How do you motivate your child to practice? For that matter, how do you motivate your child to do anything at all?
I was mostly contemplating the latter question when I met London-based parenting expert Noël Janis-Norton about six years ago, when my children were extremely young. I was also contemplating questions like, "What am I doing? What made me think I could be a mom?"
I good friend told me about a five-hour seminar with Noël, and I thought, "Five hours without the kids? Sold!"
That five-hour investment changed my way of thinking and helped me feel much more empowered as a parent, and even as a teacher.
Last month Noël came out with a CD called Calmer, Easier, Happier Music Practice, and she also gave a lecture for the parents in the Suzuki group where I teach in Pasadena. Sure enough, this was a topic of great interest.
So I took the opportunity to chat with Noël: specifically about children and music practice, and her new CD. (BTW if you get the CD, you'll find me in there, talking about using her techniques for teaching!)
Laurie: What is valuable about music practice, in terms of child development, besides learning an instrument?
Noël: Music practice is very valuable for a child’s development in a number of ways. The discipline of having to do something on a regular basis, something that is not necessarily easy and not necessarily fun, helps children develop the important qualities of determination, perseverance and persistence. And the experience of going from not being able to play a piece to being able to play a piece gives children a sense of mastery that results in confidence. And of course if you have a child who has shown some degree of musical talent, you probably want to nurture that gift so that your child can feel the excitement and satisfaction of fulfilling their potential.
One word of caution, though. As clear as a parent may be about the benefits of music lessons and music practice, it is utterly pointless to try and convince your children of these benefits. Whenever we try to convince our children of something, of anything, we are coming from a position of weakness, and we are advertising our weakness. It just ends up sounding like a lecture. Instead of trying to convince or persuade our children, we need to focus on establishing consistent routines and good habits.
Laurie: What are some of the most common complaints that parents have about music practice?
Noël: In my Calmer, Easier, Happier Music Practice seminars, the first thing I always ask parents is how they would like music practice to be different at home. There are three typical complaints.
The first is that parents want their child to do his best and not rush through the pieces. They want him to be more focused and less distracted during practice so that he really makes an effort to remember what he’s been told about what to do and how to do it instead of just plowing through it. The second complaint is that they want their child to be more motivated to practice—to be more willing and less resistant. Resistance can be quite mild, such as a child who dejectedly walks off to practice with some mumbling. Or resistance can be more problematic, such as a child who procrastinates, negotiates, bargains or just refuses. The third concern is that parents want their child to be less upset when he makes a mistake—to be less of a perfectionist. So instead of big emotional outbursts, the child can move through his frustrations more easily and more quickly.
Of course there are other issues with practicing, but these are the ones I hear most frequently.
Laurie: Why would a child resist practicing?
Noël: There are two main reasons why children resist practicing. The first is that they know, from past experience, that there is a chance that their resistance will pay off. For example, they may waste so much time complaining that there ends up being less time available for practicing. And sometimes they can come up with a good enough excuse so that they manage to get out of practicing altogether.
When routines aren’t consistent, kids don’t know what to expect, and this gives them so much more room to resist and negotiate! As I mentioned before, we need to establish habits, and that starts with having consistent routines. Another reason a child may resist practicing is because she is expecting to be scolded or corrected when she plays. If the parent has been in the habit of pointing out what she played wrong instead of noticing and mentioning what she did right, practice will not be a rewarding experience for the child, and she will naturally try to get out of it.
Laurie: Have you seen parents succeed in changing a child's resistance to practice into enthusiasm for practice?
Noël: I certainly have! But let’s define what we mean by enthusiasm first. Enthusiasm for practicing an instrument doesn’t mean that you child is so excited by the thought of practicing that she can hardly wait to do it, just like enthusiasm for school doesn’t mean that children are begging to go to school on Saturday and Sunday. Enthusiasm means enjoyment for practicing and feeling a sense of satisfaction and reward.
Just the other day I was visiting with a family who has been using the Calmer, Easier, Happier Music Practice strategies for five years. I asked the 10-year-old, on a scale of one to ten, with ten being the most fun he could ever have, and with one being the most horrible experience he could ever have, "How would you rate practicing your violin?" He only thought about it for a couple of seconds, and then he said "eight". Then I asked him how he would feel if his mom kept stopping him while he was playing a piece and telling him about his mistakes. He answered immediately, "I’d hate it." Nobody likes to have their mistakes pointed out—not adults, not children.
Laurie: How much should a parent really be involved in music practice, and until what age?
Noël: There are different ways to be involved. Assuming that parents are practicing being involved in a positive, firm and consistent way, you’ll be able to see when your child is becoming more self-reliant and therefore needing you less. And by self-reliant, I mean remembering not just what to play but how to play it.
Some teaching methods, such as Suzuki, require parents to be very involved and others don’t, but I still recommend parents being involved. Sometimes parents think that they should leave their child alone to practice because their child doesn’t want them "meddling" in their practice. Children generally only feel that way when they are expecting to be corrected a lot. And understandably, if parents don’t know a better, more effective way to be helpful, they will tend to correct a lot. But luckily, there is a better way, where parents can learn to reinforce good habits effectively in a very positive way.
