3 year old struggling with violin lessons

April 19, 2013 at 06:49 AM · Hello! I am very frustrated with my 3.5 year old. When he just turned 3, we tried Suzuki method, but he hated playing in the group, so I found him a teacher with a formal approach. He’s been having a half an hour lesson a week and about 20 min practice at home every other day for the past 3 months. The progress was good in the beginning, but things starting to slow down.

He is still playing on open strings. He can name all the notes and play simple tunes, but when reading the music he still can’t really grasp the difference between a minim or a quaver. It seems like he does not understand the difference in the length of the sounds he should be producing when he is playing off the list. He can however copy the music by ear when listening to the recording of the piece he is learning. It is usually a very easy tune, just a few notes. (Sorry if I don’t make much sense, I am not a professional so not sure how to describe it better).

Is there is any point to continue? Is it possible to teach such a small child notes? I thought it was possible before we started the lessons. Or should I go back to Suzuki method, despite him hating it? Do I stop lessons all together and try again when he is older?

I would love to hear from somebody with an experience of teaching younger kids/parents of younger students. His teacher is a lovely, but she had admitted herself that she does not have a lot of experience with kids his age and sees it like a “new challenge.”

Replies (32)

April 19, 2013 at 07:58 AM · Hello,

Little kids have very short attention span so one has to be very very patient with them. At this point, if he still wants to play, then keep going. Things may pick up in a few months or a year or it may not. it is hard to say with children this young. Even my teacher's daughter who is turning 3 is very unpredictable. Sometimes she would play by herself for an hour or two. Sometimes she can go weeks without playing. Just keep going, don't expect too much and make sure he is having fun :)

April 19, 2013 at 08:23 AM · I'm not a music teacher, but I work with kids at that age.

The way these lessons have been set up do not sound developmentally appropriate, even though the intent may be wonderful and the desire to learn may be there on the little child's part. Expecting the typical 3 year old to understand the concept of fractions (written quaver vs minim) is unrealistic, as is the requirement for 20 minute lessons. Let the child learn by ear, and look at fun games for a few minutes at a time - involving imitation and lots of repetition. There is nothing magical about learning violin. Would you have also set your heart on teaching your child to learn handwriting, knitting, dressage, or mathematics at this age and in this traditional fashion?

April 19, 2013 at 03:51 PM · Sharelle is right; it's too early for a lot of formal expectations especially reading BUT it is not too early for learning if you're ok with it being more like guided play! suzuki, I believe, is actually intended to work that way though it doesn't always happen! what I would recommend isiseither -1. find a teacher who's willing to teach yOU the stuff so you can help her do it in fun, 3 yr old sized chunks, and realize that it will build VERY ggradually, the 5 yr old wonder kids being definitely not the norm :) but hopefully by the time she is 5 or 6 the right basic habits will have been formed and then from there she can grow in leaps and bounds. OR 2 give it a break except for fun, but take a music-and-movement class or something that will build her ear, coordination, and innate musical understanding until she's old enough to do more formal lessons.

hhope that helps-sorry for crazy typos, my phone browser which i am typing from is acting really weird...

April 19, 2013 at 03:52 PM · HHe, not she, sorry! :)

April 19, 2013 at 04:21 PM · In my opinion i'd say age 3 is a little early to start expecting kids to read rhythms. Personally I'd stick to playing by ear and keeping things 'fun' whilst making sure everything he's doing in the meantime is technically correct... then when old enough to start understanding notes and rhythms,(perhaps aged 5 depending on the child?) he'll have a really good foundation to start on as he'll already be very familiar with the instrument!

April 19, 2013 at 05:41 PM · I started my son on piano at age 4, then he switched to violin at age 7. It has worked out really well. He learned to read notes and had a good grasp of rhythm before switching to violin which was very helpful.

I know there are kids starting Suzuki at age 3-4, but personally, I think that is too young to play such a difficult instrument. Violin requires a great deal of manual dexterity and most people (I'm referring to non-prodigies here), do not have the coordination to tackle it at such an early age.

When my son started, there was another student, age 6 who had already been playing violin for 3 years, so that student had a 3 year head start on my son. After 1 year, my son caught up and passed him in ability. My point is, from ages 3-6, the progress on violin is very slow, so you might as well learn piano to build up a good musical foundation first.

