getting it right

Margaret said: Jun 19, 2006
 2 posts

My 10 year old is a messy child by nature , full of fun , and bright and cheerful, couldn’t care less about clothes, a tidy bedroom or tidy hand writing , disorganised and scatterbrained , but intelligent and articulate , a sort of mad professor.
She is in book 5 cello and we started encountering problems in book 4 where the pieces became longer . Unfortunately we have also just lost her teacher and and are studying with a wonderfully experienced non suzuki teacher at present , no suzuki teacher within 3 hours (on a plane!!) . however this problem predates that.
She plays very well in tune and musically to a certain extent , but when it comes to putting the finer touches on a piece we struggle . ie EXACT bowing and fingering, and really noticable dynamics . I will ask her to play little sections (which she dislikes) , but will say “see if you can do this phrase with exact bowing” , which she does , but then the dynamics sound awful or she will play with a really angry bow tone ,and wrong fingering (eg ignoring shifts) and if I comment on that then the bowing is wrong again . She just wants to blat out the piece again and again , not refine little bits. Yes, she listens repeatedly.
It is becoming a big issue and I have had to stop a couple of practices as she gets really cross , and I DO feel as though I am picking on her. It is as if she doesn’t care and is quite content with her version of a Vivaldi cello sonata or whatever!!! any suggestions? ( She is really good for her teacher)

Lynn said: Jun 20, 2006
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Viola
173 posts

If she is good for/with her teacher, then I would recommend a phone call to her teacher letting her know about the quality of practice at home, and let the teacher take it from there. At age 10, she is certainly old enough to be accountable for what she accomplished in her practice.

When I am working with a student like this, I am really curious about what they hear/percieve in the music they are listening to and in their own performance. Sometimes they get excited about the big picture, but do not appreciate that the big picture is exciting BECAUSE OF all the little details of dynamics and articulation, etc. that are present. Even more interesting, is that the “tape” in their head is what they are really listening to when they play, not the “live performance”. Guided listening where you listen for and identify details: articulation, bowing, dynamics, etc. and talk about how those all contribute to the overall performance…I will also do playbacks for the student where I will play with details present, then play and omit details, so the student can hear how it lessens the music. What you could do is record your daughter’s own performance during practice, and play it back. That is a good way to help her hear what she is really doing, not what she imagines she is doing!

(You can also take this idea of details and put it everywhere: pictures…the blend of colors in the carpet pattern…architectural details…omit the seasonings from supper… )

As far as sloppy fingerings: point out that everytime she picks up a fork, hold a pencil, combs her hair, etc. she uses her hands the same way. She does not re-invent her hand position every time she sits down to dinner. It’s called muscle memory, and it is what allows us to complete familiar tasks without giving it our undivided attention. In order to be able to focus on the music she is playing, and know that her hands are going to deliver consistently and reliably, it is important to be consistent with the fingering and bowings so that when the passage arrives the hands know what to do!

Kirsten said: Jun 20, 2006
 103 posts

You may have two issues going on. The first is that your daughter is not really listening to her own playing. I think Lucy is right about that without a doubt.

The second isssue may be a matter of psychology. It just might be that she is doing battle with her mother, which is what 10 year old girls tend to do. I will speak only in generalities here, because I may be way off base with your daughter. I have seen quite a few of my pre teen girl students use the music lesson to drive their mothers nuts. I don’t think they are always aware that they are using music to say “I am my own person. I want to do things my own way.” That message might be more important to her right now than what Vivaldi has to say.

If the above has any truth to it, you might be limited in how much you can help your daughter at home. The more you suggest, the more she will get annoyed with you and tune you out. Lucy was right when she said to call the teacher and let the teacher take it from there. In generality again, girls this age tend to attach themselves psychologically to an adult outside of the family who they can admire and emulate. We are very lucky as music teachers that we sometimes get he honor of having this role.

I like your opening description of your daughter. It sounds like you have a great sense of humor and a wonderful attitude about her as a person. Just be yourself first, and let your role as a “home teacher” relax a little bit. Try to compliment your daughter 6-8 times before offering any advise.


Rebecca said: Jun 26, 2006
 23 posts

“Sometimes they get excited about the big picture, but do not appreciate that the big picture is exciting BECAUSE OF all the little details of dynamics and articulation, etc. that are present.”

Lucy I think you really have it here. What an interesting thought. I am going to try approaching things that way, and apply to my own playing as well as teaching. We all need reminders. Thanks!!

Kirsten, I agree with everything you have said. The process of growing up and asserting your own identity plays out in many ways. Let’s also not forget the hugely growing social sphere/expectations/behaviors etc. that kids are going through at this time. It’s amazing they can remember their piano music sometimes!! :) But one thing I believe we as teachers can do for children and adolescents, no matter what they are going through, is try to be a constant—in the sense that, you are and always will be supportive of them musically, and fair in expectations, a good teacher through and through to the best of your ability. Learning to polish and perfect the art of music over the years gives you a gift that nothing can take away.

