Essay on Pedagogy by Danielle Belen

Within my first few years as a student at the University of Southern California, I began to carve a path for myself that was quite different than most of my colleagues at the time.  While I was being trained by my teacher, Robert Lipsett, to play at the level of a soloist, I knew in my heart that my dream was actually to do what my he was doing: working with and molding the most talented students into the great violinists of tomorrow.  For years I had a front row seat to the endless hours Mr. Lipsett poured into his students, nurturing, working, and cracking the whip to transform them, pushing the boundaries of what was possible to achieve with each individual.   I also saw how dramatically my own transformation occurred, from a scrappy talented kid into a polished concert violinist with an emerging violin studio of my own. I was taught by my teacher to never stop working, to never stop searching for better sound and for all the technical prowess that goes into saying the most artistically.  That work ethic soon became all I knew, and some of my best playing was, and still is, ahead of me.  This is the cornerstone of my own teaching philosophy.  In the years after school, I went on to solo with many of the country's top orchestras and would concertize regularly, but my main focus became, and will always be, my students.

In the same way that mastering the performance of the violin takes years and many thousands of hours of dedication and experience, so does great teaching. Most of the major violin pedagogues of the past century started in their early twenties and, understanding this as tradition and necessity, I have been teaching for over ten years, building my studio into a successful operation by the age of thirty. Becoming a great teacher is a full time commitment to the art. This includes not only guiding every student in technical and musical development, but also honing skills from the practice room to the performance stage. There must be a plan that is uniquely crafted for each individual pupil and I find it fascinating to notice how vastly this agenda varies from student to student. While one violinist might need to be on a diet of scales and etudes, another pupil’s prescription might be to perform a new short piece every week in studio class to strengthen nerves and boost temperament.  

 Furthermore, effective teaching means holding absolute accountability. A technique taught at one lesson must be followed up in the next lesson. Mentioning to a student that his or her bow hold needs work and simply demonstrating a couple of times is not enough. That's coaching, not pedagogy. Work on the bow hold, if needed, must take place at every lesson for an extended amount of time—months, sometimes even years.  Oftentimes we stop short of making a significant jump forward with a student because we as teachers simply lose our stamina. My mentor once said that even though he might become tired teaching 6 or 7 students in a day, hour after hour, for those students, that is a precious hour of their week and our job is to ignite the inspiration in each and every lesson.

Teaching is a dynamic profession full of creativity and problem solving. We are at the same time disciplinarians, cheerleaders, poets, psychologists, and violinists. As a performer myself, I demonstrate frequently in front of my students. In fact, I will often choose passages that I can't play perfectly myself but that I am able to greatly improve right in front of their eyes. My goal in doing this is to show them how in a relatively short amount of time, but with immense focus, one can solve a problem; in a sense, I am practicing in front of them. The art of effective practice is arguably the most critical skill a teacher must pass on to a student.  Quantity, the sheer number of daily hours, is of course important and necessary, but quality is typically overlooked by eager young students.  Those who learn to master time management in the practice room can get as much done in one hour as their colleagues might accomplish in dozens of hours. For example, when working on a left hand problem, like a missed shift, it is tempting to simply repeat it over and over until it eventually corrects itself. This is training the ear to allow and even expect mistakes. Taking a deep breath and demanding perfection in that shift, studying the motion with your eyes, delivers more reliable success. I believe strongly that putting significant pressure on oneself in the practice room builds trust and comfort on the performance stage. Practicing should have a constant spark of creativity.  Difficult passages, particularly fast passages, shouldn't be practiced only from beginning to end with a fingers-crossed attitude, but should be rehearsed forward, backward, upside down and inside out. Confidence in performance comes from knowing every note like an old friend. A fast arpeggio or scale, for instance, could be practiced starting from different anchor points within—the middle, an offbeat, or any seemingly strange position. The ability to nail a passage from all angles will solidify it that much more in the hands and memory.  All of this focused practice-roomwork will ensure a more relaxed and enjoyable performance!

But practicing is not only about solving technical problems.  The heart of my teaching comes down to developing a student's beauty, range and power of sound to its maximum potential. A violinist's sound is crucial to a successful career. Sound is intonation, musicality, and core technique combined. No matter how many Paganini caprices someone can blast through, the ability to draw a gorgeous tone trumps a flashy yet mediocre sound. A violinist's sound is not usually a genetic gift; it must be taught and constantly nurtured. If a student's mechanisms for vibrato, shifting, and bow control are incorrect, his or her ability to make world-class sound is greatly diminished, no matter how sophisticated a musician this person otherwise might be.  All of these fundamentals must be mostly in place from a young age and honed for years and years. If they are not, it takes a very special and determined college student to change poor technique and sound at the violinistically ripe age of 18. It is possible, however, as I have ample experience with pupils in this category and also a certain compassion for them, having been a late bloomer myself.

