Teaching young students

September 5, 2018, 10:31 PM · I have a specific and a general question related to teaching a young student. The student in question is my son who's pre-k but has been playing piano and violin for some time. He loves it and he's very musical.

The specific question is when to introduce reading. He's studied suzuki for a while but recently began reading too. He certainly has other things to focus on related to posture, bowing, and tone. But he really enjoys reading music too. Is it an unnecessary distraction at this age? Or worse? I'm sure answers will vary based on teacher backgrounds but I'm interested in all with direct experience.

The general question is when to move on to the next thing at this age. The student learns a suzuki piece, and there's a lot to improve on even with a mini violin and it's limitations. Where do you draw the line between polishing and overdoing?

Thanks in advance.

Replies (10)

September 6, 2018, 1:42 AM · This is probably old fashioned: The music school where my parents sent us for lessons demanded an introductory course in "solfège" before allowing a kid even to start on any instrument. The course was essentially music reading (pitch and rhythm) and basic theory (plus a small amount of ear training). I think that was a good idea.

Your son is enthusiastic about music and I think the important part will be not to destroy this enthusiasm by working too long on the same piece or by keeping him from learning to read if that is what he wants. He is still a little child after all whose patience will be more limited than later in life.

September 6, 2018, 7:49 AM · Regarding progression with the Suzuki Books, I teach book 1 by ear (focusing on tone, technique, etc.) while introducing the foundations for note reading, starting something like flash cards and such mid book 1. I start reading supplemental material somewhere at end of Book 1 into Book 2 focusing on the elements of sight reading i.e., clapping and counting the rhythms, clapping and saying the note names, and only playing the passage or little pieces a handful of times. This is incorporated into their daily practice. Just like reading literature at a young daily, sheet music reading should be done daily as well. By Book 3 they are definitely caught up to read the notes in the repertoire and aren't sacrificing tone or technique to read. It's never to early to start reading as long as the steps are the appropriate size for the age. What I explained that I do, I have developed over 15 years and find that it works successfully with my students. Hope this gives you some ideas, good luck!
September 6, 2018, 7:51 AM · Learn to read music separately from the violin. That probably starts with naming the notes on flashcards, singing individual pitches, clapping rhythms, and then putting them together in sight-singing. Both the sight-singing as well as rhythm work should continue until these are at an advanced level (for instance, for rhythm it would include complex polyrhythms where both hands and feet are used to tap out multiple parts at once).
September 6, 2018, 9:02 AM · I start teaching note reading at Perpetual Motion using the I can read music books. There is usually some preparation before this. After they finish the I can read books we use other books/literature to continue practicing and improving note reading skills. Some students are excited about reading. Some are very resistant to it for a long time.

When I took the Suzuki training it was discussed how a wonderful time to introduce reading is when they are learning to read in school.

There are two parts to your general question. You ask when to move on and then you ask the difference between polishing and overdoing.

During my training the thought was that when the student has the notes, bowing, rhythm, and memorization down on piece A then start the next piece (B) while polishing piece A. In the last decade or so though, I have seen a trend where teachers stick on piece A for a very long time polishing before moving on to piece B. I am not a fan of this.

Overdoing is when neither the child nor the parent can stand the piece anymore and have lost their enjoyment. Overdoing is also when a parent or teacher expects skills inappropriate to the level of the piece. A book 6 student should sound different playing book 2 pieces than a book 2 student will sound. Overdoing is when practice has no creativity or goal but is mindlessly playing just to say you did it.

I ask my students to play their last 3-4 pieces every day and also do some review pieces every day. Do they all do this - no but when they do it makes a big difference. You can pick different things to focus on when playing those last 3-4 pieces and review pieces. You can play them with different characters. You can realize how your practice is making them easy. There are lots of ways to keep it interesting.

September 6, 2018, 3:02 PM · As for reading, I would not start reading with a preschooler unless he is already reading words. They require many of the same skills, and typically if a child isn't ready for one, he isn't ready for the other. But, just like reading words, there are many pre-reading games and skills you can do. I highly recommend starting the reading activities away from the violin. Start with the very basics.

With my youngest, who has some vision issues that make reading a bit more challenging, I loved using the Evelyn Avsharian books. They are large print, lots of pictures, lots of drawing. My daughter adored them! I can't remember the exact order we went in, but I think we started with ABC Note Speller (two volumes) and Games. Then the Mississippi Hot Dog books, and finally the Songs for Little Players. After that (at about age 5.5/6) we moved on to the usual reading books like I Can Read Music and Adventures in Music Reading.

