practicing: the first weeks

I’m so happy to say that I have a few beginning violin students this year! Earlier in the year I wrote about how to create a practicing space, but I realize that more can be said about how to practice during those first few weeks of violin lessons. Use the information in this post to help you figure out this most complicated aspect of instrumental music education.

Daily practice is essential for success! A few minutes every day in the beginning weeks will help you and your child be successful in the future.

Practice only on the days you eat! -Shin’ichi Suzuki

What routines already exist in your family’s daily life?

How can you help your child remember to practice each day?

Experiment with practice schedules. Identify a few 30-minute blocks in your day that may be good times to practice. While some families do well to choose a specific time of day (such as 5-5:30pm), others find success defining practice time according to another part of their daily routine (such as before dinner or after snack time).

The right angle to approach practice is the “try-angle.”

The “Suzuki Triangle” is an equilateral triangle with Parent, Teacher, and Student in each of the corners. This helps to illustrate that each role is equally important. The parent learns the rudimentary skills of the instrument, and learns how to work in a positive and nurturing way in order to be more conducive to their child’s learning.

In order to be effective, parents don’t generally practice with their children over the phone, through email, via fax, or even by shouting instructions from another room. Practicing happens in a very close – often intense – relationship. For the child, much of the toil comes in the form of repeating things*. For the adults, the struggle is often with figuring out ways to help the child work through the disappointment that accompanies the discovery that the world isn’t magic. So, how do you get started practicing? Just do something. Anything. Spend some time at it. You can refine as you go.

Paints color paper and music colors silence. How beautiful is your coloring?

Spend a lot of time in your first few weeks listening to the reference recordings:

  • Passively listen in the car or while helping with household chores or while getting ready for school in the morning or while getting ready for bed at night.
  • Passively listen while coloring pictures of instruments and musicians.
  • Actively listen during a proposed practice time. Hum along when you can or sing words to the songs that your teacher taught you.
  • Actively listen while holding your pre-instrument and/or pre-bow.
  • Actively listen and march to the beat of the music.

(Passive listening is the same as “wallpaper listening” – having music play in the background, surrounding you in your daily life)

If you are to learn, you must do the teaching.

In your practice space, encourage your child to teach you what they already know. Here are some questions you can ask to turn them into the teacher:

  • Why do we have a “rest position”?
  • How should my feet look in rest position?
  • How do I hold my instrument in rest position?

• What part of the instrument should face out?

  • How should my feet look in playing position?
  • How should I hold my pre-instrument in playing position?
  • What part of my body is holding my pre-instrument in playing position?
  • Why do you put your left hand on your right shoulder in playing position?
  • Where are the 2 V’s from the “ V, V Violin” song? (One is upside down)
  • What makes a “beautiful bow” to the audience? Why do we bow?

Careful! It is so very important that you know the answers to the questions that you ask your children! If you don’t know the answers, wait until the next lesson and ask me about them!

Why hurry over beautiful things?
Why not linger and enjoy them? –Clara Schumann

Always keep in mind that the goal of practice is to make things easier.

When the goal of practice is to “fix things,” then a child’s performance tends to be limited to a hope that all the things you fixed stay fixed — not a set-up likely to give a child’s musical soul the freedom it needs to emerge. Practicing to “correct” things tends to have the effect of making children feel like they themselves are in need of correction for their very being, and they are more likely to be resistant during practice.

Embrace success whenever it happens. Can your child hold their instrument with their chin/jaw and keep it flat like a table? Do they have a great Rest Position? Take a photo and save it to share with me, their friends, or family! Did your child just show you a “beautiful bow”? Did they just successfully move from Rest Position to Playing Position? Can they sing an entire song from the reference recording? Consider video-recording this success and sending it to me!

Practice makes permanent.

Be aware of how you and your child feel when you practice. Especially in the early months, try to avoid practicing when you sense bad feelings, tension, or other negativity. Conversely, if you and your child are in good spirits, suggest listening to the reference recordings, demonstrating a “beautiful bow,” or instructing you how to move from Rest Position to Playing Position.

