“Please Stop Telling Me I’m Talented”

Posted on 13th July 2017

 

What is Talent?

If you are skilled in one area or another you’ve probably had people tell you you’re so talented! This idea certainly gets thrown about in the world of music frequently, but I believe it is often given more credit than it is due.

By definition, talent is the natural aptitude or skill someone has in a certain area. It is not the end result of what we see when we go to hear a performer or watch a sports star. Talent is not an all or nothing thing. What talent we have is on a sliding scale; some have more and some have less and very few people have zero talent in an area.

What We Mean

To say “you’re so talented” is generally meant to portray the idea that someone admires or appreciates what we do. It can also carry with it the idea that the person saying it wishes they could do it too, and/or that they think we are above average at something “. It’s meant as a compliment. However, saying “your so talented” really isn’t complimenting us at all. If talent is just our natural ability at something then we haven’t done anything to “get it”. So, what is actually being said is that all our ability can be attributed to the natural talent we were given at birth.

More Than Talent

I think we do a disservice to performers who have reached a high level of expertise by boiling a compliment down to “their talent”.  As a performer I know that I have worked very hard to hone and build on my natural abilities. It’s as if the hours upon hours of work over years of playing doesn’t count, or that it’s less important than “our talent”.

I think it’s important that talent not be given credit for the totality of a person’s ability in a certain area. Yes, it’s a factor, but it’s only the starting point. What an audience member is hearing and seeing is a mixture of that person’s natural talent PLUS the work they have put in to achieve the current result.

Usually reaching an extremely high level of expertise means someone has much natural talent and has also put in a lot of time and effort. However, it can also be true that someone can reach a high level of performance with average talent or even below average talent simply because they have put in a lot of effort and a lot of time in order to master a skill. We can also see extremely naturally gifted individuals who do not have to work very hard to achieve a high level of performance. Conversely, there are “talented” people who have never realized their skills in an area because they haven’t worked to hone their abilities.

The Message

Let’s consider what message are we sending to people (especially children) when we compliment talent. We’re saying that if you can do something well it’s purely a gift, which means that if you can’t do something well there’s not much point in working hard at it because you just “aren’t talented” in that area. If we were to also verbalized the element of hard work over time I think we would be giving more accurate compliments and sending a better message; a message that says “if you work hard you too can achieve great things!, and “I recognize all the time and effort you have put in to hone your craft!”

Application – Don’t Let Talent Define the End Result

As a teacher I can tell when a student has average, above average or below average ability learning the violin or viola. It’s OK to notice this, and it’s OK to let a parent or student know this (when the appropriate context arises). What I’m careful not to do though is suggest that a student’s success will be defined by their level of talent. I have seen so many students struggle to learn an instrument, but stick with it and achieve a higher level of skill than those with much more natural talent than them. These students often have a greater enjoyment and sense of pride in their achievements because they have had to work so hard to get where they are

At the same time, when a student is having an extremely difficult time and doesn’t seem to have a natural aptitude for the violin or viola I do not fault them for deciding to quit and try a different instrument. I believe music is for everyone and I believe everyone can enjoy and be successful at it. Because of this, I think one of our jobs as professionals is to help students fine the instrument that is best for them. If that’s violin or viola, great! I don’t care how talented you are I just ask that you give me 100% of what you’ve got. If violin or viola is not for you, that’s fine too. I just hope that you find the instrument that you are willing to give that 100% to so that you can find success and enjoyment in music too!

Why a student may lose their love for music…

Posted on 7th July 2017

I recently came across this post that outlines a parent’s regret at enrolling their son in violin lessons. After seeing an innate love for music and interest in playing the violin they began lessons.  After several years this student became disinterested in music and didn’t even want to play around with the instrument anymore. The mother says:

Anyway, here we are several years later. He won’t play piano or violin and he doesn’t even like to listen to music. It breaks my heart.

 

He just wanted to hold and pretend to play the violin because he loved it. We killed that love by forcing him to do it the “right” way.

 

She goes on to ask advice on how to “fix” this problem. You can read the response in the post itself, which focuses on energy and organic motivation. Perhaps the answer to why this particular students lost their love for music lies within these things.

However, I was struck by parent’s assertion that doing it the “right way” was the cause of the student’s change of heart. This particular assertion was not addressed in the post and I believe it’s an important point to consider.

 

We read that this student took lessons for several years. Therefore this is not a case of unrealistic expectations that quickly lead to a lack of enthusiasm from a beginning student. You can read about this idea in my post How Expectations Contribute to Student Success.

