Blue Sky Teaching

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String tutors are always looking for ways to help students develop or refine their technique, and some use unconventional approaches. Judith Kogan spoke with three such teachers, all based in North America and whose unique ideas are achieving significant results

Donald Weilerstein – violin

Reading sections of lesson transcripts, you might think it’s a yoga or ballet class – or maybe a voice lesson:

‘Before you start, feel the spine move.’

‘And the eyes.’

‘Feel the lift in the spine.’

‘The whole thing up, to the top of the head.’

‘You want ecstatic energy from your spine through your body.’

‘Feel the sacrum, the whole pelvis vibrating.’

‘The sitting bones should feel alive down to the floor.’

‘Sing through your body.’

‘Sing like you’re the music.’

‘In the rest, do you feel large and lifted?’

Violinist Donald Weilerstein’s teaching is based on awareness of how energy flows through the body. His approach to technique is less about how to execute an action than about where to direct thoughts in order to release tension, thereby making a passage easier. These are not things you hear every day from a violin teacher.

‘It’s very much a mind-over-matter approach, which I found incredibly helpful,’ says former student Alexi Kenney. ‘Weilerstein does talk about specific aspects of technique, but for him it’s more about the big picture and using imagination and creativity to find a technique that works for your physique and particular instrument.’

Granted, Weilerstein teaches the crème de la crème of young violinists. Many of his students arrive at his studio with a fully developed technique. But that can get in the way of musical expression – and what the students want to express.

Samuel Andonian, a Weilerstein student at the New England Conservatory, has brought a Brahms sonata to his lesson, and plays through the first two movements. Weilerstein listens, moving through phrases as if he himself were playing. ‘Good,’ he says, when Andonian is done. ‘Nice Brahmsian feel. What do you think you need?’ Weilerstein’s students are used to his Socratic method of teaching. ‘Letting go,’ Andonian suggests. ‘Visualising it, and not worrying.’ Weilerstein nods. ‘I’d like to work on the “letting go” aspect. I’ve been thinking about some things.’

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