Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Does it matter if your teacher doesn’t use the same bowhold as you?

This is a question that is always rattling around out there in Bassland. Many students stress out about the role that the teacher’s bowhold should play in their choice. Many parents of students seem to stress out about it even more than the students!

As with so many questions of this sort, the answer.... depends. However, I will certainly say the following with great certainty: You don’t have to study with a teacher who uses the same bowhold as you. You can learn very effectively from a teacher who uses either bowhold. How do I know? I, who played German bow pretty much exclusively until about four years ago, never studied with a German bow-playing teacher - they’ve all been Frenchies. I know of more than a few successful professional players who can say the same. So it’s certainly possible to develop an effective bow technique from someone who doesn’t use “your” bowhold.

That said, my story is certainly not the norm - most folks play the same bow as their teacher, and most folks keep studying with a teacher who uses the same bowhold even if they go on to study music in college. For their initial teacher this makes perfect sense - of course their teacher will initially train them on the same bowhold that they primarily use if at all possible. For one’s later teachers it is a bit more complex. I suspect that folks gravitate towards later teachers with the same bowhold because they suspect they’ll learn more, plus the teachers tend to more actively recruit students with the same bowhold because they feel they can teach them more effectively. This doesn’t tell us whether these people learned more effectively from these teachers because of the similarity in their bowholds. They might have learned just as much from a teacher with the opposite bowhold. All we know from this is that folks tend to use the same bow as their teachers.

So, which is it? Do bassists tend to study with a “similarly-bowed” teacher because it’s better for learning? Or do they do it out of habit, tradition, or an incorrect belief that it’s better for learning? Or are they one and the same? If you believe a teacher is better for you because they use the same bowhold, won’t you learn more simply because this makes you feel more motivated to learn?

Wow, we’ve gotten deep into the weeds on this! Most of these questions are not really answerable, since to my knowledge no one has done a long-term research study on the topic. I hereby offer it up to any enterprising education major who wants a dissertation idea - let me know your results....

Let’s pull back for a minute and focus instead on a more concrete situation that folks often encounter in the real world. You’re a French bow player applying to music school and you got into two schools that you really like. You’ve checked out both programs and you have met with the teachers you might be studying with. You like what they’re both have to say. One of them plays German and the other French - which one should you study with?

First, you should ask the German bow teacher about his or her views on teaching a French bow player! The teacher may have some good information to offer - perhaps they play both bows very proficiently and just prefer German overall, or perhaps they don’t play French at all and don’t seem to have much interest in exploring it. Either way, you’ll get more information to help you out.

Second, you need to think about how you learn - and more specifically, whether learning by visual imitation is a central part of your learning style. If you need to see someone demonstrate a skill in order to effectively understand how to do it yourself, you may be more of a visual learner. For some, visual learning is a key element of their studies; or others, it is much less important. Some learn more by auditory imitation - they try to reproduce the sound they are hearing from their teachers. For others, learning is more cognitive - they need to understand intellectually what they are trying to accomplish in order to make the most effective progress. For others, learning can be more related to touch and the kinesthetic sense - the sense of where their bodies are in space. Everyone learns by a combination of all these senses, combined with their own experimentation with what they learn.

If you are a more visual learner, then it may be more important for you to actually see your teacher demonstrating things using the same bowhold as you. Without this element, you might have more difficulty learning bow technique. If you don’t focus as much on what you see when you’re in your lessons, but rather how your teacher sounds or what they are saying to you, then it may be less important that your teacher play the same bow as you.

Having spilled so much (digital) ink on this subject, I’ll leave you with a quick summation: In my opinion, it’s not at all essential that your teacher play the same bow as you! I and many others out there who play the bass studied with folks who played a different bowhold than they do, and I think it’s far wiser to study with an excellent, highly respected teacher who plays a different bow than you than to play with a less qualified teacher who plays the same bow as you. However, if you’re choosing among several good teachers, what bow they use could be a factor in your decision, especially if you’re a more visual learner.

What do you think? Write me a comment - I know there are some strongly-held opinions out there on this subject....

