Relying on habits rather than motivation sets your child up to succeed in daily practice. Think of someone who is trying to eat healthily - what tactics will they use to set themselves up for success? If they stock their kitchen with cookies and candy bars, it’s going to be much harder than if they surround themselves with colorful fruits and veggies. The trick is to limit their options to good ones; there’s no chance of them making poor choices if none are available.
How do we achieve this with practice time? The first thing is to make a decision on the timing; pick a time that works consistently and stick to it! This may have to vary from day to day, but it will still help your child to know that every Monday they will practice at 7pm, for example. Once you have stuck to it long enough, the schedule will become automatic, and your child won’t see deviating from it as an option.
If you leave practice time until your child “feels like” doing it, but they are surrounded by books, toys, and electronics all afternoon, they will probably “feel like” doing other things. Of course, you shouldn’t take all their toys and games away, you don’t want practice to feel like a punishment. Instead, consider anchoring practice to something that has already pulled them away from these distractions, like mealtime or getting home from school.
The other important aspect of creating a practice routine is teaching the idea that it’s okay not to want to do something, but it still needs to be done. As the parent, you set the boundary that practice needs to happen. It’s okay if your child doesn’t feel happy about this, they may even be upset or angry, but this shouldn’t be a reason to not practice. It’s an important part of maturing to learn to emotionally handle doing things we don’t want to do. Practice can be frustrating or uninteresting at times, but as they start to see results, your child will see the value in it. Everyone likes to be good at things, and if you practice well, that’s the reward!
Dr. Suzuki famously said “Knowledge is not skill. Knowledge plus ten thousand times is skill.” Repetition is the key to useful practice, but there is another important aspect of practice time - fun! After all, Dr. Suzuki also said “An unlimited amount of ability can develop when parent and child are having fun together.” Here are some ideas on how to keep repetition fun for your child, no matter their age!
For younger students or beginners:
Play the piece like an animal. Play like a whale (big, heavy, deep tone), a hummingbird (light, airy, quickly) or whatever other animal your child likes! Discuss what traits each animal has and how to evoke them on the instrument.
Add a pause button. I usually tell my students that the top of their head is their pause button. Tap them on the head randomly as they play their piece. When you tap them they have to pause until you unpause them, and continue the piece from where they left off.
For older or advanced students:
Make up new fingerings. This is a great way to practice intonation in higher positions, or alternate ways to play open string notes. Aim to keep musical integrity while playing with this.
Practice with special challenges. Some examples: play only in the lower or upper half of the bow, play using only your right hand pointer, middle and thumb, play without using one of your strings, play with a certain articulation like accents, legato, or tremolo (while keeping the musical integrity of the piece.) You can target these to whichever techniques your child is working on in lessons as an added repetition of that as well.
For all ages:
Start one string lower. This works best for those of us with even intervals between strings, since the finger patterns remain the same.
Make up a story that the piece tells, and discuss how to emote it while playing! Try out different stories to see what suits the piece.
Play while keeping your eyes closed, or fixed on a certain place (left hand, right hand, a picture on the wall, etc). This can be a good way to gamify bringing your child’s focus to a certain aspect of their technique.
Do a distraction practice. This one is especially useful when a performance is approaching. The practice partner tries to distract the student while they’re playing by making disruptive noises or distracting motions. Your child’s goal is to stay focused and keep playing.
Whatever your child’s age, dreary winter days are the perfect time to introduce a new game. Happy practicing!
The holiday season is a wonderful, joyful time, full of visits from family, special events, and treats! However, sometimes all of the excitement and extras can lead to struggles when it comes to practicing. When these struggles occur, it’s important to remember a few things:
Motivation comes from a sense of autonomy and competence, and a feeling of capability. Your child must feel as though they know what to do, how to do it, and that they can do it. It can be easy to fall into an overly authoritarian mode, aiming to control your child’s behavior, but it’s much more useful to teach them to control it themselves! If you’re overbearing, your child won’t feel autonomous, competent, or capable, and this undermines their motivation. This makes it harder for your child to learn self control.
Even positive reinforcements like stickers and prizes can undermine student’s progress, if they’re not handled correctly. The trick is to keep the focus on the intrinsic reward of learning, which your child may or may not yet value. Doing something as simple as complimenting them on their efforts and progress while giving the “prize” helps with this! As long as you’ve been framing the prizes well from the beginning, once your child matures and has had a few successes, the intrinsic value of their learnt skills will become more interesting.
