Wednesday, April 24, 2013

For Parents: How to Support Your Child's Music Practice and Development

One of the most important aspects of Suzuki violin is the powerful relationship that it should foster between a child and his/her parents. As a Suzuki violin teacher, I encourage all of my parents to attend their children's lessons regularly, so that they can understand what their child is working on and help them practice at home. Ideally, parents become the "home teachers" who can really support a child's musical development and inspire them to practice. I have worked with many excellent parents who do a beautiful job of encouraging and supporting  their children. Unfortunately, I also see parents who treat their children harshly, have unrealistic expectations, and end up harming their child's joy in music. So how can parents make sure they're encouraging, not punitive?

1. Just a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down!

The wise and wonderful Mary Poppins has some great advice for parents and teachers alike--namely that everyone takes criticism better when it's delivered with kindness and a smile (just a spoonful of sugar!). It's important to remember that children are sensitive, and a harsh comment can easily hurt their feelings and leave them discouraged. Yet, it's vital to give students feedback. What then, is the best way to balance these two distinct needs? First of all, stay aware of your tone of voice when you give feedback. Parents and teacher can use a calm, neutral tone, a positive tone, or a sympathetic one, depending on the circumstances. If we sound angry, impatient, or frustrated, then our feedback gets lost in the negative emotion. 

I have had parents in a lesson snap at their child for making a mistake, and that always makes me cringe. It makes the children defensive and tense, and does not help them learn effectively. Remember, if you're in a bad mood, it's better not to say anything at all.

Some people take the opposite approach--they constantly praise their children and avoid giving them any feedback at all. Again, that makes me cringe. Few things are as damaging to a child's work ethic than being told that it's talent, not hard work, that makes you "special" or successful. I strenuously avoid even using the word "talent" in my lessons, because it's discouraging. If all that matters is inborn talent, then when children encounter difficulties in their lessons, they think it's a lack of talent, not a lack of hard work or practice. Instead, we should encourage children to persevere.

2. Keep your expectations realistic

I used to teach piano and violin lessons at a Montessori preschool, where most of my students were only three years old. After one boy's first lesson, his father approached me to ask if his son had any talent, and whether I thought it was "worthwhile" for him to continue his lessons. I remember being stunned--the boy was only three! At another lesson, a mother got increasingly impatient when her five year old daughter struggled with a lesson. She snapped at her daughter several times, and I had to remind her that music is a big challenge (it's a lot to learn!) and that it's essential that we stay patient with students when they struggle. Other parents expect their three year olds to practice the violin by themselves, with no guidance or help. As though such a young child could be responsible enough to 1. remember exactly what they are supposed to do and 2. do it on their own everyday.

All of these parents made the same mistake--they had unrealistic expectations. People often vastly underestimate how difficult music can be. Learning to play the violin or other instruments effectively takes time and effort, even for adult students. People likewise misunderstand children's developmental levels. Young children have flexible brains, and that means they often benefit enormously from early music lessons, which increase their cognitive abilities, memory, and coordination. But that does NOT mean that they learn faster than adults, or that music is somehow easy for them. Furthermore, since children develop so quickly, and their bodies and brains are still growing and changing rapidly, it would be impossible for me to judge a child's future potential, even if I were inclined to do so (and for the record, I'm not--see my criticisms of the concept of "talent") Also, young children need their parent's help and guidance when they practice. It's unrealistic to expect a three year old to take out their violin and practice without help. If you want your young child to learn and practice, then you must make practicing a part of your routine at home, and pay careful attention in a child's lessons so you can help them. 

So what should a parent expect from their child's music lessons? How much progress is "normal"? Truthfully, it's best to have as few expectations as possible, and take every development as a gift when it comes. When someone once asked Dr. Suzuki how he managed to stay so patient with even the most difficult students, he said "I have no expectations. Instead, I have a vision of that student ten years from now, playing a beautiful version of Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5." Indeed, Suzuki realized that the pressure of expectations kept teachers and parents from enjoying and celebrating the progress that a student was making. Impatience does not make children learn faster; it only robs music lessons of joy.

3. Patience and Persistence

One of the most important gifts parents can give a young musician is patience. Understand that learning music is difficult, and students sometimes don't see immediate improvement. It's only with  persistent practice that a student's sound, intonation, and technique improve. A parent can remind their child that music takes time. When parents make comments like "I don't know why you're still working on this piece!" or "Why can't you remember what you're supposed to do! We went over this last week!" that can undermine a child's motivation.

Instead, focus on gentle reminders of proper techniques, and feel free to repeat them as often as necessary! Think about how many times you might have read a favorite story to your child, or how many times you repeated a word you wanted them to learn when they were a baby. A parent might say "mama" thousands of times before a baby finally repeats it back. Likewise, it's perfectly normal and expected that teachers and parents must guide a child through a musical technique hundreds of times before it's perfect.

