The Tenuto app is in the app store for around $3.99 I believe. Its definitely money well spent for youngsters. It takes you through basic music theory in a fun interactive way. Key signatures, note names and intervals are just some things covered. So far the kids in my lessons love it so much I've limited it to the end of lesson times or they get addicted. It also has sound so you can do some ear training. Its great for guitarists and pianists also, as has Fretboard and keyboard note identification.
The MSO (Melbourne Symphony Orchestra) also has an app called MSO learn. It encourages kids to learn about different sections of the orchestra and has interviews and demonstrations. This is also free so that's a bonus!
Older kids and practice breaks
Even though by the age of 13-15 your kid/teenager should be on the way to being self motivated to practice, lets get real - often they are not!
So if stickers and other small rewards are not working on older kids I think we have to recognise they have other motivations and distractions in their lives which are discouraging them from even wanting to BEGIN practicing! The main one I've noticed?
The smartphone! Now I may have some opposition here, but I have actually observed this technique work and have a breakthrough with a 15 year old. So scared are they at being away from their phones and forced into work, I (covering eyes) let them have 2 minute phone breaks.
This actually lets them feel still connected to the world and gives their brain mini breaks from small intense sessions of practice. And at the end of the session with this girl -BONUS- she had made a HUGE breakthrough with a difficult passage that otherwise would have usually been a big struggle for her.
The way to attack this would be to do small difficult sections at a time and repeat them so that the fingers get faster and more confident.
Now of course, this should be done on a strict alarm system. I recommend the stopwatch is set on the phone so that they don't get sucked down the wormhole of distraction/time. But mentally, the practice session doesn't become this huge scary obstacle, or something to just try and slog through. Let me know what you think after you try this.
Mini Goals and taking breaks
In order to make a practice session time well spent, you don't want your kid to mindlessly hack through a few pieces and come to view playing their instrument as a hard slog. If you have little goals to work toward each session then gratification is more immediate than getting your kid to set a huge unrealistic goal such as "this piece will sound perfect after I practice today". Thats often unrealistic. It can be underestimated how quickly frustration can build if too many goals are piled on top of each other during a practice session. Not only that, muscles can get fatigued and get overused along with a lactic acid build up. After a section has been repeated several times, at a high intensity of concentration and effort, have a little stretch of the limbs or a drink of water to let the body rest and the mind refocus. Often you will find after a small break when you come back to the same section it will sound a lot better as the practice has had time to sink in, the child won't overthink it anymore and the body will do it more naturally. The muscles used to play the violin are not often used in everyday life so its surprising how quickly they tire. Builiding up their use gradually and in small doses rather than long periods of time will avoid injury.
Keeping the Bow straight!
Keeping the bow straight is tough for beginners, usually the tendency is for the bow to follow the natural movement of the arm so it ends up with the tip of the bow traveling over onto the fingerboard (fuzzy sound - not great) or colliding with the bridge (scratchy sound - irritating!). The best way to monitor your bow arm is to practice with a mirror. Aside from that, following the basic principle of pushing your arm slightly in front, and away from you on down bows will keep it more aligned with the bridge and in the golden area for sound. On the up bow, get your child to pretend they are looking at their watch so their wrist bends slightly. This will ensure the bow doesn't travel at an odd angle behind their head. If you are finding it hard to help them with this, I've just discovered a new item available on amazon at the link below called "Bowzo" which slots over the strings and keeps the bow nicely aligned. Probably not best for long term practice, but great for short periods of time to get your child used to the right range of motion!
Happy practicing ;)
Time of practise in the day
Younger kids especially can lose focus easily when they are tired. I can't teach kids too late in the evenings or they literally cannot focus and sometimes break down into tears. You can't make a kid focus when they are in this state, so pick your practice times wisely! Just after school is perhaps another time when they might be in an energy slump, they need a break and food - depending on the child of course. This leaves early evening and the mornings for practicing. With increasing demands on homework for school, It might be effective to try making it a habit to practice before school in the mornings when their minds are alert and fresh. I woke up and did this in my school years, and now the students of mine that are keeping their practice habits are finding this works for them also. There's the added advantage that its then done for the day and they can relax and focus on their other activities when they get home from a long day. It doesn't have to be a very long session, but it starts getting them into the habit, making progress and when they see the results, it encourages them further. Try it!
Happy practicing :)
Practice session goals
Often I will get to a lesson with a student and ask, so what did you focus on with your practicing this week? and often the answer will be, "well I played it through a few times..."
