Playing chamber music is the best way for children to learn an instrument

Group activities and chamber music making are the best ways for young players to develop confidence – and enjoy learning, as pedagogue Sheila Nelson argues


Why do so many young people make a start on stringed instruments and then give up? Perhaps because so many skills are required at one time, many of them quite unconnected with any previous experience. There’s not just the tiring business of holding the instrument and bow but also trying to read notes on a stave and compute which string or finger might luckily produce the sound expected by a teacher who wants you to relax, but what does that involve anyway? And where’s the fun?
For me, the enjoyment – and the key to holding children’s interest – lies in chamber music making. This idea has been a part of my teaching since, aged 16, I guided my younger brother and two friends through recreational rounds and trios to back up their school violin class lessons. We had fun, but this wasn’t the only benefit of group learning. Children who begin young with individual lessons may acquire some string skills sooner than those experiencing varied group activities, but they miss out on many crucial developmental steps. Of these, perhaps the most important is the acceptance of music as a way of making friends. A more relaxed, shared approach also brings about a gradual increase in confidence in the building blocks of making music.

Teaching sessions for my youngest group are based on two main themes. The first of these is to introduce children to some basic skills away from the instrument: the ability to feel a pulse and hold a rhythm at the same time; to sing aloud and in the mind; to copy, make up and write rhythms and tunes. We mime bowing and shifting movements before playing, helping to establish the upper arm movements with relaxed shoulders, which are of special importance to string players. We play games to help reading skills and to improve the children’s ability to play by ear.

The second theme is the use of the sol-fa system. Before the children play from printed music, they learn to sing simple three-or-four-note songs, first using words and then sol-fa. They play these tunes and transpose them to different places on the instrument, and I teach them to make their own tunes with counters on a big stave, or with pencil and paper. They learn the different intervals within the major scale through group singing before trying them out on the instrument, to avoid the player believing his fingers rather than the melody in his head. They have an easy time reading by sol-fa sounds instead of by fingerings, before meeting staves, sharps or flats. This is not in line with Kodály’s practice, where the semitone is avoided for a long time. But it is more akin to that of John Curwen, Kodály’s predecessor who opened the sol-fa path to choral singing for thousands of non-music-readers in 19th-century England.

Some of my string teaching techniques were learnt from Paul Rolland on a Churchill Fellowship and used on the Tower Hamlets String Project, working with children aged seven to eleven in more than 20 state primary schools. This resulted in the Essential String Method. Adrian Thorne’s adaptation of the sol-fa system for the Method can be practised at home, in the car, in the classroom or in the string quartet. And the fun? I list six varying topics for each lesson – the children throw a dice, and you can tell their favourites by the cheers or moans. I include some percussion (half the children play or sing, the others read a rhythmic backing) as well as stepping, jumping and rowing-a-boat games for pitch and pulse. We enjoy improvising right from the open-string stage with the motto ‘You can’t be wrong’. We sing and play well-known songs by ear, and perform rounds to give the feeling for ensemble.

All of this sounds a long way from chamber music, but the fortunate fact that children develop at different speeds means that from the first year part-playing must happen as I combine open string parts with singing and fingered lines. Children’s rhythm and pitch repertoire needs to be strictly limited until it becomes second nature with voice or instrument. This may take a year or more, and I am happy if young beginners can enjoy playing from sol-fa with flexible and varied bowing, correcting intonation within one octave, in their second year. Small tunes in higher positions introduce some understanding of finger patterns and positions, and the way is open for rapid and confident future progress. Very short early individual lessons can be lengthened, friendships will have developed and cellists may have joined the group. They are then ready for Octotunes, a selection of short, fun pieces for flexible ensemble.

The first Octotunes were written because two small, strong-minded pupils at my home had chosen the same solo piece for their end-of-term concert and neither would accept the usual compromise of one performing at the beginning, the other at the end. I wrote a new piece for each of them and printed it in sol-fa for quick study: they were written using only the eight notes of the scale starting on an
open string. ‘Ben’s Bounce’ and ‘Isabelle’s Intermezzo’ were closely followed by ‘Sophie’s Square Dance’ and ‘Sebastian’s Stomp’ as each member of their group demanded a piece and a new school year brought extra pupils. Second violin parts were added for those who found the top line easy, making duets, and the promised arrival of two cellists brought a rush of cello parts. All of the children played each piece from sol-fa at first, and after a time tackled the same music on the stave, showing on average the smoothest entry to note-reading in my experience. The first and second violin parts come in sol-fa and on the stave in a single take-home book. Once the violinist has mastered the one-octave first part as a solo, playing along with keyboard or second violin, they will have more chance of holding their own when slightly more difficult lower parts are added.

