Basics

How to Teach Beautiful Violin Bowing

We admire and compliment string players on the dazzling speed, dexterity and accuracy of their left hand on the fingerboard, yet it is the right arm, the bowing arm, that is the living instrument for expression of the music’s soul – the shape, colour, tone, volume, connections, rhythm, accents and the like – how sound is transformed into music.

And the way you move the bow – the unique motion of your arm –  is the visible trademark of your musicianship. As much as the sound you produce, it defines your character and personality as a violinist.

Takako-Nishizaki-bowing

Takako Nishizaki

What are the key characteristics of Beautiful Violin Bowing and how do you teach or learn them?

In this post I’ve included a few of the methods and games I use to teach good bowing. Like all teachers, I’ve borrowed, copied, modified and invented lots of ways to teach good bowing. As soon as I write one down for this post, another comes to mind that would be just as effective, or more suitable for particular students. The point, I suppose, is to begin with a clear idea of the desired outcome: the skill that the student needs to learn to have the greatest effect on their bowing, and to work out an accessible and hopefully enjoyable way of teaching it.

I recommend that you do the same: take and modify these exercises and games to suit your own situation and needs. Here’s my take on the ABCDE of Beautiful Bowing:

A. Straight Bows

One of the first bowing skills beginners learn is to play with straight bow strokes – parallel to the bridge. This helps to produce a pure tone and keeps the bow hair at the optimum place of contact with the string. The five basic rhythms are all played between bow tapes in the middle to lower half – where straight bows are easier.

Initially the hair is flat against the string and later students learn how to tilt the bow slightly away, to control the amount of hair contacting the string, create tone shape and play at the best sound point near the bridge.

How I Teach Straight Bows

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Technique and Musique – Teaching Violin Technique within the Suzuki Repertoire

If I asked students and parents to vote for the least interesting piece in Suzuki Volume 1, I’m fairly confident that Etude would win – or should that be lose? When first I began teaching, I was surprised to see it occasionally omitted from teaching programmes. Personally I rather like Etude, but I’m sure teacher votes wouldn’t count in this poll. The name gives it away – at least to French students. Etude ⇒ study ⇒ monotony ⇒ boring.

Itzhak Perlman - Photo by Edyta Blaszczyk

Itzhak Perlman – Photo by Edyta Blaszczyk

To quote the Wikipedia oracle:

étude – (a French word meaning study) an instrumental musical composition, usually short, of considerable difficulty, and designed to provide practice material for perfecting a particular musical skill.

Etudes have an illustrious musical history. Where would we be without Chopin’s empyrean Op.10 and Op.25 Etudes and the Transcendental Études by Liszt, for example?

Is Suzuki’s Etude just an exercise masquerading as a piece? It certainly serves as an ideal agent for teaching students to play in the key of G major, preparing the way for the Bach Minuets and beyond.

In the best études, musical and technical considerations are inseparable, which, if we apply this idea to pieces themselves, brings me to my point. Almost every piece in the Suzuki violin repertoire takes on a dual role as a vehicle for both technique and musique. As it pertains to teaching young children, this is one of Suzuki’s master strokes.

It is clearly wiser and easier to teach violin technique for students in the early years with ‘real’ music that is attractive and singable, leaving the great books of studies such as Kreutzer and Sevcik for later.

The good thing is you don’t need years of teaching experience to understand what each piece is good for. We all know, for example, how perfect the Twinkle variations are for teaching basic rhythms and other fundamentals. Below are some of the pieces I’ve found suited to teaching particular techniques. Although the lists aren’t comprehensive, I hope they are a useful guide. I have included links to some of the posts.

Bowing Techniques

Right Arm Focus

Left Hand Focus

Rhythm

Positions

Most pieces above Volume 4 use higher positions, therefore ongoing practice of shifting exercises is (unavoidably) essential. Individual pieces may be used to help solve particular problems.

Other

I should add an important disclaimer for parents and students: the music will inspire and enthuse, but of itself won’t instruct you in violin technique. Please ask your teacher to show you the techniques and study points associated with the pieces. (And of course, studying technique via the pieces isn’t intended to preclude the use of exercises.)

