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?
Nerissa Nields, one of our regular contributors, writes about Suzuki guitar lessons with her son Johnny. Nerissa describes how Johnny, initially uninterested in guitar lessons, comes around to them and even says that he "wuvs" them. Nerissa's thoughtful entry shows just how impulsive and lovely kids can be, though it also expresses faith in music's hold on us, whether we're three-and-a-half-years-old or parents ourselves.
So we started Johnny on Suzuki guitar lessons. Yes, he is three-and-a-half. No, he can’t understand the difference between my gently suggesting that he might not want to dump his glass of watercolor paint wash all over the table and cruel and unusual punishment. (At the top of his lungs: “Mama, you are being SO mean to me!”) Yes, I am probably crazy.
Music and arts education programs matter because they engage the bizarre and beautiful creativity of Generation Y.
So, I've been thinking about education recently. Entries on the joys and trials of being a Suzuki Mom have flooded my inbox (send more!), and my colleague Alberta, a fine violinist and writer here at SHAR, just posted an entry last week on the sacrifices and payoffs of studying and playing the violin.
The entries on this blog, however, aren't reflective of the dominant opinion on most school boards. No surprise there. Arts education can't really compete with the sciences, and I'm not sure if they've ever been able to compete. Certainly these days most of the rhetoric from President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan has centered on the sciences. When Obama and Duncan talk about our test scores dropping behind Scandanavian countries or China, it's usually in the sciences. Administrators value reading, but not reading as a way to make art: more so, they care about reading skills because the savvy use of language is necessary to get ahead.
Playing a string instrument is a tremendous investment for both the student and the teacher. Money, time, energy ... so is it worth it? Based on my own experience, I believe that this sacrifice is one that reaps endless rewards.
So many of you have responded to our Notes from a Suzuki Mom series that I contacted Nerissa Nields and asked for another article. Nerissa kindly agreed to allow me to repost her latest Suzuki entry from her blog Singing in the Kitchen. In today's entry, Nerissa shares a terrific practice game and again highlights the rich give-and-take of teaching and parenting. If you'd like to contribute to our blog – as a string musician, parent, or teacher – email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It’s been a good week, for a change, for the Reluctant Suzuki Mom, AKA me, Nerissa. Last week, we participated in a bi-annual recital in which Lila played Bach’s Minuet 3 (From the Anna Magdelena Notebook). We sat next to a ten-year-old Suzuki prodigy, an absolutely darling girl and her equally darling mother. I know we are not supposed to compare kids, parenting, how accomplished a student is by his/her age, or any of that in the Suzuki world (or any world) but I have to say, for me, this mother/daughter duo walk on water. And so when the recital was over, I came over to praise the playing of the ten-year-old (who played the Vivaldi Concerto in A Minor–2nd Movement: Largo– with the sensitivity of a thirty-five-year old virtuoso, using her whole body to make her violin sing. Anyone who thinks Suzuki kids are automatons needs to check this young lady out.) In the course of our conversation, the mother, very kindly and probably erroneously, said we were on the same trajectory as her daughter. “But did you have Suzuki wars?” I asked hopefully.
“Of course!” she said. “In fact, we’ve made a truce that goes like this: mom stays out of practice. Which is fine with me. I love to listen now. My days as Suzuki dominatrix are over.” (Okay, she didn’t really say dominatrix, but some days that’s how I feel.) “But I do remember what worked when my daughter was your daughter’s age was to play lots of games.” And she gave us a great idea for a practice game.
It goes like this: we start with this great deck of cards, a mere $8 from our violin teacher. I take the eight or so cards representing the pieces we are playing that day and hide them around the room. Lila tunes up, takes her bow, plays her G scale and then goes off on a scavenger hunt. Whichever card she finds first is the one she plays next. Sometimes we have to play a little “Hot/Cold” to find each and every one. But it sure has made practice war-free this week.
