Shinichi Suzuki

The Suzuki Experience

From one Suzuki parent to another

How to deal with frustration intolerance in Suzuki students

Low frustration tolerance can lead to dysfunctional practice and impaired progress. Here's how to deal with it.

Alan Duncan

7 minutes read

Practically every Suzuki parent must have experienced a meltdown during practice. When students begin so young, we are bound to bump up against their undeveloped emotional control. Although there are many ways that children can go off the rails during practice, many of these stem from low frustration tolerance. Understanding and dealing with low frustration tolerance is an important skill for us as parents and our kids. I confess that I’m still working on it.

“Why does my kid get so frustrated?”

Sometimes we forget that Suzuki kids develop asynchronously. Their musical abilities may be out of proportion to their emotional development. This asynchrony is a consequence of focusing on a particular skill development, sometimes long before the child has the ability to respond to challenges in an emotionally-nuanced way.

We forget too that the road to becoming a happy, self-compassionate, organized, and responsible person is long and uneven with lots of setbacks. The ability to tolerate frustration is partly an innate, genetically-determined trait. But in part it is also a skill that is honed through practice, just like music.

Certain cognitive styles, especially perfectionism make children prone to the outcomes of low frustration tolerance. When a difficult passage fails to yield to a few quick attempts, the perfectionist child is often frustrated by the inability to learn it quickly. Children who are rigid, black/white thinkers also fall into the patterns of low frustration tolerance because the world tends not to always conform to their expectations.

Finally, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, attention deficit disorder and other psychological traits and disorders may set children up for frustration intolerance.

Frustration triggers

Some children never become frustrated in practice. Some children always become frustrated with something. Most fall somewhere in between. Certain biological and other triggers can make it more likely that the child will respond adversely in frustrating situations:

  • fatigue
  • hunger
  • overcommitment
  • lack of control over the situation
  • being misunderstood

Often, just paying attention to these factors is enough to avoid a meltdown during practice. In particular, identifying peak times to practice can make the difference between success and failure.

Strategies for dealing with frustration

Like diagnosing and treating an illness, the first step is to recognize the underlying causes of frustration. Is the child tired? If so, can you rearrange the practice schedule so that she’s practicing at her peak energy level rather than at the end of a long day? Does he need a snack before practice to keep the energy level up? Beyond the basics, there are a handful of other techniques to keep in the toolbox:

1. Play for the same team

Some of the triggers of frustration involve the child’s sense that we’re not all on the same side. On a team, there’s a cooperation, give-and-take, and work toward a common goal. The more we can align ourselves to a common goal even with just the use of language, the more likely we are to avoid situations where the child is frustrated. Difficulties are easier to face when we have the sense that someone is on our side.

To keep things light and diffuse tension, sometimes I’ll say:

  • “Silly double stops! Why does that have to be so hard?!?"
  • “Who came up with this rhythm anyway?!?"
  • “Why does this piece have to be in such a weird key?!?"

In these simple statements, you can show that you recognize the difficulty and with some dramatic embellishment you can provide a little comic relief.

The principle is to come alongside the child so that you aren’t engaging in a tug-of-war. We all succumb to a built-in opposition at times. In my professional career as a physician, I spent much of my time counseling people about changing behaviors that adversely affected their health. The most successful attempts at changing health behaviors came from using language that emphasized partnership in tackling a difficult task. You can do the same with frustration-derived opposition in practice.

2. Be the world’s best model of frustration management.

It goes almost without saying that modeling frustration tolerance can provide a positive example for our kids. When the practice begins to go off the rails, skillfully guiding it back on track without losing our cool, finding creative solutions along the way demonstrates a constructive way of channeling our frustrations.

3. Setup the practice for success.

Ability improves by working in a narrow zone between competency and difficulty. If you don’t stretch the limits, then the child makes no progress. If you stretch the limits too much then the child ends up frustrated and discouraged. The key then is finding the sweet spot for improvement. This is what the teacher is doing when giving assignments. One of the most helpful things that both teachers and parents can do is to build “ladders” to help reach new heights. To climb onto the roof of a house, you can’t leap there. You can only reach the roof using a ladder. Each rung of the ladder brings the climber one step closer to the destination. Using the roof as the metaphor for mastery of a piece, each rung of the ladder is a component skill. And each builds on the one beneath it.

For example, in violin Book 4, the third of the Seitz concerti has an extended double stop section just before the end. It is difficult to master because it requires accurate coordination in the left hand. The book gives two preparatory exercises to begin work on these double stops.

When we finished these exercises, integrating them into the piece still seemed like too big a stretch. So I wrote out some additional exercises for ViolinGirl to practice.

She calls these exercises an “obstacle course.” By adding a few more “rungs” to the “ladder”, each practice session was more successful and less frustrating because each step was smaller.

  1. When things start to go astray, switch gears.

    Learning to play a musical instrument is a marathon, not a 100 hundred yard dash. Learn to recognize when a child is at her limits. You might be able to squeeze out another few repetitions. But it might also be the final straw that causes her to lose her cool. Looking for non-verbal signs of tension can provide clues about when it’s time to move on to something else. There’s always tomorrow.

  2. Learn and teach calming strategies.

    Frustration is unavoidable. We are all prone to frustration when faced with tasks are beyond our abilities. What can make or break a practice session are our responses.

    Deep breathing is one of the most effective ways of quickly calming anxiety. And it works for grown-ups too! For young children, you can describe calm breathing like blowing a special bubble. Have them take a slow deep breath in, hold it for just a second, then slowly blow a bubble. You can say that the bubble needs to be blown slowly or it will burst. Ask the child to feel the sense of relaxation after blowing the bubble. Have the child slowly repeat the bubble blowing exercise.

    After the child learns deep breathing, it’s time to put it into action. To do that, she needs to recognize the moments when she should use it. For that, you can teach the red light, yellow light, green light strategy.

    Green means “go”; everything is going well. Yellow means “caution”; something is going right. The child isn’t angry or acting out yet, but she may be frustrated. Some children have a “shorter fuse” than others. For them, this state is harder to catch. But with some practice, she should be able to recognize building frustration. Finally, red means “stop.” At this point, the practice is completely derailed and the child is acting out, ready to quit, or refusing to go on.

    When the child is at the yellow light stage, this is a time to use the deep breathing techniques. Stop practice for a moment while both parent and child practice deep breathing. When everyone is a little calmer, move on. At the red light stage, it may be best to wrap up practice or take a longer break rather than risk escalation. For the parent, it might be a good moment to reflect on how we could have done a better job recognizing the situation and avoiding it at the yellow light stage.

When kids are challenged with new skills, frustration is bound to arise. With time, patience, and a few techniques, we can defuse the tension and have more productive and pleasant practice sessions.

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The Suzuki Experience is a weblog focused on helping parents practice more effectively and joyfully with their children. It traces the progress of our experience from beginner to budding young artist.