Three strategies for dealing with resistance behavior from studentsRead More
In this series we will explore the skills and attitudes we need to deal with the studio and classroom behavior problems that threaten everyone's learning.Read More
Help students realize their true capability through affirmationRead More
If there was one tool that I could get everyone to try...
It would be the finger charts. If you don't have time to download anything else, get that one.
Just go to http://edwardsviolinstudio.com/downloads/ and enter password: suzuki.
The reason is, they are tested in actual lessons and they continue to get consistent results. I have been using and testing them for a few years and they ALWAYS work.
How do they work? The finger charts tell kids which finger number (1, 2, or 3) to place on which string (A or E) for Twinkle and the first half of Suzuki Book One. (You'll see a small letter A or E above the fingerings to designate the string.)
I use them as soon as a student is ready to learn Twinkle, has learned where the tapes are, and has done a week or two of initial practice on Hello 1 -2 -3 and Monkey Song. (All of this is covered in Practice Tip #17 - Find The Right Address.)
I found that with the finger charts, learning and memorization of these pieces goes faster with less frustration at home, AND they function as a pre-note reading exercise. Little eyes have a hard time reading a music staff, but they CAN read large numbers and letters.
I'm always careful to explain that the reason we use finger charts is not to need them anymore! As soon as possible we turn away from the charts and play from memory. (Later we will do the same thing with actual notes.)
Coupled with listening and memory work, the finger charts are just enough of a prompt to enable students to move forward. They create frustration-free practicing, because they gives beginning parents and kids an understandable system to use.
There are two sets of charts, and each comes with a set of instructions on how to use them. You can get them here: Just go to http://edwardsviolinstudio.com/downloads/ and enter password: suzuki.
If you have used the finger charts, please add a comment here. Your honest feedback helps everyone understand how to use the tools more effectively.
“You didn’t make it.”
It was not said with love. It was not said nicely. It was not even said in a pleasant tone of voice.
Still, I realized it was true. The annoyed, bespectacled woman in the passenger seat was my official driving tester, and she was simply stating the facts. I had driven badly.
Granted, she had been stern and gouchy the whole time, making me extra nervous. And now she scratched some final Xs onto her clipboard, opened the door, got out of the car. I slunk into the Motor Vehicle Department after her, awaiting the official verdict, dreading having to do it all over again.
There were good reasons I failed. I had driven over the speed limit in a 15-mile-an-hour zone. I had turned once without a signal. And the cardinal sin, I rolled backward going out of the driveway leaving the parking lot. Sitting on that hill, trying to get the timing right with the clutch, I knew I was dead before I started.
I felt guilty and ashamed. I was clearly unprepared. What had led to this embarrassing debacle?
Being Honest About Failure
Looking back, I realized that the car had something to do with it. My Dad had a Chevy S-10 Blazer, a terrible car, and a manual transmission. For me, learning to drive on a manual was not the answer, because it was above my level of ability as a freshly minted 16-year-old to cope with all the timing issues AND pay attention to the road at the same time.
(This manual was also extra hard to control. It jerked, it jumped, it cranked. It was universally acknowledged to be a junker model. Many of the Chevy S-10s were recalled, not a proud legacy. We eventually got rid of it.)
Could a different child have performed better? Probably. For me though, it was the wrong tool, at the wrong time.
The reality, hard as it was to admit, was that it was above my level.
I needed to drive an automatic. A manual could come later, after I had passed the driver’s test. My family and I realized this, so I practiced with our other automatic car and later passed the test.
A recent recital failure
The failure lesson stuck with me, and I find it resurfaces from time to time.
When we do recitals in the Suzuki method, we try never to give a student what she isn’t really capable of doing. It causes artistic injury when a child strains to perform above their level, and then chokes from nerves.
I had a stark reminder of this at our recent recital. A middle-school student was first on the program for a solo. Her piece was at her level technically, and one she knew well. But when the moment came, nerves got the better of her and she blanked out. After trying to start over, she still couldn’t do it.
Doing things in the right order
Even though the piece was well within her ability, she wasn’t really able to handle going first. She bravely kept her chin up, however, and played a number of ensemble pieces successfully later.
I asked her if we had done things in a different order, would they have gone better? She said yes. If we had played her ensemble pieces first, and then she got up to play a solo, it all would have gone differently.
Just like me driving the wrong car in the wrong order - I needed to start with automatic and then graduate to manual - this student did things in the wrong order and it messed up her process. That was my fault, not hers. She was only following instructions I gave her.
Modeling open communication about failure
Fortunately with some gentle praise (and rounds of applause for her effort), and some processing about how to do it differently next time, this student survived the experience and was better for it.
In her lesson I talked with her about rehearsing even more than she thinks is necessary next time to prevent nerves from causing her to forget things (advice I wish I had been given before my first driver’s test). But importantly, I also shared that I learned something too. That I would change the way I did things as her teacher next time, so as to better empower her to succeed.
