Suzuki Breakthrough: Symphony Nanny Nanny Boo Boo

My kids had graduation recitals in November. Grad recitals are a Suzuki violinist’s rite of passage, where the young violinist moves from book to book, or in Johnny’s case, out of Twinkles and into the land of “Go Tell Aunt Rhody.” Practically my whole family attended; great aunts and uncles, grandparents, godparents, adopted aunties, cousins. The kids bowed deeply, played with some real feeling, and wore ear to ear grins. For a shining, gleaming moment, we were on top of the world, and all the hours and years of daily practice suddenly made sense to all of us. Tom leaned over to me at one point, and I could tell by his body language and the context that what he was trying to say was “Thanks for sticking with this. Thanks for showing up, even when I doubted.” But he was too choked up, which was good; because in that state there was no way I could say “I told you so.” And by Tuesday, we were back to the horrible Yelling Evil Suzuki Mom (YES’M). By Wednesday, after they were given a time out for some atrocity I now forget, they retaliated by playing a symphony of “nanny nanny boo boo” on their violins.

Their teacher Emily had given them a “No Complaining” challenge a week before recitals. If they could get through an entire week of practicing without complaining once, she’d give them each a gift certificate for a Herrell’s ice cream sundae.

Many days, I live in the fear that I am slowly and incrementally destroying their love of music. Other days, I think this is the best thing I ever did for them. I may never know.

Suzuki is all about these incremental infinitesimally small additions to the body of knowledge, and of getting knowledge literally into the body. From a neuro-scientific point of view, when a child plays a phrase of “May Song,” she is laying a groove into her brain. We do the same thing when we fry an onion, do a sun salutation with correct form, or bring the mail into the house and decide (or not) where it goes. If she plays that phrase with the correct bowings, with good posture, with attention to intonation, she’ll be on her way to competence and musicality. If she plays it sloppily, she’ll build a groove that is sloppy, and from a musical point of view, something might be lost. But part of what I’m hoping to grow in my kids’ daily practice is simply the understanding that in life, we show up for work. We do things that are uncomfortable sometimes. We pay homage to the discipline. We laugh and goof around, and we play games, but we also respect the song enough to allow it to rise above our own musical shortcomings. Some days, the kids both have temper tantrums, whack their bows on the music stand and tell me I’m the worst mommy ever. Other days, I do a ridiculous imitation of Martha Washington dancing to their minuets, or Lila makes my jaw drop at her passionate interpretation of Schumann’s “The Two Grenadiers”; Johnny sets his dolls and stuffed animals up for a concert of his Twinkles, or makes me guess which one he’s going to play next. And after a year or so, we look back and see how far we’ve come.

A friend recently recommended I read a fine piece of literature called “The New Rules of Lifting for Women.” Women lose about a pound of muscle mass every year from the age of 35 on. (OK, my exact figures might be a little off, but stay with me.) It’s muscle mass that actually consumes the calories we eat. So as we age, we not only have to eat less to stay the same size, but we also dramatically lose muscle. This is the part that’s been distressing me of late. My kids have gotten too heavy to pick up. Not to mention the cans of seltzer water, the jugs of milk and OJ, etc. The thesis of the book is basically the one we all know from the 1980’s: no pain, no gain. If you are doing what you’ve always been doing, in a nice flowy routine, you are not going to get stronger. The only way to strength is to stress out the muscle. Dang! This goes against my whole philosophy of life, which is build it, get into a groove, rinse, repeat. Rest on your laurels! I worked hard a long time ago! Why should I continue to work hard?

My kids show me why. They don’t rest, though they want to. They would like every day to be short practice, or practice for Daddy, where they just play the pieces they know. They hate the practices where the new grooves get built into their brains. That sh*t hurts! No one likes making a new groove. I wanted my book to sell just based on Katryna’s great idea. I didn’t want to actually have to write it. And then, once I admitted that more people would probably buy a book with words and pages, I didn’t want to have to let anyone know about it in an intrusive way. I wanted people to just kind of intuit that it existed.

God is in the bad stuff as well as the good stuff. God reconciles it all, somehow. We don’t get to know how, or why, except that somewhere deep down, each and every one of us must have the sense of mercy. We want the knave to go straight; we see the knave in ourselves and want mercy for those parts of ourselves that are still angry, still yelling, still incapable of holding it together. We yell. We try all day to be good, and then we lose it on our kids, or our spouse. Or maybe it’s something else; maybe we have a secret in our past that we are sure is unforgivable. But God reconciles it all somehow.

Lila and Johnny just couldn’t take Emily’s No Complaining challenge. They knew that would be too much for their little nervous systems. They have to be able to yell at me. They have to be able to throw down their bows and storm out of the room. And in fairness, so do I. I can’t show up perfectly for music any more than they can. And yet, we also couldn’t go on like this. Something had to change. I don’t want to be YES’M any more. I don’t want my kids to yell at me anymore either. Not everyone lives this way.

Something did change. One morning while we were practicing the new section of “Humoresque,” Lila threw her bow down and screamed. She just couldn’t figure it out. I took a breathe, said a prayer and said, “This is really hard. Let me just play it for you on the piano.” She did not like this solution. She, like her mother, wanted to just intuit the right notes, not have to actually painfully learn them, and she really didn’t want someone else to teach her. She screamed through my playing. But rather than lose my patience, I just plodded along, playing the phrase over and over. Tom came into the room with Johnny on his tail. They both looked at us horrified. “This is NOT acceptable!” Tom said in his “shouty shout” voice. “Well, actually,” I said calmly over all the screaming. “It is really frustrating for her. This is hard stuff. No wonder she’s screaming. I would be too.”

Those, apparently, were the magic words. Lila crumpled into my arms, wailing, but not with frustration anymore. With something akin to relief. She needed to know that it’s OK to be frustrated. She needed to know I was on her side.

I can’t say we’ve never had another fight since, nor can I say that they’ve stopped playing “Symphony Nanny Nanny Boo Boo,” but I can say the mood has shifted dramatically since that morning. Lila knows that I see that what she is doing is work, and that it’s work worth doing. And it’s OK to complain once in a while.

About nields

musician, writer, mom
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