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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

How to Start a Beginner, part 1

As I was looking through blog posts that were still drafts, I came across the following post. From my records, it does not appear that I ever published this one. So, to complete the series, this was part 1 of the "How to Start a Beginner" series.

Starting a beginning violin student has a great number of parts to it. I will try to make some sense out of all the steps and also to give some sort of order to the presentation, but I want to warn you up front that I often do many of these steps all at the same time. In the beginning, I think I was much more careful about keeping the steps apart from each other, but I have been teaching for so many years that I am accustomed to what steps follow each other, and I have found ways to combine many of them into a single teaching point. Perhaps this teaching ability could be the subject of a future blog post?

Concentration and Focus

Although how I start a student depends on the age of the student, there are certain basic principles I follow. First I work to establish rapport, focus, and concentration. We talk a little bit -- sometimes a minute, sometimes more -- until I get a general sense of where we are. Remember, when I start a new student, I am also starting the parent on the journey as well, and I need to take the full measure of the parent in order to be the most effective teacher that I can be. So I talk to the student a little, and through this talk I get a general sense of what the parent is all about:

·    Does the parent interrupt the child by correcting what they say or answering the question for the child completely?
·    Does the child look to the parent as if looking for a cue? Sometimes the parent will answer for the child but at the moment is on his or her "best behavior."
·    Does the parent exhibit nervous energy, or is the parent very, very energetic in general or impatient with the progress or speed of the lesson?
·    Is the child highly energetic, excited, talking about many things, or easily distracted or sidetracked?
·    Is the child shy or bold, responsive or taciturn, ready to start or hesitant and needing more "warm up" time with me?

How I proceed next depends on my answers to these questions. If the child is too hesitant or reserved, I may need to work a bit with the parent until I sense that the child is ready to proceed. Oftentimes it may take my giving a two-minute lesson to the parent to whet the child's complete attention and interest in trying it too.

Once I have the child engaged with me or interested in what I might do next, I proceed to the biggest lesson of all: building concentration and focus. Here are a few of the activities I might use with a beginning student to get their complete attention on me and to help strengthen the student's concentration and focus:

·    The Bow: In the Suzuki world, we begin and end each lesson with the formal bow. This is also the first thing I teach a new student. We put our feet together, hands at our side, and then I tell the student that we are going to bow, and I show how by making a bow myself. Then I ask the student to do it with me at the same time. I make it obvious when I am going to bow by taking a big breath right before I bow, just as a singer or wind player would breathe before playing a note or as a conductor might breathe during his or her upbeat cue. We then bow together. We practice doing the bow together with our eyes closed, and of course we have no trouble doing it at the same time because the student can hear my breath cue. This is my first introduction to musical breathing, and breathing is also a crucial part of ensemble playing as well. And we've added it to the first lesson already! There may be critics of the bowing ritual, and I myself sometimes forget to do it, but I like to do it in the beginning because it helps to establish the right tone. When the student bows, he or she is saying, "Please teach me." When I bow, I am saying, "Thank you for coming to a lesson," and often I say exactly that when I bow. I didn't bow very much as a young student myself, and I had difficulty feeling comfortable with it as an adult. Since I have been a Suzuki teacher, I have no problem at all doing it. It's as comfortable to me now as breathing.

·    Staring contest: The student and I look at each other and maintain eye contact until the student breaks eye contact or the time we set runs out. It's all right to blink or giggle but not to break eye contact. In the beginning a little boy might take about 2 seconds to break eye contact. That will change by the next lesson. I find that the concentration span increases exponentially with each practice session.

·    Concentration at a standstill: We place a small toy on the child's shoulder (or on the box violin if we have introduced one), and we stand in place while I play Twinkle Variation A on my violin or on the CD. I like using my violin because it keeps the child's attention pretty much riveted on me. As soon as the toy falls off, we stop the exercise. I want to build concentration, and the best way to do that is to stop the moment the concentration ends. A child will not learn to "pay attention" because we tell him or her to pay attention. No, this kind of admonishment only serves to teach the child how to stand still and look like they are paying attention, when in reality the child's attention may be anywhere else in the mind. This is another exponential growth area.

·    Other concentration and memory games: We play other games that build concentration and memory.

o   I have an iPhone app called "I Say" that delights the kids. It is a 4-color wheel, and each segment of the wheel randomly takes a turn in a particular sequence. The student watches the sequence and selects the colors to match. The sequence starts out with one sound and then progresses to two, three, four, until the game ends due to the student missing a part of the sequence.

o   Another similar game is played using a long string of numbers. The teacher says "5," and the student repeats it. The teacher then says "5-1" and the student repeats "5-1." The teacher continues adding a number to the end of the sequence until the student stumbles. I find that the students tend to collapse around the 6th or 7th number. The trick is in reciting the number in a monotone, not singsong like we do when reciting our phone number (which is why phone numbers are grouped as they are, to make them easier to remember).

o   Depending on the child's age, I put 4 or 5 varied objects on a tiny tray. I ask the student to look at the objects, and I talk to them about the colors, or whether the objects represent something living or a toy. Then I ask the student to turn around and tell me what are all of the objects in the tray. Students really like this game and they always insist that I add more and more objects.

o   Another favorite is a variation on the old TV series "Concentration." I take 4 pairs of cards and mix them up. Then I lay them face down on the table in an array. The student turns over 2 cards at a time. If the cards match, then the student leaves them turned up. The student continues turning over 2 cards at a time until all the pairs have been found. I keep adding more and more pairs of cards to the game. There are also special card decks sold for the purpose of this memory game.

