What I learned from teaching in South America

I have always been aware of the Suzuki program in Peru.

  • In 2000, when I took my first SAA teacher training class (Recorder Unit 1A, at Kent State University in Ohio), there were teachers from Canada, Great Britain, and the United States, and students from the United States and Peru.
  • The first time I was involved in coordinating the Recorder Consort program at the SAA Conference in Minneapolis, one third of the students in the Consort were from Canada, one third from the U.S., and one third were from Peru.
  • I followed with interest the articles in the ASJ that described the Suzuki Festivals in Latin America, and one that seemed to be mentioned most often was the one in Peru.
  • As I took more teacher training classes, I met more people who had traveled to South America to teach, and many of them told me wonderful stories about teaching in Peru.
  • When I went to the Leadership Retreat, Caroline Fraser showed me a video of a recorder student playing at a very high level at a festival in Peru.

When I was asked if I could be available to teach at the International Suzuki Festival in Lima, I jumped at the chance to see for myself what was happing in Peru.

I did have some initial concerns about teaching in a foreign country and in a foreign language for the first time. Quizzing colleagues about what to expect resulted in many useful pointers and lots of reassurance: “Don’t worry, you’ll do fine.” After getting up at 3 am to get to the airport and traveling for 20 hours, I looked at the customs & immigration card the flight attendant had just handed me and wondered if that was going to be true. According to this card, I was only allowed to being one musical instrument into the country. Only one? I play and teach recorder! I was traveling with a full consort of 5 plastic recorders (sopranino, soprano, alto, tenor, and bass) in my checked bag, as well as a couple of wooden altos and sopranos (renaissance and baroque) in my carry on bag. What to do? I left that portion of the card blank, and asked  the person who checked my passport as I cleared customs. She directed me to the next person, who took the card from me without noticing that I had left that part blank. I sighed with relief. “OK, so I guess it doesn’t matter.” Then I turned to leave, and discovered that my bag had to pass through another Xray machine before I could leave the airport! I turned back to the official who took my card. “I left this part blank because I had a question…”  He glanced at me: “You are a tourist, and you only have one bag. You do not have a problem.” And so I didn’t. My bags passed the Xray test without any comment, and I was officially in Peru with all my instruments.

That fellow in customs was correct. I did not have a problem. The staff, teachers, and students at the festival were extraordinarily kind and considerate and made sure that my experience working with them want as smoothly as possible. Don’t speak Spanish? No problem, here is someone who can translate for you. Not used to the heat? No problem, your translator will bring you water at the beginning of each session. Is this your first time here? No problem, here is what you can expect, let us show you around, what do you need? (I want to give special thanks to the other teacher trainers who mentored me through my first festival experience!)

The “no problem” attitude prevailed throughout the entire festival. Did a student not have a parent available to accompany him? No problem, have the students come as a group with one or two chaperones. Did some students not have transportation? No problem, all the students from that part of town will come in a bus all together, and wait for each other to return together at the end of their classes. Did one of the teachers have to teach a masterclass at the same time as his teacher training unit? No problem, we’ll just take our break at that time so he can still fulfill his attendance requirement. Is there a shortage of music stands? No problem, we’ll just tape our parts to the back of the person playing in front of us. Did a student have difficulty reading his chamber music part? He worked hard at home and came back to the festival the next year reading complex music, no problem.

This “no problem” attitude was just one symptom of the abundance mentality that prevailed at the Festival. . The general feeling was that there is enough opportunity for everyone, and every child can, despite scarce resources, so we all help each other because we know there will be enough for everyone and we can all grow and learn together. Many teachers were taking training in more than one instrument, in order to provide more opportunities for more students. This was a sharp contrast to the scarcity mentality that I sometimes run across in my home community, where the need to be with the “best”  teacher turns into a race  to grab as much as quickly as possible so my child gets the most opportunities and can  progress faster than the other students. Even though we have more resources than many other communities the attitude sometimes becomes one of competing for those resources rather than sharing them.  At the Lima festival, the cooperative attitude was even present in the pre-concert “noodling”. If one person started reviewing a piece, other students and teachers who were familiar with that piece would join in, and suddenly an impromptu group class would form as they all reviewed the piece together.