Thanks for coming to Teach Suzuki Violin! We appreciate your emails.

Cheers,

John

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How to Tune the Violin

When one of my student’s mothers called me on a late Saturday evening to tune her daughter’s violin I was happy to help out, thinking to myself, “What a dedicated parent she is, doing a great job with her child’s violin studies.” She drove about 10 kilometres to my house through busy traffic, knocking softly on my door in the dark, grateful to me for the minute or so of getting the 1/4 size violin nicely back in tune. On a couple of occasions I’d actually tuned violins on the phone, an entirely unsatisfactory undertaking, but it took this time for me to realize the problem I had made, for my students, their parents – and myself. For all of my fussiness about intonation and keeping violins precisely in tune, I’d failed to adequately train parents and students how to do it themselves.

fine tuning

Photo by Mitch Huang

A week’s practice on a poorly tuned violin starts to erode a student’s sense of good intonation. They usually know something is wrong, try to compensate, adjusting finger positions in the attempt, but it’s a losing battle. After a while they become accustomed to the out of tune strings, much in the same way as people who live near a busy road get used to the sound of constant traffic. They gradually stop hearing it.

Experienced violinists keep their violin in tune as a matter of course and are acutely aware if it drifts out of tune. Modern strings, made of wound metals and synthetic materials, hold their pitch much better than in those of the past, which were made of more natural stuff (sheep intestines). Nonetheless tuning takes practice and skill, even when the violin is set up correctly, a crucial prerequisite that is sometimes overlooked. Read about correct violin setup in my post: How to Choose a Good Student Violin.

How to Tune the Violin

What’s best to tune from? For parents and students I recommend starting with an electronic tuner. You’ll also need to be able to tune to the piano – I’ll talk about this later.

Electronic tuners that clip on to the pegs or scroll read directly from the vibrations in the violin itself are the easiest to use. This is a good one made by Intelli.clip on tuner

I use a tuning fork and eventually you may want to acquire one as well, since the advantages outweigh the convenience of an electronic tuner. You’ll learn to listen more precisely, tune strings from each other, and the result will be more accurate and violin friendly. For a start, tuning forks don’t require batteries. You’ll learn how to tune with pure perfect fifths, make slight adjustments to suit different circumstances such as playing with a piano or ensemble, or even tune to favour a particular key.

TIP: New strings can take up to a day to stabilize and stop stretching, so it’s a good idea to keep an older string in the case, for that rare but unsettling occasion when a string breaks just before a concert.

Tune the A String

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Tone Production – the Heart and Soul of Violin

My daughter loves music of all kinds. I suppose it is inevitable in our family of musicians. She learned to play the violin from an early age, graduated from the Suzuki Institute in Japan and went on to become a fine player and teacher. We share a love and an appreciation of great violin music and violinists. Unlike me, she also has great taste in good non-classical musicians, so when she recommends a particular concert or musician, I know we are in for a real treat.

John-Hammond-01-150x150She urged us to go and see legendary blues singer-guitarist John Hammond, appearing at a local wine bar on his way to a big music festival. Amazingly, in spite of playing guitar and enjoying the blues from my university folk music days, I’d never heard of him. Yes, ahem, classical violin can be all-absorbing.

My partner Allie and I arrived early to get good seats in the small venue, not knowing when he was due to come on. Prior to the main act we heard several supporting musicians and some of them were very good. In fact one was so good that I said to Allie, “Is this John Hammond?” “Don’t know,” she gestured, “Could be.” My question was answered definitively a little later when John came on stage. All doubts vanished instantly as he sang and played with every fibre of his being, at ten times the volume of all the previous musicians! The microphone, amplifier and speakers were simply superfluous. The audience in the wine bar was stunned into rapturous appreciation, overwhelmed by the blast of great music emanating from this extraordinary musician.

