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Principles of Sowing and Reaping for the Suzuki Parent: There Are No Shortcuts in Musical Training

No Shortcuts

When it comes to developing musical skill, there are no shortcuts. There are longer roads than others.
For example, if a student learns a technique incorrectly, she then has to spend valuable time and energy to re-learn it later.

Working with a competent teacher can help determine the straightest path and avoid time-wasting detours. Yet conversely, the insatiable search for the perfect teacher often has the opposite effect. Rather than fast-tracking a student, constantly switching teachers produces a lack of continuity that can hinder a student’s progression.

Still, there are no real shortcuts.

In our world of instantaneous information and fast food, the reality of the time, effort, and patience required of a parent and student on a musical journey astounds us. Why does it take so much work? As much as we may try to fight the reality, musical competence requires thoughtful and deep practice. Cultivating a precise and complicated skill demands focused practice over a si…

We Are Suzuki

Competitive Teaching

Every teacher likes to think that he or she is "the best."  Sure, there's always more to learn.  But a certain amount of ego becomes involved the more you teach.  After a few years and a few dozen students under your belt, it's only natural to feel that your process of trial and error has left you better than when you started.  And, arguably, it has.

The unwitting result of all this is a vein of competitiveness.  You become the clan leader of your little tribe of students and no one dare invade!  Every alternative idea is not only a threat but a potential blow to that ego.

The thing is, teaching should not be competitive at all.  Where did you get your first teaching ideas if not from other teachers?  The only way to keep the classroom engaging is by trying new approaches, seeing if it works and then making the approach your own.  This is the true trial and error process.

Slow 'n Steady

I consider myself to be a writer.  Like learning an instrument, writing takes time and experience in order to master.  The stringing of words together in a way that makes for a gripping tale takes practice.  Lots of practice.

The process of learning how to write is interesting to me.  I've tinkered around with stories since I was a teen--in the same way one might tinker around on the piano without any training--but I don't consider my formal training to have started until my adult years.

Again, like music, the life lessons taught by writing are gradual.  You don't just suddenly wake up one day with a Harry Potter or Moby Dick on your hands.  Each day you work at your story until one day you notice that the plot just seems to flow better now than it did a year or two years ago.

But the most significant thing that I've learned is the power of "slow 'n steady."  When I aggressively started my writing career the actual act of sitting down to write was entirel…

The Intermediate Player

The concept of being "intermediate" is something often overlooked.  Everyone is guilty of this regardless of age.  Though most would not admit as much, there seems to be this unspoken expectation that a student goes from "beginner" and then immediately jumps to "expert."

What happened to intermediate?

Understanding the basics of an instrument and achieving a reasonable amount of control is really only just the beginning of the learning process.  Just because the student can't play everything doesn't mean that the student is a failure or even that the effort was wasted.  Being intermediate at something is the only way to eventually become advanced.

The learning curve is not a straight upward line.  It may resemble such in the beginning when everything is a new concept.  But eventually this line plateaus.  Learning happens in phases and there is a definite possibility that things could get worse at times before things get better.

Being intermediate …

A Way of Life

One of the most interesting facets to learning an instrument is how young many of us begin our musical studies.  It it commonly accepted practice to start a child at four years old and expect that he keep at it until adulthood.  Perhaps I should even add that this is the expectation for formal musical studies.

At least this is the expectation.
The reality is that when many parents sign their children up for music lessons it is just another activity.  The parent may agree with how music benefits a child and there is excitement over starting something new... but it is still just another "thing" on the schedule.

Learning an instrument is not a simple or quick process.  It takes years to learn proficiency and even longer to achieve mastery.  To attempt this type of pursuit over such an extended period of time means that music must eventually transform from an activity to a way of life.

The student becomes a musician.

Now this doesn't mean the student has become a profession…

When to Practice by Yourself Part 2

In part one I discussed how the child changes around the age of eight.  In a nutshell: the child goes from highly motivated to please her parents to wanting to become independent.  This shift in the source of motivation can cause quite a bit of at-home tension.

So the first thing to do is acknowledge who wants want.  That adult/parent wants the child to play.  The child wants to play by herself.  A middle ground must be reached.

Since the child is motivated by independence, the adult should acknowledge this need.  Approach this slowly.  Find easy tasks that the child doesn't seem to need much help with.  For example, sight reading assignments.  If there's no new complicated rhythm in the sight reading, it's not unreasonable to have the child work on figuring out the sight reading on her own.  The goal of the assignment (to read notes) is very cut and dry.

