Teaching an... interesting child.

Edited: January 22, 2019, 3:40 PM · In return for my piano teacher kindly giving me free piano lessons, in perhaps a few months she wants me to teach her grandson violin.
He's 5 right now, will be 6 next month.
He plays piano and pipe organ, and also sings. He's learning to read music fluently right now.
Anyways, he told his grandma (my piano teacher) that he wants to "be like Mozart," and she told him in return that he needed to play violin if that's what he wanted.
He also sings Russian art songs (his grandma and he are Russian) in the shower (and he's 5, try and imagine that one).
Anyways, he's an interesting child. Also a lefty, which I think will be helpful for him (though being a righty also has its advantages as a violinist).
I'll make an update thread soon.

Replies (27)

January 22, 2019, 3:56 PM · In my experience, left-handers struggle a lot more initially because the bow is far more challenging than the fingers, regarding spatial awareness. This all levels out eventually, but does affect the first year or two of learning.

I recommend starting with small bows in the middle and gradually expanding upon their size over time. Don't focus too much on big bows initially or the lack of 3-dimensional awareness in the right arm will be discouraging.

Also keep in mind that with young students, it's best to focus on their strengths rather than their weaknesses, which is the opposite of how one would want to approach a more mature student.

You may also find that his parents are resistant to helping him practice at home in between lessons, since they are Russian. They have a tendency to expect independence in kids from a young age, and so they might remind the child to practice but will probably not supervise the practice itself. This isn't a hard-set rule, but has been the trend in my experience. Of course, the best solution to this problem will be daily lessons instead of once-per-week, but that's not always practical.

Edited: January 23, 2019, 10:44 AM · No, his grandma is the type who taught her kid and her grandkid(s - soon to be two) piano herself. She will almost definitely keep an eye on him. She's a professional pianist, and her brother was a professional violinist, so she has knowledge of the instrument, but she just doesn't play violin herself. She occasionally talks about how she regrets not asking her brother to teach her.
But yeah, that stereotype is fairly true, for the most part.
January 22, 2019, 6:47 PM · I was thinking more of the parents than the grandma. Does she see him every day?
January 22, 2019, 6:57 PM · Do you know what method book you're going to use?
January 23, 2019, 6:18 AM · Do you know what method book you're going to use?

If the kids wants to "be like Mozart", I guess you'd have to use the one his Papa wrote.

January 23, 2019, 6:22 AM · Erik - Yes, he does. Especially that the parents are going to have a newborn in April, he's going to be spending the majority of a few months with his grandma. Even after that, he still spends a lot of time with her because his parents both work at the same time and they can't just leave him.
January 23, 2019, 6:48 AM · Julie - I don't really use method books with my students. I usually arrange my own stuff, because every student is different. I mean, nobody actually uses method books exactly as specified, but... you get my point.
I'm arranging some pieces and making some easy etudes.
January 23, 2019, 7:13 AM · Madeye - I didn't know that Leopold Mozart wrote a violin method. Would probably be an interesting read, if I could read German... I wonder if there is an English translation?
January 23, 2019, 8:24 AM · I think Erik is right. My son has a Russian teacher, and she expects him to do homework by himself, unless there is something special. In such cases, I am invited in the class and get my homework and very detailed information about what my exact role is during the home practice.
January 23, 2019, 8:34 AM · There is an English translation of Leopold Mozart's Treatise by Editha knocker. https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_i_1_22?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=a+treatise+on+the+fundamental+principles+of+violin+playing&sprefix=a+treatise+on+the+fund%2Caps%2C176&crid=KWGJADW2QX9X
Edited: January 23, 2019, 9:26 AM · Leopold Mozart's book isn't going to turn any young child into the next Mozart any more than wearing a powdered wig. What will? Nurturing the child's genuine curiosity while providing a foundation of legitimate skill. This can be done by supplementing the normal Suzuki-book approach with improvisation, composition, playing tunes off of the radio by ear. When I was a young boy my favorite part of my violin lessons was when my teacher would play duets with me.
January 23, 2019, 10:23 AM · No, I was just curious to see what the methods back then were like. I'm sure they're substantially different from now and they would be an interesting historical read.
January 23, 2019, 10:30 AM · Retired teacher here, only blessed with kinder for 1 year, then cursed with middle school for the rest.

Seems way to much focus and argument about which book is best. Really, some excellent instructors don't use any book at all. Some don't even read because of learning disabilities. Not just In music, but in any field, success as a teacher/parent/leader depends mainly on interpersonal relationships, something at which about 97% of people really suck. There are answers.

With kinder kids, focus on successes. Acknowledge successes. Celebrate successes. If, for instance, a child lacks the range of movement necessary to accomplish a specific technique, celebrate each little bit further exercises allow the child to reach. Use a ruler to show each millimeter. "You are growing into it!" in a positive, cheerful tone has a totally different effect on a kinder kid than a grouchy, "You are not grown up enough."

