Music from Celtic Cornwall

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Violinist and Composer

Sue Aston 

 

'From the soft idyllic side of The Final Homecoming to the original and uplifting Celtic sounds of Mazey Dazey, it's easy to see why Cornish Composer and violinist Sue Aston is so vital to the classical and Celtic music scene, both in Cornwall and further afield'

Craig Broad 'MyCornwall'

Sue Aston DVD Reflections of Cornwall
Reflections of Cornwall
DVD
£12 inc P & P

 


 

 

 

 

 

Sue Aston | Violin teaching tips

BA Hons GBSM ABSM (Performance) ABSM (Teaching)

 

 

Sue Aston has appeared on professional classical recordings, radio broadcasts, and television, both nationally and internationally, and worked with eminent musicians such as Simon Rattle, Nigel Kennedy, Peter Donohoe, Yehudi Menuhin, Sir Charles Groves, and Esa Pekka Salonen

Violin teaching problem 1: My child/pupil won't practice - what can I do to encourage them?

Violin teaching problem 2: How can I help my pupil to play the violin in tune?

Violin teaching problem 3: How to make playing the violin fun!

Violin teaching problem 4: How to improve your violin bow hold without tears and boredom!

Violin teaching problem 5: Violin Games for Beginners

Violin teaching problem 6: Tips for teaching violin scales and arpeggios 

Problem 6:Tips for teaching violin scales and arpeggios 

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 practised slowly without slurs, ensuring that awkward sections are split up and practised 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 realise 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.

Violin Bowing

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.

 

Rhythm

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 securely known.

 

Intonation

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

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 practising. [back to the top]

Problem 5: Games for Beginners

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 that the pupil is not holding the bow while doing this…!)

The Seesaw

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 realise 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. [click here to go back]  

Problem 4: How to improve your violin bow hold without tears and boredom!

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. [click here to go back]  

Problem 3: How to make violin playing fun!

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 first 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 'Practise'!  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.

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Problem 2: How can I help my pupil to play the violin in tune?

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 resort to marking the position the fingers need to be in by putting stickers on the fingerboard.  I know that some teacher's feel that this is more offensive than any scraping sound and there have been times when I  personally would have liked to have removed every sticker myself!

The difficulty lies in the fact 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.  Therefore, this renders the stickers quite useless.  Also, sweaty fingers slide the stickers about and so in the end they are not even marking the correct position.

The solution is to train the ear.  This can be done in several ways:

1.Aural Practice -

This is important as it gets the pupil to practice singing and recognising intervals which will enable them to tell whether they are playing in tune.

2. 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!  Sue

[click here to go back]

Problem 1: My child/pupil won't practice the violin  - what can I do to encourage them?

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. 

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 (a music teacher actually uses my CDs to play to her class for the same reason!) You could also try taking them along to a concert which features a violin concerto, such as one by Brahms, Tschaikovsky,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 teenagers.

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 scrapy (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.    [click here to go back]