I talked last week about introducing a new ritual to an advanced violinist in order to start every practice session on a meditative, reflective and conscious note.
For Helen, the older student I was teaching, I provided a simple broken chord sequence for her to play while listening to and analyzing the quality of her tone. But in working with her, I began to reflect on all of the ways we set up (or need to set up) this opportunity in the Suzuki method.
Suzuki insight that we can learn music as we learn language, implies that successful repetitions is a necessary part of learning. When learning to speak we continue to use all vocabulary words and grammatical structures, not just the most recently learned words.
So as we learn to play, we return back to the skills we learned in the very beginning, not just to repeat them, but to use those skills to communicate something meaningful.
As Suzuki put it, “Ability breeds ability.”
So now when I perform the Yost chord exercise, which I’ve done thousands of times, I leave the notes themselves and move into deeper territory, working on matters of tone, meaning, and character.
But we’ve been working on these note-transcending exercises since the beginning of instruction.
Indeed Yost is to my advanced playing what bowing was to my five year old, Suzuki kid self. Instead of concerning ourselves with the complex series of instructions that was Lightly Row, the most important element of the lesson was focusing my body on a quality bow. And it wasn’t the motion of forward folding at the hips that was really important, but the listening, following instructions, cooperating with my practice partners, and the undivided focus it required.
As we move on in skill development, tone builders (or playing the Mississippi Stop Stop rhythm on an open string) with utter precision and beautiful tone is the arena designed to transcend the notes themselves and to practice focused mastery.
Review is the next step of this important journey. Students and parents used to ask me why reviewing every single day was so important, but I didn’t yet have an answer. I knew to encourage it, I knew it was a fundamental part of Suzuki’s method, but I didn’t know why. Now I do.
In reviewing every learned piece, it is trained to the core of our being that notes themselves are not important. They are merely opportunities to unveil the beautiful quality of violin playing that students develop day by day.
If we were only to play our most difficult, working pieces we would never glimpse our actual ability to play. Furthermore, we are perpetually increasing our ability to play notes but not our playing itself. It is Suzuki who famously said, “Raise your ability with a piece you can [already!] play.”
In Book 2, Suzuki provides the tonalization exercise to practice. These notes, a collection of resonant ringing tones, allow us to practice not the notes themselves, but the tonalization of our instrument. By practicing tonalization through the tonalization exercise, the ability to play with beautiful singing tone can be integrated in review first, then technical exercises, then all playing.
Beyond Book 2, review and tonalization must continue. We must give our students the opportunity to practice playing the violin, not just playing notes. Please consider the tonalization exercises, the scales, the arpeggios, and the core repertoire pieces you will use to continue encouraging development in your students playing.
After all, this is where the real development happens.