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While the Suzuki method focuses on consistent, rather than rapid progress, it’s definitely more enjoyable to play better and to progress. Recently I ran across a pair of articles[1],[2] that dealt with how professionals and amateurs differ in their approach to their discipline; and it’s applicable to how to play better.

Think of this analogy. There’s a tub that we want to fill; so we turn on the tap. Only the tub isn’t filling as quickly as we hoped. So we open the tap a little more. Now the tub is filling up a little faster, but again, not as fast as we expected. Why not? Maybe the water level isn’t rising as expected because there’s a leak. As we’re putting in water, some of it is draining out at the same time. So we have a choice, we could fix the leak or try to overwhelm it by turning the tap more.

Becoming better at what one does is not unlike this analogy. Until we plug the leaks, it’s impossible to completely fill the tub. Likewise, we can continue to pile on more repertoire and more events to prepare for; but until we fix the “leaks” in our practice program, progress is slower and success is delayed. People who have studied the difference between professional and amateur athletes notice a difference between how games are won or lost. Professional athletes have very closely-matched technique; so they win by winning points. Amateurs have highly variable technique and may not even be aware of their deficits.[3] When amateur athletes face one another, it’s less a game of winning points than of not losing points. The amateur game goes to the athlete who makes the fewest blunders. The process of becoming a professional involves, in part, the filtering out of these glaring deficiencies in technique - filtering out the “leaks” in their game.

Since our children with whom we practice are all at an amateur stage of development, they’re not only constantly learning new techniques, but should be “plugging the leaks” in the technique they’re already covered. What are some of the leaks we can plug in practice? Or as David Cain puts it, “the holes where all the success leaks out.” Since I practice with a violin student, I think about it in terms of string technique, but it should be easy to extend this to any instrument.

  • Not focusing on tone. So much beauty “leaks out” by not focusing on all the variables that work together to make good tone - bow hold, posture, relaxing the bow arm into the string, drawing a straight bow.
  • Not counting It’s easy to get sloppy with rhythm. Conversely, being picky about counting accurately is an easy way to plug one leak in playing. Hint: the metronome is your friend!
  • Not playing what’s on the page. In his excellent essay “Every Good Boy Does Fine”, a meditation on a life of piano lessons, concert pianist Jeremy Denk notes that: “Ninety per cent of a teacher’s job is directing students to read what’s plainly on the page.” The composer or editor thought this section should be forte? So, play it forte. A hint here: Suzuki kids memorize music quickly; but they should still refer back to the music because the memorization process isn’t 100% complete and accurate.
  • Not striving to improve intonation Accurate pitch is a moving target, but fortunately, string instruments have a built-in “cheat.” Constantly focusing on the resonant pitches up and down the instrument whenever they present themselves is an excellent way to plug this leak in technique.

Of course, we practice partners have our own “leaks” to plug:

  • Not having a plan - the most impactful change we can make in our own technique is to have a plan. It needn’t be detailed or sophisticated; the practice plan just has to address what’s needed to make some progress for the week.
  • Not being consistent - Practicing every single day may be unnecessarily obsessive; but being consistent about the habit is not. Progress is in large part a function of time-on-task. When we’ve had remodeling projects at our house, it goes faster when the workers show up and do the work. Imagine that!
  • Not focusing on the teacher’s goals - This is an easy leak to fix. The teacher brings an enormous wealth of playing and pedagogical experience to the studio. Plus you pay them! Why not take advantage of that? Not sure of the goals? Ask!
  • Not making it enjoyable - Learning to play an instrument is hard. Why make it harder by causing it to be drudgery?

Progress is a balance between “turning on the tap” and “plugging the leaks.” In a way, this is the essence of good review practice. Thinking about practice in this way can help our kids progress faster with more robust technique.

References


  1. The Hole Where All the Success Leaks Out - this article by David Cain, who writes at Raptitude is an excellent summary of the idea here. You can improve by adding new knowledge and skills; or you can improve by systematically filter out glaring deficits. Guess where amateurs derive the most benefit?

  2. - Avoiding Stupidity is Easier than Seeking Brilliance - Amateur tennis players win by making fewer unforced errors. Professionals win by strategic shots.

  3. This is the so-called Dunning-Krueger effect which is a cognitive bias in which a person of low ability falsely assesses his ability as higher than it is because he lacks sufficient context in a particular domain to apply any meta-cognitive skills.

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Her breaking point, it turned out, was Kreutzer #11.

Somehow the parenting lessons that are the most obvious are the easiest to forget. After a concerto competition, a three week-long music festival, and a busy chamber music workshop, my daughter was done. Like, really done.

But since her teacher just gave her the Kreutzer #11 to start working on, I jumped into helping her map out all the shifts. When she began to kvetch, I persisted trying to show her all the little details. Predictably a tearful meltdown ensued.

