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Pauline Lerner

June 16, 2005 at 6:09 AM

I have met so many interesting people through teaching violin.

My newest student is an adult (20 y.o.) beginner who wants to learn to play bluegrass and Irish fiddle music. Her father is of Irish descent, several generations back, and her parents brought her up with a lot of Irish culture. When she was a kid, she took lessons in Irish step dancing. Irish step dance, which was featured in River Dance, is a performance or exhibition dance rather than a social dance. She was quite good at it. She won competitions at the national level and went on to compete in Ireland. When her family moved to a different city she stopped step dancing because there were no teachers nearby. More recently she developed a love for bluegrass music and had a great time at a bluegrass festival. Her boyfriend, his parents, and a lot of their friends are music lovers. In fact, her boyfriend’s parents were Dead Heads. Last year her mother gave her a violin for Christmas, and now she has come to me for lessons. Her mother got her a rather nice violin, not a just-for-beginners piece of junk. I gave her my usual first lesson. I talked about the care and feeding of the violin and worked on posture and setup. I had her draw the bow smoothly and slowly across the open strings, one at a time, so she could have the satisfaction of getting a pleasant sound out of her violin on her first lesson. Before the lesson, she had tried to play on her own and produced screeches and squawks. She was very happy when she played the open strings and made pretty sounds. As she was packing up to leave, I played some tunes for her to give her a taste of what she will learn to do. I started with Swallowtail Jig, a well known and loved Irish slip jig. She said, “Oh, that’s a slip jig…It’s Swallowtail Jig…I’ve danced to it.” She listened to the tune with tears in her eyes. When I finished playing, she told me, “That was my music… I was a step dancer…That was me.” I told her that she might be able to resume step dancing some time or to play fiddle music for step dancers. She said, “That’s it. I want to play Irish step dance music on the fiddle.” I felt so happy. I had just opened a whole new world of possibilities for her.

I had a totally different experience with a prospective adult beginning student. We exchanged a few mails and talked on the phone. She told me, “I just want to do this for fun. If it turns out to be a pain, I’ll drop it.” I responded, “Playing violin can be a fun and a great escape from the toils and troubles of everyday life, but it is technically a difficult instrument. You have to commit to practicing and learning.” I haven’t heard from her since then.

Another one of my adult beginning students is an immigrant from Central America. Her English is somewhat limited, but I have worked with immigrants before and I know how to adapt to them. In her case, it’s often easier to communicate by playing then by talking. She is talented; her intonation was almost perfect from the start. She is also very committed to learning how to play. She told me that she listens to the CD that goes with Suzuki Book One every night. She especially likes one of the Bach menuettes at the end of the book and looks forward to being able to play it. I recently discovered that her literacy skills are not good. I’ve been teaching her – what else-- Twinkle, which she knows in Spanish. I wrote her a cheat sheet to help her remember the notes. It has the names of the notes with the fingering written above the letters, starting like this:

0 0 1 1 00 3 3 3 2 2 11 0

She had trouble understanding this, and when I said, “Play this note, with no fingers on the D string, three times,” she was still confused. She was also confused by my instruction, “Play one note with each bowstroke.” She is neither stupid nor unmusical. I had her watch my hands while I played the tune and then play it with me. Now she is catching on. I remembered that Dr. Suzuki taught preliterate children to play the violin by ear. I asked her whether it would be easier for her to learn to play by watching me and listening rather than by reading my cheat sheet. I told her that many folk musicians do not know how to read sheet music and they play by ear. She asked me what “folk music” is. She then insisted that she would practice with my cheat sheet until she learns to play it correctly. I don’t doubt her motivation or her capability. She had told me that when she first got the violin and tried to play it, her kids had laughed at her, but she was going to learn how to do it. I asked her whether her six year old daughter listens to her play Twinkle now. She said that her daughter sings along when she plays it. Imagine! Another miracle!

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