Fun Exercises to Teach Finger Action

Violin: Fun exercises to teach finger action on the violin or viola.

In the beginning stages of playing the violin or viola, there are many things to consider: the posture, bow hold, and bowing motion for starters. But for beginners, simply placing the fingers in the correct shape on the fingerboard and using an appropriate amount of force vs. relaxation of the finger can be a challenge. Even more advanced students must work on improving finger action, for example, in using the fingers to articulate a series of notes under a slur. I like to use the following exercises to teach finger action.

The Ants Go Marching

In the pre-twinkle stage, I will draw the finger numbers on the tip of each left hand finger and we will sing “The Ants Go Marching” while doing “finger pops”. In finger pops, the finger and thumb make a circle, with the finger on its tip. This both helps to strengthen the arch shape of the fingers, and also reinforces the finger numbers, since we pop the first finger when singing “the ants go marching 1 by 1”, pop the second finger when singing “the ants go marching 2 by 2”, etc.Read More »

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Staying On Time With 30-minute Lessons

picture of violin and fall leaves

My “New Year’s” Resolution

For many teachers, September feels more the like the “new year” than January 1st. I love all the school supply sales and the sense of new beginnings. This time of the year, I like to also take time to reflect on how I can improve and streamline my teaching. My goal this year is very simple: to stay on time. This seems like a no-brainer, just end each lesson on time. But on days where I have 8 students back-to-back with no break, it can be a bit more difficult to start and end everyone on time. Throw into the mix students who are slow to put instruments away or parents with all those important beginning-of-semester questions and you can see why staying on time can be a challenge.

 

Creating a Game Plan

To make sure I stay on schedule, I wanted to get a more clear idea of how I wanted to structure each lesson, especially those shorter 30 minute lessons. I sketched out a pie chart in my bullet journal of how an ideal 30 minute lesson would go, assuming the student is playing twinkles or above in Book 1. Just an aside: I normally ask my Book 2 students to move up to a 45-minute lesson to accommodate more note reading and technique work, so the chart below would look a bit different for a more advanced student with a too-short lesson time.Read More »

BTS Deals: School Supplies to Improve Music Practice

picture of colored pencils

It’s that time again and here in St. Louis, we are all settling into the new school year. But while you’re getting your backpacks, markers, and rulers, there are some items that pop up at stores this time of the year that can help with music practice. Most are available year round, but a lot of school supplies are marked down in August and September, so it’s the perfect time to stock up on things that will help with music practice.

New binders

This is the cheapest you will see three-ring binders all year. If your lesson binder is looking the worse for wear, replace it now. I’ve seen binders fall apart before important auditions throwing papers everywhere. Don’t let this happen to you!

Reading Timers

These little guys have been showing up in deals section of Target. If your child needs to practice something for a certain number of minutes, this flat bookmark timer will fit in their music book and remind them to practice. Here is a link to a similar reading timer available on Amazon.

Practice Mirrors

In the dorm section of Target and other big box stores, you can now buy long over-the-door mirrors for around $5. Buy one and mount it in the area where your child practices so they can watch their own posture, bow hand, bow tracking, etc.  A mirror is an invaluable practice tool for the advancing student and they are deeply discounted right before school starts.

Pencil Toppers

You can use these to place on the tip of the bow for bow hand exercises. You can also use finger puppets.

Counters

Get an abacus to count repetitions. They’re on sale now, or available year-round at IKEA.

Fun Erasers

If you have a student who is working on posture, balancing one of these fun erasers on the top of the violin or viola will be a treat. Target often has seasonal erasers in the dollar section near the front of the store, or check out the dollar store.

Dry-Erase Foam Dice

I found these at our local Dollar Tree in the teacher section and can’t wait to try them out. You could write twinkle rhythms, review pieces, or number of repetitions, the choices are endless. Then you can erase and change them after next week’s lesson.