April 19, 2013 at 06:24 PM · I agree with what has been said and also incline to say: let your child be a child. Violin can wait, childhood can not.

In the meantime, please borrow and read a few books about developmental psychology, in particulars those about the works of Piaget. There are individual differences but all children pass through the same phases of psychological (and psycho-motoric) development that can not and should not be rushed.

April 19, 2013 at 06:38 PM · I started piano at age 5 and violin at 7, and I've always had a good sense of rhythm. My mom told me that when I was just able to stand and walk, I was at a small party where they had some music playing. She says I stood on the floor and danced to the beat of the music (bending my legs, swaying, etc.). Some of my earliest memories are of me trying to figure out how to divide a piece into bars - I didn't know they were called bars, but I understood the concept naturally. However, my little sister tried to learn the cello when she was 5, and she couldn't even clap to a beat. I'm guessing that my ability to do this was a talent that many young kids don't have. That's fine; they just need to develop it.

I could not read music until a couple years after I started violin. It was 7 years before I could read music reasonably well. I think I should have worked on my sight reading more as a younger kid. However, I don't think my bad sight reading skills really caused any big problems for me for the first 6 years or so. By not being able to sight read, I actually learned a skill that not every violinist has: playing by ear.

Maybe you could try having your son play just by ear for a little while. I think there's a reason why kids don't learn to read until age 5 - and reading music, at least in my opinion, is more difficult than reading English.

One important fact I haven't mentioned yet: my parents exposed me to a lot of music when I was little. There was almost always a CD playing before bedtime, and we had a whole drawer full of tapes that (as soon as I was old enough) I was allowed to play whenever I wanted to. I think that it was due to this that I was able to learn the violin, especially starting out.

You might take reading books for example. If your mom read books to you for a little while every day when you were a baby/toddler, you probably had the desire to learn to read. If you were really paying attention to the book as she was reading, you might even know the basics before you officially start to learn in school. By that time, you'll have a head start. You will likely go on to love reading and read many books as a teenager/adult. And you will probably read books to your own toddlers.

Try relating this to music; if your parents play CDs (or if you're really lucky, they play their instruments!) every day. Before long, you fall in love with music and want to play it yourself. And by then, you probably already have a good foundation of listening to others, and can do well at creating your own.

April 20, 2013 at 12:18 AM · I started at 4 and my teachers made ut fun. Though i had to relearn tecnique 4 years later. I would advise to keep exposure to music and instruments but limit it to game. No pressure.

April 20, 2013 at 05:39 AM · There has been some very good advise about child development in the previous posts. I think in general 3 - 5 is too young, especially to start reading music.

I would suggest a music class specially designed for pre-school children. My kids went to a great program called Music Class. There was singing, movement, rhythm patterns, tonal patterns and music from many genres. It was great.

I think pre-school is where Suzuki is the best. There is a huge variation in teachers and how they run their program.(Some are great and others are flat out awful.) You want someone who really knows pre-schoolers, has realistic expectations, can teach you how to help your child and most important of all encourages the love of music.

If I was set on starting my child early watch a lesson with a child close to your child's age, then have a trial lesson if you like what you saw. Shop around. This should be a fun experience for your kid.

I do have one child who started very young, two and a half. She was pretending to play the violin very accurately and had a very strong reaction to music.

The other three kids started taking lessons around eight years old. One plays oboe and the other is playing viola. The oldest is a causal percussionist. The child who started at 2 1/2 is playing violin/viola very seriously. I think it helped the other kids understand and appreciate music to hear it so much at home and in the car. However, I also think it would have been a disaster if I had expected all of them to do what their sister did.

Music isn't a race to see who gets there first.

April 20, 2013 at 04:57 PM · I'm not sure how to begin. Your frustration is unfair to your child. There may be 3 year olds who understand rhythmic notation and are able to read music, but that isn't a reasonable expectation. Can your son read words fluently? Can he do a cartwheel? Can he catch a baseball? Can he eat with chopsticks? Probably the answer is no to all of the above, and that's no cause for frustration. He will be able to do all of these things when his brain and body are ready for them.

