Weekly Reflection: finding beauty in imperfection

Image by Andrew J. Sutherland used under creative commons licence

Fun fact: I played the cello in high school.

Now that I’ve outed myself as an orchestra geek I can talk about my instrument which was a beautiful old thing. I was convinced that the instrument had lived a long life and had an interesting story to tell. Even if the story was being played poorly by various students over the decades, that cello had a soul to it.

There was also a flaw.

Every time I tried to play an F note on the C string my cello would start coughing like a dying dog. No matter what I tried, I just couldn’t get the instrument to play that particular note properly. For a while I was convinced it must have been a problem in my technique but what I had discovered was my cello’s wolf note.

Without getting too complicated a wolf note is the sound produced when the frequency of the played note matches the internal resonance of a bowed instrument producing both a dampening and oscillating effect on the instrument’s acoustics. In short a wolf note is the musical equivalent of having a ‘you shut up, no you shut up’  fight between the note and the instrument itself.

Wolf notes are not a problem of construction, as both good and bad cellos have them, in fact they are a result of an inherent contradiction between the construction of the instrument and the reason a bowed instrument produces sound, resonance. Every hollow body has a primary resonant frequency. You hear it when you blow across the top of a bottle and get a definite pitch sounding. A wolf note is simply a tone at which one of these resonances is excited.

Image by Gwen used under creative commons licence

A professional player learns to work around wolf notes with good bowing but for beginners wolf notes are immensely frustrating. You can buy a tiny metal tube to place on the offending string called a wolf note eliminator (well minimizer) to manage the problem but a lot of musicans find that the eliminator effects the overall tone of the instrument.

The story of the wolf note is a highly apt analogy for a student teacher. Especially for this student teacher  in light of last week’s meltdown into misery over feeling the pressure to be perfect.

Student teachers need to remember:

  • Our students have flaws – do we as teachers use artificial means to manage our students’ imperfections or learn to work around them to get the best out of our students?
  • We have flaws – but that does not mean we cannot succeed. However student teachers need to bear in mind that we may have limits to managing imperfection in our teaching and more importantly the learning of our students.
  • Our associate teachers have flaws – because everyone does but they will likely be different to ours. But more importantly associate teachers have mastered some techniques in managing imperfection in their classrooms.

But perhaps the most important lesson is that perfection is boring. There’s a reason electronic versions of instruments never sound as good as the real thing, it is these microscopic imperfections that make each instrument unique. Even a bad instrument can produce a beautiful sound in the hands of a skilled player while a highly expensive Stradivarius cello would be wasted on the likes of me who hasn’t picked up a cello in the last 10 years.  But with time, practice and patience, I should get my techniques up to scratch so that my classroom sounds more like a Stradivarius and less like the 2nd hand instrument I played in high school.

It all comes down to learning how to manage those wolf notes.

So for this Teaching Experience I will try to manage imperfection by focusing on the learning both mine and that of my students.

2 thoughts on “Weekly Reflection: finding beauty in imperfection

Add yours

  1. I hope that you will play your cello for your students. I recently picked up my guitar, for the first time in a long, long time, and played it for some children. I had forgotten how much fun it was to play. It is going to become an integral part of my teaching from now on.


  2. Hi Marie,
    Thanks for your comment. I must admit I sold my cello a long time ago for various reasons and haven’t touched an instrument in many years. That might be a project for next year me thinks!

    Thanks for stopping by,



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