Being Violin Mom, Part 2.

Monday, October 19, 2015

In my last post, I wrote about what Being Violin Mom means.  I described the burdens and the pressures, and I touched on the challenges and the obstacles.  So why do it?

Here's why.  I want to give my child the gift of music.  I want music to touch her soul.  I want it to deepen and enrich how she experiences the world and relates to people.  I hope that she will feel joy and sorrow, exuberance and loss, and everything in between, in music.  I want her to develop the heart and spirit of a musician, and all that goes with that -- compassion and resilience and determination and so much more.  I want music to energize her but also to comfort her, to connect her with others, but also to be a steady companion when she's alone.  I want her to learn musical self-expression for times when words fail.  I want her to find a safe space in music, where she can lose herself and find herself.  I want music to become part of who she is and how she sees herself.  Suzuki says, If children hear fine music from the day of their birth and learn to play it, they develop sensitivity, discipline, and endurance.  They get a beautiful heart.  That is what I want for my daughter, a beautiful heart.

Of course, I realize that music is not the only way to a beautiful heart.  But I'm also pretty convinced that it's one way.  And I believe that a beautiful heart filled with music is about as good as it gets.  

Is music really a gift I can give, and will Suzuki violin really help my daughter's heart and spirit?  I don't know.  But it's worth a try.  Even if we don't get there, I have no doubt of the collateral benefits of the process itself.  Time management, responsibility, organization, hand-eye coordination, perseverance and commitment, memorization and recitation, concentration, public performance skills, listening skills, discipline, non-verbal communication, goal-setting, confidence-building, the value of hard work, the satisfaction of achievement.  I've seen impressive development in all of these areas already, and my daughter is only nine.  Although it's harder to see in myself, I'd bet even I have developed in some of those areas through our violin journey.

Here are some things I've learned, with a few years of being Violin Mom behind me.

Together we are stronger.  We are in this together.  Maybe not forever, but certainly for now.  We succeed or we fail together.  We learn together, or we don't learn.  We tackle challenges together, we celebrate together, we pick each other up and encourage each other when we feel beat.  It's not always easy or smooth, not at all.  But here's the result -- our relationship and the trust between us is stronger for it.  When love is deep, much can be accomplished, Suzuki says.  I'm counting on it.

Music is bigger than practice.  It is easy to get bogged down the practice particulars.  Review + memorize + polish + skills.  Repetitions.  Every day.  It is harder to keep sight of the bigger picture.  This isn't really about learning Gavotte or vibrato or bowing patterns; it's about music and the human spirit.  It is necessary to be concerned about the importance of educating a really beautiful human spirit, Suzuki says.  He's right.  But not only in violin or music; in life and parenting generally.

Children will amaze and inspire.  Children are capable of so much.  With a loving environment and plenty of encouragement, children learn at a remarkable pace.  I am amazed by what my child can play.  Astonished, truly.  I am inspired by the sound that comes from her hand and her violin.  It's moved me to tears more times than I can count.  Her recitals have taken my breath away.  

Walking into the classroom to find her performing for fellow students, seeing her play for hundreds of people during her school's talent show, knowing that she took her violin for show-and-tell when she was Star of the Week, watching her play at the fire station and park and farmer's market -- all of these things amaze and inspire me.  I'm pretty sure she's inspiring others too.

I talked earlier about wanting to giving my child the gift of music.  What I didn't say but is so very true -- she has given me that very same gift.  She has brought music back into my life, filled a hole, awakened something in me that I needed.  

Enthusiasm is contagious.  When I set aside distractions and immerse myself in the music, when I let my daughter see my enthusiasm and patience for learning and playing music, I see it reflected right back to me.  When I'm excited, she's excited.  Almost always.  Suzuki says, Parents who have smiling faces have children who have smiling faces.  Suzuki also says, An unlimited amount of ability can develop when parent and child are having fun together.  The more enthusiastic and positive I am, the better my daughter learns.

