The ten-day “retreat” was no holiday, but total, wonderful, daily immersion in lectures, private and group lessons, masterclasses, observations of Indiana University (IU) String Academy pupils, and practice, with evening concerts to cap the day. But surrounded by a distinguished faculty, including Mimi Zweig (Course Director) and Brenda Brenner, and a dedicated group of new and experienced teachers eager to learn, the effect was inspirational and refreshing. I left Bloomington reconsidering my own teaching practice and ready to share the wisdom, principles and techniques with teachers at home.
The IU String Programme essentially blends Paul Rolland principles, initially using Suzuki repertoire, with Zweig’s own philosophy. The approach is non-judgemental: “mistakes” are not to be viewed or experienced negatively, but neutrally, to solve problems. I was struck by the way teachers modelled this approach by asking their pupils to experiment with exercises, isolated repetitions or bowing variations in an attempt to problem-solve rather than explicitly point out a flaw. As a result, the solution was often found even before the actual problem was explained. The pupil, then, was confident they had tools they’d need in the future, and their stress and physical tension was also minimised.
Particularly striking was how the programme is so meticulously thought out. Many children join aged four, and a progression route—pre-Twinkle to Tchaikovsky—really is clear. Also, the teaching of the same technical principles in lessons was observable across all levels. Shifting using natural harmonics was common, “Colourstrings” style. FBB (placing the left-hand finger before bowing) was consistently reinforced. Left-hand finger release was prompted at every opportunity, as was “touch and go” (placing the bow on the string before starting the stroke), or “save and spend” bow speed exercises for phrasing—be it for Suzuki’s ‘Allegro’ or the Glazunov concerto.
Great focus was placed on how to practice. Each piece was proactively prepared with related exercises, scales and etudes so that success, once the piece was attempted, was almost guaranteed. The approach bore some resemblance to the positive models of Paul Harris’s Simultaneous Learning; again, far removed from the widely used and often demoralising “correction cycle”. I came away also questioning the balance between pieces and supporting studies in lessons I teach, and whether we are sometimes guilty—some parents surely fuel this—of equating quantity of repertoire with progress. I’ve also begun to use pre-prepared practice sheets, especially at junior levels, to include a more detailed breakdown of tasks and focus on “repetitions” (the number of times a bar or passage is practised) rather than duration to improve the effectiveness of practice and to make pupils (and parents) aware of how this looks and sounds.
Everywhere, shoulder rests were out and “pinky houses” (nests made of duct tape to aid correct placement of the little finger) were in. I admit I was initially sceptical but having seen the impressive results of Brenner’s WCET-style Fairview Project on YouTube, I knew I had to take the plunge. Getting rid of my own shoulder rest, or “Brooklyn Bridge” as they call it, took willpower and a week of rediscovering my collarbone, but I haven’t looked back since: my violin sounds more resonant, and when I played my first school concert since the Retreat, I felt liberated and able to move more freely.
Violin teaching can often seem a closed, private world, where the prospect of investigating the nitty-gritty of what we do is personal and somehow off limits. But if we want to raise standards and cater for today’s pupils, specific technical exploration in string pedagogy is essential. To that end, the Retreat has influenced how I’ll lead ‘Developing Effective Curricula’—part of ESTA’s own PG Cert in String Teaching—and inspired a new String CPD programme at West Sussex Music. I’ll be aiming to create a similarly non-judgemental environment to empower teachers to take risks, share strategies, and broaden their approach. As Zweig (on her website www.stringpedagogy.com) says: the art of teaching is a lifelong adventure.
I acknowledge the generous support of the Nannie Jamieson Nutshell Fund Bursary, sponsors Thomastik-Infeld Vienna, and West Sussex Music.