So let me address the question of how many months or years parents will need to supervise music practice before they can trust their child to reliably motivate himself to do his best and manage his time efficiently. The answer really depends on how consistently you are putting the skills that I’m recommending into practice. The more you practice these new skills, the sooner your child or teen will gradually develop good, solid habits of time-management, of challenging himself to do his best, of persevering and ultimately of enjoying music practice. The Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting strategies will help your child to become not only more cooperative but also more confident, more motivated and more self-reliant. As you see those qualities developing, you can gradually be less and less involved. The same is true of homework from school. So you won’t be supervising music practice forever and a day. That’s the good news. But you may need to supervise music practice probably for longer than you wish. There is no arbitrary age or grade at which a child can be trusted to be self-reliant and do their best. This is a matter of "stage not age." And stages are the result of training, not just the passage of time.
Laurie: I once had a colleague who admitted to spanking her three-year-old if she didn't practice. Over the years, I have occasionally seen parents berate their child over a poor performance -- or to a lesser extreme, criticize them publicly. It has all made me very concerned about the potential for abuse. If a child is obviously not performing to their potential, how should a parent handle that? What kind of perspective is necessary for a parent who is hopeful that their child will do well in music?
Noël: It is often the case that parents are disappointed and frustrated because they can see that their child is far more capable than what she’s producing. Parents also need to recognize that although all children are not equally talented, they can all improve, and all children can get the satisfaction of going from not being able to do something to being able to do it.
The key to bringing out the best in children is motivating them. The physical spanking you mentioned and also what I call "verbal spanking’, which is the correcting, criticizing and scolding, does not motivate children. Unfortunately, it does the opposite. We don’t want our children to practice out of fear of being punished.
Laurie: When is it appropriate for a child to quit an instrument?
Noël: Parents often ask how they should handle the issue of a child or teenager wanting to give up music lessons. Once parents realize that music lessons and music practice can be transformed through parenting strategies, this issue of when to stop music lessons often fades into insignificance. But if this remains a problem in your family, my first piece of advice is to examine your values, and the values of your partner if you have one, to make sure that you know why you want your child to be studying an instrument. As I mentioned, learning an instrument is not just about learning to appreciate music. That can be accomplished without ever picking up an instrument. If one of your reasons for having your child study music is to teach self-discipline, there are many other ways that goal can be achieved. If your child chose to study an instrument and now doesn’t want to, you may well place a value on perseverance, and therefore you don’t want him to give it up just because he feels like stopping. On the other hand, in some families the value that the parents hold is that this is something that children can decide for themselves. If this is your value, you still have to figure out whether your child is basing his desire to give up on mature reflection, or whether it’s just a whim that he may regret later. Children, by definition, are immature and therefore not capable of a great deal of mature reflection.
The worst reason for stopping music lessons is that the child isn’t enjoying it. That sounds like a heartless thing to say, but what I mean is that if you put into practice most, it doesn’t even have to be all, of the strategies I outline in my music practice CD, your child will probably start enjoying her music lessons and even the practicing. And even if she doesn’t actually enjoy it she will tolerate it without too much angst. This is very similar to how children often feel about school. When children complain about school, we don’t generally entertain the option of their dropping out. For most parents, their values dictate that children and teenagers will continue going to school because the pluses far outweigh the minuses. I strongly believe that the same is true of music study.
Laurie: What are some measures I can take to keep music practice a positive experience for my child?
Noël: There are many things we can do to make music practice a positive experience. I’ll briefly mention three things that are critical for achieving this goal. First, as I touched upon before, having a consistent practice routine, where your child knows when practice will happen each day, goes a long way toward reducing practice resistance. They just get into the habit of doing it then—it is just part of their day.
I also mentioned how de-motivating it can be for kids to have their mistakes regularly pointed out to them. Parents need a more effective way to give feedback about their child’s playing during the practice, and the strategy they need to learn and practice every day is Descriptive Praise. Instead of vague superlatives like "Great job" and "Fantastic playing", they must be very specific and describe exactly what their child did that was good so that the child has useful information about what he or she did well and can do it again. It also shows that the parent really paid attention and noticed what they were doing. They could say, "That was accurate shifting" or "You remembered the bow divisions on that difficult passage" or "Your hard work on the dynamics really shows".
The third thing parents can do to keep practice positive is to use a specific technique that I developed called a "think-through". It is a way of communicating with a child that results in the child not only knowing what to do but also remembering how to do it. It is practically magical when parents start using it, but it’s not how we are used to doing things, so it takes practice. Imagine how much better practice would be if you didn’t have to remind your child what to do or tell them what they did wrong after they played a piece.
Let me share an email I received recently from a mother who used this technique:
"We started with a think through, and I had my son list first the basic body posture checkpoints for beautiful cello playing, then the tricky parts for his current piece. Then he started playing, doing most of the things we talked about. I did not interrupt when he made a mistake, like I usually do. Then when he finished, I checked off each thing he did right, by holding one finger up at a time, until all 10 of my fingers were up. Then I descriptively praised him further on his tippy toe fingers, which he held up even when he went to 2nd position on the G string. He was beaming AND he himself pointed out that his balloon deflated mid way through the piece and he said he wanted to play the piece again, this time trying hard to keep his balloon inflated all the way through the piece! Usually, I'm focusing on the mistakes and pointing them out, at which point my son explodes in frustration, shuts down, and has to be cajoled to continue practicing. This is such an improvement from our usual music practice routine!"
Laurie: Do you have anything to add?
Noël: Yes. I want parents to know that music practice does not have to be a struggle or a battle of wills. I promise you that it will become more and more enjoyable and more and more productive and will continue to improve over time, as long as parents are being proactive—creating consistent routines, using Descriptive Praise, "think-throughs" and a few other skills I share in my CD. As parents, we will never be perfect, and neither will our children, but the more we practice these techniques, the more positive, firm and consistent we will become. Music practice will be more fun and productive and family life in general will become calmer, easier and happier.
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