Friday, February 15, 2008

Re-tread Suzuki mom

To a certain extent the role of "Suzuki parent" is at odds with the role of "unschooling parent." These roles do have a lot in comment. Both are strewers of resources and opportunities, cheerleaders, models, trouble-shooters, resource-gatherers, observers and facilitators. But in the Suzuki paradigm, it's the adult two-thirds of the parent-teacher-child triangle that makes decisions about direction, pace and mode of learning. Always being sensitive to the child's preferences and inclinations, of course. And there's no option for the parent to just butt out. Being involved as the "home practice coach" is part of the package. In the unschooling paradigm it's the child who decides on the pace, direction and mode of learning. Unschooled children often choose to be totally independent, self-directed learners who chart their own courses. It's perfectly fine if they tell their parents to butt out.

My children are all pretty perfectionistic and have high autonomy needs. This makes unschooling a natural fit for them. Having a Suzuki parent coaching their instrument practice? Not so much.

I tried to walk a fine line as a non-coercive practice coach who honours my kids' autonomy as much as I could. But despite my most creative efforts, Erin told me to butt out of her practising for once and for all around age 10. Noah didn't explicitly tell me to get lost a year or two ago, but it was painfully obvious from his perfectionistic meltdowns that having me in the room was toxic. Sophie excused me from her practising when she was eight -- by setting her jaw, refusing to try anything, crying, whatever it took. And so I stepped back, knowing that their practising efficiency was liable to suffer in a big way for a couple of years. They were both into early concerto repertoire at this stage, and the complexity of the pieces required a lot more than just going through the motions of particular exercises they could be assigned at weekly lessons. They'd need their own inner critic and problem-solver in order to practice efficiently and productively, and I knew that neither of them had the maturity to carry that off at their playing levels. But I accepted the inevitable slowing of progress, hoping they'd eventually find their feet.

They knew they would benefit from my help, but though we tried occasionally and in many different ways, they just couldn't cope with having me in the room. It was as though having me in the room cranked their self-criticism up a hundred-fold. They suddenly felt terrible about what they were doing, about what they hadn't managed to accomplish. You'd think I wasn't cheerful, positive, playful, creative. I think I really am a pretty decent Suzuki parent. But I'd be invited to come and help at a practice session, walk in smiling, sit down and cheerfully suggest "why don't you play something you enjoy to warm up, and then if you want, you can play one of your 'working pieces' to see if there's anything I can help you with" and the child in question would play two bars of an old favourite review piece and then burst into tears and refuse to do anything else.

So eventually we just gave up trying. For the past year and a bit, they've both pretty much been on their own. I'd sit in on their lessons and take notes, and maybe put together some suggestions for goals for the week, or map out a practice plan if they wanted, but that was it. For a while Noah didn't even want me to sit in on his lessons.

This year Noah has not wanted to go to his viola lesson very often. Sometimes there would be full-on resistance and tears, and always there would be comments the day before expressing dread. I always gave him the option to not have a lesson -- but he always chose to propel himself over whatever emotional hurdle was in the way -- and always felt pretty good about himself afterwards. He's having a Good Viola Year, in fact, making lots of progress and really coming into himself as a performer. But still the resistance to lessons continued. For a long time I thought it was just transition issues. As time went on, though, it seemed there was more to it than that. This felt a little different, to both of us.

One day we had a productive discussion about the source of the resistance to lessons. He never felt adequately prepared. He always wished he'd got around to doing more of ___ and to really mastering ___, or whatever. He hadn't done that stuff because it seemed hard, so he'd put it off. And then when his next lesson loomed, he was filled with regret over not having tackled those things adequately.

I suggested that part way through the week, maybe I could come in and good over the lesson assignments with him and trouble-shoot with him -- and just remind him to get moving and tackle the things he was putting off. He thought this was a pretty good solution. I wasn't convinced it would work. I was pretty sure he'd melt down.

