Home Practice – Learning the New Piece

Once it becomes a happy habitual part of the start of the day, the Morning Session of Home Practice is pretty easy. We all love to do what we can do well, and for children that’s especially true. Often it’s hard to stop the practice. “I just want to play a couple more songs before breakfast, Mom” is music to any parent’s ears.

How about learning the new piece?

Mozart score

Learning the new piece is best achieved at Afternoon Practice. It’s at the other end of the day, when time is more relaxed and more participation (work) is required from parents than the morning session.

Done the right way this session can also be made easy and enjoyable. In this part of home practice we’re working with another positive principle: Children love to learn something new. Don’t they? Well, it depends on how you go about it.

How to Make Learning the New Piece Easy

Afternoon home practice is the time to learn the new piece and to practise study points from the lesson.

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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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Home Practice – Best Practice

Speaking as a violin teacher, I know how much we love providing lessons, group classes, concerts and guiding students in all the joys and challenges of learning and making music. Interestingly – or perhaps paradoxically – we dedicate years of intensive study and hard work to develop and deepen our teaching skills, while our students’ greatest progress in both playing skills and musicality happens almost entirely at home practice, away from the teaching studio and our professional oversight.

Photo courtesy of Shche Team

Generally speaking, teachers know what their pupils need to practise and how they should be going about it. Do we always know they are doing it correctly?

Beyond the content side of things, a vital part of our job is to inspire and help them reach that happy stage when good practice has become a daily productive habit.

Beyond the content side of things, a vital part of our job is to inspire and help them reach that happy stage when good practice has become a daily productive habit.

What, How and Why of Practice

Plenty of materials have been published for the young violinist. Most of them are about what to practise. Some time ago, for example, I bought a book called Practiceopedia, by Philip Johnston, a master work with a wealth of ideas, tips, techniques and exercises. Philip’s publications on this aspect of practice are an extraordinary achievement.

An earlier book of his, Not Until You’ve Done Your Practice: The Classic Survival Guide For Kids Who Are Learning A Musical Instrument, But Hate Practicing, is more about the conundrum we teachers set out to solve: How can we help all our students to practise daily and make good progress  – and actually enjoy practising?  I suspect music teachers of every country and culture face this question in varying degrees at some point.

The Vision

Finding the solution to this quandary was an important milestone in our violin institute, to reach the point where every student, supported by their parents, was happily practising twice daily and making good progress.  I’d previously thought this goal could be reached by some students only, and probably not by the whole school. Ultimately, it was achieved in an unexpected way, which will be explained in our upcoming series, Home Practice.

In Japan

While studying at Suzuki’s music institute in Japan we’d seen how young beginners had practised and progressed, with remarkably consistent results. Like us, visitors viewed it with a mixture of awe and puzzlement.

Were there cultural influences at work that enabled all of them to cheerfully achieve such a high level of work? The Japanese teachers we spoke to at the institute didn’t think so, but I wondered if they could see it from outside the bubble.

The Motivation and Willpower Fallacy

In the past I used the word motivation in relation to achieving habitual enjoyable practice, but ultimately came to think this term is inadequate and even misleading. Motivation and willpower are capricious forces with a tendency to wax and wane, as any gym member or ex-smoker will tell you.

Everyone Needs to Practise

Great practice creates great playing” applies to beginners as much as it does to advanced players. Teachers, parents and students are all aware, sometimes frustratingly so, of this obvious truth. Despite the myths, even so-called talented or gifted players need to do lots and lots of regular practice.

The Purpose of Practice

As we see it, violin students practise to improve their playing for the following reasons, to:
1. Learn, memorise and internalise the music;
2. Improve and perfect difficult passages;
3. Learn and master new skills and techniques;
4. Grow their musicality;
5. Transform consciously performed skills into spontaneous abilities;
6. Discover and understand deeper meanings within the music.

Key Questions about Home Practice

The Home Practice Series will explore how to create a daily habit of good practice that is both enjoyable and rewarding. Here’s a few examples of the questions the series will address:

1. How long should violin students practise for?
2. Should practice be based on time spent, the progress actually achieved in the practice session, or what?
3. What are the most important things to practise? Technique, musicianship, memorising new music, improving previously learned pieces…?
4. What should be practised first?
5. How should we set achievable practice goals ?
6. What time of day is best for practice?
7. Should it apply in the same way to all levels?
8. How do you make practice into a spontaneous habit?
9. What is the place and value of scales, exercises and reading for young students?
10. What are the effects, consequences and point of rewards and incentives?
11. What is the role of parents in home practice?
12. How important is listening to music for practice purposes?
13. How do beginners practise intonation?
14. How much do students need to practise posture?
15. What is the place of games? How do they help students to practise? And what are some good games for practice?


John and Allie

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Violin Beginners – Week 9 and 10

Week 9 and 10 bring Violin Beginners and their parents to the final pieces in the Twinkle jigsaw. They’ve learned to play the whole piece smoothly and confidently from start to finish. Already they’re starting to glimpse the satisfying sense of freeing their focus from technical to musical matters.

