Music practice has its highs and lows. Sometimes we reach a state of bliss and flow as we find the perfect balance of competence, challenge, and creativity with our instrument. Or, sometimes we can feel like Sisyphus; over and over pushing up a hill a huge… grand piano …or something. Mastery requires effort, and I haven’t met anyone for whom consistent and productive practice is easy.

Now let’s add family relationships into the mix. Parents fantasize about their child running gleefully to the practice room without being reminded and falling into this state of blissful and productive flow.

Occasionally this happens, or happens for a time, but all families…all musicians go through rough patches when it is a struggle just to pick up the instrument and start to play.

Brittany Gardner has been a student, teacher and parent.

Brittany Gardner: Practicing can be hard! Yes, that’s true.

Margaret Watts Romney: Through her story, and with insights from education thought leader and NYT bestselling author Jessica Lahey,

Jessica Lahey I’m lucky enough I get to write about what I love the most which is education and child welfare.

MWR:…we will explore healthy learning relationships, the importance of the words we choose to praise, and how to create an environment in which students feel ownership of their music.
You’re listening to Building Noble Hearts, a production of the Suzuki Association of the Americas. I’m Margaret Watts Romney. Here, we take a look at the learning environments in which children, parents, and teachers gain new knowledge, and are encouraged to become fine individuals. Throughout this season, we’re speaking with people whose lives have intersected the work of humanitarian violinist Shinichi Suzuki, and we’re finding themes of good teaching everywhere; themes like effort, praise, and internal motivation.
When Brittany Gardner was young, Music was part of the air her family breathed.

BG: My parents were both trained as music educators. And taught music in the public school, actually together for a while. Music in my home growing up was just part of fabric of lives. It was just what you did in our family, and it was part of who you were.

MWR: Though music was all around, it wasn’t always easy.

BG: I do remember my sister telling me about a time she got so mad at mom that she threw her piano books across the room at her. So that happened. I can remember very vividly when I was in Suzuki Cello book 4 and learning tenor clef. and my dad helped me learn it. I remember crying and crying because it so frustrating. But he just stuck with me. My dad was really cool. He’s not an emotional kind of guy. He’s friendly and fun and really happy, but he did not get affected by my tantrums. And so he would say, “I know you can do this, try again. That’s not the right note, try again.”
MWR: So he stayed connected with you
BG: Yeah, he did. He stayed with me and we pushed through that.

MWR: And as important as music is to everything we talk about here, I have to allow that Brittany’s prevailing memory is not about music….

BG: I don’t remember any notes he taught me, or any pieces he taught me, but do you know what I do remember? I remember being with my dad. I remember my dad wearing his pajamas, and I’m wearing my pajamas, he brought his clarinet out, and I was playing my cello, we were just playing our music together. I remember thinking, my dad thinks I’m important enough that he’s spending his time with me.

MWR: Struggle, connection: these are some of the elements in the recipe for successful self practicers. Students who are inspired to find the drive within themselves to strive and to learn.
Let’s take a moment to examine where a student’s motivation comes from: Is it from an external stimulus, or from a source within?
To find out more about students and their learning environment, I spoke with educator and New York Times bestselling anuthor Jessica Lahey from her home in New Hampshire.

Jessica Lahey: I’ve been a teacher almost 20 years. I’ve taught every grade from 6th to 12 grade. English and Latin and writing, and I currently teach drug and alcohol addicted kids in an inpatient rehab setting…

MWR: Over the years Jess has made close study of her students and one day she had a startling realization:

