Studio Recitals are a wonderful opportunity for students to showcase for family and friends all the hard work they have done. It’s also a great benchmark for students to work toward and a time for them to realize how far they have come since their last performance.
I recently got asked by a parent if I had ever thought about performing for my students at one of these recitals. The short answer is ‘yes’ I have thought about it and, ‘no’ I have chosen not to perform. Let me first say that I think it’s important (I would even go so far as to say imperative) that students see their teacher perform. That said, I have chosen not to make my Studio Recitals a venue for this to happen for several reasons.
The first reason I choose not to perform on Studio Recitals, and perhaps the most important one, is because I believe it’s important for students to hear me play out in the “real world”.
Students need to attend professional concerts in order to gain an understanding of what it means to be a musician. Fostering an appreciation for professional concerts contributes to the education of young musicians. Whether a student chooses to become a professional musician, amateur musician or a musical spectator they will need this education. There is becoming a widespread ignorance of classical music as a profession and as entertainment because children are not educated and exposed to it, therefore as adults they do not understand or value it. It is my desire to encourage parents to bring their children to professional concerts of all kinds. Students and parents who are interested in hearing me play can attend a local symphony concert, a solo recital, a chamber performance or a special church service. I make it easy for parents and students to know when these opportunities are taking place, and many performances are free. I believe the value for a student in hearing their teacher play lies not only in the experience itself, but also in the venue and atmosphere in which it takes place.
The second reason I choose not to perform on Studio Recitals is a personal one: it’s simply too busy and stressful for me to plan a recital for all my students and perform on that same recital.
As one who knows what it’s like to experience severe performance anxiety, I have learned in my professional career what I must do to cope with this. (You can read about some of my methods on the following post: http://blog.playviolinmusic.com/2011/07/26/performance-anxiety/ ) I believe any teacher/performer will tell you that while teaching and performing are intrinsically related, they are very different functions for the individual. When I perform I need to be in a different “mode” or “zone” than when I am teaching. In order to do my job well I need my mental and physical energies to be dedicated to that task. Probably no one but my husband knows the time and effort that goes into coordinating each Studio Recital, and for me, performing even a “simple” piece would add too much undo pressure and would take away from my ability to be fully dedicated and available for my students.
The third and last reason I choose not to perform on Studio Recitals is because I do not want to take away from the work of my students.
Studio Recitals are a special occasion, set aside to celebrate the work of my students and I desire this to be the focus of each Studio Recital program. My goal is to have students leave with a sense of personal accomplishment, not a feeling that they have “so far to go” to get to the level of their teacher. This said, I do perform with my students on duets or in other capacities that serve to highlight and support my student’s music. I believe this is important and very appropriate. Studio Recitals are a day for my students and I desire to keep them that way!
When it comes to choosing a teacher for yourself or your child you want to make sure the teacher you choose will give you quality instruction. Teaching philosophies, techniques and goals will greatly impact what kind of instruction each teacher gives. It can be an overwhelming task to pick a teacher, especially if you don’t feel qualified to critique in this area – however, it’s imperative that you do! Even if you are unfamiliar with music you can gain insight and knowledge just by asking questions. Ask the same questions to a few different teachers. Teachers are usually very happy to talk about their teaching philosophies!
Here is a helpful list of questions, designated by category, that you can ask a prospective teacher in order to evaluate their teaching style.
- What is your professional and educational background in music?
- What is your teaching experience?
- Where do you teach/What is the atmosphere of your teaching environment?
- What age groups do you teach?
- Do you have a written studio policy?
- What is your cancellation/rescheduling policy?
- How much practicing do you require from your students?
- What role do you expect parents to play in their child’s practicing?
- What do you expect from weekly practicing?
- Do you require students to learn scales and etudes?
- What are your requirements for students to progress from song to song?
- What books or materials do your students use?
- What kinds of music do you teach?
- What materials/accessories other than an instrument do you require your students to purchase?
- What emphasis do you put on correct technique?
- How do you evaluate student progress?
- In your opinion, what’s the most important thing students should gain from taking lessons?
- Do you offer Studio Recitals? Are they required?
- What festivals or competitions are available for your students?
- Other performance opportunities?
- What are your lesson fees?
- Are there any extra fees other than lesson fees?
- When/how are lesson fees paid?
You do not need to ask every question on this list, but do choose at least one from each category so that you get a broad overview of a teacher’s style. You may also have questions of your own to add! Remember, no question is stupid. Teachers do not expect that you know everything (or anything) about music and are more than happy to answer any question you might have for them!
Picture with me an elementary school stage,…
…a full audience of parents and friends, and a procession of young violin students parading across the platform with their instruments neatly tucked under their right arms. When they reach their positions they stop and face forward, waiting for their cue, eyes on their instructor who follows the last student out. Proud parents are smiling, taking pictures and making sure their recording devices are catching every bit of their young darling’s violin debut. According to the program they will play “Concerto in A”, which sounds like quite the advanced repertoire for students so young! The instructor raises her instrument to play position and the students follow suit, looking quite accomplished with their scrolls all pointing the same direction and their bows placed silently on the strings. The instructor plays an introduction, and they’re off!
Creases start to appear on the brow, where before smiles had brightened the faces of the audience. Recording devices continue, but cameras are slowly lowered inadvertently as Mom tries to decipher if this is the piece or some kind of tuning procedure. The clear tone of the instructor can barely be heard above the din of scratchy ‘open A’ strings and Dad tries to watch the bow of the instructor to see if his son is playing the same rhythm. Thankfully, “Concerto in A” is not a long piece and the students raggedly come to a stop as they reach the end of the piece.
The students tuck their instruments neatly back under their arms, bow to the applause of the somewhat befuddled audience, and file off following their instructor.
If you have ever attended an elementary string performance you may have had a similar experience. Hopefully it was a tad better than this – but there are certainly those who can relate to the scene described above.
What was that?
