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 – Teaching the Points

In this post on Group Class Success Series we look at the second teaching session, which focuses on violin pieces and points within the levels. For violin programs based on Suzuki’s principles, Session Two is the mainstay of group work, violin workshops and summer schools.

Photo courtesy of Michel Catalisano

In many areas of violin studies, especially for achieving big advances in playing style, tone control, performance presentation and musicality, these classes are more effective than one-to-one lessons. Students learn skills about the quality of their playing and sound from watching and studying with other players, and the persuasive social proof principle comes into effect, creating the sense and conviction, if the others can do it, I can too!

How to choose the main study point

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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.


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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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Group Class Success – Introduction

Welcome to the new series on the Group Class, from TSV co-founder Allie Berger.

I love what group class does for students and parents. My wow moment was when we had just come out of a group class at a Suzuki Summer School in Matsumoto, Japan, as I watched a mother with her three or four year old child talking together in detail about what they had noticed and learned in the class.

The level of discussion they had from the class was truly impressive. Both the parent and child were inspired by what they had learned in the group class setting and it was obvious they were developing a close relationship through what they were doing together.

For me, Group Class is the key to learning violin.

It makes the roles and work of teachers, parents and students so much easier, colouring and illuminating the landscape of learning for everyone in the violin programme.

The rise of individualism in the west, despite its important contribution to personal autonomy and self-realization, carries the risk of social isolation and separation. By focusing on the individual, educators miss out on many of the benefits of group dynamics and community, We develop individual learning plans and design our lessons accordingly, limiting the creative energy that comes from working together in the group.

Often it is challenging for parents to understand – and for teachers to explain – why both parents and student should attend regular group class together in addition to an individual lesson. It just seems like one more commitment to fulfill in their busy schedules.

And traditionally, many music teachers run mainly one-on-one lesson programmes, punctuated by occasional get togethers. They work very hard to transfer the spark of enthusiasm to their students, producing a few stars, but miss out on the wealth of motivating influences that come from running regular group classes.

In this new series we will show you how to develop and run group classes so that they support the momentum and inner motivation we are talking about.

Keeping the Spark Alive

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TSV Gold – A new membership level

Some changes have happened at Teach Suzuki Violin. This month we launched a new low cost membership level called TSV Gold, expanding the reach of the website and making all resources accessible and downloadable for new Gold level members at any time. (Although some content will remain free, many of the existing resources, posts and articles transition into TSV Gold.)

How to Join:

Currently registered Public Members and new subscribers are invited join the new TSV Gold membership level for $7/month or a yearly subscription of $77.

Click on this Gold Button to choose your option

TSV Gold Membership

TSV Gold members receive:

  • Resources, Videos and Learning Materials on Teach Suzuki Violin – Unlimited access
  • Motivation and Practice Habits Course – At no extra cost, your Gold subscription will include access to the self-directed Motivation and Practice Habits Course
  • Scores – TSV Gold members are also entitled to free downloads of any score published on the Teach Suzuki Violin Store

Members who have already purchased the Motivation and Practice Habits Course are offered the opportunity to become TSV Gold Members for $25 for the first year.
Click here to email.

TSV Gold membership subscription is $7/month or a yearly subscription for $77.

By signing up, you’ll support Teach Suzuki Violin to continue helping teachers, parents, students and violin players around the world teaching and studying violin, creating musical talent and researching the art of learning.

Click on this Gold Button to choose your option

TSV Gold Membership

What’s coming in 2018 at Teach Suzuki Violin

The Successful Group Class

Early this year the focus will be on Group Class and the powerful drivers of student progress and success.

TSV Violin Solo Series

Teach Suzuki Violin is publishing a new series of exciting classic violin solo pieces with real audience appeal, suitable for various levels.

Photo courtesy of Jordan Mixson

These downloadable scores include how-to tips for study and performance.

Thank you!

A big thank you to all of our members and subscribers for your ongoing interest and support. We welcome your suggestions, stories and questions.

And special thanks go to all the members who responded to the recent newsletter asking for feedback about TSV Gold. We appreciate your kind and thoughtful answers!

Founded by John Berger in 2013, Teach Suzuki Violin is committed to children’s happiness and educational success through the art of violin teaching and playing.

