Did you know that my daughter plays the violin?
I start a lot of conversations this way. I’m a high school music teacher in a school with block scheduling—I start lots of conversations lots of ways. As with about half of my little quirks, I do this for a reason (for other quirks, see also: blog writing).
When my daughter was four-and-a-half years old, she had already been in preschool for half a year, and dance class for a year. At this point I realized that her music education had fallen behind. Public school was going to wait until Kindergarten before any music teaching at all, and until fourth grade before instruments and choir, which we decided just wasn’t acceptable. So, with little more than a vague concept of what it was, and some misconceptions too, we enrolled her in Suzuki Strings (not to be confused with Suzuki). Ten years later, she is still at it (and her working piece is this). What I have learned about teaching, music, and music teaching through this process has had a profound impact on my life.
Here are some examples:
- Young kids learn fast. The debate over the critical period hypothesis (see also: here, but only if you prefer the peer-reviewed, scientific, and therefore boring version) is apparently the kind of thing that linguists get into bar fights over. Still, most people would agree that young kids learn fast. If you know one thing about Suzuki, it may be that every kid starts at age three and is therefore a prodigy. They don’t, and they’re not. It’s possible to start at any age—allegedly anyway; I tried to keep up with my daughter, but even with a huge head-start in music she still crushed me somewhere back in Book 3. The Suzuki Method does permit kids to start very young—I actually saw a child at a recent gig who was already a Suzuki student and was still breast feeding (at the gig—perhaps the combination of an early start and what might be considered a late stop).
- Listening matters. I’ve learned to apply this to my teaching in the same way that I’ve learned not to stop at the Twin Kiss on the way home from work. That is, I understand the value, but mostly fail to apply it to my own life. Suzuki books, on the other hand, come with a CD of professionally played examples so that students have a consistent good example to guide their playing. We all learned the very complex task of talking mostly through listening, and Dr. Suzuki wagered that we could probably learn music that way too.
- Never un-learn. Suzuki students hold on to their first song forever, in the same way we don’t grow out of the first words we learn—even if grownups who still call their parents “mommy” or “daddy” are just a little strange. It means they all have a common repertoire, and the eighteen-year-olds can play with the four-year-olds.
- Experience it before you read it. If you’ve ever read to a little kid regularly, you know that they can eventually read along. In fact, they can often read along with the book closed. No one thinks that this will prevent kids from reading, but lots of music teachers assume that you’ll never learn to read music unless your first lesson includes reading a page full of whole-notes.
- Parents matter. The title of this entry isn’t a mistake. Dr. Suzuki identified parents (“moms” actually) as the “home teachers.” We were instructed to sit quietly at lessons, take notes, and bring some sort of hand work to occupy ourselves. This way we could then guide our children’s practice at home. Lots of education could be helped by this, though perhaps not by parents following kids around school all day taking notes.
- Memorization matters. I’ve disciplined myself to this in the same way I’ve disciplined myself not to order a second beer when out to dinner. That is, well, you know. Memorization is important because it helps to free the music from its prison of the dead trees. Also, using music stands, or holding folders, messes with posture, stance, instrument position, even technique and embouchure if you’re not careful. Also, for something to really be a part of you it must be carried with you all the time. Sadly, my own head is a terrible place to try to store things, and like most teachers I don’t expect much from my students with aspects that I’m no good at myself (see also: homework, neatness, spelling). Related side-note: I’m most harsh on things that I don’t do well naturally, but have made a specific effort to improve in myself (see also: deadlines and punctuality).
- Look the part first. Suzuki students start with positioning. Before they play anything at all, they learn how to stand and how to hold the instrument. Lots of time is taken to develop a stance that is the same as that used by a professional violinist. It means that their positioning, at once very natural and kinda complicated, is so deeply ingrained that it shows up even when they’re nervous or concentrating on something else.
- Repetition is okay. We were taught in music teacher school that you should never repeat anything without a good reason. This is because too many music teachers have been caught saying, “That was great, do it again.” Sometimes, however, the good reason is that it’s simply necessary to repeat things. If you’ve ever played something wrong, you have developed a conflict in your brain between the right one and the wrong one. Resolving that conflict requires majority rule of the correct version having been played lots more.
Sadly, there are some misconceptions that turn out to be not so badly misconceived:
- Only Asian kids succeed. Not entirely true, and correlation doesn’t equal causation. If, however, you’ve encountered more amazing Asian violinists (see also: any state orchestra roster) than mere chance would dictate, it may be partially due to this.
- It’s a cult. It is a cult. They have t-shirts and everything. If you’d ever seen one of them start a song on one end of violin camp, and two minutes later they’re all playing it, you’d know it was a cult. Cults aren’t all bad, see also: here.
- They play like robots. They do at times, but it’s the same way you say the Pledge of Allegiance. When something is deeply ingrained, it can come out without your brain being involved.
- They all play shrunken violins. It turns out that size does matter. They don’t, however, stay with the miniature instruments. Our standard joke is that the smallest ones can eventually be re-purposed to become Christmas tree ornaments. Or earrings. Truth is, though, three year-olds can start on the violin because the violin can be scaled down to their size. Most other instruments change pitch when you adjust their size, so unless you want your kindergartner playing the piccolo, or the piccolo trumpet, they will either play the violin, or start on an adult-sized instrument. Very young pianists (which I pronounce “piánist” so that it doesn’t sound so much like another word—little tricks of the trade), for example, can’t possibly use the same hand position when they’re grown as they use when they start, because the keyboard size doesn’t change through their lives.
- They’re all nerds. My wife had a bumper sticker that said “Your Honor Student Beat Up My Suzuki Kid.” From this we also learned that Suzuki parents are entirely lacking in a sense of humor, as more than one of them tried to explain to us that their Suzuki kids were honor students. There’s nothing wrong with nerds, though (see also: here).
In general, I am wary of any educational system that has a brand name associated with it. My school is in the process of becoming a Learning-Focused® school, because being learning focused the old way wasn’t sufficient. I’ve gotten similar sales pitches for Orff®, Kodály®, Jump Right In®, Godly Play®, Weight Watchers®, Hooked on Phonics®, and Amway®. If it comes with a lot of glossy binders and testimonials from all kinds of people who used to really suck at stuff and now are great, or if it could be peddled on AM radio, certain alarm bells go off for me. Still, when the methodology is deeply rooted in sound philosophy, and readily admits that it all really depends on good teaching in the end anyway, something like Suzuki can really make a difference.
Read more in Families.
Image of girl playing violin courtesy of the author