The Marriage of the School and Private Instructor

Posted on 18th August 2012

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!

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

Teaching and World View

Posted on 30th March 2012

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!

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.

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

Advantages of Being an Adult Learner

Posted on 18th February 2012

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!

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

Additional Expenses?

Posted on 4th September 2011

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!

The Basics

Expected purchases from the start:

  • Lessons
  • Instrument Outfit – (Rented or Purchased)
  • Music


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:

  • Rosin
  • Shoulder rest
  • Stand
  • Metronome/Tuner
  • Strings
  • 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

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.

Music Stands

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.

Fine Tuners

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
  • Festivals/Competitions
  • Master Classes

Studio Recitals

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.

Master Classes

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!

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

Performance Anxiety

Posted on 26th July 2011

Performance anxiety and nerves come in varying degrees. They can range from a mild feeling of anticipation to a debilitating fear. Some nerves can be helpful, providing stamina and excitement for the performer. However, performance anxiety can often be crippling as it sucks the joy out of playing, and can cause the performer to be physically unable to execute the desired task at hand.

I have had performance anxiety ever since I was a kid. I didn’t even like practicing when my parents could hear me because I was worried about messing up. My brother and I used to arrange to practice at the same time, which felt much “safer” to me. When a performance or audition came around my performance anxiety often took control of me and rendered me unable to play even close to my potential.

Students often tell me, especially my adult students, that they are nervous to play for me in their lessons. I understand this as well as I often felt that pang of adrenaline as I strove desperately to show my teacher that I had accomplished the task I had been asked to work on the previous week.

Many people with mild performance anxiety claim that their nerves help them perform even better, and that after they get going in a performance the nerves go away and leave behind an adrenaline rush that propels them through their program.

This is great, and I wish I could say this can be everyone’s experience if they just learn how to control their nerves. However, I don’t think this is the case for those of us who I would describe as having severe and often debilitating performance anxiety. I’m won’t tell you “it gets better each time you do it” or “just give it time, it will go away” or “stop worrying, you just need to let the music happen”. I would like to share some of the practical advice I’ve found helpful on how to manage performance anxiety so that we can learn to play with the nerves that are bound to be there.

Learning to play with performance anxiety starts in your practicing. We need to learn how to differentiate between practicing to learn the music and practicing to perform. Learn the music first, then set up ways to practice overcoming the nerves that you know are going to occur. For those with extreme anxiety, this has to be done with every new piece you learn.

1) One good way to do this is to make yourself nervous in situations that don’t matter, so that by the time you get to the performance that does matter, you have confidence that you CAN play, even if you feel nervous. Here are some options:
a) Play for people who make you nervous. Family, friends, your teacher, neighbors, a Sunday School class, the babysitter, the cat or dog, whoever! Most people are happy to help you out and are often blessed to hear you play. If you don’t have the opportunity to do this (or are too nervous to even ask someone to come listen to you, like me) then you can use the following methods, and perhaps work up to using this first suggestion.
b) Just think about having an audience. Just pretending there is someone there (I usually visualize someone specific that I know or want to impress) will make me nervous. Use your power of imagination to visualize yourself in the room where you will perform. Who will be there? What will it feel like? What will be going on in your head? What do you want to be going through your head? Practice the mental and physical aspects of your performance through your imagination until you are comfortable with what will happen. Or, practice in a variety of different situations, so that no matter what happens during your performance, you have prepared!
c) Tape record yourself. I get nervous just playing for a tape recorder. This option has the added benefit that you can listen back to what you played. Sometimes what you think you sound like is not what you actually sound like at all! When we take lessons we have the advantage of someone “screening” our playing and telling us what our playing sounds like at a distance. Since being out of school I find playing for a tape recorder is one of the best ways for me to judge my playing as someone else would hear it. It helps me know what to better work on and the more I work and rerecord the more I’m working out my nerves.
d) Whatever it is that makes you most nervous, practice this FIRST; Perhaps it’s starting a certain piece, or the first piece you will have to play, the hardest piece, etc. Play whatever is most difficult, or of concern to you with no warm up and pretend you have to get it right the first time. Usually if I can do this I will feel pretty confident that I can do it when I go to perform it. Nerves can often take on a very similar feeling to not being warmed up. When you’re not warmed up your muscles are often tight and won’t move and nothing feels “normal”. Capitalize on this! If you know physically and mentally how to “make” your body perform difficult things when it is not warmed up, you will have a better chance of being able to “make” it perform when you are up in front of an audience.

