Melissa Knecht teaches a student

A New Approach to String Teaching

Written by Kokko Tso

To explain the nature of her research to non-musicians, Dr. Melissa Knecht uses an analogy to natural language. “Try to spell the word ‘vernault.’ If you guessed, “V-e-r-n-a-u-l-t,” you’re right—but there’s a catch. ‘Vernault’ isn’t a real word. Most people can spell that word without seeing it or knowing what it means,” Dr. Knecht explains. “This test implies that people are good spellers, not because they’ve memorized every word in the English language, but because they’ve learned to recognize patterns and statistical probabilities in the language.” Through her research, Dr. Knecht seeks to apply this same concept to the question of what separates great musicians from amateur ones.

Dr. Knecht decided that she wanted to be a musician at an early age. She started on the piano, switching to violin after winning a piano competition that offered free violin lessons as the prize. However, her true desire was to play the viola. “I always liked the tone color of the viola,” she says. “Actually, I really wanted to play the viola when I won that competition, but I had to wait until my senior year in college before I got the opportunity to take viola lessons.”

After graduating, her musical career took her across the world, first to Germany, Belgium, Austria and Italy as an orchestral musician and a member of an opera pit orchestra, then to Venezuela as an orchestral violinist and part-time professor. After stints in the Florida Symphony Orchestra and the American Chamber Orchestra in Chicago, she began pursuing a doctorate at the University of Michigan, where she discovered her interest in the cognitive processing of music.

“I wanted to bring a novel approach to the traditional string teaching studio,” she recalls. “As music educators, we should be teaching students how to perceive music, and not focusing exclusively on the technical aspects of string playing. There are plenty of string musicians who can play well, but who can’t make the connection between the music on the page and the sounds coming out of their instruments.”

In order to explore the question of how expert musicians perceive music and make that intangible connection, Dr. Knecht designed a unique experiment. Using a computer program called Travesty, she created a series of eight-note musical snippets styled after the music of Georg Telemann, a Baroque composer. The first snippet in the series was designed to sound very similar to Telemann’s music, the second a little less similar, and so on, until the snippet became a completely random collection of notes. Then, she played these patterns to members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and asked them play them back, one snippet at a time. The results fascinated her.

“These players, all highly accomplished and well-regarded, easily memorized the first snippet after hearing it a single time,” she says. “However, once they got to the third snippet, things became drastically more difficult. Most of them could play back only about two-thirds of the snippet correctly.” Repeating the experiment on some smaller, regional orchestras, Dr. Knecht found that those musicians encountered difficulty much more quickly, experiencing significant challenges accurately reproducing the second snippet. Finally, she tested some young students; even the most talented and promising children struggled to accurately play back the first snippet. These results confirmed her theory about the role of this cognitive schema in differentiating expert and novice players.

Through her upcoming book, Developing Your Musical Mental Map, Dr. Knecht hopes to use her research to help teachers and students build better cognitive schemas and improve their string playing. “This book brings together the three aspects of string playing within a systematic framework: seeing and recognizing patterns, visualizing them mentally, and playing them on the instrument,” she says. “String players tend to focus on the technical aspects of playing: left hand dexterity, proper violin and bow grip, scales, etudes, intonation, and so on. However, the musical needs of the student are often less obvious. I’ve had students that could play quite proficiently, but lacked the ability to recognize and utilize the patterns of music that they need to be a professional violinist or violist. With this idea of a musical schema, string teachers can begin developing exercises to help their students build those skills.”

Kokko Tso graduated from Hillsdale College in 2013 with majors in music, Latin, and history. He currently works for his alma mater as the Digital Content Manager.