Teaching

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

Sibelius

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.

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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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.

Exercise

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.

Cheers,

John

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Peta’s piano accompaniment recording revolution

A few months ago I received an email about an exciting recording project from Peta van Drempt, a professional piano accompanist in Sydney, Interested to hear more about her plans, I caught up with her on Skype. She offered to send me some of her recordings to listen to, and I chose a few pieces at random from the Suzuki violin repertoire. They were excellent. Knowing that good accompaniment recordings are a real boon for students at any level, I’m pleased to support her work.

Peta van Drempt

Peta

Peta is working to create the world’s first comprehensive streamable catalogue of piano accompaniment recordings for violin – Peta’s Piano for Violin. She has been making high-quality recordings for hundreds of individual soloists and teachers since 2011 and has seen many performers experience greater joy and satisfaction in their music after using the recordings to prepare their pieces. Her dream is to create a resource that any teacher or performer can turn to to find the accompaniment recordings they need to help them prepare themselves or their students for that first rehearsal with a live accompanist, freeing them up to spend those precious sessions on honing the higher-level ensemble skills that are so crucial to giving a great performance.

There’s an opportunity for teachers and others to support this project by joining the Kickstarter campaign and pre-book a subscription to the service at a substantial discount.

(Disclosure: I have no financial interest in Peta’s project and will receive no payments of any kind.)

The recordings will be of outstanding quality, performed by some of Australia’s best concert pianists and accompanists in a state-of-the-art studio in the Blue Mountains. The tracks will be available at different tempos for rehearsal purposes and can be streamed 24/7 straight into the studio, home or concert hall. Teachers will be able to easily share the recordings via an app with their students so they can access them at home without having to purchase the tracks themselves, making it much more likely they’ll actually use the recordings to practice (no more needing to email mp3s, burn and send out CDs that get lost in backpacks, etc.).

Peta is offering Early Bird Lifetime packages for teachers exclusively during the Kickstarter campaign. These will give teachers and their whole studio of students access to the full catalogue of recordings FOREVER, as it grows from the beginner level through to the intermediate and advanced levels over time. These are only available during the campaign as a way of thanking the early supporters who help the project get off the ground.

Here’s the links:

http://kck.st/2oCcove (The Kickstarter Campaign)

http://www.petaspianoforviolin.com/ (Peta’s Piano website)

Cheers,

John

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Memories of Dr Shinichi Suzuki

What kind of person was Shinichi Suzuki (1898-1998), the famous Japanese violin teacher whose work revolutionized music education and lowered the age children begin learning music all over the world?

The attraction of a charismatic leader or teacher can trigger responses from followers, students and supporters that may, in reflection, seem embarrassingly naive, overly hopeful and blindly emotional. Adulation delivers influence, power and permission, and putting too much faith in leaders creates risks – and as history shows, the dangers of the pedestal can disastrously overbalance the benefits.

By contrast, truly great teachers empower and inspire their students by sharing their mastery, knowledge and vision freely, and serve without succumbing to the temptations and perks that follow their success and popularity. Expertise and integrity are inseparable qualities of their leadership.

What do we know about Shinichi Suzuki ?

Suzuki – the Teacher-Philosopher

In public, Suzuki was an outlier even in his own country, yet eventually recognised as a national treasure, a pedagogical phenomenon, and a philosopher of the stature of a Tolstoy or Thoreau. But what sort of person was he in everyday life?

Suzuki – Up close and personal

Personal accounts and anecdotes of westerners who studied with him are often mixed with the cultural exoticism of student life in rural Japan. Friends used to ask me, “Why did you go to study classical violin teaching in Japan of all places?” The stories I told of life at the Suzuki Institute were as much about the quirks and quaints of Japanese culture as about my studies with Suzuki.

Violin teacher and author Lois Shepheard brings us closer to both the man and the teacher in her memoir-biography, Memories of Dr Shinichi Suzuki.

