Suzuki repertoire and … comparing self to others?

Claire Devries said: Jul 12, 2017
 34 posts

Dear group,

I’m a Suzuki mom and we have been in this journey for almost a year. As I learned in Suzuki parent education that took from our studio, meeting children where they are is the cornerstone of Suzuki education, and this is what prompted me to enroll my son in the first place. There is nothing a parent want more than their children being seen for who they are, as a whole person with his potentials and limitations.

Yet, I will be completely honest that since the every students in the Suzuki method playing the same song in progression, I can’t help myself but comparing the progress of my child to other children (yikes!!). And some other parents would (bravely enough) admit the same thing. I would often hear comments like, “Which book is your son in right now?” or “Wow, he’s progressing so quickly, at xxx months, my daughter was still in Rhody” or “I think at xxx months, my son was already in book 2″ or “Look, she is already in xxx songs, you can do it too if you practice daily.” etc. etc… you know how it goes.

As I mentioned on my earlier post, I took traditional (classical) training of piano in childhood. Apart from technical exercises, students would be assigned different repertoire and I would not be able to distinguish (with my limited knowledge and experience) if my assignment of Bach prelude/fugue would be more/less difficult/advance (technically or other) than my colleague’s assignment of Chopin waltz/nocturnes, etc. All I knew, once we were in recital, everyone played different song that we have prepared. A song may sound simple but technically demanding, so it’s a bit harder to know how long a student has been in the studio, how advance he/she is, etc. (This is an exaggeration, of course, if I’m playing Twinkle and the next student is playing a Chopin Nocturnes, then I know I’m a beginner, but this is my effort to give you an illustration). Whereas in Suzuki, since everyone goes through the same repertoire, we can see more easily who are more advance and who are beginners.

I understand intellectually that everyone is at a different pace and journey, and that children development is not linear (one step forward, two steps back is often the case with us). It makes me uncomfortable to admit and to receive such comments from fellow studio parents. Therefore, I’m writing here to seek advice and antidote to such a counterproductive mindset. More importantly, I’d like to understand the reasoning behind the “same” repertoire and how it relates to building community rather than rousing comparison to others. Maybe this is the piece that I don’t “get” and I kindly solicit mindful thoughts on this. I realize I have much to learn in this journey. I’m hoping for a fruitful, respectful, and encouraging discussion on this topic. Thank you in advance for your time.

P.S. If this topic has been discussed before, please kindly refer the thread but I may not be able to access it due to privilege limitation on my account.

Shirley Hanneman said: Jul 12, 2017
Shirley HannemanPiano
New Ulm, MN
1 posts

Claire, this may not help much, but as a Suzuki piano teacher with 35 years of experience, I can tell you how terrific the set up of these books are. The pieces build on each other, reinforce techniques, introduce some new technique in an otherwise easier song, etc. I’m trying to simplify here, but I’m so grateful for the progression of the songs/ pieces. Good for you for recognizing this mindset, both in yourself, and, it sounds like, in others in your child’s studio. I’d suggest talking to your teacher about it. Perhaps she should be emphasizing the need not to compare more to other parents. Not only are there differences in the kiddos, but in time available to practice, and a lot of family variables. Once you recognize this, it may help you to relax a bit. As my own students advance, they more often play non-Suzuki pieces that they have learned by reading have and memorized. This, I feel, helps with the comparison concerns at recitals.

Melanie Drake said: Jul 12, 2017
Melanie Drake36 posts

As a parent, I have had the same thoughts. The tendency to compare is strong, based solely on the shared repertoire. At times, I’ve felt like this tendency was (unintentionally) “built in” to the repertoire. I was sucked into the vortex for a while, but I am now at peace and I have learned to celebrate everyone’s progress. I think it’s important to set a good example to children in this aspect, and avoid making comparisons.

Progress is not blowing through the repertoire. Progress may be improving a specific technique.

One thing I learned at an institute is that when asked what you are working on, a student should answer something like “tone” instead of “the last piece in book x”. I think that helps a little in changing the mindset.

I can’t really speak to the reasoning behind the repertoire, but I do know that one benefit to a shared repertoire is that students from different regions can converge as strangers and play the pieces together without rehearsing. I think that’s special. Also, I believe the repertoire has been carefully and deliberately compiled, each piece addressing a specific skill. The pieces are presented in a specific order to build on the skills in this prescribed order. Again, I’m just a parent, so please feel free to correct me if I am misstating anything.

Claire Devries said: Jul 12, 2017
 34 posts

Melanie, thanks so much for your insight and I do share much of your sentiment—this is exactly why I’m posting this question so I don’t get suck into the vortex and set a bad example of making comparison for comparison’s sake. After all, I do find parents in our studio quite supportive (I mean, the fact that they can tell me/each other frankly about challenges like this makes me feel part of the community already), and do realize that the goal of this method is not to plow through book after book.

