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Monday, February 27, 2017

The Case for Perfection -- Taking it One Small Step at a Time

The Teach Suzuki Podcast recently broadcast an episode about small steps in order to develop the ability of mastery (click here to listen). I recalled writing a blog article in 2012 that addressed the issue of perfection. With a few updates, here is that article:


A thought struck me today: it seems as if parents do not want their children to strive for perfection.

That seems a bit harsh, I told myself. Do you really want to take that extreme position?

I am not sure. The above statement is a result of the parental behaviors I observe in my studio.

My next thoughts were:
  • What does perfection mean exactly?
  • Is perfection a good thing to strive for after all?
  • What reasons could parents subconsciously have for not helping their children to achieve perfection?
  • Teachers want perfection in their students, right?
  • Is there anything that we teachers can do to encourage our parents to want this same lofty goal?
  • Is anything ever perfect?
Probably not, I concluded. Perfection may be an illusory goal. We may strive for perfection because we desire accolades, awards, success, or challenge. I think, however, that maybe the real reason that we desire perfection is that in doing so we become more than who we are.

A muscle needs challenge in order to become stronger. We must first tear down the muscle. When we exercise the muscle, we must challenge the muscle with our exercise. We cannot continue to work the muscle the same way or it will not grow. Muscles are made up of many tiny fibers. We must stress the muscle (micro trauma), and tiny little micro tears appear in the fibers. Over the next 48 hours, the muscle will repair the fiber tears more strongly than before. If we stress the muscle again, the process of rebuilding and strengthening will continue.

When we strive for perfection, the moment at which we attempt to measure whether we have achieved perfection is gone in a flash. We can only evaluate what has now become a memory or past event. If we were to set up another evaluation to measure whether we have achieved perfection anew, we would measure another past point in time. This is what I meant by perfection being an illusory goal. It does not remain static. It is by its very definition "just out of reach." Like a muscle, however, the striving for perfection will result in strength. Whenever we strive for something, we become stronger in the process of striving. Sounds circular, I know, like the chicken and the egg scenario. Think of the circle as a hamster wheel. The purpose of the wheel is to encourage exercise. Just get on the wheel already and let the exercise process begin.

What parental behaviors do I see that lead me to make the observation that parents do not seem to want their children to achieve perfection? Here is a short list of parental behaviors as they relate to the music studio:
  • Parents may not practice consistently with their children. In many cases, I am unsure whether parents really understand the concept of practice and how it should be done. I spend a great deal of time teaching parents and students about healthy practice techniques. 
  • Parents may not adequately supervise how the children perform and practice.
  • Parents may not require perfection in practice or practice habits. The child is left to adopt unhealthy posture habits. Parents seem to routinely allow inadequate work to suffice.
  • Parents may offer many possible excuses for not doing adequate work at home or for allowing the child to turn in less than stellar home practice work.
  • Parents may allow their children to spend an inadequate amount of time to develop a skill or ability.
  • Parents may not make many strong demands on their children to do work of any kind, to earn the right to relax and have fun, or to experience the logical consequences to the children's choices regarding behavior. Note that even parents do not make this strong demand on themselves, if you consider the list I just made.
The podcast episode discusses this issue in more depth as to why parents may not work towards perfection or mastery. Let me offer another possibility to the ones mentioned in the podcast episode. Striving for perfection requires work. This kind of work might require the parent to operate outside of an entrenched comfort zone. Parents may also be too busy or may want the parenting job to be easier.

Parenting is not easy. The parent's job never ends. The job continues even after the child has moved out of the home, become an adult, or married and started a family. My husband calls it the "job for life." Parenting is a lifelong commitment. Parenting is work. If a parent cares at all about the child, the parent will be willing to put in the time and effort to make sure the job is done and done correctly. The reward for a parent is a terrific child and developed skill and ability to the best that the child is capable.

Teachers want their students to strive for and achieve perfection, whatever perfection should look like at the moment. I believe that teachers choose this profession because of their innate desire to make the world a better place, even an "ideal" place, if you will. Teachers do the best they can under the circumstances. Teachers may teach the child a fraction of the time in a child's week, and yet, teachers will approach the teaching job with as much effort as possible. Teachers strive for perfection because this is how teachers can bring out the best possible result in children.