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The SAT's of Music continued: Test Prep

Last year, I did some posts about auditioning and how to approach it. You can read them here and here, but to recap the main points:

- Auditions are standardized tests like the SAT.
- Like any standardized test, they don't just test your skills and musicianship, but they also test your skills at taking that particular type of test; just as a very smart person can do poorly at the SAT because it isn't a type of test they excel at, so a good musician can audition poorly because it isn't a type of performance they excel at.
- When we audition, we need to be good at both the material of the test (the music itself) and at the skills that this particular test requires.

Anyone who knows me knows that I'm always happy to beat a dead horse a few times, so I'm going to keep working this SAT analogy a bit farther in this post and see if it yields any helpful ideas for auditioners.

How do we prepare for the SAT? Well, the first way is by being good students in the first place. The SAT tests our general knowledge levels and comprehension abilities, and we all acquire those abilities over many years of schooling and life experience. No matter how many test prep courses you might take, you can't get a good SAT score unless you can read, write, and do math.

The other way we prepare is by prepping for the test itself. We learn what sorts of questions get asked. We take sample tests to get a sense of how to approach answering the questions. We work on the questions with a timer to improve our response times. We drill ourselves over and over on the test questions so that our responses to them become more smooth and automatic. If needed, we can take all sorts of organized test-prep courses in which we can get expert assistance at doing all of these things. This side of test prep can often seem annoying and even a waste of time, especially if you know that you have already taken care of the first part of prep (being a good student with good skills). But it's still needed, since the SAT is a required test for most colleges and there is no real alternative offered.

Hmmm, I think this may have been a good dead horse to beat at - these test prep techniques are pretty analogous to what we need to do for auditions!

The first part of SAT prep is about acquiring and internalizing the basic skills that the SAT is testing for. In our work as musicians, we need to have mastered the basics of good playing to be competitive in auditions. We have to be able to play in tune, in time, and with a good basic sound. We need to have mastered all the core technical elements of our instrument. In the case of strings, this would mean bowstrokes, bow distribution and placement, and various systems of fingering and left hand technique. I would say it also means having an understanding of phrasing concepts, music theory and history, and harmony. In other words, it isn't something you can cram for. It takes years of study and work to acquire these skills for all but the most talented few. And unlike the skills we need for the SAT, we aren't all required to learn them to become successful members of society. We have to decide to put in the work to acquire them on our own at some point.

The second part of SAT prep is about learning the structure of the questions, developing a system to answer them, and drilling ourselves so that we will be efficient test-takers and not be hobbled by anxiety or inefficiency. This matches up with most of the "audition prep" techniques that people use to prepare for auditions. We practice the audition material over and over so that it becomes more automatic. We play for people to reproduce the stress levels of an actual audition and to get comments on how to improve. We record ourselves to evaluate the details of our playing. We do mock auditions to practice the exact type of surroundings and situations that the real audition might offer us. And we consult teachers and coaches for expert advice on how to better do all these things.

If we aren't doing as well as we like in auditions, just as in the SATs, we need to ask ourselves whether our problems lie more in the first part of test prep or in the second part. Do we have our core technical skills in order? Are we using our instruments and bodies efficiently and naturally? If not, we may need to spend some time correcting technical problems before we tackle professional auditions. Or do we feel our playing is solid, but nerves or preparation errors are getting in our way? If so, then we need to focus on part two of our prep - making sure that the format and structure of the audition process isn't getting in our way and keeping us from presenting our best work when we audition.

I have encountered students struggling with this issue many times, and have often found that much of their frustration is that they are focused on the wrong half of their audition prep work. They may have done lots and lots of mock (and real!) auditions without addressing a problem with their underlying technique that is holding them back. Or, they may feel like they aren't good musicians when in fact they are - they just need to look at how to keep the audition process from overwhelming them. Making sure that we are not beating our own dead horses when it comes to audition prep can bring better results, and better musicianship overall.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Jeff Turner Master Class next Sunday

Pittsburgh Symphony Principal Bassist Jeffrey Turner will be at Peabody on Sunday, Nov. 9 to present a master class from 1-4 pm in the Cohen Davison Family Theater. Jeff is one of the best players and teachers out there, and has built a fantastic program at Carnegie-Mellon University, as well as Duquesne University. I did some guest teaching there earlier this year and blogged about it here. The class is open to the public so please join us if you're in the area!