The former Royal College of Music and Leeds University pedagogue explains why it's important to encourage students to relax


Structure your lessons carefully
I always plan ahead and know what I’m going to do. Whatever the level of the student I start with a scale, then move on to a study or at least part of one. Depending on time, I move on to a piece or two – or bits of them. I concentrate on a particular weak point, usually a technical problem, for about seven or eight weeks at a time, using different tunes and exercises to help correct it. Technique and repertoire should always join together. The studies you teach should match the repertoire you want your students to play. For example, if a piece requires thumb position, you should set a thumb position study. At the end of a lesson I always let students know what we’ll do next time.

Give clear guidance for practice
I’m quite free with how my students practise, but I do try to look into the amount of time they have and plan accordingly. I also give them clear guidance depending on their skill, such as: practise slowly and really listen; pitch every note in your head in advance; play just one octave of the scale; or try different bowings.

Always work to minimise tension
The most common technical problem is with those who care. They try so hard that they acquire too much tension. Sometimes it’s in their whole body but more often it’s in specific areas. For example, they grip too tightly with the left hand so they can’t move easily or do vibrato, or they tense their right hand, meaning they can’t swing their arm and bow properly. I try to get them to relax and to see an Alexander technique specialist. Although I don’t teach Alexander technique, I think it’s really important and try to think about it in lessons.

Choose your recordings carefully
It’s good that recordings are so easily accessible. But nowadays I think people do listen to them rather too much. They go online and they copy what they hear. I don’t much like this – they need to find their own way. Also, when you listen to a piece, you need to think about who the best person to listen to is, not just randomly pick someone.

Identify the most significant weakness
You have to find out what would help advanced players the most. So when they first come to me I listen to them play and think about what they need. I also ask them what they think they should work on. For Natalie Clein it was bowing. She had previously learnt the violin and often cellists who’ve played the violin fail to relax their bow arm into a lower position. They must learn not to press with a high arm, otherwise their tone becomes thin and high instead of rich.

I encourage all advanced players to think about expression and to get the tune in their heads. They should also know the whole piece. If it’s a sonata they should know the piano part and if it’s a concerto they should know all the orchestral entries.

Adult students can be tricky
Adults are harder to teach because they are much less open to change. I once tried to teach a professional pianist and it was nearly impossible to get him not to try so hard and to relax. Adults often tense their brains and arms and then you can’t get them to move freely. Adults who already play a musical instrument can also be restricted by their previous knowledge – they don’t think like string players, especially when it comes to melody. You have to encourage them to think about music in a different way.

Interview by Vicky Hancock

This article was published in The Strad's January 2012 issue. Subscribe to The Strad or download our digital edition as part of a 30-day free trial. To purchase single issues click here