Your Ideal Practice Space

The questions I hear most often from parents are how to make for successful practices at home. I often go straight to how to structure your time and start listing ideas for activities and games. I realized that I rarely mention that where you practice is a huge factor in a good practice routine. So, here are some ideas to set you and your child up for success.

  • Parents should set up a designated practice space.

    First, setting up a designated practice space tells your child that you value their violin lessons so much, that you've dedicated a space in your home for their learning. It also makes practice more productive- just like having an office or a desk allows us to focus more on completing our work, a specific practice space will help you and your child focus on the task at hand. It doesn't need to be a separate room in your house- a corner of a room works. Just set it up so that the space is for practicing only. 
  • The practice space should be free of distractions.

    Or as free of distractions as you can manage. This can help you decide where your practice space should be; for example, the living room may not work if your other children will be in the same room watching TV. If possible, set it up so that siblings and/or pets can't interrupt practice. (Dogs howling with the violin is cute...  for a minute or two.) 
  • The practice space should have all of your materials organized.

    Have a place for the violin, notebook, music books, pencil, music stand, tuner/metronome, and anything else you use. This will help practices run smoothly, keep the violin and other materials safe, and prevent the frantic searches for all of your stuff when you're rushing to leave for lessons.

So what kind of stuff do you need for your practice space?

  • The violin.

    Obviously. Though, it's worth noting that your practice space should have a safe place to store your violin where it can't be easily stepped on or knocked off or something, and young children and pets can't reach it.
  • A stand or wall hanger for the violin. 

    This isn't an absolute must-have, but since I mentioned storing the violin safely, I do love this for that exact purpose. It saves time unpacking and packing up the violin, and seeing the violin out is a good reminder to practice.

 

  • Carpet or a rug.

    Maybe this also isn't a must-have, but if (when) the violin gets dropped at some point, it's much better for it to land on carpet than on a hard floor. Clearly it's important to teach your child to handle their violin carefully, but accidents happen. 
  • A music stand.

    This might not be necessary right away for beginner Suzuki students, but you will need it eventually. Even if your child isn't reading music yet, you may like using it for displaying your notes or practice chart where you and your child can see it. You can find folding music stands for pretty cheap, but I like the Manhasset music stands because they are much more sturdy (books falling off a wire music stand gets pretty old after a while), and will last for years. This one comes in different colors, if your child wants to pick their favorite: 

 

  • A tuner/metronome.

    You will need something to tune your child's instrument. Parents often prefer a chromatic tuner that shows you the pitch when you play the string, and indicates whether it's sharp or flat, especially if they're not musicians and have trouble recognizing the pitch. A metronome will also eventually be a necessary practice tool. You can buy them at a music store, (I recommend a digital tuner/metronome combo) or get an app on your smartphone. I use Cleartune for a tuner, and Tempo for a metronome.
  • Rosin.

    Your child should have rosin in the violin case, but having some on hand in your home practice space is nice. Many times it gets taken out of the case during practice and forgotten when you leave for lessons or group class, so this is where having an extra one comes in handy.
  • A pencil.

    You'll use it for making notes in the music, writing questions in your notes for the teacher, checking off assignments on the practice sheet, keep track of repetitions, so have one ready. Or, if you're like me, have a big box of pencils because they tend to magically disappear.
  • A camera/video recording device.

    Most of the parents in my studio use their smartphone or tablet, but if you don't have one, a camera is very helpful. Students enjoy evaluating their own playing by watching it on video, and sometimes it helps settle disputes like whether that note was out of tune, or if the bow was straight. Having a picture or a video to take to the teacher if you have a question about your child's playing is also extremely helpful. Note: If you use your phone, set notifications to silent during practice!
  • Something for counting repetitions. 

    People in my studio know I love using my practice lizards- you move a bead on the lizard's tail for each repetition. There are many things you can use- pennies, dried beans, or even just keeping tally on a sheet of paper. A set of dice or a deck of cards is also great for deciding how many repetitions will be done for a certain task.
The idea for the "Practice Lizard" came from Suzy Perelman's Parents as Partners 2016 video. A student made one for me after watching it with her mom, and I use it all the time!

The idea for the "Practice Lizard" came from Suzy Perelman's Parents as Partners 2016 video. A student made one for me after watching it with her mom, and I use it all the time!

 

  • A timer.

     Your child's teacher may ask you to use a timer for a specific assignment, but you can use it a few ways to keep practice productive. You can set a timer for each assignment to keep things running efficiently. If your child dislikes a certain activity, setting the timer can help reassure them that they don't have to work on it for too long. You can use it as a motivator- for example, how fast can you do a perfect bow hold? Let's time it! You can use your phone for this, or get a cheap kitchen timer.
  • A full-length mirror. 

