All posts by Elizabeth Knopp

Elizabeth is a certified Suzuki teacher for violin books 1-10, viola 1-3. She plays first violin in the HighStrung String Quartet, was Concertmaster for two years with the Oregon Pro Art Chamber Orchestra and has played with the Vancouver Symphony, Willamette Falls Symphony and gigs around the greater Portland area with musicals, weddings and events. She studied privately with Hong Chou, Leo Whitlow, Cindy Petty and Amy Morretti. Her favorite things are: Bach, the beach, travel, Irish fiddle, good food, sunsets, laughter and musicals.

Suzuki vs. Traditional Method

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“Music is the language of the heart without words.” -Dr Suzuki

There is so much confusion surrounding what the difference is between traditional and Suzuki method violin lessons. What’s the difference? Is one better? How do you choose?

I, personally, started on the Suzuki method at the age of three, went through two years of Suzuki pedagogy training,  and currently have a studio of thirty students that I teach the Suzuki method to. I believe in the Suzuki method and really enjoy using it with my students.

Dr. Suzuki was born in Japan and was a firm believer that every child can learn to play music. He was a strong advocate for creating an “environment” where music was fostered and encouraged in every child. The basis of his method was on linguistics and how a child learns spoken language. Just as we do not expect a child to read before they can talk, we should not expect a child to read music before they can play music.

With that idea, a Suzuki teacher will teach at least the first year of violin without having the child read music. The focus is on posture, tone and developing a love of music. This means the child will attend concerts, play with other violinists, perform as often as possible and be immersed in the violin world.  It is for these reasons that the Suzuki method is often the preferred method for teaching younger children ages 2-5. Children at these ages are not trying to keep up with any kind of school orchestra, are often not reading yet and their ear is still developing making them prime candidates for learning music by ear.

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Dr. Suzuki leading a group of children playing violins

Traditional violin lesson teachers will often be leery to start a child before 1st grade and often would prefer to wait until 4th or 5th grade. This is sad because many years have been lost in which the child could have been exposed to music and learning to appreciate it. The other major benefit to starting young is learning to perform at a young age which makes it less intimidating as you get older.

The positive side of waiting and doing traditional method is that the child can be self-propelled and often needs very little help from the parent other then encouragement. The Suzuki method is very parent involved. Especially when you start from a young age. Dr. Suzuki always encouraged the parent to learn along side the child. He felt like this was a positive role modal for the child and then the parent could assist in practice. Ask any teacher; too often a parent ruins a week of practice by giving a student wrong advice.

You can start the Suzuki method at a later age. I have started many students age ten to twelve on the Suzuki method. They do really well. The benefit of only focusing on posture, tone and love of music really brings out the artistry in playing the instrument. Making it way less about the technical side of reading music and more about the artistic side of making music.

To be honest, I do start my students with reading music by Book 2 of the Suzuki method. My reason for this is that my own musical growth was stunted by leaving out the reading of music for so long. By the time most of my students reach Book 2 though, they have been playing for three years. This is plenty of time to focus on posture and tone development without the stress of trying to read music at the same time. I do not however, use the Suzuki book to read music. I supplement with fiddle tunes, duets, scales, etudes and rhythm training.  If a teacher claims to be a Suzuki teacher and just teaches from the books they are missing the whole point of Dr. Suzuki’s method. His method was not about the songs he wrote or pieces in the books. His method is about believing in the ability of every child to play music, to foster the love of music in every child and to start them off in music the best way possible.

 To get a visual idea of what Dr. Suzuki was like and what his method brought about, watch this YouTube channel by clicking here. Crazy what love, devotion and belief in a child’s ability can bring about.

How Young is Too Young?

As a violin teacher, with a pretty good size studio, I think the question I get the most is, “At what age should I start my child?”  There are several responses that I could have with this question, but I will go with the two that I feel most strongly about.

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First, what is best for your child?  In this day and age it is not uncommon for a child to have an extra activity every day.  From soccer to acting class kids’ schedules can be crazy.  If you want them to play an instrument, not have to practice with them, and just have fun, then starting in 5th or 6th grade is probably the best option.  At that age, kids can be pretty self-driven and if they like the instrument will practice.  You may need to be flexible, however,  because your child will probably want to switch as they get exposed to different instruments.  For a child to try violin one year and cello the next is great, but as a parent can be frustrating.

