Every violinist needs to work on intonation whether we’re just beginning, or we have made it to the professional realm. Sometimes it can be a frustrating endeavor. We know we aren’t playing in tune, but no matter what we do it doesn’t seem to get better! Hopefully this post encourages you to keep working at your intonation, and if you’re a teacher will give you some things to try with your students that you may not have done before. Good luck!
Check Yourself with the Open-strings
This seems like a pretty obvious one, but it’s a technique we often forget to utilize. It’s very helpful for position work which tends to get out of tune very easily. When I’m using this technique with my students I will often give them “check points” in their music on the note that corresponds to an open string. Whenever they reach these check points they need to stop and make sure they are in tune. If they are in tune, great! If they are not in tune, they must work backwards until they can play the section and stay in tune. This is helpful for beginning, intermediate and advanced students, or even us professionals who (gasp!) may not always play in tune!
Listening for the Ring of the Open-string
Whenever we play an A, D, G or E on the violin those notes will have a special ringing quality to them because the open string vibrates along with the fingered note. It is imperative that advancing students learn the aural precision necessary to produce the ringing of the open strings whenever they play an A, D, G or E. It is this skill that makes our instruments “sing” as well as helps keep us in tune with ourselves. While this is similar to matching ourselves to the open string it takes our aural precision and intonation to the next level higher because we are not actually playing the open-string to tune to it. Once we have learned how to hear the ringing of these pitches we will more readily be able to find the center of the pitch for notes that do not correspond to open strings.
Double Stop Practicing
It is double stops and chords that often bring to light the deficiencies in our ability to play in tune. The precision it takes to make double stops ring can be a tedious procedure, but one that is well worth the time and effort for the advancing student. There are several reasons why double stops are difficult. First, we have to tune two notes in the span of time that we usually only have to tune one. Secondly, sometimes a note that is “in tune” when played by itself will be “out of tune” when combined into a double stop with another note. Third, if both notes of the double stop are fingered, we have to determine which needs to be moved in order to make the double stop tune correctly. These are just a few of the reasons double stops are frustrating! It is important to know why double stops are difficult because it is always helpful to define the problem before attempting to fix it. If your student generally plays in tune, but is getting into advanced repertoire and seems to be just “a little off” in finding the correct pitches, double stops are a great tool to refine the advancing student’s ear or to give your own ear a “tune-up”!
Finger Patterns and Chunking
Many students play for years and becoming capable at reading their notes and finding them on their instrument, but often develop intonation problems as rhythms get more complicated, notes are not always in a convenient pattern, and accidentals outside the key become more common place. Working on isolating individual out of tune notes and identifying if they are too high or too low is helpful, but may be missing the student’s root problem. Most students, unless trained to do so, think of notes individually, meaning that they are not thinking of the relationship from one note to the next, especially when notes are not on the same string. Violin (and other string instruments) are unique in their use of whole and half step finger patterns because not only do we reference true whole and half step relationships between notes (such as a whole step between D and E), but we also reference implied whole step and half step relationships across strings (such as the whole step between D and B, when the 3rd finger is on the A-string and the 4th finger is on the E-string). Understanding these across-the-string finger relationships are imperative for correct intonation.
If your student is having problems with intonation make sure that they are thinking about their finger patterns and the across-the-string relationship between notes. One helpful way of working on this skill is to have the student go measure by measure in an etude and name what notes their 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th fingers are one, define the actual or implied whole or half step relationship created in the hand, and then identify the finger pattern starting with the 1st finger (whole, half whole, whole whole half, etc.). If more than one finger patter is used in a measure have the student identify what the first finger pattern is, and then which note changes that finger pattern and what the second finger pattern is.
This kind of thinking is often referred to as “chunking”. We do this with many different aspects of music. When we learn scales and arpeggios we are chunking information so that when we come across them in music we do not have to read each individual note; our hand and brain already know how to play that “chunk” of information. The better students become at chunking information and the larger the chunks become, the better they will be at sight reading and learning music quickly. When each new note and rhythm is an entity in and of itself, progress is slow and often the same material needs to be covered again and again because the student doesn’t have anything to relate the information to.
Consider the task of memorizing 20 random words as compared to memorizing a sentence containing 20 words. The sentence can be memorized much more quickly than 20 random words because our brains have chunked the words into something that has meaning. We need to do the same thing with the language of music for our students. Just as we teach children to understand letters, then chunk those letters into words, and then chunk those words into sentences, so we need to teach our music students their notes, then chunk those notes into finger patterns, then chunk those finger patterns into musical sentences.
I hope these ideas for practicing intonation prove helpful for you and your students!
If you have not read my post Am I Tone Deaf? (http://blog.playviolinmusic.com/2013/03/06/am-i-tone-deaf/) I would recommend doing that before proceeding to read this post. It will give you the necessary preliminary material to get the most out of the information provided here.
As discussed in my previous post, Am I Tone Deaf?, most likely your student is NOT tone deaf, they just have a difficulty matching pitch, or identifying if pitches are the same or different. This is a common problem and not one that should prohibit a student from succeeding at the violin or viola or one that should cause you great stress in teaching. While playing the violin or viola requires a good ear, this skill can be taught.
All students fall on a sliding scale or continuum of easily identifying and matching pitch, to having great difficulty identifying and matching pitch, and all students will need training in this area. While all students can benefit from direct instruction in ear training, most students will pick-up or develop this skill naturally as they learn to tune and play in-tune on their instrument. However, sometimes (and I find this to be especially true with adults) students need some extra attention to learning this skill. This post will outline some of the strategic methods I have used and found successful. There are MANY differing ways to train the ear that are highly successful and this post will just scratch the surface to get you started!
