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Thursday, February 14, 2013

Dear Suzuki Parent (an Open Letter to Parents):


Written by Paula E. Bird ©2013

You left me a phone message yesterday that told me you were confused about what your 7-year old child should be focusing on at home. I have written out a very detailed practice list, including the amount of time that each item on the practice list would take to complete, and I have put the list in your child's violin case under the violin itself so that you will easily find it the next time you open your child's violin case and take out the violin for practice.

Your phone message raised a few points of discussion, however, and I would like to address them in this letter.

The Suzuki Method works quite well when all of the pieces are in place and the parties involved are working together. The parties involved are the Teacher, the Parent, and the Child. We refer to this as the Suzuki Triangle:
You may find more information about the teacher's responsibility and the Suzuki triangle by clicking here.

It is difficult to strengthen the working relationship between all three parties if one of the parties is frequently absent. You did not attend your child's lesson last week, nor the week before. Coming into the lesson during the last 5-10 minutes and asking me what the child should practice at home does not satisfy the requirement of holding up your end of the working relationship. You will not need to phone me or leave me messages about what the child should practice if you attend the lessons and take notes about the items that we are working on during the lessons.

If you plan to involve the other parent in this working relationship, then I ask that both of you take on a more active role during lessons. Rather than have the other parent drop off the child or sit through the child's lesson in a different room (and pay attention to the parent's phone rather than the child's lesson), please plan to have the parent sit inside the lesson area and take notes. I am happy to provide both of you with a parent notebook for the purpose of taking notes of things that your child needs to focus on at home.

To help you catch up with what your child and I have been learning together, let me summarize what I have been trying to accomplish:
  • Concentration and Focus: Your child is 7 years old. Your child's attention span is limited, since this is the first time she has ever been involved in the study of skill development. Therefore, her concentration and focus need to be developed and strengthened. The first year of music lessons spends a great deal of time on this area. The child needs to establish a routine in her home practices so that she will actually learn how to concentrate and focus. Please plan to practice daily with your child at home. For more information about building concentration and focus, click here.
  • Habit Formation: We develop skill and ability through repeated actions. We spend our first year of music instruction learning how to establish good practice and learning habits. We will not be able to accomplish this if your child practices once or twice during the week in between lessons. To build a habit, you must do the action repeatedly, preferably every day. Even a few minutes a day will help immensely to build up a habit and develop skill and ability over a period of time. Please plan to practice daily with your child at home, preferably at the same time every day. In the beginning, aim for 5-10 minutes as a starting point. As your child becomes accustomed to the habit and routine, your child will naturally increase concentration, focus, and attention span and be able to practice for longer periods of time and to learn even more skills and develop even greater abilities. Note also that you will spend less and less time on correcting bad posture habits if you practice daily. At this point, your child's practices are so sporadic and unproductive, that much of lesson and most likely home practice time is spent correcting poor posture habits. Your child will understandably have trouble remembering the correct way of doing things if she merely visits them a few times now and then. If you want to read a bit more about what a habit is, click here.
  • Discipline and Perseverance: Your child will derive many great benefits from studying music. One of the greatest benefits will be the ability to be disciplined and to persevere. These abilities will serve your child throughout your child's lifetime. These abilities do not spontaneously create themselves in a vacuum. You must actually perform specific actions in order to learn how to be disciplined and to persevere through the sometimes tricky learning process. Your child will learn these skills at an incredible pace if you would role model these abilities yourself as a parent. When you practice daily with an established practice routine, you are showing your child how to perform these same behaviors. You are also sending your child the message that this is an area that is important to you and important for your child to learn. This parental role modeling will occur when you show the discipline of practicing daily and role model the perseverance of finding time daily in a busy schedule for practicing. In addition, you are teaching your child how to set priorities in your life schedule and how to show the child how interested you are in what the child is learning in lessons. For one parent's brief discussion about the power and value of a ten-minute practice, click here. For more information about the power of routine and the strong benefits that children derive from routine, click here.
Although I have listed these goals for the student, they are also mighty important for the parent to accomplish as well. When a parent first comes to me for lessons, I notice that the parent also has issues of concentration and focus, habit formation, and discipline and perseverance. A parent has difficulty paying attention to lesson content and group class activities. The parent falters at the challenge of finding and setting a regular time in the parent's daily schedule for working with the child. The parent falters at the trial of role modeling discipline by practicing daily and then considers the ultimate failure of quitting lessons rather than enduring the discomfort of persevering.