String instructors (both public and private) certainly have their work cut out for them when teaching young children the art of playing the violin! The violin is complicated and difficult to learn and play. One does not easily come by making it sound beautiful – the trait that attracts so many to the instrument. Just compare what a beginning violin student of 6 months sounds like in comparison to the beginning piano student of 6 months. Both instruments have their challenges, but sound quality and production will be the most obvious in the early years.
Many a parent might try to encourage their child in a different pursuit to avoid what seems to be the inevitable period of screechiness, or they may decide that having their child practice only at school is a good way to keep their sanity and hearing in tact. There is however a better way!
A Better Way
Young students can play with a good sound from the beginning. This is best accomplish through one-on-one instruction. Some school teachers have the ability to devote this kind of time to their students, but more often than not large class sizes and short class periods make this next to impossible. Private instruction, where students attend a weekly private lesson, coupled with daily parental supervised practice time is the best way to insure that the young beginner gets the attention he or she needs.
The school instructor and the private instructor need each other, but their marriage is only a beautiful thing for their students when parents bring the two together. The private lesson instructor offers the student the vital one-on-one instruction that every student needs to learn an instrument well. The school instructor offers the student the opportunity to play in a group with children their own age, inspiring students and giving them an experience they wouldn’t have all by themselves. School instructors and private instructors support each other in encouraging their students to correct posture, good tone production and the ability to read and understand music. Parents are the glue that holds this marriage together. By committing to weekly private lessons, daily practice time and enrolling children in a school string program, parents can give their child the needed elements to succeed and enjoy music for a lifetime!
Many method books and teachers hold off teaching the 4th finger on violin or viola until fingers 1, 2 and 3 have been mastered. Why, and where this practice started I’m not sure, but I believe it does a great disservice to beginning players. The 4th finger is an intricate part of how the hand is set up and when taught later puts the student at a disadvantage. I believe there are four main reasons that introducing the 4th finger when the other fingers are taught is important.
The 4th finger, or pinky, is the smallest and weakest finger of the left hand. It’s not surprising that for this reason alone it would be left to learn later since the notes it plays in first position are in most cases easily covered by the open strings. However, I believe this is one of the reasons it needs to be taught early. While the 1st, 2nd and 3rd fingers of the left hand are being built up, the 4th finger should also be included so that it grows in strength and endurance along with the rest of the hand muscles.
Another reason to introduce the 4th finger along with the 1st, 2nd and 3rd fingers is how it helps to correctly position the left hand on the fingerboard. A correct positioning of the left hand allows the 4th fingers to curve at both joints when the tip is placed on the fingerboard. This requires that the 1st finger reach back, while the neck of the violin rests on the metacarpal bone at the base of the index finger. This set up between the 1st and 4th finger is called the octave frame (because the 1st and 4th fingers are create an octave when placed on a lower and higher string respectively). This correct positioning is virtually forced to occur when both the 1st and 4th fingers are down simultaneously, so it makes sense that the beginning player is helped tremendously by teaching both fingers from the start.
When the 4th finger is not introduced along with the 1st, 2nd and 3rd fingers students often reach forward with the 1st finger, placing the whole hand farther back on the neck than it should be. The student does not recognize the need for any different positioning since they seem to be able to play just fine this way. However, when the 4th finger is introduced later on the student needs to contort the hand, usually collapsing the wrist, in order to reach the fingerboard with the 4th finger. Correctly positioning the octave frame from the start sets the hand up properly so that this problem is not an issue.
Understanding the Fingerboard
Along with the octave frame setting up a correct positioning of the left hand, the octave frame is also important in teaching the student a correct understanding of the fingerboard. The term octave frame itself leads easily into explaining the relationship of the octave between the 1st and 4th finger. This is an excellent time for a teacher to show the student that an octave can be played with the 1st and 4th finger on adjacent strings and explain that this same phenomenon happens whenever the 1st finger and 4th finger are placed simultaneously on a lower and upper string respectively.
The student must also understand how the notes on the fingerboard relate to the music they see in front of them. The fact that the 4th finger notes of the violin and viola correspond to the open strings of the instrument is an essential part in a student’s understanding of how the fingerboard works. I like to introduce students to full scales as soon as possible, often introducing the two octave G and A scales before one octave scales. Using open strings on the way up the scale and 4th fingers one the way down is a very common fingering and a good one for achieving this goal. Students can see visually on the page that the notes of the 4th finger and corresponding open string are the same, but are keenly aware that there are two different spots to play this one single note on their instruments.
The octave frame, when practiced consistently, also teaches the muscle memory necessary to intuitively know where the notes are located on the fingerboard when there is no visual reference. We could refer to this skill as a muscular understanding of the fingerboard, as opposed to the intellectual understanding talked about above. Most beginning violinists have tapes on the fingerboard that help them locate the common first position finger spacing. After the student has learned this spacing the tapes are removed and the student must find the notes on the fingerboard “blindly”. The octave frame helps create the muscle memory to accomplish this.
A student must also develop an aural understanding of the fingerboard which is accomplished by training the ear. This aural understanding also helps students learn how to locate notes with no visual reference, and can be facilitated by introducing the 4th finger. As I’ve already mentioned, the 4th finger notes in first position correspond with the open strings of the violin. By teaching students to match pitch with their 4th fingers to the corresponding open string, students are given an aural tool that aids their ability to play without finger tapes.
Lastly, a complete understanding of the fingerboard in first position cannot be accomplished without the 4th finger, especially when considering flat keys. There are some keys and scales that require use of the 4th finger because the open strings are not part of the key. A student who does not know how to use their 4th finger will be unable to play in these keys. The student may also have a more difficult time understanding where these “flat” 4th finger notes are located if they have not had the “natural” 4th finger notes with which to compare.
