Practice Ideas for Suzuki Students
This is a collection of practice ideas for Suzuki instrumental students.
Good and regular practice is crucial in the Suzuki method, and the more enjoyable the practice is, the more efficient it is and the more it helps the student to thrive and to progress in his studies. All over the world, Suzuki families have been inventing their own private ways and tricks to practice and to keep the daily practice routine interesting. This individual experience and these private collections of practicing ideas would be a tremendous resource – if they would be shared with the whole Suzuki community.
This Wikibook is a first step to access this knowledge and to make it available for everybody. Every Suzuki student, Suzuki parent or Suzuki teacher who has a good practice idea to share is invited to do so. Just click “edit this page” (on top of this page) and start contributing your ideas. If you need help or have comments, leave a note on the discussion page.
To learn more about the Suzuki method, see the Wikipedia article.
General practice ideas
Keep the instrument on a violin stand
One of the best investments that you can do is to purchase an adjustable violin stand. Ingles is excellent quality, but any other brand will probably do as well. A violin stand is no more than 20 to 30 US dollars, it grows with the size of your child's instrument and it holds both the instrument (with the shoulder rest attached) and the bow.
The advantage of keeping the instrument on a stand instead of in the case is that it considerably lowers the threshold of grabbing and playing it. Opening the violin case, taking the instrument out and attaching the shoulder rest isn't something your child would do during a commercial break on television, but exactly this scenario comes within reach if the instrument is being kept on a stand in the family room.
Make your child a Pop star
Every child wants to become famous. Make a youtube video or CD with her best violin pieces. She can give those CDs away to her friends, and they also make good Christmas presents for your family. This activity not only includes dressing up and posing for photographs, but also designing a CD cover, choosing the right pieces, and carefully brushing those pieces up before you finally record them.
Take the index card practice to the next level
We are living in the 21st Century. Children love the computer. Give the boring old index cards an upgrade and prompt your child’s practice not with handwritten notes but with a PowerPoint presentation. Some kids might even want to create their own PowerPoint practice file. (Make sure they include all the exercises they are supposed to do.)
This activity might be a bit time-consuming, but for children with a technical mind it is irresistible.
They can even include sound files, pictures or small videos. (Grasp that opportunity and have them show off their best violin playing, bow hold etc. for the camera or for the sound recorder.)
Have a Stuffie Concert
Especially good for younger students. Announce to the household that you are having a Concert. Call out "Come to the concert!" and have your child collect all the dolls and stuffed animals to be the audience. (Of course, other family members can come too.) Have a "program" made up with the songs that your child (and you) will play - even if there are some repeats. This is naturally the items you want your child to practice, plus anything they love to play. Be an announcer and announce each piece, and have the audience give praise, cheer, etc. (We had a barrel of monkeys, and they always demanded the "Monkey Song" (pre-twinkle song) for an encore!)
Ping Pong Review
This is a fun practice idea for students who are a bit more advanced and already have more pieces to review than they can keep track of.
Purchase a pack of ping pong balls. You need as many balls as you have review pieces. Using a permanent marker, write the names of the review pieces one on every ball. Put the balls in a non-transparent bag (a pillow case does fine). For the practice, let the child randomly pull a ball out of the bag and play the piece.
To make sure that every review piece will be played sooner or later, don’t put the used balls back into the bag, but keep them aside until the bag is empty.
Dice Game Review
Order large foam dice from an educational supplier or make your own with cardboard box. Make up laminated cards (the size of the face of the large dice) with name of song from relevant books and a picture to represent the song. Stick Velcro dots to the faces of the die and the opposite part of the Velcro dots to the back of the song cards and attach 6 songs to the faces of the dice (you can play with one die or two or more dice). The child rolls the die to see what song to play for review. You can change the song cards each week as appropriate.
If reviewing older pieces is a severe issue for your more advanced and independent student (to the point where she can't play those pieces anymore), you can help her a little by resuming your probably discontinued CD listening routines. If you don't have a problem bribing her, you can also try the following. Get a small parts storage cabinet with drawers, cheap and made out of plastic, like the ones that you may have in your basement workshop for things like nails or screws. Label each drawer with the name of a piece that you want your child to review or (in the worst case) to re-master. Fill each drawer with a little surprise item that appeals to your child but does not overstretch your budget. The drawers only hold small items anyway. Be very explicit and precise about the rules (for example: "you can remove the label and open the drawer as soon as you play the piece from beginning to end with all the repeats in one swoosh with no upside-down bowing, and yes, you may use the music sheet") and leave the rest to the child.
The Suzuki Medley
The following activity is good for students who are more advanced and have so many pieces to review that they sometimes forget how a particular piece (that they perhaps haven't been reviewing for a while) begins. This problem can be fixed by a daily practice that you can call “The Medley”. For the Medley, the child plays Twinkle Theme, but only the first couple of notes. Then follow the first notes of Lightly Row, etc.
