By Lisa Grodin
When I was a young violinist, I assumed that “artistic license” was a permit for which one could apply—just like a driver’s license or an ID card. I wanted to create magic from sound. I wanted one of those licenses, and I would apply for one when I was ready.
By all accounts, my earliest squeaks and scrapes were not remarkable, though I was enthusiastic about playing. As a teacher, I remain optimistic that anyone can learn to play if they have the drive to do so. Most importantly, as I try to guide my students to their own technical facility and musical artistry, I keep in mind the lessons I learned myself along the way.
First of all, I encourage even the youngest music students to draw on their life experience. My father, a law professor and a judge, employed the Socratic Method of teaching and learning. He asked me questions that helped me to analyze problems and stimulated critical thinking (often as not, leading me to ask even more questions). My mother, an artist, urged me to draw with freedom and movement, and not be confined by anxiety about “getting it right.” All of this contributed to my own pedagogy.
But analysis and freedom are only served musically if the fundamentals are in place. My first private teacher, Anne Crowden, helped me to understand (empirically at first) the basic mechanics of technique and the fundamentals of phrasing and style. Anne and her colleagues also introduced me and many other students to the wonders of playing chamber music. Through ensemble playing, we acquired invaluable skills, lifelong lessons in team building, conflict resolution, and performance. One of the most effective aspects of Anne’s pedagogy, and one that I employ in my own teaching, was that students taught one another, peer-to-peer.
To truly grow as a musician, one must always be open to trying something new. While every one of my students is different, and the process of discovery must be handled on an individual basis, for me the discovery of Baroque style changed my musical life forever.
One day as I threaded my way through a Bach Partita for Solo Violin in a lesson, Anne casually showed me a Baroque violin bow. She explained that Bach and his contemporaries would have been familiar with its properties and capabilities.
It handled beautifully.
Here was a whole range of articulations and tonal possibilities I’d never encountered in a modern-style bow. Bach’s composition came to life for me that day. From that moment, the real adventure of music making and the thrill of discovering a new (and simultaneously ages-old) artistic vocabulary began to unfold. I had opportunities to develop musicianship skills that led me to recognize the true genius of a composer’s invention; examine actual facsimiles of a composer’s handwriting; discover the personal and societal history behind a composer’s music; explore the dance movements upon which so much music is based; and read from first-hand accounts just how to embellish and, yes, even improvise music of various early styles. Finally, I was able to join ensembles that create from original sources passionate performances that resonate with audiences in our own time.
I no longer wish to find an absolute measure of artistic merit, and I certainly don’t encourage my students to do so. If there is a silver lining to that fruitless search, it is born of fertile collaborations with wise, wonderful teachers and performing colleagues. The willingness to experiment and take risks has also yielded positive returns pedagogically in all styles of music, including compositions that are hot-off-the press. As it turns out, by employing practical, ergonomically sound fundamentals (think Kató Havas, Feldenkrais), extremely flexible pedagogic strategies (the Socratic Method), and by thoroughly delving into all aspects imaginable in a composition, one can guide a student to develop the technical chops and the artistic integrity to move an audience. A magic wand in the form of a period bow can help.
Violinist, violist, teacher, and lecturer Lisa Grodin has performed with ensembles such as Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Voices of Music, American Bach Soloists, El Mundo, Chanticleer, Smithsonian Chamber Players, and Santa Fe Pro Musica. She is director of education for Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale, and music director for the Junior Bach Festival.