Saturday, September 26, 2009

Suzuki Primer

I don't know if I will be able to write this as smoothly as what I had thought of the other day, but I'm going to do my best.

Sometimes being a Suzuki parent can be kind of confusing at first. Delta has been in the Suzuki violin program for 2 years now (starting his 3rd year), and Echo has started officially now too. It isn't the most experience out there, but on the other hand, I still remember the "fun" of being new... so here goes.

Rent or Buy
First thing first - your child will need a violin. You may need one too (depending on the implementation of the program.) When you look at the fact that your child is going to outgrow their violin, rental at first seems like a good choice. There may be times when that is still the best choice - but do some thinking first. How long are you likely to need a size of violin? Are there more children coming along that will need a violin too?

Where we are, you can get an excellent used child violin for around $250-$300. This is not necessarily a "concert grade" violin - but we have gotten used Suzuki brand violins for that price with a very good tone. Used violins can be gotten from a registry from your Suzuki group, or from music stores that rent or sell violins.

To rent a violin, on the other hand spreads the cost across the time, but you don't end up with anything for it. Where I am, the suzuki program has a limited number of rental violins for $10 a month.... and most of the stores rent violins for about $15 a month.

Delta was in the 1/16th violin for 2 years.... if we had rented for that time, even at the $10 a month, we would have paid out $240 in rental fees, and still not owned a violin. As you can usually "trade up" or resell the used violin for around 50 to 75% of what you paid for it if still in good condition (or even more) - it just doesn't make sense. Especially when you look at the fact that Echo is now using the violin, and probably Foxtrot will too.

For your adult violin, however, it is not as easy of a question. It depends on if you want to play on the long term or not. Assuming that the program where you are requires the parent to learn for a while, you will probably need a violin for at least the first year, possibly a couple. It might be worth buying an inexpensive violin, or you may just want to rent it.

Buying the Violin
One thing to keep in mind, is that the completion of sale should be based "On approval of the teacher." We have bought 2 violins - and we have taken 2 back for a different one. (1 was too big even though it was supposed to be the correct size - violin sizes are not totally standard. The other was ok, but the teacher said to see if there was a different one with better tone.) The store we have dealt with has been excellent at letting us get one that worked best for us.

I know that some of the other parents have bought violins through a mail-order place that the one teacher has recommended as having ok, inexpensive, violins. These violins were even less expensive than the ones I mentioned above, but are not as nice. One mom has bought very inexpensively off of ebay. There is a risk doing either of these, as you need to look at the shipping costs, especially if there is a problem with the violin and it needs to be returned. However, it is something to consider.

I have to learn too!
A lot of the suzuki programs require the parent (or "home teacher" - as you are called during practice time, etc) to learn the violin too, at least at the beginning. These seems to vary a bit from place to place - Some don't require it; some do until the child has earned their violin; some do until you have learned "Twinkle"; and some do further, until Perpetual Motion, or even the end of book 1. I've even heard of some that do until the child is passing the parent.

I personally looked forward to learning the violin, and I think I learned fairly quickly. I'm still working on it on my own (with the occasional check-in with the teacher.) I have to admit that it very quickly gave me an appreciation for how difficult it was to hold the violin correctly, how trying to move my bow straight didn't look the way I thought it would, and over-all just how difficult it is to keep track of everything. It made it a lot easier to work with Delta, and to sympathize when he said that his arm hurt, or that his fingers hurt.

Of course, the sympathy and the knowledge of how things are done is only part of why you are learning too - the main reason is that your child looks up to you and wants to do everything you do. By playing the violin, they want to emulate you and play it too. Also, if you practice daily, they see that as normal.

My child was given a BOX
Many suzuki programs start the child off with a Box violin (or a Boxilin) to work with. Especially the 3 to 5 year olds. It seems a bit weird to the parent at first - but it does make sense. It is a lot easier to see a child trying to hold the boxilin properly (with no hands) - and see it fall to the ground, than it is to watch a violin fall. (Although don't worry - you will for sure see the violin fall once or twice anyway!) The boxilin stage might last a couple of weeks - or it might last a few months - depending on the teacher and the child.

