A Conversation with Sarah Geller

April 26th, 2018 | By Reina Scheiber-Loeis
Sarah Geller - School For Strings

A CONVERSATION ABOUT GROUP CLASS – Sarah Geller, Violin Faculty

What do you as a group teacher want to teach the kids in your group class?

When I joined The School for Strings regular faculty, my heart and soul was in group teaching and I wanted to do that more than anything else. After all, I just finished a ten-year stint running a School for Strings-run outreach program at PS116. The teaching there was all group based – semi-private lessons similar to what you receive at a Suzuki Institute where there are multiple children in an hour and each one has a little individual time with the teacher.

Public school teaching required me to find ways to deliver a whole range of musical and technical ideas across in a very short time. Early on at The School for Strings, I would not know what to do with a beginner for thirty minutes, mirroring my semi-private lessons at PS 116. In other words, my experience in group teaching really started as teaching.

After joining The School for Stringsfaculty, I taught group classes on Thursdays for a number of years, then took a break and finally came back on board three years ago.

This year, my class is a Book II/III level. Most of the time I use repertoire that is quite far below the average level of the class. Nevertheless, when first reviewing Book I/II pieces with the students, I find the playing neither polished nor musically satisfying.

First, I must instill the feeling of personal responsibility in the class and the understanding that no student can get away with hiding in the back or hiding in the front. Everyone is going to hear his/her playing, and the group will only be as strong as its weakest member. The kids that struggle to stay engaged or struggle to get to every class and see their work through are the ones that at the end of the day you have to reach and mold to make the class work.

Then, we can begin the process of improving. It is good to remember that group polishing is quite different from individual polishing. It involves different skills similar to playing in an orchestra or a chamber ensemble.

Most of the time I don’t find I have conflicts with either the parents or the kids over my repertoire choices. The key here is to find a way to engage the kids on a level that they don’t even know exists. To them, Minuet III is Minuet III, Twinkle is Twinkle. They don’t know the possibilities. I try to peel away layers down to the deeper levels of music-making. Ideally, kids don’t even realize “oh, wait I’m playing a Book I piece even though I’m in Book III.” This is not to fool them on purpose, rather to take them through an evolution of understanding so they can craft the piece differently from what they are used to.

So, what you are saying is that it is good to have another level of interpretation, is that right?

Yes. Sometimes I find myself to be a bad spokesperson for the Suzuki approach. When I first came to The School for Strings, I felt I should be careful about expressing my opinions. For example, I found listening to the Suzuki CD limiting for children. They would have in their minds that this was the way the pieces were to be played. Of course, this outcome is better than nothing. Yet, it’s limiting. It is only one possibility, one interpretation. Then there is the convenience of YouTube. There is a million of Minuet III on it. A student listens to a performance and may think: “That’s Minuet III!” How does he/she know if it is a good performance worth emulating? So, between the limitations of the one CD and the confusion of the internet, it is all a little crazy.

There are many levels of interpretation. The first level of interpretation is your very first encounter with the piece. It is going to be pretty basic. Then the interpretation evolves as the student reviews it in lessons and in a group class. In my group teaching I always say that I will never play anything the same way twice. We won’t learn how to exactly play the piece for the Festival. Students need to learn how to follow because dynamics might be different in performance, or phrasing or timing. Music is not meant to be the same. That is where the limitation comes in when you are only listening to one recording.

Yesterday I had a festival class and I was teaching Waltz, which is actually a really fun group piece. I was talking about opera and I turned around to the parents and said, “Go home and play some Puccini opera for your kids or go down the street and go to the Met and listen to Puccini.” I was singing and the kids were giggling and I was talking about this amazing moment in a
phrase in Waltz and I said, “These are the moments you are supposed to be living for and practicing for.”

So you’re saying that the CD is a way to start the piece but that there’s so much more that you can do with that piece beyond the recording?

Right!

We explore and experiment together. The recording may be by a wonderful musician, yet, it is only one person’s interpretation and, additionally, this interpretation had to fit the Suzuki educational framework. In my lessons, I go off the recording quite often. I aim to generate an interesting discussion, whether the child and the parent can totally understand it all or not. E.g. what musical lines may have behind them in meaning, the dynamics may be the work of an editor and not original to the composer, that the music may say crescendo but it is not just a generic crescendo.
I tell the kids in my own studio not to feel conflicted about a different approach to something they may encounter in their group class. I encourage them to try it and then we can talk about it at the lesson.

