Wednesday, April 24, 2013

For Parents: How to Support Your Child's Music Practice and Development

One of the most important aspects of Suzuki violin is the powerful relationship that it should foster between a child and his/her parents. As a Suzuki violin teacher, I encourage all of my parents to attend their children's lessons regularly, so that they can understand what their child is working on and help them practice at home. Ideally, parents become the "home teachers" who can really support a child's musical development and inspire them to practice. I have worked with many excellent parents who do a beautiful job of encouraging and supporting  their children. Unfortunately, I also see parents who treat their children harshly, have unrealistic expectations, and end up harming their child's joy in music. So how can parents make sure they're encouraging, not punitive?

1. Just a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down!

The wise and wonderful Mary Poppins has some great advice for parents and teachers alike--namely that everyone takes criticism better when it's delivered with kindness and a smile (just a spoonful of sugar!). It's important to remember that children are sensitive, and a harsh comment can easily hurt their feelings and leave them discouraged. Yet, it's vital to give students feedback. What then, is the best way to balance these two distinct needs? First of all, stay aware of your tone of voice when you give feedback. Parents and teacher can use a calm, neutral tone, a positive tone, or a sympathetic one, depending on the circumstances. If we sound angry, impatient, or frustrated, then our feedback gets lost in the negative emotion. 

I have had parents in a lesson snap at their child for making a mistake, and that always makes me cringe. It makes the children defensive and tense, and does not help them learn effectively. Remember, if you're in a bad mood, it's better not to say anything at all.

Some people take the opposite approach--they constantly praise their children and avoid giving them any feedback at all. Again, that makes me cringe. Few things are as damaging to a child's work ethic than being told that it's talent, not hard work, that makes you "special" or successful. I strenuously avoid even using the word "talent" in my lessons, because it's discouraging. If all that matters is inborn talent, then when children encounter difficulties in their lessons, they think it's a lack of talent, not a lack of hard work or practice. Instead, we should encourage children to persevere.

2. Keep your expectations realistic

I used to teach piano and violin lessons at a Montessori preschool, where most of my students were only three years old. After one boy's first lesson, his father approached me to ask if his son had any talent, and whether I thought it was "worthwhile" for him to continue his lessons. I remember being stunned--the boy was only three! At another lesson, a mother got increasingly impatient when her five year old daughter struggled with a lesson. She snapped at her daughter several times, and I had to remind her that music is a big challenge (it's a lot to learn!) and that it's essential that we stay patient with students when they struggle. Other parents expect their three year olds to practice the violin by themselves, with no guidance or help. As though such a young child could be responsible enough to 1. remember exactly what they are supposed to do and 2. do it on their own everyday.

All of these parents made the same mistake--they had unrealistic expectations. People often vastly underestimate how difficult music can be. Learning to play the violin or other instruments effectively takes time and effort, even for adult students. People likewise misunderstand children's developmental levels. Young children have flexible brains, and that means they often benefit enormously from early music lessons, which increase their cognitive abilities, memory, and coordination. But that does NOT mean that they learn faster than adults, or that music is somehow easy for them. Furthermore, since children develop so quickly, and their bodies and brains are still growing and changing rapidly, it would be impossible for me to judge a child's future potential, even if I were inclined to do so (and for the record, I'm not--see my criticisms of the concept of "talent") Also, young children need their parent's help and guidance when they practice. It's unrealistic to expect a three year old to take out their violin and practice without help. If you want your young child to learn and practice, then you must make practicing a part of your routine at home, and pay careful attention in a child's lessons so you can help them. 

So what should a parent expect from their child's music lessons? How much progress is "normal"? Truthfully, it's best to have as few expectations as possible, and take every development as a gift when it comes. When someone once asked Dr. Suzuki how he managed to stay so patient with even the most difficult students, he said "I have no expectations. Instead, I have a vision of that student ten years from now, playing a beautiful version of Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5." Indeed, Suzuki realized that the pressure of expectations kept teachers and parents from enjoying and celebrating the progress that a student was making. Impatience does not make children learn faster; it only robs music lessons of joy.

