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Monday, May 8, 2017

My Child Refuses to Practice | Guest Post by Beth Ringel

parent and child play in sandbox
Playful Learning
The following is a guest post from Beth Ringel, current President of the Greater Austin Suzuki Association.

In his book, Nurtured by Love, Dr. Suzuki wrote:

 "My child refuses to practice at home." Quite a few mothers bring this complaint to me. That is because they fail to understand that their children's motivation in learning the violin stems from the sense that the violin is fun, and that they, too, want to have fun. "I'm paying tuition every month, to have the training turned into playing? That's just . . ." -- that is how the adults feel. In other words, calculation enters into education, and that calculation dominates the process. The failure rate is very high in those cases. Start the child off with the pleasure of having fun, and steer her in the right direction by taking advantage of the pleasure of having fun -- no matter what the area, this is where early education must start.
The moment we rigidly convince ourselves, "Education is what we're after," we warp a child's development. 
-- Shinichi Suzuki, Nurtured by Love
As we are gear up (wind down?) for the summer, take a moment with me to stop and think about how we approach our children’s musical practices. Specifically, I want to talk about play. The action of making music on an instrument is referred to as “playing.” What I’d like to examine is whether we are doing our best to bring this verb to life. As you can see from Dr. Suzuki's quote above, he clearly sees “playing” an instrument as fun and enjoyable, not just an action that applies to making an instrument produce sound. As I’m sure most parents do, sometimes I feel myself turning into the skeptical parent in Dr. Suzuki’s example, feeling as if there should be more work involved in the process. After all, isn’t that what I experienced growing up? (Of course, if I recall correctly, that experience led me to quit piano after one year at age eight, so perhaps that’s not the best path to go down.)

We know from our own personal experiences as well as observing our children that they (and we!) learn best when there is enjoyment in what we are doing -- when playing. What play looks like for each child may differ, but there are similarities we can outline. In fact, I have been questioning several of my students over the past month about what they think play is, and here are some of their answers:

  • Playing isn’t always fun, but you feel good afterwards (as in a soccer game in 100-degree heat).
  • Playing involves movement (maybe that’s why singers don’t “play” their instruments).
  • I asked several of them if they thought playing involves choice, and without exception they said sometimes but not always. One particularly astute fifteen-year-old said that playing exists on a spectrum, encompassing free, unstructured play on one side and structured play on the other.
  • Playing feels a certain way.

I’d like to address how play can be connected to practice using a couple of theorist/educator examples. First of all, the physician/educator Maria Montessori (1870-1952) famously said, “play is the child’s work,” (not “work is the child’s play!”). Do we approach practice as work that masquerades as play (I’m thinking of external rewards and games that actually distract from the focus)? Or do we approach practice as play, where work can be done as a natural byproduct? I think this is an important distinction to make, especially when working with the youngest of children.

Think of movement that young children want to do. They are primed for action. If we think of practice as a space to play or to move (in the context of playing the instrument), we will accomplish much more than if we think of it as a chore or the job of the child. At the very least, we will have strengthened our relationship with our child through the process, instead of weakening it, which to me is an important measure of success.

Montessori also emphasized play/learning as containing intrinsic rewards. This is where the work comes in. The act of learning in itself is its reward, not externally-placed goals or physical rewards. The question is, how do we encourage motivation to learn in our children without external rewards? Well, let’s go back to the basics as per Suzuki: listening to the recording (a lot!) and playing with other children. These happen to overlap with Montessori, in that a Montessori environment is set up to encourage the child's natural curiosity (i.e., wanting to learn how to play the songs because the children hear them all the time), as well as children learning from other children. Sports are tremendously successful in this aspect: most involve a team. Music is no different. Without the team, it’s just not as much fun. The relationships are extremely important in maintaining motivation over the years.

Russian psychiatrist Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) defined play only as being sociodramatic, that is, make believe. Vygotsky’s play included the creation of imaginary situations and roleplay, guided by rules (either created by the “play”-er or demonstrated by a teacher). A key concept in Vygostkian theory is the zone of proximal development. This concept refers to the point of development where a child wants to learn something but is unable to do it without some assistance, either from a teacher or (even better) a peer. These specific situations, knowledge, and roles are influenced by a child’s social context; thus a child raised in Norway will exhibit different play and learn different content than one raised in Africa, each according to his surroundings. Sound familiar? Suzuki, of course, often expressed his amazement that a child will master his mother tongue, no matter the difficulty of the language, simply from being immersed in it and relating to it in a natural way.

2 brothers learn violin bow control together
Two Brothers Play Together

Applications of Vygotsky’s play ideas are not as obvious in musical instrument study, but we can draw two important connections. First, when we examine the idea of roleplay, where do we think children are getting these roles from? Other, more advanced, children, of course. Older children are the model. That’s how a child can imagine himself progressing. The child must have a way of picturing what is possible. That’s one reason you see hotbeds of high level of ability: children are surrounded by examples of high-quality, and "talent" begets "talent."

Second, part of the joy of making music is embodying its spirit and communicating this to an audience. I am as guilty as anyone else for failing to prioritize the communication and make-believe/emotional aspect of music (the ‘play’) and focusing instead on technique (the ‘work’). Our adult brains want to focus on the how instead of the why. When a child builds a train track, he or she does not usually think about the cognitive skills the child is developing. The child enjoys the tactile sensation of linking the tracks and running the train over them and imagines that the child is the engineer who guides the train on an adventure -- even more so when mom, or dad, or sibling comes down to the child's level and joins in on the child's play.

When a child plays an instrument, how much fun it could be to pretend to be someone else or an animal, or to explore different emotions. That’s part of why Dr. Suzuki said that music develops a beautiful heart -- we are practicing emotions to communicate with other people, as well as to receive them. Much like with spoken language, the purpose of music is communication. The technique is there to serve this purpose; that’s what we address in Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development. We have to get in the zone first to create the desire to develop better ability, and that’s where play comes in.

I’d like to leave you with a few questions to ask about your practices:

  • What space are you giving you and your child to let play happen during practice, or are you trying to educate?
  • What goal are you working towards? The how of playing or the why?
  • What environment are you structuring to support you and your child (e.g., listening and group attendance)?
  • What are you doing in your practice sessions to strengthen (or weaken) your relationship?

These are some heavy questions, and they are not meant for you to judge yourself harshly. I know as much as anyone else that being a parent gives many opportunities for self-doubt, self-criticism, and guilt. I am a Suzuki parent as well as a Suzuki teacher, and I experience all of these doubts firsthand, every day. My hope is that if I keep working on myself, I can help support my son’s learning in the most productive and enjoyable way possible and also continue to forgive myself when I fall short of these expectations.

parent and two children in pumpkin patch; bio family picture for Beth Ringel
Beth Ringel and Her Family
To conclude, I’d like to challenge you to have a conversation with your child about what the child thinks play is and how it relates to playing an instrument. I’m always impressed and surprised by what children have to say about this, and children are always delighted to be asked!

Yours in play,

Beth Ringel
Suzuki Early Childhood Education and Cello Teacher
Mother of a Suzuki pianist and Suzuki ECE’r

The Twinkle Project by Paula E. Bird

A resource that guides teachers and parents of violin students
from the beginning steps through the Twinkle Variations.

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