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Saturday, May 16, 2015

A Lesson in Gratitude

Here is a simple teaching and parenting tip that applies to any time of the year.

My studio will offer its spring recital later today. As part of the preparations, I sat down and wrote out thank you cards to each of my students. The cards are small and my messages are brief, but what I wrote is unique to each student and comes from the wellspring of my heart. Inspired by Dr. Suzuki's writing individual haikus for students, I included brief cards with tiny messages that were full of life's meaning, which I found in a local stationery store.

As I wrote my cards, I thought about each of my students, what made them unique and special to me, and how much I appreciated them and was grateful for the opportunity to spend time with them every week.

This was a small gesture on my part, but the activity brought forth such feelings of warmth and goodwill and was worth every minute of the time I spent doing it. I highly recommend this exercise to teachers and parents. Do this little and often.

Parents: how nice would it be to teach your children to make a similar gesture back to the teacher?

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Simple Things to Help Your Child Prepare for a Recital

This is the time of year when studios prepare to give spring recitals. As I prepare my own students for their performances, I thought of a few things that parents could do at home to help their student prepare for this big event.

  • Make sure that the student listens regularly to the piece that the student will perform. Extra solid listening will help the student to feel more confident during the performance. 
  • Make sure that the student has learned the correct notes of the song that he or she will play. 
  • Make sure that the student has learned the correct bowing.
  • Make sure that the student has memorized the piece and help him or her to complete this important part of learning a song well. I prefer that students complete final memorization one month before the performance.
  • Make sure that the student plays the recital piece daily in the last month before the performance. Please do not neglect this task as it is key to the child performing confidently under any circumstances.
  • Make sure that the student practices recital etiquette -- the formal bow before and after the performance, the steps to get ready for proper playing position, and how to negotiate any special clothing (make sure in advance that recital clothes do not hamper proper movement while playing, shoes are not uncomfortable, and neckties do not get in the way performance posture).
Simple advice, right? I think this advice is common sense. Still, I found this past month that for some of my students, I have had to resort to practice plans that ask my students to play their pieces a certain number of times each day in order to be sure that the pieces were learned thoroughly and well. I had to resort to this type of assignment -- which I do not generally like because it does not require much thought on the student's or parent's part -- because some of my students and their parents had neglected some or many of the above points. I begin the final preparations for my studio recital around mid-March, after the winter/spring break, so that my students have ample time to be prepared. Still, I find that in some cases I need to resort to more elementary assignments in order to ensure my students' performance success.

Remember that the best goal for your student's recital performance is to have a resounding success! Think about what you need to do to create the perfect environment for a resounding success, and then make sure that you follow your plan.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Should Teachers and Parents Succumb to Perfectionism?

In my daily reflections, I have noticed a recurrent topic: perfectionism. Since this idea has come to me so many times this week, I have begun to abbreviate it with a P to save myself time writing. As I think about how this pernicious idea invades and taints my work and creativity, I have come up with some thoughts to share.

Perfectionism is most likely part of all of us. We all have a history somewhere, somehow of how we have disappointed someone or not lived up to someone else’s expectations: a parent, spouse, friend, mentor, or a teacher. Our history influences our present picture of ourselves and our work and creative product. The real issue though may boil down to how much we decide to allow our history to influence our work today as teachers, students, and parents. Is perfectionism a bad thing? Do we need some of it in our lives?

Perfectionism is the refusal to allow anything short of perfection. That statement alone should alert us that something is quite wrong with perfectionism. Does anyone know of anything that is perfect? Of course we have all experienced the perfect moment, such as a sunrise, a flower, a child’s laugh. To have that perfect moment not repeat itself consistently though is to admit that “perfect” is unattainable. To be devotees of perfectionism means that we refuse to accept something if it is not perfect, which in my view means that we cannot accept something if it cannot be repeated or sustained indefinitely. We know that my view is not realistic.

So how does this affect us as teachers, students, or parents?

“Perfectionism is a refusal to let yourself move ahead. It is a loop – an obsession, debilitating closed system that causes you to get stuck in the details of what you are [creating] and to lose sight of the whole. Instead of creating freely and allowing errors to reveal themselves later as insights, we often get mired in getting the details right. We correct our originality into a uniformity that lacks passion and spontaneity. ‘Do not fear mistakes,’ Miles Davis told us. ‘There are none.’” – Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way Every Day, May 2.

So here is an oppositional list, which is one of my favorite ways to approach a subject. I list traits or characteristics on the left side; this is a list of the things that I will want to eliminate. Then I look at my left list and begin transmuting each thought or item into a positive on the right side. These transformed thoughts will possibly become my newest mantra or affirmation.

Eyes of fear
Eyes of courage
Unrealistic expectations
Deal with reality and what is
Unrealistic views of ourselves
Let our weaknesses go
Unrealistic views of our past
Let the past go
Staying stuck
Moving ahead
Being flexible
Focus on details
Focus on big picture, sweeping grand ideas
Paralyzed, constricted
Free, moving, flowing
Passionate, spontaneous

As we prepare for our upcoming studio spring recital, we practice performing for each other in group classes. After each child performs, we ask the other students to offer positive comments about the performance, and the performer then learns to say thank you. This is another ability or skill that students must learn. Later at a more advanced level, I will teach the performing students to do some helpful analysis before opening up to comments from others, such as: "What worked for me during the performance?" and "What will I do differently next time?"

What I noticed in the group class is that one of the moms (who also participates in the group class as a student) was very generous and kind in her comments to students. However, when the performing student was one of the mother’s own children, she had a very difficult time restraining herself from offering corrections during the child’s performance and in offering any sort of positive comment afterwards. This behavior is not new to me. I often see it and am reminded of Dr. Suzuki’s comments:

“I often tell parents that they are much too demanding towards their own children. The facial expressions of a mother are greatly different when dealing with someone else’s child.” – Shinichi Suzuki, Ability Development from Age Zero, p. 36

I have also found this to be the case, and I sometimes ask parents to work with other parents’ children in order to avoid this issue. At the root of this behavior I believe is perfectionism. The parent desires that the child play perfectly, and that may be because the parent is reflecting the parent’s needs to appear perfect onto the child’s behavior and performance.

As teachers, we often do the same thing with our students. How many of us have participated in local Suzuki association institutes or graduation recitals and found ourselves cringing or making facial gestures as we react to our students’ mistakes or missteps? I have to guard against this during lessons too. I have to remind myself that I have a higher purpose here, and that a student’s lesson or performance is not “about me.”

This is not an easy thing to face, but I am determined to keep myself aware of it and to be watchful about my own behaviors and attitudes. I want to be a good teacher, not an unrealistic one. I want my student to grow up healthy and not have my teaching experience with them become a burden to overcome as an adult.

I hope that I am not the only teacher, student, or parent who faces these troublesome issues. As I explore my own thoughts and behaviors, I welcome any suggestions, explanations, or techniques that others can suggest.

I want to keep my focus on the sweeping large ideas and not get lost in the trivial details. Who is with me?