The Four Stages of Learning is a theory modeling how we learn a new skill. The stages are:
Usually, students struggle to attain the fourth stage. It’s the difference between being able to do something the right way, and having that thing so ingrained that you can’t do it wrong. I explain it to my students this way: “Play it until I could come over to your house at two in the morning, wake you up, and you could still play it for me!” The main way to elevate any new technique is through mindful repetition. At first, your child will need to fully focus on the skill, but eventually they should be able to focus on the feeling of playing.
This idea is most useful for small, easily attainable goals. Each goal should be focused on one at a time, and every repetition should be precise! This way, only the right skills get to the fourth level.
- Shannon Jansma, published in the May 2016 issue of the Ann Arbor Suzuki Institute newsletter
“Anything you think of doing, however insignificant, should be done immediately.”
This is one of my favorite quotes by Dr. Suzuki. It’s especially fitting regarding practice time as the school year winds down, and students struggle with spring fever, or increased homework loads as finals loom. However, like most things, this idea of “think it, do it” is much more easily said than done! If you find your family struggling with practice time, here are some ideas.
Remember that even five minutes of practice is infinitely better than nothing! Take advantage of any small chunks of time in your day to fit in mini-practices. This time of year is great for working on practicing towards small, attainable goals. Your child probably can’t polish an entire piece in the course of five minutes, but I bet they could adjust a fingering or refine a rhythm!
If you’re not sure how to prioritize your child’s assignments, check with your teacher. Many of my students need a hierarchy of their practice spots and review assignments. Usually, I choose to have them focus on practice spots in their polish piece first, then review, and lastly their new piece. Every teacher will have a different idea of what’s most important!
For older children, practice makes a great study spacer. Rather than jumping straight from one subject to the next, have your child take a fivetoten minute break between each subject. It’s better for information retention as well as a great way to fit practice time into a busy schedule. At this age, students may be able to prioritize their practice a little more independently. Help them stay focused on small goals rather than trying to cram as much playing into that time as possible.
Review pieces can be used as a way to wind down after a busy day, to help quiet the mind before bed. I know that in high school I often had trouble falling asleep, because my mind was still working hard to process everything I’d worked on during the day. Music has a powerful impact on the brain, and playing pieces you know well is very calming. Often older students (myself included) will use a practice mute while doing this to avoid waking parents and younger siblings.
Lastly, don’t be too hard on yourself or your child! Do your best to practice each day, but remember that the overarching pattern is more important than a few off days. Suzuki also said “Without stopping, without haste, carefully taking a step at a time forward will surely get you there.”
- Shannon Jansma, published in the April 2016 issue of the Ann Arbor Suzuki Institute newsletter
Review is good for a lot of things! Children enjoy playing something they know that they can do well, it warms up muscles and minds, and it helps us prepare for recitals. However, mindful review is most helpful; simply playing the notes isn’t useful if the student doesn’t remember what was introduced in each piece. Whatever new technique the piece introduced, going back and recreating the steps used to learn it will solidify it in your child’s mind. It also shows children the progress they’ve made in lessons‐pieces that used to be a struggle become normal, and then easy!
It can be really fun for a student to think back to when they first learned Variation A. How far have they come since then? Remembering how it felt to first learn a piece helps children put their current technical struggles in perspective. Have your child think about learning each technique for the first time, and recreate the steps their teacher used to teach it. Now, when they play the piece, their focus is on its purpose, and they can see how far they’ve come!
Review is also a great time to work on musicality and refine phrasing techniques. It’s simple to add vibrato to Lightly Row, or refine crescendos by adding them to Song of the Wind. When your child doesn’t need to focus their full attention on fingerings and other basics, there is more room for phrasing experiments!
- Shannon Jansma, published in the March 2016 issue of the Ann Arbor Suzuki Institute newsletter
One technique for enhancing practicing is watching a video before practicing. It’s a fun way to begin, and lets the child mentally prepare for practicing. Watching a video of a great performer models good technique and musicality as well as the real world requirements of performing. With the advent of YouTube, getting ahold of high quality videos is easy.
When watching a video, first simply observe. Afterwards, take turns saying what you enjoyed about the performance. Simple observations like “he had a beautiful sound” or “she played really fast” are good. As students become more adept at observing, they may make more advanced observations pertaining to phrasing, bow distribution, etc.
Watch again and try to discover what the performer is doing to accomplish what you heard or saw. For example, could his beautiful tone be due to a straight bow, or a rounded bow hand? Could her speed be because she knows exactly what finger is going next? Both parent and child should say how they think it’s working.