2) The last point in section one relates to this next section. Really know the ins and outs of HOW you need to execute a piece of music. There are two important reasons for this:
a) I find that often times the things I mess up on are the things that in my practice time come naturally to me, or are things I have struggled with, but haven’t actually mastered. I find that really analyzing what my hands need to do to make the notes sound clean, to make the dynamics happen, to make the rhythm accurate, etc. helps me master the music. We can’t practice on auto pilot and expect to play well when we are nervous. We need to know our music and how to play it better than anyone who has ever played it before. We want to avoid the “holding on for dear life” feeling during difficult passages. We want to approach these passages with the mindset and ability that comes from conquering those difficult notes.
b) Another important reason to really know how to execute your music is that it will get your brain back on track during a performance when all of a sudden you have a brain freeze and the notes on the page look like gibberish!! This is when your muscle memory (honed by point (a) above) needs to kick in for you to keep going, but you want to be able to regain control of your brain as soon as possible. Having something to latch on to helps bring your brain back to rational thinking and in the meantime helps you execute the music. It’s like a defibrillator for musicians! It also gives you something to think about other than how horrible things are sounding. This is very important because if you continue to think about how awful things are, they’re probably just going to get worse!

3) Feel like you could play the music in your sleep. I need to feel so comfortable with a piece of music that when I play it I’m not worried about anything. This comes from repeating things I know I can play so it almost feels useless to practice it anymore because I’m so comfortable with it. This is not mindless repetition. I’m constantly analyzing things, reminding myself of what I need to be thinking about, and trying to figure out if there is something I can do to make the passages feel even easier to play. Eventually these thoughts come more naturally, as do the techniques I am employing to make the music happen more easily. Now of course we’re probably not going to master everything. There are some things that will always cause us to a heightened awareness as we approach them because they are so hard, BUT my goal is to minimize these things. If I have put in the work, and I know I know the music, I can tell my brain to calm down because it knows what it’s doing. My brain will only respond though when it actually believes it knows what it’s doing. There are no shortcuts. You either know it or you don’t. This is where section 2 above comes in handy.

4) Know that you’re never going to feel as comfortable performing as when you practice at home. I had a teacher tell me once, “your goal is just to raise the percentage accuracy of your performance, not to achieve a 100%”. This was good to hear for a perfectionist like me! If you’re currently performing at 50% of what you know you can do don’t try to jump to 100%, just work on getting to 65 or 70%. I’m never going to perform at 100% and I know that. Knowing that helps me lower my expectations of myself to something reasonable to attain. I will always be disappointed if I’m aiming for an unattainable goal. When I can make a realistic goal for myself then I am more likely to improve because I will feel more positive for at least doing better, instead of beating myself up for sounding so lousy! If you can teach yourself not to expect yourself to perform like how you practice it will take some of the pressure off. Raising your overall playing level helps with this too. If you are currently stuck at playing at 75% of your actually ability, then practice to raise your actual ability level and 75% will sound a whole lot better too!

I hope some of these tips are helpful to you, and I hope that those of you who suffer from extreme performance anxiety as I do will take heart that you are not alone. Sometimes just being understood about what you are going through up on stage from someone who has been there is help enough. As a bonus I hope you can learn from what has helped me so that you can help yourself!

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

Violin Shopping!