This child, after several years of lessons, should have had a good foundation. They should have been playing enjoyable repertoire. They should have been able to play in a youth orchestra or school string group. A child doesn’t take lessons for several years and then all of a sudden dislike music because of “doing it the right way”. There’s more going on here.

Let’s consider some other possibilities.

Here are some other  reasons that formal lessons may contribute to student disengagement:

  • The teacher/student relationship isn’t a good fit
  • A student develops unevenly in some areas, causing them to experience frustration in learning
  • Parents have unrealistic expectations about progress that they foist upon their children
  • The teacher doesn’t teach the student as an individual (expects them to fit a mold)
  • The student doesn’t have any musical activities outside of lessons to enjoy and play with peers
  • Parents and/or teachers create an environment that is not conducive to non-judgmental learning
  • There’s a belief that music is all about having fun; an unrealistic expectation for learning that can breed frustration and apathy in students when they encounter something that’s hard for them
  • Practicing is approached in a way that is ineffective

These are just a few reasons that formal lessons can lead to student discouragement. We can’t control everything as teachers and parents, but I think it’s important not to jump to the conclusion that doing things correctly causes students not to love music. There are so many other factors and contributors to student enjoyment.

In fact, I would argue that doing things the right way increases the chances a student will love music for a lifetime.

 

I’ve written about this in several of my other posts. The general concept being that when students are given the tools to read and interpret music themselves, and are taught the skills to physically execute what they see on the page, they experience success. Success is a natural internal motivator that produces intrinsic desire to continue on that path. When a student is not given the tools they need to be successful they will eventually hit a learning wall. They will not be able to do what they want to do with music. This frustration acts upon the student to diminish intrinsic desire and usually results in the student wanting to quit.

I would argue that it was probably not “doing things the right way” that was the problem, but rather that it was the way in which teaching the right way was executed that negatively affected this child. I believe doing things the right way is necessary for the greatest musical enjoyment, but when this end goal is gone about in a way that does not gel well with a student it can seem like the student would have been better off not being required to follow so many rules.

So, let’s consider what would have happened if this particular student hadn’t been enrolled in lessons.

 

What if they were just allowed to “play around” on the violin? Would they have been better off as this parent implies? Would they have been able to play? Would they have gained a lifelong skill and passion for music? Would years later they still be enjoying the piano or violin?

I would argue, probably not.

It’s fine for young children to play around and have fun with music, even beneficial for them to do so, but at some point formal lessons and doing things “the right way” is necessary. Allowing children to do things the incorrect way doesn’t provide the skills needed to participate in the musical activities that make music fun. It can also make injuries more likely, and breed frustration as bad habits rob the child of progress.

If you’ve been a music professional or active amateur for any length of time you’ve probably heard many people lament the fact that they were allowed to quit or that they didn’t achieve a certain level of ability on an instrument.  I frequently hear stories like these. Conversely, it’s usually the students who were required to practice, who were taught the correct way to do things and who had parents who understood that music learning may not always be “fun”, that are the ones who are successful professionals and active amateur players.

There are of course exceptions to this, but I have found this to be the case most of the time.

Most children intrinsically love music and want to participate and play around with it, but without formal instruction this activity usually diminishes as they get older and school and activities compete for their time and attention.

I would argue that this student would be no farther along in their musical studies had they been allowed to just play around with music, especially the violin.

 

Many more students can achieve success and enjoyment from piano without much formal instruction. They may not have the skills to be in any professional role, but they can learn to bang out pop songs or play sacred music out of a hymnal for their own enjoyment. In contrast, in over a decade of teaching experience I have yet to know anyone who self-taught themselves the violin and plays anything that would be at all pleasant to hear.

In conclusion, my plea to teachers and parents would be this: do not blame “doing it the right way” as the reason a student or child does not love music or does not want to continue lessons. As teachers it is our job to teach students the right way; this is the way to success.  And as parents it is in our best interest to find teachers that will do this for our children in a way that inspires and equips them to pursue their musical dreams.

 

Want to learn more about how to create and attract the quality students you desire to teach? Download my FREE Studio Growth Guide: http://howtoteachviolin.com/m/create-your-ideal-studio-for-free

 

How Expectations Contribute to Student Success

Posted on 14th July 2016

THE SITUATION:

I think we can safely say that if you have a young student who begins lessons kicking and screaming (either literally or figuratively) because they don’t want to be there the chance for success is low. This of course has nothing to do with ability or aptitude. If a student expects they aren’t going to like something and fights it to this degree it’s not likely they will submit themselves enough to the process to find out any differently.

