Some youth sports coaches talk about utilizing the “car ride home” as an opportunity for parents of youth athletes to instill some life lessons from the events of the game, to help process emotions and thoughts related to certain moments, and to develop a supportive and healthy parent-child relationship through their involvement in sports.
I like this approach, and have begun to think about ways that a healthy parent-child relationship in music can also be developed. I am blessed with a relatively healthy culture currently in my program, but I am all too aware of the dangers of a self-directed parent culture within an environment like this, based on my own experience and the experience of my teacher’s nearly four decades of working with parents of developing musicians. There seems to be an ugly side to the human ego, with parents engaging in manipulative and/or unproductive conversations comparing the progress of their children. If my goal is to develop better citizens and to leave something positive within the souls of the children who pass through my studio, I need to plant seeds within the parents’ minds also, and give them the tools, the knowledge, and the courage to speak openly and truthfully about their children’s learning. Not for the purpose of comparing rates of progress, but for the purpose of becoming more aware.
It’s a cultural tendency to try to measure your progress from the outside in. “How am I doing compared to others my age? How about compared to others who have been taking lessons for the same amount of time? Am I playing a harder piece than someone else? Did I score the winning goal? Did I miss the shot that could have won the game? Did I get into the better school? Did I get the more impressive job title?” The problem is, none of these questions measures the only relevant process – the one that occurs within yourself. It can’t be measured by comparing yourself to others. It can only be felt and known by meeting or exceeding the standards – hopefully high ones – that you set for yourself. We cannot know another person’s learning process. We can only support them from the sidelines. But no matter how many times I say this to others, I continue to encounter that human need to be “assured” by some outside measure that I cannot honestly provide.
So here is my first innovative attempt at doing something to address this. After each performance, I always make notes in my own mind of certain things that happened, and try to use those observations as learning for me to improve my teaching of each student. There isn’t always something “to do”, but there is always something to observe. I try to stay curious about how each of my students performs in a concert setting. What makes them nervous? What obstacles did they overcome in their journey of learning for this concert? What surprises revealed gaps in their preparation? What habits do they still need to change?
Today we had our Year End Recital, in which every student performs a solo piece of their choice. It’s interesting for me to notice which pieces the children select. Sometimes it is an old favorite, other times it is the newest piece in their repertoire. I am touched when a student selects something that is not necessarily brand new, but is something they enjoy playing well. In the setting of a “private” recital such as today’s – where we have an audience of families only – I am encouraged to see an otherwise shy, methodical student select a piece that is a “stretch” or somewhat of a risk, and prepare it to the very best of their ability. There is growth in every situation.
After today’s events, I feel a need to “recap” certain moments in order to be clear about the message of learning and the culture I am trying to promote in our community. This is the first time I’ve ever tried this, so there’s an equal chance that it’ll blow up or it’ll be received with open arms, but I’m going to try it anyway, since I have to learn and grow. My question to the parents is, how do you feel about all this insight and feedback? Is it too painful? Embarrassing? Or is it illuminating? Fascinating? If your child is one who received praise, do you sigh with relief, or wonder what could still be improved? Because the kind of community I want to build not only appreciates this kind of feedback when it is given, but comes back to ask for more. Praise and criticism are effective only when specific, so read on if you want to learn more….
- Jack has been working on listening to the piano accompaniment to play in rhythm on See Saw. His coordination is still in development after only three months of study, but he held his violin up, and, with some help from me, was able to get back on rhythm by the end of the piece.
- This was William S’s first performance using independent finger technique on Twinkle! Since his lesson on Thursday, he succeeded in correcting a habit that had cropped up recently, which had him placing finger 2 instead of finger 3, in this song.
- I’ve never seen Eliza hold her violin up so high! What a difference this is for her! She is still working on letting her bow arm “push out” instead of pulling back with her elbow, which will improve her sound.
- Eli’s progress has moved into “turbo” mode since a big behavioral breakthrough earlier this spring. This has unlocked his potential to learn and absorb the teaching from his lesson time with me. Seriousness and effort have been his big breakthroughs this past year.
- I’m so glad Milan didn’t fall over or off the front of the step, since his feet were so close to the edge (and still together when he played)…other than this minor trepidation on my part, this was a confident performance of See Saw.
- Phoebe played Twinkle with very nice tone, something we had been emphasizing in each of the last few weeks’ lessons.
- Anna’s solid performance of See Saw is within her current comfort zone. This wasn’t always the case…there were times of great resistance in her learning process. She may have even doubted herself at times. What you didn’t see today is her current learning process with the next challenge – Mississippi Hot Dog. Facing those same doubts again, she is showing more courage and patience from the foundation she is beginning to develop.
- Despite some tempo fluctuations (which sent my heart racing at certain points during the performance), Nina created a new ending for “Old MacDonald”…what we might call a “save” if there were one in music. Luckily, she and the piano ended together!
- William P’s Tartini tones (finger 3s) were all in tune today….we had worked on those for the past several lessons, so this was great listening!
