Written by Laurie Niles
Published: October 29, 2013 at 5:29 PM [UTC]
It makes sense that, when given the task of helping a child practice, a parent would do the same: Here's what you are doing wrong, here's how to fix it. Why, then, does this approach so often cause resistance, tension in the relationship, or even a complete rebellion against the violin? Even if it's done with the best of intentions?
Parenting expert Noël Janis-Norton shared insights about this and other related issues in a seminar called Calmer, Easier, Happier Music Practice that she gave a few weeks ago for parents of the Suzuki group where I teach, Suzuki Talent Education of Pasadena.
I've interviewed Noël before and attended several of her lectures on parenting and on practicing. She tends to get to the heart of problems and offer practical advice -- it's been useful and empowering to me as both a parent and a teacher.
Here's what's at the heart of the practicing-with-parents issue: People tend to respond badly to being criticized and bossed around. It might not seem like that's what you're doing. But if you're mostly pointing out your child's flaws and demanding they be fixed, you are.
The more effective route is to build the child's motivation, confidence and ability to recognize the correct way to do things, Noel said. For example, "You can always find something positive to say during music practice."
Of course, the positive approach and "self-esteem building" has been much maligned of late. For example, Prof. Stephen Shipps' article in The Strad, Demanding the best, bemoaned the lack of exacting teaching in students' musical upbringing and said that parents expect coddling. Doesn't "building self-esteem" just produce over-confident, over-entitled children? Isn't it just "coddling"?
"How many of you think that you really shouldn't have to praise your children during practicing, that this is just going to make them praise junkies?" Noel asked the audience of parents gathered for her talk.
A good many hands went up.
"I'd like to reassure you, that's not the kind of praise that I'm talking about," she said. "The kind of praise where you constantly tell them, 'Great job!' and 'Super!' and 'Awesome!' is completely useless and it *does* turn them into praise junkies."
I think even Stephen Shipps will agree with what she said next, but I invite him to comment, if he doesn't!
Noël advocates the use of "descriptive praise," which is much more exacting, and actually takes a great deal more thought, than those throwaway lines like, "Great job!" It also does not preclude the analysis of mistakes; for correcting mistakes she advocates using a combination of approaches, including "think-throughs" and "preparing for success." (More about that below.)
But as Mary Poppins says, "A spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down." The recipe is: Sugar + medicine. Not, "just sugar" or "just medicine"!
So to describe "Descriptive Praise": Without using any exaggeration or useless praise words, describe to the child exactly what he or she did correctly. For example:
"You kept your bow thumb bent the entire time you played that piece," you can say, with a smile. The child will recognize this as an acknowledgment of something he or she did correctly, particularly if it's something you've emphasized before. Certainly don't append anything to the end of your description, i.e.: "You kept your bow thumb bent the entire time you played that piece. Good job!" Cut the "Good job!"
If you tell a child (or student) specifically what he or she is doing correctly, he or she begins to internalize a useful list that describes the correct way to do various things, Noël said.
And what if it's all wrong? Well, first of all, it's never all wrong. Something went right. However small it was, acknowledge and descriptively praise what went right. "You used all the correct bowings," or, "You stood with correct violin posture the entire time."
As for the part that went badly (very likely the part you are dying to just FIX already), whose job is it to fix it? You can just fix it, or you can see if your child can identify the problem. Chances are, they can.
"Is there anything you'd do differently? What happened there? How can you fix that? What if you put your second finger right next to the first? Let's try that, right there at that spot."
If you know that the same problem occurs every time your child plays a certain piece, you can have a "talk-through" before you even start.
Parent: "What do you need to watch for in this piece?"
Child: "The down-bow retakes."
Parent: "How many times do they happen?"
Parent: "If you accidentally forget, let's come up with a sign I can make, so you can fix it right away."
You get the picture. By doing a "talk-through," you help the child build a picture that anticipates a way to do things correctly. Chances are, you'll see improvement.
Of course, one has to consider the age and level of the student. A young beginner still needs to build a long list of what is correct, at very fundamental levels. A more experience student can receive more refined description and solve problems that are more complex.
As Noël pointed out, a parent will praise a potty-training toddler, "You used toilet paper!" But one does not need to acknowledge the same thing in a teenager!
Is it possible to learn in an exacting way, using these methods? I'd argue that not only is it possible, but that the learning is more permanent, and that these methods help cultivate a child's problem solving skills and eventual independence. As a teacher, do I still occasionally say, "What was THAT? Fix it!" Indeed I do, but it's after establishing a relationship that respects a student's ability to do things right and to solve problems.
Noël had many more things to say about practicing, so if it's something that is an issue for you, here again is a link to her CD (yours truly makes a short guest appearance on it to speak about using these methods for teaching): Calmer, Easier, Happier Music Practice.