Tuning the 4th Finger
I usually can recognize tonal deficiencies in my students early on either because they have significant difficulty tuning their instrument or because they can’t play scales in tune – particularly the 4th finger coming down the scale. There is significant advantage to teaching beginners the 4th finger right away and using it to come down the scale.
(See my post: http://blog.playviolinmusic.com/2012/07/31/teaching-the-4th-finger/).
While I do use tapes for my beginning students they only go so far in placing the finger in the correct spot, and sometimes if the tapes fall off or a student switches instruments they ask (normally adult students) if they can try playing without the tapes. I usually allow them to do so and only add the tapes back in if absolutely necessary. When I see a student that has a particular problem playing the 4th finger in tune I usually suggest the following exercise:
Start on the 1st finger coming down the scale. Play 1, 0, 1, 4. The student should listen closely to the open string and make the 4th finger matches. (Also make sure the student leaves their first finger down when playing the 4th finger). If they are playing on the E string (key of A) the notes of the exercise would be F#, E, F# E, (1, 0, 1, 4). Have the student do this with all 4th finger/open strings in the scale.
If the student still has problems tuning their 4th finger have them do the exercise above, but instead of playing the 4th finger E, have the hum the E note. (They do not need to hum in the same octave as their open E-string). Once they can match the pitch with their voice have them do the exercise above.
If the student has significant difficulty humming in tune I would suggest doing some singing exercises with them.
Singing is directly linked to our tonal recognition skills. If you can teach a student to match pitch and sing in tune they will be much closer to being able to play in tune. Here are some exercises that I use.
Start with matching a single pitch. I usually choose to use a piano for these exercises. If your student does not own a piano there are websites that can be used for this purpose. Pick a note that is easily singable in your student’s vocal range. One way to figure this out is to ask your student to hum a comfortable pitch. If this pitch seems reasonable find the closest white note on the piano and use it as your home base. Play the pitch on the piano then have them hum it back. If they have trouble finding it, hum it for them and direct them up or down until they are matching you. Repeat this until they can sing it in tune themselves. When they can do this, confuse their ear by playing some other random notes. Repeat the exercise. Once a student can find the pitch accurately you can move on to Exercise 2.
If a student can match a single pitch have them move up (or down) the white notes of the keyboard by 2nds. Start with the “home” note and one adjacent note. Go back and forth between these two notes in a similar fashion as Exercise 1. Add an adjacent note as your student can manage it. Have your student be able to sing up and down a C-major scale before moving onto Exercise 3.
Once a student can sing up and down a C-major scale they are ready to begin learning how to skip pitches. Have the student start on C. Jump up a 3rd, then go down by step. Repeat this process until the student reaches the top of the scale. Now you will jump down by 3rd and go up by step on the way down the scale.
When a student can successfully do Exercise 3 introduce them to larger interval skips. Have them start on C. Go up by step to D, then back down to C. Now skip to E, then back down to C. Then up to F and back down to C. Continue starting on tonic, going up one note in the scale always going back to tonic in between each note.
Once a student can sing Exercise 4 correctly they will most likely have improved their ear enough to see some marked progress in their ability to tune their instrument and in their intonation when playing. If they are still having problems try having them sing small segments of their etude, scale or piece. Then have them play that small segment. Talk through whether the notes are ascending or descending by step or skip. This will connect what the student learned in their singing exercises to the music.
Relating Scales and Arpeggios
You can also start applying a student’s knowledge of scales and arpeggios. Ask the student to identify if the notes are moving by scale (step) or arpeggio (skip). Most beginning music is very clearly defined in this manner so it’s helpful to talk about how most music is just made up of pieces of scales and arpeggios. This takes the “scariness” out of learning a new song and gives meaning to why we have them practice scales and arpeggios. If the student knows their scale and arpeggio in the key of their new song they can be pretty certain they will know all the notes!
Hopefully you will find these exercises to be helpful to you and your students as you help your students realize that they really aren’t tone deaf and that even the most tone deficient student CAN improve their ability to sing on pitch and play in tune!
Many people believe that if they aren’t good at singing on pitch then they must be tone deaf. I have had many students come to take lessons and when asked to tune their instrument or match a pitch reply with the fact that they think they’re tone deaf: I have yet to encounter a student who truly is.
What is tone deafness?
Tone deafness is the term used to describe someone who cannot distinguish between musical pitches due to a medical or genetic problem. While I do not know statistically the number of people who actually have this disorder, the number is relatively low in comparison to the number of people who have trouble matching pitch. Tone deafness is usually accompanied by the inability to repeat back rhythms or recognize songs. If you can recognize the tune Mary Had a Little Lamb and can differentiate it from the Hallelujah Chorus you most likely aren’t tone deaf.
If I’m not tone deaf why can’t I sing on key?
Simple – you have not had the proper training in order to do so! Singing on pitch is a skill just like riding a bike or swimming. One must learn how to do it. Generally people will site their genes as contributing to their lack of ability to sing on pitch. While genes may affect a person’s natural ability to learn this skill, your genes are not the only, or most important factor. Most likely if you grew up in a family that claims tone deafness then you were surrounded by people singing off key. Therefore this is what you learned how to do as well. Just like a child imitates speech so they imitate music. If your mother sang off key lullabies to you as an infant, then your sense of pitch from this early age was trained accordingly. Conversely, those children who grew up with musical parents, or at least ones that could match pitch relatively accurately, also learned to do so. Think about how your family sang Happy Birthday as a child. Did it sound like a choir of angels or more like a cacophony of sound? My family sang Happy Birthday in 4 part harmony – I thought this was the norm until I experienced birthday parties outside my home!
Is this something that can be learned?