Original photo by Tetiana Shyshkina

What’s left to learn in these last two lessons in the 10 Weeks to Twinkles Series? This long post shows how to take students and parents through the key points of learning to play each of the Twinkle variations and the Theme at the right tempo.

These two weeks of lessons and group classes are best taken at your own pace. The ability to play quickly requires a healthy amount of consistent work. Some parent-student duos may complete them in a week, while others need more unhurried time.

Playing with speed and accuracy, vital skills for all violinists, is achieved through habitual practice and refinement. Don’t we all know it? Suzuki provided us with a good way to practise towards this goal by learning to play with the recordings, but are beginners capable of doing it?

I’ll answer the question with a little story.

Before returning home after our studies in Japan with Suzuki we spent a lovely year in the UK, where I taught the students of a young teacher who was about to leave to study with Suzuki in Japan. They were a truly delightful group, making good progress, enthusiastic and well taught. A few students had reached into Volume 5 and were playing Vivaldi’s Concerto in G minor, albeit rather slowly. In fact, playing at the right tempo was a major challenge for all of them.

What was the reason, I wondered, for such slow playing? In an early lesson, I found out by asking a few of the advanced students to play one of the easier Twinkle variations with the recording as part of a bowing exercise, and was surprised to discover they couldn’t keep up. At the Suzuki Institute in Matsumoto, we’d seen very young beginners happily playing the variations at the recording tempo with relative ease.

Now we had a way forward.

We began teaching the students how to play with the recordings and started a campaign of building them into daily home practice. Although several parents expected the task to be impossibly difficult, after a couple of months of hard work, everyone, including most beginners, could play their pieces at the right tempo with the recordings and showed big improvement in other areas, such as memorisation and intonation.

Teaching how to play with the recordings goes beyond just putting them on and attempting to keep up. As you’ll see below in the first Twinkle variation, there are 7 clear steps to make sure it is positively successful.

Main Teaching Point for Week 9 and 10 – How to Play all the Twinkle Variations and Theme up to Tempo

What To Teach in Week 9 and 10

(For TSV Gold members)

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Violin Beginners – Week 8

By Week 8, Violin Beginners and their parents have seen the promised land. The final mysteries of Twinkle’s structure have been unveiled, and by learning to play the sections, the vision of the whole piece emerges from the weeks of carefully practised elements.

However, there’s a difference between knowing a piece and actually being able to perform it with grace and fluency. How do we cross the bridge from knowledge to skill and ability?

The Promised land

Photo courtesy of Dmitry Gladkikh

This question points to the challenge ahead, and for the the first time introduces the parent and student into the lifelong learning process for all dedicated musicians: how to practise and perfect a piece of music until it becomes spontaneous and natural, so that one’s attention is focused purely on expression and interpretation, giving life to the music beyond technique and the technical.

Main Teaching Point for Week 8 – Learning to Play Twinkles without Stops or Pauses

What To Teach in Week 8

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Violin Beginners – Week 7

For violin beginners and their parents, Week 7 approaches as an exciting milestone in their progress towards Twinkles. During this week the step by step array of skills from the past six weeks comes together into playing their first piece, which is of course, Twinkles!

Little beginners often don’t quite realise that from week 6 lesson they’ve been practising the 4 fingered notes which – together with open A and E strings – are all the notes they need to play Twinkle.

Twinkle is carefully practised and memorised in a particular way, but before we get this step, let’s look at how Week 7 is structured.

Main Teaching Point for Week 7 – Learning to Play the Twinkles Sections

What To Teach in Week 7

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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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Violin Beginners – Week 6

Week 6 for violin beginners opens up with the new skill they have all wanted to start for the past few weeks: Learning to place fingers on the fingerboard to form the notes that make the music!

violin left hand

Left hand studies start after the bowing basics are fluent and confident. Why not before? It’s all part of establishing skills cumulatively – building abilities a step at a time.

Main Teaching Point for Week 6 – Left Hand Shape and Correct Finger Placement

What To Teach in Week 6

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Violin Beginners – Week 5

At Week 5, some Violin Beginners are starting to show a little fluency in their rhythms. It shows up in group class as they try to match the playing style and tempo of the other students. This is a very healthy development. Emulating the advanced players is a great way to improve – and as we’ve said before, it’s a lot of fun to watch!

Photo by Toa Heftiba

Like all beginners, these eager new students want to start playing pieces and are spontaneously joining in at the group class playthrough with the more advanced students. And why shouldn’t they?

When we all first talked about this idea, as mentioned in a previous post, John was dubious about letting them do it. Wouldn’t they learn to play with mistakes? He was still a little doubtful when we started the experiment, mainly because for a moment or two the sound was somewhat cacophonous, but over the next few weeks what happened was dramatic and unexpected.

These beginners were making much faster progress than any previous group of new students. Not only were they were absorbing good playing skills at a faster rate, they were learning to play correctly.

So what’s happening at Week 5 in the 10 Weeks to Twinkles series?

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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.


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.

(TSV Gold members – please log in to read more)

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