Are you a (new) piano parent? Hello! Today I am going to give you my two top tips to ensure your child begins playing beautifully – whether your teacher is a Suzuki method or traditional teacher.
These tips are not of my own creation BY ANY MEANS! My children’s teachers are my teachers – they are the ones who have taught me what is important. However I am the one, as the piano parent, who has learnt the cost of not following their advice (RELEARNING! And it really sucks, believe me) and progress just generally being more laborious.
I will start today with hand and thumb position, but first POSTURE! Posture is key, fellow piano parents!
Make sure your child is seated at the correct height for the piano. When their arm is bent at 90 degrees at the elbow – their fingertips should just touch the keys, when their hand is held palm facing down. Imagine (or actually get one!) a small, soft toy or juggling ball is being held in their palm and their finger are curved around the ball facing downwards. Now remove the ball and this relaxed hand position is how their hand should be held above the keys. You may need to add books or a wedge to get the right height, if your piano stool does not go up high enough.
Also ensure your child’s feet are resting squarely on a foot rest, not dangling down. You can use telephone books or similar as a temporary measure. Their feet should be able to firmly rest on the rest to give them balance. We purchased an adjustable foot rest so that all my children could have their own setting that changed as they grew.
There are some excellent detailed pictures of good posture here.
So now that you have the child with the right posture, two things for piano parents to consider to start with!
Curved, tall thumb
Check out the two videos of a scale and then Twinkle A (for Suzuki students). Whilst there are lots of other technical things I could ask Thomas to improve on, given I just grabbed him mid-practice to do these videos for me tonight, he does demonstrate want I wanted.
Curved thumb not splayed thumb is critical for beautiful tone and fast movement up and down the keys. Thumb should touch all notes near the corner of the thumbnail closest to the keys. My teacher would often mark a dot with a pen on this spot to assist remind the child.
If you look at your thumb curved at the piano you can see it almost ‘smiles’ at you – so you might remind your child to keep a smiley thumb not a sad (downturn mouth) thumb!
Tall hands is also so important for tone and being able to play rapidly up and down the keys.
It is so easy for new students who don’t have strength in their hands and fingers to let their wrist drop down to key level. Often it can be so low that the thumb hangs down below the keys when the fingers are playing. I find when this happens, they even forget they have a thumb it is so far from the keys so when the next note in the piece requires the thumb they come to a grinding halt, confused as to how they go on!
All students at all levels sometimes need to watch these two points. Get the technique right early and save yourself hours, weeks, months of headaches correcting bad technique!
Are you a new piano parent? Do you need help with your piano practice with your child? I am offering a Skype coaching service for parents of new piano or string students. I am offering a free first half an hour (which may indeed be all you need!) so please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interesting in finding out more about this.
Does your teacher use any other terminology other than curved, smiley thumb or tall hands? Would love to hear from other piano parents in the comments below!
Happy playing and remember – smiley thumb!
PS I am super critical of Thomas’ performance above in many areas other than his curved thumb and tall hands – his piano teacher will I am sure give us lots to work out after viewing these! But nonetheless I hope they serve the purpose for new piano parents of showing these two critical technique areas!
What is Suzuki method?
Why is it so relevant to educating & developing our children?
In this blog post I want to outline for you my thoughts on the critical elements that comprise the Suzuki method. Why I love the Suzuki method, and why I have established Smart Suzuki Parent is that these critical elements apply to parenting and educating generally, not just music instruction. Dr Shinichi Suzuki documented and embraced philosophies of development that are only now being scientifically proven in their validity, such as:
• All children can learn anything, given the right environment and teaching method.
• When we learn the right way, we call it ‘talent’, when we learn the wrong way, we call it ‘lack of talent’. However, it is simply a matter of relearning the the right habits to become ‘talented’. If nothing else, Dr Suzuki and I have the belief that ‘talent is overrated’
• The importance of parental love (interest, time, enthusiasm, affection) and high expectations for children to build intrinsic self-esteem and confidence from within
• The fundamental belief that nurture more than nature drives our personality traits & characteristics.
