5 Tips for Making Progress: Habits that Work for Families

Are you worried that your child isn’t making progress, or maybe that your child is starting to “hate” their instrument? Are you questioning why you’re even doing this? Violin lessons are expensive, time consuming and sometimes it feels like a never-ending to-do list with little to show for it. If you’re in a rut, here is a list of 5 habits I notice in families that make consistent progress.

  1. Routine Practice. Students in my studio who have a daily practice commitment make progress faster than students who lump practice into 1-2 longer sessions. You will accomplish much more 20 minutes every day than irregular, hour long practices. Plus, if your child is young they might not be able to focus that long. This is the #1 suggestion for making progress, you gotta do the work!

  2. Practice Chart. I make students a practice chart that will likely stay pretty much the same for weeks to months. Try your best to hit all the points on the chart each practice session, but if it’s too overwhelming you can try to find ways to split it up every other day. It’s best to discuss with your teacher which items on the to-do list should definitely be done every day. Remember that practice frequency is more important than quantity.

  3. Take Notes. For children under the age of 12 I recommend that parents take notes on a notepad, not their phone/laptop, during the lessons. This helps practice at home for many reasons: you’ll have a record of what to do and what has been done over weeks/months/years of lessons and if your child can read they have written proof that the teacher asked them to do such-and-such activity. I prefer a notebook because studies have shown that people retain information better when taking hand-written notes vs. typed notes. Also, it allows us to unplug and be in the analog world for a bit, one of the benefits of learning an acoustic instrument!

  4. Be a Cheerleader. Everyone is on their own journey and it is easy for parents to spin in a negative direction when they think other students are progressing faster than their child. It’s very possible your child is having a different kind of progress that isn’t measured in pieces or tone quality. If you feel like progress is slow, go back over the first 3 suggestions and maybe there is something missing. If not, just remember that learning is not always in a straight line–there are valleys and plateaus, but if we persevere we will eventually reach the top of the mountain. Turning your energy positive will help your child have a positive relationship to lessons, practice and their instrument, too.

  5. Community. Whether it be Group Class, recitals, youth orchestra, music theory workshops–we are social creatures and crave interacting with others. Music, especially the violin, is meant to be made with other people. For my youngest students I recommend attending Group Class regularly because it is fun and most likely the only age appropriate activity. Usually around 3rd grade students can join youth orchestras. While lessons can be a mixed bag of emotions, sometimes high and some low, it’s rare that a student doesn’t like playing music with other kids. It’s possible this community engagement is missing if your child feels caught in a rut, so seek out opportunities to play with others.

There are many unseen benefits to learning an instrument. Music is the only activity that activates all parts of our brain simultaneously. Behind the violin lesson students learn grit, appreciation for beauty, cooperation, public speaking, confidence, critical thinking, self-assessment, and the ability to overcome the impossible. While students may grow into an identity of a musician–that identity may change when they turn 18 and go off to college–but it will certainly inform the type of person they will become as an adult.

2018-19 Student Achievements

I am beyond proud of all the hard work my students have done this year. Here are some of the notable accomplishments:

Topanga Banja Fiddle Contest

1st Place. Henry S.

3rd Place. Tennessee S.

Santa Monica Kiwanis Club Music Scholarship Awards

Honorable Mention: Henry S.

Finalists: Hannah R., Elizabeth Y.

MTAC Certificate of Merit Branch Honors

Madeleine K.W., Hannah R., Henry S.

SCSBOA Middle School Honor Orchestra

Hannah R., Henry S.

CODA December Orchestra

Naomi V.

RCM Recital of Excellence

Christian I.

Practice Strategies

Practice makes progress! It is essential to practice between lessons. You won't get a 6-pack by going to the gym once a week and you won't learn the violin by just coming to lessons. The best way to create a positive practicing environment is to make it fun. If practicing strategies are instilled at a very young age (5-7) the child may be hands free after a few years, so a little bit of extra effort from parents at this tender age will go a long way.

