Beginners

Violin Beginners – Week 1

The day has finally arrived for the first violin lesson! Violin case in hand, the new student knocks at the studio door, excited and perhaps a little nervous.

new violin beginner

Have a Plan and Keep Notes

It is important for teachers to have a lesson plan and keep clear lesson notes on each child. Over the weeks there will be variations on what children can achieve at the lesson and at home. Lesson plans and notes help the teacher evaluate their students’ progress, identify what might be slowing a student down and allow them to make adjustments to the main goal or teaching point of each lesson. Evaluation is important at the end of each lesson, just a short note to make clear what to look for next time.

Arriving Early

Each week the parent and student arrive ten minutes before their individual lesson to watch other lessons. By watching others, children learn huge amounts of what is expected and form a picture of what they can achieve. Children and parents learn from observing students from all levels.

Main Teaching Point for Week 1 – the Bowhold

 

What happens in Week 1

  1. Learn how to get into rest position and take a bow;
  2. Learn how to hold the bow correctly;
  3. Assess the set homework for listening to Book 1 twice daily;
  4. Clap Rhythms

Now let’s look at how to do each one in detail…

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Violin Beginners – Preparing for Week 1

The first 10 weeks of learning violin create a culture and a pathway for the new student’s quick progress and enjoyment – a way of working, especially with other participants in the whole adventure, and establishing new permanent habits to propel them happily forward on the crest of the learning wave, free of the ups and downs of want to/don’t want to practise.

 

To begin with, let’s look at what happens before the first lesson.

Preparatory Session 1

At this stage, the new students have been accepted into the program.

1. Getting the Right Violin and Bow

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Violin Beginners – A New Series

Violin Beginners, a new button on the TSV Gold Dashboard directs members to a collection of posts and resources relevant for everyone in the teaching triangle – teachers, students and parents. It’s about the most important stage of teaching and learning the violin: The Beginning.

violin beginner

Why the beginning is so important.

We’ve created so many posts and resources directly related to violin beginners and getting started because this exciting phase is so crucial to the growth and progress of new musicians. Laden with the hope and promise of realizing the dream of playing music, the early stages require more expertise and careful guidance than any other time.

Good musical beginnings lead to happy, fulfilled and cultured lives, and the ability to play music is a life skill like no other.

During these early months, beginner musicians and their families gain vital new knowledge and skills about learning, the real nature of talent, how to acquire ability, the power of good habits and the role of parents in educating children. This exhilarating period is the launching pad for their successful future in music and education.

We currently have a great variety of information relating to beginners on the website. To help you find it all, we have organised it onto the TSV Gold dashboard with a button for the Beginner topics. At the same time, as we reviewed these posts and resources, it became clear that something more is needed.

Coming Next: A New Series: Violin Beginners – 10 Weeks to Twinkles

Next up on Teach Suzuki Violin, we are creating a new series, Violin Beginners – 10 Weeks to Twinkles, setting out the sequence of lessons and learning steps for beginners in a clear and systematic way. The new series will lay out in detail the first 10 weeks in this pivotal stage of the violin journey.

Why are Suzuki teachers so good with beginners?

Shinichi Suzuki’s philosophy and insights about the development of ability, plus the practical approach he pioneered, led to a very successful way of working with beginners of all ages. And just like good science, the ideas he realized are able to be endlessly improved, expanded, refined and deepened. (It’s interesting to note that Dr S never personally described his work as a fixed method or a standardized system of learning to play music.)

Suzuki music programs particularly excel with beginners, producing healthy numbers of emerging musicians.

To work successfully with beginners, especially very young ones, Suzuki violin teachers undergo specialized training and experience not always offered by more traditional music teacher training institutions. In fact I’ve met well qualified, excellent violin teachers who rarely or never take on beginners. I believe a key reason is the note reading conundrum. An emphasis on notation at the start precludes most very young beginners.

Music – a language

As Suzuki and others have shown, treating music as a language has big benefits for beginning students, particularly very young ones. It means working directly and immediately with the sound of music rather than through the page, as we all do when learning our mother tongue.

Good teachers of beginners play a vital role in the future of music. Every musician was once a beginner, needing the careful direction of an expert teacher who is skilled and knowledgeable about the big picture, able to guide students through the shoals of practice and persistence, and keeping up their enthusiasm and love for music.

More than teaching skills

Suzuki teachers work in two essential areas in the early stages. The sequence of practical steps and skills needs to be mastered to build the foundation abilities correctly and accurately for unlimited musical growth and refinement. At the same time students and parents learn to become part of the enriched education environment of the group, the talent producing musical biosphere.

Up Next: Week 1 for Beginners

Cheers,

John

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How to Select Students for your Violin Studio

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

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

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

How to Select Students for your Violin Studio

Building from your Vision

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Group Class Success – 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 especially formative, crucial 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 progress.

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 shouldn’t arrive too early before lessons are due to 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 without the teacher’s expert guidance.

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 these good beginnings students form the idea of how to make quick progress, of 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 at least 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 in good order 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 make 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. It was no reflection on their capacity to learn. Not only did they expect and anticipate these little mistakes, they had become a habit.

I also noticed that several 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 by some of the other teachers, a few months of experimentation and focus proved it was true. By changing the focus of practice, children can easily learn to play without mistakes.

The Basic Skills

Despite the variety of opinions among teachers, players and violin schools regarding the nuances of 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;

Correct 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, ultimately a labour of love.

I am continually amazed and 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 surprised.

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 three year olds.

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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