So, if you aren’t tone deaf, but have learned incorrect pitch training can this change? Yes! And you may be surprised at how quickly you are able to make significant changes in this area even as an adult. Keep in mind that your ability to sing on pitch is on a sliding scale. Some start closer to singing the correct pitch than others. It’s all a matter of working from where you’re at on the scale and improving your pitch to be as close to true pitch as possible.
If you’re a parent of a young child and are helping them practice keep in mind that you are learning this kill right along with your child. Just because you’re an adult doesn’t mean you should be better at singing on key. If you never learned how to do it you will have trouble helping decipher if your child is playing in tune or not. That’s OK – you will learn and grow in this area together!
What I call “the practicing myth” comes in various forms, but it always goes something like this:
“My kids hate to practice,
and I don’t want them to hate music, so taking music lessons must not be for them.”
If parents took that perspective with other things it might sound something like this:
“My kids hate eating vegetables,
and I don’t want them to dislike food, so healthy food must not be for them.”
“My kids hate doing their homework,
and I don’t want them to dislike learning, so school must not be for them.”
“My kids hate taking a bath,
and I don’t want them to dislike cleanliness, so washing must not be for them.”
“My kids hate cleaning their rooms,
and I don’t want them to dislike organization, so chores must not be for them.”
I think you get the picture.
Lets turn these scenarios around:
“My kids hate eating vegetables,
but I know it’s in their best interest to get the nutrition they need, so I will make sure they do it anyway.”
“My kids hate doing their homework,
but I know it’s in their best interest to get an education, so I will make sure they do it anyway.”
“My kids hate taking a bath,
but it’s in their best interest to be clean, so I will make sure they do it anyway.”
“My kids hate cleaning their rooms,
but it’s in their best interest to learn how to take care of their things and clean up after themselves, so I will make them do it anyway.”
Many parents enroll their children in music lessons because they realize there is value in music, not just as something to listen to, but as something to participate in. Many parents did not have the benefit of music lessons growing up and want their children to have an opportunity they missed out on. Some parents (like my own) took music lessons as a child, but did not stick with it and regretted quitting. Other parents see the value music lessons played in their own life and want their children to enjoy the same experience. I’ve also had parents enroll their child in lessons solely because the child had an interest in learning and the parent saw a benefit in giving the child the opportunity. Whatever the reason, parents enroll their child in lessons because they see a benefit to the child. But, somehow the focus changes when their child encounters an aspect to learning an instrument that they dislike. Usually this is the required daily practice. What if instead the parent had this perspective:
“My kids hates practicing, but it’s in their best interest to learn an instrument, so I will make them do it anyway!”
I’m up-front with parents who come to me discouraged because their child dislikes to practice. I tell them that I don’t expect their child to like to practice and that they shouldn’t expect them to either. There are rare cases where children are self-motivated to practice, and put in more than the required time and effort each day. Teachers and parents love these students! But, the reality experienced by most parents and children is that daily practice is a chore. Even if a child seems self-motivated at the start, the hard daily work it takes to learn an instrument can diminish their enthusiasm over the weeks, months or years. Parents see this and are afraid of pushing their child too hard, but, this is not a reason to give up on lessons. If we as teachers and parents truly believe that taking lessons on an instrument is beneficial to our students and children we should expect some dislike along the way, because hopefully we have learned for ourselves that most things that are worthwhile in life require effort and work, and are sometimes not fun.
When raised to eat healthy, do their HW, take baths and clean their rooms, children grow up to enjoy healthy foods, value education, practice good hygiene and are relatively organized adults. Music lessons and daily practicing can yield the same results. So, I encourage parents to approach practicing as they do anything that they know is good for their child, but that their child doesn’t like. Here are some good standards to follow to make practicing less of a battleground:
- Be Clear about Practicing Expectations: Set a practice duration, set clear goals of what’s suppose to happen during that time, and let it be known that arguing, whining or other attempts at thwarting practice time will have consequences.
- Set Consequences: Set consequences and follow through with them. Don’t make bigger threats than a behavior warrants or than you can follow through with. I have seen parents say, “I told you…..”, but they don’t ever enforce what they said. These children don’t last long in lessons.
- Give Rewards: Reward your child when they follow through with your expectations. A sticker chart, extra story time, a small piece of candy (like one Starburst), playing a short game, etc. are good motivators. Pick something that is particularly meaningful to your child!
- Set a Practice Time: When practicing is built into the schedule children will be more likely to do it without complaining. It will become part of their routine rather than an interruption to what they want to do.
- Make it Personal: Make an effort to give your child a special space for their studies. Personalizing their instrument, case, notebook, etc. can be a good motivator for practicing. This can be especially helpful if you have two children taking lesson. Getting them their own materials (not having to share) can go a long way to encouraging children to take ownership of their practicing and instrument.
- Eliminate Distractions: Make sure you and your child have a quiet place to practice. No TV, no interrupting siblings, no phone calls, no animals, no radio…whatever the source of distraction might be, eliminate it. This may require some cooperation from the rest of the family. Good! When the whole family supports a child in their music lessons the child will be more likely to succeed and see value in putting in the hard work.
While you want to avoid falling into the trap of “the practicing myth”, I am not suggesting that music lessons should be all drudgery either. I think it’s important that if your child does not like practicing that you find an outlet in music that they do enjoy. For me this was my weekly lesson and my school orchestra. For other students it may be time spent alone with their instrument apart from organized study, a chamber group, playing in church, or a music group of peers that get together to jam. Find out what makes your student or child enjoy their instrument and make sure that they are engaging in this activity on a regular basis in addition to their daily practicng. It will keep them motivated, and as they improve they will see the benefits that daily practice has for them!
