As a teacher, my philosophy could be summed up in the following statement: “consistent effort towards achievable goals produces lasting results”. My fundamental teaching style is grounded in the methodologies articulated in Galamian’s Principles of Violin Playing & Teaching. I also find Robert Gerle’s book, The Art of Practising the Violin to be a valuable resource for my students who often are still learning good practice habits.
I give my students at least two contrasting pieces, a scale and where necessary an etude to address certain deficiencies in their technical fundamentals. For instance, if fourth position is a weakness, I will assign an etude from Whistler’s Introducing the Positions vol. 2. Typically I like to have students playing a movement from Bach as well as a concerto movement, but I value input from the student and strive to balance their own interests with pieces that will challenge them as well. I feel that coupling technical challenges with music that resonates with a student’s musical interests motivates them to practice. When I assign a piece, I offer the student a part that has fingerings and bowings in it already so that lesson time is used directly towards learning the piece. However, I always encourage an individual student to come up with their own solutions. Learning how to bow and finger a part is a crucial part of the pedagogical process and discussing the pros and cons of choices is an important. Where necessary, I’ll make modifications to suit a particular student. Finally, a student will be expected to have their own part and transfer the final bowings and fingerings into their own part.
I find that, within certain parameters, the use of music theory in lessons can be valuable. However, I am always striving to keep theory closely connected to either the instrument itself, or the ways in which a theoretical understanding can enrich one’s interpretation. At a remedial level, when I find that a student is struggling to identify intervals, I use the instrument to guide their learning in addition to written exercises. I will teach the student how to identify intervals, but if they are playing a major sixth, I tell them to think of the space between the fingers as a major second or “whole-step” between adjacent strings. A fifth is the same note on two strings and so on. For the more advanced students, I encourage them to have what can be called an “awareness of expectations.” For example, I’ll ask a student to become aware of when certain musical events, such as themes or shifts in key area happen. Then I ask them to compare similar areas elsewhere in the piece. Finally, I simply ask them to articulate what the differences are. This exercise not only makes the student more aware of the basic compositional elements of a piece, but often yields interesting interpretive insights that can then be transferred to the student’s playing of the music.
I encourage my students to search out as a many performance opportunities as possible. Performance is an intimidating experience, one from which many shy away from. However, I consider performance to be an important part of the learning process. When a student starts learning a piece of music, mistakes are made repeatedly in the practice room, but since nobody is listening, and because this is expected in the initial phases of learning a piece, the student is OK with this. Then after having made good progress, the student takes the piece into their teacher, at which stage many students have been heard to say “but it sounded so much better in the practice room!” However after five or six lessons, all is well and the student takes the piece to performance. The ‘practice room’ syndrome often repeats itself, with all the preparation seemingly going by the wayside amidst mistakes that “never happened before.” I believe that every time one’s preparation is brought to a new level of stress, mistakes simply represent inherent weaknesses that could never surface without that additional stress. These insights can then be harnessed to bring positive change to a student’s preparation for the next concert and therefore mistakes can be harnessed for positive purposes. For this reason, I encourage students to play as much as possible in front of other people (for each other, for retirement homes, in masterclasses etc) in order to mimic stress conditions and thereby “draw out” mistakes. In this way, when the important concert arrives, they have already performed and refined their preparation to withstand the rigors that stress inflicts on one’s preparation.
I require each student to purchase a lesson/practice log. During lessons, I write down goals for the student and what to focus on during the week. For instance, if a student needs to do some metronome work, I identify what marking they should start at, then a goal they should work to play at by next lesson time. This retains a level of objectivity in the evaluative process and makes it feel less arbitrary to the student: if they don’t practice, I don’t have to make subjective assumptions about their practice habits etc.
As a teacher, I take time to prepare for each student before his or her lesson time. This helps in many ways, but primarily it helps me to track the student’s progress. Additionally, if a student forgets their log, I am not dependent on those notes to remind me of what we worked on last week. Students often ask how much they need to practice, and this depends on their goals for themselves. The student and I jointly identify their best intentions for themselves and I hold them accountable to that standard throughout the semester. This also gives us a chance to discuss their expectations for themselves and how to achieve them. If a student can work consistently, even if the amount isn’t what it could or should be, I am more satisfied than with the student who practices five hours a day, but only once every couple of weeks.