How long do we twinkle
Ok - this is hard to take at times - but you are probably going to listen to "Twinkle" every day from now on. (Twinkle Twinkle Little Star) Oh - and there are 6 variations. These are different rhythm patterns. Each rhythm pattern teachers your child a rhythm they will need later on. Also, the teacher will probably use Twinkle to learn new techniques, or new rhythms. Delta has done a couple of extra patterns to Twinkle to prepare for a new song.

It will take some time for your child to learn how to Twinkle. How long will depend on a LOT of things, including their age. We really took almost 2 years.... partly because we had a few problems with Delta. (Feel free to read about it on my other blog - see the side for the link.)

It does occasionally get tiring - but on the other hand, that is something I like about Suzuki. That each song is learned and kept, instead of "thrown away". Each song gets to a point where it could be performed - and kept there.

Practicing can be a fun time - or it can become a battle. Don't make it a battle. We did ok the first year, but it wasn't every day, and some days it was a real challenge. I used a few games the teacher had given me - but the problem was that Delta would through a tantrum when an activity came up in the game that he didn't want to play.

With some observations from Mike, I made a few changes in the 2nd year, that helped. I would be VERY careful about making corrections (something I had tried to do) and always tried to find something valid to praise. I would play with him when I could (which wasn't easy at the pre-twinkle stage). I would call a concert and round up stuffies to be the audience. They would all clammer for their favourite songs...

Eventually I bought the "Step-by-Step" book and CD for book 1. It has accompaniment for each song at 2 to 3 different speeds, and Delta enjoyed playing with them. Also, surprisingly enough, I found for Delta, that the best practice plan was a chart with everything he was to practice listed. If he did an item happily, I would draw a smilie face in the box. If he complained, or had a tantrum - he still had to do the item/song - but would only get a checkmark. At the end of the practice I always had a "Happy Song" where he could play anything he wanted, with no corrections or anything. I would then count up all the smilie faces, and write the number under the day. If he got all smilie faces, he would get a star.

The first practice like that he got 3 smilie faces - and we challenged him to think of it like a race - could he beat his record the next time. The numbers got higher, and now we almost always get a star. He now wants checkmarks, so the odd time that he complains about practice, he gets a sad face in the box - but that happens so rarely. He is now to a point that most of the time, I can practice with him (unless there is a new technique or something that I am monitoring.) So he gets the choice of playing alone, playing with me, or playing with the CD.

In January, we did our program's 100 practices in 100 days - so we started practicing every day... and we haven't stopped. We are at about day 270...

CD Listening
There is no getting around it - you need to listen to the CD everyday. This doesn't have to be a hard thing - and your child doesn't need to sit still for it. I made a copy of the CD so that I wouldn't have to worry about it getting scratched (I have the master somewhere safe.) My kids have a CD player in the bedroom with the CD in it.... they often decide to play it while playing in their room. I often set it to play when they go to sleep (although I have heard that some children can get conditioned to get sleepy when they hear the music if you do that.... so watch for that if you use it for bed music). Some days I'll play it in the car, or while eating. Make sure that no adults in the house make comments about being bored with it - your kids love repetition, and are not likely to complain until they hear an adult complain.

(That said - my kids have their own taste in music, and have their favourites on the Cd, as well as a few they don't like so much.... I'm sure it will be "fun" to learn the songs they don't like...)

Anything else?
I've tried to think of the main points.... but if you have more questions, please ask!

