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Guy eating a stick

October 19, 2010

I am taking an involuntary vow of silence today. I think the 3 hours of teaching at the end of the day yesterday was the final nail in the coffin for my voice. Because today, I have none. It’s a big of a problem, since my schedule today was to involve calling round to archives and publishers to figure out what’s happening with permissions on the visuals for my article. But I’ll do what I can by email.

It’s not all bad, though. The silence is kind of nice. I woke up with the Siri Gaitri mantra stuck in my head and it’s been providing a nice rhythm to the day, which is feeling pretty monastic.

Yesterday was my first real lesson with my preschoolers — sisters ages 3 and 4. The violins are the cutest things ever and nearly impossible for me to tune. The chinrest for a 1/16 size violin is so small that I can circle its perimeter with my thumb and forefinger. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and researching how to approach teaching violin to kids so young. The youngest student I’ve had previously was 5 and reading. The three main challenges for preschool lessons are 1) that they don’t yet read or write much, 2) that their muscle development is such that they can’t handle some of the physical challenges of the instrument, particularly small muscle work like moving fingers one at a time, and 3)they have very short attention spans.

I laid out some goals for myself and talked them over with their mom during the lesson. At the beginning, we won’t actually be playing a whole lot of violin. Just enough to keep them interested. We’ll be working on music skills like finding and keeping the beat, singing and listening and we’ll phase the violin in as their skills develop. Yesterday, I brought in my chira wata, a one-stringed violin my brother brought me from Eritrea. You can see an example here:

Mine looks a lot like that, actually. They come in many shapes and sizes. The top of mine is carved into a face with a large peg protruding from its mouth. The peg holds the string, which is made of horsehair, just like the bow. I can’t get mine to play nearly as loud as this. It’s not a loud instrument. I stuck it in my bag as kind of an afterthought, thinking it might be interesting to show how you can play an entire song on just one string.

The store manager, a bluegrass player of many instruments stopped me on my way in and asked to see it. He took a picture of it with his phone. He then showed me pictures of the four-stringed fiddles his father made out of cigar boxes that were shaped the same way, with a long neck pegged into a box at the corner.

I ended up using it to teach the parts of the instrument. I held it up next to my violin and asked the girls what was the same and what was different.

“They’re both wood,” the younger one said shyly.
“Not all of it,” said her sister.
“True,” I said. The chira wata is covered in something else at the bottom. What is that? They touched it and I showed them how it was stitched together on the sides.
“Is it leather?” their mom asked.
“Yes, it’s an animal skin, like a drum.” The girls touched it and tapped it with their fingers.

“What about the top part of the instrument?”

“That one’s swirly and shiny,” said the younger one, pointing to mine.
“And that one is a guy eating a stick.”
We looked at how the pegs worked and talked about the violin’s neck — on the chira wata, of course, since there is a head at the top, it is an actual neck.

We compared bows. The chira wata’s bow is made out of a curved stick that still looks pretty stick like. It looks very much like a small archery bow and we talked about how violin bows used to look more like that too and that they get their names from bows and arrows.

After we’d talked about the instruments and how to take care of them and get them ready to play, we took a break from sitting still and being careful and got up to move. I had each girl stand on a large piece of paper and we traced around her feet to give her footprints for a good violin practice position. We did a little coloring too. Then I pulled out a couple of stuffed animals I’d borrowed from AJ to talk about how to use the bow.

“Can you show me how you would pet the kitty if it were a real kitty?”
The girls showed me how and we talked about how you want to use long gentle strokes. Then we picked up the instruments and they showed me how they could make those strokes with the bow on the violin.

And that was it for the day. A half an hour goes fast with two busy preschoolers.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. October 19, 2010 12:11 pm

    Bug started piano before learning to read. He learned how to find Mother C, Father C, Sister and Brother C and played them for two weeks before he met their friends the G family- Grandmother, Grandfather, Top G and Bottom Line G. He was supposed to get to know their voices so he could “recognize them in the dark”. He still hasn’t been taught the names of other notes- they’re just walks and skips from the “bedrooms” of the other notes. He’s a great sight reader too.

