I don’t know who shared this bit of wisdom with me, but one of the truest things I’ve heard said is, “Teaching violin is more about teaching your students which muscles not to use than which muscles to use.”
As I’m sure you know, teaching what not to do is difficult.
I’ve talked before about the complexity and necessity of relaxation, but most important is understanding that “to relax” (the directive) is not sufficient. Relaxation is a skill that must be taught and must be practiced.
Since writing “The Most Difficult Technique: Relaxation,” I have developed some hands on activities for actually teaching relaxation in lessons.
1. Fist, Stretch, Relax
Many 4 year olds don’t yet know intellectually what “relax” means, let alone somatically. So to begin to understand the word itself I ask students to hold out both hands in front of them, mirroring what I do.
I say, “Make a fist … Squeeze as hard as you can!” Then I say, “Stretch! Push you fingers out as far as possible.” Finally I say, “Now relax.” I take a deep breath and let my fingers float in the air, leaving no tension at all in my hands. They imitate me and begin to associate the words with the actions.
We can also do this on a larger scale with larger muscle groups. I’ll ask students to push their shoulders down, then squeeze their shoulders up next to their ears, and then to relax. I do the same with the entire arm as well.
While practicing the contraction and relaxation of muscles in isolation is valuable, it also transfers to a lesson rehearsal frame in which I need to use the directive “relax.”
Hanging has become an integral part of my pre-twinkle teaching.
I start by teaching students how to swing their arms from the elbow and shoulder hinges. We then will stretch our arms above our heads and let them drop down to our thighs.
Next, I use a bright blue dry erase marker as a sort of miniature monkey bar. I instruct students to wrap their fingers over the marker as I hold it parallel to the floor, and to hand over all of the weight of the arm to me. In other words, if I were to let go of the marker, their arm would fall down toward the ground. I check for true relaxation and flexibility by jiggling the marker, the elbow should swing freely below.
With the bow arm I flip the marker over and move it gently around — up and down, out and in — to make sure students can maintain relaxation in every place their bow will go. This simulates the same feeling of weight in the elbow and the right palm as they’ll use to eventually pull sound out of their string.
With the violin hand I teach students to hop up on the fingertips of their left hand, bending at the knuckles to make the same flat tabletops they use to play on the fingerboard. While keeping strong, tall fingers, I teach them to completely release muscles in the back, shoulder, bicep, forearm, hand, and thumb.
This is incredibly difficult, especially for young students. But in breaking down the tension away from the instrument, I can see how and why it is all to easy to perpetually, compulsively tense up while playing. Isolating one tiny muscle to use for a very specific purpose if far more difficult than engaging an entire muscle group. However, for artistic playing and freedom from injury, isolation is necessary.
3. Make it on me
If relaxation practice away from the instrument is going well but I see the student clenching once an object is in the hand, I use a technique I picked up from Ed Kreitman.
I’ll have students build a bow hold on my own finger. If there is pinching from the thumb or index finger, or a general stiffness of the hand, I’ll just exclaim an indignant, “Ouch!” This alone will keep young ones from sqeezing, but the ability to monitor tension from the inside out and give immediate feedback is invaluable at any age.
In Dr. Duke and Dr. Simmons’ popular publication “The Nature of Expertise,” 19 lesson elements in common between three expert artist-teachers are described.
One of those elements regards lesson pace. In Duke and Simmons’ own words…
“The pace of the lessons is interrupted from time to time with what seem to be “intuitively timed” breaks, during which the teachers give an extended demonstration or tell a story. The teachers seem to sense when breaks from the intense pace of the lessons are needed. In order to allow for mental and physical relaxation, teachers depart from rapid teacher-student interactions by telling an interesting or entertaining story or by elaborating on something previously discussed. These breaks are clearly departures from the task at hand and seem to serve as brief, pleasant diversions for both the student and the teacher. Once students and teachers have had time to relax, the more intense interactions resume. When the pace changes between rapid alternation of teacher and student activity episodes and longer breaks, there is little or no transition time in getting back to the intense pace. In fact, the pacing of the lessons seems almost dichotomous. The teacher is clearly in control of the pace of the lesson.”
After reading this article, I’ve deliberately inserted more breaks into my teaching and have noticed tangible results. Moments for giggling, wiggling, and just sitting can encourage more relaxation than the discussion of relaxation ever could.
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Take it easy.