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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Steps to Twinkle: Putting It All Together

After setting up the violin, the bow, and the left hand, it's time to start taking the steps that will teach the student how to play the Twinkle, Twinkle Variations of Suzuki Violin Volume 1. Here are some basic steps I follow, although I make adjustments along the way to accommodate the physical, mental, or emotional issues of each individual student, including concentration problems. The steps I am presenting here do not follow necessarily in any particular order, although some are logically progressive. I'm just compiling a list of items from which I draw. If the student is using a box violin, then I save some of these exercises for when the student has a real violin, although there are some exercises that can be done with both box and real violin.

Left Hand Pizzicato

While my students are working on the bowing rhythms, I am also teaching them the proper left hand setup. In a previous post, I discussed how I set up the violin with colored tapes to match the first finger pattern my students will learn for Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star: A-B-C#-D on the A string. I have the student practice putting each finger down on the appropriate tape that corresponds with that finger, and then the student or the practicing partner or parent plucks the note. At first, the student usually has little strength in the left hand or fingers, and the sound comes out a bit "thuddy." I am careful not to tell the student to press down or harder. Instead I just put a little bit more weight on the finger myself, saying something like, I'm helping the finger to put on its heavy shoes. I let the student gradually discover how much weight is necessary to have the vibrating string "tickle" the finger, and thereby play the correct tone.

We perform the exercise like this:
  • I shape the student's left hand to get ready, spreading the fingers open like a fan and making sure they aren't clenched or squeezing.
  • I pluck the A string and say "A" at the same time.
  • I place the student's index finger on the yellow tape mark, making sure to shape the hand and finger appropriately. Then I pluck the note and say "B".
  • I place the student's middle finger on the red tape mark, make sure that the finger and hand are shaped correctly, then pluck the note and say "C#."
  • I put the student's ring finger, the weakest finger, on the green tape, make sure that everything looks good, then pluck and say the note "D." This note is often indistinct in the beginning, but over time the student's finger grows stronger and the note resonates clearer.
  • I curve the student's pinkie onto the blue tape, make sure the hand is gently rounded and not squeezing, then pluck and say the note "E" or "pinkie E" to distinguish between the E string and the pinkie note. Even though I won't be teaching the student how to use this finger in songs until halfway through book 1, I find it useful to introduce it in the beginning.
  • Then I reverse the process and return down the scale.
Variation A Bowing

While the student is practicing the left hand pizzicato exercise at home, I am also teaching the Variation A bowing. There are many different names for this rhythm: Mississippi Hotdog, Mississippi River, Taka Taka Stop Stop, to name a few. I have had parents make up entire epic poems based on this rhythm, for example: Armadillo Cowboys, riding up the canyon, eating poky cactus, and so forth.

I place the student's violin bow on the E string so that the student's right arm is bent at a 90 degree angle, thereby forming a "square." I have already marked this area of the bow with yellow tape, which I refer to as the "sunshine patch." I tell the student that this is the "yard" and that the student's bow is to stay in the yard area. Then I help the student to play Mississippi Hotdog on the E string. Sometimes I am pulling the bow while the student goes along for the ride, and sometimes I let the student draw the bow. Ideally the student continues to maintain the proper bow hold and has a relaxed elbow that opens up and works like a hinge. This allows the student to play and keep the bow "straight" (parallel to the bridge). My goals here are a good sound, a straight bow, and starting with a down bow.

Previous to this point, the student and I have done many rhythmic games to awaken the student's sense of rhythm. We have tapped, clapped, knocked, patted, and marched to this rhythm in previous lessons and group classes. We have made finger chains, shaken hands, scrubbed our left arms, and moved our bows in time to this rhythm.

My goal is to get eight solid Mississippi Hotdogs in a row on the E string because one of our group Pre-twinkle songs is the "E String Concerto" by Sonja Edén. This is a catchy little piano accompaniment to the students' playing eight Mississippi Hotdogs on the E string.

After learning the E string, I introduce the bowing variation on the A string. This might be at the same lesson or at a later date depending on the student. My goal is that the student can play eight solid Mississippi Hotdogs in a row on the A string so that we can play the "A String Concerto" by Eva Bogren, which is another of our group Pretwinkle songs.

Another song we play is the "Bunny Song." I believe that I found this song in the Maurer's String Book

Bunny ears are pink, pink (Variation A rhythm on the E string)
Bunny nose is pink, pink (Variation A rhythm on the A string)
Bunny paws are pink, pink (Variation A rhythm on the E string)
Bunny tail is pink, pink (Variation A rhythm on the A string)

Other Open String Songs

For variety, we also learn other open string songs in our group classes, such as "Open String Blues," which is another song I've used for years and accompany on the piano by memory but no longer seem to be able to put my fingers on the actual music. The song consists of the student playing each open string 8 times while the piano part plays a common blues progression in the key of C major.

