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It’s always worth taking a moment to think about what Suzuki intended for children, teachers, and parents. While teachers trained in Suzuki pedagogy bring unique abilities to the studio, any family can put these principles in action at home.

  1. Suzuki’s goal was to achieve a more peaceful world through music. Noting that music bridges cultural, language, and geographic boundaries, his hope was that the process of learning music in a nurturing way could help raise citizens with a spirit of empathy and cooperation.

  2. Suzuki believed that talent was not something that only certain children possess but something that could be developed in any child. Suzuki talent education is less like finding a rare pearl in an oyster and more like patiently tending a garden. He believed that consistent methodical work could bring out musical ability in any child.

  3. Suzuki believed that acquiring musical ability should be more like acquiring the ability to speak one’s first language. Children learn to speak in fluent and nuanced ways by listening, mimicry, and patient feedback from trusted others.

  4. Suzuki believed that reading music should come later. Children don’t learn to speak their first language by studying the alphabet or memorizing the difference between a participle and a preposition. They learn with their ears. While Suzuki teachers introduce note-reading at different times, the emphasis on learning first by ear is always there.

  5. Suzuki talent education relies on a triangle of cooperation between student, teacher, and parent. Each has an essential role to play.

  6. Suzuki emphasized that review and refinement of previously-learned music was essential. He wrote: “Raise your ability with a piece you can play.” By continually revisiting older pieces, children apply new techniques with greater ease because they already know them well.

  7. Suzuki preferred consistent progress not rapid progress. “Never hurry, never rest,” was his motto. A graded repertoire, daily practice and listening, excellent instruction from the teacher, and patient feedback from the parent are the keys to consistent progress.

  8. Suzuki believed that students should learn music together. That is why group classes are an important adjunct to individual lessons. When students play together, not only do they have a good time and encourage one another, but they learn to hone their rhythm, intonation, and other abilities in a group.

On a personal note, keeping these principles in mind over the years that our daughter has been playing has been an important guide to the decisions we’ve made in practice. What a privilige to be part of this tradition!

Thanks to Rebecca Ark and Christine Wilson Goodner for feedback on this post.

The question of nature vs. nurture is one of the most perplexing questions in child development. Before Suzuki, talent development consisted of identifying and growing naturally talented children. The prevailing theory held that musical ability is chiefly inherited and can only be improved on through rigorous practice.

Suzuki, of course held the opposite view. He painstakingly worked with very young children teaching them to play the violin through a method both systematic and nurturing. The results were impressive and launched a worldwide movement in music education. When K. Anders Ericsson published his landmark study on the effects of deliberate practice decades after Suzuki, he seemed to provide rigorous scientific support for environmental influence on the development of musical ability. Author Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea by referring to the effect of 10,000 hours of practice.

But science is never so simple. What if all of this is wrong? Or at least partly wrong?

Musical ability, practice and genetics

Two important studies cast doubt on the view of talent as simply the product of practice, albeit lots and lots of deliberate practice.

The first study by Miriam Mosing and colleagues at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm studied the effect of genetics and practice on musical ability. The did this by looking for differences between fraternal twins and identical twins. Presumably both types of twins have similar environmental exposures during childhood; so any differences between fraternal and identical twins are due to genetics (since identical twins have identical genetic makeup whereas fraternal twins have genetic makeup no different than any other sibling pair.) Importantly, they tested each of these 10,500 twins[1] for musical aptitude using a variety of standard tests - pitch discrimination, rhythm, melody. Each participant was asked to estimate their childhood musical practice time. These researchers found that the majority of differences in musical ability were due to genetics. Furthermore, when looking only at identical twins, differences in the amount of practice did not result in any measurable differences in musical ability.

The second study by David Hambrick and Elliot Tucker-Drob looked for similar effects but in a different way. They studied participants in the National Merit Twin Sample, asking them to estimate their musical practice and to score their level of musical accomplishment. Through mathematical modeling, the researchers were able to discern a significant genetic influence on musical ability. However, while some of this effect appears to be related to the effects of genetics on the propensity to practice, most of the effect seemed to be mediated in other ways. Finally, they did find evidence of an interaction between genes and environment.