Had I spent a moment to take stock of all that had transpired over the last several weeks, I could have said, “You know, the Kreutzer can wait. Let’s do something fun.” Instead, I pushed a little too hard. And created for myself a mini refresher course in being a more fully aware violin parent. I (re-)learned:

  • Practice doesn’t happen in vacuum. Take stock of all their current events. Make accommodations.
  • Stamina builds slowly. Be patient with them, so they learn to be patient with themselves.
  • There’s always tomorrow. If today isn’t a good day for the hard stuff, try again tomorrow.

And the postscript is even more telling. After a night’s rest and a little sunshine, she nailed all those little details in her study.

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Well, I can’t exactly guarantee frustration-free practice but we can try.

Somewhere around the second half of Book 4 and beyond, we began to feel the burden of lots of material to work on. It seems that the list of to-do’s grows by the month: Suzuki repertoire, other solo repertoire, orchestra, ensemble, string quartet, scales, exercises, music festivals and competitions. And of course, review. It’s a lot. And it can make for frustrating practices when the sessions seem to go on forever. Here are a few ways we’ve managed a growing practice volume.

Have a plan

Having a roadmap for practice is invaluable for getting through the material efficiently. My daughter likes to have everything written out as a plan beforehand. But even with children who are happy to forgo the checklist, you can keep a rough schedule in your head and stick to it. If the plan is written out, there’s a visual indicator of how the practice is proceeding. An hour can seem like forever for children, so being able to track progress during the session makes it seem less interminable. I also find that by planning the practice session in advance, it’s easier to move from task to task without much interruption.

Be strategic

You don’t have to practice every single thing, every single day. Likewise, not everything has equal weight. Figure out what the priorities are for the week - recital preparation, upcoming festivals or exams - and strategically give more time to pieces that have a deadline.

It’s not essential to play through the working pieces from start to finish every day. If the memory is secure, then it’s fine, even preferable, to focus on technically challenging passages. It’s about using limited time in a strategic way.

Review sensibly

I’ve heard stories of kids who play through every piece they know every day through Book 7. I suppose it’s fine if you have the time; but few of us have that much time. As with the working pieces, being strategic with review is a huge time-saver. I understand Suzuki’s principle of “Raise your ability with a piece you can play.” That said, if your child is playing in the upper books, is it really essential to review the Twinkles every week?

We’ve organized review around two variables:

  • What pieces does she know less well?
  • What pieces are on the summer institute review list?

Periodically we assign pieces to different groups (A,B,C) based on how well she knows the piece. Then I make up a review list for the month, organized day-by-day. Pieces that are less well-polished appear every week while pieces that are performance-ready may show up only once a month. And those that fall between we may do once every two weeks. The idea is similar to evidence-based Suzuki playlists that I wrote about previously.

Even with your review program, you can work only the more challenging technical parts in lieu of playing the piece from beginning to end. It can be a real time-saver while still working on what’s important.

Don’t force it

Your child has limits of endurance. Just because another child, even of the same age can endure for 2-3 hours, doesn’t mean yours can (or even should). The limit with my 9 year-old is about an hour at a time. Undoubtedly some 9 year-olds can do more and some less. If you’re working with your child every day, you have a sense of what they’re capable of. Whatever their endurance is, that’s what it is. The law of diminishing returns comes into play if you push them past that limit. Try to finish whatever you can before they reach the melting point.

Split practice into smaller sessions

Can you practice more than once a day - before and after school? If so, you can capitalize on the time and attention they have. It’s not possible for everyone; but it works for us.

Rotation is your friend

This idea works well for scales and technical exercises. Set up a system of rotation, like you may be doing with review pieces, and use that to organize that section of practice. Consistency is great, but it doesn’t mean doing the same thing every day. If you organize it in advance with a rotation system that covers everything over the course of the week, you can be confident that you aren’t missing anything.

Learn to say “no”

Not every opportunity that comes along is of equal value. We humans are notoriously bad at accurately estimating how much some activity in the future is going to require. So we tend to say “yes” without really thinking about the impact on practice volume. So a strategic “no” means “yes” to a smaller subset of more valuable activities.

Organize early and often

Keep your child’s books out on the stand or within easy reach. Flag the pages you’re going to need. By shaving off preparation time, you can do a better job of keeping your child’s attention and moving from task to task.

Don’t sweat it

If you can’t get everything accomplished, what’s the worst thing that can happen? Miss a few notes in quartet? Not nail that shift in recital? It’s just music, not life-or-death. Celebrate the beauty of their music as it is, and trust that time will solve lots of little problems.

See the Suzuki Experience Facebook page to comment.

We recently had to produce a couple audition videos, so I thought I’d share what we learned in the process. Even if you’re not recording for an audition, it can be valuable to capture piece that your children have polished to a high level in an indelible way.

Goals of the audition video

You want the audition video to accurately represent your level of playing and mastery of the instrument in a way that allows adjudicators who don’t know you and can’t see you up-close to assess your ability and suitability for their goals. So what you’re trying to achieve is a wonderful sample of your playing with minimal distractions. I’ll take these two goals separately and discuss how to make it work.