I often tell my son that the songs are “tools” to learn a certain technique (bow hold, leaning fingers, etc.) and it really helps to remind myself about it. And that is an excellent point to mention technique instead of song when asked, “What are you working on right now?” Thanks for taking the time to write & share your thought. I do appreciate it.

Joanne Shannon said: Jul 12, 2017
Joanne Shannon
Suzuki Association Member
Los Angeles, CA
142 posts

The repertoire was assembled with the ideas very much expressed by Melanie. Using expressions such as tone, sound, dynamics, rhythm, etc. is a great way to describe a students progress. There have been many times that I have heard a book 1 piece played with more sincere beauty than a book 3 piece. It took four years for one of my students to finish book 1. I don’t see him moving much faster through book 2, but…..he is moving. He also shines elsewhere because of his lessons….he get’s lots of A’s in his music class at school so you know he is acquiring something that doesn’t always show in his playing.

I had a conversation with one of my 7 year olds today in the middle of book 1. We talked about the sound he was making on the piano and the point being, if he didn’t pay any attention to it neither would anyone else and the possibility of them falling asleep during his performance was real. Music is all about the beautiful sound you make, not what book you are in. I always try to incorporate that thought in any compliments I give. By the way, my advanced students are the loudest applauders for those under them.

Claire Devries said: Jul 13, 2017
 34 posts

Shirley, thank you for taking the time to write. I absolutely agree with you about the songs progression, I think it is a very intuitive way to teach music while allowing children to have fun. My son certainly feels a sense of accomplishment each time he moves on yet he can still enjoy each song where he is at and there are always plenty of “juicy” spots to improve. As far as talking to the teacher: I believe in personal responsibility and I feel that she has made our studio a community that it is (we have studio retreats, potlucks, etc. and the fact that other parents candidly discuss trial & tribulations to me speaks loudly than studio where parents are keeping things to themselves with polite smiles). I should preface this post by saying that my feeling is not indicative of the tenor of the studio. Perhaps not all parents feel the same way that I do, I merely am trying to gain some knowledge from the wealth of this online community. I do appreciate you mentioned about “family variability” and that certainly tends to be lost in the discussion. Yes, many family, us included, have limited time with parents working, etc. and that may affect performance as well.

Joanne, thank you for the kind reminder that music is about the beautiful sound that we make rather than the book we are at. So, so very true! I once watched a master class with Benjamin Zander (on YouTube, mind you, not in person :-)) and he said something like, “How can you make this note sound so beautiful that that person on the 3rd row understands you.”

Heather Reichgott said: Jul 13, 2017
Heather ReichgottPiano
South Hadley, MA
102 posts

Teacher and mom here.
I think it’s important to remember our reasons for having our kids study music. We want them to learn something, to develop an understanding of music, to express themselves musically, to learn self-discipline, and to have a good time creating something beautiful. When we think about our children’s progress, those are the things we should evaluate. If the other kids are all having a good time and mine is miserable then maybe I should be worried. Or if mine seems to be the only one who isn’t practicing, etc. But whether other kids are more advanced than mine has nothing to do with my goals as a parent.

Now when my kid has goals of her own, that’s something different and I can support those. So far my kid’s goals musically have included things like “I want to learn this or that piece of music” and her teacher and I help with that, including reminding her to practice and to work on the specifics her teacher asked for. If she had a dream to be a concert pianist at age 15, then we’d support that too. That isn’t a dream she has. And that’s okay.

Alan Duncan said: Jul 13, 2017
Suzuki Association Member
81 posts

As undesirable as comparisons between students are, they seem to be practically inevitable. I’ll just add one other point of view—as a parent. I’ve been in the Suzuki parent role for around 6 years now. I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked “What piece is your child on?” or “What book is she in?”

No matter how standardised the teacher training and the repertoire, performance differences emerge. It seems to me that at least with the violin, somewhere around Book 3 and on, there’s an asynchrony that develops between linear progress through the repertoire and the tonal and expressive qualities of playing. So, in that way, I’ve sort of distanced myself from the idea that progress is solely measurable by what piece my child is playing vs. others. I’m much more interested in the progression I see in all the myriad technical and musical bits that make for playing that’s beautiful and faithful to composer’s intentions. Likewise, later on, most Suzuki teachers have students supplement with works outside the books. Then the comparisons become even fuzzier.

Parenthetically, I agree with you about the ways in which standardisation of the repertoire—albeit brilliant from a pedagogical point of view, invites comparisons between students. You just have to be secure in your confidence that these benchmarks, though they look reliably measurable, are imperfect.

Joanne Shannon said: Jul 13, 2017
Joanne Shannon
Suzuki Association Member
Los Angeles, CA
142 posts

….and when a student hears an advanced piece and exclaims ” I can’t wait to learn that piece!” it reinforces their attitude of continuing their lessons with more mountains than valleys.