There is no substitute for hard work.  We try hard to make violin fun, but there's no denying that we work hard at it.  Repetition is the key to success, Suzuki tells us.  So we play things again and again. We learn new pieces but still revisit the old ones.  We learn new skills and then apply them to Twinkle.  We sacrifice and we make time, even when it's difficult.  We don't give up, even when it's tempting.  Suzuki tells us, Don't hurry, don't rest.  Without stopping, without haste, carefully taking one step at a time will surely get you there.  So we march on.  And on.  And on and on and on.  The result?  Accomplishment.  Achievement.  Beautiful music.  A feeling of tremendous pride for reaching a goal.

This is why I do it.  This is why it's worth it.  Beautiful music, beautiful heart, beautiful spirit. 

Please understand that I am no expert on the Suzuki method (not at all!), nor am I an expert in teaching children violin.  I'm learning as I go, and I know that I still have lots to learn.  I'm trying hard, doing pretty well some days and struggling mightily others, hoping love and perseverance pulls us through tough spells, hoping that the gift of music is worth every challenging minute.  I share this in hopes of encouraging some other violin parents through the inevitable Suzuki Slumps (which surely are a valuable, though painful part of the process), just as others have encouraged me when I needed it.

Being Violin Mom, Part 1.

Friday, October 9, 2015

I've been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be the parent in charge of Suzuki violin.  I've never homeschooled, but I imagine that there are some significant similarities between homeschooling and being Violin Mom.  In the case of homeschooling, however, learning likely happens when everyone is rested and fresh, unlike the music learning in our family, which happens when everyone is exhausted and rushed -- not the ideal circumstances for any sort of education and certainly intensifies the challenge.

There's just too much to say about Being Violin Mom for one post.  So this post tells how I got here and what it means, to me, to be Violin Mom.  The next will be what I've learned and why I keep doing it.  So first, how I became Violin Mom.

My daughter started begging to play violin when she was four.  I let her pester me for an entire year before I seriously considered the idea.  Although I played flute/piccolo and loved band (even played for a while in college), I knew nothing about string instruments or orchestra.  I feared fitting music practice into our already hectic and busy life.  I dreaded having to attend every lesson and be the home-teacher and whip-cracker.  I hated the thought of practice battles and enduring the inevitable frustration that accompanies learning a new instrument.

I finally gave in when my daughter started making violins out of cardboard boxes.

I had so much trepidation about beginning violin that I sought out a teacher who would not follow the Suzuki Method precisely but would be a bit more flexible.  She was less formal about CD-listening requirements than other teachers.  She did not have a strict practice policy or require group classes. She would come to our house.  She's the daughter of a violin teacher and the sister of an accomplished violinist.  She plays both classical music and traditional fiddle music.  It all sounded perfect.

But it wasn't.  During lessons, my daughter was very distracted -- what is my brother doing? what is going on in the next room? what can I play with?  The teacher tried hard to engage her with fun games and rhymes and challenges.  But mostly it didn't work.  During practices, my daughter was grumpy and resistant.  She was finally doing the thing that she'd been desperate to do for over a year, and none of us were having any fun.  Sure, there were small successes.  But they were overshadowed by the slumped posture, the sour face, and the inevitable struggle prompted by they mere mention of "violin."  Was she just too young?  Was it just too hard?  I didn't know.  

What I did know was that we were all out of energy and out of patience.  So we took a summer off to see if we had what was needed to continue.

Obviously, we did continue.  We ended up switching to a new teacher (recommended by the first), who has a nearby studio.  I still don't know what exactly changed and how we got back on track. Maybe it was doing lessons outside of our house, in a space filled with positive energy and light that's designed around learning violin.  Maybe my daughter grew up a lot that summer.  Maybe I grew more patient.  Or maybe it's that I bought into Suzuki Method and accepted my role as home-teacher. Whatever happened -- probably all of those things -- I'm thankful because I have no doubt that a great deal of good has come from it.

But that's not to say it's easy.  It is not.  IT IS NOT.  This is what Being Violin Mom looks like, or feels like, to me:

Beast of Burden.

