As I lay on the beach in Costa Rica chillin’ with my friend and colleague Jay McTighe, I have a treat for readers today: a guest blog post from Susan Fine.  Susan has been a teacher, an administrator, a writer, and a cellist (briefly). She currently serves as a curriculum consultant for the Tech International Charter School in the Bronx. 

“I didn’t know you were a musician!” That was the enthusiastic greeting I often received when I had my cello with me and bumped into a friend on the street. It was a bittersweet experience. I liked the admiration in the declaration, yet I wasn’t a cellist or even a musician of any kind. I was a beginner, learning to play the cello and doing so because it was required if I wanted my son Alex to study Suzuki cello at the School for Strings in New York City.

For the first time in many years I was terrible at something I was trying to learn. I felt clumsy and awkward, foolish and untalented. And, in music study, especially in a parent class of three students, everything is exposed. Every sour note, botched rhythm, and squeak is public. In such a setting, there is no escape, no back row. And, we were called on to play all the time.

When my son Alex and I embarked on the Suzuki cello journey in 2005, I was teaching seventh grade English. While I had long pursued professional development, learning to play a stringed instrument provided something different. I was immersed in the discomfort that accompanies genuine learning, and I was pushed to find the patience and commitment to persevere. Further, and perhaps more importantly, this was experiential education, where I was expected to learn by doing, and I had to share what I knew (or didn’t) all the time and in front of others.

Although my cello lessons ended after that first year, my son has continued to play and at the ripe old age of 12 has played the cello for more than eight years. While he has grown as a musician, he still has to push himself every day, especially because the pieces get harder, and the skills he needs to play only increase.

What has been remarkable to observe as a teacher and a parent is the Suzuki cello method and the learning that takes place with instruction that is individualized and filled with modeling, imitation, repetition, and specific expectations for home practice. Further, the teacher possesses both the ability to teach and to play. In every lesson, our teacher plays her cello all the time, modeling, modeling, and modeling more. In thinking about this, I am reminded of something I heard Nanci Atwell say more than twenty years ago: “teachers of reading and writing should be readers and writers.” With high caliber music instruction, teachers are practitioners whose content knowledge and musical technique need to be excellent and readily demonstrated.

The inspiration that fueled Dr. Suzuki’s development of this method was his belief that if children could learn their native language by living in the language, so too could they learn music if the conditions were similar – if we exposed children to music, immersed them in it, started them when they were very young, and provided instruction. Dr. Suzuki believed that every child could learn to play an instrument and that the benefits of doing so went well beyond the music produced.

Now shepherding my younger son, Matteo, through the program, I am on a second Suzuki adventure with a child who looks like his brother but navigates the world and learning differently. Beyond seeing how well the same method works for another child, I am gaining more understanding of its features. The Suzuki repertoire is, as Edward Kreitman, a Suzuki violin teacher, describes in a talk he did for the Suzuki Association of the Americas: “beautifully designed and laid out…providing a systematic set of pieces that are organized in such a way that they help to develop the technique of the instrument.” Pieces studied early on are returned to over and over and used to teach, for example, new bowing techniques. What’s also essential is the emphasis on skill development, and that progress is less about what piece a young musician is playing and more on how s/he plays it.

Review is a significant feature of the method, emphasized in daily practice as well as in annual festivals with “Playdowns,” in which the program begins with an advanced piece, and the students play down to the Twinkles: five versions of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, each with a distinct rhythm and learned at the start of Book I. Students join in the playing when the program comes to their most advanced piece. Having attended many festivals, I have seen over and over how advanced students still remember most every piece they’ve ever learned (especially if they heed their teachers’ encouragement to review, which is even more emphasized around festival time). I have also watched my older son when learning a new piece be asked to recall where he has seen particular rhythms or bowing techniques before, and this ability to pull out this prior knowledge is impressive.

I often find myself crying when the Twinkles conclude a festival, or back at the School for Strings when the formidable founder of the school, Louise Behrand, led an opening Twinkle at the start of every recital. The Twinkles are quintessential Suzuki and also bring back childhood memories of those pieces from 37 years ago, when my younger sister, Rachel, started Suzuki piano. Every morning began with my mom turning on the cassette player for her requisite listening, a large component of the method. That my children and Rachel’s daughter (also a cellist) and children all over America and the world play the Twinkles gives me hope and moves me to tears. Also, my familiarity with some of the repertoire from many years ago aided me, just as Dr. Suzuki believed it would, when I studied the cello as an adult. The tracks were well laid.