Kurt Meisenbach said: Jul 14, 2017
Kurt Meisenbach
Suzuki Association Member
Viola, Violin
Plano, TX
45 posts

We live in a world of comparisons, and this practice is not limited to music, although it is frequently easier when comparing two young students playing the same pieces to determine which one is better. For this reason, the feeling of inferiority and competition can be very strong in the aspiring music student and the comparison game can become very intense.

There is no magic solution to this dilemma. In my own practice I do two things. First I introduce music outside the excellent content that is available in the Suzuki books. I give different students different pieces, based on their interests and level of skill. I usually will ask the student to listen to three pieces, each of which covers the same topic relevant to their current study, and ask them to pick the on they like the most. In some cases, it is the same piece that the better student is playing. Their personal selection gives them a sense of ownership. This, combined with the fact that they like the piece usually motivates them to practice more diligently.

Second, I encourage my students to look at other students that are a little bit better than they are—not a whole lot better, just a little bit better. I ask the student what the other student does a little better than they do. Then I ask them what they want to do to be better at this one thing than the other student. I help them develop a practice plan focused in this specific topic (it can be more than one topic, depending on the student). This approach results in a practice plan that is the student’s personal plan, not just the teacher’s.

My students don’t always get better than the one they are comparing to, but they almost always improve. The objective of the approach is to turn the comparison game and the accompanying sense of competition into a constructive course of action and not just a source of frustration, or worse, a sense of inferiority.

I personally used this approach when I was in the music conservatory. It helped me to stay focused on what I was trying to accomplish without getting discouraged by the fact that other students played better than I did.

Claire Devries said: Jul 14, 2017
 34 posts

Thank you everyone for taking the time to respond to this post, this has been quite enlightening & encouraging for me to see that my struggle is real & that I’m not alone (as Heather & Alan put them so eloquently—it is quite inevitable no matter which teaching tradition one follows).

Joanne & Kurt mentioned a very good point that also often happened: whether or not listening & seeing performance from other advance students inspiring or frustrating.

This actually plays out in our own experience. My son becomes a good friend with a studio buddy. He is older than my son (my son is in Kindergarten, the other boy is in 2nd grade) but they shared mutual interests in other “boy” things such as Pokemon, trains, facts, maths, etc. My son was absolutely smitten when his buddy played Fiocco’s Allegro at our last studio recital, he simply cannot wait to play Fiocco. But no matter how much he listens to the recording, his ability is just not there, yet (mind you, we are in book 1—there goes the “measuring by the book” again!), and this excitement soon turned into utter frustration, to the point where he’d say, “I can NEVER be able to play like him!! Why bother practicing??” This is inevitable, as I often experienced myself in my piano training: listening to more advanced students may not always have the “inspiring” effect as we wish.

Of course, as a parent I’m able to see further ahead; my son will get to Fiocco eventually (if he so choose), and this reminds me of an article I read a long time ago from NPR about practicing music in young children: in that children who aspires & love music know how good music sounds (i.e. my son’s initial excitement) but realizes there’s a gap in ability. Kurt’s suggestion of noticing fellow student who is just a little bit more advance is spot on. I’ll see if I can bring this up to his teacher, while still maintaining his relationship with his current studio buddy.

Thank you again for all the comments, please keep them coming.

Anita Knight said: Jul 14, 2017
Anita Knight
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Suzuki Early Childhood Education
Kent, WA
26 posts

Dear Claire,
This can also be a wonderful character developing opportunity and conversation to have with your son.

Questions I would ask are: How long has the other young man been playing? (presumably far longer than your bk 1 son!). How much has he been practicing?—over how many years. When your son has that foundation in place, he can absolutely expect to play what his buddy is!
We cannot expect to just pick up the instrument and play book 5 pieces! There is a process to go through… like his friend, he will work his way through the books, learning the main points in each book—in book 1, notes and rhythms; bk 2 -full bows and resonant tone; bk 3—musical phrasing, possibly vibrato and shifting, and so on.
The point is, its like building a house and you have to start with the foundation before putting in the kitchen appliances—regardless of how much you want to get cooking in that new kitchen! Here’s a crazy metaphor— it could almost be akin to robbing a bank to acquire what he hasn’t earned!
These experiences are key to building character—perseverance, delayed gratification, discplined practice etc etc.