However, what about the young student who comes eager to learn? What about the child who has begged their parent for lessons for months or years and is finally getting a chance to fulfill that desire? How does this student’s expectations contribute to their likelihood of success? Is it greater, less than or equal to a child who may not be opposed to lessons, but has maybe not expressed any great desire and who is enrolling because their parents think it is a good idea to learn an instrument?

Initially we might be tempted to say that the child who is overly enthusiastic about beginning lessons is probably going to stick with it and have a greater success rate than the one who is ambivalent.

I used to think this as well.

However, it came to my attention most recently (and has been confirmed in numerous occasions over the years) that in fact the enthusiastic student may be more at risk for quitting, and quitting fairly soon after starting lessons.

 

This seems counter intuitive.

THE PROBLEM:

In my experience, student enthusiasm is usually fueled by seeing someone playing the violin on TV. Maybe the child enjoys watching Lindsey Stirling or perhaps a guest artist introduced the violin on a children’s program. Whatever the spark that ignited their desire I believe the child develops an alluring picture of creating beautiful music with ease. Maybe they start pretending they are playing, maybe even going so far as to create a violin out of a box or use a toy violin, dancing around the house and singing to themselves where they are transported to the world they create in their head.

Any parent or even an outside observer would say “this child seems to have a natural desire for music/the violin!” and if that child started asking for lessons, it would seem perfectly reasonable to assume the child would enjoy and succeed given the right instruction. As a teacher I also think it is natural to think “I would LOVE to teach that student! What a joy to have such an enthusiastic pupil!”

Given a competent, warm and encouraging teacher why would such a student not succeed? Why would an energetic smiling student be turned to tears within a few short lessons? I have considered the question, and I believe the answer is often that:

The reality of learning an instrument (especially one that offers little immediate gratification like the violin) is so far from the ideal that the child has built up in their minds that they cannot reconcile the difference and collapse under the disappointment.

 

I asked one such student struggling with a new task why she was crying, and through her tears she put it very eloquently when she turned to her Mom and said sobbingly, “I’m just not having any fun right now!!”.

 

Many students, in fact I would say probably ALL students, at one time or another in their journey of learning an instrument have not had fun, and have experienced frustration at not being able to live up to the expectations in their mind and (like me) have probably cried tears of disappointment in their lessons. However, I believe the student who has unrealistic expectations from the start is more at risk for quitting when faced with the harsh reality of the work it takes to learn the violin than the student who does not have strong feelings, or has more realistic expectations to check their strong desires.

A SOLUTION:

That said, if these enthusiastic students can learn to reconcile hard work with their dreams I believe they CAN find success and enjoyment. Given the right environment they can even perhaps make their fantasy become reality when they become willing to put in the 10 or 20 years it takes to reach the level of perfection their TV heroes demonstrate.

 

My advice to teachers who find themselves with a student in this situation is to:

 

1) Be frank.

Be frank with both the parent and the student about the hard work required to play well (and if applicable about how you feel the child may have expectations to the contrary). Also be real about the great joy and fulfillment that comes with a job well done. Learning an instrument is not an immediate gratification pursuit, much like many of the things a child will experience in life. What a great opportunity to teach this life lesson!

2) Speak to the parent one-on-one.

If you’ve only worked with a child a short time there may be (and probably is) a whole lot you don’t know about them. Do they struggle in school? Do they respond this way in other situations or is this abnormal? What has been done in the past that works? Are there environmental factors like a divorce, an illness, a change in routine, etc. that may be contributing to the emotional response of the child? When you know more you will be able to be more effective.

3) Problem solve with the parent.

Not only will you be able to better address the problem, but you’ll be building a report with the parent. This is essential for a good long-term relationship, and as the saying goes, two heads are always better than one!

4) Be creative in your teaching approach.

This student may need something different than your other students; try and find out what that is. What makes this student tick? How can you capitalize on that? It may be that the student is really smart, but is hesitant to answer because they fear being wrong, or perhaps the student struggles with academics and doesn’t understand (even though you think you’ve explained it clearly) and is afraid to tell you about their confusion.

Every student is different and the silence of one student may be for very different reasons than the silence of another student. Digging deep and being creative in your approach can often lead to surprising discoveries!

5) Keep your high expectations.

