Why Looks *Do* Matter for Violinists

My X-Ray Vision for How Well You Play the Violin

Send me a still photo of your kid with her violin in playing position. It won’t take me more than 10 seconds to determine if she’ll be able to make any progress beyond her first year of playing. It’s not that I’m some brilliant pedagog of string playing. But after a decade of teaching young students the violin it’s quite clear when an approach is doomed to failure.

Here it is in plain English: if your posture is poor, so is your tone and technique. Stated another way, you must look something like a pro, if you want to advance past beginner. Mind you, looks are not a guarantee of progress, but they most certainly are a condition of success.

The Sink or Swim Factor for Violin Beginners

The number one success factor for new violinists rests in the left (or violin) hand. Fingers must be curved and inclined, just so. The perfect amount of pressure must be applied to the fingerboard. Too much squeeze and the tension will kill you, not enough and the tone will suffer. Because all of this is so crucial, I’ve devised routines to help students learn it in baby steps. This is an example of such a routine.

Over the years, I’ve developed many such routines. If you’d to see them, sign up for my e-course. Totally free, the form is at the bottom of this post.

Beyond the Violin Hand

But wait, there’s more! Like how exactly do you position the violin on your shoulder? And how do the arm, elbow and shoulder come into play? Yeah, it all matters, more than you might expect. And we haven’t even discussed the bow yet!

Patience is Your Friend

Don’t get me wrong, I admire your zeal to move ahead quickly and learn your favorite songs. Though really, learning songs is only the tip of the iceberg. More often than not, what the violin can teach you and your children is the virtue of patience.

Practical Advice for Invincible Violinists: Take your time, especially at the beginning. Don’t worry so much about learning songs; the extra time you spend with your kids on the basics will more than make up for itself with rapid progress in the future.

Focus on producing a full tone with a minimum of effort. Be certain that you have a comfortable and cozy physical relationship with your instrument. And don’t forget to look in the mirror. If it doesn’t look right, it probably isn’t.

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What to do if Your Child is Too Young to Start Violin

 

Parents: Are your kids just getting started on violin? I’m not going to pull any punches. In my studio, violin lessons can get pretty intense, fast. There’s a lot to remember, and a lot that can go wrong. All of this means that the average 5 to 8 year (and you, as his home teacher) will need draw upon an unusual amount of focus, a reasonably robust physical makeup and some real fine muscle control.

Even something as simple as the slope of a shoulder and the relative position of a collarbone can make holding and playing nearly impossible for some kids until the moment is right. But not all is lost!

Six “Must Have” Skills for your Future Invincible Violinist

So, here’s my short list of necessary activities that will support the first song your child will likely need to learn in a Suzuki (and/or) traditional violin studio:

  1. The Twinkle Rhythm Vocabulary. Be able to clap these the six basic twinkle rhythms accurately, crisply and at consistent tempo.
  2. Clap and March Be able to march in time with the songs from the Suzuki Volume 1 CD, and at the same time clap at a matching or (if appropriate) double speed.
  3. Match Pitches Be able to sing and match a pitch in the range of middle C to G, after hear thing pitch sung or played on a keyboard.
  4. Follow a Melodic Contour Be able to sing along with a familiar melody, and follow the up and down contour of that melody, if not the exact pitches.
  5. Object Focus Be able to visually focus on a single object for increasing intervals, without turning away or being distracted.
  6. Tone Up Be able to hold an empty violin case in front of the body with arms fully extended. Be able to march in tempo with empty case held above crown of the head.
  7. Tap and Count Be able to demonstrate fine muscle control and basic counting skills using a simple song.

The honest truth: if your child has significant problems with any of these items her violin journey will likely be short. Don’t let this happen to your family!

Here’s the Proven Invincible Practice Strategy

This list is fairly basic, but at least one point deserves your consideration:
Set up your kids to be successful from the start. Break down these activities into their simplest components so that every repetition, every practice session, is in some way successful. This is at the heart of the Invincible Violin system.