Hire a puppet
Tired of reminding your six-year-old for the gazillionth time that she can use more of her bow than just an inch and that her tone will sound so much better? You need a time out. A teacher assistant or visiting teacher should take over. Hire a puppet or a stuffed animal. Puppets make awesome teacher assistants. They are low-maintenance, they might be more patient and relaxed than you are and kids love them and listen to them. A puppet knows as much about teaching an instrument as you do, and you can introduce him/her to the child as an “expert” for the problem that needs to be tackled (“Meet Professor Long Bow”).
The following is a favorite exercise of my young son that he is virtually never getting tired of, and only one of many possible additional options for the puppet tutoring. Professor Long Bow has the unfortunate tendency to get a fly in his eye. In order to help him to get that fly out, the child can make him cry. The best way to do so is to play something sad, like Go, Tell Aunt Rhody. The sadder the expression, the better. If the child does well, Professor Long Bow will probably be sobbing, and his eye will be okay again. But he is so sad now, that he needs some cheering up. As you could have guessed, the child has to play something cheerful, like Allegro. The happier the expression, the better.
Sing the lyrics
Piggy back ride
This is a fun exercise to improve your young child's left hand position. She can only use her left hand efficiently when the fingers are in a nice position hovering above the strings. The middle sections of her fingers need to be in a horizontal position. You can call it "tables".
To practice this position, you can have your child play an A scale with a Mississippi Hotdog rhythm, and on each finger that she is setting down, you set some sort of a little object, like a cheerio or a button or a little toy like in the picture. The goal is not to let that object fall down while she is playing.
Focusing on a difficult musical passage
Any difficult series of notes should be practiced separately and fully mastered, before the child attempts to play the whole piece. This will help to avoid lots of frustration. There are many ways to focus on a small passage or even on just one measure. You can make a copy of the sheet music, cut the passage out and glue it on a prepared practice sheet that contains a chart with 100 empty cells. Every time when the child plays the passage, she can check one cell.
Exercise for good violin position
Some children have a hard time to keep themselves upright while they are playing and tend to "collapse". In that case, give Mr. Bear or any other stuffed friend a ride on the instrument. The child wouldn't want him to fall down.
This exercise can also be helpful if your child's bow has a habit of wandering off the Kreisler Highway towards the fingerboard.
Elevator to Greatness
The following exercise is good for pieces with moderately difficult bowing, like unexpected up-bows (O Come, Little Children). You don't need a violin or bow, you just use your hands to imitate the bow movements (up and down) while you hum or sing the melody along. There are several options:
- The child takes a stuffed animal and gives it "elevator rides" up and down.
It is more fun to do this as a partner activity:
- The beginner's way is to hold the child's hand like in a handshake, and do the movements together.
- Only put the tips of your right hand index fingers together. Try to make big movements but not to lose touch.
- Every partner grabs one end of a piece of paper tissue or bathroom tissue, and then you do the movements together. Try not to tear the paper.
Elevator to Greatness can even be a group activity:
- All children hold on to the edge of a paper tissue or to a long rubber band, and do the movements together. A child who goofs up is out.
Mah Mah Mee Mee singing
The following exercise is fun and helpful if your child is preparing or struggling with a piece that includes complicated bowing like a number of slurs. Give the violin a rest, grab the sheet music and mark the slurs on the paper. Use one color for down-slurs, and another color for up-slurs. Then sing the piece together. No lyrics needed. The first time, you sing the whole piece, only using the syllable “mah” (“mah mah mah mah…”). The second time, you do the same thing, but use the syllables “mee mee” for up-slurs (“mah mee mee mah mah mah mah…”). After you mastered this, add the syllables “moo moo” for down-slurs. Repeat this as often as it is fun, and try not to peek in the sheet music any more.
There are countless variations for this activity, all depending on what the difficulty is that you want to tackle. It works for all kinds of difficult bowing. For a lift for example, you can use a clap or yell “hop!”. For a hooked bowing, you can use other syllables (ask the child for suggestions).
Synchro-reading with magic finger while listening or singing
This practice, starting even by age 2, has the added merit of preparing a child to learn to read word texts more easily later too (sorry if it eliminates some $choolteacher jobs as more kids will learn to read and write independently). Move the finger along left to right on a page of sheet music in synch with where the music is. You can group your hand around the child's hand and have a finger of the child's hand do the pointing, till they get the idea (intellectually matching the audio and the video) which can happen at a surprisingly early age!
This applies to any music, including big orchestra stuff. Mini-scores of famous works are available at the lending library, you can buy the low-priced Dover edition, or if you have a big screen monitor go to IMSLP International Music Scores Library Project.)