JL: I heard from a student that she wrote paper for me on her obsession with being perfect. About appearing perfect, all of that. Her obsession with grades and points and scores as evidence of her perfection. All of that had rendered her incapable of enjoying learning anymore. That was beside the point for her. For me, that was devastating. I had taught her for three years. I had taught her and I was her advisor. I knew this kid really well. And this was a kid who had loved to learn. And somehow we had beaten that out of her over three years. That was devastating to me. The same day I read that paper, I came home and found out that my younger son who is now 14 but who was 9 at the time was incapable of tying his own shoes. I didn’t know that because he didn’t want anyone to know. He was so ashamed of it. I had done that. I had been tying his shoes for him. I had made all sorts of excuses about why it was faster, easier for me to do this kind of thing for him. And his inability to tie his shoes, was this sudden realization of all the other things that he is incapable of doing because of me. Because I have been doing those things for him. So as much as I wanted to look down on the parents of my students and be angry at the parents of my students, I couldn’t because I was just like them.

MWR: Jess was more focused on the outcome of her son having tied shoes than she was with the process of letting him learn to tie his own shoes. Her student was caught up with the expectation of perfection more than the process of education. Realizing this, Jess took a hard look at her own parenting, read a lot of studies about education, and wrote a book about it, The Gift of Failure. One discovery: Children who can motivate themselves, who are internally motivated, are more likely to become lifelong learners. Conversely, students who are motivated externally by sources outside of themselves often leave their discipline as soon as the motivation is removed.

JL: I think it’s really important to talk about the fact that extrinsic motivators can look like a lot of different things. We tend to just think of them as paying kids for grades, or sticker charts or giving kids a lollipop in exchange for something. Extrinsic motivators actually can work great in a couple of limited contexts and they can work great for a one off, trying to get a kid to do something one time, just to boost initial motivation.
Extrinsic motivators can be those simple things, carrots and stick stuff, but you also have to think larger. Extrinsic motivators are any kind of control you put over people. Or I’m going to check the portal, and look at your grades constantly. That’s called surveillance. That’s an extrinsic motivator. If you’re going to track their kids on their phone, that’s also surveillance, that’s an extrinsic motivators. While I’m not saying we can’t do these things or can’t do these things, I’m saying we have to think about these things as extrinsic motivators and realized that doing any of those things, positive or negative extrinsic motivators All undermine creativity and intrinsic motivation.
So, 40 years of research, including meta studies, studies about the studies, are really clear that if you want your kids to do something that requires long term focus and creativity, that extrinsic motivators are terrible. They undermine both of those things.

MWR: So if intrinsic motivation is what we’re after, so how do we help our children build that?

JL: The intrinsic motivation thing is based on three things, the autonomy, the competence, and the connection. The connection stuff is very much about talking more about process than product.

MWR: which are exactly the elements in the room when Brittany was struggling to learn Tenor clef with her dad. So… let’s look at that moment of struggle.
As parents, we are hard wired to want to keep our children out of pain and fear, so when we see our children’s faces filled with concern, worry, or stress, our loving impulse is to snatch them away from the situation that is causing the stress. But these are the exact moments when the deepest learning can happen.
Jess needed to let her 9 year old struggle to learn to tie his shoes, however much time it took, or however imperfectly he did it. Brittany’s parents stayed in connection but allowed her to struggle as she learned tenor clef.
Our brains learn best when there is work, struggle, and effort, but what language we use to encourage kids to learn, which actions we praise, can make a huge difference.

JL: The reality is that when we praise kids for, “you’re so smart, you’re so talented, you’re so creative, you just fell out of the womb that way,” a couple things that happen. We get kids who become incredibly protective of that label, of “smart” and they will do anything to protect it including cheat more. James M. Lang in his book Cheating Lessons says that if you want to create a classroom of cheaters, just keep praising them for how smart they are. It undermines creativity, and you create kids that ask for help less because they don’t want to appear that they don’t know what they are doing, they will lie about their scores, they will also, as Carol Dweck’s research shows, take more pleasure in other people’s failures.
The message around praise is this: we really need to praise kids for their effort through the process. We need to emphasize the process over the product. Praising things like, “Last night when you were doing your homework I took a peek in the room and I saw that it was a little frustrating for you and I’m just really proud of you for sticking with it when it was hard.”

