Is Your Student Ready for Intermediate Rep.?

Posted on 11th October 2015

We have the most control over the progress of our students when we start them from the very beginning. However, sometimes along the way we may encounter a student who seems to have missed out on an important aspect of their training despite our best efforts, or we may have students come to us from other teachers that we need to assess.

Even if a student is already playing intermediate repertoire when them come to me, I always evaluate them to see if this is really the level at which they ought to be playing. Sometimes we need to go backward before we can move forwards.

Here’s a list of things I believe a student should be able to do before moving on to intermediate rep.:

  • Play all dynamics with a strong tone and good bow control
  • Play a correct detache and staccato stroke
  • Consistently play with a correct bow hand
  • Consistently play with correct left hand technique
  • Be able to name all notes in first position and find them on their instrument
  • Be able to count quarter, 8th note, 16th note, half note, whole note, and dotted note rhythms themselves

While this is not an exhaustive list of what a student ready for intermediate rep. should be able to do, it’s a great start!

Questions about whether or not your student is ready to move on to intermediate rep.?


Don’t know what to do with a student who struggles in one or more of the areas listed?


Let me know your questions/problems and I’ll do my best to answer them!

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

What are Your Favorite Go-to Beginner Books?

Posted on 14th September 2015

Since my book, The Beginning Violinist: A Companion Book for Children and Adults is meant to be used in conjunction with other beginning rep. I’m always looking for good materials to use with my students. I waded through some materials this fall, but unfortunately didn’t find any additional beginning rep. I liked.
I’d love to hear from you what go-to books you enjoy! Please post a comment about the book(s) you like the most (including the author) and a pros/cons list similar to mine below.

I’ll be featuring my favorite replies in the next issue of

The Beginning Violinist Newsletter.

You need to be a subscriber to have your favorites published, so sign-up today then comment below!

Here are some of my go-to beginner books:

Suzuki Violin/Viola Book 1


  • I use the Twinkle Variations as “etude” material for bow technique
  • The 4th finger can be used from the beginning songs in a way that makes sense musically
  • The repertoire progresses evenly through the book
  • Even bow distribution can be used on most pieces


  • There are so many fingerings…I usually white out everything but the 4th fingers or open string designations.
  • Since I teach long bows first, I often start at Theme and progress forward, coming back to the Variations when the student is ready.

Solo Pieces for the Beginning Violinist by Craig Duncan


  • The 4th finger can be used from the beginning songs in a way that makes sense musically
  • Very few fingerings.
  • Larger print than Suzuki rep.
  • The repertoire progresses evenly through the book with even bow distribution in most pieces


  • 16th notes show up half way through the book, so if you’re looking for something comparable to Twinkle Variations this book doesn’t have it.

Solos for Young Violinists by Barbara Barber


  • Long bows used from beginning
  • The first 8 songs are simple and don’t progress in difficulty too quickly
  • Very few fingerings.


  • The second half of the book is WAY harder than the first half (I would categorize it as intermediate level)
  • Even bow distribution cannot always be used on the beginning songs.

Don’t forget to so sign-up today for The Beginning Violinist Newsletter,

then comment on this post with your go-to favorites!

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

Posted on 9th September 2015

I would describe myself as a “hard” teacher – meaning that I have high standards and expect my students to meet them. That doesn’t mean that I push students to do more than they are capable of, or that I expect music to be the only activity in my students’ lives. However, it does mean that I expect my students  to give me their best effort and to practice daily. It also means that if students (or parents) aren’t willing or able to meet those expectations that I feel it’s best for me to let them go so that they can take from a teacher with standards that more closely reflect their level of commitment.

I have often come across the assumption that if you’re a “hard” teacher that you only care about what students produce musically and don’t care if they have fun playing their instrument.

It seems that some teachers who desire to have high standards are afraid that students will lose their love of music if they insist on a higher level of commitment.


I’d like to share an observation from my experience to show that you can be a teacher with high standards and also fill your studio with students who love what they do!

Students who have mastered the basics

enjoy music more and will be less likely to quit.


I find that it is the basics that most often get overlooked when teachers desire students to have fun but do not insist on their students meeting high standards. This is understandable as it takes much patience and time for beginning students, especially if they are young, to acquire good technique, learn to read music and rhythms and learn how to produce a pleasing tone quality from piano to forte. Students and parents who think that learning the violin or viola will be easy can quickly become discouraged if progress is not happening as fast as they anticipated. It’s easy for a teacher to let some things go, in an effort to keep students and parents happy with their rate of progress.