A pioneering violinist-teacher in the Australian Suzuki scene, Lois uncovers some little known facts about the early years of Suzuki’s teaching as she recounts her time in Matsumoto. And foreigners who have lived in this fascinating and enigmatic country will recognise the curious and humorous experiences of being an alien in Japan.

Her account includes the difficulties his German-born wife, Waltraud, experienced living as a westerner in the complex cultural traditions of Japan. During the couple’s stay in a Tokyo hotel, the staff once refused to give her the key to their room because they couldn’t conceive of a foreigner being married to Suzuki, a Japanese.

Suzuki emerges as the kindly professor, unselfconsciously generous, unfailingly cheerful and funny, jocular, almost naively unworldly, an addicted smoker consumed in his work around the clock. There appears to have been little difference between his public and private persona, although Waltraud would surely have added ‘exasperating‘ to the list.

The recollections of Lois’s time at the Suzuki Institute and beyond provide readers with an authentic first hand account of the man behind the legend, with all the colour of her daily interactions with the Suzukis.

Lois Shepheard, author of Memories of Dr Shinichi Suzuki

Lois Shepheard, author of Memories of Dr Shinichi Suzuki

Unquestionably, knowing more about Suzuki helps us understand how to teach and learn better. His philosophy is delightfully contagious. As Lois and others explain, Suzuki built much more than a mere method.

Please follow this link if you wish to purchase the book: https://ipoz.biz/Titles/Suzuki.htm

(Disclosure: I have no financial interest in the sale or otherwise of this book.)

From the BBC: The musician who taught three-year-olds to master the violin

Thanks for visiting Teach Suzuki Violin!

Cheers,

John

Coming up next: Violin Concerto in D Major, K218 by WA Mozart – 1st Movement

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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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Innovation in Teaching and Learning Music

In an earlier post, we posed the question: Can violin teaching and the way we learn to play the violin be improved? And come to think of it, is innovation in teaching and learning music even desirable?

violinist-on-stage

In view of long the established traditions surrounding violin teaching, it is generally assumed that only small advances can be made. Is this true?

Evolution maybe, but revolution? Inconceivable! (Apologies to Wallace Shawn of Princess Bride fame.)

shawn-wallace-princess-bride

Perhaps we thought the same about some of Newtonian physics – until the arrival of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.

First, let’s look at the some of the recent innovations.

The Great Innovators

During the 20th century four innovators emerged in music education, each making ground-breaking contributions to music teaching and learning. Their advances share some common features, arising from explanations describing how movement and language (especially speech and song) interconnect with learning music. Significantly, each of these great music educators spent many years developing, refining and applying their work before the successful results were recognised and the ideas were adopted.

All of their systems, philosophies and methods grew into major international movements and organisations with considerable reach and lasting benefits for music education.

Dalcroze Eurhythmics

emile-dalcroze

Swiss musician Émile Jaques-Dalcroze, developed a highly successful music education system using physical movement to teach rhythm, musical structure and expression. As anyone with performing and conducting experience understands, many aspects of playing music are profoundly physical, especially rhythm and phrasing. At the time, teaching musical concepts through conscious bodily motion was a valuable breakthrough with wide reaching effects.

Further reading:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dalcroze_Eurhythmics

http://www.dalcroze.org.au/dalcroze-eurythmics

http://dalcroze.org.uk/

http://www.dalcrozeusa.org/

Kodály method

zoltan-kodaly

Hungarian composer and musicologist Zoltán Kodály combined musical experiences such as listening, singing and movement in a child development approach, building a vastly improved and comprehensive music curriculum and method that has spread throughout the world, transforming music education. Along with composer Bela Bartok and others, he collected and published thousands of folk melodies in addition to his own works.

Further reading:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kod%C3%A1ly_method

http://www.iks.hu/

Orff Schulwerk

carl-orff

German composer Carl Orff formulated a child-centered way of learning approach to music education, treating music as an natural part of life and growth like language, incorporating play and less formal teaching in a friendly and kinder environment. His Schulwerk music combines movement, singing, playing, and improvisation.

