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Defining Progress

Recently, I was asked at a summer Suzuki institute to give a talk for parents on the topic of Defining Progress. I hadn’t recently given this topic much thought. When I realized that the lecture was scheduled for the very next day, I decided not to try to prepare anything formal, but to allow the topic to unfold with the help of the parents’ participation.

The result was very enlightening. I wondered if this group of parents was exceptional, and so I volunteered to give this talk several more times. I was amazed that the result was always the same. I started each lecture by asking the parents this question: “How many of you enrolled your children in music lessons so that they would become professional musicians?”

No hands were raised. I was somewhat relieved that we could rule that out as the reason for music study, but then I was curious to know what were the reasons that parents had enrolled their children in music lessons.

In answer to my questions, parents expressed their belief that studying music would allow their child to accomplish the following:

  • Improve their focus and concentration.

  • Develop poise and the ability to present themselves in public, whether performing music or speaking.

  • Gain a lifelong love of music.

  • Develop problem-solving skills and a healthy confidence in the face of struggles.

  • Learn to break a complex problem into small, achievable steps.

  • Develop fine-motor skills and good eye-hand coordination.

  • Gain a sense of endless possibility.

  • Find open doors of opportunity.

  • Develop a healthy sense of self-esteem tied to feelings of accomplishment.

  • Learn to strive for excellence.

  • Transfer music’s unique learning skill set to other subject matter.

  • Develop an individual “voice” on their instrument that would allow for self-expression.

  • Build self-confidence.

  • Learn to create something beautiful

  • Develop sensitivity to beauty in the world.

  • Share a positive emotional experience with their parents around the study of music.

  • Learn to manage their time effectively.

  • Choose a social circle of friends who enjoy making music together (which would help them to stay out of trouble during their teen years).

  • Enhance their memorization skills.

  • Become calm and centered.

As the parents called out their reasons, I wrote them on the whiteboard at the front of the classroom. When we had finished, I stepped back and looked over all qualities that the parents hoped their children would develop from the study of music.

I asked the parents to imagine a young adult who possessed all of these qualities. What an amazing person this would be, and how worthwhile our effort would be if we were able to achieve this goal!

In that moment, I realized that if these are the reasons that we are studying music, the measure of our progress should be defined by these qualities — rather than whether our child is playing Witches’ Dance or The Two Grenadiers. Dr. Suzuki always referred to this focus on the repertoire as "the horse race."

Perhaps we should not think of these personal qualities as the “side benefits” of studying music, but instead the reason for study. The musical instrument then becomes the vehicle for personal transformation, and the “side benefit” is that the student will play a musical instrument very well.

I wondered....somewhere along the journey, have we lost our way? We need to remember that music is an art form. The path to personal transformation is through the ART of music.

Dr. Suzuki was clear about his intention with regard to personal growth:

Of course, our purpose does not lie in a movement to create professional musicians, but to create persons of a beautiful mind and fine ability. We engage in human education through music so that children will grow with beautiful and high sensitivity, through an unparalleled, uniquely musical approach. [WLD, p. 28.]

Dr. Suzuki is reminding us that our true purpose in studying music is to raise the child’s sensitivity to beauty in his environment.

Confusion about progress is inherent in the Suzuki method because of its repertoire-based curriculum. The Suzuki repertoire is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, we have a beautifully designed collection of pieces that are organized to develop both technical and musical ability. On the other hand, with all children in the method following the same curriculum, teachers and parents can easily judge a child’s progress by linear movement from piece to piece.

The fallacy of this thinking is simply that we can only consider the movement to a new piece to be progress if the child possesses all of the necessary technical and musical skills to perform that new piece beautifully. Dr. Suzuki said this:

If one is able to play a piece of music, there will follow in rapid succession other pieces. But just “playing through” many pieces is not good training if there will be no one piece that is really played excellently. Just being able to say “I can play all these pieces” is in fact insufficient, for it results in not developing musical sense, fine interpretation and so on. [NBL, p. 44.]

The process of transformation relies on the development of skill, not on acquiring knowledge. When we learn a new piece, we acquire knowledge; when we polish a review piece, we develop skill. Hence, Dr. Suzuki’s dictum “Take a piece that you know and raise it to a higher level of ability.”

