Mind, Body and Don’t Forget Soul

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“I would love ideas about how to take an advanced player who plays “mechanically” and get her to “feel” the music a bit more?  I should add that she does tons of dynamics and plays very aggressively. It just doesn’t come off in a natural, organic way. It feels canned.”

This was a great question on a web site and, I fear, is a very common problem. Instead of thinking how to get students to play expressively, I often find I first have to deal with what blocks them from doing it.

For me, the point of playing music is to live where you don’t. In my way of seeing things, a human being has three components: physical, mental and emotional. Very few activities I can think of require us to use all three of these components to the highest level at the same time. Music does. Playing music expressively makes us feel like whole human beings and is a wonderful experience – one reason why some students are willing to practice many hours a day. Most of us tend to identify with one aspect more than the other two. The teachers therefore have to modify their approach according to where their students tend to spend most of their time.  My explanations to children who live in their intellect, for example, are often quite different from those to students who live primarily in their bodies (some of my students are serious dancers or athletes).

The student mentioned above has no doubt thought out everything – dynamics, phrasing, fingering, bowing, etc. But she just can’t let herself live in the other parts of herself. You can hear her thinking when she plays and that is what is bothering her teacher. Students who are stuck in their heads (which society generally praises, values and promotes), are not aware that there is more to themselves than what is going on in their heads or their bodies.

How to approach students who may even be afraid of what they can’t see or think through?  You talk to them. They need explanations, intellectual ones. You can give all kinds of musical examples to students like this but it will mean nothing to them unless you try to explain the mystery that is music and help them have an intellectual insight. This way you give them an approach they can understand to help them accede to the other aspects of themselves.

The way we teach music is often just like sending a child to house of worship, teaching him to pray without ever telling him there is a God – if she has “talent” she’ll figure it out on her own! Obviously, those who give their children a religious education, talk about God from the beginning of their children’s lives. Why should we not talk about the spiritual aspects of making music when needed? I often tell my students that playing music is another form of prayer or meditation, a manipulation of subtle energy. Music is about transcendence, trusting our minds and bodies to do the job they have been trained for so we can free our spirits to express something more. It is not thinking only about ourselves or how we are going to put our definitive stamp on the music. So far, I fear that the student mentioned above thinks she is just the sum of her body and her mind.

There are other factors that sometimes block students from expressing themselves musically.  Here is a list of a few of them: Continue reading

12 July 2017

Giving Up

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“How do you cope with ending lessons with a student who you so desperately want to help? I’m not reaching this student and it’s affecting me negatively at this point.”

Another excellent question from an anguished teacher. My answer? I wouldn’t give up. In fact, I never give up no matter how provoked. Before you think I’m preaching from a high horse, know that I am speaking from painful experience.

Once, at the beginning of my career, I had two students who were driving me crazy. I must have given the same lesson twenty times to each of these children. Neither had any help at all from their parents. I thought that the parents were wasting their money and when I informed them that their children weren’t getting anywhere, they appreciated my honesty and stopped the lessons. No teacher or parent has ever told me I did the wrong thing.

Oh wait, there is one: me. On reflection, I later realized that I had my priorities all wrong. What were they?

  1. My comfort. As you may have noticed above, I said they were driving me crazy so I certainly wasn’t thinking about my students.
  2. That the parents weren’t getting their money’s worth. Who am I to decide that?

This brings us to the problem of what is the teacher’s responsibility? To whom does the teacher owe allegiance and best efforts? Whom should the teacher be worrying about? What is a teacher’s bottom line?

I have come to the conclusion that my responsibility is to the student and only the student. I have now and have had my fair share of unhelpful, indifferent and even obstructing parents, parents who don’t/won’t listen or take my advice but I don’t give up. While I realize you can’t save children from their parents, you can certainly make things a little easier by having them know that at least one adult in their lives is on their side. How do you do this? You teach them no matter what. No matter if they have practiced badly or have been given the wrong information, no matter if their behavior is less than perfect, you persist. Why? Two reasons: Continue reading

27 June 2017

A Good Bow Arm Doesn’t Exist in a Vacuum

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“What are your best methods and philosophies for helping kids learn to play expressively from the beginning? What does that mean to you?”

This question was posted on a music teachers site and got me thinking…. Most of my philosophy and my practice of it can be summed up in the following vignette:

During a lesson with a beginning student who has a very strong personality, I asked what she wanted to transmit when she plays: herself or what the music suggests? I then gave two demonstrations: the first how she looked when she played for me (and I hammed it up), asking her if I wasn’t transmitting that I was a willful child who was only thinking of myself (and don’t I look silly?). The second was how she ought to look and play, asking if she thought I was transmitting what was good for the music. Of course, she liked the second option much better and then proceeded to play the first line of one of the Twinkle variations very well indeed with a very nice sound – for the first time. She’s on the road! She is going to forget sometimes and her parents and I will have to remind her, but she has understood two Very Important Principles:

  1. You are always transmitting something when you play, whether you think you are or not.
  2. You have to decide what you want to transmit: yourself or the music.

And she is only four years old.

After many years of teaching, I never cease to be amazed at what you can expect from children – even the youngest ones. While this little girl is certainly very bright, I cannot say that she is musically precocious. She just needed to be told what music is all about in terms she could understand.

A child is always expressing himself from the very first time he puts the bow on the string. He is expressing himself within the limits of his technique and his awareness of what music is all about. These are both things a teacher can do something about from the beginning.

                                                               Technique

I wish I had a dollar for every colleague or recital observer who made the following comment: “Your students are so musical!!!” My answer to them is that it’s because my students have control of their bow arms and that they are, as a rule, not more or less talented than any other child. You can’t be expressive without technique. You also, in my opinion, cannot separate musical technique from instrumental technique. Continue reading

5 June 2017