifying means?" Guess who said, "In the end only results matter."? I do not see this in terms of Dumbing Down but rather a lack of healthy strategies that support beginning students of all ages. There also seems to be little understanding of process vs performance. Has anyone read Benedict Carey's HOW WE LEARN?

June 8, 2015 at 04:20 AM · It kills me when I get college students coming to see me for remedial help...and we have to do rhythmic training and one octave scales.

Somewhere along the way, their college/university did not bother to care whether this student they were graduating would be able to have a career or not. They took their tuition money and then washed their hands of them after graduation.

June 8, 2015 at 08:59 AM · Healthy strategies?

All students will need the same groups of skills,

pitch sensitivity and anticipation, tactile and kinetic developement, targeted but non-invasive use of visual clues (e.g. finger-patterns, sheet music). But individuals vary a great deal in the order in which they use, and best learn, their aural, tactile, kinetic and visual faculties.

The various "tricks" used to get a quick but good "result" are the tip of a fascinating ice-berg..

Gene, of course all teachers must transmit skills which will permit all students to go as far as they can and wish. I imagine this was included in what Laurie called "the right things"?

June 9, 2015 at 03:06 PM · I' m wondering why the OP used "we" in his description of poor teaching habits, as if the practices are so widespread to be considered universal.

Good teachers adjust their methods to what the student needs, and what they are capable of, and how much they practice.

June 10, 2015 at 01:46 PM · Shortcuts are as useful or useless as we allow them to be. With private students, including some 6-year-old newbies, I use note names right away, and minimal markers. In school group lessons, up to ten beginners once or twice a week, I give letter names, but also finger-numbers and designations for "high" and "low" fingerings, and two to four tapes. I could have been all year getting some kids/groups to equate A-B-C-C#-D with spots on the fingerboard. Where's the sense in that? Good teachers build it into their sequence of instruction/curriculum to transition beyond any of those stopgaps. There's a lot to be said for a variety of methods to get at the basic "what you want learned".

June 10, 2015 at 05:48 PM · I think that Suzuki had a great way of looking at this (although in translation it creates a bothersome dangling preposition):

Meet the student where he/she is at.

That means that if your student is three years old, you meet that student somewhere that involves simple language, short attention span, no reading yet, big movements, etc.

If your student is a 25-year-old who took piano lessons for 12 years prior to violin, that means you meet that student somewhere that involves being already fluent in music reading, a high level of manual dexterity, a need to understand and drill new actions but probably a well-honed ability to do so, etc.

If your student is 40, has never read music never played an instrument: Adult mindset, will need to start from the very beginning with both physical skills and reading skills,

Etc. etc. A teacher has to meet every student at a different place, but there are many considerations: age, experience, physical fitness, etc.

Also, whatever "crutches" are needed in the beginning, you don't hesitate to use them, but you discard them once the skill is learned by the student.

June 10, 2015 at 06:04 PM · There's also the fact that some students are able to let go of "crutches" more easily than others. It's easy to blame the crutch, but if the student has trouble moving on from it, then he may not have done very well without it in the first place.

June 11, 2015 at 02:10 AM · Obviously you wouldn't teach a 4 year old the same way you'd teach a 18 year old. I think it's important to realize a 4 year old beginner with talent, and the right training will learn things in most instances more quickly, and naturally than a adult beginner. Take a look at all of the great child prodigies on YouTube with maybe 4 years of playing experience. Are there ever prodigious adults with 4 years of study? So I think the concept of 'dumbing down' doesn't really hold any water. We should not underestimate the power of the adolescent human mind.

June 11, 2015 at 10:13 AM · The comparison between children and adults doesn't hold water either. How many 40 year olds do you think are enrolled in violin lessons by their parents? And how many 4 year olds? I think you'll never have the samples to legitimately compare speed of learning between very young and adult beginners. And why would one even want to do that? Which point would it prove?

Ideally, a teacher teaches any student according to ability, previous knowledge, ambition and learning style, regardless of age (or, I would add, other random variables). My first teacher couldn't do that; she was just too set in her routine with very young beginners (and she may be excellent at teaching them!).

My second teacher can and does. He never entertains any a priori theories about what I can or cannot do, given my advanced age. He just establishes what I need to learn, teaches that tenaciously and I practice accordingly. Then I get to make music with other people, which is my wish. End of story.

June 11, 2015 at 06:47 PM · Why yes, I do think there are prodigious adults with 4 years of study. And, you DO see them on youtube or wherever. They're just not as obvious or popularly shared because: cute. A 6 year old is playing a solid Vivaldi A minor and everybody goes WOW check this out. It's all over YourFavoriteSocialMedia.com in two clicks. Some 45 year old playing the same piece just as well or better, with equal or less study time, and all you get is Concerto for Crickets in B flat, Opus WhoCares. Another thing to consider is that your average adult, even after four years, is far less likely to post a video of their playing, than beaming Mom and Dad of their budding Heifitz. They are out there if you poke around enough.

