Saturday, April 28, 2012

My Life as a Suzuki Mom


Did you know that my daughter plays the violin?

As my students well know, I start a lot of conversations this way. As with about half of my little quirks, I do this for a reason (for other quirks, see also: blog writing).

When my daughter was four-and-a-half years old, she had already been in preschool for half a year, and dance class for a year. At this point I realized that her music education had fallen behind. Public school was going to wait until Kindergarten before any music teaching at all, and until fourth grade before instruments and choir, which we decided just wasn't acceptable. So, with little more than a vague concept of what it was, and some misconceptions too, we enrolled her in Suzuki Strings (not to be confused with Suzuki). Ten years later, she is still at it (and her working piece is this). What I have learned about teaching, music, and music teaching through this process has had a profound impact on my life.

Here are some examples:
  • Young kids learn fast. The debate over the critical period hypothesis (see also: here, but only if you prefer the peer-reviewed, scientific, and therefore boring version) is is apparently the kind of thing that linguists get into bar fights over. Still, most people would agree that young kids learn fast. If you know one thing about Suzuki, it may be that every kid starts at age three and is therefore a prodigy. They don't, and they're not. It's possible to start at any age--allegedly anyway, I tried to keep up with my daughter, but even with a huge head-start in music she still crushed me somewhere back in Book 3. The Suzuki Method does permit kids to start very young--I actually saw a child at a recent gig who was already a Suzuki student and was still breastfeeding (at the gig--perhaps the combination of an early start and what might be considered a late stop).
  • Listening matters. I've learned to apply this to my teaching in the same way that I've learned not to stop at the Twin Kiss on the way home from work. That is, I understand the value, but mostly fail to apply it to my own life. Suzuki books, on the other hand, come with a CD of professionally played examples so that students have a consistent good example to guide their playing. We all learned the very complex task of talking mostly through listening, and Dr. Suzuki wagered that we could probably learn music that way too.
  • Never un-learn. Suzuki students hold on to their first song forever, in the same way we don't grow out of the first words we learn--even if grownups who still call their parents "mommy" or "daddy" are just a little strange. It means they all have a common repertoire, and the eighteen-year-olds can play with the four-year-olds.
  • Experience it before you read it. If you've ever read to a little kid regularly, you know that they can eventually read along. In fact, they can often read along with the book closed. No one thinks that this will prevent kids from reading, but lots of music teachers assume that you'll never learn to read music unless your first lesson includes reading a page full of whole-notes.
  • Parents matter. The title of this entry isn't a mistake (though, when you do see mistakes, I do appreciate your emails--hi, Gina!). Dr. Suzuki identified parents ("moms" actually) as the "home teachers." We were instructed to sit quietly at lessons, take notes, and bring some sort of hand work to occupy ourselves. This way we could then guide our children's practice at home. Lots of education could be helped by this, though perhaps not by parents following kids around school all day taking notes.
  • Memorization matters. I've disciplined myself to this in the same way I've disciplined myself not to order a second beer when out to dinner. That is, well, you know. Memorization is important because it helps to free the music from its prison of the dead trees. Also, using music stands, or holding folders, messes with posture, stance, instrument position, even technique and embouchure if you're not careful. Also, for something to really be a part of you you need to carry it with you all the time. Sadly, my own head is a terrible place to try to store things, and like most teachers I don't expect much from my students with aspects that I'm no good at myself (see also: homework, neatness, spelling). Related side-note: I'm most harsh on things that I don't do well naturally, but have made a specific effort to improve in myself (see also: deadlines and punctuality).