Later as Allie and I left to go home, our conversation turned to the biggest distinguishing characteristics of the really good musicians in virtually every genre: Powerful Projection. Commanding Presence. Compelling Conviction. We recalled similar experiences at concerts of international violinists. They all had an enormous sound. And not just big in volume, big in heart and soul.

Here’s a little of JH on Youtube. Mind you, it’s no substitute for seeing him live.

 

And here’s Maxim Vengerov’s violin version with a bit of fun.

Tone, Tone, Tone

At the Suzuki Institute in Japan, tone – the quality of sound – was one of Suzuki’s long-standing obsessions. “I only teach tone,” he said constantly, and intrinsic to his teaching about tone quality was volume. His oft-repeated joke to us was, “Please say after me: My tone is too small.” When we said these words back to him, he laughed and replied, “Yes, I think so.

Suzuki-Teaching-3

 

The ability to produce and project a big sound was fundamental to Suzuki’s teaching about tone. I use an analogy with running to help explain to students why it is so important to study it: A fast runner has the ability to run slowly, but a slow runner cannot run quickly. In other words if you can play loudly, you’re also able to play softly when needed, but the reverse isn’t true.

Six Key Factors in Tone Production

  1. Resonance
  2. Weight
  3. Bow Speed
  4. Proximity to the Bridge
  5. Projection
  6. Heart and Soul

1. How to Teach Resonance

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Etude

Suzuki’s Etude is different from the other little gems he composed. An affable little piece, it rarely features as a student concert solo! Yes, Etude is a musical exercise, essential for establishing the new finger position for C♮ on A string and G♮ on E string – 2nd placed next to 1st. After all the hard work to establish securely accurate finger positions in the earlier pieces, these new notes are a big step for students. Speed-signEtude introduces the important key of G major in preparation for the Bach minuets and beyond. (Etude is French and German for study or exercise.)

Bowing

Etude uses the same short detached bow strokes as Perpetual Motion and the repeated string crossings of the theme provide an extra workout for this foundation skill. Keep the right elbow relaxed and stable while crossing from A to D string. A flexible bowhold allows economical string crossing – finger motion without arm flapping. (See Seamless String Crossing.) Read More →

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5 Teaching Strategies That Work (Especially No. 3)

For a long time I believed that the most important expertise a violin teacher needed to possess was technical proficiency. The master classes I’d attended by touring world artists were dazzling, especially when they performed a passage or two themselves in the class, but I began to notice there were also outstanding virtuoso-like teachers around the world who were not equipped with virtuosic playing skills. In fact, their older students played better than they did themselves. They had mastered non-technical teaching skills that were just as essential as dexterity on their violin.

Don’t get me wrong, all teachers need to know the music and their instrument inside 5-cakes-Parisout, but in this post I describe 5 powerful strategies good teachers use to bring out the best in their pupils – that don’t involve playing their violins.

One or two excellent world-class teachers I’ve watched never even picked up a violin in the lesson, but that’s a bit unusual. Suzuki once taught me a memorable lesson without touching his priceless Landolphi violin. He gave private lessons to several of the foreign trainee teachers on Wednesday afternoons in his studio, where we revealed to him and to each other our progress (or lack of it) on the current study pieces. The class was delightfully unpredictable – ranging from laughter to occasional tears of frustration, from embarrassing blunders to stunning performances. And you never knew with certainty what Suzuki would choose to teach you.

I had finally mastered my piece that week – or so I thought – and even performed it with a small flicker of confidence. As soon as I began, Suzuki stood up and strode over to me as I played, clearly intent on fixing something. What was it? I tried to keep my attention on the music, listening to the flowing melody I knew so well. Read More →

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Learning Violin for Adults

In the last few weeks several readers wrote to me with questions about learning violin as an adult, some in response to my article in violinist.com, My Worst Day, Biggest Lesson. It prompted me to write this rather long post, to relate experiences from my own violin odyssey and to share a few tips I learned in the climb.

french-alps-winter-landscape

Although I studied piano from 4 years old until mid high school, learned folk guitar at 18 and did music at university (history and theory), I took up the violin as an adult. My musical background helped, but many ways it didn’t really count. Nothing prepared me for the hard work it took to learn violin. As I said to one aspiring mature player, It’s kind of possible, but you have to be a little demented. Obsessed, he knowingly replied. If you’ve fallen victim to the irresistible allure of the violin, you’ll know what I mean.

