From the Matsumoto notebook – Helpmates

Last week as I read through an old notebook from our time in Japan with Suzuki, I was flooded with memories of those precious and transformative years.

My notebook is filled with notes and sketches from Suzuki’s classes, highlighting his passion – some would say obsession – for teaching students how to produce a beautiful, resonant, powerful tone. On a faded page, I found the description of a simple and remarkable lesson he gave at a Matsumoto summer school workshop that is related to this skill. I want to share it with you.

Photo courtesy of Northumberland National Park

Suzuki responded spontaneously to a student’s needs and unerringly identified the particular skill or understanding that would bring about the greatest progress. In this instance the exercise he devised was more than just a way to improve the student’s sound quality, it was part of his teaching philosophy about how we can help each other progress using the skills of parents and other students.

This is what I remember.

How to Learn Skill, Style and Charisma

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All Together Now

Surprised and often amazed by the very young violinists at the Suzuki Institute after our arrival in Matsumoto, we gradually became aware of another remarkable feature of Dr Suzuki’s work. Among the Japanese string students we watched in classes and workshops there were players at all stages, yet strikingly there were no stragglers. Beyond the few exceptional performers, the general playing level of the students – and their eagerness to learn, practise and progress – was uniformly high.

Hirose teaching class

No stragglers or strugglers. How do they do it?

Wherever we’d observed classes and programs elsewhere in the world – and I have to say, within our own student body – there were some outstanding young players, but always a few who were battling to keep up.

We’d come to Japan to study with Suzuki firsthand, to see how Japanese Suzuki teachers worked and to understand how to achieve better results on our return.

The reasons for such a high and relatively even level of playing among the Japanese violin students proved more elusive than we imagined. At first it seemed to indicate a strong cultural element, although as you’ll see below, this was not the most the significant factor.

In short, there were two important goals in our quest:

  • To learn how the Suzuki school and its teachers achieved such a uniformly high level of playing ability in their students;
  • To research, understand and learn how to create similar results in our own programs back home.

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Home Practice – Common Mistakes

While it’s true we learn from our mistakes, a better course, if we can, is to avoid them in the first place. To do this, it becomes very important to know when you’re making one, because unless we clearly identify errors, they are likely to be repeated – or in other words, practised. When learning a new piece, for example, the result may be what teachers call ‘beautiful’ mistakes – errors made fluent through repetition.

Japanese caution sign

A humorous example of this type of mistaken practice was a young Book One student who spent his school holiday in enthusiastic pursuit of his heart’s desire – vibrato. Sam arrived at the first lesson of the new term, gushing out in an excited rush, “John, I can play vibrato now!!!

I watched him as he launch into a passionate Long Long Ago, swaying with rapturous enthusiasm. He had indeed taught himself a kind of vibrato, by pulsing his bow weight downwards as it moved along the string. Even open A’s and E’s ‘vibrated’ alarmingly.

Remembering some of Suzuki’s kindly words in such cases I said in effect, “Very good Sam… except that vibrato is made by the left hand.” To soften the disappointment I then added, “Nonetheless, what you are doing is a very useful for learning how to control the weight of the bow on the string and the shape of each note.” It took a little time to explain and demonstrate the difference – and a few weeks for him to resist playing with his special vibrato.

Common Mistakes Made by Teachers and Parents

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Home Practice – Learning the New Piece

Once it becomes a happy habitual part of the start of the day, the Morning Session of Home Practice is pretty easy. We all love to do what we can do well, and for children that’s especially true. Often it’s hard to stop the practice. “I just want to play a couple more songs before breakfast, Mom” is music to any parent’s ears.

How about learning the new piece?

Mozart score

Learning the new piece is best achieved at Afternoon Practice. It’s at the other end of the day, when time is more relaxed and more participation (work) is required from parents than the morning session.

Done the right way this session can also be made easy and enjoyable. In this part of home practice we’re working with another positive principle: Children love to learn something new. Don’t they? Well, it depends on how you go about it.

How to Make Learning the New Piece Easy

Afternoon home practice is the time to learn the new piece and to practise study points from the lesson.

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Home Practice – Starting a New Year or Term

Welcome to the New Year and a new term! We hope everyone had a lovely break, spending time with family and relaxing – and we especially hope this year proves way less stressful than the last two years have been.

New Day

Now it’s time to get up and running! Our Home Practice posts towards the end of last year laid out the Big Picture. It’s a way of planning so that you know where you are headed for the coming year and the term. In this post I wanted to do a short recap of how to plan for a new school term.

Together with the parents and students, for each child we write up a simple plan for the year. This works for new beginners just as well as for students who have been studying for a while.

Setting the Big Goals

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Home Practice – Memory

As we said in a previous post, we passed a significant milestone in our violin school after creating a fast incubator for violin progress and practice. Achieving this without pressure was the all-important stipulation. Even though many of our students were making good progress and some doing very well, we were convinced everyone in the school could advance much faster and learn new music more easily. Ultimately, it happened and memory was a key part of its success.

Our goal is founded on everyone practising twice a day!! It’s not an easy task to get parents and their children practising once a day, let alone twice. The twice a day goal was based on our understanding of how memory works.

How to Build a Powerful Memory

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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

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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?


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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