  • Look the part first. Suzuki students start with positioning. Before they play anything at all, they learn how to stand and how to hold the instrument. Lots of time is taken to develop a stance that is the same as that used by a professional violinist. It means that their positioning, at once very natural and kinda complicated, is so deeply ingrained that it shows up even when they're nervous or concentrating on something else.
  • Repetition is okay. We were taught in music teacher school that you should never repeat anything without a good reason. This is because too many music teachers have been caught saying, "That was great, do it again." Sometimes, however, the good reason is that it's simply necessary to repeat things. If you've ever played something wrong, you have developed a conflict in your brain between the right one and the wrong one. Resolving that conflict requires majority rule of the correct version having been played lots more.
    Sadly, there are some misconceptions that turn out to be not so badly misconceived:
    • Only Asian kids succeed. Not entirely true, and correlation doesn't equal causation. If, however, you've encountered more amazing Asian violinists (see also: any state orchestra roster) than mere chance would dictate, it may be partially due to this.
    • It's a cult. It is a cult. They have t-shirts and everything. If you'd ever seen one of them start a song on one end of violin camp, and two minutes later they're all playing it, you'd know it was a cult. Cults aren't all bad, see also: here.
    • They play like robots. They do at times, but it's the same way you say the Pledge of Allegiance. When something is deeply ingrained, it can come out without your brain being involved.
    • They all play shrunken violins. It turns out that size does matter. They don't, however, stay with the miniature instruments. Our standard joke is that the smallest ones can eventually be re-purposed to become Christmas tree ornaments. Or earrings. Truth is, though, three year-olds can start on the violin because the violin can be scaled down to their size. Most other instruments change pitch when you adjust their size, so unless you want your kindergartner playing the piccolo, or the piccolo  trumpet, they will either play the violin, or start on an adult-sized instrument. Very young pianists (which I pronounce "piánist" so that it doesn't sound so much like another word), for example, can't possibly use the same hand position when they're grown as they use when they start, because the keyboard size doesn't change through their lives.
    • They're all nerds. My wife had a bumper sticker that said "Your Honor Student Beat Up My Suzuki Kid." From this we also learned that Suzuki parents are entirely lacking in a sense of humor, as more than one of them tried to explain to us that their Suzuki kids were honor students. There's nothing wrong with nerds, though (see also: here).
    In general, I am wary of any educational system that has a brand name associated with it. My school is in the process of becoming a Learning-Focused® school, because being learning focused the old way wasn't sufficient. I've gotten similar sales pitches for Orff®, Kodály®, Jump Right In®, Godly Play®, Weight Watchers®, Hooked on Phonics®, and Amway®. If it comes with a lot of glossy binders and testimonials from all kinds of people who used to really suck at stuff and now are great, or if it could be peddled on AM radio, certain alarm bells go off for me. Still, when the methodology is deeply rooted in sound philosophy, and readily admits that it all really depends on good teaching in the end anyway, something like Suzuki can really make a difference.

