Over-sensitive 4-year old at lessons

said: Jun 8, 2007
 5 posts

I have posted previously about my 4-year old and how we keep practicing fun. Practicing at home has its ups-and-downs but lately, lessons are an ordeal and it’s going from bad to worse.

My daughter likes to get ready on her “feet” and greet her teacher, and is even eager to show off what she’s accomplished during the week at home with me (she is learning well at home and has progressed to “Aunt Rhody”). BUT if she makes even so much as one mistake, she dumps her violin in my lap and dissolves into a fit of tears of frustration. She does it to varying degrees at home also, but it’s much, much worse at the lesson and we can rarely get her to cooperate much after that. We have tried bribes, letting her overhear our the “she can’t possible do it” type of conversation (she only sometimes takes the bait), I have threatened, cajoled, pleaded, begged, etc. She will block her ears and turn her face away from the two of us. Often she needs me to stand next to her and touch her while she’s playing to give her courage. The latter only sometimes works. In addition, she needs constant reassurance, hugs, kisses, etc. during the lesson.

I know this sounds like bratty behavior. But this is a normally kind, sweet, sensitive child who claims to love her violin and who gets really upset when I ask her if she no longer wants to take lessons (she knows that the violin will go to some other little girl or boy who wants to learn to play if she quits lessons).

I suspect the problem lies with her fearing making mistakes. She really hates being corrected—by me and more so by her teacher. She also doesn’t want her teacher to show her any new notes or the preparations for any new pieces. If she doesn’t understand or “get it” right away, she also dissolves in tears of frustration and says “but I don’t know how to do it!”. :(

Today, during a group lesson, she crawled under my chair and lay there sobbing the entire rest of the class. We left the studio with her still crying… that raking-sobs-unable-to-draw-a-breath-out-of-control-kind of crying. And all over one little mistake right at the beginning of a song.

It reminds me that I’ve read in Edmund Sprunger’s “Helping parents practice” that children perceive their parents’ love for and approval of them at stake when they play for them / practice with them. I’m aware of this and have worked really hard at being neutral when she makes a mistake while we practice together. Even when pressed, she has not been able to recall any time that I made her feel bad for making a mistake. I really think this harsh critic comes from within.

Now, we talk about “work” a lot. About how hard work (practicing) is what makes us better at playing a a piece. About how we turn “can’ts” into “cans”: how she at first “can’t” play a piece (and that’s fine!) and then how through her hard work and persistence and how in the end she “can” play it (even better!). We have talked about how mistakes are good, we all make them, even professional violinists do it, etc., etc. Today, after we came home from the awful group lesson, I told her we were going to go practice making mistakes. She looked at me as if I had lost my mind.

But I really think this is what we have to work on every day—this coming to terms with her inability to know and play a piece to her very high and exacting standards and being o.k. with the process of improving. That’s a tall order for someone so little and with such a perfectionistic, idealistic streak. <sigh>

In closing, I’d really like some advice for helping us improve the quality of lesson-time. I feel really badly for her teacher. She has been patient, but this must really be stretching her patience. I mean, the object of a lesson is to receive guidance and correction and to be shown new techniques and material—all of which my child rejects because she is afraid of making a mistake in front of her teacher.

Also, any ideas for improving her emotional resilience in practicing will be so very much appreciated. I feel really sad for her and it’s not much fun for any of us at the moment.


Lynn said: Jun 9, 2007
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Viola
173 posts

I’ve done this with slightly older children who were highly error-averse, and it it seemed to help re-frame experience:

  1. A definition of practice that is “making something easy”.
  2. We then talk about how to tell the difference between something that is hard, and something that is easy. Maybe even make a list of things that fall in each category.

  3. Take a look at what’s in the “easy” category. Were they always there, or could she remember when those things were hard? If she can remember when they were hard, can she remember what she did to make them easy?

  4. At this point, I usually stop, think for a minute, then observe “Hmm. It sounds to me like you are the kind of person who can turn hard things into easy things! Wow, that’s really cool! Let’s see what else you’ve made easy! Etc.

  5. Discuss how a “mistake” is a really good tool that shows us where something is hard. When you make a mistake in your lesson, it tells your teacher what she needs to teach you, and that’s very helpful to her, and when you make a mistake in your practice, it tells us what to work on in your practice, and it’s very helpful for us, because, you know what? We ALL want this to become easy for you!