How can teachers encourage parents to share this vision of the value of striving for perfection? There may be several possible ways:

Role Modeling: As a teacher and performing professional musician, I model for my students and their parents what it looks like to strive for perfection. I am not perfect, but I do not lower my standards for myself. I continue to challenge myself with new repertoire and new performance opportunities. I perform regularly in solo performances, chamber music, and large ensembles. I continue to study new subjects and revisit old subjects with new perspective.

Standards: I set high standards for myself, my students, and my students' parents. I expect my students and their parents to do the best that they can. I am here to help at all times, but I do not permit my students or their parents to allow me to do the work for them in the studio which should rightfully be completed by my students and their parents in home practice sessions, although I am always accessible by phone, internet, or aural or video recordings.

Information: I provide a great deal of parenting and teaching information to my studio parents in the form of parent education, this blog and the years that I have written for it, the podcast episodes, and throughout the course of a student's musical study program with me. I spend a great deal of time sharing useful information about parenting as well as teaching on the blog and podcast.

Love: Finally, let me urge parents to love their children. When a parent loves his or her child, the parent will do what needs to be done to help the child. The parent will want what is best for the child, and the parent will seek out other people who can help the parent to achieve that lofty goal. I believe that perfection is a lofty goal and most definitely in the best interest of the child.

Let me close with one of my favorite Dr. Suzuki quotes: "Where love is deep, much can be accomplished."

Until next time,

Happy Practicing!

----- Paula -----

© 2017 by Paula E. Bird

Monday, February 20, 2017

Enliven Technique with Basic Goodness

I wrote the following article sometime in 2013, but the message strongly relates to the podcast episode that aired recently (click here to listen) and prepares our thoughts for future podcast episodes. So I dusted this article off and offer it again as a piece of writing with an important idea and philosophy that is worthy of our attention. Again and often.
"It simply makes no difference how good the rhetoric is or even how good the intentions are; if there is little or no trust, there is no foundation for permanent success. Only basic goodness gives life to technique." -- Dr. Stephen R. Covey (American educator and author, 1932-2012)
Dr. Stephen Covey wrote this in his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (affiliate link) (Kindle version). Recall what Dr Suzuki wrote about music and character: "Beautiful tone, beautiful heart." Written in the Preface to Suzuki Violin Volume Two, Dr. Suzuki writes that "strings only sing the heart of the one who plays them. . . . because our entire personalities are revealed in the tone we produce."
"In human terms, if one lives in a self-centered, egotistical and immature way, one's life will be that of no joy and constant dissatisfaction. In other words, because of selfish needs, what one creates will be nothing but noise.
In contrast, when one lives by the principle of serving the hearts of others and learns to live for other people, one can enjoy a life of light, without discord, in harmony with others, and walk through life in pure joy. Similarly, the ultimate goal of music education, as well as the secret of violin playing is to guide others away from the world of self-centeredness to that of loving hearts in the service of others.
. . . The philosophy of violin playing is the same as that for life. Man, like the violin, can only sing the song of his own heart." -- Shinichi Suzuki (1898-1998, Japanese violinist, educator, and founder of Suzuki Method of Talent Education)
It was Dr. Covey's words about basic goodness giving life to technique that spurred my memory of Dr. Suzuki's words about the violin singing the song of the human heart. I believe that both men would agree with each other. What we are inside is revealed when we play the violin, or whenever we play music.

I teach a string techniques course at the university, in which I teach music education students how to teach string techniques. I can work a few minutes with one of the university students and tell you much about that student just by how the student approaches the instrument, by the type of sound that the student produces, and by the type and amount of energy level that the student produces while playing. I am sure that the students think I am some sort of gypsy fortune teller because I am able to accurately describe the student's personality style within minutes of teaching the student. I can guess at the types of hobbies the student might pursue, the state of the student's clothes closet at home, and what sort of social life the student maintains. I can accurately guess what types of grades a student usually gets in classes and how uptight the student is.

When I listen to student recitals, I can close my eyes and envision the sort of person that is playing. I can hear whether the person is smiling inside or hurting. I can feel the student's instrument and music vibrating in the air, and I can tell whether the student is trying to communicate with me on some level or whether the student is playing "at me" or for their own inward purposes.

I know of several teachers who routinely assign special homework to their students during the week, which consists of character building exercises along the lines of doing things for others. The idea here is that if the students frequently perform acts of goodness or kindness, then the students will get into the habit of doing good or being kind. I think this is a great idea because it makes students and parents aware of the exercise. Hopefully, when one person sees another doing such good things, the person will admire the effort and will strive to imitate the gesture. The one act could exponentially grow to include many, many others.

