Basics

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 – Teaching the Points

In this post on Group Class Success Series we look at the second teaching session, which focuses on violin pieces and points within the levels. For violin programs based on Suzuki’s principles, Session Two is the mainstay of group work, violin workshops and summer schools.

Photo courtesy of Michel Catalisano

In many areas of violin studies, especially for achieving big advances in playing style, tone control, performance presentation and musicality, these classes are more effective than one-to-one lessons. Students learn skills about the quality of their playing and sound from watching and studying with other players, and the persuasive social proof principle comes into effect, creating the sense and conviction, if the others can do it, I can too!

How to choose the main study point

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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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Group Class Success – Playing with the Suzuki Recordings

Listening to and playing with the recordings is a cornerstone of the Suzuki Method. Once you really get it, everything changes and it’s so much easier for all students to progress rapidly. Some may think it is a bit stilted to play along with the recording, yet I always imagine what it is like for young children, or anyone for that matter, to go home and try to play violin without first hearing and knowing the sound of the music.

Listening to the recording builds the inner music landscape in all its auditory vistas, colours and details – I’m amazed how some parents of violin students don’t take advantage of its extraordinary power. Without it there is little in the child’s mind to make the connection between head, hands and instrument and the only time the student hears the real music is once a week, at the lesson. There’s virtually no hope they can carry home what they’ve heard and hold it usefully through the week without going back to the recordings.

These days, few parents are experienced piano accompanists or accomplished violinists, so without the sounds of the recording, like in Old Mother Hubbard, the music cupboard for the musical mind is relatively bare. The recorded music is the means by which parents can build a strong, healthy music learning environment at home and speed up their child’s learning success.

Learning the Language of Music

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Twinkle Twinkle Little Star – Revisited

Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, The Alphabet Song and Baa Baa Black Sheep are all derivations of the 18th century French children’s melody “Ah! vous dirai-je, maman” – which W.A. Mozart used as the theme for his Twelve Variations.

Shinichi Suzuki, recognising the potential of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’s structure for learning the first skills on the violin, chose the melody for the first piece to start teaching young children to play.

Why was Twinkle was such a good choice?

The violin skills that can be learned from this song come down to rhythm, bowing, string crossings, fingering and good intonation, a pretty good list for such a simple piece!

Get Rhythm

Girl dancing

Photo courtesy of Hanna Morris

Concentrating on the open E string, students learn to bow five key musical rhythms before starting on fingered notes. The focus on the physical side of violin playing in these crucial first stages creates a robust foundation for building other skills.

Suzuki’s early emphasis on rhythmic development contrasts with methods which start with longer bow strokes with slower and simpler rhythms.

Starting with the rhythms and and achieving a good level of fluency kick-starts rapid progress through the pieces, mainly because mastery of the bow arm is the primary means of producing and controlling tone.

In principle every art form works this way: physical proficiency is the key prerequisite for developing refined artistic expression.

Just how well should the rhythms be played before it’s time to start on the notes?

This question relates to every skill and sets the pattern for future learning.

Starting with the iconic first rhythm, variously named Ta-ka-Ta-ka-Ta-Ka, Busy-Busy-Stop, Stop and so on – the words and syllables reflect détaché and staccato qualities in the rhythm – and learning the others one or two at time at lessons, students should aim to get up to the tempo of the Suzuki Violin recording by the time all the Twinkle variations are completed.

Don’t be daunted by this speed goal. Practiced correctly, even very young students manage to do it.

The musical qualities of the rhythms emerge from the physical skills, which are the result of repeated practice. The arm motion should be smooth, strong and automatic.

See Five Easy Rhythms

Bowing and Scraping

Suzuki’s tone, tone, tone mantra may seem premature when applied to beginners, yet I am always amazed at young children’s astute perceptions about sound quality. They comment about their tone with disarming frankness. “That was totally yukky!” said 3 year old Lily one day, after playing a slightly scratchy rhythm, as we all laughed in agreement.

A good tone teaching strategy is to pose simple questions or to create choices.

The teacher, for example, plays a segment twice and asks, “Which sounds better, No. 1 or 2?” – gradually reducing the contrast between the two.