In summary:

  1. Practically any child can learn to play a musical instrument.
  2. All children can learn and develop as whole people through studying music.
  3. Measurable musical ability is the result of an interplay between genes and the environment.
  4. Practice is essential but may not account for as much ability development as Suzuki hypothesized.

Does this matter?

Much of the power of Suzuki’s method is revealed in the way he refers to his goals: “Teaching music is not my main purpose. I want to make good citizens. If children hear fine music from the day of their birth and learn to play it, they develop sensitivity, discipline and endurance. They get a beautiful heart.” His intent was to help children become peacemakers and people of integrity. Sure some may become musicians along the way, but for Suzuki, music was the path, not the destination.

Yet, Suzuki clearly believed that all children could become fine players given enough practice and nurturing. Here, science and aspiration come into conflict. It seems indisputable that nearly all children can make music. And even more importantly, with a nod to Suzuki’s hopes, all children can learn something about being good people in the world through the process of studying music.

What harm, then, is there in beginning with the fundamental assumption that musical ability is solely a function of more practice?

The harm of this seemingly egalitarian stance is that when children don’t meet their goals, the explanation is solely that they haven’t prepared enough. But there’s an intellectual dishonesty in making students bear all of the responsibility for differences in rates of progress. Of course, kids should practice. I’m convinced that there are lessons about being a good, responsible, whole person, that come from practice. But we should be cautious about making inferences about practice from observable differences in playing ability.

Perhaps “Nature or nurture?” is the wrong question to ask. Better yet, “Is my child developing transferrable life skills by studying music?” “Does my child have a love of music?” If the answer to those questions is “yes”, then what more can we ask? Follow the path and see where it leads.

References

  • Hambrick, D. Z., & Tucker-Drob, E. M. (2014). The genetics of music accomplishment: Evidence for gene–environment correlation and interaction. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 22(1), 112-120. DOI: 10.3758/s13423-014-0671-9 Link
  • Practice Does Not Make Perfect: No Causal Effect of Music Practice on Music Ability. Miriam A. Mosing, Guy Madison, Nancy L. Pedersen, Ralf Kuja-Halkola and Fredrik Ullén Psychological Science 2014 25: 1795 originally published online 30 July 2014 DOI: 10.1177/0956797614541990 Link
  • Practice may not make perfect. (2014, July 05). Retrieved December 14, 2017, from https://www.economist.com/news/science-and-technology/21606259-musical-ability-dna-practice-may-not-make-perfect Link - an easy-to-read synopsis of Miriam Mosing’s twin study.

  1. This is a very large study. What's notable about it, though, is not only the size of the study but the fact that the investigators directly measured musical ability. Other studies have asked participants solely to rate their own abilities.

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After climbing for hours in the thin air of Colorado my son and I reached what we thought was the summit of our first 14’er. Descending climbers quashed our hopes by informing us that we had only reached the first of a series of false summits. To reach the true summit, it would take bursts of effort to power us over these little peaks. Finally, at the summit we were greeted by incomparable vistas and a sense of accomplishment that made the extra effort worthwhile.

One of the things that I came to appreciate about the dreaded false summits in mountain climbing is that they give you a chance to break an otherwise continuous climb into shorter segments. You can catch your breath. And appreciate take in the views.

My climb this summer was not unlike one of the most difficult tasks for Suzuki parents in the practice room. When children face a difficult spot in a new piece, it can seem like trying to make it to the peak in one push. The key is to put our own false summits along the way. Find the tough spots and break them into smaller tasks.

A philosophical perspective

Q: How small do you make the task?
A: As small as needed to give the child a sense of accomplishment while still making progress toward a bigger goal. That’s it.

How to find the trouble spots

Undoubtedly the teacher will have pointed these out already. But these are also the spots that end up causing frustration and fatigue. When the child starts kvetching about more repetitions and pleading to move onto something else, that’s a sign not just to move on, but to re-think the process for tomorrow. Instead of plowing straight into that same spot tomorrow, think about how to restructure the task to make it more successful.

