All year two of my violin students and I have been struggling with our class. Their interest hasn’t been great, and middle school woes often have their minds distracted when they arrive for class. Learning our repertoire has been going very slowly, and often I would finish their class feeling frustrated with their disrespectful attitude and their lack of effort. At Community MusicWorks, it’s been our philosophy that it’s incumbent on the teacher to find avenues through which to re-inspire kids when they’re in such a slump, but I was running out of ideas. Until recently that is. One day I had my recording equipment set up from a previous lesson when one of these two students arrived, and I spontaneously suggested we record something—a rap. I think the surprise factor piqued his attention, as he and the other student in the class must have felt a similar slump coming to lessons.
We recorded several tracks of improvised violin “beats” that day—some melody and some rhythmic tapping on our instruments, and then a track of one of the students free styling some raps about his recent experiences. When the other student came the following week, he joined in with us, and we recorded some more. I think having the tables turned, where they were in control of the material, and I was just a collaborator, woke them up. Our lesson atmosphere began to shift over the course of a few weeks, such that they began coming to lessons with good attention and energy for working on our project.
Last Friday, we took a version of this project to the Youth Salon for an experimental performance, and the process forced us into an even more productive mode—with them in the hot seat to make it work.
The result was a performance of the three of us—rapping, creating rhythmic tapping on the violin, and playing an ostinato tune (a short clip repeated throughout), all accompanied by a recording of one of our previous sessions.
The next week we returned to our earlier violin repertoire with completely fresh air in the room! I was so pleased to see that the attitude was focused, respectful, and possibly even eager to get it right. Most importantly, the feeling in the room today was still one of colleagues, not of frustrated teacher and apathetic student.
The victories in teaching are small yet powerful steps in a long, long journey. This felt like one of these small victories.
-Sebastian Ruth, Providence String Quartet