Strong Habits for Young Violin Students
A great many blog posts and ebooks have mimicked the great book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Too many really. I’m not going to copy that other than to say that below are some habits that will make young violin students more successful and therefore happier. I began playing the violin at age five. Somehow, I developed a good practice plan and became successful. To me, progress equals happiness. If I don’t make progress, I’m not happy, but if I do see progress while practicing, I’m energized and motivated to practice even more. When students see that they are improving, they will be happier, and more motivated. Below are some ways that teachers and parents can help young students achieve this.
Set Realistic Goals – Long and Short Term
All students need to know what is expected of them. Goals are important. They need realistic (but challenging) goals to strive for. Obviously the goals must be attainable, but they must be so with some work. Teachers don’t like practicing for students. That is a waste of precious lesson time. The student should practice at home, but with clear and concise instructions from the teacher.
I’ve taken to giving each student a notebook. It contains worksheets and other informational materials for note reading and theory, as well as a “lesson journal.” The journal has space for each lesson – what was done at the lesson, and what needs to be practiced for next week. I have found that young students have, shall we say, trouble remembering instructions. I took my 8-year-old to the doctor for a physical last week, and they tested his hearing. It has been confirmed that he can hear. He usually chooses not to. All youngsters are the same way. Goals need to be there for students and parents to read in order for progress to be made.
Short term goals would be learning a single passage or playing without bowing mistakes. Long term goals are finishing Suzuki book one by Christmas or even finishing a current piece by a certain date. Recitals and performances can be either long or short term depending on how far out the date is. Mix in all of these and help the student get into good practice habits.
Carrot and Stick
Call me old-fashioned but in today’s world, there is far too much psychological baloney when it comes to parenting and teaching. I am a firm believer in rewarding good behavior and punishing bad behavior. You do something naughty, you will face consequences. Period. You get all As on your report card? We go to Chuck-E-Cheese (the ninth circle of hell as far as I’m concerned). I don’t hit my kids and neither should you, but parents need to be tough when teaching kids about respect and model behavior.
To an extent, the same is true for learning violin. Students will have good days and bad. They need to be aware that how they performed at the lesson was either good or bad. Don’t necessarily use those words, but don’t be afraid to be a little tough on students to get them moving. My teacher in undergrad was marvelous, but in the end, he was too easy on me. He let me get away with a lot which ultimately hurt my technique. The worst thing he ever said to me was, “Well, that wasn’t exactly your best playing.” That’s all. My next teacher hurled profanity at me in two languages and that worked much better. Obviously it depends on the student, and teachers need to tailor their style accordingly.
This fall, I’m starting a reward program with my youngest students. There will be a grab bag of goodies from the dollar store and students can reach in a grab something after a good lesson. After the bad ones, they will get practice tips on how to get the reward next time. You don’t have to berate your students, but again, don’t be afraid to let them know they need to do better.
How to Practice – Good Habits
Most of my lesson time with each student is instructing him or her on how to practice. They know what to practice, but without good practice habits at home, there won’t be success. That means frowny faced students. There are some students who I can send on their way with nothing more than learn this stuff for next week. One the other hand, most of my students need to be micromanaged a bit. In this case, micromanaging isn’t a bad thing. It’s keeping your students on track and happy with the results.
As a teacher, I like to tell students how long to practice each segment of their assigned music. For the youngest, that means something like five minutes of warm-up (I give them a specific passage to use), five minutes of exercises (say, right and left hand), then 10 minutes of work on the current piece. Those times get bumped up as they get older and more advanced. I’ve even suggested using a kitchen timer (in the old days) or cell phone (21st century equipment) to keep time.
Personally, I’ve done just that myself, and I’m still doing it today. I’ll set a timer for 20 minutes and pound out scales until it goes off. Depending on what I’m working on, that number could go up. It works. I’m not a strict technician when I practice (or perform), but sometimes a little extra discipline can go a long way.
Good Practice Habits – Part Deux
Teachers know if a student hasn’t practiced. We know the difference between playing poorly and being unprepared. I like to remind students that I was once their age too, and I tried everything my little 9-year-old brain could think of to get out of practicing. The thing is, any practicing is good. Ten minutes of practicing 4-5 days a week will produce results. Teachers and parents need to push students to practice. If we don’t, what are we doing this for?
I tell parents and students to find at least 15-30 minutes a day to practice. Obviously I would prefer every day, but I understand that kids have multiple responsibilities from school to sports to church to, whatever. I expect each student to practice 4-5 days each week, and I emphasize practicing the day after a lesson while the material is still fresh. Waiting until a few days before the lesson is bad news. You can’t cram for a lesson. I’ve tried it. You need several days of practicing each week to be successful.
Try practicing in the morning before school. Not an early riser? Try practicing for 15 minutes right before bed. There is always a spare 15-30 minutes in everyone’s schedule. Find it and use it. Then, make a habit of it. Like quitting smoking or working out, practicing is a habit that can be learned and then used wisely. Once you’ve established a daily routine, keep at it and it won’t seem like homework. This is one of the best habits I can recommend to students and parents.
The best motivator for students to practice is progress. Students see themselves getting better and that motivates them to practice more. The cycle goes on. It’s like an Escher drawing. There is no end and no beginning. If we can get these kids to practice, if only a little at first, they will eventually understand that practicing is the most important habit they can have.