While students may enjoy playing for awhile being allowed to progress through songs and pieces without really mastering all the basic fundamentals, this approach often catches up with them later on. Pieces start getting too hard for them. Their poor technique, low level or reading or inadequate bow control become barriers to enjoyment. At this point students are more likely to desire to quit. I experienced this in my own violin journey, and have encountered this phenomenon with many students who have come across my path. Very rarely will an intermediate student who has mastered the basics desire to quit, but I have frequently  worked with students who’s parents came to me as a “last ditch effort” to keep their son or daughter playing. Often these students realize that it is their lack of mastery of the fundamentals that are holding them back and causing them to dislike playing. They can’t play the music they want to play and they are frustrated that what once seemed so easy is now so difficult. Sometimes these students are willing to put in the hard work it takes to overcome their deficiencies and sometimes they are not. Those that work hard reap the benefits, finally finding success and enjoyment.

Because I know that learning the fundamentals and mastering the basics is so key to students finding success and joy in their playing I include it here as just one of the many benefits of being a “hard” teacher. When we have high standards for our students we do so because we desire for our students to love what they do.

This success and enjoyment isn’t just achieved after years and years of hard work either. The little successes that happen week by week, and the intrinsic joy of seeing hard work yield its fruit is what I hope for all my students to experience regularly. I enjoy knowing that the things that caused me to want to quit won’t plague the students I’m teaching, and I enjoy to seeing my students mature as musicians and as people year after year as they grow more in love with their instrument and the music they produce with it!

Learn More about this topic: Interview with Emily Williams How To Run a High Level Violin Studio

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

NEW! Coaching Sessions and Modules for Teachers

Posted on 7th September 2015

I have a passion for teaching – but not just teaching students; teaching teachers.

As a teacher I have found that the pedagogical instruction I received on how to teach the beginning student and the fundamentals of violin were the most crucial to propelling me forward in my career. As advanced students we receive much instruction ourselves and have the opportunity to attend master classes and venues where we get to observe teachers working with advanced students. However, although we at some time learned the fundamentals of our instrument it was most likely when we were very young and we probably have forgotten the details about how we were instructed. This often leaves the advanced student floundering to reinvent the wheel, so to speak, when it comes to instilling the fundamentals of violin to their students in the most effective manner. Or, perhaps you do remember how you were taught the fundamentals and desire a better way. Both of these scenarios found their way into my learning and teaching experience and have propelled me to be passionate about the art of violin pedagogy.

To this end I have developed Coaching Sessions both personal (for one-on-one instruction) and Coaching Modules (for group instruction). While I in no way believe I hold all the answers for how to teach, I have found that the more opportunity I have had personally to discover different teaching methods, resources and approaches, the better teacher I have become, and I desire to help provide opportunity for others to learn from what I have found to be effective in teaching students of all ages.

My approach is not a method. My instruction won’t make you a great teacher, but it will help provide you with tools you can use to become a great teacher. My approach to teaching is systematic, but is applied creatively and fluidly to meet the individual needs of the students who come through my studio. My Coaching Modules or individual Coaching Sessions will expose you to the basic fundamental approach of my teaching in a way that you can take back and use with your own students and cater to work with your own unique personality and style of teaching!

More information on individual Coaching Sessions can be found here:

More information on Coaching Modules can be found here:

I’d love to work with you!

Left Hand Pizz. and the Beginning Student

Posted on 13th June 2015

If you think back in your journey learning the violin or viola you probably were taught extended techniques at the intermediate or advanced stages of learning. There is good reason for this; many extended techniques are too difficult for beginning students and with all there is to learn as a beginner, unnecessary complication should be avoided!

That being said, there are some extended techniques that are beneficial and fun for beginning students to learn, but are unfortunately left out of most beginning books. One of these techniques is left hand pizzicato. I would like to briefly talk through some of the benefits of teaching left hand pizzicato to beginners.

1) Left hand pizz. can be used to foster a correct left hand position.

Left hand pizzicato can actually be introduced before students even know how to play with the left hand, and by doing so correct left hand technique can be instilled even before students attempt to use the left hand fingers. I like to start students playing left hand pizz. with the pinky in the middle of the string with the hand braced against the body of the instrument. This is a stable position that requires the wrist to stay straight. The pinky can easily grab the strings in the middle of the fingerboard because the distance between the strings and fingerboard is larger than when the hand is in first position.

Here’s a video explaining how I introduce this technique to my students:

2) Left hand pizz. is fun!

Students tremendously enjoy learning left hand pizzicato. Parents often ask me if this is just a game in order to create strength in the pinky or for perhaps for some other reason. It’s not, it’s an actual technique, but that just goes to show how fun it is to learn, especially as a young child! Beginners get a kick out of being allowed to do something that they would try to do just fooling around if we let them. With all the “boring” technique stuff to learn as a beginner, adding left hand pizz. to the mix is a great way to keep kids excited about learning!