A famous child psychologist, Ross Greene, puts it this way, in his book Lost at School: “Whether a kid is sulking, pouting, whining, withdrawing […] or worse, you won’t know what to do about the challenging behavior until you understand why it’s occurring (lagging skills) and pinpoint the specific situations in which it occurs (unsolved problems). Lagging skills are the why of challenging behavior. Unsolved problems tell us when the behavior is occurring.” Greene’s findings are geared toward parents whose child suffers from severe behavioral issues, but I believe this way of thinking is useful to all parents. Greene’s method is talking to the child and figuring out why the undesirable behavior occurred, then brainstorming solutions to the problem, rather than restricting or punishing the child.
Focus on meeting the child’s needs and solving the problem as a team, rather than attempting to correct or control behavior. Help them take ownership of their progress by involving them in the plan and rewarding their hard work! Focus on giving kids a central role in solving their own problems, within age-appropriate limits. No matter what struggles this season might bring, you’ll face it as a team!
Everyone has trouble practicing sometimes. Even those who completely love their instrument will at times feel the weight of the repetition and analysis required for a productive practice session. Identifying ways to improve practice time will help your child grow as a person and a musician, and will hopefully help take some stress off you, too! Here are some common problems families run into, and some tools for overcoming them.
If your child struggles to begin practicing, try giving a five or ten minute warning beforehand, so they can finish up whatever they’re doing. If a verbal reminder seems not to help, try playing the CD for five or ten minutes before practice time. It’s also a good idea for children to disconnect from electronics five or ten minutes prior to practice time, to allow them to come back to the real world. A good transition activity that easily flows into practice is putting on some classical music (my students have loved Anitra’s Dance, the Finale of Beethoven’s 7th, or of course anything from their Suzuki repertoire is a great choice) and having a dance party. Other good options include doing physical warm ups like finger taps and stretches, or talking through the plan for today’s practice with your child. This will help change your child’s mindset and prepare them to focus on making music.
If your child is having trouble with any aspect of the practice itself, try to gamify it! You can write down all your child’s review songs on slips of paper, and let them draw out of a hat. You could also make six different review lists and let your child roll a die to see which they’ll play. Balance an ever-growing stack of beanbags on their head as they play the piece they’re polishing - add to the stack as they complete each section correctly. Pull out a board game (my studio likes Jenga, Story Cubes, and Spot It) and let them take turns between correct practice spot repetitions. Anything that lightens the mood and gives your child a little mental break between tasks is helpful!
If your child has trouble focusing for the duration of the practice, try to split practice time up. Two or three shorter practices throughout the day, with an engaged child, will be much more productive than one practice with a child who’s tuned out. If your schedule doesn’t permit multiple practice times, set a practice duration. Base it on your child’s attention span - meet them where they are, first, and then once you’ve got a good routine you can incrementally increase the time. Set a practice goal, like no complaining for the next 15 minutes, or only talking about lesson things during practice time, and reward your child for accomplishing the goal. If making it through the set time with no complaining or distraction is too challenging, try setting up a point system, where a good behavior (responding to directions right away, staying focused, etc.) is marked with a token or checkmark. Once the child earns a certain number of points, they get a special treat or experience. Another way to boost focus is to make the goals of each assignment clear. Before playing a practice spot, tell your child what they’re meant to accomplish. For example: “We’re practicing this spot to improve your circle bows! Watch carefully and see how gently you can land!” Be sure to give your child lots of praise while working together. Helping your child feel successful and appreciating their efforts will extend their focus, too!
If your child has trouble with slow practice or detail work, be understanding, this is a hard one! Even many adults struggle with the mental side of accomplishing useful slow practice. You can ease into slow detail work by adding one small detail of the piece at a time. First, only clap the rhythm of the piece slowly. Then, say the note names or finger numbers in rhythm at the same speed - some children like to “play along” with just the left hand while doing this. Lastly, have them play the section. This is a calm, gradual way to get them tuned into detail work. It’s also a good idea to listen to slow recordings of the repertoire. It can be hard to play a piece slowly if you’ve never heard it done! There are many videos online of teachers playing the Suzuki repertoire slowly, and you can also change the playback speed in your media player’s settings. Other fun activities to promote slow, detailed work are pretending to play like a sloth or a snail, “pausing” or “freezing” your child between notes by lightly tapping the top of their head, or by having their stuffed animals or toys keep the beat!
