One Best Way?

June 28, 2020, 7:51 AM · I know that I'm the Odd-Man in the world of violin teaching because I'm not a violin professional and I use Doflein (the method that I both learned and like) as opposed to the ubiquitous Suzuki method.

I have a different approach to music in what I tell my students and their parents: "There is only one reason in the universe for playing the violin (or any instrument) and that is because YOU want to."

My students have enjoyed success in learning how to play and participate in a youth orchestra program that I am also connected to. Yet, my students and I run into the universal question: "What book are you in and what piece are you playing?"

With my students we can say book one, two or three but the pieces they are playing aren't in the Suzuki Canon often my students are working on popular songs that they like but present the same skill requirements. Then the eyes roll, the heads shake, the shoulders droop,...

Yet, recently at an audition for the next level orchestra one of my students was asked to play an F-Maj scale and she slid up fourth position and played from F on the G to fourth position F on the E-string. I got a call from the conductor about her "showing off." I know that none of the other young musicians in her orchestra could do that but my student enjoys the challenge.

Do you think that there is "One Best Way" to bring somebody along in learning the violin?

Replies (35)

Edited: June 28, 2020, 9:29 AM · The F-major three-octave scale normally starts from the fifth position on the G string, if you're following standard Flesch fingering. What's weird about what your student did was going into fourth position rather than fifth. I don't know why you'd start an F-major scale that way unless you were specifically learning fingering variants.

There is of course no one "best way". There's not even a seemingly ubiquitous way, though it's possible that in your corner of wherever (a rural-ish small town in NJ, wasn't it?), the handful of local teachers all teach from the Suzuki books for repertoire (even if not all of them use the Method or have been trained in the Method). Amongst the Suzuki-repertoire-using teachers, there's probably enormous variation in their teaching approaches.

There are of course some ways widely acknowledged to be better than others, especially once students get past the initial beginning stage. I don't think there's any real benefits for students to play, say, Twinkle Variations vs. Boil 'Em Cabbage Down (O'Connor), vs. whatever collection of basic beginner pieces (Mary Had a Little Lamb, etc.) the teacher likes.

I also think that choosing pedagogical repertoire is a skill. Suzuki is a convenient sequence, but a teacher sufficiently familiar with the literature can readily pick something else; the lists for ABRSM, ACM, AMEB, etc. all supply plenty of possible literature to use. Indeed the changing nature of those lists amply demonstrates that the teaching literature can be anything appropriate to the level.

When it comes to etudes and exercises, everyone has different preferences on which to use, how to teach them, etc. But the violin world has a reasonably good consensus on the popular etudes -- Wohlfahrt, Mazas, Kreutzer, Dont, Schradieck, Sevcik, especially. But again, a skilled teacher can substitute, or invent their own.

I DO think that unless a child is specifically studying fiddling, that classical music is considered the "real" repertoire that the student is working on, and pop tunes and the like are treated like "candy" for fun. There's not really an established pedagogy for using pop tunes to teach classical violin-playing, and when students audition for youth symphonies or otherwise encounter the classical world, they will generally be judged negatively for playing pop music, and it's often a violation of audition requirements.

Finally, so much of youth violin-playing is achievement-oriented, and parents like to know and compare where their kids are according to whatever rat-race measures are available. So if a child isn't measurable by that yardstick, or doesn't look impressive by that yardstick, other parents will judge accordingly. That's just the way it is.

June 28, 2020, 9:30 AM · It sounds like a compliment. Congratulations for annoying the local conductor with your hot-shot student!
June 28, 2020, 9:31 AM · Yeah, F major in fourth position is weird and I too would raise an eyebrow if a kid did that. I agree with Lydia's other points as well.
June 28, 2020, 10:55 AM · I would have done the same thing. Both my Simon Fischer and my Elizabeth Gilels scale books have this scale and other scales higher than C starting with the second finger on G string.

If I had some doofus conductor try and flap his gums about it, I would let him have it.

I find starting on the second finger on the G string very comfortable for all manners of scales starting in higher positions, and there are all kinds of different approaches in different scale books. Some books switch it up. My teacher advocates for a consistent approach to not overcomplicate it. You get better at what you practice, and different approaches have their pros and cons.

June 28, 2020, 10:58 AM · "Do you think that there is "One Best Way" to bring somebody along in learning the violin?"

Well of course not, and I don't think you're really asking that question, or at least looking for a contrary answer.

And yet, I'm tempted to look at the common elements of the method you use and others; to say that these elements are best, and further to contrast the application within a nominal method to show that a method name is not in itself a good distinction.