When you say progress was good at the beginning, but has slowed down, I can't imagine what this could mean. The beginning is learning to hold the instrument and the bow and make sounds on open strings. Learning actual music is a whole different story. My daughter started at 5, and I think she showed an aptitude for it from the beginning, but it was still almost 3 months before we got past the twinkle variations. The next piece we learned quicker, but her teacher was in no hurry to move on. What she needed was time playing the violin, and it was better for her to be able to play something with confidence than to be constantly learning new notes. It was quite slow in the beginning, taking almost 2 years to get through Suzuki book 1, but at around 18 months she began progressing much quicker. About that time we committed to practicing daily, and I mean EVERY day. Usually this was 20-30 minutes, but the occasional 10 minute, hyper-focused practice was thrown in just so we could continue our practice streak. It even included some creative mental practice games when we went to Disney. I always, always tried to make a game of it for her. You can have real goals for your child, but you don't have to burden them with the details.

By the way, can you play the violin? I wanted to understand the process and rented an instrument when my daughter started. It can be an eye opening experience if you don't already play.

April 20, 2013 at 06:15 PM · Thank you so much for your kind responses! I agree that it seems too early to introduce the note reading, but I trusted my son’s teacher because I thought as a professional she knows best.

I had a few lessons myself when my oldest daughter started violin lessons, so I can help my son at home.

“Can your son read words fluently?”

He can read simple books like Oxford Reading Tree and can recognise numbers up to 100 and can concentrate on tasks for a long time. That’s why his teacher thought he was ready to start with the lessons.

“When you say progress was good at the beginning, but has slowed down, I can't imagine what this could mean”

I mean he could read notes in the beginning and play on the corresponding strings, but as he progress the notes get more and more complicated and his progress starting to slow.

April 20, 2013 at 07:01 PM · Maybe have a look at the Givens and Takadimi methods. You/the teacher doesn't even have to use them in lessons, just have a look at how they introduce the concept of rhythm. I've found them to be very effective, even for kids that cannot yet read (words).

Really though, numbers and how they relate to the concept time (rhythm) is a bit abstruse for the under 5s. Be patient, it takes however long it takes for a kid to grasp it and every kid (in my experience) has been different.

Also, I'm not convinced being able to read and comprehend rhythmic notation at 3 (4,5,6) has ANYTHING to do with having a natural aptitude for music. Rhythmic notation is a tool/concept that helps us better organize sound consistently. If he can grasp it indirectly by hearing, well, that's the first step. Bravo. His ability to spell does not influence his ability to articulate himself, likewise, his ability (at this age/point in development) to comprehend rhythmic notation doesn't mean he doesn't 'get' music. He will get it, eventually, it just takes time.

April 20, 2013 at 10:15 PM · That is an important distinction, Amber. Thankyou for reminding us.

April 21, 2013 at 01:54 PM · I learned to read music at the piano at about age 5. I was an early reader of words, supposedly sang a great deal even before I was talking well. That is a lot older in several ways than 3 and a half. A pre-school program designed with lots of music, dance, movement and art might be a better fit for your child than formal violin lessons right now. You can keep the violin and every day or two ask if he would like to play. It is OK for little ones to play on the violin as though it is a toy, with the same supervision as for any other delicate toys, so it isn't taken apart out of curiosity or accidentally destroyed.

April 21, 2013 at 06:18 PM · I'm curious as to why you are pushing violin on a 3 year old. Perhaps as a parent you aspire to raise a virtuoso, but wouldn't you be better off cultivating your child's musical interest, ear and necessary skills to grow as a violinist by other methods better suited to your child's brain development level? Admittedly I am not a specialist in that subject matter, but isn't starting one's musical journey at that age with the violin like learning to transport oneself with a fighter jet rather than a bicycle? At this point I would ask myself if it were my child if it isn't more important to have the child taking part in "fun" activities that will promote his right brain and motor skill development to give him what he needs later on to successfully progress in that activity.

April 21, 2013 at 09:44 PM · My son participate in a lot of fun activities, as I said he practices 20 min every other day, it is not exactly "taking his childhood away". The reason we started so early is my oldest daughter. She regrets not starting violin much earlier, so I did not want my son to have the same regret.

April 21, 2013 at 10:22 PM · I take your point about why you started your son at 3, Natalie. On the other hand, it is possible that, if you push your son too hard, he may lose interest at his early age, give up, and then turn round in some years' time - kids being what they are - and claim that he feels you started him too early and that he therefore didn't have a fair chance. I thus think Alex's point is a well-balanced one which may help avoid this danger.

