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What To Do With Your Transfer Music Students With Serious Technique Issues….
Have you ever sat in your chair during a first lesson with a new student and struggled to come up with anything positive to say? Their posture is sinking into the ground, their tone is crunchy (or wispy), their shifts and vibrato are tight, and their intonation is, shall we say, Halloweenish. I love teaching students who have never touched a violin before, but at this point in my career 80% of my students are transfer students. It may be more difficult to fix than to teach things correctly in the first place, but it is possible, and it can be fun.
When I first started to teach these types of students I would dive in headfirst, believing I could solve every issue in one lesson. It didn’t work. (Are you surprised? Yeah, me neither.) The students who loved playing would get discouraged and the students who thought the violin was boring would just feel validated. After more than a few failures, I’m ashamed to admit, I finally came up with a battle plan. This is the order of techniques I tackle, one at a time. For some students, steps can be skipped. For some students, a step may be ongoing while we proceed to the next step. However, it really has surprised me how universally well this plan has worked.
Posture has to come first regardless of the student. They could be consistently playing a half step flat and holding their bow in a fist and I would still do posture first. Everything else is impossible with poor posture. If they’re holding their violin at a strange angle, their bow will be crooked. If their scroll is sinking, they will be squeezing their left hand (which makes intonation, shifting, and vibrato impossible.) Similarly, once the posture is fixed, sometimes other things fix themselves. I’ve had more than one student who all of a sudden started playing with beautiful tone and intonation once they just stood up straight and took the pressure out of their left hand.
I’ve written a previous blog post about fixing shoulder rest problems, and am planning a future post about how to get students to stand up straight. This continues to be one aspect of teaching that I think about constantly.
2) Bow hand
A loose and balanced right hand is the key to a beautiful sound. I make sure that this happens as soon as possible because students with a beautiful sound like to play. Students who like to play, practice more often. Students who practice, learn quickly and feel successful. Students who feel successful come to lesson with excitement. Excited students make me happy. Do I get a little over-excited about bow hands? Probably, but I really think it works.
With transfer students, especially ones with bad habits, I will spend a solid ten minutes on bow exercises at every lesson. Yes, ten minutes of no music in a lesson. Sometimes it feels awkward but it is so worth it.
The second part of beautiful tone is intonation. Once their hand is loose enough that it’s not distorting the pitch, I will start nagging, ahem, I mean teaching, intonation. The other important part of teaching intonation is teaching the student to listen to themselves. Many of my transfer students recognize good intonation when someone else plays, but have never taken the time to evaluate their own sound.
I like to get a new student to play staccato because it teaches them to listen to the end of the note as well as the beginning. With staccato, the student can hear the “ring” of intonation between the notes (which helps them remember step 3.) Essentially, this stroke teaches the student two things they need to know: how to stop, and how to go.
I have also discovered with many of my older transfer students that they can’t stop the bow on the string. They all create a short stroke by lifting their bow. At some point they were taught to play short off the string strokes (which is wonderful) and they never practiced short strokes on the string again. It can sometimes take weeks just to convince them to stay on the string. Has anyone else noticed this?
Once the student is listening to the end of the note they can create a smooth sound that leads from one note to the next.
My favorite thing that shifting (correctly, anyway) gets rid of is the left hand death grip. I can tell my students over and over again to loosen up their first finger and thumb, but letting them hear the difference between a grabby shift and a relaxed shift is priceless. It is so motivating.
Once they’ve mastered relaxing their larger muscle groups to shift, it is much easier for them to relax for a smaller motor skill. At this point I focus on vibrato as an ornament, not on every note. (A great time to talk about phrasing!)
I probably teach collé much earlier than is perhaps typical, but I have found it a great way to encourage my students to use their fingers in a smaller stroke.
A light, off the string stroke continues to hammer in some important concepts we’ve been working on: flexible right hand fingers, a relaxed shoulder, and of course, listening to your own sound.
I love teaching octaves because of what it does for my students’ hand frames. Once they’ve been practicing octaves for a few weeks they start to keep their fingers over the string while they play and their intonation makes huge strides.
Obviously, I don’t teach the whole list to a young student right away. But for my older more advanced students, this list has helped both of us quite a bit. I have also found it helpful to share my plan with my student. If there is a technique they want to master, let them know what needs to happen first. (Then they will actually practice!) “I know how badly you want to improve your vibrato, but I know that if you improve your posture first it will be much easier to work on vibrato later.”
For those of you who are starting your first student with numerous technical issues, there is hope! By working on one technique at a time, many of my students have totally changed their sounds in six months to a year. It’s a long road, but it is doable.
For those of you who have seen many of these types of students, what are your priorities? Would you change the order of anything in the list? What would you add? I would love to learn from your experiences.
Brecklyn created “A Step by Step Guide to Violin Technique” infographic that you can share with your students to help them understand why you’re forcing them to work on “boring” stuff like posture. I’m really excited to hand it out to my students. You can download it here.
Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/69327412@N04/20228239612/in/photolist-wPv1TW-wMUhbQ-wQJQhR-wPvb49-6G9k5d-5LJ5rj-iWZV9e-5ExPgb-chn4a-5v7rTj-5v7r5m-5v7rMN-befs4K-5ddBCu-5cCZYN-5f9QhL-8zquW1-aaxZX5-767W3q-pzEiGL-vRgyFf-5v376v-5v7riA-5v7qW7-5v7rH5-5v7rWY-5v373n-5v7rCU-5v7rrb-5v7rdE-6Kz9mn-4GV7no-nMecA2-4uwyQL-5v7xgL-5v7x8G-5v7x4Q-5v3bNV-5v3csD-5v7xkS-5bovPs-bdf17k-d92HnG-iZ1v7V-3duYyX-7MmmHd-85r5dk-5o5PnS-5d67Ed-72LmuM
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