Concepts and Tips for Teaching Form

Mike Lawson • String Section • June 19, 2017

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There are few aspects of playing a stringed instrument (specifically violin/viola) which feel like a natural, physically familiar, comfortable use of the body. 

It is sometimes challenging to explain and train students to relearn how to make use of their body while playing their instrument. Telling a student to “relax” an area of their body for playing is not very helpful: if they knew how, they would. I teach various stretching activities and other disciplines which both loosen and strengthen the body without strain — using whatever can help allow muscle groups become nonresistant to what is necessary for proper technique.

After all, the goal is to find a way of playing that is least taxing. I am often surprised by the way a natural progression of lessons can find students making their bodies work harder; they end up very tense. It is my job to help them find the easiest and most natural way in which to move or shape themselves to avoid unnecessary tension or gripping of the instrument. One of the phrases I find myself saying to a student is to imagine this being easier; make it as easy as you can. Watching as they attempt not to try is very informative and can guide us both to find one of the secrets to playing well.

It is important to determine how each student is most comfortable with tactile, or “hands-on,” learning. There are many types of feedback a teacher and student can use. With beginners, everything is new. Their lessons have significantly fundamental structure. Each lesson builds upon the one before as they learn the basics. At this level, regardless of age, I break each skill down into steps that are easy to remember. With beginners, lessons are expected to be tactile and to rely on the body’s sense of itself and the way it feels to do something very specific.

Ideally, a student should be able to use all their senses in equal measure to problem solve and find the unique way their body feels when they are executing things correctly. Some students have an “aha!” moment when I have them go limp and guide their bow stroke, slowly relinquishing control back to them. It can feel easier as it happens without conscious control. Work on a way for them to figure out how to find that feeling again when they are at home, and you cannot be there to guide them. Some have the opposite reaction when they have their body placed and movement guided; they don’t like the way it feels to give up physical control of their body. They become uncomfortable and awkward as their brain/body gives them mixed signals to process on many levels.

Regarding products which use or abuse sensory feedback: On the use of fingering tapes, many brands and products are useful, utilizing the feeling of raised tape under the finger (similar to frets on other instruments) to help the student learn correct intervals. However, I am opposed to the fingering sticker applied to the length of the fingerboard in which there is no feedback used except visual colored lines. These fingering stickers can cause a beginning student to develop the bad habit of looking at the instrument to see their fingers from the side to match them to the lines.

A product that I have found very useful is called “Bow-Right.” Many students do not like the Bow- Right. However, that does not mean it is not useful. I try not to allow them to see it as punishment. One student who used the Bow-Right continuously for every practice and playing experience over many months is now doing quite well. When we now work on bowing technique, he is quicker to identify adjustments made to his bow stroke, hold, and general tone production. I periodically put a Bow-Right on my violin to remind myself just how difficult it is to use. It invariably ends up causing some degree of anxiety. However, I have come to the conclusion that no player of skill has a straight bow at all times; if someone did, their playing would suffer from lack of diversity and flexibility. It is when there is dysfunction within the bow stroke that aspiring for a straight bow is beneficial as a guide. Using such single objectives is much more likely to resolve underlying problems. As the student progresses to what I would consider an “intermediate” player; the lesson foci can blur. Lessons begin to have more than one objective. To some, the various factors and applications are identifiable; for most, there is a jumble of things to know and learn and accomplish as abilities come together to perform well.

There are many things to address once a student can execute the basics: rhythms, articulation, pitch/intonation, phrasing, theory, tone, bowing techniques and styles, good practice habits, specific skills such as double-stop playing, dynamics — the list goes on and on. So where do we, as instructors, find a way to address the changing of critical habits that need to be fixed for proper technique so that the student does not revert to their comfort zone again? I feel that technique is not usually something that can be incorporated well when in any other environment but the one they use for personal practice without any need to excel or perform musically. It is my view that there are two important and very different sides to what students need to be doing.

