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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!

Today I want to share a new discovery about putting repetitions on autopilot. No, not the mindless wash-rinse-spin-repeat sort of repetition, but a way of polishing a bracketed section of a piece to build evenness and velocity. The example I’ll give is relevant to the violin repertoire but the practice technique is broadly applicable.

Pro Metronome setup for accelerating tempo

In the two Vivaldi movements in Book 4, there are some bits with tricky bowings, string crossings and some fast shifts. One of the challenges that we’ve worked on in practice is developing more metrical accuracy in these passages. The solution, of course, starts with being able to play these passages slowly with metrical evenness. But I’m frequently reminded that slow practice is apparently boring… So we discovered a feature on our metronome (Pro Metronome on iOS) that lets you loop a practice spot with accelerating tempo. This little change - having the metronome itself drive the practice bracket - makes a huge difference in my daughter’s interest level in doing them.

To use this feature, you setup the length of the practice spot to repeat. I usually add an extra measure to give some time to get back to the beginning without feeling rushed. Say the phrase to practice is 6 measures long; I’ll set the metronome to increase tempo every 7 measures. Next you decide how much faster each repetition should be in beats per minute (BPM.) Small increases mean more repetitions are required to get to the target tempo but large increases of over 5-10 BPM can be somewhat jarring. Increases of 4 BPM for each repetition are noticeable without being unmanageable so that’s what we shoot for. Finally, decide on the starting and ending tempo. We start much slower than she can actually play the passage so that she can devote most of her focus to making the passage even with clear articulation. The target tempo should also be manageable or just at the cusp of where she can currently play the passage well.

What I’ve found over the course of a few weeks using this feature of the metronome is that it makes repetitions of practice spots less rote, while actually accomplishing something productive. And using the metronome at a slower tempo to start makes the whole process much less intimidating than beginning to use it only when trying to get the piece up to performance tempo.

Other app-based metronomes also have this “autopilot” feature but Pro Metronome has the most intuitive interface a more pleasing sound than many of the others I’ve evaluated. Whatever technique you use, may you have happy, productive practice sessions!

(N.B. Although I’m an active musician, I don’t teach. If anything I say conflicts with what your teacher wants you to do, by all means, do what the teacher says.)

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I’m on a personal odyssey to find better ways to take practice notes.[1] For about a year, I took notes solely on an iPad, as I wrote about previously. Although I enjoyed the process of annotating the scores directly on the iPad, preparing the scores each week for use on the tablet took a lot of time. As my daughter became busier, it was impossible to keep up. So I’ve returned to pen and paper note-taking.

As I’ve begun handwriting notes again, I’ve noticed a glaring deficiency in how we take notes for use in practice. It goes like this. Each week, we go to lessons and dutifully take notes about the working pieces, exercises and other assignments. We go home and practice those. The next week, we do the same thing. So the notebook becomes a chronological record of lessons week-to-week. But what happens when your goal is help your child polish a piece for a recital, festival performance, or audition? Then, to make sure all of the points are covered in your home preparations, you have to reconstruct the record of practice points by going backward through your notes. If your note-taking is as cryptic as mine, this can be a daunting task. You could use the score as a record of all of the practice recommendations, but after weeks of working on a piece the score ends up with a dense patina of marks that are more cryptic than the original notes.

Each piece gets a separate index page with measure-by-measure practice points

Now I use a new method. During lessons I still take notes as usual, but I set aside separate pages in my notebook for each piece that my daughter is polishing for performance. On each page, I make a table with measure numbers in the left hand column and a description of the practice point in the middle column. The right-most column gives each point a letter that I use for shorthand notation during the week. Then I bookmark these index pages with a self-adhesive flag so I can refer to them readily.

Righthand column is shorthand notation for daily notes

As we find new trouble spots or the teacher points out new areas to work on, I add them to the list. Finally, after practice each day, I jot down the points that we worked on during that session. This is of enormous help the next day when we practice because I can quickly plan what to work on next or whether we need to continue working on some of the same points from the previous day.

Daily practice notes refer to index page for that piece

Having per-piece index pages in my notebook has become an enormous time saver and source of confidence that our preparations are on-track and comprehensive.

What note-taking ideas have you found work for you? Comment at the Suzuki Experience Facebook page.