The same goes for figuring out a new piece.  Provided the child has all the appropriate tools (sheet music and a record…

When to Practice by Yourself Part 1

There is a huge difference between the four-year-old student and the eight-year-old student.  That might sound like an obvious statement.  Of course an eight-year-old is different.  And yet--almost without fail--the parent is inevitably shocked when it happens.  One day the child is fine happily following directions.  The next day that same child wants to do everything himself.

When this change takes place some things are easy to allow.  Of course the child can make his own cereal or dress himself.  Those are simple tasks and it's important that he start feeling independent.  With independence comes more responsibility.  The chores that can be assigned to an eight-year-old are different from what a four-year-old could do.  In many ways it's a relief for the parent not to have to monitor the child's every move.

But when comes to practicing this newfound independence usually leads to fights.  Gone are the days where the child is happily using a dice to determine the number o…

How Playing an Instrument Benefits Your Brain

Persistence Part 2

So let's go back to the practicing scenario.  If a student starts young--say, 3 or 4 years old--the decision to play an instrument comes from the parents.  Yes, a child may have expressed an interest in music but most certainly not in the hours and hours of practicing it will take to become proficient.  It is no wonder that this results in tantrums.  In the child's mind, this is not what he signed up for.

Where's the motivation?

There's no one answer to this.  Just like how there's no one answer for why you didn't exercise on that one day.  Maybe you didn't feel like it.  Maybe you were just plain ol' tired.  Maybe you were sore from the previous day's workout.  Maybe all three of these things.

Difficult practicing work may not be a top priority for a student so it's important to understand what does motivate the child.  Up until the teenage years, the desire to please is a very strong motivator.  If the child is receiving constant positive feed…

Persistence Part 1

I want to explore the concept of persistence.  Persistence is something that I get asked about a lot, from parents in particular.  It's a perfectly reasonable question on the surface.  How do I keep my child motivated?

It's such a simple question that I think people expect a simple answer in response.  Especially if even the mention of the very word "practice" has the ability to create cataclysmic, world-ending tantrums.  It's natural at such moments to question your own sanity.  Why force to happen that which does not want to be forced?

And herein lies the issue with that sort of thinking: it implies that persistence is something that should come easily.  But it doesn't.  Not for anyone.

To put this into perspective for the non-musicians... let's talk about the gym.  The gym, I feel, is the perfect adult example.  We age.  It happens.  And as we age life gets in the way.  We get busier and our bodies maybe don't work exactly the way they did at 18.

W…

Touch vs. Sight

When it comes to learning an instrument, the power of touch cannot be emphasized enough.  Consider how fast and sensitive touch is compared to another sense like sight.  If you touch a hot stove by accident you instantly pull away.  Your hand moves so fast that your skin does not even have time to burn.

By comparison, sight is much slower.  Has someone ever thrown something in your direction (a ball, car keys, etc...) and you are watching it fly through the air toward you yet you still don't react in time to catch the object?

A trademark of the Suzuki Method is that students learn to play without sheet music at first.  This is primarily to allow for the ear to develop.  But it's also to allow that sense of touch to mature.  Despite the sensitivity of touch (or perhaps because of?), it is the one sense that can easily get cancelled out by all the others.  As soon as the other senses are engaged, touch usually takes a back seat.

For example, as you read this blog, are you thinki…

9 Tips for Observing Your Young Musician

There are three people involved in the education of a young musician: the teacher, parent and child. The child’s role of learning how to play an instrument is very clear. The teacher is there to serve as a mentor and guide as the child begins his or her musical journey.

The role of the parent is more complex, especially if the parent does not know how to play the musical instrument. Of the three people involved, the parent has the power to create the most change. It is also the most difficult of the three roles, as the parent must assume the role of both student and teacher.

In order to have a young child succeed at a complicated task, a parent must completely internalize the concept that he or she is the at-home teacher. What's more, the child will be having lessons with his or her at-home teacher more often than lessons with a private instructor. Again, heady stuff if the parent does not know how to play.
You can find this booklet on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and most oth…

The Role of the Suzuki Teacher

While the parent may be the expert when it comes to her child, the teacher is the expert when it comes to the instrument being learned.  If the Suzuki triangle is going to function, both of these experts must come to middle ground in order to allow the student to progress.

The the teacher is there to serve as a mentor and guide.  While the student has just started his musical journey, the teacher has been on the journey for some time.  Think of it like traveling to a new city vs. having visited a place many times.