June 11, 2015 at 07:08 PM · And let us also remember that things are often disparagingly called a "crutch" with a negative connotation.

Yet, when someone is somehow incapacitated, a crutch is a truly marvelous and wonderful thing!

You don't just say "get up and walk, you slacker!" you help them as best you can until they can do it on their own.

June 11, 2015 at 08:12 PM · Steven, thank you for putting my thoughts into words, only a lot funnier than I could have.

June 12, 2015 at 07:42 PM · I realize this website and other such sites are kind of a ‘mecca’ for adult beginners who want to gather some thoughts and ideas about playing. That’s great and I commend everyone who chooses to study an art form. I learn things here all the time too!

I don’t want to seem disparaging to this group of people but it’s important to face the facts. I’ve performed and studied with many great world class players, and everyone of them started before the age of 10.

I've yet to hear a 20 year old beginner who can in a few years learn to play the concertos by Tchaikovsky, Paganini, or a moderately difficult showpiece proficiently (getting from beginning to end, for memory, with good rhythm/intonation, hitting more than 90% of the notes etc.).

There are many 10 year olds after a few years of study who can do this hence my stance towards not 'dumbing down' training.

The fact that there are no videos of adult beginners playing like Menuhin has nothing to do with their parents not being able to videotape. These videos do not exist for a reason.

Should this reality make you stop playing? Of course not! My inability to play hockey in the NHL, doesn't prevent me from going to play hockey in an adult beer league with my friends. At the end of day, it's about enjoying what you do.

Sorry if this offended anyone. I know people have different sensitivity levels and I wish I could please everyone, but I can't.

June 12, 2015 at 09:27 PM · So, is the goal to train all child violinists to be prodigies?

I hear what you are saying about adult learners (I am one...), but aren't the majority of child students most likely best served by teaching them to most easily access the music and playing? And if the cream rises to the top, then in those particular cases you can take off the kid gloves and teach them "old school" high brow?

Aren't 98% of your child students likely to turn out to be in it for the simple enjoyment as well?

June 14, 2015 at 03:51 AM · I had an 18 year old beginner who started with Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, who in four years time made it all the way to play (at a high level) the Second Bach Partita and Lalo Symphonie Espagnole, played string quartets at several summer music festivals, and was a member of her university symphony for two years. During her time there she added music as her double major, and wrapped it all up by appearing in concert with me in Mozart's Clarinet Quintet before heading off to law school.

A bit of talent and a lot of hard work, as in 2-3 hours a day of practice, goes a long way. Had she started at age four or five and made the same progress, we would be delighted, no?

June 14, 2015 at 11:24 PM · Dave, I agree! You said it! "the students don't learn the real or easy ways of doing things (even) after years of playing, and then retraining becomes a grind." BTW: It was Adolph Hitler who said, "In the end, only results matter." Adrian, there are time efficient strategies for acculturation and aural development. This means that using fingerboard tapes is a reflection of deficient teaching in both areas; but since we fail to balance process and performance, opting instead for the apparent but short-term results that visual learning offers, we end up claiming that "only results matter." I have read pleadings by Suzuki experts re the inadvisability of fingerboard tapes but these seem to be falling on deaf ears.

June 15, 2015 at 05:37 AM · "Whiplash" reminds me of my childhood, save the language (mine was in Russian) and chair throwing (they were scary enough without that). And it wasn't jazz.

It was the best childhood I've ever had.

I am grateful to my teachers that yelled. And to this day, slightly annoyed at teachers that were too nice. Even if I like them as human beings and would gladly hang out with them.

I'm a student, not a puppy. Treat me accordingly. It may be tough, but in the end, it feels so good when you look back at it.

But that's just my 2 bits. I'm sure there are plenty of people who feel that a mean teacher almost put them off and are grateful for the nice one they had next. Still, maybe if those people had mean parents too... then it would work? Maybe it's a cultural thing.

Ahem, I digress. As for shortcuts; take none. Be uncompromising, demanding; even if you are "nice." If you give out grades, don't be afraid to give a poor grade. These are students; you should be more afraid that they'll turn out to be poor musicians than that they might be sad; let the parents worry about that. And remember, being sad is part of life; don't be afraid to be a little meaner than usual every once in a while. Instead of looking for the nicest way to say something, look for the way that will get the point across best (which may or may not be very nice).

Don't be afraid.

June 15, 2015 at 09:32 AM · Mark, I play music because it moves me, and I want it to move others. I am not trying to prove anything. My students find me kind, patient - and extremely demanding! And I don't know what kind of a week they have just had! People "survive" and do well because of their own qualities, not because of harsh teaching or parenting. We are all bound to suffer sometimes, but to associate music and suffering (as opposed to hard work) is a perversion.

Helen, I find no conflict between ear, eye, and muscle! There is another poster who just cannot imagine that someone can use visual clues intelligently. My own strategies are multiple, and adapted to the very varied talents of my students.

