By Pamela Foard | From the September-October 2023 issue of Strings Magazine
Teachers know how difficult it is to learn a musical instrument—and sometimes the most important lessons they teach have nothing to do with the navigation of the fingerboard or maneuvers of the right hand. Some of the best teachers inspire their students by approaching the process holistically, addressing larger questions as a part of string education. Because empowering a student to take control of their own education can lead to so much progress, it’s sometimes helpful to provide them with a framework for success. Here are a few action items that I have found vital in a student’s advancement on an instrument and that I emphasize with my own students. They can be reviewed any number of times during a student’s development to test what is not quite coming together.
1. Step into the Unknown Every Day
Self-improvement guru Tony Robbins advises that if you’re not planning something in your life right now that scares the living daylights out of you, you’re not doing life optimally. That may seem a little extreme, but how else will we move ahead, let alone keep up with the competition? Stepping into the unknown can help create new neural pathways, new ways of understanding your craft, and new ways to get to where you want to go.
When I played in the Milwaukee Symphony with conductor-composer Lukas Foss, he would make a point of trying different ways of performing pieces that we’d all played since we were beginning our orchestral careers. There was a lot of grumbling among some of the musicians, but in the end, I felt it made for more exciting and meaningful performances.
2. Master the Fundamentals
Music is a universal language that has the power to move people emotionally and physically. It has been a part of human culture for thousands of years, and its power and influence have never diminished. But what makes music so powerful? What are the fundamental elements that make up a great performance?
A player’s passion and commitment to the music would be lost to an audience without solid technique that communicates in terms of sound (overtone, timbre, pitch, amplitude, duration, harmony, texture), rhythm/beat, phrasing, dynamics, and tempo. When these fundamentals are executed brilliantly as part of a performance, the audience feels satisfied—hopefully even moved and inspired—and will admire the performer’s grasp of technique and expression. Audiences often can’t put into words why they feel this way, but I think it comes down to a solid grasp of fundamentals. Great players use fundamentals to tell a musical story in a compelling way. If young players begin to understand how this framework underpins a beautiful performance, they can start to successfully tell their own unique stories.
3. Search Every Day for Your Sound
One of the first recordings I fell in love with was of David Oistrakh and his son Igor playing the Bach Double Violin Concerto. Possibly because they were related, they matched each other beautifully to the point that it was difficult to follow each instrument as their parts interwove. I worked hard to simulate what I was hearing, and I know that influence affected my growing sense of sound and tone. String players all need a role model who they’re inspired to sound like. Even if your idol comes from the popular-music world, there’s a lot of value in seeing how close you can come to imitating their sound.
4. Listen, Listen, Listen
When I was first learning to play the violin, the only way for me to study a piece of music by listening to it was to go out and buy an LP record or hope that it might be played on my local classical radio station. When I arrived at Indiana University in 1970, at least there was a listening library where students could check out LPs and listen to them on provided headphones. Today, players can sit down at a computer and listen to practically the whole repertoire for their instruments by any number of superb performers . . . for little to no money! Hurray! This eliminates any excuse for a musician to not be listening constantly to improve their own playing.
5. Find Musical Mentors
Students can gain a tremendous amount of wisdom from other musicians and artists around them simply by being on the lookout for those who are in constant learning mode. The ones who study the score of an orchestral piece being rehearsed, the ones going to recitals and listening to a full range of music, who are aware of the newest pieces as well as the vast history of music—those are the souls to celebrate, learn from, and emulate. They have an insatiable curiosity about their craft in particular and life in general.
6. Consistency Is Key
A creative life is inextricably linked to passion. Musicians want so badly to express their deepest desires and feelings, and the development of solid technique is key to effective communication through music. And the key to developing solid technique? Consistency in practice. And in this you’ll find good news: even if music isn’t in a young student’s future, playing an instrument as an adolescent will teach them the discipline required for consistency that they can apply toward anything they wish to pursue.
7. Practice to Make Your Playing Seem Effortless
This effortlessness, of course, takes a lot of effort! A good role model for this particular piece of advice is a jazz musician. When you listen to any of the jazz greats, you hear that they are composing and performing effortlessly at the same time! How did they get there? By spending hours and hours practicing their “licks” in every key imaginable to the point where it became second nature, and the improvisations sound free and easy.
8. Use Technology Daily
Technology gets a bad rap nowadays, but it can be one of your best friends when it’s used to up your game. You need to know how you’re doing, and you need to measure it somehow. Metronomes, tuners, and recording technology are splendid tools for that kind of feedback.
9. Learn to Move Through Music Like a Dancer
Playing a piece of music should be like telling a wonderful story or reciting a beautiful poem. If you listen to a masterful actor quoting Shakespeare, the words will make sense and give you a deeper understanding of the character’s life, desires, and moods. That can’t happen if the actor is delivering the lines in a stilted way or adding awkward pauses or not using tonal patterns you’re used to hearing. It’s the same with music; if you’re not going from one note to another in a way that makes sense and imparts the beauty of the phrase, you will (as one of my violin teachers used to say) “lose customers”!
10. Be Curious About Other Instruments
Several years ago, I played a recital with my son Aubrey, who is now principal tuba in the Baltimore Symphony. We had never performed together in front of an audience before, and needless to say, pairing a violin with a tuba was eye and ear opening! Luckily, P.D.Q. Bach (aka Peter Schickele) wrote some music he called “The Only Piece Ever Written for Violin and Tuba,” which we were happy to tackle.
Boy, was that a lesson to me about how the tuba actually works! It was nothing like the sound production of a stringed instrument, and we both had to adjust to make the music successful. For example, he could easily overwhelm my sound if he wasn’t careful, and I could just as easily play ahead of his, since low brass notes take a microsecond longer than a violin’s to get the air moving and produce sound. Collaborating musicians need to know these differences, and too often they don’t hang out with the players of other instruments or listen enough to be aware of them. Wander into other sections of the orchestra, and you will be amazed by what you learn! Jam with musicians from other spheres. Keep expanding your horizons, and your musical landscape will continue to grow.