Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Anatomy of Effective Pedagogy

In recent weeks and months, I have been preparing for my session at the upcoming ASTA Conference.  I am doing a session entitled Finger Patterns as a Vehicle for Upper Positions and Major Scales.  This is a session that many folks have participated in over the years, but I have added a great deal to the content for this session at ASTA.  In preparing the session, I have really been thinking about what makes this strategy effective.  In doing so, I have come up a model for effective pedagogy that I want to share today.

As I think through much of the pedagogy and many techniques that I use, there are some common pieces that I have found to be effective over the years.  My finger pattern strategy employs these and I believe that is the reason I find it to be so effective.  So, here is the model.  Effective pedagogy, in my opinion, should include the following:  It must be a SYSTEM. It must be SEQUENTIAL.  It should include clear, descriptive NOMENCLATURE. It must then put the material into CONTEXT. Let's explore each of these categories.

First, any pedagogical concept should be delivered via a SYSTEM.  We have to have a plan.  I see so many folks try to come at ideas and concepts from a variety of angles without a true plan for getting there.  I often say that good teaching is really the process of taking the complex and breaking it into smaller simpler parts.  Isn't that true?  In order to practice effectively, we must be willing to break down the piece of music: practice slowly, create etudes out of hard passages, practice the shifts, practice the string crossings with double stops, and many more.  I do that as a conductor as well.  Over the years I have developed a system for almost any ensemble issue from the podium.  Is the group rushing?  I have a system.  Are they out of tune?  I have a system.  Are they not generating a representative tone?  I have a system.  Incorrect bow placement?  I have a system. You get the picture.  So, in my mind, "system" is defined as developing a plan that breaks the complex into smaller, simpler tasks.

Next, effective systems are SEQUENTIAL.  This should  be self explanatory, but not everyone does this in their teaching.  Music is a mastery-based subject.  One must be able to effectively demonstrate or perform "A" before moving to "B."  So many teachers want to jump over steps in order to get to more complex repertoire or techniques.   The sequential nature of music pedagogy is imperative to efficient and rapid achievement.  I believe that this holds true for teaching in many or most subject areas.  But, I know it to be true with music.  Once the student masters the first step, we move on to the next, then the next, etc.  It seems so simple, but it is often forgotten.

NOMENCLATURE is the devising or choosing of names for things or tasks.  We do it all the  time in string education: "Low 2," "up bow," "third position," etc.  Any effective system requires clear, concise and meaningful nomenclature.  We have to be able to refer quickly to the concepts that we teach.  Last summer, I watched a great rehearsal run by my friend and colleague, Liza Grossman at Interlochen.  In order to get her students to sit with a great playing position, she simply said, "Rumps on the Bumps."  At that moment, everyone in the young orchestra slid to the front of their chair and held their instrument in perfect position.  She had developed effective nomenclature for a complex task.  It was brilliant.  So, as you refine your pedagogy, I encourage you to think deeply about the nomenclature that you develop and utilize. Does your set of nomenclature effectively communicate the desired result.

Finally, great teaching of specific ideas or concepts must be put into CONTEXT.  In other words, once we learn a concept, where do we use it?   When do I play in the lower half of the bow rather than upper half?  When do I shift to third position?  How low is low 2?  In my finger pattern session, this comes in the form of incorporating a harmonic underpinning to the etudes and exercises that I will share.  Playing etudes becomes MUCH more musical and in-tune when there is a harmonic underpinning.  In recent weeks, my son has been really spending a great deal of time practicing scales.  He has been using a drone, generated by his smart phone and then sending it to a killer blue-tooth speaker that he has.  While it generally drives me insane while he is practicing, I have heard it make a huge difference in his intonation.  We can put ideas into historical context, harmonic context, rhythmic context, melodic contest, expressive context, etc.  You  get the picture.  Context is so important.  

I encourage you to think about  these as you develop lessons and rehearsals in the coming days and weeks.  Stay tuned for my Finger Patterns as a Vehicle for Upper Positions and Major Scales  session at ASTA and posts in coming months.  I will be providing numerous web resources for students, teachers and parents and I am really committed to this system. There will be resources for all bowed string instruments - not just violin.   I hope that you will find it to be as effective as I have.  


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