The main job of the teacher is to make the lesson approachable.  Learning an instrument is difficult.  Therefore a teacher must take her collective knowledge to break down a complex task into manageable steps.  This requires experience and it requires communication.

The teacher's role is also to provide a model for how the at-home lesson should unfold.  In most cases, the parent as well as the child lack musical experience.  It is the teacher's job to give them struc…

The Role of the Suzuki Student

The role of the Suzuki student is challenging because more often than not the student does not realize he even has a role.  Children, especially young children, are aware that they have private lessons and that they must practice.  Anything beyond that is not part of how they think.

Whether or not a child is aware of his role, he does have one.  It is the job of the student to work with the parent and the teacher.  A good but extreme example is if the teacher helps the child to play a note.  The child is shown where a finger must be placed and how to pull the bow across the string.  The child can be shown but eventually he just has to do it.  It is not the job of the parent or the teacher to pull the bow across the string for the child.  The student must be willing to contribute to this learning process.

As I said, this is an extreme example and the student's contributions to the lesson environment or highly dependent on age.  A four-year-old does not have the same set of expectat…

The Role of the Suzuki Parent

Of the three parts of the Suzuki triangle (teacher, parent and child), the parent has the power to create the most change.  It is also the most difficult of the three roles as the parent must assume the role of both student and teacher.

The role of the Suzuki parent is complex, especially if the parent does not know how to play the musical instrument.  In the private lesson the parent must be the student.  The parent's job is to observe and take notes so the lesson may be recreated at home.

In order to have a young child to succeed at such a complicated task, a Suzuki parent must completely internalize the concept that he or she is the at-home teacher.  What's more, the child will be having lessons with his or her at-home teacher more often than lessons with a private instructor.  Again, heady stuff if the parent does not personally know how to play.

A Suzuki parent must approach the lesson with an open mind and be willing to accept that the child will not be the only one lea…

Parent, Teacher and Child Triangle

The parent, teacher and child triangle comes up a lot in Suzuki education.  The reason why this image is discussed ad nauseum is because there's really a lot of layers to the concept, all of which need to be in place in order for learning to take place.
The first thing to notice is that in a triangle all sides are equal.  Successful music lessons are not about the teacher being all-powerful and bestowing the gift of knowledge upon the lowly minions.  Every part of the triangle has a job.  If any part is missing, the triangle collapses.
The second thing to understand is that music lessons are a give and take experience.  Everyone needs to be on the same page.  The student will struggle.  Struggling is necessary for growth to occur.  But it is important that the student knows what is expected of him.  It cannot be the parent or teacher doing all the work.  The student must contribute as well, even if it is only a grudging contribution.
Finally, the key element that holds all sides …

Mastering Mastery

Any craft demands mastery.  But what is mastery?

A master chef does not simply make chicken once and then never again.  Mastery neither occurs from only making chicken nor does it occur from constantly learning new recipes.  It's a balance of both.

Mastery is an almost indefinable combination of many things.  It means there's a willingness to still learn and an appreciation for details.  A true master chef, for example, understands everything there is to know about chicken.  What seasoning tastes good on it, how long it takes to cook on a stove, in a grill or baked.  Mastery of a craft means that there is enough of an understanding to draw out lessons or techniques from other experiences and apply them to what is going on right now.

The same applies to learning an instrument.  The goal should never be to learn as many pieces as quickly as possible.  The goal should be mastery.  Who cares if one student knows twelve pieces and the other knows ten?  What skills did the the stude…

The Practice Partner

I recently got the game Rocksmith for my PlayStation.  For those that are unfamiliar with gaming, Rocksmith is a spin on a game called Guitar Hero that was really popular a couple of years ago.  What you did was use a toy guitar that looked like this:




And then your game screen looked like this:


The colored bump you saw on the screen corresponded with the button you were supposed to press on the guitar controller while flicking the switch on the body of the guitar to mimic strumming.  You can see why this was cool.  Plus it made for a great game at parties as your friends cheered on your impressive button mashing skills.
Eventually the fad wore off but a new type of game has entered the picture: Rocksmith.  Rocksmith has the same format but instead of button mashing you have to plug in a real guitar.  Yes, you read that right.  It uses a game to teach real instrument skills.
So argue all you want about the can of worms this opens (can it replace the private teachers, good technique, et…

