The most important thing I learned this summer

There are some things in life you just should not miss. This is one.

Students spill out of the music building at Ithaca College during Suzuki Institute

Students spill out of the music building at Ithaca College during Suzuki Institute

If you have never been to a Suzuki Institute, GO. I say this for some obvious and some not-so-obvious reasons. Let’s start with the obvious: your child will learn more than you thought possible in one week, and come away with new friends and good memories to boot. Staying overnight at a “sleepover camp” is fun for kids, and a great idea for a non-Disney getaway for your family.

Ithaca Institute (2)

At Institute, you accompany your child through several days in a row of group classes, private lessons and rehearsals based at their level and challenging them to grow. You also help teachers in training as they observe these classes, everyone learning together from teachers who are truly child-whisperers, who can find and pull out the deepest level of commitment and love from students.

If you are a music teacher (or thinking about becoming one), going to Suzuki Institute is one of the best things you can do for yourself and your career. It will give you confidence around young children, refashion your own playing and performing, and introduce you to one of the most intriguing and deep philosophies of pedagogy you will ever encounter.

Now for the non-obvious stuff (though much of the above has already touched that category). I’ve learned many, many things at the Institutes I’ve attended, too many to list in single blog post. But there is one consistent common denominator, one thing that has been a thread connecting them all—learning to center. Suzuki Institutes help students, parents and teachers come to center themselves, in the four basic areas of human experience: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.

A Fourfold Centering

At first, this centering is physical. It happens as students and teachers slow down and think deeply about balance, sending their awareness into their bodies. When we talk about tone, much of the work done there is in getting weight into the string, pausing to let the bow arm come back into balance before the next note or passage. We learn not to force the sound, but rather to allow it to happen, finding the “just right” pressure, the sweet spot where everything moves and flows with ease.

From here centering becomes mental. It is about our conscious awareness. When we talk about listening for pitch, we are paying attention in a focused way to sound. When we encourage students to repeat a technical exercise, we are training their focus, to empty their mind of distraction and be in the moment with the music. Centering our attention in this way quiets the mind and helps it settle down. I didn’t appreciate the way that even young children can do this, until I saw it with my own eyes at Institute. Once you see it, you have a changed expectation about what is possible in your teaching and parenting.

Emotional centering follows. When the mind is quieted down, emptied of all the outside disturbances, a kind of meditation happens. I have seen time and again stressed and frazzled parents re-center during the course of a lesson. If that can happen in a half-hour, imagine doing it for a whole week! And the emotional strength we build in the children during that time is truly remarkable. If they can look to music for their emotional support as they grow older and encounter the stresses and challenges of life, we will have given them a great gift.

Perhaps the most significant kind of centering is spiritual. Specifically I mean the reconciliation of body, mind, and heart that happens in the awareness process described above. Music is inherently a transcendent, mysterious thing, impermanent and yet occupying a fundamental place in our souls. As we understand how to move our bodies with balance and grace in playing, we have to access both physical and emotional expression, that is at once both concrete and abstract, accessing both earthly and heavenly powers. This kind of centering--when the divine and human merge--is beyond words, which is why we need music to describe it.

Playing as part of a community

Playing as part of a community

Spiritual centering also happens in community. Standing on stage with hundreds of other players, and alongside other teachers, I felt taken up, embraced in a river of harmonious motion, sound and feeling. These moments of self-transcendence are almost religious, and they are, I believe, why musicians seek after the elusive beauty of playing together in orchestras and ensembles. We are larger than the sum of our parts.

Dr. Suzuki at Ithaca College

Dr. Suzuki at Ithaca College

As I have attended Suzuki Institutes, I have come closer to center, even as I have explored the outer boundaries of my skills and knowledge. I have centered not only as a musician, but as a person. Centering has had a positive impact on all the areas of my life, my relationships, and certainly my career.

This centering and re-centering process is an ongoing thing. If you are on a journey of music, as a student, parent, teacher, or all three, you deserve to experience the unique physical, mental, emotional and spiritual centering found at Institute. It is a most profound and satisfying feeling, and something you’ll have with you long afterward.


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