Elements of this post appear in some of the others, so rambling on about the philosophy of teaching music won’t be in play too much here. It is important, though, to ask yourself the question that appears in the title. There’s nothing wrong with being a teacher of violin technique, and certainly nothing wrong with being a teacher who teaches classical technique through classical music. Classical music stands the test of time because of it’s beauty and complexity. But it’s also limiting the capability of your students, and could possibly cost you valuable income by limiting yourself.
There’s a music school close by that’s suffering the fate of many in that the local schools are dropping string programs due to lack of interest. This means less students will be taking private violin lessons, as well. Now we have a chicken vs. egg scenario. Why was there a declining interest in strings? Was is lack of interest in the music that was being taught and played? Or was it fear of being an orch dork? Has time moved on to the point that it’s just not socially cool to be playing nothing but classical music? To bridge the gap, they thought bolstering adult lessons during the slack hours of the day would help, but all the adults wanted to learn was bluegrass and fiddle music, so they could play with friends. The teachers at the school either did;t know how to teach that, or weren’t interested. That’s a lost opportunity.
An interesting observation was made by a friend who goes to the free student concerts at Yale occasionally. They’re usually end-of-semester recitals or concerts. He counted the attendance over several of these, and came up with an average of about 10. There were two couples, older folks, who went probably because it was free. A couple of other random adults and family members, and him. When I go to Berklee’s student recitals, the seats are packed with friends, casual onlookers, and people from outside the college looking for some music. My thought was that maybe the type of music was the cause of this, but being a social media expert and consultant, his response was that it had nothing to do with the type of music, it was that the classical musicians had no friends. Pretty extreme, I thought. I spoke with a few other folks who either attended Yale, or who had gifted children thinking of going into performance.
The Yale grads I know said the violin arm of the string department consisted of about 20 students who were taking caffeine supplements and No Doze mixed with energy drinks so they could practice 8 hours a day, and then taking downers so when they auditioned or entered a competition, they would’t be nervous. Some life. One parent of a particularly good child (he got to play a solo with Joshua Bell) decided to drop violin when he went to college, as the practice time meant he’d have to become a hermit, and he really wanted a normal life. So there, alternative string players have more fun, enjoy playing tour more, make more money and have friends.
Here are a couple of potential thoughts, and I’m not suggesting an abandonment of classical repertoire, just generous amounts of time in alternatives to gauge where a kid’s true interest lies:
1: Too limiting a repertoire when the kids are very young. Read the LindseyStirlingLindseyStirling post. Why, if young kids want to be like Lindsey, who is an excellent player in her own right, wouldn’t you use her music to teach the same techniques that you learn either through Suzuki or traditional (Russian-based) methods? The idea at the start is to get the kids excited about learning to play the ultimate cool instrument, the violin.
2: As kids progress, too little other alternative formats are introduced. Jazz gives the perfect opportunity to teach rhythm and dynamics, improvisation and chord theory. Plus, it can be fun to have kids invent their own variations on tunes. Old-time tunes are also easy to learn, and offer the opportunity to teach some of the more currently cool techniques, like the chunk, the chop, slides and chords. Again, see what direction the child wants to go in. There’s no use in pushing classical at this point if the child is thrilled to keep learning techniques and music theory through alternative styles of music. Burn out is bad, smiling players is good.
3: Once they hit junior high school, pressure can start to build, and it’s no secret that parents can become a royal pain in the rear now. It can become all about making regionals, as we all know that if a kid makes it into regionals, they’re bound for the Ivy League school of their choice, certainly with a full scholarship. Right. Here’s where you need to teach both the student and the parent. Point out that learning an instrument is an investment in time and money, and the worst possible outcome is for your child to feel pressure when doing something that should be fun, a stress-relief, and should be a socially cool skill when they go off to college. The number of kids who quit once they graduate from high school is staggering, and all that time and money spent can go down the tubes in a heartbeat.
4: High School, where the poop hits the fan. If they’re not poised to make regionals and really serious about classical repertoire by now, then any attempt at continuing on that path is flat-out stupid. It’s a waste of everyone’s time and money. Your time is far better spent, and you become much more of an educator and “life coach”, a far more useful endeavor, if you go for broke in alternative strings. The kid wants to play rock? Great, see if he can get an electric violin. Encourage him to form a garage band. You don;t need to work on tunes at this point, but remind them that working on technique is always important. If you want to be the Jimi Hendrix of the violin, you have to have the tools. Jimi had chops, and you need them too. Get them thinking creatively, perhaps even making videos of a small ensemble they form. Colleges will be far more impressed with that than someone who sits in the back of an orchestra for four years.
In the long run, even if you look at impurely from a business standpoint, it makes great sense to seek out how those techniques are performed, and how to teach these alternative forms. Your studio will only gain in popularity, or our school string program will only grow.