It’s easy to acquiesce and let fundamentals slip in order to create a fun environment, or to avoid creating a stressful or emotionally charged encounter. There are different ways to get to the same destination, but the destinations of correct technique, a steady beat, pitch accuracy, etc. are non-negotiables in my book. If you sacrifice proper playing to avoid emotional breakdowns I believe you do a student more of a disservice than a help. Do your best to find out how you can get the student “on your team” and meet their needs, while at the same time making sure the quality of instruction remains intact.

6) Be generous and gentle with yourself.

When you see a kid excited about learning, who falls into despair it’s easy to blame yourself. While you want to make sure you are not contributing to the problem, you are most likely not the cause. Take a step back and realize that this child (even though they are young) has already had many influences in their life. Young children are not blank slates when they come to us, and just like adults, they bring their baggage with them wherever they go. Being objective will help you see what course will be most effective and will help you best to be the best teacher you can be.

You may also enjoy:

The “Hard” Teacher – How High Standards Make Music Fun!

Emily Williams is the creator of Strategic Strings: An Online Course for Violin and Viola Teachers, http://howtoteachviolin.com

Is Your Teaching Business Successful?

Posted on 25th May 2016

I recently ran across this blog post on Facebook: Running a Successful Teaching Business Means Not Losing Students

Go read the article if you want, it’s not long.

If you don’t want to read it, it basically talks about how to organize your lessons so that you can keep up with what each student is doing and provide materials that students and parents can use at home to practice. The author asserts that attention to these values is one of the main reasons he has such a high retention rate in his studio.

I completely agree that it is great to be organized and to provide valuable teaching aids so that parents and students feel competent at continuing their learning process at home. I would also agree with the idea that the more value you provide students, the more likely you will be to attract and keep students. If you could benefit from being more organized or are interested in how to provide more value to students this article might be able to help you out!

What I have a problem with is the title of the article that states that retention rate is what defines a successful teaching business.

When we decide to provide private lessons instruction are we more focused on the business aspect of things or the teaching aspect of things? In some cases what’s best for one will also be best for the other. However, what happens when there is a conflict of interests?

Is retention rate any more important than the following factors?:

  • quality of instruction
  • student achievement (skill level and knowledge of music)
  • number of students who are involved in local music outlets (orchestras, camps, school groups, jam groups, etc.)
  • number of students who stay in music as adults after going through your studio
  • number of students who go on to study music professionally
  • etc.

Now, if your students go out the door as quickly as they come in on a regular basis, that may be cause for concern, but is retention rate the most important factor? Is it even reasonable to expect a large retention rate in the private lesson business?

I would say my retention rate is about 50%. Meaning that 50% of my students have been with me for 2-5+ years, and the rest less than that. I’m pretty happy with that. In fact, I could have a higher retention rate, but choose not to. Why would I do that? Because sometimes retaining a student is not in my best interest, or is not in the student’s best interest.

Reasons I choose to let a student go:

 

1. A student is not practicing

This is the biggest reason I “loose students”. In my studio policies I state that I expect students to practice every day. I suggest that students practice the same amount of time per day, as the length of their weekly lesson. There are many reasons why a student may not be putting in the amount of practice time I require:

  • schedule is too busy
  • family circumstances
  • frustration with their instrument or current rep.
  • unwillingness to practice
  • illness
  • personality clashes with parent (with whom they are practicing)

This is not an exhaustive list, but generally sums up the most common reasons for not practicing that I have encountered with my students.

I do not immediately dismiss a student who is not practicing. It is usually easier to retain a student you have than find a new one, and once I have invested in a student I have a great desire to see that student succeed, so it’s in my best interest to try and resolve any practicing issues that arise. Unfortunately it is not always possible to do this. That leaves me with two choices; continue to teach a student who is not meeting my practicing requirements, or dismiss the student.

Depending on the problem and what I learn from the parent and the student in attempting to resolve the issue will determine which step I take.

Rarely do I actually have to kick a student out of my studio. If after attempting to resolve the issue an amenable solution cannot be found, the student (and/or parent) usually chooses to drop lessons or take a break in order to respect my policies. I greatly appreciate this! Retention in a case like this is usually not in my best interest, or the student’s best interest. Students leave under good terms, and if circumstances change they know they are always welcome back at a later date!

Many teachers choose to maintain students regardless of their practicing schedule. Some teachers feel that even if a student is only coming for a weekly lesson that the musical benefit they gain is worth their time and investment.

