Thursday, April 23, 2015

Why Start Children on Music at a Young Age?

The ideal age to start children on music is something hotly debated across several fields of study.  Neuroscientists research brain development before and after musical education...teachers study a student's attention span after music exposure...math experts wonder if music students are able to understand fractions more quickly... the list seems endless.

I'm going to take a slightly different approach to this topic.  I wanted to talk about longevity.

Honestly, I feel that that the best reason to start a child on music at a young age is so the child can start forming the habit of music.  Playing an instrument is complicated. Any number of hurdles will hold back a musician's progress.  And the sad fact is that even if a child starts young only a small percentage of children ever "make it" (I mean this in the loosest of terms: mastering the instrument enough to have a degree of fluency).

Music is a lifestyle.  In order to be truly successful at learning an instrument, music has to be a part of a person's life.  Going to concerts, listening to music, associating with other musicians, performing... all of this has to become a part of who a person is.  It has to be.  Otherwise, what incentive is there to torture yourself with scales?

The older we get the more fixed our habits become.  Of all the possible pastimes a person can pick up, learning a musical instrument has to be one of the least accessible.  Besides all the time, money and lack of immediate gratification, it's just flat out hard!

Which is why learning an instrument at a young age gives someone such an advantage.  If that immersion into the musical lifestyle happens early on, the musician doesn't question why he decided to take up an instrument.  The instrument simply becomes a part of who that person is.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Venturing into Viola

I am a violist at heart.  It's a sort of cruel irony that violinists usually switch to viola to avoid the higher sounds but then you have to primarily teach those higher sounds to students until some of them decide to join your viola ways.

Besides just being a less commonly heard of instrument, the reason why violists are fewer in number is a physics problem.  The C string (the lowest string on the viola) is much thicker than the G.  In order to vibrate and make a sound the string must be a certain length.

This posses no problem on tiny cellos because even the smallest cello is about the size of a full-size violin.  However, the fractional violins are much smaller than that.  The shortest viola strings manufactured fit on a 12 inch viola (or a 1/2 size violin).  So the student starting the viola needs to be physically big enough in order to make the attempt.

In a nutshell: it takes awhile before a teacher can start to acquire some viola students.  You either have to wait for students that already have an interest in the instrument to find you, which is rare.  Or you have to way for your little ones to become both big enough and advanced enough to handle the switch from violin to viola.

After 6 1/2 years of teaching I have finally reached that point where I have a small batch of viola students going.  It's so refreshing!  Don't get me wrong, I love all my violin students.  It's just nice having a chance to explore and pass on knowledge for what I consider to be "my" instrument.  It's also fun trying to really figure out the subtle differences between the two instruments.  Things that, as a student, I figured out along the way but never really gave much thought to.  It makes me a better all around musician.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

When Seven Steps Become One

John Kendall was a cornerstone in the early days of the Suzuki Method. You can read more about him on Wikipedia but, in a nutshell, he is credited for helping bring the approach over to the U.S.A. In addition he was a violin teacher of more than fifty years.

Something that always stuck with me when hearing about stories of his teaching was his "seven steps" approach. The concept boils down to the idea that your short term memory is capable of retaining, on average, seven items.   The short term memory is fast but not powerful.  There is a limit to how many items each person can remember in his/her short term along with a limit to the duration the short term memory retains this information.

Obviously the goal is to make those short term memory items make the switch to long term memory. But in order for this to happen the items must be reinforced and repeated.  This means the exact action needs to reoccur multiple times.

This is extremely important to understand when working with beginning music students.

Consider the bow hold for a violin or viola.  If a student is unfamiliar with a bow hold, the following things must be in place in order to successfully produce a sound:

-Relaxed arm and soft hand
-Curved thumb on "the silver part"
-Index finger wrapped around the stick, slightly away from the middle two fingers
-Middle two fingers hanging over the stick
-Pinky finger curved and on top of the stick
-Wrist straight
-Fingers rounded and not crushing the frog

With just the holding of the bow--and that's not even factoring in making a sound--that is easily seven items the student must be working on.  If any one of those items is causing the student difficulty, then it must be broken down in to further steps.

