Robert Duke is the Marlene and Morton Meyerson Centennial Professor and Head of Music and Human Learning at The University of Texas at Austin, where he is University Distinguished Teaching Professor, Elizabeth Shatto Massey Distinguished Fellow in Teacher Education, and Director of theCenter for Music Learning. He is also an advisor to the Psychology of Learning Program at the Colburn Conservatory in Los Angeles. The most recent recipient of MENC’s Senior Researcher Award, Dr. Duke has directed national research efforts under the sponsorship of such organizations as the National Piano Foundation and the International Suzuki Institute. His research on human learning and behavior spans multiple disciplines, including motor skill learning, cognitive psychology, and neuroscience. His most recent work explores procedural memory consolidation and the cognitive processes engaged during musical improvisation. A former studio musician and public school music teacher, he has worked closely with children at-risk, both in the public schools and through the juvenile justice system. He is the author ofScribe 4behavior analysis software, and his most recent books areIntelligent Music Teaching: Essays on the Core Principles of Effective InstructionandThe Habits of Musicianship, which he co-authored with Jim Byo of Louisiana State University.

When you were asked to be a member of the Honorary Board, what prompted you to say yes?

I have had a long association with the organization—first, with you and Margery Aber at the American Suzuki Institute Research Symposium in 1990, now almost twenty-five years. In that time my involvement with the organization has expanded beyond just your institute. I have given a number of talks at national meetings, and have been involved in [designing] the teacher trainer candidate selection process. I feel very close to the organization. A lot of the things I care about, am interested in, are things the organization does too, so it wasn’t a hard decision to make.

You are very involved in music education and research. What do you think is the biggest contribution that Suzuki education has made to music education?

The most obvious one is the fact that it is engaging children and their parents in collaborative learning experiences. That typically doesn’t happen in many kinds of activities that parents of means provide for their children. They take them and drop them off, and that’s pretty much the end of it. With soccer they occasionally cheer from the sidelines. To be intimately involved in learning, I think, creates a different kind of relationship between parents and children.

Though I don’t have data to support this, I would imagine there are first time parents and young parents who get to observe an experienced teacher working with their child week after week, developing things in their child—not just about the physicality of the instrument but about being cooperative and patient and sticking with something that doesn’t come easily to you—all those things that are part of making learning effective. There is a potential for parents to see skilled teachers actually taking their own children through that kind of process. In many cases, the fact that parents are part of the music making creates a different kind of family investment in the child’s development as a learner in general, and as a musician. Most people don’t see this as the pathway to building prodigious young instrumentalists, but rather a way to engage children in a meaningful way to create music. If there is something to point to in Suzuki that is unique, it is engaging families. It is not just something that the parent drops the child off, and then does something else. That’s the biggest contribution. There are many places one can learn to play the violin, but that aspect is the most distinguishing factor of Suzuki education.

What trends do you see in music education today?

[chuckle] Cutting budgets! There certainly are some trends. Music teaching and music learning is a pretty high value. It is steeped in tradition. We learn ways to do things and become fond of those ways; and it is hard to break out of it. It is not unique to music. This is true with anything with a long tradition and especially if that tradition has produced positive results. People then ask, why should we change it? One of the most important trends to me personally is moving away from the idea that school music education should only be about large ensembles. That is the central focus of school music instruction—choir, orchestra, and band. Even if there is chamber music or madrigals, the anchor is still the larger ensemble. Fifteen percent of children participate in secondary music instruction. There are many more children who would benefit from and willingly participate in music instruction, and would like to learn to play an instrument, but not necessarily a band or orchestral instrument. They may participate in a large ensemble, but that may not be the context they’d prefer. There are certainly advantages to the kind of instruction we provide in public schools in the United States. There are certainly downsides to this too. There is a high attrition rate of those who start playing an instrument.

Texas has very fine music programs. The state is committed to music. By state, I mean dedicated parents, administrators, legislatures, and funders who are very committed to music education in schools. The last data indicated that nearly 100,000 children started beginning band in sixth grade across the state of Texas, but only 15,000 were still playing by the time they graduated from high school. The attrition was eighty-five percent. The retention rate is most likely similar in other states as well. I think many feel this is acceptable, thinking some are not cut out for music, but I don’t accept that. It is not any different for music instruction than for science or language. One can say they took music, but quit as it wasn’t right for them, it was not well suited for them. But I feel different children may be very attracted to music (or science) if they experienced it in a different way. School has a way of doing things—if you can fit in to that way, you will be successful; if not, then you are out of luck because we only offer one way. Kids come with different levels of interests, motivation, patience, tenacity, intellectual capacities. To teach them all in the same way is folly. It’s not because kids are incapable or recalcitrant; it is because they have a difficult time of fitting into the one we are doing it. For music instruction to be optimal for children, there need to be different ways of getting in and getting out.

