How do you envision violin mastery?
You probably have a mental image of your four year old twinkler. Her foot chart has pink stickers, she measures her lesson in Mississippi Stops Stops, and her favorite activity is shouting “Up Like a Rocket.”
You also have an image of the professional violinist. You hop on youtube and scroll through magnificent performances by Hahn, Shaham, and Perlman. You imagine a touring musician, one who has mastered the great concertos, can whip out solo Bach and Paganini, and maybe even has a cool side project or perspective.
But what about the in-between? How does someone journey from pink stickers to Paganini? And how do you articulate this journey to your parents?
Consider a new way. Forget performance halls, teaching methods, and even the instrument itself. Imagine you are in the middle of a dark forrest that stretches indefinitely in all directions. The tall trees, dense foliage, and mysterious landscape represents the complexity of your task at hand. To master the forest is to know every part of the forrest. And to know the forrest is to continually explore, and the retrace where you have explored.
In other words. To master the forrest is to (1) make paths and to (2) walk those paths again as often as possible.
MAKE THE PATH
To carve a new path in this dense, dark forrest is a struggle similar to attempting a new aspect of skill. The terrain is uncomfortable. The future is uncertain. The risk of failure is obvious. However, to go anywhere in the forest requires the struggle of exploration.
As a teacher you guide the exploration, but communicate to student and parent the bravery necessary to make new paths. Together duck under limbs, slide down hills, face a few prickly bushes, all the while collecting data and taking notes. Ask yourself, “What is the most successful route through the new terrain?”
WALK THE PATH
Once the path is established, walk the path as often as possible. Wear down the path with regular footsteps. Know every turn, every bump, every leap with utmost certainty. Memorize the path and walk it with your eyes closed. Walk the path with your mind only.
To walk the path over and over again is to gain confidence over an element of skill. As Dr. Suzuki put it, “Knowledge plus 10,000 times is skill.”
Keep in mind that the more paths you establish, the more paths you will need to walk to remember them all. Paths, once established, need routine walking to be engrained — especially ones newly added to the network.
COMMUNICATE THIS TO PARENT AND STUDENT
Use this metaphor as a tool to illustrate the work of mastery. All practice falls into either making a path or walking a path.
- Manipulate the fingers into a bow hold? Make a path.
- Manipulate the fingers into another bow hold? Walk the path.
- Finger an orchestra excerpt? Make the path.
- Practice with a metronome? Walk the path.
- Perform on stage for the first time? Make the path.
- Perform on stage every group class? Walk the path.
And what is the ultimate form of path walking? Review! Integral to the Suzuki method, review requires daily path walking in order to groove paths into permanence. This is the importance of review, and the path metaphor is how I demonstrate its importance.
Beyond the illustration of mastery, the path walking metaphor communicates a few other concepts without explicit explanation.
1. Only one path can be explored or walked at one time
2. Paths are explored at the students pace
3. There is no finish line, and few people will be on the same path at the same time
4. This conceptualization of mastery graphs onto any discipline
Because the goal of violin lessons, at least in my studio, is to master mastery, there is nothing more important than instilling this concept intellectually and somatically. Time and time again, as student, parent, and teacher, we will explore and walk the paths of violin playing. As the violin becomes comfortable terrain, so will the process of exploration and walking. Eventually, with this training, your students will walk slowly and confidently through any forrest they find themselves in.