Let me preface my blog post, by saying these are only MY ideas around Suzuki’s method. I have read and savoured his text, “Nurtured by Love” many times, with lots of annotations. I have also enjoyed very much Constance and William Starr’s book “To Learn with Love: A Companion for Suzuki Parents” and so many of my values come from these two books. However, as with any text or theory, different meaning or nuance can be inferred by any reader. Other good descriptions of the Suzuki method can be found on the US Suzuki website here and Australian Suzuki website here.
What I believe the critical tenets of the Suzuki method of music instruction to be are:
1 Importance of listening
Suzuki method of music instruction mimics they way that babies and children learn their mother tongue. Children learn to speak and understand, before they learn to read and write. Suzuki method requires that children listen to the pieces they are to play over and over again, rather than learn to read the musical notation on the paper at the outset.
Listening to the pieces of music to be played MANY TIMES is the critical element of a child playing the instrument using the Suzuki method.
As my son’s first year school teacher explains, a child cannot read or write what they cannot say or understand. So with reading and writing, the ability to communicate and make language (speech and listening) must inherently come first. With Suzuki method, the child first hears the music they will play before he plays it. And the more familiar she is with the music, the easier it will be for her to learn to play it.
Recordings on cd are provided for all Suzuki music books. These can be ripped to mpeg files and loaded onto smart devices & music players. I play ours in the hallway outside the boys’ room from after school until they are asleep. I have the first four piano books, and the first violin and first viola book recordings on shuffle. I also play this playlist when we are in the car – not all the time, but when we need a bit of chill out in the car.
One of the criticisms of Suzuki method is that the reading of the written music is not a priority at the beginning of music instruction. I disagree that this is a disadvantage.
With Suzuki philosophy – this would be like asking a child to learn to read at the same time as they are learning to talk. Similarly, as when learning to write, we tend to teach the letter formation first before we ask them to write their first story. Writing a story needs an idea, correct grammar, spelling and remembering the sentence as you write – imagine if you are trying to learn the letters at the same time – the result would be overwhelm and frustration for the child.
My 10 year old is a very proficient sight reader now, and when he came to reading music it was very quick as he already had the skills of the playing – he just had to concentrate on note reading.
My six year old is also picking up the reading very quickly as he has the basics of rhythm and notes. He also knows very well, through the years of listening, how the pieces should sound so he can map what he knows to the notes written on the page (what he doesn’t know).
This is exactly how children are taught when they start school – they start with what they know and then build upon it, stretching their comfort zone gradually.
One of the incredible benefits of not using the sheet music initially to play the instrument is the ability of all the Suzuki children to memorise longer and longer pieces of music. I am no neurologist so I can only imagine the difference in the MRI scans of the brains of Suzuki students compared to others. The neural super highways formed through the memorizing, easily, of these pieces that they have heard played so many times must be incredible. This must transfer to helping with other feats of memory in their education.
2 Belief that all children have the ability to develop (musical) ability.
Talent, in Suzuki’s eyes (and mine) is very overrated. Persistence, patience and perfect practice are greater determiners of ‘talent’ than a DNA or genetic test.
I love that Suzuki, even in what I imagine was very conservative 20th Century Japan, espoused that if a child was not picking up an ability in their education (whether it be literacy, numeracy, musical ability etc) the problem was likely the educational system not the inherent defects of the child.
For me, this philosophy is empowering. If we believe that we are each somehow a slave to our genetic makeup, that once we have been conceived the limits of what we can and can’t do are somehow already set, and somehow we exactly know what these limits are in all areas of our lives …. well frankly how boring. If we subscribe to this fixed mindset, our potential is not linked to our hard work or adaptability. Your lot is your lot so just accept it? No thanks.
In Suzuki’s day, and perhaps even with some teachers still, a child was ‘tested’ for musical ability before they were accepted as students. Being able to keep rhythm, have good pitch, and the right size/shape hands may have been what was assessed?
Suzuki method fundamentally believes that every child has potential, with the right instruction for that child, and that talent is not inborn. Amen.
3 Belief that “Ability Breeds Ability”
“Ability breeds ability.” This is true on many levels. As you move from the state of not being able to do something, to be able to do something, two things happen that create momentum.
