Whilst looking through back issues of ‘ESTA news and views’ (the precursor to ‘arco’ for the uninitiated), I came across a rather interesting article by Elizabeth Waterfield, dating from September 1981 – ‘On the use of mechanical aids in string teaching’. (ESTA News and Views volume 6 no 2). In it, Elizabeth shares her views on the use of modern technology in instrumental music lessons.

Elizabeth Waterfield article page 1

                                                          Elizabeth Waterfield article page 1


Elizabeth Waterfield article page 2

                                                           Elizabeth Waterfield article page 2


Elizabeth Waterfield article page 3

                                                             Elizabeth Waterfield article page 3

The modern technology in question was a tape recorder upon which some piano accompaniments to teaching tunes used by Paul Rolland had been played at an ESTA workshop. Elizabeth questioned the others present as to whether they found it peculiar that such items were used in the context of a music lesson. The response from those assembled was:

‘Looks of amazement, hostility, even pity were cast in my direction. Didn’t I realise how practical it was? What would I do if I were teaching twenty beginner string players in one class? Could I sight-read all the necessary piano parts myself?’

Elizabeth goes on

‘I must admit both that I can see a tape recorder has some practical uses and that I don’t teach twenty children at once, but one at a time for at least half an hour. My poor sight-reading of piano parts is in many cases made up for by an ability to improvise. So I am one of the lucky ones. How could I possibly be in a position to make judgements about a tape recorder?’

Later, Elizabeth discussed this with her father, a naturalist, who responded

‘You might as well try to induce a love of botany in children by getting them to study artificial flowers!’

Whilst realising that we live in very different times, I can sort of see Elizabeth’s point of view. The practicalities of life for most of us dictate that we rarely teach in a room with access to a piano. Even if we are lucky enough to have a piano or other electronic version, do we have a ‘tame’ pianist at our disposal (Elizabeth’s term) or the skills sufficient enough to be able to conduct a lesson fully concentrating on our student(s) whilst playing the accompaniments ourselves? But, by using ‘canned music’ are we denying our students access to the essential experiences of music making with another person?

Are we denying our students of that basic need to make collaborative music with others?

Why, as string players, are most of us drawn to making music in the first place? Surely a large element is a social interaction it promises us through ensemble playing in groups and orchestras. Very few will seek it out as an isolatory experience, particularly if they have chosen an instrument commonly used in an ensemble setting. Therefore, by using an inflexible soundtrack in whatever technological format, to provide musical accompaniment and direction to the lesson, are we denying our students of that basic need to make collaborative music with others?

Ah, I hear some of you cry – what about ‘speed shifter’ and other such useful advancements in sound reproduction. Well, useful as they can be, they still do not give a truly interactive experience of music making.

The practicalities

I can understand the sheer practicalities. There you are, faced with up to thirty eager young players, if you teach whole class groups, all keen to be able to play exciting tunes on minimal effort. It can be all too easy to have them all pluck a series of open D strings to a pulse whilst a zappy rock track drowns them all out. They leave happy, the teacher is happy, the school is happy and you know you will have regular work there. And so many teachers (and I include myself in these ranks) manage to make this system work really well, and produce amazing results, generating a love of music making in a whole new generation of young people. But should this approach be used exclusively?

Not all teachers have an ability to play the keyboard, but we can all play our chosen instrument well (particularly if we have embarked upon a career of teaching it, one would hope!). Therefore, why do we not all naturally utilise our skills and provide an accompaniment from our instrument? Not all of the time, but at least occasionally. Interacting and making music ‘with’ our students is a special musical experience for all involved. Nearly all the published tutors and methods for early learners now recognise this and have responded with alternative accompaniments published for the teacher to duet with their students from their instrument rather than a piano. Even examination boards are now responding to this situation by including such choices within lower graded exams. But how many of us have actually used the instrumental duet accompaniments?  

Making music together

Making music is what we are about, and providing a role model to students in our own making music with them rather than playing ‘alongside’ them, which is a wholly different experience, should be a vital part of our work as teachers. Surely it is our duty to keep music ‘live’ and relying too much on backing tracks, however effective they can be, is perhaps something that we, as reflective practitioners should avoid doing extensively?

Hopefully, this will generate some discussion on how you, as teachers use or even misuse technology within your lessons? The debate is good, and ESTA encourages thinking practitioners, so feel free to comment about it on all of our social media platforms, or even write to the editor to express your opinions within ‘arco’ –  editor@estastrings.org.uk . All contributions are most welcome!   

I have scanned Elizabeth’s article for you to muse over but will leave her with the final words:  

‘Let us not resign ourselves to the tendencies of the ‘day and age’ by sacrificing the human and musical idea to the vital but strictly secondary consideration of what is practical. A conscious and reasoned, not merely instinctive, insistence on first-hand musical experience is surely not old-fashioned: it may well prove that those who rely on technological aids will find themselves behind the times!’  Elizabeth Waterfield – ESTA News and Views volume 6 no 2

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?