On the other hand, we got snagged up on a “reading rhythm” exercise. Lila is just beginning to learn to read music. And it’s as fascinating to me to watch her learn to read notes as it is to watch her learn to read words. One thing that’s clear is that it’s a lot easier for her to recognize the notes on the staff and name them by their letter names than it is for her to comprehend the rhythmic notation. Understanding rhythmic notation is just as crucial to learning how to read music as knowing where to place the spaces between the letters is to learning to distinguish words from a sea of letters. Standard time was not so hard. But now we are learning three-quarter time. For the first week, every time she tried to read the very first exercise–three quarter notes, then a half note and a quarter, then three quarters, then a half note and a quarter–she collapsed in a fury on the carpet. And anything I said, or tried to say because I usually couldn’t get out three words, got shouted down. She refused to try clapping the rhythm. And when I clapped the rhythm, she ran screaming out of the room with her hands over her ears. She really doesn’t like being told she has something wrong. I can’t imagine where she got that from.
But a couple of days ago, after an especially fun scavenger hunt and a highly successful rendition of Handel’s “Chorus from Judas Maccabaeus,” I said, “I have an idea. Let’s bounce the rhythm.”
I should add that one of our strategies for making practice work is a lot of cuddles between pieces. She is often on my lap. I don’t let her actually play her pieces on my lap because I want her to learn good posture, but I do let her do her reading from my lap. So I counted the notes out and bounced her up and down in time to the rhythm: “short short short, lo-o-ong short, short short short, lo-o-ong short…”
“OH!” she shouted jumping off my lap and grabbing her violin. “I get it!” and she played the rhythm perfectly.
The next day she forgot the new rhythm and was back on the floor wailing. So I tried a trick Emily has taught us, which is to let the kids show the grown-up where the error is. It went like this:
Me: (picking up claves) I am going to just tap out this rhythm for you.
Lila: NOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (hands over ears)
Me: No, wait! I really need help with this! Can you come sit on my lap and tell me what I am doing wrong? (Lila reluctantly gets off the floor and climbs into my lap. I play the rhythm with just quarter notes and no half notes to the end of the measure.) How was that?
Lila: (grabs claves) No, Mama, like this.
Today our blog post comes from Aparna Asthana, a Suzuki mom and dedicated parent. Her son Rohan, who was born prematurely, struggled early on with speech and with fine motor skills. Aparna writes about her drive to teach Rohan the violin, their long struggle with the Suzuki method, and Rohan's eventual delight in making music. What I love about Aparna's entry is its emotional articulateness: it's not just about the violin or Suzuki lessons or overcoming obstacles -- it's about how we can be surprised by joy. If you'd like to contribute to our blog -- as a Suzuki parent, music teacher, or string musician -- email me at email@example.com.
The year my son turned three we finally heard his voice, short staccato phrases that demanded juice or a toy. We sighed with relief. In preschool, he struggled with grasping a crayon, manipulating objects and cutting with scissors. In kindergarten, he finally learned to write his name; a claw-like grip on the pencil, letters written in reverse and scrawled unevenly all over the page. In music class, he shook egg maracas while other children poked small keyboards and learned to play some rendition of "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star." He never really sang the preschool songs other kids sang; he watched them in solemn wonder and mute silence. And though we tried many times during kindergarten, he never learned to tie his shoelaces.
He loved sound and vibrations. I knew because he stuck his head in the speaker with the bass pumping out a beat and shook his head from side to side. He banged on metal pots with forks and loved the clanging noise, occasionally stopping the humming vibration with his hand before starting again. He loved listening to music, any kind of music. But he never asked to play the violin.
