I learned something about identity and habits.
A few years ago while giving a talk at a local Suzuki parents meeting, I introduced myself as the parent of a young Suzuki violinist. Nothing special, just an introduction. One of the parents came up to me afterwards and told me how interesting it was that I referred to my daughter as a “violinist”. She was accustomed to saying that her daughter takes violin lessons.
Recently I ran across a piece of advice that made me think back to that encounter.
Now I’m beginning to understand the difference between being a violinist and taking violin lessons. To be a violinist (or any musician) means taking on the identity of a musician. What do musicians do? They practice. On the other hand taking violin lessons is just something you do. Like brushing one’s teeth. No one really identifies as a tooth brusher!
It’s certainly possible to practice by sheer force of will but it’s always going to be an uphill battle. By beginning to reframe the task of practice as something that musician do and that “I am a musician.” then it’s an easier task.
How can we as parents build a sense of identity?
- Participate actively in the Suzuki and wider musical community - Sociologists would tell us that identity is created in a social context. We know this intuitively. “Hang out with bad kids, and chances are you’ll be the same,” warned my parents. Being part of the community - in group classes, master classes, institutes helps provide the social feedback to build the child’s budding identity as a musician.
- Introduce children to role models - Take them to live performances so they can see real grownups making serious music. Watch YouTube videos of famous performers and talk about them. “Who is your favourite violinist?” “Don’t you love her phrasing?”
- Use the language of identity - The words we use have an enormous impact on how children see themselves. By referring to practice as a responsibility that comes from one’s identity as a musician rather than just one more chore or “work”, there’s less friction.
- Make music the centerpiece of family life - A child’s first and closest community is her family. By never compromising when it comes to the schedule of musical events and practicing, the child takes important cues about how adults in her family view music.
- Use symbols and celebrations - All of us represent our identity by little outward symbols that signal to others who we are and what we’re about. For example, political bumper stickers are an unmistakable clue as to the driver’s affiliations. In a similar fashion we can bolster children’s identity by celebrating and taking note of milestones like practice challenges, recitals, and graduations. Symbols like stickers, posters, plaques and trophies come to be tokens of identification with a group of children who see themselves as musicians-in-training.
The relationship between identity and practice is a virtuous cycle. Identity builds confidence and consistency into practice and performance. And the better the child feels about herself from being consistent and playing well, the stronger her identification with the art and practice of musicianship. Over time, our identities become more complex and nuanced, but early identification with music will have a lasting influence throughout the lives of our children. And given that Suzuki’s real goal was building the identities of children as peacemakers and good citizens, we could all use more of that.