Dissecting complex tasks

There are lots of ways to break apart a complex task:

  1. Do fewer measures. Maybe it’s a passage that just needs measure-to-measure work.
  2. For string players, figure out whether it’s a bow problem or a left hand problem.
  3. Are there back-to-back problems that just need to be tackled one at a time? I’m thinking of some of the double-stop work in La Folia, for example. There’s the issue of tuning the double stop. Then the hand frame has to shift to 2nd position, then next chord has to interdigitate into the existing frame, and so forth. Even the most patient child will give up before all those tasks are done. It’s better to just tune the first position double stop on day 1 and celebrate an accomplishment. Then work on the next sub-task the following day.
  4. Would it benefit from slower practice? (Hint: the answer is always ‘yes’) Use the metronome to coax it into progress.
  5. How’s the fingering? Is the fingering efficient and well though-out? Maybe today’s goal is just to find the best fingering.

Mountain climbing and learning a musical instrument have a lot in common. (Well, except for the element of risk…) By consciously breaking tasks into smaller, more manageable chunks, we can reinforce a growth mindset that says “Progress is possible through deliberate effort.” Even if it’s a false summit, it’s movement toward a bigger goal.

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The search for new games and angles to keep review pieces in play is endless. We recently made up a new one. (Who knows, maybe it’s not new; but it’s new to us.)

We printed out slips of paper with the names of all 43 repertoire pieces my daughter plays and placed them in a paper bag. We take turns drawing slips of paper, taking care to conceal the name from the other player. The player who drew the piece on this round then gives clues to see if the other player can guess the piece.

The clues can be of two types:

  1. Mini-stories and puns - Short vignettes with clues, often abstract and a little obtuse. For example, “There was a guy who looked at 5 internet sites before he found 3 that he liked.” (That was Seitz 5/3, if you’re following along at home.) Or, “This was the favourite dance piece for girls at Hogwart’s” (That’s "Witches’ Dance, of course.)
  2. “Opposite day” - Some of the clues can be opposites. For example, “This is a piece about an unhappy guy who lives in the city.” (That’s “The Happy Farmer.”)

When we’re stuck, we may work the book number into the clue to narrow down the possibilities. And there are probably many variations we haven’t thought of yet. It’s all a little corny and silly, but there’s just the right balance of creativity and silliness to appeal to our 9 year-old. So far, we haven’t run out of ways of mixing it up.

It’s August and institute season is winding down. We just returned from another great week at the American Suzuki Institute where we’ve attended for the last five years. I’ve come to think of summer institutes as an essential part of the Suzuki experience. Here’s why:

Institutes boost waning motivation

During the summer academic break, it’s easy to become less focused and disciplined. There are few, if any, concerts and recitals to prepare for. Vacations mean fewer lessons. In short, it’s a time when it’s easy to slack off. But Suzuki said: “Never hurry, never rest.” So institutes can provide the needed shot in the arm to bolster a sensation of excitement and motivation.

Institutes provide a sense of community

Most students already belong to a smaller local musical community. But institutes can give students and families a sense of belonging to an even wider community of peers. There’s nothing like seeing dozens or scores of students who play your same instrument all joining together to make music. It’s truly remarkable to see children from all over the world come together and just start playing. The shared experience of the Suzuki repertoire is such an asset!

Institutes offer an important “second opinion”

A fresh set of eyes and ears from teachers who don’t already know your child can be enormously helpful. Even if an institute teacher simply affirms the issues that your studio teacher is already working on, the consultation can be the necessary push to work on it with greater dedication or with a different range of techniques. For example, my daughter’s master class teacher this year worked with her on relaxing the right shoulder, learning to breathe with the phrases, and overall relaxation while playing. Although these were issues we were already aware of, hearing this again and going over new approaches to the problem were invaluable to us.

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A recent post by a Suzuki teacher sparked my interest in why we help our children learn to play musical instruments and whether it’s “fun” in the usual meaning of the word.


“What do you reply to a parent who says ‘It’s just for fun.’?”


It’s an interesting question because we work so hard to make practice fun, yet is it just for fun?

Goals vs process.

The “just for fun” proposition exposes a dilemma about goals vs. processes. We want practice and lessons (the process) to be fun. But at the same time, we usually have higher ideals in mind for the outcome (the goals.) It’s perfectly reasonable to hold these two ideas simultaneously in mind. The process is fun while the outcome is fulfilling in a deeper, more meaningful way.

