What Tchaikovsky and Pakistani pop have in common
I love the philosophy of Brenda and Mimi Zweig, my former teacher, but in Kabul, it might not be a good idea for an American to ask Afghan children to imitate the Statue of Liberty, which works so well in the US to prepare kids to bring the violin into playing position. Instead, I ask them to look like the combined Arabic letter for lam and aleph. Arabic script is used to write many languages, including Dari, just as the Roman alphabet is used to write languages including English. All three of my students immediately got the concept.
Brenda and Mimi draw a "Magic X" on the thumb side of the knuckle for the left first finger in order to get kids to maintain good contact with the violin. As X is a Roman letter, I again fell back on the letter for lam and aleph, which has a convenient small loop that kids can use as the focal point of contact. I must commission a local calligrapher to create a framed lam/aleph (or "la") for display in my studio.
My first student learned so quickly that I taught him rest position ("maqiyat-e rawhat"), proper posture, tapping on the high dot, sliding on his Magic La (formerly Magic X), the Ants Song, and GDG (which became Sol-Re-Sol) with left hand pizzicato at his first lesson.
I also taught my first female student. Other than her hijab, her lack of English, and her unusually high level of intelligence and motivation, the lesson was like any other. She learned astonishingly quickly, but since my Dari is still elementary, she only got to the Ants Song.
When my Dari fails to communicate the all-important concept of relaxation, I trot out Zak (short for Zakarya), an adorable camel marionette puppet I bought on Amazon. I am already quite fond of Zak and will put on puppet shows in my studio window during breaks between classes. My students immediately see that gravity compels Zak to be relaxed at all times. If Zak can't hunch up his shoulders unnaturally, why can't they do the same? They smile and get it right.
Yesterday, I learned that I was supposed to teach ensemble, and agreed without knowing what it was. Today I found out: sitar, three guitars, violin, trumpet, and piano. "You guys are making history!" I exclaimed. "Do you realize that there has almost certainly never been an ensemble exactly like this?" I decided we would start by talking about what makes an ensemble work. We compared and contrasted a recording of the first movement of Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings by A Far Cry to the song Chup by the Pakistani pop duo Zeb and Haniya (I'm proud to be friends with both groups). "Why is it hard to work without a conductor?" I asked. "How do they play together without one? What role does breathing play?" The students weren't entirely sure. They kept saying that both A Far Cry and Zeb & Haniya play together because they have experience. I urged them to look deeper. "Notice how both the Tchaikovsky and the song Chup have long silences. What happens in those silences?"
After school, I tried working with a friend on the staff to adjust future parts of Brenda's curriculum for the Afghan culture, but it took me longer to explain what I was trying to do than it took my students to grasp the violin concepts, so after asking someone else how to rename the See-Saw Song ("Handal-choo" is the Afghan game closest to see-saw) I figured I'd call it a day.