Skip to main content

Teaching Success: String Edition

I've just finished teaching at the South Bend Symphony's Dake Summer Chamber Music Academy. As always, It was an all-consuming week of coaching, rehearsing, encouraging, entertaining, and performing, but I left after the final reception feeling giddy with success.

The group I was coaching was very young, in musical experience if not years, and did not contain an oboist, or even a wind player. We had been assigned two short movements of a baroque sonata, and after the first day of work we were ALMOST able to limp through one and a half of those movements. So between my inexperience working with young string players and the starting level of the group, I had little optimism.

But my kids worked.  They worked hard.  We sat in that room, the three of us, and we pulled that piece apart every way I could think of.  We played it together and separately.  We played short passages and long passages. We took out the fingerings and played the rhythms together.  We went slowly and fast in the fast movement, and fast then slowly in the slow movement.    We isolated the bowings.  We isolated the fingerings for intonation.

I don't really know anything about string instruments, right? With a more advanced group of players I'd have been able to talk about the results I wanted, and trusted their ability to produce those results on their instruments, but with these students I found that I had to talk about technique a lot.

And I was surprised at how much I did know. Every time I changed something, I asked, "Does this seem weird? Does it contradict anything your ACTUAL lesson teacher has told you?" The answer was always no. I've never learned to play a string instrument, but I've watched a lot of players. We sit in the middle of a sea of strings in the orchestra.  I've done plenty of chamber music with string players. Zoe is learning the cello, so I'm all over the five notes that can be produced on the A string in first position. It turns out that I do have a sense of what bowing should look like and where the fingerings were tripping them up.

And even more to the point, although the techniques are different, the musical principles are the same. I used my schtick about the Hershey Kiss factory to talk about even articulation, just like I would do with an oboist. I looked for physical inefficiencies in fingers and bodies. I snapped and sang and danced the rhythms and melodies, and then gradually transitioned those rhythms out of my body and into theirs.

And BOY, did it work.  Five days after our discouraging Monday start, they walked out onto the stage and gave a rock solid performance.  They were delighted with their results and so was I.  It was a hard-fought battle and they absolutely won it.

And this is why I love the Dake Academy. We let everyone in. Some students are remarkably good, and advanced for their age. Some have never played chamber music before, or been responsible for a part all by themselves. We take seriously the task of placing kids into ensembles that are appropriate, and assigning music that challenges without overwhelming, and working throughout the week to empower them to perform at their highest possible level. In five days EVERYONE gets better, and gives a performance that would have been unimaginable at the start of the camp.

And I get better, too.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Discouraging Words

I can remember at least two old cranky violinists coming to talk to young me about NOT going into music.  There was a session, for example, during a Rochester Philharmonic Youth Orchestra retreat in which a real RPO professional (who was probably 47 but whom I remember as ancient) told us that, statistically, no one who graduates from music school wins auditions for jobs because there are only like 4 jobs out there in the world and 7000 hotshots coming into the job market every week. 

Quit NOW. 

I may have misremembered the details of this speech, but I remember the emotional jolt.  It was designed to discourage.

Last weekend I was presenting at a Double Reed Festival, and heard some oboists grumbling about another presenter who had evidently given something of the same talk to a roomful of masterclass attendees and participants.  High school students and cheerful adult amateurs.

And look, there's an element of truth to this.  Classical music is not a growing field, and it is leg…

Generosity in Programming

I had the most interesting conversations with a few of my students after my first recital performance last weekend.  One thanked me for exposing her to so many interesting new pieces that she had never heard before.  One admitted unabashedly that his favorites were the familiar ones, the ones he already knew from his previous listening.  And both of these observations rang true to me.

See, I LOVE learning new music.  I really enjoy digging into a piece and breaking through an unfamiliar harmonic language to get to the depths of it.  To discover the composer's intention, and to find the universal emotion or experience at the heart of the work, and then to communicate that meaning back out to an audience.  This challenge is fun for me, and I think I do it well.

I have to be fair, though.  By the time I have put that kind of work into a new piece, it's not new to me anymore.  By the time I get it to the recital stage, it's an old friend.  I find great pleasure in performing i…

Self-Talk

When we started the opera cycle (An American Dream, showing at the Harris Theater tonight and Sunday afternoon), the four woodwinds were sitting stacked in a rehearsal room.  In other words, the flute to my right, the bassoon behind me, the clarinet behind the flute, just like in the orchestra.  And it was OK.  We were fairly close together, the room was resonant, and we were working on orchestral details.  But when we moved into the pit, this seating felt VERY isolating.  The four of us were far apart, on two different levels, the wall was right next to me, and intonation and ensemble were very much more difficult.  Our entrances and releases were not clean together, and because we had to balance to the singers on stage, I found my playing getting more and more tentative.  Don't be too loud, don't come in early before the clarinet, keep everything in the box, try to lead the entrances but stay in the texture... And it felt like everything that was not quite great was my fault…