Chapter 4: Conclusions
As stated in the introduction, development psychology and music teaching are not exact science. Therefore, the following conclusions should not be read as the mathematical results of this research, the calculations for which can be found in the previous chapters. They should rather be read as a summary of the main findings of the paper, in which the theoretical and practical dimensions of this paper have been integrated.
Children in middle childhood have an enormous motor drive. This can be used for the benefit of the development of the motor skills needed for a violinist. For the development of motor skills (i.e. the production of myelin strengthening the neural circuits in the brain) a lot of repetition is needed. Children enjoy the physical exercise of routine practice and the teacher can use this by offering many different exercises and studies to practise, so that they do a lot of repeated practice but experience progress.
Important element in the development of motor skills is raising the awareness of the child of the relation between his/her movements and the sounds he/she produces on the instrument. Equally important is the awareness of tension and relaxation, of a good position of the body, the arms and hands. The pupil has to learn how it feels to use only the physical effort needed to play without any additional tension.
The development of motor skills, increasing the strength, speed and accuracy of the movements, takes years to develop. This demands patience from the side of both pupil and teacher and focus on the little steps that can be made, one by one. The teacher should be responsive to the child’s abilities and flexible in his/her approach. Most important is that the child experiences freedom on the violin, and with every technical step he/she makes keeps the feeling that the violin is an instrument for playing in the literal sense of the word.
The cognitive development of children in middle childhood offers a huge potential for learning new things. They are able to absorb new information like sponges, provided it is concrete and fits within their perception of the world. They have increased abilities to understand and analyse complex issues, they learn to plan and organize their work and solve concrete problems; and they have increased memory skills that can be developed further.
This means that middle childhood offers great potential for teaching children many things they should know about music and about playing the violin. However, there are some caveats to be taken into consideration. These new skills do not appear out of the blue, it takes years to develop the new abilities into skills and the teacher should understand the actual level of cognitive development of the child and build upon that. Moreover, every child is different, also in the development of cognitive skills, and the teacher should respond to that in a flexible way.
The cognitive dimension of violin education is very broad and the many diverse elements are all somehow interrelated. Nevertheless, given the fact that a child can concentrate at only one thing at a time, it is necessary to deal with all these aspects separately as much as possible. It is essential for the teacher to realize that for children to understand what has to be done does not imply automatically that they can perform, let alone that they can finish off to perfection.
The children have to learn (with the help of their ears) where they can find the notes, scales, arpeggios and double stops on their violin, in different positions, all over the violin. They have to learn how their bowing influences the sound of their instrument and how they can use it for expression. And they have to develop a good ear for intonation. However, all these things cannot be done at the same time. A playful approach that challenges them to listen and puzzle is the best way to help them to develop a sense of freedom on their instrument and a sense of control without fear. In the end, all these different elements will fall into place.
Learning staff-notation is an important part of the cognitive skills the children have to acquire. Starting from melodies they know and writing these down, helps them to understand the notation and to realize that notation is just a means of transmission and not the point of departure of music. They have to develop sight-reading skills by playing many pieces and in parallel they must train playing and performing by heart.
Children in middle childhood can acquire understanding of the structure of music pieces provided it is approached in a playful way and builds upon their perception of the world. Ensemble playing is very important for the training of playing and listening to others at the same time and for understanding one’s own role in relation to the other parts.
At an other level of cognition, children also have to learn how to cope with frustration and failure, how to overcome motivation dips and how to perform for an audience. At the end of middle childhood they should have learned that a good performance depends on the combination of good preparation and the right balance between concentration and relaxation during the performance.
In middle childhood children enter a new phase. Peers become more important and the children become more aware of themselves in relation to other children. On the basis of social comparison they develop a new sense of identity and learn to distinguish between their ‘ideal self’ and their ‘actual self’. Hopefully, they develop a sense of ‘industry’ and not of inferiority, i.e. a sense of being competent at things asked from them.
Group lessons are an ideal way of using this new social orientation for their education. Here you can see how Vygotsky’s theory of a ‘zone of proximal development’ functions: the example of one pupil is an encouragement for the others, because they feel that things are within reach from their actual abilities.
The challenge for children at this age is to find a balance between competition and co-operation. In group lessons they learn to give feedback to each other and thus learn to appreciate the qualities of others and become more aware of their own qualities and challenges, and of their learning process. Moreover, they find the group lessons very enjoyable, which strengthens their motivation.
The scholarly nature-nurture debate about the question whether talent is an innate ability, is very dynamic and shows rather opposite views. Some leading scholars claim that there is no proof of innate talents; in their view what is perceived as talent – in music, sports etc. – is actually the result of many years of deliberate practice for the acquisition of expert skills. Others however argue that accumulated practice alone cannot explain the differences that can be seen between experts with the same accumulated amount of practice.
When young children start with violin lessons, they are no longer ‘tabula rasa’. They have already undergone years of influence from their environment. More important than whether they had innate talents at birth is the question what talents they have at this moment. However, there is no one-dimensional talent for violin playing. An all-round violinist needs to develop skills in different domains: musical skills, technical skills, learning skills and performance skills. In each domain a pupil can have more or less aptitude and this can change in the course of their development. For the teacher the challenge is to respond to the specific abilities a child shows at a certain moment in his development, closely follow how the skills develop in time and build further upon that.
Regardless of what position they take in the nature-nurture debate on talent, everybody agrees that it takes many years of regular deliberate practice to acquire the skills for expert performance. Unlike language acquisition, which is a form of experience-expectant learning, learning to play an instrument is a form of experience-dependent learning, for which the child is not pre-wired. This means that the child has to develop metacognitive skills: learn how to learn. This is a process of many years in which the child has to be guided intensively.