My students also enjoy playing three of our favorite songs by David Tasgal from his The Family String Method ( "Blast Off," "Duck Song," and "Lullaby." For even more variety, my students have come up with some footwork to accompany the "Duck Song." Although "Lullaby" is a very slow song for young beginners, I find that my students are highly motivated to learn this song because they like it so much. I find that my students improve their concentration when they work hard to master this song.

First Finger Pretwinkle Songs

The next step to learn while the student is working on the open string songs and the Variation A bowing on the E and A strings is how to use the left index finger, or "first finger." At first we practice curling up the finger to form a square joint (the flesh folds will form a "Y") and placing the fingertip on the yellow tape.

Then we lift the finger up. We continue placing the finger down and lifting it up a few times. The student usually expresses some interest in hearing what the note sounds like, so we eventually play the F# note.

There are several pre-twinkle songs that use the E and A strings and the F# note. The classic pre-twinkle song is "Flower Song," by Marilyn O'Boyle. Marilyn is a registered Suzuki teacher trainer and well known in the Suzuki world. She is currently the director of the New Mexico Suzuki Institute. If you ever have a chance to take teacher training courses with Marilyn, I highly recommend that you do. You will walk away from the experience with an incredible wealth of information and useful teaching materials.

In addition to "Flower Song," one of my former students sort of composed a song when she was three years old. We were working on playing F# when my student's bow slipped off the string and made a horrible squeaky noise. We both laughed, and then we came up with a new song that used the squeaky noise. To this day, I credit my former student, Mila Martinez, with having composed the song "Squeaky Mouse."

Little mice are squeaky (Variation A rhythm on the E string)
Little mice are squeaky (Variation A rhythm on first finger F#)
Little mice are squeaky (Variation A rhythm on the E string)
Little mice are squeaky (Variation A rhythm on first finger F#)
(then place the bow behind the bridge and play a squeaky Variation A rhythm)

Kids love this, probably because it annoys their parents, similar to fingers scraping down a blackboard.

Monkey Song

This is another pre-twinkle song composed by Marilyn O'Boyle. It uses the A string and the first three fingers A-B-C#-D on the A string, walking up the A string notes and returning back down step-wise. Sometimes I need to help my students to place their ring fingers with enough weight to make a good sound when played.

A Scale

After learning "Monkey Song," the student is ready to learn how to play the A scale (1 octave) on the A and E strings. First we talk about the music alphabet. Most kids today, even three year old students, know the regular reading alphabet, so we talk about how the music alphabet is shorter -- just 7 notes repeated over and over. I write the names of the A scale on a set of colored half index cards. I fill out the four A string notes on cards of one color, and the E string notes on cards of another color. Then I set the cards on the floor in order, like a linear hopscotch pattern. Then we hold hands on either side of the scale cards and "walk the scale" forwards and say the names of the notes as we walk (sometimes we hop). Then we walk the scale backwards. This gives the student practice saying the alphabet in both directions.

Then I gather up the scale cards into a neat pile. I pick up the pile, and I throw the cards into the air so they land in a mess. I ask my student to pick them up and put them in the right order. When we're done, I let the student take the scale cards home to keep.

I have a set of A scale cards hanging up on my studio wall going up in a diagonal line. Sometimes I find it useful to have a place where I can visually trace the notes of a song.

The above list is a good starting point for beginning a student on the road to playing the Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star Variations. I hope you find these steps useful in your own studio.


  1. One thing I forgot to mention is that I make the student wait to play until I have said, "ready, go." I use a "stop sign" made by one of my students. It says "Stop" in red on one side an "Go" in green on the other. Having the student wait until "Ready, go" is a great way to strengthen the student's impulse control. Other good ways to improve this skill are games such as "Peek-a-boo" and "Red Light, Green Light," We use the version "Suzuki Says" instead of "Simon Says."

  2. I'd love to see a picture where you have your A scale cards hanging up in your studio.

  3. I haven't forgotten you! I just keep forgetting to take the picture when I'm at the studio! I'll remember one of these days. I do have thoughts about painting the studio one day and incorporating the A scale into the decor.

  4. What do you do when a young student just doesn't "get" the rhythms? I have taught a number of young students, but never had one this difficult. We have tried clapping and tapping the rhythms (sometimes clapping along with the cd); singing them; playing pizzicato; playing with the bow; me play a rhythm, her try to copy it; me play a rhythm and her try to identify it (even between only two rhythms); and everything else I do with my other students, but it just hasn't clicked. She isn't hearing the difference in the rhythms. Student is 6 and has been taking lessons for nearly 5 months. I'd love any tips you have! Thanks in advance!

