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Music Practice with Your Child: How to Make It Work Better

Laurie Niles

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Published: October 29, 2013 at 5:29 PM [UTC]

If you've played an instrument yourself, your practicing method likely involves listening for what is wrong, then fixing it.

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.


Noël Janis-Norton stands at center, with me and fellow teaching colleague Cheryl Scheidemantle

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?"

Child: "16."

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!)


From Erin Rushforth
Posted on October 29, 2013 at 6:27 PM
I just picked up her new book. We are in the first two weeks of implementing Descriptive Praise at our house, and it has made a tremendous difference in the way our children behave, in the way we feel about our children, in the way we feel about ourselves as parents, and in the general tone at home. Definitely calmer and happier.
From Thessa Tang
Posted on October 29, 2013 at 7:18 PM
Our children have been & are being brought up to a large extent on Noel's (and the late Cassandra Jardine's) teaching & with much prayer for aid. The older teenager & nearly 11-yr old are polar opposites according to our autistic son's psychiatrist. Yet, she was quite astonished, when visiting our home, to discover how contented, confident, life-curious & well adjusted they are regardless of his disabilities & the differences in character & natural temperament. There were more ups & downs for the teenage girl in her mid-teen years & yet those teen years are passing by quickly with laughing at ourselves, stability ["we're getting there" optimism] & without any serious communication fallout/the so-called "typical" teenage rebellion/any serious incident. The boy (diagnosed with both "classic" autism and "severe" learning difficulties plus medical issues to boot) no longer has challenging behaviour issues. All these changes/happenings are mini-miracles! New circumstances will arise to bring challenges anew so parenting is always hard & humbling work. However, for us, Noel's been tried & tested for many years [her communication & other (food-fears/fussiness, anticipatory homework training, choice-giving, boundary-setting, music-practising, etc) pragmatic parenting strategies] & as thankful parents, some close friends, my husband & myself, we can certainly, all, vouch for her (effective) teaching with relief, joy & gratitude.
From Scott Furbeck
Posted on October 30, 2013 at 12:17 AM
30 years ago, my violin teacher, George Nagy, would tell me "you did it so well, we should do it again" in the nicest way. Then we would then work back through the issues in a constructive way. I never felt much pressure from him, but yet he got the best out of me. I wanted to please that man and I developed a long term love for the instrument at the same time. Maybe with more pressure, I would have been a better violinist... I don't know. At the time I had enough pressure in my young life, I would like to think he knew that. What I do know is that I'm still at it. Thanks for the happy memory

From Laurie Niles
Posted on October 30, 2013 at 5:43 AM
Scott, your teacher did something seriously right if you are still playing and moving forward on the violin after 30 years!

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!"

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on October 30, 2013 at 2:27 PM
I like the idea behind this approach, and I keep hoping it will work with my kids.

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?"
Child: "16."

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.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on October 30, 2013 at 5:31 PM
Actually that is a real conversation, Karen. We have kids do things like count the number of "retakes" they have to do in "Song of the Wind" or the number of double up-bows they have to do in "Oh Come Little Children." So quite often, they know the answer by heart, but always, they can come up with it with a little help. Of course, you don't ask them about things that are completely new concepts. But they usually know when they've made a mistake. Don't you? And with some guidance, they can usually figure out why. It can be quite a revelation. Maybe that place is particularly difficult because of a string crossing, or a funny finger replacement, or whatever. But if you slow down and do some analysis, you can let them discover the reason, and that builds their ability to solve problems.

Of course, nothing is particularly easy with your own kids! That doesn't mean it's not worth continuing to try, though.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on October 30, 2013 at 6:00 PM
If I asked one of my kids to count bow retakes, I'd get pushback. The same has been true for clapping rhythms, using the metronome, repeating a passage again, playing it slowly, breaking it down into alternate rhythms, starting from the end instead of the beginning, or any of a number of worthy practice strategies. It would start out with a whiny "do I haaaave to?" and if I persisted, would escalate into something like "I hate metronomes!!" In this case it would have escalated to "I hate bow retakes!" coupled with a refusal to do any bow retakes at all.

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!"

From Laurie Niles
Posted on October 30, 2013 at 8:03 PM
Another thing to keep in mind: It's the youngest students who need a lot of parental involvement in their practice. As children get older, they can and should start practicing more independently. The age at which this happens seems to be pretty different from child to child.
From Thessa Tang
Posted on October 30, 2013 at 9:50 PM
Well, what can I add? There is nothing to lose & everything to gain (and what a blessed godsend to our family) if a parent could consider, buying the book now (mine was a very similar 2003 version) & applying with determination & consistency, the practical strategies/tools any parent can use immediately. Try it & watch [the difference]. Noel's teaching works & as stated, our children are polar opposites, with one being born unbelievably stubborn with a mind of her own from early childhood, becoming open to reason & calmly co-operative. Admittedly for music practice we had not supervised her: she happened to be a late-starter & highly self-motivated & had a gifted first teacher. Music supervision is a non-issue for a violin/practice geek. I chose [other areas, according to her needs, as] my battle. In each case, we found Noel's insight, profoundly helpful.
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on October 31, 2013 at 11:38 AM
Sorry, I sound too negative with my comments. I actually appreciate the constructive advice in this blog, and I'm glad it works for some people. I had these fantasies, when I had kids, of starting them early and giving them all the advantages I never had, including a knowledgeable, involved, violin-playing parent. It has been one of the great disappointments of my life that those wishes didn't come true, that music practice with my own children hasn't gone better.

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.

From Thessa Tang
Posted on October 31, 2013 at 1:29 PM
"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."

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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