In his book ‘The Violin Lesson’ (Edition Peters), Simon Fischer talks about ‘The Science of violin playing’:

‘To develop technique on the violin you have to learn the Science of Violin Playing. But this must not be confused with studying ‘real’ sciences like physics, chemistry, biology, DNA and so on. Any field like these is obviously a lifetime’s work, and however much you know is only ever a tiny speck compared to the amount you do not know – even if you study all day, every day, for 50 years. In comparison, the entire science of violin playing is only the size of a tiny speck’ (‘The Violin Lesson’- Simon Fisher – p.xv -Edition Peters)

Simon goes on to say:

‘You cannot study for the rest of your life how to draw a straight bow; or to study how to raise and drop the fingers, how to shift, vibrate and so on. There simply isn’t that much to learn. You can study music for the rest of your life – and after fifty years, the amount you know about music will be only a tiny speck compared to what you do not know – but that is a different matter’ (‘The Violin Lesson’- Simon Fisher – p.xv -Edition Peters)

Simon is very wise, and on many levels is telling it as it is. Bowed string instruments have a certain logic about them. They are essentially not that hard to play in theory, or are they? How many people that start to learn a string instrument will manage to draw a straight bow, or develop a good vibrato? How many will even manage to play fairly consistently with good intonation? The sad truth is that many who begin with aspirations of greatness on a violin/viola/cello/double bass, will give up in frustration and possibly go through the rest of their lives declaring ‘I am no good at music!’

Why do so many fail?

As teachers, we have to question why so many fail at what is, if Simon is correct, a fairly simple process.  By definition, we, as teachers, found the process fairly simple too! Some of us may have needed to work harder than others to achieve our own playing standard, but we have all managed to get to a decent enough level to feel confident enough to pass our knowledge on to the next generation of players. It is often said that ‘those that can’t do teach’; but to have the ability to break down complex tasks into their simplest form and facilitate another individual to learn how to replicate these tasks is a science in its own right. There is also a school of thought that believes that people who have found learning a process less natural than some others are better able to pass on the information needed to learn that process to others. They have needed to analyse and break down the process into its smallest components in order to establish their own ability to carry it out, and therefore can empathise with the learner.

Empathetic or sympathetic teaching

Empathy and sympathy are two distinctly different emotions. We can all sympathise with the struggling string player whose desire for success is eluding them, but we cannot all empathise with them and truly place ourselves into their shoes unless we have similarly struggled at some stage ourselves.

That is surely where the science of string playing should step into the learner’s aid. Simon is quite correct in stating that the ‘entire science of violin playing is only a tiny speck’. There are only so many fundamental movements that are needed to play an instrument, and many teaching players have analysed these movements and processes. More importantly, many have put their findings down in writing. Then, like the scientists that do study ‘real’ science, it is up to us as teachers to be aware of these findings, assimilate them in to our own playing and teaching, build upon them and most importantly of all learn how to pass on this information to each individual learner that comes to us in a way that they understand!

Keep up the Practice

As teachers, we need to be not only able to physically be good at playing the instrument we teach, but we also need to be well informed as to how we achieve the results that we do. Our own study of the instrument is lifelong.  Even when he was 90 years old, Pablo Casals, known as the world’s greatest cellist, practiced this instrument for four or five hours every day. Someone asked him why at his age, he still worked so hard on the music, and he responded, ‘Because I think I am making some progress.’ Therefore, we have a duty to keep exploring both the science and art of our instrument, at least for the duration of our teaching careers. But we also need to remember to analyse what it is we are actually doing and how we are achieving the results we are.  We need to review our own playing, break it down into its simplest processes and then consider how we would explain these to a variety of learners at many levels. The moment we become truly thinking players AND teachers our students will reap the benefits and become better able to put the science of playing into practice.

Where do we go from here?

Through membership of the European String Teachers Association, you will be amongst a group of teachers and musicians who really do, like our very own Simon Fisher, really think about the processes involved in the passing on of an art form to future generations in a logical and educated way. The conferences, courses, networking opportunities and magazines ESTA offer all go towards nurturing our desire to become the best teachers that we possibly can.

Why not visit www.estastrings.org.uk and www.estaeducation.co.uk to see how the European String Teachers Association can help you develop into the best teacher you can possibly be?