‘The first 10 years sounded the worst’ my Mum says when asked about her daughters’ journeys learning the violin. It’s a well known fact that string instruments are hard work when you start learning them and the sound they produce, especially small instruments, can be anything from frustrating to borderline excruciating. Thankfully there are many people out there who understand the power of perseverance and if you can get through that difficult beginning, you will be rewarded many times over by being able to choose from an enormous repertoire of classic string pieces and are much more likely to be able to get a place in an orchestra (violins usually outnumber flutes on a ratio of 15:1).
So how can you help a little person learn a string instrument and make it as easy and fun as possible? Holding the bow is one of the hardest things to teach a child correctly - and correctly you must. It is the key not only to good sound production but also being able to execute different bow strokes and avoiding injuries further down the line. One of our little 6 year old maestros has been test driving two different bow hold aids for us after he got exasperated with not being able to hold his violin bow properly. The first was the Bow Hold Buddy from Things4Strings which attaches to the stick of the bow making it almost impossible not to hold it correctly. You can only hold it with a bent thumb and the ‘FrogFrog’ clinging to the bow provides a naturally spacing between the first two fingers. A little ‘HoldFish’ at the end of the bow is a great hole to place the pinky finger and hey presto the right hand is in a great position. I tried these out a few years ago with a violin student of a similar age but they were too big for little hands. But now the new Bow Hold Buddies fit the tiniest of hands. They come in Raspberry, Sparkly Pink, Black, Blue, Clear or Green/Gold so most kids will be happy with the choice… At around £25 they’re not a cheap option but we have to say they really do a fantastic job. Our little Heifetz was thrilled to bits with his and his confidence has grown and grown since using it. The idea is to remove it once the child is more confident in the shape of the hand.
Also available for the young cellists is the Cellophant - you’ve guessed it… shaped as an elephant, it provides the same shape support without limiting hand flexibility too much. These aids are really wonderful as the child can spend far less time practising the bow hold and more time learning to make a good sound on the instrument, with the bow hold becoming a ‘feel’ rather than a stressful thing to conquer.
Another wonderful aid we have recently discovered is the Felty Mouse by viola player Sheila Holdsworth for a bargain £3.50 per rodent. This much smaller budget version is just just adorable! The little felty mouse is held in the hand while the holding the bow, making sure that an ‘open hand’ and bent thumb are kept while playing. The great thing about these is that you can also use them for the left hand to maintain a good hand position around the neck. For those kids who grip the neck of the violin, simply get them to place the felty mouse between the first finger and thumb as low down as possible and instruct them not to crush the mouse to death… Our young violinist thought this was hilarious and has often been found chatting to his felty mouse during practice sessions!
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