Tag Archives: Back to School

A GUIDE TO TEACHING CHILDREN MUSIC – Principle 1: “The Ability and Desire to Learn”

“All children are born with the desire and the ability to learn.”

– Aletha Solter, Ph.D., “Principles of Learning”

THE ABILITY TO LEARN

Young students come to lessons at Kennedy Violins with minds like blank slates.  From the start, children are born with brains like sponges—you’ve heard the comparison before. Sounds, sights, movements, and smells engage the brain as it makes neurological connections. Every experience is absorbed, defining a growing child’s understanding of the world around him. 

Music is a language, so the ability to learn, read, and make music can be compared to language acquisition. From birth, and even in the womb, infants are extremely cognisant of sounds. A baby recognizes the specific tone of her mother’s voice. Pitch recognitions allow a child to recognize high and low tones.

The sound of music, which does not have to be deciphered, decoded, or read, can absolutely captivate a child of any age. Children stop in their tracks to identify the sounds around them like a bird chirping, a plane flying overhead, or the playing of a piano upstairs. Musical sounds are expressed in a universal language of melodies, to which language humans are programmed to respond from the very beginning.

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A DESIRE TO LEARN

Because music is inherently fascinating to children and adults, it can be introduced and immediately engage a child’s interest, filling him or her with an intrinsic desire to hear, learn, and experience more. A parent or teacher can take this golden opportunity to feed a child’s natural interest in music by recognizing his or her specific desires and creating a learning environment to satisfy the child’s hunger for more — more music, of course! 

A child’s natural curiosity leads to questions like

  • What happened?
  • What is this?
  • What was that sound?
  • Who is that?
  • Why? Why? Why?
  • Are we there yet?

Kids want to learn. As parents and teachers, we have the great opportunity and responsibility to provide an education to satisfy a child’s thirst for knowledge. Hand a child an instrument, and they will want to play with it and on it.

Therefore, music need not be forced upon a child to produce interest—in fact, forcing children typically repels their interest. Read more about imposed learning with Principle Two: “Self-Initiated Learning vs. Imposition.”

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. 🙂

Making Music at M.I.T.C.H. Charter School

Every once in awhile, there is a collective sigh at Kennedy Violins when we hear of yet another school orchestra program being cut.  A few months ago, however, we were thrilled to get a call from Cami Galloway of the band, Virginia Real.  She was in need of violins to use for a workshop at a school that wanted to START a string program for their students.  We were thrilled to know that there were still schools out there that recognize the value of music. So, when Cami asked if we could provide the violins for the workshop, we didn’t have to think twice-of course we would!

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The members of Virginia Real

Over the next several weeks, we worked with Dee Grothe, the coordinating teacher for the workshop at M.I.T.C.H. Charter School.  There would be 78 students participating in the 3-Day workshop!  Wow!  She described how the hope was that the workshop with Cami would ignite an interest in the students and that an official strings class would begin in the fall.

Our team of luthiers worked for weeks to professionally set-up all the instruments that would be needed.  Then, a few days before the workshop started, our customer service team went to M.I.T.C.H. Charter School and sized each student so that they could have the proper violin and they got to take home their violins that day!  So, by the time the Cami and the Virginia Real band showed up, they students were eager and ready to go!

By all accounts, the workshop was a huge success!  By the end of the three day workshop, the students performed “Twinkle, Twinkle,” “Boil Them Cabbage Down,” and “Shortenin’ Bread.”  Many students expressed an interest wanting to continue and are going to get private lessons this summer!  According to Cami Galloway, “M.I.T.C.H. is truly showing innovation and the teachers, Dee Grothe, Dianne Wright and Kelly Shelton have corroborated together to help bring the band across the country to provide this opportunity for their students.”  We think that when school starts again in the Fall, M.I.T.C.H. Charter School will have no problem getting a string program up and running.

Students participating in the string workshop
Students participating in the string workshop

Cami Galloway and Virginia Real have done workshops like this across the country.  If you are interested in having them lead a workshop at your school or organization, you can contact them at varealband@gmail.com.

Rent or Buy? That is the question!

