Allie Berger

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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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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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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How to Select Students for your Violin Studio

Starting out as a violin teacher is a very exciting time! After the years spent studying, the countless hours practising and playing the music you love and will teach, greeting the first nervously smiling students and their parents feels like a dream come true.

You’re all so eager to begin, it’s tempting to accept every potential student, just because they ask you. For a time, I did take everyone, and the interesting consequences taught me some important lessons. As we refined our new student induction process, the positive repercussions for our violin programme and students were dramatic.

As you’ll see later in the post, we realised that how you choose students and who you select is critical to the overall success of your violin studio. Why? (Hint: it’s not only the student you are choosing.)

How to Select Students for your Violin Studio

Building from your Vision

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Group Class Success – Goal Setting

One of my biggest interests in the arts of teaching and learning is the power of the group to get things done and get skills learned. I would even go as far as saying that individual learning leaves most students in an unmotivated no man’s land where not enough learning happens. In Suzuki group classes, it’s great to see children (and parents) learning from each other. It looks like the child is thinking, You can do it, so I must be able to do it too. And bang! They work it out.

And one of the best things I have seen was a child at the end of Book 1 as she sat entranced, watching some Book 4 players. At the same time she had her violin half way up attempting to follow the fingering. I was very impressed by how close she came.

Another time I noticed a four year old student intensely watching some advanced students rehearsing a piece for concert. The group session for the younger students had finished and her mother desperately wanted to go home, but the little girl dug in her heels and absolutely refused to go. This little violin player turned herself into a very quick learner and was more in control of the learning process than her mother could fathom.

The group has what I call an enormous unseen learning effect on the individual.

Goal Setting

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Group Class Success – Building Memory for Successful Learning

A significant moment arrived in our violin school when we decided to create a fast incubator for violin progress and practice – without the pressure. Our students were doing quite well and some very well, however we believed everyone could go much quicker and learn new music easier. We wanted better results, greater success and faster progress for all students. Ultimately, it worked. How did we do it and what did we achieve?

Photo courtesy of David Becker

How to Build a Powerful Memory

One of our initial steps was to focus on how to build memory. To work successfully with their children, parents need to understand how memory works, how it is built. This topic formed the basis of several talks I gave at our group classes. The Talk came after a short break following the second session, where everyone – parents and children of all ages including the three year old students – came together to listen and participate in the discussion. I aimed to keep the talk short. To my amazement even the youngest students would listen and sometimes have great answers to my questions about how to study violin at home.

Previous teaching experience had taught me how to wait until everyone was quiet before starting. It is quite reassuring and fun in such a mixed group to watch the calm tide of quiet go through the room as people and children realise you are ready to start.

At group classes we illustrated clear learning pathways for parents to understand how their child could consistently master and retain new steps. This pattern meant that children could progress through the pieces in the Suzuki books much faster than usual. Once children had mastered Twinkles and all the early learning needed to get to Twinkles, we came to expect two books a year as normal progress. Beginners were able to learn Twinkles in about three months.

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Group Class Success – Session 3 The Talk

From the activities and enjoyment of the Play Through and Teaching Session 2, the group class is now buzzing with energy and enthusiasm. Parents and students are chatting with each other, exchanging ideas and discussing points from the sessions. It’s a good time for the teachers to take advantage of the heightened concentration to share their knowledge and experience about important areas of learning to play the violin. It’s Session 3: Welcome to The Talk!

Allie presents the Talk

A relatively short session of about 5 to 15 minutes, The Talk is an opportunity to engage and educate parents and students about topics such as how to implement morning and afternoon practice in order to learn new pieces quickly, infallible techniques to securely memorise the music and how to create fluent musical ability.

In the video below in this post I present my talk on the keys to daily practice. It’s particularly interesting to see how the students themselves contribute to the discussion.

Within our violin school The Talk also grew into a kind of interactive forum about how to work together successfully.

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Group Class Success – What do parents do?

What do parents do at lessons? Everything! And how does that work?

