Music Lessons—Too High a Cost???

Posted on 22nd July 2010

Recently I came across several discussions commenting on the high cost of music lessons and whether or not they are worth it. The benefits of music lessons have documented benefits physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually, so the worth of music should not be in question. However, understandably (especially in today’s US economy) some are unable to pay for these lessons. In my readings I came across a clarinet teacher who wrote a very good article on her own blog about what to do if you want lessons for your child, but they seem too expensive. This is a very good comprehensive and creative article, which poses very viable solutions to this very real problem. I hope you will enjoy reading this as much as I did!

Meri’s Musical Musings: Alternatives to “Expensive” Music Lessons

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

Picking A Teacher

Posted on 29th May 2010

As I plan on leaving my current students to move to Mississippi with my husband, I have been taking the time to compile a list of teachers to help my students find a new instructor. This is a difficult time for me as I will miss my students and wish I could continue with them. I know I will start a new studio in MS and am looking forward to that opportunity. In the meantime it will be rewarding for me to help my students transition to a new instructor and comforting to know they are in good hands. I have personally talked with a number of teachers and created a list of things about their studios so that my students (with my help) can make an informed decision regarding with whom they would like to study. I have found that there are unique things about each teacher that I really like, and that it will be hard to recommend who is “best” because they are so different and beneficial in their own ways. Nonetheless I will do my best to recommend the teacher(s) I think my students will learn best under and will hopefully enjoy the most. If you are considering switching teachers either out of necessity or desire I would like to provide a few things for consideration to help you in the process.

First of all, I would like to say that there are many good teachers out there, and many teachers who you do not want to study with. Here are some things I look for when assessing if a teacher is someone I would recommend:

  1. Does the teacher have a passion for teaching? There are a lot of good musicians out there, who only teach because they need the extra money. They may know how to play wonderfully, but if they don’t have a heart and a passion for instructing you don’t want to study with them. You will learn more from someone less accomplished, but who is dedicated to the art of teaching. Better yet, find someone accomplished who also loves to teach!
  2. What does the teacher place an emphasis on in lessons? In my opinion, a good teacher should be focused on technique, musicality, the basics of music theory (including learning to read music) and creating a love for the instrument. Most teachers have different ways of going about these things and may have “specialty” areas that they focus on. This is fine. You won’t find someone who “has it all.” However, if you find a teacher who doesn’t seem to correct bad posture, hand position, or bow hold, or who only concentrates on whether the student is having a good time or not you probably want to find a teacher with a little more constructive criticism to their teaching.
  3. Is the teacher a good fit for the student? There are many great teachers out there, but not every teacher is right for every student. Just like we gravitate toward certain people to be friends with, so students gravitate toward one teacher more than another. This is not to say that if a student isn’t good friends with their teacher the teacher is not a good fit. However, if the student likes their instrument, but hates going to lessons each week and is not progressing because they don’t like their teacher, it would probably be a good idea to find another teacher. The teacher you are currently with might be a great teacher, but they might just not be good for your child.

Once you have determined that you have a good teacher on your hands you’re going to want to ask some questions before committing to lessons. Obvious questions are their availability for lesson days and times, their location and their fees and policies regarding payment. You will also want to ask about their cancellation and rescheduling policies. In addition here are some things to consider asking;

  • What age/level students do you prefer to work with?
  • Do you teach year round and do you have any current plans on moving out of the area within the next year?
  • Do you offer recitals or performance opportunities for your students? Do you have any polices regarding these?
  • Do you have any practice requirements for your students?
  • What method of teaching do you use, or what’s your style of teaching?
  • Will my child learn to read music?  How soon?
  • Can we observe a lesson or come for a trial lesson before committing?

These are just suggestions and you may find all of these important to ask, just a few, or even add some of your own. My goal is just to give you a start and to help you figure out what’s important to you in the teacher you choose.