So I suggest that instead of "one best method", that there are different roads, and that some are higher than others. In that, my view is that methods which engender a love of music not only have merit, but achieve the goal along the way, and that emphasizing listening is critical for violin playing. Despite its numerous limitations, including an apparently fixed repertoire and teaching organization which borders on a commercial religion, Suzuki has those elements as starting points, which are responsible to some degree for its success and otherwise quite surprising ubiquity.

June 28, 2020, 11:44 AM · None of the methods we normally encounter teach something that Bach would have routinely, which is how to create new music. Perhaps that's responsible for some of the apparent lack of vitality we see in classical music, and the distance from composers and compositions to players and audiences, in contrast to supposed lesser genres.
Edited: June 28, 2020, 11:50 AM · Christian, starting F major with the 2nd finger puts you in 5th position, not 4th position. The standard common scale fingerings (Flesch and otherwise) start on the 2 for a 3-octave scale, so that every scale is fingered identically.

Starting in 4th position (i.e. on the 3rd finger) is weird, and a definitely questionable decision. The only reason to do it in an audition is either an ill-conceived and arrogant attempt to show off, or ignorance of what constitutes a good scale fingering -- or both. Either way, it doesn't reflect well on the child, and the latter may not reflect well on the teacher.

Edited: June 28, 2020, 1:13 PM · Yeah, I guess my math skills need a brush up. Still, if it sounded good, who cares? If it didn't, then the conversation can start. Arrogant attempt to show off is assuming something about the child.

Edit: I will admit, it sounds like a conspicuously weird fingering, but hey, maybe the kid is THAT GOOD!

Edited: June 28, 2020, 12:59 PM · I'm trying to think of what the possible reasons might be for a student to play an F major scale in 4th position:

1. The student was taught the proper fingering but thinks that playing in 4th position is more impressive....does not reflect well on the student.

2. The student was taught an incorrect fingering....does not reflect well on the teacher.

I agree that jumping to conclusions about the student's motivation is a bit much but I would certainly be left with questions. There's no benefit to playing F major in 4th position, and there are definite downsides.

Edited: June 28, 2020, 1:10 PM · A two-octave scale in fourth position with fourth-finger extension on the e-string is perfectly reasonable, even if it is not "from the book"? If it is moreover played with good sound and tempo, and well in tune, but the conductor only expected a one-octave scale in first position (this is at least how I understand the situation described, since George adds that "no other young musician in the orchestra could do that") then the conductor should be delighted to see something nice and fresh rather than be irritated, no? Probably she had other worries or just a bad day.
Edited: June 28, 2020, 2:16 PM · If the conductor is a string player, the correct comic-panel for the audition shows him with a little thought bubble over his head with "???" in it.

I would want to know why. I'm actually curious as to the reason why, in this particular case, since George potentially has the ability to find out.

Most sane audition candidates, regardless of level, prefer not to improvise in an audition, so most conductors would normally conclude that the student was taught a bad fingering.

There's no One True Way to teach the violin, but there are certainly good and bad ways to play and teach scales.

June 28, 2020, 3:59 PM · I do need to clarify the whole fourth position F-Maj scale issue. For starters I did not teach her to do that.

Being a Doflein student she has been trained in what Dofelein calls "Attitudes" (ordering of the fingers) and how they work together. She likes fourth as the first finger creates a ring to validate where you start. So, she knew that an F-Maj scale was required (first position for that orchestra) and she decided to work out how to play two octaves starting in a place where she was sure she would be on pitch. Actually, I'm quite proud of her initiative.

As to the Popular music - the young musicians love Disney films and Disney music is anything but easy. Sometimes they get bored with "Classical" and I find music that they will enjoy that teaches the same skill as I'm teaching via Doflein.

As to their musical future -- I get them through all four Attitudes, playing in third position, knowing how to read music well, knowing how to use the bow, and to be able to learn a piece without having to search YouTube first.

When they are ready for fifth position I move them along to other professional teachers in the area who know that my students enjoy music and do practice and have a good grounding in the basics.

Finally they are all full scholarship students because they come from families that cannot afford private lessons. For me it is a labor of love. I doubt that many will go on to be professional musicians. If/when they go to college they will be the first in their families to do so.

Edited: June 28, 2020, 4:46 PM · Who gives a flying fart about the fingering? Sheesh, leave it to classical violinists to get up in arms about playing a scale correctly "incorrectly". If anything, she's only expanding her understanding of the fingerboard.

Of course there's no one best way, because everyone has little quirks in how they learn that necessitate a different approach. Plus, teaching everyone the exact same method is how you get an army of cookie-cutter musicians—and a lot of unhappy kids who that method didn't work for.