Singfinger the classics
Certain famous compositions have had bootleg english version words written to particular tunes, such as the 1892 "Goin' home, goin' home" to the largo theme in the second movement of "New World Symphony", No. 9 formerly 5 in E minor, op. 95 by Dvorak. Play the record, finger-track the music, and for the allegro theme in the first movement of the Dvorak sing, "Here's a choo choo, first comes the engine, and then a car, and then a car, and then a car, toot toot! Ride this choo choo down to Chicago (which Dvorak actually did in 1893)" etc., make up your own words if you can. Continuing the Dvorak, soon you get to a continuation theme which goes, "Indian burial ground, turkey in the straw" (repeat eight times) etc. Finally it arrives at G major, my favorite, "Precious lady, won't you marry me? Frost is on the punkin, but there's a bird in the tree."
Teach Bruckner rhythm (duplet plus triplet) with the scherzo from the Fourth Symphony: "That Bruckner rhythmical tune, that Bruckner rhythmical tune, that rhythmical tune, that rhythmical tune, that rhythmical rhythmical rhythmical rhythmical Bruckner rhythmical tune" etc.
Certain prophetic pieces, like Mozart's early Symphony 29, K 201 (1774) or famously Beethoven's Fifth, obsessively repeat a rhythmic pattern to which you can sing "Johannes Brahms". The Mozart starts, "Mozart! Johannes Brahms, Johannes Brahms, Johannes Mozart! Johannes Brahms, Johannes Brahms, Johannes Mozart!" etc. Every movement of the piece has lots of Brahms in it.
Schumann's Quintet op. 44, 4th movement, Allegro non troppo, starts off in 4/4 with "Robert Schuh, Robert Schumann, Robert Schumann, Robert Schuh!" (as in rubber shoe) etc. A slower side-theme goes, "Cla-ra Schuh, Johnannes Brahms loves you!" (How did they know that in 1842?) The 2nd movement is slow and mysterious: "It's time... to play... Robert Schumann! Robert Schu... mann... today... hey!"
Elgar's Enigma Variation theme goes, "Edward Elgar? Sure, I know him! He's a good man, his wife's real nice, you should meet them, say, I'll take you there... (change to major key) and when we got to the door, their dog was humping my leg, he's not allowed in the house, so that's the best he can do..." (God hasn't dictated the rest to me yet, I'll let you know).
Kids are natural born composers. There are many websites available where users of all ages can experiment with composing. A good one for Suzuki students is www.noteflight.com. After you sign your child up for a (free) account, he can write his own music scores, edit, play and save them and even share them with other users. And guess what: writing your own scores is a very useful and appealing approach to understand sheet music.
House of Music
The following is a fun project that can be used as an introduction to music reading. Take a sheet of paper, the larger the better. Design a tall apartment house in cross section view. The house must be a split-level-building with 9 apartments on the left side, and 8 apartments on the right (17 half-levels overall). The 9 apartments on the left represent the spaces between the staff lines, while the 8 apartments to the right represent the staff lines themselves. Add a roof that marks the upper levels as attics, and brick walls or a horizontal base line that mark the lower levels as basements. If you want to, you can add balconies, window sills or other decorations to the apartments that represent the area of the actual staff lines.
In the second and last step, make families move into the apartments. The A-apartment (between 2nd and 3rd line) could house an alligator for example, or an ant or antelope; no baby animals in this apartment, because A is an open string and no fingers used. In the F#-apartment (5th line) there might live a fly, a fish or a flamingo, but make sure that they have 1 child, since F# is being played with the 1st finger. Etc.
On long terms, it is a bad habit to refer to tones in terms like “open A” or “first finger on E-string”. Tones have names: A, F sharp, etc., and they have a notation: between the 2nd and 3rd line, on the 5th line, etc. A convenient way to teach and practice these references is with flash cards. There are prefabricated flash cards available, or you can make your own.
There are many possible things that can be done with the flash cards. If you have 2 students, you can even play games:
- Show a flash card (with a note) to the first child. The child plays the tone on his violin. The second child who can hear and see the sibling but not the flash card has to write the note down. If the notes are identical, the children score, otherwise you score.
This card game helps beginning music readers to establish and to internalize the association between a particular note (for example C#) and the corresponding fingering on the violin (2nd finger on A-string). You need a self-made deck of cards that matches every note that you want to teach with the corresponding fingering (the latter either in words or in graphic). For a beginning student, 8 pairs will probably do. Later you can add more, until the whole 1st position is covered. Here come the rules for the game:
- The dealer deals 4 cards to each player (if you have 16 or more pairs, deal at least 6 cards).
- The extra cards go on a pile, face down.
