By Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Enquiries: stellamusicwriter.wordpress.com)
Method Behind the Melody is a new series which will present stories and interviews from the world of music education. I had the opportunity to speak to Bridgitte Arancibia, a recent graduate of the Masters of Performance Teaching at Melbourne University. Bridgitte currently works full-time teaching violin across two Grammar schools in Melbourne. Bridgitte also performs in a violin and guitar duo with her husband, and fellow Performance Teaching Masters graduate, Daniel Arancibia. You can follow their work through their Instagram and Facebook
How did you tackle balancing a Masters of Performance Teaching while working in the area you were studying in? I imagine lesson prep takes time, alongside assessments and classes at uni… what were some strategies you used to manage your time?
The major tactic that helped me, was keeping a really up-to-date diary and taking it with me everywhere. And good food and coffee! My husband, then my fiancé, went through the degree at the same time as me. So talking to him and my other classmates was so helpful, and provided a lot of emotional support.
Another strategy was setting aside time for each commitment, and having clear boundaries between them. When I was at work teaching, it was about the work, the students, communicating with parents. University had to fit in around work. It’s a big responsibility being a teacher and in the grand scheme of things, the students I teach are more important.
But I did occasionally have to say no to taking on more work, so I could complete my degree to the best of my ability.
At what point did you realize you wanted to pursue teaching more seriously, as opposed to a purely performance-based path?
I started a casual teaching job at the end of my first year of university. I was working at Coles at the time and I didn’t really like it, and I thought that I should start doing something related to music. When I started teaching it just felt natural. I’d always known I’d be a teacher, but I wasn’t sure if it would be the main thing I did. Towards the end of third year I started to realise I was leaning more towards teaching than performing.
I love performing but I knew for myself personally, it wasn’t the road I wanted to take. You have to give up quite a lot of your life in order to be a performer purely, and I realised I wasn’t willing to do that. After my Bachelor degree I applied for the Masters of Performance Teaching. I knew it would help me gain the skills to become a good teacher but at the same time, a better performer. The degree seemed like a smart decision because it combined something I loved doing with ability to earn a stable income.
What’s the most rewarding thing about teaching music?
The most rewarding thing about teaching music is introducing a beautiful set of skills and experiences into my student’s lives. The process of learning music helps them strive to do their best. Learning to play a musical instrument also teaches them to become aware of the finer details and develop sensitivity, and see the greater impact that music has to those around them.
I love seeing my students work towards their goals and their reactions when they accomplish them, whether it’s a performance, playing in an ensemble helping others, or a tricky note they want to play well. They can translate those skills into everything in their life as they grow up. So it’s my hope is that learning violin helps my students become more inquisitive, creative, kind, intelligent and happier human beings.
One of the most challenging things you come up against as a teacher of young children, particularly of violin?
I would say one of the most challenging things is to teach a child how to take care of their violin, and how to produce a nice tone. Violins can certainly be nice and scratchy, particularly if you have a three year old playing one!
That sensitivity towards the instrument is one of the trickiest thing to teach. But there are different ways of approaching it, depending on the student. The key is to be able to critically assess the student and their character as quickly as possible, in order to guide them in the right direction.
Do you find that you can get quite technical with some children, or with some children you have to keep things light and fun all the time, like a game?
Absolutely, every student is different. You might have one particular thing to teach them, but there are a hundred different ways you could teach that one thing.
Being a teacher, you have to learn to be student-focused. In lessons, you need to figure out their learning style as soon as you can, or try out different ways for them to understand. Because if they don’t understand you, that’s because you’re not explaining it in a way that’s right for them. Some students are very technical, some are very visual. Some students learn best by ear or through a mixture of methods.
How do you see yourself incorporating performance into a future career? If you could ideally dictate how much time spent on performing, teaching, etc?
Ideally, it would be full-time teaching, and doing my own projects around that. I’m still working out what those may be, but right now I’m a freelance violinist alongside the full-time teaching.
Ideally in the future, I would love to perform some small chamber works, the kind of music I enjoy. Growing up playing in orchestras and in the Melbourne University orchestra, I learnt that I didn’t enjoy those experiences as much as I thought I would. And that was a big reason in realising that the full time route of performing classical music wasn’t for me.
What pieces of repertoire would you like to perform in the future?
I’d prefer to do new works, and modern pop pieces! Pieces from movie soundtracks. Being a performer, in my eyes, we need to be able to relate to non-musicians and merge our two worlds together. I myself enjoy modern takes on chamber music, acts like 2Cellos, Lindsey Stirling… Musicians who merge electronic with classical, the fusion repertoire. There’s a whole world of music outside of university.
But I do love the more classical repertoire alongside that. I love the Bruch violin concerto, the Korngold one… I love Beethoven, Sarasate, but then I also love Bach as well! All its rawness.
I like to make sure my students aren’t exclusively playing classical music. I ensure they have proper technique when they play, but that they’re able to play their favourite song, the songs they love doing. One student wants to learn the Titanic themes, and I’ll give it to them while they’re learning a Mozart piece! Or the soundtrack from Moana.
What do you think makes the violin unique as an instrument?
It has been written that the violin is supposed to imitate the voice. So we have a lot of freedom on the violin to create any pitch, we can create micro-tones, but we also have the freedom to be more expressive. With the strings, you can make a really harsh sound, or a ringing tone… we have that level of expression that we can convey, a bit more flexibility with the tone colour. The sound can be warm, bright, all different sorts of sounds. That’s what I really love.
Did you have any advice for a young violinist just starting out in their performance degree?
I would say, to try to think of themselves after the degree has finished. Where they would imagine themselves going, so they’re working towards that throughout their degree. So no matter what they’re told in their degree, they know where they’re going personally.
Each instrumentalist will have their own path. No one specific path is the one right path. Especially being a violinist, there is no way everyone is only going to become orchestral players. There are hundreds of different careers you can undertake as a musician.
So I’d advise that they have perspective on all the options they have. To know that the skills they’re going to learn in the degree, will help with many different careers.
To do research on other musicians, and what they did after uni… many famous performers have done many different things, they didn’t just finish uni and then all of a sudden they were a full-time performer. It’s a process. And to know that it’s a process.
And to ask themselves, if they’re willing to not have stability in their first decade of life.
Do you have any pointers more specifically for anyone reading this who is considering the path of full time instrumental music teaching?
My first piece of advice is to get into teaching privately during their degree, so they’re getting experience. And to make sure that they know that they enjoy it.
I would also urge them to consider doing an education degree of some sort. Because having a knowledge of music alone is not enough to be able to teach well. You need to know the developmental stages of children, how to approach them, you’ve got to be open minded. That’s what a study in education can teach you.
So that’s what I recommend. Sharpen your skills in your instrument so you yourself are the best musician you can be, and then undertake further study in education. You have a responsibility to teach a student well. Get it wrong, and you can make someone think they can’t learn music. All it takes is a teacher teaching their student they way they were taught, because that’s the only way they know how, and saying ‘oh well, you just don’t get it’ when the student doesn’t understand the concept.
It’s so important as a teacher to have an open mind, to be willing to look at different perspectives, to have patience and understanding. If you know exactly why you are pursuing teaching, you will love it, and your students will love music.