From Itzhak Perlman to Rachel Barton Pine: Why Students Need Music Heroes

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Who were your musical heroes growing up?

Mine was, hands down, Itzhak Perlman. The first time I saw him perform live was 1999, but I remember watching him at home often as a child. I watched him on Sesame Street (You can see one example here), in documentaries, and in recorded concerts on VHS tape.

I was totally entranced by his playing. It was my dream to be able to do what he was doing.

When I was six years old I came home upset from group class one day. Another student had teased me my facial expressions while playing.

I vividly remember my dad sitting me down in front of a video of Perlman playing. He told me “if he can make faces while playing, so can you!” I have never felt bad about my overly expressive face again. Add my dad to my list of musical heroes!

Music Heroes

Perlman was my model of a great violinist as a child. His playing was like a carrot on a string, dangling out there as something to work towards.

Listening to Suzuki recordings helped me learn my pieces and build my technique but listening to a great performer like this was a whole other level of inspiration.

One helped me learn my music; the other helped me learn the purpose for studying it in the first place.

Fast forward many years:

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Why Summer Lessons are So Important

Much research has been done on the effect of summer breaks and academic performance.

Research shows that when students are not filling their summers with educational and enriching activities (Here is an interesting study) they may lose months of progress compared to their peers who keep learning in an enriching environment (like education camps, reading books from the library, and other activities like this).

Some articles I’ve read suggest it taking at least four to six weeks to catch up again each fall, other suggested up to 2.8 months.

The same thing can happen if students “take a break” from lessons over the summer. We had a great discussion about this in the Suzuki Triangle Community. Teachers agreed that it takes 1-3 months, on average, to get a student back to where they were at the end of the school year if they don’t take summer lessons.

The first ten years or so that I taught I didn’t require summer lessons and I started to notice some trends beyond the amount of time it takes to playing skills back to their former level:

Frustration:

When something used to be easy is now a struggle (especially a struggle that students already had to go through once before) students feel frustrated.

I started to hear things like “I can’t” and “It’s too hard.” from students who certainly could just a few months before.

This really affects a students motivation to keep playing. I started to see a pattern of students not returning in the fall (because the idea of restarting after a long break was daunting). Sometimes those who did return had such a frustrating time that they didn’t stick with their instrument for long.

Motivation:

Playing an instrument is hard work. It’s motivating when we see progress and see our ability begin to grow and develop.

It is NOT Motivating if we lose those skills and have to relearn them.

While I don’t require students to take lessons each week in the summer I do require a level of attendance that I feel will help students maintain their playing skills over the summer months. I want them to be ready to spring ahead into new things when we get back into a fall routine.

Summer can Actually be a great time to make progress: 

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Why Parents Must Practice with the Big Picture in Mind

 

I’m excited to announce my new eBook What You Practice Today is Not Important: but who you become along the way is! 
A lot of work went into it’s creation and I am happy to finally share it with you! You can read a short excerpt from this new resource below and get your own free copy by joining the Suzuki Triangle Community (you unsubscribe at any time).
Click HERE to sign up and get your copy through email!

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An excerpt from What You Practice Today is Not Important: but who you become along the way is!

Practicing can feel like it’s all about the little details.

It can feel like it’s about perfection and doing everything right.

Sometimes practice feels like a list you can never accomplish.

It feels like there’s not enough time to do all of our assignments from our teacher each week. It can be a challenge to get everything done.

But it’s not really about all that–it’s not about what your child does today that is most important. It’s not about doing all the tasks perfectly, all of the time.

Practice INVOLVES a lot of little details and trying to get things right for your next lesson.

But practice is not ABOUT all of that.

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Why all Parents Should Build a Practice Toolkit

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In my last two blog posts I have been talking about how parents set the practice environment for students and a 3 minute system for parents to use before practice that will radically change your practice sessions.

This week we are going to talk about building an emergency toolkit for young students. I find that once we have set a good environment for practice and prepare ourselves as adults to have the best practice session possible (see the posts above for more information) the next step for productive practice sessions is to have some tools on hand that help keep young students engaged in the practice session. The younger the student is, the more helpful this is. I find the older students are and the longer they have been playing their instrument the less this type of toolkit is needed because student have learned how to practice and how to concentrate and focus more fully. However, even middle school students enjoy rolling dice for repetitions and using rhythm sticks to count out a difficult rhythm from time to time!

