Category Archives: Food for Thought

Food for Thought: Learning from Dorothy DeLay

Dorothy Dolay is someone who I try to emulate in my teaching, but her philosophy and approach towards teaching is also very relevant in the way we approach teaching and learning in all walks of life – including parenting.

At our parent night this past Tuesday, we discussed holding high expectations that are clearly communicated and consistently reinforced.  The question then becomes: how are we going to pursue achieving those expectations?  Will we yell, scream, demand, and offer ultimatums?  I’ve had music teachers who’ve done that.  My playing a lot under them, but it’s taken me decades to overcome the negative emotional impact of those lessons.  Or will we lead, support, challenge, and strengthen?  Later in life, I’ve had experiences with teachers every bit as excellent but much more nurturing in their approach.  And guess what?  I’ve learned even more, and grown far more in self-confidence and character in the process.

So, check out this article from the perspective of Itzhak Perlman on his teacher Dorothy Delay.  It’s definitely food for thought.

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Food for Thought: Practice Tips from Ray Chen

Ray Chen is one of the brightest stars of the younger generation of classical violinists.  He is as technically polished and musically accomplished as anyone, and is particularly generous with his time and kind and fun-loving in his interactions.  He’s really a great ambassador for music!

In this video that I recently came across, Mr. Chen shares some of his philosophies on practicing and performing with students aspiring to become capable musicians in their own right.  Some of his tips, “Just go for it” when it comes to experiences that seem overwhelming; and the “worst thing you can do” is just run through a piece in practice.  Check out the video here:

Setting Goals and Reaching Them, While Sharing Dr. Suzuki’s Vision

I will never forget one of my violin lessons when I was in high school.  I could not tell you what piece we were working on, but I do remember it was not going as well as I had hoped.  The lasting impression from this lesson was not about the notes of a certain piece, playing with perfect technique, or even how to practice most efficiently.  These are all wonderful goals, and I will address them again later.  Rather, that particular lesson was about something much more meaningful.   

As I struggled through whatever it was I was playing, tension and frustration grew.  My teacher interrupted, “STOP,” he demanded.    While his voice was strong, his eyes remained gentle and kind.  He gestured for me to join him near the window of his office.  I have many memories of gazing past him to the baseball field behind his apartment building week after week, but this time was different.   My teacher crossed his legs and leaned back in his chair the way he did when he wanted to think about something.  He rested his weathered cheek on his wrinkled hand, and pointed towards a building nearby that reflected a beautiful sunset from top to bottom.  We stood there in admiration for a few moments gazing at the beautiful array of colors before returning to our work.

I often think back to this lesson and want to thank my teacher for what he taught me that day.  While I am quite sure he had specific repertoire, technique or practice tips for me that at that time, he cared equally to focus on the process of achieving these goals.   In other words, to him the process was equally important to teach me as the product.

Setting goals are the product of our work; how we achieve these goals are the process we work through to achieve these goals.  Each semester, I ask my students to take time to reflect and come up with something they would like to address.  They choose one thing, and I choose another.  We write these goals down on a card and leave it in their case, so every time they take out their instrument they are reminded of what we are setting out to do.  Throughout the semester we continuously check back to see how we are doing in reference to our original goals, since it is so easy to forget where we are going when things get busy.

When setting goals, choosing a piece to play or notes to learn is often a favorite.  New repertoire can be extremely motivating, and I’m so thankful for the great repertoire in the Suzuki Method Books.  It is awesome to see students light up at the idea that pieces played in their group class or on their CD are pieces they can and will master in time!

Technique goals also come up a great deal on my student’s goal cards. For example, straight wrist, fluffy fingers, light left hand, curved pinky, bent thumb, or posture are just a few. I am always so pleased to see students achieve a technique goal with a big smile as they realize the value of these difficult, sometimes tedious accomplishments.

