Ok, maybe Professor V didn’t say to practice naked, but he said Paul Rolland said to practice naked. Read the interview below to learn more about his wonderful personal philosophies on teaching, learning, and staying healthy.
Professor V’s violin instruction videos on YouTube are gaining a lot of well-deserved attention. They are excellent, practical instruction that violin students worldwide rely on.
I wanted to know what makes him tick, so Red Desert Violin virtually “sat down” with Professor V for an in-depth interview. (And I highly recommend that you click on his links to take advantage of his wonderful resources.)
About your philosophy of teaching, you said something that is near and dear to my own heart. You said, “I follow the Suzuki ideal that every child can learn if the home environment is supportive. I also believe that creating a well-rounded student is more important than creating a competition-winning student. I believe that students that develop a love for the arts will potentially enjoy a richer life.” How do you apply that philosophy to your teaching style, and can you share an example of this philosophy in action, perhaps from your teaching experiences at Del Mar College?
- Del Mar College is a community college in Corpus Christi, Texas, which offers the first two years of a music degree. We have 18 full-time music faculty members, and just as many adjuncts. In addition to the music major, we also offer services to the community through continuing education and a Suzuki string program. This gives me very different types of students, and I believe they all need a proper environment to work in. For a young person this environment is created by the parent, but a college student must do it on their own.
One thing I have tried to do is apply the Suzuki concept of “every child can” not only with my young students, but also with the college and adult students. An older student usually has an idea of what the violin should sound like, but they will often give up when they realize how difficult it is. Before I accept an older student, I explain just what they are in for, to try and determine if they are willing to “go for it”. Once that is settled, I focus on helping the student build confidence through small successes. We focus on one point at a time as much as possible. Tradition dictates that a person must be very young to learn the violin, but I find that adults can often learn quite well with the proper guidance, repertoire selection, and patience. Also, they must learn how to relax, which is difficult for all of us!
I understand that parents of young violinists must create a supportive environment with a structured practice routine, but what sort of “proper environment” can independent students (with no parental oversight) create for themselves? Any suggestions?
- A good environment means many things, including a healthy lifestyle, family support, etc. It also means a good practice space with decent lighting, a metronome and few other distractions. Students practicing in practice rooms have limited options, but I like to have items of inspiration surrounding me. When I was a high school student I started collecting violin records. I would often hang my favorite album covers on the wall as inspiration. Hearing and seeing David Oistrakh every day certainly gave me plenty of motivation!
These days almost everyone has a computer, which obviously can invite distraction, but it can also be used for tremendous inspiration. With Youtube, students have the opportunity to watch the great violinists, perhaps right before they practice. Jascha Heifetz, Nathan Milstein, Zino Francescatti, Yehudi Menuhin, Isaac Stern, Henryk Szeryng, Joseph Szigeti and Mischa Elman are all on Youtube. These were my idols. If a student has an interest in Early Music, or baroque violin, Sigswald Kuijken is a fantastic place to start.
As for fiddle inspiration; adult or beginning fiddle students will enjoy the fabulous book, Fiddle, by Vivian Wagner, which describes her very personal and interesting journey into the world of Celtic, Old-time, Bluegrass and even Klezmer fiddle. A few Irish fiddlers worth researching are Tommy Peoples, Kevin Burke, Sean Keane, James Kelly and Martin Hayes. For old-time fiddlers, there are fantastic ‘source’ recordings by Edden Hammons, Eck Robertson, and Tommy Jarrell available for sale. Also, the Library of Congress Archive American Fiddle Tunes. I have links to a lot of this music at ToddEhle.com. The Internet makes everything available.
I know of some students who succeeded despite their inferior teachers, and some students who failed despite their fabulous teachers. Could you comment on this phenomenon, specifically for students who might be questioning the effectiveness of their teacher?
- A student who possesses real curiosity and passion for learning may succeed, even in the face of inadequate teaching, simply due to their keen desire. However, a fabulous teacher will struggle with a student that shows no interest. It is a teacher’s job to motivate students, but the student has to be a willing participant. Also, some teacher-student relationships work, while others do not. I once knew a student who wanted to switch teachers just because her current teacher was too nice! She said she needed a stern teacher to motivate her.
You said it’s the teacher’s job to motivate students. Can you share a couple tools you use to motivate? Also, by “motivate”, do you also mean “inspire”?
- Yes, to inspire my students. Mostly, I want to show everyone that with hard work, determination, and a lot of common sense, amazing things can be achieved. Not everyone can be great, but everyone can learn. As silly as it may sound, I’ve even shown students movie clips from Rocky, with Sylvester Stallone training to fight Apollo Creed (with the great sound-track by Bill Conti playing in the background). Not everyone will respond to this type of thing, but some do. Every person is different, which is one of the things that makes teaching interesting.
Could you give us your ideas or guidelines on when a student should “stick it out” with a teacher, versus some red flags or tell-tale signs that they should consider changing teachers?
- A teacher-student relationship needs to be healthy and productive. If there is a problem, parents and students need to ask if it’s really a problem with the teacher, or if it’s possibly a problem with motivation. Sometimes a student outgrows a teacher or gets a sense that they have learned all that a teacher has to offer. If that is the case, it’s probably time to move on. On the flip side; if a student is not making any effort to learn, the teacher will be represented poorly by this student. Teachers must consider their reputations when they keep students that do not try.
