Ideally, every practice time would be a joy, not a chore. You’d call your child over and they’d come willingly, feeling excited to work on their assignments. They’d stay focused through the entire practice session, with no tangents or distractions. Although this situation isn’t attainable every practice time, I hope that with these suggestions, it can become closer to reality!
To help your child come willingly to practice, it’s important to prepare them mentally. It’s ideal to set up a predictable practice routine so your child knows what to expect. Give your child a tenand five-minute heads up that practice time is approaching, and help them start finishing up whatever they are doing. Make sure all their needs are met beforehand - offer water, a bathroom run, and perhaps a snack before beginning.
To help your child be excited to work on their assignments, use games and incentives! These will help keep your child engaged until they are experienced enough to see the intrinsic value in practicing. Some great games that I like to use in lessons are Jenga, Connect 4, and Cat Stacks. Other fun ideas are: trying to throw small pom poms into your case after each correct repetition, making an audience out of stuffed animals by adding a new “audience member” after each correct repetition, or doing jumping jacks. Incentives like earning stickers, small prizes, or treats can also help your child be more motivated to practice.
To help your child remain focused through the whole practice session, work within their abilities.
Remember that focus grows! Give your child time to adjust to this more organized way of learning. At first, practice may seem very inefficient, as your child needs hugs or chat breaks every few seconds. Give them a chance to get it out of their system, and then gently redirect their focus back to the task at hand. Gradually, you’ll see an improvement in the amount of time your child can spend on a task. Keeping the practice area neat, quiet, and calm will also help your child stay concentrated.
As you and your child work together more, and try these suggestions, I hope you’ll find a comfortable, balanced routine during practice time.
- Shannon Jansma, published in the March 2018 issue of the Ann Arbor Suzuki Institute newsletter
- Shannon Jansma, published in the February 2018 issue of the Ann Arbor Suzuki Institute newsletter
The new year is a great time to start fresh, and establish new patterns! The following ideas are from How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. Although this book was written nearly 40 years ago, it’s still commonly referenced and recommended by teachers and parents.
Faber writes that she was a wonderful parent before she had children. She was “an expert on why everyone else was having problems with theirs” - until she had three herself. She decided to join a parenting group, and attended a lecture on children’s feelings from a young psychologist, Dr. Haim Ginott.
The lecture discussed a few key points:
Sometimes, however, it is difficult to accept a child’s feelings. Some examples of this are saying things like ”you don’t really feel that way”, ”you’re just saying that because you’re tired”, or ”there’s no reason to be so upset”. A steady denial of children’s feelings can confuse and upset them. It teaches children to not know, or trust, their feelings.
The author decides to try and put herself in her children’s shoes, and empathize with what they’re feeling.
She thinks to herself, “Suppose I was a child who was tired or hot or bored? And suppose I wanted that all-important grown-up in my life to know what I was feeling...?” She was determined to try empathizing with her children’s concerns, and allowing them to have their own feelings. After all, Faber thinks, “We each felt what we felt.” Learning to accept her children’s feelings led to a much smoother home life!
TO HELP WITH FEELINGS
- Shannon Jansma, published in the January 2018 issue of the Ann Arbor Suzuki Institute newsletter
Dr. Suzuki says we must practice only on the days we eat. Since this is hopefully most days, practice can begin to feel tedious, even for the most diligent students. It can also be exciting for children to mix up their routines a little! Here are some ideas to spice up a bland practice routine!
Setting a regular practice time is probably the best way to make sure practicing happens most days. The trick is finding a time that works for both your child and your family’s schedule. Experiment with different times, to see how your child’s focus changes throughout the day. Many children don’t have the energy or focus to practice right after school, and will prefer before school or after dinner. If your child is a bit older, let them have some say in when they practice! It will help them take ownership of their learning.
If practice time flows easily from one task to the next, children will naturally focus longer. It’s important to keep the momentum going. If practice is drawn out by pauses to search for music books or lesson notes, children will lose focus, and practice will feel like it’s taking much longer than it should. Keep your child’s practice materials and instrument in a stable spot, so that everything is easy to find. An older child can also help with practice set up, as a way to start mentally preparing for practice! This will help keep practice flowing smoothly.
Make review exciting with a game! Sometimes, students fall into thinking that review is boring, because they are just repeating music they already know. If review is a struggle, turn it into a game - students could draw piece names out of a hat, roll dice for a for a piece number, or earn a little prize (such as a skittle, grape or coin) for each piece played correctly. There’s a popular version of name drawing called the “fish game”, where families cut out little fish shapes and write review pieces (and sometimes the main technical focus or “practice spots”) on them. Then, with a “fishing rod” made of string and a tape ball, the child “fishes” for each assignment.
