Opinion: The power of imagination

Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko

To enhance a pupil’s learning, it is useful to build a list of words and catchphrases that conjure images relating to different techniques. Jeffrey Howard introduces his own ‘violin vocabulary’

I was giving my daughter a violin lesson. She must have been all of eight years old at the time. We were working on her bow grip, and I was demonstrating how she should keep her finger knuckles flexible on the bow to produce a big sound. As we explored the idea together, she instinctively used her imagination and said the motion looked like ‘a spider that was being squished’. In that small creative moment, the phrase ‘squish the spider’ was born.

With this phrase, my daughter knew exactly what to do. Indeed, many of my students are visual learners. When an image makes sense to students, they inherently remember the concept and retain the information. If students retain information, they are more likely to practise effectively at home and reach their artistic goals sooner. The challenge for teachers is how to create these images in an interesting and exploratory manner to maximise student learning. The answer comes from intuitive imagination.

I was first introduced to this idea by Stephen Clapp, my teacher at Oberlin Conservatory. He gave all his students a violin vocabulary list that provided common references to many ideas in his teaching method. Over the years, I have added many of my own phrases that are image-based.

When I teach basic bow strokes to students, I often start with the concept of a ‘smile’. If you imitate the shape of the smile in the motion of your bow arm, you can quite effectively demonstrate controlled spiccato, a brush stroke, détaché, legato, and similar flat-smile bow strokes like staccato and martelé.

While teaching Bach recently, as I was describing the release of the bow to achieve a ringing sound, I recalled the image of the smile of the Mona Lisa. By gently releasing the contact at the beginning and end of the bow stroke, the sound rings clearly without a bow-click accent. Immediately, the ‘Mona Lisa’ bow stroke was born! Students love the idea, and they remember it easily…

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