I have to make violin happen.  I initiate practice (though I must use positive words like "let's make music" rather than more negative ones like "you need to work on violin"), I nag until the violin is out of its case, I set the practice structure and define practice goals, I determine repetitions and drills, I police posture, I attend lessons and take notes, I make sure we make it to group classes. 

I try to create a positive learning and playing atmosphere.  I do my best to be encouraging and compassionate and creative.  When I sense my daughter's attitude is suffering or she's feeling defeated, I find a new place to practice or turn to games and challenges.  I pull out dice and bead counters and stuffed animals and whatever else I can think of because I know that sometimes it's important to shake things up.  I find an audience for her to play for.  I issue challenges that set my daughter up for success because I know that accomplishment fuels motivation.  

I tread carefully between building up my kid's confidence, commiserating and soothing when she feels crushed by frustration, and firmly pressing ahead when it's the last thing we want to do.  When I'm feeling especially worn down by it all, I read articles and message boards, looking for fresh ideas and inspiration.  

I shoulder all of this responsibility knowing that if I don't follow through, my daughter will not learn violin. Suzuki is pretty honest about the fact that a child's success or failure depends on a parent's ability to bear this burden.  The fate of a child is in the hands of her parents, he says.  Any child can be developed, it just depends on how you do it, he says.  Creating desire in your child's heart is the parent's duty.  Every child grows; everything depends on the teacher.  No pressure there.  Nope.

No Rest for the Weary.

Practice only on the days you eat, Suzuki said.  I wonder, was Suzuki in charge of preparing food for children to eat, for buying the food, for cleaning after meals, bathing children, and washing the laundry soiled with food remnants?  All after a hard, long day of difficult work?  I suspect not (though I do not bear that burden alone either; I am extremely fortunate to have a partner in all of those tasks).  Make it a habit, just like brushing your teeth, Suzuki teachers say.  But my law brain is quick to draw all sorts of very valid distinctions.  It's simply not the same.  

Still, I recognize the undeniable benefits of daily practice.  I know that if you can get a child to play for five minutes, they'll probably play for much longer.  If you can get into that music space, most of the time good things will happen.   So six days a week, I try very hard to have a productive practice. Nobody's perfect; homework and family obligations sometimes get in the way, and I often give myself a pass on Fridays because end-of-week exhaustion tends to make productive practice impossible.  So I drink wine, celebrate having survived another week, and try not to think about it too much.  But I still feel terribly guilty because we eat and brush our teeth on Fridays. 

All Work and No Play.

This is what should be happening in any one practice:  (1) review pieces already mastered, not just to keep them fresh, but also to improve skills for current and future pieces (we've got about 25 review pieces at this point, so no easy task); (2) memorize a new piece, or maybe just "noodles" of a coming piece; (3) polish a piece so that it's performance- ready (bowing! dynamics! style!), which is the standard for truly moving on to the next piece; (4) skill work like scales, reading music, vibrato, bowing drills.  On all of these things, repetition is crucial.  Suzuki is serious about this -- Repetition is the key to success, he says.  Knowledge plus ten thousand times is skill, he says.  So we play things over and over again.  Maybe not 10,000 times, but a lot.

Here's the tough part of this.  What's missing from that practice list?  (5) If there's time, play just for fun -- write a song, experiment, sound out a song you've heard.  I don't want to imply that Suzuki does not believe in violin being fun -- quite the contrary!  An unlimited amount of ability can develop when parent and child are having fun together, he says.  But the reality is that there's only so much time and so much energy and so much patience.  There's only so much we can do.

Every day, review + memorize + polish + skills.  Every day, figure out if there's time for fun.  Every day, decide out how far we can push bedtime, whether the kid can go without a shower or without reading before bed, whether we let chores slide.  All because I want to allow a bit of time for my kid to be a kid, to just play.  For fun.  But so many days, we end practices without ever getting to that important item (5).  So many days, so much guilt for too little fun.

So there you have it -- a peak into the Violin Mom part of my life.  If after reading this you're wondering why in the world I'd put myself through all of this, then stay tuned.  More on that to come.