During my first 4 lessons with new parents in my studio I primarily focus on parent education and preparing the new family to be successful in the upcoming weeks and months. Each week I assign families a few tasks to do at home that will help them establish good practice habits (listening assignments, finding a practice time each day etc). One of week three’s at home assignments for new families (this is primarily for third grade students and younger, which is the age I typically start) is for them to make a home practice toolkit.

The practice toolkit is a group of items that will give you extra support during practice. Some days you won’t need this at all and practice will go smoothly and

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3 Minutes a Day to Radically Change Your Practice Sessions

Last week on the blog I wrote about how parents (not the physical space) are their children’s practice environment. You can read the article by clicking HERE.

This week I am going to share the 3 minute process that can radically change how productive and positive your practice sessions with your child are. I consider these few valuable minutes to be the most important thing you can do that will set up your practice environment for success. This is a practice I developed with my own children and I go through it mentally before each student that I teach as well.

It is tempting to think this is an unnecessary step,that we don’t have time, or that we’ll just make it as we go and get the same results but that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Being intentional about how we run practice sessions as a parent sets our children up for success. It is 3 minutes a day (or less) that will save you hours of wasted time and save you tons of frustration.

I hope you’ll try it for a couple of weeks and let me know how it’s going!

Steps

1. Find a small notebook (your regular practice notebook works) or open a document on your phone to use on an ongoing basis.

2. Use the template below to jot down a few notes about the upcoming practice. You may choose to do this right before the practice session or right after a practice session for the next day (review the notes before you start the next practice).

3. Use your answers to the questions below to structure your practices, set the tone and stay focused on what is really important.

Practice Pre-planning Template

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You are Your Child’s Practice Environment

“I never teach my pupils, I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.” – Albert Einstein

 

I came across this quote the other day and was hit by how true this is of many Suzuki teachers I know and how they teach. We strive to really teach the children in front of us, not only to teach the instrument or song a child is learning.

The quote also got me thinking about the way parents practice with their children. Are the parents that I work with practicing with their children with this kind of attitude? Do they focusing on understanding how their child learns and then setting up practice to use that knowledge to help their student learn? Are we setting up a practice environment that helps them thrive?

In Suzuki ECE training we learn that we as adults are our children’s practice environment.

The tone we set . . .

The mood we bring . . .

The attitude we have . . .

Even beliefs we have about what & how children can learn.

All of these things work together to created the environment that your child is learning and practicing in all week long. Read more

Dispelling a Myth about Suzuki ECE

Suzuki Early Childhood Education (SECE) is a big passion of mine. I am always excited to talk to other teachers and new parents about why I love it so much.

My background is in Early Childhood Education and I consider teaching young students my specialty. I have taught in other ECE music programs before and there are lots of great things about them. I don’t have anything negative to say about them and I think that having a young child in any Early Childhood Music class is a wonderful thing.

However,  I think there is an idea out there that Suzuki ECE classes are the same as all those other classes and that there is no reason to teach it over any other program.

Having experience teaching both, I have to say from the teacher’s perspective this couldn’t be further from the truth. When I first watched a Suzuki ECE class I was so excited to see what was happening (and how different it was) that I knew someday this was something I needed to do.

I noticed that the parts of teaching other ECE music classes that I found frustrating or counter- productive (like the chaotic environment that I felt didn’t prepare students well for the environment of music lessons) were not happening in this class – and that everything flowed in such a natural way. I just had to find out more about it.

Now that I have taken training and started teaching SECE classes I have been thinking about how to explain what it is that makes SECE so unique. Here are five things that stand out to me that set it apart from other programs:

1. Mastery : Unlike other programs where the music (both in class & listened to at home) rotates often: in SECE we always rotate between 2 set weeks of curriculum. The repertoire we use is built upon in layers and made more advanced for the students as they master it (much like instrumental playing and review pieces) but we keep coming back to the same curriculum we know in order to build mastery.

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Attitude is Everything

I’ve finished most of the parent teacher conferences in my studio for the year (If you want to read more about my process you can read more HERE & HERE). The most common issue I heard (besides learning to practice well as students start to become more independent in practice – a theme that kept coming up for the middle school students) was that in a number of families the parents felt like it was a daily battle to get practice started.

Let’s be honest – it is not very motivating to keep taking your child to music lessons if you know it means daily squabbles with your kids over the practice. Many working parents have just a few quality time hours a day with their kids and spending part of that time fighting about something is not a fun idea.

This is why parent teacher conferences are so important – I don’t know what practice is like for families at home without these honest conversations and sometimes these situations can be turned around quite easily, as long as parents are willing to put in a little effort to change the tone for practice.