Teaching the 4th finger early also sets students up to be able to learn correct fingering. Knowing when to use the 4th finger and when to use open strings is a learned skill. There are general principles that can be taught and followed, but intuition plays a big part in fingering choices, especially in sight reading and professional gigs where musicians do not “finger” their music. Usually the teacher tells a beginning student when it is appropriate to use each. A teacher who has not introduced their student to the 4th finger must hold off on teaching this skill, and is by default, teaching their students to use open strings when the 4th finger would be more appropriate. By comparison, the instructor who introduces her students to the 4th finger right away has the advantage of also teaching students the correct usage of the 4th finger from a student’s first songs, thereby also avoiding the inadvertent miss-teaching of the use of the open strings.
I hope this post encourages students in the pursuit of a correct hand positioning using the 4th finger, explains the importance of finding an instructor who teaches the 4th finger and it’s corresponding relationships to the left hand, and causes teachers who currently do not introduce the 4th finger early on to thoughtfully consider the positive impact this approach may have on their students.
I recommend students practice 6 out of the 7 days a week. This isn’t a magic number, but it does have thought and process behind it. Practicing must be regular. A student will not achieve regular progress if they are not regularly practicing. In fact, a student will either be moving forward or backward in progress; there is no neutral ground where one can “coast” and expect to pick up where they left off. This is most apparent in the early stages of learning, so getting in the routine of practicing regularly must be established from the start. Regular practicing is key to training both the mind and body successfully.
I believe it is also important to take a day off each week. Just as our bodies rejuvenate themselves when we sleep, so it is beneficial in practicing to give ourselves a period of rest. This allows the body time to process the information we have been putting into it and avoid overload, exhaustion and boredom.
When considering which days to practice and which day to take off it is important to choose wisely. I recommend students do not take off the day before or the day after their lesson. These are critical days to make sure practicing is completed. The day before, a student is preparing for a successful lesson and the day after they are preparing for a successful practicing week.
- A successful lesson is accomplished when a student can accurately execute what they have learned over the week. It does a student no good to practice all week, and then fumble around the day of his lesson because the material is not fresh. Most likely this will result in the teacher sending the student home again to work on many of the same things they did the previous week. This is a waste of time and money.
- A successful week of practicing is accomplished when a student can remember and apply what was taught in the lesson so as to best assimilate what the teacher suggested. It is a frustration to both teacher and student if after a lesson the student only retains half of what was taught to them. They will only be half as fruitful, and progress only half as fast as they are capable of. The teacher must then re-teach material week after week. This too is a waste of time and money.
Even better than practicing the day after a lesson is practicing the same day as a lesson after the lesson is completed. Many students practice before their lesson, hoping to get one last session in to be at their best. This is beneficial when done correctly. However, practicing after a lesson is even more critical. This practice session does not even need to be a full practice session. What is best to accomplish during this time is a review of the techniques and concepts that were new, but not necessarily new material. New material can wait for the next day. What’s crucial is to review the hows of what the teacher proposed in the lesson on the material with which the student is already familiar. Review trouble spots applying the suggested fixes, review new bowing strokes to solidify the motion, practice a new hand position or bow grip, etc. It is not necessary to play through any material. This session should be used to “spot check”. If routinely done, this method of review will increase the student’s learning rate, thereby making better use of both money and time.
For new students I always suggest that they set aside a daily practice time equal to the length of their weekly lesson time. So, if a student is taking a 30min. lesson, they should expect to practice 30min/day. This is a “ball park” figure. Some students will need to practice longer than this to achieve measurable weekly results on the material given them. I would not recommend a student practice less than this.
More advanced students will most likely be practicing longer than their lesson length. Once a student is taking hour lessons they should be expected to practice an hour minimum each day. Students seeking to study music in college should expect to practice 3 – 8 hours a day depending on their major and aspirations. The difference in lesson length between beginners and advanced students is mostly due to the complexity and length of the repertoire being studied.
Frequency and Duration in tandem with Quality
Keep in mind that quality practice needs to be achieved regardless of lesson frequency or duration. Practicing frequently by “running through” things or doing mindless repetition is a waste of time and should be avoided. By the same token, extending one’s practice time, if not employing good practice techniques, will only result in solidifying further the bad habits already acquired and undo any good practice that was previously done.
For tips and suggestions on how to practice well please read my other blog posts in the “practicing” category.
The World View of the Christian
As a Christian my world view is founded on the Bible and my faith in God. I like to integrate my faith into my teaching, especially with those students who I know share my faith in God or who are being brought up in this faith at home. I think it is important to support parents in this most critical area in their child’s life.
There are areas of my teaching and in my philosophy of education that while not overtly Christian, point to my faith in Christ and God’s Word. While not all Christians or non-Christians will share the same philosophy of education, understanding what their world view is and how this affects their teaching is imperative for parents and students interested in getting instruction that aligns with their beliefs. I was made keenly aware of one of these areas just this week in two different circumstances.
The discussion arose with a colleague about the balance between teaching technique and creativity. While I think most teachers fall between the two extremes of teaching only creativity or only technique there is a large continuum between these two extremes. This separation of teaching styles and approaches can vastly affect what a student learns.
For me, I see students as being naturally creative. The Bible tells us that we are made in the image of God. We are different from the animals and all the rest of creation. We are unique, and possess a reflection of who our Creator is. I believe one of these reflected attributes is creativity. We come out of the womb with an inherent need and desire to create. We take pleasure in making things and expressing ourselves through creative endeavors. Our creative spirits and the things we produce give evidence of our Creator God.
Now, let us not think that we create in the same way as God. The Bible tells us that God created ex nihilo (out of nothing). We create with only what God has given us to use. Even our intangible ideas and thoughts would not exist were it not for God giving us the ability to have them. God took nothing, and with a word spoke into existence our reality. We use the elements of the created earth to make, build and create.
Our World View in Action
In the sphere of intellectual discussion on teaching there arise many different ideas about creativity. Many teachers believe creativity needs to be taught to students, and spend great amounts of lesson time trying to do this. Many “skills-oriented” teachers are criticized by “creativity-oriented” teachers who say that they should not be so focused on technique, posture, and learning to read music because these things hinder a student’s creative process. They argue that if a student spends most of his time learning technique he will become a robotic and boring player who only knows how to execute exactly what’s on the page and will never truly create music of his own.