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Second, what is best for you as the parent?  If you want to start your child on violin at the age of three, that’s awesome, but realize you will have to be very dedicated.  Practicing with the child every day, enduring tantrums when practice gets difficult, and having a slow and steady approach to learning the instrument.  I love it when a young child gets a grasp on music early.  The students I have that started at the age of three or four have a way better understanding of music then a child that starts in 5th or 6th grade.  They have been around music longer, appreciate it, and see music almost as a second language.  It is a beautiful thing, however, it is not an easy thing to accomplish as a parent.  If you are not the type of parent that wants to dedicate yourself to learning the violin and practicing with your child every day then hold off on starting them young.  It will cause you more grief than joy.  So, unless you are a bit of a “tiger mom” it may not be best for you.

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I started the violin at the age of three.  There has never been a day, in my adulthood, that I have regretted starting the violin at such a young age.  It is why I love teaching younger students so much.  By the way, all of the children’s pictures in this post are students of mine.

Starting children young can be very rewarding.  My mom was an amazing, dedicated woman and she said there was nothing more rewarding then seeing her children come alive while playing music.  My mother also came up with the best quitting rule when it came to music.  If we ever came to our mom and said that we wanted to quit she always said that was just fine and we would mark the calendar for 6 months from the time that we asked to quit.  If 6 months later we still wanted to quit the instrument, we were allowed to do so.  You would be amazed at how often quitting an instrument is associated with an upcoming performance, current frustration with a technique, or just pure laziness. Often, after 6 months, we would not even remember wanting to quit.  I still use this rule with my own students.  It works brilliantly.  In ten years of teaching I have only had one student quit.

In closing, a child is never to young to begin to experience music. Singing to and with your child, playing music for your child, and being intentional about learning different instruments and their sounds can go a long way towards teaching your child to appreciate music. Music is not so much a talent but a gift and like all art, should be deeply appreciated.

I would start by watching the “Goat Rodeo” sessions on YouTube with your child. Totally entertaining and lively. They will love them.  You can click here to see what I’m talking about. 🙂

Violin and Fiddle: Are They the Same?

Fiddle players get a lot a lot of flack for being lazy violinists while violinists get teased for being snobby fiddle players. There’s even a joke: “What the difference between a violin and a fiddle? A fiddle is fun to listen to.”

So, what is the difference between a fiddle and a violin? At it’s core, nothing. Violin and fiddle players use the exact same instrument. The only difference that could occur is in the “set-up” of the instrument.

Itzhak Perlman, world famous violinist
Itzhak Perlman, world famous violinist.

Amplification set-up: Violinist tend to play in orchestras, quartets, trios and do not often have to use a mic to be amplified over other instruments. Fiddle players, on the other hand often play with bass, guitar and drums and often need a “pick-up” or microphone of some kind to amplify themselves over the other instruments.

String set-up: There are hundreds of kinds of violin strings. Each violinist or fiddle player will have their particular kind of string they like to use best. In general though, fiddle players prefer a steel string for their direct and clear sound. Violinists can talk for hours about different kinds of strings and why they use the type of string they do. It might be one of the reasons why violinists are considered snobby.

Bridge set-up: Often fiddle players have their bridge shaved down because fiddle playing has a lot of chords and double stops. Having a lower bridge helps to keep the strings on a more level plane, making it easier to hit chords. The classical violin style is associated more with single notes so having a more arched bridge is preferred.

So, what’s harder the violin or the fiddle? Violin players and fiddles players, while using basically the same instruments, have entirely different skill sets. A fiddle player is striving to often play super tricky rhythms and lots of doubles stops (playing two notes at once) and chords (playing three to four notes at once). A classical violinist, will be striving to produce clear tone, vibrato and learning the different positions on the violin.

I travel often and without fail whenever I am walking through an airport with my violin on my back a get the questions, “Is that an instrument?”. My response is always the same, “Yes, a violin.” I would say about five out of ten times the response back is, “Oh, my grandfather played the fiddle. Do you fiddle?” I always want to respond yes to this question, but instead I say, “I can fiddle.” I can fiddle and in fact I enjoy fiddle music but I was trained to play classical violin and know that my fiddle playing methods fall short compared to the great fiddle players.

The reality is that In whatever genre of music you play, being proficient at it requires practice, dedication and skill. This has very little to do with the instrument and more to do with the heart, focus and love of the genre of music you are playing.

Mark O'Connor-world famous fiddler.
Mark O’Connor, world famous fiddler.