Ask the Experts

Last summer, focus groups at summer Institutes were asked to submit questions for a panel of “Suzuki Experts” to answer. This is the 6th installment, on practicing and psychological development.

What are some ways to make practicing more interesting?

I’m certainly not opposed to finding ways to make practicing more interesting—in fact, in the “Practice Basics” chapter of my book, Helping Parents Practice, Vol. 1, I encourage parents to “Look for Opportunities to Play Games and Have Fun.” The appendix also gives several examples. This question, however, can be a distraction from some of the very real issues that make practicing difficult. In other words, although you can try using air freshener, you’re better off quitting smoking.

I approach children with the idea that the instrument I teach is ruthless, cold, and demanding. It really doesn’t care if the child meant to play with a beautiful tone, for example, it will only do so if it gets exactly what it needs in order to generate that sound. The child, on the other hand, wants to play well, and is also tender, sensitive, and easily discouraged. The parent is the buffer zone in the middle, the one who helps the vulnerable child learn to tolerate the frustrations that emerge when the instrument requires that the child develop skills step by step over time—when the child would rather learn them in the next three seconds.

Parents and teachers often become anxious when they see a child frustrated. They can then impulsively inject some kind of “fun” in an attempt to manage their adult jitters. But the “fun” usually fails to address the real issue. If the frustration is because the adult is assigning a task that the child is not yet ready for, or a task that is too big, there’s no trick in the world that will magically change that fact. Obviously, the adult needs to break the task down.

Even when the work is broken down into manageable chunks, I notice that children often complain about doing some things; but once they get going their own initiative kicks in. Sometimes it’s helpful to say “This is really hard isn’t it?” or “Tell me what the worst part of this is…” and then let the child talk. The child is often ready to go, and in reality this empathizing usually takes less time than it does to pull out a prop. Jumping to a “fun activity” too quickly, then, runs the risk of thwarting the child’s developing awareness that there is pleasure to be had in accomplishing things with one’s own efforts.

Games and fun are useful when the parent and teacher use them to help the child metabolize the frustration that erupts until a sense of self-discipline has fully developed. Until then—and it may take years—empathy is often much more useful than a hasty search for a “fun activity.”

Is there more information on the psychological development of the children (ages for motor skill development, emotional development, etc.)?

If you want to know about the cognitive development of children, I heartily recommend A Piaget Primer: How a Child Thinks by Dorothy G. Singer and Tracey A. Revenson (Revised edition, 1996, New York: Plume).

Selma H. Friaber’s The Magic Years (1959, New York: Simon & Schuster) is a classic, well-written book that helps parents and teachers understand things that on the surface don’t make much sense, such as imaginary friends and a young girl throwing eggs on the floor and saying “No!” at the same time. What I particularly like about Fraiberg’s book is that it is not the kind of psychology text that sees psychology as a means of understanding—and controlling—behavior as much as a means of understanding the person behind the behavior.

Expert of the Week, Edmund Sprunger

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