When practice doesn’t make progress

Celia Jones said: Oct 23, 2014
72 posts

I’m just setting up a new 100 days challenge for my daughter. It’s with some trepidation because over the last four years we’ve had several goes at this. There have been several periods of a few weeks (sometimes the whole 100 days) when we worked together every single day, only to find wrong notes popping out in new places. At that point, morale would plummet, and it was almost impossible for my daughter to engage in practice.

I’ve hunted for answers and this is what I found:


I’m intrigued. I can’t wait to tell DD the good news, that she doesn’t have to practise the same few notes over and over. It’s a completely new way to do things.

I’d love to hear if anyone else has tried this—or if after reading this you try it and see how you get on.

Sue Hunt said: Oct 23, 2014
Sue HuntViola, Violin
403 posts

I’m a great fan of this. It is very hard to maintain focus when trying to do multiple correct repetitions.

I spent years trying to do this with my children, but we kept trying because our teachers said that this was the way to do it. It was soul destroying to make a mistake on the 9th of 10 repetitions.

Do one at a time with deep focus on only one teaching point. Do another task or activity between repetitions.

Robin Michetti said: Oct 28, 2014
 1 posts

How very interesting the article on random practice schedules was. I think inadvertently, I used that with my children.

One thing I want to add is to play the recordings all the time. When my children opened the door, coming home from school, my finger was already poised on the tape recorder button (back then)…and usually on one of their particular pieces. The importance of listening to the recordings cannot be emphasized enough.

Another thing I did which really worked well was prepare them for the upcoming pieces. We often acted them out. Witches Dance?…stirring the cauldron?… For example the last piece in Book 1 sounded to me like a cat and mouse game with the cat leaping onto the clever, little mouse but never quite catching him. And then the lyrical part is the two getting along and dancing together. When my 4 year old daughter reached that piece, she LOVED it!…and was so motivated to learn it which she did in no time. The point is: ENJOY making music together. Bring creativity into the learning process.
Good luck!

Celia Jones said: Oct 29, 2014
72 posts

Robin, I think, the importance of listening to the CD can most certainly be overemphasised. We listened to our CD every day until it wore out. My daughter started age 3. She is 7. She has yet to complete Book One. She had her favourite pieces which she used to look forward to. After a few years of not reaching them, she got to where she hated those pieces. If we hadn’t played the pieces until she reached them it would have been better.

I do sometimes wonder whether the association between practice and progress is actually due to progress making practice rather than the other way round. It’s very hard to get a demoralised child to practice.

Fabio Dos Santos said: Oct 30, 2014
Fabio Dos SantosTeacher Trainer
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Viola
Campinas, SP, Brazil
11 posts

Great article!

There is one thing I like to emphasize to the parents of my studio, which I did not see contemplated in the article above: children are growing in many aspects at the same time, and at different rates. Physical, Emotional and Intelectual growth are all a part of development. Studying and practicing an instrument touches all three at the same time!

Frequently the “lack of progress” in a technical challenge reflects the growth (or the lack there of) in a different aspect of the child. This is something that parents have the privilege of seeing. The question for the parent would be: does this challenge that your daughter is facing feel related to other things going on in school/home/other activities? Is there a common cause?

Understanding and empathizing with the child could go a long way in trying to figure out what it is that makes practice “hard”; To what extent and how does your child understand “progress”? (Does it agree with what you understand is progress?). It might not be related to the instrument at all! Maybe the child is placing a lot of expectation in relationship to how fast she is supposed to see this ‘progress’? (Maybe you would like to see more technical progress than your daughter is ready to give you?)

I love the analogy that building technique and character is much like building a house: one does not build houses starting with one wall, and then moving to the next. We have to build all walls at the same time, slowly. And we will only see the roof once all walls are in place! Similarly, this aspect of understanding what progress is, and putting words to express these feelings in relation to progress and practice are an essential part of technique and instrument learning!

I hope these ideas help you!

Celia Jones said: Oct 30, 2014
72 posts

Fabio, I think the article is directed toward learners rather than parents of learners. The article is about specific practise tasks. So progress is very clearly defined within the article.

It seems to challenge a central plank of Suzuki method. That is, Suzuki students usually have repetitions in their practise assignments. I’ve never been advised to do them like this article says. Both me and my daughter have been practising randomly like this for five days. So far so good. I’ll report back in a year :-)

The point that Robin raises is different: she is talking about progressing through the repertoire. She thinks listening to the CD helped her child achieve really extraordinary progress, to complete Book One at age 4. The CD surely did help, but the child must have extraordinary ability to start with.

