Violinist Piet Koornhof witnessed Dorothy DeLay's extraordinary teaching skills as one of her students at the Juilliard School in New York. In 2001 he analysed what made her method so successful
Dorothy Delay, Starling Professor of violin at the Juilliard School in New York, is an astonishingly successful teacher. The list of her former pupils reads like a who's who of violinistic fame of the past several decades, with Itzhak Perlman, Gil Shaham, Midori, Cho-Liang Liru, Shlomo Mintz and Sarah Chang but a few names that stand out.
Her students former and current - she is 83 years old and still going strong - are never short of superlatives when talking about their beloved 'Miss Delay'. Words like 'amazing', 'incredible' and 'fantastic' seem to stand for learning and nurturing experiences so profound and encompassing the detail is too overwhelming to describe. Robert McDuffie calls her a 'full service teacher', meaning that she plays many roles, from teacher and coach to therapist and career manager, while Cho-Liang Lin describes a lesson with her as being like a session with a psychologist. 'You'd walk in there with a head full of problems about your latest bad review or a break-up with a girlfriend, and you'd walk out of her studio feeling all clear'.'
Delay's lessons are often scenes of youthful mirth, mixed with serious study and urgent career strategising. She firmly believes that learning and performing should be fun and exemplifies this by often shaking with subdued laughter of joy when a student is playing particularly well - which, one should add, is quite often. When asked whether she has considered retirement she gleefully replies, 'No, not happily, I'm having too much fun to stop!'
Delay's teaching strategy reflects her strong beliefs about learning and teaching. She expresses these in statements like the following:
* 'Given enough time and ways of measurement [means of measuring achievement] people can learn to do anything'
* 'You can teach anything if you can figure out how people learn it'
* 'Learning is becoming more aware'
* 'People learn best when they feel successful at it'
* 'People learn best when they're having fun,
* 'There is always a right approach - it's just a matter of finding it'
These beliefs reflect what neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) writer Robert Dilts has described as the essential components for outcome achievement: outcome expectancy (that a desired outcome is possible in principle), self-efficacy expectancy (that a student is capable of learning or doing what is required to reach the outcome) and response expectancy (that the process they have embarked on will lead to achievement).
According to the NLP practitioner David Gordory it is useful to think of a strategy as having the following features:
* A primary criterion a person strives to meet
* The evaluations a person makes to determine whether or not the criterion has been met
* The steps followed to meet the criterion
* The alternative procedures in case the normal steps are unsuccessful
* The emotions habitually experienced as a background to the strategy
Delay's primary criterion is to create a positive internal state in her students. 'What's important to me', she remarks,'is to be able to see the kids standing up there, all of a sudden feeling competent and pleased that they can do something they couldn't do before.' Of her role in the development of talent, she says: 'It's nice if they [students] go out and play a concert and people like it. Not as nice though as watching them really get such pleasure out of having learned something they didn't think they could do... You know, because that gives you such tremendous power, if you can open up a person's talent.'
Delay does not simply pass on information about violin technique and musicianship. She tailors her strategy and patterns of communication to each student, indicating an acute awareness of and a constructive engagement with, every student's unique inner world.
She gives her students confidence in their capabilities by structuring the learning process step by step. 'You have to prove to them that they can do it... they have to succeed from the very beginning,' she says. She breaks every area worked on into small steps, appropriate to each student; provides ways of measurement to increase awareness; makes the lessons fun and positively reinforces a student's successes, however small, with compliments.
Delay wants students to have the confidence needed for growth and to feel pleasure about the results. By aiming for this state of confidence and pleasure, which is both the result and the generator of successful learning, Delay sets up a reinforcing loop:
Delay evaluates three main areas when listening to a student: intonation, sound production and phrasing. Depending on a student's level of development, she compares what she hears to the best she can imagine, to good performances she's heard or to other students on the same level. She then isolates the weakest of the three areas, breaks it down into its most basic components and makes the student progressively aware of smaller and smaller details, working slowly, one step at a time. She builds interest in the process by being complimentary about any successes the pupil might achieve, and by maintaining an atmosphere of playful learning replete with humour and optimism. It's important to her that the learning situation is set up in such a way that students cannot fail.
