Classical Sass

Myth or Fact (teaching art)

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1.  Lessons are there to provide the student with new information/technique. 

Myth.  Music lessons (I would argue any lesson at all, but whatever) should teach the student how to practice.  It’s a damn near impossible task because it involves getting your student to understand the why behind everything, and then apply it entirely on his/her own, often unsupervised.  But if it isn’t about the how of it, said student will waltz home and play rather than practice – or, not practice at all.  Handing your student a pile of new things to try is exciting for about five minutes and then absolutely useless if you don’t spend the rest of your time teaching your student how to successfully utilize those techniques every time.

2. Technique first, then musicality. 

I’m not sure I really understand the statement.  Then musicality?  As in, don’t be musical until…?  I haven’t met a single person, musician or not, who wasn’t musical.  Technique often has to be learned tediously, step by step, out of context and in context, with many variations, in order for the musician to feel comfortable with it.  But if you have to consciously remind yourself to ‘add music’ to what you’re doing, then it’s time to put the fiddle down and go listen to some Oistrakh.  Or Bach, of any kind.  Or Brahms.  Whatever.  The reason you make your technique perfect is to enable your phrases, your soul, to be more complete, more convincing.  There isn’t any way to separate the two.  I don’t practice spiccato so I can get a perfectly even ‘bounce’; I practice getting a perfectly even bounce so that I can better convey the light hearted, prankish, spirit in the Mendelssohn scherzo, and then be able to flip to a darker, heavier, more macabre, step for the Schumann scherzo.  My goal with the spiccato stroke is not to have a perfect stroke, it’s to have perfect flexibility with my application of it.  Practice your technique out of context, for sure, but always keep the endgame within your sights.

3.  Vibrato is a technique and should be taught when the student has been taking for long enough to know what it is. 

Myth.  I’m not even sure if that’s the reason students are told to vibrato the way that they do, and it’s even safe to say that vibrato is a technique.  What is completely false is the timing for it.  Vibrato requires thorough monitoring of tension, an understanding of balance and detail in sound, and a strong ability to control a situation quickly and appropriately; in short, a student needs to have a more than firm grasp of basic sound production, basic intonation consistency (including shifting), and continuity of line between notes, before a teacher decides to introduce vibrato.  The forced, uneven, vibrato that so many beginners produce is completely unnecessary.  The goal of vibrato is not to have it in your technique arsenal, but to have it there so it can make your phrases weep for you, light a room for you, make your audience gasp for you.  The end game is to make your phrases soar, not show someone that you can do vibrato.  Wait.  Trust that your comfort with the instrument will increase over time, and wait.  Your vibrato will be there when you have something to say with it.

4.  There is a right way and a (lot of) wrong way(s) to hold the violin.

Myth.  There is good sound and bad sound.  There is in tune and out of tune.  There is control and flexibility, and sloppy and rigid.  The way you achieve one end or the other depends on the individual.  I recently forayed into the world of no shoulder rest.  Bear in mind that this is how I was trained.  I switched to a Kun type thing for several years, and now I’m back to a cosmetic pad….and, am leaning towards getting rid of the pad, too.  I thought the Kun would give me more stability.  While it did do that, I wound up not being able to adjust well enough to the difference in position changes for me to feel really comfortable.  Now, I am toying with the idea of changing my left thumb position – a little change, but it feels huge to me.  And is taking up a lot of effort and time.

My point is that, regardless of what I do or don’t do with my posture, my goal is always to get a beautiful sound, and to feel free with my attempts at passages.  What feels most natural can, for sure, be trained and moderated, but the end game is the same.  My teachers used to tell me, ‘Play with your leg if it gets it done.’  And they are (to no one’s surprise) absolutely correct.  Get it done.  If it’s not right, change something.  Apply to all areas of life as needed.

5.  Music is a performing art: move when you play, or it gets boring. 

Myth!  Fucking myth!  STOP FLAILING WHEN YOU PLAY!

Uhm, erm, ok.  So, like, it’s totally ok to move when you play.  It has to help the music, though.  The music comes first.  Your ‘acting’ is secondary at best; it’s safer to understand it as completely unhelpful.  Acting implies that you have to pretend something.  There should be no pretending in your story.  Find a way to believe it, to feel it, to understand it, and all your movements will fit the phrase in a way that no acting could ever overshadow.  If your gestures are disrupting your sound, rhythm, pitch, whathaveyou, then that gesture is not part of the story or the phrase.  Stop doing it, and your body will find a different way to feel the line.

6.  Sound should never be ugly.

Myth.  Learning how to get a real sound from your instrument is a process.  What sounds pretty and pleasant under your ear at first is not the same as what the audience will hear, or even what the person ten feet from you will hear.  In order to learn how your instrument projects and how to best utilize its abilities, you have to make some ugly sounds.  Go for it!  Then try something else.  Keep trying until your sound is thick and pure and no one asks you to stop.  Then, don’t stop.

7.   Sometimes, we just don’t have time to practice.  But it would be irresponsible to just not go to your lesson.

Myth.  It would be irresponsible not to PAY for your teacher’s time.  But showing up for your lesson completely unprepared is disrespectful and selfish.  The only acceptable protocol is to call, tell your teacher you screwed up, cancel your lesson, and pay for the lesson spot that is now wasted because you didn’t manage your time appropriately.

There are gradations, obviously.  Sometimes there is less (as opposed to no) preparation.  Sometimes there is sickness.  A family emergency.  Don’t lie to your teacher in order to avoid accountability.  Most teachers are very understanding of health and family, and some are even ok with the occasional sketchy week.  Be responsible.  Be respectful.

8.  Missed lessons means no payment.

Myth, unless the teacher is the one canceling.  If you cancel a lesson, you are the one in breach of your own chosen commitment.  Pay for your investment, and don’t fuck with your teacher’s salary because you wanted your kid to have a sleepover and enjoy his childhood.  Seriously.  Your kid loves his childhood.  Bring him to his lesson so that he may one day enjoy adulthood, too.

(As a side note, I don’t care if the reason for canceling is less fun and more serious; pay your teachers.  Unless the reason you are canceling is because you have been kidnapped, in which case, scream really loud and go down fighting.  Worry about paying your teacher later.)

9.  The teacher should set practice times for her students.

Myth.  The teacher should set practice goals.  How much time is spent practicing depends entirely on how efficient and focused the student is during the practice session.

10.  Being a student is hard, and we can’t always be good students.

Fact.  A good teacher appreciates this and knows that we are all students, all of the time.  I can’t count the number of times I have mentally apologized to my teachers for being difficult, as I’ve encountered myself in my students so many times over the years.  The issue isn’t that students aren’t perfect; it’s that we all too frequently lose track of what it is to be a student.  We will make poor choices, behave badly, and accrue baggage.  As long as we remember that the learning portion of experience comes from how we handle the baggage, how we handle the aftermath, how we push ourselves to face and embrace change, we can forgive ourselves the moments of frustration and failure.  We can try to be better, and keep our eyes on the endgame.  At all times.

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