Beginners

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 – 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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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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Group Class Success – The Play Through

For a number of years our violin school ran what I can only describe as standard group classes, held a couple of times in the school term. Modelled on classes in Japan and elsewhere, they were well attended and from a teaching perspective, quite productive. The students liked coming and participated conscientiously, but if anything the classes were an addition to private lessons, almost like group practices on particular points and pieces.

When the decision was made to revolutionize the program, putting the group class in the driver’s seat and holding them every week, we chose Saturdays to run them. (It wasn’t the best day on reflection, as Saturday is a general day of relaxation, but I will come back to the schedule and better options in a later topic about scheduling.)

In our planning meetings we spent a lot of time discussing how to bring a real buzz and sense of community into the new classes. Because of the big changes to the program we were unsure how it would turn out, but it didn’t matter. We were just determined to make the sessions fun and very instructive. In some ways the new classes were very experimental partly due to the wide mix of abilities in the small number we started them with.

Eventually the large teaching room was full and really buzzing. Here’s the story of how it happened.

The Six Group Class Sessions

Session 1: The Play Through

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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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Good Beginnings – Getting things right from the start

A good beginning is everything. Getting things right from the start is what good beginnings are all about.” We often hear these words, but what do they really mean in practice?

group class

If you think about it, good beginnings never really end, because each new skill we begin learning at any point in our progress needs to be correct. In other words, it needs to take us where we want to go, musically speaking.

Nonetheless, the beginning stages are particularly susceptible for creating patterns, expectations and ways of learning which develop and retain their own momentum. Ideally, they can set up a student on a permanent wave of genuine forward motion.

1. Listening

First of all, parent and student need to become familiar with the music from recordings, treating it as a type of language that needs to be internalized from daily repeated listening – before starting lessons.

Quite naturally, handling the beautiful little violin itself is an irresistible attraction in the beginning, so it should arrive not too long before lessons commence. The child has seen the other young players and heard the siren song of the violin’s alluring voice. Now, holding their heart’s desire, they want to play too, and will try to imitate them – teaching themselves.

Volume 1 Suzuki violin

2. Watching

Second, it means observing classes during the lead up to first lessons, creating healthy expectations of how to participate, contribute and work with others in the studio and the group.

From good beginnings students can get the idea of how to make quick progress, what constitutes a normal practice routine, and that performing in public is natural and enjoyable.

observing classes

3. Parents take the lead

And third, it means there’s a parent who learns, practises and establishes the basic skills ahead of their child to gain expertise for home practice. I devote the first 10 or 15 minutes of the weekly lesson to them during the early stages, and their studies continue until the Twinkles variations and theme are mastered.

parents

Getting the basic skills right from the beginning

Learning the violin playing skills correctly at the start is vital for maintaining unlimited progress and avoiding laborious remedial work, but it doesn’t mean holding things up until each skill is deemed absolutely perfect.

In addition to detailed observation, teachers determine if a beginner’s basics are right by quickly checking them in the lesson before moving on to new material. The parent must carry this on at home since practically all practice is done out of the teacher’s presence.

Correctly learned skills grow into beautiful abilities, through home practice.

We learn a lot from our mistakes, yet it would be a mistake to turn it into a learning system. Getting things right from the beginning can itself become a habit. I realised this rather surprising fact while assessing a large number of individual pre-graduation performances, where irrespective of level, some players always made similar little stumbles. Not only did they expect and anticipate them, these little mistakes had become a habit.

I also noticed that one or two students had acquired a habit of playing with no stumbles at all. Clearly, I surmised, there was reason to assume no-mistake playing could just as easily become habitual. Although the idea was initially met with skepticism, a few months of experimentation and focus proved it was true.

The Basic Skills

Despite the variety of opinions among teachers, players and violin schools about what is good technique and what is not, the fundamentals are universally recognised.

– a healthy, balanced stance (to allow free movement and relaxation while playing)
holding the violin comfortably on the shoulder, with the head turned along the violin, chin positioned correctly (to play without strain)
a bow hold with correct hand shape and placement of thumb and fingers (to enable exquisite control and flexibility)
correct movement of the bowing arm (for control, speed, relaxation, free use of whole bow)
good left hand shape, with straight wrist, correct thumb position – without tension in the space between thumb and palm (to facilitate quick accurate fingering, easy shifting, vibrato)
fingers over the fingerboard in optimum shape and position
basic bow strokes (e.g. detache, legato and staccato)
economical string crossing (for seamless melodies and phrases)

Accurate intonation

As every teacher who has ever taken on a student with intonation issues knows, learning to listen and play in tune from the beginning is crucial. Correcting ingrained poor intonation is hard work, despite being ultimately a labour of love.

I am continually fascinated by very young children’s ability to discern accurate pitch, although in view of their capacity to pick up the nuances and subtleties of spoken language, I shouldn’t be.

left hand

Lots of listening to great music, either live or recorded, does the trick. Children’s hearing sensitivity is truly awesome and not very difficult to cultivate for precise intonation. The trouble is that we can easily underestimate their capacity for playing in tune in view of their growing finger dexterity and the limitations of small violins. Fingers will soon follow their ear’s guidance if we draw attention to it right from the beginning.

Awareness of Good Tone

Along with intonation, distinguishing good tone comes with children’s natural language package. A simple question such as, “Is this a nice sound,” will usually draw forth surprisingly discerning opinions from a three year old.

And finally, it’s important to realise you can’t do everything at once and in the long run there are no short cuts. Learning and mastering skills in the right order, climbing the mountain one step at a time, enjoying the view from each level is the way.

Cheers,

John

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Two Teaching Tips from Twinklers

Music schools and studios owe much of their success to the expertise, work and vision of the teachers, but there is another source of creativity and growth that sometimes goes unrecognised. It comes from the students and parents themselves. The two teaching tips from twinklers I describe in this post originated from among the very youngest students in our violin school.