Remember the 10,000 hour rule, it takes 10,000 hours to master any complex skill, and that is certainly true of any musical instrument. It takes an enormous amount of persistence to get through those 10,000 hours, and that's why it's important to keep going! Yet even if a child only practices a half hour a day at first, that is the beginning of the 10,000 hours they need. Over time, that practice adds up, and in a few years you'll be amazed at how much they've developed.

4. Mistakes are a part of the learning process

So many music students, both children and adults, take mistakes to much to heart. Mistakes are a natural, normal part of the learning process. Even the greatest musician alive, even Beethoven,  Mozart, and Jascha Heifetz, made mistakes when they were first starting out. So instead of feeling badly about a mistake, it's much healthier to focus on how to fix it for the next time. When parents and teachers treat mistakes as a normal part of the process, that encourages children to try again.

I have had parents in lesson snap at their children when they made a mistake or worse. Once a mother actually lightly smacked her six year old daughter on the head when she missed a note. I was stunned. Later in the lesson, the same mother complained that her daughter didn't like playing the violin. Well, I wouldn't like playing violin either if someone hit me on the head every time I missed a note! Parents like these are deeply misguided, and they will end up hurting their child's progress in music, as well as other areas of their life. 

When a child makes a mistake, remember that the greatest gift you can give them is PATIENCE. Stay calm and neutral, and offer guidance like "Try that part pizzicato a few times before you do it  again with the bow." Try playing slower (much, much slower), or even going back to an easier piece if the child becomes frustrated. A calm, patient approach will work wonders. Remember, the more a child loves music, the more they will develop as a musician.

5. Find a regular schedule that works for your child, and stick to it!

Children are all different. Some are most active in the morning, others at night. Some might feel fresh right after school, and others might need time to wind down before they start practicing. Parents often know when their child is most likely to function best. That is the time to practice! A hungry, tired, or overwhelmed child will be cranky and miserable and resist practicing the violin. A well rested, calm child practices and learns far more effectively.

Furthermore, children love consistency  so developing a regular practice schedule makes them feel secure. They'll feel better prepared for their lessons, and they'll enjoy practicing more once it becomes a routine.

It can help to set regular goals for practicing as well (although be cautious about using too many rewards). A good practice goal might be doing a certain number of repetitions of a piece, or practicing every day during the week. Your music teacher can help you identify good practice goals specific to your child's stage of development.

6. Check in regularly with your child's music teacher

I love when parents ask me questions about what their child should be working on at home! I have all my students bring a spiral notebook for me to make notes in for them. It really helps to have a written record of what, specifically, the teacher would like you to practice. I also encourage parents to take pictures or video of lesson segments so that they can have a visual image of a technique.

If you have a question during the week, write it down in the child's notebook so you don't forget, then ask me during their lesson. If your child is having difficulty practicing something at home, or seems confused, bring it up in the lesson. That gives the teacher valuable feedback about what your child is absorbing during lessons. Parents can also give teachers valuable insights into their child's personality and learning style. Is your child particularly sensitive? Are they active? Some children might prefer to stand up during lessons, or otherwise move around regularly, while others prefer a more subdued setting. These insights that parents provide music teachers help us make a child's lesson more engaging.

Likewise, I love hearing about what other interests or activities a child participates in. There are plenty of connections between music and activities such as art, drama, or sports. Strengthening these connections can help a child's musical development as well as their progress in their other activities.

7.  Listen!

Most children love attention. When adults listen to them play their violins or other instruments, it encourages them. When your child is ready to perform a piece, have them give a family concert. This helps them prepare for public recitals in a supportive atmosphere, and lets them be the center of attention!

Listen to them when they talk about music as well. Ask them about what they've learned in their lessons, what they're excited to practice this week, what they're looking forward to learning. Then listen carefully to their answers. Your child will understand that their musical experiences are important to you, and that inspires them.

You can help your child learn to listen as well by taking them to concerts, especially children's concerts, and performances by other students. And of course, if you're using the Suzuki Method, by listening to your reference recordings!

Related articles on Suzuki Method and Violin/Viola teaching or performing:


Pascale Method for Violin--A Review

Persistence--The Most Important Aspect of Talent

Seven Ways to Develop Listening and Aural Skills in Music Students

Music Lessons for Children with Disabilities 

Overcoming Performance Anxiety: How to Help Music Students Prepare for Recitals, Auditions, and other Performances


Suzuki Method for Adult Students




Excellent Supplemental Books for Suzuki Violin and Viola Students

Suzuki Method--a Violin Teacher's Perspective


Suzuki Philosophy: Every Child Has Talent


Suzuki Techniques--Listening is the key


Violin Life Lessons

Inspiring Practice


Practicing Violin Effectively


Great Apps for Musicians


Pascale Method for Violin--A Review

More Apps for Musicians and Music Students

Classical Music Isn't Dying--It's in a Recession

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