Quality of effort while practicing?

said: Jan 29, 2007
 7 posts

Anybody have any suggestions on how to keep a child engaged on playing her best in the practice session? I have an eight year old daughter. We practice regularly every morning but I believe she is just not totally engaged for a great deal of the time. Sometimes she plays without trying to make it beautiful or devoid of emotion. Sometimes during these periods she will just sit down and refuse to play anything. She says she is not in the “mood” to practice. I worry that practicing things poorly may be worse than not practicing but sometimes I don’t know how to get her out of this situation. Other times we switch pieces and she snaps out of it. If you get in this situation, what do you do?

said: Jan 29, 2007
 38 posts

When I was in college, majoring in music, there was no way I was engaged in my practicing all four or five hours I was doing everyday. And there were many, many days that I didn’t feel like practicing. It really is hard work to give 100% of your energy, concentration and emotion to a piece of music, especially I think if you’re young.

I don’t think its realistic to expect a child to be engaged or enthusiastic every time they practice. With my 5 year old, and the students that I teach, I emphasize accuracy, and attention to the details that the teachers have pointed out. For example, if we were playing “O Come Little Children,” (We’re violinists at my house,) I would make sure that the double upbows were in place, and if they weren’t we would work on that until it started to come easier. Now, if she happened to crescendo to the high A at the end of the piece, I would compliment her on it, and make a big deal of it, but if it didn’t happen, I probably wouldn’t go back and focus on it. Now, if we were at the end of book 1 and working on phrasing, and the point of playing “O come” was to crescendo to the top of the phrase, we would work to that point. Does that make sense?

I think there are some things that are so worth doing that I can overlook everything being 100%. Review is important, but sometimes kids get bored and start doing it on autopilot. I actually think that this is an important skill too- it means that they know the piece so well that their fingers take over and they don’t have to concentrate on it any more. That doesn’t mean I am condoning slopping through things. And I do think its fair once or twice in a practice session to ask her to really focus on something like “Lets play this like we’re going to perform it,” or “Pretend you’re in a great big concert hall. How would you play?” Another fun way to put it is “Show me how this piece makes you feel.” Or create a story that goes along with the piece, or pick a color that she thinks describe a phrase, and then have her play that color. Be creative- lots of kids respond to images and stories better than “Don’t forget to crescendo in measure 12.”

I think that if there are somedays that your daughter really truly isn’t in the mood to practice, and its not happening every day, there isn’t anything wrong with playing a few more games that day, or a little less review, or switching things around so that things are fresh. My daughter and my students know though that saying “I don’t want to” is no excuse- I just say “Okay, now we do it anyway.”

Hope that helps a little.

said: Jan 30, 2007
 3 posts

Some days I’m inspired, and my family gets a really nice dinner—you know, new or time consuming recipes, special ingredients… most days, they get a plain ordinary dinner. Sometimes I’ll order in pizza, and absolute worse case is the drive-thru. A steady diet of pizza and drive thru would be pretty unhealthy, but on those days at least no one’s going to bed hungry. And if it’s a drive-thru day, I’m glad that while eating their cheeseburgers my family isn’t telling me that I “should have” been laying out the tablecloth!

said: Jan 30, 2007
 7 posts

Fantastic perspectives from other Suzuki parents! I guess this is just another case of “putting the cart before the horse”. When my daughter was younger, she regularly took ice skating lessons as well as violin. At the rink where we practiced, there were a well known and very accomplished pair of brother/sister pairs skaters who had their lesson just before hers. I was struck with the quality of attention that they paid to their teacher. You could see how they listened to everything she said with eager, willing, smiling, nodding faces. Then they would go out and try very hard to imitate what she did or said. Perhaps no one really knows why, but it is very obvious that people differ vastly in the quality of their concentration. I’m trying to use the practice session to change our quality of attention so that each practice session gets better. It’s unrealistic of me to expect that the attention will be there before we’ve done this many, many years. But at the same time, I want to be sure I’m doing the right things to improve; when she sits down and says “no, I’m not playing anything”—somehow we’ve probably gone down the wrong path….I’m trying to figure out how to avoid this.

said: Feb 5, 2007
 7 posts

Well, I’ve had those days. It’s hard when they come one after the other, and the next… One answer doesn’t fit all these days, or all these students.

I know what doesn’t work—getting upset with the child.

Here are some ideas you might try:

First, talk to her teacher. Her teacher has probably already noticed a difference in how well the lessons are progressing. The teacher may have some ideas of how to help. Which book and piece are you three studying? I’ve heard that some pieces can be skipped even though the student only shows limited proficiency. Others are more important not to skip.

My son’s first teacher was very nice and had students who did very well. But my son was not co-operating. She wanted him to continue working on fundamentals before moving to the next piece. I think he felt he couldn’t do it even though his teacher and parents were sure he could.

You might try bribery if you think it’s just a short-term issue. Bribery works for a little while, but it doesn’t work for long. Bribery should also not involve buying a new $20 toy every week.

