Help! Student can’t focus and fix mistakes

said: Jan 28, 2010
 63 posts

I’ve had a student (and her older sibling) for over a year now, and I can’t seem to get her to understand that she needs to focus and correct mistakes. She simply smashes through the song from the beginning, and doesn’t fix anything. If I have her correct a passage, she takes a few tries to figure out the correction, then smashes through that several times. Unfortunately, when she plays the piece again from the beginning, she just plows through it again and doesn’t think about the correction. When I talk to her, she is fiddling around, with a vacant look on her face. Her pieces get this way because she figures them out on her own at home… Arrgh! I’m not sure if this is ADD, and if it is, why is she able to focus for hours on her own self-initiated tasks at home?? (She is home-schooled, and her mother has not had her diagnosed, but is also getting super-frustrated at home when trying to teach her.) I just don’t know how to help her; I’ve been teaching for over a decade and have never been this frustrated. Anyone…?

Sara said: Jan 28, 2010
191 posts

How old is she?

I have had a 7 year old and a 13 year old that started out that way ~ extremely fidgety, unfocused, couldn’t stand still for 30 seconds—literally! I had recently read an article where throwing a ball develops focus and concentration right around the time I got the 7 yr old. I didn’t want a hard ball that would break things, so we tossed a soft puff ball back and forth. She enjoyed that and thought that was great practice. It did help!
As far as going ahead, when students are that determined to figure songs out on their own, I recommend getting a CD of Laura Risk (A Canadian/Scottish fiddler) or other some such CD that they can plow through at their leisure and enjoyment and learn those songs on their own. But leave the Suzuki pieces to lessons ~That’s the deal. Be firm on that. Usually they are OK with that.
Also, I use a lot of physical interaction with students like that—it seems to bring them into focus more. I’ll drive their bow if it’s a bowing issue, I’ll manipulate their fingers if it is fingering—or do both for them until they get it that I am serious about this passage and although I don’t tell them this—but with students like this I won’t hear the entire piece until I have heard the technique passage played accurately and memorized.
As far as ADD—I don’t know but from my observation and exposure to it with relatives I think it’s over rated and over diagnosed. I think some kids just need a lot more physical movement than most kids and less T.V. and computer games. If she can concentrate when she wants to on things she chooses than I would be extremely cautious in labeling her as ADD. Because that sounds like to me just not interested in what she’s doing.
Maybe the lessons are boring for her? Do you play games at all?
Just some ideas. Hopefully they will be helpful to you. Take it for what it’s worth.

“What is man’s ultimate direction in life? It is to look for love, truth, virtue, and beauty.” Dr. Shinichi Suzuki

Redding Farlow said: Jan 28, 2010
Redding Farlow Soderberg
Suzuki Association Member
Myrtle Beach, SC
20 posts

I like the suggestions that Silverstar gave…especially the idea with the ball.
Additionally, I wonder if it would help for you to have a conference with the parent without the child there? Ask the mom if she is practicing the spots that you fix in the lesson at home?
Hope this helps.

“We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.” -Sir Winston Churchill

Laura said: Jan 29, 2010
Suzuki Association Member
358 posts

Sometimes I think that describes almost half my studio! I know that I have to adapt my teaching style (so yes, there are changes a teacher can and must make), but in my experience, such students tend to have a few things in common that have nothing to do with me as a teacher:

  • lots of TV and video games
  • unaccustomed to respectfully following directions in a one-to-one relationship with an adult because it has not been effectively taught or enforced (This is different than following directions in a group, which they may fine with because of the peer pressure)
  • child often has upper hand over parent, expressess herself almost too freely, without reservation or respect
  • child often doesn’t have a “tight” enough relationship with parent and is accustomed to entertaining himself and making his own decisions
  • tend to act impulsively in general

Being aware of these things can help you decide what the child needs most from you as a teacher.

Kids like this absolutely need to be taught how to focus and do things intentionally. Sometimes you even have to teach them how and when to stop! It can be done in a fun way with lots of games, but it must be done. Games in which they have to earn something (points, smarties, etc.), or receive a “penalty” for “failing” seem to do the trick, beacuse something is on the line that is worth their effort. Make sure the penalties are fun though. Once I made a game in which mom got to tickle the student, one second per wrong note! After a few rounds of tickle fun, the playing curiously slowed down and the notes just corrected themselves.

With one particular challenging student of mine, I realized that his problem was not with following directions, but that he needed not only MUCH clearer directions, but also a certain degree of emotional preparation before starting! For example, I’d have to get his agreement that we were ONLY going to play the first bar, and then we were going to stop and work on making sure the finger postiion was correct in each note. But I then had to say “I know you’re really excited to play the whole piece. I’d like to hear that after we work on this one bar first.” After agreeing and knowling what was comng ahead, he’d have less to pout about.