Firstly, our self-esteem and belief in ourselves increases; our confidence goes up. At first we can not do something, we learn from an expert, we persevere and practice, we find it frustrating, difficult, uncomfortable, and we look stupid and then we CAN do it. This process is about creating intrinsic self esteem and intrinsic belief in ourselves. We knew we couldn’t do it, and now we know we can. We do not need someone external to praise us or to give us top marks on the assignment to know we have done a pretty amazing thing. Ironically the harder the journey, the more often we feel like giving up BUT we do not – the greater the self-esteem and internal pride. There has been so much research on the impact of our children overcoming obstacles and discomforts themselves (rather than parents protecting them from these obstacles or discomforts) as important for building resilience and their ability to survive independently in their late teens and twenties. Without this resilience and belief in themselves, our older children are more susceptible to mental health problems as life becomes more their own responsibility and less their parents.
Secondly, if we are learning from an expert who can properly direct our efforts into the most useful activities in the right order (the right steps and the right syntax of those steps) – we become the proverbial snowball down the hill, gaining momentum and accelerating our ability. The Suzuki pieces are not randomly thrown together in the books. The Suzuki pieces teach technical skills which need to be perfected before a child can advance in their playing. This is why the Suzuki student maintains their repertoire as they progress – the replaying of the pieces is like lifting weights in keeping our musical muscles and neural pathways active. The Suzuki books provide the expert steps and syntax to play beautifully.
4 Role of Parent as Teacher
Suzuki method of music instruction for children requires the parent to be the teacher day in, day out. This means that the lessons from the (paid) teacher are more guiding and instructing the parent how to teach their children rather than solely teaching the child. All music lessons have the parent in attendance, taking notes and learning. In fact, at the start of instruction for a child, the parent learns and plays before the child, increasing the desire of the child to be ‘grown up’ and do what the adult is doing.
This can be daunting for a parent who themselves has not learnt the instrument. However with a genuine interest in learning the instrument, taking good notes and not being afraid to ask questions for clarification, it can be a very enjoyable experience – learning with your child.
In the role as parent-teacher, the importance of genuine joy in your child’s music and music practice is also a critical element of the Suzuki method. Dr Suzuki’s book is entitled, “Nurtured by Love” and for good reason. The daily doses of praise and affection that are provided during music practice and at the music lesson is fundamental to a child progressing. I believe this is so in EVERYTHING that a child does that is on the edge of their knowledge or comfort zone. Our praise and joy and support is critical for them building similar joy in their growth and learning.
5 Belief that “A superior environment produces superior abilities”
Working with the belief that our destiny is not determined by our genes, what does indeed determine the personality we acquire or the ‘talents’ we gain?
Suzuki believed that “the only superior quality a child can have at birth is the ability to adapt itself with more speed and sensitivity to its environment than others”.
For music instruction specifically, the Suzuki method environment includes:
1) Parental respect for the teacher
2) Parental joy in the practice
3) Parental attention to the process of goal setting, practice and improving
4) Parental calm and love during the practice
5) Parent prioritizing practice
6) Parental scaffolding but not shielding from the discomfort of repetition
7) Parental pleasure in the music and the progress
All of these and similar environmental influences will have a direct impact on the ‘talent’ shown by the child.
6 “Now we are going to learn how to do it beautifully”
One of the audible differences between many Suzuki students and traditionally trained students, is the musicality and tone of the performance. This is my generalization and I know there are exceptions. However with Suzuki method – playing the right notes, with the right timing in the right order does not constitute “success”.
The musicality and tone is critical with Suzuki method. The listening to the recordings enables this to happen fairly easily. The listening is a real difference with Suzuki method over traditional method.
A Suzuki teacher, when helping a child with their tone, will play the phrase in two ways and ask the child to tell them which is more beautiful. They will then be asked to play it that way, with no specific instruction necessarily. I am always so amazed at how well my children pick this up and I know it is from the listening to the pieces played that enables this.
I have written a more detailed explanation of these fundamental tenets of Suzuki method which you can download now.
In speaking with many teachers of Suzuki method, and parents of children learning traditional method, there appears to be a spectrum of teaching method now. Perhaps only few teachers sit firmly at either end of the spectrum. The traditional method has adopted many of the Suzuki method philosophies – most notably classical examination music books now include a cd with the recordings of the pieces. In turn, many Suzuki teachers have modified the less critical (in their eyes) elements of the philosophy such as allowing their students’ interests to dictate music choice (not just music from the Suzuki repertoire) or introducing sight reading earlier if appropriate, as examples.
