The Three “Can”s in “Every Child Can!”

When I was preparing to teach the Every Child Can! class for the first time, I was also reading the book Drive by Dan Pink.  In Drive, Dan Pink reviewed much of the current (at the time of writing) literature about human motivation, and came to the conclusion that there are three things that an activity needs to have in order for people to feel motivated to engage in it. Those three things are: a sense of mastery, an sense of autonomy, and sense of connection (being part of something bigger than you are).

When I reviewed the basics of the Suzuki philosophy with this in mind, I realized that there are also three “can”s in Every Child Can!

  1. I can do it – mastery
  2. I can do it all by myself – autonomy
  3. I can share it – community

1. Mastery – “I can do it!”

This depends on the teacher’s training and creativity.

The teacher sets long term goals for the student, and then breaks down the path to those goals into the smallest possible steps. If those steps are small enough for the student to do successfully at that moment, then students will develop a sense of mastery of the immediate task at hand, as well as believe that they are capable of mastering future tasks.

2. Autonomy – “I can do it all by myself!”

This depends on listening to the reference recording.

If students have listened to the reference recording often enough to have an accurate memory of the music, they will receive immediate positive feedback when their efforts start to sound similar to the recording. This positive feedback is immediate because it comes from within the student,  instead of waiting for the approval of a teacher or parent. Students who can evaluate the success of their efforts with an immediate comparison to a clearly defined goal are the ones who will eventually be able to practice independently, and enjoy practicing more because they have a clear sense of progress.

3. Community – “I can share it.”

This depends on playing with other people.

Music is a social art – it requires an audience to be complete. A student’s first audience is the immediate family. Suzuki programs expand that audience in a very organic way as the students grow, beginning with playing for each other in group lesson. This eventually leads to preparing to perform out in the community, participating in other performing groups, attending institutes that draw students from a larger region, and possibly attending international conferences.

I am sometimes asked for tips on how to motivate a student who is reluctant to practice. If we look at these three points in that student’s situation, we will often find that there is a place where the implementation of one of these points can be strengthened. The Suzuki philosophy follows all three of these points for maximum motivation and participation, through teacher training, aural learning, and group lessons. If all three of these aspects of the Suzuki approach are implemented carefully, most students and their families will be highly motivated to participate fully.

Some thoughts on the implementation of the three “can”s:

1. Mastery: Mindless drill or developing skill?

The goal here is to help students become confident in their competence. Teachers need to analyze what the students are doing, to discover the root cause of any difficulty the students may be having. The problem may be as small as a transition between two notes. Isolating the problem and assigning a specific number of correct repetitions will solve the problem quickly, if the individual repetitions are short and students understands exactly what needs to happen for them to be successful. Short specific practice assignments are also easy to turn into games and make them more fun for students, adding to the enjoyment of developing mastery.

On the other hand, practice assignments that are long and lack specific goals can become very frustrating for students. Repeating an entire song takes more time, and if a student is not certain of why the repetitions are needed, there is less sense of accomplishment when the assignment is completed. Suzuki method places a large amount of value on review of known repertoire. Recent research in cognitive psychology confirms that recalling previously learned material strengthens long term memory. This also builds student confidence, in both performance of review material and in recognizing previously learned patterns in new pieces. Pattern recognition is a key aspect of learning. Teachers can help students develop pattern recognition skills  by assigning review  pieces that contain material that is used in their newest piece, or transforming old pieces by changing octave or key to create new patterns using older material.

2. Autonomy: Aural learning vs rote learning

Students need to be able to learn new things independently. Teachers need to teach students not to depend on the teacher. Aural learning is very good for developing independence. This requires regular consistent listening to the reference recordings. When students have a clear model of what they are trying to achieve in their aural memory, they can engage in some trial and error exploration confident that they will recognize when they have arrived at the correct result. To quote Dr. Robert Duke, “All learning is error correction”. A mistake is not a mistake, it is an opportunity to discover what you need to know.

It is very difficult for teachers (and sometimes even more so for parents) to allow a student to engage in trial and error  learning. It is very tempting to just give students the correct answer, to “help” them and speed up the process. All this does is help the student become dependent on being told the right answer. This is rote learning: being trained to follow instructions, not being shown how to discover how to do it  yourself. I am very distressed when I have a student stop abruptly in the middle of a piece, say “I don’t know the rest” and wait expectantly for me to provide the next note. Teachers can avoid this by providing a strong foundation of skills for the student. Pattern recognition skills will allow the student to hear groups of notes as familiar patterns instead of one note at a time, much in the same way they we recognize entire words when reading instead of having to sound out each letter phonetically. Pattern recognition includes common scale and triad patterns that indicate the key of the piece. The appearance of a note that is not in the key becomes an indicator of a key change, not an exception to be learned by rote. Students with these skills will limit their choices when figuring things out, increasing their chances of finding the correct solution more quickly. Students who have not had a chance to develop these skills will engage in random guessing with limited success, leading to frustration and a dependence on being given the correct solution by rote.

3. Community: Feeling our heartbeat together

Playing in a group is the one thing that will keep students playing music into their adult lives. Not all students will become professional musicians, but all do need to have the skills to be able to get together with a group of friends and play music together. It is this social aspect of music making that is most enjoyable, and it becomes most important when students reach adolescence and start to turn away from their parents and reach out to their peer groups. There are often community band and orchestra programs that are excellent for adult amateurs, but what happens if they meet on a night when you have a conflicting commitment, or there isn’t a program in your community? This is where playing chamber music can play a very important role. In chamber music, a small group of musicians lead each other without requiring a conductor. Much of the chamber music literature was written for home performance for the personal pleasure of the performers. Giving students the skills to access this extensive library of music to play with their friends will give them the ability to enjoy music making for their entire lives.

With chamber music as a long term goal, teachers need to look at which skills are required to play in small ensembles successfully. Feeling the pulse of the music as a group without relying on a conductor is an important one, perhaps more important than we realize, according to recent research by Dr. Laurel Trainor of the McMaster Institute for Music and the Mind. Her study of toddlers and their caregivers demonstrated that engaging in synchronized rhythm activities increased demonstrations of empathetic behaviour. This training can begin as early as the Suzuki Early Childhood Education class, where infants bounce on their parents knees in time to the music. The challenge for the instrument group teacher is to continue with activities that develop a group sense of pulse and response to each other. Students also need to be able to hear that their individual efforts make a difference to the sound of the entire group. There is sometimes a tendency to rely on watching the teacher’s fingers for ensemble cues. Focussing on feeling the group pulse to anticipate the next beat and hearing the precise beginnings and endings of each note gives students skills that can be used when there is no teacher present.

And who knows, if feeling the rhythm together increases empathetic behaviour, perhaps this is how we can help music to change the world.

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