I have two boys of my own. They are nineteen years apart. Alex is 24 and lives in NYC. Eric is four and at home. My experience as a Suzuki parent and home teacher has been both educational and frustrating. It works a little differently in our home because mom is not only the teacher but also the practice parent. Here are a few of the gory details. Please feel free to commiserate or laugh at my chaos.
When Alex was first grade, we tried violin lessons with him being my first lab rat guinea pig student. I kept the lessons short and to-the-point and sort-of supervised practicing, meaning I supervised from another room while I was doing something else. He made it through the Twinkles without much difficulty, which I more or less expected. However, he wanted to work full steam ahead and didn’t like being supervised, even from afar. I know from experience (now, since I didn’t have any then) that one of the more difficult challenges of lessons is convincing older kids to wait for the teacher. They will get to move ahead when they are ready, and their conception of ready usually isn’t the same as the teacher’s. When it’s your own child and you’re doing the double role, though, things can go south in a hurry.
[Note to self: I always wondered why my teachers’ kids took lessons from other teachers. Now I know. Heh.]
To make a long story short, my then-husband thought I was requiring too much of a first-grader by insisting that a piece to be as close to perfect as he could play it, musical and memorized. Mr. Ex was not interested in the process, only the product, and he didn’t have very high expectations for the product anyway. He, too, had a brief foray into violin lessons as a child. It was quickly dropped when his parents agreed that his rendition of “Three Blind Mice” very much resembled the panicked scratching of a blind mouse. However, I was neither willing to compromise my belief and faith in Talent Education, nor was I willing to argue with either one of them. Even though I wasn’t doing anything that hadn’t been expected of me, or any other Suzuki student on the planet, lessons came to an abrupt halt.
I never felt like a true Suzuki parent, because my efforts failed, big time. I tried as best as I could, but sometimes those best efforts run into brick walls built by others. At a time when impressionable children look to the same-sex parent as a role model for how to fill that gender role, differences of opinion between the parental units can teach children lessons, both good and bad, about how to treat other people, how to deal with people whose opinions might be different from yours, and about perseverance. To be fair, there is much more to this story than I can share here, and I can’t say for sure whether my authority as a parent and as the teacher was undermined intentionally. Suffice it to say that the lessons learned at that time have yet to be entirely overcome.
Fast forward twenty years. Eric started touching, plunking, plucking, petting, and otherwise abusing playing with my violin when he was about two. I promised him a violin as soon as he was potty-trained, as an incentive. And we did, two years later. Yes, it took that long. So. We did the requisite pre-Twinkle work, with the dowel bow and styrofoam violin, singing and listening, playing fun games, all that good stuff and it was time to graduate to a big-boy violin. Back in September last year, we made a big deal out of going to Becker’s, getting fitted for that tiny 1/10 violin, with Mike listening patiently as Eric regaled him with all the cool things he was learning. Oh, and that he was getting the violin because he now pooped in the potty like a big boy. That, my friends, is one of those proud moments that only happens to parents. (A notation has been duly added to the “girlfriend” list, for future teen-aged embarrassment and reference.)
It was all very cute, except for the tantrum he started when we were ready to leave. That should have been a clue. We still can’t get through a lesson or practice session without a tantrum. In case you weren’t aware, tantrums and violins do not mix. I hold my breath every time the violin is out of its case, because I am positive that this will be the time he throws it across the room and it smashes into pieces. Or grabs mine during someone else’s lesson. So the violin will be going back at the end of the month, after nine months of trying. I’m not giving up. I’m simply tired of the violin being a point of argument, and even after all these years I’m still not willing to compromise, so we’ll try again in a year or two.
The strange part is that the tantrums follow a pattern. Sometimes they happen when he is being corrected. Other times they spark when he’s asked to do repetitions. He does not like being told that something needs fixed, nor does he like doing repetitions. He doesn’t yet understand the concept of making it better. Games don’t work for long: he sees right through them. So far nothing has made them fun, or seem like we are not “working”. I feel like I am constantly working, which tries my patience sometimes to the breaking point.
Another tantrum-inducing activity is being told that we are done for the session. Always end on a high point, on a success, they teach us in pedagogy classes and lectures. There is no such thing with Eric. He doesn’t want to stop. This is typical for many pre-Twinks but I’ve never had one throw a tantrum because the violin went back in the case. Eric’s lack of interest, if you can really call it that, is fueled by his desire for independence. He not only wants to do everything himself, and woe to anyone who tries to help or guide him, but he has different definitions for and ideas about what he is interested in learning. If he can’t do it himself, he isn’t interested. Maybe Jane Bradley was onto something when she wrote that kids of Eric’s age are interested in playing — exploring, touching, noodling, seeing what kinds of sounds it makes — not necessarily in learning how to play. To some, this might be semantic, but in practice it can be a huge difference.
I teach my studio parents that two minutes with full concentration, many times a day is preferable to fifteen minutes with only two minutes of attention. And end on success. Amazingly, I still feel like an utter failure as a Suzuki parent because I find myself totally unable to do what I ask my studio parents to do. Do they have as much difficulty with this as I do? By rights, I should be the most empathetic teacher on the planet, but I feel like the biggest hypocrite. How come we never read about the “failure” stories in the ASJ? After all, not every “Suzuki” story is a success. It would seem that failure could also bring parents together. Do you feel as alone as I do? I’m not afraid to admit that it hasn’t yet worked for my family, but I still feel like a bad parent, like there is something, anything I could have, should have, would have done differently had I known what to do. Interestingly, I don’t feel like a bad teacher with Eric, only a bad parent, which makes our situation different from the other kids in my studio. Of course, I don’t feel like a bad parent to my other young students. So, maybe it evens out in the end.
But on the flip side, maybe I’m not as much of a failure as I think I am. Filling both roles allows me to pinpoint what the problems are, which not only makes me a better practice parent for the future, but also a better teacher in the present. Being practice parent and teacher at the same time does not work for everyone. Another issue that stood out was my scheduling. I left the time of practicing and lessons open-ended, figuring that Eric would come to me when he wanted to practice. Lots of times a day, with love. Unfortunately, I had forgotten that Eric is four. He does come to me, often, but only when I’m working with someone else. The tantrums were another clue.
But there was a huge thing that actually went right, the most important thing of all. Suzuki violin lessons are about love, relationships, sharing, learning together and helping each other become better people. If the lesson dissolves into a yelling match or ends with hurt feelings, how did that help our relationship as mother and child, teacher and student, or as two students at different stages of the journey? Some would say that continuing would be a good lesson in conflict resolution. Maybe. But I think that the better lesson here is learning what is worth fighting about. He is not yet willing to be led and I am not willing to herd. It’s not worth destroying his faith in me as The Mommy Person to push it. Not right now. In a couple of weeks or years maybe, but not now.