  1. Progress Mapping. Since learning an instrument is a slow process, setting up your practice to highlight its cumulative nature is a great way to make it successful. I recommend using a practice jar to collect small items (corn kernels, dried beans, pennies) or practice candle (perfect for the budding pyro in every child), you may even allow them to light it under your supervision. I recommend getting a small candle so it melts down in a reasonable amount of time. With the practice jar your child can earn a kernel for every so many minutes of practice or per task (preferable). Establish a reward before you start to fill the jar–maybe you could even write it on the jar. I recommend experiential rewards over physical ones because there isn't a price tag on it. Instead of a prize, consider a day at the beach, getting ice cream, or a sleepover.

  2. Turn it into a game. Here the ideas are endless and you can still use progress mapping strategies. One idea is to draw a picture. Every time your child completes a task another part of the picture is revealed. Another fun twist could be if they can guess what the picture is you can move on to another task. Have many games in your back pocket in case the games start to get boring. I've used barrels of monkeys (you can hang them from the music stand), counting coins/dominos, scoring points against a favorite toy, spinners. Also think about what your child likes, maybe even discuss it with your teacher, and then create games around that.
  3. What time of day? Highly effective practicers put practicing on a weekly schedule, that way your kids will know when it's time to practice and they'll be prepared. Time of day may also play a factor. Often times student are too tired at night, so be sure to schedule practice in the morning before schoolor before dinner.
  4. Establish Regular Repetitions. I ask my students to practice everything 5 times. This way they know how many times they have to repeat something and know when it will end. Knowing when it will be over takes a lot of stress away from the tedium of doing repetitions. You can also use diceor cardsto determine the number of repetitions, which makes it more fun!

Practicing With a Metronome

  1. Become the metronome. Stomp your feet to the beat while playing. This might be hard at first, so try it with a review piece. The beauty of this exercise is that it tends to slow students down who love to play fast.
  2. Set the metronome to the time signature to accent the down beat. Sometimes during practice you're not sure if the right rhythm is happening. Setting a down beat really helps to put a tough measure in perspective–if you start hearing the downbeat at the wrong part of the following measures, go back and see what you may have done wrong.
  3. Subdivide hard passages, slowly. If there are tough rhythms (dotted, ties, ), it is essential to subdivide when counting to ensure you're playing correctly. Think 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & for eighth notes and 1 e & a etc. for 16th notes. Sometimes it helps for triplets (tri•pe•let) or quintuplets (da•vid•le•tter•man) to use a word (or something funny). You can also find great metronomes that have subdividing capabilities in them. I use ProMetronome on my iPhone.
  4. Play in Rhythms. If you have a passage of sixteenth notes you can play them as dotted rhythms to help practice each note at a faster speed. This isone of the best strategies for active learning. 
  5. Start at a slow tempo and gradually speed up. Seems elementary, but I assure you the average student would rather blast through a piece than take the luxury of working out difficult passages. Play through the whole piece at a steady tempo, listening for errors. Then gradually speed up by 4-8 clicks until you get to the desired tempo–beware that for faster pieces this may take weeks.
  6. Clap it out! Sometimes the instrument gets in the way. Put on the metronome, set the downbeat and appropriate subdivisions, and then clap the rhythm out before returning to your instrument.

Useful Articles:

Students’ Land 1st and 2nd Place at Topanga Banjo Fiddle Contest

Congratulations to Henry Sullivan (Age 10) and Stella Quiros (Age 10) for winning 1st and 2nd place at the 58th Topanga Banjo Fiddle Contest! Henry played Pound That Anvil, a tune with lots of tricky double stops, and Stella played the traditional piece Blackberry Blossom. My husband James Klopfleisch (Dustbowl Revival) accompanied them on bass while I played guitar.

When is the right time to start lessons?

What should you look for to tell if you and your child are ready for violin lessons? Some parents may be unsure that their preschooler is ready and may decide to postpone starting lessons. Violin lessons are a wonderful way for children as young as four to develop skills like discipline, patience and routine. If you're still not sure, here are some things to consider before starting lessons.

