Is the Suzuki Method the best way to start for adults?

Although the Suzuki Method was originally created to teach violin and “nurture talent” in young children, many adult violin students taking violin lessons for the first time find themselves going home with the first Suzuki book, ready to delve into wonders of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star and all its variations. After a month or two of "Twinkling", many wonder if this is the best training path and whether there are other books and materials with adult learning in mind.

Suzuki Method is a philosophy of learning based on the observations of its founder Sinichi Suzuki, who recognized the effortless ability young children possess for learning their mother tongue. Suzuki based his approach to teaching violin on the same language-learning principles of immersion and repetition. His contribution to violin training also included a series of music books that contains a sequence of songs that thoughtfully builds technique in an incremental fashion.

Undeniably, immersion and repetition lead to progress and eventual mastery, but this can be accomplished with other literature as well. The actual material and songs presented in the Suzuki series do not have inherent magical properties that will automatically transform a beginning player into a seasoned player. Other methods, like the Suzuki Series are collections of carefully chosen pieces that incrementally build technique.

Other wonderful series include: the Mark O'Connor method which uses American folk tradition as the basic of its repertoire, and the Essential Elements 2000 series.

However, learning songs from a method book will only take you so far. To become a proficient well-rounded player, you need to spend a good deal of your practice time focusing on correct technique and postures.

That’s where Violin Lab comes in. Our focus is on the "how to play" not the "what to play".

Violin lab fills in the gaps and gives you information to hone the skills you need to play your favorite tunes. Our beginning method is not a sequence of songs but rather a sequential method for training skills. You can use any method book to accompany our skills training course.

I work and have a limited time to practice. How can I best structure my practice sessions?

This may be the number one difference separating adult players from kids...structuring our limited time into consistent and useful practice sessions. After all, some days can get so busy we don't realize until bed time that we skipped lunch. Because the quantity of practice time can be so limited for an adult, it's important to focus on the quality of practice time.

Regardless of when you practice or for how long, the most important aspect of practice is mindfulness. A half hour of focused practice can go a long way and is profoundly more effective than an hour of “playing through” your repertoire wondering what you’re going to have for lunch.

So even if you only have 10 minutes to spend on a one octave scale, practice that scale bringing full attention to the individual techniques required, like intonation, evenness of tone, or keeping at the sounding point.

Of course it is very difficult to have a comprehensive awareness and monitor every detail of your playing at the same time. The best practice habit is to pick an area of focus, say intonation, and create an intention before you start to play. For instance, you may say, "for this song, I am going to make sure my third fingers are in tune." Then you might say, “ok, this time through I’m going to pay attention to the amount of bow I’m using for these fast notes”. By stating your intentions before you begin to play, you are in essence drawing your awareness to specific focal points.

The beauty of practicing “awareness”, is that whatever you had been focused on will continue to manifest for the remainder of your practice, and will generally improve your level of playing much quicker than unfocused practice. So although you may shift your focus from 3rd finger intonation to the amount of bow you’re using, you will have created a subconscious awareness of your 3rd fingers.

Conscious awareness breeds unconscious awareness, which in turn breeds accuracy.

That's one of the reasons the Violin Lab lessons break down the technique and fundamentals of violin playing into such small parts. Our goal is to provide the details necessary for you to develop a keen sense of awareness when you play. There's great benefit to concentrating on and perfecting the small components that make up any skill. So our advice for the time-challenged adult goes back to that old cliche...quality, not quantity. Whatever time you can find each day, and whatever you choose to practice, be it a song or scale, make that time a dedicated, fully involved and specific period of practice.

What books should I use to go along with these lessons?

The beginning lessons at Violin Lab are designed to stand alone, or better, to accompany method books like Essential Elements for Strings, or the Suzuki Method Books. Our beginning Violin Lab method basically fills in the huge technical gaps that are inherent in any method book. Method books are collections of songs with little explanation about the mechanics of playing violin. A few snapshots of violin and bow posture is not nearly sufficient to teach anyone to play well. Our lessons go into great technical detail and teach you to play correctly with proper technique. We put a heavy emphasis on tone production. We have guided practices along the way which include "tuneful" exercises with downloadable accompaniments. We also teach simple folk tunes like Are You Sleeping and Simple Gifts to learn as well. We recommend purchasing one of the common beginning books (see our Resources page) and then begin working with that book once you've watched our videos through lessons 21 or 22. That way you'll have had a solid basis and understanding of violin fundamentals and will be able to learn songs much faster and your sound will be so much better than if you had just plunged into a method book.I took lessons years ago and want to start playing again. Where do I start?

First, realize you are not alone. The vast majority of Violin Lab members fall into two categories: adults who are complete beginners; and adults who played for a while as a kid and want to get back into it. Your experience as a child, even if it was years or decades ago, will be helpful. Think riding a bicycle. But it will be important for you to revisit many of the fundamentals that will lay the foundation for an enjoyable experience. That's part of what Violin Lab can help you do. For example, if you played violin for a few years and quit after Suzuki Book Three, we don't recommend buying Book Four and starting from there. You'll need to reacquaint yourself with some of the basics of playing, such as a proper bow hold, good posture and even good practice habits. Violin Lab can guide you through this. Some things may come back to you right away, as if you never stopped playing.