One of the issues that could easily become a problem for teachers and students to attend the festival was travel. The distances and expenses involved in getting there for many people were similar to that which I am familiar with in Canada (with the additional issue of the paperwork required for international travel, depending on country of origin,) so I was very interested to see how they coped with these issues. There isn’t much you can do do to reduce the distance and cost, but what you can do is make the experience once you get there as rich as possible to make it worth the effort and expense. So on the very first day when we gathered for the opening concert and faculty introductions, all the people there who came from different countries and districts were acknowledged and applauded. This acknowledgement was repeated at all the concerts and events. Later in the festival, at the Latin American concert, groups from each country performed together, walking on stage under the banner of their respective national flags to uproarious applause. The acknowledgement of the effort people made to come from great distances was also reflected in the organization of the Festival.  The teachers’ conference, or ”Ecuentro” was scheduled on the weekend in between the two weeks of Festival classes, so that teachers could attend both events while they were there. Instead of offering SPA or the Practicum as a separate course, a “Teaching Strategies” course was provided at the end of each Book unit to provide extra training in the practical application of what had just been learned that week. So the teachers were able to take a book unit course, have a mini-practicum, and attend a conference but only have the expense of one trip.

The opportunity to share and learn together was celebrated at every opportunity. Photographs were taken to commemorate every event. Not only was there an official photographer for the entire Festival, there were special times set aside in the festival schedule for people to congregate to take photos of their class and instrument groups. The students who did not have cameras mobbed their teachers for commemorative autographs on their festival programs, folders, and Suzuki books.  Certificates were presented to all the participants, both students and teachers, and the teachers had a special presentation ceremony that was attended by everyone who took a teacher training course that week. All the participants cheered each other on for completing each course. The feeling was that attending the Festival was a major life event, like a wedding, birthday, or school graduation, and as such it deserved to be commemorated with similar ceremonies, certificates, and photographs.

photo credit: Sergio Aguilar

A group of Peruvian recorder players demonstrating that a shortage of music stands is not a problem. photo credit: Sergio Aguilar, Festival Internacional Suzuki, Lima, Peru.

Being part of the the International Suzuki Festival in Lima, Peru, was certainly a major life event for me. There are things from that experience that I want to bring back to my home community. I am inspired to create more opportunities to celebrate what we are doing, for both students and teachers! I want to create an abundance mentality in my home program that not only will promote more sharing and support between families, but also extend out to helping Suzuki programs in areas where they have fewer material resources. I am encouraged to continue with ongoing projects to increase accessibility to Suzuki instruction in isolated areas of my own country, and I sense possibilities for more international cooperation and communication in the group of recorder teachers who have been staying for an extra week after the SAA Conference to take teacher training together. But most of all, I want more people to be be able to feel what I felt when I was performing a song from Quebec in a school gym in Peru with a group of teachers and students from every county in between – maybe music can save the world!


“Why don’t you just tell us what notes to play?”

To answer a parent’s question: “Why don’t you just tell us what notes to play?”

You expressed two concerns in your last lesson.

  • You wanted to be able to tell your child what note to start on.
  • I wasn’t telling you what note to start on.

I want to address these concerns

First let’s look at the ultimate goal:

  • Your child needs to know what note to start on without you needing to help him.
  • How can he figure this out independently?

1) Listening to the the recording

You have been doing the listening at home. You told me that everyone in your family recognized that adding the “C” to Mary Had a Little Lamb sounded weird when your child started the song on B. This tells me that everyone in the family has a very clear idea of how the song sounds when it is played correctly. You all developed this idea from listening to the recording. Excellent!

You all realized that there was something not quite correct about his way of playing it because you were all comparing it to your idea from the recording. Excellent!

Next step: If you are not quite sure of something, refer to your reference recording. Go back and listen to it again, and then try playing the piece again. The discrepancy in the first note would become much more immediately obvious. When I do this with students in lessons, they often just automatically make the needed correction without realizing it after hearing the recording. (Then I have to ask them – “What did you just do differently?”  “Oh…”)

The most important part about this approach is that the student gets to figure it out independently. If a student has difficulty, parents and teachers can guide his attention to a specific spot by asking questions – “Did your first note sound the same or different than the first note on the recording?” – or by playing just a short section of the recording instead of the entire piece.

2) Reviewing previous repertoire

When we learn new fingerings, we transpose the “toolbox” songs to start on different notes. This is to change the key of the piece, to incorporate a new fingering in a familiar melody. Because the melody is very familiar, anything that sounds “odd” directs the students’ attention to the accuracy of the new fingering.

By reviewing these toolbox songs starting on different notes in the daily home practice, the student recognizes that there are multiple options for playing these tunes in different keys, and learns to hear the difference when the the tune starts on an A or a B by daily direct comparison.