MWR: Struggle, and praise of the process are crucial, Jess also outlined the elements that create the blissful state of “flow.” Flow is what we reach for in our studies, in sports, and with our instruments, and she says it’s not easy, but can be simple to create when you have the right ingredients.

JL: I love to refer to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow, because that is like the apex state of intrinsic motivation. When you’re doing something for the sake of the thing itself, and time and space falls away and it’s just you and the activity, whether that’s playing cello for you, or cross country skiing, or whatever it is, where you look up and you realize, “Oh my gosh, three hours have gone by, and I don’t even know where they went.”
That place doesn’t happen without three things. Autonomy which is kind of like independence, but has more to do with giving people control over the details of a task. Competence, which unfortunately is not the same thing as confidence, which confidence is kind of an optimism, but competence is based on actual experience. And connection.

MWR: Competence, Connection, and Autonomy. All three were baked into Brittany Gardner’s experience as a child. Musical competence was gained from a young start of music education being part of her family’s life. She had connection with her parents as they supported her studies and stayed with her through her struggles and triumphs. Then, she and her siblings all experienced autonomy as they reached their teen years, and their parents supported them as they chose their own life paths.

BG: Of the three of us, I’m the only one who does music as profession. It became very clear as we hit our teen years where our interests and our paths were. My sister was also involved with classical ballet. She always wanted to be physical therapist.
My Brother every sport under the sun. He works in business.
I respect my parents a lot for being wise enough to step back and let their children’s personalities and interest emerge.

MWR: So Brittany got a couple of college degrees in music, became a professional musician, started teaching, and then learned even more lessons about competence, connection and autonomy when she had her own students and her own children.

BG: You know when you’re a teacher and you ask your student to do something 5 times, and they do it 5 times, and so you move on to the next thing and you say try this five times, and they do it and they are so cooperative! Then I go home and I say, “Ok my child! Let’s do this exercise 5 times,” and then she starts crying for no reason! And I say, “I’m sorry…what?” “I don’t want to!” “…what??” I had never had a student break down in tears and yell at me that they don’t want to. But it seems like that was a regular occurance in practicing.
It comes down to the parent is the limit which this child is testing. The teacher is the instructor, but the child tests the parent in a way they don’t test the teacher generally.

MWR: Brittany’s adventures in parent practicing started when her daughters were young. She chose to immerse them in a music environment just as her parents had done for her.

BG: So, my violinist started when she was three, and whatever was done in the lesson was what we did at home. And because my daughter was only three and in preschool twice a week for a couple of hours, we had time. I think that is one of the beautiful things about starting a child very young. I don’t think that you have to start young in music lesson for them to be successful. I personally didn’t touch a cello until I was 8 years old, so I feel like a “late beginner” in the Suzuki world.

MWR: Side note: if you are a new listener, or new to Suzuki teaching and these ages sound incredibly young to you, go back to our season one episode called, “Skills I didn’t know my child had.” Ok. Back to Brittany…

BG: For me as a parent, it really was helpful to start my child really young and think we had all this much time. Time to let things sink in. Time to practice without feeling rushed. I think about those early days and they were exhausting!

MWR: It took a lot of energy, but giving them a strong foundation early to provide later confidence was her plan. Also, she understood her daughters in a new way from working with them intensively with music education.

BG: For me, the one on one time with my child everyday where we can practice our relationship every day is why I stick with it. Then there is this really cool side benefit that then they play music.

MWR: She also learned to choose her words of praise or correction carefully as she watched her daughter’s violin teacher. She avoided the broad praise terms of “smart,” and “talented,” but also learned to choose her corrective words carefully. Instead of calling a missed note a mistake, she learned to say:

BG: Oh, “this was a surprise!” Instead of, “You were wrong! You didn’t know!” It’s like,”Wasn’t that interesting?!” To use a favorite phrase from my daughters first violin teacher, “That’s something that will help us grow!”
It’s been really helpful to realize that growth comes from struggle and you have to validate that struggle and not dismiss it. The struggle is part of the growth and are you going to get afraid by it or mad at it or are you going to take your child by the hand and walk through it together.