From the very beginning, the child has to learn how to practice at home. Homework assignments should be absolutely clear. The child has to know on what specific issue to concentrate in each individual task and should feel able to do this or at least feel that it is within reach with deliberate effort. A child can concentrate only at one thing at a time and in the lesson the teacher should concentrate equally on those issues the child was supposed to be working on. Thus, the pupil sees progress step by step. Pupil and teacher work together in such a way that practising at home becomes an integral part of the learning process.
Essential in the learning process of deliberate practice is that the pupil is taught from the very beginning to take sound and sound imagination as point of departure, that the pupil understands that the sound he/she hears is a result of the movements he/she makes with the arms and fingers, and that the pupil learns to listen to what he/she is doing, to be aware of how it feels and to think about what he/she is doing. And next to all this labour-intensive practice, it may only be welcomed if the child also takes the time to play just for fun, without any deliberate purpose.
Motivation is one of the primary factors for a successful musical education. A child may start enthusiastically, after a first moment of ignition - ‘Yes, I am going to play the violin!’- , but the stream of motivational energy has to be maintained continuously. Otherwise the child will not be able to remain committed to the manytasks lying ahead. A supportive environment of teacher, parents and friends is very helpful. In the course of the years the pupil will develop, next to extrinsic motivation, also an intrinsic motivation. The violin becomes integral part of their life and of their self-image. They develop an ambition of who they want to be as a violinist.
Of primary importance for motivation is that the child experiences that he/she enjoys making music. Ensemble playing in small ensembles and orchestras is very motivating. Playing for an audience and receiving applause is equally rewarding, provided this is built up gradually and the child experiences that it can deal with possible performance anxiety.
Equally important for the child’s motivation is that he/she learns to understand the relation between deliberate efforts and results. In other words, the pupil has to adopt a mastery orientation, attributing failure to a lack of effort instead of a lack of ability. The teacher supports this by complimenting them with every step of progress they make, however small this step may seem. The teacher has to be responsive to the child’s needs and abilities of the moment and needs the flexibility to adapt the programme when the student is not ready for something yet.
Role of the parents
Parents are indispensable in the education of young violinists. For all the time, money and energy it takes, they have to be really committed. They have to assist the child in daily practice and help the child to develop greater autonomy in practising. They have to stimulate the child’s motivation, but have to be and remain motivated themselves as well. Therefore, they have to see the results of their commitment. However, they should not be overly ambitious and have a realistic view of the child’s abilities. This asks for an open dialogue with the teacher. Parents need to have full confidence in the teacher. And hopefully they understand that the most important thing is not that their child is going to be the best, but that he/she is working hard, making good progress and happy with playing the violin.
Role of the teacher
The teacher has a critical role to play in the education of young violinists. The core elements of a successful approach may be summarized in the following twelve points.
Putting the child in the middle:
The teacher’s primary ambition should not be to have success with his/her pupils, but to give the pupils maximal support in their individual development, building upon the needs and ambition of the child.
Every child is different and has his/her own abilities, challenges and preferences. A tailor-made approach, responding to the specific situation of the child, offers the best chances that the pupil is able to follow the path set by the teacher.
The teacher should see the pupil in the broader context of his/her daily life: family, school and friends, health and well-being. The better the teacher knows this, the better he/she can guide the student in the violin education.
Teacher and pupil should have a relationship of mutual confidence. It helps the pupil to know that the teacher has confidence in him/her, sees his/her efforts and commitment and accept his/her shortcomings. The teacher should also invest in confidence in his/her approach from the side of the parents.
Within a relationship of confidence, the teacher has to be demanding, making clear what efforts are to be made in order to fulfill the child’s ambitions. The pupil will learn to see this as part of the deal.
Balanced approach of all elements of violin playing:
The long-term vision of the teacher should be aimed at the education of an all-round musician. All the different elements of violin playing should be developed in parallel and receive regular and balanced attention.
Piece-meal approach based on repetition and structure:
A child can concentrate on one thing at a time and gets easily frustrated when asked to do something he/she does not feel capable of doing. The teacher should offer the tasks piece-meal, working on all the different elements individually, step by step, on a regular basis so that the pupil understands that everything is equally important.
The skills of a violinist take years to develop. The fact that a child understands what to do does not mean that he/she can perform right away. The teacher should consider what can be realistically expected from the child at a particular moment. Therefore, the teacher needs a tremendous patience, based on the confidence that, when all issues are properly addressed on a regular basis, in due course everything will fall in its place.
Building on the child’s experiences:
Children in middle childhood are not yet capable of thinking in abstractions. Their perception of the world is quite different from that of adults. However, they have already experienced many concrete things and building upon that, the teacher can explain many seemingly more abstract issues.
Involvement of the pupil in the learning process:
Children learn the best on the basis of what they discover for themselves. A teaching approach based on questions helps the pupil to become aware of what he/she is doing, how it sounds, how it feels. Thus mistakes can be turned into learning experiences that strengthen the child’s awareness, motivation and self-confidence.
Sound as point of departure:
Music is about sound in the first place. A child that has been trained solely to translate visual information into movements of the right arm and left hand, will not develop into an all-round musician. The teacher should teach children to take sound and sound imagination as point of departure for what they do.
Love for music:
The primary and final objective of violin education should be to teach the child to play the violin and make music for its own sake, out of love for music, and to become a happy musician, able to perform without fear of the audience or the instrument. There lies a heavy responsibility on the shoulders of the teacher to show his/her personal love for the profession and thus transmit it to the next generation.
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