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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.

Longer lesson or more practice?

Where should I spend my time?

I recently had a parent ask me if she could pay for a longer lesson time. This surprised me for two reasons:

  1. Parents are usually trying to find the most inexpensive way to get music instruction, not looking for ways to make it cost more!
  2. The student was not at a level where I usually recommend a longer lesson in order to cover the amount of material.

So I began to think:

  • This parent obviously values the time I spend with her child in the lesson.
  • Because the child is still very young, we spend a certain amount of lesson time drilling spots to establish physical coordination and kinaesthetic memory.
  • If the parent took the extra lesson time that she wanted to purchase from me, and spent it doing a few more repetitions in a slightly longer daily practice, then the student would not need to do so many repetitions in the lesson.
  • This would leave more lesson time available to introduce new things.
  • Therefore, it would be more economical for the parent and more enjoyable for the student to increase their practice time instead of their lesson time.

That was the best solution in this case. But when do we need to increase the length of the lesson?

  • When the student has prepared the practice assignment well, but we run out of time in the lesson to hear everything that was assigned.
  • When we have enough time in the lesson to hear a well prepared practice assignment, but we run out of time to include a necessary next step (such as music reading, or scales, or supplementary study material).
  • When the student and his family struggle with finding enough time to practice consistently, and cannot come to the lesson with the practice assignment prepared well enough to leave time for anything else. In this case, their lesson may be the only time in the week when they can focus on their practice points for enough time to be able to notice improvements. So instead of teaching the same lesson over and over for many months, we can create some slow steady progress by ensuring at least one careful practice session each week as part of the lesson.
  • When a student’s learning style is such that she just needs a bit more time in order to absorb the necessary information. This is where a teacher needs to examine her approach to the lesson. Sometimes this situation is better dealt with by teaching in smaller steps rather than increasing the lesson length. (This approach can also help when there are economic barriers to lengthening a student’s lesson.)

So my equation for lesson length calculations might look something like this:

L(Lesson length) P(practice assignment assessment) T(time available for new material)

When T = 0 then we need to make the lesson longer

P is affected by two things:

  1. effectiveness of student home practice
  2. efficiency of teacher’s practice assignment

Changing the value of P can allow more to be accomplished in a short lesson before it needs to become longer.

“Perhaps it is music that will save the world.”

“Perhaps it is music that will save the world.” 

Pablo Casals said this, after hearing the students of the Talent Education movement in Japan, April 1961. 

I write this on Remembrance Day. This is a day when I reflect on the effects of war. Not just to appreciate the sacrifices and commitment of the military, but also to remember how war and other acts of violence affect civilians. In my immediate family, we count both WWII veterans and WWII refugees, people who have given me personal stories about their war experience.  Some years I am thankful for movements towards peace in the world, and other years I am worried when events start to look similar to past events that foreshadowed future conflict.

This year, my student groups met to rehearse on the evening before November 11. I was thinking about Remembrance Day, and following current events, and hoping for a peaceful future for my students. This brought to mind what Pablo Casals said to Shinichi Suzuki after hearing a student performance: “Perhaps music can save the world.” So I took a moment with each class to speak to the students. This is what I said:

Tomorrow is Remembrance Day. On this day, there are certain things that we do to remind ourselves about past wars and our hope for future peace. This reminded me of what Pablo Casals said to Dr. Suzuki: “Perhaps music can save the world.”

Think about this, and think about what we are doing here tonight.

  • We are listening carefully to each other.
  • We are taking turns, alternating between leading and supporting each other.
  • We are anticipating what our colleagues are trying to do, and helping them achieve it.
  • We listen respectfully to suggestions to improve the performance of our group.
  • We are flexible, and often try different solutions before we solve a problem.
  • We share the same goals.
  • We are cooperating to create something beautiful and expressive.

Do you think, if our world leaders all did these things too, our world would be a better place?

We are not world leaders. Some of you may grow up to become one! But what we can all do here and now, is take what we do in our group class, and use it to make our own small corner of the world a better place. Take this thought with you tomorrow, for Remembrance Day.

Am I a “music vendor”?  No. I am a Suzuki teacher. 

I was recently called a “music vendor” by a school administrator who was searching for a term to describe the music teachers that were on the school’s referral list for lessons. But in my years of work as a  Suzuki teacher and member of many Suzuki organizations, I don’t think I have ever actually sold anyone any music. Thinking about why I disagreed with this term, though, was very helpful in clarifying my thoughts about what it is I do.

What I offer is a relationship with a family and a student that can be longer and deeper than any other teacher. A child can start with me at birth in the Suzuki Early Childhood Education class, take lessons on an instrument starting at age 3, and continue until they graduate from high school, or even continue into college if they wish to continue with advanced study or teacher training. No public school teacher can offer the gift of such a long term relationship with a child that also includes the parents.

It is the Suzuki training that gives me the skills and resources to enter into a relationship with a child and family so early, to best take advantage of the enormous amount of learning that can take place in early childhood. It is the Suzuki training that allows me to maintain that relationship with strong long term goals and the tools to present those goals in easily attained small steps. And it is the Suzuki training that develops independence through aural learning, so that the affirmation of achievement and goals eventually comes from within the students’ own experience, not from extrinsic motivation.

Yes, I do charge a fee for lessons. Until we have the utopian moneyless society depicted in Star Trek, I need to use money as a form of exchange in order obtain the necessities for living, including the time I require to devote to my students. And yes, that fee is set based on an average number of lessons or weeks of teaching in a year. But a lesson is more than just a set number of minutes alone with your teacher. A lesson can also be a performance, a rehearsal, a class, a workshop, an ensemble, or any other opportunity to experience the expressive and communicative power of the music you create.

I feel that it is my duty as a teacher to provide as many varied opportunities of this nature as possible. Not all of my students will be able to take advantage of all of them, but making them available is part of what my lesson fee provides. Some years some students may have many opportunities for extra learning, and other years some students may have fewer. But the choices will always be available, and if we all take the long term view of our teacher/student/family relationship, it will all work out evenly over time.

This is why I have stopped tracking the number of lessons for each student. I will teach for a set number of weeks, and offer several “extra lesson days” for those who need to reschedule. Those who take advantage of the extra lesson days  may end up with more lessons than those who choose not use them. Rehearsals, recitals, festivals, workshops, chamber ensembles, masterclasses, and groups are all included in the ongoing lesson experience. Students who attend these events will learn more than those who do not attend. Student families who are actively engaged with what I provide will get their “money’s worth” out of their fee, more so than by counting the number of lessons or the length of each lesson.

So if you want to go to a “music vendor”, and buy a set number of lesson minutes, go to a different teacher, not me. But if you want a long term relationship with a mentor who will provide you with many opportunities to grow through music, let’s get started!