Kinder kids love praise, and will do anything to receive praise. All it takes is eye contact and a smile. Just make sure the praise is actually deserved. Kinder kids will see through a fake in an instant and very quickly learn to manipulate. Not good. Sometimes it is critical to actively look for the most minute positives to praise.

On the other hand, the best way to handle failure is to ignore it. Focus on the positive.

Nothing breaks a kinder kids heart worse than turning your back and walking away, but sometimes an attitude problem deserves exactly that. Do not be drug down to an argument with a 5-year old. You will lose that game every time.

Note that positive instructions towards success, and recognizing every little step towards success, will have to be repeated 587 times. Each. Maybe more. Remember that any critical interaction will have to be countered with a few dozen positive interactions to be healed. That's the way kids are. Just turn away. You'll have 30 seconds to regain your thoughts and plan your next step. 30 seconds to a kinder kid is like 30 minutes to you, so expect the child to go through a little reflection, too. Forgive the child, repeat instructions, or even better, demonstrations, even gently placing kid's parts physically where they need to be. Try different approaches in a confident, respectful manner, and success will come, sometimes after 587 tries.

Anywho, Lauren Haley of Houston TX wrote Kids Aren't Lazy: Developing Motivation and Talent Through Music. It is an excellent book for teachers, parents, and older students who lack or are struggling to overcome the conceit of a closed mind.

Another excellent source of this type parenting/teaching are the Parent Effectiveness Training, Teacher Effectiveness Training, and Leader Effectiveness Training by Dr. Thomas Gordon. Dr. Gordon even provides seminars on these topics. The vast majority of adults limit their interactive effectiveness because, no matter their personal level of expertise in any discipline, the art and emotion of pedagogy is a totally different animal. The best teachers master both disciplines. Anything less is a failure.

It is amazing how many single discipline experts are out their who drive learners from the disciplines the experts want to teach. Read Ms. Haley's book. Invest a few evenings or a long weekend in one of Dr. Gordon's Effectiveness workshops. Read his books for teachers and parents, even the leader oriented book if you work with older patients or are a part of a group in any position. Doesn't really matter which workshop because the tactics are valid across all age groups with simple modifications.

As much time and money it takes to become a master of any musical discipline, a couple thousand dollars invested in self-improvement in interpersonal relationship skills seems not much more than nothing, and will make a huge positive experience out of life for the master/leader and his or her learners.

January 23, 2019, 10:45 AM · No, I'm not planning on using a method book. The most effective teaching I've gotten came from teachers who had me turn up, saw me, and knew what I needed.
January 23, 2019, 10:48 AM · Also, again in response to Erik, he's also a pianist, which will help equally develop both hands. MRI scans done on pianists have shown that while yes, most of them have a dominant hand, there is very little difference between abilities of either hand.
However, he is a 5-year-old, so I'll try and be careful not to develop a lot of ingrained issues. And very good point - bowing is hard, especially for someone who's just starting.
January 23, 2019, 1:30 PM · Nina, according to your posts, you are younger? High school? There is a point where a formal method book isn't exactly needed anymore- for instance, most Suzuki students don't go much past book 4 or 5. I've been teaching students for a long time now, and I have to say I've never seen a successful beginner who started out with no particular method. I have, however, remediated many, many such students of no particular method teaching style.

Playing violin is progressive- one skill builds on another. Thus the importance of method. If you've taken string pedagogy classes at the college level (which it doesn't seem by your post history that you have?) then maybe building your own method...but having the kid 'show up and knowing what they need' isn't really a formula for progress. Beginners are their own special subset of students and they are actually more difficult to teach.

Look at Paul Rolland's exercise book for some fun, age appropriate activities and exercises. 5 year olds can only handle about 30 minute lessons and those can be a productive way of breaking up the chunks.

For very young students (ages 3-5), I use Adventures in Violinland. It sounds like your kid would be on the mature side of 5 year olds, so maybe look at All for Strings or Essential Elements if you don't want to do Suzuki. But this kid sounds like prime Suzuki material. And Grandma can play the piano part with him!

Kids really love working out of books. They like seeing the progress and getting to the last exercise motivates them. TBH, I don't think you're going to have much luck getting a 5 year old beginner to invest in etudes, but the outline you gave above for your teaching plan is very vague.

January 23, 2019, 2:07 PM · I understand what you are saying, Julie, but I myself started out with 'no particular method.' And it worked.
Edited: January 23, 2019, 2:52 PM · Michael, I have no idea what 'it worked' meant for you. Nor do I have idea what you could have accomplished with more directed teaching. This is the proverbial "I was spanked as a child and I turned out just fine" argument. What does just fine mean? How does one measure that?

I have taught dozens and dozens of kids for whom this didn't work. I think it's irresponsible to recommend that an inexperienced teacher just wing it with a 5 year old.

