Help! Orchestra Transfer Student

Bethany said: Mar 12, 2013
Evanston, WY
2 posts

I know that this has to be a problem for a lot of people, but I just got an older student who started in and has been playing ONLY in a school orchestra for several years. Basically, she has no tone, intonation, bow control, or posture. She has a fast finger vibrato, shifts (but not well—really a jump shift), and loves fast notes. Her major strength is that she sight-reads well, and she has managed to get a pretty good vibrato out of her almost motionless fingers. I think that I will have a struggle with the Suzuki method with her; right now, I’m considering teaching her repertoire and technique to start with, but I’m not positive that this is a good strategy.

Does anyone have any ideas? As I said, I’m not sure that I can use the Suzuki method with her (that seems geared more toward tiny children and absolute musical beginners). What should I focus on first with posture? Which techniques should I work on? Which bow exercises are most crucial? I think that I will basically be starting at the beginning, but I have to take her many years’ worth of playing into consideration. Also, she is still in the school orchestra, meaning that her practice time will be heavily divided and that she is still playing pieces well beyond her ability (i.e. the Brandenburg concerto). I especially want to help her to improve relatively quickly without tearing down her self-esteem.

Sharon Neufeld said: Mar 12, 2013
Sharon Neufeld
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Viola
Greenfield, IN
14 posts

Hi there,

Boy, this scenario seems like my life story as a teacher! I often get transfer students who are older, and have not had a good foundation built in. It is difficult to break the bad habits, but I do believe—very firmly—that you must start at the beginning and build in the whole foundation. Think of it this way… If you buy a house, and later find that there’s mold in the bathroom walls, you don’t just look past it & hope that it will get better over time, right? You hire someone who specializes in mold remediation, and they will have to block off the area, gut the bathroom, clean it up, and build a new mold-resistant wall.

I think of it in the same way with a remedial transfer student. I don’t make them feel badly by telling them that they “don’t do all these things well”, but I show them by example (in my playing) what a great posture, great bow hand, etc will allow them to do. And then I tell them that if they would like to study with me, we will spend the first few months giving them all of the technique tools that will enable them to play beautifully.

My plan is then to start at the very beginning with Twinkles, and work through the books in order, teaching all of the techniques without any apology. Since older students like to feel like they have some control, I tell them that THEY are in control of how quickly we’ll work through the books! If they do EVERYTHING that I say, exactly the way I tell them to do it, they will learn the techniques correctly, and therefore will pass the pieces more quickly. I also celebrate with them every time they pass a piece, and I get very excited with them about the techniques that they learned through that piece. I’ll even play a more advanced piece for them, which uses that technique, emphasizing the fact that they will one day be able to play the more advanced piece because they took the time to learn the technique on an easy piece.

Obviously, as you are working on the various techniques, you should also be reinforcing excellent posture, bow hold, left hand position, etc.

Hope this helps! Please feel free to contact me directly if you’d like any more ideas.

Good luck!

Rebekah said: Mar 12, 2013
Rebekah Hanson
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Suzuki Early Childhood Education, Viola
9 posts

This is tough! I rarely accept transfer students, partially because of these challenges.

I agree with Sharon completely…I think the Suzuki philosophy teaches each technique pretty thoroughly and it is the most efficient way to teach your new student in an effective way, that you are confident teaching.

I have all my students do “book check-offs” once they complete the last song of a book. They bring in pieces, one or two at a time, and perform them for me. I tell them they must get the correct fingerings and bowings and play with a beautiful tone. Once they “check off” a piece it does not mean they never play a piece again- I still have them review all their pieces all the time. However, my students seem to really enjoy getting to put a sticker on the “check-off” chart next to the piece they successfully performed. It gives them pride in knowing they completed a book and get to move on to the next in a very concrete way. It all insures that they understand how important it is to review and play all their pieces with correct bowings etc. since they know they have to do a “check off”.

This has been very helpful with the few transfer students I have been teaching. Often times these students know some of the Suzuki repertoire but it is not at a high level so going back and polishing the pieces and getting to “check off’ the piece gives them a great sense of accomplishment.

