Learning to play the violin well takes lots of hard work, but there are certain compensations. Due to the violin’s remarkable power to penetrate doors and walls of any material and thickness with its acoustic emanations, you can torment your family and neighbours with your practice for a few years, until the music starts to sound halfway acceptable – to yourself.
Jokes aside, whether you are a player or a parent, surviving those early years requires a healthy mix of stamina, optimism and love. To keep at it, you need to experience progress and more crucially, maintain a resilient sense of humour about it all.
We all love a good laugh, even at our own expense. It’s a welcome antidote to the problems of the world and our struggles with musical perfectionism. We especially like humour that appears spontaneous, but as every comedian knows, the best wisecracks, well timed remarks and ad-lib jokes take lots of conscious practice to sound unrehearsed. For them, being funny is serious business.
For musicians, it is a necessary condition of our profession.
Fun and Games in the Classroom
Fun has an especially important place in teaching. In the most memorably enjoyable music lessons I’ve been privileged to watch, the teachers used humour to ingeniously transform work into play – literally.
What if you’re not the joker in the class? Is it possible to grow a good sense of humour, or is it one of those abilities some lucky people are just born with? Nature or nurture, gifted or learned? As a teacher who studied with Suzuki, you can probably guess my opinion.
Personally, I don’t consider myself naturally funny, (ridiculous, perhaps) and had to learn how to get a laugh. The best teachers are often children themselves, who are quick to catch a joke and eager to join in the fun and games.
Teaching with Games
Studying with Suzuki showed us that teaching almost any skill can be turned into a game of sorts, and it’s become a hallmark of the Suzuki Method.
The trouble with games, of course, is that they become stale if used too often or the agenda is too transparent. Obviously they need a point and purpose, since their true value is measured by how effective they are at building real skills and creating interest for lots of correct repetition.
Some Classroom Clunkers
Although I love inventing funny games, not all have been successful and several have been abandoned in the search for good ones.
The biggest reason for their failure was unintended consequences. Here’s a few notable examples.
Down the River
To practise no mistake playing, I created a game where teams of students had to cross an imaginary river marked out with stepping stones on the floor. To get safely to the other side, students had to perform their pieces perfectly.
Playing without mistakes is a great habit to learn. In fact, beginners and parents are surprised when they first hear error-free playing described as a habit, one which has little to do with the difficulty or complexity of a piece of music – and is as easy to establish as habitually playing with the odd stumble or wrong note.
For the river game I thought, no problem: there’s lots and lots of pieces that everyone can play well without mistakes.
The team’s primary challenge was to work cooperatively together, helping each other play the pieces correctly and beautifully, with special regard for the younger students. They could choose any pieces they liked, but each could only be played once.
We set up the teams with good leaders, balanced them for age and level, explained the simple rules of the game and got started…
All went swimmingly well until one or two students became hopelessly stranded, unable to cross after several nervously unsuccessful attempts. I could see them dissolving into tears and had to come to the rescue before the game ground to a halt. Whoops!
In this game the class performed the musical background to a story. I’ve always enjoyed storytelling, creating protagonists children can identify with, weaving together imaginary scenes and adventures, dramatizing challenges, obstacles and narrow escapes from danger, posing interesting choices and meeting mysterious characters in strange places.
But what was the teaching part of the story? Particular pieces were supposed to be triggered during the narrative to help the characters get out of trouble, to journey from place to place or to provide a musical backdrop to various scenes. It was a feasible idea, I thought.
And what actually happened? Perhaps because I put most of my planning time into developing the engrossing plot line, before too long the pieces themselves became an irrelevant distraction. Mmm.
Another notable clunker was an elaborate practice chart I constructed in the form of a mountain climbing game. Engrossed my smart idea, I spent a couple of hours illustrating the chart and writing the complicated instructions. I cheerfully unveiled it at the next group class, convinced it was going to make practice more interesting and enjoyable.
After receiving a muted reception from both teachers and students, it was quietly shelved. My mistake was going ahead without consulting others, in particular the people for whom it was intended! And as I was to learn from other experiments, most of these types of individualistic games and challenges were bound to fail.
Notwithstanding these forgettable blunders, funny and enjoyable games are easy to create – especially if you can clearly visualise beforehand how they will work in real life.
Laughing out loud with Suzuki
Humour was an intrinsic part of Suzuki’s teaching and all his interactions with children. He found ways to make almost everything disarmingly and preposterously funny and his zen-like joking softened the impact of mistakes and success alike, helping both students and teachers to resist taking themselves too seriously.
It’s also a good teaching strategy, since almost every student, irrespective of their level of playing, experiences some tension during lessons.
One of Suzuki’s positive obsessions was teaching students to produce a beautifully huge tone, large enough to fill any auditorium. His constant refrain was, “Your tone is too small,” and many lessons involved new and unusual ways to increase tone power and projection.
He arrived at group class one morning with toy dancing flowers that gyrated in response to sound. Our challenge was to see how far from the toy we could set them off with a short piece. We had fun trying at bigger and bigger distances, but perhaps they weren’t as sensitive as he hoped, and they only lasted a day or two.
Elastic rubber bands were Suzuki’s favourite teaching apparatus, their main purpose to guide and train students’ bowing arms. Connecting the right elbow and a foot with a series of rubber bands was intended to relax and lower the bowing arm and to improve motion. Done correctly, it works surprisingly well.
The bands’ gentle tension encourages the bowing arm to adopt a more relaxed position, and to use natural weight for producing and controlling tone, volume and shape. Suzuki was a staunch advocate of a lower right arm, perhaps because his own teachers, Ko Ando (Japan) and Karl Klingler (Germany), were students of the famous violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim, who played this way.
Fun and games with bows
To onlookers, the rapid gymnastics of the left hand appears to be the most wondrously difficult skill violinists acquire, yet all string players recognise that the work required to master bowing techniques and tone control is just as monumental – if not more so. Suzuki used a myriad of ways to teach better bowing, even commissioning a bow making company to produce two very unusual bows.
The first of these was a very short bow, with a normal full size frog, an ingenious solution to a common problem. The tiny bow is very effective for learning to play with ease at the frog, since it is impossible play elsewhere with it! The drawback, of course, is its lightness in comparison with a regular bow, but it worked so well that we used a similar bow occasionally in our own school with good results.
Just as absurd looking was the the bow with two frogs. The idea behind this contraption was learning to play with a ‘balanced’ bow, the skill of controlling the weight of the bow on the string at every point of contact. Suzuki was well known for asking students to play with a reversed bow, to learn how to produce more weight and power at the tip, so this was a logical extension.
Presented with these strange bows at the morning group session, we were expected to practice exclusively with them for a whole month. Who did, I wonder? It wasn’t easy.
In my opinion, it was less successful in practice than the little bow, and has remained a memorable curiosity on my shelf.
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