The Journey Begins
My eldest son and I are on a Suzuki journey. I always knew I would go on this journey with my children. It is important to me that my children have a thorough music education from a young age; an education where they learn to play to quite a high degree of refinement, and have a community of people and peers who also value fine music played well. I want them to experience the structure, discipline, joy, and emotional education that comes with studying classical music. It is also very important to me that the experience be a positive one that reinforces the learning partnership and emotional connection between us. I would be willing to guess, because you are here reading this article, that you also have similar hopes for your child’s Suzuki education.
The fairy tale
Before we began this journey I had an idyllic Norman Rockwell perfect picture of how this all would go. I imagined we would happily listen to the recordings on repeat all the time. I imagined I would gently suggest it was time to practice, and my son would instantly stop what he was doing and skip joyfully down the hallway to get his cello. Oh, the practice sessions in my mind were full of intense concentration for extended periods of time, absolute joy and laughter while working on new skills, and amazingly quick progress. It seemed perfectly logical to me. His parents are both musicians. His mother (me) is even a certified Suzuki teacher, and he has been thoroughly steeped in a string player culture his entire life. I mean, he should be a prodigy, right? (Can you tell I am rolling my eyes right now?) I was under the impression the whole experience would be rainbows and unicorns.
Reality hits hard
Well, as you can probably tell from my sarcastic tone, the “perfect” picture is not exactly how this journey began. My son didn’t want to instantly put down his toys and run to get his cello when I thought it was a convenient time to practice. As a five and six year old child, he had trouble concentrating on what seemed to him like endless repetitions. When new skills were difficult he didn’t laugh and double down on trying to get better at the skill. He got frustrated and angry. I found myself getting very frustrated and angry, too. Getting the cello out was a battle. I felt I had to resort to threats just to get him to sit down with the cello. The practice sessions were torturous for both of us. He didn’t want to do anything I told him to do, and yelled at me that I was doing it all wrong. For some reason, me yelling back at him that I had been doing this for twenty years and I KNOW how it goes, did not fix the problem. Now, not every moment was awful, but too many times I felt as though I had failed as a parent. There were tears and yelling (from both of us), threats to take away any privilege I could think of, and lots of hurt feelings. One day, in the middle of a particularly tough practice session, my son yelled, “ I hate the cello, and I hate you!” Well, that stopped me in my tracks. Those words stung on so many levels. Everything about this Suzuki journey was going wrong. The practicing was happening, but at what expense? I wanted him to find joy and peace through playing and instrument, and I wanted our connection to grow stronger through Suzuki, not weaker. I love music and playing the violin, and I certainly didn’t want my son to hate it or me because of it. It was in that moment when I realized that if we were going to be in this for the long haul, I would need to seriously reevaluate my fundamental goals and values around this Suzuki journey.
Getting back on track
After some substantial soul searching, I came to the conclusion that the ideal I hold highest is to maintain a positive connection with my child through the Suzuki experience. Yes, I want him to progress on his instrument. Yes, it is necessary for him to practice regularly with close attention to detail. But, most importantly, I need to fulfill all of the practical process through the lens of maintaining a positive connection with my child. I needed a new framework for how to navigate this Suzuki journey. As I spent time viewing the Suzuki process through the primary lens of relationship building, I asked myself four main questions that would help me implement the practical day to day necessities of learning to play an instrument well, while keeping the emotional connection with my son as the central focus of the process.
- What fundamental philosophies and observations about parent/child relationships are found in Suzuki’s “Mother-Tongue” approach?
- What can I, as the parent, do during lessons to maintain a positive emotional connection with my child?
- What can I, as the parent, do at home to maintain a positive emotional connection with my child through practicing?
- How can I create a community of positive music making for my child?
Observations from Suzuki’s “Mother-Tongue” Approach
There are two aspects of Suzuki’s Mother Tongue Approach that I have found particularly beautiful and helpful in reframing the Suzuki journey for me and my son:
- The power of the parent as the primary educator.
- Suzuki’s observations of how parents interact with babies learning to talk.