I put the charts up on my office wall so students get to see who else is completing a book. I don’t know what it is, but my students love it and they work very hard and perform at higher level because they know this is a big deal.

Community Youth Orchestra said: Mar 12, 2013
Community Youth OrchestraViolin, Viola
70 posts


From time to time I even get college students that show up with these sorts of issues, and we go right back to the beginning and work on sound. It provides real justification for proposed changes to technique.

Sharon Neufeld said: Mar 12, 2013
Sharon Neufeld
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Viola
Greenfield, IN
14 posts

Chaconne25, thank you for posting your question! I’m enjoying reading others’ ideas! I think that this is a very common thing that we teachers have to deal with, and I also think that it’s important to learn how to teach them well instead of either turning them away or not cleaning things up & giving them the right tools. If we don’t do all that we can to help them, they often will either end up with another teacher who will perpetuate the shaky foundation, or the student will get frustrated and quit. I’ve had so many transfer students over the years who have done the hard work with me to develop a great foundation, and they now love playing, and many of them play really beautifully too! I even have one of those students who was just accepted to Interlochen School of the Arts as a freshman!

Also, I wanted to say… Don’t be afraid to make a big deal about “book check offs” or book graduations with the older kids. I have high school aged students who get very determined and want to work hard to pass all of their pieces (and they have to play it reeeally well for me to pass them on it!), so that they can graduate each book!

Wendy Caron Zohar said: Mar 12, 2013
Wendy Caron Zohar
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Viola
Ann Arbor, MI
94 posts

Great post from Chaconne25, and wonderful ideas from everybody! A large part of my teaching has been these kinds of students, and they come to me at all ages (up to 82!), so I have much accumulated experience. I like challenges, and these kinds of students provide plenty of that. There are two basic categories of transfer students: the wild and untrained, and the previously—but poorly—taught.

If they have never had private lessons, only years of [destruction in] school orchestra or in fiddling string bands, you might have an easier time fixing their technique and reforming their ingrained bad habits, than if they are coming from another teacher who actually taught them poor technique and lent a blind eye to bad habits. The former may feel that they are floating without a compass and are looking for direction and improvement, and thus more ready to take instruction and go back to basics. The latter tend to feel more protective of their way of playing, do not regard the bad habits as problems, and have to be convinced and brought into line gently.

In both cases, I find that I need to approach both with sensitivity and respect, and not tear them down entirely, at least not right away… and even then, I like to build on the best part of their playing to encourage them and keep the learning experience positive.

Even if they already beyond book 4 or 5, and playing everything boldly with great “belief in themselves”, but badly, with bad left hand formation, stiffness and bad posture, poor bow hold and arm motions, weak or nonexistent tone and wacky intonation and vibrato, incorrect bow distribution or contact point, with little musical understanding or phrasing, then I might suggest a little detour and call it a “workshop”. I generally suggest another book such as Doflein Bk 1 or Laoureux Vol. 1. This breaks their stubborn train of playing and enables them to start something fresh. (These are btw excellent books, in my opinion, which if taught well, enable us to start new habits, develop beautiful bow use at the start, followed by understanding of intervals and correct intonation, full of tuneful duets and musical material etc.) In this “workshop” project I introduce them to my pedagogic approach, and get them on board. Depending on the student, once the proper basic techniques have been established, I return with them as soon as possible to Suzuki bk 1 pieces, going through one by one, graduating each one, bearing tone, bowing, intonation, and everything else in mind.

The more advanced student, however, may be discouraged if he feels he’s being sent back to the trenches, and wants to feel he is continuing to progress in his book 5 or 6 material. And so along with the “basics workshop” I continue with those advanced pieces, but in a different light. We take them apart, note by note, separate bows, or groups of notes, making etudes of them, setting goals, making games out of them, etc. It also works to take a tricky bowing, rhythm, ornamentation, or melodic turn, and make it into a Twinkle variation, and use that to ‘make it easy’. If the student is older already, you need to engage their intellect and their desire to play beautifully, to motivate them to engage in your remedial program for them.