Charts

I’m not a fan of giving out stickers for practice because I want students to develop intrinsic motivation, but some students just love seeing their progress over time. You can use the dollar tree charts to track how often your child has played a certain review piece, or how many minutes of practice they did on each assignment. These charts can be found in the teacher section of dollar tree, office stores or big box stores.

Picture of sand timer.

Old-Fashioned 2-Minute Timers

I’ve seen these at dollar stores. I often use an app on my phone for minute timers, but these are too much fun. Just turn it over and practice a small section of music until the timer runs out.

What do you like to stock up on during back to school season?

Summer Institute Magic: My ASI Experience

My American Suzuki Institute Experience

It’s back-to-school time here in St. Louis, and I’m busy getting ready for the new year, but before things get too crazy, I want to share my experience at the American Suzuki Institute in Stevens Point Wisconsin. I spent the last two weeks of July this year in Stevens Point, taking some viola teacher training. I’ve been to other institutes in the past and always enjoyed the experience, but I have to say that ASI is the largest and most organized that I’ve attended. Read More »

What I’m Reading Now: Beyond the Music Lesson

Beyond the Music Lesson-Habits of Successful Suzuki Families

Summer is a great time to catch up on on some reading. I’m off to Wisconsin soon and will be gone for a few weeks, so I was excited to get a new book in the mail with just enough time to read it before I left town. The book is called “Beyond the Music Lesson: Habits of Successful Suzuki Families”  by Christine E. Goodner, a Suzuki teacher and parent. I’ve enjoyed reading the author’s blog, The Suzuki Triangle, so when I found out she was publishing a book, I knew I wanted to check it out.

“Beyond the Music Lesson” is the reading equivalent of taking a knowledgeable, friendly music teacher out for coffee and picking their brain about how to help your child succeed in music lessons. When I got the book in the mail, I’ll admit I was a bit surprised that it’s on the shorter side at just 141 pages. But as I read on, I realized that the shorter length is an asset. There are many wonderful books about practicing and teaching which are much longer and focus on lots of little details. They are great resources, but this book has the real advantage in that it is easy to read small chunks at a time without getting lost. The format of the book means that even the busiest parent could read a couple of paragraphs when they have a moment throughout the day and still get a lot of helpful information.

Before my Suzuki students begin lessons, their parents are required to attend a series of orientation sessions which include information on Suzuki philosophy as well as practical help in how to practice with their child. These sessions are invaluable in getting parents and students get off to the right start, but parent education should be a continuing process so that families continue to experience success in lessons and feel confident at home. As time goes on, new issues can arise such as what to do if a child being resistant or argumentative about practice, how to structure review practice, or just the daily grind of other activities crowding out practice time. There’s a lot to talk about! “Beyond the Music Lesson” addresses these common practice issues and more, in a simple, down-to-earth format that is accessible to non-musicians. It is written from a Suzuki perspective and for Suzuki parents, though there are some tips that would also apply to parents whose children are in traditional lessons as well. Although the author is a violinist and violist, the advice in the book is not instrument specific.

This book is not a comprehensive encyclopedia on efficient music practice. For a more detailed, nuts-and-bolts guide to practice, I would recommend “The Practice Revolution” by Philip Johnston, which is aimed more at music teachers rather than parents. Noa Kageyama over at the Bulletproof Musician Blog also has a list of recommended books that deal with learning and performance optimization. “Beyond the Music Lesson” is aimed more at big picture and practical issues such as how parents can find time for practice, how to create a daily listening habit, and why repetition is important. Just writing about it, I realize that for Suzuki teachers, these may seem like no-brainers, but it’s so important to keep coming back to basics, especially when working with families who are new to lessons. The book also cites research to back up ideas about practice and character development and provides resources for further reading.