  • Is my child the right age?
  • Are you prepared for slow progress?
  • Can your child be in the same place, outside of their home, for 30 minutes?
  • Is your child OK with someone moving their hands/body?
  • Are you comfortable with learning along-side your child?
  • Are you and your child comfortable with loud, high-pitched noises?
  • Do you have rules in place at home?
  • Can you and your child practice together daily? Are you persistent when your child is complaining?
  • Can you and your child listen to the same music daily?
  • How do I know if my child likes the violin?

Is my child the right age?

For most students the ideal age to start violin lessons is 4 to 5 years old. I require every young student below the age of 10 to come to lessons with the same parent or guardian for the first year and should plan on attending lessons for years after that. This parent serves as the at-home teacher for the student, guiding practice sessions to be as meaningful as possible.

I find starting students young is preferable because it is hard to make the violin sound beautiful. Pressing a key on the piano is not challenging, but moving the bow across the strings to produce a beautiful tone takes years. Because it is so hard to make a good sound it is essential for the parent to help in the beginning stages. We all know children want to do everything themselves, so it's best to start violin at an age where the child is more willing to cooperate with their parent's help and when fine motor development is ready. This ideal age tends to be between the ages of 4 and 5. 

Another reason for starting young is to develop routine. Trust me, if practice routines are not established by upper elementary school your child will fight you every chance they get to practice. Once they hit middle school it's like talking to a wall–for both the teacher and parent. This doesn't mean they don't love the instrument, but they don't understand that becoming better at their instrument requires regular practice. By middle school if your child is not practicing every day they should feel like something is missing. This will keep them practicing without your input.

Are you prepared for slow progress?

You might not be and that's OK. But you will need to be prepared for things to move glacially. I like to think of practicing as a meditation. We do repetitions (for young students everything is done 5 times, for older students 21 times) and you have to accept that you're in it for the entire session, otherwise it loses its magic. Another analogy I like to use is exercising. You don't see results from doing it once a week, you see results doing it every day. Learning patience is one of the wonderful skills developed while studying violin.

I start my preschool students off with no instrument. Yes–no instrument! This often scares parents away–aren't we learning the violin? Remember–the violin is very difficult. Have you looked at your child's handwriting? If your child is still writing her E's backwards, how can you expect her to play one of the hardest instruments ever created? Pedagogue Edmund Sprunger emphasizes that kids like to solve puzzles and don't like to be overwhelmed. Learning in this slow way allows them to solve puzzles without getting overwhelmed by the violin's complexity.

Another concern parents have is that their child won't be interested in violin unless they are holding an instrument every lesson. As a musician and a teacher I know if I hand a 4 year old a violin at the first lesson they will instantly develop bad habits and then we'll spend years undoing them. I did not learn this instrument by luck or talent, but through hard work. In fact, I believe every child can learn the violin with hard work. Because learning the violin requires hard work parents must accept that we're traveling a long, challenging path with a beautiful, enjoyable outcome.

Can your child be in the same place, outside of their home, for 30 minutes?

Young students start with 30-minute lessons. Can your child be in the same place for that long? Often times we won't be working the entire lesson, but in 5-10 minute increments. Then I will give students small breaks so we can talk. Remember that you are learning along with your child. 

Is your child OK with someone moving their hands/body?

This is a huge part of lessons. If your child won't let their teacher handle their hands, arms and body we won't really be able to pursue with lessons. Resistant children may just take some time to warm up, so don't be disheartened if your child is afraid or uncomfortable during the first few lessons. I usually start children working with their parents, so gradually they become comfortable with me and we can start to work together. 

Are you comfortable with learning along-side your child?

Parents must be engaged during their child's lessons. I will ask you to demonstrate your at home practice to make sure you're doing it effectively. Even if you play violin remember that I have special training to teach young children this instrument. I have years of teaching experience and I have carefully thought through the process and methods that I use. I see a thread connecting from Mississippi Stop Stop to Vivaldi a minor violin concerto. It is essential that you place your trust in me.

Are you and your child comfortable with loud, high-pitched noises?