My previous post on tuning had to do with the importance of teaching students of all ages to tune right from the first lesson. It gave helpful tips and outlined my approach. Check it out here: http://blog.playviolinmusic.com/2013/01/18/the-importance-of-tuning/
In addition to teaching students how to tune in the lesson, students must practice tuning at home each day in order to learn this skill. It’s not worth taking the time in lessons to have the student tune their instrument if they are not going to practice it at home. In order to do this students must have the following:
A pitch to tune to
Some way of checking if they are right or wrong
There are several things that students can tune to:
- A piano
- A metronome pitch
- A pitch generated from another source (computer, phone, etc.)
- A parent’s instrument
Whatever source you prefer, you will want to make sure that the pitch is clear and loud enough for the student to hear over the sound of their instrument. Tuning to a teacher’s instrument in lesson will sound different than tuning to a pitch that is generated some other way because of the timbre change. Help your student find a pitch timbre that is relatively easy for them to tune to. I usually use a metronome generated pitch, but have heard really awful, low quality metronome pitches that you will want to avoid. I would suggest recommending a tuner to the student to purchase of which you approve, rather than just telling the student or parent to go purchase one on their own.
Here are two suggestions:
Korg TM-40 (recently updated to the TM-50)
- Combination metronome/tuner
- Student/parent only needs to purchase one device
- Only the generated pitches A and D are in the correct octaves for the violin (I have students tune G and E to the needle alone)
- Only a tuner
- Student/Parent would need to purchase a metronome separately
- Plays all pitches of violin strings in the correct octave
I always have my students bring their tuner to lessons so I can teach them how I want them to tune using the tuner and to check (weekly or only occasionally, depending on the student) how they are doing.
Teaching the student how to tune at home:
Have the student work the tuner themselves. It is probably much quicker for you to do it if you know how the tuner works, but you need to be sure they understand how to do it correctly when they are at home, so don’t do it for them, especially at the first lesson.
First walk through with the student how to make the metronome play the desired pitch. Have them tune to the pitch until they think they are correct. Show the student how to check to see if they are in tune with the needle. If they are sharp or flat have them return to the pitch before adjusting the string. If they tune to the needle it thwarts your purposes of training their ear. The student should go back and forth until they are in tune. Continue until all strings are tuned.
Tip: If a string is REALLY out of tune the student will get confused because the tuner will register the pitch as being sharp, (or flat) when in actuality it’s the opposite. For example; if the student tries to tune their A-sting but the string is so flat the tuner is registering the note as G-sharp the student will not notice this and will see the needle all the way to the right and think they are sharp. Make sure your students (and parents) check what note the tuner is registering before they look to see if they are sharp or flat. This will save much frustration and broken strings!
It may take students awhile to tune their instruments at home when they first start this process. Explain the importance of practicing on an in-tune instrument and encourage both your students and parents that it should take them less and less time as the days and weeks go by.
Good luck to you and your students, I hope this information was helpful. I welcome any questions you might have about my tuning method!
The first lesson with a new student is always the most difficult. The student doesn’t know you and you don’t know the student. You may have an idea of the playing level of the student (complete beginner, school instruction only, intermediate student from a previous teacher, etc.), but this information only gives you limited knowledge. The more new students you have the opportunity to teach the more comfortable you will become with the first lesson experience.
It is my desire to give some practical advice from my own experiences to help you on this journey. This post will not give full explanation on the “hows” of teaching, but just go through the “whats” of teaching the first lesson. For further explanation on my approach, please read the suggested posts on any subject you are interested in learning more about.
The First Lesson With a Complete Beginner
The first lesson with a complete beginner is easier than the first lesson with a student who has already played because both you and the student have the expectation of starting from scratch. Here’s a standard approach that I use:
Set up the Instrument and Tune
I like to get students doing something with the instrument as soon as possible rather than talking a lot. So, I have them put on their shoulder rest (if they have one) and explain that before playing we always need to tune the instrument. If the student does not have a shoulder rest explain why they need one, tell them what to get, and let them borrow one of yours for the lesson.
All levels of students can learn to tune at the first lesson! Some teachers complain that having the student tune their instrument takes too much time out of the lesson, especially if they are young. Tuning is part of playing an instrument and so we need to take lesson time to teach it. It really doesn’t eat up that much lesson time in the end. Read the following blog post to find out several of my approaches to teaching students to tune: http://blog.playviolinmusic.com/2013/01/18/the-importance-of-tuning/
Introduce How to Hold the Instrument and Pluck Open Strings
Once the student’s instrument is in tune they are ready to play! Show the student how to correctly put the instrument up on their shoulder. Do it a few times with them. Then have them do it on their own. Make sure the student can hold the instrument with both their hands at their sides comfortably. While we do not play holding the instrument only with our chin/neck, this helps the student realize that they are not suppose to be supporting the whole weight of the instrument with their left hand (a common mistake) and will help them find a comfortable position for the instrument in relationship to their shoulder blade.
Once this is accomplished have the student hold the body of the instrument with the left hand and show them where to place the thumb of their right hand on the fingerboard to pluck. Show them how to pluck the open strings with their index finger. Name random open strings and have the student pluck these. Focus on getting a nice big round pluck! This will be their first assignment. Instead of having someone name open strings (if they aren’t practicing with a parent) have them write the open strings out each day in a random order and pluck through them.
Introduce the Bow Hold
The bow hold is often the most difficult thing for a student to do the first lesson. Be patient. Help them set up their fingers properly. Go over it as many times as needed. Do not do anything else with the bow except the following; Show them how to hold it properly, have them demonstrate it for you making sure they know what to work on, then move on. You will want to make sure they have a good command of the bow hold before allowing them to play with the bow. This may take 2 weeks or 6+ months. Check out my post on teaching the bow hold for further explanation and some exercises that I use to help students gain proper control of the bow. http://blog.playviolinmusic.com/2013/01/25/teaching-the-bow-hold/
Introduce Rhythm and Reading Open String Notes
For young children I introduce these skills separately. I use homemade rhythm and note cards that I place on the floor.