Posted on 25th February 2011

Ok, so you’re ready to purchase a violin! Great! This is an exciting time with the anticipation of having an instrument all your own, that you’ve picked out, and that you love!  However, the process can quickly become overwhelming and discouraging. So, to keep this experience positive I wanted to give you a few guidelines.

First, watch the video found at the link below. It’s about 10 minutes long and is chock-full of good information that can help you go into the process with a plan that will work.

Once you’ve watched the video you will have a good idea of where to begin, what to prepare before shopping, and what to look for in the shopping process.

A few additions to the info on this video from my experience:

  1. Do your instrument testing blindly. Have a price range in mind (say $1500-$3000). Ask the violin shop owner for the instruments in this price range but DON’T look or have him tell you the prices! Knowing the price of the instrument can skew your impressions. We automatically are wired to think that more expensive instruments will sound better, but this may not be the case. So choose 5–10 instruments and blindly test them using the principles in the video. After you’ve eliminated your choices to 3 or fewer and you’re ready to take them home to try them out then you can look at the prices. See which ones you picked and which ones you left. Don’t second guess yourself if you eliminated one that was more expensive. Take the advice in the video and go with your gut. The instrument you eliminated might be great… but just may not be right for you. Go with what you liked and with what worked for you!
  2. When I was shopping for a violin I often focused on very simple melodies because they gave me the best impression of what the sound of the instrument was like. More technical repertoire helped me discern playability, but I found the most helpful tool was my slower melodies. You can tell a lot from an instrument by just using a simple melody. Dig in, play lightly, test all the strings and different positions. I found that usually the instruments I liked best playing slow melodies, gave me the greatest depth in sound and response from my more advanced repertoire as well. I was also able to concentrate on what I was hearing and feeling with the slower melodies because I wasn’t so focused on playing my concerto correctly! See what works for you. Remember, this is going to be YOUR instrument and YOU are the one who’s going to have to play on it! Take your time and see if you “connect” with the instrument.
  3. Remember that a new instrument is going to sound raw as compared to an aged one, and an instrument that hasn’t been played on for awhile (old or new) will also need to be “worked in” to get its best sound. When shopping for instruments I played on both old and new. The instrument I ended up purchasing had NEVER been played on before. The sound was extremely raw. However, I could hear the potential it had, and even in its raw stage I liked the feel and sound of the instrument. I went with my gut as the video suggested, and I have not been disappointed. Knowing the age of an instrument will help you compare apples to apples, or at least know when you’re comparing apples to oranges, so you can keep your perspective accurate. However, if you already have an idea in mind of what you think you will prefer, this information is best found out AFTER you have done the tests suggested in the video and have determined sound and playability without the influence of price or age.

Good luck and happy shopping!

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

Self-Teaching the Violin

Posted on 15th February 2011

Recently I received a request from a gentleman overwhelmed with the options of self-teaching tools available for the violin. While he wanted to take lessons, there was no one in his area who taught, and he was asking my advice on what to do.

First of all, kudos to him for asking! I did my best to give him an answer, and I would like to share that answer with you.

As a rule I am against self teaching materials. Whether it’s from books, method tapes, DVD’s, internet resources, or the like, it’s not the medium that is the problem. My main problem with self help teaching materials is that they fail to take into account the complexity of the violin, and the many bad habits that you can pick up very quickly and easily (most of them having to do with how to hold the bow and the violin correctly).

Learning how to play the violin properly really requires someone to show you and work with you hands on. I see this in my own students all the time. Those who have tried to learn on their own and come to me for lessons always have issues with their technique. Once I show them how to do things correctly, it still takes weeks months or even years for them to actually implement it as they need to correct their bad habits and foster new ones. I need to continually tweak what they’re doing until it becomes second nature to them when they pick up their instrument. This process of learning occurs with any student, but it’s a shame when students need to go through the hard work of re-learning things that they could have learned correctly the first time had they just had the right instruction.