I get it, practice can seem like a chore to a child at times. Lately I have been saying less and less in lessons and when they get confused and say, "was that ok?" I will ask "I don't know, was it? what do you think?"
This (after confusing them even more for a while) forces them to listen more critically to what they are doing. I often will say, your answer doesn't have to be "right" but I want you to start having an opinion. If they don't learn to ask themselves these questions, It can become all to easy to lay back and expect me to do all the critical thinking for them. I think in practice sessions you can help your child by asking them to come up with one or two things to focus on in that session only. If they only ask themselves the question, "what could I have done that would have made it sound a bit better?" they usually know a lot of the answers already. The only way to gain confidence in their own opinions is to be able to have one. This is why as a parent, instead of making them "wrong" make sure the focus is to try a few different things instead. Allow them to experiment a little more, and increase their confidence!
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Often my students don't have perfect pitch and so even though I give them guidance each lesson with learning how to tune their instruments themselves, they don't have a starting point to work from.
"Perfect pitch" is when you are able to name any note that is played without having a given note before it. It's apparently very rare, and more common among musicians that have learned from a very young age. Asians - Chinese in particular I believe, are more likely to have it, due to the musical nature of their language. They have to have different pitches for words as often they use the same word for many different meanings - Interesting!
"Relative pitch" is when you are given a note and then, once you have this note, you are able to recognise other pitches by figuring out the interval. This is where having a tuning aid comes in handy. The violin tunes to an A. We always start with the A string and then adjust all other strings. That's why at the beginning of an orchestra concert, the Oboe gives an A to the concertmaster.
When it comes to tuning at home, whether it's a piano (not great if it hasn't been tuned recently), a tuning fork, or an electronic tuner, your child can learn to figure out a way to tune their instrument more easily without a teachers help. If you have none of these options available, but you have an I-Phone (as just about everyone has nowadays), there is an app called "Tuner Lite" and it's free! (thank goodness for technology). There is the option of having the A played by pressing one button, or by using it's microphone and having the application work out if you are playing too high or low.
Its interesting how often I, as a student, avoided as much as possible listening to the piece I was playing on a CD. I don't know why I did this, most probably it was out of sheer laziness or rebellion against my teacher/parents.
I recently have begun to realise a similar pattern with my students. Often I'll ask them, "so have you listened to the piece yet?" and they will look sheepish and guilty. I'm not doing it to make their life harder, in fact I wish I had cottoned on to how much easier my life would have been if I had started doing it sooner. I didn't realise just how much easier it could have been until I got to my career playing in orchestras where I had only a few days to learn a new symphony. Most of my rapid learning was through listening to the piece. I would have had no idea of tempos and rhythms in such a short time unless I was slightly familiar with it. Listening to the music you are learning as much as halves your learning time very often. That is why the Suzuki method is so successful.
If you can help your child in any way - if you do only one thing, let it be this. Make it a habit for them to listen to the piece they are learning so that they are not blindly stumbling through black dots on a page. Let them build a connection to the music they are learning and make it a habit. Have a music player set up next to their practice area so it is easier to remember and access. If it's far away and the music can't be found, it won't happen! Youtube also works. Google their piece! Everything is on google now!!
The best way to change a bad habit
I have found a brilliant way to change/improve a technique that a child does not realize effects their playing to a huge degree. Most kids are competitive we must concede, and if you can use that to their advantage in a good way so that they are competing against themselves you are on to a winner!
I like to choose one habit that needs improving to focus on from time to time - lets say a scratchy bow from my previous post, and then I bring it to my students attention.
I then say, lets play through your piece, and we will start with 5 points (5 stickers if more bribery needed). Every time they press too hard on the string, producing a scratchy sound, I will minus a point! You will be surprised how many kids love this! It's like a game to them. One kid loved this so much that she wanted to use this system with all of her pieces, and was so proud of herself when she kept most of her points. This also encourages your child to evaluate how they are playing themselves, and not just rely on the teacher or parent to tell them when they are not producing the best sound. My students often volunteer their own criticisms of how they could have played something better after this exercise, and they really start to listen to themselves objectively.
Remember only focus on one technique per practice session so it becomes a fun learning experience and not frustrating.
Here I write my musings on teaching, or other things that come up in lessons/relate to violin learning. Anything suggested is just that, suggestions and my thoughts and may differ from the opinions of my other music colleagues!