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Monday, January 20, 2014

Monday Morning Check In: What a difference practice makes

Written by Paula E. Bird, ©2014

What a difference practice makes!

I have such a varied group of parental approaches to practice sessions. Each approach tells me so much about the parent in terms of the parent's background, values, parenting style, and parenting philosophy. The past two weeks were very revealing to me in terms of my studio parents' various approaches to ability development.

Holiday breaks can be tricky times for many families because this is the time that many families can spend time together. Families travel during these times or they make plans to spend time visiting relatives and friends. Practice sessions drop down the list of priorities, and that is to be expected. I was prepared to face a few weeks of getting everyone back on track at the studio.

One child came without the practicing parent. The other parent sat on the couch in the nearby room. Practice sessions were very spotty over the holidays. We had to take a few steps backwards in our progress and pick up where we had been a few months ago.

Another child came completely prepared. He and his mom had practiced fairly regularly and had also included his younger brother in the sessions to encourage the younger child to begin his own lessons soon.

Another child came unprepared but eager to play. He had been very sick over the holidays, but his mother kept up his interest by playing the recordings more often and by talking about lessons starting up soon.

Another child came with nothing prepared, and her mother seemed a little resistant to getting things back on track. The mother wanted to take a few steps back and redo assignments that had been learned weeks ago. This mom was also looking for ways to simplify the child's learning, such as writing out cheat sheets of the fingerings to songs (something that I do on occasion to help the mothers check on whether the child is playing the songs correctly. Unfortunately in this case, the mother wanted the child to use these fingering sheets to learn the songs, except that the child was not learning the songs. The child was learning how to rely on a fingering sheet to play the song, which is a result that the parent still does not recognize nor believe is undesirable).

Another child came prepared to begin new material because she had done a really good job of practicing her assignments over the holiday break. In fact, her mother laid out how they practice at home. They play through the list of assignments, playing through each song and often more than once in some cases. Then after going through the assignment list in this way, they go back and review the list once more. No wonder this child was prepared to move on!

As a teacher, such varied approaches can be dicey to work with. My assignments are not consistent across the board between students, because I need to tailor my assignments to fit what a parent and student bring to the lessons and what they will take away for home practices. I am frequently balancing my parents' and students' practice values with my own decisions about whether to raise or lower my expectations about what I think the child is capable of doing.

Such is the life of a teacher. For many parents, at the onset of music lessons, such was the choice of the parent as well. Generally, parents want their children to succeed at ability learning. Somewhere along the way, however, life seems to raise its head and cause ripples in the learning process. Parents run into harder assignments, and students grow in and out of physical, emotional, and mental phases that cause ripples in the students' ability to progress in a linear fashion. This is all to be expected. It is how the parents and students regroup, recharge, and recommit to the ability development vision after these bumpy patches in the road that will determine how well the children will succeed.

This week I will spend thinking of ways to help my parents regain any lost enthusiasm and motivation for learning and for teaching their child at home. This may be a good time for me to revisit the parents' goals for their child.


  1. Great post, Paula! This really helps remind us parents of how hard the teacher's job is when parental involvement is so variable. No wonder there is such a diversity of outcomes with the kids...

    1. "Diversity of outcomes" -- boy, doesn't that sum it up! Every family has different interests, backgrounds, and priorities. I wish that parents signed up for music lessons for the same reasons that I think lessons are important in a child's education, but that really isn't the case, is it? Many parents view music lessons as another enrichment opportunity for their child, and sometimes these parents miss the opportunities that come with spending time on ability development and talent education. I comfort myself that these students are still being enriched in some way. They may not play in an orchestra as an adult hobby, but perhaps they will be interested and appreciative audience members for those adults who do continue to play into adulthood. I have a former parent of a student (now grown), who learned to play the violin along with her daughter, attended institutes as a student herself, and continued to study and practice. She now plays in a local symphony orchestra. I am so happy for her that she achieved this goal!

  2. Paula, will you comment a bit more on the difference between "learning a song" and "learning to rely on a fingering sheet to play the song"? This is something I have trouble articulating, and I'd love to hear your thoughts.

    1. Hi, Lasselanta! Thanks for commenting! I have been thinking and discussing the topic of memorization with several other teachers, and I will probably write an article someday about this topic. In a nutshell though, what I meant by my comment about learning to rely on a fingering sheet to play the song vs. learning the song can be likened to someone learning the multiplication tables and addition and subtraction rather than using a summary sheet with that information. Can you imagine how long a grocery store line would be if everyone had to rely on a math sheet to balance their checkbook when they wrote checks for groceries? There is certainly a difference between memorizing a song (really learning a song) and learning to rely on a fingering sheet to play the song (never being able to play the song unless there is a fingering sheet to read at the same time). More on this later, and thanks for bringing it up. I've been thinking about this a while now.

    2. Thank you! This is helpful, and I will look forward to your upcoming post! A further question (which you should feel free to address in your post instead of commenting, if that will save you time!): What do you think is the difference between reading a fingering sheet and reading the music notation (if there is a difference)? I know the original question focused on the importance of memorization, but this seems related. Do you think (at whatever point students learn to read music) that there is a danger of it becoming a "cheat sheet"? Do you think early memorization helps with later sight-reading skills? When in the process do you begin working with your students on cracking the "code" of musical notation? (If there is a standard Suzuki answer to this, please forgive me-- I'm new to the Suzuki world!)