Dr. Suzuki weeps quietly

Today was the Suzuki Association of Minnesota graduation recital at Orchestra Hall. The guitarists (M was one of 31) shared a program with the harpists (maybe 10), recorderists (3), and flutists (maybe 12).

For M, it was a good experience. She officially graduated from the Twinkle level, but the next level up was Perpetual Motion, and M wanted to play along during the rehearsal, so, after checking with her teacher, I let M play along both during the rehearsal and during the recital.  The accompanist played way too fast, but M did as well as any of the kids officially graduating at that level.

She was very proud of her trophy. And I was pleased with both her behavior and her playing, with a small exception: She was very fidgety while the other kids were playing. In fact, at one point, she was tapping with her nails on her guitar, which was pretty noisy. I managed to catch her eye and, in sign language, say “no” and then “thank you” when she stopped. She needs to work on sitting stiller in rest position.

What I found most notable, though, was how truly terrible some of the graduating Twinkle-level guitarists were. Of course, this is not the kids’ fault — it’s the fault of their teachers (mainly) and parents (secondarily).

It’s hard to understand how teachers can go through the Suzuki Association’s qualifying process and yet not only produce students with terrible technique, but also let those students “graduate” from the Twinkles. Just to note some gross technical flaws, I saw students with posture so bad they played their guitar almost like a lap steel; students playing with their right hand actually resting on the guitar top; students plucking the strings with their fingers going straight up, not even partly back and partly up; students playing everything in tosto position, with an awkwardly bent wrist; in short, students with a stunningly flawed technical foundation. And all this is obvious before a note is played. When they started playing, the general lack of note accuracy and rhythmic integrity was shocking.

The hallmark of the Suzuki Method is its emphasis on laying a strong technical foundation — on learning to play beautifully, with solid technique, from the very beginning. At least in the guitar world, it appears that many so-called Suzuki teachers do not in fact put this core feature of the method into practice.

Why? My guess: the barriers for entry, for both teachers and students, are too low. A whole lot of grown-ups can play the guitar, and some of those folks must decide to brand themselves as Suzuki teachers without really understanding the method. The Suzuki Association is then doing a poor job of screening out bad teachers. And many parents must start their students on guitar without really making a serious commitment to it. Because guitars are cheap, and because there are a lot of teachers around, it’s easy to get started — too easy.  If it were harder or more expensive to get started, people would take it more seriously.

When teachers are sloppy and parents aren’t committed, the losers are the children: They’re forced to spend time learning an instrument in vain. These children who are starting out with dismal posture and technique will never get good enough to really enjoy playing. They’ll quit playing before developing any real skill, and they’ll think they’re not musically talented. There’s really very little point in forcing these kids to play an instrument — their time would be better spent doing something that they enjoy and can become good at.

Notably, the Twinkle-level harpists and flutists were much more technically solid than the Twinkle-level guitarists. And I didn’t see the strings, but I have no doubt that those kids are very solid. People talk about how amazing it was, when the Suzuki method was being discovered in America, to hear young violinists playing the Twinkles beautifully in unison. If today’s guitarists were held up as exemplars of the Suzuki method, the reaction would be very different. People would say, “They look and sound like I expect young children would sound — sloppy and out of tune. What’s so exciting about this method, again?”

Practicing before dinner

We had a pretty free Sunday, so I made sure we practiced before dinner. It made for a more-relaxed practice and (I think) a more attentive M. We did:

  • M sang and conducted Lightly Row
  • G scale on the G string (saying note names, whole and half-steps, and fret numbers)
  • Perpetual Motion on the G string
  • All the Twinkle variations, with a focus on a strong and steady right hand
  • Song of the Wind with the metronome
  • The Fuhrman Tanz

Everything went pretty well, but most notable (for me) was M’s work on the Twinkles. I decided to follow a violin teacher’s suggestion from one of the SAA videos. He recommends starting a practice session with a 3- to 5- minute “workout” focused on your technical issue, beginning with the Twinkles and working forward. So I told M to really concentrate on keeping her right hand steady and getting good downward pressure. And she responded better than I expected — I’m not sure I’ve ever seen her in such a state of sustained concentration for that long.

Nothing but open G and French Folk Song

Our main assignment this week is to work on playing louder. Although our teacher asked us to work on this with three review songs, in today’s practice we only got to one: French Folk Song. And even though we practiced for about an hour, we didn’t practice anything else.

We began as M’s studio teacher suggested, using a mute under the strings (rolled up non-skid padding) to force the issue of loudness — with the mute, to be heard at all, you have to play forcefully.

While I agree that M needs to play louder — to press down on the strings, rather than just brushing over them — I’m worried about creating tension in her right hand. For one thing, right-hand tension has already been an issue for her in the past. For another, I happened to have just finished reading Glenn Kurtz’s charming memoir Practicing: A Musician’s Return to Music, in which a crucial event is Kurtz’s discovery when he arrives at the New England Conservatory to study guitar that this very technique created habits he had to unlearn. Kurtz writes (p. 58):

[W]en I was a child, I’d taken technique classes to build strength. . . . We put a dustcloth under the strings just behind the sound hole to mute the instrument. . . . The cloth mute made the strings less pliable. Increasing resistance, we were taught, strengthened our fingers.

Strong fingers were good, and mine were among the strongest. . . . Now, at the Conservatory, [my teacher] showed me how my strength worked against itself.

“You’re bullying the strings,” he said at a lesson a few weeks later. “Use the least possible force, the least effort.”

Alone in a practice room I returned to basic technique to see more clearly how I had always played. What I saw horrified me. With each fingerstroke I tensed my forearm or shoulders or neck or palm or wrist. Training for strength, it seemed, was a terrible way to teach technique. It had taught me to work too hard. The tension in my arms was just a substitute for a cloth mute, an unconscious attempt to reproduce the resistance my fingers had been taught to expect. Worse still, the mute had prevented the strings from vibrating, teaching me to play the strings without playing notes. I’d learned to focus on the finger, not on the sound.

So I had three goals for M today:

  1. to play louder,
  2. without extra tension, and
  3. while listening to herself.

I had her spend a lot of time just playing open Gs. I noticed her hand rotating from side to side — i.e., instead of placing her fingers straight down, she was rotating so that i and m were placed far apart — so we played “fix me”: I did what she had been doing and (after much work) got her to see when I was doing it.

When we got to French Folk Song, she played it with no dynamic contrast. She was aware of this after the fact, but had a hard time doing anything about it. And she typically started the song (or an individual section) with good downward pressure, but quickly reverted to brushing the strings, and it didn’t seem like she ever noticed the change. I asked her to play just the B section several times with her eyes closed and listen to whether  her tone changed, but she couldn’t reliably tell me anything about her sound.

We did do one modestly successful awareness exercise. Each section ends with a dotted half note, and that note’s duration provides time to think about what’s coming. Two sections (C and D) should start quiet and crescendo, and M was not playing this way. So I asked her to let treat each dotted half note as if it had a fermata, and let it ring until she could no longer hear it. Only when it stopped ringing should she start the next section, and she should start quiet if she’s on the C or D sections. With this instruction, she did manage to play the crescendos at least one time through.

On the behavior front, this wasn’t our best lesson — she was very fidgety and didn’t take direction as well as I’d like. I got to the point of saying that if we couldn’t achieve what I wanted to achieve in the time I had set aside for practice, she wasn’t going to be able to go to a play that we had planned to go to. In a way, this is a natural consequence — if you have a job to do and can’t do it in the allotted time, that screws up your schedule and you may have to change plans — but it functioned more like a threat. I don’t like making threats, but I’m still not skillful enough to always refrain from them.