  1. Although I've usually called them lesson notes, perhaps a better term is practice notes. Why? Because they're not really backward-looking to the lesson, they're forward-looking to the week's practice. So, practice notes.

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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.


Lasting habit changes always involve some kind of identity shift. Running every day stops being a grind only once you begin to feel like a runner.
- David Cain, raptitude.com 88 More Truths I’ve Learned About Life

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.

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What I learned as a Suzuki parent in 2016

Approaching the end of 2016, it’s the season of annual reviews, reflections, and retrospectives. It’s also the season for hopes and plans for 2017. Since for me personally it has been an interesting and challenging year, I decided to reflect on what I’ve learned over this past year.

Suzuki talent education is truly universal.

One of our adventures during 2016 involved moving to another country. Although our move was only from the U.S. to Canada, we were struck by how universal the Suzuki experience is. At the first Saturday morning group class, my daughter walked right into the first group and started playing. Same pieces, same bowings. Everything was exactly the same. Even if she had been unable to speak the language there would have been no barrier to making music with her peers. What if we all could communicate that way!

Music can be a great source of resilience.

Over the course of a year, we moved three times. One of the few constants in our lives was music. Even if everything else changes, there’s always music.

Switching teachers can be very tough.

My daughter is very fond of her first teacher whom we had to leave behind. We found a wonderful teacher in our new community but the transition involved lots of emotion. Technical progress can always wait; deal with the emotions first.

What piece your child is playing isn’t a good measure of progress.

I’ve begun to notice much more divergence in progress as measured by where my daughter is in the Suzuki repertoire and her development as a musician. There are so many little details of expression and stylistic interpretation that can be emphasized. You can spend a very long time working out every last detail. It’s all time well-spent. Since my daughter has been playing in orchestra and now a string quartet, there are many other experiences that bear on her development as a musician. It’s pointless to look at chronological progression through the pieces as a measure of progress. The answer to the question “What are you working on now?” isn’t the Vivaldi A-minor. It’s “Being a better violinist.” or “Being more patient with myself in practice.”

Sometimes letting go is the best course of action

Because our lives have been a little disordered this year, I’ve had to let go of a rigid schedule for review. But in the process, I’ve learned that letting go of the invariable need to get every little thing done every single day can be the best course of action. Sometimes you have to “zoom out” and look at the big picture. Sometimes progress doesn’t come in day-sized pieces.

The world needs Suzuki more than ever

Suzuki’s hope was to unite the world in peace by teaching kids to be patient, gentle, kind and hopeful citizens. This past year has seen far too much crudeness, hate, and division. We desperately need more of what unites us.


What I wish I had done better

Even the most effective Suzuki family has the occasional tense or nonproductive practice. Our experience this year was not exception.

There are times that I let my own personal frustrations get the better of me.

My own personal hot button is inefficiency. Like most families, we have a busy life. Time-wasting (what my own mother used to call plain-old dawdling) is a sure way to raise my blood pressure. I’m working on turning the problem upside down. Instead of seeing it as a surplus of inefficiency, I’m trying to see the problem as a deficiency of interestingness. By making practice more interesting, then everything else becomes less distracting, relatively speaking. I’m not quite there yet, but I’m working on it.

Sometimes I struggle to stay positive and creative with practice.

When the workload looks insurmountable or I’m low on sleep and exercise, I get too “transactional” with practice. It’s best to see our work in practice with young children as a balance between organizing the material to be practiced vs. setting it up as a fun positive experience. When time and patience are short, it’s easy to push the balance toward the “work” side.


Looking toward 2017

I’ve become more and more interested in the idea of the practice of life as a series of experiments. We’re all feeling our way through the experience of life, making it up as we go. Similarly when practicing with our children at home, we are making it up as we go. I have always noticed that my daughter, now 8 years old, was more cooperative with trying new ways of playing something if I framed it as an experiment. “What would happen if you slowed your bow speed here so you stayed closer to the lower half? I wonder…”

But what would happen if we tried that sort of hypothetical stance on a larger scale? What if we decided to try month-long experiments? For example, you might decide to play a particular game every day for a month and see if our outlook during practice improves. Or we could decide to devote the entire month to trying little mini-experiments to improve certain techniques. There’s something very honest and appealing about admitting that we don’t have all the answers, but that we are willing to play around with ideas and test them out.