3. Patience and Persistence

One of the most important gifts parents can give a young musician is patience. Understand that learning music is difficult, and students sometimes don't see immediate improvement. It's only with  persistent practice that a student's sound, intonation, and technique improve. A parent can remind their child that music takes time. When parents make comments like "I don't know why you're still working on this piece!" or "Why can't you remember what you're supposed to do! We went over this last week!" that can undermine a child's motivation.

Instead, focus on gentle reminders of proper techniques, and feel free to repeat them as often as necessary! Think about how many times you might have read a favorite story to your child, or how many times you repeated a word you wanted them to learn when they were a baby. A parent might say "mama" thousands of times before a baby finally repeats it back. Likewise, it's perfectly normal and expected that teachers and parents must guide a child through a musical technique hundreds of times before it's perfect.

Remember the 10,000 hour rule, it takes 10,000 hours to master any complex skill, and that is certainly true of any musical instrument. It takes an enormous amount of persistence to get through those 10,000 hours, and that's why it's important to keep going! Yet even if a child only practices a half hour a day at first, that is the beginning of the 10,000 hours they need. Over time, that practice adds up, and in a few years you'll be amazed at how much they've developed.

4. Mistakes are a part of the learning process

So many music students, both children and adults, take mistakes to much to heart. Mistakes are a natural, normal part of the learning process. Even the greatest musician alive, even Beethoven,  Mozart, and Jascha Heifetz, made mistakes when they were first starting out. So instead of feeling badly about a mistake, it's much healthier to focus on how to fix it for the next time. When parents and teachers treat mistakes as a normal part of the process, that encourages children to try again.

I have had parents in lesson snap at their children when they made a mistake or worse. Once a mother actually lightly smacked her six year old daughter on the head when she missed a note. I was stunned. Later in the lesson, the same mother complained that her daughter didn't like playing the violin. Well, I wouldn't like playing violin either if someone hit me on the head every time I missed a note! Parents like these are deeply misguided, and they will end up hurting their child's progress in music, as well as other areas of their life. 

When a child makes a mistake, remember that the greatest gift you can give them is PATIENCE. Stay calm and neutral, and offer guidance like "Try that part pizzicato a few times before you do it  again with the bow." Try playing slower (much, much slower), or even going back to an easier piece if the child becomes frustrated. A calm, patient approach will work wonders. Remember, the more a child loves music, the more they will develop as a musician.

5. Find a regular schedule that works for your child, and stick to it!

Children are all different. Some are most active in the morning, others at night. Some might feel fresh right after school, and others might need time to wind down before they start practicing. Parents often know when their child is most likely to function best. That is the time to practice! A hungry, tired, or overwhelmed child will be cranky and miserable and resist practicing the violin. A well rested, calm child practices and learns far more effectively.

Furthermore, children love consistency  so developing a regular practice schedule makes them feel secure. They'll feel better prepared for their lessons, and they'll enjoy practicing more once it becomes a routine.

It can help to set regular goals for practicing as well (although be cautious about using too many rewards). A good practice goal might be doing a certain number of repetitions of a piece, or practicing every day during the week. Your music teacher can help you identify good practice goals specific to your child's stage of development.

6. Check in regularly with your child's music teacher

I love when parents ask me questions about what their child should be working on at home! I have all my students bring a spiral notebook for me to make notes in for them. It really helps to have a written record of what, specifically, the teacher would like you to practice. I also encourage parents to take pictures or video of lesson segments so that they can have a visual image of a technique.

If you have a question during the week, write it down in the child's notebook so you don't forget, then ask me during their lesson. If your child is having difficulty practicing something at home, or seems confused, bring it up in the lesson. That gives the teacher valuable feedback about what your child is absorbing during lessons. Parents can also give teachers valuable insights into their child's personality and learning style. Is your child particularly sensitive? Are they active? Some children might prefer to stand up during lessons, or otherwise move around regularly, while others prefer a more subdued setting. These insights that parents provide music teachers help us make a child's lesson more engaging.

Likewise, I love hearing about what other interests or activities a child participates in. There are plenty of connections between music and activities such as art, drama, or sports. Strengthening these connections can help a child's musical development as well as their progress in their other activities.

