We spoke to Violin Basics co-author Jessica O’Leary about her exciting new beginner method and asked her the all-important questions that teachers, students and parents want to know when starting out on a new violin journey. Violin Basics is out now.
What led you and Paul Harris to write Violin Basics?
I was keen to write a holistic and practical beginner book that was engaging, encourages excellent technique and musicianship while also playing in a relaxed way.
Tutor books can be highly prescriptive and leave no space for teachers to personalise things for their pupils. Virtuoso teachers (as Paul Harris says) are highly flexible and this book will encourage that approach while giving all the practical information needed for these crucial early stages. Other beginner books can be just a series of pieces and although these are great to supplement core teaching, they don’t cover the knowledge needed to develop independent learning.
Students and parents can easily become frustrated with the rate of progress leading to many giving up in the first year. They are more likely to continue with lessons if things are easy, inexpensive and if progress and goals are obvious and fun. Performing early pieces with control and variety will add joy to most families’ lives and our method helps avoid the ‘scratchy’ sounds that need not be associated with beginner playing. Violin Basics encourages good aural awareness from the start and the games create relaxed and controlled arms to help make a singing sound from day one.
In your view, what makes Violin Basics different to the many other established methods already out there?
Violin Basics is a practical book that covers rhythm and bowing, fingering patterns and tuning, note-reading and theory, expression and character, movement games and duets as well as downloadable piano accompaniments – all with humorous titles to engage a young learner.
Because freedom of movement on the violin is so important for later shifting and vibrato, we created games and pieces that involve sliding, harmonics, tremolo and left-hand pizzicato. These are fun in themselves but also pave the way for seamless progress long term. For example, harmonics and sliding help avoid that feeling of being stuck in first position and the fear of high notes! I don’t think any other method covers all these elements so thoroughly in one book.
What kind of age and audience did you have in mind when you wrote Violin Basics?
Violin Basics is designed for 7- 10 year olds. It has lots of humour and drawings as learning is always easier if the student is laughing! Among our students, we had beginners aged five and eleven who loved it equally – they just went at a slightly different pace.
The book is designed for one-to-one lessons, but the pieces and games will work in groups too. I have used the warm-up games in massed groups of beginners for years and they are highly effective for all string players. Developing awareness and control of motor skills is essential for youngsters and the games provide this in an easy way.
There is so much technique to incorporate in a beginner violin method – how did you tackle that but keep it fun?
Our method ‘smuggles in’ technique within games that encourage the right physical movements. There are basic exercises that every professional string player does, and we have created child-friendly versions for each stage.
For example, there are games to reinforce the correct angle of the violin and bow and to develop the right feel and weight of the left fingers on the strings while keeping the body relaxed and upright. This is one of the only string books to incorporate these elements in such a holistic way and the feedback shows that progress is smooth and that students love it!
There are traditional scales and arpeggios too, but they are always reinforced in pieces, so the connection and purpose are clear. The book is divided into stages and there are age-appropriate explanations of new elements at the start of each one. Every technical element is linked musically but individual steps are tiny. For example, clapping new rhythms turns into bowed rhythms, which turn into pieces within the key of that particular stage, which then turn into theory questions and a composition and performance at the end!
There are clear diagrams, ‘personal bests’ and gentle reminders all the way through the book to keep the core posture in place. After all, we all know that students can forget to hold their bows with curled fingers occasionally…
Do you and Paul Harris plan to write more together? What are your next plans?
We’d love to write more together as we have such similar ideas on education and had huge fun. I also play viola so we’re both thrilled to be working together on Viola Basics…!