In Bob Rafelson’s 1970 film Five Easy Pieces, the hero, Bobby Dupea, abandons a career as a promising concert pianist to live life as an itinerant labourer. His belligerence is as deeply rooted in him as is his innate musicality. We’re left to understand it wasn’t music Dupea rebelled against but how it was delivered. Despite his skill, he turned away from the environment he associated with music, an environment he found distasteful and anti­thetical to his being.

I think of Dupea when I remember my childhood violin lessons. I loved music, but something about the methodological lessons rankled me. I was a pupil within the Suzuki method, which values learning by ear, memorization, and parental involvement. Through his program, which is now taught to some 250,000 students in seventy-four countries, founder Shinichi Suzuki (1898–1998) sought to change the way musical aptitude was understood. Talent, he suggested, is not inborn but something anyone could develop, given the proper training. His solution was nurture over nature; his evidence was language—an infinitely complex skill learned naturally by almost everyone. If there were a secret to mastering an instrument, it was only “practice and practice of the right things.” The approach was designed to be competitively passive, meaning no grades, no examinations. Instead, students work at their own pace through a series of books filled with music of increasing difficulty, beginning with variations on “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” in book one and ending with Mozart’s Violin Concerto no. 4 in D Major in book ten.

But, for me, this relatively soft teaching style was outweighed by the formality and uniformity of the method. The rote memorization and emphasis on practice over anything else left little room for improvisation or imagination. It was the music equivalent of conjugating verbs—alluring to the pedantic grammarian but not to someone who wants a more streetwise edge to their dialect. There was no part of me in the sound I was making; even when playing well, I was only a vessel for the music between the page and the air. Each week, from the age of six to seventeen, I’d spend the hour-long drive it took to reach those lessons imagining events that might preclude me from playing that afternoon—and perhaps forever: I’d fall suddenly ill; I’d realize I had forgotten my violin at home; there would be a pileup on the highway. As we got nearer, I’d wonder if I could make jamming my fingers in the car door appear like an accident. When I inevitably arrived safely at the class, I stumbled through the arpeggios I’d neglected to master between lessons, and the disappointment on my teacher’s face was less a catalyst to buckle down than an indictment of everything I had already failed to become.

I know there were others like me.

I have memories of classmates shuffling off, inmate-like, to piano lessons or halfheartedly tapping out études in music festivals, like hostages reading prewritten statements. Sasha Kolesnik, a thirty-three-year-old from Brandon, Manitoba, and a former violin classmate, agrees the lessons tended more toward memorization than inspiration. “I had a love-hate relationship with practising and performing. Probably because when I didn’t practise enough, I didn’t like to perform because I didn’t feel prepared.” At the time, music didn’t feel particularly moving, she says.

There are several formal methods besides Suzuki that offer generalized music lessons one can take to learn an instrument. The others, too, emphasize a particular path to musical accomplishment. The Toronto-based Royal Conservatory of Music, for instance, leans too heavily on examinations; the German Orff ­approach is free form and experimental, combining music with drama and movement; the Rolland method from the US stresses bodily awareness. In his book The Teaching of Action in String Playing, from which his method stems, violinist and music instructor Paul Rolland wrote, “It is a fallacy to believe that the careful teaching of fundamentals will slow down the ­pupil.” In other words, he didn’t believe that the pedantry built into most music education methods would disillusion a child. (Rolland’s directive of “naturalness, naturalness, naturalness” is another confutation—when has a teacher saying “Be natural!” ever worked?)

Of course, playing music brings untold joys and catharsis to many. What separates them from kids who do not thrive in lessons is not well understood. The answer may have something to do with differences in how we learn and how we think about talent.

For all his method’s focus on technical proficiency, Suzuki himself considered the music somewhat incidental to his goal. He had no illusions about creating prodigies. What he wanted was “noble human beings.” His inspirations for nobility were Tolstoy and Mozart, but as historian Eri Hotta wrote in Suzuki, her recent biography of the man, “it is [music instruction], not the refashioning of society, that parents are looking for.”

Suzuki saw parents as vital to the success of his method: parents are expected to guide the practice with encouragement and advice gleaned from sitting in on lessons. A parent may enrol their child in music lessons with the idea of broadening their horizons or planting future joy, for example. But Suzuki also knew parents could be a potential obstacle should they approach their child’s music education with a particular vision: whether to create the proficiency that eluded them or to provide an avenue to fame for the child. These parents, wrote Suzuki, “do not understand the mind of a child who thinks that the violin is fun. Parents of this sort resent paying good money just to have the child think it is a mere game . . . they are calculating about education.” These parents “unknowingly make their children

Lessons are a considerable commitment for parents; they were for my mother, who worked full time, paid the fees for my sister and me, and spent countless hours driving us to tutorials and concerts. But the parental involvement entrenched in Suzuki brought the judiciary aura of lessons home and created a sticking point that lasts to this day. Tears were shed over the attempts to cajole me to practise. Time sheets, bribery, nothing could persuade me to engage in what felt like a buttoned-down, dot-joining activity that turned leisure into duty. (I did feel moments of liberation whenever I went off piste and played a little Fritz Kreisler.)