Focus on one technique you observed in the performer, and organize the practice around that. Best if it’s a small, well‐defined goal‐if your child noticed the performer’s intonation; don’t make the goal “play in tune”. Instead, focus on remembering to play C versus C#, or keeping threes right on top of the tape. IT can be useful to think of the Sesame Street format‐This practice was brought to you by careful 3s and smooth slurs!
- Shannon Jansma, published in the March 2016 issue of the Ann Arbor Suzuki Institute newsletter
This is the time of year when many of our studios are preparing for recitals. While lots of great recital preparation is done in lessons and group, it’s always a great idea to supplement home practicing. Here are some ideas for parents!
Listen! Even when a child has polished and memorized their piece, listening can solidify their mental recording, get them comfortable with the accompaniment part, and help them feel more secure. It is also a great way to double‐check bowings and notes so your child’s habits stay correct between lessons!
Try on recital clothes! Make sure everything fits and practice playing in it. This is especially important if your child will wear heels at the recital. Children can grow so quickly, and being comfortable in their clothing will help them give a great performance.
Practice performing! It’s a great idea to have a mock recital each day before the event. Make a game of it, and set up an audience of stuffed animals or siblings! Have them practice walking up, playing, and bowing. This is especially helpful for younger children with less recital experience. They’ll feel much more comfortable if they’ve rehearsed all the aspects of performing!
Practice playing in different environments! Sometimes a child can get very used to playing in their habitual spots, and feel discombobulated performing elsewhere. It can be fun to give a performance in each room of the house, or while visiting friends and family. The more performing experience your child gains, the easier it will become.
Practice calming down! Being able to self‐soothe is a very important skill. Work with your child on deep, slow breathing or creating a mental image of a relaxing place. Also, be sure to let them know that it’s okay if the performance doesn’t go as planned. If something happens, just keep playing and have fun!
Have a happy recital!
- Shannon Jansma, published in the February 2016 issue of the Ann Arbor Suzuki Institute newsletter
In 2009, Robert A. Duke, Amy L. Simmons, and Carla Davis Cash got together a group of seventeen pianists to study how their practice affected their performances. These musicians were all advanced undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Texas at Austin. They were given a short passage of a Shostakovich concerto to learn. The students were allowed to practice the passage as long as they liked, with practice lengths ranging from 11 to 57 minutes. The next day, they returned and performed the excerpt fifteen times. A committee of piano teachers was brought in to observe the practice sessions and performances. The performances were ranked based primarily of notes and rhythms, but some consideration was given to phrasing and articulation as well.
Through analysis of the pianists’ practice and performance, it was found that the biggest predictor of a successful performance was the percentage of repetitions that were correct or nearcorrect. The other important variable was the total number of incorrect repetitions, which had an inverse relationship with an effective performance. The total number of correct repetitions, surprisingly, had little connection with a confident performance. Neither did the total number of minutes practiced.
While analyzing the performances, there were three pianists whose playing stood out from the others. When the practice habits of these three were analyzed, the committee found that these musicians performed the excerpt fully early on. In the study, they reference playing handstogether, but for a string player this might mean considering including the correct bowing, dynamics, and articulation early on. The practice was analytical, in that the performers paused to consider each spot before they commenced playing it. They anticipated the difficult areas and paused to work them out before continuing. When a mistake occurred, they addressed it immediately, and were able to pinpoint the exact source of the issue and work on it in detail.
The biggest predictor of a commendable performance was a varied practice speed. The three top players were more likely to practice slowly, and speed the spot up gradually, rather than continuing to rush through it.
For a young player, it’s especially important to practice carefully, so they experience a lot of success and learn to enjoy playing! Some good practice techniques to utilize these ideas at home are:
Information from It's Not How Much; It's How: Characteristics of Practice Behavior and Retention of Performance Skills, Duke et al, published in 2009.
- Shannon Jansma, published in the October 2015 issue of the Ann Arbor Suzuki Institute newsletter
Dr. Suzuki says we only need to practice on the days that we eat. Since this is hopefully most days, practicing can start to feel a bit boring. A bit “stuck in a rut”. It can also be exciting for students to mix up their routines a little! Whether you’ve been noticing your child’s interest in practicing waning, or just want to change things up,, here are some ideas for both parent and child!
Pick a good practice time! Some kids have the energy to practice right after school, while others need a break or would prefer to wait until after dinner. Some students (especially those in other extracurricular activities) would prefer to get up early and play before school instead. If your child is older, let them have some input on the practice time.