This is a choice you will have to make for yourself. Neither choice is right or wrong, but if  you choose to have a lower retention rate because you have a higher practicing expectation from students I don’t think it means you are any less successful!

2. A student decides they don’t like the violin/viola

Learning the violin or viola is not right for every student (or parent). I highly recommend students take lessons on a trial basis before committing long term, especially if they are young and require a parent to practice with them. Having that “check-in” time to evaluate together how things are going allows teacher, student and parent to address problem areas, which gives more chance for student success and increases retention rate.

While it would greatly please me to have every student I start on violin or viola love it as much as I do, that expectation is unrealistic. Maybe piano, flute or trumpet is a better fit for some students. As a teacher I think it’s part of my job to help students discover if strings are right for them. If not, the best thing I could do for a student is point them in a direction that will give them more fulfillment and success!

With young students it’s usually the parent who determines the success of the child. Parents often underestimate the work and effort violin or viola lessons requires. Sometimes the violin or viola might not be the right choice because it does not fit into the family schedule.

Having taught both beginning piano and beginning strings I can say that piano studios will most likely have a higher retention rate than string studios. The piano is much easier to teach and to learn at the beginning levels, so naturally the retention rate will be higher among piano students than string students. When considering retention rate and relating that to success I think it’s important to take into consideration the demands of each particular instrument.

Whether it’s the parent who decides lessons are too much work, or the student who decides they don’t want to take a particular instrument, it’s hard to lose a student you have invested in, even if only for a short time, but sometimes that’s the right decision.

3. A student doesn’t have the time to commit to a weekly lesson

Sometimes a student may want to practice and attend lessons, but difficulty in school, a challenging home situation, financial constraints, personal illness, care taking for children/parents, a move, etc. may prohibit effective study temporarily or permanently.

For students who have been with me for awhile I will often make exceptions to my general rule that students attend weekly lessons. I may offer for a student to come every-other week for a time, or even once a month (depending on the situation and the student). Again, it’s to everyone’s benefit for me to work to keep a hard working student who’s going through a difficult challenge.

However, sometimes things become too complicated. Lessons may become too sporadic to be of benefit. Or maybe progress is not occurring because while the student has time to practice, their mind is elsewhere and they can’t make their practice time effective for a season. Sometimes retaining the student in these circumstances is not the best choice. In order to avoid bad habits taking root it may be better to put the instrument down for a time, give full attention to whatever challenge is in the student’s life, and then the student can come back refreshed and available to learn!

4. Conflict with parent/student

Very rarely do I have conflict with parents or students, but let’s be honest, it sometimes does occur. It’s unpleasant, but sometimes unavoidable. Personality differences, expectation differences, and other factors can cause relational conflict. For me the cause of these types of situations usually falls within one of the following categories:

  • parent/student is unwilling to comply with studio polices
  • parent expects you to alter your policies for their “emergencies”
  • parent disagrees with the expectations you have for their child (either behaviorally or educationally)
  • parent dislikes how you handled a situation and gets angry

Generally I think it’s best to terminate lessons if there is significant conflict that cannot be resolved. If you find yourself dreading a certain lesson every week because of interpersonal issues, or if you’re stressed out dealing with a difficult parent/student or worrying about what big blow-up is going to come your way next, it may be in the best interest of your health and sanity to terminate lessons. Sometimes we may try to “stick it out” for the sake of a talented, hard working or pleasant student. There’s nothing wrong with trying to make things work – but we should also we willing to admit when it’s hurting ourselves to do so.

5. A student could benefit more from another teacher

In the String Methods Class I teach at Mississippi College I teach about the three different general categories of teacher:

  • the method teacher
  • the creative pedagogue
  • the coach

One of these is not better than another, and sometimes a teacher may fall into more than one of these categories.

Definitionally speaking the method teacher is the instructor who teaches by the book. Suzuki trained teachers are probably the best example of this type of teacher, but there are other methods by which teachers teach and even traditional teachers can be “method teachers”. The method teacher has a methodical approach to lessons with a common thread that goes through how they approach each student and move students through the different levels of study.  The method teacher is usually most effective in teaching beginning students.

The creative pedagogue generally caters lessons toward each student, relying on some methods, but also being flexible with how those methods are used in lessons. Creative pedagogues often come up with their own repertoire to fit the needs of their students, develop new ways of teaching and generally approach teaching by pulling from their vast pedagogical sources and applying what would be most effective in any given situation. Creative pedagogues are usually most effective teachers for intermediate students, or beginning students who find the method teacher to employ too strict a box.

