Header Image - Kathleen Schoen

Category Archives

11 Articles

On Being an Adult Suzuki Student

On Being an Adult Suzuki Student

guest post from my student Andrea MacDonald

True musical joy could never have been possible for me without the Suzuki method. After over 15 years of playing recorder in duets and large and small ensembles, I started over agin at the beginning. But maybe I should back up a bit.

I have always been musical. Growing up I sang in choirs, in musical theatre, and in pop bands. I joined a Balinese gamelan where we learned entire concerts by heart. I memorized very quickly and retained very well. My ear was my superpower. I was the first person “off book” in choir and my friends delighted in my ability to name any popular song in the first note or two. But I could not read music.

It wasn’t that I hadn’t tried. I’d taken piano and sight-singing lessons but these ended in frustration. When my husband, a professional musician, suggested I try a “one line” instrument I took up the recorder and fell in love with it. I was already a huge fan of Baroque music and it seemed like a natural fit.

With only one stave to deal with, things improved somewhat. I joined a quartet and a large ensemble. My good ear served me well but I quickly hit a sight-reading wall. Despite having help “on tap” with my husband and years of faithful practice, things never got easier. I was frustrated and ashamed. It was emotionally difficult to practice and I felt stuck, always learning the notes and never getting a chance to work on the actual music.

Finally, at 52, I got some psycho-educational testing done and was diagnosed with ADHD and something called a “severe visual processing disorder”. My fears were confirmed; sight reading would never get easier for me. I needed a different approach. 

I didn’t think anyone would be willing to teach the Suzuki method to an adult but I found a wonderful teacher, Kathleen Schoen, in Alberta. We started lessons at the beginning of June and I burned through Level One on alto in about two weeks, easily learning two to three songs per day. We added the soprano book to my to-do list and I began working in both voices on Level Two. 

Here I received my first shock:  one of the pieces (Handel Water Music Bourée) was something I had just played with my large consort. How on earth could this be only Level Two? Of course the music got harder in Level Two but unlike before, I was not frustrated. I did not feel defeated.

I’m a teacher myself. I teach seniors how to use technology like iPads and iPhones and I spend quite a bit of time building good foundations before moving on to higher concepts. I was extremely impressed with the layout and progression of the Suzuki method, which had clearly been very carefully designed for a logical and gentle progression through the music. 

Kathleen then suggested I purchase the music for the remaining levels as inspiration and in Level Six I found a movement of Vivaldi’s Oboe Concerto, a particular favourite, that I had long dreamed of playing (in fact I had memorized the entire thing) but never imagined I would ever be able to play. Now it’s on my long-term to-do list!

The Suzuki method changed everything for me. I no longer had to drag myself to the practice room and endure frustration and tears while trying to stay focussed for a scant 30 minutes. I was now forcing myself to stop after an hour to save my hands and arms from strain. My self-esteem soared! I was no longer dreaming of a future where I might one day be able to work on  music that I loved. I was already doing it! As I no longer had to work at interpreting musical text, I had the brain-space left to instead focus on interpreting the music. 

It’s fall now and I have about four songs to go in each of the soprano and alto books. Music is no longer an impenetrable wall but rather a puzzle to be solved and I know that with time and attention I will “solve” it. I would highly recommend the Suzuki method to any adult interesting in learning music. If I had one wish it would be for a place for adult Suzuki students to chat. Just like the kids, we need peers to accompany us on the journey.

Why I believe the Suzuki method is excellent for adults:

  • Very little time spent working on “kids’ songs” before moving to more engaging music
  • Much faster progression to more advanced pieces than traditional method
  • No written music to “scare” the student who may jump to conclusions with fears like:  it’s too low/high, I don’t know that time/key signature, I can’t do trills, etc.
  • No music books to “forget” so as long as you have your instrument with you, you can practice
  • The ability to practice without your instrument by listening, meaning you can be practicing almost always
  • Without needing to read/interpret musical text, the student can focus on the physicality of playing and the sounds they produce

Fall 2020 lesson scheduling and start-up

Scheduling: 

Most years, I will just have all my students continue in their same lesson time as the previous year unless they require a change.