Further reading:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orff_Schulwerk

http://www.orff-zentrum.de/

http://aosa.org/

Suzuki Method

shinichi-suzuki

Japanese violinist Shinichi Suzuki astonished the musical world in the 1960s with tour groups of young Japanese violinists to the USA. Suzuki’s innovations came from his understanding about the growth of spoken language in young children. When applied to learning music at the same age as a child learns to speak, the results created a revolution in instrumental pedagogy.

(As a former student of Suzuki who taught using his ideas and philosophy for 35 or so years, it is the innovation I know best and the raison d’être for this website, Teach Suzuki Violin.)

Further reading:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suzuki_method

http://internationalsuzuki.org/method.htm

http://www.suzukimethod.or.jp/indexE.html

Two Ongoing Improvements in the Psychology of Education

Two advances in understanding are currently creating better ways of teaching:

Harsh discipline and autocratic teaching methods continue to give way to more enlightened and friendly teacher-student working relationships. The teaching studio’s past reputation as an austere place of tortuous mistakes and corrections is fading into history. Learning to play music has been transformed into a enjoyable and enriching activity for all. “Because I say so” and “This is the way it has always been done” is recognised as poor education.

Better teaching strategies about motivation flowed from dispensing with behaviourist rewards and punishments. The influential theories of John Watson and B.F. Skinner left an unfortunate legacy of erroneous beliefs in behaviour modification as a viable teaching and parenting method.

Behaviourism is now acknowledged to be an essentially pessimistic theory when applied to people. It denies the existence of an inner life and the mind, reducing the causes of all human activity to stimulus and response. Improved teaching theory explains that playing and learning music is inherently attractive, interesting and enjoyable. Creating internal motivation and using the power of social groups are superior ways of building musical ability.

b-f-skinner

B.F. Skinner

Improving Notation

For more than three centuries, written scores have been the primary sources and reference points for transmitting classical music from its creators (composers) to musicians. Scores are permanent and easily reproducible records in an internationally accepted script, and unlikely to become redundant.

Nevertheless, notation is still an imperfect language for translating musical ideas into sound. When taken too literally, it can even hinder the growth of real musicality. In many cases notation only approximates a composer’s deeper intentions and scores can arguably be considered road maps for exploring their music.

A vital part of the musician’s art is understanding, interpreting and transforming musical symbols into living music and recreating the composer’s ideas in real time.

Although they don’t replace the need for referring to and studying scores, audio and video recordings add valuable knowledge for music students. What makes them so useful is the variety of interpretations available and their capacity to be listened to or viewed repeatedly. This shortens the time needed to become familiar with the music and may provide solutions to problems not answered or indicated in the score.

Integrating audio and video into scores is a potential area of improvement that has already begun to make substantial progress. Thousands of programs and apps are now available for reading, learning and composing music.

Some Current Opportunities for Progress

Beyond the impact of technology, improving our understandings and explanations about teaching and learning violin will create even more progress.

Two Common Problems – that have been around just about forever:

  1. Firstly, there’s the daunting amount of time and effort required to develop the ability to play well, a task faced by every musician. Short cuts, we soon discover, are an illusion. Although the responsibility for solving this problem is shared by teachers, parents and the student, ultimately a creative solution must be found by the individual player.
  2. Secondly, there’s the problem of enabling every student in a school or studio to consistently make good progress. A different problem than the first one, in this case it’s a mistake to look for purely individual solutions. Collective strategies and policies are needed to create social cohesion and collaboration within the group for everyone to benefit.

Possible Solutions

Solving both of these problems, especially for young students, means designing a local (home) culture of studying and playing music within the normal course of daily life. This is the hard part and as all parents know, not achieved overnight. If the student is the only one in the family group interested in music and involved in learning, a sustainable study culture is difficult to maintain. More than just habits, good cultures consist of positive behaviours, meanings and ideas deeply embedded in the collective life of the group.

