Written by Grace Wong //
“Remember, even if the bow is the only thing you accomplish the first lesson, that is your one point for Parker for the week. Give him only one goal. Then praise him when he follows through!” my mentor cheerily instructed.
Every Suzuki Music lesson starts with a bow between the teacher and the student. That bow is meant only to begin and end the lesson—not be the entire lesson.
“Then when he accomplishes the bow, the following week position him at the piano, and show him how to sit at the bench without making a sound. Again, remember to praise him for his accomplishment!”
Is that going to be enough?
Christina’s guidance made me nervous. However, I admitted my first lesson with Parker was a bit chaotic. As a teacher, I recognized the bow’s significance, however, I doubted the toddler understood.
A bow is the sign of mutual respect. No matter how the lesson progresses, positively or negatively, it starts and ends with a bow. Alongside this act of mutual respect follows the act of listening. In Suzuki, the student is taught restraint: a student is not to move on until he or she has mastered listening to a song without pressing a note. This practice of mutual respect and listening is the foundation for a mode of conduct and discipline for future lessons. If these two elements are not established at the onset, it creates a perpetual pattern of mistrust, negativity, and mistakes that will need repetitive correction later.
What if this is the same bedrock on which we approached our conversations? What if we learned that the ancient wisdom of being “quick to listen and slow to speak” could bring life to our relationships? We watch everyone—our government leaders, pop celebrities, even ourselves—post on social media impulsively, only to regret our statuses later by our lack of emotional control and ignorance. We listen to debates and attack. With this as our consistent posture of hearing, we speak not out of our regard for principles and beliefs, but more out of a need to validate our self-righteousness. We speak not out of a security in our identities, but out of a need for acknowledgment. The art of honor and listening may not lead to agreement, but is a means for empathetic understanding. When we fail to listen, we miss out on learning new insights from others. We miss out on seeing someone as valuable, as well as seeing from their perspective.
In the United States, there has been a recent increase of the discussion regarding the nation’s divisions in race, gender, sexuality, religion, class, and political party affiliations. We find it easiest to categorize people with harmful and over-generalized associations. Injustice occurs when we refuse to respect and listen to stories of people unlike ourselves. I see it when a woman clutches her purse as my black male friend strolls by, or when people paint the local panhandler—a veteran with PTSD—as a do-nothing slacker and social welfare leech. People make misinformed judgments without listening to the other’s story. This practice feeds systems that continue to disadvantage and exclude certain groups from being heard and from living in safety.
As teachers, it is an expectation for students to mimic us but it is our hope that students begin to hear music in their heads and to play it without our prompting. The ability to hear music in one’s brain even if the sound itself is not present is called audiation. Audiation denotes musical comprehension and it is an important skill for improvising and composing. Without it, one cannot create nor contribute to the musical conversation at hand. One can only react but cannot give new insight or expression. Furthermore, a dialogue does not exist without mutual respect. A teacher who only wishes a student to perform a dictation rather than allowing for a student’s exploration cannot receive a student’s discovery. A teacher can lose an opportunity to share a fresh experience with a student.
When we honor people unlike us, we can learn fresh perspectives from them. I have learned about issues concerning modern slavery through collaborating with non-profit organizations to host benefit concerts. My friend Jessica, who is a Protestant, shares about her work education at a Catholic social center that provides services to single mothers. My other friend Young talks about his growth working at Lawndale Health Center, a clinic specialized in providing medical assistance to low income folk of another race. Of course, it takes effort to connect over a common vision; however, when we value others, we unify despite differences. There is tension and resolution. Partnerships are created over hope to heal society and we may find the hard work of communication worthwhile.
Parker and I have just begun our conversation; we may never get to play a note on the piano together. He may not know it now, but I am assured that our lessons have already shown him values he will need inside as well as outside the classroom.
And that is already a good start.
Grace Wong is a professional musician who has taught and performed in Asia as well the United States. She currently resides in Chicago teaching at the Merit School of Music and the Music Institute of Chicago, while pursuing her singing-songwriting career. She believes that music and the arts are important in healing communities and communicating truth. She also enjoys dancing for fun, cooking different cuisines with friends, and traveling.