If you’re having a persistent issue with practicing, be sure to speak with your teacher! They’ll have specific insights about your child, and the best way to avoid a lasting issue is to address it early and as a team! The most important part of practice is that your child remains mentally engaged. They’ll accomplish more, and enjoy playing better.
With our big All-Institute Concert just around the corner, I thought I would share some fun ways to engage your child during a longer, formal classical music event. Many of these ideas are inspired by my own family’s strategies of helping my siblings and I stay quiet and attentive during concerts!
1. Set expectations before the concert. Explain how the concert will work, and how your child should ask. Give them examples of quiet ways to signal that they need something, and that they may talk to you when they hear clapping.
2. During the concert, bounce to the beat together, or tap the rhythm of the piece on their knee. You can also try tapping a short rhythm on their shoulder, and then have them repeat the tap back on yours. These exercises also help children develop and improve their sense of rhythm and ability to hold a steady beat.
3. Do some hand warm ups. Try alternating fists and finger spread, or tapping each finger on the thumb in turn.
4. Look for contrasts. Have your child listen to see if the next piece sounds happy or sad. Other good dichotomies are loud/quiet pieces, and fast/slow tempos. Remind them to think the answer in their head, and tell you once they hear applause.
Remember that every student here was once a young child, and people understand that sometimes children are disruptive without meaning to be. If you decide to step out with your child, don’t worry! Once they are ready to rejoin the audience, wait for the next applause and head back in.
I hope that these tips help further your family’s enjoyment of our upcoming concert, and any other classical music event you wish to attend!
Resilience, the ability to handle stress or adverse situations, is a hugely important skill to help your child grow into a successful, happy adult. Neurologically, people with more resilience tend to handle stress in a different way. Stress, which begins in the amygdala, can impede or shut down the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain which handles decision-making and social behavior. People with a high level of resilience are better able to activate their prefrontal cortex in times of stress, and use it to calm their amygdala, allowing them to recover from or adapt to the stressful situation more efficiently. Suzuki lessons give your child plenty of ways to build their resilience!
Resilience depends on the presence of supportive relationships. Since you and your child work closely together in lessons and practice time, you are fostering the sort of loving, caring relationship that builds your child’s confidence. Knowing that they have you as a safety net allows your child to feel more comfortable exploring scary situations, and gives you opportunities to model your calming or coping mechanisms.
Social support is another thing that builds resilience. The more caring people surrounding your child and cheering them on, the more comfortable they’ll be exploring new things. Through the Suzuki framework of lessons, group classes, and recitals, your child will find a supportive network of teachers, parents, and fellow students.
High level executive functioning is another important aspect of resilience. Executive functioning refers to all the cognitive processes that are necessary for behavioral control, like memory, and the ability to control your attention and inhibitions. Building your child’s executive functioning will help strengthen their prefrontal cortex and its connections to the amygdala. Keeping a steady routine, building memory skills and impulse control, creative play, and allowing children to make age appropriate choices all build executive function!
Nurturing feelings of competence and a sense of mastery will help your child build resilience, and an instrument is the perfect tool to use to this end. As your child works on improving their skill at their instrument and hears your praise of their effort and skills, they’ll start to feel confident in their abilities, and eventually confident in themselves!
These ideas are taken from the book How to Talk So Kids Can Learn by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlich, specifically the chapter called “Solving Problems Together: Six Steps that Engage Children’s Creativity and Commitment.” Whatever struggles your family might face surrounding lessons, I hope these steps ease them!
1. Listen to your child’s feelings and needs. This is a big one! When you acknowledge your child’s frustrations, you are demonstrating to them that you’re on their team, a sympathetic partner rather than an adversary. It will put them in a much more cooperative, productive mood.
2. Summarize their point of view. Make sure to take the time to make them feel truly heard. Be sure to offer a straightforward summary, without judging or looking down on their feelings.
3. Express your feelings and needs. Try to keep this section as brief as possible. Although it’s very important that you feel heard and that your child understands how their negative behaviors affect you, their attention span is only so long. Aim to make “I” statements, rather than “you” statements: not “you’re just not paying attention” but “I think you should focus more while practicing.”
