Practicing

Practicing is the one issue that every music student runs up against. Unlike television or video games, learning to play an instrument takes work. It is not instantly perfect at your fingertips. You cannot just put it into a microwave and press a button.

Of course, there is fun in music as well. And students are often motivated to do something when they are experiencing success with it.

The Suzuki method is spectacular for helping kids stay motivated. Small little bight-sized pieces are given one at a time so that students experience success, repetition is a key element, and students like what they are good at. Students listen to the CD’s and know how the songs go, so when they get to each piece, they recognize it and are excited to be able to play it. However, no matter how nicely things are broken down, the issue of work is still part of the deal.

It is important for parents not to be afraid to encourage their children to work, and even to require it. The common idea that I have heard parents express is that they are afraid to require their kids to practice because they don’t want them to hate it. However, when children are required to practice enough, they get good at it, and they enjoy playing more. If parents are afraid to require their children to practice, children will never really get good at what they are doing, and they won’t enjoy it very much. It will be like starting over every week and having the same lesson over and over again.

In order for the snowball effect to take place, the parents must stick to their guns about practicing. Most students will not just chose to practice every day of their own volition.

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Suzuki Triangle

One unique feature of the Suzuki method is the parent-student-teacher triangle. All three members of the triangle have important roles to play, and all must be part of the process. In more traditional methods, the parents drop the students off for their lessons and then expect everything to happen between the teacher and the student. In the Suzuki method, parents come to the lessons as well, take notes during the lesson, and then go home and work with the students at home. It is a very involved process. Even parents with no musical bakcground whatsoever can really help their kids.

Also, parents can keep an eye on how things are going at home and help the teacher out by discussing what is working and what isn’t. This can be such a crucial part of the process. Suzuki came from a different society – mothers tended not to have jobs in Japan back in the 1920’s-1970’s. They were at home all of the time and could really be devoted to practicing with the kids. American society today is much different. Whether for better or worse, this is the state of things. Therefore, what worked in Japan back then may not work as well in America now. But we can certainly do our best to help students succeed, even with less time and resources available.

Equipment

It can be so tempting! An ebay deal on a violin for $15-$50. Why not?

The set-up and sound quality of an instrument is what matters. Not the year it was made. Not the price tag. Not even it’s pedigree. Like anything else in life, you will usually get what you pay for, with a few exceptions.

Having an instrument with correct proportions of the fingerboard, bridge, soundpost, and string height can make the difference between a student hating to play or loving to play. The sound that an instrument makes is also a quite significant factor.

Instruments, like artwork, are good investments. You can re-sell them for what you paid for them or more (as long as they are not severely damaged).

I try not to get overly political about where you get your instrument. I teach at Kirk’s House of Music, and I do really like their instruments, service, pricing, and generosity. I also think that it is very ethical to support local music stores and keep them in business. However, if you chose something else, that is fine. I do hope that you will check with me first though – do not just purchase a cheap deal off of the internet or from a pawn shop without knowing that it is returnable. Otherwise you may end up regretting your purchase.

Essential Listening — A List

Here is my suggested list of “essential listening” for young musicians. Of course there is always more to add:

  • Bach: Brandenberg concertos, violin concertos, cello suites, sonatas and partitas for violin
  • Beethoven: “Spring” and “Kreutzer”  violin sonatas, violin concerto, symphonies (any of them :), string quartets
  • Brahms: 3 violin sonatas, violin concerto, symphonies, clarinet quintet
  • Vivaldi: the “Four Seasons”, concertos for 2, 3, and 4 violins, Gloria
  • Sibelius: violin concerto, symphony #2
  • Dvorak: “American” string quartet, “New World” symphony, violin concerto, cello concerto
  • Schubert: “Trout” quintet, Unfinished symphony
  • Prokofiev: “Peter and the Wolf”
  • Debussy: string quartet, “Pour Les Piano”, Children’s Corner suite
  • Ravel: “Tzigone” (a gypsy piece for violin!), String quartet (amazing!)
  • Christopher Parkening plays Bach
  • Mark O’Conner: New Nashville Cats
  • The Chieftans
  • Stephane Grappeli (jazz violinist)
  • Alasdair Frasier (celtic fiddler)
  • Los Angeles Guitar Quartet
  • Hillary Hahn, violin
  • Itzahk Perlman, violin
  • Heidi Castleman, viola
  • Yo Yo Ma, Cello

Sight Reading

It is very important for students to be able to read music well. Many critics have been concerned that Suzuki students learn so much by ear that they are weak in their sight-reading abilities. However, this does not have to be the case.

The purpose of the Suzuki’s “learning by ear” methodology is to help students really learn the language of music. It is called the “mother-tongue” method because students listen daily to their cd’s, watch their teacher and others play the music, learn to sing the songs, and then begin to imitate what they are seeing and hearing. The idea is to help them learn to play music in the same way that they learn to speak their native language.

Suzuki was never encouraging students to become musically illiterate, but rather, fully literate. If you learn a foreign language merely by reading a book, you will not end up able to speak that language in the same way that a person who is native to that country will. It is the same with music. If you merely learn by reading the notes off of a page, you will have a harder time learning to play musically. Learning a piece by ear rather than by sight helps a student to have a much richer knowledge and concept of a piece.

There are also two other benefits to learning by ear. Eventually, a student who is diligent in practicing and listening will begin to be able to “audiate” – hear the notes in his or hear mind before playing them. This makes for amazing sight-readers! Also, learning the Suzuki literature by ear and by memory allows students to be able to focus on technique rather than having their eyes always glued to the page.

Lastly, after a certain amount of learning by ear, “note finding” becomes automatic. A student will hear a pitch or series of pitches and then autmatically be able to play it back, not having to stop and think about which finger to put down. It is really quite amazing how much students are capable of :)

I teach students to read music as soon as they are old enough to read in school. I also teach the Suzuki literature by ear and imitation (at least for the beginning stages) rather than only through reading the music. By the time my students are in book 4, their abilities to play and read are at equal levels.

I believe fully in not sacrificing any aspect of music literacy – either in students’ abilities to play musically or in students’ abilities to read music.