It is crucial to demonstrate while teaching, to show the difference between poor execution and playing that combines beautiful tone, technique, musicality and imagination. Be the model and they will want to follow you.

I employ pedagogic ideas from my Suzuki mentors and teachers including the many concepts I learned from John Kendall, plus teaching ideas that I’ve learned over a decades of playing and teaching that are too numerous to list here. It IS possible to help someone overcome their previous bad playing habits, and remake themselves as a growing violin student, seeking to play musically. True, it is much extra work requiring constant creative thinking. It is much harder to deal with, than teaching a young child correctly from the start. However, there is much reward when the student grasps how they are improving, and then gets excited and on board. You can have a wonderful impact on the life of each child, no matter their age and background. Good luck!!

Wendy Caron Zohar

Caitlin said: Mar 13, 2013
Caitlin HunsuckViolin
Merced, CA
41 posts

Depending on the student’s ability, I usually start at Twinkle and Minuet 1 in Book 1. Before even touching the Suzuki pieces though, I go thought the basics of posture, tone production, string crossings, and finger patterns. As we go through these things, I praise them on how much better they sound in just a few moments time! From there I say lets look at this “hard piece” in book 1. Minuet 1 is enough of a challenge if you make them learn it correctly. Down, up up… etc! While working on this piece, I go back and go through the rest of book one and teach each piece emphasizing the new technique they are working on. Strangely enough, they usually get to Etude about the same time they are working on Gavotte! Don’t forget to ask if they have questions on their orchestra music! They need to be taking what they learn from you and adding it to their daily playing at school.

Mircea said: Mar 14, 2013
Mircea Ionescu
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Suzuki in the Schools, Viola
Crestwood, KY
23 posts

These posts have been helpful, thank you all!

Chaconne, I agree with the other teachers that building the foundation through the Suzuki Literature is the way to go.

First, I would take time with the student to find out her goals through the lessons. Does she want to get into a better orchestra? Does she want to learn solo literature? You can give her some possible goals. This will help you understand her and meet her where she is in her violin journey. This is where I would communicate some of my principles and goals for students.

Next, you may want to consider using her accomplished sightreading skills to build the foundation. She can sightread a Suzuki piece, starting from Volume I and then take her through the skills she can now add to the piece. This is also where you can start developing her aural skills, through listening games and challenges.

From there you can work towards a Book I graduation/check off.

Moreover, I would use her orchestra literature to teach bow hand, tone, intonation, posture, etc. I would just be careful not to overwhelm her with how many things to work on. You can pick one per month or your choice, so that she can grow.

Throughout all this, I would strive to foster a love for excellency, creativity, honesty, expressive playing, and commitment (to name a few) so that she would grow to be a mature and healthy woman.

Bethany said: Apr 15, 2013
Evanston, WY
2 posts

Thank you for all of your great ideas! So far I have given her one Book 2 Suzuki song at a time while adding technical and posture points and helping her with her orchestra pieces. I’m afraid to address everything at the same time, so I am not aiming for absolute perfection on songs yet. We’ve gone through Musette so far and I have started her on Long Long Ago in Book 2 (it’s great for tone and slow work). So far I have found that she loves fast songs—but she struggles with rhythm and intonation as well as tone, so I thought that Long Long Ago would combine her strengths and help to give her greater control over her overall sound.

I am happy to say that she seems to be enjoying lessons so far, though. So far I have helped her with holding her violin up, with her bowhold, and with bow weight, and the difference in tone and confidence is wonderful!

I’m really a beginning teacher, as I have only been teaching for about two years, so thank you for all of your suggestions! I have seen some wonderful ideas here and will try to incorporate them in future lessons.

You must log in to post comments.

A note about the discussion forum: Public discussion forum posts are viewable by anyone. Anyone can read the forums, but you must create an account with your email address to post. Private forums are viewable by anyone that is a part of that private forum's group. Discussion forum posts are the opinion of the poster and do not constitute endorsement by or official position of the Suzuki Association of the Americas, Inc.

Please do not use the discussion forums to advertise products or services