Interview with Simon Fischer: The Violin Lesson

July 10, 2013, 8:26 AM · How do you do that on the violin?

Even some of the best players in the world can't really explain, in detail, what they are doing on the violin, how they are doing it or why it works. But when a student is struggling, or when a student wants to reach a new level of playing, this explanation can make all the difference. Fortunately for teachers and for students, UK violinist and pedagogue Simon Fischer has compiled an entire book of such explanations: The Violin Lesson.

The Violin LessonThe author of violin pedagogy books Basics, Practice, Scales and Warming Up, Simon has taught at the Guildhall School since 1982, and at the Yehudi Menuhin School since 1997. He writes a regular column for The Strad magazine and freelances in London.

We spoke over the phone last month about his new book, and the question that it begs: Why is it, that many violin students aren't taught the simple things that would immediately help improve their playing and boost their expressive abilities? "Their teacher might be a fantastic player and a fantastic musician, and they might give a fantastic music lesson," Simon said. "But the trick is to find the teacher who gives a violin lesson as well as a music lesson. The ideal violin lesson must be a wonderful music lesson and also a chance for the teacher to immediately identify what needs to be changed about how the student is going about playing the violin. And the change is always so simple to make."

Teaching technique and teaching music are two sides of the same coin, he said. Yet some teachers don't even try to teach technique. One teaching colleague even admitted quite happily that when the student has technical problems, she doesn't know whether to look at the left hand or the right. "So she just forgets about it and carries on teaching them music," Simon said.

In the UK, college students sometimes have to prepare a journal in which they describe the content of all of their violin lessons: what the teacher said, the points that were made, etc. "When you adjudicate a student recital, this journal is put down on the table in front of you, and you're meant to look at it and give that a mark, as well as grade the playing," Simon said. He remembers encountering one particularly exceptional journal: "It was beautifully handwritten, and the teacher's words were marvelous -- wonderful musical ideas and philosophical ideas. It was all about music and expression and contrast. I thought, you could publish this, it's beautiful! This is a real musician who knows about music, passing on his knowledge to his student with great dedication."

The problem was, the student couldn't play. "The student's bow was all over the fingerboard, he was holding the violin at the wrong angle to his body, he was playing not a note in tune," Simon said. "There was no music because he couldn't play the violin!" And those beautiful musical ideas? "All irrelevant, because the teacher wasn't giving a violin lesson as well as a music lesson. The teacher was telling him everything, except what he actually needed to know."

In fact, this sometimes is intentional, with some teachers embracing the idea that teaching technique, or explaining too much, will somehow ruin a student's innate musicality. Simon said that a violin teacher colleague, having read one of his Strad Magazine articles (about bow retakes), admonished him: "Don’t explain! If you explain to students how to play, they will forever be wooden players. The student must ‘just do.'"

"But some students can 'just do'; some can't," Simon said. For those who can't, "if you explain what to do, then if they continue to do it for the short while that it takes for the new habit to become unconscious, then they end up in the same place as those who could do it without knowing how in the first place."

Simon Fischer
"So I believe very much in explaining," Simon said. "This takes time – actual clock time – in lessons." But it's hardly a waste of time. A good explanation creates what Simon calls a "packet of information." The idea is to create a good number of these "packets."

"Suppose you spend 10 minutes of a lesson explaining the idea of thinking about the violin in terms of proportions. It doesn’t take much longer than that to cover the sort of range of ideas that I described in the chapter, The Magic Word: Proportions, from The Violin Lesson (p. 96). Then in every lesson afterwards, that entire 10 minutes is contained in that one word: 'Proportions.' It has become a ‘packet,’" Simon said. "As lessons progress, more and more of these ‘packets’ are accumulated and become the shared language of the lessons. Therefore, as time goes by, the power and intensity of the lessons increases exponentially. This is one reason why the speed of the students’ progress should increase the longer they continue with a particular teacher, not decrease, as is so often the case! "

There is time, in lessons, to explain things. "Let the clock tick on, make the investment! Once you have explained the subject, it is ‘in the bag,’ to be taken out whenever required, and that then takes only seconds," Simon said. "The Violin Lesson is ‘the book of opened packets’ – the contents of the boxes when they are opened up. Sometimes this can take just a paragraph of text (or thirty seconds of instruction in a lesson), sometimes several pages of text and examples and photographs (or five minutes of a lesson) – but once you have got the idea, it is now ‘one thing’ in your mind. Then, in a typical lesson, ten or more of these subjects may come up. Then each lesson literally becomes more and more valuable."

These detailed explanations are what makes this book different from his previous books, Basics and Practice, Simon said. "The Basics book is pure: the actual principles underlying everything else, and I kept it absolutely strictly to that," he said. Practice focuses on just that: the practice techniques used to solve technical and musical problems that typically arise.

"Every musical example in the Practice book comes from real life, either a lesson situation or my own practice," Simon said. "For years, I had a notebook in every lesson, and I scribbled down the music example and what I had just done with a student. So there's a story behind every single example."

The examples and practice techniques filled notebooks, numerous scraps of paper, the back of violin string packets and Simon's daily diary, "just writing down, writing down, writing down -- everything good, everything that worked."

For three or four years, he wrote down everything that helped. "I'd come out of the Scottish Academy after eight hours of teaching and sit down in the taxi or the bus to the airport. I'd immediately have my file on my lap and I'd be writing down things that had come up in those lessons. I’d continue while standing in line for the security search, and then the moment I sat down on the plane I’d begin again. Driving home from the Menuhin School I would sometimes pull over and stop, to write down some idea or method that I had just remembered had come up during a lesson that day. Because although you think you’ll never forget, in fact unless you write everything down, things do get lost. The music examples in the Practice book are like a record of all the pieces that I was teaching or performing in that period."

"Then for several years it was the same with The Violin Lesson," Simon said, "at the end of the day, and between (and often during!) lessons, taking notes of the subject headings that have come up. But more than a record of the lessons, The Violin Lesson is a record of many of the chief steps in understanding that I have had to take myself in my musical and violinistic journey up to this point, as well as the steps my students have had to take in theirs."

Simon has been teaching for about 35 years, ever since he was a student at the Junior Guildhall. He's easily taught more than 1,000 students. This fall he will have some 40 students, between his teaching at the Guildhall, the Yehudi Menuhin School and private teaching.

What is the key to being a good violin teacher?

"A teacher needs to be able to look at a violin student and to see how they could play, at their absolute best, if everything were going for them. That's the picture you have in your mind," he said.

"Walter Carrington, my Alexander Technique teacher, was brilliant," Simon said. "He didn't try to force you in any direction; he could see how you would be, if you were actually in an ideal state, and his hands would just so gently sort of urge you in that direction. It's not the same as saying that what you're doing is wrong; that's something different. His attitude was more like, 'Why aren't you being that, that which you are already? Or that which you could be, if we can strip away all the things in your way?'"

"I'm always telling the students the story about Michelangelo, walking down the same road for 20 years," Simon said. "There was a slab of marble, by the side of the road, that he didn't particularly notice. Then suddenly one day he saw the statue, imprisoned in the stone. He had the slab taken back to his studio, where he chipped away all the bits that shouldn't be there and 'liberated the statue from the stone.' The same goes for the teacher and student: the teacher helps liberate the student from anything that isn't serving him or her, anything that is getting in the way of the student's music."

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