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.

Beating the Winter Blahs

I haven't seen the sun in 12 days

When I go without sun, I go a little crazy. I feel tired and unmotivated. I notice that it affects my students this time of year too.

My students are sleepy, and I'm dreaming about the beach. How do I make it through?

I've noticed over the years that I have to have a plan during this time of year, or my and everyone else's motivation begins to flag.

Here are a few ways I've found to inject some life into playing this time of year:

  • Schedule a January recital. This may seem counterintuitive. But it really works. Pick a Sunday afternoon at the end of January when students will come together and play. Don't overplan or expect a gala event, just a chance to play. I'm amazed at how much direction this lends to the January lessons, and helps everyone get through the month. AND, it is after Christmas so you can avoid the stress of trying to get everyone ready during the holiday season. (Why not put that on a list of things to plan for this summer as you are setting out your teaching year?)
  • Schedule a play date. Read through some new pieces with someone who you haven't played with before. Your own musical exploration will spark energy, and you might make a new friend in the process.
  • Create a game. Make up a way to teach something that is recurring among your students. Firing up your creativity is a great way to make life less boring and get through the doldrums. Did you know there is training available for becoming more creative? It's worth a look around. I'll be sharing more in future posts about creativity training, but you can get a preview by going to
  • Get a booster lesson. Sometimes a different teacher can add life back into a student's playing, just by a different voice and a different angle. Like an Institute or workshop, a booster lesson is not meant to replace one's primary relationship with a private teacher, but to enhance it. Find out more about booster lessons here.

For more creative practicing idea, be sure to go back to the practice tips. Even if you have already read them, each time you go through them you'll find something new to try.

It is important that we share creative ways to keep our motivation and energy up during the winter for this important work.  Please share your story in the comments.

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!



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.