MWR: When her children were very young, she did take them by the hand, and walked them through their struggles to achieve their family goal of music fluency. Now, as they are on the brink of teen-hood, she sees the importance of allowing space for their own autonomy and also sees her own process letting go.

BG: I’ve really handed off a lot of the quantitative autonomy to my children.
I’m working towards doing a better job of handing off the autonomy of qualitative work for my children. It’s really easy for me as a string player who has string playing children to say, “I know that note’s out of tune. Let me tell you that it’s out of tune. Let me tell you how to fix it. Let’s do it.”
And sometimes I’ll put myself in there, and that’s not the best. I’m practicing on doing better. But I will try to pin it on the teacher and go back to them as the mentor the expert as the one who really knows so it doesn’t become me against my child. I have to not be the expert here.

MWR: And this letting go by parents, is exactly what we need to do at some point in their development to help kids grow in their self reliance.

JL: In a series of studies done by this woman Wendy Grolnick, she found that parents who support kids autonomy, who support kids in their efforts to do tasks the way they want to do them, how they want to do them, those kids are more able to get frustrated and to complete tasks on their own when their parents are not present.

MWR: Though Brittany started her daughters at a young age, she told me that she saw many students being successful in music even if they started later. I asked her, what were the most important elements to music education?

BG: Two things come clearly to my mind. 1) consistency 2) attitude.

MWR:…and she gave me an example.

BG: Makes me think of the opportunity I had to travel with my family to Japan this last August.
I remember going to this garden and everything was just manicured immaculately. I saw the gardener there and he was using the super tiny shears on a bush. They were so tiny! The cuts he was making were so tiny, just miniscule. And I thought to myself, “Do you even need to do that trimming right now? Clearly no one will notice if you didn’t do that today.” Around the whole grounds everything was exactly in place. Then I came back to my home in the US and on my street that day there was a giant truck that was hacking down a tree that had completely died. It hadn’t been attended to regularly. And I thought, “well, there it is!”

MWR: This consistency, this calm attitude of continual progress is perhaps what Dr. Shinichi Suzuki was pointing to when he said, “Do not hurry. …If you hurry and collapse or tumble down, nothing is achieved. Do not rest in your efforts;…Without stopping, without haste, carefully taking a step at a time forward will surely get you there.”
Students have a chance to be internally motivated learners, consistently and creatively pursuing their own education. Parents and educators can support this by aiming to cultivate confidence, praising the process, allowing autonomy, and staying in connection.

JL: A kid who can get frustrated who has the emotional wherewithal to redirect, have that innate sense of competence, “I can do this! I can figure this out for my own,” that kid is more teachable.

BG Staying in connection with them, supporting them, hopefully empowering them, and then saying, “You can find a way. You can do it.”


Do you have an influential educator in your community like Brittany or Jess that you would like to recognize? Spencer Baldwin, Celia Chan-Valerio, and Sammy Young are some of the people who recently had stars named in their honor on the Giving Galaxy of Stars on the Suzuki Association of the Americas website. Go to to dedicate a star, and we may acknowledge them here on the podcast as well.

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“Sun Up” is composed by Steven Katz and Derek Snyder and performed by the Snyder cello army.

Prelude and Fugue from the Well Tempered Clavier in F Major by J.S. Back was arranged by Nicholas Kitchen and played by the Borromeo String Quartet

Tuck and Point, Borough, and Caprese are by Blue Dot Sessions and can be found at (

You can find links on our website to all music selections.

Methusaleh Podcast Productions gives masterful support to our scripts and production.

Thank you for joining us in “Building Noble Hearts,” and we will see you next time.