Home Practice – Selecting Students to Build Your Vision

A key to successful practice at home rests right back at the moment you accept a parent and child into your violin program. There’s an important relationship between how you choose parents to suit your vision, the Big Picture, and its implications for great home practice.

entry gate

Choosing parents and students might seem a ‘no-brainer’. Parents bring their child to meet you, eager to start and willing to pay your term fees. Especially when you’re starting out, there’s a bit of pressure on you if students are needed to fill those empty places. This can be a somewhat precarious moment for your program. What to do?

I always return to questions such as, What do I believe in? What do I want to help create? What will best help parents and their children? It’s very important to envisage what you want your program to look like and to become. Clarifying the vision will help you attract the kind of parents and children that will suit you and what you are trying to do.

The questions you ask during the first contact with the parents of potential students help you to understand what they are looking for and just as importantly, help you identify whether they will be a good fit and active contributors to the program you want to build.

(Some parts of this topic are available in the Violin Studio Series: How to Set Up and Run a Successful Violin Studio.)

Selecting the Parents

Good violin practice starts at the point of selecting students to join your program. The way you conduct your selection process does two things. Firstly, it weeds out ‘hobby’ parents and secondly, it’s  where you set up expectations of the time and effort required by parents to work with their children.

In our case, we want parents who are happy and keen for violin to form a central part of their child’s learning and development. We know that some parents are looking for little tastes and experiences of various activities for their child. That’s fine of course, but usually it means they aren’t looking for a deeper educational engagement and are unlikely to be a good fit for what we are trying to create. For them, our program would feel too demanding and will ultimately be frustrating.

The Time Commitment 

There are also parents who simply don’t have enough time in their very busy schedules to work with their child at home, or can’t come to lessons and group classes. Despite being attracted to the vision of what we are doing, their children would be left to fend for themselves for home practice and lessons. This would make it too difficult for their child to make much progress or have a good experience.

A strong culture exists among parents in our city to drop children at extra-curricula activities and pick them up afterwards. This won’t work well for you or your program.

We’ve had an occasional parent slip through the net. They say they will definitely be able to meet the challenge of working with their child and are looking forward to it. Before too long they revert to a drop-off and pick-up strategy.

In one particular case the new student was very young. The parent, a very busy university professor, began to leave their child at group class by themselves, whereas every other student comes with at least one parent. It quickly became impossible for the child to keep up with the clear and simple practice goals set each week in the small groups of parents and students.

After a short time, we had to let the parent know that our program wasn’t for them. The parent wanted to continue after seeing the good results and fast progress the other families made. We explained that her child would have great difficulty achieving the same kind of happy progress and how it would be quite distressing for him.

Deeper Levels

Maybe you didn’t start your program with a big picture of what you want to achieve and are in the process of making improvements  incrementally. We probably all do it this way to some extent. Therefore it sometimes becomes necessary to bring in a deeper level of commitment than the one earlier parents and students were accustomed to.

On the few occasions we’ve announced a new level of attendance or required work it has meant more group classes and at another time, two practices a day.

As we go through the Home Practice series, we’ll clarify how to set up the two practices. For some newcomers to our site it may sound daunting, nonetheless it works well and surprisingly perhaps, results in fewer practice problems for both students and parents.

There may be some initial resistance to new upsteps in commitment and we help parents to rise to the new challenges bit by bit.

Over a period of time it may become obvious that a family doesn’t want to meet a new commitment and the moment arrives when you can see that they won’t be a good fit going forward. You will have to let them go. The end of the year is a good time to help people move on to another teacher.

Traditionally, violin has been treated the same as other school homework, where children are expected to just go off and do it by themselves. There is no way that learning violin will work like that. So right from the first contact we look for parents who will be able to come to lessons and group classes, and also have consistent time to enjoy helping their child at home.

In some ways we don’t demand huge amounts of practice hours. It’s more about being able to set daily times, stick to them and to develop an ongoing habit. This kind of consistency mirrors and strengthens children’s memorising patterns. Violin is a very challenging instrument and it amazes me how some parents think their child, a beginner, would be able to cope alone.