If this procedure doesn't succeed, she tries to make the student aware of even smaller details. She might, for example, focus the student's attention on what can be heard at the beginning of a bow stroke, at the middle and at the end, while experimenting with bow speed, sounding point, weight and the amount of hair contacting the string. Throughout the process she helps the student to measure the differences they are learning to perceive - for example, how much bow pressure is used, by what distance the sounding point is changed and how the results differ from other attempts. 'I know that if you want to communicate something about sound to somebody else, you'd better measure it,' she says.
Delay keeps on trying different approaches until she finds something that works ('There is always a right approach - it's just a matter of finding it'). She tries to figure out what in the student's thinking is the obstacle and to get around it, being acutely aware that what happens in the mind precedes the functioning of the body. If in the longer term she cannot help a student to improve in a particular area, she heeds Galamian's advice to her -'Leave it for a year and then try again'. She seems to have an innate confidence in the systemic nature of learning, trusting that developments in other areas will result in a positive shift in the original problem.
Patterns of communication
The third important feature of Delay's teaching, alongside her beliefs and her strategy, is her ability to communicate with students in ways that continually stimulate growth and development.
Delay is outcome-orientated, focusing a student's attention on what is wanted rather than on what should be avoided. She writes, 'Without clearly defined goals and the conviction that these are in one way or another attainable, students will not practise well.' She would say to a student, 'You want to play with a lighter sound', not 'You shouldn't push the sound too much'.
Another feature of Delay's outcome-orientation is her use of clear and specific language. She once told me one of her teachers had said to her, 'This is heavenly music that should be played in a heavenly way'. Remembering the incident, Delay throws her arms in the air in exasperation saying, 'I had no idea what that meant! I would come out of every lesson thinking I was stupid and untalented, and I did not practise.'
Her suggestions to students invariably contain information about the observable, measurable mechanics of violin playing, like bow speed, speed of shifting or width and speed of vibrato. She knows that specific language - words that denote observable, measurable phenomena and experiences - are needed to help the human nervous system move towards the realisation of outcomes. Her students know exactly and immediately what actions to take to get a desired effect. Learning, she believes, is defined partly as becoming more aware. 'I don't want my students to feel that there are any mysteries. I hate the idea of mysteries. Some teachers thrive on it. It makes them feel superior.'
Linguistic presuppositions are, in the words of L. Michael Hall and Bob B. Bodenhamer, 'silent assumptions and paradigms that lurk within and behind words and statement'. Because of her beliefs concerning the human's unlimited capacity to learn Delay naturally presupposes capability, learning, development and the efficacy of certain procedures in the language she uses when teaching. She conversationally turns students' limiting beliefs into empowering ones, letting assumptions about students' capabilities hit home unconsciously.
She makes matter-of-fact statements like, 'When you bring the last movement [of a particular concerto, for example] memorised next week we can spend some time looking at the structure', presupposing, without making any issue about it, that the student is capable of learning and memorising the music in a short time, and that it will be done. Or she might say, 'Once we have sorted out your bow-grip, your sound will be ready for some big concerti', again presupposing that it can be done, that the student's sound will change as a result and that big works will be learned.
Anecdotes, quotes, metaphors and analogies
To reinforce a point, Delay often quotes former students or other famous violinists or tells anecdotes that illustrate it in some way. For example, she said to a student,'Whatever rhythmic inconsistencies there are will probably disappear when you practise more with piano [again presupposing a course of action]. Did you know that Isaac Stern at some stage hired a pianist to practise with him for four hours every day?' Then the punch line, 'Just think what would happen if you rehearsed for four hours daily with piano!'
Perhaps of equal importance, she uses famous players as examples of both what to emulate and what to avoid, portraying them as ordinary people whose achievements are the results of the same human capacity to learn we all possess. She thereby makes their level of functioning seem more attainable to students.
Delay's use of analogies and metaphors, tailored extempore to suit the psychology and background of each student, is legendary. Here are some examples:
*To students in general: 'Look studying the violin in a way is like two sciences: it's like astronomy on the one hand, and like working with a microscope on the other hand. Astronomy is your repertoire; the microscope is the wonderful small things you can get so you can see and hear. And the more small things you can get so you can see and hear, the better you play. You've got to do both of them.'
