Thursday, September 4, 2014

A Suzuki Parents Forum - and maybe a blog revival

Advice for New Suzuki Parents:

I've been a Suzuki violin mom/manager for over six years now, two years longer than I spent in college learning to be a geologist, one year longer than I had to work before I could become a Professional Geologist.  So…I should be an expert by now.  Gus is now 11 and completed Suzuki book 4 before he left the repertoire to study specific pieces and focus more on jazz and old time.  Huck is 8 and has almost completed book 3.  At times it seems like Twinkles were forever ago, at times it seems like just yesterday.

I am pleased that Sally asked me to participate in a parent panel for Suzuki parents.  There is much more to Suzuki music than just the lessons.  The lessons are important, of course, but its only one part of the puzzle.  And believe me, its a puzzle, one with moving and ever changing pieces.  Sometimes the pieces all fit, but usually they don't.  Sometimes lessons are going great, and home practice is a nightmare.  Sometimes the opposite is true.  We've had times when practice was awesome and the lessons just didn't work.  I have advice for both scenarios.  Of course sometimes none of it works.  I have advice for that too.  The most important advice I have is to figure out what works for your family and your children and you.  I hope our experience helps you some.  Here are some of the things that work for us:

  • Live music - Kids need to see real people playing real music.  Go to the symphony.  Go to a bluegrass festival.  Seek out bands with fiddles.  Local band to see:  Mountain Minstrelsy, The Alleycats, Pure Cane Sugar, Tussey Mountain Moonshiners, Poe Valley Troubadours, and many more.  We get a lot of great bands at the Elk Creek Cafe in Millheim.  Its not so far, come on out.  For Gus, this was the very best motivator.  He has always loved live music.  Talk to the musicians.  Buy their CDs.  Support local music!

  • Canned music - Listen to lots of music.  
    • Listen to the CD, but don't just listen to the CD. Listen to CDs 1 through 4.  Four finally includes some music written for violin.  We had a great teacher at Suzuki Institute who recommended listening to your working piece 7 times a day.  It really works!  Playlists are great for this.  
    • Listen to a variety of music.  Listen to the music you bought from the local musician last weekend, listen to all different styles:  old time, Celtic, Klezmer, jazz…
    • Use YouTube - we use YouTube a lot.  I find an inspiring video every day.  I have a wonderful list from a favorite fiddle teacher called "Violin is not 10 Books".  It features 10 amazing fiddle/violin players playing 10 completely different styles of music.  It'll be my blog post tomorrow!

  • Music Festivals - This weekend is Folk Gathering at Greenwood Furnace, Huntington, PA.  Music festivals are a great opportunity to get to know other families playing music. They're fun!

  • 100 day practice challenge - Do it!  Start today.  Practicing every blasted day is the very best thing you can do.  Here are some blog posts about how we did it.  We decided to take the challenge as a family.  We would all practice our instruments every day for 100 days.  
    • We printed out charts. You can find some nice ones online or make your own.
    • We assigned prizes for one week of practice (pizza party), 25 days of practice (family movie night), 50 days (party with cake), 75 days (bowling), 100 days (for this we each picked a prize and they included going to a movie, going for a long bike ride, going out to dinner).  The key is to celebrate the small accomplishments!
    • We set a minimum of 3 songs to count as a practice.
    • After a while, it became a habit.  It took about 250 days for Huck :)  It wasn't practicing that became the habit, so much as planning for practicing.
    • We kept going after 100 days.  The kids made it to 1000.
  • Play games - Face it, doing the same thing over and over again is boring.  Many of the songs aren't fun to play.  The kids don't like them.  I don't like them.  How do we make it interesting?  We play games.  I started by playing games that I found in my very favorite practice book, Helping Parents Practice by Edmund Sprunger (more about books later).  I found games on the internet.  There are some great ones at  But the real fun came when we started making our own.   
    • Huck's favorite game used to be fish.  Using a magnet to "catch" the next song you were to play by the paperclip on its paper nose.  It drove me crazy but we played it anyway.  
    • Gus enjoyed making his own game boards, and adding Star Wars clip art.
    • We use lots of dice.  Assign each practice task a number and roll two dice (or one of those cool dice in a dice), the first number is the task, the second is either the number of repetitions or a focus (bow hand, violin hand, tone, standing on one foot, with your eyes closed).
    • Always include "non-violin" tasks and focuses.  Silly stuff to get them moving around.  Hugs, high fives, jumping jacks.
    • Don't assume they've outgrown games.  When all the boys could think about was baseball this spring, we played baseball.  It was brilliant!  I printed out an infield.  They each made a team of their favorite Lego guys (Darth Vader pitching to Harry Potter was a hoot).  Each day was an inning.  You rolled the die to find out what kind of hit you got (or not), rolled a second die for your task, completed it, then flipped a coin to find out if you were out (assuming you didn't roll a home run).  We kept score and this went on for weeks.  The real fun was not knowing how long the practice would last.  3 outs you're done!
    • Dominoes!  Set up dominoes for each practice task and then knock them down.  Blocks - same idea.  Monkeys in a barrel - hang one from the stand for each song.
    • The possibilities are endless.

  • Read Books and Blogs - These books were invaluable to me.
    • Helping Parents Practice, Edmund Sprunger (this lived in my bathroom for years)
    • The Suzuki Violinist, William Star (tells you what you should be learning for each new song)
    • Time to Practice, Carrie Reuning-Hummel (all about learning styles)
    • The Suzuki books, Ability Development from Age Zero and Nurtured by Love
    • My favorite all time blog post about "Why Its Worth It".