    Use this to have your child correct their own posture, or watch for a straight bow. This can also settle some disputes, just like the camera. :) A cheap mirror like this one will do, it doesn't need to be anything fancy.

 

  • A stereo or speaker. 

    This is great for when you need to listen to the recordings during practice, and for practicing along with the recordings. I have an iHome bluetooth speaker that I love. It's a tiny speaker, but is plenty loud enough for playing along. I use it all the time when we're preparing for recitals; my students play along with the piano accompaniments on the Suzuki CD's, and many do the same at home. An added bonus is rehearsals with the accompanist run quickly and smoothly since students are prepared. I use this one, but there are even cheaper options out there. 

 

  • A shelf or file storage box for music.

    You will eventually accumulate enough books and sheet music that piling them on the music stand won't work anymore (Trust me, I've tried). A small shelf is great for being able to easily find the books you need, and some type of file storage works great for sheet music (organizing it in a binder or folders can work, too). 
  • Fingernail clippers/hair ties, tissues, etc.

    You'll probably start practice and then realize that hair is getting in the way, nails are too long, or some other small problem is distracting your child, so have whatever you need to solve the problem readily available.

Why do we take proper violin setup so seriously?

Anyone else find that video as relatable as I do? Progress in violin lessons can seem painfully slow, especially for beginners. Proper posture and setup is the main focus for beginning violinists, and there is so much to learn, and then practiced hundreds of times before learning the next thing. It takes a while, and students start to wonder not only why their teacher is so obsessed with a good bow hold, but why they're doing that instead of learning new songs. Then they might bug their parents about it, who start to get impatient, and wonder if the teacher can move things along any quicker. Parents, if you get impatient, I don’t blame you; I wish it could be faster, too!

However, we violin teachers who spend so much time on proper setup for our beginners have our reasons for being so crazy. Here they are:

We want our students to sound good. (So do the students...  and parents!)

Playing the violin with a decent sound isn’t as simple as putting the bow on the string and moving it. The bow needs to be held a certain way, the violin has to be positioned exactly right to allow for proper bow placement, the bow needs to be in the perfect spot between the bridge and the fingerboard, and move in a perfectly straight path in order to produce a good tone. Then factor in placing the fingers correctly on the fingerboard to play the right notes. Many steps have to be taken to make sure students can do all of these things correctly when they play their violin, and actually like the sound that comes out when they play. If they hear themselves making a good sound, they’ll be motivated to play and learn more, so it’s important that we take the time we need to learn everything correctly.

We want to prevent discomfort, pain, and injuries.

Basic violin posture is already unnatural and uncomfortable at first, and takes some time to get used to. When there are problems such as slouching, locked knees, and excess tension in the body, it gets more uncomfortable and even painful. Students are much less motivated to play when it hurts. I have known people who have quit because bad habits weren’t corrected and it caused too much pain to play.  Also, many years of playing with poor posture can lead to injuries; I myself have had to go to physical therapy because so much playing while slouching, pushing my head forward, and too much tension did some damage to muscles in my neck and shoulders. I’ve known violinists who have had to go through surgeries due to playing-related injuries. Getting the right setup from the beginning can prevent these injuries, and the discouragement that comes with pain while playing, so it is well worth the time to get it right.

We don’t want our students’ playing to be limited by poor technique.

Students can sometimes get away with bad habits and still be able to sound good for a while, but eventually they will reach a point where they won’t be able to learn more advanced pieces until they fix those habits. For example, a student could progress fairly well through Suzuki Volume 1 with an incorrect bow hold, but when they reach Minuet 2, they won’t have enough control over their bow to manage the fast string crossings. Usually the course of action is to hold off on learning the new piece while we focus on review and exercises to correct their bow hand. Having to stop their progress through Book 1 to re-learn a basic skill is discouraging for students, and can be avoided by setting up those skills well from the beginning, and maintaining them as they progress through more advanced music.

Spending more time on setup now means faster progress later on.

This is a teacher’s dream scenario. When good violin posture, a correct bow hold, left hand setup, and all the other basic skills are second nature, we get to focus on the music itself- and that’s the really fun part! We can encourage students to learn new pieces, and they can focus on learning new notes without the burden of thinking of a correct bow hand or holding their violin higher at the same time. Students enjoy learning so much more without feeling overwhelmed, and learning new things keeps them engaged. A much nicer alternative to spending 12 years learning Twinkle. :)

Recitals: Why they're important, and what to expect.

