Bonding Before Bowing

Bonding Before Bowing part 1

I wrote and submitted this article to the Suzuki Association of the Americas. It was accepted for publishing and is scheduled to be printed in August 2018 in the Suzuki Journal and distributed across North & South America and on their website. They are eager to receive part 2 in August 2018.

Perhaps I spent too many years growing up on the farm, training horses, riding goats, and practicing violin in the chicken coop to help “make happier chickens for tastier eggs.” This was my mother’s method of practice motivation, and let me tell you - it worked! I practiced hard, but also spent hours watching animal behaviour for fun - never knowing later I would use it daily to connect and understand people. After twenty years of teaching and observation after observation, I can tell you that when we are young how we react, interact, bond, and learn to trust is not all that different from our furry friends. Of course, little of early behaviours are conscious, but just inborn. Before we learn to control our behaviours (usually after six years of age) these behaviours drive us, control us, and are powerful motivators and deterrents – which is precisely why we need as teachers and parents to understand how to recognize, work with and help every eager child through their ingrained behaviours and toward a brighter, healthier and happier future; and guide them through the pitfalls innately influencing their young spirits. The first step to working with this child, is first bonding.

Create a bond early on

This is the most pivotal action you can take, and sets up your entire future with this child. Without this bond, dropout is high, disinterest is common, focus is shotie, and trust that you are on the same “team” is absent. Build this trust though, and with maintained encouragements they will follow you wherever you lead them however difficult it may be.

Imagine a young horse for a moment. They are smart, powerful, capable, and curious. Come straight in and interact with them and you start the relationship with fear, withdraw, and distrust. They don’t know you, and you’ve just crossed a personal barrier. On the other hand, offer without urgency or force and with openness for them to join you at any time and they will unwittingly be drawn by their immense curiosity to join you in whatever it is that’s exciting you (pick something simple and where they can easily win). Before you know it, they will be leaning on you, celebrating with you, and they will forget their fear and scepticism.

I’ve made it a policy of my studio to give two free lessons to every incoming student. Many have commented what a great marketing strategy, but in reality it is a failsafe way to begin the bonding process and connect with the child to see if we are compatible. If we are not, I happily recommend another teacher who’s more suitable. We’ve all had those teachers we didn’t completely “get,” and from whom we’ve learned little from. Let them go if there isn’t a connection - you’ll all be happier in the end, and prevent that student from having a life-long dislike of music.

Assess their learning style and personality

For a quick idea of where to start (but be open to your judgements being wrong as they change and grow over time). For example, if they are kinaesthetic, they will touch often, and feel loved through touch. What is their level of excitement? Look for that sparkle of interest in their eye when you do something they enjoy and do that more. Are they outgoing? Then jump right in and match their eagerness.

Are they shy or withdrawn? Much like you’d do with a young shy goat, you’d ignore them and interact with the paren. Tell the parent to ignore them for the most part too and only on occasion include the child to test the waters of readiness. If the parent is having fun, they’ll want to join eventually. Find gentle ways of coaxing them to join you. Use very little eye contact until they come around, and no touch till they touch you or if it’s a brief “unintentional” touch. Let them come to you.

Too bouncy? Calm them with your deepened and slow voice and engaging yet slowing exercises. Give them a reprieve from your slowing exercises with periodic chances to “let out the wiggles” through a set number of jumping jacks – I say a set number, because for these types of kids, now is the time you usually have to demonstrate boundaries and rules. “Five jumping jacks please” can sometimes turn into overzealous ten or more. This is when you explain that what you both are creating is trust. “When I gave you a little break with five jumping jacks, I trusted that you’d give me five. When you do more, it breaks that trust and I can’t give you little breaks because you’ll not stop where we agreed to stop. That breaks trust. And to be a team – which is what we want to be; me on your team, you on mine because it’s fun – we must work together. Deal?” Usually this brings them back and the rest of the lesson goes smoothly, and you’ve just set up expectations for the future. Congrats!!

Also recognize that a brand new student with no previous experience will act differently than a student who has expectations with other teachers. Students who’ve had a previous teacher may be a bit more quirky or twitchy – so be extra aware of any “hot buttons” they may have built with their previous teacher and be ready to adjust what you’re doing if you see them wilting or shying away. You need to build more trust before you can go there with them. As I learned so well in Mary-Beth Hocket’s Group Class for All, don’t be afraid to change what you’re doing on a dime if for whatever reason it is not working. Students with insecurities, high expectations on themselves and who are perfectionists are a whole different matter and something to be discussed in depth at a later time.

