Now that I’ve got some years of teaching under my belt, here are a few of the things I find myself saying most often in lessons to students, whether they are very young or old, or are very experienced or have only had a few lessons:
- Watch your rhythm! A surprising number of people will unconsciously play minims as crochets, or more commonly crotchets as quavers, and I know that even I do things like this occasionally! My jobs is to point out where students are playing the wrong rhythm and encourage them to count and not guess where the beats are! A good sense of rhythm is so key to playing any instrument – I often tell my pupils that I’d rather they played the correct rhythm and missed a few notes than paused and played the right notes! It is often a good idea to take some time out to work on rhythms – clapping rhythms at sight or saying rhythm names like ‘ta’ and ‘te-te’ or ‘tea’ and ‘coffee’ really helps.
- Use more bow on long notes: a lot of beginner students, and some more advanced ones, tend to use tiny bows for everything, especially long notes, producing a sound I like to called ‘mousy’. In order to encourage them to use more bow and produce a bigger sound, I tell them to try and use the whole bow, from the grip to almost the point, and I often put stickers on the bow (marking just above the grip, the middle and just below the tip) so that there is a visual aid for them, as some find it hard to tell. For more advanced students, practising scales and exercises with whole bows is key – just getting them to learn what the movement of their hand and arm feels like when they use the whole bow is sometimes new to them (see below).
- Make sure your bow is parallel with the bridge right to the tip – this is an extremely common fault, especially in viola players where the instrument is large and the bow is long. Bowing at an angle, either with the bow angled towards or away from the bridge, will cause the sound to become uneven and break, and the player will experience difficulty at the tip and frog. Sometimes guiding the student’s hand all the way through the bow, or placing your bow to form a ‘guide’ across the strings while they bow will help, though a lot of the time the student will go back to old habits when they play their pieces. Practising open strings and easy scales in a mirror to check the bow is straight will help, but if bowing crooked becomes a habit then it is more difficult to correct, so teachers should be vigilant when beginners first start to use the bow.
- Use less bow on short, fast notes – it is so common for students to come to me with difficult fast passages complaining of not being able to play them, when they are using far too much bow. One of my favourite mantras at the moment is ‘Keep Calm and Use Less Bow’ – one student said I should get a mug with this on it! Generally, the faster the passage and the shorter the notes in it, the less bow you need – for really fast semiquavers, I only use about a centimetre or less. This is a revelation for most people and can easily transform a messy passage (think Vivaldi Concerto in A minor for example) into something much more neat and controlled.
- Bent thumb in bow hold – this is a common fault with the bow hold experienced by most beginners and sometime more advanced players. The right thumb needs to be nicely curved outwards, not inwards or straight, otherwise the fingers and wrist will stiffen and the bowhold becomes locked in position, making it much more difficult to bow and impossible to create any subtlety in the sound. Bow hold exercises such as bending and flexing the thumb ought to help with this, but constant reminders are often necessary! See this video for how to hold a violin or viola bow
- Stand properly – no standing on one leg/slouching/standing in ballet positions! Correct posture is vital for a good sound, so get into the habit of standing with feet shoulder width apart, left foot slightly in front of right foot and shoulders and arms relaxed when the instrument is in position. A common fault is to let the scroll droop, especially with the heavy viola – I often say to children ‘imagine a balloon tied to your scroll!’
- Observe ALL the markings in the music – bowings, slurs, articulation, tempo but ESPECIALLY key signatures! I can’t stress how important this is for anyone learning a musical instrument. I often have students who will ‘bulldoze’ their way through a piece ignoring accidentals, bowings, slurrings and sometimes not even playing all the notes! Cue me pointing out all the things they have missed and the student listening with glazed eyes… Attention to detail is really important in music, as the difference between F sharp and F natural in a key signature of D major is fundamental to the music, but may be easily missed if the key signature is ignored. Understanding key signatures is difficult but an essential piece of theory that no musician can be without, so starting early with the concept of keys and sharps/flats is sensible.