Ah, yes: the perfect student.
Doesn’t exist. Can’t, in fact, exist. Humanity gets the better of all of us, at some point. Malleable students lose themselves. Bright students preempt new concepts. Astute students set unattainable goals.
Which is what makes them absolutely perfect for me, and others like me, who love nothing more than watching the gradual process of our role becoming obsolete. A teacher should be wise enough to counsel and objective enough to provide insight. The obstacles described above are the finest teachers of all, whether they be technical foibles or artifacts of personality. That being said, there are a few things that benefit both students and teachers, no matter what you’re battling at the moment.
1. Listen, then think, then imagine.
When your instructor asks for something like: “Play this section with very short bows.” Allow them to finish the entire sentence, even if they seem to blather on too much. Who knows where that phrase is going? Maybe “…at 88 bpm” or “…doubling the eighths” or “…attacking the beginning of each beat”. You should know what “short bows” mean. If you were just working on very short bows at midpoint, it is likely that those are the bows your teacher wants. Then you should imagine the first few notes played that way. Audiate (generate the sound in your head) and imagine the bow on the string for the first few notes. Then have a go at it. Mental rehearsal increases your chances at success by narrowing the definition of what’s correct. You should never play without having some goal, even if the goal is complete relaxation. Imagine what that would be like, and then try it out. Otherwise it’s just a stab in the dark. Don’t rely on luck, and don’t congratulate yourself for being lucky, if you are.
2. Practice after your lesson.
Your lesson does not count as practice. The information offered in your (frequently expensive) session is fresh in your working memory for you to seize upon! Get your money’s worth! Unless your teacher is going to navigate you through your performances, the advice given in lessons is yours to fold into your already extant technique. This takes time, repetition, stumbling, recovery, self-assessment and a personal stake in making the modifications. Ask yourself this: “Do I want to improve my playing in this capacity?” Then you have a personal stake in making a change. Let’s say you’re tired or in a smarty-pants mood and don’t feel like contributing to anything except the butt-shaped impression on your couch. Realize this, then: the quality of your post-lesson insight has a half-life. The further removed the source of insight is from your practice session, the less precisely you are able to apply it. Strike while the iron is hot. Carpe Practicum.
3. Take your skills for an extra-curricular spin.
Go form a small chamber ensemble, or get into a community orchestra, or find a band to jam with. The more terrifying the prospect, the more you must be meant to do it. Keep your lessons in mind as you stagger through your first rehearsal. The advice from your teacher will make you sound better, not worse. Be adventurous, push yourself, stay humble.
It’s a short list, and certainly incomplete. I drew these from my own experience. If all of my students kept these three pointers front and center, I think even more progress could be made.
Next on the docket: The Perfect Teacher. Muhahaaa.