For teachers, the last two chapters about mastery (including a long discussion on review) and on looking at the big picture are especially valuable.  I found it enlightening to reflect on ideas such as how I can help to create a positive musical environment in the studio, thinking of long-term goals to get through short-term frustrations, and helping students to cultivate a growth mindset. As all music teachers know, you can never really get too much of revisiting the basics. I’m glad to have added this book to my own library, and I’m hoping that my studio families will find it helpful as well.

What’s on your summer reading list?

Book Review-Beyond the Music Lesson

The Joy of Scales: 7 Reasons All Students Should Practice Scales

7 Reasons All String Students Should Practice Scales.

I have a confession to make: I love scales! There is nothing I like better than starting the day off right with a cup of coffee and some slow, mindful scale practice. I know that both students and professionals have differing opinions on scales, but love them or hate them, scales are an essential part of string technique. Here’s why I think they are so important. 

 

7 Reasons All String Students Should Practice Scales

 

They Improve the Left Hand Frame

Scales are “multiple vitamins” for the left hand. Practicing scales strengthens the left hand frame, and reinforces the exact placement of half and whole steps used throughout western classical music.

 

They’re “Easy Wins”

When trying to form a new habit or improve in a certain area, productivity experts emphasize the importance of “easy wins”. Success breeds success and scales are short and sweet enough to give students an immediate sense of accomplishment, which gets the ball rolling on greater challenges.

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Using “Glue Hops” to Teach Song of the Wind

Using Glue Hops to Teach Song of the Wind

One of the wonderful things about teaching from the same repertoire year after year is you tend to develop “favorites”. One of my favorite pieces in Book 1 is Song of the Wind. It’s fun, energetic, and often a student favorite, and it’s fun to vary the tempo in group class so it becomes Song of the Gentle Breeze, or Song of the Tornado. Song of the Wind seems like a short, simple song, but there is so much to explore in just a few lines. One of the trickiest spots for beginning students occurs right at the beginning, in measures 3-4. There are several skills going on in that spot. There is a quick string crossing for both the left hand finger and the bow (more on that in a moment) and we have our first instance of a bow retake, also known as a a circle bow or circle set. But for any of this to work, the student also has to leave their first finger down, while moving the 3rd finger over to a different string. 

I’ve created lyrics for this measure, which go like this (from the beginning of the song through measure 6):Read More »

Suzuki Summer Review-a-Thon

 

Suzuki Summer Review-a-thon

Private teachers know that things are, well, a bit different during the summer. I believe that summer lessons are crucial to continued student success and Christine Goodner recently wrote a great article about the importance of summer lessons over at the Suzuki Triangle Blog. While the majority of my students do continue lessons over the summer, many are also doing camps or taking vacations and I’ve noticed that consistent practice habits can start to slip in the midst of all those competing activities. To keep motivation and interest up, my studio will be participating in a summer “review-a-thon”, focusing on Suzuki review pieces. As many students are in and out of lessons, a review-a-thon will be more appropriate to the pace of the summer, rather than a time-based challenge, like the Viola Hero or Practice Wars challenges that I have held during the academic year.Read More »

For Better Tone: Hang Like a Monkey

Pin. Better Tone with Help from a Monkey!I work on bow hold a LOT in lessons because it is foundational to producing a beautiful tone. But even when my students have learned a correct, relaxed bow hand posture, that ease doesn’t always translate into the bow arm. To get the maximum tone, the bow elbow should generally rest slightly below the wrist. If the elbow starts to go above the wrist, the student is not able to transfer the weight of their arm efficiently into the bow, and both tone and bow control suffer.

Some students may have heard that they need to “push” or “apply pressure” to the string to make a sound so they suspend their arm weight from lifting the elbow or shoulder, producing either a weak, unfocused tone, or they press downward to make a scratchy, unpleasant tone. It often takes a lot of repetition over many weeks and months to help a student  learn to release their arm weight into the bow, but when they do, the professional-sounding tone is worth the wait. Here are some fun ways I help my students use their arm weight in producing a good tone:

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