I really hope this has been helpful in explaining what Suzuki method is all about. It is not just about music instruction – it is a way of thinking about how children develop, learn and grow that infiltrates all aspects of my parenting.
Providing feedback is one of the most valuable aspects of the parent-teacher role for a child’s progress and enjoyment during instrument practice. Providing feedback is probably the MOST important role during the actual instrument practice session (once you are at the instrument and have planned the practice out).
Without a parent-teacher, many young children would simply not be aware of what they are doing right and what areas they need to work on. This would make progress slow and frustrating, and hence boring. This in turn would lead to the desire in the child to give up their instrument.
Asking a young child to practice their instrument on their own, is like asking a beginner reader to read their ‘reader’ alone and silently. The beginner reader needs feedback on what words they got right as well as to have their comprehension of the story checked. And almost importantly, a story shared is so much more ENJOYABLE!
TIP 1: HOW TO GIVE POSITIVE FEEDBACK DURING INSTRUMENT PRACTICE
Be specific in your positive feedback and be warm and loving. After every repetition find SOMETHING good that they did and comment on it!
Comment on technical correctness, musicality, rhythm, perseverance, attitude, posture, speed, having a go, getting through to the end, asking for help, not getting frustrated, or anything they did well at all!
General praise is not effective at all and has actually been shown to reduce intrinsic motivation.
TIP 2: HOW TO GIVE IMPROVEMENT FEEDBACK DURING INSTRUMENT PRACTICE
Ask questions in your improvement feedback rather than being directly critical. Ask questions that make the child think about the answer and either answer you in their playing or verbally. You may have to ask a few questions around the subject.
(For examples of these questions, please download my free, more detailed guide to giving feedback by clicking the button below. Click Here For Your Copy
Direct instruction and direct improvement feedback is not as effective as empowering the child to work out the answer on her own.
Also – beware the loaded question which is really a direct negative feedback in disguise! “Why did you play that with a straight thumb?”
The problem with giving improvement feedback in a questioning way is that it can feel ……inefficient. However, it is not really inefficient in the long run! In fact, it is way more efficient as the child ‘owns’ her response and is much more likely to make the corrections required, and progress more quickly.
And most importantly, even from a very young age, children learn of their ability and their role in effecting improvements in their learning. You are teaching them now how they can be responsible for their progress and their achievement.
TIP 3: DON”T CAVEAT PRAISE
Don’t caveat praise – the research has shown it is actually better to not praise a child at all if you do it.
TIP 4: LET GO OF (SOME) CONTROL DURING INSTRUMENT PRACTICE
Adlerian psychology talks about children having two buckets that need filling – an attention bucket and a power bucket. If either of these two buckets are not filled, a child will ‘act out’ to fill them up. I am of a controlling nature (*understatement*) so whilst I am very good at filling my children’s attention bucket, I can sometimes neglect the power bucket. And this results in power struggles. Especially if I am too controlling with instrument practice.
I have learnt to fill the child’s power bucket wherever possible and be less controlling. I may set the practice plans, but they can choose which pieces they play when during the practice. Using the questioning method of providing critical feedback is also a less controlling method of instruction, and just changes the whole dynamic of the practice.
TIP 5: LOVE INSTRUMENT PRACTICE YOURSELF
Research has shown that the more intrinsically motivated the teacher/instructor, the more intrinsically motivated the student, and the better outcomes. There are many implications for this research in the education field generally, but for parent-teachers it is also very relevant.
Set your practice plans and your regular practice sessions up so that they are enjoyable for you! Even if your kids could do a big session, if you can’t (tired, just over it, etc) – then make it easy on yourself and do an easy/short session.
Also, I remind myself that while I am doing instrument practice, my husband has the unenviable task of cleaning the kitchen and putting the other kids to bed. Instrument practice looks more appealing so I am more motivated to be there!
TIP 6: HAVE HIGH EXPECTATIONS
The research has shown time and time again, that the expectations of parents are highly correlated with the success of children, even more so than the child’s own expectations. This also applies to teachers’ expectations of students.
So no matter what the child’s abilities now – set your expectations high and hold them loosely. The high expectations you have will help with the process of building self-esteem, grit, determination, perseverance IRRESPECTIVE of the actual musical level achieved.