Review of Rhythm Solitaire

Michiko Yurko has expanded Music Mind Games to new technological heights!  Rhythm Solitaire is exactly what you would expect: solitaire with musical rhythm cards instead of a standard deck.  In order to create stacks the notes and rests must be put in order from fastest to slowest.
The app itself looks very sleek.  Everything is responsive and the menu buttons intuitive.  I was impressed by the design and catchy little main menu tune.  It's obvious that quite a bit of work went into making the game look fun and engaging.  This is not your Windows '98 solitaire game, folks.
The play is quite challenging.  I had to start over the first few times I played after having worked myself into a stalemate.  While there are how-to instructions built in, young music students might need some initial help before they catch on.  The dotted rhythms were a little confusing.  The notes have dotted rhythm options while the rests do not.  I didn't realize this right away and was planning for…

15 MORE Strategies for Practicing with Young Musicians

Dislike of practicing is not the same thing as dislike of the instrument. With a few exceptions, most young students are not mature enough to form a reasonable opinion about their instrument. Therefore, it is a waste of effort to quit one instrument and start up something else with the hope that the student will have greater success with the new instrument. Starting instrument after instrument accomplishes nothing. What needs to happen is an examination of the true source of the issues: practicing.

There are two sides to a young child’s musical development. One side involves the actual activities that are done during the practice. For example, thinking of ways to make the child sit or stand with a certain posture for a prolonged period of time. This is the physical practice. The other side to practicing is mental development. Enjoyment of music is something that is cultured over a prolonged period of time. External factors should always be taken into account.
You can find th…

Good and Bad Music?

Music is subjective, which is an easy thing to forget if you were raised with the tastes of one particular culture. Music starts to become categorized as "bad" or "good." If you were raised on Led Zeppelin, 70's rock is "good" and 50 Cent's rap is "bad." And yet if you grew up in a culture that idolized rappers, 50 Cent's stuff suddenly becomes "good."

This subjectivity becomes even more hazy when you're trying to learn an instrument. In order to educate a student it is important that the student listens to good music. Good music is not genre dependent. Good music should be about the quality of a performance. A professional orchestra will play good music. Watching Taylor Swift perform will also be good music.

The reason why this music is "good" is because it's being performed at a very high caliber. Ideally at a level of playing above the student's level. This means the performer has spent ma…

Why Bother Learning by Ear?

I've mentioned many times before on this blog that music is a physical task.  The muscles must be trained to perform.  However, this must be balanced with musicality or artistry.  Learning exact mechanical detail with no emphasis in the art will lead to robot playing.  Focusing only on the art and not training the mechanical detail will hold back ability level.  Playing an instrument is a careful balance of both.

The Suzuki Method has become infamous for its use of ear training in the early stages.  The common misconception is that teachers are training their students to be imitative robots.  Play the piece exactly like the CD.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Any art development does require some imitation.  One of the best exercises a writer can do is examine a passage from their favorite author and try to recreate the style.  The goal is not to become another Steinbeck.  Even if you did manage to copy the style exactly all you would ever be is an imitation of another. …

The Suzuki Method: A set of books or an approach to teaching?

A little anecdote I've heard about Shinici Suzuki was that for a long time he adamantly refused to put together a set of repertoire to complement his method.  He felt it would make everything too rigid, too unable to adapt.  He eventually caved in to the demand but it's very arguable that he was correct.

It's ironic then that the very thing its creator opposed the most is the thing that ended up stereotyping the method.  When most people think "Suzuki Method" they think about this:


or, if you're vintage like me:


Teachers will teach from these books and claim to be "Suzuki" teachers.  But the books alone are not what make the method.  The Suzuki Method is an approach to teaching, pure and simple.  If there had to be one or the other, a teacher would be more "Suzuki" if he/she used his own set of music but followed the principles of the approach vs. someone who just used the book and never studied the method.
This is very, very important to …

Passive vs. Active Listening

Listening should be the cornerstone for any type of musical training.  Music is sound art.  Without knowing what has been accomplished, how can a student know what could be accomplished?

Intonation, rhythm, musicality, phrasing, tone, and artistry are just a few of the things we learn from listening to music.  But not all listening is equal.  It's important to understand the two main types in order to really make the experience effective.

Passive listening is having the piece or pieces you are learning going on in the background.  It could be a single piece or an entire set of repertoire your teacher expects you to become familiar with.  Passive listening should not be intrusive.  The music should be at a moderate to low volume so you can concentrate on other things.

The idea behind passive listening is to start learning the cadences and patterns to your piece.  It's similar to trying to learn a language.  If you have Spanish radio on you start to become comfortable with the e…