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Life in Teaching: Diana Cummings

Diana Cummings comes from a musical dynasty, and her career spans solo, chamber and orchestral playing. Since 1982 has been a professor at the Royal Academy of Music, where she also teaches on the LRAM diploma course, which she helped devise. She is also a professor at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music. In this interview she gave me for the Summer 2016 issue of the European String Teachers Association magazine ARCO, she shares her life experience of teaching

I was fairly rebellious as a youngster and if my father [violinist Keith Cummings] told me anything, I didn’t want to know. A lot of it sunk in, though. He was a fine musician and had worked it all out very carefully. I find myself quoting him often. He’d say, ‘Push your up bows,’ which is a great description. I find myself saying that a lot.

I learnt more about sound and expressiveness from my piano teacher Dorothy Hess than from anyone else. We didn’t do scales – she used Mozart for scales and Chopin for sound, and she was a wonderful musician.

I was over 40 when I started teaching. I was thrown in at the deep end. When my former teacher David Martin became ill he asked if I would I teach his class. He had 15 distraught first-years at the Royal Academy. I learnt to teach by tapping into what I’d been taught by him and by Remy Principe, my father and Louis Persinger, and through my own exploration of the instrument. I learnt such a lot from all the teachers I went to. You assimilate information and what you don’t like you discard. I basically teach what I was taught, or the way I was taught.

One’s own personality comes through as time goes on. One evolves over the years, because you’re always looking for different things. For example, Colourstrings has come into my life in the last ten years and I’ve absorbed quite a lot from that. I have huge respect for it because it’s so soundly constructed. They learn to move. I was at a concert recently and the children had beautiful bow arms and all played in tune.

I learnt a lot from Sheila Nelson. I remember when my son, who started off with her, was about five, and she let the mums sit in. They’d play ‘Cowboy Chorus’ and I learnt a huge amount from that to apply to my own playing – about movement, and making circles with elbows. What do I teach? Making circles with elbows.

In the early days I was fairly tough. I remember with one of my first students there was nothing I could do but strip it all down and start again. After a couple of months, she said, ‘Can I play a piece?’ You judge from their reactions. If you see something isn’t quite working, you change it so it does. It’s all about experimentation.

When I take a new student there’s often lots of unpicking to do. I’ve had to undo a lot of dire technique, which is difficult for the student. Many have been taught by teachers who are not hugely skilled. Their actual knowledge of the instrument and how it works is not very sophisticated so some of the things that the students have assimilated are not very productive.

We don’t really have a system in this country. They do on the continent – for good or bad – because the conservatories are centrally run. There are repertoire and studies that every student has to go through and then they take a diploma – it’s very structured. Here it’s a bit of a free-for-all, and anyone can start teaching the violin, for good or bad.

The most common problems I see are tension and the way the left-hand fingers go down. I usually allocate six weeks of going back to basics. It’s fairly fearsome, but a lot of students want it because they know their technique needs to be developed.

The first lesson is a lot of discovery – talking to them, finding out their background. I’m always sensitive. They’re usually nervous and I try to be as relaxed as I can. The first thing I ask is, ‘What do you think about your playing?’ With most of them it’s pretty obvious – their teacher has probably been telling them – and we have a bit of a discussion. I can’t wade into the situation. Playing the fiddle is a very personal thing so I have to be careful.

I start with posture. For the first couple of lessons I go into a lot of detail about how they should be standing, how we get the instrument from the case to the shoulder, and how we pick up the bow, because it starts from the moment we open the case. Posture is critical. Recently I went to a masterclass given by Maxim Vengerov at the Royal Academy, and what did he talk about? Feet and posture.

I get them to stand, check their posture and feel the floor. This is an Alexander Technique and Yoga discipline. How do you get the instrument up? I show them how to just chuck it on to their shoulder, and swing the bow on to the string. This is the Alexander idea of ‘non-doing’. The trouble is that when we play, we hold the instrument instinctively. The shoulder rises and then goes into tension, so we’re starting from a negative place. If we throw the instrument, by the time we’ve got it up we’re still completely fluid. We haven’t gone into ‘playing the violin’ mode. It usually takes 15 minutes to work out how to do that, and then I get them to lift their left-hand fingers and relax their hands, and relax their fingers on to the string. It usually takes the first lesson. I ask, ‘Does it feel comfortable? Does it feel different?’ If it feels comfortable and different that’s fine. If it’s uncomfortable and different then we have more work to do.

The shoulder is a ball and socket joint and we need a million gallons of olive oil and an ocean of space so that the bone can flow. We have to be very mobile, to be able to make circles with the shoulder, and to be able to get to that situation with the instrument in our hands.

I get out my plastic skeleton, and my books and charts, and ask them how many bones they have in their upper arm. Usually they look puzzled, but it’s important we know our skeletons. It doesn’t matter what things are called, but we should at least have a picture of the skeleton in our minds, so we know how we move. The last thing students are expecting to do is to look at a human body, but they’re always interested. I go into the physicality of it in great detail because how we balance is so important.

