Suzuki Books Are Not Suzuki Method

I have some mixed feelings about transfer students.

I love new students of any variety, and transfer students are certainly no exception. Transfer students currently make up a good chunk of my student base. Without my transfer kids, I wouldn’t really be making a living at all.

But.

I’m growing increasingly weary of the state in which my transfer students come to me.

My intro lessons are largely the same with these types of students – show me your bow hold, play the last song you worked on for me, can you play an A/D/G scale, etc. Nearly every time I have an intro lesson with a transfer student, I sit with a poker face that thinly veils my internal horror with the state of the student’s technique. Collapsed left hands, bow grips akin to an arcade claw game, instrument teetering perilously on the chest, and a tone closer to nails on a chalkboard than a violin. Without failure, I am astonished at what the former teacher “taught” the student currently standing in front of me, because to me it appears that the child has scarcely learned a thing except remedial lesson in muscle tension. I grow more troubled as I learn that the former teacher taught “Suzuki method” to the child – because to people who do teach Suzuki method it’s painfully clear that this is not the end result that Dr. Suzuki spent his life trying to produce.

This predicament certainly isn’t the child’s fault, nor the parent’s. I cannot fault the parties who often don’t have the expertise or experience with the instrument to know what a good private teacher can accomplish. The issue is with teachers who claim to teach the Suzuki method without putting the principles in practice, and with teachers who do not have appropriately high expectations for their students.

To my first point, teaching from the Suzuki method books is not teaching the Suzuki method. That’s just using the repertoire that Dr. Suzuki selected. Let’s be clear: there’s not anything wrong with this. A traditional teacher can do great non-Suzuki based work with the Suzuki repertoire, and for a violin teacher who needs a starting point, grabbing the Suzuki books is the path of least resistance because Dr. Suzuki already put the thought in for us. But simply using the book is not teaching the Suzuki method. There are philosophies of the Suzuki method that matter infinitely more than the repertoire – do one thing at a time, learn with your ears before your eyes, prioritize beautiful tone, establish a strong relationship between teacher, student, and parent, reinforce through review. When a student arrives for a lesson and throws the method book onto the stand to struggle through reading a Suzuki piece with terrible tone and horrendous posture, I know that the former teacher didn’t truly teach the Suzuki method, they just used the repertoire.

To my second point, I often ponder the priorities of my students’ former teachers. Maybe this is my education degree talking, but I have always felt that my expectations of my students are a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you expect that your students will play with correct posture and beautiful tone, and prioritize your teaching strategies to that end, you students will develop correct posture and beautiful tone. If you expect that your students will be able to read music effectively, you will prioritize your teaching strategies to that end and your students will meet your expectations. If you have no expectations for your students, or you don’t know how to prioritize foundational skills of successful violin performance, or you’re just taking students to help you pay rent, you have no idea what they should be able to do in six months, one year, five years time. What are students going to get out of lessons with you if you don’t establish your expectations of them and reinforce and build upon those expectations each week? What service are you really doing for these children and their families? I’ve always felt teaching with little to no articulated expectations is futile, and futility is essentially the antithesis of education.

Parents (and adult students!) – do yourselves and your child a favor and talk with prospective teachers about their vision for a new student and what they expect to see out of a student on a weekly basis. If they don’t have an answer, keep looking. If they can articulate their expectations for students without skipping a beat, and they see a clear vision for your child and are willing to put a plan into action, you’ve found a teacher worth working with.

Just some food for thought on this subzero Monday night in Chicago.

Music Education Is Not Just For Children: A Letter to Adult Learners

I’ll admit it: I have a huge Peter Pan complex. I don’t want to grow up. I never have. The phrase “adulting is hard” has left my mouth at least once a day since I graduated college. Pixie dust and Neverland sounds like a much better alternative to death and taxes, but hey, I don’t have much choice in the matter.

I’m certain I’m not living alone with this complex. I doubt anyone wants to be an adult, simply because it tends to be tedious and frustrating much of the time. There’s traffic, there’s laundry, there’s work, there’s bills, and I have to eat right, get eight hours of sleep, maintain friendships, and oh my god I have to make some attempt to exercise, too?! HOW DO PEOPLE LIVE LIKE THIS?!

We’d all rather be children watching cartoons and taking naps when we feel like it, but as we age our list of responsibilities snowballs to the teetering edge of insanity and we feel steamrolled by the never-ending wheel of daily tasks, so entrenched in the doldrums that few of us make time in our lives for things that bring us joy, fulfill us, challenge us.

The good news is that there are ways to escape from the tedium that adult life can be. Catching happy hour with a friend is a simple, easy way to decompress from adult life. Other options are more intimidating and time consuming, like learning an instrument.

It’s easy to think that music education is a child’s pursuit. It isn’t exactly heavily advertised as anything other than a child’s pursuit. I think the violin in particular gets a reputation for being an endeavor to be started as a early as possible to yield maximum success. If you see enough videos of prodigious four year olds playing virtuosic concerti with ease, you’ll start to believe that you aren’t equally as capable because your brain has lost its plasticity and you weren’t raised in a musical environment and you think you’re tone deaf and when would you really even have time to practice, and so on and so forth until the naysaying voices in your head tell you it’s impossible and you shouldn’t try. I think that’s a huge disservice. Music is for everyone, and music education should be, too, but that’s not often the message that’s sent to adults who “wish they took the time to learn an instrument as a kid.”

However,  I am the proud teacher of a decent number of adult students, ranging in age from their mid twenties to their early 50’s. Interestingly enough, each of these students seemed to be uncomfortably aware of this unfounded stigma. They showed up to their first lesson looking sheepish, acknowledging the perceived strangeness of teaching the violin to an adult almost immediately: “I always wanted to learn as a kid, but I never had a chance. Now I’m trying something new. No one knows I’m doing it, I’m too embarrassed to tell anyone.”

I want to take a moment to sing my praises for each of these adult learners. They’re doing life 100% right, but they don’t feel that way because they are immersed in the discomfort of a new and vaguely intimidating endeavor (most likely thanks to many viewings of said prodigious toddlers).

I am certainly not the first person to say this, but the best way to build a life that you will look back upon with satisfaction is to spend as much time as you can pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone, willingly putting yourself in situations that challenge you. I understand it’s a struggle – we’re all creatures of habit, and introducing a new habit takes a whole lot of work. But I find that people rarely regret trying something new, regardless of how difficult they perceive the endeavor to be. Leaving the comfort zone and propelling yourself into something creative is especially valuable, because everyone needs an outlet and everyone deserves to work with something beautiful everyday.

The violin is a beast. It’s among the most difficult instruments to play. But, you know what else is hard? Running a marathon.

Has anyone felt embarrassed about successfully running a marathon? NO.

So why be embarrassed about choosing to play one of the most difficult instruments to master?

That’s bad ass, and I respect the hell out all of y’all.