1950's Music Store

Around this time every year, as the musical season gears up again, we see a lot of new string players preparing to start a new adventure.  There are inevitably A LOT of questions, and we are happy to address them.  In the past, on the blog, we have covered many topics about Beginner Basics.  One that we haven’t gone over in too much detail, though, is the question of renting vs. buying and in these tough economic times, how you spend your money is important and worth considering.

Renting is usually more affordable in terms of the monthly payment.  Our rental payments range from $14.97 a month to $92.50.  The amount you pay is determined by the instrument you need and the quality of that instrument.  Also, all stringed instrument stores have a rental agreement.  As part of the rental agreement, you may be required to commit to a minimum number of months, which is important to keep in mind.  For instance, the store may require a minimum of 6 months of payments and that amount could be close to or equal the cost of just purchasing the instrument.  Another thing to consider is what happens to the money you pay each month.  Does it go towards the eventual purchase of the instrument?  If so, how much of the monthly payments go towards the purchase?  At Kennedy Violins, we don’t have a minimum rental requirement and we set aside 55% of all rental fees as store credit that customers can use towards the purchase of any instrument.

Buying an instrument certainly requires the most  money up front, but it can be the most affordable in many cases.  If you are part of a family with several children, purchasing would give you the ability to keep the instrument after the oldest child grows out of it or looses interest and pass it on to younger children.  Or, if you were like my family and you required at least one year commitment to whatever new thing you are trying out, purchasing could be less expensive in the long run.  For instance, if you purchased Kennedy Violins’ Bunnel G2 Violin outfit, based on our current rental price, it would pay for itself in about a year.  Plus, purchasing usually means that you have “trade-in” power later when it’s time for a new size or an upgrade.

Either way, the most important factor in the decision making comes down to what the customer is comfortable with.  At Kennedy Violins, we are happy to provide both options for people ready to start the adventure of learning to play an instrument.

Violins in several sizes

Taking the First Steps

At Kennedy Violins, we have always been proud of the fact that all of our employees, no matter their role, are active musicians and teachers and all of us have been where you are.  Whether you are just starting out learning the basics or finding your own voice or personality musically.  Today, I’d like to talk about those very first steps.  The steps you take before the first note is even played.

I’ll start with kids.  As a teacher, I often get asked by parents at what age they should start teaching their kids music.  Well, now!  Today!  Yesterday! In the womb!  It is never too early to start learning the fundamentals and it is very easy to incorporate musical learning into everyday activities.  Does your toddler like to empty the cabinets and bang on pots and pans?  Teach her a rhythm to play while you reach for the aspirin.  Does your kindergarten repeat the same nursery rhyme over and over again?  Turn it into a game where he sings a different note each time he repeats it or have a him create new melody for the same music.

Outside the home, learning in a classroom setting is always beneficial, but I believe it should also be fun and low pressure when children are just starting out.  I have always been a fan of Kindermusik classes.  Kindermusik serves children ages 0-7 and their families all across the US.  They use folk melodies from around the world and classic stories to teach music fundamentals.

Another question that parents ask is, ” How do I know if my child is ready to play the (insert specific instrument here)?”  Well, I find that parents know their children far better than I do and that they usually have answered that question for themselves by the time they ask me.  If you feel that your child is ready to learn an instrument, then she probably is.  Usually, it’s nice for the future student to have shown some interest in learning music, but I have found that it never hurts to try something new just for the sake of trying something new.  You never know!

The best tool for starting out young kids (5 and under) on a musical instrument is private instruction by a qualified teacher.  One on one lessons with the parents present are best because the little ones tend to focus better and it’s not as frustrating when they have the direct support of family.  Group lessons are fun but progress can be slow.  Older kids can be more successful in group lessons and many schools and community programs have great classes that would be little or no cost to parents.  To find qualified teachers or programs try calling your child’s school or a local music store for recommendations.

Now, let’s talk about grown-ups (from a strictly educational stand point, I place anyone beginning after age 12 in this category of learning…one day I’ll explain in further detail).  We have written several posts about how it’s never too late to discover (or rediscover) a love of music.  The tips I have aren’t much different.  I would stress, though, that even in today’s advanced age of technology with online videos/lessons on You Tube and Vimeo, having private lessons with an experienced instructor is HIGHLY valuable!  Personally, I feel the videos should serve as a supplement to strengthen what you learn in private lessons.

