Making practice more enjoyable

Dressing up to practice with dolls.

It’s indisputable that the road of progress is paved with good consistent practice. But why worry about making practice more enjoyable? Much of Suzuki pedagogical technique is about making practice fun. But why? After all, at young age, we can simply impose our will and make practice happen.

Why make practice more enjoyable

There are three good reasons to make enjoyment a goal of practice.

  • A positive emotional state fosters learning. First, a positive emotional state fosters an openness to learning that simply is not possible otherwise. A child with a negative emotional state can go through the motions of moving the bow across the strings or the fingers on the keyboard. But real learning cannot take place when the child is emotionally closed-down or negative.
  • A positive emotional state sets the stage for independence. Secondly, even parents of younger children have to keep in the back of their minds that their children will not always be small. They won’t always be with the children at lessons or in the practice room. This is not a transition that happens overnight. There is nothing about turning thirteen that confers on children the ability to manage their own time. If practice has been a negative experience up until the point where children would otherwise gain their independence in practice, then they won’t continue. It is nearly impossible to sustain a practice that is imprinted negatively in the child’s mind. The sort of self-motivation that we want to eventually see as our children grow older is dependent on a long-term transition, one component of which is a positivity around practice.
  • A positive emotional state is simply more pleasant. Finally, we’re human. We seek out pleasurable experiences and avoid unpleasant ones. Why not endeavor to make what needs to be done a pleasurable experience by investing some energy into the creative construction of practice as an enjoyable one?

Fundamentals of an enjoyable practice

To get to the deeper levels of enjoyment in practice, you must solve certain fundamentals in practice. If the family still has arguments about whether to practice on a given day, the stage is not set for an enjoyable practice. It’s better to simply say: “We practice every day.” There’s room to compromise around what that practice consists of; but there isn’t room to compromise on whether or not to practice. Like Suzuki said: “Only practice on the days that you eat.” You don’t compromise on whether or not children brush their teeth.

Parents’ genuine interest in music is another fundamental. Children have a keen sense about what’s important to you. There’s a reason for the old adage about “the apple not falling far from the tree.” Your unwillingness to compromise on practice and your love of music in whatever form is an unwritten and unspoken curriculum for children about how to be a mature person. It’s not essential to be proficient on an instrument. All that’s necessary is an authentic interest.

Finally, I have to remind myself constantly to make practice a positive experience and to accept my own imperfections when it doesn’t turn out the way I should intend it. Once the fundamentals are in place, it’s easier to develop a more enjoyable practice because you’re not constantly arguing about them.

The 7 ingredients of enjoyment in practice

Having solved the fundamentals of practice, there are several key ingredients to an enjoyable practice. These are the raw psychological materials from which creative solutions emerge.

Novelty

We humans are programmed to seek out novel experiences. It is hardwired into the circuitry of our brains.This is an interesting bit of neurophysiology. A region of the brain known as the substantia nigra/ventral tegmental area (SN/VTA) responds to novel stimuli. A study using functional MRI (fMRI) showed that subjects shown novel images exhibited sustained increased activity in the SN/VTA region of the brain. The activation of this area of the brain yields the same sort of spike in dopamine as seen with pleasurable stimuli. Finally, the studies of novelty have implications for learning. The regional activation in the brain seems to increase neuronal connections in the hippocampus, a region of the brain involved in learning. So novelty not only increases the “pleasure neurotransmitter” dopamine in the brain; but it also enhances learning. We can make practices both more enjoyable and more productive by introducing novelty.

Challenge

We are more likely to engage in a task and find it pleasurable enough to continue when there is a challenge involved. It’s helpful to think about how video games are so addictive.[1] In video games, there is a constantly shifting balance between challenge and ability level. If the game is too difficult, the user will give up and stop playing. But if the game is too easy, the user will give up because of boredom. Somewhere in the middle is a balance between challenge and ability. The game’s computer code has to constantly adapt to the shifting balance between the two opposing elements. Similarly, in practice, we have to adapt to a shifting balance between the difficulty of a technical challenge and the child’s ability to overcome it.

Ability

Closely linked to the ingredient of challenge, is the ingredient of ability. It is the counterpoise of challenge. I’m having fun in a game when my ability is nearly matched to the challenge.

Progress

A game isn’t fun unless there’s a feeling of progression throughout. There’s a reason that the game of Life is laid out as a serpiginous pathway. It is a metaphor for real life’s journey. Similarly there’s a spatial quality in video games. For a game to be enjoyable, there must be progress and it must be evident.

Accomplishment

Progress alone isn’t sufficient to make a game fun. Instead, there has to be a sense of progress toward something. Or there must be intermediate steps along the way that have some value by themselves. Think of levels in a game. A long journey even when there’s progress is tough unless there are waypoints that mark the journey and are meaningful.

Lightness

There’s a certain amount of “lightness” to something that is enjoyable. It may be important but it is treated with an attitude of just allowing the activity to unfold. I think of this state somewhat like what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi described as flow, a state where someone is completely immersed and energized by an activity. This flow has a certain emotional lightness that enables it to happen.

