Sunday, July 13, 2008

Dear New Suzuki Parent:

A message I posted a while ago to a new Suzuki parent who was struggling with a 4yo beginning violinist who was struggling with basic lesson behaviour and practicing expectations, a parent who asked whether any other parents had been through similar struggles and found it worthwhile to persist. Other respondents suggested she bribe her child to get him to practice and behave at lessons, and those suggestions of course encouraged me to pipe up. And so I wrote...

I'm the mom of a girl who started Suzuki violin at 3 1/2. She didn't like practicing. She resisted. I gave up, temporarily. We came back when she was just past four. I had to push a little, but I also sensed that she had a really good grounding in lesson expectations and general musical awareness, and it was time to make it work. We worked really hard to find a groove together, and gradually it came. Daily practicing became a routine and for the most part it was no longer a struggle.

That little one is now 14 and has a huge fire in her belly for music in general and violin in particular. She is absolutely soaring this year, having leapt into serious advanced repertoire and begun studying with a wonderful big-city teacher. So yeah, there's at least one person who has stuck with it through the plateaus and bumps in the road and come out the other end knowing it's been worth it. No ... there's definitely more than one ... my own mother being another example.

Having said that, I have four Suzuki kids (violin and viola, ages 5-14, Suzuki Books 3 through 10+) and with the exception of the first few months with my very first child I've never used rewards. What has kept things working for me and my kid through the early months when there is almost no intrinsic reward in the music-making has been two things. First, the fun we made being together during practicing. Playing games, hugging, giggling, playing tricks on each other, counting, inventing, doing things backwards, engaging in little routines and diversions. My aim was to make a special gift to my child of myself and my creativity during that time so that the time spent would be enjoyable and special. Secondly, I used a variety of means to make my kids' work feel tangible to them. Some looked superficially like rewards -- for instance we often used pennies for repetitions ... but they were just counters, they weren't given to my child. We made Duplo towers, we made scroll-hanging monkey chains with an old Barrel Full of Monkeys game, we recorded video clips, we coloured in squares on a grid, we repeated a skill on every step in the staircase, 'winning' our way to the top.

For as much as it's tough to deal with the bumps on the road, the endeavour is worthwhile. My kids know deep deep within themselves that things that are sometimes boring and difficult can hold immense rewards over the longer term. They know that sticking with something through the rough patches can be very important. They know that grunt-work is sometimes necessary to reach a place where joy comes easily. They know that small daily gains add up to immense longer-term progress. And they know that they are capable learners of difficult things.

There are few other learning scenarios where a child can be so fully supported by caring adults as they grapple with these big life lessons over the long-term.

I would encourage you to continue work with your children and your teacher to try to solve the things that are getting in the way of your children's enjoyment of their Suzuki experience. I think that through-thick-and-thin parental commitment sends an important message too. Remember that your 4yo is still just four. It can take young children up to a year or more to "learn how to have a lesson." It doesn't matter if they don't get a whole lot of skills-oriented teaching during that phase, because they're absorbing stuff like crazy anyway ... especially if they're observing others. My now-11-year-old took two full years before he was ready to join in at group class. For two years, until he was 6 and a half, all he did was watch. When he finally joined in, it was as if he'd been there all along. He could do everything the group had been working on while he'd been sitting on the sidelines.


  1. Anonymous1:04 pm

    My Suzuki kid is currently in her late twenties. She started violin when she was six. We had two big issues.

    The first, and more easily surmountable, was that she didn't always feel like having a lesson at precisely the time she was scheduled to have one. We did solve that one with bribery - after an explanation. We explained carefully that she could only have access to the teacher at a specific time each week. Then we promised that after the lesson, assuming she had cooperated, she and her sisters would all get a treat on the way home. That became a tradition that lasted for years - usually ice cream in the summer and cocoa in the winter.

    The second issue was that her sound often did not meet her expectations. For the entire first year she studied violin, EVERY SINGLE PRACTICE ended in tears. "I can't make it sing." I have to admit I begged her to give up, pointing out that violin lessons were not required. She insisted "I has to play the violin." About the time she moved into the quarter size violin from the eighth size, she began to feel happy with her sound. That lasted about six months, and then I made the mistake of taking her to an orchestra performance. Her standards immediately went up and we were back to tears and growls for several months. This back and forth went on for her entire childhood (and for all I know she's still doing it).

    Violin dropped from a passion to a pastime while she was in college. The determination she developed in her quest to "make it sing" has not gone away. It probably has something to do with the masters in molecular biology.

  2. I enjoyed reading this post. May I share it with a friend? I have a 5 and 8 year old in Suzuki -- in books 4 and book 1 respectively. I need to implement some of your creative ideas, like the barrel of monkeys. We have mostly good practice days, but sometimes some bad ones with my 5 year old. (the 8 year old loves it). I have never bribed. But some times, I do award a laminated smiley face (the "currency" in our home to trade in for various simple rewards) for GOOD ATTITUDE and trying hard. Attitude is everything. Blessings to you, from Violin Mom in Florida. Please stop by my blog at

  3. I've lurked for a while but this post struck a chord [no pun intended:)]. I too am a home educating B.C. momma with a little one taking Suzuki piano lessons.

    Thanks for this post. My daughter has been in taking lessons since she was 3.5 years old and we are just beginning to see fruit. Practicing used to be frustrating, but now it is becoming a little more fun. Upward and onward...


  4. Erin J3:56 pm

    I really appreciated your post. I still read your blog and enjoy all the doings of your family. Unfortunately because of the gas prices and such this year we probably won't make it up to SVI as we had hoped...maybe in the years to come.

    This fall we hope to start fresh a year older and with a new, younger, enthusiastic teacher. I believe wholeheartedly in the Suzuki method, we just have had more than the usual hiccups, which I should expect from starting so young! But Natalie will be four in November and we're going to try again. Like KITMF (comment above) Natalie gets frustrated by the lack of tone in the 1/16th size violin she has to use. She always wants to try playing on the adult one because "it sounds better". I'm not sure how to get past this hurdle beyond simply waiting for her to grow.

    Well, I hope you have a wonderful week!

    Erin J.


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