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The secrets of violinist Dorothy DeLays

teaching methods
Violinist Piet Koornhof witnessed Dorothy DeLay's extraordinary teaching skills as one of her
students at the Juilliard School in New York. In 2001 he analysed what made her method so
July 13, 2015

Dorothy Delay, Starling Professor of violin at the Juilliard School in New York, is an astonishingly
successful teacher. The list of her former pupils reads like a whos who of violinistic fame of the past several
decades, with Itzhak Perlman, Gil Shaham, Midori, Cho-Liang Liru, Shlomo Mintz and Sarah Chang but a
few names that stand out.
Her students former and current she is 83 years old and still going strong are never short of
superlatives when talking about their beloved Miss Delay. Words like amazing, incredible and fantastic
seem to stand for learning and nurturing experiences so profound and encompassing the detail is too
overwhelming to describe. Robert McDuffie calls her a full service teacher, meaning that she plays many
roles, from teacher and coach to therapist and career manager, while Cho-Liang Lin describes a lesson with
her as being like a session with a psychologist. Youd walk in there with a head full of problems about your
latest bad review or a break-up with a girlfriend, and youd walk out of her studio feeling all clear.
Delays lessons are often scenes of youthful mirth, mixed with serious study and urgent career strategising.
She firmly believes that learning and performing should be fun and exemplifies this by often shaking with
subdued laughter of joy when a student is playing particularly well which, one should add, is quite often.
When asked whether she has considered retirement she gleefully replies, No, not happily, Im having too
much fun to stop!
Delays teaching strategy reflects her strong beliefs about learning and teaching. She expresses these in
statements like the following:
* Given enough time and ways of measurement [means of measuring achievement] people can learn to do
* You can teach anything if you can figure out how people learn it
* Learning is becoming more aware
* People learn best when they feel successful at it
* People learn best when theyre having fun,
* There is always a right approach its just a matter of finding it
These beliefs reflect what neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) writer Robert Dilts has described as the
essential components for outcome achievement: outcome expectancy (that a desired outcome is possible in

principle), self-efficacy expectancy (that a student is capable of learning or doing what is required to reach
the outcome) and response expectancy (that the process they have embarked on will lead to achievement).
According to the NLP practitioner David Gordory it is useful to think of a strategy as having the following
* A primary criterion a person strives to meet
* The evaluations a person makes to determine whether or not the criterion has been met
* The steps followed to meet the criterion
* The alternative procedures in case the normal steps are unsuccessful
* The emotions habitually experienced as a background to the strategy
Delays primary criterion is to create a positive internal state in her students. Whats important to me, she
remarks,is to be able to see the kids standing up there, all of a sudden feeling competent and pleased that
they can do something they couldnt do before. Of her role in the development of talent, she says: Its nice if
they [students] go out and play a concert and people like it. Not as nice though as watching them really get
such pleasure out of having learned something they didnt think they could do You know, because that
gives you such tremendous power, if you can open up a persons talent.
Delay does not simply pass on information about violin technique and musicianship. She tailors her
strategy and patterns of communication to each student, indicating an acute awareness of and a
constructive engagement with, every students unique inner world.
She gives her students confidence in their capabilities by structuring the learning process step by step. You
have to prove to them that they can do it they have to succeed from the very beginning, she says. She
breaks every area worked on into small steps, appropriate to each student; provides ways of measurement
to increase awareness; makes the lessons fun and positively reinforces a students successes, however small,
with compliments.
Delay wants students to have the confidence needed for growth and to feel pleasure about the results. By
aiming for this state of confidence and pleasure, which is both the result and the generator of successful
learning, Delay sets up a reinforcing loop:
Delay evaluates three main areas when listening to a student: intonation, sound production and phrasing.
Depending on a students level of development, she compares what she hears to the best she can imagine, to
good performances shes heard or to other students on the same level. She then isolates the weakest of the
three areas, breaks it down into its most basic components and makes the student progressively aware of
smaller and smaller details, working slowly, one step at a time. She builds interest in the process by being
complimentary about any successes the pupil might achieve, and by maintaining an atmosphere of playful
learning replete with humour and optimism. Its important to her that the learning situation is set up in
such a way that students cannot fail.
If this procedure doesnt succeed, she tries to make the student aware of even smaller details. She might, for
example, focus the students attention on what can be heard at the beginning of a bow stroke, at the middle
and at the end, while experimenting with bow speed, sounding point, weight and the amount of hair
contacting the string. Throughout the process she helps the student to measure the differences they are
learning to perceive for example, how much bow pressure is used, by what distance the sounding point is
changed and how the results differ from other attempts. I know that if you want to communicate something
about sound to somebody else, youd better measure it, she says.
Delay keeps on trying different approaches until she finds something that works (There is always a right
approach its just a matter of finding it). She tries to figure out what in the students thinking is the
obstacle and to get around it, being acutely aware that what happens in the mind precedes the functioning

