If you’re researching the process of music lessons or perhaps you or your child is about to embark upon violin lessons, you doubtless have some questions or concerns.
Learning a musical instrument is like learning a foreign language, and like a foreign language, the earlier you start, the easier it is. You may well have come across 7-year-olds who speaks 3 languages thanks to parents of differing origins. This apparently impressive feat is broadly just due to repeated exposure and constant trial and error (practice), and of course a child’s ability to learn new things quickly. So, the sooner kids start learning – or as an adult, the more you repeat a pattern - the more quickly it becomes second nature.
Whether the instrument lessons are for you or for a child, the same concerns broadly apply:
- How can I make sure these lessons are worth it?
- What preparations can I make to ensure the lessons go as well as possible.
- How can I judge how much progress has been made?
Each of the simple steps below can apply to any instrument, but as our area of expertise is that of bowed instruments, we’ll approach it from that perspective.
1. Remember, your music teacher is a human.
Having spent much time with music teachers over the years, we can confirm that, yes, music teachers are indeed human. Just like the rest of us. They have the same set of things rolling around their heads as we all do. They likely have kids, and a mischievous dog that stole one of their shoes as they were leaving the house, and then have to pickup from an after-school club or to go to the supermarket after their last lesson finishes.
Essentially, their time is limited, the same as yours. So, every moment missed at the beginning of a music lesson due to any one of the points below not being followed, will not be regained. So make the most of this precious time. Your violin or cello tutor’s job is to get you from nowhere to somewhere, and they know what they’re doing, so trust them to help you or your child, and make the most of their experience.
2. Make sure your instrument is in tune – before the lesson starts.
Bowed instruments like violins, violas and cellos need regular tuning, especially instruments often rented at minimal cost by local schools or music services. These instruments will likely have been used by multiple players over the years and would have received only minimal maintenance.
So, one of the first things you can do is decide to buy your own instrument – which really doesn’t have to cost a fortune - and then take good care of it. Or at least, pay a visit every few months to your local music store to get your instrument serviced.
The tuning pegs on most violins and cellos are kept in place by friction. The strings are always under tension, and therefore pull the pegs over time, whether being played or not. On many school-level instruments, the peg fitting is often not perfect, so they’re not that easy to tune. If you’ve ever tuned a guitar, remember that the tuning of traditional bowed instruments doesn’t work like that. (Although these rather clever instruments do work like that!)
As a priority, buy a Violin Tuner / Digital Tuner, or get one of the many free apps for your phone. Then ask your teacher to show you how to use it and how to tune your instrument. It’s straightforward, and even if you’re not perfect, you’ll get better over time, and even getting halfway good will reduce the time wasted at the beginning of your precious music lesson.
Remember, trying to tune a wayward instrument for 5 minutes of a 20 minute lesson is a 25% loss of productive time.
(We would mention that if you do want to start your violin / cello lessons with an advantage - and yes, this is a tiny sales pitch - picking up a Hidersine Vivente Academy instrument is a good call. They come with incredible, easy-tune pegs as standard. They’re really easy to use and making tuning so much quicker and easier.)
3. Get to the lesson on time.
We made this point before, but it bears repeating. One of the things we hear the most commonly from music teachers – after the tuning issues, that is – is that of punctuality of students.
Of course, every now and then things go wrong, and unexpected circumstances conspire against us. In fact, research has shown that even music teachers are late sometimes! ;-)
If you’re having private lessons at a music school or in a private home environment, then your control over the attendance of the lessons is probably greater than if the lessons are at school. So for the purposes of this section, lets focus on the situation of at-school lessons.
Although educational institutions will vary in their approach to music lessons, it’s important to realise that many schools don’t value music lessons as highly as other subjects. It can be debated forever as to the rights and wrongs of this mindset, but the major implication of this is that not all schools or class teachers will care particularly whether your child makes it to their violin lesson at 11:45 on a Tuesday, in the middle of Biology. But, you’re paying for this lesson, and if you child is late by 5 minutes for their 20min lesson, or if the violin teacher has to come and find them, you’ve just wasted perhaps as much as £3 or £4 …and after just a few weeks, you’ve wasted the price of a decent Friday night takeaway! And no one wants that.