Add complexity as appropriate to the development of your child. Instill the belief that can meet challenges and continually improve. At all costs, avoid dull, mindless repetition of any activity. Constantly provide your attention and support, provide praise when appropriate, and never offer it when it isn’t merited.

Here’s a website loaded with ideas and tools that can help with early motor skill development.

Grab The Unbelievable Power of Getting the Basics Right

This stuff is way, way underrated. The connections to playing with a beautiful tone and great technique aren’t obvious to the average person. But a lifetime of playing and a decade of teaching has shown me otherwise.

Parents and kids alike are always super excited to get started on the instrument and learning songs. That’s great, but motivation dies quickly without having these six skills mastered. And that’s sad, and all too common.

Whether it’s baseball, math or violin the fundamentals do count. As parents, it’s our job to give our kids this solid starting point. It’s the foundation of becoming Invincible.

Why You Should Get Started Now

Don’t waste time! If the moment is right to start actual playing, there’s plenty you can do to make that moment shine when it finally arrives.

Have your own “too young” story or question to share? Please leave a comment below!

“How to Get Your Kids Unstuck on a Song”

Gossec Gavotte

Gossec Gavotte: Song from Hell or Heaven Sent?

If you’re a Suzuki parent, you probably remember the song entitled Gavotte by Gossec. Some might know it as “the song from hell.”

As a teacher, I find the song quite magical; it contains several passages that enable me to read the mind of a young violinist, and to surmise much about his “musical parenting” as well.

These seemingly unplayable fast groups of 16th notes, are being encountered for the first time by a Book 1 Suzuki student. It’s the kind of passage seems to induce what musicians commonly call “black note fever.”

Seven year old John, might think (or even verbalize) “this is beyond me.” Hence, he’ll play and improve the large part of song for week upon week, though the execution of this particular passage itself never seems to change much. He has metaphorically left the room and shut off the lights. Completion of this project was filed in the “someday” or “never” category.

Winning the Mental Game

Enter six year old Susan, an equally skilled student. Upon facing the same passage, she experiences a completely different internal dialog. “My family and teacher gave me this age appropriate problem, and so they expect me to solve it.” And before long, the “impossibly” difficult passage, looks pretty much like the rest of the song.

Both Susan and John have yet to develop a mature practice strategy, yet Susan’s “I can solve this now” belief system stimulates a vastly higher quality of work on her part. If only by a process of elimination, she will ultimately discover one or more keys to unlock the difficulties in the notes.

And it doesn’t stop there. That same “I can do it now” internal dialog fires up a student’s motivation and zest for the violin journey. It’s a circle of positive self-reinforcement that grows ever larger and stronger. These kids rarely crawl to their lessons with an excuse of “I’ve had a really busy week.”

Make This Work for Your Family

The confident six year old recitalist who can easily and brilliantly perform Gossec almost automatically gets the “talented” label. This, as if only the chosen few were fortunate enough to end up on the planet with the super-prodigy-violinist gene. Well let me just say, this just isn’t so. Any six year old with average motor skills has the ability to pull off the Book 1 Gavotte.

 The wise family sees music as a journey of self discovery that gives a child something far beyond a “fun” activity, far beyond mere self-esteem.

Many a family sees their children’s music lessons as just one more extracurricular activity that happens to be centered around playing songs on an instrument. The wise family sees music as a journey of self discovery that gives a child something far beyond a “fun” activity, far beyond mere self-esteem.

All of that said, here’s my advice to parents who are serious about music for their kids:

1. Don’t use the T word. It will only make you kids think they “have it” or don’t. Either way, the result will kill the motivation to improve.

2. Don’t pamper your kids with praise for their half-hearted efforts. Instead, be the benevolent dictator that helps them discover their own ability to solve problems and succeed. Music may not always be fun, but at times can bring joy, bliss and elation, when mastered.

3. As a parent, part of your job is to keep the kids motivated and excited about their music lessons. Why would they be enthusiastic, if your head is buried in a magazine during the entire lesson, if you never take them to a great concert, or if you’re indifferent to the topic of music in general?