The understanding that I am coming to is that musical ability is innate. This is a concise article explaining the research:

I think with that knowledge it might be possible to identify children who are going to struggle and to offer them different advice and perhaps a different repertoire. It’s not sensible to listen to the same CD every day for five years, if that is how long it takes to complete Violin Book One. And a child who reproduces a piece perfectly after working through it twice will have a very different experience of practise to the child who still can’t get it after years of diligent work. It may be that the little superstar kids accidentally hit on the random practise strategy because they easily get so much right first time.

Man said: Nov 4, 2014
 Violin, Voice, Viola
13 posts

Hi, Celia.

That’s an interesting article on randomizing repetitions. Thanks!

Personally, I don’t subscribe to a very strict, virtually robotic adherence to what you’re concerned about, and none of my 3 kids’ Suzuki teachers (whether private or group) are especially strict about making a ton of successive repetitions before moving on to do something else and maybe coming back later.

Yes, repetition is very important, and indeed, I do believe that practice makes permanent, not perfect—that’s important to recognize because practicing poorly will lead to “permanent” poor results, ie. bad technique, bad “habits”, etc., that are hard to undo/break. In fact, that’s largely why we generally shouldn’t move forward ahead/outside of what the teacher instructs (both explicitly and implicitly)… at least w/out being on exactly the same page as the teacher.

I think though there can be some flexibility provided everyone’s on the same page and the parent and/or student has advanced enough to become more independent in making good decisions about specifics, and that’s what I (as a Suzuki parent of 8+ years) and my older kids (w/ growing depth and variety of music skills) have grown to do in time. Afterall, a good teacher teaches the student toward growth and increasing independence w/ possible potential to even exceed the teacher in terms of performance ability, and that won’t happen if the student remains ever totally dependent on the teacher.

But yes, we need to learn to be discerning so we don’t do what actually sets us back instead of moving us forward…



Man said: Nov 4, 2014
 Violin, Voice, Viola
13 posts

RE: the specific issue w/ listening to the CD, my kids definitely do not listen to it religiously to the extent that some might do although the preaching can sound like that’s what’s absolutely needed.

I mostly just have our kids listen (variably) to one of a few different playlists (via iPod/iPad) as background music once (or maybe at most 2x) each day—usually just before-and-around bedtime. I make and adjust these playlists according to what I find relevant to each kid as we progress. These playlists usually involve a few repetitions of the pieces surrounding the ones they’re currently working on before moving onward to a longer review list (of usually no more than a whole book into the past) and then maybe ending w/ some much more advanced selections of additional interest whether in the standard Suzuki repertoire or outside, eg. Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, some Bach unaccompanied solos, some Kreisler, some chamber music whether Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven or someone else, etc. Also, if there are alternative recorded versions of the Suzuki pieces, I might use them as well, eg. Kerstin Wartberg’s My Trio version for Book 1 and 2, other recorded versions of the various oft-performed-and-recorded Bach and Vivaldi pieces (mainly starting w/ Book 3 on up).

I’ve also taken to occasionally let them substitute in some other non-Suzuki-specific playlists as well to mix things up further—recently, I just have my youngest listen to some Keith Green at bedtime on Saturday nights instead. I try to keep each playlist under 90min, and then, I also frequently expose the kids to other music outside of using such playlists—they even love a little Queen and Led Zeppelin for instance, and I’ve even purchased Adam DeGraff’s solo arrangement sheet music of a couple such Rock tunes (among other things like popular movie and Broadway soundtracks) for them. And no, unlike many other parents, I do not shy away from letting them watch a good deal of movies, which are very often immersed in music—though I do handpick quality content (usually on disc) for them rather than just let them have free reign via cable TV or the like.

IMHO, the primary overarching point is total immersion in the language of music (as much as feasible anyway). But this is not achieved by only having your child listen to the same CD over and over again all day long—that might be ok for training robots perhaps, but not for people. Your child needs to listen to other music as well (and preferably live, if feasible), and music listening is only part of the whole thing. Some things I personally do include using music (and the kids’ particular instrument, which happens to be violin first) as an example and/or metaphor of sorts for everything else we do in life… to teach my kids how to approach life in general… whether it’s their school work, their interactions w/ others, etc. etc.

For instance, pretty much any field of interest we choose will require a similarly disciplined approach for us to excel at it (sans whatever we might consider the debatable “prodigious talent”). And we shouldn’t give up just because we’re challenged. We can learn and grow to appreciate a good challenge and see and enjoy the good there is in hard work as we progress. When we start teaching our kids about all aspects of life w/ music in mind… then we are treating music really just like language… just as we would use English (or whatever other native to you) in all sorts of ways, not just to explicitly say something, but also for fun (of all sorts), for artistic reflection, to consider life issues that may even have origins in root words, etc. etc.

Don’t keep and restrict our musical training experience to just a box where we do nothing but repeat the Suzuki CD or a skill being practiced or only the repertoire in the books, etc. etc. Think about and discuss the finer details and ask questions and explore. IF we’re going to love and make use of music like we might love and make use of language, there’s got to be more to it than just those exact handful of things. Sure, we need to build skills one step at a time… and then refine them, but we also shouldn’t forget/miss the forest for a few lone trees.