Parents Choose Themselves

The right kind of parent commitment to education and learning violin helps build a successful and happy program for everyone. Crucially for teachers, choosing committed parents and students enables you to build a powerful program with real impetus for incoming members, who are swept up into the energy and progress of the whole group from the start.

If you ask the right questions you can usually identify a family that might be a good fit for you, or not. If they sound like potential students, they are invited to a first meeting in person as part of a formal process. Each teacher or school will have different procedures and we find that our induction system works for us. It makes it clear to the parent we know what we are doing.

The initial phone call is the first part of the qualifying process.

On the telephone

The aim of the first phone conversation is to listen to their story and understand some of the their background.

An introductory statement might be: “I’d like to ask you a few questions so I can understand what you are looking for and determine if our institute is a good match for you and your son/daughter.”

Q1. Name and contact details. Record these on an excel file or notebook. (See Student Enquiry Form in Resources)

Q2. What area do you live in? Generally, it’s more difficult for a family to stay committed to attending all the group classes and lessons if they live far away. on the other hand, some families manage the long distances because they see the value of joining your program.

Q3. Why are you thinking about violin as the instrument for your child? Some parents may be already educated about Suzuki violin or the method you use, are clear about what they are looking for and want to join a good program.

Q4. What activities does your child already attend?

Listen to their story

Questions about their interests and background, where they live in and what got them interested in the violin can lead into more specific areas such as the activities they already do together.

From this conversation you begin to see how they work together and how many activities they are already committed to. What are the parents trying to do for their children by attending those activities?

Already busy with other activities?

Doing one skill based activity really well is at odds with the current fashion of children being dropped off for a variety of easier activities. As mentioned earlier, occasionally some of the parents we interview prove very attached to the drop off culture and don’t want to actually participate in lessons with their child.

Our lessons include parents, who are up and involved in the class, enjoying learning skills alongside their child. There’s no time to sit at the back of the class reading a magazine.

What kind of violin studies are you looking for?

This question helps to identify some of their expectations about learning to become a good musician, where they want to go with it, and raises the often misunderstood topic of inborn talent.

During the conversation, rather than trying to persuade or convince parents and students to join, our task is to discover and imagine if they will be happy in our school and enjoy working together with the other members and each other at Home Practice.

Cheers, Allie

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Home Practice – The Big Picture

The Home Practice Series is about how to create a daily habit of good practice that is both enjoyable and rewarding. In other words, it’s about how to teach students to make rapid progress in their playing through great home practice and to love the journey! It starts with the Big Picture.

mountain climber

Photo by Charlotte Karlsen

Classic fM recently published an article on how many hours the great classical virtuosos practise.  Coming from these musicians who have worked hard to master their playing are constantly performing at the highest level, it’s interesting to hear what they say. You can read the complete article here.

We picked three familiar violinists from their list.

Nicola Benedetti: 3-7 hours a day

The star Scottish violinist has said she practises for between three and seven hours every day.

Benedetti told the Daily Record that as a child, she would often happily miss friends’ parties in order to dedicate more time to her instrument. “I was never made to practise instead of going to a friend’s birthday party, but I remember crying once or twice because I was given the choice and chose orchestra instead of the party.”

She adds that during summer holidays, “We would practise for two to three hours every morning on holiday and do some theory and spend some time concentrating”.

Itzhak Perlman: 3 hours a day

Speaking to Classic FM, Itzhak Perlman said three hours a day was “personally fine” for him.

A lot of my students feel that if you practise more, it’s going to be better,” Perlman told us. “But the answer to this is, that’s wrong. Don’t practise for more than four to five hours. Afterwards, it’s not useful anymore. The body doesn’t absorb any more stuff… and you can cause yourself physical problems.”

Sarah Chang: up to 8 hours a day

American violin virtuoso Sarah Chang told The Strad that while she often practises for a long time, she advocates taking breaks to break it up.