Another good approach is “What’s wrong with the sound of my playing?” and “How can I make it sound better?” These simple queries can lead to hilarious replies, providing good opportunities for light-hearted teaching points.

Photo courtesy of Uriel Soberanes

Clever Crossings

The violin has four very different strings, yet good players are able to produce seamless streams of melody which sound as if they are playing on a single string. It comes down to exquisite tone control and superb string crossing. Introducing quick, economical and clean string crossing in the lead-up to learning Twinkle begins building this pivotal skill.

Photo by Jiunn Kang Too

See Seamless String Crossing

Finely Formed Fingers

Although every person’s hands and fingers differ in length, width, shape and flexibility, the optimum form for the neck and fingerboard is essentially the same for all players. Getting it right from the beginning enables quick, accurate fingering and sets up the hand and fingers for great vibrato, shifting and elegant, stress free playing.

Placing 1st, 2nd and 3rd correctly on A string at B, C# and D (with tiny fingers, 4th comes a little later) for Twinkle, helps to create and maintain the best shape for the left hand.

See The Violinist’s Left Hand.

Intonation for the In Tune Nation

Like good tone quality, learning to play the violin with accurate intonation commences in the earliest stages, because it stems from listening, discriminating and adjusting against an inner gold standard of pitch. Training the link between finger and pitch starts from the day fingered notes begin – and the listening habit should continue for a lifetime.

The Twinkle melody starts with a perfect fifth, the most fundamental and natural interval in music after the octave. As long as the violin is accurately tuned, this cardinal harmony establishes a clear foundation for F# and the other fingered notes to be played in tune.

Children’s hearing is spectacularly sensitive and acute, especially up to the age of about eight, when the sense of good intonation should be well established.

Ingrained poor intonation can be repaired with careful guidance. I saw a striking example in St. Petersburg, unambiguously clear despite my lack of Russian, where the teacher patiently corrected a 10 year old violinist in subtle pitch details over a long lesson, singing intervals to illustrate her points and tirelessly refining the student’s understanding of intonation.

Greater Glider, Victoria – a great listener!

See How to Teach Good Intonation.

One Skill at a Time

Unavoidably, students have to work on several areas during any stage of their studies, nonetheless practice must be singularly focused on one skill at a time for a long enough periods to make real progress. In this way instrumental abilities are built up sequentially, each on secure foundations with a minimum of backtracking. Twinkle is the perfect piece for building these beautiful abilities – one by one.

Practice sessions that attempt to cover all bases slow things down and waste time.

Two of our most conscientious students accidentally fell into this mistake. Their diligent parents unwittingly created a practice regime clogged with too many bits and pieces and no clear headway was made in the most important physical skills. By the time we woke up to what was happening, habits were laid down requiring some laborious repairs. All was well in the end, but it wasn’t easy or particularly enjoyable.

The idea of extended practice on one skill is out of favour in some education circles. Part of the teacher’s job is to inspire confidence in their students about their ability to learn. Seeing the sense of achievement they experience is one of the great joys of teaching,

It doesn’t mean being a pontificating perfectionist or a discipline dragon, just sticking at it, a smile on your face and a joke or two to lighten the load!

Cheers,

John

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How to use the magic power of repetition to acquire ability

Ability, especially if it is exceptional, has this wonderful and mysterious quality of fluency and grace. You can see and hear it every day in the most ordinary places and situations: a skateboarder gliding past on the street, a barista producing another cup of perfect aromatic coffee, the clear voice of a child speaking, the sure motions of a chef creating a culinary masterpiece.

skateboarder

Photo by Hans Eiskonen

What ability looks like

  • Fluency and ease of movement.
  • The skill looks and sounds natural and seems effortless. Observers are often unaware of the level of difficulty – until they try to do it themselves.
  • The skill is integrated into the whole. Physical actions seem to involve the whole body rather than just one part, such as an arm or leg.
  • It works spontaneously and can easily adapt to different situations or contexts.
  • The performer’s self awareness is minimised, and absorption in the activity is near total.

