Peace and Joy at the Holiday Season:
                                           Teaching Students to Teach Themselves
                      Amy Barlowe, Author/Composer 12 Etude-Caprices in the Styles of the Great Composers

Weekly or bi-weekly lessons generally build a healthy rapport and often begin a lifelong mentoring relationship between serious students and their teachers.  However, concurrently, it is also easy for students to assume a sense of dependency stemming not only from the weekly assignment/check-up routine, but simply from the need for approval.  What can we, as teachers, not only of string instruments, but individuals, do to help our students find a path to independence?  The holidays are the perfect time for students to take short forays into new realms of self-enlightenment.  By cultivating an interest in discovery, and encouraging them to surround themselves with curiosity and wonder, not only can we keep fanned the joyful fires we’ve kindled throughout the first semester, but also, we can attain a sense of personal peace knowing that even while away from our students, they will continue to enjoy the rewards derived from effective practice.

Having taught young people since I was a teenager, myself, I have found that “imagination” is the key component of meaningful teaching and learning at all levels.  It is unfortunate, however, that although stimulated by the most compelling teachers, imagination often remains behind in the studio.  Instead, boredom, its evil twin, invades the practice rooms of even the most gifted students.  How then, can we teach students to bring home the enthusiasm that fuels productivity even at the most distracting of times…the holiday vacation?  We need to teach them to be their own teachers.

Keen observation, imagination, a constructive internal monologue, patience, and passion are at the core of successful self-teaching.  With guidance,  these essential components of learning can be fostered at any level, becoming habitual by the time students must be left on their own.  Removing the “drudgery” from practice will keep it challenging and fun!

Here are some ideas for inspiring the joy of “self-teaching” over the holidays!

1)  Encourage the use of a Practice Routine for 50 minute hours.  (See a sample practice routine below.  For younger students, it will convert easily to a holiday menu complete with appetizers and desserts.)  Adapt it for the individual needs of each student.

Suggest that students try imaginative ideas like these to liven up the routine:

     a) Scales for the younger student…
     Practice them in seasonal flavors: chocolate (warm and dark); peppermint (light and bouncy); chocolate-mint
    (early double stops in a variety of articulations); etc.

     b) Scales for the older student…
     Practice them using rhythms and/or bowings from pieces they are currently studying.
     Working on a Handel Sonata for a holiday church performance? Try a Handelian scale using changes of
     sounding points for mixed bowings (e.g. detache and legato combinations).

     c) Vibrato exercises
     Make a color wheel with a spinner.  Practice vibrato widths and speeds that seem to match the color selected
     by the spinner, (e.g. pink = narrow and fast;  red = wide and fast;  brown = wider and slower).

     d) Etudes
     After mastering an etude, try playing it with different characters (e.g. heroic,  light-hearted, melancholy, etc.)
     Also, play it as though it were written by a different composer (e.g. Brahms, Debussy, Bartok).

2) When choosing repertoire in the fall, incorporate one or two short pieces that would be suitable for mini holiday recitals.  Relatives, houses of worship, and nursing homes are very often eager to receive the gifts of performances by aspiring musicians, and low pressure goals are always good incentives for careful practice.

3) Advise singing, mental practice and focused listening, especially if a student will be away from the violin for any length of time.  The value of these tools can not be overstated.

4) Emphasize the need for fine detective work in locating, targeting, and finding solutions for problems.  Urge students always to listen constructively and ask, “Why?” when something does not work.  Breaking material down until it is as good as it can be at the “cell level” before reassembling it, takes patience.  But it is time and energy well spent.  Slow, careful practice makes fast progress!  Suggest that small goals be set to keep students’ minds constantly alert, and tell them to take special pride in discoveries and accomplishments they’ve made by themselves.

5) Remind students that the amount of time they practice is not as significant as the quality of the time spent, when rating overall progress.  Advocate being the kind of self-teacher who is demanding, but kind. 


                                       SAMPLE PRACTICE ROUTINE

                    MINUTES              CATEGORY                                         REASONS

                    ______                    Open Strings                                          a)  Posture
                                                                                                                  b)  Smooth bow changes
                                                                                                                  c)  Bow stroke mastery
                                                                                                                  d)  Sounding points

                    ______                    Scales (using rhythms and bowings)        a)  To build accuracy.                                         
                                                                                                                 b)  To build facility.
                                                                                                                 c)  To build speed with the above.
                                                                                                                 d)  To develop mind-body correlation.

                    ______                    Miscellaneous exercises                         a)  To address specific technical or
                                                    (e.g. vibrato; trill)                                        musical needs.

                    ______                    Etudes                                                  To develop a natural approach to all
                                                                                                                aspects of technique and musicianship
                                                                                                                before encountering them in the actual

                    ______                    Pieces (short and long)                         To grow and develop into an
                                                                                                                independent, mature violinist fully
                                                                                                                capable of expressing a wide range of
                                                                                                                emotions in an imaginative setting
                                                                                                                appropriate to the historical context
                                                                                                                within which a piece was written.

                    ______                    Review & miscellaneous                      To look forward to!

(Employing the practice routine as a menu, a balanced diet is best even on days when only a small amount of practice is feasible.  Choose something small from every “food group” in order to maintain overall musical health.  Note: Be sure to designate the appropriate amounts of “Building” and “Performing “ time,  as necessitated by upcoming events.)


Pass the following “Top 10” list along to your students for even more motivation.  Be sure to inquire about and recognize even the smallest personal triumphs each student has experienced in practice over the holidays.  Reinforcing the positive aspects of their self-teaching, will strengthen their belief in themselves and provide the support they need to continue this independent exploration through a lifelong musical journey.

                              TOP TEN REASONS TO KEEP PRACTICING
                                               DURING THE HOLIDAYS

1. To feel GREAT - knowing that by accepting personal challenges, you will constantly strive to achieve YOUR OWN PERSONAL BEST and ALWAYS KEEP GROWING!

2. To feel WONDERFUL - knowing that you are able, through even the shortest performance, to “touch” family and friends by giving them a beautiful gift that you’ve made.

3. To feel INCREDIBLE - by staying in shape like an athlete.  You’ve trained your muscles for months and years to perform tasks that require strength, agility and coordination.  You don’t want to lose that!

4. To have FUN making beautiful sounds and keeping composers alive!

5. Look around you right now.  How many people can do what you are doing as well as you are doing it?

6. Progress is always rewarding.  Have a VISION and know where you are going at every moment.  Attend live performances; listen to fine recordings. LISTEN, LISTEN, LISTEN! 

7. It’s like an INVESTMENT in the bank.  The more efficient you are in your practice, and the more you play, the more enjoyment you’ll get.  Music lasts a lifetime.

8. Bowbugs will be less likely to take up residence in your case!

9. Music is an incomparable refuge.  Whenever you need it, music will be there to comfort you.

10. Birds sing because they always have something to say.  Don’t you have something important to say, too?