Interview with parenting expert Noël Janis-Norton: Calmer, Easier, Happier Music Practice

March 25, 2010, 12:22 PM ·

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.


March 25, 2010 at 10:36 PM ·

 This sounds great!  Thanks for the interview and the heads up about the CD.  I especially like that she addresses the idea of how long you may have to supervise your kids' music practice.  My daughter still doesn't like to practice without me there, listening.  

March 26, 2010 at 12:30 AM ·

I'm not a parent and what she says seems great to me but just a detail: what if the kid really don't like music... Let's say the kid is crazy about something else... There is what the parent loves and what the kids love...  This isn't always immaturity.  The kid still is a different person with a different soul and feelings... 

The idea that the parent will make the music fun or not for the kid is true to a certain extent, until a certain limit where it's really the kid who hates it!    Not all kids are meant to love music as not all kids are meant to like school, soccer, ballet whatever...  

Just my two cents about what isn't often discussed : what if the kid really hates it...

Thanks for this great interview!



March 26, 2010 at 03:21 AM ·

Laurie and Noel, thanks again for a great, helpfu interview.  I have written a letter to parents of new students describing the ways that they can nurture their kids' playing.  I even posted it in my blog of 7/9/2009 and asked for feedback.  Many of the points covered in this interview are covered in my letter, but there are also new things that would be helpful to both the parents and the teacher.  I'm especially glad that you reminded me how to give praise (being specific).  I am going to save this interview for myself and my students' parents.

March 26, 2010 at 10:55 AM ·

anne marie, i think that is a grea question of yours.  at least to some extent it pertains to our situation where my kid does not necessarily hate it, but i know in comparison with all the activities in the world that she would like to pursue on her own will, violin is not even top 10.  brand it as childish or childlike, but that is the truth.   so, i am interested to see what the gurus have to say about that...just how good is violin or music for you when you don't particularly care for it...

March 26, 2010 at 07:42 PM ·

 Anne-Marie, I agree with you that it is a concern if the kid really loves something else and the parents are just pushing him or her to do music because that is what they love.  

But I think that some families are in the situation where it is not clear what the kid loves.  The kid may not (appear to) love anything, or may appear to love only things like shopping, junky TV shows, and/or video/computer games, which the parent may believe is not a very balanced "diet" of pursuits if that is all the kid wants to spend his/her time on. In that case, the parent may want to introduce music as another pursuit.  

I find myself in this position at times, and I agonize over that.  I don't want to push my kids to play the violin just because I do.  But I also see it as my role to provide guidance and quality control and not just let the internet and popular culture raise my kids.  Kind of like not letting kids eat potato chips and twinkies all day because that's what they say they "love" to eat, but instead also serving fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

March 26, 2010 at 11:04 PM ·

I agree it can be touchy... ; )


March 26, 2010 at 11:45 PM ·

I agree that the decision whether or not a child will pursue an instrument is difficult. One of my children plays an instrument, and the other does not. When it came down to it, I felt right about letting my daughter quit to pursue her other very valid pursuits and talents. I also feel right about making my son continue doing some music! There's a fine line between structure and rigidity; it's not always easy to find the balance.

March 27, 2010 at 07:23 AM ·

"i know in comparison with all the activities in the world that she would like to pursue on her own will, violin is not even top 10"

Your child is really special, Al, and so are you for establishing and maintaining such positive participation.

In our family, it was swimming squad (hey, this is Australia), and the kids were told that they would do 2 squads a week until they were 13 years old.  then they could decide to pull out.  We figured that by then, the positive routine of activity would have been established, as well as the desired skills of physical fitness, endurance, and achieving a personal best.  So maybe think back to what it was that you wanted your kids to gain by doing music in the first place, and use their achievement of that to help determine how long it stays.

We had 100% success with swimming - eldest only ever did 2/week squad, 2nd born added competitive swimming and club as well, but both my kids dropped violin within the first year due to the tedium of practise.  My daughter later said that she ould love to play the violin, she just didn't want to learn to play it.

This despite a positive role model from me madly practising every chance I could get, and to the best of my ability, sharing and reinforcing their participation more so than their achievement.

Anne marie - I'm yet to meet a child who actively hates music.  It may not be their passion or their main pleasure, but every child I have ever met has had enjoyment from the right musical experience.  I really believe,  that like giving a child the chance to read and write, they should have the opportunity to learn an instrument.  It is then up to each family to determine how that pans out.

March 27, 2010 at 10:41 AM ·

haha sharelle,,,my kid would have loved to be your kid!  her number one dream activity is,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,SWIMMING~! :)   she just loves water no matter how cold it is!   perhaps it is god's  game to mismatch kids and households and sit back and enjoy the show:)

my older one just started high school (4 yrs of that then college since in australia it is form 12 system right?)  and the topic of what to do as a career has been discussed lately.  my younger one, sitting in the back of the car absorbing info like a sponge, would ask: 

what should i do? 

i dunno, what do you want to do?   how about a food network cooking competition judge:) ?   you seem to be pretty good with cooking lingos lately, having watched those shows non stop.

that will be nice!  i am not sure. may be a teacher, may be a wild life rescue person, may be a chef,,,

okay then.   but you know things just don't fall onto your lap and you have to work hard to get where you want right?

you want me to be a violinist? 

