Written by Paula E. Bird, copyright 2014
One Texas wintry afternoon, I was lazily cleaning up horse manure into a wheelbarrow and hauling it to a budding compost pile. My horse and one of our donkeys kept me company nearby. While I worked, I was casually texting a friend of mine who owned a horse farm. As I worked to clean up a well traveled pathway, my horse Keeper walked right over to the spot I had cleaned up and dropped another load directly in front of me (Work is never done on the farm). As I texted this information to my friend, her pithy response was: "It's a life metaphor." Yes, indeed, life metaphors abound in the world of teaching too.
Dr. Suzuki understood life metaphors. He sprinkles his writing with them. He talks about nature and life skills and shares his lessons with the world. He talks about children being like seedlings: "Unless the seedlings are well cared for, beautiful flowers cannot be expected." Ability Development from Age Zero, p. 12.
Other metaphors include: "Music is vibrating air. Therefore, it is similar to wind. A baby acquires the ability to feel music. Acquiring the ability to feel beautiful music or discordant music is decided by the music in the environment of the baby." Ability Development, p. 10.
"When a person reflects, he opens his eyes to truth. Parents who do not reflect in this way are merely training their children as they would farm animals." Ability, p. 31.
Teaching is not merely the instruction of how to play a musical instrument or how to understand the music symbols on the printed page. As Dr. Suzuki understood, the study of music is the study of life and connection and relationship. Dr. Suzuki focused so much on the relationship between the child and the parent, instead of the student and the teacher, because he understood the power that the child's parents had over the development of the child. The parents have such an important responsibility in Dr. Suzuki's eyes for the ability development of their child, because the study of music is merely one avenue for teaching and learning life skills.
The study of music develops many abilities besides the ability to play an instrument. The study builds and reinforces such skills as memorization, discipline, perseverance, listening, observation, imitation, concentration, performance, and emotional expression. The child's heart is touched in a way that invites emotional connection with the composer, other performers, the teacher, parents, and other listeners. The child learns to feel the music (the vibrating air or wind) and interpret this feeling in a way that connects with listeners. Dr. Suzuki's intention was that developing this ability to feel and touch and connect would lead to a better world because it would develop empathy, compassion, connection, and love. Just as "[A]nger is the ability to become angry" (Ability, p. 48), so these traits are a reflection of the ability to become empathic, compassionate, connected, and loving.
When I assign homework that involves working to improve a tricky section of the child's working piece, I am also teaching the child about the importance of working through life problems. I work with the child and the parent very thoroughly on many different practice ideas so that the child and the parent understand that there are many different ways to work through difficulties, just as there are many different solutions to thorny problems in life.
On the opposite side, there are many ways that teachers or parents can upset ability development. When we teachers mindlessly assign high numbers of repetitions for particular passages without adequate explanation or without any possibility of making the repetitions interesting, we are teaching our children how to lose focus, concentration, and interest. "Only bad and ugly things develop from thoughtless repetition." Ability, p. 17. Scolding, impatience, non practice, and even hurried and sloppy practices, impart larger life lessons that may foster poor relationships and less than stellar work product with future colleagues, and future employers. Many of these same poorly learned skills will spill over into personal relationships as well.
We teachers must be mindful of the larger life lessons that we are sharing with our students and their parents. We need to spell out directly what we are working to accomplish. I learned a long time ago in my teaching career that I cannot assume that parents understand what I am doing, that they will reflect on the larger lessons to be gained, or that they agree with me about the purpose of music instruction (one of my parents in the past actually told me that they were "paying me a service fee"). As a teacher I have the same important responsibility as the child's parents -- possibly even greater -- to make sure that my students understand the importance of our lessons together and the study of music, that my students and their parents understand the life metaphors and develop the ultimate life abilities.
This week, reflect about the things that you teach, learn, or discover. Look for the life metaphors in these things. What are the larger life lessons that are gained from developing these new skills and abilities? How will the child, the parents, the teacher, and ultimately the community be served by the child's developing these abilities? How can you help your students' parents understand and partner with you in the development of these life abilities?
Life metaphors are all around us if we are open to finding them.