I’m looking forward to trying all of this out in 2017, seeing where it takes us.

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A few years ago, my wife, a surgeon, told a story about a medical student who rotated on her service. When she asked him what he had hoped to learn on the rotation, he said that he was hoping to “learn some tricks.” I’m not exactly sure what surgical “tricks” are but I assume he was referring to little shortcuts or efficiencies that you gradually learn through practice. The story bothered me slightly for reasons I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

But now I think I understand why. And it relates to what we do in Suzuki talent education.

It bothered me because, however innocently, it implies an expectation of unearned knowledge - a desire to advance one’s practical knowledge without going through the practical part.

Learning to play an instrument at a high level is arguably one of the most skillful tasks that humans undertake. Naturally, when we see an expert player we might wonder what the trick is. What’s the key that when found unlocks that level of playing?

So in music, what is the trick?

Well, the trick is to realize there isn’t a trick at all. There are still endeavours that are simply impervious to tricks. You can’t tweak your bow hold slightly and suddenly play the Paganini Caprices. You can’t stare at the score long enough and suddenly play the Rachmaninoff piano concerti. Learning to play well isn’t like that at all. It is more like building a 747. I’m not an engineer and I know nothing about how a 747 is actually built. But I’m pretty sure it starts with one piece of metal and a rivet. The result is not the application of a trick. It’s the sum of millions of small tasks. The same as learning to play.

The trick of learning to play beautifully is not a trick at all. It’s just accepting that some things can’t be rushed. It’s coming back to practice every day. And for the thing done well, its price is time itself.

From time to time I have the opportunity to interact with other families who are trying to decide on whether to start music lessons for their children and how to go about it. Notwithstanding the enormous influence that Suzuki has had in dispelling some of these myths, many persist. In this post, I’d like to do my own myth-busting about children and learning to play a musical instrument.

None of the arguments for starting music lessons holds any value until parents understand the value of music in their children’s lives. The neurocognitive benefits of musical training are well-documented. And done well, learning a musical instrument early in childhood teaches a host of life skills that equip children to be kind, compassionate, patient, and persistent. I’m also wildly biased about music because I think that’s it’s a wonderful gift to children on its own merit.

“Forcing a child to take music lessons is a recipe for strife and hatred of music”

Well, that’s statement with which I’d agree. To a point. The problem with the claim as worded is the “forcing” part. Children and most of us adults have a natural oppositional stance toward expectations that aren’t immediately enjoyable. Skilled parenting requires adults to find creative ways of implementing expectations without explicitly forcing the child into compliance.

Growth

From a very early age, parents have to become inventive in order to set up habits that are good for their children. They play games with their children to get them to try foods that they might otherwise not attempt to eat on their own. They create fun rituals around bath time. None of these methods is explicit “forcing.” Instead, they are about reducing the friction of implementing reasonable expectations.

To understand the difference between the authoritarian style of forcing children to comply with expectations and the authoritative style of openly communicating family expectations, it may help to think about parenting styles on two axes, responsiveness (or warmth) and control. Parents who have a high degree of control but are receptive toward their children typically find ways of gaining cooperation through rational explanation and listening. The idea of forcing a child to take music lessons is an authoritarian concept. There is absolutely nothing wrong with expecting a child to study music if it is important to your family. But this also requires a high degree of investment in finding creative ways to make it enjoyable and rewarding. This the role of the authoritative parent.

One of the reasons that Suzuki’s approach to talent education is so successful with young children is that it capitalizes on the creativity of caring authoritative adults in a child’s life to create enjoyment around an intense learning experience. It only works when the parents are highly involved. Anything less than that begins to resemble “forcing” when the inevitable difficulties start to come up.

“Musical talent is mostly inherited anyway; and I have no talent”

Of course, musical ability seems to travel in families. Children of musicians are more likely to be musicians themselves. But that’s hardly definitive evidence of a genetic predestination. You have to take into consideration the cultural influence in the family. If the child of a musical family hears music constantly, then he’ll clearly move toward the family’s center of gravity.

We also know much more than ever about the role of intentional practice in shaping ability. High ability in any discipline is more a function of dedicated practice rather than innate ability. Children of all kinds of parents can learn to play a musical instrument well.

