Help! Teaching Advice for "Faster Fingers"

Edited: September 27, 2018, 7:45 PM · Hello,

I have a student (age 5, almost 6) who is not progressing the way the rest of my students have and I would welcome any advice. I'm a fairly inexperienced teacher and love to glean wisdom from my peers.

My student is very enthusiastic to learn the violin and is a bright, happy child, although a little "flighty" at times. She loves music and is very eager to learn.

Her problem is actually playing the music. She cannot seem to play a piece of music without stopping after a few notes for a couple seconds to comprehend what she's just played and think about what's next. She's also a perfectionist and repeats the note in a song/piece until it is perfectly clear and "pretty" before she moves on. While I appreciate this trait (it doesn't seem to be common in students this young) I can't get her to just keep playing even if a note or two are a little squeaky. She has progressed through the Suzuki Twinkle variations (I was a little hesitant to move her on but she was getting bored) and has now been on Lightly Row off-and-on for about 3 months. I supplement a lot with other songs as well. I've tried breaking down a piece into phrases and having her play them "fast," without stopping and then putting the phrases together but nothing seems to work. It's like her brain and fingers just can't work fast enough.

Any advice would be much appreciated!

Replies (20)

September 27, 2018, 7:46 PM · I was like this as a young student. It passed with age. Eventually, I left the perfectionism for the study at home, because each minute of my lessons is precious.
Dunno if that really helps. Maybe give her time?
September 27, 2018, 7:49 PM · Yes, that makes sense! Do you mean that you (as a student) left the "perfectionism practice" to do at home or that your teacher decided to let you do "perfectionism practice" at home? :)
September 27, 2018, 7:49 PM · Also, does anyone know how to upload a profile picture?
September 27, 2018, 8:22 PM · You can click your name at the top left to look at your profile, and you can change it from there.
September 27, 2018, 10:25 PM · The title of the post is misleading. It doesn't seem like the problem is finger speed, but rather focus.
5-6 is still pretty young. It may just be a developmental thing. Maybe comparing her to your other students is not the best way to frame the issue?
September 28, 2018, 9:29 AM · How much listening does she do, and can she easily sing the piece with no stops?
Edited: September 28, 2018, 1:13 PM · Lydia's question is really important. I have limited musical memory and do the same thing when trying to learn folk tunes by ear. If this is the case I'd do lots and lots of aural teaining games. This is something that will improve alot faster at 5 than 50!

It might also just be a bad habit because she practises alone.

I have a new 7 year old transfer student who's been learning since the beginning of this year. I asked her to prepare two pieces to 'perform' for me at her consultation and she did exactly the same thing. Her mother who played piano at school was very worried about her lack of rhythm.

One of the pieces was easier than the other so I asked her to teach it to me and within a couple of slow repetitions (it was called 'stew pot' so I got her to make up a story and decide what the pot would be like at the beginning before it was fast and loud and boiling!) she was watching my bow and playing fluently in time with me. We spent the lesson telling the story of the stew in the forest, from gathering gum leaves (!) To guzzling the yummy meal, using tempo and dynamics. Her mother was delighted.

It sounds like you have other students at her level - do you do group/ensemble lessons? That might help.

In the other hand it might just be how she deals with music she finds difficult.

Are you specifically a suzuki teacher? If you're open to non-suzuki materials, try some lower level music (that she'd be able to play in a week or two) with fun accompaniment/duet parts, you could work specifically on fluency alongside her latest suzuki piece.

Colourstrings has some lovely duets with just open strings and harmonics in the Duettini book. You might also try getting her to play rhythmic accompaniment for something like 'bile em cabbage down' in the o'connor method (which now I think about it might be a good method for a 'flighty' student? Adventures in Violin land might be good too as, like colour strings, it's designed for that age group).

One more idea - I watched a piano teacher talking about practice recently and she used 'barrel of monkeys' as a prop to concretely show how music links together. They get a monkey for learning the first bar, another for the second, then they have to help the monkeys join hands.

September 28, 2018, 1:10 PM · Have you checked with the the parent to see if they are 'helping' the child practice? If mom or dad are unintentionally encouraging these bad habits, then you've definitely got an uphill battle.
Edited: September 28, 2018, 1:40 PM · Scott Cole...

Yes, I can see what you mean! Maybe she just needs more time for everything to "click" than most children her age.

September 28, 2018, 1:41 PM · Lydia Leong...
Yes, she listens to her CD a lot and can sing her song without stopping (even with the correct note names/finger numbers).
September 28, 2018, 1:51 PM · Anish Carmyn...

Thanks for all the great advice! I'm so happy that I have an online community of teachers to discuss problems with. :)

Do you have any specific references for aural games? I've tried the standard I-play-you-play copy-cat stuff and none of that seems to work.

No, she doesn't practice alone. Her mother and father are very involved. Her mom is just as confused as I am why my student can't seem to play without stopping and move her fingers along. She does claim that she plays better during the week. So maybe some nerves play into it during her lesson? I've never sensed that she's nervous around me though...hahaha!

No, I don't do group lessons at this point. I would LOVE to but it's just not something that's feasible at this point in my life.

Yes, I would call myself a Suzuki teacher but I'm very open minded and supplement a lot with other material that's not in the Suzuki books. Thanks for the great suggestions...I'm definitely going to look into them!