What’s fun got to do with it anyway?

So it’s worthwhile drawing a distinction between fun and fulfillment. There’s a superficial and transient quality to activities that are fun. Engaging in an activity that’s fun is always impermanent. When the activity is over, the fun is over. It’s the difference between candy and a satisfying meal. You could contrast fun with a sense of fulfillment that comes from meeting challenges on the path to developing an worthwhile ability. It’s an enduring feeing.

Goals and tactics

Learning to play a musical instrument is one of those endeavours that requires long-term goals. Even the most dedicated and capable child cannot learn everything about playing without time. Long-range thinking helps carry you over the inevitable rough spots that crop up along the way. In strategic planning parlance, our goal would be to have kids play well, love music and be good citizens. How we go about organizing our efforts toward this overarching goal are our strategies. Think of these as the habits that Christine Goodner outlines in her excellent new book, “Beyond the Music Lesson: Habits of Successful Suzuki Families”. Daily practice, listening, musical community involvement, and so on, are the strategies that families employ to reach the larger goal. Finally, there are the nitty-gritty details - the tactics of making it work in the context of busy family life. What games can I employ in practice? When should we practice? How should we review effectively? I would argue that with younger children, the tactics are in large part organized around having fun! Yet, the goals and strategies all move toward the fulfillment that comes from developing high ability.

So let’s have fun and fulfillment!

How do you think about fun and practice? See the Suzuki Experience Facebook page to comment.

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Suzuki’s seminal 1969 work “Nurtured by Love” introduced his method of talent education to English-speaking audiences and ushered in an approach to learning music that would fundamentally change the face of music education. His concept was simple and profound. Based on an analogy between learning one’s native language and learning to play music, he drew children, parents and teachers into a relational triangle that focused love and attention on both the musical and character development of children.

Since its introduction outside of Japan, the Suzuki method has endured and flourished. Yet the social and economic changes since the 1960’s have been equally profound. Family life isn’t exactly as it was in the 1960’s. Families are busier and rushed. In many cases, both parents work outside the home. Solid practical advice is needed. This is where Christine Goodner’s new book “Beyond the Music Lesson: Habits of Successful Suzuki Families” arrives to help Suzuki parents work with their children in a way that is consistent with Suzuki’s original concept while recognizing the realities of today’s families. What Suzuki wrote in broad philosophical strokes, Goodner pens in fine detail.

She has a unique vantage point from which to see Suzuki’s triangle. A Suzuki student herself, she describes how her father worked effectively with her as a practice partner. Later, she tells about her own ups and downs as a Suzuki parent herself. Finally, as a teacher and keen observer of family life, she lays out a series of habits that effective Suzuki families employ. Beginning with an introduction to the mother-tongue analogy of music learning, she begins an exploration of seven practices that predict success. A comparison to Steven Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” is obvious. The habits may be different here, but the focus on deliberative, self-evaluative practice is not. In each chapter she focuses on the habits of being present, daily practice, setting a positive environment, being a part of the community, listening, focusing on mastery, and seeing the big picture. Here, she doesn’t skim the surface. Instead, Goodner offers very specific practical advice, gleaned from her broad experience, to help modern parents work with their children in a way consistent with Suzuki’s vision.

“Beyond the Music Lesson” is an important contribution to the Suzuki canon. For parents new to the method, beginning with “Nurtured by Love” and moving straight into “Beyond the Music Lesson” will serve them well. Think with me for a moment about how effective enterprises work. Any major initiative needs a strategic plan and a mission statement. Suzuki’s mission statement was clear. It would be something like: “World peace through raising children of good character and teaching them the universal language of music.” While Suzuki lays out goals and strategies, Goodner dives into the tactics of implementation. “How do I foster a listening habit?” “How do I set a positive environment?” This will be of enormous help to Suzuki families and reference to which they can turn repeatedly over the years.

Available this summer, “Beyond the Music Lesson” will be a essential introduction and reference for parents and teachers of the Suzuki method who want to do it right. Stay tuned for news about publication.

