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How understanding a pupil’s home-life might relate to improved colour in their playing

Jessy's article on Tone production

In this article, Jessica O’Leary shares her personal experiences of teaching during the pandemic.

Teaching online continues to be a challenge for many of us and I’d like to share my experience of teaching Maya – my 9 year old violin pupil.

Maya is a fun and diligent student and proud owner of a Grade 2 distinction certificate, but when we moved to online lessons, my main concern was the significant loss of her sound quality – it became quiet and all on one level as if she were playing on a tiny violin.

This was most unlike Maya who normally played with great variety and initially we experimented with different platforms to find one that gave us the most consistent sound and picture. Although I tried using an external microphone, my newish laptop seemed better and simpler in the end so I knew I had to address the core problem quite quickly.

Tone is usually one of Maya’s best elements but now her bow was sliding over the fingerboard and she showed very little interest or control of her tone. I realised that she didn’t have a music stand at home and was putting the music on the sofa while she sat ‘in a relaxed way’ next to it.

In reality, this meant her posture was compromised but a quick chat with her parents meant we found a shelf of the right height that she could put the music on and she now stands next to it while playing instead of sitting. The next thing that I discovered was that she lived in a small flat with parents who work from home. She was playing with tiny bows to minimise the noise so she didn’t disturb anyone. We agreed with her parents to have her lessons and practice time at their lunch breaks so she could play out confidently. They also bought her a rubber practice mute which almost totally blocks the vibrations of the bridge so the tone is tiny but she could do some technical work and not disturb anyone. You can find a link to these mutes below this article.

Initially, Maya wasn’t sleeping very well and there was no routine at home so she came to her lessons very tired and it was tricky to get her into a learning state. I made a list of fun physical warm up exercises and rotated them each week. Firstly, there were exaggerated arm swings – forward and then backwards 8 times. Then we played heads, shoulders, knees and toes:

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

Maya loved this one as we repeated it three times and made it faster every time. She liked to make up similar games with the violin and bow and kept a record of her personal best. I set the parameters, but she enjoys creating a new test for herself each week.

Maya enjoys learning new things and I quickly realised that tension was creeping into her right arm. In a F2F lesson, it was much easier to measure and eliminate this so I became more analytical with her and her natural curiosity fired up! We explored the physics of the bow and violin and how the sound is created and changed. What were the variables? Weight, speed and point of contact are words she now knows and she had fun playing with their combinations.

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

She enjoyed learning that keeping the bow parallel to the bridge and on a particular sound point (eg point 3 for mf is half way between the bridge and top of the fingerboard), with medium weight and speed of the bow, she was able to keep the bow on its spot and watch with her eyes in a mirror to keep the tone consistent.

A diagram of different placements of the bow for different dynamics

We talked about varying the bow speed and the effect on the tone and we had fun using the wrong combination of weight and speed eg too heavy and slow near the fingerboard or too light and fast near the bridge. I sent her some examples of lovely playing so she could watch the changes in soundpoints, speed and weight.

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

Because Maya was not travelling to school each day, she had more time and became less tired. I gave her more repertoire and I asked her to send me videos every two weeks on the day before her lesson. The sound quality was better than in ‘live’ online lessons and we talked about her excellent progress and did two minute analysis eg how could she exaggerate the dynamics even more? We took one element each week, did everything very methodically and repeated things in the lessons more often than usual so there was never any doubt about expectations. It was impossible to play together online so I sent her recordings of piano or duet parts at different speeds so she still had that experience and lots of fun.

Always with a sense of relaxation and discovery, these games highlight the practicalities of varying tone production but it was still quite difficult for Maya to remember to vary the sound, so I started sending her various YouTube clips of great players and singers. She was working on ‘Where is Love?’ from the musical Oliver! and there were lots of clips to excite her. I initially chose young violinists so she could directly relate and then I branched out with other great string players alongside some funny clips.

Here are a few that I suggested:

She gradually got involved with some online violin courses and I wrote the feedback from lessons online too so she and her parents could access it.

Lessons are now a mixture of Face to Face and online but we have found a way of working more analytically online that has opened up a new world to her and we’re both delighted that she is playing grade 4 repertoire with lots of colour!

This article is from the free online

Being a Flexible Music Teacher

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