Building Violin Skills by Edmund Sprunger

Textbook for Beginners


At a recent workshop in Austin, TX, I picked up Edmund Sprunger’s newly published Building Violin Skills. I’m now using it as a textbook for beginners.


This book pulls together what I had been trying to communicate to parents in years past. This manual is not only a step-by-step guide to the physical skills needed to play the violin, it is a complete resource for the crucial first year and a half of violin study. There is no more guessing about what comes next or where your child is in the process. Everything is in the book.


Building Violin Skills is divided into a parent section and a student section. The parent section gives a thorough description of what it will take for parents to help teach their child. Parents are also given general parenting advice when working daily with their child on the complicated task of learning to play the violin.


The student section shows in great detail (and with beautiful pictures) the physical steps to be covered over the year.


Further, Building Violin Skills has weekly study sheets so progress can easily be charted and assignments can be made clear.


I like using this text because parents can hold in their hands what we will be doing in lessons and what parents will be doing at home. Parents can read ahead and troubleshoot without having to wait a whole week until the next lesson.

The Triangle – the most important lesson I teach

Suzuki coined the term Triangle which represents the relationship between Child, Teacher, and Parent .

In January, 2013, before I taught violin in Cusco, Peru, for 6 months, I taught and attended workshops at the XXVIII International Festival in Lima, Peru. I studied Book One and Book Two with the Suzuki Teacher Trainer from Minnesota, Nancy Lokken. The first thing she did was to draw this on the board:

photo 3

The letters represent Child, Teacher, and Parent. She kept coming back to this sketch during the week-long course, smiling and redrawing the Triangle.

The 1st Stage of the Triangle as explained by Ms. Lokken:

ages 3-6

Ages 3-6

The heavy black line of  initial stages of the Triangle, when the Child is very young, represents more communication, understanding, feedback, and dialogue between the Parent and the Teacher. The Child is really like a tail being wagged. He is along for the ride.

Even at home, when the Teacher isn’t there, the Parent is working with information and skills taught by the Teacher. Yes, there is communication between the Child and the Parent, but there is not a lot of independent thinking on the part of the Child.

The 2nd Stage of the Triangle

photo 1

Ages 7-10

Notice that there is a more even distribution of communication as the Child ages and the Triangle matures in a healthy way. Even though these ages are approximate, it’s been my experience that children begin to take  initiative and make decisions about their playing very early. However, the Parent is still completely involved. He or she writes notes in class, asks questions at the end of a lesson, confides in practice issues, shares in successes, and, of course, leads the home practice.

The 3rd Stage of the Triangle

age 11 and up

Ages 11 and up

As the Child becomes more and more independent, the relationships begin to shift. The Child and Teacher eventually become the exclusive participants in lessons.

The Triangle Must Change

Some parents have a tough time at this stage, and I can understand. Unfortunately, if this shift doesnt happen, the “young Adult” doesn’t feel he or she is part of the process.  This age is tricky, yet so important. C.S. Lewis wondered if adults merely rethink what they thought during the age of 11-14 (Surprised By Joy).

The Child must begin to take responsibility for what they like and don’t like about their playing. If they are to continue progressing meaningfully on the instrument, they must take more and more initiative and have more and more of an opinion about what they hear coming out of their instrument.

This means that the Parent must not only refrain from interacting with Teacher or Child during lessons, but Parents should also “let a lot of things go” at the home practice. Things that they used to be charged with attending to like playing in tune or using the correct bowings might need to be ignored. Interfering with the child’s blossoming responsibility to listen to himself will slow his development as a musician, and frustration will ensue. Edmund Sprunger, in his book Helping Parents Practice, addresses this stage at length and gives parents excellent ways to handle home practice.

The Child becomes the Adult in the Triangle

photo 5

What we seek is the creation of an Adult of discipline. A person who has grit to work at something until he gets it, but also knows how to solve the problems along the way, so he doesn’t keep banging his head on the wall.

When Nancy described how the Triangle changed, I rethought the way I had perceived it. Now, my sense is that this Triangle is like a living organism. It is born with the first lesson, or perhaps even the first phone call or email I get. It grows and changes, it can be hurt, it can be nurtured, it can thrive, and it can die or be killed.