3) It’s a workout for the brain.

The Beginning Violinist: A Companion Book for Children and Adults (also available for viola) introduces left hand pizzicato in a song that also uses the traditional right hand pizzicato as well (Check out Surprise for Strings). There are plenty of rests so students get a chance to mentally and physically make the switch between hands, but even so it gives the brain a work out.Try Surprise for Strings yourself…you may be ‘surprised’ at how hard your brain needs to work!

4) Students become familiar with the notation.

That pesky little plus sign over or under notes can throw a student for a loop if they haven’t ever seen it before! Introducing students early on to the symbol that tells a player to use their left hand to pizz. educates young beginners so that when they see left hand pizzicato notated in intermediate or advanced music they not only know what it means, they also know how to do it. Maybe they can even be the one to educate their peers – students love nothing more than to show off a little for their friends!

This is certainly not an exhaustive list of reasons to introduce left hand pizz. at an early age, but I hope it gives you enough reason to try it with your students if you don’t do so already!

Also check out Bird Song – another song in The Beginning Violinist that includes left hand pizz.

Do you have other great reasons to introduce left hand pizz. to your beginning students? Let me know in the comments!

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

Dependency and the Musician

Posted on 2nd April 2015

In this post I would like to expand the discussion of learning by rote/ear and music reading to discuss the relationship between each and the connection to dependency.

By dependency I am referring to that which we need in order to learn a piece of music.

In our earliest stages of learning as a student we are usually dependent on a teacher. This is normal and productive. However, at some point, we desire our students to become independent musicians in the sense that they do not need us as teachers anymore.

I also believe there is another kind of dependency that we can have as musicians. Musicians who learn only by rote are dependent on a recording, a performance, or a teacher to aurally demonstrate the music they want to learn, while the musician who learns only by reading is dependent on the written page.

In my previous post:, I responded to Howard’s comment (which you can go read for yourself) and noted that I believe both listening and reading are important to learn.

Many of my posts on this blog are dedicated to the value of learning to read, since I believe there is a great lack of skill in this area for the majority of those learning instruments in American (especially string students). However, I do not believe that reading should be focused on to the detriment of ear training. I believe true musical independence comes when we are proficient at both skills, and it is my desire to make that clear should anyone come away from my posts thinking that I do not put any value on playing by ear!

The Value of Learning by Ear

As a Suzuki trained violinist I was originally taught by ear. You can read in some of my posts how I believe this was detrimental to me. However, that does not mean that I do not value my ability to play by ear. For one, it has been a great help to me in my teaching. I have had several students come to me who want to learn to read, who have taught themselves how to play by ear. Sometimes they bring me a simple melody and I make sure they can play what’s on the page, but then we work on improvisation off that melody. When they come to lessons having created an improv. verse I need to be able to listen, play back and critique by ear what they are presenting to me. We do not write down their improv. (although the skill of dictation can aid learning to read, and is an important skill as well!), we work by rote or ear, changing things as necessary. This is just one example of how learning to play by ear is a great asset.

Dependency and the Professional Musician

I have met classically trained musicians who claim they have no ability to learn music by ear, create harmony or improv. They are very fine musicians as long as they have a printed page in front of them. They lead fulfilling and successful lives as professional musicians. There are also those non-classically trained musicians who cannot read a lick or music, but are highly honored and revered in the music world. They also lead fulfilling and successful lives as professional musicians. While each in their own rite is good at what they do, they each have their dependencies.

Conversely there are those musicians who have both skill sets. They can proficiently read music, but can also play well by ear. These musicians often bridge the gap between traditional classical music and jazz, fiddle or pop. I think of the group Time for Three. This classically trained jazz inspired string trio is proficient in both skill sets and its members have been successful in both the world of classically trained music readers and non-classically trained “improvers”.

How we Teach

One of the ways we can create independent musicians is to give our students the gift of being able to both read and play by ear proficiently. As a teacher I realize that the majority of my students will not go on to be professional musicians. Perhaps they won’t even continue on as amateur musicians. But I desire to give them the skills to do whatever they want to do with their instrument and be able to do it independently.

While I train my students classically, I desire to give them the ability to hop into a fiddle group and jam, or perhaps they want to play in a rock band, or maybe they are drawn by early music. If I create students who are dependent either on the written page or by ear playing, I am hindering their ability in one area or the other, to go as far as their desires would take them. I create a barrier. My desire as a teacher is to teach, to the best of my ability, independent students who can both read and play by ear.