In addition, some parents tend to do what’s “easiest” at home rather than what actually works. For example, they are happy that their child is willing to sit at the piano for any number of minutes, even if they crash through their pieces as you describe. They may not have taken the effort to enforce the systematic, stepwise approach that you have shown during lessons. This is not always the case, but a nice chat with the parent can help you determine if it is.

For example, after teaching something to the point where the student has succeeded, I sometimes turn to the mom and ask, “Does this sort of practicing work at home?” Sometimes the parent realizes how quickly a point can be practiced, and admits to not doing that at home. Other times, the parent says that they have tried literally everythihg, and are still struggling at home—in which case you team up with the parent to explore other avenues.

Those are just a few thoughts and shared experiences. I can’t say that I’ve figured out the easy answer with these types of students.
You might not be able to change everything, no matter what you do—you’re only the music teacher. So make sure you are gracious with yourself too. :)

said: Jan 29, 2010
 63 posts

Thanks for all of your suggestions… in response…

The reason I’m frustrated is that she doesn’t fit any of the usual profiles; she doesn’t watch that much TV, she gets lots of physical activity, her mom is bright, keeps her engaged, and the children are generally respectful, although not horribly strictly. Fairly typical Canadian family.

She is eight years old and basically it feels like teaching an untrained 4-year-old that can, for better or worse, figure out an entire piece on her own between lessons. Her 10-year-old sister is doing extremely well, is meticulous, and only occasionally plows through things, but asks, “is that right?” when she’s not sure. So it’s more a personality/learning issue. She has improved a bit with age and diet (fish oil—hence the possibly mild ADD suspicion).

I definitely don’t have enough games to play, and please keep in mind, it’s piano, which is less mobile. Any suggestions for this would help as I tend to be less creative that way. She really just needs to learn how to be thoughtful and focus in her playing; if any of you seasoned teachers have a way to do this I’d really appreciate any advice, or leads.

Laura said: Jan 29, 2010
Suzuki Association Member
358 posts

So her “profile” is: polite, bright and naturally musical (so as to pick up new pieces quickly, that is), but just not focused. Hmm… actually sounds rather exceptional, except for the unfocused part. Sounds like a lovely little person, actually! :) At eight, she’s likely to have (or be in the verge of having) a lot of independent opinions.

If she is respectul and you have a good rapport with her, try to find out what’s in her mind. Her answers could help you decide what teaching angle might work best. For example:
- How she feels about her playing (is she proud of it, or so-so?)
- What is her understanding of “good” playing, how does she know for herself that something is “good enough”?
- What is the difference between her playing and your playing (or the CD)?
- Try playing the melody line at the same time as her playing, and when it it doesn’t match (due to her mistakes and trip-ups), point out that you’re not playing together—why?

Discussions like that might help her “discover” what’s “wrong” with her playing. Or perhaps you’ll find out that she really doesn’t enjoy making so many mistakes but is simply impatient in fixing them. Regardless, the goal is for both of you to get onto the same page in terms of motivation to improve.

You can use the games approach to help her discover for herself what really works. Also have a previously-agreed definition of “done” (e.g. all notes and fingerings correct, with no hestitation), and try to help her agree with your suggestions that things are best practiced by breaking things down into small bites. I believe that Suzuki was right in that success breeds success. If she is willing to slog through one bar repeatedly until perfectly mastered, she would be more willing to practice the second bar that way. Assign one sticker per well-learned bar or line, so that she has a visual way to track her own progress.

It’s OK to have a wide variety of short tasks to focus on, allowing her ample opportuniy to get off the piano as required, as long as she’s always willing to come back of course.

Any of this helpful or relevant? :) (by the way, I’m a piano teacher too)

Laura said: Jan 29, 2010
Suzuki Association Member
358 posts

Oh, I’m not saying that ADD isn’t a possiblity. I just don’t have enough expertise to form a helpful opinion in that regard. And regardless, there are still ways to help such kids focus. I’m still learning. :)

Adam said: Jan 29, 2010
Adam Davidowitz
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Viola
Chicago, IL
2 posts

What has helped me a lot when dealing with kids who can’t focus is one thing I learned from Ed Kreitman in my Book 1 training: the ‘Watching Game’. All you do is at the beginning of the lesson, you look at each other for 10 seconds. Until they get to those 10 seconds, you don’t go on. You have to be very calm and still. Don’t start until the child is also calm and still. Be adamant about them not moving (besides blinking, breathing and any other essential movement). Count softly. Maybe get softer as you get closer to 10. If they get to 3 seconds, give them some praise and then see if they can get to 4 seconds. If you keep at it, the child will know that you mean business and will gradually become still. The idea of this exercise is for them to find that quiet place inside of themselves which will allow them to focus for longer periods of time. Hope this helps!


Sue Ellen Dubbert said: Feb 4, 2010
Sue Ellen Dubbert
Suzuki Association Member
Madison, WI
13 posts

I really like purple_tulips suggestions and insight, though I would really think twice about using ’smarties’ as a reward for piano practice or any task, especially with a child who has attention issues. Given the prevalence of food allergies today, it is quite possible that a child may have an allergy for which the parent is not aware which can manifest itself in behavior problems.

