Wednesday, February 1, 2012

An open letter to my teenage Suzuki Violin students

"Talent is no accident of birth. In today’s society a good many people seem to have the idea that if one is born without talent, there is nothing he can do about it; they simply resign themselves to what they consider to be their fate.”
Shinichi Suzuki

Dear Students:

Did you know I love my job? I feel so fortunate to be able to interact with each of you every week and to be a part of your lives. It's so gratifying to watch you grow and develop, not just musically, but personally as well. One of my favorite parts about my job is to getting to know the personalities of each of my students, and I feel it is a gift each time a student shares a piece of who they are with me.

As a group, you are amazing. You run cross country, travel with the soccer team, star in plays, sing, dance, play basketball, teach piano lessons, take multiple AP classes, play football and take trips with the debate squad. You work so hard at so many things.

And the violin? It's hard too. So hard. I know you might see me as just another adult who bugs you about something you should be doing, but I promise you, I've shed my share of tears over my stupid violin.  Here's the thing: I didn't start playing violin until I was twelve. My parents got me violin lessons from the closest teacher they could find, who charged a whopping $32 a month, and told me that if I practiced all summer I'd be good enough to start in the advanced orchestra in seventh grade. My parents frequently made me practice outside on the patio so they didn't have to hear me, (true story!) and my violin teacher gave me more of an education in female anatomy and reproductive problems than she did on the violin. (At one point, she was telling my 12 year old self various horror stories from the gynecologist, and warned me, "You'll remember me when you are sitting in the stirrups for your first pap smear." Unfortunately, she was right.) I still chuckle remembering my first lesson in vibrato from her: "Just put your finger on the string and wiggle it back and forth. That's all there is to it." You, as my students, should all get a good laugh out of that.

I was never a Suzuki whiz-kid. I spent my high school and college years comparing myself to those that started violin much, much younger than I did, and wishing that I would have had the opportunities that they did. Instead of playing Mozart Concertos at the age of 12, I was learning my open string notes, making the neighbors' dogs howl in the process. 

I want you to know that the violin didn't come easy for me. Every time I started a new orchestra, whether in junior high, high school or even college, I shed more than a few tears because I didn't feel good enough. After my first orchestra rehearsal in college, I went back to my dorm overwhelmed and cried for a good long time, because I was sure that I picked the wrong major and I'd never make it as a violinist. One year in college I had a particularly difficult teacher, and I routinely set aside time to sit in my car after violin lessons and sob for a while before I drove home. 

This instrument we play is hard. There's no doubt about it. I'm sure you've all had times where you've wanted to smash your violin against the wall in frustration; trust me, I have too. But, you should all be proud of the progress you've made. By the time you get through Book 4, you've mastered some of the hardest things the violin can dish out. You've been able to play in recitals, in church, and probably have gotten a lot of recognition for your playing.  But one thing I can't emphasize to you enough as a teacher is that there's life after Suzuki Book 4!

As you get further along in your violin studies, things are only going to get harder. But here's the thing: they also get better. More exciting, more beautiful. Your abilities will increase and you'll enjoy playing more. The problem is, the work you'll have to put in will have to increase if you want to get there.  We're in the business of training muscles, and while our brains might be smart, our muscles are dumb. It takes many, many, many repetitions for our muscles to get the message on how to play a passage exactly the way we want them to. 

Unfortunately, playing the violin isn't like cramming for a math test. you can't practice 90 minutes the day of a lesson or the night before the recital and expect to have great results. The best results come from consistent, diligent practice. The famous violinist Jascha Heifetz is quoted as saying "If I don't practice one day, I know it; two days, the critics know it; three days, the public knows it." I've found that to be true in so many ways. I can practice fabulously and make great progress one day, but if I wait three more days before practicing again, not only is all the progress I made three days before lost, but I'm worse off than when I started.  The detail work takes time, lots of it. Focused, consistent time.