June 28, 2020, 5:29 PM · Well, someone judging a kid in a youth orchestra audition will pay attention to fingering because most kids won't work on their orchestra music with their teachers, and so whatever fingerings the kid chooses will be the ones that they actually use.

All other things being equal, I'd prefer the kid whose audition reflects good judgment about fingerings.

June 28, 2020, 5:29 PM · The original post says:

"I got a call from the conductor about her 'showing off.'"

It is bizarre for a conductor to call a student's teacher about a single fingering choice on a scale. Was the conductor's call only about that issue? What else was going on in the conversation?

June 28, 2020, 6:21 PM · There is no best way to do a scale passage in real music, because the optimum fingering depends on the musical context, the rhythm, and the bowing. To demonstrate that just try to do any three octave scale in dotted and reverse dotted rhythm with the same fingering.
For that F maj scale, starting on 3rd finger is not a bad idea if you then slip into fifth position (1-1) for the second octave. I have never liked the Flesch-style starting on 2nd finger because it puts a half-step at the string change. I also avoid that 4-4-4 round-trip at the top that is printed in the majority of scale books, never use it real music. One example of many possible "default" fingerings for the 3-octave scale: Start in 1st position, stay in 1st position till you get to the E-string, then go up 1-2-1-2-etc., and finish with whatever fingers are left over. Go down the same way you went up.
June 28, 2020, 7:06 PM · All fingering is judged in context, of course. There was a specific context given here.
June 29, 2020, 4:52 PM · I think the important question is not what you teach, but much rather how you teach it. If the student is enjoying learning, and they are progressing then it doesn't matter what anybody else may think IMO

As far as scales go and fingerings, whatever works. Every violinist is different, and while there are standard fingerings the only bad fingerings are the ones that can not be consistently executed. My teacher told me a story about heifetz being taught a conventional fingering, and scrapped it after a week of learning it because "it was not reliable"

To quote rupaul "if they don't pay your bills, pay those B****** no mind" Blunt but so true in this profession

Edited: June 29, 2020, 5:50 PM · I like Doflein. For students age 8 and up, I think it's a good comprehensive curriculum and I can see why you'd want to add some pop tunes to make learning more interesting.

You could also use pieces from Suzuki Books as supplemental materials if any of your students are feeling left out because everyone else is learning them.

For orchestra auditions though, perhaps you can encourage your students to stick to what is expected.

Edited: June 29, 2020, 7:54 PM · Am I showing my age if I say I was taught from the Eta Cohen books?
June 30, 2020, 5:34 AM · This is why ALL orchestra auditions should be blind auditions -- to single out an unexpected fingering as not good or "showing off" even if the violinist played it in tune and with good tone is horrible, in my opinion. The auditioner should not have known what fingering was used, but should only have listened for accuracy of pitch and rhythm and quality of tone.

Why does it matter? Because it might reflect poor fingering choices? What do they matter if the musician plays the part correctly, in tune, with accurate rhythm and good tone? In other discussions here on I've read comments about members of a violin section using different fingerings for the same passages (one set written above, a different set written below for the two musicians sharing a stand), so except where the concertmaster or conductor insist on a certain fingering it apparently doesn't matter. So why should fingering matter in an audition when the music (in this case a scale) sounds good?

Encouraging an auditioning student to "stick to what is expected" does a great disservice to that student. As long as the "expected" that they "stick to" is 1) play in tune; 2) play with the correct rhythm; 3) play with great tone then I agree. But if the "expected" means to play with what some folks may feel is the best fingering, then what happens when the auditioning judge feels that a different fingering from the norm is best and faults an auditioner for not finding the best for themselves but sticking to textbook formulas?

I disagree with the comment made earlier that students don't study their orchestra music with their private teacher -- my wife is always working on her students' youth orchestra and school orchestra music with them. What private teacher wouldn't do that?

Edited: June 30, 2020, 5:57 AM · Like David apparently, I also still feel quite badly about this story with the girl and the conductor, all well-intentioned but rather unhappy insistence on "standard is good, do what is expected, and so on" notwithstanding. George you are doing great work with these kids and I'm confident the girl was strong enough to ignore the sorry remark and was proud she pulled off a good-sounding two-octave scale!
Edited: June 30, 2020, 11:01 AM · This discussion about kids only doing things the way adults/society expects them to be done is nicely summed up in the Harry Chapin song titled “Flowers are Red”. It’s on YouTube. A good life lesson for the power adult teachers have over kids.

Edit - typo fixed

June 30, 2020, 7:58 AM · Everyone,

Seems like I kicked the hornets nest.

I had a subsequent conversation with the conductor. (there is not a "panel" just the individual conductors evaluating young musicians who want to be in the particular orchestra - there are four in the overall program).