However, if we come from the world view standpoint that students are naturally creative we will approach lessons much differently. I believe creativity should be a part of lessons and a student’s experience musically, but we do not need to try to teach them something they already possess. Instead we ought to be taking their natural creative spirit and giving them opportunities and tools to be able to express this through their instrument and through music. Therefore skills and technique must be paramount in a teacher’s instruction when considering how to best tap into a student’s creativity.
I think it’s also important to note that technique and skill instruction does not inherently squelch creativity. On the contrary it encourages it! We are most inspired when we are surrounded by the creativity of others and understand what makes effective music. How often is creativity spurred by being holed up solely in one’s own mind and thoughts?
Creativity Comes to Life
We know from the Bible that God created us to be interpersonal beings, learning from one another and being influenced through relationships. When we talk over ideas with others, study the creative works of the masters, hear professional performances, and are taught how the pros do what they do, our minds begin to spin with possibilities! Our creative natures open up to a world yet undiscovered and we see possibilities that were previously undetected.
Learning technique and skill helps our creativity in another way as well. Remember that I said that students will only be able to use their creative nature to express what’s inside to the degree that they are proficient in the medium with which they seek to create? A student may have the most imaginative mind on the face of the planet; he may possess an innumerable number of ideas which have yet to be exhibited; he may spend all the time in the world working to make these ideas become reality; but, without technique and skill all he will achieve is a trite and simplistic version of what he sees in his mind’s eye. However, the student who has been instructed in the intricacies of his art and has spent the time and effort it takes to master his discipline; that student will be the one to succeed. That student will be able to make his ideas become reality.
The difference between this success or a succession of frustrated attempts is technique and skill. There is no substitute and there is no shortcut. Our world view directly affects how and what we teach and the results that ensue.
I hope this post challenges you to think more about your own world view, where it comes from, why you hold to it, and how it affects your teaching or the teaching of your child.
As a teacher it’s exciting to me to have students ask this question! It shows me they are enthusiastic about learning and have a goal for themselves. Sometimes they may be asking about something we can start learning right away – other times it’s something that requires some pre-requisite steps.
As a teacher it’s a question I often rephrase myself when thinking about choosing student repertoire, or how long a student should work on a piece or technique. The question then becomes; “When should he/she be taught _______?” or “How long should we spend on ______?” I find that in the realm of teaching, the answers to these questions can be drastically different from teacher to teacher.
I would like to share two principles that guide my approach to teaching: the principle of correctness and the principle of thoroughness.
Student: “When do I get to play with my bow?”
Me: When you have learned how to hold it correctly!
I’ll use this question as a specific example since it’s a question students often ask and an answer I often have to give! The above answer generally includes the ability of the student to have all their fingers placed correctly on the bow and be comfortable with their bow hold. I determine when a student is comfortable with their bow hold through a series of exercises designed to teach the purpose of what each finger does on the bow by mimicking the weight shift that should occur in the hand and fingers while playing in different parts of the bow. This sets students up beautifully for playing with their bow because they understanding the function of the bow hold both cognitively and experientially before ever placing it on the violin strings. They are not simply placing the fingers where they are told. There are so many things to think about once a student puts their bow to the strings that it’s imperative that they be at least moderately comfortable with their bow hand before preceding to play with the bow.
We’ll take whatever time is needed to make sure it’s done correctly.
Insisting that something be done correctly before a student can move on requires that a teacher, student and parent (for young children) be prepared to spend as long as it takes to achieve the desired results.
Many parents have remarked at how patient I am with their child, helping them to learn the desired skill. I feel it’s more accurately described as dedication (since I wouldn’t generally characterize myself as a patient person!), but whatever you want to call it, I’m committed to teaching students how to do things well. In order to do something well it has to be done correctly – which is easiest to do at the start. I see no point in letting students “slide” or allowing them to proceed before mastering the basic level techniques required for achieving success in the future.
Many teachers will only spend a certain amount of time on a certain technique before they “give up” and allow the student to move on despite the fact that they haven’t mastered the technique. While this may be more “fun” for the student I don’t believe it’s in their best interest. It will be far harder for the student to come back and master the technique once a bad habit is allowed to slip into the mix. I don’t care how long it takes a student to learn how to hold their bow correctly. We’ll keep working until they get it – then we can start to learn how to play with it! In the long run the student will encounter less frustration and more success and pleasure from their instrument because they won’t have to grapple with the repercussions of well meaning teachers who put “fun” above skill in the early stages of learning.
In addition to learning things correctly from the start, I also place a high priority on learning things thoroughly.
Many a student has learned the notes and rhythms of a piece and has been “passed” on it by their teacher without having accomplished the many other basics of their instrument and of the piece. Things like:
- bow hold
- left hand technique
- correct use of bow arm
- sound quality/tone
- bow distribution
- appropriate bow style/stroke
- instrument positioning
- accurate intonation
It’s not that these things have gone unmentioned or unpracticed – but they have not been done thoroughly. Doing something correctly once, or knowing that something is not right does no good unless it is corrected and done right consistently.
Do it correctly – do it repetitively.
Thoroughness is exemplified by consistency, and consistency can only be achieved by repetition.
When a student can consistently achieve the same results I know they have learned the skill thoroughly. Does this mean a student plays Mary Had a Little Lamb just like I can before they are allowed to move on? No, but what it does mean is that mastering the notes and rhythms are not enough. A student must also have thoroughly learned the basic aspects of the items in the list above to the degree required by the demands of the piece. Only then will the student be sufficiently set up for proceeding to the next piece, because the next piece will add on to what the student should have learned in the piece before. If they did not learn it in the piece before they will have an even harder time learning it in the next piece because there will be other things to concentrate on.
In my experience the multiplication of basic techniques allowed to go un-mastered from piece to piece only leads to frustration. Unfortunately many students who genuinely enjoy their instrument eventually quit because they become frustrated after the “fun” of moving ahead becomes a burden of un-mastered techniques seemingly too large to overcome.
