The Importance of Using Analogy in Teaching Instrumental Music | Item

Like many teachers of young beginner string players, I have amassed a collection of teaching tools over the years. This collection has grown in various ways, often in the heat of the moment, to tackle whatever my student is struggling with that day.

A substantial part of this arsenal (I speak metaphorically of course) is devoted to my use of comparative language to express ideas. Indeed, as experienced teachers know – and as new teachers inevitably discover for themselves – the way we express ourselves in words and by analogy can work wonders in the teaching studio. Or, to be more precise, it can be applied to the right student at the right time.

With young students, whose feelings are usually quite transparent, it is immediately obvious whether an analogy (or a particular image) is working effectively. Eyes light up and an avid reading of the phrase – or whatever is being worked on – ensues. Teacher and student can both hear and appreciate the difference. Satisfied looks are exchanged. There may still be work to do, but there is understanding.

Careful observation of the student’s reaction to an analogy is essential to assess its success or failure. Some analogies seem to work pretty well across the board. These are usually the ones that apply to the life experiences of each student. I have found analogies about family to be particularly powerful, although it is important to be aware of the structure of the student’s family to make it work smoothly and without causing upheaval. That said, I could have the students play as if, say, they were begging their parents for more spending money or for a slumber party with their best friend.

Food is also a rich source of inspiration. Many times when I’ve wanted a beginner to aim for a softer sound, I’ve said something like, “Now play it like chocolate sauce, not cornflakes” with amazing results. But if one in a hundred students happens to hate chocolate, being very quick to detect the dislike and suggesting, say, maple syrup instead can avoid disappointment. It’s surprising how much this sensitivity on the pitch means to young students; they tend to view the teacher as a parental figure who should know all about their likes and dislikes.

In my experience, however, the most successful analogies are those that students invent. Because they imagined them and they are part of their psyche, these are the analogies that are most likely to hold in a performance situation.

Some time ago I was working on a ternary piece with a young student – ​​which required contrasting staccato-legato-staccato articulation. It was almost coffee time and I wasn’t at my best. “You mean playing like I’m barefoot and running on hot sand?” she asked (just back from vacation in Spain). She played the section again and we both knew she understood. Inspired, she then decided that she wanted to play the legato section of the piece as if she were skating on a skating rink. It worked.

Since young children live so much in the moment, so does when it comes to finding words for beginners to bow on open strings. With commonly used words like “I like caterpillars” (for two quarter notes and four eighth notes), I find there is much more excitement if I consult the student on the veracity of the words. “Do you love, hate or love caterpillars? ” I can ask. Immediately, interest is aroused, a decision is made after discussion and the music is played with conviction. Or, better still, I ask the students to invent their own words in rhythm; this results in a more engaged game.

This creative thinking in the lessons tends to carry over into the practice sessions. That’s why, inspired by my students, I have a growing number of ideas regarding language and analogy in my arsenal and why I wouldn’t want it any other way.

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