I’m not going to debate the question of whether it is possible or not to learn the violin as an adult. To myself, at least, I’ve proved it. With another 3 or 4 more years of intensive study after graduating at the Suzuki Institute in Japan I might have finished learning the awesome ‘Tchaik’  (Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto), but I’d reached a tipping point. I was brimming with inspiration for teaching again. These days I’m content with the belief that I can learn to play as much of the violin repertoire as I want to. (I just don’t want to learn the Wieniawski No. 1 in F# minor right now and by the way, I’m leaving the Paganini Caprices for later.) Adult students of the violin, you see, have advantages that young children don’t possess – Mind Power, Critical Analysis and Delusional Self-Belief. (Yes, I am joking.) 🙂

So, adult violin students, this post is for you. It’s a daring and daunting adventure you have embarked upon, but the rewards are immeasurable – and you get them along the way. At times you will look in awe and disbelief at what lies ahead, but you can also look back and clearly see how far you’ve come. Just enjoy the journey – and never ever give up.

The 5 Most Important Things an Adult Student Must Do. Read More →

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Good Vibrations – Teaching Vibrato

Vibrato involves muscles, motion and mechanics when you teach or learn it, but ultimately is only about the sound and its place in the music. It makes longer notes more pleasing to listen to and enables us to express beauty, drama, pathos – emotional colour in the music we play. A good vibrato is the mark of a mature musician, an alluring skill that seems to emanate from the core of their personality and character. Violinists are often recognizable by their vibrato – part of their unique tone, much like the familiar sound of a person’s voice.

Vibrato

I use several recordings in the studio as examples of good vibrato, but because interpretation is an individual expression of musical taste, I teach students and parents to select and study recordings that they personally consider attractive and to keep referring back to them during practice. Read More →

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How to Form a Fabulous Fourth Finger

This post comes to you from the city of Melbourne. Last week I said that we were driving 3,500 kms from the west side of the continent to live in the east. We expected to arrive in 4 or 5 days, but it took almost exactly a week! It was an epic journey across the vast expanse of Australia.

Today, I want to talk about how to teach fourth finger on the left hand. All fingers should be equally strong and adept, but the fourth takes a bit more work than the others, so it needs its own special post.

Often I am asked, When should we start using 4th finger instead of an open string?

The answer depends on the age of the student. Many children can learn to use 4th finger on early pieces, e.g. May Song or before, but very young players can wait until Perpetual Motion. At this stage, the previous pieces should be fluent and fingers 1, 2 and 3 well established. And right from the beginning, 4th has been held comfortably in position above the fingerboard, especially when 3rd is down.

Joshua Bell's 4th Finger

Joshua Bell’s Fourth Finger

Violinists prefer 4th finger to an open string in 1st position where it simplifies the fingering and bowing of a passage or when the plainer sound of an open string would be overly prominent or unmusical. A stopped (fingered) note can be played with more expression, e.g. with vibrato and  portamento – techniques that are not possible on an open string.

Because 4th finger is shorter than the others, its shape can be flatter – less curved. Here is how I teach it: Read More →

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How Russia Makes Great Violinists

In 2012 Allie and I travelled to Russia, fulfilling a long held ambition. Journeying through the vast winter landscape, walking around the rustic villages and talking with the people, we tried to understand some of its enigmatic genius. The Russian psyche seems to be shaped by the country’s enormous distances, held together by a deep national identity and a culture that extends to the remotest corners. Russian people have showed an extraordinary capacity to endure and thrive in the face of the enormous challenges, changes and tragedies of history. St Petersburg Church

Our first destination was the St Petersburg Conservatorium of Music. We wanted to see how they grow young violinists with such amazing success. Not long after arriving back in Australia I wrote the following account, published here for the first time…

Nickolay takes us through the back streets to the historic St Petersburg school building. Inside, fresh-faced young students rush along the corridors. We are introduced to the smiling director, who sends us off with a shy young teacher upstairs to a room with two pianos. We can’t speak Russian, they can’t speak English. Motioned to take a seat, we wait expectantly. How do the Russians produce their amazing musicians?

