Cellist and teacher Naomi Yandell explores the fine line between nagging and getting a point across by reminder and reinforcement, and suggests that a less verbal approach can often yield good results


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The other day as I was walking by the river my train of thought was interrupted by a dog walker who was dragging his unwilling animal along by the lead. If he didn’t tell his dog five times to ‘come along’ it must have been fifty, and despite this the dog took absolutely no notice.

Witnessing this ineffective dog management got me thinking about something one of my children said to me back in the mists of time. I had asked her for the umpteenth time to put her shoes away when she turned around and said that she had heard on the radio that children can tune out parents’ voices if they go on and on. I was a mixture of furious and amused, but from her point of view it was effective, because it stopped me in my tracks.

As teachers of young students, we teach new skills, but also remind them about certain aspects of their playing that they have supposedly learnt, whether it be to hold out their left arms (yes, I am a cello teacher) or to soften their thumbs on the bow. But here’s the thorny issue; at what point does reminding slip into nagging? And how many repetitions does it take for attentive listening to switch off?

I have been mulling this over since the dog-walker episode and have subjected myself to self-assessment. It may not come as a surprise that I have deduced that I could do better – but then couldn’t we all?

To improve matters, I have tried to incentivise; if the left-hand arm position isn’t ideal, I have taken the student into my confidence, saying how much I’d like to be able to start to teach them vibrato, for example, but that the position of their arm means that I have to wait until it has improved. I have tried, ‘Once you can play the top part of this double-stopping in time and with a good sound, we can add the other string, like this,’ then demonstrated in the hope that it inspires some practice. I have mentioned various orchestras they might join when they are a bit more advanced, or have got to grips with some technical point.

Here’s the thorny issue; at what point does reminding slip into nagging?

Recently I’m happy to say that this approach resulted in one of my students with hyper-mobile fingers coming in and saying categorically, ‘I’ve fixed my little finger.’ Initially, I was sceptical, but his left-hand little finger, instead of poking out awkwardly at a wayward angle was curved and neatly positioned over the fingerboard ready to play. I can’t tell you just how positive my reaction was to this development.

Exaggerated visual reminders work well; when, for example, students need to remember to use an up bow for an anacrusis, showing works better than telling. For bow distribution, stickers dividing the bow into sections are useful especially with beginner students.

Specific games and exercises to tackle a single-issue problem are useful too. They enable the student to focus on one small element of their playing in the hope that it will become their default option. With the common left-hand elbow issue, I have also given shifting exercises from first position to thumb position with no specified pitch destination; impossible to do without lifting the elbow up and over the ribs of the instrument.

Nevertheless I find that duet playing is a teacher’s shortcut to feeding a student musical super-food; it’s fun, you demonstrate as you play, and you can choose the duet that will best address the issue you’d like to focus on. This way, so much can be communicated without words being uttered. The whole experience is light years away from asking a student to do something for the nth time, when they know what you are about to say and how you are going to say it. I’d switch off too – wouldn’t you?

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