A paradox at the centre of these two problems is the relative benefits of individualism versus those of the community. Individual autonomy promotes the growth of original ideas, yet tends towards isolation and self absorption. Communal solidarity provides direction and momentum but can foster conformity and conservatism. Resolving the interplay of these two dynamic aspects is more than just a balancing act. We need to find ways of getting the best out of both sides.

A strong supportive musical community of teachers, parents and students has proved to be the best way for all students in a music program or school to make good progress. It requires a lot of thought, time and effort to create and maintain an active sense of belonging, where everyone has the welfare and progress of all members at heart, using cooperative rather than competitive strategies. (Obviously at different times some students will progress more quickly. Good progress doesn’t mean equal progress.)

A New Age

As we discovered in the first Age of Enlightenment, we can make progress by criticising and improving the theories, ideas and methods of the past – without venerating them as immutable sources of authority. Art, as much as science, is an open ended search for imaginative solutions.

As well as living in a new age of Enlightenment, we are also in the midst of a great of age of Communication, where new ideas can spread quickly and easily to all people regardless of location. Exciting!

Cheers,

John

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Great Leaps Forward

Are the violins made by Italian master luthiers Stradivari and Guarnieri ever likely to be exceeded? Has the violin reached a perfect form, impossible to improve, or is it outdated technology in serious need of an upgrade?

stradivari_1721-and_regazzi_1998

Stradivarius 1721 – Regazzi 1998

Despite being interesting questions, they miss the point. It’s certainly possible to change the appearance of the violin without drastically altering its sound qualities. Today it can be produced in almost any colour, for example, and some changes could feasibly be made to the shape, yet practically all attempts to improve the fundamental design since Cremona’s golden period in the early 1700s have failed to catch on. Why? Because the violin that emerged from the workshops of these consummate instrument makers combines aesthetic form and function so completely.

It is simply a beautiful instrument that’s very good for creating what we love to hear – music. And good music, of course, is the real point.

(Two small changes were made in the 19th century to accommodate a rise in concert pitch. The neck was lengthened by about a centimetre and the bass bar strengthened to resist the higher string tension. Tellingly, a disastrous attempt to improve the tone by scorching the wood ruined a number of fine violins.)

Progress in Teaching and Learning

Can violin teaching and the way we learn to play the violin be improved?

This question can’t be answered so easily.

Here also it’s commonly believed no substantial improvements are possible. Looking at the rich and mature traditions of violin study, based on an exemplary literature with far reaching sets of major texts and exercises such as Sevcik and Kreutzer, plus the vast violin repertoire, it seems complete.

Newly published methods and textbooks mostly draw on these sources. However, it’s a mistake to rule out continuing progress. Big changes seemed unlikely before the arrival of European innovators like Dalcrose, Kodaly and Orff and from the far east, Suzuki. (See the next post.)

Learning Music with the New Technology

Now we are experiencing the rapid growth of new technologies. Are they beneficial to learning music or just a distraction? Are we on the brink of some great leaps forward or in danger of a slide backwards?

new-technology-music

Mastering the violin requires a large commitment of time and effort. Usually about 10 years or more of concentrated study are needed to learn the complex skills, knowledge and meanings (memes) of classical violin, and be fully recreated from previous generations of musician-teachers.

Teachers have an indispensable role. Music is a profoundly human experience, and it’s doubtful that the teacher-student model of person to person musical training can be successfully superseded. Live teaching via video streaming is becoming more common, but it lacks the shared proximity of the studio.

The idea of learning music from a robot is unappealing, to say the least.

The growth of musical ability and meaning is intricate, complex and personal, containing subtleties beyond the capacity of any software program. Computers can play chess with number crunching prowess. Can they determine the interpretive possibilities of an exquisite phrase in a Mozart concerto?

