How the heck do I do this

November 19, 2020, 6:35 PM · So, as fate should have it, I have been tasked with giving a young girl (8 years) her first lessons on the violin. There is money involved, so there is the expectation that I do a decent job. I also don't want to screw up a kid's first lesson.

I have a general idea of how I want the first lesson to go, but I don't have much (any) experience with the little ones. Any advice for teaching children? How fast are kids usually able to progress?

Replies (22)

Edited: November 22, 2020, 10:13 AM · I was started at age 4-1/2. The youngest student I ever undertook was 5 although I made it a general rule not to take students less than 6. By the time I was teaching violin and cello fairly regularly I had decided to use the SUZUKI books. Book 1 started with "Twinkle" and it seemed a good place to start. I had been started in 1939, long before Suzuki in the USA, but I remember well that learning Twinkle was my first piece.

I don't think you can go wrong if you follow the progression of the first 3 Suzuki books. Along the way you can also add things that fit within the fingering and bowing they have learned such as "Devil's Dream," "Ashoken Farewell" and some hymns (such as "Amazing Grace" if that fits your student's lifestyle. And of course some appropriate "etudes" or "exercises" (as my teachers called them) to help develop their technique and/or fix emerging problems.

Teaching how to hold, use and care for the instrument and bow and teaching the student the names of some parts of those two implements will get you both on the same page. (Oh yes! learning how to use and care for rosin!) I always taught my students to read music from the beginning - even the 5 year old. It was helpful to involve a parent in the learning with some of the students - but I found that within a couple of months the interested kids soon outpaced their parents.

Edited: November 19, 2020, 10:20 PM · There are pictures in Suzuki Book 1 on how to hold the violin and the bow. Use those to help you guide the child. Then you learn to make a sound on an open string, and then you play Twinkle. There is a local teacher who insists that his very youngest students learn to name all the parts of the violin including the obscure ones (small children can learn this stuff immediately) and that kind of sets the tone that they're expected to learn, and that learning is fun and it's fun to get things right. They also learn that there are things in common between violin lessons and school, and things not in common. But the most important thing in common must be respect for the teacher. If school comes up, always speak positively about school and school teachers.

Make a foot chart on a piece of cardboard. Green feet spaced farther apart for playing, red feet close together for bowing. Bowing (taking a bow, not drawing a bow) is important. It recognizes a job well done. Practice the transition from green feet to red feet. Stable posture is extremely important. The foot practice will be a nice break from the challenge of playing the violin. A student who is 8 years old will not need to actually use a foot chart -- to be shown the instruments of torture will be enough.

Ashoken Farewell is a beautiful piece but it's a hard one for the tiniest children because it requires long bows and it's rhythmically complex (very long notes and very short ones). My teacher tapes a plastic drinking straw to the bows of the tiniest beginners so that they only use the middle third of the bow or so. Then gradually you work outward. Or you can mark the ends of that zone using painters tape around the stick of the bow. Some kids start with their thumbs on the bottom of the frog -- my teacher started my own daughter with a regular Franco-Belgian hold, but she was 7 when she started, and she had very advanced fine motor skills for her age (playing with toys and puzzles having zillions of tiny parts and so on).

I predict your student will do well with you as long as you do not go off on too many tangents about how she could be cutting her own bridges and reaming out her own peg holes and varnishing her own gut strings and such. Remember that child development is not linear and sometimes it's not even monotonic.

November 19, 2020, 10:15 PM · There are reasons for Suzuki being popular and successful with kids, among others. I'd suggest adopting those values and practices, and not trying to wing your own methodology, especially if you have little or no experience with kids. The practice of listening alone is invaluable for violin playing. Besides, who wouldn't want to hear HH play twinkle?
November 20, 2020, 1:03 AM · I’d actually use something like Muller Rusch for an 8 yo. If you don’t have any Suzuki training, there is a lot you will be leaving out, using the Suzuki Violin School. It’s not actually a method book.
November 20, 2020, 4:48 AM · First off make sure the student has the proper size violin -- if it's too large injury can happen.

Don't start out having any expectations about how fast a child will learn anything. Same goes for older kids and adults -- everybody is unique in what they will understand and how quickly they will be able to advance. Don't assume that what is obvious to you will be obvious to an 8-year old.

