Four Ways To Teach Visually

My latest homemade visual tool - a Suzuki Book One graduation puzzle

My latest homemade visual tool - a Suzuki Book One graduation puzzle

I am constantly looking for new ways to teach visually.

The other day I sat down to see if I could figure out how many different visual tools I use in teaching. I listed over two dozen, and I wasn't counting them all. My latest creation is a puzzle that helps students visualize where they are in Suzuki Book One.

The Four Types

In trying to categorize the teaching tools, I found out that there are basically four ways I teach visually:

  1. Reading

  2. Showing 

  3. Imagining

  4. Mapping

In reading, we are looking at marks on a page. This includes traditional note reading, as well as any other method (such as finger charts) that involve symbols written out as prompts for what to play. See an example here.

In showing, we are demonstrating (usually with our body, but could be with a picture or video) how to do a motion or position. For example, when we show how our left hand looks when we shift to third position. See an example here.

In imagining, we are helping conjure up a visual image in the student's mind. This could take the form of a character (what does a happy farmer look like?), a story line (now what is happening to the French soldiers?), or picturing the actual process of practicing a fast passage or note pattern. See an example here.

In mapping, we are using some sort of visual chart, map, or other system to help the student track progress and goals (such as with a practice sheet or the graduation puzzle above), assist with understanding an aspect of music theory (such as the musical alphabet wheel) or learn any other complex information related to their learning (such as the form of a piece, or where to stand at a concert.) See an example here.

I've discovered that the greatest teaching power comes when we are actively using all four of the visual teaching types, combining them in a way that amplifies the student's learning, while simultaneously increasing motivation and engagement in practicing.

I'm excited to announce a new webinar, The Visual Suzuki Teacher, where I will be going into each area in more detail.

In the class I will present how I use visual tools in lessons and group class, and discuss practical applications for teaching. I will show how I use the tools to help beginners and young children get to Twinkle, as well as how they work for older children, intermediate students and adults.

The entire recorded webinar will be made available afterward for all registrants who can't attend the live session.

Helping Students With Aspergers

She was wound tight as a drum.

Wresting her violin out of the case, this high-school student threw herself into playing her piece, even before saying hello.

She crashed around the notes, her bow sawing against the strings. Her frustration increased, as she was not playing cleanly or with good tone. Her body, already full of tension, began to jerk and start, and her already tight hands clutched harder, like a hawk wired to clamp around prey.

I asked her to stop, but as soon as she did, a barrage of words came forth, analyzing what was wrong. The more we tried to talk about it, the worse it got, as she would not look me in the eye, and seemed not to be listening to me. She continued to interrupt with more bad playing, all the while getting more and more frustrated, convincing herself that what I said wasn’t right, and that nothing would fix her problems.

Is this just bad behavior?

Another student, a four-year old boy, seemed intent on doing everything else besides play his violin. He would not listen to direction, would not look me in the eye, and would not imitate my playing. He showed little interest in the sort of games and body movement exercises that work with every other student. He would fixate on things in the room, like how an object looked or how my tuner worked.

He showed clear intelligence and ability to play when he wanted to, but nothing I did or said seemed to stick. We made no progress for several lessons.

 It would have been easy to put both of these students' problem down to “bad behavior” or “lack of practice” but I knew that neither one of these was the full explanation.

Not Business As Usual

I suspected both of these students were on the high-functioning Asperger's spectrum.

While I am not an expert in Asperger's or in music therapy, I have observed and worked with a number of students demonstrating the characteristics of the Asperger's spectrum, and I want to share the things I learned to do to help. 

There are certain surprising ways to dissolve the (sometimes formidable) walls that Asperger's students put up.

We can ease them into being more musical, but the methods used are different than what we might use with other students. 

The first thing that I had to get over was that the techniques and tricks that I had thought were foolproof and universal, actually were not. I was surprised when something that I was confident would work either fell flat or completely backfired and produced an emotionally negative atmosphere in the lesson. 

Once I got over the hurdle of expecting these students to act a certain way, I was able to assess what they really needed and apply a different strategy.

