Tag Archives: teaching

New Facebook page!

I have a new facebook page! If you’d like to stay up to date with all my musical activities, then please press ‘like’/’follow’ and updates should automatically be shown on your newsfeed (I’m still fairly new to how this all works, so please forgive my technical ignorance!) You can also send me messages about professional enquiries (no spam please).

I will be using the page to post news, concerts I’m doing, teaching hints and tips, and to share any other local events that I’d like my students to know about and/or attend if possible!

For the moment, though, here’s something I’m very proud of, as I had the original idea a few years ago and never quite had the time to follow up on it until a student mentioned to me that it was really easy to do! (If you want to create a poster/mug/anything you want, just visit this site – I can highly recommend their service! It’s also excellent procrastination if you like creating hilarious memes/posters/lolcats, not that I would of course, ahem)



What I’m most likely to say when I’m teaching…

Now that I’ve got some years of teaching under my belt, here are a few of the things I find myself saying most often in lessons to students, whether they are very young or old, or are very experienced or have only had a few lessons:

  • Watch your rhythm! A surprising number of people will unconsciously play minims as crochets, or more commonly crotchets as quavers, and I know that even I do things like this occasionally! My jobs is to point out where students are playing the wrong rhythm and encourage them to count and not guess where the beats are! A good sense of rhythm is so key to playing any instrument – I often tell my pupils that I’d rather they played the correct rhythm and missed a few notes than paused and played the right notes! It is often a good idea to take some time out to work on rhythms – clapping rhythms at sight or saying rhythm names like ‘ta’ and ‘te-te’ or ‘tea’ and ‘coffee’ really helps.
  • Use more bow on long notes: a lot of beginner students, and some more advanced ones, tend to use tiny bows for everything, especially long notes, producing a sound I like to called ‘mousy’. In order to encourage them to use more bow and produce a bigger sound, I tell them to try and use the whole bow, from the grip to almost the point, and I often put stickers on the bow (marking just above the grip, the middle and just below the tip) so that there is a visual aid for them, as some find it hard to tell. For more advanced students, practising scales and exercises with whole bows is key – just getting them to learn what the movement of their hand and arm feels like when they use the whole bow is sometimes new to them (see below).
  • Make sure your bow is parallel with the bridge right to the tip – this is an extremely common fault, especially in viola players where the instrument is large and the bow is long. Bowing at an angle, either with the bow angled towards or away from the bridge, will cause the sound to become uneven and break, and the player will experience difficulty at the tip and frog. Sometimes guiding the student’s hand all the way through the bow, or placing your bow to form a ‘guide’ across the strings while they bow will help, though a lot of the time the student will go back to old habits when they play their pieces. Practising open strings and easy scales in a mirror to check the bow is straight will help, but if bowing crooked becomes a habit then it is more difficult to correct, so teachers should be vigilant when beginners first start to use the bow.
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  • Use less bow on short, fast notes – it is so common for students to come to me with difficult fast passages complaining of not being able to play them, when they are using far too much bow. One of my favourite mantras at the moment is ‘Keep Calm and Use Less Bow’ – one student said I should get a mug with this on it! Generally, the faster the passage and the shorter the notes in it, the less bow you need – for really fast semiquavers, I only use about a centimetre or less. This is a revelation for most people and can easily transform a messy passage (think Vivaldi Concerto in A minor for example) into something much more neat and controlled.


  • Bent thumb in bow hold – this is a common fault with the bow hold experienced by most beginners and sometime more advanced players. The right thumb needs to be nicely curved outwards, not inwards or straight, otherwise the fingers and wrist will stiffen and the bowhold becomes locked in position, making it much more difficult to bow and impossible to create any subtlety in the sound. Bow hold exercises such as bending and flexing the thumb ought to help with this, but constant reminders are often necessary! See this video for how to hold a violin or viola bow
  • Stand properly – no standing on one leg/slouching/standing in ballet positions! Correct posture is vital for a good sound, so get into the habit of standing with feet shoulder width apart, left foot slightly in front of right foot and shoulders and arms relaxed when the instrument is in position. A common fault is to let the scroll droop, especially with the heavy viola – I often say to children ‘imagine a balloon tied to your scroll!’


