Helping Students Play Music They Love, While Learning the Technique They Need

By Mimi Rabson

I’ve been teaching at Berklee College of Music for about 20 years. There have been many changes during that time, but one thing has not changed. The vast majority of our string players continue to enter with the same story—“I have played classical music all my life and I love it, but I want to try something else.” This is the challenge. I’ve got to teach my students the skills they need within the context of the music that they want to study.

I often ask, “What do you listen to for fun?” This question is sometimes viewed with suspicion. I get the sense that they think there is a right answer—and possibly a wrong answer. But I assure them that it will help me plan a course of study for them if I know what they enjoy. In my experience, students work harder on music they know and like. It is puzzling to me that I have to convince them to play music they like. Isn’t that the whole point?

Once they trust me enough to tell me honestly about their favorites, I get some interesting answers. No two students name the same piece. Most of what they pick is music I have never heard before, and they rarely pick music that has string parts in it. That is troubling. Why is it that strings rarely appear in so many styles of music that are so popular? Yes, there are often background string parts, but those parts present little challenge to the player and wouldn’t be missed much if they weren’t there.


Now I can move forward helping my students grow using the music that inspires them. I believe that any music can be a gateway to the fundamentals of good playing—good tone, clean intonation, a strong sense of rhythm, shifting, vibrato, phrasing, articulation, theoretical understanding, form studies, etc. I spend some time with the tune they have chosen so I know what to expect and can pinpoint aspects of the tune that will require technical and musical development from my students.

I start by asking students to learn the melody. Usually that is the vocal part. Every singer has unique musical traits. I ask my students to match the vocal part as closely as possible—to try to sound like the singer on the recording, not like a classically trained violinist playing that song. Now they are thinking about the singer’s tone quality and what bowing technique can achieve that sound. They are working on mastering vibrato to match the emotional intent of
the song.

Every piece offers an opportunity to learn about playing the instrument and become a better musician.

Phrasing, articulation, and intonation all are a part of this exercise. Would this vocal melisma make more sense in third position on the G string instead of first position on the D string? Where do the slurs go? Détaché or spiccato? What about the rhythmic underpinning of this tune? All sorts of technical issues come up that develop proficiency.


Next comes harmony. What key is this tune in? What is the chord progression? How about the form of the song? I even ask them to improvise using the tune’s harmonic and rhythmic vocabulary.

Finally, they are required to write a lead sheet (a written part with melody and chord changes) of the tune so they can play it with their friends. It’s also a good notation exercise and provides documentation of the work that they have done.


The repertoire my students have chosen has a huge stylistic range. Every piece offers an opportunity to learn about playing the instrument and become a better musician. This approach also turns students into well-rounded, employable musicians with trained ears who can feel comfortable in a variety of settings.

Usually after my students have worked on a few tunes of their choosing, they start to ask me what I think they should work on. This is my chance to share some gems. Bach often works his way in here as well as some of the jazz masters. I am able to suggest works that students would have previously considered inaccessible. Now they have a plan and way to work on whatever they want.

My eighth-grade son has been playing electric guitar for several years. When he gets to his lesson, his wonderful teacher asks him what he’d like to work on. Part of the lesson is spent on that request and part of the lesson is spent on suggestions his teacher makes. Imagine what it would be like if string players had the same opportunity at their lessons.