I’d love to hear what you think. See the Suzuki Experience Facebook page to comment.

Update 2017-07-04: It’s up on Amazon now!

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Of what use is technique if not to be harnessed and used to express a musical thought or emotion?

After several years of being a Suzuki parent and many more as a musician, I’ve come to appreciate that technique is subservient to expression. Technique is indispensable but it is instrumental (no pun intended!). The goal is to express a musical idea that partly belongs to oneself and partly to the composer. A recent article by violin teacher and blogger Eloise Hellyer speaks brilliantly to the importance of nurturing expression from the earliest stages of musical development. Her [post(http://www.violinteachersblog.com/a-good-bow-arm-doesnt-exist-in-a-vacuum/) should be required reading for anyone in the Suzuki community.

You can show a student how to pull a bow until you are blue in the face, but it won’t do any good unless she knows why she has to do it that way. - Eloise Hellyer.


This is really the crux of the matter. Children want to understand why. Insofar as our work at home isn’t only to be technique police, but to extend the lesson in other ways, being involved in helping children play expressively is vital.

How to encourage expressive playing at home

  • Always link technique and expression. - As Hellyer writes, children are capable of understanding complex ideas and can convey emotions that they may not yet be able to verbalize. Home practice, an extension of the lesson, is the perfect environment to rehearse these connections. As questions about technique come up, we can constantly refer back to the importance of why it’s best to do things in a certain way. The technical bits aren’t arbitrary; they serve a goal. Something like: “I noticed that when you dropped your shoulder, you allowed more weight to go into the bow and your tone projected better. It makes the whole passage sound more lyrical, don’t you think?” In a couple sentences, you can provide not only good feedback but reinforce the relationship between technique and musical intention. Metaphors and roadmaps can help with this.
  • Involve yourself in understanding how technique and expression are linked. - For a parent who doesn’t play the child’s instrument, it may be difficult to understand what purpose a technical requirement serves. If it’s not clear, ask. Personally, I’m a collaborative pianist and a so-so (read “bad”) violinist. But despite my own deficient violin technique, I’ve enjoyed learning about how the mechanics of playing the violin influence the tone, phrasing and ultimately, expression.
  • Listen with musical expression in mind. - Thinking about Suzuki’s mother tongue idea, I think we can extend his analogy. As children acquire their native language, they’re not just implicitly learning vocabulary, grammar, and such. They are also learning how to convey thoughts and emotions. Is this not also true of learning the language of music? The purpose of listening isn’t only to learn the notes - that is, pitches coming one after another in sequence. The purpose isn’t even just to learn good tone production and articulation by good example. The purpose of listening is also to acquire a sensibility about the music. Much of this happens under the radar, but we can nudge the process along by asking and commenting on the music we’re listening to, encouraging a dialog about what the music is conveying. And by all means, listen outside the repertoire too! It helps children gain a sense of what they like and of the wonderful breadth and scope of serious music.
  • Practice. It’s not just technique. It’s easy to view practice the same way as a workout at the gym, exercising technique to become automatic and facile. To be sure, there’s a role for repetition and focused attention to developing technical skills in practice. But as parents/practice partners, it’s also an opportunity to test out ideas about musical expression. In turn, sometimes that process exposes incomplete development of technique. More to work on! For example, my daughter was working on a piece for a music festival not long ago. In one passage, her intent was to conclude a phrase with a bit of rubato. But it wasn’t coming out quite right. The last note of the phrase faltered. Trying to carry off the desired expression meant discovering the need for more bow control and better attention to bow distribution which she worked on with her teacher.

As I always mention here, I’m not a teacher. Work on what the teacher advises, but I’ve found it very helpful to pay attention to advice about expressive qualities. And above all, understand not only “what” to practice, and “how” to practice, but also “why” to practice a certain way from the perspective expressive presentation.

How do think about the interplay between technique and expression as children are learning to play? Is there a role to use practice to develop expression? I’d love to hear what you think. See the Suzuki Experience Facebook page to comment.