    Wednesday, April 11, 2012

    The Point of Saturation

    Not every slacker is a nerd, but the slacker who writes the Slacker's Guide to School certainly is. "Nerd" in the sense that we use the term is different from "nerd" the way you may be thinking. It's a label we've been trying to rescue from our detractors, the same as we've tried to do with "man," "Democrat," "Christian,"  and "healthcare" with varying degrees of success.

    One feature of nerds, in our parlance, is that we can be unironically, unambiguously enthusiastic about things. So says John Green, and he's one of our official spokespersons. A side-effect of this kind of devotion, though, is that total immersion in something is likely to leave some residue. The word steeped refers both to the influence of something like a teabag, and of something like history. Generally speaking, if there's enough of it in there, it's going to change things.

    Despite the feigned outrage I try to profess at school, I'm a libertarian where so-called adult content is concerned. I didn't initially realize that movies like Clerks and Dogma had a lot of bad language in them, because I more or less talked this way when I was with my friends in college. I never noticed that Pulp Fiction had a lot of violence until I considered watching it with my kid. When I was in high school, almost every R-rated movie had a nude scene, and I never really complained. As such, I've always felt that parents who blame the movies their kids watch or the video games they play for bad behavior were intentionally ignoring more fundamental problems.

    That said, I do see a significant difference between experiencing something and becoming immersed in it. Some years ago, my wife pointed out that the MUSICAL (such an important word, in Berks County at least, is granted special treatment--see also: LORD and OREO) at my school seemed to be rewiring the brains of my students. When you consider the percentage of themselves that students invest in their school MUSICAL, it makes a lot of sense. Even compared with sports, rarely in school life is a young person asked to expend such time, money, ankle integrity, vocal nodules, even melanin (students, at my school at least, are given tanning coupons if their skin-tone doesn't look too good in their costumes under the lights) on something that their school boards participate in. Because of this, you'll sometimes see the ethic of the show also play out in real life.

    Here are some examples from shows that I've been involved with, or just watched (once you've noticed this phenomenon, you'll see it in other shows as well):
    - West Side Story - Even in our racially monochromatic school, students fell into a Sharks vs. Jets mentality. The factions eventually healed, but were palpable during the show's run and rehearsals.
    - 42nd Street - One of a number of shows where the ingénue comes in and usurps the sadder-but-wiser (see also:washed up, used up, rid-hard-put-away-wet) established character.
    - Lil' Abner - No one except Daisy, the female main character, really wants her to find true love. She spends the entire show fighting the entire cast, and scheming against her supposed love interest. Meanwhile, they also battle against her, while her love interest sings songs about how much he enjoys his bachelorhood.
    - Seussical - There aren't any especially horrible villains in this show, so everyone more or less gets along. The same, I understand, is true of the Muppets, a discussion of which you'll find here.
    - Beauty and the Beast - The cast is divided into factions (townspeople, "objects" in the Beast's house, silly girls and Gaston, etc.) but the one thing everyone, including Belle, could agree on was that the Beast needed to get his act together and be a better man--at the business end of a pitchfork if necessary.

    In each of these shows, the life choices, biases, conflicts, and overriding plot lines permeated students' lives. Participants began to alter their dealings with each other and with the world based on a theater piece. The fact that they're all an emotional pressure-cooker by this time only enhances the effect. I'm told that this also leads to lots of relationships formed, and relationships ended (see also: here).

    It can happen with books, and TV shows, and video games as well. This observation is not in conflict with the libertarian views mentioned above, because it's not the existence of these art-forms and experiences that lead to problems. It is the process of inhaling them so deeply that they become a part of you.

    Parents and other adults need to tread carefully with this, though. The ethic we see on the surface may not be what holds the power to change a person. Stories with horrible things happening to young people (see also: Holes, and The Hunger Games) may seem dangerous, but careful readings of these books show that the overriding ethic is not contained in the premise. The adversity is very upsetting in these stories, but the characters find a way to triumph over it. Learning to struggle through the worst of circumstances is actually pretty basic teenager stuff.

    It is for this reason that I decided to finish reading Twilight. I worried that I was falling into the same trap that has caused parents to want to ban Harry Potter for its witchcraft and Looking for Alaska for its pornography. I feel strongly that you don't get to denounce a book for having a negative effect on your kids, or all kids, if you haven't actually read it. And so, I finished Twilight, even though many of the people on my wife's Facebook page worried that by doing so I risked becoming sort of a pansy.

    The experience did not reverse my sense of being troubled on behalf of any serious fans of this series. If the abstinence porn thing just does it for you, fine. If you're really not bothered by the serious lack of writing chops, plot development, and depth of characters, fine. That said, I worry about people, especially young girls, who let themselves become altered these books--especially the subtle alterations mentioned above with MUSICALs. Students in those shows didn't intend for the experience change them, but it did.

    By the way, it's possible for men who read Twilight to become similarly affected, but I will continue use the pronouns as they exist in the book just to help to keep things straight. By "straight," I mean nothing related to sexual orientation. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Ahem.

