Suzuki Teacher Workshop with Charles Krigbaum

February 18, 2015, 12:17 PM · Every teacher needs a little inspiration now and then.

Happily, continuing education opportunities abound for violin teachers, and last weekend I was able to take some time to attend a workshop held at the Colburn School by the Suzuki Music Association of California. Every February the group holds a teacher workshop, in keeping with Suzuki's idea that teachers should also be lifelong learners.

This year, Charles Krigbaum, a Suzuki teacher trainer and the founder of the North Texas School of Talent Education in Plano, spent Sunday and Monday teaching us some strategies for involving parents, making videos at lessons to help with home practice sessions, teaching some specific techniques to young children, and dealing with the business side of having a private studio.

Learning Suzuki violin with a small child is no small commitment, and it's up to teachers to communicate exactly what it means.

"You can't sneak your expectations onto parents, after they've signed up," Krigbaum said.

Parents of Suzuki students need to know their substantial role in their children's music lessons. "Suzuki is not a drop-off activity," he said. After all, beginning Suzuki students are often as young as three years old, so working with this age group requires special consideration. Someone who can't read or write can't take notes, can't be expected to practice on his or her own -- they need considerable guidance!

Parents of young Suzuki students are expected to:

Something Krigbaum said repeatedly was, "Anything that's not going to happen by accident must be planned." It's up to the teacher to plan things and check that the plans are being followed.

Modern technology can help us greatly with practice -- he suggested that parents use their phones to record weekly practice videos with their teachers.

"If Suzuki were alive, there is no doubt that he would have a Youtube channel," Krigbaum said. Krigbaum makes a short video every week, for every student, and he asks that they listen to it at the beginning of every practice session. The video helps them remember exactly what was assigned and perhaps contains a few specific exercises. The video is also a way to make the teacher present at every practice session, and it takes some pressure off of the parents when it comes to enforcing what they are supposed to be practicing.

Krigbaum also did a master class with three young beginners (around age 5) and had all kinds of ideas for helping them to play correctly while keeping age-appropriate. I'll share one that I thought was especially helpful. A girl named Djuna played Bach's Minuet 1 for us, which he followed with some good descriptive praise, "I liked your concentration," he said, "you made this seem easy, and it's not really that easy!" He noticed a problem in her left hand that is extremely common, especially in beginners: a bent thumb that was grabbing the neck somewhat. This common problem can be difficult to fix -- and stay fixed!

"This glob right here is your thumb muscle," he explained to her, pointing to the prominent muscle at the base of his own thumb. "It needs to go down." They found her thumb muscle, then on her muscle he drew an arrow downward, with green pen. "Now make your hand squishy, so I can shape it like Play-do..." and he fixed her thumb on the violin, so that the muscle was pointing down. (It seemed helpful to talk about the muscle, rather than the thumb itself.) It looked great, and she was able to keep it that way. She went over and showed her dad, who took a picture. Then he had her look at his own left thumb on the violin. Is it right? He purposely made it wrong, so she could fix it.

Charles Krigbaum works with Djuna

He asked, "Is my thumb muscle squishy, or is it a rock?" He showed her the difference between a tensed muscle and a relaxed one. Then he had her make her thumb muscle into a rock, but when he tapped it, she was supposed to make it squishy. "Keep sending your hand soft thoughts," he said.

This exercise assigned age-appropriate words for talking about this problem, and it also provided a physical way to fix it -- with some reinforcement, in the future a teacher could simply tap the thumb to make it go "squishy" when the student is tensing.

Of course, the squishy thumb in the violin hand made the bow hand go a bit limp as well, so they practiced trying to stay "squishy" with the violin but firm with the right.

"You can practice any song to practice squishy thumb and strong bow; start with Twinkle," he told her.

Great to have a new idea to help with the ever-present thumb problems!

Another topic that Krigbaum addressed over the weekend was the business of music. He teaches entire workshops on this topic, and after hearing his encouraging ideas, I'd highly recommend them to teachers. Among his ideas: charge a living wage, charge by the month, be clear, raise tuition yearly to keep up with the cost of living, etc. In a nutshell: "Charge enough to make a comfortable living, and get paid the right amount, on time, by everyone," he said, adding, "accepting payments by the lesson is a recipe for poverty." He advises setting equal monthly payments for a set number of lessons (he does 30) from Sept. through May. He recommended keeping in the range of what other teachers of similar background charge, and reminded everyone that "it is not wrong to be paid a salary that reflects your education, skills and worth."