What if you don't know for sure?

Many parents will inform you straight up front, that their child has Asperger's. But some will not, either because they don't wish to share this information or they have not been formally diagnosed. (Some parents resist the labeling that comes with this diagnosis, and that can have the adverse consequence of not receiving proper access to treatment.)

Sometimes with high-functioning Asperger's kids, they and their parents may not know they are on the spectrum. For those students, a confusing array of behaviors such as tantrums, OCD, and other problems mix in a confusing way with otherwise social, intelligent, mature behavior.

Empathy for their behavior is key here. You may not know for sure whether they have Asperger's, and you may not even be in the position to speak to the parents about that issue (I was not able to on a number of occasions, partly due to the fact that I was working in music school environments where they weren't set up to conference with parents). If you watch for the behavior signs, and remain open to adapting to the symptoms, you might be the one to help them achieve a sense of understanding and acceptance of who they are.

Some Rules of Thumb

I found that most of the time I needed to apply these rules of thumb:

  1. Less analysis, more playing. High functioning Asperger's students that I have worked with have a propensity to analyze analyze analyze. While this is an incredible strength in other areas, it tends to get them stuck in music. 
  2. Don’t talk, argue, or explain.  Find a way to play together, something the student will accept, at their level, for as much of the lesson as possible. 
  3. The body must relax to play, and playing makes the body relax. Breathing exercises may be necessary to break the initial tension cycle, if that is getting in the way. (Click here to see Practice Tip on Breathing.)
  4. Routine is essential. We need to go over what to do immediately after opening the case and getting out the violin - and it is not crashing into the piece! There needs to be a warmup routine that involves breathing, slow playing, easy playing, and simple notes.
  5. Let go of picky technical fixes (bend your pinky, don’t do that with your wrist, etc.) These tend to get into the world of verbal explanation, and we need to minimize that.
  6. For young children, I found that a number focus predominates. Numbers help them to play rather than talk or wander off mentally. (Numbered finger charts are available to download at
  7. Get them in the Right Brain. Once we get them playing, the music seems to take over. It captures them. I believe this is a hemispheric access shift. The Right Brain is non-verbal, connected to the body, and non-analytical. It seems that Asperger's spectrum students become “trapped” in a sense, in an over-active Left Brain. The reason music therapy helps is that it activates the Right Brain and, for a time, closes down the over-hyper, verbally argumentative, and non-musical Left Brain.

Since the music captures them bodily, many technical fixes seem to take care of themselves.

That’s why it is OK to let go of picky technicalities, things that help to explain to other students but don’t seem to help with those on the spectrum. (A lesson here even for the mainstream student: sometimes we need to let the music guide our bodies, rather than the other way around.)

I am a very hands-on teacher. I tend use touch with my students to help establish body awareness. With some Asperger's students this isn't possible, since their sensitivity and comfort level may dictate keeping a respectful distance.  (I didn't put this in the rules of thumb, because it hasn't been true consistently for the Asperger's students I have taught. Some were fine with touch, others were not.)

If touch is not possible, let the music do the touching. Again, the music will capture their body in a way you cannot with your words or your touching. And over time, as their comfort level increases, you may be able to ease in to gentle manual adjustment. You may also want to point them to video and audio resources to help them self-teach. (For example, my video on how to have a more flexible wrist:

As she breathed with me, my tense high-school student relaxed.

I asked her to listen to me just long enough to ask her to slow down and play some long smooth bows. Then we went back to her piece and played it together, breathing at the phrases. In the next lesson we breathed again moving our arms up and down, then played together again. In the next lesson we breathed and practiced Jellyfish fingers (see Practice Tip #14). The focus on breathing kept her out of her “wordy” Left Brain and empowered her holistic, body-aware Right Brain.

How Many Times Can You...?

As I began to realize that numbers were the name of the game for the four-year-old, I started asking him to count everything.

I would ask him to count how many times I moved my bow. Then I would ask if he could do the same number. I found I could get him to do almost anything if I prefaced it with “How many times can you….” I asked him to count notes, count to 10 while holding his violin up, count how many times he could tap his fingers on the tapes, and so on.