Don't expect the student to be able to tune her own violin at the start.

Have one of the parents present to take notes and be sure they understand what the child is supposed to be doing.

Be very patient and move in small steps. The Suzuki method has a very young beginner simply holding the instrument under the chin while the teacher plays the Twinkle variations for a few lessons.

Slightly older students who are more coordinated might be allowed to bow the starting twinkle rhythm (4 16ths and 2 8ths) on the open E string while the teacher plays.

Other methods will of course move differently. Some students learn well starting out using a book such as Standard of Excellence or String Builder, others get very confused at first looking at music while trying to play.

Be sure to praise what she does to encourage her. Try to remember what it was like when you were first learning.

Edited: November 20, 2020, 2:40 PM · I use The First Year Violin Tutor from Neil Mackay for the first lessons, I find it makes more sense than Suzuki. Twinkle is not ideal for first peace because it already has the fingers coming on a downward order instead of upwards. And before the first actual peace I always start with open strings, long notes with full bow.
November 20, 2020, 10:33 AM · Keep it simple, make it fun!
November 20, 2020, 10:34 AM · Hi,
check out the bow hold buddies!

In my opinion, they do an amazing job in leading the muscles of the right hand toward a perfect bow hold. I haven't taught a lot, but the correct bow hold was simply no issue, at all, with them.

I discoverd those, when my son was screwed up, already, always gripping too hard and having a stiff thumb. 6 weeks of this aid, and he was cured, completely.

In my opinion, one of the greatest inventions for beginners.

November 20, 2020, 10:41 AM · At 8 y.o., she will know her numbers and letters and will be able to count the number of lines in the staff, so you do not have to use the Suzuki method, especially if you have not had the special training. Whatever book or method you use, you will be spending the first two weeks on posture, form, bow-hold, bowing on open strings. After that, I prefer to add the 3rd finger, instead of the usual 1st finger, tuned at the octave to the adjacent open string.
Edited: November 20, 2020, 11:51 AM · "If you don’t have any Suzuki training, there is a lot you will be leaving out, using the Suzuki Violin School. It’s not actually a method book."

Another way to interpret this is: Get some Suzuki training. More generally, it would be advisable for any would-be teachers to be willing and interested in taking teacher training.

I also found the Kodaly philosophy to be appealing at one time, but haven't looked into it further. I wonder if Cotton might find that it suits his outlook.

November 20, 2020, 12:05 PM · Have you checked that she is at all suitable for learning the violin? Can she move her left hand fingers into a "V" shape with two fingers on one side and two on the other, and hold them there, using only the muscles on her left hand? If not, intonation will always defeat her.
November 20, 2020, 1:04 PM · I was a little younger than 8 when I started, but I distinctly remember that the first week of lessons involved a cereal box violin with a hole cut in it for a chopstick bow and a sponge rubber banded to the bottom.

In hindsight, this is to, for the first lesson, teach the student how to properly hold the violin, where the bow goes, and how the left hand supports the instrument without actually risking a...(what size violins do 8 year olds play? 1/4?) ...well, an actual violin.

November 20, 2020, 1:35 PM · One lesson is easy, follow-ups are hard(er). Regardless of what you have taught or how well, you then have to take into account what the student retained or not.

About Suzuki: Training showed me how to be more organized about what skills to teach and how/when/why although it took actual teaching experience, trial and error, to refine what I wanted students to learn at each stage (and even, what those stages were). For me teaching beginners and intermediates, I don't look at just "one lesson" but what we can be doing over a month, a few months, a year, a few years, as well as having a rough plan on how to get there. Of course, I did not have all of that when teaching neighborhood children as a high schooler!

My short summary about Kodaly (I've taken two summer levels): It's music literacy through singing (movable do solfege featured heavily), audiation (inner hearing) is a big deal, and there is an emphasis on experiencing or identifying musical concepts by feel before naming or notating them. There is plenty of overlap with Suzuki's "ear before reading" and concept of planned skill sequencing, but a critical difference is that one's voice is a much more natural instrument vs. dealing with the physical mechanics of operating a violin. Kodaly training has influenced my teaching but because it's not violin-specific, it won't be as helpful to start with.