of the body. If in the longer term she cannot help a student to improve in a particular area, she heeds
Galamians advice to her -Leave it for a year and then try again. She seems to have an innate confidence in
the systemic nature of learning, trusting that developments in other areas will result in a positive shift in
the original problem.
Patterns of communication
The third important feature of Delays teaching, alongside her beliefs and her strategy, is her ability to
communicate with students in ways that continually stimulate growth and development.
Delay is outcome-orientated, focusing a students attention on what is wanted rather than on what should
be avoided. She writes, Without clearly defined goals and the conviction that these are in one way or
another attainable, students will not practise well. She would say to a student, You want to play with a
lighter sound, not You shouldnt push the sound too much.
Another feature of Delays outcome-orientation is her use of clear and specific language. She once told me
one of her teachers had said to her, This is heavenly music that should be played in a heavenly way.
Remembering the incident, Delay throws her arms in the air in exasperation saying, I had no idea what
that meant! I would come out of every lesson thinking I was stupid and untalented, and I did not practise.
Her suggestions to students invariably contain information about the observable, measurable mechanics of
violin playing, like bow speed, speed of shifting or width and speed of vibrato. She knows that specific
language words that denote observable, measurable phenomena and experiences are needed to help the
human nervous system move towards the realisation of outcomes. Her students know exactly and
immediately what actions to take to get a desired effect. Learning, she believes, is defined partly as
becoming more aware. I dont want my students to feel that there are any mysteries. I hate the idea of
mysteries. Some teachers thrive on it. It makes them feel superior.
Linguistic presuppositions are, in the words of L. Michael Hall and Bob B. Bodenhamer, silent assumptions
and paradigms that lurk within and behind words and statement. Because of her beliefs concerning the
humans unlimited capacity to learn Delay naturally presupposes capability, learning, development and the
efficacy of certain procedures in the language she uses when teaching. She conversationally turns students
limiting beliefs into empowering ones, letting assumptions about students capabilities hit home
She makes matter-of-fact statements like, When you bring the last movement [of a particular concerto, for
example] memorised next week we can spend some time looking at the structure, presupposing, without
making any issue about it, that the student is capable of learning and memorising the music in a short
time, and that it will be done. Or she might say, Once we have sorted out your bow-grip, your sound will be
ready for some big concerti, again presupposing that it can be done, that the students sound will change as
a result and that big works will be learned.
Anecdotes, quotes, metaphors and analogies
To reinforce a point, Delay often quotes former students or other famous violinists or tells anecdotes that
illustrate it in some way. For example, she said to a student,Whatever rhythmic inconsistencies there are
will probably disappear when you practise more with piano [again presupposing a course of action]. Did you
know that Isaac Stern at some stage hired a pianist to practise with him for four hours every day? Then the
punch line, Just think what would happen if you rehearsed for four hours daily with piano!
Perhaps of equal importance, she uses famous players as examples of both what to emulate and what to
avoid, portraying them as ordinary people whose achievements are the results of the same human capacity
to learn we all possess. She thereby makes their level of functioning seem more attainable to students.