I never use tapes as they are too thick, and are never in tune across all four strings; I use 2 or 3 dots, which rarely need replacing when they unstick. Of course neither tapes nor dots will ensure good intonation.

For many (not all) of us, visual clues can be a "trigger" for setting the hand in such a way that aural anticipation (audiation?) can make the necessary minute adjustments quickly. Fingers usually have to "drop" on the note.

I developed my own musicianship through singing, but we often have to play faster than we can sing, and always much more accurately.

That said, I find your videos and web pages highly stimulating.

June 15, 2015 at 01:31 PM · Overall, sounds like the conflict is between whether to dumb down or genius up.

I know that in many fields (especially mine - psychology), we learn how to put people into categories. Certainly, in education and teaching, there are many different theories, approaches, techniques, concepts, etc., that we use to categorize people and our teaching techniques and approaches.

But, indeed, it pays to remember that the "categories" we espouse represents only half the story. The other half is that each and every human being is a unique individual with a unique situation, history, emotional life, psychology, physiology, etc.

Figuring out - for each person - the interaction between the "categories' they fall into, the categories we believe in, and the person's uniqueness - that interaction is where the art of teaching is.

And I do believe that it is important to maintain that perspective, particularly in such a personal, emotional, intellectual, and interactive art as playing the music of some of the greatest geniuses in the history of civilization.

As the great philosopher, Henny Youngman, once said, "If at first you don't succeed, so much for skydiving." ... :)

Hope that helps.



June 15, 2015 at 04:36 PM · Adrian, I'd agree, usually; and if I ever teach, I'll probably be like you; nice and demanding.

Perhaps I should give an example of what I'm talking about; I was at a lesson, and I played an excerpt I was supposed to be working on. I knew it sounded pretty awful, but my professor told me "Ok, that was nice." That comment made me very uncomfortable; firstly, it wasn't true, and I knew it at least as well as he did; he then told me how to change it to fix it; but I found myself doubting him (not on purpose, just kinda reflexively). I mean, he told me I played it nice, right? So then what is there too fix? It was a mixed message, because he was trying to soften the blow. I end up having to go through the entire lesson translating what he said from "nice speak" to English, which is slow and distracting, and I'm sure that much gets lost in translation. I wish he would have (I am not taking lessons at the moment) just told me straight up: "that needs work." It needn't be mean, but it should be straight forward.

Also, I like it when teachers get passionate, whether that's with praise (I had a violin teacher who, if I played well, would break into a ridiculous smile, clap his hands in childish glee, and praise specific details), or a little angry (the same teacher got pretty mad at me a little later in the day after I fumbled a passage because I hadn't been listening to his instructions on how to move my wrist). I swallowed up that passion; that's what I mean when I say my childhood was like Whiplash; when I did music, it was engaging, and I wanted to practice, because I didn't want my teacher to be mad. And same with my parents. My mom would fume, and sometimes yell if I didn't practice for an hour a day. But my mom is the best, so I wanted to make her happy, and I would practice.

You know, there's a passage in the Bible about reaping what you sow; and one of these passages says that those who sow with tears will reap with joy; I feel that this works in music; just never take it too literally. The most important thing a teacher can do is make their students love music; and you have to be engaging to do that.

Most teachers are too focused on being nice. It makes music just a hobby; which is ok, but even as a hobby, it should be something one is incredibly passionate about; something one will argue about, have raised emotions about; and I don't see enough of that. I want to hear people argue about bowings angrily. The sound of friendships nearly falling apart due to the difference in preference of playing a D sharp on the A with a 3 versus a 4 in first position; only to come back thanks to their common ground that E flat in first should be played with a 4; that is music to my ears. I long to see fire in the eyes of musicians; too often, I see interest, and smiles, hear "that's so cool," but not "it was to die for, it was rapturous, it was everything" proclaimed in a loud voice for all the world to hear because you no longer care, all that matters is the way Vengerov played that Sibelius; I want to hear, to see a wild fire of passion for music and almost nothing else, even in hobbyists like myself. Yeah, we've got other responsibilities (kids, school, job, you name it), but music is so much more fun, right? Music makes it bearable. We are often passionate about music... but not fired up about it. Too focused on it being "right;" don't shift so "old-fashioned" there, don't vibrato Mozart so much, etc, etc, etc. I want teachers who don't care what other teachers think, and teach non-kosher musical styles. Go Daniel Shafran! Play that romantic-era flashy Dvorak!

Ok, as usual, I have gone off topic and written too much! It's something I'm very passionate about. Ah, well, I'll stop here.

June 15, 2015 at 07:32 PM · Mark, I think we agree on most things. I never flatter, and my compliments ring true and concern real qualities. "Good rythm, great tone, how did you find your intonation this time?"

Of course I can be genuinely pleased with the progress and then realise that the student is not, but as I said above, I don't know how their week went.

And after a justified compliment, the student will lap up the succeding advice!

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