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Monday, October 24, 2011

Quick Practice Tip: Nose and Front Teeth Bows

One of the hardest things to teach a beginning student is refinement, perhaps because refinement requires a strong ability to concentrate and focus. Couple this requirement with the younger student's desire to play quickly, and pretty soon the songs the student plays are a mess.

In the beginning, I place a colorful yellow tape mark at the point of the bow where the student's arm forms a "square": the bow is parallel to the bridge and the forearm is perpendicular to the violin strings. I refer to this tape mark as the "sunshine spot" and liken it to the student's backyard and ask the student to stay in the backyard. I am not  dictatorial about how well the student stays in the area, because I do not want to encourage undue tension. I have found that if I am too insistent and focused about whether the student stays in the "yard," then the student tightens up arm muscles.

I find it better to allow the student some room to make some of these discoveries about what constitutes a good tone and good playing under my watchful eye. In this way I look forward to the time when the student becomes his or her own teacher. My goal at all times is to instill in the student those skills necessary to experiment, observe, and evaluate. After all, the student sees me once a week in most cases and needs to be able to understand how to practice and improve on his or her own, even if the student works with a home practice partner or supervisor.

So I let the issue of refinement slide a little at times. If the student plays too far afield, I just point to the yellow spot without having to say anything, and the student automatically starts playing in the taped area. For a very young or new beginner, I find it easier to just pick the bow up and help the student to place it in the correct spot every time. We work together as partners.

My practice tip today is for those students who are really getting loose in their bowing style. An example might a young boy who is excited about playing and in particular about playing fast with a lot of (unnecessary) energy. Just pointing to the yellow spot is not going to be enough to draw his focus away from the fun of moving fast and furious with his bow. So I use my practice tip about Nose and Front Teeth Bows.

I tell my student that we are going to play with bows about the size of his nose and with bows the size of his front teeth, and then my student will tell me what was different about the two techniques. I measure the length of my student's nose with my thumb and index finger (probably about two inches). I hold my thumb and index finger above the yellow spot and help my student to measure off the length of the area that matches the length of my student's nose. The length generally resembles the length of the yellow tape patch (what a coincidence!). Then we measure the length of the student's front teeth. I might place a little sticker on the yellow tape as a mark of the front teeth length (about 1/4" to 1/3").

When asked to try both of these bow lengths, two things generally happen:
  • The student focuses on the bowing and uses more refined bowing technique.
  • The student discovers that using a tinier bow length results in faster playing (and conversely, that longer bows result in slower playing).

Usually the student is delighted to work on the front teeth bows, and that is fine with me because it accomplishes three things for me:
  • The student concentrates more on the bow usage, especially the bow's contact point.
  • The faster speed encourages the student to solidly acquire certain skills: appropriate fingers (independent versus "stacked" fingerings) and good bow and left hand coordination.
  • The student pays attention to what he or she is doing!

The next time you want to help a student to refine a particular technique, try the nose and front teeth bow model. Take what the student is currently doing and find ways to shrink down the challenge area.

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