Thursday, 26 July 2012

3 violin teachers – and what they taught me about teaching

Since becoming a teacher, I’ve started to reflect more on the people who taught me at school, and what I can learn from their teaching techniques.  The difficulty is that I’m not certain I can trust my recollections.  I’ve known for years that certain subjects, including A-Level Maths and GCSE Sciences, are long gone from my memory, and on thinking about it further I’ve realised that some of the strongest memories from my school days may in fact be no more than short excerpts of single lessons.  I may be incorrect in thinking that one particular teacher taught solely by dictating from the textbook that we all had open in front of us, or that another had clear favourites and scapegoats in the class.  I don’t wish to do an injustice to these teachers by blogging incomplete and partial recollections about what I think they did, or failed to do, in class.

So I’ll turn instead to three people who taught me to play the violin between the ages of 8 and 18.  Let’s call them Anna Locksley, Mrs Trent, and Sarah Donovan.  

Anna Locksley – the beginner’s class

Anna was my first violin teacher, and I worshipped her.  Classes took place in a high, airy room, with upwards of a dozen children, aged between 6 and 10, each clasping a tiny violin in sweaty hands.  Various doting parents sat around the walls to observe, comparing notes on each other’s little darlings in a true spirit of competitiveness.

The classes must have involved a lot of repetitive activity, but I principally remember them being a lot of fun.  Anna had a way of telling us important information with an image or metaphor so we would giggle, and then remember it forever.  For example, if someone was holding the neck of their fiddle too tightly with their left hand, she’d tell them to imagine there was a tomato between their hand and the violin – “Don’t squash the tomato!”  Or when we learned how to bow at the end of a piece, we had to keep our necks straight and look towards the ground as we leaned, because if you look forward at the audience, you look like a duck – “No ducks, please!”

More importantly, Anna had the most important skill possible for a teacher of novice violinists: she never winced, no matter how tortured or tuneless the scrapings we managed to produce.  Anyone who has suffered the playing of small children will understand why my sister rechristened my instrument the ‘vile-din.’  Anna was the embodiment of patient encouragement, leading us through baby steps towards the distant goal of an Associated Board Grade 1 examination, and (more importantly for some of us), the audition for the children’s orchestra at the music centre.

Yet the audition was where it all came undone for me.  We had all learned the same simple piece to play, and practised it in lessons and at home past the point of boredom.  All we had to do for the audition was line up outside the lesson room, go in one by one, then play our piece.  I don’t remember the wait, nor whether I was full of nerves, but what I clearly recall is that when it was my turn, I screwed up. 

The examiner (invigilator? auditioner? I’m not sure of the best word) smiled in a friendly way, then asked me to play my favourite piece.   I froze.  My favourite?  That wasn’t the piece I had prepared.  But if that was the one he wanted me to play, then that’s what I’d have to do.  I dutifully played my favourite piece, which as it happened was far simpler than the intended audition piece.  Afterwards, Anna was shocked and told me I should have played the audition piece, no matter what the examiner had said, but I’d been too overawed to do anything other than exactly what he’d asked.  Although I did get into the children’s orchestra, I’d clearly come across as a weaker player, since I was put into the second violins, unlike the rest of my class who were in the first violins.  It took a while to recover from the blow to my confidence.

The relevance of all this to language teaching?  It strikes me now that Anna’s classes were very like a beginner’s language class.  We were learning the building blocks of our instrument, with lots of drilling and repetitive practice.  She encouraged us to produce music even though what we were so far capable of would be unrecognisable except to a trained and patient ear.  We played together most of the time to build our confidence, while the teacher monitored us and corrected our technique.  We were given homework in the form of practice schedules, exercises and scales.

However, my audition problem shows a problem that novice language learners often encounter when they try to use language in a real situation.  This is that they can very quickly become derailed when a native speaker deviates from the expected ‘script’, and that this can be both demoralising and embarrassing for the learner, especially if they feel that their teacher is disappointed in them.  The teacher not only needs to prepare students for what a person may say in a particular situation, and how to respond to it, but should also be ready to encourage students to view social errors as learning experiences, and not be discouraged by them.

Mrs Trent – the scary teacher

I started having individual violin lessons with Mrs Trent around the time I started attending secondary school.  At this time I suffered greatly with shyness, to the extent that I was often unable to speak to a teacher without bursting into tears, and consequently I viewed my violin lessons with the utmost dread.  Mrs Trent (very definitely a Mrs – no first names allowed here!) was undoubtedly a fine violinist, and I believe a skilled teacher, but for me her brisk directness was utterly terrifying.  She had no time for encouragement or humour, and no patience with my shyness and self-doubt.

When she invited me to join a string chamber group which met before school once a week, I arrived on time, but had no courage to enter the room, since all the other members of the group were senior pupils in the school.  When Mrs Trent noticed me lurking by the door, she barked at me to come in, and scolded me for being late, meaning that all eyes were on me as I crept in, which of course made everything worse.  For the whole rehearsal I was too frightened to speak, and stood on tiptoes to read the music on the stand rather than ask the girl I was sharing with if I could lower it.  

Mrs Trent was strict because her standards were high, and she certainly achieved results with many of her students, but in my case my fear of her held me back.  I began to associate my violin with the negative emotions that her lessons and rehearsals inspired, and became reluctant to practise.  The strange thing is that on the one occasion I had a lesson with Mrs Trent in her home rather than at school, she seemed like a completely different person. She relaxed more, and even laughed on occasion.  In her own home, with her belongings around her, her professional mask dropped and I enjoyed the lesson far more than any I’d previously had with her.

