Saying goodbye to a graduating senior student at her last lesson is always bittersweet. And then I open FB to see photos of a former student, whom I taught from age five through high school graduation, getting his master’s. So wonderful to see my students doing so well in life.
I’m not trying to teach future professionals or music teachers, though I’ve taught more than a few through the past decades. My hope is that through the discipline of learning to play the violin and the joy of hearing and performing great music, my students develop skills to help them succeed in adulthood and the heart to live a fully human life inside and outside their chosen vocations. If they continue to enjoy the making of music or the listening to it, that is a bonus.
I am deeply grateful to my students’ parents for inviting me to be a small part of their children’s lives. ￼￼
Not as focused on the joy of performance aspect, more just the joy of playing. Some players are musical introverts (even some famous players) and much prefer playing by themselves or with a few friends.
52 years ago I took my first violin lesson. It was in a classroom at a Lutheran Church in Springfield IL. I still remember what that room looked like. More importantly, I also remember how I was treated. I was taught to high standard in such an encouraging way that I really wanted to please my teacher. Being a musician was never an option for myself: I got married, finished a PhD in Plant Genetics and started a life for my family. Move forward to yesterday, where you would see a 58 year old guy at his violin lesson (Mozart G Major 3 mvmt). I am still encouraged by a new wonderful teacher who is about half my age; But instead of a half size violin, I am playing the violin of my first teacher. I'm going to retire in a few months, music has been such a big part of my life. My mom cleaned houses so I could have lessons. She passed away last year and while she was in the ICU the last few days of her life, I played a lot of music for her, it was one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. None of this could have happened without me walking into that room all those years ago. Mary (And all the other teachers who see this) Thank You.
I am deeply grateful to my various teachers, and especially grateful to the primary teacher of my childhood, who has, each time I've needed to seek out another teacher, been very kind to do some personal outreach on my behalf.
However, I genuinely believe the bigger impact on their lives was in getting them all together in a group setting and just having fun every week. They've all grown up so much since I started teaching them, but knowing that they'll likely be friends for life makes me feel happy. The music is important, but not as important as the overall experience.
One of them has started tutoring for me (driving to beginner students' houses and helping them practice). I'm super proud of her for stepping up to that challenge. I've taught her since she was 9, and she was a pretty awful student who didn't want to be there and constantly tried to make things hard for me. So to see her now at 16 and actually getting involved in the teaching process is a stark contrast. And it does go to show that consistency can bring about drastic changes.
None of them aspire to be great musicians, but I can tell they will all be successful in their lives, and hopefully stay decent people. It's always hard to tell exactly how much impact I have on students, but I try to steer them all towards being decent human beings. And I do believe that instilling good values consistently, week after week, does have an effect.
I think that one of my biggest epiphanies in teaching was realizing that my words and actions had a much stronger impact that I had previously thought. Even one very negative interaction with a teacher can change the way a kid's brain perceives future events, whereas it takes many positive interactions to have the same level of effect. So it takes a lot more work to make a student better than it takes to make them worse. But that hard work is definitely worth the end result, and it also makes teaching a lot more bearable when you realize your goal isn't just to produce a good violin player. The reality is that many people who learn the violin early on probably won't keep playing later in their lives. But the behavioral changes from the learning process will stick with them forever. So, instead of getting frustrated that someone isn't making more progress, I just try to give them the best set of skills that I can can. And in that process, they often become better violin players as a result.
Eighteen years ago a colleague recommended a local Suzuki teacher for our daughter, then age 4. To my surprise, after contacting her I was sent an excerpt from Shinichi Suzuki's writings about learning an instrument being not a route to being a soloist but to being a better human being. And about the parents' role. As it happens that fitted with my own thoughts - wanting our daughter's life enriched by music as mine has been - and she started learning the violin.
