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November 2009

Violin Practice and the Ugly Duckling

by Ron Ottley

One of the most important functions of a music teacher is instilling and fostering a love of music in their pupils and motivating them to persevere with practising. All music teachers know that practising is often the stumbling block. Many children consider it a chore to be tolerated or avoided if possible. They think it takes too much time for too little progress and too much effort for too little reward.

From every eight children who begin music lessons about one will give up each subsequent year. After seven years only one from the eight will remain. I think the main reason they give up is the relentless practising that is required.

This problem has been around for a very long time, of course, but I think it is a bigger problem today than it has ever been. There are so many choices, so many distractions and so many demands on children.

Teachers and parents invest time and effort persuading the pupil in our lives to practise. We use various strategies like bribery, encouragement, threats, and if we are desperate, blackmail. We try convincing arguments. We make deals. We offer rewards, and we try to make it fun.

All these strategies can help, but often they don't seem to work for long. A child will go through the motions to earn a reward but if their heart is not in it they won't persevere.

A solution

The ultimate way to solve the practising problem is to change the attitude of a reluctant pupil so that they will practise because they want to, they will become self motivated, and they will take responsibility for their own progress. As Sondra Anice Barnes said, "It's so hard when I have to and so easy when I want to."

Before a reluctant student can become an enthusiastic student, they need to have a change of heart. They need to experience a fundamental change in their attitude. They need an emotional experience or an emotional involvement that will change the way they think about music and practising. The desire to learn and the willingness to practise has to come from within them. They need to be emotionally involved because it is the emotions that trigger action. In short, they need to be inspired. Even a small change in attitude can create a large change in results.


One of the best ways to promote this goal is to share stories with our pupils . Stories are very powerful. Children discover much about life through stories, and they can experience a wide range of emotions through stories.

Here is an excerpt from my children's book Now I Love Music Practice. It is an example of how a story can be used to help music pupils.

The Ugly Duckling ~ Hans Christian Anderson

When Mother Duck's eggs hatched she was surprised, because among her cute and pretty ducklings was a much bigger one that was quite ugly. The other ducklings laughed and made fun of the ugly duckling and when Mother Duck took her family to the pond the farmyard animals jeered and teased the ugly one.

All the teasing made the ugly duckling so miserable that he left home and left the farmyard. He spent a miserable winter looking for a place where he could be happy and maybe find a friend, but he was always rejected because he was ugly and awkward.

One day he saw some very beautiful birds called swans on a lake. He was very attracted to them but was afraid to approach them as he thought they would laugh at him.

While swimming on a lake one morning in the spring he happened to see his reflection in the still water. He was surprised, amazed and excited, because the reflection he saw was a swan.

He had turned into a beautiful, elegant and graceful swan, and when some swans arrived and asked him to join them he was very, very happy.

Jack struggled when he began learning to play the violin. He didn't like the sounds he made. There were too many stumbles and mistakes and the music often sounded stilted or unpleasant. No matter how hard he tried he did not seem to be able to make beautiful music. Sometimes it even sounded ugly. But he persevered and practised every day.

One afternoon he went to a concert. He loved the orchestra. He was impressed by the musicians and the beautiful music they made.

Much, much later, Jack was playing the violin one day when his mother said to him, "Jack, that is lovely music you are playing. It sounds really beautiful."

Jack was surprised, amazed and excited because he realised he had turned into a musician and when, soon after that, some musicians asked him to join their orchestra he was very very happy.

The place that Jack has reached is not the end of his musical journey. It is just another step along the way. As he continues to practise and study, his skill and knowledge will continue to grow, and so will his pleasure and satisfaction. Jack is excited as he realizes this is a journey without end.

We should always be trying hard to make our music beautiful. We should be aiming for perfection! Beautiful music can be spoilt by quite small mistakes.

However, don't be discouraged if your music is not perfect as you are learning. Just keep practising, and one day you will turn into a swan.

Ron Ottley is the author of the best selling, motivational children's book Now I Love Music Practice. Ron is a semi-retired piano teacher with over 50 years' experience as an arranger, a performer and a piano teacher. Now I Love Music Practice is relevant for any instrument. Visit