WE ended up moving (into a house) and switching teachers. The new teacher had a different philosophy for him. She kept him moving through pieces with reasonable but limited proficiency. This kept him significantly more interested. He felt he was accomplishing more. I was the one at home still saying “Where does your bow pinky belong before you start playing?” She had many years experience teaching and found that it is most important to keep the student interested, and that when the student matures a bit, they’ll fix some of the technique themselves.

(I saw Bill Starr give a presentation to parents one time, and he said that we as parents need to keep the child interested so that they don’t come back 10 years later and say, “I wish you hadn’t let me quit taking lessons. Now I wish I could play.” “But you didn’t want to keep taking lessons.” “I was just a kid. You were the adult. Why did you listen to me?”)

Looking back, I say that in fact, my son was able to practice keeping his pinky on the bow in book 2 just as well as he was in book 1.

Here’s a dose of reality, though: I asked the same teacher how long it was going to take for him to eventually get it. She said many students eventually get it around 11 years old! (My son was only 6, and so I nearly passed out.)

Well, we’re in book four and still practicing keeping his pinky on the bow, his bow perpendicular to the strings, his violin on his shoulder, … and whoever decided that thing should be called a “chin rest” should receive a thousand lashings with a wet noodle. (I insist that it’s really a jaw rest.)

Sometimes it’s just a matter of getting my son started, and then once he starts, he’s OK. Other times I set a “challenge” for him, but it’s really not much of a challenge, and I end the practice when he does it. If he does it, and seems able to keep going, I might pull out the metronome, or come up with some other way to keep going.

“OK, look. We’re going to have a short practice today. All I want to hear is this one piece once through, and that’s it.” or “Today we’re just going to play our review pieces.”

By the way, my son’s playing sounds fine. I’ve seen plenty of adults play violin and fiddle with their chin in the chin rest, the scroll pointing less than up, and at least four different ways of generating vibrato.

In the end, it’s important to remind yourself why your daughter is taking violin lessons. Write it on a 3×5 card and keep it with the music. For example, “My daughter is studying the violin because…

:shock: she’ll be able to earn a living even if she never finishes college.”

:cool: it’s fun!

:) it will help her with critical thinking and math.”

:| it will help her learn to struggle and overcome.”

:confused: it’s a great opportunity for me to practice patience, humility, and self control.”

:x I’m the daddy, and I said so.” (That’s my favorite answer.)

:) I enjoy music and I want to help her learn to enjoy it as well.”

:D the experience will help her become a better person.” (Dr. Suzuki’s favorite answer.)

:D it’s an excuse for us to enjoy lots of quality time working together, and it has wonderful side benefits.”

There is no one right answer. (Your daughter may have a different answer from yours.) But I think it’s important to realize why you’re (both) doing this. Keep that answer in mind may help you decide how to proceed during difficult moments.

Good luck, and write back to let us know what you tried and whether or not it worked!

said: Feb 6, 2007
 7 posts

Today we did much better and afterward while walking to school we talked about the “NO, I won’t do anything” issue. This is her scoop…she sits down because it is too hard to practice doing it “right”. She is deathly afraid of making a mistake because then that section may become a “practice part” and she hates doing parts vs. play through. She also hates practicing mistakes because she realizes that makes it harder too. So this pressure of getting it right becomes overwhelming.
Our realization this morning while walking was that when we are working on a piece we will master, we really need to play as slowly as needed to get it right. I told her I didn’t care if it was one note per minute. Relax and take your time. I agree it is important to try and get it right but if you don’t, it will not necessarily become a practice point, it may just be something that needs a slight bit of extra time but not a drill. On sightreading, just bumble along and don’t worry about making mistakes, it will not become a drill because we are not working on that piece.
To answer your question, she is 8 years old and on book 4 number 1 and she started 3.5 years ago. Her elementary school teacher told me that she is a perfectionist and I’m starting to believe her. We’re going to increase the sight reading time so that she feels more comfortable making mistakes and going on-just enjoying the music!!!

said: Jul 29, 2007
 6 posts

Once in awhile, not very often, ask her to play (whatever piece) so beautifully that it brings tears to Mom’s eyes. She will, and you will too!

said: Oct 27, 2008
 63 posts

I teach Suzuki piano and have found what you have—that a refusal to practice is usually either: 1) the student doesn’t know what they are supposed to practice specifically, or accomplish; or 2) it’s too hard to achieve.

Practice should always be (In Suzuki’s words), challenging but attainable. If this is not the case, you may wish to ask your instructor for a smaller breakdown of the challenge material. There may be a smaller but easier step that has been missed in the course of learning the piece.

And yes, I completely agree with just playing something beautifully! Practice should always have a balance of challenge spots, new work, and “showoff” pieces.

I am doing a re-read of “To Learn with Love” and highly recommend it. You are by no means the only one!! and you are on the right path.

Laura said: Nov 3, 2008
Suzuki Association Member
358 posts

If I may add to Brenda’s post (all excellent points, Brenda—thanks!)

