Yikes! Parents comparing students.

Elizabeth Friedman said: Nov 27, 2012
Elizabeth Friedman
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Viola
49 posts

I have a diligent young student, let’s call them S., who started a year ago and is now midway through Book 2. S. is one of those rare students who internalizes music quickly, concentrates very well, and actually is able to do the teaching points well—and so is able to move quickly because of a very high level of concentration. S. also begged for violin lessons in the first instance, so never had to be convinced to play. S. is always ready to learn, and S.’s parents always do whatever I ask. Somehow, S.’s parents manage to negotiate very well the line between being supportive to being pushy, always landing on the side of being supportive, and that’s I think a wonderful example for all of us.

My colleague and I just had a rehearsal last night for our combined winter concert, and I’ve now had 3 comments today—either via email or in lessons—about S. and how quickly S. is moving. Obviously, the reasons S. is moving quickly are: S. practices the week’s teaching points (and reviews) every day, S. listens every day, S. always arrives at lessons ready to learn, S.’s parents always do whatever I ask, and S.’s parents ensure S. attends concerts and workshops. S. also spent a solid 4 months before moving to Lightly Row, diligently learning every teaching point in the Twinkles. In no way is S. being allowed to pass from one song to the next without learning the teaching points. I am not about to expect every one of my students to behave as S. does, because most children do not. However, I’m extremely worried about the number of parents who seem to be comparing their own children to S., no matter how many times I might try to say “Well, your child is on his/her own journey. Everyone proceeds at their own pace.” (Or, the fab Ed Kreitman response to “And what is your child working on?” “Great posture and a beautiful tone.”)

Of course, the above is true. Not every child is that focused on a single pursuit, nor should they be. But, at the same time, I wouldn’t mind if a few certain parents would realize their own children’s potential if they trusted me more, came to group class regularly, practiced every day, made concerts a priority, etc. I do have some students who have been on the Twinkles for a year, and they have been learning all the way at a pace that’s great for them. I rejoice in all the progress they’ve made. I am a very picky teacher, and I regard the notes as a tool for learning technique—frontloading technique in the Twinkles, I find, is great for setting up the ease of learning notes later. I don’t want other parents to think that just because their child isn’t learning at breakneck speed, it doesn’t mean violin isn’t a worthwhile pursuit (and even a fun one!) for their child. Besides, I suspect it’s the parents who are doing the noticing, and not so much the kids.

Have you ever encountered this learning disparity in your studio? How do you deal with it?

Carrie said: Nov 28, 2012
Suzuki Association Member
58 posts

I am so glad you asked that question. I have a sibling group that just started in June that is learning quickly and I have been concerned about how my other students will deal with it. This family is immersed in good music and obviously has the music within as well as the desire to learn and grow.
Then I thought of K who is not immersed in music, but has a highly motivated mother who is “sold” on the benefits of the Suzuki music experience. After 3 years of working hard on book one, K noticed that children who started taking lessons after her were completing book one. That gave K the impetus she needed to be as motivated as her mom and something clicked for her. She gave her book one recital last month and has momentum pulling her into book two.
Another child might see others passing her and give up. So now I’m asking myself, what can I do to strengthen these children who might notice others learning quicker and give up? I hope that I am encouraging and demonstrating a joy for music and learning. I look forward to reading what others have to say about this.


Merietta Oviatt said: Nov 28, 2012
Merietta Oviatt
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Suzuki in the Schools, Cello, Viola
Stevens Point, WI
104 posts

I have the exact situation as your S in my studio right now as well. I have had parents comparing their children to my student S and I simply remind them that every child goes at their own pace. One thing about my S is that she is also reading at a 4th grade level—and is 5 years old. As this is a special situation, I especially hate it when parents compare their children to her. This was the point at which it was decided that some continuing parent ed was necessary. I truly believe that continuing parent ed is the answer! Especially where it’s more than one or two parents. In my private studio, after the initial pre-twinkle parent ed course, my parents are required to attend at least 4 parent ed classes each year. To ensure that it happens, I usually bring a guest speaker (a fellow Suzuki teacher or an SAA representative/teacher trainer) in at least once per year. I will do it during a time that the parents would normally be in the studio anyway—such as during group class time, during the dress rehearsal of a concert, etc… This way I can keep the lessons or schedule going and the parents can get the parent ed without having to plan extra time in their already busy schedule. Also, they may feel more comfortable to ask question to someone else or talk more freely without me there. In these meetings it is important to re-iterate not comparing children against each other, letting children go at their own pace, and remind everyone of Suzuki’s philosophy.

Hope this helps!

Dr. Merietta Oviatt
Suzuki Specialist
Viola/Violin Instructor
Aber Suzuki Center, University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point
[javascript protected email address]

Laura said: Nov 30, 2012
Suzuki Association Member
358 posts

Elizabeth, as both a Suzuki teacher and parent, I feel your combined joy and pain! I also have “S” type students—some of whom happen to be my own. This can make it especially awkward “Oh, of course they are learning so fast because their mom is the teacher, it must be natural.”

