helping a precocious player practice

Anne said: Jul 19, 2007
 17 posts

I have a “problem” that I don’t know how to explain without sounding like I’m bragging. My daughter (who turned 5 a few weeks ago) has a real love for the violin. She will play for hours, loves listening to violin music, and says emphatically that she wants to be a violinist when she grows up (and that she’s a “little violinist” now). She finished Book 1 in early May and, just two months later, has learned through “Witches Dance” in Book 2…and she’s just as likely to pick out her brother’s Book 4 pieces, the unaccompanied Gavotte from Book 5, the beginning of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, Faure’s Pavanne, any song or piece that pops into her little head…Her wonderful and experienced teacher has been giving her extra things like shifting scales and reading to keep her mind occupied while holding her back long enough to firm her technique.

What’s the problem then? Lately, she’s really been balking at practicing—not at playing, but at serious, concentrated practicing. She acts up, is easily distracted, plays things the wrong way on purpose (switching the key of the piece, or adding interesting extra notes, or changing the bowing—in incredibly creative ways that are admirable and hard not to applaud), says she’s tired, hot, thirsty…you get the picture. If she were mid-book 1, I could handle this better, I think, but because she has so much material she has to cover, the practices are far too long and I’m starting to dread them rather than enjoy them.

I’ve tried a reward system(XX “star” practices and we can get ice-cream or go to the park), but I think she’s too young to understand the long-term goals, because they don’t seem to have any effect. I’ve tried dividing practices into morning review (Book 1, scales, tonalization, some reading) and afternoon Book 2, new pieces, but there isn’t always time for two practices with her, especially given that I have to practice with her brother, I myself take lessons and would like to practice more, and I have a full time job, husband, and other kids. Sometimes I think that it’s all too much and I should just give up, do whatever I can in 30 minutes with her and let things go their course. Others, I feel I owe it to her to give her as much practice time as she needs—but of course that’s easier to fathom when the practices are actually productive, which that haven’t been much lately…

Sorry for the long note, I did need to vent, but any suggestions about how to get her to 1) focus better in practice; 2) how to keep practice at a manageable time and still review well and cover new things?

PS For those who helped us think about buy our tiny violin, we did buy an Eastman and she loves it—the sound is so much better!

Jennifer Visick said: Jul 20, 2007
Jennifer VisickForum Moderator
Suzuki Association Member
Viola, Suzuki Early Childhood Education, Suzuki in the Schools, Violin
1068 posts

Why not have a time for “playing” as well as a time for “practicing”?

Review of Book 1 pieces (with the consent of your teacher) can be accomplished while she is purposely playing “extra” notes (you can call this “ornamentation”, and explain that a musician uses ornaments by first playing something plain, and then repeating it once or twice with different variations…). You can even challenge her to a game of concentration by asking her to play every note correct EXCEPT a certain note (e.g., “can you play perpetual motion, but every time you have an open string, play a wrong note instead?”) etc., etc.

Even though she is young, you may be able to relegate part of her review time to herself—that is, “you are such a good violinist now, I think you are ready to practice Andantino by yourself, then you can play whatever you like, and then put the violin away and we can add a star to your chart”—if you are out of the room but within earshot, you can decide whether or not to continue letting her review “alone” based on what it sounds like (but don’t interfere with it once you’ve told her she can do it for that day!)

Good luck. Concentrated, real study and improvement is hard, involving a measure of physical muscle learning, intellectual problem solving, faith in the teacher, spiritual humility, emotional investment, musical insight, mimicry, vision of the future, desire to have the music played WELL, ability to deal with delayed gratification, and even some theatricality. Most people—regardless of age—cannot do it without breaks for more than several minutes at once. ;-)

Lynn said: Jul 21, 2007
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Viola
173 posts

I’ll confess to being a bit of a renegade myself, but, really, after a point isn’t it rather, well, boring to play the same thing the same way every single time? These are HER pieces, after all, and if she explores and experiments with different ways to play them, not only is there no harm in it (as long as she can play them “properly” when the situation requires it!), in the long run, she’ll wind up the more interesting, creative musician. (I should mention that I am married to a jazz player, and he NEVER plays a tune the same way twice!) I like RainJen’s idea of starting off “straight” on review pieces (which allows you to confirm that the original is still intact!) and then improvising, ornamenting, etc. You said her teacher was supplementing in order to buy time for her technique to firm up—if technique is the issue, then make maintaining a technical point the purpose of playing a review song, not just playing the song because it’s important to play review songs. Whatever all else she does with it, as long as the technique is up to par, enjoy the creativity!