Edited: September 28, 2018, 3:12 PM · I am not a violin teacher, but if I were, I'd go baby steps at a time, no pun intended. Not sure if this is what you tried already, I'd have the student play a bar and I'd play along as in a lets play together game, then do the next bar in the same fashion. After several successful independent bars, whatever time it takes, I'd say lets play two bars this time, and neither of us can stop or you lose the game, etc. I'd let her win once in a while.
September 29, 2018, 9:18 AM · There will be way more experienced teachers than me who can chip in about aural games, but you might want to focus specifically on rhythm for parts of your lesson. Maybe using body percussion.

How does she go with partner clapping games? Have you walked the beat while playing?


Maybe it's worth listening to music together and percussioning or moving along with it - you could take turns choosing the music.

There are heaps of kodaly (a music method for small people focusing on simging and sol-fa) training games that focus on rhythm on google (watch training lessons on youtube), but they're usually structured around classroom teaching. Some will translate to just the 2 of you though - or 3 if you include mum.

If it is a musical memory issue, exploring kodaly's folk song sequence may be useful. It begins with so-mi interval - rain rain go away etc - then adds do-re-mi and pentatonic scales. Semitones come later. There's a great repository of songs at http://kodaly.hnu.edu that would work as well on violin as voice. You could learn to sing the dongs then get the violin to sing them too.

If you have access to a decent music library, I'd also look into how karl orff's method teaches rhythmic ostinato. There might be stuff online but orff's still in my to do list so I haven't explored him yet.

September 30, 2018, 3:07 AM · We speak in a continuous fashion, but we think in separate words, as on the written page. I think it's sometimes called "chunking".

To link two or more musical "chunks" together, we may need to play them more slowly.

September 30, 2018, 9:30 AM · Anish Carmyn...
Thank you SO much for all the great advice. Really appreciate it. I remember researching the Kodaly Method a couple of years ago and really liking some of their points. I'll have to re-visit it.
Yeah, I haven't done a lot of rhythm games (other than the usual clapping the beat - which doesn't work because she stops and starts so much). I definitely should!
Edited: September 30, 2018, 9:33 AM · Adrian Heath...
Yes! I love that illustration. The problem is that my student just doesn't get it. No matter how slow we play it she can't play continuously, without stopping.
Edited: October 2, 2018, 5:21 PM · For a 5 or 6 year old I don't know - it really depends on how she developed that habit of stopping to check how she just did. As others have said, you might check with parents where that habit comes from. But it also could be a natural thing for her. Breaking that playing - thinking - checking habit may be a tough one, either way.

I see you have tried to I-play you-play copycat game and it doesn't work. Have you tried it one note at a time? Too many notes at once may be too much for her. Maybe you could ease into it one note at a time by playing one note only and have her copy you immediately and exactly without stopping. Then play the same note and add one note, and have her immediately copy that without stopping. Then play the same two notes and add one more note, and have her copy that; and so on. If she misses the note sequence, she only missed the last note, since she got all the notes just before, so just repeat the same notes immediately and without saying a word. If after a few tries she still misses it, do the last two notes of the longer string of notes until she has that; then do the entire longer string of notes until she gets that, and then move on. a, ab, abc, abcd, abcde, abcdef, etc. If she misses abcdef then she got abcde and ef is the issue, so play ef, ef, ef until she gets it, go back to abcde, then abcdef - that should work then. And see how far she can go - give her rewards for going longer. BTW, abcdef... is only a suggestion - it could be any note and rhythm sequence you want, but I would suggest simpler in the beginning.
Once she catches on to that - and this is key - immediately morph the game into the piece she is learning, one note at a time. If you can lengthen each mini phrase one note at a time and she doesn't notice how much longer each phrase is getting, you might get past that stopping issue. The key is to move into doing and experiencing and out of thinking so much first; the thinking can come after the success of playing.
Good luck with that!

October 2, 2018, 6:38 PM · Forgive me if this was mentioned and I missed it. Play along with her! Obviously it's a very bad idea to do that ALL the time, but for just the pure concept of playing with the flow of the music, it absolutely works. And it's a total confidence builder!!! If she can begin to get the "feel" of doing it with you then she has a point to look back to when trying to do it by herself.
Some things I do with this:
-Make sure there's a clear "start" procedure, whether counting in or instrument lift, so that's not an awkward variable for her. Practice this separately if needed.
-Feel free to flex with her tempo a little but try not to actually stop. If she gets stuck and you think she's up to it, keep playing a little, slowly, and see if she can find you and jump back in
-You totally can use this for measure-at-a-time chunking.

I also find that bow is actually often the culprit more than fingers. Practice your piece with bow distribution practice (for example, say on "Autn Rhody" linking the half-qu-qu-half-half to bow:long, short, short, long, long, even "air-bowing" first as needed. That gives her something concrete to think about that automatically drives the rhythm forward (most of the time!)

October 2, 2018, 9:50 PM · Gary Anderson...
Great advice! Thanks!

Kathryn Woodby...
Great point. I probably haven't been playing with her as much as I should.

October 2, 2018, 9:53 PM · Might I, interject here and just say huge fan of your students, past present and future. I suggest you inform them all of 1 more addition to your wonderful teaching methodologies and curriculum. I suggest you tell the students to focus on the strings as if they are emanating the music themselves and to never take your eyes off the center of where they reverberate their melodies but, also to think of the center as themselves, and with each pass of the (bow?)<-w.e.l they themselves are reverberating their love and happiness with songs they make after learning this missing addition to your outstanding and most exquisite curriculum. w.e.l= will explain later, not to huge of a partaker of this particular drama so i don't know all terms related to the complexities of this beaten horse of a terrible thing we call music, and why most violinist still play other peoples music.

just a happy and sad suggestion entwined in one please do take it as mostly good advice.

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