In Part I of our series on deliberate practice, we introduced the concept. In Part II we began to apply the idea of mental representations as a key component of expert performance and one of the goals of deliberate practice.
In this article, I want to explore the idea that our work as Suzuki parents, practicing with our children is ideally itself a form of deliberate practice. Seen in this way, what we do as parents is part of a skillful practice, one that grows in parallel with, and reinforces the growing skills that our children are developing. Let's take a step back and look at the types of pursuits that are amenable to deliberate practice to see where our work fits into that framework.
The principles of deliberate practice have been applied to a range of different activities. Obviously music is one of those pursuits and one of the first that performance researcher Anders Ericsson first studied. The expert performance of chess players, athletes, and doctors are other areas in which the principles of deliberate practice have been applied successfully. What characteristics do these fields have in common?
- There are established standards by which expert performance can be judged.
- There is something about the field that provides a strong motivation to improve.1
- The field encompasses a set of relevant skills.
- The field has a "subset of performers who also serve as teachers and coaches and who, over time, have developed increasingly sophisticated sets of training techniques that make possible the field’s steadily increasing skill level."
How does the job of being a Suzuki parent match up with these criteria? Let's a closer look.
Established standards of expert performance
In what ways does our work meet this criterion of a field amenable to the sort of reflective and informed practice that we're talking about? First, we can talk about observable outcomes in our children's playing ability. While taking "credit" for their accomplishments is complicated, there is little doubt that the way we set up home practice, support and nurture them in music and in life has a great deal to do with their budding talent. Next, we can look at Suzuki's own careful description of the characteristics of the parent in his or her relation to the children as a standard. Are we consistent in practice? Do we deal with one thing at a time? Do we attend to reviewing earlier repertoire and fundamental techniques? When our family first began Suzuki violin years ago, we looked to parents who clearly had it "together" to help us figure out to organize our own practice. In other words, follow the experts.
Strong motivation to improve
Although Ericsson talks about competition in the field as the motivator in most disciplines of deliberate practice, let's frame it. As parents, we want our kids to grow up to be people of integrity, sensitive to the world around them, compassionate, and to play beautifully. So much depends on how we fulfill the diverse role of parenting these young artists. What could be more motivating than that?
A set of relevant skills
In truth, these are really no different than the skills of being a good parent in any other setting. Empathy, consistency, positivity, patience - virtues that help guide practice through its ups and downs, all the while, modeling how to relate and react. Certainly it helps to play your child's instrument or even to have more than a passing knowledge of music; but I'd say that 80% of more of what you need to be a successful parent of a young musician, are exactly these "soft" skills.
Teachers and coaches
A field in which deliberate practice can work well is one in which experienced mentors can help guide the development of learners. The learners we're talking about here are us, parents of young musicians. There are so many mentors, our studio teachers, group class teachers, experienced parents, and institute teachers. This is a generous and non-competitive community, ready to help us build our own skills as parents.
What we do as parents is part of a skillful practice, one that grows in parallel with, and reinforces the growing skills that our children are developing.
Skill-building for parents
Here are some ways that we can turn our work into a form of deliberate practice.
- Immerse yourself in the world of your child's music. Even if you aren't a musician yourself, learn about the composers, the periods of music, the musical styles. What's the difference between a gavotte and a minuet? Find out! Even if you can't actually play your child's instrument, having an intellectual, if not practical, knowledge of technique can be invaluable.
Get support and feedback. Years ago, my daughter's Suzuki violin teacher dedicated one lesson a year to a "Practice during the lesson" day. This was a helpful exercise because I could use the teacher's feedback to shape our practice techniques. Of course, many of the things that come up in practice are sporadic, the result of unpredictable events in our lives and those of our children. So you can look to other sources of mentorship that can help with skill-building:
- Suzuki forums on Facebook - if you're a Facebook user, there are two groups that I would mention in particular: The Suzuki Method Parents Discussion Group and The Suzuki Triangle Community. In both cases, you'll find hundreds of teachers and parents who are willing to help troubleshoot problems in practice.
- There are a handful of podcasts that focus on Suzuki talent education. Building Noble Hearts was published by the SAA; but it looks like it hasn't been updated in over a year. For an up-to-date, enthusiastic and informative podcast, I recommend the Teach Suzuki Podcast by Paula Bird. She has a lot of insights, not only about practice and performance, but about organizing your life, goal-setting, and getting things done. Christine Wilson Goodner produces the Beyond the Music Lesson podcast, another excellent Suzuki-related podcast. I'm also looking forward to listening to the Suzuki Planet podcast where the hosts interview Suzuki kids from all over the world.
- Of course, what would our lives be without books!? From a purely practical skill-building point of view, there are two pieces of essential reading.
I've read these books multiple times because I learn something relevant every time. If you're serious about your role as the parent of a Suzuki student, this short list should be required reading.4
Organize your musical life. In Part II of this series on deliberate practice, I described the key role that mental representations play in create frameworks for improving performance. In a variety of disciplines, the better organized one's mental representations, the better their improvement. If it works for musicians, why wouldn't it work for the discipline of parenting a music student? I keep a bound volume, not unlike a bullet journal5 to keep everything related to my child's music - lesson notes, practice plans, goals, schedules for recitals, auditions, concerts. Organizing this material outside your head, means that things will also be better organized inside your head. The more care you take with organizing all this work, the more reflective you'll be. And this self-reflection about the work of parenting will in-turn lead to better experiences in practice.
Keep trying new ideas. One of the hallmarks of great performers is that they are constantly probing the limits of what they can do, constantly experimenting. Practice can quickly become very routine (not in a good way!) if we allow ourselves only to go through the same patterns. By bringing in new ideas - games, lists, challenges, and so forth, we learn more about what works well and what works less well. And it engages parts of the brain that respond to novelty.
Become more reflective about this work. Working with a young violinist for many years now has offered me some of my most challenging moments as a parent. This undoubtedly rings true for other Suzuki parents. Whether you journal, meditate, or simply think about it in the quietness of your own thoughts, posing some of the following questions can help you find new ways of extending your skillset:
- What did I do well in practice today?
- What can I understand better about the music, about technique, about my role as a parent? Where can I find out more?
- How can I model more patience in practice?
- What are our goals for practice today? This week? This year?
- What is the one thing that I can start doing today that would most improve our practice?
- What is the one thing that I can stop doing today that would improve our practice?
Being the parent of a young musician is itself a skillful practice, one that encompasses reflection, feedback, and continuous development.
I hope these ideas about deliberate practice and specifically about informed and reflective work that we do as parents of young musicians is helpful to you. Comment below or on the the Suzuki Experience group on Facebook. In the meanwhile, listen well and practice well!
- In "Peak", Ericsson characterizes this as "competitiveness". Since in Suzuki talent education, we don't really think of competition as an ideal motivator, I've come to think of this criterion differently. Competition is really only one sort of motivator. For young music students, and presumably for their parents, the motivations are much more intrinsic. [return]
- In 🇨🇦, where I live, you can find it here and in the U.S., here [return]
- In 🇨🇦, you can find Christine's book here or here. In the U.S. here. [return]
- I want to emphasize that I post links to commercial entities only as a matter of convenience. I don't endeavour to reap anything financially from this process or from this blog. [return]
- This is practically an entire post of it's own. I was inspired to organize my musical life using a bullet journal by Paula Bird. This post of hers is particularly helpful in describing what I'm talking about. I don't use a bullet journal for everything in my life; but for our music work, it's become indispensable. [return]