Friday, March 4, 2011

Guest Post - How to teach your own child violin!


Sabrina and I, circa 1995-ish
We are in for a serious treat today - I talked my best friend Sabrina into writing a post for us about teaching your own kids violin!! Sabrina is one of my oldest and dearest friends, and mother to 5 positively adorable children.  She was kind enough to get married and start a family long before I did, so she could have lots of experience and advice for me when I'd need it most.  She's thoughtful like that :)  


Sabrina and fans, present day
We met in a local youth string orchestra in junior high, where we were stand partners in the 2nd violin section and unbeknown to her, mortal enemies.  Every time I showed up to rehearsal, she was sitting in my chair!  Eventually I got over it, we moved up to the youth symphony and have been thick as thieves ever since.  Oh, the stories I could tell you... like the time we both stopped the All-State Orchestra rehearsal by hysterically laughing about a knock knock joke about an orange*... but back to the matter at hand.  She is a mom to a whole gaggle of kids and is managing to teach them her violin know-how.  I'm swamped with just the two!  She's modest, sweet, and an inspiration, and since I'm about to turn up the heat on WonderGirl's violin time (I'm mucho nervous), I've been begging her for advice on how she has managed to do it successfully with multiple kids even!  Here we go!

When do I know my kid is ready for lessons?


I know when they're NOT ready for lessons.  I tried on two of my kids to start them on lessons before the age of 5 (hey - I was taking 'lessons' at 3...so why not?), and it was a disaster both times.  With my son, he really badly wanted to play the cello, so I figured he was ready for it.  Boy, was I wrong.  After about a month, he started to get really frustrated.  He wanted to be able to play a song, dangit!  If you start a little kid on piano, no matter how beginner they are, they can push on a piano key, and get a nice note as a result.  Not so on a violin or cello!  There are so many ways to do it wrong, that it takes quite a while just to figure out how to hold everything correctly to get a decent sound out of the instrument.  So after a month of working with my son, we had only gotten as far as playing "Pepperoni Pizza" on an open string.  And he was not happy about that!  He started becoming less cooperative during our practice time, goofing off and messing around.  When I asked him what the problem was, he told me he wanted to be able to play a real song.  ...So, I decided to put the whole thing on hold for a couple of years until he was a little more mature and could learn faster.  Boy, what a difference a couple of years made!  By the time we came back to it (he was in first grade then), he was able to catch on sooo much faster, and he got to play a song fast enough to satisfy his impatience.  Not only did he learn the songs quickly on violin, be he decided he still wanted to do cello, and taught himself all of the violin songs on the cello as well!
Obviously, not every kid is the same - there are going to be genius kids, and then kids like mine.  Some of them might be ready at 4 or 5 years old.  But in my family, I found that everyone was much happier when they could learn quickly and easily the concepts I taught them...by my waiting until about first grade to start lessons. 


How do you approach a lesson so they treat it seriously, but not serious enough that it's a negative experience?

Well, they have to practice before getting anything fun, like a movie night or dessert or game cube time (only on Saturdays) or something.  My kids are fairly cooperative, and they come to me and ask me what to work on, and I just tell them what to play.  Then I am flexible enough to know when they've had enough.  I don't watch the clock with my own kids - we usually are in such a hurry to get on to other things, that we just practice until dinner is ready or it's time to leave or whatever. 
I have one violin student who is a bit sensitive and takes things really seriously  - too seriously.  If she has worked really hard on a song, and then I find something she's not doing right and have her work on it for a long time, she will sometimes start getting frustrated.  When I first started teaching her, I didn't pick up on the frustration, and sometimes accidentally worked her to the point of tears (not that I'm mean or anything, she was just frustrated that she couldn't get it right after working at it for so long).  Now, I watch her body language.  When we are working on a tough song for a long time, I will notice when her little face starts looking sad, and I STOP.  I give her a high-five, tell her she's done a great job...and we move on to something that is easy for her to review.  


