Foundational Principle #9: Listen to Superior Models

If you’ve been around West County Strings for any length of time – or even if I’ve only taught you at an Institute for a week, in a group class at a workshop, or even in a 15-20 master class – you’ve likely heard me talk about the irreplaceable value and importance of listening frequently and consistently to quality recordings of the pieces you are working on, have worked on, and will work on in the future.  Here’s roughly what I usually say:

“Listening to your recordings is the number one easiest and most surefire way to make progress on your musical instrument.  And yet, it’s also the number one thing that students and their families do not do nearly enough of.

How does listening to a recording help you make such incredible strides in progress, you say?  Well, I’m glad you asked.  When you listen to a piece, at the very least you get a sense of:

  • The piece’s tempo (speed)
  • The piece’s style (serious, playful, sombre, lighthearted, etc.)
  • The piece’s rhythms
  • The piece’s pitches
  • The piece’s articulations (staccato, legato, etc.)
  • the piece’s structure (do sections repeat, etc.)

And so much more.  The gist of the matter is that when you’ve listened to a piece sufficiently before you come to your lesson, we’re working on how to play something that you already subconsciously know to a great degree.  We’re not working on what to play and how to play it.  That makes lessons incredibly more productive, and over the course of weeks, and months, and years, can lead to graduating all the way through the Suzuki repertoire instead of getting stuck somewhere along the way.

I have to be honest: sometimes I can’t imagine why students and their families wouldn’t listen to their Suzuki CDs or whatever other recordings correspond to the repertoire they’re currently working on.  I was fortunate that my mom kept cassette tapes of all the Suzuki Violin Books interspersed between the car and my bedside radio, so we listened to them on the way to and from school, to and from sports practices, and while we were running errands around town, and I also often fell asleep listening to them, as well.

It’s never been easier than it is today to get ahold of the Suzuki CDs.  Between,, iTunes, a plethora of local music stores, you can have your hands on a copy in as little as a few minutes.  And the quality of the recordings has never been higher.  Just this year, the Suzuki Association announced the release of new recordings featuring Hillary Hahn – one of the most impeccable violinists to grace the music world today, if not ever.

So, that would be one of my pleas:  Please, please, do not go to YouTube and listen to some random individual play the Suzuki repertoire.  You’re not guaranteed that they’re playing an accurate tempo, if they’re playing with the correct articulations, if they’re playing the dynamics marked in the music, if they’re playing with perfect intonation, or if they’re playing with beautiful tone.  And if you’re watching a video, you can add to that that you can’t be sure that they’re demonstrating good technique.  Just please, please don’t turn to YouTube as a substitute for quality recordings.

If you’re working on repertoire supplemental to the Suzuki repertoire, or after the Suzuki repertoire, it’s also never been easier to get your hands on quality recordings.  When I was learning concertos back in high school, I would drive from Illinois to one or two music shops in downtown St. Louis in hopes of turning up good recordings of the concertos I was working on.  Nowadays, you can pull up Spotify and literally have the very highest-quality recordings at your fingertips for free!  What a time to live in!

Now, I asked a rhetorical question earlier (“Why wouldn’t students and their families listen to the Suzuki CDs?”) and I know that there are some legitimate answers to that question.  The most obvious and frequent one is that children would simply rather listen to something else in the car, around the house, in their headphones, or before bed than their violin or viola music.  And I don’t want to deny that this can be a tough bridge to cross.  However, I think that if we slowly but steadily create a culture in our homes that listening to violin and viola music is something we do a bit of every day in this family, just like practicing, then it can be accomplished.  And trust me: the benefits far outweigh the struggle.

So, as we head into a new school year, I hope it will be one in which every single one of our students and their families listen to their recordings more than ever before!  In fact, let’s aim to be a community that all listens to their recordings every day!