Those of you who follow us on social media have seen photos of our budding musicians, have heard us rave about their violin “class,” and have been asking lots of questions. Many of you already know that we have been using Practice Monkeys, so finally here is the review of the Family Subscription to Live Violin Classes that I told you was in the making.
Let me tell you, people, we review a lot of great products (and some not-so-great products) here at The Travel Bags and over at my blog, The Simple Homemaker. I mean a lot, and Practice Monkeys has been one of our absolute favorites!
I’m going to veer away from the Practice Monkeys website, where you can go to get the basic information, and share our understanding of the program, our personal experience, and our overall impression. You will get other perspectives from our Review Crew reviewers right here, and you can see detailed information about what the class offers by going to the site itself. But if you want the perspective of a disorganized traveling mom of many who doesn’t maneuver learning curves well, you’re in the right place.
What is Practice Monkeys?
Without getting overly gushy, let me explain.
Practice Monkeys is a resource for at-home online violin (and now piano) instruction. It consists of several levels (currently nine or eleven, but it keeps increasing) through which your child can progress. The brief video lessons are recorded in advance and are available online.
What is unique, is that you join the instructor and other students four days a week (Monday through Thursday) for live practice sessions. You are practicing with your teacher, so if you’re royally messing up, like, for example, using your violin bow to scratch your ear instead of play your A string, your teacher can correct you. Also, because their are other children in the practice session, you can learn while she is correcting or instructing them. The remaining two days a week are for “fun” practice, which is working on a song or songs that you play because you want to. And Sunday is a day of rest.
If you are unavailable for the live practice sessions, they are recorded and posted the following week. There are always four practice sessions for each level available as recorded sessions.
The learning approach is Suzuki, which is heavily ear-training based. You can read more about that on your own. Don’t worry, though. Note training and related theory are also taught, so your child will become capable in both.
Each level includes about ten or so lessons broken into several videos. There are also songs to learn and goals to achieve at each level before moving ahead to the next level.
To progress from one level to the next, your child takes an assessment, which is basically an individual lesson during which the student plays certain things learned in the class, such as songs and scales, including the child’s fun song that s/he chooses. The student also answers some basic theory questions that are taught during the recorded lessons and are available to study in the included printable books.
Materials that are required include an appropriately sized violin (although our poor six-year-old was using a 1/16 violin when she measured for a 1/4, but she made it work), a bow, resin, and a Suzuki book and recording. You also need a computer or similar device with a microphone and speakers and with the free downloadable meeting software.
The course is based on a monthly subscription. The fee is $49 per month per instrument per family. (See the banner below for a special limited time offer.) In other words, if you have one student taking violin, the cost is $49 per month. If you have one student taking violin and piano, the cost is $98 per month. If you have nine children in your family (like we do) taking violin, it’s…wait for it…$49 a month. I know! That’s an amazing deal! (Again, check out this limited time offer below.)
The assessments are an extra fee based on the level of the student, because the level determines the length of time of the assessment. For, I believe, the same as an assessment fee, you can request an individual “lesson” or assessment in the middle of a level as well. The assessments are required for progressing to the next level and gaining access to those lessons. The prices range from $10 to, I believe, $30 for an assessment as of this writing.
Your responsibilities as a parent are actually more than I had anticipated. You are required to print a weekly progress sheet for your child to track what he or she is working on. You are asked to attend the practice sessions. You are also to assess your child’s progress and determine how ready he or she is for an assessment. You should also familiarize yourself with the Suzuki method through a couple of recommended resources. Basically, you are the guide and cheerleader. The more you are involved, chances are the better your children will progress.
Confused? Don’t worry. There is a free help class every week–oh, twice a week actually if you’re super confused! Ha!
What was our experience?
We included several children in the three-month review of Practice Monkeys. Only two of them had any violin experience, and it was just from YouTube and some books. The ages of the participants are 3, 6/7, 10, 12/13, 15, and 18. They began at levels 1, 2, 3, 3, 3, and 3. They ended the three months at levels 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 4. If I had worked harder with them or understood the review itself better, I’m fairly sure they would have ended at levels 1, 2 or 3, 4, 4, 6, and 5. Given another month, that’s where they would likely be.
While I was present at almost every practice session and through the early level classes, I did have to hop on over to the hospital and have a baby, so I did miss a few things. Also, because of the number of children I have and the insanity of our life over the past three months, with work almost daily doctor visits part of the time, touring, relatives, oh, and the baby, I did not keep up with printing sheets, assessing my children, learning more about the Suzuki method, or even helping my younger children through the classes after the baby came. This definitely slowed my younger children’s progress. It did not, however, prevent progress, and it didn’t slow my older children down at all. In fact, not having to wait for me was a benefit for them, as thye could move at their own pace.
There is a learning curve involved, which probably ate up the first three weeks for us. I recommend jumping in on the practice sessions and getting a feel for the program right away. There is a free session if you want to dip your toes in. Honestly though, I think it takes a couple of weeks or more to really get into the groove and benefit from the program. It took my three-year-old that long just to do anything besides scowl and hug me.