Introducing Rhythm: I teach them what the notes are called and how to count them. We tap a steady beat on the floor and say the rhythms together, rearranging the cards to make different rhythmic patterns. I have several sets of these cards that I give the children to take home and practice with their parents.
Introducing Notes: I introduce how to read open string notes on the staff a similar way. I teach the child the name of each open-string note and how to identify it on the staff. I give them a set of alphabet cards that correspond to the open strings. I lay the note cards out on the floor and have them place the corresponding letter card under the note card. We mix it up and do it until the child seems comfortable with the exercise.
Hint:Note cards do not need to be extra large. Use a normal size staff and note head so that the student gets used to how the notes will actually look.
For older children or adults I introduce these concepts together. I have two songs that use open strings exclusively and use quarter note, 8th note and 16th note rhythms. They are simple and can be used for older children or adults as well as younger students when they have mastered the aforementioned exercises. I explain the the time signature and show the student how to count the rhythm. We count the rhythm out loud. I explain the four open string notes and where they are located on the staff. Then we put these two ideas together by saying the note names in rhythm. If they can do that we pluck the notes in rhythm.
If you are interested in the repertoire that I have developed for use with beginning students please contact me. I am in the process of making a book that will be available for teachers and students and would love to add you to my list!
This is probably all you will have time for at the first lesson, and you may not even get through all of it. That’s OK. Take as much time as you need to make sure the student feels comfortable with the material and understand what and how they need to practice at home during the week.
The First Lesson with Students who Already Play
The first lesson with a student who already knows how to play will be very different from a first lesson with a complete beginner. Students who already know how to play generally fall into three categories:
Students who have had only in-school instruction
Students who are coming from another private teacher
Students who have been self taught
Here is an idea of what to expect from each student:
Students who have had only in school instruction.
Expect a knowledge of how to play on the A and D strings and maybe the E string. Students may or may not understand the difference between sharp notes and natural notes. Students will most likely have bad technique in the right and/or left hands that need to be addressed. Students will most likely know one or two scales and some short songs. They should have a basic understanding of how to read notes on a staff, but may have only memorized specific notes. They should know basic rhythms in common time.
Students who are coming from another private teacher.
Expect a large fluctuation of what a student knows and what they don’t know. Students may or may not have good technique. They have most likely been told good things, but may or may not have applied them. If you notice technique problems or gaps in their learning ask what their previous teacher has told them about that particular item. This will give you good insight into what the student has been taught or not taught and how to proceed.
Students who have been self taught.
Expect major technique problems and bad habits. Students who try to teach themselves usually have a previous experience with music and/or an instrument, so their understanding of music is probably above their technical ability. Self-taught students are more likely to play by ear. They may know how to read music, but usually have a poor idea of where the notes are on the violin and the relationship of whole steps and half steps and how these work in the hand and on the fingerboard.
These are general principles of my experience with these three groups of students. I have had exceptions to what I have laid out here, so don’t think that this applies to all students. Sometimes you may be pleasantly surprised by a student who exceeds your expectations or dismayed by a student who has more problems than you expected. Whatever the case may be, here are some guidelines for approaching the first lesson with a student who already knows how to play.
First, hear them play.
Ask them what scales and arpeggios they know. Ask them to demonstrate. Have them play some repertoire that they have been working on. If they are school students this can even be the violin part to an orchestra piece. It doesn’t matter what they play. The purpose of having them play is to get an idea of where they are currently at in their repertoire and technique.
Assess What You Heard and Saw
When assessing a new student’s playing I always try to say something positive and mention what they are doing well before telling them what needs to be worked on. Sometimes there are many things that need to be worked on. As the teacher it’s easy to become overwhelmed and not know where to start if you see a lot of problems. Pick out one or two things that will make the biggest difference in the student’s playing. This will give the lesson structure. If you try to address a bunch of things shot-gun style the lesson will seem random and may make you look like you aren’t a very good teacher.
Choose One or Two Things to Work On
I try to choose the most detrimental things to focus on in the lesson first. I may mention several items and then say, let’s start by working on ____________. Explain what they did, and how what you want is different, and why it’s important to make the change. Give them an assignment and show them how you want them to work on addressing that issue in their practice for the week. You may not get to address everything they have played for you. That’s OK. Sometimes I assign very little in the first lesson, taking the majority of the time to work with the student on one technique. I may hear them play scales, an etude and some rep. and spend the rest of the lesson working on the scale and only assign this for the student to practice over the next week.
It’s easy for a new student to feel overwhelmed by a new teacher, so making the first assignment(s) small and manageable will help alleviate this potential problem. It also gives you a chance to get to know the student better and see how they respond to your instruction as well as how quickly they pick-up on things and assimilate changes into their playing. It also gives the student a good idea of what you expect them to be doing on their own over the next week. Most students will not know how you want them to practice, so taking the extra time to guide them through this process thoroughly is pertinent. You can get into a more “normal” mode of assignments over the next few weeks as the student gets used to your teaching style, and how you want them to practice.
Learn About Your New Student
At the first lesson I often ask a new student several questions. I try to get an understanding of what they have been taught, how they have been taught, how they practice and how they approach music learning in general. Asking questions gives you good insight into your new student and how to best teach them as well as what repertoire would be best to assign to them. However, be careful not to bombard them with questions. An appropriate number of questions make the student feel like you care about them as an individual and gives parents a sense that you see their child as unique, not just another student to put through the ropes of learning the violin or viola. Each student we encounter has different needs, abilities and goals. It’s our job as teachers to determine what these are and teach with them in mind.
I hope this post has given you some new ideas and made you feel more prepared and confident as you approach first lessons with new students. Please let me know how your lessons go and what you found most helpful!