I would rather have a student learn one piece well than ten pieces moderately. When a student is not pushed to learn the disciplines of correctness and thoroughness they will only ever become “moderate”. I believe each student has the ability to achieve excellence at each level of learning. Dedication to an instrument defined by correctness and thoroughness not only sets them up for musical success, but will set them up for success in other areas of their life. Once they experience excellence they will be motivated to achieve this at school and in the work place. They will not settle for the “it’s good enough” syndrome that seems to plague the US today. They will gain an appreciation for hard work and achieve something they can be proud of – something their friends who learned ten pieces moderately haven’t yet experienced.
These are not the only two factors that go into the decision of when a student moves forward. One cannot completely codify or simplify the process. However, I hope that the two guiding principles I have discussed in this post will enrich your understanding of my teaching philosophy and encourage you to seek mastery of a piece for yourself, your child or your student(s) in the areas of correctness and thoroughness as I do for myself and my students!
Currently my studio consists of about half adult students, most of whom came to me as complete beginners. Being an adult learner has many challenges, and many adult students find learning the violin more difficult than expected. However, there are quite a few advantages to being an adult learner which I feel are important to recognize. I hope these will encourage both those adults who are currently grappling with learning the violin or viola, as well as those who are considering starting lessons.
Advantage #1: Adult students learn cognitive concepts more quickly
Adult students can be taught the “nuts and bolts” of music fairly easily. How the staff works, the relationship between note values, and the general rudiments of music theory are generally assimilated very quickly. As a rule, adult students are usually eager for explanation and appreciate knowing the “whys” and “hows” of what is being taught which affords them the advantage of rich understanding early on.
Advantage #2: Adult students have longer attention spans
While learning an instrument at a young age has its benefits – attention span is certainly not one of them! Adult learners tend to be more focused on the task at hand, and will painstakingly repeat things until they master the task. Adult learners also see the benefit of focus and have most likely learned this necessary skill at some other point in their lives. This mental endurance serves them well as they seek to learn a new skill.
Advantage #3: Adult students don’t tire as quickly
There are many physical aspects to playing an instrument – some of which require use of muscles not normally employed on a daily basis for everyday tasks. The adult student generally does not have as much of a problem with these physical demands and can play and practice for longer periods of time without tiring, thus building more quickly the endurance and muscle tone needed for their instrument.
Advantage #4: Adults understand that anything worth doing requires hard work
Adults come into their first lesson ready and willing to work – children come into their first lesson ready for fun! While both work and fun are part of learning an instrument, and something I endeavor to incorporate into the lessons I teach, a good work ethic is one of the great advantages to being an adult. The teacher can then hone that desire to work hard into practical tasks that yield results, which is when things become fun!
Advantage #5: There’s no “3rd party”
Adults are the one taking the lessons, paying for the lessons, practicing for the lessons, and getting themselves to and from lessons. Adults know what’s going on at all times during practice sessions at home and can communicate that from a first hand standpoint to receive helpful feedback from their teacher at lessons. Adult learners communicate directly with their teacher at all times. This cuts down on a lot of external communication time that often takes place with younger learners reliant on their parents for guidance, support, transportation and finances.
Advantage #6: Adults have previous musical experience
Whether or not an adult has taken formal music lessons before, they have had the benefit of being exposed to music in one or more capacities before they decide to learn an instrument. Most likely they have had general music in school, maybe even played an instrument in a school ensemble, and most certainly have listened to and been an appreciator of music for years, perhaps even participating in musical endeavors in their church. This offers them a rich bank of information, usually yet untapped, for them to draw from as they begin to piece the new musical knowledge they are learning into order in their own minds. This previous experience shows itself most frequently through the insightful questions that adult students ask. More often than not “light bulbs” go on for them as they suddenly realize how bits of information fit together to form a whole. It can be very exciting for adult students to finally understand things they have been exposed to for years but have never had explained to them!
Advantage #7: Adults are full grown
Adults have completed the growing process and are fully mature physically. While this can be a set back, as adult students are therefore not as flexible as children, they benefit from the fact that they don’t have to worry about adjusting as their bodies go through the normal changes of adolescence like young children must eventually do. They will play on a full size instrument right from the first lesson, while children must struggle with re-familiarizing themselves with a bigger instrument as they grow. Bigger instruments get fuller sounds than their smaller counterparts, which can be a great encouragement to the adult learner as they seek to make beautiful music.
Advantage #8: Adults are more easily taught how to practice
If you’ve read some of my other blog posts you may have noted that I emphasize quality practice, which is just as much a skill that needs to be learned as the skills one is trying to master learning an instrument. Children are often reliant upon parents to help them with this task – a skill the parents might not have acquired themselves yet. Adults on the other hand, being firsthand recipients of the learner process as discussed in Advantage #5 and having more developed cognitive capabilities as discussed in Advantage #1, will be able to learn this skill more quickly. Because the skills required to learn an instrument can only progress in proportion to the practicing skills employed by the learner this is a great advantage for the adult student!
Advantage #9: Adults are their own problem solvers
Being an adult affords one the history of working through many problems of various sorts. Adults have had to solve difficult dilemmas and understand the benefit of approaching a task multiple ways to find the best solution. These same problem solving skills are helpful to the adult learner as they will encounter difficult road blocks in their learning. While they have their teacher during lessons to help them overcome difficulties, their teacher will not be with them during their daily practicing. In between lessons the student who is their own problem solver will be able to progress more quickly. Adults have a one-up on children in this area – and will tend to persevere rather than melt in frustration when things get tough.
Adult students: You may wish you had started learning your instrument earlier – but I hope this list provides fresh insight as you consider the many benefits of being an adult learner!
When starting private instrumental instruction on violin or viola, most parents and students expect to have to invest (either by purchasing or renting) in an instrument, a bow and a case. Most understand that a purchase of sheet music and repertoire books are probably also necessary. However, there are additional expenses, both up front and on a continual basis, of which students and parents may not be aware.