  • Observe ALL the markings in the music – bowings, slurs, articulation, tempo but ESPECIALLY key signatures! I can’t stress how important this is for anyone learning a musical instrument. I often have students who will ‘bulldoze’ their way through a piece ignoring accidentals, bowings, slurrings and sometimes not even playing all the notes! Cue me pointing out all the things they have missed and the student listening with glazed eyes… Attention to detail is really important in music, as the difference between F sharp and F natural in a key signature of D major is fundamental to the music, but may be easily missed if the key signature is ignored. Understanding key signatures is difficult but an essential piece of theory that no musician can be without, so starting early with the concept of keys and sharps/flats is sensible.



Do you like Strawberry Jam?

A brilliant post by my old head of music, George Bevan, on why it isn’t enough as a music teacher to praise your students for good performances: in order to teach real musicianship, we as teachers have to understand what makes up a good performance and break that down for our pupils, so that they can learn *why* they are doing what they do when they play their instruments.
I really recommend George’s blog, music@monkton, and also Paul Harris’s books on teaching (I need to get hold of the newest one, Simultaneous Learning, which George actually wrote the foreword for!)


Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink is “all about those moments when we ‘know’ something without knowing quite why we know it,” when we rely on instinct rather than our ability to reason. Gladwell is a persuasive writer and I find him compelling. He draws on a huge variety of examples in this book, but nevertheless I was quite surprised when I suddenly found the topic turning to strawberry jam!

In short, jam experts were asked to rank forty-four different jams, and then a group of college students were asked to do the same. How close would their results be? To cut a short story even shorter, quite close it seems: “Even those of us who aren’t jam experts know good jam when we taste it.” But then they asked the students to give reasons for prefering one jam to another. Disaster. “It’s simply that we don’t have any way of explaining our feelings about…

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Kittens, jobs and what I’ve learnt from teaching so far…

Hello, and sorry this blog has been so sadly neglected for so long. But it’s a new year, and with it I have resolved to do more creative things such as writing and playing, so I hope I can keep this up!

A few important things have happened since I last blogged… Firstly, I finally managed to persuade Alex into us getting a kitten (from cats protection in Dundee), and we’ve had him since the end of September. His name is Monty, and he’s an incredibly sweet and handsome tabby who manages to get into all kinds of scrapes and has bags of character. We call him alternately ‘the tabby terror’, ‘monty the monster’ and ‘the cutest thing my eyes have ever seen’! He loves climbing things, especially doors, the christmas tree and bookshelves, knocking things off and drinking water from my glass… Daft as a brush.

Who, me?

See what I mean? This one was taken when he was quite young (we got him at 10 weeks), and the one below is quite recent – he’s now a ‘mature’ (ha!) kitten of 5 and a half months.


Secondly, I’ve managed to land a part time job in St Andrews, which is great. It’s not music related, as it’s a research assistant position in the medical school, but it will be using some of the skills I learnt in my anthropology degree which will be good, and it is only half time so I’ll still have time for music things and teaching. It is looking into doctor and nurses’ attitudes to obesity and how obesity is managed in primary care, so it should be pretty interesting and is of course highly relevant to what is happening in society at the moment.

Anyway, amid all that and Christmas and New Year, I have been doing a fair bit of teaching. I entered two girls for grade exams (grade 1 and grade 2 violin)  in Dec and they both got pretty high distinctions of 134 and 135 (130 out of 150 is a distinction) – I was so proud of them and what they achieved! It was lovely and really gave me a boost, when I had been feeling quite unconfident. Looking back on last year, I’d like to share what I have learnt from my teaching, both positive and negative:

