Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Spirited Child and the Suzuki Mom


Up until two weeks ago, I'd never even heard of the term "high spirited child." It came up at the beginning of one of Portia's cello lessons. Her instructor asked me if I was going to the Suzuki Conference. As a matter of fact, I told him, a friend of mine had just recently asked me if I wanted to go with her. So I will be there. He asked if I would sit on the panel of a class at this conference. I was taken aback. Me? He wanted me to sit on a panel as some sort of expert at a Suzuki conference in front of a bunch of parents, all of whom were probably more experienced at being a Suzuki mom? Portia is my first child who I've gone through this Suzuki process with. In fact, I wasn't thrilled with the idea of her learning to play before being able to read the notes on the page, but that's how they do things when children learn an instrument so young. Do you think I'm qualified for this? He answered that the topic of the class was discussing the high-spirited child and how to get them to focus on music. I looked over to Portia, and there she was perched on her cello chair, on all fours, like a cat, licking her paw.

I had been wondering what was going on with my sweet little girl lately when I'd witnessed Portia in time-out at kindergarten while I was volunteering, when I saw negative marks on the teacher web site for Portia's behavior. I had even mentioned to my book club just a week before that I was worried Portia was becoming a naughty child. And I didn't understand it because Bianca always seemed so concerned about pleasing me and her teachers at this age. I nodded in agreement that I would sit on the panel, and then ran home to do a little research on the spirited child. Turns out, labeling a child as spirited is a kind way of saying the child is a little bit naughty, has a hard time focusing, feels things really intensely, has a really strong personality, that kind of thing.

Yesterday was the conference. My friend Kami and I went to classes, most of them discussing why the mom's practice session with our kids shouldn't (or didn't have to be) as painful and distressing as they are. It was good to hear. When you have young kids in music, Suzuki method expects mom to hover. No, not hover, control it all. We have to always be fixing the bow grip, making sure the left hand fingers are curved, making sure the posture is just so. We correct our children's wrong notes, wrong rhythms, wrong everything. And when we go to lessons, we feel completely responsible to the teacher if our child isn't prepared. And there was a lot of talk about this teacher-parent-child relationship.

Kami and I sat on a tree-covered bench eating a pretty awesome lunch they provided, and I argued with her when she said our little high-spirited children were reflections of us.  I was high spirited person--What? I'm a door mat. I found it interesting that her perception of me is so much different than my own perception of myself. This has been a real eye-opening couple of weeks for me.

My panel class came after lunch, and I was nervous. I had a little sheet of paper with my scribbled notes ready to discuss my spirited child. I sat up front and talked about how Portia really likes to observe the walls on the room while she's playing cello (I never knew a 5-year-old could find walls quite so interesting) and how she can't sit still or stay in position for more than a couple seconds at a time. (Did I have answers on how to fix this? Um, no.) But one of the characteristics of being spirited was that these children do everything, EVERYTHING with zest and zeal. So I did share one thing that I did with Portia that really resonated with her. Last week, she didn't want to stop playing with her toys to practice cello. Her teacher had asked me to play the piano for her while she played one of her pieces so that she would hold out the long notes as long as they needed. So I told Portia we were going to have a concert. Portia was thrilled with the idea. She first wanted to color and write out invitations to the cat and dog to come to her concert. She then imprisoned them in the music-room (good thing those French doors are there) and we began Portia's concert. She played like she was in Carnegie Hall while I accompanied her. At the end of the concert, she gave her audience a treat (of course an audience expects a treat at the end). Talk about doing something with zeal! She wants to do concerts every day now. Ah, what we music moms do to get our kids to practice. But if she wants a concert, and will practice without fighting me, then a concert it will be.

We talked a little bit about our kids and how to help these high spirits with their practicing/lessons and then somewhere the discussion took an odd turn and it seemed like a group of teachers were harping on parents about not wanting to hear them talk AT ALL during lessons. It almost turned into teachers v. parents. I couldn't just let the teachers attack the poor moms and I thought, I'm up here in front of the class. I'm not going to just let this go. I defended the moms and explained that we work so hard with our kids and we're not supposed to say a word in a lesson? Really? The Suzuki method insists we be a big part of our children's musical week and yet, come lesson time, we're supposed to sit there and shut up? (Thank goodness it wasn't Portia's teacher who was saying all this!) I guess I have a little spirit in me, I can see now.


Throughout the whole class, I talked so much more than I had to--about Bianca and how she really never wanted me to be a part of this teacher-parent-student triangle. And honestly, I was okay with that. Although in retrospect, it seems like in these stories I portrayed Bianca as being a difficult (maybe high spirited) child and really, she's always been such a good kid. But maybe I'm the one off a little. Maybe high-spirited doesn't really mean naughty after all. I was just so afraid of Portia being a reflection of me and my inability to parent. Oh, we parents take on a lot of guilt! And all we're trying to do is give our kids the gift of music (and they will thank us for this one day! just not today, or tomorrow, or anytime soon).

Our day was pretty much over after that. I wanted to get back to my family. It was a special, sad, hard day for our family, and it was probably a good thing that I had Suzuki to keep my mind focused on something else. It was Miranda's birthday. She would be nine. Eric, Bianca, Portia and I went out to eat in celebration of her beautiful little short life, and then we went to the cemetery to take her some flowers. This year seemed a little harder than last. As I sat near her headstone, I couldn't help but wonder how our family would be different if she were still here. How would she get along with Bianca and Portia? What would she be good at? What would she like to eat? Which musical instrument would she play? Would we be where we are if she were still here? How would the butterfly effect of her not dying have altered our world? I reflected on the hardest day of my life, the moment when I saw the spirit leave my child's body, and I realized how lucky I am to still have my other two strong-willed, full-of-plenty-of-spirit children.

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