Hello, and welcome to the cello, to my studio, and to our wonderful and supportive CCW community!
Many of my students are quite young and will not be reading this letter themselves. I address this letter to you, parents, as if you were the ones beginning study because, in fact, you are. (Little did you suspect it, perhaps! More on this later.)
A Cello Pageant
The cello is a magnificent instrument, rich in expressive possibilities and beautiful repertoire. Its roughly four hundred and fifty year history is peopled with colorful characters and dramatic moments (Casals playing at the Kennedy Whitehouse, ending his long and eloquent retirement to begin a musical crusade for world peace; Rostropovich playing at the opening of the Berlin Wall) as well as noble unsung cello heroes who showed their greatness by putting in decades of faithful practice at the instrument, working not for their own glory but for improvement in their relationship to the muse who had captured their hearts. You are joining this esteemed lineage and helping to write the history of the cello by doing so. (It helps to remember this when you face practicing day in and day out – especially day out.)
From the above paragraph you know some about my approach to the study of the cello, and the purpose of this letter is to tell you some more so that you may either get mind and soul prepared for the work and play ahead or be suitably warned away from an undertaking that is not for you. I offer the latter option because I want you to see that this is a serious undertaking, not solely “for fun,” although there is a lot of fun involved. Indeed it will become quickly apparent that only through your consistent and attentive practice with your child will there be deep enjoyment and great fun. Primarily, studying with me will require commitment to approaching good, daily practice with the excitement and determination of an explorer discovering a new land.
Like the explorer, without that commitment to daily progress you go nowhere, or get more and more lost. With the discipline it takes to set out each day (one day of rest each week is important, too!) you will literally make discoveries each day. Many days you’ll find beauty all around you. Occasionally, you’ll find yourself on a mountaintop. Very often, you’ll be doing a lot of slogging through dismal-seeming swamps. But remember: there are some exquisite flowers to be found blooming in the most unpromising places; and even so, you may later find that the journey itself is the flower.
I bring to my teaching not just musicianship and my training as a cellist, but my concerns as an educator. These are to a large degree expressed in Sinichi Suzuki’s main educational goal, “to produce beautiful souls.” Suzuki’s vision goes far beyond the training of capable musicians, and originates with a concern for the well-being and nurturing of the human. Beginning with the simple seeds of consistent love and respect between teacher, parent, and student he hopes for the growth of generations of people who have learned peace through their success with an instrument and the soul-deepening art of making music. For the power of his vision and its global influence in music and academia Suzuki has three times been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
In order to give you a better sense of orientation in the Suzuki context, I will ask you to read a book about the Suzuki method, To Learn With Love by William and Constance Starr. This is one of many books about the Suzuki approach, and it is written specifically for “Suzuki parents.” My own approach to teaching and my goals overlap in many ways with those expressed in this book or any other on the Suzuki method, and differ in many ways. Please ask questions as they arise.
In the course of our time together I will not often refer explicitly to this philosophy which is in fact the heart of our work. Instead, I expect and hope that it is expressed and addressed as an integral part of our interactions in Group and in lessons. Suzuki emphasizes the importance of developing in the child self-esteem; this comes through our helping him or her to learn mastery of skills in a loving environment. The development of healthy self-regard can be seen as a pre-requisite to being able to reach out to others with good will. This, the good growth of a human being, is the root of the whole endeavor. Then, too, music itself brings well-being. I hope you will find this in your life as I have in mine.
The Suzuki Method
I am a nationally certified teacher of the Suzuki method, which I have taught for more than a decade. Suzuki education is based on two premises: first, that of talent education; second, the mother-tongue method. Talent education assumes the presence of talent in each person, in this case the belief that by dint of being human each person has musical talent which, if educated properly, can be developed to a high degree. The mother-tongue method sprang from Sinichi Suzuki’s revelatory observation that all Japanese children speak Japanese. Recognizing the sublime in the mundane, Suzuki extrapolated that the language of music might be developed to a level of perfect fluency in any human being if that person is surrounded by music and the practice of musical skills in the home on a daily basis. Just as one learns speech through the constant provision of models, the opportunity and necessity for practice, and repetition (a key word), one can learn music.
