Embracing Students Who Stop Practicing: An Alternative Approach

Mike Lawson • String Section • August 4, 2018

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Not much about playing the violin came naturally to me – but music did, very much so. One of the things I have always been able to do well is what I call “playing in” – being able to intuitively hear-and play with any group by listening, reacting and adding my voice.

The teaching course and ideas in this article and the next depend upon a student’s existing ability and sufficient proficiency in their instrument. String instruments lend well to not only melodies, but sustained supporting voices, rhythmic or percussive roles, etc… Our range of timbre and color is wide, therefore we are potentially flexible band members. I tell many of my students that at some point, they will meet someone who wants them to play with their band once they discover you play a stringed instrument.

A Possible Solution for Overwhelmed Students

Most likely every instructor has had at least one borderline dropout student for whom practicing has gone by the wayside, but lessons are something they want to continue. They enjoy the lesson experience, and they want to learn, but for one reason or another, the role their instrument had in their lives gets surpassed by other priorities.

It was originally for these students that I began experimenting with a different approach to lessons. It has very much been a creative “figure it out while you go” kind of teaching. As an unexpected but welcome benefit, more than just the intended/targeted students have been participating. This, I believe, is a useful and ultimately stimulating part of the development process that assists in evolving techniques in learning or creating. Developing an alternative teaching method in my studio has been a studio-wide endeavor as a natural reaction to the process. There is an energy felt from newness and change that, I think, comes of an openly unguided attempt to find successful solutions to human problems.

This is an ongoing part of my sense of professional growth, but ultimately, all teachers want to make sure their students are getting what they need.

As this idea or endeavor started to take shape, I solicited the aid of several students. I needed to know what was or was not working, and in such things, it is valuable to get that information from others and not rely on one’s own skills of interpretation. This is still an ongoing trial, but at this moment, I am excited with the feedback and results. It is advisable to get outside opinions, even if it is just one student who can tell you what they thought was fun, what was useful, and what made things less or more attainable.

I didn’t go so far as to indicate I was making up our lessons on the fly in most every way, but I did acknowledge that I was trying something different and was open to feedback. I also had to be honest enough to stop when an idea was falling apart or not working, no matter how attached I was to that particular lesson activity (or how much work went into preparing it).

In the second part of this article, I will be providing a set of lesson activities, instructional in nature for those interested in starting a student down this path. Most useful, I suspect, will be detailed suggestions for how to start, what you will need to have in terms of gear, materials, and a set of activities that I have found effective in engaging the students regardless of their background and faith in their ability to play without the guidance and safety that sheet music provides. There are helpful things you can provide (such as the Rhythm matrix) and apps that you will be using to create your backing tracks which allow the student to visually see the chords and the movement through them (Chordbot being an absolute godsend for in- lesson use, as well as for allowing the teacher options to tailor the level of difficulty that will be required to improvise or “play in” to).

I mentioned that this is somewhat an all-inclusive studio venture, with a little bit of this and that coming from students in unexpected ways. I am going to share an example where this was very successful.

Student Story

I usually carry my gear with me to and from work, as I tend to need it at one point or another within my teaching days. Some students are more observant than others in noticing what is in the studio or room on any given day.

Right now, it just so happens that I have a lot of students playing out of Suzuki book 1 and 2, which, as you all probably know, can be challenging in a number of ways (keeping the students’ lessons straight so I remember who I said what to is one of my challenges). The day can become a tad tedious if you are not consciously making an effort to keep the lessons interesting, energized, and individual.

So when one of my younger students asked “what is that?” while pointing to my Roland Drum Machine in the corner, oh, how I jumped right in feet first. Although it took a few minutes to set up my amp and dig out the right cables and plug everything in, the student did not mind. It was something they had never seen done before.

We had a grand old time playing “Go Tell Aunt Rhody” to my drum machine as if it were a metronome. They struggled, but loved it anyway. It was fun.

Later in the day when I got to the student  I had originally intended to use the gear with, I had him try the same song (which, as you can imagine, initially did not thrill him). Except that after the first run with a simple beat pattern, I got his attention by selecting harder beat patterns in both double and triple meters.

Some of them were quite busy while some left more space to use. It was an unintentional lesson in rhythmic density. It was also an intentional journey into addressing and using

meters (2 versus 3). Since we had an hour at our disposal, next we used scales to play in groups of 2, then 3. That was followed with playing in 2 going up and 3 going down. Lastly, we put it together where one of us was in 2, the other in 3, then switching at the top of the scale. By the time he left, he was able to use both straight 8ths and triplets while playing in to the backing track we were working on.

The Need For Structure and Direction Part of our job as instructors is to provide clear experience-oriented lesson objectives. Some are met by completing something during a single lesson’s timeframe, others can build on the proceeding lesson. Both approaches can

use the activities discussed in these articles, though they tend to fit better when there is no structured course necessary to fit it around as an “extra.” It can be the primary lesson material when the standard one no longer has the attention of or benefits the student outside his/her lesson. This said, it is still necessary to have direction and goals. I have found that this can go a number of ways. The most obvious us a natural progression

into learning how to record the violin, use a multitrack of some sort, and begin the fun of parts and mixing.

Addressing The Creative Element

It comes as a surprise to most people that the professional world and the act of playing an instrument is not one in which there is much room for creativity.

In fact, it is somewhat the opposite. We are given very specific instructions and we follow them the best we can. It is what we do with our skills outside of our career, for the most part, that is creative.

I have found that it is somewhat intimidating to my colleagues to be asked to play without music. I understand that discomfort. And not everyone is good at it. It is no different in the teaching studio.

Even within a beginner’s education, there are ways to encourage creativity. What I am doing now (and discussing) is structuring the creative part of music in a learning environment. At first I worried there would not be enough to actually teach. I was so wrong. I am excited to share the curriculum that has been making my teaching experience so stimulating.

It is such a gift that I have the opportunity to share what has come from that one natural musical talent I cherish so much.

Why and Who

In recent years, I have seen the number of overwhelmed adolescents increase during transition from middle to high school. Most of the students for whom this course of teaching is geared are teenagers as they make their way from middle school into high school. It may be a trend, but I would keep an eye on that particular demographic group.

I suspect they may benefit from an atypical manner of study that lightens the responsibilities they shoulder. Perhaps not permanently, but as an interim course while they are overwhelmed and struggle to adapt. Regardless of age, many people find the need to let music drop away as the demands in their lives increase (and their ability to manage those demands have yet to keep pace).

We cannot fix all things. We cannot succeed with every student. But what we can do is pay attention and maintain approachable, open, and try to find creative solutions when we notice a student struggling in one way or another. I am not usually keen to change my teaching or to go out of my way to pamper a student or convince them to put in the effort.

I tend to assume that they either do or do not want to commit. I have not exactly

changed my mind on that, but I do recognize that it isn’t always so black and white; there are more issues to consider with some students. And I should be putting as much of myself into helping them as they are putting into wanting help. I don’t know if what I am doing now is going to be successful in the long-term. If it is not, for the time a student was able

to sustain their growth and interest, it is worth it to allow them to enjoy the moments.

Currently, it feels like a method to pursue and that the students are benefitting. I am surely enjoying and invigorated with the journey. If nothing else, it keeps me from getting burned out or stagnant as an instructor.

Jennifer Steinfeldt Warren 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 study the viola. Currently, Warren 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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