This year, I have a change that will require a revision of my teaching schedule.

The Augustana campus of U of A, where I teach sessionally, has revised its B.Mus degree to focus on applied pedagogy and studio teaching. As part of this, they have asked me to start a program that can provide Suzuki method teacher training and demonstration classes. This is very good news for the future of Suzuki music education in Alberta, but it does mean that I will have to change my university teaching day to Wednesday instead of Tuesday the way it has been previously.

Rather than just asking all my Wednesday people to switch to Tuesdays, I would like revise my entire teaching schedule, and give everyone a change to change their lesson time to one that might be more convenient, while things are up in the air. To this end, I will be asking everyone to give me three different times when they could come for a lesson, in order of preference. I will collect these times and try to create a schedule that is the most convenient for everyone. In order to see all the times in one place and make sure I haven’t missed anyone, I will be asking you to fill out a Google form with this information. Here is the link: https://forms.gle/QBj9xKFeNf2pUY9q9

Summer duet project:

In our last lessons in June, I was telling all of you that I wanted to try and set up some opportunities to meet outside and play duets, since we had not really seen each other in person since we all went to on line lessons mid March. Since I am now writing this at the beginning of August, it is pretty obvious that I haven’t done this yet. Unfortunately, life caught up to me  – my husband, who had been on the waiting list for open heart surgery when the pandemic closed everything except emergency services at the hospitals, received a call at the end of June when things opened up, telling him to be ready for surgery mid-July. So everything came to a halt while we dealt with this. I am grateful that if it had to be done so suddenly, it did happen in the summer when our schedules were less busy. I would have had to take several weeks off had it happened during the lesson term.

I still want to do a duet project as part of our lesson start-up at the end of August, and get together outdoors before the weather gets too cold. Here’s the plan:

  1. Have our first lesson the week of August 31, and organize our duet assignment.
  2. Work with a recording of the second part the following week.
  3. Meet in person outdoors week of September 14, weather permitting.
Developing independence:

I have always considered one of my most important goals as a teacher is to help my students learn to work independently. In order for this to happen, a student needs these skills:

  • be able to learn by ear (hear pitch and key relationships, rhythm and meter, articulation, phrasing, dynamics, and other nuances )
  • be able to listen to themselves objectively
  • be able to self assess and make corrections without prompting
  • be able to recognize previously learned patterns in new contexts
  • be able to recognize when you don’t know something, and know where to go to find out.
  • eventually, be able to read music

One of the best tools for developing the objective listening and self assessment is making recordings of your playing and listening to them. This is why we do this as a very important part of the graduation program. Back in January, I was drawing up a plan for having my students do more of this kind of work. And then COVID-19 came along, and we were all on line.  To make up for the shortcomings of sound quality with lessons over the internet, I had many of you experiment with sending me recordings, and put a large amount of material up as on line resources, but it was all done in a hurry and not as well organized as I would have liked. Now I would like to take a deep breath and approach this in a more organized way.

So here’s the plan:

  • There will be the occasional week where our lesson does not involve meeting at the same time.
  • Instead, you will send me a recording of a specific practice project.
  • I will send you written feedback and/or a demonstration recording.
  • You will send me a second recording, showing changes based on the feedback received.
  • We will review that recording together as part of your next regularly scheduled lesson.

Unlike an in-person lesson, where all playing and feedback is immediate, this asynchronous lesson will allow you to listen to yourself after you record, think about whether  you are really accomplishing your goals in playing the piece, and make another attempt (or two or three, over several days) until you are satisfied enough to send it to me.

Scheduling asynchronous lessons for the weeks when there are statutory holidays will also help us to keep our momentum going over breaks without needing to reschedule lessons. I will still have extra lesson days as usual! Asynchronous lessons will be in addition to, not instead of, extra lesson days.

