Throughout my teaching career, I’ve generally been blessed with students and parents who “trust the process” and aren’t too overly eager to race blindly ahead through the repertoire. This has never been more true than at present, and I’m extraordinarily grateful to be able to work by and large with students and parents who share a similar vision of the path of developing musical ability that includes repetition, review, and a logical, sensibly-paced progression through selections of music that match students’ ability.
That said, how many of us can truly say that we can “play any piece… no matter how long ago we have learned it,” much less play it “well?”
As I’ve thought about this principle this week, I’ve likened developing ability on a musical instrument to several images in my mind:
- A pyramid under construction.
- A skyscraper being built.
- A growing tree.
I’ve always been moderately fascinated with ancient Egypt, and the engineering and architectural marvels they were able to accomplish without the use of modern tools. When it comes to building pyramids, one simple principle is always at play: the higher the planned pinnacle of the pyramid, the wider the base of the pyramid must be. I relate this to developing ability on a musical instrument by thinking that the greater heights of musical accomplishment we want to achieve the “wider our base” must be. In this case, a “wide base” is being able to play every piece we’ve ever learned, and play them well. What would happen if, as the workers continued to work on building the pyramid higher, the foundational layers began to crumble and fall into disrepair? Would the structure ever be able to come to its envisioned fulfillment?
I’ve also aways been awed by the Chicago skyline, highlighted by the Sears (now Willis) Tower, and have on many occasions enjoyed walking through the streets of downtown Chicago, surrounded on all sides by almost unimaginably-high walls of steel and glass. Skyscrapers are truly a modern engineering marvel, and one simple principle is at play in their design and construction: the greater the planned height of the skyscraper, the deeper the foundation that must first be dug, almost always accompanied by steel beams driven all the way down to bedrock. Once again, I relate this to developing ability on a musical instrument by thinking that the greater heights of musical accomplishment we want to achieve, the “deeper our foundation” must be. In this case, a “deep foundation” is once again being able to play every piece we’ve ever learned, and play them well.
And finally, I’ve always loved trees. In fact, I often imagine that if I ever have a second career it would hopefully be in something like reforestation. Or, in a perfect world, maybe I could find a way to raise support for preservation of the rainforests through musical benefits. I digress. When I think about trees, I am reminded that before they explode upward and outward, they spend the first several years of their life putting down roots, which continue to grow deeper and wider underground as the tree does so visibly above ground. And what happens to a tree if its root system is damaged? No matter how healthy the tree is above ground, it will suffer to some degree, and if the roots are damaged enough the tree will die. I relate this to developing ability on a musical instrument by thinking that the higher, and wider, and more blossoming and beautiful we want our ability to be, the deeper, and wider, and stronger, and more healthy we need to keep our “roots.” And in this case, our “roots” are every piece we’ve ever learned, and maintaining the ability to play those pieces and play them well.
I do still get the occasional request to “move ahead faster,” to “focus more on new material,” or to “spend less time on review.” And while I can understand the desires that motivate these requests, and think they’re often if not always well-intentioned, I think they miss out on a key element of developing ability on a musical instrument that lies in having a deep, wide, strong, healthy base of repertoire that in itself teaches and reinforces good technical and musical skills. I hope that reflecting on this particular of Dr. Suzuki’s principles will help bring us all into a more unified vision of what creates long-term, sustainable success as we prepare to head into a new school year together!