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Danielle Belen on Adapting Your Teaching Based on Different Student Levels

"What are the differing needs between pre-collegiate students and college/grad school students, and how do you approach these age groups differently?" We threw the question over to Associate Professor of Violin at the University of Michigan School of Music, Danielle Belen.

Guiding students of varying levels and ages can require teachers to think about how they approach their teachings to each individual. It can present its challenges, as each student's needs are quite different. VC reader Abigail was keen to know more about this topic. 

What is your approach as a teacher? How do you teach students of differing ages? Please leave a comment below, we are keen to know your thoughts.


Violinist Danielle Belen


Violinist Danielle Belen Shares Thoughts on Teaching Students of Various Ages

Dear Abigail, 

One of the great joys of teaching very young students is having time—time for scales, etudes, double-stops, short character pieces, vibrato exercises, and endless detailed work. And instead of feeling pressured to rush into a Sibelius or Brahms concerto, with young students we have the time to tackle Viotti, Vieuxtemps, Conus, Sarasate. These essential student pieces build the technique, artistry, character, and set the foundation for the aforementioned warhorses later to come. It is so much fun to work this way when we as teachers see our influence, our fingerprints on one’s development so clearly.

Naturally, it’s easy to assume that with older students, those of college and graduate level, the time needed to dedicate to all of the fundamental work outlined above simply doesn’t exist. As a result, older students can often find themselves chomping through the most sophisticated repertoire, no matter what their technical level actually is.

So rather than dwelling on all of the differences between teaching pre-college and college-aged students, I find that at the heart of it, we should work with them quite similarly.

Last week in my violin studio technique class at the University of Michigan, I had each student stand up and play the first three lines from Dont etude No.8, the one in double-stop thirds. The average age in the room was probably twenty years old. Near the end of the session, we were interrupted—BANG! BOOM! BOOM!—as if an angry troll with a sledgehammer waited outside my studio for a violin lesson. I opened the door revealing my student, a tiny ten-year-old girl, and I smiled to myself as if there should have ever been a doubt as to the identity of the knocker—her personality is as big as her stature is small. After my college students left with a chuckle or two, the ten-year-old opened her case, tuned, and the first thing she played for me was that same Dont etude No.8 My standard for her and my standard for the college students were not at all different, and that is a testament to the respect I hold for both.

Great musicianship can always be traced back to the basics of technique. Any professional teacher knows that the simple act of drawing healthy sound out of the instrument with the bow is not simple at all, at any age. And just as young students have that twinkle in their eye when we assign them their first real concerto, I see college students breathe a sigh of relief when we take time off big rep to focus on technique, like the control and health of their vibrato, for example. (Unlike a bottle of wine that naturally gets better with age, an underdeveloped and under-taught vibrato does not!) The bottom line here is that individual student needs are infinitely more important than the age of the student, and teachers and parents who forget this perform a great disservice and are missing the potential for magic to happen.

All of this may sound good on paper, but many will argue that in reality, with older students, the time to spend on the essential nitty-gritty simply does not exist. With college students, now is the time to pound out rep, get audition excerpts ready, and get their lives going already! But the real truth is this: with many young kids, time is sometimes the only thing on their side. Motivated older students will amaze – AMAZE! – their teachers and colleagues with enormous progress if there is the same focus given to their basic technique as would be given to a young budding prodigy. If teachers and students care deeply about improving the big-picture-items and don’t just crave the quick, sugary fun of learning a new piece of music, then they will find a way to create more of that ever-elusive character, time, to do just that.  



Do you have a burning question for one of the pros? Simply email: [email protected]



Winner of the 2008 Sphinx Competition, Ms. Belen has appeared as a soloist with the Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Nashville and San Francisco Symphonies, the Boston Pops, and the Florida and Cleveland Orchestras. Ms. Belen is a graduate of the USC Thornton School of Music and the Colburn Conservatory in Los Angeles, where she joined the faculty in 2008. In addition to maintaining her own violin studio, she was the teaching assistant to renowned pedagogue Robert Lipsett. She performed for Justice Sonia Sotomayor and her guests at the Supreme Court in Washington DC, where she was awarded a $50,000 career grant. 

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