This post was inspired and adapted from an instrument expense list compiled by my friend, colleague, and fellow violin and viola teacher, Heather Hennessey.
I hope that this expository list of common violin and viola expenses will help you prepare financially and mentally for some of the things required to adequately prepare you or your child for a lifetime enjoyment of learning!
Expected purchases from the start:
- Instrument Outfit – (Rented or Purchased)
Students and parents will obviously be expected to plan on the up front, and continued expense for lessons. Students and parents should also expect that as progress takes place, a longer lesson time will eventually be necessary. More advanced music requires more instructional time and more advanced students will have a larger amount of repertoire, etudes and scales that they are learning. Lesson expenses vary by region and teacher. Usually teachers with more experience/training cost more. A good teacher is a must at any age or ability level. Expect that as lesson length increases, cost will increase, but not usually at a 1:1 ratio. (Hour lessons are usually not twice as much as 1/2 hour lessons).
Students will be expected to either rent or purchase an instrument, bow and case before the first lesson. The combination of all three of these is called an instrument outfit. The quality of the instrument outfit is important, even for young beginners. Poor instruments and bows will require the student to work harder than necessary and students will form bad habits to compensate for the unresponsiveness of their instrument. They will also have trouble executing what their teacher is asking them to do, which will result in frustration. The violin and viola are hard enough without the added frustration of a poor instrument or bow!
An adequate quality student instrument outfit will usually cost between $300-500 (for a full size). As a student advances, you will want to plan on purchasing a higher quality instrument and bow. The progressing student’s technique will outgrow a student instrument and they will require a higher quality instrument and bow to accommodate their playing and continued training. Better quality instruments and bows are usually sold separately, so plan on spending at least $1,000 for an instrument and $500 for a bow as a preliminary upgrade.
For any instrument purchase be wary of Craigslist/Ebay instruments. While you can find deals on these sites you need to know what you are looking for. Never buy an instrument without first looking at it and playing on it. To insure that you are getting something worthwhile always involve your teacher in instrument purchases. Sometimes the repairs on poorly made or neglected instruments are costly and may not be worth the end result. Remember: a quality instrument is an investment, can last a lifetime, and will appreciate in value when cared for properly. A poor quality instrument is wasted money.
Instrument outfits can also be rented, which is what I recommend for children. Renting gives you flexibility. Should your child decide they don’t want to take lessons anymore, you have not invested in an expensive instrument. If your child wants to switch instruments the same applies. It is also a convenient way to deal with the fact that as children grow they will need bigger instruments. Renting also takes some of the expense of repairs off of you as many stores will take care of general maintenance and common repairs for free. Renting until you know your child is committed to lessons, or until they grow into a full size instrument may be better for your budget.
There are several different types of rental programs offered by local music stores. Rent-to-own programs offer you the option of a pay-as-you-go plan, and many stores will keep track of the money you pay in rental fees and offer you trade in value when you need a bigger instrument, or want to purchase a higher quality instrument. Usually you will pay higher rental fees for rent-to-own or trade in programs. In addition to rental costs some stores also charge a one time up-front fee. This may be refundable or non-refundable depending on the store. A general price range for rental instruments is $15 – 40/month with an up-front fee of $0 – 50.
Students will usually be expected to purchase several items of music before the first lesson, or shortly thereafter, unless the student already has adequate repertoire. While this is an upfront expense, it is also an ongoing one. As students progress they will need additional method books, individual pieces, scale books and etude collections. The more advanced student should expect to be asked to play, and therefore purchase, a larger amount of repertoire. Usually these pieces are more expensive than the music purchased at the beginning and intermediate levels. Prices on music, scale books, method books and repertoire vary greatly and can range anywhere from $5–50.
Purchases that may or may not be included in an instrument outfit, but are necessary:
- Shoulder rest
- Fine Tuners
The bow will not produce sound unless there is rosin. The rosin allows the barbs of the horsehair to “grab” the string to make it vibrate. Rosin needs to be reapplied every so often to keep the bow playing smoothly and easily. For younger/beginner students rosin only costs a few dollars and is often included in instrument outfits. As students advance and better quality instruments and bows are purchased, a higher quality rosin ($15-30) makes a difference in sound quality and play-ability. Rosin lasts many years unless broken by being dropped.
Shoulder rests are helpful for comfort, ease of holding the violin, and for promoting good posture and technique. Young students often do not need an expensive should rest. Molded sponges can be purchased very inexpensively ($5) and can be cut to fit the neck height of the student. Sometimes these sponges can be slippery, so even young beginners may need to invest in a shoulder rest. Kun and Wolf are good brands for shoulder rests. They retail for almost $50, but I have had good success finding them below $30 online. When students become physically mature, other shoulder rests may be appropriate to accommodate their individual body type. Shoulder rests are made to fit the various sizes of instruments, so they will need to be replaced when a student changes instrument sizes. A good shoulder rest should last for several years, and will only occasionally need parts replaced if they wear out.
All students should plan on purchasing a music stand for home use if they do not already have one. Music stands are essential for promoting good posture and technique. Students should never be reading music that is placed on a table or propped up on their instrument case or a chair. This is bad training, can cause physical pain, promotes poor technique, and fosters the lifetime habit of slouching. Music stands can also be conduits of bad posture and poor technique if the stand is not high enough for the student, so make sure the music stand can be raised to a height where the middle of the stand is at eye level.
The cheapest music stands available are wire. These are usually fine for the beginning student and cost around $15. However, as a student grows and progresses you will most likely want to invest in a hard-back stand. While more expensive (usually starting at around $30), these stands are more sturdy (so they will support heavier music volumes) and they are generally taller. “Tall” stands are also available for students that find regular sized hard-back stands still too short. I also like hard-back stands because you can easily mark music, and light does not shine through single pages of music making it hard to read. If a student needs a portable stand, wire stands are the most convenient, but there are quite a few hard-back stands that fold and come with carrying bags. I have one for gigging and love it! They are no more expensive than their non-folding hard-back stand counterparts. Whatever hard-back stand you choose, these are generally a one time purchase, and when taken care of well will last a lifetime!
