Stepping Back to Move Forward

Anxious Athlete Waiting at Starting Line, by Tableatny
Anxious Athlete Waiting at Starting Line, by Tableatny

There are times when my students teach me lessons unwittingly.

Several nights ago, my youngest violin student–a kindergartener–groaned about having to play the violin that day. Whenever she is overly tired or is having an off-day for various reasons, she becomes quite vocal about questioning why she chose the violin.

“But it sounds baaad,” Carissa* lamented. “Why do you say that?” I responded empathetically. She frowned and looked down at the floor. “I don’t think it sounds bad.”

I continued to explain to her briefly that the violin is a challenging instrument — like many others, it takes lots of practice. “Unlike piano, you have to find all of the notes – they’re invisible.” I pointed to my bare fingerboard. “You have to use your ears to find them, so it’s a little harder at first.” (Not that playing keyboard instruments is any easier – I only wish that I could play organ like a beast, but two hands for me is crazy-making, let alone the addition of two feet.)

After our talk we resumed “Mary Had a Little Lamb” – the first piece we practiced that night – but after much resistance, I gave in and returned to “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” as she requested – the previous song on the page.

When we began the lesson, I attempted to switch the order so we could give more attention to the most recent song she learned first. I try my best to spend a balanced amount of time on my students’ repertoire, but I learned that night that maybe that’s not so important in every case. It did not make a difference that “Mary Had a Little Lamb” was technically easier – “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” though more challenging, was more familiar to her after having worked on it for several weeks. Funnily enough, she had begged to learn “Mary Had a Little Lamb” only a couple of weeks prior.

I most often praise Carissa with having great ears. Growing up in a musical family helped her to learn subconsciously when her strings are out of tune. She can’t yet tune them herself, but she will quickly tell me they sound “yucky” with more certainty than some students I’ve had twice her age. She uses her method book but typically learns the pieces by ear and with song, and when she masters a piece, she finds excitement in playing it on different strings. On the other hand, her good ear causes her to self-critique more harshly than most students I’ve taught at her level.

I confess – as a teacher and as a musician myself, I undervalue the power of reviewing my skills. Revisiting old pieces and etudes is helpful simply for the purpose of not forgetting, but perhaps it is more important to review repertoire for the sake of confidence. Since learning the notes is no longer an issue, review can also give one an opportunity to experiment with the piece in a way that can build creativity and expression.

After hearing her groan a bit about practicing, I laughed a little on the inside — she said some of the things I’ve thought to myself on several occasions but would be too embarrassed to admit out loud. I have a tendency to warm up a little bit when I practice and then dive right into the meat of my repertoire at that time, only to start feeling overwhelmed. However, I have learned through her that including an oldie-but-goody in the practice routine is wise. It looks like I’ll be incorporating some review time in with my musical New Year’s resolutions.

*The student’s name and repertoire have been changed to provide anonymity.


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