Last Saturday, our son, “A” graduated from Suzuki Violin Book 4. This means very little to most people. But to us it’s a big deal. It represents more than the ability to play the seven pieces in the songbook correctly with proper dynamics and rhythm – it represents two years of “A’s” hard work, discipline, and most of all, the self-awareness to master the work on his own.
As a parent, one of the most difficult things you have to endure is watching your kid try and fail. From the time they attempt to take their first steps, we are always there, watching and ready to catch them when they inevitably fall. Sometimes, though, they need to fall, get back up, and begin again…and again. This was one of them.
“A” had always loved music, so it seemed natural to start him on an instrument at a young age. We had been through several rounds of our local Music Together program, which he loved, but after a couple of sessions I thought my head would explode if I heard one more round of their theme song, “Hello Everybody”! A neighbor’s child was attending a local music school that accepted young children, so when he turned 4 years old thought we’d give it a go.
The music school followed the Suzuki method of music instruction. For those who aren’t familiar with it, the Suzuki approach teaches music in a style similar to the way children naturally acquire language – first by listening, then by speaking, and finally reading. Learning is leveled, with each songbook designed to teach a specific set of skills and techniques; Book One focuses on basics, Book Two on rhythm, Three on technique, and Book Four puts it all together – by the time a child completes Book Four, they are proficient and considered and “intermediate” violinist in terms of the type of music they are able to read and play.
The other departure from traditional lessons comes in the form of parent involvement – in the Suzuki method, the parent attends the child’s lesson and acts as their teacher at home – this is where it gets tricky. When your child is young this is fairly easy, practice sessions are short and the parent can pretty much direct the lesson. When the child is older, it becomes much more difficult. That’s when it’s time to step back and let them do it on their own – and this is when the real learning begins. Instead of just a music lesson, it becomes a lesson in self-awareness.
For “A”, this meant learning to focus on the repertoire, rather than the multitude of natural and self-imposed distractions (“Mooooom, there’s a spider on the wall!!” “Moooom, I need a new battery for the metronome!” “Moooom, what are we having for dinner tonight?”). More importantly, it required “A” to really listen to himself while playing, recognize when he made a mistake and take the steps to correct it – not easy for a 10 year-old. It meant working through some really challenging music on his own, getting frustrated with it (once resulting in a broken violin bow – lesson learned: never bang the bow against your music stand in frustration – and “A” having to choke over $80 of his Christmas money to buy a new one), and finally, succeeding. He had to learn, with the help of his extraordinarily patient teacher, how to break down a piece of music into small, manageable bites that could be easily swallowed rather than trying to take on the entire song in one huge gulp.
It was also a learning experience for me. As a parent, I naturally want to speak up when I see (or hear) my kid stumbling, but in this case, I just had to sit back and let it happen – and that is so hard. My self-restraint went into over-drive (if I could only do that around ice-cream, sigh). My awareness that this is a small step in the process of letting go, intentionally letting my son make mistakes that will have relatively minor consequences, and understanding that this will help him to mature and make better decisions for himself as he gets older – when they REALLY matter – helped to keep me focused on the big picture.
It took two years…but he did it. At his graduation recital last weekend, he literally beamed with pride – pride not only in reaching the goal, but in taking the journey. And that’s the real lesson.