However, more than videos and lessons, to have a successful start I feel that the thing adult learners need most is guts.  It takes a courageous and humble individual to stand up and say, “Hey, I don’t know anything about this, but I want to learn.”  I have great respect for the adult beginners that dive in with their whole heart.  For the adventurous ones, there are many community orchestras that welcome players of all levels and ages and music camps to give them the experience every musician should have.  You just have to go for it!

Forever Young: It’s Never Too Late to Learn an Instrument

Photo by Alex E. Proimos

You’re in your car, stopped at an intersection, and glance over to see a young, beautiful teenage couple in a red convertible, laughing, smiling, and presumably taunting you with their youthful future of endless possibilities. In your minivan, now with 299,000 miles on it, you brush the stale crumbs off the passenger seat, glance in the rearview mirror to find a few more gray hairs, and think, “Has life passed me by?”

Too often in my conversations with others, I hear, “I wish I had learned an instrument when I was younger,” “I always wanted to play the violin,” or, “I wish I were musically talented.” Well, for one, as we have established in previous posts, good musicianship has more to do with practice than innate talent. And here’s the other half of the story–the big secret if you will: you’re never too old to become a musician. You may think you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but it’s far from impossible.

We’ve all heard of virtuosic performers who started playing before they could even tie their shoes or read. Joshua Bell started violin lessons at age four. Yo-Yo Ma similarly started on the cello at age four, but only after he studied violin and viola for a time. Hilary Hahn began violin one month before her fourth birthday. So it seems that four years old is the magic number to begin playing. But is that really true? If we didn’t start learning at age four, is it not even worth trying?

Answer: ABSOLUTELY NOT

There are plenty of professional musicians who picked up their instruments later in life. But keep in mind that you don’t have to be a professional to enjoy music as an important part of your personal development.

Photo by Dierk Schaefer

Plenty of research supports the benefits of not only listening to, but playing and practicing music as nourishment for the mind and body. Playing music releases stress, rejuvenates and excites unused areas of the brain, and boosts confidence and one’s sense of accomplishment. There are plenty of reasons to play music beyond cashing a check or autographing programs at intermission.

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For adults learning music for the first time, here are a few pointers to remember as you pick up a new instrument:

1. Methods for teaching children are not the same as methods to teach adults. For children, whose gelatinous brains are still growing, musical connections are often formed from scratch in their developing minds. For adults, we use the brain power and synaptic connections we already have to understand new concepts. So if you’re an adult returning to an instrument you played as a child, you may approach it differently this time around.

2. Practice is necessary. Your mom isn’t going to ground if you if you don’t practice or take away your iPhone until you perfect that movement. Simply reading about or watching YouTube videos about your instrument won’t do the trick either. Without that “adult figure” to push you along, adults often don’t take the initiative to practice as often as children do. They don’t attend music classes at school everyday or have the external discipline or academic requirements that demand so many minutes or hours of practice per week. So be sure to set some goals and give yourself a little time to step away from the demands of your day to enjoy a little bonding time with your instrument.

3. Be patient with yourself. Even for children, it takes years and years before sounding “good,” especially on a stringed instrument. Don’t give up if you don’t sound like Itzhak Perhlman after two private lessons or a few afternoons of practice. Relax and enjoy the learning experience, keeping realistic expectations for yourself.

4. Learn some theory. If you don’t read music, don’t be overwhelmed by the prospect! Learning to read the musical staff is similar to learning a foreign language. Challenging, perhaps, but very worthwhile! Consider music theory and the musical staff to be your building blocks for your musical foundation.

5. Find a teacher. Trying to learn an instrument by yourself and without guidance quickly leads to frustration and quitting. Find a teacher, friend, or mentor who will encourage your progress and provide you with the technique necessary for success.

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Now that you’re ready to finally embrace that long-lost dream to pick up an instrument, give us a call! At Kennedy Violins, we are always happy to help. From finding the right instrument for you to learning the basics of rosining a bow to choosing accessories, we are here for you. And as you progress, let us know how it’s going!

Injured List

For a few weeks now, many students in the U.S. are back at school. Here in the NW, just starting this week. School starting means many things. Homework, lunch ladies, soccer moms…the list goes on. One thing that going back to school means, however, often escapes most people’s mind. I’m talking about injuries.