Her lack of focus may be because she is bored with repeating stuff she already knows she can do, or there is too much to do each day (does everything need to happen every day in order to be ready for the next lesson?), or you two are actually negotiating who’s in charge—and she clearly feels it is HER violin. I have a very gifted and motivated student who went through a “horrible practice” stage with her mother. What ended it was putting her in charge of her practices—she was 6 at the time—and she loved it. Her mother was also taking lessons (and also struggling to find her own practice time), and she practiced at the same time as her daughter so that she wouldn’t go nuts listening to her daughter’s practice “technique”. It definately presented more of a challenge to me, working this way, and not being able to rely on Mom to interpret, assess, focus and re-focus the practice sessions, but the pay-off over all has been well worth it.

I think overall, the key here is to be flexible in your own thinking with regards to the path that your daughter follows. Especially try and see the process through her eyes. She’ll only cooperate to the extent that it makes sense to her. Truthfully, as a teacher, I am much better helped by a parent who tells me how and why they changed, adapted, or sometimes abandoned the week’s assignment in favor of something else, than one who struggled to implement my practice assignments week after week with an uncooperative child. This is a process we want the child to participate in, not something we want to impose upon them! Anything a parent can tell me about what works with their particular child is really valuable information.

said: Jul 21, 2007
 104 posts

I’ve had a similar situation with my youngest child

First, with a child of four or five or six, you have to maintain the interest and motivation. It sounds like perhaps the practice sessions are too long or demand more concentration than she is willing or able to provide at this stage of her development. You may want to decrease the rigid practice time (although continue to insist that this shorter practice time follow high standards for technique, etc.) By cutting the “real” practice time, you aren’t necessarily reducing the time that she plays the violin. Let her play her violin on her own, too. It sounds like she has a lot she wants to explore, and that’s a good thing.

Does your program offer group lessons, and do you have access to workshops or institutes? I ask because often a child gets wrapped up in doing their own creative things (bowings, fingerings, etc.) but won’t do it the right way—which becomes very important for success later on). Going to workshops or institues can convince such a child about the importance of being able to play it the “correct” way.

But to support her renegade side:
Do you take your young student to see professional symphonies? One of the fun things to do is bring binoculors and get a close-up look at bow-holds (see how they’re all a little bit different) but then note that the bow directions must all match—what a mess it would be if all the violinists just made up their own bowings (she might find it funny to imagine the chaos).

Finally, I also suggest getting lots of non-Suzuki recordings of pieces in the Suzuki repertoire. You can find plenty on iTunes and it’s very satisfying for a young musician to hear that, yes, the same piece can be played in noticeably different ways (not just vanilla Suzuki recording ways). It struck me one day when I was shopping at Border’s and overheard a lovely recording of Lully’s Gavotte on the cello—got that right away, and the way my kids played that piece on their violins just improved 100%. I think (And this is just my opinion and may not be shared by others) that listening to Suzuki recordings repeatedly can make some children rebel against the “sameness” of it. Finding other recordings can really liberate such a child. They learn that the variations come about because of a conscious CHOICE made by the musician, rather than a random impulse. Since your child is intereseted in ornamentation and variation, she might find this interesting too.

You have a good problem—your daughter likes and excels at the violin and that isn’t true for all students. Good luck!

