Unless the student is an older student or adult, I usually start my beginners on a “box violin.” This is a violin made out of an empty macaroni and cheese box. I prefer to start the student on the box for several reasons:
- The box violin is lighter, which allows the student a chance to adjust to holding it before the actual weight of the real violin.
- The box violin allows little risk of damage if the child drops it, steps on it, or otherwise damages it.
- The box violin gives the child and the family the opportunity to learn how to take care of a violin in a safe environment. There have been a few instances when a younger sibling managed to take hold of the box violin and wreak all sorts of damage. Having the box gave the family the chance to find out these sorts of pitfalls before it became a financial issue with a real instrument.
- The box violin helps to build incentive and motivation to practice, because we also state many times that as soon as the student is able to do a particular list of skill sets, then they will be ready for the real violin.
When the child arrives at their lesson and after we have bowed, I usually place a small beanbag on the child’s left shoulder. The bean bag has the same approximate weight as a violin, and by placing it on the child’s shoulder, I am helping the child to grow accustomed to the feel of the violin in this place, which is also the correct place where the violin will be placed on the student’s shoulder. While the beanbag is on the child’s shoulder, we proceed with our bow hold games and rhythm awakening games.
Many teachers use foot charts to help a student beginner learn the proper placement of their feet. I do not have any issue with the use of foot charts, except that they interfere with group class activities. I find it useful in some cases to have some sort of mat, carpet square, or pizza circle to help the student to find “grounding.” I have had success with some autistic and hyperactive children, as well as other students, through the use of various devices to mark the standing spot:
- Cutouts of the child’s feet, which were traced and cut out at an earlier lesson.
- Coins or plastic poker or counting chips placed under the feet. The student can “feel” the items under the feet. Then if I spy one of the items peeking out from under the feet (because the student moved out of proper foot position), I take back the coin or other item.
- Masking tape on the floor, either as a small rectangular box or a straight line for the feet (either toes or heels on the line).
I teach two positions for the feet:
Rest position: where the feet are placed together (or a few inches apart for very young children who have not yet developed the balance necessary to put the feet closely together.
Playing position: I prefer the feet apart and in a “vee” position, with the toes pointing about 10 and 2 o’clock.
To get the feet from rest position to playing position, I ask the student to do a “zip, step.” The student zips the feet into the “vee” position, and then takes a step (either with the right or left foot; it doesn’t matter to me). Then we play a game where I try to knock the student over:
- If the feet are placed too close together, I can knock the student off balance from the side.
- If the feet are placed too far apart, I can knock the student off balance from the front or back.
- In the case of those students who have difficulty finding the correct spot for balanced feet, I ask them to jump up and down a few times. I have found that when we land on our feet after jumping, out feet are usually perfectly balanced.
- I then pretend to “plant” the student’s feet. I gather “dirt” with my hands and pack it around and on the student’s feet, as if I were planting a tree. We pretend there is a strong wind. I huff and puff and try to blow the student over. I ask the student to open the arms wide, and I gently pull them as if a storm wind were pulling. I do this to be sure the student feels balanced and doesn’t fall over.
Some teachers prefer to have the student place his or her left hand on their right shoulder to create a “table” with the left shoulder. I find that difficult to do myself and quite uncomfortable, although it may work just fine from the student’s perspective. I prefer to arrive at this place in a different way. With my left hand, the “wrong” hand, I shake hands with my student’s left hand. Then I keep the student’s hand in mine so that the student’s left shoulder is moved a bit forward toward me. I hold the violin in my right hand in front of the student and ask the student to “look at me.” Then I move the violin to the student’s left and ask the student to “look at the violin.” This motion causes the student to turn the head to the left.
Then I place the violin on the student’s “high shoulder.” I say something like, “Plop, plop goes the chin, drop it on the violin.” I ask the student to hold the violin with “no hands” to test whether the hold is secure. At every chance I mention that the chin and heavy head hold the violin.
At this point, I balance a toy on the violin (remember the rubber band seat belts?), and I count aloud to 10 or play Twinkle Variation A while the student balances the toy on the violin. If I sense that the student is getting a little antsy, or that the student needs some sort of touch to keep still and calm, I might move the toy along the fingerboard. I try to make these sorts of movements as deliberate as I can so that the student’s attention and focus are engaged for as long a period of time as possible. I might touch the child’s nose lightly with the toy or hop it onto the child’s head briefly and then retreat back down the length of the fingerboard.
That’s it! I then work with the parent so that he or she can duplicate the same procedure without my help. As lessons progress, we will add the bow to the exercise. In the beginning, the student might stand in playing attention with the bow at a standstill while I play the recording or my own violin on the Twinkle Variations. Eventually, the student might move the bow on the box violin and will ultimately learn to play all of the Twinkle Variations with this kind of set up.
In future discussions I will explain how I set up the left hand. I will also explain my steps to learn the Twinkle Variations.