How to Get Your Suzuki Violin Students to Accept Criticism…
A few times a week I receive emails from Suzuki parents around the world responding to my question, “What is your biggest practicing struggle with your Suzuki violin students right now?” What do you think their answer is? Almost without exception, the responses are either, “How can I make practicing more fun for more child?” or “How can I get my child to accept criticism from me?”
To answer the first question, I usually suggest a few games and activities for Suzuki violin students but I’m always at a loss with the second. My oldest is only two and has not begun lessons yet, so my only experience is as a teacher and then as a student myself (and watching my Mom practice with my three sisters and brother.)
It suddenly occurred to me while I was reading How Children Learn by John Holt, (The March Plucky Music Teacher Book Club Book,) that maybe we are looking at this the wrong way. Rather than force-feeding correct notes/rhythms/techniques, and constantly correcting children, we need to allow them to discover their mistakes for themselves and self-correct.
This goes against my very being. My natural tendency is to correct, nitpick, and spoon-feed my Suzuki violin students everything. But maybe I am doing them and their parents a disservice. It’s possible students are not accepting meaningful practice input from their parents because they are not MEANT to. The parents’ role may not be that of “bad habit deputy sheriff” while the teacher is away.
Let’s talk about bad habits. I, for one, came out of my bachelor’s and master’s programs with a healthy fear of “bad habits.” I had spent my college career correcting deeply ingrained poor technique and I was DETERMINED that no student of mine would EVER have to do that.
Fear is not a great motivator (I mean, unless you are actually in physical danger), and it certainly does not make you an effective music teacher.
This quote from How Children Learn struck me to the core, “I would have been less tempted to correct this child’s little mistake had I not, like so many adults, been under the spell of the Bad Habit Theory of Learning. This tells us that every time a child makes a mistake, in speaking, reading, or whatever, we must instantly correct it, lest it freeze into a “bad habit,” impossible to correct. The theory is simply untrue. Most of the many things children learn, and that we all learned as children— to walk, talk, read, write, etc.— they learn by trying to do them, making mistakes, and then correcting the mistakes.”
Here are some thoughts from How Children Learn to consider:
I. Children learning to talk do not develop “bad habits.” They continually listen, evaluate, and adjust their own speech to match the speech of those around them.
II. Children learning to walk do not develop “bad habits” either. Over time, using experiments and curiosity they discover the most effective and natural way to walk. They are highly motivated and eager to progress so they can be independent like their parents or siblings.
“Very young children seem to have what could be called an Instinct of Workmanship. We tend not to see it, because they are unskillful and their materials crude. But watch the loving care with which a little child smooths off a sand cake, or pats and shapes a mud pie. They want to make it as well as they can, not to please someone else but to satisfy themselves.”
III. How can we re-ignite a child’s curiosity and motivation? One crucial element of children’s natural learning that is missing from the way we teach violin today is improvisation. Every baby babbles and coos, children make up words and songs, walks around on their hands and knees, takes ridiculously large steps, and dances with abandon.
These activities used to learn and perfect the skills of walking and talking are creativity at its finest. It seems to me that allowing children to explore the instrument in a fun, creative, and safe environment is the key to unlocking their inherent curiosity and drive.
John Holt said, “The work of Carl Orff and others who have used his method of instruction suggests that when children are given many opportunities to improvise, to make up their own chants, rhythms, and tunes, their musical and verbal growth can be very rapid.”
For those of us that are worried about playing with proper technique, without excessive tension, and with healthy posture, I thought this quote was reassuring.
“It is when our muscles, hands, and fingers can improvise with the least conscious control that we are most truly improvising and have the most natural and effortless control of our instruments.”
IV. Children learning to talk and walk are constantly exposed to more experienced walkers and talkers. Constantly. We attempt to replicate this in the Suzuki method by listening to the recordings and attending group lessons. It occurs to me that maybe this just isn’t ENOUGH exposure. We need more opportunities for listening and observing other Suzuki violin students of varying age and ability. How much listening are your students actually doing? How often do they see others play? Especially other children? Parents, do you play for your child? If you do not play the instrument well (or at all), why can you not learn along side him?
“A child has no stronger desire than to make sense of the world, to move freely in it, to do the things that he sees bigger people doing. Why can’t we make more use of this great drive for understanding and competence?”
Our most powerful tool may be the parent learning alongside their child.
V. Perhaps the most important aspect of the child’s learning process is how the adults around him react to his efforts. As your child is learning to walk or talk, do you correct them? Or do you excitedly applaud every effort? Do you adore every little lisp or halfway made up word? Do you even adopt some into your own vocabulary? (Bruce and I still call pillows “bundos” even though Milo hasn’t said that in over a year.)
Do you fawn over video recordings of first halting steps inevitably followed by a hilarious fall onto a diapered behind? Maybe this is the way we need to approach correcting our Suzuki violin students. Unfeigned enthusiasm and excitement over each minuscule improvement or effort.
VI. The very real obstacle of performance anxiety may be seeded during these early years. As we constantly correct and adjust and “help” our students, we may really be teaching them that playing music is a scary thing. Fraught with minefields, playing the violin (or whatever instrument) is an activity that must be approached with caution.
“It looks very much as if children catch most of their fears from their elders.”
The Suzuki Method is all about teaching children in the way the naturally learn. The Mother-tongue method. It would make sense that as Suzuki teachers and parents, we would allow our Suzuki violin students to develop and improve the same way they do when they are learning to walk and talk. That is, naturally, without pushing, prodding, and criticism.
“The idea that we must work hundreds of hours to make a good habit, but can make a bad one in a few seconds, is nonsense. And the point of this to us as teachers is that we don’t always have to be in such a big hurry to correct children’s mistakes. We can afford to give them time to notice and correct them themselves. And the more they do this, the better they will become at doing it, and the less they will need and depend on us to do it for them. The less they have to depend on us, the faster they can teach themselves.”
As of now, I’m throwing away my “bad habit sheriff” badge, it’s time for a regime change. I don’t think I’ll be able to be totally laissez-faire, I am the teacher after all! But I do think that I will be striving for more balance between letting my students explore the instrument in a fun, improvisatory way and more structured, deliberate instruction.
Have you been under the “Bad Habit Theory of Learning?” In what ways, do you want to change your teaching (or home practicing) style to allow your students to learn naturally?
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