Dr. Suzuki understood this completely and gave us numerous applications in the method to demonstrate his intention. Dr. Suzuki’s definition of skill is knowledge times 10,000 repetitions. Dr. Suzuki built the means to accomplish this intention into the method through the Twinkle variations. Each of the rhythmic variations to Twinkle is actually a bowing skill taken from the repertoire in Suzuki violin Book 4.

For example, in the first Twinkle variation, the skill is to develop both the detaché and the staccato bow strokes on the rhythm that will eventually be used for the first six notes of the Bach Concerto for Two Violins (the “Bach Double”), First Movement, in Book 4. First we develop that skill on the open strings A and E, and then we add other fingers and continue to develop the bow stroke on fingered notes. Next, we use the song of Twinkle (with its 24 notes) to continue to practice the skill.

Many students and parents miss the point of this repetition. Students might demonstrate a beautiful rhythm on the open string (Diagram 1), but when they begin to play the song of Twinkle, their bowing technique can deteriorate to mindless scrubbing, while they focus on the notes of the song.

What is important is that the actual skill is NOT playing the song of Twinkle, but the proper execution of the bow stroke.

An important step in the learning Twinkle is to play the rhythm or skill on each note; then stop, ask the child if the note was played beautifully, and go on to the next note only if the answer is yes. If the note wasn’t played beautifully, the child needs to repeat that note until he is happy with the sound of the bowing technique.

This approach has several benefits. First, it teaches the child to listen to what is coming from his instrument at a very early stage in development. Second, it teaches the child to discern whether the sound is acceptable. Most importantly, when we play Twinkle this way, we are really working on developing the actual skill — which is the bow stroke, not the notes to the piece. Finally, this approach also engages the child in the learning process and therefore makes it much more interesting.

Dr. Suzuki knew that if children learn to play this bow stroke well, then practice it to the tune of Twinkle (24 times) every day, by the time they reached the Bach Double in Book 4, they will have practiced this skill 10,000 times. This is called disguised repetition. All of the skills needed to perform the advanced repertoire are hidden in the earlier pieces and are mastered through disguised repetition.

My definition of skill for my students is to play consistently with ease. Consistently means every time, not almost every time, and the execution must feel, look, and sound easy. In his book Helping Parents Practice, Edmund Sprunger makes the observation that “we practice to make it easier.”

The process of developing skill includes three steps — the three C’s of developing skill:

- Comprehension — understanding the task

- Cooperation — getting your physical body to implement what your mind comprehends

- Constructive repetition — repeating the task after you have achieved cooperation

In the first step, comprehension, we have to make sure that students truly understand what they are being asked to do. Students can gain comprehension from observation of the teacher, parent, or another student; through verbal instruction; or through listening to the recording. How the students access the information is not important. What is important is to make sure that they understand exactly what they are trying to do.

In the second step, cooperation, we are asking our students’ physical bodies to cooperate with what their minds understand in the first step. This is where our instruction is to “practice it UNTIL you get it right.” In this step of practice, we often observe students struggle to correct a passage. They may repeat the passage several times incorrectly and then — on the fourth or fifth try — get it right. At this point, they want to move on to the next bit.

Unfortunately, the next day when they come to this part of the music, the students will undoubtedly play it incorrectly again. This is because of the way our brain works in practice. Two parts of our brain help us when we are playing the violin. The “judging” part listens to our practice and says, “Yes, that was a good one,” or “No, that wasn’t right.” The other part of the brain is responsible for developing motor skills but does not care whether the passage was right or wrong. It simply remembers what it did most.

In order for our practice to be successful, we must practice the skill WHEN we get it right, not UNTIL we get it right. So the third step in the development of skill is constructive repetition. We can apply this process to the development of a particular technique or passage in the music, and we must also use the same approach in our review.

One of the most profoundly revolutionary components of the Suzuki method is the concept of review. Unfortunately, many students review only to remember the notes of previously learned pieces or to play the pieces in group class. This approach could be called reviewing to remember. In order for the review to be effective, we must change the approach to reviewing for the development of skill.

If we apply our process for the development of skill to the repertoire, we see that the first step, comprehension (or Dr. Suzuki’s knowledge), occurs when students are working on a new piece. Here they learn all of the details about that piece: the key, the time signature, the notes and bowings, the musical phrasing. While this song is the “working piece,” it will go through a transformation, until eventually the student will be able to demonstrate that her body can cooperate with what she understands about the piece. The result is a satisfactory performance in the lesson. At this point, the student may move on to a new piece, but the old one must continue to be played daily. This is where constructive repetition of the piece becomes important.