“Maybe music isn’t my child’s passion”

True, maybe it’s not.

The problem with this myth is two-fold. First, is the myth of The One True Passion. Then there’s an implied misunderstanding about how real passions develop.

Many people believe that everyone has a singular passion locked inside of them just waiting to be discovered. In this way of thinking, only a fortunate few manage to discover it and go on to be highly accomplished people. The rest of us are left to wander about perpetually seeking our One True Passion. This, of course, is nonsense. None of us has such a thing. Instead, passion or intense interests develop as virtuous cycles. A young child begins an activity at the behest of his parents. In the course of participating in that activity, the parent is an enthusiastic helper and cheerleader, always finding something praiseworthy in the smallest achievement. The child, in turn, endeavours to keep trying because the genuine approval of his parents is more precious than any possession. More effort, more feedback, and more desire to invest effort. And on it goes.

No child develops an intense enthusiasm (aka “passion”) for something without his parents investing time and effort and endlessly cheerleading. A passion is an action, not a fixed state of being. Picasso said that “Inspiration exists but it has to find us working.” The same is true of passion. It has to find us working, exploring and learning.

“Children who are meant to play an instrument will eventually ask to take lessons”

Maybe. Maybe not. Are you willing to take the chance?

Regrets about not starting or continuing with musical training are among the top regrets of adults. And although it’s never too late to start music lessons, there are data showing that musical aptitude reaches its adult plateau level around age 12. By age 8 or 9, a child’s ability to discriminate between pitches (up, down, same) reaches the level at which it will remain for the rest of his life. By age 12, his ability to distinguish between harmonically consistent and inconsistent pitches reaches adults levels. Children may not necessarily ask to take music lessons until some of these windows are already closed.

“I’ll try a few lessons and see if he takes to it”

This myth is rooted in the same misunderstanding of The One True Passion. The idea behind this myth is that a handful of music lessons will be enough to see if this can unlock that hidden passion.

The answer is the same: that’s not how interests develop. At least not in younger children. Playing a musical instrument is hard. For some instruments, it can take a year or more to make sequences of sounds that most of us would interpret as definitely musical. For the overwhelming majority of children, then only the persistent encouragement from their parents and teachers can propel them over that hump.


The decision to give children the gift of music lessons has all the traits of good leadership. Parent leaders have to be well-informed about the benefits of musical training and about their role in the undertaking. They have to be 100% convinced that they are right. And they have to lead by example and by working in the trenches with their children.

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Yes, cows, sheep, chickens, pigs and cats all helped our practice.

Well, at least their sounds did.

The full story goes like this: Like many children, ViolinGirl doesn’t like to be interrupted. Since she’s not a tactile learner[1], having me reach over to fix things like bow hold and left hand position are frustrating for her. Similarly, completely stopping the piece to remind her to fix something turns out to be inefficient because sometimes it’s hard to get going again. Here’s where the animal sounds come in.

She and I decided on a repertoire of animal sounds that represent different things to work on. For example, a pig 🐖 sound means “check that your left thumb is relaxed.” A cow 🐄 mooing means “check that you are landing your fingers on the inside corners.” A cat 🐱 meowing means to check her bow hold, and so on.

All of this is much less intrusive than using words or trying to manipulate her hands directly. And it’s good for a laugh![2]

What have you done for fun in practice that’s also helped improve technique? Comment on our Facebook page


  1. Special thanks to Ms. Jennifer Burton, master Suzuki violin teacher at the Aber Suzuki Center for raising our awareness of learning styles in children. Our daughter is definitely not a kinesthetic learner. She's probably about 2/3 auditory and 1/3 visual. Thinking about learning styles and preferences has been enormously helpful in adapting our practice techniques and in understanding where things can go astray.

  2. More than just being amusing, it taps into a love of animals that my daughter has. Anything that features animals in some way readily gains her interest.

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Posted outside an institute director’s door is a quote attributed to Theodore Roosevelt.[1] It simply says: “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

It’s an idea that is so completely obvious but so difficult to act on. Much of our inner monologue is about comparisons and judgments of others. If comparisons are the antithesis of joy, then why do our brains devote so much energy to doing it?