Jennifer Visick said: Jul 22, 2007
Jennifer VisickForum Moderator
Suzuki Association Member
Viola, Suzuki Early Childhood Education, Suzuki in the Schools, Violin
1068 posts

listening to Suzuki recordings repeatedly can make some children rebel against the “sameness” of it. Finding other recordings can really liberate such a child. They learn that the variations come about because of a conscious CHOICE made by the musician,

iTunes, cheap Naxos recordings, classical radio stations, local concerts, musical neighbors, music in religious services, summer music camps or institutes, group classes, CDs or LPs from your public library—there are so many ways to listen to the instrument your child is learning from a host of different musicians. Some is good, some is bad, some is mediocre—but what a gift to be able to hear different interpretations of the same music!

You can even find sheet music with slightly different variations on the folk songs in early Suzuki book 1 (at least, violin & viola book one I know). For example, there is a collection of Violin/viola duets arranged by Wohlfahrt which includes both lightly row and long long ago with sweet harmonies and slightly different turns of the familiar melodies, and in different keys. The same type of thing exists in many different beginner’s books.

There is, by the way, no good reason why a beginner can’t be taught harmony parts to the early book 1 pieces to help review & solidify tonality, harmonic hearing, intonation, etc., etc. And it’s another way to “review” without being boring. Plus, it means that when the student has to play the melody part, they have to play it “correctly” or else the harmony won’t work.

Anne said: Jul 23, 2007
 17 posts

Thanks for the great tips. They’ve helped me realize first that, yes, there has quite a bit of power struggle involved, and I’ve probably been more bent on winning than on seeing things through her eyes.

She does know how to play all of her pieces the “right” way—she tells me so :) and she does always play the right way in group class. The “ornamentation” idea has helped a lot.

We have several different recordings of the Bach double, I hadn’t thought about looking for other Suzuki pieces and will right away. We also watch a lot of violin recordings on You tube (a suggestion I got from this Xchange). Last year Sarah Chang and Hilary Hahn came through town, and I took her brother but not her, thinking she was too young. I regret that now (especially since she loves watching them on Youtube) and will take her to whatever else I can.

Her teacher has recently said that her technique is getting strong enough that she can play more alone, and I bet the suggestion of relegating part of the practice to her will work really well—it occurs to me I can put a few review pieces in a hat, let her draw the names, and say she must play each at least once the “normal” way and then she can play again with ornamentation. Something tells me she’ll occupy herself for hours that way ( and maybe then I can practice!).

And yes, luckily we have access to a very strong Suzuki program associated with a university that has a long-running Suzuki teacher training program. My kids’ teacher is the head of the program. They have weekly group classes, lots of special master classes, and next week, my daughter will attend her first Institute. If her reading gets strong enough soon, she may be allowed to start orchestra in the Fall as well. So she does have a lot of great input and opportunities all around.

But what I get most from your comments is to enjoy the ride! I need to relinquish some control, encourage her creativity, while reminding her of the importance of technique…I’m assuming the seriousness and concentration will improve with maturity, right? Perhaps my job right now is to gently guide her in that direction without burning her out or turning her off?

Thanks again. I love this forum.

said: Jul 31, 2007
 44 posts

Wow, this sounds like a lot of pressure for a five year old to me. Most five year olds can’t even read and have never been in a highly structured environment like music lessons—the ones who can handle it well are in the minority. Just look at all the other post in this forum from other parents frustrated by their children’s practice times.
Really, who cares how quickly she progresses? Make her practice time a manageable length and don’t worry if you don’t get to everything every day. Over the course of a week, she may reach fewer of the weekly practice “goals” like review, scales, etudes, etc., but whose goals are they anyway? I would rather have a happy, enthusiastic 8 year old who is playing in Book 3 than a burned-out, rebellious 8 year old who has finished the entire Suzuki repertoire.
You are so lucky to have a child who loves to play. Try and keep her happy and spontaneous, don’t worry at this age that she doesn’t like organized, intense practice—that can come when she is more mature.
She is a little child—let her be one! This is not a criticism of anything you have done, just an observation from a mother of 4 great kids who all studied music using the Suzuki method. One of the four is actually pursuing music as a career and has not suffered due to lack of willingness to practice at age five Have fun with your daughter and don’t worry about serious practice right now

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