Another Way to View Suzuki Philosophy

May 5, 2010

This is a large quote from an interesting post by Stephen Covey that I read recently. The whole article is here. Please notice how strikingly similar The Seven Habits are to some of the major principles in Talent Education. Parents are key to the success of their children. His analysis of the role of the school in a child’s life is spot on, as well.

“Historically, the family has played the primary role in educating children for life, with the school providing supplemental scaffolding to the family. When it comes to developing character strength, inner security and unique personal and interpersonal talents and skills in a child, no institution can or ever will compare with, or effectively substitute for, the home’s potential for positive influence. But with the steady disintegration of the family in modern society over the last century, the role of the school in bridging the gap has become vital!

“…The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People [is] a set of universal, timeless, self-evident principles common to every enduring, prospering society, organization, or family. I take no credit for these principles. I simply organized, sequenced and articulated them. These principles include 1) taking personal responsibility and initiative, 2) getting clear about what’s important to you and setting goals, 3) putting those priorities first and being disciplined, 4) seeking mutual benefit in all interactions with others — the golden rule, 5) seeking to understand others from their perspective first before making your point, 6) valuing differences and creating third-alternative solutions to problems that are better than “my way” or “your way,” and 7) taking care of and renewing yourself in all four areas of life — body, mind, heart and spirit.

“As I watch the talent of the teachers and adult leaders of these schools in action, partnered with devoted parents, I see the hope of the world. Leadership is the highest of all the arts, for it is the enabling art of unlocking human potential. It is communicating to people their worth and potential so clearly that they come to see it in themselves.”

What do you think?


Ability Limiters, Part 3: My Own Kids

April 23, 2010

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.

Ability Limiters — Lack of Interest, Part 2: How Young is Too Young?

April 20, 2010

I have read and heard discussions about how young is too young to begin lessons and the “standard” answer basically is “however young your teacher is comfortable with.”  That may be true in theory, but I disagree with it in practice.

Many teachers have “guidelines” for accepting pre-K students; this is normal and expected.  There might be requirements regarding a student’s age, whether they are potty-trained, if they are in school or daycare (for socialization or just interacting with people who are not family members), observation requirements, and the like.  No single requirement carries any more weight than another, because each teacher sets up student success a little differently.  [Note: In my studio, I require parents of students under 4th grade to complete a five to six week course of parent training before we start lessons.  The sixth week is specifically for parents of pre-Ks, to discuss things that are special about pre-K lessons and learning styles.]

I can show anyone, no matter their age, how to do basic violin stuff.  The youngest student I’ve taught to this point had just celebrated her third birthday when she started lessons.  I’ve also had students in their 60s and 70s.  They all learned, so I’m pretty sure it’s not a matter of “teaching.”

I can work with any parent of any student, doing parent ed. until I’m dehydrated from talking so much.  I can show them videos or DVDs until my eyes hurt.  I can ask them open-ended question after question about how they think the lifestyle is going to work.  I’m honest with them up front.  I don’t promise things I can’t deliver.  Taking their money and stringing them along on false hopes and dreams is stealing, pure and simple.  I figure when someone comes to me for lessons, they expect to learn something, so I am all about getting it done, and having fun doing it.  But what I have found over the years of working with pre-Ks and their parents is that many parents are not honest with themselves about how much “lifestyle” they can handle.  They really want lessons, and are willing to go through whatever to get them.  They shake their heads yes, agreeing with Dr. Suzuki in principle, and give what they think are the “right” answers, the answers that they think their violin coach wants to hear.  It’s so easy to do this when you’re sitting with a supportive teacher, or group of parents. It’s hard to be honest when you’re discouraged and alone at home. [Note:  many teachers make this initial phase a very long one, stretched out six months to a year. It’s hard to really get a grasp of what is expected and what the teacher is trying to do in a short six week course.  I think this is a good thing because it removes all of the pressure to “get started” and impress the teacher with how well all the paper lessons have been learned.]

In practice, the scenario typically plays out like this:  shortly after things get past the super-easy-this-is-such-great-fun-because-it’s-new stage, they begin to feel overwhelmed, like they are in over their heads.  Then Home Teacher (usually Mom), gets bogged down in guilt and has trouble keeping the routine going smoothly, and the kids lose interest because the whole dynamic of the “home lesson” has been changed.  It’s not fun anymore.

In violin lessons for pre-Ks, the parent assumes the lion’s share of responsibility:  making sure the assignment is written down correctly and understood, scheduling the time and place for practicing and listening, juggling other commitments that might interfere with practicing, being the home teacher, following through on getting it done, transportation to lessons, etc.  All of that might be enough to unnerve any experienced Mom-of-Steel, but add in the responsibility of discerning between correct and “needs work,” acknowledging the effort while reserving true praise for the achievement, and therein lies the recipe for, the justification for, lack of ability.  “He just doesn’t like it anymore” is more often than not a polite way of saying “I can’t do this anymore.”  But it is also placing the blame on the child, which conveniently masks the fact that the parent created the environment that nurtured the dislike in the first place.  The child is only responsible for doing what the teacher or parent asks of him.  They can only be responsible for what we have taught them.  If we don’t teach them honestly and fairly, with the highest expectations for their success, I can certainly understand why it wouldn’t be fun.  But, any child who hears a parent offer the child’s dislike of practicing as an excuse has learned a lesson they won’t soon forget:  I can blame anyone else for my problems and it’s OK.

So then, wouldn’t it be more correct to say, “however young the PARENT is comfortable with?”  If the parent is not comfortable with that level of responsibility, how is she supposed to make it interesting and fun for her child?  Children can read their adults like books.  You can’t hide anything from them.