Four or my children went from knowing absolutely nothing about the violin to…well…let me break this up a little bit. My three-year-old went from knowing nothing to knowing how to hold a bow, how to hold a violin, how to bow (the bending kind) very handsomely, how to bow (the playing a violin kind) properly, and learning the pentatonic scale. He also knows a few other things, but mostly we’re excited to have him cooperate and pay attention–we’re mostly working on paying attention.
The six- (now seven-) year-old struggled a bit because her violin was too small, which made it difficult to play on one string. Grandma Paula just gave her a new violin for Christmas, and she’s already improved rapidly. She went from knowing nothing at all to being able to play a Jingle Bells duet with her sister, play scales, and play Twinkle Twinkle. This is merely through the lessons (which we did not do faithfully, I admit) and through the live practice sessions.
The ten- and twelve- (now thirteen-) year-olds both went from knowing nothing to being able to play songs by ear, as well as the several variations of songs required in their levels.
The older two (15 and 18) are playing lovely songs. The 15-year-old had her assessment today to move to level 5. We are enjoying her and her sister’s playing very much. At their levels (4 and 5), they are required to practice beyond the practice sessions, which they do willingly.
All of them have done more with the structured class than they would have accomplished on their own, through books and YouTube, or with me as their “teacher.” I am very excited by what I’ve seen. We are also trying to figure out if we can wiggle the budget enough to continue the lessons now that the review period is over. After all, $39 a month for all the children (if they’re interested) to take violin lessons which includes some personal attention is an unbeatable price.
I did say personal attention, didn’t I? The classes so far are small enough that students are addressed individually. That is very important to me. The teacher does a great job of giving children a chance to play as a group and alone. It’s less in some of the larger classes, of course, and some days the practice sessions are more listen sessions, but my children almost always walk away having benefitted from the fifteen-minute sessions.
My favorite part has been the assessments. Only Elijah and Emily Rose did assessments during the review period, and I’m kicking myself for not pushing Rebecca and probably Elisabeth and Eliana to progress a bit further so as to have been prepared for an assessment, but…life.
And that brings me to the question of how to fit this into life.
Having to be available Monday through Thursday for an hour of violin (now an hour and fifteen minutes, since we have students in five different levels) isn’t always easy or convenient. Worth it–yes. But not always easy. Many of you are more structured than we are, so that is not as much of a problem for you. Our schedule is whack-diddly-whacky. Even so, we were pretty consistent about attending live practices. And, of course, the recorded sessions are always available.
My older three children are moving through the classes and levels independently, although we hear them play often enough to be able to offer an ear or suggestions. The youngest two are entirely supervised. And the ten-year-old is somewhere in between.
What is our overall impression?
As the parent who was most involved in the entire process, I have to say I love it! I don’t know how we could have afforded or scheduled classes with a regular teacher, so having the talents of Sarah Van Kleeck on hand has been a blessing on many levels.
While Elisabeth and Emily were learning violin on their own, the guidance, direction, structure, and accountability involved in being a part of Practice Monkeys helped them move ahead more rapidly. It also helped them improve their technique and gain skills they might otherwise have missed. I’ve personally enjoyed watching them grow in the process. One of their sisters said, “We have to figure out a way to continue this membership just so we can hear Emily improve and eventually perform with Daddy.” How fun would that be!
It’s also been great seeing the middle and younger kids advance in an instrument that I can’t teach them. As roadschoolers, we’re single handedly (actually quadruple-handedly, since we have four hands between the two of us) responsible for almost every aspect of their learning. I could not have provided them with this instruction. I’m ever so grateful that is is available to them, that it’s affordable, and that it’s fun and effective.
In all honesty, while I absolutely loved having my three-year-old involved in the class, I’m not sure I would have paid for only him to do this. He’s too…distracted. Other three-year-olds did better, and ours improved over time. His instructor said they have some three-year-old boys that really embrace the lessons and run with it! Ours had a running commentary on everything, and Judah’s simultaneous talking and listening are not the most productive learning method. His instructor offered enough physical activity to keep him interested and successfully involved most days. Because Mrs. Van Kleeck has a large family and wants this to be affordable for large families, he is included in the family package, and I’m grateful, because it has proven a blessing to have him in that structured environment. And the improvement and participation we witnessed over the course of the three months has been wonderful!
I really can’t say enough about this experience with Practice Monkeys. While they weren’t always excited to have to be available for their practice if they were in the middle of something else, the kids were disappointed when they had to miss a lesson, and there were some sour looks when they found out that I had misread the ending dates of the review period, thus robbing them of a couple of classes. Sorry kids!
Twenty thumbs way, way up! Seriously, this is the solution that we’ve been looking for. Some of my kids really want to continue these lessons, and we’re going to try hard to see if we can make it happen. If you’re looking for an opportunity to learn instruments while traveling or without leaving home, this is for you.
(We also participated in the piano beta program for our then six-year-old. While we’re not continuing with that class, because I teach them piano myself, it too was a great experience! I don’t know how many levels Sarah has up for piano at this point, but she does add more to meet the needs of her students.)
For more information from other reviewers, click on the banner below.