How to help your child or Yourself Learn Easier
for learning scales and arpeggios
Games for Beginners
improve bow hold without tears and boredom!
How to make playing fun!
How can I
help my child or myself to play in tune?
My child or I resist practice - what encouragement can I offer?
The majority of pupils, and
indeed adults, find the prospect of learning scales a chore.
I too found this to be the case, although once I had got to grips with a
new scale, I would quite happily gaze through a window while repeating
the same scale over and over again. This trance like state was relaxing,
and I think it helped keep my nerves under control in an exam when it
was time to do scales!
There are various methods of actually learning a new scale or arpeggio.
One can look at the music to start with in order to learn the key
signature, and to work out the relative major or minor keys, which
relate to it. This is the more academic approach, and although thorough,
is unlikely to fire up any enthusiasm in the pupil.
Another method is the physical approach, where the closeness or space
between the fingers is observed in order to feel the tones and semitones
when they occur. Pupils often find it easier to relate to, and the
fingering of the scale or arpeggio can be written down with a bracket
over the fingers that make a semitone. All scales should initially be
practiced slowly without slurs, ensuring that awkward sections are split
up and practiced in detail.
Minor scales can be tricky, especially when both harmonic and melodic
forms need to be learnt – one often ends up listening to a pupil
concocting a hybrid of a scale, where both forms are merged together!
Harmonic scales are easier to tackle first, as the ‘snake charmer’ sound
is fun to play. The melodic is trickier, telling the pupil that when
ascending it sounds minor to start with, and then changes to a major
sound for the latter part can help. The flattened sound of the scale
descending, needs to be isolated and sung over and over to really be
instilled in the pupil.
This is all very well, but then the problem is getting the pupil to go
away and actually learn it!
It is important to get any kind of chore over with, if this is how the
pupil views it. Practicing first thing in the morning – even if it is a
quick 20 minutes while breakfast is being prepared before school – is a
good discipline to get into. It provides an excellent warm up and then
the prospect of having the practice put off until later on which looms
like a black cloud on the horizon is overcome. Or worse still is
forgotten about altogether!
Once the scale has been learnt, then the real fun can start! There are
many ways of then using the scale or arpeggio as a framework for
practicing various techniques such as bowing, rhythm, careful intonation
practice, and shifting. If you make this a fun concept in the lesson,
the pupils won’t even realize the hard work going on behind the scenes!
N.B. Please ensure that where possible, the majority of practice takes
place in front of a mirror if the object is to use the scales to help
enhance another technique, e.g. to check the flexibility of the wrist,
or for the position of the arm during shifting.
Any bowing can really be practiced around a scale. If a bowing technique
is difficult to master, such as ricochet or spiccato, then obviously
they should be first practiced on an open string. Then progress to using
it in a scale, until the pupil is ready to tackle a study. Simplicity is
the key. Why struggle with difficult notes if the bowing technique
itself is hard? The notes are a distraction. For a younger child you
could introduce ‘Frog Scales’ for example, where a pupil practices
spiccato in a scale, or perhaps ‘Robot Scales’ for martele, and maybe
even ‘Sticky Toffee Scales’ for a smooth legato practice. Perhaps play
them a scale using a bowing technique, and get them to choose a
description, and then see if they can copy you.
Scales incorporating dotted rhythms in particular are not only good for
timing and rhythmic accuracy, they are wonderful for working on a fluid
bow hold and wrist action. This is especially true of any dotted, or
even double dotted rhythmic scale that is played at the extreme tip or
heel of the bow. The bow can even be held upside to make things more of
a challenge, as this extra heaviness in the bow hold makes the fingers
work harder to get a result. Over exaggeration is the key here to help
the bowing fingers and wrist to loosen up. With dotted scales, each note
can be repeated at least twice, i.e. each note is crochet consisting of
the same two notes in a dotted pattern, to get enough time to practice
the bowing technique. In order to get a fast and fluid scale going, the
scale itself can be practiced with single notes as normal, but first
dotted one way, and then dotted the other to even out any discrepancies
over timing and to highlight any areas where the notes are not yet
Of course scales are an ideal method in which to concentrate on playing
securely in tune. Obviously, no use of vibrato should be employed during
scale and arpeggio practices (unless slow scales are used specifically
to help with vibrato practice!) It is important to slow scales right
down as much as possible in order to effectively train the ear to listen
out for imperfections. If a note is not in tune, go back to the previous
note in order to practice correct positioning of the finger.
