My violin case is lightweight, black and has fraying back pack straps. It contains two bows, a German and a French, one cake of rosin, nail clippers, and a mute in my side pocket. And nestled behind my bows is a blue 3X5 notecard with a tally for every hour I’ve practiced since April. Oh, and a violin.
This case, with nothing more or less in it than I listed, spends every day with me. It doesn’t contain novel two dollar bills, old notes from teachers, or oragammi swans. I don’t leave my bag of essential teaching tools tucked in the top pocket. And there aren’t any key chains dangling from the old handle. My case contains only the essential.
As I open my case to begin the most difficult, deep work of my day, I don’t want mundane objects tugging at the corner of my mind. Even sentimental pieces that seem inspirational don’t find their way into my case, because I don’t want to split my attention between what I’m doing and what I want to do.
The principle of essentialism, exemplified in the state do my violin case, also guides my teaching.
I leverage my attention by focusing on only one thing. The most important thing.
Where you invest attention is where you see results. If you practice one of 19 hobbies a little each day, none will ever be mastered. If you work four disparate jobs, you will never be offered a promotion. If you tune into twelve shows each week, you will never finish any. Your brain simply cannot keep up. Results come when you intensely work on one thing.
The problem is we live in a world of excess. Want some coffee? Choose from 120 varieties at one of the six Starbucks in your neighborhood. Want some music? Search for your favorite artist on Spotify, the home of millions of musicians. Want to never stand bored in a line again? There are thousands of apps to derive entertainment from.
We have engineered our environments to provide constant novel stimulation because it is far easier to pull attention than to direct it.
So if you want to be intentional about attention, the easiest way is to eliminate the superfluous. Get rid of everything in this moment that doesn’t point toward your goal.
Your job as a teacher is to leverage the attention of your student at one single thing. You have to make sure your student and their practice parent have only one thing in the forefront of their mind, can articulate exactly what skill they are targeting, and won’t split their effort and focus during the week away from your goals. Minimize excess in your teaching style by only teaching the techniques necessary, using only the essential tools, and verbally instructing with precision.
One of the many reasons I love the Suzuki method, is its use of repertoire to teach technique versus technique to teach repertoire. For students this frames skill building within the context of musicality. In other words, students catalogue their work through pieces rather than composite skills. You move from one piece to the next without bothering to name every micro skill required to perform the work. Instead, you use the frame of the piece to feature one specific, new technique in the form of a preview. Make sure your students know exactly what new skill you expect to be mastered in the work.
As you layout your technical sequence, consider which piece encapsulates the next sequential skill. When your student is in the process of mastering their previous piece introduce the new technique through a preview. Before you work on the entire piece at lessons, have your student perform the preview and and determine their success. As they attempt to do a mastery performance, identify the requirements for mastery including, most notably, the one new technical skill. As you return back to this piece in review, discuss the technique time and time again so that the one technique will forever be embedded within its most relevant repertoire.
I recognize that every piece requires an abundance of interrelated skills to be performed with ease, but by isolating only one new technical skill your student’s undivided attention is liberated to completely master the most important skill at hand.
For example, in book one I use the following repertoire to teach the following skills.
Up Like A Rocket – relaxed bow control
Lightly Row – a tunneled, independent second finger
Song of the Wind – bow circles (with sticky landings)
Go Tell Aunt Rhody – learning a piece by ear
Oh Come Little Children – starting up bow
Because I strip away the excess discussions and focus on only one new technique, the mastered skills are transferred to new repertoire with ease. If I focus completely on relaxed bow control in Up Like A Rocket, I don’t need to spend focus time in Lightly Row, Song of the Wind, or Go Tell Aunt Rhody addressing the same skill. Alternatively, if I tried to use Song of the Wind to teach bow control, independent fingers, and bow circles we would still be hoping the master the same skills in Go Tell Aunt Rhody, Oh Come Little Children, and probably for years to come.
Strip down the excess, focus on one skill, and leverage attention to do your best technical work.
Many teachers before have invented clever, captivating tools and tricks to teach difficult techniques. I borrow many of the games, images, and devices from pedagogues such as Dr. Suzuki, Dorothy Delay, and Ed Sprunger. Their insight into various learning styles has resulted in simple ways to teach complex skills, and when borrowed can feel almost like a shortcut.
However, the power of these tools wane in effectiveness when collected and employed endlessly. There are many wonderful tools available, but your unique teaching style will be bloated if you attempt to use them all.
Identify a handful of tools suiting your sequence, your style, and your principles. Don’t underestimate the power of one simple, well timed game. And, most importantly, don’t ever allow a trick or game to become more involved than the skill itself. Remember the power of a tool is as a catalyst for skill building — making either path building or path walking simpler.
Here are the few tools I use regularly to simplify complex skills:
Penny Game – students play a game against my small plastic dinosaur. If they perform the skill successfully the penny moves to their side; if they perform the skill unsuccessfully the penny moves to the dinosaur’s side, which can be rescued with two successful skill performances. The game ends when the student rescues all of the pennies. Some students play with three at risk pennies, others with 20.
Student Teacher – I invite the student to critique my own posture and performance.
“I bet you can do it with…” – “the lights off, only one foot, your bow upside down, playing pizzicato.” Together the student and I explore various challenges to a newly developed skill.
Dinosaur balance – Remember the dinosaur? I use it to balance on the flat shoulder of my students’ violins as an external indication of excellent posture.
Useful at any age or skill level, my students are very familiar with each of these tools. As time passes I might collect a few more, but only if I find it is essential to my students’ progress.
Another opportunity to minimize the excess in teaching is to carefully consider the words you use. The more succinct the instruction, the more time devoted to exploration and repetition. The more clear your language, the less attention applied to understanding and more attention applied to doing.
This starts first with a clear understanding of your sequence, your technique, and your teaching philosophy. Lack of clarity in your mind will result in ambiguous answers and belabored instructions. Make sure to anticipate instruction and questions and answer with confident succinctness.
I’ve found three ways to best practice clarity in speaking.
The first is writing and archiving my thoughts on teaching (which you find here on my website). Sean McCabe repeats time and time again, “It all starts with writing.” I devote time daily to putting my reflections on paper because it forces directness, organization, and decision making. I don’t sit down at my computer knowing what I’m going to say, but it is through the writing process I find exactly what I need to say. I regularly read my articles back to myself aloud to practice speaking with the clarity of my writing style.
In addition to moving my thoughts from head to paper, I constantly scan my environment for analogies, metaphors, images, and insights to communicate complex concepts with through fewer words. I collect the descriptive words such as Dr. Stern’s “notes with an aftertaste,” to Dr. Suzuki’s “tuna tone,” to Dr. Scott’s “Edward Scissor-Bows.” It is through cultivating a creative, illustrative vocabulary that your students will spend less time thinking about instruction and more time learning.
Finally, in order to monitor the efficiency and effectiveness of my teaching, I record lessons. In the same way I gauge the effectiveness of my performance by recording my playing, I regularly record teaching and sit down with the video to analyze each word choice. I look for repetition, disconnect, and verbosity. I measure pacing, questions asked and answered, and the amount of student change per word used. There is time for explanation and discussion in a lesson, but I want to make sure there isn’t more than absolutely necessary.
Minimalism is not merely an aesthetic, it is a habit. When used effectively, it will reduce distraction and increase productivity in lessons. Look for opportunities to eliminate the excess techniques, tools, and words used in order to focus attention on what matters most.