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I first began to appreciate the power of metaphors to help musical practice when my daughter was learning the the Martini Gavotte in Book 3 of the violin repertoire. Martini Gavotte is what I like to call a “death trap.” It’s in a rondeau form with lots of material between appearances of the theme. And there are lots of ways to go off-the-tracks. In desperation, I had her assign animals to each section and weave a story about how the central character - a little dachshund named Stanley - visited with different animals in an imaginary journey. Not only did it work, but it piqued my interest in how metaphors and similar imaginary constructs can help kids learn music with more fun and more artistry.

Metaphors as an aid to memory

As the Stanley/Martini Gavotte example illustrates, metaphors can be a means of helping the memory. Since Suzuki students memorize their music, there are plenty of opportunities to challenge and exercise this ability. But even with a good listening program, there are still some pieces, like the Martini Gavotte that are stumpers.

Stanley, the mascot of Martini Gavotte

The way that metaphors assist with recall was well-known even to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Memorization was a key component of classical rhetoric and ancient texts devoted considerable attention to what is known as the method of loci[1], the use of imaginary places to locate memories. Today, the majority of champion memorizers use the method of loci technique. The reason that it works seems to be its capacity to forge new connections between otherwise disparate areas of the brain.[2] (Sounds a bit like the effects of music education itself!)

Metaphors and the development of artistry

Some aspects of musical technique are easy to put into words. “Curve your pinky like so.” “Hold your bow like this.” “Relax your thumb.” But others are more subtle and define much of the artistry of beautiful playing. Here, metaphors have the ability to convey meaning and expression that cannot be described concretely through words alone. Phrasing, dynamics, and tonal shading are elements of musicality that delve into the emotions. Metaphors are sometimes the only way of tapping into those expressive features.

May I, may I, may I pretty please?

We recently encountered a passage in the Bach Gavotte in Book 5 where a metaphor helped with expressive phrasing. In the second Gavotte, there’s a really lovely bit that where the phrasing is key (where isn’t it in solo Bach!?). During practice we decided that it sounded like a child pleading for something, candy perhaps. With that image in mind, we came up with words “May I, may I, may I pretty please?” to go with the notes. Together, the mental image of a pleading child, the words and the notes help shape a very expressive passage.

Metaphors as fun

Suzuki encouraged parents to make practice more fun and less like work. To be sure, there’s a lot to work on, but that doesn’t mean practice should feel like work. Being a teacher or Suzuki parent is in part an acting job. Actors are able to inspire an authentically imaginary world through words, actions and expression. In a similar way, the tools of acting can help us create more enjoyment in practice. Metaphors can be silly and fun. Most days, we laugh a lot during practice because of the ridiculous things we come up with in the process. Imagination, metaphors, creative expression infuse practice with a levity that makes children want to keep doing it. Not every day is like that; but it’s a great goal.

How to put metaphors and imagination into practice

  1. For longer pieces especially, think in terms of roadmaps that you can visualize. By employing the ancient method of loci, you can help children develop a stronger memory. It also opens the door to discussions about the structure of the music. The more vivid and unusual the roadmap, the better. One of the Book 4 concerto movements inspired a roadmap that involved a round-trip to her violin lesson, stopping at landmarks on the way. It sounds a little silly, but the best memories are those that interconnect disparate senses, often in very quirky ways.
  2. Always ask about mental pictures. What does that sound like? Involving children in the creative process exercises their own metaphor-generating mental muscles in ways that will help them in the future as they learn new pieces.
  3. Can you come up with words that fit with the notes? Words that tell a tiny story and fit rhythmically with the notes can be another aid to memorization and expression. Most teachers have accumulated quite a few of these themselves. But there are always more to be discovered.
  4. Draw visual images in the music. Feel free to annotate the score with little images that help recall the mental picture that your child has about the music.
  5. Use mental imagery to have more fun in practice. Making up silly stories about the music and coming up with unusual ways of describing the music can help make practice more enjoyable and memorable. Champion memorizers often say that their best memories are those that are linked to extremely vivid and unusual images. Sounds like fun!

Children have an easy and natural imagination. By tapping into this built-in ability we can help them develop their musical talent in more enjoyable and artistic ways.


