Teaching/learning the slow stuff

March 12, 2017 at 04:08 PM · I've noticed a pattern both here on v.com and elsewhere on social media -- lots of students posting about the repertoire they've done, which includes lots of stuff that's fast, and practically nothing that's slow, other than perhaps a stray Thais Meditation or one of the Beethoven Romances. That includes only learning the first movement of a concerto, or only learning the outer/fast movements of a concerto. In general, this is all teacher-assigned repertoire.

This was the way that I learned as a child, too. (I didn't even learn Thais. I only learned a Beethoven Romance because I auditioned for a youth orchestra that had a requirement for a slow work as well as a fast one. But I bypassed every slow movement of a concerto as well as pretty much every other slow work that students are likely to be taught -- no Vitali Chaconne either, say.)

I'm curious what the teachers think about this practice -- why it's done, and it's pros and cons -- and for all players, what everyone thinks about how well their sequence of repertoire has served them in the long run.

(A sideline to this is teachers who choose most repertoire specifically for competition reasons, which may mean constantly focusing on highlighting the student's strengths while incidentally improving weaknesses, rather than deliberately targeting weaknesses -- better in the long term for the student, or dangerous?)

Replies (20)

March 12, 2017 at 04:15 PM · This practice is odd. I'm not a pro, but it sounds odd. I've definitely learned some slow music. Strange.

March 12, 2017 at 04:32 PM · An important aspect of slow music for students (and everyone else!) is that in performance there are very few places to hide, or perhaps even none. Every error of tuning, timing, tone, or phrasing will be there for everyone to hear.

March 12, 2017 at 08:43 PM · When I met my current teacher, I wanted to polish Kreisler's Praeludium and Allegro, which I had just performed. She instead made me work on Kreutzer #1, a piece of adagio by some obscure Italian composer whose name I forgot, but I remember it has a lot of dynamic changes that requires constant attention being paid to the bow arm. Also, Bach D minor partita 1st and 3rd mvts, etc. The fast stuff I worked on were mostly scales and arpeggios in various rhythms and bowings. The idea is that you have to have decent sound and be expressive with the bow, the rest comes easier. I have a pretty agile LH fingers and my LH and RH coordination is not bad, maybe this is added reason for me to put focus on the bow arm.

I had a young Russian teacher (in her 30s at the time) before and she told me that in Russia when she grew up, it was all about the LH, somewhat similar to the trend in China when I grew up. My current teacher were taught by Ayla Erduran and Burkhard Godhoff, and they seem to really care about producing a nice personal tone. I guess it's also a choice whether you still want the sound of "bygone days" like this:

March 12, 2017 at 11:11 PM · My violin teacher was a graduate of the Suzuki School in Japan, and a major tenet of Suzuki's teaching was acquiring a beautiful tone. As my teacher put it, an audience listens to the quality of the tone more than anything else, whether it is an instrument of the voice. Slow music teaches you to use the best tone you can.

March 13, 2017 at 01:02 AM · I think both hands must be equally good at their actions. Sound is more important than anything else.

March 13, 2017 at 02:40 AM · Trevor, I tend to agree. I also studied voice and the same principle applies -- it starts and ends with the support of your breath if you want to be a good singer. Of course you have to sing in tune with good agility and range, but the quality of the voice and its projection by far the most important thing to work on. Violin is a singing instrument. It's not a trumpet so it can't be too loud, but it has to sing. Almost all the concerti I've worked on (Bach, Mozart, Bruch, Barber, Dvorak, Mendelssohn, etc) have the juiciest slow movements that I never get tired of playing.

March 13, 2017 at 02:55 AM · Well, to answer Lydia's original question about why teachers might avoid teaching slow movements....

I have on occasion (and never with a Lydia-level or even semi-close-to-Lydia-level student) skipped a Vivaldi or Bach slow movement when teaching a marginal student for two reasons: (1) the student does not have the maturity or patience to learn it; (2) I don't have the maturity or patience to listen to the student playing it.

I'll just be showing myself out now.

March 13, 2017 at 08:17 AM · Mary Ellen: I laughed.

March 13, 2017 at 02:11 PM · I thought it was hilarious, too.

When I was a teenager, I heard that kids (including teenagers) didn't have the maturity to play slow works. Maybe our teachers just didn't have the patience to listen to us mangle them. :-)

March 13, 2017 at 02:27 PM · I think keeping a steady pulse is more challenging in the slower movements.

March 13, 2017 at 02:58 PM · Improvisation over a slow tempo blues is the most difficult thing for a soloist and the band to carry off. It means working with just 3 chords - played over and over again, slowly. Only 'Hall of Fame' caliber performers do this well.

March 13, 2017 at 04:04 PM · Fortunately I never had this problem - my teacher was happy to get me playing Chanson de Nuit, and the slow movements of Corelli sonatas and Telemann fantasias, then starting Mozart and Bruch concerti with their slow movements. Perhaps because he was trying to compensate for my tendency as a teenager to try to play everything very quickly. :)

March 13, 2017 at 04:04 PM · I think Lydia's question underscores the main problem with "graded" learning, where syllabuses are put together by nonperforming teachers for similar types of teachers, as is the case with the RCM. The main goal is to cover elements of what it is to learn violin playing, not to learn how to become a performer, the latter whole being different and greater than the parts, a problem Yixi has raised in other threads.