In thinking about the features of the method, though, I often reflect on how the combination of inspired pedagogy and content-rich curriculum creates an ideal learning environment. This point seems rather obvious, yet I am hard pressed to come up with other examples of the two being so beautifully wedded to one another on behalf of learning, which I observe weekly in each of my sons’ lessons. In every lesson, I watch the success that comes from learning by doing: our teacher models a technique, my sons strive to imitate her, which often leads to feedback and refinement, followed by more repetition so that once they have something right, it will stick. These lessons are a highlight of my week: there is nothing more wonderful than sitting with nothing to do but watch my children learn.

The emphasis on repetition and practice is similar to what Doug Lemov, Erica Woolway, and Katie Yezzi describe in their recent book Practice Perfect: “practice makes permanent.” The book also takes advantage of John Wooden’s wisdom and describes his obsession with drilling: “Unlike many coaches, he focused not on scrimmaging – playing in a way that replicated the game – but on drilling, that is playing in ways that intentionally distorted the game to emphasize and isolate specific concepts and skills” (2). Often our cello teachers have isolated a specific measure or two, created an exercise to help drill the passage, then had the kids roll a die to determine how many times each day they needed to play this small part correctly. I believe Dr. Suzuki would have loved John Wooden. What I have loved is how well this focused practice isolates a challenge, breaks it down, and provides tools for working on it – and ultimately conquering it.

It is important to note that this type of music study has a large one-on-one component. The Suzuki method does include group classes, which use many of the same pedagogical strategies and, of course, the same repertoire, but group classes don’t enable the differentiation that an individual lesson features. They do, however, facilitate ongoing review of the repertoire as well as previewing opportunities for forthcoming pieces. For example, it’s common that in a Book I group class, all students in Book I, whether having just started or being toward the end of the book are in the room together. Recitals are also an opportunity for previewing forthcoming pieces and reviewing already played ones. I have watched my older son figure out pieces he is far from learning, after watching and hearing others play the pieces. And, group classes allow children to make music together and to socialize around music.

The Suzuki method has a large emphasis on the role of the parent, including having the parent learn the instrument. Dr. Suzuki believed that the parent is the teacher at home. As you might imagine, most four-year-olds couldn’t practice the cello on their own. I videotape the lessons, which makes it possible for my sons to watch themselves and review and reflect on what they were taught (the ideal – not always achieved). Videotape also enables making detailed practice notes with the convenience of being able to stop the video and catch all that is said or to watch something again. As the level of complexity has increased, I have become increasingly grateful for the gift of video, which I believe has enormous potential for many learning environments (and which has facilitated much of the careful study Lemov has done of champion teachers).

Finally, despite the shared repertoire and pedagogical practices, there are differences among teachers. Because of the geographical moves we’ve made over the past eight years, my older son has studied with four teachers. He has also worked with other teachers in group classes and at summer institutes. The quality of his instruction has overall been exceptionally high, but the styles of his teachers have varied. Yet because of the well-defined nature of the program, it’s possible to jump in with different teachers and immediately begin learning.

One summer at an institute he had a teacher from Japan, who spoke infrequently in the lessons, yet with extraordinary modeling, he challenged and pushed Alex in a variety of ways. At first I wondered whether Alex would find this unfamiliar style of teaching unappealing or difficult to understand. It was the opposite. Alex loved Yoshi and thrived with the rigorous back and forth at every lesson. The active, engaging, and demanding nature of model and imitate and repeat and repeat and repeat leads to deep engagement and visible learning, even with little or no speaking. The cellos do the talking.

Thinking about how much I appreciate the clarity and precision of the Suzuki curriculum, I am reminded of something I heard Pearl Kane, director of the Klingenstein Institute at Columbia University, say many years back when talking with the department chairs at my school in New York City. She was describing the tension that often exists in schools between autonomy and alignment and stated: “Frankly, autonomy may be overrated.”

I do believe that teachers must be active and engaged participants in curriculum development, but I believe such work is best done collaboratively and with excellent guidance and support. And, frankly, if someone offered me a content-rich curriculum of Suzuki quality for, let’s say, an English class, I might be happy to take advantage of it, especially if I could use it while collaborating with other people and engaging in ongoing discussions about the content and our pedagogy – something along the lines of what I read about earlier today about a PLC of physics teachers:  Part of what makes this collaboration possible is the participating teachers shared use of Modeling Instruction.

Interestingly (and perhaps ironically) the highly structured Suzuki program is what leads kids to become sensitive musicians, able to exercise autonomy on behalf of shaping their own style of playing and developing their musical artistry. Having a firm, confident, and sophisticated grasp of technique is what makes such artistic expression possible.