Shifting is an integral part of many scales and arpeggios, especially
when entering the realm of the three octave range! Arpeggios especially
need quick thinking and precision, and plenty of mental preparation in
order to accurately reach the notes. Repeating the note twice while
hooking the last note into the new note i.e. linking the notes together,
are an excellent way of practicing.
Bowing exercises to
practice without the need of a violin! Only the bowing hand is required,
the left hand is useful, as a safety net for the bow, should the going
get too tough! [click here to go back]
Creepy Crawly Spiders
Hold the bow vertically using the correct bow hold, and slowly and
carefully crawl up the bow stick like a spider. Try to maintain the
basic bow hold position as far as it is possible, making sure that the
thumb remains on the opposite side of the fingers. Stop when you get
half way up the stick, and then crawl back down to the frog again. If
there is more than one pupil in the class, maybe you could see which
‘spider’ completes the course up and down the ‘drainpipe’ successfully!
The object of this exercise is to increase strength and independence for
the fingers, while ensuring flexible fingers, which is vital for a good
bow hold. And it makes everyone grateful that they finish off back in
the bow hold position, which by now should seem a little easier than
before they started! [click here to go back]
Please note that it is essential to relax the hand that holds the bow in
between each exercise by shaking the hand out vigorously. (It is
important not to hold the bow while doing this!)
Hold the bow out in front of the body horizontally, while maintaining
the correct bow hold. Now begin to alternatively push down on the first
finger, so that the bow dips down slightly to the left, and then push
down on the little finger, so that the bow dips down to the right.
Repeat this several times, trying to keep the fingers bent. Again, this
produces strong and flexible fingers. These two fingers are fundamental
for balancing the bow stick. [click here to go back]
The Upside Down Seesaw
This is the same as the previous exercise, but flip the bowing hand
over, so that the bow stick is now pointing to the right, and the hand
is now upside down. This is slightly harder than The Seesaw, as the hand
is now supporting the entire weight of the bow. [click here to go back]
The Rabbit’s Face
This can be practiced even without holding the bow to start with! Using
the bowing hand, bend the right thumb, then bring the middle and ring
fingers down to meet it, (just as you would when holding the bow.)
Instead of bringing the index and little fingers down, keep them raised
in the air. Give them a wiggle, and these are the rabbit’s ears, the
other fingers make up the shape of the teeth. This can be practiced
substituting a pencil instead of the bow. It’s easy to do, and even
pupils who can’t be bothered to open their violin case can do this while
watching TV! Next, try the same thing using the bow. It is a good idea
to look in a mirror to see the rabbit’s face. The object of this is that
the fingers which make up the teeth are the ones that hold the bow the
firmest. The ‘ear’ fingers are used to balance the stick. This helps the
pupil realize the role of each finger.
The Soldiers Stand to Attention
This one is another good exercise for the pupil to see the role each
finger plays in the bow hold. As before, hold the stick in front of the
body so that it is horizontal, and one by one lift each of the four
fingers off the stick in turn. (Not all at the same time obviously!)
This again shows which fingers are used to grip the bow, and which are
important for balancing the stick. Strength, finger independence and
flexibility are once more to the fore. [click here to go back]
The Paint Brush
This is a warm up to The Push Me Pull You. Without using the bow, hold
the bowing hand out in front of you, using the bow hold position.