As an experiment, I made a numbered finger chart of Lightly Row for him, and he learned it in the space of a single lesson. We began to progress quickly through the next pieces, using finger charts. Hiccups and technical quirks seemed to fix themselves, almost by magic.

This student's ability with numbers made the complexity of a string instrument become a source of interest and stimulation rather than a stumbling block.

Further Resources

Asperger's students are wonderful, engaging, intelligent, and capable kids. Playing music seems to help tap their intelligence, just in a different way. Every student has a unique range of learning styles and behaviors, so perhaps our Asperger's students are really giving us a gift, in helping us to adapt better.

I encourage anyone dealing with Asperger's spectrum or autism to pursue more resources and become familiar with the medical and therapeutic avenues available. My recommendations are fairly specific to playing an instrument: my aim here is not to diagnose or treat the condition, but simply to share what has worked for me as a violin teacher.

You may find the following resources helpful:

Share your experience

If you have an Asperger's spectrum student or your own child, please consider comments to this post to add suggestions to the discussion. We can all benefit from hearing more about how to adapt to this unique and wonderful learning style.

Taming The Savage Beast - Or, The Magic of Group

"I don't get so mad," one of my students said, "when I play in group." 

 I was surprised to hear this. This student has a history of drama and overreaction when making mistakes. 

“What do you mean?” I asked. “I dunno,” he said, thoughtfully. “I guess it is because when I make a mistake in group, we just go on.”

When children give us drama - tantrums, anger, crying, rolling around on the floor, slap-happiness, physical silliness - it can make us feel like we want to tear our hair out.

In frustration we want to demand that they stop the ridiculous behavior. We want them to understand the rules, and have the will-power and self control to follow them. We try to reason with them and often find that only increases the silliness.

Why does drama happen, and how can we address it?

Children don't realize they are doing something irrational, and when they are doing it, often they are feeling something so physically in their bodies that they cannot hear or communicate in any other way than through a dramatic display of physicality or emotion.

Understand: when children become overdramatic, they are often not capable of rationally "deciding" to change and behave differently. They will not change until an outside stimulus prompts them to change. 

We make it worse because we are trying to change the inner state of child, instead of changing their environment.

Enter Group Class

Girl and Boy.jpg

The magic of group class is that it supplies just the right environmental shift for students to be able to get past their own individual motivational walls.  Playing with other students is a way to modulate the many moods and reactions that can come over a child when practicing.

The student who gets mad at her own mistakes is a perfectionist. She wants things to come out perfectly the first time, and reacts angrily when they don't. She fixates on mistakes and has trouble following through on practice sessions when she starts making errors. And of course this emotional state produces more errors.

But this downward spiral of negative emotion dissolves when it occurs while the child is nested in group.

The group is like a big barge floating down the river. It may hit an individual rock, or tree branch, but it will adjust around it and keep going. Psychologically this releases pressure from the individual child. Not only are they out of the spotlight, they cannot fixate and get mired in their own mistakes.

Group class provides the environment where a successful performance is possible, even though any particular individual may not be able to play 100% successfully. It gives each child a vision of a larger whole, into which they can fit themselves with a better sense of proportion.

Everyone feels better after group. Mistakes are mended, moods are soothed, and the music gets to have its effect on even the most intractable child.

The next time you want to put your savage beast in a cage, take him to group class!



More Focus, More Harmony - How Adults Can Benefit From Playing The Violin

We don't have enough focus. We don't see eye to eye.

You've heard these two phrases, or something similar, spoken at work or in an organization you volunteer for.

Lack of focus, and lack of interpersonal harmony, are two of the biggest reasons we don't take action in our places of work, our social organizations, our churches, and our governing boards, on the things that could move us forward.

Think about your work, both professional and volunteer. Do these two issues come up?

You can probably think of several reasons why there is lack of focus or disharmony. A lot of the causes seem like they are "out there" somewhere. Institutional problems, politics, bad attitudes, outdated regulations, that guy who is nothing but a windbag in meetings, the out-of-touch manager. There are a million different things that cause us to get off track with our focus, and a million more that can get in the way of us getting along.