People go from infancy to childhood to adolescence to adulthood and what do they need? They need basic nutrition. Sure, an infant might need her carrots mashed up while an older child can just chomp into a raw carrot, no problem, but they really need the same basic nutrients. The Triangle does not take carrots or juice but begs to be fed this:

  • Patience, Respect, Dignity, Mercy, Love, Kindness, Gentleness, Humility, Trust and Flexibility. (Can you name more?)

These are the nutrients of the Triangle. They might appear in different forms at different times to different people, but just like some people are vegetarians, they still need protein. That ain’t changing!

The stages of development MUST happen. Just as a plant must geminate and cannot do so faster than nature allows, neither can the Triangle be hurried. Also, just like a plant must get bigger and produce leaves and fruit, we cannot wish it to remain a tiny precious plant, or it will die. There’s a lot at stake. But the good news is that if we only do some basic maintenance, the Triangle kinda does what it’s meant to. Like a seed grows to a plant if only some ordinary care is given, so, too, the Triangle will grow!

We Begin With the Parent

For the first several months, lessons will mostly be for the parent. The child may have a short lesson, based on his or her focus. But the bulk of the time will be preparing you, the parent, for being the home teacher.

Our textbook for the year is Edmund Sprunger’s Building Violin Skills. Buy this book before the first  lesson and begin reading Parent Phase I. 

The book is large, but when you think of this as a year-long venture, the length is appropriate. Don’t worry if you don’t understand all of it. As I’ve said, there is a lot of material. You will continually refer to the textbook throughout the year.

It is fun and helpful to review the Student Phases of Building Violin Skills to see how your child’s skills will be  progressing in the upcoming year.



Thoughtful Heartfelt Tuning-In

From Edmund Sprunger’s Building Violin Skills (page 32). Emphases are mine:

This thoughtful, heartfelt tuning in is the second resource we have for managing the ups and downs of learning the violin. If this tuning in is to be something other than superficial and shallow, it will take time. But it’s time worth spent.

So when you find yourself puzzled because your child who once so enthusiastically said, “I want to play the violin!” is discourage and says “I want to quit!” you need to tune in and pay attention. Tuning in doesn’t mean saying “Ok, you have to tell your teacher, here’s the phone.” Instead, tuning in means saying “Tell me more about it.” It means offering a little gentle encouragement for the child to talk about his or her feelings, and it means an enormous amount of quiet and waiting. Parents who respond this way usually discover that the child is upset about only one aspect of lessons or practices and that this one aspect has clouded everything. But it may take a while-days or weeks, even – for this information to emerge. You help by doing three things:

  • Waiting for it to emerge
  • Continuing to ask (but not nag)
  • and continuing to practice

Sometimes this process of finding out what’s on your child’s mind can take a while because children don’t have the kind of sophisticated language skill that we adults have. One of the main reasons young children have temper tantrums is that their use of language hasn’t developed to the point where they can put their feelings into words. Their only option is to act them out. Tuning in involves asking your child questions that help your child put his or her feelings into words.

For example, if you notice that your child is frustrated, it’s not your cue to try to fix things right away or change your course of action. Again, it’s your cue to tune in, to listen, and to wait to find out more. You might want to ask something such as”Can you tell me what’s upsetting you?” But be forewarned – many children experience questions as intrusive- they find it more useful just to have you silently there. As with adults, most of the time when  children say things such as “I hate this” they don’t want us to fi it for them, they just want us to understand their struggle. “I hate this” often code for something children are incapable of saying:

“I need to complain and get it out of my system so I can keep join. That’s my solution-I neither need nor want input form you right now, I just want you to acknowledge my struggle.”

Adults who rush in  to fix the problem run a serious risk of mis-attunment with he child because they thwart that unspoken need of simply being there to acknowledge the child’s efforts. The irony is that children typically experience mis-attunment as criticism. An adult’s attempt to “fix” things endues up making them works because the child feels hurt that this parent didn’t’ “get” him.

Suzuki Method described by Sprunger and Kreitman

The Suzuki Method:

The  Suzuki Method is summarized by Edmund Sprunger in his book Building Violin Skills as containing three pillars:

  • Begin As Early As Possible
  • Move In Small Steps
  • Provide A Positive, Fortifying Environment


Edward Kreitman provides more detail in his book, Teaching From The Balance Point:

Suzuki philosophy:

  • Every child has the potential to become musical.
  • Environment rather than genetics will determine achievement.
  • Positive reinforcement promotes success.


