I took a few creative writing classes in college just for fun. When we would read each other’s assignments, I noticed that there was a huge range in the quality of writing. There were the creative writing majors (whose writing was gripping, raw, and artistic) and the non-majors who were trying it out (me.) The thing was, I mostly noticed the difference in the last few drafts, not the first one. Everyone’s first draft was bad.
A few years later, after getting my music degree, I noticed a similar phenomenon. When I performed with local community orchestras the first run-through was pretty bad and it never got much better. When I played with semi-professional orchestras (where everyone was actually getting paid), the first run-through was not great but everything improved quickly.
Following a painter on Instagram, I saw this again. Sometimes the first layers of her painting looked almost amateur-ish. (This sounds so judgmental coming from someone who struggles drawing stick figures.) The colors didn’t blend, the facial proportions were not quite right. But layer by layer, she would adjust. The finished product was astonishing.
This has led me to my grand theory: The difference between an amateur and a professional is a second draft. (And third, fourth, fifth, and sixth.)
Sometimes, when a new student comes to lesson playing a piece with all the right notes and rhythms they think they are done. When they ask me if they can move on to the next song I laugh like a cartoon villain. “Never!,” I say, “You will never finish working on this piece! Because you are a musician, and there will always be something to improve.”
Now, I’m not actually the cartoon villain version of a violin teacher. I don’t keep them from progressing until they’ve accomplished the “sixth draft” version. But even when they move on to the next song, we are always going back and refining. (Hooray for review!)
I have heard different teachers describe this in different ways; layers of a birthday cake, rings around a tree, levels in a video game. Whatever the phrasing you use, a teacher has to create a vision for the students and parents of what can be accomplished. This takes listening to recordings, practicing pieces and techniques that are already “okay,” and deepening understanding over time.
A few months ago, I was feeling frustrated with teaching vibrato to one of my students. We had been working on it for months, and though it had improved, it was far from where I wanted it to be. That month I attended Intermountain Suzuki String Institute and took Teacher Training from Linda Fiore. It could not have come at a better time. I was reassured as she talked about layering skill; introducing techniques well before you ever use them in a piece, adding advanced techniques to pieces learned years before, developing dynamics, phrasing, and musicality step by step to current pieces. I realized I had taught the first few layers of vibrato, but I still had many more layers to go.
Knowing that ability develops layer by layer, day by day, is comforting for student, parent, and teacher. A student will improve their playing. A parent will deepen their patience. A teacher will develop clearer strategies. All anyone needs today is one more layer of understanding.
I have realized I am only on the “third draft” of my teaching ability. But I am a professional, so I have many drafts to go. I’ll add things here, take out things there, and develop my ability step by step.
What about you? How do you instill a sense of what is possible in your own students? What layer do they need next?
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