1. How young can my child be to start learning the violin?
They can start as young as 3! But perhaps a general exposure to music, combined with interaction with other children might be the best way to learn at that age. Depending on the child, individual lessons may not provide sufficient interaction at this age.
At around 4 – 5 years, the child may be better settled for individual lessons. But it should not be restricted to individual lessons. A supplementary diet of other musical explorations such as group lessons, attending concerts (SSO organizes a few free concerts at the Botanic Gardens annually, as well as the Babies Proms concerts at least twice a year which are fun for both kids and parents), and other music-related activities (e.g. singing, music/movement or other dance related sessions) will be of a big help in music-learning. After all, learning the violin is merely a way of learning to make and enjoy music. Many others have found other ways to do that, like singing, dancing, playing the ukelele, drums or even other seemingly unrelated activities such as painting, drawing, woodworking, chemistry.
2. Is the violin a difficult instrument to pick up?
Compared to other most common instrument children learn in Singapore, the piano, learning the ropes on the violin may take a little longer. Do not be disheartened, this is not because you are not good or have no talent! Playing the violin takes quite a bit of coordination and also pitch recognition which will only come with practise, much like juggling (which I cannot do by the way)! On the piano, when you play a note, it’s in tune for sure (unless of course the piano is not tuned). But on the violin, there are variations to a pitch and pitch recognition is partly a memory mechanism.
Learning in a state of tension certainly doesn’t help. Thus it helps to push the child or student only as much as they can do at that point in time. It certainly doesn’t help to compare, whether your child or yourself, to others. Learn at your own pace and time. You will find that once you have mastered certain techniques, you will find playing much easier. And in turn, that would make you look forward to challenging yourself in learning more and more new skills. As with learning anything else, there are valleys, hills and plateaus and once you achieve a breakthrough, it is a happy thing!
3. Do I need to have any musical knowledge prior to learning the violin?
No, you do not. However it is very helpful to be able to play the piano/keyboard. It does not have to be any high level of playing, but the piano is a reasonably straightforward reference for pitch and this is helpful for pitch training. Singing might be the best way.
As the violin is not a fixed pitch instrument, if and before you are unable to ascertain pitch and intervals, having a fixed pitch reference (piano/keyboard) is useful to help with our pitch and key orientation.
4. I’m an adult, is it too late for me to learn the violin?
Of course not! Interest and passion are already good teachers. And as an adult you are capable of learning in unique ways. You are able to take instructions more quickly, understand abstract concepts better and can provide feedback to the teacher which will in turn help them teach you better. Physically adults may not be as flexible as some children, there may be stiffness of muscles and joints, but patience and practise more than makes up for it. Most importantly my adult students have found playing relaxing and fun, and to be able to make music should be a fun thing! Not a task, or worse a chore. And don’t forget, there are always exceptions. 😉
4. Is it expensive to learn/play the violin.
It’s not any more expensive than learning another instrument. 🙂 You do not need the most expensive violin to begin with (of course violins do come in different quality grades and they differ in price accordingly). A beginner violin could go for as little as $190 (and these come with a violin case, a bow but not the shoulder rest which needs to be purchased separately). That’s certainly cheaper than a piano!
But what you do have to take note of however is that as a child grows, their violin size will have to be changed accordingly, until they reach the stage they are able to play in a full size violin. Violins can start as small as a 1/16 size and usually students will change violins along the way – moving up to the 1/10, 1/8, then 1/4, 1/2 and 3/4 sizes till they reach the 4/4 or full-size violin (usually around the age of 12, depending on how fast/much they grow of course).
Other expenses include:
– Strings, which may have to be changed at least once a year or whenever they break.
– Re-hairing of the bow (but that is usually when you reach the full size violin and then again this happens once a year).
– Piano accompaniment for concerts or exams. These are charged by the hour or session (including rehearsals).
– Any other repairs (e.g. if you wish to purchase a shoulder rest, replace a chin rest, peg or buy a mute, fine tuners etc.)
5. When do I need piano accompaniment? How will I find an accompanist?
When you’re playing in a concert or an exam, you will most likely require a piano accompanist (unless of course you are playing a piece of music that is originally unaccompanied or doing a duet or trio with other string instruments). Please note that although the term is “accompanist”, these individuals are in no way any less qualified as a pianist. So they should be treated as the professional pianists they are and not as a hired hand. And in music making, it’s really not a matter of whom is accompanying who. It’s a collaborative effort. Which means, please show one another respect. Playing with someone else is essential training for a musician. The phrase “No man is an island” absolutely applies.
The chemistry between musicians is a delicate balance that needs time to develop. And sometimes, it just doesn’t, and no one is to blame. Just like how you may click with some people and perhaps not as much with others. It is very much a relationship.
And thus, please understand that the piano accompanist will also have to put in effort to practise their part, and then spend time to rehearse with you. Their time deserves to be accordingly compensated and thus every time you engage an accompanist, there is either a rehearsal or performance fee.
Pricing will vary according to the difficulty of the piano part (for exams, it may vary according to grades). Each accompanist is free to set their own fees. Although it’s very much fun jamming with your friends, it is advisable to hire a professional piano accompanist for exams and performances.
I am blessed to be able to play the piano as well as the violin, thus I do accompany my students in their exams and recitals if my schedule permits. And it is very much appreciated that I am treated professionally as an accompanist, which also means corresponding fees will apply. If I am unable to be your accompanist, I will recommend my colleagues who are more than competent in this area of work.
