Piano student at Greater New Orleans Suzuki Summer Camp
Our recent Recital Week gave all who attended a glimpse of music students in action. Pieces had been polished and rehearsed. Students dressed up. Parents provided tempting treats. The excitement of wanting to hear each student play buzzed through the group. An anxious look at the program told students when they would play. Every recital was filled with the same agendas and expectations. Every recital held beautiful music played by students with little experience as well as those who have been playing for many years.
A comment that surfaces after a program is, “Hasn’t Janie progressed a lot? She was in Book 2 last year, and here she is playing a Book 4 piece!” That is a great thing to recognize, but I’m wondering about the student who hasn’t covered so much obvious musical ground. Are they still progressing? The outward signs of a student making progress are clear. The student learns many pieces, plays with more expression, has more and better control of how to navigate the instrument, looks like he/she enjoys what he is doing, and is able to communicate musically with the audience.
Let’s set these wonderful elements aside for a moment and take a look at some not-so-obvious things that can still be called progress. It is difficult to determine inward progress as it is happening. Let’s say a student played on recital this year but played a piece only two pieces farther than last year’s piece. Did this student progress? Yes, but it doesn’t seem like very much. In this scenario, the parent might become discouraged. As a teacher, I would not think there is a lack of progress if the attitude of the parent is one of patience and trust in what the teacher is doing. If the parent has the child’s best interest at heart and if practice time is a regular event, something is happening inside the child.
Progress is usually defined as movement. Movement isn’t always forward. It will be sideways, backwards, diagonally and sometimes up and down in the learning process. The important learning goes on inside each of us no matter what the subject. As adults, we are capable of telling what goes on inside. It is more difficult to discover what is going on inside your child.
Suzuki tells of the persistent patience of a mother working with her child. A mother working with her child was having trouble with the bow flying from her hand. The child was able to play “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” within six months. However, control of her bow hold eluded her for a long time. It seemed this skill was impossible. The mother and the teacher did not give up. When the child was at last able to hold the bow throughout the song, the child and parent were very happy.
I quote from Suzuki, “An invisible growing faculty helped to breed a new ability until it finally became visible to all.”‘ It maybe a long time before we can tell what our child’s “invisible growing faculty” is, but it’s there. As was the case in this child, what keeps a student from outward progress is not usually instrument related. She had suffered from infantile paralysis and was finding her way back to health by using the violin.
I enjoy challenging a student when I believe that their mind is on something besides the piece to be played in a lesson. I remind them that our mind is like a CD with lots of information on it. I ask that the student take out that CD—we sometimes push the imaginary eject button—and put in a blank one. Then, I ask them to play their piece. It is amazing how well they can play when an entertaining visualization is used.
As I perused Webster’s Dictionary to clarify the definition of progress, I found words like “gradual, steady improvement,” “an official journey [of a sovereign]” and “to continue toward completion.” I would hold each of these phrases up for your consideration. We are looking for gradual, steady improvement. That is the kind that runs deep and holds meaning for you and your child. You are on an official journey with your child through life. We don’t have to be kingly for this role to be relevant. But life is official and Suzuki wanted your child to benefit the most from making beautiful music. And, lastly, the phrase “to continue” sounds important to me. I have heard many people state their regrets about not continuing a child’s music lessons. Once we find ourselves in the “regret zone,” it is difficult to retrieve the momentum of the musical experience. I believe it is better to continue while evaluating ways to make the situation enriching for your child. Even when children are resisting, there is something of benefit going on inside.
All of this is said to encourage you to focus on the inward journey of your child’s musical experience. It’s our job as adults to help our children make headway, rise, grow, gain ground, step forward, forge ahead, shoot ahead, dash ahead, go ahead, move ahead (according to Roget’s Thesaurus) and most of all…KEEP GOING.
Reprinted from “The Write Note,” Winter, 2005, a publication of the Suzuki School of Elgin.