- Aidan’s tone was so big today. He was concentrating and looking at his bow to keep it straight while he played. How nice to see an “old favorite” played well, incorporating a foundational skill that has been a huge challenge for him.
- Sarah took great pride in performing Children’s Song with ease. Her physical coordination challenges have taken her on an arduous journey that were belied by the ease of her performance today.
- Eleanor also made a recovery during her piece and got through it without missing more than a couple of beats. When these things happen, part of our learning is how to pick up and keep going. We are working to try to free her bowhand wrist and make her left hand fingers work independently, so she can tackle faster technical passages in her music without tension.
- Ella performed May Song with the spirit of spring and the self-assured sound of a performer at heart. She loves the stage, but in her learning has also had to conquer her fears of things that feel hard at first. With practice and persistence, she has experienced the confidence that comes from really knowing. Today she showed total concentration.
- Christopher has been going through both a growth spurt and a transition to using NO wrist guide. He held his violin high, which is good, but next he must learn to lift his bow arm elbow slightly higher. Bringing his left elbow under the violin, and using his shoulder and head to support the weight of the violin (instead of resting the neck of the violin in the palm of his left hand), are essential. All of these will free his left hand technique and enable him to play faster passage work. In preparing this solo, Christopher had to commit himself to much more careful listening during his practice, and setting a high standard for himself to accomplish this goal.
- Even though Alessandro played a wrong bowing, he kept going…and played the correct bowing in the last line of the piece, where he had been having trouble for the last several weeks. Although he forgot to bow at the end, he did remember to move his feet apart and look at his fingers. I consider this learning. Playing with awareness is one of his current challenges.
- Claire was so focused in her head, that she forgot to wait for the piano introduction! Why did she play two pieces? Claire’s favorite song from this year was “On Top of Old Smokey”. When she picked it as a solo, I asked her to select one other piece because I felt that “Old Smokey” was both too short and not technically challenging enough for her current level of playing. Hence the addition of Perpetual Motion.
- Did anyone notice that Noah is using a different bow grip (thumb position)? He just transitioned to this several weeks ago, and tone production was his challenge for preparing Andantino. He did a lot of refining and improvement work, which you heard today in his performance.
- Strengthening Rumi’s third finger has been one of our priorities over the past few months. Her selection of Minuet 3, with many challenges for the third finger, helped her exercise this…AND she got to perform it for all of us. Learning and showing!
- Every time I see Chet play, I think back to working with him as a 4-year-old, when he was unable to put his violin up or perform See Saw without a helper. Can you believe that the boy we heard today, playing Handel Bourree in tune, with the correct rhythm, and with a burgeoning bowhand wrist technique, was once a student who struggled with clapping Mississippi Hot Dog for more than a year? Chet is one of this year’s “Biggest Learners”, having sweated through some tough challenges with the mastery of Bourree. When his ears got ahead of his finger technique, it was painstaking work to slow down and practice correctly. I applaud him for not sacrificing standards and giving himself the time to gain true confidence.
- One of the things you probably can’t see in Isabela’s performance today is that she has been diligently working on her bowhand grip, bow control and tone production (for most of this past year) and relaxing the first finger of her left hand (for the latter part of this past semester). This piece was a way for her to develop her legato bowstroke and use “resistance” from her bowhand to create a slower bowspeed.
- Henry took a risk and selected “Two Grenadiers”, a relatively new piece for him. Our rehearsal at his lesson this week was a lot of work, with a lot of learning on Henry’s part. When he arrived earlier today to run through it with the piano, he played it perfectly…once. When we tried it again, the rhythm was a problem in the middle section. For those of you who know this piece, that middle section is the hardest part to memorize! Add to that a piano part that has opposing rhythms to the solo part, and you have a big musical challenge. Overall I’m glad that Henry took this risk, but we all know that he didn’t play this piece the way he wanted to. This was also a risk for me as Henry’s teacher. I could have told him not to try this piece because it wasn’t ready. I allowed him to try his best, but I had to accept that this would also mean allowing him to fail. In this case, I don’t feel that I let Henry down, because I chose to allow him this learning opportunity in a safe environment of peers and family. Ultimately it is my trust with Janie that drove this decision. I know she knows her boys, and that they all appreciate honesty and respect in their learning. They’re not in this to compete with anyone but themselves. That is what I love about teaching students like these. There will be other opportunities for Henry to prove to himself that he can perform this song in the way he knows he can play it.
- I wish you could have a window into Sinead’s personal learning journey, but she stoically stands in her space and works through her challenges without a lot of fanfare. Alex is a great father, knowing very deeply what needs to be done, but also creating the space for his daughter to discover these things on her own. When Sinead looks at him for reassurance or approval during the lesson, he steps out of the way, often camping out behind me so that she will focus her attention on herself. Sinead has an artistic voice within her, but she is still in search of the link between her expressive core and the extremities of her body to create a powerful sound from her violin. Over the course of this year, she has developed much greater sensitivity in her bowhand fingers (listen to that legato bowstroke!), and is beginning to do the technical work of freeing her left hand fingers. This performance was a snapshot of a work in progress…with her emotional qualities, I believe she has the potential to be a powerfully expressive player someday.
