Aren’t violins made to be heard? Why would you want a silent one, then? Well, silent violins have several advantages (besides just being fun to play!). Here are some thoughts!
In May of this year, we shared an article with our email subscribers titled "The Value of Music Degree." The article argued that a music degree, while it may not lead directly to a job, is still worth earning because of how much it can enrich one's life. The response was overwhelming: many musicians disagreed with the article and felt that their degree sent them out into a tough economy with few practical skills; others could not imagine their lives without their music degree, or without music at the center of their lives, no matter how tough it is to make a living as a musician. One of our readers, Susan Speicer, agreed to share her experience as a recent grad of Washington State University's School of Music. Even though Susan hasn't landed a symphony job (yet!), she's doing fine: she teaches and works at violin shop; she serves as an administrator for a youth symphony; she coaches and makes violin jewelry; and she writes a music blog. What we love about Susan, besides her obvious dedication to music, is her willingness to try out the different niches of a career in music, whether that's teaching, business, administration, or playing.
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.
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.
Have you struggled with a playing-related injury? Or if not, have you made a commitment to injury prevention? Read on for some ideas on how to deal with or prevent injury from playing.
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 [email protected].
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 protected].
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 [email protected].
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.