Five tips for managing a classroom of young violinists

October 14, 2009, 2:30 PM ·

The instruments are ready for the students, the parents are excited. You, the teacher, have all kinds of ideas about how to teach the perfect bow-hold, how to get the instrument sitting properly on the shoulder, how to sprinkle the perfect amount of theory and history into the curriculum....

And then comes the reality of the classroom: it's full of kids. No, you weren't hired to babysit them, but you were hired to teach children. Children tend to...act childish. They are juvenile. Immature. This is their nature. They're not going to sit there like graduate students. You need classroom management skills.

Laurie and kids

So what are you going to do about it?

I'd love to tell you that I have all the answers, but of course, I don't. In fact, many of you probably have more answers and more experience than I do in the classroom setting. Nonetheless, I'd like to share a few ideas that I've gathered over the years, teaching in many different situations including private, Suzuki group and public schools.  And of course, I welcome yours! Here goes:

1. Learn every child's name, and use it frequently. People love to hear their own names, and this is the beginning of establishing a one-on-one relationship with any other human being. If you know a child's name, you can keep that child accountable, in both good situations and bad. “I can see that Susie has a perfect bow hold.” Praise means even more when it is personal. And when you need to take some kind of disciplinary action, “Devin, switch places with Jack,” this also goes more smoothly when it is very direct.

2. Have a “call to attention.” Chances are, some chaos will reign at the beginning of class when you are tuning instruments and getting ready. But have some kind of signal, which you teach the kids and practice with them (preferably on the first day), which tells everyone to be quiet and be ready to play. I'll give you a few examples: Suzuki kids are trained to stand in “rest position” and bow at the beginning of class. For one class, I would say, “Hello everyone,” and they said together, “Hello Mrs. Niles,” then, “I am ready to teach you,” and then they said “We are ready to learn,” and bowed at the same time. Then whenever things got unruly during the class, I said “Rest position!” and mostly, they would comply.

Another call to attention: the “Magic Four.” “Zero” is sitting at rest, “One,” sitting up straight, instrument and bow upright on knees; “Two,” violin up; “Three,” violin hand ready; “Four,” bow on string.

It can also help to have a “call and response,” as in this (rather grainy) demonstration video, where the teacher (me) calls something like “One!” and the student (my son) actually says, “stand straight!” or some other reminder about the position, as well as doing the action. You can apply this in any way you'd like, with students actually saying the instructions, reinforcing their activity.

3.  Be consistent, have a routine. Make sure that you have time for reviewing skills they already know, and that there is a certain rhythm that your activities follow, so they know approximately when to expect what kind of activity.

4. Have a variety of possible activities planned for the class, especially in the case of very young children. As we all know, even the best-laid plans sometimes simply don't work as planned. You may find that a certain activity that you planned is causing the kids to get too hyper, or it's causing the kids to get too sleepy, or it is frustrating them. In this case, you need to switch gears, ASAP. They are falling asleep? Stand up. They are frustrated with playing? Put down the instruments and clap it, or sing it. Or have everyone come sit down and read them a story about Mozart. Or if they aren't reading their music well, do a few rote exercises to help their playing.

There are so many facets to music education: technique, reading, theory, history, performing. Let's say you wanted to teach them a certain piece today, but everything went strangely and you ended up teaching them a one-octave staccato scale. Or you ended up in a long discussion about how you can transpose “Twinkle” to any string. If you kept them engaged and they learned something, do not sweat it. You have to teach the people in front of you; better that they are engaged and learning a good lesson than to have them check out and learn nothing while you teach the “real lesson” you were “supposed to teach.”

5. Perform, perform, perform. What is more fun than walking across the hall for a spontaneous performance for another class? Of course, check with the teacher of that class; you can't do that every day, or even every week. But performance is what makes most of us tick – and concentrate, and care. Look for opportunities to perform, and do it. You don't have something ready to play? Even seeing 12 kids playing a rhythm together in perfect unison can be impressive, if you use your showman skills and build it up right. Be thinking toward performances, big and little.

Now teachers, I invite you to share your ideas below!


October 14, 2009 at 09:59 PM ·

Gee wiz, Mrs. Niles--that sure a lot of challenge, but look at those smiles on their faces? that's sure a lot of fun too..

Bless your heart my dear Ms. Laurie!

October 14, 2009 at 10:16 PM ·

I haven't read your blog yet Laurie but that photo is priceless!  Look at all the enthusiasm and love the pirate theme!

