Encouraging violin practice in young children

This entry was posted by on Tuesday, 18 September, 2012 at

When Evelyn was two, we had lunch downtown on a Saturday, and when we were done, we ambled next door to a museum that we’d never been to because they had a huge sign outside advertising their current exhibit—local luthiers.  (A luthier, by the way, is someone who makes stringed instruments. I know it’s not a word that everyone is familiar with!)  My husband builds mandolins, so we thought we should check it out.  Part of the exhibit included a selection of string instruments for people, particularly children, to try out.  Evelyn had no interest in the mandolins or guitars or dulcimers and pretty much wouldn’t even take them when the attendant tried to interest her in them.  All her attention was for the violin.  She picked it up, he handed her a bow and she made one clear, perfect note and thus, her fascination with violins began.

In the months and years that followed, she talked about playing the violin and begged for lessons.  My husband told her that she couldn’t take violin lessons until she was five, and to be perfectly honest… we thought she’d forget. 

She did not.

Months before her fifth birthday, she began talking about the fiddle-themed birthday party she wanted, and tried to brainstorm how I could draw a violin on the cake. (Oh, child, your faith in me warms my heart but my ability to draw a violin in icing on top of a cake? HA. HA.)  In the eleventh hour, she decided that she wanted a Phineas and Ferb party instead, so the world was saved from that attempt, at least.  Still, like the dutiful parents we are, we ordered a half-sized cheapo Chinese violin from eBay and contacted a teacher and scheduled her first lesson. 

P1030277-001

Here’s the problem.  The violin is hard.  Your arms get tired and your fingers get tired and that noise that the thing makes?  It is not always pretty.  Plus, she has a strong tendency to give up if something is hard, because most other things come fairly easily to her.  I know, I sound like an obnoxious parent with that sentence, thinking that my child is so brilliant. What I mean to say is that most age-appropriate tasks are pretty easily mastered, so naturally, she thinks it’s perfectly reasonable, if she encounters something that’s not easy, to just give up since she’s no good at it.  I think this will be one of the challenges she will face throughout school.  In this case, that translates to her going to her lesson once a week, and then trying to get out of practicing every day. 

And yet, she’s still just five. Encouraging her to practice her violin has been a a big deal around here, but I think it’s really important that she learn that when something is hard, you can’t just give up.  On the other hand, we don’t want to push her too hard—she’s doing this because it’s something that she wants, after all, not just us, so I don’t want to turn it into something she hates.  She still wants this. She just wants it to not require any effort on her part other than going to class. Not. Gonna. Happen.

After one particularly awful practice session, I wanted to throw in the towel myself. It’s so frustrating to be the one in charge of making someone else work towards fulfilling their dreams when they’re trying their best to resist you.  I was seriously considering calling her teacher and telling him we’d try again next year because I couldn’t take it anymore.  Then I took a deep breath, got out a piece of paper and a pen, consulted Google for inspiration, and made a list of things that we could do to improve the experience.  This is something we’re still working on, but it’s been four months and we’ve had some failures and some successes in our path. Most of the people out there writing about this subject are either talking about older children, or coming from a more musical background than I am, so I thought maybe it’d be helpful to put this out there for other parents who find themselves in the same situation. 

