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Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Five Conditions for Ability Development

Listed at the beginning of Suzuki Violin School, Volume 1, is a little paragraph called "The Five Conditions for Ability Development." This little paragraph contains just five little sentence fragments, but this paragraph is mighty powerful. Let me set these out for you:

1. An early start
2. A superior environment
3. A commitment to practice
4. A superior instructor
5. A thorough teaching method

Let me look a little closer at each one of these items.

An Early Start

These three words refer to the success of the Suzuki Method of Talent Education and the result that we are able to teach students who are much younger in age than were the age of more traditional students of previous decades. It's amazing to me to teach 8 or 9 year old students how to play pieces that I was learning when I was in junior and senior high school. The ramifications of this are tremendous. We are able to develop muscles at an earlier age, which means that these young students are developing stronger muscles than those students who start at a later age. The strength of some of my young students' pinkie fingers is such much more solid than my pinkie muscles were at that age or even 20 years later!

How early is too early? There is literature suggesting that when the child is still in utero, some learning is possible. There have been articles of parents holding headphones on the mother's stomach area and playing a birth piece for the fetus. I have had some students in the studio whose younger siblings were born during a time when the student was working very hard to learn a particular piece, like Vivaldi's concerto in A minor or Bach's double violin concerto. We notice a change in the sibling's behavior when the student plays that piece: all fidgeting stops and the child stares at the student and listens to the music all the way through.

This past year I started a 2.5 year old (pictured at the top right of the blog). I agreed to start this child earlier than my normal 3 year threshold because the mother and I both felt that this child was special, and we both wanted to be sure that we were prepared for the child's learning and development process in the best possible way. I'm glad that we started so early, because the mom has learned so much about how to teach her child in the best way for the child. I have very high hopes that the parent-child relationship will be quite strong as the child matures.

A Superior Environment

This refers to the need for an environment that nurtures, encourages, and supports a child's learning. The environment should be stimulating for the child. Environment involves both the physical and psychological aspects. Physically, the parents should be aware of whether the physical learning environment is free from things that distract the student from focusing on learning: noise, active siblings or pets, and electronics. Physical environment would also include aspects of timing: practice time, snack time, bedtime, and play time. The child's natural life rhythms and physical needs should be considered when deciding the best times to schedule various activities.

Psychological environment would include those activities that motivate the student to learn, sometimes something as small as a parent's loving gesture of approval. Other psychological motivators include: lessons, group classes, attending professional performances, recitals, or concerts, and home concerts. Family psychological motivators would include a parent's applause or request for a favorite song. I had one mom who would tear up when her child played Long, Long Ago (Suzuki Violin Volume I), because the child had played it at his grandfather's funeral. The student always looked to see if his playing made his mom feel emotional, but it was in a good way.

A Commitment to Practice

As a practicing professional musician, this statement seems obvious to me, but when I monitor my students and parents, I understand that there are different levels of commitment to practicing. Obviously, in order to develop ability, one must commit to practice. Sometimes I enter into discussions with parents and students about sports training, because I have found that this is an area where most folks understand the value of practice. I recall once having an interesting discussion with my student Jamey (see the 1/19/11 blog topic about Jamey's practice book) about Don Shula, former coach of the Miami Dolphins and a proponent of "overlearning." I think it was a very powerful example for Jamey, because his father (and therefore Jamey) were big Miami Dolphin fans, and Jamey knew who Don Shula was.

A Superior Instructor

It is crucial in any activity to ensure that the teacher (role model) represents the highest caliber. Although it is possible to have a teacher who can teach well without actually playing well, I don't recommend going that route. The student may need instant feedback during a lesson, and the teacher's role model performance is important as a psychological motivator and as a way to help the student and parent visualize a successful outcome.

A Thorough Teaching Method

Having used the Suzuki materials since 1976, I will attest to the thoroughness of the teaching method. Anyone who has taken Suzuki teacher training will understand exactly what I mean. Dr. Suzuki spent years putting together the most thorough repertoire, which introduces violin technique one tiny step at a time while building on previous steps. It is an amazing graded repertoire -- so amazing that most educators use this method and the materials in one form or another.

I will make sure to read this little paragraph with all of my studio parents during the parent course.

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