Should you require my services as an accompanist or ensemble musician, please feel free to contact me.
6. I need to get to a certain grade by a certain age. What should I do?
It may be just my opinion, and I do understand if others’ may differ, but I do not encourage paper/grade chasing. But if you do have a goal, that is not a bad thing. You just have to be willing to put in the work and know that a grade is not the ultimate goal to music-making.
Playing an instrument and music-making is a life-long skill and needs to be experienced. And time more than anything, is the best gift the teacher, parent or even yourself as the learner, can give. Spend time listening to music, spend time making music with others, spend time experimenting with the sounds you want to get, spend time experiencing how the music makes you feel or what pictures it makes you see. There are so many ways to experience sound and music. But most of all, it takes time.
And as we often lament about how in the academic system, students who learn at different paces are put through the same regiment and ‘forced’ to progress at the same pace, the same goes for music learning.
Of course, it does not mean we simply dally along. Learning an instrument is like learning a craft. It takes practice and a whole lot of dedication. If you do happen to want to improve quickly, then the amount of work you put in has to be equivalent. No one got anywhere without putting in effort. Did you know even the great violinist/composer, Paganini, practised 1 hour a day to maintain his skills? And do note, that is after he has practised enough to acquire them in the first place! Please do understand there is no way to buy yourself hard work and true success.
But perhaps most importantly, you need to have a whole lot of curiosity and imagination!
If you have that, nothing can stop you from learning the violin. Learning anything for that matter.
7. How do I know what grade am I?
I do not like to quantify or gauge the capabilities of a student or a musician for that matter, by their attainment of certification. In fact, many great musicians were self-taught or have had a good foundation in musicianship but may not have had official certification. They were simply curious enough, and given enough space and time, to grow and explore and create. And I do hope for these qualities in my students.
And foundation-building takes time. The beginning may be slow (it may take a few years), but if you build the foundation well, the technique building-blocks you place later on will only have a firm base to grow on.
Please understand that learning the violin may take 3-5 years to build a good technique base. I am not for pushing my students to take a certain grade only to have them realise later on they are actually lacking in many areas. I would rather provide them with time and proper learning opportunities to build a good technique base and then moving much faster later on. I have had many students who come to me mid-way through their music learning who have had to retrace their steps and re-learn a good deal. That takes even longer as mistakes and bad habits are harder to undo. If it was done right in the beginning, a lot of time may have been saved.
And as there are many music examination boards out there, the standard of gauging which “grade” you’re at is very subjective. There have been cases of musicians who have attained a grade 8 certificate but are incapable of reading notes, playing in tune, in time nor sight-read, much less actively decipher new scores and thoughtfully consider fingerings, bowings, produce a variety of tone colors, dynamic contrast, play musically and with emotion or play in a group setting. And then are those who have not taken a single exam in their life but are able to improvise, play by ear, listen and react with fellow musicians and create the most moving and imaginative music.
Thus I do not usually push for exams. I am not against exams per se, but I will draw a line at accepting students whose only aim of taking lessons are to take exams. If you wish to take exams, please let me know early and we can plan for your progress accordingly. If exams and getting a certification by a certain age is your only prerogative, then I am afraid we may have to part ways as it is simply a case of differing opinions.
If you have already been taking violin lessons and decide to switch tutors, it would be lovely and respectful if you could allow the teacher with whom you will be learning from to ascertain which grade you are in. The grade system I use will have some technique, musicianship markers which mostly are in line or ahead of the ABRSM grading system.
The most popular music examination syllabus used/recognised in Singapore and perhaps the United Kingdom are those conducted by the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) and the Trinity College of London (TCL). Australia, the United States and other countries do have their own examination boards.
If you are hoping to further your music studies in higher learning institutions, an audition is more important than grades or certification.
7. Do you teach the Suzuki method?
Yes and no. I have nothing against the Suzuki method, in fact I was brought up with it. That said, precisely because I have experienced the entire course, I am aware of what it excels in but also lacks.
What is most important to know is that simply by using the Suzuki Violin School books in class does not equate to learning the Suzuki method. The method is very much that…. a method. And not a mere series of songs. It involves a well-researched and fine-tuned aggregation of group classes, individual classes, singing, listening, and music and movement. A large part of it also requires active and consistent parental involvement as much of the basis of the method is about learning music like a language. To be surrounded by, being sensitised to and to develop a natural sense and understanding to music, much like how anyone learns a language.
It involves a lot of aural training, and learning to play by ear, which is fabulous and essential. But equally essential is the ability to read note and figure out rhythms, notes and symbols independently. The introduction of basic theory knowledge, and learning to read scores (much like how you would introduce a child reading and writing of a language) is important as well. Left too late, and the child may struggle with having to learn something new, which takes a lot of effort, when they think they could play anyway. Imagine leaving a student like this to fend for himself in a foreign situation, e.g. in a school ensemble or orchestra, without any ability to figure out notes on the page nor how to count?
The group playing component of the Suzuki method forms a big part of the system. It builds confidence and allows the child to learn from others by mimicking and getting a sense of the general group dynamics. Thus on occasions I may recommend students, especially younger ones, to first attend group lessons and build interest and have fun in group lessons before exploring the possibility of having one-to-one lessons.
I do not like to begin with only Suzuki books but will include them as part of the curriculum as the selection of pieces are quite lovely. Much of the foundation work for violin playing is found outside of the Suzuki books.