Be diligent about your practice routine. If your teacher has requested daily practice for 10, 15, 20, or 30 minutes per day, don’t allow yourself or your child to be excused from this assignment. Stick to your routine or suffer disagreeable practice behavior later. Your child needs to practice a behavior until it is easy and automatic.

 

We’re in our practice space – now what?

  1. Collect your practice materials. During the first few weeks, these materials may only include the foot chart, pre-instrument, and pre-bow. Do not include unpacking/packing instrument as part of practice time!
  2. Set the timer. 10 minutes per day the first week. 15 minutes each week after the first.
  3. “What do you remember from your lesson?” Let your child do most of the talking. If they need help remembering, prompt them with questions about parts of the instrument, how to position their feet, what it is called when you safely hold your instrument when you’re not playing, what it is called when you hold your instrument on your shoulder, etc.
  4. “Can you sing me any of the songs from your lesson?” Feel free to sing along with your child if necessary. Some beginning songs include “ V, V Violin,” “Rest Position Song,” “ This is My Violin,” “Lightly Row, Smoothly Row,” “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” “Doggie Doggie Scrub Scrub,” ”Listen to the Wind,” and “Go, Tell Aunt Rhody.”
  5. “Can you teach me?”
  6. “Can you show me?”

    If these questions are overwhelming at first, pause the timer and turn on the recordings. Listen to the songs until your child is ready to resume practicing.

Set goals for practicing. The first practice goals always have to do with establishing a practice routine. During the first week, make your goal to do something related to music and your instrument lessons in your practice space every day for 10 minutes per day. Once your child has finished with the pre-instrument, another goal can be to show proper care for the instrument, especially in packing it away in its case.

I will help you set goals related to what gets practiced. Some of these goals, such as forming a good bow hold or performing a beautiful bow, will be accomplished during one practice session and should be repeated daily. Other goals will be long-term and may be achieved by the end of the week.

Write down the daily and weekly goals during your child’s lessons, and frequently refer to them during practice.

Practicing must be both productive and positive. Once you’ve established goals, consider incorporating games into your practicing:

  • Make a paper chain to show your progress. Each time your child accomplishes a daily goal, such as making a good bow hold or holding their instrument (or pre-instrument) on their shoulder for a certain amount of time without letting it slip, add a ring to the paper chain. Select a different color for each daily goal.
  • Add-on drawing. Draw something that needs additional parts, such as an empty vase. Each time a daily goal is accomplished, pause the timer, and let your child draw a flower. Stars in the sky, hairs on a head, legs on a millipede, balloons in a bunch, spots on a dalmatian, or any other number of things can work!
  • Write Their Name. This works especially well for young children. Write out spaces for each letter of their name (just First, or First & Last, or First, Middle, Last, etc). Each time they demonstrate a skill they can fill in a letter.
  • Tic-Tac-Toe. Each time your child demonstrates a skill they can take a turn.

The most powerful way to communicate that we value something is simply spending time with it.

If you want to communicate to your child that music is important, then by all means don’t tell him that. Instead, show him that by your actions. There are many things a parent can do to communicate to his or her child that music is important. A bare minimum would be listening to a wide variety of music (at home and in the car), attending individual lessons, and attending concerts — both concerts the student performs in and occasional other concerts that you attend with your child.

YouTube is a fantastic resource for parents who might not be able to attend other concerts. Start with these search terms to find videos, and select live-action videos for a more engaging experience:

Itzhak Perlman

Pacifica Quartet

Gil Shaham

Ray Chen

Tchaikovsky

Mahler

Debussy

 

Time for Three

Argus Quartet

Leonidas Kavakos

A Far Cry

Brahms

Mozart

Haydn

 

Isaac Stern

Dover Quartet

Anne Sophie Mutter

Elena Urioste

Mendelssohn

J.S. Bach

Paganini

 

David Oistrakh

Janine Jansen

Hilary Hahn

Regina Carter

Beethoven

Dvorak

Gershwin

 

Finally, refer to the PDF that I may have already sent you in your email. At the end of these slides are photos, games, and rhymes to help you during your practice time.

 

*Does this sound familiar? Many ideas in this post were written by Edmund Sprunger in his book Helping Parents Practice.

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