Edited: November 20, 2020, 2:57 PM · I was taught from the Whistler Books. They're fine too. But the progression of tunes in the Suzuki books is very good.

Joel wrote, "At 8 y.o., she will know her numbers and letters." I thought it was all Venn Diagrams these days.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W6OaYPVueW4

November 20, 2020, 4:07 PM · Go to http://toddehle.com/id69.html

Look at his excellent videos. You should know specific methods of teaching a beginner, not just instinct. You have a very steep learning curve. For instance how do you teach a basic way to hold the violin, hold the bow, an order of steps to do each in, basic literature, etc. If you don't know these things, you should send the pupil to a trained teacher.

November 20, 2020, 4:29 PM · Thanks the for tips, guys.
I've been asking around—friends, teachers—and I think I have a pretty good idea of how I'm gonna tackle this. If I get frustrated I can always just refer her to one of my old teachers, anyway!
November 21, 2020, 5:33 AM · One great thing about teaching is that it helps the teacher refine their own thoughts. Things you might think are easy to understand may require more careful thought on your part to explain to someone who doesn't understand it. My experience has been that I have learned a lot from my students over the years. My own musical concepts which evolved over my years of studying and playing and which I hadn't tried to put into words to explain to someone else became clarified as I taught others. Enjoy the process!
November 22, 2020, 5:03 AM · A good thing about Suzuki is there are tutorials and multiple performances of every song on youtube. For my kids first hearing the song makes a big difference. This is another way parents can help them learn the songs and get started.
Edited: November 22, 2020, 7:32 AM · Two more thoughts on this:
If you aren’t a trained Suszuki-teacher, then the Suzuki volumes are just a series of pieces. You have to figure out the methodology, yourself. Doesn’t mean, Suzuki wasn’t a bad choice, though. My daughter got taught with these pieces by a non-Suzuki teacher, and it was fine to observe how each new piece provided such a perfect balance of new challenge and familiar skills. Plus, as Suzuki seems to be so well known in the US, the girl might even know some of the pieces, and be proud to be working on them, too, soon.

The other thing is the size of the instrument: My son had started on children’s violins that were modified to serve as violas. In contrast to any information I could find by professional teachers, I did NOT come to the conclusion that a too large instrument would harm him. Okay, I always thought, as a violist, he should get used to something big size, anyway.
But whenever he changed to a bigger size, his intonation improved, greatly! With something big to grasp, it was easier for him to really feel the differences between half and whole notes.
Take a look at books or pencils or bricks for little children: they always are bigger although the children’s hands are smaller. Their muscles are not so precisely skilled, yet.

Just keep in mind that when you have to make decisions for the kid, you may look for some help and inspiration, here, but in the end, trust your own common sense of a skilled player.

November 22, 2020, 2:18 PM · Weight differences between violin/viola sizes are more noticeable than smaller vs. larger pencils or crayons or brick toys, and books are often supported on a table or one's lap. A too-large violin can be more physically straining, lead to unnecessary discomfort, injury, etc., so it's more like too-large shoes in the safety aspect. I would never over-size a complete beginner BUT there are situations once a student has gotten going where it can make sense. (For note-reading, on the other hand, I go with large print for younger eyes...and older eyes.)
November 22, 2020, 3:26 PM · Cotton,

I'll make my perennial pitch to look at Doflien. At eight she might be old enough to both understand that the "Attitudes" (finger pattern based on where the half steps are) and appreciate the student-teacher duets. It is a method based in the bio-mechanics of playing with a lot of how-to along with reasons why.

I start a lot of young musicians about the same age. All of them love the duets because it is making more interesting music than unison (or is that Unisom?) playing.

No, it isn't for everyone. And you will learn a few things along the way yourself.

Edited: November 24, 2020, 4:24 PM · My student's mom cancelled today, because of new lockdown hysteria caused by the government—they decided to lower the case threshold for a "red zone" by over half, making just about everything a "red zone", and decided Toronto is a "gray zone" (whatever the heck) and all sort of other nonsense....

What an age we live in! At least I have a better plan for potential students in the future.


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