Be it Gossec Gavotte or the Sibelius Concerto, the challenge of continual progress is truly met within our minds. For the student and the family, we must always expect quality work, continual improvement and a sense of focused ease while practicing. As a parent, you are the hero that must make it happen.

What are your thoughts about kids and music? Please add a comment below. Thanks!

Poisoned Practice

If there’s any one way to make practice time painful and counterproductive, it is to practice in the land of “will be.” That’s because the oxygen of practice is visible improvement and immediate results. Invincible musicians universally share a “success now” practice regimen.

“Will be” musicians are not “wanna be” players. The former often pay their dues in spades. But their endless hours in the practice room are poisoned by a faulty internal dialog and a matching mindless practice method which is inherently ineffective.

Practicing in the world of “will be” always produces low quality work, despite endless repetition and an interminable work schedule.

The famous violinist Itzhak Perlman famously warns against practicing more that a few hours a day. This, in contrast to legions of 8 hour a day practice zombies that fill the practice rooms and dorms of music conservatories. Perlman clearly knows something that these musicians don’t.

Or, more specifically, Mr. Perlman’s practice is guided by his deep internal belief in his own efficacy, be it on the stage or in the practice room.

Your own practice alone can’t make you Invincible. Invincibility begins from the inside out. Ultimately your practice routine becomes exponentially more effective as it becomes congruent with your beliefs. And similarly, Invincible practice serves to bolster your internal dialog.

Too many musicians are put into situations that will only serve to cripple their future efforts. The scars can run deep. As a teacher, it is my heartfelt obligation to provide my students with a significant track record of positive experiences. And to provide the tools that they can use to achieve it.

Whether your goal is mastering Lightly Row or the Tchaik Concerto, the task can be (and must be) achieved with ease. You must find success at every turn or every turn will become a detour.

Stated another way: you must find the patience to become successful in the moment. That’s at the heart of being Invincible.

What are your favorite practice strategies? Please add your comment!

The Amazing 3 Year Old Violinist

Holy cow, yet another call today, a man hoping to start his 3 year old grandson on violin.

Okay, okay. I agree there are advantages to starting early. But…

Few people though consider the far greater risks of starting music lessons too early.

It takes five years for the average child to learn to cut in a straight line using scissors. Is playing the violin any simpler a task? And that’s not considering the focus, patience and intellectual skills required to play a musical instrument.

Drop the average three year old into a few months of lessons and you’ll often have one frustrated family. Progress will be difficult to discern. This sets up a negative mindset around the project, one which may be impossible to surmount later in life. Had the same student started at five years of age, he would likely catch up to the 3 year old within 6 months. And everyone, student included, will be much happier.

Sure, you can find a few outliers on YouTube. Like the 3 year old prodigy playing Vivaldi. But what you’re not seeing is behind the scenes: a razor focussed family support network built around that child. A practice regimen that doesn’t waver. And an inordinate amount of time on the project (to the exclusion of other activities) and a child that is far, far ahead of the bell curve.

Even if you are one of those outliers, you still must ask yourself: is this in the best interest of the child? Will the world be a better place and will your child be happier for this experience?

Remember that Violin is a long term project. It will still be around when your child is four or five. And she’ll likely devote the better part of a decade to achieve any level of mastery.

So what’s the rush?

Still, there’s much you can provide for your child before he is ready for structured lessons. Here are just a few ideas:

• Singing informally or in a group

• Classes that emphasize rhythm, movement and motor development

• Attending concerts in a variety of styles and venues

• Structured listening at home (Suzuki CDs are available to everyone)

All of this can start as early as in the womb! Your child’s love and devotion for music starts by modeling your own. There’s nothing wrong with starting actual lessons at five to seven years of age and beyond.

In a nutshell, give your young violinist a better than average chance for success. Provide the needed family support. Be an active participant in the learning process. Model your own love for music. Do all of this, and you can’t help but succeed in creating an Invincible Violinist in your own home.

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