7.  Listen!

Most children love attention. When adults listen to them play their violins or other instruments, it encourages them. When your child is ready to perform a piece, have them give a family concert. This helps them prepare for public recitals in a supportive atmosphere, and lets them be the center of attention!

Listen to them when they talk about music as well. Ask them about what they've learned in their lessons, what they're excited to practice this week, what they're looking forward to learning. Then listen carefully to their answers. Your child will understand that their musical experiences are important to you, and that inspires them.

You can help your child learn to listen as well by taking them to concerts, especially children's concerts, and performances by other students. And of course, if you're using the Suzuki Method, by listening to your reference recordings!

Related articles on Suzuki Method and Violin/Viola teaching or performing:


Pascale Method for Violin--A Review

Persistence--The Most Important Aspect of Talent

Seven Ways to Develop Listening and Aural Skills in Music Students

Music Lessons for Children with Disabilities 

Overcoming Performance Anxiety: How to Help Music Students Prepare for Recitals, Auditions, and other Performances


Suzuki Method for Adult Students




Excellent Supplemental Books for Suzuki Violin and Viola Students

Suzuki Method--a Violin Teacher's Perspective


Suzuki Philosophy: Every Child Has Talent


Suzuki Techniques--Listening is the key


Violin Life Lessons

Inspiring Practice


Practicing Violin Effectively


Great Apps for Musicians


Pascale Method for Violin--A Review

More Apps for Musicians and Music Students

Classical Music Isn't Dying--It's in a Recession

Friday, April 12, 2013

Guest Post: "What I Will Teach My (Hypothetical) Son About Rape" by my husband David


In October of 2012, my beautiful wife Alexis and I found out we were expecting our first child. Knowing that you are bringing a child into the world changes your perspective on everything. With bullying in the spotlight, the Steubenville rape case, and the tragic suicide of Rehtaeh Parsons following her rape and subsequent bullying, it is easy as a parent-to-be to worry about the future possibility of such things happening. Alexis and I now know we are having a daughter, but for a decent chunk of her pregnancy we thought we were having a boy. So much so, that even after we found out the baby's gender, we would both slip and call it a "he".
I hope my daughter never faces bullying, and I can barely stomach the thought of her ever dealing with the trauma of rape. But I also find myself asking, what if I'd had a son? What would I teach him so that I would never have to see him stand trial for raping a girl, or have his name come up as a bully who shamed a girl into taking her own life? How would I help shape him into a person who respects a woman, and defends her if she is wronged? The answers are simple, I think.
1. I would tell him that ANY time a woman doesn't consent to sex, even if she's too drunk to respond or asleep, it is rape. Even if she was flirting with you previously.
2. No one owes you sex. Ever.
3. Rape is never okay. Rape is never funny. There are no degrees of rape. Rape is rape.
4. Those that have been through rape deserve your support and sympathy. A kind word is often enough, and sometimes leaving them alone is the appropriate thing to do. Different people deal with trauma differently.
5. You should defend those that have been raped from being bullied. If you see someone being bullied, stand up for them. If it isn't safe to do this, tell me, or another adult who can stand up for them. In order to change how people view rape victims, we must make it clear that it is not okay to bully them.
6. Women deserve your respect. If you give them this, you can look forward to a life of wonderful friendships and relationships with members of the opposite sex.
7. As a man, it is your responsibility to set an example for all men. We must make it clear that rapists do not represent all men, and that society does not accept men who rape.
Seems pretty easy, doesn't it son?

--David Farmer

Saturday, April 6, 2013

James Joyce's Ulysses, Chapter One: Telemachus


The first chapter of Joyce's Ulysses reads as though it's a continuation of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Once again, the main character is Stephen Dedalus, who returned to Ireland because his mother was dying. In the context of Ulysses many parallels to Homer's Odyssey, Stephen represents Odysseus' son Telemachus. Like Telemachus, Stephen seems lost; he's trying to find his own way, to become a man and a poet, but he has no proper guidance. His supposed friend, Buck Mulligan, offended Stephen by calling his mother's dead "beastly" and inviting the Englishman Haines to stay in Stephen's tower without asking permission. Stephen's bitterness and alienation reflect his longing for a true father figure, as Telemachus longed for Odysseus' return.


