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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

“Once a habit forms it is easy.” —Shinichi Suzuki

When we first initiated this practicing system, the girls were not accustomed to the idea of using their practice time well. Having a third of their minimum practice time wasted in procrastination was unacceptable to me, but saying “I can’t accept this” and resetting the timer diverted our concentration away from music to various plea-bargaining ploys. To avoid this power struggle, I began setting the timer for an extra five minutes to provide a buffer period, but without telling the girls. Once I could calmly ignore it, the procrastination began disappearing.

The five minute buffer transformed into a method for increasing practice time, which I privately called the “Magic Elastic Timer.” I set the timer for the extended time period; this initially was 20 minutes, but can be increased for about one minute per week to imperceptibly build up practice endurance. The “Magic Elastic Timer” would then stretch or contract depending on which of the following possibilities occurred.

  1. If there is procrastination, let the timer run its full course, but count only the minimum time as practice.

  2. If there is no procrastination and the practice is going well, let the timer run its full course as a means of increasing practice time.

  3. If there is no procrastination and the child has completed the minimum practice time, but now begins to lose concentration, go out to “check the timer” and make it ring.

  4. If there is serious procrastination, beyond what the buffer period accommodates, take a break and resume practicing later if at all possible.

Other ideas to increase the time spent practicing include renegotiating the minimum formula with your child; adding reading pieces to the unlimited section, and, simply ignoring the timer when it rings.

Lately we have been practicing with no timer at all, focusing on the music rather than the clock. I recommend waiting on this approach until the habit of daily practice is well established.

And, best of all, are the child-initiated voluntary practices and performances!

Step 4: Improving the Practice by Concentrating on the Right Things

“Instead of telling your child to practice, it is important to first let him enjoy playing what he can already play.” —Shinichi Suzuki

“Depending on these two things—practice and practice of the right things—superior ability can be produced in anyone.” —Shinichi Suzuki

The basic elements we tried to include in the Suzuki repertoire portion of every practice were the current piece, assigned (or self-assigned) practice spots, and review. The order and proportions of these elements vary day to day.

When I first began this system, I felt that the first practicing priority should be the current piece, and that review pieces filled in the time when the child could no longer concentrate on learning. Now I feel the most important parts of practicing are review and listening to the Suzuki recordings. I have seen how these two parts of practice, which Suzuki himself repeatedly emphasizes, give the child the confidence and the skills to attack the current piece at their own pace.

In the reading portion of the practice time, I found that if I could remember that the purpose of the reading practice was to learn and read music rather than to learn the song, it helped me to be more flexible about choice of reading songs. Not only did this approach give the girls the joy of a lot of variety, but they got more reading practice by approaching the same piece, as though new, several times.

Step 5: Improving the Practice Through the Use of Games

“A game to begin with, the spirit of fun leads them on.” —Shinichi Suzuki

“Every student must, at one time or another, have heard of the question, are you practicing or playing?

The answer, of course, is both…or at least, it should be.” —Joanne F. Oppenheim

“Practice is children’s play.” —Shinichi Suzuki

Since children do their best learning through interactive play, developing a sense of fun about practice can improve its quality. In doing this, our family has gradually collected, adapted, or invented a number of practice “games.” Although we don’t always use them, they give us a number of options from which to select. How often such games are used will depend on the child’s age, personality, and how he feels about his current piece. For example:

Review Games of chance:

Sticks: Write the name of each piece on a stick or card and let your child draw one to select the next piece to play.

Dice: Roll one, two, or three dice (depending on the number of songs known) and play the piece of the number thrown from the table of contents of a Suzuki book.

Pins: Closing his eyes, the child sticks a pin into the table of contents and plays a piece it hits.

Game Board: Make a “game board” of the names of Suzuki pieces. Your child selects what to play by dropping a coin.

Review Games where the parent selects the piece:

Use Book 1 Stories, or other stories or poems that remind you of the Suzuki pieces.

Robot: Your child pretends to be a robot. You slide one of the song name cards into a pocket. He keeps playing that song until you pull the card out again.

Step 6: Enhancing the Interpretive Aspects of Practice

“Don’t train a typist.” —Shinichi Suzuki

“Monotony is the worst enemy of music.” —Pablo Casals

Many of the games listed above can be extended to encourage musical expression. For example, when playing “Robot”, adjust different “knobs” to create different dynamics, moods, and tempos. Some of our games specifically focus on interpretation and expression.

Focus. Select an aspect for focus prior to playing a piece. The aspect may be technical or interpretive, it can be chosen by the child or the parent. Your child can play the same piece through several times, readjusting the focus each time.

Request “Listening Reports.” Ask your child to tell you what he liked about the way he just played a piece.

Have a home concert in the dark. Suzuki recommends this one for hearing your own tone clearly.

Image. The parent or child selects an image, for example, an elephant, a delicate fairy, a winter storm. The child then plays the piece in the style suggested by that image.

Story. Try playing the same piece to say different things. For example, Jessaca played a “Short Story” concert of the piece “Short Story” played twice, first as “Jack in the Beanstalk” and then “Cinderella.” Hearing the difference back-to-back was exciting for the whole family!

Experiment with artistic dialogue. As your child plays, respond by how the piece makes you feel through dance, drawing, word pictures, etc. Can the child elicit different responses?

Expand the meaning of music for your child by tying it in with other parts of his life. In addition to concerts (live and televised) and recordings, we have also borrowed The Laura Ingalls Wilder Songbook from the library when we read the “Little House” books, made origami pianos, eaten pancakes shaped like quarter notes, and used takataka ta-ta as a code signal during camping!

Step 7: Giving Your Child the Responsibility for Practice

“one of the great lessons kids learn is how practice builds skill and skill builds

pleasure—but this discovery takes time and patient instruction.”—Joanne F. Oppenheim

“Ability is one thing we have to produce ourselves.”—Shinichi Suzuki

I try to give my children the right to control selected aspects of practicing by giving them choices. They choose the order o practice elements, how long to spend on each element, and which game(s) we use to review songs. I ask for their opinion on what part of apiece needs work. Games such as “Listening Reports” help teach the skills needed for assuming this responsibility.

I encourage them to plan practicing time as part of their day by making practice “appointments” in which we decide on a mutually agreeable practice time in advance. This works especially well on weekends. They also have the option of several short practice sessions rather than a single long one, if our schedule that day permits. As the girls get older, I find I can occasionally be in another room for part of their practice. I anticipate the final transfer of responsibility will be very gradual and seem natural and appropriate.

The eight months of experimenting with practicing have given me a greater appreciation of the Suzuki method, with its emphasis on listening and review. We do need to acknowledge, however, that because Suzuki students are younger than traditional music students, the traditional practice methods are not as effective. Practice and listening to music must become as natural as speaking and hearing one’s mother-tongue, as regular as getting dressed for the day.

The ideas I have outlined here, while still developing, have changed our family’s practicing from a battleground to a regular time of sharing (at least, most of the time!). I hope they will be of help to you.

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