Beginning young is helpful, but not a necessity. Those parents who devote themselves to the mother-tongue method and begin assiduously playing recordings of the great classical repertoire when the baby is stillin utero, and those adults who wait until retirement to take up the instrument they have loved all their lives all may see very rewarding results. I say may, not because I am qualifying Suzuki’s belief that every human being has the talent to become a fluent musician, but because of the enormous importance played by the quality of the home environment for practice and integration. Building an excellent musical setting at home is essential; it is the prerequisite for excellent musical development in you or your child.
Given this prerequisite, it is my job to work with you not only to introduce you to the technical and musical principles of cello playing (the new land you are exploring, to return to the metaphor), but to make sure to the best of my ability and influence that you set up a nurturing, consistent, and generally excellent musical environment (thus providing you with all the tools and supplies for the daily journey and its excitements and perils….I can’t resist the imagery). The latter job is one that, perhaps, the general public would not expect as part of the province of a music teacher; and indeed, for many years I’ve had as little to do with it as possible because of the difficulty and indelicacy of inquiring about people’s home life. But I’ve come to accept, finally, that my work and my students’ success are severely crippled if we cannot frankly discuss the trials and triumphs of your practice at home.
Many people would like to hide from the question, “How much did you practice each day this week?” yet this should be our first inquiry together when looking at the progress of the student. The second question is, “How did you practice?” The answer to the first question is entirely in your hands each day. I have sometimes heard parents remark, “If only I could get her [or him] to practice more.” This statement, when spoken of a child younger than adolescent, betrays a poor understanding on the parent’s part of the meaning and value of practice, and a misunderstanding of a healthy parental role in practice.
Eyebrows and serious questions would be raised if the parent of a young child casually said, “If only I could get him [or her] to go to school more regularly.” Our reaction should be the same for the parallel statement about practicing. For the young child, daily practice is in the hands of the parent just as is attendance at school. If you as a parent are experiencing difficulty completing daily practice successfully, please speak with me so that we can begin to find solutions. Solutions do exist! There will always be days of greater and lesser triumph and tribulation, but daily practice must be routine, and does not need to be routinely painful.
In general, a parent with a very young beginning student should practice at least half an hour a day. By the time a student has reached the last part of Book I practice sessions should be at least forty minutes to an hour, depending on the student’s age and personality. Very serious students will be practicing several hours a day even at an early age. Some families find that several short sessions, twenty or even ten minutes at a time, work best for very young children. Some practice before going off to work and school in the morning. Some practice right after supper. Most people find the greatest success if they structure daily life to allow for the same time to be devoted to practice each day. Many different approaches have been found to work, but the most important ingredient is consistency.
The Home Teacher: You, the Parent! Learning a musical instrument, especially a stringed instrument, is one of the most challenging tasks on the face of the earth. It calls on and develops physical coordination, analytical ability, concentration, social skills, and emotional depth. All of these elements are rarely called upon simultaneously to such a degree as in the study of a stringed instrument. For that reason alone, the help of a parent is invaluable to a child learning to play. Also, there is an opportunity that this partnership offers a parent and child to develop and deepen their relationship; there is a solid and beautiful bond to be woven in working with your child over a span of years and watching together the satisfying growth in ability that results from your mutual efforts.
Involving a parent in lessons and in home practice is one of the key elements of the Suzuki method, and yet, like most other aspects of the method, this is not a new idea. The biographies of most of the great musicians of Western tradition reveal a common thread; the childhood homes of these artists were filled with music, and parents were directly and daily involved in their children’s musical studies. This is not to say that Sinichi Suzuki’s goal, or mine, is to produce great musicians by the bundle – but that our emulation of this historical pattern of parental involvement in music study can make the student’s work easier and more successful, and the play more fun because it is shared.
If you are a musician yourself, you may at this point be agreeing with these thoughts as a result of your own experience with an instrument. If you are not a musician, you may be wondering how you can ever be of help to your child! The answer is two-part: first, in becoming involved with this way of studying an instrument, you yourself will be learning and becoming competent in new things; second, much of what I will ask you to do involves simple observation and giving feedback and oversight to your child, rather than the use of complex musical skills that you don’t possess. The only prerequisite is your active readiness to be involved.
As in other areas of your child’s development, the role you play will change as time passes. Our musical aim is to encourage the child to grow into a capable, independent musician, to be his or her own teacher. When the child is very young or just beginning, your role will be more prominent. The learning of the instrument itself is set alongside the equally important lesson of learning to work carefully, steadily, and with a sense of the reward the work itself yields.