The first year of music lessons is very important, not only for the child but also for the child's parent. Music lessons provide an opportunity for the child to learn a skill and to develop a fine ability to express the child's spirit and emotions creatively. The Suzuki Method model provides the parent with opportunities to learn about the child in ways that the parent would not otherwise have in the regular scheme of things. The parent can observe the child as the child interacts with the teacher and other children. The parent will also learn more about the parent and the parent's relationship with the child through the parent's interaction with the child in home practices. And most of all, the home practice sessions are the parent's best opportunity to build a strong, loving, and nurturing relationship with the child.

Your phone message indicated to me that you are having troubles in all the areas I have discussed above. So here is my suggestion for you this week:

  1. Schedule: Work on building the habit of practicing daily, preferably at the same time each week day. Look at your calendar today and find that time block, starting with 10 minutes. Write that time block into your family calendar so that everyone will honor it, especially you. It sometimes helps if you schedule practice time before another activity that your child enjoys. That way, if your child wastes her practice time with unproductive behaviors, the child will be wasting the child's time for her favorite activity. The sooner the child completes her practice assignment, the sooner the child will be able to begin the child's favorite activity, whether it is playing outside with friends, watching a favorite television show, or playing with toys.
  2. Prepare Your Materials: Put your child's instrument in a safe place, and open the case. Make sure that the child's instrument is put together, but leave the bow loosened. You will find it easier to get started with practices if the instrument is ready to go. All you have to do at the time you have scheduled for practice is to go to the practice area and tighten up the bow. Everything else is ready for practice to start. You can even rosin the bow at the end of your practice session before you loosen it so that the bow is ready to go.
  3. Set the Mood: Since you and your child are still novices, it is important for both of you to work on proper posture habits. Daily practice will make all of this much easier, you will find. For now, have the child stand in rest position and then take a bow.
  4. Bow Hold Practice: Ask the child to show you her best bow hold. If you need help remembering how to make the correct bow hold, click here for some examples. Have your child hold this good bow hold posture for one minute. You may also play some bow games if you wish, such as doing the "Up Like a Rocket" jingle or passing the cup back and forth between you. Because good bow hold posture is so important to your child's future success at producing a good sound on the violin, find opportunities to practice bow holds whenever you can. Have your child make three good bow holds before each meal at home and before bedtime. If your child watches television, have your child hold the bow correctly throughout commercial breaks. Write yourself a note or two and post them somewhere that will remind you to do this.
  5. Set Up Steps: Next, have your child follow the set up steps with the violin that I have taught you and the child so that the child is set up for success concerning her playing posture. If you need help remembering the set up steps, click here  and here to watch some of my students show you.
  6. Violin Hold Practice: Once the child is in playing position, have the child stand there for one minute. You may balance a toy on the instrument, and you may play the recording of the Twinkle variations while your child is practicing her good posture. Eventually your child will be playing all of the Twinkles without a pause, as the recording does, so having your child stand in playing position at this point helps your child to build the stamina to hold the instrument for the same length of time that it takes to play through the Twinkle variations.
  7. Twinkle Practice: Your child has learned how to play each Twinkle variation, but she lacks the stamina right now to play all of them at one time. So she will need a rest in between each variation. Have her stand in rest position in between each variation. This might be a good time to reinforce the proper bow hold. Have your child repeat the set up steps before playing each variation. Before the child begins playing the variation, talk through the points that the child needs to remember while playing the variation: fingering issues, good clean string crossings, staying on the bow highway, short staccato stopped bows. Pick one thing or point at a time. Because we are working at building up Twinkle stamina at this point, I want your child to play all of the variations at each practice. In future weeks, we will be working out different practice plans, but for this week and the next, we will be playing all of the Twinkle variations. If your child is having "one of those days," I think it would be alright to cut the practice short with just two Twinkle variations, but please do not make a habit of this or allow your child to make a habit of this. Use this shortened practice plan only on those really, really bad days, and no more than once every two weeks or so.

