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Pauline Lerner

Teaching and learning violin

April 28, 2006 at 6:40 AM

Some of us are teachers, and some are not. Some of us teach by the Suzuki method, and some of us don't. However, all violinists have something in common: We are all teachers of ourselves, and we all learn from ourselves. I have just finished rereading a great book that can help all of us: The Suzuki Violinist by William Starr. Starr was a disciple of Suzuki, and he is an accomplished teacher in his own right. His book has a wealth of insights, as well as some fun photos of three year old violin students.

Suzuki's teaching method is based on the principle that children learn music the same way they learn language - by listening over and over again and then repeating. Suzuki had students learn intonation by listening to their teacher and then playing along, matching their pitch to their teacher's. Today students buy CDs along with Suzuki music books, and they can practice with the CD at home just as they can play with the teacher at lessons. Rhythm can be taught and reinforced the same way.

Some aspects of the Suzuki-Starr method of teaching violin which I find very helpful with my students, who are beginners of all ages, include:

  • For learning new skills: I have found this the biggest strength of Suzuki's books. Suzuki had a very good sense of what is easy and what is difficult; what sequence to use in teaching new skills; and how quickly to introduce new techniques.
  • For seductive learning: Suzuki's method resembles seduction. The music sounds so good that, hopefully, the student can't resist following. Contemporary instruction books are structured very differently. The authors produce a road map by stating explicitly what the student is supposed to learn before each set of exercises, e.g., playing slurs or learning about quarter notes and eighth notes. Teachers who use Suzuki's books can benefit greatly from a road map, and Starr provides one. He explains which new skills are added piece by piece in Suzuki's books.

  • For thorough learning: Suzuki emphasizes that it is better to play smoothly and correctly than to play quickly. I remind my students of this all the time, especially my adult beginners, who tend to be impatient.
  • For holding the violin: Your nose goes over the bridge goes over your elbow. One of the biggest challenges of teaching beginners, including adults, is getting them to hold the violin correctly. They all seem to like to hold it pointing away from the center of the body, over their right arm, so they can see the fingers of the left hand. This position makes intonation more difficult and keeps the bow sliding away from the area halfway between the bridge and the fingerboard. After my students have mastered Twinkle and cone on to other things, I have them play Twinkle with their eyes closed to convince them that they don't need to see the fingers of the left hand in order to play in tune.
  • For rhythm: Clap. I recently played some songs on my violin with an adult friend who said that she could play along on her guitar. She couldn't. Even though the chords were written down for her; she knew the song; and I emphasized the first and third beat of every measure in 4/4 time; she could not keep a steady rhythm. Frustration! Then I clapped the rhythm, and she played it just fine.

  • For rhythm: Metronome. Opinions differ on the usefulness of a metronome. I can't stand using one. Some students love using it, like a toy, and it works for them.
  • For rhythm: Tapes. Suzuki put tapes on the kids' bows to help them use twice as much bow for a quarter notes as for an eighth note, etc. I have occasionally had an adult beginner who benefits from this as an aid for learning rhythm.
  • For the left hand: In the area beneath the neck of the violin, between the thumb and the index finger, there should be a hole large enough for a worm to crawl through. I first learned about this from a Japanese woman who had been Suzuki-trained in Japan. She didn't know the English word "worm," and it took a while for me to figure it out. It is well worth remembering.

  • For producing a beautiful tone: Suzuki's books include "Tonalization" exercises which help the student and the teacher focus on the quality of the sound. Suzuki emphasizes the importance of the teacher's guidance in this regard right from the very start. It is never too early to listen to one's tone and try to improve it.
  • For learning vibrato: As with tonalization, listening to the quality of your sound is of utmost importance. Vibrato is both very expressive and very difficult to learn. Suzuki advocates starting early and progressing slowly. He recommends having students do preparatory exercises for a few minutes a day for several months. (The teacher on recommends the same approach.)

The more I use Suzuki's books, the more I understand and appreciate them. They are great for nitty gritty details and, perhaps even more important, for nurturing each student as a person and a musician.

P.S. Check my website.

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