Holistic infusion for the aspiring violinist

At the age of seven, John began taking violin lessons. He did very well.John had the capability—rare in a child—to understand that learning the violin would be a slow process, that progress would at times be as invisible as observing himself grow an inch taller, and that he would need to keep plugging away. He was able to practice enough to see reasonable forward motion, and did not become discouraged by periodic setbacks. After a couple of years John was able to join the school orchestra, and by high school, was placing admirably in solo competitions. As violin study goes, John’s journey was smooth sailing, and, by all accounts, a success. And yet ... Could there have been a way for John's learning experience and musical outcome to be even greater and more fulfilling?

We have seen how a holistic experience that precedes instrumental learning can help an individual make a more informed choice of which instrument to pursue. Now we will look at what can happen when holistic learning parallels and intersects with instrumental study. To illustrate this, I have chosen the violin because it is, in a sense, the poster child of linear learning. 

The violin is considered to be one of the most—if not the very most—difficult of all instruments to learn. It is, let’s face it, a snob and a severe taskmaster, uncompromising and insistent that you do things its way, without compassion for the novice. Just holding it properly requires physical contortions found nowhere in nature: the player’s head repositioned at an implausible left angle, accompanied by an equally implausible forward thrust of the shoulder; the fingers of the left hand exiled to the end of the fingerboard, left to fend for themselves in a fretless, alien landscape. While maintaining all that, the student is expected to pick up the bow and cajole each protesting finger into its proper place on the stick.Never mind actually trying to play. Maneuvering the bow into a route on the string that will produce a decent sound is much like commanding a wild beast to heel. Early efforts will be rewarded with squeaks, squawks and other ear-assaulting protests that require the forbearance of anyone in earshot. The violin will let you know in no uncertain terms how unhappy you are making it, and that its friendship will be earned only through sustained hard work. 

For over two and a half centuries, no pedagogical stone has been left unturned in pursuit of the most efficient route to violin mastery. Volumes of etudes, scales, exercises and methods espousing the convictions of one master teacher or another provide ample fodder for the violinist’s chat room: the Galamian high elbow, Dounis’s relaxation techniques, Jascha Heifetz’s televised master classes. The Suzuki approach organizes the process into components so incrementally well-conceived from the beginning[1] that it is almost impossible to go astray, and adhering to the method through devoted practice leads straight up the ladder to proficiency: case in point the hordes of Suzuki-trained virtuosos populating orchestras all over the world. Regardless of which approach is used, the thinking is that with all there is to learn, the student needs to get down to business right away and commit fully to building skills, no time to waste. Yes, the violin is a difficult instrument to master, and yes, learning to play well can only be achieved through years of diligent practice. But do the exigencies of the instrument necessarily preclude a broader, more holistic musical experience? I believe that it is possible not only to incorporate other aspects of music into the learning, but to offer a more organic introduction to the instrument itself. 

First, let’s consider how the violin works. As with all instrument families, there is a beautiful logic to strings in terms of how the sound is produced and how pitch is changed, much of which can be discovered through exploration. I believe that beginning violin study with self-guided exploration—something that I have not seen in a traditional lesson—will set the stage, not only for developing violin technique, but for becoming a well-rounded musician. And not with a violin perched on the shoulder, where it is difficult to hold and almost impossible to see. Actually, not with a violin at all! Rather, I believe in introducing the violin by way of a “friendly” string instrument, meaning one with frets that can be held comfortably in the lap. Enter the mandolin: ideal because it has the added benefit of having exactly the same tuning as the violin. If a mandolin is unavailable, we can turn to the violin’s inexpensive, humble, "friendly" cousin, the ukulele, as a way to acquaint the fledgling violinist with the world of strings. Remember that the idea is not to start out straight away with technique, but to understand just what is going on with this wooden box and its strings.

It cannot be assumed that someone just starting out on the violin—particularly a student with no prior musical experience—understands the basic principle of stringed instruments: that when you press a string down, it has the effect of shortening the string, and that shortening the string raises the pitch. Some people seem to grasp this intuitively, but many more do not. What happens when you press a string down at the fourth fret with your left hand and pluck it with your right? What happens to the pitch when you press down other frets? If you press down different frets on one string, does it affect the pitch of a different string? Though it may seem obvious to some, many people do not initially realize that in order to change the pitch of the string, the string being bowed must be the same string as the one being fingered. I have seen too many students pushing down one string while bowing another to assume that everyone grasps this right away. With a ukulele held comfortably in the lap, the student can both feel and seehow this works. Yes, it is possible to learn how to play the violin without knowing this, but why deprive the learner of this integral understanding?

