Achieving Excellence, Old School

At the end of the school year, I often find myself with an overabundance of thoughts about teaching, studenting, parenting, playing, and wondering about the whys and what-ifs of violining.   I am a Violin Geek, after all.   So, in honor of the beginning of summer,  I’m going to do a few posts based on ideas that wouldn’t ordinarily be something I’d post.  Sort of  like a politically incorrect “Dear Violin Diary” entry.  Please feel free to discuss in the comments if I stomp on your toes or otherwise offend you with my rambling.  Don’t worry, I’ll keep it at least PG-13.

Most of what I’ve been thinking about lately seems to be related to student performances.  I’ll start the mayhem that may ensue by saying that the standard is excellence, period.  All Suzuki teachers worth their salt know this.  We are immersed in it from the first hour of “Every Child Can.”

I have alluded to having a ton of fun early on playing the violin.  But there was a price for having fun:  you were expected to work for it.  We were exceptionally lucky in Des Moines and West Des Moines to have teachers who made it seem like we weren’t really working.  Everything we did seemed to spring forth magically from some inner spark we didn’t know we had.  All the teachers had a single common trait, even though they were all very different people: they made it easy for us to learn.  Orchestra was fun!  Unless you weren’t in your seat ready to play when the first bell rang.  Or when you had to miss a concert because of bad behavior, to which I can attest from personal experience.

As I reflect on my Suzuki past, various themes begin to emerge.  One of those themes is excellence from the beginning, many years before the SAA actually printed it in the ECC manual.  The Teacher — whether it was Mr. Brauninger, Mrs. Brauninger, Mrs. Naughton, Mr. Schneider, Mrs. Tatge, Mrs. Kutscher, Mrs. Pope, Mrs. Granias, or Mrs. Morgan (did I forget anyone?) — expected everyone to do it right, no excuses.  It didn’t matter if you were a beginner taking your first tentative steps, or a seasoned student studying the Mendelssohn concerto.

Everyone I played with in elementary, junior and high school orchestras, even though we were all at different levels in the repertoire, understood that bad intonation and backward bowing were not going to be tolerated.  If you were the culprit, it made you look like you hadn’t practiced, or worse, that you didn’t care.  If you were having trouble, you were expected to put in as much extra time as it took to get it right, or have extra lessons with the director to fix it.  Our teachers, in turn, had no problems pulling us aside when necessary and telling us — gently and with much encouragement — that we were not working to our potential.  The more advanced you were, the more was expected from you by the teachers and your fellow students.  You were considered a leader, whether you wanted to be or not.

In return for our commitment to excellence, we got bragging rights.  (I can brag about my high school, right? WDM Valley. Go Tigers!)  We consistently received  I+ large-group ratings at state music contests.  We placed significant numbers of string players in the Iowa All-State Orchestra, more than any other metro high school.  People wanted to pay us to come play at their events.  Other schools asked for our musicians to fill pit orchestras for their musicals.  We had a reputation for consistent excellence, and it was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever been a part of, to this day.

On our all-city Suzuki concerts, if you didn’t have your portion of the concert list memorized and correct, if it didn’t meet the performance standard well in advance of the performance, you didn’t play it.  End of story.  This rarely happened; review was so ingrained in our routine that we rarely (if ever) knew in advance what was going to be on the program.  We lined up, the piece was announced, we played, applause, rinse, repeat.  Talk about overconfidence in our abilities!  Today, we think teachers who do that are disorganized, looking for trouble, crazy, setting their kids up to fail.

Our teachers made it impossible for us to fail.  The standard was objective and specific, and everyone had to meet it regardless of their ability level.  Excellence was the only card on the table; income, race, religion, area of town, where you bought your clothes or what you ate for lunch didn’t matter.  Excellence was The Thing that galvanized our pride in our program, our pride in performance, our desire to reach beyond limitations that we didn’t know we had.  No one ever told us we had limitations, because excellence was beyond limits.  Of course I can speak only for myself, but I think my fellow students from those days might agree.

Achieving excellence is not difficult, especially when it is the only option.  You learned to tie your shoes, right?  You learned to speak your native language, yes?  Did anyone expect you to fail?  Of course not!  You learned because you were expected to, and you were held to the same standard that every other person on the face of the earth is expected to meet, barring physical or psychological barriers, of course.  Our daily tasks and routines become excellent, yet we continue to improve, refine and streamline.  Likewise, playing the violin with excellence is not difficult if it is understood from the beginning that nothing else is acceptable.  Just playing isn’t good enough.  Excellence — not just technical mastery, but of heart and spirit, of love and joy, of sharing a common language — is the standard we are all held to, and indeed I think many of us aspire to.  I hope you do.

We as teachers, parents and coaches are in the success business.  Even the smallest effort, done with excellence, is a success.  Excellence is built from success.  Success is the result of excellence.  This is one of the core tenets of Talent Education.   We are fortunate that the SAA has provided lots of resources to guide and encourage us as teachers and parents.  Especially me, especially this time of year when I feel like I got it wrong a whole lot more than I got it right.  That is for another post.  Heh.

So…what is your opinion about performance standards?  Think about it, because I’ll be continuing on this topic…

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