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.


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?


The Ultimate Reward

April 5, 2010

I am constantly amazed at how much personal finance and fitness are related to violin playing and practicing. Case in point: one recent bloggy gem called The Fat Nutritionist.

Now, I am most definitely not a health freak. Never have been. Never will be. In fact, my motto is “Please pass the cookies.” But alas, I am the mother of an almost-kindergartner and he is active with a capital A.  I’d like to see him grow up, and it’s not fair to either of us (or The Dad) if I were to kick off early. So being healthy has become a higher priority than it used to be. I started making purposeful tracks in that direction earlier this year. They are small tracks, but tracks nonetheless. Now, if I could just refrain from injuring myself…

So, back to my new internet nutrition guru. I like her. She says I can have cookies. She writes:

“There is a body of research showing that humans acting under the threat of punishment or the promise of reward do sub-par work.  Whether that work is solving puzzles or learning information or exercising and eating well, the fact that an external, overriding consequence is actually the driving force behind the behaviour — rather than one’s own intrinsic desire — means that that behaviour is not actually free. It is coerced and manipulated and induced. And going through the motions in order to reach the carrot or escape the stick actually takes something away from the benefit of those motions.

“Exercising to lose weight makes fitness not as fun or useful. Eating to lose weight makes nutrition not as fun or useful. And, when things are not fun (meaning, intrinsically rewarding), it’s pretty much guaranteed that you will stop doing them, rendering your time “on the wagon” pretty much a loss. Because you’ll lose whatever long-term, intrinsic benefits might have come from doing those things voluntarily.”

Yes. I eat and exercise to be healthy. But the thing is, way down deep, I don’t want to exercise. Or eat right. I didn’t really want to quit smoking, either. If I have a choice between broccoli and cookies, there really isn’t a choice. The Cookie wins, hands down, mentally. Even if I choose to eat the broccoli immediately. I also like to sit and read, preferably with a box of cookies within walking distance. It’s hard to read while I’m walking, running, bending, twisting or doing crunches. So I exercise and have modified my eating habits because The People Who Know All About Being Healthy tell me that there are long-term benefits, like living to see my grandchildren or not having to stop on each step to catch my breath. If I don’t do it now, I might not be around to see my Eric graduate from high school.

Many violin students practice religiously, but are using the same “carrot or stick” system. Think about it for a second. Very few students practice for the thrill and fun of learning. They (or should I say we?) practice to avoid punishment (the loss of some privilege usually), or to gain a reward (stickers, food, privileges, etc.).  I know many more people who read voraciously because they enjoy reading, than people who practice because they love discovering and making music. The best motivation, as TFN says, comes from inside.   All learning should be like this — unforced, born of natural curiosity, not graded or scaled, at one’s own pace. For the fun of it. This is what Suzuki-style learning is all about.

My new friend has zeroed in on something else perhaps more critical than our mode or method of learning. It is a cardinal rule of life: if it’s not fun, you won’t do it. And if you’re not doing it because YOU want to do it, you’re not going to gain much from doing it, no matter how fun you try to make it. I get it.  May I have a cookie, now?

Anyone else want to push the reset button? I know I do. I want to want to practice. So how do I get there? How do I change my mindset without feeling like I’m being deprived or sacrificing?

Reader question: How do you “reset” when you realize that you are either trying to avoid punishment or you’re in it just for a reward? Does it even matter? Or does it bother you to catch yourself thinking like that?