Imagine that a paintbrush is being held. Pull across to the right, as
though an imaginary horizontal line is being painted. Notice the shape
the bow hold makes, with the palm leading the fingers across to the
right. Now paint a line to the left. The fingers should be flexible and
the top of the hand should lead the fingers. The tips of the fingers
should curl naturally to the right. [click here to go back]
The Push Me Pull You
Hold the bow stick out as previously, but this time insert the index
finger of the left hand between the stick and bow hair at the tip of the
bow. (So the left arm is out to the left-hand side, and the right arm is
over to the right) Now pull the bow towards the left, so that it meets
the left hand, making sure that the left hand remains still, let the
bowing hand do the work. Notice the shape the bow hold makes, the
fingers should be flexible and the top of the hand should lead the
fingers. The tips of the fingers should curl naturally to the right. Now
draw the bow to the right as though doing a down-bow. Watch carefully,
as the shape of the bow hold should change, with the palm leading the
fingers across to the right.
Learning to hold the bow
correctly can be the source of much frustration and heartache – I know,
I’ve been there! There is much you can do without actually involving the
violin itself, and often without even using the bow!
To begin with it is useful to practice in front of a full-length mirror
if possible. This will show you right away how you are progressing. I
see little point in learning a study full of difficult notes if the aim
is to concentrate on bow hold. Better to use open strings and long slow
bows to start with. As you place the bow on the string at the heel of
the bow, check that the bow hair is completely flat against the string.
As you draw the bow down, make sure that the bow stays in a straight
line between the bridge and fingerboard. As you slowly reach the tip of
the bow, mentally anticipate changing direction to an up-bow so that the
transition will be smooth and not bumpy or gritty sounding. Again, make
sure as you change direction that the bow remains as straight as
possible. Practice these long bows on all open strings. Notice the angle
of your elbow alter in relation to which string you are playing – high
up on the G and close to your body on the E. Play softly and slowly, as
this requires maximum control. This exercise is essential and should be
used before each practice session.
Music - Tutor books do not
suit all children all of the time. It's best to intersperse your lessons
with lighter music (ask your music dealer). Even study books and scales
can be made more interesting , choose music that is bright and colorful
, and which features cartoons.
The Lesson - For the very young, awarding stickers (gold stars etc) or
sweets when the parents collect their children will encourage a sense of
achievement. You can also encourage a 'concert ' atmosphere when the
parents arrive at the end of the lesson. If you play piano the student
will have a real sense of achievement at the end of the lesson if they
play what they have learned with an accompaniment. Also get to know your
pupils and their interests, find out what is going on in their lives so
that you can help them decide how to incorporate a practice timetable
outside the lesson.
Practice - Refer to my
resisting practice tip for more detail, but it can be easier to get
the pupil to play little and often, keeping the instrument to hand and
try not to keep using the word 'Practice'! Encourage the pupil to have a
go at improvising, composing tunes and to play along to their favorite
pop music (without the use of music and the tyranny of the music stand!)
Extra Curricular - Encourage your pupils to go to concerts, especially
to see youth orchestras. This will give them something to aim for. Try
to arrange for them to go along to a residential course in the school
holidays. Play lots of music in the background (be careful not to force
it) just let it be a natural part of life.
The violin can be one of
the most difficult instruments to master especially in the early stages
where scraping and sawing noises can be a special and unwanted feature!
Many teachers mark the position the fingers need to be in by putting
colored tapes on the fingerboard. I know that some teacher's feel that
this is more offensive than any scraping sound. But for certain
students, or very young students colored tape markers help immensely.
Yet, It is critical to remember that a violin player has to make the
notes themselves by placing the finger on the string in the exact
correct position. This cannot be done just by looking at the
fingerboard, as the angle of the violin makes this hard to judge.
The solution is to train the ear. This can be done in several ways:
Aural Practice - This is important as it gets the pupil
to practice singing and recognizing
intervals which will enable them to tell whether they are playing in
Singing - Encourage the pupil to sing in a choir. This will get the
ear used to harmony which again is good practice for hearing intervals
correctly. However, as a child, I myself did not especially enjoy
singing in a choir, and if this is the case with a pupil, then encourage
them to sing a harmony to their favorite pop song.
