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Yoda, the Suzuki teacher

Yoda was an exemplary Suzuki teacher or practice parent.

“I’ll never be able to do it.”

This self-defeating mantra is a staple of frustrated students. My 7 year-old is struggling a bit with double stops, trying to get the left hand choreographed so that all of the fingers land in the right place on the right string at the right time. It’s tough.

Fortunately Master Yoda comes through with some sage advice.

Watch the video to see how Yoda dispenses important advice for Suzuki students.

In this scene from “The Empire Strikes Back”, Luke’s ship is stuck in the swamp on Yoda’s home planet Dagobah. As he sees the ship slip further beneath the murky waters, Luke complains: “We’ll never get it out now.” Yoda counters: “So certain are you. Always with you what cannot be done. Hear you nothing that I say?”

Luke replies that moving stones around using the Force are minor feats compared to the task of moving an entire ship. Yoda’s response is priceless advice: “No different! Only different in your mind. You must unlearn what you have learned.” Barely recognizing the importance of the advice he was just given, Luke halfheartedly agrees to give it a try. Yoda hastily interjects: “No! Try not! Do or do not. There is no try.”

When Luke inevitably fails he returns to Yoda and sighs: “I can’t. It’s too big.” Yoda replies: “Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you? And where you should not.” When Yoda successfully raises the ship, an astonished Luke returns and exclaims that: “I don’t believe it!” Then Yoda looks Luke in the eye and summarizes the encounter by saying: “That is why you fail.”

That is why you fail

Yoda, of course, isn’t frustrated with his student’s inability to raise the ship so much as his lack of confidence in his abilities. When our children begin working on a difficult passage, we aren’t frustrated by their inability to play it at tempo with proper intonation proper rhythm, and nuanced articulation. We encourage them to play the passage repeatedly until it comes together. But “I can’t do it.” pre-determines the outcome. This is Yoda’s teaching point. One’s belief in herself and one’s belief in the process is what largely determines the outcome. One of the most difficult aspects of working with young students is managing their natural frustrations. About the double stop exercises, my daughter asked: “When will I be able to play it correctly?” I replied that if you don’t attempt it, the exercise will take infinite time to learn. (Sorry, sometimes I can be snarky.) But we know from having been through this with every other piece and from what we know about the method and the growth mindset, that there’s a proportionality at work here. The outcome is in rough proportion to effort.

After a few attempts, when a couple measures didn’t immediately work out, she was ready to put down the violin. Sensing that I was running out of options, I showed her the scene above. Although she doesn’t really watch Star Wars, she understood the context. More importantly, she understood the message. Yoda, small like a child is able to harness tremendous power because he believes in his abilities. Isn’t this really what talent education is about? Children who come to believe in their abilities are able to harness tremendous talent that they didn’t know existed in themselves.

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Alan is the main practice partner and accompanist for a young violinist.