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.

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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.