I believe that the private music instructor has a responsibility to not only provide guidance regarding the technical aspects of music performance but also to provide the student with the confidence and tools to develop his or her own musical interpretive style. Too often, beginning and intermediate students are led to believe that musicianship is strictly equated with technique. Although proper technique is critical to becoming proficient on the instrument, the musical ear and sense of phrasing, as well as understanding the historical context of particular repertoire, are equally important.

Given this philosophy, my cello students begin to learn phrasing, dynamics, and music theory from the very beginning. For beginners or very young students, this often involves extensive listening exercises, either as I demonstrate a particular technique or style, or using recorded classical repertoire. These listening exercises are not simply devoted to the cello literature; I also use symphonic and chamber music to illustrate various genres, moods and feelings, and styles to my students. For example, for students learning to play Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” a common first-year melody, we listen to the Ninth Symphony in order to understand the variety of ways in which one relatively simple tune can be made to sound. From the opening pianissimo cello and bass line to the jubilant, complex interweaving of the chorus with the triplet pattern in the string sections at the end of the movement, the student can hear – and feel – the range of possibilities for one specific musical theme.

I am also a strong believer in students having an understanding of the historical context of music. For younger students, I will usually try to incorporate whatever history they are learning in school (or have otherwise been exposed to) into their lessons. Older students often enjoy refreshing their knowledge of history, or at least putting the old knowledge into a new context. This kind of dialogue encourages the individual to think about music as something human, as something with direct, timely relevance to the present. It also challenges the student to identify his or her own personal taste in music, and then become comfortable branching out to understanding more difficult or inaccessible works. Schoolchildren can integrate their music lessons into academic coursework, which helps reinforce the work being done at school. I have had some very sophisticated discussions with middle school and high school students about the relationships between music, literature, art, politics, philosophy, and economics!

In terms of technique, I tailor my approach to each individual student, as each has his or her own learning curve, strengths, and weaknesses. But the fundamentals of cello playing are stressed regardless of the individual: a well-formed bow hand and arm is perhaps the most important, followed by a sound left hand. Thus, though my approach is flexible, proper form is never compromised. Once the basics are in place, though, individuals tend to have different challenges. Some students have difficulty with rhythm, while others need to develop their ability to hear when they are out of tune. These differences manifest themselves over time, and it is important for teachers to recognize them before they become entrenched habits.

My flexible teaching style is accompanied by a flexible use of literature. I typically will use a combination of etudes and solos in order to foster both technique and musicianship. Various books, etudes, and solos are stronger and weaker in different areas. Furthermore, many of my particular favorite exercises were taught to me by my teachers, and thus I pass along much of this “tribal knowledge.”

Each individual student is a child or adult with his or her own personality, goals, interests, and abilities. The private music instructor must, I believe, acknowledge this fact and tailor each lesson to the individual. The creation of music is, after all, not a mechanical process; each performance is a unique event shaped by the performer, audience, and composer. My mission is to produce musicians, not technicians.