In each of the cases where this issue was brought up we decided that the number one priority for this student and family was not moving forward on the instrument – it was developing a positive attitude about practice.

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Why Conferences with Teens Are So Important

Last Week’s Blog post discussed why every studio should hold Parent-Teacher Conferences – you can read the article HERE.

This week I want to address the importance of holding conferences with teens. In my studio I use part of a lesson each spring (this is happening in the next couple of weeks in my studio) to have a conference with each teen student on their own to honestly talk about how things are going, what they are enjoying and struggling with, and how I can be more helpful.

I have a questionnaire I send teens home with the week before our conference and ask them to fill it out very honestly (the more honest they are – the more useful the conference will be).

The day of the conference teens come alone to lessons (if they don’t already) and we talk through the questions on the sheet. I also like to share how I’ve seen the student improve over the year and what my next goals for them would be. Sometimes I also give them something to read or have some sort of information to hand out to them that I think addresses something I think they (or all the teens in the studio) need to think about.

Depending on the student this usually takes about 20 minutes of a lesson. It helps so much to have each student feel like they are on the same team with me, as their teacher. They are being listened to, their opinion is being heard, and hopefully they see that I want them to succeed.

Last year was the first year I tried this (in addition to meeting with parents of younger students) and I found it really helped the teens with ownership over what are trying to accomplish and it helped our working relationship each week because they knew I found their opinions to be important.

I also found out a lot about what motivates the teens I work with . . . certain community performances we do each year (like playing in the lobby before Oregon Symphony concerts) and certain types of music we play in group class, for a couple of examples.

Do you hold conferences with the teens in your studio? Does your teacher hold them?

Why Every Studio Needs Parent Teacher Conferences

For the past three years I have been doing parent teacher conferences in my studio. I had thought about doing this for years but kept putting it off.

Partly I was a little nervous about the process. I also didn’t know where to start. I wondered if the parents in my studio and find it valuable.

Then a few years ago I heard Alice Joy Lewis give a talk to teachers up in Ellensburg, Washington. During the talk she emphasized how valuable these conferences are to her and even shared a few resources with us to get us started. I believe a few of my colleagues and I left that day excited to start conferences in our studios.

A few months later I held my first round of conferences and I so wish I had started doing them earlier. I can’t say enough about how valuable they have been.

Here are a few ways they have helped in my studio:

Conferences get parents and teachers on the same page – by the end of each conference, if they are done well, we come away with a plan to help the student be more successful and it’s clear to both the parent and I that we are both working towards the best interest of the student. This lays the foundation for future conversations and emails throughout the year because we both trust each other to be working with the students success in mind. I have noticed far better (and more open) communication with parents all year long. 

Honest conversations can be had without the student present – without the student at the conference both parent and teacher can address any difficult issues that might hurt a child’s feelings or embarrass them and shouldn’t be brought up in the lesson. Sometimes I hear about a medical issue that the family is facing or a behavior issue that is going on at home or at school and affecting things. This information really helps me teach better with the whole child in mind – but often there isn’t any other time it would come up. [ side note: I do have conferences in person with my high school students – more on that next week]

We are able to talk through frustrations and big picture topics that there isn’t time for in a lesson – One example of this is that I want my families with students in late grade school to know that I recommend they find some sort of orchestra or chamber group for their student sometime in the middle school years. I have found students who have this type of peer group are far more likely to keep playing their instrument through the teen years. Bringing this up as something to keep in mind for the future has been a big topic at conferences so far this year.

Sometimes I find out I could be doing something better suited to a child’s style of learning or we can talk through ways to practice that fit with a student’s personality style. It’s a great time to have honest conversations and problem solve together. 

Goal setting for the coming months and year: I always like to hear what the parents goals are for their students over the next year and what goals the students have (if any). We also discuss any goals I have for the student over the next year. The first year I did conferences I got a lot of responses like “Oh, I’ve never thought of that before!” Having goals is a great way to stay focused throughout the year and I think this is an important piece for everyone involved. Now, three years later I notice everyone has a goal for their child – which is great!

How have you incorporated conferences into your studio? Or, How does your teacher do them?

If you don’t have them, I would suggest starting my making goals for the next year – you might be able to ask your teacher if they would be open to having a conference with you in place of a lesson.

I am happy to share the form I use for parent conferences if you are just getting started with this idea- just send me an email at Christine@SuzukiTriangle.com and I will send it off to you! I would love to hear from you if you get started with conferences in your studio . . . I think it’s an amazing way to positively impact the whole studio.