Another common area for setting goals would be that of practicing.  Most students take lessons because they want to get better.  I think it is my job to show them with enough of the right kind of practice that achieving that goal is possible.  However, with so many extra curricular activities out there, sometimes practicing is the last thing in a long day to be scheduled, or when it is scheduled, it is at the end of the day when everyone involved is not always at their best.  I love talking over possible solutions to these scheduling problems, and seeing the pride in some students’ faces as they come in after a week of a practice job well done.

Repertoire, technique, performance goals can be more obvious.  Sometimes it is the character goals that can be harder to define.  These are the goals that help our students become productive contributing members of society.  I believe these are the goals Dr. Suzuki is referring to when he said, “I want to make good citizens, noble human beings,” or “Character first, ability second.”

One semester I found myself extremely touched when one of my 8-year-old girls came in with the following goal written on her piece of paper, “No matter how challenging violin is, I don’t want to give up.  I just want to try harder.”  In an age when the world is at your fingertips and instant gratification is often the name of the game, I think this young student’s goal is particularly pertinent.

I do not want to teach only my students how to ‘win the audition’ or ‘play perfect recitals every time’.  Yes, reaching these goals are important and exciting, but I believe instilling the notion that the way you go about reaching those goals – the process – is equally important.

At the end of the day, most things in this world that are truly satisfying take hard work and dedication.  We will inevitably face disappointments in one way or another, and as Suzuki teachers, we have the unique opportunity to mold a new generation of noble citizens in how they will respond to those hurtles.

To say my 8-year-old student from before did not stumble over her fingers or bowings one time that semester would be far from the truth.  In fact, there may have even been tears.  But we were able to look towards the goal she wrote out for herself and decide not to be frustrated or upset.  We were reminded that we knew this moment might come, but we have a positive way of dealing with it.  We were able to come up with a different way of approaching her problem in a fun and creative way.  In other words, we focused on the process at times when the product seemed a long way off.  The smiles to follow were mutual from her and me.

That day in high school, during that unforgettable lesson, I’m not sure I understood what my teacher was trying to do.  Hindsight tells me he was trying to show me that without the proper approach or process to my instrument or my studies, I would not truly succeed, even if I succeeded in achieving the product.  With the right mindset, more things are possible, but without it my work would have been in vain.

In that moment of perspective and looking at the beauty of a sunset, we were able to enjoy the lesson in a different way.   We returned to our work with new eyes, eager to tackle our challenges.  This image of teacher and student working together towards excellence in character then ability is one I will cherish and remind myself of every time I enter my studio and prepare for each student.  

These lasting moments that leave footprints on our students’ hearts will most likely look different for each person.  Perhaps they will be sharing a personal story, or meaningful metaphor.  For some it could be a time of hard work followed by a particularly successful concert.  Whatever it is, I am inspired to think Dr. Suzuki had these moments with his students to be sure.

I would like to join Dr. Suzuki in his vision.  To help a generation of young people that, when instant gratification may not an option, they choose patience and endurance.  Young people who choose hard work and long-lasting satisfying results in their daily life.  I want to nurture a generation that understands how to pick up and try again, while enjoying life in the process.  All of these things and much more are possible through music.  I am thrilled join my fellow Suzuki teachers by doing my best to teach that integrity of character is as valuable an outcome as any other.

– Kirby Kay

Food for Thought: Finding Time to Practice

It seems like everyone is busy these days.  Between school, homework, sports teams, club meetings, and everything else, students can feel like it’s hard just to keep up, much less like they can find time for focused, consistent practice.  And parents barely get a moment’s rest driving their kids to and from all these activities!

But it is possible to practice well, even in the midst of a busy schedule.  Violinist.com recently posted a helpful article, entitled Back to School Tips for Parents: Practice vs. Homework?, which contains some helpful reminders and practical tips.  It’s definitely worth a read.

To the article’s list, I would add this little axiom from Dr. Suzuki: “Only practice on the days you eat!”  When practice becomes part of the fabric of our daily lives, instead of something that we try to tack on when we can, we stand a much better chance of making it through these busy school years making progress and having fun.

Now, I’m off to practice!


Food for Thought is a publication of West County Strings, intended for the edification of students and their parents in the St. Louis community and beyond.