You have to find a way

Unless they are unusually compliant, I don’t think most children are willing do repetitions. This is certainly true with ViolinGirl at this stage. But repetitions are at the very core of practice. It seems that Suzuki’s answer to problems of technique was to do 10,000 repetitions. That number seems practically abusive and potentially the source of physical injury. But between “one and done” and 10,000, there’s plenty of room for a reasonable number of repetitions.

As practice parents, we have to find a way to make repetitions work. Not only are particular techniques at stake; but there is a meta-lesson here about learning how to learn and about how to observe and evaluate one’s own performance. Since most children don’t take naturally to repetitions, the key for practice parents is to overcome the resistance by making the activity irresistible.

Bracket

For a repetition, I isolate the area the needs work. Perhaps her teacher has already done that in the music or made a comment that I included in my notes. Usually, it’s the most minimal bit that is needed to catch the element to focus on along with any lead-in needed to get the bowing or fingering in the right place. Usually, the bracket is going to be a phrase. Sometimes after repeating that area a bit, we need to “zoom in” or narrow the bracket. I’ll do that if the first few repetitions are not getting better. Or maybe I misjudged and there are really two areas that are problematic.

Make it a game

Finding the areas to work on is the easy part. For us, turning it into a game is key. I simply cannot get ViolinGirl to do repetitions without games. In my efficieny-oriented, schedule-laden mind, I may be thinking: “Can’t you just play this practice spot 10 times and we’ll move on?” But I have to meet her where she is in her stage of development - thankfully unburdened by all of the adult concerns that we carry with us. Fortunately, this is where our insights as parents is invaluable. What makes your child tick? Competition? Movement? Art? For ViolinGirl, it’s competition and the element of chance.

Here’s our go-to game for doing repetitions:

“Do you want to roll the dice?” (Give her a choice…)
“Sure.”
“Which one, the 6-side die, 10-side, 12-side…?”[1] (Another choice…)

ViolinGirl reaches into the bag and chooses the die that she wants to throw. We decide in advance that we’ll reject any number less than x. Throwing the dice also gets her moving around which is good for energetic 7 year-old bodies. Then we throw in an element of competition. If she throws an 8, for example, I pull eight cards out of the deck. When she plays a repetition that meets the standard, she wins the card. Otherwise, I win it. Since she is very competitive, she always wins. It’s important to decide in advance what you’re focusing on. If you are working on dynamics and the repetition is about shaping the dynamics, then it’s not fair to take a point for intonation.

Encouragement

Each time she completes a repetition, I say something encouraging. If she hasn’t quite met the standard I may say something like: “OK! Keep going. See if you can play that last note even more in tune.” I try to avoid saying: “That wasn’t very good.” or “That was bad.” While I want her to develop an awareness of how closely she’s meeting standards, I also want her to compassionate with herself. So everything I say is constructive. Sometimes, if the mood is right, I might scrunch my face or make a sad face; but it has to be in a playful way. And the mood has to be right.

There’s a list of 100 ways to say “very good” on the University of Northern Iowa Suzuki School site. I have my own “repertoire” of ways of using these words that feels authentic to me.

Repetitions are the core of practice; but we as practice parents have to be creative to make them work. We have to divide our attention between the musical outcome (Is it in tune? Are the bowings right?) and the process (What is the mood? How much can I push? Do I need to move on? Change the game?) Much as there is a reward in the progressive mastery of a musical instrument, there’s a deep reward in becoming the parent you need to be to help your child do that.

See also


  1. We have lots of different dice. Since she loves the idea of chance, it's a fun way to get in our repetitions. The brand Chessex makes matched sets of multi-sided dice.