The power of parenting
“The fate of a child is in the hands of the parent.” (Suzuki, Ability Development from Age Zero) This is the first Suzuki quote that comes to mind when I consider my role as a parent, whether relating to the Suzuki method or the whole experience of parenting. The sentiment is very powerful and can be daunting. It can also be empowering. The parent truly has the power and responsibility to maintain a positive tone during the practice sessions. We are not locked into a vicious cycle of misery in practicing. The change we want is inside of us.
Another Suzuki quote that sticks out in my mind is, “Of all the work that people do, there is nothing more noble, nothing more important than raising your child to be a fine person.” (Suzuki, Nurtured by Love) In this quote I find reinforcement in the idea that the Suzuki journey is not so much about becoming a musician, but about becoming a person. Surely the way I interact with my child during practice sessions has an impact on what kind of person he becomes.
Encourage like we did when they were babies
The second aspect of the Mother Tongue Approach that has really helped me change the way I practice with my son are Suzuki’s observations of parent behavior, in terms of response and encouragement, as babies are learning to talk. Suzuki noticed that parents express excitement at every little new sound of language the baby makes, and is happy to encourage continuous repetitions in order to help the baby develop a clear enunciation of new words. Parents never expect that the baby will speak perfectly clearly when first attempting a new word. They also never feel the need to “practice patience” deliberately during this process. (Starr, Suzuki Violinist) They are not annoyed or discouraged when it takes time for babies to learn how to speak. Instead, parents are super excited about each tiny step of progress the child makes, rarely ever doubting their child’s eventual ability to speak well. My son and I have been having significantly more fun practicing together since I stopped “practicing patience”, and started enjoying every small step of progress.
What Can I Do During the Lessons?
I believe that the key to working with your child well at home lies in the careful attention we pay during the lessons. I have taught Suzuki lessons for more than twenty years, and I thought I could use all of my own tricks to make practicing fun, but really it is my son’s private teacher who holds all of the secrets to making practicing at home fun. He likes the lessons with her, and wants to replicate those experiences at home. It is probably the same with your child. Keep in mind that the private teacher is the professional expert on the instrument, and should be treated as such.
Give attention and energy
First and foremost, be fully present during the lessons. Don’t spend the lessons reading or working on something else. I know this may be tough for us as adults when the world is going at warp speed and we feel like we need every minute we can get. I certainly have been guilty of spreading my attention too thinly during lessons trying to work on other things. If maintaining a positive relationship and connection with my child is the primary goal, not being fully engaged during the lessons is counterproductive. Take this time to remember that you are maintaining that connection with your child by being fully connected during the lesson.
Maintain quiet attention during the lessons. Yes, quiet attention. It is the key to success here. Correcting your child, interrupting with lots of questions for the teacher, and even over enthusiastic cheer-leading and praise can interfere with the energy and flow of the lesson. You want to observe the whole lesson, energy flow and all, in order to find out exactly where the magic is happening. Be sure to send your child purposeful positive energy during the lesson. Your child is concentrating and working hard. Help them by sending them concentrated positive energy. In this state of mind you will be able to be engaged with your child to notice exactly what it is that your child enjoys about the lessons, and how the teacher is interacting with your child when that enjoyment is happening. Notice the repetitive nature of the lessons and embrace the culture of repetition. It will make your life easier at home.
Take detailed notes during the lesson. Write down any games or activities that the teacher uses no matter how small or insignificant it seems. Nothing that happens during the lesson is insignificant, and may be beneficial to you during practice sessions at home. If you have questions about what the teacher is doing, write down your question in the margin, don’t interrupt the flow of the lesson. You can save your questions for the end of the lesson. Most likely, the private teacher will ask you if you have any questions and/or will show you what they are looking and listening for along the way. If you still have questions at the end of the lesson, definitely ask. The teacher is a professional musician who loves to teach, and wants your home practice to be positive and effective.
The teacher is an expert resource
Speaking of the teacher, use the teacher as a resource for you and your child when you are having a hard time with the home practice. Feel free to have a discussion including you, your child, and the teacher on how often to practice, when to practice, and how to practice. Your private teacher will most likely have many helpful suggestions that will make your home practice sessions easier. Keeping your child involved in these discussions also helps expand the “circle of accountability” for accomplishing regular practice at home.