A wonderful sample of your playing

It goes without saying that the reviewers should fall in love with your playing. The piece should be polished to the highest level of your ability. Pay attention to nuance - dynamics, tone colour, and phrasing. Once your selection is at this level, you can consider the technology to make this stand out.

Video quality

While even your phone can record video in HD quality, you should recognize the limitations. The phone offers very little in the way of settings. You are probably stuck with the video settings that the phone has to offer.

If possible my recommendation is to use a video-capable DSLR or mirrorless adjustable camera. The optical quality will be superior to the tiny lens in the phone’s camera and you’ll be able to adjust the settings to achieve a more desirable result.

Frame rate is one of the adjustments to make. Many cameras shoot at 60 frames per second (fps) because they can. The problem with 60 fps is that it often looks unnatural. A much more natural, softer effect can be achieved by shooting at 24 fps. Each camera has a different way of accessing these settings; you’ll have to read the manual. It took me a little digging in the menus to find them on my camera (a Sony A7.)

After setting the frame rate to 24 fps, we want a shutter speed that is about twice the frame rate. So, it would be about 1/40 or 1/50 of a second. Since most cameras automatically try to strike a balance between shutter and aperture, you’ll need to find the setting for shutter priority and set the shutter speed from there. Pay attention to the ISO, the sensitivity of the sensor. It should be on auto.

Summary of video settings:

  • Use 24 frames per second frame rate
  • Put the camera in shutter priority mode.
  • Use a shutter speed about twice the frame rate, i.e. 1/40 or 1/50 second.
  • Set the ISO to auto.

Audio quality

One of the most impactful changes you can make in your recording technique is to record the audio separately from the video. That means using a digital recorder, or using a digital audio recording application on your mobile device along with a stereo microphone.

I use my iPhone or iPad running MultiTrack DAW software paired with the Rode iXY microphone. This combination records very low noise audio that I can pair with the video.

Depending on your room, you may need to play around with the positioning of the mic. Too close and the sound may be distorted. Too far away and the sound is unfocused. It’s also worth running through some of the sections with louder dynamics to make sure the microphone gain isn’t set too high. Otherwise clipping may occur.

Depending on the room where you record the audition, you may want to post-process the audio lightly in an audio editing application. I use Audacity. It’s free and relatively intuitive. Typically, the only addition I make is a very slight reverb (under 40%, typically 30-38%.) In our living room, it adds just a little “life” without sounding inauthentic. I stay away from dynamic compressors because the results with small acoustic instruments can be pretty bad. Just a touch of reverb to make it more lively and warm and that’s it.

Finally, I would just mention that it can be tricky to line up the audio and video tracks. The eye and ear are very keen and can detect when the audio and video aren’t perfectly in sync. To help synchronize, I play a very short musical note before the actual performance that is captured on both the audio and video tracks. The very sharp spiky waveform is easier to line up visually in the video editing timeline.

Summary of audio tips:

  • Use a digital audio recorder or your mobile phone with a stereo microphone.
  • Try different microphone placements to find the best position.
  • Use Audacity to post-process the audio, but only do it very lightly.
  • Use a “marker tone” to help line up the tracks in video editing software.

Perspective and lighting

The ideal perspective for an audition video is what an audience member would see from a really good seat. The camera should be supported on a tripod and should be absolutely level. The perspective shouldn’t be looking up or down at the subject. Make sure all of the technical parts are visible. For string players, the perspective should show the bow action and what’s happening on the fingerboard.

The lighting should be indirect and not harsh. Avoid backlighting which fools the autoexposure on the camera and can yield disappointing results. Watch out for LED lighting especially on dimmers. With certain combinations of LED lighting levels and shutter speeds you can get a very noticeable flickering or banding. The shutter speed of 1/40 to 1/50 second can eliminate most of these artifacts, but I’ve seen cases where 1/40 second didn’t work while 1/50 second did. If you have LED lighting, you’ll need to experiment with various combinations of light intensity and shutter speed to eliminate banding.

Avoiding distractions

Try to setup the frame so that there’s as little as possible to distract the viewer. If you have different lenses available to you, try to different focal lengths. In a recent audition video I ended up using a fast 55 mm lens that did a nice job of holding the subject (my daughter!) in focus while blurring the accompanist (me!)

Editing

Here, nothing special is needed. I use iMovie for such a straightforward project. Typically I’ll start with a single dark background for the title shot and include the name of the player, the title of the piece and the composer, then fade in to the performance, giving about 1-3 seconds on either end of the music for the fade.

Final details

Make sure you follow any limits imposed by the adjudicators in terms of length, naming conventions for the video and so forth. Small details can be important to adjudicators who are often faced with the task of reviewing many videos from excellent players. The experience of setting up and perfecting the music and the recording technique is worth it whether you have an upcoming audition or not. Simply capturing a polished piece in a beautiful way can be satisfying. Good luck! It took a lot of tries, but if you’d like to see what we came up with for one of my daughter’s audition videos, here it is.

Have you learned new some new recording tip? See the Suzuki Experience Facebook page to comment.

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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.