If I have a lot of repertoire to learn, I’ll practise for up to eight hours in a day,” Chang said. “But I never practise for more than an hour at a time: I’ll do an hour then eat something, do another hour and watch some TV, do another hour and so on.”

Even if it is not as much as a virtuoso violinist, how on earth can teachers get their students to do more practice? Typically, some students do a good amount daily, some a tiny bit on most days, others are hit and miss during the week and some do none at all.

How long do you want your students to practise at home every day? You might have a different amount of time for younger students in your head compared to more advanced students, but how often do you end up with the situation I described above?

That’s the point where I say, “start with The Big Picture.”

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Home Practice – Best Practice

Speaking as a violin teacher, I know how much we love providing lessons, group classes, concerts and guiding students in all the joys and challenges of learning and making music. Interestingly – or perhaps paradoxically – we dedicate years of intensive study and hard work to develop and deepen our teaching skills, while our students’ greatest progress in both playing skills and musicality happens almost entirely at home practice, away from the teaching studio and our professional oversight.

Photo courtesy of Shche Team

Generally speaking, teachers know what their pupils need to practise and how they should be going about it. Do we always know they are doing it correctly?

Beyond the content side of things, a vital part of our job is to inspire and help them reach that happy stage when good practice has become a daily productive habit.

Beyond the content side of things, a vital part of our job is to inspire and help them reach that happy stage when good practice has become a daily productive habit.

What, How and Why of Practice

Plenty of materials have been published for the young violinist. Most of them are about what to practise. Some time ago, for example, I bought a book called Practiceopedia, by Philip Johnston, a master work with a wealth of ideas, tips, techniques and exercises. Philip’s publications on this aspect of practice are an extraordinary achievement.

An earlier book of his, Not Until You’ve Done Your Practice: The Classic Survival Guide For Kids Who Are Learning A Musical Instrument, But Hate Practicing, is more about the conundrum we teachers set out to solve: How can we help all our students to practise daily and make good progress  – and actually enjoy practising?  I suspect music teachers of every country and culture face this question in varying degrees at some point.

The Vision

Finding the solution to this quandary was an important milestone in our violin institute, to reach the point where every student, supported by their parents, was happily practising twice daily and making good progress.  I’d previously thought this goal could be reached by some students only, and probably not by the whole school. Ultimately, it was achieved in an unexpected way, which will be explained in our upcoming series, Home Practice.

In Japan

While studying at Suzuki’s music institute in Japan we’d seen how young beginners had practised and progressed, with remarkably consistent results. Like us, visitors viewed it with a mixture of awe and puzzlement.

Were there cultural influences at work that enabled all of them to cheerfully achieve such a high level of work? The Japanese teachers we spoke to at the institute didn’t think so, but I wondered if they could see it from outside the bubble.

The Motivation and Willpower Fallacy

In the past I used the word motivation in relation to achieving habitual enjoyable practice, but ultimately came to think this term is inadequate and even misleading. Motivation and willpower are capricious forces with a tendency to wax and wane, as any gym member or ex-smoker will tell you.

Everyone Needs to Practise

Great practice creates great playing” applies to beginners as much as it does to advanced players. Teachers, parents and students are all aware, sometimes frustratingly so, of this obvious truth. Despite the myths, even so-called talented or gifted players need to do lots and lots of regular practice.

The Purpose of Practice

As we see it, violin students practise to improve their playing for the following reasons, to:
1. Learn, memorise and internalise the music;
2. Improve and perfect difficult passages;
3. Learn and master new skills and techniques;
4. Grow their musicality;
5. Transform consciously performed skills into spontaneous abilities;
6. Discover and understand deeper meanings within the music.

Key Questions about Home Practice

The Home Practice Series will explore how to create a daily habit of good practice that is both enjoyable and rewarding. Here’s a few examples of the questions the series will address:

1. How long should violin students practise for?
2. Should practice be based on time spent, the progress actually achieved in the practice session, or what?
3. What are the most important things to practise? Technique, musicianship, memorising new music, improving previously learned pieces…?
4. What should be practised first?
5. How should we set achievable practice goals ?
6. What time of day is best for practice?
7. Should it apply in the same way to all levels?
8. How do you make practice into a spontaneous habit?
9. What is the place and value of scales, exercises and reading for young students?
10. What are the effects, consequences and point of rewards and incentives?
11. What is the role of parents in home practice?
12. How important is listening to music for practice purposes?
13. How do beginners practise intonation?
14. How much do students need to practise posture?
15. What is the place of games? How do they help students to practise? And what are some good games for practice?