4. Invite your child to brainstorm a solution with you. Make sure to use collaborative language, to help them feel more comfortable in the discussion. Something like “let’s think of ways to help you feel more ready to begin practice time” shows that you want to work with them to improve the situation.
5. Write down all the ideas without evaluating. Your child is likely to have some outlandish ideas, but if you criticise them, they’re less likely to share any ideas with you at all. There’s no harm in writing down the suggestion that they get 15 desserts every time they practice, even though you aren’t willing to agree to that one; don’t give things like that too much attention, and move on to the next idea.
6. Together, decide which ideas you plan to use and how to implement them. Follow through is the big thing, here. The best intentions can come to nothing if you can’t agree upon a plan of action, or if the planned course of action isn’t regularly followed. Furthermore, don’t lose hope if the plan fails! Some problems are more complex, and require more planning to solve. Rather than scolding your child for not following a plan they helped come up with, say to them, “let’s figure out why this didn’t work and how to fix it.” This way, you preserve their feelings and help them feel more like being cooperative.
If this seems like it might be a tedious process, don’t worry! The author addresses that, mentioning her own worries that this would be a long, complicated process. She says that this is basically a matter of everyone expressing their feelings and opinions, and then working together on finding a solution. Being a classroom teacher herself, she was able to effectively use these strategies with a whole room full of children. If it can work with so many children all at once, I’m sure it can help with yours!
One of the main differences between Suzuki and traditional lessons is the idea of the parent being the “home teacher”. The parent and teacher are both partners in the child’s education. Since the teacher only sees your child for a short time each week, much of the responsibility of daily practicing, and therefore your child’s progress, rests on you, the parent. Here are some ideas for how to talk to your child before and during practice time!
Ask open-ended questions. Instead of saying “do you want to practice now?”, say “would you like to practice now or before dinner?”. Be sure to follow through with your child’s choice, even if they aren’t agreeable to it when the time comes. Remind them that they chose this time. You want to demonstrate that they really do have control. If you run into resistance about the choices offered, then you make the decision for them. Sometimes with my students, I’ll say they have a count of 10 to decide before I pick, so they have a chance to cooperate but not enough time to stall and derail things. Once your child knows exactly what the boundaries are, and that they never change, they’ll cooperate more readily. If, instead, you were to always offer them alternate choices, they would never stop asking to change things - after all, it worked!
Don’t offer a choice that they don’t have. If you ask if they want to practice now and they say “no”, that somewhat ends the discussion. At this point you either must wait to ask them again later, or disregard the choice that they’ve made. Having to wait and ask again is annoying and means that you must remember to do so, and disregarding your child’s choice shows them that the choice was an illusion - it teaches them to distrust you when you ask them something.
Announce things, rather than asking. The trick with this one is to use a happy, excited tone of voice. Think of the way you say “it’s time for dinner”; dinner is inevitable, and even if your child says no, you would probably say yes and plop them down at the table anyway. You can also use this mid-practice if your child’s mind begins to wander. In lessons, my students bow at the beginning and end of lessons, and in between bows they must only ask or talk about violin things. This could be a good rule to implement in daily practice as well! Here’s some examples of what I will say when something off-topic comes up: “That’s a great question for after the lesson!”, “We’re focusing on violin right now”, “It’s violin time right now, but we can talk about that afterwards”. After practice time, be sure to follow through and ask your child what they’d wanted to talk about earlier. It’s okay if they don’t remember, doing this is more to demonstrate that you will keep your word, on the off chance that they really did need to talk about something.
Use collaborative language. Rather than “you need to focus”, say “we need to focus”. This helps your child feel less called out or attacked when you have to tell them to adjust their behavior. Another good option is making “I” statements rather than “you” statements. Instead of “you need to focus on violin right now”, say “I think you might be a little distracted right now, let’s focus on violin!”.
Avoid statements like “that note was wrong”, “no, try again”, or “that sounded bad”. When you have to tell your child that they’ve played something incorrectly, say instead “your 2nd finger was a little low” or “be a little more gentle with the bow here”, or simply “Something sounds off about the notes in this section, let’s play it through slowly and figure out what to change”. If your child responds poorly to even gentle criticism, it’s likely that their feelings stem from insecurity. Reassure them that you are proud of their playing ability, and that this one incorrect thing doesn’t negate all the things that they’re doing so well with.
