What Walt Disney Can Teach You About Practicing the Violin

Here’s how the young father of a beginning violin student posed his parenting theory to me the other day: “I like my kids to stay busy. I want them to do a lot of things. In fact, my daughter has only enough time to practice for a lesson every other week.”

Beg your pardon, if I don’t agree. “I don’t teach students that way,” I replied, though my real thoughts on the subject ran far deeper. In my view, this parent is a variant of the now famous “Tiger Mom.” In this this case the student is given a quick weekly tour of a half dozen activities. Plus work, plus school. No time to explore anything, no chance to deeply master any one thing.

Are you swatting mosquitoes in mid air?
If you’ve ever tried to knock down a flying mosquito, you’ve discovered that it’s almost impossible. Now that’s how a lot of kids live today. They’re giving a scourge of mosquitoes deal with, and no possible option to pin anything down for even a second.

What Tiger Mom got right
Your kids won’t get any better at music (or anything else) left to their own devices. They need your guidance and support. You and your kids do need to spend a serious amount of time working on the violin to make a serious amount of progress. That’s true for kids that are old enough to practice alone as well as the under 12 crowd that needs your help during practice.

How to “Imagineer” Your Next Practice Session
By nature, both adults and kids tend to pratice using the “swatting mosquitoes” method: you keep swinging until the job is done. But that pesky mosquito always seems to reappear.

It’s a huge mistake to treat practice as a mundane chore, like filling out a sheet of math problems, or mopping the floor. What if it was more like inventing a theme park, or a thrill ride? Actually, it is.

Great practicing, (what most people mistake for “talent”) is the ability to innovate, imagine and create on an ongoing basis. It’s much like the work of Disney and Pixar Imagineers who recently created Cars Land; their active minds transformed a corner of Anaheim into something entirely new, novel and useful.

What a great practice session looks like
Does you child share that frenzied look and feel of a mosquito swatter while he practices? Then he’s not really practicing at all. In fact, he is probably making things worse. In fact, if your kids lack a systematic, thoughtful approach to practicing, you can pretty well bet that their practice is mindless and unhelpful.

Pratice differs for different people. It’s not “paint by the numbers game.” Still these three things will always hold true:

1. There is a “spacious” feeling around the practice session. This is where the real work of practice gets done. It’s where you identify the specific problems and opportunities. It’s where you start to form strategies to make progress. Brainwork must proceed before hand work. You never feel rushed, under pressure, or bored.

2. Great practice is strategic. Tools and tactics are used to streamline work. For example, I teach a “simplification” method that enables you to always achieve meaningful progress, even in a single session.

3. Practice motivation is intrinsic. The work of practice isn’t constantly directed at a particular result, such as an audition or upcoming talent show. Instead the practicer learns to appreciate the value and enjoyment of the practice process. The process feeds upon itself as enjoyment and mastery both continue to increase over time.

More is not better

Tiger parents of any stripe often put their kids at a great disadvantage. While progress can (in the short term) be forced by sheer effort, the quality of resulting work is not high. Basically, great music can’t be “beat” into your mind. It is nurtured over time.

Kids that get shuttled endlessly from one activity to the next never get to enjoy the luxury of a beautiful, creative approach. There’s nothing “spacious” about their practice, or their lives in general. They often grow to hate their music practice.

Invention is the key that unlocks rapid progress, sustained motivation, and excellence

Remember: An Invincible Family jealously protects the practice space. Invincible Parents keep their kids involved in creative, meaningful work, without compulsively pushing ahead at unreachable goals.

Last, but not least, sometimes we forget the value of unstructured down time, with no TV, no computers, no texting. Kids need this, perhaps even more than their parents. Remember the creative power of a walk in the park, a bike ride, or eight hours of sleep!

Novice musicians almost always underestimate the value of creativity and invention in practice. It’s truly the key that unlocks rapid progress, sustained motivation, and excellence in life as well as in music.  Ready to get started? OK, put your mouse ears on!

Extra credit: Famous violinist Nathan Milstein’s creative approach is highlighted in this video. Enjoy!

A Music Teacher’s Six Laws for Parents

True Stories. I Changed the Names.
By all measures, young Corey was thriving in the studio. He clearly made superior progress and demonstrated that the work was important and fulfilling. Yet, his parents were too busy to attend Corey’s end of the year recital. Even worse, they couldn’t even find him a ride to the event. The second recital in a row he missed. It was heartbreaking to see Corey apologize for his parents who were busy “doing something.”

Then there was 10 year old Mark, whose innate musicality was perhaps the most striking of any student I’ve ever encountered. Even though he was “borderline” autistic. This, according to his enthusiastic parents, who eventually became too busy with their dual careers to help him through the barriers he encountered during his practice.

When Mark stopped making progress on violin, his parents’ response was to add piano lessons to his already crowded daily regime, in the hope he could excel at a quicker pace on the keyboard. When younger violinists surpassed Mark’s skill level, his parents pulled him out of violin altogether. I can’t imagine how that made him feel, though after years together, I felt as if my own child had been wrenched from me.

Too Much, Baby!
I can’t count the number of students taking lessons who suffer from sheer exhaustion and sleep deprivation. Seriously. As if the real value of their lives will only be determined by the number of trophies, certificates and AP classes they amass before the age of 18.

All of which leads me to believe that Corey and Mark are the real adults in the room. They are doing the work for its own sake, and to the best of their ability. They are producing meaningful results. Even under next to impossible circumstances.

On the Flip Side of the Coin
As a teacher, I truly appreciate the parents that get it right, the parents that take responsibility for providing the right balance between challenge and support. The parents that take a real interest in their kids’ work, and provide appropriate praise and limits.

While most parents acknowledge that an 5 to 12 year old music student will need help and guidance with her practice, only a minority of those parents seem to consistently follow through when push comes to shove.

Certainly, the study of music provides a pathway to personal growth.  Surprisingly, this can be equally true for the student and his parents.

Talent is the Least of It
For the parents that do follow through: I love and appreciate you! But don’t expect the rest of the world to acknowledge your work. Most people think you’re just lucky to have super “talented” children.

If there’s any one talent to be valued above all others in a musically aspiring family, perhaps it is a talent for parenting. It’s the knack to provide nurture and challenge in a perfect balance.

Six Laws and the Ultimate Test: Music
Certainly, the study of music provides a pathway to personal growth.  Surprisingly, this can be equally true for kids and their parents. For the student, music is a long term project sustained by motivation, perspiration and an occasional burst of inspiration.

As a parent, your kids’ progress in their musical journey is truly a barometer of your ability to provide a fertile environment for your child’s overall growth. It’s up to you to:

  1. Provide an age appropriate musical challenge
  2. Find an experienced, effective teacher
  3. Understand day to day practice objectives and strategies
  4. Actively participate in lessons and practice when appropriate
  5. Set a reasonable limit on academic and extracurricular activities. Put more value on a child’s abilty to imagine, invent and create, all of which happens during free time.
  6. Provide appropriate praise, support and structure

What Could be More Important?
If you are the “adult in the room,” you take this list seriously. Doing it right requires more patience, effort and thought than simply signing up your kid for everything and obsessively pushing her to the limit. It may not be easy, but it’s definitely possible; I see it every week.

Follow these laws, and I’m guessing the benefits will reach far beyond you kids’ music lessons!

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.


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!