Which means that in order for a student to remember how to do a bow hold correctly, each of those seven steps must be repeated until all seven make the transition into long term memory and become "one step."  With each individual part that comprising a bow hold mastered, the process transforms from the steps of a bow hold to just a plain and simple bow hold.  

It is at this moment that the bow hold becomes one step and the student is now prepared for six more.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

What is Intelligence?

A subtopic in the field of education I find especially interesting is the idea of "intelligence."  I love Howard Gardner's books on his theory of multiple intelligences.  Definitely worth a read if you have not already done so.

The word itself is commonly understood as being synonymous with "book smarts."  As in, someone who can regurgitate facts quickly and accurately must be deemed intelligent.  Furthermore, the intelligent children in the classroom are generally seen as those with the highest grades (read: test well).

This is not intelligence.

The literal definition for intelligence according to Merriam-Webster:

"The ability to learn or understand things or to deal with new or difficult situations."
This means that intelligence has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with tests an an ability to accurately determine the correct multiple choice question.  Those skills are a part of intelligence but not intelligence itself.

Intelligence is determined by our ability to react and adjust with less time.  And the beautiful thing that neuroscientists have discovered: repetitions make this faster.

Most most of modern history intelligence was an assumed thing.  A person either is or isn't intelligent.  But now researchers are finding more and more evidence that this isn't the case.  Not only is intelligence less clear cut than originally thought but it's also not a static concept.

This is a HUGE concept if you couple this with all the research done on music and the brain.  It seems practically every week there's a new article on how music affects children in a positive way.  But music doesn't just stop at learning the skills necessary to play an instrument beautifully.  In going through the process of learning an instrument, a student is becoming a more intelligent individual.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Principles of Sowing and Reaping for the Suzuki Parent: Working for the Future Harvest


A harvest always comes after a lot of work. It comes after seasons of sowing and tending. Sometimes these seasons are intensely long and tiring. Acquiring musical skill and ability has continued to defy our love for the fast, easy, and convenient.

One of the wonderful things about skill development is that it gets easier. I think the sowing and reaping process builds on itself. As Dr. Suzuki aptly stated, “Ability builds on ability.” As a student develops ability, it gets easier to develop more. The harvest compounds. And, if you have a vision of what the future could hold, it can give you motivation for the present.

Let’s examine some of the things that you and your child could harvest in the future.


Imagine your child as an adult and possessing a love of music and deep enjoyment in playing music. Think of them having a love of learning because they had a positive and engaging learning experience in Suzuki lessons.

Think of your child fondly treasuring the good and tough memories of lessons and practices with you. The relationship between you both forged through your Suzuki study. Down the road, your child will have memories of receiving your undivided attention during practices.

I have many wonderful memories of getting a milkshake or french fries on our drive home from lessons growing up. My mom was willing to spend an entire afternoon taking my sister and I to lessons, commuting 45 minutes each way. [My mom thought the drive was worth it for us to study with an excellent teacher.] I treasure that love and sacrifice now. And I love the memories.


Visualize the potential discipline and character that this process of learning an instrument could produce. Imagine your child with sensitivity, tenacity, perseverance, the ability to break down complex problems, and a willingness to tackle difficult things. Imagine a shy child learning to stand up and give the gift of music to others.

Children are capable of extraordinary things and being extraordinary people.

As Dr. Suzuki said, “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.”

That beautiful heart is a beautiful harvest in the future.


Great artistry and excellent musical skill is possible from an early age. It may or may not come easily, but it can come. This artistry in children is truly amazing and inspiring. 

Would you care to see some Suzuki students performing their review pieces with sensitivity, emotion, and artistry? Take 5 minutes and watch this preview of the Kaleidoscope Concert featuring Suzuki students who performed at the 2012 SAA national conference.

A Priceless Gift

Growing up, my parents viewed music lessons as part of a well-rounded education. It was part of their educational gift to me and my siblings. We all reaped the harvest of these positive experiences and educational development through music. But in a way, it was so much more than a scholastic experience or something to add to our college admission essays.

As you give your child a rich musical experience, you are not only adding a dimension to their education, you are ultimately adding a dimension to their personhood. You are allowing them to personally participate in an artistic avenue of self-expression. What a privilege.

When your child makes music, they are engaging in a uniquely human, creative, and expressive experience. They are not just passively taking something in, they are actively creating sound that translates to communicating meaning.