The idea of letting him play for a little at a time on alternate days sounds good too, but I wouldn't worry overmuch about pushing the pace. He'll advance a little in any case but you'll be the best person to judge when he should have formal lessons.

Edit: The comments by Paul and Laurie below are thought-provoking and IMHO useful.

April 22, 2013 at 12:43 AM · IMHO it does not mean you should quit, it just means the method is not currently working for him or her. Maybe reading should not be the focus, learn more by ear. Find a different way, keep it fun.

April 22, 2013 at 03:14 AM · I too tried to start my twins at 3, they simply were not ready for the focus violin requires... and they drifted away.

I currently teach the recorder/basic theory to kindergarten and first graders at an elementary school, and I find that the combination of an easy to manage instrument with easy theory to work for the majority - but I always have to be willing to back pedal or take a detour. :) You just never know!

Little ones do best by rote initially, then add the notes after the fact to connect what they play with what they see. But it's quite literally one note at a time, never ever add more than they can swallow at a time, because they can shut down and lose interest. If that happens, it takes time to get it back, and a bit of work.

My twins are now 8, and one is learning piano, the other has decided he wants to focus on violin. They are both progressing well, and in hind sight, I see the early introduction to violin as a stepping stone, and made them brave enough to try, even if they weren't ready for the focus needed a few years ago.

Best advice is to just let them be - 5-10 minutes of practice most days is enough to let them enjoy learning to make music, they're pretty good at letting us know when they're ready for something.

BTW, my biggest regret is putting my viola down for 20 years. We all have regrets, we just learn to work through them.

April 22, 2013 at 03:29 AM · There's variety in Suzuki teaching, and if not it would be counter to the original spirit. So Suzuki doesn't have to have group lessons for everyone, although of course playing together with others can have many benefits, to the point where it's generally recommended.

If group lessons don't suit your child and it's not the particular group, or instructor, then you could consider another Suzuki or Suzuki-style teacher in your area who gives you the option to omit group lessons.

You might also continue with the current teacher if she's willing to let you take up the task of teaching the notes while leaving reading as a separate skill to be developed at the pace or time which suits the student.

It can be hard for a traditional teacher to give up the dependence on sheet music, but none complain when the student arrives having learnt new material, regardless of the manner of learning, and the remaining work -- correction, refinement, whatever, are matters which are not specific to Suzuki or traditional.

April 22, 2013 at 07:40 PM · Hold the phone! Here is what you wrote:

"He can however copy the music by ear when listening to the recording of the piece he is learning."

At the age of 3, what more do you want? Your kid is talented! For goodness sake let him keep playing by ear as much as he wants, have your teacher help him develop that skill even more, like providing you with tools to help him learn longer sequences, phrases, whole songs. But for now, to hell with reading music! If your teacher insists on reading music then find a different teacher. Printed music is a distraction to a child that age! Without reading music getting in the way you can focus on nice bowing, putting the fingers in the right place, posture, and all kinds of other stuff. My daughter learned cello all the way through Suzuki Book 1 and partway into Book 2 without knowing how to read a single note. Now she is 7 and it makes sense to start reading music. It will be a while before reading music is the easier way to learn a two-page piece.

April 23, 2013 at 06:28 AM · Just have him play simple songs by ear and make sure he is holding the instrument and bow correctly. I bet you will know when he is ready to move into a more formal sequence.

April 23, 2013 at 10:34 AM · The issue is obvious: he needs to start using a shoulder rest!

Or, if he is already using a shoulder rest, he needs to immediately stop using one.

Plenty of info available in the archives about how critical using/not using a shoulder rest is to playing like Heifetz, Perlman, Joshua Bell, Hsu, etc....

June 3, 2013 at 02:09 PM · I too will check out your site, Helen. BTW, we have a school in common, so hello homie!

I have not ever found the time or the piles of cash necessary to take Suzuki training (nothing available in my state, so everything involves the Holiday Inn and a long trip, etc.)

I start kids at 5 (or at least almost-5) using the Givens 'Adventures in Violinland' method which has gotten wonderful results.

Pre-readers and toddlers learn and process very differently from older children, and I don't think simply slowing down the standard methods works. It doesn't *have to be Suzuki, but it would require a teacher who is experienced with this age group and knows how they learn. Suzuki is definitely the most widely available method which is designed for this age group, so I would stick with that until kindergarten, at least.

