Beginners

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 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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How to Build Morning Violin Practice

By now you’ve both been to the first few exciting lessons and joined in the Saturday group classes. You watch all the other young students put up their hands in the goal-setting session to say they’ve played and practised twice every day. It shows in the quality of their playing – and they make consistent quick progress, move gracefully and remember all their old pieces. You steal a quick glance at their parents. They’re not stressed and don’t look like strict disciplinarians. In fact they appear relaxed and smiling. And no, they haven’t bribed or pressured their children to practise. How do they do it?

Ready for morning practice!

Ready for morning practice!

The secret, if there is one, is learning to make playing violin into a habit. The great thing about habits is that they live on day after day without a lot of fuss. When playing and practice becomes an automatic habit you won’t need to nag, cajole, beg, motivate, bribe or manipulate your child to play. You won’t need to say much at all. You’ll just work together and watch the progress – with music in your heart and a smile on your face.

Building the habit of daily practice

Habits are activities we carry out repeatedly with little conscious effort. Useful habits, i.e. good ones, take conscious consistency to establish. (And as you know, bad ones seem to arise all by themselves!) But to make one thing clear: building the habit of daily practice is the parent’s responsibility. It is your gift to your precious child. Although it takes time, commitment and creative thought, daily practice becomes easier and easier to maintain – and gains a momentum of its own. And it doesn’t mean putting pressure on your child. The daily practice habit starts with simple beginnings, then as Paul Kelly sings, “From little things, big things grow.” Good habits are sustained by your kindly unwavering persistence.

How long does it takes to create a habit?  Read More →

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Five Easy Rhythms

mia logo 1For me, rhythm is the soul of music. I love the energy it creates for movement in our bodies and minds.  This is why I love teaching the five rhythms of Suzuki’s Twinkle Twinkle Little Star variations for violin. Watching a three year old student learn these simple rhythmic patterns is always exciting. It is the beginning of their lifelong journey with music.

First I mark out the length of these first bow strokes, by placing two markers on the bow. Often I use narrow coloured tape or small stickers ‐ the upper one is near the middle of the bow. Over the years I’ve positioned the markers more towards the lower part of the bow. There are big advantages for students who become adept from the very start at playing in the lower half.

bow with markers

Before starting the first rhythm, set up basic playing posture as follows: Read More →

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A Violin Hold with Charisma

 As every violinist knows, a correct and relaxed violin hold is an essential foundation to build violin playing ability on, but it’s not easy at first. A great violin hold does something else. It creates the look of the violinist – part of the charisma of the artist performer.

In this post, I describe how I teach young beginners and their parents to get it right – from the very start. (There’s a teaching violin posture video available for TSV members.)

The first step is to get hold of a good shoulder rest. There are so many types out there – and I’ve tried most. The Canadian-made Kun is pretty good: comfortable, easy to adjust, simple to put on and won’t damage the violin. Make sure the rest is put on correctly, with the high side on the left of the upturned violinviolin and shoulder rest.   Read More →

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Making a great bowhold

Learning to make a great bowhold from the very beginning has great benefits down the track, enabling exquisite control of the bow techniques that determine shape and colour in music.  And practising it correctly during the first couple of weeks is crucial, as with any new skill.

I teach bowhold at the first or second lesson to both parent and child, first teaching the parent how to make it, then the student and finally teaching the parent how to teach it at home – going over it until I’m confident they will both get it right every time. Practised carefully every day, reinforced at the Saturday class and reviewed at subsequent lessons, it quickly becomes a habit.

Here’s the 5 steps I use:

  • Place child’s right hand, palm up, on my left palm;
  • Position the bow on the student’s hand with the two middle fingers at the leather;
  • Ask them to place place their thumb (corner) between these fingers and bend it;
  • Place little finger – curved softly – on the stick;
  • Turn over and rest the bow on left shoulder, checking that knuckles are flat and soft, little finger is curved, thumb bent and in position.

Why do I teach it with palm up? It keeps the child’s hand relaxed and the knuckles soft. Members can view a short video at this link – bow hold of me teaching it to a young child at the group class. If you haven’t already done so, please register as a member to view it.

bowhold 4

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bowhold-beginner

 

I hope you find this post useful.

Cheers, John

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