After working on concentration and focus, I next work to establish the correct bow hold. This may take an entire lesson, even if the student is an adult. Making sure that the student holds the bow correctly is crucial to future success, since the bow is 90% responsible for the beautiful sound on the violin.

After making the correct bow hold, we then practice:

·    Repetition: making several bow holds in a row, at least as many as the child's age (with a minimum of 5). In later lessons I may ask the student to close his or her eyes and make a bow hold without looking. I may hand the bow to the student from behind their back or from the wrong side. I do this to test how comfortable and familiar the student has become with making bow holds.

·    "Up Like a Rocket": This is a little ditty we chant as we move our bows up and down, side to side, around and around, and then check at the end whether our thumbs are bent and our pinkies are curved.

·    Whisper Tube: I use an empty toilet paper roll and place it on the child's violin shoulder. I whisper "Mississippi Hotdog" to the tube, and then we move the bow inside the tube to whisper back to us. The child repeats the whispering and the bowing a few times.

·    Making Soup: We pretend to make soup and stir it around while holding the bow upright. I ask the student what soup they are making, and then I always make unusual soup to try and stimulate the student's imagination, such as Popsicle, green lizard, and juicy hot pepper soup.

·    Bus Song: We sing this popular children's song while we move our bows in the direction of the words in the song ("up and down," "side to side," "swish swish swish," round and round").

·    Through the Hoop (or Ring of Fire): I hold a canning lid ring up in the air (or use my hands to form a circle between my thumbs and forefingers), and the student tries to stick the bow all the way inside the circle and then retrieve it without touching the ring or my hands. I have a friend who likes to pretend her hand circle is a ring of fire that grows wider and narrower in order to introduce an element of "alertness" to the game and prevent the students from going too fast.

·    Pass the Cup: I put a small plastic or paper cup on the end of my bow. Then I hand off the cup to the student just by using the tip of my bow to pass the cup. The student picks up the cup using the tip of the student's bow.

·    Hand Puppets: We put small hand puppets on the tips of our bows and then march around the room to the CD recording of the Twinkle Variations.

·    Diamond on the Bow: Sometimes students are a little too wild and crazy with their bows, so I will pretend to remove a diamond from inside my ear and put it on the tip of the student's bow. I do this with a lot of care and circumspection, and I make this gesture very deliberately. I find it hilarious to watch the student pretend to do the above exercises without letting the diamond fall off the bow. If the diamond falls off the bow, I scramble around on the floor until I "find it." Great ceremony! After we complete the exercise, I very carefully put the diamond back in my ear.

·    Air Bowing: Here we just move our bow up and down to a particular rhythm such as "Mississippi Hotdog" (four 16th notes and two 8th notes) or in time to the syllables of a song we sing, such as "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star."

There are many such exercises and many others in various books. A teacher doesn't need too many of these in his or her arsenal. The above list contains my students' favorites, and we recycle them in lessons and group classes. You may create your own exercises. Just remember your goal is to find ways to make a good bow hold be a habit. Ask yourself what you could do to have your students holding or using the bow correctly for a length of time.


  1. Thank you so, much! I'm starting my fist student soon (a three year old) and this blog will be so helpful!

    1. You're welcome! Just remember to teach everything in very small steps, a little bit at a time, and master each little thing before adding another. Mostly the big task is to teach the home practice parent how to work with the little one. I sometimes ask my parents to give the lesson while I observe the interaction between parent and child. Parents need to learn how to build a practicing routine and habit, and sometimes they need a lot of help and instruction in the beginning.

  2. I think I got the whisper tube idea now. Thanks!

  3. Would you recommend spending a lot of time building concentration and focus with an older child like an 8 yr. old, or is that mostly for little ones?

    1. Yes I use concentration and focus exercises with all my students. My worst students in terms of focus are my college freshmen!

  4. Thanks so much! I am a parent who plays the viola and I would love to start teaching my 3 yr old, to play the violin but I didn't know where to start exactly. This is so helpful!

    1. Remember to start slow with tiny steps. Lots of listening to the music to be learned, and saturate the environment with music and music making. There is a wealth of music stuff for little ones now. The best part about the Suzuki method is how it helps parents connect with their little ones in a positive way. I think that my work with the teeny ones is mostly about how to build a better parent-child relationship. Please write if you experience any difficulties related to your parenting. When things heat up in general between parent and child with the instrument, you will probably be able to relate it to things not going so well between you outside of the music learning arena. Please write again and stay in touch.

  5. Just stumbled across your blog today, and I love it! I am starting my first student (age 6) in a week and a half and have been researching beginning and pre-Twinkle rituals for her. Thank you for all your helpful hints! I plan to become a regular reader!

