The Role of The Parent
The role of the parent in the Suzuki method:
At a time and age where most families are terribly busy, and also the children have incredibly busy schedules, the Suzuki
method might just be the right way to balance things out. Based on Eastern philosophy it brings along a fair amount of Eastern approach to focus and practice in general, which is particularly helpful
to parents, who have either never learned an instrument in their life or who have learned an instrument but have bad memories from the experience.
Most important is the mindset: over the course and along the process the parent has to remind him or herself again and again that this is a journey, which child and parent start together; and this journey is what it is about, this journey is the goal already.
The philosophy focuses on awareness and living in the moment. It doesn’t separate the result from the process.
In the West, we tend to focus on the result and often even don’t enjoy the process as we can’t wait to arrive at the goal, particularly if it is long-term and needs change and discipline.
The Suzuki method concentrates on the journey and the process. In continuing this journey, the student, as well as the parent, learn to persevere with calmness, learn to be more sensitive, controlled and focused.
There are other ways to master this focus like Zen or Yoga (the book ‘The Art of Archery’ by Eugen Herrigel is a great read!). In the Suzuki method learning the repertoire is a means to develop personality and character. There is no rush to progress- as Dr. Suzuki said: “Don’t hurry, but don’t stop, either!”.
Needless to say, that the various personalities of parents and students experience the Suzuki training differently but learning an instrument is a matter of a desire to play. How long it will take to learn is unimportant but it is important that what we play is done with great love and care. Like in Zen we have a wonderful responsibility to do our best and respect the music we play.
The challenge is to translate this knowledge into attitude and action in daily life. It is only by having discipline and respect for the music that one can enjoy the fun and the joy we have when we make music and vice versa it is wonderful that we can teach our children discipline and respect by ways of having fun and playing games.
It is a steep learning curve for the parent and based on a positive, loving way of relating to the world and other people. As mentioned before, the Suzuki method is mainly and foremost a means to help the children develop their personality and character by means of making music. It is not intended as just a technique to learn an instrument in the best possible way, but it is a way of life. The parent needs to remind himself again and again of this principle, and it is his or her role to live it by example and be that example to the child.
That can prove challenging, especially as the fantastic side effect of learning via the Suzuki method is, that the children get taught in a remarkably effective way and therefore the standard is very high, which in reverse tempts the parent to become competitive. And the parent must never compare his child with another child but continue to focus on his or her entirely individual journey. The parent always has to make sure that the child understands, that the big and only task is to always try to do one's best. That in itself is challenging enough and if achieved, it means success.
Choosing to have your child learn with the Suzuki method is a great way for a parent to bond with his or her child. It is a special time, reserved only for the two of them. Especially for a child who has younger siblings, it is the perfect way to reclaim some of the (often) lost attention it used to get from the parent before the sibling arrived.
Before a parent decides to start their child off on the Suzuki method, he or she should do enough research first to know what to expect. That means reading two books written by Dr. Suzuki: ‘Nurtured by Love’ and ‘Ability Development from Age Zero’. He or she should also watch the film ‘Nurtured by Love’ and observe at least a term (depending on the child) group lessons and individual lessons by the Suzuki teacher they have chosen.
In the observation period, the parent can find out what is expected of him or her (and in effect the entire family!) and what the role of the parent is. They can talk to other parents and find out the ins and outs, how to take notes and what it means to practice and they can observe how their child reacts to all of this.
It is also without a doubt the most crucial part of the preparation to help the parent understand the philosophy, the philosophy of a man who believed so wholeheartedly in the intrinsic world of children; who believed that good, beautiful and loving qualities are within every child waiting to be brought out.
It is essential that the parent knows what the commitment involves before starting:
1) Obtaining a proper-sized instrument
2) Purchasing the sheet music and recordings
3) Encouraging the child to practice daily and complete required assignments
4) Ensuring that their child attends required practices and concerts.
5) Familiarizing themselves with the talent education philosophy by reading the above-mentioned books.
6) Attending the parent meetings and discussions
7) Attending all private lessons and group lessons with their child.
8) Attending courses or workshops at least once a year
9) Giving the child the time, it needs and nurturing growth, not pushing for “progress”
10) Knowing from the start that revision is the foundation of this method and that this will never change
11) Being aware that the Suzuki method is a way of life, not only for the child but also for the parent and the entire family
12) Listening to good classical music needs to be part of the family’s life
Before the child obtains its first lesson some teachers even require that parent and child build the instrument first with boxes, sticks, rubbers and other materials or aids to start the lessons with. It is a fantastic way to make the child realize that things have to be worked for and they have to be “earned” if they want to be obtained.
The Suzuki method is based on the mother tongue approach, meaning every child can learn to play an instrument in the same way as every child can learn to speak a language, simply by listening and copying their parents.
This is where the first task for the parent starts when striving to help the child learn an instrument. Like the way a child begins to speak a language by being surrounded by this language being spoken all day long, it needs to have the same environment with regards to music.
