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Violin for ‘boisterous’ children

This is something I’m thinking about partly because of situations in my teaching, and partly because I watched the BBC’s documentary “Will Britain Ever Have a Black Prime Minister?” this morning. (You can check it out on iplayer or YouTube) Incidentally, this programme was brought to my attention by a fantastic young musician and composer, Cassie Kinoshi.

Watching the programme, I wasn’t surprised by any of the statistics. I’m glad that the BBC is doing something to raise awareness of the issues. The bit that got me thinking in relation to my own teaching was the section about ‘boisterous’ children being labelled as ‘problems’. I was reflecting on this only yesterday due to a particular case. Context: I teach violin in a school where the school funds the lessons and provides the instruments for any child in school years 4-6 who want to learn. They get a group lesson once a week. As you may expect, uptake in year 4 is high, and numbers drop in years 5 and 6 as some students lose interest / find it’s not for them / don’t want to miss lesson time (SATs pressure!) etc. As I have flexibility with how I divide my time, I tend to have each year group in smaller groups as they get older (also helps with the small teaching space – I can physically fit more of the smaller year 4s in there at a time!).

With my larger year 4 groups (generally 6 children at a time, having 30 minute lessons) I have noticed that more ‘boisterous’ children tend to be less focussed and less able to learn an instrument requiring fine motor skills. I haven’t noticed any particular characteristics of these children being from particular ethnic groups, but I have noticed that they are mostly boys. These children tend to struggle with both left and right hand technique and get frustrated easily, and need a lot of focussed individual attention in order to progress enough to broadly keep up with the rest of their group (although they will often end up playing an easier part).

Assuming that these children get through year 4 without giving up (despite finding it harder than the average child), and decide to continue learning in years 5 and 6, this is where the interesting things happen. I find that there comes a point where many of these children suddenly begin to make good progress, catching up with and sometimes even surpassing their classmates. It’s as if a switch has been flicked and they are suddenly able to hold the bow with a good bow hold without a massive struggle, producing a better tone. The only explanation I can think of is that they have reached some kind of developmental milestone at a later age than the other children (I’m sure there’s been lots of research in this area – a quick search has not yielded any detailed scientific reports, just less academic magazine-style articles, but if you find one let me know).

The problem presented in the programme jumped out at me because just yesterday I was reflecting on the progress made by child Z, who is now in year 6. Z struggled through lessons in years 4 and 5, often having problems focussing, with low confidence levels meaning that they seemed unable to complete any task unless they had my undivided attention for constant reassurance (which was often impossible in a group of 6 children). With a bit more flexibility in how I combined pupils in groups in year 6, I put Z in a group with 2 other students who happen to be good independent learners, get on well with each other, and have very different skill sets (one is a strong reader but struggles a bit with technique – the other is a good player but has poor literacy). These 2 students are able to help each other a lot, freeing me to spend more time focussing individually on Z. Z has made outstanding progress this year so far as a result, and their behaviour has drastically improved. Whereas in years 4 and 5 Z struggled to learn alongside others, after having had a bit more individual input they are able to work much better in the group as their confidence has grown.

I’m pleased with the success I’ve had this term with Z, but also I’d like to be able to implement similar individualised plans with ‘boisterous’ children in younger, larger groups. In a way, they are ‘problem’ children for me, as the situation doesn’t really suit them and therefore they are more likely to misbehave. The ‘problem’ really though is not the child, but a combination of complex factors – group size, the nature of the skills needed to play the violin, stage of development, my teaching style, the relationships between students, more factors I haven’t thought of.

What are my options? The programme is already set up so as not to disadvantage these children at the outset (I don’t select at all, and in year 4 they do half a year – this was to enable more children to take part, but actually it’s good for those who struggle at first), but more can be done. I’m planning on changing the order in which I teach parts so that everyone learns the easiest parts to any piece first, and then those who need more of a challenge can move to more difficult parts later (differentiating up rather than down as I have generally been doing with years 4 and 5), which I hope will help with confidence. Using games in my teaching is something that I’ve been neglecting recently and need to focus on developing (any recommendations please pass them on). Any instrumental teachers out there who can share any other tips for helping ‘boisterous’ children (especially boys with late-developing fine motor skills) stay motivated and engaged in group lessons?

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