The application of Mrs Trent’s teaching style to language teaching is obvious: students learn less if they’re frightened of the teacher, or if they feel the teacher’s expectations are too high and they can’t meet them.  It isn’t wrong to have high expectations, or to keep a professional distance from students.  What is wrong is to withhold praise and encouragement when they are needed, and to fail to take account of students who are nervous, stressed, and may be experiencing culture shock.  Teachers can’t assume that one approach will work for all students or classes.

Sarah Donovan – two steps forward, one step back

The teacher I’m calling Sarah Donovan took over my lessons after Mrs Trent left, and there couldn’t have been a greater contrast between them.  Sarah was approachable, bubbly and welcoming, and what’s more she was the same person whether in her school or in her home.  I loved her lessons, and made a great deal of progress, finally taking the Associated Board Grade 8 exam in my A-Level year.

Sarah was a great teacher, yet she wasn’t perfect.  Particularly during the later years as her pupil, I’d have liked to have had more autonomy in choosing which pieces I learned.  She could have said “I’d like to work on these areas of your technique, here are some pieces that would benefit you; which ones would you like to learn?”  I would have liked to listen to violin repertoire with her and discuss how to interpret particular pieces so that I could develop a better style.  I think she should have taught me how to take care of my violin: how often should it be serviced?  How often should a bow be restrung?  What is the appropriate amount of rosin to use on the bow before playing? 

You can be an adequate violinist without any of these things, but you remain dependent on the teacher to make your choices for you:  you don’t become your own musician.  Similarly, students who rely on spoon-feeding in the language classroom will rarely make as much progress as those who can adapt and become independent learners.

Again, I don’t believe my lessons with Sarah included enough advice or focus on how I should be practising at home if I really wanted to make progress.  Left to my own devices, I did practise, but had a tendency just to play through the pieces from beginning to end two or three times, play my scales once, then stop.  I didn’t focus on intonation, timing or technique; I had just one way of practising. 

I’ve now taught many language students who do something similar when they study at home.  They know one way of reading (slowly, with a dictionary for every unfamiliar word), one way of listening (the TV, with subtitles), and many of them don’t practise writing at all.  If they’re going to become more effective learners, their teacher needs to suggest a range of techniques they can try, to help them improve across a range of skills associated with their language needs.

Finally, there were two occasions in Sarah’s lessons when something she said had a quite different effect on me than she intended.  Both occurred in my final weeks at school, when the dreaded Grade 8 exam was a recent memory, and A-Levels themselves were soon to draw to a close.  The first thing she said:

“You’ve got your Grade 8, that’s basically a licence to play the violin.  Now you can do a diploma in performance, or maybe get a teaching qualification.”

The second:

“You’re left-handed?  Why didn’t you tell me you were left-handed!  This will really have affected your technique.  I could have given you some corrective exercises if I’d known!”

OK, where to start.  Grade 8 was a major milestone for me, the culmination of 10 years of lessons and practice.  Yet no sooner did I finally have it under my belt, than Sarah (in my view) belittled my accomplishment and said it was just the beginning.  Now this may have been true, but she hadn’t ever asked me if I wanted to be a professional musician, whether a performer or a teacher.  (I didn’t).  Grade 8 was enough for me.  And the left-handedness?  Sarah had been my teacher for 5 years, during which time I’d had one-to-one lessons every week during term-time, and also played in several chamber groups that she’d taught.  She’d seen me writing notes on music numerous times, and also taking my watch off my right wrist every single time before I played, yet somehow she’d never noticed which hand I write with.  And if it made such a big difference to my playing technique, wouldn’t she have realised it even without seeing me write? 

These two things together left me with a bad taste in my mouth as I came to the end of school, and the end of my lessons with Sarah.  They were a big part of the reason that I chose not to find a violin teacher at university, or join any musical groups there, sad to say.  I was all the more disappointed in Sarah because I admired and respected her, both as a teacher and a friend.

Now, more than a decade later, I can see how easy it is for a teacher to assume they understand a student’s goals and priorities.  I know how it’s possible to miss something that is holding a student back, and beat yourself up over it later because it should have been obvious.  I’ve made both mistakes myself, and will probably do so again.  But I’m also aware how a good teacher can have an impact on far more than your understanding of the subject they teach.  So even though neither Sarah nor I lived up to our expectations of each other, I’m very grateful to her, and Mrs Trent, and Anna, for what they taught me about teaching. 

And that reminds me, I should dig my violin out.


  1. You should dig it out! What a lovely, thoughtful, insightful piece of writing. Need to think about it for a while now... :)

  2. Some of your insights have also occurred to me - mainly that I owe my GCE Maths to a wonderful lady called Miss Yorke who had the patience and ability to explain the inexplicable in numbers. Without her, GCE matsh would have been an unattainable goal. No other teacher, before or since as far as I remember had the ability to preseent a problem in so many different ways that even the last pupil (often me) finally caught on. As a Grammaar School pupil I was expected to catch on fast but Miss Yorke allowed for pupils like me.

    I also had violin lessons at a tender age and if I had only heard Irish jigs or Fairport Convention then, I would never have given up. Those pieces for the grade exams were deadly!

    Moral of this post: keep trying to get students to understand and offer a wide variety of topics.