Positive reinforcement

Extending our comparison of games to practice, we find that positive reinforcement is a critical piece of both. Without positive reinforcement through rewards that are almost always vicarious, players would quickly find a game unenjoyable and eventually abandon it. This concept is closely linked to those of progress and acomplishment. There must be forward movement or something akin to it (progress) that is marked by defined waypoints or goals (accomplishment); and there must be some reinforcement that marks arrival at these goals on the path.

Parent skills and attitudes

These elements are the raw ingredients of an experience that’s enjoyable, whether we’re talking about a table game, a video game, or practicing a musical instrument. To put these elements to use, we as parents have to have some prerequisites of our own. Must of us apply them fluently without ever thinking about them:

  • Flexibility. Flexibility is part of an authoritative (not authoritarian) parenting style. Parents who are authoritative say in essence to their children: “I’m confident about where we’re going, so follow me.” But they are also whilling to explain “why” and are willing to be flexible within limits, having the big picture in mind.
  • Mindfulness. Parents who are mindful have an ability to become an observer, making meta-observations to themselves about how practice is going. It’s an ability to step out of the role of being practice parent for a moment to become the practice parent’s advisor by asking oneself questions such as: “How’s the practice going?”, “Is it time to move on to something else?”, “Did I push too far with that one?” After engaging in this sort of self-observation, parents get very skillful at reading the non-verbal cues that children are emitting.
  • Self-compassion. Our children don’t expect perfection of us in the same way that we don’t expect perfection of them. We just expect them to keep coming back to try. Similarly, we make mistakes in practice. We use words that are less than constructive or we make assumptions about our children’s apparent lack of effort without first trying to understand. By being mindful, we can pick up on these moments and come back to work on it tomorrow.

Putting the raw ingredients to work

With the right preconditions of practice and the right parental skills and attitudes, we can put the raw ingredients of enjoyment to work in our practice:

  • Novelty. Nothing works forever. Whatever we bring into practice today may not work tomorrow or next week. By understanding how novelty fosters both learning and enjoyment, we can anticipate the need to switch things up.
  • Challenge. Enjoyable games are challenging. We can keep that in mind by designing practice games that are difficult to achieve. Most of the time, the challenge is evident from the lesson. There’s a 4th finger trill in the B section on the second page that needs work. There’s the challenge. We have to use our best sense about whether it’s a challenge that our child can face in one step. Or two. Or three. Maybe it’s a challenge that needs some intermediate points. Part of the challenge may be a competition - if you play it right, you get the card. If not, I get the card.
  • Ability. After practicing with your son or daughter long enough, you have a good sense of his or her ability. That way you can match the ability to the challenge that you build into practice games.
  • Progress. Everyone likes to see progress in some way. Make charts of how many repetitions have been done. Accumulate Skittles or M&M’s in a jar for every review piece played well. Make it visible.
  • Accomplishment. Mark the attainment of a practice challenge by some sort of reward. Children aren’t motivated so much by the material value of this marker as by the fact that they accomplished something. Think about video games again, there’s a currency in the game that has only virtual value.
  • Lightness. A lot of games and fun environments can be constucted around the idea of lightness. As a 7 year-old girl, she likes to set up dolls and stuffed animals to listen to her practice. She likes to explain to them what she’s playing and what to notice about it. Sometimes, I use a puppet to tell her what I liked about a piece and what we can work on more. The element of chance is another example of lightness. So we have many different dice that can be used in all sorts of ways. For shifting exercises, we use the 12-sided die to decide what string to play the exercise on (by dividing the result by 4 and taking the integer value.) Or dice can be used to decide on a number of repetitions. Or we play rock-paper-scissors to decide on what to work on.

Examples of enjoyment principles in action

If you look carefully, there are lots of ideas for practice games on the web. I took one of the resources and listed a few of the ideas, matching them up with some of the principles that the games illustrate:

  • Roll a die for the number of repetitions. A 1 means roll again, and a 6 means the parent can choose any number from 2-5. Principle: lightness. There’s an element of chance that makes it more like a game.
  • Light several votive candles. (his creates a fun environment. Allow your child to blow one out after each completed assignment. Principle: progress and accomplishment. The progress through the practice is marked by an event.
  • Write daily assignments on sticky notes. Let child stick on wall in desired order, then take them down or stick on you when completed. Principle: progress. The progress is made visible.
  • Divide a piece into 5 sections. Roll a die to see which section to practice. Do this several times. A 6 means the whole piece should be performed. Principle: ability and challenge.

Finally, by switching up games, you can introduce novelty into the mix.

Hopefully, by distilling the elements of enjoyment, it will be easier for parents to make up games and practice styles that enhance enjoyment and make it more likely that your child will associate positive emotions with practice.

Good luck!


  1. I'm not a fan of video games. But I've watched enough about how they draw users in that I think we can learn something from them.