The allows the student to recognize patterns from previous pieces in new repertoire, even if the patterns start on different notes.

So if something sounds “odd” in practice, questions to be asked can include: “Can I play this piece in a different key (on a different starting note)?” “Will what I am trying to do work better in one key or another?”

So this is my philosophy:

All new pieces will be introduced with these questions in mind:

  • “What is in this piece that I already know?”
  • “What is in this piece that is new?”

Beginning with the “same / different / higher / lower” pitch identification game in our first lessons, all the way through to finding the start of the recapitulation in a classical sonata-allegro concerto movement, the process of learning the music remains the same, only the complexity of the material changes. We identify when it is the same, and when it is different.

  • If a student does consistent review of previously learned material, he has a repertoire of “same” things that he can access for immediate comparison.
  • If a student listens consistently to the reference recording, he will recognize things that are different and try to imitate them.
  • If his imitation is successful, he has just solved the “different” problem independently by combining known material in a new way.
  • If his imitation is not immediately successful, direct comparison to the reference recording and guiding questions from the practice parent or teacher can help him find the answer.

Yes this takes longer. WAY longer than just saying “It starts on an A”. But only at the beginning. If we invest the time in learning this process at the start, we can sit back later and enjoy how competently our students master new material quickly and independently. I have also seen the alternative, where students who have depended upon their parents to tell them what to do have quit playing the instrument once they get to an age where depending on the parent isn’t that fun anymore but they haven’t got the skills to do it themselves yet. I would rather foster a student who can work independently at a high level, so at an age when he desires more independence he can go off and work on his own with continued success.

At the School

So my idea of posting daily blog updates has been revised due to the unreliability of the internet connections, but I am now back after a pause to reorganize my communications. (First world problems 🙂 ) At the school where I am teaching my classroom door opens into an open gallery that overlooks this lovely courtyard, with a formal garden complete with palm trees.

Lima - 261

Peer modelling

I was teaching a little 5 year old beginner today, and she came up with a question.

“Is that your daughter playing on the Book 1 CD?”

Now my 16 yr old daughter has been acting as my assistant in the beginner group class, and she will often play the tune while I guide the students in the activity.

I found it really interesting that for this child, imagining an older child playing the music on the recording  was more immediate than imagining an adult doing so.

So I told her, “No, that is not my daughter. But it sounds like it could be her because she has listened to that recording so much. But anybody can learn to sound like that, they just have to listen to the CD lots & lots.”

Student: “Mommy, can we go home and listen to the CD for 20 .. no, 40 minutes?”

The Mysteries of Motivation

I recently read a CBC news article about a school that has decided to discontinue the practice of rewarding high grades and athletic achievement with certificates and ceremonies.

This decision was based on the work of Alfie Kohn, the author of Punished by Rewards and No Contest: The Case Against Competition.

According to Kohn, rewards only motivate students to earn rewards, not to become engaged in the act of learning.

Dan Pink, in his book Drive, summarizes much recent (and no so recent) research and writing that also supports this idea. He concludes that the three main  things that motivate people are Autonomy, Mastery, and and sense of Purpose – not rewards.

Both authors find that offering rewards actually reduce motivation to engage in a task.

So I think of my students, and discover examples that support this.

For instance, one recorder student, who also happens to be my daughter (which is why I know about her school work too), when asked if she would like to participate in special workshop, masterclass, or Institute, always responds with a resoundingly enthusiastic. “Yes! When? What do I need to prepare? Will it be challenging? Good!”

Yet when it comes to her school work, she is happy to do the bare minimum to get by and has no interest in any extra enrichment activities. She takes the “easy” classes to get the highest mark she can for her GPA, not because she is interested in the subject.

What’s the difference? The feedback she get from her music activities helps her to increase her mastery of the music and the instrument in a way that is immediately apparent. No grades, just a personal sense of “Yes, I can do this better,” followed by an opportunity to try it immediately and see that it works. The feedback she gets from school is in the form of a letter grade or a percentage mark, often many weeks after she has completed the assignment. No chance to change anything based on the feedback,  it’s too late for that. Just a mark that gets compared to all the other marks.

This student has never been on the honour roll or received an academic award at school, yet every time she auditions for a special music program she is accepted, and every time she plays in a festival she is awarded one or more scholarships. She attends school to earn marks, and she attends music festival for performance experience  and feedback from other musicians.

So if a school can create a non judgmental reward free environment to motivate learning in the same way that I have managed to create such an environment for this students’ music learning, I would think it would have similar results. I applaud the school in the CBC article for taking this first step.