So what to do?
It’s standard procedure for music tutors to put up a lesson timetable on the school / music-department noticeboards at the beginning of each term or half-term. So, make sure your child goes and has a look, perhaps taking a photo with their phone (if allowed!)
Your instrumental teacher will also likely have been liaising with the school’s head of music, so they’ll also likely know the timetable too.
Plus, your teacher will usually send you a schedule by email, and if they don’t, then tell them you want one. They’ll likely be delighted to know you’re so interested.
4. Take care of your instrument so it always performs its best.
This section is really an extension of the ‘tuning your instrument’ section but has a few wider implications.
If your violin, viola, cello or double bass isn’t in tip top shape, then the playing experience and the sound produced will not be as good as it could be. And that will be disincentivising… and that’s not good.
So, in basic terms, here’s what you need to check to make sure your instrument is ready for each lesson (or practice session):
- Clean the body of the instrument of finger marks and rosin dust. That Rosin dust especially will get harder to remove over time.
- Loosen the bow when not playing. This will ensure it’s in better condition for longer and is nicer to play with.
- Clean the strings after each lesson or practise session. Just wipe a microfibre cloth along their length a few times. It only takes a second, and the strings will last much longer and sound better too.
- Ensure it’s in tune – although I think we may have said that already..
- Keep the instrument in its case when not playing. It’ll avoid accidental breakages as well as intentional uses by little brothers as some kind of cricket / baseball bat…
- Keep it disinfected too. You can make sure that the instrument is free of germs and viruses by using an instrument disinfectant too. It’s worth doing this before and after a lesson if you want to err on the side of caution, especially if you, your child or the teacher has a winter cold.
Find out more about 'Taking care of your bowed instrument'.
5. Hold the violin in your hands. Become familiar with it.
Musicians, just as other artists, often talk about their instrument becoming an extension of their own body. This affinity can start from the very beginning of your or your child’s musical adventure, and of course, this principle applies to any instrument, not just violin.
Hold your instrument in your hands. If your teacher has shown you how to hold the instrument correctly, just hold it there for a bit. Experience how it feels under the chin, in the case of a violin or viola, or between your legs in the case of a cello or upright bass.
Look at it. Poke things (carefully). Look at how the bridge is intentionally angled to the arched top of the instrument. See how the strings sit above the fingerboard and notice how the strings are smooth to the touch and how your fingers feel as you run them up and down the strings.
Hold the bow, again using the technique that your teacher has shown you. Feel the smooth concave of the frog (yes it’s called a frog) at the base of the bow. Feel the gentle pressure of your thumb on the stick. Feel how the bow gently touches the string…
This is perhaps a little Zen or ‘out-there’, but it’s essentially about building familiarity and a rapport with the instrument. If you or your child is unfamiliar with, or worse, afraid of the instrument, then playing it will feel alien for much longer… and your lessons and ultimately your practice will seem even more daunting.
Speaking of practicing...
6. Practice. Even when you don’t want to.
If you had instrument lessons as a kid or if one of your kids is having lessons already, you know what a thorny issue this can be. Most kids – and even many adults - don’t really want to do their practice. (If, however your kids love their practice, you can rightly feel that you’re winning at life. Sadly, most of us don’t have that privilege.)
Unsurprisingly, practice, as they say, makes perfect. We all know that the more you do something, the better at it you become.
So, here are some great practice tips to set you or your child on track:
- Set a regular time for practice and stick to it. If you miss or avoid your scheduled practice appointment, then you'll know and it's harder to ignore.
- Have a location to practice. Much like the practice time, if you have a place about which you can say ‘this is where I practice’, quite soon, just being in that location will automatically make you feel like you’re ready to play.