    Twilight is a problem if it leads you to believe:
    • It's okay for men to push women around if:
      • the woman is unreasonably refusing to get into the car.
      • he's just kidding around.
      • the woman wants to use her hands, and he doesn't want her to.
    • Watching a girl while she sleeps is sweet, especially if he wants to date her, especially if she talks in her sleep, especially if she talks about him.
    • Driving too fast is okay if he's immortal, even if his passengers aren't.
    • It is sometimes a guy's girlfriend's job to talk him out of killing people.
    • Breaking into a girl's house and digging through her laundry hamper to find her keys is romantic.
    • Physical attractiveness is a great prophylactic for the consequences of acting like a complete asshat-- gorgeous people have more rights than everyone else.
    • Being consistently nice is optional, if on occasion you are especially nice.
    • If she's too slow a hiker, he should just carry her. Against her will if necessary.
    • A significant age-gap isn't a problem if he looks like he's the appropriate age.
    • Girls should make their father's dinner, even if:
      • she's not eating.
      • she's already eating. 
      • he's not all that hungry.
    Books that come in a series are particularly powerful (and potentially dangerous) because they last so long. The first Twilight book came out in 2005, and the final movie hasn't happened yet. That means that we're talking about a seven-year-and-counting influence.

    Twelve-hundred words into this, and it seems like I've back to suggesting that we start banning books. I'm not, really. With the abundance of electronic and non-electronic media available to us now, it's not necessary to restrict indulgences, even over-indulgences. What is necessary is to make sure that there's enough other stuff in there to dilute things a bit. Like other issues of moderation, this may be taken on a daily, weekly, or other basis as works best for the individual and the situation. That's why MUSICALs last only three months, and movies only two and a half hours, and books a week or two--I know, some people read an entire book in a night (nerds mostly). Finding a way to get something else in your life, inserted between binges of unironic, uncomplicated devotion, may be the metaphysical equivalent of yo-yo dieting. However, even yo-yo dieting could prevent a situation where the Discovery Health Channel cuts someone out of his house and carries him out with a crane. Sporadic restraint is at least better than no restraint at all.

    Sunday, April 1, 2012

    Turn! Turn! Turn!

    "For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven." (Ecclesiastes 3:1)

    I suck at this. Always have.

    At a "well baby" visit, when my daughter was about a year-and-a-half old, the doctor asked about twenty developmental-progress kinds of questions. One of the last of these was whether the child could jump and get both of her feet off the ground. We didn't know; we'd never asked. So, while the doctor went away to get something, my wife and I jumped up and down in the exam room, and tried to get the kid to do the same. Turns out that she could, and the doctor checked off another little box on his form.

    This experience has become a kind of shorthand for thousands of parenting choices we've had to make since then--"Is this a jump-with-both-feet-off-the-ground thing?" Have we forgotten to age the child: in our expectations of her capabilities, in the freedoms she should have acquired, in the independence she should be granted? Somehow it's almost always a shock for us when we find out what other parents allow, or expect from, their children.

    We've gotten it wrong the other way too. We never tried to push the whole Santa Claus idea: "Some man we don't know personally is going to break into our house and give you whatever you want. As long as you're good. Good kids get stuff, which must mean that those without stuff must not be so good." We kinda just opted out. When she went to school, she started to ask questions. My wife explained that Santa Claus is based on a real person, who was kind and generous, and lived a long time ago. Armed with this information, our daughter returned to school and told everyone that Santa Claus was dead.


    Also, I think our daughter was one of the first of her peers to know the real deal about sex--sometimes you want to get there first with your own version of things--and probably among the first to get a cell phone--overprotective sometimes means that you try to protect them with items that you think will improve their safety. I'm not sure that we got it wrong with these things, but we seem to be consistently out of step with other parents whom we would have assumed shared our values.


    Being the oldest in my family, I do know that aging kids appropriately and fairly isn't just a problem with only children. In families with multiples, parents tend to guess at all of this for the first kid, and then age the youngest only slightly behind the first. This sometimes means the first child can watch R-rated movies when he's 16, and the youngest when he's 11, as long as it's a year or two after the first.


    Teaching high school, I have watched about a dozen-and-a-half classes worth of seniors go through their own version of this, as they look toward graduation and their future. There seem to be two distinct approaches (and any number of gradations in between):
    1. The hangers-on--How can I miss you if you won't go away?
    2. The escapists--I already miss you, like you're already gone.
    Getting the balance right is very difficult, and few people do. You have the glory days hangers-on who never want to leave, and in some cases keep coming back (see also: The Onion). The other extreme is the ones who decide they're fed up with the whole thing midway through junior year. Anyone who knows that I attended college exactly 17 feet from my parents' house may be rather surprised to learn that I fell into the second category.