Talking openly and genuinely with kids (and colleagues, employees, friends, and spouses for that matter) is a way to build trust. It can turn a failure into a long-term success when we are willing to acknowledge a failure and share how we learned from it.
For my middle-school students, this is an especially important time in their life to see such behavior modeled by the adults in their life. It also allows them space to process logically and rationally why something happened the way it did, so as to make an intentional and different choice next time.
I'm glad I failed that driver's test
So here’s a thank-you to the grouchy woman who failed me. You could have been gentler, I suppose, but it wouldn’t have stuck with me all these years later and made me a better teacher.
Fortunately playing violin is less dangerous than driving a car. As parents and teachers, we can be honest about our failures and what we have learned from them, whether in driving or in music.
Our students need that from us in order to cope with their own failures and turn them into successes.
If you found this article helpful, please like, comment, and share.
See video from our most recent recital here. (You won't see the failure incident, but you will see ensembles where the student is successfully playing. Most of these students have started within the last 6 - 24 months.)
She was wound tight as a drum.
Wresting her violin out of the case, this high-school student threw herself into playing her piece, even before saying hello.
She crashed around the notes, her bow sawing against the strings. Her frustration increased, as she was not playing cleanly or with good tone. Her body, already full of tension, began to jerk and start, and her already tight hands clutched harder, like a hawk wired to clamp around prey.
I asked her to stop, but as soon as she did, a barrage of words came forth, analyzing what was wrong. The more we tried to talk about it, the worse it got, as she would not look me in the eye, and seemed not to be listening to me. She continued to interrupt with more bad playing, all the while getting more and more frustrated, convincing herself that what I said wasn’t right, and that nothing would fix her problems.
Is this just bad behavior?
Another student, a four-year old boy, seemed intent on doing everything else besides play his violin. He would not listen to direction, would not look me in the eye, and would not imitate my playing. He showed little interest in the sort of games and body movement exercises that work with every other student. He would fixate on things in the room, like how an object looked or how my tuner worked.
He showed clear intelligence and ability to play when he wanted to, but nothing I did or said seemed to stick. We made no progress for several lessons.
It would have been easy to put both of these students' problem down to “bad behavior” or “lack of practice” but I knew that neither one of these was the full explanation.
Not Business As Usual
I suspected both of these students were on the high-functioning Asperger's spectrum.
While I am not an expert in Asperger's or in music therapy, I have observed and worked with a number of students demonstrating the characteristics of the Asperger's spectrum, and I want to share the things I learned to do to help.
There are certain surprising ways to dissolve the (sometimes formidable) walls that Asperger's students put up.
We can ease them into being more musical, but the methods used are different than what we might use with other students.
The first thing that I had to get over was that the techniques and tricks that I had thought were foolproof and universal, actually were not. I was surprised when something that I was confident would work either fell flat or completely backfired and produced an emotionally negative atmosphere in the lesson.
Once I got over the hurdle of expecting these students to act a certain way, I was able to assess what they really needed and apply a different strategy.
What if you don't know for sure?
Many parents will inform you straight up front, that their child has Asperger's. But some will not, either because they don't wish to share this information or they have not been formally diagnosed. (Some parents resist the labeling that comes with this diagnosis, and that can have the adverse consequence of not receiving proper access to treatment.)
Sometimes with high-functioning Asperger's kids, they and their parents may not know they are on the spectrum. For those students, a confusing array of behaviors such as tantrums, OCD, and other problems mix in a confusing way with otherwise social, intelligent, mature behavior.
Empathy for their behavior is key here. You may not know for sure whether they have Asperger's, and you may not even be in the position to speak to the parents about that issue (I was not able to on a number of occasions, partly due to the fact that I was working in music school environments where they weren't set up to conference with parents). If you watch for the behavior signs, and remain open to adapting to the symptoms, you might be the one to help them achieve a sense of understanding and acceptance of who they are.
Some Rules of Thumb
I found that most of the time I needed to apply these rules of thumb:
- Less analysis, more playing. High functioning Asperger's students that I have worked with have a propensity to analyze analyze analyze. While this is an incredible strength in other areas, it tends to get them stuck in music.
- Don’t talk, argue, or explain. Find a way to play together, something the student will accept, at their level, for as much of the lesson as possible.
- The body must relax to play, and playing makes the body relax. Breathing exercises may be necessary to break the initial tension cycle, if that is getting in the way. (Click here to see Practice Tip on Breathing.)
- Routine is essential. We need to go over what to do immediately after opening the case and getting out the violin - and it is not crashing into the piece! There needs to be a warmup routine that involves breathing, slow playing, easy playing, and simple notes.
