My method for violin and viola instruction is rooted in these four elements:
Click on each of these to jump directly to the topic to learn more.
These four elements are at the heart of my method and contain the details that I will teach to every student and family over the course of years. Since the musical journey is a long one with many directions, every family will receive my leveled violin or viola syllabus which will guide progress through the myriad of details in a measurable way from beginner to pre-professional. I also use weekly practice charts to help focus the student's practice on small-scale weekly goals and use semester progress reports to help move forward through larger milestones.
Click on the links below to see two pages from my violin syllabus, a sample weekly practice chart for a Book 1 student, and a sample semester progress report for a similar student.
The Suzuki Method
Shinichi Suzuki was a Japanese man who created a method that he called the "Mother Tongue Method" which people later named the Suzuki Method. His profound and simple epiphany was noticing that all Japanese children learn to speak Japanese. Even the most complicated dialects were learned flawlessly by children born into those cultures. So, his idea was that music learning would be most effective if it resembled the language learning environment. I am a trained member of the Suzuki Association of the America's and incorporate the following principals from this method:
EVERY CHILD CAN!
Every child can learn to make music, no matter their race, gender, or any other form of "difference" we find in one another.
By starting young, often as young as three or four years old, the child can develop natural musical fluency. While the early start imparts a number of significant advantages, you aren't required to start that young to become an accomplished player. I started when I was nine and have been able to develop a professional-level ability and know many other professionals with a similar story.
Parents are involved at every lesson and the teacher and parent work together as a team to nurture the child's growth. A parent's level of involvement will vary depending on the age of the student. This may mean being the in-home practice partner, note-taker, or simply encouraging daily independent practice.
Learning by ear and listening early and regularly forms the basis of musical ability and cultivates a strong musical intuition. Note reading also starts early but always follows the ear, much like we learn to read and write only after we have learned to begin to speak.
When a child is first beginning to speak, we celebrate their efforts and don't correct them when "ma" comes out instead of "mom." The same goes for the first sounds on the violin. We celebrate all sincere attempts and continue to model the correct way, knowing that the child will get there eventually.
As a student in Maple Strings, you will be involved in both individual lessons and group classes. Language is learned within the context of a family and broader community. The parents play a central role in the lesson and in-home practice while group classes and ensemble involvement with peers play another crucial piece for motivation, growth, and enjoyment!
A NOTE ON REPERTOIRE
I use the Suzuki books as the technical foundation for presenting the skills needed to play the violin or viola. That said, students are not forced to move through these books exclusively. At each step along the way, I will present students with a few choices for how they would like to move forward. These choices are carefully curated for their pedagogical value and also represent different styles of string playing from various cultural backgrounds. By working in this way, students are able to carve their own unique path forward and improve their overall skill while engaging with a repertoire that is representative of our global community.
Karen Tuttle was a violist and pedagogue who lived from 1920-2010. She was an influential viola teacher in the mid to late 20th century and taught many of today's finest violists. One of the most prominent ideas in her teaching was her concept of Coordination. Coordination is somewhat difficult to explain in words and is certainly not a one-size-fits-all method, but rather an attitude and approach based on certain physical and psychological principals designed to help each individual student discover "the natural within." She (and I) hold the belief that when the body and mind (or more accurately, the mind-body system) is free of unnecessary tension and is allowed to move in its most natural way, virtuosic technique, depth and variety of tone, and musical expression flow in a free and enjoyable way for both the performer and audience.
Coordination contains ideas similar to those found in Alexander Technique, Tai Chi, Feldenkrais, and Yoga, but its primary emphasis is directly related to viola and violin playing. My teacher in Boston, Professor Michelle LaCourse, spent over 10 years with Karen Tuttle and is one of the leading instructors of this approach in the country today. Professor LaCourse sums it up perfectly when she says "It should feel delicious to play!"
