Group Lessons or Why I Love Vivaldi

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.

Mind you, I have no proof, but this is my experience: years ago I started transcribing the viola parts in Vivaldi’s string concertos for the treble clef so my less advanced students could play them. Very rarely did I find notes on the C string. So I think that he wrote the viola parts so that young or less experienced violinists could play them. And I doubt he did this because there weren’t any good violists around – it’s just that the viola part was a convenient training ground for little violinists to learn to play in the orchestra. After all, were there many quarter and half size violas around in those days? The viola is also a big instrument for little hands even in reduced versions. And kids just love to play things that go rhythmically boom, boom, boom, boom.

But Vivaldi, clever teacher that he was, wrote the viola part to be much like an airplane ride – lots of total boredom (boomboomboomboom and long rests) punctuated by moments of sheer terror (the tricky parts which have some really good technical lessons). If you don’t believe me, look at the viola parts of the B minor or the F major concertos for 4 violins (L’Estro Armonico). So getting the students to practice the hard bits in otherwise easy and rhythmic viola parts gives them a great feeling of accomplishment – they can feel all grown up playing a lot of notes in an orchestra while learning and mastering valuable technical stuff that would be much harder to get them to practice in regular studies or pieces. Didactic psychology wasn’t invented in the modern age – Vivaldi was way ahead of us.

For the above reasons, I often say that my students may learn more in our group lessons than from any method I use in private lessons. Teaching kids to play in an orchestra emphasises that one important reason to play music is to play with others. Think how many other positive things students learn:

  1. They have to do their part well so the others can do theirs.
  2. If they don’t, everyone will suffer and the teacher will be in a decidedly altered state (and more suffering all around).
  3. They learn to listen more to others than themselves.
  4. They learn to count. No fudging. The orchestra neither waits nor goes faster for anyone. They also learn to count the rests and lots of empty measures which requires a great deal of concentration and physical control for the little ones.
  5. Students you can see are possibly heading for a solo career also benefit. Given that the vast majority of careers in music involves playing with other people in groups, the sooner your young Jascha or Anne-Sophie learns to play with others and enjoy it, the better.

I usually use Vivaldi’s concertos for string orchestra or for four solo violins with orchestral accompaniment. I will also take a concerto for solo violin and orchestra and break up that solo part into four or five parts to give each one of my more advanced students a chance to play a small solo – I don’t believe in giving only one student, whatever his or her capabilities, the responsibility of a whole solo concerto because it may not be a positive experience (what if he or she messes up?) and it is certainly not good for the group to single out any one student, no matter how talented. We have no prima donnas in our group – sometimes I ask experienced players to go play with the third or fourth violins who need help and no one bats an eye. They all know that the good of the group is paramount and it gives me great joy when I see that young people understand this. We have separate solo recitals for students to showcase their individual prowess. In any case, my students come up through the ranks. First with the cello parts in some of the easy concertos for string orchestra, then the viola parts, then orchestral violin and finally soloist (one of four or five, depending on the piece). They love it. The parents love it. And above all, I love it (teacher has to have some fun, too).

Of course, we play music of lots of other composers but what Vivaldi knew and imparted to his students via the music he wrote for them (and is now imparting to my students 300 years later) is that music is not just beautiful, it’s fun – and technique serves to make it even more fun. Of course I love Vivaldi the composer, as does most of the world, but I especially love Vivaldi the teacher, still going strong after all these years. You can’t have a much better legacy than that, can you?

Post author: Eloise Hellyer

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9 March 2017

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