Now, I want to be clear. There are many good self teaching materials out there that are produced by good teachers and provide good information. However, as violin is one of the most difficult instruments to learn it  just can’t be learned properly without the help of a good instructor who actually interacts with what you are doing personally. Even if you get the basics correct from the beginning (which is unlikely), as you progress you will undoubtedly slip into bad habits unknowingly. You, as a learner won’t catch these things. This is not any slight against a student’s intelligence, diligence, desire or effort. This will just happen, and there are several different causes:

  1. The instruction tape, book, DVD, etc. has not addressed this specific problem yet so you don’t know to look for it.
  2. The problem was addressed, and you got it correct originally but have forgotten to keep checking on it.
  3. You THINK you got it correct the first time, but actually didn’t.

There are other possibilities as well, but I just listed the most common.

To give you an idea of how critical it is to have hands on help, especially as a beginner, I won’t even teach students via programs that allow you to teach a private lesson over the internet. I had an adult student ask this of me once because she was having difficulty fitting in her lesson time during the week due to travel. I explained that if she were farther along in her technique I would consider it, but that at the point where she was I really needed to be able to help shape and mold her hands physically to show her what to do.  I could talk about how to do something for half an hour and a student still might not get it, but if I just go over and help them do it themselves, in 5 minutes the light bulb suddenly comes on and they “get” it because they can feel the difference. I really can’t stress enough the importance of having a physical teacher, one who you cannot only interact with, but one who is present in the room with you.

That said, I realize that as this gentleman found out, finding a teacher in your area is not always a possibility. There are several different ways to deal with this situation. The first question to ask yourself is; How far a radius am I willing to travel? I suggest students consider an hour radius from their location.  I know an hour seems like quite a distance to travel just for a violin lesson, but you’re better off getting good instruction from the start with a little extra investment of time and resources than acquiring bad habits that could result in injury, disinterest in the instrument, or set-backs later on. Even if you just saw this teacher 2x a month instead of on a weekly basis the pay off for having a face to face lesson will be worth it. Keep in mind that you don’t just want ANY teacher, however.  There are a lot of teachers out there that are a waste of your time and money and you don’t want to travel an hour for these!  If there are teachers to consider within an hour from your location, educate yourself on what to look for (I have blog posts that can help you). If not, let me address what else you might consider.

If there is absolutely no chance of getting a teacher that you could at least see 2 times a month then I would consider the following options:

  1. Move. This is probably not a viable option for most prospective students and their families. I only mention it because it IS an option. Many serious parent have been known to move to another, town, state, or to even to another country to get the instruction they seek.
  2. Travel farther than 2 hours, at longer increments of time. (Say, see a teacher once every 1–3 months).
  3. Do option number 2 while using a DVD series (or other self teaching tool) to help you in between lessons that your teacher approves of and is monitoring.
  4. Do lessons via internet sessions. Although not ideal, this would be more effective than “going it alone.”
  5. Do option number 3, but instead of visiting a teacher, check in every so often via internet sessions or video recordings that you send to the teacher and receive feedback on.
  6. Go it alone and just learn by yourself from a DVD (not recommended).

I’m sure there may be some other combinations of options other than what I have suggested here, but you can use these as a starting point to help you decide what you think would be best. Sometimes it just takes a little knowledge, creativity and ingenuity to get the results you desire when circumstances aren’t ideal.

Good luck!

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

Can’t I Learn to Play Without Performing?

Posted on 21st January 2011

A good question—and as someone who has battled with extreme performance anxiety I would like to say “Yes,” however personal experience as well as research shows otherwise.

I recently ran across a blog post (Kavbar’s Blog: Recital Retrieval) which does a very good job of explaining why we need to perform in order to learn. I will copy a lot of it word for word here just because there’s no point in restating what someone else has already adequately said!

The post is based on an informative article in The New York Times (January 20, 2011)  entitled, “To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test,” reporting on a study that is detailed online at the journal, Science.