The Million Dollar Lesson By Ed Kreitman

The million dollar lesson is designed to help young students learn what is and is not  appropriate lesson behaviour.  In my experience teaching, I have found that most young  children eventually decide to “test the water” of lesson behaviour to see exactly what they can get away with.  When this happens, the parent and teacher have the opportunity to teach the child that it is alright to manipulate the lesson, wasting everyone’s valuable time, and the parent’s money, or we can teach the child that inappropriate lesson behaviour is unacceptable.

First let’s define inappropriate lesson behaviour. Hiding under a desk, in the corner or under the piano is inappropriate lesson behaviour. Clinging to mother’s skirt with a thumb stuck in the mouth is inappropriate lesson behaviour. Acting bratty, and refusing to cooperate with the teacher is inappropriate lesson behaviour. Having an all out temper tantrum in the middle of the studio because you don’t want to play Lightly Row is inappropriate lesson behaviour.If we allow this type of activity to go on in our studios, the child will learn that he or  she is able to control the lesson. I have had several who whined for 25 minutes until the next student showed up, then threw a temper tantrum because it was time to go and they     couldn’t have a lesson. This type of thing never happens in my studio anymore. Years ago, I learned from my mentor, Jeanne Luedke,  that we need to address this situation even before it happens. With every new parent that enters my studio, part of the parent education is to discuss exactly how we will handle any situation dealing with appropriate lesson behaviour. Our goal is to train the child quickly and easily to have a productive lesson. I tell the parent that eventually, the child will come to the lesson and be tired, or fussy, or just decide  that today is the day to test the perimeters of my patience, and pull something that is inappropriate. When that happens, the parent and I have a plan. First the parent is asked to take the child outside of the studio and have a talk. See if perhaps they need a drink, bathroom break, or whatever, to try to get it together. If this does not work, we agree that the parent will remove the child from the studio immediately, with no discussion. I usually say something like, “looks like today is the day” with a smile. The effectiveness of this lesson is lost if there is discussion or delay. The child needs to experience that hiding under the desk this minute produces the result of being in the car on the way home the next minute. The important part about having this plan set up in advance with the parent is that there is no anger on the part of the teacher, and no embarrassment on the part of the parent. We are simply going through the motions together of a necessary routine which will bring about a very positive change in the child’s behaviour.

I would say that almost every child I have taught has had the million dollar lesson once.     A few have had it twice, and if a child needs to have it a third time. I usually suggest to the parent that the child is not quite ready for formal instruction, and perhaps a break period of 3 to 6 months might be advised.

Incidentally, I call this the million dollar lesson, because one time as the mother was taking her screaming child out the door, she asked over her shoulder if there would be a makeup, or a refund for the lesson. Without thinking, I replied, “Oh no, you are definitely getting your money’s worth this week. This is the MILLION DOLLAR LESSON.”    

And you know what? That girl played Bruch Violin Concerto on the solo recital last Sunday.


Reluctant performer

At his first recital, 5 year old Jimmy was to perform a piece that he had been polishing for weeks.  When it was his turn to play, much to his dad’s dismay, Jimmy ran to the back of the hall and hid in the corner, crying. We went on to the next student, and later in the recital I invited Jimmy to try again.  This time he made it to the stage, but he didn’t want to play his piece – just took a bow from the edge of the stage. At the next recital he and his dad again practiced his performance; practicing walking on stage, taking a bow, then playing his piece. Again he didn’t want to play when it was his turn, but after listening to more of the other students’ performances he finally came up and played his piece beautifully. Jimmy continued studying violin for many years, performing regularly in festivals and recitals, each time in front of an audience feeling easier and more comfortable. In high school he became fascinated with the technical side of the theatre, and was involved in running sound and lights for many student productions. Now most of his performing is behind the scenes.

Two beautiful performances

Kayla started playing the recorder when she was 2. After a couple of years, she could play a two note song. When she finished Kindergarten, she could play short Mozart melodies. At a Kindergarten concert, she was to play some Mozart, but after hearing all the other children play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, she played Twinkle too, because that was all she could remember when it was her turn after hearing all the others. When she was 8, she was recommended to the Provincial level of the Music Festival for woodwinds 16 and under. The other teenage students at that event fussed over her, patting her on the head and telling her not to be too nervous. She played a movement of the Sammartini Concerto and a Handel Sonata, and won the class and the scholarship. Now a teenager herself, she is including Suzuki Recorder Teacher Training courses and an ARCT recorder exam in her plans for university studies in theatre and visual arts.