A few weeks ago I was invited by my middle school director to come and do paid instrumental coaching at the middle school that I and my siblings attended. It has been a wonderful experience so far! I thoroughly enjoy being the musician in the class rather than the one in charge of classroom control etc. One new violin student came up to me the next time and said “those things you told me really helped!”. That brought me such joy! That I could be able to help that little girl play her violin well.
Each day that I go in to work I end up with usually a section from each class, sometimes two. I typically start out going over the fundamentals of each instrument: posture, proper hand position, correct embouchure, proper breathing, clear articulation syllables, and reed/bow/string checking.
For the clarinets (which I started with) I begin with the proper embouchure. The correct clarinet embouchure is to say “ee-oo” or “wee-too”; bring the corners of the mouth in, make the chin flat and pointed with the jaw pushing out. (See this website for further pictures and descriptions of proper clarinet embouchure.) I always suggest that clarinet students play in front of a mirror, and usually I carry a hand mirror so they can see themselves during lessons because it is often difficult to feel if you are using the correct embouchure until you get to the point where you can really find the “sweet spot” of the embouchure.
Next we discuss how to articulate clearly. Clarinet players should use the syllable “tee” as opposed to other instruments that usually use “ta”, “da”, “du”, or “tu”. The reason for this is that the clarinet player should keep their tongue high in the mouth to create a proper and non-whiny sound, particularly in the upper register. To me, a whiny clarinet sound is worse than a bad oboe sound! I find that giving examples of what the clarinet sounds like when played with improper vs. proper embouchure, and high tongue vs. low tongue really helps the students to understand why we do these things. I also have the students actually say “tee” and “ta” to feel the difference of their tongue position. Sometimes when a student has trouble starting the note with a clear “t” sound I ask them to do a rapid “t-t-t-t-t-t-” on the clarinet, and that seems to be almost easier for some to do, and then they suddenly get it.
I start out on these things with both beginners and more advanced players, because most students do not know these basic fundamentals even into high school (I didn’t know until college!).
For the violins/violas. Here I start with proper hand position. Most students do not understand the proper wrist position at first, and have difficulty remembering to maintain it once they do understand it, so frequent reminders are necessary. I tell the students “we’re eating a hot dog, not serving pizza” as a description of how the hand positions are different. (They usually like that description.) Similarly to developing a clarinetist’s embouchure, a violin/viola student MUST get the hand position correct. This is almost more important than the clarinet embouchure because an incorrect embouchure will primarily inhibit tone and not technique so much, but a violinist will not be able to play quickly or in tune (and will never be able to shift positions) if they do not get the hand position correct each time. I often stop students when they begin to play incorrectly. They are not allowed to make a sound until they fix their wrist or embouchure, etc.
Next we work on getting full bows. An exercise suggested to me by a veteran pianist/cellist who is a wonderful teacher and good friend: balance an eraser (one of those pink ones) or a square box of rosin on top of your right hand, then move your hand up and down without dropping the rosin/eraser. You will have to flex your wrist to keep the object balanced just as you would to play with full (and straight) bows on the violin or viola.
(See this page for further details and images.)