 

 

Music is a Language – Listening is Important

If I was talking to you, and I suddenly paused in mid sentence, you would probably be able to anticipate the next ________ I was going to say.

This is because you know the language well, and you recognize common phrases and patterns instantly.

If I sang, “Happy birthday, to you, Happy birthday to you …..” you would probably be able to finish the song for me.

You learned this song the same way you learned your language. By hearing it often in the same context, you began to expect to hear it again in similar situations, and could predict when people would probably sing it. When it was sung, you always heard the entire melody, so you knew when it would begin, when it would end, and the special place in the middle that was always different depending on whose birthday it was. And it felt good to sing it, because it was in an environment of happy celebration (which often included cake!)

But why stop with just “Happy Birthday to You”?

You can learn any music the same way that you learned “Happy Birthday.”

You can understand where it begins, where it ends, and the special places in the middle where something different happens. You can start without being prompted, and pick it up at any point to finish it. You can do this with a simple folk song or with a piece of complex classical music.

All you need to do is listen to it.

In the same way that as a baby you listened to your parents talking and absorbed your native language easily and accurately, you can listen to music and absorb the vocabulary and grammar of the language of music.

Every person can.

All you need to do is listen.

But you have to listen more than just once. Just like babies hear words many, many times before they begin to imitate the sounds, you need to listen to music repeatedly, until you can anticipate the next sound as easily as you can anticipate my next _______.

Then you will recognize the same patterns in other pieces of music, and anticipate when they will happen.
And you will be pleasantly surprised if a composer does something slightly different from what you are expecting, and show you something new! In this way you will learn more patterns, the same way that we learn the meaning of a new word from its context in a sentence.

Congratulations! You can now speak the language of music.

Effortlessly, the same way that you understand what you are now reading.


OK, I get it. Now how do I do it?

Your teacher will have many resources for helping you organize your listening. Approaches will vary depending on the needs of individual students. Here are some strategies to make learning easy by setting yourself up with a comprehensive listening program.

Get your playback devices organized

Download your assigned playlist on to the device you will actually use to listen to it. Yes, download. Do not rely on streaming services. If your computer is in an office where you never listen to music, put it on your phone or tablet. Parents, make sure you both have all the music on both your phones. so it is instantly available at all times. If your child has their own device, make sure they have access to the music on it, but do not expect them to be responsible for doing all their listening unsupervised. Use decent external speakers or headphones – do not rely on the tinny internal speaker on most mobile devices. If you use CDs, burn several copies – one for the car, one for the stereo, one for backup when one gets lost or damaged.

Listen repeatedly

Set your device to play the same track or playlist on repeat. You need to hear the same tune many times before you can confidently anticipate what comes next. Set a goal – listening to a piece 100 times before trying to play it yourself is not unreasonable.

Listen ahead

Don’t just listen to the piece you are working on right now. Alternate between listening to your current working piece and listening to the entire playlist. This allows you to look forward to the pieces you will be learning soon, reviews your memory of past pieces, and avoids listening fatigue from too much constant repetition of just one thing. Listen to other pieces for your instrument as well, not just the assigned repertoire.

Consider your listening environment

Listening in the car is super convenient. It is a wonderful way to seize an opportunity, so do take advantage of it. But remember that inside a vehicle is a noisy environment – engine noise, traffic noise, etc. will mask many of of the expressive elements of the music. This is fine if all you want to do is get to know the pitches and rhythm. But if you also want to anticipate dynamic variations, articulations, vibrato, and other nuances of phrasing that are not always written in the score, you need to listen in an environment where it is quiet enough to hear them. I recommend having a quiet time at home when you make a habit of listening to music.

