Sunday, April 05, 2009

Not Very Suzuki At All: Confession of a Burned Out Violin Mom

The Suzuki method is a triangle: the student, the parent, the teacher. For six years of Suzuki I have been an active part of this triangle with Benny and his teachers. I practice with my child, I play my violin along with him, I sit there alert and engaged at the lessons, I drive to group, I take him to workshops, camps, etc. I have put endless hours into this child's music education.

Two weeks ago, I decided I had had enough.

Picture a horse hitched to a stagecoach. The horse's agenda is to go as fast as possible. Never mind the safety of the passengers, the integrity of the coach itself, the driving conditions, the possible turns in the road. Then there's a driver. Her sole purpose is hauling on the reins. That's all she does, just pull back on the reins, with varying levels of frustration and patience, frustration and patience, yank yank yank. Occasionally the driver brings the horse to a halt, climbs down off the coach, and has a heart to heart talk with the horse. She explains all the logical reasons why this breakneck pace is not healthy or conducive to personal growth. During this conversation, the horse nods its head sagely, meanwhile tapping its hoof distractedly. When the stage driver gets back up on the coach again, the horse takes off at the exact same speed as before. Yank, yank, yank.

Horse = Benny. Stage driver = me.

Benny is in book 5. He is playing the third movement of the Vivaldi concerto in G minor. He cannot play this song, he cannot successfully pass this song, by ripping through it at maximum speed again and again. Repetitions at this speed do nothing to help him execute the song. What he needs to do is to slow down to a speed where he can play it absolutely correctly and in tune, and do a thousand repetitions. A thousand? Really? Yes. Suzuki would say, a thousand, in a slow tempo. This trains your hand and brain to correctly do the physical act of playing the song. Then when you take it up to speed, your reflexes take over. If you play it fast, you do not learn to play it right. You learn to play it messy. This is a tough piece, the toughest so far. It's not one he can just talent his way through.

So I said to his teacher, I can't do this anymore, it's so frustrating, I'm in this adversarial situation with my child, it's bleeding into other parts of our day, and I can't do this with joy, I can't approach practice with happiness, when I know that I'm going to fight with him the whole time.

His teacher, bless her heart, told me to take a break, let him practice on his own. That was two weeks ago. So, Benny has been practicing on his own. He is trying. He really is. He has in his mind what mature, independent practicing sounds like. He calls it "self-responsible." If he makes a mistake, he stops, dramatically fixes it, and then goes on. There's a lot of checking intonation with open strings. However, I know that what he's actually doing is teaching himself to play it wrong, and then fix it. You don't learn to play correctly by playing incorrectly and then fixing it, because then when you get to your lesson or in a performance situation, and you can't fix your mistakes, you're just left with the mistakes. Plus you're training your hand to play the wrong note by doing it over and over, regardless of whether you're fixing it or not! Not very Suzuki.

So, here we are. Lesson is tomorrow. He's not being very Suzuki and neither am I. I honestly don't know what the solution is. We can use a metronome, but that involves me standing there enforcing the metronome, measure by measure. Me as enforcer is the dynamic I'm trying to get away from. On the one hand, I want him to learn to practice on his own! When I was nine, I was doing it. On the other hand, I think maybe he isn't capable of practicing on his own yet, and what I'm doing by "taking a break" is just making things worse and being selfish.

I am overthinking it. I am complicating matters. But I just can't get my head around it -- I need help! And may I just say that it doesn't help that Sadie is so easy to practice. Oh yes, the Sadie/teacher/me triangle is fully functional. And maybe that's part of the problem too!

More Suzuki posts: Suzuki violin.


  1. Yeah. Sawyer started violin at the same time as Benny. He's on May Song, Book 1. Our relationship is: He's the horse. He died a while ago. I'm beating him. We're getting nowhere.
    To be fair, we just got through "Twinkle" last year. Went Twinkle to May Song in four months.
    So, cannot compute. Perhaps we can trade?
    And there's still hope for Sander, who's beating out the rhythm for "Mississippi stop stop" on everything not nailed down...
    So, no advice.
    Mild sympathy -- you could be a burned-out Suzuki mom with a kid who can't play!

