Well, here I am on day 4 of the Idaho Suzuki teacher training institute, bursting at the seams with excitement and joy about the Suzuki method. I love these institutes because it fills me with such passion and conviction that I have - beyond a doubt - the best job that exists. I get to change lives! I get to bring Dr. Suzuki’s philosophy forward to the next generation. I get to see children grow into not just beautiful musicians, but beautiful people.
I wanted to write a blog post about everything I’ve been turning over in my head since I’ve gotten here. The first topic is practice.
A normal child is not going to enforce at-home practice - the parent needs to enforce at-home practice. Set a timer on the phone and play for that amount of time, and do this every day. Do it at the same time every day. If it becomes a routine, it will get done. I can’t make sure it’s done beyond asking them to fill in the practice sheet. If I have the parents on my side, it works a lot better!
Every child is happy they stayed with music lessons. There is no adult (that I know) that says, “Man, I really wish I had quit violin”. I used to ask to quit ALL the time when I was a child. I thank my parents all the time for not letting me. Once you reach high school age, the love for music takes over, and it’s beautiful to see what happens once we get through the middle school years. Trust me - it’s worth it.
Music helps with...everything! I probably don’t need to convince you of this, if you’re already reading this. But, it’s fun to talk about anyway.
It builds language skills.
It makes them stronger academically.
It increases their IQ.
It teaches them discipline.
It supports muscle development and motor skills.
It improves social skills.
It makes kids feel good about themselves.
It helps kids understand culture.
Most of all, music helps us be a good person. That's what Suzuki specifically is about. And, they get the most if they practice every day. Through constant repetition, they will learn these concepts and grow. They will only grow if they practice - they can only get so far with 30 minutes a week from me. If you can't practice every day, I do highly recommend thinking of extending our lesson time (I only charge an extra 10$ for 45 -minute lesson and $20 for a 60-minute lesson) so we can progress further in each of our sessions together. But the point of this is not to upsell. It is to urge you to really ensure that regular at-home practice is taking place.
Now, let’s talk about the speed at which we move through the repertoire and the importance of moving slowly.
The importance of moving slowly through our proper setup, and why Suzuki has you move slower than the traditional method… let's take one of the first students I had, a 6-year-old, Jaden. Jaden came in as a brand new beginner. I took him through my normal beginning steps - making sure he can concentrate for several seconds in a row. How to stand in rest position. How to stand in play position. There are several feet movements to go between these two. Then we need to be sure we have a solid balance, our core is centered, our knees are bendy, and we are strong. With no balance, we cannot play with balance. We cannot play with tone.
Then we begin to add rhythms. We begin to learn what notes sound like. We start singing songs. We start to learn what the bow hand will look like. We then begin to hold the bow. Have I mentioned that each finger on the bow has a very specific job, and when one is off, our whole balance is off? Did I also mention the bow has to be held at a certain angle to produce a clean, even, beautiful tone, and that we cannot grip on too tight with any of our fingers? Oh - and that the bow wrist must be flexible.
Then we add the violin…. At this point, I’ll stop before explaining all the specifics about each and every left-hand finger, each and every joint on each finger, the violin height, the head weight, the left wrist, the head tilt - OH, and then we have to learn HOW to bow. HOW to add fingers. How to read music.
There are so many nuances. There are so many opportunities for things to be overlooked, for something to be not quite right.
The best teacher is the teacher that does the least amount of remedial teaching. That isn’t fixing what’s wrong but by making certain that each step is done properly. That we aren’t moving so fast that things go wrong. Of course, things do slip. Even in my own playing, I catch myself reminding my thumb to be more bent on my right hand or to not squeeze during difficult passages with my left thumb. It happens. But for the beginner, it doesn’t have to, and it will if we move too fast.
Jaden started learning his first few songs after a few months, and before I knew it things were crumbling. He was having a hard time remembering to bend his thumb. We’d make sure it was bent, but then he wasn’t playing inside the bow tapes. Once we fixed that, it took reminding to get the thumb back. In the meantime, he began holding his violin with his left hand, because I wasn’t checking on it as much as I was focusing on his bow. We fix that. What happened to his right thumb? It became flat. It becomes a circular pattern of fixing one thing and the other thing falling back into its old bad habit. Guess what we had to do? We had to go back to open strings. Luckily, Jaden was happy as a clam to have a “break” from songs and get to do his rhythms on open E, and Mom trusted me in the process. Now, Jaden’s playing is coming along beautifully. But it could have gotten there a lot faster had I not thought he should be moving faster to begin with. Had I just kept him on what he could do well for a few more weeks before introducing more than one concept at a time to him. We as adults can sometimes only handle one thing at a time - how silly of us to assume our children can handle several things at once?
If we do not let bad habits form, they don’t fall back to any bad habits. They only have a solid foundation and all good habits to support them. THIS is why we move slow. THIS is why it takes months for your child to play the violin after beginning lessons. Trust me, they are learning in each lesson. By moving slow, we move accurately. Think of it as a snowball. It starts small, say with just feet. Then we build the knees. They are still standing with correct feet, but now we have added knees. Then they begin to learn how to hold a bow. But guess what? They’re standing with good feet and knees the entire time. Etc, etc.
The traditional method - although it does move faster (which is appealing, I totally get it!), it moves in a linear fashion. First, we learn feet, then we learn knees. Then, bowhold. Then violin, then we add reading music. Then they’re learning to read music while holding everything else up. Then we learn harder songs. By the time we reevaluate, their core is often in disarray. But because we’ve been focusing on learning these more difficult songs at a faster rate, we’ve neglected their posture and their tone. Kids cannot possibly focus on all of these things at once. But I, as their teacher, can keep in check that each thing is being clearly formed.
