Seeing the forest and the trees

One of the joys and trials of Suzuki parents is helping our children attend to the myriad details that turn technique into beautiful music. Immersing yourselves in the details of their instrument, you begin to appreciate the massive complexity that talent education breaks down into logical progressive steps. As with muscles that develop strength through repeated use, our patience develops through repeated trials and the realization that “the art is long.” It is no wonder that sometimes we are attending so carefully to the repertoire, the technique, finding the helpful ways to practice together that we lose sight of the bigger picture. Dr. Suzuki imagined a world where music could bridge cultural gaps by helping acquire the common language of music while developing strength and excellence of character. In educational paralance, this is the “hidden curriculum” of the Suzuki method. Without calling them out by name, our children acquire a set of competencies that will make them more perseverant, resilient and compassionate adults. Yet there is still another curriculum that we must attend to - the culture of music. Suzuki’s brilliant insight was that language is largely learned through listening, modeling, repetition, and feedback. This language that our children are learning doesn’t exist in a vacuum; rather, it is part of a culture. Frantz Fanon wrote that: “To speak a language is to take on a world, a culture.”[1] Just as we bring intention and purpose to the development of technique, Suzuki parents should look diligently for ways they can introduce their children to the amazing culture of music.

Classical music in peril

That classical music is imperiled is no secret. Mark Vanhoenacker, writing for Slate, declared that: “Classical music in America is dead.”[2] Recent years have witnessed major disputes between orchestra players and management, owing in large part to the economic realities of dwindling audiences. Many young people (perhaps even Suzuki students) have never attended a professional classical music concert. Scanning the audiences at concerts, one sees an astonishing lack of age diversity. In a study commissioned over ten years ago by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, only 13% of survey respondents had attended a classical music concert in the previous year.[3] If the study were repeated today, the data would undoubtedly look more dire. Music sales data and the number of classical radio stations all tell a similar story. Classical music, which has always appealed to a relatively small niche in the United States, is threatened by mounting social and economic factors. Music may be a language; but language cannot survive without culture.

Tips for parents

Parents need not be musicians themselves to introduce their children to the culture of music. Adults who are curious about the world naturally convey their sense of interest to their children. So, be curious about the music your children are playing (and more.) “I wonder what period of music this piece is from?” “What’s special about that period of music?” “Are there any performances of this piece on YouTube?” Children, by and large, don’t expect grown-ups to have all of the answers; so parents needn’t feel they must know everything about music to cultivate the culture of classical music in their children. Instilling a curiosity and a practice of jointly exploring this amazing world of music is all it takes.

The games that we play with children in practice can be extended in all sorts of ways to explore musical culture. Parents can play “Name the composer” with their children. Find a recording or video of a piece by a famous composer and try to guess. My sister and I played this game when we were young.

I can’t stress enough the importance of seeing and hearing live music. Almost every community has a diversity of classical music venues to choose from. Although the Suzuki method stresses listening as a major modality for learning music, attending concerts serves two major purposes other than listening. It connects the visual with the audible. Some have compared attending a classical concert to watching a masterpiece being painted on stage in real-time. Finally, it can inspire children to see adults who have mastered their instruments and fellow audience members who also enjoy great music.

Read about the composers, for their lives are quite fascinating. Many led difficult lives; and this can inspire kids to be grateful for the fine music we have. Try to situate the composers and periods of music on a timeline with familiar places and events. This helps anchor music as a real integral part of history, not just something that happened “out there.”

Conclusion

The work and joy of Suzuki parents is found in instilling both the language and culture of music in our children. It means taking an expansive view of what we’re trying to accomplish. We “zoom in” on technique and individual mastery and “zoom out” to focus on the culture of classical music. By helping children situate themselves in a culture that stretches into the past and future, they can begin to see themselves as the recipients of a rich and vital heritage. They can see the trees and the forest.


  1. Fanon, Frantz, Black Skin, White Mask

  2. Mark Vanhoenacker, “Requiem: Classical music in America is dead”, Slate, January 21, 2014, accessed November 27, 2014. http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2014/01/classical_music_sales_decline_is_classical_on_death_s_door.html

  3. John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. 2002. Classical Music Consumer Segmentation Study 2002: National Survey [computer file]. Southport, CT: Audience Insight LLC [producer]. Princeton, NJ: Cultural Policy and the Arts National Data Archive [distributor]. Link