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Saturday, January 15, 2011

How to Start a Beginner, Introduction

I'd like to devote the next several posts to the topic of starting a beginning violin student. In fact, I've already written one about my very first steps when teaching a beginning violin student. Then it occurred to me that there was another step that occurs before I even begin violin lessons -- parent education.

I don't mean parent education as it applies to the parent's learning how to play the instrument before the child learns to play, as the Suzuki Method encourages. I do have parents who learn to play, and many of these parents have continued their violin study and now participate in local community orchestras. One mom made it her goal to attend a Suzuki institute each summer, not only for her daughter, but also for herself. The institutes were happy to include this parent as a student, and the other children didn't even seem to notice that there was an adult in their midst. Any other parents who were observing during institute lessons and classes greatly admired this mom because she showed courage in attending as a student. Other parents in my studio have continued violin lessons and reached the more advanced Suzuki books 4-6.

What I mean by parent education is a specialized course that I developed over years. It is a six-part course spread out over 10 hours. I have conducted the course as a group workshop spread out over six class meetings, but I generally opt to give the course to each new parent individually in six class sessions, scheduled at the convenience of the parent to attend. I ask that the parent who will be responsible for the student's practicing be the parent who attends the parent classes, although I encourage any interested parent to attend my classes, and I have accepted grandparents as well if the grandparent would be working with the student.

I didn't always offer a parent course during my teaching career. In the beginning I just taught. I had many parents interested to various degrees in the Suzuki program and in what I was teaching their child. Over time, however, I made several disturbing observations. Those parents who were not very engaged in their child's violin learning did not seem to have a child who was very interested in learning to play the violin. These same parents often complained that their child didn't like to practice or didn't practice at all, that practice sessions sometimes turned into battle sessions, and the child didn't show any enthusiasm for the violin once things got a little tricky. These same parents would throw up their hands in dismay and lament how they couldn't get things to work at home concerning practice, as if somehow the fault of the matter rested entirely on the little student.

Hmm, those kinds of remarks puzzled me because they showed little or no understanding of how the Suzuki method of Talent Education worked. I spent some time then thinking about the state of my studio. I turned my focus on the parents of my students and observed very carefully what my parents were saying and doing. I matched that behavior with the results I was getting from my students during lessons and noted that things were not headed in the direction I wanted them to go. That's when I made the decision to start my students off right from that point on by educating their parents first before lessons even began.

I developed my parent education course from scratch. I kept asking myself, What do I want my parents to know? What do I want my parents to do? What do I want my parents to believe and act on? My answers to these questions produced my parent education course, which I have used for over a decade now.

Parents may initially resist having to take the course but by the second session, they are completely involved with it, because they are learning not only how to be a good Suzuki teacher at home in between lessons, but also how to be a better parent in general for their child. Being a parent means being a role model and example, a teacher (the first teacher the child ever has!), a nurturer, an enthusiastic supporter, and a provider. As adults we all bring baggage with us from our own family situations when we were growing up. Some of us have never quite resolved some of the issues from our childhood. My parent course brings much of this "stuff" to the surface for parents as they consider how to structure their child's future.

Dr. Suzuki wasn't trying to create concert artists. He wanted to build a better world. He wanted to create better citizens for the future. He wanted his students to become fine human beings with good hearts. He had many life lessons to share with his students (and teachers from all over the world). He chose the violin as his "vehicle" to teach these principles.

During the course, I discuss what the Suzuki Method of Talent Education is and how it works. I discuss how to effectively teach the child at home, whether the subject matter is the violin, schoolwork, or chores. I discuss the child's (and the parent's) learning and personality styles and how they might impact on the lesson and home practice situation. I teach about the importance of creating the desire to learn and how a parent can motivate his or her child. I discuss the importance of the child's learning environment, and we talk about how to set up an encouraging learning and listening environment. We discuss how lessons and group classes work and the roles of the teacher, parent, and student in each of these activities. And throughout the course I also include many examples of ways and games to play with the child to generate and maintain interest in learning.

What do I get from doing all this extra work with a new parent? I get a parent who is on the same page with me once lessons begin. I do not have to interrupt the child's learning to explain a particular teaching point or why it is important. I have given the parents a treasury of resources in the event there should ever be a future problem.

I also have learned much about the parent from my interactions with him or her. I have structured the "entrance" into my studio in such a way as to give me a gauge to measure a parent's level of commitment. There are many opportunities along the initial journey when a parent might drop out, or a parent might show me that they are less committed to the journey than I am. I can address these issues right away before we reach the point when they might impact adversely on the child's learning situation.

I have never had a parent complain about having taken the course. On the contrary, I have had most, if not all, my parents tell me that they learned a lot from the course and were glad they took it. Several parents have indicated to me that they hadn't read the written materials I had provided in between the parent course sessions, but I expect some of that to occur anyway. These same parents will discover the value of the materials later when a specific problem arises, since the possible answers to problems are all there in the written course materials.

On the flip side, the parent gets to know me well. I have high energy, and the parent gets accustomed to my style of speech and movement. We become friends and share some personal stories that connect us as human beings. The parents learn how serious I am about my personal mission to teach children. They learn that I have high expectations for my students, my parents, and me.

My favorite thing about the parent education course is that I will now have a parent who is my partner and ready to embark on the important journey of teaching the child how to be a fine human being with a good heart.

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