And I think for her, she has become a better and more rounded person from her music. She was clear that she didn't want to pursue a music career, and her teacher gave her the praise of saying that she played at the level of other students who went on to conservatory. She is now studying medicine, and appreciating the ability to switch off from her difficult academic requirements and play in the university orchestra, and in a string quartet - and be appreciated for that (to be fair, it is a university which doesn't have a music performance programme, so she is one of the better players).
I was a violinist and violin teacher for about 10 years, at which point I switched to classroom English teaching, and did that for 5 years.
I was also 'home group' teacher of Year 7s (12-13 year-olds). Through my English teaching and pastoral care role, I got to know a lot more about the lives of my students, and contact with their families tended to be more holistic. This sometimes happened with violin teaching - especially with families who genuinely loved music and what it offered.
But my additional experiences did reinforce your original sentiment, Mary Ellen - that students gain all kinds of things from learning music (and other subjects of course!), and even for those ones who are not particularly enthusiastic, you can never underestimate the subtle impact you're having. Childhood memories are extremely powerful - to Erik's point above.
Teaching can be challenging - there's no question about that. But even on the hardest days, it does help to think about it this way...
Now no longer a teacher (but still working in the broader sector in higher ed) I can say that the direct contact you have with students and their families, is a special, genuinely human thing that isn't actually all that common among other professions. But for the same reason, it can be draining!
I have a younger sister that started violin as a 7 year old and took lessons for a couple years before losing interest and starting something else. Outside of our shared memories of a few recitals and what our teacher was like, I didn't think much about her playing after she quit.
Thirty five years later her own 7 year old daughter wanted to take up violin, so my sister decided to try it again with her. I was so excited to hear her say, "so much is coming back to me! I didn't realize it would stay with me this long, and I love it!"
I am also amazed at how many adult beginners I have that say they need to start from scratch because they stopped lessons when they were younger and don't remember anything. Once they start, they always remember a lot more than they expected. Lessons in childhood do make a difference.
When I have students stop taking lessons and the parents apologize and tell me how sorry they are, I'll tell them the story of my sister. Music will stay with them. I'll let them know that their child hasn't "failed" and they haven't wasted time and money on lessons. They have invested in their child's development not only musically but in other areas as well, and that is not easily lost.
And yet ostensibly they're doing this in order to produce Suzuki's beautiful human beings, not to produce pros.
Keep in mind that many of these teachers do not accept transfers, so you're committing your four-year-old, who has never touched a violin before, to this (and having to leave the studio if your commitment changes).
It seems like kind of par for the course if a teacher is willing to take kids as young as 3, to understand that you're dealing with the executive function of a 3 year old, and so while I understand wanting to only have dedicated students, it does read as a control-freak tendency to me.
Perhaps these Suzuki Teachers don't actually take such young students, and use the Suzuki method in their own particular formulation. I would think that ultimately it's healthier to just accept that many kids try many things, and only retrospectively start to understand what they want to get serious about, if they even have that kind of "specializer" mentality.
My thoughts are that it is up to the student to determine the priority of violin in their life, and I meet them where they are. Those who put violin first (or tied with high academics) generally progress faster than those who prioritize sports, but as long as the student is doing *something* to improve their violin skills, there is value in the lessons. It’s worth pointing out that student priorities can change over time. I take great pride in those students who come in as indifferent students and then find the motivation to excel.
As a side benefit, in my opinion, the nicest kids in any school are to be found in the orchestra class.
Very occasionally I get a student who doesn’t practice at all - they don’t last long, and I don’t think they get much if anything out of their lessons.
The teachers Lydia is describing are probably the same category of teachers (likewise claiming to be Suzuki teachers) who insisted that I was already too old to learn a string instrument at all when I was 13.
(As a side note, I believe this kind of thing is how we get ridiculous statistics like a 4-year Bruch level being "typical"....yes, it's typical when you've already skimmed out the bottom 95-98% of players).
In an area where parents are told that it's best if they ensure that their elementary schooler focus on an at least one area of specialization, and where multi-activity overscheduling is common, it's not surprising in some ways for teachers to want their thing to be a child's primary thing.
