For me, rhythm is the soul of music. I love the energy it creates for movement in our bodies and minds. This is why I love teaching the five rhythms of Suzuki’s Twinkle Twinkle Little Star variations for violin. Watching a three year old student learn these simple rhythmic patterns is always exciting. It is the beginning of their lifelong journey with music.
First I mark out the length of these first bow strokes, by placing two markers on the bow. Often I use narrow coloured tape or small stickers ‐ the upper one is near the middle of the bow. Over the years I’ve positioned the markers more towards the lower part of the bow. There are big advantages for students who become adept from the very start at playing in the lower half.
Before starting the first rhythm, set up basic playing posture as follows:
- Form a bowhold and put the violin on the shoulder;
- Place the left hand on the body of the violin, with straight wrist and curved fingers;
- Place the bow on the E string at the lower bow mark, about a finger’s width away from the bridge – the clear tone zone;
- Check that the bow is at a right angle to the string. Relax the right shoulder and arm. The elbow is below the level of the bowhold.
At these early lessons I teach the parent all these same skills – on their child’s little violin if they don’t have a full size one. To teach and practise at home, they must be able to do it correctly.
Rhythm One (Busy busy stop, stop):
I always model the rhythm first for the student by physically moving their bow on the string whilst they are in playing position. It gives them the direct experience of the rhythm played correctly and the motion of the bowing arm and elbow. One rhythm by me, one by the student – making positive comments. The last two strokes (stop, stop) must stop on the string – shown in the score by the staccato dots.
Leave the bow on the string between rhythms. At this stage the sound should be strong rather than too light or feathery ‐ and can be on the crunchy side. Then as the student begins to produce a correct rhythm and maintain good posture, I move over to my violin for the student to copy the sound. We repeat it many times, checking length of strokes, position of the bow on the string, clear stops and good relaxed bow hold.
Rhythm Two (ka‐ta, yo‐ka‐ta or pop-corn and can-dy):
This rhythm is slower and easier, but can’t be broken up into neat segments like the others. I ask students to play along with me right from the start – in an unbroken line, stopping each stroke on the string. This is the first rhythm that students can play in time with the recording – many at their first attempt.
Rhythm Three (snap crackle, snap crackle):
I teach this one in segments, stopping the bows on the quavers. It can be a little harder to get than the others because of the staccato notes – one is up, the other down.
Rhythm Four (timothy timothy):
The Timothy variation is based on triplets. It’s missing in some editions of Book 1, I don’t know why – even the youngest students learn it easily. A slight emphasis on the first note of each triplet helps them to feel the beat.
Rhythm Five (caterpillar caterpillar or semiquaver semiquaver):
This easy rhythm can be played while focussing on correct basic posture and bow hold. Upbows and downbows should sound the same. I don’t worry too much about accents at this stage.
Obviously, there’s heaps more to learn about bowing. Although left hand technique rightly gets a lot of attention by violinists and teachers, the bow arm controls most of the musical and expressive side – such as shape, colour, dynamics, character, style, articulation and the quality of sound.
At this early stage, I focus on maintaining nice posture, good bowing arm motion and clear rhythms.