As a teacher it’s exciting to me to have students ask this question! It shows me they are enthusiastic about learning and have a goal for themselves. Sometimes they may be asking about something we can start learning right away – other times it’s something that requires some pre-requisite steps.
As a teacher it’s a question I often rephrase myself when thinking about choosing student repertoire, or how long a student should work on a piece or technique. The question then becomes; “When should he/she be taught _______?” or “How long should we spend on ______?” I find that in the realm of teaching, the answers to these questions can be drastically different from teacher to teacher.
I would like to share two principles that guide my approach to teaching: the principle of correctness and the principle of thoroughness.
Student: “When do I get to play with my bow?”
Me: When you have learned how to hold it correctly!
I’ll use this question as a specific example since it’s a question students often ask and an answer I often have to give! The above answer generally includes the ability of the student to have all their fingers placed correctly on the bow and be comfortable with their bow hold. I determine when a student is comfortable with their bow hold through a series of exercises designed to teach the purpose of what each finger does on the bow by mimicking the weight shift that should occur in the hand and fingers while playing in different parts of the bow. This sets students up beautifully for playing with their bow because they understanding the function of the bow hold both cognitively and experientially before ever placing it on the violin strings. They are not simply placing the fingers where they are told. There are so many things to think about once a student puts their bow to the strings that it’s imperative that they be at least moderately comfortable with their bow hand before preceding to play with the bow.
We’ll take whatever time is needed to make sure it’s done correctly.
Insisting that something be done correctly before a student can move on requires that a teacher, student and parent (for young children) be prepared to spend as long as it takes to achieve the desired results.
Many parents have remarked at how patient I am with their child, helping them to learn the desired skill. I feel it’s more accurately described as dedication (since I wouldn’t generally characterize myself as a patient person!), but whatever you want to call it, I’m committed to teaching students how to do things well. In order to do something well it has to be done correctly – which is easiest to do at the start. I see no point in letting students “slide” or allowing them to proceed before mastering the basic level techniques required for achieving success in the future.
Many teachers will only spend a certain amount of time on a certain technique before they “give up” and allow the student to move on despite the fact that they haven’t mastered the technique. While this may be more “fun” for the student I don’t believe it’s in their best interest. It will be far harder for the student to come back and master the technique once a bad habit is allowed to slip into the mix. I don’t care how long it takes a student to learn how to hold their bow correctly. We’ll keep working until they get it – then we can start to learn how to play with it! In the long run the student will encounter less frustration and more success and pleasure from their instrument because they won’t have to grapple with the repercussions of well meaning teachers who put “fun” above skill in the early stages of learning.
In addition to learning things correctly from the start, I also place a high priority on learning things thoroughly.
Many a student has learned the notes and rhythms of a piece and has been “passed” on it by their teacher without having accomplished the many other basics of their instrument and of the piece. Things like:
- bow hold
- left hand technique
- correct use of bow arm
- sound quality/tone
- bow distribution
- appropriate bow style/stroke
- instrument positioning
- accurate intonation
It’s not that these things have gone unmentioned or unpracticed – but they have not been done thoroughly. Doing something correctly once, or knowing that something is not right does no good unless it is corrected and done right consistently.
Do it correctly – do it repetitively.
Thoroughness is exemplified by consistency, and consistency can only be achieved by repetition.
When a student can consistently achieve the same results I know they have learned the skill thoroughly. Does this mean a student plays Mary Had a Little Lamb just like I can before they are allowed to move on? No, but what it does mean is that mastering the notes and rhythms are not enough. A student must also have thoroughly learned the basic aspects of the items in the list above to the degree required by the demands of the piece. Only then will the student be sufficiently set up for proceeding to the next piece, because the next piece will add on to what the student should have learned in the piece before. If they did not learn it in the piece before they will have an even harder time learning it in the next piece because there will be other things to concentrate on.
In my experience the multiplication of basic techniques allowed to go un-mastered from piece to piece only leads to frustration. Unfortunately many students who genuinely enjoy their instrument eventually quit because they become frustrated after the “fun” of moving ahead becomes a burden of un-mastered techniques seemingly too large to overcome.
I would rather have a student learn one piece well than ten pieces moderately. When a student is not pushed to learn the disciplines of correctness and thoroughness they will only ever become “moderate”. I believe each student has the ability to achieve excellence at each level of learning. Dedication to an instrument defined by correctness and thoroughness not only sets them up for musical success, but will set them up for success in other areas of their life. Once they experience excellence they will be motivated to achieve this at school and in the work place. They will not settle for the “it’s good enough” syndrome that seems to plague the US today. They will gain an appreciation for hard work and achieve something they can be proud of – something their friends who learned ten pieces moderately haven’t yet experienced.
These are not the only two factors that go into the decision of when a student moves forward. One cannot completely codify or simplify the process. However, I hope that the two guiding principles I have discussed in this post will enrich your understanding of my teaching philosophy and encourage you to seek mastery of a piece for yourself, your child or your student(s) in the areas of correctness and thoroughness as I do for myself and my students!