With 'less serious' students, such as in public school strings programs, I've had to follow the practical needs of students, preparing them for curriculum requirements, which again doesn't necessarily fulfill the actual learning needs of the individual student.

Time is of course a limiting factor too. You can only get so much done in a school year and most of the time gets spent on rudimentary things, like learning notes, and you end up cramming for learning the expression.

So, is there a way to integrate expression from the start, as Yixi insists we must do? I used to think it largely depended on individual ability, but maybe it has more to do with overly pragmatic concerns, like following a curriculum or meeting testing or competition requirements, rather than what it is to strive for artistic ideals.

March 13, 2017 at 05:32 PM · Of course, I must insist. How else can I contribute without being contrary? :D

Speaking non-performing teachers, I guess there are nonperforming due to age or illness but they had the chops in the past. Then there are those who simply don't know how to play. I met some of the later, and honestly, I don’t know how they teach anything, fast or slow stuff. I mean do they diagnose issues and device ways to fix them for a student? I saw a couple of such teachers in an amateur musician summer camp. One played like a beginner. Yet, people told me she was a good teacher and produced fine young violinists. Clearly, she wouldn’t be able to demonstrate properly how to produce a good sound, or a proper shift. I guess one thing they can do is by following some program, using a metronome to run through a whole bunch on the programmed stuff with their students, like I taught myself when I was young and teacherless back in China.

March 13, 2017 at 06:01 PM · There are some teachers who aren't great players but are nevertheless really, really good at teaching beginners. They've got just enough playing skills to be able to convey a basically decent set-up to a beginner, and to eventually send them on their way to someone who takes them to the next stage. Also, teaching young children is a specialized skill unto itself; keeping a 3-year-old engaged and willing to practice is a non-trivial task.

Also, don't forget the teachers that are charismatic and whose students (or students' parents) love them, and thus get a good reputation, but who don't necessarily produce students that actually play especially well. Plus there's a species of such teacher whose students play flashy repertoire that's advanced for their age / years of study, and do so badly -- but may win competitions nevertheless.

There are also some significant number of teachers who are excellent players but who don't make a living from performing, and might never have -- they settled into teaching and that's that. It probably is worth asking what constitutes "performing" teacher, too. How many paid appearances a year does someone have to make before they're considered a performer?

March 13, 2017 at 06:53 PM · It probably is worth asking what constitutes "performing" teacher, too. How many paid appearances a year does someone have to make before they're considered a performer?

Very good question. People will have different definitions. For me, since the violin repertoire is full of solo pieces, a performing teacher, at the very minimum, needs to be someone who is able to understand how some of the solo pieces are put together. He/she should be able to play or performed some of them, even if he/she is not currently playing as soloist. Incidentally, I consider a professional chamber musician a soloist. If someone is actively performing as a concertizing soloist/recitalist, a chamber musician, or playing in a professional orchestra, then that's a performing musician in my book.

March 13, 2017 at 09:58 PM · Back in the day, my playing completely changed when a new teacher focused on slow, relatively simple pieces to enhance my tonality. He didn't just throw in the slow pieces as some sort of obligatory thing; he really knew what he was trying to get me to see with them.

I think it's sad how few young players these days have an ability to play slowly and beautifully. Seems teachers focus mostly on fireworks.

I have one student who I've spent about the last year with on just slow pieces. And now when he goes back to the fast stuff, the sound is entirely changed. The slow stuff made the fast stuff 100x better.

March 13, 2017 at 10:54 PM · As Yixi said, I'm thinking more of people who understand performance, rather than those with ability to perform themselves. There's no correlation between performance ability and teaching ability. Some of the most ineffectual teachers I've seen are natural performers. I should've differentiated between performance oriented and curriculum oriented, or something like that. I think most great pedagogues are those who commit to teaching very early in their careers. They trade something of themselves to be able to observe students so critically, in such detail. On Lipsett:

After almost 35 years of teaching, Lipsett concedes, he finds it difficult to listen to a violin concerto the way most listeners do. He tends to lose the relaxed perspective of the concert-goer – and sometimes it galls him.

“I’ve trained myself to have such a professionally critical ear,” he says, “that I find that I don’t like the music in the same way as maybe I used to.”

But then, sometimes, something magical can happen. “If the music just grabs me and takes me somewhere, then I know in my mind something really good has happened,” he says. “It gets me out of that [critical] mode.”

March 14, 2017 at 07:05 PM · Playing slow teaches perfect intonation, vibrato and esp. Bow control and conservation, as well as better use of steady rhythm and perfectly measured rubato.

Can you be called a violinist without these? :)

March 14, 2017 at 07:57 PM · The ultimate in slow pieces has to be Arvo Pärt's Spiegel im Spiegel. Anne Akiko Myers does an amazing job of it. I was so enthralled that I bought the sheet music and from it created a MIDI file so I could have our electronic piano play accompaniment.

And then I tried to play it...

It was such a terrifying experience - even in the privacy of our music room - that I put it on the shelf and haven't had the nerve to look at it again. Such total exposure, such an unforgiving demand for pure and perfect tone...

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