My great mentor instilled in me that selecting the right students is the first piece of the puzzle. This doesn't always mean that these are the most obviously gifted students in the traditional sense of the word, but they must be hungry for the violin and for life! I typically look for students who can be flexible, easily molded, and with an incredibly positive attitude and passion for hard work. Sometimes students come to us with raw talent that is rough around the edges, mostly in need of more discipline and better practice habits. Other times, students have greater violin limitations, but are set up well, are smart, and can easily learn and grow.  And occasionally, a young artist comes along who is stubborn, difficult, and bull-headed, but with such an undeniably strong talent that it is worth the challenge to see how deep that rabbit hole can go.  A studio that includes a variety of personalities makes this profession interesting!

Even after selecting the ideal students, however, it is our job as teachers to develop a deep sense of trust with each and every one of them. Often times, we are demanding that students change habits that have been ingrained in their playing for more than a decade. The way forward here is to build a real sense of teamwork and mutual effort by getting down into the trenches with them, practicing with them occasionally, and talking through stressful situations if need be. I am also there to celebrate their successes, no matter how small or big they might be.  Furthermore, an important part of trust stems from a student's feeling that the teacher will always make the right decisions for his or her musical life. For instance, instead of asking a student if he or she feels ready for a concert, the teacher needs to declare readiness or lack thereof.  Students can sense uncertainty in a teacher and it builds a lack of confidence and trust. We must be a consistent rock of support and guidance, andwhile it is very time-consuming and often exhausting, it is an amazing feeling to play such a strong role in another's success.

Confidence is crucial, and I believe that performing regularly is key to the healthy development of every student. Because of this, I have always held a weekly studio class for all of my students. Not everyone performs every week, but they are all required to attend and support their peers.  By watching, listening and learning from each other's strengths and weaknesses, they all have a better perspective on their own playing. The process of first performing for the teacher in a lesson, then in front of colleagues, then the next week in front of colleagues again provides a strong foundation towards a secure, confident public performance. Standing in front of one's peers is an enormously difficult concert stage, whether it is in a classroom or a small room for just a few people. When students can play their best in that stressful, seemingly judgmental circumstance, then playing for a regular audience of music lovers on a beautiful concert stage with a great orchestra or pianist becomes much less stressful and is exhilarating! Furthermore, I believe in arranging frequent recitals and opportunities outside of music school at churches, elementary and high schools, private homes, and retirement communities to become accustomed to regular performance in front of a live audience. It is also important that I watch my students perform as often as possible. When I have a student soloing with orchestra, I find that it is not only comforting to him or her that I am there at the rehearsals, but it is also very useful to me as I help guide them toward a great performance. I have flown to Stanford, California, and Salt Lake City, Utah in the past few years to attend my students’ rehearsals and performances, and I look forward to a future full of these types of trips.

Despite all of this incredibly hard work and constant hands-on guidance, our goal as teachers is to ultimately make ourselves obsolete.  When our students learn how to be their own teacher, they have the key to their livelihoods. I also believe students benefit from gaining teaching experience; you can never know anything as deeply as when you have to help someone else. Most of my students between the age of 16 and 20 have teaching skills already as I ask them to work on specific tasks with some of my younger students on occasion. This has proved to be a win-win situation for everyone; it builds confidence in the teacher student, and the younger student gains a new mentor who is closer in age. My students become very encouraging and supportive of one another and, with my close guidance, they begin to help each other succeed and grow at a faster rate.

I have discussed my thoughts on making my students the best violinists that I can, but there is much more that they need to be in this day and age. They must be complete musicians, entrepreneurs, arts advocates, teachers, speakers, and creators.  This year I have initiated a project for my students in which they will be teaming up with a student partner to create and produce their own public concert.  This is a skill I believe to be vital for the artistic and financial success of all musicians; no longer can we simply expect automatic careers just because we play well. Many musicians work exhaustively to master their playing and performing, yet learning how to create not just the music, but the entire vehicle to communicate the music is too often overlooked.  Our concert production assignment includes everything from the basics like writing bios and making programs, to publicity, venue scouting, stage-management, and social media. I have learned about all of the pieces that go into producing a successful concert from doing it many times over the years. When I was a student, Mr. Lipsett would ask me to stage-manage concerts at Colburn, telling me it would be useful in my future. Since then, I have produced dozens of concerts on my own, and these skills have proved to be invaluable. For the past seven years, I have run my summer camp Center Stage Strings,and have not only produced every concert for the camp itself, but have put on large-scale benefit concerts in the months leading up to the summer.  For these concerts, we have presented guest artists such as Lynn Harrell, Arnold Steinhardt, James Ehnes, and Sarah Chang.

I endeavor to pass on the great pedagogy of my teachers, and their teachers, to the next generation of violinists and hope to serve as an inspiration in any way that I can to my students to become the best versions of themselves, not only as violinists but also as human beings.