All the travel agents had told us it is only possible to visit Russia as part of a group tour.  Allie and I don’t like tours: the challenge of getting around by ourselves – learning some of the language, meeting people, eating local food and using local transport – makes travel an enjoyable adventure. Besides, it wasn’t really true. We found a company online who promised, for a nice fee, to get us visas to travel independently, without having to join a tour. So we booked the flights and packed our warmest clothes. Here in Australia we were experiencing another hot summer, but it was wintertime in Russia.

Flying through the long night ahead of the elusive sun, we land in the grey Amsterdam dawn. Next day we take a SAS flight to St Petersburg, in a jet airliner that is unusually quiet. Or am I just tired? Floating silently through the clouds, I relax into the soft timelessness of space, pondering about what we will experience in Russia.

At St Petersburg airport dour officials wave us quickly through immigration. I wonder if it will be as easy at departure. On the plane we had to complete a little two-part form. One half is held by the Russian authorities, the matching half must be shown on departure. We’d heard a disturbing story about a couple who were detained for several days after losing it, so I pack it away carefully. A harrowing taxi ride takes us through dense traffic to our little hotel, Tradition, where a friendly Natasha welcomes us. Our room is tasteful and quiet, with a spotless modern bathroom. It is the best hotel of our stay in Russia.

The St Petersburg Conservatory is one of the world’s most famous music academies. Founded in 1862 by the pianist-composer Anton Rubenstein, their list of faculty members and graduates reads like the history of Russian music – composers Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Glazunov; violinists Leopold Auer, Jascha Heifetz and Nathan Milstein; pianist-composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, impresario Sergei Diaghilev and many more.

Russia has produced generations of famous violinists and I want to see how this great musical tradition teaches young children. I remember how Vadim Repin’s charismatic performance of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto in the Perth Concert Hall sent shivers buzzing down my spine.  David Oistrakh’s recordings of Bach and Mozart concertos are treasured timeless masterpieces. Everyone is awed by Maxim Vengerov’s virtuosic playing of Sarasate, Saint-Saens, Paganini, Ysaye, Mozart, Mendelssohn.

We’d received a warm invitation to visit the conservatory from Regina Glazunova, Head of International Relations. It is located about 6 kms from our hotel, so we decide to walk, setting off in the freeze of the early morning. My anticipation increases as we walk through the icy streets. With my trusty Ipad map guiding us , we look for a fittingly grandiose edifice and finally recognize the austere old conservatoire building. We go inside and wander about corridors that breathe musical history. Tchaikovsky walked these wooden floors. Look, there’s his office.

We get a few curious stares until Nickolay, a friendly young music student from the International Office finds us. Due to a missed email, we are an hour early. In a short impromptu tour, he takes us into conservatory museum, a large room packed with musical artifacts, treasured letters, photographs and concert notices of the conservatory’s glorious past. The charmingly enthusiastic curator greets us warmly and shows us her favourite exhibits, oblivious to our unfamiliarity with the Russian Cyrillic letters. St-Petersburg-Music-Conservatory

When Regina arrives, we are relieved to discover she is a fluent English speaker. For an hour or so we chat about life at the conservatorium over coffee. Her daughter studies violin and we joke about the travails of music mothers and the rigors of daily practice. It’s a laughingly familiar story. We are interested in visiting the conservatory school to meet young students and their teachers, so Nicolay walks us to the school. A shy young teacher leads us to the lesson rooms. Following her up the stairs and along corridors, we exchange smiles with bright-eyed students.

The school exudes an old-world Russian atmosphere, built to withstand the harsh winters. It is starkly different from the spacious Australia schools with their expanses of playing fields and gardens. Here in the conservatory school, another kind of contrast soon becomes evident. We meet several of the top violin students, whose virtuosic prowess – there’s no other word to describe it – exceeds anything we have seen around the world.