- The first player takes 1 card from the pile and adds it to his hand. If he can match any pairs, he puts them on the table, face up. Last, he chooses 1 card from his hand that he doesn't need and puts it on a new pile, face up.
- The second player takes 1 card either from the covered or from the open pile. Etc.
- Winner is the player who is the first to get rid of all of his cards.
There are many variations possible, depending on what particular skill you want to practice. If you also want to establish the names of the notes (for example “C#”), you can use triplet cards instead of pairs, or you can declare that every player who puts a pair on the table must say the name.
Some composers used the names of tones to spell messages that they could hide in their compositions. Bach for example used B-A-C-H (H = [German] B-natural), and Dmitri Shostakovich used D-S-C-H (S = [German] Es = E-flat). In the Sextet op. 36 Brahms used A-G-A-H-E in honor of Agathe, a girl friend he had had to break up with. Think of a word that only contains the letters A, B, C, D, E, F and G (examples: bad, face, edge), write it down in musical notes, and let the child figure out which word the notes represent. Then switch roles.
There are many words that can be spelled just using the "musical alphabet" from the treble clef. It is helpful for students learning note recognition/reading and to memorize their treble clef. Try making cards or Powerpoint slides with words and have the student write the corresponding notes on the staff that match the word they see. Can also be done in the reverse (giving them the notes and having the student fill in the blanks with the word that is indicated by the notes).
Stradizuki: practice machine for "Suzuki orphans"
In "They're Rarely Too Young... and Never Too Old to Twinkle!" by Kay Collier Slone, a photo shows a 2-year-old girl with something like a violin under her chin which turns out to be a box of Crackerjacks with the candy still inside (when you shake it, it sounds like a rattle) and a long bar or slat of wood taped to the box. Someone in the Madison, WI Suzuki program thought up this idea to take care of a younger sibling with "violin tendencies", i.e. one who wants to get her hands on an older sibling's $100 instrument, an uncomfortable family situation.
The problem is solved by making a cheap, repairable or replaceable quasi-violin for the younger child which actually makes noise (rhythm instrument), thus the toddler is encouraged to participate in family group music making, gather self-confidence etc. (They don't understand pitch till age 3 anyway.)
This idea was extended by means of certain previously overlooked materials at a Recycling Center not far from Madison, Wis., where someone attached a flat wooden bar to a cookie tin (on one side) and part of a plastic bottle and a cat food can (on the other side). The resulting fiddle-like contraption, to which further strings or coathanger wires can be added, is the Stradizuki (Zooky for short, or if it is more like a guitar, i.e. big with multiple pluckable plastic bottle bottoms attached, Stratozooky).
A notched stick, scraped across the rim of a cookie tin, cardboard box, bottle segment or cat food can or across an edge of the wood bar, produces in each case a different loud noise, further varied by speed and intensity of stroke. This rasp-stick, the Kratzenbogen, or Bogie for short, is arguably a basic introductory music device, because when placed in the hand of even a newborn baby it can promote "co-ordinatory" education in the form of simultaneous perception of sound and vibrations. Bogie-stroking helps a terrible-twos toddler express explosive passions harmlessly, builds up bowing arm muscle and sense of rhythm. The child can wander around the house trying out the Bogie on different edges and surfaces resulting in the beginnings of an engineering education.
(Note: limit length of bogie to 10 inches or less for eye safety reasons!)
Even safer in the hand of a newborn, this is the top 2-3 inches or bottom 2 inches cut from any green plastic beverage bottle (7up, Mountain Dew etc.). The kid can rub the larger mouth of it against a concrete floor, screen, grate or washboard expressing lots of noise, or kratz a bogie across the top (narrow) mouth. Fitted with a wood handle stuffed in the bottle neck and held with the larger mouth upright with stones or hardware in the cup, it can be shaken to produce a rattly sound (Statue of Liberty Cowbell). Clunky: a rotund object up to the size of a golf ball can be attached by a length of doubled telephone wire or recycled headphone wire (ten inches or less to prevent strangulation) forming that classic toy where you "swing it up and land it in the cup" (Clunk!).
Plucking on the rim of the larger mouth (where the bottle was cut) produces a different kind of tone depending on what kind of bottle it was cut from-- imagine a rhythm section of several kids plucking different pluckycups while somebody kratzes a zooky and a soloist plays a melody instrument such as a recorder. This plucking practice readies a child for guitar prior to the hundred dollar instrument readiness age and also readies the fingers for keyboards, musical and computorial.
This is an activity for students who are a bit more advanced, but are still working with Book 1 or 2. You can quiz those kids with the names of the composers who wrote the pieces that they have recently been studying or that they are about to study. You can even prepare a memory card game where the players have to combine the name of a piece and the name of the composer.