  5. I HAVE had this happen to me recently in the past year. In both cases, the students were starting out with box violins, and I found that neither student could "hear" the rhythms on the box violin. When I put them on real violins, the problem disappeared. Something about actually hearing (or feeling?) the pitch vibrations on the real instrument helped to solve the issue.

    In another case, the student didn't hear the rhythms but could sing them. I taught her to sing the rhythm first, and then she had to let the violin "take a turn" singing the rhythm. This worked for this student. In her case, there were some possible learning issues; she is quite hyperactive. Little children seem to understand the concept of "taking turns," so this worked with this young one.

    Check out the home practice partner's concept of the rhythm. We cannot discount the influence of the home environment. Sometimes we can straighten out the mom's rhythm, and the child's rhythm improves too.

    Remember Richard Dreyfuss in "Mr. Holland's Opus"? He moved a student's feet and hit their helmet with a bass drum mallet. I have done similar things. We march, clap, sing, etc. I use Wm. Starr's book "I Know a Fox, With Dirty Socks" to practice rhythmic jingles. We pass a toy from student to student with the metronome set at different speeds. I have certain Suzuki songs that I use to teach "body metronome," where we learn to step in time to our playing as we play.

    Figure out what learning style your student has: visual, aural, kinesthetic. Let me know. If you need my personal email address, let me know that too.

  6. Wow I wish we live near you and you were my daughters teacher, it sounds like so much fun. Unfortunately we do not live near any suzuki style teachers so I am currently teaching my daughter the basics until I can find one. Thank you for sharing all of these great ideas and information, and in a progression way. Appreciate it.

    1. Well, I wish you lived near me too! Sounds like you would make a great parent partner! If you would like to send a video for advice, let me know. I would be happy to make suggestions. Most computers have little webcams on them. I like recording my university students. Sometimes they need to see what I see to understand how to improve. Sounds like you are a musician, yes?

    2. She is still young and we have only begun this year, so there wouldn't be much to see on a video. I really appreciate it, and perhaps in the future once she can play something I will send you something. I learnt conventional violin as a child, and had no intention on teaching my daughter myself, and still don't if I find a Suzuki teacher. But for now, with all these little games and steps leading up to twinkle, I will have to do. It is hard for me to encourage her to play (she would prefer to just pretend as I play). Also I think with seeing other younger students during suzuki lessons that helps with motivations, which we obviously lack at home. Her bow arm is currently using a little upper arm, rather than below the elbow which I'm struggling to correct, but otherwise I feel the basics are going well. We tend to move a bit so I will have to consider Texas :) Thanks again - I reread all the pretwinkle posts each week.

  7. Can you tell me at what stage/ age a child should be practicing the book 1 pieces with a metronome ? My daughter is just gone 5 yrs old, and is on Minuet 1. She can play in time if I count over the metronome, but not with the tick tock of the metronome on its own. Your advice is greatly appreciated.

  8. Sometimes a student has trouble with a metronome. That's why I often use marching or stepping in rhythm to the song. I start doing this in May Song, because it is so tricky for students to learn how to step the rhythm of measure one. Once the student learns how to do this, though, rhythm really becomes part off the body.

    I would try playing metronome games first. Why not set the metronome and sing Minuet 1 while passing a stuffed animal toy back and forth in rhythm? You could also march to the song as it plays on the CD.

    At some point I teach my students to tap rhythm out with pencils. The left hand pencil taps the beat (of the metronome) continuously, while the right hand taps out the actual rhythm of the song or passage. This technique usually does the most for getting rhythm built into the student's body, along with stepping to the song.

    It does take a bit of time for younger, less advanced students though. Metronomes can distract students who have good listening skills.

    There is a metronome on the market that provides electrical impulses. This helps many students to learn how to "feel" the beat. It is called "Body Beat."

  9. What is a good song to use for the middle section of twinkle (starting on the E string)? I have heard of teachers that use the "cheese song" but I do not know this.

    1. I think that "cheese song" is just the middle section of Twinkle. Many Suzuki teachers help their students memorize the parts or the song by referring to "making a sandwich." For example, the first part and last part of the 3-part song are considered the "bread" parts. Then the middle part is whatever is inserted in the sandwich. Some students like peanut butter and jelly. I have a student who liked turkey and cheese. One of my studio moms printed computer pictures of the food ingredients her son identified with, and that helped him remember where he was in the song.

      The tricky part of the "cheese" part of Twinkle is having the student learn to go from the E string to the third finger. I think this just takes time. In the beginning, I ask my students to stop, prepare 1-2-3, and then rock the bow and play Monkey song going backwards.

      When my students' third fingers are strong enough to stand up tall by themselves (independent third finger), then we start doing that. At that point the student starts to play the song faster.