These experiences of creating and communicating sound and meaning, have intrinsic value whether or not your child becomes a professional musician. It’s part of what makes us human. These musical experiences are a priceless gift. And being able to play an instrument as an adult is a priceless gift.

I can almost guarantee that your six year old child will not thank you for the love, expense, and sacrifice of a musical experience. That's a harvest well in the future.

And it's your child's harvest to reap. 

If you look many years to the future, is this harvest worth the sowing? Leave a comment and let us know your thoughts.

Guest post written by Kathleen Bowman. Kathleen is a performer and Suzuki cello teacher based in Saratoga Springs, NY. You can find out more about her on her website.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Principles of Sowing and Reaping for the Suzuki Parent: Tending Your Crops - Ideas for Continued Growth

Principles of Tending

As a Suzuki parent, maybe you can relate more with a time of tending. You are further along in the
Suzuki journey and you have seedlings or young plants that are growing. This may primarily be a season of watering, fertilizing, pruning, and nurturing your budding young musician.

Water Often

Facilitating and fueling your child’s continued growth and motivation is an important parental job at this stage. One way to encourage your child’s motivation is to attend concerts. As a child, I loved watching other children play and especially enjoyed going to concerts. I would always be inspired to practice after these events.

Sometimes recitals and concerts were a special date with my Mom or Dad. I will never forget the first time my Dad took me to see Yo-Yo Ma perform. The evening fueled my relationship with my cello, but also created a wonderful memory with my dad.

There is a payoff for the time and motivation instilled from an evening at the symphony or attending a recital. This feeds the growing musician. Yes, it takes extra effort and time. And yes, it’s absolutely necessary.

A Good Dose of Fertilizer

Attending a Suzuki Institute also has tremendous motivational results for any student. An institute is usually a week long event with lessons, group classes, masterclasses, recitals, and fun social events. The impetus from this intensively fun and motivating experience often produces amazing forward traction. This is one of those unique moments on your musical journey where you can truly feel tangible results quickly!

I saw my first cello at the age of three at a Suzuki institute. I was a tag along younger sibling with my sisters who were attending for violin and piano. From that point onward, I wanted to play cello. Never underestimate how a Suzuki institute might inspire one or more of your children.

Cross Pollinate and Prune

Within the Suzuki method, private lessons and group classes form a unique tongue and groove relationship. A private lesson and group class serve different educational functions, but each one is equally important for a well-rounded musician.

If your teacher offers group classes, make attending a priority. These classes offer the opportunity for your child to learn new skills, review literature, gain confidence, have fun, and learn from their peers. Group classes provide a unique opportunity for your child to have social experiences and build friendships with other young musicians. 

Group classes can also assist in helping children naturally correct themselves, as Ed Sprunger points out in his book, Helping Parents Practice. A student must have flexibility to be able to play songs with a group. Group classes not only nurture motivation, but they can have a positive, self-correcting effect for students. Group classes then offer a fun and less painful way for natural and healthy pruning.

Apply Weed Killer

You may need to watch for negative influences or fears that could inhibit your child’s growing sense of ownership or confidence on their instrument. A student may need help to work through a fear of performing; they may need help processing experiences in competitions or auditions. This is where a parent or teacher can help the student think through and weed out inhibiting negative thoughts that could be detrimental in the future.

Keep on keeping on.

Guest post written by Kathleen Bowman. Kathleen is a performer and Suzuki cello teacher based in Saratoga Springs, NY. You can find out more about her on her website.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Principles of Sowing and Reaping for the Suzuki Parent: Misguided Parental Approaches in Music Study

Are You Sowing the Wrong Seeds?

There are some seeds that you can unwittingly sow that will bear a poor harvest in the future. This post examines four misguided parental approaches that may produce unintended consequences in the future.

1. Cutting Corners

Let’s say the teacher gives a challenging but doable assignment. Sometimes, the student comes back the next week and the parent has decided that the assignment was not realistic. Maybe the parent thought, “Was it really necessary to do the exercise 10 times a day?"

I am not talking about the difficult practice weeks when you or your child gets sick. I am talking about something more subtle. It’s where the parent decides consciously or unconsciously that it’s just too much work. This can unintentionally undermine the teacher.

Your child will succeed the most when you and your teacher are allies with a unified front.

