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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