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....

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