The coach is the teacher who teaches by example. They often teach with few words and prefer to rely on demonstration of skills to instruct their pupils. The coach does not teach by rote (that is a method of learning a piece of music), rather the “copy” aspect of the coach focuses on technique and musicality. You will usually find coach teachers employed in university and colleges because their teaching style generally works best with advanced students.

When discussing the retention of students, we have to address what type of teacher a student needs at any given time. Retention therefore needs to be discussed within the framework of a teacher’s ability. Knowing what type of teacher you are is essential in giving your students the best instruction. I have yet to meet a teacher who excels in all three categories. Most often a teacher will fall into one or two, therefore it is imperative we know when to move a student on to a different style of teacher.

If you are a solid method teacher, you might have a higher turn-over rate in your studio than a teacher who is both a method teacher and a creative pedagogue simply because your expertise is more narrow. This does not make you a less successful teacher. In fact, I would say that the teacher who knows their teaching strengths as well as their weaknesses and moves students through their studio accordingly is running a more successful studio than the teacher who has a high retention rate, but is sacrificing their student’s learning (however unintentionally) because they are unaware of when their students could benefit more from another teacher.

In conclusion, I believe there is more to running a successful business in private music lessons than retention rate. Retention rate is certainly an important aspect to consider, but it is not the only factor that needs to be looked at.

 

I hope these five reasons on when it might be best to let a student go has helped you evaluate your own priorities in what makes your lesson studio successful!

You may also enjoy: The “Hard” Teacher – How High Standards Make Music Fun!

Emily Williams is the creator of Strategic Strings: An Online Course for Violin and Viola Teachers

Relating Finger Placement to the Notes on The Staff

Posted on 8th May 2016

Many students encounter difficulty with music reading, and knowing where to find the notes they see on the staff on their instrument. While this is a common problem, I believe it’s one that can be easily addressed!

Let me first list some ways that I believe do not help address this problem (and can actually contribute to it):

  • music where the note names are written in the note heads
  • finger tapes that include the note names
  • excessive finger tapes (where all half-step intervals have their own tape)
  • mnemonic devices to learn note names (Ex. FACE or Every Good Boy Does Fine)
  • fingering the music
  • teaching one finger at a time

These are just a few of the unhelpful teaching methods I have seen, and (unfortunately) is not an exhaustive list. Perhaps you could even add a few of your own!

Now let’s get to what IS helpful!

 

1. Teach Note Reading by Using the Alphabet

Instead of teaching memorization tools like FACE and Every Good Boy Does Fine, try teaching students one or more of the open string notes (I start by teaching all 4), then having students count forward or backward in their musical alphabet to figure out note names they don’t know.

This approach works well because instead of having to memorize every note, students can then figure out ANY note name they don’t know on the staff. This engages students with the learning process of problem solving, which is much more effective in long term understanding and retention than mere memorization.

It also empowers students with knowledge that they can use on their own when a teacher or parent isn’t there to help. The more we teach students skills that empower them to become proficient on their own, the faster they will learn, the more success they will achieve, and subsequently the more enjoyment they will have with learning!

2. Teach Note Placement on the Fingerboard by Using the Alphabet

Coupled with #1, this technique is very successful for students understanding their fingerboard. Just like students can count forward or backward on the staff to figure out the note names, similarly they can learn to count up from their open strings, by finger, to learn what note each finger plays. They can then look at their key signature to see which notes are sharped.

Arming students with this tool allows them to figure out notes they may have forgotten. It also helps them associate notes on the staff with their instrument because they can see that as the notes go up on the staff, fingers are dropped, and note names ascend in alphabetical order. Conversely as notes go down on the staff, fingers are lifted, and note names descend in alphabetical order.

NOTE: It may be helpful to write the musical alphabet vertically on a child’s paper rather than horizontally if a student is having difficulty associating notes going up with counting forwards in their alphabet or notes doing down with counting backwards.

3. Teach All Four Fingers at One Time (by string)

If you are familiar with my book; The Beginning Violinist: A Companion Book for Children and Adults, you will know that in this book I provide an etude page where notes and fingers are introduced by string. Students should not complete all the etudes at once, but learn each string as they are able. The book also includes a song using just the notes on each string to solidify the note names and their placement on the fingerboard. Using this approach I have had very little trouble with students being confused by where the notes are located on their instrument.