Music lessons give students a lot—they can make them better listeners and expose them to cultures and people they might not otherwise know. But, as Glenn Schellenberg, who researches music perception and cognition at the Instituto Universitário de Lisboa in Lisbon, Portugal, says, while music lessons correlate with intelligence, they won’t necessarily make you smarter, and keeping uninterested kids in lessons based on that fallacy is cruel. The kids who do well in music do so because they and their parents tend, generally, to be open to new experiences.

Schellenberg’s research into music lessons contradicts Suzuki’s dismissal of natural talent. In a study on the cognitive consequences of music lessons involving children in the Greater Toronto Area, Schellenberg found that music talent is likely inborn. “It’s just like height,” he says. “It’s normally distributed in the population. The notion that everything is practice is just not true with anything. There’s natural variation.” Still, having abilities like perfect pitch, fine motor skills, and good memory doesn’t mean one will become an accomplished musician or enjoy lessons more than anyone else. Excellence is not synonymous with fulfillment.

Over the eleven years of my lessons, my student peers were sieved and clustered. A skilled select few soared. A larger group tarried in the middle, talented enough to continue yet lacking the commitment needed to radically improve. The majority quit, because they were driven to other hobbies, bored, stressed by their teacher’s expectations, or defeated by their lack of progress. Only very few went on to become professional musicians.

One such former classmate is Adam Pappas, a violin and viola instructor who today teaches Suzuki in Edmonton. In his work, Pappas often meets people who quit music lessons as children, many of whom express regret, though they aren’t always clear on why they quit. “At some point, every student is going to struggle. Sometimes more than once,” he says. “Music can be hard on the mind and hard on the heart.” Pappas finds that if a parent has gone through music lessons themselves or is especially dedicated to being a part of the instruction, their child is more likely to pull through those difficult times—it was the same for him. When he was struggling with lessons and interpersonal dynamics between him and his teacher, it was his mother who helped him navigate the situation, using tips she picked up while attending classes with him.

Music lessons—like many activities taken up during our youth—rest heavily on the student–teacher–parent triad. “Some teachers find it’s their job to make students get better,” Pappas says. “But what a teacher really needs to do is give their students the tools to make themselves better.” Whether the Suzuki method alone does that is uncertain; Pappas fills “gaps” in the Suzuki method with teaching material from other methods and encourages his students to sit music exams—not only for the educational credits but their goal-oriented nature.

The precedent for a looser structure for music education exists. Composer John Paynter, in his 1970 book Sound and Silence, encouraged experimentation, positioning students as composers rather than machines of repetition, allowing them to embody in music their reactions to life “as they live it and as they see it lived around them.” Paynter’s vision was for students to explore beyond the written music, to use their instruments to probe a range of sounds the way a ­painter might splash colour on a canvas.

Suzuki’s method stresses homogeneity, from the technical exercises inserted in his books to its focus on lines of identically dressed students at recitals, sawing away at “Perpetual Motion” in unison. Suzuki’s vision of equality comes across in practice as a little militaristic. Emotion and expressivity are largely left to the student—and, therefore, so is discovering what music is for. Musicians who inherently understand that impulse excel. Others need help and encouragement to see themselves as creators.

Music treads a fine line between the loose creativity of art and the rule-bound framework of sport. Education should be open to exploration yet demanding enough to meet a high standard; a good lesson, in its push for something always a little beyond the capability of the musician, is an act of creating desires that remain unmet. Perhaps technique must not be seen as an end in itself, where learning to play properly is the same as learning to play beautifully. There is no “proper” way to play any instrument, just as there is no “proper” way to create any art. The greater measure of skill and control of an instrument is the ability to convey emotion rather than emit a flurry of notes. We love our favourite music more for what it makes us feel than for its technical difficulty.

The final piece I learned with any aplomb was Mozart’s Violin Concerto no. 3 in G Major with a Sam Franko cadenza. The cadenza was a little beyond me: the fingering too tricky, my apathy too high. Playing it was like trying to grasp something just out of reach; with the next stretch, my ligaments would tear and bones would pop out of their sockets. This caused my teacher, my mother, and me angst in no small measure.

As my final concert approached, I quit without notice, like the hero of Thomas Bernhard’s novel The Loser who abandons music on realizing he would never “play as well as Glenn Gould.” I skipped the concert, didn’t perform the Mozart Concerto, never mastered Franko’s cadenza.

A few years later, I attended a performance by the violinist James Ehnes, born in Brandon, Manitoba, the city where I had taken lessons. On the programme that night was Mozart’s Concerto in G Major with the Franko cadenza. Ehnes is an undisputed technical master of the violin and emotional conduit of music. Halfway through the first movement, he flubbed a short fill of notes. It was brief but unmistakable. Then the moment passed, his fingers gliding over the error as if nothing had happened. In that brief moment, I caught a glimpse of his face. It was lit with a smirk.

J.R. Patterson
J.R. Patterson has written for Maisonneuve, the Washington Post, and the Guardian.
Alain Pilon
Alain Pilon has drawn for such publications as The Atlantic and the New York Times.