On a race to more difficult music?

Edward said: Sep 15, 2017
Edward Obermueller
Suzuki Association Member
Morris Plains, NJ
67 posts

I wrote a practice tip for intermediate students called Please Be Kind, Rewind on the lurking danger of strain and what to do about it.

Especially now as schools in the U.S. have started again, kids are moving into orchestras and sometimes getting music that is past their ability to play comfortably and with balance.

I love orchestra and some of my best memories are from there, but I have found that many (traditional) orchestra teachers and conductors have a kind of “sink or swim” mentality and do not support the internal learning and development of the student. My article is meant partly as a tonic for that.

AND, I am interested to hear others’ experience of traditional orchestra with regard to strain. I’m particularly keen on finding out how Suzuki-trained orchestra conductors deal with this issue.

Merietta Oviatt said: Sep 16, 2017
Merietta OviattViolin, Suzuki in the Schools, Cello, Viola
Stevens Point, WI
107 posts

I feel as if I am so lucky as to have a really wonderful beginning orchestra at our program here at the Aber Suzuki Center. It is for students who have basic reading skills and is directed by our cello teacher, Dr. Timothy Mutschlecner. He takes it slow, explains everything that the kids need to know about how orchestra works, works on theory and reading skills, and picks fun pieces for them to learn. All the while keeping with the Suzuki philosophy and being sure that foundational aspects of technique are secure. I have a very large studio, so being able to offer this myself really isn’t in the cards. I find that my students who begin and remain in this ensemble until they are in middle school actually find themselves much more advanced than the orchestra level, and they are usually moved to the advanced, or older ensemble earlier. Even though being moverd to the advanced ensemble, they are usually more advanced and can focus on technique and playing correctly instead of having to worry about catching as many notes as possible. This usually continues through high school.
I don’t usually encourage students to enter into the youth symphony program unless I know that they have the reading skills, their technique is solid, they have had at least a year of ensemble experience in a school or ASC ensemble, and are advanced enough in their solo repertoire.
With this formula my students have had great success and fun in orchestra without me worrying about them having too much stress or strain, or it affecting their general playing.

Dr. Merietta Oviatt
Suzuki Specialist
Viola/Violin Instructor
Aber Suzuki Center, University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point
[javascript protected email address]

Barbara Eadie said: Sep 16, 2017
Barbara Eadie
Suzuki Association Member
Victoria, BC
29 posts

As a private flute teacher I was given some very sage advice early on in my teaching career about performance pieces for kids. They should be performing pieces about 1 grade level below their technical ability. This gives them the opportunity to focus on all the other aspects of playing instead of just getting the notes.
I also teach strings in the public schools and have adopted this philosophy for my beginner groups. When picking a piece for performance I consider the following:
D major only, no dotted rhythms, 2 independent parts (maybe 3 parts if the group is exceptionally strong; however, I would only do this late in the school year.) No 3/4 time at the first year level. My students come to me with no previous string instruction and I spend the first part of the year doing the Twinkles. We begin reading in Jan. By adhering to these guidelines, the kids seem to like the music, and the dropout rate is low. Strings remains fun!

Mengwei Shen said: Sep 16, 2017
Mengwei Shen
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Piano, Cello
Jersey City, NJ
212 posts

I have intermediate students (violin book 4-5) in regional youth orchestras and would say their repertoire is mostly comparable to their “Suzuki level”. There is some shifting past 3rd position, and fortunately, we’ve at least done that in other things so the orchestra music is not their first exposure. For some of the more complicated rhythms, they do have to be taught how to count it (not just hearing and copying as Suzuki students are apt to do). Working on spots can take up quite a bit of lesson time though, and they need to practice more than if the music were “1 grade level below”.

Book 1 example: the chorus of Jingle Bells is not (much) more technically difficult than Lightly Row. At the Lightly Row level, how much effort does it take to learn another piece (by ear)—a lot. At the mid/late book 1 level, how much effort does it take to learn a Lightly Row level piece—not as much.

In the orchestra group of my own private students, I used to be adamant about picking pieces “below their Suzuki level”. However, one of our pieces this fall is grade 1.5 and I have students at the Etude/Minuets level on it even though low 2, 2-note slurs, up up bowing, and G string notes (actually I’ve transposed it from C major to G major to get rid of the G string notes) are new/working skills for them. I decided they could handle it because of other prep we’ve done and because there are enough stronger readers overall for the newer readers to get a boost by copying.

Another piece I’ve arranged to have a grade 2ish part and a grade 3ish part. To get my late book 1 students playing “grade 2″, I teach the bowings by rote ahead of time, preview the tricky spots, do various beat/rhythm/counting exercises away from the piece/instrument, and again rely on peer support. Being a compulsive planner, I’ve also already picked next spring’s pieces and made a list of preparation skills that will show up in my group classes before we get there.

I recall from another thread about working with public school string students who might be reading “too early” or “too difficult” for a Suzuki teacher’s liking, and someone had recommended to introduce the concept before the school class gets to it (I imagine this works better if you’re familiar with your local programs). It’s a different perspective being the private teacher with students in other orchestras (reactive) vs. being the one who plans the orchestra learning/development (proactive)!

(edited to add)
There’s “experience bias” here where if my students have “within level” music from school or wherever, they just show me that they’re handling it themselves, we don’t need to work on it, I notice and remember only the stretch piece and forget about the others. If they have enough stretch material from elsewhere, I have to pull back temporarily on what I chose to challenge them with since it just becomes tough if they have too much.

Ingrid Popp said: Sep 17, 2017
Ingrid Popp
Suzuki Association Member
Viola, Violin
Saint Louis, MO
10 posts

This is great advice from a solo repertoire perspective, (and I wish I had done more of this as a student). I like the concept of physical balance, I think this perspective would have been helpful for me as a student. I had teachers try to move me back with a piece or two that was easier than my current abilities and it felt like a demotion and/or lack of confidence in my abilities. The physical balance idea explains it so much better and leads to productive work on the easier piece (if you play an easier/review piece with resentment it is equally useless to the harder repertoire).

I understand the perspective on ensemble music, however if some of the school programs here didn’t push students a bit beyond their abilities I suspect I would have far fewer students as the majority come from public school programs. Some come to me just because they want more violin/viola time and to learn past what they are doing in school, but I believe just as many come because they are struggling with some aspect of what they are playing in the school program (or want to audition for the honors group, etc..) and most stick around because they realize they are learning more than they ever could just in school.
It is frustrating as a teacher to have to teach music that students are not quite ready for. However, I have seen that this can be very motivating for students in certain cases if it is just one or two pieces that are beyond their current ability it can provide extra motivation to practice and improve. However, if everything the student is playing is beyond their ability, I agree that it is counterproductive. It is ideal when the student is just one or two levels above their ensemble music, easy enough to learn the notes, but not so easy that they tune out and play on autopilot.

Edward said: Oct 6, 2017
Edward Obermueller
Suzuki Association Member
Morris Plains, NJ
67 posts

Marietta, Barbara, Mengwei, Ingrid, thank you for taking the time to comment. I found everything helpful, and would like to share the Aber model around more. There is a similar thing going on in a local youth orchestra program here in NJ. I am hosting a “How To Buy A Violin” workshop for them soon, I want to mention Aber in case there is desire to get in contact and share best practices.

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