“The gist of the study was this: Three groups of students were asked to read a passage of scientific information. One group re-read the material several times. Another group engaged in “concept mapping,” in which diagrams, lines, notes, color-coding, etc., are created to help organize one’s thoughts. The final group took a test on the reading material, to discover how much recall they had with what they had just read.

One week later, each of the three groups was tested on the initial passage. To everyone’s surprise, the final group (those who had been given a written test after the reading) did much better on the test–about 50% better. In other words, the relatively passive exercise of simply reading was not as effective, nor was the more active approach of creating a visual “map” to identify the conceptual relationships.

The study actually was a bit more involved than what I describe. The Times article includes comments from several scientists (some of whom were not involved in this study), on how the mind seems to re-organize material through testing, making it easier to access in the future. “I think that learning is all about retrieving, all about reconstructing our knowledge,” said the lead author, Jeffrey Karpicke, a psychologist from Purdue. “I think that we’re tapping into something fundamental about how the mind works when we talk about retrieval.”

For performers, I see several implications in this study. First and foremost, the activity of performing is itself a major piece of the learning/growing process. Every public performance is a means of learning and moving ahead. Those tests must not be mere “Look at me!” photo-op attempts to validate what has already been achieved. The artist must actively engage in each performance, so that retrieval can support the moving ahead/growing process.

Far too often, the immature student (even a chronologically-advanced artist!) seems to think that public performance is merely a vehicle to display accomplishment–an occasion to gain the approval of family, fellow students, the public, even God–eagerly depositing a dead mouse on the back doorstep to establish “top cat” status.

A primary benefit of performance is the strengthening of the performer’s relationship with the repertoire. That success empowers the next performance to be even more textured, more effective!”

In my own experience the results of this study are true. As an undergraduate performance major the only solo performances that  were required were our juries (end of the quarter/semester evaluations) or our recitals (one at the end of our junior year, and one at the end of our senior year). This amounted to 3–4 solo performances a year, and since juries were only held for the faculty the only time we heard our peers perform were at recitals. While there were other opportunities to perform I rarely took advantage of these due to my extreme performance anxiety.

During my masters degree in performance I was introduced to the studio class, a bi-weekly meeting of the violin and viola students where we got together with our teacher and performed for one another. We would receive and give comments to each other and have the opportunity to perform the pieces we were currently working on. Our instructor made sure that we were all up and playing regularly, even if we weren’t quite polished yet. As much as I hated the days I had to perform, I gained an appreciation for the skills I gained through having to get up and play frequently in front of my fellow students. You got a good idea of what was going well and what wasn’t. It was often a humbling experience, but also proved to be a very rewarding one at times as well. I can’t say I learned to overcome my performance anxiety, but I did learn how to cope with it a tad better. Coming out of my masters degree I wished we had had the same requirements in my undergrad. I grew tremendously as a musician in the two years of my masters degree and I attribute a large portion of that growth to the time spent performing.

As a teacher I do not require my students to perform, but I do strongly encourage them to do so. I also offer a variety of opportunities so that they can choose what is most comfortable for them. Master Classes, Recitals, Church Performances and Competitions offer my students several different venues in which to work on their performing skills.

Happy performing to you all!

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

Teaching Questionnaire

Posted on 21st January 2011

I was recently contacted by a fellow violin teacher to answer some questions regarding private lessons.  She was asked to speak at a homeschool conference and wanted to get her peer’s insights into the material she was going to present. I was happy to oblige and I thought some of you might be interested in her questions and the answers I gave her, so here they are!

Q: What, in your mind, are some of the most important qualities of a good student?

A: A good student gives their best to the task at hand. They do what’s asked of them, engage with the information and the teacher, and do the work outside of lessons that is assigned by the teacher. A good student is NOT necessarily a good musician. Some of my worst players (or rather those to whom the instrument did not come easily) have been my best students. I have also had students who showed great potential and natural ability, but were not willing to put the work in to harness that talent, and I would consider these poor students. The important thing to realize is that a good student is more likely to succeed than one who shows natural talent but is not interested in putting in the work necessary, and as a teacher I would much rather have a good student who will never become the next Itzhak Perlman, than a naturally talented musician who thinks they can get by with as little effort as possible.

