2nd Condition for Developing Great Ability: Environment
This is the 2nd section of a 5-part series outlining Shinichi Suzuki’s “Conditions for Developing Great Ability” from Chapter 2 of his book Ability Development from Age Zero. If you would like to listen to the intro, you can hear it here.
The second condition is to create the best possible environment:
Structure and Discipline
The first two elements that I think should be present in the best environment possible are structure and discipline. When you invest in Suzuki lessons for your child, you are actually committing to a lifestyle change. This is a change that will cost time, money, and effort. The discipline required to commit to practicing every day is great, and requires not only strongly set intentions, but also consistent follow-through. Building structure into your daily life is also a practical way to set your child up for success; if your child knows what to expect because there is a plan, the chances are he won’t be caught off-guard, and will be less likely to meet those experiences with resistance.
Structure and discipline also apply to how you attend lessons, take notes, and approach practice at home. Arriving on time, or better yet, just a little bit early, sends the message to all parties that lessons are an important part of your day, and offers respect and security to your child’s lesson environment. Giving your child proper rest and nourishment before the lesson, as well as a chance to use the restroom and wash his hands is a great way to instill habits of preparation and reinforces the calm focus we want to nurture in lessons. While a child absorbs and learns from everything in his environment, it is important to teach him respect and self-control when in his teacher’s environment (really, any environment). Emphasizing the importance of listening to the teacher, which means maintaining eye contact and not talking over her, is crucial. So is the rule of “Look, don’t touch” or “Ask for permission.” As magical and enticing as Teacher’s things may be in the studio, some or all of them may have value that the child could unintentionally destroy if not taught self-control.
Taking notes is one of the most important ways that you as a parent can demonstrate structure and discipline. Being thorough will ensure that you fully understand your assignments and objectives as you fulfill your role of home teacher. Getting all the information you need by asking questions and filling in the gaps is encouraged. It is also a good idea to explore what your best learning style is so that you can respond accordingly when recording information in your child’s lesson. Your teacher may prefer that you use a certain medium. Be sure to find out what will work for both of you.
A Closer Look at Your Child’s Environment
Your child’s home environment is a crucial part of the collective learning environment. It is important that you have a plan for your practice. Picking a time of day or planning the sequence of activities in your home increase your chances of success because your child will know what to expect if it’s scheduled. It is also essential that your child has a designated practice area where he can reliably practice without distractions vying for his or your attention. This means, ideally, a clean and clear space with enough room for you and your child, no screens on, good lighting, and all the tools you need to get the job done (notebook, tuner, and other materials).
Another important aspect of creating the best environment for your child’s learning is providing support. We can support our children with sensitivity, awareness, respect, creativity, and communication. As the parent, you log the most hours in the early years out of any other adult in your child’s life. You know the ins and outs of his eating and sleeping habits, personality, moods, strong attributes, and struggles. You have all the information needed to form a fine-tuned sensitivity to your child’s needs, as well as to form an awareness that can help you build a vision for where your child needs to grow and develop. You can build up your child when he falls short and gives in to frustration and uncooperative behavior by acknowledging his feelings and also offering the tools and choices he will need to get back on track. Being your child’s most empathetic and encouraging fan will take you far in practice.
A Note: Be Genuine and Kind
Your child is more likely to achieve lasting results if you are genuine and kind during practice. While this point may seem obvious, when you’re called to be genuine and kind in the moment, it can actually be a little challenging! On days where everything just seems to be taking a wrong turn, practice can grate through your last nerve, and you may witness yourself snapping at your child. Or maybe he just won’t be able to do anything right in your eyes. Or, on a day when you don’t feel like getting complicated in a practice session, you may inadvertently dole out inauthentic praise instead of finding something actually praise-worthy in your child’s playing. Either experience can be damaging to a child’s self-esteem. So I’ll say it again: Your child is more likely to achieve lasting results if you are genuine and kind.
Creativity and Open Communication
Two incredibly supportive instincts that many parents exhibit are creativity and open communication. Creativity can go a very long way in home practice. Because of how informed you are of all of your child’s interests, quirks, and strengths, approaching practice at home with a creative flair (while still following the approach and content your teacher gave you) has the power to keep practices lively and rewarding for you and your child. If you are struggling or running out of ideas, don’t hesitate to ask your teacher! He or she would love to share! When the channels of communication stay open, it allows for constant dialogue about your child’s progress, clarification on lesson content and approach, and ways that all parties can improve. Not to mention, sometimes there is essential information that your teacher really should know about. It is a mistake to think that your child’s lack of practice, recent diagnosis, or loss of a grandparent or pet is not worth mentioning. Teachers rely on parents to give them this information so they can adjust your child’s learning environment accordingly.
Encouragement and Positivity
One of the main tenets of a Suzuki education is encouragement and positivity. This is not to be confused with disingenuous praise, which children can see right through. This point is mainly about us adults making the choice to build children up, even if the accomplishment seems small in our eyes. What may seem small and insignificant to us can feel very very difficult to a child who has not yet developed the ability to do what we are asking. An example would be in the lesson when Teacher asks a child to play with a specific objective in mind. Let’s say it’s to keep a candy cane shape in the third finger while playing a review piece. Sometimes a parent will interject either during the exercise or afterward, “Yes, but didn’t you hear that your third finger was not in tune?” While the parent is correct, those third fingers were sharp, it should be noted that intonation was not the objective. And while the child should not repeat those sharp third fingers, it would be more beneficial to add to the learning environment: “Wow! I can see that you really thought about your candy cane third fingers because each third finger that went down had a strong candy cane shape. I think in the next level, we should focus on where exactly those strong candy canes belong!” The same goal will be accomplished, but without the distraction and rejection that comes with a big BUT.
Encouragement and positivity also apply as a daily practice — from lifting your child above the moments of “I CAN’T!” to being on the lookout for things your child does well. Building your child’s self-esteem and confidence by pointing out the true abilities he is developing is one of the greatest ways you can contribute to your child’s environment. As Dr. Suzuki says, “Teaching music is not my main purpose. I want to make good citizens. If children hear fine music from the day of their birth and learn to play it, they develop sensitivity, discipline and endurance. They get a beautiful heart.” This all stems from building your child up.
Finally, one of the absolute most important things a child can have in his environment is a parent who self-reflects. Dr. Suzuki writes about reflecting upon the home environment: “Reflection is a wonderful human ability. It is the ability to understand faults and pursue the correct way. People who contemplate their faults tend to be more humane, and those who contemplate deeply are very great. A parent who understands that children grow by adapting to their environment will think back on his own actions when he notices something in his child that is not good. This is because he knows that the child has absorbed the actions of his parent. A parent who reflects in this way possesses an admirable heart.” This is a great subject for discussion with your partner, trusted friends, and your child’s teacher. While you may feel extremely vulnerable by taking a good, hard look at yourself and how you’re impacting your child, just know that the awareness you can gain is worth gold.
A child’s environment, no matter where, is everything. Let’s be intentional and committed to always improve in the ways that we can.
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Rachel is passionate about applying the legacy of Shinichi Suzuki in her teaching, and strives to deliver to parents the necessary tools to help their children succeed. Rachel and her husband Neil Fong Gilfillan operate Chili Dog Strings in Frisco TX. See their content on YouTube here!