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Solving the Gaps in String Teacher Training – An Interview with Grace Law

SBO Staff • February 2023Strings • February 19, 2023

SBO+: We met Grace Law at the Midwest Clinic in December. When she described what she does, we wanted to share it with our many string-teaching readers. Law is on a mission to ensure every teacher has the skills to give their students the best chance of succeeding in strings. Read on to discover how she has set out to solve the gaps in string teacher training.

Grace, what do you see as the challenges when it comes to string teacher training?
I would say there are three main challenges. The first is the lack of training in college/university programs. Unfortunately, most teachers graduate with only one or two string methods courses, and that is not enough to teach something as complex as playing a stringed instrument. There are a handful of programs that do offer excellent training, but those tend to be the exception and not the rule.

The other challenge is the way programs are usually approached. Even if a program offers more courses, more is not necessarily better. In my experience way back when, I had quite a few more courses than most teachers get today. However, it was not enough. I still found myself in front of my very first class feeling like I knew next-to-nothing. 

This is because all the courses were taught by different instructors. Each instrument was a separate class taught by different private teachers. The methods course was just taking turns teaching out of a method book. And unfortunately, it seems like this approach hasn’t changed much in almost three decades since I graduated.

When teacher training is approached like this, they never learn any whole-classroom pedagogy. They never learn how to successfully start real students on four different instruments all at the same time, and that’s the hardest part of the job. 

I spent most of my early years scrambling to figure out what to do first, and what to do next, and how I was going to teach the violins without boring the cellos and basses, or vice versa. Everything was trial and error. It was very stressful, and I worried I wasn’t doing my students justice.

Finally, the third challenge is the limited resources after you graduate. If you didn’t take any pedagogy courses in your undergrad years because you didn’t major in education, or if you don’t play strings and find yourself teaching them, or if you are just looking to learn more, your options are limited. You can try attending conferences and hope they offer some practical clinics, of which there are often very few. You can wait until the summer to travel and take something hands-on and more intensive. Or you can spend hours searching the internet for answers.

So, you are trying to solve these problems through your pedagogy for classroom strings?
Yes. Because I felt so unprepared coming out of university, I decided I had to do for classroom strings what Shinichi Suzuki did for private violin teaching – to provide consistent training for anyone aspiring to become a string teacher, and provide a successful, step-by-step method through which to do it.

The beginning stages of playing are so important to the success of your students and the success of your program. I think it is vital for programs everywhere, that if we want to give every student an equal chance at succeeding in strings, then we need to make sure all our teachers are trained properly and with a common set of successful skills and strategies.

What are the skills you believe teachers should have when they start their career?
I think there are three things crucial to a string teachers’ success, and these are basically the three things I wish I knew before teaching strings.

The first is to play all the instruments competently. For me, this was a great source of anxiety. Violin being my main instrument, I was alright teaching viola, but I only had a very basic understanding of the cello and the bass. I hated the feeling of knowing I was letting my lower strings down. Almost every teacher begins their career having anxieties about the instruments they don’t play. So, it is important to me that teachers come out of my training with a high level of comfort on at least one instrument that is new to them.

The second thing is to understand what to teach and when. I help teachers take the guesswork out of teaching strings by giving them a step-by-step method based on a simple and natural pedagogical sequence. There are so many decisions involved in teaching strings, it can be overwhelming. It takes many years to finally figure out a successful sequence. I want teachers to benefit from my 30 years of experience, so they don’t have to struggle through years of trial and error. They can start their careers already knowing everything an experienced teacher knows.

The third thing I wish I had known before I started teaching is how to fix students’ poor technique. No one teaches you how to do it effectively, yet you discover it’s practically half the job. 

Because everyone is learning a new instrument, we have lots of opportunities in the course to practice troubleshooting and fixing technique. When you know what to look for and how to fix it, it makes your job much easier. So, basically, my course is the one I wish I had when I started teaching!

What does your method look like? How is it different from what is already out there?
I think what sets my method apart from others is I created it from the perspective of a classroom string teacher, not from that of a private violin teacher and then adapting it. All my strategies arise from the question, “how do I make this easy to teach to all the instruments at the same time?” In other words, how do I teach this so everyone is engaged, and no one is sitting around waiting and being bored? 

The second thing is, what is the one thing I can teach the students so they understand the entire concept instead of just a part of it? As an example, if you teach them to shift to all different positions right away instead of just one position at a time, they can tackle any shifting passage pretty much right away.

Teaching in a way that makes the students independent is a big part of my approach. Sometimes I barely do any direct teaching. I teach them a new concept and then they explore it and discover new things for themselves. It makes learning much faster and teaching much easier and rewarding.

The last thing is, I approach the problem of teaching strings to make it simple enough for a band or a vocal teacher to understand and teach.

That’s a big dilemma for orchestra programs everywhere; there aren’t enough orchestra teachers to meet the demand. Tell us more about how you can help non-string players to be successful.I think there has been an attitude of looking down at band and vocal teachers teaching strings, and that is gradually changing. To me, they are string-teaching heroes. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to grow orchestra programs as quickly as we are. 

It takes a lot of courage and determination to take on teaching instruments you don’t play and then learn to excel at it. I want to give these teachers all the help I can so they can be successful.

It really hit home to me how important this is at the end of one of my courses. Everyone was sharing and one band teacher broke down in tears. She had been so distressed about having let her students down the previous year. And she was so thankful she could go back to the classroom and help her kids succeed. 

You deliver this training online. Tell us how that works. Wouldn’t in-person be more effective?
One would think being in-person would be more effective. It turns out teaching online is often the best way. 

When you teach in-person, it’s more challenging to demonstrate because not everyone can see you. It also makes it more difficult to teach troubleshooting skills because people can’t really see each other clearly. Online, you see everyone and can get close if you need to.

When you teach in-person, it’s also more challenging for teachers to take on more than one instrument because of space limitations. When you are learning at home, you can have as many instruments at your disposal as you like. 

And because becoming competent at a new instrument is an important outcome of the course, it’s designed as eight classes spread out over four weeks to give everyone time to practice. Teaching online isn’t perfect but it has a lot of advantages.

What did it take to come up with a whole new pedagogy?
I think as a child I really loved solving puzzles. You know, the ones where you must move objects from one location to another in the least number of steps. Or how many words can you spell using only the letters from the word “ingenious?” I had a real drive for simplifying things and looking for answers to problems.

As a student, I would listen to teachers trying to teach something and in my head, I would be coming up with better ways to explain it because it obviously wasn’t getting through to one student or another. I guess simplifying a complex process such as teaching strings eventually became the ultimate challenge for me in a way. 

Thank you for sharing your story with us. How can teachers find out more?
The best way is to visit my website and subscribe to my emails. That way, teachers can find out about free content and upcoming courses. I have free masterclasses on many of my simple string teaching strategies, and I offer free drop-in clinics where teachers can come and ask their questions and get help.

SmartStringTeacher.com

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