Creating the Future
This article was first published in the British Suzuki Institute Journal, Ability, in Summer 2003, and is by Dr. Helen Likierman, a psychologist and parent of two Suzuki violinists.
As a psychologist, Dr Helen Likierman knew that good working habits were a foundation for life-long learning. She also knew that the key to good habits, and to the child’s responses to music teaching, is motivation. With some, she says, this may be intrinsic, but with most children it requires inculcation, which depends on the skills of both teachers and parents.
With two children now aged 12 and 14, both taught by Jillian Leddra, how did she approach practice?
She saw time management as the first major key to success. Recognising that the routine of instrumental practice could introduce a relentlessness into family life which was far from creative, she knew to try not to place the children in conflict. Times to do different activities were introduced. Mornings before school were scheduled for violin practice, afternoons for homework and other instrumental practice as well as other activities. ‘Leisure’ activities were part of the ‘work’, for example homework in cafes, games during music practice.
For the musical skills, she knew that the pupil must make the relationship of fingers to strings an automatic activity. The sound that goes to the ear is linked into a feedback loop with what the brain has told the hand, which depends on the information from the ear to the brain. If the brain’s instruction to the hand accords with the ear’s instruction to the brain that all is well with the sound, then the motor pattern of finger movements is what will be learned. If the sound is wrong, but taken as acceptable by the player, then that is what will be learned.
The repetition of a musical phrase is made to strengthen the neural circuit embedding the phrase in the brain. When this is wrong, new neural pathways and more time are the only things to put it right. Incorrect practice makes permanent not perfect.
Finally, choosing what to practice in the time available involves the understanding of music and psychology. Exercises to improve technique are weighed against the musically satisfying, motivation enhancing play-throughs.
Then there is the ultimate challenge of the musicality and interpretation involving an emotional and intellectual input of a different order.
These are just some of the physical and mental gymnastics she lists for the ‘one’ activity we call practice. But knowing all the difficulties involved made her aware of what was being achieved. She used constant encouragement, motivation for specific tasks to retain focus, sticker charts and reward schemes to sustain interest and excitement. She harnessed all the external plaudits from teachers, peers and family to underscore the achievement of the moment. She kept finding ways on which the trajectory could go forward.
Now that her children are older, group lessons and performing are important contributions for reinforcing the value and rewards of playing an instrument. No longer present at lessons or during practice, she and other parents with teenage pupils rely on group playing to provide the social incentive for their onward momentum. Tour groups or summer schools also help to cement bonds in the otherwise capricious experience of the teenager. But holding everything together must be the skilled teacher.
Have the practice habits stayed in place? By and large they have. But there are now even more factors competing for time: work and social life with peers. Whilst these often win out over practice, the framework survives.
Helen’s children’s musical achievements have been the incentive for Helen to learn herself. The physical difficulties of being an adult learner have been distinctly challenging but the discipline of practice and focus have been self-generated from the enjoyment she has derived from it. Also, she says, ‘At least, having gone through all the pieces as a Suzuki parent, as a pupil I had all the music in my head’. But, that apart, starting young has given the children all the advantages.
Post-script: Tammy has now left university and continues to play the violin at a very high level and Felix auditioned for the Curtis Institute. February 2011