Also, I'm happy to say that Noël has finally written her general book on parenting -- something she had not yet completed when I first met her! I bought a copy at the seminar; it's called (of course!) Calmer, Happier, Easier Parenting (Because, as Noël says, though parenting is never calm, happy and easy, it can be made calmer, happier and easier!)
Thessa and Erin, I agree with you about Noel's parenting ideas; they are so profoundly helpful and effective. Did you know that the actress Helena Bonham Carter consults with Noel? Apparently HBC says, "Acting is easy, you just dress up and pretend to be someone else -- parenting is difficult!"
But what do you do when you ask something like, "what do you think you could do differently next time?" or even just "what do you think about this passage?" and they yell back, in a frustrated voice, "I DON'T KNOW!!"
I mean, is this exchange for real?
Parent: "How many times do they happen?"
I guess there must be children who would know that answer and who would be able to articulate it in that way, but those children don't live in my house.
I've also had the experience of using descriptive praise without the "Good job!" or whatever, and then being looked at by the child mistrustfully and asked, "yeah, but was it any GOOD?" They don't seem to interpret this as genuine praise, but either as an obvious/banal statement, or as damning faint praise.
I admit I've been there myself (on the "I DON'T KNOW!" end of the above exchange). Being asked what I think all the time and having to come up with my own suggestions, instead of just being told what the teacher wants already, can drive me a little batty too. My teacher seems to have found the right balance with me, but I've never been able to find it with my kids.
Of course, nothing is particularly easy with your own kids! That doesn't mean it's not worth continuing to try, though.
Virtually all of these things have been heard and internalized much better coming from a teacher, so I actually have regarded that as a pretty good reason for me to stop trying to practice with my kids. Sometimes I play duets with them, and that's usually (but not always) fun, but that's about it.
As for whether I (or my kids) know when I make a mistake, I find that a really complicated question. For very simple mistakes, like playing the wrong note in the wrong place, the answer is yes, but I almost never make that kind of mistake anymore. Usually the kind of mistake I make nowadays is something more subtle, like landing too hard on the end of a phrase, or playing a note that's a few Hz off from perfect in intonation, and the answer to that is, no, I don't hear it unless someone else (or the electronic tuner, or a recording) points it out.
I'm not sure what's going on in my kids' heads when they make mistakes. Sometimes what they say suggests that they really didn't know. Sometimes what they say suggests that they did know, but have no idea how to fix it. Sometimes they just seem overwhelmed by the sound, as if they just couldn't stand to hear it again. That overwhelm is what brings on the frustration and exclamations of "I hate this!"
People sometimes ask me, because I play the violin myself and because I have kids who play stringed instruments, for advice about their own kids' music lessons, and about their own role and involvement as parents. I'll probably recommend Noel's book as a starting point if I get asked that again.
But I also think parents need permission to stop trying to be involved in practicing, if it's still not working. That's about the only thing I feel like my own personal experience is useful for. I can give other parents permission to be imperfect, permission to let their kids take violin or cello lessons even if they can't be that involved in practicing, like I did, permission to wait until their kids are older to take lessons, permission to have the kids bear the responsibility for their own learning, like I did.
Expectations have gotten so high everywhere these days, even on young children, that parental involvement is starting to be seen as universally necessary for every learning experience. I don't think that's a good thing.
My husband & I take turns to supervise our son's Suzuki practice (with pleasure) unlike his independent-minded sister & I would agree with you that parental [practice] supervision is not universally necessary [especially not for some aged ten-plus & 12-plus church youths we know unlike other little ones although there again, the pace towards independent learning differs from child to child as Laurie indicated]. The parent will discern this best. Our son started lessons late after age 10 (recently) & likes & needs practice supervision.
As musical mums & dads, we are bound to be much "involved" in other concrete & meaningful ways. We can give appropriate, informed choices [making our children feel rather grown-up/"liberated"] & frame genuine descriptive praise (outside the practice room), be the tireless/uncomplaining accompanist/driver, pay for their violins, piano & tuition costs & inspire greatly in other wonderful ways, as when we organise casual, informal at-home jamming or take them to live concerts we attend/play. I believe that if as parents, we are committed, passionate & patient with their learning experiences, we are "successful" in different areas, means & ways. In the overall scheme of things you probably have not failed at all with your early experiences [except & perhaps only to the extent, your former (or highest?) expectations of yourself did not give you the freedom or permission to be a reasonable & imperfect musical parent]. Yet, you have reflected, considered & chose your battle with care. Let's have a relaxing cuppa now & instead of kicking yourself for whatever reason, let's give ourselves a pat on the back. After all, as hardworking parents, we've tried, we made mistakes & we bounced back admirably. Let's keep going.
I made far too many assumptions when younger & impatient mistakes & had to re-focus & return to Noel's practical parenting strategies whenever we remember & they really do work. Thank God, children don't keep scores or remember.
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