Use both passive and active listening

Let the music play in the background during quiet activities and meals, and when you are sitting in the car. This is passive listening. Active listening is when you engage with the music as it is playing. For a beginner, this can be as simple as beating time with feet or hands while listening, or moving freely to the music. More advanced students can alternate playing a section of the piece with listening to a section of the piece, or play along with the whole thing to feel how the melody fits with the accompaniment.

Listen to a variety of versions of the same piece

Listening to different recordings of the same piece will draw your attention to the variety of nuances used by individual performers. Imitating these different ways of playing the same passage help you make your own artistic decisions about how to play it yourself.

Did you find this article helpful? You can download it here as a printable .pdf

Review in practice: why and how.

Review in practice: why and how.

Reviewing previously learned material in practice:

When you are a beginner, you don’t know many things yet, and all of them are new. 

So when you practice, you practice everything. It doesn’t take very much time.

Then you get to a point where you know more than you have time to play in one practice session. This is when you need to organize your material on a rotation, for constant review.

There are two categories of review: patterns & pieces

Patterns:

These are the building blocks of music. Scales, triads, and other patterns recur in different contexts in every piece of music. 

We extract these patterns from the pieces and isolate them for individual practice. This is a very methodical and efficient way of practice to develop facility on the instrument and to train the ear and fingers to expect typical pitch and fingering combinations. 

Pieces:

Patterns, however, are meaningless unless placed in the context of an expressive melody. So we also need to review our pieces. 

You know how  sometimes you meet someone in the grocery store, and you feel you ought to know them, but can’t remember who they are? It may be someone you know from work, but in a different location you can’t recall  their name. (And feel slightly embarrassed.)

In the same way, you may meet a pattern that you already know in a new piece, but you don’t recognize it and need to learn it all over again because the new context makes it feel very unfamiliar. 

This is why we need to review all our known pieces, so that we can become familiar with all the different contexts where we have to be able to recognize a pattern. 

And we need to review them in different settings and venues: practice, lesson, concert, group, festival, exam … so that we can recognize these things in any setting, and not draw a blank like you did with your acquaintance in the grocery store. 

Result:

If we review both patterns and pieces, we become very good at recognizing known patterns in a variety of contexts. This makes it easier to learn new pieces quickly.

If we don’t review, learning new pieces takes a very long time, as you have to do everything as if it was for the very first time. 

OK, I get it. Now how do I do it?

Your teacher will have many resources for  helping you organize your practice time. Approaches will vary depending on the needs of individual students.

Here’s the  basic idea:

  • Take all the pieces and exercises you know
  • Divide them into groups based on the main technical point required to play them
        • e.g. high register, low register, fast scale passages, sustained tone, specific keys, etc..
  • Play a different one from each group every day
  • In this way, you will play everything you know over the course of a few days, while reviewing all your technical abilities every day.  

Some pieces may exercise more than one technical point. These ones can get swapped around between groups or become a group on their own.

Newer pieces can be in a group that gets played very day, until they are as familiar as the older ones. Then you can put them in a group where they get played after a longer interval.

If you find a piece that you feel that you have forgotten, you can add it to the every day group until it is back to being familiar again. 

You can combine groups into bigger categories and review pieces after a longer interval. This will exercise your long term recall. If you find yourself having to re-learn pieces after a long interval, make your categories smaller so the pieces rotate more often. 

I find this system to be a good indicator of when a student is ready to go on to something new. If the review of the known scale patterns and pieces is completed quickly and confidently, there will be time left in the lesson or practice to start a new project. If the review takes a long time, and spots need to be re-learned, that will use all the available time. And that is OK, because that is what that student needs to be doing before going on to new things.

Did you find this article helpful? You can download it here as a printable .pdf

ORDA – Open Recorder Days Amsterdam

ORDA – Open Recorder Days Amsterdam
All the Suzuki Recorder teachers and students at ORDA. Countries represented: Netherlands, Great Britain, Iceland, Peru, Brazil, Mexico, Canada, United States

Every two years, the Conservatorium van Amsterdam hosts the Open Recorder Days Amsterdam, and becomes a hotbed of recorder activity for four days in October.