Tatyana, the head violin teacher, welcomes us to her studio. We uncover no common spoken language, fruitlessly trying out our English and French and her Russian and German, but her warm friendly personality shines through – she is delightful. Without a translator, we muddle along by approximating her German into English, but ultimately it is through music that we really communicate.

An 11 year old girl plays some dazzling Sarasate for us – Caprice Basque Op. 24. Young Russian violinistI video little snippets on my tiny Sony camera. (You can view one of these here in Videos – please Register first.) She performs flawlessly with a powerful vitality, her rich tone resonating powerfully through the room. I hear the effortlessly accuracy that comes from years of mindful practice. Despite her youth, she has already reached a pinnacle of athletic mastery. Her waking hours are dedicated to music. This is the pathway she has chosen to discover the soul, the meaning of art.

We see students at earlier stages and I am interested to see the appearance of the Suzuki Books along with the usual scores and texts. A class with one of the other teachers still burns clearly in my memory. In this lesson, the student’s mother sits to one side with a notebook and tape recorder. Her daughter, a slim young girl, is intensely focused as she begins playing. Any imperfections – one could scarcely call them mistakes – are corrected quickly on the spot. A slightly out of tune note or interval elicits a simple fix, often by the teacher singing the correct pitch or interval. Musical points, such the shape of a phrase, are also sung. The concentration on complete accuracy is unrelenting. The lesson proceeds like this for an hour or more. It’s hard work, yet despite the heavy labour there’s a friendly rapport between teacher and student. The music’s bigger picture slowly emerges from the intensive polishing of its finer details.

Among the galaxy of young stars one cheerful young girl stands out. She plays with the assurance and expertise of a major soloist on tour. There’s no tension here: it’s all smiles and artistic freedom, enjoying the spotlight. A little slip brings peals of laughter from her, rather than self-censure. When she attempts to introduce each piece in English more giggles burst forth. I have the sense that we are watching Russia’s next generation of world class violinists.

Our visit to the school leaves profound impressions, transporting me into the kind of prolonged reverie that feels like a shift in consciousness. I think about it through the following days and nights, the sights and sounds playing vividly in my mind. Weeks later I am still feeling the reverberations. Some ideas I have been working on for a few years start to fit together with a satisfying clarity, like a mental jigsaw arranging itself.

From this experience of Russian education and its traditions at work, I begin to understand the extraordinary results.

  • They are unequivocal about a key principle of learning: superior skill – talent – is created by intelligent, fulfilling hard work.
  • An obvious point: both the amount and quality of practice and study from an early age determines the level of musical ability.
  • Parents of these children are intrinsically involved in their children’s education.
  • The teachers are well-trained experts in the art of teaching.
  • Children are constantly exposed to the high level musical environment at the school and conservatory.
  • In this rich musical environment, rapid progress and exceptional results are normal expectations.
  • Successful entrants to the school come from families where good study habits are valued and practised.
  • Even whilst upholding the great tradition of Russian violin playing, the school is open to new ideas and methods.

From the wider perspective, because education is highly valued, Russia is a nation of well-educated people.

Teachers hold a respected position in society. The adult literacy rate is almost 99.4%. More than half of the Russian adult population has earned a tertiary education – twice the OECD average. Russians are justifiably proud of these achievements. They are determined to be the best – for Russia. The merit they earn is collective.

These young Russian musicians will help ensure that the world’s great music will live on. Tchaikovsky’s masterworks are in good hands…

As I write this post, many questions remain in my mind about the value and purpose of elite training for young children – a good topic to explore in the future.

Well that’s it for now! Thanks everyone for your interest in Teach Suzuki Violin and a warm welcome to our new members. This post is a little late in arriving, as we’re in the throes of moving to another state. (Take my advice: never move house, just go on a holiday. It’s much, much easier and lots more fun!)

I’m looking forward to your feedback and emails. Have you had a similar experience – one that has had a profound effect on the way you teach, learn or think?

Cheers, John

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