Early steps on the violin
Rachel Meredith and Jessica O’Leary explore approaches to violin teaching at the early stages, in group and individual lessons.
Groups, games and learning together
Whether to teach instrumental music individually or in groups is a subject which provokes plenty of discussion, and there are pros and cons to both approaches. My feeling is that young children enjoy learning in small groups. There are also good opportunities for ensemble work and games – less easy to manage in individual lessons.
The important thing is not to allow good technical grounding to be negatively affected by the larger numbers. To encourage good posture and technique I use ‘triggers’, which form the technical basis of every lesson:
- Looking in the mirror – for a correct left-hand shape, the palm of the hand being the mirror;
- Trampoline – for a flexible, squashy bow hold;
- String pulling you up to the ceiling – for an upright but relaxed stance.
The Suzuki method uses footprints (draw round the child’s feet) to produce good posture, with the left shoulder over the left foot. These can be useful and fun, and they avoid the front-facing, droopy violin which can otherwise occur.
Once posture and bow hold are established, I go on to a series of bowing techniques on open strings, using names as memory aids:
- Aeroplane landing – lots of retake down bows with reminders to avoid frightening the passengers with any bumps;
- Rockets – retake up bows;
- Tortoises – slow bows of various duration;
- Kangaroos – bows that jump from heel to point;
- Ants – tremolo;
- Boeing 737 – varying bow speeds (7 seconds down, 3 up) with different numbers too. Valuable for early success in bow pacing.
Children also like to make up their own names, and this is a good way to ensure they remember and then practise these techniques. I like to establish a confident use of the bow before starting the left hand. This tends to result in a better sound than starting with pizzicato and left hand. So early lessons involve warm ups, as above, and lots of open string rhythm work. At some point you can introduce notation. I’m very much in favour of the ‘play then read’ sequence, so technique is not compromised by decoding the notes. In the very early stages I find that the E string and middle of the bow are the easiest places to start bowing, as the elbow is down and the bow naturally balanced. Once pupils are producing a focused sound, I encourage fuller bows, emphasising the ‘banana’ shape – a slight curve in the middle of the bow stroke that ensures equal contact with the string throughout the length of the bow. It’s essential to explain and insist on correct elbow position from the start. There are various games that help this – the ‘rainbow’ that moves over all strings with carefully aligned elbow is a useful one. I also play a game where a pupil stands with their back to the group and we have to guess which string their bow is resting on, by looking at the elbow position.
The left hand
Moving on to the left hand, it’s vital that good hand position becomes second nature. Some methods spend a long time on the 1st finger, playing on each string before introducing the 2nd finger and so on. But this can result in a collapsed wrist, which is easier to avoid if all fingers are introduced fairly quickly. Reading also becomes more logical with this approach. I’m in favour of the 4th finger being used early on to reinforce a good hand shape; 3rd position is a possible option, so the distance between 3rd and 4th fingers is more manageable. Sheila Nelson’s Tetratunes are useful here, with some tunes notated in 1st, 3rd and 4th positions – good for the ear and fingerboard geography. You can encourage the flexibility of the left hand by using natural harmonics – fun and easy to find from an early stage. Confidence in moving around the fingerboard will also help with vibrato later on.
Technique, reading and listening
For me, the most enjoyable and productive lessons are those which involve technique, some reading, plus listening. Follow my leader is good for listening, with teacher or pupil being the leader. Choose a suitable series of notes (not too many) and pass calls and responses around the group. You can add variety by using different dynamics, articulation or parts of the bow. When pupils are more confident with reading, games could include:
- Spot the mistakes;
- Join in when you can – teacher starts anywhere in the piece and pupils pick up as soon as they can;
- Pass the music – one pupil starts and the teacher calls out who should continue, going round the group.
Obviously many of the above can be adapted to work in individual lessons too, with the advantage that they can be paced to suit the individual child.
Teaching tips for an individual approach
Teaching individual beginners can be fantastically challenging and rewarding. If we get it right, they will love music for their whole life and encourage their own children to learn. So these early lessons are crucial. We need to foster confidence, enthusiasm and parental support – then with skill and kindness we can transform a generation!
Establishing good posture now can help to prevent later problems. It is best for students to stand with feet hip width apart, soft knees and tummy, shoulders down and an imaginary string from head to ceiling. The violin needs to rest on the collar bone with a shoulder rest, sponge (plus thick elastic band) or chamois leather. Otherwise, the violin slides and it feels like bowing on a moving target! I usually shape cheap sponges until the posture is settled. Some violins have unreasonably high bridges – painful for little fingers – so best to fix this straight away.
Early lessons can start with singing and clapping games to develop good rhythm, pitch awareness and basic improvisation. This removes the anxiety of getting things wrong and helps develop sight-reading skills. Using elements from the next piece is then good preparation, working aurally first and then with sheet music. A mixture of easy memorising and reading will develop confidence – and encourage independent learning.