An objective-oriented practice which involves a lot of starting and stopping, self-evaluation and listening, refining, and repetition of lesson material done correctly. This is the technical aspect of learning when I use various forms of feedback. This practice should have an emphasis on getting it correct as opposed to getting it done. Performing practice; to be able to play a piece of music from beginning to end with the highest degree of musicianship possible without stopping to fix. Both need to be taught and learned as separate processes; they require very different approaches to master.

When students practice, techniques both helpful and harmful become ingrained and solidified. The hard work and time spent rectifying a problem playing the instrument may become frustrating when the same issue is repeatedly addressed with no noticeable improvement, especially if the student is putting in hours of practice. To do something (anything) correctly only one out of seven times is an abysmal prospect. This so often is the scenario; students have a good lesson, but cannot reproduce the matter at hand without the aid of the instructor. This is likely where most intermediate students find themselves, and, I assume, this is where the bulk of high school students in orchestra class roughly fall. Their lessons, at this point, become somewhat reactionary. The best thing is to teach them to problem solve and find their way through the problems via some trial and error process. Give them a clear understanding of what they are trying to achieve in small and accessible doses as well as a well-defined method of practicing. This includes a time frame, how they use that time, and what they approach at each session.

I try to give students one or two important, yet uncomplicated items in which to focus their attention between each lesson. Sometimes they must repeat the same thing lesson after lesson, or I alternate somewhat necessary adjustments to keep from letting the student feel “attacked” by repeating the same thing over and over. The instructor is the best judge of how to read a student and assign accordingly. Most times I hope the student will follow advice to check the given problem or issue every time they stop and start playing. Almost all instructions refer to relationships of one part of the body to the instrument and themselves. Some examples of things I give as rhetoric to “check” their playing include (for violin/viola):

“Keep your pinky on top of the bow, not flopped over the side!”

“Don’t let the punching knuckle touch your violin!”

“Is your thumb lying down asleep, or standing up and awake?”

Sometimes I have students practice “talking” with their right hand (drawing eyes and a mouth to make it more real). Whatever words they say must be said simultaneously with their hand. This is perfect for getting thumb joints to unlock and round out on the bow hold, so the thumb is bent, stabilizing the tilt of the bow, and contacting well with the bow hair. I have been known to draw a smiling face on the side of a student’s left hand: if they can’t see a face smiling at them, they need to self-adjust. Et cetera.

Using a mirror can be a great tool. If the relationship of the student to the mirror is well-positioned, and the visual they are imitating utilized at the angle presented, the value and functions are similar to that of biofeedback in medical environments. Sometimes visual feedback along with a guided movement from the instructor during lessons can result in a happy surprise on both sides as student breakthrough moments occur (or originate).

On the other hand, sometimes either can become too intent on the details of “correct,” or there is constant re-adjusting to the point that it gets in the way of the overall goal. I try to be careful and watch for students who, as they try so hard to follow instructions, overcompensate. Overcompensating in the correcting of technique can cause opposite and equal dysfunction that is disheartening for conscientious students.

Most individuals do very well with visual feedback; it takes some time for the instructor and student to work out the angles in which they can see their reflection in the position they are attempting to replicate. Most challenging is to be able to look in the mirror without moving the head (losing the proper support for holding their instrument). For the majority of postures and stylistic movements, the openness of the torso and core dramatically change the nature of control over musical energy and the degree in which they can integrate it into their playing. If the way a student holds their center of strength becomes compromised by trying to pose in the mirror and see that pose well, then the use of a mirror sabotages the whole idea of visual feedback.

I often try to find images to show students where the viewpoint of the reflection matches the view the student has while playing in a traditional setup. It eliminates the need to see your reflection in a mirror.

Jennifer began studying violin at age three with her father in Alberta, Canada. After receiving a B.M. in violin performance and a M.A. from Middle Tennessee State University, she returned to university to properly study the viola. Currently, she performs with the Jackson Symphony Orchestra, the Murfreesboro Symphony, the Nashville Philharmonic Orchestra, the Parthenon Chamber Orchestra, Wire Cabal, and with her quartet the Tulsianni Ensemble.


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