What such an exercise will also do is help to purify and mature the heart and spirit of the person doing the exercise. We all know that "going through the motions" will not make a person good overall, but doing so will go a long way toward building such a person in the end. We have heard the adage "fake it until you make it," and this catch-phrase may say it all. We may have to go through the motions and build the character habit until we finally reach the point that the motions and the good strong character are instilled in us. I believe that good character is just another ability that we can develop by over learning.

What Drs. Covey and Suzuki are both telling us here is that good character is the foundation to good in everything else. For Dr. Covey, good character provides the structural framework for good attitude, good relationships, good communication, and good leadership. For Dr. Suzuki, good character will be reflected in a person's music, which is the performer's personal expression of inward emotion, attitude, and sense of beauty. Without good character, something is "off" about the person, and no amount of technique will change that. We will be dazzled by technique, but we will not be moved by it. We might admire someone for their technical skill, but we will not be persuaded to move mountains.
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. -- Aristotle*
This week, let us contemplate the words of both Dr. Covey and Dr. Suzuki and consider what habit of character we build through our repeated actions. Let us strive for excellence. More than that, let us make the effort to repeatedly do the right things that will strengthen our character. Let us reach out to the world and build connections that will uplift and encourage our society and world to grow beyond itself in a good way, in the right way.

Go forth and do good!

Happy Practicing!

----- Paula -----

© 2017 by Paula E. Bird
*Although this quote is attributed to Aristotle, it may actually come from Will Durant and his work "The Story of Philosophy," in which Durant summed up Aristotle's thoughts.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Good Parenting

Recently I published a podcast episode about good parenting (click here to listen). This is a subject area that never gets old and that we all benefit from visiting frequently.

Some teachers are parents, but all parents are teachers. This is important to remember because of its impact and meaning for children. Parents are their children's first teachers. They teach children some very basic and important life skills: how to dress, how to feed themselves, how to behave. These are some of the initial lessons that a child will learn.

Most importantly, parents should remember that because they are their children's first teachers, that they are also helping their children learn one of the most important life skills -- how to learn and enjoy learning. Life skill?, you ask. Do you not agree? How parents expose their children to the learning process will impact in a big way how much children might enjoy and seek out further learning opportunities in their lives.

Parents, do you enjoy learning? Did you enjoy learning things in the past? What were your experiences in school? In the home? Have you made lifelong learning a life choice that you will continue throughout your life's journey? Have you prepared your children for this lifestyle as well?

These are important thoughts for parents to consider. How parents set up the learning experience now will greatly impact how children will approach learning and life. Let us give these thoughts a great deal of consideration to make sure that we are giving our children the best opportunities that we can to approach their lives in the best possible way in order to gain the most benefits and avoid the dangers that life will offer down the future road.

Have a listen to this latest podcast episode and visit one or two of the suggested resources. Let us determine to be the best parents that we can be for the sake and benefit of our children.

Happy Practicing!

----- Paula -----

© 2017 by Paula E. Bird

Friday, February 10, 2017

How to Plan a Group Class

In March 2012, I published a popular article about how I plan a group class. Recently I recorded and aired two podcast episodes about the subject of group classes. The first episode discusses the benefits of group classes from the teacher, parent, and student perspectives. The second episode discusses the components that I generally include in my group class lesson plans and the many different types of resources that I might include in a group class lesson plan.

Here is a link to that earlier blog article: How to Teach a Suzuki Group Class.

Here are links to the Podcast episodes:
In my group class podcast episodes, I discussed many resources that I have found helpful for planning and structuring group class activities. Here are a few of those resources:


Go, Dog Go! (Do you like my hat?)
Oh, The Places You'll Go! (and be sure to read the book while listening to John Lithgow read it! (click here for the video)
Plastic Halloween Eyeballs (balance these on the hair and the bow stick)


Episode 15: Asking the Right Questions (the power of the "what" and "how" questions)
Music Listening Resource List Article (building your child's home listening library)
Recipe for Suzuki Review (YouTube) (how to build a consistent and regular Suzuki review program)
The above links are affiliate links, which means that if you click on them, the podcast and blog may receive a small benefit. You are never under any obligation to purchase anything, but if do choose to purchase something and use these links, I greatly appreciate it and your support.
If you are interested in my simple group class planning form, click here for my Group Class Planning Template.
I hope you enjoy these articles and podcast episodes. I love my group classes!
Until next time,
Happy Practicing!

----- Paula -----
© 2017 by Paula E. Bird