And on a final note - sometimes the best teacher isn't the best teacher for your child. Our first teacher was wonderful, and is very sought after in the program... but Delta started refusing to do anything in classes with her. I know this was very difficult for her (and for us) and she worked hard to find out how to teach him. Eventually we switched teachers, and he has just taken right off. Switching teachers was a very difficult decision, and I know it was not easy on his first teacher - although she did agree and recommended his new teacher. If things are really not working, discuss it with your teacher and work together. If it is decided that it is best to change teachers, do it up-front with your original teacher, and try to keep things friendly. Ideally it is something that is worked out together.

I remembered something I wanted to say. Sometimes a small lay-out of money can save you money. For instance, buying the "Step-by-step" books made a big difference for us - well worth the cost because it has "saved" us money in music lessons. Of course it depends on how you look at it - we haven't taken any fewer lessons, so really the savings here is academic.... but Delta and Echo are much further along than they would have been without those books.... so you could say that we have saved on the cost of lessons between where they would have been and where they are in their skills.

Another thing that has been worth buying for us was a "Chin Chum". It is a little soft caseing with some cushioning that goes on the chinrest and around the bottom of the violin and is held on by an elastic. It makes the chinrest softer - but it also protects the child's neck from the metal parts of the chinrest that hold it on. (Echo kept getting a red area on her chin until we bought one.) It provides this protection without sticking anything to the chinrest or violin, so it will not damage them. I made one for my violin that has worked well... I made one for Delta's new violin however, and it fell off 3 or 4 times during the play-in. I'm sure I could adjust it and make one that wouldn't - but as he has a major concert coming up (more info coming!) - I didn't want to risk it falling off! So I bought another one.

Another thing that is interesting - but not sure I would buy one (well, I guess I wouldn't because I didn't....) - is the Twinklemat. It is a rollable foot-chart that isn't slippery. Our 1st teacher made a footchart on cardboard that was a bit of a pain to transport. I eventually (After a year) made a couple by sewing felt footprints onto the non-slip shelf coverings.... can't think of the name. I can roll them up to make for easy transport. I've seen a good foot chart made with feet traced on a plastic table placemat.... I don't know if it would roll for transport. But if you don't want to make something, and want something more durable than most of the "filefolder" or cardboard footcharts you see - it is worth looking into.


  1. We are a Suzuki violin family too. Eight years now....

    One thing that really helped me was reading this book:

    To Learn With Love gave lots of practical hints and ideas for those days when you think you can't listen to Happy Farmer one more time or you will explode. We worked on one piece in Book 4 for over a year! I thought I would lose my mind but when I took out the book and reread the advice, it simmered me down so we could focus a bit more on what needed to get done to move on.

    You did a great job summarizing Suzuki.

    Barb-Harmony Art Mom

  2. Wow! That's alot of info that you've aquired.
    I have thought about the violin, for my children, at times, but decided on the piano.

  3. Wow! What a lot of information. Thank you for sharing all of that with us. I would love to have mu kids learn the vilolin, but we have a piano sitting in our living room. So, I will probably start there.

  4. Thanks for the comments!

    I love the violin, but definitely having a piano makes it more likely to do the piano.

    Check out the Suzuki piano program - it has the same benefits (using songs to teach technique, not throwing out songs you already know, learning to play by memory before learning to read, and good quality songs!

  5. I actually hadn't ever heard of a box violin but it makes sense. Thanks for sharing all this information!

  6. The box violins (or boxilins) are pretty cute. The one I made has a picture of a violin on it. You can actually buy "box violins" made out of foam (called a foamalin) on the internet - but it seems like a waste of money when you are going to use it for only a few weeks to a couple of months.

  7. Lovely blog post ! we are a suzuki family as well and while we mostly have great practice days ,we do have our share of just horrible horrible days. Have you ever considered smartmusic ? my oldest daughter loves it and it does save me time,when I am practicing with the little one ,she can get a head start on her own.

  8. I have heard of Smartmusic, but we haven't tried it.

    How far in Suzuki was your oldest when you started using it?

    Does it make a big difference compared to just having a set accompaniment?