  • Children often behave better when their parents aren’t in the room. I”ve had tears and tantrums, but mostly only when the parent is present. I think it is easier for them to concentrate when their parents aren’t there as they are forced to think about what I’m saying.
  • Beginners are much harder to teach than someone who has already learnt the basics. There is a fairly limited range of things to say to someone who is taking their first steps on a string instrument, and it is a pretty difficult thing for a young child to learn as it involves so much co-ordination and concentration. When someone has progressed beyond holding the instrument and bow correctly and making a decent sound, then it is much easier to start talking about musical things and subtler points of technique.
  • For a child, 40-45 minutes is the optimal length of a lesson (shorter for a younger child of about 8). Shorter than this, it is difficult to get anything done by the time they have fetched and got out their instrument and music etc (especially when I teach at the child’s house – they are often still eating or watching TV when I arrive), I have tuned their violin and we’ve caught up a bit. Longer than this and they start to lose concentration and start getting tired. In 40 minutes you feel as if you can really get into something without overwhelming the child with all you’ve said.
  • If you have planned, say, an hour’s lesson, don’t think that it will actually *take* an hour, unless you cut the lesson short (see above). Parents will often want (sometimes a quite detailed) account of the lesson, what the child needs to practice and how they are doing – and even if the lesson itself is only an hour, by the time you have chatted to the parents on the way in and debriefed them on the way out, it is often an hour and 10 minutes at least (especially if you are visiting someone’s house). If a pupil is late or if I am late I will always give them the full time, even if this makes me late for the next person.
  • Issues that beginners often have or things they find hard include:
  • the bow hold, especially bending the thumb on the bow – this seems to be a common problem, and is particularly hard for double-jointed kids. There are aids you can buy to help solve this, but I haven’t tried them yet.
  • Tuning is always an issue – at the moment, I am divided between not using markers on the fingerboard as it helps them memorise the hand shapes, and using them so that they always play in tune… I think it varies child by child as to how quickly they pick up what ‘in tune’ is and how good their ear is.
  • Having the left thumb vertically too far up the neck of the violin and the palm hugging the neck, and therefore making it difficult to stretch for 4th fingers and shift. My first teacher called this ‘squashing the hamster’ – imagine there is a hamster on the palm of your left hand, and squashing your palm against the neck of the violin will squish the hamster!
  • If you teach at home, make sure your environment is conduicive to teaching. Make sure there is enough space, so the child doesn’t bang their instrument on something, and make sure the area is free of potentially distracting objects that the child will want to talk about (it is difficult having Monty, as he is distracting when in the same room, but shutting him in another room results in pathetic mewing and various bangs and crashes which are mildly off putting to say the least!)

I’d love to hear stories from other teachers of successes or what they find difficult. I’ve been looking for courses on string teaching, but not found anything suitable, so if anyone has any ideas then please please let me know!

Lastly, if you made it this far, here’s a fascinating article about a conductor who took his orchestra to North Korea.

Graduate musings

I’ve decided to change the name of this blog as you will see, as I have now graduated from the RSAMD (which has now changed its name and rebranded itself as the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland or RCS – rather pretentious, don’t you think?) So, since I am now technically a freelance musician ‘living the freelance dream’ (as I heard one player ironically term it) I thought it would be good for me to continue blogging about my experiences.

Lots has been happening since I last posted on this blog; however, most of it has been personal rather than musical. On the 26th August, I got married to my wonderful husband Alex down in Warwickshire, and we had an amazing day with friends and family, followed by an equally fantastic honeymoon in the stunning surroundings of Iceland. At the wedding, my old string quartet, the Rusalka Quartet, played for the service and during the reception, and I got to join them in my wedding dress which was so much fun! (I doubt I’ll ever play the viola in a nicer dress!) Here’s a photo:

Since the wedding I’ve been living in Crail with my husband (eee, I can say that!) and trying to find work, not only as a musician but also through a temp agency and sending CVs to various companies (I also have a degree in social anthropology). I’ve also put up a few adverts for private violin and viola tuition, as it would be good to have a few pupils locally. (If you know anyone who is looking for lessons and lives within reach of Fife, Scotland, then please please point them in my direction – see the About me page for contact details). As a result of flinging CVs at all the Scottish orchestras when I graduated, I have an extras audition with the RSNO on 31st Oct, which should at least get me noticed if nothing else (extras are called when players are off sick or the section needs beefing up, but they always have more people on the list than the need, and new people usually land at the bottom).

I have also arranged to play at a lunchtime concert in the Younger Hall in St Andrews with my friend and excellent pianist Audrey Innes on Feb 1st 2012. We’re going to play Rebecca Clarke’s fiery Sonata for viola and piano, which you can see and hear on youtube being playing in the same venue by violist Michael Kugel here.

Apart from a Heisenberg concert in the Younger Hall on Sunday Oct 30th, that’s my lot at the moment. Anybody out there with a band that needs string players, or a quartet missing a viola player, then please get in touch!