NOTE: Aside from helping note reading and finger placement, teaching all four fingers from the start greatly improves the left hand set-up, particularly the common problem of collapsing the wrist and playing with the pinky finger straight.

For more information on this approach please watch the following video:

Introducing the Left Hand – Exercises for Each String

4. Have Students Say Their Note Names in Rhythm

Before starting a new song or piece I like to have my students tap the beat and say their note names in rhythm. It’s easy to rely on finger numbers to aid learning, but this approach often leads to too much reliance on finger numbers. I have encountered many students who could play a piece, but when asked to name the notes of the piece looked at me blankly, or struggled greatly to make it through even the first line. By having students say their note names in rhythm before ever playing the piece, students learn to think in note names rather than finger numbers. The association they then make mentally is the location of a note name on the fingerboard, not a finger number. I have found this to be a very effective technique in teaching students to read music!

Check out this video to see this approach in action:

Applying Note and Rhythm Reading

5. Theory Work – Writing Note Names

While working with the instrument can be useful, don’t underestimate the value of taking pen to paper and having students do worksheets to help them make the connection between note names and finger placement. There are all manner of ways this can be done. Simply having students fill in the note names on a chart of the staff and fingerboard may be all that’s required (maybe assign this as a task during their daily practice time!).

Other helpful exercises may include identifying all the notes on the A-string in a particular piece, or going through a piece and naming the note name and finger number/string on which it is played. Be creative!

6. Make it a Game

For young children making note reading and finger placement a game might be helpful to keep engagement. You can have students pick a note name out of a hat and find it on their fingerboard, or you can play a note on your instrument and have the student identify the note name. Maybe reward the student with a sticker for getting 5 correct in a row!

The possibilities are only limited by your imagination!

I hope you found this post helpful! For more information on me, my book; The Beginning Violinist: A Companion Book for Children and Adults, or my teaching studio (including Coaching Sessions for Teachers) please following these links:

Emily Williams is the creator of Strategic Strings: An Online Course for Violin and Viola Teachers

The Beginning Violinist Video Series: Tiger Dance – a song on the D-string

Posted on 25th February 2016

The Beginning Violinist Video Series takes viewers through The Beginning Violinist: A Companion Book for Children and Adults. Viewers will see how the repertoire included in this book helps introduce notes and rhythm in an easy and effective way.

The newest video in this series introduces Tiger Dance – a song on the D-string.

The Beginning Violinist also includes concepts not usually taught in most beginning violin books and is a great introductory and companion book for any beginning violin student! Learn more at www.thebeginningviolinist.com

Emily Williams is the creator of Strategic Strings: An Online Course for Violin and Viola Teachers

Bowing Smoothly at Every Level

Posted on 9th January 2016

Bowing smoothly and evenly is a skill students at all levels must conquer. Obviously this skill needs to be taught to beginning students, but I have also encountered intermediate and advanced students that lack the foundational knowledge of correct bow usage. I believe that tone production, specifically that of a smooth bow, is often what most separates string players at every level from those that impress and compel audiences to listen, from those that merely play what’s written on the page.

There are three important areas of consideration when teaching smooth bowing.

1) Body Alignment

Before attempting to deal with actually using the bow, the body posture of a student must be assessed, and addressed if necessary. Here are some things to check:

  • Feet evenly spaced (about shoulder width apart)
  • Weight even on both feet
  • Weight evenly situated over hips (stomach tucked it, back straight, etc.)
  • Shoulders relaxed down and back
  • Neck straight

2) Bow Weight

Most students naturally try to put weight in their bow from above the string, using the shoulder, upper arm and/or elbow. This creates tension, which will not lend itself to playing comfortably and smoothly. In contrast, relaxed bowing will add weight to the bow by hanging from it. Weight should initially come from the back muscles with the shoulder and upper arm hanging from the bow, then weight can be added as needed on the stick with the index and middle fingers.

To assess what part of the body a student is using to put weight into the bow check the shoulder and elbow. Students using the arm to put weight in the string from above will most likely be raising the shoulder and/or elbow when trying to play forte.

3) Bow Usage

In addition to body alignment and bow weight, it is important to consider how much weight and speed a student is using, and in what part of the bow this weight and speed are applied. When playing long bows a student should get used to putting more weight and speed in the middle of the bow and slowing the bow down at the bow changes (they will mostly likely try to do the opposite, making the bow changes faster to get a smoother sound, which will result in an accented jerky sound and motion).

