The Joys of Teaching Beginner Violinists
Teaching beginner violinists is an incomparable, stimulating and enjoyable occupation. Each child is uniquely individual; every day produces new challenges and rewards.
The last four decades have seen great improvements in beginners’ material.The Paul Rolland project, Sheila Nelson, Phyllis Young, Suzuki and Colourstrings have produced a wealth of interesting and challenging ideas and materials.
The teaching program for the young child should be fun, stimulating and highly organised by very experienced teachers or by comprehensively trained young teachers with access to mentoring. The first years are the most important in the violinist’s education process. Prior aural and rhythm training before beginning instrumental training is preferable.
For almost thirty years I have worked with the model of both a weekly instrumental class and individual lesson for all students. I prepare a three year beginners’ program and set up ‘in the rough’ many of the basic techniques that will be required in a life time of playing. Techniques, rhythm, aural training, and reading are done in the group classes and individual attention is paid to their development in the single lessons. The classes also play an important role socially where sometimes lifelong friendships have their beginnings. Progress is more assured because of peer influences, all students are taught the techniques in an organised way and they are introduced to ensemble work very early on. Parents are advised how best to assist the child at home.
In setting up the instrument and bow, freedom of movement can be actively pursued by exercises until the child feels and moves comfortably with the instrument and it becomes like an extension of their body.
The entire fingerboard is explored from the earliest weeks. Plucking with the third and fourth finger across the strings while swinging the elbow and also along the full length of the fingerboard strengthens these fingers and sets up a favourable left hand position as well as establishing the correct movements and positions of the elbow.
Plucking across the strings with the right hand, then making a full circle in front of the face ensuring that the elbow is in front of the body, is a preliminary step to setting up the direction of the bow. Using a piece of dowel stick cut to bow length can be useful for initial exercises to minimise damage to the bow. The children love the very creative ideas from Playing the String Game and The String Play by Phyllis Young, particularly for bow exercises. I have adapted several of these into my teaching. The number of ways to capture the child’s attention is only limited by the imagination and knowledge of the teacher.
Instrumental development is set up in such a way that no barriers are introduced, therefore none have to be combated later.
Primarily, the third and fourth positions are more comfortable for the child and reduce hand position problems which can develop by remaining too long in first position. Extensive use of harmonics is recommended as this utilises the entire fingerboard and prevents gripping at the neck. Full bow strokes are used initially and are later reduced to shorter strokes to prevent rigidity developing in the bow arm.
Once the violin and bow holds are well established the child can look forward to playing short tunes in a number of different positions and different keys. It is also good practice to encourage them to sing each note where possible before playing it. Playing octaves in first position, third position and then harmonics assists with aural development. If the child cannot pitch the note accurately and is unlikely to get suitable help at home, a marker placed on the fingerboard for a short period of time can at least ensure that the child is developing the correct pitch while practising.
Throughout the three year beginner period many different techniques are taught. I usually introduce suitable exercises prior to demonstrating the next technique. As an example, before teaching sautillé, the child reverses the bow, holds it at the tip and plays rapid détaché at the frog with the elbow lowered and the bow hand ‘waving’ to the floor. In the following weeks the bow is held in the correct position, and rapid détaché is played in the middle across two strings with the bow hand position changing from leaning towards the first finger in the détaché to leaning towards the 3rd and 4th fingers for the sautillé. Here the main contact on the bow is the 3rd finger.
Vibrato starts with tapping and then gliding exercises, spiccato with bouncing bows producing smiley faces and so on. While establishing one technique, the students are revising the previous one and preparing for the next. Bowing techniques are all introduced and vibrato is commenced in embryonic form and developed over time. During class lessons I move quickly from one activity to the next to prevent boredom or restlessness. Having the child perform regularly in a relaxed atmosphere creates confidence and maintains interest. Allowing for the fact that if there is a wrong way to do something some child will find it regardless of the dedication of the teacher, most children advance well during this time.
At the conclusion of the three year period the students have the necessary tools to progress rapidly if they have the will to do so. The individual lesson then takes over as the vehicle to progress techniques and repertoire while the children move into chamber ensembles and string orchestras.
In ensembles it is very helpful to have the children read and play from a score. This engages their senses of sight and sound. Initially the line the child is playing can be highlighted, and then discarded as competence in reading increases. Scores for young students can be sourced from the volumes of the Colourstrings philosophy Colourful Music for Strings by Lásló Rossa, from the volumes of ensembles by Sheila Nelson, New Tunes for Strings by Stanley Fletcher and many others.
If the students have enjoyed their early years of study this will sustain them while developing their techniques at higher levels, especially when the call of other activities competes for their time and interest.
The importance of developing good habits early is evidenced by the fact that many students who started with this program continued on to tertiary music studies. Some are pursuing professional careers as teachers or players both in Australia and overseas. Several students won major prizes in national and international competitions, one young boy winning three junior international competitions in Japan before the age of 14. Many others continue to enjoy their musical interests in various forms while pursuing diverse careers.
Since 1983 Ros Hurst been a Lecturer in violin, viola and pedagogy, a Visiting Fellow and is currently a member of the Emeritus Faculty at the Australian National University.