Meeting the Mind of the Very Young Violin Student

November 10, 2022, 12:45 PM · When a small human being walks into the door for violin lessons, you never quite know what to expect, particularly if they are under the age of, say, six.

Violin Kid

As a Suzuki violin teacher with nearly 30 years of experience, I've taught a lot of "first lessons" to youngsters. Occasionally a young child will display the calm of a Buddhist monk, stand where asked, and show interest in doing exactly what you tell them to do.

Just kidding!

Okay I'm not entirely kidding. Children's personalities are as wide-ranging as adults', and occasionally they are naturally calm and compliant.

But more often, a small child is intensely curious, not yet a master of impulse control, and not quite sure about following a teacher's instructions. A very young new student might want to ask a thousand questions about things completely unrelated to violin lessons; to touch everything in the room; to barrel ahead with any task, without much attention to form or detail.

An objective onlooker might say, "Give up, right now!"

Believe it or not, the kid who is pinging off the walls, with his or her attention seemingly on everything except for the task at hand, has great promise.

As violin teacher Eloise Hellyer said recently in her excellent Violin Teachers Blog: "Obedience does not equal either intelligence or the lack of it." (By the way, Hellyer has written a book full of wisdom on teaching called 1 Teaches 2 Learn; it is well worth reading.)

From a teacher's perspective, it seems a lot easier to teach an "obedient" child. And for sure, a teacher needs a degree of compliance from a student to achieve anything at all.

But when it comes to the very young student, I have found that making room for their spontaneous curiosity and extra energy can pay off in the form of trust, mutual good faith and increased buy-in by the student.

For example, I was taken aback when a very young and exuberant student suddenly started galloping around the room while we were singing the "Do, Re, Mi" song. On the face of it, this looked quite literally like "horsing around." As it turned out, he was trying to act out the song. "Do, a deer -- I'm a deer!" he said brightly. I realized at this moment that he was actually 100 percent bought-in; this was not a form of rebellion against the task at hand. He was attempting to act out each degree of the scale. He had fully embraced the lesson, in his own way.

So it's very interesting: Those out-of-turn reactions or seemingly unrelated questions often wind up being relevant after all, and answering them can lead straight back into the lesson at hand.

Of course, as a teacher, you do need to have a "lesson at hand." And that's what makes all this improvising with very young students a real balancing act. In order to meet the mind of, say, a four-year-old, you need tremendous imagination and flexibility. But you aren't going to let the four-year-old run the show. So you also need about 500 tactics for getting back on track.

That said, a child will be much more willing to get back on track if they know that they were understood and that they won't be shut down every time they try to express what they are thinking.

Because, as a teacher, you really don't want to shut that down that natural curiosity and desire to communicate with you. The student wants to show that he can play the first line of the next piece, even though he's not ready? That's a desire to move forward and excel. A student seems to completely change the topic? That student is trying - awkwardly - to relate. A student points out that you are wrong about something, or that you contradicted yourself? That's someone who is paying attention to you.

Assume first that a child is acting in good faith with his or her efforts and sometimes-awkward communication. If there's truly a behavioral problem, then that's another topic. But if it's just a five-year-old acting like a five-year-old, go with it. With patience, attention, time and maturity, this can grow into a beneficial teacher-student relationship with strong communication, steady progress and continued enthusiasm for the task at hand: learning to play music.

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Replies

November 11, 2022 at 11:08 AM · I could never handle children that young. My requirement is fourth grade (10 years old).

My wife and I are Child-Free (that is a decision not a condition the condition is called childless).

My teaching style requires literacy. I provide written practice plans and other instructions. Doflein teaches how to read music and none of it is ear based.

I know that there are lots of teachers who specialize in the very young. You have skills I will never have. You also have patience that I don't.

November 11, 2022 at 05:19 PM · George, you make a good point. Teaching a child who is four and does not yet read words is going to be a different approach, with different expectations, than teaching an older child who is a reader and has more maturity. I actually started when I was almost 9, and I learned to read music simultaneously with learning the basics of how to hold a violin etc. I love those Doflein books too! It just takes me a little longer to get the kids into them, but we get there!

November 12, 2022 at 03:23 PM · @George, when my mom wanted to sign me up for violin lessons, the teacher said he prefers to take students when they're 7 or 8 years old (I had just turned 5). She asked why and he said it's because he wants them to be able to read first. She assured him that I could already read -- not only English but also music (my dad had already taught me some piano) -- so he accepted me. It is a particular and intentional strength of the Suzuki program that young children who cannot yet read can get a solid start learning tunes by ear. My younger daughter started cello at 4 and her teacher was a learn-by-ear Suzuki teacher, so music reading didn't start until she was 7 years old or so, and initially it was harder than I had predicted. (Now she's 16 and she can read anything.)

I love this: "When a human being walks into the door for violin lessons, you never quite know what to expect, particularly if they are under the age of, say, six. "

I bet the same sentence could end with "if they are over the age of, say, 40." But of course that's a different thread.

My teacher is special in that he can teach students of all ages and he knows exactly how to reach them. With the youngest one's he's got all the little tricks -- tapes for the bow and fingerboard (usually come off by the end of Book 1, but that's child-dependent), the foam wrapping on the SR, the little "corn cushion" on the bow frog for the pinky, the foot chart (green feet for playing, red feet for bowing), and he knows how to talk to a tiny child and he earns their respect. With teenagers, he knows how to reach their souls -- how to instill a love of music and a desire to make music at an age where there is emerging, irresistible competition for one's bandwidth. With adults, he is the gentle coach. He knows where I am in my life and what I need from my lessons. I just had a nice lesson where he was able to help me with a few lingering problems and questions in a chamber part that I'm working on (Viola 1 for Mendelssohn Op. 20).

November 12, 2022 at 09:32 PM · Paul,

Ah, the Octet! My absolute favorite piece of music! The 16 year old's original, or the 18 year old's revision (where he removed the bridges between movements)?

My professional teaching was with adults in the field of Supply Chain Management. I discovered that I'm good at teaching material that I had to struggle to learn.

The violin was also a struggle. Starting in my late 20's resurrecting a Jr. High Dream. I have to admit that the delay might have worked better for my personality because I did not have the ability to focus back in Jr. High that I had after the military and college.

Laurie:

Thanks for the affirmation. I don't do well with small children. Now I have a niche-student focus. Children who cannot afford private lessons and late starters like I was.

About literacy: I was one of the people who never formally learned how to read. It happened when I was three and all those things under the pictures in the Golden Books suddenly clicked - shook up the family when I started reading a brand new book (Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel) before my mother read it to me. By the time I got to first grade I was reading at the fourth grade level and that made me the bored problem-child during reading practice. No, I cannot teach anyone how to read - I never struggled. Nor can I teach public speaking. But I can teach SCM and how to play the violin.

November 13, 2022 at 04:01 PM · George, I learned to read the same way. And Mike Mulligan is my all time favorite book.

November 14, 2022 at 06:02 PM · Ann, et al.,

I cannot forget "the first book I read on my own." I cannot say it is "my all time favorite". I'm one of those who almost always has a book handy. Kindle has made that a whole lot easier and convenient. I read a lot of very dense material punctuated by the occasional novel.

I marvel how much times have changed. My kindergarten, first and second grade teachers were not happy with my ability to read at a much higher grade level. Today, from what I gather from parents, reading in Kindergarten is expected.

Learning music gave me the experience of struggling to decipher the notes and getting it all to click.

I am in awe of those who have the skill to teach very young children. I can only imagine (and cringe) teaching the very young. Those who can have my respect.

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