Ten-Minute Practice Plan: Please note that you will not be spending more than ten minutes a day on this practice plan. The rest position, bow, bow hold practice, and violin hold practice last a little over two minutes. The Twinkle variations may require five minutes or more. I have timed my students, and they generally do not take longer than five minutes to perform all the Twinkle variations. It is the time spent in between playing the variations that is wasted on dawdling, stalling, and other unwanted behaviors. If you use a timer with your child, you will notice that your child spends less time on wasted behaviors. Also, regular practice will eliminate much of the practice drama that you may be experiencing currently at home.

No Excuses: Please do not come to next week's lesson with the excuse that you were too busy to find ten minutes every day. Everyone can find ten minutes in a day. We probably waste a lot more than ten minutes on completely unproductive things. If you find that you still have trouble finding ten minutes a day, please bring your family calendar to your child's next lesson, and I will help you to find time in your schedule. I must note, however, that if you have such a busy life already on your and your child's schedule, then perhaps this is not the best time to start music lessons, or else you need to eliminate some of the activities you are currently involved in.

I believe that music lessons are extremely important for the child's development -- physically, mentally, and spiritually. Some of these developmental issues are only addressed through the study of music. Please consider this when you plan your schedule.

I hope that this letter addresses the question you raised in your phone message. Please call me if you have any questions about what I have discussed here or if you have any problems completing the practice homework I have assigned for this week.

Sincerely,

Paula Bird

PS: You might find it helpful to review the Parent Report Card.

10 comments:

  1. What? No comments from anyone yet? I thought parents would want to shoot me for writing this. No reactions from anyone?

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  2. This is extremely helpful because it is so specific. I love the 10 minute practice plan and will be referencing this for my own students. Thanks, Paula!

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    1. Thank you, Erin. Really, practice plans can be very simple. It amazes me how many parents do not grasp this and seem unable to work this out on a daily basis.

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  3. My three-year-old just started lessons several weeks ago (I have been lurking here for several months without commenting), and I find this extremely helpful!

    This post also seems related to your post last week on Pet Peeve #1, which was so helpful to me -- at that time, I was starting to despair because she was not wanting to do a two-minute practice (we're still working solely on the rest position, bow, bow hold, and violin hold) and would waste half an hour lagging and giving me a hard time, even though we were doing it every day. That post gave me some extra impetus to keep going, and just a couple of days ago she had a breakthrough where now she is eager to practice because she saw that her "Up like a rocket" is much better now! (Or maybe just because she's now figured out that I will hound her until she does it, so she might as well get it over with :))

    It helps that I was brought up in Suzuki myself, with a mother who was very committed and involved. It really surprises me, given the involvement of my mom, that the norm around here seems to be for parents not to stay during their kid's lesson (which would never even have occurred to me).

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  4. Hello, ca, and welcome! I enjoyed your comment. It brought out all the typical problems that parents experience when first starting lessons. You might investigate some of the cute practice games that my friend Lindsay Logdon of talentpress.net. I have been having fun with my Pirates Practice game. The greatest part about this game is that I get to write on the cards what I want my student to work on. The kids seem to really enjoy playing the game with me. I used it the other day with a smaller group class, and it was great fun!