How does the adage go? “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss you’ll land among the stars.”
Would you like to more detail on this post? In this free download, I provide heaps of examples of specific praise you can give for piano and string instruments instruction. Click the button below to request your free copy.
Huh? How can that be – isn’t learning an instrument all about the music? In my books, no! In some ways, the music is a lovely side benefit.
So what is it about? Why do I devote hours and hours every week to attending children’s music lessons and then helping them practice?
“Let me count the ways …”
Learning a musical instrument teaches my children invaluable life skills, that I vehemently believe, are so essential to life satisfaction and high achievement (in all facets of life).
Tenacity, the ability to struggle with a problem, fail, sometimes many times, feel discomfort and displeasure – but still persevere! When a child sits down to learn a new piece on an instrument – grit is what they need to get through the uncomfortable place of not being able to do it. Having to break up the piece and work on the sections and master elements before putting it all together, slowly, and then finally speeding it up. Grit is when you come to lesson and you find out you learnt it wrong at home and you have to unlearn it before you can relearn. Grit is making a mistake in a concert, and picking it up again and keeping going.
Self-control or conscientiousness – doing something even though you don’t want to because it is the right thing to do at that time. Self-control may be delaying gratification, or doing what is right rather than what is easy. Practicing badly is easier than practicing to improve. Skipping quickly through practice without noting position, tone or musicality is easier than having to stop, think, take it slower, progress less quickly and perhaps have to stay at the instrument instead of watching television. Self-control, is being bored in music lesson, but still being attentive and respectful to the teacher. Self-control is not giving up the instrument, or not allowing your child to give up the instrument, when it gets ‘hard’ or when they get ‘bored’.
Zest is a joy for the moment and an expression of that joy. Zest appears on the face of a child that plays a piece for the first time and she has the realisation that she did that – that was all her hard work! Zest is the hug and high five between you and your child when you start practice with a sense of purpose and finish practice with a sense of accomplishment. Zest is your feeling as a parent when they play a beautiful note, or bar, or piece and the music moves you and you think, wow, my child did that!
Social intelligence is understanding the meaning between the lines of speech. It is reading the emotions of others beyond their words, and putting words to our own emotions, to manage them well. When a child plays a piece like Lightly Row, and you tell them it sounded like their boat sunk (*laughing*) and then they play it again gently and beautifully – they are starting to understand how to express themselves and express meaning beyond words. When your more advanced child, turns to his instrument when he needs to mull through goings on of the day and plays his pieces in a melancholy tone – this is social intelligence growing. Social intelligence also grows when children have to praise and clap other children in concerts even if they are beginners. And playing in a orchestra with others is the ultimate in listening and communicating as community, as one – to move an audience emotionally.
Gratitude is taking the time to reflect on what is good, in the midst of everyday chaos. Gratitude is being able to kiss the back of my child’s neck when they are playing a piece and making them giggle. Gratitude is also a long term aim of giving my child the opportunity to persevere with a musical instrument. I hope one day my child will NOT say, “Mum, why did you let me give up my instrument?” No-one ever says they wished they had given up earlier.
Practicing an instrument staves off “learned pessimism”. When a child learns to persevere through failure everyday at their instrument, this forms neural highways that say to the child, “Don’t give up, you can do it because you’ve done it before” Optimism is always knowing there is a way through. Optimism is about NOT thinking your future in life is somehow set in stone from your genetic heritage or your environment. Optimism is belief in yourself to navigate the speed bumps and not lose sight of your desired future, just like learning a new, difficult piece of music.
One view of curiosity is being interested in the unknown, including the unknown outside of our comfort zone. Curiosity is still forging ahead to discover even when it is hard, you look stupid or you think you might not succeed. Curiosity is having an open mind to possibilities for yourself. Learning a musical instrument is everyday discovering what is outside your comfort zone – always trying more challenging pieces. Instrument practice is certainly not always about playing perfectly, and always getting it right. A young child knows that only playing the pieces she knows gets very boring and she inherently wants to learn a new piece. She is forming neural pathways to tell her pleasure is stretching herself. Invaluable for her future happiness and success!
