My Worst Day, Biggest Lesson

November 24, 2013, 4:20 PM · For the benefit of mature beginners, I'd like to share an experience from my time studying with Suzuki in Japan. Although I learned piano from an early age, I fell in love with the violin in my 30's. In essence this story is about an issue that I struggled with for many years and to be honest, still grapple with from time to time: a sense that my violin playing is not good enough.

I guess it is something all musicians and teachers experience at some stage. I was most acutely aware of it on my arrival at the Suzuki Institute in Matsumoto. The level of playing among the other teachers, especially the Japanese students, was dazzling. One of my friends there described it as feeling like a tricycle in the midst of the Rolls-Royces. I felt like my tricycle had no wheels…

"You play this part too slowly," Suzuki had said at the lesson. I nodded in silent agreement. It was difficult for me to play that particular section of the Beethoven violin sonata quickly and accurately, so I'd slowed it down in an effort just to make it possible. I'd worked on those two bars for a couple of weeks with little effect. I wasn't one of the whiz kids who started at 3 years old that I'd watched in awe when I arrived in Matsumoto. Suzuki laughed. "You must practise 10,000 times before next lesson." 

I trudged home that evening utterly exasperated and dejected. Occasionally Suzuki set us this special number of repetitions for a bowing exercise to improve tone production or a new technical skill. 10,000 is an iconic big number in the Japanese counting system. My first 10,000 repetitions had been a profound experience - on an exercise to perfect the clean entry of the bow into the string. It changed the way I began a bow stroke and producing a more satisfying tone. This time it was different. These two troublesome bars seemed completely beyond me.
In the morning I felt a small glimmer of determination and set to work, attaching a digital counter on the end of a ruler to keep the tally. It took over four hours to do a thousand slow and correct repeats. I gingerly tested it at the right tempo, but it fell apart as usual. I'd been hoping for at least some improvement.

Four days later I reached the 7,000 mark. It must have been mind-numbing for anyone in earshot, hearing those two bars played over and over for hours on end. (My lovely long suffering neighbours never complained.) Now the section was better, but I still couldn't play it with total certainty at speed! I was starting to believe it was impossible. That night I went to bed that night in gloom, doubting if I could succeed. What was I doing here? 

The next morning was simply more hard work, but around midday a small miracle occurred. After reaching about 8,000, it finally came together and I found I could play accurately it at the right tempo. The last two thousand were pure happiness. If I had given up before 8,000, I would have believed it impossible.

Later at the lesson, Suzuki seemed oblivious to the results of my work and made no comment on the sonata. He worked on something entirely different. Most likely he had forgotten. I certainly never have.

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November 25, 2013 at 02:23 AM · Karate violin

November 25, 2013 at 03:29 AM · 10,000 times, no kidding???


November 25, 2013 at 04:26 AM · When taking a lesson in Matsumoto with Miss MORI she gave me a pinky exercise Dr Suzuki was using in our group class. She said they expected the Japanese students to practice it 10,000 times but knew that the gaijin (foreigners) couldn't. I practiced with my metronome diligently and presented myself proudly announcing I'd done it 10 OOP times. She brushed it aside and said, "Did you do it in the opposite direction ALSO, 10,000 X?

November 25, 2013 at 01:27 PM · I found this situation kind of disturbing, actually. What bothers me is not the story of success coming only after 10,000 times of repetition--that's actually pretty interesting. I appreciate your sharing that it took that long to get there, but that you actually did. Big numbers are hard for almost anyone to understand in the concrete rather than the abstract.

What I found disturbing was the attitude of the teacher: that he said something like that as if it were trivial, and then forgot about it entirely the next week. It sounds like the experience was a potentially life-changing event for the student, and could be for others. But the teacher comes across as if he doesn't really give a d**n about the student's time, his effort, or his learning process.

And before the flame throwers come out, I need to say that I don't think the only alternative to this attitude on the part of the teacher is the "coddling" of "lazy" students. I don't think the student here deserves a medal, or a trophy, or any false, empty praise for putting in this effort. But is a little verbal encouragement, or at least an acknowledgement of his hard work, really too much to ask?

November 25, 2013 at 01:41 PM · I found this situation to be rather disturbing, actually. I don't say that because of the 10,000 repetitions, I think that's pretty interesting. I appreciate your sharing your process, and the fact that it really took that many repetitions, but that success did come, eventually. It's a humbling thought, and the ability to grasp numbers of that size doesn't come easily to many.

What disturbed me in this story was the attitude of the teacher: telling the student to do this as if it were something trivial, laughing about it, and entirely forgetting about it the next week. This sounds like it was a potentially life-changing experience for the student, and could be for others. But the teacher comes across here as if he doesn't care about the student, his hard work, or his learning process.

