Bach as a education metaphor

My son plays cello in a Suzuki program at The Music Institute of Chicago. The Suzuki method is rigid. There are ten books, and you go through the songs one by one. You learn a new skill in each song, and the Suzuki-certified teacher tells you when you can progress. To be clear, I love the program, and we drive four hours each way because the teacher we have is special.

But my son’s curiosity is not as rigid as the program. I used to let him play whatever he wants. But then we got the special teacher for special students and she put the kabosh on that. Now he plays only what she has taught him, theoretically. He searches through his Book 2 to play whatever he finds. She told me to put Book 3 where he can’t find it, but he finds videos on YouTube and teaches himself songs in the confiscated books.

Then my cousin came over (a graduate of book 10 and then some) and he played Bach for my son.

So of course my son wanted to try it. He found the music on YouTube, but he couldn’t see the fingering. So I downloaded the sheet music.

I wrote to my cousin: “What’s up with the sheet music? It’s only notes. Is the bowing a secret?”

Here’s what my cousin wrote back: “In fact the bowings are secret! The original manuscript that Bach wrote doesn’t exist, but there are a few versions that exist that were created by people close to him. One edition I have has pictures of the manuscript by his second wife, Anna Magdalena, and I think that’s considered to be the ‘original’. There are some bowings indicated in her manuscript, but they’re not clear and they don’t always make sense from a technical or musical perspective.

“Cellists have to discover which bowings make sense for themselves. All of the famous cellists have published their own bowings and fingerings, and every teacher I’ve had has told me to buy a different edition. In the end I find that with every edition I use I end up wanting to modify one thing or another because of the way it feels or sounds to me. The phrases in these suites go on forever, so one of the biggest challenges is figuring out how to shape each phrase (where it should peak, where it should end, etc.).  You do that by modifying the bowings. So, the bowings are really embedded in your own discovery of the music.

Some editions come blank, which sounds like what you might have. The reason is so that after you get to know the piece, you can put in your own fingerings and bowings. It’s a lot easier to read if you have a clean copy rather than writing over someone else’s markings.”

I want my son’s life to be a Bach suite. I want him to learn the world, just the basics, and then he should add his own hops, skips, and slides on top of those notes and make life his own.

13 replies
  1. lesley
    lesley says:

    I love this. I think this is what we all need to do, and what you’re teaching us–not just here on your homeschooling blog, but in your big blog too.

  2. Hannah
    Hannah says:

    I’m a cellist and began the Suzuki method when I was five years old (I’m 33 now). My parents were both musicians and practiced with me religiously. I excelled. I didn’t always love the practice, the tedium, the memorization. But I loved the music and I knew that the reward of diligent practice would be sweet, effortless art.

    The thing is, I now homeschool my three kids and I’ve had a hard time defining our educational philosophy. Because, on the one hand, I like the idea of unschooling. My mother and father both had Masters degrees in education and they afforded my sisters and me much time to think, play, read, draw, and put on plays (which they paid admission to) outside of our “formal” education. Indeed, I’m sometimes convinced we learned as much or more in this way then we ever did at school.

    But they also had high standards for my sisters and me. They expected us to achieve academically and we did. We did not love every subject, and I didn’t always feel understood at school. But I loved to learn on my own and I still read Dostoevsky and T. S. Eliot just because. I was “in the system” and was required to learn certain material so that I could know what I didn’t love and what I did. While I don’t want my kids in the system, I feel that directing my kids’ education at home is valuable and necessary.

    So I guess all this rambling is to say that, while I love the feel of 100% unschooling–the philosophy, as it were–I can’t go there 100% because I’ve seen that sometimes children have to be led to know. Some things come from inside and some things come from outside. We need both. Children need their parents’ guidance and instruction to know how to be in the world, or else they’d come into the world self-possessed and self-contained. I would have learned to play the cello, maybe, on my own. But I didn’t like to practice and would never excelled without careful, tedious instruction and practice. In other words, I’d probably never have been able to play Bach well.

    So right now we say we practice ‘flexible parent-directed study’ but it contains a lot of room for tangents when it seems like a kid has found a real interest. And we have lots of down time for reading, drawing, and unstructured play. It works for us, anyway.