Holding the instrument is difficult, perhaps the most difficult thing we do. The violin has to sit on the collarbone. We have to keep the head free. The head just drops to keep it from falling. I usually start with no shoulder rest and get them to throw the instrument on to the collarbone. Then I have a look. The shoulder rest should just fill the space. Often the shoulder rest sits on the shoulder, pushing it around, so it’s very unstable.

Playing the fiddle is not a healthy thing to do. You’re scratching away on this box with a stick, it’s weighted on one side, you’re doing two different things, and it’s guaranteed to give you a sore neck if you’re not careful. That’s why I learnt about Alexander Technique, which is very important as a way of learning to move. Some years ago I took up yoga because my shoulder was a bit of a mess, and I still do it regularly, which helps. I don’t mind if my students do Alexander Technique or Yoga or Tai Chi, as long as they do something, because playing the fiddle is such a physically stressful thing.

Our thought process is very important in movement. To demonstrate this, I say to students, ‘Point,’ and then, ‘Lift your foot.’ How have they done it? By thinking it. Just by thinking, we are able to move different muscle sets. How we think of movement affects how we move the instrument.

At the end of the first lesson I usually say, ‘Get a notebook. Write down everything we’ve done in detail, today. Don’t leave it to tomorrow because you’ll forget. You’ll forget anyway, so write it all out.’ I don’t necessarily read what they’ve written, but I need to see what they’ve done. I tell them to write a page, in legible writing. There’s so much information, that they will forget it otherwise.

I write down what they’ve got to practise next week. I’m usually fairly explicit about practice, depending on the student. I might say, ‘Do two minutes of this ten times a day,’ ‘Go through the standing posture 20 times a day. Every now and again just stop, go down to your feet, balance your ankles and knees, drop your tail, float your spine and drop your head.’ I’m specific because if you just say, ‘Practise it,’ a student will go away and think, ‘How am I going to practise it?’ It wastes too much time and is counterproductive, because they’ll do something that isn’t helpful.

After the first week I go to Ševcík op.1 book one, because it helps students open their left hand and learn to release. We tense up easily and the release is difficult, because the brain doesn’t access that so easily. Ševcík was a genius, because he approached every single problem there might be. There is a structure and you don’t have to invent anything: it’s all there. But I’m very selective with it, otherwise it gets boring beyond belief. I add Mazas and Keyser studies at the beginning stages. Depending on the student’s age, I dole out the beautiful Albinoni A major Concerto, which is full of semiquavers and scales.

I don’t really teach vibrato. I find that once physicality is understood and absorbed, it is not a problem. I’ve had students who have no vibrato, or a non-vibrato, and I just leave it. I was teaching a girl who was a mess, and we worked on the physicality of playing and left the vibrato. After a few weeks I said, ‘Now, vibrate,’ and she did the most beautiful vibrato. She almost wept. It just happened, because she had a new sense of physical understanding. There’s psychology behind it: vibrato can become a phobia after a while, but usually it’s not good because the whole set-up is unbalanced. Ruggiero Ricci wrote a book on left hand and the pages on vibrato are fantastic. Sometimes I get students to do those exercises, and say, ‘Just think into your fingertip,’ while I hold their arm.

I work on the left hand first. I’ve found that if there’s a knowledge of how it works, and a new physicality, awareness and ability to release tension (which can happen reasonably quickly) the bow is much easier. I go on to the bow in the second and third lessons and start to remodel that.

With repertoire, I start with the Mozart Violin Concerto in B flat major. I avoid the G major because they all know it and I can do without it! The First is lovely, and very useful. Then I go to the A major, and occasionally to either of the Haydn concertos. I used to use Viotti no.22, which has double-stops and all sorts of useful things, but these things come in and out. I always have Bach on the go. I use the E major Partita first, because it’s accessible, and then the G minor Sonata as a natural progression. I don’t use the fugues initially, because the chords are so difficult. I use the Barber Violin Concerto quite a lot because it’s technically possible, romantic, and has a lovely tune. I also use the Bruch Concerto for sound, and the Prokofiev unaccompanied sonata, which is modern and accessible, and not too difficult.

I tell students to listen, listen, listen. Go to concerts. One girl I taught had never been to a concert. I told her she had to go to one concert a week. I don’t care what, just go.

Young people do too much and don’t have the time to allocate to practice. I suss out the pace I’m expecting, and if I give them a Kreutzer study and three weeks later they’re still sight reading it, I know something isn’t functioning. Recently I had a young pupil who was very good, but progress was slow, so I asked how he was organising his practice and he told me all the things he was doing. I said, ‘The school wants you to do everything, but you’ve got to say no. You have to do two or three hours a day or you won’t achieve what you want to achieve.’ I’m sympathetic, because you can’t be too radical, but he cut some things out.

What we do is very difficult. Professional life is hugely competitive. I tell students that the better they can play, the more satisfying their professional life will be. I tell them to go on studying as long as they possibly can. Up to this point they’ve been told what to do, and when they leave they will have to make it on their own. Four years’ conservatoire study is not enough, but students have to work these days because it’s so expensive. I have to accept that that’s how life is. If they do post-grad at least they’re within a structure for as long as possible.

Four years with a student is long enough. That’s why I encourage my students to explore other teaching. You need other input, from selected people. It’s not easy, because these days it takes financial commitment and there isn’t the funding there used to be.

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