Because it seems that this point is easily misunderstood, I need to clarify that I don't think the only alternatives to this attitude on the part of the teacher are the "coddling" of "lazy" students, or empty, unhelpful praise. I don't think this student deserves a medal, a trophy, or even any praise at all, per se, for putting in this effort. But is a little verbal encouragement, feedback, or at least an acknowledgement of his hard work, really too much to ask?

p.s. Sorry for the duplicate post. This is an edited version of the above post after I logged in. I'd delete the other one if I could figure out how.

November 25, 2013 at 02:29 PM · As the OP says, 10000 is an iconic number in Japan. So, on one hand, perhaps a student does deserve praise for doing something 10000 times; on the other, however, does a student deserve praise for doing his/her homework? an adult deserve praise for finishing a regular task in his/her job? Perhaps the praise should be for the improvement in the piece?

I see your point, Karen, but if some cultures under-do praise regularly, I think we have arrived at a point where we tend to over-do it--making praise less valued, and also making it harder TO praise something really outstanding--all the words have been used up.

November 25, 2013 at 04:06 PM · If an adult does his job and his boss just forgets about having even asked for the work and ignores it altogether, what does that say about the working relationship, or about the value of the job? And what is learned when students do their assigned homework but the teacher doesn't even look at it? I think these messages are confusing, at best.

November 25, 2013 at 06:13 PM · Karen, I don't think you and I are standing on common ground in this discussion. Peace to you.

November 25, 2013 at 06:57 PM · Perhaps I should clarify Suzuki's forgetfulness a little. I wasn't put out by it. Firstly, he was in his late 80's - although still robust and teaching daily. Secondly, like many good teachers he worked on weaknesses and deficiencies in students' playing. In the absence of a previous problem it was normal for him to focus on the next most obvious area of need.

November 25, 2013 at 07:43 PM · You weren't put out by it, but I think others might have been, or might be now, especially people who aren't as mature or thoughtful or committed as you, or just people who have a different approach to learning. For example, I would have been put off by this experience, and I don't mind admitting that. It's not just the forgetfulness. I would learn much better from a teacher who explained why he gave that particular assignment, who didn't trivialize the effort involved, and who followed up with me afterwards to see how it was going. For some students, the quality of the relationship with the teacher is very important--and I don't think that makes them bad students.

On the other hand, I think that the underlying message of your blog is an intriguing and potentially useful one for a variety of students. There's a lot in the media these days about the importance of perseverance and hard work in learning. I don't disagree with these ideas or that message. I just think there may be better ways of presenting it so that it reaches the people who most need to hear it.

November 25, 2013 at 08:37 PM · John,

many thanks for your wonderful, inspiring story. Ten thousand repetitions might look huge but it is achievable. My daughter practises circles - lifts, retakes. It is only five to ten circles a day on each string, one of those short three minute exercises to achieve a nice ring and going to something else afterwards but that makes 20 to 40 circles a day and 10 000 in a year. Shinichi Suzuki probably never heard of myelin and myelination but he knew well that patient practice that strives for perfection bears fruit. The fact that you were not praised would not bother me, it would rather embarrass me if the problem were mentioned again.

Pity my daughter and myself were late, it must have been fantastic experience to meet Suzuki personally.

November 26, 2013 at 04:11 PM · Simon Fischer has a great book "Practice" giving lots of proven practice techniques for dramatically cutting the time needed to master a certain passage. Of course these techniques only help if you already possess the violinistic techniques the passage requires. But if you don't have these, then you should acquire these first before you want to play that passage, and in that case I am not so sure that playing the passage 10000 times is the best way to acquire technique.

November 26, 2013 at 05:29 PM · It goes without saying...but just in case, I will go ahead and say it!

"Perfect practice makes perfect performance." It has to be 10,000 correct repetitions.

One big practicing problem is the fact that many students practice something until they "get it," and then they quit. When you've finally "got it," that's when the work starts! That's when you start with No. 1 of your 10,000.

When it comes to the teacher acknowledging the student's work, it's a nice idea. But if you mastered something, that's its own reward. If you had a big issue, worked hard and resolved it to the point that the teacher no longer even notices the problem, that's a good thing! As a teacher, I don't always remember, but I have at least on a few occasions noticed, "Oh my gosh, that's not even an issue any more, I'd never know you ever had a problem there!"

November 26, 2013 at 08:55 PM · In my opinion, I think what Karen may have been pointing to is the tendency in the classical arts scene to believe the more tough or aloof the teacher is, the greater they are. It always seems to be two extremes, either a tempermental diva, throwing fits every other minute, or someone who is practically falling asleep during the lesson, who only offers weird, cryptic advice when they do regain awareness.

But, that could just have been a lot of "old school" behavior.

Hopefully, the times have changed.