* To a young male student: 'It's like parking your car when you are going 40 miles an hour. You overshoot your space. .. There was a cartoon in the New Yorker some years ago. You know. One of those helpless women looking at her husband and saying, ""You know dear, the thing I hate about parking the car is that awful crash"".'
* To a young boy: 'I had a friend who said ""fingers on a bow are like sailors on a ship - this one looks out the port-hole""' [referring to the third finger touching the edge of the frog's eye].
When I asked how she knows which metaphor or analogy to use, Delay's answer was, 'I suppose you go to something - some area - they're interested in.' Again this statement indicates that she works very much with the internal experience of the student.
After having just played for Delay, a student looks worried about his performance. Delay immediately notices and says, 'You know, the better you get, the more dissatisfied you are, because you can hear more.' This is a wonderful example of how she changes a student's frame of reference, giving a negative experience a new, positive meaning. She takes his dissatisfaction and gives it the new meaning of being a sign of improvement. The student immediately feels better and consequently plays better, which in turn reinforces the truth of what Delay has just said.
With that one 'reframe' Delay has empowered the student by presupposing greater awareness ('you can hear more') and improvement ('the better you get'), and she has boosted his confidence and ensured that in future he will interpret his dissatisfaction as a sign of improvement rather than failure. Furthermore, as she has established in the student's mind a link between hearing more and dissatisfaction, his future dissatisfaction will focus his attention on making finer distinctions, which is precisely what is needed for improvement.
A pre-college student of Delay's once dropped his bow in the middle of a piece he was playing for her. When she noticed his distress, she said excitedly, 'That's wonderful means you are not clutching your bow too tightly!' As before, this reframe turns a sense of failure into a sense of achievement, and it focuses awareness on the tightness of the bow grip, which is exactly what is needed to avoid the student dropping the bow in the future.
On another occasion a very young student had a sound slip towards the bridge. His anxiety about it caused Delay to say, 'Wait! Do it again! That sound you made is ""sul ponticello"", which is something you should learn to do deliberately.' She then picked up her own violin, made a squeaking sound on the bridge, laughed, and said, 'I like strange, spooky sounds like that!'
Delay decides a reframe is necessary when she sees 'the slightest sign of anxiety in the student'. And how does she choose how to reframe? 'I look for whatever is positive in the situation.' It is of utmost importance to Delay that students feel comfortable and confident. Her advice to aspiring teachers is 'never, ever make a student feel anxious,' pointing out that people cannot learn well when they are anxious.
Language patterns for comfort, ease and confidence
Delay often starts a series of statements each with the first person plural,'we', or singular, 'l', and later turns it into the second person singular, 'you', after having established a comfortable sense of belonging:
* 'We're going to practice your bow grip a lot'
* 'We have two things to remember for next time...'
* 'We needn't worry about an audience - they, even those that know a lot, are not concentrating like you are'
* 'I don't think we've got the right fingerings. Let's fix it'
Instead of commands and admonitions starting with 'you must' or 'you should', Delay uses language patterns that start with 'you want to... ' or 'can you. .. ?':
* 'You want to play with a faster bow there'
* 'You want to keep your fingers a little closer together'
* 'You want to fix the intonation in the middle section
She softens or eliminates possible resistance with words like 'could','might',' maybe' and'perhaps' :
* 'You might want to consider...'
* 'Maybe you could think about...'
* 'You could try it this way if you like...'
* 'It's perhaps more in keeping with the character of the music to do this.. .'
We have seen how Delay's beliefs are presupposed in how she structures her language when communicating with students, and in the strategy she employs. This sets a context of empowerment for students' optimal growth. Since presuppositions are assumptions not explicitly stated, they can bypass possible conscious resistance, affecting deeper layers of the mind and allowing it to concentrate on the setting and achievement of outcomes.
Her mastery as a teacher lies in her pedagogical beliefs, her teaching strategy and her patterns of communication. But perhaps the ultimate crux of Dorothy Delay's success is that she is all about love - she loves her students, loves teaching and learning, and she loves music. As Mozart said, 'Neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination nor both together go to the making of genius. Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius.'
Picture: Dorothy DeLay with Midori at Aspen in 1986
This article was first published in The Strad's October 2001 issue