A Perspective on Parenting Teens in the Suzuki Method

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A brief discussion through the lens of Erik Erikson.


Hello, my name is Gabe Bolkosky, and if you’re curious about who I am it’s right there (points to the screen. Gabebolkosky.com, etc.)

So, I’ve been teaching just over 30 years and I’ve observed quite a few teenagers and their parents and I have to say that a great metaphor for making decisions about parenting, particularly teenagers, is that no matter where you step on the path, you’re going to step in something.

Making parenting decisions is extremely complicated and the stakes are high. Everything that we talk about we want to be aware that situations are infinitely complicated and different. Whatever I’m saying right now might apply to one person’s family, and maybe not another.

So, let’s talk about this teenager child of your, and why they act so…well…like a teenager.

I’m sure you’ve all heard about the amygdala, the prefrontal cortex, the synapses, and myelin and all those things, but I’m going to just talk about it for a moment to give it a little context for teenagers.

Most adults…ok…some adults are able to use their prefrontal cortex in a lot of ways. It helps them keep appointments, it helps them empathize and understand how others might be feeling, it helps them read a room, it helps them negotiate through emotional situations.

Teenagers are just starting to connect and build their prefrontal cortex. That means that they can be misreading things. If you’re concerned, they might think you’re angry. If you’re worried, they might think you are disappointed. So… awesome!

All of these developments are happening extremely slowly which may be causing your teenager to be taking a little longer to do things than you really would like them to. It might also be leading them to be more, let’s say… moody.

So I guess what I’m saying is that it’s important to give your teenager a break.

I assume that you’re hoping that your child, when they get older, will have a loving relationship with music. That they will want to get their instrument out, and play by themselves or with friends, or maybe with strangers as a way of getting to know them.

So, just to give us a framework for this video, I’m going to give a brief description of a man whose name is Erik Erikson.
[laughter] Who on earth would name their kid “Erik Erikson?” That is crazy! It sounds like somebody made that name up!
[text: Real Name: Erik Salomonsen] [Gabe talking to someone off screen] Oh… he did make up that name? Oh!

Dr. Erik Erikson felt that our lives developed in sort of a predetermined way, and he broke it into 8 stages.
0-18 Months: Trust vs. Mistrust
18 months—3 Years old: Autonomy vs. Shame
3—6 Years old: Initiative vs. Guilt.
6—11 Years old: Industry vs. Inferiority
12—18 Years old: Identity vs. Role confusion. This is the stage where your teenager or adolescent is trying to figure out who they are. Trying to figure out what their identity is, and whether they really know what it is at this time.
19—35 Years old: Intimacy vs. Isolation
35—65 Years old: Generativity vs. Stagnation
65 years and older: Integrity vs. Despair

Here’s the thing with Erikson: With him, there’s always a crisis going on. Gosh—such a drama queen.

In a sense, each of the stages is like the dark side and light side of different points of development. Everybody goes through these things and ultimately when they reach old age, we hope that we feel a sense of wisdom and integrity and not despair at having wasted our lives or behaved in ways that we are not proud of.

So let’s review Erik Erikson’s principles from a Suzuki perspective.

Each stage in the learning process comes from the perspective that we are always teaching the whole person. Not just a skill. Right now that type of feeling, that feeling of identity confusion, trying to find out who they are, absolutely has to factor in to how they are learning their violin.
[3-6 Years Old, Initiative vs. Guilt]
Starting from the third stage the Suzuki triangle can kick in beautifully. The child is learning how to do things by themselves with the encouragement of the parent and the expertise of the teacher.
[6—11 Years old, Industry vs. Inferiority]
Industry vs. Inferiority, when your child is comparing themselves to others, the Suzuki group class is a perfect place for that, where the environment is kept, hopefully, so that all children are encouraged to be themselves, and not to feel inferior just because they can’t do something as well as everyone else.
[12—18 Years Old, Identity vs. Role Confusion]
Here’s the point in the Suzuki triangle where things start to change shape. This is the first time that taking a step back is so crucial for you. Up to this moment your child has had their instrument, most likely, in their hands through almost every other stage of development, so of course right now they are going to question it. It would be a little unusual if they didn’t question it.

You might feel like your role in the Suzuki triangle has ended, but oh ho ho no, it has not. You do have to take a step back, and allow your teenager to explore what they are doing on their own.

[Teenager speaking] Sometimes, I don’t feel like I practice as much as I should, but when I do practice, which I am doing still a lot, I actually enjoy doing it, since I’m the one taking initiative, and not my parents forcing me to do it, so it’s not like a chore. It’s something I want to do.

