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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Seven Stages of Learning a New Piece

I have identified seven stages of learning related to acquiring the ability or skills for each repertoire piece. Some of the following topics are areas that are learned concurrently with each other, but there are times when my student and I have to break down the learning process into more concrete parts. The following list and the order of items are generally the model that we consider.

(1) Left Hand Skills
This area involves the notes to be learned. The notes need to be in the correct order and in tune with the appropriate fingerings. Some songs in book 2 are more difficult to play in tune because they present some major new left hand skills. I am careful to teach particular specific fingerings in some songs because of the importance of that fingering in the overall ability development of learning to play the violin. I maintain a careful eye on the student's posture throughout the learning process to ensure that certain new technical left hand concepts do not encourage the student to lax into bad posture habits. This is a big issue in book 2 where new skills often interfere with previously learned posture. In book 2 the student needs to learn how to play new notes without losing the perfect posture learned from book 1, and this is a challenge for students. It takes time to develop precision, accuracy, and confidence.

(2) Right Hand Skills
This area involves learning the correct bowings and making the best possible sound or tone. The bowings must be correct with the indicated slurs, up bow staccatos, good tone, rhythm, and bow "catches" on string crossings. The students learn basic bowing skills in book 1, but bowing skills in book 2 are quite important because these skills set up the student for the bowing skills and demands made in much later Suzuki books.

(3) Memory
By the completion of stages 1 and 2, the student should have everything memorized. Most beginning Suzuki students have songs memorized as they go. An older student though might be learning the piece via reading the music, and so must now memorize the piece. In the event that the student has memory issues, this is the time that we focus on this. I have a suggested rule that a student not plan to perform a particular piece unless the student has memorized the piece at least a month or more in advance of the performance date.

(4) Style
This area refers to the quality of sound in the presentation. Every composer has a particular "style" that stems from the historical period of the music of the composer's time. Bach may have short eighth notes, while other more Romantic period composers such as Schumann might have longer, more sustained notes. I generally teach these various styles "by rote" while the child is in the earlier books. I tell the student that certain songs are played short or long until the student is more advanced and more versed in music history. Also, as the student progresses in technical level, I show the student how to improve the earlier learned skills with more advanced refinement. For example, book 3 will be all about completely full bows, right hand finger motion (if the correct bow hold has been maintained up to this point), and musicality in expression, although I encourage musical expression in the earlier books.

(5) Dynamics
This refers to the little points of "decoration" in our music. The composer asks for some things to be loud, soft, accented, sweet, legato, sustained, cantabile, brillante, and more. Students begin to notice these things themselves in book 4, but I teach my students about these things from the earliest Suzuki volume. I talk about these things in group classes too.

(6) Test Drive
After my students learn the items in the above-described stages, it is time to test everything out to see if there are any remaining "sticky" spots. A test drive could include a home performance, a performance for other students during group class, a school or local community talent show, or some other more informal setting.

(7) Polished
By the completion of the above steps, the technical and musical skills for each piece should generally be in place and occur correctly and consistently. The student and I then consider that the piece is "polished" and ready for more formal performances. However, the student will add more levels of advanced refinement skills to the piece later as the student progresses in his or her studies.


  1. I have a question about memorization. My 12 and 11 year old students are in book 2 and 3 and they are pretty good readers. I have worked to develop this as I believe reading music requires practice like reading words, and will only become easy with practice. However, with some of these students, the memorizing has become really time consuming for them. I have one student who really struggles with memorization and who sounds like she is guessing every time she plays without the book! I have been spending SO MUCH time on review (a great tip I learned- the lesson time should be spent on 90% of what they already know) and have really been focusing on memorization with these kids. How important is it that they memorize every piece? They already have really good ears and can listen and play back a piece (from playing all of book 1 without music), and are comfortable without music in front of them. I know this is a skill to keep developing, but I really feel like it is taking a lot of time for them to memorize all of these pieces. I feel conflicted about this and not sure where to stand on it! As a professional musician, we are rarely called upon to have all of our repertoire memorized...
    I am a relatively new teacher (3 years) and I am really working on solidifying my teaching philosophy so that I have a clear view of where I am headed when I am teaching every child.
    Any thoughts, comments?

    1. Hi, Serena, I know exactly what you mean. These are probably the visual learners, right? You can try stepping up their listening program, because that seems to help. You can also take their books away for a week, and you will be amazed at the results the next week. I think memorization is a skill. I've been meaning to write about what I believe are the 5 stages of memory. Maybe soon. For now, a lot of visual folks rely so heavily on being able to "see" that they can't play comfortably by memory (unless they close their eyes or play in the dark). I think you will find that if they can play the piece by memory, then they really KNOW the piece. You can turn this into a graduation type project. Make up a little booklet of checklists and include memory as one of the checklists. As a young student, I memorized everything. I played by memory in college (I was a performance memory on violin and piano). Later, I got out of the habit and it was hard getting back into it. Now I do much more listening and playing by memory, and I'm glad I keep up the skill.

      Step up the listening program, steal the book back once in a while, make up checklists for graduation pass-offs, etc. That should do it. Also, take book from them when they come to their lesson and YOU look at it while they play. Now, I still read through the books with them, but they need to memorize for recitals. And you can schedule recitals more often too. I'm focusing more on review this semester because group classes bog down when kids can't remember all of their songs.

  2. Thank you for your helpful ideas. Yes, definitely the visual learners. So you do think it is important to push on with this with them? I think part of it too is that they are not doing the work of it at home, or if they are, it takes up SO MUCH TIME! Like, weeks, before a piece is comfortable without the book. Part of me feels like if I keep on assigning the same task they will lose interest in the violin so I want to give them what they love to do. That being said, I have been pushing it and I know it is not only about what they want. I am just starting to feel sorry for them:)

    1. Well, it may take a lot of time for some kids to memorize. That's OK. It goes much, much faster if they are doing their daily listening. Not just background, environmental listening (when the music they are learning is playing at a background volume, and the listener is able to talk over the music without raising the voice), but on occasion a focused listening (when the student is listening and looking at the music at the same time). Early book songs do not take very much time, and students can memorize the pieces as they go. I find that when students are actively following the listening and learning by ear program that Dr. Suzuki advocates, then students almost instantly memorize things. It sounds as if these students have lost touch with the "playing by ear" ability. Why not ask them to pick a favorite song from the radio per week and figure out 8 bars by ear. Or some other favorite piece, like a Mozart symphony. Start small and build. What age are these students? Absolutely, do I think memorization is important. This is one of the many gifts of music study, the ability to memorize. I see no problem with requiring this. Every other school subject requires it, even on the university level. Imagine how slow the grocery store lines would be if we had to wait for everyone who wrote a check to look up how to do subtraction! Keep on writing! These are excellent questions. Perhaps someone will have another suggestion?