With so much of our children’s education taking place in virtual spaces these days, it can be extra difficult to stay calm and focused during practice sessions. Here are some fun mid-practice ideas to help keep practice fun and productive.
Take a brain break! Sometimes we just need a few moments to reset our minds and bodies. A 60 second dance party, jumping jacks race, i.e. “how many can we do in 30 seconds?”, or wiggle break can help an energetic child blow off steam, while a stressed child might enjoy a cuddle break or a breathing exercise. Some fun breathing exercises are box breathing: in for 2, hold for 2, out for 2, hold for 2, repeated 5 times; or pretending to blow out a candle for as long as possible.
Focus on a beautiful, ringing tone! Taking a break from working on a difficult new technique to play some long, ringing open strings and listening to the reverberation can help bring your child’s brain back to the task at hand - creating beautiful music. You can also let them (appropriately) play out their frustrations by either playing their own piece or playing an angry Perpetual Motion, a sad Waltz, or anything else that suits their mood.
The last and most important tip has to do with communication. During practice, there are corrections that must be made, but there are ways to do so that will help your child stay calm and focused. The best time to state the goal is before your child starts playing, so they know what they’re aiming for. You can use the notes from the lesson to help with this, i.e. “Your teacher wants you to play this small section with careful low 2s”. Collaborative language like “let’s play that part more staccato, with a choppy sound”, positive phrasing such as “this time please use low 2s” rather than “don’t use high 2s, play it again with the right ones”, and focusing on one correction at a time are the most productive ways to communicate with your child during practice.
Hopefully these tips give you some fun ideas on how to find calm in this ever-changing world. Whenever you’re facing difficulty, you, your child, and your teacher can work together to come up with other strategies as well. Happy practicing!
Making corrections during home practice is hugely important, but sometimes a very complex task! It’s not very fun to be corrected, but it’s such an important part of improving ability that it’s necessary. Here are some ideas of how to help avoid frustration while working on improving.
Often, when we have to stop a child to correct a fingering or bowing during a play through, the child will feel jolted and interrupted. There are a few games to gently help your child stop playing. You can softly tap their “pause button” (for instance, the top of their heads) with your hand or a wand, or you can play freeze tag to stop them. If you know a tricky part is coming up, pause them beforehand and set them up for success by reminding them of the specific technique they need to utilize. Be sure to use neutral, informative phrasing like “this next part is the hooked bow passage, ready?” rather than negative phrasing, such as “remember, this is the hard part” or giving orders like “you have to remember to play the right notes in this next part”. Be sure also to pause them at random to preserve the “gamelike” feeling of the exercise.
The best way to avoid your child becoming frustrated or plowing through a tricky section with incorrect notes is to prepare that spot before playing through the whole piece! You can use a board game and give your child a turn for every correct repetition, or you can have them perform the spot in every room of the house, anything to keep the mood light while working hard on playing correctly. Talk through what they need to do to play the spot correctly beforehand, and do it at least 5 times to make sure they really internalize it. Then, play through the phrase that contains the practice spot a few times to make sure they can play it in context.
My last tip is to aim to see your child’s frustrations/emotional outbursts as a problem to be solved together, since it’s so easy to become frustrated yourself when you’re working so hard to help them. I like to think of myself as a detective, uncovering clues to deduce the source of their reactions, and making a plan for circumventing the issue while still helping the child improve. This is a stressful time of year for everyone, even in normal circumstances, so be sure to give yourself and your child lots of understanding and love!
In this unique time, you may find it hard for your children to stay focused and interested in playing without the motivation of weekly in-person lessons and group classes. Here are some ideas to gamify practice to keep them entertained and motivated in their instrumental studies!
1. Active practice - Does your child have energy to burn? Have a dance party to their Suzuki recording to help them get out some of those wiggles while learning their music more deeply. You can also work in sets of jumping jacks or running around between practice spot repetitions.
2. Practice performing - weather permitting, your neighbors would probably welcome a driveway concert, and it can give your child something to work towards with a piece they’re polishing. You can also make an audience of toys or play for relatives over video calls.
3. Any quick turn-based game is a great way to add novelty to practice spot repetitions. My studio’s favorites are Jenga, Spot It, and Connect Four.
4. Print instrument-themed coloring pages or drawing tutorials and color one part at a time throughout the practice.
5. Practice in different parts of the house. It can be fun to try out the acoustics in new rooms, and it’s a good way to help motivate your child to play the same thing many times in a row.
6. Make practice bingo. Fill the card with things like “Played a practice spot 10 times correctly”, “Began practice without complaint”, “Played all my review songs correctly”, “Listened to my recording”, etc. Try to get a bingo each week, and reward your child when they do!
7. Make a personalized board game- create a board in the shape of your child's first initial, then divide it into squares as fill in each square with an element of their practice assignment (play practice spot 5 times, listen to my new piece, etc). Use coins or knick knacks as game pieces.
I hope these ideas will help bring some levity and novelty to your practice and lives during these unprecedented times. Happy practicing!
Now that online lessons have become our new normal, at least temporarily, here are some ways to make sure you’re getting the most out of the experience!
1. Aim to view this as a new opportunity for different kinds of learning! If you approach this as a new idea to explore rather than an inconvenience, it will help your child be in a better mindset to be attentive and focused on the lesson.
2. Make sure you’re prepared. It’s a good idea to set up the lesson supplies (tuned instrument, notebook, music books, etc), but also to make sure your device is ready to go - do you need to find the iPad stand or something tall enough to set your phone on? The better the teacher can see and hear your child in the lesson, the better the advice they can give!
3. Minimizing other bandwidth-heavy internet usage like online gaming or HD streaming during the lesson time can help with connection and sound quality issues.
4. Attend the lesson with your child, when possible. I know that many families are working from home with no child care currently, so there may be extra scheduling challenges. However, your child will learn and retain so much more if you’re there to assist with adjustments and note taking.
Especially for younger students, don’t worry if they’re more prone to wandering off, talking about unrelated topics, or other less focused behaviors. They have learned to focus well in the specific setting of an in-person lesson, and it’s natural for there to be an adjustment period. Calmly redirecting their bodies or attention back to the lesson will help them learn this new skill!
As we all adjust to this temporary speed bump, I hope these ideas serve to make the transition smoother and help us work through these new challenges together!
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!