    1. Thanks, An. Let me know if you have any subjects you want covered. I made up some jingles for my little ones last year, and I recorded them as little voice memos for the moms. They just turn them on and off they go.

  6. I just found your blog and was very excited about it as my granddaughter who is going to be 3 in January is so in love with the violin. I am a violinist living in Bahrain and the granddaughter is Qatar which is 30 min away by plane. She gets so excited when she sees me play and is mature for her age. For example she sings in key a variety of songs ect. I wanted to start teaching her but dont know the suzuki method. What do you suggest?

    1. 30 minutes by plane! That would be a tricky lesson to arrange, wouldn't it? Does your daughter also play violin, so that she could help your granddaughter learn and practice? The Suzuki method is about the approach to learning more than just the music itself. I have listed most of the teaching points involved in the Suzuki repertoire for violin volume 1 here in the blog articles. As a violinist, you can easily figure out the rest of the teaching yourself, I'm sure. For the approach, I recommend that you begin with both of Dr. Suzuki's books: "Nurtured by Love" and "Ability Development from Age Zero." You can also write me anytime with questions: paulabirdviolin@gmail.com.

  7. Stumbled upon this blog while researching the suzuki method. My Son is four and my daughter 2. The closest suzuki academy is an hour away and with my daughter being too young to start it think commiting to the drive has the potential to stall progress rather than help, so i have been researching the method to start at home. This article in particular is just what i have been looking for. It seems there is so much to learn before they begin to play i wasn't sure where to start.
    We are already listening to the Vol. 1 cd and I am excited to start these concentration games with my children during our homeschool time.

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  9. Hello I am a violin teacher in Dublin- Ireland. In one of your comments you said you give some concentration exercises. Could you give some ideas of exercises ?

    1. Hi, Mari, so sorry I'm behind in answering you comment. I do any activity that I finde the child is fascinated by. I might have the child balance a toy on the violin, hold a bottle cap on the tip of a boy, balance a small ball on the tip of the bow held horizontally. Then for older students, a good concentration exercise involves reading I will hand the student a short article, maybe a paragraph, and then ask the student to cross out all the "f" letters in the article. This takes concentration! There are many other articles on the blog. Just search for "concentration." Here is a link to a podcast episode about concentration: https://wp.me/p8ghCl-39

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  11. Hi Paula! I was a Suzuki child growing up, all the way until I graduated high school. Now I work as a nanny and my eldest charge is taking up the violin. My issue is... their violin teacher appears to be incompetent. She (my charge) still doesn't understand what a proper bow hold looks like, can't play all the twinkle variations, can't memorize an entire song, and yet is somehow learning "Song of the wind". What should I do? So far I've been trying to do damage control at home, but it's becoming too much for me to handle.

    1. Hi, Elise!

      Sounds like you are in a tough situation! I have a question: who practices with the child every day? Does the parent do that, or do you? Here is my thinking around these questions:

      If the parent does the practicing, then I'm not sure what yo can do except ask questions about what the teacher's instructions are regarding the bow hold and listening and review assignments.

      If you are the practice partner, then you would need more information from the teacher, such as a video or audio recording of what to do.

      As it stands now from what you have written, we do not know what the teacher actually has instructed. I have had similar things happen to me. I give very clear instructions, things are progressing nicely, and then all of a sudden, things are stalled. The student does not remember, the student's posture is terrible, and things go downhill. I don't think it is because I am incompetent. I think the parent's practice style and routine needs help.

      Can you give me more information so I can be more helpful?

  12. Hi! I've played violin for about 17 years and did the Suzuki method. I just got my first student (4-5 year old girl) and I have some questions.

    Should I start with holding the violin correctly/posture before going into the bow hold? I've been looking at a course online on how to teach violin to kids, and they focused on holding the violin and some left hand pizz stuff to learn the strings at the beginning. Is this a good start?

    And are half an hour lessons the best way to go about it?

    And another question -- at what point should I introduce musicality? I feel that when I was doing Suzuki, I never learned musicality or expression. It was all robotic, even the dynamics, and to this day I have problems with that. Should I, for example, help the student come up with a story for each piece? Or play each line with different styles and have her decide which one is the best sounding? Or have her draw a picture for each piece or something? And at what point should I introduce her to that sort of stuff?

    Thank you so much for your blog, this is all super helpful for me.

    1. I usually start with the bow hold, because there are so many steps involved in mastering the feel of holding and then later using the bow. If I start with the violin and left hand, then there are more opportunities for bad habits to creep into the process. I start with the bow, and we can bow in the air or on our shoulders, and then we add a violin cardboard box and bow on that. Then we get the violin and use open strings for a while until the student is comfortable with the bow and the open strings. Then we add the fingers aspect to playing. But I focus mainly on small steps. Step by Step. There is a wonderful book by Kerstin Wartberg called "Step by Step" book 1A. It contains fine examples of how to break down these initial skills into small steps. You can also find Kerstin's videos online (YouTube) or on Facebook in the International Music Teachers Exchange (IMTEX). Very helpful the way she has broken down the steps in the Suzuki materials. I use these books to supplement my teaching of the Suzuki repertoire.

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