There is more to holding the bow than simply putting one’s fingers in the correct orientation on the stick. The balance of the bow hold needs to be correct in order for a student to use their bow properly and efficiently. This will take years to perfect, but it can be helped by stressing the importance of finger balance before a student ever puts the bow to the strings. Below I will outline my approach to hopefully help you and your students achieve a more successful bow hold from the beginning.
Step 1 – Orient the fingers and hand to a correct bow hold.
If you’re teaching, hopefully you know what a correct bow hold looks like, so I won’t go over it in great detail. Some things you will want to stress to your students:
- all fingers are curved
- pinky sits on its tip with both joints curved
- thumb is next to frog, on stick
- thumb knuckle is bent and below the hair, pressing into it
- middle fingers are over the frog (first joints of middle fingers should not be holding the stick)
- index rests on the grip, it does not grip the bow
- top of hand and knuckles are flat
- there is a space between the index and thumb where a finger could fit. If the student crunches your finger between their index and thumb they are not holding the bow correctly
I usually have students set their bow hands up while holding the bow in their left hands with the bow parallel to the floor. Stress the importance of balance in the fingers and hand. We call it a “bow grip” but we should never be “gripping” the bow. When they have it set up properly I instruct them to let go with their left hand – the bow hand and fingers should stay in place.
Setting up the bow hand requires much interaction with you, the teacher. You must mold the student’s hand to the bow, placing their fingers in the correct spot and orientation. You may have to do this for several weeks before the student can do it themselves.
Tip for Young Students:
Young students are often taught to hold the bow with their thumb on the bottom of the frog. While this may be easier for students, I do not teach this way. As a young child who was taught this method I found it very irritating and difficult when I then had to make the switch to holding the bow properly. I don’t want my students to have to go through this frustration. Young children are able to hold the bow properly from the start, and I believe it does more harm than good to do otherwise. It may take them longer at the outset to learn how to hold the bow, but there is plenty to study to fill lesson and practicing time, so take the time to teach the bow hold properly!
Step 2 – Understanding balance in the fingers and hand
Once a student can hold the bow correctly you will want to make sure they are balancing the bow in their hand and fingers. Sometimes it’s hard to tell from just looking at the hand, or if you can see that it’s not balanced, it’s sometimes difficult to get the student to relax properly without dropping the bow, so I give the student some exercises to help foster correct balance. These exercises consist of wiggling certain fingers in 3 positions. Each position corresponds to how our fingers and hand are used in a particular part of the bow.
In this position the bow is parallel to the floor. Starting with the index finger have the student take one finger off at a time and wiggle it, replacing it gently. All other fingers should stay in place. Reset the hand if it gets messed up and try again. (The thumb will never be wiggled in these exercises). The student should be able to wiggle all their fingers up to the pinky. When they get to the pinky they will either be unable to take the pinky off, they will have to grip the bow un-naturally with another finger, or they will have to change the bow hand completely in order to lift the pinky. This is because the weight of the bow in position 1 is being help by the pinky. The other fingers are just “helper” fingers, but they are not supporting any weight.
Try this exercise out for yourself and you’ll see what I mean. You should be able to relax your hand and feel the weight of the bow in your pinky.
Position 1 corresponds to how we use our hand and fingers when we are playing close to the frog. Because the strings hold up some of the weight of the bow the bow will not feel quite as heavy when actually playing as during this exercise. Place your bow on the G-string as close to the frog as possible and relax your hand. You should feel the weight in the pinky as gravity pulls the tip down.
In this position you will have the student rotate the bow so that the tip is pointing toward the ceiling and the bow is perpendicular to the floor. The weight in the hand will shift off the pinky and should be evenly dispersed across all 4 fingers. This means that we can wiggle each of our 4 fingers (the index will be the most difficult). Start with the pinky this time and work your way up to the index.
Position 2 corresponds to how we use our hand and fingers when playing in the middle of the bow.
In this position the bow will be “upside down”. Position 1 had the hair facing the floor. In position 3 the bow will again be parallel to the floor, but with the stick facing the floor. The palm of the hand should be facing toward the ceiling. Ask the student if they can identify which finger is now holding the weight of the bow (hint: it’s the index). Have the student start at the pinky and wiggle their fingers one by one. When they get to the index they will be able to wiggle the tip of the index, but will be unable to lift the index away from the bow.
Position 3 corresponds to how we use our hands and fingers when playing at the tip of the bow.
Now, have the student go backwards through the positions SLOWLY feeling the weight shift in the hand. Do this several times.
Tip for Young Students:
Very young children may not be able to take their fingers off and wiggle them as suggested in the exercises outlined above. They just do not have the dexterity or control yet. That’s OK. Just take them through the different positions asking them to feel the weight shift in the hand and stress the importance of balance in the hand rather than holding or gripping the bow. When very young students master this step I allow them to go on.
Step 3 – Playing With the Bow
Once a student can do the above exercises easily I allow them to play with the bow. It may take a couple of weeks to get to this point, or it may take several months or even a year (for young students). The amount of time does not matter. The most important thing is control. If you allow a student to play when they have not gained correct bow balance in their fingers and hand you will have to address this later on. It’s always more difficult to change a bad habit than to introduce a good habit from the start. It’s also more frustrating for the student to change a bad habit later on than develop a good habit from the start. The student may be happy for a year or two or three, but eventually their bad technique will catch up with them and this is the time many students decide to quit. They may continue to play, but their progress as a violinist can only go as far as their technique will allow it. Save your students the frustration of relearning and make sure you insist on correct technique from the outset. Your students and any teacher they may study with at a later date will thank you!