Delays use of analogies and metaphors, tailored extempore to suit the psychology and background of each
student, is legendary. Here are some examples:
*To students in general: Look studying the violin in a way is like two sciences: its like astronomy on the
one hand, and like working with a microscope on the other hand. Astronomy is your repertoire; the
microscope is the wonderful small things you can get so you can see and hear. And the more small things
you can get so you can see and hear, the better you play. Youve got to do both of them.
* To a young male student: Its like parking your car when you are going 40 miles an hour. You
overshoot your space. .. There was a cartoon in the New Yorker some years ago. You know. One of those
helpless women looking at her husband and saying, You know dear, the thing I hate about parking the car
is that awful crash.
* To a young boy: I had a friend who said fingers on a bow are like sailors on a ship this one looks out
the port-hole [referring to the third finger touching the edge of the frogs eye].
When I asked how she knows which metaphor or analogy to use, Delays answer was, I suppose you go to
something some area theyre interested in. Again this statement indicates that she works very much
with the internal experience of the student.
After having just played for Delay, a student looks worried about his performance. Delay immediately
notices and says, You know, the better you get, the more dissatisfied you are, because you can hear more.
This is a wonderful example of how she changes a students frame of reference, giving a negative experience
a new, positive meaning. She takes his dissatisfaction and gives it the new meaning of being a sign of
improvement. The student immediately feels better and consequently plays better, which in turn reinforces
the truth of what Delay has just said.
With that one reframe Delay has empowered the student by presupposing greater awareness (you can hear
more) and improvement (the better you get), and she has boosted his confidence and ensured that in future
he will interpret his dissatisfaction as a sign of improvement rather than failure. Furthermore, as she has
established in the students mind a link between hearing more and dissatisfaction, his future dissatisfaction
will focus his attention on making finer distinctions, which is precisely what is needed for improvement.
A pre-college student of Delays once dropped his bow in the middle of a piece he was playing for her. When
she noticed his distress, she said excitedly, Thats wonderful means you are not clutching your bow too
tightly! As before, this reframe turns a sense of failure into a sense of achievement, and it
focuses awareness on the tightness of the bow grip, which is exactly what is needed to avoid the student
dropping the bow in the future.
On another occasion a very young student had a sound slip towards the bridge. His anxiety about it caused
Delay to say, Wait! Do it again! That sound you made is sul ponticello, which is something you
should learn to do deliberately. She then picked up her own violin, made a squeaking sound on the bridge,
laughed, and said, I like strange, spooky sounds like that!
Delay decides a reframe is necessary when she sees the slightest sign of anxiety in the student. And how
does she choose how to reframe? I look for whatever is positive in the situation. It is of utmost importance
to Delay that students feel comfortable and confident. Her advice to aspiring teachers is never, ever make a
student feel anxious, pointing out that people cannot learn well when they are anxious.
Language patterns for comfort, ease and confidence
Delay often starts a series of statements each with the first person plural,we, or singular, l, and later
turns it into the second person singular, you, after having established a comfortable sense of belonging:
* Were going to practice your bow grip a lot
* We have two things to remember for next time

* We neednt worry about an audience they, even those that know a lot, are not concentrating like you are
* I dont think weve got the right fingerings. Lets fix it
Instead of commands and admonitions starting with you must or you should, Delay uses
language patterns that start with you want to or can you. .. ?':
* You want to play with a faster bow there
* You want to keep your fingers a little closer together
* You want to fix the intonation in the middle section
She softens or eliminates possible resistance with words like could,might, maybe andperhaps :
* You might want to consider
* Maybe you could think about
* You could try it this way if you like
* Its perhaps more in keeping with the character of the music to do this.. .
We have seen how Delays beliefs are presupposed in how she structures her language when
communicating with students, and in the strategy she employs. This sets a context of empowerment for
students optimal growth. Since presuppositions are assumptions not explicitly stated, they can bypass
possible conscious resistance, affecting deeper layers of the mind and allowing it to concentrate on the
setting and achievement of outcomes.
Her mastery as a teacher lies in her pedagogical beliefs, her teaching strategy and her patterns
of communication. But perhaps the ultimate crux of Dorothy Delays success is that she is all about love
she loves her students, loves teaching and learning, and she loves music. As Mozart said, Neither a lofty
degree of intelligence nor imagination nor both together go to the making of genius. Love, love, love, that is
the soul of genius.
Picture: Dorothy DeLay with Midori at Aspen in 1986