Sandra Kruczek, left, smiles at student Sally Smith during a violin lesson Thursday at St. Michael Catholic Church. Kruczek uses the Suzuki method of teaching, which reinforces hearing music and playing it by ear.

Photo by Shawn McHugh

Sandra Kruczek, left, smiles at student Sally Smith during a violin lesson Thursday at St. Michael Catholic Church. Kruczek uses the Suzuki method of teaching, which reinforces hearing music and playing it by ear.

Local educator teaches with positive reinforcement

— Something new is starting to happen each time Sandra Kruczek places a skateboard on the floor of her Craig home.

Her dog, Stewart, will look at her, look back at the skateboard, then put his front paws on the board and begin to slowly push with his back feet.

In just two short weeks after she bought the skateboard, the dog that once greeted her with a flying attack of paws and teeth, is calmly consistent with his newfound sport.

Kruczek is never surprised at the strides her students make, whether it’s a dog in her training class or a young child learning to play the violin.

“It’s not a mystery,” she said. “Music is another language, and canine behavior is another language. I’ve always loved languages.”

A certified dog trainer with Total Teamwork Training, violin instructor and first violinist with the local Cedar Mountain Ensemble, Kruczek has applied her methods of teaching to every aspect of her life as an educator.

When she’s training a dog, her focus lies not only with the animal, but also with its family and environment.

“You can’t help a dog if you can’t help the person,” Kruczek said. “A lot of people don’t understand that dogs don’t speak English. They use scent, vision, and the whole body’s language. They are beautiful noticers.”

She said much of her job is to help families understand what dogs are really trying to say, just like working to communicate with someone whose knowledge of English might be limited.

And just like learning another language, a dog’s understanding of, “sit,” or a music student’s foray into triplets and eighth notes, needs to happen slowly.

When teaching music, Kru­czek uses the Suzuki method, which teaches students to learn by ear instead of sight. Students graduate to sight-reading after they have begun to understand the basics of the music.

With children, the family is often involved in lessons and the focus is widened to teaching the whole child.

“Rather than label someone or a dog as different or stupid, our job is to figure out what makes them different and where they are coming from,” she said.

She said the most important part of the Suzuki method is starting at the beginning, with the mind and music, without overwhelming the brain with technicalities.

“When teaching violin, your fingers and muscles are learning to make a connection to your brain,” she said. “If you keep doing it fast, if you keep messing up, your brain is like, ‘Oh, that’s what we’re going to do.’”

Something called the “rule of fives” applies to both fingering patterns on the violin and dog behavior modification.

If a student performs a task correctly five times in a row, the criteria can be increased to something more difficult or faster.

With that in mind, Kruczek said talent and skill come from practice, dedication and passion, not genes.

“In my generation, we used to think you had to be born with skill,” she said. “The truth is, the way Suzuki found out in his research and education, you can just teach people how, and then have them do it every day. Ability is knowledge plus one thousand times.”

But knowledge and practice aren’t quite enough.

“You have to have someone who believes in you, helps you and nurtures you,” she said. “Whether you’re young or old.”

During lessons, she throws in a smattering of praises — all of which are honest and earned — convinced of the notion that anyone can learn without negative reinforcement.

When she first brought Stewart his skateboard, he ran up to it out of curiosity and put his paw on it.

Immediately, Kruczek beamed and petted him saying, ‘Good boy,’ before running for a treat.

Each time he pushed himself a little further, testing to see what kind of actions would be received with a universal gesture of the word, “yes,” in the form of love and praises.

“That’s the joy of teaching,” she said. “It’s capturing that moment. It’s saying, ‘That’s it, that’s the moment.’ And you just have to tell them yes.”

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