February 18, 2015 at 07:44 PM · << "Suzuki is not a drop-off activity," he said. After all, beginning Suzuki students are often as young as three years old, so working with this age group requires special consideration. Someone who can't read or write can't take notes, can't be expected to practice on his or her own -- they need considerable guidance! >>

With the exception of 3 year olds who really really want to do this, it seems to me that there is something wrong with this extremely nanny-minded way of exposing that age group to musical instrument instruction. Something just doesn't taste right about this. I'm going to try to find a more lucid way to explain this.

Let's compare to say, dance class for 3 year olds. Or skating lessons. Or Soccer. In all those cases, you show up, the kids run around, the coach (lets assume good ones) runs them through some technical stuff and they essentially play while learning this new fun thing.

Now the kid goes home. If the parent is a skater, they also skate together, and etc for the other sports but in a way that is distinctly different--parents have a different relationship with their 3 year olds than outsiders!

Now along comes suzuki violin teaching. And suddenly the parent is supposed to be involved in the experience? In something the parent has no clue about? Something just doesn't gel here.

February 18, 2015 at 09:22 PM · Suzuki is based on language acquisition, and it's very effective and can be a wonderful bonding experience for a family. I would venture to say that even in traditional teaching (or probably fiddle teaching!), a three-year-old would need a great deal of parental help to get started on the violin.

February 19, 2015 at 01:12 AM · I really loved the idea of creating practice videos for students, Charles! I created my first one today for a high school student who pulled out her smartphone and had me demonstrate some of the difficult passages we had been working on from the Vivaldi G Minor, 3rd mvmt. 2nd page (the awful A flat section!) Anyhow, we'll see if this will help her. I am sooo hopeful concerning this idea. Many thanks!

February 19, 2015 at 02:37 AM · "And suddenly the parent is supposed to be involved in the experience?"

Why, yes! One of the joys of being a Suzuki parent is being a part of the team. I love being involved in the music journey and practice is one of the highlights of my day. It is a chance to connect with my child on a daily basis to play music together and *through* music nurture non-cognitive skills like perseverance, patience, focus, self-expression and more.

"In something the parent has no clue about?"

Suzuki parents receive loads of training in parent classes (before lessons begin) and work in close collaboration with our teacher at our weekly private and group classes. True, I don't play the instrument as well as my son, but I do have the information necessary to assist him until he is old enough to practice on his own.

The teacher in the article has high expectations but also seems to communicate clearly, giving studio parents plenty of support and encouragement. Sounds like a fabulous workshop!

February 19, 2015 at 04:47 AM · In response to the comment above, Suzuki teachers are among experts of many fields who recommend that it is never too early to develop good habits in children. Children achieve mastery in all types of skills at an early age based on what the parent thinks is important. If a parent insists that cleaning up toys before bed is important, and makes it part of the daily routine, then there is no question that a child raised in that home will know, understand, and contribute to cleaning up toys before bed. If parents believe that nutritious foods are important, then children growing up in that home will learn to prepare and enjoy nutritious food. There are many disciplines where parents rely upon expert advice to help with developing good habits, such as sleep, nutrition, potty training, education- the list is truly endless. A highly skilled and trained Suzuki instructor is an access to information when a parent believes that music is important, whether they are a musician or not. A highly skilled and trained Suzuki instructor is a partner, a teacher, a coach, and supports all parents-those with a musical background and those without-in creating an environment that is conducive to learning a musical instrument at ANY AND EVERY age.

February 19, 2015 at 02:51 PM · The comparison with kids' sports that was made above is somewhat misguided. What makes soccer and skating different, usually, is that parents typically view these activities as pure recreation or a way for kids to just get some fresh air and run around for a while. Usually there isn't any expectation that the child will become truly proficient or glean any significant level of intellectual/cultural development.

What we know about violin is that this approach just doesn't work. The child who makes no progress just gives up because you can't learn any new pieces, whereas playing soccer badly can still be fun.

When there is an expectation of excellence and competitive advancement in childhood sports, then we see similar levels of parental involvement, buying home-coaching videos, setting aside daily practice time, etc. Those parents go by names like "hockey mom" or "little-league dad" which have become derogatory terms owing to the misbehavior of a very tiny minority among them. These parents might not be on the field or ice during team practice, but they're still making videos and taking notes.