Cheers,

John and Allie

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Violin Beginners – Week 9 and 10

Week 9 and 10 bring Violin Beginners and their parents to the final pieces in the Twinkle jigsaw. They’ve learned to play the whole piece smoothly and confidently from start to finish. Already they’re starting to glimpse the satisfying sense of freeing their focus from technical to musical matters.

Original photo by Tetiana Shyshkina

What’s left to learn in these last two lessons in the 10 Weeks to Twinkles Series? This long post shows how to take students and parents through the key points of learning to play each of the Twinkle variations and the Theme at the right tempo.

These two weeks of lessons and group classes are best taken at your own pace. The ability to play quickly requires a healthy amount of consistent work. Some parent-student duos may complete them in a week, while others need more unhurried time.

Playing with speed and accuracy, vital skills for all violinists, is achieved through habitual practice and refinement. Don’t we all know it? Suzuki provided us with a good way to practise towards this goal by learning to play with the recordings, but are beginners capable of doing it?

I’ll answer the question with a little story.

Before returning home after our studies in Japan with Suzuki we spent a lovely year in the UK, where I taught the students of a young teacher who was about to leave to study with Suzuki in Japan. They were a truly delightful group, making good progress, enthusiastic and well taught. A few students had reached into Volume 5 and were playing Vivaldi’s Concerto in G minor, albeit rather slowly. In fact, playing at the right tempo was a major challenge for all of them.

What was the reason, I wondered, for such slow playing? In an early lesson, I found out by asking a few of the advanced students to play one of the easier Twinkle variations with the recording as part of a bowing exercise, and was surprised to discover they couldn’t keep up. At the Suzuki Institute in Matsumoto, we’d seen very young beginners happily playing the variations at the recording tempo with relative ease.

Now we had a way forward.

We began teaching the students how to play with the recordings and started a campaign of building them into daily home practice. Although several parents expected the task to be impossibly difficult, after a couple of months of hard work, everyone, including most beginners, could play their pieces at the right tempo with the recordings and showed big improvement in other areas, such as memorisation and intonation.

Teaching how to play with the recordings goes beyond just putting them on and attempting to keep up. As you’ll see below in the first Twinkle variation, there are 7 clear steps to make sure it is positively successful.

Main Teaching Point for Week 9 and 10 – How to Play all the Twinkle Variations and Theme up to Tempo

What To Teach in Week 9 and 10

(For TSV Gold members)

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Violin Beginners – Week 8

By Week 8, Violin Beginners and their parents have seen the promised land. The final mysteries of Twinkle’s structure have been unveiled, and by learning to play the sections, the vision of the whole piece emerges from the weeks of carefully practised elements.

However, there’s a difference between knowing a piece and actually being able to perform it with grace and fluency. How do we cross the bridge from knowledge to skill and ability?

The Promised land

Photo courtesy of Dmitry Gladkikh

This question points to the challenge ahead, and for the the first time introduces the parent and student into the lifelong learning process for all dedicated musicians: how to practise and perfect a piece of music until it becomes spontaneous and natural, so that one’s attention is focused purely on expression and interpretation, giving life to the music beyond technique and the technical.

Main Teaching Point for Week 8 – Learning to Play Twinkles without Stops or Pauses

What To Teach in Week 8

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Violin Beginners – Week 7

For violin beginners and their parents, Week 7 approaches as an exciting milestone in their progress towards Twinkles. During this week the step by step array of skills from the past six weeks comes together into playing their first piece, which is of course, Twinkles!

Little beginners often don’t quite realise that from week 6 lesson they’ve been practising the 4 fingered notes which – together with open A and E strings – are all the notes they need to play Twinkle.