How do you structure their practicing? (ie, by task or by time passed)


So when we DO have time for practicing, we don't watch the clock.  We just work on a song or two, until they start whining that their back hurts or they are tired of the song or it's time to eat dinner.  Half of the time I am frantically trying to cook dinner while having a toddler sabotaging any efforts to accomplish anything...so the practicing isn't very structured.  It generally goes like this: "Hey Mom, what should I play?"  "Hmmm..how about you start by reviewing something?"  "Ok.  Hey Mom!  Andrew's eating cat food!"   ...after playing a song, "OK, let's work on your current piece for a while...better work on that measure a few times.  Can you play that part 8 times for me?"  "Mom, my back hurts, and I've been practicing longer than it took James to finish piano!"  "OK, can you just work on this one more time before you go?"  ...and then it's time for dinner before rushing off to cub scouts. 
Ideally, our practicing includes reviewing at least one song that they've already mastered (otherwise they forget those hard-learned songs!), then work on the current piece.  I try to get them to perfect at least one part of the song - even if it's just one measure.  They will play the trouble spot several times until I'm satisfied with the progress, then play through the whole song.  Then if we still have time, I like to have them do a page of sight reading music exercises.  That's usually about it. 


Why do you think it's worth the trouble for you?


Because it's so fun for the kids to play!  They don't love practicing (who does?), but they have SO much fun doing little performances.  The really cool thing is that somehow we have managed to end up with several friends of the kids who are also into violin and cello.  We did a performance at church for a Christmas party that involved a few of the kids' friends, and they felt like they were so cool.  It's the popular thing to do - who knew??  I have just been amazed at how many cousins are also playing - one of the kids' cousins is waaayyy awesome at violin (better than me), and he has played at family gatherings, and the kids are so inspired by it.  What a fun way to connect with other people, by having music to share with each other. 
I also believe that it helps their brain development in so many ways.  It takes a huge amount of coordination and concentration to be able to play, and music itself is quite mathematical.  What better way to learn about fractions than with musical notes?  And when we play together as a group, the kids have to learn how to follow everyone else and listen to each other and work as a group.  


Can you share anything neat that this has produced in your kids behavior or in their creative exploits?
 
One thing cool we have gotten to do is go and perform at my grandfather's retirement home.  It's been such a cool experience for my kids, and the elderly people LOVED it.  I couldn't believe how many of the residents came up to me after the performance and just had to tell me that they had a relative that plays violin or something.  It really has been such a great experience for the kids and the elderly.



A couple of months ago, James decided that it was time for Thomas (who was 4) to start learning how to hold a proper bowgrip.  So he just sat him down one day, got out a couple of bows, and spent a good 15 minutes just tutoring Thomas on how to hold a bow.  It doesn't get any better than that!

One morning, I came upstairs to get breakfast ready to send the kids out to school, and Michael was practicing the violin.  I thought that was pretty cool that he was on the ball and getting it done early.  Then I noticed Michael had an audience - he had a whole row of stuffed animals, all lined up to listen to his performance!!


Thanks a million, Sabrina!!!  And if any of you out there have experiences or advice you can share, we would LOVE to hear them!  E.mail me (or message me in the comments) and we'll get this show on the road!

* Q: Are you an orange?
   A: No.

403 comments:

1 – 200 of 403   Newer›   Newest»
The Atomic Mom said...

I heart your glasses.

I had the same pair.

Thanks for commenting on my blog. You are cool. :)

Brandon and Rebecca said...

Love the advice on knowing when they're NOT ready. :) Sometimes that's the best indicator.

Jane said...

I haven't stopped laughig about your orange joke yet...
My best friend and I got "excused" from science class one day because we were laughing like that.
Fun times.

Nurse Heidi said...

Man, that is an AWESOME picture at the top. We Spencer girls totally rocked the fashion world in our youth :).

For the record, Sabrina's much better at getting her kids to practice than I am. Rachel turned into a puddle of tears at the piano this morning when I suggested she was playing the wrong note, and would you please check hand position...

Master P said...

Yes!! Heidi - I need your insight here. She's so modest she just blows it off, but HOW exactly is she good about getting them to practice??

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