Strad readers submit their problems and queries about string playing, teaching or making to our experts
Young children’s enthusiasm for music making should only be encouraged – but, asks a reader, is there a danger of them picking up bad habits from the initial stages? Three tutors give their views on the advantages and pitfalls.
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The dilemma: My son is two and a half and loves playing with my cello. He likes to pluck the strings or use a coathanger to simulate my bow (he bangs on the strings to get a sound and sometimes makes a bow movement). This activity remains fun, and he ‘plays’ whenever he wants, but he would love to start using my bow and I don’t want him to learn bad habits. Should I be concerned if he starts off by holding the bow the way he holds my finger, or should I wait until he can process suggestions for proper bow technique? Any advice would be extremely helpful! MICHAEL DEPLONTY, FREISING, GERMANY
SIMON CARTLEDGE First, let us acknowledge how important your son’s environment is: he is in a home where he sees and hears the cello being played, and he loves it. As you say, he enjoys playing and plucking the strings, and the fun needs to continue for the months and years to come.
We all know children love mirroring and copying our actions and are like sponges, absorbing and learning in their early years, so your playing really is special to him. Think of when your son was starting to walk and feed himself. I’m sure you didn’t worry about bad habits developing, although you would have offered encouragement and plenty of cleaning up!
How about buying your son his own small bow, so that the weight and length are manageable? When my young violin pupils graduate to the bow, I show them how to hold it at the balance point and I would recommend that you loosely wrap a duster round the stick so that his fingers (and especially the thumb) remain soft and flexible. Boys’ fine motor skills are slower to develop than those of girls, and it isn’t helpful to do too much too soon. I recall seeing Sándor Végh teaching sautillé bowing to an advanced student with a duster wrapped round the frog, so that the bowing hand was large and soft with nothing too fixed.
Allow your son to bow fast and wildly, with no intervention from you. Great virtuosic patterns of movement can start to emerge; there is plenty of time for refinement. Quick rhythm patterns based on words are a good way of starting that process. Always keep in mind that music and playing an instrument are great sources of creative development throughout our lives. There really is no hurry and our feelings of warmth, fun and nurturing in those early years will strongly influence how we go on to develop and feel about music.
ANDREA YUN As the mother of an eager 18-month-old, I have just been struggling with the same questions. In my opinion, you can:
- Let him do whatever he wants with the bow. It will give him that immediate gratification and will keep his curiosity activated. If he does end up playing the cello, just prepare yourself for the fact that it may be a steep path to learning how to play with the bow correctly. But it may not!
- Give him a device that resembles the bow but doesn’t have a frog. Perhaps you could cut a few bow hairs from your bow and then fashion a makeshift bow out of something with an arc, such as a toy bow and arrow. Then, if he gets a bow with a frog in the future, it won’t be a huge surprise that he has to hold it differently.
- Give him a foam cello and bow, and hold your ground. Tell him that your bow is yours, but he can play with his toy bow on his toy cello. You let him drink water from a cup, but you probably don’t let him drink your coffee. This should be the same principle. If you hold your ground, he won’t question it – maybe after a few tantrums.
Personally I chose the first of these options: I gave my daughter a small violin and bow, and I’m letting her do whatever she wants with it. I treat it as a toy in my mind. And if we do start violin lessons some day, I hope she will understand that it’s no longer a toy.
As you’ll already know, every child is different, so trust your instincts and get ready to change paths if you think your son needs it. Good luck.
LENNEKE WILLEMS Your son is just two and a half and that is quite young to start learning to play the cello and a proper bow hold. Even so, you might like to try the following suggestions.
My students are normally around five years old when they start violin lessons. For the first year, or maybe longer, I let them practise the bow hold with an exercise stick, which I call a ‘magic wand’. This round stick of 1cm diameter is very light and is around the length of a 1/16 bow. You will notice that learning how to place the fingers on the stick is easier than using the bow. All kinds of games with the stick are possible, but the basic principle is that after making movements, the student has to keep the fingers in the right position, without tension. Using an exercise stick during the child’s first lessons in bowing will produce a very good result.
Considering the young age of your son, each time he wants to start playing, you could first ask him to demonstrate the bow hold with the stick, then talk with him about the placing of each finger, and invent some games. For instance, he could point to some objects – the window, the ceiling, his nose – and if he manages to keep the bow hold right, pay him a compliment. Then you might give him a 1/16 or 1/8 cello bow. He should grasp it a little bit more to the centre. If he does, the bow will not be too heavy for him, whereas your own bow would certainly cause tension.
Finally, children can enjoy playing pizzicato in different rhythms on open strings, especially when there is someone to accompany them on piano, guitar or other instruments.
KOOSJE VAN HAERINGEN Children aged two and a half learn a lot by imitating and by exploring. When a child wants to imitate a parent, the best thing you can do is stimulate that attention. I wouldn't be concerned about bad habits and bow technique at this moment. Children at this age don't have the right motoric skills to hold the bow properly, but they are very flexible and by playing a lot, the fine motor skills will develop quite fast.
It doesn't seem wise, though, to give a mature bow to a young child. It will undoubtedly be dropped more than once, but more importantly it will really be too heavy. In my opinion, the best option is to look for a small cello and a matching bow. Ask for advice to get the right size. Play together with your son a lot. For example, you can imitate each other by playing short motifs – pizzicato or arco. Or you can sing well-known songs together and make him play the rhythm on open strings. And you can do a lot of bow-hold games to make his right hand and arm flexible.
Simon Cartledge gives teaching workshops throughout the UK and has an annual class at the Zenon Brzewski Music Courses in Poland: www.simoncartledge.com
Andrea Yun is a cello pedagogue and teacher-trainer, and founder of the Ann Arbor Cello School: www.andreayun.com
Lenneke Willems is a Dutch violin tutor and the author of two ‘Mini Violin’ method books: www.miniviolin.com
Koosje van Haeringen is a violin professor at the Royal Conservatoire, The Hague: www.koncon.nl