That he struggled with the kind of tasks other children took for granted was amply clear. What was not clear to me was why I thought it would be a logical idea to put a violin in the hands of a child who could barely write his name. I am not sure why, 5 years later, given his kindergarten teacher’s raised eyebrows, I signed us up for Suzuki violin lessons at the local Suzuki school. Perhaps I was tired of hearing about all the things he struggled to do. Perhaps the confident philosophy of Suzuki, with its premise that all children can learn and learn well, was what I needed to hear to bolster my sagging spirits. I needed to hear that my son could succeed at something, anything other than his ability to color well inside the lines. Dr. Suzuki promised that talent was not inborn but something created through work and patience and love. We needed to hear that as a family.
I explained to his new teacher that my son had trouble focusing and that he struggled with fine motor skills. She was unfazed. She handed me a CD of violin music and told me to play it multiple times. She said she would see us the following week with a foot chart and box violin. I was doubtful but didn’t want to question her confidence. I did what I was told to do; I hit play on the CD on the ride home. I didn’t know this at the time but I had now committed our family to listening to "Twinkle" variations even in our sleep.
That year, and the year after, the Suzuki Book 1 Violin CD played as a background anthem to our lives. It was there on the way to school; "Allegro’s" staccato beats played as my children kicked their seats and tantrummed their way through traffic lights. "Happy Farmer" played while we cooked and ate and argued; the "Bach Minuets" sang while we laughed and smiled and cried. During those early days of muddling through, Suzuki music was the only constant even when practicing was not. My son stalled many violin practices with a need to document and scratch every mosquito bite. He flat out refused to sing “Up like a Rocket, Down like the Rain.” He didn’t like to sing, he said. When I sang he rarely landed with a curved pinky or thumb. He sometimes dropped to the ground in stubborn defiance and lay there for minutes listening to "Come Little Children" and "Go Tell Aunt Rhody" and we called that practice.
I wish I could say then that he took to violin right away and that he released his inner pot-clanging and noise-making prodigy and subsequently made beautiful music. I wish I could say that I was the kind of mother who had infinite patience and the knowledge that it would all somehow work out some day. That the process of having my child screech his way through multiple repetitions of "Twinkles" for over a year brought him and me great clarity and greater joy. Nothing could be further from the truth. We kept at it because it gave us a singular, sometimes incomprehensible purpose, to stand still for two minutes in play position or make a good violin bow hold. I still didn’t truly believe the Suzuki adage that all kids were musically teachable. I fully expected us to be the exception that proved the rule. I was happy if after a year of lessons he gained some motor finesse and some focus and could finally learn to tie his shoelaces. I had no compelling visions of him being a violin player.
But then we all fell in love. We fell in love with the sound of the violin, its sweetness and richness, its sadness and playfulness. Despite the tedium of "Twinkles," the music CD played on. My son was entranced by "Minuet No. 1" and would replay just that piece endlessly, finally scratching the CD. Once, during a particularly memorable pre-"Twinkle" group class, he refused to follow directions and used his bow like a sword, fencing with another little boy. Finally, he stubbornly sat down and unraveled a string of wool off the carpet. Every child in the room lost interest in air bowing "Mississippi Stop Stop" and begin their own game of unraveling the carpet. On the ride home, I began to compose a resignation letter to our teacher. My son demanded his favorite song and asked me when he was going to play "Minuet No. 1." It was his favorite song, he said, and that’s all he really ever wanted to play. He was tired of "Twinkles." Me too, I said. Me too.
My son eventually did move to a pint-sized violin, the last kid in his group class to lose the box violin. He played "Twinkles" for well over a year, slowly learning to focus for more than two minutes at a time. He played with a squeezing left hand and a right hand that clutched the violin bow in a death grip. But he was playing something and he was happy. I stopped caring about his shoelaces.
He never asked to quit, though practices were rarely easy and occasionally conflict-ridden. On a particularly bad day of practice, actually a series of bad days that had ended in tears, my son picked up the violin and bow and began the annoying screeching sound experiments with which he loved to disrupt practice and break my parental will. He would draw the bow back and forth while sliding his fingers up and down the finger board, stopping and starting at random. That day I didn’t have the energy to stop him. I was busy composing my mental resignation letter to Dr. Suzuki for the 100th time.
