April 28, 2024 · reviews · music, education

Beyond the Music Lesson

Beyond the Music Lesson by Christine E. Goodner
Beyond the Music Lesson by Christine E. Goodner

I have been on a roll with audiobooks lately. Turns out commuting gets you through a lot of material. I have a long backlog to review, so I’m going to try to get through these review posts fast. Some details have faded from memory by now, but I’ll do my best to cover the main points.

Beyond the Music Lesson: Habits of Successful Suzuki Families by Christine E. Goodner was recommended to me by a violin teacher so we could decide whether or not Suzuki method was a good fit for our family. It was a quick and interesting read, and overall I recommend it as enjoyable and thought-provoking.

Big Picture Ideas

When I first opened this book, I assumed it would be about the Suzuki curriculum/pedagogy specifically. It is not. It discusses at a high level what is expected from a Suzuki student:

But none of these practices are exclusive to Suzuki, and the book touches only lightly on the specifics of what happens at a lesson. Instead, it is more about the philosophy, attitude, and approach Suzuki teachers want families to take toward their musical education. I thought the material presented applies to anyone considering music lessons for children. Here were some of the big ideas that stuck with me.

Idea 1: Music should be a prior commitment

This book begins with the process of even considering signing up for music lessons. Don’t approach it like other common childhood activities, it says. With other activities—say, gymnastics—you might enroll your child at a local community center “just to see if they like it”. You may do zero prep before beginning; between classes you may not think about gymnastics at all. You don’t personally need to know the details of what your child is learning; there’s no homework between classes; and if things don’t seem to click with your kid in the first few weeks, you might move on to the next thing.

Music is different, says this book. You need to start from a prior commitment. Does music matter to you as a family? Is it part of your family culture and family values? If so, decide that music lessons are going to happen and commit to that. Don’t give up at the first hard season.

There are only so many hours in the day. If you choose to pursue music for some of them, something else will have to give way. Decide if you’re ready to make music a priority before you begin, and then follow through.

Idea 2: Music lessons are for you, too

In the Suzuki method, a parent attends lessons and learns everything needed to help the child practice at home during the week. That doesn’t just mean reminding the kid to practice, especially for small children. The specifics of this arrangement differ from child to child—some kids enjoy music best with a sense of autonomy; others like their parent to set up a structure for them to follow—but either way, the parent takes on the responsibility of making sure that practice happens well.

This means that the parent takes point on:

  1. Making sure the child develops a daily practice habit.

  2. Helping the child organize their practice time so they cover the right material with the right focus over the week.

  3. Supervising the practice to help the child remember and apply all the new technique/musical concepts they’re learning.

The parent, in Suzuki, is the lynchpin that holds it all together.

This was not my experience as a non-Suzuki kid. I took piano lessons from age 5 to 14, but I don’t ever remember my parents attending my lessons or helping (or making) me practice. Though I was relatively self-motivated for a small child, I didn’t know how to practice well. I muddled along forming bad habits because I didn’t know any better.

Parental coaching seems a much better way, but it presupposes a parent with the time and expertise to do the job. I am sure my parents would have done it had they known, but my parents had never taken music lessons themselves, and I doubt they had the bandwidth in that season of life to learn so they could coach me.

(Side note: since parent coaching isn’t an option for so many kids, I found myself wondering how/if the method could be adapted to work without a parent-coach at home… I’m not sure it could. Maybe you could do 2-3x/week lessons with the teacher, but I am not sure how well group lessons would work for teaching fundamental technique, and it would likely be cost prohibitive to do so many private lessons. And less frequent guidance doesn’t work well: motor sequences need to be repeated freqently to encode in memory, but unsupervised practice is likely to encode the wrong sequences. Hmm… tricky.)

Anyway, the main idea here was: music lessons the Suzuki way are a big parental time-and-effort commitment. You will be attending weekly lessons. You will be managing daily practices. You will have to learn the musical material if you don’t know it already; even if you do, you may be learning for the first time how to coach a beginner whose nascent interest can easily be crushed. I’m finding it particularly tricky to find a balance between encouraging attempts, however imperfect, and pushing to strive for mastery and excellence.

On top of that, putting your child in music lessons requires significant emotional work. The book put it like this: while a dedicated physical practice environment in the house is nice, the most important practice environment to your child is you. The emotions and attitude you bring to each practice are what your child will absorb and remember, not the room. Can you bring a hopeful, determined, perseverant attitude to practice every day, no matter how tiring it’s been?

Idea 3: It’s not (only) about the instrument

This big idea hit me hard. The ultimate goal of Suzuki method is not just to create good musicianship, though of course that is important. Suzuki called it developing, along with beautiful music, a “beautiful heart”. This book talked about learning bigger picture lessons like:

I learned to play piano, but I never learned the habit of steady, deliberate practice. I was always practicing at the last moment, skipping days when busy and then trying to make it up later. (It doesn’t work like that, but I guess I thought it did.) For whatever reason, I couldn’t stick to a consistent practice schedule.

I don’t blame my younger self because I do not think the habit of practice comes easily. I think it must be developed over years with moderate to extensive support from an adult. That’s a lot of work (for both parties!). But being able to set big goals for yourself, break them down into doable pieces, and work toward them one step at a time… as far as life lessons go, I think this is an really useful one.

In some ways, I feel like learning to play an instrument without learning these habits of mind is a bit of winning the battle but losing the war. Most children will not go on to play professionally. Sooner or later, they will stop taking lessons and their instrument will become something they pick up from time to time for enjoyment, not for daily study. But just as the motor skills learned in childhood stay indefinitely, the life habits learned (or not learned) from practice will persist too… Ah well. Perhaps it takes two generations to get from “no musical education” to “musical education and life skills training” with a generation like mine (“some musical education without the life skills”) in between.

My big takeaways

Did this book sell me on the Suzuki Method? Not sure—I still find the intensity of it intimidating, but I also felt the book made good points. I do want to treat music more as a commitment than a hobby you might pick up and drop whenever. I hadn’t fully considered the parental commitment portion, but it sounds better to me than the hands-off alternative I experienced. Listening to the kind of classical music I was learning to play wasn’t part of my childhood, but why not? It’s not hard to add some music into bedtime and car routines and it’s fun besides.

Connecting to musical community is a little more intimidating. I think musicians who have grown up with music all around underestimate how hard it is for outsiders. But I thought the book made a good point that by middle/high school, kids often experience heavy demands on their time. If music has no social benefit and requires sacrificing other more social activities, most kids will choose to spend the time on something else.

I don’t know if we will end up doing Suzuki lessons or not, but I agreed with a lot of the ideas and I will be keeping them in mind, whichever specific type of lessons we end up in.


My rating for this book: 5/5. I liked it. I found it useful. The audiobook is read by the author soothingly and is easy to listen to. There were no major drawbacks I noticed.

Bottom line: if you are considering putting your child in music lessons, I think this is worth a read. Whether you do Suzuki method or something else, I think the concepts from this book are useful.

My Rating Scale