The problem is, we can't control the external environment. We can't change other people. However, there is something we can control, and that is our own brain. We can change ourselves.

Executive Function and Social Synchrony

There are two Right Brain characteristics brought forward by playing music that will help you with achieving focus and harmony. They are outlined in the journal "Frontiers in Neuroscience":

"The notion of executive function refers to the cognitive processes orchestrated by the prefrontal cortex that allow us to stay focused on means and goals, and to willfully (with conscious control) alter our behaviors in response to changes in the environment (Banich, 2009). They include cognitive control (attention and inhibition), working memory and cognitive flexibility (task switching)."

"Furthermore, musical activities are often social. Indeed, it has been proposed that the evolutionary function of music has always been to increase cooperation, coordination, communication, co-pathy, contact, social cognition and cohesion between the members of a group (Koelsch, 2010). It seems that one of these effects is the fact that a certain form of social synchronization is instilled, implying the respect of and adaptation to each other. In fact, in empirical studies it has often been described that acting in synchrony with a partner may increase prosocial commitment (Kokal et al., 2011), social affiliation (Hove and Risen, 2009), trust (Launay et al., 2013), cooperation (Wiltermuth and Heath, 2009) and feelings of compassion (Valdesolo et al., 2010; Valdesolo and Desteno, 2011). When playing music in a group one has to automatically synchronize to the other musicians. The state of synchrony is therefore generated naturally."

Could your life improve if you played a musical instrument? When you look around and see a need for more focus, when you experience a lot of negative, argumentative meetings, consider this: music might just be the solution you've been missing.

When our children take music lessons, we're glad to know they are getting this kind of brain training. Staying focused on means and goals combined with the ability to create social affiliation are important developmental areas for children. 

But let's expand our thinking to our adult world: a great deal of problem solving could be accomplished if we all had better executive function and social synchrony.

Who would have thought? Playing violin could be the thing that helps you develop professionally. If this rings true for you, don't wait to inquire. It could be life changing.

Talk with Edward about adult lessons



How To Gain True Devotion - Let Them Invent

Butterfly Scroll

One of the ways we unwittingly destroy motivation in children is by teaching them that there is only one right answer.

Usually, in music and in life, there is more than one answer, more than one approach. When children are allowed to explore all the options available to them, they can take personal ownership of them in a deeper way.

Children are more likely to engage and commit to something they have discovered on their own. If they are allowed to experiment and realize for themselves what is good, effective, beautiful, they are more likely to engage with it and remember it long term.

Because beginners don't know the technical skills required for getting started, these must be taught and practiced. By necessity much of this teaching is done in a "do-it-this-way" approach. But this rule-based way of doing things needs to be replaced as quickly as possible by a more exploratory framework, or the creative soul of music is dulled.

Moreover, many children are perfectionists. They already assume without our telling them that there is one right way, and immediately feel like a failure when they don't get it. That's a sure way for them to lose motivation and stop practicing.

By recovering a spirit of invention and exploration, you can overcome this loss of motivation. By changing the framework. you will make it easier for your child not to assess self-blame, and eliminate the fear of doing it wrong. 

Letting your children invent is an important life skill. They will use it not only in music, but in every other area that they are trying to learn and master. By framing goals in terms of creating, exploring, and moving toward what is good, instead of only conforming to what is correct, we establish a long-term mindset that guarantees true devotion and love for one's work.

The highest gift in life

Music has always been a communal activity.

It allowed the earliest humans to become social. Music, then and now, places us into a larger whole. It situates us in a shared space, one that we actually crave: the space of connection and bonding to other humans.

When we speak the language of music, we truly harmonize and flourish as a people. Sharing our love of music together is motivating and fun, and we help each other get over the fear and nervousness of playing in front of people. 

But more than that, we connect as human beings, and we discover an aspect of ourselves that wants to belong with others, to nest into an ecosystem, and to see the good in giving for others’ sake.

Isn't this one of the highest gifts in life?