February 19, 2015 at 04:25 PM · Sports can be extremely demanding in terms of schedule, extra requirements, extra expenses (additional equipment, uniform, fees for special events, making the team snack). The difference is that sports programs tend to be more organized about making their demands. We need to be organized and demanding, too! While it seems overwhelming to look at such a major list, the outcome is actually very positive: children attending lessons better, being better prepared, making faster progress, practicing in a more disciplined way, having less arguments with parents because the habits are established, etc. There is no getting around the physical and mental discipline of playing the violin, however much we want to make it a fun and creative endeavor. The fun comes when the fluency is there, and that simply takes some doing!

February 19, 2015 at 05:03 PM · Laurie, it's really quite simple: The violin teacher can be just as demanding as he or she pleases, so long as his or her studio has a waiting list.

As a parent, I want music lessons to be a part of my kids' educations. So far they've shown no interest in professional musical careers, and yes, sometimes they even resist practicing. Gasp!! But they do practice, they perform with some regularity (including full solo recitals ever 18 months or so), and they enjoy improving, playing in the orchestra, being "promoted" from second violin to first violin, etc. And frankly I'm proud of what they've accomplished in music. At the same time, they also enjoy a full range of other wholesome activities. As a family we've decided that those other activities are also important to their well-being, so we tolerate the occasional day when practicing is simply impossible.

Maybe instead of matching the demands of kids sports, we can match their motivators. If your child practices an hour, he or she can have a little cup of Goldfish and a juice box.

February 19, 2015 at 11:22 PM · I have to say, I agree with the first comment. It's difficult to explain, I guess, except in the context of personal experience. As a parent, I've become alarmed by how organized and demanding so many kids' activities have become, and at younger and younger ages. These kind of demands serve a small segment of the population well, while leaving others out in the cold.

When my kids were first starting out, I so wanted to be an involved music parent, in just this style that he describes, but the approach was a failure in my family. Far from being a bonding experience, it led to stress, overwhelm, family conflict, and strife. I had to back off and adopt a different strategy and outlook. What I decided (of necessity, because I couldn't make it work any other way) was that a lot of kids--or maybe just my kids, it's hard to make sweeping generalizations, but I've talked to others about it too--need time to be kids and figure out their own passions and desires without their parents playing such a large role.

I'm grateful that I was able to find music teachers for my kids who don't have this attitude. As a kid, I wouldn't have survived this kind of violin teacher either. Thank goodness for public school music programs.

February 20, 2015 at 03:20 AM · Karen, I agree with you mostly, and thanks for putting it so well. "Mostly" because the one option I dont want to face is either of my kids quitting outright. So we deal with that as best we can. If we said, you cant play soccer because of violin, then violin would be resented. That's where the rubber meets the road.

February 20, 2015 at 06:03 AM · The Suzuki Method has adapted over decades of research into teaching, learning, cognition, and child development. It will continue to be adapted into different cultures, learning situations, and through accessibility challenges. If the parents can't be there, sometimes there is another family member that can be. If family members aren't there, we try to establish connections in a larger community of practice partners to help. School programs that integrate Suzuki instruction into their curriculum find ways to have older students pair up with their younger counterparts. There are so many solutions, and they cannot be dismissed out of hand by pigeonholing the entire approach as misguided because of the cultural attitude towards music education in a single region.

School music education is great (I am a K-12 music teacher), but at least in the US, insane testing trends have led to cuts in music offerings all across the board. For the child who has to wait until fourth or fifth grade (or later) to start an instrument, and does not have access to private lessons, their potential of entering the music profession is squelched just by the circumstances of their access to instruction. The efforts to expand music education down to children as young as three helps all of us strive to make music as "core" a subject as reading, writing, and math, but at those ages teachers cannot do it alone.

I am against the poverty mentality of not striving for parental involvement just because it is not always feasible.

February 20, 2015 at 02:34 PM · Paul, I think we actually agree on that point too. I also didn't want to face the option of having either of my kids quit outright. But that was where they were headed until I changed course.

Gene, I sympathize and agree with your point that there is too much standardized testing in public schools, and I deplore that this testing, and budget cuts, and many other factors, are squeezing out arts education from the public schools. I oppose these forces whenever possible with my wallet and with my vote. But I can't say I agree with a proposed solution that pushes formal, parentally supervised violin instruction at such young ages generally (as opposed to for the minority who seek it out and have the financial, psychological, logistical, and temperamental means to make it work).