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


Motivating Kids to Practice

Posted on 1st March 2010

In teaching young children, the fight to practice everyday often leads parents to feel that the struggle is not worth the results. Even if a child likes their lessons, it can be discouraging to parents to have their child complain and make practicing a chore. While no one likes to practice (OK, there may be a few quirky kids out there who really enjoy their practice time), but most children do not like it, and are not able to understand that doing something they don’t like will be beneficial in the long run. Here is where some creativity can really help!

Making practicing fun, or at least tolerable is our goal. In doing this though we cannot compromise learning. The following are a compilation of ideas I came up with myself, age old motivators, and some things I have adapted from others to help parents of young children make practicing less of a chore and more of a bonding time.

  1. The old Rewards Chart or Sticker Chart. This idea has been used for decades by parents to help motivate their child to do everything from cleaning their room, to taking a bath. The good thing about this method is that the child can see their progress, be physically involved with checking off duties or picking stickers for a job well done, and they are working toward an achievable, tangible goal. This method can also be adapted for each individual child and can be changed as the child progresses and gets older.
  2. Another motivator for young children is for the parents to take lessons along with the child. This may sound funny, but think about it, a child usually wants to do what they see their parents doing. What better way to create a desire to practice than if they see Mommy or Daddy practicing. They can’t join in unless they practice too, and because young children often progress faster than adults, children will love it when they can do something better than Mom or Dad! This is also a good way for Mom and Dad to better understand the difficulties a child might be having with one aspect of their technique, and can aid parents in helping their children learn an instrument they have no experience playing.
  3. Another great idea, which I can’t take credit for but is a wonderful creative idea, is something I’m going to coin Story Book Practicing. This idea focuses around the fact that kids have active imaginations and often get bored with the monotonous repetition of practicing. The Story Book Practicing method involves the parent making up a story that revolves around them completing the tasks their teacher has assigned for the week during their daily practice time. As you progress in the practice time and complete the tasks at hand correctly you continue in the story. The story can be shaped and molded to fit whatever is needed to be accomplished that day. Here is an example.

    Parent: “Oh no!”

    Child: “What’s wrong?”

    Parent: “Monsters have just kidnapped the fairy princess, and somebody has to go save her!”

    Child: “I’ll save her!”

    Parent: “Okay, they took her into a dark cave. You’re not afraid of the dark, right?”

    Child: “No way! What do I have to do?”

    Parent: “There’s water in the cave, but fortunately there’s a rowboat. To row the boat, you need to play the first four measures of Twinkle. If you can do it three times with a perfect bow hand that will get us to the end of the cave and we can see where to go next.”

    Child: “Okay”

    Parent: “Get into a good play position, here we go!”

    If the child forgets to play with a good bow hand the parent could tell the child that they lost an oar, or that the boat tipped over and floated backward, or that they ran into a rock, etc. You can change the story line daily, or you can make it into an ongoing saga so the child can’t wait to practice to they find out what happens next. You can make stories that go along with the music they are playing to help the child get in the character of what they are playing. There are an endless variety of ways this method can be used, and when I came across it I thought it was just brilliant!

  4. Let your child have a say. For me, taking an instrument wasn’t an option, but I was allowed to choose the instrument I played. Perhaps it has always been your dream to play the flute, but your child might not have any interest in this. If you try to live your dreams through your child you are most likely going to be met with resistance. Instead, ask your child what instrument they would like to play. If they pick they will be more likely to feel a connection with what they are doing and will eventually embrace it as their own.Also let your child have a say in when they practice. Do they prefer to practice right after school, or maybe they need a break but want to do it before dinner. Maybe after dinner is the best time, or perhaps they want to practice before school. Allow your child to have as much say in when they do their practicing as possible. This will allow them to take responsibility for their choice.

    Let your child pick the order they practice things in. Just because their teacher goes in the same order every week at lessons doesn’t mean you have to. As long as you get through everything that’s what matters. If you can give your child a list of what needs to be practiced and allow them to choose the order this will give them an additional sense of personal connection to their practicing and instrument.