As a further nod to Howard’s comment which I mentioned earlier, it is important to recognize that students naturally have different skill sets. Some may more easily play by ear, and others more easily gravitate to learning via the written page. As a teacher I can capitalize on what my students do well, but I also think it is my responsibility to focus on what they do not do well so that they develop their skills as evenly as possible. This will give them the best possible chance for success on whatever path their musical journey may take them!

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

Learning by Rote or Reading Music; Which is Easier?

Posted on 1st April 2015

I recently came across a video on youtube of an intermediate/advanced violinist who has been acclaimed as a child prodigy. One commenter noted that this individual learns all their music my ear and does not know how to read. Another commenter posted that it is easier to learn music by ear than to read music.

I’m purposely not identifying the video, the performer or the commenters, because the purpose of this post is not to critique this particular video or individual, but to dialogue about the claim that learning music by ear is easier than learning music by reading.

Depending on your musical background, education, personal style, music preferences, pedagogy techniques, etc. you may be predisposed to agree or disagree with the commenter who made this post. However, I don’t think that one side has to be right and the other wrong. I think that in some ways both sides are right.

Learning music by ear is easier/faster before one learns to read music.

Let’s say I were to take two students of equal ability who have not played the violin before and who do not know how to read music, and teach them to learn the same song. One student I teach the song by reading the music and the other student learns the song by ear. Which would learn the song more quickly or easily?

The one learning by ear would more quickly learn the song because there is less being asked of them. The one learning the song by reading the music not only has to learn how to play the violin, but how to read. The one learning by ear only has to learn how to play the violin. It makes logical sense that when one is asked to learn more things it will take longer!

However, as one becomes proficient at reading music I would argue that learning music by ear is slower and more difficult than learning music by reading.

Let’s say I were to take two students of equal ability and playing proficiency; one who does not read music, and the other who is proficient at reading music. I ask them to learn the same piece. The student who does not read receives a recording of the piece they are asked to learn. The student who reads receives only the sheet music. Which student will learn the music more quickly?

The student listening to the recording must at minimum listen to the recording one time through before being able to play the piece. So let’s say the piece is 5 minutes long. If they can play it through correctly the first time, then it has taken them 10 min. to learn the piece. (Most likely it will take longer than that as it is unlikely that the student will play it back perfectly by ear in one hearing, even if they are used to learning music by ear and the music is relatively simple.)

While student number one is listening to the recording, the student who can read is already playing through the piece of music they have been asked to learn. If the music is easy, they will have completed the assignment on the first time through (5 min.). If the piece is more difficult they may have to stop and work out a few things here or there, but most likely student number 1 will have to work out those same issues.

So, if we assume that since the students are at the same proficiency level that it will take them the same amount of time to work through problem spots, the student who reads will at minimum complete their task twice as fast as the student who learns by ear. (I would argue that it would probably take student 1 longer to work out problem spots than the student who reads because student 1 needs to find the spot in the recording and listen to it again before working out the problem, while the student who reads can jump straight to problem solving.)

To further understand these two arguments let’s look at an example from everyday life that is comparable; learning to read words. Children learn to speak before they learn to read or write. However, as soon as a child is able we teach them to read their letters, then simple words, then sentences, etc. If a person does not learn how to read as a child they must go through the same tedious process. Whether child or adult, reading at these early stages is more difficult than simply repeating back a letter, word, sentence or phrase that someone might speak. Memorizing by listening seems much easier than figuring out how the symbols on the printed page convert to the sounds one recognizes in speech.

However, once someone learns to read, which is easier; memorization or reading? At the simplest level it will take one twice as long to repeat a sentence back than for the one who can read, because the one who can read will have completed reading the sentence at the same time the one who is listening starts repeating back their sentence (after hearing it once). However, the time differential becomes much greater as the assignment becomes more difficult. How about reciting a paragraph, or an article or a novel? Is the one who must learn by ear going to be able to recite the novel more quickly than the one who can read the novel? “Of course not!” we would say. The same is true of music. The learning process is difficult. At first it seems like memorizing the music is faster and easier. However, as music becomes more complicated and lengthier the one who memorizes must work harder and is slower than the one who can read.


Whether memorizing or reading is faster or easier depends on the level of music and the proficiency of the reader. Reading is not inherently more difficult, and when learned proficiently is actually easier and faster. The learning process will always require more of the student and therefore take more time. However, just because it is slower at the beginning does not mean that it is slower overall. Slowly the student who has learned to read will overtake the one who has learned by memorization. That is why I teach my students to read music from day one of their lesson even from the earliest age.

