Group Lessons or Why I Love Vivaldi

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Sometimes people ask me what composers I would like to meet. My answer is Vivaldi and Bach. Why? Other than their obvious talents as composers and musicians, it’s because they were fabulous teachers.

They are quite present every week when I give my group lessons. I usually get a pretty good turnout for these lessons, especially when my students start having fun. And we all know that if students have fun, they are more inclined to practice. I start the beginners playing up to the first eight songs in the Suzuki books with the more advanced students who play these songs in any position up to fifth, using whole bows, playing at the frog, the tip or balzato according to my whim of the moment. The beginners love playing with the advanced students, who get in a bit of extra technical work with this system, and they benefit greatly from playing with those who have a more mature sound, intonation and bow arm, not to mention participating in a great big noise (that’s how they see it at first). I have found that it’s much easier to teach a good bow arm and left hand position to students who have seen them on others not far from their own age.

The next step for beginners is playing rounds, usually starting out with “Frére Jacques” or something else simple. I form groups with more experienced players surrounded by the newbies who are instructed to watch the appointed head of the group, always putting the rank beginners in the first group as they often have a hard time coming in at the right time with the right notes in rounds if I put them in the second, third or fourth voice. After they get farther along there are other pieces, such as the Italian national anthem which I have arranged for various violin parts, the newer players playing basso continuo (transcribed). There are also other pieces written or arranged especially for students and sometimes I transcribe the cello parts for the beginners, if they are easy enough.

But my secret weapon is Vivaldi. Many teachers may not have (or think they have) a studio big
enough to form a string orchestra to play some of concertos he wrote for students. In fact, I wonder if most teachers realize that he wrote a method for learning the violin. I don’t know if anyone has noticed but neither he nor Bach (who had his wives give birth to a small orchestra whose members he surely all taught to play himself) had the violas play much on the C string, at least in the orchestral pieces I have transcribed. I think I know why. Continue reading

9 March 2017

Energy Vampires, or Letter to a Tired Teacher

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“How do you keep the students who are not giving their all from draining you? Since the majority of my students are not like this, I don’t think it is anything I’m doing or not doing, but I find it draining to deal with students like this, especially back to back.”

This is a question I received from a teacher. Indeed managing and conserving our energy is a big part of teaching. How do we stop students from draining our energy? Easy – make sure you only have perfect students. However, while there are studios that will send a child away when he shows up unprepared for the second time, most of us do not have this possibility or, even if we did, do not adhere to what I call the Procrustean Bed school of teaching – do what I say and how I say, Or Else. If you are this type of teacher, don’t bother reading on. You don’t have a problem. Your students do.

If, on the other hand, you are a normal teacher (like me) and have normal students (ditto), sooner or later you are going to be faced with uncooperative, disorganized and non-compliant students. What to do? How to protect yourself?

Teaching is an ineffable thing. You can’t see it or touch it. You can only feel it if you are involved in the process, or you can see its results. It is an exchange of energy. As long as that energy flows unimpeded, then everyone is fine. However, when that energy is blocked, teachers get drained. I have and have had my share of students who don’t practice and can attest that they can be exhausting. But over the years I have discovered three Very Important Principles: Continue reading

31 January 2017

Enjoy Your Work!

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Are you ever faced with an impossibly long teaching day and don’t know how you will get through it? Well, don’t despair; this happens to most if not all of us, I suspect. The other day a young violin teacher called me with exactly this problem. She asked me to say something, ANYTHING, that could help her. So I told her one of my favorite stories (number 55) that I also tell my students when needed. It goes like this:

My mother gave birth to me when she was very young and, being a spoiled only child, completely inexperienced. So the two grandmothers wisely decided to get a nurse to come and help my mother for a week when we came home from the hospital. At the end of that week, my mother tried to change my diaper by herself. Those were the days of bulky cloth diapers and unwieldy (and potentially lethal) diaper pins. She just couldn’t get it right, got very upset, then started thinking about how many diapers she was going to have to change before I could manage things on my own and got hysterical. My father had to put her to bed and the nurse called the grandmothers to tell them she thought it would be a good idea if she were to stay another week. What happened? My mother did learn to change diapers and went on to have four more babies without ever batting an eye again at diapers, glass bottles, rubber nipples (you had to sterilize them back then after every use) and other technical problems of baby management.

The fact that my mother continued to have babies meant either she wasn’t too bright* or that she had learned something important from this diaper changing episode: you take one diaper at a time. Well, we teachers don’t change diapers but we do change students every so many minutes and, as I told my young friend, we should take one student at a time and must certainly never think about how many lessons we have to give before the end of the day, not to mention how many we have to give before we can take a vacation. There are three reasons for this: Continue reading

18 December 2016