    This is not an exhausted list of what you can allow your child to have a say in. Getting their input as much as possible and having open communication about things is key. This also teaches them to grow and start taking responsibility for making decisions that affect them, which is all part of the learning process!

  5. Get involved! If your child only goes to their lessons and then practices at home they may not be having fun. Perhaps they would enjoy things more if they could be with other kids. Maybe you could ask your teacher about opportunities for them to take some group lessons in addition to their private lessons. Also getting them to participate in recitals or having them play for relatives or friends can be a motivator too. If a child likes to show off this can be a great way to get them to practice. If your child doesn’t like to get up in front of people don’t force them to. Perhaps they would enjoy performing in an orchestra more. I always loved this aspect of my instrument and always think it’s great for kids to play with others their own age. They get to be motivated by others that are better than they are, and they also feel good when they see that they are better than others in the group. Also getting your kids out to see other performers give recitals, or attending special events designed just for kids where their instrument is showcased can be a very positive experience for your child. Seeing what they can do with their instrument gives them a vision beyond the mundane four walls of your house or the teacher’s studio. There are a variety of ways for kids to have more involvement depending on your location and community. Ask your teacher about some possibilities if you don’t know where to start. Teachers are always more than happy to share ways to enrich the musical lives of their students!
  6. Break up practice time. While a child’s lesson needs to happen all in one block of time, daily practicing does not. If your child has a short attention span do two or three shorter practice sessions a day. You will get the same amount of material accomplished without burning your child out. As your child gains the ability to focus for longer periods of time, up their practice time a few minutes each session. Eventually you will be able to eliminate practice sessions and ultimately go back to one practice section without all the stress!
  7. While setting an amount of time to practice is good, it’s the quality of practice that counts. If children think they can whine and make your life difficult for 30 minutes a day and that’s “practice time” they need to be informed otherwise. Practicing means work. Your expectations of what practicing means needs to be clear so that children know what is expected of them. If 30 minutes go by and they haven’t picked up their instrument and done anything productive they may need to try again later. However, let the child know that if they do what they are being asked and cooperate they might be able to be done before 30 minutes is over and have extra time to play, read a book or watch TV. Make the quality of practice time, not the amount of practice time what matters. This is a reward system within itself that is actually teaching your child a very important life skill, there is only a finite amount of time and we need to use it wisely. Bringing this principle down to their level and giving them a tangible example of a responsibility they have and the rewards of doing it well will benefit both you and them.
  8. Include your child in critiquing their practice time. Think of yourself as more of a facilitator for your child’s practice time. Instead of correcting your child all the time, ask your child what they think can be improved. Ask them what they think could have been better and ask them about ways to help them improve this aspect of their playing. Be sure to also ask them what they did well too. Having them critique themselves is a lot less “painful” than having you critique them all the time, and they are gaining an important skill for when they are older and will be practicing by themselves. Also ask them to remember from day to day what their teacher said to work on for each thing before you practice it. This helps them remember to actually try to do it the first time they go to play it, rather than always having to correct them after they forget to do whatever they were working on. I try to do this when I teach as well. It’s a great tool, and works to engage the child in what they are doing.
  9. While we’re talking about criticizing let’s talk about a better way to criticize than saying “you didn’t do this right”. Try making criticisms less personal by criticizing the specific body part that is not behaving. By saying “your thumb isn’t behaving properly” or “we need to make sure that Mr. Pointer finger goes down in the right spot” you allow the child to feel that they have control over the different parts of their body and that they just have to make the body part do what they want it to do. This doesn’t make them feel like they are doing something wrong, but rather makes them feel empowered to fix “someone else” who’s doing something wrong. You can help your child have more fun and to work together with you to fix Mr. Pointer by saying something like, “Are you going to let Mr. Pointer get away with going down where he’s not suppose to? Let’s see if we can get Mr. Pointer to behave!” Your child will have much more fun with this approach and will become more in tune with how to use and control his muscles as well.
  10. Praise your child! Last on this list, but certainly not least is to make sure you motivate your child with praise and affirmation. Try to get extra excited about the little things that they do well, and minimize the criticisms you give. If your child knows you are just going to be negative all the time they are not going to be motivated to practice, but if you are positive and energized by the good job they do, they will want to work to please you.