- Be prepared. As well as your instrument, you’ll likely need your sheet music and a music stand, and maybe a pencil to make notes. Make sure these things are setup ready to go in advance, ideally leaving them where they are, in your practice location. Then, the 15mins of practise isn’t actually 5 minutes of finding the music stand and the music, and 10mins of playing.
- Be realistic. If you’re learning as an adult and really keen, then perhaps 30mins a day is doable and will pay dividends, but if it’s your 9-year-old who really just wants to get back to staring at a screen, perhaps something more realistic is better. Just 10 minutes of practice every day will make a huge difference.
- Set a goal. At the start of each week of practice, perhaps just resolve to get the first 4 bars as good as you can. Even though that may not seem particularly ambitious, feeling the achievement of reaching that goal is worth its weight in gold and encourages greater goals in the future.
- Keep a record of practice. Maybe your teacher will give you a practice diary book, or perhaps you’ll create a chart on the wall to be ticked off when the daily 15 minutes is complete, or perhaps you can use one of the many apps available. Whatever you choose, keep it simple and realistic, but be accountable for the each session.
- Record yourself. Just put your phone in selfie mode and press record. Being able to listen or watch yourself back is really powerful. You can hear where you went wrong, and where you went right. It’s what all the top musicians and sportspeople do to improve, so there’s something in it, for sure.
- Don’t give up. Just try again. If you’re getting super frustrated, stop for a minute. Breathe, and go again. Baby steps is what it takes.
7. Join a band or ensemble:
Playing in a group, a band, or ensemble will genuinely be one of the best things you’ve ever done. The feeling of being part of a greater whole as well as the process of cooperation is incredibly rewarding. This applies equally as an adult learner or as a child.
To be fair, the chances are that your local music service or county music hub will have a lot of ensembles options for kids. It’s usually their job - often with funding from the Arts Council - to provide musical experiences for kids learning at school. So, there is bound to be a beginner's orchestra that requires a minimal level of proficiency to join.. and then as the youngsters progress, they can join more advanced orchestras. It’s a genuinely lifechanging experience and is also a great way for your kids to gain musical friends. If musicality is normalised amongst their peer group, then the act of playing, rehearsing and practicing becomes just a regular part of life that yeilds great rewards.
(If you happen to live in the USA, your school or college music program will likely be quite advanced when compared to the standard British system. So, take advantage of it!)
For adult learners there are not quite so many options for ensemble playing, but they still exist. Once you’re of a reasonable standard, joining a local orchestra is a great idea. You’ll be surprised how many there are out there. Or perhaps ask your teacher if they have any other pupils of a similar age or standard who fancy playing together. A simple duet, trio or quartet will transform your musical landscape, plus it's another great form of socialising too.
8. Listen to violin music sometimes.
Whether you or your child’s preferred music is Ed Sheeran, Einaudi or Elgar, taking a little time to listen to your chosen instrument played really well is always worthwhile.
If you’re able to attend an occasional local orchestra's concert, or watch one of the BBC Proms every now and then on TV or just ask your teacher to play a little for you, hearing first-hand what is possible is always inspiring. However, simply searching YouTube for fun violin or cello players is surprisingly fun and useful too. There are some fantastic players online who present bowed instrument playing in an approachable and down-right fun way. Your 13-year-old will be pleased to know that they’re even on tiktok too!
9. Love it & Enjoy it.
Enjoy it. Really do. Take it all in. Enjoy the process of learning and have a realistic goal. Then when you reach that goal, set a new one. Take pleasure in every little step forward becuase you will never regret learning to play a musical instrument.
As someone probably with a wispy beard and undoubtedly wise once said, “It does not matter how slowly you go, only that you do not stop.”
But what type of music lesson is right for you personally?
Group Lessons? Individual Lessons? Should I learn with a Music Hub / Local Music Service / Peripatetic, Private Lessons / Online, Zoom lessons.
(Note to grammar pedants, like the writer: We know that we have used the internationally recognised / recognized spelling of 'practice' in both noun and verb forms throughout. Although we're British and should also therefore use 'practise' for the verb, we didn't.)