2009 Minijournal cover contest 3rd place finalist.

2009 Minijournal cover contest 3rd place finalist.

Image by Abby Friesen-Johnson

Six weeks and three days ago, I almost died.

I had a ruptured ectopic pregnancy. I was a little over six weeks pregnant: I lost the baby and almost my life. If not for an emergency surgery, I would not be here. One week later, forty minutes from my home in Connecticut, a very sick young man murdered twenty-six people, most of them children. Extreme situations can sometimes bring about clarity of purpose and emphasize what truly is important.

I believe that more than ever before, children need Suzuki education. Suzuki principles teach empathy, love, understanding, hard work, problem-solving skills, and respect for all. I think all Suzuki students are so incredibly lucky to get this kind of education—and from their own parents no less. What a gift! And why do they get this gift? Because their parents love them so much that they make huge sacrifices to make this educational and moral gift to their children. And it all comes from love. Children can then take these tools and all this love and help make this world a better place.

Why, then, did I title this “A Call to Action?” Because we need more Suzuki teachers and we need to become the best, highest level teachers we can possibly be. We also need to encourage each other to grow and become better at every possible opportunity. So hang on: I’m going to take every possible excuse, every possible reason that I have ever heard a teacher use (or have thought myself) as to why they are not more involved in the Suzuki community and I am going to refute that reason.

Reason One: “I’ve taken all the books already (or some of the books) and I don’t need any more training.”

This is one that I come across a lot in my neck of the woods. Many people take all or most of the Suzuki books while getting a master’s degree in the NYC area and so many of the teachers express to me that they are then finished. It’s one of my biggest pet peeves. The reasons you take on-going training are many: to nourish yourself as a teacher, to get fresh ideas, to meet other colleagues that inspire you, and to continue to push yourself to grow as a teacher.

From Dr. Suzuki, “I will be a student until I am 90 years old; then I will be a teacher.” If you are not growing as a teacher, then you are dying as a teacher. Teaching is the act of giving of yourself to others. If you don’t seek out ways to fill yourself back up, you get burned out. You don’t re-take the books to learn the teaching points either. (Come on, any good teacher can pretty much figure all those out if you think about them and teach long enough.) You take the books again and again for the other ideas: how to relate, how to communicate better, different approaches, different strategies, different psychological tools and tricks.

I’ve taken some books many times and I never regret it. It’s always with a different teacher trainer and they always have a new way for me to think about reaching students. No one can have too many options when it comes to reaching students. If you have been teaching for ten or fifteen years and you have not done any additional training in the past five years—get on it! You will not regret it. Try a brand new teacher trainer if possible or someone you have never met. Fill up your own teaching cup!

Reason Two: “People are too competitive” or “People can be mean.”

Ah, yes. This one has stung me too. Especially because I think Suzuki people are supposed to be nicer, kinder and more loving than regular folk. But here is the truth: some people are nicer than others and some people have bad years or bad days and some people are just selfish. So get over it. And be nicer to others. We are the SAA. If we drop out of things because of a few bad eggs, where does that leave the SAA? (Almost dying puts a few things in perspective.) Mean people are usually mean because that is what they know. And that is sad. Feel pity and move on. Fight meanness with kindness. I’m not saying you need to win over the unkind person (if someone is truly hurtful, avoid them and don’t send students to them) but just be more kind and encouraging to others in their stead. We need as many great Suzuki teachers as possible!

Reason Three: “It’s expensive.”

Yes, it can be. So apply for scholarship. Also, whenever you spend money on Suzuki things (whether it’s a book, class, workshop, conference, etc.) it is tax deductible, so be sure to keep receipts and take that deduction. And remember, going to these events is vital to bettering yourself as a teacher and a person. You can’t really put a price on that. Just a side note: last spring I was feeling really burnt out as a teacher. I almost didn’t go to the Conference but decided to go anyway. I got to present which was fine and I enjoyed the presentations but I was still feeling burnt out—until one evening with three terrific fellow cello teachers. That one evening of great camaraderie made me feel so inspired and re-committed to what we are doing. It is always worth the cost if it leaves you a better teacher.

Reason Four: “The Suzuki world is too insular and full of little cliques.”

Yes, it can feel like that. So bring some new friends and add on. No one really means to be insular. Some people are naturally shy and more quiet. Some people are trying to catch up with long-time, dear friends. Look for a friendly face. Be a friendly face. Give encouragement and support generously.

Reason Five: “I just don’t have the time to devote to anything else. It’s all I can do to take care of my family and manage my students.”

I feel like this all the time. It’s all I can do to have semi-clean clothes for my family. But again, if you are not growing as a teacher, then you are dying as a teacher. We can all do something to better ourselves as a teacher. Find your problem areas: Is it your playing level? Do you need to practice more? Do you need to think about your communication with others? Are your ideas lacking freshness? Are you unable to see the big picture and/or know how to get your students to achieve more? Do you have difficulty training and communicating well with parents?

Assess yourself as a teacher regularly and work hard to become better! What we do is way too important to be satisfied with good enough. We need to constantly raise the bar on both ourselves and our students. We are trying to change the world here and we can’t do that without being diligent and working hard. Remember Dr. Suzuki’s quote: “Never hurry, but never rest” and apply this to yourself as a teacher.

It’s the New Year. Make a resolution. Find one small thing that you can improve this year. Here is mine: ever since I had my son (now age two) I basically stopped practicing. Now, it isn’t really feasible to get in two to three hours a day at this point in my life, but I can make a promise to get some practicing regularly. Maybe I’ll start small with a three-day-a-week goal and go from there. What can you do this year to become a better teacher? What can you ask of your students?

Reason Six: “I play better or know more than most Suzuki teachers.”

Ah, ego. I really do think ego and pride are perhaps the most negative things in terms of self-development. Okay, so maybe you are really, really good. Do you know everything about your instrument and how to reach your students and families? If you really answer yes to this, then you are kidding yourself. The ways to reach people are infinite. The ability to grow on an instrument is infinite. When Casals (then age ninety-three) was asked why he continued to practice the cello three hours a day, he replied, “I’m beginning to notice some improvement.”

A huge part of what you get out of teacher-training is the how of it all: how do we make a child want to work hard, want to achieve, and want to be a good, kind person? Also, if you are a super experienced teacher, watch a really young, on-fire teacher. I have a former student (now a college cello major who wants to be a Suzuki cello teacher) and I love talking teaching with him. He has so many new fun ideas and his enthusiasm is invigorating to me.

Reason Seven: “Everything is so established and there is no place for me.”

This one is just wrong. We need all the good Suzuki teachers we can find. Imagine a world where all students learned the skills that came from a Suzuki education. Where everyone was taught to love each other, communicate better, empathize, create beauty… It would be a powerful world, a great world.

In closing, here are my own personal Suzuki teacher commandments:

  1. Never stop learning. Never stop growing, improving, playing, practicing, thinking. Always remain a student.

  2. Get more involved in the larger Suzuki world. Offer your own talents to help others in whatever capacity you can.

  3. Forgive others who were unkind. Realize that while that person may be limited, you don’t have to be.

  4. Support and encourage all other Suzuki teachers to be the best they can be! Recruit other possible Suzuki teachers.

I realize that if you are reading this, then you are probably already a wonderful teacher who is dedicated to life-long learning, but it feels good to write it anyway. Please pass this along to any teacher who is on the fringe or who might have the potential to be a great Suzuki teacher. Let’s do all we can to bring music and love to all the families and children of the world. This is more than a profession: it’s a calling. Join me and let’s help make Dr. Suzuki’s vision of world-change a reality.