I got a weak apology with the caveat that "In The Future" my students should prepare "Two Grenadiers" for their audition for her orchestra. Whereas my student played the violin part of an arrangement of "Hedwig's Theme" which is not at all "easy." The two octave F-Maj scale sent her over the edge. FWIW: She never published that she only wanted "Two Grenadiers" just assumed that any young musician moving to her orchestra would be "at that level." Apparently she uses "Two Grenadiers" to sort the young violinists between 3rd, 2nd and 1st sections. I advised her that third or second would be fine as this young musician is only getting started in third position competency (even though she is thinking in the higher position she has yet to learn shifting).

I appreciate both the supportive and critical responses. On a personal level I am validated by the local professional teachers who take my students (those who stick with the lessons and practice) and move them along to places I cannot teach them.

Edited: June 30, 2020, 9:49 AM · Your student can play a spontaneous in-tune two-octave F-major scale starting in 4th position (which would require either shifting or or an extension to reach the top F of the second octave), but is theoretically just getting started in 3rd position?

If they're that comfortable with the fingerboard I see no reason why they shouldn't play 1st violin in an orchestra where most of the students are at the Two Grenadiers (Suzuki book 2, #7 if IIRC from my childhood) level.

And yes, it is VERY common for teachers to either not work with students on orchestra music, or sharply limit the amount of lesson time permitted for that. You can even sometimes find that in written studio policies.

June 30, 2020, 10:48 AM · Hey James thanks for the reference to Harry Chapin.
June 30, 2020, 11:43 AM · As predicted, the conductor is a goober. All is well with the cosmos.
Edited: June 30, 2020, 3:52 PM · Blind auditions are a terrible idea for youth orchestras for many of the same reasons that make them a good idea for professional orchestras.

First, part of the youth orchestra audition experience is learning how to audition, and it's important for judges to project an air of friendliness and approachability to help the student calm down and learn how to manage nerves. It's also helpful for judges to be able to read the body language of the student when assessing level.

Second, students benefit when they are with other students at a similar developmental as well as musical stage. The precocious nine-year-old may very well play as well as or better than most of the high school students who are in the top orchestra, but that younger child is usually better served by being given a leadership position in an orchestra comprised of near-peers rather than being tossed in the mix with the seventeen-year-olds.

Third, when it comes to students, a visual evaluation of technique can be very helpful in determining not only where the student is at that moment in time but how the student is likely to progress through the next year.

Anyone with the slightest bit of knowledge about the violin should be able to determine how the student is fingering a scale simply by listening, so there's no advantage there to a blind audition. Also, I doubt very much that George's student was actually penalized for the fingering--it was just weird and raised a question in the conductor's mind. I have been judging youth orchestra auditions for years and it would have raised a question in my mind too, but the actual score would still be based on intonation and sound. No rubric that I have ever seen has any space for scoring a fingering. We score the *results* of a fingering when judging accuracy.

It's silly to argue that any fingering on any scale is of equal value to any other fingering as long as the scale is in tune. The fact is, there are standard fingerings for frequently encountered passages and it is to the student's advantage to learn those standard fingerings to the point of automaticity. That doesn't rule out the ability to use creative fingerings for a particular effect or under a particular necessity; in fact, it enhances that ability. It is exactly the same on the piano. The standard right-hand fingering for a one-octave C major scale is thumb-two-three-thumb under--two-three-four-five. Of course the scale can be played in other ways and sound the same, but every qualified piano teacher in the world is going to teach 1-2-3-1-2-3-4-5 first.

Regarding the use of pop arrangements in place of the standard rep found in Suzuki or other books, it's important to keep in mind that those pop arrangements are very often laden with chromatic and rhythmic difficulties far harder than what students would encounter in the Suzuki sequence while otherwise matching in terms of first position and bowing difficulty. Because of this, as pedagogy, pop arrangements can be problematic.

I agree with Christian that the conductor is a goober. If she wants the students to play "Two Grenadiers," then she should specify that in advance. I'm also wondering if George's student might not be able to pull her weight in the firsts. Honestly the conductor should be able to assess a student at this level whether the student is playing Two Grenadiers or not. And if that is the standard for this orchestra, then a student capable of improvising in fourth despite not really being able to shift is very possibly going to be one of the stronger players.

June 30, 2020, 1:35 PM · If the F Major scale was in tune, who cares? People getting stuck on arbitrary values is a sign that they don't know what they're doing but want to pretend that they do.

