We're grateful to have Lucy Lewis, a trained Suzuki teacher and doctoral student in musical arts at the University of Iowa, share a series of blogs about her experiences at American Suzuki Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Every summer, the Suzuki Institute hosts a teacher training session at Stevens Point, and this summer Ms. Lewis was one of the teachers-in-training. This entry is Ms. Lewis's third and last about her training at Stevens Point, and we'll certainly miss having such a thoughtful and wise voice as Ms. Lewis's on our blog. Ms. Lewis shares quite a few insights from her teacher training, but we were particularly drawn to this gem: if we have a sincere love for our students and our goal as teachers is to develop their character and musicianship, we also need to tend to ourselves by "recharging and reconnecting with colleagues." Simply put, we can give more to our students when we persist in our lifelong development as teachers. please leave a comment below thanking Lucy for her blogs or send her an email at email@example.com.
This blog has been a long time in the making and I appreciate your patience! On the one hand, I have been so busy that I am embarrassed it has taken me so long to get this written, but on the bright side, it has given me more time to think about how I would go about implementing all the things that I learned and “re-discovered” while I had the opportunity to do teaching training this past summer at the American Suzuki Institute in Stevens Point. So after spending quite a bit of time ruminating over my training, my notes, and my conversations with fellow teaching colleagues, here are my thoughts.
Continued professional development is important for every single teacher no matter your age or years of experience. In a profession where we are giving so much of ourselves to help our students learn and grow (both as musicians and as people), it is imperative that we are also carving out time both for our own continued development, and also to give us a chance to re-charge and connect with our colleagues. Over and over again I have heard fellow teachers talking about how conferences and Suzuki summer institutes were their “shot in the arm,” rejuvenating them and giving them new motivation and ideas for another year of teaching. We need these experiences to “re-spark” our creative juices and “fill our cups” so that we will be able to give our best to our students. For a list of upcoming events through the Suzuki Association of the Americas, please click here.
It also may seem obvious, but membership in professional organizations should be a priority for us. Aside from the clear benefits from having the professional affiliation, receiving the journal, and gaining access to great resources, we are instantly provided with a built-in support network of colleagues that is invaluable. Along this same vein, (and perhaps most importantly), I would also highly recommend finding someone who can mentor you in your journey as a teacher. Having someone with years of experience and wisdom that you can turn to for advice will prove to be one of your most valuable resources as a teacher, and the relationship that you develop with this person will be there for life.
Turning now to teaching itself, I would have to say that if there is one thing that I came away with from my training this summer it is this:
WE MUST HAVE A VISION FOR OUR STUDENTS.
Seeing the end from the beginning is crucial to knowing how to structure the learning process for our students in a step by step manner. Practically speaking, when I start a four-year-old pre-twinkler on a box violin, I should have in mind the technical and musical abilities that I want my student to have to be able to perform concertos (and/or any other repertoire they might want to play) someday, and tailor my teaching accordingly. No matter our student’s individual levels it is important to have a collaborative assessment and goal-setting meeting at least once a year with the parent, student and teacher all present. My own personal preference is to do this at the beginning of the school year, have a “mid-year checkup” in December, and then have another meeting at the end of the year for the purpose of reflection and planning for the summer. Regardless of how you choose to do this, through the process of this group discussion everyone is able to get on the same page about the “game plan” for the year, and the student is given the opportunity to take more ownership for their learning and growth as a musician. Definitely a win-win.
After we have assessed a student’s needs and put a game plan in to motion for the year, it isimportant to remember that we must find the balance between continually motivating and challenging our students, but not rushing “the process.” Every student is different and we need to be willing to discover their unique learning process and tailor our teaching to their needs. We might meet all of the goals that we set, but it’s also possible that we might not. What matters most is that we are keeping the best interests of the student front and center. If we are proactive about planning lessons for our students (and re-adjusting our strategies as needed), and they (and their parents) are working diligently towards the goals that have been set in a trusting partnership with us then success has been achieved.
As I think back on all the lessons and group classes I observed at the American Suzuki Institute, there is one theme that seemed to be common to all of them, and that is that balanced “artist” posture is fundamental to our student’s success as musicians. It is not ok to let issues with posture slide, even (and I would say especially) when students are young. Why? Because any issues with posture are going to affect our student’s ability to be able to play comfortably and successfully with technical and musical freedom. I personally have run into the mindset that “Oh, they are young, this will fix itself when they are older and more advanced” and this is faulty thinking to the core. We all probably have issues that we have had to deal with as adult musicians that are a result of something that was not properly taught or addressed when we were younger. Wouldn’t we rather set our students up properly from the beginning so that they will have the the foundation and skills to be able to play anything successfully? If this is our goal, then we need to make sure that we are being proactive about finding the right equipment and setup for our students, and addressing any issues dealing with pain or tension as soon as they arise.
Another important issue that goes hand in hand with posture is that of tone. Dr. Suzuki used to say “tone has a living soul” and “beautiful heart, beautiful tone.” Essentially what he was saying was that our tone is the expression of ourselves – our thoughts, emotions, feelings, etc. Because it is our artistic voice, we need to be vigilant in developing our tone quality (and bow technique) so that we can communicate as clearly and as effectively as possible with those who listen to our performances. This should start right from the very beginning as well, and be an integral part of every lesson. Young children can most definitely be taught to listen, evaluate, and develop their own beautiful sound if we are providing the learning opportunities necessary for doing so. An example for how to start doing this with a young child could simply be to pluck the A string and ask them to raise their hand when they think the sound is “gone.” It might take a couple tries for a four year old, but once their ears are trained to listen carefully and they are able to correctly do this exercise then you can introduce them (in a very basic way) to the concept of resonance. And so it starts.
There are many other things that I learned (and/or was reminded of) this past summer that I could spend time talking about, but I feel that those I have mentioned here comprise what was most important for me and my planning for my studio this year. In closing, I would simply like to draw your attention back to Dr. Suzuki’s legacy – who he was, what he stood for, and what he has taught us. Dr. Suzuki was not a self-seeking teacher or performing artist. In fact, he was quite the opposite. The international fame that he experienced later in his career was due to the fact that he chose to break away from the traditional mindset about talent and develop a method that made love for the child and belief in their abilities and character development primary. The excellent results of this method that were evident in his student’s playing abilities were simply a natural byproduct of his truly humble desire to make this world a better place one child (and parent!) at a time. In light of this, we would all do well to keep the following in mind:
- A sincere love for our students and a desire to help them develop character (“beautiful hearts”) should always be our primary focus.
- Dr. Suzuki used to say that “any method is only as good as the teacher that is teaching it.” This serves as an excellent reminder that we should be constantly honing our skills and thinking creatively. I’ve heard many a time that Dr. Suzuki used to walk in to a class and say “new idea!” He spent time with some of the greatest minds in the world (Albert Einstein for one), and was always thinking, always adapting, always seeking to learn and grow – so should we.
- Within the Suzuki community, (but certainly in the wider community of music educators), as teachers our ideas and styles may vary widely. With this in mind, it behooves ALL of us (no matter what method we espouse) to be thoughtful and respectful towards our colleagues, even, and especially, when there are differences of opinion. Let us remember that we are all working toward the common goal of bettering this planet through music education and so seek to work in collaboration, celebrating each other’s efforts.
It has been a true pleasure to share some of my thoughts with you and I sincerely wish you all the best in your life journeys and musical endeavors. I would love to hear from you and so if you are so inclined, you may reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.