Note: Addressing Problems
Even if a student learns correct technique from the beginning there is always the possibility for bad habits to creep in. As soon as you introduce a new element of skill, (such as playing with the bow) the former skill (holding the bow with balance and control) has the potential to go out the window. This is normal and to be expected, which is why it is so important that the time is spent to gain good control of the bow hold before introducing how to play with the bow.
If this time is spent usually any issues that arise with the bow hold can be corrected in the midst of learning how to play with the bow as the student figures out what balance in the bow hold feels like as they play with the bow. Sometimes a student may have an abnormally difficult time making the transition to playing with the bow. In these cases it is sometimes necessary to take a step back. Spend more time getting comfortable with the bow hold.
I hope that my approach for teaching the bow hold has given you some new ideas as you seek to give the best instruction you can to your students!
Tuning is the first thing we as musicians do before playing, so we should teach our students to do the same. Many teachers tune their student’s instrument for them, especially younger beginning students. While this may give more time in the lesson to teach other things, I think students are missing out on a very important skill and should be required to tune their own instrument right from the very first lesson. Tuning is part of playing an instrument and so we need to take lesson time to teach it. It really doesn’t eat up that much lesson time in the end.
All levels of students can learn to tune at the first lesson! Here are some reasons why it is important to teach this skill from the start:
- Students get in the habit of tuning before playing
- Students learn how their instrument works
- Students begin ear training
- Students learn to take responsibility for all aspects of playing
- Students begin understanding the concepts of sharp and flat
These are just a few of the important reasons students should tune their own instruments. You may have more to add to the list!
This post will primarily address tuning in the lesson. You will also need to teach the student how to tune at home when you are not around. Please check out my following post specifically addressing this issue: http://blog.playviolinmusic.com/2013/02/05/tuning-at-home/
Now, let’s talk about tuning in the lesson and approach it from the aspect of addressing the different levels of students that you will encounter.
Beginning students may be young children, teens or adults. You can start them out tuning basically the same way. I usually have younger students sit on the floor and hold the violin in their lap, while I have older students tune standing up.
I show the student the A-string on my violin and have them find their A-string. I pluck my A-string and ask them to pluck their A-string. Then I ask the student to identify if their A-string sounds higher or lower than mine. Go back and forth a few times if the student seems to have trouble hearing if their string is too high or too low. Once we determine if the string is high or low I show them how to adjust the string using their fine tuner. Do this for all four strings.
This a great thing to do for the beginning student because in this one exercise they are learning all five points listed above. They get to touch and play on their instrument right in the first few minutes of the lesson, which is really what they came to do. They will have to learn all the correct technique of holding the instrument and bow, but they don’t need any of that in order to tune!
For students who seem to have great difficulty tuning and take an enormous amount of time tuning just one string, don’t have them do all four strings in the lesson. By just tuning one string they are still practicing all five points above. As they get more proficient at tuning you can have them tune more strings. Tuning is not an all or nothing thing. Tuning one string is teaching them much more than tuning zero strings and it is well worth the 5 min. of lesson time.
If the pegs need to be used I usually do this for the student, but talk them through what I am doing so they can begin to understand. If the student is old enough, I have them try it the next time. It is also good to teach parents how and when to use the pegs of their child’s instrument so that you can be sure the student is able to play on an in-tune instrument at home if the fine tuners get screwed all the way in (or out) in between lessons.
The Intermediate Student
Once a student knows how to play with the bow and can play long bows easily, staying consistently on one string, they are ready to tune with the bow. I approach this aspect of tuning much in the same was as I approach tuning with the beginner student. If the student is able, I have them play their string at the same time I play my string and have them bring their left hand around to turn the fine tuner while they bow. If the student is unable to do this, go back and forth like you did when plucking the strings and have them identify if the string is too high or too low. You can gradually work up to having them bow at the same time they turn the fine tuner.
The intermediate student is also definitely ready to use their pegs if they have not already been taught this skill. Always demonstrate and talk through with a student how and when to use their pegs before allowing them to try it. You will avoid many broken strings this way! I always have students learn how to use their pegs by resting the instrument on their leg and plucking with one hand while turning the peg with the other. When the student is comfortable doing this you can have them try it up on their shoulder.
The Advanced Student
When a student can easily tune their individual strings to your individual strings they are ready to learn how to tune all their strings from their A-string. By the time a student is advanced they should be pretty comfortable using both their fine tuners and their pegs and be able to do both with the instrument up on their shoulder.
By this time the student should also have encountered double stops in the music and have trained their ear to hear when the double stops are in tune and when they are not. Tuning the perfect 5ths of the open strings is very similar and a good way to introduce what the student should be listening for.
Have the student tune their A-string and then demonstrate on your own instrument how to tune the D to the A. Ask the student to listen and see if they can identify when the strings are out of tune and when the strings are in tune. Tell the student to listen for the strings to produce a 3rd pitch, or overtone which lets them know the strings are in tune. Once they know what they are listening for by hearing you do it, have them try it for themselves on their instrument and see if they can hear when the strings come into tune.
If the student picks up on this quickly, great!, move onto the other strings. If they have trouble, that’s OK. Remind them that this is a new skill. Work on it for about 5 or 10 min. and then move on. Have the student practice tuning at home, but allow them to tune their instrument the “old way” to check to make sure they are playing on an in-tune instrument. You should see progress week to week on the student’s ability to hear. Don’t rush the student to tune. Sometimes it takes awhile for the student to tune this way, especially at first. What seems obviously in or out of tune to us is not obvious to them. If you try and rush them they will start to feel pressed for time and this will hamper their ability to correctly identify what they are hearing. This is the last thing we want to do! So sit back, relax and give them space. Don’t jump in and tell them if it’s too high or too low, have them figure it out for themselves.
