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Virtuoso meets all-rounder

Learning to play a musical instrument demands constant practise, especially if you were schooled in the Russian tradition, as Sue Purcell and her daughter found out from a visiting violinist.

A music lesson, Russian style, could be heard in progress. "No, no, no, no, no!" came the instructor's voice.

The local summer music festival organisers had asked for volunteers to accommodate young, foreign musicians. Tanya, a student at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and a violinist in a professional Russian orchestra, was spending 10 days as a guest in our house. When she heard that my 10-year-old daughter had recently started learning the violin, she took great interest and was keen to help and teach her.

It was quite a culture shock for young Lizzie. She is used to rewards in the form of sweets, stars and stickers from her teacher, in all shapes and colours, and with no criticism any harsher than "not quite" or "nearly". Her posture, bow-hold and general technique were now being pulled to pieces, and she was expected to try the same thing again and again until she got it right. Even when she started crying, her arm aching after 40 minutes of holding it up, there was no let-up.

Tanya's words of sympathy were limited to "all children cry when they are learning!"

Lizzie will never be a professional violinist, and that wasn't our intention when we encouraged her to take up the violin. Like many parents in this country we regard playing a musical instrument as a useful and enjoyable hobby, leading to opportunities for performing in public, socialising and possibly, later on, travelling with a school or local amateur orchestra.

These are not the views of Russians, however, who are utter perfectionists and live and breathe whatever their chosen interest may be. Tanya was surprised to hear that Lizzie was also learning to play the piano; in Russia, children concentrate on one instrument and strive for excellence on it.

She was amazed when she learnt that Lizzie had just one half-hour lesson a week and that, on a good day, she practised for approximately 20 minutes. In Russia three hours practice a day is a minimum. Tanya was even more amazed to hear that Lizzie had already got her gold swimming badge, was in the school netball squad and played tennis every Saturday; in Russia, if you decide to play an instrument, everything else goes by the board.

The school system in Russia makes it easier for children to devote more time to intensive practice. School finishes earlier, at around lunchtime, allowing children to attend an afternoon club, many of which are expert in music and sport.

There are specialist teachers on hand to support and encourage children and, of course, to see that they knuckle down to their practice, explained Tanya. Moreover, these clubs are very reasonably priced, and if you are considered to be very talented, then they are free of charge.

Lizzie wasn't put off the violin by her gruelling sessions with Tanya; on the contrary, she recognised that she was in the presence of a virtuoso and soon became aware of the progress that she was begining to make.

Unlike a Russian parent, however, I will not be insisting on perfection, or nagging Lizzie to practise more because I'm not concerned about her getting medals and accolades. I just prefer her to do a bit of everything and have fun while she is doing it.

Sue Pucell is a teacher in further and adult education.

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