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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Quick Parenting Tip: Let Them Practice it for Themselves

Sunday I bathed eight dogs. Yikes!, you are probably thinking. Uh huh, I have eight dogs in my home right now and three puppies. I had nine but one little guy got snapped up today.

I did some heavy duty cleaning and dust busting on Sunday afternoon. After mopping the floors, I thought that it might be a good idea to wash the dogs too, in case they were helping to spread some of the dust around the place (Texas had a drought last summer, which has helped me to understand The Grapes of Wrath in more depth myself).

As I washed each of the eight dogs, I noticed that I got more efficient at it. I discovered which actions made my chore go swifter, and I hit upon a sequence of steps that offered the best use of my time and efforts.

As I perfected my technique and sequence, I compared this experience with that of practicing and learning how to play the violin. Too often parents and students play through something one time and then seem to consider that a sufficient practice. I have made little practice vignette recordings lately on my phone for students and parents to practice with, and everyone seems to enjoy them. I especially like the results that I see lately. I get these results because I make a recording that actually asks the student to practice. We may go through a sequence of steps as many as four times in varied ways. This is what I consider practicing.

But I digress. My post today was about "letting" students practice things for themselves. Rather than follow along with the teacher's recording or the parent's instruction, I suggest that students be allowed to discover themselves how to do something. Not everything, but some things. Not completely alone, but with guidance.

Today's tip stems from my experience the other day with two of my fun students, Jamey and Elliott. Jamey had to change his strings on Monday, and Elliott had to change his strings on Tuesday. We have changed strings together in the past, and I thought it would be a good idea to let them learn how to change the strings by themselves (while I was there to encourage and guide them). Jamey opted to use most of his lesson time to change to a new set. Here is how I structured the string changing lesson:

  • I helped him sort out his materials first. We laid out the new strings on the table and decided which order to change them. We labeled the string package with today's date and discussed saving the used strings so that he would have a quick, easy replacement if he ever had a string break.
  • I began the process of changing one of his strings. As I changed it, I talked aloud about the string changing process. At first Jamey was eager to jump in and do the whole thing himself. He was sure that he remembered all the steps to change the strings himself. I let him grab onto the process, but I knew that he probably would not remember everything that we planned to do.
  • As I changed the first string, I asked if he had done the other steps that go along with changing a string. In this case, I like to put peg compound on the pegs (to prevent slipping and sticking) and pencil graphite in the grooves of the nut and the bridge (to prevent wear and tear on the string in these places). He had not remembered to do them, so my question was a gentle reminder.
  • For the next string, I let him do the string changing bit, and I took on his role with the peg compound. I asked him whether he did the pencil thing because I had "forgotten."
  • I did not help at all on the third string. I just sat there and watched, maybe doing the "back seat driver" bit occasionally. (Remember to hold the string taut, like when you tie your shoes, etc.).
  • I do not even remember if he changed the last string, because I was busy cleaning up. I wrapped the used strings and put them in the dated string package to store in Jamey's case. Then I helped him to tune, although he did most of that himself.
I know we did not spend much time having a "lesson" per se, but we had a great lesson. Jamey will feel completely competent to change his own strings in the future if he wants to, although I expect he will opt to share the experience with me. We did have a good time. In Elliott's case, we had a good time too, but I know that Elliott will enjoy sharing the time together to perform this menial task.

So parents, I know it is easier to do things yourself. It speeds things along if the expert tackles the chore. However, if the student can perform at least 80% of the task passably well, it will be worthwhile for the parent or teacher to allow the student to experience the task for themselves. Yes, it takes time, but it is time very well spent. One really learns when one experiences.

Plini: "Experience is the most efficient teacher of all things."
Julius Caesar: "Experience is the teacher of all things."
Tacitus: "Experience teaches."


  1. That is a wonderful lesson! How do you decide when students are ready for this?

    I can't recall when I learned to change strings or where, but I know I was carefully taught to wind strings over themselves to lock them onto the peg, to lubricate grooves, etc. It may have been one of my teachers, or an older student at school.

    Some years ago I was playing in a community orchestra and very surprised when a 14 year old cello student didn't have a clue how to change a broken string. Definitely a necessary skill for orchestra players, especially when the director is a trombonist.

    There were also some students in that orchestra who didn't know how to tune their own instruments and had to depend on other students. It is often easier to just do it for the students in order to get to the rest of the lesson (or practice), but we really do need to lead our students to independence and give them confidence in taking care of their own instruments. I agree that it is time well spent and that guided experience is the best way to teach these things.

    1. You know, I start doing it from the first opportunity. Some students are ready before others, but in every case I just provide the role model for it. I ask the student to help me do little tasks, like the pencil or peg goop or even writing the date on the package of used strings. Eventually a student's curiosity takes over or their comfort level with the process grows enough.

      I do the same with tuning. Some moms do the tuning, but generally the student and I do the tuning together. In the beginning, the student will call out when I get the "green light." Eventually they play and I go for the green light on the tuner. At some point I have them try out one string for themselves, and we build on that.

      I recall visiting one high school, and each student passed the tuner around to the next student. One by one, each student tuned their instrument in front of the other orchestra members. The tuning process took a bit of time, but I was pretty impressed with the results I heard.

      We teachers know how hard tuning and changing strings can be. The trick is for us to not let on that it's a tricky task. Then kids will want to do it too.

      Thanks so much for writing, Barb. I really appreciate all your insightful comments and suggestions.