What Can I Do At Home?
Now here comes the hard part. At home is where the bulk of the work takes place, and is the trickiest to maneuver. What can you do at home to maintain a positive connection with your child through the practice sessions? We all know regular practice is necessary for growth on an instrument, but bad practice and having a miserable time with your child will be counterproductive. Suzuki has been quoted as saying, “Six days of poor, misguided practice cal cancel out a good lesson.” (Starr, Suzuki Violinist) Even more worrisome to me, as a parent, is that six days of miserable practice sessions can compromise a healthy relationship with my child.
I know it is all too easy to get into the busy weekly routine and think that practicing has to happen NOW and FAST! This is the world we live in as adults, so it is understandable that we would try to impose the same style of thinking on our children’s schedule. But, we know children don’t work that way. They need time to adjust to a mindset that will be productive for practicing. They need time to transition to the practice session, and time within the practice session to process and be kids.
Take the focus off of you
The most important thing that will help you at home is to take the focus off of you “telling” your child when to practice and what to practice. It is too easy for children to push back against a parent “giving orders” (even if you are doing it really nicely), so find a way to take the pressure off of you. Maybe you have a list of jobs your child needs to complete on a daily basis. Put practicing on the list. This will place the power and responsibility in your child’s hands. You might also try setting a timer for when practice should begin. This works pretty well at my house especially if I give a reminder a couple of minutes before the timer goes off. If I am feeling pressed for time, I will ask my son if he wants the timer to go off in three, four, or five minutes. If we have more time, I will give him the option of fifteen or twenty minutes before the timer sounds. He almost always chooses the longer time, but it gives him some control over the situation, and I find there is very little resistance to getting started practicing once the timer goes off.
Keep using this strategy of taking the focus off of you while you are practicing with your child. Have a checklist of items to practice so you both can consult the list rather than dictate to your child what to practice. Did the teacher ask your child to work on a couple of different posture/position points, like keeping the bow parallel to the bridge, or a left hand position focus? Write those posture/position focus points on slips of paper and have your child “draw a card” to find out the focus for that repetition. Speaking of repetitions, the card drawing game is a good way to get a few more repetitions of a section of music without your child noticing. Drawing a card to determine a focus point also helps make sure the repetitions are meaningful rather than mindless.
Having trouble getting all the review pieces covered without missing any? Try the card drawing game in a slightly different way. Use two bowls or small bags. Place slips of paper with the names of every piece your child has learned in the first bowl. Draw two or three pieces to review each day, and place those slips of paper in the second bowl. By the time the first bowl is empty you can be sure every piece has been reviewed.
Follow the teacher’s instructions
Make home practice easier by closely following the teacher’s instructions. The detailed notes you took during the lessons will help guide you. Remember, the private teacher is the expert on the instrument, and your child enjoys the teacher and the lessons. If you are practicing different things than the teacher asks for, the child will notice and will start to think it is okay to not follow the teacher’s (or any teacher) instructions. This will come back to bite you in the long run since, as the parent, you are the primary teacher of life. Following the teacher’s instructions is also consistent with keeping the focus off of you telling your child what to do. Rather, you are the practice partner helping to fulfill what the teacher is asking.
Suzuki felt strongly that an important “teacher” in a child’s music education was found in listening to recordings of beautiful music played by fine musicians. He believed that by listening to beautiful music played with sensitivity and expression, a child would intuitively try to attain that same high level of musicianship in their own playing. (Suzuki, Ability Development from Age Zero) Listening to the Suzuki book recordings is also a great way to reinforce the repertoire at home and build more connection with your child. The standard shared repertoire of the Suzuki method is truly something special that binds musicians of different generations from many places in the world. Take advantage of the special connection the repertoire can give your family, too. I suggest making it a social activity, meaning you are listening to the recordings with your child. Listening to the recordings regularly helps to “download” the music to your child’s brain, making learning future pieces much easier. It will also be easier for you to help your child if you are listening to the recordings, too. You don’t need to make a big production of it. Find a time that works for your family: in the car, while making dinner, or as part of the bedtime routine. Feel free to discuss what you like about the pieces, play “name that tune” (put the CD on shuffle for an extra challenge), or have a round of “my favorites”, when each member of the family gets to choose a piece to listen to. Any opportunity you have to talk about the music with your child in a fun and positive manner not only reinforces the “downloaded file” of music in your child’s brain, but also connects you and your child through the repertoire. (Here is a link to the Violin Book 1 recording.)
