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.
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!)Tweet
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