Would the children in your class understand what you’re trying to tell them?

I believe that I’m building a vocabulary with them. That is why I like to have the kids in my group class for more than one year. I am not that straightforward, so, true interaction does not happen overnight. Musically speaking, everything moves and shifts and changes at every moment. There are times when I will say that worked really well before and now I want you to modify it and do it this way because you are now in a different place musically or developmentally. This can make studying with me difficult, confusing.

I actually struggled at the beginning of this year with my group class because I was not getting any traction. Part of the difficulty was that students could not play the notes and the bowings so I did not have the starting point. As a result, I could not develop a vocabulary with them. It was maybe two weeks before the Mid-Year Festival that the playing started to gel and the kids started to understand my goals.

What should the group class be working on?

I think that the group class should be at least one book behind the level of the class.

What will the children get out of that?

I always want to see a spark in my class. I often joke that the class shouldn’t be too quiet or too well-behaved because then there’s no spark. I like the spark or even fire. Sometimes it’s a little comment here a little comment there which they say to each other, something is going on, there’s blood flowing. The most disappointing classes are the ones where there is no communication. I never want to just talk at them. I remember classes where I was asking quite a few questions and the kids you would least expect to answer my questions participated. That’s what I want to happen. And as soon as they start engaging, they play differently. They’ve had to think about it and they’ve had to break it down. This week, we were singing an excerpt from one of the pieces and they were mumbling, not singing. And I said, “No, no, no! If you sing that way, that is how you’re going to play it!” So we talked about articulating and annunciating and the difference between mumbling and singing. I want to engage them with concepts and then have them think for themselves.

If I don’t teach them exactly the way their teacher does or the way recording sounds then they have to start figuring things out. And back to the spark, I want to see the spark when they start practicing this easy Book I piece even though they are in Book III. And it’s possible. It’s not easy, but it’s possible.

From a personal point of view, a group class should always be a book behind of their current piece, and, honestly, someone in Book V can easily practice a Book I or II piece. There’s no reason we can’t be doing that in group classes. After all, it’s not about going down the list of the repertoire. It’s so uninteresting and unsatisfying to just play through pieces. It’s about finding that one phrase or finding that one nugget and doing something special with it. I often need ten minutes in my class to work on two or three notes or three measures to make a difference and to set the standard. I can’t do that for the whole piece in one given lesson. There is not enough time. Now, the students can go home and figure out how to apply what we learned to the rest of the piece. Obviously, to be able to set a standard the class has to have notes and bowings securely learned. Then we can take that measure or take that note and talk about what we’re going to do with it. Explore it, try 20,000 different ways, because you know I’m not going to do it the same way every time!

Can you give more specific ideas about those two or three notes you would work on in group class?

You start with a big picture: you play through the piece. Then I find one phrase to work on which is meaningful musically, something that they could play relatively well. I zero in on a few bow strokes, or one bow stroke or one note within that phrase. Then we start experimenting. The passage has to be very short because they need to learn to listen deeply. You can’t have them listening that intently to sixteen notes or sixteen bars. It’s not possible! They can’t hear that fast. Even great musicians will spend hours, days on one note trying to find just the right sound. That’s how many different tones and sounds and nuances you can find within one or two notes.

As we work, I don’t tell them exactly what to do. I don’t pinpoint it very well on purpose. We want to make this a little softer, so we start with a pretty basic let’s play softer. How soft can we play together? We are ten people together but it’s piano so how soft do you have to be? This is soft, but how is the quality of the sound? So it doesn’t sound very good, it’s kind of thin? Well piano doesn’t mean thin. Some of these words might not mean much to the six-year-old standing there who hasn’t gone through this process. I don’t expect them to. But over time they’ll get the flavor and they’ll start to understand. They will begin to hear the details.

So you are teaching them how to hear music?

And how to break it down and think for themselves. It’s not a cookie cutter! That’s why the CD recording is only the beginning, it’s only one shape.

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