Think about it: Families are busier now, going to school, to sports, to scouts, to music lessons, to the library and that’s just on Monday. Plus, the students are in new classroom environments that they don’t know and on a new schedule that they are used to. Not to mention that, musically speaking, they have a heavier load, literally and figuratively, with a new instruments that are often bigger than what they had last year and more music to practice that is more difficult that what they are used to. All of these factor combined translate into bumps, bruises, sprains, strains, or worse. Sigh, it’s a jungle out there.

Why is this topic on my mind? Well, almost 12 years to the date, my brother shut my hand in the sliding door of our minivan right before a cello lesson. The door shut and locked with my fingers in there. I broke two fingers and was unable to play for about a month. It was totally an accident and with our busy family it was only matter of time before something like that happened.

So, how can we keep ourselves from being on the injured list?

Communication-This is huge! Communication is necessary every day, but if good communication is practiced between parents, students, and teachers, then possible injuries can be prevented.

Tools-Giving your students or yourselves the proper tools to work in new environments can also prevent injury. For instance, the proper shoulder rest for a new instrument can prevent muscle strains in the neck and back.

Sleep-Countless studies indicate that there are many benefits to a good night’s sleep. In addition to health benefits, good sleep can decrease your chances of accidents like falling or running into things.

I’d like to say that I learned my lesson 12 years ago and have avoided injury since then, but that would be a lie. I totally busted my lip by slipping on a puddle and face planting on a stone floor hours before a flute final in college. Still, those three things have lengthened the time between injuries. Oh, and don’t forget to drink plenty of water.


Shopping list — Rulers, pencils, and… violin strings!

Back to School. As a mom, it means I “get” to take my kids shopping for new clothes and school supplies. But, for music students, it also means getting ready for a new season/year of rehearsals and performances. Now is the best time to make sure your instrument is ready for hours of play. You can always take your instrument to your local music store to have it completely inspected and set up for the year, but that usually comes with a premium price tag. However, there are so many things that every string player should take the time to learn about their instrument.

For younger students, it is always good to make sure that they are starting the year with the correct size instrument. The tried and true method of sizing a student to a violin is putting the violin into position under the chin with a fully extended (straightened) left arm under the instrument. If your child can wrap their fingers all around the scroll practically reaching into the peg box, he/she is ready for a larger violin.

If the violin is the right size, it is probably time for a new set of strings. Strings can stay intact for years, but they can lose their playability and projection, especially if they are synthetic core strings (Dominant, Zyex, etc.). When changing a set of violin strings, always start with the E string, then proceed to change the G, D, and A strings. A few months ago, Joel wrote a blog on slipping violin pegs. He demonstrated how to change strings properly onto the peg. It is important to wind the strings onto the peg correctly to avoid slipping pegs. And, while you are changing your strings, it is always a good idea to take the time to clean the rosin build up with some violin polish. Never use any other type of cleaner or polish on a stringed instrument. The oil rubbed finish of most instruments have unique properties that can be critically compromised with household cleaners or polish.

When changing strings or polishing an instrument, always be careful with the bridge. Avoid bumping the bridge when cleaning, and watch the angle of the bridge during and after changing strings. New strings will need a day or two to stretch out. During that time, the angle of the bridge can be pulled by the strings. For the most part, the bridge should be angled perpendicular to the body of the violin. If a bridge is left tilted at the wrong angle for too long, it can eventually warp and even break.

One thing that is worth taking your instrument to the luthier for is to get a bow rehaired. Like violin strings, bow hair can visually appear to be in pretty good condition. Eventually, though, rosin can build up and the surface of the bow hair can become dull and almost slick. When bows get to this point of wear, it is difficult to pull sound from the strings, no matter how much rosin you use.

While you have everything out of the case, it is a good idea to grab a vacuum with a hose attachment and clean every nook and cranny. Open each compartment and get every trace of rosin out of the case. Eliminating the build up of dust and rosin inside the case will help keep your violin and bow in great playing condition for a long time to come.


For a newly sized violin or new strings, check out our selection at Kennedy Violins. If you aren’t sure which is the right one for you, please feel free to contact any of us. We have recently added a few new musicians to our sales, customer service, and luthier staff, so we are all ready to help you gear up for the new school year.