“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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Violin: How to Guarantee Success

Young Violinist masters the Vivaldi concerto

New music students (and their families) often think learning violin is about soaking up the lessons. That the private teacher will give them those mad skills. So get some lessons, then go out into the world and use what you learned. Practice to refine it and to improve retention. All’s well and good, except…

What you can get out of a 30 minute lesson is just a skimpy slice of the pie. Surprisingly, the process of becoming a proficient musician is more like being a combination of an inventor, explorer and planner. Your teacher can only give you the raw ingredients of the  of the recipe; it’s up to you to actually make something of it.

So forget about coming to lessons and mindlessly spitting out what you’ve learned. Or watching videos on the internet and trying to copy other violinists playing your favorite songs. Learning violin requires that you engage your brain and your best powers of observation. It demands a patient attitude and a lot of curiosity.

If you’re proficient at music, it’s because you’ve learned how to solve these progressively more complex problems. But if you’re bored, stuck, frustrated and/or no longer making progress, it’s likely because you don’t have a solid strategy to improve your playing.

Repeating a song or musical passage over and over until you’re bored to tears is an almost certain recipe for failure. Instead let your sense of discomfort or frustration be your guidepost. Your mind is telling you that what you are doing isn’t going to produce the result you want. You need something more.

In my studio, once we get past the basics we kick into our “creative problem solving” mode. I demonstrate some simple strategies to fix a problem passage, and ask the student to do the same.

“Bobby, next week, show me three different ways to improve this weak spot” goes right into the homework assignment. “And playing it over and over until it sounds good doesn’t count.”

Surely a violin newbie will be hard pressed to come up with much of a list. So I supply a menu from which the student can select the most effective and appropriate choice. For example, here are some items from my “take away” menu for young violinists.

TAKE AWAY SOMETHING from a problem to make it simpler

  • Remove the rhythm and play it in quarter notes
  • Remove the bowings
  • Play it in an easier position/fingering
  • Work on a smaller section and expand to surroundings
  • Use a slower tempo, when improved, make a meaningful tempo increase and try again.
  • Use less tone or vibrato
  • Don’t play across syncopated ties (similar to remove bowings)
  • Use pizzicato instead of bow
  • Use the bow without the violin hand
  • Left hand only and bow 2″ above string
  • Left hand only and sing or count
  • Bow only and sing or count
  • Freeze time after every note and take stock of bow position

The concept behind the take away strategy is simple: problems become easy to solve once you’ve isolated them to their most basic components. This enables you to make visible progress in just minutes. That alone is super motivating for a student of any level.

What are your favorite practice strategies? Please help me grow the list by commenting, sharing or tweeting. Thanks!

Violin: Do You Find it “Touching?”

Grasping

Flop that fiddle on your shoulder and put your fingers on the fingerboard. Ready to go, yes? Well, actually… no!

Right out of the cradle we’re pre-programmed to play the violin wrong. Our very first instinct actually works against us.

Hand a baby a rattle, and she grasps it. Hand a five year old a violin, and she does pretty much the same thing with her left (violin) hand. That grasping motion works great; it’s extremely powerful.

The only problem is that this type of power actually works against the violinist. What a violinist really needs is exactly the opposite thing, a delicate touch, freedom of movement and a high degree of finesse.

In the violin studio, even the teacher’s simple choice of a word can influence success or failure. I work hard to remove words such as “bow grip” from my vocabulary. Similarly we need to find the right word to describe how the violin hand approaches the instrument.

Hand Position in Violin Image
Touch Typing

I like the word “touch” as in touch typing. The touch typist on a modern keyboard uses a light, fast motion. His fingers are curved and his knuckles are high. Playing the violin well is amazingly much the same.

Playing the violin is much the same as typing an e-mail to a friend on your PCs keyboard.

The First Time Ever You Touch a Violin

Do this right the first time, and you’re off to a great start. Do it wrong, and you’ve got a bad habit. Minutes or seconds can establish the habit. It could take months to re-learn it the correct way.

Because a picture (or in this case a video) is worth one thousand words, I’m creating a video demonstration to help you get started. As always, this can work best under the supervision of a qualified teacher. So I’m not going to say “don’t try this at home” but then again, self-taught violinists are a rare breed indeed.

If you find any part of this unclear, please let me know. It’s my endeavor to make this the best it can be!


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