For the first attempts I always get the children to read through the material within their large group before splitting up into trios or quartets. My job after that is to drop in on the small groups and make suggestions, such as providing a tom-tom for a player who can read pitch but has problems with rhythm, or abandoning pitch-reading altogether until the rhythms are clear. An expert quartet coach for beginners needs to be able to sing the part of anyone who is lost while pointing to the notes for the weakest reader and marking the first beat of the bar with a spare hand or foot. All the children take a turn at ‘counting in’. The music is harmonically clear so that the children can begin to recognise when things have gone wrong. The first important piece of advice for players is to read rhythm before pitch – after all, the right note in the wrong place instantly becomes a wrong note. The second piece of advice is never to stop – just play very quietly, follow the music and listen for the first beat of each bar when in trouble.

At my house six groups of pupils (ages from four to eighteen) containing six to eight players at two different levels meet weekly, which allows three or four beginners to join annually at the bottom, pushing up the top half of each higher group. Of course life is not always so predictable. When things work out well, the new children find themselves copying slightly older players one year, and being the leaders themselves the next.

Chamber music is popular with young people because it can be a shared experience rather than a lesson. I like each ensemble to work without help for part of the session, though arguments need to be referred to the teacher if they become heated! I actually enjoy arguments, especially about the music: children learn quickly from one another. There is considerable opportunity for failure, but when even a little success is achieved the feeling of triumph is immense. A self-dependence gradually develops, enabling the children to share in all kinds of music making. Different tasks such as counting the pulse or shouting ‘ma’ on crotchet rests can be allotted to certain players when a young trio is left alone to practise. One little boy, when asked by his father what he liked about quartet playing, replied fervently, ‘I’m very good at rests.’ We all need to be good at something – maybe he became a percussion player!

When the youngest players are divided into duets or trios for the first time they really start to appreciate rests – which are often entirely ignored when practising at home without help. A long note takes on an entirely new aspect when a friend has a melody to play above or below it. To be of most benefit to the pupils’ understanding, the rhythm and pitch requirement needs to be kept at a very low level for about a year until the solo pieces are well ahead. First attempts, especially in quartets, bring claims such as ‘I won – I got to the end first’ and ‘Jamie’s not trying’, when he is actually doing his very best, but playing the wrong piece. Playing a quartet can be four or fourteen times as difficult as playing a solo, and if a young ensemble asks for a new piece because ‘this one’s too easy’ you can be sure that they are playing in the wrong key, the wrong time, without the rests, or all of these things at once.

There are, of course, other teaching approaches, but this is the one that in my experience works the best. I remember the time when a tiny Japanese girl playing fast Vivaldi arrived at my house, wishing to continue lessons using the Suzuki method (new to me). I found this alluring, and I started one very young Suzuki group, after having some instructions sent through to me from Japan. I was soon disillusioned: the pupils’ late onset of reading and particular problems with holding the lower line in part-playing did not blend with my vision of chamber music as a lifetime hobby. I reverted to the practice of teaching elements of music reading away from the instrument while early bowing skills were acquired.

Two members of that very young group became professional players, confirming the advantage of a very early start. One of them, Clio Gould, led two successful ensembles in ITV’s Fanfare for Young Musicians for groups under eleven years. Events like this are major stimuli for ensembles, and pupils used to group work are less prone to performance nerves. Clio’s full mixed string group at that time particularly enjoyed singing and playing in parts, which can help pitching and reading skills so much. She is now leader of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

Since I bought my house 30 years ago generations of children have graduated from duets to the Mendelssohn Octet via quartets and quintets from Bach to Britten. Many have families of their own, but still meet to play recreational chamber music. Some are by now bringing their children to me for lessons. Chamber music fiends (sorry, friends) never give up.

Read The Strad’s article on 12 ways to encourage children to practise.

This article was first published in The Strad’s February 2007 issue. Subscribe to The Strad or download our digital edition as part of a 30-day free trial. To purchase single issues click here.