Musicians and other performing artists who have achieved high levels of ability are able to focus on expression, communication and subtle details while performing the most complex passages. I once watched Vadim Repin rehearsing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with orchestra, chatting away with the conductor as he played. (In the video below he is playing the Tchaik in 1989 – when he was a teenager.) Read More →

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Overcoming Performance Anxiety – A Personal Odyssey

In this post, the second about overcoming performance anxiety, I relate how we handled it in our violin institute and my personal experiences. In the lead up to my final concert in Japan, I stumbled upon a solution to this mystifying nervous reaction. Later on I realised it is an old technique, used by many before me.

Graduation-Concert-87

(This photo from should get a few laughs from old friends and colleagues.)

It’s clear for teaching violin, or any of the performing arts, that there are two starting points when dealing with the problem of performance anxiety.

  1. Bypassing it from the very beginning;
  2. Overcoming it when you’ve already got it.

This rather simple and obvious division helps us determine which teaching and learning strategies we need to use for playing on stage with serenity and confidence.

1. Bypassing Performance Anxiety

As a result of some of my own experiences and those of my musician and music teacher friends, focus was initially centred on the second point: how to help students overcome performance anxiety. I wondered if predisposition (or luck) played a significant role in whether or not a performer suffered from nerves on stage.

The picture changed when we saw the concerts and classes of young violinists from the Suzuki Institute in Matsumoto. Performers of all ages appeared remarkably composed on stage. They were very well prepared and rehearsed, played securely from memory and with rare exceptions, seemed quite happy and relaxed to perform in front of large audiences.

Suzuki-Violinists-at-the-Budokan

Watching them confirmed to me the answer was training, learning and teaching – and not luck or natural propensity.

So on returning to teaching at our violin institute, we made a policy of giving all players lots of regular opportunities to perform publicly, as soloists and in groups, making sure no one was left out, regardless of age or level. Soloists played for our enthusiastic audience of parents in the last session of group class and we held extra solo preparation classes leading up to concert performances.

This was very successful, especially when we changed to regular weekly group classes. Students became accustomed to playing with confidence and flair in public, in both group pieces and solos, to the point where it became normal.

2. Overcoming Performance Anxiety

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How to Overcome Performance Anxiety

Performance anxiety or stage fright, has afflicted musicians throughout history, even famous virtuosos such as cellist Pablo Casals, tenor Luciano Pavarotti, violinist Kennedy and pianists Vladimir Horowitz and Arthur Rubenstein. Frédéric Chopin disliked performing in public for the same reason.

hands-over-face

Photo courtesy of Abigail Keenan

For some musicians, it fades away with lots of playing on stage or becomes controllable enough to add a little spark to the music.

In a newsletter two years ago, I told of my first experience of these perplexing sensations of nervousness while playing in public at the age of 6 or so. After years of regular performances as an adult it more or less stopped bothering me, until suddenly appearing again like an old ghost a week or so before my solo graduation concert at the Suzuki Institute in Japan.

I learned a very important lesson and experienced an epiphany which has stayed with me ever since. I’ll tell this more personal story and how we handled stage fright in our violin institute in my next post, but for now I want to look more broadly at the phenomenon.

What does it feel like?

The symptoms range from mild to severe, including perspiration (an aptly named cold sweat), increased heart rate, uncontrollable shaking or weakness in the hands and fingers, difficulty in concentration, memory lapses and feelings of panic and dread – triggered by the release of adrenaline into the bloodstream. An accompanying reaction is an intense self-consciousness, which seems impossible to avoid or control.

seal

Photo courtesy of Alec Weir

The sensations are highly individual. They may decline gradually, arrive in disconcerting surges or persist throughout the whole performance. Some performers experience a crisis point, marking a lessening of anxiety.

Origins

Talking with other musicians, it became clear that in many instances stage fright originated from a single stressful experience during childhood. Typically they remembered a difficult exam, recital or other significant stressful situation where it first became a problem. Many described it in terms of a personal flaw, an affliction that was part of their makeup. Several lost interest in playing in public altogether, preferring to play their music in private or make recordings.

How to Overcome Performance Anxiety: Some Common Strategies

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