These qualities can be gained from countless other activities including dance, sport, languages etc. However the slight difference with learning a musical instrument is that the lesson once a week is the tiny tip of the iceberg where these skills are nurtured. My kids do soccer but they don’t specifically practice every day outside of training and matches. William learns dancing but he doesn’t have to practice each day. I know children who are doing a sport intensively (like gymnastics, or ballet for example) where it is an almost daily practice – this mimics a musical instrument practice a lot more closely.
There has been oodles of commentary on social media about how the current generation of children in higher socio-economic environments are being parented such that they do not learn some of the skills I have listed above. That they are overly protected from failing or suffering discomfort in their childhood, and as a result are not being adequately prepared for real life. Could learning a musical instrument during the younger years be part of an antidote to this?
Well, being ‘helicoptered out of discomfort’ is not happening with my kids as much as I can control it (which is not much, really, actually ….). Which means compulsory musical instrument instruction until High School! Geez I am such a Tiger Mother huh? But often I do still ‘save’ my kids – like dropping in forgotten lunch boxes etc to school ….. more work required.
What do you think? Do you value your children learning the above skills? Do you consciously put them in situations where they are challenged or uncomfortable? I would LOVE to hear your thoughts so please pop a comment in below!
Okay so this could be a sensitive subject. I am not necessarily talking about being an actual single parent (that is, no partner) but perhaps a single parent, where you believe more vehemently in the importance of music practice and education than your partner.
Or it may be that your partner is less of a Tiger parent than you are or has more a ‘fixed’ mindset than ‘growth’ mindset for themselves and your children.
All I can say – it is not easy and not ideal. I have met a number of parents at Suzuki workshops that were in that boat.
I know when I am home alone, if Damien is travelling, practice is rarely ideal….
I am very fortunate that my husband, Damien and I are nearly completely on the same page when it comes to our parenting. So much so that if Damien tells me I am overstepping the mark in some parenting aspect (a little too much yelling to get us all out the door in the morning perhaps?!), I really listen. 99% of the time he backs me and I back him in all aspects.
Without Damien of an evening, I struggle to do great practice sessions with the children.
Whilst the littlies are in their bath, I do a shortened version of piano with Thomas and William, longer depending on how happy they are in the bath. Once that is done, Thomas and William shower, while I pyjama the littlies and do piano with them. Then I get Thomas to teach William his violin, and do viola on his own until after I have got the small children to bed. I then join Thomas for viola to check through what he has done.
This ‘sounds’ relatively calm, but it is not. There is much shouting between rooms (“Don’t forget to wash your hair!”, “Take your clothes to the laundry basket”, “Don’t splash bathroom!”, “Watch your left arm supination!”). Heaven help us all if one child is particularly slow or needy during practice, as my attention is so stretched in multiple directions.
If that all goes to pieces (often), I simply let them all watch a television show, and individually pluck them away for practice. It is always shorter practice sessions and pushes our bedtime out a bit later, but there is not much other choice.
The key thing is, that even if Damien is away, or things are a ‘challenge’, I tell the children we all just have to ‘touch’ the piano tonight. Now the eldest of course wants to take this literally, but no. I mean, I set a practice plan that is some revision pieces and maybe one extra bar of a new piece. I let Tom do some viola on old pieces or just some scales (pretty much on his own) and I get William so show me some good bow hold exercises for the violin. All done in less than 30 minutes so very quick and easy and manageable.
However it means we didn’t skip a day and that just means GETTING THEM TO THE INSTRUMENTS the next day is still easy and no struggle. Also they all seem to be quite reasonable the next night when we do a larger practice because the prior night was light.
If you don’t have as supportive a partner as you would like, then you may need to work out some work arounds:
Do practice when you partner is not around (perhaps after breakfast, just before school)
Work really hard to make the practice sessions they are around for successful – short, every one happy, no yelling, no crying
Make sure the children do an activity with your partner the s/he enjoys (for example, soccer, ballet, etc) and make links between what it takes to be successful at that, and the same skills of deliberate practice.
You will need to work very hard at demonstrating that you are not doing it just to achieve external goals but more for the lessons of perseverance and grit that learning a musical instrument provides or the enhanced memory and mathematical ability.
Surround yourself with others as much as possible, try our Facebook community page, who will be there when you need more support.
Do you have any other suggestions? What has worked for you? Please write a comment below!