1. A new graduation level

This is how the first one happened.

At one of our violin school’s annual graduation concerts we noticed the longing gaze of a three year old student as the graduates came forward one by one to receive their certificates to the exuberant applause of the large audience.

Dressed beautifully like her fellow students, she had just played her piece, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, together with the group in the concert’s finale. She naturally expected to be called up to stage like the others. But it was not to be.

At each concert practically every student graduated from one or more levels, except those who hadn’t yet reached the first level – Gavotte by Gossec. It’s the final piece in Volume 1, which the youngest beginners often took the best part of a year or more to reach. Although Gavotte is a great goal to work for, it’s too distant to have much meaning for three year old players.

The benefits of celebrating achievements

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Teaching Violin Beginners

There are so many skills to learn on the violin. For beginners, teachers need to know which ones to focus on during those delightful first weeks. They must be learned correctly from the start and in quick succession to establish a habit of rapid progress, but how well should each one be perfected before adding the next one?

Beginner-trnsp-bg-2

These are important questions for any teacher, parent or student. Some of the answers are only gained through experience, so be patient – understanding how to teach the complex hierarchy of skills takes time. Unlearning incorrectly practised skills is hard frustrating work. Although the ideal way is to simply build each new one on the foundations of those already mastered, the reality is not always so clear cut. Usually some correction and repair work is necessary, but this is not a bad thing at all. Playing skills are never static: they are constantly improved and refined as musical expression matures. Learning to play the violin is more of an adventurous journey than a destination.

Getting the Point

On many occasions after watching a student performance in lessons or on stage Suzuki commented, “Very good, except for (the) weak point.”  Experienced teachers automatically look for areas and points of potential improvement. In fact, a significant part of their expertise is being able to identify imperfections and problems, to communicate them clearly (and kindly) to students and parents, and to know how to correct them. This is how most masterclasses are conducted. Although from the student’s viewpoint it may feel like criticism, it is a very important part of their growth as a musician. Students learn to welcome this kind of critique, and to reflect objectively on the quality of their own playing.

Of course, lessons shouldn’t consist entirely of corrections. It is more productive to focus on one or two key weak points – either technical or musical – then to spend time introducing a new skill.

The Value of Group Classes

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What is the Best Age to Start Learning Violin?

I’ve been thinking about early education a lot recently. That’s not surprising really – it’s what I have worked in for several decades, but it strikes me that whenever I hear or read about it, the focus is invariably on problems rather than successes.Ted at the keyboard

Most learning problems are reported to show up around school year 3, not a stage I consider early. Curiously, many of them have d-labels: disability, dysfunction, dyslexia, dyscalculia and dysgraphia. Then there’s difficulty, deficiency, deficit, delay and eventually of course, disorder. Schools, or more specifically school teachers, have the job of working with the problems, but diagnosing and defining is the job of neurologists, psychologists and doctors. And there’s plenty of disorders to choose from in the new DSM 5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).

What are these d-problems? In my experience, many child psychologists and educationists have their attention in the wrong place, or to be more precise, the wrong time. What really interests me is much earlier education, i.e. the learning children do at home before starting school. Many of these learning problems can be avoided entirely by earlier education at home.  If your child can read and write before starting school, they will have a permanent advantage throughout their school years. I did.

In the West especially, there is a widespread belief that education is entirely the job of schools. Parents are encouraged to leave the responsibility for teaching their children to read, write and calculate to the teachers. But it is a selective belief. Parents teach their own children to speak with stunning success. We’re pretty good at teaching daily life skills too: how to get dressed, keep clean, avoid dangers, eat healthily etc.

Why are parents less confident about teaching literacy and numeracy? One reason perhaps is that writing, unlike spoken language, is a relatively recent human development, appearing around 5,000 years ago. Some smaller, isolated cultures still don’t have it. Writing doesn’t come as naturally as speaking, which we have been doing for more like 600,000 years. Therefore – just like mathematics – we must learn and memorise written language more consciously and methodically to become adept. The benefits are immense: it is a cornerstone of living in modern society.

It is quite easy to teach your child read well and love reading before they go to school.

The key is to do it every day.  Because teaching children to speak correctly is so straightforward, it’s easy give up too quickly with skills like reading, writing, maths and music. Busy working parents find it hard to be so consistent. We rationalize that only some children are born with special stuff called talent. We believe it requires excessive (or obsessive) discipline, whereas dedicated friendly interaction with our children is much more successful – and enjoyable.

We all love a good story. Reading myths, fairy stories, fiction, a good storyteller captures our imagination and singular attention – creating the natural conditions for learning. Reading a story to your child every night is a simple way to teach them. Sit together so they can see the words as you speak. Read the same stories each night and they will memorize the words and soon ‘read’ out loud some parts. Point to the words as you both speak. Do it every day without fail and I might add, without pressure. We don’t need to make a child listen to a good story!

Working-together

Ok, you can see where I am going with all this: teaching and learning violin for very young students.

Before I studied in Japan, I was somewhat reluctant to take on very young students. It seemed that 5 or 6 year old children were easier to teach. Suzuki taught me about the vital role of parents and how to construct the best environment for learning. I began to work more closely with parents and teach younger students.

Now I determine whether a child is ready to begin violin by interviewing the mother and father. Can they happily work with their child? Do they have enough time each day for two sessions of practice and learning? Will they give up after the first flush of enthusiasm? Do they commit to attending weekly group classes as well as lessons? Can they understand about creating a musical environment – what my partner Allie calls The Invisibleto foster the growth of real ability?

So what is the best age to begin violin? It is when the parents are ready.

Thanks for coming to Teach Suzuki Violin!

Cheers, John

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