Twinkle is carefully practised and memorised in a particular way, but before we get this step, let’s look at how Week 7 is structured.

Main Teaching Point for Week 7 – Learning to Play the Twinkles Sections

What To Teach in Week 7

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How to Build a Powerful Memory for Violin Beginners

As you can see in the violin beginner’s lesson plans for 10 Weeks to Twinkles, it’s crucial for the students to build and accumulate the exquisitely fine skills for playing. The key to success being all of the incrementally acquired skills and learning points are permanently remembered – and none can be forgotten.

young elephant

Photo courtesy of Maurits Bausenhart

Each lesson is progressive, based on building the violin playing memory bank by adding each of the skills to those already established. During lessons and group class, teachers must illustrate and explain clear learning pathways in order for parents to understand how their child can consistently master and retain new steps. The lesson plans set out in 10 Weeks to Twinkles aim to build a pattern of revision and learning so children can progress through the pieces in the Suzuki books much faster than usual.

When children have mastered Twinkles and all the early learning needed to get to Twinkles, we expect two books a year as normal progress. This will happen only if each step is cemented during each week and the teacher is watching to make sure none of the steps are lost along the way.

Therefore one of the vital skills for teachers to impart – and for parents to master – is the role of building memory. Generally speaking, it’s a real challenge for many parents to understand how orderly and organised memory work has to be. This is the most common reason why the learning rate is slower for some children.

In many school classrooms something may be taught once or twice and rarely or never seen by the child again. There is no chance for memory and memorisation to be built. This trend has been exacerbated by the inroads of technology into learning.

The Value of Good Repetition

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Violin Beginners – Week 6

Week 6 for violin beginners opens up with the new skill they have all wanted to start for the past few weeks: Learning to place fingers on the fingerboard to form the notes that make the music!

violin left hand

Left hand studies start after the bowing basics are fluent and confident. Why not before? It’s all part of establishing skills cumulatively – building abilities a step at a time.

Main Teaching Point for Week 6 – Left Hand Shape and Correct Finger Placement

What To Teach in Week 6

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Violin Beginners – Week 5

At Week 5, some Violin Beginners are starting to show a little fluency in their rhythms. It shows up in group class as they try to match the playing style and tempo of the other students. This is a very healthy development. Emulating the advanced players is a great way to improve – and as we’ve said before, it’s a lot of fun to watch!

Photo by Toa Heftiba

Like all beginners, these eager new students want to start playing pieces and are spontaneously joining in at the group class playthrough with the more advanced students. And why shouldn’t they?

When we all first talked about this idea, as mentioned in a previous post, John was dubious about letting them do it. Wouldn’t they learn to play with mistakes? He was still a little doubtful when we started the experiment, mainly because for a moment or two the sound was somewhat cacophonous, but over the next few weeks what happened was dramatic and unexpected.

These beginners were making much faster progress than any previous group of new students. Not only were they were absorbing good playing skills at a faster rate, they were learning to play correctly.

So what’s happening at Week 5 in the 10 Weeks to Twinkles series?

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Games For Violin Beginners

With everyone living in isolation, parents are even more challenged with how to get children to do the things they need to do. This is where games help with violin practice. This is relevant for teachers in the studio and for group classes, but games are equally suited to the time we are all in.

games

Photo courtesy of Hannah Rodrigo

Tools like Skype and Zoom will help to teachers to continue lessons, and the ideas below will give teachers ways to cope with online teaching, balancing the focus of the lesson between parent and child – especially for Book One students. Keep very well, everyone!

Games are a secret ingredient of success for parents, especially working with violin beginners, and of course for teachers in lessons. The games we describe in this post can be used in practically every lesson and for any teaching point, and are based on correct repetition and building memory.

Good games take the seriousness out of the moment and the toil out of practice, both in the studio and at home. As you’ll see below, once a teacher has mastered the principles of creating games for children perfecting all aspects of learning the violin, it is easy to endlessly create new versions and variations of any of the games you use.

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