- Amelia’s flair for performance has been obvious since before she began studying with me at age 4. Her personality and love of communicating with people speak to us in her confident stance and self-assured sound. The Vivaldi is a relentless reminder of her need to work on her bowhand wrist technique – for string crossings and for detache bowstroke required of all the sixteenth note passages. The speed of this piece is unforgiving, especially in those tricky sections on the last page. Luckily our pianist was able to catch up in a few of those places where the tempo got faster! Yes, this piece is a bit like an athletic performance, as Amelia demonstrated to us at the end.
- Soria generally has a refined sound and the challenges for her are the risoluto – or more robust – sections of the Seitz, which require more forceful sound. An ongoing challenge for her has been to develop a feel for how to vary her bowspeed to produce greater variation in her tone quality. Thumb power and a slightly higher bow arm elbow are the technical concepts associated with this. What a triumph that last page of sixteenth notes was…perfectly even, at a steady tempo, with a loose wrist. And did you notice her extra long tenuto (held note) at the top of the phrase leading into that section? Haha. A liberty that can only be taken by a soloist…and she did it with gusto.
- My only words to Greer before she went onstage to play were, “Don’t just play the notes. Try to make the music.” In our rehearsal, we had gone over specific aspects of phrasing, dynamics, mood…and how thinking about these things contributes to the expression in the music. You might notice that Greer has recently started to use vibrato, which is a left hand technique to produce small rapid oscillations in the pitch of notes, to increase the resonance….just like a singer does. This is a technique that I personally don’t prioritize until the student’s sense of pitch and other fundamental left hand technique is firmly established. It was listed as a requirement for a local youth orchestra audition, so we worked on it for that purpose only. While there are plenty of left hand technique development hurdles to come, now she is using the pieces she has previously learned as opportunities to practice the incorporation of vibrato. One example of this was on an octave chord just before the final coda section of this piece. Allowing her vibrato to continue after her bow lifted created additional resonance of the octave chord (open A string and finger 3 on E string). This piece contains some bow lifts that require both control and buoyancy in the right arm, along with “feel” for the dance-like 6/8 time signature. This past year was also a “big learning” year for Greer…much of it behind the scenes. I recognize the challenge of her role as the oldest student in this group, having to be seen as a role model for others without the benefit of older children as positive models for herself. The distant memories of interactions with older members of the Magical Strings of Youth have served as her inspiration. Next year she joins a local youth orchestra (yes, she did win that audition) and will form a new community of musical friends. She will face the new challenge of juggling both private study and practicing/rehearsing of the orchestra music. This summer, she will participate in a program at San Francisco Conservatory of Music, which I am hopeful will open her eyes to new worlds of possibility. In the preparation of her most recent pieces of repertoire – a Vivaldi Concerto Grosso and the Bach Double – she has had to learn to practice more meticulously, training her ears to “be more picky” about the details. Today’s performance was an attempt to bring all of her recent technique and experience to bear on a piece she first encountered briefly last summer, and to make some of the music her own expression.
Finally, after the recital, one parent asked me, “Which of the last two pieces was harder? Soria’s or Greer’s?” I have to admit that I was dumbfounded by this question. After all the effort I go through to pound home the message that “it’s not what you play, but how you play it” or “quality not quantity” and “we don’t measure progress by how many pieces you play”, I am still getting a question like this. You see, it’s easy to think of things as a linear progression. We like to think of each year of life as a step up some imaginary ladder. But what do we do if there are twists and turns? What happens to our sense of self if it’s not just a straight path? Do we fall apart? Do we get confused? Do we run and hide?
Typical “Suzuki teachers” have perpetuated the myth that you can “classify” students accurately by “what book you’re on” – meaning, what piece you are working on in the ten volumes of music compiled by Suzuki for use by teachers. Believe it or not, there are teachers who are following these volumes page by page – afraid to skip one, for fear of missing something – and expect to produce something at the end of ten volumes.
If only it were that simple. If only I could provide a simple answer to the question, “Which piece was harder, this Seitz concerto or that Seitz concerto?” The answer I gave was, “They are different. In some ways one is harder, but in other ways the other is harder. There are just different technical and musical challenges in each one. Overall, the challenges are probably of similar magnitude, and eventually a player will have to be able to master all of the challenges in both of the pieces. It just depends on what the student needs most right now, and what they’re ready to tackle.” Maybe all that was necessary was an affirmation that these two pieces were not significantly different in their level of overall difficulty.
In reality, I wondered why this parent wanted to know the answer to this question. What kind of satisfaction would it provide? What kind of insight would result? I couldn’t figure out what was going on in this person’s head. And I also couldn’t figure out what, if anything, I had taught this person in their years of being in my program.
So that was my wake-up call, and the reason I attempted this post-game analysis. To give you a window into what I saw today, and to invite you to see too. But maybe what I need to realize is that with any art – including learning and teaching – there will be a mystery that is better left unexplained.