But we tried it, and it worked brilliantly. He had wandered a little off the path he'd been set on at his previous lesson, so I was able to guide him back, get him focused on the goals again, and get him moving. Well, he was the one that got moving; he just needed me to remind him to do so.

And then the following day, out of the blue, he said "I think once a week isn't enough for that practising-together thing. We should do it more often than that."

After I picked my jaw up off the floor, I suggested that maybe every other day would be worth trying. He nodded. Yup, that was about right.

Sophie did this facial expression that says "hey, um, what about me?"

"And then, on the in between days, I could do the same with Sophie, if she'd like that."

Yup. She would like that. She does.

And so I'm back on duty as a Suzuki parent to my middle kids. It is so unexpected, and so different from what it was like before. I'm there on their terms, as a resource. Because of the long hiatus we took with this facet of our relationship, they know that this is totally, truly, genuinely a choice they are making -- and that they are completely free to choose otherwise. There are no eggshells to walk upon. They want my input. They are eager for help. They feel the difference in their momentum when they get this kind of day-to-day assistance. And we're all feeling good about it.

It feels like the ultimate marriage of unschooling and Suzuki-dom ... children who are pro-actively and autonomously asking for the type of guidance in their home practising that the Suzuki approach sees as ideal. I'm not sure how long it will last, and I'm not saying it isn't a big time and energy committment for me (since I'm also trying to squeeze in my own practising, and help Fiona with hers, which is getting longer and longer) but it feels pretty good being a Suzuki parent again to my middle kids.


  1. I love how you achieve balance while still respecting your childrens' individual needs. Made me think back to my Suzuki days--I must have been somewhere in the 8-10 years old range when I kicked my mom out of the practice room, as well. Course, she could hear me but that didn't matter ;-) I know she never helped me with cello, which I started at age 10, because, well, I did the whole book 1 at my first lesson and took off from there.

    When it comes to practicing with my dd, well, she's got it bad because with my perfect pitch, I can tell from anywhere in the house whether she is playing correctly or not. She plays flute, which I have not the slightest clue about, but I do know notes and rhythm ;-) The kids practice organ daily with grandma, their teacher, so I'm out of that loop, anyway ;-)

  2. "Sophie excused me from her practising when she was eight -- by setting her jaw, refusing to try anything, crying, whatever it took. "

    This is what my Gabe has been doing with his piano practice. He loves to have me with him, and he hates it. I love to hear him play, but am getting resigned to listening from another room. I think it is sweet that your middle two invited you back in to keep on track mid-week.

  3. Question, just in case you still read old comments:

    How (do you?) counter this huge sense of self-conscious?

    I remember being that way as a child (and recently asked my parents not to come to a storytelling performance, feeling horrible about it and relieved at the same time).

    I see this tendency strongly in my oldest and growing in my middle and it makes me so sad.

    We're just beginning to research Suzuki (how I found this post) and now I'm all concerned about not being able to help them. If they fall into a pattern like your kids' before they've gotten far enough to be self-taught... see, I already feel stuck.

    Any suggestions?

  4. Anonymous10:36 a.m.

    It is funny to look back and know that there are "independent" Suzuki children out there too.

    My son started his violin exactly at 3 years old. He rejected me as his home coach at 6.5 years old and insisted on daily independent practice. Then his Suzuki teacher accused me of being irresponsibility parent and she held his progress very slowly.

    From 45 minutes of weekly lesson, she filled it up with scales, readings and reviews. She only used up to 5 minutes to teach new materials. Often none at all and sometimes only 2 new notes. Imagine that !!

    Still I try to think positively and the teacher is trying to work things out and prayed that my son would learn his lessons. Eventually she kicked us out of her studio in about 6 months.

    We are now with another experienced teacher. She has been training my son to listen to his own playings and think about one thing he would like to practice a day. Surely life is much better and my son is welcoming me back if he needs me.

    There's always a silver lining!! Keep twinkling !!


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