P1040048-001

What’s Worked

  • Sillyness. One thing she had a hard time with at first was that her bow would go far astray from where it should be going, in either direction.  In a moment of inspiration, I grabbed the violin and showed her where she should be playing, and then invented a little story about the troll that lives under the bridge.  He might like to grab little children who come too close to him, so you can’t get too close to the bridge (or even worse—crossing the bridge!)  However, there are mean elves that live at the top of the strings, and they can grab children that get too close. Mommy is watching the little children play at the right bowing location, but if they get too far from her, either the trolls or the bad elves would get ‘em.  Evie thought this was great fun, and it kept her concentrating on the right path for long enough that it became a habit.  We have invented several little stories and games about trolls, elves, and fairies. Silly is fun, and learning is easier if it’s fun. 
  • Let the child teach a lesson. I have never particularly wanted to learn to play the violin, but I’ve had success with this in other areas with her, so I gave it a shot.  This worked better in the beginning, when it was difficult for her to keep the violin up for long stretches of time.  While she rested, I had her teach me how to hold the bow, how to hold the violin, and how to play the rhythm patterns that she was playing.  This was not difficult to understand because I was sitting in on her lessons at that time, while she was adjusting to the teacher.  She liked being the authority, and telling me what to do gave her back some control over the learning process, plus it reinforced the concepts that she was supposed to be learning herself.  The drawback to this approach comes quickly, though.  I’m 33 and she’s 5. It is easier for me to understand what I’m supposed to do and attempt to do so than it is for her, especially if she’s not trying.  Her father has experience playing mandolin, so when she teaches him, he picks it up even faster.  I actually bought a full-size violin to do this, but I’ve mostly stopped this approach because she gets a bit frustrated.  It helped a lot in the beginning, though. 
  • Games.  I’ve come up with a few games to play during the practice sessions.  This has worked, but it’s dicey because at this stage. honestly, she gets too enamored of the idea of the game and forgets to practice.  Her favorite was when I drew a large flowerpot on the white board and five empty stems.  Every successful attempt she made would allow her to draw the flower on the stem.  Many other things might work, though.  Google’s suggestions largely involved getting to do something with every successful repetition of the piece, whether it be finishing a drawing or throwing balls into a basket.
  • Rewards. I’ve tried several variations of rewarding her for practice, from giving her a penny for every minute of practice to plunk into a glass jar, to giving her stickers for every day that she practiced to be cashed in for a larger prize.  It never seemed to resonate with her because the rewards were too far off. I came up with a little present system recently that has worked very well.  I’ll post about it separately, but the rewards are tiny (two Hershey’s kisses, a nickel, a mini piece of candy.) Other ideas for this gleaned from the internet was play money that would buy actual rewards similar to the stickers, or getting to color in a symbol or picture on a chart that could then be exchanged for larger prizes. 
  • Get out of the room.  Like I said, I used to sit in the class with her. She was going through an extremely shy phase when we scheduled the first class, and she couldn’t bear to let me out of her sight. After a while, it became a habit for her, and she resisted any of my attempts to leave the room.  Last month, I got a phone call at the beginning of the session, and that allowed me to walk outside to answer the call and I just never went back in. It was the best lesson she’d had, and she’s continued to do better now that I stay outside.  This may be a useful concept to employ during practice as well.
  • Keep it short.  There’s a rule of thumb on how long you should practice a musical instrument based on age.  I think it’s five minutes per year, up to a certain amount of time per day. I’m sorry, I don’t think that my five-year-old should spend 25 minutes every day practicing her violin.  We started off doing five minutes and we still had some issues with it.  Recently, the pastor at our church, who is pretty much the most musical person I’ve ever met, told us that at her age, practicing two minutes a day would be great, as long as it was every day.  I don’t know if the violin teachers of the world would all agree with this, but I can tell you that since we started keeping this as our guideline, practice time has gotten much less stressful, and since she actually practices more often, if not as long—her playing has gotten better too.  We still don’t make it every single day, especially since kindergarten started, but we do what we can.  This week, I think we only missed one day, and two glorious days, she did it all on her own, without reminders.
  • Recital.  This hasn’t happened yet, but the idea of it was exciting.  She doesn’t have an official recital event planned, but we have promised her that when she gets a song mastered, we will let her dress up and take videos of her performance to send to grandparents.  For her, that was enough. Even if you don’t participate in lessons somewhere with recitals, there’s nothing stopping you from creating your own!  Grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins would surely like to be invited over for dinner one night, and to watch their favorite violinist perform.  Sounds fun to me!
  • Listening to the CD.  Her book comes with a CD of the music, which I think is pretty common.  I’ve noticed that she is more interested in doing the practice if we make a point of listening to the CD more often.  I like to put it on when she’s playing with play-doh or something like that—her hands are busy but her brain is free enough to enjoy the music.  Now she thinks she has to have play-doh when she listens to it. Winking smile
  • Leave it out.  Lately, I’ve been having her loosen the bow but not strap it all into the case and close it up, and we leave it in the place where she practices.  She’s so slow at getting everything out and ready that she is usually bored with the whole thing by the time she gets ready to practice.  Anything to lessen the time spent on other stuff will hopefully increase the time spent playing!
  • Praise. The more specific, the better.  “You did a great job keeping your bow nice and straight!” is much better than just “Nice job!” I will also add constructive criticism, sometimes, when I have any.  I’m not a violinist, though, so can only help her with the things that her teacher has specifically told me to assist with.

What Might Work

I haven’t tried these, but they’re on my list of things to try and/or implement.

  • Ask when/how often to practice, and then follow through.  This would not work for us right now, but I hope that later it will be more useful.  This is about handing control over to the child by asking how long and how often that they intend to practice, and then coming up how many times they want to be reminded. After being reminded that number of times, don’t nag and let it go. Theoretically, if they’re the one in control and not the parent, they would feel inclined to practice on their own.  I hope this works… later. I think you know how it would work for me right now.
  • Learning Without Practicing.  I have this idea of a computer game or flash card system of say, learning the notes or other intro stuff.  I’ve never gotten around to doing any of this, except in very limited form while waiting for her class to begin. I have a feeling that she won’t like it but the theory is that doing something different upon occasion would not just help her learn those aspects of the violin, but also have her mind on violin stuff at other, non-practice times. This would ideally be an addition to practice for the day and not a replacement.
  • Set up a dedicated violin area.  I have some hopes for this, but I haven’t yet figured out a place for it in my house.  Currently, she plays in the living room, which is okay, but I’d like to reduce the clutter and make it a nicer environment for her. Plus, we need a place to keep all the paraphenalia that comes with the whole violin thing, like her book.
  • Play with others. Her teacher mentioned the possibility of setting up times when all his students could get together and play.  This hasn’t started yet, if it ever will, but it sounds like it would be some pretty strong motivation to me.  Can you imagine showing up to play with your peers without knowing what you’re supposed to play?  I’ll be interested to see how this turns out, if it ever happens.

What Doesn’t Work

  • Punishment.  We haven’t tried punishing the child for not practicing or anything, but I’d be lying if I said that there has never been any disciplinary action to come from a practice session, and it does nothing to encourage practice.Winking smile  I try to avoid it because obviously if playing the violin gets associated with punishment, pretty soon she wouldn’t want to play anymore at all.  (Having said that, she’s still not allowed to say, hit people with the bow when she gets angry. Rules still have to apply while practicing.) 

I’m sure there are a thousand other things that could be included in this post, but these are the things that have worked the best for us, or not worked, as the case may be.  Perhaps the next frustrated non-musician who goes searching for ideas on how to motivate their child to practice will find it of some use. I’m afraid to say this for sure, but I have some hope that we have crossed an important line recently—for the first time, it’s fun because she likes what she’s hearing when she plays, and she can hear the improvement herself. 


Leave a Reply