The chapter opens with Buck Mulligan performing a mock Catholic mass while he shaves. Though Buck seems pleasant in some ways, and he shows concern for Stephen, his mockery and blasphemy indicate his lack of sympathy or understanding for the highly sensitive Stephen. He calls Stephen "Kinch," a reference to the blade of a knife. Like many of Mulligan's comments, the nickname is both flattering and critical, as it likely refers to Stephen's sharp intelligence as well as his harsh demeanor. He casually mentions that his aunt believes Stephen killed his mother because he refused to pray with her on her death bed. Stephen's mother died only a year ago, and his feeling for her are still fresh. He remembers a dream he had where she visited him after her death, "her wasted body within its loose brown graveclothes giving off an odour of wax and rosewood, her breath...a faint odour of wetted ashes." This dream is significant enough that only two pages later Stephen remembers it again in almost the exact same words.

Joyce's Tower from Ulysses

After mocking Stephen for not praying with his dying mother, Buck offers him his cracked shaving mirror so he can look at himself (presumably so that Stephen can reflect on his actions). Instead, Stephen comments that "it is a symbol of Irish art. The cracked lookingglass of a servant." This statement contains all of Stephen's bitterness for his homeland, a country that he feels stifles him. Buck backs off of his teasing when he senses this bitterness--he responds to Stephen kindly, eventually asking him why they aren't closer friends. Stephen explains that he took offence when Buck called his mother's death "beastly" when Stephen first visited him after the event. Buck justifies his insensitive comment; though he appears light-hearted, he considers that entire human condition, most especially death, beastly. After this surprisingly cynical speech, Mulligan cheerfully walks away, singing "And no more turn aside and brood/ Upon love's bitter mystery." This bit from an Irish ballad reminds Stephen again of his mother's death; he'd sang that song for her and she wept at the words "love's bitter mystery."
Stephen's pulled out of his reverie by Buck Mulligan calling him to breakfast with him and Haines. Mulligan asks to borrow some of Stephen's money, since he's getting paid that day, and Stephen reluctantly agrees. He also carries Buck's shaving bowl down the stairs, instead of leaving it outside as Buck had. He imagines himself as a "server of a servant," just as he was when he served the Jesuits at Clongowes. The milkmaid visits just as they are sitting down to eat, and Stephen resentfully notes that she listens to Buck Mulligan, showing him respect since he's a medical student, but ignores him, a poet.

After breakfast, the three men leave the tower. Buck mentions to Haines that Stephen has developed a theory about Shakespeare's Hamlet, but Stephen refuses to talk about it then, since it's too early in the morning. Stephen knows that Buck is going to ask him for the key to the tower, thus symbolically usurping it from him. He tells Haines he's "the servant of two masters...an English and an Italian," then explains to the obtuse Englishman that he means the English imperialism and the Roman Catholic Church. This continues the theme of Stephen being a servant in his own tower, as well as his own country. It reflects how he feels to stifled to follow his own path, or become his own master. Buck Mulligan strips down to go for a swim in the ocean, and as Stephen expected, he asked for the key to the tower (presumably so he could get in to change his clothes after his morning bathe). Stephen hands the key over, and also loans Buck some money when he asks. His capitulation leave him feeling bereft of his home, so he vows not to sleep there that night. The last word of the chapter is "usurper," which further emphasizes Stephen's feelings of impotence.

In the comparing Ulysses to the Odyssey, it's clear that the "usurper," Buck Mulligan, reflects the boorish suitors who pursued Penelope. Indeed, Stephen's biggest grievance with Buck is his lack of respect for his mother's death, just as the suitors showed little respect for Penelope, her wishes, or her grief for Odysseus. Just as Telemachus leaves Ithaca to escape the suitors and perhaps find his father to help him drive them off, Stephen leaves his own tower to escape Buck. Joyce also makes many allusions to Hamlet--Stephen representing Hamlet himself, while Buck is the usurping Uncle Claudius. Just as Hamlet rejects his uncle's joie de vivre, preferring to dress in mourning for his dead father, Stephen rejects Buck's hardy companionship.

Blogs for James Joyce's Ulysses: