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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.

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