Good luck, and happy practicing!

When children love the music they’re playing and feel competent at it, they enjoy music more. Check out The Beginning Violinist: A Companion Book for Children and Adults, which helps teach the basics of music reading and playing in a way that students love!

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

Music Isn’t the Issue…

Posted on 14th December 2009

I just finished a book by Ken Ham and Britt Beemer called “Already Gone: Why your kids will quit church and what you can do to stop it.” This book interacts with the data received after surveying young adults in their 20’s and 30’s who are currently not attending church. Ham and Beemer wanted to see why young adults today are leaving the church after they get out of their parent’s homes, and his findings are rather interesting. While the purpose of this blog is not to focus on the main point of Ham and Beemer’s book I would HIGHLY recommend getting a copy and reading it for yourself. It is insightful and relevent to the state of our churches and nation as a whole and where we will be in just 1-2 generations. We need to open our eyes and stop burying our heads in the sand!

To the point of this post, Ham and Beemer’s book indicated that the reason young adults are leaving the church does NOT have to do with the music in the church. If you attend an Evangelical/Bible church of any denomination on a regular basis and are aware of the decisions that go into what music will and will not be included in the service you know that this can be a HUGE issue. Churches argue and split over what style music should be used, what instruments should be allowed, etc.

In an effort to make church more appealing and relevant to the young people who attend, churches have migrated toward a more contemporary musical style and instrumentation, closely mimicking what goes on in the secular music culture. Why? In most cases it’s because they think that’s what young people are looking for. They want to engage the young adults and kids that are growing up in their churches. Sometimes they are counting numbers, and in order to keep their number high they think that they need to adapt their music to fit what they know these young adults and kids are receiving in the secular world.

However, Ham and Beemer’s research discovered that this is NOT what they are looking for in church. In fact a very small percentage of those surveyed said that they left because they didn’t like the music. Ham and Beemer identified that the majority of young adults left the church because they either saw the church or the Bible as irrelevent to their lives. (These by the way, are two very distinct reasons that Ham and Beemer explain at length in their book.) Why did they view the church or the Bible as irrelevant? The former group claimed that the church is hypocritical and the latter group claimed that the Bible couldn’t be reconciled with science (my own generalization and paraphrase of each group’s answers).

So what does this have to do with music? Well, a lot! If churches are spending so much time discussing, reorganizing and arguing about the music that’s in the church in order to meet the needs of its congregation then it is clearly focusing on the wrong thing! Let’s also look at how much time is spent in a typical service on music. Ham and Beemer suggest that music is not even required to be in a church service, yet sometimes the music portion of the service is longer than the message that the pastor brings. Do we have our priorities out of line? It seems so! As a musician I am not arguing that we do away with music in the church, or that it’s not important to praise God through music in our services. What I am saying is that we need to reevaluate our priorities if we want to keep the church around for another generation.

I would encourage you to read “Already Gone” for yourself and see why most young adults leaving the church, were already gone in elementary, middle school, or high school. They may have physically been present, but mentally and spiritually they were gone. Why? In a nutshell, church attempts to feed the spiritual person, but totally neglects the mental instruction of their congregation. You can’t accept the spiritual things if you are not properly taught on the natural things of this world first. That’s why Ken Ham has dedicated his life to the book of Genesis and defending the Biblical truth found therein. “Already Gone” is a must read!

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

Picking a Violin Bow

Posted on 14th November 2009

I was at The Loft Violin Shop yesterday in Columbus OH buying a new shoulder rest and getting the grip replaced on my bow. While I waited for my bow I was hanging out in the lobby entertaining myself by watching all the different customers that came into the shop. A conversation between one of the salesmen and a young lady caught my attention. They were talking about her bow and whether she should rehair her fiberglass bow, upgrade to another fiberglass bow, or buy a wood or carbon fiber bow.  The salesman was asking her how she liked her bow and gave her a run down of approximate costs for each of the options she had to choose from. I thought this would be an interesting and relevant subject to talk about as many students are confused as to what their options are in choosing a bow and how to determine the best option for them.