I am teaching them a lifetime of love of music. I’m not just teaching them how to play an instrument or how to read music. I’m teaching them how to express themselves, and how to learn how to be a good human. How to self disclipline, how to persevere, how to work through a problem. How to play beautifully.
It doesn’t happen overnight. Trust the process. Your child, if they continue on the slow and steady path, will be a beautiful, vibrant musician. But we cannot put too much on them too soon. The problem with Suzuki books is that there are numbered books. That the songs are numbered. It shouldn’t be a competition about how far we are, what level we are. If a 6 year old is playing Vivaldi concerto from book 4, but they do not sound good - That kid should not be playing Vivaldi! Whereas if my sixteen yaer old student is only up to twinkle twinkle but they are playing beautifully, with a clear, vibrant tone, and ringing notes - we are all doing our jobs right.
As a Suzuki teacher, we take training from certified teacher trainers for each book. When taught properly, the peices in the books move in this same snowball way - we learn a skill in twinkle twinkle little star, our first piece. In lightly row, it reuses that skill, but in a new way. It also adds one new skill. In the next song, song of the wind, it incorporates the two skills we’ve learned, but now adds another. One at a time. So the pieces move in this way.
In book 1 training, the eight days of the course are split in four and four- the first four days we are taught how to teach the pre-twinkles. In the remaining half of the course, we learn how to teach the songs.
Before we even play the first song, we have to set the stage. And it takes a long time to set it up correctly. It is time well invested. Look at any succesful musician, it took time for them to get there. I started when I was 6. When I was 8, I got a new teacher, and she realized my previous teacher had taught me terrible posture. She started me back over with the twinkles. I was not happy, given I was in book 2 at that point. It took two years to get through book 1. I would never, ever be the musician I am today if she had not done that. Sometimes we have to move back to move forwards, but I hope for your child that we simply move forward, one step at a time.
We can teach your child an instrument. That is different than teaching them the Suzuki method. This is the point I want to get across. In the Suzuki method, they are learning more than an instrument. The instrument is the gateway to something more.
Dr. Suzuki’s philosophies and life reflect his profound love for children and mankind. Dr. Suzuki believed that all children are talented and should be educated. We all share this philosophy when applied to literacy: we expect all children to master the mother tongue and to achieve a basic level of fluency in speaking, reading, and writing. Our society makes great efforts in teaching each child. The pedagogy principles studied, taught, and applied take into account the broad spectrum of each child’s learning needs. Society assumes that each child has the ability to learn the language.
Dr. Suzuki extends this philosophy to music: all children are musically talented and should be educated. Educators only need to embrace the learning needs of each child and allow each child to achieve a level of musical achievement.
We assume each of our children can learn English. It is not up for discussion, it just happens. The child learns by us speaking the language around them constantly, by us slowly saying things to them as a baby “ma-ma, ma-ma, ma-ma”. We have all been there. Do we expect little baby to pick up a book, and start reading from it, before ever speaking? No… we know this takes time. Same as learning a foreign language. It doesn’t happen overnight. It happens in steps. Learning music is much the same. The more we listen (does that sound familiar, me asking you to listen to the recordings?), the easier it will be to learn.
Listening repeatedly to the Suzuki repertoire models language-learning. One must first be immersed in any language before speaking it. Each child begins with simple melodies learned by ear. The ability to read music is taught separately from learning how to master the instrument. The 2 abilities are developed side by side with more emphasis put on developing the ear to recognize proper pitch and tone while the eye is developed later to identify what pitch the ear is hearing. Once the student masters the technique and confidence in playing their instrument then they may be asked to take on note reading simultaneously while playing. This also in happens language-learning. We all speak our native tongue before we are taught to read it. Children taught music through the Method do not have to be taught the notes to their pieces. This allows the teacher to focus on proper technique and tone quality, which in turn develops a high level of musicality in very young children.
The other important concept is that yes, your child can do this. Yes, your child can learn. Yes, your child can succeed, Yes, your child can get there. This is crucial to the Suzuki method. Every Child Can. Dr. Suzuki did not believe that some children were born with talent. No, noone is born as a violin prodigy. But also, never is (or very, very, very, VERY rarely) a child born willing to take a set amount of time out of their day every day and practice, without complaining. Doesn’t happen. Just because your child doesn’t run up to you in the morning begging to learn, and to practice! Does not mean your child can’t learn. Does not mean your child doesn’t have what it takes. It just takes time to establish the routine, and it just needs to be established. Sounds simple, right? It is - but it’s not easy. It takes sitting down every day at a set time and practicing with your child (or if they are old enough, setting a timer for your child and having them practice on their own).
In a true Suzuki setting, children would take a private lesson each week and listen to their recordings every day, and parents would supervise their daily practice. I don’t want to scare any of my families off. By you simply signing up your child for music lessons, you have done such an important step. I don’t turn anyone anyway. I will not turn your child away for not practicing (but don’t tell them that! ;) ). I recognize that life is busy and this is a different era we are in than when I was growing up as a child. If you are nervous to commit to lessons because you worry you don’t have the time, I urge you to still follow through and do it. Your child's life will change dramatically for it. If you can carve out just 10 or 15 minutes every day to help practice or supervise them, that’s all it takes to start off with. If you can have the music recordings playing in the background while you cook, while you eat, while you drive, this is enough for the listening portion. If all that ends up happening is one lesson a week, on occasion (because hey, life sometimes gets in the way and we cannot practice), this is better than not taking lessons at all! I want this to be stressed!! A little bit is better than nothing at all. But do consider how far they will go with this method if we truly adopt it.
I am so honored to be trusted with this position of being your child's teacher. What an awesome responsibility, what a privilege for me to see your child grow, to be a consistent source in their life. Thank you for letting me in, and I look forward to seeing you in our next lesson!