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Our Newsletter

June 2005

Ideas for Beginning Teachers

By Connie Sunday and Julie Tebbs

When you are first beginning to teach, it can feel quite awkward to hand a child a new violin and try to tell them what to do with it. If left to their own devices, they will naturally hold the violin all wrong, and getting their hands placed correctly is a challenge, especially given their usual short attention span. Experienced teachers, over time, create lots of clever learning games to help children place their hands correctly and learn correct violin and bow motions.

Here are lots of suggestions for techniques teachers use to approach beginning students. Words, as usual, are difficult when it comes to violin technique, these are better demonstrated in person, but we will try! These ideas probably go by other names with many other teachers. I'd love, also, to hear from other teachers. I am sure there are thousands of such techniques used by teachers.

Most of these suggestions were given to us by Connie Sunday, an experienced teacher who has created a very informative website here:

Since a child can only hold the instrument up for a very short period of time at first (just a minute or two in the first few lessons) before their arms get tired, we do lots of these little exercises while resting their arms between playing sessions. I encourage them to rest rather than play tired, since tired playing results in bad posture.
  • Draw the violin and bow, or show a picture, and study parts of the instrument and bow.
  • Place a piece of paper on the floor. Have them stand on it with correct foot position. Draw the outline of their feet, have them stand on their "foot paper" each time they play until they don't need to be reminded.
  • Finger numbers -- if student is also studying piano, the distinction is made between piano finger numbers and violin finger numbers. Sometimes I will write a finger number on each of the left hand fingers, with a dot for the thumb where it should rest against the violin. (Ask parents if you can write on the child's hand, some don't care, some don't like it.)
  • Ask parents and student permission to place tapes on violin and bow: three finger tapes (for "frame") on fingerboard, and two tapes in centre of bow, to begin "Pepperoni Pizza."
  • How to hold violin (1-2-3): (1) violin is held at arm's length, scroll up, parallel to student's body; (2) position of violin is reversed, with scroll down; (3) violin is placed in correct position to left, on collorbone, with violin parallel or above to floor, and elbow under violin. Next step is to practice holding violin without hands, and then shaking hands under violin.
  • How to hold the bow (1-2-3): (1) thumb is placed, under frog for little ones, crooked near grip for adults and older children (thumb and 2nd finger make "doggie" circle); (2) first three fingers are dropped across stick, tilted slightly toward the tip, with space between 1st and 2nd finger (importance of 2nd joint of 1st finger for the purposes of controlling articulations is later examined-often); (3) pinky finger is curved on inside of bow (add Pinky Pad on bow where pinky should rest - again ask permission before sticking anything to the instrument or bow).
  • Rocket ships: bow is held in correct position, and "launched" (with rocket noise) from floor towards ceiling.
  • Tick-tock: bow is held in correct position, slowly making windshield washer movement.
  • Spider: bow is held from the back, careful not to touch the hair, and hand crawls up bow. Up is easy, going down is much harder.
  • The Stretch: (for adult or older students), bow is held in correct position, then fingers are extended flat, and then bow is drawn into the palm.
  • Squeelies: start with bow at tip and draw slowly to frog, while running finger up and down strings (great for Halloween). This is preparation for shifting and vibrato exercises. Students love it because parents hate it!
  • Ticks: hold bow in correct position, and make tiny notes at frog and at tip-this is to develop strength in hands and focus on straight bow.
  • Son filĂ©: start at one end of bow and slowly draw bow to opposite end, counting, with bow parallel to the bridge.
  • Choo-choo train: very small bows in the middle, spaced notes, getting faster and faster-is prelude to "Wish I Had a Watermelon" variation, i.e., two sets of 16th notes, each starting down bow.
  • Hovering fingers: develop notion of hovering, e.g. the bow is hovering over the pencil.
  • Moon Man Silent Landing: bow is brought down, between the two centre tapes on the bow, on sounding point ("point of contact"); "Pepperoni Pizza" is developed from there, starting on the E string.
  • Pump handle: the seven levels of the right arm, four string levels and three combination levels.
  • Come up with a short list of "check points" for how to hold the instrument. Such as: Feet placed, violin up, wrist back, pinky on bow. Use only about 4 different things, and make it specific to what that child has a hard time remembering. They quickly recite it to themselves EACH time they begin to play.
This is, of course, just the beginning, but it will get you started. My theory is that the only way to learn to teach is to teach! So put your reservations asside, pump up your patience and creativity, and go forth and teach. You will be amazed at the payback from the experience. It is so gratifying to have someone start from a point of "this is hard!" and progress to a point of pride and accomplishment!