Excellence

This post begins a series that I will be writing on various character traits that I strive to instill in my students. Though some characteristics are specific to the Suzuki method, others I have included as personal convictions and inspirations of my own. Enjoy!

During an opening exercise in one of my Suzuki training classes, the instructor asked us to pick out words or phrases to describe a good Suzuki teacher, and those of us who received Suzuki instruction as a student were asked to reflect on the characteristics of our previous teachers. Words mentioned included “kind”, “patient”, “warm” and “encouraging”, but “strict” was also mentioned and the phrase that has stood out in my mind, “demanding excellence”.

While the word “demanding” often has negative connotations, the definition I found in Merriam Webster’s dictionary was, “to ask or call for with authority”.

Other definitions included:

  • “a seeking or state of being sought after”
  • “urgent need”
  • “the requirement of work or of the expenditure of a resource”
  • “To call for as useful or necessary”
  • “something claimed as due or owed”

What is excellence?

The definitions of excellence I found were as follows:

  • “the quality of being outstanding or extremely good”
  • “brilliance”
  • “superiority”
  • “valuable quality”
  • “caliber” – the quality of someone’s character or the level of their ability
  • “distinction”
  • “greatness”

When I consider these definitions, I consider my role as a Suzuki instructor and ask myself if I am demanding excellence from my students. I push my students to excel and inspire them to put forth their best efforts in hopes that I will help them be successful.

“Success breeds success.” said Dr. Suzuki. I find that children rise to the occasion when given a challenge to work toward or an expectation or goal to meet. At the end of each lesson, I review with my students and parents specifically what they are expected to practice throughout the week. Students receive very specific assignments, sometimes it’s a particular section I would like for them to drill, practicing hands separately or together, a particular technique such as adding dynamics, contrast between the hands (i.e. playing the right hand melody louder than the left hand accompaniment) or any variety of other skills the student may need to work on. When the student returns the following week, I expect them to have practiced the skill I assigned them and to be prepared to learn the next step. I do not expect perfection, but I do expect consistent effort to be given.

Who is effort owed to?

Demanding excellence involves claiming a student’s effort as due or owed. The question becomes “Who is the effort owed to?” I believe the answer is three-fold, really four-fold if the child is a believer in Christ.

The student

One of the most significant people that effort is owed to is the student himself! I try to instill in my students a healthy sense of pride in their piano-playing ability. Children are taught that confidence is not only acceptable, but desirable. Students are encouraged to share the gift of music with others via performance outside of the home whether that be during a recital, school talent show, at a nursing home, or on a random piano on the street corner.

I know for me, as a child, piano became one aspect of my life that I felt confident about. As I was living in the shadow of my older brother and sister, finding my own niche was exciting. I remember one instance where our childhood pastor made a comment to me, as an adult, that he remembered me playing the church piano after services and he remembered being impressed with my ability. I was taken aback by his comment, and immediately asked him, “Are you sure you aren’t remembering my sister?” My sister, Katherine is also an accomplished pianist, who took lessons for a longer length of time than I did. When he replied, “No, I specifically remembered your playing”, I was stuck with the thought, “I have my own identity outside of my family, as an individual with my own skills and abilities to offer the world.” I could be confident in my own ability, without comparing my playing to how well my sister played.

The parents

The second person that the students owe effort to is their parents. Not only are the parents usually the ones paying for lessons, but in the Suzuki method, parents are extremely involved by attending lessons, putting on the recording for the children to listen to and assisting/supervising practice at home. Parents have a huge role in the student’s success. Students owe respect to their parents by giving their best effort and practicing accordingly, remember that taking piano lessons is a privilege.

The teacher

The third person that the students owe effort to is their teacher. As I mentioned earlier, when I lesson-plan for my students, I am operating under the assumption that the students have mastered, or at least attempted to master the skills that were taught to them at the previous lesson. One unique beginning to Suzuki lessons is that the student and I bow to each other as a mutual sign of respect. I teach the children that when I bow to them, I am saying, “I am ready to teach you.” When the student bows to me, they are saying, “I am ready to learn.” We bow again at the conclusion of the lesson to thank each other. Because my goal in teaching my students is not simply a paycheck, but to see the students become noble human beings, I consider it a waste of my time and effort when a student continually fails to practice or to put forth consistent effort. In contrast, when a student puts into practice what he has learned, he shows honor and respect to his instructor.

God

Finally, because as a believer I consider everything we do an opportunity to give praise to God and to reflect God’s glory, we owe effort to God. We are not earning His favor with our performance, but rather acting out of gratitude saying, “Thank you for giving me this opportunity to take lessons and to learn how to play the piano.” Because praising God is simply stating aloud who and what He is, we can’t really give Him a compliment. When I play a beautiful piece of music, I consider it a reflection of God’s glory, the author of all things beautiful and good. Wanting my music to imitate beauty and goodness motivates me to play music with a sense of excellence. Viewing excellence as an avenue to reflect God’s glory helps confidence avoid becoming arrogance.

To do something with excellence requires hard work. In today’s American society, this philosophy may seem revolutionary, as we live in a world where children are often spoiled and permitted to only engage in activities that they deem fun 100 percent of the time. As soon as children become bored or discouraged, teachers are expected to entertain the students or lower standards to accommodate the students. The hard truth is, a student will get out of taking piano lessons what they put in. (I will address issues of perseverance and discipline in future posts.)

What does the Bible say about excellence?

Phil 4:8 “[…] if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

2 Corinthians 8:7 “But as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in our love for you—see that you excel in this act of grace also.”

Prov. 22:29 “Do you see a man skillful in his work? He will stand before kings; he will not stand before obscure men.” I am reminded of the composers of old (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Handel, etc.) who debuted their works literally before kings. Before there were radios or televisions, the only mode of communicating music was live performance in person!

Phil 1:9-10 “And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ.”

2 Peter 1:3-4 “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature[…]”

How does grace fit into the idea of excellence?

Demanding excellence without demonstrating grace results in an atmosphere of dictatorship, rather than growth. To demand excellence, I must first establish good rapport with the student, gain his trust, and convince the student that what he is working towards is useful and necessary. Appreciation of beauty and wonder, which I will discuss in a later post, factor into a student’s ability to see the value in what he is learning. As a Suzuki teacher, though I demand excellence, lessons are saturated with praise for students’ efforts. My philosophy in my studio is “You are allowed to make mistakes, but you are not allowed to not try.” Rather than criticize, I always try to find something positive to say to my students during their lessons, whether that be to compliment something specific about their playing, (i.e. “Good job! You played all of the notes correctly” or “I really appreciated your dynamics in that piece”) Minimally, I can say, “You are focusing well”, “You are sitting so nicely and quietly”, or “Thank you for playing that for me!”  Exhibiting warmth and a smile can go a long way!

For more information on how the Suzuki method marries grace with excellence, check out these resources: “Nurtured by Love” by Shinichi Suzuki and “To Learn with Love” by William Starr

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