If parents do not naturally live in a way where they surround themselves with music, then they will need to make an extra effort. A child whose parents are not interested in listening to classical music will most likely also not be interested, but more importantly, it will not learn to listen and hear. The sounds, the phrasing, the depth of music will grow in a child’s soul by being surrounded by it on a daily basis. The same way we will feel at home in our mother tongue, we will feel at home in the language of music as long as we have interacted with it from the very start of our life.
Leading a child to music is easy if the parent can give the right example. This is where the parents have to make a decision to commit themselves. With the same effort a parent will try to teach its baby to speak, he or she has to try to teach the child with baby steps along the way to make music.
It starts off with listening to the Suzuki CD and singing along to it. Then, like children remember entire children books by memory, which the parent reads to them, the child will learn to play the songs on their instrument. All this is only possible with the commitment and the love of the parent, to nurture the child and set the example.
Since the power of setting an example which the child will copy (regardless whether good or bad) is so significant, it is also essential that if the child should want to play an instrument the parent also needs to play an instrument, possibly the same. But in any case, the parent of a pretwinkler will need to take a few lessons themselves on the same instrument to be able to help the child: to feel what it is like to play a certain instrument will help to understand what the child has to get to grips with.
From the very start, revision is key. Since the Suzuki repertoire is build up cleverly and every new piece is added on rather than progressed to, it forms a strong foundation on which one can build further and further, without running the danger the technique might crumble underneath it all.
One can compare it to a pyramid: each building block you add on top (a new piece or teaching point) to make it higher needs another building block at the bottom (revision) to make the foundation stronger, which will prevent the pyramid to collapse.
If you merely progress from piece to piece without reinforcing the old repertoire, you could compare this way of progress to a tall tower: adding one building block on top of the other until the tower gets too high and collapses.
The next point is the group: to send a child only to a one-to-one lesson once a week is not only not enough to awaken the desire in the child to play /practice but also is missing out the big part of the actual fun, which is playing together with other people and socialising with the peers.
Again, like in daily life where toddlers need a social environment and will, therefore, start going to nursey or at least have friends to play with, a young instrumentalist will need other peers, who do the same and who can relate to each other. That way it becomes second nature to make music.
The parent will be involved in the group, know the other parents, will be able to exchange him or herself with other parents, discuss issues with regards to practice or other instrument related challenges, which are likely to occur, and hopefully take initiative with regards to concerts, parties, and other social events. The journey with its ups and downs, workshops and together experienced concerts will tie the families together and form a unique solidarity. The parent’s interaction with the other parents will reflect on the child: the child will copy the parent’s behaviour.
Like Dr. Suzuki illustrated so beautifully in his story about a student, who went through a tough time: when Dr. Suzuki realized that his former student had lost his way, he invited him to come and live at his house with his family. The student misbehaved, was difficult to live with and the family was not happy. So, the family had a meeting about it and decided, rather than telling him off, to say nothing, but live by a good example. Within a few weeks or months, the student changed his ways and adapted to the way of life the family wished for (from ‘Nurtured by Love’). It is nothing new of course, and yet, as a parent one has to keep reminding oneself.
It is crucial for the parent to keep working on his or her own development. The parent cannot expect a great love for an activity from his or her child if this love doesn’t have a place in the parent’s life.
If a parent expects a child to practice daily and work on his technique and musicianship, then the parent will have to display the same desire to the child.
This can be hard occasionally when there is a lack of time, or the parent has not developed a strong passion and love for music. Therefore, it is advisable to keep attending courses and workshops, not only to keep the child motivated but also to keep the parent interested and stimulated.
The lecture of recommended books can keep the spark going when we are at a low. Also, attending a great concert or even just a particular recording can lift us up again.
A parent, who started to take lessons together with the child, to help the child, will find that after a while the child will have overtaken. Usually, when the child is halfway through book 1, the parent will notice that the child is quicker on the uptake, but that’s ok. It boosts the confidence of the child to see that he or she is leaving the parent behind. If the parent plays another instrument to a higher level, it might be the perfect moment to start playing duets together.
As the child moves on to book 2 and 3, the parent will get more confident in knowing how to practice with the child, and the triangle ‘teacher-child-parent’ will have settled into their task and role.
The parent must not get caught up in thinking this is a competition or a race. He or she must remind himself again and again, that the crucial point in the Suzuki experience isn’t the number of pieces the child learns or the speed at which they get learned. The most important part of the experience is the process itself: the day-to-day discipline; the day-to-day attention to detail; and the day-to-day awareness of beauty in the world.
A few points for a parent to remember:
1) Be consistent with practice time
2) Lots of praise when praise is deserved
3) Enjoy the special time with the child
4) Listen, listen, listen
5) Sing fingering charts
6) Sing bowings
7) Break pieces down into bits
8) Preview most difficult bits
9) Allow the child all the time it needs to be successful
It is of most considerable importance that the parent, who takes over the attendance of the lessons and the group lessons, doesn’t leave the other parent behind: he or she needs to make sure that the other parent goes to concerts and attends courses too.