  2. perhaps its the end of the line? perhaps the horse comes back after two more weeks and asks to be hitched up, after realizing the value of the coach (and sage stage driver)? perhaps the horse needs a coach other than Suzuki Express? and YES having a (peaceful, patient, practicing) pony beside a race horse can create problems. =)

    However, I trust that most things with our children will work themselves out. Hang on for the ride! ;)

  3. That from someone who has hollered way too many times, "No! Stop! You're teaching your brain the wrong thing!" as Sarah practices piano.

  4. Oh, Lydia, that sounds so frustrating!

    (Before I go on, I want to admit up front that I don't know a lot about Suzuki ... we have been reading and drooling for a couple of years but there is just no room in the budget right now, so we're faking it on our own. That would be more effective if either of us knew how to play. My advice is based on raising five kids -- four of them adults now.)

    One thought. Benny has to 'own' his music education. In the end, he will make of it what he will make of it. It's OK if he doesn't want to be a concert level violinist. Even if he isn't very good, the discipline and the musical education has been very valuable to his development. But in the end, you can't do it for him.

    What you can do, for Benny and for you, is to protect your relationship with him. Take the break. Make it "not your concern". He's not four anymore. He is old enough to try it his way and then to decide whether it's working for him. If it's not working for him, he is old enough to decide whether that means he's done with violin, or he wants to try again, taking your advice. Or maybe, maybe, he wants to take a break and play only for his own pleasure for a while.

    If you can trust him on this, you will establish a level of respect between you that is going to be very, very valuable in the next five years. This is *not* the time to be currying an adversarial relationship.

    And truly, even if he quits, the time, effort, and money have not 'gone to waste". They have laid a foundation for him that he will make use of in myriad ways as he goes through life. He will appreciate music more deeply than most because he will know how much work goes in to doing it well. His brain will have developed a broader structure, because the music has built synapses that wouldn't be there otherwise. Synapses that will help him with math, with logic, and with beauty, even if he never plays another note.

    And maybe when the violin is *his*...maybe he will want to make the effort to play beautifully.

    You're a good Mom, Lydia. I always enjoy reading your posts! Tank you for sharing!!

  5. I was going to make a completely different suggestion until I read Misti's post. I changed my mind...I agree with her! ;)

  6. Thanks for your input, you guys! I really appreciate it. I just go back and forth between "let him own it, let him make his own way" and "he's still too little and he needs you to gird up your belt and get back to the joyful firmness, the relentless cheerfulness, that got us this far."

    Maybe after these two weeks I can go back to being a happy practicer. Maybe I need to just practice my OWN violin, and just show him by my own example what I want him to practice like. We'll see what happens in the lesson today!

  7. Go with your gut, Lydia, and be gentle on yourself with your decisions.

    I firmly believe setting the example is always a good way to go. Perhaps you can switch the role around and let him mentor you in practice? Give him the sense that you need his help.

    He is such a strong and beautiful musician, and his love of music is so strong, taking a break, switching things up, will not be the ruin of it all.

  8. Anonymous4:45 PM

    My suggestion: limit his practice to "once perfect". He can play as slowly as necessary to accomplish this, but he must play through a set amount (a line or two working up to longer sections) once perfectly, with no errors. Then he is done. (Or attach a reward if needed.)

  9. That's a nice photo and great heair on the Violin boy!

  10. This is coming from a violin teacher and mother of a violin student: Do you feel a need to continue in Suzuki specifically? I am not against Suzuki (I teach it and my son is learning Suzuki), but the pieces progress very quickly and by the time you get to book 10 you are playing at a very high level but you really don't have that many pieces in your repertoire. If he is playing the Bach g minor, there are many Romantic sonatas and solos that he could also be playing that won't be covered in Suzuki. Even before my students get to Book 4 I heavily supplement with pieces outside of the Suzuki literature that are at the same level they are currently in. Personally I believe the Suzuki concept teaches players to become soloists, and unless that is your goal for your son he might need a little room to breathe as a musician. Perhaps some traditional lessons or a youth orchestra might be a nice switch. By Book 5 your son truly could be ready for almost anything.

  11. Hi Leah! Thanks for your suggestions! :) Three years later, we are in our second year with our youth orchestra, and our teacher has been heavily supplementing, so -- you are right! :) He's now learning the Bach concerto in book 7, but his teacher is mixing in tons of other repertoire as well as etudes and sight reading material. Things got better. I appreciate your input. :)