At the frog, students need to practice lightening the bow and almost floating through the bow change since the frog is heavier than the tip (students should not lighten the bow too much at the tip, only slightly). However, as soon as they get to the winding they should add the weight back into the bow to avoid the light airy tone that many beginning students get. While not offensive, this sound is not desirable as it never teaches the student how to connect with the full bodied sound that makes the instrument ring. Even though a light airy sound is more pleasant to listen to than scratchiness, some scratchiness may need to be “endured” for a short time while the student learns how to control a heavier bow.

Conclusion

By addressing body alignment, bow weight and bow usage, students of all levels can develop a smooth, full bodied tone, produced comfortably and in a relaxed fashion.

Emily Williams is the creator of Strategic Strings: An Online Course for Violin and Viola Teachers

Fill Your Studio with Marketing Strategies for Music Teachers

Posted on 2nd January 2016

January is the perfect time to target those children (or adults!) who received a new violin for Christmas, or maybe inspire those individuals who have made a New Year’s resolution to dust off that old violin in the closet and get some lessons!

I’m positive that you will find new and creative ways to fill up your studio in 2016 with Marketing Strategies for Music Teachers by Bree Lewis. I recently read and reviewed this book and was impressed with the variety of different strategies included; online marketing ideas, community networking strategies and ways you can be more effective in the things you already do to get more students. I hope you find this book to be as useful as I did!

Marketing Strategies for Music Teachers by Bree Lewis

Reviewed by Violinist, Teacher and Pedagogue, Emily Williams

In her book, Marketing Strategies for Music Teachers, Bree Lewis starts off helping readers define their ideal student so teachers can target the type of students they want to teach. Throughout the book, Bree’s Take Action Now exercises help teachers customize her marketing strategies to best match their values and community. Readers will find over 80 thoughtful ways to advertise their business. With so many ideas there is bound to be something new, original or inspiring for any teacher, even those with long established studios.

The book is attractively organized in concise paragraphs, with clear titles and explanations. Readers can read straight through the material, or can easily browse or skim the book and find what advertising suggestions fit them the best.

Marketing Strategies for Music Teachers is a book that could easily become any teacher’s go-to manual for years to come. Readers are provided with marketing solutions that are easily implemented with a click of the mouse, as well as those that take more time and thought. Whether discussing online marketing, personal connections or community involvement, Bree provides ample information to implement her ideas.

For those both new to Bree and those with a long standing appreciation of her work, Marketing Strategies for Music Teachers is bound to provide every teacher with at least one creative new way to market and find new students!

Purchase the book here!

Emily Williams is the creator of Strategic Strings: An Online Course for Violin and Viola Teachers

The Beginning Violinist 2015 Video Series – Cat Walk (a song on the A-string)

Posted on 6th November 2015

 

After introducing the notes by string The Beginning Violinist: A Companion Book for Children and Adults has a section called Songs on One String that provide a song for each string to solidify note reading and intonation.

Click the link below to watch a short tutorial on the pedagogical techniques included in Cat Walk and to watch a performance of a young student of Emily’s performing this beautiful tune!

The Beginning Violinist – Cat Walkhttps://youtu.be/QESMQ1uSlo8

Emily Williams is the creator of Strategic Strings: An Online Course for Violin and Viola Teachers

The Most Significant Part of Learning and Teaching Music

Posted on 21st October 2015

This question was posed to me recently:

“What in your experience has defined the most significant part of learning and teaching music?”

 

What a broad, but also important question to ask ourselves as teachers! There are probably many things that we consider important in our role as teacher, and many things we consider it imperative that our students learn. At the same time, being able to summarize what we think is most important is valuable. It gives us a clear goal, kind of like businesses, colleges and other entities that summarize their objectives in one clear vision statement.

Here’s my answer to that question:

 

I believe that the foundational skills of music reading (notes and rhythms), proper left and right hand technique, and solid tone production are the most significant aspects of learning and teaching music.

 

Here’s why….

As a teacher these can be built on to impart to students the other important aspects of music (musicality, extended techniques, various music styles/genres/eras, etc.)

For the student, I believe these skills (or rather the lack thereof) are the reason many do not find joy in playing their instrument and quit. I have found in my own playing and in the playing of my students that where these skills are lacking discontent and frustration is rampant, but when these skills are mastered enjoyment, creativity and success follow.

Do you have a “vision statement” for your studio? Please share!

Emily Williams is the creator of Strategic Strings: An Online Course for Violin and Viola Teachers

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