Lessons from the Wise
1) Lessons from Shinichi (and Carol Dweck)
My first pedagogical philosophical love will always be Shinichi Suzuki. I have been a Suzuki kid from before birth as my violin teacher mother was teaching Suzuki lessons while I was in utero. My first pedagogy training was the Suzuki Association’s “Every Child Can” course. The course introduced me to such concepts as nurturing with love, the value of repetition, starting at a young age, mother tongue approach, every child can, and mastery. All of these concepts are dear to me in different ways and influence my teaching.
My Suzuki training as well as my training from my pre-college teacher has instilled in me the value of physical patterning of correct repetitions. I use this idea constantly in my teaching, finding new ways to have my students do many repetitions of the same thing, but always with a twist so it feels novel to them and doesn’t get boring (I hope!). I specialize in working with younger students (ages 3 and up), and savor the challenge of teaching young children. Every child is unique and responds differently to activities, so it is a constant test to see what I can come up with as a teacher that will be fun and educationally useful for them. I completely agree with Suzuki that children are capable of much more than they are given credit. I am ready to defy expectations and work with young students to help them become accomplished musicians.
Of course, working with young students presents challenges of children who are not developmentally ready for symbol decoding (reading music). This is not a problem but an opportunity to teach by ear and develop excellent listening abilities and a musical ear. I use this approach even with my older students as teaching by ear allows new violinists to focus all their energy on playing the instrument and getting used to the physical demands before complicating things with the added challenge of reading music.
The most valuable part of Shinichi’s philosophy for me is the concept that Every Child Can. There is a common view in the U.S. that ability in any given field is a fixed trait that is destined at birth. This misconception results in parents who deem their children (and soon after the children deem themselves) “talented” or “not good at” certain things. The truth, as explained by Carol Dweck in “The Growth Mindset”, is that ability is dependent on the amount of meaningful and focused work put in. I try to instill in my students an understanding of the Growth Mindset; the reality that skill is not something that is fixed, but something you grow by working hard, like a muscle. Every child can benefit from music education, and every child- if they put in the work- can develop into an accomplished musician. Playing the violin isn’t easy, but the attitude that greets the challenge makes all the difference in the world.
2) Lessons from Yoga Class and Pam Wiley
I did Yoga teacher training (200 and 500 hour courses) towards the end of college that led me to question my habits and patterns, and encouraged me to approach life and learning with a light hearted attitude full of curiosity and an openness to new ways of seeing things. Some philosophies call this "beginners mind". I found many parallels with this approach a year later when I took Mark O’Connor’s Teacher Training course with a wonderful teacher, Pam Wiley. Inspired by both of these teachers I started envisioning my students’ lessons as a special place where they could explore, discover, and create new things.
At the training Pam was radiant and exemplified the best qualities of a teacher. She was open, heart-felt, warm and sincere. She had been a Suzuki teacher for 40 years prior to collaborating with Mark O’Connor, so her teaching style, though ripe with opportunities for improvisation and creation, was still very organized and methodical. She married technique and basic skill building with possibilities of musical freedom, expression and personal style while using of a variety of genres of music. After teaching the German folk tunes and Baroque pieces provided in the Suzuki books for years, this method felt like a total revelation.
My yoga teacher trainer and Pam both taught me that light-hearted curiosity leads to new discoveries, and that music lessons can be an opportunity for kids to create and explore, to become musicians and people open to try things out and aren’t afraid to make something up and do something in a new way. Students who are encouraged to seize opportunities to try new things feel empowered and inspired when given choices, and end up having a more collaborative relationship with their teachers. Students whose ideas are respected and encouraged are more likely to develop a lasting love of music because they know the joy of creating music on their own, not just blindly accepting what is presented to them.
In my teaching I like giving my students choices. I ask them what they would like to work on, what scale they would like to play, what they think needs work, what they are having trouble with, what solutions they can come up with to fix the issue. I want my students to be involved in their education, to be participants in the process of their own development. I give advice and suggestions and introduce new perspectives and approaches. I offer options and paths and give them freedom to choose their own adventure. Every student is different and comes into their lesson each week with unique needs, challenges, and passions. I see it as my job to find out what will foster musical passion in each student, what will motivate them and bring them a joyous experience of music making.
My utmost guiding philosophy is to treat my students with respect. I value highly the relationships I get to foster with my students and their families. They remind me what a precious and courageous thing it is to be open to learn new things. It isn’t easy to be young and know little of the world. Being respectful of my students means working with them in ways that respect their needs, at a pace that works for them, using materials that they enjoy and are developmentally appropriate, always being honest and kind, and always challenging them to keep exploring. I love music and I see the good it can do in the world. Music education for me is an opportunity to practice patience, respect, dedication, gratitude, and develop further an appreciation of beauty in all people and art. These are the qualities I hope to foster in my students, and experiences I hope to provide for them.
4) Inspiration from Tara Mohr: On Leadership
While teaching elementary school orchestra for a year a while back I read “Playing Big” by Tara Mohr, and it made me reexamine classroom conditioning and the values transmitted in schools. Tara’s main point in her chapter on education is that the behaviors that are praised and valued in the classroom are diametrically opposed with qualities associated with leadership in the working world. She argues that in classrooms “good girl” behavior is rewarded: do what you are told, don’t question the teacher, do your work quietly and turn it in on time, trust the system, give the teacher what they want to receive a good grade.
Leaders, on the other hand, think on their feet, solve problems on the fly, make decisions quickly, take calculated risks, get the right people on board, and know their own strengths and weaknesses.
In schools, Tara writes, we are taught that we need to gain knowledge through reading other people’s works, and that we don’t have the right to say much ourselves until we have read everyone else’s work on a subject and cite it in our papers to show we have done our homework. Tara suggests that what women know in their hearts and minds is valuable, whether they have digested all the other works already published in their field already or not. I see how my teaching in the past has been set up as a situation where the child is like an empty vessel to be filled, or a robot I just need to program with the correct movements. Of course physical patterning is an invaluable part of creating healthy habits in violin playing, but I’ve also found great value in asking my students about their musical goals, and what inspirations they would like to include in their music making journey.
Each of my students has a unique musical personality, and I want to find ways to help those personalities shine through in their playing. I want to help my students become musical leaders with skills of fearless networking, creative problem-solving, questioning authority, coming up with new innovative ideas, and I want to help them build the confidence to bring their visions to life. I encourage my students to question me, question other teachers, and find their own truth.