I require all my students to own a metronome. They are essential for developing good rhythm and are helpful in a variety of practicing techniques. Students in my studio will most likely use them every lesson!
Most metronomes also include a tuner option. While any metronome that clicks is fine (providing the click is loud enough for the student to hear) not all tuners are equal. Some tuners only play an A. This is fine for more advanced students who are comfortable with tuning their instrument. However, for students that are learning how to tune their instruments I like to have a metronome that plays the four pitches of the open strings as well as has a pitch recognition option that tells the student if their string is in tune or not. I have my students tune by ear first, and then check themselves to see if they are right, using the pitch recognition option. It is important that a student does not tune only using a pitch recognition tuner as this does not train their ear, and it is also important that a student has something to check themselves against after they finish tuning by ear so that they make sure they are practicing on an in-tune instrument. Out of tune instruments will be detrimental in training the ear.
Metronome/tuners will start at around $15. Usually you can find a fairly inexpensive metronome that also includes a tuner. These are generally a one time purchase and will only require occasional battery changes.
It is important to have good quality strings for intonation and sound production. A nice set of strings can make an average violin sound better and a good violin sound amazing! For smaller instruments and beginners, I recommend Dominant strings. They are relatively inexpensive but have a decent sound. You will also want to consider purchasing a back up set of strings. Sometimes a string will break. If this happens you don’t want a student to miss out on valuable practice time or lesson time because they don’t have a replacement string. Strings do have a shelf life and they do wear out. For beginners and intermediate students, I let them play on their strings until they sound bad or will not hold a tune, and/or they start to show visible signs of wear. As students progress, it is standard to change strings at least once a year. String cost varies depending on the brand and quality of the strings. String sets start at around $40 and will go up from there. Advanced students should expect to pay around $70 – 90 for a set of strings.
While some teachers may not think of these as an accessory, I do. While it is common for violins to have one fine tuner (on the E string), students will most likely want to get fine tuners on all four strings. Usually (and especially on student instruments) the pegs are difficult to use. Since I like to have my students learn how to tune their instruments from the first lesson, fine tuners are essential. Fine tuners are not expensive, and you can easily have your local instrument shop add these to any instrument.
In addition to the cost of lessons most teachers also encourage and expect students to perform. While not all performances will require a fee you will want to be prepared for this possibility. Performance is an intricate part of learning an instrument at all ages and levels of playing. Here are some of the performance opportunities a studio teacher may offer:
- Studio Recitals
- Master Classes
The Studio Recital is a concert where all the students of a particular teacher perform. It’s purpose is two-fold; To provide students the opportunity to perform, and to provide students the opportunity to hear others play. Studio Recitals vary greatly in form and context from one teacher to the next. Some teachers may choose to host a Studio Recital in their home, while others may choose a nursing home, church or school as the venue. Studio Recitals can be formal or informal depending on the desire of the teacher. Usually teachers host 1-3 Studio Recitals a year for their students.
Studio Recitals may or may not require a fee from parents and participating students. Some teachers choose to provide this as a service included in a student’s lesson fees. Other teachers may choose to enact a separate fee for each Studio Recital from those who choose to participate. Whether or not there is a fee greatly depends on the cost to the teacher of providing this opportunity for their students. Renting a venue or paying for the use of equipment may require that a teacher charge a minimal fee for holding Studio Recitals.
Festivals and Competitions
Many teachers provide the opportunity for their students to participate in local state or regional festivals and competitions. Festivals are usually non-competitive while competitions, by nature, require students to compete against one another. Both festivals and competitions usually give students the opportunity to perform for an adjudicator where they receive comments, criticisms and an overall grade or score on their playing. Festivals may or may not offer awards/ribbons for participation and scores while competitions almost always have a prize involved (sometimes monetary) for the highest ranking players.
There is usually a cost associated with all festivals and competitions. Sometimes this cost is included in lesson fees, but most likely it will be an extra fee. It may be an annual fee that all students of a participating teacher’s studio must pay and/or there may be an individual fee for choosing to participate in each festival or competition.
The Master Class is usually reserved for more advanced students and is basically a private lesson given by a “master player” in front of an audience. However, I have offered similar opportunities on a smaller scale to all my students by making this part of the recital experience or by having a smaller group at my home where students have mini-lessons in front of each other. I usually use the latter as an opportunity for students to prepare for a festival or competition.
Master Classes may or may not have a fee. College students often get to participate in Master Classes as part of their college tuition, whereas those not already paying for an education will usually have to pay as a participant and/or an audience member to attend.
Repairs and Maintenance
In order to keep your instrument and bow in good working order, and to avoid extra unnecessary expenses, it is essential to maintain your instrument and get repairs done promptly when needed.
Bows need to be rehaired regularly. The barbs on the horsehair wear off and then the bow is unable to produce a good sound. It also becomes difficult to play. For beginners, you should rehair the bow when a student cannot produce a good sound. As students progress, bows should be rehaired about once a year. Bow rehairs cost between $30-50.
Other maintanance is the responsibility of the owner. You should wipe down your instrument and bow (stick only) regularly with an appropriate cloth to keep rosin from building up. Make sure that you loosen the bow hair after each playing session. Also, be aware of temperature and humidity changes so that you are not leaving your instrument in conditions that will cause the wood to warp and crack. In general, instruments should not be left in the car or any space with an unregulated temperature.