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In Search of Beautiful Music Scores

Some time ago I told the story of coming across a lovely edition of J.S. Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor in the back room of a little music shop during a visit to Spain. Immediately attracted by the quality and clarity of the score, I noticed that the bowing, fingering and phrasing slurs coincided pleasingly with my own ideas. It was a a work of real beauty and made reading a delight.

Casa Beethoven

In the Hand of the Composer

Some original music written in the composer’s own hand – known as autographs – are works of great artistic beauty. J.S. Bach’s are a great example. Others, like Beethoven’s manuscripts, are almost indecipherable, littered with numerous revisions and corrections, which nonetheless provide music scholars with intriguing insights into the mind of the composer.

J.S. Bach autograph

J.S. Bach autograph

Beethoven Ode to Joy

From Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ode to Joy (Symphony No. 9)

Musical scores are a musician’s primary source of study material. The language-like symbols of musical notation are recognized in most parts of the world. With a bit of experience, it’s possible to read them mentally – like a book, hearing the music inside your head.

Constantly in search of beautiful music scores during many years of playing and teaching violin, I’ve accumulated a mountain of printed music, rivaling my ex-professor’s friend’s vast book library, except – in contrast to his neatly ordered bookshelves – my scores languish uncategorized in boxes.

In truth I’ve collected more scores than I could ever use. (And my bookish friend rarely re-reads from his collection.) The heavy boxes dutifully accompanied us each time we moved house, yet the whole lot could easily be stored on my laptop computer’s hard drive – or in the cloud. In fact, a great deal of them are already there.

Digital Scores

Digital scores are very useful for teaching and travel, and my case, are somewhat easier to find. You can quickly email a piece to a student, print off a dozen or so copies for an upcoming concert and take the music you’re studying on holiday without lugging around great sheaves of paper. You can also keep copies at home and on a cloud server.

Admittedly, as with digital books, the screen lacks the allure of paper manuscripts and I haven’t yet had the heart to throw out any into the garden compost. They are like old friends with whom I’ve had long and deep conversations.

On the positive side, digital scores have the potential to save trees and physical storage space. (Actually, I wonder if they really do save trees, considering how easy it is to print off those extra copies.)

The fine art of music publishing still retains some of the traditional practices originating in the 16th century, when scores were engraved by hand on metal plates for printing. With the arrival of software programs such as Sibelius and Finale, the old ways began to decline and it became possible to create and print good looking scores from the computer – and hear the results without having to book an orchestra to test out your latest masterpiece.Finale


Understandably, a fair amount of skill is involved. Mastering these complex programs requires an experienced musician’s knowledge of notation and a relatively long lead time to acquire sufficient fluency in setting out and shaping the music into a good looking score. Thereafter it’s relatively easy to customize the music with elements such as fingerings, bowing, slurs and other directions.

I’ve enjoyed working with Finale for a couple of decades or so and the scores available on the Resources page were created with this program – which brings me to an important announcement.

Launching the Teach Suzuki Violin Store

In appreciation of the interest and support we’ve received from members and visitors to Teach Suzuki Violin, we are launching a new online store for scores and other violin study resources. Many are free and some special editions can be purchased at a low cost to download.

The Teach Suzuki Violin Store is at this link: https://teachsuzukiviolinstore.com or click on the image below.

Teach Suzuki Violin Store

Talking about Scores

While there are universally accepted standards and conventions for good musical scores, the hallmarks of beautiful scores, like those of great musical performances, are to some extent in the eyes (or ears) of discerning beholders. The quality of beauty is easier to recognize than to define or explain!

The Features of Good Scores

Clarity and Readability – good scores have clean, intelligent layouts that make reading easier, with sufficient spacing, uncrowded measures and musically logical pages.

Form and Style – the typeface and symbols (especially noteheads) are shapely, elegant and the right size.

Interpretation – the slurs and expressions clearly communicate musical (and bowing) shapes, dynamics, tone colours and dramatic elements.

Accuracy and authenticity – the score faithfully follows the composer’s original scores, edits and intentions. (Unless you can communicate directly with the composer, this is not always easy to determine. The musical world is rife, often hilariously so, with controversies and questions of who, what, when and most notoriously, authenticity. Did Anna Magdalena write Bach’s cello suites?)

Standards – the score uses universally recognised syntax, symbols, layout.

Consistency – the score consistently maintains symbols and conventions throughout, such as order of articulations and fingerings.

Please take a moment to visit the Teach Suzuki Violin Store.