Suzuki curriculum:

  • The Suzuki Method curriculum is a well-considered series of musical pieces designed to introduce and review musical technique in a progressively challenging format.


Suzuki technical concept:

  • Begin lessons early, enlisting the aid of the parent as home teacher.
  • Adapt the “mother tongue” approach to learning through listening, imitation, review, and positive reinforcement.
  • Break each skill into the smallest possible steps.
  • Teach individual lessons to let each child progress at his or her own pace.
  • Use group classes to review the materials presented in the private lessons and to introduce the skill of playing together. A great resource for us fiddlers! editor Laurie Niles and other readers address frequently asked questions (FAQs) about the violin, with answers about practicing, performing, teaching, and selecting repertoire. Scroll down the page for some illustrated facts about the violin itself, to learn more about the parts of this stringed instrument…

Click here to  learn more…


The Truth about Piano (or violin, haha) Lessons

Dear Piano Parents:

You’re probably getting mailings right now about fall activities for your kids. The soccer coach wants to know if you’re doing traveling team, the Little League coach is scheduling practices, the dance teacher is putting her classes together. And you’re wondering about piano lessons for little Johnny or Suzie.

You want to know how much Johnny will be expected to practice. You want to know if Suzie can just “try it out” and see if it’s “fun.” You need to know what kind of instrument I expect you to have. You want to know if you can come whenever it’s convenient, and whether I’ll be flexible regarding hockey games, ski Fridays, school dances, ice-skating parties, holidays, and play dates. You want to know if I’m “reasonable” by which I think you mean: Can I change my schedule to suit yours, and am I a stickler for daily practice because Suzie has so much else on her plate and “things are crazy around here.”

It doesn’t usually occur to you to ask what you can do as a parent to help your child with music lessons, but that’s something you’re going to have to know, too.

Read more.


Basic Bravery

A long time ago, I worked at a school that employed a young cellist straight out of a masters in performance program from a  renowned conservatory in the Northeast. He was always practicing, especially the Schumann Cello Concerto, a piece at the height of the repertoire. He practiced before his students arrived, he practiced if they were late or never showed up, and he practiced after his teaching day was over. With a sparkle in his eye he told me of his dream of winning a competition for big prize money and guaranteed solo concerts. There was just one problem- he  never quite played in tune. It wasn’t obtrusive, but it was perceptible.

Even when he demonstrated a Book 1 piece, there was something not quite right. I never sat down to analyze what was going on, and I even doubted my own ears given his decades of playing and pedigree. He’s playing the Schumann Concerto! He has a graduate degree in performance from a major conservatory. But deep down I knew there was something off about his intonation.

In Simon Fischer’s new book, The Violin Lesson, he relates a similar story. A young professional comes to him for a lesson. Her main complaint was a feeling of awkwardness when she played at the frog. According to Fischer, she had graduated from a conservatory, had a masters degree in performance, and was a very serious student who worked hard. Fischer listened to her play the Beethoven Violin Concerto and after she finished, he asked her to show him how she was holding the bow. She held up her hand to show him her bow hold. Here is how the incident continued:

“Yes, but hold it as you would hold it to play,” Fischer says.

“I am,” the student replied.

“But put your thumb where it would be if you were playing.”

“It is!” she protested.

“But it can’t be,” Fischer insisted. “The tip is sticking out slightly. That’s what little children do!”

That’s how I’ve always held it,” she said. (my emphasis)

Mr. Fischer discovered the bow was being held slightly on the pad of the thumb, not the tip. Try playing at the frog while holding the bow with the pad instead of the tip! No wonder she was frustrated! And this was a young woman who dedicated her life to the violin, had multiple performance degrees, and was playing professionally.

It is vital for parents, adolescent students, teachers, and amateur and professional players to understand that it doesn’t matter if you are playing Lightly Row or the Schumann Cello Concerto. If you play out of tune, you play out of tune. If you play without care of the balance of bow speed and pressure, your tone will suffer whether you are playing Judas Maccabaeus or Mozart concerti. If you are holding the bow with the pad of your thumb, you are going to feel uncomfortable at the frog whether you are playing Happy Farmer or  Zigeunerweisen. If you have a tight left thumb, it is going to affect vibrato, intonation, and fast moving fingers in Witches Dance or in Paganini Caprices. If you push your left wrist out to play 3rd and 4th fingers, you’re going to be tense and play out of tune whether you are playing Perpetual Motion by Suzuki or Novacek.