So, another perspective is to guide your son in embracing the journey, realizing that hard work and diligence is necessary to acquire anything of such value!
Best wishes as you work this through!
Blessings, Anita

Anita Knight
“Joyful Sound Violin Studio”

Joanne Shannon said: Jul 14, 2017
Joanne Shannon
Suzuki Association Member
Los Angeles, CA
142 posts

During lessons with lower level students, when the opportunity presents itself, I often mention that Johnny (bk 6) had to do the same exercise as I’m giving to you. That is why he’s able to play so well and if you do the same, you’ll be playing just like him. If they’re having a problem with a piece, I’ll let them know that Sarah (bk 5) had the same problem! But, with a little extra practice she was able to fix everything and I’ll bet you will be able to do the same.

This is not meant for comparison but to let them know that all the other students are traveling the same path as they are and if they have patience they will be as successful.

Claire Devries said: Jul 15, 2017
 34 posts

Joanne and Anita, thanks for chiming in!

Anita, I love your comment about embracing the journey—things that I often forgot as a parent myself. I like your explanation about “building the house.” Every now and then the two boys would have play along together after group lesson which is a great opportunity for me &/ his mom to explain to my son that yes, his buddy started with twinkle/(son’s current piece) too, and was working on things that son is now working on, and that buddy has things he is working on, too, even after all that etc.

I think children do live in the moment (some say they want instant gratification but I think that their brain’s prefrontal cortex, the part that is to do with planning ahead, seeing ahead, etc. are maturing) and I think that’s where the frustration comes. My son simply can’t see/think/gauge how much skill development needed in order to play this or that and that’s where grown-ups come in to explain. I think the process would have been less… frustrating (?) had he know that there’s something that he can achieve in within the time limit that he can envision, within to his current development. eg. making a clear start on the 1/16 slur for his Gossec Gavotte, instead of doing the 1/16 notes in Fiocco. In any case, a little frustration certainly won’t hurt, it’ll actually benefit my son.

I also think that this discussion would not have come up had we go to traditional studio without group lessons, without parents willing to share things with each other and willing to nurture each other’s children. This is what I love about Suzuki method so far.

Carol said: Jul 15, 2017
Carol Preston
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Viola
Damariscotta, ME
12 posts

Good topic. Some students are more affected by comparisons than others, so that certainly is a factor. In my studio I really try to downplay comparisons to the point where if someone asks what pieces another student is on, I just say I don’t remember. I talk about this during parent training for new families.

On the other hand, I think that often questions about what book or piece a student is on is merely a casual question about getting to know someone—like adults ask what do you do for work, where do you live, how many kids do you have, how old are they, what book is Suzie in?

If you feel that your teacher’s studio is too focussed on comparison, talk about it. I have met Suzuki teachers who actually do seem to pit one against the other.

Claudia Ferguson said: Jul 15, 2017
Claudia FergusonViolin
San Antonio, TX
8 posts

I like to change the focus to how I want my students to work on two things, first playing like nobody else when playing a solo, and second, playing like everyone else when playing in a group or section. I talk about how great it is that when each person plays the same piece alone, he or she can sound different than the others, can work with dynamics and articulation to make it sound like their own. Then when playing in a group, we try to sound like one instrument by using the same dynamics and articulation, bow division and speed, and all that. I also like to point out that professional musicians play the same pieces over and over, like Joshua Bell or Hilary Hahn playing the same concerto in many concerts year after year, and how great it is that they play it with their own color and style. And orchestra players playing the same symphony many times over the years. Your skill is not only based on what new piece you are up to, but how you play the pieces you know already.

Claudia Ferguson, Violinist
Bravo Suzuki Violin School of San Antonio
[javascript protected email address]
(210) 391-2382

Joanne Shannon said: Jul 15, 2017
Joanne Shannon
Suzuki Association Member
Los Angeles, CA
142 posts

My students have a daily concert they perform at home with no parent interference. I call it their dinner concert…play for mom while she fixes dinner & it doesn’t count as practice! Actually what it consists of is their polished (review) pieces. Mom can’t say anything but when she hears something that needs a little work, she brings that up at practice. I hear their concert on the first lesson of the month. It takes about 10-15 minutes. I sometimes move over to a chair and write a short sentence about each piece as they play it. Sometimes it’s congratulations, many times suggestions to make it better. They can take this home and use it for correction. Sometimes I sit at the piano with them and pick out one spot to work on as they go along. We don’t always get through the whole concert that way but they (and their parents) know they have to perform for me every month…and they never know exactly how I’m going do it. And, of course, we always end with the discussion about making each piece more beautiful than the day before.

Claire Devries said: Aug 22, 2017
 34 posts

Carol, Claudia and Joanne, thanks so much once again for chiming in.

My son and I recently had the good fortune of watching a master class conducted at local university for young musicians (these are Middle School-High School age students who are considering of going to Conservatory or pre-college academy like Colburn), we witnessed a few students playing the exact some piece, sometimes back to back, with different coaching from the teachers. It was quite fun and exciting, as well as affirmation to keep focusing on what we need to improve on ourselves, and not others.

I love hearing your perspective and I appreciate you all taking the time to write.

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