If the parents’ holiday time is limited, then the children’s summer course or music camp could be considered the family holiday. In the Suzuki method, it will not be just a course for the children, but it will be a unique experience for the parents. The more the parents get involved, the more they will understand, and the more they understand, the better they can relate to what their child does and therefore be able to help the child grow. To get the spouse also involved can often prove to be challenging but one should keep tying. It is worth the effort.
After many years of intense cooperation between the teacher-child-parent, the student will have progressed to the more advanced books. At the age of around 12 or 13, most students will start to express some desire to work more independently. He or she will have gained plenty of performance experience, and so it is time also to learn to gather experience in thinking for yourself.
To know when the time is ready depends on the individual student though.
At this stage, the student will have internalized how the parent practices with him or her and will be able to follow the known strategy.
It should be the teacher, who will pick up on the right timing and have a private discussion with the parent about this issue. It should not be done in front of the student.
Furthermore, if teacher and parent have come to an agreement and the decision is taken to try a lesson without the parent being present, it should be organized in such way that the student doesn’t know what is on the agenda. It is best to make the student believe that the parent simply can’t make the lesson due to an appointment or similar, so the student doesn’t get too worked up over it and what’s more: if it doesn’t work very well and the teacher decides it was too early after all, one can easily go back again for a few more months without the student feels he or she has failed.
If teacher and student are happy to continue the lessons without the parent on a regular basis, it is important for the teacher to take notes about what has been worked on.
However, the students also have to take notes for themselves and send their notes to the teacher by email. The parent’s role is to make sure the student is sticking to this arrangement.
All in all: the student has to “earn” coming alone to the lesson- he has to prove it to teacher and parent that he can do it.
The initial time, when the parent stops coming to the lessons, can be rocky but the student has to learn to take responsibility. It is a process which takes time, and the parent has to trust the teacher and the student. However, it is a good idea to check in with the teacher every fortnight or month to make sure things are on track.
It is also a new experience for the teacher, as students are different when the parent is not present.
Independent lessons mean that the student will also practice at home independently. Now and then the parent should check up on the progress and especially make sure that their son or daughter manages the practice intelligently along the guidelines of an effective practice session (the parent can easily pursue the practice by being nearby and listening from the outside how their son or daughter gets on. However, the parent should make sure the student is not necessarily aware of it.)
It is also a very good idea to have "pre-dinner performances": the student can play certain pieces to the family to check on where he or she is in the progress. It is a brilliant practice and is the perfect moment for the parents to give feedback.
As the student gets older, he or she will also spend more time on scales, a task which some students enjoy but the majority of youngsters usually is not keen on. A good way to keep on top of the scales is to ask the student to text the teacher every day whether they have practiced their scales. At first, the parent should remind their son or daughter to stick to this arrangement, but after a while, when things have settled in, the parent should back off. The student will need to learn to remember themselves.
Recommended from the very start of learning the cello but now absolutely unavoidable is the recording device: from the moment a student has a good idea of how a piece should sound (not just the notes, but the sound, intonation, bow technique, phrasing, and interpretation) he will find that the recording device is the best teacher:
As soon as he hears for him or herself what the own performance sounds like, he or she will want to change and improve things much faster and much easier than when told by a teacher or parent.
It does require that the student has extended experience of listening to various interpretations. He should be out there, going to concerts, master classes and browse Youtube.
This is only possible (and the child will only engage in such activities) if the parents do the same. However, hopefully, the child will have experienced habits like this and a way of going about it like that for many years already.
Intelligent practice is the key to effectively using one's practice time:
The student should use the acquired formulas he will have picked up on in the previous years to analyze a problem. If parents realize that the student is wasting his or her time they should offer help: even if the analysis might have gone beyond the parent’s understanding, he or she will still be able to identify whether something sounds convincing.
This period of stepping away and letting the child become independent can be very tricky for the parent: the habit of controlling the practice and progress can be hard to break. Also having to listen to one’s son’s or daughter’s practice and realizing that he or she is wasting time by inefficient or unfocused practice can be very difficult; still more difficult to try and help without being overbearing.
It is safe to say that the parent’s role in the Suzuki method changes over time, starting as a close guardian who nurtures and fosters every tiny step of the child- usually with insecurities on the parent’s part to overcome, then continuing more confidently but still with setbacks and the need to regroup from time to time.
From book 4 onwards the parent will be able to give the child more responsibilities and the child will practice by him or herself occasionally, continuing with book 5 and 6. From book 8 or 9 onwards the student will start to become more independent and start to practice by him or herself with occasional input from the parent.
The parent’s task will be to keep reassessing the situation and act accordingly. It can be hard for the parent to give away some of his or her control to the growing- up child and especially to trust the child that it can do it.
Like in life you have to let them make their own mistakes but try and guide without letting them realize too much.
It isn’t hard to teach one’s child as long as one has the right attitude- however, it is having the right attitude which is hard!