Make practice spots fun! Another great Dr. Suzuki line is “Knowledge is not skill. Knowledge plus ten thousand times is skill”. But ten thousand repetitions is no easy feat. Even five or ten reps a day can feel like a lot. Any turn based board or card game can become a practice game! Your child earns a turn by playing the spot correctly. Another fun practice activity is building a Lego set, where each time the child plays the spot correctly, they get to add a piece.
Keep a positive attitude! If parents treat practice time like a chore, children will pick up on that feeling. Similarly, if parents don’t concentrate during practice time, their child will not be able to either. Once the parent is focused and ready, they can help their little one more effectively. Work with your child’s abilities!
If your child can only focus for five minutes, or even one minute at a time, that’s okay. Practice without focus isn’t worth much. It’s better to give your child a little break and then come back to practicing. For an energetic student, five jumping jacks can be a good practice break. A calmer child might prefer reading a few pages of a book. Whatever your child prefers, make sure it’s something they can do for a short time and then come back to practicing without becoming too distracted.
Having a well stocked arsenal of games and activities will help your child with review and repetitions of new techniques. Parents can also help practice time flow more smoothly by making sure the practice time is regular, and the space is organized. Parents should keep in mind that children will pick up on their feelings about practice, and that having a positive attitude will help keep practice time a fun experience!
- Shannon Jansma, published in the December 2017 issue of the Ann Arbor Suzuki Institute newsletter
I play a little game with some of my younger students who are just learning to listen: in one of its simplest forms, I will play the Twinkle Theme and they have to raise their bow in the air whenever I play an A. Most of my students are experts at this game after the second try. They know what “A” sounds like – we sing it at every lesson. More importantly, they’ve been listening to their CDs at home, so they know when it’s coming. (Sometimes, I’ll fool them by stopping after a “pre-A” note. Their bow goes up, I reveal my trick, we all laugh and I see if I can trick them again.)
Students and parents who are just learning to listen are off to a great start by listening in the car, or having the recording on in the background at home. Just by being exposed to the music in this way every day, students are learning melody, rhythm, and beautiful tone. In his book Teaching From the Balance Point, Ed Kreitman refers to this type of listening as “passive listening”, which I would encourage everyone to do every day. In addition, I would also want my students to add “active listening” into their daily practice, where they are focusing more on singular aspects of the pieces to which they are listening.
How do you start actively listening?
I send my students on scavenger hunts, starting with small, attainable goals. For Twinklers and early Book 1 students, try counting how many “A”s are in a piece. Or, ask them if the notes are short or long.
Is the piece fast or slow? As students progress, make the scavenger hunt harder: are these notes staccato or slurred? Where are the tempo changes in this piece? What is happening in the piano part in that piece? The list goes on.
Eventually, you may be able to step away from the scavenger hunt and ask open-ended questions like “What do you think is interesting about this piece?” “What do you like about the way this is played?” “What do you not like about they way this is played?” Questions like these can help develop students’ own musical ideas.
Active listening is a great way to bring students’ attention to the finer details of a piece: bowings, articulations, dynamics, and changes in tempo, among others. I have found that when a student is aware that these things are happening in a piece, they start taking ownership of their own playing, and their musicality really blossoms.
Remember: when in doubt about listening or any other practice habit, talk to your child’s teacher about how to make the most of your home practice time. And if you haven’t read Teaching From the Balance Point, I would highly recommend it! Happy listening!
- Shannon Jansma, published in the November 2017 issue of the Ann Arbor Suzuki Institute newsletter
Although you are probably aware of all the reasons why it is good for your child to perform in front of an audience, we don't talk much about what your child gains from being a part of the audience! Here are five reasons why it is good to attend live performances with your child.
- Shannon Jansma, published in the May 2017 issue of the Ann Arbor Suzuki Institute newsletter
The most difficult thing about listening is probably just remembering to hit play! But even when that challenge has been overcome, listening to the same pieces in exactly the same way can begin to feel stale. If we can find a way to make listening fresh and exciting, it will be easier for your child to want to listen! Here's some thoughts on how to spice up your listening routine:
Ambient listening! Play the CD while doing other activities. Make sure the volume is loud enough to be heard clearly, but not loud enough to disrupt conversation. This creates an immersive environment for the whole family, and when the family listens together, it is easier for you to be an effective practice partner.