    If you can get individual notes and then a scale, you’re right on time for all the simple xmas carols that walk up and down. Pook on sax can now pull out a reasonable Mary Had a Little Lamb too.

    My main advice for preschoolers is to teach one bite at a time. Be careful not to overload them with too many new pieces of knowledge. Use silly jingles and songs and names (Sister C sleeps in the 3rd bedroom upstairs from Mother C) and even color code things if it helps. They may learn to read from the violin before they learn from books.

  2. October 19, 2010 12:42 pm

    Sounds like your kids are having a good experience with music. A good teacher develops her own vocabulary and adapts it to work with the individual students to adjust to their understanding and abilities. I’ve been teaching violin on and off for something like 28 years now. I’ve got my own vocabulary that works well. Like most violin teachers, I color code the tapes marking finger positions and sometimes will write the finger numbers in their matching colors on each finger to help them match. Fingers that are at home are on their tapes. If the note is sharp, they’re in the front yard. If it’s flat, they’re in the back yard. We talk about how fingers like to stand on their heads and how the thumb is very shy and only likes to peek at the fingers over the fingerboard — for this I sometimes draw a smiley face on the thumb and tell them that they should only be able to see his eyes. It’s definitely true that kids can read music before books. I like to get kids composing really early as a way to get into reading. First I’ll get them to play something for me and then I’ll show them how I can transcribe it. They I let them try to “color” a piece for me to play. I also have a series of rhythm blocks that show visually the duration relationships. Kids can move them around to create rhythms. Later we’ll add metric divisions, etc. Last week one of my seven year olds, playing for just a few weeks, composed songs for her mom and dad that would make any parent cry.

    Physically, though, I think violin can be much more difficult than piano for very young children, despite the fact that violins can be sized for their hands. The physical skills are complex and some kids just can’t do some things until they grow into them. Every kid is different and it’s important to adjust pace to each individual so they stay excited and don’t get frustrated. It is typical to spend 6 months to a year on the first piece when the students are very young, as learning where to put the fingers, training the ear to know when it’s in the right place (a much more nuanced problem than piano where you are either on the right key or not) and building the necessary strength to keep them where they need to go and the muscle memory to remember it the next time takes time. It is unlikely that they will be playing Christmas carols by Christmas, but they will be able to play the rhythm of a Christmas carol without all the pitches so they can play along. If you’re interested, look at some of the Suzuki writings. Many preschool violin teachers don’t even use violins for the first several months. They practice violin technique with cardboard instruments. But the tiny violins are pretty sturdy and I think you lose a lot of opportunities when you don’t have the instrument itself.

    The thing I love about teaching — whether it’s preschoolers or college students — and also about conducting is that you constantly need to improv. I find the process of figuring out how to communicate with each individual really satisfying.

  3. freshhell permalink
    October 19, 2010 1:18 pm

    This made me smile. Hope your voice comes back soon.

  4. October 19, 2010 1:46 pm

    I wish you were close enough to teach me to play the violin.

  5. Eleanor permalink
    October 19, 2010 2:58 pm

    Silence is good. I think I spend days where I don’t say a word to anyone. That’s probably a good thing for them.

  6. Elizabeth permalink
    October 20, 2010 8:59 am

    I love your approach with the two girls.

    I never taught lessons to anyone anywhere close to that young–most new oboists start after having learned another instrument, usually flute, clarinet or trumpet. So the youngest student I ever had was already in 5th grade.

    I’m not sure I could have come up with a pre-school appropriate approach for handling a double reed with such care.

  7. Cranky permalink
    October 20, 2010 12:05 pm

    I enjoy reading about your teaching techniques. The kids are lucky to have you. My learning of the violin (suzuki) was not interesting and it made practicing a hated activity.

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