Adults sometimes have great difficulty coming down to the level of fascination, wonder and discovery inherent in small children.  We get bored, mainly because our “process” has been taught and honed and given much experience.  We have the benefit of time.  After the 50th repetition, chances are pretty good that we have learned it.  But ten thousand times? Yikes.  Yes, it can get (very) annoying to hear the same review sequence for months in a row.  But you can’t let on that it bugs you.  If you do, you make yourself out to be a hypocrite when the teacher finally hears and praises your child for that improvement she’s been waiting for for months.  Yes, I’ll admit, it can be long, tedious, even boring. Boooorrrrring.  But it is the process of getting there that is important.  The child needs the process, and so does the practice parent.  The product will come a the child is ready.

Now.  If only I could heed my own advice…

From My Notebooks: The Power of Self-Image

April 8, 2010

At Mid-Southeast Suzuki Institute a few years ago, I had the privilege of listening to and observing Bill Starr. The other day I rediscovered my carefully written notes in a folder of stuff I was getting ready to scan for storage.  One of the gems I read was:

“A child will never exceed his self-image.”

I think about one child in particular when I see this.  Although he wasn’t a student of mine, I am a close observer and his situation still keeps me awake at night, even after all this time.  He doesn’t realize he has a poor self-image because he’s never experienced a positive self-image.  He’s never known the feeling of power, accomplishment and growth that comes from doing it yourself, whatever “it” might have been.  He gives up after the first mistake and doesn’t try again.  If “it” gets done, it’s because someone else does “it” for him.  Or makes excuses as to why “it” was impossible for him to do.  The message he hears from The People Who Make Excuses is that it’s OK for him to give up, that they don’t have expectations for him anymore.  He doesn’t have to worry about disappointing anyone in this no-pressure environment because they don’t expect anything from him in the first place.  What is perhaps sadder is that he equates love with expectations: if you have expectations for him, you don’t love him or care about him.  As long as everyone leaves him alone and lets him do as he pleases, then everyone loves him.  He is uncomfortable around me, because I challenge him to do better, to be better.  Needless to say, we do not get along.

You see, I have expectations for everyone.  And I see potential where many observers would say that none exists. I guess it’s part of my nature, as a human and as a teacher. Experience has taught me that expectations are reasonable. And people expect you to meet them.  Students who experience success will almost always reach beyond what they think they are capable of achieving.  My parents expected a lot from me.  I hope that I’ve met their expectations, for the most part.  Who knows? Maybe it’s just a generational thing. But in the case of my unmotivated friend, it’s really hard for me to deal with because I have to accept things that I cannot change, even though those things hurt other people I love.

Now, I don’t know — the young man above is in college now.  And maybe this is routine, commonplace, standard behavior in today’s college students.  I’ve heard and read lots of stories of kids feeling like they’re entitled to what their parents sometimes sacrifice to provide them.  I’ve also found stories of students who believe in the value of hard work and paying their own way, even if it sometimes feels like it’s impossible to get ahead.  I’ve read about many people who do what they have to do to survive, even in the face of what seems like impossible odds;  indeed, I have my own personal stories of hardship and challenge.  I came through OK.  A lot of folks aren’t so lucky. Who would you say has the better self-image:  the people who did it themselves, or the ones to whom it was handed? How do you think the folks who are still struggling feel?

But, in case you missed it or forgot, “impossible” is not a word in the Suzuki dictionary.  And it should be banished from routine usage.  Nothing is impossible.  Challenging? Yes. Very hard? Probably.  Next-to-impossible? Sure.  But impossible?  Nope.  Not until you’ve exhausted life itself.  Poor self-image is caused by “stinkin’ thinkin'” (as FlyLady calls it), believing that you are not capable, not smart enough, not strong enough, not “talented” enough.  It is believing that there is some predetermined amount of brains, brawn or talent you need before you can do “it.”  At some point though, isn’t enough, enough?

Self-image is not based on what other people think.  Yeah, yeah, I know that some psychologists say differently, and I’d agree that I’ve simplified it, maybe too much.  But you know what?  If self-image was based entirely on what other people thought, wouldn’t it be called something else?  Like Other-image?  Or Outside-image?  SELF-image is how you see yourSELF, although it may be based partly on how you think others perceive you.  And I’m not saying it’s free of outside influences, because we all know that isn’t the reality.  If it was, you would think that The Scientific Studies Of Prestigious Universities would show drastic drops in dieting, suicide and bullying.  Self-image should be based on what you think is important and healthy for you, and it can have a powerful influence over how other people view you.  Being egotistical (thinking that you are better than anyone else) is just as harmful to self-image as being an emotional gutter-dweller.  Raising kids that have a good self-image is critical to their success and happiness as they grow into adulthood, whether in school, music, sports, casual and intimate relationships, or employment.  Self-image touches every aspect of a person’s life.

As Suzuki violin teachers, we harbor a vision of every single student we teach someday playing the Tchaikovsky concerto.  Or the Brahms.  Or Beethoven’s.  We know that every student has the same ability. We sign on for the long-term, to walk with him, leading him when necessary, from where he is now to where he will be in a few years.  A healthy musical self-image comes from a nurturing environment that allows mistakes to be powerful, creative teaching tools that lead to success and self-discovery, not to ways to make you feel stupid and worthless.  Man is the son of his environment, regardless of whether it is a good one or bad one, abusive or positive, selfish or giving, rich or poor, willing to learn and help or dismiss and tear down.  We have an obligation to believe that all things are possible, to help students to see their potential as clearly as we do, and to encourage them to exceed expectations.  What an incredible and awesome responsibility for parents and teachers to have!

Teachers: what do you do to help students develop a positive self-image? How do you incorporate parent education into it?

Parents? How does your teacher support you as both a parent and as a home teacher?