In retrospect, I’m not the most likely candidate to be writing about elements of violin pedagogy. On paper my credentials appear respectable, if not even remarkable: a performance with the London Philharmonic Orchestra; collaborations with Marin Alsop – but like most musical CVs, those accomplishments require an extremely narrow interpretation of circumstance to be strictly true. Suffice to say both instances were within the context of el Sistema programs and collaborative performances, and I remained resolutely in first position throughout both as befitting the extent of my training: Suzuki Book 1, completed ten years ago.
A little bit of distance from the topic wasn’t such a bad thing in this case. Being a relative neophyte to the world of violin pedagogy, I was able to approach the issue of using mock or proto-violins to start students with an eye relatively unjaundiced by my own training (or lack thereof). This was a topic I wanted to examine as part of a personal effort to avoid the emergence of unfounded “Mahlerian” traditions in el Sistema programs, the unthinking “we do it because we’ve always done it” or “we do it because we saw someone else do it,” both of which are ultimately irresponsible in any context, let alone pedagogy.
Doing the research for this article was a fascinating journey, and I do want to thank Susan Jarvis (NEC), Nikki Shorts (HOLA), Rachel Fabulich (Pasadena Conservatory) Winston Collaco (Child’s Play India, Goa) and Joel Smirnoff (CIM) for their time and responses. I wish I’d had 10,000 words, as opposed to 2,000, to do justice to everyone. I particularly regret that the nature and specific scope of the article precluded the reproduction of many of Joel’s extremely thoughtful remarks on the science of violin playing, which were fascinating. That said, although I’m not able to link to the article here as yet due to the agreement with The Strad, the paralipomena are mine to do with as I please, and I’ve reproduced below a previously-unpublished segment of Joel’s interview for its interest, value and validity to all music teachers on some level.
“As far as mock up string instruments, I remember when I was a kid I had a plastic violin at first, my father was a fiddle player, but I finally got a wooden violin when I was five. The fact is that it doesn’t really matter what the body of the instrument sounds like to a very young person. The reason that it works, what we’re talking about in music and what we have to continue to refine, is the act of measurement. In other words, you’re measuring distances with the fingers of the left hand of the violin. They’re extremely small, sometimes not entirely visible, but in general the measurements are miniscule and aren’t seen visibly but felt (physically) . And the same with the bow: the bow is a certain length. We try to divide the bow over time, that’s another measurement, and then as you become more and more refined, you talk about measuring bow speed, the relationship of the bow to the bridge – so there are other measurements there.
If (the students) have in their two hands and their two arms an instrument that allows them to begin the process of honing their sense of measurement, then it’s workable. Even at the cardboard level , the papier-mâché level, that process of measurement is the fascination and the challenge – the beginning , middle and end of the discipline of violin playing.”
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