Interview: Maureen Smith on the Eta Cohen method

Maureen Smith is the award-winning violinist and daughter of Eta Cohen, the author and creator of the best-selling violin tutor series The Eta Cohen Method.

At 18 she won the BBC Violin Competition and made her Proms debut, and has since played concertos with all the leading British orchestras under many distinguished conductors. As a music educator Maureen has a wide experience of teaching and was made an Honorary Associate of the Royal Academy of Music in 1995. She was made Professor at the Royal College of Music in 1997 before joining the Royal Academy in January 2011 as a teacher.  Maureen regularly offers coaching, chamber music courses and master classes to players in the UK and abroad.

The Musicroom blog talked to Maureen Smith about the new edition of her mother’s best-selling violin series, and how the Eta Cohen Methodhelped her to develop her own playing.

Hello Maureen! What’s new in the sixth edition of the Eta Cohen method series?

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The sixth edition has some amazing CDs with the pieces and exercises played really beautifully by Alexandra Wood. In addition, the accompaniments for Book 1 have wonderful backing tracks that can make even open D strings and scales fun!  These backing tracks are played on 2 CDs with the violin and then on 2 CDs with the accompaniment only for the pupil to use.

These are played at a slow tempo which would be appropriate for a beginner and enable the pupil to concentrate on getting the notes, intonation etc correct rather than just trying to keep up. I believe that the pupils will be inspired by hearing such good playing of the pieces they are learning and will really enjoy playing with the backing tracks.

Why do you think the method and books have been so successful?

It is extremely well structured and systematic introducing one new concept at a time. Each new point, whether it be notation, key, rhythm, technique etc has an explanation followed by a short exercise and then a selection of pieces to consolidate this, making the pupil secure. Eta believed that a slow start based on good style, intonation and sound resulted in much faster progress in the end, and also avoided the acquisition of bad habits.

Consequently, the order of the exercises was very carefully considered. For instance, rather than encouraging beginners to play on all strings at once, Eta advocated focusing on the D and A strings only. This made it easier to tune the violin, produce a good sound and sing and pluck melodies in one octave. The finger pattern in D major – the first key they learnt – also had the advantage of being the same for both strings.

The material in all of the books is very attractive and appealing with an unusually large number of items. This means that everything the pupil needs is available in the method and there is no need to buy extra repertoire, scale and study books. In the early books the pieces are short so that a pupil can learn several at the same time to keep their interest.

 

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What motivated your mother, Eta Cohen, to create the method?

She remembered in detail her first lesson which amounted to: “this is how you hold the violin, this is how you hold the bow – now play that!”

She was determined that pupils should not have this unhelpful, deep end approach so when she was asked by the local education council to do some teaching, at the age of 17, she went in search of a good tutor. In 1933 there was no such book on the market so, undeterred, she decided to write out each lesson for the children as she went along. This was before photocopiers! These lessons then became the basis for the method which she sent off to Paxtons and they accepted immediately. Further books followed.

Why is violin such a great instrument to play?

It is a very expressive instrument being the closest thing to the human voice. Like the voice it has the ability to touch very deep emotions. From a child’s point of view it is very portable. It is also a very sociable instrument in as much as one can play chamber music with other people and join orchestras.

What are the key problem areas students encounter whilst learning the violin?

The position is very unnatural and difficult to learn. If a pupil gets off to a bad start with slumped position nothing else is going to work properly as you are trying to build on a faulty foundation. Also the student has to produce their own notes and unless taught properly poor intonation and sound are immediate consequences.

Main advantages of the Eta Cohen method over other books and courses?

As I said earlier it is very structured and systematic introducing one new concept at a time which is then consolidated with tuneful repertoire. Each problem has been thought about in detail, is  isolated and tackled independently. Consequently, the pupil is never overwhelmed with too much to think about and digest. Everything is presented in its simplest form and there is also a great deal of variety in the choice of repertoire which helps avoid boredom.

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Regarding the difficulty of holding the instrument in its correct position – this method starts the pupil off by teaching them to pluck the strings in banjo position. This means that the child can sit down and does not have to hold the violin under the chin, so making the work much less tiring. Concentration is on correct hand position, learning to read the notes and also listening to intonation.

Whilst the pupil is learning to play pieces banjo position the under chin position can be introduced slowly with the pupil just holding it there for a few moments but not actually playing. When this is secure the pupil can play the pieces he has already learnt banjo position. This means that the child can concentrate on keeping a good position as the notes will already be known from memory. As children like repetition this is not a problem

Once the under chin position is functioning well the bowing can be learned away from the violin. The student will bow silently through a circle made with 2 fingers. Once again this is not used for playing purposes until secure at which point bowing exercises are introduced on the violin. As the lesson and practising is divided up into banjo position, under the chin and bowing practise variety is created and the interest kept. Once the use of the bow is fluent the pupil then revises the early pieces now playing them for a third time, concentrating on producing a good sound. However, the work in banjo position and under the chin is becoming more advanced all the time and before long banjo position can be dropped altogether.

The careful organisation of the method means that it is a great equaliser because any child could make good progress almost irrespective of talent. Eta also questioned the widely held belief that unfettered enjoyment and the maintenance of high standards must be incompatible. She believed that playing well brings intense satisfaction whereas playing badly results only in frustration, and that the secret was to make the material so attractive to pupils that it was irresistible.

How has the Eta Cohen method served as a grounding for your own career?

It gave me a very good foundation on which to build and made me very disciplined. I was lucky in as much as I had daily rather than weekly lessons.

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How has your mother’s method contributed to your success?

The good foundation I received was invaluable plus I was always encouraged to give attention to detail particularly with intonation and sound. It made me disciplined, secure technically and I was always encouraged to give polished performances.

How do you feel knowing that thousands of players around the world learned to play thanks to your mother’s method?

It is a great thrill. When my younger daughter went to India on a Gap Year project to teach young children music the first thing she saw when she entered the music school was the EC Violin Method sitting on a music stand. Of course they had no idea it was her Granny!

When I was in Singapore adjudicating at their National Violin Competition I was told that it was widely used and, of course, my Mother has lectured internationally and received letters from people around the world.

Thanks for talking to us Maureen!

For information on the new edition of The Eta Cohen Method, or to make an order, visit Musicroom.com.

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