Watch their motions and face intensely

Their body language, eyes and face colour tell you everything. You literally can see the colour change under their eyes, a flush in their cheeks and across their face, tension, a sparkle or a sag in their eyes or mouth. Be one step ahead of them, and once again you are leading this young horse to experience yet again more exciting, achievable moments to learn and celebrate together. Itching, wiggling and loss of eye contact are signs to move on to the next topic too. Change what you are doing quickly when you see this from your standing exercise to a sitting one, or from a moving rhythmic one to a detailed small exercise, and one exercise will flow to another without ever incorporating the words “pay attention” into your vocabulary. Pay attention that you’re not over-extending their focus or else you run the risk of losing the trust you’ve just built, and violin suddenly gets labelled as hard or long. Once trust is cemented you can push their limits – but not now.

Boundaries and being real

Like young animals, they enjoy pushing boundaries to see how far you’ll go. Align with them by acknowledging what is interesting them in that moment (esp. if they are distracted or sharing something about themselves nonviolin related during the lesson) then use that small bit of trust you’ve just gained to bring them back to task and remind them that this is violin class. Tell them that as much as you’d like to hear more, we need to save these non-violin thoughts for before or after the lesson. Then distract and direct them to something you know they can enjoy and win at. Show them an exercise that they can do successfully almost right away and be specific about your praise after. When they are met with clear but loving direction on what they did well and what you want (not what you don’t want – we’ll talk more about this later), they can relax into knowing you’ll lead them confidently in a direction they’ll like. You’ve just caught their attention and want to experience more.

Remember, they have the intelligence to comprehend more than you think. When you treat them like babies, they act like babies. Be real. Kids like nothing less than being talked down to. Treat them like a small adult, and they will respect your acknowledgement by being on their best behaviour. You’ve just successfully set the bar high for every lesson following, without harsh do’s and don’ts and hard lines they’ll love to push on.

Use touch

With the young horse, you always have some form of body contact with them to feel them – to anticipate where they are going, and to move together – again building trust. Use your body and keep close to them. Eye contact and touch at the right moments cannot be overrated. Kids usually respond to touch positively especially if they are outgoing, so crossing that touch barrier is generally not an issue and is welcome. That three year old has the attention span to go much longer than you think if you use their body signals to cue a change. Watch for them!

Be flexible, creative and ready to use stories to keep their attention

One of the best things I ever did was take a comedy improv class where you are taught to take whatever your partner gives you – whether it is a tangible object, or an idea – and build with what you receive – not blocking it and taking it your own way. That way no one is wrong, and you both get to express. Take whatever your student gives you and run with it or guide it in a direction you want it to go. They will always feel loved, heard and supported with this approach and love you more for it. Use your imagination and incorporate theirs too if they share something different.

Use short stories to get them on board and ones they can relate to and do easily at this early stage. For example, I each a “spider squish” exercise in one of the first lessons for the right hand. It’s fun, we laugh, we learn about each other and it’s for a long-term purpose. I introduce it by asking them if they like spiders. Whatever the answer, I say I do – but outside my home. Soooometimes I will try to take them outside but accidentally squish them. Today, we will not hurt anything but pretend that a spider is walking down your left arm (walk your right fingers down from shoulder to a flattened “table-like” hand) and standing tall (thumb and fingers all together to form a bit of a triangle). Now, we will “squish” the spider by lowering our knuckles down so they are flat and your fingers are all collapsed under your hand. I do this to work on flexible bow fingers and to demonstrate the optimal bowing knuckles. I even explain this to them so they know the “why” not just “do” so their understanding is shown to be valued. You will later thank yourself with your advanced students whom you start this way as they be more independent and conscious of their own actions and choose intelligibly their actions. Students not brought up with a “why” I find can never comprehend how and when to implement some technique but not another, and therefore when they try are wrong, and become dependant on you to tell them every detail.

Most of all, everyone should have fun

If you’re not having fun, why are you doing it? As adults we force ourselves to do it anyway. Kids however, only do things if they are having fun. Sometimes fun can be seen in progress, the number of tokens or jelly beans they accrued, or the graduation of a piece. Whatever brings them joy and fun is what you must place in balance with technique and always reassessing and rebalancing. I say this not just for the kids however. If you the teacher or parent are not having fun kids will pick up on the subtle nuances of dread, frustration, or tiredness you are trying to cover with that smile or false excitement. Be real. Take time off from time to time if you need to rejuvenate, and demonstrate to them that all people need brakes from time to time, and how that can re-energise and slingshot you forward when you return – and return you will. Kids mimic. We know that. So, find the pleasure yourself, have fun and you will keep this musical adventure thriving for all!


Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for my next topics on:

  • Disconnecting blame
  • Semantics: the power of words to the young mind.
  • Students with insecurities, high expectations on themselves and perfectionists.
  • When practicing gets hard
  • Recognizing pivotal moments of focus and using them to everyone's benefit