By Pamela Foard | From the January-February 2023 issue of Strings magazine
String teachers know how vital it is to get a student’s foundation off to a strong start, so we don’t have to correct them later on. Holding the violin and moving the bow correctly are absolutely critical to future success, as is playing without tension, and the best method I’ve found to instill these skills is found in the superb YouTube videos of violin teacher extraordinaire Mimi Zweig. I base all my setup teaching on these step-by-step videos, and they truly work.
My Studio is a space for teachers to discuss their influences, profound teaching moments, daily quandaries, and the experiences that helped define their approach to teaching.
But there are other areas teachers should emphasize if their students are to become well-rounded people who, even if they never pursue music as a career or avocation, will go through life with a deeper appreciation of how music works and why it’s so important. Here are seven areas I focus on with beginners with this goal in mind.
- Ear Training
- Counting and Rhythm/Subdivision
- Score Reading
- Basic Keyboard and Theory
- Cooperation/Playing Together
String players are fortunate in that we can actually see our strings vibrate, especially when we’re doing pizzicato. For children, that’s a great visual of how acoustics work: sound vibration. Fixing one end of a rubber band to something stable (like a tabletop) and plucking it is another way to illustrate a sound wave. Or even better, if the student holds it between their fingers while you pluck it, they will feel the vibration.
It’s a simple thing but highly effective when it comes to beginning to understand acoustics, the science of sound. Listening carefully to plucked open strings and hearing the sound decay is also a wonderful way to get them to focus on sound vibration. Have a student pluck their instrument’s open strings, listen, then pluck yours and listen. Do they hear a difference? Can they explain what they’re hearing and describe the timbre, or character, of the sound? The key here is getting a student to focus on sound quality and the things that affect their listening experience (such as a so-called live or dead room). It can also extend to spelling out the difference between a performance that touches them or not.
It’s never too early for young players to realize that they, too, can compose simply by putting a mark on a staff. This takes very little time in a lesson—simply hand them a marking device and have them put notes on the staff—but the empowerment is immediate. Of course, you must follow up and play their “piece,” which never fails to delight the composer. They will then usually take your comments (“What if this note was longer?” or “Should we put more of those notes together?”) quite seriously.
3. Ear Training
Even if you don’t have a keyboard, this game is doable with just your instrument. I always go over this as the student is packing up, so it doesn’t take up lesson time. Explain that you will play a perfect octave, demonstrate, then explain that you will play a perfect fifth, and demonstrate. Then go to town switching between those two and ask which one you’re playing. Gradually add in the other intervals over time. It’s surprising how quickly students catch on.
4. Counting and Rhythm/Subdivision
We’ve probably all been guilty of sight-reading a piece and not playing the precise written rhythm. The only way to really get it right is to subdivide consistently. Even a simple dotted-eighth-sixteenth-note rhythm gets sloppy fast without this tried-and-true method. For beginners, the metronome is a perfect tool for this, even though your student may claim their metronome is “broken” (not clicking along with them—one student even told me his metronome was rushing!), which in my experience has never been the case.
A metronome can be a very frustrating tool for a beginner, so it’s best to introduce it slowly. I suggest that they not use it in their own practicing, at least until they’re more comfortable in their lesson with it. Open strings are best, and pizzicato is fine, especially if you haven’t introduced the bow yet. Set a slow click to start out, give them four clicks of rest in between their four beats of plucks, and week by week, gradually speed up. Add in more complex rhythms as they improve.
5. Score Reading
When I was a young student, I played in my city’s youth orchestra. I was assigned one summer to a string quartet, and we practiced with the entire score in front of us, not just our own part. Our coach encouraged us to be aware of the other parts as we rehearsed our quartet. What a lesson in multitasking!
This had the dual effect of opening my ears to the other musicians’ activity and emphasizing that we were all equally important in the making of our interpretation. It was the first time I was awake to the other voices in the group, as we struggled to make something meaningful of our music making.
This is pretty advanced stuff for beginning students, but awareness is a major ally on our musical journey, and score reading is something that can be introduced a little at a time.
6. Basic Keyboard and Theory
Back in high school, I took a music theory course, which was highly unusual back then. (Actually, I think it still is.) But the music teacher had gone to Juilliard and knew how to compose, and he knew many students at the high school wanted to be serious musicians. So we met every day, and one of our assignments was to play chord progressions on the piano, in whatever key and inversion he called out. Talk about being put on the spot!
I would have had a hard time grasping theory had we not been required to play the progressions on the piano. You can see the half and whole steps laid out in front of you, which is not as obvious on an instrument like the violin.
Since those days, I have been a proponent of learning keyboard along with whatever other instrument you’re learning. Even if the student simply learns scales based on where the half and whole steps lie, it’s a step in the right direction. I advocate for at least one week of each semester spent on learning a little theory using the keyboard. If you don’t have a piano, an inexpensive roll-up keyboard is fine and will open up an understanding of music a student wouldn’t otherwise get.
7. Cooperation/Playing Together
One of the most wonderful parts of playing music is the opportunity to play with other people. Students taking private lessons may not have this opportunity, so when I can, I sometimes try to pair them up so that their lessons overlap a little, and they get a chance to play together. Also, setting up group lessons if you have more than two students can be a great opportunity for them to observe and learn from each other.
I remember being inspired by older players when I was first learning to play and developing a consistent practice routine just so I could be like them. If you have a more advanced student who is willing, have them interact with your younger students; they will be more of an emotional motivation for improvement than you are!
Pamela Foard is a freelance violinist in Los Angeles and the co-author of Wedding Music Essentials.