Learning the violin. Thoughts of an experienced teacher

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Playing the violin is a skill requiring coordination allied to good aural perception. The instrument is in fact in 2 seperate parts, the violin and the bow which work together using entirely different movements and actions.  The violin family, or the bowed family as the Italians call them,  (arci)  is unique in this respect.

Parents often ask if there is a good age to start lessons, but success on the violin comes from musical skills learned from the cradle. The best players I have worked with have usually had good singing voices from a  young age, and as the violin is a singing instrument primarily, this is simply carrying forward with what has been learned.

Schools are often woefully inadequate in musical education and an alternative can be found in Kindermusic groups run either privately or by the local authority music service, in out of school hours at music centres. These groups often have sessions where the children try out different instruments with visiting teachers, and this is a good way to spot what particularly interests a child.

It is worth seeing if your child can have some " taster" sessions before signing up for lessons and buying an instrument. If they are challenged by coordination you should know that yourself and not guide them to the violin family. As a teacher I can spot very quickly if a child is going to struggle.  Having lessons on an instrument that a child has little aptitude for can be a miserable experience and should not be part of musical education in my opinion.

One of my colleagues has a Phd in music education and undertook extensive research into what made a student succeed on an instrument. After years of work and study it was found that the most important attribute was the ability to follow instructions!

One advantage of the violin family over wind and brass instruments is that sizes come in fractions down to 8th or lower, so young children can have a working instrument. Buying such an instrument needs advice from the teacher, and you should also read my guide to buying student violins, on ebay.

Children usually start lessons in a school group and a good teacher can take advantage of this with games and group activities which are fun, and at the same time have a musical purpose. For instance one of my games is the " forbidden rhythm" ....the group start by listening to a given "forbidden rhythm" on one of the 4 strings, which is then mixed up with other rhythms which I play and they repeat on their violin as an echo. When the original forbidden rhythm is played again they have to remain silent. This game is very popular and also has the purpose of developing musical memory as well as following a signal for silence, an important part of music which starts from silence. 

I notice that of the children who start in my primary school groups, the ones who carry on learning and succeed have extra input to the weekly school group lesson. Rarely does this come from the primary school as music does not figure in any important national school statistics. It is often from a parent or grandparent who plays the violin, or who finds out what skills are needed even learning at the same time. These pupils also come to ensemble classes at the music centres run by the service and can move up the ensemble pyramid to the flagship youth orchestra and in some cases to the dizzy heights of the National Youth Orchestra.

Many years ago I used to visit a primary school in Leeds with my string quartet to give concerts to the children. The headmistress had started as an adult beginner and then taught a school violin group who had a daily lesson from her at school. After the concert the children played to us. They were stunning!!      One of them is now princpal viola in the Philharmonia Orchestra, the musical equivalent of playing for Man. United. The lesson every day made all the difference.

It is stating the obvious that a parent must see that regular practice is done. Practice books are issued as standard by teaching services and you should check them and ask the teacher to regularly put instructions in them if this is not done. Children do however lose or forget them, so don't assume that the teacher is necessarily wanting in this respect.

I once had a memorable reply from a 6 year old.  "Have you done any practice" I said. She replied  "I nearly did"

I notice that my pupils who have no extra input are often the ones who do little or no practice and although they enjoy the group lessons and are learning about music in general, will almost certainly give up, usually when they go to secondary school.

If your child makes good progress and is taking the ABRSM or other performance grades, there will come a time where the group lessons are not suitable and an individual lesson is required.

I do not go beyond grade 3 in my groups  as there are  parts of the grades system such as scales that need individual attention. Individual lessons from the music service can have the advantage, or otherwise, of being in school time, or they can be taken at the music centre out of school hours, and you can have the continuity of the teacher which is important.

I often groan when parents buy instruments of the wrong size or study books that I do not use, without consulting me. I know the parents of my successful pupils as they ask me questions on various aspects of learning and I regularly see them at music centre classes and concerts.

In conclusion I wish you and your children much joy in music making.

If you have found this guide useful please click on Yes.

You may find my new Ebay guide " Buying a Student Violin" useful.



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