Concerts, competitions, instrument displays, masterclasses and teacher seminars attract recorder players of all ages and experience from around the world.

I was privileged to be invited to present a session at the ORDA teacher’s conference in 2019. The conference theme was Teaching Improvisation. There was a wide range of approaches to improvisation described by teachers from Canada, Brazil, Czech Republic, Hungary, Germany, and the Netherlands. My Suzuki colleague, Renata Pereira from Brazil, and I both demonstrated an aural approach to improvisation, with the emphasis on creating an environment where students can experiment freely. Many of the teachers from the European conservatories used graphic notation and abstract images to help students break away from the printed page. And of course, there were teachers who used the historical treatises on ornamentation as a stepping stone to improvisation. The ORDA conference has posted video recordings of the presentations on their website.

There were concerts all day – invited artists, Fringe performers, and students performed a wide range of music from medieval to modern. I attended masterclasses in Renaissance divisions with Vincent Parilla, Baroque repertoire with Sébastien Marq, and  modern works with Walter van Hauwe.  Sébastien Marq was a most animated teacher, and brought wonderful new life to familiar repertoire.

The Suzuki Recorder community was well represented at this event. There were Suzuki students from Brazil performing in the competition and Suzuki teachers from Peru participating in the performances. All the Suzuki Recorder teacher trainers in the world (All 5 of us! One each from Great Britain, Netherlands, Brazil, United States, and Canada) were at ORDA, so we took advantage of this historic moment to have a business meeting, hosted by Dutch teacher trainer Jaap Delver at his lovely home in Breukelen. Jaap arranged for us to take a “field trip” to Utrecht, home of Jacob van Eyck, and  Dr. Theimo Wind,  the renowned expert on van Eyck, gave us a guided tour of all the van Eyck sites.

I highly recommend that every recorder player should attend ORDA at least once in your life – it is the most inspiring musical event I have ever participated in.

I gratefully acknowledge travel assistance received for this project from the Edmonton Arts Council grant program.

Piers Adams of Red Priest: Workshop notes

Piers Adams of Red Priest: Workshop notes

I recently had the pleasure attending a workshop with the amazing recorder soloist Piers Adams, which was sponsored by the Edmonton Recorder Society while Red Priest was in town. This was my third workshop with Piers Adams over the course of several years in a variety of locations. The man is a force of nature as far as recorder playing is concerned – I have nothing but admiration for his command of the instrument and the way he fully embraces the expressive and improvisational philosophy of Baroque music. It was fascinating to hear many of the same things that he had said in previous workshops, but distilled by more years of experience. I took copious notes, and here they are:

Piers Adams Workshop – Edmonton Recorder Society March 3, 2017

Details! – this is the 10% that takes you from amateur to pro.

Breathing:

  • It is all from the diaphragm
  • Relaxation is a baseline state – use sparks of tension for effects, then return to relaxation
  • One hand on chest and one on belly – you should feel action in the belly when breathing, not in the chest (can also lie down with book on belly)

Blowing:

  1. deep sigh with loose lips – place recorder on lips – explore and experiment with single note: no articulation, start strong and allow decay to go flat
  2. repeat “sigh” note with crescendo & diminuendo – go for shape and let the pitch change
  3. repeat – stop blowing when you hear the more start to go flat
  4. repeat – open your mouth at the end of the note to release air before going flat

Now go to the music – just air, no articulation:

  1. play first note as a “sigh” note, with cresc & dim, hold for length of phrase
  2. then move your fingers to hear the whole melody
  3. add a slight push of air on the downbeat of each bar (go back to single note)
  4. add fingers back in – feel slight stress on downbeat from extra push of air
  5. for complete control of phrase shape, refer to handout of methodical possibilities over 8 beats

Contrast a straight air stream with shaping air & punchy bits

Make the air shape the phrase the way you want it – then use alternate fingerings to correct any pitch problems. Do not compromise your phrasing or play tentatively because you are afraid of going out of tune.

