Oliver Steiner, Violinist

Oliver Steiner

On Teaching and Practicing

by Oliver Steiner

My students often hear me say: "I am your teacher for only one hour a week. You are your teacher for all the other hours, so you had better become a good one!" Practicing is indeed self-teaching. Nobody has ever advanced his violin playing as the sole result of taking a lesson. If a violinist never gives a violin lesson in his entire life, he nonetheless needs to learn how to teach well. The advancement comes from practicing what you learned at the lesson. The effective way to speak to a student you are teaching is also the effective way to speak to yourself as you practice. The purpose of having a violin lesson is to teach you how to teach yourself.

It's not unusual that a young person will love music, but dislike practicing. In my experience, when a student dislikes practicing it is not due to boredom. Rather it's due to the opposite of boredom: frustration. Boredom comes from not having enough to do. Frustration, which is usually the cause for disliking practicing, comes from too much to do. Specifically, the student thinks that he is doing one thing: correcting a rhythm. But in fact he is doing many things at once: Learning how the rhythm is supposed to sound, and getting his finger drops, finger lifts, shifting, bow changes and string changes to result in this sound. The ideal is to take on these multiple tasks one at a time. Before anything else he needs to learn to speak the rhythm while tapping a pencil to the beat. As a result he has learned how the rhythm is supposed to sound. He is not frustrated because he divided the work into what my teacher Dorothy DeLay would call "do-able bits". How frustrated and annoyed he would be if he attempted to play the rhythm correctly before he knew how it is supposed to sound! I call the state of mind which is neither frustrating nor boring, the "game-playing state". That's what happens when we enjoy playing a game. If, in playing a game, you gained points on every try, you would soon be bored. If you lost points on every try you would be frustrated. Practicing effectively is very much connected to giving yourself just the right amount of challenge so as to keep yourself in the "game playing state".

I believe students flourish as a result of being treated with respect and good expectations. I have seen beautiful results from treating a student with more respect than he may have had for himself! When he sees that you genuinely respect him more than he respects himself, he begins to respect himself more, and consequently begins to live up to your good expectations and his newly acquired good expectations.

This constitutes my best understanding of the Hebrew word "B'racha": Blessing. By focusing his attention on these good expectations, the student sees himself in a new light. He has the courage to pursue new goals. To teach by encouraging right actions, rather than by discouraging, is in my view, a key precept of teaching.

It boils my blood when I hear instrumental teachers sabotaging their students' playing by saying: "You are playing with such a choked tone. You are pressing so hard and completely ruining the tone!" The teacher ***must acquire the discipline*** of translating that sabotage statement into a positive one. The translation would be: "You can make such a beautiful and brilliant tone by training yourself to lift just the right amount of pressure off the string from time to time so as to allow the string to vibrate freely under the bow hair." The negative version is insulting, discouraging and focusing the student's attention on the concept of an ugly tone and the pressing of the bow too much into the string. That is distraction and destruction!! The positive translation focuses the student's concentration where it is absolutely required: on listening for beauty and expecting a beautiful reward as he increases his skill. Teachers who lack this discipline make me very angry, but I'm even more angry at parents who raise their children to accept the authority of such bad teachers! There are naive adolescent students who actually believe that the most insulting and abusive teacher is the one who is demanding high standards. Anyone with performing experience should know that to play a beautiful pitch there must first be expectation of beauty and hearing a beautiful pitch in the performer's mind. If instead the performer's mind is distracted by focusing his concentration on the fear and concept of an out of tune pitch, he will not achieve the desired result. Gingold and Milstein were very demanding teachers - in the best possible way! One is demanding more, and helping the student's self-confidence by asking for something very beautiful than one would be by blaming him for something that is ugly! When I played Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso for Mr. Milstein at a lesson he stopped me at one point and said: "Try this bowing here" as he demonstrated what seemed to me an impossibly tricky bowing to do at tempo. When he saw the look of fear on my face, he immediately shouted: "Come on!!!" I had no choice but to do it! I didn't do it very well, but I was astonished that I could do it at all, and I was able to improve it after practicing it following the lesson.

My dad used to tell me of his grandfather who, when correcting the behavior of a child, would tell the child what a wonderful person he is, and how the behavior was unbecoming to a person of such character as this child possessed. As a result of the grandfather's words, the child would come away feeling encouraged instead of discouraged, loving instead of resentful, increased, rather than diminished in self-esteem, and he would never, ever do the misbehavior again. This has been my life-long model of the highest level of teaching.