As for the when to move on question, think of it more as a spiral process than a linear one. It's less about moving on, and more about circling around. Go ahead and start learning a new piece, but continue to circle back to the pieces he has already played. In Book 1, we reviewed basically all the pieces previously learned every day. My youngest (age 9) is in Book 6 now and still does several review pieces a day -- one from the early books, one from the middle books, and one from the previous book. She typically reviews daily her fully polished last piece, her almost polished last piece, and then works on her new piece, plus a supplemental non-Suzuki piece.

September 6, 2018, 3:40 PM · I remember receiving my first violin for my 4th birthday. I remember my first lesson with a professional teacher 6 months later. I remember practicing with a music stand and music in front of me when I was in Kindergarten.

When I taught, even children as young as 5, I would try to get them to be able to relate the written music to the notes and counting of their playing. However normally I would not accept a child student who was not also a language reader - age 6, except for that little 5 year old.

I can understand the point of learning some techniques of playing first. But with the way my own life has gone, I think being a competent sight reader has served me better than having tried to memorize everything I have played would have.

But how can I tell for sure? All that memory training might have meant success as an organic chemist instead of switching to physics!

September 6, 2018, 10:02 PM · I don’t think my daughter’s reading skill was ever a distraction but it is hard for her to be stuck on the intermidiate repertoire when she can sight read through much more. I can’t think of a compelling reason not to teach young children how to read music unless they are not developmentally ready then that’s a different story.

As for polishing up pieces, it takes time to build musical patience. This is why I like the late Shirley Given’s scope and sequence for young students; it’s set up so that little ones build techniques first.

September 6, 2018, 10:31 PM · I think, it very depends on the teacher, child and parents.

Actually to "read" means to associate a printed/written sign with a specific sound or message. It does not matter, if you talk about pictograms, numbers, actual reading or notes.


Waiting until child is able to read means to let others to introduce the concept of sign-sound bond. And then on top of the process of memorization of abc you put the memorization of notes.

But from my practice, it is much more easier to start the process of "reading" with fewer signs, such as notes, rather than from actual abc.

When my son started violin lessons at 3 (not suzzuki) they start with the teacher to talk about notes almost from very beginning, and he got as a homework to compose and write a song etc. He could not really at that time to write notes, so i printed bigger note lines, and we used stickers instead.

But when the concept of sign-sound relationship went to his head, he began to read simple books before he turned 4 almost by himself.

Now he is 5, and he is quite confident with math operations with parts. The concept that usually is introduced in schools at age 9-10.

The measure has a particular size, all together all notes from 1 measure give a particular constant length etc. And half is a twice longer than quater etc.
We have tested my son recently at the dinner, even 1/6 + 1/4 + 2/3 is not a problem. It took him some time, but he got the right answer. And he is 5.

Of cause, you always can wait until the child will be taught by someone else, or you can try to introduce a simplified concepts with help of the parents and promote child development.


September 7, 2018, 12:10 AM · I seldom start a student younger than 6. But at this age I start them reading almost immediately in the All For Strings books. In fact, I go right to the standard notation.

I believe that the ability to simply follow something with the eyes is an important skill. I regard it as a quasi-motor skill. Kind of like playing a sport like softball or tennis: visually tracking a ball into a bat or raquet is an essential skill for success. I learned this with my own kids. Lose sight of the ball? You'll strike out. Track it all the way in? You'll start hitting it.

Another good example is the visual scan necessary for hand- flying an aircraft on instruments, a skill that takes about 15-20 hours to acquire. When the eye stops to rest...the course or altitude will drift. Nothing else is possible without this skill. We use it all the time while driving (my scan in the car is very methodical, with my eyes jumping in rhythm back and forth from cheeseburger, radio, cell phone, and DVD player on the seat...).

I have gotten many students who, taught early by ear, had great trouble with visual scanning. They also have issues with identifying their own errors, and memorizing incorrectly. I'm not saying that memorization isn't important as well. I start them on memorizing pieces later. You need both as a professional, with reading skills being the more important for most players.

September 7, 2018, 10:17 AM · What I do is basically similar to Anthony and Laura, I second Susan's "spiral process" description, and as Lydia mentions, plenty of reading and preparation activities can be done without the violin/instrument. For doing reading with playing, I've experimented with various points in book 1 and settled on Etude at the earliest. (That also means Perpetual Motion is at mid book 1 performance standard*, we've transposed everything to D major, play A & D major scales 1 octave, G major 2 octaves, and meet some other RH and LH requirements*.) I also delay if there is severe weakness in posture, tone, intonation, or general steadiness of pulse because any or all of those tend to suffer when starting reading-with-playing. Generally, my students are at least age 6 (and they are not also already reading music via non Suzuki piano or something, which would be another variable).

*Defining "performance standard" and dealing with bow hold thumb, fingerboard tapes, 4th finger, among other things would be what drives teacher differences for "when to move on" or even the question of if/when it's necessary to learn a piece to performance standard.

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