It’s no secret that teaching is one of the best ways to examine and to improve your own playing. I began violin lessons at age five, and entering the third grade, my friend decided to take up the viola. Our mothers thought it would be fun for me to teach him a few things before the school year started, and so I taught my first lesson at age eight. I remember telling him the names of all the parts of the instrument and bow, because that was what I was first taught in my own lessons. After describing how to draw the bow across the string in the same way I was told in my first lessons, and helping him to do it himself, I demonstrated on my own instrument for him. He then uttered the words that will cast any teacher into speechless humiliation: But… that’s not how you’re doing it.
He was right. Had I been doing it wrong for the past three years, or had I discovered a better, easier way of drawing the bow? When this same exchange happened again years later with a different young student, I began examining more closely my own technique. I discovered that while I did follow many of the rules and guidelines I had been taught from method books (and that I had been, in turn, teaching my own students), there were many “wrong” aspects of my technique that seemed to have naturally crept into my playing over time.
Meanwhile, as the repertoire I was expected to play in college and in my graduate studies became increasingly difficult, I was beginning to experience a devastating failure to execute under pressure. In high stress situations, I could not always rely on my chops to see me through the passage work, double stops, or flying staccato. My failure created more stress, which rendered tension, which gave rise to more failure. This was the cycle of frustration that made me consider putting down the violin for good after nearly every public performance, jury, or audition.
In my teaching, I began to observe how my students would execute some technical skills flawlessly and with very little guidance, while other technical feats took weeks of trial and error. I began, in turn, to examine more closely my own technique and the limitations of both the tools I had been taught and the ones I had discovered on my own. I watched countless videos of Heifetz, Elman, Menuhin, Stern, and Haendel, and began trying to copy their technique. I had experienced some success in past performances through channeling the masters: Here comes the hard part; Pretend to be Jascha! I thought I could try to do the same to reconcile my textbook technique with my acquired habits.
I told my professor at Boston University, Peter Zazofsky, about my recent YouTube bender, and how I had concluded that you won’t find anything that looks like Heifetz’s bowhold in any modern-day violin method book. He replied, “Have you heard of Dounis?” Why, of course I had heard of the Daily Dozen! But no, he told me that there is a whole world to Dounis’ teaching that few are aware of, and even fewer legitimately understand. Luckily for me, one of those few is Professor George Neikrug, who just happens to be on the faculty of Boston University College of Music.
George Neikrug studied with Dounis for over fifteen years, and is the leading expert on Dounis’ methods. I have studied Dounis’ methods with Mr. Neikrug since 2011 and in that time, composed my dissertation (Demetrios Constantine Dounis: The Philosophy Behind the Methods) on the fundamental principles to his teaching. Although it would take a lifetime to adopt all of his techniques, I have found a world of expressive and technical freedom in my playing through the changes I have made to my technique over the past few years. I have seen the same effects in my own students. The struggle to change the technical habits of violin playing is both physical and mental on many levels, and this difficulty is the reason why Dounis’s unique methods have long been misunderstood and met with resistance.
Demetrios Constantine Dounis was a concert violinist, mandolinist, conductor, and medical doctor. Above all, he was a teacher who developed some of the most innovative methods for violin playing of the 20th century. Dounis carefully observed the technique of the great masters of the violin, both privately and in concert, including Jascha Heifetz, Fritz Kreisler, and Eugene Ysaÿe. His keen sense of observation played an important role in the development of his methods. Dounis’s background in medicine helped to form the anatomical and physiological basis for his technical principles. Although it is often assumed that Dounis’s teaching was exclusively technical, he referred to his technique as “Expressive Technique”, signifying that a violinist without technical limitations is a violinist with inexhaustible expressive potential. These principles, combined with Dounis’s unique approach to teaching, his philosophy on practicing, as well as his methods of facilitating technical change for his students made him one of the most influential pedagogues of the 20th century.
The underlying principle to his teaching comes down to one idea: Find the natural shapes of movements of your body, and apply them to the instrument. In this way, there’s no one correct way to shape the fingers on the bow, or to draw the bow across the string, or to execute vibrato because our fingers, hands, arms, and bodies are all shaped and move differently. The violin and bow are designed to make a beautiful sound. All we have to do is to allow it to happen. The philosophy behind Dounis’ methods permeates my teaching. I teach each student as an individual, each with his or her own unique application to the instrument.