Q: How would you describe a successful hour of practice? What qualities characterize a successful practice time, and how do you teach these to a student?

A: A successful hour of practice in my book is one in which the student has made progress on previously set objectives (usually made by the teacher) using good practice techniques that make the best use of their time.

These include but are not limited to:

    • Isolating problem spots (not just playing through something top to bottom several times in a row)
    • Use of a metronome to insure correct rhythm and to work things up to tempo
    • “Problem solving” mistakes so a student is not just going over the same passage multiple times, messing up and practicing the mistake in. For instance, figuring out if their problem is a left hand one, or a right hand one, are they moving too quickly or too slowly, etc. These skills should be developed in the lesson.
    • Break problem spots down to identify what’s not working, and then identify how to fix it. (If you can’t play the measure, play half the measure, if you can’t do that break it down by beat, if you can’t do that subdivide the beat, etc. or if you can’t play it at the tempo written, play it a 1/4 of the tempo, if that doesn’t work cut the tempo in half, keep going until you CAN play it.)
    • Once you identify the problem and solve it, do it CORRECTLY at least 5 times in a row to solidify the correction. Then work up to tempo using a metronome and put the isolated passage back into context.

There are numerous things that these practice techniques can be applied to;  intonation, technique, tone, bow control, left hand control, etc. And it can be used on any repertoire; scales, arpeggios, etudes, pieces, etc. These practice techniques apply to all styles of music as well; classical, contemporary, jazz, religious, latin, etc.

If a student is practicing correctly they should be able to see and calculate their improvement from day to day. It may not be large, but it should be measurable.

I believe the best way to teach these practice techniques to the student is to show them how to do it in lessons. When I teach I do exactly what my student needs to do at home in a shortened version in lessons, then I write it down for them in their practice notebooks so they won’t forget. At the end of the lesson the student should have WHAT they need to practice and HOW they should practice it written down for them. Then there’s no excuse for not doing it at home, and in time they will learn how to figure these things out for themselves. I always ask to make sure the student understands what we just went over and how to implement it.

For one student I had this system didn’t seem to be working, so I tweaked it by allowing the student to write down her own notes. This allowed her to put into her own words what to practice and reinforced what we had just talked about in her own mind. This made a big difference in her productivity each week, so the extra time taken in lessons for her to think through and write it down was well worth it!

Q: What specific benefits do you see from music education (private lessons, practicing, performing, etc.)?

A: There are many benefits I see from music education, specifically private lessons. This excerpt is taken directly from my website (, which includes additional information you may find helpful:

      1. Music lessons are essential to playing an instrument well.

        • The ability to play an instrument cannot be self-taught.
        • Students gain direct access to their problems and solutions to those problems through one-on-one instruction.
        • A private instructor will be able to teach students how to practice correctly and be most productive in their practicing.
        • Lessons help stop and correct bad habits early on before they become big problems.
        • A private instructor can give students the skills they need to enjoy music into adulthood.
      2. School instruction is not enough.

        • Due to time restraints students often receive little to no one-on-one time with music faculty.
        • Students need one-on-one time to continue building on the good techniques that are initially taught in school.
        • The amount of group time students receive through orchestra is not enough to learn an instrument.
        • It is best to start lessons earlier (age 4+) than when schools make it available.
        • Music faculty in schools often do not have the time to make sure students learn good practice habits and efficient use of practice time.
        • Without one-on-one attention students are prone to bad habits which take twice as long to correct.
        • Schools alone cannot prepare students to study music as a career.
      3. Private lessons help foster success in other areas of life.

