Masato Chang, age 12, Kabalevsky Concerto, after three years of study
Photo credit: Sam Chang
I am writing this blog to detail my thoughts about when students begin violin and how it influences them in the years that follow.
I have had many beliefs on this subject and they have been really shifting lately. It used to be that most people agreed that playing virtuosic violin was linked to starting as early as possible. Suzuki starts students sometimes as young as 3 and my own daughter picked up a violin to join group class at 2 and a half. But what about the evidence of success in students who start far later at age 8 or 9?
More and more in my studio, I am noticing a trend where some of the most musically “plugged in” virtuosic students have started later, and surprisingly so. Even with just a few years on the instrument, they are just as technically advanced and more startling than that, they are the most connected through the bow hand with tone and coloration of sound. They are the ones who produce a tone most like the human voice and who can tell a story through their sound. I used to think this connection with the sound and the bow seeming to be an extension of your limb was through an early start. But three students later, I am scratching my head. While the other students are very capable of learning how to produce beautiful tone over time, these students who began lessons later arrive with it seemingly already in tact. As I took note of this in our last major studio performance, I decided I needed to delve further into this subject and acknowledge at least to myself that what I had believed before was being toppled on its head.
Why am I realizing this now? I teach all levels of violin but I teach mostly advanced competitive violin now. We have students in national and international violin competitions and playing with orchestras at as young as ten in large venues. It has changed what I am exposed to and which students walk through my door. I have a different perspective now because of it and I am very grateful for that. I have always been curious about what makes great talent develop and soar. Where is the point of ignition and how do we all play our roles effectively – student, teacher, and parent? It fascinates me and it fuels how I work day in and day out.
I teach a lot about tone; the quality of it and the nuances we can make with it. I utilize as many methods as I have to make phrases happen and to enable students to play from their hearts. I ask what they hear in their ears, have them sing, create imagery, invent stories, you name it. I want them to feel immersed in their art and for the audience to be able to capture it from the stage. Some students come to this more naturally than others but after over twenty years of teaching, they do all find their way. Getting there is what is most important, not the time it takes.
On my way to one of my own rehearsals on an evening where I wasn’t feeling well, my Dad drove me to allow me to rest and not stress about traffic. An accomplished professional musician and educator in his own right, I asked him to identify 3 virtuosic students in my studio he thought were most connected in their music making through their sound. He quickly named the three students I would have, all late starters at age 8 and 9 years old. I smiled and told him. This surprised him and so we launched into a conversation pondering together why this would be and what influence we had on it. He told me he wondered whether those students produced music from their hands and bodies more as a language the way a child would assimilate to a foreign language. I remembered instantly how my own son transitioned to immersion school years ago in second grade for Spanish. At first he just understood emotions, tone, and the “soul” of the language followed steadily by the specifics of how to read and write. They sang songs, read poetry, books, and absorbed the language through its culture every morning. We learned some basic vocabulary alongside the immersion but mostly he just fell into it. He found his way to the technique of speaking and writing properly through the soul, emotions, and sound of the language.
The following morning I shared this insight with my studio pianist. A big supporter of the Waldorf School, he added his own insights about when the Waldorf School adds another language to a child’s schooling. According to Waldorf, children can easily assimilate to another language at a specific times in development which was around the time these students had begun violin. This tied in so perfectly with what my Dad had said that I had to start thinking about the possibility that somehow these children had received violin as a second language. They use it almost solely as a form of communication. To them it is not about technique or about playing a caprice like a sport. They might have the technique to pull this off but their main motivation is to speak through the violin and you can see it in their whole body as they play. When you ask them how they feel about the violin they answer in terms of loving the art of “expressing themselves”, identifying the violin as “their best friend”, or a vehicle with which they can “say anything”.
Often in teaching virtuosic violin, I have had the epiphany with students that when they allow their bodies to be devoted solely to music making, the technique will line up and provide when trained correctly. When the body is engaged in music making it is looser and more receptive to triggers for reflex memory and everything functions at a higher level. When we focus on technique and the “sport” of playing, our body tenses up and blocks us from making the music we love so much. Even in my scariest solo performances this concept has proven increasingly true. It always feels like a leap of faith to me to abandon myself to the music and trust that the technique will follow but it works every time. The technique comes easier and faster when I am using music as a language.
When a child starts violin very early, can music making be their first priority when their coordination is so challenged? Their little bodies are barely ready for such a task. I have seen mothers placing fingers for the kids who cant do it themselves interrupting the body learning how to receive the signal. They are bound to feel more physically challenged by such a difficult instrument even if they are very musical and possess great talent. If by starting early they are led to prioritize coordination and technique over music making just to move from one piece to the next, can this in some way hobble them in future years making re prioritizing the music harder or awkward for them? A child who starts later will naturally prioritize making music because they are more prone to want to express something to the world at this point and their physical coordination is far higher. Could just the prioritizing of music as a language get them ahead this much faster? And does it give them an edge later because their ducks are already in a row?
These three students of mine all entered romantic literature within three years of study. That’s all the way through the Suzuki book for Suzuki students and if not, following all the way through the other standard violin study books. We aren’t skipping steps or forgiving scales and etudes. They literally eat literature for breakfast. This past year, one of them went from La Folia to playing Kabalevsky in 8 months flat. He went through Bohm showpieces, Telemann Fantasias, Handel, Sonatas, Viotti and Mozart Concerti, unaccompanied Bach and 4 lyrical pieces alongside Trott, Kreutzer and Flesch. He performed at every opportunity presented because he loves it. I feel in these cases, they are just going at an incredible pace that they set themselves happily. Once I caught on to how quickly they move, I just tasked myself with keeping up and giving good information.
So what does this mean for the rest of kids starting violin? I have to admit it has me really thinking about when I want my youngest to start. And it has allowed me to slow down a bit with my 4 year old.
How does the decision about when we start influence how a child processes and produces the highest-level virtuosic music? Does starting later ignite musical talent or a musical connection faster? Perhaps we can think about teaching a love and appreciation of music for a few more years before physically handing them a violin. At the very least it proves to me finally that it isn’t a necessity to start so early. A deep connection with the instrument is no longer linked to years on the shoulder to me. And that is a big revelation.
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