High-level teachers filtering out the less dedicated students is a win-win, both for the teacher and the student.
I think the point of contention I have is that you're asking people to commit so wholeheartedly at such a young age. And while that may align most closely with Suzuki's actual teachings, I'm not sure if it's necessarily healthy in all cases. But, even in saying that, I question if it's true: why is American culture so obsessed with the idea of doing multiple things with mediocrity, as opposed to picking one and becoming really good at it? I have noticed this in my teachings; that many kids these days are thrown into 10 different extracurriculars but they never become particularly good at any one thing.
And while some may argue that this provides a more broad education, I feel that in some cases, it creates a sort of paralysis from having so many options.
The more I think about it, the more I start to agree with the philosophy of the school in question.
Doesn't the growing credentialism of our supposed meritocracy, degree inflation (where people used to be able to make a living with a high school education, but now increasingly, seemingly credentials beyond an bachelor's degree are seen as a minimum), and an early funneling and hyperspecialization mean that a broad liberal arts education is seen as kind of useless, or something that only a rich kid or a delusional kid can get.
Why do kids and their insane parents start essentially planning for college while they're in the womb? I think we live in a zero-sum culture where worker alienation (in the Marxist sense) is at an all-time high. The insane parents are reacting to the world around them, and trying to protect their kids by hyperspecializing them at such a young age.
Maybe I'm off base...
Going back to violin (or learning any instrument, for that matter), some people in other online communities have told me of teachers who can be very hard on young children to an unhealthy degree. I've never seen this situation in my real life, but someone online told me of teachers who may make their beginning six-year-olds practice open strings for months before doing anything else sorta thing. This is an extreme example, but you get the idea. That said, it is not unreasonable for a teacher to expect that a beginner practice 15-20 minutes 6 days a week. So what I'm saying is that violin should be prioritized enough that the student practices a certain amount daily/weekly, but it absolutely doesn't have to be the center of their life.
The teachers with preprofessional studios rarely have to tell their students that violin is a priority. They're already of an age and seriousness that they can be expected to balance their activities accordingly.
I really do have to wonder what kind of parents commit their four-year-olds to any activity with that kind of grave seriousness, though. I consider myself to be at least moderately involved in the rat race, but even I instinctively recoil from that.
Two stanzas from 'Prayer Before Birth' by the Irish poet Louis MacNeice keep coming up in my mind:
"I am not yet born, console me.
I fear that the human race may with tall walls wall me,
with strong drugs dope me, with wise lies lure me,
on black racks rack me, in blood-baths roll me.
I am not yet born; provide me
With water to dandle me, grass to grow for me, trees to talk
to me, sky to sing to me, birds and a white light
in the back of my mind to guide me."
QUOTE: Mary Ellen Goree · May 9, 2023, 11:04
" . . . My hope is that through the discipline of learning to play the violin and the joy of hearing and performing great music, my students develop skills to help them succeed in adulthood and the heart to live a fully human life inside and outside their chosen vocations."
I once viewed a program where Charlie Rose was interviewing Isaac Stern. During the interview, Stern made the case that those involved in music often tend to excel in teamwork. I definitely think this to be the case, and having been involved in quality management, what a difference my sense of teamwork has made for me. Iit's been indispensable in my profession as a statistician and a quality manager!
Public-school varsity sports are "sport first" in the sense that missing practice is not an option. And that makes sense, too. You're committing to a team.
Where I draw the line is prioritizing the sport or the instrument above academics. If your kid is an outlier like Hilary Hahn or Simone Biles, that's one thing. But by definition we're not talking mostly about outliers.
I teach university chemistry and my students in the fall term are all brand-new freshmen chemistry majors. I actually tell them "math first."
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Although I have not taken my students so far as Mary Ellen, a few have subsequently gone far..
I always said "play it like me, or better": some did, the others enjoyed trying!