  1. The method of loci, or "memory palace" technique of memorization is powerful mental tool for remembering voluminous quantities of information. It takes advantage of the connection between spatial processing and memory formation in the brain. It turns out that humans have evolved very sophisticated spatial memory capabilities. By leveraging that capacity, it's possible to store memories at imaginary locations in the mind. For an entertaining read on the power of memory and this method in particular, I recommend Joshua Foer's excellent book, "Moonwalking with Einstein".

  2. Maguire, E. A., Valentine, E. R., Wilding, J. M., & Kapur, N. (2002). Routes to remembering: the brains behind superior memory. Nature Neuroscience, 6(1), 90-95. doi:10.1038/nn988 - Functional MRI studies of expert memorizers show activation of areas of the brain associated with spatial processing and new memory formation. This suggests that they have formed efficient connections between areas of the brain by repeatedly exercising the ability to store memories in imaginary locations.

Is being a Suzuki parent more like being a gardener or a carpenter?

I’ve been reading Alison Gopnik’s recent book “The Gardener and the Carpenter” and wondering how it all fits with our role as Suzuki parents.

Gardening and carpentry

Dr. Gopnik is professor of psychology at U.C. Berkley and studies child development. “The Gardener and the Carpenter” looks at the role parents play in their children’s lives using two contrasting metaphors. The “carpenter parent” views child development from the parent’s perspective - planning, arranging and “parenting.” Like a carpenter who plans, measures, and fits everything precisely, this parent takes a utilitarian view of his or her role. She fills her children’s schedules with multiple activities and ensures achievement by carefully orchestrating the “work” of child-rearing. The author contrasts this role with that of the “gardener parent” who sets up a loving supportive environment in which kids have independence to explore the world and learn experientially. Like a master gardener who is concerned about the tilth of the soil, the right amount of shade and light but then allows the plants to do what they do, this type of parent views their role less as work and more as modeling, supporting, and caring. She keeps no secrets about her preference that parents adopt the gardener model and presents considerable evidence from studies in her lab and others that show children do better.

Explaining vs exploring

In one study, children were randomized to two groups. The goal was for children to learn how to use a new device they had never seen before. Unbeknownst to the children in the study, the device was capable of doing several things - playing sounds, flashing lights, etc. In one group, an adult tole the children a how to activate one of the features of the device. In another group, the adult gave a demonstration of some of the features and invited them to play with the device. Children in the latter group found all of the features to a greater extent than those in the former group. This study, and those like it, show that children learn and develop best when adults interact with them in less explanatory and more playful, exploratory ways.

It’s a intriguing contrast in styles of interacting with children. Naturally, I wondered whether being a Suzuki parent is more like being a gardener or a carpenter. Or are we straddling a line between the two? After all, while planning ahead for recitals, making practice charts, and dutifully arranging calendars, we’re much more like carpenters than gardeners. But Suzuki himself was very concerned with love and caring as a necessary precondition of talent development. He was clearly a master gardener!

So how to reconcile all of this?

It comes down to attitudes, our orientation toward what it means to help kids learn music. Since children develop best when our approach to them is less like that of the carpenter than of the gardener, here are some ways that we can be better parents:

  1. Focus less on the outcome than the process. Paradoxically I’ve found that when I don’t have a schedule in my head about how my child should be progressing on a piece or through the books, she learns better. Building things is a study in planning and outcomes. Tending a garden is an exercise in allowing something to develop in the right environment.
  2. Think of learning more as exploration than explanation. By finding ways to treat learning as an adventure into the unknown we can allow children’s natural curiosity to take over.
  3. Look for larger goals and balance. Just as Suzuki was clear about his bigger existential goals for children, we can do the same. His goal was to help children develop musicianship and humanity.
  4. Think about the “why?” questions. Why learn music at all? By taking a mental step out of the daily planning mode, it’s possible to contemplate the bigger questions about how children are developing as people not just what piece they’re playing.
  5. Allow children freedom to explore by fostering their independence and choice in practice as their abilities develop and allow some time to explore alternative musical styles if they’re interested. There’s a world of music outside the Suzuki repertoire!

I must admit that I’m a “carpenter” (in a figurative, not actual, sense!) Planning and focusing on results comes naturally. So it’s a struggle for me to interact differently when I’m working with my daughter. But I’m working on it!