        • Becoming skilled at an instrument gives students confidence and a sense of accomplishment in life not offered by other disciplines.
        • Studies have shown a link between music and a student’s performance in other areas of study:
          • Music students have higher test scores and IQs
          • Music promotes creativity
          • Music aids in student’s success in other fields of study
          • Music promotes self-sufficiency as an adult
          • Music students have decreased disciplinary problems
          • Music aids in giving students problem solving techniques
          • Music provides a healthy and unique atmosphere for making and keeping friends
        • Music gives students the ability to express their emotions in a healthy way.
        • Studies show that the ability to perform complex rhythms allow students to make faster and more precise corrections in many academic and physical situations.
        • Lesson and opportunities to perform teach students to conquer fear.

Q: In your opinion, what place does parental involvement have in private music lessons and practicing, whether or not the parent is musically educated themselves?

A: I believe that parents should be involved with all ages of students, with the level of involvement being appropriate for the age and ability of the student. Young students (10 and under) definitely need parental help in their daily practice, and parents should be attending their children’s lessons in order to know what the child needs to practice. In lessons I tell parents everything they need to know in order to help their child.  In some ways it’s as much instructing the parent as it is the child during the very first lessons and for very young children! A child cannot be expected to learn on their own at this age and both child and parent need to be instructed in good practice techniques as well as the foundations of music if the parent does not have a musical background. If a parent is not going to be involved in daily practice time then they might as well not take lessons. As a student grows older and is more capable of practicing on their own the parent can be less involved with the daily practice time. This depends greatly on the maturity level of the student rather than their age. When a student is practicing fully on their own I still encourage parents to know what’s going on and be involved. I’ll usually treat the student as the one in charge of themselves, but if I see problems I will definitely bring this up to the parents. The parents are usually the ones paying for lessons so they deserve to be involved and notified of their child’s progress!

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: I think one of the most important things for parents to understand is that not all teachers are equal. They need to inform themselves on what to look for in a good teacher and a good method of teaching. They also need to find a teacher who is a good fit for their child. I don’t think most parents understand what to look for, or even that they should be evaluating. While it would be nice to trust that if someone has a degree or is teaching they must know what they’re doing, it’s just not the case! This makes a parent’s job harder, especially one who does not have a musical background, but this is where I hope my website and blog can help. One of my goals is to educate parents and give them the resources they need so that they can do the best for their kids.

If you want further information on what to look for in a teacher please check out the other blog posts I have written under the category of Music Lessons. If you don’t find the answers to your questions here, please feel free to contact me with your specific questions. Your question(s) will probably inspire another blog post which will help other parents, so don’t hesitate to ask!

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

Experiencing the Suzuki Method: A Guide to Help Answer your Questions about this Extremely Popular Method—And Why I Don’t Teach It

Posted on 17th January 2011

This blog entry contains the material of a bulletin I made to have available in my studio. Because of this, the material is short and concise. I would be happy to write more on the subject should I get enough interest!

First of all I would like to clarify 2 things:

  1. Many of my colleagues and friends are Suzuki teachers and educators. This information is not meant to discredit their teaching or their students. Each teacher and student should be evaluated on an individual basis, not by a label or association.
  2. I have sought to represent the Suzuki method accurately.

Q: What is the Suzuki method?

A: The Suzuki method was created in Japan by Shinichi Suzuki. His idea was that children should learn music just as they learn to speak. If properly taught using this school of thought children would become just as proficient on the violin as they were at speaking their native language, and learn it just as easily.

Q: Did it work?

A: Yes, students of Suzuki were able to learn the violin quickly and proficiently. They could learn new pieces rapidly and autonomously at an early age.

Q: Do students of the Suzuki method in the US show this same aptitude?

A: No. Unfortunately the majority of students learning under the Suzuki method today have poor technique, note reading ability, rhythm, and understanding of music.

Q:  What accounts for this difference?

A: I believe there are several factors that are contributing to the low level of proficiency demonstrated by Suzuki students in America today.