  6. Problem is, making a mistake make you really upset, so it’s hard for you to use that tool in your practice or in your lesson. Here’s a possibility: we can make it so that you never make any mistakes, ever again. (Here I produce two containers) In this container is a magic spell that will stop all mistakes, because you will never do anything more that is hard. In THIS container is a spell that will make sure that you always stay good at making hard things easy. Now, I gotta warn you that this container also has lots of mistakes in it, because a mistake means that you are trying to do something that is hard.

Whichever container the student chooses, we discuss the consequences of that choice. Easy: feels good, no mistakes, but no more new songs. Hard: can be frustrating—remember how you feel!, but you will eventually be able to play just like the “big kids”. Invariably, regardless of how they start out, they settle their choice firmly on the container with hard-to-easy spell. I suppose if I had a child stick with the other option, it would be a signal to me that they are not ready to move forward. I would spend some time working with them where they are, and then re-offer the choice.

  1. What if you made a mistake and it didn’t upset you? What would that be like? Let’s imagine! What would you be able to do because you weren’t crying? Do you think that is possible for you?

You don’t have to limit your discussion of challenges, mistakes and frustration to violin lessons and practice—and in fact, it may be helpful to expand the context. It would be especially helpful if you develop with her a list of other ways to respond to mistakes or frustration: “If I make a mistake, I will..” and then focus your practice on making those responses easy. Since she has such a hair-trigger, maybe you want to make you first set of responses ones that have have a high positive emotional component. You can help by: practing the response, preparing her for a mistake in advance so she can have the response “ready”, setting goals for how many times she implements the response in a practice or lesson, and charting them so she can see progress.

Like I said, I am usually doing this with kids at least a year or two older, and who developmentally are a bit better equipped to control or override emotional responses, and you may find that time and maturity will help. The main point, though, is that if you can recruit your daughter into working on changing way she responds to her errors, you can reduce the emotional impact of the mistakes.

And finally a plug for the profession: I’ll bet your teacher knows that right now for your daughter, the point of lessons is not learning to play the violin; it’s learning how to tolerate imperfection. The violin is simply the tool. All 4 year olds are being taught how to be a student. For some kids, it’s learning how to work cooperatively; for others it’s learning to focus their attention… or stand in one spot ..the list is as variable as the children we work with. It’s what is meant by “teaching the whole child”!

said: Jun 11, 2007
 4 posts

I am a mother of two sensitive girls. One is a perfectionist and requires that she get it right the first time. The other must work very hard to synchronize everything required to play. Here are some things that we have done:
1. PRAISE! Everytime (especially for a 4 year old). I loved your tone! Your bowing was super! I love to hear you play! I made a point of only saying positive comments during a couple of practices in a row, and my daughter’s motivation just soared! We had to ask her to stop playing so that we could get ready for bed!
2. Let your daughter oversee “your” lesson. That is, you play the violin, let her comment. See what you hear! It is definitely different when you switch places. It can be an eyeopener!
3. Our teacher makes a point of saying that playing the violin is hard and my daughters must be very bright and work very hard to play so well (mistakes and all). There is a lot going on (you will see when you are the “student”) and it is a lot to process for a 4 year old. Remind her that she is learning and doing a great job.
I am not a teacher, but mother to 2 violinists who both began at 4. I don’t think your situation is an emergency, just something that you need to find the triggers for and work around. Part of working together on learning the violin is learning about each other and what is the best approach.
I wish you the best!

Kindest regards,

Emily said: Nov 25, 2013
 59 posts

You could try doing a chart with stickers for each completed lesson without having a meltdown. Start with small steps, as it will take a while to learn that it’s not the end of the world when you make a mistake. Maybe at the end of the week when she has had 5 out of 7 successful practices, then she could pick a prize out of the pirate’s treasure chest of the fairy princess box. Have her help you make the box and pick out little inexpensive treasures to put in it.

Also let her see you make mistakes, then smile and say, “Oops! I made a mistake! That’s just fine! I will try again and will not whine!” Then giggle about it. She will start to see that it’s okay to make mistakes, especially if mom says it is. Good luck!

Emily Christensen
Music Teacher & Writer

This topic is locked. No new comments can be posted.

You must log in to post comments.

A note about the discussion forum: Public discussion forum posts are viewable by anyone. Anyone can read the forums, but you must create an account with your email address to post. Private forums are viewable by anyone that is a part of that private forum's group. Discussion forum posts are the opinion of the poster and do not constitute endorsement by or official position of the Suzuki Association of the Americas, Inc.

Please do not use the discussion forums to advertise products or services