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  5. Paula,
    I'd like your advice. My 8 year-old has been learning violin since he turned 4, and I've been following what you mentioned all these years. His current piece is the third piece in Book 4. I am soooo done with helping him with his daily practice partly because he is a dawdler who is in his own world. The practice routine his teacher gave him could be done in 45 minutes. (His weekly private lesson is currently 45 minutes.) If I let him go at his own pace, it can take TWO HOURS to go through the routine as he spends time staring at the book for a while, adjusting metronome, thinking of stuff, humming, walk around the room etc. If I sit by him and keep reminding him to focus, it takes one and half hour, but he gets annoyed or stressed. I'm writing this even as he is at it, 30 minutes after he's begun with less than a third of routine done (tonalization, off-string prep, string crossing exercise). He has "time issues" in just about anything. I've tried all sorts of incentive for him to stay focused on the task, nothing has worked for him so far. He is pretty much the same way during the private lesson with his instructor and chat away most of the paid lesson time. Do I just set the time limit and make him quit the practice within one hour even when the whole routine is not covered? Do I let him be and take all the time he wants/needs? He says he wants to keep learning violin and he loves music, I'd like to let him continue if there's a way for me to help him manage time better... I'd appreciate any feedback you have. Thank you for reading. N.Y.C.

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    1. Has he been going through a growth spurt? Have you noticed that he has sort of been unfocused about many things? When you ask him a question, does he answer by showing you rather than using words? He is 8, and usually around age 9 (for some it is 8) there is a mental lack of focus as the brain synapses pull apart during a physical growth spurt. It seems to happen every 2 years in the odd numbered years and is severe at age 9 and 13. The best way to help them through this period is to ask them questions and wait for them to "pull themselves together" mentally to give you a verbal answer. Avoid any activity before practice that uses the more creative right brain hemisphere, like art work, computer games, television, etc. School work, like math, reading, spelling, is helpful. Give it a few months and the phase will pass. Then it will happen again in 2 years.

      Try using a timer in between tasks to see if he can "rise to the occasion." Tell him that he needs to attend to his work and get it done so that you can _______ (fill in the blank) afterwards. Plan some activity that you know he will anticipate. Then allow him 15 seconds on the timer. Ask him to see if he can beat the timer.

      Also, try adding one day a week that is his special practice day, where he gets to practice alone. Let him chooses his tasks and the pace at which he wants to do them. Let him even pick what he wants to practice. He may do nothing different than what you usually do, but giving him the "freedom" one day a week to decide may take a little bit of pressure off of him and make it kind of fun for him.

      You might try picking another particularly difficult day of the week and turn that into a special "game day." You might use some of the games that Sue Hunt (musicinpractice.com) or Lindsay Logsdon (talentpress.net) have available or borrow from their ideas.

      Also, what is his personality like in general? Is he a laid-back child or has he just been behaving like this in recent months? Do you battle with him about this type of behavior in general (getting ready for school, finishing chores, getting ready to leave the house)? Sometimes if we examine the big picture and the general environment we may gain more clues. Is he using this behavior as a control mechanism, whether it is to control the time pressure he might feel that others demand of him, whether it is to copy a behavior of one of his parents, or whether he is just a dreamy child in general who may need to hire a great secretary or marry a very organized wife in later life.

      Please let me know how things progress. I'm always interested to hear about other parents' experiences. We learn from each child!

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  6. I love all your suggestions, and I'm going to implement them! I never thought of the "15 seconds challenge" before, and it sounds good. And weekly "practice on your own day" sounds great! Yes, he is a very laid-back person (just like his other parent!)and is not driven by competition or prizes. All his school teachers and music/swim instructors have had the same struggles as I have!! As slow as he seems in his physical movement, he is a very quick learner who has taught himself how to read between age 3 and 4. He loves to read and to talk, and he has a strong opinion on what he wants to learn and how he should go about it. He can appear passive-aggressive as a result. Or maybe he really is! In any case, thank you, Paula, for taking time to "listen" to me and to give me the feedback I really needed. I feel hopeful once again. I'll get back to you on the result. Cheers! N.Y.C.

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  7. I like it how you put it all so straight to the point, and so firm. Music is so important in development of a child, can't agree more.

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    1. Yes, being frank and direct has never been a problem for me. I believe very strongly in the value of music education, and I am a very firm advocate for children and good parenting. I believe that the Suzuki Method brings all of these things together. I will continue to insist that parents do the right thing by their children. I appreciate how hard I know you work with your little one. Wouldn't it be a wonderful world if all parents did the same thing with their children as you do with yours?

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