    • Amy Lynn Andrews
      Amy Lynn Andrews says:

      OK Penelope, the Bach analogy. That’s deep.

      And Hannah,

      “I’ve seen that sometimes children have to be led to know.”

      Also deep.

      I’m not sure if all of that makes me more sure or more unsure of what I’m doing… :)

      Either way, good stuff.

    • Cathy
      Cathy says:

      You-the-parent can and will have input even if you unschool. As Pam Sorooshian says in her wonderful article “Unschooling is not ‘Child-led Learning,'” parents expose their kids to tons of concepts, areas of interest, facts, arts, experiences, places, people, and thing through “strewing,” and of course parents discuss the world and money and occupations and hobbies and adulthood and such with their kids – answering kids’ queries and bringing up topics of concern and so forth. All of this input combines with whatever is going on inside the kid, and there is a flow of activities and interests that is not child-led nor parent-led.

  3. ceceilia
    ceceilia says:

    I was a violinist while growing up in a very sheltered, homeschooling environment, and the metaphor you mentioned was one of those big epiphanies I had too! It tickles me pink to read that others experience learning similarly.

    Eventually I switched to being a professional classical singer with a co-career in audience development. The tool that I use across the board though is mimicry and bodily empathy. It’s what helped me translate my technique from one instrument to the other, what helped me learn social skills really fast (Someone had to explain to me what sarcasm was at age 19. Sheltered does not even begin to describe it.), and what helps me have effective interactions with the public all day long.

    Your post “Techniques for looking normal” makes me think of social interactions like Urtext Bach scores: The basic rules are all there, but you have to find your own voice/breath/bowings through trial and error, mimicry, and a whole lot o’ bad technique. Most of it gets better; some of it ends up being a lifelong struggle. But sometimes there’s a winning combo in there, and maybe one day all that distinctive articulation of ideas, i.e. weird voice, breath, bowing, social skills, etc., ends up being strikingly beautiful.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I hear you! Believe me, there are not really any self-directed musicians in my family. I’m a tyrant about the practicing and if he didn’t practice exactly what his teacher told him to, I think she’d refuse to teach him.

      Additionally, my older son complains about playing the violin and I make him do it anyway.


  4. karelys
    karelys says:

    i have a question. this morning i was thinking of a friend who teaches kindergarten and she’s often taken aback by how cruel kids can be even that early on.

    i was wondering how you teach empathy to your kids. specially because sometimes we have to demonstrate patience and self control not when we want to/feel like it but when some people are just…you know…hurting bad and we think they’re dumb but they need someone to hug them or be nice to them.

    there are reader boards around the town where i live with “word of the month: respect” and that kind of thing that they teach in schools. i thought it was interesting that the schools are making an effort to teach something that i consider the parents’ responsibility.

    • Cathy
      Cathy says:

      I have at times thought that the best way to “teach” empathy is to read stories and other fiction with our kids and discuss whatever naturally comes up. Almost inevitably, we tend to discuss how the main character feels about something – what he should do next – where she went wrong – etc. We worry about him, and we take joy in her triumphs and bleed for her when she fails. Of course, these sorts of discussions can also take place when we all watch a movie together or a TV show…But there is something about having to fill-in-the-visuals-with-your-imagination, with books, and the ongoingness of reading a novel over the course of several days (or, in our case, nights), that allows for more discussions. I think a lot of learning to see through others’s eyes, walk in their mocassins, etc., is facilitated through engaging with fiction.

      I believe that Steven Pinker addresses this point in his new book “The Better Angels of Our Nature.” (But I haven’t gotten to the chapter on empathy yet. So I’m not sure.)

  5. Cathy
    Cathy says:

    I love this metaphor!

    I don’t play a bowed instrument, although there have been times when I’ve taken great joy in playing the piano. I think from my making-music experience, I can see unschooling as a sort of Pachelbel-ian Canon, in which the parents are already playing a certain theme as the kids arrive. The parents go on to evolving slight variations on their own theme, even as the kids are learning the main sweeps of the theme. Soon the kids are elaborating their own variations – and may even eventually diverge into their own theme as they get older.

    But, Pachelbel metaphors aside, I love Bach and the book “Godel, Escher, Bach: The Eternal Golden Braid” and Bach metaphors!

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