How to interrupt but not disrupt.

Since for most of practice, starting at the top and playing completely through a piece, is one of the least efficient ways of practicing. Inevitably, then, it means the parent or child must learn to interrupt the proceedings in a way that feels less like an interruption. Having watched countless lessons as an observer, being in my own lessons, and reflecting on my practice, these are some thoughts about interruptions.

Why interrupt at all?

By interruption, I mean that your child is playing along and you stop their playing for some reason. The bow hold needs serious fixing, or their bow direction is off. The idea of interrupting is to take a break in the continuity of playing to talk about a technique or something that has gone awry to keep it from getting imprinted by practicing it over and over or to prevent it from distorting what comes next (failure to notice a change in key, tempo, and the like.)

Balance first

In all things Suzuki, there’s a concept of balance. When thinking about interruptions, the balance is between the child’s enthusiasm for playing the piece through and the work of getting all of the little details right. It’s a hard thing to get perfect; but if you are mindful in practice, the non-verbal cues can tell if your child is frustrated by being interrupted and just needs to play her piece. It’s a balancing act. If I’ve mentally committed to listening to my daughter play the piece through, then I can use it as an opportunity to catalog the things that need work. We’ll get to all of them in time, one-by-one.

When an interruption is less like an interruption

We can take clues from how spontaneous flowing conversation work. When people converse freely, they rely on cues - verbal and non-verbal about their conversation partner’s readiness to be interrupted. In most cultures, when a speaker takes a breath, that is an acceptable moment for interruption. Cultures vary by how long a breath is acceptable. In some cultures, it is acceptable to interject during a short breath, while in others it would be considered impolite. But in all, there are natural break points in the conversation where interruption is socially acceptable.

The corresponding moments in music are similar. The end of a section is an obvious point for interruption. Just before measures of rest is another. The ends of phrases can be interruptible moments; but they are fleeting.

If I’ve decided to interrupt the proceedings, then my first priority is find the best moment so that I’m not stirring up negative feelings in my daughter. After all, there aren’t any violin emergencies!

Signaling an interruption

I’m amazed at the variety and skill found among teachers. One of the pleasures of being a practice parent is the chance to sit back and take on the role as a third-party observer not only of what your child needs to do in practice over the next week, but of what techniques of teaching are in play and how they’re working. It’s a sort of meta-observation. One of these meta-observations, is an inventory I’ve made of interruption techniques.

  • “Good”, “OK”, or “Alright” - when the students arrives at an interruptible point, the teacher signals the desire to stop with a neutral or positive verbal interjection.
  • Shifting in the seat - when the teacher shifts toward the student or toward the music on the stand in a certain way, the student knows that she’s about to make a point concerning the last section played.
  • Conducting gestures - I’ve seen teachers using the “end of the note” conducting gesture to signal the interruption.

Watch how your studio teacher signals interruptions and try to emulate that because your child will already know what those gestures mean.

Alternatives to interruption

Sometimes things can be fixed without fully stopping the music. I try to make most of these non-interruptions into gestures. Verbalizing an instruction risks having the child stop playing completely even if it wasn’t my intent. So we have a library of gestures that have understood meanings. Pointing up or down means to watch the intonation in a particular direction. Making an “air bow hold” means adjust the bow hold. Sometimes merely craning my neck around to watch the right hand carefully is enough to convey “fix your bow hold.” And some of our non-verbal gestures are too hard to explain without seeing them, which is fine since the important point is develop something that is meaningful to you and your child rather than something that is universally understood.

Again, watching the non-verbal cues that your studio teacher uses to convey messages without interruption can be very helpful.

How about you, what techniques work in your home practice?

Written by:

Alan is the main practice partner and accompanist for a young violinist.