Every growing musician should have regular opportunities to perform.  Group and solo performances are an important part of the Suzuki method, and I make performing a priority in my studio by hosting recitals for my students twice a year.  

Recitals can be stressful for teachers, students, and parents, but they are worth it.  Students will get bored without opportunities to show off what they have learned, especially if most of the playing they do is in private lessons or at home.   When students perform on a recital, not only do they get to show off their accomplishments, they gain the experience of spending weeks to months diligently preparing and polishing a piece of music to perform it to the best of their ability.  This experience is so valuable; they gain discipline, self-confidence, and it requires a great attention to detail in their work.  Students also get to watch their peers perform and learn from them.   

Who performs on recitals?

Different teachers have different requirements.  I generally require all of my students to participate in recitals, unless they have started lessons very recently.  Even if a student doesn't perform, I still expect them to attend as an audience member, since they can learn a lot by just watching.  

What will they perform?

A polished piece of music that they know well.  The rule in my studio is that students choose their piece about a month before the dress rehearsal, and they are not allowed to choose the most recent piece they have learned- it must be a review piece.  This way, they choose a piece they can already play with confidence, and have time to polish it.  Beginner students who haven't learned a full piece of music may play something on open strings, a scale, or something they have learned to do well. 

Why can't students play their most recently learned piece?  When students have a rough performance at a recital, most of the time it's because they are playing a piece that is too new, so choosing a review piece helps prevent this from happening.  (Although, sometimes it still happens, but it will be less likely.)

How should we prepare?

In the months leading up to the recital, it's pretty simple- attend lessons, practice regularly, and do your required listening assignments.  And PRACTICE REVIEW PIECES!  It is difficult to choose a review piece to perform when a student has only been practicing their most recent piece.  Once a student has chosen their recital piece, have them play it every day.  Keep a count of how many times they play it leading up to the recital.  Practice performing- put on a recital for Dad, or set up an "audience" of stuffed animals.  Call grandparents and have your child perform the piece over the phone.  Get creative.

Another great way to practice the recital piece is to use the piano accompaniment tracks on your Suzuki CD.  Those tracks are a valuable tool that I use in lessons, and encourage you to use at home, especially since the dress rehearsal is often the only time students will practice their piece with the accompanist before the recital.  We don't want that to be the first time they play their piece with piano accompaniment.  If the tempo on the CD is too fast, I use an app to slow down the recording- see my Resources page for options.

The Dress Rehearsal

I have a dress rehearsal a week or two before the recital, and anyone who is performing on the recital is required to attend the dress rehearsal.  Don't skip the dress rehearsal!  It gives students a chance to practice performing their piece on stage with piano in front of an audience, but takes some of the pressure off since it's informal, and not the "real" recital.  It will help get some of their performance jitters out before the real thing.  Also, there is much more to practice than just the music itself- they will practice walking on stage, standing the correct distance from the piano, facing their violin towards the audience, cuing the accompanist, and bowing after they play their piece.  When students don't get a rehearsal to practice this, they will most likely be confused and anxious when they have to perform for real, and it can affect their performance.  For these reasons, the dress rehearsal is just as important as the recital itself.  

At the Recital:  Some other tips....

  • Arrive early!  Most teachers will tell you the recital start time, and the time you should arrive- stick to this.  Teachers have a limited amount of time to get the hall set up, tune instruments, and get all of the students organized, and students arriving late can completely throw off their plans.  Not to mention, you and your child will be stressed if you feel rushed- not a good thing to happen before a performance.
  • Be a good audience, and talk to your child about this as well.  Silence your phone, and turn the flash off on your camera.  Be quiet and respectful of the performers.  If your children are talking or crying (don't feel bad, it happens), step outside.  Walk in between performers- wait for applause if you're not sure.  
  • Out of respect for all of the performers, plan to stay for the entire performance.  Many Suzuki teachers, myself included, will keep recital times limited to under an hour so that the audience doesn't get bored and restless.  The last performer doesn't want to play for a much smaller audience because most people left after their child performed, so please stay.
  • Have your child dress nicely (that's half the fun of performing!), and be sure they will be comfortable playing in their outfit- comfortable shoes are important!
  • Give a BIG round of applause when each performer takes a bow!
  • After the recital, celebrate, and tell your child what he or she did well.  There will always be room for improvement, but this isn't the time for constructive criticism.  Chances are, your child already knows what could have gone better.  Playing a piece of music in front of an audience is a feat in itself, and to do something that scary, and have someone tell you immediately after that it could have been better can be discouraging.  
  • Consider complimenting other students on their performance after the recital, and encourage your child to do the same if they feel confident doing so.  It is very meaningful for a student to hear what they played well from someone other than their teacher or their parents.