    Step one for me was to get a girlfriend who lived more than thirty miles away. She and I met at Diocesan Band (kids from seven Catholic high schools, picked to play in a band, and find out what happens...), and kept something of a relationship going until I graduated from high school. Since the West Shore (of PA anyway) wasn't quite enough distance between myself and my home, I also enlisted in the Marines. As I mentioned before here, the Marines decision was multilayered at best, and fairly insane at worst. One of my primary motivations, and I'm sure that of many other recruits, was freedom. This analysis is underscored by the fact that I'd signed all of the papers, and booked myself into the MEPS before I'd discussed any of this with my parents.

    Let me stop right there and clarify that I had a great childhood, and have a great family. Whatever was driving me to get out of there was much more primal and complicated than I could have been talked out of at the time.

    I did a similar thing right out of college. Colleges graduate their seniors by roughly Mother's Day. It didn't occur to me at the time that high schools graduate a month later, a couple of Fridays after Memorial Day (in PA at least, even later in NJ and some other surrounding states). This meant that I was panicking about my lack of a job before most schools had packed up books and covered bulletin boards. It meant that when I was offered a long-term substitute position, not only did I accept, but withdrew myself from the job market completely, canceling some interviews and declining others as they were offered.

    I began work on July 1, preparing the band for, and then leading them in, a parade. I then, after renting and moving into an apartment, re-sized the drill for marching band, and ran band camp. My first paycheck came after the start of school in September. By this time, many of my more sensible and patient friends had full-time, permanent positions in the very districts where I'd declined interviews.

    You'd think this would have taught me a lesson. Nope.

    The following year, after the expiration of my long-term substitute job, I got a job teaching choir (where I still work now). My wife and I did an apartment search, but couldn't find anywhere that would allow our dog. We switched over to the idea of buying, and within a week found a house we wanted to buy. Meanwhile, we'd moved into my parents house. Again, lest you get the wrong idea of this living situation, my parents own both sides of a double house. We were essentially no-more "living with my parents" than we had been living with the landlady in our first apartment (we rented the second floor, she lived on the first). Still, we were so eager to get started in our new house that we insisted on a quick closing and did so against the advice of council. Our lawyer wanted the previous owners to complete the mandated sewer hookup before closing. We basically told him shove his ideas up his escrow--this was our lawyer I'm talking about.

    Why drag all of us through all of the foolish decisions of my life (by the way, if you think these are all of the foolish decisions, you underestimate the fodder I have for this blog)? Because these particular foolish decisions were made by ignoring a basic and fundamental truth of life: Life is long.

    You've heard otherwise. In fact, the opposite view is so important people say it in Latin: carpe diem. Well, sometimes seizing the damned day is as dangerous as letting the opportunities pass you by.

    One of the problems with the stock market (for more problems with the stock market, see also: here) is that it requires growth. It's not okay to just make something well and sell it for a good price. The whole thing requires that companies improve and grow. The whole fetish surrounding sustainable financial growth ignores the fact that sometimes you need to just stay where you are.

    I wonder if we sometimes have this whole carpe diem thing the wrong way around anyway. What if seizing the day isn't about being aggressive, but about making something worthwhile from the situation you're in? What if it's about noticing that you only get one chance at senior year (of high school or college), or buying your first place, and that there are opportunities there that you'll never get again after you leave?

    Then leave. Go on with your life. Immediately.

    Knowing whether to hold your ground or to take a leap of faith is one of the most important and difficult parts of major life decisions. Deciding not to act is a decision, and it can sometimes be the brave one. This is especially difficult for people who are supposed to be growing and changing every minute, but it doesn't end with adolescence. There is a Turkish proverb that says, "No matter how far you've gone down the wrong road, turn back." Because of this, you don't get to stop making decisions, ever. Life is long, and therefore it's vitally important to start living it right now, both in this circumstance and in the next.