Hopefully the discipline of good, daily practice will be firmly in place after the first few years of study, whatever the child’s beginning age. That discipline of daily attention to the instrument may well end up being the most valuable benefit your child recieves from the study. The experience can be transferred to any kind of endeavor; once the pattern of successful, steady work is established it breeds good results in all corners of a life. The habit of good work, done daily, is one of the greatest gifts you can give your child. And then, of course, there is the music.
Weekly lessons will normally last forty minutes or an hour, the longer time appropriate as the student advances in the repertoire and develops a greater attention span. For the very young student, two sessions of twenty minutes each may be the best approach. Lessons are held at my home, and the presence and active involvement of a parent is generally required. If the student is both experienced at the instrument and older (older, perhaps, than twelve – again, each case is different from any other), parental involvement at lessons need not be so great; but your staying aware of what the child is doing can be a source of important encouragement and support.
For the younger or beginning cellist, your active presence at the lesson (and at Groups; more on this later) is essential. I will usually involve you at the lesson by asking you questions about home practice, having you give feedback while I work with your child, and showing you how I want you to work at home with your child. There may be some times, however, when it seems important to involve you less and for me to draw the student out into greater involvement with what he or she is doing.
If, during the course of the lesson or at any other time you don’t understand what I am asking, or why I am doing what I’m doing, please ask! This is your lesson as much as your child’s. With a very young child, the lesson may sometimes be more yours! (Some teachers have the parent learn the instrument alongside a tiny child, or teach the parent at the lesson at first, to make sure he or she will really know what to teach the child during the week at home.) I will write down on a practice chart the assignment for the coming week, and I will explain each item on the chart as we work our way through the lesson. As well, I will often use a tape recorder to demonstrate a new assignment so that you can refer to it at home. To this end, you will need to bring a cassette tape to lessons along with a ring-binder in which to keep practice charts and other handouts I may give you.
Most of the most successful parent-teachers take their own notes during lessons despite the fact that I also write brief explanations on the practice chart when I feel it necessary. Many parents write down questions that arise during the practice week (the practice chart is a good place to write questions for me) so that we are sure to address them during the next lesson. I encourage you to call me during the week, or to have your child call (a good exercise of responsibility), if during the week a question arises about how to practice part of the assignment. To go through a week not practicing something because you don’t understand what I’ve asked for, or (much worse) to practice something incorrectly, is at best to lose momentum or at worst to cause a lot of extra effort later undoing something wrongly learned. Please feel free to call me! That’s what I’m here for.
Group lessons are equally important as private lessons to the students’ development. I use this time each week (forty-five minutes) to reinforce specific and general technical and musical ideas that I may have introduced during lessons, but I also bring new ideas to Group that we may work on only in that collective setting. Group is a time to work on the listening and ensemble skills that are so essential to the player of a stringed instrument; almost all of the cello repertoire is not for cello alone, but for cello with piano, with a small ensemble of other instruments, or for cello as part of an orchestra. Therefore, the skills of listening to and interacting with other players are indispensable. They can be gained only in a group setting.
Parental presence at Group is generally required. Some weeks I will involve parents more directly, some less, but in either case your being there will boost your understanding of what we’re about. The children generally enjoy having the parents as an audience during Group, and sometimes things get refreshingly silly for everyone!
Fun and silliness contribute essential elements to the value of the Group experience, good counter-weights to the fact that we cover a lot of material. The other important aspect to these weekly meetings is the social interaction of the students and its place in their education and development.
The Cello and Its World
By choosing the cello, you are introducing your child and your family to the larger world of music, not just to “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and the other hits contained on the recording of Suzuki Book I. Paint a large, rich picture of the world of music for yourself and your child, and your lives will be enriched beyond words. (That enrichment of expression, beyond what words can offer, is after all the province of music.) Listen to classical music of all kinds; check out National Public Radio (89.1 FM); read books about and by the great musicians – the public library has a good assortment; keep tabs on the public television specials, which often offer memorable performances and documentaries of classical music and the people who play it; attend regional recital, symphony, opera, and chamber music concerts; subscribe to the Suzuki Journal, The Strad, Strings, or another national or international music journal. All these are ways to make the cello come alive for you and your child. The study will mean so much more to you if you are able to place it in the context of the greater world of music.
If all this appeals to you, I look forward to seeing you soon for lessons. Thank you for taking the time to do this preliminary reading and thinking about our work and play together.
Sincerely, Lisa Liske-Doorandish