No matter what age you start playing an instrument, only two things can happen: you either keep playing or you quit. There is no honorable stopping point. We need to try to develop ways of defining benchmarks of independence. If they want to play violin independently for their own enjoyment or to play with friends in chamber music, then they will need a plan as to how to do that. Then they can stop studying and just enjoy the violin. But now, stopping is fraught with guilt. That is our fault—that’s not the learner’s fault. There are different ways of engagement in music outside of the classroom—sing with the radio, play duets with friends, etc. There are many ways to engage in music making outside of a formal instructional system, but we don’t really plan upfront for ways to approach all these options. The plan failed . . . so now the student quits. In general, we can think differently about what we are preparing children to do. I say the same things to science teachers. If you learn you don’t like science and don’t understand it, you will be a citizen who is convinced that you need to cede all the decision-making to someone else, as you feel you don’t know enough to be part of the science discussion. That is our failing if we don’t prepare children to learn.

I asked a set of alumni recently, “What is it that you value about your Suzuki education?” Their response was “Wherever I am, I can play pieces with others, whether quartet or old familiar pieces.” What the alumni really remembered was the social aspects of coming to group. It would be interesting to see if Suzuki students have a different attitude in this regard than typical public school students.

There are a lot of people that when stopping studying and it also results in stopping playing. It’s a larger number than it has to be.

As you said before, you’ve had a long association with the SAA. You’ve certainly had a big influence on how we think about things—evaluating teaching and teacher training, the SPA course and how we look at units of teaching. Is there any way we’ve influenced you in this long association?

Yes! One thing about doing the work that I do is that I am learning all the time. Who we are now is a product of the experiences we have had in the past. In all the things we did, I had to learn how to help you, the SAA, how to do it. So I was constantly learning. When you bring someone on in the role of a consultant, oftentimes they already know how and they are just going to tell you how to do it. But people who think about consultation that way don’t really know. You recall vividly our discussion of the teacher trainer process. Navigating all of the challenges of the teacher training document was a learning experience, and if you didn’t think so, you’d have to have been in a coma. People are not all alike. You may understand how something works, but someone else may understand it totally differently than how you expect they’d understand it. I’m a better thinker, teacher, explainer, and much of that skill was developed through working with the SAA. Every time you learn something new, you become a better thinker (or player). I felt from the very beginning a very close affinity, first with you and Marj; then the more I became acquainted with others in the association, the better able I was to help. For the most important things we were on the same page right away—our perspectives were different, but we were alike on the most important things. That’s what has made our association together so happy, whatever things we tried to do or accomplish, the core values were exactly in line.

Your attitude about learning is what made you a great consultant for us, as you weren’t trying to put us in a prescribed mold. You really listened and together we created.

What are some of your projects you are working on now?

I am very much involved in research and memory consolidation, essentially really understanding music learning more deeply. [I like to encourage teachers] to connect intuitive understandings about music making and music learning, i.e. things we are learning about how the brain works, how humans function in general. In a way, that makes the whole process much more interesting and understandable.  And understanding what’s going on just makes life that much more interesting! This reflects a bias I have about teaching and learning: more teachers are effective at getting kids to do the right thing than there are teachers who are effective at getting kids to do the right thing and understand what’s going on. The understanding part is what develops independence in children. If you are just following instructions, you are not really learning.

If we did juries the way we should do juries, students wouldn’t play music they’ve studied the full semester, but students would pick a new piece two weeks ahead and play it in two weeks. Then tell the jury panel how they understand the piece, what musical decisions went into the making of the piece or how the conception of the piece was developed. They could do any research they’d like, e.g. read a book, go on YouTube, but ultimately, it’s up to the student to figure out how to play the piece. If a student can’t do that, what are we teaching them? We are educating people, not machines, to develop an understanding and not just develop a skill. Understanding is a great gift to give.

Is there anything like to say to the members of SAA?

Having watched hours and hours of teaching and learning, and much of it very good, I don’t see a lot of joy. Every time a child or adult picks up an instrument, there are moments that are genuinely joyful. Joy doesn’t mean just goofing around. You do something with your instrument that is so rewarding, so beautiful, and so expressive. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing on a 1/16 size violin—you get to revel in how lovely it is. Some can do that only together with a teacher. They don’t have skills yet. If a kid can make any sound on their instrument, they can make something beautiful in every lesson. So the kid leaves the lesson thinking, “I can’t wait to do that.” If everyone did that, we would all smile a lot more. I don’t mean just messing around! Do some little thing that is so great that you think “Wow, that came out of me!”