Introducing Violin to Young Learners

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A Manhattan private elementary school teaches students music through a new violin program


  • Students at Leman learn violin from first to third grade.

  • In the music program, young musicians learn how to stand, hold the violin and sing the notes before they start with the violins.

Financial District Léman Manhattan Preparatory School, a private boarding school just steps from the New York Stock Exchange, introduces music performance to some of its youngest scholars through a new violin education program.

Léman, a pre-K through twelfth grade private school with an international makeup—more than 50 countries are represented in its student body—implemented the violin class last year, after its sister school in North Broward County, Fl. found success with the program. Developed by Chris Petruzzi, the fine arts director for an international network of schools, called Meritas, to which Léman belongs, the strings program utilizes a combination of techniques from other established music education models, including the Suzuki method (named for Japanese violinist Shinichi Suzuki).

Léman’s program emphasizes repetition: students learn hand signs for each note, which correspond to the note’s location on a musical staff, and sing every song they learn on violin using both do-re-mi syllables and lyrics, often repeating a song multiple times in class.

“When parents come and visit the school, that’s the room we have to drag them out of,” said Paige Murphy, head of marketing, admissions and communications for Léman.

The violin program begins in first grade and continues through third grade, and so far 140 students have benefited from the instruction. Music teacher Hannah Picasso taught the course in Florida and came to Léman to introduce the program to the school’s already robust arts curriculum, which for elementary school students also includes woodworking and theater. Picasso is petite, with a sweet, high voice and a disposition to match, and accompanies her class on a Yamaha keyboard, her eyes off the keys as she scans the room of students, each dressed in a pale blue or navy Léman shirt or dress. Her students share music stands and stand two by two. The repetitive singing tests their abilities to stand still, but once the violins come to their shoulders, they work their way through the A major scale, “Big Rock Candy Mountain” and “This Land is Your Land” with intense focus on the notes in front of them, and bow when finished. And they’re eager to continue playing. Toward the end of their half-hour class, Picasso asks who would like to play a solo, and most students wag their hands.

“They are so excited to play for each other,” said Picasso. “They are confident performing in front of their peers.”

Some songs are old standbys, and others were written specifically for the curriculum, including “Tops,” a song with instructive lyrics on how to stand and hold the violin and bow (“T is for triangle, we make it with our feet”).

“There’s so many things that happen at once,” said Lisa Nowicki, director of Léman’s fine arts program. “What you’re doing with your mouth, your fingers, how you’re sitting. You’re deciphering code, you’re thinking about the duration of the notes, the pitch of the notes. Should I be playing loud? Should I play soft? The student’s mind is taking in all that information and instantaneously producing.”

Singing helps students learn music by ear, Nowicki said. This process, called auditory discrimination, also helps with language skills, and is particularly helpful for learning Mandarin, which is taught to Léman’s youngest students.

“That sense of confidence they’re building when they play is similar to when they speak, so it helps with public speaking,” said Picasso. “Musically and in a life-skills way, it’s helping. We want it to be really empowering for them.”

Throughout the music program and the rest Léman’s academic curriculum, even the youngest students are encouraged to think critically through what the school calls essential questions. In Picasso’s third grade class, she asks her students to pick a goal from a written poster at the front of the classroom, such as using a flexible grip or making a beautiful sound. Nowicki teaches seventh and eighth grade band, and asks students to delve more deeply into the subject matter by posting questions such as, ‘Why do people create music?’ and ‘How can an individual contribute to an ensemble?’ on posters in her classroom.

Nowicki stresses that music education teaches teamwork, much like playing a sport might, and collaboration is an essential real-world skill that applies not just to academics, but will help students in future workplace scenarios.

“It’s so unlike every other class that they have,” said Nowicki. “I tell my kids all the time, ‘If you bomb a test in math, it affects no one but you, but if you don’t know your music in my class, it affects everyone around you.’”

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