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Monday, February 4, 2013

Monday Morning Check In: How Basic Goodness Gives Life to Technique

Written by Paula E. Bird ©2013
"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. As I considered what to write about for this Monday Morning Check In, I recalled 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 a good person make, 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 overlearning.

What Drs. Covey and Suzuki are both telling us here is that good character is the foundation to good 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 are building through our repeated actions. Let us strive for excellence, but more than that. Let us make the effort to repeatedly do the right things that 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!
*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.


  1. I think our personal experience comes through in orchestra music as well and how the players play within the section. A positive environment develops cooperation and good will in music making. The players experience and express the quality of that relationship with the conductor and the other players. It can be a combined effort of cooperation or a bunch of individuals. A safe, challenging, positive, encouraging, and supportive environment nurtures growth in expression.

  2. Thank you Paula... that was beautiful!! This is a subject I think often about. Particularly I think about how the music students study and the way in which they learn it can help to build a beautiful heart. I intend to either write a blog post about it, or open it to discussion on the SAA forums. I'd love to get your thoughts once I get around to it!