Learn more here: The Beginning Violinist: A Companion Book for Children and Adults  

Based on Howard’s comment below I also want to point you toward this post: Dependency and the Musician.

It was not my desire to discredit the value of ear training in this post, but to simply show what I believe to be the inadequacy of the belief voiced by the commenter quoted at the beginning of this post.

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

The Value of Teaching Open String Songs

Posted on 7th March 2015

The Beginning Violinist: A Companion Book for Children and Adults starts out with Open String Songs. I wanted to briefly give you some of the benefits of using Open String Songs with your students!


1) Open String Songs help students more quickly understand where notes are located on the fingerboard.


Students of any age can quickly learn how to read open string notes on the staff because they can easily see that they are in different locations. You can talk about the highest note and have them listen to their highest string and the same for the lowest note and string. The middle notes and strings are far enough apart that students can see and hear which one is lower and higher. These locations, both by aural pitch and location on the instrument set up a firm foundation for learning to read the notes on the staff and find their locations on each string.

2) Open String Songs allow beginners to play a song within the first few lessons


Because you don’t have to teach the left hand right away, students are playing there first songs very quickly, and they are musically and rhythmically interesting. Parents love this as well!

3) You can teach students to read more complex rhythms from the start with Open String Songs


I teach my students quarter and 8th note rhythms to start, and fairly quickly add in 16th notes. Students can learn to read any combination of quarter, 8th or 16th notes early on. Many students who have been taking lessons for years have difficulty with this skill when they have been trained mostly by ear. Students who learn to read these from the beginning avoid this pit-fall, and can also play the rhythms by ear easily!

4) Students experience progress quickly, which means they enjoy learning more!


We want our students to experience success as soon as possible because that’s what makes learning fun! If we don’t feel like we’re getting anywhere we’re most likely not going to stick with something. Open String Songs allow students to feel that enjoyment of success very early on and so they find violin fun!

5) Open String Songs make posture and instrument positioning easier


Usually students start out plucking, but because of lack of repertoire that utilizes only open strings, soon students are transitioned to using the left hand and/or the bow. This quick transition often leads to a teacher needing to correct many posture things all at one time. By having an ample repertoire of Open String Songs a teacher can make sure that each student is set up correctly, and make that positioning a habit before adding new complexities!

6) Lastly, The Open String Songs in The Beginning Violinist all include piano accompaniment so students get to play REAL music from the start that’s fun!


If you’ve looked at the same books that I have, you might be disenchanted with the open string material available on the market. It’s usually boring and very repetitious (4 bars of quarter note A’s for instance). The Beginning Violinist offers songs on open strings that are engaging! They are rhythmically and musically interesting for students, teachers and parents, and all of the songs have beautiful piano accompaniment so that students feel like they are playing real music – because they are!

Check out The Beginning Violinist 2015 Video Series to hear some of these beautiful Open String Songs with Piano Accompaniment:

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

Is Suzuki a Fraud?

Posted on 27th October 2014

This article has quickly become a hot topic in the world of violin pedagogy:

I have never been a huge fan of the Suzuki Method as it has been applied in the US (which is one reason I felt the need to develop some of my own material, However, I have always thought well of Suzuki as a teacher.

While there are various articles and responses floating around that either deny or support Suzuki’s claims I think there are a few things we should consider as we approach either side:

1) Whether or not his credentials are true does not change what he did with his students and whether or not it was/is successful. His method is not dependent on his credentials. If it’s good pedagogy it will remain good pedagogy. If it’s not (and I think there are some huge holes in it) than this just gives us more of a reason why that is.

2) Suzuki was never trying to make good violinists. His goal in teaching children the violin was to create “noble human beings”. If he never claimed to know how to teach violin well, only that he claimed teaching violin was a good vehicle by which to teach morals, self-discipline and appreciation of beauty, than we shouldn’t expect it to create good musicians in the first place. This doesn’t change by uncovering a fraud in his credentials.

3) If Suzuki wanted to create noble human beings, I’m not sure what he meant by “noble” if he was willing to lie to meet that end. This seems to go against what his original purpose was in teaching violin. Perhaps he got sucked in by fame an success and felt his background needed a bit of a boost, or perhaps it’s all a mistake and he was truthful.

Whether or not I accept his teaching, or his method as it has been implemented in the US, is not dependent on his credentials. I would lose respect for him if it turns out he did lie, but I have chosen to take what I believe to be good pedagogy from his instruction and reject that which I believe to not be good pedagogy based on my own research and experience. I think this is the most prudent way to evaluate what we include in our own teaching styles.

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

Beginning Strings: A Better Start

Posted on 5th June 2014


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


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

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