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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.


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.



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Violin Exercises, Etudes and Scales

Violin exercises, études and scales: are they valuable or necessary? And who are they for, after all? Considering their widespread use the answers might seem obvious, yet many student violinists feel they are just an obstacle to overcome on the way to their heart’s desire – the music.


Photo courtesy of Dominik QN

For the Love of Scales

When the subject of scales arose in a music curriculum meeting I was attending, a university professor known for his strong views commented, “I’ve never yet seen scales played at a concert.” He was making a forceful point against the robotic playing of scales and exercises. His words contained a truth, but there’s another side to the story.

At least half of my own practice sessions as a young child at the piano consisted of scales, as indeed did my lessons. They were an inseparable element of the music examination system in which I was obliged to participate. Despite my ambivalence towards exams, I learned to appreciate the musical beauty in scales, and retained the same sense when I took up the violin.

The diatonic major scale arises from the deep natural harmonic structure of sound (vibrations) described by the circle of fifths. In a way, each note ‘elects’ the next in the chain of fifths, creating the 7 golden steps we know so well, and the 12 tones of the chromatic scale.

Fifths have a special resonance for string players, if you’ll pardon the pun. I remember the moment of epiphany when the architecture of the diatonic key system appeared before me in radiant visual simplicity on the violin fingerboard in the perfect fifths between the strings. The circle of fifths was under our fingers (and noses) all along!

In contrast to pianists, the first scale for Suzuki violin students is A major, which – along with D and G major – is one of the natural keys of the violin.

Unlike the white-note purity of C major on the piano, it may seem confusing to start with a scale that has three sharps. In my experience, young children take this in their stride, especially when you abandon finger names (A, A1, A2l A3 etc.) for notes on the fingerboard and use real note names instead (A, B, C#, D).

A practical knowledge of scales helps students understand basic musical elements such as sharps, flats, intervals and leading tones, and has benefits for reading and studying the music.

The Wide World of Exercises and Études

The Suzuki violinist’s introduction to the world of exercises is Shinichi Suzuki’s Étude in Volume 1. Do Étude’s medicinal virtues exceed its artistic qualities? Mm. As I’ve said elsewhere I rather like it, but I’m a teacher.

Sadly or perhaps inevitably, in many compositions designed to improve technique, the musical side takes second place to the important task at hand. There are important exceptions, the most famous coming from Frederic Chopin’s treasure chest of sparkling piano jewels. His three sets of Études are musical wonders.

Just take a moment to listen to his most popular one, Op.10 No.3 in E Major.

Lang Lang

Valentina Lisitsa

Alessandro Deljavan

There are copious, abundant volumes and collections of violin studies, exercises and technique manuals available to today’s aspiring string instrumentalists. A short list includes works by Kreutzer, Ševčík, Keyser, Wohlfahrt, Dont, Doflein, Mazas, Beriot, Flesch, Singer, Dancla, Fiorillo, Rode, Galamian and Fischer, plus caprices from legendary violinists such as Wieniawski and Paganini – enough for several lifetimes of study.

Many of the best ones are suitable only for advanced students.


So which ones should you study? It’s a great question. Every teacher has an indispensable favourite or two or three, and you’ll likely delve into several at different times depending on the music you’re working on. Among my favourites is Simon Fischer’s Basics.

Free digital copies of some of these volumes are generously made available by violinsheetmusic.org and the Petrucci Music Library.

Kids’ Stuff

What about violin exercises for beginners and less advanced students? Much written for the early stages suffers from being too general, rudimentary or let’s face it, boring.

The pieces Suzuki wrote for Volume 1 – Allegro, Perpetual Motion, Andantino, Allegretto (and let’s allow Etude to slip in) – artfully combine technical and musical elements and demonstrate his masterful understanding of how violin skills should be sequentially built up and practised.

This is one of the great strengths of Suzuki’s work.

The repertoire he assembled is attractive and engaging for very young children and his compositions are an inspiring example for music teachers, to create interesting, imaginative and tuneful music that seamlessly combines technical and artistic qualities.

I don’t believe it’s necessary to labour through uninteresting violin calisthenics. In the same way young children learn to read easily from engaging stories, they’ll learn to play from well crafted music.

Suzuki showed us how to let great music become our exercise and make the study of the technique an inseparable part of our music making.

Sound advice.



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