I want you to be successful, and I recognize that successful means different things to different people. I don't expect everyone to be a concert violinist. If your goal is to be able to play in church and have people enjoy your performance, I'll help you with that. If you want to be able to play in a community orchestra and maybe teach someday, I'll help you with that. If your goal is get a college scholarship someday, then that's what we'll work towards. The only thing that I ask is that you're continually working to achieve your goals, whatever they are, and putting in the time necessary to help you along that path. I know you're busy, trust me. But if soccer, basketball, drama and everything else always takes priority over your violin, then your progress will be very slow. There's no way around that.

 I would do you a great disservice if I wasn't honest with you in lessons. If we're still putting notes and bowings together six weeks before a major recital and we've been working on this same piece for six months, I'm going to tell you that you're not practicing enough. I'm going to respect you enough to encourage you to step up your practicing and be more diligent about preparing. I'm going to do everything I can to motivate you, but once you reach teenager-hood, you're the only one who can decide when, how much, and how well you're going to practice. What I want you to remember is this: just because I tell you the way it is, and maybe telling you that you're not practicing enough, it doesn't mean that I love you any less. On the contrary, I'm pushing you because I know you can do better, and I want you to succeed.

Trust me, I know it's easy to look at those kids who look like they're barely old enough to be potty trained that are playing pieces you can only dream about, and decide that they're just naturally talented and that you'll never get there. But here's the thing I've learned after years of practicing, performing and teaching: talent matters very little. There are a ton of naturally talented violinists out there that never made it anywhere because they depended on their talent to carry them. There's no shortcut on the violin unfortunately. Hard work is where it's at. Everyone has to work at the violin, no matter how "naturally talented" they may be. The very first course Suzuki Teachers take, before any instrument specific training is called "Every Child Can," a course that drills into our heads over and over that talent isn't inborn, talent is developed through discipline, hard work, and a nurturing environment. Don't discount the value of consistent, focused practicing. Just like being good on the soccer field requires more than showing up for games, playing well in a recital is going to require hour, days, weeks months, and years of preparation that no one sees. Repetition, scales and drills aren't nearly as glamorous as standing on the stage performing, but you won't get there if you're not willing to put in the effort, the time, the sweat, and yes, the tears.

I'm so glad we're in this together. There is nothing more satisfying as a teacher than to see a student's progress and watch them succeed. I'm going to do everything in my power to help you in your journey.The only thing that I ask is that you're willing to put in the work to get yourself there. It'll be worth it, I promise.


  1. I had a professor remind me that "Hard work will beat out natural talent any day" when I was lamenting that math just didn't come to me naturally like my classmates (and even roommate!). True stuff.

  2. Lovely post! Your students are very lucky to have a teacher like you.

  3. I don't have much to add. My students are all teenagers or adults, but most of them can barely read music... they're either largely self-taught or just don't have a strong background. Even for those with a decent piano background, they are all beginners at the organ. Some of them are taking lessons mostly because they have to, as in they just got thrown into a church calling that demands they play. What I wouldn't give to have a "serious" student! I think I've had two in my entire teaching career, and it is such a pleasure.

    Lack of practice is definitely an issue here, and I fully admit I haven't been as good at requiring it as I should be. I tend to be a bit too sympathetic to the busy high-schooler plight, and even more sympathetic toward my adult students who are mainly busy moms. And I guess in some ways I lower my expectations because I know these people aren't going to go far and just want to play in church. But lately I've been wondering why I'm putting so much into some of them when it's not returned and every lesson is a bore because it's really more of a supervised practice session than a lesson.

  4. I absolutely love this.

    Especially about how there is life after Book 4! (Even though Bria is actually getting through her Book 4 pieces much more quickly than she did Book 3, I think it's her maturity and dedication, finally!)

  5. Thank you for writing this! I have been feeling very discouraged lately as I am an adult beginner and have been comparing my progress with that of relatives who started as small children. Apparently that needs to stop and I should just focus on where I'm at and continue pressing forward.


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