Beginnings are critical, right? If you’ve ever grown a vegetable garden before, you know what I mean by this: starting right mean your garden will yield better results later on. You have to sow your seeds at the perfect time, with the right amount of sunlight and heat. You’ll want to prepare your soil ahead of time, enriching it with whichever nutrients it needs. You’ll care for the plants as they grow, making sure to train them up a trellis if necessary, or taking care to pull any pesky weeds. With enough care and patience, you’re sure to have a good harvest.
Have you ever caught your child sneaking some salty food straight out of the bag or jar, snacking in an attempt to procrastinate before practicing? Maybe not, but I once had a student who loved pickles and would eat them right out of the jar before picking up his violin. It took his mom a few months to figure out why his violin strings kept wearing out so quickly, forcing her to purchase strings more frequently than other students of mine. His fingers would still be sticky with pickle juice, which corroded the violin strings. Does this sound anything like your son or daughter? Let’s face it, kids can be messy. They might not realize that strings and instrument varnish are sensitive, and that replacing or fixing them is pricey.
I'm in awe of Nerissa Nields's latest post for our music blog. It's perhaps a cliche these days among teachers and parents to say – however true it may be – something like "My students (or daughter) actually teaches me." Nerissa certainly borrows that approach, but her entry doesn't stop there. She goes on to talk about music, yoga, and her daughter's violin lessons as practices where chasing perfection only distracts the practitioner. In the end, Nerissa's approach is both terrifying and peaceful: it suggests that if there is a goal to our dearest pursuits, it's not conventional success but the humility that comes from struggle.
Each week, our violin teacher gives us a practice plan, a sheet with a grid on it with the daysof the week horizontally across the top and various items listed vertically on the left hand side of the page.
At the top of every sheet, as you can see, is something Suzuki teachers call Main Focus. One week the focus might be on the bow hold; another week it could be getting the hand and wrist aligned. Recently we were focusing on intonation (getting the notes in tune, which is no small feat when there are no frets, sez this guitar player–and made me realize how like singing violin playing is since one needs to rely on one’s ear for pitch.) This week the Practice Point is about getting the fingers to stand up, so that the tips touch the string and are not flat like pancakes.
We practice to make it easy, says our teacher Emily Greene. And we make it easy by doing alittle every day, not forcing perfection (which is the enemy of the people, as the great Anne Lamott is fond of saying) but nodding at improvement. OK, wildly applauding improvement. With a six-year-old, it’s pretty stunning how quickly the brain absorbs the teaching, and how, when guided gently, the playing grows and improves. On the other hand, a phrase learned with a wrong bowing and not corrected is fairly difficult to unlearn. We tend to have the same “sticky” passages everyone else has, but if we learn them right the first time and go slowly to learn them, we pass by these obstacles with ease. If I let her play them over and over, knowing vaguely there’s something wrong but not having the energy to get off my seat and check the video (yes, I video the teacher playing the piece correctly during the lesson), then Lila will have to do many repetitions later on to get it right.
Our guest blogger Ashley Liberty teaches violin at Carrollton School of the Sacred Heart in Miami, Florida in addition to maintaining an impressive performance career in which she's been Concertmaster for the Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra and performed alongside Bruce Hornsby, Andrea Bocelli, Bernadette Peters, Steve Miller, and Ricky Scaggs. Ashley makes a convincing case for using the O'Connor method: she firmly believes that the benefits of teaching American music with lyrics and a rich historical context outweigh any of its challenges.
I began my journey with the O’Connor Method after attending the O’Connor String Camp as a professional classical violinist looking to develop my abilities in other styles. I was introduced to the method there, and I decided to pursue training. Early on, I became a believer with an urgent desire to completely devote myself to teaching the O'Connor Violin Method to my beginning students, especially after attending the certification class with the method’s inspiring editor, Pamela Wiley. Since adopting the method as my curriculum with my 250 school violinists, and with all of my beginning to intermediate-level private students, I have been very satisfied with the results, and often completely surprised.
In today's post, Nerissa Nields talks about the big fear every music-loving parent encounters at some point: If I push my child too hard, will he just end up hating music? For me, the highlight of Nerissa's post is the moment she realizes that both grace – the thing that happens when you least expect it – and hard work make music (and teaching music) possible.
Johnny had been showing up for his guitar lessons like a mini-brunette normal-eyed Johnny Winter. He continues to hone his moves, if not his chops, on his little acoustic, or a boom whacker, or what appears to be part of a Hot Wheels racing apparatus. At a recent lesson, he was given this for homework:
-Stand in zero position (feet to the right of the stool)
-Now move to one position (left foot moves about a foot to the left, so legs are wide)
-Pick up guitar with right hand
-Hold guitar with the head up.
