Beginners

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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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 vital, 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 at times 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 – than 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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How Children Learn

I am a violinist, but like many string players I started out on the piano. From the age of four I took lessons on an old upright, practising on cold winter mornings with a feather eiderdown around my legs and on early summer mornings before the heat arrived . The piano stood in a dark room of our house at the rear of my parents’ shoe shop, a crepuscular light struggling through its one dusty window. Oblivious to my still-sleeping siblings a room away, I played away with cheerful forte. The sound of the piano resonated deeply within my soul – I loved it.

Allie-on-learning-process

Allie talks on the Learning Process

Reflecting on how I learned new pieces, I wish I’d known as that young child what experience and training has taught me since. When learning a new piece, I would read haltingly from beginning to end, only forming a sense of what the music should sound like from the gradually coalescing fragments. I never heard it performed by an accomplished musician – even my teacher.

Unsurprisingly, the initial results were rather stilted. Playing the piece at the next lesson, I could feel my teacher picking up errors – notes too short or too long, rhythms unclear, phrases muddled, accents too loud or soft.

Next morning, I tried to remember the teacher’s instructions, noting ruefully the exclamation marks and underlinings pencilled on the score. Yet in spite of my conscientious labours, more faults would inevitably surface at the next class. And so the piece evolved painstakingly into something musical. It was frustratingly slow. Mistakes are annoyingly difficult to repair. They must be deliberately usurped and supplanted.

Two disconnected worlds exist in music education – children’s hobby music lessons and the real thing. Hobby music is well meaning stuff, but it contains a falsehood. Parents are encouraged to believe that poor results are acceptable, even laudable – because ‘she is enjoying it and doing her best’. As the famous intellectual Tony Judt said, “effort is a poor substitute for achievement.”

Inferior performances are applauded with an unspoken acknowledgement that ‘doing your best’ precludes real achievement – which is available only to the seriously talented. And the serious label is the dark thread in the fabric of this lie, insinuating that building real expertise requires boring work; practice; pain; dedication; willpower; tedium and toil. It implies that the pursuit of perfection precludes enjoyment, when in fact the opposite is true: we all enjoy doing the things we do well.

How do we become good at something? Read More →

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How does Twinkle Twinkle make little stars?

Suzuki violinists at the Budokan in Tokyo

Suzuki violinists at the Budokan in Tokyo

I first heard a recording of Suzuki’s Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star variations about 37 years ago – on cassette tape, performed by Dr Suzuki. Now there are at least six recordings of Suzuki’s violin repertoire by well-known violinists of later generations.

What makes this iconic melody so valuable for violin beginners?

It’s a great starting point, enabling beginners to master five basic rhythms and the essentials of finger-bow coordination in one simple piece. Its mass appeal as an easy way in to playing violin is well founded. Over 33 or so years of teaching, I’ve played and taught the Twinkle variations and theme to enthusiastic young children and their parents on thousands of occasions. During our years in Japan, we heard it played in unison by several thousand young violinists at the beginning of the annual Suzuki graduation concerts in Tokyo. The melody and rhythms of the Twinkle variations are a kind of elemental choreography for violin beginners.

What we all know as Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star is actually the English adaption of a French children’s song, “Ah! Vous dirai-je, Maman”  (“Shall I tell you, Mother?”) from the 1760s. Mozart wrote a dazzling set of piano variations based on the melody. Suzuki’s use of it as the first piece in his method – to teach the basics of fingering and bowing – reflected his profound understanding of how very young children learn.

How to learn Twinkle

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The Violinist’s Left Hand

violin left handPlacing fingers precisely for correct note pitches is a foundation skill of playing the violin. It’s much harder for string players than other instrumentalists to play in tune. There are no keys or frets on a violin, although a well-known maker of student violins tried (and failed – with notched fingerboards!) Forming the notes is a wonderful and exacting part of string playing, enabling us to play with more melodic freedom and expression than fixed note instruments, but it comes at a cost. We must work long and hard learning how to pitch notes accurately.

Fingerboard tapes to the rescue!

Tapes on the fingerboard show beginners where to place the fingers. They are a great head start. Eventually they wear off or are removed. We fit our young beginners’ violins with narrow pinstripe tapes. They must be placed by a teacher or expert player. I fit them so that the leading edge is in tune.

Regardless of how accurately the tapes are placed, the ear is the final judge of pitch. More detailed instruction about playing in tune is in the intonation PDF on the resources page.

Teaching Left hand Position in 5 steps:

  1. Start with basic violin posture. Extend the left hand out, placing the pad of the thumb at the first tape. Keep a straight thumb. The tip should be about level with the top of the fingerboard.
  2. First finger touches near the nut, before the second joint – the one closest to the palm.
  3. Keep the wrist straight, with the arm directly underneath the fingerboard.
  4. Place fingers one, two, three and four at the fingerboard tapes on the A string at the edge of the tapes – B (1st finger), C# (2nd), D (3rd) and E (4th) – on the pads, so that the tip joint is angled, not vertical. (Why? It will help with vibrato later on.)
  5. Keep a relaxed space between the thumb and first finger under the fingerboard – be careful not to squeeze!

Now simply hold this position and relax. Listen to the music. Make a habit to carefully place the fingers in position each time before starting to play. This establishes correct left hand posture and keeps the finger in close proximity to the fingerboard. Taking time to get it right in the beginning avoids corrective work later.

Learn from famous violinists.

Look at the posture of these violinists – the relaxed arms and hands, straight wrists and violins on shoulders. Read More →

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Seamless String Crossing

String-crossingWhen beginners first learn string crossing between E and A, the initial challenge is to play consistently on A string without accidentally brushing adjacent strings. The bow angles between the strings seem too tight. With practice however, they quickly develop a precise sense of the string levels. For this sense to develop accurately, the violin must remain in the correct position on the shoulder.

Crossing smoothly and cleanly from one string to another enables us to play the line of a melody seamlessly, as if it was on one string alone.

Preparation: 

At this stage, the 5 rhythms should be well established on E string. To prepare for string crossing, I set a week of rhythms on A string alone, making sure the tone is clear and strong, using these steps:

  1. Set up basic playing posture, with the bow on E string. Relax the right shoulder.
  2. Rotate over to A string without moving the elbow outwards. It may lift upwards a little, but the shoulder should still be free from tension. The aim is to create a single good right arm condition for all strings. Elbow flapping (chicken wing) creates awkward arm motion and unwarranted tension, slowing down string crossings.
  3. Practise rhythms on A, focusing on a clear tone. I set a challenge: how rhythms many can you play correctly in a row on A?

String Crossing Technique:  Read More →

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