November 26, 2013 at 11:40 PM · Thanks Laurie, you're right on the mark.

November 27, 2013 at 03:55 AM · 69.171 . . . etc. I hadn't actually thought of it that way, but you're right. I don't care for either of those types of behavior, or the mythologizing that can sometimes go along with it. I do think times have changed, and much for the better.

Part of the reason the lack of follow-up, and the acting like it was trivial, seemed especially egregious here is because of the nature of what the student was being asked to do. Others have pointed out that maybe you don't have to do 10,000 repetitions in a week, but can spread it out over time. That sounds sensible enough, but that's not what the teacher said here, he wanted it by the next lesson. Once probably won't hurt, but if that becomes a student's regular practice, he's likely to start getting repetitive stress injuries.

As for mastery being its own reward, to me that's something that sounds nice, but I can't really relate. I've certainly been through the slough of despond in which I felt my playing wasn't good enough. But my way out of that was to stop worrying or caring about whether I was "good" or not, and turn my attention to other matters. People talk a lot on this site about mastery and improvement and challenges and being "good" and all that, but I find that stuff pretty elusive even on the best of days. It's not why I play the violin in the first place.

November 30, 2013 at 11:55 AM · As a teacher/coach beyond the point of formal education, of a complex physical/mental process (Interpreting between American Sign Language and Spoken English), and now a student Violist, I have been reading this discussion with great interest, and a measure of understanding on both sides.

However, I think there are two things that can be learned in any given learning moment:

1) How do I DO it.

2) How do I Learn it?

And the answer to number 2, is what most American students want to know when they are learning something. They want to know *how* what they are going to be spending their energies on is going to help them become able to Do whatever it is they're trying to learn. They are, in a way, seeking ligitimacy for the time and energy they are being told the learning will require. And if they dont find the suggestion to be "ligitimate", they feel justified to modify their response to it.

Many people think that knowing something about the how, actually helps them learn the skill, but that's not true. Doing a complex task, is the *only* way to learn to do it.

But students very often get so caught up in the How and Why - that they never actually sit down and do the 10,000 repetitions. (surely it wont take that many, surely there's some secret way out there that this particular teacher doesnt know yet, surely the teacher only told me that number because they expected that I would only put in 1/2 the number they suggested, or go until I "get" it, They know I'm really busy!, and what happens if I dont? What are they going to do about it anyway?)

The ONLY thing, that will improve a student who is attempting a skills based activity (especially an activity that relies on cognition, hand-eye coordination, and muscle memory) is the seemingly endless repetition of the different parts and then again, the whole of the activity.

We can talk about how and why it works over coffee after practice hours, and endlessly. That's teaching theory, but if you never actually do the repetitions, you will never actually learn the skill.

The question about whether the teacher notices and whether praise was/should be given was also interesting to me. As a new student of Viola, (age 51), should I expect praise from my teacher for doing what I need to do to learn to play the Viola?

When I'm working with students, I find that in most cases, I am not "teaching" them, as much as I am "observing and giving notation to their practice." In this case, praise is a necessary tool, because I become responsible for monitoring the correctness of their production while the student just pays attention to doing the production. If the student does something wrong, that person might not see the error, I do - so I say something, and the student attempts to fix it. Likewise, if the student does something correctly after several incorrect attempts, that person might not see that, I do, and I say something (praise) which is intended to reinforce the good production. Teaching "in practice" is a popular form of teaching, here in the United States, especially in music but more and more in academics, where the students rarely, of their own volition, practice more than they absolutely must. (and then, often with reticence)

I rather suspect, that Suzuki-sensei was a Teacher. He was not there to walk you through your practice, rather, he was there to lead you to the next step; and you cannot get to the next step until you have achieved the step before. So his feedback was intended to give the student a practice goal (which it did) and if the student was serious, s/he would attend to the practice goal. Having achieved the goal, Susuki-sensei would then be able to give the next step; and that is the reason you have come to study with an instructor on any given day, in the first place, because you are ready for the next step.

I think, if you want praise in this type of teaching format, you probably need a separate practice coach, or a tutor, to sit with you in your practice and help you learn to hear and feel your errors and corrections. (That's not teaching, that's tutoring to a weakness, and the expectation of any tutoring situation is that eventually you'll be able to work independently, without the need for praise to guide you toward your goals).

As a teacher myself (who works with both, those who are there to learn, those who are there to get "guided practice", and those who are much more concerned about how and why certain activities are supposed to help you learn something - than the need to actually do those activities) - I know that the only praise I get comes long after the fact of the lessons, and as a side-note to the performer themselves. In fact, the praise I get is often of my own device: feeling proud to have worked with such an excellent performer. I wonder when we get to the place where we dont expect praise as a premise for good performance?

Interesting topic!

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