Be organized! This is especially helpful for young students. If practice time is always drawn out by pauses to search for materials or assignment sheets, a young student will lose focus, and practice time will feel like it takes forever! Having a special spot for your child’s materials and instrument, and making a list of practice assignments (if your teacher doesn’t hand them out) will help keep practice time moving along.
Make review a game! Students could draw piece names out of a hat, roll a die or two for a piece number, or earn a little prize (such as a skittle or sticker) 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 teaching point of the piece) 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 reps is no easy feat. Even five or ten a day can feel like a lot. Any turnbased 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. This also works well with a block creation.
Keep a positive attitude! If parents treat practice time like a drag, children will pick up on that feeling. Similarly, if parents don’t focus during practice time, their child won’t either.
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 child, 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.
Having a well stocked arsenal of games and activities and a positive attitude will help keep practice time a fun experience!
- Shannon Jansma, published in the April 2015 issue of the Ann Arbor Suzuki Institute newsletter
Everyone has trouble practicing sometimes. Identifying ways to improve practice time will help your child grow as a musician, and helps take some stress off of parents as well! Here are some common problems families run into, and some tools for overcoming them.
If your child is always resistant when you tell them it’s time to practice, try giving a five or ten minute warning before practice time. Some children need time to mentally prepare to switch tasks. 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. If a verbal reminder seems not to help, try playing the CD for five or ten minutes before practice time. This will help switch your child’s mindset.
If review has become a chore, turn it into a game! 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 dice to see which they’ll play.
If your child has trouble focusing for the duration of the practice, split practice time up. Two or three shorter practices 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. Try to base it on your child’s attention span. 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, not mentioning other things during practice time, etc.) is marked with a smiley face. 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!”
If your child has trouble practicing slowly, ease into it. First, clap the rhythm of the piece slowly. Then, say the note names or finger numbers in rhythm at the same speed. Lastly, have them play the section. You can also find many videos online of teachers playing the Suzuki repertoire slowly. Sometimes students have trouble with slow practice because they always hear the recordings at performance tempo. Screen any videos first to make sure the playing level is appropriate.
If you’re having a persistent issue with practicing, be sure to ask your teacher! They’ll have specific insights on your child, and it’s important for the teacher to be aware of the situation. The most important part of practice is that the child remains engaged in the activities. They’ll accomplish more, and enjoy playing better.
- Shannon Jansma, published in the February 2015 issue of the Ann Arbor Suzuki Institute newsletter
As we approach the winter holiday season, it can start getting really hard to find time to practice! Schedules are busier and less structured, and traveling with instruments can be complicated. Additionally, many students suffer from "vacation brain" and have trouble focusing or getting motivated to practice. Here are some strategies for scheduling practice time, and utilizing the time you have.
Having a regular practice time is the best strategy for making practicing easy. Growing up, my brother and I's practice time was 7:30pm. Even now, when I see the clock at 7:30, my first thought is "practice time!". However, even if you normally have a set practice time, holiday schedules can get in the way. If you can't stick to a single regular time, schedule it into your child's day, the same as homework, swimming lessons, etc. Add it to your family calendar and stick to the schedule. If you make practicing just something you do, rather than an extra thing that is added on at the end of the day, it will be much easier to accomplish.
Even though practice time may be limited, it's important to keep it fun. A positive association with practicing is very important, so avoid making this a stressful or rushed time. Continue to play the games your child likes. You can make up new holiday games as well. One fun game is to have a special holiday practice candle. Light it every time you begin a practice, and blow it out when you're finished. See how long it takes to use up the candle. When family is visiting, your child can give a small concert in lieu of a regular practice. There are many ways to keep practicing fun!
When you encounter resistance from your child about practicing over a school break, it's important to talk about why we practice regularly. Muscles are slow learners compared to the brain, and need lots of repetition to make it stick! Muscles also forget things quickly, so we can't take too much time off from practicing.
There may be days where practicing is impossible to fit in. Either days spent travelling, at other people's houses, or days that are just packed with errands. On days like this, it's important to focus on what you can do. The easiest is listening. Put the CD in the car or on your child's MP3 player, and have them hum or clap along. Listen to a newer piece five or six times in a row. Older children can bring along their book, and follow along while listening. Remember that if there's a day where practicing just doesn't happen, it's alright! Plan for tomorrow and brush it off. Don't make it a negative experience for yourself or your child. Talk about the plan for tomorrow, and make sure to stick to it. Skipping a practice day once in a while is not a big deal, but it's important not to let it become a habit.
- Shannon Jansma, published in the November/December 2014 issue of the Ann Arbor Suzuki Institute newsletter