John Berger

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 – 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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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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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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Violin Beginners – Week 4

By Week 4 our new violin beginners and parents are enjoying the two daily practices. At the group classes they’ve joined both the first session play-along and the beginner group in Session 2 where they are swept up into playing with more advanced Twinkle players. What comes next?

Photo by Dawid Zawiła

Why did Suzuki focus on learning to play rhythms in the beginning while some other music teachers were persisting with reading? It’s all about the growth of ability, which involves absorbing the sound of the music and developing physical skills.

Which are the most important skills?

Ask anyone who hasn’t learned a string instrument to name what looks like the most difficult skill to master on the violin and they’re likely to identify left hand gymnastics, the dazzlingly rapid and amazingly accurate display of fingering up and down the fingerboard.

While it’s certainly true that left hand skills require an immense amount of careful practice to precisely form correct pitches of notes all over the fingerboard at speed, the violinist’s right arm and hand have far more control of the sound – its tone, shape, colour, volume, attack, length, timbre and rhythm, music’s living soul.

How to Achieve Good Progress

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Violin Beginners – Week 3

Two weeks of daily practice and listening to recordings, two studio lessons and two group classes. That’s what’s already happened as Week 3 arrives for our new violin beginner.

Beginners week 3

Photo courtesy of Aaron Burden

The bowhold and violin hold, two essential foundations for learning to play the violin, are starting to feel natural and easier to do. These two skills need to be habitual for our new student to focus attention on the next major advance – learning to play the Twinkle rhythms!

In the first instance, learning to play the rhythms is a physical skill, and as you’ll see below, teaching a new student to play each Twinkle rhythm involves giving them the experience and feeling of the correct bow arm motion.

We’ll show how the teacher helps the student’s bow arm produce the rhythm and as it is refined and improved, listening and making a good sound takes over as the basis for bow control.

Our aim, even at this early stage, is to extend the beginner’s awareness from the up and down of the bow arm to encompass the quality of the sound they are creating. The search for beauty and good tone quality begins at the very outset of the new player’s violin journey.

Main Teaching Point for Week 3 – Learning to Play Two Rhythms on E String

What To Teach in Week 3

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Violin Beginners – Week 2

By the time Week 2 arrives for new violin beginners, the parent and child have become part of the community of violin musicians and are setting the daily activities in motion from Group Class and their individual lesson. Every day they listen to good recordings of the music they’ll soon be learning. At home they’re practising the bowhold together and having fun clapping the Twinkle rhythms. What’s next?


Photo by Madison Nickel

From taking part in the group class and watching other individual lessons, parents and beginners see how students work and conduct themselves. Parents have started reading Suzuki’s insights about how to create musical ability.

Beginners actually make the fastest progress in the group classes, mainly from watching, listening, joining in what others are doing and setting goals for the week with other parents and children.

They emulate the advanced players and respond quickly to the environment and energy of the class. We often see young beginners learn skills in an hour or so that would otherwise take a week or more of practice.

This is the time to take advantage of the flood of enthusiasm to start building the expectation and habit of quick progress.

Main Teaching Point for Week 2 – the Violin Hold

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