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Monday, January 13, 2014

Monday Morning Check In: The Hidden Teaching Points

The Hidden Teaching Points: the Road to a Deeper Teaching Relationship

Written by Paula E. Bird, ©2014

I would like to warn my readers that one cannot search the Internet to learn how to teach a piece in the Suzuki repertoire and then just follow the suggested model. Teaching is about so much more than just a list of teaching points. The teaching points and historical background of the pieces are merely the starting point in a teaching relationship with a student; these are the entrance passes to a deeper understanding of the student and a more comprehensive understanding of the wealth of learning points contained in the Suzuki repertoire (and in other literature as well).

I have taught the Vivaldi concertos many, many times over my 38 years of teaching. I have grappled with the difficult teaching points contained in the pieces as well as with the outside influences that affect how well a student will learn and at what pace (listening program, review program, practice routine and schedule, motivation, etc.). What happens though when all of the aforementioned ingredients are in place and the student still does not "get it"? What do you do then? In my opinion, this is the point when the real teaching begins. These are what I call the hidden teaching points, and there is no rule  or guide book to show a teacher the way, other than experience in some cases, teacher training in other cases, and perhaps a mentoring relationship with other teachers. Still, there are those puzzling moments in our teaching experience that baffle us. Here is one example of such an experience.

I have a lovely high school student who has studied with me since elementary school. She is currently learning the third movement of the Vivaldi A Minor Concerto. She is also a pianist, and I believe piano was her first instrument. She is also a singer and participates regularly in choir activities. As a high school student, you can imagine the many activities that compete for this student's attention, but still she manages to do a creditable job of maintaining a regular practice schedule. I frequently remind her to do listening, but other than that, she is a good student. She comes to lessons prepared with her scale and etude books as well as her Suzuki repertoire assignments.

She can play the first movement of the Vivaldi concerto rather well, and she is well on the road to learning the third movement, her current working piece. As I watch her play her lesson for me, despite my student's many years of violin and piano study, she still struggles with the simplest execution of fingering and sometimes even with her bow hold. This has baffled me for a very long time. I have watched her, analyzed her from every possible direction for tension physically and mentally, and I have not been able to pinpoint what the difficulty is exactly. Yet, there it is before my eyes. She actually looks and sounds as if she is physically struggling to play. I remind her to "make it sound easy," and the sound does improve, but the visual aspect still shows her struggling.

I also began to notice that she was struggling to reach her pinkie finger to the appropriate pitch. Her violin is the correct size, and so is her hand for the instrument. Still the shape of her hand shifts to accommodate a pinkie "reach." We have diligently worked on shaping the hand to give support to the pinkie, but still the problem exists.

Here is where I think the real teaching begins. I find it so tempting to continue along this current path. After all, the student will not be a music major beyond high school, I believe. If she does opt for this pathway, it is more likely that she would choose the piano or vocal area. I could continue to have her play lessons for me in a similar fashion until she graduates high school and no longer is in my charge.

I, however, find these sorts of puzzle pieces fascinating. I frequently ask myself, "Why is that happening? Why does this student not get this? Why does this student have trouble with this?" Once I figure out the answer to those types of questions, I begin to understand even deeper what the learning challenges of the piece are or what learning challenges the student has.

I asked myself in earnest these questions. I even asked my student to demonstrate her piano playing as well so I could see if there was a relationship between the way she approached both instruments. I did not see the answer at first, but after much puzzling through this, I think that I have finally found the explanation. The answer to easing the problem has not yet definitely presented itself.

My student never lets her left hand knuckles relax into an elongated state. This explains why vibrato has always been difficult for her with her ring finger. Whereas most of us have a slightly extended shape to our ring finger, which allows the ring finger to be the perfect finger to learn and perform vibrato, my student has a completely square shape. This also explains why my student has difficulty reaching her pinkie pitches. She works to maintain her squared finger shape at all times, and this shortens her reach to the pinkie notes. My student's vibrato has always been stiff and awkward, and this squared finger issue would explain the stiff vibrato as well.

Yay! I finally figured out the problem. But did I? All I would have to do is get her to relax her knuckle grip. That is where we began, until I ran into the real problem, and this problem was not readily apparent. My student has an extreme case of double-jointedness. Her fingers can collapse at the slightest touch. No amount of changing her hand shape to the instrument seems to affect this problem in a positive way. Well, that was a surprise to me as well.

What about the piano? When I asked my student to demonstrate her piano playing again, I saw that she was doing the same thing, and I would bet that her piano teacher has not seen this either. My student was altering her hand shape ever so slightly so that she could land her fingers in a way that allowed for squared knuckles.

Now I have to credit my student to coming up with a solution to playing both instruments that allowed her to accommodate her double-jointed proclivity. What a shame though that she had to do this. It has taken me a very long time to figure out what the issue was, and the problem has insinuated itself very delicately over the years into my student's playing. As a teacher, if I had just stuck to the teaching points and usual teaching plan that I read on the Internet or in a book, I would never have discovered this issue with my student.

So my question to you this week is: "What is your teaching philosophy?" Are you the kind of teacher who just teaches the piece, or are you the teacher who approaches the whole student and looks for ways to reconcile the student's learning experience to the rest of the student's world? Or are you a combination of both? This is an important question to consider and spend time reflecting on, because your answer will be the key that opens up the hidden teaching points that will enrich your teaching experience and deepen your relationship with your students.


  1. Good points. I am a very double-jointed violinist myself (though not as much as your student mentioned) and as a beginning teacher I appreciate the perspective you offered in this article. Thank you!

  2. I have several double-jointed students, and they especially have trouble with their right pinky. They are all young, so is this something they will grow out of? Thank you for this post! I also enjoyed it and it was very thought provoking. :)