While I might be able to attribute a very small part of it to genes, I would have to say that my husband and I put in a lot of effort into being “S” type parents. It is an investment that pays off big time when the music kicks in. When I was a young Suzuki student myself, neither of my parents had musical background or training, but my mom took the Suzuki experience seriously. I recently dug up my old Book 1, and saw how it was literally covered with my mom’s hand-written notes. She must have made sure everything was learned according to what was taught. I also remember hearing nothing but lovely Classical music at home, and therefore appreciating it from day one.

Any of the “S”s in my studio have parents who do the Suzuki thing very deliberately. It is no accident. Every now and then I have a breakthrough with a family over one or two points, such as intensive listening (vs. none), or practicing properly. But sadly, some seem to never improve, nor are they willing to make some small changes that would make all the difference. I even go to the point of asserting that Suzuki is a horrible method if no one does it properly. (But it is one of the best when they do!)

We can only lead the horses to water…

Elizabeth Friedman said: Dec 5, 2012
Elizabeth Friedman
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Viola
49 posts

In reflecting heavily on all of this in the past week, I’ve had a bit of an insight:

Parents will notice how other children are doing. I think that’s unavoidable. Sometimes it can be helpful—as when a parent isn’t taking advantage of things like group classes and concerts, and wonders why their child isn’t more motivated. (One of the parents who commented on S. last week never comes to concerts because they’re on Sundays and their church is too far away for them to be back in time. While I can respect their decision, the fact is that this child suffers from a lack of motivation as a result, as both studio and national concerts are often on Sundays. You can’t have it both ways, and I’m hoping this realization might make this parent find a way to make concerts happen at least once in awhile.)

What is harmful is when parents start to assume that since their child isn’t like a studio’s S., something is wrong with their own child—even though their own child is progressing just fine. Just because every child isn’t an S. doesn’t mean music isn’t worth doing. Not every child walks into every lesson in a learning mindset, and that has nothing to do with a child’s innate ability to play—and I think most of us would agree that a child having good days and bad days is normal!

I cannot remember ever being compared to another child when I was growing up. My brother and I both took IQ tests as part of a study, but our parents have never, ever told us the results. (And at this point, I don’t ever want to know.) My parents insisted that my brother and I play different instruments so that we couldn’t make direct comparisons. I remember a very bright child in elementary school who played cello beautifully and was way better at math than I was, but I don’t ever remember wondering why I wasn’t more like her—probably because my parents never did. By no means were my parents perfect (what parent is?) but they supported and challenged my brother and me to do our own best, not someone else’s best.

Yes, I think continuing parent ed strikes at the heart of this. My colleague and I are planning to do some parent ed in January, and I’m hoping to weave this theme in.

Ruth Brons said: Dec 5, 2012
Ruth Brons
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Viola
Livingston, NJ
148 posts

I have had great success in my studio with both actually moving student progress along, and having parents seem to be satisfied that adequate progress is being made, by having all my students prepare for annual ASTA CAP (American String Teacher’s Association Certificate Advancement Program). The program description clearly states that the hard working “average” student can advance one level per year, and I have noticed that most of my students really rise to that challenge.

The early levels of the program work well within the Suzuki repertoire,
and I love how the upper levels need to pull in supplemental pieces to complete the program.
I love how proudly the Foundation Level students present their A Major Scale and perhaps two Twinkles, and I am in awe of how much work my busy high school students have been motivated to get done to get their advanced programs ready!

We do need to talk about the Spring ASTA goal each Fall, and deliberately lay out a plan that will get it all done.
The ASTA work plan has made both my students and myself more organized. I have to work to make good on my promise to get all the ASTA material covered by Christmas, so that they can get the memory and polishing done by the May exam.

I recommend, whenever possible, that students work to prepare the level that corresponds to their grade at school. This tends to be a great equalizer within my studio in terms of peer motivation. For example, two third graders who know each other from group lessons or school, one working in Suzuki Book 3 and one working in Suzuki Book 5, can now both be preparing for the same ASTA Level Three.

Parents and students both seem to really appreciate that they know the progress is going as expected—they used to be so confused that some Suzuki books go by slower or faster than others.

Elizabeth Friedman said: Dec 6, 2012
Elizabeth Friedman
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Viola
49 posts

That’s a great point, Ruth. I’m actually in the UK presently, and the British Suzuki Institute offers book-level graduations and national graduation concerts. (Since I’ve only been teaching here for a year and a half, I haven’t had any go through graduation yet, but I will this coming year.)

I’m also going to be doing Twinkle graduations in group class, which I think will be a helpful motivator for kids who are just getting going on the next few post-Twinkle songs. Sometimes the transition to Lightly Row creates anxiety (although it usually creates excitement!) but it would be a great opportunity for parents and children to celebrate the accomplishment that is mastering the skills required for Twinkle. Particularly because Twinkle is such a marathon, I think it’s helpful.

There are also grade-level exams available in the UK through the ABRSM and other music teaching associations, and sometimes they correspond with Suzuki… however, because of the emphasis on sight-reading and theory, I am taking my colleague’s lead and not having children do them until Grade 5—at which point their reading will have caught up a bit with their playing.

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