Follow along with the sheet music! This is a really good one for students who are at the age where they are beginning to work on note reading. They can trace the page with a finger at first to help them follow the notes. Listening in this way also helps children have a more focused and detailed listening experience. Make sure to check with your teacher before utilizing this idea, to make sure your child is ready for this more visual approach.
Listen, then discuss! Talk about how the song makes you feel. Is it happy or sad? What speed is it? Is it loud or soft? It can also be fun to make up a story to go with each song! Helping your child engage with the recording on a more personal level makes them feel more connected to the music. Some teachers and families even like to make up lyrics to the repertoire songs so they can sing along!
Listening is a hugely important aspect of the Suzuki Method! It is necessary to create the immersive environment that Dr. Suzuki valued so highly. Hopefully these new ideas will help your family listen in new and interesting ways!
- Shannon Jansma, published in the March 2017 issue of the Ann Arbor Suzuki Institute newsletter
Performance is a presentation of how you and your child have practiced and what you’ve focused on.
It’s a chance for them to show off their hard work and dedication! Performing can also be a bit intimidating, but with good preparation every child can give a great performance!
Every time your child plays, they are training their body and mind - not only when they’re explicitly preparing for a performance. Many students like to noodle around on their instruments, but if they do so with a weak tone, they are teaching their body to continue to play that way. If students learn instead to plan on a beautiful tone every time they play, it will become a natural part of their technique!
Phrasing and musicality deserve repetitions as well as more obvious aspects of music like pitch and rhythm. Be sure to work these things into practice spots and section work. A good way to begin introducing these ideas into practice is talking through the phrasing and shape of the piece with your child. It will help them feel ownership of the music, and they’ll gain a clearer picture of the overarching plan of the piece.
Another way to prepare for performances while practicing is to remind your child of the dynamics and articulations in their review piece before they begin playing. Practice all aspects of the piece, including rests and performance tempo! When repeating practice spots, incorporate dynamics and phrasing into at least some of the repetitions. Above all, consistency is key! If your child always plays the crescendos, staccatos, et cetera, they will continue to do so even with an audience.
- Shannon Jansma, published in the January 2017 issue of the Ann Arbor Suzuki Institute newsletter
Listening is easy to do, but because it’s so simple, it’s often overlooked. When a student listens well, they internalize the music and are excited to learn each new piece. Families often see this illustrated when a younger sibling begins lessons. Progress is often astonishingly quick because the child has already been learning the music for years before their first lesson. Although having years to listen before lessons is beneficial, it’s not necessary! This type of environment can be created in any home!
How do you know if your child is effectively listening? They’ll be able to sing or hum pieces with good rhythm and intonation. They can talk about the phrasing of the performer and the mood of the piece. Eventually they’ll even be able to hear what key a piece is in before beginning it. Most importantly, they’ll be excited by and engaged in the music!
If you need new ways to enjoy listening with your child, here are some things to try! For more physical or wiggly students, playing patty-cake or catch to the beat of the song is a good way to harness that energy! Dancing your new song can be fun too. Picking a quiet activity like coloring or another craft to do while listening is a great way to wind down in the evening. For families who like to listen in the car it can be fun to hum along. Whatever you do, make sure that listening is enjoyable and inspiring for your child.
- Shannon Jansma, published in the December 2016 issue of the Ann Arbor Suzuki Institute newsletter
Technical challenges are important, but they are not the be all and end all of musical growth. Because technique is fairly easy to quantify, it’s easy to look towards as a measure of progress. However, as recital and concert season approaches, it’s good to remember the importance of playing easy music beautifully!
Is it necessary to be challenged all the time? Challenges are an important part of a student’s growth, but constantly stretching yourself to the limit can be exhausting! Just as it’s important to push yourself to grow and progress, it’s equally important to learn to free your mind and just play!
Playing easy pieces helps us strive for excellence. Sticking with a song after the notes are learned gives students a chance to work on developing advanced tone, musicality, and phrasing. They can discover their own voice, and what they want to say with a certain piece! Opening yourself up and giving a heartfelt performance in front of an audience is a difficult thing to do even while playing an easy song. If a student is always bogged down by technical concerns, they won’t have anything left to put into playing beautifully!
When playing in a group concert, performing easy pieces well becomes even more important. For some of the students on stage, playing Twinkle is a huge accomplishment! For those little ones, hearing the “big kids” tone behind them during a concert is an amazing experience! It gives them a look at what they’ll be able to accomplish in the future, and inspires them and the audience. When we play easy pieces well, everyone enjoys it!
- Shannon Jansma, published in the November 2016 issue of the Ann Arbor Suzuki Institute newsletter