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Teaching Your Child Practice Skills

Ms. Maeve O'Hara has been looking through our archives of old American Suzuki Journal (ASJ) from the 80's and 90's and she has found some treasures among them! Some of these issues are from the pre-internet era and you won't be able to find them online so we are sharing them with you through our newsletter. We hope you enjoy them and find a few helpful ideas. After all, the violin is centuries old so learning to play it can't have changed that much since the 80's and 90's!

Teaching Your Child Practice Skills

Some ideas for a child-oriented step-by-step approach

By Connie J. Bennett

Reprinted from Suzuki World, Volume IV, No. 4, Jul-Aug 1987

“Habit is habit, and not to be flung out the window by any man, but coaxed down the stairs one step at a time.” – Mark Twain

Last spring, our family reached a crisis point in our home practicing. Jessaca, our older daughter, had progressed to the point where a systematic attack on a piece was necessary to master it; she was having to contend with the review for her upcoming Book 1 recital as well. In addition, our younger daughter Alexa had just started lessons, so that there was suddenly competition for my time.

It was clear that my original, idealistic approach to practice—that of leaving the initiative to the child—was no longer working. We were spending a lot of energy on the question of whether to practice; Jessaca was frustrated with her slowed progress; and the nagging and arguing were beginning us all negative feelings about music and each other. Time for a change in approach!

First, I reviewed my long-range goals for my children’s musical education:

  • That the girls love music

  • That they develop a sense of self-confidence through their musical accomplishments

  • That they become musically literate

  • That they have music as one of their options for self-expression and communication

  • That they eventually take the responsibility for their own practicing and musical development.

This review of goals led to two specific changes I wanted to make in our family’s method of practicing. First, I wanted to make practicing a regular, positive habit. Second, I wanted the girls to learn how to practice effectively.

In teaching music, Suzuki has followed a step-by-step method analogous to learning one’s mother-tongue. I looked for a similar analogy for teaching the skill of practicing, and found it in the model of a parent teaching a child how to dress. First, dressing is a daily habit. Second, there are progressive steps towards independence. When your child is a baby, you dress him completely. Gradually, he begins to choose his own clothes. Next he puts them on—backwards perhaps—and you still help with snaps and zippers. Even when your child can dress himself completely you still must often remind him, and he may occasionally want help even when he no longer really needs it. Next you teach the finer points like which clothes match and what outfit is appropriate for which occasion. Eventually it becomes the child’s responsibility. He may choose to dress in clothes very different from your selection, or even join a nudist colony, but you have taught him the skill of how to dress.

I tried to look at teaching the skill of practicing using a similar step-by-step method with a gradual transfer of responsibility to the child. The first step is to establish a habit of regular practice. Next are several steps for increasing the quality, time, and effectiveness of practice. And last, some ideas on transferring the responsibility to your child.

Step 1: Establishing a Regular Habit of Practicing

“…there are children to whom practice becomes a natural event of the day because of the wise lead of their mothers.” —Shinichi Suzuki

“Practice only on the days that you eat.” —Shinichi Suzuki

I began by deciding what I meant by a regular habit of practicing. By “regular,” I meant daily except for declared holidays. I defined “practice” by a minimum formula. For us, the initial minimum daily formula was 15 minutes on Suzuki repertoire, 2 reading songs, and ½ hour listening to the Suzuki recordings.

I found that it was important to be realistic in expectations and to set the minimum goals low enough that we could succeed consistently. If more than one child is involved, a rule of practicing order is needed; for example, ours is that Jessaca has first option to practice on odd numbered days, Alexa on even days.

Next I designed a method of recording successful practices. Each child had a 3x5 sheet of paper, divided into 10 spaces. On each day when the entire formula is successfully completed, the child marks a space.

A few days before we started the new system, I explained it to the girls. It is important to plan the timing of the beginning of the new system for a month in which you expect minimum distractions. Plan to take about three weeks of daily effort to establish the new habit.

For us, it was also necessary to set up a system of rewards to establish the new habit. There was the daily reward of marking a successful practice on the practice record. The second week we added a stamp set for marking, which helped us through that low point.

After ten successful practices, when the sheet was full, we went out for an ice cream cone. And since I wanted to put a real emphasis on daily practice, I doubled the reward (to a double scoop cone) if the ten days were continuous. Sitting in the ice cream parlor became a positive time of togetherness, and we would talk about how proud we were of the progress in the preceding ten days and discuss any practicing problems we had noticed.

I found that the first month of using this new system to be extremely difficult and time consuming. But, now that the daily habit is established, it is quite automatic and usually pleasant. The non-musical rewards have gradually faded in importance and become further apart. For those, like me, that are bothered by ‘bribes,’ it is nice to know that there is a natural attrition in reward systems. For example, last fall we had a special celebration for 100 days of regular daily practicing as recorded by the girls on their practice records. Just for comparison, I tallied the actual number of days of regular practice. It was 135!

There are some specific features of this practicing system which helped us to be successful. While the minimum practicing time spent on the Suzuki repertoire is fixed, how that time is spent is flexible. Whenever we had to miss a practice, for whatever reason, it was helpful to declare a holiday rather than letting the habit slide. The reading portion of practice is measured by number of songs rather than timed. (I found this was one area where the girls could really procrastinate!) Also helpful to establish the new habit was to use a single-ding timer in another room.

The children’s practice record was not intentionally put on the calendar or other weekly unit. This has several benefits. When the child looks at his record, he sees all the successes and no blanks for days missed. Also, the child remembers to mark the practice on days when he needs that personal daily reward. The days that marking is forgotten (but not practicing!) just lead to the natural attrition of the rewards system. Since the recording unit is ten days rather than seven, the child never makes the connection: “This is Tuesday—it must be reward day!”

Step 2: Improving the Practice by Improving the Parent-Child Relationship

“Respect your child.” —Shinichi Suzuki

“Refuse to take your child’s uniqueness for granted, treat him with the same respect you want, focus on his positive qualities, avoid seeing him as the same as his acts, and work towards valuing yourself. Then, your child will learn more efficiently.” —Dorothy Corkille Briggs

Practice time can be seen as a microcosm of the relationship between you and your child on any particular day. Because of this, it requires a sensitive and flexible response to your child’s mood, and an awareness of your own. Children learn best in a climate of loving support. If practice is a time of criticism and pressure, it will be less effective.

Use compliments sincerely and unstintingly! Find some aspect of each piece worthy of comment. Praise the willingness to try something new. I try to make my words acknowledge the child’s efforts. Replacing “Try this, it’s easy!” with “Try this, it’s tricky!” means success is a real accomplishment and failure less devastating.

When we discovered a recurring problem during practice, we tried to use a creative, “problem-solving” approach to resolving it. To problem solve: 1) Define the problem. 2) Brainstorm together for ideas and write them down without evaluation. 3) Select a mutually agreeable solution. 4) Put the plan into action. The girls and I have used this technique, for example, to work on resolving the problem of one girl distracting the other one during her practice time.

One unexpected benefit of our new approach has been that practice time has even sometimes changed the mood of the participants for the better!

Step 3: Increasing the Practice Time

“Those who fail to practice sufficiently fail to acquire ability.” —Shinichi Suzuki