A former student about the age of 15 complained that I was taking her all the way back to the beginning when I asked her in many lessons to study Perpetual Motion from Book 1 to work on the hand frame. She was in Book 4, and she thought Perpetual Motion was for little kids. But as Fischer states in The Violin Lesson, “The fastest way to advance your technique, or to solve specific problems, is to keep on starting again from the very beginning… (my emphasis) Practice basic elements of technique by playing exercises that deal with only one thing at a time.” In her case, we were dealing with the perfect fourth hand frame. I could have remained silent. Maybe she would keep getting promoted to the Bach A minor, to the Beethoven Violin Concerto, and all the while, still playing with fingers never really knowing where to fall.

Suzuki knew this. But rather than exercises or etudes, he would refer a student to an earlier piece. Let’s not forget that Book One actually has a piece entitled Etude! A colleague told me that as a child, he was privileged to take a lesson with Dr. Suzuki. He brought a piece in Book 5 to the lesson and was sure he was going to blow Suzuki’s socks off. After listening, Suzuki smiled as he suggested they work on tone using the Twinkle Variations.

There is always an elephant in the room. Some elephants are smaller than others, but unless you are traveling the world soloing with the major orchestras, I guarantee you have an elephant hanging out with you. Whether you are gripping the violin too tightly with your jaw, not hearing subdivisions of the beat, or playing too close to the fingerboard, we all need to look to the basics to solve what we think is complicated.

As teachers it is our job to tactfully but directly address the basics.  As parents and students, we need to understand that skill on the violin and other stringed instruments is not measured by what piece you are playing. Edward Kreitman in his book Teaching from the Balance Point urges parents and students when queried “what they are working on,” to respond by telling that they are working on a balanced bow hold, perfect intonation, or vibrato.  I’m concerned that as teachers we are not making this clear.

What if we were to all have some of these basics posted in our studios:

Balanced violin hold

Balanced feet

Long torso, relaxed shoulders

Balanced, relaxed  left hand thumb

Curved Bow Thumb

Contact on bow with tip of thumb

4th finger contact with the bow


What if we asked the children what skill they were working on all week? What piece or exercise are you using to improve this skill?

All this takes courage. The teacher displays courage by telling the student and parent that even though they have worked hard for many years, we still have work to do that requires attention to the basics. It requires courage on the part of the students to get out of the mode of thinking they are at a certain level because of the number of years they have studied or what piece they are on and address what will only exponentially advance their skill: attention to the basics. Accepting this takes education, humility, and a desire to succeed at the expense of one’s ego. All must be humble: Teacher, Student and Parent. There isn’t a studio in this world big enough to fit a student, parent, teacher AND an elephant!


Listen Up!

Listening to the reference recordings is the easiest activity a student can do to speed progress. However, it is tough to convince parents of this. Does it sound too simple? The violin is supposed to be hard right? Surely we must struggle with the instrument in hand. Listening to the reference recordings in the car on the way to school is just too easy to be helpful!. Is it too monotonous? I wonder what the morning news sounds like to a 4 year old? Pretty monotonous I bet!  Is it too hard to remember to do? No sympathy here. How many apps are there to help remind people of things.

Whatever the reason for not listening, the facts remain that children who don’t listen progress more slowly. I have seen children who listen and those who don’t listen. The difference is remarkable. Children who don’t listen are guessing what the song sounds like. It’s like trying to put a jigsaw puzzle together without the finished image in front of you. You can probably do it. But it’s going to take a long time and is not going to be nearly as fun. So listen up! The more the better!

How to Talk So Kids Will Listen…

On my resources page, I include Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish’s, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk.  This book has been in print for 30 years and is a classic in fostering a more stress free relationship with your children.

The authors suggest adults tend to be logical, to moralize, and to give advice when children react strongly to something. This, the authors claim, denies how the child is feeling and, unfortunately, makes them try harder to get you to understand, to listen. Simply listening and then repeating back what they are feeling is sometimes all it takes.

There is, of course, much more to their methods, and it’s interesting to compare their ideas to the ones I have used in the past that haven’t been so successful!

If you have tried other methods to get kids to do chores, brush their teeth, or practice the violin, and continue to be frustrated, give How to Talk a try!