But I haven't checked out Helen's site yet, so maybe that will solve the problem :)

June 5, 2013 at 01:29 PM · Natalie

It sound like you just want the best for your child. Speaking as a mature lady with a grown up family, I totally understand this. My son who is now in his 30s began playing the piano at primary school and I was delighted but he stopped aged about 12 when he got too lazy to carry on, despite my attempts to keep him at it. Now he wishes he could play an instrument. It's the same old story - my feelings now are that you simply cannot forsee into the future. If I was you, I would just encourage him with the stuff he can manage and keep it short and sweet. Don't dwell on it and enjoy the little milestones s they come along. You sound like a lovely mum by the way. Good luck xx

June 24, 2013 at 10:55 PM · Even though I don;t know you or your child, I would like to ask a question: Would you like your child to learn to play the violin specifically, or learn to play, play with and appreciate music at this age?

Playing an instrument might not be everyone's cup of tea, at an older age as well at a young age.

Your child might love music and learn a lot and have fun in another music class setting like Kindermusik, or by learning at home through singing songs together, playing music games online, making instruments, listen to music and musical tales etc.

Children age three want to move a lot, and try out new sounds with their speech. They learn a lot by using gross motor muscles, by moving with music, and they learn a lot from singing: it helps develop tonal awareness and helps with speech. They love to bang on pots and pans, and even though to adults it might seem to be just that: banging on pots and pans: a child will learn to play the steady beat, learn to distinguish beat versus rhythm, etc.

Just some thoughts to give you. I hope it will help you find an answer!

June 25, 2013 at 10:51 AM · You talked about your frustration, but is he frustrated? Everyone progresses differently. If he enjoys the violin I would let him continue. Perhaps he is not ready to read music. You can do Suzuki without playing in the groups and put off learning to read music until he is older. Just make sure he is having fun. I would only practice with him as long as he can focus so he doesn't become frustrated. If he hates the violin I would give it up for now.

June 25, 2013 at 06:06 PM · My daughter started violin around the age of 4. I would not have expected her to read music at that age (though she was an early reader of words) and for this reason I think that the Suzuki method is great for very young kids. It may be the note-reading aspect that is keeping him from progressing. The violin is such a difficult instrument that giving him some years to develop position, tone, finger dexterity and ear training will give him a great foundation for when he is 5 or 6 and ready to take off on reading. I witnessed a lot of very small kids who were reluctant to join group class because of fear or shyness, but with continued exposure and little pressure, most of them eventually joined in.

Another question is whether or not you feel he enjoys the violin. If he does, I would hesitate to put pressure on him at this age or he will stop enjoying it. And if it is a forced issue, and he does not find joy in it, I would take a break or let him do something else that he loves.

June 29, 2013 at 08:44 PM · Don't quit yet, you just got started. Violin lessons with young kids is a slow process and you should try to enjoy every tiny step of the way. I would recommend going back to a Suzuki Teacher. And if the only thing he hated was the group classes just talk to your teacher about the situation. An answer might be simply going to the classes just to watch and observe. Do not try to force participation. Have you read any materials about the Suzuki method? I highly recommend the following books.

Ability Development

Nurtured by Love

The Suzuki Aproach

To Learn with Love

July 1, 2013 at 04:44 AM · Most of the children that I've seen at that age learn very slowly. Don't despair and don't worry, the pace will improve. As long as the child associates it with happiness and enjoyment at this age, the foundation for great progress in the future is established.

July 2, 2013 at 06:50 AM · Suzuki reckoned that if a 3 year-old can speak Japanese fluently, he/she can play the violin: it's actually easier!!

At this age, children have an amazing capacity to imitate sound and gesture; but their eye coordination, not to mention their abstract thought, are just not ready for music reading.

They can imitate rythms that even we would find difficult to read; and long notes are torture!

By all means play with rythmic "words" (on big flashcards etc.)

We want them to distinguish between p & q, b & d, written in line: can they really grasp crotchtets & minims with stems in all directions and at different heights?

At 3, our children can still use semi-instinctive modes that are methodically destroyed by normal schooling. In my lessons with beginners, I write down (mostly for the parents..) what we have just done, not what we are going to do.

At 3, a child can walk, talk, and sing in tune! Let us not deprive them of the joy and challenge of playing the violin!

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