More Thoughts on Motivation, Part 4: The Eyes Have It. Or Do They?

January 29, 2010

Suzuki teachers have taken a lot of flak over the years (and still do, believe it or not) for having students who supposedly don’t read music.  The truth is,  we believe that reading activities should be postponed until the student is comfortable on the violin:  playing in tune with good, flexible posture, making a consistently beautiful sound, fixing pitch problems on the fly and immediately (ideally avoiding them altogether), and having a solid, comfortable bow hold.  The student is well on his way toward mastering some basic fundamentals; playing is becoming easy.  This does not mean we don’t teach reading;  reading, like everything else, begins when the student is ready. Readiness comes from the attitude of success that is cultivated from the first lesson, rooted in listening to oneself and observing, and making copious use of the reference recordings. A student doesn’t need sheet music to learn how to make a beautiful sound. What he does need is a fine aural example to follow, so he knows what he’s supposed to sound like. The whole point is to avoid what we all recognize (and stereotype) as “beginner violin sound”.

Music is a whole body, whole brain experience. Eyes, ears and muscle memory must work together with clockwork precision in order to produce the quality of playing that most teachers and other listeners both desire, and yes, even expect. It is a physiological process that has a sizable psychological component. The parts are trained separately in the beginning, and later as a unit as the student builds higher ability. “Yes, I can!” becomes the mantra for immediate, positive results, not just in violin playing but all areas of life as well. [Disclaimer!: Sight- and hearing-impaired students go through a different process, which if I understand correctly, is more tactile and physically-oriented. I am not really qualified to address that process as I have not been privileged to have any of those students in my studio.]

There are some pretty dangerous consequences to beginning reading before a student is ready. The biggest problem I have seen with my own students, especially those who have come from a non-Suzuki background, is that something disconnects between the eyes and ears and muscle memory. The eyes end up overriding all other circuits. My theory is that this happens because the ears and muscle memory haven’t reached the “easy” stage. My last-resort cure for the overload is to unplug — take away the paper — and remind the ears that they are still “in charge”.  This however creates an obvious catch-22, since you can’t read what you can’t see, which can cause problems if the student plays in an orchestra. (There is a very fine line here; I often feel like I am overstepping, encroaching on the orchestra director’s turf.) Unfortunately, at least in my studio, this usually only happens to students who either do not take me seriously (they don’t think listening is really as necessary as I do), or those who listen when it is convenient (it rarely is) or cursorily (to get it over with). Oh, and students who don’t schedule regular practice time (did I really need to say that?). The longer a student is allowed to head in that direction, the more difficult playing becomes. Sadly, it doesn’t have to be like this for any student. It only causes unnecessary frustration for everyone involved. Frustration bad. Easy good. Ha.

Every violin teacher teaches reading differently. Some use a series, others write their own drills and exercises. Still others use review pieces to teach the fundamentals, sort of like using rebus to teach reading words at sight, except that muscle and aural memory supplies the “pictures”. Sight-reading drills are added when a student musically and intellectually ready for them. I use a combination of the tools I just listed, and my students generally start SR training when they can play with ease, comfort, and consistently accurate intonation in the key of G major. This usually happens by the end of Book 1, but some students have needed more time to become totally secure.

Reading start-up also depends on the age of the student. A preschooler is not going to do SR drills, and as a rule it is rather unrealistic to expect it. Would you require a four-year-old to perform, on command, the musical equivalent of reading War and Peace when he just this week learned a few words in Hop on Pop? Because that’s essentially what you’re expecting a preschool brain to do. Yes, I know. There is always one preschooler who is smarter than the rest of the universe, undoubtedly because of Baby Einstein,  and is doing trigonometry when his buds are headbutting each other on the playground.  All I’m saying is that reading will happen when a student is ready for it intellectually. It is a very individualized process.

So how do you know? Are there signs of readiness? Probably the most accurate sign of readiness, I think, is the awareness of mistakes. Earlier, I mentioned the ease of playing and how important it is to a student’s overall development. In order to recognize and correct a mistake, you have to realize that you made one, and most students have to make a few in order to train their awareness. The easiest path to readiness emphasizes careful listening. In pre- or beginning readers, the eyes don’t have a clue that they made a mistake, and in fact they probably didn’t make a mistake in “reading”. The mistake isn’t recognized until it is heard by the ears and processed by the brain. Additionally, even the tiniest pitch error can feel awkward in the muscle memory. This two-fold awareness develops from a well-formulated practice plan that includes listening practice, specific tasks and goals, and review.

The teacher’s role is to assess performance and select appropriate reading materials to make the task easy from the start. Suzuki students typically begin reading with a level of comfort on their instruments that many “traditional” students don’t possess. The next time you get the opportunity to watch a school-age orchestra, guess how many of the students are Suzuki-trained. The answer may surprise you.

In case I confused you, I’ll tie this in to the next post in the series. Stay tuned…