The Center for Musical Arts has a variety of talented teachers. In this interview, we spoke with violin instructor Larina Gray about her path to the violin, her love for Irish fiddling, and more.
Center for Musical Arts: Good morning! My name is Erica Reid, I’m with the Center for Musical Arts, and I love the job I have to do, of interviewing our faculty members to get to know them better. Today I am talking to Larina Gray. How are you, Larina?
Larina Gray: Hi, Erica! I’m doing fine. Thanks for having me in for an interview.
Center: Absolutely! Can you just start us off, telling us a little bit about how you came to be at the Center, how long you’ve been here, and what you teach?
Larina: I’ve been teaching violin here for about a year and a half. I moved to Colorado for grad school and I started looking for places to teach when I got here, and when I was looking at websites at different places, the Center for Musical Arts stood out as a place that looked like a community where I wanted to teach. So I applied, and here I am.
Center: Wonderful. We’re so glad to have you. So you teach violin. I always ask how somebody came to their instrument. How did you come to violin? How did you know it was your instrument?
Larina: The piano was actually my first instrument, and that was something that me and my sisters were required to do. And then later I decided that I wanted to play the violin. I still don’t know why, but I’m really glad that I asked my parents if I could start. It was kind of a casual hobby thing for me for a while until I got to college. And then I had a teacher who just really believed that I could make a life with it, and that became my thing. I fell in love with it, and also became obsessed with it, and never stopped.
Center: Oh, wonderful. So let’s talk a little bit about teaching because you teach violin for us. How would you describe your teaching philosophy?
Larina: My teaching philosophy is kind of based around the idea that every student is different. So it’s a little bit hard to pin down, because what every student’s goals are are different. But if I have 20 different students, then I’d like to be prepared to teach a skill in 20 different ways, so that each student is getting what they want.
I do focus a lot on the student not hurting themselves, because the violin is an awkward thing to hold. And if you don’t do it right, there can be things that go wrong, so we just want to make sure that none of that is happening so that it can be a fun experience.
And also just knowing how to practice, knowing how to do things the right way so that it’s not a frustrating, tedious thing, and it can be more of a fun or relaxing or exciting thing to do.
Center: Are there things that this teacher that you had that sort of changed the course for you, are there things that they taught you that you bring to your lessons?
Larina: Yes. There are two teachers that I’ve had. And let’s see, I think there are three people. And what I’ve learned from them basically makes up what I teach.
So that first teacher, there are definitely a number of things that he taught me about how to practice, a little bit about how that works with my brain. And then just techniques — he taught me why I was doing a lot of the things that I was already doing. For example, when we have passage work and we’re struggling with all of these fast notes, people are like, “Oh, play it in rhythms, play it, da da da da da da, and da da, da da, da da.” And I always did it and I didn’t know why, but now I know that that’s to put it in groups for my brain, groups of two, and then now I can apply that to other passages where that is useful. And he also gave me other techniques to do the same thing so that I can vary it a little bit and it’s not so boring.
And then I had a piano teacher, actually, who taught me a lot more about that. “Here’s how we make your brain do what we want it to do.” And that’s the kind of thing that I like to teach my students so they know why they’re doing what they’re doing, why it works, and they can use it in other contexts. It’s not just you’re going to practice this passage this way, but anything that looks like this can also be done that way.
Center: You can apply that. So often, I think, finding that teacher that speaks your language… maybe they’re all talking about the same techniques, but they’re saying it in a way that aligns with you, I’m sure that’s really a challenge. So sometimes it’s just about finding that instructor that you really connect with.
Center: So I saw on your bio that you enjoy “the joyous inclusivity of Irish fiddling.” Can you tell me a little bit about what the role that fiddling plays in your violin practice and why you find it welcoming and inclusive?
Larina: Yes! My high school group had an Irish fiddle group. It was entirely volunteer. It wasn’t for a grade. We all just showed up and played Irish fiddle music together. And I really enjoyed that, especially as not yet a serious classical musician. I was like, “Practicing is boring and tedious, but Irish music is fun!”
And I think that sometimes when we think about classical music and all of the practicing that goes into that, I can get a little bit — there can be a negative aspect that kind of creeps in if we’re not careful, about, “Oh, it has to be good. It has to sound right. You have to do all of these things and they have to be perfect.”
And a lot of the compliments that I get when I play classical music are, “Oh, you’re so talented,” “Wow, you did this so well,” or “This skill was very…,” “Wow, you must have taken a lot of practice to learn that.”
And it’s like, “Well, yes.” But when I’m Irish fiddling in public, people say, “Oh, I had such a good time.” Or if I’m busking on Pearl Street, people will dance! That’s so cool. I mean, when else is an adult going to just dance in public? Except when there’s music that just, you can’t help yourself.
And they’re not concerned about how well you’re playing. They’re not concerned about whether the note was in tune or if your bow stroke was clean. They just want to have a good time. And as long as you’re having a good time, they will have a good time. And you don’t have the stress of being good at what you do. Being good at what you do is dependent on whether or not you are having a good time.
Center: It sounds like you still are good at fiddling. I mean, to evoke that emotion. I hear what you’re saying about it being a completely different kind of practice, and I’m sure the two halves of that must compliment one another in a lot of ways.
Larina: It’s good to have both. I really like the classical side of practicing every little detail. That’s kind of my personality. So I kind of take that to my fiddling, but my fiddling can also bring in that, “But make sure that people are feeling what you want them to feel,” because that’s more important than whether or not it was in tune.
Center: Wonderful. Okay. So I always ask, what do you do in your free time? But now I know you’re busking on Pearl Street. I know you’re at school right now. We can hear a couple instruments warming up in the other music rooms near you. And you’re teaching at the Center. [laughs] So I don’t know if it’s a fair question, but what do you like to do when you’re not living this big musical life?
Larina: It’s not a lot. You’re right. Music is basically everything. I go to the grocery store and I’m like, “Wow, there’s no music playing. It’s a little bit quiet.” [laughs]
But I do have a couple of friends that I like to hang out with, and we’ll watch a movie or go on a hike. And that’s kind of my break from music is to get outside or do something inside and hang out with friends. So after I finish my degree, then I’ll have a little more time.
And honestly, one of my hobbies, some people say it doesn’t count, but it’s playing the piano. Because everything about my life that makes me happy is music and teaching and learning. So I want to learn anything that interests me because the learning side of things is as interesting to me as the teaching side of things.
Center: Yes. That’s wonderful to hear. So Larina, is there anything else that we haven’t talked about that you think would be helpful for prospective students to know about learning the violin, about you as an instructor, anything like that?
Larina: Maybe just that I do a lot of fiddling in my free time, and I will introduce those pieces to a student sometimes, but my main focus when I’m teaching tends to be on classical music. I’m looking to add a little bit more of the fiddling and maybe get into the Mark O’Connor method books. But right now I tend to lean toward the Suzuki repertoire. I like the progression that they use. And so that’s kind of where my focus is when I teach. And fiddling has always been a side thing for me that I’m not too serious about, and it’s just kind of for fun. So that’s where my focus is.
Center: Okay. Thank you so much for clarifying. That’s very helpful. It was lovely to get to know you today. I will let you run off to your next class. Thank you so much for taking time with us.
Larina: All right. Thank you.