My disagreement has nothing to do with poverty, or to a "poverty mentality," whatever that is. Rather, I have to agree with Thomas Wilkins, the BSO conductor who said that professional music careers are a by-product, not a goal, of music education. From where I'm standing, we don't need to train any more professionals than we are already. I believe that training professionals was also not Shin'ichi Suzuki's primary intent. At this point there are many more highly trained and skilled musicians than there are career opportunities. What we need is more amateurs who earn their living some other way, but still appreciate music, buy tickets, attend concerts, perform in community groups and part-time gigs, etc. This group of musicians can and should be able to include kids and parents who can't or won't endure parentally supervised lessons and daily violin practice starting at age 3. Even, or maybe especially, for the non-professional, life is still made richer, not poorer, with music.

February 20, 2015 at 02:48 PM · @Gene, regarding "poverty mentality," unfortunately what we have in our society, increasingly, is a poverty reality.

20 years ago I had a year or so of jazz piano lessons from a fine player named Jack Hubal ("Hubble") in Evanston. His rule was that you had to show up at your lesson with a blank cassette tape. He had a little tape recorder in his studio, probably a $50 type thing, and every lesson was recorded, and you took the tape home with you. Jack has died, but I still have those tapes! An important point is that the fidelity of the recordings was unimportant. As long as I could make out what he was saying, that was enough.

If I were teaching violin lessons, I would purchase a video camera and a tripod for my studio, and I would require that the student arrive with a blank SD card that they could take home afterward with the lesson recorded. That's not going to help the families already struggling to pay for lessons, but it'll help everyone else.

February 20, 2015 at 03:34 PM · If you start a child on the violin when the child is nine, you don't need the major parental involvement. But if you start the child at three, four, or five, then you have to be ready to help in a major way. It's too much to expect a very young child to do it on his or her own, especially when very little of it is going to be supported or reinforced at school. If a parents starts a child that young, without understanding this, then it's just a set-up for failure. So it's important to make it clear!

February 20, 2015 at 03:52 PM · Very interesting discussion. Karen has eloquently explained some of my own sense but I'll put my own spin on this.

I have two kids. One is beginning college. The other High School. The older one showed a keen interest in music as a little little kid. We did the little peoples music and other fun stuff with both kids. I hadn't played my fiddle for 15 years or so and not even my guitar, when the oldest came along.

We collected lots of toys for him--and lots of little musical instruments---train whistles, glocks, shakers, concertinas, harmonicas, etc. And he just loved these. He'd make concerts in the front lawn (for nobody in particular) at age 4.

By 6, my wife said, "I'm going to sign him up for violin" because he was showing so much interest in music. She then says, "go get your fiddle from your parents' house so you can play, too." Well, here's the interesting part. I did that. And my son reawakend my interest in music (I went and got my old guitar too). And we've had a great time playing together. BUT, and here's the thing: within just a few months, there was nothing I could do to keep up with him. By 7 he was waaaay beyond me. Way.

I say this because this whole premise that a parent--even one who is ham-fisted--should be actively engaged in teaching the kid to play fiddle is, well, absurd. A former orch dorch couldn't keep up with his 7 year old (with non-suzuki) so what are others going to do.

Furthermore, I'd say that 80% or maybe even 90% of his musical activity in those early years was his own music-making. Not practice, not recitals. Just messing around with instruments.

Now, Karen brought up another great point about the purpose of musical instruction. Clearly my kid is gifted. But even he may not be a pro musician. Do you have any idea how steep that climb is? I think some react to Suzuki hothouse training with the thinking that it is geared towards producing the next Hilary Hahn. Of course that is not the stated objective I understand that.

Clearly there are many ways to do things. And there are many opinions as to what "music" is or should be. Or why we should learn it. And I would never dismiss the Suzuki thing entirely. But I do think it will not work universally with all temperments.

What happened to my second child, you ask? Well, that one loves music too. And singing. And loved the piano at 3. But never took piano lessons. We tried violin with that one--twice. Didn't work out. Two children in the same family are soooo different. They take their own paths--if you let them lead.

I suppose, knowing how oversubcribed and overscheduled even my children are, I am reticent to be particularly sanguine about a methodology that encourages extreme parental involvement in something as creative, individual and personal as music.

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