  • Different styles - Find a kind of music your child loves, or you love, and learn to play it.  Don't be locked in to 10 Suzuki Books.  You can learn from YouTube or find a teacher. The great thing about Suzuki students is that they learn by ear.  There are great apps that will slow down a song to make it easier to learn.

  • Most importantly, remember that your child always needs you.  Even when they don't want to admit it.  When they're little, and its new, your role is more obvious.  As they get older, its more subtle.  You may help them figure out their goals, structure their practice, or just be there.  Yesterday, Gus asked me if I could sit with him while he practiced and read a book.  Its a long, sometimes lonely, always challenging path that you're embarking on with your child.  Do it together.
Good luck!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

100 day (or 2 year) practice challenge update

What started out as a 100 day practice challenge has been going on for two years now.  The kids have practiced every day for 2 years.  To me, its an awe inspiring accomplishment.  To them, its just what they do.

 We've relaxed a bit.  You don't practice when your sick, that just encourages martyrdom.  If the violins don't fit in the car with the skis for a ski trip, they get left at home.  Reasonable exceptions like that.  

That said, the practice challenge died a long time ago.  It stopped being a challenge and became a way of life.  They just practice every day.  

Does that make it easy? Nope.  

Does it translate to other instruments, math or Spanish?  Nope. 

 Are all the practices cheerful and fun?  Hell no. 
What?  They aren't cheerful and fun?  Isn't it supposed to be easy by now?  

The standard Suzuki advice to any challenge is that you need to "build the relationship first."  Yup, build that relationship and it will all be easy-peasy.  As if building a relationship is like building a stone wall that once built will last forever and will over time be covered by pretty flowers.  As if once that relationship is built, the kid will never stomp off furious about the bizarre rhythms in Two Grenadiers, and the other one won't be in tears over the slurs in the Vivaldi Concerto that just don't make sense even though they did 6 months ago, and I won't ever get tired.

The wall may be built and covered with pretty flowers, but there are definitely  thorns and they stick us every day.  We'll keep on going, because the flowers are worth it. 

Monday, December 31, 2012

Three Kitties Concert Review, December 28, 2012

Concert Review

As the full moon glistened on the snow at the foot of Lingle Gap, the Three Kitties rocked the Gykis Glam Party.   The Three Kitties, a band of three friends with stage names Kitty Queen, Whimper and Goldenpelt, entertained party goers with holiday classics ranging from Kitty Queen's lovely Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies to Goldenpelt's raw electric Run Run Rudolph.
 Photo: 3 kitties playing at the Gykis party. 2012-12-28_20-27-35_530 
It was a high energy show, Kitty Queen played keyboards and sang beautifully, Whimper kept the beat on his new Christmas-red drum set, and Goldenpelt played electric guitar, belting out songs Mountain Minstrel style.

The Three Kitties played without a set list, calling out songs on the fly.   

An enraptured fan danced on the bass drum during Swimming Hole, a Three Kitties original that evoked summer fun at the swimming hole on a cold winter night.

The show was followed with a blues jam!  What a party!

Set List:

Run Run Rudolph
Jingle Bells
White Christmas
Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies
Stray Cat Strut
Swimming Hole
Haunted Hollow

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Getting Started

The boys played in a show at a House Concert last night.  I had never been to a house concert and didn't know what to expect.  It was wonderful!  There were kids there!  There were families!  There were people asking about playing music with kids, as families!  About how to get started...

I'm going to write a couple blog posts about getting started.  I'm going to start with the youngest audience, babies and toddlers.  

Here's what worked for us:
  • Play lots of music at home, all different kinds of music, all the time.  Play your favorite music for your kids.  It will become their favorite music!  Dance, sing, and act silly.  Play music in the car.  Sing songs while you walk, work, and play.

  •  Sign up for a Music Together class.  We loved these!  They're so much fun.  The music is good and generally based on folk songs.  There are songs in Spanish.  Best of all, it teaches (completely through play) really sound basic music concepts like pitch and rhythm.  There are other early childhood classes and they are probably good too, but this is the one we have experience with.

  •  Go see live music.  Bring the kids.  Get them up front so they can watch the musicians.  Let their early experiences with music show them that music is something that real people make, not just something that comes out of a box.  Better yet, take them to see kids playing real music.  Kids get really inspired by other kids!
  • Take the batteries out of all the plastic toys that play "music".  Don't listen to bad kid music.  You deserve better and so do your kids.  There's a lot of awesome kid music out there.  Check out Dan Zanes and Elizabeth Mitchell.  Throw away the Baby Einstein CDs that you got at your baby shower.  There have been studies done that showed that kids that listen to these are less musical than kids who don't.
  •  Keep the TV off.  If you need screen time to take a shower, buy a Dan Zanes concert DVD, or a concert DVD of your favorite band.  Gus's favorites were the Dixie Chicks and Bruce Springsteen's Seeger Sessions.  I can definitely still see the influences.

  • Fill the toy box with instruments.  Let your kids play them until they break, then replace them with better ones.

  • Learn how to play an instrument yourself.  

  • Go to music festivals

  • Stay unplugged.  If they don't have video games they won't play them.  Maybe, if you're lucky, they'll pick up those instruments that you have strewn about the house instead.  

I hope you find this helpful.  It was certainly fun pulling out all these old pictures!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012