In the midst of the screeching and yowling noises, I heard the first faltering notes to "Lightly Row," a piece he had never been taught. He looked stunned. But hesitantly and then with more confidence he continued to pick out the rest of the song. Soon snatches of other songs followed, picked out by ear. I cried. Just like the CD, he said proudly, I can play the violin.
His teacher at the time was unsurprised. The endless listening had done its job. That day changed my view of Suzuki and violin lessons. I believed in my son and his infinite potential. I never again questioned the power of listening to the music, the power of a teacher who believes that our children can do amazing things, or the power of positive belief that can push us through challenges. There are very few things in life that we get to see our kids do over and over again that bring us pure joy. Watching my son struggle and play his way through Violin Book 1 was like watching him take his first steps again and again. It was never taken for granted, always an accomplishment filled with awe and gratitude that we could share the beauty of the music. A year later my son played "Minuet No. 1" by Bach at a recital, confidently and with pride. He could pull music out of his violin, and for now, that was all that mattered to him. He loved the "Minuets," he said, but he really wanted to play "Humoresque" in Book 3, so he didn’t want to stop yet.
My son just turned 11 and is still a Suzuki student. Somewhere around "Two Grenadiers," he learned to finally tie his shoelaces. He plays with beautiful tone and focus. He has not encountered a violin challenge yet that he cannot master with practice and effort. His current violin teacher is his hero. He plays in a youth orchestra. He would like to play Bach's "Double Concerto." He volunteers to play his violin at nursing homes and at school plays. He sings all the time. He sings loudly in choir, in the car, and in the shower. He will sing with the CD. He sings accompanied by his his hands beating out a staccato rhythm on cooking pots.
He recently met a young 6 year-old boy at a weekend Suzuki workshop who was struggling with focus and still on the box violin. He asked the boy’s mother to bring her son over for a play date, to play "Twinkles" with him. He told the boy, “I know you can do it. You just gotta keep doing it.”
For today's post, Nerissa Nields from Massachussets shares a story in response to Megan Crownholm's Suzuki Mom entry "When the Student is the Teacher." What I find especially exciting in Nerissa's entry is the way she closes the post: after a tough practice session, her daughter Lila plays a Bach minuet to their guests while the Western Massachussets sun sets behind the tree line. I think Nerissa gets the moment exactly right, its complicated mixture of relief, joy, and resolution. If you'd like to post about about being a Suzuki mom -- or on anything string-related -- email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As I hope I have conveyed in this blog, I am not the model Suzuki parent. I sometimes wonder if such a creature exists. In my mind, all Suzuki moms and dads (other than me) are endlessly patient (“It’s OK -- I am more than happy to wait while you scratch that spot behind your knee/rosin the bow with every single crumb of the “special” rosin/stop being a gelatinous version of yourself”) and perpetually creative (“Hey! Let’s spin the twister spinner, and every time it lands on the red we’ll play that difficult spot twelve times!” or “Let’s play the piece for the stuffed kitten. Let’s make a baby violin for the stuffed kitten! I will draw one and color it in with water colors.”)
On my very best days, and on the days when Suzuki practice doesn’t double as the time I nurse my two-year-old (which are about one in seven), I can employ a smattering of these qualities. But most days are not like this. Most days, I resort to threatening my daughter with the termination of violin lessons, which is mean, cruel and something I would never follow through with. I do this because I am in a hurry and don’t want to take the time for her to get comfortable and ease into the practice herself. Also -- and this is testament to the exceptional quality of (and my daughter's love for) her teacher, Emily Greene -- I do this because it works. As soon as I threaten, or even invoke Emily’s name, my daughter, Lila, perks up. For a few minutes, anyway.
I am not proud of this. But I don’t want to mislead you into thinking I am some great mom, just in case you were fooled. What I am is determined, slightly insane and madly in love with my daughter. I am hoping the latter supersedes the former two.