Another thing here is I do believe parents need to either already play or learn to play (more than just Twinkle or early-Book-1)—and actually enjoy it(!)—as well for the immersion to work more fully. Many-to-most parents in my Suzuki community do not actually do this, and I can definitely see the difference… even though I haven’t technically advanced that far myself (as an adult beginner)—I haven’t completely memorized whole pieces beyond say the Beethoven Minuet (and am quite rusty w/ some of them), but that’s probably enough to help a whole lot IMHO, especially if you keep refining what you learned (and continue to learn in terms of technique). No doubt many, especially in a fast-paced city like NYC, just cannot afford the extra time and/or effort to move beyond playing early-Book-1, so I’m not saying that to shame anyone.

And yes, each kid (or adult beginner for that matter) will be a bit (or maybe a lot) different, and good teachers will adapt accordingly to meet the child (or even adult) where he/she is at. Even if we take Suzuki’s philosophy to its extreme logical conclusion (where there is no such thing as uniquely in-born talent), the truth is every 3-to-6-yo child has already been born and nurtured into an influential setting unique to him/her and isn’t starting from a blank slate, so it does no good to deny that in actual practice. I can certainly see this from personal experience both w/ my 3 kids and w/ others I’ve observed over the years.



Man said: Nov 4, 2014
 Violin, Voice, Viola
13 posts

FWIW, here’s a great little advice video from Itzhak Perlman that might be helpful… although the example he provides in the 2nd part is for someone who’s very advanced—it can still be adapted to apply sensibly to someone who’s younger and/or less advanced:




Celia Jones said: Nov 10, 2014
72 posts

Man, thanks for a long and thoughtful response. The Perlman Videos are great, thanks for pointing them out!

Emmy said: Nov 10, 2014
 9 posts

I would be extremely frustrated if my child is not making good progress even though practicing accordingly, and I bet that your daughter is feeling the same way. I am curious, have you ever thought about switching her teacher to different ones? I feel like if you guys have been practicing well at home, I highly suspect that maybe her teacher is not a good match for your child if she is not making progress. Maybe you can contact different teacher and get some trial lessons and see how you and your daughter feels. What I did before, when I was not happy with my daughter’s progress with her old teacher was that, I got my daughter lessons (piano, in this case) from famous teacher at music camp, and got feedback and referral from her, and switched to current teacher.

Celia Jones said: Nov 11, 2014
72 posts

Emmy, our Suzuki teacher was wonderful, a super teacher. We have been forced by family circumstance to switch to one who lives nearby, and we are lucky that the new teacher is also wonderful. It puts us out of Suzuki method, so we are working in quite a different way, on different repertoire.

Practise and progress from one day to the next was still an issue, that’s why I was googling for advice and found the article about randomisation. Not everything is down to the teacher. But with Suzuki method being very dependent on lots of consecutive repetition, I think it really is a topic that would be interesting for the community.

Sue Hunt said: Nov 11, 2014
Sue HuntViola, Violin
403 posts

The acquisition of ANY skill is dependent on repetition.

The repetitions certainly do not have to be consecutive. In fact if you attempt consecutive repetitions, the brain will start to switch off very quickly. I know from painful experience how frustrating and painful this can be for a child and parent.

If you want to practice while in the optimum state of deep focus, it is much more effective to randomise repetitions, as the brain has to refocus for each one.

As far as I know, Suzuki didn’t refer to repetitions in a row. It is just something that we assume, to our cost.

Nick said: Nov 12, 2014
 3 posts

I’m new here and much intrigued about the learning process.
I have a large background in sports (and coaching) and still a long way to go in music.
I agree that repetition is crucial, but often not as important as quality (or intensity). Repeating a lesser attempt over and over again can even decrease the learning curve. Fewer repetitions of very high quality is often much more effective and motivating.
And video feedback is often used in sports. The sooner after an exercise, the better. This can also increase the motivation and learning curve.

My 2 cents..

Sue Hunt said: Nov 13, 2014
Sue HuntViola, Violin
403 posts

You are so right, Nick. One deeply focussed correct repetition is worth more than 1,000 careless approximations.

Nick said: Nov 13, 2014
 3 posts

With respect to improving progression during practice, I found an interesting and surprising iPad app that could increase effectiveness and motivation of the student. At least, that’s what they claim.

The app uses video delay which is much used in sports, so I’m very familiar with the concept. It’s very effective. Young children develop a great sense of motion-feeling and are extra motivated in improving themselves.
It records yourself while playing and displays the video with a delay, continuously.
It is like a mirror on delay, but with the sound.

It might well work for music too.

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