“Life without music would be a mistake.” -Nietsche

Debbie said: Jun 26, 2006
Debbie Mi138 posts

I don’t know if this would work, but you could try the following:

Make a chart that has all of the pieces in book 5 on it.

Have collumns for:

Correct Bowings and Fingerings




Tricky Spots


When she has each of the items checked off for a piece (you check them off after you approve that she has truly mastered each item), she gets a __________ (think of a reward that would really motivate her). When she gets the entire book done, then have a really big reward!!!!

I don’t believe in over- bribing, but it could work as a temporary crutch!

Also, If she can see her specific goals and progress, maybe she will be able to self-correct herself and take more ownership of her practicing instead of having constant power-struggle issues with you over the nitty-gritties.

Maybe this could work.

Good Luck!

Margaret said: Jul 3, 2006
 2 posts

Thank you for all your kind and perceptive comments.We discovered that she has grown over 3 inches in 6 months , so I am sure there is a bit of pre teen “mother/ daughter power play” involved .
We have never succeeded very well with star charts , she seems to lose interest fairly quickly, and would argue that she HAS got the bowing (or whatever ) right even when she has not!!!
I will definitely try to praise 6-8 times before making any other comments . I suppose deep in my heart I just want her to WANT to get it right (?perfect), not for me , for the sake of the acheivement.

Laura said: Jul 7, 2006
Suzuki Association Member
358 posts

This sounds like one of my students, except he is six. Intelligent and capable beyond his years, but that leads to his greatest stumbling block: his attitude.

His definition of success is “I figured out which notes to plunk on the piano”, as if he were merely fooling around on a toy xylophone. In general he dislikes when I focus on fingerings, techniques, tone, etc. and he HATES to repeat, focus on specific phrases, or even review because he doesn’t see the point. In general, his attitude is, “I played it, I’ve done it. Okay, next!”

Bottom line for this kid is, if HE figured it out (no matter how incorrectly), that’s the whole point. If someone or something ELSE (be it teacher, parent, or even the CD) shows him there is a better way, who cares. As I mentioned, the major problem here is attitude.

To his credit, he has a great ear and is very good at learning new notes, but unfortunately believes this is “good enough” and for the longest time rarely learned anything properly, or even fluently.

I have re-hashed the same old points for weeks on end, and do not permit him to move on to new pieces… but with only limited success. It can be truly painful to keep him focused on the current piece to the point of polish, or to review older repertoire so he doesn’t forget it altogether. (He’s still in Book 1—we’re not talking major review here.) According to mom, it’s the same at home, if not worse (i.e. refuses to work on lesson points, or thinks that once is enough, starts playing something else), but at least mom and I are on the same side and I’m thankful for that.

I know he will be incapable of progressing much further without a better grasp of how to repeat, polish, review, and generally work at something in a focused and methodical manner until it improves. These things have been hammered in since day one—the problem has always been his responsiveness (or lack thereof!). Therefore his mom and I have been pulling out all stops to find something, ANYTHING, that will help him establish this basic foundation before it’s too late.

Alas, there have been two key milestones in working with this student that I would truly consider to be breakthroughs.

The first was conveying to him that learning music could be like, for example, a pizza. I would congratulate him for having really good dough, tomato sauce, and pepperoni, but today we are going to put on some pineapple. Or an ice cream sundae… after the ice cream comes the sprinkles and chocolate sauce and finally the cherry on top and maybe even a fancy doily under the plate! That is, we can always add other things to make our playing better and even spectacular.

The second milestone was describing the idea of muscle memory (as another poster has already mentioned). I complimented him on how smart he was, and he obviously thinks so well that he can figure out the pieces by himself, it must be so easy for him, blah blah blah. But then I went on to say that I was going to help him play WITHOUT thinking, and it would be even easier! Of course that intrigued him, so I started talking about muscle memory, and how things get better and easier through repetition.

I can’t say that everything has turned completely around, but these two milestones have definitely helped change his thinking somewhat and increase his responsiveness. And Dr. Suzuki was right in that success breeds success: when he started realizing he could actually make something sound really good, he was more willing to give me the time of day when I focus on other points of improvement.

To the original poster and her 10 1/2 year old: I think there might definitely be some “breaking out” type conflicts at play here that are natural for her age. (I was like that too—drove my parents nuts!) But 10 is defintely mature enough to start taking ownership of her music journey, so I think is is very important to try to convey to her WHY you are teaching her things a certain way (e.g. to build muscle memory, so you don’t run into awkward string changes, so you can play it up to speed without stumbling, or whatever). Hopefully once the light bulb goes on, she will be more self-motivated in this regard. Good luck!

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