Let’s go over what the options there are and then we’ll discuss how to choose between them. In general there are three options for bows: fiberglass, carbon fiber or wood.

Fiberglass bows are your low end student bows. They are basically indestructible and relatively cheap because they are mass manufactured (starting at approx. $50). While the playability of fiberglass bows vary slightly from bow to bow, in general you won’t find a very high quality fiberglass bow.

Carbon fiber bows are also indestructible but come in different grades. They are named and priced accordingly. While there is more consistency between carbon fiber bows of the same price range than wood bows, you are going to find a much more diverse selection of bows to choose from than your fiberglass counterparts. Their pricing starts at around $100 and can range all the way up to $1500+.

Wood bows are your traditional choice for violin bows and are constructed using Pernambuco wood of varying grades. Wood bows run from very cheap (under $100) to millions of dollars. The selection of wood bows is virtually endless and the variety between bows is as diverse as the number of bows available.

So how do you choose? Let’s look at some of the pros and cons of each bow before we make a decision.

Fiberglass bowsPros – indestructible, cheap, not weather sensitive. Cons – poor playability, minmal diversity.

Carbon fiber: Pros – indestructible, good quality for the price, more consistent, not weather sensitive, medium diversity. Cons – medium diversity, quality has a cap.

Wood: Pros – unlimited diversity, no cap on quality. Cons – sensitive to weather, can be broken/warped, can be expensive.

Ok, so now that we have looked at our options let’s discuss how to choose a bow. Here are some factors to consider: Who will be playing the bow?  What will they be primarily using it for (practicing, concerts, outdoor gigs, etc.)? How much do you want to spend? What quality are you looking for?

Here are my recommendations for each bow type:

Fiberglass bows: Good for young students and beginners.

Carbon fiber bows: Good for any age student who is looking to upgrade from a fiberglass bow. If you are looking to spend $1000 or less on a bow, go with a carbon fiber bow that fits your price range. You will most likely get more for your buck on a carbon fiber bow than a wood bow of the same price. If you are looking to spend between $1000 and $2500 check out both carbon fiber and wood bows. Compare bows and see what bows feel best to you and get the best sound out of your instrument. Carbon fiber bows are also great for the professional musician who is looking for a second bow or a bow for outdoor gigs.

Wood bows: I recommend a wood bow to anyone who is looking to spend over $2500 on a bow. A high quality wood bow is well worth your time and money to buy, especially if you are seeking to continue your musical studies into college or as a career. Just make sure you know what you’re looking for so that you don’t get stuck with a lemon!

Deciding whether you want a fiberglass, carbon fiber or wood bow is the first step. I hope this information as been helpful in that process! We’ll talk more in a later post on how to decide between bows once you decide on the material. There is so much to talk about! Happy bow hunting!

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

What Can We Expect from College Music Grads?

Posted on 14th November 2009

The answer to this question is – It all depends, “Depends on what,” you might ask? Well, it largely depends on the school from which you graduate, the degree requirements, your particular major, etc. This is normal and to be expected. We are also all different people with different skill sets. Universities do not put out little cookie-cutter robots all performing the same function – and this is a good thing!

However, there appears to be a lack of emphasis on written literacy in many university music departments. I am using literacy as a broad term to describe one’s ability to use the English language correctly, write intelligently on subjects related to one;s field, and/or to write a cohesive and comprehensive term paper.

Focusing on the areas of performance-based music (including composition), I feel that there are two main reasons this problem occurs: 1) Students spend as little time as possible on their academic work in order to have time to practice/compose; 2) Students do not know the English language well enough to converse with it on the level that a college graduate should.