What is making a big difference is the right use of new technology, which allows the violin to be accessible to more people than ever before.

We know that J.S. Bach, for instance, occasionally made long journeys on foot to experience the playing of great musicians, whereas today we can hear and view multiple performances by a variety of international virtuosos while living in some of the most remote places on the planet.

Suzuki and Audio Recordings

As he researched and developed his music education philosophy, Suzuki introduced daily listening to audio recordings of fine players to young students, creating a richer musical environment and speeding up their progress. His revelation about the connection between spoken language and music made immersion in the sound of the student’s current and future violin repertoire a key part of his teaching strategies.

Taking advantage of young children’s natural capacity for language for learning music produces extraordinary results. This explanation has created real progress in music education around the world, as shown by the great surge of fluent young violinists in schools and orchestras. It also lowered the average age at which children start lessons and when they reach the professional violin repertoire.

suzuki-musicians

The spread of online video performances is also having a powerful impact. Due to the large visual component of playing the violin, young children will also absorb the way high level violinists look and move. Video performances highlight the refined actions and expressive movement violinists use to play and communicate their music to the audience.

How to take advantage of the New Technology

Audio recordings provide the opportunity to study the art of world class players and experience their differing interpretations. I’ve summarised this in the post, How to use Audio Recordings for Violin Teaching and Study.

Online video performances enable us to see and experience the music beyond the sound. This includes technical knowledge such as bowing, bow division, positions, musical and interpretive questions such as style and character, right down to phrasing and dynamics. Some accuracy issues, like rhythmic complexities for example, are better understood visually. You can pick up hints about stage presence, movement and how to integrate your performance with the orchestra or accompaniment.

The two main sources are YouTube and Vimeo. Look at the contrasting  styles of these two performances of the Tchaikovsky Concerto.

Online video tutorials are available that demonstrate specific techniques and exercises, providing a useful addition to live lessons. One of the best is Violin Masterclass.

DVDs. Due to their superior audio and vision in comparison to online videos and their extended length, DVDs are invaluable resources for study.

hilary-hahn-dvd

Software and apps. A great variety of music education products are emerging, and it’s clear this type of technology is just beginning. Some of the more useful ones help with basic skills and knowledge – such as keys, time signatures, rhythm, note recognition, intervals, harmonic analysis, composition, transcription, arranging and editing.

Electronic tuners and digital metronomes have been around for some time and are only marginally more convenient than their analogue counterparts – tuning forks and mechanical metronomes – until their batteries run out. Electronic tuners are easy to use and adjust, even if they take over the ear’s job.

clip on tuner

In the next post, I’ll discuss the potential for progress in teaching and learning beyond the use of technology.

Thanks for visiting Teach Suzuki Violin – and a warm welcome to all of the new members and subscribers!

Cheers,

John

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How to use the magic power of repetition to acquire ability

Ability, especially if it is exceptional, has this wonderful and mysterious quality of fluency and grace. You can see and hear it every day in the most ordinary places and situations: a skateboarder gliding past on the street, a barista producing another cup of perfect aromatic coffee, the clear voice of a child speaking, the sure motions of a chef creating a culinary masterpiece.

skateboarder

Photo by Hans Eiskonen

What ability looks like

  • Fluency and ease of movement.
  • The skill looks and sounds natural and seems effortless. Observers are often unaware of the level of difficulty – until they try to do it themselves.
  • The skill is integrated into the whole. Physical actions seem to involve the whole body rather than just one part, such as an arm or leg.
  • It works spontaneously and can easily adapt to different situations or contexts.
  • The performer’s self awareness is minimised, and absorption in the activity is near total.

Musicians and other performing artists who have achieved high levels of ability are able to focus on expression, communication and subtle details while performing the most complex passages. I once watched Vadim Repin rehearsing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with orchestra, chatting away with the conductor as he played. (In the video below he is playing the Tchaik in 1989 – when he was a teenager.) Read More →

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