Comparisons are damaging

That comparison are damaging to young nascent musicians is nearly obvious. For some, comparison leads to a sense of defeat. When the gap in ability is large, it seems insurmountable. It may even lead to a desire to quit completely.

Faulty comparisons can also lead students to try to rush through the repertoire, failing to take in important learning points along the way. This is illogical, of course, because one learns this repertoire for pedagogical reasons not simply to get through it. After all, it’s not just “Never rest.” It’s “Never hurry, never rest.”

Eventually, learning to be musical is not solely about recreating what’s on the reference recordings but developing an authentic and individual musical “voice.” It becomes about individual artistry; but unchecked comparison with others inhibits this unique self from emerging.

Comparisons are inevitable

If comparisons are so harmful to children learning to play a musical instrument and to our own happiness as adults, why do we engage in it? The simple answer is that we, like other primates, are “wired” to do it. Comparing ourselves to others exerts a strong protective effect. Modern non-human primates and presumably our ancestors both engaged in efforts to ensure equitable distribution of resources. Group members who receive a disproportionate amount of a resource are a threat to the survival of other members. As humans evolved, we developed the same sensitivity over not only tangible resources such as food but also abstract resources like ability, status, and popularity.

Social psychologists describe this phenomenon as the social comparison theory. This theory describes the tendency of people to measure their own value by making comparisons with others. It’s just part of our operating system. As a result of this built-in tendency, we can’t help judging both ourselves and others against the benchmark of others. As we mature, though, we develop a number of mechanisms to keep overt displays of envy and pride - the result of these comparisons - in check.

Reframing comparisons

The Suzuki world is largely devoid of explicit competition. This, of course, is by design. Although some Suzuki students also participate in music competitions of one sort or another, it’s not built-in to the method. Yet because comparison is inevitable, we have to be prepared to deal with it in constructive ways.

Use the language of artistry vs the language of achievement

Suzuki violin and viola teacher and teacher trainer Ann Montzka-Smelser described[2] the distinction as the difference between the language of artistry vs. the language of achievement. The language of achievement focuses on measurable accomplishments like SAT scores, prizes in competitions, scores, marks, and what piece you’re playing. The language of artistry, instead, refers to the accumulating experience of developing as a musician. For Suzuki students, it can refer to the development of character on the road to becoming a musician. We simply have to find ways of talking about that experience that aren’t hyper-focused on where our children are in the repertoire. Some such comparisons are necessary to help place kids in compatible groups or between parents to understand where other parents are in the process. But we can minimize exposing kids to those comparisons.

Cultivate gratitude and pleasure in the accomplishments of others

As parents, we can talk positively about other children. We can teach our children to encourage and compliment each other on their playing. Very few of our children will go on to become soloists. As a result, the bigger the community of musicians, the better! It’s not a zero-sum game because there’s always more music and room for other interpretations.

Recycle comparisons into realistic personal goals

One of the ways that mature people resolve their internal tension over comparisons with others is to look at the gap between their current state and ideal state as motivation for improvement. Similarly, with a child who compares herself to another student we can help them reframe jealousy into a meaningful goal. Because we can’t control all of the variables that explain different rates of progress, this can be a process goal such practicing every day, practicing with greater focus, or listening more. Just the act of talking about the ideas reinforces that concept that progress is largely a function of effort.

Help your children understand that high accomplishment doesn’t mean happiness

The goal of all of this is to raise happy people with strong character. In making comparisons, we make the flawed assumption that accomplishment and happiness are inextricably linked. But this is simply not so. Accomplished persons are not necessarily happier than the next guy in the rankings. Gratitude also has a calming effect on these expectations. It also helps to turn the child’s attention from others to their own selves. One helpful comparison is to watch old videos of the child from earlier in their musical development. Zooming out to this historical view often induces smiles of amazement when we do this with our daughter. You can’t help but be grateful and proud of your own development when you see how far you have come.

To compare ourselves with others is built-in to our operating system, but by being clever about using those impulses constructively, we can have children who are happy with themselves and their progress, and simultaneously experience pleasure in the performance of others.

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  1. Wikiquote lists this quotation as questionable because no primary source has been found. Whether it's authentic or not, its significance to the development of young musicians is clear.

  2. American Suzuki Institute, 2016, "Change the environment not the child", Ann Montzka-Smelser