      So I think "cheese song" is just referring to the middle part of the Twinkle Song. I guess we could compose a song that is called "cheese song." Any thoughts about how to do this?

  10. I have taught conventional violin for a few years, and someone has asked me to teach her almost 4 yr. old who has been doing suzuki. I am considering it, and reading articles on your blog has really helped me understand what he is doing. :)

    Sorry, I have an ignorant question to ask: Do the kids get tired of doing the same rhythms and bow hold exercises without actually playing the real violin? What do you do to keep it new and exciting?

    Thank you!!

  11. To Hannah:

    Every child is different, as you know. I am starting a 3.5 year old right now who is quite strong-willed and demands that he play on a "real violin" rather than the box. But, this is all part of my teaching plan. This little one needs to learn a little discipline, especially in the learning environment. (Search for articles about the million dollar lesson for more information).

    I think that adults teach children about boredom, so I am careful myself to show excitement, curiosity, and interest at all times, even if I have played the Twinkle Variations ten times that day (my typical Friday). I think adults expect students to show boredom, but I must point out that we adults love to play our favorite songs over and over on the radio or iTunes.

    I recall one mom complaining that she could not get her son to play Mississippi Hot Dog on the E string more than four times in practice. I then showed her how to play the "chip game," and by the time her son and I had finished the game, he had played it at least 25 times without even realizing it.

    As a teacher, I spend a lot of time thinking of ways to make things creative and fun. Feel free to email me with questions. I would be happy to answer you and offer solutions and possible games to try. First and foremost, learn to love the Twinkles. As you work through the Suzuki repertoire, you will learn much as a teacher when you try to discern what each song is trying to teach. Left hand, right hand, focus/concentration, etc. I have had university students begin to study the Suzuki repertoire in order to teach it, and they progressed as musicians exponentially as they worked through the skills required by the various songs.

  12. Thank you so much for taking the time to answer, Paula! :) I will let you know if I have more questions.

  13. What is the "chip game"?

    1. I am going to write an article about this. Thanks for the suggestion. I use the "chip game" for all sorts of activities, so I thought an article would be better than trying to cram it into a short reply. Stay tuned!

    2. I just posted the chip game article today (12/13/12).

  14. Does the Monkey Song use Variation A? Also, are there piano accompaniments for the pre-twinkle songs you mentioned (specifically the monkey, flower, and bunny songs)?

    Thanks for this post! It is really helpful. I love when you do step-by-step for teaching a certain piece. :)

    1. Yes, Monkey Song uses the Variation A bowing rhythm on each note. There are piano parts to the Flower and Monkey Songs. These were printed in the SAA's journal in the article entitled "Pre-Twinkle Songs" by Marilyn O'Boyle. I don't know when that was printed but somewhere in 1999-2001 perhaps. For Bunny Song, I made one up in the key of A Major: A, D, E7, A.

      Look at my resource store (upper right hand margin corner) for the "Magic Carpet for Violin." You will find lots of great songs for Pre-twinklers that use the open strings, follow the Monkey Song format, and use the Twinkle variation bowings. My kids love these songs. They ask for Tango and Carnival all the time!

      Personally, I love to make up my own songs. You can also find a cool song on YouTube called the "Train Song." There was some other videos about a snow or moon song, but I couldn't find them anymore. Maybe they were removed. Does anyone remember these songs?

  15. I'm not sure how I've missed it, but I have literally spent two hours looking through every SAA journal from 1990-2012 looking for this article with the piano parts for Flower and Monkey Songs. Is there another place I might locate these accompaniments?

    1. Email me:

    2. I have a copy of the article although I do not see the date. They are fairly common chord progressions.

      Flower Song: A major, D Major, E Major, A major.
      Monkey Song: A major, E major, A major, D major, A major etc.

  16. how to practise twinkle stars with my three years old without yelling?

    She could do the exerise correctly 3 (when she focus) out of 10 times. She doesnt like to look at the fingerboard or where she bow, she either pretending she was hilary hahn (shift her body and close/open her eyes) or look across the room.

    she is at her 10th lesson and playing EEEEEE/AAAAAA along with track R1, half of twinkle: AAEEFFE,DDCCBBA, AaaaaaEeeeeeFfffffEeeeee.....etc

    She loves violin alot, but she seems get bored with the exercises.

  17. At the moment I am practicing Twinkles for the second time (with my younger child, the older one is currently playing "Happy Farmer). And for the second time I am experiencing the same frustration. The bow hand which was so nicely shaped while playing on open strings, now keeps doing practicly everything wrong. All the fingers are spread in various directions. Is it something with me, with my children, or just a normal phase? Maybe she progressed too quickly from playing on an open string to playing with fingers? I remember exactly the same thing with my older one! Best wishes from Poland :-)

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