  • Shinichi Suzuki vs. The Suzuki method: Suzuki was an extremely intelligent man and a gifted teacher. I believe the success of his students in Japan did not primarily have to do with his method, but with the man himself. If you read about Suzuki you will find he did not teach all students the same. His philosophy of learning was consistent, but one cannot codify what made Suzuki such a brilliant and successful instructor. One can take his ideas, but one must be sensitive to each student to know how to utilize and adapt these ideas. This is why I use his books, but do not use the procedure taught by the Suzuki Association. In addition, Suzuki taught out of a love for his students and their learning. Unfortunately many teachers today teach because they need to make a living, and the highlight of their day is going home, not the time they spend with your child.
  • A difference in cultures: Japanese and Asian cultures are structured very differently than American society. In general they are more disciplined, more driven to academic success, more family oriented, and more involved in their children’s education. If you read more about Suzuki and how he taught, you will see that the “Suzuki method” America so proudly asserts is very different from the teaching Suzuki imparted to his students.
  • American Suzuki teachers are often uncertified, or have low skill levels: There are certified Suzuki teachers and uncertified Suzuki teachers. Teachers certified in the Suzuki method have to demonstrate a level of proficiency for each Suzuki book they complete. This means that if your child is learning Suzuki book 1, that teacher must have completed the hardest song in that book. While many Suzuki teachers are certified above this level you don’t want to assume all teachers are skilled at their instrument. Uncertified Suzuki teachers have not taken the certification test that the Suzuki Association of the Americas offers and may or may not have taken any Suzuki method courses, they simply use the Suzuki books and call themselves a “Suzuki Teacher.”
  • A difference in education: The Japanese educational system during Suzuki’s time placed a high emphasis on teaching children the rudiments of music. All students learned how to read music and sight sing. They understood rhythms and musical notation. Since they had this foundation, Suzuki was mainly concerned with teaching students the violin. Since students in America do not learn music as such under the American educational system, private teachers have a lot more to teach. This must be taken into consideration when trying to apply Suzuki’s method to American students

Q: What evidence do you have that the Suzuki method doesn’t work?

A:    1. Experience as a Suzuki student.  2. Experience as a teacher of Suzuki students.

1. As a child, starting violin at the age of 4, I gained the benefits of developing a very good ear under the Suzuki method, as many students do. However, I also became a very poor note reader. I soared ahead of my classmates in ability as I had natural talent, but my inability to read music, quickly decipher rhythm and poor technique lead me to a dead end. In middle school I decided I wanted to overcome my deficiencies, and 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 I wouldn’t wish on any student. This kindled in me a desire to be a teacher, and teach students the violin correctly from the beginning.

2. As a teacher, I have seen that the negative effects that I experienced as a Suzuki student are still plaguing the majority of Suzuki students today. Most of the students I have had the pleasure of teaching that have come out of the Suzuki method have demonstrated a high level of playing ability, with extremely low levels of technique, musicianship, note reading and rhythmic understanding. I have had to walk through the difficulties with them of re-learning the violin to fill in the gaps, just as I had to do many years ago with my teacher. It is a delight for them to finally be able to pick up music for themselves and play the correct notes and rhythm without having to hear the music first. They experience the satisfaction of feeling competent on their instrument, and not weighed down by the burden of being tied to their teacher for all the answers. I give them the tools to be able to figure things out for themselves. Just as a parent seeks to teach their children how to become self sufficient and successful adults, so I desire for my students to become self-sufficient and successful musicians at whatever level they choose to work to achieve. My experiences as a student and teacher defy the claims that the Suzuki method is the best way to learn an instrument, and I believe it does more harm than good.

Q: I’ve read a lot of positive things about the Suzuki method and other parents have said their children really enjoy it. Why should I believe what you have to say?

A: Don’t take my word for it. Research it for yourself! Most successful Suzuki students had teachers who did more than just teach the Suzuki method, and just because a child has fun does not mean they are learning. Inform yourself on what to look for in a good teacher and a good method, then compare!

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

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