Your teaching derives a lot from Paul Rolland’s teaching approach. It has been said that Rolland’s Teaching of Action in String Playing has influenced your instruction videos. Could you share the basic gist of Rolland’s book and how it influenced your teaching?
- My most influential violin professor was Richard Fuchs, a protege of Paul Rolland. He gave me Rolland’s book when I was in high school and I studied it over and over. I have also incorporated aspects of other great teachers, such as Ivan Galamian and Carl Flesch, and also the tremendous work of Shinichi Suzuki, which I learned from William Starr and Margery Aber. It might be more honest to say I hear the voices of my teachers, who studied with the “named” teachers. I was lucky to work with such wonderful people.
Speaking of different teaching methods, would you please tell us your thoughts on blending methods and why you choose not to adhere to just one?
- I had seven formal violin teachers, and was influenced by many more. I recognize that there is no “perfect” way to do anything, and I will often give a student options if something is not working well. I’m sure I teach the techniques in the way that I learned them. Perhaps not the way I FIRST learned them, but in the way I got the best results. Luckily, between all the different teachers, I received multiple approaches to each technique.
Not only have you drawn from other methods, but you recently started creating your own method, based on the folk tune, “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Could you describe your method, tell us what makes it unique, and why you felt it necessary to create it?
- I have always told my viewers that I thought the best way to use my videos was as a supplement to their own lessons, not as a replacement for private instruction. I have been surprised by the response to that point. Many people have told me they either can’t afford lessons, or that there is no teacher in their area. I thought I might make a beginning instructional video series for these people, which I have started. I don’t want to give the impression that I believe this is the best way to learn, and I’ve stated that over and over. The videos are available on my YouTube channel page in the Playlists section (see “Violin Method”). The printouts that go with the videos are on my website under “Printouts for violin method” I had to use material that is not under copyright, so I have drawn from several older method books.
Strad Magazine recently gave you kudos for your online instructional videos, which have been viewed by millions. In your experience, what are the strengths and weaknesses of online instruction?
- Videos should be used to augment a student’s learning, but not to replace one-on-one instruction. Without direct feedback, a student will find it very difficult to reach their potential. The strength is that you can refer to the video over and over, and perhaps receive a different approach to a technique that is causing difficulty.
You’ve been very open about your neck and shoulder problems. Do you have any advice for violinists that might help them to avoid those same problems?
- Over-use injuries are very common in the music profession. As a student, I held a lot of tension in my neck and shoulders. I had to stop playing completely and then come back to the violin like a beginner. I needed to learn where my tension was, and also what it means to truly be relaxed while playing. Unfortunately, I had caused a great deal of damage to my body, but perhaps I can help my students avoid similar issues. I would suggest Yoga and bio feedback as a way of keeping the body strong and the mind aware. Swimming is excellent and recommended as well for over-all conditioning.
As for practicing, multiple 30-40 minute practice sessions spread through the day are much better than one long session, both for the mind and the body.
Can you offer any violin-specific motions/positions to take precautions with, or “red flags” to watch out for, in order to be pro-active in preventing over-use or tension injuries?
- Watch tor tension in the jaw as it can create problems all the way down the back. The teeth need to be apart while playing, but even then there can be tension. Often people will start grinding their teeth if the problem persists. The proper chinrest and shoulder rest should help alleviate this issue, but it can be very complicated (and expensive) to figure out the proper set-up. Also, if one develops headaches while or after playing it may be a posture issue. Again, the proper set-up can help fix the problem. I recommend visiting a violin shop to try many different chinrest/shoulder rest combinations.
Interestingly enough, I just read that Paul Rolland practiced naked in front of the mirror to see if his body was aligned properly! I have not tried this technique yet. Finally, I would say to always ‘listen’ to the body. Pain is the body’s way of saying that something is wrong.
You also play Irish Fiddle. How did you learn to play in that style? Any thoughts on joining a band?
- I consider myself a poor fiddler, but really love it. I was first introduced to traditional music back in 1989 while on a trip to Ireland and have been collecting records and CDs over the years. I took a few lessons from the great Irish fiddler James Kelly, but for the most part have had to learn it on my own. I’m never satisfied with the results, but keep doing it anyway.
In addition to Classical, Baroque, and Irish style, you also have artwork online. Can you talk a little about your artistic diversity and share other hobbies you might have?
- I am a self-taught painter, and at times feel a strong urge to “create.” I paint in two styles; one is modern, rarely completely abstract, and often with aspects of surrealism. The other is based on my love for the French post-impressionist painter, Bonnard. My other hobby is collecting toy trains!
Care to share your future plans with us?
- I spent much of May repairing a harpsichord that had been in storage for over twenty years. I’m hoping to create a Baroque ensemble here in Corpus Christi. I love Baroque music, especially on gut (sheep intestine) strings. I realize it’s an acquired taste!
You have been working on recording some Baroque pieces, including works by Biber, which involves some “scordatura” tuning, making recordings of his work somewhat uncommon. When do we get to hear your recent Baroque recordings?
- I’m taking a break from everything until the end of August, then I’ll see how it turns out. I tend to take my time with recordings as I always think they could be better. It’s not always a healthy process, but I do know my own limitations and try to be reasonable.