We hope that the violin will never need serious repairs, but there are some repairs that are normal and expected. These repairs include: warped bridges, open seams, worn pegs, and worn fingerboards. Bridges tend to warp easily, even when cared for properly. Depending on your bridge this may need to be done every few years. Open seams are also a common repair and occur often during the change of the seasons. The glue holding instruments together is meant to come apart if the wood expands or contracts too much, too quickly. This allows the instrument to “breath” without causing cracks in the body. Repairing open seams is fairly easy, but you will not want to attempt this yourself unless you have been trained how to do it! Pegs and fingerboards wear out with use and generally need to be reshaped. This happens very infrequently and usually only with advanced students who are playing hard on their instruments several hours each day. There are other repairs that are less common and usually due to some ill use. These include: snapped tail pieces, loose buttons, cracks, broken neck, fallen sound post, etc. Repair costs vary. You will want to be aware and prepared for the common repairs. Keep up on your maintenance and treat your instrument with care to avoide unnecessary repairs!
If you are new to the violin or viola this expository list may seem daunting and “expensive”. Don’t worry, it’s not as bad as it seems! Expenses are usually spread out over a period of time and as you get more familiar with your instrument it will become second nature to care for it properly and know what to expect when it comes to purchases. Just being aware of the information in this post will put you ahead of most students! Remember also that your teacher is there to help you. Don’t hesitate to ask if you don’t know why an expense is necessary. There’s usually a good answer, and it will make you feel so much better about spending the money when you know what it is!
When we practice, we are seeking to create a chain of physical and mental processes that work together to produce a whole comprehensive unit, which allows us to execute whatever music we are attempting to play. When either a physical and/or mental link is broken we could say our melody becomes ‘unchained’, which results in us making mistakes. Our goal in practicing is to take these “unchained melodies” and “chain” them.
This may sound complicated, but let me attempt to explain how this process works, why most students spend their practice time ingraining unchained melodies, and how we can break the cycle and chain our mental and physical links to get the results we are seeking.
Let me first define what I mean specifically by physical and mental links.
Physical Links are those things which pertain to any part of a chain that involves us using a part of our body. We often refer to these things as our technique. They include any movement as well as how we are holding our instrument or the posture of our body. Muscle memory is an example of a physical link.
Mental Links are those parts of the chain which take place inside our head. They are the thought processes we must go through to execute physical links. They can be conscious or unconscious. Mental links could also be defined as the synapses and neurological patterns that exist in our brains. As my husband likes to say “neurons that fire together wire together”. Cute, catchy and true.
To most of us it is easy to understand that there are physical links involved in playing an instrument. What is easy to overlook is that each physical link that occurs must be preceded by, and happens in conjunction with, a mental link. Both these physical and mental links are part of the completed connected chain. In as much as these links are responsible for getting things right when we play, they are also just as much responsible for when we get things wrong. Therefore, both must be addressed when correcting a mistake.
Let’s work backwards. Mistakes are an indication that there are one or more broken mental and/or physical links in our chain. Most students will notice a mistake and do one of three things:
- They take a mental note of it and keep going;
- They stop, go back to the mistake, play it correctly and keep going;
- They stop, go back to the top of the piece (or somewhere before the mistake) and play it again hoping for a different result.
All three of these approaches fail in actually addressing the mistake in a way that will correct the broken link(s) in the chain.
I have given you a third of the information you need already to fix an unchained melody. The next third of information that is needed is to understand that when we make a mistake the problem actually occurs before the mistake that we hear. We were either not mentally prepared or we were not physically prepared for a certain note, passage or technique and therefore failed to execute it properly. In order to fix this problem we need to go back to the chain before the mistake and work out the physical and/or mental links that went wrong.
Here is where a teacher is necessary. The last third of the information we need in order to successfully chain our unchained melodies is to identify the particular physical and mental links that are broken and know how to correct them. A good teacher will be able to hear the mistake, identify the problem before the mistake, break it down into its physical and mental components, address both the physical and mental components with the student, and show the student what they need to do at home that week to fix the mistake. Parents are also necessary to this last third of the solution, especially for younger students who will need help in following the plan the teacher has outlined. Over time a student will be able to take on some of this process themselves. Our goal is that eventually the student will have all the necessary tools to successfully do this completely on their own.
Often when I am teaching and a student makes a mistake I will tell them to “try again”. This sounds strangely similar to one or all of the three things I listed that students often do themselves that I said were unsuccessful ways of dealing with a mistake. You’re right! There are three reasons for initially taking this approach:
- If the student has done their work during the week in working to correct this mistake both physically and mentally, it gives them another chance to “rethink” what they were doing. Often another chance is all that’s needed. Successfully executing the mistake on the second try shows me that the student has the necessary tools to correct this mistake. Failure to execute it on the first try just means that the student needs some more repetition to ingrain the repaired links.
- If the mistake is one that the student has never made before, and the student has executed the passage or technique flawlessly many times before, it may just have been a fluke. Allowing the student to do it again doesn’t waste precious lesson time on correcting a mistake that doesn’t actually exist.
- While the student is getting one more attempt at solving the problem themselves I get the opportunity to see the mistake happen again, and can specifically watch one element or another to accurately assess, or more thoroughly address the origin of the problem.
If the problem still exists after taking this approach once it is important to move on and identify if the mistake was due to a physical and/or mental broken link. As a teacher I usually know whether a mental or physical link is missing, and nine times out of ten it is a combination of the two. Sometimes I will tell my students precisely what the problem is. Other times I will ask them what they think the problem might be so I can help them learn to do this process themselves.
As a student or parent, being aware of the fact that mistakes are only a symptom of the real problem (a broken mental or physical link) allows you to begin the process of learning how to practice correctly and successfully, or help your child practice correctly and successfully. It allows you to take the information that you or your child learns in lessons and put it to the best use possible.
Here is a summary of the three components necessary to fix unchained melodies:
- Note that mistakes are a symptom. They indicate that there is a broken physical and/or mental link.
- Broken links happen before mistakes.
- Get a teacher to help you and/or your child identify where the chain broke, and the mental and/or physical links responsible. They should prescribe a solution that you can go home and use to fix the mistake over the next week.
For more information on what some of these solutions might look like, and what types of practicing techniques are useful in repairing broken links, please read some of my previous blog posts on practicing, and be looking for future posts to come!