Group class

We’ve all heard it before: Parents are the key to their children’s success. And it’s true. If a child has lost motivation or is not moving through the pieces, the missing link is parent involvement. But parents need to know what to do. I’ve experienced Suzuki Violin first hand as a parent and as an educator. My role as a parent was far more challenging, every day at home with my children grappling with ways to ‘get’ them to play their pieces.

At the heart of the problem is the western tuition model’s narrow focus on the child and the student in the lesson. I too sat silently, a parent at the back of the room while the teacher expertly taught my children one-to-one. Occasionally during the lesson, the teacher nodded over at me to make sure I had made a note for home practice. Despite my diligence, I felt disconnected and superfluous. Being the parent at your child’s lesson can be an excruciating experience and it is no surprise some mothers and fathers wonder why they have to be there.

Problems of the Parent Disconnect

I’ve watched classes where parents bring magazines to read during the lesson, or slip outside for long conversations on their mobiles, and see they were going to be quite unable to work with their child during the week. I imagined they’d go home, tell their child to practice and wonder why there is so much resistance. In the very early stages of violin playing, young children need an enormous amount of home teaching. Violin is a very challenging instrument to learn. We’ve all heard a parent say, “I don’t think my child is suited to violin, they have lost interest, we are thinking of giving up.” In other words the parent is giving up.

My own experiences and observations of the parent disconnect in the lesson made me think about how it could be different. I began with the lesson structure, what the ideal outcomes should be, and how parents could communicate and work in depth with their children about the study points in question.

What I saw at the Summer School

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Group Class Success: Managing Behaviour

We are in a quandary about how to handle children. The words behaviour and discipline are charged with tension as arguments rage back and forth between traditional and alternative ideas – but as I explain later, I don’t like using the words. I believe we are looking for other, better ways in our dealings with children, and as a society, I think it is very important that we keep revisiting this topic.

The fact is that in many cases, especially in schools and for parents, behaviour and discipline are fraught simply because modern children see that they can refuse to comply with demands placed on them by adults – and really, at the end of the story, can’t be made to do something anymore. Quite often they don’t care about the punishments or embargoes devised to keep them in order. However, there is a way to bypass this deadlock. To have successful, productive and enjoyable group classes and violin lessons, we have to find it.

I’m not so keen on the word discipline for its old connotations – children to be seen and not heard, controlling children rather than inspiring them and so on, therefore I might just have to drop the word and look for other ways of explaining something that is, or should be, alive and inspiring. When it really boils down, what we want to do is to create and develop good relationships. but instead I think we have ended up in a muddle.

Disconnected incentives extinguish interest

For a long time now, focus on children’s behaviour has been driven by the psychological model of Behaviourism. From this doctrine, we alternate between reward and punishment as the way to cope with children – great for rats and pigeons perhaps, but not the best if we are to have healthy and successful teacher-student and parent-child relationships. Clearly, it is a toxic mix. To be honest, every society (and it doesn’t really matter which country) is floundering to cope with bringing up children. If we haven’t made a connected relationship with our children in the early years, we are headed for a bumpy ride and much difficulty managing them as teenagers.

Create genuine interest

I love watching John’s and Phianne’s classes as they are so adept at teaching. They rarely have a student who is not concentrating on what they are doing. Even the most disconnected children pay attention during their sessions, but it’s not so apparent how it’s being done.

At the end of one Group Class, I recall speaking with a group of parents who unwittingly made the comment, Oh, John and Phianne are so patient with the children. Shocked that they could miss seeing the point, I said in frustration, It has absolutely nothing to do with patience! It comes from creating interest and focusing the children on the teaching point.

When children become intensely engaged in doing, behaviour problems fade away. Parents and teachers alike are often so accustomed to disciplining children’s behaviour and becoming so stressed and frazzled in the process that they cannot see another totally different way when it is in front of them.

Even at university lectures for my education degree, we were instructed never to turn our backs on the class!

Don’t you just hate it when kids roll their eyes at you? When they start eye-rolling, communicating with others or mucking up in classes, lessons or home practice, it’s a sure sign that attention is on behaviour. (These days I think it is very funny when I see eye rolling.)

A lot of keeping students in the flow comes from being organised ourselves, especially in our head.

FOUR PRINCIPLES FOR GROUP CLASS BLISS

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