January 23, 2019, 3:29 PM · I assumed Nina was a teacher. Nothing like an inexperienced teacher to ruin early talent and promise!
January 23, 2019, 3:42 PM · I do teach, though... I have a few students, one is 7, and the other 2 are 8.
Should she get someone else to teach him?
Edited: January 23, 2019, 3:45 PM · As a young teacher myself, I would strongly suggest using a method book. There are probably two reasons your teacher was able to get away with not using one: 1. You may have been past the developmental stage where it was necessary, and 2. Your teacher was far more experienced. Teaching is a completely different skill set; just because someone can play well, doesn't mean they can identify flaws in someone else's playing, and effectively help them solve those problems.

To be clear, I don't think you will necessarily have trouble teaching him, but why not make it easier for yourself by using a book?

Michael, I started with a method book and I'm now enrolled at a conservatory. Neither of our statements really prove anything.

January 23, 2019, 3:56 PM · "Should she get someone else to teach him?"

Not necessarily, but teaching well and playing well are two different things. And beginners are much harder. When I started teaching, I did so through a program at my university for underprivileged kids. I gave free lessons, but I was also supervised and observed by an experienced teacher. Currently, I teach an audition prep class for kids trying to get into a magnet school and I've got a high school student who helps. She's also planning on taking over some of my students when I move this summer.

You might need to do a bit of homework if you want to teach a beginner. If you can find a Suzuki group class and help out, or find a beginning teacher and ask if you can sit in on their lessons, I think that could help enormously. Mimi Zweig has some good resources online and in the form of videos. Definitely use a book of some sort. They are thoroughly researched and introduce concepts in a structured, age appropriate way.

January 23, 2019, 5:27 PM · I will say this: teaching a method book without understanding the logic behind the method can sometimes be worse than simply "winging it."

All teachers eventually develop their own "method" by either combining different books to fill in perceived learning voids, or by interpreting the a particular method book in a slightly less traditional way.

For example, many "Suzuki" teachers train completely by ear, without any emphasis on learning the notes. However, I've found it pretty easy to incorporate note-reading within the Suzuki method without really slowing down the overall progress of tone production. So in this instance, we have the same method book with the same songs, but two different teachers using it in very different ways.

Another example: I've noticed a strong trend of skipping songs within the Suzuki books. I NEVER do this. Each song is there for a reason. If you're skipping it, it's because you don't understand the reason.

If you find that a student is having trouble with a particular song, and practicing the song itself isn't enough to get over that hurdle, a "suzuki detour" might be in order, where you find a song in a different book that has a similar challenge, but isn't quite as hard. (For example, in preparation for The Two Grenadiers in Book #2, I often pick a couple of simpler songs in my duet books that are also in D-minor. That way the student can get comfy with the new finger pattern without getting overwhelmed by all the other new things that are introduced in The Two Grenadiers). Then you come back to the hurdle-song again and see if it can be overcome. But don't skip songs!

Edited: January 24, 2019, 2:03 AM · So, this is a child that is likely to be talented and progress fast. The likelihood of him becoming a violinist is a lot higher that an average child.

So therefore it places a high burden on the teacher. The teaching should be very good and experienced. Are you that teacher? If you do not have a lot of experience are you a naturally a good teacher? Some people can teach almost anything quite naturally but they are few and even they need to do a lot of homework themselves,

If you are not, it is a tricky situation. The thing I have learned is that it is extremely important to get things right from the first moment. There are Mimi Zweigs youtube lesson series on line and in my opinion she is an exceptionally good teacher, a natural teacher. But however you decide just remember to evaluate your teaching and if you can see that he is talented try to move him to another teacher if things are not going well enough.

Edited: January 24, 2019, 2:20 AM · I, for one, support Nina Roco's approach of adapting to each kid's needs. I think good teachers are able to taylor the lesson much better than any method, and I have no reason to believe that Nina is not a good teacher. I actually applaud and respect the illusion and interest showed about this kid. That fire is probably what makes the best teacher for him.
January 24, 2019, 9:14 AM · Nina, his grandmother knows you, and knows your skills, as well as her grandson's abilities and needs. If she trusts you, then go ahead! With your approach, with your mind set and with your soul.
January 24, 2019, 2:27 PM · I have high faith in Nina. The fact that she's interested in teaching from a reasonably young age and seems to be very knowledgeable about violin in general is a great sign.

Being a good teacher, from my experience, is mainly about following your instinct and being adaptable to the needs of the student. Always be asking yourself, "NOW what does this student need?" If you do that, I think you'll do fine. I wouldn't pay much attention to the other posters here saying that you're going to "ruin" this child's potential.

Let me tell you something: the only way to "ruin" a good potential violinist is to kill their joy for the instrument. Bad technique can be fixed (and in fairly short order) but psychological damage cannot be.

I had plenty of "experienced" teachers when I was young that killed my joy.

So trust me when I say that the most "qualified" first teacher to teach a student is one that makes them love to play and practice while also teaching the importance of determination and "grit." If you instill that, you have tackled the biggest challenge in teaching. It's fairly easy to show someone how their bow hand is supposed to look, or what good intonation sounds like. But to help them improve while still allowing their love to proliferate, THAT is how you succeed.

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