I have used a similar technique to what Adam mentioned with success. With some of my young students who need extra help honing their attention (which is, after all, a skill that can be developed) I would begin each lesson in rest position and we would count to a number of seconds that was manageable for that child on that given day. Many times students will initiate this themselves and the amount of time can be increased. This approach sets a nice tone for the lesson and also communicates your expectations for focus without verbalizing them as such. I think of is as a very brief meditation.

I have also done “mirroring” (I move my hands palm facing out and the student follows my movement with their hands) with students who have difficulty making eye contact or giving their attention to me rather than their parent. This works best with young children, but could be adapted for older students.

Your student, at age eight, may really appreciate the opportunity to have some choice—choice within the boundaries set by the teacher—during her lessons. This approach can give the student more ownership of the whole process perhaps making her want to correct those mistakes and take more time. Ed Sprunger’s book “Helping Parents Practice” has lots of insight into the concept of ownership for teachers as well as parents.

Barb said: Feb 5, 2010
Barb Ennis
Suzuki Association Member
678 posts

I also have a student with focusing issues, so I really appreciate hearing all these ideas! And the counting to 10—that reminded me: I once knew a student (not mine) who would take a few seconds at the beginning of her performances to close her eyes and I presume bring herself into focus. I don’t know if she was counting to herself, slowing her breathing or what, but I guessed it had to do with her ADD. At that time she was about 14. Maybe she did this every time she played, but I only saw her performances.

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Alie said: Feb 6, 2010
Columbus, OH
21 posts

I use wipeoff dice… ( I isolate specific measures or points and write them on each side of the dice. Also, to make it fun I include a question mark on one side. If it lands on the question mark the student can win candy, a sticker, etc. I find that sloppy practicing is often a result of the parent not knowing how to work on specific things. Sometimes I even write down specific things for the kids to take home and put in a practice jar. Instead of drawing a slip of paper that says “Minuet 1″, the slip will say “connect 3 low2 1 A 3 4 and make sure not to pop the old finger until the new finger touches the string”.

Jennifer Visick said: Feb 6, 2010
Jennifer VisickForum Moderator
Suzuki Association Member
Viola, Suzuki in the Schools, Violin
998 posts

Those blank dice are listed at $5.99 “per each”—if I understand that correctly, that’s pretty expensive for one die. Do an internet search for “blank dice” and you can come up with better prices.

said: Feb 6, 2010
 63 posts

Wow, looks like I started a hot topic post—what amazing input!!

Thanks for the tips, and I do have the Sprunger on my wish list for my next music order. Can’t wait to get it. There is also a book called the “practiceopedia” (?) which is an encyclopedia of practice techniques that also looks promising.

The main concern was the thought process (or lack thereof). I experimented during the last lesson and told her she could not play the left hand that she wanted to learn until she could play some of the RH correctly. I had her play the first two bars and asked her if she played it correctly (”did your finger switch on the E?”). She didn’t know. She was waiting for me to tell her. So I smiled and said she better play it again to find out. This happened a few times before she could figure out if she did it or not. So I think it’s a combination of impatience, an inability to self-evaluate, and general personality (has anyone heard of a “Sanguine”?!) ;-)

She was super-frustrated since she doesn’t have the skills she really needs to co-ordinate RH and LH. But she did get focused! At least in the last few weeks her mother has seen her be able to focus in small batches, with some motivation, and is re-evaluating her perception of her daughter which is also helping. I’ll post an update after next lesson.

Laura said: Feb 7, 2010
Suzuki Association Member
358 posts

Thanks for the update, brenda! Glad to hear that things are moving forward. From what you describe, it does seem like you’re prioritizing the right things: teaching her how to focus on specific goals, and how to self-evaluate. Self evaluation gives them a greater sense of self-control too, which may ease up any tension that may creep into the lesson or practice relationships.

said: Feb 19, 2010
 63 posts

She put together her very first alberti bass this week—Lightly Row. It was her idea (which is always THE key factor), told Mom hey, let’s experiment and see what happens. (with a PS to call me if EITHER ONE of you starts crying at practice. Seriously.) She got the first two lines together with minimal prep (usually a 3-week timeframe in my studio to get the first two lines, depending on age).

Winning combination included:
- her wanting to do it—really, really badly
- keeping segments short (some work to do still since ALWAYS wants to start from the beginning)
- making sure there aren’t too many new elements
- passing over evaluation to her (the ongoing BIG ONE)

PLUS: a bonus: her homeschooling Mom came up with a party dance to do after they got a hard part… see her blog! (February 18th video!): “A Mom’s Guide to Working Out”; seen with older daughter doing book 2:

I think she will always be a puzzle and a challenge, but there should always be one, yes? :D

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