My White Whale

This blog is here to serve you. The students who want to make at least one beautiful sound on their violins. The teacher who can’t figure out what to do about the muddy brown swamp of intonation they hear day after day. Drilling down further, it’s for the individual students whom I’ve met crisscrossing the country for more than ten years doing clinics and guest conducting. I remember many of these students vividly – even their names. There was the student I met who insisted that he was playing an A because his finger was on the tape. He was playing an A# and only relented after playing his A# against my open A string (more about him later). Numerous students who were playing through tremendous pain because they loved everything about making music and just couldn’t give it up. Just as memorable are the students who confided their dreams of becoming professional musicians to me. As they spoke to me of their goals, I tried to ally them with what I knew of their playing, and very often I was gripped by the realization that they had no idea what lay ahead of them in our brutally competitive profession. So many of these students were doing so much to get in their own way and as Simon Fischer described so eloquently in the introduction to his book The Violin Lesson:

“It seemed sad that all she needed was one or two lessons in which to learn some simple things that she had missed so far – not the whole story of violin playing, from beginning to end, but a few important points and basic principles that would help her greatly.

These are the things I want to help students and teachers with, but with a very important twist – I want to find a way to teach these things in a typical classroom setting. My white whale has long been figuring out how to teach strings effectively in the classroom. The obstacles are many and very real – lack of private instruction, middling support from administrators, crappy instruments, tiny budgets, TESTING – the list is almost endless. We somehow need to get past these things and find a way to make what we’re doing a joy, engaging, challenging and generative. Is there one thing that drives everything else we do? Some clarifying force that sits there like a rainbow above all of our efforts? What is this elusive thing that we’re all searching for? I think all roads lead back to one place – success – and the motivation that leads to success. A friend and colleague of mine recently asked me what my definition of success is. I had just observed him leading an impromptu old-time jam with three high school students, a person we had just met who happened to play the mandolin very well and a young child just entering middle school. My reply to him was, “As I watched you guys demonstrate, you can stay in first position for the rest of your lives and be challenged, make connections with others and be fed aesthetically.” That’s a definition of success, and a meaningful one in my book. But I want to focus on earthier successes – playing healthy, playing in time, playing in tune, playing with a good sound, reading music well – in short, all of the things that lead to the success I described above.

I want to lay a few ground rules for myself and introduce a couple of caveats before we really begin our journey.

  1. This blog will never be driven by a need to make vast amounts of money. My friends have all told me that I’m crazy to state this up front, but the choice to be relegated to a life of middle-classdom, driving Japanese station wagons and wearing black polo shirts every day is mine and I’m fine with it. There will be links to things that might pay me a small affiliate commission, but you’re more than welcome to avoid those, especially if you can find it for less somewhere else. Money matters, and the less you spend on your tools the more you’ll have for experiences and furthering your education with real live human beings. One thing for sure. This page will never be cluttered up with ugly banner ads.
  2. Paraphrasing Jeff Bezos – “The vision never wavers, but the methods are fungible.” My goal, to give every student the chance to sound beautiful (when I’m really feeling radical I like to say that “Playing beautifully is for the 99%”) is that vision. If a tool I’m using doesn’t work, I’ll find a new one. If the tool has outlived its usefulness, I’ll walk away from it. I’ll always own up to it if I remember, and if I don’t, point it out!
  3. This blog is as much about my own need to get better as it is about helping others. If you have ideas please let me know about them. I may not reply right away as this is a side project, but I’ll try to get back to everyone who reaches out. Thank you in advance!

That’s it for the first day. We’ll talk about “the why” next time.

Copyright Rising Tide String Project 2018 (Erik Bryan and Chung Park)

Please contact me at if you’d like me to come and lead a workshop. I’m available for student workshops and teacher professional development sessions.