Also, he can clap back rhythms that I or Lila clap or play for him. I was pretty sure he was well on the way to superstardom. Or at least maybe eligible for this month’s Suzuki Springfest, a heart-lifting end of the year all day extravaganza held in Downtown Northampton. Suzuki students from every studio mass together in various outdoor locales and play through their repertoire. Lila did this last spring on the courthouse lawn. I noticed that Jeremy, Johnny’s teacher, had a group of his guitar students participate. I dreamed of Johnny sitting on his tiny guitar stool, holding his guitar in place as the older guitarists played. He’d be watching them all, with a mix of reverence and chutzpah, thinking, “Next year, man, I’ll show you all!”
Well, this didn’t exactly happen. Instead, Johnny watched for about ten seconds, then kicked off his shoes and ran across the lawn to slide down the stone banister in front of the courthouse.
Instead, we walked into Jeremy’s classroom today, and after about ten minutes, Johnny lay on the floor. “No,” he said to everything Jeremy asked him to do. “Dat is so boring.” When Jeremy asked him to clap, he lay on his back and idly swung his arms together so that his hands missed each other. When Jeremy asked him if he’d like to learn “two position,” Johnny said, “Dat is so boring.” (Two position is when you sit down on the stool. I have to agree; pretty boring.)
It came up toward the end of the lesson, when I mentioned to Jeremy that I’d been away for the past two weekends doing gigs, that perhaps there was some general free floating anger that had attached itself to the guitar. “You went away and I didn’t even wike dat,” Johnny said from his side lying position on the floor.
We called it a day a bit early, and actually decided to take a hiatus from lessons until September. I felt a heaviness in my heart. Had I pushed him too hard? Should we quit now before we squeeze all the love out of the guitar for him?
Emily, our violin teacher gave us some perspective. “When I started, it took me six months just to stand still for one minute” [which is part of the Suzuki teaching pedagogy.] “I used to hide under the piano bench. It took me another two years to learn my Twinkle variations. But I knew the music because my parents played it every day. You have to take the long view. You are giving him invaluable life skills that will apply to every aspect of his life.”
I looked up the word “student,” as I noticed it shared a root with “studio” and also, of course, “study,” which is what we called the room my father worked in, a room we’d refer to nowadays as his office.”Study” comes from the Latin studere, to apply oneself with diligence; or earlier to what’s known as “Proto-Indo-European language, or PIE: to “to push, stick, knock, beat.” I like this. Sounds like music. Next fall we’ll come back to Jeremy and we’ll push the tiniest bit more. Or maybe we’ll just knock out the beat with a couple of sticks. Either way, nothing worthwhile comes without an application of some kind of diligence and then that magic Other: grace.
After Springfest, post-dinner, Lila and I practiced her violin, and Johnny joined us, red boom whacker air-guitar flailing along to “Go Tell Aunt Rhodie” through Brahms’s Waltz. And then, for the first time ever, he pulled his little guitar stool out of the music trunk and set it up in front of his stool, picked up his real) guitar and set it carefully on his left knee. “Wook, Mama!” And he began painstakingly to pluck out notes on the strings.
So far we haven’t knocked his love affair with the guitar out of him yet.
It is graduation season! Many high school musicians are now preparing to move on to college to study music and many music majors are now entering the workforce. To all of these new grads: CONGRATULATIONS! And, to ask the question that many people are probably asking you, “What are you going to do with a music degree?”
Today's post from Nerissa Nields compares exposure to music to exposure to language: for her, and for Suzuki teachers, musical fluency happens for any child with enough practice and exposure. Nerissa, however, also brings up a bigger and more troubling question: What is the difference between giving your child the gift of musical fluency and raising her to be a prodigy? And is the latter even something we would wish on our children? As always, Nerissa tackles the topic with grace, humor, and insight.
I had the good fortune to attend a Suzuki parent talk by my old friend fellow guitar teacher Dave Madsen. Dave and I knew each other 20 years ago when we were both working at the Loomis Chaffee school in Windsor CT, where our band The Nields got its start. Dave is a father of two, and though he was a professional guitar player and “regular” teacher, it was through his exposure to his daughter’s Suzuki violin lessons that he got interested in the method, and eventually trained. He is now the foremost local Suzuki Guitar trainer and teacher; he teaches at the University Of Hartford.
There is much to recommend the Suzuki method, but what I want to write about today is its foremost innovation, which is to understand music as a language and to therefore teach it to children in the same way we “teach” them how to speak and later to read.
Thanks to Nerisssa Nields for another thoughtful blog post about the adventures of being a Suzuki Mom. In today's post, Nerissa describes how her daughter Lila busked – without realizing it was illegal! – in the Charlotte Airport. In recounting the story, Nerissa grapples with the complications that face the young, ambitious violinist. In her words, "when, if, and how" do we decide to earn a living from "the gift" of our talent?