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Thursday, June 14, 2012

Lazy Daze of Summer

For most of us in the United States, school terms are over and the summer has officially begun. [Sigh!] Although I have very fond memories of my childhood summers, as a teacher my summers do not hold the same excitement. Here are some of the reasons that my teaching summers may be difficult, and these same reasons may apply to any holiday, vacation, or break.

When school term ends, most families no longer follow any consistent routine. Days seem to drift by with little structure. The kids play outside or in the park or at the pool. Daily practice gets postponed in favor of some other interesting, new, or fun activity [as in, less work]. Families go on vacation and make no arrangements for taking the violin along to continue practice. Sometimes lessons are cancelled entirely as families disappear for the summer.

I am all in favor of breaks and vacations. I use these tools myself to renew, refresh, and recharge my spirit and my teaching motivation. Sometimes I use my breaks and vacations to further my teaching skills by attending institutes and workshops. I also understand when families travel out of the country or across the country to visit extended family for long periods of time.

What I have trouble understanding is when families completely shunt aside the progress they and their children have made in learning a musical skill and developing ability. Children thrive on structure. All research supports this fact. Parents routinely report to me that their music studies and practice proceed successfully when the families follow an established routine and that problems occur when the schedule is not maintained. And yet, as a teacher, I still encounter the summer issue with many of my students.

The problem in some cases may be that we are not on the same page. As a Suzuki teacher who is strongly committed to the Suzuki philosophical point that the Suzuki Method is about creating fine human beings, I view my life's work as extremely important for the child, the child's family, and ultimately for our society at large. When I think of my purpose in teaching music via the violin or piano to young students as developing and nurturing ability, talent, and life skills, then I cannot bear to think about taking an extended break from my work. I have to keep things going in order not to lose any ground.

If a parent does not share this philosophy, then it is likely that the parent will be sporadic about continuing lessons and practice during the summer. The parent will schedule vacations and special events without any consideration given to the continuation of learning and practice. Remember, I am referring to the parents who do not schedule lessons (or who schedule very few lessons) or who do not maintain any semblance of a regular or consistent practice schedule. With the growth of the Internet and online tools, there are ample opportunities to maintain lessons during an extended period of time away from home. There may also be possibilities to take extra lessons per week. There is no reason to limit lessons to a weekly schedule. Why not take two lessons per week during the time the child and family are at home?

I will relate two stories to show support for the idea that summers can be more productive rather than less. One is from my own personal experience. My mother was a public school primary grade teacher, so she had summers free. When I was a child, my mother had a general schedule outlined for us kids. There was a "looseness" about the structure in terms of specifics, but there was a sense of structure. For example, when we got up in the morning, after we ate our breakfast, there was a time to complete some necessary household chores, such as cleaning or laundry or some other activity that would benefit the entire household. Then we practiced. Since my sister and I played two instruments, we would practice both. There was still some time left in the morning (we did not sleep in or late in the summer but maintained a reasonable morning wake up time), so we would run errands. Either we would go shopping for groceries or other items, or we would go to the public library to return books or to check out new ones. The library run was a regular recurrence, because I remember that more than I remember other shopping activities. After lunch, where we were eagerly beginning our new books, we spent the afternoons at the local pool. We would take our books as well and read in between swimming periods. In the late afternoon, we might play outside while mom fixed dinner, or we might pick up our instruments and dabble with some fun things. Mom might ask us to play some things for us while she worked. Sometimes we helped her to make dinner or to set the table. Then when dad was home, we would do family activities. Often my dad would do his own piano practice after dinner, or we would sing some songs together at the piano. I often played piano after dinner to amuse myself. My dad had lots of sheet music to play through. I had great summers. We always continued our lessons and music studies. Sometimes I would even begin reading about subjects I would study the next year (yes, I was a bit of a nerd when it came to school).

My second story is my former student "little Katie" who attends university now and wants to work for NASA some day as an engineer. Little Katie, so named to distinguish her from an older, taller Katie in the studio at the time, was a very busy child during the school year. She loved her summers because it gave her a chance to "get ahead" in her practicing. If she was learning book 3, she used the summer to finish the book and graduate and get a head start on the next book. Katie used this summer method of hers for many years.

You read the title of this article correctly. I meant to type "daze" rather than "days." As a teacher, what I see in the child as a result of an unstructured summer (few lessons or none, sporadic practice or none, unfocused activities), is a dazed child. They stand before me and present themselves with little focus and concentration. They are easily distracted by anything else going on. Their thoughts seem diffused, as if they are oozing out of their ears before my eyes.

Here are my recommendations to avoid the summer daze:

  • Look through your calendar and schedule as many lessons as your schedule and your teacher's schedule will allow. It is okay to have more than one lesson in a week. The teacher can focus one lesson on one aspect of technique and use the other lesson to work on something new or fun.
  • Think about your day and how you can arrange your schedule so that you arrange suitable moments for daily practice.
  • Think about times during the week when you can arrange a special concert. Your child would love to perform for others, and this would be a wonderful reason to do some practice during the week to prepare for the event, even if the event is a phone call to grandma.
  • Perhaps you can arrange a special music play date with some of your child's other music friends. I recall a trio of young students who regularly arranged sleepovers that involved the violin.
  • Look through the local concerts and plan to attend several concerts in the park. Our local symphony offers several possibilities. It offers special art and music park events every Wednesday morning throughout the summer, and each week features a different section of the symphony (strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion). The symphony sections each present monthly concerts in the park, and families can bring lawn chairs and pets to the concerts. The big summer event is the July 4 concert with the 1812 overture.
  • Plan your vacation with your child's instrument in mind. Children can carry their instruments onto airplanes. I have camped out with my instrument and practiced under pine trees beside lakes. One time a railroad train blew right past me as I played. I had no idea that I was 30 feet from a railway line. That was interesting!
  • If you are unable to take the instrument, then plan to maintain a listening program for the child so that the child remembers the pieces he or she is learning or has already learned.
  • Make plans for your child to attend a Suzuki Institute or other music camp. Some of my fondest summer music experiences were my summer camps. I went to strings camps, and later as a teacher, I attended Suzuki Institutes with some of my students. We had a lot of fun! The parents who came along learned a lot as well.
  • Plan special summer events. This summer might be a great time to arrange a summer Olympics for the violin. Set a few dates for special Olympic trials and races, and have the child start preparing for those events. Then arrange to make medals and certificates for each event that the child participates in.
Summer time can be a fun time for music. I hope you find ways to add music into your summer fun.

Happy Summer Practicing!

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