Ah, practice. It's rewarding, it's frustrating, it's tedious, and it's divine. It's especially a challenge to motivate young violinists to practice. That's because the tricky part of practice is that the more you do it, the more rewarding it becomes.
I think it's important to set realistic goals for practice, whether it's for yourself or a young child. To often, parents become frustrated because their child doesn't want to practice, without taking into account how normal that is. I have yet to see many children under the age of nine who can practice on their own--parents must help them to practice. Here are some ideas to get you started. Keep in mind, all children are different, so you might want to try several different activities to see which ones work best for your young violinist.
1. Listening practiceListening to music can be a very important part of practice, as I mentioned in my post on Suzuki techniques. It's also a very simple routine to implement. I recommend uploading the Suzuki CD to your iphone, ipad, computer, etc. so it is easily accessible at all times, then play the CD regularly throughout the day. For example, listen to it in the car on the way to school. Put the CD on while your child is drawing pictures and ask them to "draw what they hear in the music." Put it on quietly during nap time. Have your child sing along with the music. Have them dance to the music. Have them clap the rhythms or beats for the music. There are endless activities for active listening, and even if you can't manage any other type of practice, listening will make an enormous difference to your child's progress.
2. Silly SoundsI frequently use this when I teach preschool piano. Letting children explore their instruments and discover the different sounds it makes can really inspire them. For piano, I simply had the children sit at the keyboard and touch whatever keys they wanted for a few minutes. The only rule was that they had to only use their fingers and play gently. At first, this was only a way to keep them occupied while I wrote down notes, but I quickly realized that the more silly sounds the children made, the more quickly they grasped the organization of the keyboard. On violin, you might let your child try playing on whatever string they like, or whatever notes they feel like playing. They might also like making "Evel Knievel" noises by sliding their fingers up and down the fingerboard. I think that sometimes we accidentally make the musical instruments feel too unapproachable--giving kids permission to explore them (with reasonable limits) helps them to learn on their own in a more relaxed way.
3. Bow HoldIn essence, a good bow hold only takes muscle memory, so when I first teach my students a good violin bow hold, I recommend that they practice it in front of the TV. Basically, a student should carefully set their hand in a beautiful bow hold, then try to hold it for the commercial breaks of their favorite show. Even this few minutes of time spent focusing on making a good bow hold can reinforce muscle memory and improve playing.
4. Card GamesA fun and productive way to review, this technique takes some effort by the teacher or the parents, but it can pay off enormously. With just plain index cards and some markers, you make a set of cards for each song, scale, or etude that a child can play. You make a second set of cards for different techniques a teacher would like the child to master, like good posture, curved pinky (bow hand), curved thumb, relaxed wrist, beautiful tone, good intonation, etc. Once the cards are done, ask your child to choose two cards--one song card and one technique card. The child then plays the song and focuses on the technique on the other card. This can keep students engaged and guessing what songs will come next. You can also experiment with funny cards (play this piece like you are giving a concert for an elephant! imagine you're performing with your favorite musician!).
5. Singing and playing short, fun songsI've heard very good things about Alfred's I Know a Fox with Dirty Socks and other books that have interesting stories or lyrics for children to learn while they master the songs. Sometimes regular songs can feel very long to a young child, and short little songs might help them stay engaged. These pieces might be a nice break from practicing more serious music.
6. Engage the other Arts, tooWe're learning music, but other arts can certainly help inspire our musical practice. Your child might want to draw pictures of musical ideas. I've had several students who loved drawing beautiful musical symbols like the treble clef, or drawing notes. It might be especially fun for a child to draw some notes or rhythm patterns and then try to play what they're written. Or if your child likes reading or listening to stories, maybe he or she could invent new lyrics to their songs. A theatrical child might want to dress up and perform an imaginary concert, or pretend to be a famous musician or other person when they play.
7. Practice with friendsIt's always great to have a friend who's taking music lessons too. Children might enjoy playing pieces together, and you can ask the teacher for duet music they might enjoy. The children could also take turns playing for each other, and they may be able to help each other sometimes. Keep the environment laid back and avoid too much competition, and your child can have a great time bonding with other kids in music lessons.
Related articles on Suzuki Method and Violin/Viola teaching or performing:Suzuki Method--a Violin Teacher's Perspective
Suzuki Philosophy: Every Child Has Talent
Suzuki Techniques--Listening is the key
Violin Life Lessons
Practicing Violin Effectively
Great Apps for Musicians
Excellent Supplemental Books for Suzuki Violin and Viola Students
Inspiring, Helpful Books for Violin and Viola Teachers
Suzuki Method for Adult Students
For Parents: How to Support your Child's Music Practice and Development
Overcoming Performance Anxiety: How to Help Music Students Prepare for Recitals, Auditions, and other Performances
Music Lessons for Children with Disabilities
Seven Ways to Develop Listening and Aural Skills in Music Students
Persistence--The Most Important Aspect of Talent
Pascale Method for Violin--A Review
More Apps for Musicians and Music Students
Classical Music Isn't Dying--It's in a Recession