Thank you to those who have responded with interest to my new book, The Beginning Violinist: A Companion Book for Children and Adults. If you’re interested in further information on the book including a look at what’s inside, reviews from parents and students, or purchasing information please check out http://thebeginningviolinist.com.
You may also be interested in the following article. It outlines in more detail the pedagogical philosophy behind the materials presented in The Beginning Violinist. By understanding more about why the materials in this book are needed and how to use them you will be better equipped to decide whether The Beginning Violinist could be useful in your teaching and how to use the book with your own students to get the most out of the material.
Beginning Strings: A Better Start
For string teachers Suzuki is a revered name, and rightly so, for he contributed much to beginning string literature. In the United States during the ‘70s and ‘80s his method and books sparked a national interest in violin instruction. He demonstrated that any child can learn the violin proficiently when given appropriate instruction.
As a child starting violin at the age of 4 in the ‘80s I was one of the beneficiaries of the many Suzuki schools flourishing in the US. I benefitted by developing a very good ear, as many students do. I even soared ahead of my classmates as I also had natural talent. However, I eventually experienced a downside to my musical education under the Suzuki method; my inability to read music, quickly decipher rhythms, and my poor technique led me to a dead end. In middle school I found a teacher who worked patiently and diligently with me to give me the instruction I needed to fill in the gaps in my learning. It was a hard and arduous road that I wouldn’t wish on any student. This kindled in me a desire to be a teacher so I could teach students the violin correctly from the beginning.
Now, as a teacher I have found that the negative effects that I experienced as a violin student were not my experience alone. Many students today—whether Suzuki trained or traditionally taught—have low levels of technique, musicianship, note reading skills and rhythmic understanding. I have had to walk through the difficulties with many of them re-learning the violin to fill in the gaps, just as I had to do with my teacher many years ago. For students who learned to copy music from a recording or from their teacher it becomes a delight to finally be able to pick up music for themselves and play the correct notes and rhythms without having to hear it first. Some of these students experience the satisfaction of feeling competent on their instrument for the very first time!
In my quest to teach students to become self-sufficient musicians I realized that the materials I needed were not readily available in the books currently on the market. Even the most popular method books seemed to leave out crucial elements of how I wanted to instruct my students. So I developed—along with composer Dr. Benjamin Williams—The Beginning Violinist, a companion book for children and adults. In addition to helping students with note and rhythm reading, I also included ‘extended’ techniques not found in other books, such as left-hand pizzicato, changing meters and changing key signatures.
One of the most frequent problems I found with beginning method books was that they started by introducing the fingers one by one, usually leaving the 4th finger until later. While this seems like a logical step-by-step progression to string instruction, in practice it invites poor left hand technique. By the time students learn the 4th finger, they end up sticking it straight out across the string in order to get the notes in tune. As such, it is not until the 4th finger is introduced that problems in hand set-up become apparent. By this time a habit has been learned and the student will have to go back and re-learn—as they should have initially—the proper set up of the 1st finger, which requires pulling it back, leaving a ‘shelf’ on the metacarpal bone on which the neck of the violin rests.
Another frequent problem among young violinists is a deficiency in note and rhythm reading. When teachers allow students to learn by ear things they are capable of figuring out for themselves, putting copious fingerings in the music, they handicap their students by making them reliant upon an outside source to decipher the written music. Students may give the illusion of proficiency, even when their ability to read music is almost non-existent. Instead of handicapping our students, we ought to provide them with music appropriate to every level that we insist they decipher for themselves.
In The Beginning Violinist, students begin reading the open strings of their instrument first, which helps them to identify and learn notes more quickly. Songs using only the open strings with quarter-, eighth- and sixteenth-note rhythmic patterns give students the ability to start reading music on their own at some of the first lessons. In my experience, students who become proficient at reading the open strings of their instrument before adding the left hand ultimately learn to read music more quickly and can more easily identify the notes on the staff with their locations on the instrument.
When ready, my students progress to learning all four fingers of the left hand by string. By introducing all four fingers at the same time, correct left-hand technique is fostered and reinforced. The index finger reaches back in order for the pinky to curve appropriately. Students (as well as teachers) can easily identify if there are any errors in hand position before a bad habit becomes ingrained.
In addition to addressing the above issues, a large portion of The Beginning Violinist is dedicated to songs on the D and G strings. Most beginning method books focus on the A and E strings. When the D and G strings are finally introduced students often have a difficult time adjusting to repertoire using these strings because their proficiency level is unequal. It’s important that students gain the same fluency on the D and G strings as the A and E strings by learning these strings from the beginning of their studies. Learning in this way allows students to progress to more difficult repertoire without being delayed by their inability to quickly read notes on the lower strings.
Just as a parent seeks to teach their children how to become self-sufficient, successful adults, so I desire for my students to become self-sufficient, successful musicians at whatever level they choose to work to achieve. My experiences as a student and teacher suggested that despite the myriad of beginning violin method books available on the market today, holes in the most popular materials still exist. It is my hope that we, as teachers, can continually reexamine the familiar teaching methods we use to ensure that we are preparing our students for success.
Emily Williams is the creator of Strategic Strings: An Online Course for Violin and Viola Teachers