Although none of these ideas will be the “magic bullet” that makes your child immediately do as you ask, I’ve found them all helpful in working with my students. They set up a more collaborative environment, and help your child see you as a member of their team. Happy practicing!
Start the new year off right with some wonderful suggestions for parents from the book Beyond the Music Lesson by Christine Goodner!
Be present. Mentally and physically, it’s easier to work with your child when you know what motivates them, how they learn, and exactly what they should be working on each week. When you are fully paying attention to your child during practice, you’re demonstrating a couple of really important things. First, that their work matters. You care, and are paying attention and listening to all the effort they’re putting into their playing. Secondly, you are demonstrating that playing an instrument well is a worthwhile skill that you’d like them to gain. Thirdly, by paying close attention, you are showing them that both of you are facing this together. You’re available to help them with whatever challenge they may face during this practice.
Practice daily. We aim to practice daily, not because it’s important whether or not your child touched their instrument on a specific day, but to show them the value of the grit and perseverance that practicing daily demonstrates. Students will also progress more quickly when they practice regularly, since physical skills take time and repetition to grow.
Listening leads to success. With a foreign language, students who haven’t been exposed to how it sounds will often have trouble with pronunciation. Likewise, with music, listening is the best path toward a fluent performance. If we expect children to create beautiful music, they must also hear beautiful music! Regular listening helps create a mental recording of the piece, and when students fully know how something should sound it’s much easier for them to recreate it.
Create a positive and supportive practice environment. You’ll have a much easier time getting your child to practice with you if they expect to receive praise, support, and encouragement throughout the interaction. Learning how to work with your child is important; practice will be much more successful if you can figure out how your child learns, and how they approach challenges. Once you know these things, you can support your child in a way that helps them succeed in any difficult situation, not just ones involving their instrument!
Be part of the Suzuki Community. Group classes and concerts, master classes, summer institutes - there are many ways to get involved. When your child is around other children who are growing and improving on their instrument, it provides them a huge motivation to practice and improve their own skills!
Focus on mastery, not speed. Successful families will make sure students are mastering their music and technical skills rather than rushing on to the next new piece. New things are fun and exciting, but real progress toward long-term goals comes from refining music we already know, making each piece more beautiful and polished. The number of songs in your child’s repertoire is not as important as how well they play them, so never skimp on review! Make sure your child truly knows all their pieces; this will develop their playing far more than half-knowing more songs.
Keep these ideals in mind as you and your child work toward a successful 2019!
- Shannon Jansma, published in the January 2019 issue of the Ann Arbor Suzuki Institute newsletter
What is the parent’s role in a child’s Suzuki studies? The parent must bring the child to the lesson, but that’s not all there is to it! The lessons are only the first step in the learning process.
When you bring your child to the lesson, your teacher will introduce new techniques or new sections of the piece, and it’s so important that you feel confident about how to work on them at home. Never hesitate to ask questions or for clarification about anything introduced in lessons! After all, the teacher is there to help you and your child learn this information. It may also be a good idea to write down an outline of any new things your child is learning this week, so you’ll be sure to remember all the details after a long day at work, a sleepless night, or any of the other hundreds of challenges families face.
Speaking of challenges, practice time can be a big one! Whether the challenge is finding the time, getting your child to practice, or remembering all the little details of the perfect bow hold, practice is hard. Whenever you have troubles with practicing, make sure to bring your teacher into the loop. We have years of experience and many tested strategies for dealing with whatever issues your family or child is facing. It’s so important for parents to address any practice problems right away, before the issue becomes a habit.
Be sure to treat practice time like a necessity, rather than an extra - practice should be close to the same necessity level as homework, rather than being grouped with video games or other ways your child spends their free time. Keep practice positive! One really creative way parents in my studio have come up with to keep practice positive is wildly cheering after every correct repetition, but you may find other things that work better. Find what encourages your child to do their best.
The parent’s biggest job is to be on their child’s team, as a partner and coach, through the struggles and joys that come with the immense task of learning to play an instrument. Approaching challenges in this way will build and grow the bond between parent and child. Taking on this task is a big commitment, but with the parent, teacher, and child all working toward the same goal, every child can learn to excel at their instrument!