On the other hand, I wasn't there, so maybe the *way* the student did it was a problem. As in: maybe there wasn't a deliberate nature in her fingering, and she kinda just slid up the 3rd finger on the G until it sounded like an F, and then proceeded to fudge her way through the rest of the scale. If I was judging someone, this would concern me far more than the choice of fingering itself.

June 30, 2020, 1:38 PM · Erik, there are two issues with the F scale fingering:

The first is the question of whether it was in tune, in which case, I agree with you, who cares?

The second is an evaluation of what it says about the student's level, and that is where the problem lies.

A weird fingering should not affect the result of an audition. It should raise a concern about what the student has learned and what the student needs to learn in the future.

I don't understand the resistance in this discussion to learning standard fingerings for scales and arpeggios.

Edited: June 30, 2020, 3:49 PM · I agree with both of Mary Ellen's last two posts. I would add that "standard" does have a range of possibilities; for instance, my current teacher teaches an alternative fingering to Flesch that he thinks will be more commonly used for runs in repertoire, but any competent violinist would see it as a perfectly logical one.

If the conductor expects to hear a particular piece, they should say so. Or if there's a narrow range of acceptable repertoire, they should also say so. On the other hand, teachers of violin usually have the judgment to have their students play classical repertoire for violin auditions. I have seen one kid audition on a fiddle piece, though, with the explanation that the kid's private lessons have been solely on fiddle, and that they played classical strictly in the context of their school orchestra. (For the record, the kid sounded excellent as a fiddler, and did great being asked to learn the solo part of a concerto grosso, nevertheless.)

The concertmaster at Sydney, Andrew Haveron, recently did a podcast interview talking about blind vs non-blind auditions, which pointed out that even for pros, the visual element helps makes it clear when an otherwise well-set-up player is just having a bad day, vs. when a less well-set-up player is having an unusually lucky day. For kids, you can really see who is awkward and who is not.

June 30, 2020, 5:30 PM · Of course, I agree that a "standard" fingering is a better idea (simply because it's more efficient and easier). Either start on the G in 6th position so no shifts are necessary, or start 1st position on the D, shift once on the A to 3rd, and once more on the E to 5th.

But if a student played a perfect F Major scale starting in 4th position in the G, I'd still be happy that it was in tune, and that they were capable of doing it with a less-than optimal fingering.

Edited: June 30, 2020, 6:00 PM · No "one best way" in general but "best ways" for individual teachers (to teach/implement). I'm most comfortable using Suzuki pieces to represent beginner to early intermediate skill sequence and shorthand for: if my student "plays a certain piece", we have worked on XYZ skills, learning/thought process, certain degree of exposure to non-Suzuki repertoire which may still include exposure to skills ahead of the sequence. To the last transfer student who came in at the end of book 2, I said, we will need to spend at least 6 months going through *skills* before continuing with book 3 (it has been almost 10 and we're not there yet).

On the subject of Two Grenadiers, last year, a student prepared it and an assortment of 2-octave scales and arpeggios, including D major and D minor, for an entry-level youth orchestra. (I realized later that it's pretty hard to not get in but at the time, wasn't familiar with how competitive or not they were.) We managed in one month to cram the scales and arpeggios to an adequate level. This year, the aforementioned transfer student auditioned for the same with Grenadiers, at a less polished playing level. We "worked on" scales (no arpeggios, fortunately) for 3-4 months. After COVID started, they would send practice videos week after week with the same errors despite my trying everything(?) - by ear, by staff notation, fingerboard chart, finger number instructions, audio and video recordings, but it's like they couldn't self-assess or something. To be fair, there was noticeable improvement, including on technical and musical aspects of the piece, but it was definitely too much time "teaching to the test" rather than working skill foundation. My "homegrown", non-transfer students at the Grenadiers level did not have nearly as much trouble with the same scales.

tl;dr "playing a piece" can mean playing the music vs. playing the notes, which further going into levels of accuracy and consistency of intonation and rhythm.

June 30, 2020, 5:59 PM · Erik, both Lydia and I were trying to explain to George why the conductor’s alarm bells would be going off with a student playing F major in fourth position. That’s all.
June 30, 2020, 8:57 PM · On the subject of working on school or youth orchestra material, what I have learned is that I need to set tighter boundaries. Spending all your lesson time, for weeks and months on end, is not okay, probably signifies that the material is too difficult, and expectations should be reduced for how much or what level or standard of orchestra to do.

(As an aside, that particular youth orchestra has pre-approved solo lists that include plenty of non-Suzuki. However, what boggles me is that book 1 Minuet 2 and Gossec Gavotte and the entirety of book 2 are on the list that requires 3rd position scales. Furthermore, Suzuki book 3 is on the list that requires G major in 3 octaves, which seems aggressive to me.)

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