More importantly, if you cut corners on posture, review, or polishing a piece to get to the next one, it ultimately cheats your child. Yes, you may get short-term relief. But in the end, it will not be harvest that you really want.

Sow seeds with your child that communicate that hard assignments require extra perseverance and creative thinking. Work to clearly understand the assignment and then follow through at home to the best of your ability. It does not have to be perfect. It’s the thoughtful, diligent, and consistent effort that is important.

If you are experiencing practice resistance, discuss this with your teacher. Look at some of these suggestions from an interview with parenting expert Noël Janis-Norton.

2. Misguided Praise

Your child needs a tremendous amount of positive reinforcement as they learn to play an instrument. Your child absolutely needs to know that you love them regardless of how well they play their instruments. Unfortunately, parents can unknowingly praise children in a way that creates dependence or “praise junkies".

Comments such as, “Good boy” or Good job” praise the person or outcome rather than the process or effort. This can lead to risk-aversion in the future or an unhealthy dependence on approval.

Ask yourself, am I praising the outcome or the effort? 

Praise things that your child can concretely repeat. For example, “I noticed that you kept your eyes on your bow for the whole song.” Think of comments that show your child an action that is specific, concrete, and repeatable. This is very different from saying, “That was nice!”

Find ways to compliment and encourage the effort, concentration, and focus. This pays higher dividends in the long term. “I can tell that felt tricky to you. You really worked hard to try that new way to move your fingers.”

I used to say that I was proud of students. Now I catch myself and try to say, “I hope you are proud of yourself for how hard you practiced for your performance."

3. Over-scheduling

Parents feel so much pressure to have their children in multiple activities. As a teacher, I experience that some students consistently arrive to lessons tired, unsettled, and unfocused because cello is just one of many activities squeezed into a puzzle of scheduling mania.

I completely respect that parents want to give their children all the opportunities and experiences that they can. Yet, involvement to the point of over-scheduling may not be the panacea of cultivation that it appears to be.

If your child participates in so many activities that he or she cannot pursue excellence in those endeavors, you may be communicating that quantity of activity is more important than quality of attention.

As you evaluate schedules and activities, think about how to communicate to your child that pursuing excellence is important. Doing something well is valuable. This may mean cutting back on the number of activities so that your child experiences joy in the process and has the opportunity to excel.

But, if you do less, are you depriving your child?

Rather than depriving your child, consider that you are giving them a different kind of gift. You are giving them the gift of joy as they experience true mastery.

When a student has the opportunity to excel, that child experiences a genuine and growing self-confidence as he sees his skill and ability grow. This allows a child to enjoy mastery as they have the time, energy, and attention to excel in his endeavors. Perhaps less really is more.

4. Unhealthy Comparisons

As I am finishing up these posts, I am adjusting to motherhood with our six-week old son Ethan. I find myself wondering if he is gaining weight appropriately and developing as he should. Although a new parent, I can already relate with the desire to know how Ethan is doing relative to other children. For example, should I be concerned that his head size is only in the 40th percentile?

Sometimes parents ask questions that reveal their concerns. "Why is Jennifer so much further ahead in the Suzuki book than my daughter? They started lessons at the same time.”

Parents want to know that their child is on track and succeeding, which is a natural desire. The problem is when this desire morphs into an unhealthy comparison with other children. Unfortunately, unhealthy comparisons lead to discouragement for the parent, pressure for the child, and a sense of competition within a studio.

Sometimes it is helpful to bring concerns like this to a teacher. Your teacher may have helpful insights for you. But be careful how you frame thoughts and questions like this in front of your child. Children pick up on parental disappointment and worry, and can sense the subtle comparisons. I have seen students’ countenances fall as parents make comparing comments in front of them.

Your child will feel more joy and freedom if you choose to focus on helping your individual child succeed to the best of her abilities. Your child has her own individual rate of growth. Our job as teacher and parent is to encourage each child’s own growth rate. Don’t worry about where someone else’s child is in comparison. Focus on helping your child learn and grow.

How can you create an environment where your child is free to learn and excel at his own pace?

Guest post written by Kathleen Bowman. Kathleen is a performer and Suzuki cello teacher based in Saratoga Springs, NY. You can find out more about her on her website.