The first point came to my attention during my graduate work when I saw the lack of dedication some performance based students had for their academic classes. Students tried to get away with doing as little work as possible and didn’t see the value in learning the theory and history related to their field.  They didn’t do very well in their academic classes and didn’t really care as long as they got a passing grade. Because university degrees can be rigorous, it is to be expected that students will only meet the minimum requirements of areas they don’t see as their primary interest. However, it concerns me that this lack of interest for their chosen field exists, and that universities allow students to show minimal competency in academics, granting degrees to students primarily based on their instrumental proficiency.

The second point is a topic which was also brought to my attention during my graduate studies and has been further corroborated by my husband, who is currently in his last year of his DMA and has had experience with this problem as editor of The Ohio State Online Music Journal (, a teacher, and a member on various committees at OSU. He has had the opportunity to voice his concerns and hear faculty express similar ones. The main concern that I see is that students who are not fluent in English, but know enough to get by, want to study in America  because of the prestige of the schools and the quality of the education. These students have are highly motivated, but tend to struggle because of their lack of knowledge of the English language. They need more extra help than other university students and their academic work is inferior to that of their peers. However, these things are overlooked and, because they show a high degree of skill at their instrument they receive the same degrees as their peers.

So, the question in my mind is, should students who want a performance-based degree be held to high academic standards, or it is only important that they demonstrate a high level of performance in their instrument/field of study? I contend that university degrees should be reserved for those students who desire to show a high level of competency in both their academics and performance. If someone wants to play their instrument well or compose well, but is not interested in the academic arena of music, then let them study privately until they reach their desired goal. Performers and composers do not need degrees to play their instruments or write music professionally. I think it’s time to start introducing more Artist Diplomas for those who just want to increase their instrumental proficiency and to redefine what qualifies as a university degree.

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

Are Computers Composers?

Posted on 7th November 2009

Emily Howell, a computer program created to compose contemporary classical music has been given full status as a composer by “her” creator. However, there has been much controversy surrounding whether or not her compositions are really music, and whether or not they should be performed.

Check out the article:

While many interesting issues are raised in this article I want to focus in on one in particular mentioned near the end of this abstract: the input of the human element. Is Emily Howell really the composer? What about her creator, David Cope – what role does he play in Emily’s supposed “technically unique” compositions?

It seems to me that David Cope’s, as well as Emily Howell’s critics and supporters are missing one crucial element. Without the expertise, education, thought, etc., of David Cope, there would be no compositions by Emily Howell, nor would there be an Emily Howell. It’s important to realize that Emily Howell is not a living being. She may have a name, but she is the creation of David Cope, with no mind or reasoning power of her own. She does what he tells her or has programmed her to do and nothing more.

And what about the musicians who perform Emily Howell’s music? As the article states, many large orchestras and well known individuals have refused to play her music. It is not my goal to comment on whether or not I agree with that stance; rather, I would like to raise the question, does Emily Howell make the music, or do the performers? In my opinion people need to realize that there are two components to live music: the music itself and the performance of that music. While the two are mutually endowed to each other, they are also distinct from one another.

In summary, I think David Cope would do better promoting himself as the composer, with a clear focus on the computer program he has created as his tool in composition. It is the mind and creative nature of Mr. Cope that has allowed this medium to exist. I think it is also important to recognize that the realization of any composition is the mind and creative nature of the performer(s). One needs the other. They walk in tandem.

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

An Introduction to My Blog!

Posted on 5th November 2009

Since completing my MM degree in Violin Performance from the University of Akron and marrying my husband, Benjamin Williams, who will be finishing his DMA degree in Music Composition this spring,  I am frequently faced with difficult questions concerning the state of music, education and related topics in today’s world.  At the urging of my husband I have decided to start a blog as a forum to discuss my thoughts. While many of my posts will deal directly with music and the fields of music education and performance I may occasionally blog about other issues as well as they come to my attention.

Please feel free to comment or leave suggestions for further posting topics. I hope that you enjoy reading my musings!

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

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