Sometimes, student know exactly what they are supposed to do, and everything has been broken down into very manageable pieces. But they still refuse to practice, or they refuse to practice in the way they have been asked to practice. In that case, I believe it has to do with:
1) how well the teacher and/or parent “sell” the practice point to the student (a matter of relationship)
2) how well the student responds to direction from the teacher and/or parent (a matter of respect, self-control, and cooperation)
3) how well the student is willing to focus on a seemingly challenging or detailed task (a matter of attitude and work ethic)

Point 1 is directly within the control of the teacher and the parent, both of whom should be willing to change their tune, so to speak, to whatever it takes to gain the child’s trust and response. Funnier, kinder, more sarcastic, stricter (which is sometimes necessary), or whatever.

Points 2 and 3 have to do with the child’s attitude toward learning, which is indirectly a matter of parenting. If either or both of these appear to be the main issue, I usually find it goes hand in hand with a behavior/attitude problem in general. And then we have to re-define our expectations in working with the student—i.e. the main goal should be to foster the best working relationship possible over lessons and practice. It may be about setting (and enforcing) rules and boundaries, or having a system in place to reward positive behavior. Only then, can we be in a position to care about how long they practice, the position of their pinky finger on the bow, etc.

Once at an institute I attended, a young girl was completely out of control during her lesson. The teacher was trying to correct her technique, and the girl was not only not listening, but misbehaving too. So the teacher backtracked and started playing Simon Says with the girl. She then told the parent that today’s practice wasn’t going to involve any playing, only Simon Says. If the girl could follow 20 Simon Says directions, then the practice was done. That got the girls’ attention, and her face suddently lit up with interest and relief (”You mean I don’t have to touch my violin today?”). The other teachers in the room were just plain confused. The lesson teacher later explained (out of earshot of the student and her mom) that no one could get through to this child until she was willing to respond. So stop trying to fix her technique until her response improves. It was amazing, the next day the girl was thrilled to show off her Simon Says skills to the teacher, who then proceeded to teach her without incident for the remainder of the week. It was brilliant, I tell ya.

This might not work for an older student, or one who has a more serious attitude problem. However, my main point was to illustrate how sometimes, we must step back to realize that the issue at hand might be clouded by an even bigger issue.

said: Nov 21, 2008
 63 posts

I read that about Simon Says in To Learn with Love—that’s really intriguing—why did that work, and so quickly?

Lynn said: Nov 23, 2008
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Viola
173 posts

Why did it work? Relationship dynamics. What the girl had with her mother, and what she brought into the lesson was a pattern of resisting and refusing to cooperate. By removing the focus of the resistance, the violin, and engaging the girl a game where, in order to “win”, she had to draw on her ability to listen to, and cooperate with directions, the teacher changed the dynamics of the relationships apart from the violin, practiced the new style of interacting, and then transferred that new dynamic to the work with the violin.

said: Nov 24, 2008
 63 posts

Thanks very much for the clarification of Simon Says. And thanks to all who are posting this really fundamental and important issue. It looks like this, and all of the other posts, are very clear on how important the relationship is before we can accomplish anything—either as teachers, or students.

This has been really interesting for me to read since over the past year I’ve been focusing more and more on letting parents know that the first year is spent establishing a consistent practice routine with a positive attitude for both. And with all of this post, it looks like I can really talk to parents about how important their working relationship is to build a good foundation…!

Laura said: Nov 26, 2008
Suzuki Association Member
358 posts

Wow, well expalined, Lucy—thanks!

In addition to that Simon Says story, let me share another similar one that I witnessed. Again, it was with a student whose behavior was very uncontrolled. The teacher realized she wasn’t getting anywhere with whatever lesson point they were on, and instead asked the student to adopt a particularly silly body pose and hold it for, like 30 seconds. And that was the practice homework for the day. No instrument. After that, all further lessons on the instrument that week went beautifully.

Some children, due to permissive parenting and such, have never discovered their own sense of self-control, or are not required to practice it regularly. Put music lessons into the picture, and it only illuminates the problem. Kids are perfectly capable of self-controlled behavior—we only need to show them (and their parents) that it’s possible, and then expect it.

It’s sort of like when parents say that their child cannot sit still. And yet, they sit still for hours in front of the TV. The reason why they don’t (not “can’t”) sit still otherwise is because they have not found an engaging enough reason to. (And I include disciplinary issues here too—i.e. an undisciplined child who has never faced real consequences will see no reason to stop a certain behaviour.) For music lessons, we need to create that engagement. It needs to mean something to the child to respond the way in which we hope.

said: May 5, 2009
 4 posts

I am reading a really great book right now, The Talent Code, by Daniel Coyle, that speaks to these issues exactly. The book is all about what helps people achieve success in music (and other areas)- the right kind of practice, the right kind of coaching, AND what ignites kids/adults to be passionate about their music, to want to practice. There is a whole section on Meadowmont School of Music and what works there, at the webpage
It’s very interesting and might help you out!

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