Back to the violin, and on a practical level, getting the pupil to play
for example an open string then putting down the first finger whilst
playing with long slow bows and listening carefully will train the ear.
This needs to be practiced over and over again. i.e.: O I O I O I O I
etc. this can be built up to incorporate all 4 fingers, but always
return to an open string to check the tuning.
An important point is to remember that if a note is played out of tune,
to go back to the previous note and have another go at re-hitting the
note properly. This is a must for scale practice and trains both the ear
and finger muscles. It is so easy just to play a note out of tune and
either to slide the finger or just carry on without stopping!
As before with my last teacher's tip (see below) good luck and please
email me with your views!
This is a very common
problem, and one which I can identify with myself! Very few children (or
adults for that matter!) find that the will to practice comes easily. As
the day progresses the idea of practicing becomes more and more of a
chore. The best thing that I have found through personal experience is
to get the practicing over with as early as possible. Not only are you
physically and mentally more alert at this time, but also the idea of
practicing has not been put off all day and seen as a battle or ordeal
(and who knows if the practice session goes well, there is plenty of
time to do some more later on!)
As a child learning to play I really hated practicing , but luckily I
had a natural ability which enabled me to improve with the amount of
practicing which I did manage to do. I now have a very talented pupil
who is like this also. Basically the amount of practice depends on the
individual. Some benefit from practicing 'little and often', and others
find that they can get stuck into a long practice session. As soon as
the mind begins to wander , it is better to take a break as 'over
practicing' can do more harm than good. If you want some advice on how
to stop the mind wandering then I recommend you visit our 'Easy Lessons
in Meditation page'
Parental pressure rarely works, and this just creates tension. If an
exam is looming however, then it is reasonable to expect a more
committed approach to practicing, and the student will know that it is
for a limited period only.
The more music the violin pupil is exposed to the better, and this
includes pop, folk and jazz as well as classical music. If a pupil can
hear a violin being played in a non stuffy way, then this is more likely
to fire them up to play than anything else. Some good examples of music
to try are The Corrs, Nigel Kennedy, Ed Alleyne Johnson and Vanessa Mae.
You could also try taking them along to a concert which features a
violin concerto, such as one by Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius or Britten.
These are particularly dramatic and striking works, and when the violin
student hears them live, the effect will be very powerful.
Peer pressure is often a reason why children give up, so the need to see
the violin as a 'cool' instrument is important, especially for
The violin teacher should also make an effort to be on the pupil's wave
length and not impose unrealistic practice time tables. It is essential
to show the importance of scales but also in relation to improvising. It
is a good idea to encourage the pupil to play fast folk music to create
a fluid relaxed bow hold and action. You can also arrange their favorite
Pop music for violin, or encourage them to play along to their favorite
songs by ear. If the child can relate to the teacher and enjoy the
lesson, they are more likely to want to practice.
Another idea for parents is to leave the violin in a safe place set up
and ready to play, sometimes the mere thought of opening up the case and
setting up the violin etc can be off putting ( which is why most people
find it easier just to sit at a piano and play ) The violin can be kept
ready on top of a table, piano or in a spare bedroom, with a scarf or
duster over it for protection. The bow can be left loose so that it can
be quickly tightened when needed. Then at the end of the day it can be
safely rubbed down and put back in it's case until the next morning.
To sum up, make it as convenient and enjoyable for your child or pupil
to play. Ten or fifteen minutes before school while breakfast is being
prepared can build up to a substantial chunk of playing by the end of
the week. Parents - please don't laugh or tell your child it sounds bad
(even if it does!) and avoid using the 'P' word (practice). The word
itself strikes terror even into my own heart. Teachers - please try and
see things from your pupils' perspective as they will be more responsive
if they feel that you are on their side, than if you act like an ogre.
Good luck and please contact me with any comments or suggestion on what
you would like to see on this page.