I address bowing before the left hand. Bowing firmly in the middle is most natural – fluid motions, not too slowly on open strings. Then extend to the top half (elbow hinging, parallel to bridge) and later to the bottom half (whole arm movement). Even in the first few lessons, students should be able to achieve a clean tone with a relaxed arm. Swinging arms around rhythmically encourages relaxation while demonstration from the teacher develops awareness and understanding of sound.
Fun and games
I usually include lots of games on open strings in early lessons:
- Copy the rhythm;
- Answer me back;
- Guess the string – moving the right elbow precisely for string changes;
- Eyes closed;
- One leg;
- Draw in the air.
Backing tracks are useful here and you can use ABRSM’s Speedshifter to change tempi. Keep games short (two minutes) as muscles develop, and make sure students relax in between – while singing, note reading, clapping or listening to music – or as soon as arms or brains start to get tired!
Choose pieces students like – they won’t play them at home otherwise. Perhaps a few different pieces, with some new ones each week. I find that singing first, then playing gets the quickest and most fluid results. Adding strong open string rhythms over a CD will help to engage students as they develop their bowing tone. You could also ask students to draw pictures or make up words to the first phrases of a piece to open up their imagination. No matter how simple the music, firm rhythm, good tone, dynamics and confidence are essential – some memorising is desirable too.
The left hand
I introduce the left hand when the following are secure:
- Clear tone – all fingers curled and relaxed;
- Sense of character – dynamics;
- Crotchets, quavers and minims.
Other things can go out of focus while the new skill is developing, but a little open string work will help to regain balance. Minimum finger pressure is needed if the bowing is solid. I like to use all four fingers, singing first and then lightly placing the fingers. This gives a proper hand shape and sets things up well for quick progress. Try using octave harmonics to allow students to ‘feel the weight needed’. Or sliding up and down (‘polishing the strings’), which gives the correct left-arm angle and creates a terrific feeling of freedom. This also helps with early vibrato and removes the fear of shifting that often affects progress around Grade 5. At this early stage, I use basic solfège on a movable Do and interchange it with other options. For example, Three Blind Mice: Me, Re, Do; C, B, A; or 2, 1, 0. You can play the same tunes on different strings or in different positions. However, beware of just using numbers as students think everything’s okay if the ‘correct fingers’ are going down. Under pressure, this can create the wrong key.
Playing with friends and feeling proud of their achievements is vital for students’ development. Start small by asking them to play a few favourite, easy bars while the next student is unpacking. Gradually move up to a whole piece, then to playing for a small group, in an assembly or informal concert. Finally think about competitions or exams. At each stage monitor and observe your students’ playing. If they don’t play in tune, is more singing needed or is their left hand stiff? No dynamics? Is it bow division/speeds or characterisation?
I encourage parents to leave the violin out at home for easy practice, loosening the bow each time and leaving the shoulder rest on. I teach them how to use the fine tuners (never pegs), singing the notes from a piano or tuner on their phone. You could also invite parents into lessons occasionally to quietly take notes. A quick call home mid-term can help to keep parents’ awareness high. You can highlight potential ability, talk about expectations from both sides and give details of concerts. Building relationships in this way helps with student motivation and increases practice. Remember, however, that we, as teachers, have the biggest influence on our students’ love of music.
Getting started with ABRSM
Taking the youngest violinist from beginner level to around Grade 2, Violin Star is full of inspiring and imaginative repertoire and provides an ideal introduction to the musical skills and techniques needed in the early stages. The repertoire is imaginatively tailored to develop specific techniques through an exciting range of musical styles – classical, traditional, pop, rock, jazz, world music – as well as original compositions written for the series.
Our Music Medals assessments provide goals and rewards at the early stages of learning an instrument. Designed with group teaching in mind, they are available to all learners in the UK and for a wide range of instruments, including violin. There are five levels of Medal – Copper, Bronze, Silver, Gold and Platinum. For each Medal there are three sections: playing an individual line in an ensemble; playing a solo; and one of four tests chosen from Sight-reading, Make a tune, Call & response or Question & answer. With the teacher acting as Teacher-Assessor, Music Medals are taken in a familiar environment at a time that’s right for everyone. They allow pupils to play to their strengths and perform at their best.
Violin Prep Test
The Prep Test is designed for pupils who have been learning an instrument for about six to nine months. It covers the skills being developed at this stage: pitch and rhythm; controlled and even playing; accuracy and tone quality; and musical perception. With the Prep Test, there is no pass or fail – it is designed to be relaxed and enjoyable and to give candidates a real sense of achievement. At the end of the test, candidates receive a certificate which includes encouraging and helpful comments from the examiner. Working towards this early goal encourages the development of good technique and all-round musicianship. It is also the perfect introduction to the experience of taking an exam.
Rachel Meredith teaches upper strings. She is an ABRSM examiner and Bowed Strings syllabus selector.
Jessica O’Leary is a performer and teacher. She is an ABRSM examiner and Bowed Strings syllabus moderator.
This article was originally featured in the March 2015 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.