Does Your Child’s Practice Help Them Progress?
Not all practice is equal. Simply sitting at the instrument for an allotted time each day doesn’t guarantee that your child will progress.
What does progress mean anyway? For me –
- Progress can mean a new piece becomes easy.
- Progress can mean a known piece becoming more beautiful, more like the recording.
- Progress means increased confidence of the child at the instrument and increased desire to play and learn more.
- Progress can mean increasing repertoire and increasing technical skills.
The research around achieving mastery over new skills emphasizes a concept known as “deliberate practice”. Anders Ericsson, professor of Psychology at Florida State University, in his research, has found that “how” one practices determines the level of expertise achieved, more than just the number of times a skill is performed.
“An expert breaks down the skills that are required to be expert and focuses on improving those skill chunks during practice or day-to-day activities, often paired with immediate coaching feedback. Another important feature of deliberate practice lies in continually practising a skill at more challenging levels with the intention of mastering it.”
Deliberate practice was then further studied by Duviver et al in its role in assisting medical students acquire clinical skills. It requires strengths in four personal skills – planning, concentration, repetition/revision and ability to self reflect on learning.
So what does that mean for us as Parent-Teacher(-Coach) and our children’s practice plans?
Tip #1: Be very clear on the weekly goal set by the teacher for each piece or technical item
My personal lesson here is really improving my note-taking, and asking the teacher to clarify what exactly needs to be improved for each item. I also repeat the goal during the lesson for the child so that they also have heard the goal from the teacher and from me.
Tip #2: Break down that goal into daily activities or sub-goals for your child to work on.
This is a large part of the work/effort for the parent-teacher-coach – breaking the weekly goal down into daily, manageable and achievable goals. So for example if a new piece is to be started, work out how it is to be tackled and what needs to be thought about as you begin (particular techniques that may be new, fingering, musicality, etc).
Before they begin playing anything, talk to your child about what we need to think about with this piece or technical work (whether it be musicality, tricky parts, fingering etc).
I try and set phrases to be learnt in a practice rather than just number of bars, though number of bars works as well. Also specify syntax of learning – for piano, right hand, left hand or together. For violin/viola – air fingering, pizzicato, bowing. Here we are modelling what deliberate practice at this instrument for this piece looks like. So that later, they will automatically as way of habit do that when they tackle something new.
Tip #3: Assist your child concentrate on that goal as needed, during the practice
Be careful not to load too much onto the child in any one session in any one piece. I make this mistake often with Thomas on the viola as he has SO much to improve on. His teacher is much better than me at just focusing on one issue at a time. So for example, if I ask him to watch his palm position in the left hand, and he improves, I then immediately ask him to relax his right shoulder for his bow arm. Too much for one practice session – he gets so discouraged and doesn’t enjoy it. I am impatient and need to take a chill pill.
Tip #4: Provide immediate feedback or ask the child to give himself the feedback on what went well, what could be done better, what else could be done around that goal
Feedback is the big differentiator for deliberate practice. That is why having a parent-teacher-coach a la Dr Suzuki’s methodology is so critical and valuable. For sure my children could not improve on their instruments without some sort of supervision (or yelling from the kitchen after each repetition) in the form of feedback (“That was fabulous, you got the run much more clearly. Play it again so you can feel the difference” or “Great concentration to the end of that piece. How did you go with legato in the left hand? Let’s practice that one bar again and see if you can make it even more legato”)
Tip #5: Make changes to plan as necessary based on the feedback and continue repetitions
Sometimes the plan is too ambitious or not ambitious enough. So adjust as you can. I always am quick to cut down the goal if it is discouraging for the child. I am loathe to add more on unless we are having a super, non-tired, well-adjusted kind-of day (not often). But the next day I will certainly be more ambitious. I try and be very communicative and clear when I am making changes to the plan. So for example if a review piece needs extra work, I show the child what I am taking off the initial plan so that we can do more work on this piece.
Tip #6: Discuss what needs to be practiced tomorrow with your child at the end of your practice.
This is so powerful in so many ways. It sets an anticipation and expectation for tomorrow. It rounds off and ends the current practice. And always can end in a cuddle and fist pump.
The bigger picture we are teaching our children through deliberate practice at their instrument, is how to get better at something. This environment of deliberate practice ensures their “grittiness” for their future endeavours – sticking through the hard bits, and finding their passion through the perseverence.
Here is a picture of the real thing for William (Book 1 Suzuki) on the piano. In the really hard to read green writing are my practice notes. My very shortened notes are each piece, include “Cuckoo – smooth” (referring to left hand legato), “London Bridge – lift off” (referring to lift hand off between phrases), “FCS – gently, beautifully, tall hands” (referring to French Children’s Song musicality and technical tall hands). William also got his first sight reading book and earned the right to start learning Lightly Row – left hand.
Below the green are two nights practice notes in blue pen. The tick is the number of times we did the work on each piece. For revision pieces we may do it once. For the new piece (Lightly Row left hand) we do more repetitions.
Here is the daily practice journal for Eddie (also Book 1 Suzuki piano). F stands for Froggy which is TwinkleA. TO or TG stands for hands together. HB stands for Honey bee. RH stands for Right hand, LH stands for Left hand, C stands for Cuckoo, LR stands for Lightly Row. As we are just learning Cuckoo and Lightly Row, the tick boxes refers to the times we repeat the new phrases we are learning – we are not doing the full piece yet. You will see I start with twinkles every night. I also do this with William as well now. It is what they play while I am sorting out the plan for the whole session and rereading my lesson notes.
Here is an example of lesson notes for Thomas. It just gives the one word for what needs to be worked on. It is very short I know – but I do understand it!
I have actually typed up a much more formal and useful daily practice plan for you! It provides space for all pieces and technical notes and goals, as well as check boxes to show repetitions done. I am going to start using it especially for Thomas who certainly has more he needs to cover each day than the littlies. Click the button below and I will email the pdf version to you so you can print and use at home! Tell me what you think and how I should adjust it to make it more useful!
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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.
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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.
The aim of this website is to provide support and assistance to any parent whose young children learn a musical instrument.
When I say young children, I generally mean between 3 and 12 years old. My experience, and that of others, is that once children reach high school, or close enough, the motivation to practice is more or less in place (or not, unfortunately).
I hope to help parents teach and inspire children during their formative years, where even Dr Suzuki says children are not intrinsically motivated to play or practice a musical instrument.
William & Constance Starr, in their wonderful book, “To Learn with Love: A Companion for Suzuki Parents” said ‘Most children don’t volunteer for practice’. Most young children therefore will need parental involvement to get them to practice.
My six year old (William) started learning violin this year from a non-Suzuki teacher, however the teacher requires that I attend all lessons and work with him each day on his practice. I seriously don’t know how William would learn the techniques of correct bow hold, and position of the instrument etc, without my support every day.
My ten year old (Thomas) has progressed from Suzuki music to more modern music of his choice. This has really upped his motivation to play, yet I still help him when he is learning new, more advance pieces at least at the start. I still like to sit with him during practice as it is joyous to hear him play and we both like it. So when I can, I do!
So, absolutely not, if you have an interest in your child’s musical practice, I aim to be of help to you!