When I first attach the violin to the child we will start on the highest string on the violin. I promise you I am not trying to torture you and your family, but the E string is the easiest string for students to start on. A small, student instrument will not be very loud, but my violin is very loud. Will your child be OK with my instrument's volume? You might not know until you attend lessons. I have found that kids under the age of 4 are much more sensitive, which is another reason why I prefer to start students once they've reached that age.

Do you have rules in place at home?

If you do, excellent. Apply those rules to violin practice. Practicing and attending lessons requires planning from parents. Practice sessions should be scheduled over the week for young children so they know what to expect and when. Once they get older they can participate in scheduling their own practice and eventually they'll do it without your input. Rewards can be a great asset in a home practice routine, but they can also be burdensome in the long run as rewards will become boring. If you do want to use rewards, opt for experiential ones rather than physical ones. Learning the violin is intangible, so the rewards should be the same. I hope that my students develop a love of learning and that playing the violin is itself a rewardCheck out this post about setting up successful home practice. 

Can you and your child practice together daily? Are you persistent when your child is complaining?

This is complicated and takes a careful approach. I promise you that your child will resist working with you for a variety of reasons. It's important to listen to your child and locate the reason for the resistance. They might become competitive with you since they think they're the one taking lessons. I often tell my students that their parents are their at-home teacher, so they need to listen to them as if they were me. Another common reason for resistance is boredom and frustration. After listening to my students complaints I often say "I know it's hard, but we have to do it anyway. I wish there was another way we could learn the violin, too."

One thing that happens when a child starts complaining is a parent decides its time to quit. I say that it's the parents decision and not the child's because the child is usually too young to make this decision by themselves.

Can you and your child listen to the same music daily?

While we work without the violin we also use this time to listen–A LOT. Students should be listening to the first Suzuki CD daily because I teach the majority of the pieces by ear. By the time we get to the song Lightly Row they should be able to sing it back to me. If they can't sing the song it's clear to me they're not listening. Listening also builds excitement in violin lessons while we're waiting to use the instrument.

How do I know if my child likes the violin?

Your child might not like the violin at times. In fact, they might tell you this often! This doesn't mean you should let your child quit. I guarantee that your child will like the success of learning an instrument, but they will also get frustrated when things are not easy. I like to ask parents "how do you know if you like the violin if you can't play the violin?" I think that giving the violin a worthwhile try takes a few years before you can say "this is not for me." You simply don't know if it's right until you can play it with ease. 

With this being said, I think age plays a role. A four-year-old is given fewer choices at home than that same child at age 10. If your child wants to quit violin after 4 months of lessons, regardless of age you should try to stick with at least one year. If a child is 10, they've been playing for a year and they want to quit, discuss it with them and their teacher. If a child is 5 and they've been playing for a year, it might not be their decision yet. Remember, you'll be making more of your child's decisions at a younger age. If your child likes playing the violin in any capacity–don't quit lessons. Instead, talk to your teacher about it and develop a plan together. There are a myriad of reasons why a child will want to quit and many are easy adjustments.

Students Place 1st and 2nd in 2016 Topanga Banjo Fiddle Contest

Student Sophie won 1st place in Beginning Fiddle at the 2016 Topanga Banjo Fiddle Contest.

Student Sophie won 1st place in Beginning Fiddle at the 2016 Topanga Banjo Fiddle Contest.

A huge congratulations to my students Sophie and Henry who placed 1st and 2nd, respectively, in Beginning Fiddle at the 2016 Topanga Banjo Fiddle Contest. Sophie performed the piece Ostinelli's Reel, an American tune in the style of an Scottish/Irish reel which uses string crossings and shifts into 3rd positions. Henry performed the traditional Old Timey tune Bill Cheatum–another reel also using a bit of 3rd position. The arrangement for Bill Cheatum can be found in Larry Newman's Music Fun Books. Great performances by both students!

Student Henry placed 2nd at the 2016 Topanga Banjo Fiddle Contest.

Student Henry placed 2nd at the 2016 Topanga Banjo Fiddle Contest.

