When we hear the term “kung fu,” Chinese martial arts usually come to mind. What most do not know, however, is that the original meaning of kung fu is “life study.” Any task that requires time, dedication, and extensive study in order to master is “kung fu.” Therefore, music is kung fu, a life study.
This concept of a life study is important to internalize when we live in a society that values instant results. WiFi connections must be instant. Packages are delivered in days rather than weeks. Students in school are expected to understand subjects in a very short space of time and then be tested on the material. In Western culture, very few activities place any sort of value on taking the time to thoroughly understand a subject.
This is why music lessons can come as quite a shock to the system for many families. There is no timetable that must be kept and no checklist of requirements that must be filled other than learning how to play an instrument well. On top of all this, young students grow up. An obvious statement at first glance, but growing up presents one of the hardest challenges for both parents and teachers alike: what motivates a student to keep playing will change over the course of time.
So what does this mean?
It means that there is no quick fix or one size fits all answer for how to keep a student engaged in his musical studies over the course of many years. To be frank, if a conversation about quitting lessons has taken place, it is already too late. The drive to keep playing must be instilled from the very beginning of instruction and not at the end when frustration has taken hold.
What really brought attention to Shinichi Suzuki’s approach was his ability to start students at a very young age and work those students up to an extremely high level of playing before they even hit adulthood. Before Suzuki, the musical world had never seen children that young playing with the exception of the odd prodigy. Suzuki created his approach after countless hours of researching and studying the mother tongue effect. He noted that all children learn their native language so there must be a reason as to why this occurs.
The “how” or “why” the method works is a subject for another time. What’s important to understand is that the Suzuki Method is rooted in the idea that environment is the best teacher. Environment has the power to shape a person’s life. If music is truly going to be a life study then it must become an integral part of day-to-day existence.
The Suzuki Method addresses this need in several ways. A big one is having the student learn by ear to start. Sight-reading is, of course, taught later. But by emphasizing auditory training from the beginning it places value on the act of listening to music.
Every musician should be listening to music outside of practice. Listening develops artistry and an appreciation for what other artists have accomplished. For young musicians it gives a sense of scope outside of their limited home practice.
The Social Component of Music
Providing social outlets is another way the Suzuki Method helps students incorporate music into daily life. Group class is seen as a separate but equally important counterpart to the private lesson. Despite the enormous number of hours put into individual practice, it is rare for a musician to perform completely alone. Learning how to play with others is a critical skill.
Group class also provides powerful social motivation for children as they grow up. In school, classmates and teachers change every year. But in group class their classmates remain relatively unchanged, allowing for friendships to form over the course of many years. This becomes important once a child becomes a teenager and the need for peer approval is strong. In some cases it may be the one thing that helps a student pull through a practicing rut.
The Music Classroom
Band, Orchestra, and Choir classrooms can be a great way to provide students with musical social outlets and incorporate music into their daily life. As with private teaching, the challenge in this type of setting is to get the student to take the music lesson outside of the classroom.
Encourage listening outside of the classroom, perhaps by offering extra credit for finding a YouTube (or other) recording of a current working piece and writing a short summary on how this performance differs from your recent rehearsal. Or, have the student listen to three other pieces by the same composer.
Practice partners can be a great way to encourage social interaction. If it is a school setting, pair more experienced players with those new to the ensemble. This allows the new player to feel welcomed and it makes the experienced player better by having to help out with tricky passages.
Learning Another Language
Becoming fluent in any new language is difficult. It is generally agreed that the best way to learn a new language is immersion. Sitting in a classroom for an hour or two each day does not force a person to think in that new language. It is one thing to regurgitate phrases taught by a teacher, it is another thing entirely to have to ask for directions in a foreign country from someone who only speaks the new language.
It is no different when it comes to music; music is simply another language. The goal is still communication. If a student is going to be engaged in a lifetime of musical studies then steps must be taken to immerse a student in musical culture.
Danielle Kravitz is a faculty member with the San Diego Suzuki School of Music and teaches full time.
Her past writing work includes publications for the American Suzuki Journal, Strings Magazine and various e-books.
She successfully runs several blogs including her Suzuki education blog, Rethinking Genius.