[Gabe] This may mean for a while you will hear practicing that you don’t like. That is of course what is going to happen when they are on their own. There’s going to be a bit of a drop in quality.


Before your kid reaches the teenage years, you want to make sure that they feel like they are having some choice and decision along the way about what they play. Sometimes the Suzuki method can feel quite regimented and that’s good, but I think it’s also really good to consider some of the supplemental material out there. I think there’s a lot you can look at.
We want not just to teach them a skill, but we want to teach them to follow their desire to go where they see beauty and want to recreate it. That’s how they start to form their identity around their instrument so that when they arrive at these teenage years, they feel a sense of connection to their instrument
[Elena, 19 Years Old. Freshman in Violin Performance at University of Michigan] I listen to a lot of violin music when I was learning, when I was in middle school and high school. I listened to a lot of music. I think one of the most meaningful things to me about getting to choose repertoire was getting to play things that I had heard over and over again that I had come to really love, and then getting to play them myself and having a closer relationship to the piece is how I felt about it.

[Gabe] Regular, casual performances where people are listening, and not on their devices or doing something else, but listening and being moved by the playing that is happening

I think it’s important to realize the dangers of using competition too much with teenagers. It gives them a strange sense of how they fit in, and not really a good one. You either have a false sense of superiority, or a false sense of inferiority at the end. I think it’s the rare teen who can really negotiate through that.
[Elena, 19 Years Old.] I think that it did make me feel less motivated because I didn’t feel like I had as much of a purpose for playing as I did when I was just playing for myself and I was just focusing on my own personal improvement. When the emphasis was so much on the general atmosphere of competing with each other among the students, I think I did feel less motivated. I was still motivated, but I think I was motivated by something other than what I wanted to be motivated by.

[Gabe] Finding ways for them to play chamber music in environments that are nurturing and supportive is really important. Just listen to this student talk about how she feels about chamber music and how it might inform what she wants to do in her professional life.
[Elena, 19 Years Old.] Some people I know feel very, they feel the most connected to their instrument and to music when they are in an orchestra because of the sense of being part of something larger. In my experience, I feel the most satisfaction playing the violin when I’m playing in a smaller ensemble setting or by myself. In a chamber group specifically, every person in the chamber group has their own individual role. It’s very obvious how the group would not be the same without even one individual person. It certainly gives everyone a greater responsibility and I think for me, a greater sense of purpose
[Gabe] Not everyone wants to be a professional musician when they grow up, but to listen to her description of why she enjoys it—that’s what every teenager really needs.

There are some instances where in order for your teenager to really understand who they are and form an identity, they might decide they don’t really want to have anything to do with music for a while and it might be time to……….q……..qu………qui……
The topic of quitting is very difficult for teachers, especially in the Suzuki Method because we feel we’ve really invested our hearts in these children. But if there’s a choice between your child forming their identity and and quitting something, I think the choice is clear.
While quitting is obviously a last resort, there’s no shame in deciding you don’t want to do something anymore and just as it’s really important to work on the things you care about, it’s also important to let go of the things that you don’t. This is what I was talking about when I said no matter where you step you step in something. It’s not an easy decision to make.

Hey, we’re all just trying to grow up, and we make a lot of mistakes along the way, and the more compassionate we can be with ourselves and each other, the better our world will be. I know that’s what Dr. Suzuki was hoping for.

Video by Gabriel Kitayama-Bolkosky

Gabriel Kitayama-Bolkosky

Gabriel Bolkosky began Suzuki violin studies at age three. He is presently the executive director of The Phoenix Ensemble, an Ann Arbor, Michigan-based nonprofit arts organization dedicated to helping artists and the educational community. His debut solo album, This and That, was released in 2005 and features both jazz and classical music. Other recordings include explorations of klezmer with Into the Freylakh (The Shape of Klez to Come), of the nuevo tango music of Astor Piazzolla (The Oblivion Project Live), children’s folk music with the children’s-music group Gemini (The Orchestra Is Here to Play), and contemporary music of composers such as Xenakis and Boulez with his former group Non Sequitur (Non Sequitur).

Bolkosky is a sought-after guest artist, performer, and teacher at schools and Suzuki workshops across North America and worldwide. In May 2008, Bolkosky made his debut at Carnegie Hall with Opus 21. In 2008-09, as a member of the Phoenix String Quartet, he was a guest artist in residence at the University of Michigan. He maintains a private studio in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

For more information, see www.gabrielbolkosky.com

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