The last point I will make about what you can do at home to maintain a positive connection with your child is reflection. What about the practice sessions is working? What is not working, or what would you still like to change? I am willing to guess reflection is something you already do because you are here reading this article, and I don’t want you to forget about the importance of this practice. Suzuki stresses the importance of parents reflection on their own thoughts, words, and actions, and I encourage us all to continue our reflective practices to continue to become better versions of ourselves that we can share with our children. (Suzuki, Ability Development from Age Zero)
How Can I Create a Community of Positive Music Makers?
Creating a community of music making is important to the Suzuki experience. Community can help both you and your child thrive in this musical journey. Start with group lessons. Group lessons are an integral part of the Suzuki experience for several reasons. Playing an instrument is really a social activity. Yes, practicing needs to be done alone for the most part, but the point of all that isolated hard work is getting to make music with others. This is why orchestras, bands, choirs, and chamber music groups have been popular for hundreds of years. Playing music with other children not only feeds the social/emotional well being of your child, but also helps them grow musically. If your child is one of the least advanced players in the group class, he/she will benefit from playing with more advanced players. If your child is the most advanced player in the class, he/she will benefit from the leadership role that will naturally occur from that situation. From a purely educational standpoint, I hope your child gets to experience both situations, and those in between, at sometime during their musical development. I truly believe all of those different perspectives will serve them well.
Group lessons are also good for the social, emotional, and musical health of the parent. Scheduling group lessons on a different day than the private lesson can take care of one day of home practice. Now, I’m not saying you can’t or shouldn’t practice at home on a group lesson day. I’m just saying the group lesson provides a musical experience that is technically and musically beneficial to your child, and therefore, home practice does not absolutely have to happen that day. (Please, no angry letters. If you have the time and energy on a group lesson day, by all means, practice at home, too.) Group lessons are also great because of the camaraderie you can have with other Suzuki parents. I am sure you are not the only parent who struggles to get their child practicing, or is stuck learning a tricky part of a new piece. Talk to your fellow Suzuki parents. Ask them how they handle different aspects of practicing. You will find you are a great resource for each other.
Normalize the practicing culture
The Suzuki method and the accompanying group lessons help to normalize a culture of ‘everybody plays, everybody practices.’ I didn’t really realize that not every kid was expected to practice and have private and group lessons until I was almost in Junior High. My parents had already created such a large community of people whose “normal” involved music, that I didn’t really consider what other kid’s lives looked like. By the time I did realize other kids had very different home routines and expectations, I was already so encultured in music that the new friends I made in my teenage years (for the most part) were also involved in music and the arts.
When creating a musical community for your child, consider the power of summer music camps and the summer Suzuki Institutes. A week or two of concentrated time growing with other young musicians is invaluable for lasting motivation for both your child and you. At least once a month my son asks, “I get to go to music camp again next summer, right?” I am so pleased that the greater musical community a summer camp provides helps carry us through the year, even during dark, cold evenings in January.
Lastly, make sure to attend concerts. Let your child experience the larger musical community of both professionals and amateurs. Go to a symphony concert, or a local community orchestra. Attend the high school musical production. Let your child know “everyone” is involved in music. Building a musical community for your child is well worth the effort. The fruits of your labor will be seen at home, in your community, and for generations to come.
I know the Suzuki journey is not always easy, but I truly believe making music a priority in your child’s education can connect you and your child in powerful and profound ways. Continue reflecting on the four questions from this article, and I believe you will find the relationship you are looking for with your child on your Suzuki journey. May your home always “twinkle” with the joy of music making.