Other things will be a struggle and a source of frustration as you remember yourself zipping through something as a kid that today makes your fingers ache. That's why it's important to start fresh with the fundamentals, and gradually work yourself back to the point where you left off as a kid. It's not only the right way to learn, but it may also help you avoid some of that frustration that could cause you to stop again. So strap on a helmet and some knee pads first, and go for a leisurely ride around the block. After a while, we'll find that little bell you had on your handle-bars and maybe put some playing cards in your spokes. Enjoy the process of getting back in shape. It may be a while before we're chasing Lance along The Avenue des Champs-Élysées.

I am 60 years old. Is it too late too learn how to play the violin?

Of all the FAQ's, this must be the M(ost) FAQ. As a society, we offer adult classes in everything from computer programming to skiing...from photography to sculpting. There's an entire continuing education industry dedicated to engaging older adults in new and worthwhile endeavors. No one ever asks, "Am I too old to learn how to paint?" But somewhere along the line this belief arose that unless you start violin when you're three-years-old, there's no hope. Now, I'm not denying there are certain advantages to taking up violin (or any activity) at a young age. Learning a language comes to mind, and music can be considered a language in it own right. But of all the skills or activities in this world, violin-playing seems uniquely positioned as the only one you must begin out of the womb because you'll never make it to Carnegie Hall if you wait till you're a toddler! All of which may be true, but my guess is you aren't trying to make it to Carnegie, or the Ryman or even your civic auditorium...any more than the 65-year-old grandma in tennis shorts is trying to make to Wimbledon.

You know what I believe is the main difference between you and the ten-year-old learning the violin....life. You have one and the ten-year-old doesn't. You have a job, a mortgage, a car payment and a million other obligations vying for your time and preventing you from practicing an hour a day. You (presumably) also don't have a parent standing over you making you practice and/or a teacher doing the same. One of the main reasons kids progress further and faster than adults is simple...they open their case, pull out the violin and bow, and practice. And then they repeat those actions the next day. The toughest obstacle you'll face in learning the violin (with apologies to Nike) is doing it. Sure, kids may have some advantages but so do you, such as a lifetime of experiences and communication skills. Maybe you've never changed the oil in your car yourself, but if I said, "To start, find a twelve millimeter wrench and crawl under the engine of your car," you would at least have some understanding of my instructions. You would know what a wrench is and where your engine is. Would an eight-year-old?

Music-related trade groups recently began campaigns targeting "recreational music makers." Nowhere could this be more valuable than in the violin world. There's enormous benefit to engaging the brain in new activities through all stages of life. Is sixty too old to learn golf, knitting or skydiving? How about learning computers? Assuming no unknown physical conditions, there's nothing that should keep an older adult from learning the violin. As with most anything in life, you'll go as far as your own talent, practice and dedication will take you. I want to learn violin vibrato, but it is so difficult! Any advice?

Of all the techniques of violin playing people most want to learn, violin vibrato is by far at the top of the list. Vibrato is what gives our sound its vocal quality. It adds warmth, richness, and personality to our tone, and helps to project sound to our audience. Vibrato is not difficult; it just takes a long time to get the hang of, and an even longer time to develop into a lovely technique. The most important thing you can possibly do to learn vibrato is to incorporate the right exercises into your daily practice. Many students try and use vibrato without laying the foundation. They skip the step of practicing the right movements in the context of slow thoughtful practice.

Violin Lab has an eleven-part video tutorial series on violin vibrato, as well as fourteen more videos about learning violin vibrato. If you put in the time, and follow our lessons, you WILL learn to vibrate.

How Long Will it Take to Complete Each Level?

“It depends” is the most frustrating answer I could give but…it depends. How quickly you progress depends on how frequently and thoughtfully you practice. If you are interested in Violin Lab, you are probably the type of person who can self-motivate. If you can maintain the ambition that brought you to this site and convert your enthusiasm into consistent practice, you will be amazed by your own progress.

Based on how other Violin Lab students have progressed, you can expect to complete Beginning Level One in one - three months and Beginning Level Two in two - four months. The other Levels will require anywhere from three - six months, while some individual techniques might require more time to develop.

Most of our beginners make a tremendous amount of progress in their first 6 - 12 months. If you spend a year with us, you can expect to achieve a basic level of proficiency where you can:

  • Play simple songs with ease and confidence
  • Produce a good tone
  • Maintain relatively good intonation
  • Vary your dynamics and articulations
Once you master the basics, with another push you can expand into more advanced techniques such as spiccato, sautillé, and vibrato. Many of these skills require more than an intellectual understanding; like an athlete, you must commit core techniques to muscle memory. Some people can complete this intermediate level in as few as 6 months.

That said, I hope you do not evaluate your experience by how quickly you can check off skills. The most successful (and fulfilled) students are the ones who marvel at their own ability to conquer one of the most challenging instruments in the world. Is there a Violin Lab App?

Violin Lab is pleased to announce the launch of our Violin Lab Lessons App available in the App Store as well as Google Play. Our app features our beginning sequence of learning videos and resources to help the new player develop great playing skills! For any questions regarding the functionality of the app, please email Beth at violinlab@gmail.com.