Now add articulation:

  1. go back to the first note – just play the rhythm of the phrase with articulation using only the first pitch
  2. “breath is the engine of the articulation” – a slight push of air through the tongue action will be reflected in a slight puff of the cheeks
  3. softest articulation is “n” (try no-no or do-no, pinching your nose so you sound like you have a cold)
  4. then add the fingers for the various pitches once you have your articulation going on one note
  5. then consider where you want TuDu (or DuNo for the softest possible articulation)
  • in TD, TDD, TDDD, the Tu “spawns” any number of Dus.
  • For pick-ups, put Tu on the anacrusis and Du on the downbeat.
  • “Tu” is a very strong articulation, favoured by some performers. Others prefer using mostly “Du” or “No”, and using push of air from diaphragm to give added strength when desired. These are schools of thought  / personal preference.
  • for staccato, “nut” with a quick open mouth on the “t”
  • accents are created with air, not tongue
  • slap tongue on bass: “t” beatbox style + “hoo” of air = practice separately then connect
  1. Double tonguing: KuGu is a softer version of TuDu. On upbeats: KD ,TGD, KDGD, TGDGD
  2. consider how air flows through the articulation
  • is there a separation?
  • does following note start instantly after tail of previous note?
  • allowing previous note to droop in pitch slightly before next note starts is OK, also accents that create a moment of sharpness – average pitch is good, these are shape moments, not poor intonation moments
  • playing in jazz styles – pitch bends and fall-offs are part of the style – relax and be jazzy (Slow Fox piece is excellent for working on this)
  • does previous not give a little push back up before the articulation? (not desired)
  1. in Renaissance music, the phrase structure is often Q / A followed by a short “tail”, which can be played staccato.

Vibrato

  • Is an ornament or an aid to phrase shaping, not a mask for poor intonation.
  • most vibratos are to much above the pitch and not enough below
  • practice going below the pitch so far the sound cuts out completely

Fingers

  • baseline relaxed position – recorder supported (thumbrest recommended), fingers pressing holes, then relaxed until they are just able to seal the air
  • action is a quick flick up, as precise as flicking a wad of paper across the room, then instantly return to relaxed position
  • other fingers remain relaxed – no tensing in response to surrounding action
  • no snatching at notes – that makes tension – go slowly with very quick actions between notes – wait, and then very precise
  • fingers hanging over edge are ore relaxed than fingers curved to use tip on hole – middle fingers can be more forward to do this
  • exercise – pick 2 notes at random, alternate working on precise finger action with no tension in fingers that aren’t moving – add a third note, then a fourth, etc. Random patterns good prep for contemporary music.
  • when drilling technical spots, make sure you are also doing the nuance as well as the action

Thinking

  • mental focus = precision
  • there is a tempo when you can do it with no errors

Slurs

  • in new music for recorder, feel free to break up long slurs with legato articulations – composers do not often fully understand the instrument
  • slur up = mouth shape oh-ee (feel like you are whistling the high note)

Printable PDF of above notes

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.

Baroque flute lessons

I finally acquired an inexpensive Aulos baroque flauto traverso pitched at a=415. I have been wanting to do this for some time, in order to have an instrument that I can loan out to interested students. These instruments are not readily available  – I only acquired my handmade instrument after playing an order with an instrument maker and waiting for two years. Now that mass production instruments are available, I can offer the experience of playing a period instrument along with the performance practice instruction I provide when teaching the Bach, Handel, and Blavet sonatas to my older students.

My first student to try the instrument was featured on the Edmonton Suzuki Flute and Recorder Society fall chamber music concert. We are playing a duet by Hotteterre – she is playing the Aulos flute, which is a copy of a Stanesby Junior in plastic, and I am playing my boxwood Rottenburgh copy by Rod Cameron. She is also reading from a facsimile of the original publication, which is in french violin clef.

“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.