October 14, 2009 at 11:56 PM ·

I like the little blond girl looking at the little boy to her left, he has a hand on his hip!  ADORABLE!!!!!!!

October 14, 2009 at 11:53 PM ·

<----sits up straight and stops fidgeting for Mrs Niles...!

I LOVE the pirates in the class photo, that's just so cute, they all look so enthusiastic.

Interesting to read this blog post, but I have to ask the teachers on here:  How on earth do you learn and remember all the children's names?   I've never been good at putting names to faces, yet all the class teachers I had at elementary and high school were brilliant at it (and still remember us decades later...!)   There must be a secret to it - share please!

October 15, 2009 at 02:03 AM ·

 Lucky kids to have such a great teacher! Thanks for sharing this!

October 15, 2009 at 02:02 AM ·

I especially like your suggestion #4.  It's good to be flexible, recognize and accept that something isn't working as planned, change gears, and do something different that's still educational.  I teach students only in private lessons, one on one, but your suggestion applies to me, too.  I especially like he idea of reading them a story about the boy Mozart.  Showing them part of a music video could be good, too.  I've done that with adult students when we need something different.

Like everyone else, I love your photo.  The kids look so happy about playing their violins.

October 15, 2009 at 02:23 AM ·

The picture was taken at the end of the year, several years ago, at McKinley School in Pasadena. What a great bunch of kids! We had a lot of fun, but of course there were moments along the way. Classroom teaching is a real adventure, and it really takes a lot of experimentation (and mistakes, and things getting out of control at times!) to find your own way of doing things. But it can be very rewarding.

We have to share ideas and encourage each other; don't give up before trying!

October 15, 2009 at 10:53 AM ·

I love this post.  Great ideas, all of them.  I'm for a certain amount of organized chaos.  You have to read the kids and teach what they are ready for that day, that hour, because it is different every time. It's good to have some plans for what you hope to teach but you are right on with having a lot of options up your sleeve because you have to change gears pretty often.  I had a wise principal once enlighten me that kids are usually able to pay attention for the number of minutes that they are in years old.  For example, 7 years=7 minutes max.  So if I'm teaching 11 year olds for 45 minutes I need at least 4 activities...reality actually lets me fit in 6-10.  I end up being an entertainer as much as an educator.  Having a sense of humor, going with the flow and the ability to laugh at yourself while being seriously dedicated to this craft will work wonders in this!  I am also for guided listening.  I notice my students asking intelligent questions about music now if I'm listening to something...not even any assignment!  A huge part of what we are doing is not only teaching playing, but teaching LISTENING, a skill that is sorely lacking in much of modern society.  My huge boost of ego for the day was a kid after class this morning said, "When I'm done I feel like I'm flying!"  : - )))

October 15, 2009 at 11:16 AM ·

 Thanks!  I love those pirate outfits.  I don't teach music, but I have taught Sunday School and Girl Scouts.  

October 15, 2009 at 02:56 PM ·

Am I the only guy that's commented so far?

October 15, 2009 at 07:03 PM ·

Royce no complex to have... lol  I love the Oistrakh discussion group  but since the few years I go there, I've never seen another female poster...  Maybe they are all on Jushua Bell's website unstead : ) It doesn't mean anything at all be sure!

Laurie, Many Bravos!!! I agree they look so happy!   I would have liked to know violin that young...


October 16, 2009 at 10:16 AM ·


October 19, 2009 at 01:11 AM ·

Bonny, I think you are so right about listening. That's how you know where they are, if your aim (as in Suzuki) is to meet the children where they are in their learning.  Also, it's not always easy to do, with a million other tasks tugging you in various directions!

October 19, 2009 at 05:48 AM ·

 I enjoyed reading your suggestions.  They're great!

For #2, I find that just doing something really silly, such as putting my bow on top of my head, grabs that kids' attention.  They remember that they need to follow the teacher, plus the silliness of it makes them giggle.

For #4, it's great that you mention having more activities planned, which is better than not having enough.  I think, though, that the aspect of pacing can be forgotten sometimes.  It's important, I think, to devote the right amount of time to each activity.  It may be the same amount for each or a "more for some, less for others" approach.  Its especially important if you have a group concert coming up because you want to make sure that you rehearse everything and make the most of your time when doing it.

I suppose pacing can be a natural ability in some and a skill to be developed in others?  I'm still fairly new to teaching, so it's definitely on my "to improve" list.

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