I also want to mention my other students who entered the contest and gave equally amazing performances. My viola student Hannah played the piece Cluck Old Hen on the main stage with her brother on guitar for the other instrument category and received a roaring applause. Violin student Bella gave her best performance of a unique tune Red Haired Boy, the chord arrangement was provided by her father. And my new student Benjamin played the all-time favorite tune Arkansas Traveler.

Congratulations to all the beginners who competed, and a special thanks to all of the hard work from my students and their parents. Looking forward to next year!

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Student Place 1st at 2015 Topanga Banjo Fiddle Contest

Michael and myself at the 55th Annual Topnaga Banjo Fiddle Contest holding the 1st place trophy for Beginner Fiddle.

I am thrilled to announce that my student Michael placed 1st in Beginner Fiddle at the Topanga Banjo and Fiddle Festival this year! Michael won a cash prize, some fiddle swag and a trophy for his achievement. I couldn't be more proud of him! Michael was backed up by myself (guitar) and my partner James Klopfleisch, bassist for the Dustbowl Revival, who brought the party later in the afternoon. This was my first year participating in the festival and we will certainly be back again next year. 

The Why of Practicing?: 5 Reasons for Instilling Good Practice Habits Early

The biggest struggle with learning a new instrument is finding time to practice. I think practicing an instrument is similar to exercise–once you get into a rhythm it becomes a daily necessity. As a teacher I have noticed that some parents see lessons as a substitute for focused, daily practice. While putting your child into music lessons is the first step to learning an instrument, the benefits of learning music will not be gained without a strict practicing schedule.

5. That 10,000 Hours Thing

There is something to Malcolm Gladwell's book about how an expert is someone who has spent 10,000 hours working on something. Putting the time in certainly increases the chances that your child will excel earlier than others, making the more advanced parts of playing the violin easier. It can take about 10,000 hours before the instrument "sounds good", so be prepared for some screechy violin sounds until then. (or buy a practice mute!) 

4. Young Children are More Agreeable (for the most part)

Learning technique is tough, tweens are also tough; mixing them together can be a recipe for disaster when learning an instrument. Get the basics over when a child is young and asking to learn the instrument so that when they're older most of the hard work is behind them. Make sure your teacher mixes in learning technique with fun songs they're excited to learn so that it doesn't become boring. It is also really helpful if parents can sit in on lessons for the first year and assist their children with the practicing at home; most likely after the first year the student won't need your help anymore.

3. Practice Habits = Homework Habits

Teaching your young child about the importance of practice will reverberate through the rest of their life and give them a strong sense of structure. Children crave structure and challenges,  music lessons provide that in abundance. There is a strong link between intelligence and higher grades with students who play a classical instrument; I don't believe that playing an instrument passively creates this connection. It is developing good practice habits that makes the connection with homework habits, not just playing an instrument. Make sure your teacher has a method that continues to challenge your child's learning, whether that is their own method or something widely recognized like Suzuki.

2. Hard Work Pays Off

When a child puts in the hard work and sees a positive outcome it will create a link between practice and reward. Find reward systems that clearly connect practicing with good outcomes that they will appreciate. Students may also love thinking of practicing as their "job", ten minutes of practice can equal time playing video games, watching TV or even just beans in a jar that will equal a new toy. Eventually playing will become easier and more fun, and that will also encourage good practicing habits. Ask your teacher to create goals for your child to inspire them, like recitals, competitions, and festival orchestras.

1. We Learn Habits Early

Think about the behaviors you have as an adult. Some of us bite our nails, or say "I'm sorry" too often; these are behaviors we learned very young and are hard to expel from our brains. I find that when a student learns practicing habits at a young age they will not need their parents to push them as they get older, taking on the responsibility themselves. When that light turns on the student becomes inspired on their own. A parents initial effort in encouraging practicing provides a child with a better long-term outcome with the instrument. It also is important to learn the basics of the instruments technique as early as possible so that bad performing habits don't persist into adulthood.

This article on NPR's Deceptive Cadence discusses different positive reinforcement reward systems with testimonials from children who grew up taking ownership over their own practice habits.