One of the biggest problems for the beginning violinist is playing in tune. Without frets to guide you, the prospect of finding the exact place to put your finger is daunting.[2] In Western music, finger placement is based on whole and half steps. Few beginning violinists have any idea what whole and half steps are. Figuring out where they are on an unfretted fingerboard is extremely difficult, and teachers are constantly having to remind students to squeeze these two fingers together and keep those two apart.[3] On a fretted instrument—again, held in the lap—it is easy to see what is meant by two notes being “next to” each other (a half-step) or skipping a fret (a whole-step). Once whole and half steps are clear, the student can place the unfretted violin on the lap and, with the ukulele close by, compare and figure out the whole and half-step relationship on the fingerboard. Students of mine, who have had a chance to progress from the ukulele to violin on the lap to violin on the shoulder, understand finger placement and have an easier time playing in tune.[4] This can be conveyed mechanically, but again, why deprive the prospective violinist of this opportunity to understand how it works?

When I took up the violin at age fifteen, I was both inspired and ready. Having taught myself guitar, I had a thorough understanding of how stringed instruments work. Although I was not able to acquire violin technique on my own, my musical understanding was in place, and I remember my teacher being astonished at how quickly I progressed.

Benefits aside, I believe that encouraging a beginner to sit with a violin or any instrument on his own—study the way it looks and feels, wonder about it, experiment—is beneficial for its own sake. Significant learning may be happening even when an observer is unable to measure, understand or even see it; a radical departure from the “training model” where learning the violin is all about quantifying learning and 100% teacher input. And when it is the teacher who is enabling this unguided activity, there is a subliminal message to the learner that self-initiated learning through exploration is worthwhile. In addition, a student who is able to get acquainted with an instrument in her own time and way feels ownership of the experience, and the bond that is formed between the individual and the instrument will become invaluable to the player’s self-concept. This is where the violin lesson becomes not just a learning experience, but a transformative one. The old argument that without explicit direction from the teacher the violin student will acquire bad habits does not even apply, since all this is going on before technique is even introduced! And it is entirely possible to approach the violin with reverence—for it’s beauty, history and power—at the same time allowing the student to engage in creative play: What happens if you pluck over here, hold down all the strings at the same time, or whatever reasonable experiments the child may be inclined to try. Reverence and play are not mutually exclusive!

Besides learning to play, what about a broader frame of reference? After all, the violin is more than an instrument to be studied in a lesson; its evolution, performers and genres can be introduced right from the beginning and all along the way to give the student that sense violin learning is part of a violin culture. Of course certain aspects of playing can only be learned by doing them with the instrument on the shoulder and the bow in the hand. But a holistic introduction to the instrument gives the learning a musical context, and does not in any way impede or compromise what the violinist will ultimately need to do.

Every instrument family includes a friendly cousin: that is, an instrument that is more approachable, requires less technique to produce a decent sound, and lends itself to exploration. We have seen how fretted instruments such as ukulele or guitar can be a helpful introduction to all fretless strings. For harmony, chording and accompanying, the ukulele and guitar have an even friendlier relative: the autoharp. On this instrument, the different chords are produced simply by pushing different buttons, allowing the student to focus on the sounds and functions of the chords rather than on the physical challenges of producing them. For winds, there are the recorder and pennywhistle. Most percussion instruments are, by nature, friendly, as is the piano—just as long as it is approached through exploration, rather than defaulting to methodology from Day One.     

Infusing the linear lesson with holistic learning will develop not only the instrumentalist, but the whole musician. Why not learn how to play by ear, explore improvisation, try one's hand at composing? A pianist with a holistic background makes a better accompanist. A violinist with exposure to other aspects of music making will have more flexibility to consider other genres such as Bluegrass or Klezmer that might, at some point, become relevant to her needs. The conventional training model limits the learner to one particular set of skills on a path to one desired outcome. A holistic, inclusive approach acknowledges that a career on the concert stage need not be the goal for every student, and paves the way for personalizing one’s musical future.

[1]Suzuki believed that children begin learning before birth, and assigned recordings for mothers to play while the child was still in utero.

[2]I remember the day I got my first violin. I was pretty sure I’d be able to master it on my own; after all, I’d taught myself guitar by ear, why not the violin? I took the rental violin into my bedroom, closed the door, sat down on the bed and looked at the instrument. There were no frets. I hadn’t realized that violins have no frets. I actually got my mother to call the music store to complain that they had given us a defective instrument, and could we please exchange it for one with frets! 

[3]Some teachers use tapes on the fingerboard to indicate the whole and half steps, turning the violin into a sort of “fretted instrument on the shoulder.” Tapes are an efficient mechanism for getting students to place their fingers correctly, but not nearly as effective as an understanding of whole and half steps would be.

[4]The piano keyboard also provides an excellent visual for understanding how whole and half-steps work.

Meryl DanzigerComment