it is up to you.   to be honest honest, i don't think you would enjoy being that disciplined and focused.  you are a softie, vanilla flavored.   but i must admit, once in a while, your playing brings tears to my eyes.  you may not sound that good yet, but what you can do on the violin makes me proud.  you should remember to be proud of yourself for putting in the hard work.  guess what?  between listening to you vs listening to vengerov, baaa, i would take you any time!  i really really mean it.

you want me to be a golfer?

it is up to you.    i just hope you find something that you are so excited about  that you can't wait to get up in the morning.  that will be a dream come true to me.  that will truly bring tears to my eyes.  then i can kick back and watch some tv, feeling like my job is done.

if you don't want me to be either,  then why am i (i think she wanted to say,,,why YOU make me) spending time and taking things so seriously?

well, through those activities you learn a lot, to be careful, to be confident, and when you grow up you can use what you have learned to apply to other things, like things you really like. i know you enjoy swimming, but would you take swimming seriously and train for it everyday to get better?  i am talking about joining a team, perhaps getting up early to swim before school?  i mean, for anything, if you want to be good at it, you just have to take it seriously and work hard.    think about it.  there is no easy way out :)!


so gurus, please tell me what i could have said better.  i wish i can be more helpful and make life choices easier for her instead of being preachy (work hard, take things seriously, don't waste time, loosen the bow after use).   i am not capable!   but i am proud to announce that among all the asian parents that i know of, i am one of the more lenient ones.  everything is negotiable, haha.

March 28, 2010 at 03:37 PM ·

"perhaps it is god's  game to mismatch kids and households and sit back and enjoy the show:)"



perhaps it is god's  game to also mismatch kids interests and eras and sit back and enjoy the show:)

How would I have liked to be born somewhere in Europe at the golden tone era in a musical family working my b... off and giving my life for what I really believe in and love (would have prefered this over knowing the internet and electronics era many times!!! and would have eaten boiled cabbage and potatoes 3 times a day to play well!!! Really...) 

But no sense always asking what would I have do in such x situation... many people would have been successful in another context and there is not much to do about this! ; )



March 28, 2010 at 05:14 PM ·

This has been a fascinating topic in our household for over 10 years. Our 16 yr. violinist daughter works 5 hrs per day building repertoire and technique. She asked for a violin at 2.5 yrs. and we kept her asking for over a year and a half. There were lots of concerts always, great soloists  and orchestras at Carnegie Hall, Avery Fischer, Tanglewood, etc. But practice for the first few years was always play. We would set out stuffed animals in the stairs as audience members, costumes galore for pretending and goal setting.  Even during summer vacation mornings, space was there to practice shored up by anticipation for  a day of exploring beaches or forests. We encouraged the whole family; Dad would play along with a harmonic, Uncles with guitars, Mom on piano, cousins on percussion toys, whenever extended family got together. Our daughter was lucky to have music everyday in  a NYC public school from kindergarten on and performances every other month at least.  But she has always lead the charge and we have worked hard to keep up and support with lessons, music festival participation, and the best instruments and bows we could manage.

Her real practice crisis came after 3 years in a European conservatory with a leading pedagogue at the age of 15. Things clicked with her teacher which kept her  working 8 hour days. Dad kept the home fires fueled in NYC, while mom accompanied her in the EU.  She  would have to be dragged  out for a break to run or get to a museum.  She said she wanted undistracted time for study but after 3 yrs, she wisely requested we  head back to New York for a year of 'normal high school' before continuing conservatory.  " I know what my future will look like, now I need to be stimulated by people my own age."

The relationships she's made keep her working, especially with young acoustic groups in venues in New York's,  Park Slope Brooklyn, an incubator for some amazing new music from classically trained musicians. She works with energy, focus and curiosity. She gets to her teacher somewhere in the world frequently and will spend the summer traveling throughout Europe in festivals.  She manages her practice time with social and academic time, not an easy task but great for building her management skills.

The hardest part of parenting a musical child through years of practice is maintaining balance; physical, social, and emotional wellness. We have felt that the work in terms of practice was to be flexible, inventive and emotionally supportive in a very competitive field. We have envisioned our job as bushwhacking to a calm, secure place for our hard working daughter, where her relationship with her instrument, practice and music can flourish because a sane 'reality checked' place is sometimes just a step back and a breath away.

Thanks so much for the continued support of your Blog Laurie.


March 29, 2010 at 04:36 PM ·

Some not-so-subtle differences in mustering enthusiasm from a private teacher vs. public school, is the peer pressure, GPA, extravagant field trips, and misery-loves-company aspect of public school ( or private school ) that can be exerted therein.  If you know your orchestra is going to State Evaluation Festival followed by a trip to Disneyworld, chances are the incentive to prepare is greater than preparing for a massive, overly long recital where the only folks in the audience will be your peers' parents......who'll all have smug comments about your playing. And if a great grade in orchestra will put you on the high honors list, there's more grist for practice....also: If you can audition past the kids that's shelling out big bucks for private lessons while you just take from the school orchestra director, it's another feather for your chapeau.

Parental support may be greater from a mom that has to start the car, wait 45 minutes and lay out $50 bucks for a private the edge in this respect goes to private instruction.

March 29, 2010 at 10:40 PM ·

 Anne-Marie, in another era, you would have also had to have been born male.  

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