- Let go of picky technical fixes (bend your pinky, don’t do that with your wrist, etc.) These tend to get into the world of verbal explanation, and we need to minimize that.
- For young children, I found that a number focus predominates. Numbers help them to play rather than talk or wander off mentally. (Numbered finger charts are available to download at http://edwardsviolinstudio.com/downloads/)
- Get them in the Right Brain. Once we get them playing, the music seems to take over. It captures them. I believe this is a hemispheric access shift. The Right Brain is non-verbal, connected to the body, and non-analytical. It seems that Asperger's spectrum students become “trapped” in a sense, in an over-active Left Brain. The reason music therapy helps is that it activates the Right Brain and, for a time, closes down the over-hyper, verbally argumentative, and non-musical Left Brain.
Since the music captures them bodily, many technical fixes seem to take care of themselves.
That’s why it is OK to let go of picky technicalities, things that help to explain to other students but don’t seem to help with those on the spectrum. (A lesson here even for the mainstream student: sometimes we need to let the music guide our bodies, rather than the other way around.)
I am a very hands-on teacher. I tend use touch with my students to help establish body awareness. With some Asperger's students this isn't possible, since their sensitivity and comfort level may dictate keeping a respectful distance. (I didn't put this in the rules of thumb, because it hasn't been true consistently for the Asperger's students I have taught. Some were fine with touch, others were not.)
If touch is not possible, let the music do the touching. Again, the music will capture their body in a way you cannot with your words or your touching. And over time, as their comfort level increases, you may be able to ease in to gentle manual adjustment. You may also want to point them to video and audio resources to help them self-teach. (For example, my video on how to have a more flexible wrist: https://youtu.be/iS-Pze-V63o)
As she breathed with me, my tense high-school student relaxed.
I asked her to listen to me just long enough to ask her to slow down and play some long smooth bows. Then we went back to her piece and played it together, breathing at the phrases. In the next lesson we breathed again moving our arms up and down, then played together again. In the next lesson we breathed and practiced Jellyfish fingers (see Practice Tip #14). The focus on breathing kept her out of her “wordy” Left Brain and empowered her holistic, body-aware Right Brain.
How Many Times Can You...?
As I began to realize that numbers were the name of the game for the four-year-old, I started asking him to count everything.
I would ask him to count how many times I moved my bow. Then I would ask if he could do the same number. I found I could get him to do almost anything if I prefaced it with “How many times can you….” I asked him to count notes, count to 10 while holding his violin up, count how many times he could tap his fingers on the tapes, and so on.
As an experiment, I made a numbered finger chart of Lightly Row for him, and he learned it in the space of a single lesson. We began to progress quickly through the next pieces, using finger charts. Hiccups and technical quirks seemed to fix themselves, almost by magic.
This student's ability with numbers made the complexity of a string instrument become a source of interest and stimulation rather than a stumbling block.
Asperger's students are wonderful, engaging, intelligent, and capable kids. Playing music seems to help tap their intelligence, just in a different way. Every student has a unique range of learning styles and behaviors, so perhaps our Asperger's students are really giving us a gift, in helping us to adapt better.
I encourage anyone dealing with Asperger's spectrum or autism to pursue more resources and become familiar with the medical and therapeutic avenues available. My recommendations are fairly specific to playing an instrument: my aim here is not to diagnose or treat the condition, but simply to share what has worked for me as a violin teacher.
You may find the following resources helpful:
Share your experience
If you have an Asperger's spectrum student or your own child, please consider comments to this post to add suggestions to the discussion. We can all benefit from hearing more about how to adapt to this unique and wonderful learning style.
One of the ways we unwittingly destroy motivation in children is by teaching them that there is only one right answer.
Usually, in music and in life, there is more than one answer, more than one approach. When children are allowed to explore all the options available to them, they can take personal ownership of them in a deeper way.
Children are more likely to engage and commit to something they have discovered on their own. If they are allowed to experiment and realize for themselves what is good, effective, beautiful, they are more likely to engage with it and remember it long term.
Because beginners don't know the technical skills required for getting started, these must be taught and practiced. By necessity much of this teaching is done in a "do-it-this-way" approach. But this rule-based way of doing things needs to be replaced as quickly as possible by a more exploratory framework, or the creative soul of music is dulled.
Moreover, many children are perfectionists. They already assume without our telling them that there is one right way, and immediately feel like a failure when they don't get it. That's a sure way for them to lose motivation and stop practicing.
By recovering a spirit of invention and exploration, you can overcome this loss of motivation. By changing the framework. you will make it easier for your child not to assess self-blame, and eliminate the fear of doing it wrong.
Letting your children invent is an important life skill. They will use it not only in music, but in every other area that they are trying to learn and master. By framing goals in terms of creating, exploring, and moving toward what is good, instead of only conforming to what is correct, we establish a long-term mindset that guarantees true devotion and love for one's work.