If a student knows they can’t rely on you to tell them what direction to go it will force them to listen more closely and they will begin to feel more confident about relying on their own ear. I have encountered many students who have a good ear and can tune, but don’t think that they can. They have been relying on a teacher to “hear for them” and are insecure in their ability to hear. When you force them to do it themselves they blossom under your encouragement that they don’t need you as much as they think they do!
Thanks for reading and good luck tuning with your students!
There are a variety of ways to teach violin vibrato as well as several different types of vibrato. The arm vibrato and the wrist vibrato are the two most common forms of vibrato. I teach an arm vibrato. Some argue that an arm vibrato is not as versatile as a wrist vibrato, but I have seen violinists of all calibers who use it, sometimes exclusively. In my opinion you can get a lovely vibrato using either form as long as you are taught how to use it properly and effectively.
Let’s start out with what a vibrato is NOT:
- A vibrato is not a “wiggling” or “shaking” of the hand, finger, arm or wrist
- A vibrato is not a sliding of the finger on the string between two pitches
- A vibrato is not an uncontrolled spasm of the hand
- A vibrato is not created by tensing the muscles of the arm, hand or wrist
Learning the arm vibrato starts with an understanding of how the finger, hand, wrist and arm work in tandem to create the vibrato. I usually teach students vibrato shortly after they learn 3rd position for two reasons:
1) By this point they should have a good understanding of the basics and be ready to add a new technical element into their playing.
2) The hand in 3rd position hits up against the body of the instrument, creating a natural starting and ending point to each oscillation of the hand.
Have your student start with their 1st finger on the D on the A-string. Their wrist and thumb should be straight and the edge of their hand should be resting against the body of the instrument. All fingers should be curved over the fingerboard.
Beginning with the arm the student slowly moves the arm back, the wrist stays straight and the hand follows requiring both joints on the finger to open (the finger elongates). The side of the index finger slides along the edge of the fingerboard. If done properly there should be a ½ step change in pitch (D to Db). This is created by the fact that the finger is actually “laying back” on the string. Both joints should open, but neither should collapse. The student should then bring the arm, hand and finger back to the starting position, keeping the wrist straight.
Note: A proper vibrato goes below the pitch only, not above it. You start and end on the “in tune” pitch.
The student should hone this skill until they can do it comfortably keeping their hand position correct. Make sure that the student’s fingers (all of them) are relaxed.
The next step is to do several oscillations in a row at this slow tempo. The bow changes as needed.
Once a student can do this step confidently you will add a metronome to the exercise. Put the metronome on a tempo where they can move their hand forward and back (D to Db), each on a click, keeping the hand movement correct.
Speed this up as the student masters the tempo. Think in rhythms. Have the student do quarter note oscillations (D, Db, D, Db), then 8th note, then triplet 8ths, then 16th notes, etc. Feel free to change the metronome speed as needed to accommodate the student. Perhaps the metronome is on 60 for the quarter note oscillations, but on 50 for the 8th note oscillations. That’s fine. The objective is to incrementally increase the tempo at a rate that the student can keep their hand position correct. Soon they will be at a tempo that could be considered a “working vibrato”.
At this point you can tweak and hone the vibrato so the two pitches are not so clearly distinct. This will create the warmth that we are looking for in vibrato.
This process takes a different amount of time for each student. Some students learn it in a matter of weeks, some take a year or more. Remember that it’s not how fast the student learns the technique that’s important, but how accurately they learn the technique. You can also use this technique for students that already know vibrato, but have been taught in such a way that they only have one speed of vibrato. This technique teaches students how to control their vibrato at every level.
With the introduction of the Suzuki method in the United States came an increase awareness and division between those who learn music by ear and those who learn by reading music. For those unfamiliar with the Suzuki method please read my following post outlining its basic tenants, history and success in the US: http://blog.playviolinmusic.com/2011/01/17/experiencing-the-suzuki-method/.
Since this time many debates have ensued about whether students should be taught to read music first, or whether they should learn by ear first and learn to read music later. If you read my aforementioned post on the Suzuki method you will know I am not an advocate of the method as it has been employed in the US. I believe in teaching students how to read music from the first lesson. However, this does not mean that I think students should not also be taught how to play by ear. I think that it is important for students to acquire both skills.
Proponents of teaching students to play by ear usually quote from Suzuki who promoted the idea that young children should learn music just as they learn language. He postured that since children learn to speak before learning to read, music should also be approached from this same premise. There is truth to this idea, however the problem comes in its implementation.
When do we expose children to speech on a regular basis and when do children start imitating speech? They are exposed to speech from the womb and begin imitating what they hear before they can even walk. Children begin to speak words and form sentences far before the age of 2. When do children normally start music lessons? Age 5, 8, or 10? If we are going to teach children music the same way they learn speech, the time for learning by ear needs to come far earlier than when most students begin musical instruction. Many Japanese students of Suzuki did follow this musical training model. Music was a family affair which included daily classical music listening and practice. Babies born into these families demonstrated recognition of music that had been played for them while they were still in the womb. Their musical training had already begun.
Most students in the US will not have this experience, and that’s OK. Children can still learn music and an instrument and become well trained musicians. In order for this to happen both ear training and music reading must be part of a student’s lesson experience. I start with music reading so that students can begin to make the connection between what they see on the page and what they are playing on their instrument. If students do not have this training they are more likely to have trouble making this connection later one.
Students are also encouraged to listen carefully to what they are playing. String instruments require students to acquire a very good ear if they are to play their instrument well. This type of ear training should occur from the very first lesson. As a student progresses and gains a good understanding and functionality on their instrument I introduce how to play by ear. This will happen at different stages for each student. Just as we start teaching children the foundation of reading words by teaching them their letters as soon as they are able, so should we introduce students to the foundations of music reading as soon as they are able to comprehend it. As we combine this with the training of their ear they will be more complete and competent musicians at every level.