Each student will be given a "Coordination Checklist" as a reminder of some of the key principals, but this mostly shows up in lessons by how we work with the body. Often, a problem with tone production in the right hand has nothing to do with the hand or arm at all! More likely, it could be caused by tension in the neck and jaw that is even more pronounced due to a stiff, static posture and holding the breath. For some students, this may all be caused by a slightly overreactive nervous system causing performance anxiety! As a result, we might do some breathing and focusing exercises to help calm the mind and then work with unlocking tension in the body in a way suited to the learning style of that particular student. Only then will the student get in touch with their own natural within and discover freedom in the hand and arm to open up a beautiful tone.
Neuroscience & Ability Development
"Skill is myelin insulation that wraps neural circuits and that grows according to certain signals." - Daniel Coyle in The Talent Code
The above quote distills the essence of how the human brain learns ALL skills. In order to develop a specific skill, we must choose to send the right neural signals to develop that skill. Each time we send that signal, myelin wraps around that neural pathway and makes the task more efficient the next time the signal is sent. A full night's sleep is then needed to solidify these new pathways into long-term memory. This explains why 10 minutes of practice every day is better than 100 minutes of practice one day per week. A little daily practice and a full night's sleep are the most important things you can do to learn the violin!
In the lesson, my job is to break down every skill needed to play the violin and viola into its smallest, practice-able activities (see the syllabus), demonstrate the most natural way to execute these activities (see Coordination), guide the student through a first-hand experience of this activity, and then send them home to repeat it throughout the week so that it becomes an easier activity for the student to accomplish. Over the course of days, months, and years, these small skills come together in a very complex way to create the skill that we call "playing the violin." In essence, you could say that my job is to break down the hard task of playing an instrument into small, easy steps.
For example, for a beginning student to play Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star in tune with quality tone requires the student to accurately perform the following skills:
Stand with a balanced posture and comfortable hold on the instrument
Maintain mental focus throughout the entire song
Lightly hold the bow in the right hand with a curved pinky and thumb
Move the bow perpendicular to the string
Add the appropriate amount of arm weight into the string
Move the bow at the desired speed
Hear the pitches accurately
Place the left fingers lightly and naturally on the fingerboard in coordination with the bow changes
Cross the bow between strings at exactly the right moment
Play in tempo with the right rhythms
Translate the abstract symbols of musical notation into this complex set of motions (if playing with sheet music)
So much for that being an "easy" song! To go even further, each of these skills listed above can be (and often will be) broken down into even smaller skills to focus on during practice at home.
If any parent or student would like to "geek-out" on the science of ability development, I have a long list of online resources and gladly loan books out to those in my studio that have interest in learning more.
Wholehearted musicianship means I acknowledge that I have the honor to work with a complex physical, spiritual, intellectual, and emotional person every week and that all of these aspects of that person have an important place in their musical development. Here are some examples that highlight what I mean.
A student is excited about an upcoming audition at school for first chair viola. They show up energized and eager to dive into this opportunity for advancement and place their audition repertoire right on the stand and let me know they would like to give this their best effort. Rather than stick rigidly to my syllabus, I will work with the student to harness their motivation, create relevant teaching points from this repertoire, and push them to achieve their goal. Embracing individual motivation can guide and enhance technical exploration and development!
A student walks into the lesson after a really hard day at school and I can see the sadness on their face and in their posture. When I ask “How was your week?" they say “Meh, not too great.” Rather than ignoring that or telling them to “suck it up, we’ve got work to do,” we can tap into those feelings as their strength for creating soulful music. What does it feel like to play “Bohemian Folk Song” with sorrow? How about “Allegro” with anger? Perhaps the “Vivaldi Concerto in A minor” is calling to you in this moment? Emotion can guide and enhance technical exploration and expressive development!
Another example might be that a student wants to play music for their church service that is not in my syllabus. Perhaps it is a hymn or song they love and they feel it is a way they can share their spiritual gifts with their community. Absolutely we will work on that music together! The spiritual self can guide and enhance technical exploration and development!
In this way, it is my hope that music will become for the student much more than just another thing to “win” at while in school, but a tool for embracing personal motivations, healthy emotional connection, and purposeful expression for their entire lifetime.