What do we learn when we study an instrument? Given that each student is different, depending on their age, mental, and physical development, I’ll focus on eight fundamental concepts.
1. Music Repertoire
The classical music repertoire generally comes from the 1500s to the present. In the Suzuki method, we learn music from the Baroque, Classical, Romantic eras. The main composers from the Baroque era are J.S. Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi; Boccherini, Haydn, and Mozart are our composers from the Classical era; and Beethoven, Dvorak, and Tchaikovsky from the Romantic era. Depending on the student's preferences and inclinations, additional repertoire is included, like music from popular films like 'Star Wars', video games like 'Legend of Zelda' and 'Super Mario', and pop music.
In order to build skill, we need to focus. A common complaint during the beginning stages of learning is "this is hard!" Often the student is referring to the energy expended on focusing. They are managing their fingers, arms, back, neck, feet, etc., so it makes sense that at first it's a lot to deal with! It may be the first time they've thought in this way, so they need time to figure out how their bodies move. Focusing becomes easier the more we do it.
When playing with an accompanist it can't be "my way or the highway." Once we become competent musicians we work with our collaborators on interpreting compositions. In learning to cooperate in music, we see that it’s okay to cooperate with others and that this extends to normal situations. We learn that we should cooperate with teachers, as they're planning our progress from beginning stages to mastery. Lastly, since parents and kids attend lessons, and practice together at home, we have a lot of opportunities to foster a good working relationship!
4. Self Regulation
Playing an instrument requires patience. Just the act of picking up an instrument is daunting; "How do I hold this thing?", "Why am I doing this?", "How long until I'm good at this?", are all common questions. The foundation of the Suzuki method is that every student can learn to play an instrument, learn to read music, and learn to interpret music, and that through patience and understanding this is always possible. Also, self regulation is something children learn by example, so by learning to play an instrument they learn to value patience and step by step learning.
Playing an instrument isn't natural. None of us are born with one (except singers!). Learning how to hold an instrument takes patience from the parent and the student. Empathizing with other students' struggles makes learning easier because in understanding that everyone has problems they need help with, we understand that our problems are equally surmountable if we are patient with ourselves. Empathy is a skill and can be learned and strengthened by seeing others struggle with the same problems we struggle with.
6. How we learn individually
There isn't a one size fits all way of learning. Some people learn better by seeing, some by hearing, some by feeling. Some people practice better in the morning, some in the afternoon, and some in the evening. Over time we learn what works for us and find habits that make our lives easier. Lessons instructors offer a second consistent point of a view for evaluating our perception of our abilities, which reinforces or changes how we approach learning in the future.
7. Problem Solving (and how to break down problems into manageable parts)
We encounter problems every day that require solving. Music lessons offer a safe testing ground for how we mentally work through problems. Generally, instructors identify problems in students’ playing, express goals for improvement, and then work through what it will take to achieve those goals. In this way the student encounters many different ways to identify problems and formulate solutions. Luckily, no one will be hurt if we make a mistake in playing, so we are free to try and fail many “solutions” while practicing.
8. A Growth mindset
In learning a new skill, it’s beneficial to take a long term view. Only so much can be accomplished in a practice session, but over months of consistent work we can learn musical pieces and over years can learn a large amount of repertoire. “Perfection is the enemy of progress” is a great phrase to keep in mind; progress is made incrementally and over time.
Home practice is hugely important for your child’s success in music lessons. However, it’s difficult to find a middle ground between technical and expressive playing during practice time. Practicing techniques helps your student grow as a musician, but practicing artistry helps them grow as a person.
Practicing 'techniques' is very important, but what’s the best way to get it done? Every time we perform an action, pathways in the brain are created or reinforced. This means that in order to practice effectively we should think deliberately about what we create as we practice and take the time to make sure that all repetitions are correct. To accomplish this, before playing you should remind your child of the goal for each practice spot and after they play, give them immediate feedback on how it went. Strengthening pathways takes time and focus. Consistent focused practice is effective over long spans of time, and sticking to plan of action requires patience. Immediate improvement should not be expected; these things take time to work.
The second but equally important aspect of practicing is artistry and self expression. The best way to help students find their personal voice is allowing them time for experimentation. This lets students subconsciously process new techniques and information. Janos Starker, a world renowned cello performer and pedagogue, recommended that practice time should be set aside for free exploration. This means that after warming up and accomplishing the tasks a teacher has assigned, we should freely play whatever comes to mind; test different bowstrokes, shifts, intervals, melodies, dynamics, chords, pizzicato, etc. In this way we can discover ideas that might not occur in strictly regimented practice. Because this is the language learning method, we want to make sure that children learn to express their own original thoughts and ideas.
When practicing or reinforcing any new idea it is important to remember that brain pathways aren’t set in stone and require maintenance. This pertains to both technical and creative endeavors. Just remember, change is best accomplished by slow and steady practice.